Saturday, 18 November 2017

Review: Transcendence

Transcendence is a surprisingly thoughtful look at what happens when strong AI is developed. It's unusual to see a sci-fi blockbuster make a decent attempt to reference current scientific thinking and explore relevant themes with some depth.

That's not to say it doesn't drift into the fantastical towards the end.

The direction is workmanlike - and the cast of characters realistically flat rather than sympathetic which is probably why this film didn't get much love despite the A list cast.

Overall, I can see the potential for this 50s inspired B movie to be a minor classic in years to come.

The special features on the blu-ray are really no more than extended trailers with small sound bites from the cast, crew and friendly scientist.

Verdict: An AI much ordinary.

Friday, 17 November 2017

Review: Public Enemies

This Depp gangster vehicle is on the face of it an unusual choice for director Mann. For example, it swaps his distinctive city based cinematography of metallic blues and greys in favour of sepia and harsh lighting.

Depp is on form here as gangster Dillinger, alternatively arrogant and naive, and the story of  this 1930s criminal celebrity is a good one although lacking back story.

Ultimately though, it does suffer in comparison to Heat. The  lawman's and the criminal's stories and characters simply aren't as engaging as Pacino's and De Niro's. Similarly, it also lacks the punch of the set pieces in the earlier film. Perhaps less would have been more.

Verdict:  Good, but oddly unengaging.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Review: Sucker Punch

Inception-like dark fantasy within a darker fantasy that is partly an excuse for highly kinetic hyperviolence against dragons, clockwork nazis and samurai led by scantily clad and heavily armed young women.  Innovative covers of 80s and 90s classics simply add to the steam punk induced pop video vibe.

It does become a little repetitive, but the ending when it comes, truly is a sucker punch.

Verdict: Dream-like fantasy with bite.

Review: Giving Notice: Why the Best and Brightest are Leaving the Workplace and How You Can Help them Stay

Giving notice is a classic text on why diversity and inclusion matters in the workplace.

Essentially, the premise is that micro- and macro-insults contribute to women, ethnic minorities and gays leaving some workplaces - and that ends up costing companies, not just in lawsuits in the worst case, but also other losses through opportunity cost, turnover, less engaged employees, less innovation etc.

Further, it challenges us to try and tackle our own unconscious bias. I found it a useful reminder that perfectly competent (potential) role holders may not get a chance because they lack the right network.

Verdict: Eye opening and clearing

Friday, 10 November 2017

Review: X-men: First Class

This back to the past origins story was a genius idea to revive a flagging franchise as it allowed us to see a much younger Magneto and Professor X on-screen as well as tap into a wonderful 1960s Man from Uncle vibe.

The result is definitely one of the more stylish and interesting X-men movies although not quite as genre-busting as Logan.  The story is one of a loss of innocence making characters like Magneto and Mystique's future and shifting motivations much more understandable.

Verdict: One of the stronger X-outings.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Quote: Why a good conversation is like a mini-skirt

This week, I thought I'd try a new habit - watch a Ted talk everyday for inspiration. I particularly enjoyed this one by Celeste Headlee:

Which ends on this excellent summary of what a good conversation is like:

A good conversation is like a miniskirt; short enough to retain interest, but long enough to cover the subject.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Review: Einstein's God Model

Intriguing and chilling independent science-fiction film which asks what happens if you try to reconcile the afterlife with theoretical physics.  The result is something like a blend of Contact and the 1980s low budget sci-fi film, Hardware with perhaps a dash of Sapphire and Steel.

The production is often a bit amateurish and even gimmicky in places - but in a way, that somehow makes it feel more credible as many scientific academic productions (or at least the ones I worked on) have a few basic film making fails.

But it is never boring to watch, and the special effects budget is well used.

Verdict: Thought provoking view.

Review: An American Werewolf in London

It's been several decades since I watched An American Werewolf in London on an ancient black and white portable television perched on fold up chair late one night.  I was too young at the time to appreciate the jokes or the erotica - but I do remember it being a scary suspenseful watch with plenty of jumpy moments. I'd also clearly misremembered a line I could have sworn had been said, "There's nowt here for likes of you".

