Saturday, April 12, 2014

I have a soul…I just don't have it with me (Cold Souls review)

Note:  This is a review that's reposted from Epinions.

Very few works of fiction try to tackle what a soul is.  What is it about or minds and consciousness that makes us self-aware?  What does a soul do, exactly?  What would happen if we could have our soul extracted and put into storage?

In Cold Souls, Paul Giamatti plays Paul Giamatti.  (A brilliant stroke of casting, I think.)  Giamatti (the character) is preparing for his role in Chekov’s Uncle Vanya, but just can’t seem to get it right.  Someone tells him about a service that will remove his soul and put it into storage.  When he reads about it in the New Yorker, he seriously considers it.

This may all sound sinister, but in this movie, it’s really not.  When Giamatti goes in to speak to a doctor, he’s told that it will remove the burden of his emotions, allowing him to go through life much more easily and clearly.  After a little convincing, Giamatti has the procedure done.

At first, it’s not so bad.  There’s no guilt or fear, but his work and social life do suffer.  When he and his wife are out with some of her friends, one of the friends is talking about caring for a terminally ill patient.  Giamatti casually suggests that she just pull the plug.  When talking about it in the car later, Giamatti has absolutely no idea what he did wrong.  As for the play, he starts overcompensating.  He’s going in a totally wrong direction.  Giamatti soon realizes that he needs his soul back.

Back at the facility, the doctor convinces Giamatti to take the soul of a Russian poet instead.  He gets through the play fine, but realizes that the only soul that will do is his own.  He goes back and insists on getting his own soul back, but it’s too late.  His soul has been stolen by Nina, a woman working for a Russian dealing in black-market souls.  His wife wanted the soul of an American actor and Giamatti’s was the only one available.  After finding out what Nina did, Giamatti sets off with her to get his soul back.

You’ll notice that Russians factor into the movie quite a bit.  Not having actually read Chekov or any other Russian literature, it’s hard to tell how much this influences the movie, but the movie can be somewhat heavy at times.  Giamatti is conflicted about having his soul removed.  A soul is a pretty big thing to have taken out.  Yes, he can have it reversed, but is it really necessary?  He’s a very tormented character.

There are also a lot of aspects of the movie that are depressing.  For instance, Nina is little more than a mule.  Transporting as many souls as she has, she’s left with residue that means that she may not be able to get her own soul back.  There is also a scene with Giamatti waiting in a Russian hotel.  It seems he has little to do beyond walking around the hotel property waiting for Nina to get back.

There are some humorous points.  For instance, each soul looks different.  Giamatti’s looks like a chickpea.  Another looks like a jellybean.  It’s not known why each looks different, but it does bother Giamatti that his is so small.  (Apparently, size doesn’t matter.)

Also, being able to harvest souls does create a black market, complete with the aforementioned mules.  The group of Russians dealing in black-market souls collects them from people that apparently need the money.  They sign away all rights to getting it back, as shown in a scene where a woman wants hers back.

The movie doesn’t deal directly with what a soul is.  The doctor repeatedly admits that modern science knows very little about the soul other than how to remove it, store it and put it in someone else.  I suppose this is a good thing.  There are so many views on what a soul is that to try to pin down a philosophy for the movie would have been unnecessary and probably would have alienated some viewers.  The movie simply explores what it would be like to have your soul removed without being too technical about it.

It gets a bit confusing at times.  Giamatti apparently has visions associated with the former owner of the soul.  It wasn’t until I started reading reviews about the movie that I realized what this was.  I think part of the problem is that even at 1:41, it drags on at parts.

The acting great as was the basic premise.  My only real complaint was that it dragged on a little too much.  About halfway through the movie, I felt like I was still waiting for the movie to get interesting.  At that point, I figured that I might as well finish it.  At the very least, I’d be able to know how the movie ended and write a complete review.

When I heard about the film on NPR a few years ago, the movie sounded interesting.  Having seen it, it’s hard for me to recommend the movie to someone mostly because I had trouble finishing it.  Had it not been for my desire to review it, I probably would have shut it off halfway through.  Overall, I’d give it three stars.  Catch it if it comes on TV, but I wouldn’t recommend renting it.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

How Evil Works: Understanding and Overcoming the Destructive Forces That Are Transforming America (book review)

Note:  This is a review that was originally posted on Epinions.  I'm reposting it almost as is.  This was one of my more detailed reviews, so I'd definitely like to get this one on the blog.

