The Best Laptops

This is an article I researched and wrote for the upcoming issue of IMAGE Magazine:

The Best Laptops

It’s bullshit, but not entirely bullshit.

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Filmtracks.com

If you’re a film nerd like me, you watch a lot of movies. You know who directed them, who wrote them, and who starred in them. You even know the composers of the scores. If you’re as nerdy as me, you listen to these scores instead of actually popular music your friends want to listen to. And if you’re really, really nerdy, you want to read reviews of movie scores to know what is good.

For over a decade now, Filmtracks.com has been one of the finest websites dedicated to giving out film reviews. What’s most impressive about the site is that it’s run by one guy.

That guy’s name is Christian Clemmensen, and I have to wonder where he finds the time to write as many reviews as he does. The man writes at least one review a day, which is more than I can manage. And unlike me, Clemmensen writes really long reviews. His recent review for the score to The Last Airbender clocked in at over 2,000 words – twice the length of my longest review, for the book The Elves of Cintra by Terry Brooks. He also designed the site, maintains it, edits all his reviews, and does everything else needed to keep a large niche market website alive. So far, I’ve left those duties to the WordPress staff.

That Clemmensen maintains the site all by himself is occasionally a problem. Because he is human, Filmtracks.com sometimes experiences moments of downtime. I recall a period of a few months some years ago when no new reviews were being updated because of Clemmensen having a life. Right now, though, the site is regularly updated with reviews of movies new and old.

Clemmensen has a strong ability to write expository prose. That is to say that he knows how to write reviews clearly and intelligently. He has a keen ear for listening to music and discerning what’s happening technically with the sound. Sometimes his reviews incorporate too much jargon, but that is not what is wrong with them.

What’s wrong with Clemmensen’s reviews is that he doesn’t hit the Enter key.

His reviews do have multiple paragraphs. But they don’t have enough of them. An average paragraph in the aforementioned review of The Last Airbender ran 500 words long. There were five of them. Each paragraph could have been subdivided multiple times, and the article would have benefited for it.

Clemmensen’s reviews are overlong as it is, but when readers are confronted by huge blocks of text longer than the entirety of this review, it becomes intimidating. Readers today — especially readers on the internet — are accustomed to quick bursts of text. We’re used to what we read being in digestible, bite-sized chunks.

The site’s design is clean and attractive. That it features white text against a black background makes it seem a bit old-fashioned in terms of the Internet; most modern sites use white backgrounds. But these kinds of criticisms are nit-picky. Overall, the site is an incredible resource.

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The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks

The Gypsy Morph starts with a lone man named Willis trapped in a large nuclear missile silo complex with nothing to do but eat canned food, reminisce about how his companions have died, and think about launching nuclear missiles. Willis is a ticking time bomb. He is Chekov’s gun. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that he launches the missiles and destroys the world at the end of the book.

This is the last book in Terry Brooks’ Genesis of Shannara trilogy, which means that it wraps up plot lines established in the first two books, Armageddon’s Children and The Elves of Cintra. The story is still set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, and it is still more of a fantasy adventure than a realist tale. This book reads much like the other two; if you’ve gotten this far, you don’t need me to tell you what the tone is like.

And if you’ve read the first two books, you already know what’s going to happen in this one. The magical boy named Hawk, the messiah figure introduced in Armageddon’s Children, has to lead a large group of human and mutant refugees to a place of safety before Willis launches his nukes. The Elf named Kirisin has to use a magic rock called the Loden Elfstone to transport the Elven capital city Arborlon – called “Arbor-lon” because the Elves like trees – to said place of safety.

That they will succeed is never in question. The Genesis of Shannara trilogy is just part of an ongoing saga, and the next few books have already been commissioned by Brooks’ publisher, Del Rey. And this saga is all prequel to his Shannara series, wherein Arborlon has survived and thrives.

With much of the plot predetermined, there are only two questions left. The first is how many characters will die along the journey to safe haven.

The second question is whether Terry Brooks is a good enough writer to make the story interesting.

