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I've been reading The AV Club in some form or another for, what, twenty-some years now? It started out as zine-style media reviews in the back of issues of The Onion; they were fine, and I read them casually and learned about stuff I'd want to read or watch or listen to. And when everything went to the Internet they adapted, hiring a bunch of really good reviewers and (eventually) focusing heavily on TV reviews. They've been the best in the business for years, even as the site has shriveled.

They threw it all away today. It turns out that the site had been bought by the Gawker guys a while ago, and Gawker got bought by Univision. So today they converted to the "official" standard software for the corporation - Kinja - and made the site unusable. The navigation is borked beyond repair, the RSS feeds are broken, old articles are at best discoverable with a search engine, the new design is white-space awful, and (worst of all) the comment section, which was a gem in the same way that Usenet was once a gem, has been blown away and replaced with something much less usable, harder to navigate, and hostile to both commenter and lurker.

I was expecting it to be bad. This is far worse than I expected. And I'm seriously wondering how I'm supposed to find out which new television shows or movies I want to watch now, let alone figure out where to read discussions of the latest episode of the shows I already watch.

Can we please stop undervaluing community? Gaah.

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Jesse, warm in the sun.

I adopted Jesse Custer Skirvin and his sister Tulip O'Hare on 20 Jun 2005. He chose me when I visited the shelter, ignoring the attacks of his fellow cats in order to sit on my lap in the communal room; this was new to me, and utterly compelling. When I brought them home and let the pair out of their carriers, he and Tulip explored the house together until they found my recliner; they then jumped in and started cleaning each other immediately. And that set the stage for the next eleven years.

Jesse was a black long-haired house cat, average size and weight, with a kinked tail, a loud and easily-provoked purr, and a chirpy little voice that he used regularly. He was even-tempered, and loved people - he would generally end up on the lap of every visitor to the house, and was known to climb on the shoulders of our house cleaners. He liked staring at the outside, but had no interest in escaping; that's not where the people were! He was not horribly adventurous or warlike but managed to remain Alpha for most of his life, and trusted me utterly and completely. He was omnipresent, following me everywhere and sitting next to me if my lap was for some reason unavailable; he would follow me to the kitchen or the bathroom, he would sit with me through a whole game of Civilization, he would talk to me in the shower, he would be at my feet when I went to sleep and still there when I woke in the morning. Jesse was by no means my first cat, but he was the first cat that was truly and completely mine, and I was his. We were kitty-human soul mates.

In return, I dedicated as much of my life to Jesse as I reasonably could. I left pedestals near any place that I might sit, so that he would be comfortably off the floor. I learned that I could call him and he would come, and so I did so regularly; he figured out his own cries that would call me. I was by far his favorite toy, and while he otherwise never hurt a human, he felt no compunctions towards scratching and biting me in mock battles. I gave him my attention, my time, and my love, and yet I only gave a fraction of what I was given.

The greatest time of Jesse's life was just when I left Champaign to live in Mountain View. I flew with him back to California a couple of weeks before my then-wife was able to join me with Tulip; and so for those couple of weeks it was just the two of us. He never left my lap or my side during that time; he purred and rubbed against me and, most interestingly, refused to fight with me for any reason; claws or teeth would have been an insult against Paradise. It was only a couple of weeks, but for the duration he was in Kitty Heaven, standing next to his master and nobody else. We both loved every minute of it.

I may not know for sure how old Jesse was when he died, but it was somewhere in the range of 16 or so - old, but not ancient. I know that he slowed down over the last couple of years, as old age and arthritis overtook him. But he never stopped loving me or trusting me, and even as Tulip took over as Alpha, he held firm to his control of my bed and my lap. He tolerated my son, for which I am eternally grateful. And even in his final days, he was always there when I went to sleep and when I woke up in the morning. And in return, Rebecca and I were there for him when he went to sleep as well.

Now, when I look around the house, I expect to see him nearby, or perhaps already on my lap like a ninja kitty. I listen to hear his "I'm lonely!" roar, or his "hmmph" of air let out as he jumped to the floor, or his whine asking for his (mostly-full) food dish to be refilled. In the evenings and mornings I expect to wake up to his sneezes, or the rustling of him climbing under the covers to lie next to me, or the feeling of claws lightly poking my beard, begging for attention. And when none of that comes, my heart breaks again. I want to give him my love, and he is not there to take it.

Jesse, it was an honor to take care of you for these years, and I will never forget you. You will not be my final cat, but you always be the one against which other cats will be judged. I will tell your story to those that ask, and your memory will not be forgotten. And when I see you again, in the place where no shadows fall, I promise you my lap and my love.

Ave atque vale, my beast.

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Django Unchained: 9 (out of 10)

While I should really try to avoid ranking this movie against the rest of Tarantino's filmography, I should at least compare it to its most obvious comparison: 2009's Inglorious Basterds. Both movies showed us that the oppressed people could fight back; but while Basterds reminded us to Never Forget, Django Unchained showed us pieces of history that we, as a culture, have already forgotten.

Django Unchained is a movie about slavery. Yes, it is billed as a revenge flick, and there certainly is a lot of revenge in the movie; but this revenge is against slavers and their minions. The elements of the revenge flick form a frame around which we can witness and be reviled by the racism, violence, and degradation inherent in the 1850s US South. And what comes out is brutal, disturbing, and still entertaining.

