Wednesday, March 27, 2002

The Tipping Point

Book: The Tipping Point
Writer(s): Malcolm Gladwell

It might just be pop science, but this is a fascinating study about how trends and social epidemics happen. What makes a particular shoe suddenly popular? How does a book become a best-seller? Why are so many students pulling Columbines at their schools? Gladwell details some interesting studies that reveal unexpected answers. For example, violent crime in New York City went down dramatically after a crackdown on graffiti. Getting rid of graffiti was expensive and many were against it figuring it was a minor offense, but the results were astounding. It turned out that the presence of graffiti gave thugs confidence that even worse crimes also wouldn't be punished. After all, if the cops couldn't stop graffiti, how could they stop purse snatching? But once the graffiti was gone, low-lifes were much more hesitant to commit violent crimes. There are dozens of other examples of unorthodox solutions to problems, and the idea of the book is that you can learn from others and employ the same techniques in your own situations. For example, one woman was having little success with her campaign educating women about breast cancer. The women who showed up for her seminars were already interested in the subject. She wanted to reach the uninformed. Most people would assume an expensive advertising campaign would be the only way, but her non-profit organization had very little money. So she came up with a brilliant idea: instead of advertising, she picked a select group of women and focused her education efforts on them. Who did she pick? Hairdressers. Sure enough, once those hairdressers had been educated and trained in how to convey the important message about breast cancer, they promptly told all their clients about it! And since the presentation was casual and presented as friendly chatter, the retention rate of the information was fantastic. The number of women going in for mammograms skyrocketed. And the cost of the program was hardly anything. So thinking differently, and influencing the right group of influential people is much more effective than spending gobs of money on ad campaigns that are just going to be ignored anyway. Great book.


Tuesday, March 26, 2002

The Believer

Movie: The Believer

Fascinating film about a controversial subject. Difficult to watch in places, and I liked that. It's the true story of a young Jewish boy who's a Nazi skinhead. Surprisingly, he's remarkably intelligent, and he gives impassioned speeches against Jews, especially of their religion. (Raised as a Jew, he knows Hebrew and everything about Judaism.) One moment he's rational, eloquent, and persuasive, and the next he's wildly violent. For me, that was the most significant aspect of the film, that this skinhead wasn't an idiot. It was also the scariest aspect of the film. How many more "rational" racists are out there? The kid was a mass of contradictions, and that made him interesting. For instance, in one scene, while vandalizing a temple, he tries to stop his skinhead buddies from touching a scroll of the Talmund as it is sacred Jewish writing. He talked and talked about wanting to kill a Jew, and in the end he succeeded by killing himself. Sad and troubling. A well-done original Showtime movie.


Sunday, March 24, 2002

2nd Chance

Book: 2nd Chance
Writer(s): James Patterson

If this isn't a textbook thriller, I don't know what is. And I mean textbook thriller in the weakest sense. The chapters are extremely short, 2-3 pages, and each ends with a "dramatic" cliffhanger or unexpected news. Except, of course, everything's so predictable, nothing's unexpected. Patterson brings back his "Women's Murder Club" from 1st to Die and seems to think his collection of brilliant women who solve crimes (led by Lt. ___) is innovative. He takes far too much time exposing us to the inner lives of his characters, as if we care. Though nothing like this happens in the book, the technique reminds me a lot of the way a TV show will introduce us to a character's former lover we've never met through a two minutes of flashbacks and then tragically kill her off at the end and we're supposed to be moved. Extremely artificial. Worse than that, the plot of his murder story is dull. It's serious: the serial killer takes out a lot of people, and there's a lot of hand-wringing and sighing, but we really don't care one way or the other. With this kind of writing, death is trivialized. There are also a number of extremely puzzling technical omissions. For instance, the cops have a tape of the killer making a fake 911 call, but later, when they've got a suspect but no evidence to arrest him, no one thinks of doing a voice match to the tape! Overall, this is a quick read, and nothing terrible, but it's predictable, and I liked my surprise ending then the one in the book. Ho hum.


Saturday, March 16, 2002


Movie: Snatch
Writer(s): Guy Ritchie
Director(s): Guy Ritchie

Very cool flick from the Guy who did Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels. This one's better: the similarly convoluted story's much easier to follow. The plot's far too complex to reveal here: suffice it to say that we've got a variety of gangsters, thieves, and low-lifes and their lives intersect throughout the film. Everyone's after a huge 84-caret stolen diamond. It's funny, violent, and very entertaining. The directing is extremely self-conscious and highly stylized, and it works perfectly for this kind of picture. For example, one character, an American gangster who is waiting for the diamond to be delivered, flies to London (where most of the story takes place) and back to New York several times. Each of these "flights" is shown to the viewer as a series of lightning quick sequences in which total about three seconds of footage. We see a plane taking off, a high-speed swig from a liquor glass while on the plane (with appropriate "swoosh" sound effects), a plane landing, and we're there. Very cool, funny in its unrealism, and effective, in that it keeps the film moving. Great film, if you're into this kind of flick. Guy's the Quentin of the U.K.


