Posts Tagged books and movies

#18: Media Blitz

I figured with all these resolutions that require a ton of work, I should consider ones that I might be almost already on the path to completion, that just need a little nudge in order to be useful self-improvements.  One such resolution is consuming media that I have intended to consume but haven’t – either because I have been lazy or I haven’t had time.  I figure I’ll make a list of all the movies and books I really feel I should watch or read, and then, you know, do that as opposed to reading/watching random other stuff.

Conservation of time is important here – right now, I read a ton and I also watch a considerable number of movies.  For this resolution to work, I need to not be shirking my other responsibilities (which I am sometimes wont to do) because I am absorbed by too much to read or watch.  In addition, I really like writing reviews that my friends can use to judge the merit of a work before they have to go out and purchase/borrow it, so I think I’ll include that in the resolution.  I don’t think adding in television shows or games is a good idea because (a) games and TV series take a huge amount of time and attention compared to books and movies, and (b) I don’t have as long or as relevant a list for those media.  (Although I am considering spending a portion of my winter break getting into video games I never played but should have!)

18. I resolve to make a list of books and movies I haven’t consumed but really should, and then I will read/watch them and write some number of reviews on those works.

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“An Epic Time Travel Romp,” says NY Times

Wednesday, November 3, 2010
Describe the plot of the next book you want to read, even if the book doesn’t exist yet.

I have actually been noodling with the following plot for a while, although I originally envisioned it in movie form.  Could be both!  Of course, those of you know who me or who have been reading along know I’m a sucker for a time travel story.  So that is of course the crux of the book I imagine: the protagonist is a time traveler.  The twist is, he (in my imagination, it’s me) doesn’t start the story that way!

I see the plot spanning two parts.  The first is where our hero is still mild-mannered, and finds himself descending quickly into a conspiracy plot but doesn’t know why, a la a Dan Brown novel, or maybe like, one of the Bourne series.  Extremely odd and improbable things happen around him, and he and his allies narrowly escape danger in situations where all of the dramatic build-up indicates it shouldn’t work that way.  Ideally, this phase of the book would be most akin to a mystery/thriller.

The second part begins with our hero capable of time travel.  I haven’t worked out *why* he begins to time travel – I imagine that at least part of the mystery of the first part is mundane/actual conspiracy in nature, and the culmination of that part of the action is heroic transformation into time traveler.  Perhaps it’s like a video game where there’s miniboss (local conspiracy) before big-boss (time traveling conspiracy).  The action in the second half of the book would be explaining what happened and taking on a sci fi/fantasy bent as the hero allies with past-himself (unknowingly) to take on the greater threat and explores the limits of his newfound powers.  Maybe even superhero-esque plot, at this point.

Anyway, that’s the book I’d like to read next.  Maybe I’ll have to write it myself.

p.s. spoilers

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Review: The Social Network

I’m not sure if I liked the Social Network.  Well, let me rephrase – I definitely enjoyed watching the Social Network.  What I wonder is whether I think it is a good movie.  It is so far (generally) from the kind of movie I watch, that I am really only finding two reference points: Garden State and Fight Club, both excellent films that I also really liked.  The reason I picked those two is because the central conceit of the movie is watching main characters change through everyday (or sometimes extraordinary, but still believable) action, without other genres mixing in too heavily.  Garden State (which mixes with romantic comedy) and Fight Club (which mixes with action) are both within that space, but the Social Network is still different enough that I’m having a hard time evaluating it properly.

Things I do know about the Social Network:

  • The dialogue was totally awesome and well performed.  Every actor in this movie did an excellent job.
  • The pacing and flow of the action was perfect.  I was never bored, I was interested in what was having due to and to the characters, and the plot made sense.
  • It felt a little rushed near the end, like too many threads woven together meant the plot had to accelerate to close them all off.
  • Most of the characters were heavily flawed, which contributed greatly to the film’s sense of realism, and yet I still identified with them (indicating I share their flaws, or I still found value in them).

I think I would want to watch it again in the comfort of my own home, and I certainly wouldn’t fault anyone for doing that rather than watching it in a big screen theater.  I wonder how much of the plot was true to fact, but honestly, I think it’s the right level of realism regardless of how factual is actually is.

Overall: B+ (pending second watch)
Number of FB Users Acquired Per Movie Minute (average): ~8,300
Times I Wanted To Punch Zuckerberg’s Character: ~6

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Review: Small Gods

Now, I am no particular Terry Pratchett fan.  (Wow, he is famous enough that I got a spelling auto-correct for his last name!)  I had only read Night Watch previously, because it was on a bookshelf and I was in need of a book.  That one was alright, nothing special, and I didn’t really understand why so many people – especially my roommate Sam – thought Pratchett’s Discworld books were so amazing.  But Sam, rational thinker and arguer that he is, convinced me to read Small Gods, holding it up as a better (maybe the best) example of Pratchett’s work in a single book.

