Archive for the 'Reviews' Category

Showbits bloggers' thoughts on films they've just seen, both new and old.

Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history

11-Jul-14 10:56 AM by
Filed under Reviews, Television; 2 comments.

In the fifteen years since I cancelled my cable service, the television landscape has changed: "reality TV" was invented, medical and legal procedural dramas boomed, and HDTV became the norm. So it was interesting to watch and review the AMC series Halt and Catch Fire for Computerworld. Not being an AMC subscriber, I bought a season pass for the first four episodes on Amazon Instant Video and paid for the fifth episode individually.

It's hard to judge any show by its early episodes — I doubt any of the various Star Trek series would've lasted long by that metric. So I tried to keep my critical eye at bay for the first few episodes, which was not easy. The three main characters — Joe MacMillian (Lee Pace), Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy), and Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis) — are trying to develop one of the first IBM clones of 1983, but their subterfuge and machinations, with both corporations and each other. I roll my eyes at such drama for the same reason that I stopped watching soap operas. MacMillian, who physically reminds me of a cross between John Cusack and Andy Garcia, is a vile businessman who oozes deceit and smarm. He's a character you love to hate.

Halt and Catch Fire

Lee Pace as Joe MacMillian. What a jerk.


But there are some really nice moments of character development, too. Clark, the show's Steve Wozniak-like character, struggles to realize his dream of creating the ultimate computer and will hitch his wagon to whoever can help him get there. At the same time, he's trying to be a good husband and father, though his family clearly isn't his priority.

Overall, I've enjoyed watching the first five episodes and will likely continue watching the series as time permits. For more details, read my full review on Computerworld.com, "Halt and Catch Fire adds sizzle to PC history".

Jobs movie applies its own reality distortion field

19-Aug-13 1:45 PM by
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Less than two years since Steve Jobs' passing, his life story hits the silver screen today. The limited release of Jobs, the feature-length film directed by Joshua Michael Stern and starring Ashton Kutcher, was delayed from its original April release after it received poor reviews at the Sundance Film Festival. The official release will please Apple fans with its casting and acting as much as it will frustrate them with its script and dramatic reinterpretation of events.

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher

Josh Gad & Ashton Kutcher as Steve Wozniak and Steve Jobs.


Continue reading my review at Computerworld.com »

A big thanks to the Cinema Fix weekly movie review podcast, whose co-host got me into the Jobs press screening that made my review possible!

The Antisocial Network

05-Oct-10 1:58 PM by
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Facebook now has a membership of nearly twice that of the United States. Although often decried as a time sink, there are those with more grievous complaints against the service and its supposed founder, Mark Zuckerberg. The Social Network, a cinematic adaptation of Ben Mezrich's book Accidental Billionaires, is a witty and fast-paced look at the intellectual property theft and financial cunning that left multiple parties with claims to Zuckerberg's empire.

As with Mezrich's other book about a Cambridge, Massachusetts, college, Bringing Down the House (which became the 2008 film 21), the movie's gist is accurate, while the details have been fictionalized and dramatized to make for a better story. The Social Network is set during two different 2008 court cases, flashing back to 2003 and the following years that saw the inception of Facebook. In one of the present-day settings, Zuckerberg (played by Jesse Eisenberg is confronted by the Winklevoss twins, two Harvard students who contracted Zuckerberg to build their own social network, Harvard Connection, which magically morphed into Zuckerberg's own Facebook; in the other, he sits opposite Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the next Spider-Man), a classmate who was Facebook's CFO for its first year before being diluted out of the company.

Most of the film is not about technology, but people and personalities. With a script by Aaron Sorkin of West Wing fame, the film's dialogue moves quickly — an impressive feat, since Zuckerberg, founder of the premiere online social networking site, ironically has no social skills himself, alternating between clever zingers and non sequiturs. The film opens with banter between him and his then-girlfriend in which each barely has time to breathe as they engage in verbal ripostes and repartees; "dating you is like dating Stairmaster," she says. After making several miscalculations that culminate in a breakup, Zuckerberg realizes that as a computer nerd, he'll never pick up chicks at Harvard. He then turns to the only alternative medium he understands: online.

Zuckerberg is portrayed as neither villainous nor sympathetic but merely emotionless, being better able to network with computers than with people. His cold logic works for him as much as it does against him. At times, Zuckerberg is portrayed akin to Anakin Skywalker, a powerful potentate who doesn't know who his friends are as others struggle to control him; at other times, he's closer to Emperor Palpatine, whose Machiavellian machinations manipulate the situation more subtly than even his puppets realize. He is hated as much as he is pitied, as when Saverin, sitting across from the Zuckerberg and his lawyers, looks at Facebook's founder, aggrieved. "I was your only friend," he laments. In many ways, the movie is more about Saverin and the other satellites that revolve around the Facebook maelstrom, including Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake), co-founder of the company Napster (not to be confused with Shawn Fanning, the developer of the program Napster), who is made out to be a superficial, avaricious rockstar entrepreneur.

