Whiplash

The fairly simple premise of this movie is that a young man wants to become the best drummer in the world, and he is paired up with a music teacher who wants to produce the best drummer in the world.  The match is not quite as made in heaven as you might expect, and the movie does a good job of drawing out the mental flaws in both characters.

I enjoyed the way the characters were written and fleshed out, but they often made some truly bizarre decisions that leave you scratching your head because of the lack of logic.  These are not exactly logical characters, so it still works, but there is an underlying suspicion that they are behaving illogically because the writers want to subvert tropes and make it surprising.  Their behaviour toes the line of being unrealistically random, but they manage to keep it within the realms of believability.  A few spots could have used more polish to make it easier to swallow, though.

And I’m not really sure what’s going on with the ending.  Was it intentionally ambiguous or just poorly indicated?  It feels like they weren’t sure how to end it, so they just ended it, which is only a good way to end if it no one tries to think about it, which is perhaps not the best strategy for a thought-provoking movie.

I don’t follow the Oscars so I had no idea this movie was so popular, but it makes sense that it was nominated for a bunch of awards since it’s the same movie as Black Swan, but without the lesbian sex.

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Take Shelter

I’m not sure how I feel about the movie Take Shelter.  It was entertaining, but I kept watching mostly because I was curious about the way it would go (and I mean, if you boil it down, isn’t that what ALL movies are?).

The premise is that a young man starts having terrifying dreams about a horrible storm and becomes paranoid, building a shelter to protect his family.  Along the way we discover that his family has a history of paranoid schizophrenia, and it’s constantly throwing questions in your face: Is it real?  Are his actions justified?  Is he potentially endangering his family for no reason because of mental illness?  Should they listen to him or should they force him to get help?

Unfortunately I just summed up all the best parts of the movie in a paragraph, and it drags on for two hours.  I liked it, because I like psychology and I wanted to see what they would go with in the end, but it was way longer than it needed to be.  It had tension and it kept your attention, but it didn’t need to be that long when it essentially didn’t really do anything new for about a whole hour in the middle.

Spoilers begin here. Seriously, don’t read this unless you’ve seen it or don’t give a shit.

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The Talos Principle

I’ve been holding off on writing about Talos Principle because I wanted to get further in it and reveal a bit more of the story, because it’s one of those super mysterious “something reaaaallllly interesting is here and if you just get a little bit further you might get to reveal some of it!” sorts of stories, and it seems like a disturbingly large percentage of the time the reveals turn out to be complete balls.  But I am just loving this game so much that I am going to talk about it anyway.

The Talos Principle is a puzzle game, but it is also a journey into philosophy.  It wins my “Best Game Ever” award for two simple reasons:
1: The options screen has a “Motion Sickness” section where you can adjust things like FoV and turn head bobbing off.  These developers get it and I love them for it.  Game of the Year for that alone.
2: In one of the story snippets there is a burn on Twilight.  Excellent.

The premise is that you are a robot who has been dropped into a series of tests, which is all very Portal-esque, but instead of a sarcastic murderous robot you have a somewhat self-righteous god-voice by the name of Elohim (definitely not an improvement over GlaDOS, I have to say.)  As you venture through your trials you also uncover snippets of story that hint at the goings on outside of your own little personal rat-maze, as well as philosophical musings for you to think about as you go along.  Things like “How does someone know they are a person” or “How do you know you really exist”, alongside things like “Could a robot solve these sorts of puzzles or would it take a human mind to do it?”, where it all becomes very meta because in the game you are a robot and you are solving those puzzles but REALLY you are a human solving those puzzles right?? right?? so if you solve that puzzle that only a human could solve it does that mean a robot solved it or does it mean a human was still needed to solve it??? Or is it even talking about you at all????? Don’t play it while high or you might feel entirely too clever for yourself.

