RAT RACE (Film)

Film

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Rat Race is not a high-brow movie. But it is hilarious and I loved it.

The premise of the film is that a number of individuals are randomly selected to participate in a race. Their goal is a locker in Silver City, New Mexico, filled with two million dollars in cash. The race itself is orchestrated by an eccentric billionaire (John Cleese) to serve as entertainment for the ultra-rich, who place very high-value bets on who they think will win. But this bit isn’t incredibly important – it’s following the various teams around as they try to win that’s really where the fun’s at.

Before I started writing this review, I did a quick Google and saw that it was rated only 44% on Rotten Tomatoes and 52% on Metacritic. Personally, I’d give it a rating in the 90s for pure entertainment value.

As I’ve said, this film isn’t intellectual and it doesn’t really have a message to share. It is wild, wacky, and absolutely does not take itself seriously. But you know what? It’s also a rollicking good ride. The acting is excellent (especially, of course, that of Rowan Atkinson), and each character has their own distinct quirks. The multiple storylines are handled well and are all individually entertaining.

This story is relatively high on the idealism end of the sliding scale of idealism versus cynicism, and pretty high on the wacky artistic-license, suspend-your-disbelief, rule-of-funny end too. This is not the film to watch if you’re looking for something realistic, thought-provoking, or with a strong/serious message. But if you’re looking for something that’s entertaining with wacky characters, improbably hilarious storylines, and real solid comedic acting, then this is the film for you.

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NEUROMANCER – William Gibson (Book)

Books

3800874This book was the most disappointing read I’ve had in a few years, which in itself was quite disappointing because I fucking love adventurous kinda-soft science fiction, and cyberpunk, and stylishly gritty dystopias, and all that bullshit.

Neuromancer is seen as one of the great cyberpunk novels. Possibly the great cyberpunk novel. I think it coined the term ‘matrix’ referring to a digital simulation of reality? I’m not sure on that. I haven’t written reviews for this blog in a while and all the veneers of professionalism I had when writing the last few have vanished, stripped away by the sands of laziness and the desire to write something more emotionally fun and less polished.

Like with my last disclaimer about a piece of entertainment I did not enjoy, I gotta add a couple of disclaimers.

Firstly, I bought a copy of this book on my Kindle, and for some godforsaken reason, the text is formatted in such a way that the line breaks one would normally find in a chapter when the author wishes to denote changes of scene are not there at all. And so, for a while, I thought William Gibson was the world’s most fucking disjointed author in terms of skipping all over the place with no indication, because on one paragraph we’d have our protagonist doing something and in the next immediate paragraph – no line break or asterisk or whatever to denote change of scene – he’d be in another district of the city doing something completely different. And then I realised that this was a formatting issue with my copy of the book, not a writing issue.

Secondly, I only read about 23% of the book, according to my Kindle’s stats. I’m generally of the belief that one ought to consume a piece of media in its entirety before judging it properly, but fuck it, I do not want to read this book anymore. Life is too short to push on through books one dislikes, unless one must do so for education purposes or in order to get paid. As I am currently neither an English student nor a professional reviewer of books, I have decided to abandon this tome.

Unlike the aforementioned last piece of entertainment that I did not enjoy, I don’t think that Neuromancer is objectively bad. I just didn’t like it.

Part of my experience was soured by the line break fuckery. I had been having a lukewarm experience up until I realised the issue, so I wasn’t hating it, so I read on. But … even with my awareness of that problem, I ended up not enjoying myself enough to continue. Part of it was probably because I had to figure out where those breaks were supposed to be, which isn’t exactly difficult, but isn’t exactly good for enjoyment or immersion in a story. It’s not a huge deal, but it detracts from the experience … especially when the experience Isn’t Great to begin with.

Here begins the part where I actually justify my dislike of the book:

To me, this story reads like the author was so in love with their worldbuilding that they are fucking revelling in it, at the expense of audience comprehension. I say ‘to me’ because I suspect this is a subjective thing.

You know how some books have a lot of fairly clear exposition in order to explain the world and the characters to the reader? And other books kind of weave the worldbuilding into the storytelling in a more subtle way, so you start off just thrown into the world and you pick it up as you go along?