He is. The Gypsy Morph is fun and engaging. It is a quick read, and a pleasurable one.

Brooks makes The Gypsy Morph fun by putting his characters through no end of strife. The protagonists are all hunted by demons, who have by this third book amassed an army of zombie-like once-men and evil mutants. They attack the main characters and the refugees, and this is violent and exciting. There are even a few large-scale battles, and Brooks excels at describing these.

Brooks makes his story relatively intelligent by adding heavy subtext of Judeo-Christian mytholgoy. Hawk was established as a messiah figure in the previous books, partly because he experienced a kind of death and resurrection. Now he embodies Moses as he leads his followers on an exodus away from the Pacific northwest urban centers. He performs miracles to stave off their demon pursuers, and then he leads them on a long, arduous journey through a desert.

The sequence involving the long, arduous journey is itself arduous to read. It comes at the end, and the book plods towards its inevitable finish. That Brooks seemed bored with writing the end of this trilogy is the series’s greatest flaw.

Perhaps Brooks, a traditional fantasy writer,  felt out of his comfort zone while writing this post-apocalyptic story, and wanted to get done with toward the end. The next set of books in this prequel saga should be more standard fantasy fare, and he will be in his element there.

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Battlestar Galactica: The Plan

The direct to DVD movie Battlestar Galactica: The Plan is awful. It’s so bad I can’t understand why it got made.

In the early seasons of the mostly excellent reimagining of the space odyssey TV show Battlestar Galactica, it was purported that the Cylons, the robotic enemies of humanity, had a plan. As it gradually became more and more apparent that the writers were making things up as they went along and that they didn’t have a plan for the show themselves, it likewise became apparent that the Cylons did not, in fact, have a plan.

This DVD movie, its synopsis claims, attempts to retrospectively show just what that Cylon plan was. But the Cylons’ attempt at a plan in this movie is almost as disjointed and stupid as the movie itself.

The movie starts with a sequence depicting the Cylons nuking the human Twelve Colonies. This is an impressive display of visual effects. It features spaceships and things blowing up. Sadly, it does not show spaceships blowing up.

But then the movie has shot its load. The movie then cuts between humanoid Cylons infiltrating the human survivors on Caprica, one of the Colonies, and Cylons infiltrating the fleet of refugee spaceships that was the focus of the TV show. Apparently the Cylons in the fleet want to blow up the fleet, but aren’t very good at it. The Cylons on Caprica just sort of follow humans around while looking mischievous.

I should explain more about the plot, but there isn’t an actual plot to explain.

Every scene in this movies exists between some other scene in the TV show. Consequently, every scene looks like it belongs as a deleted scene found on a DVD. The problem is, these scenes are shown out of context of the larger story. They require viewers to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the show itself. Worse, there are some scenes taken from the show itself and shown out of context for no good reason.

Most of the scenes in this DVD feature Dean Stockwell as Cavil, the seeming leader of the Cylons. Stockwell is a talented actor, and watching him work is engaging. But not enough to make me forget that nothing his character says makes sense.

There are also boobies. For some reason, director Edward James Olmos – who is as incapable as a director as he was thrilling to watch acting as the show’s Commander Adama – felt the need to add nudity in this DVD movie when there was none in the show itself. Sadly, the tits are the only redeeming factor in this mess of a movie.

There aren’t even spaceships shooting at each other and exploding.

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The Last Airbender – a critical response

The Last Airbender is a weird movie. It is a bad movie. But it is the kind of movie you can enjoy if you’ve read other critics’ reviews and found out its flaws ahead of time. It is also the kind of movie that benefits from you being drunk.

Other critics – ones with more prestigious publications than this blog – have said that The Last Airbender is rushed, and too quickly paced. They have said that it suffers from stilted dialog with too much exposition, and that this dialog is often poorly delivered by bad child actors.

They are right on all counts. But the movie isn’t quite as bad if you know these things going in. Especially if you have had several beers and/or joints beforehand.

