Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Pain & Gain (2013)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I had wanted to see this movie mostly because I live in Miami.  While Pain and Gain was being filmed, I passed by one of the filming locations.  I was curious about the movie, which I knew was supposed to be based on a true story.  The more I heard about the movie, the more I knew I’d be waiting for it on DVD.

The movie is based on a group of criminals called the Sun Gym Gang.  Mark Wahlberg plays Daniel Lugo.  Lugo idolizes self-made people like Scarface and the entire cast of the Godfather movies.  He wants what Victor Kershaw has.  (Kershaw is played by Tony Shaloub.)  Kershaw has a nice house, a Schlotzky’s franchise and tons of money.  Lugo recruits Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) and Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) to help him kidnap and extort Kershaw.

These are not the brightest bulbs in the box.  Look at who Lugo has as role models.  Still, he wants the good life that Kershaw has.  After a failed attempt to get Kershaw into a van, the trio succeeds and brings him to a warehouse.  They eventually get him to sign over everything he has.  The problem is that Kershaw identifies Lugo, so they have to kill him.   As you might expect, they fail at this repeatedly.  (Staging a car crash doesn’t work because Doorbal puts the seatbelt on Kershaw.)

Lugo is the only one that manages to spend his money somewhat wisely.  Doyle snorts all his money and Doorbal tries to fix his sexual dysfunction.  So, they’re off to rob another guy blind.  This time, it’s Frank Griga, who got rich off of phone sex operations.  They invite Mr. and Mrs. Griga to Doorbal’s house to negotiate.  Do I need to tell you how this goes?

Lugo, Doorbal and Doyle are all idiots.  I could see Mark Wahlberg and Dwayne Johnson not realizing how stupid their characters were until it was too late to back out.  It’s like they couldn’t take the characters seriously.  And yes, the characters do get what they deserve.  It’s just a question of when and how.

I commented to my mother that with Breaking Bad, we have someone that doesn’t understand the criminal operations, but knows enough to know when he’s gotten lucky.  He’s also a smart guy in general.  Here, we have three idiots that engage in a comedy of errors.  This is what you get if you cross Breaking Bad with Dumb and Dumber.  My parents and grandmother couldn’t even finish watching it, the plot was that bad.

It did drag on.  About halfway through the movie, it felt like it should be coming to an end.  I’ve heard it described as a comedy.  It’s based on a true story and some liberties were taken (supposedly) to make it more comedic, but I didn’t really see it.  Yes, some scenes were amusing.  You might look at the characters and wonder if they really could be that stupid.  (Living in Miami and having worked in retail, I can say that the movie isn’t far off the mark in that regard.)

The movie took place right after I graduated from high school.  I don’t remember much about the story, probably because it was covered in the Miami New Times.  (Remember:  This is in the days before the Internet was ubiquitous.)  At least I recognized most of the locations.  I was curious how much of the movie revolved around the location I saw on my way to work.  (It was the location used for the Sun Gym.  If you want to look on Google Maps, it’s on the southwest corner of NE 81st Street and Biscayne Boulevard in Miami.  (25.849144, -80.184896)

I think that the one redeeming quality of the movie is that I didn’t have to pay for it.  If you can get it free on demand or someone else is paying for it, go for it.  If not, don’t bother.  Yes, I had to waste two hours and nine minutes of my life, but at least I got a review out of it.  There are several scenes that are actually awkward to watch with others.  I am so glad I didn’t go see this in theaters.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Love (2011)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Warning:  I’m going to give away major details of the movie.  If you’re not into spoilers, don’t read this review before watching the movie.

I remember reading about 2001: A Space Odyssey that Stanley Kubrick deliberately made the movie just a little confusing.  He felt that if everything was obvious, he would have failed as a director.  I get the impression that William Eubank, who was both writer and director, was trying to do the same thing with Love.  I can follow the story, but I’m not sure if I totally understand it or ever will.

The Netflix synopsis said that an astronaut, Captain Lee Miller, is left alone on the International Space Station and subsequently finds a way to use it for time travel.  I thought it to be interesting, but it’s inaccurate.  I spent the entire movie waiting for him to find some sort of magical portal.  This never happens.

The movie starts at the tail end of the American Civil War.  Captain Lee Briggs is being sent to investigate some mysterious thing that fell from the sky.  The regiment he’s with is pretty much doomed, but it’s decided that there should be at least one survivor.  He’s told to keep a journal of his trip to see this thing for posterity.

It then cuts to the International Space Station where Miller is fixing the station and talking to people on the ground.  He gets a message that he’s now an uncle.  (His brother promises to send pictures if the bureaucracy will allow it.)  Captain Miller is alone, but keeps himself busy by doing his job and exercising.  The ISS has not been used for 20 years, so there’s a lot of fixing up to do.

One day, Miller gets a message that ground control needs to make sure that the ISS will stay in orbit even if it misses it’s next few check-ins.  This worries Miller, especially when ground control stops answering him.  At first, he thinks it’s some sort of stress test to see how long he can go without any human contact at all, but this theory is busted when we see flashes of light on the ground followed by the lights going out…permanently.

Miller has to find ways to find ways to entertain himself, like playing cards, continuing to fix stuff and talking to pictures of the station’s former occupants.  He eventually stops shaving and starts experiencing what I assume are hallucinations.  Here’s what gets me.  We learn that he lost contact on July 7, 2039.  He writes a letter to whoever might find him, stating that he’s been alone for six years.  How do you survive for six years?

Even if we assume that his last delivery was July 6th, people weren’t meant to stay in space for that long of a period.  It looks like the have artificial gravity on the station, which I can forgive.  (I guess we’re supposed to assume it was put in at some point before Miller went up there.  I think someone was just too lazy to come up with a weightlessness effect.)  Even if the effects of zero gravity aren’t an issue, food expires after a while.  There’s no way he could have enough food and water to last the entire six years.

We do eventually get to an ending similar to 2001: A Space Odyssey.  This is one of those cases where you have to see it to try to understand it.  I was left wondering what anything had to do with anything else.   I’d love to meet someone else who has seen it just so I could talk about it.  It would be nice to have someone try to explain it, but I don’t think I’d really be able to buy it.  At the very least, it would be nice to know that someone else was confused by it.  (I also don’t really get the title.  I understand that the basic message is that no man can exist in isolation, but why just love?  Don’t we need all types of contact?)

This is proof that a big budget just makes it look shiny.  The production values are great.  The acting is great.  It’s just that the story comes across as somewhat incoherent.  We have several short interviews throughout the movie from people that don’t seem to tie in to the story.  Other than Miller finding Briggs’s journal, even those two characters don’t seem to have any connection.  Even that seemed forced, as there’s no explanation of how the journal got onto the ISS.

I can see a lot of people turning the movie off quickly.  I wouldn’t recommend watching it with a friend, as you might not want to be pressured into watching the whole thing for their sake.  (If three people got together to watch this movie, I could see one staring out a window for most of the movie’s 84 minutes.)  I would not recommend buying the movie.  Instead, see if you can get it streaming.  I was able to get it through Netflix.  If not, maybe try getting it from the library.  It’s bad enough losing 84 minutes for some, but I don’t want you to have to spend money on it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Human Centipede (First Sequence) (2009)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When  I select a movie to watch, I usually do so either on the trailers or on the description that Netflix has for it.  Occasionally, I come across a review on Epinions that prompts me to watch the movie in question.  When I came across foshizzlee’s review of The Human Centipede, I had one of those little ‘Challenge Accepted’ moments and decided to rent it.

WARNING:  For those that have never heard of the movie, it’s one of the grosser movies you’ll come across.  I am going to go into a fair amount of detail in this review and I don’t plan on holding any punches.  If you’re easily offended or just ate lunch, I won’t blame you if you don’t finish reading this review.   FURTHER WARNING:  I’m also going to give away major details, up to and including the ending.  If you don’t like spoilers, now’s a good time to stop reading.

