NaNoWriMo Update 3: Hijacked by Serial Podcast

November 24, 2014 in Best Of by pacejmiller

Serial-2

It’s been a little while since my last unofficial NaNoWriMo update, and there is a good reason for that. After being derailed by work and whatever else last time, my progress has been more or less halted by my latest distraction/addiction: Serial.

If you haven’t heard of it, I’d recommend that you stop whatever you’re doing right now and check it out. I’m not a podcast guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, it’s just that I haven’t found much time for them — until now. Following several recommendations, I decided to check out this weekly spinoff from This American Life, where host Sarah Koenig explores a 15-year-old murder mystery, one aspect of the cold case per show.

I started listening to it under the presumption that the whole thing was a radio play, where everything was scripted and performed by voice actors. Even then, I was captivated by the Koenig’s storytelling and the way the case unfolded before my ears. When I discovered that the case was actually real, and that the recordings I heard on the show were real — hory shet, my mind was blown.

You should find out for yourself what the fuss is all about, but in short, the case revolves around the murder of 17-year-old student Hae Min Lee back in 1999. Her ex-boyfriend, Adnan Syed, was convicted of the crime and sentenced to life imprisonment, but he continues to maintain his innocence. It’s one of those bizarre cases where nothing really seems to make sense — witnesses are shady or unrealiable, the defense may have been inept, the police may have been corrupt, and memories are contradictory or non-existent — and yet there’s nothing concrete that can prove Syed’s innocence. There are ample arguments for and against Syed, and from what I can gather the opinion is split right down the middle. I’ll give my 2 cents on the case below.

Adnan

I ended up breezing through the first 8 episodes of the show, finding time to listen to it on the run and during exercise (OK, and during work too). I recently listened to the 9th episode and will be eagerly anticipating the 10th, the release of which has been delayed an extra week because of Thanksgiving. In the meantime, I’ve gone back and re-listened to some episodes to see if there are some things I may have missed.

It’s a fantastic concept, allowing listeners to try and solve this riveting case together. Pieces of information are added every week as the picture becomes either clearer or more muddled, and it is up to the individual to come to their own conclusions. As the popularity of the show has grown, more people have come forward with information they think might help shed light on what happened. Given that the show is recorded week by week, there are still new developments happening all the time, including recent news that Syed, now 34, is trying to get an appeal on the basis that he had ineffective legal representation.

The podcast is now listened to by millions, and it has generated unprecedented interest in the case, with new websites dedicated to compiling the available evidence. The podcast homepage is already filled with great stuff you can trawl through during or after listening to the show each week. I’ve tried to steer clear of a sub-Reddit for people to discuss the show because I have fears that I will become so immersed I won’t have time for anything else. But don’t let me try and stop you.

Anyway, I’ve gotten completely off track. What I want to say is that I haven’t been doing any of my NaNoWriMo writing at all, and that I probably won’t until next month. That is all.

Thoughts about the case

Here are my thoughts about the case. Bear in mind, I am fairly certain that we will never get to the bottom of whether Adnan killed Hae, not unless someone confesses. I also happen to flip flop between guilty and not guilty just about every week. Accordingly, these are purely my own worthless speculations based on what I have gathered from listening to the podcast thus far.

I think there are several scenarios available to us:

1. Adnan is guilty as charged, and Jay either helped commit the murder or was an accessory before/after the fact

2. Adnan is innocent, and Jay is the real murderer who framed him, either to help himself get off as part of a plea deal and/or for some ulterior motive such as jealousy of Adnan’s closeness to his Jay’s girlfriend

3. Adnan and Jay are both innocent, but Jay was coerced by police into framing Adnan out of fear they would pin it on him instead

There are other variations, but these are the basic three. Out of the three, I am inclined to believe that No. 1 is most likely. I want to believe Adnan is innocent, and I initially believed that he was. Jay’s story to the police is a completely incoherent mess that keeps chopping and changing. Nothing is really consistent in his narrative. He’s also a shady guy who has a propensity to lie.