There have been a few movies that I’ve watched knowing that not many people would be affected by them.  Those that agreed with the message would be glad that someone made a film showcasing their views.  Those that disagreed would hold it up as a bunch of lies.  (I’ve usually been in the first group.)

When I checked out How Evil Works from the library, I thought it would be about the psychology of evil people.  You’d have maybe a chapter on dictators and another chapter on criminals or something.  When I started flipping through the book, I realized that I had gotten something entirely different.  The first chapter title I saw was Chapter 7’s Rejecting God.  (It’s subtitled Why Militant Atheism is Becoming a Badge of Honor.)  I realized that I was going to be part of that second group.

I wanted to read the whole book, mostly so that I could give examples of what I don’t agree with.  I did finish and I wanted to be more specific than “all of it”, so I took notes.  Normally, I don’t like giving too much detail on each chapter, but I think I’m going to have to here.  There are a lot of things that I want to point out.

Chapter 1 is In Government We Trust.  Basically, David Kupleian says that we elect leaders not to do the right thing, but to lie to us.  It’s easy for a politician to get in with a big lie because we don’t question them.  Some will even start a crisis, like global warming, so that they might solve it for us.

We tend to elect liars based on the lies that make us feel best.  Do you feel guilty about murdering your unborn child?  Then vote for a pro-choice candidate.  (This is halfway down page 13.)  At the end of the second full paragraph on page 23, he states, “You can destroy lives and civilizations” if you’re sinful and not sincere.

In Chapter 2, which is called Sexual Anarchy, the author states that sex is for marriage only.  It’s “obvious” that sex is for a man and a woman because if the irrefutable proof that a child needs one mother and one father.  (This is from page 44.)  One thing I disagree with is with the author’s equating homosexuality and wanting to have a sex-change operation with having sex with children.  If it’s not one adult male and one adult female in the confines of marriage, it’s not good.

With Chapter 3, or How Terrorism Really Works, the author explains how use Stockholm syndrome to control people.  We give in to our captors out of fear for our lives.  Governments can do the same thing.  His solution?  Be strong, like Reagan.  Don’t be weak like Carter.

On page 51, Kupleian says that the political left is the total opposite of reality where up is down.  It’s a worldview that emanates from anger.  He says that we shouldn’t give into terrorism.  Instead, we should be strong and bomb the crap out of those that would do us harm.  (So, Stockholm syndrome is bad unless we’re the ones perpetrating it.)

Chapter 4 is called The Secret Curse of Celebrity, in which the author states that you have to be an raging egomaniac to want to be a star.  Even if you’re not, you have so many yes men, fans and whatnot telling you how wonderful you are that it’s not healthy.  God created us to worship Him, not each other.

Well, according to this chapter, there really is a God and only man has choice.  He can either chose to be with God or he can chose to be prideful.  We can either chose to be good or we can chose to blame others for all of our problems.  I get the impression from this chapter that there are a lot of egocentric, prideful celebrities.

Chapter 5 is Doctors, Drugs and Demons.  Kupleian rails against handing out diagnoses (and, thus, medication) to solve all of our problems.  Does your son twitch too much?  He has ADHD.  Give him some meds.  Are you depressed after having a child?  On page 107, the author states that god didn’t make us to be depressed and/or suicidal after childbirth.  Does this guy have a medical degree that I don’t know about?

Chapter 6 is called False Gods and is about witchcraft, paganism and the various new age religions.  This is the chapter where I came to realize that the author is pretty much full of it.  The basic premise is that the Christian God is the one true God.  Given the title of the chapter, it shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the author doesn’t have a high opinion of other religions.

On page 126, he asks who would believe in good-luck spells and magical potions?  Yet, praying is supposed to work?  Well, actually, submitting to God is supposed to work.  We go against God and chose these other religions is that we’re not noble.  We seek alternate religions as a way to rebel against the Church.

Chapter 7 is Rejecting God, which is about what he calls “militant atheism”.  (You have to look no further than the subtitle to find the term.)  As I said, this is the one that caught my attention.  The chapter tends to be mostly how religion (read: Christianity) is good and not having Christianity as a moral framework is bad.

