Aug 052014

In the 1980s there was a joke I heard on the streets of Budapest. It was in the form of an official-sounding announcement: “In Soviet Union is no illiteracy… on written record.”

Well, there is no racism in Hungary either. At least not on the record. Everything that happens, happens for a sound, sensible reason. When Hungary’s Minister of Human Resources announces that there was no Roma Holocaust in Hungary, as Hungarian Roma were only deported from Austrian territory, he of course speaks the gospel truth. When the third largest city in Hungary begins a systematic eviction of mainly Roma residents, it is just an eminently reasonable attempt to clean up a bad, run-down part of town. And when a state-sponsored film festival in the same city declines to show films on the subject of the Roma, it is an entirely logical decision, aimed at avoiding controversy just before municipal elections.

Everything is based on sound reasoning, everything makes perfect sense. Just as it was entirely reasonable when a small town mayor in Hungary this weekend presided over a symbolic hanging of an effigy of Benjamin Netanyahu, in protest against the “Freemason Jewish terror state’s efforts to rule the world.” No, there is no racism in Hungary. How could there be?

 Posted by at 5:40 pm
May 162014

So here I am, sitting in a hotel room in the 21st century city of Abu Dhabi. After a long day in front of my laptop, I spent some more time with said laptop, this time watching a movie. I bought the DVD of Cloud Atlas a few months ago, but I never had the time to watch it… until now.

All I can say is… Wow. If you give this movie the attention it deserves, it is immensely rewarding. Cinematic science fiction at its absolute best. A movie that borrows some elements from other works, e.g., Kubrick’s 2001 Space Odyssey, or Soylent Green, or The Fifth Element… but it is an absolutely original, astounding tale or rather, six interwoven tales set in the past, present and future, forming a true cautionary tale in the best traditions of classic science-fiction.

I know I’ll watch this movie again… probably many times. For me, it’s going to be one of those movies that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Oh… and the movie should have received an award, if only there was one, for the most creative cinematic use of a cat. I laughed so hard, I almost had an unfortunate accident involving pants and other unmentionables.

 Posted by at 6:26 pm
Apr 292014

The other day, I watched a delightful 30+ year old movie that I never saw before, The World According to Garp. In one scene, the protagonist decides to buy a house after a small airplane crashes into it, explaining that it is unlikely to ever happen again; that house has been “pre-disastered”. (Yes, it’s a logical fallacy, but the scene was still funny.) I think it was this movie that inspired me today, when I finally managed to talk to a human representative at Scotiabank, after being endlessly and needlessly frustrated by a voice recognition answering system.

450px-Sony_Qrio_Robot_2Voice recognition systems infuriate me. I am not alone, and this should come as no surprise. The phenomenon when something that looks, feels (or in this case, sounds) almost, but not quite, human creeps out people is so well known, it even has a name: Uncanny Valley. I am perfectly comfortable with answering systems that ask me to make menu choices by pressing buttons on my phone. Yet I am filled with blind fury and rage by voice response systems that, usually in an overly friendly and syrupy-sweet voice, ask me to explain, in words, what I am calling about. “I WANT TO TALK TO A FREAKING HUMAN YOU STUPID MACHINE!”

Fortunately, my self-control prevailed this morning. When (after stabbing “0” more than a few times with my finger while shouting nonsense, finally convincing the voice recognition algorithm to give up) I was at last connected to an actual (very nice) human lady, I remained polite. However, at the end of our conversation, I could not refrain from asking her to please pass on my request to the Powers That Be at Scotiabank to get rid of this stupid voice recognition system. She agreed that indeed, many customers are annoyed like I was. I commented on the fact that it was usually people like her who become the victims of their callers’ anger… when they arrive, like I did, pre-high-blood-pressured. She laughed so hard… I think I made her day.

As I am writing this, I am thinking that there might be another way to climb out of the uncanny valley: better AI. This is, after all, 2014, the age of self-driving cars and Google Search that knows what you are about to type even before you do. I could easily imagine a voice recognition system that, instead of spoon feeding me instructions like I was mentally retarded, began a natural conversation: “Hello, this is the Scotiabank automated assistant. This call may be recorded for quality assurance. How can we help you today?” (Avoid talking like the caller was retarded. Avoid using “I” because you are not a self-aware person. Speak in a natural voice, not like you were talking to someone hard of hearing, not unless they indicate that they are, in fact, hard of hearing.) If this system could actually carry out a decent conversation instead of being a poorly thought-out replacement of a touchtone menu system, it might work a lot better… and, for that matter, may even reduce the need for human operators as I bet it could respond to many inquiries successfully without human intervention.

