Sunday, March 08, 2009


Watchmen Review

Watchmen is probably one of the most revered graphic novels of all time and even made it on Time's list of the 100 greatest English-language novels of the past century (the only graphic novel on that list, in fact). Zach Snyder was rightfully hesitant to take the helm of this film adaptation, a much greater feat than 300 was. Fitting over 400 pages into a 2 1/2 hour film has been in the works for about two decades now fraught with so many problems that fans all but lost faith that it would get made. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to read the novel before I saw the film, but I still definitely enjoyed it.

First of all, I have to stress that this is not a superhero movie by any means. It's a graphic novel, and you could even call it a comic book (since it was a mini-series before being compiled into one book), but it's not your typical story of good guys and bad guys. It's more of a character study, time period study, and mystery that just happens to involve masked vigilantes. I'm afraid that it'll get compared to The Dark Knight and Iron Man when it should be compared to 300 and Sin City. It's probably more similar in genre with Sin City than any other popular movie based on a graphic novel. Anyway, the premise of this movie is that it takes place in an alternate 1985 after the retirement of the second age of superheroes who call themselves "Watchmen" but are really just masked vigilantes (as only one of them have superhuman abilities). They've been ousted as protectors by the people, and the movie starts with the murder of one of them - the plot just unfolds from the mystery of this murder and where these characters are now.

Even though I haven't read the novel, I can say that the scenes in this movie are true to the text - that's how obvious they were. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's clear that the visuals and the dialogue came straight out of a comic book, so I don't imagine that fans of the novel will be disappointed. The real problem is everyone else. The greatest triumph and worst thing about this movie is the way it's presented: in a complicated, multi-layer form fraught with flashbacks, clear thematic devices, and dense characters. If movies were meals, you'd have to loosen your belt at least two notches after watching this one - it's huge. It's actually hard for me to piece together the movie from beginning to end just a few hours after seeing it because of how much happened in those 2 and a 1/2 hours (originally 3 and a 1/2 hours) to do any sort of justice to the original form. Alan Moore (the writer of the novel) refuses to watch it because he purposely wrote it to not transfer well to any media except for a comic book. I think he was right, but I don't think that anyone else could've gotten any closer than Zach Snyder. As great as the story itself is, the movie is simply too long. It either should've been cut down more or split into two films (possibly including the cut hour), but both of those options would've pissed off the fans so I can see why they didn't do that.

I have to stick with the story for just a bit more because it's really pretty powerful. At it's heart, it's truly belongs in some sort of mystery genre. The characters are fleshed out really well and the actors/actresses did a fantastic job overall. They pretty much jumped off the screen. What you have to appreciate about this movie is how well it performs as an anti-super hero movie and shows you what's wrong in a world with superheroes (somewhat like The Incredibles). It's also holds no punches in its themes and political messages. To top it all off, it's quite dark and serious. You're more likely to walk out of the theater trying to dig up your old Staind CD than go dancing. Still, it's really worth experiencing for the story alone. The only thing I didn't like was the comedy theme, which I thought was too drawn out and uninteresting.

Visually, it's great but not extremely impressive. It had powerful imagery, but they felt a little too obvious as throwbacks to the novel. We saw it in IMAX and it looks great on the big screen, but I could definitely see noise and grain, and the colors were purposely dark and dull to mesh best with the milieu. I did love the costume and set designs though - I believed the movie's world wholeheartedly. The soundtrack, on the other hand, was one of the best things about the movie. It was pretty much perfect. It was retro and always appropriate for the scene, often serving as needed comic relief. You'll probably find it pretty nostalgic, too.

The last thing I want to bring up before I wrap this up is that it's very much an R-rated film. I didn't think that The Dark Knight was appropriate for anyone not of high school age and this movie's often gratuitous violence and sex scenes never hold back. It's not saturated in either of the two, but some of the violence may have you turning your head, which I've heard wasn't in the original graphic novel. Still, I think it uses the rating well in having the freedom to tell a very dark story in a big way.

