Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Big Short

The Big Short is a book about the financial crisis and how it came to occur. It follows a number of people who were basically bit players in the financial system; we trail the lives and activities of outsiders and loners who were able to see what was happening in the market and able to take advantage of it. The decision to base the book around these people was a very good one. It gave the book a narrative flow that helped make an incredibly complicated subject a lot easier to understand. Unlike with any news story or article I've ever read of the financial crisis and its roots, I actually feel as if I understand precisely what caused it now, a feeling that had been missing before. For that reason, if nothing else, this book is amazing and succeeds at what it set out to do.

Following the Threads

The people who the author chose to examine and follow throughout the book's story are really interesting people. There is the one who, disgusted with the financial system, creates his own company precisely so he can screw over the fat cats who profit from it. There is another who, through his own unique hermit-like personality and approach to life, is able to discover the fault lines of the crisis long before anyone else. Putting this explanation of the crisis into a chronology like this and making it feel like an unwinding story instead of a dry examination was genius. I don't think I would have been able to understand it any other way.

From what I understand, the crisis was caused by the creation and trade of subprime loans and mortgages. What these were, essentially, were loans given out to people who couldn't afford to repay them. No, it doesn't make any sense. Why would banks give out loans to people who wouldn't be able to give them back? The reason is this: so that the banks, hedge funds, and various finance companies could shuffle them around and take out insurance on them (credit default swaps) when they inevitably failed. They expected them to fail, and thus sought to profit off of the homeowner's failure. They managed to do this for years because, with the seemingly endless boom in housing prices, those who failed were hidden by the successes of those who had not yet done so.

So the system was basically designed to give out loans to those who couldn't afford them in order to profit from their loss. Sounds like a con, doesn't it? Well, it was, but the system was explicitly designed so that it would not be noticed. This, I think, is a huge reason why finance seems so damned complicated. If this book is to be believed, it was made intentionally so in order to conceal the profits that the financial market was making. It was also done so that banks who hadn't caught on to it continued to be hoodwinked so that they would be put under when the crisis finally came, and not those who profited from the crash.

The Absence of Morality

What the book did most effectively was convince me that, while the shenanigans people pull with trading assets about on the financial market is interesting, the system itself doesn't make any moral sense. The atmosphere and incentives of the market make it advantageous to be as greedy and uncaring as possible. In reading about the lives of those who participated in it, I found myself wondering what these people in these careers offer to society? All they do is shuffle money about; buy low, sell high. None of it actually contributes to anyone but themselves. A construction worker builds places that people use. A lawyer helps to keep the justice system working and providing people a voice. Researchers and technicians interact with and repair things that help the average Joe. But financiers? The only argument I can think of is that they help the economy, and that is an argument that can apply to any job ever. Isn't it strange that those who seem to contribute the least to society are those who are the richest for it?

This sort of mentality, I think, is what made the financial crisis possible. Even those who seemed outsiders to it (the people one follows in the book) inexplicably made very little effort to let the government or anyone know about how the convoluted system was making it possible for people to be lied to and taken advantage of. Instead, they used their knowledge to make sure that they were able to escape unscathed from the crisis that followed, even becoming rich in the process. To my eyes, the fact that this was possible would suggest that we need the government or even a private entity to help make the system more transparent. One should be able to trust that every bank isn't out to con them. The financial system should be made less complex; the only reason it is was because people deliberately made it so to conceal their actions.


However, the government's way of fixing it was tragic. What they basically did was throw money at the failing loans so that those banks who bore the brunt of it were essentially rewarded for making the impossible-to-repay loans in the first place. So, in the end, everyone who participated in the system profited from abusing it; those who bet on the loans failing won giant insurance payouts and those who carried the loans were guaranteed the money they should have lost. Therefore, nobody has any incentive to change how things work because no punishment was involved. If the banks had had losses, maybe they would've done their best to make the system more transparent themselves, so that they wouldn't have been taken advantage of by smarter financiers. Instead, it seems the only people to suffer from this were those who were conned into taking the loans in the first place, the people of the United States. And, while one would think that they should have known better, I can't help but feel that they didn't have any option to. Banks had every incentive to make the subprime loans sound magnificent when they weren't, the loan rating system was rife with corruption and thus untrustworthy, and the entire system was made as obtuse as possible in order to throw off those trying to figure things out. Is any of that fair?

Anyways, I would highly recommend this book to anyone who doesn't know how the financial crisis came to pass and would like to know why. The author keeps the book interesting by following the stories of some of those people who were involved in it. And as they foresaw it happening, so will you understand right as they did. However, it got a bit repetitive closer to the end, as one can talk about the evils of subprime mortgages for only so long before repeating one's self. But, overall, it was quite good, readable, and informative.


+ 10 for a great, readable book that does exactly what it set out to do
- .5 because nothing is perfect
- .5 for occasional repetitiveness
- .5 for difficult subject material that still gets confusing despite a good explanation

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

TRON: Legacy

Tron: Legacy is one of those movies that just clicked with me in every way. I think that it must be unique to me, or perhaps to my generation, as those whom I saw it with brushed it aside as mere eye candy. Certainly, it was that, but also so much more.

But before you enjoy it, you must accept the fact that you must suspend your disbelief. Tron: Legacy is as science-fictiony as you can get; it is set in a fictional world where you can be sucked into a computer that has its own unique and vivid landscape populated by programs and artificial intelligences. It is about one man and his son, a creator and his progeny. And it is probably one of the most stunning movies I've ever seen.

