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July 7, 2015

Friends reviewing friends

Amazon is refusing to post reviews when its algorithms sense a personal relationship between the author and the reviewer. Amazon says, “We are removing your reviews because you know the author personally,” according to Chris Morran at The Consumerist.

The intent is fine. A review is likely to be swayed by a personal friendship. That’s why some of us disclose friendships when posting reviews at Amazon.

But, it would help if Amazon clarified what “knowing an author personally” means. In a networked world, that is an incredibly vague description.

After that, here are some suggestions that I think would help matters while preserving the policy’s good intentions:

1. Flag reviews by people with personal relationships, but don’t remove them. They may in fact shed special light on the work being reviewed.

2. Allow reviewers to flag their own reviews, and to describe their relationships. E.g., “We are colleagues,” “She’s a lifelong friend,” “We were close friends until I moved 12 yrs ago,” “We’ve been on panels together,” “We were friends until the lying bastard done me wrong.”

3. Do not count the ratings by such people in the overall total.

4. Provide some avenue of appeal when the algorithm goes wrong.

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February 12, 2015

“Whiplash” better in memory

[NON-SPOILER ALERT: There are no spoilers in this that you wouldn’t get from the most general discussion of what the movie is about. Less, probably.] I saw the movie Whiplash on a plane yesterday. I thought it had some bright-colored acting and fantastic music, but was predictable. Every ten years or so there’s another movie about an inspiring teacher,. Sometimes the teacher is kooky or lovable. Sometimes the teacher is crusty or tough or very tough, but it’s all for the kids. Whiplash is a spin on that overall genre.

The acting was pleasantly hammy, as is the mode these days. And I’m longtime fan of J.K. Simmons. (Let’s not forget Cave Johnson.) But I ended the movie a bit disappointed. Elements of it were terrific. Overall: Saw it coming like a bridge after the second verse.

But today I’m remembering it more fondly. I’m going to suggest to my wife that she see it, and I’ll watch it again with her. Mainly because the music is fantastic: great performances, and great presentation of those performances. If you think you don’t like jazz, you should watch Whiplash just to make sure.

Just be prepared for some predictable cheese.

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December 25, 2014

Instant review: The Interview

I watched The Interview tonight in part because for $6.00 I wanted to see it, and in part because I want to encourage this mode of distribution — no, not by the intervention of terrorists but over the Web.

Given the build up, I was surprised that it’s not a political satire at all. It’s a media satire. The butt of the jokes are the media, with Kim Jong Un there merely as a convenient villain.

The first two thirds were pretty funny. The last third is more predictable and pointlessly violent. Sort of like Pineapple Express. I don’t get why that sort of violence is supposed to be funny. It’s like the Three Stooges with hatchets.

Anyway, I liked it more than I expected to.

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October 2, 2014

What does Men, Women & Children think it’s about?

I went to a screening of the new movie “Men, Women and Children” last night. The only positive thing I can find to say about it is that it squandered some good performances from some great actors. In fact, I left wondering why on earth anyone made this movie. What did the director and co-writer, Jason Reitman, think he was achieving? Why did he make it? What’s it about? I don’t know, I don’t know, and I don’t know. By 30 minutes into it, I didn’t care. And now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think it’s actually worse than I had at first thought. [Spoiler: Everything you think might happen in this movie does happen.]

I liked Reitman’s Up in the Air, detested his Juno, and had mixed feelings about his writing on Thank You for Smoking. I wanted to like Men, Women & Children. But it is one of the most intensely unlikeable films ever. Some of that is on purpose. Most of it is not.

