Review of Paper Towns

The movie Paper Towns, like the book Paper Towns (by John Green), is geared toward the teenage market. This review is about the movie, of course, but from what I’ve read online, the book is just as interesting and I may eventually get a copy. The name of the movie comes from the practice that cartographers use to prevent copyright infringement—adding fake towns to a map so that anyone copying it will likely copy the fake town as well (making it easy to prove copyright infringement in court). The term can also refer to planned subdivisions that fail to materialize for various reasons. The idea is one of being completely fake.

The reason the movie is so interesting is that it asks a particular question that few movies bother to ask, “Who am I?” It seems like an obvious question, but many people never ask the question once in their entire lives. They seem to fly through life on autopilot and never quite realize the amazing potential they have. After Margo’s (Cara Delevingne) boyfriend proves untrue to her (and she takes the requisite revenge) she’s faced with the overwhelming sense of being fake—of being made of paper, just like the paper town she inhabits with all the other paper people who go about their daily lives never questioning anything. I’m focusing on this particular point because it’s all too easy to miss in the movie.

It’s important to remember that this is a teen movie, so it contains the splash of nudity and overwhelming concentration of drinking that these movies tend to contain. The message is lost a little because of the emphasis on teen activities that seem like both a waste of time, but also a necessary passage to adulthood. I wouldn’t say that the amount of near nudity and drinking is absurd, but it does get in the way of an otherwise meaningful movie. I think they could have easily toned things down a little and produced an even better movie as a result.

The movie does seem to avoid drugs (at least from what I could tell) and the amount of foul language is kept to a real minimum. I applaud both choices as being in good taste. If the movie had gone down this road to any significant degree, I probably couldn’t recommend it, despite being a great movie otherwise.

Of course, it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it focused on one girl’s realization that she’s going nowhere quite fast and needs to do something about it. As usual, the synopsis for the movie is misleading and the trailer is even worse. Quentin (Nat Wolff) has a major role to play, but it isn’t as Margo’s sidekick. Like Margo, Quentin is stuck in a rut and needs to ask what makes one happy in life. Again, it’s a really important question because everyone knows someone who totally abhors their occupation, lives with a spouse they detest for the kid’s sake, and generally has a really rotten life. Here is a kid who is starting to head down that road, but is intercepted by Margo who gets him to think again. The movie makes the point that life is to be enjoyed, that work really shouldn’t be, and that relationships should be fun.

Most teen movies I’ve seen are truly mind candy and not very good mind candy at that. This movie could easily fall into the mind candy category too if it didn’t ask those important life questions. It really does have something of value to offer the discerning audience. For everyone else, well, there is the semi-nudity and drunken parties to enjoy. If you haven’t seen Paper Towns and would like something to think about for a while, you really do need to see it and be prepared to watch with your mind open and your creativity in gear.  I highly recommend it.


Considering the Effects of Automation

After recently watching Disney’s new movie, Tomorrowland, I started thinking about the world that really could come about tomorrow. Of course, it will have many of the same problems we have today, but I’m sure it will also have a few new problems and hopefully, some of the old problems will see some sort of resolution. My recent forays into advanced math have given me a new perspective of just what it will take to create tomorrow. In writing both Python for Data Science for Dummies and MATLAB for Dummies I’ve come to a greater appreciation of the role that both math and science will play in creating this new world—not that there was any lack of appreciation before I wrote the books, but the vision now is clearer.

The fact of the matter is that people will require more education. Even plumbers and electricians will need to know more in order to deal with new technologies coming on the scene (think about performing tasks such as installing solar panels). It will come to a point where advanced schooling after high school (whether trade or technical) is going to become a necessity. Yes, people can still get jobs today without a college education, but those days are coming to an end with the advances in robotics I keep reading about. For example, a recent New York Times article, As Robots Grow Smarter, American Workers Struggle to Keep Up, says quite a lot about the future of low paying jobs—they simply won’t exist. Articles such as the one found in MIT Technology Review, Robots That Learn Through Repetition, Not Programming, tell the story of why this is the case. In the future, robots will learn to perform new tasks as needed. The tone of some of these articles is a bit negative because we’re viewing the future through today’s eyes.

