Sunday, 21 August 2016

Snowden by Ted Rall

Lowdown: The Snowden story told through a ~200 page comic.
Review:
I don't know how you, book readers, do it. Reading a book, as opposed to an ebook, is shit! The lighting is bad, you have to hold the book open. You even need to physically flip through pages! Oy vey.
But I did make an exception for you for a book that stared me in the eye as I passed by my local public library: Snowden by Ted Rall (who, apparently, is a cartoonist for pretty big USA publications). Snowden the book is a comic book of a little more than 200 pages. At its end you will find two pages of closing off text as well as numerous pages offering citations for the points raised by the comic itself, with the point being that Snowden takes itself seriously.
The author's views are revealed on page 1: we are, he tells us, living the manifestation of Orwell's 1984 vision. I concur; you can tell why I made a sacrifice and chose to read this particular paper book. Snowden goes further, though, much further: readers are informed about some of Edward Snowden's biggest revelations.
Then the comic picks up on a new direction that represents the bulk of pages. That is, trying to figure out why it is that Edwards Snowden and no other came out to do what he had done and reveal this information to us. What does this say about Snowden? To answer that question, we get to explore Ed's personal history (where I got to learn he was (is still?) a libertarian - oy givald!).
I have to say it, I found myself identifying with Edward Snowden's personal journey. Not I am half as brave as he was, but rather on account of other similarities between us. Specifically, how we used to do the same things (video games, reading Ars Technica) and hold certain opinions that, upon being challenged by international travel and seeing the world with its different facets, we later changed.
If you care for the book's answer for the Snowden riddle, it is, and I quote, that Snowden had an "ideological awakening [while working] in an organisation that selects for conformism".
Then the book concludes with a discussion on whether those things that Snowden did were right or wrong. Perhaps because I'm not an American I do not even start to consider Edwards Snowden as a traitor, which leaves "hero" as the only option. Luckily for me, Rall provides ample evidence to show that, even for Americans, what Snowden did was an act of heroism of the best kind.
Overall:
A comic is, indeed, a fine way to tell the Snowden story in a meaningful yet entertaining way. I have been regarding Snowden as a hero since June 2013 and, as far as I am concerned, he is welcome to seek asylum at my home for as long as he requires. That invitation is now even warmer through me knowing more about Edward Snowden and his journey through this fine comic.
4 out of 5 crabs for Snowden the comic, and all the crabs in the world to public libraries, one of humanity's better institutions.

Monday, 15 August 2016

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

Lowdown: A couple of stupid incredibly powerful men get too easily manipulated to fight one another; women come to save the day.
Review:
There is an eternal question when it comes to Hollywood movies: how much money can be poured into a blockbuster movie event in order to produce an empty, meaningless bullshit of a movie? Tons of flicks are competing to break a record on this question, but Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (let's just stick to BvS, shall we?) clearly wipes them all out. This movie is just as dumb as it could run a medium sized first world country with its budget for a decade.
Clearly, dumbness is the direct result of the task handed to script writers: come up with a plot that would have Superman fight Batman, ASAP! And do it as a sequel to the last Superman movie, Man of Steel, so that we can create a Marvel like franchise!
And the problem is that they, the script writers, complied. Their contrived solution was to have Lex Luther son, Lex Luther (the weirdo typecast Jesse Eisenberg), manipulate Superman (a returning Henry Cavill) into fighting Batman/Bruce Wayne (welcome to the role, Ben Affleck) while utilising the duo's extreme stupidity. Only that the two are clearly not that stupid, or should not have been that stupid. Hence the film's main problem; one doesn't go to watch a movie entitled BvS expecting stupid superheroes.
There are tons of special effects laden fight scenes stretched over this three hour movie, tons of excellent actors playing crudely underdeveloped characters (Amy Adams, Holly Hunter, Jeremy Irons - I could go on), and there is a guest visit by Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) that's meant to introduce us to the next movie in the franchise. There's also tons of muscles - the male leads clearly pumped a lot of iron for their roles. What isn't there is brains; and if you think the movie breaks the injustice league's hall of fame with its silly excuses for pitting Batman against Superman, just wait till you see what it does to make them stop fight one another.
P.S. I will not get into the way Superman's character is Americanised in that good old "there's no country in the world other than America" [which is actually a continent].
Overall: I did not suffer; BvS is an entertaining roller coaster. But oh, what a poor movie this is! What a waste! 2.5 out of 5 de-intellectualised crabs.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Lowdown: A small time American reporter comes of age through her assignment in battle torn Afghanistan.
Review:
They say every good story revolves some sort of a journey. Well, in the case of Whiskey Tango Foxtrot (let's agree to stick with WTF from now on) our story is the story of an unlikely female journalist from the USA, who for some small time reason finds herself temporarily assigned to Afghanistan for war coverage duties. As with all things temporary, she finds herself stuck there for about a decade. Stuck is a bad word, because her journey has her advocating for the cause and actually wishing to stay there fore longer.
The catch, I guess, is that this journey is based on the autobiography of a real person. The fact that person is a woman, and given the context of war and Burqa cladded Afghanistan, serve to explain why WTF got itself on film.
A significant part of the story has to be personal journey of Tina Fey, the comedian who plays a serious role here and also acts as a producer. Clearly, this movie represents some coming of age for her as a person, too. Fey fares very well, thank you very much, demonstrating heroines have no problem leading a movie, thank you very much!
The problem with WTF is that it doesn't take us places. Sure, there is Afghanistan, but it's not like I felt WTF expanded my horizons other than entertain me for the duration of the flick. Alfred Molina acting as a local weirdo warlord probably did the best job at entertaining me but it wasn't enough; nor were the talents of Martin Freeman and Margot Robbie.
Overall: A win for women, but not a spectacular film in any distinguished way. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Ice Age Collision Course

