Saturday, 30 September 2006

DVD: The New World

Tag: Close encounters of the first kind
Lowdown: The story of the first encounter between English settlers and native Indians in Virginia, better known for the story of Captain Smith and Pocahontas.
Review:
Terrence Malick is one of those directors that get excellent reviews when they fart. He only made two proper films before the subject of this review - Days of Heaven featuring a young Richard Gere from back in 1978, and star studded Thin Red Line from 1998. Despite the excellent reviews those films have received, I found them both to be way too slow and quite boring; an exercise in trying to find a stunning shot, but not the best of samples as far as cinematic story telling is concerned. I can see why the bleeding hearts like the guy, but he just doesn't strike a chord with me; or did he? I had to try his new film, The New World, to see if there is any reason for me to change my Malick verdict.
So what is New World about? It tells the story of the first English settlers arriving in Virginia during the early years of the 17th century and their encounters with the local Indians. Taking center stage are Pocahontas, an Indian princess, and Captain John Smith (played by a rather annoying Collin Farrell); she saves his life when he's captured by the Indians, and eventually finds herself becoming one of the English in name and domination.
However, the real story Mallick is trying to tell us is the story of the encounter between the English and the Indians. One is not left to doubt even for a second which side Mallick is barracking for: The Indians are portrayed as the ideal incarnation of nature and men, lacking in anything to do with selfishness and deceit (a trait we learn about through the narrator, because otherwise all Mallick tells you about the Indians is that they move in slow motion under very photogenic conditions); the English, on the other hand, are dirty, corrupt, and are driven only by selfish motivation to accumulate more wealth. They're even quite ugly, other than Captain Smith of course.
But even Smith is not immune to the disease of selfish status accumulation. He leaves his love, Pocahontas, behind him in order to seek fame and fortune by finding a passage through the Americas and into the Far East; Pocahontas is then snatched by another settler, Christian Bale, who takes her back to England. All the while Indian lands are cleared in order to make more space for tobacco plantation, creating more wealth for the new settlers.
Given the regular doses of Indians and cowboys films I used to watch as a child, where the sophisticated cowboys show a thing or two to the primitive Indians as they butcher them, this film is quite unique in its portrayal of events from the opposite point of view. It is the new settlers that are corrupting the natives here, and while they do it Mallick tells us a thing or two about the corrupt nature of the human heart that dominates our world today - the heart that wishes to acquire more and more with total disregard to others and total disregard to the consequences.
That said, as much as I sympathize with Mallick's statement, I cannot endorse the film. Once again I found myself annoyed with the too abstract nature of Mallick's direction, the slow pace, and the emphasis on getting that really good shot. If you like films for the way they look there is no doubt you will find this one astonishing; but as for me, I have a problem with the unfocused narration that drives Mallick's films forward. I know I've been spoiled by the likes of Spielberg in this department, but as much as I would like to credit Mallick I just can't.
Best scene: The first encounter between the English and the Indians is very interesting, with the contrasts between the two taking the lead.
Picture quality: Quite good, with the occasional digital artifact.
Sound quality: The sound effects are ok but nothing spectacular. The score, however, is very well recorded and exquisitely mixed; when it's on, it takes center stage and just drives the film sublimely. That said, James Horner's score is rather lacking in originality and sounds too much like his older creations.
Overall: 2.5 stars; I am not a Mallick fan yet.

