Friday, October 20, 2006

The Prestige

Movie: The Prestige (2006)
Director(s): Christopher Nolan

This is an excellent film, though not perfect. The beginning third is too confusing, with flashbacks within flashbacks (we have a character in prison reading a diary which flashes back to another character reading a different diary and flashing back to what he's reading). But if you stick with it, everything starts to gel, and we soon realize the story's about two magicians who used to be assistants together, but after a tragedy now hate each other and become rival magicians. The conflict starts out with mild sabotage but escalates into serious injury and murder. It takes a while to get to the good stuff, however, and at times the film's ponderous. The ending has some surprises but is somewhat predictable and convoluted, but overall the whole thing works as the tricky plot's somewhat like a magic trick itself. The performances are excellent. Recommended.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Marie Antoinette

Movie: Marie Antoinette

This is one of those films where the trailer's better than the movie. The trailer is brilliant: fun, funky, exciting, sexy, with a heavy rock beat. The film has some of that fun, but only on occasion -- much of the time the film's much too serious, with boring scenes of 18th century French court formality. There are some nice moments of humor -- the scene where a chilly naked Marie has to impatiently wait while women of various nobility are privileged to help her dress is hilarious in mocking royal ridiculousness -- but unfortunately those are few and far between. But the film's biggest flaw is that at the end we still don't know much more than we started about the characters: Marie seems to have had her life dictated for her, and other than a little partying and a couple tender moments with her daughter, we don't learn much of what makes her tick. And she's the deepest character we explore -- the rest are mere mysteries or shallow stereotypes. Though I liked Kirsten Dunst in the role of Marie, the whole thing was so mild and tragic I was terribly disappointed not to see her get her head chopped off at the end. Conclusion? Mildly entertaining.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind

Movie: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind
Director(s): Hayao Miyazaki

This was Miyazaki's first film and it's not his best or my favorite, though it has many Miyazaki touches. It's just not as deep and complex as his later works, though it hints at it. Again the hero is a young girl, Nausicaa, who's a princess of the people of the Valley of the Wind. She's the best thing in the film, a fantastic character, a strong girl who leads her people and preaches against killing and war. She's got a gift of being able to communicate with animals and insects -- important in a world set 1000 years after war has decimated the earth and rendered most of the planet toxic and created giant cockroaches and poisonous plants. The environmental message is too heavily preached and the plot's a little too linear and simple, as it mainly deals with warring cities set to attempt to burn the toxic jungle which will anger the giant insects who will destroy the Valley of the Wind for revenge, and only Nausicaa can stop the raging insects. Miyazaki does have some of his characteristic "gray" characters who are both good and evil, but doesn't go as far with that as he does in later films like Princess Mononoke. Still, this is a good story and an excellent film, with an all-star cast of voices for the English-dubbed edition.


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Hard Candy

Movie: Hard Candy

Wow, what a FANTASTIC film. I realize that the subject matter might turn many people off, so this could be a love-it-or-hate-it kind of film, but I thought it was incredible. The story's incredibly simple: a fourteen-year-old girl meets a 32-year-old guy online, meets him in person, and goes home with him. Then the tables turn as we discover the prey is the guy and she's the hunter, out to make him pay for his perversion. That's the gimmick, of course, and most films would just stop there, but this film was created by smart people: the script is written by a playwright, important for a film that almost entirely takes place in a house with just the two primary characters. Every line of dialogue is brilliant and subtle, charged with extra meaning, and the actors in this are incredible: Ellen Page as the girl and Patrick Wilson as the guy both deserve Oscar nominations. The girl is an incredibly intelligent teen and Page plays her with just the right amount of strength and volunerability, confidence and nervous fear, a fascinating mixture that makes her astonishing and fascinating to watch. Wilson doesn't play his villain as purely evil but as ordinary human, and many times during the film you're sympathizing with him, as horrifying as that seems later. Both characters are confronted with their demons and forced to see themselves for who they truly are and it's not always pretty. This film will make you think and think again, and you'll come away thinking and wondering. The film asks many questions and while it has a satisfying conclusion, it doesn't wrap up every detail and leaves you plenty of meat to gnaw on later. Wonderful!


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

In Her Shoes

Movie: In Her Shoes

Definitely a chick flick, but not as sappy as I expected, though too predictable (the trailer gives away pretty much all the plot). The story's about two un-alike sisters who love each other but drive each other crazy and how the one grows up and the others learns to be less serious. There's some deep stuff underneath everything involving family secrets about their mother's death, but the tone of the film's too light for much profundity.


Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Clear and Convincing Proof

Book: Clear and Convincing Proof
Writer(s): Kate Wilhelm

Pretty good mystery novel, though the plot feels too simple during most of the book until you get to the very end when there are a few interesting twists. Still it's highly readable with some interesting characters. The murder's an arrogant doctor everyone hates, so the suspects are many, and the heroine's a criminal attorney hired to defend the two key suspects. Wilhem's written books with this character before and at times some of the history is assumed, and I found certain portions of the book confusing (like her relationship with her father). But other than some minor flaws like that, it's certainly worth the read.


Friday, October 13, 2006

The Marine

Movie: The Marine

The premise appealed to the guy in me -- a marine's wife is kidnapped by jewel thieves on the run so he goes after them, one man against many -- but the film didn't deliver much more than what you see in the trailer. It did have a few great lines and scenes (the black robber character was hilarious) but those were unfortunately well outweighed by mediocre action and an illogical script.


