corollary: Movies

Thursday, 11 January 2007

Happy Feet

Listening to:

Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet suite.

A recent movie:

Happy Feet. This is an animated film billed as being from the “same people” as did Shrek 2 and Babe. Happy Feet is all about an emperor penguin who can’t sing, and so won’t ever be able to attract a mate. (Apparently, there is some basis to this factoid, and it’s a cute idea to base a plot on, even if it isn’t true.) Instead, this penguin can tap-dance. So, I fully expected this to be a typical story about the outcast managing to show up the forces of conventional, hide-bound thinking, and to end up with the girl after all. (Needless to say, the hero penguin is a male one. Tap-Dancer is voiced by Elijah Wood/Frodo.)

But no. Sure, it works its way through a pretty standard story-line to start with: in exile, Tap-Dancer finds friends, comfort and comic relief among another species of penguins, who are all a deal hipper than the emperor penguins left behind. But then the last third to a quarter of the firm shifts focus pretty dramatically. We hear all about how the humans are eating all the penguins’ fish, and we get a very heavy-handed message about conservation.

If not actually a paid-up member of Greenpeace, I’m quite convinced that fishing is an industry way out of control, and that humanity does need to rein it in. (Even out of self-interest: if the fish-stocks are seriously depleted now, which is where they’re headed, then the fisheries may take generations to recover.) But it really does not work in this film. It’s positively jarring. Indeed, there is a very spooky series of scenes set in an aquarium that feel totally out of place. And you get a happy ending, but it feels completely unbelievable. Great political message (even if its handed out with zero subtlety), but not such a great film (early successful comedy notwithstanding). It does also feature some good songs.

Sunday, 31 December 2006

The Prestige

Listening to:

Beethoven, six variations on the duet Nel cor piu non mi sento from Paisiello’s opera La molinara in G major. Played by Mikhail Pletnev.

A recent movie:

The prestige. (IMDB information) This is a very entertaining movie, with a an intensity to it that kept me quite enthralled. It’s slightly creepy, and full of clever detail. The person I saw it with and I both spotted a forthcoming “twist” that we thought was obvious—but we spotted different twists. This was certainly one of those movies that repaid discussion over coffee afterwards, though it is not at all deep. Rather, it is an intelligently constructed entertainment, well-acted and with a clever plot.

And that’s it for 2006.

Monday, 2 August 2004

Three animations

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in E flat major, op. 127. Played by the Kodaly Quartet, on Naxos.

Some recent movies:

Spirited away

This is a Japanese movie by Hayao Miyazaki. It’s a children’s film: the plot is mainly about a young girl who has to rescue her parents when they are turned into pigs, and there is not a great deal of nuance in the moral themes that are presented (greed and pollution are bad). To an adult Spirited away’s appeal comes from the absolutely amazing vividness of its images. There’s a relatively straightforward beauty in much of the film, but there are also images that are astounding because they are so surreal, and so appealing. Nor is this simply cuteness, which might quickly pall. Rather, the film presents images like the mysterious, translucent figure whose face is a little like a Noh mask; the multi-armed tender of a furnace, whose pieces of coal run around on little legs of their own; the witch who runs a bath-house catering to various deities and who dotes on her huge and spoilt baby; and a train journey across an empty and strangely beautiful world dominated by an endless ocean.

It got the 2002 Oscar for “Best Animated Feature Film”, and it definitely deserved it.

The triplets of Belleville

This was one of the nominees for the 2003 Oscar, and I’m not sure it deserved to be beaten by Finding Nemo either. This one is mainly in French, but doesn’t even bother with subtitles (unlike Spirited away), because there is very little dialogue. The plot is transparent and easy to follow at a purely visual level. It features a feisty grandmother who has to rescue her cyclist grandson, who has been kidnapped by gangsters to play rather an awful role in a nefarious gambling operation. The grandmother has a dog sidekick, and links up with the triplets of the title when she arrives in Belleville (a thinly disguised New York).

This animation features some pretty cool imagery, and is also quite humorous. The incidental depiction of the people of Belleville (i.e., Americans) as fat and stupid seems unnecessary bigotry, but the film is otherwise full of a charming zaniness if not absolute mouth-dropping weirdness in a few places. Without dialogue, The triplets of Belleville is more simplistic than Spirited away, but probably prompted more laughs. It also has a great title song (sung by the triplets), and some effective snatches of Mozart too. The climax is a little overlong, but it’s still an appealing film. As the film starts you even get to see some mysterious equations. (It turns out they’re Einstein’s.)

Shrek 2

I saw this recently, and went in expecting great things. I’d enjoyed the first installment, and had read a variety of gushing reviews. Sadly I was a little disappointed: it seemed pretty patchy. It took too long to get going (why did they do the donkey as child in the back-seat joke to death so comprehensively?), and the early scenes of marital discord felt like they were from some other movie, one that was taking itself far too seriously. (The animation of the facial expressions in these scenes really didn’t seem up to it.) Being patchy did mean that there were lots of good bits. I particularly liked most of what Puss-in-boots had to say and do, and laughed lots when Pinocchio got to rescue Shrek, exploiting his puppet-nature, and doing it all to some wonderfully apt music. There were lots of “nudge-nudge-wink-wink” references to a variety of other films (including the rescue scene above); some were amusing, others seemed to just be showing off.

Patchy, but very entertaining.

Friday, 2 April 2004

House of sand and fog; online game trading

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet, Op. 131 in C sharp minor. Played by the Quartetto Italiano.

A recent movie:

House of sand and fog. Starring Ben Kingsley and Jennifer Connelly, this is an impressive tragedy, featuring great performances by the actors (Ben Kingsley definitely deserved that Oscar nomination), some stunning cinematography, and an edge-of-the-seat plot. This is a tragedy where disaster ensues because of personal intransigence and stupidity. My view is that the film is a study of stupidity clashing with ambition.

The film opens with a brief shot that we later realise is a flash-forward to the very end of the film. It doesn’t give anything away, and the rest of the film’s story plays out with a straightforward sequential chronology. There are no gimmicks; just the story of four or five people in a terrible spiral towards doom. And though the characters have their flaws, they are also pretty sympathetic on the whole, which makes the “doom spiral” all that more compelling. Highly recommended.