The movie starts with two young women, Lindsay and Jenny, traveling around Europe.  They get lost in the back roads of Germany and don’t know what to do.  They want to call the rental agency, but can‘t get a signal.  They could wait for someone to pull up or they could try walking around to find a house or something.  Being that they’re in the middle of nowhere, they decide to wait.

It doesn’t take long for a guy to pull up.  He’s pretty sure that he’s seen them somewhere.  Is it that porn movie that he really likes?  He seems to think so.  What little German the two women can translate (along with his subsequent facial expressions) tells them that he’s perv.  They avoid eye contact and wait for him to leave.

Since the waiting option worked out so well for them, they decide to walk around and see if there are any houses nearby.  Rather than follow the road, they wander off into the woods.  (We’re talking about a couple of real airheads here.)  It gets dark, it starts to rain and they soon realize that there’s not much civilization nearby.  They do eventually find a house, much to their relief.  Dr. Heiter answers the door.  He’s a little creepy looking, but they’re not in a position to complain.

He lets them in and offers them a drink while he calls for help.  Thing is that it’s not exactly water that he gave them and he’s not really calling for help.  You see, this is an evil doctor.  He used to be a plastic surgeon who specialized in separating Siamese twins, but he came to realize that he doesn’t like people very much.  In fact, he wants to experiment on the two young ladies.  He’s slipped them some pills to put them to sleep.

They awake to find themselves in what appears to be a hospital room.  It’s actually in the guy’s house.  Yes, this is one sick fuck that we’re dealing with.  (Sorry, censors.)  He actually has a hospital room in his house so that he could conduct his sick, twisted medical experiments.  There’s even another guy there, but he’s not suitable.  So, Heiter kills him and replaces him with Katsuro, a Japanese tourist.

Now, the really sick stuff begins.  You kind of wonder if it’s really going to happen.  Maybe they escape and report this guy to the authorities.  No such luck.  He really does attach them anus to mouth to form one organism.  Katsuro can talk.  However, the Jenny and Lindsay are left with little more than muffled screams and frantic hand movements.

Dr. Heiter connects them and begins training them to operate as one organism.  This mostly has to do with mobility, like being able to ‘walk’ as one.  I say ‘walk’ because he removed their kneecaps.  It’s more like crawling as one.  He takes them out in his back yard and has them move around.  Katsuro does all the eating for the three of them.  (I’ll leave it to your imagination as to how Jenny and Lindsay get fed.)  At night, they’re caged up.  The lead guy complains so loudly that Dr. Heiter considers removing his vocal chords.

Things don’t go well for the three test subjects.  When they try to escape, Heiter finds them.  Also, Jenny is dying of blood poisoning.  It looks like Heiter’s first attempt on humans is failing.  To boot, two detectives show up.  Heiter doesn’t like this.  While the detectives are out getting a search warrant, Katsuro commits suicide.  When the detectives return, Heiter and both detectives die.  Jenny finally dies of her blood poisoning.  The movie ends with Lindsay still connected to the other two and with no way of calling for help.

I tend not to like really disturbing movies.  I figured that if this was really disturbing, I could turn it off.  It wasn’t really as bad as I expected.  I was expecting something that would give me nightmares.  Instead, I got something that was definitely different, even though it’s still not for small children or squeamish adults.  We don’t have to put up with much of the surgery and there isn’t any nudity.  However, there is a fair amount of bleeding.

The movie doesn’t really try to hide what’s going on.  We know that the three people are being held and experimented on against their will.  They don’t like what’s happened to them and it’s apparent when they’re in pain.   The doctor treats them as subhuman.  He’s interested only in successfully making a human centipede.  Jenny, Lindsay and Katsuro are nothing more than the first step to achieving his goal.

What really interests me is the sequel.  This is supposed to be the first of two movies.  Being that only one person survived, I don’t know if we’ll find out what happened to her or if it will be a completely different movie.  I’m assuming that there will be some connection, probably in the form of someone trying to pick up where Heiter left off.

I’m going to recommend the movie, but it’s kind of pointless.  One of the reasons that I didn’t mind giving away so much detail is that those that can’t handle this kind of movie probably wouldn’t have made it past the review anyway and will have been warned. Those, like me, that can handle it will probably have their own ‘challenge accepted’ moment and watch the movie just to see if it really is that bad.  At only 92 minutes, it’s worth the rental. 

Last Life in the Universe/Ruang rak noi nid mahasan (2003)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

One of the great things about NetFlix is that you’re exposed to a lot more movies than the average rental store. I came across Last Life in the Universe, read the description and decided to rent it. The movie is about Kenji, a man trying to commit suicide. He’s a Japanese man living in Thailand. He has a past, but the movie doesn’t really go too deeply into that.

One day, his brother drops by. The brother’s friend is a gangster that ends up starting a shootout. Amazingly, Kenji survives. Kenji meets Noi, a Thai woman who has lost her sister. (It’s actually the death of the sister that brings them together.) The two are total opposites, but seem to get along. Kenji doesn’t particularly want to go back to his apartment, so he spends the night. A relationship develops from there.

I can’t really explain too much of the movie beyond that. The movie has a Seinfeldian feel to it, with much of the story about ‘nothing’. It’s just Kenji and Noi hanging out at her place or Kenji working at the library. Eventually, some of the habits that each had rubbed of on each other. Parts of the movie are a little confusing. Some shots were used as a preview or a flashback, but it wasn’t difficult to figure out what was going on.

It’s really the little things that make the movie worth watching. I think that whether or not you like the movie will depend on how these little things strike you. I could see a lot of people either loving it or being bored with it and not finishing the movie. There are some depressing aspects that deal with things other than death. However, there is some room for debate, especially at the end. (My brother and I aren’t quite sure what happened.)

We didn’t really watch too many of the extras. There was one interview that looked like it was filmed in an airport. Still, I have to give this movie five stars. I really can’t think of anything bad to say about it. It’s definitely not a movie for children. There is violence and drug use. However, I’d recommend it to any adult.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Kung Pow: Enter the Fist (2002)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Everyone’s been up late at night and seen one of those old, poorly dubbed kung fu movies where some good guy is out to get revenge on some evil guy for something. “Tiger and Crane Fists” was one such movie, originally released in the 1970’s. Then, along came Steve Odekerk, who you may know from the Thumb movies. (“Frankenthumb,” “Thumb Wars,” etc.) He got the idea to dub over the voices, add some new scenes and some CG to the old ones, and make “Kung Pow: Enter the Fist.”

If you like movies like UHF or Scary Movie, you’ll probably like this movie. It’s not so much about the plot as it is about the gags, and boy, does this movie pack them in. The basic plot, or should I say running storyline, is that an evil man by the name of Master Payne is out to find and kill The Chosen One. The movie starts with Master Payne paying a visit to a family. Payne kills the family and looks in a crib, opening the baby’s mouth. This is The Chosen One. The baby kicks and punches the crap out of Payne and manages to escape despite Payne’s best efforts.

Many years later, The Chosen One seeks refuge from constant attacks within a training camp. (I don’t know what the actual term is, so you’ll have to forgive me.) There, he meets his love interest, Ling. There’s also Wimp Lo, who was trained incorrectly as a joke and has a squeaky shoe. The Chosen One identifies himself and proves that he’s The Chosen One by sticking out his tongue. We meet Tonguey, which is a face on The Chosen One’s tongue. Meanwhile, Master Payne has taken over a nearby city and insists on being called Betty. Betty proves to be a dimwitted leader, making bad jokes and doing corny magic tricks. When The Chosen One finds out about this, the battle is on.

I should warn you that a lot of people either hated this movie or loved it. I think there are several reasons for that. First, even though the movie is only 80 minutes, the first third of the movie wasn’t that good, so I can see a lot of people watching the first 15 minutes of the movie and shutting it off in disgust. Second, there’s Ling, the love interest. She ends all of her lines with, “Wee-oh-whee” or something similar. This was odd the first time and got annoying around the third time. I think the movie could have done without it. Also, as I mentioned before, the movie relies a lot on the gags rather than any sort of plot. If you’re not into the kind of humor that the movie has, you’re out of luck.