 Posted by at 9:09 pm
Aug 272013

The other day, I caught a trio of short films on the CBC, in a program called Short Film Faceoff. I especially liked Frost, a science-fiction short depicting a dystopian future, but OMG was also excellent.

Now these films are all available online, along with another three that were shown the previous week. I haven’t watched those yet. There will be another batch coming this weekend.

 Posted by at 11:58 am
Jan 122013

Death StarI have to admit I am a little disappointed. The White House officially rejected a petition to begin construction of a Death Star space station. And it’s the bean counters’ fault, as usual: they think spending $850,000,000,000,000,000 on the capability to blow up inhabited planets contributes too much to the deficit!


 Posted by at 5:05 pm
Nov 192012

One of the best known Russian science-fiction authors from the Soviet era, Boris Strugatsky, died today at the age of 79. Together with his brother Arkady (who died in 1991), they wrote some astonishing, unique novels, including some of my favorites: Monday Begins on Saturday and It’s Hard to be a God. But they are perhaps best known for the short story Roadside Picnic, immortalized in film by Andrei Tarkovsky under the title Stalker.

 Posted by at 5:10 pm
Sep 132012

So an American (or not; the identity, ethnicity and nationality of the filmmaker(s) are not entirely clear) filmmaker creates a rather amateurish production bearing the title, The Innocence of Muslims, screened originally to an audience of less than 10 when it was first shown in a theater earlier this summer. To say that the movie is obscure is an understatement… It doesn’t even appear to have an entry in the Internet Movie Database (though chances are this will change soon.)

So what’s the best way to defend the honor of your Prophet? Why, how about launching a world-wide publicity campaign for this film, attacking embassies and consulates, burning American flags, and generally making sure that every news media talks about the film and its availability on YouTube. The trailer has now been seen by more than 1.2 million people.

So, dear protesters, if your goal was to promote this hack job on your religion, give the filmmaker worldwide fame (and no doubt help him earn a few dollars in the process) and, incidentally, by murdering America’s ambassador to Libya, produce evidence that perhaps the movie’s point is not entirely to be dismissed, you succeeded beyond your wildest dreams. Mohammed must be proud.

 Posted by at 8:36 am
Sep 112012

At this moment, there are protesters ripping down US flags at the American embassy in Cairo, upset over some film (no idea which one, just repeating what I heard on CNN) that in their mind insults the prophet Mohammed (many Muslims like to add the phrase, “peace be upon him” to his name, but there is nothing peaceful about the name of a prophet in whose name suicide bombers kill innocents, even if most followers of Islam do not subscribe to such violence. No, I don’t think Christ represents peace either.)

I think it’s about high time we tell something to violent Islamists who believe it is alright to intimidate others who, in their view, offend their religion. You, Islamists, offend us. You offend one of our most sacred beliefs, our belief in the right to free speech and freedom of expression. And yes, if necessary, we are willing to resort to violence if that’s what it takes to protect these rights. And don’t think for one moment that our beliefs are less important to us than your beliefs are to you. So what shall it be? Shall we go on and murder each other in the name of our mutually incompatible beliefs? (Don’t forget, there is a good chance that we might win. Westerners have become rather good at this war business after two world wars and countless smaller ones, and we are armed to the teeth. We also invented industrialized murder, you know, Auschwitz and all that.) Or shall we just let each other be?

I suggest the latter. And if you believe that there is a veiled threat behind this suggestion, you might not be wrong.

So next time you hear about a film that you don’t like, here is an easy solution: don’t watch it. Then we can just happily leave each other alone.

 Posted by at 2:20 pm
Sep 042012

Speaking of books… A couple of weeks ago, I received my copy of The Hunger Games on Blu-Ray. I knew more or less what to expect but I was still amazed. I am trying to imagine that conversation somewhere in a movie company boardroom where the producer made the pitch: “I am planning a movie in which two dozen children brutally murder each other…” It’s a near miracle I think that this movie was made, and a genuine miracle that the result was not sweetened up by Hollywood.

