Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Movie Review - Fortress (1985)

This delightful little tale is a class example of a story that inspires children. As a parent, this movie is for you if you want to:

*Have scenes with the teacher disrobing in front of her student to swim in a cave.

*Have repeated double entendres from the teacher and others involving the use of spears.

*Teach that children and teachers should lie to law enforcement.

*It is an acceptable form of revenge to cut the beating heart out of your kidnapper and display it in a pickle jar at the back of your classroom.

However, aside from the terrible acting, terrible script, terrible characters and supremely predictable plot, there are some very nice shots of Australia.

Oh. Right. I should say something about what the movie is about. A teacher and 9 students are kidnapped by four insane guys who bring them to a cave and leave them down there alone while they slide a rock into the cave. They light a magic fire that runs on magic fuel while Teacher and Author Avatar Young Boy go to find a way out. Teacher disrobes in front of student who does not seem to mind him not looking away (not reacting at all really) and then swims out. They traipse through the wilderness and get to civilization where the bad guys are waiting. The bad guys then foolishly lock them alone again in a barn, only now they send in one guard who is trapped and accidentally shot. The kids then go to the wilderness and create a fortress with sharp sticks. In a brief struggle, the bad guys end up dead. At the end, the students and teacher are singing songs (there are a LOT of songs in this movie) and the police ask about irregularities in the body. The teacher says, "are you arresting us?" The police inspector says, "No." "Then shut up and mind your own business!"

The movie ends showing a human heart in a pickle jar.

It does, however, have a nice lord of the flies scene in which small children, big children and teacher are spearing a bad guy to death and enjoying it.

Fun for the whole family really.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Movie: The Fantastic Mr. Fox

This movie is based on a 40 page book by Roald Dahl.. It was thoroughly enjoyable. The basic plot is about a fox that lives with his family and promises to 'go straight' when they have kids. He does that for a while but decides to take on last job where he robs three farmers. This causes problems for all of the animals and the farmers psychotically try to kill them all. Mr. Fox must get them out of trouble.

The thing about the animation and the script is the general feel of the movie. It is unique and a thorough pleasure to watch. The dialog is well written as is the pacing. Small children and adults should enjoy this. I highly recommend it.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Movie: 2012

2012 was a mess, but it wasn’t as bad of a mess as I expected. Normally I would not have seen this movie in the first place, both from the bad reviews I read of it and because of the “Killer Ice” in “The Day After Tomorrow” by the same director. When Ice chases people down corridors it is pretty ridiculous. So obviously I am not unbiased on this. This is actually worse; since I’m not really a fan of the Disaster Genre, or a fan of movies that exist for Special Effects. I mean, what’s the point? Do you want pretty things on screen or explosions? Well sure, I like explosions but its generally the context of the explosions and the story that matters to me. After all an explosion affecting a children’s hospital is a lot different than the evil alien spaceship.

The reason I don’t generally like disaster movies is because to me they’re the same thing as those people who slow down in the opposite lane of traffic to rubber neck at an accident. I HATE those people. How, exactly, does hoards and hoards of people dying constitute something artful and uplifting? Indeed, you could make more of an argument that horror decries the dangers of evil more than a disaster flick. Of course, the trope of a disaster movie is that it tries to show the triumph of the human spirit in the face of adversity. I admit, I like this, a lot. And in that context, 2012 has some interesting things to say.

As a fit of destruction over and over again, it is utter rubbish. As a profound statement on the greed and disgusting behavior that humanity often exhibits, it is excellent. Thus, while I despise the genre, and the marketed purpose of the movie, it managed to have some winning points in spite of itself.

The basic premise of the movie is that secret Killer Nutrino Particles are heating up the Earth’s core to the point that it moves things around. The director decided to one up himself even more by pretending that science doesn’t even matter (like it ‘kind of did’ in the Day after tomorrow) and just say that India and China can move 2300 miles in one minute…just cause. Lots of people die. The heroes scatter from place to place trying to not die. They go to the secret location of the arcs and get on board. IE, pretty much the plot of Independence Day + Day After Tomorrow. This is their bastard step child.

The thing I like about the movie, however, is that the ‘lottery’ that takes place in Deep Impact is shown as the farce that it is. There is no lottery. There is no ‘best and the brightest’. They sold seats on the Humanity Gets to Survive boat…to rich people. Now, the movie brings up an interesting point. You can’t fund a multi trillion dollar project secretly using public funds. See, there are these things called laws, and you can’t move large amounts of money secretly without people noticing. Private people can. I find it interesting that they get the finance aspect right and the science so totally wrong and ridiculous.

But whatever.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Conversations with God, by Neale Donald Walsch

I think that there is a lot in this book that is worthy of attention. Since my own spiritual paradigm has changed a lot in my life, I am always open minded to hearing new perspectives. I think that Mr. Walsch has some very good insights into the nature of god, some of which I agree with, and some of which I do not. Since this is a review blog and not one focused on my own internal philosophy or musings, I shall focus first on the nature of the book itself. The entire thing is essentially a platonic (in the sense of this is a literary device used by Plato betimes in The Republic) conversation between the author and God. As a character Walsch's god is both very human and very kind and wise. He has a different perspective than most, and also have very human traits like humor, whimsy and sarcasm. For the most part, the book does an excellent job of conveying the author's philosophy and the underlying tale. The underlying tale, such as it is, isn't much, in that it is basically that the author is down on his luck and washed up, and lost in life and that he has a voice in his head that calls itself God, with whom he converses on a piece of paper by asking all of the questions that he wanted to know. Walsch's idea of god and realize are spelled out piece by piece and bit by bit in a fashion that is internally logical and intruiging.

The thing that fascinated me most about Mr. Walsch's god is that it (since it claims to be neither masculine nor feminine) is the way it is and that humanity is the one constantly attributing traits to it. This does make sense largely, since a common theme of all the major spiritual texts of humanity is exactly this; God is the way He is, not the way he wants us to be. Like any pervasive spiritual philosophy, some of the hard questions are extremely vague. For example, at one point the text implies that there is no right or wrong or good or evil and that God isn't going to judge us. At the same time, the text implies that if we're really trying to be like God, we judge ourselves and that if we're really trying to be like It, we're going to be good people anyway. The book does do a fairly good job of finding the logical holes in most monotheistic faiths, particularly that, if God is a jerk, is He really worth worshiping and is it really fitting to play games of theological riddles that we have to solve for His convenience. I should note that I do not agree with all of these philosophies, but this is skillfully narrated in the book.

Still, while I do find elements of the philosophy quite interesting, I think this book is best read (from my perspective) as a philosophical tome rather than a spiritual one. Spiritually speaking, it might connect with you, but it will probably cause just as many questions as it will answer. Philosophically, I found its insights into the question of want (ie, if quit wanting for things and instead merely hope and strive for them, a subtle but important difference) and relationships (ie think of them as an opportunity to be your best self rather than a question of what you can get out of said relationship) to be extremely insightful and interesting. I recommend reading it, but I do so suggesting that it be done with a hearty grain of salt.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Movie: The Men Who Stare At Goats

An interesting movie. Part of it is fact and part of it is fiction. The movie is based on a book by the same name written by a journalist who happened to run into some people who had actually belonged to a cutting edge army psi brigade that actually believed that they had psychic powers. I’ve only heard about the book by reputation, but I can say that the movie does an excellent job of blending the possibility that there might be something there while at the same time making you wonder if they, and all research like it, are filled with fundamental loony tubes. On the whole liked the movie. The plot is a little slow and ponderous at times, but it makes some very meaningful points. I think the moment where they are in the car with the military contractors (ala Black Water) when they cavalierly cut in line at the gas station or open fire on what they think are hostile Iraqis (who turn out to be another US contractor) shows a very good idea in three minutes what it was like for the Iraqi’s to have to live under this crap for eight years. The last twenty minutes are by far the best part of the movie though and the rest of the plot helps put it all into context. I liked it a great deal.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Movie: Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a good movie that has a lot of good messages with a few flaws. First, even for a children’s movie, it is a little bit too self aware and pretentious. When the narrator in “Winnie the Pooh” says “This is the story of” etc, it works just fine. When the narrator is a character in the movie, that can work as well. When the narrator is aware that they are the narrator and there is one, and makes side comments to the audience, they’d better be Ferris Bueler or they’re probably not going to pull it off.