As this is a Quentin Tarantino film, many elements of the film are clearly set before entering the theatre. The direction will be stylized and top-notch; the dialogue will generally heavy and speech-y, interspersed with light and funny scenes and it will all be good; the quality of the actors will be excellent across the board, save perhaps for Tarantino's cameo role; and the violence will be integral to the film and over-the-top. All of these things are true, and I will not dwell on them.

What is worth dwelling on is the actors themselves. Jamie Foxx delivers an excellent and understated performance as the titular Django, a freed slave that works as bounty hunter to free his wife. Christoph Waltz is a German dentist/bounty hunter that frees Django, in a curious juxtaposition to his role in Tarantino's previous movie, Inglorious Basterds. Most impressively, Samuel L Jackson plays the aged head slave of the Candyland plantation; to his peers he is in charge, and to his masters he is quite simply a dog. The mix is fascinating. And these are only the lead roles!

Many of the set pieces are top notch, and spoiling them would do a disservice to those reading the review. The segment with the proto-KKK sticks out in my mind as very Blazing-Saddles-y; the dinner-time conversations were appropriately tense; Tarantino's character made me giggle; and the opening scene did an excellent job of showing us what the movie was going to be about. This is a movie that will survive multiple viewings, if just to see a few of these scenes over and over again.

One point worthy of note was the soundtrack, which is a mix of 60s- and 70s-style spaghetti western music with the occasional piece of gangsta rap where appropriate. Even when played over-loud it added to the film; but I still doubt I'm going to buy a copy of it any time soon.

At any rate, this was a top-notch, challenging, and stressful film. It is both a stark reminder of the history of racism in our country, and an excellent use of cathartic revenge. If you have the stomach for the blood and violence, you should see it.

Rating: 9 (out of 10)

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org//reviews/movies/django-unchained/


Nov. 28th, 2012 01:46 pm
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Lincoln: 8 (out of 10)

Lincoln tells the story of the passage of the 13th Amendment through the House of Representatives during the lame-duck Congress following President Lincoln's re-election in 1864. The Civil War is wrapping up, and Lincoln feels that he has to push through the amendment before the war ends, before the national political sentiment changes. And so he fights to consolidate his party, flip voters of the opposition to his side, and otherwise use all of his political capital to accomplish his goal: end slavery in the United States of America.

At its core, Lincoln is a movie about national politics. To be sure, this isn't really modern politics we're talking about; this is the politics of the 1860s, where the politicians have beards, wigs, and large hats; communication works by telegraph, travel by horse or riverboat; and of course the bloodiest American war is still raging. But none of this fundament!
ally chan
ges the core of Washington: politics are hard, politics can be incredibly dirty, and politics matter. (It also turns out that politics can make for fascinating viewing.)

But that's not really that all that Lincoln is about - indeed, it's in large part about Lincoln himself. He is shown as a sad man, with a painful and complicated family life and a deep need to accomplish what he thinks is right, even at the cost of doing things that he knows are wrong (or, at least, that he isn't convinced are right).

More than that, we see that Lincoln is a storyteller. Lincoln tells stories to illustrate his moral points; he tells stories to inspire those around him; and he tells stories to silence the yelling around him. He laughs at himself, he goes on tangents, and he inspires the more frustrated around him to stomp out. He controls the room with his quietly-told stories, dirty jokes, and inspirational speeches. And I came out of every o!
ne of the
m thinking "I would vote for this man." It was extremely effective, and one of the most fascinating parts of the movie.

Still, what I found most fascinating was the politics itself. The strong-arm politics, whipping for votes, the barely-concealed bribery and corruption, the speeches for the press, the careful selection of words, the powers and limitations of party politics, and the dangers of virtue - these were all presented as clearly as a season of the West Wing. The difference, of course, is that this is at least related to what actually happened, and the fight was one that mattered. That touches me much more effectively than a simple fire fight.

The casting and acting ware spectacular. Daniel Day-Lewis should win the Best Actor Oscar for this work; I wouldn't be surprised to see Tommy Lee Jones be nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his work as Thaddeus Stevens. It seemed that the entire Congress was made up of first- and se!
actors, and most of them had a chance to shine. I was perhaps unduly moved by S Epatha Merkerson's role (which I won't spoil).

As for Spielberg's role - well, besides the clear skill at dramatizing the politics (something that I would have been happy with, but most audiences perhaps less so!), his role seemed pleasantly muted, compared to his normal directorial work. This was a good thing; this was neither a war movie nor a rollicking/whimsical tale, and the story needed to be told differently. But it was still clearly Spielberg, and I was happy with his part.

There were flaws, certainly. I would have preferred that the movie ended a bit earlier. I'm not sure that dragging things out until Lincoln was actually shot and killed added anything that couldn't have been more effectively handled with a text box; and, indeed, more context could have been added at that point. I think that the relationship between Lincoln and his family could have either been b!
eefed up
a bit, or pulled down; either way, it didn't seem to be quite right. The soundtrack seemed a bit muted. And I'm still a bit disappointed that the movie didn't come out before the elections (even as I understand why it couldn't).

But all in all, this movie was excellent.