This time around, Agutter's performance as Jenny stand out. She brings a lot of subtlety and helps ground the film in reality - especially in some of her street based exchanges with Naughton's David.

In amongst the catalogue of moon based songs, there's the occasional moment of comedy to lighten things. But it's blooming weird at times, particularly the dreams and visitations, David starts having afterwards.  Whoever came up with those was a genius as they give credibility to his character's concern that he's going insane.

One of the things that's a staple of werewolf films is the transformation process. At the time, it felt revolutionary - and it still feels like the benchmark against which other films are measured. The actual werewolf is a lumpen looking creature, but obviously actually there in a way that few CGI beasts manage.

Lastly, for a film of this age An American Werewolf in London looks stunning on blu-ray. It's rich in detail and naturalistic looking which, period detail aside, helps contribute to the ageless quality of this film.

Verdict: 80's horror classic.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Review: Yes Man

Carrey is a loans clerk stuck in a self-isolating rut when he's persuaded to attend a motivation conference where the participants have to agree to say Yes to everything.   This results in mostly slightly muted mayhem - with some memorable comic moments e.g. Carrey's serenading of a potential suicide.

It's a good vehicle for Carrey's particular type of physical comedy and personally, I've warmed to him considerably as I've revisited a few of his films over this last year.

The film is notable for one character's prescient obsession with taking selfies using a Polaroid before they became a ubiquitous feature of smartphones.

Add in a gently uplifting life message - good things happen when you say Yes - and a bit of light romance - and I came away from this feeling my 30 pence had been well spent on this DVD.

Verdict: Enjoyable and undemanding rom-com.

Friday, 3 November 2017

Review: The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

The third in the modern Mummy series starring Fraser with Weisz conspicuous in her absence  That's a shame as this entry brings back some originality with the location moving to the Far East to breeze through a bundle of myths and reality include the terracotta army, Shangri-La, and the Yeti.

Weisz aside, this entry is more likeable than the second's near retread of the first. The CGI is a considerable step up from earlier entries. There's some great casting in the form of Calder, Yeoh and Li - who are all a bit underused. Some humour is retained, but not quite enough.  But the motivations of those seeking to raise the main villain are never completely credible.

Verdict: Better than expected.

Review: Mel's Story: Surviving Military Sexual Assault

Doonesbury's trademark style suits this tale of the after effects of coercion and assault in the US military. It's by turns poignant and upsetting as Mel progresses through near complete emotional detachment to redeployment as she is encouraged to reframe her situation.  It is deeply moving when a breakthrough comes as a therapist describes her a wounded soldier.

Moments of dark humour and light wit round out the book's story of recovery. A sprinkling of military jargon and lack of justice adds to the credibility and realism.

I learned a lot of about how shockingly pervasive this experience is in the military as well one or two useful reframing techniques.

Verdict: Deftly-told powerful story

Thursday, 2 November 2017

Review: One Day

This light through-the-ages romcom comes with a surprisingly bitter note.

The leads - Hathaway and Sturgess - have good chemistry and produce charismatic performances, but its fair to say that Hathaway's British accent was somewhat...erm...well travelled in its variability. Still good on her for trying.  Sturgess' character made me wonder whatever did happen to Terry Christian?

The script is often lightly witty and occasionally insightful - but particular nods to the makeup team who managed to make Sturgess convincingly age with the times and the production designers for evoking the spirit of each age so succinctly.

Verdict: Imperfect, but engaging enough.

Review: Godzilla

Darkness and largely grey colour palette frustratingly obscures the monsters in this 2014 creature feature - and hard to say whether that was a deliberate design choice or reflects budgetary restrictions. That's a shame because it makes it difficult to fully appreciate the scale of them and the destruction they cause. And it doesn't really feel like the deal with this movies is being honoured - the original wasn't afraid to show off the monsters - even if the reveal looked a bit cheap.