Dustin Hoffman was well suited to this roll, and actually managed to play it sufficiently low key that I enjoyed the performance. I could easily see him going Jim Carrey/Grinch on this, but he didn’t. Natalie Portman was not at her best, and I like Natalie Portman. Elements of what she did were really good. Her dynamic with Mr. Magorium/Dustin went well. Her dynamic with Mutant (the accountant) went OK. The scenes with pretentious narrator kid…fell flat on their face. Pretentious narrator kid has some good scenes. He did the hat collection scene with Mutant very well. He also did a good job as ‘backbone in the background’ while Mr. Megorium was around. But the whole, “You have to save the store scene” with Natalie Portman was just nauseating. Basically, most of the dynamics in the movie worked well except those between Portman and PNK. It just…didn’t work. So much so that it made the entire movie suffer as a result of it.

The thing that the film did BEST was help a child understand death. Mr. Magorium had a very healthy attitude toward it, understanding that it was a natural part of the cycle of life. Even more impressive was the fact that he didn’t do what I thought he was going to do which was step off into neverneverland or something. Even though it didn’t show much, it quite clearly implied that he actually died, and was actually buried. The FX on the store were very good, though the whole theme was in that “Kids like a vomit of colors as much as possible” way.

On the whole, I liked this movie, despite its flaws and think that it is a thoroughly enjoyable experience. Once. Don’t see much rewatch value though.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Goblin Tower - L. Spring de Camp

The Goblin Tower by L. Spring de Camp is a good book. It was written over 40 years ago, in 1968. I found the stylistic changes that have taken place in fantasy over the last 40 years rather interesting. On the one hand, the book could easily compete with modern fantasy. The characters were strong, the narrative was compelling and the setting was rich and detailed. The plot was also rather interesting, and I have to admit I haven’t seen it replicated since. Jorian is a mercenary who is accidentally selected to be the king of Xylar. This might not normally be a problem except for the fact that the king of Xylar is killed every five years. Jorian wisely made a deal with a wizard to get him out of the deal, but in return he was forced to steal a spellbook in a distant land. The thing I found most interesting, however, was the similarity it had with fiction that was written in much earlier times, at the turn of the 20th century. Jorian was a master story teller, and the plot of the book routinely came to a screeching halt as Jorian told tales of his native kingdom, usually to get out of a tight situation. As such, the book had the unusual mix of a modern high fantasy novel meets Arabian nights; complete with the obligatory (but short) nod to the real world when he uses Earth to take a short cut between worlds. I recommend it, though primarily to those who, like me, have fairly eclectic tastes. Those who prefer more mainstream or post modern fantasy may not like it.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

The book was surprisingly good, though it certainly wasn’t what I thought it was. I don’t know why, perhaps the last major motion picture that was released, but for some reason I thought this book had an element of the supernatural to it. It certainly doesn’t. Its definitely a gothic romance. Thus, when I say surprisingly good, I mean that it surprised me that I liked it. This is clearly the kind of book that they would (and apparently actually did) assign in English class, both for the beautiful prose but the fact that the thing is chock full of all kinds of literary references and techniques. Setting reflects theme. Characters are dynamic and yet comprehensible. The plot moves forward at an interesting yet methodical pace. I could argue that Ms. Bronte’s work could be released today and would actually be competitive on the market. To be sure, certain elements might seem a little stereotypish today, but even then, they’d still be successful. Despite the antiquity of the language, I found it intellectually stimulating and, like all truly great books, it made me think and had a little bit of it linger with me long after I was done reading it. I highly recommend this book.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Philosophy of Super Heroes

The Philosophy of super heroes was a very interesting book. It is a collection of articles that explore philosophy and how it affects or is affected by super heroes. I think that the articles that did their homework interested me the most. That is to say, that some of the authors had a cursory knowledge about what they might have seen in movies, but some of the others had done quite a bit of research into the deeper lore of what they were examining. The first third of the book is a lot easier to read than the latter.

The three most interesting articles for me was the exploration of why Spiderman does what he does, why Superman does what he does, and the religious overtones of Daredevil’s Catholocism. The author postulated that the reason Superman acted heroically was as a way of connecting with people. And this makes sense really. He is the last of his race. And, when you think about it, being surrounded by people that look exactly like your people, but who are fundamentally different and also fragile, could make you hesitant to establish any kind of connection with them. By taking a direct hand in the world, by connecting with people by making a positive difference in their lives you can become a part of the whole. The exploration of “With great power comes great responsibility” was a fascinating breakdown of what makes something ethical or not. I can see why Jennifer enjoys Kantian philosophy so much. It took me a while to get around to reading it, but I’m glad that I did. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Movie: Zombieland

It is quite fun. It is also quite gross at parts, but I think that this thing is a great deal of fun. It also shows how good ideas are kind of timely. A year ago, I was challenged to write a novel about Zombies. I realized that at the time there was a large void in the Zombie genre for protagonists that weren't morons. That was why I wrote Grenademan Vs. The Zombies. Before Zombieland, the main movies that did this were Army of Darkness (a classic but nearly 20 years old) and Shawn of the Dead (which was more of a parody.)

It is true that, like Shawn of the Dead, Zombieland has a bit of a comedic element, but despite that, Zombieland retains more of the true roots of the genre in my opinion. At no point do we really consider the scenario that they're in a joke. It certainly has humorous elements, particularly when they decide to spend some time at Bill Murray's mansion.

The heroes are human and flawed. And despite that, they don't behave like morons, which I greatly appreciate. They give an explanation about where the zombies came from, but it is shoved far into the background of the story where, quite frankly, it belongs. This isn't a story about the zombies, but instead the way it changes the people involved. It is a story of coming to terms with loneliness and the value that building societies can bring.

I greatly enjoyed this movie and highly recommend it. Not for small children though.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Dying Lights by Mark Argyle

I originally posted this review in 2003 on rpg.net I also fixed the spelling.

The basics: Dying Lights is a game that gives you everything that you'd want in a complex space board game like Twilight Imperium, but with half the complex rules and several highly innovative features that help game play rather than enhance it.

The Story: I am a bit odd when it comes to board games, card games and the like. The story in these games is just as important to me as it is in the RPG, which is to say-everything. And the story of Dying Lights does not let me down. The rule book devotes 1/6th of its space to telling the intriguing tale, and helps set the proper mood of the game.

Basically, a bunch of jedi-like psi monks go about mucking with things that they only think they understand in order to create a utopia. As one might expect, this goes horrifically wrong and they end up corrupting the Galaxy's collective unconscious as well as psychically activating all the inhabitants of the galaxy. The practical upshot of which is; the galaxy goes nuts and several cracks in the universe appear, bleeding out all the spiritual energy in the universe.

The inhabitants rapidly come to the conclusion that in order to survive, they have to kill everyone else because the remaining psi power leaves enough for only 1/10 of the people living.

Game play: The thing I like most about the game is the proverbial shot gun tied to the heads of the players. While it has LOADS of flexibility (which I like) it also forces the players to act.

There are three campaign rounds in each turn. At the end of each turn, you loose psi (1 the first, 2 the second, 3 the third etc). Each player starts with five, and while there are ways to get psi in the game (not as easy as it sounds), you can see right away that it forces you to take action.

The game takes place on terrain cards laid out in a somewhat similar fashion to Twilight Imperium, with another set of cards that represent 'Fleet trees' or as the game calls them "Battle Groups". You then move these around on the battle ground and combat ensues.

I won't include all the details of the combat, but it is relatively simple and straight forward, yet also manages to include elements such as tech upgrades, fighters and heavy weapons. An aspect of the game I really like are the 'experience' cards that allow the Admirals of each fleet to gain traits like 'heroic' or 'ruthless' that affect play. The game plays for 2-6 players and the basic set (which I got) seems to support all, although supposedly you can 'customize decks' by manipulating cards, though this is by no means a collectible card game. Everything you need is in the box.

In short, I liked it. It is a game that has a lot of potential and at the same time plays relatively quickly.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ruled Britania by Harry Turtledove

A while ago I tried reading a series of books Mr. Turtledove wrote about aliens invading during WWII. It was, quite simply, boring beyond imagination, at least for me. So when a friend handed me a book called "Ruled Britania" by the same author I took it with a bit of trepidation, but I was wrong.