Friday, 29 September 2006

DVD: Cast Away

Lowdown: Tom Hanks is a lonely Robinson Crusoe.
Review:
Should I review Cast Away or shouldn't I? The film is old enough for everyone around that is even remotely interested to have enough opportunities to watch it, yet new enough so that it is still in people's heads (and the evidence is the number of references people make to "Wilson" the ball). Eventually I decided to go for it; it's fun, and it would allow me to track my viewing habits.
So need I really go over the plot? Tom Hanks stars as a dedicated FedEx employee, giving away his life and blood for his work (to the point of missing Christmas with his much beloved partner, Helen Hunt). He turns out he is giving away more than he bargained for when the FedEx plane carrying him crashes off course, living Hanks as the sole survivor on a small island. There he has to start all over again from the stone age and forward; the same applies when he goes back to normal life, eventually.
This was the third time I watch this film, mainly because I quite like it. It raises quite a few very interesting questions. Some of them are at the personal level, such as what are the really important things in our lives and where should we put our emphasis on; others are more to do with society in general, in the sense of whether we lost the plot with our excesses, leading us to lose our appreciation to the small things in life that make it potentially so great. Why is it that we only appreciate them when we lose them, such as when Hanks is stranded on an island for more than four years?
The film is very well done and quite convincing, even though the premises of being stuck on an island is rather far fetched. Pretty much the only thing that struck me as odd is the fact that after four years on a seemingly warm island with absolutely no one around, Hanks still bothers wearing a piece of cloth at his waist.
But most of all I remember this film as a mechanism to make me think along the lines of "what would have happened to me if I weren't to make this mistake that I've made 15 years ago". I do not think I have made many mistakes, certainly not in light of the information I had a the time I've made my decisions; but what the film shows us is that it is very easy to take something for granted and miss out on it due to pure luck.
Best scene: The opening of the film, where a package is delivered from the wife in Texas to her husband, who is busy betraying her with a young mistress in Moscow, is a fine example of good movie story telling.
Picture quality: Quite disappointing. Despite the lovely scenery shots, there are scenes with huge digital artifacts (Helen Hunt's hair is made to look as if it is made of cubes) and others with excessive levels of noise.
Sound quality: Quite good in helping the film communicate, although most of the time the surrounds are on the quiet side of things. Several scenes are extremely well rendered, such as the plane crash scene where all speakers are working extra time to do a very good job. Dialog, however, sounds anything but real.
Overall: Somewhere between 4 to 4.5 stars, depending the aspects of the film I'm thinking of...

Monday, 25 September 2006

DVD: Broken Flowers

Lowdown: A subtle search for the meaning of a male adult's life.
Review:
Jim Jarmusch has directed some weird stuff in his career. In general, I find his stuff interesting but overall too weird for me to like, with Ghost Dog being the exception - a truly good film. So when Broken Flowers came out I really wanted to see it with all the rave reviews it got. Alas, circumstances meant I had to wait for the DVD.
Bill Murray does a turbo performance on what he gave in Lost in Translation to portray a grown up guy who has lost all appetite for living and who is living in complete apathy, living on his own at the later stages of his life without ever marrying or having kids. Although he has a reputation for being "successful with women", his girlfriend has just left him and he's stuck in total misery.
Then he receives this anonymous letter written by one of his ex-women, telling him that he is the father of a 20 year old boy who is now on a quest to find his dad.
With the aid of his intrusive neighbor, Murray sets out on a journey to find the mother of his child and thus find his child and thus find some meaning to his life. He makes a list of the five girlfriends matching the letter's timelines, and then sets out to track the women in his life.
On his journey he starts noticing things he didn't notice before. Looking for the mother and for his life, he suddenly notices women and boys in a way he never did before. The core of the film lies with Murray's encounters with his "ex-wives", each of which ended up differently, reflecting how the collection of subtle, seemingly random events (normally referred to as "luck") can have such a huge effect on the way our lives progress.
Murray's quest for a meaning ends the only way such a quest can truly end without providing the audience with a silly magical answer to all of life's woes (ala religion).
Overall, the film is an effort in subtleness; everything about it, and mainly Murray's portrayal of the lead character, is an effort in subtleness. It works out fine and the film is pretty interesting, but it's this subtleness that is also the main culprit that means the film never really soars up high to truly stir you. Despite all the excellent performances, the film misses by a narrow margin, but it still misses. I do suspect, however, that my disappointment has a lot to do with my expectations, and that Jarmusch fans as well as those of really really liked Lost in Translation will have a bit of an argument with me.
Best scene: Each of the encounters with the ex-wives is truly interesting. I liked the second encounter, which was with a married woman who obviously was not in full synch with her husband. The couple was the ultimate Australian couple in their ventures: they were into pre-fab designer homes, which would mean they would go well with Australia's investment property epidemic. The wife was fantasizing about going into bottled water, which she suspects is about to become more precious than oil; I don't know if she checked it, but bottled water sells much more than gas. Anyway, a very good scene of sarcasm and tension.
Picture quality: Quite bad. Not enough details, lots of noise, colors all lacking definition.
Sound quality: An exercise in subtlety, I guess. The music soundtrack is quite good and provides most of the ambience, but not a lot of it. Sound effects are spread all over but dialog is locked to the center channel. Overall, it's simply not enough, although it goes with the image the film is trying to convey.
Overall: 3.5 stars that could have been much more.