Friday, March 15, 2002

Don't Say a Word

Movie: Don't Say a Word

A bit of a different thriller: a top child psychiatrist's daughter is kidnapped in order to force him to get information from a mentally unstable patient. It's all about money, of course: the girl doesn't even realize she knows where the money is hidden. But I liked the aspect of a different kind of pressure on the psychiatrist. He's got to get through to the patient and find the information in her head, and he's got to do it in one day or else his own daughter will be killed. Good performances and direction, and the suspense and action isn't bad, but ultimately the psychology's thin. Of course the patient is "cured" during the process, and a lot of the trauma she supposedly suffers from is muddled and nonsensical. For example, she is aware that people want this information from her (she tells the doctor, "You want what they want.") but at the same time she's supposedly doesn't know what information she's hiding. How can you consciously hide something you're not aware you possess? As usual in these kind of movies, the cure happens too quickly, and the root cause of the girl's mental problems seems weak. Of course psychology's always intimate, so it's difficult for an outsider to judge. For instance, if a guy's insanely terrified of butterflies and we find out that was caused by him accidentally stepping on one as a child, that sounds stupid. But who knows? For him, that could have been an extremely traumatic event, and maybe an event linked with other intense emotions (like guilt over his parents divorce happening at the time) and it sent him over the edge. But on screen it could seem weak. Like in this case, it's caused by her witnessing her father's death as a child. Yes, that's a traumatic event, but we knew that at the beginning of the film. If that had been kept a secret and we drew it out of her at a climatic point in the film, that'd be one thing, but "revealing" something we already know was weak. Overall, still an above average film.


Monday, March 11, 2002

The Summons

Book: The Summons
Writer(s): John Grisham

I found this book fascinating. Not because the book's that great, but because Grisham's best-selling gimmick is so obvious. Grisham's appeal is that he writes about a subject almost everyone's interested in: money. (No reader actually cares about lawyers or the law.) In this book, the "plot" is about a law professor whose judge father dies. There's supposedly little money in the estate, but when the son arrives at home, he finds $3 million in cash hidden in a cabinet. The question then becomes, "Where did the money come from?" Grisham throws in baddies who also want the money, so the law professor's on the run with the cash in the trunk of his Audi, and it's an entertaining read. But of course the real appeal is the juicy fantasy of finding $3 million in cash. We all want to be in those shoes! There are some illogical aspects to the plot, and the story, while interesting, takes too long to get to the mediocre payoff, but the ending is cool: without giving anything away, the tables are turned and the law professor's greed is laid bare. I'd give this a solid B, in comparison to Grisham's other works. He does a lot without much, and that's an achievement. But this book says more about his readers than it does the author.


Saturday, March 9, 2002


Movie: Evolution

I had wanted to see this in theatres, but it disappeared before I had the chance. I don't know why: I rather liked it. It's nothing profound, just a light-hearted scifi-comedy. Director Ivan Reitman does a great job balancing the opposites of science and comedy, giving us scientists who are borderline comedians. I guess that could be one of the reasons it wasn't a big hit at the box office: it's not terribly funny or terribly science fictionish. There's also a bit too much toilet humor. Still, it's mildly amusing and the special effects are terrific. The plot is simple: a meteorite lands in Arizona and it contains alien single-cell organisms which "evolve" into higher lifeforms incredibly quickly, threatening to take over the entire planet within a few months. Of course the military wants to burn them up, but the unorthodox scientist heros have a better idea and save the planet. Ultimately, the film relies on its special effects: the digital alien lifeforms are really well done, realistic with just a touch of wackiness.


Sunday, March 3, 2002

Summer Catch

Movie: Summer Catch

Not bad, though extremely predictable. It's about a talented baseball player who's getting a shot at making the big leagues, but can't keep his head together long enough to pitch a consistent game. Then he falls in love with the wrong girl (she's rich, he mows her lawn) and we've got class warfare. Yes, of course everything ends up wonderfully: he goes to the Majors, she loves him, etc. etc. Still, it's not as bad as you might expect from the recycled plot. The characters are appealing, and it's harmless fun.


Saturday, March 2, 2002

Angel Eyes

Movie: Angel Eyes

An interesting concept, but far too slow and doesn't do enough with the idea. It's a about a female cop who meets a strange guy. He tells her his name is Catch, no last name, and won't say anything about his past or what he does or anything. Anyway, she falls in love with, deduces his secret (he has a tragic past he's trying to forget), and when he comes around, they live happily ever after. Or something like that. The premise is good, but the love dialog tries so hard to be clever it comes across as inane, and despite the pretty presence of Jennifer Lopez, the film commits the cardinal sin of being boring.