What I see in the future are opportunities for people to create, but in a safer environment than in the past. Just as it’s difficult to see the past as it actually was (the way the people viewed things at that time), trying to view the future, even if you have some inkling of what that future might contain, is difficult. For example, imagine having to saddle your horse before you can go anywhere—people today are used to simply climbing into the car and turning the key. However, if you lived in the early 1900s, a car was a really loud, obnoxious device that would spell the ruination of society—horses were far more practical and comfortable (interestingly enough, about 40 percent of those cars were steam powered). There is a difference in viewpoint that is hard to overcome (or even imagine for that matter). A ComputerWorld article, How enterprises can use artificial intelligence, describes how technology in the movies doesn’t quite match reality. In fact, you might find some of the ways in which advanced technologies and automation are used somewhat boring. Fraud detection hardly ranks as a highly exciting way to use technology, but it reflects the practical nature of how technology sees use today.

When I see kids today doing absolutely everything on a smartphone, I come to realize that they already live in a world far different from the one I knew as a child. There is no going back. Children today have different problems than I had simply because the technology is different. If I encountered a problem, I first had to find a phone to call someone for help—children today carry their phone with them (almost as another body part). Then again, children when I grew up didn’t have the problems with obesity that children do today.

A lot of the readers I talk with every day express various feelings about automation and all it entails—some are scared, others elated. The fact is that the future has always been different. Change is a part of the human condition. We’ll live through the changes that automation will create too. Let me know your thoughts on the changes that automation will bring at


Review of Gravity

An essential requirement for any movie I watch is that it must be entertaining. Gravity fulfills this requirement in a unique way. It’s one of the few movies I’ve ever seen where the 3D version is most definitely better than the 2D version and it’s the only movie I’ve ever seen where 3D is actually a requirement. The manner in which this film is presented makes the 3D version so much better than the 2D version that seeing it in 2D is to miss part of the movie’s appeal. The use of 3D brings home the vastness of space, even when that space is in the immediate vicinity of earth.

Despite the categories you might have seen assigned to this film, it really doesn’t have anything to do with science fiction. This is a survival film that just happens to have its venue in space. It’s also pure fiction. You need to disregard a few laws of physics and suspend reality just a bit to enjoy the film. A lot of the film’s detractors decry the technical problems of the film and spend their time pointing out flaws, rather than enjoying what really is an entertaining film. If you want a balanced view of what’s wrong with this film technically and why you should ignore these issues, read What Does A Real Astronaut Think Of ‘Gravity’?. The point is, this is a movie, not a documentary.

Sandra Bullock does an outstanding job in the film. In fact, this is one of the better roles I’ve seen her in, even better than Miss Congeniality and Practical Magic. The way in which she moves throughout the film makes it quite believable that she really is in space doing all of these things. Her reactions to the challenges she faces are also quite convincing. I never found myself at the edge of my seat—the outcome was understood from the beginning, but I did find myself completely absorbed in how she would meet the challenges.

George Clooney is window dressing for the most part in this movie. Yes, he has a few interesting minutes, but for the most part the focus is on Sandra Bullock throughout. If anything, his performance lacked punch and he came off as a “know it all” with a complete lack of discipline. The movie could have been better still if they had used another actor or if his role had been changed to look more professional. Clooney really wasn’t the best choice for this film—what it really needed is someone who could act convincingly as both a professional astronaut and a mentor. He really is more suited to movies such as Ocean’s Eleven.

The plot for this movie is a bit thin. You really do know the outcome from the outset. Even so, Gravity does have some good moments and the filming is spectacular. It’s the kind of movie that you watch just a few times, but enjoy immensely the few times you do watch it. Once you get past the filming and the few surprises the movie has to offer, it really does lack substance. I’m glad that I saw it and I’ll watch it again given the chance, but it’s not the sort of movie that I’m likely to add to my collection.


Review of Olympus Has Fallen

Tensions are currently high with North Korea, so it’s hardly surprising that Hollywood has played on those fears with a movie. Olympus Has Fallen presents a unique view of what would happen if terrorists managed to take over the White House. A number of people have compared this movie with Red Dawn. Although the two movies do feature foreign invaders, the plots are completely different and I would say that Olympus Has Fallen is definitely more compelling. It draws you in. However, in order for either movie to work, you have to be willing to suspend a bit of critical thinking and allow yourself to be entertained. Both movies are pure fantasy.