Rating: 8 (out of 10)

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org//reviews/movies/lincoln/
tskirvin: (Default)
Gabrielle Irene Skirvin was born today.

I hope to post more as soon as I can get a stable ssh connection.
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I read The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks the other day. I don't really want to review it overtly, but I do have one comment worthy of note: I did not enjoy the gaming, and I'm still not entirely sure why. Perhaps writing something down will help?

The game in question - Azad - was used in the book as a tool upon which an entire interstellar empire was based; the best player was set up as the Emperor, and other top players ended up with top government/military jobs. The game itself theoretically "modelled the society", and therefore had to be both near-infinitely complex and nevertheless understandable. There were gambling elements, cards, and group play elements; but fundamentally, it appeared to be modelled on Go, albeit significantly scaled up.

Somehow, this hurt my ability to suspend disbelief.

Much of the book also discussed the idea of game theory and societies that value high-level game players and theoreticians. The top gamers in (another) society write essentially peer-reviewed articles on the games they play. Well, okay, I'm fine with that - but part of this seems to indicate that the games that are considered "real" fit into a few categories. And those categories were quite narrow. Specifically, they were so narrow that they would eliminate virtually every game that I play today. And I think that there's something a bit strange about that.

A few mechanics that seemed to be left on the floor:

  • Worker Placement
  • Auctions (except in relation to gambling)
  • Rock-paper-scissors (for units - they seemed to be one-size-fits-all)
  • Any kind of economic system
  • Simultaneous actions of any form (or maybe there were? I got a very strong sense of asynchronous actions
  • Network building (this could have been abstracted away, I guess)
  • Doing anything interesting with the cards, other than using them as a "battle card" system, including laying them as "mines". There wasn't much in the way of hand management, for instance.
  • More abstractly, close back-and-forth interaction between the various "sub"-games.

Sure, several of these didn't exist at the time of writing. Still, given that effort was put into dismissing other styles of games, it just felt odd.

Maybe the real lesson here is that this felt weak because it pre-dated the recent board game "revolution". It focused on Go and war games because that's what the author was knowledgeable about, or could do research on. But I'm still a little bit irritated to see whole genres of game just ignored, including genres that did exist when the book was written (1988), including my current favorite, 18xx, which dates back to 1974 (or 1986 in my preferred incarnation).

Aah, well. I'm still going to read the next one.

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Apparently my wiki just went insane. I'm deleting old posts now...

[12:38] Done. It was annoying to delete them all by hand, becuase there are no bulk-delete tools...

tskirvin: (Default)

I am no longer a newsgroup moderator. Wow.

tskirvin: (Default)

According to my CV, I currently moderate four newsgroups:

  1. humanities.philosophy.objectivism (since 1995)
  2. comp.std.announce (since 2006)
  3. rec.arts.comics.reviews (since 2005)
  4. news.admin.moderation (since 2007) (technical moderation only)

All of these groups depend on my main home system, vulture.killfile.org, to operate properly. And, as I think I've already mentioned here, that host went down while I was in Europe. Posts were lost and everything.

Upon reflection, I think I'm okay with that, especially in light of my shift to using flea.killfile.org for my mail for a while...

I think the time has probably come to step down from moderating these groups. I'll give it a little while, I suppose, but unless somebody convinces me otherwise, I'll probably shut all of the bots down at the end of the month.

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I just got back from a combination dual-honeymoon/Dad-Retirement vacation with Rebecca, my parents, and my brother and his wife. I'm not sure what to say about it, at least in between "it was good"/"I am so tired" and a several section treatise.

The trip:


I want to make less 12-hour flights in my life.


We spent two days and nights in Rome, including one day and one night with a private tour guide seeing the city and major locations. There was no possible way to see enough, but we did go to the Colosseum, one of the catacombs, and St Peter's Basilica, and all were gorgeous. I could have spent a week here. I really need to get through these pictures!

Our tour guide was especially professional.

We also went to the Vatican Museum, with a separate tour guide. Rebecca could have used with less explanations; I found him useful.

Week-Long Cruise

The cruise was from Rome to Rome:

  1. Firenze
  2. Cannes (for the film festival, whee!)
  3. Marseille
  4. Barcelona
  5. (Day at Sea)
  6. Napoli/Pompeii
  7. Rome (and then home)

I could talk about each individual day in great detail if I felt like it, but I don't want to do so right now. Maybe later?

As for the ship: the Norwegian Epic is a monstrously ugly ship, with a capacity of ~4000 people. The ship experience was flawed, mostly because of the sheer scale of things; there were just too many people! The food was good as long as you paid extra for the specialty restaurants, or ate the Indian food at the buffet. The rooms were fine, but so much effort was spent on the balcony rooms that the place was just ugly from the outside. We got acts like the Blue Man Group and Cirque du Soleil instead of (just) standard ship fare, but the shows had technical problems. And I think I'd rather have gratuities not be included.

Returning Home

I wish that killfile.org hadn't died on Day 3. Grr. It's back now, but now I really have to re-double my efforts to move things to the cloud...

The cats were mad at us for only a few minutes.

Overall Thoughts

It really was great having a vacation with my family. It had been a long time, after all; and we do all get along, even the wives. Our great fear was that the Core Skirvin Clan would overwhelm Rebecca and Celeste, but it went pretty well, and nobody killed anybody else.

