Thursday, 29 August 2013

Thunderbolt and Lightfoot

Lowdown: With the aid of a youngster that saves him along the way, an ex-criminal makes a comeback to redo a notorious robbery.
Back when I was a boy, the bulk of the films I got to watch shared common themes. I watched most of them on TV; they were usually set in rural USA; they usually featured criminals in central roles, often the hero’s roles; and they were focused around action scenes, most of which involved car chases. Obviously, many films, from westerns to sci-fi, fall under the above criteria; but there was that firm commonality and the relatively small standard deviation feel to it. The genre probably peaked with The Blues Brothers, but till then there was plenty of action on the American plane.
1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot seems to reside firmly at the average point of my childhood's movie experience. It tells the story of two men, Thunderbolt (Clint Eastwood) and Lightfoot (a young Jeff Bridges) who meet one another under weird circumstances to say the least. Thunderbolt is a priest whose church is raided mid ceremony by a killer keen on the preacher; he is saved by Lightfoot, who happens to be driving a car he had just stolen, bump into the would be killer, and get away with from the scene with a grateful, if aching, Thunderbolt. Friendship follows suit, as the pair goes through a set of adventures in their escape: adventures with the would be killer, again, and adventures with women.
As events unfold we discover more about Thunderbolt’s background. He is a famous bank robber on one hand, but he’s an ethical one at that. Or at least he seems to have a certain code of ethics that makes lovable before movie audiences but allows him to still. Between the killer chasing him, the loot he’s unable to locate, and pressure from Lightfoot, he might join forces to try and recreate the crime that brought him his fame.
At its core, it seems Thunderbolt and Lightfoot is a caper story. However, there is more to it than just a caper: there is fine acting, there is the tale of developing male camaraderie, and there are some good action scenes about. I argue that seen from a 2013 perspective, what we have with Thunderbolt and Lightning is a good mirror into the USA of forty years past. A much simpler USA than it is today, as evidenced by the poor special effects when judged by today’s digital standards. A USA that is much less over the top, much emptier, but also much rougher. Thunderbolt and Lightning thus presents a combination of things that were better and things that used to be worse, and works to highlight the differences quite well.
I will therefore argue that beyond the good caper tale, Thunderbolt and Lightning works to provide an enjoyable spectacle in this day and age because it is so different from our regular contemporary servings. It is a two hour history lesson, and a good one at that.
Interesting scenes:
Virtually all the scenes involving women are grossly non PC. I’m not talking about the nudity, although there is some in here; I’m talking about molestation that borders on rape and which was acceptable back then. It reminds me of that line from Grease, “Tell me more, tell me more... Did she put up a fight?”
How times have changed!
Then again, while social standards changed, it is a pity movies feel the need err on the other side of the PC continuum. Obviously, times did not always changed for the better.
Overall: A real blast from the past, which will therefore receive 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Swarmwise by Rick Falkvinge

Lowdown: A personal guide to a world changing technique.
If there is one thing that Edward Snowden proved is that a single person can change the world. However, I do believe Snowden himself would have preferred to exempt himself from this privilege; he did his thing because he had to do it, not because he wanted to do it. [I sincerely hope I would have done the same were I in the same position; I sincerely doubt it, though.]
There are other ways of changing the world single-handedly, so to speak. Ways of doing it in a thorough, planned and intentional manner. Rick Falkvinge discloses his proven approach for doing just that in his latest book, Swarmwise.
This isn’t the first time Falkvinge’s writing is reviewed in this blog (see here and here), and there are good reasons for that. I consider the guy to be one of the leading edge philosophers of our time. If I were to define his approach in one sentence I would say Falkvinge focuses on the outskirts of consensus in order to pull society in the right direction. Thus he founded the very first Pirate Party in Sweden and led it to become a worldwide movement, thus changing the world.
And thus he openly discusses his theories on matters of cultural development while not shying from controversy. He certainly managed to influence me along the way: for a start, yours truly is currently a member of Pirate Party Australia. How shall I put it? Rick Falkvinge is one of those few people who is always welcome to come and have dinner at my house (not that I think he would appreciate the pleasure of sharing a table with my son).
If it sounds like I’m an admirer of Falkvinge then you’re damn right. Adding to it is the fact that today, just a few days after I finished reading Swarmwise, Falkvinge made himself available at Melbourne as I and several others met with him over coffee. Come on, what other author would come all the way from Sweden just to sit beside me for an hour and personally answer my questions about his latest book?