I think I've gone on long enough: this was a great film. I think I liked The Dark Knight and Sin City better in terms of dark, mystery films, but it's definitely a better movie than Sin City. It's definitely not for everyone, hence the mixed reviews, but if you can stomach the length of it I think you'll be in for a treat. I give it an A- and would say that it's probably the best thing out in theaters right now (and it's already grossed $55.7 million).

The Mobile Disincentive

A topic that I regularly end up landing on is our increasingly versatile and mobile society. We've become used to having easy and frequent access to computers and the Internet. The smartphone industry used to be a blip and now you can scarcely walk down an urban street without spotting an iPhone or Blackberry. The problem now isn't availability of devices, it's price. The data plans out there are pretty harshly anti-consumer. AT&T should not start their data plans at $60 a month, and the prices just get higher and higher. It's funny how the cell phone infrastructure becomes naturally more profitable over time with more customers and the amortized costs of having built it up, and yet we have to pay so much to send simple 140-character text messages.

In fact, they cell phone users pays $3 a minute on average. So why aren't there any all-you-can-eat plans (not counting Sprint's ripoff plan that's advertised on TV)? It's all about an industry that's well controlled by a few big companies with heavy barriers to entry. Their interests are not in the best interests of society, which is the point at which the government can legitimately be allowed to intervene. So I was pretty glad when President Obama appointed an FCC chairman sympathetic to net neutrality (see my video for more on what that means). I know that's kind of a segue from cell phones, but I'm trying to tie everything to the idea of freedom of information and access to it. He still has to be confirmed by the Senate, but hopefully he is. We've stood by and let this happen to us, and hopefully we can get things to change. Something as simple as ubiquitous access to the Internet via mobile devices can make a huge difference, and having an equal right to provide content online to anyone else is also important, so I'm always willing to plug it here.

First Apple Announcement Sans Jobs

Apple released a few new products last week, which would probably normally be announced at a small event by Steve Jobs with much fanfare and press coverage. Instead, it was a very quiet press release for an updated 24-inch iMac at under $1500, a new Mac Pro, and a new Mac Mini. The only one of those to receive much coverage was the 17" MacBook Pro which I'd argue appeals to a somewhat niche audience of individuals willing to drop a ridiculous amount of money on a large laptop. I'll admit that I'd gladly take one if they were handing them out for free because they're pretty solid, but the point is that these new products were seen for what they were: new iterations of old technology. It's just refreshing to see a change from the normal fanboy-ism.

More Data Leaks

Before I get to the juicy stuff, I have to get to a quick fun little article. The annual Pwn2Own contest is an annual event intended to expose vulnerabilities in operating systems and Internet browsers for research and patching. Last year's winner says that Safari will be the first browser to fall this year. Why? Because it's too user-friendly. It supports too many file formats and such, leaving it open to more mistakes and, hence, more vulnerabilities. He hacked an instance of Safari within two minutes last year, so I imagine he's fairly confident in his abilities. I just find the tradeoff between usability and security really fascinating.

The big security news last week was confidential information related to Marine One, President Obama's helicopter, has been leaked to someone in Iran over a peer-to-peer sharing network. This has been an argument against P2P since its creation, and it has finally happened in a big way. This actually happened last summer and has only now been discovered, and it's not the first time that private information has been leaked via a P2P network, but it is now one of the most famous of these leaks.

The FAA had a heavier data breach: the personal records of over 45,000 current and past employees. While your flights are still safe, the problem is going to be identity theft for these poor people.

The lesson to be learned here is that computers are more sophisticated that most people give them credit to be. Despite how sexy a Macbook looks, it can be quite dangerous if used improperly. People working with sensitive data, especially pertaining to national security, need better training with regard to stuff like this. It may seem dumb that this was leaked over a P2P network, but it's not as boneheaded as you make think for someone who doesn't have the proper knowledge for securing a computer, let alone a network.

Windows 7 Security Quirks and More

Meanwhile, Windows 7's User Access Control (UAC) system has had a third vulnerability discovered. From what I can gather, the problem is that you can run Windows components as administrator from programs not running under administrator permissions, which is a flaw used by Windows itself for some of its core functionality. A hacker could potentially use this to place files in locations the user can't access and then load them to do bad stuff. This basically renders UAC useless, in a way. The bottom line is that Microsoft needs to take a seriously look at its "improvements" to UAC and really weigh what they're losing in exchange for making it more user-friendly.