The more I listen, however, the more I am convinced Adnan is guilty. I’m not saying the jury should have found him guilty in a court of law — I probably would vote not guilty myself because there is definitely reasonable doubt based on how flimsy the evidence is — but my gut feeling is that he committed the crime. I could write forever about this, but essentially these are the things that suggest to me Adnan has things to hide — things that cast doubt on his overall story of innocence.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s claim that he did not know Jay very well. It makes little sense that he would lend his car and brand new phone to just a “casual acquaintance,” even if they occasionally smoked weed together. It’s also not disputed that Jay often drove Adnan to track practice. Perhaps their culture is different to what I am accustomed to, but it feels like Adnan is trying to distance himself from Jay to make Jay’s story less believable. The “You’re pathetic” Adnan said to Jay before Jay took the stand could be construed in different ways (either “you framed me” or “you ratted me out”), but to me it suggests that they knew each other better than Adnan is letting on.

– I don’t buy Adnan’s insistence that he simply can’t remember anything from that day. As raised in the podcast, our memories are generally unreliable about even recent occurrences, but when something big or important happens we’re much more likely to remember that day, or at least bits and pieces of it. And the day Adnan said felt like “any other day” was the day his ex-girlfriend disappeared and he got a call from the cops about it. He said he remembers the call, but simply thought that Hae was going to be in trouble for running away. However, it’s not every day that your ex-girlfriend disappears, and it’s not every day you get a call from a cop about it.

– Adnan was supposedly still on good terms with Hae after she disappeared. And yet, unlike all her other friends, he did not try to page her after her disappearance. Not even once. That doesn’t smell right. His excuse was that he got the latest updates from friends at school, so it wasn’t like he didn’t care. But if that’s the case, he would have realized that the disappearance was serious only a few days (not weeks) after it happened, at which point it would make sense for him to try and recall if he could remember anything helpful from that fateful day, especially since he got a call from the cops. He might have been only 17, but there’s no way he wouldn’t piece the two together. Hae’s body was found 4 weeks after she disappeared. It might have be really difficult, but not impossible, if he really tried, to recall something — anything — at that stage. If I was being accused of murder, I’d be wracking my brain to remember an alibi, but he offers nothing. Sure, it was in the days before social media, but what about stuff he had written at school? Wouldn’t family and friends have been able to jog his memory? Heck, wouldn’t the call log have done that? It would be more convincing if he said he can remember some things about that day but none of it had anything to do with Hae, but to plead bad memory on absolutely everything comes across as an attempt to minimize the possibility of tripping himself up when questioned.

– I am absolutely baffled by Adnan’s lack of animosity towards Jay, at least outwardly. Jay is the ONLY reason Adnan is in prison for life, and Jay most likely knew something about the murder because he led the police to Hae’s car. If Adnan truly had nothing to do with it, then shouldn’t he feel at least a little angry towards the guy who framed him and would likely be Hae’s real killer? And yet in conversations with Koenig he says he blames himself for associating with the wrong people? That fails the smell test again. He doesn’t even appear to have wondered WHY Jay would kill Hae or frame him. If it were me those questions would be eating me up inside and I would at least try to come up with a theory of why I ended up in this predicament. Instead, of trying to build a case against Jay (“I don’t want to accuse anyone”, Adnan says), he simply says that the case against him built by the prosecution “doesn’t add up?” WTF?

– Adnan reasons for saying that he would have confessed to the murder if he was guilty don’t convince me. He says his parents would sleep better at night if they had an answer to the mystery rather than thinking that their innocent son is stuck in prison for life. He would still be their son and they would still love him knowing that he isn’t doing too badly in prison. That’s fine, but that’s also assuming that Adnan doesn’t have a problem with ending any possibility of ever getting out. He’s still relatively young, and as long as he can deny guilt there is a chance he can be set free some day, especially in light of the problems with the prosecution’s case.