Rick Falkvinge

Yes, I’m a fan. But perhaps I should go back to discussing his latest book.
Swarmwise is written as an instructions manual for wannabe activists seeking out to change the world. It provides advice and examples on how anyone can achieve just that - change the world - relatively quickly and without having deep pockets nor conventional organizations by their side. The key to this method is the deployment of a swarm.
According to Falkvinge, one needs but a small spark to create such a swarm of activists. In his case, all he did was establish a web page for a Pirate Party and mention it on an online forum; events related to The Pirate Bay meant that people quickly flocked to his website. From then on, Falkvinge did not try to organize "his" activists in a normal manner, where each belongs to a specific role. Instead, he managed them as a swarm, letting go of total control in favor of the flexibility and resourcefulness that come when each activist is empowered. Such empowerment meant that anyone could be a member of the swarm if they wanted to - all they needed was to act. And if such a member came up with an idea, all they needed to get swarm support is the cooperation of two additional members.
The rest follows suit. Falkvinge fetches plenty of examples for the power of such swarms to work miracles while providing advice on how to deal with problems and issues that may pop up with swarm like organizations. Yes, to answer your question, he does provide examples where the swarm can and did fail because of internal conflicts; he also provides insight on how to deal with such situations. Utilizing plenty of examples from the Swedish Pirate Party's history, told with the full drama of unfolding events, Falkvinge paints the complete portrait of how the swarm can change the world. Best of all, he argues, anyone can achieve what he did: even you.
The way I saw it, what tries to pass as an instructions guide for world changing is actually the personal story of a person who did manage to change the world; only that this story is told in a unique way. I will argue this is clearly the case here, since some of the advice Falkvinge provides is impractical in many if not most cases. As in, come on, how many of us can really change the world? If it was that easy we wouldn't need books about it. Besides, I want to see you try to get Aussies motivated to act about anything other than footy and beer.
Obviously, being able to write one's own personal world changing story and deliver it in such a unique way is quite a unique feat. Seriously, there are full time authors who would kill to be able to write a book like that. Yet as impractical as I find Swarmwise, being the armchair activist that I am, I have to hand it credit: the book does provide solid management advice of the very practical side. Allow me to explain.
Me, I tend to mock MBA style management. Mock is probably not the right word; it is more like I tend to feel contempt towards conventional management that relies mainly on authority. If we claim to live in democracies, how come we are so willing to accept dictatorships at the place we spend most of our conscious time at - work?
At least to one extent or another, Falkvinge and I seem to be in agreement there. We both have army background that heavily influences our world view, and not necessarily because we admire the army way. Add to that his view on how MBA style management is the exact wrong thing for the swarm to have, and you would see how Swarmwise got me all warmed up. It may not be the step by step instruction book for changing the world that it claims to be, but there is solid advice to be taken from Swarmwise concerning the management of almost everything in life. From work to personal relationships, there is a lot to be learnt from Rick Falkvinge's life experience. Surely much more than most books pretending to tell CEOs how to run their companies...
Being able to achieve that in a concise, entertaining and free to download book? In my book, that's Nobel prize material.
Overall: Clearly, I'm biased on this one. If I was biased while reading the book then I am ten times more biased after meeting the author and having his full attention for an hour over coffee on a nice Melbourne day. Regardless of my bias, Swarmwise does achieve literal greatness in being able to tell a personal story while offering a unique approach to management. Surely, that is worth at least 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Identity Thief