The book is excellent and flows quite well. The first 40-50 pages are somewhat slow, but once the action starts, it keeps up right until the end. The basic plot of the story is a 'what if' (for which Harry Turtledove has become known as the absolute master) in which the Spanish Armada wasn't defeated in 1588, and instead successfully invaded England. A rich english aristocrat, Elizabeth's former spy master, sets about commissioning Shakespeare to write a place called 'Boudicea' to inspire the people of England to revolution. Of course, at the same time, the governor of England commissions him to write a play about King Phillip the II, to commemorate Spain's dying King. Shakespeare has to do both at the same time in an otherwise extremely difficult situation.

The thing I found most fascinating was the fact that many of the minor characters (but not all) were quite real as well. Mr. Turtledove did a very good job of making them seem quite real. For example, the Spanish are somewhat brutal, but they are hardly mustache twirling Snidely Whiplashes. Added to this fact is Turtledove's use of Lope De Vega, a Spanish playwrite (and in this case soldier as well) for the Spanish perspective and you get a rich and deep plot.

I highly recommend it if you like historical fiction.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Unincorporated Man by Dani Kollin & Eytan Kollin

I like the book though I don't necessarily agree with its politics. The basic premise of the book is a self made billionaire sees that the system is on the verge of collapse, has terminal lung cancer, so he makes a self contained cryogenic unit and buries it in a mountain where it lies for several centuries. What remains is a perfect libertarian paradise where the government magically works perfectly, there is no tax and the government can provide no service that is not also competed against in the free market. There is no war, little crime and plenty of food. Medicine has removed all sickness and people essentially live forever.

There is only one fly in the ointment. Anyone who is born automatically has themselves incorporated, with their parents getting 20% and the government getting 5%. Beyond that, almost everyone has to trade between 6-14% to receive an education from a university, which also owns a part of you until you pay it off or buy your stock back. Reaching a majority, and thus controlling your own destiny, is the goal of essentially everyone in this civilization.

Thus when our billionaire wakes up, the corp that finds him wants to lay claim to him and incorporate him. Through a bit of trickery, he manages to get free and thus a massive legal battle ensues wherein he is trying to keep his soul and not become incorporated.

The book does indeed feel Heinleinian, and I like Heinlein, though the background government sure isn't Starship Troopers that's for sure. The best part of the book is the struggle for individuality and the right to be free, despite blatant attempts by the authors to turn the non billionaires who like the idea into cartoon characters.

David Weber does the same thing in the Honor Harrington books, but does so with so much class that you don't mind. That, and the main bad guys AREN'T cartoon characters. Overall its a good read, but given how good this idea is and how ham fisted they were with their politics, I'm betting I won't be as entertained by their next book.

Friday, August 7, 2009

The Aphorisms of Kherishdar by M.C.A. Hogarth

Let me first of all say that I was given a free copy to review, and that M.C.A. Hogarth is a friend of a friend. Having said that I was reviewing this from a clear perspective, and if I didn't like it, I would simply not write a review on it. I did like it, and a lot of things about it as well.

What's the difference? Well, let me clarify. First, from a pure componented perspective, I liked numerous elements separate of the work as a whole. I like the fact that this story followed the patron model. The author wrote a series of stories, which about 50 paid for because they wanted to see more. Thus, without their interest and input, more would not have been made. I think that in the modern world of the internet, this is the ideal method rather than giving substantial amounts of money to middle men who take a cut and give nothing in return. There are those channels which are good, but there are many who are not. And I favor direct patronage as the highest model.

The second was the fact that this was social science fiction, but it wasn't just that, it was well done. Science fiction is always a method of looking back at ourselves through a prism that is simply not possible in the real world. I learned a lot by watching the Naked Mole rat in the zoo. What the hell? You ask.

Let me clarify. A common criticism in science fiction is that aliens are not sufficiently alien. They should be tentacled horrors rather than humanoid. And yet...did you know that Naked Mole rats have a hive structure? Yes, that's right. They aren't a herb, but have a queen just like certain kinds of insects. Thusly, I have come to find humanoid aliens potentially more plausible than something that would have to evolve an entirely different way of using technology than ourselves. I don't consider the latter impossible, just not as likely as a humanoid. And the aliens Hogarth presents in his story are in many ways like us. There is a distinctly asian feel to their culture, but they are not simply ancient Japan or ancient China with the serial numbers filed off.

No, I argue that the reason the culture feels this way is because it is obviously ancient. Let me give you an example of what I mean. If someone from the 15th century were somehow magically transported to the present day, they would be generally very rude by our standards. They would not do this intentionally, but dozens of elements of etiquette that we take for granted in our society are simply instilled in us by birth. As time progresses society has ways of working things out.

The thing I like so much about the Aphorisms is that it portrays what is obviously on the surface a very static society while at the same time answering any questions I had about how they manage to avoid ossification and thus ultimate destruction. It has a vibrancy beneath the surface that thus legitimizes its longevity.

In other words, Hogarth has created a society I can actually believe in, doing so in the actual format that an alien would write it no less. This feels not a book written by a 21rst century writer set in an alien world, it is written by a distant alien and translated into English.

But the best element of the book is the actual skill of the writing itself. Hogarth knows how to write and does so quite impressively. I highly recommend the book to hard core sci fi readers or those who are interested in philosophical musings in fictional form.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Torchwood - Children of Earth

This is an interesting combination of miniseries and third season. And I like it. I've becoming convinced after watching limited series like Cowboy Bebop that sometimes a limited series is just the way to tell a story. Its long enough, and complicated enough, that you just can't make a movie out of it, but it doesn't justify 7 26 episode seasons. Some series do work well enough to do that. I think Firefly was killed in its prime, just like Farscape, in large part not due to profitability but to executive stupidity. In fact, in the case of the latter, I pretty much KNOW it involved interoffice politics rather than anything the fans wanted.

But until fans directly fund such projects, they will always be subject to the whims of Hollywood executives so they better get used to it.

But I digress.

-Limited Spoilers-

The basic premise of this show is, aliens are coming and they want a chunk of Earth's children. 10% exactly. The more shocking thing (revealed in episode 4) is that the aliens want the children because humans 'make good chemicals.' I've seen aliens mess with humanity for an awful lot of reasons, but at the absolute least you have to hand it to Russel T. Davis (creator of Torchwood) in coming up with an extremely creative way of making aliens want to interact with humans. We're the losing half of an intergalactic opium war.

The visuals were stunning. Whoever worked with the children managed to make them act very unchildlike and in large numbers. We're not talking about one or two Halley Joel Osmets here, but whole crowds of kids acting in an extremely creepy fashion.

The acting in general was supurb, as was the writing. The only major complaint I had was the absolute lack of freaking out on the part of the children in Episodes 1-3 (out of 5). Look, I understand how you want to highlight how much of a natural disruption it is to show the children playing one minute and then having them standing their droning alien messages the next, but I think a far more powerful visual would have been to show some children playing, but be sure to show little Timmy cowering in the closet because he's afraid that the aliens are going to get him.

A lot of reviews I've read have said Episode 4 is boring. No. Episode 4 is not boring unless you're stupid. Episode 4 is the most important episode out of the 5. Episode 4 is where we see WHAT WOULD REALLY HAPPEN if this took place. We see politicians acting like politicians. We see the absolute disgusting nature of humanity and it is portrayed in a perfectly believable fashion. Unlike the contrived visual with the children, this one is spot on. It doesn't have to highlight the bad guys to make them look bad, because they're just regular leaders making what they believe to be the only choice they have, while at the same time willfully ignoring the alternatives.

And it also shows what only science fiction can show, which is that, in other areas, our leaders often make decisions like this every single day, and yet no one lifts a finger to stop it. Abstract policy to most people just that, abstract policy, with no real feeling for the consequences until it happens to them.

Anyone who loves science fiction or anyone who wants to point out that abstract policies have real world consequences should see Torchwood Children of Earth.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Nation - by Terry Pratchet

I have noticed a repeated trend in the British psyche lately trying to recognize the fact that there were an empire for several hundred years. On the one hand, they want to take pride in the fact that they were once a mighty nation, on the other hand, they've grown up and realized that stomping people for economic exploitation is probably not the most morally superior attitude in the world.