World Building

Part of what made Tron: Legacy appeal to me was the premise of a man creating his own digital world. The Grid (the world of Tron) is incredibly unique, but with an artful retro feel that gives it a sense of age and permanence. After all, this is the sequel to a movie made over twenty five years ago, back when humanity's impression of computers was basic, simple, but having yet to tap into their true potential. And the concept is fantastic, looking at the lines and weaving patterns upon a hard drive, and then imagining it into a full-blown world. It is symbolic of childhood. Do you remember looking up at the patterns in the ceiling, picturing animals and people interacting amongst the creases and curves? Do you remember shaping order out of the chaos of the clouds? Tron: Legacy gave me that feeling again, imagining and discovering an impossible world made out of simplicity and expanded into magnificence.

Thus it was very easy for me to feel for and empathize with the character of Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges), the creator of this virtual universe. I felt a rapport with the character, a connection that I think came from having written stories before. Like bringing ideas and people out of the void, breathing life into them and watching them interact and love. Kevin Flynn is the architect and, though the main character is his son, it is engrossing to watch him interact with the world he has created out of nothing, his past with it, his mistakes and victories. And none of it would've been possible without the excellent acting skills of Jeff Bridges, who breathes into the character a sense of age, wisdom, humor, understanding, and regret, all at the same time. He turns Kevin Flynn into a flawed creator, yet also one that perfectly embodies the God metaphor. And it is awe-inspiring, particularly seeing the reactions of those who live in The Grid when Kevin is nearby.

Father and Sons

One theme that really impressed me throughout the movie was the relationship had between fathers and their sons, and how that can affect both people in positive and negative ways. We see through Sam Flynn (Kevin's son) how the unexplained absence of a loving father can change someone. And when they finally meet once again, it is compelling to watch them both get used to knowing one another once more. It is a process that is difficult and not without failures along the way, and through it we get a glimpse of the difficulty inherent in being a proper and good father. And we see how working at it can make both men come out better people for it.

On the other side of things, we have Kevin Flynn's AI creation, Clu. The villain of the movie, Clu was created by Kevin in order to help him perfect the world of The Grid . But along the way, Clu decides that Kevin's approach is flawed, and feels compelled to remove him from the equation. However, one gets the sense that Clu is the child who is forever motivated by his actions by the need to show his father that his way is the right way. Almost unwittingly, Clu seeks Kevin's approval and, while he does his best to sublimate it, it is clear that Clu is impossibly flawed by it. Thus does Clu become sympathetic and makes one hope that he and Kevin will be able to achieve reconciliation before the end.


And here I am, nearing the end, and there is still so much about this movie that I loved that I've yet to talk about. I didn't get the chance to mention how interesting the character of Tron/Rinzler is; a near analogy to Darth Vader of Star Wars; a former hero needing redemption. I didn't mention the concept of the ISOs and how their story mirrors that of Jews throughout history. And I didn't mention the proud and capable character of Quorra, and how she effectively dominated every scene she was in. Needless to say, this is a movie that has a good amount of depth to it if you're looking for it. The question is whether you can contain your instinctive desire to say, "This is all freaking impossible!"

I loved it, but the movie did have some flaws. The dialogue was occasionally corny/wince inducing. In the end, the plot is rather simple. But it is the world of Tron: Legacy and its creator that was so powerful and effective for me. Not to mention truly awesome and jaw-dropping scenes of visual brilliance that helped make the world ever more vivid. And the soundtrack was glorious!

But I'm not sure if the 3D part is necessary to get the 'full experience'. I would say it was the best 3D movie I've yet seen, but I say that just because I loved the movie; I can't remember if the 3D part was all that important.


+ 10 for pure awesomeness
- .5 because nothing is perfect
- .5 for occasionally questionable dialogue and a simple plot

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Black Swan

Black Swan is a movie that alternates between being highly bizarre and unsettling. In the end, though, what it ultimately was was disturbing. It is a movie about obsession, stress, and pressure. It is about one ballerina (Natalie Portman) and her absolute desire to be the best at what she does. Or, alternatively, it is about one poor girl and her inability to know when enough is enough.

The Dark Side of Expectations

Natalie Portman shows us a girl who is fragile, fearful, yet absolutely dedicated to her art. She is vulnerable but so determined as to be unhealthy in her obsession. For, above all, she wants to have the lead role in Swan Lake; she wants to be the Swan Queen. Now this may sound a rather silly premise, but it is not silly at all. Through this movie we see a nasty, nasty example of how entertainers and people in general can follow their dreams beyond rationality. And, all along the way, they are often encouraged to do so by friends and family. They are told to do their best, to focus on the goal with a drive that is near inhuman. Have you ever had to concentrate so utterly on something that it feels almost as if it defines you? It can happen, to the point where you can forget to live; friends are forgotten, habits such as eating and sleeping become distracting and feel unnecessary. In Black Swan, we see this and the awful consequences of following one's dream to the point of self-destruction.

The big motivator in this film lies in the nature of the role of the Swan Queen. The ballerina who performs the Swan Queen must embody grace, nobility, and fragility; and Natalie Portman's character has that down pat. However, she must also play out the role of the Black Swan, which is totally opposite. The Black Swan is dark, seductive, aggressive. Dominant. The main thread of the movie follows Natalie Portman trying to embrace that side of herself in order to depict it naturally on the stage. And, given her innocent and kind nature, that process is difficult and wrenching.

When is it Too Much?

