Thursday, January 31, 2008

Memento (2000)


(Poster from Imp Awards)

Memento (2000)
Memory can change the shape of a room; it can change the color of a car. And memories can be distorted. They're just an interpretation, they're not a record, and they're irrelevant if you have the facts ... I've told you this before, haven't I?

Christopher Nolan blazed onto the scene back in 2000 with his unconventional, bravura thriller. 'Memento' mesmerized with its atypical structure and unique premise. Seven years on, I checked it out again to see if it could stand on its own two feet now that the hype has faded. My initial reaction to the film had been positive, but I wasn't blown away. I found it to be a much better experience the second time round.

Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce) was an insurance fraud investigator. His wife was raped and killed during a break in to his house, and he himself was assaulted and left with brain damage. He is now unable to create new memories, and can only remember things up to the time he was assaulted. His short term memory works for brief stretches of time, but fades and 'resets', often leaving him wondering where he is and what he's doing. Despite this seemingly debilitating condition, Leonard has vowed to avenge his wife's death and is conducting an investigation to track down the killer (the police caught a suspect, but Leonard believes there were two people involved). He does this by tattooing essential facts onto his body to remind himself of what he is doing, and making brief notes and taking photographs of pertinent people and places. The notion sounds far fetched, and in some ways it doesn't hold together, but the way it's presented makes it easy to suspend disbelief. The course of Leonard's investigation leads him to interact with a man named Teddy (Joe Pantoliano) and a woman named Natalie (Carrie-Anne Moss), who may or may not be helping him.

The real trick behind Memento is that it presents the story in much the same way that Leonard experiences it. It starts at the end and works backwards in a series of segments, where each segment ends at the beginning of the segment shown previously. Basically, we see a segment of the story with no idea how Leonard got there or why, or even what he's doing, and we see that segment play out. The next segment we see, which chronologically takes place earlier, explains what Leonard was doing in the preceding segment. At the start of each segment, we are in the dark, same as Leonard. A pretty clever narrative device, but it wouldn't be worth much if the story itself wasn't interesting, and fortunately it is. It's relatively basic (the way it's presented makes it appear complex) but it does have a fair few twists and turns, including a fairly big twist at the end that puts preceding (chronologically subsequent) events in context and solves the mystery quite effectively . In addition to the primary storyline, the film intercuts with scenes of Leonard talking on the phone with an unnamed person and explaining an insurance case he investigated involving a man named Sammy Jenkis (Stephen Tobolowsky) who supposedly had the same condition Leonard now has; these segments give additional insights into Leonard's character and condition, as well adding to the plot.

Given the narrative structure, the writing had to be very precise with its details and the information it conveyed, and it is successful in this regard. The stylized and verbose script has its fair share of wry humour as well, but there is a hopelessness to Leonard's predicament that feels overpowering at times - such is the nature of the story. The characters are sketchy by design and present themselves to Leonard in different ways, often to manipulate him. One of the overriding themes of the film is the nature of knowing and how it relates to memory and facts, and how context, subjectivity, deception, and even self-deception can alter one's perception of the world. Despite being driven almost single mindedly, Leonard makes for a sympathetic hero who at times bungles from one situation to the next; while his systematic approach to overcoming his disability is impressive and quite effective, one can't help but feel for him when he gets in over his head and doesn't even know it.

Guy Pearce deserves some of the credit for that; despite wearing a tough guy face for much of the movie, he has an appropriate air of helplessness about him, and there are brief poignant moments where he reminisces about his past and his dead wife. His narration is also excellent and serves to bind the film together. Carrie-Anne Moss is pretty good as the coldly manipulative and strangely seductive woman who appears to be (and may be?) helping Leonard. Joe Pantoliano is perfectly cast as the weaselly Teddy, who may be genuine but hardly ever seems sincere or trustworthy.

Writer / director Nolan is the real star; apart from the tightly plotted script, he crafts a tense, suspenseful, and exciting film that keeps you alert and guessing as events unfold. It's visually slick and briskly paced, and looks more expensive than its mere $5 million budget would have you believe. There is a sense of emotional detachment to the film even when it is meant to be affecting, which I can only attribute to a directorial quirk of Nolan's, as it's a trait I've noticed in all of his films. I'm satisfied with his style (including the fact that even his big budget films feel unassuming and small), but it does have its critics. The final aspect of the film that deserves a mention is the mournful low key score that has a minimal but quite effective presence.

'Memento' is a great film, one of those that, ironically, you will remember for quite a while. It embodies excellent filmmaking that brings to life an original and quite unconventional story. Nolan has gone on to make some pretty good films following this, but I don't think any of them are as well put together and impactful as this one.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Liquid Crystal Displays

I'll never buy another CRT based display. Ever. Unless I become destitute and can't afford anything better. My crummy old 17" CRT monitor decided to betray me yet again (it has its moods) by tinting the picture in yellow, permanently. Needless to say this was an unacceptable state of affairs; staring at a monitor teary eyed is generally not recommended, although it does happen often enough when I read those overly polite, cold, heartless, rejection e-mails. Sniff. But I digress! Instead of getting the old thing (it's not even that old) repaired, I decided an upgrade was in order, and got myself a nice shiny 19" widescreen LCD monitor. Did I mention it was shiny?

Long story short, I love it. It's no secret that I consume a lot of movies and tv shows (no really, I do!), and watching them on an LCD display is a revelation. I had no idea how dark and blurry and indistinct stuff looked on my old monitor! Now it's bright, vivid, and vibrant, and the picture is bigger thanks to the larger size and widescreen aspect ratio. The aspect ratio also allows for more screen real estate in general, which is great for reading webpages and stuff like spreadsheets, though a lot of websites are designed with a fixed width (like this blog!) that leaves half the screen wasted blank space. Text looks razor sharp, and pretty much everything just looks more vivid and pleasing to the eye.

Pros:
  • Flat panel takes up little space

  • Lightweight

  • Lower power consumption

  • Superior picture in general

  • Aspect ratio better for movies/TV shows and desktop

  • Easier on the eyes (subjective, and I'm not sure if there's any solid medical evidence to corroborate this assertion)

  • Looks much sexier than a CRT (not that I'm superficial enough to care... Awww, who am I kidding?)


Cons:
  • Expensive (costs 50%-100% more than a CRT)

  • You could end up with dead pixels (I almost had a heart attack when I saw what I thought was a dead pixel, only to realize that it was dust on the screen)

  • Picture quality limitations - Fixed optimal resolution; contrast range not as good as CRT - blacks are not as deep; limited viewing angle

  • Could have an uneven backlight (like mine, which has a contrast gradient from the top to the bottom of the screen) - virtually unnoticeable though, unless you fixate on it (which is generally true for dead pixels as well, depending on where they occur)

  • Lifetime not as long as a CRT, though I believe the backlight can be replaced once it fails.


That sounds like a lot of cons, but truthfully the pros outweigh the cons. Even with the uneven backlight, and even if there were dead pixels, the improved picture quality (despite the other drawbacks), screen real estate, reclaimed desk space, and power savings make it a worthwhile upgrade. Prices will continue to fall, and these will be par for the course in the average PC set up within the next 10 years, if not sooner. For people like me whose lives revolve around sitting in front of a computer screen (I can hear obesity, diabetes, and heart failure knocking on my door already), it's a no brainer.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Rome - Season 1 (2005)


Rome - Season 1 (2005)

HBO has a reputation for making some terrific original dramas - 'Band of Brothers', 'Carnivale' and 'Deadwood' were great, and I've heard good things about 'The Wire', 'The Sopranos' (yeah, never seen it!), and 'Six Feet Under'. I therefore knew going in that 'Rome' was going to be at least as lavish and immaculately made as its HBO brethren, most likely more so given its massive budget (apparently one of the most expensive TV series ever made). I just didn't anticipate that I would get hooked as much as I did.

'Rome' is a historical drama about, surprise surprise, Rome circa the first century BC during the time when the Roman Empire was formed under Julius Caesar. For the most part it depicts the activities of major and minor historical figures including Caesar (Ciaran Hinds), Marc Antony (James Purefoy), Marcus Brutus (Tobias Menzies), Pompey Magnus (Kenneth Cranham), Gaius Octavion (Max Pirkis), Atia of the Julii (Polly Walker), and Servilia of the Junii (Lindsay Duncan). The politics, relationships, family life, loves, affairs, plotting and scheming of these people are all depicted in dramatic and complex detail, all of it fitting in with the broader historical events taking place . The aforementioned people represent the ruling classes; the central characters of the show, however, are two common soldiers, Lucius Vorenus (Kevin McKidd) and Titus Pullo (Ray Stevenson), two essentially fictional characters who bind the events of the narrative together (in a somewhat contrived fashion, but the contrivance is sold fairly well). Through their eyes, and the eyes of Vorenus's wife Niobe (Indira Varma), the show depicts the life of the plebeians.