Lowdown: The victim of identity theft goes on a road trip with its perpetrator.
As someone whose credit card details have been used to buy someone else the best of gadgets as well as Thailand internal flight, I can assure you identity theft is no nice thing. However, despite poor handling by the credit card company (American Express: you suck), the matter was quickly resolved without me bearing any of the costs. Not so for Sandy Patterson (Jason Bateman), our hero for the duration of Identity Thief.
Whereas my details were taken off a website I bought stuff from, Sandy gives his away voluntarily to a prank call from Diana (Melissa McCarthy, of Bridesmaids fame). Diana’s a pro, and pretty quickly produces a multitude of credit cards and IDs bearing Sandy’s name and her likeliness. Shortly afterwards she goes on a spending frenzy, taking Sandy’s typical middle class family and middle class job off the rails just as Sandy is looking forward to a third child and a job that actually respects his talents. Now Sandy’s only hope of redeeming himself before the law so as to enable him to earn a living again is to go and get Diana from Florida, then bring her to confess at his Ohio. Sounds simple? He sets out on his adventure, only to find Diana’s life has gone off the rails, too. Eventually, while escaping chasers including the likes of Robert Patrick (filling that role since Terminator 2), they set out on a road trip back home to Ohio. And you know how road trips go: you meet people, often weird people; then things happen…
Obviously, Identity Thief’s biggest problem is that too much of it does not make sense. I realize consumer protection laws in the USA may be significantly less protective than they are in Australia, but still – surely, it is not as easy to derail someone’s life as Identity Thief claims it to be. It’s not just the core that’s flawed: we witness our heroes involved in traffic accidents on a highway and no one stops to help. We even see their car getting totally crashed by a semitrailer, and that semitrailer fails to stop either. Clearly, Identity Thief’s backbone is not designed to carry loads; it is designed as a tool for Jason Bateman to act Arrested Development style and for Melissa McCarthy to act Bridesmaids crazy. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
However, there is more to Identity Thief than a tool for two talented comedians to deliver their talent with. Sandy’s original boss (Jon Favreau) making a mockery of working people losing their job as he cashes a seven figure check makes a very social, Occupy style, statement that should ring many a bell at this post GFC era. There are also proper statements on matters of friendship and what counts in life. I have to say that these, coupled with the nicely flowing comedy, had their way on me. Even if the happy ending is all about Sandy being able to sort things out by landing a $250K a year pay check.
Best scene: While Diana has motel room sex with Big Chuck, a lacklustre bigot (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), Sandy has to segregate himself in the bathroom and go through all sorts of inventive ways to block the sound.
Overall: Starting with my sensitivity to identity theft, I can think of all sorts of reasons to explain why I liked Identity Thief as much as I did despite it not being a good film. I’ll settle with it being nice entertainment. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 August 2013