As someone who has played a couple of intense roles in theater, I can attest to the fact that putting yourself into a dark character and doing it well can be highly disturbing. What makes Black Swan even worse is that the ballerina's personality here is directly at odds with the personality she needs to assume with the Black Swan. To take on that role, she must allow herself to let her inhibitions go, and to dance more extremely. And, as part of training for that, everyone seems to tell her that she has to let go in her daily life as well. Thus we watch on helplessly as Natalie Portman allows herself to fall. It is as shocking and as harsh a change in personality as can be imagined. And, given the seriousness of such a shattering alteration, many strange and disturbing things happen to her, all exacerbated from the stress of preparing for such a role. Hallucinations, disorders, hostility towards loved ones and strangers... It is hard to think of another movie that psychologically deconstructs a character so nastily.

A huge part of the problem is the fact that the ballerina has no system of support and, for that, the movie seemed a little bit unbelievable. Her mother is harsh, stern, and unforgiving. Their relationship is completely dysfunctional; she is one of those moms that requires her daughter to be the absolute best ballerina, not really minding or noticing her daughter's own immensely negative reaction to the stress and expectation. Similarly, Natalie Portman's director/choreographer is as sleazy as he is demanding; he, above all, unwittingly pushes her down the path of darkness and corruption. She doesn't seem to have any friends at all. There is nobody who can really help her, and the one ballerina friend she does make (Mila Kunis) seems to exist only to compel Natalie Portman to throw aside her inhibitions with greater abandon.


It was not without flaws, however. The director's way of illustrating Natalie Portman's fall was very strange. Her hallucinations are symbolic of the role she is taking on, but often it feels too overt and obvious. I won't mention specifics, but it did feel as if more subtlety would have been better. In addition, I'm not sure I understand why the recurring theme of sexual deviancy kept coming up. The role of Black Swan is one that involves being seductive and sexy, but the amount of sexual material in the film just was too much and didn't feel relevant. It was indicative of her increasing loss of inhibitions and self, but it was another area where I felt less would have been more.

In the end, Black Swan was incredibly disturbing. I know I've said that a couple times already, but it is the one word that describes it utterly. I can't help but admire it for its effectiveness in portraying one ballerina's descent into insanity, but I also can't help but want to look away. I doubt I'll watch it again because it was just that intense. That makes it a great movie, but also a bit scary. Should I like the movie because it made me want to run screaming from the theater? I don't know about that...


+ 10 for being an incredibly intense and effective psychological drama/horror
- .5 because nothing is perfect
- .5 for overly blatant symbolism that distracts from the story
- .5 for too much focus on 'sexy time' that had little relevance to the story

The American

Written by Joe the Revelator

This one's for the ladies...

Although this movie made 12 mil during its opening week in the box office, I have to wonder if it wouldn’t have averaged better if it didn’t alienate its female audience in the first five minutes. George Clooney, as the precocious Jack, trudges alongside his lover near their secluded picturesque cabin, out for a winter stroll. Suddenly Swedes with guns burst from the snow banks above them, only to be brought down by Clooney. “Get to the house, call the police” He bids, and the moment she turns, he plugs her in the back of the head with a bullet. This may be the highest and lowest point of the movie, and it’s all over in the first scene.

For anyone still sympathetic to the main character after such a startling introduction, congratulations you’re probably a sociopath. He even goes so far to explain to his handler that she wasn’t a traitor. She was, apparently, just in the wrong place at the wrong time (his bed). This one regretful lament colors the rest of the film and haunts him through a long string of prostitutes, girlfriends, and attractive clients, until he’s wading hip-deep through half-naked European women, wearing a perpetually glum look on his face.

If it weren’t for Clooney’s ability to infect the audience with his mood, The American would be a colossally boring film. We watch him adapt to his new shell of a life, working again for his old organization. He orders parts and builds guns for dangerous clients, tests rifles, drills and fills bullets like a one-man machine shop, and constructs professional grade silencers out of an auto mechanic’s scraps. He breaks bread with an equally emotional priest and stares at butterflies in the woods. And, when the mood strikes him, he contemplates shooting more women who’ve gotten too close. If the main character had a beergut and a Dixie flag he’d be a melancholy gunsmith.

Most action-dramas save us the tedium of preparation before a secret mission. We don’t see the long hours in Q’s lab where the ammo is repacked and the lasers are charged, nor do we see the care that’s taken in attaching rockets to a sports car. All we see is the end result; Bond blowing the hell out of tanks and kicking ass. A few movies can focus on the precision of planning and still manage to juggle in some good action, The Jackal, Ronin, Munich. The American, as an action, flatlines by comparison.

Final Thought:

One byproduct of watching this film is I now plan on reading A Very Private Gentleman, a novel written by Martin Booth. I feel like there is too much unexplained in the film, too much that couldn’t be conveyed through George Clooney’s troubled eyebrows, or the subtle bits of dialogue and music drops. Killer he may be, I still find the characters fascinating enough to want to know more. Without sitting through the movie a second time.

And a side note for anyone else who saw this film: The ‘special rifle’ he builds is a Mini-14, a stable but notoriously inaccurate weapon. Apparently the big scope fixes all.

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Dresden Files: Storm Front

When walking through bookstores, I've always noticed a massive amount of shelf space devoted to one author and one series. I looked upon it with skepticism. The Dresden Files? A genre blend between modern urban private investigating/crime noir and fantasy? Who thought of this madness? After much hemming and hawing, I finally committed myself. I would try it and see how it goes.