It’s a strange movie. There are also sexual themes, but no real nudity. (There are a few scenes where Ling removes her shirt, but I don’t recall being able to see anything. There’s also a woman with one breast who speaks of a sequel to the movie.) I think the movie is safe for children and most children six and under would be amused. Most of the sexual references would seem silly or be totally lost on them.

The graphics are pretty good. The fighting cow that you may have seen in the ads and will probably see on the cover is a bit obvious. Some of it is more subtle, such as a one of Master Payne’s lackeys that carries around a boom box. If you watch the closing credits, which I recommend you do, you’ll find out that this character was not in the original footage.

The movie has a definite feel of UHF and Mystery Science Theater 3000 to it. I think that even fans of the actual kung fu movies might get a kick out of watching this movie.

Kontroll (2003)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

It’s funny how a lot of my favorite movies and books are things that defy categorization. Kontroll is a movie that I found on NetFlix. I don’t know if my brother saw it first or if I recommended it to him, but it’s hard to put in one category. I could say it’s a drama, but that is vague enough to refer to anything. I could say it’s a comedy, but the humor is very dark. I could say it’s a romance, but it’s not really.

The movie is about two teams of ticket inspectors on the Budapest subway. One team is sort of like the chosen child, getting special uniforms and having the respect of the passengers. The other team is a group of guys that aren‘t very good at their jobs. They’re sort of misfits. Many of their passengers are rude and refuse to pay fare and even make fun of them. (This reminds me of working in retail.)

The main character is Bulscu, the leader of the ‘other’ team. He gets along well with his team, but not so much with the rival crew or his superiors. He seems to be homeless and his sanity is even brought into question. We get the impression that he had some other job, but we don’t know much about it.

The movie doesn’t really seem to have any direction. It shows mostly the interaction between the two teems and how they interact with passengers. One subplot involves a man pushing people in front of trains. Another involves a man that Bulscu has been chasing for a while. There’s also some possibly romantic interaction between Bulscu and a woman that’s fond of costumes.

It’s sort of like Clerks in the sense that it seems to be just a presentation of what is. I seriously think that the writer, Nimrod Antal, had a job dealing with the general public. While my job in retail isn’t usually that bad, we do get some rude, irritating and downright nasty people. (For the record, most of the customers we get are pretty good.)

There’s a low-budget feel to the movie, but I don’t mean that in a bad way. What makes the movie interesting is that it takes place entirely in the Budapest Subway, and I do mean entirely. You don’t get to see anything above ground. At first, I was going to write it off as some plot device, but it really works. It adds meaning to the story.

I would definitely recommend this movie. Yes, it’s a bit random, but that’s what makes it fun. Don’t think that means that you can watch this movie when you’re ready to pass out. You do have to pay attention. However, that doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed. 

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Work of Director Spike Jonze (2003)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I remember watching Beavis and Butt-head many years ago on MTV. My brother and I saw this video on B&B where this guy was running down a street and his back was on fire. Recently, while we were at the mall, we saw this DVD called “The Work of Director Spike Jonze” and there, on the cover of the DVD, is that same guy running down the street with fire on his back. I said to my brother, “I have to get this from Netflix.” And so I did.

This is one of three titles that showcase videos by directors. (Offhand, I know one of the other two titles is Chris Cunningham. I’ll be getting that one as soon as I return this one.) The version I got from Netflix is double sided. Side A contains sixteen videos and commentary for most of them. (I recommend watching Bjork’s commentary.) There are also some clips from other movies. Side B contains three documentaries and several ‘rarities.’ (Don’t ask me why they’re rare. I really don’t know.)

Here are the videos:

“California” by Wax
“Sure Shot” by Beastie Boys
“Drop” by The Pharcyde
“Cannonball” by The Breeders
“Sabotage” by Beastie Boys
“Da Funk” by Daft Punk
“What's up Fatilip” by Fatlip
“Undone” by Weezer
“Praise You” by Fatboy Slim
“Feel the Pain” by Dinosaur Jr
“If I only had a Brain” by MC 900ft Jesus
“Sky's the Limit” by The Notorious B.I.G.
“Weapon of Choice” by Fatboy Slim
“Buddy Holly” by Weezer
“Elektrobank” by The Chemical Brothers
“It's oh so Quiet” by Björk

The documentaries are “What’s Up Fatlip,” “Amarillo By Morning” and “Torrance Rises.” “What’s Up Fatlip” follows Fatlip during the fiming of the video. It starts off with him acting like a homeless person. He’s basically being asked a series of questions throughout the 31-minute segment. “Amarillo by Morning” lasts 29 minutes. It’s about several kids that want to be cowboys. “Torrance Rises” is about the dance troop that was featured in Praise You.

I didn’t really watch any of them for that long. For me, the main draw was the videos and the commentary. The video for “Weapon of Choice” was a great video, as was the one for “Sabotage”. Being able to have these, or at least watch them without the MTV logo, is great. I also got to find out about them. It turns out that Christopher Walken, who stared in “Weapon of Choice,” was in between movies and only had a week to shoot the video. The video for “Buddy Holly” includes a lot of footage from Happy Days. (The band was inserted perfectly.)

The only major downside was that when I played it in my computer’s DVD player, it opened some Web page using Internet Explorer. It wasn’t even the actual DVD. I think it was just some page that the DVD had on it. To get the DVD to play, I had to go to the E: drive in “My Computer” and right click to go down to open it with the appropriate program. I don’t know if this will happen with all versions of it. Sometimes, Netflix has their own special copies of movies. Since the DVD is double sided, there’s no label and thus no way of marking the DVD. The DVD should play fine in normal DVD players.

I don’t know if it would be worth buying for a lot of people. Had it not been for Netflix, I wouldn’t have seen it at all. There are a lot of different types of videos on this DVD. There were really only three songs that I liked. If you have Netflix or are a big fan of videos in general, I could see getting this. As for recommending this to a friend, I’ll have to say yes. If someone I know is interested in something like this, I’d recommend it to them. However, I really couldn’t see buying this for myself. I just don’t have enough of an interest in it.

Monday, December 22, 2014

When Time Expires (1997)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

When Time Expires is one of those movies that I’d always manage to catch the last third of on TV.  I was always curious to see how it started. It seemed like I could never find it on Netflix.  It seems that the movie, by itself, was only released on VHS.  I had to wait for Netflix to get the DVD double feature that pairs this movie with Tell Me No Secrets.  (I’ll be watching that in the near future.  I’ll let you know how it turns out.)

Richard Grieco stars as Travis Beck.  Beck works for some sort of intergalactic planetary federation or something.  There are two main ministries.  One makes predictions about the future.  The other sends people back into the past to make calibrations.  Beck’s job is to put a quarter in a parking meter.

You’re probably thinking that this is a menial task, which it is.  Apparently, Beck used to work for the other ministry and made some sort of big mess.  (Actually, he didn’t make the mess, but he was blamed for it.)  Now, he’s sent to some remote town to do some small task.  He’s given what’s called an Interface as a partner.  The Interface hooks up to a cable-ready TV and captures a human image, which it then takes as its own so that it can communicate with the human that it’s partnered with.

Around the same time that Beck shows up, two hit men also arrive in town.  Beck doesn’t learn of this until later.  What raises Beck’s eyebrow is the arrival of his ex partner, Bill Thermot.  (Bill Thermot is played by Mark Hamill.)   Considering how hard it is to go back in time, it can’t be a coincidence.  Even among the Interfaces, no one really wants to deal with Beck after what he supposedly did.

Beck just can’t shake the feeling that something more sinister is up.  This feeling is reinforced when he learns that there really are hit men out to get him.   He has his Interface do some digging and sure enough, something is up.  No, I won’t ruin it for you.  It is an interesting movie and I would recommend it to people.

For those that are whining about not liking science fiction, I will say that this isn’t your typical sci-fi movie.  You don’t get any technical stuff about time travel or people from other planets.  I got the impression that Beck isn’t human, but there’s no talk of how they go about taking on human form.  (We do learn that it’s a popular model, though.)  I’m actually surprised that he has a human-sounding name.