I love it.  Small Gods is wonderfully irreverent, while at the same time saying so much more about faith, religion and spirituality than many other texts designed for that purpose ever do.  The characters are compelling, the integration of the story with the details of the world is excellent (and Pratchett’s world is quite impressive, and so it is even more impressive that it doesn’t overshadow the story), and it’s got quite a few laugh-out-loud funny moments.  Before Small Gods, I was dubious at the prospect of “humorous fantasy,” which is the genre I have always thought of Pratchett belonging to, but now I am a believer.

I’m not sure that Small Gods made me want to read the rest of the Discworld books, so well-contained was its story, but it does leave the seed of interest in my mind where before they was disapproval.  So that must also be seen as a success.  I would definitely recommend Small Gods to anyone who is interested in fantasy and likes stories that make them think.

Overall: A
Balance of Philosophy and Fantasy: A+

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Review: Preacher

I recently reread the graphic novel series Preacher, and I still think it’s pretty incredible. Preacher is the story of a preacher (durr), Jesse, who has lost his faith… right around the time a being of unimaginable power, Genesis, inhabits him.  Genesis grants him the power of the Word of God – when he wants to, he speaks and anyone who hears him must obey.  The story of the series is how Jesse hunts down God to confront him about a number of things, but mostly to demand answers about why God lets the world be so shitty.  The story is very compelling, and the characters have a lot to identify with.  The first part of the second compilation is just dynamite – it’s like a 33 Minutes from Battlestar Galactica, or a Faraday Cage from Anathem.

It has flaws: a lot of the pacing doesn’t work for me, because there are long sections of people talking in a diner, for example, rather than resolving those issues (the ones in the conversations had) through the action or arc of the plot.  That’s not to say that some resolution works that way — and when it does, it is spectacular.  Preacher has some scenes, and some panels, that are among the most visually engaging, viscerally gripping, and disturbing/terrifying/beautiful things I have ever read.

Preacher asks for a bit of faith – unironically – and suspension of disbelief, and the progression through the plot is a little shaky, but the series as a whole is unforgettable and has a lot of good stuff in it.  It captured a large chunk of my friends our Junior year of college, and is nothing if not epic in its scale and scope.  I’d recommend it if (a) you don’t take religion too seriously, (b) you appreciate a high-minded story that has its fair share of low-brow humor, and (c) you aren’t squeamish.

Overall: B+
Jesse’s Word of God Recommendation: Two thumbs up.
Balance of “Big Issues” with hilarity: Good

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Review: Way of Kings

To kick off review month, I’ll talk about a book I read during the course of last month and really loved, but couldn’t talk about (because I was too busy praising my wonderful friends!) –Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson.  Funny story: I was on the plane on my way to Amsterdam, delayed, when I decided to browse for books on my iPad to read on the flight.  It turned out that very day Way of Kings was released, and since I really enjoy Sanderson’s fantasy novels, I picked it up.

Way of Kings is a fantasy epic, first in a series – you are probably familiar with this style of book from Wheel of Time, Song of Ice and Fire or even Harry Potter (kind of).  Sanderson is an amazing world builder; Kelly, Laura, Nik, Rebecca and I joke that he actually is just creating role playing game systems and the novel(s) are secondary.  There were three major things from Way of Kings that I found sweet, that tie together well and are the reasons I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys epic fantasy: the development of the world across the novel, the “magic” in the world and the descent into fantasy.

Sanderson does a really good job of pacing the reader’s view into his world as the story progresses.  Some of this is flashback, some is alternate character perspective, but primarily it is his excellent show-don’t-tell style that increases your understanding of the nature of his fantasy world as you learn more about what’s going on with the characters and plot.  As he is doing this, it shifts slowly but surely from what you might consider “swords and sorcery” fantasy into something more more complex and deep: a kind of magic rooted in how the world’s history evolved, and kind of a “hide in plain sight” model where the obvious magic obscures the rarer and more secret “actual magic.”

Add to this a really neat way in which Sanderson moves you from the stuff is identifiable fantasy tropes (soldiers, knights on horses, magic swords) into stuff that is wholely his own (regular mystical storms, crablike beasts of burden, visible spirits that represent emotion) and you have a recipe for an excellent book – and hopefully an excellent series!  Really my only complaint is that I can’t afford to be waiting for another series to come out with its next book! 😛

Overall: A
Engrossment Level with World, Story, Characters: B+
Sanderson Factor for “Roleplayingsystemability”: A+

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Rachel Bjornson

Rachel’s the smart, witty, pretty, hilarious and excellent project manager with Magic Online – okay, well, those descriptors apply to more than one project manager I work with, but still, they apply quite well to Rachel! She’s probably is the most in-tune with social media of my friends, with the exception of those whose job actually *is* social media, and a significant part of that seems to be making friends and acquaintances aware of awesome stuff happening here in Seattle (just as other friend Keridwyn does – and they are like an uber-combo together!) I really enjoy knowing that if I have the urge to find someplace new, Rachel will be happy to provide recommendations.

Rachel’s also a fine food nut, and connoisseur of simple, beautiful things in life – a stark contrast with her get-it-done work-work-work attitude I see on the job! I have few friends who are as into “work hard, play hard” as Rachel is, and it’s inspiring. Because of this, she and I don’t have too much time outside of work to hang out, but the occasional social outing, party or even just minutes at work chatting have delivered unto me a bonanza of recommendations for restaurants, books and movies. I’ve tried to repay the favor by teaching her to crush at Magic, but the jaws of no-free-time snapped down tight and we haven’t had a training session in a while.