The exposition when it comes is very welcome as for much of the movie I was left as baffled as some of the characters as to what was going on. I'd paid to see Godzilla (admittedly not very much) and he or she takes their sweet time to make their appearance.

The story and acting is about as bland and predictable as can be. It's not really the fault of the cast, as they are only there to react against largely unseen monsters.  The two hour running time doesn't help its case either.

There are nice little musical steals/riffs from other movies e.g. the use of something like 2001's choral score during a parachute scene is inventive but one monster's roar feels like Jurassic Park's T-Rex uttered it first.

Verdict: Mediocre monster movie.

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The first of the prequel trilogy for Planet of the Apes this is very much a genesis tale which starts out intimate and small scale before becoming an epic action thriller.

Unlike much of the superhero fare though, this is an origin story which we haven't seen before (Spider-man, I'm particularly looking at you) and which is genuinely involving and even poignant as it deals with the loss of innocence, freedom and ape-human connection.

The cast are all good, but Lithgow's sadly credible performance as someone suffering from Alzheimer's stands out.

The CGI is already well refined although as noted in my review for War for the Planet of the Apes - it's a pity the chimpanzees are not as realistic as others such as the mountain gorilla and the orang-utan.

The second and third films in the prequel series are noticeably weaker in comparison as they neither quite manage to achieve the intimacy or scale of set pieces towards the end of this one.

Verdict: Best of the bunch.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Review: The Zen of Muhammad Ali

Sports writing, and boxing in particular, isn't really my thing. But I was attracted to this after hearing a recent Tim Ferriss podcast which featured someone who'd interviewed Muhammad Ali and Ali sounded like a fascinating character so I resolved to read something about him when I got the chance.

This book is a collection of magazine articles and as a result there's some overlap, even repetition of phrasing - and my overall impression is that I gained most insight into the author. But the writing is as times beautiful e.g. on Ali, Miller writes:

"He no longer aches with the ambition and the violence of a young god. 

About a third of the book is devoted to Ali - and the last essay sadly describes a falling out and subsequent distancing between the author and Ali's entourage which leaves a bitter-sweet taste.

The rest of the book is a selection of essays on Sugar Ray Leonard, Bruce Lee (a critique of a drama documentary which serves as framing device for a short biography of Lee's life) as well as the author's own fiction and memoirs. The best of these is a poignant story of an early romantic interest which manages to capture all of the hope and awkwardness that is characteristic of teen love.

I can't say it transformed me into a fan of the sport of Kings but I did gain a new appreciation of the mindset, dedication and beauty of those taking part in it.

Verdict: Not entirely successful experiment (on my part)

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Review: The Right Stuff

During the recent run of space based science-fiction movies a friend recommended The Right Stuff - the dramatised story of how early test pilots became the astronauts of the 60s.

Overall, it's an engaging cast in an involving film, but the running time is a bladder-stretching three hours and I felt a tighter edit could have easily brought that down by at least half an hour without hurting the story.

Certain liberties have been taken, e.g. it wasn't Yeager's first time in the X-1 and nor was it apparently unplanned.  Nor were relationships between the astronauts and the German scientists on the programme anything like as difficult as the film suggests. I guess these and other points fall into dramatic licence although I can well understand why those involved feel aggrieved. 

Apart from some of the iconic scenes e.g. breaking the sound barrier - one thing that stood out for me was the pushiness of the press. Some of those scenes felt uncomfortably claustrophobic. 

The picture quality of the DVD is fairly rough in places. There are extremely high levels of grain with anything involving people set against a darkening sky and some early scenes feel too dark. But that may be a problem with the source material rather than the encode. Still, I cannot complain too much - the DVD was just 25p in the charity shop remainder bin. 

Verdict: Lengthy & good docudrama

Saturday, 28 October 2017

Review: Passengers

Visually spectacular and unusual take on Robinson Crusoe story.  The basic premise, that of a passenger on a long (more than a lifetime) space voyage wakes up from hibernation to find himself alone is a fantastic one - and it could have gone in a number of directions.