The show is excellent in all respects. I can't comment much on historical accuracy, but it jibes with what I know and it is apparently fairly accurate compared to other dramatizations of the era. What I can say with certainty is that it is immensely atmospheric and exhibits that trait that is so important in making a world immersive - verisimilitude. From the opulence and aloofness of the nobility in their fine houses to the dirty crime ridden streets and slums of Rome, the show feels real. The production values are simply excellent - detailed and grand sets and props and visual effects combine to sell the illusion that you are seeing ancient Rome. The plotting is complex, but the writing holds all of it together nicely and it never gets overly complicated. On the downside some things get skimmed over really fast, and some of the dialogue sounds more like narration as characters explicitly enunciate their political maneuvering, but I can excuse this as being a necessary compromise in the name of narrative expediency. Admittedly it does feel a bit soap operatic at times with some of the scheming that goes on, but given the context where the scheming usually involves someone getting eviscerated (not something you see everyday in a soap opera), I can live with that.

Being just 10 episodes long, the first season of 'Rome' crams quite a bit in. One thing it isn't is slow; there's always something going on, and with the number of characters and story threads it juggles it is relentlessly paced by necessity. It's a fairly grim affair overall, but it does have its share of caustic humour, and while mostly a drama there are some brutal action sequences thrown in now and then. As with much of HBO's oeuvre, characters are often foul mouthed and there's a lot of nudity and sex on display. It feels borderline gratuitous, but doesn't really seem out of place given the setting. The performances are mostly excellent across the board. Ciaran Hinds is terrific as Caesar, intelligent and commanding, while James Purefoy provides him the perfect foil as the less than virtuous Marc Antony. McKidd and Stevenson make for a fantastic pair - one noble and righteous and the other a lovable, violent lout - and make for strong central leads. Also terrific is Polly Walker as the cruel, scheming, lascivious Atia. The only person who was a bit of a let down was Tobias Menzies as Brutus; while not a bad actor by any means, he seemed less impressive and charismatic than I would have expected a man of his influence to be, and the friendship between Brutus and Caesar never felt believable as a result.

The show definitely has its flaws, as I have mentioned. But to me the sum of the parts is far greater than the whole, and I found this first season to be an addictive and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The writing is not as strong as in Deadwood, with the characters sometimes feeling like slaves to the machinations of the plot instead of genuine individuals, but I still found this to be more engaging (which is saying something, since I found Deadwood to be pretty darned engaging as well). I can imagine some people not being as taken by 'Rome' as I was, which is fair enough. I think it's very well made, but some of its problems will probably irk others more than they did me. As a final example, the music, which is of a style very typical for the genre and which I have grown tired of in recent times in many other period epics, I found to be very fitting for this show. If I had heard it on it's own though, I would have thought it sounded very generic! So in short, I recommend the show wholeheartedly but with the caveat that my final assessment is partial!

Best Poll Ever?

Could this Slashdot Poll be the best poll ever? It's probably nothing new, but I've never seen it before. It's fascinating.
How Many People Will Select The Same Option As You?
  • 0%

  • 1-25%

  • 26-50%

  • 51-75%

  • 76-99%

  • 100%

  • Just CowboyNeal (joke option)
Sounds simple, but just think about it a moment. I actually didn't immediately get the implications of what the poll was asking. It's an opinion poll that asks you to predict the outcome of the poll itself. Part statistics and part psychology I guess. Depending on the results, it's possible for there to be more than one correct answer. It's also possible for all the answers to be incorrect. Very clever. The comments that accompany the poll are also interesting (provided you browse the page with only well moderated comments being displayed).

Monday, January 28, 2008

The Preciousss is back and in good hands?

The idea of 'The Hobbit' being directed by anyone other than Peter Jackson sounded crazy after his resounding success with 'The Lord of the Rings', but word is that master fantastician Guillermo Del Toro (of The Devil's Backbone, Blade II, Hellboy, and Pan's Labyrinth fame) is set to helm Tolkien's first Middle Earth adventure as well as another film that bridges the gap between it and 'Rings'. That second film sounds a bit iffy, but with Jackson still a producer and involved creatively (as well as his cohorts Philippa Boyens and Fran Walsh) and the Weta team in New Zealand doing their magic, I am ecstatic. 'Rings' was one of the best film experiences ever, and to have more from Middle Earth directed by an equally assured (but unique and different) hand... well, that's as good as the news could get.

Now I hope Del Toro is confirmed and that this project pans out. No pun intended.

No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy


No Country for Old Men (2005) by Cormac McCarthy

Another novel recently made into a film that I've managed to read first. Unlike 'I Am Legend' though, this book's adaptation looks (and apparently is) very, very faithful to the source material, so much so that nigh on every line in the trailer seemed to the best of my recollection to be lifted verbatim from Cormac McCarthy's novel. Which is a good thing because the novel is propulsive and cinematic, and the story and subject matter seem to be suitable for the sensibilities of the guys who made Fargo.

'No Country for Old Men' is a bleak western thriller set in Texas in the early eighties that follows the criss crossing paths of three men. It begins with Llewellyn Moss, a relatively poor chap who works as a welder, coming across a drug deal gone bad in the middle of the desert. He comes across a bag full of money and makes the life changing decision to take it, knowing full well that it could be the end of him; he follows this choice with a really bad one that causes him to end up on the run. Anton Chigurh is an assassin / problem solver working for the drug buyers who comes looking for the money and picks up Moss's trail. Chigurh is a relentless and amoral being, a man of pure evil who believes himself to be merely an implement in a world of cause and effect, and he leaves a trail of corpses behind him in his quest. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell is the man who has to deal with the aftermath of Chigurh as he tries to get to Moss first and save him, and also end the spate of killings.

The book is framed at the start of each chapter by ruminations from Sheriff Bell, who recounts his past and his thoughts on the country and how much it has changed for the worse. The main narrative jumps back and forth between the three protagonists as events unfold, with the consequences of those events being depicted from different perspectives. A word about the style of the book - it's quite unconventional and feels very abrupt. I mean that in a good way, as McCarthy really does (as the blurbs promise!) convey a great deal using few words, and creates a strong sense of place and character. The dialogue is superb; it's just sharp and to the point, full of curt exchanges and philosophical ruminations. It's also often quite hilarious. The style in which it is written makes it seem impossible for it to be read in anything but a 'Southern' accent, almost as if the accent is purely dictated by the style of speech.

Although it doesn't dwell much on backstory, the characters come to life vividly through their actions and speech. It's a non stop thrill ride that is hard to put down, and it features quite a few tense 'action' sequences and violent shootouts. Like I said, very cinematic. Though it also sometimes throws you for a loop by having things happen 'offscreen' where the reader is only entitled to the aftermath and is left to fill in the blanks. Which is very doable, even though I will confess a few plot points ended up eluding me. While a thriller on the surface, the book acts as a commentary on morality, the degradation of values in society, and the prevalence of evil and violence in the world, with the latter being embodied to great effect by the frightening Chigurgh. The character of Chigurgh is almost like a human terminator, relentless and unstoppable and impossible to bargain with; a force of nature.

'No Country for Old Men' is a terrific book, downbeat but compulsive and a fairly quick read that makes quite an impression. I don't necessarily fully agree with the sentiments expressed by the character of Bell (presumably they echo those of McCarthy), but I can see where they're coming from and a lot of what he says about society and the world are true; while I don't think people have necessarily become worse per se, modern society does facilitate base behaviour on a larger scale than it once did. In the midst of being thrilled and amused, the book leaves you with something to chew on and doesn't really offer a ray of sunshine at the end to make you feel better about the world. But don't let the pessimism put you off, as reading this book is worth your while.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Searchers (1956)


The Searchers (1956)

Classics are really hit and miss with me. While I can usually appreciate why a film gets heaped with praise, I don't often go gaga over them. To me, 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is eminently re-watchable. 'Citizen Kane', not so much. Western 'The Wild Bunch' is a landmark action film, but I wasn't really blown away by it. Which is why I approached 'The Searchers', also a Western, with a little trepidation. I'm happy to say that John Ford and John Wayne's much lauded classic falls into the 'classics I truly enjoyed' category.

The story takes place after the American Civil War - Ethan Edwards (John Wayne), who was on the losing Confederate side, returns to his brother's ranch to settle down. He doesn't get to rest for long however, because a group of Comanche Indians raids the farm and kidnaps his niece, killing everyone else. He sets out on a quest to get her back, a quest that involves tracking the Comanche tribe led by the dangerous Chief Scar (Henry Brandon) for half a decade. Ethan is joined in his travels by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a young man raised by the slaughtered family who is part Indian whom Ethan rescued when he was still a baby. Martin leaves behind his sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles) during his quest, and she wrestles with the notion of waiting for him to get back or marrying someone else instead.

Sounds straightforward enough; only, the catch is that the hero of the piece, Ethan Edwards, is a fairly violent, morally reprehensible, and completely racist individual. So much so that he detests his 1/8th Indian companion, and worries about the possible assimilation of his niece into the Comanche tribe. It becomes evident that one of Martin's main concern besides saving Debbie is ensuring that Ethan's goal is also to rescue her and bring her back, and not anything more sinister. Like killing her.