A couple of links on trading in online games:

Saturday, 3 January 2004

Patrick O’Brian on page and screen

Listening to:

Sidney Bechet, Runnin’ wild. New Orleans, “Dixieland”-style jazz from 1949 and 1950. The true connoisseurs of the day apparently deprecated it as retro and archaic. Yes, this style of jazz had its heyday in the 1920s, but people less hung up on how things should be, simply appreciate it as stylish, exciting music-making. From the 21st century, it’s all equally old, and all the stars are equally dead.

Just read:

Patrick O’Brian, The thirteen-gun salute.

This is an enjoyable addition to O’Brian’s series of novels. There’s not a lot of naval combat, but there’s lot of naval life, and drama. Some of the drama is life-threatening, but more is concerned with personal relationships and how these can play out when people are crammed together on a confined man-of-war. Stephen Maturin gets to play a useful rôle in diplomatic negotiations, but is also allowed a naturalist’s holiday, and enjoys the company of orangutans in and around a Buddhist temple. The perfidious French and their agents come to a sticky end, but our heroes also end the novel as ship-wrecked sailors on a remote island. Roll on the next book (The nutmeg of consolation).

A recent movie:

Master and commander: the far side of the world. Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey is actually pretty good. Occasionally, I felt he was starting to sound a bit too much like James T. Kirk, but then, Kirk was modelled on James Cook, so what better model could Crowe have? I was less happy with Maturin. The actor was fine, but the adaptation to film completely ignored the diplomatic and espionage facets of his activities and character. In the film, he is a surgeon and a naturalist only. I felt this as a loss, though I can well believe that the film-makers felt that trying to fit it all into the one film would be too difficult.

The naval battles were very impressive. The explosive crash and terror of cannons was very well conveyed, and I got a strong impression of the way in which a whole crew had to work together to pursue its goals. There were also a number of vivid images of the ship at rest (or at least, not at battle) that conveyed the nature of ship-board life. For example, the film opens with a shot of many hammocks strung up below decks, with sleeping sailors crammed together. Later, there is also an impressive aerial shot of the crew assembling on deck, emerging like a host of ants from below, and rapidly forming into an ordered mass. Ship-life is also well-conveyed by sub-plots involving various minor characters.

Plot-wise, the film has only a superficial resemblance to the novel The far side of the world. In both film and book, Aubrey pursues an enemy ship around Cape Horn and into the Pacific, and stops off at the Galapagos islands. In the book, it’s 1812, and the enemy ship is American. In the film, it’s 1805 and the ship is French. In the book, the enemy ship is destroyed by nature, and the climax takes place on a deserted island where the two enemy crews have had to take refuge. In the film, there is a big naval battle to finish things off. I wasn’t too bothered by any of this, though it’s very easy to be cynical about the motives for the change in nationality of the bad guys.

More significant to my mind was the admission that Aubrey is exceeding his orders in pursuing the ship ’round Cape Horn. This doesn’t ring true to Aubrey’s character in the books. There he’s adventurous, but he is also very concerned about his status in the naval list, and keen to make sure that his career progresses well. In awarding marks for fidelity to source material, I will happily let plot go by the board (particularly if, as with O’Brian, plot isn’t hugely important in the feel of the books), but I do want to see tone and character retained. In this way, M&C: tFSotW seemed not quite right, though close.

The films of The Lord of the Rings make an interesting contrast. They include some glaring “tonal errors”, but they have at least succeeded with Frodo, Sam and Gollum. Their characters are not necessarily perfectly realised, but the dynamic between them, and its development is definitely well done. The Aubrey-Maturin relationship is much more static through the O’Brian novels. There’s very little development to portray, which means that I want the relationship from the books done as well as possible in the film. In terms of plot, the LotR is different again: getting the plot right is important there because the story is an epic, and the plot dominates.

But I’ll give you the low-down on the LotR films when I’ve seen The Return of the King.

Saturday, 29 November 2003

Spellbound

Listening to:

The sound-track to the computer game Railroad Tycoon II. The game CD to this comes with more than a dozen tracks of folk/country instrumentals that are really very listenable. I haven't played the game itself in ages (old games don’t die, they just don’t get played anymore), though I note that there is a part III sequel out now.

A recent movie:

Spellbound. This documentary film follows eight competitors in a recent iteration of the US’s National Spelling Bee competition. The whole field consists of 249 children, drawn from all over the US, and in at most the eighth grade, making them all about 12–14 years old. The finals of the competition are held in Washington, D.C., and once the field gets down to a certain size, it’s even televised on ESPN.

And this is a competition with no second chances. Get one word wrong, and you’re out. After having been introduced to the eight different competitors (well-chosen to provide great variety), watching excerpts of their progress makes for compelling viewing. One example is the young guy with parents who have emigrated to the US from the Indian sub-continent origin. He struggles to get “Darjeeling” while his intense father (who seems to take the whole thing more seriously than anyone else involved) watches despairingly from the audience.

There are charming interviews with parents, teachers and the children themselves. You really want one of those that you see to win, and you feel quite distraught when one is eliminated. Just take some consolation from the fact that one of the eight does win it. (They presumably filmed interviews with all of the 249 competitors and then selected eight to screen after the competition had finished.)

So, if you get the opportunity, I’d highly recommend seeing this very entertaining film.

Still reading:

Popper, The open society and its enemies.

Friday, 11 July 2003

Whale rider

Listening to:

Dvořák, string quartet in E flat major, op. 51.

A recent movie

Whale rider. Affecting, manipulative, enjoyable. Lots of beautiful New Zealand countryside. Wonderfully appealing lead character.

I don’t think WR quite pulls off the ‘modern fairy-tale’ effect, but it tries hard and almost gets there. I think the difficulty stems from the attempt to be serious. (If you just want surreal whimsy, even very thought-provoking whimsy, try Being John Malkovich, but don’t expect BJM to produce much in the way of emotional response.)

WR’s great strength is in its depiction of the children; they behave in ways I can believe in and recognise, right up to the way the boys say stink. When I first heard this, it induced a little shock of memory: a flash of recognition that I indeed lived in a world where this was said and used. I don’t hear it around me now. Similarly, the way Paikea picks at her stick when being told off was a beautiful, genuine detail.

There’s a sensible message in the film, but its true power is in the sense of tearful happiness induced by seeing that it is possible for a child to have it ‘all come right in the end’.