The resulting film does hint at some of these. For example, there's sometime spent exploring the deteriorating mental state of the main protagonist, but this is no Castaway - even if it does have a Wilson in the form of Sheen's robobutler). There are also moments of mild horror which suggest the effects of isolation like the Shining.

But in the end, Passengers settles for redemptive love story between the leads, the circumstances of its formation being deeply suspect. It would be more plausible had Pratt's character been allowed to do the legwork.

It's an interesting choice, giving Lawrence top billing as while she is undoubtedly the more well known and better performer, it is mostly Pratt's character's film.

Verdict: Fantastic premise, simpler execution.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Review: Gravity

It's been a few years since I first watched Gravity on the big screen in 3D at the cinema  (or 2.5D as the purists rightly say). It was a breathtaking vertiginous experience and I came out of the cinema awed.

So a few years on, I wondered how it would like in 2D and on our home projector?  I felt it held up pretty well, even stripped of the deep immersion that big screen 3D had provided.

Essentially, it's a single handed Bullock chase movie vehicle despite the attachment of Clooney to the billing (although his role is a valuable one).  It's mostly a physical role for her too, although as a long term fan, it was hard not to be charmed by her dog impressions.

Understandably it's not as immersive as previously, but I still found it incredibly tense at times although having recently mainlined most of Chris Hadfield's ISS videos, the science is rather dodgy at times - and I couldn't fail to remember his anecdote around disrobing after a spacewalk. Apparently after a spacewalk - everything aches, your hair is matted with sweat, you have chafed skin from contact with the inflexible suit and one colleague even had nerve damage.

Verdict: Tense and majestic viewing.

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Review: The Mummy Returns

The second in the Weisz/Fraser helmed turn of the century Mummy series resorts to doing what most action sequels do which is add in more action, more explosions and more SFX.  It's still quite a lot of fun, but not as coherent or humorous as the first.  Nor does it rival any of Indiana Jones movies, in story, fun or action.

Thrilling sequences, like the outpouring of a horde of beetles or the Mummy's restoration,  are often beat for beat lifted from the first film and simply made bigger/quicker and so lose their impact. Another notable borrow comes from Jurassic Park II.

The addition of Boath as the adventuring couple's son proves to be a great choice as he gets many of the best comedic moments (a role Hannah had in the first film). I particularly enjoyed those where he annoys his captors through restless finger tapping and repeatedly asking if they are there yet. By the end, I was beginning to feel the same.

Verdict: Fun, but no Indy.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Review: Star Trek: Discovery - first six episodes

I'm a bit of a late comer to Star Trek: Discovery for several reasons:
  • Outside of the first of the recent films, none of them have quite gelled with me. 
  • Its well documented production troubles were not exactly encouraging
  • Most Trek series have taken at least one, and sometimes several seasons to find their feet - and I just don't have that kind of tolerance for poor TV anymore. 
  • I felt Trek's time was probably past with its utopian exploration of strange new world's message and there's wasn't much left to say. 
  • I was a big fan of the Next Generation, but have only watched a scattering of episodes from the other series. 
But buoyed by encouraging reviews on a forum I occasionally frequent I decided to give it a go.  Star Trek: Discovery turns out to be one of the more interesting TV Trek outings. 

The first couple of episodes are set up and they bring movie like production values to an edgy encounter with some new look Klingons at the frontier of Federation space. So far, so Star Trek.

But hold up, the second in command stages a mutiny and things go rapidly pear-shaped from there. It does not end well for a certain guest star and the ship which doesn't share its name with the title of the show.  They might as well as given them a red shirt. 

The mutineer eventually finds herself on a Black ops science vessel - the Discovery - now charged with giving the Federation an edge in a war they are losing with Klingons. And it's a game changer in more ways than one. It brings brand new technology and a moral ambiguity - particularly in the form of its traumatised yet determined to win at all costs captain.  

As each episode unfolds, the complexity of the situation and wider political dynamics is gradually revealed.  Add in rather more gruesome violence than we're used to - and while this is still Star Trek, it's not Trek as we know it.  It's Trek filtered through the lens of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad and Battlestar Galactica. 

