Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049

Lowdown: Further musings on what it means to be a live human.
Review:
Blade Runner was, and still is, one of those huge movies that forever left its mark on me and made me a significantly different person to the one I was before entering the cinema. If you were to ask me for my pick of best movie ever, there is a very good chance Blade Runner would be my pick (though I would probably add a disclaimer on the frivolous nature of picking "the best" to begin with; ask me, instead, for my favourite movie ever, and you will definitely get a straight answer). The realisation that “they’re doing a sequel” to perhaps my pick for best movie ever had to come with a heavy burden, for it is rare for a sequel to rise up to the challenge; on the other hand, I am mature enough to not really care much. Whatever impact Blade Runner has/had on me does not have to be affected by issues with the sequel.
Like the time between films IRL, Blade Runner 2049 takes place some 30 years past its prequel. You can run a checklist, but I assure you every stylistic cue or plot device of motif that was there in Blade Runner can be found, in one form or another, in 2049. Looks, sound, music, plot, they all feel the same (albeit with CGI making for slicker visuals). 2049 is therefore a proper, and very authentic feeling, sequel. That said, Vangelis’ music clearly cannot be equaled, and come movie peak time 2049 does revert back to the best (as it should!).
Plot wise, we have a Nexus android (Ryan Gosling) that, for a change, actually knows he’s a Nexus, chase after leftover Nexus replicants that survived from the time of the first movie (after which they were apparently outlawed). As he goes about terminating his fellows, armed with a Blade Runner grade pistol and a badge, he uncovers a mystery that leads to revelations on his own identity. Thus starts yet another film noir tale that aims to say another thing or two on what it means to be a human, as in - what it is that defines us. This time around, the main motifs are memories, as per the first round, but also reproduction as well as drawing comparisons with artificial intelligences of the silicon type.
There is a villain, the new millionaire running a business around replicants (Jared Leto), who also happens to be by far the weakest link in the movie’s plot for the crime of rather unsubstantiated motives. And, eventually, we will meet Deckard (Harrison Ford), our hero from the first Blade Runner, for a shortish role.
Which brings me to a point I haven't seen discussed elsewhere: Blade Runner 2049 assumes you know Deckard is a replicant. That, however, was not a conclusion one could logically derive off the original Blade Runner that played at cinemas back in the early eighties; only after the Director’s Cut, released more than a decade later, could that conclusion be drawn (through the addition of the unicorn dream).
What did I make of 2049? Well, after 3 slowish hours, I thought it was a good movie that suffers from severe pacing problems. In an era of CGI overdoses, its visuals have nowhere near the impact the original movie had, and given the lack of originality I would say 2049 will in no way be remembered as the cinematic event its predecessor was. But that’s alright; most other movies fall far, far, behind.
Overall: When taken in context, 2049 feels like a DLC patch for the original. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 9 February 2018

Life 3.0 by Max Tegmark

Lowdown: A careful, detailed, cause and effect review of where artificial intelligence may take us.
Review:
Multidisciplinary scientists, such as cosmologist Max Tegmark, have a tendency to produce truly enlightening outputs. I would argue Life 3.0 is a fine example of the breed.
Tegmark’s premises are simple enough to understand: Life 1.0 refers to the likes of bacteria, where both the hardware and the software they run on was produced by evolution rather than by design. Us humans represent Life 2.0, made as we are of evolved hardware but capable of designing the software we run on. Life 3.0 is the life form that can design its hardware, too; and that is where our world is heading for with the development of artificial intelligence (AI). The question is, where would that development take us? Would it do us a world of good and give us the promised Garden of Eden, or are we digging our own grave?
Tegmark provides several examples to show why we are on dangerous grounds with AI, even if - at the same time - he completely dismisses the Terminator like scenarios. At the core, he argues that we need to maintain control of the AI and, most importantly, ensure our AIs' targets align with ours. The rest of the book is pretty much an elaboration on the details.
For example, Tegmark proves that our philosophy is centuries behind our technology, and without the adequate levels of philosophy to back us up with we are heading towards a world where technology will overtake us. He goes forth to examine potential scenarios for advanced AI (and no, it’s hard to imagine anyone liking those scenarios much), and even discusses how an intergalactic empire constructed by our future AI would manage the limitations of the laws of physics in order to run its course. It’s just that, in all of these scenarios, it is hard to see what role humans might play.
Following such a long, thorough and multidisciplinary review of the implication of AI, Tegmark argues in favour of us stopping to ask what future we want. And I totally agree; in the last decade alone we have seen technologies such as the smartphone and the social network dictate the way we should live, instead of us actively choosing the technologies that would support the way we would like to live instead.
Overall: If you would like to know where us humans are at with regards to AI, and seek enlightenment about its potential outcomes, then this great thought experiment that is the book called Life 3.0 would be an excellent start. 3.5 out of 5 artificial crabs.