Whether Zuckerberg is actually the bad guy that The Social Network makes him out to be is questionable; even Sorkin has said that he was more interested in storytelling than truth. But it's neither surprising nor unbelievable that the sort of backstabbing this film depicts could've happened; friends and classmates may not think conducting business would require anything more than a handshake, making future misdealings possible and likely to be taken personally.

The technical details of the film are few and far in between. Early in the film, Zuckerberg hacks into the Web sites of Harvard's social clubs, known as "final clubs." It's likely that a social club would have neither needed nor implemented security for their online rosters, so it's no stretch of the imagination to watch Zuckerberg write perl scripts in the emacs editor to break into Apache servers and exploit PHP security holes with the wget command. The details are accurate but token.

The consequences of his actions are more dramatic than realistic, though. In Accidental Billionaires, Zuckerberg uses the results of his hacking to create the Web site Facemash.com, which proves so popular as to freeze his hosting computer; in the film, Facemash's traffic shuts down the entire Harvard network, resulting in a disciplinary hearing and an academic probation.

I suspect that example is representative of much of the film's interpretation of reality. The general story is correct — Zuckerberg started Facebook while at Harvard, resulting in two legal battles over its questionable origin — but the details are mostly fabricated to make a better movie. Who knows what dealings Zuckerberg had with women, or what truly drove him to create this empire? Only he knows — and he isn't talking. In its stead, we have a film where even simple hacking is made dramatic courtesy Sorkin's script and Trent Reznor's soundtrack. Seeing this film will likely take less time than attending to your FarmVille vegetables and might make you a less enthusiastic fly in Zuckerberg's web.

Insipid Inception

16-Aug-10 10:53 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 5 comments.

Inception has been out long enough, and enough people have formed their own opinions, that I now feel confident expressing mine: I didn't like it. I would think that sci-fi fans would find it unoriginal, and other theatergoers would find it confusing. Popular opinion has proven me wrong, yet I'll attempt to defend my position, though it will likely cause me more nightmares than Inception did its cast.

This summer blockbuster stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an expatriate whose job is to enter people's dreams and steal confidential data. The reverse — planting an idea in someone's mind and making it seem organic — is nearly impossible, but he accepts such an assignment knowing that it could clear his criminal record and allow him to return to the States and see his children (who he apparently never considers having flown to France). He enlists Ellen Page and teaches her the subtle rules of creating a dreamscape: basing it on other's realities but never your own, so you know what's real and what's not; creating a personal totem that serves an indicator of dream or not; how dying in a dream simply wakes you up, but if someone in the real world needs to wake you up, they need to convey a "kick" — a sense of falling.

It sounds like a neat science-fiction plot, but Inception can't decide if it wants to play to the action crowd or the sci-fi one. As a member of the latter, I found many of the film's devices hackneyed. Is this a dream, or is it reality? The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and ExistenZ asked the same question. I suspect the director, Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight and Memento fame, was inspired by these and other media, though to suggest its origin lies with Scrooge McDuck is a bit far-fetched.

MC Escher waterfallThe ability to create and inhabit fictional worlds was also explored in both films and The Matrix, except inhabitants of the matrix could achieve awareness of the nature of reality and use it to their advantage. Inception's dreams are remarkably lifelike, where people put on suits, go to work, then get a drink at the bar to unwind, with one scene flowing naturally into the next. Since DiCaprio's team is often tasked with lulling their victims into a false sense of security, it is vital that the world seem realistic, such that the nature of the trap is not revealed. In that respect, the dullness of these dreams makes sense. But in moments of urgency, we rarely see DiCaprio use the dreamscape to his advantage. There are two instances of one person disguising himself as another, and only one of an Escher-like trap into which a dreamer lulls an enemy. But we see no one leaping over tall buildings, pulling bazookas out of their pockets, or — if you really wanted to make this dream-like — finding talking elephants in their closets. It's not what I would expect from lucid dreaming.

I also failed to understand how multiple people could share the same dream. One person going into one other's seems plausible, but the film usually had a bank of dreamers networked into each other by nothing more complicated than IVs. Just before they'd fall asleep, they'd ask amongst themselves, "Whose dream are we going into this time?" and, without rhyme or reason, one person would pipe up, "Mine", with no parallel action to suggest how or why.