– How easily Adnan has adjusted to prison life is also a potential red flag. An 18/19-year-old Muslim in the post-9/11 world in a maximum security prison full or murderers and rapists sounds like a rough deal, and yet Adnan claims he has no problems with anyone and is generally well-liked. It’s possible that he’s just been lucky, but it also raises the possibility that he perhaps really is the sociopathic manipulator prosecutors insist he is. It certainly would explain why there are people who say “the Adnan I know couldn’t have done this.”

– Jay told Chris, another friend, that Adnan killed Hae. This was independent of him telling the police, which lessens the likelihood that he concocted the story out of thin air. There was also the anonymous caller, who told police to look into Adnan. It is not believed that the call was made by Jay, which suggests other people know something about the murder.

– It wasn’t like the police didn’t have other suspects. Jay was a suspect. Mr S, the guy who found the body, was a suspect. Hae’s new boyfriend, Don, would have been a suspect until his alibi proved to be ironclad. And yet they decided to go after Adnan based on Jay’s testimony. If the testimony was so flimsy and the cops just wanted to to pin it on anyone it makes you wonder why they didn’t just pin it on Jay, given that he was obviously involved somehow and was giving them contradictory information.

– One thing that hasn’t been raised in the show so far is the fact that Adnan and Hae spoke on the phone the night before she disappeared. This is huge, because we’re supposed to believe that the breakup was relatively amicable and that both of them had moved on with their lives without hard feelings. The phone records show that Adnan called Hae 3 times between 11:27pm and 12:35am. The first 2 calls lasted 2 seconds each, meaning she likely hung up on him. The third and final call was a minute and 24 seconds, meaning there was time for words to be exchanged. What was Adnan doing calling her so many times in the middle of the night, and why did she hang up on him twice? And wouldn’t something like this have helped Adnan jog his memory?

Hae Min Lee

Hae Min Lee

My theory of what happened is rather simple. I think trawling through Jay’s witness statements and trying to make them match up with cell phone records and contradictory accounts from potential witnesses is all a waste of time. It’s all a big red herring. The reason I say that is because I don’t believe the timeline established by the police based on what Jay told them is what happened at all. Forget about the contradictions offered by the Nisha call; forget about the cell towers; forget about the library encounter with Asia — none of these things will fit because the timeline is wrong.

Based on Jay’s actions and what he has said I think it’s fairly clear that his primary aim was to cover his own ass. So he made up a version of the story in which he was not involved at all — without having thought about how all the other evidence would match. When the police tightened their noose around him he admitted to some involvement, and when a plea bargain was on the table he admitted to some more. By then it was too late to change his story, so maybe he went along with whatever police wanted him to say to build a stronger case against Adnan. But there’s little doubt that he knows something about the murder. So I agree that Jay’s story is not to be trusted as a complete version of events, but the one thing he has been consistent about through the whole thing is that Adnan did it. He’s adamant about that, even 15 years later. Unless there is something huge we haven’t been made privy to, I can’t think of a reason why he would make up this lie and stick to it so strongly and consistently.

So what I believe is that Adnan killed Hae. It may have not happened the way prosecutors say it happened, where it happened and when it happened, but the bottom line is that he did it. I also believe that Adnan and Jay are much better friends than they let the police believe, which would explain why Adnan would seek Jay’s “help.” The extent to which Jay is involved — whether he was there when it happened, whether he participated, whether he just helped bury the body — is not that important; what’s relevant is that he was involved enough to know Adnan did it. Jay initially tried to pretend he didn’t know anything when questioned by police, but he eventually caved under the pressure and gave Adnan up.

