Movie Review: Tenet

The movies are back! And who better to bring it back than Christopher Nolan. But how does one describe a movie like Tenet?

It’s like Christopher Nolan made a Bond movie, except with a more diverse cast.

It’s like Inception met Interstellar at a really loud party hosted by The Dark Knight Rises. It’s worth seeing it once in the cinema, but you’re going to want to watch it a second time at home some time later so you can (a) pause it to figure out what the heck is going on, and (b) turn on closed captions so you can figure out what the heck the characters are saying

I’m going to go spoileriffic from here. Read on if you’ve watched it – if you haven’t, come back when you have!

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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What does one say about a series like Star Wars that you haven’t already heard? It’s such a pop-culture phenomenon that you’d be hard pressed to avoid it in any English-speaking country. The revival of Star Wars by Disney’s purchase of the rights from George Lucas was huge, and with Episode VII, The Force Awakens, we can see just how huge the juggernaut can get. I went to watch it on Friday, a whole 42 hours after its release on midnight Thursday, and I already felt like I was out of the loop for almost two days.

Still, the experience is unique in its own way: the lights go down, the trailers end, the screen goes dark… and then those words appear – A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… cue the fanfare.

The Star Wars experience is as codified as a fairy tale starting with “Once upon a time”, and the rush of seeing it in a full theatre is equal for fans and non-fans alike – you can’t help but be caught up in John Williams’ score, or the scale and scope of the visuals that march across the screen. This is a sign the fun’s just getting started.

The Force Awakens starts with a thirty year jump from the end of Return of the Jedi (and in the real world, it has been over thirty years since as well, so this is only too apt). Luke Skywalker is missing; the galaxy is not yet wholly under the New Republic; the Rebel Alliance still relevant as the Resistance, who fight the remnants of the Empire in the form of The First Order. Leia is a general in the resistance, and sends a pilot, Poe Dameron, to track down a map to the whereabouts of Skywalker. He’s being tracked by The First Order, who want to prevent the return of Skywalker as much as they want to re-establish control over the Galaxy.

Since it’s still so close to the release, I’ll tuck the rest away under a break for spoilers…

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Movie Review: Spectre

It was always going to have to come to an end. Bond actors don’t last as long as you think, though it’s been 9 years now that we’ve had Daniel Craig as the image of Bond – from his reinvention of the character as a gritty, conflicted type in Casino Royale, a vast gulf separating the reboot of the character from Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal through the 90s and early 2000s. Handily, the plot in Spectre serves much the same – a sense of an ending is present very early on.

Following the events of Skyfall, Bond finds himself in Mexico City, where he must kill a man – ostensibly, once again, Bond is on leave, but still appears to be doing his best to serve his country regardless. This is not a man that takes being off active duty very easily, it appears, and the assassination witnessed by a whole city celebrating the Day of the Dead doesn’t help him cover that fact up terribly well.

Back in London, the new M dresses him down for acting without orders, and is seemingly inevitable for Craig’s Bond, officially suspends him – this time ruminating over the fact that MI6 no longer hold special privileges with the era of digital surveillance and digital killing with drones quickly outpacing human intelligence.

Of course, as part of being suspended, Bond must visit Q, and so the Bond movie structure clicks into place. Gadgets are introduced, a reason to go off-book is brought up, and for the first time in Craig’s run of movies, I finally got the feeling we’re back in familiar Bond territory.

And that’s how this plays out – M disapproves, Bond gets Moneypenny involved, Q’s toys get to be Chekov’s gadgets, Bond finds the truth runs deeper, and there’s a race against the clock to prevent a mad plan from dropping into place – especially when the sinister head of Spectre, played with relish by Christoph Waltz, appears to ramp up the tension.

Between the plot, gadgets, cars, international (but more or less European) locations, girls (Monica Bellucci played far too short, Léa Seydoux played a little beyond her abilities), Bond’s meticulous dress sense that shifts from scene to scene, and the call-backs to earlier Bond movies, this is a departure for Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig – this is Bond of old, Bond made un-gritty, in a way that could’ve seen Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan happily embrace the occasional silliness. The obligatory car chase in prototypes, the obligatory hair raising shootout in a fantasy location, the obligatory explosions which – in hindsight – don’t quite make sense but are spectacular nonetheless; it is all what the Bond franchise delivered for so many years.