Kupleian points out that Obama put non-believers on equal footing with believers.  Almost half of all Americans would be willing to vote for an atheist.  (Both of these come from page 140)   Are these supposed to be bad things?

On page 144, he states that atheists view the three major religions as being “dangerous monotheistic fairy tails.”  I’ve never really thought of religion in general as being dangerous.  Yes, people have done dangerous things in the name of religion, but I don’t see religion itself as being dangerous.

What really gets me is on pages 148-9, where Kupleian calls the lack of proof for Intelligent Design to be nonsensical.  He says that the proof is in the complexity.  In fact, he claims that there’s no proof of evolution.  Forget all the fossils.  Mutating viruses?  Ha!  Your unproven set of beliefs is nothing more than a religion.

I’ve never accepted the complexity of a system as proof of a particular creator.  Yes, one might wonder if there was someone or some group playing a part in it or setting everything in motion, but just because something exists doesn’t mean it supports your particular version of events.

In Chapter 8, Kupleian feels that fathers are no longer respected.  In fact, he calls the chapter The War on Fathers.    He seems to believe that society has it in for men.  Girls are getting ahead in school.  There are more women than men going to college.  Colleges are having to resort to gender-based affirmative action.

On page 173, the author implies that being feminist means that you hate men.  On 177, it’s implied that rejecting stereotypes is basically hatred of men.    On 175, he calls those wishing to change their sex through surgery “obviously troubled.”  (Did it ever occur to you that maybe a few social factors might play into that?)

Chapter 9 is The Mysterious Power of Hate.  This chapter covers things like genocide and raising children to hate other ethnic groups.  On page 196, Kupleian says that there are two types of people.  There are those that accept God no matter how flawed they are and those that can’t face reality and their own shortcomings.  (So, if you don’t accept God, you’re delusional?  I don’t accept that.)

On page 200, Kupleian speaks of standing on a ledge and there being some force pulling you over.  This is called gravity, but he seems to think it’s the devil.  He holds the same to be true of head-on collisions.  Could it be that the road was a little wet?  Maybe you misjudged how sharp the turn was.  Or maybe the devil told you to do it.  The answer?  Trust in God.

Chapter 10 is So, Where on Earth is God?  The chapter doesn’t actually deal with physically finding God.  It’s more about accepting the emotional and spiritual path to God.  Instead of physically following Jesus, you’re dedicating your life to him.

On page 213, Kupleian calls Christianity a spiritual religion where Islam is more legalistic.  (Look at the fourth paragraph.)  Islam seems to be big on how often you pray or what kind of rug you use.  Christianity is about actually accepting the supreme being rather than going through the motions.  If I’m not mistaken, Islam literally means to surrender to God.  That doesn’t sound like someone that’s going through the motions.

Chapter 11 is the last chapter.  It’s called Turning the Tables on Evil in America.   Kupleian wrote a book before this called The Marketing of Evil.  Apparently, people wanted a sequel about marketing good.  He didn’t write the book, but he did write this chapter, partly in response.

He states on page 231 that “Deceivers have the upper hand.”  Deceivers are pumping you full of lies, like the government is there to help, homosexuality and abortion are good, and prayer and the Ten Commandments are bad.  (Instead, we should apparently think that homosexuality is bad and that the government is there to hurt is.)

One thing that stuck out in my mind about this chapter is a story starting on page 251.  Kupleian tells the story of William Wilberforce, who tried to end the slave trade in Britain in the late 18th century.  He couldn’t get the job done after 11 attempts.  His brother-in-law gave him an idea.  Instead of tackling it head on, use anti-French sentiment to sneak it in.

After he tells this story, Kupleian warns the reader that Democrats, tired of trying to get the Fairness Doctrine reinstated, used a set of laws to accomplish nearly the same thing.  So, the message here is that brilliant ideas are good so long as they accomplish something that you agree with?

This is the problem that I had with the book overall.  It seems like the author is saying that if you truly give your life over to God, then you’re in good hands.  If you’re a Muslim, an atheist, Wiccan, Democrat, liberal or feminist, you’re bad and there’s something wrong with you.

I’ve been able to comment on Chapter 7 mostly because I identify as atheist.  The chapter is misinformed at best and insulting at worst.  I have to wonder if the author spent any actual time with atheists or if he’s getting his information elsewhere.  There is evidence of evolution.  Those that don’t believe in it often make ridiculous arguments, like fossils were put there to trick us or to test our faith.  It’s like Groucho Marx said, “Who are you going to believe: Me or your lying eyes?”

