Archive for the 'review' Category


The latest Star Trek movie

I saw the Star Trek reboot movie in the theater last summer and didn’t like it for lots of reasons. Jan and I have been watching the original Star Trek series recently, though, and with that on my mind I decided to give the latest movie another try. This time, I liked it much better

  • Why? First of all, this time I watched it on a screen I could see. Last summer I was persuaded to see a screening in an IMAX theater–really faux-IMAX, in my opinion, since the only thing that makes so-called IMAX movies qualify for the title is the fact that you’re sitting ten feet away from a ginormous screen. (I have since resolved never to see an “IMAX” movie unless it was filmed in actual IMAX format.) Consequently, most of the action sequences were frustrating to watch: my eyes can’t take in a screen that size all at once, so I often miss anything that happened on the edges (and in a J. J. Abrams action film, that’s a lot). During my recent rewatch, I often felt like I was seeing the movie for the first time–because I could actually SEE most of it. Hooray!
  • Retconning something like the original Star Trek really bugged me last year, but this time I didn’t mind so much. I appreciate how the characters were mostly the same (if you’re going to make huge changes to them, I think you should just start with new characters in the same setting) but with new backstories.
  • Karl Urban as McCoy = genius. He’s got the voice (tone and cadence) down pat. Simon Pegg works well as Scotty (though I am generally predisposed to like Simon Pegg anyway). His colleague at the remote Starfleet outpost, though? Epic fail. Seriously–that guy serves no purpose except to remind me of Ewoks. And thinking about Ewoks is never a good thing. Likewise, I think the filmmakers flubbed with Chekov, making him out to be a comic-relief-type character. Considering that Chekov wasn’t even in the original Star Trek until the second season, I was surprised to see him get so much screen time in this movie.
  • The Spock-Uhura romance seems odd to me–like the filmmakers needed to follow convention by including a romance plot (why does everyone think this is necessary?) and for some reason settled on this one. At least they didn’t spend much time on it. (This reviewer says the romance has two purposes: to make sure audiences know that Spock is not gay, and to give Uhura something to do. I think he’s right.)

I am generally not a fan of most DVD extras. Deleted scenes can sometimes be interesting, but that’s pretty much it. This time I took a look at the segment about how the filmmakers realized their vision of how this movie should look, and although there were some interesting parts, it was mostly a hagiography of J. J. Abrams. One after another, a producer, A.D., or some other highly ranked member of the crew followed this formula:

  • J. J. Abrams came up with this awesome innovation.*
  • J. J. Abrams is a god.
  • I really want to have J. J. Abrams’ baby.

Mostly, though, I thought the film was well done. Fun to watch and not terribly mentally taxing–just what Star Trek is supposed to be.


*Not the case. He did not invent the “shaky cam” look. He did not come up with the idea of having a background behind someone as they walked into the turbo lift, then having the person walk back out of it into a room (from which the portable background had been removed); the original series actually did that first.


“Hot Tub Time Machine”

I finally got around to watching this recently. I wanted to like this movie–truly I did. I like John Cusack (even though many of his latest roles seem to fall into the “what was he thinking?” category), and I enjoy many aspects of ’80s culture (and making fun of them). This movie had some clever moments, but mostly it didn’t work for me: too much homophobia, too much sexism. Too bad.

Sometimes a Netflix DVD will sit around here for quite some time before we get around to watching it. But for some reason, I’ve managed to watch four movies in the last few days. This is extraordinary because I usually don’t get around to watching four movies in an entire month.

Baby Mama: I like Tina Fey. I like Amy Pohler. And I really wanted to like this movie. But I didn’t. It has some funny moments (thanks to Pohler, mostly), but was surprisingly formulaic. After about ten minutes I realized that this movie is an extended/modified version of a storyline Fey used on 30 Rock. The ending of this movie just about made me throw up a little in my mouth. The woman who is told at the beginning of the movie that she has a “one in a million chance” of getting pregnant (i.e., she is infertile) has, by the end of the film, apparently met a guy with “one in a million” sperm ’cause, yup, she gets pregnant. Instead of using the ending of the film to say something about how “hey, not everyone needs to be a parent to be happy and fulfilled” or “maybe an unconventional route to parenthood is indeed viable here,” the writers succumb to worn-out cliches. Ugh.