Nation is a departure from Pratchet's work in many ways. It is set in the real world, despite hints and shadows at potential supernatural activity that might only be in the minds of the local participants. It answers important questions about culture, nationality, history and the individual. His characters are interesting; the female Daphne and the male Mau. He starts the narrative off with Mau because Mau is the most foreign to most of those who will be reading the book. Mau is a pacific islander (despite a handwavium attempt by the author to pretend that the island and the entire ocean have been made up out of thin air at the end of the book) while Daphne is the unlikely heir to the british empire after a plague killed dozens of other relatives, who ends up shipwrecked on the Island with Mau.

What is fascinating is how the two interact and how the question of the ultimate fate of the island is resolved in the long term. For young adult fiction (or fiction in general) it is quite good and I would highly recommend reading it. Most impressive of all, is that on top of the questions it asks and answers, Pratchet manages to keep his trademark humor throughout.

Movie - Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince

Some have been disappointed by it, some consider it the best movie of the series. I liked it a great deal, and I don't honestly know if I HAVE a favorite movie of the series. I like them all, though I admit I am not a rabid fan, just a fan. I think for me its really a question of admiration for Rowling's storycraft. I've been told that her writing itself is not the most skillful, and I will readily conceed that her building blocks have been used to death in other medium a million times before.

But the skill with which Rowling uses those blocks is utterly amazing. Its like macaroni art put together by Michangelo. The individual components are simply not that impressive, but the artistry of the work itself is undeniable. The plots are pretty transparent despite a valiant effort to make them novel and interesting, but at the same time Rowling does so with a freshness and daring that makes them truly wonderous. Moreover, Rowlings characters are truly human. They behave in human ways and incorporate a larger spectrum of humanity than is to be found in most literature period, much less the YA genre.

Rowling trusts her readers with darkness. She never hides behind the fact that there are dark things out there, and her dark figures do not act like stereotypes (or rather JUST like stereotypes) but like the real thing. More important, her books are an enjoyable read. The movie is no less so.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Backup by Jim Butcher

Yeah. I'll be blunt here.

This is a kickass novella in hardback form. But I feel that Butcher is entering Lucas exploitation levels in selling this thing in hardback form. When I sell something with a lot of white space, I don't include those pages in the cost per page count. This is the kind of novella I would be more than happy to buy when mixed up with other things he's written, or in anthologies with other authors. I've obtained numerous short stories he's written in anthologies because he's my favorite author.

But when a $13.60 hardback book ($20 cover price) is sold then I really feel that my good will as a fan is being exploited.

Which is of course why I checked it out from the library. I'm still supporting the author by encouraging the library to buy more of his stuff, but I'm not being an idiot about the price either.

The basic plot is about an associate of Harry Dresden, Thomas, who helps Harry without his knowledge. Occasionally episodes like this appear in television series, and I like them a great deal. It also adds a fascinating new dimension to the conflict in the Dresdenverse, and it makes absolute perfect sense. In a world where belief makes things real, of course there are things best forgotten, which is where the 'obvlivion war' sets in.

The other thing I like a lot about this book is about how it personalizes a character that is forced to make horrible character altering decisions in the Turn Coat book.

Movie: Terminator Salvation

I had heard mixed things about this, plus given the recent series, I was concerned about the studio I thought that produced it, but it turns out that both opinions were incorrect. The movie is actually a lot better than Terminator 3. It had a few flaws, but using the 'movies are fun' argument that justified Transformers 2: Robot Testacles for earning $200 million, I think we can cut this one some slack.

The movie is basically about how John Conner actually becomes the head of the Revolution. It has a lot of action and an interesting side plot about a man who mysteriously shows up who was in suspended animation and then appears naked out of nowhere who makes a significant difference as to whether the good guys succeed or not.

I liked it, but it had a few problems.

Spoilers ahead.

One of the biggest comments I've heard is how easy it was to sneak into the complex. Yeah, well, apparently a lot of other reviewers are moronic, because it is VERY easy to sneak into the main complex of the bad guy when they want you to.

Now, the 'why pick a guy from 1993 who is going to stick out like a sore thumb to lay your trap' is another criticism I hear a lot about this movie. Actually, the 'its so dumb it just might work' defense seems valid to me. I honestly have to wonder just how much proof you'd have to offer someone if you claimed to be from the future and that you were trying to alter the timeline to prevent a disaster. I'd bet that it wouldn't take much proof and that there would be an awful lot of people that would totally fall for it. Plus, maybe Skynet didn't have a lot of bodies lying around when it first started, so it picked the one with the most data lying around.

Now some things were lame.

Skynet is just stupid. The humans always do the best they can with what they have, sometimes against hopeless odds, but Skynet is aware of all the time paradoxes (hence its desire to kill the guy who is going to be John Conner's father) but it doesn't care about temporal paradox and just goes ahead anyway. It also pulls a 'join me, and together we shall rule the galaxy' with the cyborg guy.

Not yet once has anyone tried to make the paradox work via ignroance. For example, in T3, John Conner is revealed in the future to be killed because he was a moron and trusted a T-800 too much. Why can't he just program the robot with false info and send it back that way to maintain the timeline, and then shoot any @#$@#$@# T-800's that suddenly try to become friends with him?

One can hope that might happen, but I'm not holding my breath.

The good news is that at this point, we're entering new territory with these movies. We don't need to keep wondering if Skynet will send yet another crappy robot back in time, because we KNOW it has to happen to avoid temporal paradox.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Movie: Public Enemy

The movie in a nutshell is about the tail end of John Dillinger's criminal career in the early thirties. Since its a basic matter of history, I don't think I'm ruining things by saying that in the end, Dillinger does not drive off into the sunset with a bag of money in the back of his car. Its just not that kind of movie.

This movie proved two things to me: I like the acting of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale. Marion Cotillard does an excellent job as Dilligenger's fascination as well. In fact, I would say she has the most compelling part in the movie, because you can see how an ordinary person with nothing worth focusing on in their life could easily get swept up into the chaos of Dilligenger's world.

I liked the movie. It is probably not the most memorable movie for me, despite the fact that I also enjoyed knowing the time line involved. It does do a sufficient job of showing what a bastard J. Edgar Hoover was. The only thing I REALLY wish that they'd shown was how he edged out Melvin Purvis (played by Christian Bale) who was the guy who actually tracked Dillenger down. J. Edgar Hoover spent a good chunk of his life making sure that no publisher or Hollywood studio would print Purvis's story because Hoover wanted control of the FBI's image and to take all of the glory for himself.

Rides a Dread Legion by Raymond E. Feist

Let me start this by saying that Magician is one of my most reread books. When I think in my mind about how Epic Fantasy should be, this is the first book that appears in my mind. I have recommended this book to more people than I can count. And I still do.

Rides a Dread Legion is the latest in the books set in Mr. Feist's Midkemia setting. Of course, the truth is, that he only helped create the original setting, but since then he has gone on to flesh it out in detailed ways that few other fantasy authors can match. Thus far he has put out more than twenty books in that setting, in a series of trilogies to make it more accessible. He shares this tactic with Terry Brooks, who has written more than a dozen Shanara books (twenty if you include the recent bridge created between the Shanara books and the Knight of the Word series.) From a writer's perspective, this is a really good idea because it makes the setting more accessible to a new comer, and it also gives the writer much greater flexibility in determining plot, which characters to use etc, so it doesn't get stale.

Having said that, the trilogy before the last trilogy, "Talon of the Silver Hawk" felt damn close. It wasn't stale, but it had some elements that Feist has used before. A young boy has a tragic happenstance and then rises to his birthright. The series had a lot that saved it, including the highly unique Count of Monte Cristo element to it which Feist hadn't touched before, as well as the addition of very interesting characters such as the anti hero Count Olasko.

The last series saw the new addition of some fairly forgettable young characters but used PREVIOUS characters in highly interesting ways. The villains were also quite interesting, and the slow, almost glacial metaplot that ties all the series together moved forward as well.

