Saturday, March 19, 2005

World of Warcraft (computer game)

[ computer game ]

World of Warcraft
My rating: 4.8

My comments may come later. For now I agree with this NPR review of the game. I knock off .2 from my rating due to some minor technical faults with the game (overloaded servers; guild creation failures).

Blizzard continues to refine the game and releases patches to fix technical issues - they are a reliable developer. Sales of WoW recently topped 1.5 million copies world wide.

I bought this game the first week it was out, in Nov 2004, and it's a blast to play.

Despite some of the minor tech issues, I highly recommend this game if you can afford the time and subscription fee. This is the first MMORPG I've ever played.

I've recently created a Guild in the game, where I chronicle my adventures and post hints for other players.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Butterfly Effect (film; 2004)

[ movie film ]

The Butterfly Effect (2004; director's cut DVD)
My rating: 4.6

Note: I watched the "director's cut" version on DVD, which is different than the version released in theaters. I have not seen the theatrical release which is also on the same DVD.

For some reason my recollection of reviews for this film were rather negative, so I began watching this science fiction fantasy with trepidation and low expectations.

Therefore I was amazingly pleased at how well done this time travel fantasy becomes.

This story begins with long development sequences of glimpses from a boy's life into his early teen years. We see a series of events, most with his school friends, where he blacks out, unable to recall what has happened. Every blackout occurs during some tragic episode - we miss what exactly happens as we share his blackout viewpoint. His single mother desperately has him examined by doctors, to no avail. One of his therapists suggests he start writing journals to try and discover the source of his problems.

Eventually we jump forward to the young man in college, it has been several years without any more black outs, he is a bright and successful student. He still writes in his journals as a habit. As circumstances evolve in his student life, he starts reading some past journal entries and begins to have profoundly vivid flashbacks to the blackout events. Only this time he sees what happens when he was blacked out. These disturbing "trips" back to his past cause him to seek out his past school mates, to try and verify what he is seeing, or is he hallucinating. One of these visits to a girl he may have loved causes the woman to commit suicide, which crushes him totally.

In a wild, desperate guess he uses his journal to "trip" back to one of his blackouts and he discovers his mind has traveled back in time to possess his child's body, and he can change his and others futures. His first "fix" saves the woman from suicide, but ...

And that's the beginning of his wild ride through time as he tries to correct the unintended consequences of each of his "fixes" to improve the lives of those he loves.

The means of his time travel are never explained, being a "supernatural" phenomena, although his brain appears to be evolving with each trip, revealed by brain scans.

There are some nasty surprises, for himself and others, as he continues to try to "fix" the alternate outcomes of his time travel tampering with their past lives.

While the story has evidence that the final outcome would not have to be as tragic as it becomes, this tale decides to tell a very depressing end (with a bizarre conclusion) for the time traveler.

This tale is exceptionally well plotted, highly consistent within the scope of the story. The director's narration track (on DVD) is worth listening to, as the pair of writer/directors tell us how they brought this film to production. Listen after you've seen the film.

Really good science fiction cinema is a rarity, and this is certainly one of the better efforts that doesn't treat it's audience as if you're drooling idiots - you have to watch and think about what you are seeing. With very sparse special effects, they create a gripping and escalating thriller with an ensemble set of child and adult characters you can authentically care about. Performances by all the players is very good. They do an excellent job of matching the child versions to their adult counterparts.

The film takes it's time to set up the plot and characters, which pays off for the whole film.

If you like serious, adult science fiction speculation this is one of the best.

Very well done. Be sure to see the "director's cut".

Matchstick Men (film; 2003)

[ movie film ]

Matchstick Men (2003)
My rating: 4.3

This is a good character sketch of a career con man (Nicholas Cage) who constantly battles various behavioral neurosis (compulsive cleaning disorder) while taking on a new major scam with his partner, and discovering the tribulations of finding his 14 year old daughter from a failed marriage years before.

All this is effectively draped over a massive reverse con that you eventually see coming but is still fun watching the development.

This is not an overt comedy, but has numerous moments of humor.

Very good performances by all involved, especially the 14 year old daughter played by 22 year old Alison Lohman - she's completely convincing as a 14 year old.

The DVD has a nice documentary about the "making of" Matchstick Men.

This one is worth your time, even if it's not totally original in execution. Very enjoyable.

Ripley's Game (film; 2002)

[ movie film ]

Ripley's Game (2002)
My rating: 5.0

This great psychological crime thriller returns to the character, Tom Ripley, some 20 years later in his life. Ripley previously appeared in The Talented Mr. Ripley

Ripley is played by the brilliant John Malkovich, and he "owns" this character as much as Anthony Hopkins "owned" Hannibal Lector in Silence of the Lambs / Red Dragon.

Apparently Ripley's Game never had a theatrical release in America, which is a great injustice to audiences. Get it now on DVD.

I consider this even better than the first Ripley film, and Malkovich triumphs creating the chilling character of the gentleman sociopath, Tom Ripley.