Thursday, 5 June 2003

Hot Gingerbread and Dynamite

Listening to:

Schubert, string quintet in C, D 956. I seem to be timing my entries to coincide with Schubert listening quite a bit these days.

Formal Methods—useful?

I was away in Sydney at the end of last week for a NICTA workshop on Formal Methods. The venue was the Scientia building on the UNSW campus. I had a pleasant three days, gave a talk that prompted some interested sounding questions, and heard lots of interesting talks by others.

As is often the case at these sorts of gatherings, there was a bit of soul-searching about the utility of what we’re doing. Carroll Morgan put it nicely when he said that we shouldn’t be too harsh on ourselves, and that FM suffers a little from the same problems as AI, the perception that

If it’s not boring, it can’t be Formal Methods.

The problem is that academic theory takes a long time to filter out into industrial practice (and not all theory is going to make it either, of course; some of it’s no use to man nor beast). Someone working on theory now may well have to wait an awfully long time in order to see their work gain a broader acceptance. And given the failure rate, how can they be sure of its real worth?

Finally, my last word on The matrix:

  • The Republican Matrix.

  • This article analyses the film from a religious and/or philosophical point of view, and finds all sorts of interesting stuff in it. This is all very well though I can’t help suspect that you’d find all sorts of interesting stuff in just about anything if you looked hard enough, and if you knew what you were going to find in advance. My problem with The matrix is more that it’s poor science-fiction, and any amount of religious imagery doesn’t alter that.

  • On the other hand, it is an entertaining film.

Wednesday, 28 May 2003

We’ll always have Paris

Listening to:

Schubert, Impromptus D899.

A recent movie:

We went to see Casablanca on Monday night, and both enjoyed it a great deal. I was a little worried that I might find it as unaffecting as Citizen Kane, which I saw a while ago on TV, and which left me cold. (Maybe seeing CK on the big screen would have improved my reaction to it. It probably also didn't help that I'd seen The Simpsons spoof version of it beforehand.)

Casablanca is full of great lines, from Round up the usual suspects and Here's looking at you, kid to This could be the start of a beautiful friendship. It even almost manages Play it again, Sam. But these great lines had the impact that they did because they occur in a context of a good plot, great, sympathetic, acting, and generally witty dialogue.

It's a shame I knew how the film would end in advance (it's difficult to remain a complete Casablanca-virgin), but I still found it dramatically satisfying, and compelling. All told, a movie that definitely deserves its status as one of the all-time greats.

Thursday, 22 May 2003

The Matrix Regurgitated

Listening to:

Mozart, violin sonata in C major, K. 303.

A recent movie:

I went to see Matrix Reloaded on Tuesday night. It wasn’t bad, and had some pretty spectacular moments. Those graphics programmers are getting better all the time. (Maybe I should say, the computers that those graphics programmers use are getting faster all the time.) On the other hand, it was hardly perfect. Moreover, I think it warrants criticism a lot more than X-Men 2 because it took itself that much more seriously.

First, there were at least a couple of structural flaws. The initial scenes in Zion (Neo/Trinity sex scene, general rave) are tedious. They don't need to go on anything like as long as they do. Neo and Trinity should perhaps be allowed to declare their undying love for one another, and Morpheus should be able to make another of his portentous speeches. Neo's conversation with the Councillor needs to be there. But endless shots of rave? Feh. Then there are two tedious fight scenes that go on too long as well. Neo vs. multiple instances of Agent Smith, and Neo in the lobby of the Merovingian's base. Both of these get boring fast. On the other hand, the extended sequence on the free-way kept my attention because the situations varied in an interesting way.

Apart from these problems of form, I was also irritated by the film's refusal to make any sense in a number of ways. Some of these matters are clearly hooks to get us to come back and see the next film. So, Neo's paranormal powers outside the Matrix (prophetic dreams, ability to knock out Sentinels) are clearly being set up for an explanation next time. I also fervently hope that the waffle that the Architect feeds Neo at the end gets revealed as deliberate nonsense. Why, for example, does Neo get a choice of doors at all?

Why are the Sentinels engaged in a tedious drilling operation to get to Zion, when there must be a open route that Zion's ships use themselves? And another thing that one suspects is there for the purposes of drama rather than sense, why can't a combination of right-coloured pill and physical disconnection from the Matrix serve as an escape route for virtual adventurers? It works for people when they are first disconnected. (This is a problem with the first film too, of course.)

My hope is that both the Matrix and the ‘real’ world will be revealed to be computer simulations. The machines are actually looking after humanity's best interests and realise that geeky malcontents need to think that they’re special and engaged in a special mission to save the world. The human minds that actually have any intelligence, the ones that won't buy the spiel about humans breaking the law of conservation of energy and producing energy for mechanical consumption, those minds get to be programmers.

Some chance!

Friday, 14 February 2003

Star Trek: Nemesis & Stronghold

Listening to:

The compact Coward, a compilation CD of songs by Noel Coward, most recorded in the 1930s. Currently up to I travel alone, recorded 29 October 1934. This one is melancholy, minimalist, but appealing. Others are quite comic. The Ivor Novello character in the film Gosford Park sings similar songs.

A recent movie:

Star Trek: Nemesis. This was an entertaining film, though totally undemanding. As an attempt to scratch an S/F itch, it wasn’t much of a success, but it was enjoyable enough. From the science-fiction point of view, the most disappointing thing about the Star Trek universe is the dreadful lack of variety in the aliens. They are all too obviously people with plastic prostheses on their heads. For all that they don’t get big roles, at least Star Wars has more interesting looking creatures.

The Star Trek universe is also less imaginative in its conception of the future than, for example, Banks’s Culture novels. There clearly hasn’t been much thought put into what technology advances might achieve. If a space-ship is “intelligent” enough to automatically put a force-field over a hole in the ship’s structure, surely it should be smart enough to maintain motion detectors and person identifiers throughout the ship. In particular, a tedious on-ship battle between the ship’s deputy boss, and the enemy’s deputy in the bowels of the ship should never have happened.

Anyway, with engaging hero and anti-hero (Jean-Luc Picard vs. Shinzon), you can ignore all of these sillinesses and enjoy the bad guys, and their eventual downfall.

