The Kung Fu Kid Review

I’m a bit of a fan of the original The Karate Kid. It’s not really particularly well acted, and the characters are rather flat, but it’s a lot of fun, and is a real 1980s classic. So, I was really interested to see what the latest movie would be like…

The Karate Kid

A surprisingly adult martial arts film involving surprisingly young kids.

This 2010 film is a homage, rather than a strict remake, of the 1984 classic. While it has the same plot points, it has different characters, a different setting, and a different martial art. In the intervening 26 years, it feels like this film has matured and deepened somewhat, and we’ve ended up with richer characters, better acting, and a real feeling of authenticity about it.

The cinematography is excellent, with amazing shots of China showing both polished and gritty parts. Jackie Chan, as a kung fu master, lends real credibility to the role of teacher. Given that the original 1984 film was a bit of a homage to Asian martial arts films, it’s rather apt that this take on the original has real Asian martial arts film chops.

However, the pace of the film is rather slow. It has a lot of dramatic arts, and relatively small amounts of martial arts. Many kids would find this pretty dull, I’d expect. Also, the kids themselves, i.e. the actors, in the film made me somewhat uncomfortable.

The main character is portrayed by a clearly 11 year-old actor. The result for me was that the violence and the romantic attraction were both problematic. The romance seemed implausible and the violence was troubling. The original, with the male and female leads both being well over 18, did not have this issue.

So, while the title’s reference to Karate is less accurate than the original, the reference to Kid is more accurate, and I think the film has suffered for it.

Rating by andrew: 2.0 stars

Interesting reading

One of the most interesting books I’ve read in a while was one that I picked up back in January. I’ve been meaning to write a review since then, but I had been holding off for a couple of reasons. Firstly, in case my book club chose it (it didn’t) and if I was to lend it to a particular friend (I haven’t yet). However, the recent trigger was an article on a friend’s blog where the point was made about being prepared to change your mind in light of new evidence. Stewart Brand, the author of this book, similarly states that his opinions are “strongly stated and loosely held”. Strongly stated opinions are useful ones – they can be acted upon – while loosely held beliefs allow for the potential of giving them up when better ones come along. In this vein, the book is meant to provocatively challenge some common beliefs.

Whole Earth Discipline

Managed to change my mind on urbanisation, nuclear power and biotech

In this book, Stewart Brand considers what might be the most significant forces for good in the next century, and produces a somewhat surprising list: urbanisation, nuclear power and genetic technology. As Malcolm Gladwell does in other pop-science books, Brand pulls together emerging scientific findings of an interesting and compelling nature. However, for Brand, it is a personal exercise, as a number of his conclusions are the opposite of those that he held earlier in his life as an environmental activist.

While the conclusions don’t feel like the final word on the topics, as is par for the course regarding emerging research, to my reading, they do provide a substantial enough case for at least provisional acceptance. However, I must admit I wasn’t convinced by the argument on how nuclear proliferation is not a problem with today’s nuclear technology. Still, I found the book to be fascinating, informative and has already supplied me with ammunition in number of friendly debates.

My rating: 4.5 stars

In addition, the author summarises his book in this podcast, and provides updated references and annotation at this site.

Is PlayTV a good PVR?

Image via Wikipedia

For Christmas, we bought a Sony PS3 bundle that included a PS3 Slim 250GB unit, a Bluray Disc remote control, and a PlayTV peripheral. Before buying it, I read a few reviews on it, spoke to some PS3 owners, skimmed through the Whirlpool forum posts on PlayTV, and started to think that it would be a good PVR. It was also cheaper and larger than the TiVo 160GB units that were on sale at the time.

However, now that we’ve been using it for a few months, I now know whether it is a good PVR.