In Olympus Has Fallen, a former US Army Ranger, Mike Banning (played by Gerard Butler) faces off against a North Korean terrorist, Kang Yeonsak (played by Rick Yune). Kang has managed to take the President, Benjamin Asher (played by Aaron Eckhart) hostage, along with a number of members of his staff. They’re actually in the presidential bunker in the White House.  I’ll leave it to you to discover just how this happens. The two characters face off against each other in an extremely calculated manner—there are no cheap shots in this movie. I think that it’s the way the two men seem to think through absolutely every move that makes this movie so good. The two are chess masters in a dangerous game of life and death.

Kang is trying his best to get the self-destruct codes for the country’s nuclear weapons arsenal from the President and plans to use his son, Connor Asher (played by Finley Jacobsen), as the means to do it. Meanwhile, an ineffective Speaker of the House, Allan Trumbull (played by Morgan Freeman), hopes that Mike Banning will rescue the president and set things right. Trumbull really is ineffectual and portrays a calm desire to let Banning do all of the heavy lifting despite the insistence of nearly everyone else that Banning isn’t up to the task (it’s the people who vote for Banning that make the movie interesting). There is a dynamic between the various actors that provides nearly constant tension throughout the movie. Finley Jacobsen also manages to add a cute factor that endears him to the audience.

While this movie isn’t even a little realistic, it’s extremely entertaining. Riveting would be a better word for it. I noted that my wife actually sat on the edge of her seat throughout most of the movie. Any movie can rely on special effects to provide entertainment value and there are some special effects in this movie, but it goes much further. The acting is great, the plot is good, and there is nearly constant non-repetitive action. The varied action is a strong point in this movie (so many action movies repeat the same actions over and over again).

There are a few down sides to the movie. It could have been made a little more realistic without denting the movie’s entertainment value. Morgan Freeman does play the part of an ineffectual Speaker of the House well, but to the point of being inept. The role could have been spiced up a little without any problem. There is also an incredibly large plot hole in the movie that should have been addressed (just how did the terrorists manage to secure all of those US weapons, especially the plane). Even so, Olympus Has Fallen makes for great viewing.


Review of V for Vendetta

V for Vendetta is a movie that you can sum up with a single phrase, “People shouldn’t fear their government; the government should fear its people.” The phrase has become so famous that I turned up 55,330 hits when looking for it on Google. Hugo Weaving (V) and Natalie Portman (Evey) provide an amazing depiction of an Orwellian world in which the government has taken over the lives of its citizens to protect them from a dire plague. The question of whether the loss of freedom is worth the perceived protection that government can provide is the locus of content in this movie. The location is England, but there are constant references to the United States, which is in chaos from the plague. The fate of the rest of the world is unimportant as far as the movie is concerned and knowing how the rest of the world has fared would only prove to be a distraction. (The movie is an adaptation of the V for Vendetta graphic novel written by Alan Moore and illustrated by David Lloyd.)

To understand the movie completely, you have to consider both recent and historical facts. The Gunpowder Revolution was a failed attempt to garner religious freedom during the reign of King James I in 1605. Knowing that most Americans know nothing about the Gunpowder Revolution or one of its favored participants, Guy Fawkes, the movie does take time to explain both in a short overview manner that doesn’t detract from the flow or entertainment value of the movie even a little. The reason Guy Fawkes is important is not the man, but the idea encapsulated by the man’s actions. Freedom to be who you want to be is the focus of both the movie and the history event. Guy Fawkes Day is still celebrated each November 5th with bonfires and fireworks.

Recent history comes into play because the movie makes constant references to the sorts of things that are happening in the American political arena today. Some people have gone so far as to cast the movie as anti-American, while others see it as a call for political activities, such as the Occupy movement. There are even some groups that are drawing a parallel between the events in the movie and the loss of freedoms engendered by the events of 9/11. Let’s just say that the movie is good at stirring a strong emotional reaction, no matter what your politics may be.