A while back, I waxed lyrical about the enjoyment I was getting out of Stronghold Crusader. I got about two thirds of the way through the Crusader Trail, up to a mission that starts you off between two instances of the Richard the Lionheart opponent. The problem is basically that the scenarios get harder by making the initial conditions more and more disadvantageous for the human, not by making the opponents any smarter. It eventually gets boring playing against opponents that never get any better. What I’d really like is a human opponent. In the meantime, I am playing customised skirmish games where I can control the initial conditions.

Monday, 14 October 2002

Oscar Wilde and Archæology

Listening to:

Debussy, string quartet, played by the Belcea Quartet.

Still reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters. Just past halfway.

A recent movie:

The importance of being Earnest. This was my first ever exposure to Oscar Wilde's play, so I quite enjoyed the film for the plot and good one-liners. On the other hand, it was clear to me that the film had been seriously over-egged. It wasn’t just Judi Dench playing another of the stereotypically fierce old lady characters that seem to be her special prerogative. There were a number of decidedly over-the-top moments: backsides being tattoo-ed, medieval fantasies brought to life, and hamming it up that bordered on the ridiculous.

And finally, a web-log by an author who really knows how to lay out a web-page.

Monday, 7 October 2002

Kissing Jessica Stein and new Netscapes

Listening to:

Best of Kodo, a best of album for a famous group of traditional Japanese drummers. You might not think that continuous percussion (with occasional support from a Japanese flute, and the voices of the drummers) would be listenable, but I definitely like it. It's good to have one's preconceptions about the nature of music challenged.

Still reading:

Elizabeth Gaskell, Wives and daughters. This is quite a long novel (over 600 pages in my edition), so it may be a while before I can write a final review for it.

A recent movie:

Kissing Jessica Stein. This is a light but enjoyable romantic comedy. It features all of the necessary fittings for the genre (Manhattan setting, check; jazz soundtrack, check) but adds a twist of its own by featuring straight women embarking on a lesbian romance. It's fun and witty, with some good acting.

The default web-browser installed on the lab's computers changed from Netscape 4 to 6 last week. It's probably an improvement (being able to hit Control-+ to make the text on the screen bigger is very cool), but there are also a number of things that I don't like about it, which I guess I'll just have to get used to. For example, it doesn't seem to handle opening Postscript documents consistently, and doesn't seem to remember that, yes I do want to look at them with ghostview.

Thursday, 1 August 2002

Jazz, Minority Report and long-term wagers

Listening to:

Ella Fitzgerald singing Just squeeze me, on the album Ella Fitzgerald day dream: best of the Duke Ellington songbook. Apparently a recent American TV series about jazz reckoned that Louis Armstrong was jazz’s Bach, and Duke Ellington was its Mozart. I can’t remember who got to be Beethoven. As the account I was reading pointed out, this is a neat metaphor, but it breaks a little when one realises that Louis Armstrong was alive for about two thirds of all of jazz’s history. Bach lived a long time, but he didn’t manage to do quite that well!

A recent movie:

I saw Minority report last night. I was quite impressed. The plotting was pretty good, and the extrapolations built on top of the sci-fi background didn’t seem too ridiculous. Some of the cinematography was quite stunning too. Philip K. Dick wrote the short story that the film is based on, and it’s his title. I haven’t read the story, but in the film, the fact that minority reports are possible isn’t actually that significant (it doesn’t happen at all that we see, though the possibility that it might have does motivate the hero).

I never used to take bets. One particular friend was always keen to brow-beat by saying things like “Bet you five bucks that X”. I’d always decline the bet, while still maintaining that I was right, and that he was wrong of course. More recently, however, I’ve amused myself by making wagers based on predictions of how the world will be in some number of years. These haven’t even had a stake decided, but I'm intrigued by the possibility of being in a position to write them down, and come back to check on them. Lots of futurology makes crap predictions that are never checked up on, so I don’t want to be all mouth and no trousers.

So, here it is, my long-term wager book. You’ll have to trust that I won’t alter it to make my predictions come out OK.

Friday, 19 April 2002

Hollywood is taking over the world

Listening to:

Shostakovich, concerto no. 2 for violin and orchestra in C sharp minor, Op. 129.

The recent film Iris is based on biographical memoirs written by Iris Murdoch's husband, John Bayley. I recently saw one or other of the two books in a bookshop, and saw that the cover photo was of Judi Dench, playing the rôle of Iris in the film. This has to be one of the most cringe-inducing marketing tricks ever. It might be reasonable to have film actors’ realisations of fictional characters on the covers of novels (Harry Potter novels with the kid who played the part in the film on the cover, say), but to replace a photo of a real person with a photo of the film star is awful.

On the weird technology front, why not cover your computer in polyurethane foam?

Thursday, 11 April 2002

The man who wasn’t there

Listening to:

Shostakovich, piano concerto no. 1, op. 35. This piece features an amazing trumpet solo part in the final movement. (The CD traversal continues.)

A recent movie:

The man who wasn’t there. This is an amazingly stylish film, with a slightly creepy tone, and a delicious black humour. It’s brilliantly shot, all in black and white: from the opening credits featuring a striped barber's pole, endlessly spiralling to the strains of Beethoven; to the very last scene which is done in an incredibly clinical and bleached white.

If forced to attempt a “deep analysis” of its theme, I’d say that this film is all about the allure of the American Dream, and how difficult its realisation can be, and the disillusionment of failed hopes. But, it’s probably not worth trying to sum it up in short sentences. Probably the best film I saw in 2001.

Talking of movies, a reaction to the theory that Star Wars was carefully constructed to embody mythic archetypes, as identified by guru, Joseph Campbell. Makes all the obvious points.

Finally, a creepy, and thought-provoking essay from the LRB, all about a woman and her relationship with World War One.

Friday, 22 February 2002

Links to all sorts

Listening to:

Saint-Saëns, piano concerto no. 4 in C minor, op. 44.

A short, “links-y” entry today.

Wednesday, 19 December 2001

FotR film reviews

Listening to:

Brahms, double concerto for violin and cello in A minor, op. 102.

The next version of HOL is just about ready for release. Look for it soon at all good theorem-proving systems outlets.

The Lord of the Rings film opens today in Britain. Reviews from the Observer, Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, and The New York Times.