According to Feist, this series is the second to last before the Riftwar saga is done. I presume that is tied to his own retirement, because thus far he has only done one series outside of Midkemia and that is Fairy Tale (which I liked but I can easily see not being popular with some). Then again, he has already written two 'sideways' trilogies which take place in other parts and times in the universe he has already created, and then there is that whole 'Hall of Worlds' stuff, so there is plenty of potential.

This new book starts of a bit slowly with some new Mary Sue elves, but since the Mary Sue elves are the BAD guys in this instance, they're pretty cool. You definitely want to beat the crap out of them, and things sure like they are going to go that way. There is also this whole inevitable demon hoard coming to (yet again) destroy all life in Midkemia. In some ways, Midkemia is the Dragon Ball Z of epic fantasy, with some giant even bigger, nastier thing coming to get you, but Feist has the advantage of having mentioned the bigger, nastier things coming, until in the final series it will be the biggest, nastiest thing of them all. After that, there are no more. And the last proposed title is called Magician: End, which is quite fitting.

Basically, I really liked this book, and I recommend it, but little of it will make sense if you don't at least read the trilogy right before it. It also has just enough ideas to make sense for just two books instead of a full out trilogy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Movie: Charlie Bartlet

I read somewhere that for a decade and a half there was a vast void in the nineties where there were no teen movies like "Sixteen Candles", whereas in the last four or five years the genre has seen a resurgeance. I'm not sure, since I'm not a film history buff, but I have noticed that a lot of the teen movies in the last few years remind me a lot of the ones I grew up with in the 1980's. Charlie Bartlet is such a movie.

Charlie is not Ferris Beuler, but it is the kind of movie I can see someone growing up and loving with the amount that I love that movie. Charlie is not perfect, but for most of the movie he has a serene zen like confidence mixed with a shadowed insecurity beneath it that allows him to be admired and approachable at the same time. It is a comedy but it has a healthy dose of reality mixed into the whole thing.

It is difficult to give away much of the plot without spoiling it since the salient details are doled out wisely a bit at a time, but one can still learn a lot from the trailer and I'll use that as a template. Basically, the plot of the movie is about a teenager who is expelled from every school he is sent to and finally ends up in public high school. To fit in, he sells the psych meds his on call psychiatrist gives him. But the story really isn't about teen drug dealing. Its about identity, coming of age, and an understanding of how to forge your own role in society. In short, thematically, it is right up my ally.

And I liked it. I must say I'm not super enthusiastic about it. It isn't one of my five star netflix movies, but I still liked it a great deal, and would recommend that anyone see it at least once.

The Post American World by Farid Zacharia

I do not discuss politics on this blog. I've got another blog for that, the Codex Americana. But I must still talk a bit about geopolitical things when I review this book, because of the nature of its subject.

First of all, let me say that I like this book. And I highly recommend reading it. And as much as I liked "The World is Flat" by Thomas Friedman, I like this book more, because of the balanced viewpoint it creates. It is impossible to utterly predict the future, but I have long said that one of the great values of science fiction as a genre was because of the ways it could help us experiment with futures and their consequences.

Sure, we haven't met aliens, but we have played out the situations of what they might be like or what we might be like half a dozen times over. Conversely, the trends indicated in the Post American World are not set in stone, but they are practically granite in their pragmatic logic and patient analysis. Mr. Zacharia plays no favorites. He patiently analyizes, in one of the best ways I have yet read, why the West has been dominant in previous centuries, accepting the best of post modern scholars while at the same time dismissing many arguments that have been made for purposes of political correctness as an attempt at academic guilt routed apology.

He analyzes four of the major powers; two existing (Britian/EU, US) and two rising (India and China). He does not focus on Brazil and Russia as much, but the contrasts between India, the US, and China are fascinating. Reading this books helps paint a view of where we are headed in future times, and likely and intelligent strategies that the US can take to deal with it.

I think that the most valuable element he talks about in the book is the term "the rise of the rest" which is that America is not per se in a decline, but as the larger nations with inherent potential increase in GNP, the US's share of global power will shrink. He highlights the actual unique strengths in the US economy, particularly its vibrancy and its acceptance of immigrants as the true hope of its future. Of course, as an immigrant Mr. Zacharia is probably biased in favor of the US retaining skilled immigrants, but the truth is that he's right. More importantly, as someone who was born in India, lives in the US and who was chosen as the single US journalist to interview the president of China, he is someone who brings weight and seriousness to a discussion of great importance without being paranoid about China or India whilst diminishing the US to a rediculous stereotype.

In short, whether or not you agree with him, his viewpoint is a very insightful one and should be read by anyone who wants a greater understanding of where the world is heading in decades to come.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Movie: Drag Me To Hell

I liked this movie, but there were elements I did not like. As a general rule, I am not a fan of horror. I wrote an essay in college once, for one of my favorite two classes "Fantastic Literature" in which the assignment was to compare and contrast the Horror genre vs the Fantasy genre. As I researched the subject, I came to my own conclusions as to the difference. In Fantasy, there tends, by and large, to be a balance of supernatural forces, even if they seem on the outset to be vastly outnumbered. Whereas in most horror, the darker supernatural elements are the only one that exists, or if the lighter elements exist, they are cold, disappassionate and incredibly weak.

And that is still, beyond doubt, the truth in Drag Me to Hell.

The main reason we saw it was a firm desire to avoid Transformers: The Robot Testacles over the weekend, and because I'm a Sam Raimi fan. The female lead is strong and clever. In fact, generally speaking most of the characters avoided stale stereotypes, despite an easy temptation for the script writers to use them. It followed many tropes of the genre, while still taking things on from a fresh perspective. It also had just enough of "Evil Dead" to bring up nostalgic fun while at the same time incorporating the lessons that Raimi has learned in his film making since that time.

If you like Horror, you'll like Drag Me to Hell. If you like Sam Raimi, you'll like it too. I liked it, but certain elements, particularly the ending, were not enough to get me to change my mind and really like other horror movies.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Movie: The Diving Bell and the Butterfly

The basic premise of the movie is that the editor of a high profile french magazine had 'locked in' symdrome from a stroke, causing total paralysis with the inability to move anything but his eyes. After a three week coma, he awoke, lucid and only able to communicate through blinking.

After initially despairing, he decides to use a book contract he had had prior to his stroke to write a book on his condition, explaining that while he was trapped, he could use his imagination and memory to take him to other places. His attitude towards life and all that is within it takes a dramatic U-turn. He reconnects with his children and on the whole becomes a better human being.

The movie is visually stunning. It is all the more stunning in that it is based on a true story, and seems to be remarkably faithful to the original (ie the real world.) The camera work is probably the most innovative thing about it, and you can see why it won an academy award.

Turn Coat by Jim Butcher

This book was excellent. It is the twelth book in the Harry Dresden series. Without giving away the whole plot, I'll basically say that in the first book, Harry Dresden, Wizard for Hire, had a dark cloud over his head. If he screwed up, the Wizard Police, in the form of the Warden Morgan, would kill him.

Turn Coat begins with Morgan showing up at Harry's door seeking protection from the same Wizard Police. Harry has to solve the murder in a classic whodunit with supernatural elements. There is also a lot of intense action.

One begins to wonder if the plethora of supporting characters that Butcher has slowly been giving Harry are all going to be maimed, mauled, stolen or killed. Good fiction often involves the suffering of the primary character, and hitherto now Harry has suffered a great deal, but he has also steadily advanced in power and had a circle of friends he could rely on. At the same time, many of these allies are becoming tainted or harmed by his mere presence, such that he might not have an allies by the time the 20 book series is done.

Which, as I said, tends to make good fiction as long as it is done properly.

I also think that this book may represent the last of the books that follow the standard formula of "something horrible shows up to Chicago, Harry finds out about it, Harry ties to fix it, Harry gets not just one problem but four or five and somehow manages to come out on top with some consequences that last a few books." The title of the next book is "Changes" and I think that the stage is finally set for the ultimate conflict with The Black Council.

And I'm looking forward to it.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Movie: Persepolis

I can see why this movie was nominated for an academy award, and quite frankly I think it would have beaten any other animated film I've seen in recent memory except Ratatouille and Wall-E....the first of which Persepolis had the misfortune of going up against in their first year. But just because it didn't win, does not in any way reduce from its excellence. It is still extremely worth watching in its own right.