Game begins in a refreshing manner by concentrating, not on Ripley, but on a British picture framer living in Italy, dying of leukemia. His country neighbor is Tom Ripley.

The Brit soon finds out how dangerous life can become when he slights Tom Ripley at the framer's birthday party. In classic sociopathic manner Ripley does not immediately visit his vengeance on his victim, but casually waits for the perfect opportunity.

The story and characters escalate into greater territory when Ripley's vengeance begins, but in a totally unexpected form.

What might be a greater torture to a moral family man who desperately needs to secure his wife and child's future, after his death? This becomes Ripley's game that eventually leads the Brit and Ripley to become allies in survival, as the various threads of this story collide and collapse despite Ripley's careful planning.

Imagine if Hitchcock had chosen a sociopath as his hero, rather than the proto-typical middle class innocent, and you have an idea of the quality and flavor of Game. I kept thinking, "this is just how Hitchcock would make this film!"

Dougray Scott is magnificent as the Brit picture framer whose moral compass is twisted by his terminal circumstances and vengeance of Tom Ripley.

The last 3rd of this film has some great dialog between Ripley and his Brit victim, as they ally to survive serious mistakes that come to threaten them both. You learn the depth of Ripley's sociopathy, that makes him one of the great evil personalities in film.

This tale does not have a happy ending, but don't let that cause you to miss this superb thriller.

If you like the best of Hitchcock, this matches that master's talents.

Do not miss this Game!

13 Going On 30 (film; 2004)

[ movie film ]

13 Going On 30 (2004)
My rating: 1.5

This was barely interesting when Tom Hanks did the male version in Big in 1988.

Plagiarize the idea and plug in a girl / woman and you get this string of pap cliches, when a 13 year old girl wishes herself into her 30 year old future.

Another half point boost for the Jennifer Garner hot babe factor.

Everyone and everthing is a waste in this lame, latter day Big.

Skip it.

The Harmonizer by A. E. van Vogt

[ prose science fiction ]

The Harmonizer (1944)
by A. E. van Vogt
My rating: 1.5

Yet another plot outline, or note, that sold as a short story that should have been used in some longer work.

I give it a half point just for the idea of an alien plant that can pacify worlds.

I blame editors even more than authors for getting this kind of stuff published. Using a popular author name to sell a magazine is a real betrayal of readers, when the work is insubstantial and weak.

I read this one in the van Vogt anthology, Away and Beyond (1952).

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

The Great Judge and Him by A. E. van Vogt

[ prose science fiction ]

The Great Judge (1948)
Him (1968)
by A. E. van Vogt
My rating: 1.0

I read Him, first, from the van Vogt paperback anthology, More Than Superhuman (1971); then The Great Judge from anthology Away and Beyond (1952).

Him is a rewrite of The Great Judge.

Sadly, neither of these short-short stories is worthwhile. They are gimmick tales about defeating a despotic dictator by means of memory transfer.

van Vogt changed all the character names, and changed the means of memory transfer but they are both weak and insubstantial.

The unfortunate truth is that editors will publish garbage by established authors because the name will sell a copy of the magazine. I've run into this too often with other "big name" SF authors. They seem to occur for short stories that should never have found a market, and those shorts are rarely better than story outlines, or character sketches, for what should be longer, fleshed out novels.

Spartan (film; 2004)

[ movie film ]

Spartan ( 2004)
My rating: 5 {++!!}

This is one of the best political thrillers to rank along side The Manchurian Candidate and Day of the Jackal (the originals, not the remakes).

When David Mamet gets his steam up there are few writers who can best him. His dialog is often stylized, crisp and dazzling - there is never a wasted word in a Mamet script. And he's an awesome director as well.

While the story unfolds in seemingly predictable ways, Mamet never telegraphs his plot, making this a fresh variation on a standard theme. The beginning is great as you are not certain why this young girl, who has disappeared, deserves such attention from government black ops personalities, although your best guess turns out to be true.

Mamet creates a suspenseful rescue procedural with nice twists and turns, especially when the twists take you into a perverse conspiracy that would abandon the girl to her captors for political gain. At which point our special forces, black ops hero has to decide to do what's right and work against his immediate superiors who have been duped by THEIR superiors.

This is one of Val Kilmer's best roles, creating a taciturn black ops agent who can't afford to care about anyone, even those he's sent to rescue. He pays a high personal price for his skills and missions.

I certainly hope Mamet returns to this character, as he leaves the hero "out in the cold", setting up another opportunity for the agent to engage in another story - and you WANT to see another story with this hero.

Pay attention to this film, it will grab you and reward you for your time. I went back to certain scenes on the DVD to make sure I'd seen the clues, which was as much fun as watching it whole.

Mamet demonstrates that a great, suspenseful film can be made on a modest buget, getting great performances from all his talent, lead and supporting cast.

The only missing "goodie" from the DVD is NO commentary track by Mamet; and you want to hear Mamet tell you about writing and making this film. The audio commentary track is by Kilmer, and amazingly not that interesting.