Saturday, 23 September 2006

DVD: Fun with Dick and Jane

Lowdown: It's laughs aplenty when the American dream turns sour for an Enron like employee.
Review:
Jim Carrey's latest adventure starts off with him living the American dream. Or is he?
Jim is married to a good looking wife (Tea Leoni), drives a BMW, does well at his challenging work for this big corporation, lives in this huge house with a big plasma TV, and has a dog, a kid, and a maid taking care of the kid.
But is he really in dream world? Between their respective professional careers he hardly gets to see his wife, and their sex life is as alive as communism in former East Germany; his neighbor manages to taunt him with his new remote control operated Mercedes; and his child feels more at home with the maid and talks her language (Spanish) more than English.
And then Carrey gets a surprise promotion at work, which sends him to immediately spend his now huge salary only to learn rather too late that his company is at the front of a big Enron like scam. The company collapses, and within minutes Carrey and family are thrown from the heights of capitalist success into poverty.
As the situation becomes more and more desperate, the couple reverts to rather unconventional means to stay on foot, peaking with them resorting to Robin Hood like robberies.
This satire on the meaning of the American dream is full of laughs all over. It is well told, and in a world of Enrons and George W Bushes it definitely strikes a chord; you can see the love and affection the film makers have towards the big corporate rulers and the way these people tend to treat the "little people" who make them all their money. I won't deny it: I quite liked the film, despite my general feelings towards Jim Carrey's type of acting.
In fact, the film's major hurdle is Jim Carrey. He's funny, I'll give him that, but I find that his type of humor sends a film that could have easily managed to deliver a serious statement back to the realms of child level slapstick humor. Carrey did manage some serious acting in his career, but in Dick & Jane he is simply allowed to go to far.
Slightly offsetting Carrey's presence is Alec Baldwin, who seems to have found his niche at Hollywood lately playing the role of the nasty big company manager. He did it in Along Came Polly, he did it in Elizabethtown, and he does it again with great success here.
Best scene: The share price of Carrey's company slumps during a live telecast in which the newly appointed Vice President of something, Carrey, sets out to tell the world how well his company is doing.
Picture quality: Digital artifacts aplenty and lots of color inconsistencies even within the same scene.
Sound quality: Nothing exciting here, although it is up to minimum Hollywood standards.
Overall: A funny effort delving the realm between 3 to 3.5 stars (depending on the way you feel about Jim Carrey acting like Jim Carrey).

Friday, 22 September 2006

Book: The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: Bryson's review of childhood memories as an account of post-war USA.
Review:
If there is one thing to know about Bill Bryson's writing, it's that Bill Bryson delivers. Thunderbolt Kid does not fail to stick to this axiom, with Bryson delivering lots of seemingly anecdotal information that really tells us a lot in a personal way with which I, for one, can easily relate to. And he's extremely funny at it, too.
The main difference between this book and most of the other Bryson books that established Bryson is that this is not an account of his travels, but rather an account of his childhood - his years growing up in what is in current terms a small town in Iowa, USA.
The great thing about the book is that by telling us about all sorts of different aspects of his childhood, Bryson tells us a lot about the way the USA was during the Fifties. And Bryson covers a lot of personal grounds - family, country living, comics, sex - with the main object being to project his personal experiences to the grander level of the USA, where he deals with issues such as living under the threat of the bomb, inter-racial relationships, the handling of the communist threat, and much more.
The overall trend of the book is towards the realms of nostalgia. Bryson is grieving the loss of innocence that took place in the USA by the late Fifties and early Sixties, and for which - according to Bryson - the entire world is paying the price today. In this statement Bryson is not that different to what Forrest Gump was trying to say; however, while Gump offers reconciliation from the past and steps forward to a potentially brighter tomorrow, Bryson is pessimistic: his book ends when he migrates to England.
While I like the book for Bryson's witty and deeply entertaining accounts, I definitely like it more because I can quite relate to Bryson's insight. And on the big topic that acts as the main theme for the book, America's loss of innocence, I totally agree. At its basis Bryson says that after World War II the American economy developed so well that almost everybody had basically all they needed to lead a happy life. Things grew better and better throughout the Fifties, but instead of enjoying life more and working less, America seems to have forgotten what is really important in life. Bryson points at the exact point in time in which Americans chose to spend their time working more and more in order to be able to afford the things that would save them time in a mad race they can never win. At the book's conclusion, the old time charms of Bryson's home town, covered thoroughly thoughout the book, have gone to make way for huge shopping malls with even bigger parking lots.
But don't let these arguments deter you from a book that is a pleasure to read. The conclusion might make you sad and might make you think in reflection, but overall this is first and foremost an extremely entertaining book full of funny anecdotes. Say what you say about the past, we were very silly back then.
Overall: A 5 star pleasure ride.