Adnan pled bad memory on everything because he didn’t want to be tripped up and he believed there was not enough evidence to convict him. He could have pointed the finger back at Jay, but he’d rather both of them get off than both of them go to prison. His lawyer, the late Christina Gutierrez, may not have done as bad of a job as we’ve been led to believe. She was a successful attorney who likely made tactical decisions to not go after certain witnesses (like Asia) and to not let Adnan testify because she knew they wouldn’t help the defense. Or maybe she knew Adnan was guilty so she threw the case. Either way, her later disbarment for mismanaging client money in my opinion is not relevant to her competency in court (as annoying as her voice is).

That’s enough rambling for now. I understand I could probably write as much about why Adnan is not guilty, but this is the way I feel about the case for the moment.

(Spoiler Free) Movie Review: Interstellar (2014) (IMAX)

November 7, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

interstellar-poster

Well, it looks like I have to reshuffle my list of the best movies of 2014 – again.

Memento. The Dark Knight trilogy. Inception. Time and time again, Christopher Nolan proven to be one of the most creative and visionary directors of this generation. His latest, Interstellar, is his most ambitious project to date, and also arguably the most rewarding.

I rushed to see the first session available of Interstellar this morning, not knowing what to expect other than a 169-minute sci-fi starring Matthew McConaughey. I intentionally avoided the trailers, the reports, and the early reviews. In fact, I didn’t even know who else was in it. Going in blind was the best decision I ever made, and so I am going to make sure there are no spoilers in this review so that your experience, if you haven’t already seen it, is as fresh and awe-inspiring as it can be.

Interstellar is the very definition of an epic. The ambition, the scale, the scope, the cast, the special effects, the storyline — even the running time; everything about this film is huge, which makes it perfect for the big screen, and in particular, IMAX, which I fortunately saw it on. It is not available in 3D (which I hate anyway), but this is one rare situation where I do wonder if the added dimension could have enhanced the visual experience even more.

I don’t want to give away the plot, so all I will say is that Interstellar is first and foremost a space exploration film. I liked the fact that there was no arbitrary exposition at the start of the film explaining the world the film was depicting. There’s no voice-over, no subtitles, no Star Wars-like opening crawl. It immerses you into the story straight away, while at the same time creating an intriguing mystery that needs to be slowly pieced together. And while the progression of the narrative is relatively simple, there are some exciting twists and turns along the way.

Interstellar is also a great big adventure flick filled with excitement, action, drama, and emotion. There are big set pieces, jaw-dropping landscapes and seamless effects, though all of these things feel like they are there because they are integral to the story, rather than simply to provide candy for the eyes.

My number one film of last year, Gravity, is probably best characterized as a space survival film. That was a thrilling spectacular which had some of the above elements, but Interstellar just takes it to a whole other level in every way. And it’s even twice as long! Interestingly, the film that first popped up into my mind when watching Interstellar was another McConaughey classic, 1997’s Contact, another one of my favorite sci-fi films. Both are about exploring the unknown with a health dose of hope and fear, and pose thought-provoking questions about human nature and humanity.

I don’t know much about the science the film rests on, though I assume there are going to be a lot of gaping holes, inconsistencies and flaws in logic. But the silliness of the science is beside the point. The important thing is that Nolan made me believe in it. Like he did in Inception, Nolan takes some very complex ideas and concepts and boils them down in a way that ordinary audiences can understand. Perhaps not fully comprehend or even grasp everything that is happening, but at least enough to be able to suspend disbelief and not get lost in the storyline. To me, that is the key to the film, and my guess is that if you did not enjoy it, it is because you were unable to buy into the film’s ideas in the first place.

Nolan’s films have been accused of being too cold and emotionless in the past. That is definitely not the case with Interstellar, which is powered by a surprising amount of human drama. Not all of it was effective — some of the dialogue came across as a little mushy, a little sentimental, and shall I say, McConaughey-esqe, though in the grand scheme of things I cannot fault Nolan for trying, because the film’s ultimate pay-off and message would not have worked without emotion.

