Monthly Archives: December 2013

Book Review: 2013 Revue

I read a lot of books in 2013.  26 in all.  Here’s a recap with links to the reviews.

Jitterbug Perfume – 3/5 stars

Reamde – 4/5 stars

Some Remarks: Essays and Other Writings – 2/5 stars

Eating Animals – 3/5 stars

The Fourth Hand – 2/5 stars

The Book Thief – 5/5 stars

South of Broad – 3/5 stars

The Warmth of Other Suns – 5/5 stars

Stormfront – 2/5 stars

Stonemouth – 3/5 stars

Fool Moon – 2/5 stars

Old Man’s War – 4/5 stars

The Jungle Book – 4/5 stars

Stranger Things Happen – 2/5 stars

World War Z – 5/5 stars

Zoo City – 2/5 stars

A Princess of Mars – 4/5 stars

Pump Six and Other Stories – 4/5 stars

The Ghost Brigades – 4/5 stars

The Last Colony – 4/5 stars

Dubliners – 3/5 stars

Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression – 5/5 stars

Peter Pan – 5/5 stars

Mercury Falls – 4/5 stars

Mercury Rises – 3/5 stars

Mercury Rests – 2/5 stars

Movie Review: 2013 Revue

I saw a lot of movies in 2013.  50 in all.  Here’s a recap with links to the reviews.

Flight – 4/5 stars

Skyfall – 3/5 stars

Lincoln – 5/5 stars

Life of Pi – 5/5 stars

Killing Them Softly – 3/5 stars

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey – 3/5 stars

Les Miserables – 2/5 stars

Django Unchained – 4/5 stars

Gangster Squad – 1/5 stars

Zero Dark Thirty – 4/5 stars

Broken City – 3/5 stars

Side Effects – 4/5 stars

A Good Day to Die Hard – 1/5 stars

Jack the Giant Slayer – 3/5 stars

Oz the Great and Powerful – 3/5 stars

Olympus Has Fallen – 4/5 stars

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone – ?/5 stars

G.I. Joe: Retaliation – 2/5 stars

42 – 3/5 stars

The Place Beyond the Pines – 3/5 stars

The Company You Keep – 3/5 stars

Ironman 3 – 3/5 stars

The Great Gatsby – 4/5 stars

Star Trek: Into Darkness – 4/5 stars

The Hangover 3 – 2/5 stars

Now You See Me – 3/5 stars

Man of Steel – 3/5 stars

World War Z – 2/5 stars

Pacific Rim – 1/5 or 4/5 stars

RED 2 – 3/5 stars

The Wolverine – 3/5 stars

2 Guns – 4/5 stars

Elysium – 1/5 stars

Kick-Ass 2 – 3/5 stars

The World’s End – 5/5 stars

Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters – 3/5 stars

This is the End – 3/5 stars

Prisoners – 3/5 stars

Rush – 4/5 stars

Gravity – 5/5 stars

Captain Philips – 4/5 stars

12 Years a Slave – 5/5 stars

The Counselor – 2/5 stars

Thor: The Dark World – 4/5 stars

Dallas Buyers Club – 4/5 stars

Catching Fire – 4/5 stars

Homefront – 2/5 stars

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug – 2/5 stars

American Hustle – 4/5 stars

Anchorman 2 – 2/5 stars

Movie Review: Anchorman 2

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 2/5 stars

Bottom Line: A few good laughs.  Some great cameos.  That’s about it.

I don’t know why I went to see this movie given that I’ve never seen the first “Anchorman” movie and I find Will Ferrell movies to be pretty overrated.  The previews for it looked genuinely funny, though, so I gave it a shot.  I ended up with exactly what I’d expect from a Will Ferrell movie.  Not a lot.

Inasmuch as plot matters to a movie like this, Ron Burgandy (Will Ferrell) loses his job as a news anchor while his wife is promoted which causes them to break up.  After hitting rock bottom, he ends up getting a job at the first 24 hour news network where he quickly makes it a news rating juggernaut all while putting his family back together.  But if you expect the movie to make sense, you are in the wrong movie.

Given the audience reactions, this was the funniest movie ever made.  There were many guffaws and plenty of hearty laughter throughout, only I wasn’t the one laughing.  I believe I got more entertainment laughing at the people laughing at the movie than I did the movie itself.  That isn’t to say there weren’t any laughable moments.  There were enough laughs for an hour long movie, a few of which only I found funny.  Unfortunately, the movie was two hours long.

The final battle scene (yes, you read that right) has what is perhaps the most cameo appearances ever accomplished in a motion picture.  The scene is only clever because of the amount of cameos which includes Liam Neeson, Amy Pohler, Tina Fey, Jim Carrey, and John C. Riley just to name a few.  Oh, and the Minotaur which was the only funny part of the whole battle.

There was, surprisingly, some pretty good social commentary in the film.  Many of the jokes that hit were of the “this is what ‘news’ has become” variety.  That’s not nearly enough to save this overlong clunker whose idea of comedy is to throw as much at the wall as possible to see what sticks.  Comedy movies have gotten more and more lazy that way.

