Saturday, March 22, 2008

THIS... IS...

SHHPARTAAAAAAAAAAA!!! Well, maybe not, but it's 300 posts since I started this blog in May 2006. And what better way to celebrate this significant number than by kicking someone into a bottomless pit while screaming at them in a Spartan Scottish accent?

Mercury Falling

I have a CFL bulb hanging over the top of my bed. When I lie on my back it sits right in the centre of my field of vision, suspended a few feet up and swayed slightly and ominously by the air currents created by the room's ceiling fan. The bulb is attached to a socket that literally hangs from a wire, as there is no proper fixture in the ceiling. I wonder sometimes whether the damn thing might fall on to my face; a CFL is after all heavier than your typical incandescent, and who knows how strong that socket and wire are?

And when I read articles like this one, I am reminded of the fact that these bulbs present more dangers than the usual glass shards when they break, because they contain tiny amounts of mercury. As the article points out, the EPA has a fairly involved set of instructions on what to do if a CFL breaks. It may be overkill and erring on the side of caution, but the paranoid part of me (i.e. most of me) would still freak out if one of these things broke, particularly if it smashed into my face! AAAAAAAAAGGGHHH, the mercury, it BURNSSSS!

And while the environmental and economic benefits of CFLs are clear, the possibility that we are trading in one problem for potentially another one down the line is worrying, especially if there is no good way to dispose of the darn things for most people. Despite this issue the consensus seems to be that the trade off is still well in favour of CFLs, but it just goes to show that there is no panacea. Unless those LED bulbs start to pan out...

Meanwhile, I'm going to get back to watching that confounded bulb sway to and fro. Only now I'll also wonder about the mercury getting into my bloodstream in addition to the whopping pain of it falling and striking me and the lacerations that the breaking shards of glass will bring with them.

Thursday, March 20, 2008


Been busy of late, with matters both professional and personal, foreign and domestic, and consequently haven't blogged much. One thing I can say after the last few days is that sleep is, without a shadow of a doubt, the greatest thing ever. EVER. I slept 9 hours last night, another 3 hours during the day, and I'm still sleepy. If I just close my eyes now... Sweet blissful sleep... Have merc!

How can something so simple be so satisfying? It's a shame you have to sacrifice your time, and consequently your life, to get it. If one could just compress time while sleeping somehow... Hmm... time to get back to the lab Igor!

[comic book thought bubble] must... stay... awake! [/comic book thought bubble]

I must have some kind of massive sleep deficit I'm making up for... Maybe it's... zzzzzz....

Monday, March 17, 2008

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Heavenly Creatures (1994)

Based on the shocking Parker-Hulme murder that took place in New Zealand in 1954, 'Heavenly Creatures' is an excellent dramatic thriller with some fantasy elements. It heralded Peter Jackson's arrival as a writer director of note and is probably one of the main reasons some people believed he was the right man for Lord of the Rings when everyone else was going "Peter Who?".

Melanie Lynskey plays Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet plays Juliet Hulme. Pauline is an introverted outsider at her school, but she gets along fairly well with her family and does well with her studies. The impudent and haughty Juliet arrives from England and joins Pauline's class; both girls sit out their physical exercise class due to medical conditions, and during this time they discover that they have much in common and bond very quickly. They start hanging out together all the time, with Pauline growing attached to Juliet's well educated and wealthy family while growing ashamed of her own working class roots, particularly her mother Honorah (Sarah Peirse). What starts off as a charming friendship slowly grows into something else as the girls start to write stories that they believe will get them into the movie business in Hollywood. They begin to have delusions of grandeur and see themselves as superior to everyone around them, and soon start living out their stories in a fantasy land called the 'Fourth World'. The girls' parents become worried about the nature of the friendship, which they fear is bordering on homosexual, and attempt to keep the girls apart; this only makes them become more distant from the real world and resentful of their families, and ultimately leads to tragic consequences.

Right from the opening sequence that depicts archival footage of New Zealand from the era in which the story takes place up till the end credits, the film holds your attention. It's engrossing and the heart of the film - the friendship - is absolutely convincing and engaging despite the girls themselves being fairly unlikable, which is a testament to the writing, acting, and directing on display. The way the friendship transforms is presented in a dark and sinister light, but it also feels a little tragic. The use of actual excerpts from Pauline's diary is incredibly effective and really gets across just how twisted and messed up the two girls ultimately became while also wiping out any sympathy you might have for them. The pacing is spot on (this was the extended cut of the film) and the film never lingers; it's always progressing the characters and their stories. In addition to the central friendship, the film also thematically touches on cultural norms, the class divide, the popular culture of the era as well as familial relationships.