I’d say this book was the latter, except I did not pick it up as I went along. It was less akin to ‘picking it up’ than it was to ‘attempting to pick it up and finding out that it was a giant pile of boulders that I could barely lift at all, and they were tumbling down a hillside towards me as I was trying to climb up it’. In this analogy, the hillside represents my journey through the book. In books I have enjoyed in the past, the ground on the hillside is covered in solid, climbable rock with some nice scenery and a killer view and some helpful strangers, maybe. In Neuromancer, the ground was unstable boulders that would roll down toward me, trying to knock me over, while I scrambled for purchase and got my hands stung by the hillside’s native population of wasps.

I didn’t start that paragraph expecting to launch into that elaborate of an analogy, but there we go. No, it’s not a fantastically elegant analogy. Yes, I’m sticking with it anyway.

In other words, I think the author built an awesome world, but in my highly subjective opinion, I think he sucked at conveying it to us. It sounds like it’s written for someone who’s already intimately familiar with the world. There is shitloads of jargon and references, and the style of writing is that sparse, sort of minimalist style that’s typical of a lot of dystopian science fiction stories that I love, except here it somehow became too sparse, like a hipster so proud of their stylishly sparse apartment that it took the arrival of a very confused housewarming party to make them realise they’d actually forgotten to install any furniture or electricity. And yet the apartment has painstakingly grungy detail in the painting of the walls, in the slightly rusty yet futuristic-looking light fittings, and in the bathtub styled like an operation tank in which high-tech surgeries create superhuman agents of the state. BUT NO FUCKING FURNITURE, OR ELECTRICITY.

I started that paragraph trying to express myself clearly and without an obnoxious analogy, but I failed. But you know what, I think that’s beautiful. And I stand by this particular analogy.

The plot of this story actually seems really interesting and is a premise that I kind of love, which makes it all the more frustrating that I could not stomach the book due to the writing style.

The protagonist is a young man named Case who used to be a hotshot hacker who operated in the matrix in order to steal things. Then he tried to steal from his employers, who then crippled him in such a way that he’s fine, except he can no longer interface with the matrix. Which makes him very depressed and turns him into a drug-riddled deadbeat. Case then gets recruited by the mysterious Armitage to pull off a heist.

IT SOUNDS REALLY FUN, RIGHT? BUT GOD. I couldn’t take the writing, I couldn’t take the fact that it was somehow bulky with jargon and stylish descriptions, yet devoid of the quality that actually makes this world easy to understand.

And I know you can’t expect to understand the world immediately, I know that part of the fun is figuring it out as you go along, but it shouldn’t take almost a fucking quarter of the book. I shouldn’t be getting this far into the book and still finding it hard to read because the way the world comes through is both dense but not enjoyable.

Plus the writing is a little too disjointed, too sparse, like a film with filled with short cuts and moody beautiful cinematography, but is so hard to follow that it crosses the line from being intriguing to unenjoyable.

In addition to this, there simply was not enough in the opening chapters to make me care about Case. His story should have been a compelling one, but the style of writing did not convey enough humanity to make me interested. And I don’t need much humanity, mind. I read Matthew Reilly.

In conclusion to this unexpectedly long review: Neuromancer held a lot of promise in its premise. The plot was interesting and the worldbuilding was pretty excellent, but in my opinion at least, these fantastic elements were conveyed in the vehicle of a writing style too stylistically sparse and fragmented to adequately communicate them in an engaging or satisfying way. And so I gave up, after 23% of the book.

Toy Story 3 (FILM)

Film

TOY STORY 3

Toy Story 3 was the first of three movies I watched while on a plane to China. I liked it, but didn’t love it. And I don’t mean ‘I didn’t love it’ as a polite way of saying I disliked it, I just … actually didn’t have any great love for it.

(Man, it feels really weird to have a lukewarm opinion of something that got 99% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes.)

It should be worth noting that I have no particular recollection of watching the first Toy Story, though I do recall the second, as I had it on VHS back in the day. I haven’t watched it in forever, but I do remember most of it.

The plot of this third installment centres around the fact that Andy is now off the college, throwing the fate of the toys into uncertainty. Things haven’t been going well for them for a while – they haven’t been played with in ages – and now they don’t know if they’ll ever see Andy again. Through a series of unfortunate events, the toys all end up being donated to a daycare centre. Havoc ensues.

