Top 100 Book Review: Ubik – Philip K. Dick (1969)

Unbalancing Thriller That Makes You Question

Science fiction at its best: taking advantage of temporal-spatial qualities to take advantage of our intuitions. 

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My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I really think science fiction, the genre as a whole, is under appreciated. There is some really good writing out there, and just because the settings might be geeky, futuristic, or entail allusions to higher level math, it gets disregarded. The format allows authors to explore things that just wouldn’t otherwise be possible; when you don’t have to worry about what is plausible, you are free to explore the human condition unabated without typical restraints.

Where this can go awry is that things can get too zany when authors get drunk off the power of not having to tell a tightly-knit story. This can be a delicate thing to balance, using the unconstrained conventions of the genre but still having to tell a coherent narrative that can be appreciated.

Fortunately, Ubik does both of these well and gets the most out of both sides.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #34 – To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)

Who Doesn’t Want to Emulate Atticus Finch?

Even with a slightly white-washed script, “To Kill a Mockingbird” can swell the spirit and can recreate the magic from the book. 

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Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch and Brock Peters as Tom Robinson.

American Film Institute Ranking: #34/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for eight, including best picture and director, while winning three for Best Actor (Gregory Peck), Best Adapted Screenplay (Horton Foote), and Best Art Direction.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

First, I think it has to be appreciated the challenge this director and screen writer faced: they had to take one of the most beloved pieces of literature and transmute it onto the silver screen. This was no small task.

Their approach was to put more focus on Atticus Finch than Scout which is a pretty-big deviation from the book. There are both positives and negatives because of this narrative change, and people’s feelings about this movie can usually be tracked back to how they view this slight of hand. Atticus is such a beloved figure of moral inspiration that having him be the center brings his edifying persona to the forefront, allowing fans of the book to get more of a favorite character. The downside is that the story strikes an odd tone, being almost silent on the African American plight.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #97 – Bringing Up Baby (1938)

I laughed — Once.

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Katherine Hepburn as Susan Vance, Cary Grant as David Huxley, and the titular character Baby the Leopard.

American Film Institute Ranking: #97/100
Academy Awards:
None
Director: 
Howard Hawks
My Rating: smooth-star

What is comedy?

It’s a tricky question to answer and is the crux of my problem with this movie. What makes someone laugh: do you prefer witty, ridiculous, crass, situational, ironic, play-on-words, role reversals, self-depreciating, or some combination of the above? This movie has universal appeal with a resounding unison of positive reviews. This is quite different from how it was described at the time of its release, with phrases such as “box-office poison” and such a bomb that it threatened Hepburn’s film career with critics.

Somehow through syndication, this movie gained a steamroller of momentum and now is regarded as the quintessential screwball, romantic comedy that created an entire genre. I can’t help but agree with the original opinion. While the movie appealed to my love of wacky and imaginative, the delivery made this one of the most frustrating films I’ve ever watched.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #17 – The African Queen (1951)

A One-Set Movie Starring Mismatched Lovers

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Rose Sayer, the fastidious and devout saint (played by Katharine Hepburn), Charlie Allnut, the vagabond and loose sailor (Humphrey Bogart), and the main set of the movie, The African Queen.

American Film Institute Ranking: #17/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for four (Best Actor, Actress, Adapted Screenplay and Director) winning Best Actor for Humphrey Bogart (his only Academy Award).
Director: John Houston
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

“How can we put Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in close proximity for a couple hours and let them work their magic?”

Enter the adapted screenplay by James Agee (who also wrote a top 100 book of all time “A Death in the Family” which I review here). The African Queen is an interesting movie just from the set up alone: about 90% of the movie involves the two main characters floating down a river in a steam boat with the entire focal point on their relationship. There is some window dressing to get them there, but none of it matters. What is important is that Humphrey and Katharine are stuck together and have to work through their differences. This movie explores the classic motif of mismatched lovers using  stereotypical traits that are diametrically opposed (messy vs. clean, prude vs. crude, etc.). Thankfully, we have two power houses of Hollywood that end up pushing this ridiculous script along and somehow make a successful go at it.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #38 – Double Indemnity (1944)

The Walls Are Closing In. 

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Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray as Phyllis Dietrichson and Walter Neff

American Film Institute Ranking: #38/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for seven, including best picture, director and actress, but losing all seven.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

The story goes that this was a hard movie to get approved to make — those in charge  felt like the script’s content and story were too maniacal and didn’t pass the Movie Picture Production Code for moral standards. The characters are indeed awful, and there was more than one time that it made my skin crawl. The set up is a a classic reiteration of trying to commit the perfect murder to collect on an insurance policy, but this time it is a scheme between an unhappy spouse (Phyllis Dietrichson) and an insurance agent (Walter Neff) to knock off her husband. Walter Neff knows how other people have gotten caught in fraudulent claims and comes up with the perfect plan: have his death appear as if it happened on the train and collect double on his insurance policy, otherwise known as double indemnity.