My choice of reviews above was mostly determined by how easy it was to find them. Some online newspapers are decidedly unfriendly when it comes to finding material. (Indeed, the (British) Times apparently now has an official policy forbidding links from elsewhere to anywhere on their site except the front page. If I could find anything useful on their site, I'd link to it just to thumb my nose at them.) The Guardian/Observer site is easy to use and preserves links to reviews that may not be in that day's edition. I fluked the Telegraph's review by using a search function that seemed to give me every article in their reviews section, but the LotR at position 10 on the list. The New York Times seems best of them all, with an online archive organised alphabetically just two clicks away from the front page. Now who'd have thought of that? (And these articles are available despite the NYT's usual policy of making things inaccessible after 2 weeks; hurray!)

Friday, 23 November 2001

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone

Listening to:

Shostakovich, violin concerto no. 2 in C sharp minor, op. 129.

A recent movie:

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I saw this on Tuesday night, and thought it very enjoyable. It’s a good adaptation of the book, so that I’m sure that if you liked the book, you’ll like the film. It’s quite an honest adaptation; nothing very significant gets missed out, and there isn’t any addition of spurious material either. The film has to get through quite a lot of plot, so it does perhaps feel a little rushed. It’s possible that people coming to the film without having read the book will find a little confusing. Here are some Web reviews:

This more general article from The New Yorker is also interesting, though a little bit gushing (a good review of the film is also linked to from there).

Wednesday, 24 October 2001

Merci pour le chocolat

Listening to:

Shostakovich, symphony no. 14, op. 135.

A recent movie:

Merci pour le chocolat. I saw this a while ago really, but much of it remains quite fresh in my mind. It’s a creepy little story, about a young woman who discovers that she has a tenuous connection to a famous pianist (she and the pianist’s son were briefly switched at birth before the mistake was detected). The young woman wants to be a professional pianist, and approaches the famous pianist. He takes a shine to her and offers her some piano coaching.

The pianist lives with his wife and son. His son is not the child of his wife, but from an earlier marriage, that ended when the son’s mother was involved in a traffic accident. The character of the wife is mesmerising: she’s clearly up to no good, but it’s next to impossible to figure out exactly what it is she’s up to. The cold blankness of this character is very well portrayed by Isabelle Huppert.

Sadly, none of it really makes any sense, and the piano lesson scenes are tedious, particularly as it is really obvious that the actors are not playing the pianos. The acting by the women in the film is pretty good, but the men, particularly the young son, are much less convincing. So, not recommended.

Friday, 3 August 2001

Shrek and the forgotten web

Listening to:

Bach, The well-tempered clavier, book 2.

A recent movie:

Shrek. A computer-animated movie, nominally targetting children, but really quite amusing and entertaining for adults as well. Toy Story 2 is also very good in this respect. Shrek wins by not having a nauseating song in the middle about growing up; Toy Story 2 has a better ensemble cast.

Old forms of the web

I came to what I thought was an interesting realisation the other day: the Web is almost of necessity backwards compatible. By this I mean that producers of pages can be sure of getting their message across by sticking to basic HTML because browsers can’t afford to throw away that functionality. As an extreme example of this, just look at the way you can still access GopherSpace. Follow this link (possible in Netscape, Internet Explorer and Lynx, at the very least) and you’re no longer in the world of HTML. You’re navigating through a strange, isolated world with lots of dead links, but still the browsers let you do it.

Introducing backwards incompatibilities in a program that you want other people to use is a generally a bad thing. With something like a compiler or a word processor, the incompatibilities can mean that the user has to alter their files. This can be enough of a pain to give the developer pause. But if their new browser is backwards incompatible in such a way that it fails to display pages that it used to display, and these pages are (naturally) beyond the power of the user to change, then that browser is hardly going to win itself many converts.

While support for the gopher protocol may disappear because fewer and fewer people are using Gopher servers, HTML seems to have become seriously entrenched. (So much so that I remember reading an interesting article a while back about the fact that so much of the information in URLs is coming to be seen as redundant; how many company advertisements bother with http://www.company.com? Most just go for company.com; everyone knows to add the other stuff, or their browser does it for them.) This entrenchment means there is a great inertia protecting all those plain HTML pages. ASCII is assuredly safer, but HTML is getting there too.

Tuesday, 3 July 2001

Catch-22 and Chocolat

Listening to:

Mozart, string quintet in D, K593.

Just read:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22.

This is a very famous book, and I can see why. It’s a black comedy about the experience of being in the military, set in the US air force during WWII. It was funny enough to make me laugh out loud on occasion, but also savage enough to make one feel quite chilled and depressed by the very idea of war. This was not really induced by the depiction of combat with enemies, as happens in Captain Corelli’s mandolin, with its explicit descriptions of the Italian war against Greece, and also the later Nazi attack on the Italians in Cephallonia. The characters in Catch-22 are all in the Air Force, so their military struggles are with remote, mechanical enemies, principally anti-aircraft batteries.

Instead, the horror of the situation is conveyed by the way in which the military personnel are desperate to be home, know that they can’t escape, and gradually crack up under the strain. The ridiculous mindset and behaviour of the high level officers (at colonel level and above) is perhaps a little over-done, but one can’t help but feel that it has a deal of truth in it. Heller was a bombardier in the USAAF during WWII, and one imagines that he knows what he’s on about. It’s a book well-stocked with memorable characters. The main hero is Yossarian, who is the most desperate to escape, and who is generally quite sympathetic. Then there are Major Major, Milo Minderbinder, Colonel Cathcart, and the cunning Orr.

Catch-22’s narrative is not presented in a straightforward, linear fashion. Instead, there are flash-backs and flash-forwards. Some important events within the story are described more than once, usually just being hinted at on a number of occasions, gradually being filled in with more detail. There are some amazing set-pieces, where the prose becomes poetic and heightened in impact. In particular, towards the end of the book, when Yossarian is stumbling through a Rome that is both ruined and depraved, the scene is painted so as to make one feel in a trance-like nightmare.

Joanne Harris, Chocolat.

This is a pleasant read. It’s “low intensity” fiction really, though I have to admit that my reaction to it was almost certainly affected by the fact that I saw the film first (a month or so ago now; see below). On finishing the book, it’s difficult to think back on it and claim that it’s about anything particularly deep. The story is that of an itinerant woman, Vianne, who arrives with her young daughter in a small, conservative French village, and has a generally positive effect on the inhabitants. Vianne is a chocolatier and she opens a chocolate shop in the central square of the village, right opposite the church. Her arrival upsets the forces of conservatism that have hitherto dominated the village, principally the priest. The story describes the way in which the hero manages to settle down, denying her roaming heritage, personified in her dead mother, and gets the village to “loosen up”.

