25 March 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

A few statements before I start the review of The Hunger Games:

  1. I have not read the books.
  2. Dystopias are kinda my thing.
  3. This review may contain spoilers.

I have been aware of The Hunger Games Trilogy for some time. The books were very well reviewed and their central character Katniss touted as the antithesis of Belle from the Twilight series. Several friends recommended I read them and one even delivered the trilogy to me; the books are still on my “to be read” pile and now I am not in any rush to dive into them.

02 March 2012

The Information Diet by Clay Johnson

The Information Diet: A Case for Conscious ConsumptionThe Information Diet: A Case for Conscious Consumption by Clay A. Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, I liked this book but, like all diet books, when it came down to the "how" portion, my eyes glazed over and I mostly skimmed. Johnson draws the comparison between our food intake and our information intake, i.e. some information is more processed, contains fillers or even toxins, and should not make up a significant part of our diet. When he explains how he came to study this subject, through being immersed in the Washington political arena, I found myself nodding as I read. While the situation is not too intense this side of the border, the US population has been neatly divided into Red and Blue states for a few decades -- and it's doing no one any favours.

I agree with most of Jonhson's key suggestions, including consuming information in its most raw form (he calls this infoveganism). This has been the role of researchers, and the best journalists, for ... well, forever, really. Having worked in libraries for over 20 years, we recognize this information as "primary sources" -- raw statistics, first person accounts, government reports and original scientific research. However, I don't feel the need to use software to limit which sites I visit or keep a handy list of biases nearby. This may be simply because I consider myself to be rather advanced in information literacy, but if I weren't I wonder whether I would consider his suggestions reasonable?

It's clear there is a problem with the extreme biases in some media and Johnson does suggest ways those of us who are comfortable can help -- including pursuing open data projects and forming local information diet groups who can meet face to face. I'd have preferred to rate this one 3.5 stars; it's not quite 4, but it's not really fair to give it 3 stars either.

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05 February 2012

Pink Ribbons Inc. (2011)

Every October, North America is awash in pink, "for the cure." Pink Ribbons Inc, a documentary by Léa Pool, looks at the corporatization of breast cancer fundraising and asks some pretty pointed questions about how much money is raised and where, exactly, that money is spent.

In discussions with activists, medical professionals, fundraisers, marchers and others, the filmmaker seeks to answer why, after billions of dollars have been raised for "breast cancer research," are we no closer to a cure? More than one of those interviewed came to the same conclusion: you cannot cure something if you don't know what causes it, and no one is willing to research what causes it.

The most heartbreaking interviews are with a group of women with Stage IV breast cancer. No one can explain to them why their cancer metastasized or why their only option is to subject themselves to chemical therapies that may or may not extend their life by a few weeks but may also make them so sick that they cannot enjoy those extra weeks.

The film also highlights some particularly deplorable  campaigns (KFC and American Express really stuck out) and conflicts of interest (products emblazoned with the pink ribbon that also contain known carcinogens and/or endocrine disruptors).

Pink Ribbons Inc is in the same company as Food Inc, The Corporation and Bowling for Columbine -- films that look at our cozy relationship with big business and ask if maybe we shouldn't be doing things differently. As with many recent documentaries, Pink Ribbons Inc uses editing to get across some not-so-subtle messages that aren't otherwise explicitly stated. My favourite such moment featured a medical researcher, being interviewed midway through the San Francisco Walk for the Cure. In the foreground, she is speaking about the dangers of so much plastic in our lives; in the background, a participant is eating something from a zippered plastic bag.

The overall message of the film is to "take back the ribbon" -- to go back to the protests and to separate the corporate backers and big pharma from the key research. We took our daughter, who is 10, because I think it's critical for her to understand that there is a lot more going on behind the ribbon than a feeling of hope. When I asked for her opinion after the showing, she summed it up nicely, "I didn't know whether to laugh or scream."

To say that breast cancer is epidemic may be stretching it, but the fact remains that today 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed in their lifetime. We need to fix those odds; seeing this film is a good start.


For more information, visit the NFB site for Pink Ribbons Inc.