Spectre is above all else entertainment; where Casino Royale sought to humanise Bond the character, where Quantum of Solace was driven and purposeful, albeit without plot, and where Skyfall was intensely personal for Bond, this one lets us back into the super-spy world – perhaps ironically given the plot talking about the end of the human pulling the trigger. It aims to tie a nice bow on the arc of the story which Craig’s portrayal started, and in a way it does – the first time in the Bond universe you’d have a plausible reason to watch back to back, which is its own novelty.

The performances are largely fine, with Craig possibly the weak point as you can see he tires of the role and its low dimensionality. Whishaw is excellent as Q, a much better every-man than perhaps would be expected, and Waltz’s villain gets steadily more pathological as the story progresses, working perfectly with the building plot.

Don’t go in expecting something as complex or empathetic towards Bond as Casino Royale – this is much more the Bond movie that you enjoy for the ride, without closely examining the details because the movie asks you to move on with steady pacing; if you do take it for what it is, you’ll be in for a good time.


Book Review: Flash Boys by Michael Lewis

Yesterday, the NYSE went down for a couple of hours, and the fascinating thing was while it was out, stocks rallied… as soon as it came back, it plunged. Well, I guess “fascinating” is a word I can use because I’m not invested in the American market in any meaningful way, but for those involved, this kind of weird stock market behaviour makes for wondering as to what on earth is going on in the American market.

Which is where Flash Boys by Michael Lewis comes in. It’s pure non-fiction – Lewis (of Liar’s Poker fame) returns once more to the world of Wall Street to find out just what is going on, to find out how the market has changed in the last 10 years, and how we can get events like the above, or the “flash crash” in 2010 which saw billions, nominally, wiped off the collective value of companies, only to reappear not much later. Lewis takes his investigative eye to weaving a story of the people behind the scenes that make the markets tick now.

The story he tells starts with the construction of an optic fibre cable between Chicago and New York – something which appears to have no ostensible connection to the stock market – and he goes on to slowly fill in the definition and detail in the picture, weaving a story magnificently of how High Frequency Trading has changed the market since 2005, the impacts, and the people working to make things better. It does attempt to build some people into plucky heroes, and doesn’t directly involve the villains in telling the tale, but the message is loud as it is clear, and stuff like the NYSE system crash yesterday just jumps out at me now like “that was probably caused by HFT, damn!”

At certain points, it feels almost like a thriller – I just wanted to keep turning the pages and reading on. The book resonates with me particularly because of where I work in technology and finance, though I’ve never been directly involved with the specific processes at hand – but I’ve definitely seen the changes in the last 10 years as an “insider”, and so much rings true that there’s little doubt Lewis has the right end of the stick.

A magnificent quote that put into words what I’d been feeling about technology in financial markets is towards the latter stage of the book –

The markets were now run by technology, but technologists were still treated like tools. Nobody bothered to explain the business to them, but they were forced to adapt to its demands and exposed to its failures – which was, perhaps, why there had been so many more conspicuous failures.

Technologists being treated like tools – or more accurately, “cost centres” that are  money pits – when banks couldn’t operate in 2015 without technology is one of the most frustrating parts of my working life. Capital investment is a given in many industries, but technology is not viewed that way for far too many organisations.  That’s not even the primary message, but it’s an important one, and one I hope gets some momentum or at least recognition with people that are in important roles.

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows: If you want to watch a Guy Ritchie movie set in the late 19th century starring a character whose name happens to be Sherlock following a plot that approximates Conan-Doyle’s writing in the way a Big Mac approximates a steak, watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you want to watch Sherlock Holmes in action, go watch the superlative Sherlock from the BBC.

I mean, sure, Robert Downey Jr. is fine, Jude Law almost a better Watson than Martin Freeman, but there’s a key element missing in A Game of Shadows, and that is detective work. At no point does it become clear to you the viewer that Sherlock is working a case – Ritchie does action very well and there’s some amazing cinematography, funny moments and tight pacing, but a detective story this is not.


Book Review: Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

If there’s ever a book that you can say is pure geek indulgence, it’s Cryptonomicon. No other book I’ve seen takes the abstract concepts of topics as varied as UNIX, cryptography and normalising preferences between siblings for Grandma’s inheritance through a distribution on a cartesian plane formed in a parking lot. You can tell this isn’t your daddy’s war novel.

Stephenson weaves together two stories, interlinked through blood – in the 1930s, Lawrence Waterhouse, a borderline-Autistic mathematician encounters Alan Turing shortly before World War II is due to break out; Bobby Shaftoe is a U.S. Marine stationed in Asia, retreating from Shanghai ahead of the march of the Japanese through China, while Goto Dengo is Bobby’s counterpart of sorts on the Japanese side, a soldier who dares to think of self-preservation ahead of the Emperor’s wishes.