The movie is basically about Marjane (a real person) and her complex (slightly fictionalized) relationship with her country. The first part of the film shows her as a little girl growing up during the 1979 Iranian revolution. It then shows the haunting conditions that the people lived in during the Iran-Iraq war. She then goes to live in Austria as an exile by her parents who are afraid her outspoken opinions will get her killed. Finally, it shows her returning to Iran after a period of homelessness, reuniting with her family but ultimately still having to leave because of the harsh conditions there.

It is a film about identity, about coming of age, and about larger questions of right and wrong. The film puts a human face on the oppression that the people suffer there, and shows that the Iranians are not by any means a monolithic culture of "Death to America" chanting lunatics.

In fact, as an American familiar with history, the most striking thing about this film was what was entirely absent (at least as I saw it.) There were no stinging barbs against America. There were generic criticisms against "the west" comparing and contrasting its strengths vs. that of her home land (ie for example they don't beat the crap out of you for not wearing a veil.) And if you knew your history, you could still see the shadows of it in the effects of the Shah and the Iran/Iraq war. You could also see it for the positive in the black market music tapes that everyone wanted to have. But it was hidden, and not blatant.

Sometimes, it isn't about you. "You" in this case being about America. This is a film about Marjane, her family and ultimately her relationship with her society and how to deal with it. And it is wonderful.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Dead Beat, by Jim Butcher

Harry Dresden animates a Tyranosaur to fight six evil Necromancers.

Let me repeat that. Harry Dresden animates a Tyranosaur to fight six evil Necromancers.

The book is Awesome in a Hatbox. And I'm not spoiling anything or giving it away, because they put it on the cover. More of the metaplot is revealed. Harry is given yet ANOTHER complication in his already complicated life, and his relationship with Thomas and his dog also advances. Murphy is absent, but still very present in the stakes involved (since the main challenge Harry faces is a threat to Murphy).

But the most interesting aspect of the whole thing is a) All you ever wanted to know about Bob the Skull and b) The advancement Harry has to the office of Warden, which puts the oppressed, potentially into the role of oppressor.

The Black Hole War, by Leonard Susskind

The sub title of the book is, "My war with Stephen Hawking to make the universe safe for Quantum Mechanics"...and that's pretty much what it is.

The book shows the 20 year chronicle of a battle of ideas between the Relativsts, or believers in the Theory of Relativity, and those who insisted that elements of their ideas were wrong. Specifically, the book posits the idea of 'information loss in Black Holes', which basically meant that Stephen Hawking in the late seventies posited the idea that once something goes past the event horizon of a black hole, it is 'lost' the universe. Susskind's problem with this is that basically it violated the second law of thermodynamics.

Over the next twenty years, Susskind outlines radical new theories in physics which pretty much prove him correct, including the Holographic Principal and String Theory. Some of the work is theoretical in nature, but some of it relies on rock solid mathematics until Stephen Hawking himself, no more than two years ago, conceeded that information loss in Black Holes was not likely.

The fascinating thing about all of this is that almost all of the work was done entirely by thought experiment. Just the way that Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity in the first place. The book is an excellent way to become familiar with some of the more complicated subjects in Quantum Mechanics and Cosmology. It has very little math, and the narration follows a pretty smooth style.

I liked it and learned a great deal from it.

Movie: The Hangover

This movie is rated R. In fact, this is so R on the R scale that Jennifer and I debated elements of it afterward that it might need to be NC-17....almost.

But we both liked it. A lot.

But if you don't watch R rated movies, this is definitely not one of those 'gray area' movies that you might see for cinematic or 'artistic' value.

The Hangover is not, for example, by any stretch of the imagination, Shcindler's List.

What it is is great fun. There have been 'wacky hijinks' or 'boys will be boys' comedy style movies for as long as there have been movies, but this movie dials the concept up to 11. Basic plot synopsis is that four friends get drunk in Las Vegas for a bachelor party and wake up in a hotel room that shows the consequences of the previous night. And they remember none of it.

So they spend the entire movie unraveling the clues of what happened in order to get themselves out of a dire situation. It is a comedy, and a good one. I suspect it is one that will stand the test of time, though it is probably not what I would call 'iconic.'

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

White Witch, Black Curse by Kim Harrison

This book by Kim Harrison is the seventh in the Hollows series. Basically in the early 1960's, in an alternate world from our own, just when genetic engineering started to take off, a bioengineered tomato created a virus that nearly wiped out humanity. But the supernatural creatures that had been hiding among us for centuries came out of hiding and took a dominant place in society. The result is two conflicting worlds...that of 'inderlanders' who are all the things that go bump in the night, and humans, who have the semi pathetic FCIS to protect them and police humanity.

I liked this book a lot. One of the reasons I like it (aside from the writing) is that Kim Harrison has the courage to follow the natural consequences of such a world. For example, in one scene in the book, she's in a hospital and has to sneak out. Well in the world of the Hollows patients have a lot less rights due to the virus, so the consequences of sneaking out of a hospital are a bit higher than they otherwise might be in our own.

Without spoiling the book, the basic plot follows the main character, Rachel, a witch who is a supernatural bounty hunter, who has to track down a banshee that has caused serious harm to one of her Watsonesque human friends in the FCIS. All the while she has to deal with little side plots that have begun to cling to her life like barnacles from other books. These include; a psychotic demon named Al who occasionally teacher her useful things, an ex-president of the US vampire who wants her to give vampires a soul after they die, and the imminent demise of her best friend's lover (pixies only live 20 years and the time is nearly up for both of them.) Harrison does a good job of keeping things episodal enough so that you feel you get a stand alone adventure in each book, while still advancing the overarching plot to a considerable degree.

I have a minor irritation about how humans are basically the fall guys and made to look lame in order to make all the supernatural critters look cool. There have been a few token attempts to address this early on, but Harrison has gotten better about it over time. Plus, I also realized that without the sixties counter cultural revolution, the more enlightened attitude we have in our time isn't necessarily the norm, and that she is instead dealing with a bunch of humans stuck in the culture of the early 1960's, which makes them less lame. If it was deliberate, that's cool. If it wasn't, she's slowly making humans a bit more than card board cut outs. Plus, she's actually having the witches act in an irrational fashion too in this book, which helps a lot.

I highly recommend the series, though I would also highly recommend tracking down the first one first and reading them in order.

Rich Dad's Increase Your Financial IQ by Robert T. Kiyosaki

I liked this book. I did not like it as much as the original "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" or "Before You Quit Your Job." The exterior cover mentions his prophesy of doom, which, as anyone reading the news can tell, he got right. However, unlike the advice he gave about looking at a home as a liability and not an asset, time has not confirmed him on Silver. At least not much. At the time the book came out, silver was $14 an ounce, whereas now it is $15.5.

Then again, to be fair, he has never said "do exactly what I say, but follow the broad principals." Apparently that is a common critique of his books, but I agree with him that this critics fail to understand what he is saying. My point is that he just says it better in the other two books.

The primary focus of this book as compared to the others is basically increasing your financial IQ. The idea is that you need to be smart and educated about money, and he lays down five broad princples that one should follow. The broad principles are good, and some of his concrete examples are good, but I, personally, did not get as much out of it as I got out of the other. I am beginning to think that the best way to use these books is to get the core book, and at most one or two of the most applicable focus books beyond it.

Having said that, the most valuable advice I took away from the whole thing was the idea of control of an investment, which makes absolute sense. He'd mentioned this in his other books, but I didn't really understand it as well as when he mentioned it here. The thing about stocks, bonds and mutual funds is that you are paying a sales person. A sales person is often getting a commission on their stock fund, from the very stocks that they're selling. A sales person is good at selling, not necessarily managing their fund. There is also something called 'churning' which is basically when a stock manager moves your money back and forth from fund to fund, taking an 8% fee each time until there is no money left in your fund.

I think investing in the stock market can be worth it, but if you want to make money, and more importantly, if you want that money to be secure, you need to take control of it. It is true, that this is highly risky, because you can easily destroy it if you don't know what you're doing, but our system rewards risk. Conversely, letting your money sit safe and sound in a 401K has caused many people to be reduced to abject poverty.

