The new Star Wars?

There’s plenty that’s already been written on this movie, since it cost a bomb to make, the director waited a decade to make it until technology caught up to his vision, and it’s on a rapid trajectory to become the highest grossing film ever. But I’ve been hanging out to see it ever since I heard it would be in 3D, making it the first of the current crop of 3D films to be (at least, partially) live-action. And anyway, at least this review will be adhering to my strong policy of no spoilers.


An enjoyable film set in a jaw-droppingly impressive sci-fi universe.

This is not a new tale, and is similar to Dune (or to Pocahontas, I am told), but is delivered with such commitment to the vision of James Cameron that it cannot fail to impress. This film is awash with a wealth of detail that even Tolkien would be proud of. With scientific consultants including a linguist from USC and a botanist from UCR, the world has a lot of detail behind it that you can actually see on the screen. New technologies needed to be developed to produce the computer animation and to shoot the actors in 3D.

The 3D is something that is hyped up in the marketing for this film. I saw this film in 3D, but although I suspect I would’ve enjoyed it as much, or more, in 2D. It is a little distracting – from time to time I found myself impressed by the technology rather than immersed in the tale. Although, perhaps this is something that over time people will get used to. If you see enough 3D video content, you will probably be able to look past the 3D aspect itself.

The themes in the movie are consistent with the effort that Cameron has invested in his new world – perhaps he subconsciously doesn’t want anyone to mess with it. The themes cover the effects of colonialism, the theory of gaia, and the problems of the military-industrial complex. If this doesn’t float your boat, you can still get lost in the film’s 3D beauty or its action sequences.

Although, ironically, the characters themselves don’t have a great deal of depth. I found it hard to really empathise with them, or find their motivations completely believable. However, at least the heroes are likeable.

Even if the characters don’t re-appear, I came away convinced that the world will appear again in further movies, games and books. Like Star Trek, Star Wars or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the story universe has been so richly populated that sequels can’t help but be spun out form it. Sounds like Cameron has at least a couple more films up his sleeve for it, also.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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Snap Judgements

At one of the airports during my recent trip, I had to use up some loose change. It’s one of those strange situations – the currency in your hand has value, but as soon as you step onto the plane it’s worthless. Nowhere outside the country will change coins for you, and if it’s a small amount in notes the currency exchange fees will probably eat up all the value. So, one strategy is to turn soon-to-be-worthless currency into something that will still have value even after the plane starts taxiing.

I ended up buying a book, of course.

I had been eyeing off a Malcolm Gladwell book – the one before Outliers, which I’ve already read. I ended up converting my useless Hong Kong dollars (or whatever they were, I forget which airport it was) into something with persistent value. Which was lucky, as I didn’t get around to reading it until about a month later.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

People make snap judgements, but some are better than others

The basic idea of this book is obvious to anyone: that people make snap judgements. However, Gladwell tries to find those times when the snap judgements are interesting, because they are occurring subconsciously, or they are uncannily correct, or they are disappointingly wrong. He describes those times to us with his usual style of clear writing interspersed with interesting anecdotes and off-beat research.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take away from the book much in the way of practical lessons. It seems that he was trying to write an up-beat book, to show the potential of snap judgements, but I felt a number of the negative cases tended to counter that message. Although someone can be trained to overcome the bias in subconscious judgements, it is not enough to be aware of the subconscious judgement. Also, it turns out that even experts in their field are not always able to say when a snap judgement is going to lead you astray.

However, I still found it fascinating. In particular, I loved the parts about the police, and also the story about the cataloguing of every possible facial expression.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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Comic but not funny

When I was a boy, I had my hair cut at a (somewhat sleazy I can now say) Italian barbers called Mario’s. It was in a small suburban shopping centre named Crossways, after the fact it was placed on a major intersection. Despite this, it never managed to attract a great deal of foot traffic. But somehow, its traders struggled on, and Mario’s seemed to get by on the number of (always) attractive (always)  female (daughters? cousins? nieces?) staff that Mario had around to hand him scissors and clippers.