The movie was introduced to me as being about the Internet. That threw me, because although much of it documents its characters’ interactions with and over the Internet, it seemed to have nothing to actually say about the Net. In this movie, most of what happens via the Net is anti-life: a student is swayed by a pro-anorexia site, another is unable to get erect with a real girl after all of his extreme masturbatory encounters online — there’s more masturbation in this movie than at a boy’s camp the night after a social — another goes online to hire a prostitute, etc. But the Net also shows up, briefly, as the only way the two most positive couples are able to sneak out together, and as the pitiable source of salvation for a lonely soul. In fact, the clearest villain in the movie is Jennifer Garner’s cartoonish anti-Net control freak. (It’s not her fault. She was written that way.) While overall the movie presents a hugely negative picture of the effect of the Net, most of its characters’ issues are ones they have brought to the Net. The movie thus seems to have no coherent hypothesis about the Internet.

So this morning I concluded that whatever the hell this movie is about, it’s not about the Net. Which is too bad, because what I think it is about makes it an even more of an epic fail, as those young rapscallions say on the Net.

It’s an ensemble piece that follows a set of young high school students and their parents. It only cares about their love lives. It is completely by the book. These are types, not characters. They get what they deserve. End o’ story. At that level, this is merely a vapid, incompetent, trite movie.

But Reitman apparently is after something bigger. The movie is framed by long shots of the Voyager space craft (CGI, natch) sailing through space, with an elegiac narrative intoned by Emma Thompson. Now, Emma to the T has no bigger fan than me, but you have to ask why Reitman chose her. A woman’s voice? Great. A British voice about this very American movie? Was he thinking that a British voice would lend it some class? Really?

In any event, the space framing and the overvoice completely fails. The heavy-handed point it makes is that the troubled lives we are about to see are nothing in the grand scale of things. It is an intensely gloomy perspective. It is in fact the “philosophy” explicitly mirrored by one of the teen characters. It suits a depressed teen. It does not suit an adult. And, yes, the movie ends back in space with Thompson reading a long modestly hopeful quote from Carl Sagan‘s Pale Blue Dot. But did we really have to sit through a two-hour movie to be reminded that we only have each other?

Not to mention three problems with the overvoice: First, I couldn’t get Hitchhiker’s Guide out of my head every time it started. (No, I’m not proud of the fact that for me (British Narrator + Space) = Hitchhiker’s Guide.) Second, Reitman uses it for endless explicit exposition of the plot. Third, he actually has Emma’s overvoice interrupt the action midway through in order to make a jokey comment about the scene we’re watching. If you’re going to have a narrator, it’d be good to have her role be a little consistent. At least make the joke funnier.

Which brings up something you should know about this movie. It is unbelievably depressing. Or it would be if it were any good. It is a movie without joy. Everyone is unhappy. Always. I laughed once, and not that hard. There’s nothing wrong with presenting a bleak picture of life. But you have to earn it.

Realizing that Reitman probably thinks this is a movie with a big idea makes it even worse, in my estimation. He thought he wouldn’t make the usual ensemble teen comedy. He’d tell it like it really is. And he’d spend equal time on the parents as well as the children.

Fine. But what message does he have for us men, women and children? What does he have to tell us that justifies the time and expense and contribution of useful hours by his cast and crew? And our time and money as an audience? It turns out that Reitman, who is about 37 years old, has come to the adolescent’s recognition that none of us is the center of the universe despite the way our parents’ focused on us. Reitman thinks this audience is stuck on that awful teenage truth. But you can’t become an adult without getting past that truth and incorporating it into a idea of meaning at a more modest scale.

Perhaps that’s why I didn’t recognize a single human being among the ensemble he put on the screen. We are not all miserable creatures, wrong about ourselves, masturbating ourselves into sexlessness, frittering away our time on our pale blue dot. And if we were, this movie would not help, not only because it’s bad art but because in lieu of providing any vision of meaning beyond that of a disappointed adolescent, it leaves its characters either in their misery or in a phony-baloney Hollywood wrap up.

There is not a single reason to see this movie. Not even Emma Thompson.


Here’s the end quote from Pale Blue Dot from a much earlier production. Now you don’t have to see “Men, Women & Children.

You’re welcome.