There's an ambiguity and complexity to Ethan Edwards that grabs your attention from the get go. He's iconic, embodying all of the classic traits of the cowboy hero - stoic, terse, fearless, and resolute. He's also detestable, yet sympathetic at the same time. We know that there's a reason for his hatred, and throughout the course of their long pursuit we are shown flashes of humanity in him. He gains a grudging respect for and is influenced by the more progressive Martin, and their relationship - which is often quite humourous - brings to the fore their disparate ideals and also serves as a lifeline for Ethan to gain, if not redemption, some measure of tolerance. John Wayne is superb in the role, and his performance has been described by many as his best (I wouldn't know, but I'll definitely be checking out some of his other celebrated films). Embodying a Western hero was probably second nature to him, but embodying one that is subtle, conflicted, and repugnant while making him likable is probably not.

Jeffrey Hunter forms the other half of the duo, and his Martin character is in many ways the opposite to Ethan. Less of a masculine man's man, he talks a lot and is a voice of reason and tolerance. Hunter is excellent in the role, starting the film full of youthful bluster and gaining a measure of maturity by the end while still bearing an air of resentment and indignation towards Ethan throughout. Both characters are driven by individual motivations in their quest, but despite their differences both of their opposing personalities are essential towards driving the film to its conclusion and iconic final scene.

While ostensibly an adventure film and character study, it is also seemingly far more complex, being an examination of the change of America from a wild frontier country to a more stable society (also an aspect of the terrific HBO series Deadwood). It's a society born through struggle, in which Ethan and Martin represent the old and the new respectively, together moving through a volatile transition; a transition that requires the likes of Martin but ultimately has no place for him. He's a necessary evil of sorts, one whose set in stone beliefs are counter to the required compromise needed to move society forward.

Race and racism is a theme prevalent in 'The Searchers', and racism is something the film itself has been accused of for its portrayal of the Indians (i.e. Native Americans to the overly PC). While there is undoubtedly an element of stereotyping on display, the film is less an exploration of both sides and more an introspective look at one side - the whites - with the Indians depicted from their point of view. At the same time there are plenty of signs that the film is about acceptance of diversity. Ethan's racism is hardly depicted as a positive attribute; Martin is part Indian and a voice of restraint; Scar's actions while cruel and violent are put within the context of the cycle of violence in which virtually everyone is inextricably entangled; most tellingly, there's a scene in which Ethan and Martin come upon an Indian camp that has been massacred, where Martin questions what they (or one person in particular) ever did to deserve such a fate.

Despite being only two hours long, the film feels suitably epic and conveys the extent of the protagonists' journey while never slowing down or dragging. Part of this passage of time is depicted via scenes taking place at Laurie's home with her family, where she pines for Martin while hearing from him very intermittently (we're talking years here, which puts the concept of today's 'long distance relationship' to shame). These scenes are probably the weakest bits of the film, but are effective in adding to the social milieu that the film represents. Another occasional weak point is the humour, some of which is a bit too broad and seems almost forced.

John Ford's film is a contemplative one, quietly observant of society and individuals, and there's always a lot going on within a given scene. Characters, even minor ones, have an aura of depth and off screen life. The films visuals are a major facet, incorporating some stunning vistas and compositions. While there are only a few big set pieces, the action scenes are incredible, and you know there's not a hint of CGI on the screen when you see them. Genuinely deep and subtle, while also exciting and entertaining, 'The Searchers' is a masterpiece and easily sits alongside 'Unforgiven' as one of the few Westerns that I feel compelled to re-watch.

Friday, January 25, 2008

SpaceShipTwo Unveiled


Sweet...

One step closer to achieving true space tourism - the space plane and launch vehicle [BBC] for Virgin Galactic's space tourism programme, SpaceShipTwo and White Knight Two respectively, have been finalized and unveiled. They look pretty cool. The first passenger flights are scheduled to start in 2010, and seats cost $200,000 at the moment. My piggy bank is still only half full (I'm silently cursing myself for stealing a few coins from it now and then to fuel my unhealthy confectionery addiction. Damn my weakness!), so it'll be a while yet before I have enough money to make this dream trip become a reality. Hopefully, costs will come down to earth before I become too old and fragile to embark on such an endeavour!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Synctoy!

Everyone using a PC should be aware of the importance of backups by now (if you're not, then a - welcome back from the caves friendo, the war is over, and b - backups are important if you give a damn about your data), but probably don't maintain any discipline in managing backups and consequently don't do it nearly as often as they should. Well, Windows users should consider using Synctoy, an excellent piece of software from Microsoft. Now that you're done doing a double take, let me say again - Microsoft has made an excellent piece of software! This one comes under their Power Toys line, a selection of useful little applications that make life easier for Windows users (we need all the help we can get).

As the Wikipedia article explains
SyncToy is a free PowerToy designed by Microsoft that provides an easy to use graphical user interface that can automate synchronizing files and folders. It is written using Microsoft's .NET framework.

SyncToy can manage multiple sets of folders at the same time; it can combine files from two folders in one case, and mimic renames and deletes in another. SyncToy can keep track of renames to files and will make sure those changes get carried over to the synchronized folder.

It's been around for a while, but I've only recently started using it and it has completely eliminated the need for my old fashioned manual process, which started off as adequate but steadily grew to be a massive headache to carry out. The software is fast, intuitive, and does what it says on the box and it shouldn't take more than 15-30 minutes to install and set up backup folder 'pairs'. There's a bunch of fairly straightforward options that can be configured with ease, and it provides a useful preview button so that you can see what it's about to do (in case you're paranoid and worried that it'll overwrite your secret stash of whatever it is you're into). The actual backing up (or synchronising) is simply a matter of clicking one (or two, if you preview) button.

Important point to note. Backing stuff up onto the same hard disk is useful if you want to have older versions of your software available, but is useless for recovering your data if your computer gets screwed or the disk breaks down. I personally use a second hard disk to back stuff up, plus a USB flash drive for all the extra important stuff. Given the capacity and price of flash drives, that's probably the optimal solution, unless one is backing up gigabytes of data, like digital photos (which ought to be backed up to DVD or CD, really).

Anyway, my backup process has now been reduced to a few clicks once a week, and I'm a much happier chipmunk as a result. Synctoy is a godsend - this is one Microsoft product that I can wholeheartedly recommend! Although, if it somehow winds up eating my hard drive and destroying my data, there may be another blog post on this topic in the future!

Monday, January 21, 2008

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)


(Poster from Imp Awards)

Artificial Intelligence: AI (2001)

'Artificial Intelligence: AI' is a film with an interesting history. It started off as a Stanley Kubrick project; he wanted Steven Spielberg to direct it, and Spielberg ultimately ended up writing and directing it a couple of years after Kubrick's death. A lot has been written about how much of the film is Kubrick's and how much is Spielberg's. Frankly, I think it's impossible to really say, and I don't think it's all that important anyway. Whichever way you look at it, the final product is the end result of a collaboration between two of the greatest directors in the history of cinema. It's also a film that I have mixed feelings about. I really want to say that I love it - and I do love a lot of it - but it has so many little issues throughout that detract from the overall experience that I can only say I like it a lot.

Set in an indeterminate future, the story concerns a revolutionary robot boy named David (Haley Joel Osment) designed by roboticist Professor Hobby (William Hurt) and trialled as a product by a couple, Monica and Henry (Frances O'Connor and Sam Robards), whose son is terminally ill and kept in hibernation till a cure can be found. David is unique in that firstly, he is a child robot and there aren't many of those, and secondly he is programmed to genuinely love his 'parents'. David makes a strong impression on Monica, but when their real son is unexpectedly cured and comes home, David begins to resent his status as an 'artificial' child and longs for Monica's love. Trouble ensues that leads to David embarking on a dangerous quest to find the 'Blue Fairy' from the story Pinocchio so that she can make him a 'real' boy, which he believes will allow Monica to love him. During his journey he is accompanied by 'Teddy' (voiced by Jack Angel), an AI enabled teddy bear, and Gigolo Joe (Jude Law), a lively gigolo robot.

There's a point in this film where many people feel 'AI' should have ended, but it goes on for another 20 odd minutes before the credits start to rolll. I don't really agree that the film should end there; I actually think the idea of the extended epilogue serves as a more satisfying and fitting conclusion to what is in many ways a fairy tale told in a sci-fi setting. This ending provides closure and provides a more meaningful character arc for David, one that doesn't end with him getting stuck like a scratched CD (analogy stolen from somewhere, can't remember!). Yet I still have issues with what happens in those last few scenes, because they don't make a lick of sense. Unless - and this is the interpretation I'm going to go with because it's the only one that I find satisfactory, even though there isn't any hard evidence in the film to support it - what David is told in those scenes is just a fabrication to give him what he needs to move on.