I'm not sure if this will the Final Honeymoon for Rebecca and myself.

I am happy, and so, so tired.

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I moved wiki.killfile.org last night, and this caused the RSS to start over. Grr. Hundreds of old entries!

Real Steel

Oct. 8th, 2011 11:55 am
tskirvin: (Default)

Real Steel: 5 (out of 10)

Robots! Punching! Whoo!

I kindof wanted that to be my entire review for Real Steel - three words and a score. But it doesn't quite fit.

Real Steel is a mix of three genres - the up-and-coming-scrappy-fighter boxing/martial-arts movie, the (surprisingly small) robot combat fest, and the father-learns-to-fight-for-his-estranged-son tear jerker. It mixes these genres surprisingly well, and while all of them are a little thin, all receive adequate attention from the director and actors. I came for the second genre, and was worried that the other two would annoy me; but no, my annoyance came from other quarters.

My first gripe came before the movie - why was this not titled Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots? Yes, this would have focused more heavily on the robot fighting; but that's clearly what I was there for, anyway. But I suppose that this had to be left out so that the other two genres could be alluded to in the title. Aah, well.

While the fight scenes were, for the most part, well-done and fun to watch, I had some major problems with the combat itself. Part of what makes martial-arts movies work is the knowledge that we are watching a sport, and these sports have rules. Early on, the fights were underground affairs, unsanctioned fights to the death, and the relative lack of consistent rules made some sense; weapons may vary, weight classes don't really exist, and if one side cheats a little bit, hey, them's the breaks! But later, when we we're in the Big Leagues, we see the bad-guy bot hitting the good-guy bot as he's getting up from a knock-down - and that's okay? Then why wasn't that happening all the time? And why does Zeus get pistons, anyway? It just felt inconsistent, and that took away from the up-and-coming-fighter storyline.

(Along these same lines - what exactly makes one robot dramatically better than another? I wish that this had been explained in some way other than "heart". The concept of weight classes would have helped here.)

Finally, while my biggest gripe might be considered a bit esoteric, hear me out: the user interfaces for the robots were inconsistent and, for the most part, outright bad. There are four families of controls shown:

  1. Large sit-down control pods with multiple controlling individuals. These are used by the Rich Bad Guys, and we don't really learn much about them. Still, they seem potentially useful.

  2. Keyboard/Wii-U controller - a large touchscreen with extra buttons/control sticks on the side, used by a single individual. This was used early in the movie by the Good Guys, and seemed plausible to me.

  3. Voice-based technology - the operator yells out commands into a microphone, mostly involving combat macros (left-right-uppercut). This works very poorly, but it's the primary combat system for most of the movie.

  4. Mimic technology - the bot mirrors the actions of its controller. This is apparently obsolete technology, probably because it's absurdly dangerous. It's also the key to the movie.

The movie shows that combat effectiveness improves as we move along this chart. There may be a place for all of these technologies in the overall setup, sure; but for a primary interface for one-on-one combat, I'd rather use a controller than a Kinect or a microphone. Me, I see the technologies as growing more and more imprecise, at least if the robots are human-controlled. (This changes if the fights are primarily controlled by AIs, in which case we're really getting into robot dog fighting instead... but I digress.)

A few shorter notes:

  • As a near-future science fiction movie, not much had really changed except the introduction of combat robots, the loss of other martial arts as public spectacles, more wind farms, and the introduction of large junkyards with big pits. This was disconcertingly boring.

  • $50k buys you a combat robot? That's really cheap - or at least it seems to be until you realize that money is never really discussed outside of robot fighting circles.

  • I wouldn't want to be standing next to several tons of fighting robot. Apparently, this doesn't bother anybody in the Near Future.

  • Why didn't Wolverine use his claws? That would have shown 'em!

  • While I was happy with Hugh Jackman's acting overall, I really think that his character started out as too stupid. I suppose it was good for the character arc, but his intensity was foolish.

  • The movie was really aimed at younger kids - 8-12 year-old boys, I'd say - but the language skewed it up into PG-13 territory. (No, the violence probably didn't, because the MPAA is silly.) I found this odd.

  • The product placement made me laugh, but none more so than the HP ads throughout. Oh, HP, you're so doomed!

Anyway - it was fine. I had a good time. But it was not a great movie.

Rating: 5/10 (** 1/4 out of 4)

Trailer Watch - the Coming Attractions were pretty much terrible. We got a Steven Spielberg wartime tear-jerker with War Horse, which comes out at Christmas-time and I haven't heard of before. They showed the John Carter of Mars trailer again, which is growing on me (but not enough for me to suspect it'll be a watchable movie in the end). Arthur Christmas continues to look completely uninteresting, even if it is from Aardman. And Johnny English 2 was possibly the worst trailer I've seen since The Country Bear Jamboree - 80s kid comedy sensibilities don't play well with this decade nor with Rowan Atkinson. They were definitely skewing young.