The acting is at least decent, even if the picture quality isn’t great.  The only attempt at any sort of special effects is someone disappearing when they die, which is at least done well enough.  The dialogue is a bit cornball at times.  It was a made-for-TV movie from 1997, so I don’t think that you can really expect much on any particular front.

According to Netflix, both movies on the disc are actually made-for-TV movies.  I’ve never heard of the other movie, which follows the pattern that I’ve noticed with these bundles.  I’ve usually heard of one movie, yet have absolutely no interest in the other.  (In this case, the other title doesn’t sound familiar at all.)

If you can rent the movie from Netflix or at your local rental place, I’d say go for it.  If you happen to catch the whole thing on TV, it’s worth watching to the end.  I don’t think I could really recommend buying it as I don’t think it would have much replay value except to lend out to someone.  I’d give the movie three stars. 

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner -- Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Economics isn’t really about money. At least, it’s not solely about money. It’s really about what motivates people. People generally want to get the most while giving up the least. That doesn’t always involve cash. That being said, you may ask what motivates certain people to do certain things. Freakonomics takes a look at that.

Some do deal with money. In one chapter, the authors look at why drug dealers live with their mothers if they’re supposed to be so rich. (Many have to take a second, legitimate job.) Others aren’t directly about cash at all. Sumo wrestlers, for instance, have something in common with teachers: both are motivated to cheat. Chapter four deals declining crime due to abortion. (The authors admit that this is a touchy subject, but handle it well.)

The last two chapters deal with the effects of parents on children. In the fifth chapter, the authors explain certain safety scares and why they’re really nothing. In the last chapter, the authors mention two brothers, one named Winner and the other, Loser. There’s also the story of a woman who named her daughter Temptress. (One story has expected results and the other is the opposite.)

My brother got this for me, thinking that I would like the offbeat nature of the issues discussed; he was right. There is a politically incorrect angle to the book. The authors feel that Roe v. Wade was the biggest help to fighting crime. That statement is bound to get people thinking the wrong thing, but you can’t always take things at face value. People will sometimes give into their names and sometimes, they won’t.

Steven D. Levitt is a professor of economics; Stephen J. Dubner writes for the New York Times. These are two people that have some sense of what they’re talking about, or at least how to say it. I got the impression that the book was well researched and well planned out. The pairing of a writer with an economist worked out pretty well.

I’d give the book five stars. It’s an easy read, especially for a book about economics. Even though it’s 242 pages, each of the six chapters is well written. I couldn’t put the book down until I was finished with a chapter. You won’t come out of this book understanding economics much better, but it’s still a good book. I’d definitely suggest reading this book all the way through. You may not agree with a lot of the initial statements, but you should at least read their arguments before dismissing them.

 Web Site

The Sticky Fingers of Time (1997)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Movies involving time travel tend to fall into one of two categories.  Either the main characters can change the past or they’re fated to live out what they know to have happened.  Occasionally, you’ll get a movie where some of the historical facts were wrong, thus allowing someone an out.  However, most time travel movies have some sort if major event (almost always someone’s death) that can’t be avoided.

In the case of Sticky Fingers of Time, Tucker Harding is a writer from the past who comes to the present only to find a news article foretelling her murder.  The article falls out of a book that she’s working on and is apparently published and eventually purchased by Drew, an aspiring writer who doesn’t think she’s very talented.

Eventually, the two meet.  Tucker wants to see the book so that she can see how the story ends, but Drew threw the book away.  (She just wanted it for the cover art.)  Drew also meets Isaac, a time traveler who has a bit more experience.  It turns out that Isaac has already met Drew, although Drew hasn’t met Isaac until now.  (One of the complexities of time travel is meeting people out of order.)

It turns out that Drew is also a time traveler, although she doesn’t have much control over it.  There have been a few times in her life where she’s apparently blacked out when she was actually jumping ahead in time.  (It turns out that no time traveler has much control over when or where they jump.  Any strong emotional event will send you to some other point in time.)

The time travelers call themselves time freaks.  Their soul has some sort of anomaly that allows them to live time in a nonlinear fashion.  Drew and Tucker have the ability naturally.  Isaac, on the other hand, has had a set of things implanted in his fingers that adds the necessary code.  There’s also Ofelia, Tucker’s roommate/girlfriend, who’s apparently from our future.  Not much is said about her except that she has a prehensile tail that’s shown only once.

To explain the entire movie would be difficult, mostly because it’s hard to understand on the first viewing.  Part of the problem with a complicated time-travel story is that things happen out of order for most of the characters.  Even when the events are shown from one character’s perspective, many of the other characters are shown experiencing things out of order.  (Like I said, the first time that Isaac meets Drew isn’t the first time that Drew meets Isaac.)  You may have to watch it two or three times to understand the whole thing.

The writing is definitely good, even though the movie takes a few minutes to really get in to.  It starts with Tucker writing and Ofelia looking for some coffee to make.  All of a sudden, Tucker is in the present trying to chase down Isaac.  Most of the beginning shows Tucker and Drew going about their business.  It isn’t until everyone starts meeting everyone else that it gets really interesting.

Also, the acting is uneven.  Some of the lines were delivered a little too stiffly.  I could see this turning off a lot of potential viewers, which would be unfair.  There is some good acting in the movie; it’s really just one or two actors that brought it down.

The movie was just under 90 minutes, which proved to be a good length.  Any longer and I probably wouldn’t have stuck with it.  Any shorter and it probably would have suffered.  I’d definitely recommend sticking with it.  Sometimes, it’s fun to watch an independent movie. 


Sunday, December 21, 2014

John Brockman - The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-First Century

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I’ve always held that if predicting the future was an easy thing to do, all psychics would be millionaires.  I’m reminded of a commercial for IBM with Avery Brooks.  He started the commercial by asking where his flying cars were.  The science fiction of decades past showed everyone going around in their flying cars.  Unfortunately, predictions are vague at best, predicting a trend here or a general direction there.  (This is why I tend not to believe the 2012 doomsday ‘prophecies’.)  Even with vague predictions, we do occasionally get our flying cars.  Not always, though.

Someone had the idea to get together 25 scientists to predict what the future will hold for their respective fields.  Each person wrote an essay about what major advancements they foresaw or what might be necessary for the field to advance.  Since there are 25 different essays, I’m not going to go into detail about each for two reasons.  One, some of the essays tend to be technical or beyond the interest of the average person.  Two, each essay is so short that any detailed analysis would pretty much require me to give away the bulk of it.

The book is divided into two sections.  The first part has to do with theoretical stuff.  For instance, there’s an essay by Martin Rees where he deals with the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.   There may be a high degree of probability of life existing, but what can we expect in terms of receiving proof?  The second half is more practical.  Paul Davies has an essay about life on Mars.  If there is to be colonization of other planets, Mars is a good candidate.  If there was life on other planets in our solar system, Mars is also a good candidate.

As I said, each essay is rather short.  The book is 300 pages total, meaning that each essay is about 12 pages.  I was able to read one or two essays in a sitting, which is about average for me.  This doesn’t mean that it’s going to be an easy read.   It’s not so much that their technical as it probably won’t be of any interest to someone not in the  field.  Most of them don’t get all that technical.   Some of the essays, like those on psychology, are relatively easy to understand if you can get past a few technical names.  It’s just that you may not want to read 300 pages of scientific predictions if you’re not into science.

My sense was that the book was meant for the general reader.  The essays don’t go into a lot of detail on their subject.  Since many of the scientists have overlapping fields, there will be some overlap in the essays.  (The Human Genome Project is mentioned in several, mostly in those dealing with disease and psychology.)  If there are a few topics that you’re interested in, like math or computers, you could easily get the book from the library and read just the essays that you want to.

All of the authors did a pretty good job of writing.  There weren’t a lot of technical terms, but it didn’t insult the reader’s intelligence, either.  I think the assumption may be that putting science in the title will scare off a few people.  Because the book deals with science, there does have to be a certain assumption of prior knowledge.  Quantum computing will require a certain understanding of science.