Harry Potter meets Night Watch meets CSI

Harry Dresden is a professional wizard who works out of a dingy downtown office in Chicago, doing his best to make the rent. He lives in an apartment basement with his 30 pound cat, Mister, and Bob, a raunchy air spirit who lives in a skull. In this first novel, Storm Front, he is hired by a woman to find her missing husband and recruited by the police to investigate a seemingly unrelated murder case. Harry Dresden quickly gets in over his head and does his best to play all sides and figure out the mystery of 'whodunit' before he gets his ass killed. And he uses magic. Lots of it.

Now, if that description prompted even the smallest spark of interest in you, then you need to read this book. Harry Dresden is a likable, single, hapless guy who you can't help but root for. He is the everyman, the average Joe. That is if the average Joe were capable of animating brooms, reading other peoples' souls, and using the power of thunderstorms to zap toad demons into dust. It is written well and is a compulsive page turner; I managed to read this one within three days. At $9.99 a pop in a series 10+ books long, this series can be dangerous to your bank account. For myself, I'm forcing myself to stay away from the next one just so I don't go on a Dresden Files tangent and consume them all. It has to be done for my own good.

The Question of Depth

But I have to admit that, though the book was immensely enjoyable, I found myself wondering at the depth of the story and characters. To be honest, this is the first mystery book I can recall ever reading, so maybe this should be obvious. But I found myself occasionally feeling as if there should have been more detail here and there. The story is action packed, but it somehow feels surface level. The characters have depth to each one of them, but a number of them also feel as if they are just rehashed tropes/stereotypes from some old mystery film. This didn't really detract from the awesomeness of the book, mind you. It merely served as a niggling doubt in the back of my head; a little voice asking, "Might this be below my reading level?"

It sounds superior, I know, but I'm used to science fiction/fantasy books that make me question things, that make me think about things in ways I've never thought of before. Sometimes that comes through the portrayal and depth of characters that one can find. Sometimes it comes through the science aspect or magic system. The author, Jim Butcher, dangles the magic system about the reader like a carrot on a stick. With each chapter you feel like you are getting tantalizingly closer to understanding how the system works, but with every chapter you also learn something completely new about it that throws your previous expectations into chaos.

This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the snippets of precious information and experiences keep the pages turning and keep you interested. But on the other hand, I found that, without knowledge of how the magic system works, nothing could make sense. I couldn't predict who the killer was because the killer was able to use magic that hadn't been mentioned before. I wanted to be able to follow Dresden's common sense path to finding out who did it, but was unable to because the human mind doesn't think, "Well, I need to lay out a circle of magic and talk to a fairy to figure out what to do next!" Not unless I have foreknowledge of Dresden's ability to do so. I found that this was, perhaps, the novel's biggest failing. I like to be able to try and figure out what will happen and I like for everything to make sense within the novel's universe and continuity. Perhaps the sequels will do this better.


In the end, I really liked Storm Front, and I assume that I will love the rest of The Dresden Files when I get around to it. The story flowed well, the characters were great, and the fusion of magic with crime solving was as epic as it was spontaneously random. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is a fan of mysteries or fantasy.

I'm a little bit worried about how it feels as if it lacks depth, but I feel that this is also tied to the fact that the magic system isn't yet fully explained. Because it wasn't done in this book, some of what happened I felt I just had to accept and move on, and I don't think I liked that. It didn't cause my brains engines to whir. Instead, I just had to shrug my shoulders and say, "Yes, necklaces can be turned into car-sized scorpions. Absolutely!" and then watch the mayhem. Cool? Yes. Logical? Not so much. But what happens in the story was awesome, so I can't take away too much credit.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

The Johnstown Flood

I came into this book expecting some standard inspiring tale of men making sandbag barriers and fighting off the elements heroically. I started it skeptically, figuring, "Well, I know the author (David McCullough) is good from reading Truman, but will he be able to do it again with The Johnstown Flood?" I had this book ready to be read for a couple months now, but kept putting it off for fear of a long, drawn-out story about a flood.

I've never been in a flood. I've always pictured it to be a silly sort of natural disaster. I always imagined seeing the water slowly rise and travel where it shouldn't, and I always thought, "Oooh!" with sarcasm, "So scary!"

That is, until I read about the Johnstown Flood.

Absolute Destruction

I can now say with gusto that the Johnstown Flood is the most terrifying disaster I have EVER heard of. This was no ordinary flood. At first, rains were exceptionally heavy, causing water to gather high enough to go through your door and cover your living room floor. Irritating, but not terribly dangerous. However, what made the Johnstown Flood really dangerous was a dam that was placed above the town, a dam that had largely been neglected and ignored for years, a dam that, on that fateful day, was unable to withstand the rains. What burst forth was a tidal wave, a mass with enough force to knock sturdy brick houses over like cards.

And we're not talking just any old tidal wave here. This monstrous wave picked up every piece of debris you can think of on its way to the town. It utterly destroyed a barbed wire factory, causing hundreds of feet of barbed wire to swirl about inside of the wave. Every house it knocked over only added to its momentum. Entire trains were blown off their rails and hurled about like confetti. The power of the wave was such that they found corpses buried in the mud after it had passed; the wave had slammed into people so hard that they had literally been piledrived into the earth. It finally stopped when all the debris, people, and livestock were slammed into the side of a stone bridge, creating a monstrous ball of wreckage and humanity. Then, for no understandable reason, it caught on fire. Everything and everyone then had to survive the huge amount of water that remained, with no food, safe water, or anything terribly helpful. The list of people who died at the back of the book reaches at least thirty pages.

