Friday, January 01, 2010

Year In Review - 2009

My favourite book I read this year:
Perfecting Sound Forever by Greg Milner. As I said at the time, "Well written, well researched, overall excellent".

My favourite concert I attended this year:
It was a year of great concerts with Devo, Hot Club of Cowtown, Audie Blaylock and Redline, Town Mountain and others, but there was one clear winner - Heaven and Hell, the Dio version of Black Sabbath, at the Warfield. Seeing musicians like this at a smaller venue, was simply amazing and exceeded my high expectations.
My favourite movie I saw this year:
On the other hand, it was a weak year for movies. Nothing I saw this year really blew me away. I guess I would have to give the top spot to UP. It's not as strong as Pixar's other movies, but still better than most of the dreck Hollywood puts out these days. I guess I need to see more non-Hollywood films.
My favourite place visited this year:
Another strong category, from the natural scenery of Jasper and Banff, to my first trip to the mega-city of London, but my favourite is easy - Edinburgh. I wrote about it here, here and here with pictures here. A wonderful, colourful and historic city with the nicest people I've met in my trips to Europe.
Most unexpected experience this year:
Jury duty - I went into it expecting to be bored by the realities of a courtroom but I came out of it with a new respect and interest in the legal field. In many ways, it was more interesting than how it is portrayed on fiction.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

I'm running a little behind in reviews, even though it has been the Christmas vacation and I've been off work.

The second last book I finished was Anne Perry's No Graves As Yet. It is built around two brothers, one a pastor and teacher at Cambridge, the other a government agent for the Secret Intelligence Service (later to be called MI6). The book starts with the death of their parents, who were coming to tell the spy brother about a conspiracy, and is complicated by the death of a Cambridge student.

In some ways, it is an old fashioned British mystery, set amongst the upper class before the Great War. But it spends a lot more time developing the characters of the two brothers as they go about figuring out if their parents were killed, who killed the student, and if the deaths are related. It's quite well written, and works as a stand alone book, although it is actually the start of a multi-book series.

It does feel a bit lopsided by the end, as one brother is dropped from the narrative for most of the second half and only re-appears at the end.

The last book I finished is Clarke County, Space by Allen Steele. I had read it before, many years ago but had misplaced my copy.

This book is part of his series of loosely related near future books (called the Near Space or Rude Astronauts series). These were Steele's attempt to bring near future SF "back to Earth", in a sense. They are grittier and more realistic than much SF, and use a lot of background Steele learned as a journalist covering the US space program. It is set on an orbiting station just as it decides to break away from its position as a US colony, and as a hitman pursues a fugitive aboard.

I wish Steele would go back to writing in this world, as it was quite interesting and is still different from most SF books. He has since moved on to other series, mainly the Coyote books, which I don't enjoy as much.

Yesterday we saw Avatar in IMAX 3D.

It's quite a spectacle. The whole $280M is up on the screen. The 3D is the best I've seen, although it still makes things look disjointed at times to me. The CGI for the Na'vi has successfully crossed the "uncanny valley".

On the more artistic front, the performances are good and James Cameron still has an amazing touch with action sequences. On the other hand, his writing skills haven't shown much improvement. Science fiction involves a willing suspension of disbelief, but Cameron shows off an ignorance of physics, ecology, economics, history and military tactics that makes that suspension pretty difficult. The story adds up to Dances With Wolves but where the Indians win at the end.

Overall, worth seeing. It makes me wish that this level of technical skill would be used for some science fiction classics with better stories, like Larry Niven's Ringworld.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

We just got back from seeing the new Sherlock Holmes movie, aptly titled Sherlock Holmes.

Overall it was an enjoyable movie, with some weak parts. Given the weakness of the other modern film versions of Sherlock Holmes (the Chris Columbus penned Young Sherlock Holmes in 1985 and the middling funny Without A Clue in 1988)

The look of the film is a highlight. The backgrounds and street scenes are reportedly all digital effects, but don't feel like it at all - it feels like an immersive Victorian world.

Some of the reviews have disparaged the more action oriented Holmes interpretation, but I think it is a valid one. The stories do talk about Holmes skills in Baritsu (an English martial art) and boxing and he actually gets in a few fights and scuffles in the canonical stories. Other reviews have faulted this version as not being "fastidious" enough, but that is also straight out of the stories. Holmes, as written, is extremely sloppy and disorganized outside of his professional areas, experiments with chemicals in his apartments and the scene where he shoots V.R. (for Victoria Regina) into one wall of the apartment is straight from Conan Doyle.

Where the Holmes portrayal does show real weakness is its fundamentally modern nature. Holmes, Watson and the other characters are sarcastic, ironic, egalitarian and overly expressive in contrast to how a true Victorian would have acted. This is especially telling because Holmes' lack of decorum is meant to be more meaningful in contrast to people who behave in a much more reserved fashion.

Which may have contributed to another problem, Robert Downey Jr's performance. Downey is over the top in Holmes lack of social skills, and his main approach to act out eccentricity seems to be twitching in various ways. This may also be due to him trying to distinguish his performance from his other current major role, the much cooler and sartorial Tony Stark.

The story adds up as well or better than most mainstream Hollywood stories, but does feature one really odd choice - the black magic ritual that Holmes interrupts at the start of the movie. Given how prominently a similar ritual was featured in the earlier Young Sherlock Holmes, this feels very derivative. After that, the following mysteries are better and the interplay between Holmes and Watson as Watson plans to move out pre-marriage works fairly well.

The introduction of Irene Adler as Holmes romantic weakness/arch rival works OK, once you've adapted to the modern perfomances. The treatment of the female characters (Irene Adler and Mary Morstan) is also very modern - they are independent, opinionated women and treated with respect from those around them, definitely not what would have happened if played with a period flavour. And once again, the general treatment undermines a specific character. Irene Adler is meant to be shockingly independent and aggressive, but how shocking is it when all the women are similar? It takes away from the uniqueness of the character.

But it is easier to point out in length the weaknesses, the strengths are on the screen, and it is an enjoyable film if you can get past the modernized Holmes and friends.