It would be interesting to come back in the year 2050 and see how many of the essays have come true.  Yes, some do speak in vague terms, but a few do have specific predictions.  Richard Dawkins predicts that everyone will have their DNA sequenced, as the technology to do so will become cheaper.  It won’t be uncommon to give your doctor access to this information to see how best to treat you.

You could probably get a book out of each essay.  If I had been asked to do this project, I probably would have done it as a series of books, or at least several volumes.  There could have been one on psychology and medicine while another handled math or quantum physics.

All things considered, I’d recommend checking the book out of the library.  I don’t know that you’ll be able to follow enough of it that it would justify the purchase price, but it’s definitely worth a look. 

Beyond the Rising Moon/Outerworld (1987)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

In 2054, an alien ship is found.  This ship is salvaged and the technology studied, thus giving us a whole bunch of nice technology, like faster-than-light travel.  When another one is discovered, a loophole in salvage law allows anyone to claim it, provided they get there first.  Norwegian Interworld knows where it is.  Pentan is some sort of genetically engineered cyborg sent in to steal the data from the company’s couriers for a rival company.  She steals the information as promised, but runs at the last minute, hoping to claim the ship for herself.  To do that, she finds a pilot willing to take her for the right amount of cash.

Since she’s artificial, Pentan has no real rights to speak of.  Being artificial also means that her creators were able to create a literal kill switch.  As soon as she runs, her handler presses said switch, giving Pentan 72 hours to change her mind or she’ll have a stroke.  This is a problem because the shipwreck is about 50 hours away.  She’d never be able to get there and back.  Unless, that is, she goes to meet one of her creators, who is able to shut off the device that will kill her.

Her former employers are able to follow her.  They find the planet and the shipwreck, meaning that this covert operative, who was trained in combat, has to fight against the people that trained her.  It’s the only way out other than to go back to work for them.  Given all the effort she put into getting this far, Pentan decides to fight it out.  I don’t want to totally give the ending away, but I will say it doesn’t end favorably for her former employers.

This is one of a great many movies that Netflix has available to watch online, assuming you’re a member.  I think this is one of those movies where they didn’t have to pay a lot for the rights to do so.  I don’t want to say that it’s bad.  Consider that the film was made in 1987.  There were a lot of things you might expect from a low-budget film from 25 years ago.

The most obvious is the special effects.  There were several scenes where it was incredibly obvious that they were using a green screen.  There were also a few times that I caught them reusing CGI.  It might not have been so bad if they didn’t try to reuse something from five minutes prior.  (During the final battle scene, there’s one shot from the inside of a cockpit.  Notice two asteroids floating outside the cockpit that look like they’re going to collide.)  Also, when a ship landed, the ‘ship’ that was landing appeared to be a toy.  It was so obvious, I was looking for a little rod to the side holding it up.

I can forgive the CGI because the story and script were at least pretty solid.   This is one of those cases where you’re thinking that 78 minutes is kind of short, but it’s just the right length.  It didn’t drag, nor did it feel rushed.  My only concern was the ambiguity of what Pentan was.  It was said that genetic material was taken from the best and the brightest, which led me to believe that she was entirely human.  However, she was said to have programming.  There was no talk of any sort of mechanical body parts, but she’s said to be a cyborg.  Also, the device that would kill her was said to be a bomb, yet later in the movie, it was revealed that it would give her a stroke.  I suppose it could be a very small explosive.  I certainly wouldn’t want to risk innocent bystanders, especially considering that they could be used as hostages.  (“Turn off the bomb or I’ll take them with me!”)

The acting was also pretty good.  We’re not talking Academy Award material, but I did get a sense of what the people were feeling.  Consider, though, that of the first ten people listed on IMBb, only the first four have any other acting credits.  The next six were only in this movie.

I don’t know that I’d buy this movie.  I doubt I’ll be watching it again any time soon.   If you have Netflix or can get this free on demand, definitely watch it.  (It was originally released as Beyond the Rising Moon, so you may see it under that title.)  Despite the flaws, I think it was well done, all things considered.  It’s one of those movies you can watch and be amazed how far special effects and CGI have come. 

BellSouth 8801-X Single Line Phone

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Note: I wrote this review a while ago and had to rewrite it for the past tense, since I don't usually use this phone any more. It is still in use at my house, but if I change tense, this is why. I also have the 8801-X. The only difference is the color of the phone.

I like to look through the Sunday circulars to see if I can get any good deals. Towards the end of one Summer, I came across this phone. Office Max was selling it for $10 and offering $10 in rebates. (All I had to do was pay tax on it.) The phone had caller ID and I figured that will all of the people calling me with incredible business opportunities, I just had to have this product. (Note to people with incredible business opportunities: please don't call me. I generally won't pick up if I don't know who you are.)

I couldn't wait to rip this product out of the box and set it up. The first thing that I have to warn you about is that not all phone plans come with caller ID. I have no idea what will happen if you don't have caller ID included in your phone plan. It's possible that the caller ID function won't work. It's also possible that you'll automatically get charged for the service. I have no way of knowing. There was nothing on the box that would indicate what would happen if I didn't have caller ID and I hooked the phone up. Fortunately, the phone plan in my house already has caller ID included. I had just never purchased a phone with caller ID yet.

That being said, my first priority was getting the phone set up. It's like a normal phone in that you just plug the unit into a phone jack using a normal phone cord. It has the standard number pad and everything. The caller ID is in a small display on the back of the phone handle. You don't even have to set the time and date. When the first person calls, the phone does this automatically. (I don't really know how. I'm just happy that the time and date are correct.)

The next thing I wanted to know was how I could program names into the phone. Again, this is done automatically. It seems that the phone (or the phone service) can access information on who's calling. When a person calls from within the county, it shows the phone number and the name of the person on the phone bill. If Jane Smith calls you and it's John Smith that's on the bill, the caller ID will show John Smith. Pay phones generally show up as “pay phone” and companies will show as the company name.

It seems that callers from outside of my area or is using a cell phone, it usually shows the city. When my father calls on his cell phone, it just shows “Miami, FL”. When I was using this phone, my brother was going to college in Ithica. At the time, he was using a VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone. The number was a Syracuse number, so it would show as “Syracuse, NY”. Occasionally, I would get a call that showed as (000) 000-0000 and is listed as a blocked call or an unregistered user. This usually means that it's a telemarketer or a recorded message. I usually don't pick up.

If you get home and you missed a call, it will record the incoming phone calls. (I don't remember, but I think that the phone is supposed to have a memory for either 50 or 100 numbers, but it seems to have stopped at 70.) This feature doesn't work if you have call waiting and get a call while you're on the phone with someone else. The phone has to actually ring to be able to get the number. If you do get a call, a little red light will flash and the display will show number of new calls. You can scroll down and see who has called while you were away. You have the option of keeping the number or deleting it. (You have to press the delete button twice, presumably to keep you from accidentally deleting a number.)

There's even a redial feature. The phone has two buttons: Local and L/D. (I'm assuming that L/D stands for long distance.) When trying to use this feature to call a long distance number, the long-distance button worked fine. However, when I tried to call a local number by hitting “local,” it doesn't work. The phone put a 1 in front of the number. It's a minor inconvenience, but it's not worth returning the phone since I know most of the local numbers I need to dial. The problem may be caused by the fact that I live in a county that has two area codes. (This means that we have to dial the area code before all calls.) It's also possible that it's because the phone is programmed poorly. After all, I got it for 70?.

I tend to go with the second statement since I've noticed one other problem with the phone. There's a green light for voicemail. We do actually have an answering service, which some might call voicemail. I'd assume that the light is supposed to indicate when someone has left me a message. So far, the light has never started flashing, even though I have received quite a number of messages. I have no idea what this light is for. It's no big deal since I can normally tell when I pick up the phone. (The dial tone sounds different.)

The phone works for the most part. The caller ID works and I can use the phone to place and receive calls like I would with any other phone. I still go through the Sunday circulars and I've seen Office Max offering the same deal. I've thought about getting this phone for my grandmother, but I don't know that she'd ever use the caller ID function. I'd definitely recommend this product to a friend.