20 January 2012

Crush It!: Why Now is the Time to Cash in on your Passion by Gary Vaynerchuk

This post is from my Goodreads feed...

Crush It!: Why Now Is the Time to Cash In on Your PassionCrush It!: Why Now Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion by Gary Vaynerchuk
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If you've never really given any thought to following your passion in the digital age, this book is a great place to start. It's short and clearly written and if you've got the slightest inclination, should really fan the flames to get you out of your chair and into action. If you need more motivation, check out his videos at http://garyvaynerchuk.com/ -- he really loves what he does, is truly excited about the possibilities that are unfolding, and believes that if you have a passion and find your niche, you can Crush It. He also explains what that means.

If, however, like me you've spent more than 20 minutes considering this topic, this book offers nothing new. I was disappointed that I already knew (and am in the midst of doing) almost everything Vaynerchuk suggests. I'm not crushing it yet, but I was already en route before I picked up this book.

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07 January 2012

Hobo with a Shotgun (2011) and Machine Girl (2008)

Where do you go when over the top isn't far enough? I'm not sure, but when you get there, you'll find the team behind the 2011 Canadian grindcore/splatter film, Hobo with a Shotgun.

Trouble starts when a Hobo (Rutger Hauer) gets off the train in a town that is run by a sadistic criminal known as The Drake. He and his sons torture, rape and terrorize the population that seems to consist of: terrified average folks, angry mobs, prostitutes, a large number of homeless, and children who should have long ago been relocated to other towns by family services.

The movie has three acts: the first introduces us to the horror that is this Twilight-Zone worthy town (if Rod Serling had subcontracted to Rob Zombie); the second, is the battle between good and evil (it involves a lot of blood and gore); and the third act is the epic conclusion (with even more blood and gore).

Machine Girl is a Japanese action movie with the same "gore is good" mindset but with slightly better special effects and slicker overall production. Ami (Minase Yashiro), a girl with a tragic past and a brother who gets mixed up with the wrong crowd, is kidnapped and tortured, losing her arm in the process. After escaping, a machinist builds her a customized machine-gun arm attachment. (This may remind readers of Planet Terror, the Robert Rodriguez half of Grindhouse (2007) in which Rose McGowan is fitted with a machine gun leg or even of the much earlier Army of Darkness (1992), the Sam Raimi cult classic in which the hero, Ash fits a chainsaw on to his injured arm -- both are apt comparisons).

With her weapon in place, Machine Girl has only one goal: revenge. This motivation may be the only real difference between the mood of the two films. Machine Girl is full of the kind of rage that is spun from true hatred; the Hobo is seeking justice in a system where the police don't just turn a blind eye to the violence and crime, some play an active role in a number of very unsavory acts and activities.

It's possible that there is a deeper political message buried under the blood and guts in Hobo with a Shotgun. Watching it with my husband, he said, "It's the Republican Dream! The Hobo just wants to be an entrepreneur but the welfare state won't let him get ahead." I also appreciated the not-so-subtle take on sleazy reality-tv and film producers (a not-so-veiled dig at the infamous Bumfights) and on the complicit role that media plays in sensationalizing violence.

The sidekicks in both films are strong, if flawed women. Miki (Asami), who also lost family at the hands of those who tortured Ami, choses to get her violent revenge with the help of a chainsaw (there's those echoes of Army of Darkness again). The Hobo is helped by Abby (Molly Dusnworth), the archetypical hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold who also seems to have some daddy issues.

Splatter films like these are not for everyone; they are extremely graphic, spending more of their budget on fake blood than actors' salaries. Both films contained scenes that turned my stomach and offended me on some level but they each balanced those moments with some truly surprising, imaginative laugh-out-loud scenes. As such, I recommend them both, if you can manage the gore.

Hobo with a Shotgun ****
Machine Girl ***

NOTE: Even the trailers below are pretty graphic... consider yourself warned!