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Top 100 SNES Review: #19 – Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy Kong’s Quest (1995)

The Original Inspiration for Xbox Achievements.

This game gives reason for replay. 

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Sydlexia’s Ranking: #19/100
Developer: Rare
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

This has always been a down low favorite game of mine, and it has a lot to do with all the secrets that are so enticing to find. Diddy Kong’s Quest offered the original Xbox Achievements as each level is scattered with hidden DK coins and tokens. I feel like this was the first time that someone considered replay value beyond a stale rerun through the same levels.

DK2 has the usual quirkiness that the game traditionally brings: a little bit of culture, bizarre animal enemies, and adult Kongs that have their own unique angles. Cranky Kong is probably a favorite as he chastises the player for having it so much easier than earlier gamers (arcade and NES era) and breaks the fourth wall a little bit. This always gave the game a boost of flare and made it more rememberable.

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Top 100 NES Review: #80 – The Adventures of Lolo (1989)

A Thinking Man’s Game

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Sydlexia’s Ranking: #80/100
Developer: Hal Laboratory
Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I have a soft spot for the puzzle genre in video games. I think it’s video gaming at its best: no story nor plot, just some basic mechanics that completely twist your brain.  I admire people who can turn a few simple rules into extremely engrossing mind riddles while inducing an effort headache as you try and solve them.

This is the Adventures of Lolo in a nutshell: couple of blocks, couple of buttons and couple of enemies, but put all together an extremely enjoyable game. There is a little bit of a backstory, as you play as Lolo trying to save Lala who has been kidnapped by the evil Eggers (view the above image if you need the emotional coloring). Lolo then has to go through 50 rooms of puzzles to save his princess.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #12 – Sunset Blvd. (1950)

“All right, Mr. DeMille, I’m ready for my close-up.”

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Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond, an old washed-up silent movie star.

American Film Institute Ranking: #12/100
Academy Awards: Nominated for eleven, won three including best original screenplay but none of the biggies.
My Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I really enjoyed this movie. A lot.

There are a lot of different angles, and it’s all packed into a tight presentation: a critique of hollywood; an unintentional period piece; purposeful inside references; old vs. new. The end result is a poignant insight into a time long gone, showing the underbelly of show biz that has been there since the very beginning.

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Top 100 SNES Review: #81 – Tiny Toon Adventures: Buster Breaks Loose (1993)

Fun, But Really Short (Like This Review)

Tiny Toons Title Screen

Sydlexia Ranking for top SNES games: #81/100
Developer: Konami
Rating: smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

I was a Tiny Toon fan when I was a child; every day after school it was on, and not until I reached middle school did I make the jump to Dragon Ball Z on Toonami. My favorite episode is easily where they danced to old-school songs for a whole episode. Tiny Toons was always weird, popcultured, and cerebral, taking advantage of breaking the fourth wall to interact in a way different than other cartoons at the time.

So I guess no different than today, it is important to monetize anything we enjoy and video games seem to be an easy way to do that.

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Top 100 Movie Review: #99 – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967)

Entertaining, but Almost Hard to Take Seriously

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All-Star Cast (Left to Right): Sidney Poitier, Katherine Houghton,  Katherine Hepburn, Spencer Tracy

American Film Institute Ranking: #99/100
Academy Awards: Best Actress (Katherine Hepburn), Best Original Screenplay
My Rating:smooth-starsmooth-starsmooth-star

Leave it to Hollywood to insert itself in a social issue, have it packed with trite stereotypes and interactions, and somehow still make it good enough to enjoy. This film is a constant roller-coaster ride, but not due to some concrete plot or character development. What’s going to have you squirming in your seat instead will be how a movie with such beautiful moments can be juxtapositioned with such ridiculousness.

Take for instance a scene where Matt and Christina Drayton (played by Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn respectively) have to leave the house due to the stress of the day (aka: their daughter wanting to marry a person of another race). They end up at a drive-in diner where Matt Drayton orders ice cream which was not the flavor he is expecting, and while at first he dislikes it he loves it after giving it a chance. This is a not so subtle suggestion of a parallel with what is happening in his personal life with his daughter’s soon to be husband. The movie uses fresh Oregon Boysenberry Sherbet to make a statement on race relations in America. 

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