But actually mostly it makes me feel dumb.  But then I solve something and feel like a genius.  And then the next one makes me feel dumb again.  I was incredibly disappointed with how easy the puzzles were at first.  I was just going from puzzle to puzzle feeling like “…is this it?  Really?”  Sometimes a puzzle would be SO easy that I’d pick up the prize and then run back and forth for a bit wondering if I had missed something.  A lot of them take the same sort of logic too, so they almost get repetitive at times. The most disappointing part is when you get stuck on something for ages and ages and then finally you come across the solution and it is so god damn fucking easy and then you hate yourself for not figuring it out right away.

But then I ran into some of the hidden puzzles and my brain broke and I lay awake at night thinking about them.  Most of the puzzles are self contained, but the hidden ones require “outside of the box” thinking, and a lot of “outside of the level” thinking.  Most of them span levels, requiring you to break the fourth wall and figure out how to get bits from here to there, or how to cheat the system to get what you need to the area you need it.  In some cases it almost seems unfair, like, you can’t take items through the barrier so who would guess that you can shoot the fucking laser through it?!?!? (but then again, fair enough to catch me out on assuming that something would not be possible without trying it.  Fuckers.) There was one where I sort of figured it would be something pretty skookum, and I had an idea of what I would need to do, but I decided that I would be a horrible person and be lazy and not do it and just look up the solution.  I was reaffirmed in that choice when the description said “Hardest star in the game” and I was like “yep going to ruin this one for myself”, and I am kind of sad that I cheated but also I don’t think I would have figured it out otherwise.  It’s pretty epic.

And as I advance into the later worlds, the “easy” puzzles are less and less easy.  Every now and then I’ll bumble around in a level for so long that Elohim comes along and gently suggests I go to a different level.  Fuck you, God.  What kind of God is all like “Well if you haven’t figured this out by NOW you may as well just give up.”

You should buy this game.  It is excellent mysterious storytelling that almost makes me nostalgic for Myst, with a mix of puzzles that will make your brain hurt, but are not so tough that you need a walkthrough to get anywhere.  And also some philosophy crap that you may or may not enjoy. The world is beautiful and fun to explore, especially since there could be hidden mysteries or easter eggs around any corner or under any bush.  It’s just good old fashioned “I’m going to try this and see what happens” exploration fun, and it is highly rewarding.

Mary and Max

I can’t remember how I found this movie.  I think it was when I was picking up random foreign films, since it came from Australia, but somehow we didn’t get around to watching it.  Last night we watched it and I went on a real rollercoaster, from “Wow this is awesome and unique” to “Woah, unexpected” to “I’m not even sure I want to write a review about this because I’m not sure what I think…”.  It was a GOOD MOVIE, don’t get me wrong, but much like “UP” you probably shouldn’t watch it if you’re looking for something to cheer you up, jesus.

The movie is claymation animation, which, according to evidence from some reviews I saw, probably fools some people into thinking it is for children.  It is not for children.  Good god no.  It almost needs its own genre… it’s a black comedy but also a drama and a bit of a social statement at the same time.  There’s a lot of very crude (non-North-American style of crude) humour (all well executed, I might add) layered overtop of a lot of very sombre issues.  The basic premise is that Mary is a lonely little girl who picks a name at random to write to because she wants friends.  She ends up writing to a reclusive man with aspergers, who also has no real friends.  They chat back and forth about the various issues in their lives, spanning many years of time.  Almost nothing good happens to either of them. Maybe that’s a spoiler but I almost feel like you should be prepared before you go into this thing because I sure wasn’t.  The ending was one of those bittersweet “I almost feel like this is a good ending and I’m kind of happy, but at the same time, fuck everything” endings.  I think that means it was a success… I’m not sure.

Probably the only thing I am going to actually bitch about is that the movie starts off saying “This is based on a true story”.  The events near the end of the movie were starting to make me a little skeptical (but then again, truth is almost always stranger than fiction) but it was convincing enough that I scampered over to Wikipedia to discover the origins of the movie.  I had to do a ctrl-f to even find the reference, and it pointed back to an interview where the writer said he had a pen pal once, and that’s pretty much the only thing not fabricated.  Disappointing, and downright false advertising, I say.  If I were giving it stars I would subtract one just for lying to me.

If you can handle the deceit and depression, I definitely recommend trying to find this movie.  It was unique and well orchestrated, and even though it was depressing I wouldn’t say it was trying to be emotionally manipulative, just blunt and raw.