I know I have not been the biggest Matthew McConaughey fan, and I admit I cringed a little when he first opened his mouth in the film (I expected his dialogue to be “Alright, alright, alright” on an endless loop). Smugness like that is hard to contain, even for an Oscar-winning actor. Slowly but surely, however, McConaghey managed to grow on me, and by the end of the film I was convinced he was the right man for the role. I cannot say much more about the other performances without mentioning their names (not knowing the whole cast adds to the pleasant surprises), so I will simply say that there is more than one Oscar winner in the cast and that they are all very good and go a long way towards mitigating the flaws in the dialogue.

Interstellar might not be perfect. It may not even be as intriguing, action-packed or ground-breaking as some of Nolan’s other films. And it even stars Matthew McConaughey. But man, I don’t think I’ve been more entertained more by a film in years. Nolan really reached for the stars with this grand epic. Some may think it was a spectacular success; others may think it was an admirable failure. For me, I’m just glad I was fortunate enough to be on the journey.

5 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Undisputed Truth’ by Mike Tyson

September 19, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Boxing, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller

undisputed-truth-my-autobiography

Love him or loathe him, Mike Tyson’s Undisputed Truth is not just one of the best sports-themed books I’ve ever read. It’s not even just one of the best autobiographies I’ve ever read. It’s one of the best books I’ve read, period.

That’s a big call for a book written by a convicted rapist, notorious ear-biter and school drop-out with arguably the most renowned lisp in the world, but I’m sticking with it. Undisputed Truth is fascinating, it’s explosive, it’s horrifying and it’s downright hilarious. In fact, I’m fairly certain I have laughed out loud from reading this book more times than any other book I’ve ever read.

I don’t know if this is a comparison anyone has made, but Undisputed Truth reminds me of another one of my favourite books, Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries. Both are about the real-life wild and wacky adventures of athletes who love girls and drugs, told with an unflinching honesty and often veering into extremely dark territory.

However, while The Basketball Diaries is a short book traverses only a portion of Carroll’s adolescence, Undisputed Truth is a monster (but swift) 592 pages covering Tyson’s entire life up to last year. And while Carroll was a pretty good basketball player and womanizer, he was never the “baddest man alive” or a world class sex machine like Tyson (who would have given Wilt Chamberlain a run for his money as he was notoriously undiscriminating when it came to his partners).

So what makes Undisputed Truth an all-time read? Well for starters, Tyson does not hold back at all. He absolutely pours his heart out, infusing every page with his damaged soul. The unique voice is pure raw emotion and distinctively Tyson, and you can almost picture Tyson spewing the words out as they are recorded by his co-writer Larry Sloman (best known for Howard Stern’s Private Parts). The narrative is fluid, albeit occasionally rambling and often contradictory (for instance, Tyson goes on about turning into a devout Muslim, only to say on the next page that he doesn’t believe in an afterlife), but at the same time it is always coherent and sharp. Besides, Tyson is so messed up, even right now, that a little craziness is expected.

I don’t want to give away too many golden nuggets from the book, so I’ll just give a very brief overview to provide an idea of what’s in store. The autobiography begins with an introduction that describes one of the most pivotal moments in Tyson’s life — the sentencing for his rape charge — before taking readers right back to the beginning of his troubled and dysfunctional childhood in Brownsville, one of the toughest neighbourhoods in the Bronx. And it’s an unimaginable childhood for most of us, one completely devoid of love and hope. Those early portions of the book are difficult to swallow, but they are also essential to understanding the man Tyson would become.

tyson cus

Tyson and the man who changed his life, Cus D’Amato

Tyson’s life makes a dramatic turn when he meets Cus D’Amato, the hard-nosed trainer who would transform Tyson from a scared little punk kid into the heavyweight champion of the world. Cus was far from perfect, but Tyson loved him unlike anyone else he has loved in his entire life, and you can truly feel that love flow through the pages as Tyson describes their relationship and what the old man means to him. One can only imagine how Mike Tyson’s legacy would have turned out — both in and out of the ring — had D’Amato not died as Tyson zoned in on the heavyweight title.