In the late 90s, Randy Waterhouse is being dragged into a business venture by his friend and former business partner Avi; he ends up working with Amy and her father Douglas Macarthur Shaftoe, son of Bobby. They employ the services of one Goto Engineering, which, yes, is presided over by Goto Dengo himself. All this has the backdrop of the mysterious Societas Eroditorum in the background, with a seemingly ageless preacher by the unlikely name of Enoch Root playing a part in both timelines.

This is all not even mentioning the central push of this novel, which is so loaded with technical details it’ll make your head spin: the Cryptonomicon is all about cryptography, encoding messages for secure transmission. It has actual technical details, an algorithm and even an actual Perl script for encoding and decoding a method of encryption specifically invented for this book. There’s even an appendix dedicated to explaining the method for the audience that didn’t catch on through the novel. I mean, damn!

Although some of the technical aspects can be a bit overbearing in the middle of a novel, and the different voices of the narrators are occasionally jarring – albeit pleasingly distinct – this stands on its own as a thriller without the technical background.

The technical details are more easily understood if you come from a software background, but nevertheless I would suspect this would add greatly to the realism, at least for all those that know precious little about both the code-breaking efforts in WWII and the workings of today’s technology.

Rarely does Stephenson use these elements gratuitously. His writing is dense and yet spare, descriptive without being prescriptive – you can easily imagine these people in your head, but the descriptions aren’t overly specific or belaboured.  In some ways, perhaps that does truly identify it as a geek novel: it says enough to get the salient points across, but without being needlessly wordy about it.

Cryptonomicon suffers a little from the same issue many a novel that uses historical characters in its narrative, namely that had the fictional characters actually be interacting with the non-fictional ones in the ways described, the non-fictional novel should be equally if more significant than the ones the actual characters deliver.

Ripping and engaging yarn, hard to put down. ★★★★

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, Jennifer Anniston, Kevin Spacey, and Colin Farrell – and that’s only the part of the cast you’re likely to recognise just by name. Nimble and adept, modern and unflinching with enough to keep the laughs going, this comedy provides some light relief without compromising or requiring you to switch your brain off. ★★★

Lion Preview

A preview of Mac OS X 10.7 Lion for me at the Apple Store today, before I go and upgrade:

  • Arrrrrrrrrgh, Apple, did you really have to implement rubber-band scrolling in Mac OS X too? It makes sense, kinda, on an iPhone to show “there is no more to scroll”, where you potentially might have your finger over the scrolling indicator. On Mac OS X, I want that to stop scrolling and stay.
  • “natural scrolling” (i.e. what the rest of the world calls “inverse scrolling”) is… surprisingly easy to get used to, actually. Though that said, I can only imagine the hoops the muscle memory will have to jump through when flicking between systems that follow that convention and those that don’t.
  • Thank you for setting scrollbars visible to be an option at least.
  • Thank you (finally!) for any-edge-of-the-window resize.
  • Not so much a fan of full-screen apps, unfortunately. The full-screen button is not a substitute for the Maximise icon in Windows.
  • While full-screen mode is nice, and I can see the point here, some (many) are apt to lose the damn window if you’re doing this quaint notion called multitasking. Alt-… err, Command-tabbing away to another app works when going from a full-screen app; to go back, you have to use Mission Control/Spaces.
  • Speaking of which, Mission Control is surprisingly good – better than Expose/Spaces by a long shot. I hate that spaces is now limited to a in-a-row configuration, but otherwise MC wins comprehensively.
  • In the same vein, Launchpad is pretty and decently usable too, for the right people. I tended to keep the Applications folder in the dock to show as a grid for my parents to launch apps on the Mac; Launchpad is a better/cleaner interface for the same thing, and easily ties into the iPad halo effect.
  • On the other hand… click-and-hold to get apps “wiggling”? It was for right-click that tap-and-hold was created to substitute, not the other way around.
  • I was that close to saying the system-wide autocorrect looked awesome… and then it mucked up a couple of corrections of mistypes. Needs training for sure.
  • Finder. Oh for the love of…
    • No, they didn’t FTFF. Not even in the slightest. It’s even more confusing than ever before.
    • For one, it’s grey. Grey-on-grey action. (yes I know that sounds really bad.) Gone are the at-a-glance hints of folder purpose – forget that, you better concentrate to read or comprehend the lil’ grey icon. It’s not enough that the main folders are all shaped the same, it’s the sidebar hints too now.
    • Even Quick Look has gone grey; gone is the nice looking transparent black pop-over, replaced by a leaden grey window. The buttons are grey, the sidebars are grey. Just about the only thing with a hint of colour in the interface is the Close/Minimise/Maximise buttons, and even they’re shrinking. Is Steve Jobs colour-blind and wanting to impose that on the rest of us, too? Does he want to make this the first Mac interface since the Mac II to be compatible with a monochrome display? Is the next MacBook going to be an e-Ink display?
    • Holy shit is the functionality of the Finder broken. Who the hell needs to see “All My Files” as the default Finder window? A little hierarchy might need a little explaining, but my god is it a power for good after that. Yick. (Ed: turns out, you can change that as a preference. Please.)
    • Ok, I see how I need to right-click to sort by name instead of type… but why can’t I pick the direction of my name sorting? why is the title showing field name now just a translucent label I can click right through? Who decided this would be a good feature? Why has no-one yet implemented cut-paste in Finder? (Ed: that, too, is now available with Cmd+Opt+V) Path Finder, here I come.
  • Resume looks to be a genuine winner. Close an app down, open it up again, poof, it’s back as quick as you could ask for.
  • Didn’t get a chance to play with Versions.
  • iCal & Address Book. Really? The cheesy looks-like-real-life skin? I thought we got rid of this with the 90s. I didn’t like it on the iPad, why would I like it here?
  • Though the integration with Google/Yahoo/Other accounts looks pretty sweet.
  • Mail looks pretty sweet.
  • Don’t think I got to play with anything else that was specifically Lion related.
Overall, I’m going to wait this out a little, I think. Not that I won’t go for it, just that it might be good to wait and see 10.7.1 come around, y’know what I’m sayin’?
(p.s. if you’re interested in a more comprehensive review of Lion and you haven’t already done so, check out Jon Siracusa’s 27,000 word review of it over at Ars Technica.)