The movie takes place in a weird world where there are four nations representing the four elements dictated by stupid Greek people – fire, earth, water, and air. The story is about this bald white kid Asianly named Aang who is found by some white kids from the water tribe. In this story, the different nations can each for some reason manipulate their respective elements, except for one being called an Avatar who can manipulate all of them. Aang is almost definitely the latest Avatar, and I’m sick of giving exposition already.

The movie gives this exposition. The critics are right that the exposition is overlong, and that the child actors delivering it don’t know how to act. They are right in saying that the movie’s pace is too quick because it attempts to summarize a twenty-episode cartoon series in less than two hours. Certainly the movie has a cartoony feel to it.

What is weird is that the movie is less than two hours long. It didn’t need to be. For the money he was budgeted, writer/director/producer M. Night Shyamalan could have made the movie maybe half an hour longer, and then the pace wouldn’t have been so rushed.

But the other critics have said the movie’s too-fast pace and excessive exposition made it incomprehensible, which it is not. The movie is based on an Anglican anime-style cartoon by Nickelodeon. I have only seen a few episodes of that cartoon, but I still understood what was going on in the movie. It was a fantasy tale about primal elements and their balance.

And it was visually gorgeous. The other critics knew that. But they deemphasized how awesome the special effects were. They deemphasized how brilliant the composition of the cinematography was. Filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan has always been a better director than a writer. He has always been better at visual composition than working with actors. In his past movies, he’s had better actors to make up for these flaws. The Last Airbender emphasizes his strengths and flaws more than his previous productions.

Shyamalan does amazing visual work with camera focus, left-to-right composition, long shots, close-ups, and whatnot. The scenes where the characters do their “bending” of the elements feature a dance like martial arts and brilliant special effects. These are beautiful. If you’re drunk enough, maybe you won’t notice that the story isn’t so great.

There have been two other major criticisms leveled at The Last Airbender.

The first is that the 3D, which was converted from 2D film, sucks. The obvious answer to this problem is to see the movie without the 3D gimmick. I saw the movie in 2D and it looked gorgeous. Maybe someday movie studios will realize that audiences don’t want to see bad 2D-to-3D conversions.

The other major criticism is that M. Night Shyamalan is racist because he cast white people in the lead roles, contrary to the races of these characters in the Nickelodeon cartoon. This is a stupid criticism because Shyamalan – as you might have guessed from his last name – is Indian himself. He cast the villains from the Fire Nation as Indians. Either this is an case of self-hatred on a race level, of Shyamalan cast race-blind. Either way, this shouldn’t be an issue to white critics.

What is more an issue is that Shyamalan cast most of the prominent Indian actors working today. There aren’t many. This means that he cast Dev Patel – who you remember from Slumdog Millionaire – as the lead villain. And he cast Cliff Curtis and Aasif Mandvi as the other two prominent villain roles. Aasif Mandvi is one of the latest correspondents on The Daily Show. For liberal white people like myself, it’s hard to take him seriously as a bad guy in a big budget, overbloated fantasy production.

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Following by Christopher Nolan

Following is the first movie made by Christopher Nolan, who you probably know as the guy who made the new Batman movies. If you’re a little bit of a film nerd, you probably also know him as the guy who made Memento. He also made The Prestige and that movie where Al Pacino couldn’t fall asleep. Following is mostly only interesting to film nerds, like me.

Consider this: In the early 2000s, Warner Bros. was looking for someone to revive the Batman franchise after directer Joel Schumacher had made two cartoonish Batman movies wherein Batman’s suit was made into something horrifically homo-erotic with rubber nipples. The studio was looking for a director who could make a Batman movie that was actually good. The leading contenders were two independent directors: Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky.

Aronofsky had directed the brilliant and groundbreaking Requiem for a Dream, a visually engrossing and atmospheric film about heroin addicts in Coney Island. His first movie, π, was a neo-noir film about the mathematical discovery of everything. It explored the mystery behind the number pi, Kabbalah, life, the universe, and everything else. It was also shot with a tiny budget on grainy black and white film.

Aronofsky didn’t get the job of making Batman. Instead he made The Fountain, an ambitious and underbudgeted film that was brilliant despite its flawed, and which flopped at the box office.