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nutrician Scale

I mentioned earlier about my bout in the hospital, where I learned I'm now diabetic. I've been making major changes to my diet and starting to exercise, and things are going really well. Hopefully I can get off insulin at some point. Last week I found the most marvelous device: it's an intelligent kitchen scale. It's made by Salter and it's their Nutri-Weigh 1450 model. This scale is so cool: place any food on the scale and it will tell you exact what nutrients are in that food! It breaks down the calories, protein, carbohydrates, sodium, fat, saturated fat, fibre, and more! Built-in it knows about nearly 1500 foods, but you can easily add your own simply by entering the info on the food's nutrition label. You can even compute the value of recipies by entering each item as you add it (you "zero" the scale between ingredients and it then calculates only the weight of the new item). Later, when you consume part of that recipe, you just weigh how much of it you're eating and it will tell you exactly the nutrition break-down. This thing is sensitive to the single gram level: I can literally place a bowl of salad on the scale, zero the scale, and drizzle dressing on the salad and watch the calories and carbs and saturated fat count mount drop by drop of dressing! This thing can even total up how much you're eating per meal, per day, or per week, and you can set target goals (for all ten nutrients) and it will compare to see how you're doing. For me, this is a godsend, because I am terrible at judging portion sizes, and I'm a precise person and I love the precision of this device. You can literally butter your bread and see how much fat that adds! It's just amazing. I feared it would be complicated to use but the interface, while not perfect, is not bad at all. You simply enter the first few letters of the food name, then scroll through a short list of candidates and press enter when the correct food is displayed. Immediately the scale tells you the nutrient amounts. If you want to save that data, just press the Memory+ button. Really the only thing this thing lacks is an interface to a computer so you could chart and graph and save the data permanently. But I have a form where I write down the values I want to track and it's not a big deal. I thought maybe weighing all my food would be a pain, but it's so easy to do it's not a chore at all. In fact, it's not only fun, it can help you eat more! That's right: I often will use the scale to create a serving size that matches my diet plan, adding a food until the carbs or calories or whatever is within my diet goals. It's pretty cool to be able to do that, and often the amount is more than I would have guessed I'd be allowed to eat. (The food type makes a big difference: when I can easily see that twenty-five chocolate chips has the same calories as a whole apple, I'm more likely to opt for the healthier and greater amount of food.) My dietician wants to me to watch my carbs (I'm supposed to eat a comparable amount at each meal to keep my diet consistent), my saturated fat (this one's hard, as delicious cheese really knocks this value up), cholesterol (mainly in eggs and beef), and of course calories. This scale lets me do that and more, and it's really impressive. Oh, I should also mention you don't have to actually weigh the food if you don't have it handy: you can type in the estimated weight, which is useful if you eat out. For instance, I had a bowl of chili at a restaurant yesterday, so I chose Chili and put in two cups for the amount and it told me the nutrients I consumed. That's a bit rough as I was just guessing the amount and the chili I ate might have different ingredients than the one in the scale, but it's at least in the ballpark, and it beats a wild guess. The thing I hate worst in the world about diet is when I think I'm doing something healthy or making a sacrifice, only to find out what I'm doing is actually bad. Like when you think you're cutting your amount down to a good level but it's still actually too much. With this scale, I don't have that problem any more since it can tell me, exactly, what I'm consuming every day. Awesome!


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Mary and the Giant

Book: Mary and the Giant
Writer(s): Philip K. Dick

This is one of Dick's rare mainstream novels, which are among his best works. This one tells the story of a unique young lady in 1950's Northern California as she struggles with existential issues and a disatisfied life. It's remarkable in many ways, though the story's simple and elegant, and it really captures life in the 50's. I liked it a lot, but I'm a PKD fan -- it might leave some people wanting more.


Monday, October 9, 2006

The Departed

Movie: The Departed
Director(s): Martin Scorsese

This is an incredible film. It's long but doesn't feel like it. In fact, it's paced just right. There's lots of character development, but unlike most stories, it doesn't feel boring but essential to the puzzles of the characters. The acting is superb, and the action is extremely sudden and violent and bloody, gritty with realism. The ending is quite terrible, and I mean that in the grimest sense. Just an amazing film that deserves a ton of Academy Awards.


Friday, October 6, 2006

Jet Li's Fearless

Movie: Jet Li's Fearless

This is a little strange for an action film, as the action's rather choppy and slightly one-dimensional, but I still liked it. It tells the remarkable story of a Chinese martial arts fighter who was able to best the best of the West, defeating four men in championship bout in the early part of the twentieth century. The film opens with that fight, but then we spend the bulk of the film watching major events of the fighter's life: how he started out only motivated to win for pride, but later learned the true value of life. The ending is excellent, emotional even, but the fights are all competitions, and I found them to be a bit boring (though one fight on a platform 30 feet off the ground was pretty cool and thrilling).


Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Winter's Bone

Book: Winter's Bone
Writer(s): Daniel Woodrell

This is a marvelously written book, practically poetry, with vivid descriptions of life deep in the Ozark mountains. The hero of the story is a 16-year-old girl whose drug-dealing father has disappeared, leaving her without any money to care for her two little brothers and her demented mom. Bravely she struggles on until she learns that her father put up their house and land as bond for his court appearance, but with him gone, it seems like the house will be forfit and the girl's family will be living in the fields with nothing. Unless the girl finds her father in time. Thus she sets off on a wild quest that takes her into some pretty dark places. This is a fascinating, chilling story about a world most of us didn't even know existed. Amazing. Highly recommended.