What it has going for it:

  • Has a very slick and responsive user interface. It’s moderately easy to use, although you need to be comfortable using the Sony square/circle/triangle/cross buttons to move in and out of menus.
  • Records SD and HD. A 250GB unit can record about 30 hours of HD programming, given that Australian HD TV channels currently consume about 6GB per hour.
  • Can either record a given channel/day/time or specify a show (which can be found via a text search of the EPG – Electronic Programme Guide), including repeat recordings. If you specify a show, the PlayTV will adjust the recording times if the EPG start/end times are updated (which they sometimes are on most channels, except Nine and Go!).
  • TV programs are recorded exactly as they are received off the air, in their MPEG-2 Transport Stream, so if you later want to read the subtitles, they are available.
  • You can copy recorded programs (up to 4GB) from the device onto an external USB stick or drive. Although, it does require some fussing around.
  • Can pause live TV and then fast-forward through ads to get back to the live TV programme.
  • Even though it is “just” a peripheral to a games console, it functions as you would expect, recording shows even when you are using the PS3 to do other things, and also turning itself on to record shows if you’ve previously turned it off.
  • The fact that the Bluray Disc remote is based on Bluetooth (wireless) rather than InfraRed means that it doesn’t need to be pointed towards the unit to work. This has proved particularly useful with a toddler in the house that loves to press the buttons on the front of the PS3. The PS3 can be turned so that the front is not visible from the front of our TV cabinet but the remote control keeps working.
  • The PS3 also provides the ability to watch ABC iView (although you need to pick up a standard PS3 game controller rather than the BluRay Disc remote), BluRay Discs / DVDs, and has a web browser that allows you to get to most web sites (including YouTube).

What is not so good about it:

  • It can record only one show at a time. Even though it’s got two tuners, it uses one of them for recording, and one for watching.
  • It is Freeview compliant. This means that the Australian version is crippled compared to the overseas versions, with the ability to skip ads or fast-forward at super-high speed removed. You can set the unit to operate in the mode of a different country, e.g. UK, but you lose the ability to tune in UHF channels like those of SBS.
  • It is overly sensitive to noise or interference on the antenna. If you live in a low signal area, use splitters or extension leads, then you could very well find that you experience visual stuttering when using PlayTV, even if other digital TV devices perform fine. Replacing our RF cable with a higher quality one helped reduce the stuttering a bit.
  • There is no RF-out (like you might find on a VCR or even TiVo), so if you want multiple devices in the room to receive TV signal, you’ll need to put in an RF splitter between your wall point and the PlayTV. Unfortunately, this will increase signal loss along the cables, and may increase the visual stuttering or worse. When I tried adding a splitter to our set-up, we lost several channels in the PlayTV.
  • The Bluray Disc remote lacks several buttons that we regularly use (and are on our TV remote), specifically mute and subtitle on/off. The lack of volume control is not such a big deal, as the PlayTV normalises volumes to a pre-set level.
  • The EPG is populated with information extracted out of the channels as they are watched. This means that the quality is variable, and not all the information is present when you turn on the device. Also, even after the full EPG (shows all channels) has information, the mini EPG (shows information for the channel being currently watched) sometimes does not. Other PVRs either have their own EPG feed or can make use of a third-party feed like IceTV.
  • Although you can add additional time to the end of a show to record it in case it runs over the scheduled time, the most you can add is 10 minutes. This is sometimes not enough, and we’ve missed out seeing the endings of quite a few programmes.
  • The PS3 DVD player is one of the few sold in Australia that is region-locked, without an easy way of removing the lock. We have a number of overseas DVDs that we can’t play in it.
  • The software (even though it is currently v1.21) still feels immature. There are a number of annoying bugs that have somehow slipped through the QA testing. For example, although you can jump directly to a channel by typing in the channel number, it doesn’t work for channels higher than #023. Also, the live TV buffer fills up after 30 minutes of buffering and then stops working (you can’t watch from the buffer any more and need to return to the live TV show). Also, sometimes its parsing of the EPG data sometimes goes a bit skewiff, and we’ve had it record 2.5 hrs for a 1 hr show. I hope these are all fixed in later updates.