The Wedding Crashers: I think this is one of the worst movies I have ever seen. Even the usually awesome Christopher Walken couldn’t save this one. Seventy-five percent fresh, Rotten Tomatoes? Really? What were you critics smoking when you watched this one?

Feast of Love: This is an artsy meditation on love, starring some not-usually-artsy big stars, including Morgan Freeman and Greg Kinnear. As we watched this, Jan pointed out the similarity between Kinnear and Alan Tudyck as Wash, so maybe part of the reason I don’t give this film a mega-high rating is because it seriously lacks the cowboys in space I kept expecting to see. Actually, I don’t give it a mega-high rating because it’s fairly predictable and has some annoying plot devices. It’s okay, though–not a total waste of time. One thing I liked a lot was seeing a black-white interracial couple on screen completely without comment–they’re just another married couple. Nice.

Run, Fat Boy, Fun: This stars Simon Pegg, and that’s enough reason for me to check out. Hank Azaria is in here, too, and does a nice job. But Pegg gets all the best moments. Another predictable plot, but there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments, and I think this worked well as a watch-while-knitting film.


Life update


Eating: Lots of gado gado lately. Brown rice with steamed veggies, all covered with a peanut-and-coconut-milk sauce—healthy and delicious comfort food.

Watching: The Dark Knight, which I thought was pretty good. Heath Ledger’s much-touted performance as the Joker was good, but I thought Gary Oldman was a better actor in this film. Oldman has this chameleon-like ability to completely disappear in his role the point that I completely stop thinking “Oh, that’s Gary Oldman” and sometimes (as in this case) don’t even realize it’s him for quite some time.

Reading: Mark Bittman’s* latest book, Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating with More Than 75 Recipes, which is sort of a how-to companion to Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. I can’t say enough good things about Food Matters, in which Bittman adroitly and eloquently points out that health, social, environmental, financial, and ethical problems with today’s mainstream American diet. Then he provides a reasonably achievable alternative, along with several recipes (and menus) to get you started. My only real quibble with this book is that he stops short of adopting or recommending vegetarianism (though I’ll give him credit for not bashing or dismissing it), especially after he describes the horrific conditions of factory farms and is himself horrified by them. (For some reason, he think it’s awful to make animals endure those places, yet it’s still okay to kill and eat them if they grow up on local farms.) Take a look at this informative review published at last month or, better yet, read the book for yourself.

Listening to: Everything That Happens Will Happen Today, by David Byrne and Brian Eno

Smelling: Paperwhites (forced bulbs) and daffodils (cut flowers) in my living room and dining room. Spring is coming…
*Bittman is a food writer for The New York Times and the author of the wildly popular How to Cook Everything (Completely Revised 10th Anniversary Edition): 2,000 Simple Recipes for Great Food.


Tea time and serendipity

Last February, Megan at Not Martha wrote a post about the Utilitea electric tea kettle. I’ve been a stovetop-kettle person my entire life, but I had been thinking about getting an electric kettle to make tea preparation a bit easier. Jan and I have a lovely Oxo stainless-steel stovetop kettle that’s about a decade old and has a friendly, songlike, single-note whistle when it’s reached a boil (alas, more recent models have just the standard shrill whistle–we know this because we bought Oxo kettles for his mom and my parents for Christmas one year, after they’d admired ours when here for Thanksgiving a few weeks earlier). It’s fairly beat-up, though, and takes up a fair amount of real estate on our small stovetop.

An electric kettle, on the other hand, takes up a bit less space (albeit on the counter–but we are blessed with abundant counter space here) and boils water faster than you can say, “How long will it take to heat the water for my tea?” (Well, almost faster than that…) Many models have the added advantage of shutting off when they reach the desired temperature, so they never boil dry. The Utilitea kettle, from Adagio Teas, has one more great selling point: an adjustable temperature dial, so you can get water at the right temperature for the type of tea you are brewing.

So last winter I read reviews of the kettle (overwhelmingly favorable, though a few people grumbled–rightly so, I think–that the kettle should have actual numeric temperature markings rather than just green and brown dots) and decided to get one. As Megan mentioned in her post, Adagio was out of the kettles, with no indication given for when they have be more. “I can wait a bit,” I thought and signed up for e-mail notification for when they were back in stock. This was in February 2007.