The Jacket

I can’t remember why I picked up this movie.  It was probably on a list of “psychological thrillers” and was one of the only ones I hadn’t seen yet, since I am partial to them.  It’s possible it got lumped into a sci-fi category somewhere.  Long story short, we really enjoyed this movie, and then I was surprised to discover it got relatively poor ratings overall.  I guess it got a 7 on IMDB and that’s not really so bad.  I do find it a little ironic that almost all of these poor-scoring reviews claim that all the movie does is copy other popular movies, when it was apparently inspired by stories straight from actual inmates, which in turn also inspired a Jack London novel in 1915.  God damn you humans, never doing anything original anymore.

The story is about a former soldier who survived being shot in the head, although he was left with severe memory problems and periodic amnesia, not to mention severe PTSD.  He goes about his merry way after the war, then wakes up on the side of the road next to a gun and a dead policeman.  Unable to remember the details of what happened to prove he is innocent, he is placed in a prison/medical facility for the criminally insane, and soon discovers he has been chosen by one of the doctors for “reprogramming” experiments.  These experiments involve being strapped into a straight-jacket, injected with a cocktail of drugs, and locked in a morgue drawer for hours at a time.

The movie reveals things in bits and spurts.  The main character’s memory works in bits and spurts, so we get flashbacks to things that happened before, as he remembers them.  We also occasionally flash to the other characters and reveal more about the backstory of the hospital and the history of the “reprogramming” program.

During one of his sessions in the morgue drawer, the main character discovers he is actually speaking to people 15 years in the future.  Convinced that he is now actually time travelling, he starts welcoming his trips to the morgue and starts digging around in the future to find the keys to the past.  As a result, he also learns the date he will die… and it is soon.

It’s a bit of a wild ride from that point.  I spent the whole movie figuring I knew what was going to happen, and then it would do something else and I would have to start guessing again.  Calling it a “thriller” is a bit generous (and the poster displayed on wikipedia apparently has the tagline “TERROR HAS A NEW NAME”, to which I laaaauuuuggghhhhhh)… IMDB has it listed as a Drama/Sci-Fi/Mystery which feels accurate, and it’s definitely a good mysterious story that keeps you wondering where its going.  If you want to sit down with a notepad I’m sure you can pick some huge holes in this thing.  There are plenty of plotlines that don’t really seem to do much in the end, almost as if they’re laid down to act as red herrings as the story unfolds, and I don’t even want to think about things from a plausibility angle.  The ending is probably a little bit unfulfilling, too.  Everything is wrapped up, but there are a some big questions that don’t feel very answered – but they’re questions that you as the viewer most likely came up with while watching, not questions the movie posed directly.

The few minor flaws aside, I think it’s an excellent use of 103 minutes.

Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider consumed a few days of my life, and now I am going to tell you about it.  I’m not sure that it really needs any kind of promotion, but I still feel like talking about it.  I paid 13 dollars for it and I feel guilty for not paying more (although apparently they didn’t even bother to count digital distributions when they calculated whether the game was a success or not, so, welp).  It took me just over 20 hours to 100% the game, but that includes all the time I spent running around aimlessly and trying to jump on/off things just to see if I could, and obsessively reloading because I fucked up a stealth kill and wanted to try again.

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Beyond Belief

Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing EscapeBeyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape by Jenna Miscavige Hill

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I didn’t know much about Scientology before other than it seemed to be a “church” based on ridiculous beliefs that was taking advantage of its tax-exempt status in what should be a criminal manner in order to fleece its followers. And the internet started a war against them and a lot of suing happened, but not much else. I saw the title of this book and I knew that people had reported non-stop harassment for even casual curious inquiries into the “readings” and whatever else, but I thought to myself it was a little dramatic to label quitting as an “escape”. Couldn’t you just stop going to the “services” or whatever equivalent they have and just ignore the harassing phone calls and letters asking you to come back?

Boy, have I been educated.