Another year, another punishment for parents in the shape of an Ice Age episode. This franchise that does not know when to stop and has long outlived its welcome comes to us with Episode 5, Collision Course.
The plot is completely redundant; there is danger, the heroes figure it out, they travel a bit, they stumble upon baddies, they sort things out. Formula movies could not be more formulistic. As far as the heroes are concerned, they are pretty much the usual gang + Simon Pegg (who has been there before, too, but is a relatively recent addition).
The novelty, if you will, is with Scrat's character taking a more leading role. The same way the accountants at Despicable Me figured out it is the Minions that the kids like the most and are most likely to earn a buck, so did the Ice Age accountants figure out that with Scrat they are holding the key to parents' Port Knox. The other curious addition is a Neil deGrasse Tyson contributing his voice talent and the character of an astronomer.
But is this enough to generate a good movie? No, not in the least. Ice Age: Collision Course is just another parental trap devoid of any spark and worthy of 2 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Michael Moore: Capitalism: A Love Story + Where to Invade Next

Lowdown: Michael Moore dishes out the illnesses of American society.
Review:
It can be argued, and I will definitely concur, that Michael Moore's documentaries are all one and the same. Moore seems to be redoing the same film again and again from slightly different angles (including the perspective of time). Essentially, Moore has been crying out against the fall of the American Empire he grew up in, making a continuous feature film to discuss the fall of the USA.
This particular review of mine focuses on the two recent episodes in Moore's ongoing saga, 2009's Capitalism: A Love Story and 2015's Where to Invade Next. I shall approach it in descending chronological order.
I actually thought Where to Invade Next is a movie dealing with the USA's major export this past few decades, troops. But it isn't; it is actually about how other [inferior] countries have borrowed ideas from the USA and successfully implemented them, while the USA itself forgot all about them (and finds itself drowning in the mire as a result of said negligence). To prove his point, Moore "invades" other countries to demonstrate how well they did with those American ideas.
Examples of Moore's invasions include: Free higher education at Slovenia [and the prosperity this brings in comparison to the misery of college debts in the USA]; gourmet restaurant like meals at French schools, where the aim is to teach kids how and what to eat [in comparison to the average American's bad diet]; short school days and no homework at Finland [resulting in the world's most successful education system, while the USA's is in constant decline]; legalised drugs at Portugal [reducing crime, in comparison to the USA's massive imprisonment rate]; work/life balance at Italy [compared to the USA workers getting hardly any days of paid leave]; and no capital punishment in pretty much the whole of the civilised world.
All good ideas and, in my opinion, entirely justified criticism. The problem lies with Moore's very manipulative, contrived feeling, presentation. Often it's a pathetic presentation, too, with Moore going through the theatrics of sticking an American flag everywhere he goes. But yes, you got to hand it to Moore, he has a point; personally, I am very sad to see the Anglo Saxonia Minors, the UK and Australia, follow the American example instead of the European one.
Capitalism: A Love Story is all about how the capitalistic system managed to establish itself in American minds to the point where no alternative can even be imagined. Moore is arguing it has  implemented itself together with self protection mechanisms that block Americans from seeking better alternatives. Instead, Americans are busy in a race to the bottom, with corporations making a killing and the majority suffering for the sake of the 1%.
Given its manufacturing date, you can rest assure Capitalism is all about the 2008 financial crisis and its causes. Again, I agree with Moore and what he says, but again I will argue for a contrived presentation; in this particular case, the presentation already feels out of date with newer "shit" fitting the bill much better already. Alas, while Where to Invade Next presents a multitude of ideas, Capitalism is a one track pony.
Overall: Whether or not you like Michael Moore's films is highly dependant on whether or not you agree with him. I doubt Moore's presentation will sway the true American capitalist patriot to change her mind. But again, there is the fact that Where to Invade Next does raise some interesting ideas, so I will give it 3.5 out of 5 crabs. Capitalism: A Love Story is a different, repetitive and now an older affair, too; it earns 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Top Crab #10