The brutality of The Hunger Games is not self-serving. Its dystopia teaches a young audience a lot more than what a first kiss is like or how to survive a life-and-death game with a bow and arrows. It teaches them about choosing and betraying (or be betrayed by) friends. It teaches them about choosing when all your choices are evil and immoral. It teaches them how not to trust any authority. How life can be lethally unfair. How the protected world in which children live is merely an illusion. And the sequels, if possible, are even better. Yes, I now read them all, and I cannot wait to see them come to life on screen.

 Posted by at 1:13 pm
Aug 302012

To those friends of mine who think I am nuts when I express my concerns about the inevitable coming of Skynet (from the Terminator movies)… say hello to TaserDrone.


Yes I know, it’s just a proof-of-concept prototype and not a very efficient one at that, but still…

 Posted by at 7:06 pm
Aug 042012

I admit I read Ayn Rand’s magnum opus from cover to cover several years ago. I may not be an adoring fan, but… I get Ayn Rand. I think I understand her and I certainly appreciate her message.

She was trying to create an intelligent ideological counterpoint to radical collectivism. Her novels always suffered from heavy-handed, preachy writing; it’s sometimes hard to decide if the author meant what she wrote or if it was a clumsy attempt at satire. Still, the message of Atlas Shrugged is not to be shrugged off (pun intended). It is a magnificent defense of free market capitalism, enlightened selfishness as the driving motor of a successful society, but dragged down by collectivism, entitlements, corrupt politics and lobbying.

One thing Atlas Shrugged doesn’t represent is populism. In fact, it is the antithesis of populism. Which is why I found it ironic that some of the support for the recent movie adaptation came from neo-conservative circles such as the Tea Party. Perhaps they don’t realize that their views are almost as contrary to Ayn Rand’s teachings as the presumed “socialism” of Barack Obama. Ayn Rand’s enlightened capitalist heroes are not ignoring facts that they find inconvenient. They aren’t advocating off-loading hidden (e.g., environmental) costs onto the rest of society. They simply do not believe that anyone has a right to demand their self-sacrifice. They do not owe anything to society. They have a right to what they own: their assets and their ideas. Okay, Ayn Rand sometimes took it a bit too far; some of her heros, after all, turn to overt terrorism in order to defend their ownership rights.

Anyhow, I just finished watching Atlas Shrugged Part I, courtesy of Netflix. It’s not a great movie by any means, but it was better than I expected. As a matter of fact, it was less preachy than Ayn Rand’s book, which certainly helped. I am not sure I approve of the idea of moving the story’s setting to the near future. Ayn Rand’s original story had a sense of timelessness. Keeping its timeframe ambiguous, but with a kind of 1950s, early 1960s atmosphere also could have helped avoid a somewhat artificial explanation behind the importance of railroads. Still, the rewrite wasn’t clumsily done, and I am actually looking forward to the sequel, if it is actually produced. (Supposedly, it is in the works.)

Yes, I am looking forward to watching Atlas Shrugged, Part 2… even as I am rooting for Obama’s re-election. Does this mean that I am delusional?

 Posted by at 10:51 pm
Feb 262012

Christopher Plummer is one of my favorite actors. I don’t usually care about the Oscars, but tonight, I was really rooting for him. And at last, it came true: at 82, he became the oldest recipient of a well-deserved Academy Award.

 Posted by at 11:42 pm
Jul 162011

Last night, my wife and I watched Barney’s Version on Blu-ray. I really loved Mordecai Richler’s novel, and the movie is true to its spirit; it is, in fact, a remarkable well done film. Too bad it didn’t do particularly well in the box office; it deserved better.

 Posted by at 3:32 pm
Feb 072010

I’ve never even heard of this movie, Children of Men, until yesterday, when by chance I caught its trailer on the Space channel, announcing its broadcast tonight.

I’m watching it now, just about two thirds of the way through, and I think I already know why it earned the respectable spot of #184 among the top 250 movies of all time on the Internet Movie Database.

All I can say is… wow.