There are elements of the movie that will make people uncomfortable. It addresses a considerable number of sensitive topics and I have no doubt that some people are offended by the coverage. For example, it portrays gay and lesbian lovers in a relatively open way.

I don’t actually go to the movies to decide my political ideals and motivations, but any review of this movie has to necessarily include some information on that content. The biggest question is whether the movie is still entertaining, despite the message it tries to present (successfully or not depends on you). There are definite science fiction elements of the apocalyptic genre. You’ll also see strong emotional elements (other than the politics). In some respects, the movie is a hard core love story between V and Evey (no, you won’t see scenes of heavy breathing, but the tension between the two becomes obvious as the movie progresses). The movie draws most people in and you find yourself caring for the main characters quite quickly.

The surprising aspect of this movie is that there is also a mystery element. Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) spends considerable time trying to track V down. However, the chase leads Finch in unexpected directions. Telling you too much about them would ruin the surprises, but it really does make for a good mystery. While V tells you about the price of freedom and Evey tells you about the price of love, Finch reveals the story behind both.

If you’re looking for dramatic graphics and special effects, this movie does have some of both, but tastefully keeps them under control because it has such as strong story to tell. You may be disappointed if you truly expect to see an overwhelming assortment of chases, escapes, and pyrotechnics, but I think the makers of this movie made great choices in their selection of visual elements.

I’d love to say that this movie is pure entertainment, but you’d have to work hard to ignore the messages it presents. Despite your best efforts, it will likely cause you to think about things that you may not have otherwise thought about. The entertainment aspect really is top notch, but the strong story elements make this movie so much more than simple entertainment. Be prepared to have some aspect of your current viewpoints challenged because this movie seems to pick on a wide range of popular notions. V for Vendetta is an amazing movie.


Review of Dark Shadows

It’s always interesting to see how someone is going to handle a movie version of a television show, especially when that show played long enough in the past that the original actors are unavailable to participate in any significant way (especially in their original roles). Dark Shadows starring Johnny Depp (as Barnabas Collins) and Michelle Pfeiffer falls into this category. No matter how you play your part, the people who loved the original show will complain because it isn’t the original show. I remember watching the original Dark Shadows with my mom during lunch in the summer months.  I was somewhere around eight or nine at the time the show started in 1966 (I may not have started watching until 1967). There is only one word to describe the original series—Gothic. The brooding interiors, appearances of vampires and other creatures of the night, and overall pacing of the program made it something special even for an eight year old.

The movie is something similar, but also different, from the original Dark Shadows. Anyone who has become so fixated on the original show that they can’t be objective about any other treatment of the topic will absolutely hate this movie. Johnny Depp has taken the original show and made it his. Anyone familiar with Johnny Depp knows that he plays his parts in an unusual manner. The role he played in Pirates of the Caribbean says it all. When you combine Johnny Depp with director Tim Burton, you have to expect the unexpected.

Expect a little comedy in this movie. The comedy isn’t continuous, but it is there and it feels natural when you see it. The comedic element is what adds the true Depp touch to this movie. It isn’t meant to provide a raucous laugh, but more of a good chuckle. The tongue-in-cheek humor can be a little subtle at times and there was one case where I got the joke a few minutes after it appeared on screen. Even so, the humor keeps the movie from becoming a little too dark and possibly boring.

Overall, the movie does follow the same basic plot as the television show, but greatly speeds the plot up and doesn’t include many of the elements of the original show (there are no zombies and the werewolf only makes a cameo appearance). Of course, the original show had over 1,200 episodes in which to convey its content and Johnny Depp only had 113 minutes. I found the movie plot moved along at a nice pace and kept me entertained. There weren’t any places where I was bored and wished for something, anything else to happen. Care was taken to keep the plot coherent and I think most people will enjoy it.

Not to leave Michelle Pfeiffer out, she played something of an accountant. At least, that’s how I essentially viewed her role as the Collinwood family patriarch. I didn’t feel her acting was quite up to the standard of movies like Ladyhawke and Batman Returns. There was a little something missing that made her role feel a bit forced at times.