The Case Of The Squeaky Shoe

My left work shoe has developed a squeak and it is driving me crazy.  It started off as just a small noise when I pressed down on my heel as I walked my normal gait.  Soon, it became even louder and then it started happening as I press on the ball of my foot too.  I can’t figure out where it’s coming from at all.  My non-squeaky right shoe looks exactly the same as the left.  Stop squeaking, shoe!  Just stop!

You may think this is just a harmless little annoyance, but you’re talking to a person who needs to rearrange his pockets so his keys and loose change don’t jangle as he walks.  This is my vision of hell.  Of course, my other vision of hell is shopping so it will be interesting to see how long it takes before my one hell becomes more tolerable than my other hell.

On Giving

The citizens of the United States are a fairly charitable people.  Our giving of money and goods to charities is one of the best per capita.  Obviously, this is at least partly because we are by far one of the richest countries.  Our vast wealth makes us so far removed from the people on the receiving end of charity that we don’t consider the ramifications of our giving.  (As an aside, volunteering your time is a great way to help you get closer to the people you are helping.)

Nowhere is our charitable aloofness more clear than our response to natural disasters.  Take the recent Typhoon Haiyan which devastated the Philippines.  There was an enormous outpouring of goods and money from the United States to help with the response to the typhoon.  Can anyone point out what is wrong with that last sentence?  If you asked, “Why in the world would you send goods half way around the world?”, you win a cigar.  We were sending C-130s full of goods to the Philippines.  It certainly makes you feel good seeing all of those boxes lined up waiting to be loaded on a plane, but you are actually causing more harm than good with those goods.

Here’s why.  Local economies are often devastated by natural disasters.  This devastation can reach much farther than the track of the storm.  By sending goods, you are destroying any opportunity for the local citizens to make much needed money.  By sending 100,000 shirts, you are denying 100,000 from being sold locally.  This is especially egregious because the purchasing of those shirts can often be done with less money than it takes to send it over in the first place.

The lesson to be learned is you should never, ever, ever give goods that are destined to another country.  Heck, you should probably never give goods that are destined for another state most of the time either.  The answer is give money.  As much as you can.  And don’t mark that money to be used only for a certain event.  The charities that help in these instances are much better equipped to spend that money where the money will do the most good and be able to purchase exactly what they need and when they need it.  The charities can take your money and buy 100,000 shirts locally and be able to take advantage of scale and likely lower prices and have even more left over to buy other necessary supplies as a result.  All while helping the local economy get back on its feet.

To sum up.  Be generous with your money.  Be generous with your time.  Save the giving of goods to local charities.

How Old Is Your Building?

I love people with too much time on their hands.  They are the only reason why things like this map of Chicago homes color coded by when they were built ever see the light of day.  The data is by quarter century only, but you really get a good feel for how the city was built.  It would be a cool bonus feature if they would give each year a separate color.  Even better would be a time-lapse showing the buildings being built year by year.  You can also see the neighborhoods that were gentrified by identifying the areas where individual homes were rebuilt.  It’s pretty nifty.

Movie Review: American Hustle

Jean-Paul’s Rating: 4/5 Stars

Bottom Line:  This movie is total Oscar bait.  Well acted, well directed, great cinematography, and awesome costume design.  It’s a little slow, though.

“American Hustle” is a movie very loosely based on the FBI ABSCAM sting operation from the late 70s in which they hired a con man to catch crooked politicians.  It tells the story of two con artists who are caught by the FBI and then forced to help the FBI capture more con artists.  The little fish keep offering up bigger fish and, with an FBI agent who has his eyes on promotions, they soon find themselves going after politicians and the mob as what was supposed to be a few simple arrests of low level operators quickly spins out of control.

The movie itself is gorgeous.  It’s a period piece and I am told they recreated the period beautifully.  I was too young to really remember the 70s, but from pictures and the crappy clothes my parents dressed me in, I can say that the styles seem accurate.  The set designs and the costuming alone almost make the movie worth going to, if you’re in to that sort of thing.

More importantly, though, the cast is absolutely outstanding.  Every scene between Jennifer Lawrence and Christian Bale and their warped co-dependant relationship is fantastic.  And the scenes between Bradley Cooper and Louis C.K. and their abusive boss/employee relationship are possibly even better.  But that’s just to point out the best acting parts.  Everyone is terrific in this movie.

The movie does, however, start kind of slow.  They take a lot of time to set up all of the characters.  Some may argue too much time, but it really helps to get a feel for who they are and where they come from.  It establishes depth that helps make the characters relatable.  As the FBI con keeps getting more and more complicated and the tension builds, the movie just gets better and better.  I found myself completely in the dark as to how events would unfold.  It is not often a movie does that to me.

This is going to be one of those movies that people either love or hate, I think.  I am certainly in the love column.  There is a lot to love, but many people will probably be turned off by the slow build even if the end result is well worth it.