I’d love to see what Wiccans and other believers of “false” gods have to say about Chapter Six.  I’d imagine that there would be a similar reaction.  Kupleian may get a few facts right, but I’d imagine that a good deal of it is his being misinformed.  There are a lot of other people that I imagine would have something to say, such as celebrities and doctors.

I apologize for the long word count, but I had a lot to say about this book.  I didn’t want to simply be glib or dismissive.  I realized that if I was going to pick apart the book, I might as well go all out and give examples of what I didn’t agree with.  There was very little about the book that I did agree with.

It seemed that overall, Kupleian was saying that God was good and everything not serving God is bad.   It came across as condescending.  It’s not that I think that abortion is good.  And I do agree that making an informed decision is the right thing to do.  It’s just that I think that there are times when having the option to abort the child should be made available.  I also don’t agree that homosexuality is bad.  I don’t think that it’s my place to tell people who they can date or marry.  Also, what’s the big deal about other religions?  What’s it to you if a law-abiding citizen wants to worship another deity or supreme being?

You don’t have to like everything that I do or believe.  I’m not going to like everything that you do or believe.  There are just times when I have to sit back and wonder.

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Worth the low price (ASUS 7 [8 GB, Intel Celeron M, 900 MHz, 512 MB) Notebook review]

Note:  This is a repost of a review I wrote of the ASUS 7" (8 GB, Intel Celeron M, 900 MHz, 512 MB) Notebook on Epinions, located here. It was originally posted on Jan 24, 2010.  I know it's out of date, but I'm testing a site I just found to automatically post on Facebook and Twitter.

I'm a member of a currency-tracking web site called Where's George.  Last year, I went to Las Vegas and knew that I'd be entering a lot of bills on the site.  Right before I went to Las Vegas, I decided to get a small laptop or netbook.  My primary reason for getting one was that I wanted to be able to enter bills from the comfort and security of my hotel room.  I knew I'd want a computer to take with me on the trip, but I didn't feel like dragging a desktop along for the ride.  (Airport security is strict enough about laptops.)

My primary criterion for purchasing said computer was the price.  I knew that I'd be using it after the trip, but I didn't know how often.  I didn't really want to have to shell out too much money for something I'd be using once or twice per year.  I also needed something that could connect to a network wirelessly since I‘d be using it on the road, so to speak, and most places that have Internet access have the wireless kind.  Size was also a big factor.  I'd need something that could easily fit in my backpack and still leave room for other things.

This was back when I was working for Wolf Camera and we had just brought in the Asus line of netbooks.  (For those that are wondering, a netbook is a smaller version of a laptop.)  The price was about as small as I could expect to pay and still get something that turned on most of the time.  Add to that the fact that I could get an employee discount.

My manager and I both bought one of these.  We didn’t really have the option to upgrade anything through Wolf.  It came with a 7.5 GB hard drive, 504 MB of RAM and a 900 MHz Intel Celeron processor.  My manager has been able to upgrade the RAM, but I don’t know about any of the other features.  The operating system is Windows XP, but I've heard that you can get Linux on it.

I don’t know how easy it is to get at the solid-state hard drive or what’s involved in replacing one.  The comes with one SD card slot and three USB ports.  Given how cheap SD cards and USB drives are, I think these would be my best option for expanding file storage, especially considering that I don’t really store files on here.  All of my files are on my desktop.

When it arrived at the store, I opened it up immediately to make sure it did turn on.  (Which it did, thankfully.)  I didn't really have a chance to try it out until I got home, mostly because we don't have wireless at work.

It didn't come with any major programs outside of Internet Explorer and Microsoft Works.  You do get the standard assortment of games like Freecell and Minesweeper.

Connecting through a wireless network is pretty easy.  For some reason, I've had issues staying connected at home, but I've never had a problem in other places.  (My mother's laptop has never had these problems, so I think it may be some issue unique to this laptop and our router.)  The entire time I spent in Las Vegas, I was able to stay connected using the Asus without problem.  (There’s also a port for connecting through a network using cables.)