It is this blog's 10th birthday! Hooray! Who would have thought?
As I have done at each previous birthday, I get to put forward the things I've enjoyed the most this past year, some of which I have reviewed here and some that I haven't. As per the last birthday, I will add a note alerting of the fact I do not know how long I will be continuing this blog for; whatever purpose I thought it might have served when I started this adventure, things pretty much narrowed down to the fact my personal experience of movies and books is further enhanced by the need to analyse them for a review. Alas, when the vast majority of movies is somewhere down the manure-osphere, is there a point to dedicating brain cells and/or precious time to the analysis exercise?
With that philosophical question in mind I shall move over to noting the best this year had to offer.

Best movie:
If there is any trend to take from the past decade, it is that movies have been "doing it to me" less and less over the past decade. Sure, Blu-ray with its technical prowess had its time under the sun, but nowadays I do not have much time anymore; it is hard to justify straight two hours in front of a screen, and it is even harder to do so when those two hours are mostly spent moaning at the trash Hollywood serves me up with.
With that in mind, there were two movies that did do it for me this year and they are definitely worth celebrating. The first was The Martian from Ridley Scott, an expertly made science fiction tale whose main fallacy lies in the fact we always knew Matt Damon was going to make it.
It is therefore the second of the pair that wins it for this year: The Big Short, an entertaining movie about finances that shows us all how one can make a documentary about the seemingly most boring subject ever and achieve an ever so entertaining [and educational] result. As such, The Big Short is a proper achievement in the art of film making.

Best book:
I never get to read as many books as I would like to, and this year I also didn't review as many books as I would like to either. I can, however, confidently state here that there was a single book to win them all. Probably because it's not a single book, really.
By virtue of his contribution to the best video game[s] ever, Mass Effect, Patrick Weekes was a hero of mine long before he started writing books. His Rogues of the Republic trilogy started off with the magnificent The Palace Job, a book that earnt its magnificence partly from the fact it was a standalone. Then came a sequel, The Prophecy Con, that wasn't as good but was still excellent, and then came the third in the trilogy (?) - The Paladin Caper - that was even lesser but was still damn good. Most importantly, the now trilogy has all the best things one could expect out of a good fantasy trilogy of books. Thus The Paladin Caper represents a rare case for a trilogy that started well, progresses well, and is well concluded.
There is also that overarching message that is often missing from lesser tales of fantasy. There is the fact that that message is ever so relevant and is brimming with the liberal values that I, personally, hold so dear. There is a wide collection of round characters to pick from, many of which are women and members of minorities, in contrast to this big real world of ours where literature characters tend to be defined by a single marketing department's statement. And there is an ever so entertaining plot, too!
I just hope to see more from Patrick Weekes.

Best music:
Is it just me or is it much harder to appreciate good music nowadays when it takes so very little effort to acquire it? I love streaming and I enjoy being pushed with dozens of new curated albums each week to sample and marvel at, but the lack of ceremony and glamour about it does make it harder to appreciate the music itself. In music, as in almost every other thing in life, the harder something is to acquire, the more rewarding it is.