Tyson’s rise through the ranks, from amateur to professional, is one of the most exciting aspects of the book. People tend to take his success for granted and attribute it to his natural gifts, but Tyson was one of the hardest, most obsessive workers I have ever seen in any sport, shadowboxing literally for hours, devouring classic fight tapes and reading everything he could get his hands on about the all-time greats.

I had not expected this, but Tyson literally describes every single one of his professional bouts (and many of his key amateur bouts too), including the lead-up, the fight itself and how it ended — and what was going through his mind the whole time. I loved this about the book and the insights it provided into the psyche of a Hall-of-Fame boxer, and it also shed light on a lot of Tyson’s performances because he admittedly wasn’t in shape or motivated for many of them, especially later in his career when all he wanted was another paycheck. For me, the best part about his detailed analysis of the bouts is being able to go straight to YouTube to watch the spectacular fights right after reading his take on them.

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Mike Tyson with Evander Holyfield, back in the day when both ears were in tact

Tyson’s later decline and bad losses may tarnish his legacy, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he was unbeatable in his prime if he was motivated and had his head on straight (two very big IFs). He was just so ferocious, so quick and so powerful that he often beat opponents psychologically even before stepping into the ring. But the loss of Cus to keep him in line and the introduction of Don King to his life, not to mention all the money and the women and the drugs, eventually took their toll on his mind and body, and he was simply never the same again.

It would be wrong, however, to be under the impression that Undisputed Truth is only about boxing. Many of my favourite parts of the book are about Tyson’s life outside of the ring. He was just an insane spender who had no idea what to do with the millions and millions of dollars he was raking in (and this excludes the millions and millions others ripped off  him without his knowledge). The fleets of luxury cars, sports cars, the custom-made bling and outfits, the entire house adorned with Versace, and even keeping real tigers as pets. He was literally giving away money to poor people left and right, and that’s not even taking into account all the real and bogus legal claims he has had to settle (often just random strangers coming up to his house with fake injuries or people off the street trying to bait him into a fight) and the millions he has spent on lawyer fees. It’s no surprise that despite all the money he has made in his career, Tyson still ended up being dead broke.

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson threw away all his money, sometimes literally

Tyson’s brushes with celebrities are also a highlight of the book. There are so many priceless celebrity anecdotes littered throughout the book, including classic stories about Naomi Campbell, Prince and Eddie Murphy as well as crazy brushes with guys like Rick James, Wesley Snipes, and of course, the infamous encounter with Brad Pitt. They tend to be short, but they are always pure gold, and reminds us just how famous Tyson was back in his heyday, and that shockingly, it wasn’t until his cameo in The Hangover that completely turned his life around. Funnily enough, despite working with a convicted rapist like Tyson, the cast and crew of the sequel collectively vetoed the decision to do the same with anti-Semite Mel Gibson.

Another inescapable part of Tyson’s life was the women. My god, the women. After not knowing how to even approach a girl as a teen, Tyson was propositioned by thousands and thousands of women after becoming rich and famous, and he never quite figured out how to say no. A lot of this stuff is extremely crude, but it’s also extremely funny because of how low Tyson would stoop. Oldies, fatties, uglies — it didn’t matter to him. He speaks of those days of debauchery with shame — including all the STDs he picked up along the way — but the way he describes his way of thinking and his actions at the time is gut-bustingly funny stuff. At one stage he even apologizes to his readers for having to put up with his antics.

When it comes to women and Tyson, however, it’s impossible not to mention two names — his first wife Robin Givens, who accused him of domestic violence, and beauty pageant contestant Desiree Washington, whose allegations of rape sent Tyson to prison for three years. Tyson is a little coy when it comes to Givens, the actress he says he fell head over heels for but believed she was a manipulative gold digger along with her mother Ruth, whom he affectionately calls “Ruthless”. He never directly denies the domestic violence allegations but says multiple times that her claims are all BS. 