Inception by Profound Whatever, on FlickrThe final, prolonged sequence of events features multiple layers of dreams. In each dream, time supposedly moves faster than in the dream before (or above) it (though we never see days turn into weeks or months as they suggest). In this sequence, we see a van falling off a bridge, providing its sleeping occupants with a waking kick. It takes about a half-hour of dream-time for the van to fall, as we're reminded every five minutes by a slow-motion sequence of its progress. I understand the temporal mechanics of this technique, but the tension of the moment is insufficient to sustain the suspense over such a long period of time. Slow motion is intended to bring attention to a brief, singular moment, as bullet time did in The Matrix. To have it last thirty minutes causes it to lose momentum, so to speak. Compounding the situation is that, throughout this climax, the action sequences aren't terribly exciting — though one fight scene in a hotel hallway with variable gravity was definitely cool.

One thing Inception consistently does well is pace its plot. As the film progresses, nuggets of DiCaprio's background are slowly revealed to the audience, each one elaborating on what we already know while raising new questions, until finally, all is revealed. Though the acting throughout these revelations is impeccable, the story itself didn't engage me enough to be enraptured by the film's indefinite and unoriginal conclusion. Friends tell me they went to see the film multiple times to see everything they missed. Though it's true that any film has details that are overlooked in an initial viewing, just like the first time I saw 12 Monkeys or Memento, I didn't walk out of Inception feeling I'd missed anything mission-critical.

I confess that I went into this film petulantly biased: there were other films I wanted to see, and the group I was with voted to see none of them. I tried to keep an open mind and let Inception in to work its magic, but I found it somewhat less than dreamy and not up to the creative and inspired storytelling of which Christopher Nolan has previously demonstrated himself capable.

Surprises Found in Hot Tub Time Machine

15-Jul-10 2:00 PM by
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I don't go to the movies very often these days, and I certainly wasn't going to make an exception for something called Hot Tub Time Machine. Science-fiction fan that I am, I thought this film looked more like the generic "aging hipsters acting like college brats" film that you'd more often find starring Will Ferrell. Imagine my surprise when the film actually got good reviews — including from Roger Ebert, who suggested it succeeds beyond any expectations suggested by the title. With its recent release on DVD, I decided to give it a shot.

After some introductions, the film sends four friends back to a ski valley they last visited as high school seniors. The nostalgic quartet is composed of John Cusack as down-on-his-luck (is there any other kind of John Cusack?) Adam, Craig Robinson (The Office's Darryl Philbin) as discouraged and whipped Nick Webber, Rob Corddry as alcoholic, sexaholic Lou, and Clark Duke as the sheltered Jacob. The four are an eclectic mix with different responses to and advice for every situation, ensuring each encounter they have is a lively one.

There is some genuine camaraderie among the four, as this film is more than a sexual romp (though it's certainly that as well). Each time traveller suffers from regret not only how things turned out twenty years ago, but also the pattern of life choices that have led them to be miserable in the present. Rather than have company for their misery, the former best friends have drifted apart, losing the support and dreams they had for themselves and each other as kids. Returned to 1986, they hope they can recapture that passion and bring it back with them, at the same time that they are forced to face the beginning of their downfall.

The option of avoidance is withdrawn by Chevy Chase, who plays a mysterious repairman who encourages the travellers to not change the timeline. Unlike Don Knotts in Pleasantville, Chase's purpose and motivations are unknown. The four men nonetheless vacillate between sticking to history and avoiding unpleasant situations, even though there is no motivation to listen to Chase or consequence for not doing so. The struggle between doing what they want versus what they're "supposed" to do gives the film some tension, even if it is superficial.

HTTM's temporal mechanics are also paper-thin, with an ending that wouldn't hold up to any fan versed in science fiction. Yet the film does not exist in a vacuum, with several devices that work quite well. For example, the paradox of the four running into their younger selves is eliminated when they discover that they have effectively "quantum leaped" into their 18-year-old bodies, appearing as adults to each other (and the audience) but as kids to the residents of 1986. At times the film reminded me of nothing of much as Back to the Future — a parallel made intentional through several references, not the least of which is a recurring character played by Crispin Glover, aka George McFly. Plus, any movie with an Apple II is okay by me.

HTTM is a film that I can recommend without reservation, but with caveats: some of the humor is very base and even disgusting, and you have to be in the right mood (or have sufficiently low standards) to enjoy or even tolerate it. The movie's actors and director obviously did not take themselves very seriously, and it's important that the audience do the same to maximize their enjoyment. I watched the unrated DVD version of the film; without having seen the theatrical release, I would guess the differences are in the quantity of female nudity.