DVD: Misery

Lowdown: Writer's block will never be the same for this writer, held hostage by a lunatic fan.
Review:
For a film of Misery's quality, it's rather surprising for me to declare that until last night I only saw it when I rented the Laserdisc more than 10 years ago. However, recent discussion on the quality of director Rob Reiner's plus personal circumstances sent me delve back into this fascinating piece of work.
It's interesting to note that while I don't like reading Stephen King's books, some of the films based upon his work are truly exceptional. The Shawshank Redemption is the one I like the most, but Misery is not exactly lacking either.
The story is wonderful in its simplicity. James Caan is playing an actor writing in snowy Colorado, who upon finishing his book finds the snowy conditions too hard for driving back home to New York and ends up in a car crash, only to be rescued by his biggest fan - Kathy Bates. Bates gets Caan back to her place and takes care of him, but quickly enough you learn that Caan is actually in jail and slowly you learn just how mad Bates' character is and about her expectations from the miserable writer who is now at her mercy while the outside world seems totally clueless as to what is going on.
For what is a horror film, the film is very cleverly designed. The plot is a metaphor for a writer, or any type of creator for that matter, who is experiencing writer's block and whose work is being twisted by the outside world; the film takes this motif and expands on it with every scene by creating a love/hate relationship between the writer and his tormenter (peaking at the ultimate fight scene between the two, which is shot the way a love making scene would be).
Everything just works so incredibly well in the film. The pacing is perfect. The editing - especially in some specific "action" scenes, like Caan's attempts to escape from his room - masterful. The musical score is incredibly well matched to the onscreen action, rendering Misery as one of the films that cannot be imagined to take place without it. And the cinematography finds ingenious ways to make a setting which is on the very simple side of things and portray them as anything from menacing to romantic.
Perhaps the film is so good because it is a horror film made by people who have nothing to do with the genre; regardless, it is an excellent piece of work.
Best scene: Bates breaking Caan's legs to prevent future escape attempts. The camera angles, the cheery expression on Bates' face as she nonchalantly explains what is about to come - that's true horror for you, long before Bates lifts her mighty hammer.
Picture quality: In general the picture is quite good, but it definitely shows the aging of the source material (although 1990 is not that far back).
Sound quality: Almost everything is locked to the center channel, other than the score which is spread all over. However, that spreading of the score is rather on the artificial side of things; instead of being immersed within the orchestra's hall, you hear the music playing in front of you in one moment and behind you the next. As with the picture, the sound shows its too advanced age.
Overall: It's a pleasure to watch Misery. 5 stars.

Thursday, 21 September 2006

DVD: Everything Is Illuminated

Lowdown: An unconventional and personal holocaust film about the search for answers in the past.
Review:
The first thing that is obvious about this film is that this is not your run of the mill film; it is quite eccentric.
The second is that the stars of the film, an Ukrainian youth that works as a tour guide for rich American Jews coming to see where their ancestors live before the Nazis came into the picture and Elijah Wood playing one of those rich Jews are not exactly your conventional film heroes. Both are rather understated and portrayed in a way that cannot fail to make you laugh at them (just look at Wood's glasses, for a start).
Together with the Ukrainian's grandfather and seeing-eye-bitch they embark on a journey to countryside Ukraine in order to find some answers on Wood's past, but eventually they all learn a lot about themselves and how our past is what makes us what we are today.
What sets this film apart from most other journey films is the formerly mentioned eccentricity and the special humor that is used to drive the plot along. The eccentricity is evident in every shot, with nothing being portrayed the way you'd normally expect it to, to the point that it starts becoming slightly annoying; but then the humor kicks in to set things right. Not that the humor is sophisticated or anything like that - it's pretty basic stuff, like Benny Hill without the sexism - but it's effective. And both the humor and the eccentricity become the major tools deployed by the film when tackling its serious holocaust related climax.
The result is nice to watch, if not the most illuminating film ever. And yes, in case you were wondering: Elijah Wood does receive a ring in this film, and he also befriends a character called Sammy.
I have to mention the DVD's deleted scenes section, which includes alternate scenes that really add a lot to the overall experience.
Best scene: An old woman leads the journeyman towards Wood ancestors' old village. The caravan includes the old lady, who is afraid of cars, leading by foot; the seeing-eye-bitch riding on the car's hood; and the two Ukrainians plus Wood staring from inside the car.
Picture quality: Overall, below par in most respects - noise, detail and digital artifacts. The film's lovely countryside scenery helps not noticing these, though.
Sound quality: Here and there it's nice, but overall this is an exercise in subtlety.
Overall: 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 September 2006