Rachel is definitely one of my friends who loves life the most, and it’s really great to see that and be motivated to do the same, because I often get bogged down in details and need to see it from a different perspective. If she didn’t work so hard all the time, maybe we could hang out more! (Yes, Rachel, I’m talking to you! ;))

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Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

You should watch Scott Pilgrim.  I knew nothing about it before about a month ago (maybe two?) when Mark Rosewater told me at work that he was hugely looking forward to this movie.  I have enjoyed a number of graphic novels (Preacher, Watchmen, Sandman) and I trust Mark’s opinion on worthiness of comics, so I started getting interested in this movie.  After seeing it, I am shocked that such a wonderful, playful movie was ever greenlit for a mass audience, but boy am I glad it was!

I saw a short clip with the film’s director in some sort of trailer capacity where he commented, “In musicals, when the emotion becomes too strong, people break out in song.  In Scott Pilgrim, they break out into fights.”  What an excellent way to describe the movie!  It was very analogous to a musical in how the fights developed particular aspects of the characters, and indeed, there was a “fight number” quite frequently.  In addition, the whole movie is laced with gamer culture-isms which are quite brilliant and especially laser-targeted to my generation and peer group.

Like all Michael Cera movies, he basically plays the same character, but I felt there was a bit more depth of relationship among “lovebirds” in this movie compared to some of his others (Nick and Norah, Juno), which I definitely appreciated.  It was also quite surreal, but deftly so – as Lee mentioned, you accept the suspension of disbelief at the beginning and the rest is quite elegant.

I am going to buy it on DVD, for sure.  I’m not sure if I will watch it again in the movie theater, but if you (a) have a game sound as a ringtone, or (b) fondly remember your Nintendo systems, or (c) are willing to poke fun at hipsters and/or gamers, and want a beautiful action-comedy, this is the movie for you!

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The Power of an Idea

Taking a short break from game design because I’ve been thinking more about the movie Inception.  My parents really disliked the movie (whereas most of my friends I have talked to, and my sister, liked it) and I began to wonder what aspects of the movie have “staying power” to them.  You see, I’ve found that in general, I will like a wide range of movies that do cutesy action or have neat concepts or good acting, but in general it is a synthesis of all of these in service to some core kernel – an idea or a theme – that I will most strongly identify with.

Here’s a link to my Inception review the day after I saw it the first time.  Since then, I have seen it twice more and I still think it’s great.  I identified the theme as “if a thing (experience, idea, person, etc.) has meaning to you (or possibly, to someone), it is real.”  Here are the components of the movie that I think did an excellent job of accenting that theme:

  • The acting was (in my opinion) good not because of any particular performance (although all three of DiCaprio, Cotillard and Page have wonderful moments of performance) but because the whole ensemble of acting reinforces the dreamlike theme of the movie.  It’s not about what each actor brings to their character, but what is carefully left out to distill each character to an ideal.
  • The ending, in essence, asks the audience two questions: one overt about dreams and reality, and one subtle about meaning and purpose.   That the movie asks the *audience* the second question is a beautiful reinforcement of the theme.
  • The repetition of ideas (reflecting the plot) and the focus on specific moments (reflecting the tone) both combined to make a very odd experience that was at once visceral and intellectual.  The kind of thing that really moves you and then later, as you ponder the logic of it, you think to yourself, how did that move me?   Like a dream.

Inception may be the best constructed movie I’ve seen, if only because it captures its flaws (which, like all things, it of course has) inside its purpose.  That is its beauty, to me, and the power of its idea.

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The Bechdel Test

I didn’t realize this, but I found it very interesting: there exists a test for media that is a rather compelling look at the inequality of gender in said media.  It’s called the Bechdel Test, and it is beautifully elegant:

To pass the test, there must be:

  1. Two females who
  2. Talk to each other about
  3. Something other than a male.

It was surprising to me how many movies and books fail this test.  I suppose that means that (a) I am naive about my notions of equality being shared among my fellow humans, and/or (b) I have a much stronger bias in this field than I thought I did.  I do strive to see every person, male or female, black or hispanic or white (etc.), as equal, but I do know that I have subconscious biases due to my upbringing (I just didn’t know many “persons of color” and I live in a male-centric world) that I try to correct for.  One great point made by someone on the site was not that this test is a case for a movie aligning with feminist ideas or such, but rather that if you reversed the genders (two men who talk to each other about something other than a female) it would be much less common for a movie to fail.  Another point made to me recently was that the pressure for a male protagonist in our society means more media will fail (because by their very nature, stories are about the protagonist)… but that’s part of the point in terms of audience shaping content.

There’s another test, the so-called Johnson Test, that replaces “female” with “person of color” and “male” with “white.”  It’s interesting that although mainstream media fails this test even worse, there are a large number of media in what I’ll call more specialized sections (the author of the test mentions “urban lit” as such a category) that pass it easily.  Definitely an argument for the importance of context.

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