The Technology and Security of Iron Man 2

17-May-10 10:49 AM by
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Iron Man 2 Three years ago, my then-new employment at Computerworld partnered me with security maven Angela Gunn to produce a series of articles on a topic of mutual interest: geeky films. To make it appropriate for our employer's audience, we dissected the IT in films, she from a security perspective and I from a cinematic one. We wrote three such articles before Angela found employment elsewhere.

Movies are not a core topic for an enterprise IT magazine, so the series was put on the backburner. Fortunately, I recently found a new co-author with whom to collaborate. Bill Brenner of CSO Online, a publication affiliated with Computerworld, and I decide to revive the "Security Goes to the Movies" brand with a few changes. Instead of writing in two voices with one commenting on the other, we tried integrating our commentary into a consistent tone, making for a less jarring reading experience.

Our first outing was to see Iron Man 2 opening night with former Computerworld copyeditor Gene Demaitre, with whom I wrote the similarly cinematic IT piece, "Do Sci-Fi Films Get Advanced Tech Right?". Angela and I had reviewed the original Iron Man, and I was eager to put its successor to the same scrutiny.

The first fruit of this labor is now online:

The summer blockbuster season officially kicked off last Friday with Iron Man 2, an action-packed superhero flick that had the fifth-highest-grossing opening weekend in Hollywood's history. Whether you like the movie or not, at least one thing about it rings true — the plot and the characters provide a striking reflection of today's tech security industry.

Marvel's metallic superhero was first portrayed on the silver screen by Robert Downey Jr. in 2008's Iron Man. In that film, playboy industrialist Tony Stark has a crisis of conscience and brings the manufacture of weapons at his defense company to a halt. To chase down terrorists who have misappropriated his munitions, Stark builds himself an armored, weaponized exoskeleton suit (that can fly!) and becomes Iron Man, making his invention an object of desire to military profiteers.

The sequel is much the same, with more villains, more conniving and more suits. A montage catches us up on what's happened since the previous movie: With no country's military able to match Iron Man's technological superiority, Stark's vigilante action and deterrent policy have brought about a worldwide détente.

Since Stark is the only person who knows what makes Iron Man tick, the world's security rests entirely in his hands. Not surprisingly, the U.S. government wants to reproduce the Iron Man suit for its own militaristic purposes; the debate over private vs. public security forms one of the movie's core conflicts.

You can read the rest of our story at Computerworld.com (or CSO Online, if you prefer). Bill and I pretty happy with it and look forward to working together again.

One passage was rightfully left on the cutting room floor as it had little relevance to security technology, but Showbits readers may find it helpful to know:

There is a scene in Monaco in which Stark acts heroically without his suit, underscoring the fact that superpowers do not a superhero make. But the pendulum swings both ways, as later, we see an armored Stark making an ass of himself, akin to the Iron Man comic book plot "Demon in a Bottle." When he does battle evildoers, the film focuses tightly on the action, which provides less context for the overall scene; had the director pulled back on the camera a bit more, we'd have a better grasp of what's happening when.

Have you seen the film that kicked off the summer blockbuster season? What did you think, from any perspective?

Flying High with How to Train Your Dragon

16-Apr-10 2:48 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 4 comments.

Currently playing in theaters is How to Train Your Dragon, a CGI film based on the first in Cressida Cowell's series of children's books. Set in a Nordic village, the story is that of Hiccup, the Viking chieftain's son who's more intellectual and sensitive than his brawny, boisterous brethren. Their island is constantly besieged by dragons, which come in dozens of breeds, the most terrifying of which is the mysterious Night Fury. When Hiccup secretly captures one of these creatures of myth, he must decide if his loyalty lies with his family or with his heart.

At its root, the tale is a familiar one, with aspects of everything from Old Yeller to Avatar. The main plot focuses on the developing relationship between a boy and an animal, the latter which behaves in ways very familiar to any dog owner. As each character has or is building a relationship to each other, there are no true villains in this story, which makes for some incredibly tense moments: everyone is simply trying to do what's right based on the information available to him or her, sometimes leading to decisions that hurt others. The audience can hope only that everything turns out for the best.

Any film with dragons perforce features plenty of flying sequences, and How to Train Your Dragon's are to die for. There's excitement as rider and beast learn to coordinate their movements, bliss as they experience sights never before seen by man, and tension as the duo act in harmony to save their loved ones. I dream, both asleep and awake, about being able to fly, and Hiccup's experience are some of the most enviable I've encountered — and that's based on a 2D showing of the film; it's also available (as most CGI films are nowadays) in 3D.