I found this to be an acceptable movie. As can generally be expected from Pixar, the animation was excellent, the story inventive and original. There was humour, there was suspense, there was no shortage of moments that tugged on the heartstrings. I can’t really find any fault with this film, other than the fact that it didn’t really speak to me and I have little emotional enthusiasm for it.

Perhaps one reason for this is because I never had many toys when I was younger, and I don’t remember ever playing with what I did have in the highly-imaginative, acting-out-a-play kind of way that Andy does. So of course, those scenes weren’t too relatable to me.

Nonetheless, I recognise that Toy Story 3 is a pretty good film in terms of everything but my own lukewarm subjective reaction … which I can’t actually really explain. While I wouldn’t go out of my way to recommend it, I did enjoy watching it, and it’s worth a couple of hours of your time if you’re interested.

The Joy Luck Club – Amy Tan (BOOK)

Books

joy-luck-clubThe Joy Luck Club is a well-written novel that is also magnificently depressing. I thought it was an accomplished piece of work, but I also don’t want to read it again anytime soon … or possibly ever.

This book tells the story of four Chinese immigrant women and their American-born daughters. The narrative point of view switches between the four mothers and four daughters, spanning early 20th-century China to 1980s San Francisco. It’s a richly-woven tapestry of experiences and perspectives, ranging from the familial tragedies of pre-revolutionary China to the inevitable cultural rift between immigrants and their children. It’s a painfully vivid tapestry which Tan weaves with excruciating skill.

Predictably, my personal context has greatly informed my reaction to this book: I myself am a child of Chinese immigrants (although I grew up in 2000s Australia), and so I found this book painfully relatable. And I mean that as no exaggeration. Almost every interaction between the mothers and daughters, those words hurled across intergenerational and intercultural chasms, was something that resonated with me because I had experienced the very same things.

What’s more, my copy of this book was gifted to me by a friend (also the Australian-grown child of Chinese immigrants, like me) after I’d ranted to him about an exposive fight I’d had with my mother. I actually put off reading this book for ages, because I knew from his own recounts that I’d probably find it a somewhat distressing read. I was right.

That said, this reaction I had is a testament to Tan’s skill in writing something that – in my opinion, at least – is authentic and vividly representative of the Chinese immigrant experience. I mean this not just in terms of the exasperations of cultural transplants like me, but also in terms of the struggle of immigrant parents. So I’m giving her props for creating a work that shows a perspective not often seen in English language fiction, and for doing it very well indeed.

It’s not just my own personal experience that made this a heavy read for me, one that I blazed through as quickly as I could. Quite apart from that, the stories Tan tells of the mothers are all varying shades of terribly tragic. Tan writes well – these tales of woe weren’t unpleasant because they were clumsily written or trite, but because they were so deftly woven.

I think The Joy Luck Club is a good book. Tan writes with a clear voice that masterfully handles multiple perspectives and eras. Both the tragedies of the characters and the painfully authentic portrayal of the immigrant experiences show her considerable skill as a writer. However, they’re also the reason why I can’t say I wholeheartedly enjoyed this book, but would nonetheless recommend it to anyone interested.

STILETTO – Daniel O’Malley (book)

Books

51whahbbsdl-_sx331_bo1204203200_Remember how I said that The Rook is one of my favourite novels of all time? Well, I just finished reading Stiletto, its sequel, which I think may possibly be even better.

If you’ve not already read The Rook, I highly recommend that you do so before reading its sequel. Stiletto can stand on its own, you won’t be completely lost, but it’ll be much more enjoyable for those who’ve read its predecessor – not just because you get to return to an already-familiar world and characters in the order that the author intended, but also because there’s a few references you’ll find yourself picking up on and enjoying. Also, of course, The Rook is excellent.

I’ll advise you to stop reading this review now if you want to read The Rook, as it contains some big spoilers for it. No spoilers for Stiletto though, so if you’ve read The Rook but not Stiletto, feel free to read ahead! Okay, warnings over, onto the review:

The plot and premise of Stiletto revolves around the merger-in-progress between the Checquy Group, the United Kingdom’s supernatural secret service, and the Wetenschappelijk Broederschap van Natuurkundigen (AKA the Grafters), a Belgian group of biohacking scientific geniuses who are centuries ahead of current medical technology. There’s just one hitch, though: due to an ill-fated invasion of England that the Grafters perpetrated several centuries ago, and the fact that, upon winning a basically Pyrrhic victory, the Checquy then proceeded to (try to) annihilate the Grafters, the two groups utterly hate each other.