Needless to say, this is one of the most horrifying disasters I've ever heard of or read. My previous dismissive attitude toward floods is now changed.

Mind-Boggling Insanity

David McCullough is an outstanding writer. In this book, he takes you through the disaster one step at a time, and just about every step is incredibly compelling to read. You first read about the Johnstown area and are steeped briefly in its history. Then you begin to read about what the Johnstown people did over the years that would make it unintentionally easier for a flood to occur. Chopping down trees that would make runoff accumulate faster. The construction of a dam that quickly becomes economically obsolete, and thus neglected. Thinning of the rivers in order to make for living space, giving water less room to expand when the rains come. Uncertainty and a sense of foreboding sets in.

Then the author takes you on a step by step explanation of how it went down. At every stage, you feel for the people as you hear of the totally insane things that happened; a man goes out on his front porch and sees another man riding atop a train downhill, the train man pausing only momentarily to grab a branch and leap through the other guy's upstairs window. At one point, a woman is swept along with the wave and sees a family standing on top of a kitchen floor (no other piece of the house in sight), frantically stuffing clothes into a chest before being utterly consumed by a secondary wave. Dead horses shot up into the air, here and there, as the wave approached. Totally crazy. And this is a tiny sample of the bizarre, sad, and incredible things that occurred with this disaster.


And, in the latter third of the book, you get to read of the immense rescue effort that went down afterward. People of all sorts showed up to help out, take pictures, or be pests. Sensationalist newspapers somehow managed to blow the already crazy situation completely out of proportion which, while outrageous, actually served to bring Johnstown far more relief aid than they probably would have received otherwise. Journalists hired teams to get there on foot, racing each other to get to the situation and to report back to people across the world. The inexplicable appearance of seemingly infinite amounts of whiskey retrieved from god-only-knows-where made the rescue effort additionally... exciting.

And, even through all this madness that enthralled me so much that I finished the book in a mere two days, I was impressed that the book simultaneously entertained and educated at the same time. You get an excellent explanation of why the dam broke, you see the ramifications afterward with lawsuits scattered everywhere, and the author provides superb details on every step of the journey. Frankly, I'm impressed that he was able to find so much and cast it in a light that made the book both a compulsive page-turner and intellectually stimulating.

My only caveats are that the beginning is a bit slow and that David McCullough has a habit of random name dropping that takes a bit of getting used to. But the slow beginning makes sense; he sets you up to care for the people who lived in Johnstown at the time, and gives you a sense of landmarks and geography so you have some comprehension of what gets obliterated later and why. As for the name dropping, the only reason this gave me trouble was because I'm used to reading biographies; once you understand that this involves an 'ensemble cast' and no 'main character', everything flows perfectly.

In short, this is probably one of the most fantastic history books I've ever read. I highly recommend it to anyone who has even the remotest interest in history or a good story.


The Social Network

The Social Network was... interesting. A movie about the creation of that little thing called Facebook, The Social Network follows the path of one Mark Zuckerberg, the main creator. Unusual in that this is one of the first movies (that I know of) ever made about the creation of a real-life business company, it turned out to be quite enthralling to watch.

Prince Asshole

Assuming even half of what the movie showed was true, Mark Zuckerberg is one of the more unlikable, anti-social, opportunistic and selfish bastards I've ever seen in a movie. In fact, at least 75% of all characters you see on the screen are self-interested and cutthroat assholes. We have Zuckerberg himself, Sean Parker (the co-founder of Napster), the brothers Winklevoss, and Divya Narendra. All of them grade-A backstabbing pricks.

For this reason, the movie was hard for me to get invested in. I couldn't bring myself to empathize with the main character; at many times throughout the movie Zuckerberg treats his closest friends like garbage and he actively seems to go out of his way to undermine others. Even when it seems easier to cooperate and collaborate, Zuckerberg seems to always choose the 'most dickish' move. For the sake of avoiding spoilers, I won't mention any specifics. But I do want to point out that one should not expect some sort of triumphant or inspiring journey to Facebook's creation. Mark Zuckerberg (or at least this portrayal of him) is arrogant and irritating, treating everyone poorly because of a massive superiority complex.

However, I was still able to enjoy the movie on a surface level. The business machinations behind Facebook's creation were interesting to watch, along with the lawsuits against Zuckerberg. The movie flip-flops between the past of how Facebook came to be and the 'present' of what happened with the two lawsuits against Zuckerbereg. One lawsuit is induced by his best friend, Eduardo Saverin, for being financially taken advantage of and misled. The other is levied by the Winklevoss twins and Narendra under the assertion that Mark Zuckerberg stole the idea of Facebook from them. Each have valid points that make the discussions between them quite intriguing, and seeing the events play out in the film that are directly relevant to the lawsuits made these parts the most interesting to me.

Pauper Sympathy

While I was unable to find any sympathy for Mark Zuckerberg's character, I found loads for Eduardo Saverin. He is the only major character in the film who actually seems to make decisions based on friendship, understanding, and sheer niceness. Unlike Zuckerberg, Saverin is dedicated to the idea of partnership between the two, and goes out of his way to provide the lion's share of the funding for the Facebook project, even when Zuckerberg doesn't seem to deserve it. Saverin is the heart of the film and even when he is complaining to Zuckerberg, everything seems justified.

In a way, though, I found this strange. Of all these major players in the Facebook drama, only Saverin comes out looking a much better person than the rest of them. Suspicious, I looked into it and found that the real-life Eduardo Saverin was the only person related to Facebook who had been willing to help provide his side of the story; The Social Network is based upon the book, The Accidental Billionaires, and Saverin served as consultant for it. So, in a movie that is already dramatized and with its facts diluted, we have the most sympathetic character being that of the only person who chipped in with his two cents. Hmm...