Nolan got the Batman job. But before he made Memento, a structurally engrossing and atmospheric movie, he made Following, which was shot on a tiny budget on grainy black and white film. The similarities between the two filmmakers’ early careers are interesting to film nerds like myself.

Following starts with a young man explaining to someone about how he is a young, unemployed writer in London who took to following people he thought were interesting. He began following a man who befriended him in a cafe and revealed that he was a professional burglar. The two of them burgled a beautiful woman’s apartment, who the young man later encountered at a bar and fell in love with.

The film follows conventions of film noir. The woman the young man falls for is the femme fatale. Neither she nor the burglar he befriends are who they seem to be. The ending, when their intentions are fully revealed, is trite and not as interesting as the setup.

But Nolan keeps things interesting through a non-linear plot structure, which allows for dramatic revelations and two or three plot twists. He used non-linear storytelling artfully in Memento, and also to great effect in Batman Begins, The Prestige. In Following, the lack of linearity isn’t necessary, except to allow for plot twists. Here, Nolan is essentially prepping himself for his later films.

But it is interesting how he uses sets to define people. In an early scene, the burglar takes the young man on a venture breaking into someone’s apartment. He speaks about how people’s personal space can define who they are. Nolan takes advantage of this idea by having different characters enter apartments with recognizable landmarks. These apartments indeed define the characters. The young man’s apartment is small and stark, like an employed person’s would be. The femme fatale’s apartment is well-furnished and has a piano.

Interestingly, Nolan used his friends’ apartments as location. All of the actors are amateur, but some of the apartments may actually belong to them, and may actually define them.

And Nolan’s film is furnished with his characteristic plot structure. Despite the grey and the grain, it looks visually similar to his other films, especially Memento. One idea behind Following is that we cannot escape who we are. Nolan is no exception.

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Chew

Chew is a culinary comic. That is to say, it is a comic book about food.

It’s main character is a little fellow named Tony Chu (get it?). Tony Chu is a ciobopathic. That means that he gets a psychic impression of whatever he eats. He can eat a banana and get an impression of the tree the banana grew on, the worker who picked it, what pesticides were used, etc. Or, because Chu is a law enforcement officer, he he can eat the flesh of murder victims to find out who killed them.

Chu exists in a world where the American Food and Drug Administration is the most powerful law enforcement force in the world because not long ago several million people died ostensibly from bird flu. Chu comes to work for the FDA so that his boss, Mike Applebee, can make him eat disgusting things to fight crime. He partners first with Mason Savoy, a ciobopathic, and then with John Colby, a cyborg. He falls in love with Amelia Mintz, a food critic who is a saboscrivner, which means that she can write about food so accurately and so vividly that people get an actual sensation of taste when reading her reviews.

I wish I could do that with my reviews. Chances are you don’t have the actual sensation of reading Chew right now.

Stories ensue. Often they contain biological grossness. Sometimes there is gore, and it’s funny. The book is zany.

Chew is drawn by Rob Guillory, whose drawings are always silly. Guillory keeps the gross parts of book from being too nauseating by using a cartoon caricature style. His style is spicy, piquant, and more detailed than most cartoonists’. He also knows how to make characters act.

Guillory works from scripts written by John Layman, who has an intuitive sense for saporous stories. He seeds elements of story well before they come to fruition. Each chapter’s plot is full-bodied, and structured exactly as it should be. Layman letters every issue of Chew himself, so the dialog boxes are more creative zest than any other comic’s. He even has a sense of humor.

There are two trade paperback collections of Chew that have been released so far. The first, Taster’s Choice, collects five relatively self-contained stories that set up the ongoing saga. They are all clever. The second, International Flavor, sends Tony Chu to a Pacific island nation where a strange fruit that tastes just like chicken has been discovered. Such a fruit is valuable in a world where poultry is illegal.

Both of these collections are affordable, entertaining, and mouth-wateringly good. They may also make you hungry. You should buy them. Partly because John Layman is better at using food-related verbiage than I have been in this review.

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