The novel splits time between a few protagonists, but the main ones are Pawn Felicity Clements, a Checquy psychometrist and soldier, and Odette Leliefeld – a descendent of lead Grafter Ernst van Suchtlen, and surgeon extraordinaire. Odette is part of a delegation of Grafters who have travelled to London to partake in the merger negotiations, and Felicity is a standard Checquy operative who … happens to get caught up in it all.

Of course, that’s not all there is to the plot – it happens that the Grafters have been followed across the Channel by a group of mysterious foes, known only as the Antagonists, who threaten to plunge the fragile negotiations into chaos – and possibly war.

I love this book for basically the same reasons I love The Rook – the plot is thoroughly engaging and packed with action that’ll keep you turning the pages, the worldbuilding is deliciously rich, and the writing is at once unpretentious (at least in terms of high-brow pretentions) but also incredibly fun. I do admit, one might get the feeling sometimes that O’Malley quite enjoys the sound of his own voice – the humour is generally of the witty and self-indulgent kind – but honestly, so would I if I had a voice like that. As with The Rook, there’s also a fair amount of infodumping, but it all comes through in a well-integrated enough way – and is comprised of sufficiently fascinating content – that I really didn’t mind at all.

In what ways is this book better than its predecessor? Mainly because of its diversity of character perspectives. We get a lot more insight into the Grafters and their world, which is just as rich as the Checquy’s. It turns out that O’Malley is quite capable of juggling multiple perspectives cohesively and engagingly. Additionally, there’s quite a bit more in terms of character development and skillfully-drawn emotion.

Another reason I liked this book is that it does relatively well in terms of gender and ethnic diversity. It passes the Bechdel test with truly flying colours, and its two female protagonists are fleshed-out, realistically flawed, and undeniably badass – in two rather interestingly contrasting ways. There is an impressive host of ethnically diverse supporting characters, although the main protagonists are white – however, as this book is written by a white author and set in the United Kingdom and Western Europe, that’s quite understandable.

I did note that there’s little in the way of any other type of minority representation (e.g. the queer community), however I think it’s relatively forgiveable in this case, as the nature of the story (i.e. a plot-driven urban fantasy adventure containing a general lack of romance) doesn’t exactly lend itself to elaborating on identity traits that aren’t immediately obvious to the eye, or of relevance to an action-based plot.

In short, I found Stiletto a magnificently enjoyable and masterful piece of fiction. It’s got a highly readable plot, a compelling and richly-drawn world, engaging characters, a confident and witty voice, and a surprising amount of heart. I fully recommend it.

THE ROOK – Daniel O’Malley (book)

Books

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The Rook is one of my absolute favourite novels of all time. It’s a rollicking ride and I love it.

The story begins with our protagonist waking up in a park, surrounded by corpses who are all wearing latex gloves. She has no memory of who she is, but finds in her pocket a note that begins: Dear You, The body you are wearing used to be mine.

Honestly, this was pretty much all I needed to start reading, but I’ll give you a little more in case you’re a harder sell than I was. Though if you decide you’re interested already and stop reading this review, I fully support this decision.

Our amnesiac protagonist finds out that, before she lost her memory, she was Myfanwy (rhymes with ‘Tiffany’) Thomas, a high-ranking official in the Checquy Group – the United Kingdom’s supernatural secret service. The Checquy’s job is to safeguard the nation against supernatural threats, using their supernatural (and non-supernatural) members.

Myfanwy decides to step back into her old life, aided by an impressive dossier of briefings and letters prepared by her former pre-amnesia self (who had been warned by several prophecies of her impending memory loss). Quite apart from the challenge of taking up this new role, though, Myfanwy finds that she also has to deal with a threat – the very people who wiped out her memory in the first place, who seem intent on destroying her.

