Monday, January 30, 2012

"The Descendents" [A-]

What you are thankful for at the end of The Descendents is that Matt King (George Clooney) had to live through that family crisis and not you. The film opens in a hospital room, with Matt's wife in a coma, with just enough misplaced hope to let you connect with the characters before the story starts knocking them down. And hit them it does, over and over, with events and revelations, any one of which would have conceivably curled most men into a blubbering ball on the beach. But Matt sticks with it, sticks with his daughters, takes each hit, not in stride, but as it comes. And in the end there is hope again.

The acting is natural and raw across the board. The directing and editing is simple and patient. The beauty of Hawaii is not featured, but is used effectively as backdrop and buffer for the emotional roller coaster of the story. There is not a false note here. There is love, hate, anger, spitefulness, forgiveness, and hope.

The Descendents (IMDb)

"Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" [B+]

This is a spy movie. It is set in a very real 1970s, when phones had cords and even spy cameras had film. The Iron Curtain was up and the cold war was on. You had know way of knowing if the guy working next to you (definitely guy and not gal) was actually working for the other side. This is the world of George Smiley.

Therefore, you will find no car chases, no computer hacking, and no super-micro, multi-function spy gadgetry. What you will find are dead drops, false identities, and interrogations and conversations where you talk for hours to see how if the other guy will trip himself up and reveal a falsehood that will let you nail him as a spy. This is the world of George Smiley.

We've been here before. The original books by John le Carré are masterpieces. The British mini-series starring Sir Alec Guiness was nearly perfect. But it is good to be back. The settings, dialog, directing, and acting are picture perfect and harmonious. What doesn't quite come together is the story. If you don't already know it, you will certainly feel lost along the way. You're sure, in the end, that all the pieces to the puzzle must have been there all along. You just didn't pick them up. This is a grown-up movie and doesn't spoon feed you. This is the world of George Smiley.

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (IMDb)

Thursday, January 26, 2012

read: Zombie Spaceship Wasteland (3 stars)

Zombie Spaceship WastelandZombie Spaceship Wasteland by Patton Oswalt

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This wasn't quite what I imagined it would be, but it was a pleasant and sometimes amusing collection of stories about modern life, growing up in the suburbs, and becoming a standup comedian.

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Sunday, January 22, 2012

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" [B]

It's difficult to applaud a story in which the characters are treated so horribly and even the morals of the good characters are not always clearly good. But that's how the real world is, is it not? And don't we want stories about interesting people involved in situations that would cause us to run screaming in the other direction? The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo gives all that and more all wrapped up in a package that could be described as a sort of frozen, Swedish (American) film noir. Except only the title character is living a brutish, street-smart life.

The film is enjoyable for those strong characters, great acting, some imaginative storytelling, and top-notch directing and cinematography. I mark it down a little for muddling the mystery plot about the serial killer a bit, muddling the framing story about corporate corruption a lot, and going way over the top with sex scenes (how is this not NC-17?).

I'm not sure if I could choose between this version and the previous Swedish incarnation. Both have their merits and issues.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (IMDb)

Thursday, January 12, 2012

read: Explosive Eighteen (2 stars)

Explosive Eighteen (Stephanie Plum, #18)Explosive Eighteen by Janet Evanovich

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not a major Stephanie Plum fan, but I enjoyed One for the Money (even though I only gave it two stars) and thought I should check in with her before the movie comes out. This volume has some of the same problems as the first book, and adds a several more.

Stephanie still can't think (or fight) her way out of a paper bag. Why is she still loose on the streets of New Jersey pretending to be a bounty hunter? Why has nobody put a permanent fix on her window to keep killers and assorted others from breaking in to her apartment? Everyone seems to have a gun. Is there some rule in New Jersey that says its OK to carry around a gun and brandish it (even discharge it) without consequence? I guess I'll stay out of Jersey.

The biggest disappointment is the end. After we spend a couple of hundred pages chasing after the usual assortment of oddballs and wondering why everyone is after the photograph, Evanovich throws in some brand new characters and information and resolves the situation in just a chapter or two. Not fair.

On the other hand, I did read all the way to the end and enjoyed some of the journey.

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Saturday, January 7, 2012

"Transformers: Dark of the Moon" [B-]

Almost gave this a C+ and then remembered a major character was voiced by Leonard Nimoy and they gave him the choice line "the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" and one sound bite used by Bumblebee is "I have always been your friend". The only other highlights for me were the NASA sequences (almost brought to a standstill by a wooden Buzz Aldrin) and John Torturro chewing up the scenery.

The rest was loud, long, and would have been hard to follow if the characters weren't constantly rehashing what was supposed to be happening.

read: Agile Retrospectives (4 stars)

Agile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams GreatAgile Retrospectives: Making Good Teams Great by Esther Derby

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a good overview of retrospective reviews. It is directed more at someone trying to bootstrap an agile process or fix a broken one. But it can also be useful for someone looking for fresh ingredients to add to a more established situation. The suggested team exercises sometimes come across as a bit more touchy-feely than I (or my team) are comfortable with. And the cheerful tone got a bit tiresome.

On the other hand, all that is exactly what I expected in a book like this. I was able to easily scan through it in an evening, culling the applicable ideas. Now it's just a matter of determining when I can add them into the mix.

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read: Hard Target (3 stars)

Hard TargetHard Target by Howard Gordon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, I have to clarify: Three stars means I (ultimately) liked Hard Target. It had a tight plot with page-turning suspense, realistic situations and settings, and spare writing. Once I connected with the situation and the plight of the characters, it was not easy to put down. That should have gotten it four stars, but I have to knock off a few points.

First, a half point off because I did not immediately feel connected with the protagonist. The author used a prologue to try to get the reader into the situation and define the bad guys. While this might work for a television show (the author is a successful television writer and producer), in this case it seemed more of a distraction. When we meet up with Gideon Davis in chapter one, the reader is wondering why we are spending time with this loser on his way to work, instead of finding the fate of the poor woman in the prologue.

Another half point comes off for all the head hopping. This is the not the first time I've been assaulted by viewpoint roaming from character to character in a thriller. This may be a stylistic choice and most readers might not notice. I find it jarring and distracting when it happens within a single chapter or scene. It just chops things up too much, giving the story the feel of a badly edited movie-of-the-week.

Otherwise, this was a pretty decent read and I can recommend it for anyone looking for some hard action adventure.

Disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review.

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Monday, January 2, 2012

"Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol" [B+]

Don't think too hard about this one. It's "Mission: Impossible". This entry in the series starts off closer to the flavor of the television show, and pretty much maintains that throughout. Certainly there are plot holes you can drive a truck through. The team is out to prevent the megalomaniac from getting the nuclear launch codes that will start Armageddon. In order to do that, there are guards to fool, parties to attend, and gadgets to deploy. It's all done with a good deal of earnest tongue-in-cheek, great stunts and visual effects, and that's exactly why you paid the price of admission.

Word of warning to anyone with a touch of vertigo. You will want to close your eyes during some of the high-rise scenes in Dubai. No, really, you will. I'm not fooling around.

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (IMDb)