That's not to say that I didn't have issues.  The first thing I noticed was that it doesn't have any sort of CD, DVD or floppy drive.  If you want to use a physical device to get information on to or off of the 701SD,. You have to use either a USB drive or an SD card.  If you have software on a CD or DVD that has to be installed through the CD or DVD, you'll have to get an external drive.  I don't know how easy it will be to install.  I can only hope you can get the drivers online.

This is ironic because the netbook comes with a DVD backup of the computer.  I'm told that it's an image of the hard drive when it left the factory, which means that you'd just have to copy it on to the computer.  What this means is that you'd have to have some other computer that has a DVD drive so that you can copy the information onto an SD card or a USB drive to then copy on to the netbook.

Also, the 701SD is small.  Yes, I wanted small, but I didn't expect it to be this small.  The netbook has small keys and I have big fingers, which made typing hard.  I'd often miss keys and end up typing a bunch of other stuff in trying to hit the backspace key.

Add to this that I was trying to enter serial numbers most of the time.  Because of size limitations, there's no 10-digit keypad.  I had to use the numbers at the top of the keyboard.  After checking what I had entered each time I entered a bill, I noticed that I was making a lot of mistakes.  I didn't have a chance to get a separate 10-digit keypad while I was out there, but I knew I'd have to get one eventually.

Fortunately, I had a USB mouse that I had won during some employee training.  If I hadn't had that mouse, I think I would have sought out the nearest Office Max.  Having used laptops before, I knew I wouldn't want to have to use the tracking device.  This one has proven to be especially problematic when trying to click on a small box.  When I raise my finger, the cursor will often move down a little.  The USB mouse, on the other hand, works perfectly.

One issue that cropped up by my next trip was the battery shelf life.  It seems that the battery won't stay charged for more than a week if you leave it off.  This means that you have to remember to charge it up before going out.  Even when you do go out, bring the power cord if at all possible.  The computer's initial estimate seems to be about 3 hours, but it could end up being much less depending on what you're using it for.

Another issue is that the screen size isn't standard.  This isn't really a problem unless you're installing software, which I haven't done a lot of.  (The only two programs I've installed are mIRC and Juno.)  When I went to install a printer recently, I noticed that the two buttons on the print screen fall below the bottom of the screen.  Hitting enter works in this case, but I could see someone running into issues with this.

The sound on the netbook wasn’t that great, but I wasn’t buying it to play music.  (If you are, there’s a headphone jack.)  Immediately after turning the machine on, I disabled the audio and haven’t missed it.  I generally don’t listen to sound while surfing the web.

I wasn’t looking to do much with this netbook and I pretty much got what I wanted out of it.   I'd recommend this netbook for anyone that needs something cheap and small and can handle the small keyboard.  The 701SD is almost small enough that I can fit it in my pocket.

If you buy it, I'd recommend getting the USB mouse and additional 10-digit keypad.  I'd bring it out with me more often if I didn't have to bring all of the additional stuff out with me, but I do bring it on trips where I'm staying in a hotel.  The Asus 701SD has done what I need it to and will hopefully continue to do so.

Serve the public trust, protect the innocent, uphold the law [Robocop (1987) review]

Robocop is one of those movies I remember growing up.  I don’t remember when I first saw it.  It came out when I was 11, so I don’t think it was in theaters.  (Yes, it’s a very violent movie.)  It was probably on TV when I was older.  I had heard that there was going to be a remake of the movie.  I haven’t seen the remake yet; I’m expecting it to be a shiner version of this one.  However, if I do rent it, I’d like to have a recent memory of the movie to compare it to.

For those that don’t know the basic story, the Detroit of the future.  Detroit is bankrupt and has outsourced it’s police department to Omni Consumer Products, or OCP.  One division of OCP is working on new ways to patrol the city.  One idea is the ED-209.  When it fails miserably, an up-and-coming employee named Bob Morton (played by Miguel Ferrer) suggests the Robocop project, which needs an officer to die so that he might be remade into a cybernetic enforcement unit.

This infuriates Dick Jones (played by Ronny Cox), the senior vice president who happened to want the ED-209 to work, at least long enough to get a lucrative military contract.  Enter Alex Murphy, played by Peter Weller.  He’s just transferred to a precinct serving the wrong part of town.  As luck would have it, he ends up ‘volunteering’ for the Robocop project on his very first call in his new precinct.