The film veers sharply from humourous to darkly humourous to downright dark and dour, and it's the conventional humour, especially some of the cutesy stuff early on, that doesn't work for me as it seems glaringly out of place. Even John Williams otherwise excellent soundtrack fails in these scenes and is a little obnoxious. Generally though, the film is more dark than cute, and it touches on numerous themes that the subject matter lends itself to quite readily. The future world raises questions about the prevalence of technology and our relationship to it, particularly with respect to providing ersatz experiences. The manner in which AIs are used and the grisly fates of many of them makes one wonder how such creations should be used, how 'human' they should be, and ultimately if they should even be created at all. What is our responsibility to our creations (be they organic or technological)? Throughout the film the dark side of human nature crops up, from the cynical use of the artificial to make up for what we don't have to the wanton destruction and hate towards things we feel threatened by. There's a notion in the film that perhaps mankind will have machines as their progeny, and that perhaps we deserve to.

Despite all these great themes and questions being latched on to, there are weaknesses. Some of these ideas are only superficially developed by the often contrived storyline. The question of what type of intelligence these machines have, whether it is real or merely programmed, is never raised at all. What is David's 'love', and does it transcend the notion of a programmed machine and cross the boundary of artificial to real (assuming that we can even define such a boundary)? Much of what happens in the film assumes that these robots are 'alive' in a very real sense, but people in the film don't seem to care too much about such potentially profound implications. And while David stands out as a fully fledged character, he is still a robot, which begs serious questions about his behaviour at some points - wouldn't his creators have programmed safety parameters into him to prevent some very obvious bad things from happening?

Apart from these problems and some very clunky dialogue, the film is great all round. It's definitely not an action movie and is a thoughtful and at times moving sci-fi drama, though it does have its moments of excitement and grandeur. It's quite bleak and cynical for a Spielberg film, but there are a few uplifting moments in there. The future world is superbly realized through excellent production values and seamless effects, but we're only given tangential glimpses into it that are merely sufficient to serve the needs of David's tale. Osment does a phenomenal job as David and is pretty much perfect in the part, but he's upstaged by Jude Law who steals every scene he's in with his charismatic Gigolo Joe. The Teddy character is also pretty terrific, and strangely enough has more personality than a lot of the humans (actually, that's true of all the robots - the humans are the mechanical characters in this story). The only performance I felt was sub par was Frances O'Connor as Monica, who despite having what should be an emotional role seemed strangely artificial, though to be fair she had some clunky lines, which couldn't have been helpful.

'AI' is a very good sci-fi film, one that definitely makes an impression and demands to be re-watched and contemplated. I don't think it attains its ambitions as well as it could have, but it hits the mark quite often and engages on intellectual and dramatic levels that many so called 'sci-fi' films don't even aspire to. I'd recommend it for that reason alone, but at the end of the day it's worth watching because it's original, very well made, and very compelling.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

The Fountain (2006)



The Fountain (2006)

Confession: I didn't fully understand what was going on in 'The Fountain' the first time I watched it. I understood it at a thematic level, and to some extent understood each of the three stories on its own, but I just couldn't wrap my head around how exactly they all interconnected. A little bit of further reading (particularly the writing of the clever chaps at Chud) made it all clear to me; in fact, its all rather straightforward and less convoluted than I initially imagined. Understanding it reveals 'The Fountain' to be a quite extraordinary film.

Darren Aronofsky's film is a labour of love that took years to get made. It actually started production with Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett as the leads, but Pitt pulled out and the project was scrapped, only to be later resurrected with a lower budget and with Hugh Jackman and Rachel Weisz as the leads. Although this seems like a downgrade when taken at face value, Jackman has better acting chops than Pitt and was better suited to the role, and as much as I love Blanchett I can't imagine her being better than Weisz is in this. Another interesting fact about this project is that there was also a graphic novel released in the interim, when Aronofsky believed the film version of the project to be dead.

Explaining the plot of 'The Fountain' is a bit tricky, and I think it's one of those films that needs to be experienced, not explained. I'll give it a shot anyway. There are, as mentioned earlier, three storylines. One takes place in the 16th Century and revolves around a Spanish conquistador, Tomas (Jackman), and his quest deep in the Mayan jungles of South America to find the 'Tree of Life' for his Queen (Weisz), who is defending her Kingdom from the Grand Inquisitor (Stephen McHattie). The 'main' storyline, such as it is, takes place in contemporary times and is about a medical researcher, Tommy (Jackman), who is trying to find a cure for his ailing wife Izzie's (Weisz) cancer. Tommy is so obsessed with his work that he neglects Izzie, who is spending her time writing a fictional book - 'The Fountain' - which is about the 16th Century consquistador. The third storyline takes place in the far future, with Tom (Jackman, again playing Tommy, now in the future) traveling through space in an ecosphere with a 'tree of life' that has sustained him for centuries but is itself on the verge of death. He's heading towards a dying star, Xibalba, which is the place the Mayans considered to be their afterlife and where Tom believes he can breathe life back into the tree. During his journey Tom has visions of Izzie telling him to finish writing her book.

I'm not even going to attempt to explain how these three stories link together; they weave in and out of one another both literally and thematically, and while some elements may be open to interpretation I think the film is pretty definitive about what is actually going on. The inter-cutting works beautifully as they build up towards Tom making a profound realization, one that is depicted both as a metaphor and as reality. The film plays with grand themes about life, death, love, and the cyclical nature of the universe and it is completely earnest about them and wears its heart on its sleeve. Boiled down to a summary its philosophical underpinnings may seem trite and don't do the film justice. Suffice it to say that the way they are dealt with in the film is wonderful and paradoxical - it is both complex and simple at the same time - and really impacts you in an emotional and thought provoking manner.

From a craftsmanship point of view, 'The Fountain' is simply brilliant. It's come in for some flack for its story and themes from several quarters, but I am incredulous as to how people could deny the quality of filmmaking on display. Lets start with the stunning visuals that range from the medieval to the contemporary to the bizarrely futuristic, each era distinctive and memorable in its own right but also unified through a recurrent style of camera work. The production design is also fantastic, lush and full of details that add symbolism and motifs to the imagery. Aronofsky maintains a heightened and atmospheric sense of reality in the three sequences, each of which feels fully realized - the Mayan exploration and combat, the research lab / love story, and the sci-fi space journey could each have been their own separate, full-fledged tales. And then there's the effects in the space sequences, which are simply gorgeous and like nothing you've ever seen before, done using macro-photography instead of CGI. Clint Mansell's glorious soundtrack (already being pillaged by movie trailers) is haunting, one of the best I've experienced lately.

Despite all of the aforementioned elements being crucial to the film, it's still one that revolves around two key performances - Jackman and Weisz. The two of them portray, in essence, several different characters and their portrayals are superb in all respects. In the Conquistador segments they have an air of regal and stoic formality to them, while in the contemporary segments they exhibit raw emotions of love, grief, anger, and acceptance. The future segments present a more serene, bald Jackman on his own in space with only a tree for company and he still manages to be fascinating and completely riveting. The film is written in a style that is more heightened reality than reality, yet Jackman and Weisz never feel anything but genuine. The same could be said for the supporting cast, primarily Ellen Burstyn as Tommy's understanding boss and Sean Patrick Thomas as one of his loyal co-workers.

I sound more than a little hyperbolic, but I think the film really is that good. The relatively limited budget is worked by Aronofsky to its full potential, and in fact I'm of the view that by making the film with a less realistic atmosphere it has been encapsulated in a timeless bubble, which is strangely appropriate given the subject matter! 'The Fountain' is a wonderful film, immaculately put together and full of unforgettable moments and visuals. It's thoughtful and moving and squeezes a hell of a lot into its 90 minute runtime. It's a film that deserves be watched and re-watched. In short, it's fantastic!

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Cool stuff for free on the Interweb

First up, Boing Boing has a story about the US Library of Congress publishing a bunch of copyright free historical photos on Flickr with the aim being to have people label them, which will be useful for the purposes of preservation. The photos, which are from the 1910s and the 1930s-40s, are fantastic and well preserved and definitely worth a gander. And remember, they're copyright free so anyone can use em!

Some samples (which are slightly cropped on the right side due to their width being larger than the damned column):


Delano, Jack,, 1914-, photographer.

General view of one of the classification yards of the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad, Chicago, Ill.

1942 Dec.



Bransby, David,, photographer.

Woman aircraft worker, Vega Aircraft Corporation, Burbank, Calif. Shown checking electrical assemblies

1942 June



Sherwood, Mark,, photographer.

North American's P-51 Mustang Fighter is in service with Britain's Royal Air Force, N[orth] A[merican] Aviation, Inc., Inglewood, Calif.

1942 Oct.



Vachon, John,, 1914-1975,, photographer.

House, Houston, Texas

1943 May



Vachon, John,, 1914-1975,, photographer.

Workers leaving Pennsylvania shipyards, Beaumont, Texas

1943 June



Bain News Service, publisher.

