Monday, January 16, 2012

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

If you're considering seeing this film, take into consideration the following two points:

1. This film does not have a true expository sequence that explains everything that you've just seen.

2. The majority of anything that can be termed as true "action" occurs within the first ten minutes of the film.
If either of these points comes as a disappointment to you, then Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not the film for you. If you're a fan of Mission Impossible and/or Sherlock Holmes and think that this film will be like one of those series, you will be disappointed. You see, John le Carré, the novelist behind the film did work in intelligence and his novels have a much more realist bent to them - and as it happens, spies simply aren't very good if they're drawing attention to themselves by having public shootouts or blowing up restaurants. As if to underline this point, the action in the film begins because of a public incident that forces the head of the "Circus" (think MI:6) into retirement as the scandal blows over.

The bulk of the film is spent trying to discern the identity of a mole at the highest levels of the government. There are conversations and contemplations and terse scenes where you're waiting for someone to get caught by they never do. This movie instead forces you to pay attention, to constantly tease out the relationship of incident A to incident B, where it all fits in in the timeline, and whether or not it's giving you a hint to the identity of the culprit. It's a quiet, tense film with many stretches of true silence - no dialogue, no music, just silence as the characters work things through.

Although the movie does eventually make nice and give you a culprit, as I stated before, there is no grand reveal. Just a slow pan and a later conversation that references an earlier scene that you may or may not pick up on as the pivotal scene. And if you do, it may be more because of a gut feeling than any real ability to name why it's him.

As implied above, this is a dialogue heavy film with little action and on occasion to does seem to drag. This is also not a film to get up and leave in the middle of, or you genuinely do risk becoming totally lost because at times it does seem that your ability to grasp the plot is quite thin as it is. Still, if you've got the patience for it, my provisos above didn't scare you away and you're interested in spycraft check it out. It's as likely one of the more realistic versions of espionage that we're ever likely to see.

Fun fact: John le Carré turned to writing full time because he was outed by a mole in a the real life incident that was inspiration for the novel (and the film).

Sunday, January 15, 2012

What I'm reading this week: 1/15/2012

Trying to get back into swing of things, I've decided to start doing weekly reviews of the comics I've been reading: I'm going to avoid the major DC/Marvel imprint and try and focus on titles that could use some more attention. For the first few weeks, I'm going to focus less on individual issues and more on the series as a whole to this point. As needed, I'll update if my opinions change.


Icon Comics
What would you do if you come back to school only to find your friends have unlocked the secret to superpowers? It’s an interesting what-if scenario that has the potential to be quite good, if it doesn’t get bogged down in “power corrupts” tropes down the line.

Albert’s group of friends have been quite busy in his absence you see, and in his absence, the ring-leader Amadeus has used the technique on himself –and the changes to Amadeus may be more than just to his skills.

The book does a nice job of setting up the two sides – Albert’s weary skepticism, and Amadeus’s determination to use the new abilities, even if it does feel like a slightly obvious set up for a rivalry down the road.

Bagley’s artwork is solid, if unremarkable.  You won’t necessarily remember it, but it won’t pull you out of the book either.

In some ways my critique of the art applies to the book as a whole: it’s solid, but unremarkable.
If you’re like the thought of abilities, but not necessarily the thought of people with abilities being superheroes this may be for you. In particular, Heroes fans may enjoy this since it’s explores the ideas of how people react to and what people decide to do with these gifts.  It’s worth a look.

Publisher: N/A

Sacrifice is a six-part, self-published mini-series by Sam Humphries and Dalton Rose. It looks at the decline and fall of the Aztec  Empire through the eyes of a modern American whose epileptic seizures have somehow induced time travel back to the period of time just before the arrival of Cortes.

The set-up is unique but I’m not entirely sure that I’m thrilled with the mechanism if only because it does lead to an offensive line from his parents in the first book that wasn't necessary. That said, the book’s strengths are unquestionably in the past where most of the time is spent. It’s interesting seeing how he reacts to this new world, and even more so how the Aztecs react to him. The book does have a tendency to get a bit heavy handed in the exposition to explain some of the players going on, but it’s forgivable because it does ultimately give a bit more weight to the story and creates suspense as to whether his actions in the past will affect the future.

I suspect that for many, the make it or break it point will be the art. It feels almost rudimentary, like you’ve seen better art in web comics, let alone in the professionally printed titles. It's clean enough, it just feels simplistic and it isn't likely going to be a draw in and of itself especially as the price of comics continues to creep up. That said, even if you aren't a fan of the art I urge you to still pick it up anyway, even though it can be hard to it. The story is unique enough to to be worth it.