An enjoyable read, with a solidity to the characters, particularly Vianne, that makes it all the more appealing.

To read next:

Jack Kerouac, On the road.

A recent movie:

Chocolat. The film is not bad, but it’s not as good as the book. It loses out by denying the characters the solidity they had in the book, and by exaggerating the general sappiness of the story. The acting is all good; Alfred Molina as the seigneur of the village is particularly good. For reasons known only to the film-makers, the priest is no longer the bad-guy; instead he is a young guy, newly appointed, and pretty much under Molina’s control.

Monday, 25 June 2001

Music, books and movies

Listening to:

Arthur Sullivan, Macbeth overture. As well as being the composer partner to Gilbert, Sullivan wrote music for a variety of other occasions. He didn’t want to just be a composer of music for musicals. This overture is the first piece on a CD from the BBC music magazine . Next up is a reconstructed cello concerto, and the CD finishes with a Te Deum. It’s very listenable music, probably perfect for writing web-log entries to, but perhaps not so memorable.

Now reading:

Joseph Heller, Catch-22. This is another novel mainly set on a Mediterranean island during World War II. Its tone is completely different from Captain Corelli’s mandolin though. More when I’m finished.

A recent movie:

State & Main. This is a very amusing story about a film production that comes to a small town in New England. There are all sorts of satiric digs at the nature of the film business, and a gently done romance. The hero (the screen-writer) is played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, who also had a relatively minor part in The talented Mr. Ripley, playing a completely different sort of role.

Thursday, 7 June 2001

Entry #182

Listening to:
Haydn, piano sonata no 46 in E major, Hob. XVI: 31. I have no idea what the "Hob. XVI:31" means. Clearly cataloguing Haydn's works is a fairly major undertaking, with a need for hierarchical identifiers.
A recent movie:
The talented Mr. Ripley. I wanted to go and see this in the cinema in February last year, but never did manage it. Instead we watched it on DVD. It's a very good film, but definitely not for the faint-hearted. It's decidedly creepy. The central character turns into a psychotic mess before your eyes, and it's really quite horrifying. It's all about identity theft, which is quite apt for this day and age, and very well-plotted; there aren't any glaring plot-holes to distract you. In fact, it all seems quite plausible, which just makes it all the more disturbing. There's no real gore; the nastiness is mainly implicit and off-screen, and this makes it at least as effective. (The official web-site.)
Oh, I should have said. It's the UK general election today. I've done my bit and cast a vote (Commonwealth citizens can vote in UK elections; isn't that neat?) We don't have a TV, but it looks as if the online coverage, courtesy of the BCC, will be pretty good.

Friday, 1 June 2001

A one and a two

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 3.

A recent movie:

A one and a two. This is a Taiwanese movie that is almost three hours long. You’d want to be confident that you were going to a good film before you submitted yourself to such an experience, but I was inspired by this review in the Financial Times, which called it the best film of the year, and probably the best film of the decade.

The reviewer was not far wrong. It is a very elegant movie, very beautiful and with a good mix of realistic humour and tragedy. It’s neither slapstick nor nuclear holocaust. It probably is too long, and I found myself slightly resenting the little boy who is really very cute and very affecting in a “from the mouths of babes” kind-of-way, but is also completely unrealistic.

The Internet is going to hell in a handbasket (I’ve never understood that saying; am I misquoting it?), and here's the proof: a fascinating account of tracking down hackers by a beleaguered innocent. In Clifford Stoll’s The Cuckoo's Egg, the evil-doers were working for the KGB (or a near equivalent); in the 21st century, they are clueless 13 year olds.

So, if it's all getting too much, I recommend this last link.

Wednesday, 2 May 2001

Bread and roses; computer science

Listening to:

Fauré, piano quartet no. 1 in C minor, op. 15.

A recent movie:

Bread and roses. This film is directed by Ken Loach, quite a famous British director. I’d never seen anything by him before seeing this film though. I read a review of the film before going to see it that suggested it was a bit of a polemic, and this verdict is accurate I think. The story is all about a young Mexican woman who illegally crosses the border into California, and gets a job as a janitor. Her job is with a exploitative non-union company, and the crux of the movie is her (and her workmates’) struggle for better conditions.

The acting, particularly of the three main characters: the woman, her older sister, and the union rep, is good and the plot has some good twists and turns. However, the film is also blatant, one-sided propaganda. It’s not the content of the propaganda I have a problem with, but the simple fact that it is propaganda. None of the obvious arguments against the film’s thesis are even mentioned, let alone replied to. If you can get over the irritation of being preached to, then you may well find this film quite enjoyable.

The predicted May-day riots in London didn't really eventuate yesterday. The police were better organised than the anarchists (but then, you might expect that; anarchists representing the antithesis of organisation, right?), and contained the various potential problems. So much so in fact, that you couldn’t help but think that the non-violent protesters got a raw deal. Perhaps they should have asked the police permission for a march. Getting official permission might not be that easy, and doing deals with the state might be anathema for your typical anarchist. Try this page for a (brief) humorous slant on it all.

A little “maths” problem that was discussed at tea recently:

Is it always possible to write a bitstring of length 2 to the n, such that all the possible bitstrings of length n are present (including wrap-around)?

For example, 0011 is the only possible solution (modulo rotations) for n = 2. The string 10 is present because of the wrap-around, and the other three possibilities are all obviously there. A solution for n = 3 is 00010111.

Finally, a little something from Usenet:

Good code in perl is fine, but there's something about bad code in perl thats worse than bad code in other languages, something very HP- Lovecraft-mad-servants-of-the-elder-gods-chattering-in-the-extra- dimensional-insect-language kind of bad that makes my head hurt when I have to read it. ["Jish Karoshi" <karoshijish@hotmail.com> in c.l.ruby]

Thursday, 12 April 2001

Mahler, Mission Impossible and new games

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 9. Mahler was apparently a little affected by a superstitious worry to the effect that nine symphonies is as many as a great composer is allowed. Bruckner didn’t even manage to comlete his ninth, and Beethoven’s ninth was his last. As it turned out, Mahler’s ninth was indeed his last completed symphony. (There is a “performing version” of his drafts for a tenth symphony.)

