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.