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/real-steel/


Jul. 25th, 2011 06:25 pm
tskirvin: (Default)

I still miss you, Belle.

tskirvin: (Default)

Transformers: Dark of the Moon: 6 (out of 10)

The most important thing you have to know about Transformers 3 is that it's significantly better than Transformers 2. No, this was not a high bar; but honestly, if it had been worse, I would have recommended that you run screaming. Instead, I suggest to you that this is a good action movie that plays nicely to Michael Bay's strengths, and is perhaps his best work since The Rock.

I do have to admit, most of the actual components of the movie are pretty questionable. The live-acting ranged from "adequate" (Shia LaBeouf, John Turturro) to "slumming it" (John Malkovich, Frances McDormand), with just a touch of "incompetent" (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). The characters were weak, even by the standards of summer action movies. The plot holes were profound, both internal to the movie and in terms of basic physics. It was padded, and could have easily lost 30-45 minutes of footage through responsible editing (perhaps leaving out the entire prologue). The dialogue was forgettable. The "extraneous" characters of old movies were more annoying than ever. It was still difficult to tell the 'bots apart. The story was still more about the humans than about the 'bots. And so forth.

But that said, the movie did a whole lot right. The plot may have been weak, but it was epic, relevant, grounded in the style of Transformers episodes of years past (specifically The Ultimate Doom), and it mostly held together. The relationship between humanity and the Cybertronians (both sides) was actually fairly interesting and finally felt established. The movie didn't spend much time in the "wacky" humor genre, unlike its predecessors, and was much better for it. The robots seemed like characters this time, and (slightly) less like plot contrivances. Overall, most of the "garbage" from the last movie was taken out, and replaced with more action scenes.

And oh, what action scenes they were! The special effects were more self-assured than the previous movies, even as their scale increased. Transformers would change forms regularly and without undue focus; this made for less jarring and more interesting action scenes, and allowed for the robots themselves to seem more like characters than simple plot contrivances. Beyond the technical marvel, the fight scenes mostly to hold together, and some of them even evoked scenes from the original Animated Movie. And the entire last 40 minutes in Chicago, even if didn't hold up to much scrutiny - that is why we watch Michael Bay movies! Sure, it may not have made a lick of sense; but the action was good enough to make up for that.

Given my fascination with these characters, perhaps I should talk a little bit about the individual 'bots. Optimus actually had a personality this time, which was interesting. Bumblebee was important but under-utilized, a bit surprisingly. The Wreckers didn't irritate me, nor did the two mini-bots. I admit to geeking out a little bit about Leonard Nimoy as Sentinel Prime. Shockwave was less well-utilized than Darth Maul, but just as cool. Soundwave turned out to matter as a character, hooray! I'm shockingly okay that Laserbeak spoke. And the Nameless Decepticon Hordes... well, I'm okay with them, I suppose, but it'd be nice if the Autobots got some too.

In short: this was the best of the trilogy by any standards. In terms of a summer blockbuster, it was fun; in terms of real cinema, it wasn't so great. And if, like me, you're a Transformers fan, this is as good of a movie as we're likely to get.

Some other points:

  • While I didn't really care for the "it's so hard to get a job" element of the plot, it didn't actually ruin the movie.

  • I really can't get over how awful Carly was. She was a bad character, her actress was horrible, and the repeated reminders of "haha, you don't get Megan Fox anymore!" were blatant and annoying. Yes, she has quite a body, and Bay did a good job of showing it off. That's not enough.

  • What happened to the Twins from the second movie, anyway? I'm happy they're gone, yes; but given how important it was that the Autobots were few in number, you'd think that having ~20% of your numbers just "missing" would be worth noting somewhere.

  • A note on expectations: I have found that surviving movies like this is really dependent upon keeping your expectations in check. The first movie initially looked promising but worthless; it turned out to be acceptable and stupid. Score! The seco!
    nd movie looked to be terrible out of the gate, and it turned out to be even worse that; but I had gone in with such low expectations that it at least didn't hurt too much (at the time). So when it came to this third movie, my expectations were simple: "it's got to be better than number two, yes?".
    This modest goal was easily met.

  • Since I mentioned Michael Bay's earlier work in that first paragraph, I should note that his best movie is still Bad Boys, and that the rest of his body of work falls far below that early effort.

  • I saw this movie in IMAX 3-D. The IMAX part was worth the trouble; the special effects were worth the screen real estate. The 3-D, though, didn't add anything to the movie, though it didn't seem to take anything away either.

Rating: 6/10

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/transformers3/
tskirvin: (Default)

Oh, crap. I guess I'm about to start tracking my Battletech and Shadowrun collections in BGG...

tskirvin: (Default)

Sucker Punch: 2/10

It would be easy to dismiss Sucker Punch as simply pandering to its audience. Yes, the movie aims at geek culture in general, teenage males in particular; and as such it certainly offers as much skin and anime-style action as it can provide within the confines of a PG-13 rating. But Punch does not want to just pander to its audience; instead, it aims to be something more than just your average Summer Action Movie, hoping perhaps to reach the lofty heights of "art". Unfortunately, this ambition turns out to be the movie's undoing.

The movie's story is simple but purposefully convoluted. A girl's wicked stepfather sends her to a mental institution, where she will be lobotomized in five days. To escape this horror, she withdraws into a dream world; in this world, she lives as a slave in a high-class brothel. Within this still-nightmarish dream world, she retreats yet further into a series of yet-more-nightmarish worlds, where she learns to fight for her own survival and for the freedom of her friends.