In other words, I need to start paying attention to the financial sector, various opportunities and ways of making my money work for me, not just throwing it over the fence at a fund manager and hoping they'll honestly make my money for me.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Movie: Ali

This movie was impressive because it followed the 'sports movie' formula just enough to capture a wide audience, without using but a few of the staple formula elements. Of course, it helps when the subject your movie is the real life core material through which many sports movies are made.

Mohommed Ali is a very colorful character, but the film primarily focuses on the time period in his life between his first aquisition of the world championship, the circumstances that surrounded his loss of it, and his reclaiming of the second. Initially we got the movie thinking it would deal about the tragic experiences later in his life, but that does not happen in the movie. Instead, it deals with the harsh hand that he is dealt, and how he overcomes them.

In short, it explains how he became the icon that he is and why. It is a story of overcoming absolutely overwhelming odds, that also happens to be true. Finally, it does so in a way that does not have a sappy artificially sachrine nature to it. That's just not the nature of Ali and as such it is not the nature of the movie. Will Smith proves (yet again) that he is an actor beyond par in this, nailing Ali's mannerisms in ways that are quite impressive.

You also get a whole new respect for Howard Cosell besides a voice that is difficult to forget. Very good movie.

Movie: Up, by Pixar

There has long been a big deal about what art actually is, but my personal view is that the greatest art is acclaimed by both the critics and the common man. Art can still be good when it is recognized by one or the other, but my measure is such that it requires both. Pixar hits it out of the ball park each time, more and more lately.

Up is, in a nutshell, about a man who as a boy meets his childhood sweetheart on a common love of adventure. They share a bond that lasts through their lives, with a promise of adventure that goes unfulfilled. Finally, desperation forces the man to act on that adventure and attempt to make their dream a reality.

The primary cast of characters includes a small wilderness scout, the old man, a 'talking' dog, and a bird that is part chicken, part ostritch and part peacock. An interesting ensemble, but Pixar makes it work. There are lots of lessons in the movie, but they are very subtle. The lesson I liked the most was that you are never too old to start a new adventure. The lesson I liked the second most was that too much material possessions will tie you down.

The thing is, it appears that they started with a simple idea, "wouldn't it be cool to make a movie about a flying house?" and then expanded it from there. There are no loose ends in the story. In fact, I must admire them as story crafters, in particular the way they used the 'virtually silent beginning' of the movie in which his wife becomes the unseen character who is there through out the rest of the film because she does the talking when they are children and he does not.

I highly recommend this movie.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Before you Quit Your Job, Robert T. Kiyosaki

Mr. Kiyosaki is the author of the "Rich Dad, Poor Dad" series, and while I got a lot out of the first book, I've avoided the sequels in his series simply because I felt that many of them might just be milking the first, very solid ideas of the core book. I also often got the same feeling from the sequels to "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" by Steven Covey. However, because I've been conisdering starting a business lately, I decided to give this book another look.

There are 10 lessons in the book, each of which is in 10 chapters. The basic formula of each chapter consists of a personal anecdote, a series of lessons or principles based on the main lesson, a summary, and then a 'distilation' by his partner Sharon Lechter. I found the lessons in the book useful, and as someone who is going to start a business (well another one since technically the Gaming stuff was a business, even if it was an abominable failure) I found their advice helpful.

Some criticism I've heard on the book is that he's light on specifics and heavy on slogans. While there is some of that, the point the book makes is an excellent one. Which is to say, enteprenurship is a skill, just like learning to ride a bike or use a computer. And you have to fail a lot, which means you have to be WILLING to fail a lot, and the way you look at the world can't be the same as it was while you are drawing a steady paycheck from your job.

As someone who is about to enter this world, I feel that these lessons are invaluable. There is nothing malicious in them, indeed there is a genuine benevolent desire to educate as many people as possible in this way of thinking. Of course, I can already tell there are some things I'm not going to agree with Mr. Kiyosaki on in his other books, such as his belief in the Gold Standard (I read it on another one of his books that I got from the library) but of the two books I've read, I think they are very very useful.

Essentially, his mission in creating the Rich Dad books is to make the world a better place. He also talks about the importance of a mission. On the surface, that might seem like meaningless corpspeak. I can certain identify someone who has been in sales by the 'corporaty' quality of their voice almost all of the time. And while there is a bit of that in Mr. Kiyosaki's narrative, there is also a stark resonance of truth. He helps you ask yourself tough questions that you need to be prepared to answer before you leap off of a cliff and take that step forward, while at the same time ENCOURAGING you to leap forward and take that risk.

I found the book to be extremely helpful, but it is primarily useful to those who truly want to start a business in my opinion. It is most useful to those who have no experience being an entrepenur, but have already made that leap in their minds that that is what they want to do and need a bit of help with specifics. It is not a how to guide on how to start a business, but rather a how to guide on how to change your world paragidm to think like people that make serious money at business, while at the same time not become a money troll who lives for nothing else.

Death Masks by Jim Butcher

The fifth book in the Dresden series has Harry fighting the powers of Hell, in not only a battle for the fate of Chicago, his own hide (as usual), the fate of everyone he cares about (a bit new this time) but also the foreshadowings of one of the more interesting internal conflicts that he has to deal with. One of the characters of the book, as a price for their aid, forces Harry to ask himself WHY it is that he does what he does, and while he has to think about it, it is the ultimate answer that helps define the character.

The larger question of the book, what do we do with power when we have it, doesn't seem that prominent compared to the usual amounts of massive action, wanton destruction and extrmely clever lines of dialog. However beneat that, there are larger themes going on, some of which become more appearant reading the books for a second time. Thus, in addition to being Urban Fantasy, the Dresden books manage to be Noir as well; shades of gray with the implication that there also still things that are all black and all white. Grey means a bit more when it really can be gray and it is known that there are extremes.

In some ways, Death Masks feels like a transition between the first few books and the later books, though of course that's a bit like saying link 5 instead of link 6 in a chain is a major transition point. Still, I liked it a great deal.

Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

The fourth series in the Dresden Books details a bit more about the nature of Fairies in the Dresdenverse. It also ups the ante in the perils that he faces, from simple cases that will ruin his life, to the potential long term health of the world. In short, it is a logical step from the last book, in which Harry took a step into a much larger world. We also learn a bit more about the politics of the world and the city at large.

I generally liked the book, though I admit I liked Grave Peril slightly more. I think it was because, as much as I liked this book, Grave Peril was a quantum leap forward, and actually involved loss and sacrifice for the main character. I like it when actions have conseuqnces. I consider it the hall mark of a good story. Its one of the reasons I like Joss Whedon and J.J. Abrams. Not only is it hard for me to predict what's going to happen, but when you look back at their work, its clear that they've got a plan in mind, which means that they have a set of rules, and they stick by them.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Movie: Elizabeth the Golden Age

Its a two hour movie, that appearantly had a lot of cuts to it. I liked it, but it lacked a certain...something...that its predecesor lacked.

The main focus of this movie was the relationship between Elizabeth and Sir Walter Reighleigh. I loved the acting...and the sets were awesome, I just think the script in this case needed a lot more work. As a viewer, I cared about Elizabeth the most, which is good because the movie was about her, but the villains in the story in this case were...almost cartoonish. Now, historically speaking some people act cartoonish, but it just didn't grok so well in this case.

I think the real problem was that the movie was just historically accurate to be mostly historically accurate, while not actually going far enough in completely hacking apart history to rearrange and arrange things to make the story better. Sometimes when making a dramatized occurance of history, you need to be willing to distort things a little bit more. I know that's supposed to be bad, but since we're telling a story, I personally think anything is fair game as long as you stay true to the original spirit of what happened.

I think the movie Asoka (A boliwood film on Jennifer's queue) does a far better job of this, while at the same time retaining an astonishing amount of the actual history on a figure that we know historically a lot less about.

Movie: Angels and Demons

Right. The interesting thing about this movie and the Da Vinci code is that the first book was Angels and Demons and the second book was the Da Vinci Code. Conversely, the first movie was the Da Vinci Code and the second movie was Angels and Demons.

This works well in some ways and not so well in others. In the books, the truly fantastic things of the Da Vinci code draw in the main character because he is specifically sought out as a result of the actions in Angels and Demons. In the movie (I haven't read the Angels and Demons book) it seems far more plausible to me that the Vatican is going to call this ONE GUY from out of nowhere to deal with this problem given the semi accidental happenings in Da Vinci code.