To keep the younger clientele amused while waiting for Mario, at the end of the long, leather bench seat that ran the length of the barbershop, there was a stack of various comic publications. There was Archie and Richie Rich and others of that ilk, but it was The Phantom that I would always dig through the stack for. A costumed super-hero dating from the earliest days of the comics scene, he would fight off smugglers and slave traders through smarts and physical prowess.

That’s probably how I got “into” comics.

I’m not the biggest comic fan I know, nor am I a regular reader of comics (if you don’t count web comics). But I do own several graphic novels and books of comics, have Comical installed on my PC, and I now have my own stack of The Phantom.

So, when I came across a recommendation for a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the early days of comics, it then didn’t take too much convincing from the sales lady to buy it. “It’s epic”, she said.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

A literary treatment of escapism

Michael Chabon’s book takes the reader through the early years of the American comic book industry, set in 1940s New York. It is a thoroughly researched tale, that feels completely plausible, and it is difficult to know where the facts stop and the fiction begins.

The two protagonists of the title – Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay – are likable and engaging, and it is easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. However, it’s not clear that Chabon likes them very much at all, as it is a rollercoaster of a story, and he doesn’t let them stay happy for long.

The quirky style of the writing made me feel as if I should be getting ready to laugh out loud, but the strife and despair of the situations put a damper on the high points. As a result, I couldn’t sit and read this book for very long at a stretch, and had to put it down and come back when I was ready for yet more torment to occur to Sam and Joe.

The themes of the book revolve around ideas of escapism. There is plenty of fodder for this in the context of a couple of Jewish immigrants in New York during World War II, however the inclusion of comic books into this allows additional meanings. It is cleverly done and the book feels “worthy”, but the level of depressingness was a little too much for me.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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3D but not even 3 star

On a recent trip, I watched one of the new crop of 3D computer animated films on the plane. Since Chicken Little came out in 2005, there has been almost exponential growth in the number of 3D films in our cinemas. Today it seems that you can’t release a computer animation without making it 3D – even Pixar’s latest effort is a 3D extravaganza. That said, the film I watched was in 2D since planes aren’t yet fitted out with 3D screens.

Monsters vs Aliens

The title is more exciting than the film turned out to be

Now, if this was actually the aliens out of the movie Aliens fighting the monsters out of Monsters Inc, then we might have had something. However, this movie was about two things: 3D and Reese Witherspoon.

You can tell that we’re not yet mature about the use of 3D in films, because this one starts off with a guy playing with a paddle ball towards the camera. I would’ve thought that the point was to have a movie experience so immersive that you forget you’re in a cinema. Going out of your way to remind everyone that they’re watching a 3D movie defeats that.

Aside from the 3D, Witherspoon is the star of this show. It’s really a vehicle for her (is it her first animated feature?) and the rest is not particularly memorable. I got the impression that if Men in Black had been made by the people who made Sweet Home Alabama, then this is the movie we’ve had ended up with.

My rating: 2.5 stars

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A child-free night out

Thanks to Uncle Ben’s kind offer to babysit, we were free to go see a movie (!). The most simple night out becomes something requiring planning and logistics, now that we are parents. However, we almost left it too late to see the latest Harry Potter film before it vanished from cinemas here.

As I’ve said before, we’re not the maddest of mad keen Potter fans, but we have seen every Harry Potter film at the cinema. In order to see the second one, we had to see it in Madrid. Luckily, it was a subtitled rather than a dubbed version!

If I was a mad keen fan, I probably wouldn’t have called it “the second one”, but all the titles blur together. Harry Potter and the Random Jumble of Words. So, this movie was the sixth one, and apparently there are two more to go.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Best realisation of the Harry Potter universe yet.

The sixth Harry Potter book is not the best one of the series, so the sixth movie is starting with a bit of a handicap. If I’m to be honest, it’s a handicap that it doesn’t completely overcome. But, plot aside, there are many other excellent aspects of this film, and I found myself really enjoying it.

The first thing is that the acting has come a long way from the beginning of the series. All the cast put on a good showing, and it is a delight to watch them realise the characters.

I also came away with the impression that the visual effects director was a genius. The special effects in the film (aside from the first couple of minutes in London) were appropriately done, effective, and rather artistic. The quidditch game in this film actually felt like a game that you could imagine people liking.