To Rome with Love

Lowdown: Varied stories to do with love and fame, all taking place in Rome.
At first I found them inspiring. Then I was jealous. Now I feel contempt towards all those movies where the heroes go to some exotic city and live there for an extended period, find themselves, and then come back home to a rejuvenated life. Good on you, mates; the rest of us weren’t born to parents rich enough to be able to afford such a luxury. And, while at it, how did you get the necessary visa in the first place?
In his sins, Woody Allen seems to have embraced the genre. He took us to Barcelona and Paris already; now he took me To Rome with Love. Me, I actually didn’t enjoy my real visit to Rome much, constantly noting how people were eyeing my bag & I with clear intentions of making mine theirs. Sure, they have their Piazza Pizzas, but who cares when I’m unable to feel safe? Clearly, Allen started off on the wrong foot as far as I was concerned.
It seemed like he was continuing on the wrong foot once the movie got going. We are introduced to numerous characters, often portrayed by famous actors, and we follow as their unrelated stories progress. Since we have been primed to do so, we keep on looking for connections between the stories, waiting for them to intersect; I kept on doing so for too long before it became clear Rome was to be the main and probably the only common ground. This constant searching for a meaning was actually worse, because some stories were powered purely by their lack of meaning!
To recount some of the tales from the top of my head, we have ourselves a young, recently married, Italian couple from the sticks coming to the big city only to get separated as the wife loses her way in Rome’s streets looking for a hairdo. She ends up mingling with an older movie star, he ends up confused with a professional prostitute (the ever excellent Penélope Cruz). Then we have a Roman simpleton (Roberto Benigni) who, one morning, finds himself getting chased everywhere by flocks of paparazzi; neither he nor us knows why. We have a young American female fall in love with a local socialist Roman, and as they decide to get engaged their parents (Judy Davis and the man himself, Woody Allen) come visiting from the States. Then Allen discovers the father of his soon to be son in law has unique singing talents, and starts pushing that father to embark on a new professional career. Oh, and there’s a veteran American architect who designed plenty of shopping malls (Alec Baldwin) coming to visit the Rome area he spent a year of his younger days at. That architect meets a budding American architect at a similar Roman stage of life, and that budding architect (Jesse Eisenberg) has his girlfriend’s best friend (Ellen Page) over. Things happen between them.
Confused already? I certainly was. Revelation came relatively late as I realized I need to stop analysing this as a movie and start thinking about To Rome with Love as a Woody Allen movie. The two are not the same! Ultimately it became clear that this one is a statement made by an old man, a guy who has been there and done that, essentially telling us not to take life too seriously and to embrace love. At the same time, he ponders the virtues and vices of fame. As I said, a Woody Allen film.
Best scene: An opera is performed on stage with the main singer performing while having a shower, because that's the only way he can sing.
Overall: I’ll go up on a limb here and give To Rome with Love 3.5 out of 5 stars. Not because it’s the best film ever and not because I agree with what its messages. I do it because To Rome with Love managed to break cinema conventions long enough to make me ponder it much more than I do the average movie. Surely, such a feat should be rewarded, shouldn’t it?