As for Washington, Tyson says he is prohibited from discussing his case in detail due to British laws, though he strongly insinuates that he is innocent and insists that he will maintain his innocence to his grave. Everyone will have their own views on this case, but based on my readings of Undisputed Truth and other sources I followed up on, I think there is no doubt Tyson got screwed in court.

Now, I’m not saying for one second that I believe Tyson is innocent — only he and Washington know what happened — but I do find it shocking that he was convicted based on the lacklustre evidence that was available and adduced at court. The truth is, if the accused was not someone as universally loathed as Mike Tyson, he probably would have walked away. But all the stars aligned at the wrong time for him: (1) Don King used his prudish tax lawyer to represent Tyson in a rape case, and the dimwit probably did the worst job imaginable, including not using the lack of physical evidence to their advantage; (2)  an admitted Tyson-hater somehow slipped through the cracks to not only get on the jury, but become the jury foreman; (3) rape shield laws prevented evidence of Washington’s earlier false rape allegation made against a former boyfriend and witnesses who could have shattered the innocent and naive image she created by detailing her sordid sexual past; and (4) the fact that she signed secret book and movie deals around the same time she made her accusations public was not enough to earn Tyson an appeal.

mike tyson prison

Having said all that, my personal guess is that Tyson probably was guilty under the legal definition of rape, because no matter how much Washington pursued Tyson and bragged about spending his money as “Mrs Tyson”, all she had to do was say “No” at any time during the ordeal for consent to be taken away. It didn’t matter that she obviously lied about having no idea that Tyson wanted sex when he invited her up to his room in the middle of the night, or that she curiously went into the bathroom to remove a liner from her underwear before the incident took place. She may have initially wanted to go through with it and changed her mind at the last moment, but Tyson was too much of a reckless animal to hear or sense her terrified opposition.

If she did falsely accuse him, I believe the intent came not before but after, when she furiously realized that she was just another piece of meat that Tyson was tossing away after he was done with it. That’s why I also don’t doubt at all that Tyson honestly believes he is innocent, which is why he turned down an opportunity at an early release because he simply refused to apologize to her — just an apology, not even an admission of guilt. In any case, the rape case is a fascinating part of the book, and I would recommend everyone to read up about it as much as they can before making their own judgment.

That was heavy.

The book slows down towards the end and becomes more contemplative, as Tyson’s drug and alcohol abuse, sex addiction, accumulated boxing injuries and uncontrollable fury prevent him from having any semblance of a real life. In the end, it’s his love for his current wife and the loss of one of his children in a tragic accident that keep him from completely falling off the wagon, though as he concedes in the book’s postscript it’s still an ongoing battle he’s taking one day at a time. Just as I was finishing the book I read elsewhere about Tyson’s latest implosion on Canadian television during an interview, confirming that no matter how much therapy he receives his demons will likely follow him until the day he dies.

It’s strange, because despite wasting all his talent and hard work and throwing away all the fruits of his success, I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. On the other hand, even Tyson’s staunchest defenders would concede that he is a destructive individual with loathsome qualities — and that’s even if you believe he is innocent of rape. You can defend his actions to some extent because of his horrific upbringing, the toxic environment and people he grew up with, and the constant bullying and abuse he suffered as a child, but apologizing for Mike Tyson can only go so far because there are some things he has done — things he readily admits to in the book — that are simply inexcusable at any level of human decency.

Tyson understands this himself and appears genuinely remorseful at times (though at other times he remains defensive), attributing his insanity to the combustible combination of a massive ego and extremely low self-esteem. He was born in the gutter, and no matter how much success and money he achieved throughout his career, he still believed that he belonged in the gutter, which is why he could never put an end to his self-destructive tendencies.

That’s why I say you cannot treat Tyson like a real person if you want to truly enjoy this book. It’s a strange comparison, but I like to think of him as Homer Simpson — a character you find endearing in spite of, and maybe even because of, his anti-social qualities, but would hate if you knew such a person in real life. Everyone probably has an opinion on Tyson, both as a boxer and as a man, and neither might be flattering. But don’t let your prejudices get in the way of one of the best books you might ever read.