Around the block for 2 cents [car]

[between 1910 and 1915]



Bain News Service, publisher.

Miss Moore [tennis]

[between 1910 and 1915]



Bain News Service, publisher.

Olympic

[between 1910 and 1915]



Bain News Service, publisher.

Jap [sic] torpedo boat, driver ashore

[between 1910 and 1915]



Bain News Service, publisher.

J.M. Johnson in Bleriotype [plane]

[between 1910 and 1915]



Not sure how long these have been available, but the 'Daily Bits' has a list of comics that are free or have freely available first issues. Some are online comics, others are downloadable files. I haven't had time to check 'em out yet - except for 'Fell #1' - but I'm looking forward to sampling the likes of 'Deadman', 'Y: The Last Man', 'Sandman', 'DMZ', 'Hellblazer', and 'Swamp Thing'.


And finally, Lawrence Lessig, founder of Creative Commons and advocate of reduced copyright restrictions, has released his 2001 book The Future of Ideas for free under a CC license. Naturally, I haven't read it yet, (and I'm not sure I want to read 300 pages of book on a screen), but it's probably worth a read. Once I finish the 50 or so other books I have waiting for me, that is.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fight the Future - Part 2


(Image from USA Today)

USA Today has a promotional photo from the forthcoming X-Files movie, which IMDB has unceremoniously dubbed 'Untitled X-Files Sequel', that is being released a decade after the first film came out! After watching the final episode of the series all those years ago - an episode I can only describe as 'very, very poor' - I never imagined that I'd look forward to more X-Files. But here I am jonesing for the 'Untitled X-Files Sequel', which promises to be a standalone without any of that conspiracy bollocks that became more convoluted than a bowl full of noodles and chilli sauce. The standalones were the ones that made the show one of my favourites back in the day.

Yeah, the picture isn't particularly exciting, but it's Mulder and Scully, back in action again! Scully clearly still knows how to look hot in men's clothes, while Mulder looks like he's trying to convince his partner to believe one of his wacky (and invariably correct) theories while wearing a coat that looks like it was stolen from a hobo. Unless Mulder is a hobo now?

The movie comes out in July and in addition to David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson it also stars Amanda Peet, Xzibit (huh?), and Billy Connolly (wtf?). The truth is out there!

Get Screwed by Blu Ray

Everyone's probably aware (to some degree) of the format war in the next generation of DVD technology between Blu-Ray and HD-DVD. Well, the 'war' is probably coming to an end with Blu-Ray as the victor, now that almost all of the movie studios are supporting it.

Unfortunately for many of the people who made Blu-Ray the better selling format, they're going to get shafted along with HD-DVD supporters, because it seems that some of the players that were on the market till the end of last year will not be able to support all of the special features being incorporated in the new 1.1 and 2.0 Blu-Ray 'profiles'. The Blu-Ray group's lame ass is excuse is that, apparently, they had to release the players early before all of their standards were finalized in order to compete with HD-DVD . Well ain't that just swell? HD-DVD, on the other hand, already had similar features finalized and in place! The Blu-Ray folks words of consolation to their suckers customers are that these people will still be able to enjoy the movie itself in high def and they probably didn't buy into the technology for the special features in any case. And yet these features are touted as being among the benefits of the Blu-Ray format!

As far as I'm concerned, I don't give a rat's ass about either of these formats. I'll probably eventually switch to one of them when it becomes ubiquitous, but for now, regular DVD is more than good enough for me*. And it ought to be good enough for anyone who doesn't have a high-def display to take advantage of the high-def content. By the time DVD finally draws its last breath, this 'next gen' hardware ought to be cheap enough to make a smooth transition, and who knows, online distribution might have taken off in a big way as well. No matter what, I don't think this stuff is an investment worth making right now; unless, of course, you have an uber-rich uncle who just croaked and left you a fortune (in which case, hello friend!).

*Though I have to admit that the HD content does look stunning if you have the kit for it.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

CES Wrapup

The Consumer Electronics Show ended a few days ago and the BBC has a wrapup of the best gadgets that were on display. I have to say, if that's the best of the bunch, it looks like it was a fairly unimpressive show this year. OK maybe the BBC aren't exactly the vanguard of tech news, but I haven't seen anything all that exciting on tech savvy sites either - I haven't been following the news all that closely, but big news has a way of grabbing your attention.

Out of this bunch, wireless HDTV connections look interesting but nowhere near as cool as the possibility of wireless power; the force feedback video game vest and the 'real' air guitar look like fun; most interesting is the ASUS Eee PC, which has been out for a while now and whose success is an indicator that more basic, robust, low power laptops are a viable market. In less than a couple of years I'd imagine every computer manufacturer is going to be in on the act in a big way with similar offerings and prices will fall, by which point even I might bite the bullet and get a so called 'subnotebook' (and maybe even be able to afford one without having to sell off a vital organ!).

Veronica Mars - Season 2 (2005-2006)



Veronica Mars - Season 2 (2005-2006)

I reviewed the first season of Veronica Mars back in April last year*, and my conclusion was thus:

An excellent show overall, one that quite amazingly finds its stride right from the start of the first season. It's smart, funny, and full of character, and I have to wonder whether the second season can continue in the same vein. Needless to say, I look forward to finding out.

The good news is that the second season is, by most measures, as good as the first. The bad news is that the area that isn't as strong in its sophomore year is the writing, the facet of filmed entertainment that is paramount in determining quality. The major story arc this season revolves around the plunging over the side of a cliff of a school bus, an action that may have been caused by potentially several malicious external influences. Naturally, the talented Ms. Mars (Kristen Bell) puts it upon herself to investigate. There are several mini story arcs as well, including that of the Cassavetes family, Duncan (Teddy Dunn) and Veronica's relationship, Meg's creepy family, Keith Mars' (Enrico Colantoni) dealings with a mayoral candidate, and Wallace's (Percy Daggs III) relationship with a new girl in school whose father happens to be a famous baseball player who's in a spot of trouble.

Phew, and that's not even mentioning the problems with the bikers (or PCHers), amongst others. While the surfeit of subplots taken collectively definitely enrich the show, the downside is that they vie amongst each other for screentime, with the end result being that many of them are underdeveloped. Story threads wind up being picked up and dropped capriciously (Wallace's running away storyline comes quickly to mind). The overall mystery also feels a little less satisfying; it doesn't seem to have the same overarching prominence of the first season's, and the resolution was more than a little disappointing, again feeling a little too Scooby Doo like for my taste. The revelations at the end jibe with what is established throughout the season, but are a little contrived and the surprise factor isn't really earned. My reaction was more 'WTF!' than 'OMG!'

Pretty much all of the other plus points about the show from my earlier review still hold true. The plotting may be weaker this year, but the dialogue is as sharp and funny as before, and the characters have depth and charm. And the performances are once again rock solid. It may be a little less satisfying this season, but it's still darn good television that remains compelling throughout its 22 episodes. Now I just have the third and (sadly) final season to watch. This is another of those unjustly canceled shows, though there is always the chance that it can return in the future with an adult Veronica Mars (an idea that was proposed to keep the show going at one point) - as long as they can bring Kristen Bell back, it should be workable.

* My criticism of Lost in that review stemmed from my dissatisfaction with the somewhat flaccid mid section of the second season. Lost is, of course, bloody brilliant!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Darwin Awards

The compilation of 2007's Darwin Awards are up now. The Darwin Awards are... well, I'll quote the site directly:

Named in honor of Charles Darwin, the father of evolution, the Darwin Awards commemorate those who improve our gene pool by removing themselves from it.

Removing themselves from it, usually in quite amusing ways. Yes these poor sods gave up the ghost, and maybe it's a little mean to laugh, but they did it in such ignominious style! All of the winners are quite amusing, but the top rated one, 'coitus interruptus', is the cream of the crop!

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rootkits - not just for dentists!

As if there weren't enough reasons to not use Microsoft's Internet Explorer, here's one more [BBC News].

Security experts are warning about a stealthy Windows virus that steals login details for online bank accounts.
...
Many are falling victim via booby-trapped websites that use vulnerabilities in Microsoft's browser to install the attack code.

To be fair though, this apparently only applies to unpatched browsers. But hey, the article gave me an opportunity to have a go at the evil MSFT empire, so sue me!

The interesting thing about this virus is that it is classified as a rootkit, a type of program that is very difficult to detect and remove. We can all expect to see more of these nasties in the future. The days of ostentatious malware are well and truly over, with clandestine and insidious malware designed to steal your data or use your computer's resources being the new modus operandi of these fiends.

The Tick - The Complete Series (2001-2002)

The Tick - The Complete Series (2001-2002)

Wicked men... you face, The Tick!