Hyperspace (2001)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I really haven’t been watching too many movies since I started working. The problem is that I sometimes get home at 7:00 and have TV programs that start at 8:00 or 9:00. Factor in dinner and I really don’t have time for a two-hour feature.

When I came across Hyperspace, I figured I’d give it a shot. The description that NetFlix gave said simply that Sam Neill hosts and that it covers topics like black holes and the birth and death of stars. Ok. I like astronomy and I’ve liked some of the movies that Sam Neill has been in. The entire thing was on one disc and had six episodes, each thirty minutes in length. I figured it was the perfect combination.

I liked the fact that each episode was 30 minutes long and the presentation was great, but content left something to be desired. The DVD amounts to three hours of eye candy. What information the DVD has is mostly speculation about what else is out there or where we might end up once the Earth is destroyed.

On that note, each episode has a theme. One is on black holes and how they might destroy the Earth. Another deals with the threat that errant asteroids pose to Earth. One is on the life and death of stars, including our own and how our star will eventually destroy the Earth. Notice a pattern? The documentary repeatedly points out how extremely lucky we are just to be here.

I really can’t recommend this for anyone who’s looking for something really informative. It looks like something that came out of a sci-fi movie. The DVD looks like it’s perfect for a high-school class. The only other time I would tell someone to watch it is if they’re just getting into science or if they really like CGI.

I’d give the DVD four stars. I liked the fact that it was all on one DVD, allowing me to watch the whole thing without wasting any rental positions. It ended up being something that I was able to watch before dinner or while I was waiting for my next show to start. If you’re looking for a documentary that’s easy to watch, this is the one.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

I’ve seen some bad movies in my time. Some are bad in an enjoyable way, much like Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky. Others leave you wondering why the movie was made in the first place, much like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The story is simple. Kimar, leader of the Martians, notices that his children are sad and not doing what Martian children should be doing. He’s distraught over this and seeks the advice of the eldest and wisest Martian, Chochem. Chochem tells Kimar that the children of mars have little reason to be happy. They study too much to the point where they have the minds of adults trapped in very young bodies. They need someone like Santa Claus to bring them joy and happiness.

Kimar takes it a step further and decides to actually kidnap Santa. He takes a crew to Earth and lands somewhere a major city where they find all sorts of people fitting the description of Santa. They meet two children, Billy and Betty, that direct them to the North Pole. Since the Martians can’t trust the kids not to rat them out, the kids have to go along for the ride.

The Martians arrive at the North Pole, but the kids escape and plan on warning Santa. The warning comes too little too late for Santa, as the Martians put Mrs. Claus and several elves in suspended animation. Santa has no choice but to go with the Martians.

Things aren’t all that great on the ship. Kimar has a dissenter named Voldar who tries to throw Santa and the kids out of an airlock. He thinks that Martians would be to soft and cuddly to be effective warriors. Once they get back to Mars, he’s arrested and told he’ll stand trial for going against his leader.

Once back on Mars, Santa gets an automated plant to make toys for all the good Martian boys and all the good Martian girls. Billy and Betty help Santa in his new workshop. Everything seems to be going fine until Voldar decides to shut down the factory and kidnap Santa.

As luck would have it, Kimar has an assistant named Dropo that tries to dress up as Santa. Voldar ends up kidnapping Dropo, not realizing that Santa isn’t a Martian. (This is despite having seen both Dropo and Santa up close and that Martians look nothing like humans.) After a toy fight, Santa saves the day and Kimar realizes that Dropo could be as effective a Santa as the real Santa. Santa, Billy and Betty are allowed to go home in time for Christmas.

I ended up watching the entire movie just to see how bad it was. It was pretty bad. Even the names aren’t that creative. Another reviewer pointed out that Kimar may be King Martian. Notice that he has a wife, Momar, and two kids, Bomar and Girmar. I’m assuming that the names come from Mom Martian, Boy Martian and Girl Martian respectively. I’m thinking that Dropo may be the Martian Marx brother. As for a lot of the other names, I can’t quite figure those out. The movie isn’t worth that much thought.

I couldn’t get the Martians. There were maybe two Martians that had any intelligence at all, yet they’re capable of flying across the solar system to Earth. I mean, Dropo was an idiot and yet two other Martians mistook him for Santa. Granted, there may be more intelligent Martians that built the space ships, but you don’t put just anyone in a plane and call them the captain. Just to fly the thing requires intelligence.

The costumes look like something out of a thrift store reject sale. The people doing the makeup must have seen them and done an appropriately bad job. There was nothing redeeming about either. I cant’ even get a decent sized paragraph out of it, that’s how bad it was.

As for the plot, it left a lot to be desired. Santa and Co. don’t fight back at all. Even when Santa’s told that he’s going to be staying on Mars permanently, he’s just like, ‘oh, well!’ The kids mope around, which is to be expected, but they, too, go along with everything. There’s no resistance of any kind. Santa never comes close to attempting to conquer the Martians. I guess the conquering part of the title comes from the fact that the Martians adopted that part of Earth culture.

There was no real redeeming quality to this movie. The lighting was horrible, the makeup and costumes were horrible. The movie looks like it was done on a budget of $5 including the actors’ salaries. This is truly a one-star movie in every sense of the term. Even the opening/closing music was annoying. I got the movie as one of the Free One Demand selections and even then, it was overpriced. Avoid this movie.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Elizabeth Moon - The Speed of Dark

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

The Speed of Dark is about Lou Arrendale. Lou is autistic, but is able to function in society. The book is sent somewhere in the (presumably) near future. Shortly after Lou was born, treatments were developed to prevent children from being born with autism. Lou was able to benefit from some treatments for adults, but still requires accommodations at his job, where he analyzes patterns for a large pharmaceutical company.

Pete Aldrin supervises Lou’s group. (All of the members of the group have autism.) He seems nice enough. The one that Lou has to worry about is Mr. Crenshaw, who seems to have it in for the group. He wants to eliminate the division or at least get rid of the special accommodations, stating that it would cut costs. No one in Lou’s group can figure this out, citing that most of the accommodations have been bought and paid for; the cost of upkeep is very minimal.

Eventually, Lou figures out that there must be something bigger going on and he’s right. Crenshaw is pressuring them to take an experimental treatment. Lou and several others don’t want to take part in the experiments. They also realize that it’s illegal to be pressured. (Crenshaw tries to choose his wording carefully, so as to hide behind technicalities.)

The new treatment makes up most of the plot, although Lou does have other problems to worry about like someone that’s out to hurt him. (The person actually plants a bomb in his car.) Most of the book is narration by Lou. It becomes obvious early on that Lou doesn’t use contractions, which is somewhat distracting. During the narration, Lou points out several things he doesn’t get, such as phrases that he takes too literally. He also doesn’t understand facial expressions.

I thought the plot was thin. Lou went between home, work, a fencing club and church, with the primary focus on work and the fencing club. The primary story line was the experiment; the stalker ended up being sort of a side note to reinforce the main point, which is that autism isn’t something that should necessarily be ‘cured’.

The procedure that Lou and the others were being coerced into taking would essentially eliminate any traces of autism while leaving the rest of their personalities unaffected. The procedure had yet to be tested on humans, which only added to the desire to resist. It was entirely possible that the procedure would fail on humans and have undesirable side effects or that the people performing the experiments would try to do more than just eliminate their autistic attributes.

The real focus of the book is to ask what normal is. Is it right to say that Lou would be cured of autism? Granted, there are those that have severe limitations, but is it right to change them? (Pete Aldrin had a brother who is very severe and under professional care; hopefully, the procedure would help him.) However, just as Lou has a rigid view of the world, there are those that have a rigid view of abnormal. 

Terry McMillan -- It's OK if You're Clueless and 23 More Tips for the College Bound

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

In my quest to find really easy things to review, I decided to go to several local libraries to see if they had any small, easy-to-read books.  Scanning the stacks for books that were physically small, I found this one.   It looked like a simple read, so I checked it out and brought it home.