The heart of the movie lies in these "shell" worlds. The "third shell" contains the action set pieces and self-esteem boosters; the "second shell" provides the drama, dialogue, and characters; and the "first shell" provides a shell and framing device for the rest of the movie. Specifically, the ambition of the movie lies in the interaction of the second and third shells, with the use of dream violence in the third world working to impact real events in the first world - basically, an odd combination of Brazil and Shutter Island.

Unfortunately, this just plain doesn't work. The interaction between the second and first layers is grossly underdeveloped - for instance, most of the characters only have dialogue in the second shell! This ruined any potential connection between the first and third layers and, frustratingly, any potential from the overall story. While some exposition at the end of the film tries to paper over this gaping hole, this only draws notice to the flaw.

Still, to be fair, the trailers did not lie. The action scenes in the third shell are plentiful and packed with special-effects; the action itself is well choreographed, within the sensibilities of Zack Snyder; and the stars of the film are scantily-clad females with large guns and swords fighting robotic samurai, zombie Nazis, martial-arts robots, and the occasional dragon. But these action scenes begin and end by roughly explaining the subtext within, making the metaphors as much a part of the action as the special effects themselves. This makes the metaphors as "real" as the special effects, which is rarely a good sign.

I'm not sure what it would have taken to make this into a good movie. It would have taken more than improving any single element of the film; the whole thing was simply under-engineered for the job, from the vision and script to the acting and musical selection. While perhaps it wasn't a total loss - it should at least provide interesting cosplay opportunities for years to come - it was a significant disappointment over already low expectations. Avoid.

Rating: 2/10 (* 1/2 out of 4)

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/sucker-punch/
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1-31-07: Never Forget

My brother is now fighting Mooninites on Luna. I hope that you're happy, Boston!

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The Green Hornet: 3 (out of 10)

Much as it surprises me to say it, the biggest failing in The Green Hornet is not Seth Rogen. Oh, sure, Rogen doesn't help matters any; not only is he miscast in the role, but his standard on-screen-character is miscast just as badly, and his co-authorship of the script didn't do him any favors. No, the fundamental problem was that the script is too specific in its subject matter: a classic radio serial drama, long-forgotten and remade for a modern comic-book audience after. It turns out that nobody knows how to make such a beast, and what we're left with is a bit of an uneven mess.

One example of this unevenness was the film's treatment of "heroic" violence. Kato is generally unarmed, and the Green Hornet carries a gas gun, ostensibly because such a weapon is non-lethal. But their car (the Black Beauty, as much of a character as the two protagonists), is equipped with machine guns, rocket launchers, and a flame thrower, and the pair uses these weapons indiscriminately. Often this is played as simple "cartoon" violence - the baddies are not even scratched by the rocket fire - but every now and then, somebody is killed messily. But every now and then, the pair of them kill somebody messily - and there's no difference in tone, no acknowledgement of difference on the pair's part. Most worrisomely, this feels both intentional and un-considered, almost accidental. The script is attempting to merge the sensibilities of the serials, the old films, the current comic audiences, and the modern need for pretty special effects; and the combination just d
oesn't work.

The characters are similarly confused. Headlining the film, Seth Rogen's character of Britt Reid plays a wide variety of roles - not just a millionaire playboy by day and a hero by night, but the unfortunate buffoon upstaged by his assistant; a man-child; a loveable buffoon; a moral crusader; and, most irritatingly, a sex-crazed CEO. This might have worked if presented over a number of iterations, but as it stands this confusion just made the character irritating and unlikeable.

The acting itself is, for the most part, uninspired. Christoph Waltz does an acceptable turn as the Big Baddie, but isn't given enough of a character to be anything more than a caricature. Jay Chou shows flashes of depth as Kato, but the script doesn't really allow it to go anywhere. Cameron Diaz is, well, Cameron Diaz. And Rogen, well, I don't generally dislike him as an actor, but I don't feel like I had much of a choice with this character. The only character I can say that I liked was Axford, the editor of the paper, but that's just because he was played by Edward James Olmos and he stayed out of the way.

For all of that, I can't say that I hated the movie. This would have made a good comic; in fact, it felt like the conversion from script to storyboard to screen was extremely solid, showing a pretty decent understanding of the source material at all of its levels. The action scenes were generally fun (if, again, cartoon-y), and might well have been well suited for 3-D. The gadgets were nifty. The story held together acceptably. And there were parts where I laughed, mostly surrounding the actual connection between comic and film.

Maybe it would have helped if the movie had chosen whether it was a comedy or an action movie. Maybe it would have helped if the film had been more focused on a single component of the entire concept of Green Hornet. Or maybe all it would have taken would have been to cast somebody that didn't co-write the movie in the lead role. But whatever it would have taken to make this an acceptable movie, this wasn't it.

Rating: 3/10 (* 3/4 out of 4)

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/green-hornet/
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The King's Speech: 8 (out of 10)

When I arrived at the theatre to see The King's Speech today, the line was out the door, a pretty even mix of old and young and in-between, families and couples and individuals. Two minutes into the waiting, somebody came out and announced that there were only 80 tickets left; the line was about 100 people in by this point, and growing. My date and I were the last two people to be sold tickets. And this was for a matinee showing of an art movie that has been showing at this location for two weeks - and was apparently sold out every show.