Another fun quirk is that you'll be able to disable Internet Explorer 8 in Windows 7 by deleting the executable entirely. It's specifically intended to appease European regulators, but my assumption is that it'll apply to American Windows 7, as well.

Lastly, if you're interested in what Windows 7 features await us past the beta, you'll like Tech Radar's roundup of 12 of the more notable MIA improvements.

Kindle on the iPhone and Game Trade-Ins

Last week brought some pretty cool Amazon-related news. You can now read your Kindle books from your iPhone via a free application that will additionally stay in sync with your Kindle (so bookmarks and such). It's obviously not as satisfying as the experience on the Kindle, but it seems to be pretty cool, nonetheless.

Also Kindle-related: Slate had an article I liked explaining why computer voices are the way they are: cold and emotionless. Text-to-speech technology has been around for over 2 decades, so it's just interesting to learn about why it's not farther along.

Last, but not least, Amazon released a new part of the site: video game trade-ins. If you have video games valued at $10 or more than you can print out a free shipping label and send them in for an gift card to buy whatever you want on the site. It's definitely a really interesting way to compete with Gamestop in an economy that increasingly turning to online retail, and I'm really curious to see how it turns out, especially since the value of the trade-in can be applied to anything Amazon sells, not just games. People are clearly willing to rent video games and movies by mail, but are they willing to trade used games by mail?

Yahoo Reaches Out to Old Media

In the latest chapter of the ongoing Yahoo saga, they've been trying to encourage more newspapers to advertise online through them. This is kind of an old story that the New York Times is just now picking up, as is their custom with technology (which is why I almost never read their technology related articles anymore), but it kind of exemplifies Yahoo's strange decision-making. While I don't think they should cease to do business with newspapers, they've been in trouble for a long time now. I don't imagine that their financial gains from these sales have been very strong, and it's a strange business for them to have ever focused on.

Enter Carol Bartz. She was recently hired as Yahoo's CEO for being fairly aggressive and having a reputation of shoring up ailing companies. She acknowledges that Google Maps is better than Yahoo Maps and even admits that one of Yahoo's problems is neglecting products that would otherwise have been great. What I like about her is that she sounds like she's intent on focusing the company on the core user experience, which is something that I definitely believe in. She's willing to trade ads for improving the UI where it makes sense and wants Yahoo's software to integrate better with outside services. I really hope that she can make a difference because I'm still maintaining some semblance of hope for poor Yahoo.

Final Tidbits

Ok, I'm on call tomorrow and it's almost time for bed, so let me race through some quickies.

The new trailer for Star Trek is pretty spectacular. I have no real interest in Star Trek in general and even I was enticed by that trailer.

Firefox has finally overtaken IE 6 in browser share at 24%, only about 16 points behind IE7.

Tux Radar has a bookmark-worthy list of Linux tips that every Linux power user should know. I definitely got some valuable advice from it that answer questions I've had for a long time, like finding the biggest files when you're running low on disk space.

If you're wondering how to pitch Linux to your business, this is a pretty good resource. It's 25 reasons to switch, and it's pretty convincing. I'm a big fan of Linux for businesses, but it's definitely not for non-techie home users.

PC World has a short list of Microsoft web services you probably didn't know about, which I mention because it got me to start using SkyDrive as a result, which has a questionable UI but affords you 25 GB of free storage in the clouds.

I really like this video of Microsoft Office Labs's vision of technology in 2019. The comments are unsurprisingly sarcastic about Microsoft in the status quo, but I get really pumped when I see stuff like this. It's an awesome time to be involved with technology, especially since several of the things this video shows are definitely within reach in the next decade.

Lastly, Twitter has finally integrated search into the site (a long overdue feature) and now plugs featured users on the site, which is a controversial new feature but these are all fairly small and unobtrusive things, compared to Facebook's frequent deluge of new stuff.

Ok, I think that's enough for one week =) Just read a few paragraphs a day of that and have a great week, everyone!

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