So, one more thing. You know how at the end of Casablanca Bogart, er, Rick says that “the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”? That’s an important thing to remember, but only because the film has shown us that problems of three little people do amount to something.

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January 3, 2014

Wolf of Wall Street: a review

I saw it on New Year’s Eve and liked it a lot. But, I think it’s best taken as a series of brilliant set pieces. String them together and you have a fairly predictable narrative arc, and a thematic point ( [SPOILER] Greed is bad) that isn’t going to change anyone’s mind. But the set pieces are incredibly well done because Scorcese. And Leo Dicaprio is just great in it.

Some people are upset because the movie doesn’t condemn the behavior it depicts. Yikes. Scorcese is obviously showing us behavior he finds so extraordinarily bad that he was motivated to make a movie about it. To tack on some moralizing elements would only lessen the impact, because that would imply that we need to be told that the behavior depicted is bad.

Mike Ryan at HuffPo writes about this question and, citing Chuck Klosterman, compares Leo’s character to Archie Bunker. But there’s very little to understand about Archie. He’s a bigot and ignorant. Haha. Wolf of Wall Strett instead shows us a sub-culture that is twisted and extreme, but is coherent within its own little world. There’s something to understand there, which is why Leo is able to give an Oscar-worthy performance. In that it’s much like The Godfather or The Sopranos, not to mention Good Fellas. It is also more like American Psycho than like Wall Street. (And speaking of Oliver Stone, one of my very least favorite directors, if you want to be hit repeatedly with a gigantic Morality Hammer, watch Platoon, if you can get through it.)

Good Fellas is a better movie than Wolf (in my opinion, natch) because it is less predictable, the main character is more morally nuanced, there are more unforgettable characters, etc. But I thought Wolf was very good, very entertaining, and treated us like moral grownups.

Not that all of us are.

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October 13, 2013

A bit of a downer for Gravity

SPOILERS: Not really. I have a thematic quibble that I’ll keep at the level of saying something like “Much Ado about Nothing is a great love story except for an implausible plot mechanism” or “I love the evening palette of Good Night Moon, but, wow, nothing happens.”

So, Gravity is really good and worth seeing on a large screen. (Terrific use of 3D, by the way.) The use of the camera to tell the story is amazing, on a par with Hugo or the Life of Pi (to name two recent films). There’s a scene near the beginning where the camera not only fluidly changes its position, but also changes our point of view: from omniscient view of the universe, to observing the world reflected in Sandra Bullock’s space suit visor, to coming inside the visor and seeing the earth, its reflection, the HUD and Bullock’s face, and then taking the point of view of Bullock herself. The director, Alfonso Cuarón, is amazing in his ability to convey situation, point of view, sensation, and narrative. Awesome!

But…

..the plot is a bit predictable, the way (as my son pointed out) mountain-climbing movies can be. Worse, this space odyssey is wrapped around a sentimental journey that is entirely unnecessary to the film. In fact, I think it would have gone all the way to stunning if they had adhered to the old adage: In space, no one can hear your backstory.

Still, it’s easy for me to carp. It’s overall awesome. And how the heck did they shoot it? Gravity-free stunt doubles?

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May 25, 2013

Upstream Colors

[SPOILERS COMING] A few paragraphs down I’m going to talk explicitly about the theme. If you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop there; I’ve marked it with a spoiler alert. Until then, there are no spoilers. But, this is a movie you should see with no expectations other than that it isn’t your ordinary film. So, my advice is to stop here.

 

 

 

I watched Upstream Colors last night, the second movie by Shane Carruth, who gave us Primer in 2004, a time-travel movie that has spawned analyses that make Memento look like Babar’s Vacation.

Upstream Colors is mysterious and difficult to fathom, but not because it is as intricately plotted as Primer. With Primer, you have to notice that a character’s middle button is undone in one scene but is buttoned in another. (I haven’t seen Primer in a while, so I’ve made up that example.) With Upstream Colors you can let yourself relax a bit more. The salient details are flagged, generally. But how they go together, especially after the first third (i.e., after the pigs are introduced), will keep you focused.