Jackson's work here is full of the kinetic camerawork and close ups that are his trademark, and it works surprisingly well to create a thriller out of what could easily have been a very sedate drama. Heavenly Creatures successfully creates two worlds on screen - one the world of 1950s New Zealand, and the other the fantasy 'Fourth World' populated by medieval castles and clay people. The way these fantasy elements are integrated into the film is brilliant (they sometimes even encroach upon the real world in the girls' minds), and really serve to demonstrate the girls' overactive imaginations and the extent to which they lose themselves in the 'Fourth World'. The film is atmospheric and dark, and also has elements of the unrestrained twisted sense of humour Jackson exhibited in his earlier splatter horror movies.

Winslett and Lynskey both made their film debuts here, and both made the most of the opportunity. Winslett, who went on to greater fame, initially seems overly formal and too aristocratic, but it becomes apparent that this is in fact the nature of the character - Juliet is poised, speaks with perfect diction, and is more than a little snobbish, but her presentation of these traits is something of an affectation. In the course of her friendship with Pauline she often appears vulnerable and simply a child. It's a terrific performance, and one that is matched by Lynskey, whose character is generally gloomy and morose; one can imagine her being a goth if goths were around those days. When she's with Juliet, she comes alive and is far more animated, getting caught up in admiration of her friend's exuberance. The most sympathetic character in the film, however, is not either of these two - it is, in fact, Pauline's mother Honorah, who is played to perfection by Sarah Peirse as a good natured if stern, down to earth, hard working mother who tries to do the best she can for her child while having no idea how huge their disconnect actually is.

What more is there to say? On technical merits the film fares well, and it has a fairly good if unremarkable musical score. The visual effects are exemplary - not something you normally hear being said of this sort of film, but there you go. 'Heavenly Creatures' is a landmark in Peter Jackson's career, the one that launched him on his way to becoming one of the most significant and interesting filmmakers working today. Ignoring all of that baggage, the film is a historical drama / thriller that is informative (the facts are apparently quite accurate), gripping and, by its conclusion, quite horrifying. In short, it is an excellent film that is under-appreciated and deserves to find a wider audience.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Scrubs - Season 3 (2003-2004)

(Image from DVD Times)

Scrubs - Season 3 (2003-2004)

I hoped that Season 3 of Scrubs would maintain the show's healthy average, and am glad to report that, despite my initial skepticism, it does. Yeah it's formulaic, and yeah, it seems to repeat certain storylines again and again, like the whole JD - Eliot romance, but it manages to account for that as a natural extension of the character's personalities while making fun of it at the same time. The sentimentality is a little toned down from before, which is a plus, but this is countered by the fact that the mean spiritedness of the Janitor and Dr. Kelso have also been lowered a notch or two. Dr. Cox is still the same snide bastard, but he has always had his sentimental moments and this season is no different. Kelso seems to have fewer opportunities to torment people, and the janitor has his own set of problems now that are quite entertaining and a reasonable progression for what started out as a one note character. It's just a shame that the aura of supernatural invincibility he once had has diminished (truth be told, I think this was a good move all in all - remembering Tim Allen's one note gimmick neighbour from Home Improvement I realize that that sort of thing becomes grating very quickly. That being said, the Janitor is about a billion times cooler than the creepy guy who always hides his face).

The key stories this season are Turk and Carla's impending wedding, J.D.'s lusting after Eliot when she gets involved with an old flame, and Dr. Cox and his wife trying to make their relationship and parenting work. It's good stuff, and the characters feel familiar but not overly familiar. They'll have to come up with some new material to mine for the next seasons though, and hopefully take the existing storylines into new territory. The freshness of the first two seasons has definitely worn off, but the weirdness and humour are still at the same level. Familiar, but still very funny. One major downside, the presence of the hideously skanky and untalented Tara Reid; seriously guys, you need to do a better job with your casting. That aside, looking forward to Season 4!