Call me fickle, but just about a year ago, I was looking at the ebook-e-reader market and thinking that it was a waste of time, that paper books were here to stay for years yet and that it was far too expensive. Who in their right mind would pay $300 – $400 just for the reader, and then more for the damn books to read on it? Up until January, my only exposure to reading electronic books had been the Stanza app on the iPhone, and while it worked for reading short passages, it was woefully inadequate for full novels.

Of course, a year is a long time in technology, none more so than 2010.

First, the iPad came along, and I flip-flopped on the idea of buying that before finally caving. Initially I used it for games, videos, and all manner of internet browsing, before finally deciding to take it along with me on my daily commute. On the train, all those options were off the table – so I tried out iBooks, and found it amazingly readable.

A pity then the iBooks bookstore is so overpriced, none more so than in Australia – paying more for a digital edition is just about the biggest rip-off I’ve heard of. There were some classics for me to catch up on, and I managed to churn through quite a few. There’s only so much archaic 19th century prose you can read before getting a little weary of it, and so I tired of it.

And then came the Kindle…

When the Kindle shows up in the post, you almost think there’s been a mistake. The box weighs more than the device, and seems absurdly oversized. When I say this thing is thin and light, there’s absolutely no kidding – it’s hardly thicker than 20 pages of a typical novel, and so easily held in one hand with its lightness. Turn it sideways, and it’s virtually gone.

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Movie Review: Inglourious Basterds

It’s perhaps worth noting here that, as far as I can tell, this is the second Tarantino-directed movie where Quentin himself doesn’t get in front of the camera at some point, as he’s wont to do in most of his other movies, Kill Bill being the other notable one. But where Kill Bill was brilliant for its action sequences, its all too overt nods to kung fu and samurai movies, Inglourious Basterds ignores World War II movie convention as brazenly as the spelling in the title, making it recognisable and yet giving you reason for a double-take.

Inglourious Basterds starts out with an old-school opening credits, refusing to layer names on action as has become the norm, and the first chapter of five is introduced as “Once upon a time… in Nazi occupied France, 1941” as though to declare up front this is a fairy-tale which references and adapts real events into the story to follow. If you were expecting something like The Dirty Dozen, or even Saving Private Ryan done Tarantino style, be prepared for something entirely different – although if you’re watching a Tarantino movie with any prior expectations, it would be that this isn’t going to be more of the usual.