The series isn’t perfect, but it’s one of the more intriguing titles that’s come out recently and it’s the kind of risk taking that that we as readers should encourage by supporting it with our purchases. 

Given the limited nature of its release, you’ll likely have trouble finding it at your local retailer. Collector’sParadise does have some copies available, but your best bet will likely be digital distribution: both comiXology and Graphicly carry it. Take the time and hunt it down, it's worth the effort.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Years and years ago I read comics, but I fell out of it because I was cash strapped and it was hard to keep up with everything. With the reboot at DC, I figured now was as good a time as any to dip my toes and see what, if anything could catch my eye.

These past two weeks I've read:

American Vampire - #1 - #3
Detective Comics #1
Justice League #1
Ressurection Man #1
Secret Six #1 (2008)

I still have to read:

American Vampire #4-#5
Animal Man #1
Demon Knights #1
Green Arrow #1
Mister Terrific #1

And I've just ordered the first omnibus of Secret Six, which contains #1-#7 which was roughly the same price as buying the individual issues on their own and Mr. Murder is Dead. I hope to do a more detailed review of the comics I have read tomorrow, but in the mean time I want to do a quick review of Comixology, an online store where you can acquire digital copies of various DC Imprints - DC New 52 (for easy reference), DC Comics, DC Universe and Vertigo.

1. Ease of acquisition.
Due to the hoopla surrounding the DC reboot, it can be difficult to acquire some of the new 52 issues, and if you can find them, some stores are real asses and jacking up the price on them because of the demand. These are just purchase and download: it saves you the trouble of calling around or running around to no avail and you'll only pay the list price, which is nice!

2. The comics are really high res.
I have a 23" monitor and the artwork is simply gorgeous on these. The files are all high res and nicely fill up the screen without becoming blurry. It's a great way to read them!

3. Easy to use reader.
There's a simple little tutorial and you get the hang of it right quick.

4. You can access your comic wherever you have a connection.
There are readers for both the iOS and Droid platforms and you can access the PC/MAC version right through the store. Convenient!

5. You can support your local comic book store!
You can sign up through your local store and the store will get a percentage of the sale. It's likely not the same as what they'd get if they sold you the actual comic, but it's still nice to be able to support them. :)

1. The website can be a bit slow to load.
The comics all pop up as rather large thumbnails and the site isn't always the most responsible. I wish you could load as a list instead, it'd be quicker and easier to browse.

2. The website (at least in Firefox) seems to have issues closing out once the credit card processes. Mine seems to hang, but I'll get the e-mail confirmation that the payment went through and the comics will be there. Odd, and minorly annoying. I haven't tried it in IE yet.

3. You don't have a physical comic.
Reading on a monitor will never be the same as holding the comic book in your hand.

4. Although you can read it on a mobile device, it's not as accessible.
Unless you have an iPad, I don't know how viable it really is. You have to scroll panel to panel which I find distracting. There's an option to view the full page when you first turn to it and before you turn away from it, but it's not the same.

All in all, I'd say the service is probably best for getting the one-off comic to check it out. My local store offers a subscription service if you read 5 or more titles. If I decide to follow 5 series - and I may well might (I'm already at 4 on my list) I'll probably join my local stores subscription list to make life sane, but I can still see myself using this for the one off that I want to check out. I'd say this is a nice alternative to a brick and mortar store if you don't have ready access to one, but it just doesn't replace it - you don't get the physical copies, you don't get the benefit of the advice and recommendations of the staff, you don't get access to the comic community either - and it's them that will turn you on to titles you otherwise wouldn't have considered. Pretty much my entire list above has come about due to the recommendations of several people, and I have yet to be disappointed! At the end of it, I'd say this is a nice supplement to a store, but can't really replace it.

My grade: B

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

I'm a fan of the Pirates franchise. I've always found it enjoyable - even number three, heck At World's End may actually be my favorite. When I heard that they were making number 4 sans Will and Elisabeth, I was kind of happy though, because I couldn't see how they'd fit in to the new film - not with him ferrying the souls of the dead and her doing...whatever.