Thirty-five years later, it seems quite likely that Shostakovich deliberately thumbed his nose at this tradition of great ninth symphonies (and thereby thumbed his nose at the Soviet government, who expected something great of him), by producing a ninth symphony that was short, not overtly dramatic, and which seemed very slight.

Anyway, Mahler’s ninth is quite a mysterious work. Its opening and closing movements are both slow movements (an Andante and an Adagio), while its two internal movements are quite raucous and full of strange eruptions of sound. However, it’s definitely coherent and melodic at the same time.

A recent movie:

Mission Impossible 2. We got this out on DVD. It’s slickly done, but it suffers from a number of faults. It has a serious case of Bond-envy; its plot is ridiculous; Tom Cruise smirks far too much; the other good guys are far too marginalised (the best part of the first MI movie was the initial segment when you saw a team of operatives working together; Cruise as lone operative dominating the plot destroys that interesting, and distinctive, flavour), and those bloody masks are used far too much.

Plot holes range from the typical ridiculous science (why didn’t the operatives that stole the magic medicine pick up the disease from the scientist carrying both the medicine and the disease on the plane?) to the implausible assumptions. Why, for example, on knowing where the bad guys were (great location, Sydney Harbour), did the good guys not get in several truck loads of police to arrest them? The Australian authorities would be more than willing to arrest people that special US agencies fingered as terrorists.

Computer game options

I’m thinking of buying a new computer game; maybe Baldur’s Gate II or Age of Empires II. It’s interesting that they’re both sequels. Both are apparently significant improvements on their predecessors, which does at least suggest that their developers have paid attention to what users have said, and thought about how to improve what they’ve done.

I’ve recently been playing Panzer General II a bit. (Another sequel! And then there’s Railroad Tycoon II...) I like PG2 as a relatively mindless, but entertaining way of consuming 30-60 minutes.

Thursday, 29 March 2001

Bloatware

Listening to:

Beethoven, sonata no. 3 in A, op 69 for piano and cello.

A recent movie:

Toy Story II. I saw this at home on DVD recently, and thought it was brilliant. It has a rather gag-inducing song in the middle about a girl growing up and abandoning her toys, but it's otherwise extremely amusing and entertaining. On DVD, we also got to see a bunch of interviews with some of the actors doing the voices, which was kinda neat.

Joel gets it wrong

I’m going to link to Joel Spolsky again today, but this time I come not to praise him, but to bury him. His latest article is about bloat-ware. This is the phenomenon that sees the 1993 installation of Microsoft Excel take up 15 MB of disk-space, and the version for 2000 take up 146 MB. He dismisses complaints about this problem by saying that the decreasing cost of hard-disk space has more than made up for the increase in size, so that in terms of its space-consumption cost, the 2000 version of Excel is actually cheaper than its predecessor. He also dismisses complaints about the fact that big programs have a memory-consumption cost too (some part of them needs to be loaded into memory); pointing out that paging and virtual memory combine to ensure that you may not often have much of the executable in memory at any one time, and the rest will be consuming more of that cheap disk-space. Further, this means that start-up times for the application will likely be pretty good.

So far, so good. This stuff is all perfectly correct. But it’s not the real reason to feel annoyed about bloatware. My objection to it is that it’s a sign of poor craftsmanship. Does Spolsky really think that it's admirable that at least some versions of Excel include a flight simulator Easter Egg?

He explains bloatware thus:

In fact there are lots of great reasons for bloatware. For one, if programmers don’t have to worry about how large their code is, they can ship it sooner. And that means you get more features, and features make your life better (when you use them) and don’t usually hurt (when you don’t). If your software vendor stops, before shipping, and spends two months squeezing the code down to make it 50% smaller, the net benefit to you is going to be imperceptible. Maybe, just maybe, if you tend to keep your hard drive full, that's one more Duran Duran MP3 you can download.

That looks like one dodgy reason to me, not lots of great ones. If shipping software quickly is the overriding concern, then the result may well be better results for the company producing the code, but what does the consumer get? Insufficiently debugged, poorly tested code that crashes more than it should. Maybe all of those features that have been pushed into the new program are interacting in subtle ways with the flight simulator. Maybe the fact that several versions of the same library code have been linked with the application is an indication that the people developing the code didn't really have any idea about what they were doing when they wrote it.

Would you buy an operating system from these people?

Wednesday, 21 March 2001

Films and Games

Listening to:

Bartok, string quartet no. 3 (Sz 85).

A recent movie:

Best in Show. I saw this on a plane from Hong Kong to Heathrow and thought it very good, even in those rather trying conditions. (Although I have to say, I think I find it a lot easier to get to sleep over the muted roar of jet engines than over the neighbours’ distant pop music when the latter is the only thing disturbing the night’s quiet.) Anyway, what about this film then? Very amusing. It’s what is apparently known as a mockumentary. This means that while taking on the outward form of a documentary, it is actually an extended satire.

This film succeeds because it verges just a little into the unrealistic to make its jokes. The characters seem as if they just might be real people. The film is based around a big dog show, and the principal characters are the various contestants that attend, hoping that their dog will win the grand prize. They are all a little weird and stereotypical, but very funny as they negotiate all sorts of quandaries.

The Computer Game

I’ve been playing quite a bit of a new PC game called Europa Universalis. It’s quite an addictive game in the Civilisation/Imperialism mould, but better than both, in my opinion, because of its very well-researched historical setting. Other people seem to think pretty highly of it too; for example this review at StrategyGaming is very positive. It finishes (in incomplete sentences, he’s clearly that rapt):

I can see if you don’t have much time, or don’t have an interest in history at all. But outside of that, if you don’t buy this game, you’re nuts.

Thursday, 18 January 2001

Negative reviews and hunting

Listening to:

Shostakovich, violin concerto no. 1 in A minor, op 99. This is dramatic and exciting music, with a great part for the soloist.

A lost comic:

General Protection Fault. Good title (it’s the phrase that comes up when it all goes horribly wrong on Windows machines), and reasonably drawn. Fairly interesting characters, and the mandatory talking animal (a slime mold actually) doesn’t often feature. Set in a computer company, and sporadically amusing. Far too interested in telling long, soap-like stories than keeping the reader consistently amused. Takes its supernatural elements (demonic secretary, and strange jester figure) far too seriously.