In summary, I would not currently recommend the PlayTV as a PVR, compared to others with similar prices. Certainly, if you are considering getting one, borrow one from someone and check to see if you get all the channels and any visual stuttering before you buy.

We are mostly used to our PlayTV now. Although, I would like to get someone in to check out our TV antenna system at some point, because if we could get rid of the stuttering, the PlayTV would be a nice, basic PVR.

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The new Star Wars?

There’s plenty that’s already been written on this movie, since it cost a bomb to make, the director waited a decade to make it until technology caught up to his vision, and it’s on a rapid trajectory to become the highest grossing film ever. But I’ve been hanging out to see it ever since I heard it would be in 3D, making it the first of the current crop of 3D films to be (at least, partially) live-action. And anyway, at least this review will be adhering to my strong policy of no spoilers.


An enjoyable film set in a jaw-droppingly impressive sci-fi universe.

This is not a new tale, and is similar to Dune (or to Pocahontas, I am told), but is delivered with such commitment to the vision of James Cameron that it cannot fail to impress. This film is awash with a wealth of detail that even Tolkien would be proud of. With scientific consultants including a linguist from USC and a botanist from UCR, the world has a lot of detail behind it that you can actually see on the screen. New technologies needed to be developed to produce the computer animation and to shoot the actors in 3D.

The 3D is something that is hyped up in the marketing for this film. I saw this film in 3D, but although I suspect I would’ve enjoyed it as much, or more, in 2D. It is a little distracting – from time to time I found myself impressed by the technology rather than immersed in the tale. Although, perhaps this is something that over time people will get used to. If you see enough 3D video content, you will probably be able to look past the 3D aspect itself.

The themes in the movie are consistent with the effort that Cameron has invested in his new world – perhaps he subconsciously doesn’t want anyone to mess with it. The themes cover the effects of colonialism, the theory of gaia, and the problems of the military-industrial complex. If this doesn’t float your boat, you can still get lost in the film’s 3D beauty or its action sequences.

Although, ironically, the characters themselves don’t have a great deal of depth. I found it hard to really empathise with them, or find their motivations completely believable. However, at least the heroes are likeable.

Even if the characters don’t re-appear, I came away convinced that the world will appear again in further movies, games and books. Like Star Trek, Star Wars or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the story universe has been so richly populated that sequels can’t help but be spun out form it. Sounds like Cameron has at least a couple more films up his sleeve for it, also.

My rating: 3.5 stars

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Snap Judgements

At one of the airports during my recent trip, I had to use up some loose change. It’s one of those strange situations – the currency in your hand has value, but as soon as you step onto the plane it’s worthless. Nowhere outside the country will change coins for you, and if it’s a small amount in notes the currency exchange fees will probably eat up all the value. So, one strategy is to turn soon-to-be-worthless currency into something that will still have value even after the plane starts taxiing.

I ended up buying a book, of course.

I had been eyeing off a Malcolm Gladwell book – the one before Outliers, which I’ve already read. I ended up converting my useless Hong Kong dollars (or whatever they were, I forget which airport it was) into something with persistent value. Which was lucky, as I didn’t get around to reading it until about a month later.

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking

People make snap judgements, but some are better than others

The basic idea of this book is obvious to anyone: that people make snap judgements. However, Gladwell tries to find those times when the snap judgements are interesting, because they are occurring subconsciously, or they are uncannily correct, or they are disappointingly wrong. He describes those times to us with his usual style of clear writing interspersed with interesting anecdotes and off-beat research.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t take away from the book much in the way of practical lessons. It seems that he was trying to write an up-beat book, to show the potential of snap judgements, but I felt a number of the negative cases tended to counter that message. Although someone can be trained to overcome the bias in subconscious judgements, it is not enough to be aware of the subconscious judgement. Also, it turns out that even experts in their field are not always able to say when a snap judgement is going to lead you astray.