The book is based on a commencement speech that she gave at her son’s high school graduation.  As you might have gathered from the subtitle, there are 24 pieces of advice that Ms. McMillan has to give to prospective college students.  The title refers to her advice that you don’t need to know what to major in right away.  (Chapter 11 is called “It’s OK if You’re Clueless About What to Major In.”)

Yes, it’s been a while since I’ve been out of high school.  You may be wondering why I’d read this book to review it.  It hasn’t been so long that I’ve completely forgotten college.  I do remember going to classes, although I didn’t go away to college.  This is going to affect my perception of the advice given here.  Chapter 16 is called “Bring Your Dirty Laundry Home”.  This chapter wouldn’t make much sense to someone who is living at home throughout college.

Some are universal.  Chapter 9 is “Success Should Not Be Based on Fame or How Much Money You Make.”  Here, she points out that there are plenty of miserable rich people.  There are also plenty of happy people that no one knows about.

There’s one chapter on moderating alcohol intake.  It seems a little lax for a parent to not ban alcohol and drug use outright.  I’m wondering if there were some officials at her son’s high school that were having heart attacks while no one was looking, but the chapter is more an admission that alcohol will be available to college students and as a warning that going overboard with drugs is not the responsible thing to do.

It’s kind of hard to recommend such a short book that’s geared towards such a limited audience.  If I was going away to college, I don’t know that I would have bought a book like this.  Instead, I think it would have been a nice gift from someone.  It’s a quick read and while it’s not necessarily wisdom for the ages, I probably would have picked up some useful information from it.

I’m not a parent, so I don’t know how parents would view the book.  There’s one section advising students to call home frequently.  I’m wondering how many parents got this book for a child only to have them call every five minutes.  (There’s also a section advising children not to listen to their parents, but it’s meant as a warning to not let your parents relive their own glory.)

As I said, the book is short.  The version I got is only 43 pages long.  With an introduction and 24 chapters, each section will be very short.  Chapter 17 is only two sentences long.  (I call them chapters; each is a different piece of advice.)  If you have a child going away to college, I’d consider getting this book, but you might want to give it a read before you give it to them.  Chapter 17 advises students to beg for money every chance they get.

R.I.P.D. (2013)

I usually have a pretty good sense of when I want to see a movie.  When I first heard of R.I.P.D., it looked like an interesting premise.  A Boston police officer dies and, rather than be sent to Hell, is given a chance to police the afterlife.  When someone dies, they’re normally sucked into this huge vortex.  It was designed when Earth’s population was much smaller.  In 2014, people manage to slip through the cracks.  Nick is partnered up with Roy, who’s been doing this since the Civil War.

It’s pretty easy to find someone who hasn’t crossed over.  Just look for death and decay.  Anything like a cellular dead zone indicates that a possible ‘deado’ is nearby.  It isn’t long before Nick and Roy uncover a rather nasty plot to bring back the dead.  As if that weren’t enough, one of the recently deceased has transformed and is wreaking havoc on the greater Boston area.

This ended up being one of the few times that I was kind of disappointed.  The movie was apparently based on a series of comics.  This usually means that many of the background details have been worked out.  Even a relatively short run should give you enough for a decent two-hour movie.  Instead, it goes through the motions.  It seemed more like a pilot for a TV show.  We get to see Nick’s moment of death.  We get to see the Rest In Peace Department’s office.  We get to see the two detectives try to do their jobs.  Given how serious the situation was supposed to be, I didn’t get the sense that they were taking it all that seriously.

If you’ve seen other similar shows, such as Dead Like Me, you can guess that Nick and Roy don’t appear as themselves to normal humans.  Nick is played by Ryan Reynolds, but appears to be James Hong to the living.  Roy is played by Jeff Bridges.  When a living person approaches him, they see Marissa Miller.  This means that we get to see some guy try to flirt with Jeff Bridges a few times.  Each time, he has to play the part of an uninterested woman.

Also, we get a few undead/afterlife jokes.  When R.I.P.D. officers go bad, they have to deal with Eternal Affairs.  There’s also a scene where Nick goes to his own funeral, only to be kicked out when no one recognizes him.  I should also warn you that Roy likes to talk about his own death, where coyotes and vultures had their way with his corpse.  This is not something that small children will necessarily enjoy.

Nick is supposed to be the new guy.  Even though he was a police officer in life, he has things to learn about the afterlife.  This lets him be a stand-in for the audience, yet be good enough to do his job.  Still, it doesn’t quite work.  Like I said, the movie comes across as too simple.  We don’t get to see much of the afterlife.  We don’t get to actually see Heaven or Hell.  There’s no commentary on who or what actually awaits you.  (Nick’s new boss makes reference to him being pulled down, despite his being a relatively good person.)

Also, curry is used as a test for deados.  I’m not sure what the significance is.  I’m sure this is something that’s explained in the comics.  When Nick and Roy approach someone they suspect as being dead, they have to ask a series of questions about how the suspect would handle a series of similar situations.  If I understood, the person becomes a caricature of their sins when exposed to curry.  One such person becomes rather large with a grotesquely deformed mouth.  He’s referred to as Fat Elvis throughout the rest of the movie.

There are also scenes where Jeff Bridges tries to hard.  I won’t say overacting, but his performance does come across as a bit strong.  I don’t know what the director was trying to pull off there.  It wasn’t to the point where I couldn’t stand it, but it did get to be a little annoying at times.

This is one of those situations where I’m glad I was able to get the movie for free.  (I was able to rent it through Redbox from a code I won on Listia.)  The plot is interesting, but I think it could have been handled better.  If this had been a pilot episode, certain aspects could have been pushed back to later in the series.  Nick left a widow, who you know will eventually find out the truth.  Nick is killed by his partner, which involves at least some foreshadowing.  These are things that might be left as ambiguous in a movie.  Instead, it seemed kind of forced.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

TransAct Ithaca 153 Point of Sale Dot Matrix Printer

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

A receipt printer isn’t necessarily something you would normally purchase in the course of a day. Most people can go their entire lives without asking what they should look for in a receipt printer. Some people do need to look for one. The only reason I’m writing this review is that we use two of them at work. Had it not been for that, I probably never would have thought of receipt printers, either.

The Ithaca 150 printer is pretty standard. You put in a roll of receipt paper, load it in and press the reset button. Loading the paper is a little tricky for us since we use paper that’s taped in place. To start a new roll, we have to tear the paper, which makes it a little harder to load. If you feel like working, you can use a pair of scissors or a paper cutter. If not, you can just fold it over and load it in. My only real complaint about loading paper is that you’ll end up wasting a few feet of paper between tearing off the outer layer and the amount of paper that it feeds through when done. Also, you have to remember to hit the reset button on the far right, or else it won’t work.

Once that’s done, you don’t really want to have to think about the receipt printer. You just want it to work. That’s why I decided to write the review in the first place. We have two of these printers and one works well whereas the second doesn’t. The one that works is on the primary register, which I suppose is good.

The one on the secondary register has a bad habit of freezing up whenever there’s a power spike. I often have to call someone to get it working again. This isn’t good. I hate seeing the lights go out for a second and hearing the printer making that distinct sound for a second. It means I have to call it in and get the printer working again.

I can be pretty certain that it’s not the printer, though, because we’ve replaced that one. (If I recall, it had one too many power spikes and crapped out permanently.) The old one had the same set of problems. Not only did it freeze up, but it also seems to print a little more slowly. There are also some minor things that escape me at the moment, but I think many of them stem from the register, which we’ve had for a while. I’ll bet if we switched the printers, they’d take on the characteristics of the other instantly.

Overall, they’re reliable printers. As I said, we’ve had the same major problem with one, but the other has never given us any grief. I’d give the printer four stars. 

David Wilton - Word Myths: Debunking Linguisitic Urban Legends

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

There are many theories on where words and phrases come from.  Few are entirely correct.   For instance, there’s a certain four-letter word that’s said to stand for Fornication Under Consent of King.  Or is it Fornication Under Command of King?  Or, maybe it’s For Unlawful Carnal Knowledge.  (No, wait… that last one’s a Van Halen album.)  Whatever your acronym of choice is, you’re wrong.  The word goes way back to a Germanic root.