13 September 2011

X-Men First Class: The Mutant Blu-Ray

I loved X-Men First Class. So much so, that I saw in the theatre on opening day and a week before I bought it on DVD. To my sadness, the movie was CHOPPY. I am running another blu-ray in my PS3 to make sure it's not the new PS3. Here is a tweak to get it to play but skip a lot, and then I finally got it to work beautifully Here's the solution:
  1. Fire up your PS3
  2. Go into the Settings.
  3. Turn off the Internet connection.
  4. Erase all the files in the BD Temp folder.
  5. Erase the X-Men First Class file under the Data tree. (tool around, you'll be able to find it)
  6. Restart your PS3 without the disc in it.
  7. Put in the movie and rejoice! It looks like a cross between an episode of Mad-Men and the first 50 issues of X-Men.

15 July 2011

Roadtrip entertainment: four audiobooks

During our recent roadtrip travelling the highways through British Columbia and Alberta, our choice of entertainment was audiobooks. We finished four during the 10 days of travel:

We had started Planet Simpson before we left on this trip but I am including it here because I haven't reviewed it yet elsewhere. For a family who watches hours of The Simpsons every week, this seemed to be a no-brainer as entertainment. For the most part, it was ridiculously enjoyable since we could all picture the exact sequences that the narrator was discussing as he led us through the show's inception and the many ways that The Simpsons have drawn from and contributed to popular culture.

Toward the latter chapters, we were noticing more repetition and the convention of using the episode numbers was annoying (7F01, 7F11, 8F13... they are meaningless to all but the most hardcore fans). It was also disappointing that for a show that spanned 20 seasons, the book only really discusses the first three or four. Suitable for almost any age though it does delve into some themes such as family values, politics and religion that may be a bit too academic for younger listeners.


Mike had already read World War Z and was disappointed that the audio book skipped over one pretty critical plot point (i.e. how the infection spread globally) but having a full cast (including big names like Carl Reiner, Rob Reiner and Alan Alda) made it more like a radio play than a novel. The story is told through a series of interviews with survivors following a war against ZACK (the Army code for Z, or Zombie). There is lots of descriptive gore from the front line but equal time is given to narrative about global politics and the different styles of warfare in which each nation engages.

While it was nice to have the full cast, I'd have liked the audio engineers to have paid more attention to balancing the levels from actor to actor -- I found myself needing to adjust the volume between each interview. That aside, I was kept entertained for the duration and it made me think about pandemics and how poorly most governments are prepared.


I had heard an interview with Deborah Blum about The Poisoner's Handbook on a Scientific American podcast last year; it had been on my wishlist ever since. The unabridged audiobook is read by Colleen Marlo who does a great job with the script. The book introduces the listener to two of the key players in the development of forensic toxicology: Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. The two worked in New York from the late 1800s through early 20th century as Medical Examiner and Chief Toxicologist/Chemist respectively. They worked without much of a budget or staff but both were determined to find ways to measure various poisons scientifically and consistently so that the results could be used in court to convict, or clear the accused. They weren't always right and they also made a few enemies (including rather famously New York Mayor LaGuardia) but they did succeed in creating a new field of scientific study that had an immeasurable impact on 20th century criminal investigations.

Toward the end, we were growing tired of the constant discussion about methyl alcohol and its role in hundreds of deaths during Prohibition but aside from that, the story moves through a series of suspicious deaths, murders and crime sprees that mystery writers love and investigators hate. Some, I'd heard of before like the "Radium Girls" who worked in a factory painting glow in the dark paint on watch faces and many that were headlines in the 1920s but would be forgotten were it not for authors like Blum. There are some grizzly sequences, as can be expected and one section that was unexpectedly lurid; parents consider yourselves warned.


Tina Fey is definitely someone I admire -- I totally get her sense of humour and I respect the place she made for herself inside the Old Boy's Club of late-night and prime-time comedy. While she makes fun of her "nerd/librarian" vibe it has worked well for her. In Bossypants, she discusses her life from childhood traumas through her discovery of improv and how it changed her life, to her time with NBC and her life outside work as a parent and a celebrity. It's not a long book but there's not a five minute stretch that I didn't find entertaining.

If however, you are not a fan of Tina Fey you will not be won over by this book. She is, as always, unapologetic about being a woman, being liberal, and moving forward. Of all the books we listened to, this was the most "adult" -- Fey swears and discusses all sorts of subjects easily classified under the "parental discretion is advised" banner.