Yet, despite the fact that all of it is factually questionable, I did enjoy watching The Social Network. The acting seemed pretty good, it was well paced, and the circumstances behind both Facebook's creation and the lawsuits made against Mark Zuckerberg by his friends made for an interesting story. Nowhere have I seen such cutthroat business practices but, hey, I'm no business major. It did make me curious as to whether most businesses comport themselves like this. I'll be reading a book or two in the upcoming months on the subject as a result.

However, this was not a great movie. I do not understand the clamor about giving this film Oscars. In my opinion, it deserves none. It was entertaining and often amusing, but in no way did it feel exceptional. Worth seeing? Yes. Worth worshipping? No. I'll save my worshipping for Inception.


Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass

Written by Joe the Revelator

Rupees, Cooler than Rubles.

Anyone born during the gaming generation is familiar with Princess Zelda and her codependent erstwhile companion, Link. Nintendo’s little green-garbed elf has lost his princess through so many sequels that his children are now doomed to repeat his mistakes, or so it seems from the paper doll puppet show that precedes the game.

And for a Nintendo DS game, Phantom Hourglass has an impressively long opening cinematic, written to snare sympathetic ten-year-olds into the plot; save Zelda. This is reinforced whenever the DS is turned off and reloaded, starting every game with a frantic figure of Zelda begging for help before she is gulped down into a maw of mysterious smoke. So begins the epic quest for pirate-Link to rescue pirate-Zelda.

Once again, Link finds himself unconscious in a village with a freebie sword and a love for smashing pots and hacking down grass stalks. But to make his new job as a lawnmower tolerable, you are given a few samurai-esque slashing maneuvers which take advantage of the DS’s touch screen quite admirably. More touch-based weapons are made available throughout the game, all of which are classics from older Zelda arsenals. The boomerang in particular has become a potent quest solving tool, as it will follow any loopy line you draw on the screen, and can carry items (and flames) back to your character.

Sailing is now the great glue which holds the plot and dungeons together. The mini-map, not so mini, takes up the entire top screen and allows the player to scribble hints and treasure locations whenever it’s convenient. More often though, the game hits you over the head and demands you use this fine feature, making every excuse to withhold simple map markers so you’ll have to rely on your own squiggly incoherent scrawl. The dungeons and puzzles themselves are still very clever, with or without self-drawn hints, and remain one of the best aspects of Zelda gameplay.

The animation may be the part that bugs me the most. I know there is only so many graphics that can be rendered on a handheld game system. But I argue that if you don’t have the marble to carve Michelangelo’s David, then don’t settle for balsawood. I still blame Paper Mario for lowering standards, and everyone’s acceptance of wobbly-necked characters that slide around on the screen like targets at a carnival shooting range. The deficiencies are easy to forget while fighting monsters. But when the screen zooms in for an up-close conversation, the player is stared down by brown polygon faces with massive eyes and features that looked like they were spackled on.

With Full Hearts:

I honestly don’t know how Nintendo does it. I’ve played (nearly) the exact same game every third year, with the exact same weapon selection, viewed through the eyes of the same stunted elf. And I haven’t grown bored of Zelda games. Has the rewarding sound of popping a chest and holding weapons above my head become so engrained in my brain that I can’t help myself? Like a cat that runs into the kitchen at can-opener noises. Maybe Zelda has become my RPG minesweeper or bejeweled; another dungeon cleared with my heart meter beeping away to alert me that the chambers are essentially half full.

I suppose I can recommend this game to anyone above the age of zygote and still keep a clear conscious. It’s fun and even witty at times. And compared to many DS games that see the stylus as a burden to throw minigames at, Zelda actually incorporates it. And although I haven't beat the game yet, I'm still confident that I can guess the ending. I predict Zelda will be saved from the replacement Gannondorf.

And maybe, just maybe, the princess will stay saved this time.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Quantum of Solace

I must admit that when I first saw Quantum of Solace in the movie theaters, I hated it. It piggybacked on the success of the Bourne movies; it assumed that really fast and chaotic action scenes with millisecond long shots were a good thing. It was as if James Bond had been replaced by some angry, intense Brit; instead of wearing a suit and tie and requesting martinis shaken not stirred, Bond spends most of the movie wearing street clothing and doing nothing to resemble the Bond that we tend to recognize. And as if these issues weren't enough, the villain of the movie seemed a joke, we learn absolutely nothing more about the mysterious organization hinted at in the previous movie (Casino Royale), and, speaking of which, the characterization of Bond himself is relegated to a sideplot instead of a main focus.

But these are all complaints that I had of the movie when I saw it the first time, months ago. Realizing that others liked Quantum of Solace regardless, I decided to give it another shot and to try and view it as its own entity. I loved Casino Royale, but to hold this movie up to its standard was perhaps not the right thing to do.

So I watched it again. And, instead of being disappointed again, I walked away impressed.

Bond. James Bond.

It is hard to explain what caused me to like the movie this time around. Part of it may have been that I was paying closer attention this time. Another part of it may have been that I accepted Bond's change of character. There is a reason why he is not acting like Bond in this movie. To put it simply, at the end of Casino Royale, we see Bond's love die before his eyes while he is unable to do anything about it. In Casino Royale, Bond is a new 00 agent. Having such a terrible thing happen, along with the belief that she betrayed Bond, would put anyone over the edge. And, as an understandable result, Bond spends most of his time in Quantum of Solace in a perpetual rage, often homicidally so.