On the other hand, this is a dark episode in the the Harry Potter series, and is not one you would take small children to. A number of the scenes felt like they could have been lifted from a decent horror flick.

Don’t expect all of the book’s scenes to be present in the film. And don’t expect the book to be faithfully interpreted. If you are a mad keen fan, you probably won’t appreciate it. However, I think they’ve set things up well for the sequel (both of them).

My rating: 4.0 stars

Pulp fantasy

After I’ve completed an exam, I no longer need to feel guilty if I read something other than my study notes. Having just finished a subject, I recently went out and grabbed myself some fiction to read instead. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and in my random wanderings through the bookstore, I came across a book of his that I hadn’t heard about before.


A satisfying fantasy novel that manages a new take on a cliched formula

This novel is pitched as an adult fairy tale. However, it’s only adult in the sense that it’s not a children’s fairy tale. It’s not cover-to-cover steamy raunchiness or anything. There is some raunchiness. Bad things happen to good people. All up, more of a “young adult” book than an adult one, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the copy that I’ve got, there’s a review quote from Stephen King. In fact, aspects of the book do remind me of King’s work, as Gaiman is able to conjure up some pretty strange and freaky creatures to inhabit his fantasy world. The physics and logic of the fantasy world start off strange, but grew on me during the course of the book. Just seeing Gaiman apply his creativity is part of the enjoyment of reading it.

Apparently this book has been turned into a movie, although I hadn’t heard of it either. Although, after reading this book and enjoying it, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the movie at the local video store. I also discovered that Gaiman is behind Coraline, which I am very keen to see, now that I’ve read his take on a children’s fairy story.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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Scandinavia – the most violent place on earth?

It seems that Scandinavia (you know.. Denmark, Sweden, et al) is currently the home of the crime novel elite. Which means, according to Slate magazine, that more people are murdered in Scandinavian crime fiction than are actually murdered in reality. You have probably heard of some of the Scandinavian crime writers, if only Peter Høeg of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. In fact, last year one of them was apparently the second most popular author, globally, of any genre. So, it was about time I read one of his books.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grim, suspenseful, nasty but good.

When the author, Stieg Larsson, handed over the manuscript of this novel, he was not to know he wouldn’t live to see it published. Luckily for us, he also handed over the manuscripts to the two follow-up novels, so we have more of his work to indulge in, as it is really very good.

This crime story is set in Sweden, and is provided to us in translation. The feel of Sweden seems to come through strongly for me in reading it, and part of the enjoyment was in the sampling of the culture, which the translator has left intact.

The story itself starts slowly, and quickly turns macabre. I did not enjoy some of the sick turns that the plot took, and given that the tale took up residence in my brain for a few days, it was not pleasant. However, there is much to like in both the plot and characters.

There are also some interesting themes woven into the book, covering journalistic ethics, violence against women and even citizen’s rights. The philosophy covered in those areas was more extensive than I would’ve expected for a crime thriller, and it’s more what I’d expect in science fiction.

I am looking forward to reading the next book.

My rating: 4.0 stars

The Latest Malcolm Gladwell

I really enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, and now he’s churning out the books. His is an appealing formula that is part psychology, part economics, and part science. :) This month’s book club will be looking at his latest book.


An interesting theory of why individuals succeed based on their circumstances rather than their talent.

In “Outliers”, Gladwell provides anecodes, scientific studies, and personal history to support the idea that exceptional individuals (the outliers of the title) are more due to the circumstances of their birth and the amount of practice they’ve put in, than being due to exceptional talent. It’s a quick read, and engagingly written, so easy to enjoy.

However, is it a controversial idea that success comes from more than just talent? Do I need to give any examples other than former US President George W Bush? Perhaps in (some parts of) the US, it is a widely held belief that success comes solely from individual merit, but I hope that most have a more nuanced view. So, the author does not have to work very hard to convince us.

Although, perhaps he should have, as the book is written to build out the theory rather than the demonstrate the theory’s truth. There is little scientific method in such a treatment, as even though we are shown some successful individuals meet Gladwell’s criteria, we aren’t shown if all individuals that meet Gladwell’s criteria are successful. In this way, it is a bit like The Millionaire Next Door (which I reviewed here) – a book that proposes the attributes of millionaires but doesn’t show how many with those attributes achieve millionaire status.