Flash forward to last Sunday, when I returned from Vermont to find some friendly notes from my SP11 upstream pal–as well as a gift certificate from her for Adagio Teas. “How about that,” I thought. “Let’s see if that tea kettle is finally in.”

I went to the Adagio website and found the product page for the Utilitea. Still out of stock, with no restocking date given. I figured I must not have signed up for their e-mail list properly, since I’d heard nothing from Adagio in all the months since I thought I’d asked to be notified about this kettle. So on Sunday evening I sent them an e-mail asking when, if ever, it would be around. The next morning I received this reply: “Thank you for your note. The Utilitea will be available by the end of this week. All this waiting will come to an end! Please keep an eye out for it on our website.” (Edited to change funky marketing-style brand/product/company capitalization that I refuse to replicate. Like Bill Walsh, who has a great essay on the subject, I also refuse to write Yahoo with an exclamation point at the end, and I use an apostrophe, not a star, when writing about Macy’s.)

Later that day, I received a personal e-mail from Adagio telling me that the kettle was back in stock: “Patience does pay off! Our Utilitea kettle is back in stock.” I also received the e-mail notification I had signed up for in February. So they had been out of stock of those things for over half a year. Wow.

p8246602teapot.jpgI ordered one right away (with some help from my SP11–thanks!), and it was in my hands the following day. Yeah, forty-nine bucks isn’t chump change, but I consider it money well spent for something that I’m likely to use pretty much every day for a long time. Jan and I have used it several times already, and we love it. The water quickly reaches the temperature you want, and kettle lifts completely off the base (which is the part with the electric cord), and I can have tea whenever I want it without having to go to a lot of trouble. Lovely.


Review: Knit 2 Together

When I heard that Tracey Ullman (yes, she who helped introduce the world to The Simpsons, years before it jumped the shark) had cowritten a knitting book, I thought it was a joke. “Now that knitting is trendy, the celebrities are jumping in with both feet,” I told myself. But when I spied the book on the shelf at my local library a couple of weeks ago and flipped through it, I realized it warranted a closer look and so brought it home.

Knit 2 Together is the joint project of Tracey Ullman (famous comedian) and Mel Clark (owner of a yarn shop in southern California). Its subtitle, Patterns and Stories for Serious Knitting Fun, is a good description: the book starts off with “how I started knitting and how I met the other person who wrote this book with me” tales by both authors, and little anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book. They’re all nicely written, but Ullman’s are the funniest (naturally–after all, being funny is what she does for a living).

And the patterns are actually good. Well, many of them. (I’ve yet to encounter a “Yeah, I’d make every single thing in there” knitting book. Have any of you?) The “Saucy Apron,” for example, knit in CGH Soft Kid just seems like a bad idea. The “Linen Kilt” looks lovely in the photo…but that’s a lot of knitting on not-very-big needles (#5 and #4). (A quick Google search reveals that a few people have made this skirt and liked it–here’s one glimpse–so maybe it would be more fun than I thought…)

But there are several items in here that I will probably add to my “Future projects” list. The Rowena Cardigan, for example, is a long-sleeved, trim sweater with buttons down the front and a boatneck on top. And you can thread ribbons through the hem and cuffs to change the look. Two shrug-sweater thingies (Lacy Hug-Me-Tight and Pimlico Shrug) also caught my eye; they’re not unlike the Pinwheel Sweater I made in late spring, though they have a bit more shape to them.

The book goes back to the library tomorrow. My final assessment was “It’s well done, and there are some things in here I’d like to knit, but I really don’t want to pony up $27.50 for this thing.” And just a few minutes ago, while hunting down the Amazon link for this book, I found out that Amazon is selling it–in all its hardcover glory–for a mere $5.50. (Check it out.) Considering that individual patterns–when you can buy them that way–usually run about five bucks each, $5.50 makes this book a steal if there’s more than one thing in it that interests you.


Great moments on the Street

When Jan and I decided to introduce our daughter to television a couple of months ago, we thought that Sesame Street would be a good choice. But not the Elmo-infested crassly commercial stuff on the airwaves today–we wanted the old stuff. (My hatred for Elmo, a.k.a. the Red Menace, burns hotter than a thousand suns. He’s like Wesley Crusher and Rachel Ray combined. [shudder])

So we went to the video department of our local Barnes and Noble and asked, “Do you have a boxed DVD set of Sesame Street episodes without Elmo?” The clerk looked at us funny, and said, “Gee…I don’t think anyone has ever asked me that before.” He tapped away at his computer (and may I just mention here how incredibly annoying that B&N doesn’t have publicly accessible search terminals in the store, and instead they force you to track down an unfindable employee if you need help with anything?) for a few seconds, then said, “You’re in luck! They recently released something called Sesame Street Old School.”

