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Thursday, January 27, 2005

The Casual Critic — I, Robot

I, Robot is not your typical Will Smith summer blockbuster film, which may or may not be a bad thing. With a decent plot that had at least a solid twist at the end, the film (based on a collection of science-fiction short stories by Isaac Asimov) over-reached just a touch as a cautionary tale about our ever-growing reliance on technology.

Set barely in the future, I, Robot shows a world where robots are just starting to be fully integrated into every day life. In fact, the manufacturer is on the verge of putting a robot in every home. Mostly filling service roles, robots are embedded with a "perfect sphere" of protection intended to always keep them in human control. Detective Spooner (Smith) is skeptical of the intrusion of robots into every day life, and, while investigating the apparent suicide of the inventor of the modern robot who also happened to save Spooner's life years ago, his skepticism finds fertile ground.

I know, the overall plot sounds pretty typical—the hero is the one guy that catches on to a potentially massive problem. And, at times, the over-used formula hurts the movie. Yet, there were times I was intrigued by the questions being raised about artificial intelligence, which probably could have been pushed further. Also, not only is the ending "not the guy you expect," it doesn't come out of nowhere. It's not like one of those mysteries where you suddenly get a bunch of information at the end which explains a twist Nostradamus couldn't have otherwise foreseen.

My knowledge of acting wouldn't fill a thimble, and I basically like Will Smith . . . sorry for the obvious but . . . but he just didn't seem to fit in this role. His usual humor didn't come through even in the few opportunities offered, and there seemed to be several missed opportunities to develop his character. Most of this isn't his fault, but I was left wondering why (besides sales) such a big name was cast in a role that wasn't going to be developed.

I feel compelled to say something about the special effects and DVD extras. The effects were done well, but certainly nothing that made me take notice. That may actually be a compliment, because the robots no doubt took plenty of high-tech work to put on screen and they just seemed to blend in to the movie. I think I saw the most interesting DVD extra on one of those "behind the scenes" shows on cable, but nothing you'll really need to see.

Overall, this one is just entertaining — not great, but not leaving you wondering what else you could've done for a couple hours.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

The Casual Critic — Tommy Thompson's America's Lost Treasure

Broaden your horizons, young man. Broaden your horizons. It’s a phrase I heard plenty growing up. No doubt we’ve all been told that we needed to broaden our horizons at one point in our lives. It’s generally been my experience that people spouting such advice merely didn’t like the things I liked, and were conceited enough to think their tastes had moral value while common folk like me just slummed around watching sports.

Despite such experiences, I took a recommendation to read Tommy Thompson’s America’s Lost Treasure to, yes, broaden my horizons. The introduction suggested the text was a look at the quarter century between Samuel Morse’s invention of the telegraph in 1837 and Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address through, as the subtitle reads, A Pictorial Chronicle of the Sinking and Recovery of the U.S. Mail Steamship Central America, The Ship of Gold. I’ve been wanting to read more history, and, though I’d never heard of the Central America, it seemed like an interesting way to learn about a specific time period. In fact, it was somewhat interesting, until Thompson abandoned his look at history and gushed over how incredibly cool it was to recover the ship.

Learning some of the details of the gold rush, including what life was like in the relatively unsettled west, the entrepreneurs seeking their fortunes from gold miners instead of gold, and the incredible lengths people went to just to get west, made for a very readable first half of the book. Uncovered firsthand accounts from survivors of the Central America were also interesting to read, filled with heroism, terror, and tragedy.

Unfortunately, the second half the book gets bogged down in the technicalities of recovering the ship. There were occasional interesting points about the artifacts found in the wreckage, and I admit my appreciation of the intricacies of discovery, sea life, the educational possibilities stemming from the recovery aren’t particularly interesting to me. However, the writing and even some of the accompanying photographs had a self-congratulatory tone that made the reading especially tedious at times.

The biggest criticism I have of the book is Thompson’s open, enthusiastic acknowledgement that the expedition lusted after the gold to be recovered. Actually, it was the juxtaposition of the talk of educational opportunities and historical significance with the lust for gold. I like money as much as the next guy — probably more — but don’t tell me the expedition has historical significance to justify a gold grab.

Considering the route Thompson took with the book, the total lack of discussion of how or why gold has been given such value by humans was disappointing. William Chase, described as one of the marooned, is quoted as saying that in the terror of the ship sinking, “the love of gold was forgotten.” In fact, many flung their gold-stuffed belts overboard to make themselves lighter as the boat sank. Yet, there’s not one of hint irony from the author who went to such extremes to recover the gold.

If you’re a history buff or fascinated by the sea, this book is for you. Otherwise, use it to broaden your horizons and decorate your coffee table.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

The Casual Critic — Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie

Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie is a genuinely touching story about the relationship between a young man and his former professor who is in the final days of his life. The two end up meeting once a week to write their final thesis together as Morrie Schwartz, the sociology professor who was Albom’s favorite teacher from Brandeis University, sees his body succumb to ALS.

If this book had been fiction, my guess is it would have been viewed by many, including myself, as overly sentimental. A suggestion Morrie no doubt would have had plenty to say about. But the reality of it, and Albom’s skill as a reporter, keeps it grounded just enough to allow this professor’s last lesson to be fairly powerful.

Morrie’s lectures become background as the relationship between the two takes center stage. The professor bravely discusses how his imminent death allows him to turn away from what our culture prescribes as acceptable, and build his own subculture of thought and values. Though his lessons about modern life may be heavy-handed at times, I believed fully in his ability to view life with a clarity unimagined by those still seemingly far from death. For instance, he talks of giving in to the fact that he needs others to do virtually everything for him, and learns to enjoy it. The lesson seems to come to life, though, when Albom is able to overcome his feelings of awkwardness and take part in some of Morrie’s care. At one point, we find Albom literally sitting on the floor rubbing ointment on the professor’s feet as they chat to offer Morrie a modicum of relief.