DVD: Mrs. Henderson Presents

Lowdown: The story of England's first strip show presented rather innocently.
Review:
This is the second film featuring Judi Dench I get to review in this forum. Like its predecessor, it is another naive looking English film about the loss of innocence, only that in this one it is much harder to accept given the film's subject.
"Inspired by true events", Dench plays Mrs Henderson, a recent elderly widow, whose now deceased husband left her very rich following his escapades in India. Dench has obviously never faced real life on her own, and in order to pass the time she decides to buy a theater.
She hires Bob Hoskins to manage the theater, and the two get along just like Tom & Jerry, which sorts of builds an aroma of suspense around the characters.
The two start a new trend in London: all day long theater shows. At first they are successful, but once the other theaters copy them Dench starts losing a lot of money. And so, to compensate, she comes up with a new idea: have the actors take their cloths off during their shows.
"Oddly enough", the idea proves successful, probably because no other place on the island had anything to compete with such a show. And then World War II breaks, and the Dench/Hoskins duo have to battle the odds in order to keep the show going.
Overall, this is quite a successful film if all it is set out to do is cheer its audience and give it a taste of good old English values, for better and for worse (mainly for the better). However, when you think about it, the film suffers from some significant credibility issues: the film portrays the strip shows as nice family fun, whereas we all know that this type of entertainment, legitimate as it may be nowadays, tends to attract the rather dubious elements of society. London during the Forties might have been an innocent place, but hey - nowhere on earth was that innocent.
This is forgiven given the film's rather humorous approach to things. By today's standards, the strip shows featured in the film are as erotic or as gross as the Six O'Clock News; the musical bits are quite entertaining, and all of it just puts an innocent smile on your face and leaves you yearning for days gone by that were never really there.
Best scene: Dench argues in favor of the strip show with the Lord in charge of England's entertainment. The distinguished Lord is worried about the public display of the "Midlands" (the area commonly referred to in Australia as "the map of Tasmania"), and Dench finds very funny ways to relieve him from his worries.
Picture quality: There's a significant red hue to most of the scenes on this DVD; I have no idea whether that is intentional or not (I cannot see why), but it's distracting. Other than that the picture is quite mediocre, with not much in the way of detail.
Sound quality: Surprisingly enough for a film obviously made to a relatively low budget (compared to its Hollywood counterparts), the sound mix is quite good. The musical numbers offer a very effective soundtrack to accompany the screen action.
Overall: A nice 3 stars.