We were indeed in luck. Sesame Street Old School, Vol. 1 (1969-1974) includes the first episode (in its entirety) from each of the first five seasons, plus several “greatest hits” segments from that period. The gems include songs by Bud Luckey (“The Alligator King,” “Ladybug Picnic,” and “Martian Beauty“), Listen My Brother singing about counting to twenty (with a cowbell!), and Johnny Cash singing about “Nasty Dan” to Oscar. For Jan and me, this DVD set is a real trip down memory lane–“Oh! I totally remember this song!”–and we’ve really enjoyed sharing it with Sylvia.

One of our (all three of us) favorite segments is the one called “Handclapping Number” on the liner notes:
So clever! And creative! And exciting! No one does this sort of thing any more, it seems. The new programming targeted to children these days seems be to all CGI or bad cartoons, with quick editing (I think of it as the seizure-inducing Wang Chung Effect) and aggressive marketing tie-ins. There’s something so pleasant about a conversation or a song or a camera shot that takes its time and really tries to get kids interested in what’s going on rather than lull them into a semicatatonic state.

How many puppeteers do you think are working here? One set of four in three different shots? Jan and I keep trying to figure it out, and we can’t. As a magician, Jan is especially good at looking at physical movement things like this and knowing what’s going on that the viewers can’t see, but even this has him stymied. Now that’s some good puppetry!

I have the “Handclapping Number” on my mind today for two reasons. One is that for the last week it has been Sylvia’s favorite and most-requested (“I want to see the clapping, please!”) scene. The other is that I just came across (via Ze Frank) what struck me as a grown-up version of this number. But with one person. Take a look.

When I first took up knitting, I began browsing the knitting books at my local bookstore, drooling over the possibilities they promised and resolving to own every single one of them one day. Well, almost every one. There were some exceptions, which included the books by Suss Cousins.

I quickly sussed (oh I am so clever) that she was one of the “name” people on the knitting scene–someone famous. But one of her claims to fame is designing sweaters for Bill Cosby, and, well, when you consider that his sweaters are actually the stuff of humor these days (Doctor Hibbert, anyone?), it’s hard for me to look at her work without giggling.

I was optimistic about her latest book, Home Knits, though. The horror that is the bubble-holed curtain in Mason-Dixon Knitting (which is an otherwise fine book) turned me away from houseware knitting for a while. But Cousins’ book was available for free from my local library, so I decided to check it out.

Apparently, she’s long past her days of designing multicolored, striped, gaudy garments for Bill Cosby: Home Knits is full of creams and browns. (Naturally, Cousins uses her own yarn for all the patterns. To her credit, though, she openly acknowledges that not everyone will use her stuff, and she helpfully provides information on substitutions.) That’s the good news. The bad news is that the patterns are…meh. A bed canopy? That’s way more knitting than anyone should ever do to end up with a giant rectangle; this is the equivalent of knitting a tent. An “art wall hanging”? This thing is supposed to resemble an animal skin stretched out between wooden poles. Are there people out there who actually want to knit this? Are there people out there who actually want to hang this on their walls at home? I have to wonder if, at any point during the book-production process, Cousins’ publisher said to her, “Um, Suss? Are you sure about some of these patterns?”

But all is not lost! There is some inspiration here! The kitchen curtain, for example, is quite charming (and, I am pleased to report, has no ghastly bubble holes). The seat cushions, too, are nice. My favorite pattern is the being lampshade cover with the green leaf motif. It’s something I might actually considering making one day.

To be honest, I’m not sure it’s possible to write a good book of patterns for handknit housewares. It seems a fairly limited category. Blankets have four sides (and, aside from baby blankets and throws, aren’t usually at the top of knitters’ to-do lists anyway, due to the commitment of time and yarn involved), curtains are usually easier/cheaper/faster to sew or purchase, and you can have only so many throw pillows and cushions around. (There’s a little-known fact that when the number of throw pillows and cushions present on one piece of furniture reaches a certain, undefined tipping point, they start to attack.) Sweaters and purses and socks have seemingly endless variety, whereas housewares have been done. Introducing an “art wall hanging” into the mix isn’t innovative. It’s just silly.