Of the rewarding new albums this year had to offer, one stood above the rest: David Bowie's Blackstar. I will admit my initial response to the album's release was a disappointed one; not because of it being of lesser quality but rather because most of the songs included in the album were already released, in one form or another, over the year or so prior to the album coming out as an album. I simply wanted more.
Needless to say, this perspective vaporised upon learning of Bowie's death. That initially disappointed outlook turned into vast appreciation for that great artist's final gift to humanity. What a legacy, and what a way to conclude a legacy with!
It is said that the end is important in everything. It is sad to have been there to witness Bowie's end, but it is also great to be able to continuously enjoy this greatest of endings.
P.S. By now we know Blackstar (the song) was limited to less than ten minutes on account of an iTunes limitation. I am here to officially complain before Apple of depriving us from what would have been an even more marvellous creation due to a dumb policy.

Best game:
I seem to be bombarded with games from all directions these days. No, this is not a complaint; some bombardments are positive ones. It's just that I feel like I am more in the business of collecting games than playing them. Did I mention I do not have time for much of anything these days?
I tried my hands at board games (most notably Camel Up, which became a family favourite). Card games (Hanabi). Some A List console games, of which I will mention Fallout 4 as the standout that - as good as it was - could not earn enough of my time to justify an existence. And I have played tons of mobile games, specifically iPad games, of which I seem to like the various incarnations of board games the most.
But when the dust is settled and the novelty wears off, there is one game I always gravitate back to. One game I can spend days on end playing. It is a PC game (by far my least favourite gaming platform, mostly on account of my affection to Windows) and it is a game on which I did not even spend a cent. It is World of Tanks.
I can discuss here how this not new anymore game has improved this past year through various releases, but that's not the point. The point of this MMO is that every round is five minutes long, which suits this time deprived person; and every round is its own riddle. That is, how do I make the most of this tank I have given this opposition that I have been pitted against and with this lot supporting me on this particular map? The answer is different each time.
Yes, I get splattered a lot, often quickly and brutally so. I argue that is part of the game's charms: it is exactly because I choose not to spend any money on the game and make the most of the compromised fleet of tanks at my disposal that turns each round into an intriguing - and ever so rewarding experience when things do work out - optimisation problem, if you will.
And just in case you're a would be tank expert and you're wondering if we ever played a round together: I'm the one that always tries for the pincer movement. Unless I play a heavy tank, because they're too slow for pincer movements. Or artillery. But give me a Hellcat and the sky's the limit [at least until someone outflanks me and demonstrates just how feeble the armour on this tank destroyer is].

Best TV:
As has been the case in recent years, the most rewarding visual art nowadays tends to come in the form of the multi episodic TV series meant to be consumed online (sans ads, if I might add). The lack of time restrictions coupled with the freedom from designing episodes for the sole purpose of ensuring the viewer comes back next week offers artistic freedoms that are now being actively exploited.
There is therefore plenty to recommend. In the comedy department, I was captivated by Utopia (which, for some reason, was called Wonderland in the USA), the story of an Australian government agency trying to do well in infrastructure development but finding itself strangled on all sides by politics and bureaucracy. The resemblance to real life Australian events is, I assume, less than coincidental.
Also worth mentioning is the fourth season of House of Cards. By now we know the story and its themes; where the fourth season excels is in its cinematic values (which I will attribute mostly to Robin Wright, the director of at least most of this season’s episodes). It is simply well made, cinematically, reaffirming my observations that cinema now plays second fiddle to TV. In a world where many of us consume media over a smartphone/tablet, the cinema itself is so twentieth century.
In the miniseries department we had The Night Manager, where it was great to see Tom Hiddleston coming of age beside an excellent Hugh Laurie in an extremely well told spy story. In your face, Homeland.
When the dust was settled, however, there was one TV show that stood high - very high - above everything else. The Swedish/Danish production that is The Bridge, or Bron/Broen as per its original title, peaked in quality upon its third season. There is a story well told in there, but most of all there are the characters that are so well developed, blemishes included. Sofia Helin’s autistic character of Malmo police detective Saga feels so familiar by now that I consider her a household member, a mighty achievement for any art form.
Perhaps even more encouraging is the fact one does not need Hollywood’s piles of money to come up with the goods; a good script with fine actors will do.