Eva Green, who plays the evil witch Angelique, does an outstanding job in her role. She plays against Johnny in a way that keeps the plot moving well and doesn’t feel a bit forced. Not having seen the script, I have no way of knowing whether any adlibbing took place, but it wouldn’t surprise me. The two worked together incredibly well. I only barely remember her acting in Casino Royale, a movie that failed to impress me much. I’ll remember her in this role.

Bella Heathcote plays Victoria Winters well. It isn’t an outstanding job, but technically proficient and she did seem to fit the role well enough. This is the first time I’ve seen her acting ability and I hope to see her in future roles because I think she’ll have a lot to offer.

The movie does include a few special effects—some of which you might not notice at first. As with the humor, many of the special effects are subtle and you only realize you’ve seen a special effect after you think about the impossibility of a sequence actually occurring (the physics are simply wrong in some cases). Some special effects are obvious, but not in the exploding car, action-oriented sort of way. A few are really quite amazing because I don’t think I’ve seen them done in any other movie. In short, the special effects work well with the movie and add to it, without being overly obvious in most cases (except when you’d expect them to be obvious).

This is one of Johnny Depp’s better roles. I wouldn’t quite put it on par with his portrayal of Captain Jack Sparrow, but certainly it’s nearly as good. I’ve talked with a few people since I watched the movie who actually do feel this is his best role to date, so what you feel about it will depend on the kind of Johnny Depp you like to watch. One thing is certain, this movie will be going into my library when it’s finally released. No, it’s not the original Dark Shadows, but it’s a fun treatment of the Dark Shadows plot that really does do a great job of entertaining.


Review of Real Steel

Real Steel (starring Hugh Jackman and Evangeline Lilly) is a combination of two movie types I really like—science fiction and boxing. The synopsis of the movie sounds unique and in many respects, the movie is unique. However, once you see the movie, the first thing that comes to mind is that it’s faintly reminiscent of the Rocky movies. The movie is actually loosely based on a The Twilight Zone episode entitled, “Steel” (1963) penned by Richard Matheson (1956). Being a fan of the old television series (still being shown in some locations), I can see a faint resemblance to the way the show would have been put together, but don’t expect to see Rod Serling appear on screen.

Let’s get the required glitz review out of the way. The graphics in this movie are nothing less than spectacular in the fact that they look completely normal. There is a certain amount of flashing lights, explosions, and the like, but for the most part, this movie could happen in your neighborhood today. It’s this lack of over-stimulation that draws you into the movie. You find yourself believing that someone you know could be boxing robots. Whoever put the graphics together and came up with the creative ideas for this movie is amazing. I had expected eye popping effects and instead got normal, which actually suits this movie quite well.

The value of this movie is in the plot. Emotions run high because the plot is quite good and well acted. You find yourself wanting to cheer, cry, and yell all in a matter of minutes. Charlie Kelton (Jackman) ends up taking care of his little boy, Max (Dakota Goyo), after literally ignoring him all of his life and then selling him to his sister-in-law. Max is understandably upset at first, but then something happenshe gets interested in his own robot boxer. Even though Charlie is a complete loser on his own, when coupled with Max he becomes a winner. I don’t want to ruin the plot of this extraordinary film, but you can imagine what happens next.

Most of the performances in this movie are a little over the top, but well acted. The only actor that didn’t quite do the job was Evangeline Lilly (Bailey Tallet in the film). I found her performance a bit weak. It was almost as if she was overawed by Jackman. She did play an important part, but the performance could have been bettermore believable. It wasn’t until the end of the movie that I felt a bit for her character, but by that time I was almost too busy cheering Charlie and Max to really notice. It was a case of too little, too late.

If you like science fiction, boxing, or simply a well-acted emotional movie, you’ll like Real Steel. It has few warts and a lot to recommend it. I just hope that they don’t ruin this movie by coming out with a sequel.


Review of Conan the Barbarian

I’m sure someone will yell, “Heretic!” after reading my review of the new Conan the Barbarian (starring Jason Momoa and Ron Perlman). Yes, we all know about the time honored version that features Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no replacing that version and I’m happy to say that this movie doesn’t try. I’m not going to get into the political debate of how each version has strayed from the original Robert E. Howard books. You can find this sort of discussion in a number of places online, including the Amazon comments for each movie. No, my review is more along the lines of answering the question of whether this new version has entertainment value. After all, someone goes to the movies to be entertained.