Word Myths deals with all sorts of urban legends and stories concerning words, terms and phrases.  The whole nine yards is said to have to do with the amount of cloth necessary to make a kimono or a kilt or some other garment.  It may also refer to the length that machine-gun bullets come it, meaning that to go the whole nine yards is to expend all the rounds.  There’s no proof that any of these are true.

The book goes deals with so many different myths that it doesn’t really spend much time on any given term.  At most, you may get a page or two and the pages aren’t really that big.  It doesn’t seem to be meant as an in-depth study of anything.  Instead, it’s more for a casual reader that’s interested in word origins.  (If you want something with more detail, there are other books and movies you might want to look into.  The aforementioned curse word has its own documentary, as does the N word.)

The introduction was a little boring and repetitive.  It took me several false starts to get into the book for that reason.  Once I got past that, it wasn’t so bad, mostly because of the short sections.  That and the small size of the book make for an easy read.  I could see where it would get boring, though.

I apologize for the short review, but there really isn’t much to review.  As it’s nonfiction, there’s no real plot to discus.  The subject matter is pretty basic.  It’s not like I can give you a rundown of characters or a brief plot description.  If I were to go into even a small amount of detail on each myth covered, there would be no point in reading the book.  The best I can do is give you a general idea of what the book is like.

This is one of those books I’d recommend getting from the library rather than buying for yourself.  If you’re going to buy it, get it as a gift for someone else.  Yes, it could be used for reference, but there’s not enough detail on each myth that I think it would be worth it.  I think the overall theme of the book and the message I took from it is to bee a little more skeptical when someone tells you a story or forwards a story to you.  You never know how much of it is true.


Evil in Clear River (1988)

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Lindsay Wagner plays Kate McKinnon, the mother of a high-school student who loves his history class. Most of the students worship Peter Suvak, played by Randy Quaid. Suvak is also the mayor of the small town in which the movie is set. Clear River, Alberta, is a close-knit community. That’s why it’s so hard for Kate and her husband to believe that Suvak is spreading what’s called revisionist history.

She finds out about it when her son is studying for history class. She notices that there are a lot of references in her son’s notes to Jews and a Jewish conspiracy. She confronts Suvak about it and he plays it down like it’s no big deal. He even offers to lend her some books on the subject. After reading them, she knows that Suvak is trouble. She takes the matter to the principal, who doesn’t really seem to want to do anything about it. She takes the matter to the school board twice and eventually gets Suvak fired.

Along the way, McKinnon finds that there are three groups of people in the community. First are the people that agree with Suvak. This includes most of his students and fellow teachers. The second group is made up of people that don’t want to get on the bad side of the first group. McKinnon’s neighbor doesn’t like Suvak, but says that she and her husband depend on the first group of people for business. The third group of people is made up of those that don’t really see what the first two groups are talking about. They don’t really know what’s going on.

The last group is the first group to join McKinnon’s cause, but there really aren’t that many willing to risk everything. McKinnon and family have to endure the hatred of the community. Some people from the second group join, but many of the second group are only made more afraid seeing what the McKinnons have to go through. Eventually, Mrs. McKinnon gains momentum. The matter eventually catches the attention of the media. This leads to a visit from a prosecutor who informs McKinnon that Suvak has violated the law. Jews are a recognized minority in Canada and Suvak has incited hatred of them. He’s arrested and people begin to see the light.

The story is one of good versus evil. Suvak believes that evil has taken the form of the Jewish people. McKinnon believes that evil has taken the form of Suvak, who she voted for twice because she felt that he’s a good man. He’s been good for the community for many years and everyone is able to look up to him.

I’m guessing that this was a made-for-TV movie. First, some scenes fade out and another fades in; this occurs about every fifteen minutes. (Essentially, the DVD is missing the commercial breaks.) Second, the movie ends with Suvak stripped of all power and the son, despite hating his parents, realizes the error of his ways. There’s definitely a feel-good sense to this movie.

There’s also some blatant and some subtle references to the good-versus-evil debate. McKinnon is focused on bringing down Suvak. She’s as convinced that she’s right as he is that he’s right. The thing that separates Suvak from McKinnon is that Suvak is in a position of authority. He has a responsibility to teach his students to think rather than to feed them his version of history. (Every major book on the subject, by the way, refutes his version of history. Suvak claims that the media are censored.)

I have to wonder if she went too far by trying to bring him down as mayor. It’s not that I think he wasn’t a bad man. To me, it seemed like more of a personal vendetta at that point than anything else. I know that he was evil and McKinnon couldn’t trust him, but as she had pointed out, many of the people felt that they could trust him as mayor even if he couldn’t be trusted as a teacher. McKinnon was trying to totally ruin him. Suvak’s conviction on the charge brought against him led to his downfall. Even though McKinnon’s effort to recall him had failed, Suvak had eventually been removed as mayor.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Robot and Frank = Abort Fond Rank [Robot & Frank (2012)]

Note:  This review was originally posted to my Epinions account.

Frank Weld used to be a burglar.  He’s what’s called a second-story man.  (Basically, he’d try to gain entry using unconventional means, like through a second-story window.)  He’s retired now and somewhat forgetful.  He can remember where he lives, but seems to forget that a favorite restaurant of his closed and is now a beauty shop.  His son, Hunter, visits every week, but is worried about him.  Enter, Robot, an unnamed robot that’s meant to serve as Frank’s personal assistant.

Yes, robots are usually given names, but Frank is understandably upset about his gift.  He doesn’t want this machine telling him what to eat, when to wake up and how to spend his free time.  This changes when Frank realizes that Robot knows the law, but doesn’t understand it.  He can define breaking and entering, but doesn’t realize that he’s not supposed to do it.  This means that Frank can use Robot to break into a library and steal a book.

You wouldn’t think that a book would be worth stealing, even if it is an antique copy of Don Quixote, but the library is being made into a community center.  (The movie is set in the near future; books have become obsolete.)  He wants to steal it to impress the librarian, Jennifer.  Frank and Robot go on to burglarize the home of a pretentious developer and his wife.  This draws the attention of the police, mostly because the developer doesn’t seem to like Frank.  It’s up to Frank and Robot to do what they can to foil the police.

When I saw the page for the movie on Netflix, I figured it was one of these odd-couple buddy-type movies where the two grow closer to each other, or at least Frank comes to accept the robot.  Robot points out several times that he’s really the sum of his programming.  Anything else is in service to his primary directive of keeping Frank healthy.  (This leads to a dilemma: Does Frank wipe Robot’s memory or risk getting caught?)

There’s also the issue of worrying about a parent that has deteriorating health.  Frank’s memory is going.  Hunter doesn’t like the prospect of leaving his father home alone, but the alternative is a ‘brain center’, which is basically a nice way of saying nursing home for people with mental issues.  The solution is Robot, but even that has issues.  Frank’s daughter, Madison, has moral objections to having robotic help.

I found the premise to be very interesting.  It’s a problem that we’ve all had to worry about if we have older relatives, making the story relatable.  Frank’s memory loss isn’t to the point where he’s a joke.  It’s not a string of forgetful-old-man jokes.  Also, the robot does seem to mimic human behavior quite well, to the point that you can accept it as a character.  When Frank leans back against a wall to avoid being seen, Robot does the same.  It also has the ability to learn what Frank likes and is even able to negotiate.  Robot is aware that Frank may be caught and sent to prison, but is also aware that his cognitive health is getting better now that he has purpose.

There’s also not a lot of futuristic stuff.  Frank lives in a normal house with some moderately advanced technology.  (He has a flat-screen TV with the ability to have a video conference.  Cell phones look like transparent iPhones.)  It doesn’t try to oversell us on the futuristic stuff.  The two recurring reminders of that are the presence of the robot and the looming absence of the library.

I think most of all, it’s a simple story.  If you’re looking for something without a lot going on or things you might miss, this is a good movie to watch.  I’d like to get a friend or relative to watch this only because I’d like to talk about it with someone.  There are aspects of the ending that might leave you wondering. 

Official Site (Japan)