So says eponymous protagonist The Tick (Patrick Warburton) during the opening credits of this short lived half hour superhero comedy series. The Tick is a dim witted but very powerful superhero who, in the pilot episode, moves to the big city and forms a crime fighting duo with Arthur (David Burke), an unimposing former accountant turned superhero. Together with fellow superheroes Batmanuel (Nestor Carbonell) and Captain Liberty (Liz Vassey), they fight evil some of the time (usually offscreen) but mostly deal with smaller scale, weird personal and domestic situations, and spend a lot of time quarreling or being confused. There's no action in this, it's more like a bizarre superhero sitcom, and it's pretty funny. The show looks great with its goofy bright colours and wacky costumes. Best of all are the performances by Patrick Warburton as the ridiculously thick but earnest Tick and Nestor Carbonell as the lascivious and somewhat dodgy Batmanuel, who are both laugh out loud funny. Only 8 episodes were produced before unjust cancellation, which is a shame. It may not be brilliant, but it is very good.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

Conan the Barbarian (1982)

The phenomenal soundtrack to 'Conan the Barbarian' by Basil Poledouris is indelibly lodged in my memory. It's simply iconic, and so too is the film, a fantasy epic directed by John Milius (co-creator of the brilliant HBO series Rome, which I am in the process of watching), co-written by Oliver Stone and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger in his career launching role.

Young Conan the Cimmerian (adult form played by Schwarzenegger) watches his family and village wiped out by crazed serpentine cult leader Thulsa Doom (James Earl Jones) and his private army. He is raised in servitude and grows into a muscular warrior who is co-opted into fighting as a gladiator, a career change that leads to training at the hands of the world's greatest warriors as well as acclaim and adoration. He eventually becomes free and goes forth in search of Doom. During his journey he befriends thief Subotai (Gerry Lopez) and warrior woman / thief Valeria (Sandahl Bergman), the latter quickly becoming Conan's lover. Together they form a thieving team, but Conan's thirst for vengeance remains and when King Osric (Max von Sydow) offers them a fortune to get his daughter (Valérie Quennessen) back from the clutches of Doom's cult, Conan leaps at the opportunity for payback.

The story is fairly basic but is quite well told. The first thing that struck me about this film is the economy of dialogue, probably because of the brutish and taciturn nature of the characters. It works out especially well given the unwieldy manner in which many of the actors speak their lines. Much of the storytelling is visual, and as a visual experience 'Conan' has aged fairly well. The cinematography is quite spectacular and the production vales that go with it are top notch - great locations, sets, and costumes - resulting in a very atmospheric and believable (if occasionally a little small scale) world that only betrays its fantasy trappings on a handful of occasions. The few effects sequences that crop up are also adequate. There's scant character development but the story builds up in a satisfyingly epic way, with the only let down being that the action scenes, which while suitably bloody and visceral are minimal and not as exciting as I had hoped. In general though I have to applaud Milius embracing of adult elements - there's plenty of violence, sex and nudity in this - that feel true to the nature of the story. Also true to the story is Poledouris' superb score that really elevates the film at every turn with bombastic and heroic flair, perfectly complementing the visuals.

The script and Milius' direction shy away from playing up emotion and drama, which is fortunate given how wooden most of the actors are. The emphasis on the characters physicality and movement is much greater, a stylistic choice that plays to the strengths of the cast. Physically, Schwarzenegger is perfect as the muscular and surprisingly lithe barbarian, though his oafishness is apparently at odds with the character from the Robert E. Howard books the film is loosely based on. Sandahl Bergman bears the brunt of the lines of the main trio, and she's not that great with the talking part either, but again physically she fits the bill, looking athletic and supple and far from fragile. Gerry Lopez is suitable weaselly as the thief Subotai. Kudos to James Earl Jones though, who really delivers with his sinister portrayal of Thulsa Doom - between this character and Darth Vader, the guy definitely had portraying evil down pat back in the day. Mako plays a wily wizard and also narrates the film, and his presence adds a bit of levity.

'Conan the Barbarian' is not a brilliantly made film, but it is, I think, quite good, and certainly one of the best of the crop of eighties 'sword and sorcery' offerings. There's no depth to it and not much resonates thematically, but as an epic fantasy adventure it delivers in spades and is a classic of the genre. One little caveat - it's probably not to a lot of people's taste; though, the same could be said for a lot of fantasy films, I suppose. It's certainly to my taste, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Why Intel are a bunch of dicks!

The BBC reports on how "Intel 'undermined' [the OLPC] laptop project". Intel, screw you. I have little doubt that Intel are the wrongdoers in this scenario. These are, after all, the same pricks who publicly badmouthed the very idea of such a laptop a couple of years ago before suddenly churning out one of their own.

Here's OLPC's press release regarding the matter (from http://wiki.laptop.org/go/Intel#INTEL_RESIGNS_FROM_OLPC):

January, 4 2008 - We at OLPC have been disappointed that Intel did not deliver on any of the promises they made when they joined OLPC; while we were hopeful for a positive, collaborative relationship, it never materialized.

Intel came in late to the OLPC association: they joined an already strong and thriving OLPC Board of Directors made up of premier technology partners; these partners have been crucial in helping us fulfill our mission of getting laptops into the hands of children in the developing world. We have always embraced and welcomed other low-cost laptop providers to join us in this mission. But since joining the OLPC Board of Directors in July, Intel has violated its written agreement with OLPC on numerous occasions. Intel continued to disparage the XO laptop in nations that had already decided to partner with OLPC (Uruguay and Peru), with countries that were in the midst of choosing a laptop solution (Brazil and Nigeria), and other countries contemplating a laptop program (Mongolia).

Intel was unwilling to work cooperatively with OLPC on software development. Over the entire six months it was a member of the association, Intel contributed nothing of value to OLPC: Intel never contributed in any way to our engineering efforts and failed to provide even a single line of code to the XO software efforts – even though Intel marketed its products as being able to run the XO software. The best Intel could offer in regards to an "Intel inside" XO laptop was one that would be more expensive and consume more power – exactly the opposite direction of OLPC's stated mandate and vision.

Despite OLPC's best efforts to work things out with Intel and several warnings that their behavior was untenable, it is clear that Intel's heart has never been in working collaboratively as a part of OLPC. This is well illustrated by the way in which our separation was announced singlehandedly by Intel; Intel issued a statement to the press behind our backs while simultaneously asking us to work on a joint statement with them. Actions do speak louder than words in this case. As we said in the past, we view the children as a mission; Intel views them as a market.

The benefit to the departure of Intel from the OLPC board is a renewed clarity in purpose and the marketplace; we will continue to focus on our mission of providing every child with an opportunity for learning.

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson

I Am Legend (1954) by Richard Matheson

'I Am Legend' is a title that is in people's collective consciousness right now thanks to the new Will Smith film, which is actually the third cinematic adaptation of Richard Matheson's seminal classic. Having just finished reading the book, I'm not surprised there have been so many attempts - the source material is quite phenomenal.

Robert Neville is the novel's protagonist, seemingly the last survivor of a plague, the last man on Earth. This plague has caused the dead to come back from the grave (this book was, unsurprisingly, hugely influential on the zombie genre) as blood sucking vampires, and those infected who haven't died yet are similarly afflicted with a taste for blood. Neville lives alone in his fortified house that is boarded up and lined with garlic and equipped with a generator and a massive freezer full of food to sustain him. And yes, these vampires exhibit all of the legendary traits of vampirism - drinking blood, inability to come out in sunlight, fear of garlic, death from stakes through the heart, and fear of the cross are all present.

The story chronicles Neville's existence as the last bastion of civilization. By day the vampires enter a comatose state leaving him free to roam the town at will, and he uses this time to get whatever supplies he needs, to carefully maintain his house's defenses, and to hunt down and kill as many of the vampires as he can before sundown, which is when they awaken. Refusing to accept a supernatural explanation, he also dedicates himself to study and research to try and determine the nature of vampirism and how it wiped out mankind, and to possibly come up with a cure for the infected still left alive.

Matheson explores the way loneliness and hopelessness tear away at Neville's psyche, with the character swinging into bouts of drunken depression on many an occasion (I lost count of how many bottles and glasses he smashes). Neville isn't exactly a superman; while he is extremely resourceful he has had his fair share of luck (being immune to the infection, for one), and the situation and his own volatile nature take their toll, causing him to have near brushes with death due to the smallest of lapses in his careful routine. The character is written as multi-dimensional and believable, and Matheson allows us into his thoughts (there is obviously not much in the way of conversation in this book), which makes his experiences all the more sympathetic and emotional. The recounting of Neville's oppressive existence is broken up by poignant flashbacks into the early days of the plague, when his wife was still alive and society was still functioning.

Apart from Neville's personal struggle and his memories, the book goes into some detail on how he manages to survive through careful routine. It also goes to great lengths (via Neville's ruminations) theorizing about the biology of vampires and about their place in history. Neville's research into the plague and what causes the symptoms of vampirism are suitably well explained and seem logical, at least at a layman's level. And while for much of the time Neville seems reasonably safe and adept at surviving, there are a few moments in the book, particularly one in which he fails to get home before sunset, that are infused with sheer terror and are incredibly exciting. The book yanks you into the tale from the opening pages and never really lets go once you enter Neville's terrifying world. Its different story threads are balanced in a manner where they all build up and coalesce to make the surprising twist of the last few chapters fully earned and completely satisfying.