Wednesday, 7 February 2018

Dunkirk

Lowdown: An examination of what happens to men when they are put under extreme pressure.
Review:
Dunkirk assumes its viewers know the story of what happened on the shores of that French town and the beaches around it during the early stages of World War 2; for the purposes of this review, so shall I.
Our movie follows the personal escapades of four main characters. In effect it thus tells us the story of a whole lot of people around them, and by even further extension the story of the Dunkirk evacuation, but still the main event is those four folks. Thus we have a foot soldier who’s the sole survivor of a unit retreating from the Germans, the navy commander of the beach evacuation (Kenneth Branagh), an older civilian coming with his boat from the safety of the British shore, and an English fighter pilot (Tom Hardy).
I don’t know how historically accurate the movie is, but that’s not the point. The point is showing us those key personalities and those surrounding them as they struggle through hell to survive against insurmountable odds and about the different ways they do so. Some lose their sanity, some sacrifice themselves, some fight till the end, but others sacrifice their peers while others lose their humanity. All the while, the menace they are all fighting or fleeing from is faceless; the closest we come to a German identity is a brief view of a fighter plane, but never a German face. Our people of Dunkirk are people fighting with sheer terror.
It almost goes without saying that the danger for movies such as Dunkirk is them turning into yet another “war is so sexy, let’s do more of it” type of a propaganda affair; or its closest relative of patting ourselves on the shoulder so as to justify our own inhumane acts and losses of humanity. Dunkirk does commit that sins, but only very late into the movie so as to leave the scene with enough dignity intact.
Overall: At 4 out of 5 crabs, Dunkirk is still a movie too many will interpret as the glory of us vs the evil of them. Be them Nazi Germans or whoever it is we call our enemies today.

Monday, 5 February 2018

Oh...Sir! The Insult Simulator

Review published over at Digitally Downloaded.
Personally, I'd recommend getting the iOS version (as opposed to the Nintendo Switch version I reviewed this on), unless party play is a factor.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

The Circle

Lowdown: A warning about the perils of social networks and the companies running them.
Review:
The Circle is one of those movies that tries to send its message across by attaching a human face we can identify with to along for the ride. In this case, our story is told through a young woman, Mae (Emma Watson), who escapes her awful temp job for a lucrative position at a technology/social media company, The Circle. The Circle is a cross between Google and Facebook with an HQ not unlike Apple’s newly erected one and a boss (Tom Hanks) not unlike Mark Zuckerberg mixed with Steve Jobs.
We get our first glimpse into the power of The Circle at the beginning through its new invention, a tiny disposable camera people can stick anywhere to record and send back to The Circle everything it sees. There the video and sensor array's data are all analysed to minute detail, and without anyone noticing everything passing in front of the camera is digested and broadcasted to the world. Not unlike the cumulative effect of all the phone cameras surrounding you & I at any point in time.
As Mae gets further into the thick of her new job, her personal health data joins the public sharing ride; then her location, which puts her under pressure because she didn’t come to work on the weekend and instead spent time away from fellow Circle workers. Mae is pressed to choose between her private life, the former boyfriend she is still using, her kayaking hobby, and her ill father (Bill Paxton, R.I.P.), as all the while we keep learning more and more about The Circle’s invasive nature and how it affects Mae’s life.
Eventually, Hanks’ character exposes the grand Circle plan: people running our democracies straight through the social network, without needing politicians to represent them and this whole thing philosophers refer to as "the will of the governed". Think about it, this idea is the natural extension of where the likes of Facebook have been taking us in real life; it’s probably the reason Mark Zuckerberg spends his time visiting “ordinary” American families for dinner. Governments, says Hanks’ character, need us more than we need them. Let us have the full will of the people available all the time!
As you can probably tell by now, The Circle aims to deliver its message on the dangers of these new companies on the cutting edge of guiding us on how we should live our lives. The film does so by pointing at the extremes of what is already happening, which is why it borders on brilliance. Ultimately, the movie points at the hypocrisy of the people issuing us with these messages about the need to share our lives and the very private lives they themselves live, whether their last name is Zuckerberg or Schmidt.
I will openly admit this subject matter is very close to my heart, and as per Russia’s involvement in the USA elections it’s also been on the news a lot lately. That said, The Circle’s handling of this subject matter feels rather heavy handed in its story development and, as a direct result, rather superficial in its exploration of the consequences. One can argue it is hard to cram it all into a movie and still have a crowd favourite in hand, but I will argue Black Mirror and even The Orville have already done that and and the result was way better.  Then again, perhaps the real message The Circle sends across is that of a world in which the TV series has toppled the movie theatre.
Overall: As interesting and important as its point is (and I can only assume that has been the reason someone like Tom Hanks would engage himself in such a movie), The Circle misses the nail with its jackhammer. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 21 December 2017