Alright, premise summary aside, onto the reviw:

I fucking love this book. It’s action-packed, magic-packed urban fantasy headed by a two kickass heroines: Myfanwy of the present, and Myfanwy of the past. It’s part-epistolary novel, with chapters frequently switching between the present Myfanwy’s life, and past Myfanwy’s dossier notes. The former offers a fantastically fun look through the eyes of an amnesiac desperately trying to conceal her amnesia as she runs a secret organisation, while the latter provides informative and adventure-filled insights into the daily goings-on of the Checquy, told from the perspective of the shy but formidably competent bureaucratic genius that is past Myfanwy.

The plot of this book is thoroughly engaging, as is its premise, which is supported by highly rich, detailed, and endearingly believable worldbuilding. The worldbuilding is mostly done through past Myfanwy’s dossier, so it can come off as a bit of an infodump at times, but I personally found them all magnificently fascinating enough that I didn’t mind a bit (the fact that their existence is legitimately justified by the plot also helps).

Plot and premise aside, I’m also quite a fan of O’Malley’s writing style here: it’s clear and deliberate, with no hint of purple prose or pretentiously highbrow longwindedness, while at the same time effectively carrying all the detail and feeling needed to pull the reader into the story. There’s quite a bit of humour, too, mostly of the somewhat dry and/or self-indulgently witty variety, which I personally enjoyed.

All in all, this book is a deliciously bloated ride through the world of the British secret secret service, propelled by an engaging plot, excellent worldbuilding, and a fantastic freak show of superpowered dramatis personae. In other words, an absolute joy to read.

ASSASSIN’S CREED (film)

Film

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Assassin’s Creed is a fantastically terrible movie.

Before I begin this review, I must add a necessary preamble: I have never played the games, and I watched this movie in a cinema in China, with my cousin and his wife. It wasn’t dubbed over in Chinese or anything, they just added Chinese subtitles … BUT they also removed the English subtitles  which were (presumably) originally present during the 1492 scenes. So basically, for half the movie, I was listening to Spanish (which I do not speak), and seeing Chinese subtitles (which I cannot read). Yes, it was frustrating, a little. But it was also hilarious. The point is, take this review with a grain of salt.

That said, I am taking this part of my experience into account when forming my opinion of this film, and I still think it was Not a good movie. Because of all the parts that I did understand (and let’s be real, the 15th century scenes weren’t THAT hard to follow because it was mostly action, plus you can of course glean plot stuff from body language and so on), it was still incredibly far-fetched, weak, and not particularly entertaining. Also, I read the Wikipedia plot summary too, just it turned out I’d massively misinterpreted something (I hadn’t).

The premise is that centuries ago, the Templars were on the search for the Apple of Eden, which contained within it the key to controlling free will in humans. The brotherhood of Assassins were the group that stood in their way to stop them from gaining control over all of humanity.

Jump to modern-day, and our protagonist, Callum Lynch, is a man about to be executed by the state. But instead of dying, he wakes up in the headquarters of a mysterious organisation. A mysterious, slick, attractively-accented woman named Sophia tells him that she’s there to help him and he’s there to help her, and with barely any explanation, plugs him into a machine called the Animus. The Animus makes him experience the memories of his ancestor, Aguilar, who in 1492 was on the search for the Apple. The logic is that because Callum is a descendant of Aguilar, plugging him into the Animus allows the Mysterious Organisation staff to access his ‘genetic memory’, through which they’ll be able to view Aguilar’s actions and find out where the Apple is. Sophia tells him that her goal with all this is to ‘rid the world of violence’.

This is, of course, an incredibly far-fetched premise. I don’t have a huge problem with far-fetched premises though (for example, I quite enjoyed the 2012 film and I was a huge reader of Matthew Reilly’s books back in the day). But here’s why I had an issue with it in Assassin’s Creed.

1) There was barely any explanation or backing of this premise at all. I’m okay with ridiculous premises if it seems like there’s enough logic behind it to make it believable to the point where my fiction-consuming suspension of disbelief can carry it through. If there’s enough worldbuilding, I guess. This movie DID NOT HAVE ANY. They barely bothered to try to present the Animus as something that made any remote amount of sense, and for something that wild and wacky, lack of explanation would be fine if it were for a tongue-in-cheek, self-aware type of sci-fi (like Futurama for example), but …

2) The film took itself way too seriously. There was pretty much no modicum of humour to this film at all. Nothing that suggested that its events were to be regarded with anything other than the utmost seriousness, and if you’re gonna make a film that way, it better make a whole lot more sense than Assassin’s Creed did.