Tuesday, 19 September 2006

DVD: Inside Man

Lowdown: The story of a bank robbery in modern day Manhattan tells us the real robbers are the ones on top.
Review:
We rented this DVD looking for a cheap thriller that would pass two hours of our evening time with a smile on our faces. However, I was taken by surprise a minute or two into the film, when the credits announced: "A Spike Lee joint".
Immediately, I set the pillows behind my back to support a more upright and attentive posture rather than a semi lying down position, carefully orienting myself in the sweet spot. A Spike Lee film deserves honor, because Spike Lee delivers.
Ten years ago I knew Spike Lee primarily as a weirdo New York Knicks fan who happens to direct films. My views changed with "He Got Game", which I really liked. Lately, I found his "25th Hour" to be a truly excellent film; and with that in mind, I set up my mind to make the most of Inside Man, and I'll put it this way: I was not disappointed in a bit.
The film tells the story of a sophisticated bank robbery taking place in New York's Wall Street area. When you watch a Spike Lee film, you know that New York is where his films take place, but you also know that New York is the ultimate subject of his films; this one follows suit perfectly. You will find the word "perfect" to be used a lot in this review, because I will spoil it all and tell you that I found Inside Man to be a perfect film. And I mean it.
Clive Owen, playing the chief bank robber, is in charge of both the hostages and the narration of the story. However, we see things through the eyes of Denzel Washington, a Spike Lee regular (joined by many others of Lee's regulars), who portrays a hard going police detective with a stain on his name that needs clearing that is put in charge of handling the robbery through circumstances. This irregular way of driving the plot while slowly revealing more and more information as the detective figures out what is really going on in this more than meets the eye story is managed perfectly by the director, who pours in complexities from all directions in the shape of Christopher Plummer who has a lot to lose from this robbery and Jodie Foster, a sophisticated agent hired by Plummer to make sure things go his way. The usual Spike Lee collection of New York characters is thrown in to this rich mixture of talent to spice it all up.
We've been through this type of film before many a time: a film where we know a bit of what is going to happen, but when it happens we find out that our perception of it was wrong and we were actually being fooled by the director. Most of the time these tricks don't work, and when you learn the truth you end up disappointed; but not in the perfect film that is Inside Man.
A lot of elements prevent it from failing: the actors and the script, for a start. But most of all it's Lee who is to blame for creating a perfect New York story with an agenda and mastering it as a perfect work of art through things like the use of high contrast film for that unique look, careful compositioning, and masterful cinematography and editing.
But most of all I'd blame the film's agenda for its perfection. Lee's New York story is there to tell us what Lee thinks, which is that while there are many bad things mixed into New York, it is the hard working people (represented by Denzel Washington) that make it the great place it is; however, those hard working people are being betrayed by the people on top, and the higher you go up the food chain the more corrupt things get. The road to the top is paved with blood, and the real villains of this world are not the small time crooks that are so abundant in New York but who never really had a chance, but rather the big companies and the people ruling them that stand to earn a lot of money from the misery they create.
As perfect as the film is, mechanics wise, it is this agenda with which I full heartedly agree that makes it the perfect message inducer it is.
Best scene: It's really hard to choose from the many potential contenders. The scene I remember best is the one where a hostage child playing a violent Grand Theft Auto game on his Sony PSP demos the game to Clive Owen, who is holding him hostage. Owen is quite taken aback with the violence in the game, which is not exactly what one would expect from someone holding hostages at gunpoint while robbing a bank.
Picture quality: On one hand, the use of high contrast film stock means that overall, there are probably many DVD's out there sporting what seems to be a better, clearer picture. However, once you take the choice of film stock into account as an artistic choice made by the director on purpose in order to make a point, the picture quality turns out to be state of the art excellent. Color fidelity, the level of detail, the lack of digital artifacts - it is very obvious that someone took great pains mastering this DVD in order to guarantee the highest quality. A look at the files reveals this two hour long film consumes almost 8gb on the DVD, significantly more than the "industry standard" for picture bandwidth.
Sound quality: Spike Lee excellent, with very active surround envelopment immersing you in the film and an excellent musical soundtrack that is very well mastered to support and drive the experience.
Overall: The perfect score for the perfect film. 5 stars.

Monday, 18 September 2006

Film: Some Like It Hot

Lowdown: Your typical "men dress up as women and generate laughs" comedy, only that this was the first.
Review:
I like to think of myself as a fan of Billy Wilder, but I don't think I cut the mustard. I bought Cameron Crowe's "Conversations with Wilder" book a good few years ago but didn't even manage to read the back cover since. And despite thinking that The Apartment is a masterpiece, I never got to see Wilder's most familiar film - Some Like It Hot.
So how does this classic tale of two fugitive musicians, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis, fleeing from the clutches of the Chicago Mafia by pretending to be women fare? Well, it's quite good, actually, but not Wilder's ultimate piece. I suspect that it is remembered the way it is today more because of the participation of one Marilyn Monroe in the case, rather than because it is a genuinely good film; and it is probably also remembered because it was probably the first time men posed as women on the big screen.
The film is full of silly situations that make you laugh in a good hearted way, but by today's standards it stretches the imagination all too freely. Still, it is innocent fun, and you do get a chance to watch a master actor at work: Jack Lemmon's performance is genuinely special, compensating for Monroe who seems to have found herself in the cast because of her big tits rather than her acting ability.
There is a lot to be said about the Wilder style: the simple way of him doing things, the funny way in which he drives the plot forwards, and the ending which is not your typical "sail into the sunset" ending you'd expect from an American film today (even if it's not too far).
To sum it up in one word: A classic.
Best scene: Jack Lemmon dancing with the rich idiot courting him. If you won't laugh at that, you're dead.
Overall: 3.5 stars. Most contemporary comedies could do with a lesson or two from Wilder.