But perhaps it's the Trek we deserve for a post-truth, post-911, post Iraq war world. 

Verdict: Early signs good, Captain

Monday, 23 October 2017

Review: Doctor Who: Phantasmagoria

Even if his name hadn't been attached to this second Big Finish Doctor Who release, it's easy to identify this as a Gatiss tale as it has the usual hallmarks.  Namely, it is a decently executed pastiche which combines elements of the supernatural and period detail while folding in an unremarkable central mcguffin.

In many ways, it feels like a sequel to the Visitation, but the more obvious influence is Talons of Weng Chiang.

Davison's capturing of the fifth Doctor is solid, while Turlough's character has had some of the edges knocked off it. It's a welcome evolution, although Strickson takes a little while to settle back into it.

Verdict: Good second album.

Sunday, 22 October 2017

Review: The Princess Bride

Metafictional fairy-tale oddity which weaves the "author's" knowing commentary on the book's events into its corpus.   The effect makes for disjointed reading, and as it a result it never quite becomes a page turner. But the characters, including places and the author, are memorable and have considerable tongue-in-cheek charm.

Do not skip the introduction on this one. I did and found myself having to flip back once I appreciated the central conceit.

Overall, I'm not sure it's quite as successful as something like Neverending story, but I did enjoy the author's pointed barbs at Hollywood, other authors and their publisher as well as the fairytale story they encompass.

Verdict: Metafictional fun.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Review: Doctor Who: Sirens of Time

The first release of Big Finish's Doctor Who audiobook range, Sirens of Time is a bit of a 90s wish fulfilment fantasy - a multi-Doctor story with the fifth, sixth and seventh incarnation who never managed to meet each other on-screen.

As is normal for multi-Doctor stories, Gallifrey is under threat from some unknown malevolence - and each Doctor has a mini-adventure on their own before coming together for a face off with the big bad.

Each Doctor sounds and acts distinct from the others providing a good showcase for their characters.

Of the separate adventures though, Davison's Doctor probably comes off best with a first World War historical which unusually isn't set in the trenches.  The final episode is a tad confusing with various reveals that don't quite work.

The sound design is already good, but the dialogue and effects is a bit cliched at times. Lastly, a word of warning: there is a pantomime witch character that feels like she's wandered in from an episode of Rentaghost.

Verdict: Early promise.

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Review: War for Planet of the Apes

Part primate road movie, part monkey version of the Great Escape/Spartacus - War for Planet of the Apes is more a few skirmishes than all out war.  But despite not quite living up to the promise of the title, it's still an absorbing if overlong conclusion to the prequel trilogy.

Much of that comes down to the ape performances and accompanying CGI.  In some cases, though notably not the main protagonist, Caesar, the CGI is now so good to be near indistinguishable from the real thing. Maurice, the orang-utan remains particularly impressive and lifelike.  As a result, I think it would be rare person who wasn't rooting for the apes by the end of this movie.  I wasn't a fan of Zahn's Bad Ape though which seemed to be shoehorning in some unnecessary humour.

On the human side, Harrelson's Kurtz like Colonel is unusually and chillingly humourless - and given unexpected depth when his level of personal sacrifice is revealed. Miller's debut is also amazingly good given the restrictions on her character.

A word also to the score, it uses tribal rhythms in a non-cliched manner which occasionally recalls the missus' homeland of Borneo. Some of the key action scenes are otherwise soundless and unusually cut to the music which is as breathtaking as Baby Driver.

My favourite of the trilogy is still the first with its more intimate human-ape relationships and greater distance from the original films.

Verdict: Good Ape End.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Review: An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

Hadfield - the Bowie covering space educator  and commander of the ISS -  turns much of conventional self-help and superhero "wisdom" on its head to talk about what it really takes to be a successful astronaut:

  • Realistic expectations i.e. you might never go into space, and should be OK with that. 
  • Continuous learning
  • Sweating, and enjoying the small stuff
  • Collaboration over competition - and aiming to be an active positive (plus 1) contributor.
  • Anticipating problems and preparing for them. 