However, I still found it fascinating. In particular, I loved the parts about the police, and also the story about the cataloguing of every possible facial expression.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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Comic but not funny

When I was a boy, I had my hair cut at a (somewhat sleazy I can now say) Italian barbers called Mario’s. It was in a small suburban shopping centre named Crossways, after the fact it was placed on a major intersection. Despite this, it never managed to attract a great deal of foot traffic. But somehow, its traders struggled on, and Mario’s seemed to get by on the number of (always) attractive (always)  female (daughters? cousins? nieces?) staff that Mario had around to hand him scissors and clippers.

To keep the younger clientele amused while waiting for Mario, at the end of the long, leather bench seat that ran the length of the barbershop, there was a stack of various comic publications. There was Archie and Richie Rich and others of that ilk, but it was The Phantom that I would always dig through the stack for. A costumed super-hero dating from the earliest days of the comics scene, he would fight off smugglers and slave traders through smarts and physical prowess.

That’s probably how I got “into” comics.

I’m not the biggest comic fan I know, nor am I a regular reader of comics (if you don’t count web comics). But I do own several graphic novels and books of comics, have Comical installed on my PC, and I now have my own stack of The Phantom.

So, when I came across a recommendation for a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the early days of comics, it then didn’t take too much convincing from the sales lady to buy it. “It’s epic”, she said.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

A literary treatment of escapism

Michael Chabon’s book takes the reader through the early years of the American comic book industry, set in 1940s New York. It is a thoroughly researched tale, that feels completely plausible, and it is difficult to know where the facts stop and the fiction begins.

The two protagonists of the title – Joe Kavalier and Sam Clay – are likable and engaging, and it is easy to get caught up in their enthusiasm. However, it’s not clear that Chabon likes them very much at all, as it is a rollercoaster of a story, and he doesn’t let them stay happy for long.

The quirky style of the writing made me feel as if I should be getting ready to laugh out loud, but the strife and despair of the situations put a damper on the high points. As a result, I couldn’t sit and read this book for very long at a stretch, and had to put it down and come back when I was ready for yet more torment to occur to Sam and Joe.

The themes of the book revolve around ideas of escapism. There is plenty of fodder for this in the context of a couple of Jewish immigrants in New York during World War II, however the inclusion of comic books into this allows additional meanings. It is cleverly done and the book feels “worthy”, but the level of depressingness was a little too much for me.

My rating: 3.0 stars

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3D but not even 3 star

On a recent trip, I watched one of the new crop of 3D computer animated films on the plane. Since Chicken Little came out in 2005, there has been almost exponential growth in the number of 3D films in our cinemas. Today it seems that you can’t release a computer animation without making it 3D – even Pixar’s latest effort is a 3D extravaganza. That said, the film I watched was in 2D since planes aren’t yet fitted out with 3D screens.

Monsters vs Aliens

The title is more exciting than the film turned out to be

Now, if this was actually the aliens out of the movie Aliens fighting the monsters out of Monsters Inc, then we might have had something. However, this movie was about two things: 3D and Reese Witherspoon.

You can tell that we’re not yet mature about the use of 3D in films, because this one starts off with a guy playing with a paddle ball towards the camera. I would’ve thought that the point was to have a movie experience so immersive that you forget you’re in a cinema. Going out of your way to remind everyone that they’re watching a 3D movie defeats that.

Aside from the 3D, Witherspoon is the star of this show. It’s really a vehicle for her (is it her first animated feature?) and the rest is not particularly memorable. I got the impression that if Men in Black had been made by the people who made Sweet Home Alabama, then this is the movie we’ve had ended up with.

My rating: 2.5 stars

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A child-free night out

Thanks to Uncle Ben’s kind offer to babysit, we were free to go see a movie (!). The most simple night out becomes something requiring planning and logistics, now that we are parents. However, we almost left it too late to see the latest Harry Potter film before it vanished from cinemas here.

As I’ve said before, we’re not the maddest of mad keen Potter fans, but we have seen every Harry Potter film at the cinema. In order to see the second one, we had to see it in Madrid. Luckily, it was a subtitled rather than a dubbed version!