Monday, March 10, 2008

Justice League Unlimited - Season 3 (2005-2006)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Justice League Unlimited - Season 3 (2005-2006)

I reviewed the first two seasons of this excellent animated superhero series last year, and this is really more of the same quality material, which is great. The broad story arc this season has Gorilla Grodd and Lex Luthor managing a new supervillain society to counter the Justice League, while Luthor tries to resurrect Brainiac and once again acquire God-like powers. There are some standalone episodes, but the majority of them deal with this storyline. Interestingly, the main superheroes seem to have an even smaller role this year with the majority of screentime being devoted to the 'B' and lower level characters, which is nice though I did miss the presence of the enigmatic Batman. The A players do show up for the big moments however, and the rarity of their appearances makes their brief screentime all the more dramatic.

Once again the show presents an action spectacular with terrific comic book visuals in motion - very very entertaining, even if the thematic substance the last two seasons went for is somewhat lacking. The major drawback in this season is a handful of weak episodes, including a truly dire female superhero cage-fighting one that surely represents the entire show's nadir. All in all though, it's good stuff and a natural continuation of the show from the last season. Shame that this was the final batch of episodes, but I guess all good things must come to an end.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Ratatouille (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Ratatouille (2007)

Brad Bird has made a couple of fantastic animated movies in the form of The Iron Giant and The Incredibles, so it's unsurprising that his latest film, his second 3D collaboration with Pixar, is in the same league. 'Ratatouille' tells the story of Remy (Patton Oswalt), a rat who has well developed senses and has a passion for food and cooking, a passion that runs counter to the behaviour of the other rats who are content to simply eat whatever garbage they find. Remy winds up at a restaurant in Paris where he befriends a human, Linguini (Lou Romano), who is a lowly garbage boy. Remy uses his culinary skills and an innovative control system to turn Linguini into a cooking sensation, which draws the ire of the head chef Skinner (Ian Holm) and the attention of merciless food critic Anton Ego (Peter O'Toole), as well as the disapproval of Remy's family who believe that rats have no place in the world of men.

First up, yes the idea of rats within visual proximity to food is and always will be plain disgusting, and no this film is not going to make you feel any kind of affection for the dirty little bastards. But, for the duration of the film it should make you forget your aversion towards them, because it's bloody charming, funny, and just plain entertaining. To use a trite expression - it has heart. But it also has the type of depth that makes Bird's (and Pixar's) films more than just throwaway entertainment, and more than just for kids. This film is about art and the passion that can consume great artists wherever they may hail from while chastising the crass commercialization that can infringe on artistic integrity, and it makes a sly critique of the profession of criticism while validating it at the same time. It also has something to say about honesty and hard work, and breaking down the barriers people put up based on the notion of 'the way things are'.

Yeah, that sounds a bit much for family entertainment, but the film's themes are finely integrated with the story and characters and only rarely feel obvious or heavy handed. Above all else, it's a wonderful, joyous tale that uses all the cinematic tools at its disposal to tell its story. The animation is stunning and realizes the design work and the movement and energy of every sequence in the film superbly. The rats are disgusting, but you can't help but admire the lavish detail and the anthropomorphized rat designs with their realistic fur and funny mannerisms. And some of the sequences on offer are amazing, like when Remy experiments with different foods, an experience that the film represents through visual colour patterns and music, and all of the cooking scenes - yeah, that CGI food looks mouth watering, even if it was prepared by a dirty rat (I don't care how many times he washes his paws, he's a rat). And of course there's the music and voice work, both of which are stellar.

I don't know if I'd call 'Ratatouille' a classic in the vein of 'The Iron Giant' or 'The Incredibles', but it is an excellent film and worthy of all the accolades it has received. Good stuff for kids and adults alike (though perhaps I'm not qualified to claim to know what adults want!), and a must see for fans of animation, Brad Bird, or Pixar.

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

(Image from IMDB)

Pirates of Silicon Valley (1999)

This TNT TV movie chronicles the professional (and to an extent, personal) lives of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates as they make their mark on the computer industry during the 70s and 80s through their companies, Apple and Microsoft respectively. Jobs is played by Noah Wyle, and Gates by Anthony Michael Hall. Also featured prominently are Apple co founder Steve Wozniak (Joey Slotnick) and Microsoft bigwigs Paul Allen (Josh Hopkins) and Steve Ballmer (John Di Maggio). There's definitely a greater focus on Jobs and Apple; during the time periods depicted Apple was by far the more successful and influential of the two companies, beginning with their development of the Apple II that sparked a revolution in home computers and followed by the development of the Macintosh. Gates meanwhile worked on developing operating systems for other company's hardware but was constantly threatened by Apple's successes and innovations.