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

Sennheiser Momentum Headphones

Lowdown: Headphones for the practical portable audiophile.
I cannot stress the point enough, so I will start off with a bold statement: the only reason why I could have been the audiophile I have been during my twenties was my general lack of a life elsewhere. This is not the place to discuss the social life I had back then; the relevant point is that the situation allowed me to listen to music critically and often. Whereas normal people did normal people’s stuff with their spare time, my favorite pastime revolved around dimming the lights to enjoy high fidelity reproduced music delivered at high volumes.
With great powers come great responsibilities, and with time I found my dedicated music listening activities to be much more than endangered; they were extinct. It's one of life's sadder jokes, actually: by the time I could afford a decent hi-fi I could no longer afford to spend the time and use it properly.
Technology stepped in to fill the gap with the introduction of portable music players. Obviously, there's nothing new under the sun in the sense we had this portable music ability since Sony came out with its first Walkman. The key difference is that lately we found ourselves able to carry audiophile grade quality recordings on us; the question turned into how we are to make the most of this newly found ability.
The purist audiophile had her answers to this question for several years now. Step 1: Get your iPod, fill it up with uncompressed music, use a headphone amplifier, and put audiophile grade headphones atop your ears. Step 2: Avoid moving much.The more practical amongst us had to compromise, though, usually on quality. Recently, Sennheiser knocked on our door with a bold statement: we can be practical without compromising sound quality. We can use Sennheiser Momentum headphones.
I tried the Momentum on numerous occasions before I actually bought them. Many shops will allow you to plug in your smartphone to their array of headphones for testing. Me, time and time again I could not avoid noting how the Momentums stand above the rest. Sure, they are overtaken by the likes of Sennheiser's own HD 600 or HD 650, not to mention various exotic headphones from several either makers. None, however, can compete with the Momentum in the sound quality delivery for a practical, portable setup. None will offer a package I can use at my office desk, walk the street with, even run to catch a train with, not to mention sit on a noisy train with. And none sound so good driven solely by my iPhone.
I actually find it hard to distinguish between the sound quality offered by iPhone driven Momentums and that offered by the HD 600 driven through a proper amp. The main difference is in the headphones' design: the former are of a sealed design, which helps in noisy public places, while the latter are of the open design that is generally less prone to distortion by virtue of the fact it doesn't have to contend with a sealed environment. Yet it seems that with the Momentums, Sennheiser managed to break a threshold and provide us with headphones that will not only sound great powered straight through a smartphone, but will also sound great under portable applications.
When I say they sound great, I mean it. Bass is tight, and the sound stage is not only precise to the point of me being able to tell exactly what each instrument is doing, its staging is all but perfect. The level of resolution resolved by these headphones is unsurpassed, never mind the headphones' specialization in mobile use. Tracks like Pink Floyd's Time reveal layers I wasn't aware of despite this being the album I listened to the most, ever. Led Zeppelin's arrangements, and the brilliance of Jimmy Page, shine like never before in the acoustic version of Kashmir. And when I get to proper audiophile recordings, like Robert Lucas' Completely Blue from Audioquest, I am in audio nirvana: this one is a faultless presentation.
Music not only seems to reside between my ears, it's also outside my head. The experience is actually fairly similar to that of my hi-fi, quality wise, only that it's delivered in a very portable package. Listening to tracks heavy on out of phase sounds, I often find myself looking over my shoulder to identify where that sound is coming from; Surely a better compliment to these headphones cannot be found. Sure, they have a tiny bit of what passes for "headphone sound"; but then again, so do much better audiophile grade headphones that do not need to content with being highly mobile. I would sum up the Sennheiser Momentum sound description by stating they offer a neutral presentation of the recorded sound, and a highly loyal one at such. Fidelity is the main criteria here, not inflated bass that competing headphones try to attract the average punter with.
Thus finally, after all these years, I am able to recreate those moments of musical magic I had on my own with my hi-fi all those years ago. I may be doing it while working; I may be doing it while still half asleep on my morning train ride to work. It doesn't matter, the magic is there. At the risk of repeating myself: I am unable to find headphones that deliver as well as the Sennheiser Momentum headphones for practical portable usage, period.
Obviously, the Momentums are not perfect. First there is the matter of price: most reputable shops sell them for $400. That is not a sum most people can afford to spend, especially when - as is always the case with audiphilia - many of them will claim not to be able to hear the difference in the first place. It sure seems as if the Momentums are priced and packaged to act as some sort of a status statement!
I have to be petty and add there is more to these headphones' price than their original price tag: with quality so good I could easily tell the less compressed tracks from the more compressed track, I find myself testing the limits of my mobile monthly plan more than I did before. It also calls for higher storage smartphones, which - in the case of the iPhone - can be quite an expensive affair.
The next issue is a more minor one, to do with fit. The design of the Momentum headphones relies on a tight arc to keep the headphones pressed against the listener's ears. There are two problems there: because of the shape, there is a difference between the pressure level at the top of the ear and the level at the bottom. Then there is the matter of the pressure, coupled with the sealed design, acting as an ear warmer. Thus far I'm enjoying the effect in Melbourne's winter, but I suspect that come summer there will be sweat to add to the equation and then the discomfort that comes with that. Regardless, after two hours with the Momentums, if not earlier, you would probably seek a break.
I read several reviews claiming the Momentum suffer from potential fit issues with big eared listeners. My impression is that while the Momentum's caps are smaller than some other headphones around, they are still fine around the ears. Given the size of my ears - I seriously doubt your ears would be bigger than mine - I do not see any problems there. I will also note the Momentums fit my large head quite well, a feat that should not be taken for granted (my wife's AKG K450 headphones, for example, fail to cover both my ears). I do wonder how long the stress based mechanism for controlling the headphone's caps height would last, though. Surely things would loosen up over time?
Where I do see significant fit problems is with the carry case supplied by Sennheiser. It is huge! It seems as if Sennheiser went out of its way to come up with something bombastic, to "enhance" the headphones inherent lack of foldability. As it is, that carry bag fills about half the storage space in the rucksack I carry with me to work. There is an inherent contradiction at hand here: on one hand we are offered extra portable headphones, while on the other we are meant to carry those extra portable headphones in a bag the size of a semitrailer. It is as if someone at Sennheiser had a hard time offering such a well targeted product to the public, so they've decided to screw it up a bit. Well, at least they didn't screw the sound quality up.
Since I bought the Sennheiser Momentum headphones I find any piece of music I listen to to be a celebration. It is as if I'm listening to new songs altogether, even though I have been spending my time revisiting my most favorite pieces. In that, the Momentums stand apart from the rest; they stand on their own when considering they do so in a highly portable package.
Sennheiser have themselves a winner here. It's a pity it's such an expensive winner, and it's a pity it still requires the odd compromise here and there. Subjectively, I'm giving them 5 stars; objectively, though, I will grant them "only" 4 out of 5 stars. I suspect most audiophiles will reside somewhere along this continuum.
Note: Sennheiser recently started selling headphones called "Momentum on Ear". While these are similar in physical design to the Momentum headphones discussed here, they are not of comparable quality. My impression, following limited listening at a very noise environment (PAX Aus), is that they are nice but lack some of the main qualities that render the Momentums an audiophile's delight.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Cloud Atlas

