Review of “I Am Legend”

See it? Yes (especially if you like dogs).

My instincts told me not to go see I Am Legend. I’m skeptical of movies where big beautiful Hollywood actors play scientists (Elisabeth Shue in The Saint, Bridget Moynahan in I, Robot, etc.). But I had a free evening, and I’m a total sucker for zombie flicks, so I decided to take a chance.

I’m glad I did. I Am Legend turned out to be a very good movie. I especially appreciated the pace. I was worried during the very first scene when Robert Neville (Will Smith) was hunting caribou from a red Mustang Shelby GT in New York City at insanely high speeds, however the movie then really slowed down, really took its time, and really did a great job of exploring what it might be like being the last person in the world. That’s primarily what I wanted out of I Am Legend. Sure, zombies, weapons, and gore are all cool, but what’s far more interesting is seeing how Neville learns to adapt to isolation, and maintain as much normalcy, routine, and civility as possible.

There are several scenes where I Am Legend tries to explore the madness of isolation which I felt were a little forced, and several times when Neville is compelled to utter to himself or dictate to his computer things that he probably wouldn’t have if not for the fact that he was trying to clue the audience in on something. But the flashback scenes were very well integrated (something difficult to pull off), and overall the movie was good enough that it was very easy to overlook the few questionable scenes. I also have to mention that post-apocalyptic New York was extremely well portrayed.

Will Smith was good in I Am Legend, but his German shepherd, Sam (played by canine actors Abby and Kona), absolutely stole the show. These dogs can act circles around most of the Hollywood A-list, and certainly drew far more of a reaction from the audience than any human actors I’ve seen recently. In fact, this movie may be to German shepherd breeders what Top Gun was to Air Force recruiters. Funny how you can kill people onscreen by the dozens, hundreds, or in this case, even by the billions, but put a single dog in harm’s way, and the audience gasps with horror.

I Am Legend was a great balance between action, gore, special effects, and deliberate exploration of solitude with an ending that I thought was both tidy and unexpected.

Review of “JPod” by Douglas Coupland

Read it? If you’re a self-proclaimed geek, by all means.

If you’re looking for a book that celebrates geekdom and video games like Death in the Afternoon celebrates virility, then read Douglas Coupland’s JPod.

JPod is about five cube mates — each with their own manias, neuroses, and complexes — who work for an overly corporate and bureaucratic gaming company in Vancouver. I use the term "work" loosely, however. The majority of their time is spent managing their dysfunctional families, soothing their angst, indulging their fetishes, placating their idiotic managers, and either issuing or participating in bizarre challenges like taking the first hundred thousand digits of pi, inserting a single incorrect digit, and seeing who can find it first. If you’re a software developer, or if you’ve ever worked with software developers, you’re probably following right along.

I have to admit that I’m a little surprised that I’m recommending this book. I actually started out actively disliking it. In fact, I disliked it until exactly page 184 (once I start reading a fiction book, I finish it come hell or high water — imagine my dismay after casually picking up Moby Dick one day). It was page 184, and in particular the passage below, that taught me how to read JPod:

"Ethan, watching you play Manhunt is like watching a steak being carved at Benihana."
"It’s only pretend gore."
"With characters customized to resemble people here at work?"

Can’t you just hear the laugh track? This was this passage that made me realize I was reading a 448 page sitcom — a story where everyone either knows exactly what to say, or says precisely the wrong thing; where every exchange is witty and quick enough to keep you from losing interesting and changing the channel; where characters are either impossibly intelligent and successful, or fantastically stupid.

Once I figured all this out, I found that I really liked the book.

JPod is a book for and about the video game generation: a group of people who paradoxically have superhuman powers of concentration, yet can’t seem to focus on anything. Similarly, JPod briefly touches on dozens of different topics like autism, gore sites, human trafficking, marijuana cultivation, Chinese industrialization, and ballroom dancing, yet still manages to explore in painstaking detail such critical and stimulating topics as the history of Zima, and the best way to convince Roland McDonald to go on a date with you. The book is as ADD as its characters (and probably most of its readers).

Aside from confusion over the genre of the book, I had one other issue with JPod that I had to come to terms with: Coupland actually wrote himself in as a character. Not just any character, but a bona fide asshole. In fact, the very first passage of the book goes like this:

"Oh God. I feel like a refugee from a Douglas Coupland novel."
"That asshole."
"Who does he think he is?"

If I’d read that passage while still in the bookstore, I guarantee I wouldn’t be writing about JPod right now. I would have gone with the David Foster Wallace novel I was holding in my other hand. For some reason, Coupland’s technique seems a little narcissistic to me, like a really obvious and sort of sad attempt to turn yourself into a cultural icon. But refusing to admit defeat so soon (and having just paid $14.95), I kept reading. Coupland appeared in the book a few other times, and by the time he became a full-blown character, I had come to understand and like the book enough that I was ready to roll with it.

One thing I never doubted about JPod was that I really enjoyed the writing. Coupland has a way of expressing things in very human and immediately familiar terms. There were dozens of great lines like "Everyone suddenly remembered they were supposed to look interested," "I hoped to God that would shake my Etch-a-Sketch clean," and "Dad went over to the TV and touched one of those little black knobs beneath the screen that nobody ever touches." JPod has a way of talking to you like a good friend.

Reading JPod for me was like visiting my in-laws: a bit awkward at first, but in the end, I had a blast. If you’re a neurotic, pod servant gamer yourself, JPod is a great way to get a little reading in without straying too far from your comfort zone.