Film: Quest for Fire

Lowdown: Life was pretty hard 80,000 years ago.
Review:
The first time I've seen this rather unique film from 1981, I was 10 years old. It left a lasting impression on me: I could not forget its portrayal of the world of early man. And then there was also the issue of quite a graphic sex scene that at the time I could not understand (and for some odd reason, no one bothered to explain it to me); it took me a few years to realize what really took place there.
Nostalgia aside, what is the film about? Quest for Fire tells the story of a tribe of humans (which seemed Neanderthal to me) some 80,000 years ago, at the time in which man has just discovered fire and found out how useful it could be. The tribe loses a fight with another tribe of humanoids (very furry ones), and as a result their carefully guarded fire gets extinguished. A group of three men is sent to acquire a new fire for the tribe, and the film follows their quest.
The plot, however interesting and unique, is just a tool for the director to take us for a tour of the cavemen's world. And what a world it is! For a start, it's a very dangerous world; a world where a person's safety can never be taken for granted. Between wolves and saber tooths, mammoths and bears, man is no longer just the hunter - man is also being hunted. And if that is managed, there's the risk of cannibals. Things that we take for granted to take place in a certain way could not have been taken for granted back then: a nice place to spend the night in, heat, privacy, something to eat, respect for one another, sex as something more elaborate than pure animal instinct. And language, if we seek further examples.
I cannot say much about the film's authenticity; I have no idea what took place 80,000 years ago, but I don't think it matters. I don't think Mr Annaud (the director) set out to give us a history lesson; I rather think he wanted to tell us something about ourselves: the fragility of our environment and how easily it could break down, leaving us back at the Stone Age, literally. One has to take into context the fact the film was made during the peak of the cold war, but the lesson still applies for today. If anything, it shows how valuable civilization is and how valuable knowledge and information are to have gotten people who were physically identical to us from zero to where mankind is today.
I found the message to be so well delivered that the film becomes quite scary. It is much scarier than most proper horror films, just because it is so real. If you compare it to another apocalyptic film, say- Planet of the Apes, you cannot escape the fact that the idea behind Planet of the Apes is very fictitious while Quest for Fire portrays something that really took place, even if circumstances were slightly different.
Two things hinder the film. First, the behavior of the film's cavemen - the way they converse, the way they procreate - can easily stir the viewer towards laughter in ways the director didn't really plan for (the film is not short of proper comic relief). And second, the film's sound is obviously dubbed and obviously not that well dubbed, causing frequent distractions.
However, other than those issues, the film is a classic.
Best scene: Once their fire has been extinguished, the humans flee from a pack of wolves they formerly scattered with the help of fire. It's an early scene that really delivers the anxiety and the hopelessness of the time.
Overall: 4.5 stars.

