Thursday, 15 March 2018

Darkest Hour

Lowdown: The story of Britain’s decision to have a go at fighting WW2, on its own, as told through the personal story of Churchill’s early days as PM.
Darkest Hour, if you recall the person who coined that phrase, is the story of Winston Churchill’s first days as Prime Minister of the UK during early 1940. As you may know, WW2 officially started on 1 September 1939 with Germany’s military invasion of Poland (though, it has to be said, fighting was already going on in earnest in China for a while by then). War in Europe was declared, but not fought; the Allies did not come to Poland’s help, and especially in France the soldiers did not know what to do with themselves. In the UK, the subject of our movie, people were still calling to try and appease Hitler despite repeated failures.
Which is where Churchill fits into the picture, appointed as Prime Minister after his predecessor (Neville Chamberlain) was stained for his Munich Agreement’s false notion of containing Hitler. By then, German soldiers were pouring over Belgium and into France, and crisis was at hand. The entire British army, in France, was about to be driven into the sea (thus lost); what should the British government do?
Enter Churchill (Gary Oldman) and this movie about him and the decisions he had made at that early stage. Decisions that determined on the course of WW2, and, for the UK, eventual victory at the price of the loss of the British Empire.
If there is one theme to take out of Darkest Hour is that is is, indeed, very dark, as the movie name suggest. Not so much in contents as it is in absence of light, enclosed rooms, and dark walls. England sure was a depressing place, if you take this movie’s word.
The main struggle in our movie is not with the UK contending against the menace of the all conquering Nazis as it is with the UK facing its own demons: the people who wished to negotiate and appease the Nazis. We should be able to relate to them: they were not, necessarily, Nazi sympathisers; they were people who remembered all too well the cost of The Great War. According to Darkest Hour, they almost won the day. But Churchill saved it, with a little help from his friends, king, and country.
Darkest Hour takes some liberties with historical truths (for example, it has Churchill mingling with the commoners, including a black person, on an underground train as a key pivotal scene in which Churchill makes his mind up to fight). Which is where my biggest problem with the movie lies, its portrayal of Churchill as an almost perfect person barring his drinking habits. Well, he wasn’t; sure, he did many great things in the war against Nazism, but he was also responsible for many atrocities. These receive only an afterthought. In doing so, Darkest Hour steps into the realm of propaganda.
Acting wise, there is no denying Gary Oldman does an excellent job, yet there is no denying I found it hard to attach myself to the character he portrayed underneath all that makeup. I won’t argue whether he deserves his Academy Award for this role or not (I can offer numerous other movies where he fully deserves all accolades); I just don’t think, the way the Academy seems to, that being covered in extra layers of makeup is a precondition for acquiring the award.
As films go, Darkest Hour is a fine drama. I, however, have a big problem with the way rough edges have been rounded in order to generate a favourable image for the person that we, with the privilege of hindsight, know to be the winner of that particular fight.
I will therefore go with a rating of 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

In This Corner of the World

Lowdown: Life in WW2 Japan, told through the eyes of an ordinary Japanese girl.
It is befitting to tell a Japanese story the Japanese way, and In This Corner of the World represents such a go. It is a touching tale of simple people growing up and living in Japan as it gets through World War 2, in which we get a taste for the culture of the time through things like how people got married, what they wore, and what they ate. As “expected”, the tale is delivered to us in anime form - the Japanese way.
We follow the life of a simpleton, naive, yet good hearted girl growing up in Hiroshima. Like all of us, she has things she likes to do (drawing); like most of us, she can’t spend too much of her time doing the things she likes to do. What she does go through is a forced marriage and, in general, a life of much labour and toil, which she takes head on and fully accepts.
Then there is the war. We don’t usually see what war is like on the losing side; "they" don't get to write the history books. Hence In This Corner of the World’s main contribution: it is not “just” another film. As one can expect, we see that war does tend to harm the innocent people on both sides.
I will add, tough, that to this Western viewer it was hard to contrast the pictures of ordinary Japanese suffering through the war with the atrocities committed by the Japanese before and during the war, whether in places like China or Korea or in POW camps. Not that the film avoids them: there are very obvious references to brothels serving the soldiers. It's just that it is hard to see how those nice people the film portrays before us were able to commit those aforementioned atrocities.
Overall: A nice tale that is made much more interesting through the events under its scope. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Red Turtle