I suppose that word of mouth works.

The King's Speech tells the story of King George VI, and specifically his speech impediment. The movie begins with Prince Albert (the future King) giving his first radio speech to the British Empire - or, more accurately, failing to do so. His wife sets out to find help for her husband, and comes across an unconventional Australian speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Hijinks ensue - mind, hijinks set against the 1930s British politics, and specifically the start of World War II.

The highlight of the film is its exceptional cast, both in terms of the acting provided by the cast, and through the casting itself. The film is a who's-who of UK cinema, starting with Colin Firth as George VI and Geoffrey Rush as Logue; both play their roles with aplomb, with Firth offering an especially impressive vocal turn to his role. But the supporting cast is just as good - Helena Bonham Carter as future-Queen-Consort Elizabeth, Michael Gambon as George V (King Dumbledore!), Timothy Spall as Winston Churchill, and Guy Pearce as Edward VIII. And that only scratches the surface.

Just as impressive (but much less obtrusive) was the work of the backstage craft workers. Most of the set pieces took place in places like Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, or other London tourist landmarks; and the costumes were period-accurate in a way that made them almost unobtrusive. But most impressive was the makeup and hair, with the cast working as ringers for their roles. There will be well-deserved Oscar nominations here.

And as for the story - well, the major beats were predictable, the characters not particularly deep, and the whole thing reeked of the "Royals are people too!" vibe that is popular in British cinema these days. But nevertheless, even if the story was the weakest part of the movie, it was still compelling. Partially, this was because the dialogue itself was well-written (feeling like a stage play most of the time); but mostly, the movie thrived because the story was more-or-less non-fiction. The truth can aid even the biggest cliché.

For all of that, I'm still not entirely sure why the movie was packed. Doing some research online, it looks like this is not entirely unique - this movie holds the "highest gross per-theatre" title for 2010. And yes, it was a good movie, and a good start to my year's movies. But I doubt I'll ever run into that kind of crowd at an art theatre again.

Rating: 8/10 (*** 1/2 out of 4)

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/kings-speech/
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Tron: Legacy: 4 (out of 10)

In short: Tron: Legacy looks and sounds good, but I was not impressed.

I should state up front that I am a huge fan of the original Tron. It's not just that the movie was visually distinctive and imaginative, as most people remember - though believe me, it sure was memorable. No, what I've been impressed with is the quality and quantity of insightful metaphors into the state of computing. The movie and its world were at heart based on the technology of 1982 (specifically the VMS operating system); and while the world of computing has certainly changed dramatically over the last three decades, the influence of those old technologies is still strong. Every time I watch the movie, I see the parallels between the ideas presented and the movie and modern computing technologies and ideas - and that's 28 years later! The plot may have been thin, the characters shallow, and the whole thing may be a half hour too long, but it never ceases to amaze me as the film-makers of my childhood muse on the ideas of modern technology. The metaphors made
the movie.

Given this bias, I must also admit that I didn't exactly come into Tron: Legacy with high hopes. After all, how could a sequel today even try to work with the same material?

Still, there were definitely good parts mixed into the movie. First of all, there's Daft Punk's soundtrack. The original film's score was nearly as iconic as the movie's visuals; the sequel's score is at least as good, remaining faithful to its predecessor while also taking significant advantage of the band's distinct electronic sound (with just a touch of Vangelis for good measure). In retrospect, Daft Punk's entire body of work was leading up to scoring this movie, and they knocked it out of the park. Hiring them was the most brilliantly inspired moment in the film's creation.

The visual effects were also suitably spectacular. I liked the decision to make the Real World mostly 2D and the Grid mostly 3D; the mix came off fairly subtly and actually made the 3D augment the visuals rather than replacing them, most impressively by offering a feeling of semi-transparency to the buildings and vehicles throughout the movie. As the visual design itself - well, yes, they copied that pretty nicely from the first movie, and updated it effectively. The orange-with-some-blue landscapes were always beautiful, and the action scenes within them were clear and spectacular. All-in-all, the VFX were what I was hoping for (though, admittedly, not as far "advanced for their time" as the original Tron's effects were back in its day).

One last truly positive part probably fits into the above category: the Light-Cycle Arena sequence. The scene may not have been all that well integrated into the movie, but it was nevertheless an impressive spectacle. This time, the action was less reminiscent of 'Snake' and 'SNAFU', and more reminiscent of squad-combat version of Mario Kart's Battle Mode. I could watch a whole movie about this Team Light-Cycle Battle, and I certainly hope that another sub-genre gets developed.

So those are the good bits. They were honestly strong enough that the movie would probably be worth watching for those parts alone. But those elements don't exist in a vacuum, and the poor implementation of the rest of the film drags the whole work back down below average.

The number one issue dragging everything else down was the story. To be fair, I think there is a story in there, and a potentially interesting one at that; the problem is in how that story was told. Unfortunately, the story is too complicated for its own good, necessitating far too many expository info-dumps to explain the background, the motivations, and the parties involved. This not only violated the "show, don't tell" principle, but it didn't even convey enough information to understand the issues in depth, and certainly not to care about them.