Robocop a wild success.  He can’t be hurt.  He can’t be bribed.  He’s able to single-handedly clean up Detroit.  The trouble is that there’s corruption within OCP that Robocop cant’ quite seem to deal with.  He also has to deal with lingering memories from Murphy.  He can’t let his old life go that easily.

This is one of those cases where the movie seems dated, mostly in the special effects.  (The ED-209 has a definite stop-motion feel to it.)  It seems like an eighties version of a dystopia.  I will say, though, that they did seem to call Detroit going bankrupt.

I don’t imagine it was too easy for Weller as Robocop.  The costume covers everything except around his mouth for most of the movie.  We don’t get to see much facial expression as Robocop except towards the end, and even then, it seems emotionless, which I’ll admit is appropriate.  I don’t imagine it was particularly easy wearing that costume.  (However, it’s one of the few times that a stiff performance is called for.)

The movie is very violent.  Murphy being tortured and killed alone is enough to not let children see the movie.  Add to this that Robocop has to deal with all manner of criminals from rapists to drug dealers.  He also hunts down the people responsible for his being tortured and killed.  The violence is over the top.

What surprises me, though, is that the movie spawned not only several sequels, video games and the like, but also two animated series.  I’ve never seen either one, but I don’t imagine they could be that appropriate for children.  (From what I can tell, they do follow continuity at least marginally, so it’s possible that they’re intended for adults.)

The movie is primarily action.  There’s no twist ending.  There’s no romance.  We get to see a lot of gore.  At least the pacing was good.  I don’t feel like the movie overstayed its welcome at all.  I’m curious to see what the modern version looks like, but I’m also interested in checking out the sequels.  (It looks like Netflix has the live-action series as movies that were reedited from the episodes, although I don’t see the animated series.)

Friday, March 28, 2014

Extracted (Movie Review)

Extracted is about a man with a dream.  Tom's dream is to be able to see other peoples’ memories.  He has an idea for a machine that would literally let him get inside someone’s head.  He could walk around inside someone’s memory and even interact with them, which would be great for things like therapy.  The one thing holding him back is funding.  He doesn’t like the idea of an anonymous donor, but no one else seems interested in his technology.  Tom takes the money and does his best.

When the donor wants a demonstration before Tom can create a full prototype, Tom objects.  He’s not ready.  The alternative is losing his funding, so Tom agrees and meets the mystery donor, who happens to be an official with the Department of Corrections.  The idea is simple:  They can use the machine to tell if someone is actually guilty or innocent by seeing how they remember events.

Tom’s not thrilled, but he’s already made his deal with the devil.  He agrees to go into the memories of a prisoner named Anthony.  When the time comes to leave, Tom finds that he can’t.  His body is comatose but his mind is living out Anthony’s memories.  Anthony goes back to jail and Tom is left no way to communicate with the outside world..

After a while, it gets pretty boring, but he does find a way to communicate with Anthony.  It’s not entirely reliable and Tom realizes that he’s at the mercy of his host, but at least it’s something.  They’re able to better work out what happened the night of Anthony’s alleged murder.  The question is whether or not it will matter.

I had held this one in my Netflix queue for a long time before watching it.  It was one of those movies that looked interesting, but I wasn’t sure how they’d get 98 minutes out of the premise.  It seems like the whole idea of going into someone’s head is unnecessary.  It could have been done just as easily with a monitor and a microphone.  Actually putting someone at risk like that was undoubtedly only done to have some sort of suspense.

This may be why the movie seemed to drag.  Someone probably got the basic idea, but much of the movie comes across filler.  We get to see Tom spending a lot of time in Anthony’s head, moping around.  In this case, I can at least see it being done for effect.  Tom had to spend a long time without any meaningful contact with anyone.  It didn’t take long to get to the point where I was like, “Ok!  I get it already!”

At least with other movies, you can marvel at the technology.  In The Thirteenth Floor, the technology was cool.  Here, much of it seemed unnecessary.  Tom is just a bystander in Anthony’s memory.  There’s also no big twist.  It’s not like Tom is really Anthony.  There’s no real metaphor or special message.  It’s more like a commentary on the nature of memory.  The movie just peters out.