I found the dialogue particularly irritating. When Callum first wakes up in Sophia’s lab, she does not give him any explanation. She doesn’t even say ‘we can’t explain’ or anything like that. This doesn’t make sense. If you want an effective participant in your wacky science, wouldn’t you try to placate them? Instead, no, she just throws fucking weird one-liners that mean nothing and are clearly meant to be dramatic, but just sound idiotic because who in reality would talk like that? It’s so heightened and unrealistic, it’s like it was written by a foureen-year-old revelling in the sci-fi thriller genre. I say this because it sounds exactly like the ty0pe of bullshit I used to write when I fancied myself a writer at age fourteen.

All the English-speaking parts of this movie are basically this. For example, Callum tells Sophia (about the Animus), “What I saw up there, it felt real.” Her response? “It was.”

THAT WASN’T AN EXPLANATION. She just says it as if telling someone that reliving your five-centuries-dead ancestor’s life through a VR machine is something that can just be accepted like that? We, the audience, are expected to just accept that?

Once again, this unexplained scientific bullshit would be fine if the film seemed aware that it was unexplained scientific bullshit and used humour or something similarly effectively self-referential to carry it through. But no, the entire film was ridiculously serious in tone, and their approach in making the audience accept its bullshit premise seemed to be to just give as little information as possible, present it with the utmost gravity, and hope we’d fill in the blanks. Honestly, this just seems incredibly lazy, like the writers couldn’t even make up a sufficiently believable backstory for their premise. I was looking forward to some exposition at the start of the film, and there turned out to be close to none.

Relevant point: Sophia’s stated goal of using the Animus is to find the Apple and rid the world of violence and pain. She says this. She tells Callum, and her father (a powerful man in their organisation). But never is it actually explained HOW she plans to do this. I presume that the Apple, which contains the key to human free will, can somehow be manipulated to shut off humanity’s ability/urge to be violent? That holds up with the in-universe rules, but I can’t get over the fact that the writers couldn’t even tell us this, I had to deduce it myself. Which wasn’t at all difficult to do, for the record, but it comes off as a bit ridiculous that Sophia states such a lofty goal and the audience is just supposed to accept it with no further elaboration at all. It’s ridiculous that she expects Callum to accept it. (And if the logic is that she  wouldn’t expect him to accept it even with an explanation, why bother at all to state her goal? For FAUXDRAMATIC BULLSHIT REASONS. It would make much more story-telling sense, if she didn’t want to explain it or thought he’d be too dumb to understand, if she’d just said ‘I can’t tell you, but trust me’ or some other shit.)

Okay, onto some other points:

The movie, aesthetically, was quite lovely. Couldn’t find much fault with set design or anything. However, the colour scheme was incredibly uncreative. All the 1492 scenes were uniformly brown, and all the present-day scenes were uniformly grey-blue. I get that colour schemes are a powerful visual shorthand, but when the whole movie is like this, unbroken by any variation, I personally find it a little boring. But that’s more a subjective matter, perhaps.

The Assassin costumes were gorgeous. (I don’t really understand hoods in fantasy/sci-fi/adventure stories, though — wouldn’t they obscure your vision? Isn’t vision very important if you’re a warrior? Especially an assassin often fighting multiple opponents at once, and leaping across rooftops? But I’ll let that one slide due to Rule of Cool.)

The action scenes were fairly good, though a little boring. Perhaps because they were in the Hollywood action sequence style of cutting everything up and never presenting a scene clearly. There were some cool moments, though.

All up, I did not enjoy this movie in the way that the creators generally expect one to enjoy a movie (i.e. because of its quality, not because of its lack thereof), and I did not think it was a good movie either. And I generally love big dumb action flicks (Pacific Rim, for example).

TL;DR: Assassin’s Creed took itself far too seriously for something with such a ridiculous premise, gave insultingly little explanation for any of its bullshit, was full of stupid fauxdramatic and unrealistic dialogue that was clearly meant to be intriguing but just fell flat, and was not in any way satisfying.