Do NOT miss this one !!!


Twisted (film; 2004)

[ movie film ]

Twisted (2004)
My rating: 1.0 {--!!} (read my Rating message)

OK, this one is WORSE than Taking Lives. Merely a string of boring, endless, serial killer cliches hacked together, in a script unworthy of any novice writer.

Clearly the worthy, talented actors in front of the camera did this crap for the paycheck - they didn't do it to enhance their prestige, or entertain an audience.

Even more shocking is the director, Philip Kaufman, who helmed the great film, The Right Stuff (1983). He should personally apologize to everyone who PAID to see this nonsense.

And, no - more extended, nude sex scenes with Ashley Judd would NOT get a higher rating from me. Hot, nude babes only compensate so much, and no further - the classic proof of this is the intolerable Mulholland Dr. (2001) which featured some explicit, intense lesbian action between major babes, Naomi Watts and Luara Harring. NOTHING can help the confused MESS of Mulholland Dr. - I prefer David Lynch when he's on some meds, any meds.


Taking Lives (film; 2004)

[ movie film ]

Taking Lives (2004)
My rating: 1.5

Yet another attempt at a "poor man's" Silence of the Lambs horror/thriller.

While the beginning is a prologue of the young serial killer (the only interesting portion of the film), it soon deteriorates into a blah "profiler" procedural with an uninteresting protagonist/investigator. Red herrings pop out of the dark at appropriately timed intervals.

There are so few supporting roles in this one, it becomes rather easy to pick out "who's it" just due to the lack of suspects. And the major red herring sequence is so inept, it only reinforces who you thought is "it."

The developing "romance" between the leads is completely unconvincing, and yet another cliche clue as to "who's it".

There is a clever twist that ultimately traps the serial killer, as the closing sequence; but that doesn't redeem this lame serial slasher movie.

My rating is high for the twist trap at the end and the extended nude sex scenes by Jolie (hey, I'm a guy), in the "unrated" director's cut DVD. But none of that is worth your time for this weak excuse for a thriller.

If you're wondering, I get all my DVD movie entertainment through a government welfare program - They get all the major movie titles on DVD. Why should I rent when you buy my popular entertainment? I just wait a year for the titles to come out on DVD.


Secret Unattainable by A. E. van Vogt

[ prose science fiction ]

Secret Unattainable by A. E. van Vogt (1942, 1952)
My rating: 3.8

van Vogt was one of the staple writers of the Golden Age of Science Fiction, in that period 1938 to the late 1950's when John Campbell, Jr was editor of Astounding Science Fiction (now Analog ; Campbell died in 1971, still editor of Analog). In today's era of mass market multi-media franchised science fiction (e.g., Star Trek), van Vogt is mostly unknown and long out of print. For a period of about 15 years van Vogt became dormant with his SF writing, coming back into the market about 1964 through the 1970's. van Vogt died in 2000.

I read this novella from the van Vogt anthology Away and Beyond (1952), an Avon paperback my father bought before I was born.

[July 21, 2009] Also in the 2003 NESFA Press van Vogt anthology, Transfinite.

Secret Unattainable is above average and survives the ravages of time, since it was published in 1942. I suspect van Vogt tweaked the dates in the story, for the anthology, since he correctly cites the end of the war in 1945 with the Russians occupying Berlin.

Secret Unattainable poses as a series of secret documents about the development of a Nazi super weapon in the years and months before Hitler decides to expand his conquest of Europe.

The SF device is nothing spectacular, basically being a portal through space-time that the Nazi's hope to use to harvest resources (oil, metal) for their conquest, and later to deliver their forces to points on the Earth.

A spectacular accident with the model machine reveal how it might become a weapon, as well as a doorway.

What raises the story above average is the paranoia that develops among the Gestapo and Himmler, since they suspect the machine's inventor may have a personal grudge against the Nazis who killed his brother in 1934 (was that Krystalnacht?), and might use the machine against the Fatherland. But he is the only person who understands the underlying science that makes the machine work, so the Gestapo has to use kid gloves while the machine is in development. The "documents" also suggest that Hitler decides to expand his occupation of Europe on the premature success of the test machine, in spite of the spectacular accident. The "documents" begin in 1937.

The final twist of the story is a very Campbell induced theme and speculation - that certain technologies may be dependent not only on the accurate science but the unique operator of that technology. The classic example of this is the weapon of the bow - in the hands of a skilled operator the bow performs differently than in the hands of a novice.

This story plays well with the paranoid concepts that there are post-war secret technologies now being suppressed by our (US) government.

It's fun and worth your read, if you can ever find it.

For useful author bibliographies look around Locus Mag Online.


Monday, March 07, 2005


UPDATE: from 2007 I'll be using the rating scale, 1 to 10, 1 being the worst.

I'll use these ratings for my commentaries ...

5 - superior
4 - above average
3- average, adequate
2 - below average
1 - poor

with perhaps a modifier like ...

{++!!} a wow! factor

{--!!} a yuck factor