As you'll see, I wound up missing them. Mild spoilers are below

Genre: Action-Adventure, Pirates, Comedy

Rating: PG-13

Running Time: 2 hours 17 minutes

The Review:
On the bright side, we have a more-or-less independent standing film where there are few characters that you need to know going in (Jack, Barbossa and Gibbs. A keen eye will recognize the Lt. Commander serving under Barbosa from Beckett's ship) so you're not tied down by the series' own mythology - a change from the previous sequels where knowledge of the previous film was all but mandatory.

The story here is serviceable: The Spaniards want to find the Fountain of Youth to destroy it. The Crown wants it presumably for the waters and/or because the Spaniards are going after it. Jack still wants it, kind of, but more or less seems preoccupied with other matters such as who is impersonating him in London and what happened to the Pearl. I like the Spaniards, and Barbossa's motivations. The rest is just kinda there and a bit more generic feeling that previous plots.

The series has always demanded a measure of suspension of disbelief, but there are moments - such as a flamethrower on the bow of the Queen Anne's Revenge - where it's impossible to muster it. Magic and the supernatural has always been part and parcel of the series (Angelica: I don't know if you believe in the supernatural. Jack: Oh, I've seen things.) but to quote the first movie, it strains credulity to think that Blackbeard could do what he does.

Speaking of the new characters - none of them really wowed me. Despite the menace of Blackbeard, I think Beckett a much more threatening villain. Angelica had her moments and was my favorite of the four, though I wouldn't be sad to not see her in Pirates 5 (though if you stay for the blurb after the credits you know that won't come to pass). As for the priest, he was bland, sanctimonious and had no reason to fall in love with the mermaid. In the movie promo they were making a big deal about how he stayed good while Will had strayed to become a pirate. Why were they bragging about this? Will Turner had some depth to him and some motivation in all three movies. At one point you think the priest might well be dead and I was disappointed to learn I was wrong. As for the mermaid, she was a pretty plot device and nothing more.

There were some good fight scenes (though by this point they've started to feel old hat) and some good one liners, but without question, the series is starting to feel stale. The movie was at its best when it was Barbossa and Sparrow quarreling but there wasn't enough of that for my taste. Plus, at some point their going to run out of plot contrivances to bring him back. They've been lucky so far with ones that have more or less worked well (the second film was so-so, this one actually worked well) but I get the feeling their luck is running is out.

Will you enjoy it?

If you can turn off your brain, it's a decent bit of fun (but don't start thinking, it'll fall apart). If you're a fan of the previous two movies, you may find it fun, but a bit lacking. If you ran out of patience with the series in the last film, it won't sway you back.

I'm a fan, but even I admit - it's time to pull the plug before the Black Pearl runs permanently ashore.

My Grade: C

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Restaurant: Cafe Firenze

After becoming a fan of Fabio on Top Chef and learning that one of his restaurants was relatively close to home, this place was added onto our "to try" place for quite some time.

For Mother's Day, mom had requested being taken out to lunch, so it seemed as good time as any to check it out.

Cuisine: Italian
Price: Moderate ($11-$30/person)
Ambiance: Casual/Dressy Casual

Aside from an absolutely gorgeous bar that you see as you walk in, the ambiance is very much what Americans would consider as "traditional" old-school Italian, with lots of dark woods and dark leather on the booths. The booths were a bit too deep for our preference - even with the pillows on them to help push you closer to the table. Noise level was good, the high ceilings helped keep it quiet, though I was there for a late Sunday lunch, so I can't speak to how loud it'd get during truly busy times.

They introduced an "Under 10" lunch menu that had a nice variety of lunch choices for under $10, but that (and much of the menu at large) was very much American-Italian. If your looking for food like Fabio cooked on Top Chef, you might be disappointed.

Our food was on the unexceptional side: my dad's soup had to be sent back for not being warm enough, the supposedly lemon-flavored chicken picatta didn't have much flavor to it (though it was moist), my sister found her wheat spaghetti (which was supposed to be a "light" lunch) to be heavy and my chicken Parmesan was nothing to write home about (if a bit dry). My mom and sister split what was supposed to be a limoncello cheesecake, but they said you really couldn't taste the limoncello and my flourless chocolate cake was good and rich - but reminded me of a fudge brownie recipe that I make in terms of taste and texture. In other words, everything was just good, not great.

Service was at a level to be expected for a restaurant of the price range: attentive and unobtrusive.

We did get to see Fabio walking around in a Jaws t-shirt and jeans before starting his day, which was a nice plus. That said, at $20/head I'd expected something a little more interesting than what we got.

Okay, but I wouldn't go out of my way to go there again.