'I Am Legend' is a gripping tale that is convincing in its depiction of one man's tragic struggle in a post apocalyptic world. It is a moving look into isolation and despair, while also a thought provoking commentary on history and legends, society, morality, and humanity in general, all wrapped together in a layer of science and logical thought and interspersed with helpings of excitement and terror. Matheson doesn't set a foot wrong and ends the book on a perfect note, one that explains the title of the book. I can't recommend this one enough, it's a genuine classic!

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Water (2005)

Water (2005)

I saw 'Water' completely by accident, and had no real intention of ever watching it; I'm glad I did, however, as it is a very good if slightly flawed film. Water (presumably so called because of the dominant presence of a body of water in the film) tells of the fate of Hindu widows in India during the 1930s who are forced to live out their lives as outcasts in widow 'ashrams'. The tale begins with Chuiya (Sarala Kariyawasam), a 7 year old, becoming a widow when her 'husband' (she doesn't even have any recollection of the wedding) dies. She's sent to an ashram but is rebellious and refuses to accept her place there, convinced that her mother will return to take her home. She becomes popular with some of the ashram's other residents, including Shakuntala (Seema Biswas), a strong willed and devout woman, and Kalyani (Lisa Ray), a beautiful young woman used by the cruel head of the ashram as a prostitute. Through Chuiya, Kalyani meets and falls in love with a liberal, independent young man named Narayan (John Abraham); their affair shakes up the ashram and forces its residents to raise questions about the treatment of widows.

A large part of this film serves to highlight the unfair and cruel lives the widows are forced to accept and endure in the name of religious and societal norms. Chuiya acts as a window into their world, and these parts of the film are extremely effective in evoking sympathy while being informative at the same time. 'Water' examines the widows' situation by touching on the different perspectives of society - those of the liberals who are at the forefront of massive societal change spearheaded by Gandhi, and those of the traditional conservatives - in a fairly even handed manner, with thought given to why things are the way they are (though I think there's little question that the film ultimately sees the more progressive viewpoints as being the correct ones).

There are a couple of things that prevent the film from reaching its full potential. One is the lack of a cohesive narrative to tie all of the story elements together; the film sometimes tends to feel too much like a mere recounting of incidents that highlights the plight of widows. The other is that the one genuine narrative thread, the love story, is wholly unconvincing and superficial and is clearly there only as a plot device to explore social restrictions and to create a compelling reason for the status quo to be shaken up.

Given the quality of the film, these negatives don't detract too much however. It's visually stunning with excellent production values and cinematography; if there's a complaint here it's that the painterly look of the film sometimes feels too artificial and detracts from what should be a grittier, more down to earth aesthetic, but that's a minor quibble at best. Writer / director Deepa Mehta clearly had a vision for the film to be informative but not at the expense of dramatic weight and reasonably well rounded characters. Despite the overriding pathos there are also moments of joy and levity sprinkled throughout, though the musical montage and occasional music video like moments take it too far and are a tad jarring.

There are some fine performances in the film, particularly from the young Sarala Kariyawasam, who manages to give a convincing performance as Chuiya without giving off that creepy 'adult in a child's body' vibe that is so prevalent in child actors. I should also add that Lisa Ray is strikingly captivating and is perhaps too good looking for the role, but that's a flaw in the film I'm more than happy to accept!

Overall 'Water' is a film that deserves to be seen. The quality of filmmaking on offer is stellar and the subject matter is weighty and about as underrepresented as it gets in cinema. It may be a little too obvious in its didactic intentions and is a little lacking in terms of narrative, but what it does offer is almost always engaging.

Monday, January 07, 2008

The Man from Earth (2007)

The Man from Earth (2007)

'The Man from Earth' is an interesting little independent film. It's a low budget science fiction drama that is essentially 90 minutes of a group of people sitting in a room and talking. Doesn't sound particularly exciting, but the film is actually quite gripping. The premise is that youthful college professor John Oldman is a man who doesn't age - he's 14,000 years old and was born a cave man. He moves from place to place regularly to prevent his secret from being found out. The film begins with John about to leave his current home when his colleagues throw him an impromptu farewell party, where after much cajoling about why he's leaving he capitulates and tells them his secret. His colleagues are incredulous, of course, and worry about John's mental condition but play along with his story and interrogate him for details. They try and poke holes in the story, but John has a reasonable response to every question they throw at him.

The film is hardly cinematic, and in many ways could just as easily have been written as a short story; there's nothing compelling about it visually, atmospherically, or in terms of performances. It is reasonably well acted though, to be fair, and much better than I expected it would be given the low budget feel it exudes. As far as storytelling goes there is no real narrative, with the whole film being one long discussion. I sound somewhat negative thus far, so let me cut to the chase. 'The Man from Earth' is a fascinating and thought provoking piece of writing that, through the device of the 14,000 year old man raises myriad interesting questions about science, history, sociology, geography, anthropology, and of course... religion. By having established a scenario where there is a room full of academics, the screenplay allows itself to easily raise intelligent questions and discussions.

John's answers relating to the past are often ones that could easily have been derived from modern science and he often deals in generalizations because 14,000 years of memory can become a blur, in the same way that even 10 or 20 years can be a blur for the average human. Thus in one sense the film is just a hook to discuss various topics and have characters present different points of view based on mankind's prevailing body of knowledge (as opposed to introducing lots of fictional 'surprises' from history that only John is privy to, though a few of those are also in there), which makes for fascinating viewing even if the discussions never get particularly deep.

From a storytelling perspective the more interesting aspects come from the different characters, each of whom has his or her own beliefs and reacts differently to John and what he tells them. Things get particularly heated at times, especially when the topic of religion crops up, and especially when John makes startling revelations about history that are not corroborated by anything in contemporary knowledge. One of the problems I had with the film were with some of these heated moments, particularly when John's friends became agitated by what he was telling them. These scenes usually felt genuine but on several occasions came across as extremely forced (like the moment where one guy pulls out a gun).

The big mystery in the film, the question of whether John is telling the truth or not, is up in the air for much of the runtime but is fortunately resolved definitively by the end in one of the film's very few emotional scenes. The answer was what I was expecting.

'The Man from Earth' is certainly an interesting minimalist film that is more thought provoking than most films blessed with budgets orders of magnitude greater. For that alone I'd say it's worth seeing. It definitely hews closer to the scientific and rational view of the world, and some of what it says will probably irritate and anger those who are strongly inclined towards opposing beliefs. That would be their loss, as this film makes for an intriguing experience.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)

Looking back over my review of the first two 'Pirates' movies, I'm struck by how positively I viewed 'Dead Man's Chest' (henceforth DMC). Having seen it several times, I'm fairly confident in saying that the first one, 'Curse of the Black Pearl', will hold up for years to come. DMC on the other hand, contrary to my prognostication - "I suspect that repeat viewings will be more rewarding" - does not hold up that well at all, particularly in the context of 'At World's End' (AWE), which makes many of the events in DMC redundant; for most of its running time DMC failed to develop its plot or characters in a manner that had an impact on the denouement of the third film. Watching it again I realized that it was hollow, overblown spectacle saved by some good performances, effects, and action sequences. AWE, sadly, is more of the same, but is less satisfying.

AWE begins well enough. Following an escapade in Singapore, the gang embarks on a daring rescue attempt to bring back Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) from the oceanic purgatory that is 'Davey Jones' Locker'. It's a bizarre journey, but one that is straightforward and fun and in tune with what made the first movie so entertaining. After Jack is rescued (spoiler! as if you couldn't guess!), everyone sets off to a secret location for a big 'pirate meeting' where the Pirate Lords will gather to discuss the problem of the East India Trading Company's war against piracy. The company has been using Davy Jones (Bill Nighy and CGI), who is under the control of Lord Beckett (Tom Hollander) by virtue of the fact that Beckett has his heart, and his ship the Flying Dutchman to decimate piracy on the high seas (I'll bet Hollywood wishes it had a Flying Dutchman of its own to tackle so called movie 'piracy'). Of course the journey to the meeting is by no means straightforward, with myriad events and double and even triple crosses, and that's before the shit really hits the fan at the Pirate Meeting itself!

None of this is particularly engaging, it has to be said. There's virtually nothing in the way of character development, and the plot just twists and turns randomly. The lean storytelling of the original film is replaced with labyrinthine, nonsensical attempts at mythologizing. And the humour is absolutely zilch, with most of it coming in the form of recycled jokes from the earlier movies, a trend that was annoying enough in the first sequel and is downright intolerable in the second. The story in DMC didn't really merit its two and a half hour runtime; neither does this film's story merit its even more bloated, near three hour runtime. It is excess to the point of excess. With the second sequel the series completes a massive turn from where it began, taking itself way too seriously and trying with a straight face to pass off an inane theme about how vicious pirates represent that last bastion of 'freedom'. That's right, pirates represent freedom from the tyranny of the evil Empire that, as far as we can tell, is only attempting to keep the seas safe from cutthroats (albeit through unscrupulous means, but still)! To compound matters, this time around there's little in the way of action until the climactic battle, which overcompensates by outstaying its welcome and dragging on for over 30 minutes.