The imagery is accompanied by excellent voice acting. Those I recognized were Gerard Butler (300) as Chief Stoick, with bit parts played by David Tennant (Dr. Who) and Jonah Hill. Most notably, 28-year-old Jay Baruchel plays Hiccup with great zeal, imbuing the character with sarcasm, frustration, and wonder.

How to Train Your Dragon is rated PG and is an appropriate experience for parents to share with their children. Some of Hiccup's tactics defy logic, his flying companion ultimately conveys little of the fear found in Tolkien's dragons, and the final action sequence reminds me of Iron Man's. But the conclusion doesn't uniformly leave the village and its inhabitants better than before — an unexpected twist that can prove a valuable talking point for families.


You Say 'Cute,' I Say 'Special'

On his Facebook page, fantasy author R. A. Salvatore commented about this film, "I'm not a big fan of 3D … but this one gets a big thumbs' up from me. The graphics were simply amazing, and the story was charming." I'll add my own endorsement to that weightier one. Will the remaining seven books be translated to film? We can only hope!

DC Superheroes Duke It Out on DVD

06-Apr-10 1:03 PM by
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DC, the animation house responsible for Batman and Superman, have in the last few years brought their stable of superheroes to life in a series of direct-to-DVD feature films. From the aforementioned mainstays to less popular heroes Wonder Woman and Green Lantern, each has gotten a crack at the spotlight. But despite extended length compared with their television series and PG-13 ratings, I found that two recent installments don't always do their heroes justice.

Superman/Batman: Public Enemies is based on the first six issues of the Superman/Batman comic book that launched in 2003. When Lex Luthor is elected president, one of his first acts is to declare his two arch-nemeses enemies of the state. With villains out to collect the bounty and vigilantes-turned-soldiers determined to follow the letter of the law, Batman and Superman have few places left to turn.

The plot consists mostly of blows being traded among a cavalcade of DC superheroes. While this who's-who of the DCU can be fun for fans of the comics, it doesn't leave much room for character development. There are a few insightful moments, be it in dialogue or in cooperative battle tactics, that reveal Superman and Batman's relationship and ability to work as a team, but mostly it's just one action scene after another.

But the presentation of this film is fantastic, with a vaguely anime-like look. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly reprise the titular roles they've become famous for in the last two decades, while Clancy Brown and Allison Mack (the latter of Smallville) turn in admirable performances as Lex Luthor and Power Girl, respectively. Unfortunately, the script doesn't afford Power Girl much respect, leaving her a weak-willed woman. (Can you spot LeVar Burton's cameo?)

Batman and Owlman

Batman and Owlman face their counterparts.

Public Enemies was followed this February with DC's seventh and most recent video release, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, in which our heroes — Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and Martian Manhunter — travel to a mirror universe, where heroes are villains and vice versa. Such an encounter could be a fascinating opportunity to delve into what makes someone be good or evil, but the running time of just 75 minutes affords little opportunity for backstory or character development. The most screen time is given to the trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman and their evil counterparts: Ultraman, Owlman, and Superwoman, but the only meaningful dialogue is given to Batman and Owlman. There is a superficial love interest for the Martian Manhunter, but it's not explored in any real depth.

Being such a short film, the plot has to move fast. The Justice League's first melee with the Crime Syndicate occurs just 12 minutes into the film, resulting in an exciting airborne battle. In this scene and throughout the film, the Justice League fight mostly random super-powered troops; the movie doesn't pit our heroes against their equivalents until about the one-hour mark.

Again, the animation is top-notch, though there remain instances where CGI is not as seamlessly integrated as they could be. It would've been clever had Batman, Owlman, or both been played by familiar voice actors, such as Kevin Conroy. But we do instead get excellent performances with James Wood as Owlman, Gina Torres (Firefly) as Superwoman, Bruce Davison (X-Men) as the POTUS, and Kari Wuhrer (Sliders) as Black Canary.

Both movies feature trailers and featurettes that we've seen on DC's other DVDs, which doesn't make for very "special" features. A notable exception is Crisis on Two Earths, which includes an original short film starring The Spectre, the DC universe's manifestation of God's spirit of vengeance.

These two animated films feature top-notch production values and are true to their comic book origins without requiring viewers to be familiar with their other animated incarnations. But I couldn't help but feeling that the PG-13 rating was used not to explore mature themes and characters, but to show grittier slugfests. I don't need "mature" to mean "dark", but I do want to see characters embark on a journey, tackling issues with more than their fists.