The theme is as difficult as the plot. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone recognizing what the theme is — what the movie is actually about — while watching it. Still, you watch it enthralled. And that makes this a truly masterful movie. It is so beautifully constructed in images, sounds, and music (Carruth wrote the awesome score) that it carries you along. You are given enough narrative clues to keep you interested in what’s coming next, and you care about the characters. But Carruth has invented his own rhetoric for this movie, a correspondence of gestures and sounds that conveys shared meanings.

I had to read some analyses on the Web before the penny dropped. And even then there’s plenty left to ponder.

There are, in fact, at least two pennies. One concerns the narrative thread, along the lines of “What’s up with the pigs?” About this I shall say no more, but will instead recommend Daniel D’Addario’s article in Salon, which I liked up until the last couple of paragraphs…precisely where he goes from narrative to theme.

The second penny isexpressed eloquently by Carruth himself in a terrific interview by Charlie Jane Anders. And a second interview by her about the ending is equally important. In it, Carruth explains why the ending is subversive of narratives, but it’s also clear that the theme itself is even more deeply subversive.

[SPOILER ALERT: ]

This movie is about people who think they are controlling their lives but in fact are being controlled by forces outside of themselves, at least according to Carruth. But control is expressed in the movie as being the author of one’s own narrative. These characters are certainly not in charge of the meta narrative about what’s shaping their story. The fact that it’s pigs ‘n’ worms (and, yes, orchids) is just one more splash of cold water: the narrative the characters tell themselves when they take back control couldn’t be less ennobling. Further, one can read the ending as showing the characters becoming the next set of enablers of the cycle.

I’m not at all sure that that’s what Carruth has in mind. His interview suggests that he instead sees the pigs and worms simply as part of nature, and nature doesn’t care about what we find pleasant or gross. The transcendence at the end is not about taking back control of one’s narrative but about accepting that the stories we tell ourselves are not stories that we give ourselves. That’s far better expressed through pigs in shit than bunnies in clover.

And yet this is a movie with a highly stylized and artificial language of image, sound, and music. It is a story we have been given by a creator who, like The Sampler (the guy recording sounds), is invisible to the characters but who is shaping so much of what they experience —the shepherd of the forces controlling the characters’ experience. I can’t avoid assuming that Carruth knows that he himself is The Sampler and we are his protagonists. During the movie and then afterwards, we — like his characters — are going to think we’re taking back control of the story, piecing together what happened. We assume there must be a story, and even that it has to be about us, but suppose it’s not. Suppose there’s nothing but pigs and worms. Suppose the story is nothing but the beautiful rhetoric of an author we cannot see — an author himself embedded in a cycle he did not create.

By the way, this is a great movie — although it does bother me that I had to read about it to see why.

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July 17, 2012

[2b2k] A New Culture of Learning

If you want to read a brilliant application of some of the ideas in Too Big to Know to our educational system, read A New Culture of Learning by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown. And by “application of” I mean “It was written a year before my book came out and I feel like a dolt for not having known about it.”

DT and JSB are thinking about knowledge pretty much exactly the way 2b2k does. What they call a “collective,” I call a “knowledge network.” With more than a hat tip to Michael Polanyi, they talk insightfully about “collective indwelling,” which is the depth of insight and topical competency that comes from a group iterating on ideas over time.

Among other things, they write provocatively about the use of games and play in education, not as a way to trick kids into eating their broccoli, but as coherent social worlds in which students learn how to imagine together, set goals, gather and synthesize information, collectively try solutions, and deepen their tacit knowledge. DT and JSB do not, however, so fetishize games that they lose site of the elements of education a game like World of Warcraft (their lead example) does not provide, especially the curiosity about the world outside of the game. On the contrary, they look to games for what they call the “questing disposition,” which will lead students beyond problem-solving to innovation. Adding to Johan Huizinga‘s idea that play precedes culture, they say that games can help fuse the information network (open and expansive) with the key element of a “bounded environment of experimentation” (116). This, they say, leads to a new “culture of learning” (117). Games are for them an important example of that more important point.