Atomic Blonde

From out of the background of the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall comes a spy action story that kicks James Bond in the balls and then some. As the powers of East and West grapple with the Wall’s final collapse, an all beaten up Lorraine (Chalize Theron) is telling us, through a London debriefing, exactly how she got every black mark on her body during the past two weeks of her East German spy asset recovery adventures.
So, yes, Theron kicks ass throughout, and demonstrates very vividly how to beat the men conspiring against her (and, I assume, by extension, against all women). I will also add she is not shy of making the most of her physical assets as she proves the point.
Long cut action scenes, shot oh so very well, provide a stark contrast to the chaotic mess being fed to us in every other movie using that headache inducing technique that grew so fashionable. Complicated choreography aside, it is clear Theron herself performed through at least a major part of her stunts; I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the bruises she carries in the movie were real.
With a soundtrack comprised of the best of eighties’ Cold War music (or, at least, music produced in the Western border areas of the iron curtain), Atomic Blonde is delightful from start to finish.
Overall:
This one is all about Theron from start to finish, which leads me to conclude the world would be at a loss if we do not get more of Theron’s form and quality. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 18 December 2017

The Last Jedi

I am not about to surrender any plot details here, but I will start at the end: following the disappointing remake that was The Force Awakens and the overall mediocre feeling I was left with by Rogue One, The Last Jedi managed one thing very well: cementing the notion I am well and truly over Star Wars. The magic is gone; what’s left are mediocre space fantasy movies filled with special effects and tons of merchandising opportunities.
Obviously, the devil is in the details.
Unlike other movies in the series, which are not much more than a collection of loosely tied action scenes (these used to be imaginative, now they are just one more sample of CGI), The Last Jedi does offer us a palette of  characters that are clearly struggling as they develop. Thus it clearly deviates from the old style of “bad guys did this therefore we need to do that”; things are not clear cut anymore. Further, Last Jedi is dripping with self conscience humour; I suspect these will end up as the movie’s main legacy to the franchise. Oh, and best of all, The Last Jedi is no remake of The Empire Strikes Back, as many (yours truly included) have feared, even if the two share a lack of Death Stars.
Theme wise, The Last Jedi is about leaving the past behind, the extent to which this is done, and the varying ways in which this can get done. That theme goes with the bigger theme of leaving the Lucas era behind in favour of the Disney-ian world of Star Wars.
Whether you consider the latter a positive or not, the above do not change the unavoidable fact The Last Jedi is still a very to-the-formula type film, the product of Superficiality Inc. Yes, we can see many (emphasis on "many") characters struggling, but perhaps the need to create an abundance of merchandising opportunities has left each such struggle as shallow as. There is little in the way of depth or background; they all do X, fail at it, and therefore do Y instead next time around. Sorry, that could work for a computer program, but it is not good enough when telling a human story.
By far the brightest element of The Last Jedi is Mark Hamill, whose performance is better than I have ever seen him produce and generally leaves his character as the best thing to take out of the movie. And, with the risk of spoiling the movie for you, I will mention he can talk.
Overall:
The Last Jedi felt like a movie that passed by me. I wouldn’t call it boring, but it never touched, moved, or involved me in any way. It was just... Meh.
2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Attentat 1942

My review was published at Digitally Downloaded here.
I will note that, as usual, my original text went through much editing. However, this time around the text was toned up rather than toned down. Usually, I have to tame myself so as to write as per gentle Australian etiquette rather than brutal Israelism.