Thursday, 16 June 2016

Grimsby

Lowdown: A "typical" citizen of England's coastal town of Grimsby finds his long lost brother, now a James Bond like spy. The hard way.
Review:
I shall start with an understatement. I don't know about you, but I have been to Grimsby and I wasn't too impressed. That small coastal town on the eastern shore of middle of nowhere England is a far cry from the associations non-English brains tend to come up with when we lie down and think of England.
It appears this negative impression of mine is yet another trait I share with actor and filmmaker Sasha Baron Cohen. Unlike the latter, though, I did not choose to make a movie out of said impression. Baron Cohen did, though, and the result is his usual shtick of excessive cringe jokes. This time the victim of Baron Cohen's focus is not the poorly population of Uzbekistan but rather the poorly population of England's victims of the class system they've had there since before the days of historical records. But hey, they have the queen, so it's alright [let rich can continue to screw the poor].
Just to give you an example or two, the repertoire of jokes includes a guy having to save another guy's life by sucking poison out of the latter's balls, with all the homophobic images that conjures. Or the same two guys finding themselves in the middle, literally, of a gang of elephants having themselves an orgy.
Ultimately, there is a humanist message in this Grimsby movie, it's just that is too well hidden. Our story takes us through the adventures of two brothers from Grimsby, separated at their early childhood. One grew up to be a James Bond licence to kill type spy (Mark Strong), while the other grew up to be the typical Grimsby resident this movie of exaggerations would like you to imagine: a fat guy (Baron Cohen) married to a fat wife (what exactly is wrong with that?) whose main sport in life is having more kids than names they can remember. The latter couple leads a life funded by welfare and powered by the local pub's beer, as well as lots of overgrown patriotism for the nation that screwed their lives.
As movie plot coincidences often portray, the two brothers shall unite. At first the slob will come in the way of the secret agent, but later the wheels turn and it is the slob that wins the day against terrorism.
Penelope Cruz fills a similar role here to the one she does at Zoolander 2, but - again - she is not enough to save this film. Though not a long movie, Grimsby suffers from advanced incoherence. It is unclear whether it tries to be a cringe jokes machine, a spy movie, or a social statement. It tries to be all three but, ultimately, ends up being just another cycle of the same washing machine program Sasha Baron Cohen has been running us through since his days as Ali G.
Overall: Grimsby will not bore you, but it won't take you places you haven't been before either. I'll be generous and give it 2.5 out of 5 ball sucking crabs.

Friday, 10 June 2016

Anomalisa

Lowdown: A person to whom everyone sounds the same finds someone different at a convention's hotel.
Review:
Anomalisa lives up to its name by being an anomaly in movie making: it is an animated movie for adults. Not an animated movie with some pop culture jokes aimed at older audiences, but rather a true adult oriented animation flick. I mean it: it's got depictions of sex and male frontal nudity, just to point at two non plot related examples.
The premises took a few minutes to sink into this viewer's head. We follow Michael (David Thewlis) as he heads to a convention at Cincinnati. He calls his wife, asks about his child, and talks to the cab driver. It then occurred to me that all of the above sound the same [to him], which sort of explains his visibly dreary and indifferent look on life.
Eventually we learn our guy has made it to Cincinnati in order to make a presentation before clients from the area. He stays the night before at a posh hotel, which is where he meets Lisa (Jennifer Jason Leigh made it just in time from The Hateful Eight) and her colleague. There is an anomaly with Lisa: she does not sound like everybody else. Michael is set on exploring this newly found avenue for happiness in his life.
I cannot say I liked or enjoyed Anomalisa. It is not a long movie but it was still boring. It breaks new ground in animation and uses it to deliver stuff normal American movies seem unable to deliver (e.g., that male frontal nudity I have mentioned earlier) but, other than a bit of a cringe here and there, it fails to make ground breaking use of this toy that it had found.
One can sort of see the message Anomalisa is trying to make with its depiction of people all sounding the same. I dig that. It's just that I think Anomalisa takes me on a way overlong less travelled path to get there, charges me too much for the trip, and ultimately fails to take me anywhere new.
Overall: I wouldn't recommend watching Anomalisa for any reason other than admiring the technical feat of animation. 2 out of 5 crabs.