I’m not sure I can recommend buying the film.  If you have Netflix and it’s still available streaming, you can try it.  I have to admit, though, that even streaming, I was only watching it to see how it ended and possibly get a review out of it.  I watched it with my brother; I felt bad dragging him through it, but he didn’t seem to mind that much.  I could see this having been an episode of a sci-fi TV series like The Outer Limits.  It’s a good story that just got dragged out too far.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Fall from Grace (2007) movie review

I was going through my reviews on and came across this one on the film, Fall From Grace, about the Westboro Baptist Church.  Given that Fred Phelps just passed away, I thought now would be a good time to repost it here.  In this case, I've made no edits except for the addition of this introduction.

The Westboro Baptist Church is known for one thing:  Hating gay people.  I’ve seen them with their signs, including God Hates America and Thank God for IEDs.  When I came across Fall From Grace, I decided to watch it, mostly because it wasn’t that long and I didn’t really know that much about the Westboro Baptist Church.  (I didn’t understand the thing with soldiers and IEDs until watching this.)

The movie is simply interviews with the Phelps family and footage of protests.  The church was founded and run by Fred Phelps, who had 13 children.  Nine of those children and their children attend the church.  For some reason, Fred Phelps as chosen homosexuality to rail against, citing Leviticus.  As another interviewee points out, Leviticus mentions other things you shouldn’t do, like mix fibers in your clothes and plant different crops in the same field.  (Sites like were set up to mock this.)

At this point, it seems like the Phelps family isn’t going to win any converts.  The documentary shows people interacting with the family as they protest.  One woman comments that it’s crazy that she’s going to Hell because of her haircut.  (Women who have short hair are called a less-than-polite term for lesbian by the Phelps family.)  In fact, four of the Phelps children left the family as soon as they were able.  Two were interviewed by phone and described Fred Phelps as being a horrible person.

The movie is almost all footage with some text thrown in to explain things.  It’s not heavy on the commentary.  It would be interesting to have some sort of professional analysis, psychological or otherwise, on what makes Fred Phelps the way he is.  He seems passionate to the point of maybe having some disorder.  Some of his children that believe as he does aren’t as extreme, making me wonder.  (One thing I noticed was that the grandchildren also spout the God-hates-America rhetoric.  I have to wonder, as I have with other similar documentaries, as to whether or not the children will grow up to regret what they’ve said.)

This is one of those situations where I honestly think that the Phelps family is simply making themselves look like fools.  At several points, people point out how crazy they are.  Someone mentions that if you bring up Topeka, KS in certain places, people there will say something along the lines of, “Oh, yeah.  Where those crazy people live.”  They come across as so vehement and so in everyone’s face that most people can’t get past their hatred.  Instead of making people turn to their version of God, most people are thinking of how they can get out of the line of fire.  (If you’re not with us, you’re going to be called names and told you’re going to rot in hell for all of eternity.)

I got this streaming through Netflix.  I mention this because there may be bonus material on the DVD.  The movie doesn’t go into great detail about the Phelps family or other people interviewed.  It is interesting to note that Fred Phelps was disbarred for being too unethical.  It would be interesting to see how many of his children attended college.  It would be interesting to see if any of his grandchildren socialize with peers outside of the family.  I’d at least be interested in knowing where the name came from.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Space, Time, and Gravity The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes (Book review)

I'd like to post at least one review per week.  I'm posting two reviews today since I didn't post one last week.  This is a review that I originally posted on of Space, Time, and Gravity The Theory of the Big Bang and Black Holes by Robert M. Wald.  The review has been modified for the blog.  (The oriiginal review had a thank you to a category lead, dramastef, who added the product to the Epinions database.)

Every so often, I feel the need to read a science book.  Usually, it’s something current.  When I get something older, the book is either by an author I like or I don’t realize how old the book is until I get it home.  In this case, it’s the latter.  The book was published in 1977 and is based on lectures that the author, Robert M. Wald gave the year before.  The book is, as you might expect, about physics.  Each chapter corresponds to a single lecture that the author gave.

The first three help set up the rest of the book.  Chapter One is called The Geometry of Space and Time and explains about spheres and what it means to be simultaneous.  Chapters Two and Three are called Special Relativity and General Relativity, respectively, and deal with how Einstein helped to further define our universe.

The remaining five chapters deal with Black Holes.  Chapter Six, Stellar Evolution, deals with a few ways that a star might end up as a black hole.  Chapter Seven, Gravitational Collapse to Black Holes, deals with the actual collapse and what that might look like.  From there, you have Energy Extraction from Black Holes, The Astrophysics of Black Holes and Quantum Particle Creation near Black Holes.  These are yet more technical chapters on black holes.