This is the story of the niece of the man who took over leadership of the church, so her family was buried quite deeply in the organization, in the “Sea Org”. Essentially where the sun doesn’t shine, and associating with non-scientologists is considered a crime. You get a good look into the depths of the church – maybe not the actual heart where the decisions and rules are made, but the inner layers where the officers are trained. It’s also a fascinating look at how brainwashing works. I knew Scientology was known for brainwashing techniques, but this is brainwashing 101.

Jenna describes her entire life from very young ages all the way up to early 20s-ish or so when she finally manages to leave. I started reading and was thinking “This isn’t so bad… I mean, it’s bad but not completely unusual for fanatical religion.” And then it got worse. And worse. And worse… and … okay it’s pretty fucking bad.

What I found really interesting is the potential glimpse into the motivations of the church. I thought it was 100% a scam designed to pry every last penny from its followers – and it’s certainly that – but it almost seems like the church was designed as a money making scheme and it’s slowly been warped into an entity that, on some levels, actually believes it’s doing the right thing. Some of the decisions made make absolutely no sense if the only goal is to make money. In a lot of the decisions I can’t even see what the goal WAS. The church may have actually brainwashed itself at this point… fascinating.

The book is definitely not well-written, but when you look at the background of the author it’s easily forgiven. The sentences are stilted and dry, and often lack any emotion, but, well… it seems pretty damn representative of what the church attempts to do to a mind. Definitely worth a look if you’re curious.

I hope I don’t get sued for writing this “suppressive” review!

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Brain on Fire

Brain on Fire: My Month of MadnessBrain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The problem with good books is that you stay up all night reading them and then they’re done. I’m predisposed to enjoy psychology/neurology mysteries, especially TRUE ones, but I certainly couldn’t put it down.

This is the true story of a medical mystery and the subsequent mishandling of the diagnosis by numerous professionals, until someone finally steps in and does the right things to uncover what’s really going on. It is fascinating from a medical standpoint, and potentially disturbing from a social standpoint. I may have a degree that focused on a lot of neuroscience theory, but I certainly didn’t do any training in diagnostic methods, and I was pretty horrified when – 48% of the way through the book and roughly 3 or 4 neurologists into the disorder – someone finally thinks to give her the clock test. Her first symptom was left side numbness and it took that long to use a standard test. Which, naturally, blew the case open… I seriously felt like I had to keep checking to make sure this hadn’t happened in the ’70s. Hrm.

If you’re interested in medicine, brains, mental disorders, or the workings (and not-workings…) of the medical and social systems today, you will probably enjoy this book.

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Selected Stories of Philip K Dick

Selected Stories of Philip K. DickSelected Stories of Philip K. Dick by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing. I’ve always meant to read some of his stuff, so a book full of short stories seemed perfect. It contains most of the stories which have been adapted into movies I’ve seen, so it was great to see the source material.

I found it fascinating from a psychology perspective too. I had heard that Dick may have been schizophrenic, and I can absolutely see where that comes from, now. So many of the stories involve paranoia, warping of reality, or a complete disbelief in reality. That he is able to tackle those themes on such a deep level and still construct fascinating stories all around it shows how much skill he had.

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Flowers for Algernon

Flowers for AlgernonFlowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Holy shit. That was amazing. I wish I could give it 6 stars. Or 10. Masterfully constructed and thought provoking. I don’t know how I managed to avoid reading this for so long… the title was familiar but I only vaguely knew of it, and then I was like “Oh hey I should read that.”

I’m not even going to disgrace it with a review. Just read it.

On another note, I also vaguely recalled that the book was famous for being banned, which is probably why I knew the name but not really the plot. I finished it and was like “…why was this banned???” so I had to go look. Banned for sexually explicit scenes! /facepalm.
This book has gone through so much strife while offering such a valuable story, when things like The Windup Girl (featuring self-indulgent graphic rape and slave fetish scenes that carry on much longer than they need to…) run around freely today. Kind of disgusting, really.
Although when I tried to see whether it was still currently banned, I did discover that in 2010 someone issued a challenge against the novelization of Star Wars: A New Hope, with no explanations attached. But not any of the other ones… hrm!

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