 Posted by at 3:35 am
Jan 012010

This is the year when the Soviet spaceship Alexei Leonov was supposed to fly to Jupiter, investigating the failure of the spaceship Discovery and the death of her crew nine years earlier. At least in one respect, Clarke’s vision will come true: after the Space Shuttle’s planned retirement later this year, the United States will be left without a manned launch capability, and American astronauts will be ferried to the International Space Station (alas, a mere few hundred kilometers above the Earth’s surface, not a billion kilometers from here like Jupiter) on board Russian spacecraft. Not exactly an inspiring thought, except perhaps to some Russians.

 Posted by at 6:21 am
Dec 202009

Thank you, religious nuts, for many things, from the “clash of civilizations” to Creationism, or for something as mundane yet annoying and disgusting as your success at torpedoing the sequels to the film The Golden Compass. The book from which it was made is superb, the film was fine, and I’d have loved to see the sequels… alas, in the name of religious freedom and civil rights, the sequels won’t happen. So allow me to quote my favorite atheist author, Kurt Vonnegut, and tell you to go jump in a lake.

 Posted by at 4:52 am
Oct 222009

I wanted to look up Barry Newman, the star of Vanishing Point, that legendary 1971 road movie. Accidentally, I entered Newman’s name into the URL field in Mozilla Firefox. Rather than telling me that I am full of nonsense or taking me to a search engine, Firefox instantly brought up the Internet Movie Database page on Barry Newman. What can I say… I know how it is done, but that doesn’t mean that I am unimpressed by how well it is done.

 Posted by at 1:44 pm
Mar 152009

I’m watching a horrible movie (“Recon 2020“) and in an attempt to find out what it is about, I happened upon a Web page where I read this:

“Action packed lots and lots of monster killing. You know all the stuff sci-fi fans love.”

No. That’s not what sci-fi fans like. Or, at least, that’s not what this here sci-fi fan likes.

I grew up on the sci-fi of the likes of Asimov, Clarke, the Strugatsky brothers, Lem, or for that matter, Verne and Wells. Science fiction that contemplated the future of humanity, the role of science and technology, our destiny, the dangers we face, our chance of survival, our responsibilities. THAT’s what science fiction means to me. I don’t mind action and monsters, if well done it can even be fun, but no action or monster killing can make up for the absence of a credible plot and a meaningful story.

 Posted by at 3:38 am
Feb 232009

I don’t usually write about things such as the Oscars, as the topic leaves me supremely uninterested. However, it is hard to avoid it if you watch, listen to, or read the news. And I suddenly realized something, one of the reasons why I consider awards like the Oscars so irrelevant.

I probably wasn’t even in grade school yet (my guess is that it was the summer of 1968 and my family was watching the Mexico City Olympics) when I observed that there really are two types of sports. The results of sprinters, jumpers or weightlifters are measured by an objective standard: the reading from a scale, a ruler, or the face of a clock. But others, like gymnasts, are judged entirely differently: by a panel of experts who make subjective judgments of their performance. The ranking of a weightlifter doesn’t depend on which scale was used, as all are calibrated to the same standard; the ranking of a gymnast, on the other hand, depends heavily on the constitution of the panel of judges supervising the competition.

But what bothered me most is not that these differences exist, but that the world of adults did not seem to take notice. Grownups all talked about the Olympic gold of a weightlifter the same way as they did about the gold of a gymnast, as if there was no difference.

My disconnect with the world of grownups began around this time, I think. And, as my misgivings about the Oscars demonstrate, it has not ended.

 Posted by at 4:46 pm
Dec 062008

I was slacking off this morning (it’s a Saturday, after all) and I decided to watch a DVD that has been lying around my desk for months. It’s an award-winning Hungarian movie, KONTROLL. No, it has nothing to do with Maxwell Smart’s CONTROL, fighting the evil agents of KAOS. KONTROLL, a movie about the lives of ticket inspectors, train conductors, a serial killer, and other strange characters, is set in its entirety in the Budapest subway system. A subway system that becomes a world by itself, with no daylight, no sunshine, and no contact with the outside world other than through the anonymous masses of subway passengers. I read wonderful things about this movie (it has won a respectable number of international awards) and all I can say is that its reputation is well deserved. Wow! I was in the second grade when the first modern subway line opened in Budapest (the city has a single underground line that is much older, built in 1896, but the first line of the new modern subway system was opened in 1970) and the subway has been part of my daily life until I left Hungary in 1986. Still, I don’t think that after watching this movie I’ll ever be able to look at those subways quite the same way as before.

 Posted by at 4:40 pm