Fortunately, the director, Marcus Nispel, did something right—he didn’t try to compete with the original movies. This is something different and it truly is entertaining, but in a different sort of way than either the books or the original movies. The movie begins with Conan’s childhood, but you get a snapshot and not the fuller treatment of the older version of Conan the Barbarian. The books don’t cover Conan’s childhood at all (at least, not so far as I know). This version of the movie is a bit more violent than the originals, but far less gory than some other movies I’ve seen. The movie does indeed have a plot and it isn’t all about how much violence Conan can commit in the shortest time possible. However, you won’t want to take your kids to this movie if they’re squeamish about blood or a bit of nudity.

The characters are polished in this movie to the point where you want to boo the bad guy and you feel bad when the hero has a hard time of it. There is an definite emotional attachment that takes place, which is something every movie should strive to achieve. If you don’t care about the characters, then it’s usually pointless to watch the movie. However, when it comes to larger than life heroes, it’s still tough to beat Arnie. You’ll like this Conan for his humanity, rather than being larger than life. I thought Marique’s (Rose McGowan) metal fingertips were a nice touch, as was the hairdo that made her look as evil as you thought she should be.

Needless to say, the graphic effects in this movie are well beyond anything the original Conan movies can offer. In some cases, the eye candy proved a little distracting to me. I found my attention diverted from what the characters were trying to convey in a few places, especially near the end of the movie when dramatic events were drawing to a close. Just how many cave-ins does a single movie need?

Overall, I thought that this movie does a great job of entertaining the viewer who isn’t looking for a direct takeoff of the original movies or the books. This movie stands on its own and you have to accept it on those terms or you’ll be disappointed. The scenery is superb, the dialog excellent, and the actors have that certain appeal required to make you care about them. I think that eventually this movie will become just as much of a cult classic as the original Conan the Barbarian and I definitely plan to add it to my collection when it comes out.


The Lives of Others

The Lives of Others is a German-language movie about East Germany before the fall of the Berlin wall. The movie focuses on three individuals: Georg, an author who is initially devoted to the state, but eventually finds that the state is a dead end, Christa his actress girlfriend, and the Stasi policeman, Gerd, who is sent to bug Georg’s apartment. The movie received an academy award and deserves it. The plot is emotionally intense and well played.

This is a psychological movie. There aren’t any fabulous chase scenes or shootouts. In fact, the movie is about a single word, freedom. It asks the question, “How much is state safety worth compared to the freedom of living one’s life as one sees fit?” The movie answers the question by showing Georg risking his life to write articles for the West that show the state’s policies for what they arethe evil desires of a few corrupt individuals. It also shows Christa committing suicide and Gerd giving up a comfy position, all to protect Georg from the state. Both come to believe in what Georg is doing and are willing to die to obtain their freedom from extreme repression.

I can honestly say that I stayed focused throughout the movie because it has a lot to say, the actors do their jobs well. Actually, it has a lot to say to Americans who think that giving the state more power to make them safe is a good idea. Every time our government allows yet another freedom robbing bill to pass, I know we’re taking yet another step toward the sort of repression this movie presents.

Some people will find the scenes of torture during the movie hard to deal with. No, there aren’t any incidents of waterboarding or other physical cruelty. All of the torture depicted is of the psychological variety. I’m sure the actual torture techniques were far worse. Still, the way in which the torture is presented will almost certainly offend some people.

There are a few minor nits with this movie. The movie is in German, so I needed to watch with subtitles on, which isn’t a problem for me. However, some of the subtitles flashed by so fast that I had to go back and replay them in order to keep up with the movie. I also found a few of the scene transitions a little hard to follow. There was at least one scene where I lost track of where the actors are. It turned out that they were in Georg’s apartmentI had thought at first they might be somewhere else.

Overall, this is an excellent moviewell worth the time I invested viewing it. I don’t know that this is something I would watch very often and I’d have to be in the right mood to watch it again, but I did think that it’s worth at least one viewing and it has quite a lot to say. This is a movie of high social value and not very long on entertainment. It’s a thought provoking movie that more people should watch if for no other reason than to consider just how bad things could become if we don’t safeguard our freedoms.