A recent movie:

East is east. We saw this on DVD last year, and were very disappointed. What the hype would have had us believe was a touching, humourous but gritty look at life growing up in a Muslim family of Pakistani origin (with an English mother) in the north-east of England, was in fact poorly written, full of unpleasant stereotypes, toilet humour and generally quite unfunny. Not recommended. (IMDB page.)

Yesterday the House of Commons in the UK voted (by over a 2-1 margin) to ban hunting with dogs in England and Wales. There’s a good chance that the bill will fail to make it into law because the House of Lords will stall it until the next election, which is expected in May. The main opponents to the abolition of hunting call themselves the Countryside Alliance, and have a website. Interestingly, there is another Countryside alliance website out there. It has a .com domain-name, and the material is American. Most interesting of course, is the fact that it’s an animal rights site; see for example their FAQs on hunting and fishing.

Wednesday, 27 September 2000

Run Lola, run

Listening to:

Mahler, symphony no. 7.

A recent move:

Run Lola, run (Lola rennt in the original German). (IMDb page.) We got this out on DVD and were pleasantly surprised to find that we could watch it fine on our computer. (We don’t have a TV.) In fact, we had to first configure it (yes, you can configure DVD movies (!)) so that we got German audio and English subtitles. I thought it was very enjoyable. It keeps the attention held throughout. It’s not very deep, and doesn’t really repay much extended thought, but I still found it very enjoyable.

Wednesday, 23 August 2000

Chicken Run and international lighting practices

Listening to:

Duke Ellington, Reminiscing in Tempo.

A recent movie:

Chicken run. Writing on Monday, I realised that I’d not mentioned some of my other recent movie experiences. Chicken run is a cute film by the people who did the Wallace and Gromit TV programmes (Nick Park et al.). Even before going to see it, I'd read many people say that CR was OK, but not as good as the three WG programmes (particularly the last two). I’d have to say that I’d just about agree with this. (Phil Agre wouldn’t; in this issue of his Red Rock Eater digest (you'll need to scroll down past a lot of other interesting stuff to get there, or use your find/search option), he says it sucks, which is overly harsh I think, though the general points he makes are quite good.)

Having read a few online reviews of Show me love on Monday, I was struck by how many American reviewers commented on how lousy they thought the lighting in the film was. This wasn’t something I noticed at all. My reaction tended to be understanding and sympathetic, along the lines of What is it with these whingers?, but it is definitely true that different countries use quite different lighting conventions in at least their TV programmes. It’s usually pretty easy to place a programme that you don’t recognise that’s running behind a shop window, say, just by something about the light.

Superficially, I’d say that American TV seems to generally be quite brightly lit, and that Australian TV is even more so, but I think there’s probably more to it that my perception is aware of, but which I can’t express.

Monday, 21 August 2000

Show me love

Listening to:

Beethoven, string quartet in C major, Op. 59, No. 3 (Razumovsky).

Still reading:

Mitford, Our village. I didn’t make much progress with this over the weekend because we went to London on Saturday to visit my parents, and on Sunday morning we went swimming.

Sanitised English titles

We went to see the Swedish film Show me love (original title: Fucking Åmål) on Friday night. I thought it a very good film, with a wonderful happy ending and a very affecting story all in all. It apparently did as well in Sweden as Titanic. There are pages of comments on the IMDb page, from people all around the world, and they are almost all very positive. Rightly so, of course.

From someone in Onsala, Sweden:

This was a great movie. But after I saw it I hated life. And found out of meaningless it is. And if Åmål is so boring that they say in the movie. Then they should see Onsala. The most boring town in the world.

Wednesday, 10 May 2000

Galaxy Quest

Listening to:

Beethoven, Fidelio. This is the recent Naxos recording. It got quite positive reviews, so I thought that £10 for two CDs was almost certainly worth it. I’m not attempting to follow the libretto (only in German) or the plot synopsis (in English) from the booklet. I’m happy to get a sense of the music from just having it on in the background.

Galaxy Quest

Health Tip from Personal Experience #1:

Don’t eat acidic apples on empty stomachs in the late afternoon.

I went to see the film Galaxy Quest on Friday evening. It is brainless stuff really, but amusing nonetheless. There is an "official" web-page for the movie that is a good send-up of movie fan-sites in general.

Sure, this sort of spoof, of movies and of fan-sites, is easy to pull off as the targets are so obvious, but that doesn’t stop them being amusing.

Wednesday, 15 March 2000

Beethoven and Barrymore

Listening to:

Beethoven, piano sonata in F minor, op. 57 Appassionata. This recording is on a now defunct CD label called Lunar. This comes from the DDR (i.e., East Germany that was). It’s a good recording, and it was very cheap ($10 in New Zealand). I’m pretty sure that the Lunar CDs were the first I ever saw that were budget. Since then, Naxos have moved into this market in a serious way, and the Berlin Wall has fallen.

(Incidentally, there’s no sign of any deterioration in the physical substance of the CD, which is pretty good going for something that is now over 10 years old.)

Saw Never been kissed (with Drew Barrymore) on video the other night. Basically, it’s a pretty dire movie, though I imagine it’s a deal better than the other films we saw trailed on the video. My standard technique of entering the URL www.filmname.com gives interesting results this time. It links to a site providing soft-porn shots of famous actresses. Clearly the people distributing the film couldn’t be bothered getting the domain-name for it. A little further research at the Internet Movie Database site, reveals the correct site. It also gives it an average rating of 6.5/10, which is incredibly generous.

Anyway, the film only served to remind me of the ridiculous obsession that high school seems to exert over film-makers, and the bizarre way it is portrayed. Or, and this is a thought to take your breath away, maybe US high schools are really like that. Tell me it ain’t so.

Friday, 3 March 2000

Topsy Turvy

Listening to:

Oscar Petersen playing A foggy day (Gershwin).

Went to see Topsy Turvy last night and greatly enjoyed it. Spent too long looking for an official web-site (clearly it’s too arty to descend to such tricks), and instead got sucked into a set of film reviews.

The author seems to share my sort of opinions on many things, so he'll definitely get on the bookmarks list. But now I really must do some work.