Of course, the real problem I have is that, given the magnitude of the revelation/main reveal at the end of the Da Vinci Code, you'd think that the world would be substantially changed in Angels and Demons..at leasts superficially. But it isn't. It is true that in the book and the movie, the implication is that it will eventually be a chance to come to light, but that it would be a slow quiet one...and yet....we are led to believe that the mere existance of this threat to the Catholic church is so dire that they would risk sending an assasin to kill prominent french leaders if it got out.

I find the plot of Angels and Demons a lot more plausible. However, I like the 'mystic symbols/side show discovery channel' aspect of the Da Vinci code a lot more. Granted, there might be more of that in Angels and Demons the book, but then again the Da Vinci code became a run away best seller and Angels and Demons did not. There certainly isn't ANY of the scholarly interesting stuff in Angels and Demons that I found that interesting. Of course, it is true that they mention things like 'this church or that' but it was a lot harder to believe that it wasn't just something the author made up out of thin air....hard to say why.

Grave Peril by Jim Butcher

The main plot of this book is that something is disrupting the boundaries between the spirit world (The 'nevernever') and the real world, letting all kinds of dead things come through. As usual, there is a hell of a lot going on, but as usual Butcher manages to coordinate it all very well. The thing I really like about these books is that because he uses very understandable laws of magic, the mystery element of things works very well. The ultimate 'who dun it' in both cases follows a logical pattern.

And yet the thing that I really like about this series is that while there is a formula, by the end of the book Butcher takes that formula, crumples it up in a tiny tin foil ball and tosses it out the fiftieth story window to make a nice impact on the concrete below. Harry's actions have consequences, and I LIKE consequences because consequences are what happens when a character matters.

Its why I stopped reading comics except in graphic novel form, because no one stays dead, and another writer can completely undo anything that the previous writer has done. Now, it is true that in the real world change always happens and nothing ever lasts, but then again, in the real world, people stay dead. In fact, in all of the books I've read so far by Butcher, dead people have stayed dead, which given a world in which time travel is theoretically possible (its one of the laws of Magic not to muck around with time) in either the Dresden books or the Codex Alera books I have yet to see him bring someone back to life....it might happen, but it certainly won't be the revolving door it is in a lot of series.

(Note: Obviously vampires and ghosts are back from the dead, but they stay that way.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Writing Urban Fantasy isn't easy these days. The formula has become rather predictable. In fact, that's the main reason I've avoided the genre entirely myself as an author hithertonow. It pays well, and books that do well in this field can be quite successful, but I mean, how many different ways can you write about vampires, fairies, mages and werewolves?

Well, in this book, Jim Butcher found a way. Basically, he takes a random grab bag of about six different kinds of werewolves and half a dozen types of vampires, weaving the different types of cinemea and mythology into a believable mix. When an author makes up a setting, they can sometimes fall into the trap of "the Seven Stones of Power" or the like, in the sense that it seems more like a role playing game setting designed to make as many character selection options as possible available in chargen. On the other hand, sometimes a world can seem awfully...empty. The real world has hundreds of different cultures, religions and languages that all conflict with each other, which is why the real world often comes up with ideas that an author couldn't conceive of in their wildest dreams, despite being able to ignore things like the laws of physics.

Butcher's setting really sings. It fits quite nicely between the semi-formulaic intro book, and the 'all hell breaks loose' of the following book. He gets a few allies, advances a few relationships, and sets the foundations for his own destruction at a later date. In short, I suspect that Butcher didn't even know how good of a foundation he was laying for his later books when he wrote it.

The book is basically about a series of murders Harry has to solve for his Police contact, which happen to involve obviously canine involvement. He has to navigate through several different suspects and figure out which is which. That, on top of everything else, makes it particularly interesting, since it has an actual mystery that follows its own rules quite well.

Storm Front by Jim Butcher

This book is the first of the Harry Dresden books by Jim Butcher.

This is the second time I've read them, and they're quite good. I've started reading the books from scratch again in anticpation of the new one, Turn Coat, that has already come out. The basic book is about a private Wizard for Hire, Harry Dresden that does private supernatural consulting for the police to pay the bills, and private cases in his spare time. These two lines of work collide, as a crazed magician begins using forces beyond their control to wreak havok on Harry and everyone else in his life. He has to confront the Mafia, Vampires and even his own side in the form of a vengful 'Gaston' like character called Morgan.

The books are an astoningly fast read, especially given the sophistication of the setting and the plot. Inside of the action packed pace he manages to cram significant character development and introspective drama. The pacing is almost perfect, and you can see why it became as successful as it is.

Having seen that, you can also see Butcher's progression as a writer as the plot is a slight bit formulaic (albiet only for about four books) and Harry is a touch bit more charismatic with the ladies than one might expect. But that all quickly gets flushed out and rectified in the later books. I highly recommend it, but then again I would if I was bothering to read it a second time.

X-Men Origens Wolverine - Mediocre at best

I saw the original X-men with very low expectations. I was pleasantly suprised and it turned out to be a fairly good movie. Not the best, but a good, solid super hero movie. Two was excellent and three was just sad, a shadow of what it could have been.

Four is a place holder movie. Four is the movie that they could have made if they'd had a decent script, descent effects budget, added in another 40-50 minutes of film and decided to have some real guts. It has things that geeks that know the continuity well like I do will pick up on, including the Striker subplot and highly obscure stuff like Emma Frost having diamond skin, but all of these things are not significant parts of the story. The script itself is....bleh. In some ways it is a solid character development, showing the growing rivalry between Logan and his psychotic brother Victor, but none of the characters are really fleshed out (except MAYBE Striker). They set things up for a Deadpool movie, but the things that are cool about Deadpool the character are woefully lacking in the Deadpool of this film. He is kind of smart alek but....still.

Basically, it is obvious to me that this is the Movie Fox made so that they could keep the rights to the x-men. They set things up in such a way that if they truly wanted to make it a trilogy, they could, with a new team/Generation Next aspect of things, but they didn't really set that well up either. So it was neither an homage to geeks (ala Watchmen) nor was it a cult movie (ala Buckaroo Banzai or Evil Dead or Ghost Rider) nor a Summer Blockbuster/Tentpole Movie (ala Iron Man, Spiderman or the like), but sort of a middling attempt to do something between all three on the minimum budget they could justify and not get sued for Marvel for just trying to hold the copyright.

And Hugh Jackman does a darn good job with the material he's given....which isn't good.

The Inn at Crystal Cove in Winthrop, MA

In Ireland we enjoyed the bed and breakfast experience far more than corporate hotels we stayed in. The Inn at Crystal Cove is about 10 minutes out of the way because you have to take back streets to get there, but the view is utterly fantastic and it feels like a European Bed and Breakfast place (of course, it has a kitchen instead of providing breakfast) but it is still an amazing experience.

The almost complete lack of corporate logos everywhere in Winthrop was also extremely refreshing.

If you're going to Boston, and you want something besides the typical corporate hotel, I could not recommend it more.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

First Review - Robin Hood Season 3

So according to the Wikipedia article, Series 3 of the BBC "Robin Hood Series" has a replacement for Maid Marion called "Lara Pulver, as Guy of Gisborne's sister Isabella."

Really? Really? BBC, you think that's a good idea?

Taking a thousand year old myth, or even a THOUSANDS year old story and shaking it up a bit can be creatively brilliant. If you'd killed Maid Marion off, it would have been tragic, but creatively bold. Bringing in...ANOTHER CHARACTER in a formula that is as old as the story itself....not so much. In fact, it is quite frankly television at its worst (OK, not quite true, most reality television is worse but still.)

I learned to be wary of this kind of crap after the end of the second season of Ballykissangel, in which one of the characters we most liked dies, and changes the entire dynamic...oh who am I kidding, they do the same stupid thing. We lost interest, but at least I could UNDERSTAND it. Television shows have been doing this kind of thing for a long time, and while it is a classic sign that they have Jumped the Shark, its not always the case. Sometimes a death can do a lot to improve a show. Sometimes it is only a temporary distraction. It depends on the show.

Robin Hood is not a show where you want to kill of Maid Marion. Not unless you're incorporating magic or its a comedy. I have absolutely no interest in seeing Series 3, and I am gleefully removing it from my Netflix queue.