In the introduction, Wald says that the book was intended that anyone could pick it up and read it regardless of what they know previously.  As you might have guessed from the last paragraph, it did tend to be on the technical side.   He admits that it wasn’t oversimplified, but I do think that you would have to know something about physics before beginning.  (If I were to use the word ‘isotropic’, would you need to run to the dictionary?)  Other times, it seems to be a little silly.  I noticed an overuse of exclamation points.  By Chapter Five, he was using them in parentheses.  ( ! )

I think if I didn’t know much about science, I’d be lost.  There were a few places where I think someone wouldn’t have made certain connections.  For instance, Wald talks about Lorentz Contractions during the chapter on Special Relativity.  I don’t think most people would realize what this means for an observer’s frame of  reference affecting said observer’s measurements of the speed of light.

The other problem is that these lectures were given the year I was born.  I think it’s safe to say that our understanding of the universe, particularly black holes, has come a long way in my lifetime.  I figured I’d read the book because it was short and I could get a review out of it.  I definitely don’t think it would be worth buying unless you needed it for a class.  (Historical astrophysics?)  If you’re looking for a short book to read, I’d recommend seeing if your library has it or if there’s a historical astrophysicist that will let you borrow it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Time Guardian, your time is up…way too soon

Note:  This review was published on Epinions.  I'm reposting it here with some modification.

I'm always looking for a really bad movie to review.  (Yes, I've seen Plan 9 From Outer Space.)  I think part of it is that I like to punish myself.  It's as if I don't deserve to watch good movies all the time.  Maybe I was inspired by the first-review contests that Epinions used to have.  (Many of these really bad movies had never been reviewed before.)  I had also always wanted to see Epinions put up a best and worst list for each category.  No way to prepare for that like reviewing every one-star movie out there.

What do you do if you are a fellow sadist like me and want to review really bad movies?  If you have access to any sort of on-demand service and they have a free section, this is the best place to look for one-star movies.  This is how I found The Time Guardian.  I truly wish I could just tell you to run in the other direction if you ever see this movie, but you deserve more.  If you are a fellow movie-watching sadist, you deserve to know what you're getting into.

At the very least, it looked interesting.  A city from far in the future is traveling through time to escape some evil cyborgs.  The movie doesn't give a lot of detail about the cyborgs.  We know only that they want some sort of power source from the human city.  We're also led to believe that this is the last human city left.  Apparently, all the others have been destroyed.

Two people, one being a woman played by Carrie Fisher, are sent ahead to prepare the area for the city's arrival, but the two people don't seem to do much other than get into fights and get hurt.  Carrie Fisher's character spends most of her time in the present resting from having a large sphere land on her.  The guy that she's sent back gets some heavy machinery to move rock.  It's not clear exactly what he's doing, but I guess it's what he needs to do.

This leads to one of the more confusing scenes.  We see the machine moving rock with some random people helping.  It's not clear where the people came from or why they're helping.  The movie uses music and camera angle to make it seem more suspenseful than moving rock usually seems to be.  I expected something interesting to happen.  Maybe have a cyborg pop out or something.  Nothing.  Just cut to the next scene.

The use of time travel is the movie is also a little confusing.  There's little talk of the repercussions of time travel, for starters.  Plus, it's not clear how long this technology has been in use by humans.  The movie opens somewhere in the 43rd century or something, but have the humans come from beyond that?  Have they been bouncing around in time or have they been working their way back in time?  Different parts of the movie seem to indicate different things.

The movie looks like it was written and directed by a 3-year-old child.  Half way through the movie, it still felt like they were setting it up.  It took me another quarter of the way through to realize that that was the movie.  It's one long narrative with a battle scene on either end.

I think the only place you'll find this is in the free section of On Demand.   The reason that Comcast won't charge for this crap is that people would be asking for their money back and rightfully so.  It looks like you can buy a used VHS copy, as the link above would indicate.  Netflix doesn't have it listed and IMDb doesn't have any listings for any releases.  I think the only reason it's listed on IMDb is that it is a movie that was released, thus requiring an entry.

Don't bother watching this movie.  It's overpriced at free.