As an added note, I was surprised to learn that the movie only made around $20 million this weekend.  The theater that I was in was fairly crowded.  It must be one of those things where the area demographics where just perfect for the movie.

People You Should Read

A friend posted a list of 10 authors that affected/inspired her and that got me thinking about my own list of authors.  Here they are in no particular order.

1. Kurt Vonnegut – Listen!  You should read everything by him.  Gobble it all up like a fat man sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner after having fasted for a week.  Not all of his stuff is great, but it’s all good.  Obviously, “Slaughterhouse Five” is a must, but I’d also recommend “Cat’s Cradle” if you’re only going to read a few of his works.  I think there is only one other author that I have reread more often than Vonnegut.  And that is…

2. Madeline L’Engle – She was one of the transforming authors of my childhood.  I have read “A Wrinkle in Time” more times than I can count.  It is the one book that I actually look forward to reading to the children that I will likely never have.

3. Robert Heinlein – I was surprised to learn as an adult that Heinlein was considered somewhat of a Libertarian hero because of his books, mostly “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress”.  That doesn’t make the story any less good, though.  It has been a long time since I have read it, but I still consider “Stranger in a Strange Land” one of my favorite novels.  Not everyone groks it, but everyone should give it a shot.

4. Chuck Palaniuk – He of “Fight Club” fame.  I only started reading his stuff because I liked the movie so much and the novel did not disappoint.  Much of his stuff is pretty disturbing, but that is also what makes it interesting.  His style kind of reminds me of a modern day Kurt Vonnegut.

5. Jane Austen – I have read “Pride and Prejudice” a few times and have even read “Pride and Prejudice and Zombies”, not that that’s Jane Austen.  I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Austen.  Her books all feature strong female characters, but they are all still stuck in 19th century England which is not at all a place a young woman would want to find herself.  Austen’s characters tackle the misogyny of the time with wit and grace despite still being trapped.

6. Greg Bear – Greg Bear is not for the faint of heart.  His stuff is His “Eon” and “Eternity” novels are deep and rich and really hard science fiction.  Or maybe I’m just looking at them through the lens of a teenager who knew far less of the world than I do now.  “Blood Music” is an absolutely beautiful story featuring single-cell organisms.

7. Neal Stephenson – He is probably the best sci-fi author ever to exist.  “Cryptonomicon” is my favorite book.  Even his weaker offerings like the three novels from the “Baroque Cycle” are worth reading.  All three are epic tomes that plod along somewhat, but even in them every once in a while he will string together paragraphs of such beauty and resonance that you sometimes wonder if there are two authors.

8. Charles Dickens – Contrary to popular belief, Dickens did not get paid by the word, but he did get paid per installment which can lead to a bit of a serialized feel to his novels when read all at once.  That doesn’t diminish at all from his brilliance, though.  Not many people write about the poor and much of the lessons in Dickens’ stories still resonate today.

9. John Steinbeck – Drop whatever you’re reading right now and pick up “Grapes of Wrath”.  There is a reason why Steinbeck is considered one of the great American novelists and “Grapes of Wrath” is it.  A lot of what Steinbeck writes about we are experiencing all over again.

10. John Irving – Some of his more recent stuff is kind of weak, but his old stuff is fantastic.  His characters are quirky, the predicaments they find themselves in are strange, and the emotions you will feel are varied and sometimes surprising.  “A Prayer for Owen Meany” is the only book that ever made me cry.

Take The ACA Quiz Challenge

The Kaiser Family Foundation has a quiz asking ten questions on various parts of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.  The questions are fairly easy if you’ve been paying attention and have been able to slash your way through the massive misinformation jungle that has surrounded the ACA.  I got 9 out of 10 correct.  I did not know whether or not the ACA raised the Medicare tax on high income earners.

I lost the page that referred me to the quiz, but it was talking about how misinformed even doctors still are about the law.  30% of one specialty got the end-of-life governmental panel question wrong.  Luckily, doctors don’t need to understand the intricacies law in order to provide care.  I’d be interested in a poll to see how many primary care physicians knew which procedures were guaranteed to be covered by insurance without a deductible now because of the ACA.  And by interested, I likely mean horrified.

Algae To Oil In About An Hour

There is some more promising great news in the quest for cheap, renewable fuel front.  The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is licensing a process that can create oil from an algae slurry in an hour and the company, Genifuel, is starting production on an industrial scale machine to produce it.  Even better, the byproducts of this process are all recyclable.  Unfortunately, the produced oil then needs to go through the normal refining process to create gasoline, etc. which is horribly polluting, but that environmental damage can at least be limited to a small geographic area as opposed to the drilling for oil which all to often has vast implications on large swaths of land.

Of course, this still leaves us in the same boat of burning gasoline to power our cars and I’m not sure that’s a tenable solution for the long run.  It also still remains to be seen if this process can be expanded to the scale of our voracious appetite for oil.  Regardless, it’s a tantalizing look into what could be our solution to our dependence on foreign oil.