The early chapters are also particularly evocative. His descriptions of lift-off and the experience of being in space itself are by turns terrifying, vertigo inducing and extraordinarily and wonderfully uplifting.

I also appreciated how humble Hadfield was and how he'd overcome obstacles like a fear of heights.

Meeting Chris Hadfield

Chris was due to give a keynote at IBM conference on disruption earlier in the week, and since it's a topic relevant to my work, I thought I would go.

As the event got nearer,  I wondered if it might actually be possible to meet him? An email to the organisers wasn't exactly encouraging. Chris was expected to leave immediately after his speech and wouldn't have time to sign anything (but they were also really excited to see him speak). Disappointing, but perhaps not unexpected. Still, and taking a leaf out of Chris' own book, I thought why not prepare for the eventuality in case I happened to meet in him in the corridor?

A day later, I had a hard back copy of his book in my hands, and I picked up and tested the Sharpie I got from Poundland.  Unfortunately, on arriving at the conference I was seated at the back without a great view - but managed to get an aisle seat (an unexpected bonus of the broken ankle).

As his inspiring talk came to an end, I got my book and pen ready - unsure which direction he would leave the stage. As it happened he left on the opposite side to me - and I doubt you have ever seen a man walking so quickly with a crutch as I raced to intercept him.

Chris Hadfield and me
I breathlessly caught up with him, and somehow gasped out, "Chris, Chris would you mind autographing my book?" His minder turned, saw the Darth boot and figured I was probably harmless - while Chris simply said, "Sure, come in here" - and I followed him into the green room.

A quick scribble later (he'd got into the habit of putting the cap on the end of Sharpies to avoid losing it, and it made it easier to handle) - and I was done. I thought I wouldn't chance my arm by asking for a photo as well - but as it turned out, I saw him again on the conference floor and after comparing injuries (he was recovering from a broken hand) and he kindly posed for one.

The missus reckons I look like the cat that got the cream in the photo - and perhaps she was right.  I've always wanted to go into space, and meeting an astronaut as quietly inspiring as Chris might be the closest I'll get.

Verdict: Mission accomplished. 

Wednesday, 11 October 2017

Review: Bladerunner 2049

If you'd asked most fans (including myself) about this movie a year or two ago, the response would likely have been something like this is sequel no-one was expecting or really wanted - especially as the most recent cuts of Blade Runner have only added to the ambiguity about the nature and fate of the principal characters.

But Bladerunner 2049, turns out to be a good pastiche of the original. It even manages to carry the original's flaws and strengths for the most part.  Despite other glowing reviews in this regard, visually it's not as striking as its predecessor. The pace is now bordering on indulgent.  The soundtrack has nice callbacks to Vangelis' - and they remain the standout elements.  The plot is still fairly weak for the running time, although better than the original's.

All of this sounds like I didn't enjoy it very much, but I did.  The deftness of re-exploring and updating the old themes on the nature of what it means to be human, and unboxing/reboxing regarding the nature of individual characters while maintaining the mystery was very welcome.

Thematically, I felt it could have gone further on whether self-determination really exists as Homo Deus debates, or the moral implications of AI as per Superintelligence.

There is a CGI human which is another step forward (from Rogue One's Cushing & Fisher) in terms of climbing out of the uncanny valley - and my view, it is about 95% of the way there. The eye mapping feels slightly off, but this technology is rapidly advancing to the point where you can criticise the acting rather than the CGI.

Overall, it  does a similar job as The Force Awakens in that it revisits/renews/reimagines old themes as well as providing a decent sequel or even a jumping off point for further extending the franchise.

Verdict: Effective updating of classic.

Sunday, 8 October 2017

Review: K-Pax

Effective sci-fi comedy drama with Bridges as the doctor and Spacey as the patient who may or may not be an alien called Prot from the planet K-Pax.

The film works best when it becomes a two-hander between Bridges bemused psychiatrist and Spacey's enigmatic alien (or not) as they have great chemistry.

The only wonder is where all of the money ($68m) went as for sure it is not on screen.

Verdict: Decent idea, well-executed.