These are minor quibbles. Perhaps it is more concerning that the book has a somewhat racist message. Jews are successful lawyers, Koreans are poor pilots, and Asians are good at maths. Although supported by his research, there is a moral tangle with accepting such claims, and this isn’t dealt with in the book.

That said, it is an enjoyable and interesting read. I didn’t find it as good as The Tipping Point, but given the potential for debate, I think it will be a good book-club book.

My rating: 3.5 stars

Post-modern Post-bookclub

Even though it was my turn to stay home on bookclub night last month, I did actually read the book anyway. My take on bookclub is to write my thoughts into this blog and whoever reads this is welcome to comment. Or not. It was a post-modern novel this time, so alternatives to traditional, in-situ bookclub discussion are completely appropriate.

The Raw Shark Texts

Jaws meets Memento meets The 39 Steps meets Tristram Shandy

I tried to get this. I really did. I hung on – hoping for something. Something that never came. Almost, but not quite.

It is difficult to talk about or explain The Raw Shark Texts, the first novel by UK author Steven Hall, without giving away some of the surprises. I don’t want to give any spoilers, as it is the mystery and surprises that were the most rewarding parts of the book for me. In this way, it reminded me of The 39 Steps – the main protagonist has no idea what is going on, neither does the reader, and the fun is from finding it out together.

Hall has training in Fine Arts, and apparently produced artwork with a textual element. This background is apparent in the book, with something akin to ASCII art featuring in the story and even forming part philosophy underpinning the story’s universe. It was a very interesting idea, but didn’t quite work for me as a plot device.

The title is a pun on Rorschach (ink-blot) Tests where the reader is urged to come up with their own interpretation of what is happening in the story. Unfortunately, I found enough inconsistency with different interpretations that I couldn’t find any that really worked, although I could appreciate the story as a bunch of clever ideas.

My rating: 2.0 stars

Huge night out

Last night Kate and I went out and saw a film together. It was the first film we’ve seen together since Harriet was born, and Kate’s parents did the duty of minding our little girl for a couple of hours. We saw the film, had a coffee, and were back by 10:30 to pick her up again. A Saturday night out is a bit different to how it used to be. :)

For this momentous night out we chose to see a film that is up for a bag of oscars. We’ll know within 24 hours whether it has landed any of them, but I think it’s got good odds.

Slumdog Millionaire

A huge, Indian film with gangsters, family, and romance.

This is probably not the sort of film to go to if you are dog tired. It requires a lot from the audience, with a large number of subtitles (done in an interesting way), two levels of flash-backs, and multiple actors playing the main characters at different points in their lives. But it is worth the effort, as the film is epic, well-acted and has an interesting tale.

Based loosely on a book, the idea in this film is explaining how a boy from the slums can know the answers in the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game-show in India. In explaining this, we are treated to an amazing life the includes the horrors of slums, beggars, thieves and death, although situated in some incredible locations that are well captured by the cinematography. It intelligently covers themes of loyalty, religious intolerance, and the class system, but wraps it up in a romantic plot. I was impressed.

Given that it doesn’t show India in a particularly kind light, it didn’t really make me want to go back and visit. I can’t imagine the Indian government being particularly happy about the number of people going to see this film, from a tourist perspective. For example, I couldn’t imagine such a film being set and filmed in China, with the PRC’s tight control of media.

I have also read that this film is bringing about a renewed interest in Bollywood dancing. This surprises me, as I would’ve picked this as the least likely Indian film to spur a Bollywood dancing resurgence. The stars are not Bollywood stars, and there is no dancing in the main part of the film. But if it encourages people to see other Bollywood films, where there are real song and dance numbers, then all the better.

Or maybe it’s just the sheer number of people who are going to see this movie. And I can understand that.

My rating: 4.0 stars

As a postscript to this review, when I was living in London, I had a job that involved developing mobile handset versions of the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” game. Every time the theme music played in the movie, I practically had a flash-back, which made it a bit hard to focus on the movie at times. I don’t expect many other people would have that problem…