For example: over the course of the movie we learn a fair amount about the background of Quorra (Olivia Wilde) - her powers, her history, and her relevance to the world. But, oddly, she is not compelling - she's in the way more than anything, and even her acts of badass-ery feel tacked on. There were two problems: we simply don't have enough context to care about that background, and we also don't have any understanding of how her actions and personality compare to other natives of the Grid. All we know is that she's supposed to be important; that's not enough to sustain her character.

My other major gripe is that, well, the metaphors just don't hold up. Sure, the movie was clearly aiming at some metaphors for modern computing - primarily "complex systems evolve in unpredictable ways" - but we are once again told rather than shown, much to the viewer's chagrin. Instead, we're left with standard Hollywood plot stories - there is power in danger in evolution, we choose our own families, you must stand up for what you believe in instead of watching from the sidelines, etc. I can't see anybody being interested in watching this movie in 25 years (5? 1?) to learn anything about their own world. And that's a shame.

And of course there's the standard problem with Hollywood blockbusters: dedication to the short-term demographics, looking at what "tests well" rather than what makes a good movie. For example, the light cycles were simply over-played. The story moves from light-cycles, to a light-SUV with light-missiles, and eventually to to light-fighter jets with light-turrets - and all the while, we didn't explore the updated Recognizers or Tanks at all, let alone the Solar Sailer. This made the "updated technology" feel of the movie seem too narrow to be real or interesting.

(Connected to this, the "super powers" of the Users (humans) seemed to be de-emphasized. Flynn seemed in the first movie to have the equivalent of "super-user" powers on the system - he could fix things that others couldn't fix, influence things that others couldn't influence, and generally was able to "hack" his way through the system where other programs could not. At first, I thought this had just been taken out entirely, or and that Flynn's powers were unique to the Grid of the first movie; but every now and again, there was some indication that the Users still had these powers, usually manifested by changing the background colors around them when they are present. But this was under-played, and didn't affect the plot in a meaningful way; I think I would rather have seen it left out entirely.)

At any rate - this was not a good movie, but nor was it terrible. It did, at least, surpass my expectations; but it was a long way from reaching anything that I was hoping. I'll still see the third movie, when it inevitably comes out, but my hopes have been appropriately calibrated.

If you're on the fence about this movie, go watch the original first (or again). If you're still interested afterwards, go ahead and see this. Otherwise, go see one of the many legitimately good movies currently in theatres.

Rating: 4/10 (** out of 4)

My Theory About The Metaphor

Software is meant to be free, and big corporations that try to sell their software are bad. But when the software is free, it runs roughshod over the world, working as a virus to infect all other programs (especially works more creative than itself), and waiting for its chance to break out into the wider network. And eventually, this freedom will destroy the programmers that built it into the system.

I guess that means that Tron: Legacy is about the GNU Public License.
If so, then yes, that means that Clu represents Richard Stallman.

Side Notes

  • So, what could they have done differently with the plot? I see two paths that would have worked: they could have tightened the movie up substantially by cutting out a half hour or so, simplifying the plot and cutting sub-plots in the process, or they could have lengthened it dramatically. The former path would have required them to leave out most of the exposition entirely, and focus on a more concrete series of set-pieces; the latter path would change the story to a mini-series or short series of movies. But in either direction, we would have been offered more depth to the story, instead of a simple story stretched so tight over a basic skeleton.

  • I liked that Daft Punk themselves appeared in the movie, working as DJs in the virtual club (chat room?) with Michae
    l Sheen. It still would have been better to drop the scene, mind, but at least there was something to laugh at.

  • For being the titular character, we only see Tron in a small handful of scenes, and in almost all of those we don't see his face. A lot of effort was put into de-aging Jeff Bridges; why didn't we do some de-ageing of Bruce Boxleitner?

  • Along these lines, the de-ageing effect for Jeff Bridges was, well, "off-putting" is the closest word I can think of. Mind, for much of the movie this was okay; off-putting may well have been the desired effect. But in the early scenes, taking place in 1989, the plastic expressions really detracted from the overall effort, and the clear attempts to film the character from behind was even worse. I don't know that there was a better option yet, but, regardless, effect detracted from the film.

  • Why, oh why, was there no Bit? Yes, there were the allusions, but come on, he was fun!

  • Special recognition for awfulness has to go to !
    Castor, Michael Sheen's character that is most similar to those albinos from The Matrix Reloaded with a little bit of a carnival barker tossed in. The character was terrible, his scenes pointless, and the whole thing added nothing to the movie that couldn't have been accomplished with a line or two of dialogue.

  • I don't want to talk about the opening real-world plot. It was just pointless.

  • There were some Unix-y bits, and those amused me. Flynn's old workstation is running on an 'i386 sum4m' system running 'SolarOS' - and that's almost plausible. The OS running on his terminal is clearly a Unix derivative, and the commands run on there look almost good. But I don't remember a separate, stand-alone 'history' program separate from the shell... Aah, well. It was at least close.

  • Midnight shows are growing less-and-less worth the trouble. It was at least interesting to see that the first movie is stil
    l gaining friends, decades later. Most of that audience hadn't been born when the first movie came out.

URL: http://wiki.killfile.org/reviews/movies/tron-legacy/
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