It seems almost impossible to read a book that rails against materialism, shows a genuine love between two men as nothing but friendship, and not end up shrugging your shoulders or rolling your eyes. But, believe me, even the most cynical reader will do neither at the end of this book. Make a point to read it.

Thursday, January 6, 2005

The Casual Critic — Shrek 2

I remembered laughing out loud on at least a couple occasions watching Shrek in a theater, so I figured the sequel was the perfect opportunity to break in the new DVD player. Unfortunately, the laughs didn’t survive any more than Shrek and Fiona's marital bliss after their honeymoon.

There just wasn’t anything new in Shrek 2. Sure, the frequent play on words was still there, as well as the fairy tale characters showing their “real” side. But the shock value just wasn’t there. We saw that in the original, and the jokes just weren’t as good. Shrek’s reply to Donkey’s “are we there yet” complaints that they were, after all, headed to Far, Far Away just doesn’t hit the mark. Pinocchio’s failed attempt to stretch his nose by “lying” about wearing women’s underwear was the closest I came to an actual laugh.

At times I actually found myself wondering why the story line — usually a mere necessity to keep the jokes going in such films — was so involved. Not that it used up any brain power, but I certainly didn’t need to see the ugly side of Fairy Godmother. The fact that a brief Cops parody was used to move the plot along tells you the lengths used to get the story done.

Missed opportunity was a major problem with the film. Fiona’s parents send for her and her new husband — expecting their beautiful daughter and Prince Charming — only to have Shrek and the ogre version of Fiona arrive. There were a few decent barbs between the disappointed father and Shrek, but nothing that Meet the Parents couldn’t have provided. At one point the king and queen deduce that their grandchildren will be ogres, and we get the Seinfeld-esque “not that there’s anything wrong with that.”

Even the DVD extras came up small. The fairy tale characters perform in an American Idol-style competition — complete with an animated Simon as a judge — that did little for me. On my still-in-the-making scale, I say skip it unless you just loved the first and feel you must see the sequel.

Tuesday, January 4, 2005

The Casual Critic — Ramblings

Bill Lyon of The Philadelphia Inquirer used to write an occassional column he called Random Thoughts and Second Thoughts. I say “used to” only because I haven’t seen one in a while. So, with a nod to Mr. Lyon, I decided to offer some of my own random thoughts . . .

***

September 11, 2001, was supposed to change everything—forever. Almost everyone had an American flag on their car, the national anthem was regularly broadcast on television, and the every speech the president made was covered live. What happened?

***

Buying a new monitor the other day, I was advised against the sleek new hi-def models because they don’t last very long. I mentioned my old CRT model – not that I knew it was a CRT – had lasted almost 10 years, and was actually still going strong. I just wanted a larger, larger screen. The salesman bluntly told me the new CRTs wouldn’t last any where near that long. I left scratching my head . . . with a new CRT.

***

I did a search on “new year’s resolutions,” and received about 1,450,000 results. My favorite result offered the following in its meta description: “The actual origin of New Year’s resolutions started with the Babylonians or something.” Another suggests resolutions were originally “when humans should ‘slaughter’ their weaknesses.” A third site tries to convince us that in “planning for the year Christians would meet . . . and announce their intentions. . . . This is the origin of New Year’s resolutions.”


Another of the results offered the following stats:

· 63% of people are keeping their resolutions after two months.

· 67% of people make three or more resolutions.

· Top four resolutions:

o Increase exercise

o Be more conscientious about work or school

o Develop better eating habits

o Stop smoking, drinking, or using drugs (including caffeine)


It didn’t say how many people made the same resolutions every year because they stopped keeping their resolutions by mid-March.

***

It is now all but a fact that Barry Bonds set the major league record for the most home runs in a single season while on steroids or at least some form of performance enhancing drugs. Yet, there has been barely a murmer about removing his name from the record books.

***

I have received more than 50 junk e-mails since New Year’s, 30 of which came from the same sender and was arriving every minute until I blocked it. Telemarketers are no longer alone at the bottom of the food chain.

Saturday, January 1, 2005

The Casual Critic — Intro

The Casual Critic offers reviews from an everyday guy’s perspective on books, DVDs, CDs, and more. I’m not big on knowing where this actor studied, what influenced that writer, or the roots of some other guy’s music. I pretty much know what I like or don't like, think I can offer something more worthwhile than the “Yeah, dude, it was alright” you might get when asking a coworker what they thought of something you are considering buying, and hope to offer readable reviews that might entertain my readers along the way.

If it matters, I’ve written for the Philadelphia Inquirer, authored a children's biography on Oscar De La Hoya, and worked as an editor for a local publisher for several years. I'm also the author of some unpublished fiction, and love sports though not as much as I used to.

In a world where “blogging” has made millions instant columnists, the writer in me simply couldn’t resist joining the fray. While the hope that I’ll develop a following of legions of fans that turn my blog into the hottest thing on the web has at least crossed my mind, I’m a bit more realistic than that. Instead, I hope to have a little fun, hopefully entertain a reader or two, and, if nothing else, fulfill any good scribe’s desire to live up to the mantra that writer’s write.

So, I hope you enjoy the column, check back often, and feel free leave a comment to agree, disagree, tell me I'm an idiot, or what a freakin’ genius I am!