Having said all of that, it's a fairly decent, if hollow, slice of entertainment. Visually it's spectacular, and the effects work is stellar even if it does take the action from fantastical to ludicrous (like the scene where two ships fight each other while slowly swirling down a whirlpool). The action scenes, as with part two, are well put together and mix together pure action with gags and dialogue quite deftly, though there's nothing quite as awesome as the mill-wheel fight sequence from DMC. Depp's Jack Sparrow is still occasionally fun, but the routine is starting to wear thin and the character is just too one dimensional to be interesting in the long run. Geoffrey Rush makes a fun return as Captain Barbossa, and Keira Knightley's Elizabeth is sprightly, but the rest of the cast are merely adequate. Even Bill Nighy as Davey Jones, so memorable in DMC, has a subdued presence.

'Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End' is disappointing end to a franchise that started off so well. To compare franchises, I find the similarities between the trajectory of the Pirates sequels and that of the Matrix sequels to be frighteningly similar - it's a shame Gore Verbinski, Ted Elliott, and Terry Rosso didn't learn anything from the Wachowski Brothers' efforts (though I think I'll take the Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions over DMC and AWE any day of the week). As entertaining spectacle the Pirates films all deliver, but for me there's only one worthwhile entry in this franchise and it ain't 'Dead Man's Chest' or 'At World's End'. You work out which one I'm talking about! Still, the box office and reception for these films seems to suggest that the majority are of a different opinion, with both making in the region of $1 billion worldwide, so what the hell do I know?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)

Battlestar Galactica: Razor (2007)

I'm a huge fan of Battlestar Galactica, which I reckon is one of the best shows on television by far. 'Razor' is a feature length special episode* released in between season 3 and the (hopefully still) forthcoming fourth and final season. It's been ages since there's been any new Galactica, so this is like manna from heaven for fans.

Chronologically 'Razor' takes place at some point in season two, shortly after Lee 'Appollo' Adama (Jamie Bamber) is given command of the Battlestar Pegasus. He assigns Kendra Shaw (Stephanie Jacobsen), a former command staff officer who was demoted to working in the galley, as his new Executive Officer. Lee's first mission as commander of the Pegasus is to investigate the disappearance of a survey ship. While it tells the story of the Pegasus' search and rescue mission in the 'present', the narrative is non-linear - it flashes back to the story of Pegasus during and after the initial Cylon attacks on the Twelve Colonies, when she was commanded by Admiral Helena Cane (Michelle Forbes). Kendra Shaw is the link between these two timelines as she is a witness to major events in both of them and is in a position of trust with both Cane and Lee. There are also a couple of other flashback sequences that go further back in time to the first Cylon War and depict events with a direct connection to proceedings in the present.

I found 'Razor' to be a fine piece of storytelling despite the contrivance of having Kendra Shaw as an audience surrogate, probably because the contrivance was fairly well written and seemed only marginally out of place (though one wonders where Shaw was when Galactica first encountered Pegasus during season 2). It serves to juxtapose the fate of Pegasus with that of Galactica and explains the motivation behind some of the monstrous acts carried out at the behest of Cain that we learned about during the earlier Pegasus episodes. Cain starts off as a stern but likable commander; events and circumstances lead her down the path to becoming uncompromising and unflinchingly brutal (Commander Adama (Edward James Olmos) himself notes that had he been in her place he may have acted in a similar manner). The Cain storyline also explicitly depicts events that were alluded to in the series, and also explains the presence and capture of Gina (Tricia Helfer), the Cylon agent on board Pegasus.

While the Cain stuff is terrific, the goings on in the 'present' are also compelling. This storyline continues the development of Kendra Shaw's character as she comes to terms with Cain's legacy and the part she played in it. Shaw is a hardened veteran and her abrasive manner causes a few problems, particularly with Starbuck (Katie Sackhoff), but her efficacy is never in any doubt. This storyline also provides the opportunity to depict Lee's transition into the position of a Battlestar commander. And in terms of the overall BSG mythology, we are provided an insight into the development of the humanoid Cylons, and are introduced to a godlike figure from their history. And finally, there is a pretty neat twist that puts the end of season 3 into a new perspective and should make things interesting in season 4.

'Razor' features the same mix of gritty, intense drama and action that the series is renowned for, and deals with the same themes relating to war, politics, morality, and hard choices. It manages to create ambivalence with regard to its characters' behaviour and avoids presenting choices as being easy 'right or wrong' ones, with the consequences of those choices weighing heavily on those making them and defining who they are. If there are any serious flaws with the writing, it's the repeated heavy handed use of the 'razor' metaphor and the rather predictable path taken by a character towards the end (one that perhaps couldn't be avoided given the 'prequel' nature of the episode). I also think the way the multiple timelines were edited together was sometimes wayward, with the whole thing not really coming together as well as it ought to have.

Jamie Bamber, Edward James Olmos, Katie Sackhoff, and Tricia Helfer are the series regulars with a major presence here, and they do solid work, particularly Sackhoff and Helfer. Some of the remaining regular cast make brief appearances, while the rest are absent altogether. The stars therefore are really Michelle Forbes and Stephanie Jacobsen, and fortunately both women do stellar work. Forbes reprises the role of Admiral Cain and continues from her excellent performance in the second season, but this time is given the opportunity to infuse some humanity into the character. Jacobsen is the focal point and she successfully plays Shaw as a tough as nails officer haunted by what she has seen and been through. Her performance is strong enough, and sympathetic enough, to carry the episode.

Overall, while it doesn't quite hit the highs of the series, BSG 'Razor' is on par with a very good episode, and has the same excellent production values. It reintroduces elements from one of the best storylines of the second season while also delving into elements from the First Cylon War. While there are shaky elements in the writing, the final product is a gripping and entertaining addition to the Battlestar Galactica canon.

* I'm reviewing the Extended DVD version, which has around 15 minutes of additional material (and is apparently better than the original televised version).

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Futurama: Bender's Big Score (2007)

Futurama: Bender's Big Score (2007)

'Futurama', surely one of the funniest comedies ever to grace the idiot box, was unjustly brought to an end back in 2003. Now, due to enduring interest in the series, it has been resurrected as four straight to DVD movies (which will also be broadcast episodically with additional scenes), the first of which, 'Bender's Big Score', was just recently released.

The show is set in the 31st Century and revolves around the bizarre exploits of the 'Planet Express' delivery company, which is composed of a wacky bunch of characters like Fry the pizza delivery boy from the 20th Century, Bender 'Bending' Rodriguez, a lewd robot, Leela, a tough cyclops woman, and Dr Zoidberg, a giant crab-like physician, among others. The plot of this new release is quite convoluted but it basically revolves around Internet scammers taking over the world and getting rich, and also using an equation that allows one way time travel to the past in order to plunder treasures from Earth's history. The time travel elements - they are actually handled quite well - will make your head spin towards the end, but the plot is effective in reintroducing a lot of the world and characters of Futurama. There are are several subplots, like the one involving Hermes the accountant being decapitated and having his head in a jar, and the more significant one about Fry's love for Leela (a weird continuity non sequitur given how the series ended).

Futurama is a bit like the Simpsons, only more visually inventive and over the top, and I think considerably funnier. The gags fly at the screen non-stop, both visual and verbal, and while some of them in this DVD movie are more miss than hit the overall impact is overwhelmingly positive. The show is still as smart, inventive, and witty as it ever was. There are also plenty of nods to the series throughout that are fun to spot for fans. The length of the episode seems to be a bit detrimental to its quality however; I think this sort of show works best in small chunks. The writers are also guilty of being a little slow paced at times, like with Fry's journey into the Arctic. The cast, however, have no problems and seem to have slipped back into their characters with ease and don't miss a beat - they're as funny as ever. And visually, the animation is about on par with the series, nothing more and nothing less (as far as I can tell).

While it doesn't quite reach the heights of the best of 'Futurama', 'Bender's Big Score' is still pretty darned good and golden for any fan of the series. Hopefully some of the flaws in this initial foray will be ironed out in future releases; whatever happens, I'm keenly anticipating them.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

The Death of High Fidelity

Rolling Stone has an interesting article on the phenomenon called the 'loudness war', where music released in recent times is being made louder by limiting its dynamic range so that all of it sounds as loud as possible, instead of having a wide range of loudness. The result is music that is more attention grabbing, but is devoid of the nuance and variation of the original. Music basically ends up more one dimensional and gimmicky, made only to hook you in and not meant to be really listened to and enjoyed. I've heard about this phenomenon many times and this article seems to put across what it's about fairly well, and is worth a read.