Lowdown: The story of the actions, reactions and interactions of several similarly inclined actors across several timelines.
By now we are all familiar with the Magnolia formula of similarly unrelated stories told in parallel until their eventual culmination. A film using this formula, Crash, even managed to win an Academy Award for Best Picture. It is therefore no wonder filmmakers try to take this formula even further, and even less of a wonder these particular three tried just that: Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame, and Andy + Lara Wachowski of Matrix glory. Yes, all three combined to direct the science fiction epic Cloud Atlas.
The premises of Cloud Atlas is fairly complicated. We have on our hands six different timelines, spanning from what seems to be 19th century, through the pre World War 2, seventies, modern times, and several futuristic scenarios – including the last one, which is set in the post apocalyptic earth that resulted (more or less) from the escapades of the previous timelines. In each of these timelines we witness different incarnations of the same actors making various choices: dealing with slavery, imprisoning others, running a nuclear reactor that’s doomed to fail while suppressing the press, freeing replicant slaves, and trying to send an SOS to humanity’s members on other planets. The themes of all cases seem similar: classic good vs. evil, with characters that are pure good, pure evil, or struggling to find their way.
The trick, as I have already implied, is that the same characters going through the motions are supposed to be different incarnations of the same. In order to make this point, the filmmakers resort to heavily applied makeup. Thus they are able to use the talent on their hands – Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Broadbent, Hugo Weaving, Hugh Grant, Susan Sarandon and Keith David (aka Mass Effect’s David Anderson) – in various, sometimes hardly recognizable, roles. Grant, for example, plays the seemingly nice but nasty boss of a nuclear reactor in the seventies’ setting, but also the chief of a cannibal tribe in the post apocalyptic scenario. All the stories are edited into one another, conspiring to confuse the viewer struggling to figure out what’s what but also developing together towards a common climax.
The purpose of this ambitious setup is probably the most important question to ask with regards to Cloud Atlas. There I seem to be in contention with the moviemakers, who tag their film as per the following (copied and pasted from Wikipedia):
An exploration of how the actions of individual lives impact one another in the past, present and future, as one soul is shaped from a killer into a hero, and an act of kindness ripples across centuries to inspire a revolution.
I’m in contention because, generally speaking, I thought I read a different message here. My interpretation is that barring slight (but potentially important) differences, history repeats itself. Mistakes made in the past will be remade in the future, the result of mixing ignorance with human nature; however, like a Commander Shepard that needs to decide between the Paragon or the Renegade options, we also have the occasional opportunity to improve things or to make them worse; we have a choice. In other words, I was reading a more fatalistic message here than intended.
Given the ambitious attempt Cloud Atlas is making, clad with actors, makeup and special effects as it is, I went wondering why I did not hear more about this movie before. However, now that I have watched it I can offer an explanation: like Icarus before it, Cloud Atlas aims too high and gets burnt. The whole affair is too convoluted, too disjointed, and dare I say too narcissistic, to work well. I still fail to see the point of some of the subplots or understand why certain things took the course they took. It all adds up, and the bottom line – the simple experience of entertaining oneself through watching a film – turns out to be less than the sum of its parts. At the end of it I wasn’t pondering the beauty of its message; I was trying to figure out its inconsistencies.
Overall: Cloud Atlas is not the worst idea ever attempted in the art of moviemaking, but it certainly aims too high for its own good. 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea by Mira Grant