My grade: B-

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Amusement Park: Six Flags Magic Mountain

I'm not a big amusement park gal. My parents were never really theme park aficionados so I never really was brought up to seek them out. My few trips to Magic Mountain bare that out - I've been 4 times my entire life, only twice as an adult that counts (once I was acting as a camp counselor and my charges refused to go on anything outside of Bugs Bunny world and the pirate ship) - including this trip. My friend had a coupon for $25 admission and I decided why not.
Official Description: 
Welcome to Six Flags Magic Mountain, a 260-acre park featuring world-class roller coasters and over 100 rides, games and attractions.

It's the largest amusement park in California, and is especially known for it's two extreme coasters - X2 and Tatsu

The Review
One shouldn't compare (and can't, at least in terms of rides) compare Six Flags to Disneyland because they are apple and orange kind of parks, but having been at Disneyland the day before, I feel it impossible to not compare them.

My first experience with the park was the tram that took me to the park entrance: the loading area was difficult to locate, there's no real structure, just some paint on the ground and nondescript colored-flags in the air. For that matter, signage in the lot was dismal. I didn't even notice there were sign/section markers until my way out of the park - pathetic. Anyway, when I boarded the tram (which had no attendants to help guests on/off or keep count, just to the two tram operators), I noticed peeling paint everywhere, the front look dented and almost rusting and ads plastered on the side for Skittles. At the time, I tweeted that the tram was in the kind of shape that Disney wouldn't allow it into their maintenance bays, let alone actually consider using it for guests.

I did not know just how much foreshadowing this would be.

Once at the park gates and united with my group, I went to purchase tickets - this was surprisingly easy, most people must have bought them online since I had no wait to speak of. I really didn't have a ticket to speak of either: I got a receipt that said "Ticket" printed on it with a bar code. I have to say that this - just feels cheap. I can't think of a truly good reason to do away with tickets, but since they don't let you keep them anyway( which I also find lame because I do like to hold on to them) I guess it doesn't really matter.

Going through security was easy, and then you're funneled into a large holding pen if you get there prior to park opening. It took over 10 minutes to get through the gates and the only thing I can think of is lack of staffing. It's not a huge thing, but it does add to the growing sense of disappointment.

The park itself is clean-enough; unlike Disney where if a piece of litter winds up on the ground, it's gone in under five minutes (if even that) Magic Mountain has signs everywhere (and staffers wearing shirts) that read "Have a [heart] and keep our park clean!" While I totally agree that the public should be respectful of the property, isn't it the parks job to keep the park clean?

The park is also a mess to navigate - there are hills everywhere, and only one - Ninja Summit - has any kind of lift to get you to the top of it. If there was ever a park that screamed for an in-park tram system, this was it. Everything is a hill and not everything neatly flows from section to section. Also, who thought it a great idea to put a food court system under Superman? The ride is loud to the point that you need to cover your ears. Simply awful!

There is a 'flash pass' system integrated into the park. Unlike a Disney fastpass, where you can use your ticket to get (1) pass for a designated time at certain rides (and you can only have one at a time) and lets you enter into a special queue that's generally much shorter than the regular queue, Flash Passes are a pay-only option that more or less do the same thing, though the lines tend to be much much shorter due to the fact that you have to pay. $41/person will get you a basic pass (which will not work for X2) $69/person will get you a "Gold" version which will let you reserve a seat on X2 - for an extra fee (I do not know what the fee is) and "Platinum" will let you access anything and let you ride twice after only one wait for $99/person. You do get a price break for each additional member of your group, but let's put this into perspective. Gate price for the park is $60. There's an online special that lets you pay $35.00 (and this would be why no one is buying at the gate except people like me!). Your opportunity to cut your ride time costs more than your pass! The passes certainly would help, but are decidedly overpriced and Gold level seems pointless - the best reason to buy a pass is if you want to ride X2 which regularly has lines over 2-3 hours long. The basic one shuts you out and if you have to pay more on the Gold - why not go all the way to Platinum instead?