It’s a terrific, insightful, provocative book that begins with a founding assumption that it’s not just education that’s changing, but what it means to know a world that is ever-changing and now deeply connected.

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June 18, 2012

The Famous NJ Turnpike Witch

Most fiction is crap. Often the plot is arbitrary or unsurprising. More often, the you can see the author’s plans behind the writing: The author needs a brainy nerd, a wisecracking minor character, a mysterious presence, someone with the key to the jalopy. Whatever. The characters, the plot, the entire mess feels constructed. Which is usually the opposite of art. (This is certainly true of my pathetic stabs at fiction.)

Then, of course, there are the magicians. John Updike could make you feel you were inhabiting a real person within a single paragraph. I’m reading Philip Roth’s Nemesis now, and while I often find Roth’s world unpleasant to live in, I find myself in that world without any sense of Roth standing between it and me.

So, meet Brad Abruzzi. Brad was a Berkman Fellow last year, and we hit it off. Brad was also a lawyer in Harvard’s Office of the General Counsel, and I got to know him in that capacity since he was a silent hero in the effort to negotiate the freedom of 12M+ bibliographic records from Harvard Library. He has since moved to MIT, which is too bad for Harvard. I like Brad a lot.

But I had no idea, none at all, that he is a fiction writer whose work is the opposite of crap. You wouldn’t know it to look at him, but the guy can write. Of course, I don’t know what I would expect a good fiction writer to look like, short of a beret and a thick coat of pretension.

I downloaded Brad’s novel New Jersey’s Famous Turnpike Witch with trepidation, figuring I’d have to say something nice to him about it while technically salvaging my integrity through some clever, noncommital choice of words. But NJFTPW is just wonderful. I’m only 70% through, and I’ll let you know how the whole thing goes, but I’m loving it so far. Brad has created a skewed world in which the NJ Turnpike is its own realm, with its own culture, sociology, and politics. The fulcrum of the story is Alice, a performance artist who — implausibly, until you realize that this is not the NJ Turnpike you’re used to driving — is beloved by the long lines of cars she ties up with her antics. The story is brimming with characters, none stock, most somewhat over-the-top, each richly imagined and each with her or his own unexpected history — funny short stories on their own. Brad, it turns out, is endlessly inventive. You would never ever read back from this book and figure it was probably written by a Harvard-MIT lawyer.

This is a really good book. Once you give into its absurd premises, it follows a logic that makes sense as it unfolds. It’s funny, satiric, frequently hilarious, and full of sentences you’ll re-read because they’re that enjoyable.

Holy cow, Brad! Holy holy cow.

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June 17, 2012

Amsterdam in three museums

I love Amsterdam so much. I know the residents have their complaints — including that tourists love it too much — but it is such a physically beautiful city, and so full of life. So, I’m very happy to have 2 days here between jobs.

Over the past 1.5 days, I have done nothing but walk, so long as you include walking through museums as walking.

My first walk brought me to the Van Gogh museum first, but on a Saturday afternoon the line stretched down the block, so I went to the Rijksmuseum instead. This is, of course, the grand museum of Amsterdam, but it has reduced and concentrated its exhibitions while it undergoes what feels like 30 years of renovation. Your €14 gets you into about a dozen rooms of works by Dutch masters. Despite the intensity of the art, and the fact that I generally get tired after about a dozen rooms in a museum, it felt a bit small.

Still, there are many stunners there. I am a sucker for Rembrandt, so I was happy. In fact, I’ve found that I’m gotten more and more awestruck by painting as I’ve gotten older. I think that’s due in part to my not feeling shallow for being moved by technique. I used to think that admiring a painter’s technique is like admiring a violinist because she plays real fast. Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations awakened me to Bach (re-awakened me, perhaps) which I grew to love both for Bach’s moving outside of the form to express himself and for Gould’s ability to do the same because of his unbelievable virtuosity. These notes, so difficult to conceive together, so impossible to play that way! I’ve come to think that technique is not a trick played on art. (Open Source Goldberg Variations here.)