Lowdown: Newsflesh goes Down Under.
Regular readers of my blogs would know I have had a personal affair with Mira Grant (a pen name for author Seanan McGuire) and that I had somewhat of a rollercoaster ride reading her Newsflesh trilogy of books, Feed, Deadline and Blackout. Now, on the heels of the famous trilogy, comes How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea: a follow-up novella (less than 2000 Kindle units long) taking place after the core trilogy’s timeline, but not much after, and told to us in first person by Mahir Gowda. Oh, and in case you were wondering why I’m picking on this particular tale, the whole affair takes place in zombie infested Australia.
We join Mahir, now the boss after the Masons left the scene, aboard his flight to Melbourne (hooray!). Through lengthy proceedings we learn of the setup: Australia’s way for dealing with zombies was unconventional. It uses its old Rabbit Proof Fence to trap the core of the zombie marsupials on one side, while the humans live a relatively open life - when compared to the USA and the UK - on the other. Mahir lands, joins his local blogger crew, and sets forth to an adventure by the fence. Oh, there are no adequate explanations as to how Aussies pushed the zombies all the way up from, say, Sydney, to the fence that's thousand of kilometers away. But let us not digress.
First and foremost, I would say How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea is a tourism ad for Australia. It clearly uses Australia’s unique position in the real world to tell a tale of walls and the human condition in a zombie infested world in order to send a message back to the real world. And that’s great! Obviously, as a migrant who chose to live here I can sympathize with the “praise Australia” mood of the story. Even if I think it’s grossly unbalanced, given the rampant xenophobia on display at the Land of Plenty, with the current federal election campaign focusing on which of the two main parties can be crueller towards incoming refugees. Under that particular light, How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea looks way too fantastic; then again, it is a tale of a zombie uprising, so I’ll shut up and move on.
By far the biggest problem with How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea is that not much is happening. At the risk of blooping I will report there are no non zombie casualties here; indeed, the whole story is very slowly told. You’d find yourself deep inside the book by the time Gowda lands in Australia! I think it is obvious this slowness is intentional: Gowda is no adventurer, and his detailed but overlong reporting style is supposed to characterize him. I will argue, though, that I found myself detracted, wishing things would get a move on. But for a very short burst at the end, they simply don’t.
Overall: If one judges books by their ability to captivate, then one would judge How Green This Land, How Blue This Sea very poorly. However, this one’s got brains; I’ll be generous and give it 3 out of 5 stars, for old times’ sake.