A big part of what makes the movie enjoyable this time around is seeing the revenge-seeking Bond ignoring the organization in charge of him, MI6, and paying the price for it. Both MI6 and the CIA spend a good part of the movie trying to take Bond down, inadvertently assisted by the forces of the shadowy organization behind the villain, Dominic Greene. As a consequence, you can't help but feel for Bond, to a certain extent. He is a harrowed man. You understand his rage and desire for vengeance. But at the same time, you can't help but feel that he is letting it go to his head; provoking the opposition of former allies is never a good idea. But this is part of the point. Bond is seeking closure, but the methods by which he pursues it make you wonder if perhaps he is all there, as repeatedly stated through the appearances of his boss, M.

Moving On

What I particularly liked about Casino Royale was how it made your stereotypical action-oriented Bond flick into a character study of sorts. You see how Bond's lifestyle can seem self-destructive, how his reckless approach to 'spying' can have nasty, nasty consequences. Quantum of Solace continues this, though the characterization is given less of a role this time around. Most of the action is focused on uncovering the mystery of the villain's inevitably evil-sounding plot. But, every so often, Quantum of Solace shows you a glimpse of Bond and the white hot anger and loss that wracks his soul.

Nowhere is this more clear than when he spends time with the main Bond girl, Camille, and the supporting character from the previous movie, Mathis. Camille is a mirror of Bond's torment; she also seeks revenge from a horrible experience of the past. This similarity gives them a rapport that ends up grouping them together. Though they seem to have little else in common, their shared desire for vengeance and closure ties them close. Camille finds herself helping Bond though it isn't necessarily in her best interest to do so. And Bond finds himself becoming protective and defensive of Camille. Is this perhaps an unconscious desire on Bond's part to reinvent the relationship he had with Vesper (the Bond girl from Casino Royale)? Or perhaps he is just defensive of Camille because, as the villain says, everything he touches seems to wither and die. It is subtle and hard to gauge, and this relationship is interesting to watch. And, for once, it isn't one that results in sex at the end, which is a downright shocker for a Bond girl.

As for Mathis, he is perhaps the only one who truly had a glimpse of Bond's happiness when he was with Vesper in Casino Royale. M knew of the relationship, but only Mathis was physically there when it was blossoming. Perhaps as a result of this knowledge that Bond is so traumatized by that loss, Mathis joins Bond in his quest to attain closure and overturn Dominic Greene. It doesn't end well, but it still shows us a vestige of Bond's past and of a time before his need for revenge.


On the down side, the action in this movie was nausea-inducing to watch and the villain seemed a bit of a joke compared to others in Bond's history. A number of times throughout the movie, both Bond and Camille seem to toy with the villain, just to mess with him, and he seems near powerless to stop it. At the end, in the final showdown with Bond, Dominic screaming like a girl while attacking Bond further made me sigh with amusement. The best villains in Bond's history have had presence and a tangible aura of danger around them. But Dominic Greene was far short of that mark.

I also wish that they had spent more time focusing on Bond's character growth, as they did in the movie before, Casino Royale. Without that growth, Bond movies just feel like surface level action flicks. Quantum of Solace had that character progression, but in a way that often felt hidden in the rafters. Perhaps I'm being too judgmental; I find myself habitually comparing it to the greatness of Casino Royale again. But shouldn't that be a goal? To aspire to do better than the movie before? In that, I think Quantum of Solace failed. But as an independent movie, I did find myself enjoying it a lot more the second time, and that is worth noting.


Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Road

This is the most depressing novel I've ever read. That doesn't mean it was bad, per se. But certainly this is worth noting. Cormac McCarthy's The Road is a book set in the most horrifyingly depicted post-apocalyptic wasteland you can conceive of. McCarthy uses an epic command of description and imagery to show us a picture straight out of hell. The skies are caked with ash and emptiness. The forests are dead, crumpled, and gone. All wildlife is long since dead. The seas froth with gray refuse and teem with pollution. 99% of humanity has already perished, and what remains are dirty, emaciated refugees and grungy, hostile cannibals. The main characters are a father and his son, and you follow their journey as they trek through this hellish nightmare that used to be America.

If this sounds horrible to you, then I advise you just stop reading this review, as this isn't a pleasant novel. Actually, I take that back. Who wouldn't find that description horrible? But I'm, perhaps, glossing over what turned out to make the book a page turner and ultimately very good.

Safety vs Empathy

The man and his son (you never hear their names) make for some of the most intensely depicted characters ever written. Within a page and a half of the book, you are deeply attached to their characters. You want them to live, more than anything in the world. And yet you understand how impossible that seems to be in this horrible scenario. Part of what makes their characters so powerful is just the facts; what father wouldn't be insanely protective of their child in this nightmare? At the same time, though, what father wouldn't think of simply killing himself and the boy? Life in this awful world often does not seem worth it, and this is a struggle that the man must face every trudging step of his journey. Would suicide perhaps be a sweet release here? Questions such as these arise in the novel, and are as powerful as they are terrible.

But what makes these two characters work so well together is their dichotomy of interests. Understandably so, the boy seeks to hold onto some optimism. He still has the capacity to dream of another world, and the father unwittingly supports this through bedtime stories of a time before the nuclear wasteland. But the father is dead focused on making decisions that prioritize safety and common sense above any other concerns. You would think this to be the best thing you could do in such a scenario, and perhaps you are right. But The Road makes the answer to that question difficult; is it better to care for other people despite the dangers or is it best to just look out for yourself and those close to you?