5/5

Movie Review: Boyhood (2014)

September 9, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

boyhood

I admit I had heard some good things about Boyhood — Richard Linklater’s epic experiment featuring the same actors over an actual 12-year period — but never did I expect it to be such a wonderful, profound viewing experience. Despite fears that the film would boil down to that one gimmick, once the awe stemming from the audacity to make such a crazy project subsides, Boyhood settles down into a beautiful, poignant coming-of-age story about life and love that’s as emotionally affecting as anything I’ve seen on the silver screen.

The film, which is a “proper” drama as opposed to a documentary, centers on Mason Evans Jr (played throughout by Ellar Coltrane) as he grows from a six year old in 2002 until he goes off to college at the age of 18. He leads what I suppose can be called a “regular” life by American standards these days, living with his single Olivia mother (Patricia Arquette) and older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s real-life daughter), while his biological father (Ethan Hawke) slips in and out of his life over the years.

That’s about as much as I need to say about the plot, which is actually very structured but never feels that way because we’re just going along with these characters lives as they pursue their passions, fall in and out of love, and endure countless conflicts over the course of 12 remarkable years. We watch them grow, age, mature and change — and it’s happening all the time, in a way that is subtle yet undeniable.

The feel of the film is very natural, with conversations and interactions that you or I might have every day. They might talk about family, about ambitions or politics (the family is very liberal and the film does make fun of Republicans to some extent), though Linklater knows how to pick and choose so that the small snippets of daily lives will usually provide fascinating insights into the characters, human nature and simply the world around us. The understated tone is somewhat similar to the Before Sunrise, Before Sunset, Before Midnight trilogy Linklater is perhaps best known for, so there is an air of familiarity for fans of those films, especially since Ethan Hawke plays quite a similar character.

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Ellar Coltrane through the years in Boyhood

Initially I wondered whether having the same actors throughout the years would make much of a difference. After all, we’ve seen so many films where they just cast different actors for different ages that it’s become a cinematic norm. Now, after having seen the movie, I can categorically say YES, it does matter. You might not lose anything from using different actors, but you certainly gain something, even if its just subconsciously, when you see real people growing older right in front of your eyes. As the film progresses chronologically, most of the physical changes in the adults are subtle, though for Mason Jr and Samantha it’s quite an amazing transformation. Even more amazing than the constantly shifting appearances, however, is seeing how their personalities develop over time as they turn from bratty little kids into young adults.

The film may be called Boyhood but it’s not just about the boy, as all the major characters in the family play irreplaceable roles. It’s about all of them. In some ways, I found the Olivia (Arquette) story the most fascinating (and heartbreaking) as she is forced to deal with challenging changes not just in her children but in herself.

Boyhood is a fairly long movie at 164 minutes, though when you consider how much time and ground it covers — at a leisurely pace, mind you — it almost feels short (and it makes Transformers: Age of Extinction‘s 165-minute running time even more incomprehensible). That said, I thought the length was perfect, as was the ending, which, like what the rest of the film does so well, captures just another one of life’s many precious moments.

Boyhood is a groundbreaking film because of Linklater’s ambitious filming technique, though it is so so so much more than that. This is not a film that will blow you away from the outset or titillate you with fancy special effects or intense action scenes. To be honest, I didn’t think much about anything when I first joined these characters on their respective life journeys, but then at some stage towards the end I realised, shit, this is a five-star film. Go watch it. It’s one of the most remarkable things you’ll ever see.

5 stars out of 5

PS: The fact that Linklater managed to complete the project is a minor miracle in itself. Realistically, the film could have collapsed for so many reasons — funding, studio issues, and most likely an actor falling off the rails, quitting, or even dying.

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

dawn

Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

dawn-of-planet-of-the-apes-malcolm

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

dawn-planet-apes

Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

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