If I was a mad keen fan, I probably wouldn’t have called it “the second one”, but all the titles blur together. Harry Potter and the Random Jumble of Words. So, this movie was the sixth one, and apparently there are two more to go.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Best realisation of the Harry Potter universe yet.

The sixth Harry Potter book is not the best one of the series, so the sixth movie is starting with a bit of a handicap. If I’m to be honest, it’s a handicap that it doesn’t completely overcome. But, plot aside, there are many other excellent aspects of this film, and I found myself really enjoying it.

The first thing is that the acting has come a long way from the beginning of the series. All the cast put on a good showing, and it is a delight to watch them realise the characters.

I also came away with the impression that the visual effects director was a genius. The special effects in the film (aside from the first couple of minutes in London) were appropriately done, effective, and rather artistic. The quidditch game in this film actually felt like a game that you could imagine people liking.

On the other hand, this is a dark episode in the the Harry Potter series, and is not one you would take small children to. A number of the scenes felt like they could have been lifted from a decent horror flick.

Don’t expect all of the book’s scenes to be present in the film. And don’t expect the book to be faithfully interpreted. If you are a mad keen fan, you probably won’t appreciate it. However, I think they’ve set things up well for the sequel (both of them).

My rating: 4.0 stars

Pulp fantasy

After I’ve completed an exam, I no longer need to feel guilty if I read something other than my study notes. Having just finished a subject, I recently went out and grabbed myself some fiction to read instead. One of my favourite authors is Neil Gaiman, and in my random wanderings through the bookstore, I came across a book of his that I hadn’t heard about before.


A satisfying fantasy novel that manages a new take on a cliched formula

This novel is pitched as an adult fairy tale. However, it’s only adult in the sense that it’s not a children’s fairy tale. It’s not cover-to-cover steamy raunchiness or anything. There is some raunchiness. Bad things happen to good people. All up, more of a “young adult” book than an adult one, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

On the copy that I’ve got, there’s a review quote from Stephen King. In fact, aspects of the book do remind me of King’s work, as Gaiman is able to conjure up some pretty strange and freaky creatures to inhabit his fantasy world. The physics and logic of the fantasy world start off strange, but grew on me during the course of the book. Just seeing Gaiman apply his creativity is part of the enjoyment of reading it.

Apparently this book has been turned into a movie, although I hadn’t heard of it either. Although, after reading this book and enjoying it, I’ll be keeping an eye out for the movie at the local video store. I also discovered that Gaiman is behind Coraline, which I am very keen to see, now that I’ve read his take on a children’s fairy story.

My rating: 4.0 stars

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Scandinavia – the most violent place on earth?

It seems that Scandinavia (you know.. Denmark, Sweden, et al) is currently the home of the crime novel elite. Which means, according to Slate magazine, that more people are murdered in Scandinavian crime fiction than are actually murdered in reality. You have probably heard of some of the Scandinavian crime writers, if only Peter Høeg of Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. In fact, last year one of them was apparently the second most popular author, globally, of any genre. So, it was about time I read one of his books.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Grim, suspenseful, nasty but good.

When the author, Stieg Larsson, handed over the manuscript of this novel, he was not to know he wouldn’t live to see it published. Luckily for us, he also handed over the manuscripts to the two follow-up novels, so we have more of his work to indulge in, as it is really very good.

This crime story is set in Sweden, and is provided to us in translation. The feel of Sweden seems to come through strongly for me in reading it, and part of the enjoyment was in the sampling of the culture, which the translator has left intact.

The story itself starts slowly, and quickly turns macabre. I did not enjoy some of the sick turns that the plot took, and given that the tale took up residence in my brain for a few days, it was not pleasant. However, there is much to like in both the plot and characters.

There are also some interesting themes woven into the book, covering journalistic ethics, violence against women and even citizen’s rights. The philosophy covered in those areas was more extensive than I would’ve expected for a crime thriller, and it’s more what I’d expect in science fiction.

I am looking forward to reading the next book.

My rating: 4.0 stars