Anyway. You may have noticed that in all this time, I've not mentioned a single ride. I'm not really planning to- it's not that the rides aren't thrills - (X2 and Tatsu are terrifying and will get your heart pounding and screaming and laughing nervously thrilled you're still alive) -it's because there's something else that overshadowed everything else for me:

This park made the most token efforts at ADA compliance I've ever seen. The friend who invited me has a health condition which leaves her unable to do something like walk an amusement park, and therefore brings a wheel chair with her. We're well aware that this isn't the most friendly for that kind of thing - but this place takes the cake. From signs that give wrong information (Gold Rusher says the entrance is at the exit; the attendant snidely told her it was at the entrance), to tiny elevators that barely fit a wheelchair and the attendant, to mind boggling policies that say the guest may only be accommodated by the attendant (two other major parks - Universal and Disney allow a party of four), it was all horrible. The worst bit though, were the ride attendants. On Superman: Escape from Krypton, it said to knock on the door when you arrived. She knocked. And knocked. It took a passenger telling the ride attendant that someone was knocking for the door to finally be opened. On two different occasions, the rest of the party was completely ignored, to the point that at Scream! when we got up there we were rudely told that two of us would have to go through the line and that we'd be able to ride on the same car- but this was after us (the group) asked a guy where to go and he said on up.

We did go to Guest Services and complained, and you know what, it someways dimmed my view even more. The lady said that "they've hired a lot of new employees" which only implies that they don't train them right! The lady did her best to make it right - she gave my friend the card of the supervisor in charge of ADA compliance and she gave us three front of the line passes for our group of our choosing - even making an exception and giving us one for X2, which they don't normally allow on Saturdays. It was nice, but should never have been necessary.

And what's worse? After receiving them and winding up in the queue for Tatsu, the lady only gave us attention when my friend called her over and she didn't seem overly thrilled to do so. We certainly didn't get front of the line privileges at Apocalypse - he only let our group in because they needed four more. The boarding area was also SO small (and again, I got split form the group) that I couldn't even find an attendant- I was supposed to tell them that I was boarding, but had no way of knowing this!

It just so incredibly frustrating and put a damper on an otherwise fun day. I may in fact be done with the park - I'm still not a thrill ride enthusiast and seeing this part of the park, in combination with everything else that I mentioned above  - just makes it an unattractive proposition to me.

My grade: C- for the park as a whole. Had I not experienced any of the issues I'd had with my friend, I'd give the park a C+. The rides are easily a B+ , but it's not really a park for the faint-hearted as most of the rides worth going on are the thrill rides.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Ride: Star Tours The Adventure Continues

Depending how into Disney you are, you may/may not know that Star Tours closed for renovation some time ago. The grand re-opening is set for June 3rd, but today me and 2399 other people (1200 winners and their guest) got to head out to Disneyland before dawn to take a special preview of the ride.

Let's take a look!

After walking through an eerily empty park - they let us in before the park opened, we were taken through a ridiculously long queuing area (which for sake of park guests hopefully won't be quite as insane when the ride proper opens) we were greeted with the "Private Event" sign; it felt kind of neat to walk past it (and it explained to other Guests in the park just why there were tons of camera crews and the like)

Once you made your way into the main waiting area, you got to see your new StarSpeeder, complete with C3PO and R2D2! They took the notion of a spaceport to heart - there was an arrival/departure board, announcements about the baggage claim, an illegally parked rental craft outside (with license plate THX for the insiders who get the joke) and even TSA-like announcements reminding you to not take packages from strangers. Deeper into the waiting area, Captain Rexx from the original ride was even there for you to view for those who have fond memories of your former captain - it was a nice balance of new and nostalgia.

This time around there are 4 40-person shuttles, so loading goes pretty quick. I'd say we were in the second group of shuttles to ride: they started operating the ride about 8:55 and we were out of there by probably 9:10 or so at the latest, so they load pretty quick.

The big hype behind this ride is that there are 52 alternate options available. I think this is a good thing and a bad thing. On the bright side, it'll definitely give the ride some extra life as you have incentive to ride it again and again. On the down side, I thought the story felt much more disjointed than the previous ride did. It had a funny moment or two, but I couldn't tell you exactly what had happened, unlike the previous version which really did feel like a properly told story.

The 3-D was beautifully rendered, though those who get motion sick may want to be weary, I found myself closing my eyes for a few minutes towards the end trying to calm my stomach a little.

All in all, the experience itself is very much a new, shinier version of the original. Fans of the original should enjoy this, and die-hard fans of the original should warm up to. Personally, I enjoyed it enough that when the line calms down (i.e. I can get on it in an hour) I'd go on it again, but I wouldn't wait in the super-long lines that you know are going to occur this summer.

Whether you should make the wait I'd say depends on how much time you have at the park and how much you liked the first. It's a fun ride, but not necessarily worth spending half your day waiting for.

My grade: B