And Rembrandt’s technique is so stunning. I am one of those guys who peers up close and then steps back and then steps forward again. (Yes, I try to stay out of people’s way.) I like to see how it looked to the artist and how the artist had to imagine how it would look to the viewer. I spent a good amount of time in the Rijksmuseum in front of Rembrandt’s portrait of Maria Trip admiring how he painted the lace and the dozens of pearls. He does pearls so well! But then I’d step back to see that slightly uncomfortable face. Is she someone who struggles with trying to look natural, or does she just not have a lot of naturalness to express? And then: How the hell did he paint that?

I was surprised to find myself spending a long time in front of the Wedding portrait of Isaac Massa and Beatrix von der Laen. It’s by Frans Hals, an artist I usually don’t respond to. But I was pretty much overcome by it. The newlyweds are relaxing in front of some treees and bushes, with the formal building and fountain in the distance. She’s got her arm on his shoulder and he’s leaning back with one hand in his shirt (symbolizing fidelity, the notes say). They are so clearly in love, yet still two distinct people. And of the two, she’s got the clearest view of the situation — and the situation is going to be full of happy mischief.

(Thank you, Rijksmuseum, for posting the paintings online.)

I then went to Rembrandt’s House. I was there with my family 10-15 years ago when it was undergoing renovation, and I was a little disappointed in how it came out. The first time I was there, in the 1970s, I remember having a strong sense of the size of the house. The renovation removes the sense of the house’s original boundaries, although the stairs remain damn narrow. For 10€ you can see the reconstructed kitchen (which is interesting in a diorama sort of way), demonstrations of how he printed etchings and how he mixed paint, lots of contemporary paintings, and a room full of his exquisite, tiny etchings.

This morning I went back to the Van Gogh museum. It opens at 10am on Sundays, and by 10:30am there was already a short line. The entrance fee is 14€. I have to say that I was a little disappointed, although it was still well worth the visit. Most of the iconic Van Gogh’s are in other collections, although you’ll certainly find some here. I’d guess that about half of the pictures are not by Van Gogh; some provide interesting context (the precursors section was helpful) and some are in special exhibits that don’t have too much to do with Van Gogh; the current exhibit is on the Symbolists, which the museum interprets quite broadly.

There are some very early drawings and paintings where you see Van Gogh mastering technique the way a future master would. And I enjoyed as well the Parisian paintings, from before Van Gogh left for Arles. There’s a painting that is composed like a Dutch landscape, except the earth-based portion is of Paris rendered almost like the undergrowth he was painting towards the end of his sanity.

There are fewer in the familiar Starry Night style where you wonder what the hell drug he was on, but that’s ok with me since I tend to prefer the ones where the brushstroke reveal more about the subject than about Van Gogh’s subjective state. And there are some gorgeous ones. As seems especially the case with Van Gogh, the reproductions can utterly suppress the beauty of the originals, so I was startled to see how rich the sky is in The Yellow House. It gives such a sense of a small yellow building sitting in an infinitely deep universe. (My idiosyncratic reaction was: Heidegger was right, at least for this painting: Earth and world, gods and mortals, all at their intersection.) (Thank you. Van Gogh Museum, for not only posting your paintings, but letting us zoom in on them.)

Some of the non-Van Gogh works are also pretty great. I loved a Monet vista of Monaco from a turn in the road, and a hilarious Mondrian sun-over-the-sea painting that the legend says he intended not to be ridiculous but to capture some Theosophical truth.

Anyway, it was well worth going to. But do try to find a time when it isn’t jam-packed; it was often hard to get to see the paintings instead of the backs of the heads of other visitors.

Damn tourists!

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