Review: The Life of Mammals

Growing up, I watched a lot of PBS: Nova, Nature, and all sorts of stuff. This was before all of the quasi-educational channels hit their stride on cable television. (I find the History Channel and the Discovery Channel particularly bad, with their low-information-density programs full of fast editing, far too much use of unnecessary–and bad!–computer graphics, and dramatic voiceovers. And is it just me, or does anyone else think that the History Channel is way too fond of bad reenactments, usually involving scowling men in sandals pretending to be Roman soldiers, splashing on foot through streams while invading some dark and foggy land?)

I have particularly fond memories of watching David Attenborough‘s programs. So I was pleased when, looking for some animal documentary footage that might be fun to show my daughter, I came across his series The Life of Mammals. I just watched the first disc (thank you, Netflix!), and all I can say is “Wow.”

It is good stuff. Phenomenally good. The content is fascinating, of course, but what’s even more striking is the presentation. In addition to Attenborough’s avuncular style, there is the best wildlife cinematography I have ever seen. Ever. Take a look at this clip:


(It doesn’t hurt that I have long been interested in sloths. Amazing. Top speed 0.3 km per hour, yet the species has managed to survive.)Now that I think about it, this is some of the best cinematography I have seen period, wildlife or no. Some of the shots are jaw-dropping–for example, a bat flying at nighttime approaches a spider web and, with a skin “pouch” between its feet, delicately scoops up the spider at the web’s center without getting ensnared in the sticky silk.(How do they film something like that? Jan hypothesized that they probably used gobs and gobs of film, with the camera at high speed. He’s probably right. I’m not sure that digital has the clarity that the close-up shots demanded. Or maybe it does–I really don’t know anything about cinematography.)

Disc one goes in the mail tomorrow. I am looking forward to seeing the rest of the series.

Oh–and it gets Sylvia’s stamp of approval, too. She was especially fond of the bats, the giraffes, and the elephants. And the hedgehogs (which are currently among her favorite animals, thanks to this book)–she loved the hedgehogs


Review: A Guy Who Knits

When I first saw two of Lucinda Guy’s books of handknits for children in a catalog, I was utterly charmed–so much so that I bought one of them, Handknits for Kids, sight unseen. Last week, I finally got my hands on its sequel, And So to Bed…, thanks to my local library.

Both books are beautifully designed and feature patterns for clothing, blankets, and stuffed toys suitable for ages two to five or thereabouts. The designs for girls are girly, but mostly in a heavy-on-the-pink way and not in a frilly-curlicues way; similarly, the designs for boys are boyish but not obnoxiously so.

Handknits for Kids is divided into four “chapters,” each defined by a season. Each chapter includes a blanket (one has trucks and cars on it, and one is completely pink, but the other two aren’t gendered), a stuffed toy (dog, bird, mouse, cat), and a sweater for a girl; three chapters also include sweaters for boys. The designs are clever and fun–stuff I could actually imagine children wearing (and enjoying!) without looking ridiculous. You can see photos of all the projects in the British version of the book here. (It contains the same projects and has the same design as the American version; only the title and surely some spellings are different.) Look at the Jack Frost Jacket in the last chapter–isn’t that adorable? I’m giving serious thought to making one of those for Sylvia…maybe even in the pink that the pattern calls for. (I am not a big fan of lots of pink, so that’s saying a lot about how much I like this design.)

And So to Bed… is equally charming in its presentation (like Handknits for Kids, all of the illustrations are photographs of the knitted objects against cartoon drawings–there are no photographs of people wearing these handknits). The projects here didn’t appeal to me as much, though. They’re all bedtime-themed (clever idea!), and include blankets, pajama cases, robes, and cases for hot-water bottles. (All of the projects can be seen here.) But, aside from the Dream Cardigan and the stuffed owl, I had a hard time imagining myself knitting any of this stuff.

I should mention that this book is from Rowan and thus features only Rowan yarn. Beautiful stuff, to be sure, but holy cow is it expensive. The Dream Cardigan I mentioned would cost about eighty bucks if I used the yarn that is called for. Ouch. Unless I can score an exceptionally good deal on eBay, when I’m ready to start these projects I’ll definitely be substituting other yarns.