An example here would be the situation that follows: at one point, the man and his boy encounter an old man on the road, near death, and of no danger to them or anyone. The man wants to avoid him; even the possibility of danger is not worth approaching a stranger in this post-apocalyptic land. But the boy wants to greet the old man, to perhaps befriend him, or spare him a bit of food so that he will not die. It is a tricky call. Certainly, the need for survival would dictate avoidance but, in this nightmare, is it worth it to just survive on your own in despair? In the end, all we have is each other. Is charity and compassion an evil when it can affect your own well-being? I came out of the novel leaning in this direction, favoring friendliness and openness above needs of survival and self-interest. But, even now, the answer doesn't seem clear to me. Dilemmas such as these show the power of this novel.


It is hard for me to add more to this review because I don't want to spoil what the man and the boy go through. Needless to say, every step is incredibly intense and your heart follows them every bit of the way. Cormac McCarthy's method of writing helps contribute to this; he writes in sentence fragments and avoids some aspects of grammar like the plague. While initially confusing, I found it actually to be quite easy to jump into how this affected the flow. And it made perfect sense why the author did this. Post-apocalypse and on the brink of starvation and death, the characters don't have time to elaborate in long, detailed thoughts. Instead, the writing is short, brusque and moving. It is perhaps hard to describe, but it works.

However, despite how good this novel was, I don't think I'll ever want to read it again. Hope is an ephemeral thing in this novel and even the end is ambiguous as to whether the characters will turn out okay in the end or not. The Road is a story that will grip you and shake you til you want to cry, but it does have a strange beauty to it. And most of it lies in the humanity of the relationship between a father and his son. From that, if nothing else, does this book get its power.



I was not initially excited at the prospect of seeing Invictus. As, no doubt, many of you can attest, Invictus looks merely like another feel-good sports movie. You see it on the DVD shelf at the store and you think to yourself, "Oh, so that's what Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman were doing with their spare time," then you keep walking. And, to a certain extent, this is true. The South African Rugby team captained by Matt Damon is terrible at first but, under Mr. Freeman's encouragement, they end up competing in the championship and winning, despite all odds. While you may think it a spoiler to say that they win, the back of the DVD clearly shows Matt Damon holding a trophy, so blame whoever developed that DVD cover, not me.

Rugby Post-Apartheid

But I felt that the advertising and trailer for this movie did not do it justice. What they seem to forget to focus on is the fact that this rugby championship happened in post-Apartheid South Africa, when Nelson Mandela was let out of prison and elected president, when racist whites no longer held the reins of power in the country. Really, this cultural/historical backdrop is more important than the rugby, and it is given a great deal of attention that makes the rugby games have greater ramifications than just another team winning a championship. This is actually why I've never had any interest in watching and getting into sports. I can appreciate the fun of it, but it always seemed pointless to me how people can get worked up into a frenzy over these teams when, at the end of it, the trophies and victories are meaningless. It is just a game.

But Invictus provided me a reason to care about the team winning. In this time period and within the movie, we see Nelson Mandela do his utmost to treat whites and blacks equally, and he finds that the sport of rugby is an area within which both races can get excited together. His end goal is a unified nation where whites and blacks get along instead of fighting back and forth. He wonders how he can inspire them to work together. And rugby provides that answer. Thus, with the cooperation of Matt Damon (the captain of the South African team), Mandela pushes the team to find victory in the Rugby World Cup, to inspire the nation to find solidarity together.

Snapshot of a Man

The end result of the rugby games in the movie are predictable. The team that we are rooting for wins. South Africa celebrates a time where whites can hug blacks in mutual victory. It is as touching as it is expected. But what really made the movie special to me was the background it provided on Mandela, and what made him a great man. If all of what happened in the movie was true, Mandela's compassion for the people of South Africa is truly inspiring, for whites and blacks.

Given his past, this should not be. He was imprisoned by the racist white Apartheid government for years upon years in horrible living conditions. He was provided only a mattress, living in a caged room the size of a closet. His days were occupied with smacking uselessly at rocks with a pick. This is the background of a man whom, you would think, would be biding his time to exact vengeance. Instead, in this time, he found the strength to accept that what had happened to him was terrible, but not indicative of every white person. As he declared in the movie, "What's past is past." Mandela had the wisdom and compassion to realize that forcing restrictions on the whites to induce racial equality, while justified and widely supported, was not the way to get people to cooperate. In the movie, we see him act against his own people in order to hold onto this belief.

It can't be understated how difficult this must have been for this man. Upon leaving prison, Mandela's wife had essentially left him, having had an affair with another man while he had been imprisoned. His own daughter found him to be doddering and naïve. This was a man without a home, with barely a family. Despite this, he found the strength to open his arms to the whites, even though this undoubtedly made him appear to his people as capitulation to the old white oppressors. His own cabinet thought Mandela crazy for doing these sorts of things, but he did them nonetheless, without any support at home or at work, because he thought it was the right thing to do.


In the end, I loved this movie. I learned about Nelson Mandela's greatness while simultaneously understanding the perfectness of his goal, to have South Africa win the rugby cup. The sports segment was predictable, though still engrossing to watch. But what really got me was this snapshot into Nelson Mandela's life, as excellently portrayed by Morgan Freeman. This is yet another movie I've watched recently that makes me want to go out and read a biography. And that desire to learn more is the best thing the movie could do for me.