A man washes into a small island, Robinson Crusoe style. He tries to escape, building rafts after raft, but repeatedly fails. And then he meets a red turtle...
The Red Turtle is a short (an hour twenty), slow, animation movie. The animation is on the artistic side (it often reminded me of Tintin comics), and is definitely a far cry from the majority of computer animated flicks that rule today’s world of animation. I'd use the word minimalism to describe it, though that is probably not the right word given the animation is often rich. Most notably, though, the entire movie features exactly 0 spoken words; you certainly won’t require subtitles for this Red Turtle.
You would notice I covered the movie plot in three sentences. That’s because what starts as a coherent "man stuck on island" Tom Hanks/Wilson like affair quickly deteriorates (in my opinion) into hallucinations and fantasy. Sure, there is no particular reason to see that as deterioration, but the end result is something one can read in too many ways for me to feel comfortable with.
If pressed, I would argue The Red Turtle is an allegory on the human circle of life, with some obvious environmental and nature themes that tell us we are part of the natural world. By its very reductive nature (few characters, no words) the film is able to carry its symbolic message quite afar.
3 out of 5 crabs for this movie that is quite rich in crab characters, actually.
Recommended to appreciators of fine animation, who would probably rate it much higher than I do. Definitely not recommended to those seeking exciting entertainment, though.

Friday, 9 March 2018

Your Name

Japanese anime could not come in any more “classic” form than Your Name, a fatalistic tale that’s telling us we can still make our own fate. It does so by pointing us at two characters, a girl from a small rural Japanese town and a similarly aged teenager from Tokyo. For an unexplained reason, the two occasionally wake up in the morning in the other’s body.
At first they come to grips with things like having boobs, but eventually they figure out what’s going on and leave one another messages on their respective phones. Give it an hour or so, and you will also learn of the reason why this substitution is taking place...
Not a bad tale, but neither is Your Name a good one; there are just too many colliding ideas. As I said, typical Japanese.
3 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

The Women's Balcony

Lowdown: The tale of a small community, defined by its religiosity, as its paradigms are challenged by the even more religious.
The Women's Balcony (originally ישמח חתני, literally "joy to my husband") is a recent Israeli movie about a smallish, close, community of religious Jews living in modern day Jerusalem. They are not rich, but it's their community that gets them along.
Disaster strikes when, during a Bar Mitzvah ceremony, the women's balcony (the area of the synagogue dedicated to women, who are otherwise not allowed to mix with men in orthodox run synagogues) collapses. Among the victims are rabbi's wife, the Torah scroll, and the synagogue itself that is barred shut. Problem is, the community is nothing without its synagogue! As luck would have it, a fellow rabbi passing by helps our synagogue-less refugees and takes them under his wing. However, all is not what it first seems; that new rabbi is quite pedantic and won't allow for the same practical compromises our community members took for granted, causing a rift in the community and pitting husbands against wives.
There are numerous problems with The Women's Balcony. For a start, it is not as entertaining as it was meant to be. That is to say, as comedies go, it is not so funny a comedy. However, the film is quite illuminating through its perspectives on the lives of religious Jews in Israel. To the best of my personal knowledge and familiarity, the movie is a pretty accurate portrayal of the culture of religious Jews in Israel. This includes practices that seem ludicrous to me, such as deploying non Jews to switch the light on during a Sabbath, which to the eyes of the people in the movie seems a perfectly rational act. Or, more relevant to the #MeToo age, the way basic discrimination between the sexes is taken for granted by both sides. The film reeks of these defunct values. I will put it this way, most of pluses earned by watching The Women's Balcony come from that anthropological factor.
I recall numerous other movies depicting this reality or culture, to one level of authenticity or another. This one seems, to these eyes, to be the first such movie I see that isn’t meant primarily for the secular viewer. The Women's Balcony is clearly designed for audiences not too dissimilar to those portrayed in the movie, that is to say - traditional to religious Jewish Israelis (but not fully orthodox Jews, who will not watch film anyway). Which, in my opinion, points at the processes going through Israeli society over the years: increased religiosity, that is heavily bundled with increased nationalism and a general drift of Israeli mainstream politics to the right.
Overall: 3 out of 5 crabs, not for the movie and its qualities as a piece of art but rather for the unique glimpse it provides into this world that exists somewhere in the real world.

Tuesday, 13 February 2018

Blade Runner 2049

Lowdown: Further musings on what it means to be a live human.
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.
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


Lowdown: An examination of what happens to men when they are put under extreme pressure.
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.