The opening scene could be a short film all by itself, nearly standing alone from the rest of the movie and with all the trappings of a full narrative arc. In the idyllic French countryside, at the dairy farm of Perrier LaPadite, we are introduced to the deliciously intellectual Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), “the Jew hunter” of the SS in France, who speaks German, French, English and (later) Italian with apparently equal fluency. He is perhaps the primary antagonist of the movie and plays a far more pivotal role than the eponymous Basterds, who we are introduced to in the second, brief, chapter. We also see Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, playing a true femme fatale), a Jewish girl, and are left wondering as to her fate, though not for long.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Italy, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is inspecting  his crack team of eight Jewish soldiers, planning to drop behind German lines to kill soldiers as a guerrilla style force years before the term guerrilla became common. Raine is of partially Native American blood, and in that tradition demands his men bring him 100 Nazi scalps. If you’ve not heard of scalping before, you’re about to get a very graphic demonstration.

The majority of the action takes place around in 1944. The Basterds have instilled terror in the German foot soldiers, and even to the point where Hitler is trying to counter rumours himself. In Paris, Shosanna is disguised as Emmanuelle Mimieux, and owns and runs a glorious art deco theatre in a quiet street of the city. When a German soldier with an interest in movies approaches her, she first repels his advances, and then, after being corralled into hosting a premiere for the Nazi top brass, finds the attention useful as a cover for plotting vengeance on the prosecutors of her people. Meanwhile, the British and a double-agent are plotting an operation to blow up the same cinema, and call in the Basterds to help pull it off.

What follows is a series of scenes where the tension is ratcheted bit by bit, until at last the climax unleashes the violence we fully expect of a war movie, albeit with the director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction‘s own frantic interpretation. While Tarantino does not commit the hubristic sin of referencing his own movies, his style is painted over this movie with a brush a mile wide. The reams of dialogue in three languages (and then some) making this a movie where you have to concentrate on the words, a refreshing change to the usual blockbuster trash where you can watch without paying attention to words, the plot adequately revealed by explosions.

I think I agree most with Time’s review, especially in that it is very much a European-style, foreign language film – I’d be hard put to say whether there’s more time when the dialogue is in English or some other language, an authenticity that you’d never get with all characters speaking English, as accessible as that might make it. I love also that in some scenes, we’re clearly guided to a particular character’s viewpoint by not being given subtitles for languages they don’t know. Brilliantly played out, almost novel-like – and would certainly be all the more rewarding for those who can speak German, French and English, as I’m sure a number of Europeans would.

You’ll pardon me if my descriptions of the plot and characters seem a bit torturous – this is genuinely a movie you don’t want to spoil, and I’m thankful that the trailer is a bit of a hodge-podge that doesn’t reveal nearly enough. In a few key scenes, the tension is palpable, and I’d watch it over and over again to discover new aspects of the movie.

For all that dialogue and plot gets the attention here in this text-based medium, the visuals are not to be forgotten. Tarantino lingers in some of his shots, especially on the two lead females, a habit he seems to have developed somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The style looks timeless, and it’s definitely worth watching in the cinemas. A note for the queasy though – there’s a few confronting scenes of blood, violence and gore, and if you’re the type that can’t stand the sight of blood even on screen, there will be more than a few moments where you’re peeking through fingers at this. Excessive maybe, but very much in Tarantino’s way of doing things.

At this point, I think I’m sounding very much like this a flawless movie, but I hesitate to say it’s not a perfect 5-star experience. The plot feels a bit like a two-for-one deal – two distinct stories, standing alone but for the antagonist and the catalyst of the Nazi brass all in one public place. The Basterds of the title are neglected, I felt, in favour of telling Shosanna’s story, but then from all reports key scenes from that story, such as those with Maggie Cheung, were cut in an effort to “squeeze” it into two and a half hours (though in its defence, those hours go by very much unnoticed). If anything, I’d have been happy for Tarantino to make a pair of movies, perhaps along the lines of the two Kill Bill volumes, perhaps as two versions of the same ending where you could pick touch points later.

In the end though, what’s made is made and what’s cut is probably waiting on the DVD release in a few months time, at which point it’d be possible to go over this movie again with a fine toothed comb, pausing at all the moments where I felt like pulling out a reference book for movie and period references. Tarantino continues to make films that are different, unique and creative without sacrificing entertainment and scope, and it’s for that reason I hope that this movie, or indeed earlier Tarantino movies, inspires some studios to take more chances with their film-making

“Out now in cinemas everywhere,” I believe, is the usual finish to a movie you can heartily recommend. ★★★★☆