The film shows both men to be driven, demanding, obsessive, manipulative and generally quite brilliant. Neither of them was a true technical genius; they were tech savvy enough to see potential in the industry and had the acumen to force themselves into the picture and usurp the seemingly omnipotent big boys like IBM. Ultimately they were both revolutionary in their own way - Jobs fused technological innovations with design and pushed them through with good salesmanship while consciously eschewing the stuffy corporate culture of existing tech companies. Gates mastered the art of taking other people's ideas and software, retooling them and making them available to the masses (and ultimately locking the masses into his software) - though, only the beginning of Microsoft's era of dominance is shown here. The film is bookended by a scene that establishes Apple as an also-ran and Gates' company as the 'big brother' like behemoth that IBM was before them. Of course, since the film was made in 99 the image of Gates looming over Jobs on a big screen is today a tad innaccurate - the filmmakers could not have foreseen the rise of the iMac, the iPod, and now the iPhone and the rebirth of Apple as a company whose products are the epitome of cutting edge, functional and stylish technology.

This definitely looks like a TV movie. Ignoring its modest cinematic aspirations, it's fairly informative - it crams a lot in there, though given its modest runtime it also leaves a lot out. I think it succeeds in recreating the milieu of the 'garage based company' revolution full of nerdy tinkerers who were breaking down barriers and doing funky new things that the corporates just couldn't understand. There's a real sense of entrepreneurial spirit on display, and the technology is fairly well (and accurately) represented. The spirit of the people involved, from their geeky love of technology to their non conformist etiquette, is genuine. The personalities of Jobs and Gates is true to what is known about them.

The major problem with the film is that it often feels like a dramatized documentary instead of an actual film, only it isn't in depth enough to pass as a documentary either. It's sort of like a biopic, and the nature of a biopic is that there is no traditional narrative, with the story essentially being composed of the significant events in the subjects' lives. But here it's spread out between many people and companies, and there is no genuine depth to the 'characters', a characteristic that is required of a good biopic. The elements of the story relating to Gates and Jobs' personal lives are both insufficient and excessive at the same time. They are not enough for the two characters to be fleshed out and three dimensional, but they are also so unrelated to the rest of the film that they come across as incongruous and unnecessary. A full on in-depth dramatization of the companies' corporate histories without the tangential personal stuff would probably have been more consistent and interesting. It has to be said that the performances are quite good across the board, with Wyle and Hall doing a pretty good job of mimicking Jobs and Gates - I'd give Hall the edge though.

'Pirates of Silicon Valley' is an interesting film, and one that really brings to life a (summarized) history of the birth of the PC era from the perspectives of two of its most influential personalities. It is very informative and despite it generally being more a dramatization of key events than a conventional movie, it is still fairly entertaining. My own interest in the subject matter may bias me towards enjoying what it has to offer however; the average viewer may walk away feeling a little informed but probably won't be as enthused by what they see as I was. I would recommend it only to those with an interest in the computer industry, as its strength as a film in its own right are questionable.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Simpsons Movie (2007)

Nearly a decade in the making, the Simpsons Movie finally arrived last year. The show is almost two decades old and to be honest I haven't watched an episode in many a year. I just grew tired of it, and the quality definitely dipped after the first decade (!). I don't know what to say about 'The Simpsons', you either know it or you don't. And if you know it, then you know what to expect going into this movie. It feels like a 3 part episode with a slightly more epic scope and appearances by pretty much every significant and semi-significant character from the series. Each of the Simpsons has their own storyline going on, but as always Homer is the star and the main player in the big picture that involves Springfield being encased in a giant dome by the EPA after he inadvertently makes it the most polluted town in the US. It's funny - the jokes come thick and fast but are also hit and miss - but there's nothing all that special about it to be honest. It's not really that far removed from the series, as compared to say the South Park movie. A must watch for anyone who ever liked the Simpsons, but it's not enough to draw me back into the series. And Spider-Pig? Not funny.