Wednesday, 7 August 2013

Life of Pi

Lowdown: A teenager’s survival story on board a lifeboat he shares with a tiger.
I think I can safely say Yann Martel’s book, Life of Pi, was a book of contrasts. Never do I recall a book I disagreed with so much which I also enjoyed so much, to the point of often recommending it and citing it above books I liked better.
The reason for this contrast should be evident to anyone who read the book. On one hand, we have a fantasy tale about a boy losing his entire family when the ship they were sailing on drowns, only to find himself trapped on a lifeboat with a fully operational and quite lively tiger (that is, after the zebra, orang-utan and hyena have been dealt with). It is all grossly improbable, but it’s such a well told fascinating story that joy is inevitable. There is a catch, though: the whole affair is designed as a case for faith. As in, it tells us the story is so fascinating its plausibility no longer matters; one just has to believe it.
Well, no. There is this thing called “the truth”, and it’s important – much more important than fantasizing or any other form of wishful thinking. None of us would like it if courts would judge people based on whose fantasy tale is better; we want them to be the arbiter of truth. Then there is the slight matter of the faiths cited in the book, Hinduism, Christianity and Islam not being as fantastic as their followers would have us believe. But that’s another story altogether...
The point of this contrast is that I was arriving at Life of Pi the movie from a very curious stance: How does the movie visualize the whole boat scenario in a plausible manner? And how does the movie deal with the faith theme? Can Ang Lee, a very respectable director, achieve the impossible here?
Things start off with a film portraying India, our hero Pi's land of origin, in a very flattering manner. It's a tourism ad. However, we clearly receive notification of where the wind is blowing in a scene where the older Pi, narrating affairs, tells us Christianity's story doesn't make sense - but who cares, it's such a fascinating story. What starts off with a whiff turns into a category 6 hurricane as the matter of faith, handled relatively subtly by the book, takes center stage in the film. Not good!
Then there's the matter of the boy and the tiger sharing a boat. I guess that could never really work on screen: a book's lack of visuals can get away with things a film can't. Not to mention the obvious lack of realism that stares the viewer right in the face: I, for example, would have expected the lifeboat to be full of shit, tiger shit. But no; they may be at sea for weeks upon weeks, but our tiger is a clean one.
So yes, one would be right to argue I wasn't impressed by this film's core themes. Even its main point, the one that says faith is worthy because its accompanying stories are so great, does not stand. I mean, come on: the unlikely story of a tiger in a boat is nothing compared to the ongoing story of evolution, the existence of supernovas or the sheer unintuitive complexity of quantum mechanics. Yet all three very much exist and are very much responsible for us being here, a quality that faith cannot claim for itself. As in, want a truly fascinating story? Go ahead and read Richard Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow for a good taste of the fascinations the true world can offer. They sure beat the hell out of Life of Pi's.
Overall: I found I could only engage Life of Pi at its very basic plot level. I'll be generous and grant it 3 out of 5 stars for daring to make a movie of such a complicated setting.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Constellation Games by Leonard Richardson

Lowdown: Aliens communicate with a blogger/video game developer through computer games.
Computer games are an important part of my life. Not only do my family and I spend a lot of our quality time with them, they also had direct impact on the course of my life. Case in point is a game called FIFA 99, because of which I bought myself a PC, because of which my career path took a turn it wouldn’t have otherwise taken. I can continue elaborating, but what I am trying to say is that while many tend to dismiss computer games as rubbish – particularly people born before the Internet age – video games matter.
Leonard Richardson agrees with me, it seems. In his book Constellation Games he writes about a disgruntled video games developer, Ariel Blum, who lives in contemporary Texas. Only that in Ariel’s world a historical event is taking place: what started as lots of dust being interrupted on the moon turned out to be a visiting fleet of aliens, the Constellation. As humanity wonders what’s to happen next, Ariel finds himself contacted directly by the aliens who supply him with video games from ancient alien civilizations. And through these games, Ariel learns all sorts of interesting things.
There are three of elements that coconspire to make Constellation Games a unique fish in the sea of alien invasion stories. The first is to do with this one not being your typical alien invasion story; as in, they don’t storm to kill and suck the blood of all humans. Second, and as mentioned, the story is told in first person from the point of view of a gamer and the whole thing is heavily dipped with gaming/Internet culture. And third, the story is told in a rather unique way, but a way which sounds totally natural in this Internet age: Constellation Games is composed of posts published in Ariel’s blog.
The combination of gaming and blogging that makes this book what it is certainly had me identifying with Ariel (he’s Jewish!), to the point where I was wondering aloud whether I can write a book as good as Constellation Games. I can’t, but there was plenty of room for pondering there because of a simple reason: I did not find Constellation Games to be that good a book. Sure, it says some important things about us, humans, but it also seems to drag on and on without getting anywhere. The ending is no saviour, either.
Deficiencies may be attributed to the book’s format, but when the question of whether you, dear reader, should invest your time in Constellation Games comes up, I will have to ask this: are you willing to suffer through eccentricities and a whole lot of nothing just for the sake of a cool science fiction book that’s got both gaming and blogging in it? If your answer is a yes, then by all means – go ahead and read this book. If, however, like me you are in the gray area, then Constellation Games could prove to be a bit of a time waster.
Overall: I would say Constellation Games is an interesting book, but a book that is interesting for the wrong reasons. I did not suffer reading it, but it left me asking for much more than it delivered. 2.5 out of 5 stars.