Saturday, 16 September 2006

DVD: In Her Shoes

Lowdown: Family is one of the most important things in life, but it also drive you crazy.
Review:
Here is a film that turned out to be totally different to what I expected it to be. I expected a cheap and light American comedy telling us the story of two sisters, one good looking the other not so, and how they manage to cope with their attributes.
Instead I got quite a complicate portrayal of family affairs that is totally not your typical run-of-the-mill American film effort. While the general plot line was indeed along the lines of what I expected it to be, the depth of discussion totally overwhelmed my non existent expectations. In fact, I didn't know they still make films that are so character driven and with such well developed characters anymore.
With that exposition out of the way, here is the executive summary of the plot. Toni Collette is a successful lawyer; her good looking sister Cameron Diaz thinks she has lots of talent, but in fact she abuses her looks to try for the easier deals and ends up with nothing much on her hands but lots of damage to the family members who end up having to support her. The conflict between the two is the plot driver of the film, which starts with Diaz totally annihilating everything Collette worked to get (at the office and in the bedroom). Diaz runs off to look for her missing grandmother for someone new to rely on, while Collette rebuilds her life and finds that Diaz may have indeed done her a favor.
I could go on, but that would ruin the film. The plot develops in surprisingly convoluted ways, raising all sorts of questions along the way - what is success, what is it that we're working our guts for, and much more. The film ambitiously and successfully tries to answer these questions by stating that our families stand behind all of these - that it is the family that makes it all worthwhile, but also the family's expectations that drive us nuts. Whether it's through inadequate communication or through unrealistic parental expectations, families can easily ruin us; but through love and cooperation, they can truly make us happy.
In short, this is a film full of character with a true valid statement at its premises; its comedy aspects are rather benign in what is essentially a complicated drama. A good drama, though.
Best scene: Toni Collette comes back to her apartment to find Cameron Diaz in bed with her lover. Quite a shocking reaction is due, and some good acting too.
Picture quality: Way below par. The amount of detail in the picture is almost as low as what you would expect to get on VHS.
Sound quality: Effective envelopment, but nothing to really inspire.
Overall: The upper side of 3.5 stars.

Friday, 15 September 2006

Book: An Inconvenient Truth by Al Gore

Lowdown: The case for the earth's global warming is an open and shut case.
Review:
Non fiction books always have a problem when they try and convey their message to us. The problem is simple: how can they convey their message to a public that is, by now, used to being entertained and amused without having to make the slightest of efforts? All this when you have to achieve your aim without resorting to fictitious means, such as a thrilling yet imaginative plot.
Different authors approach this problem differently. In many cases, such as in "The Guns of August" by Barbara Tuchman, the facts convey a thrilling story on their own, without having to resort to artificial life support. In others, such as the Bill Bryson books, it's the author's story telling style that keeps the flame alive.
So how does Al Gore, often dubbed as the earth's most boring person, manage with his non fiction attempt to tell us everything we need to know about global warming? Well, I think he managed it very well.
Mr Gore ("call me Al") chose an interesting path. His book is not a regular book; it's more of a coffee table book. The contents is basically an adaptation of a Keynote presentation that Al travels with to tell his message. And being a good presentation, it's mostly lots of pictures and short sentences and graphs that are quickly consumed by the reader and end up being a truly effective way to convey a non-fiction message.
So what is covered in a book that claims to cover everything to do with global warming? In short, everything as far as I can tell. Al goes through the scientific facts: rising temperatures, rising CO2 contents in the atmosphere, abnormal weather patterns becoming the norm, other weird natural phenomenon, the implications of what might happen if current trends continue, and what can be done about it all.
It's all very convincing (although I admit that in my case he is preaching to the preacher), other than one simple aspect. I'll explain by example: the book tells you that temperatures have been rising for the last century more than the previous 100,000 years, and shows you a nice graph to match; it doesn't, however, tell you how the graph was made, given that the bureau of meteorology didn't really measure stuff 99,000 years ago. You have to take Al's word for it, and I found it quite easy because often his sources quote articles I read elsewhere for reference (e.g., articles published in Scientific American). The lesson is simple: if you want to know the scientific reasoning, you'll have to look beyond this book; if you want the distilled facts, the book would answer all your global warming needs.
One thing the book isn't shy of doing is mixing politics into the equation. When discussing the fact that global warming is not at the top of the agenda, despite its potential to end life as we know it, Gore says he thinks it's because we now rely more than ever on TV, which is a one sided media that is under the control of a very few self interested companies. I agree, and I cannot fail to see the relevancy of that argument for Australia, where the Howard government is going out of its way to let media monsters such as Fox enhance their grip on the media and as a side product, on our minds and on our agendas.
If there is one thing I can criticized Al with, it's the fact the back cover tells us he is a member of the Apple board and a consultant to Google. Now, Apple does many great things, but the reduction of consumption is not one of them; how does Al get along with that? He says he buys green credits for all his polluting activities, but I doubt he can afford doing that for Apple entire. Not that this matters in the context of the book, because I am here to review a book rather than its author.
The bottom line is that one has to be living in another world in order to read this book and not take its principle message, "consume less and consume wisely" into account. Or they can just be the Finance Minister of the Howard Government, who claimed this effort is nothing but an Al Gore attempt to sell books. I'll put my opinion this way: I did not need this insight to know I will never vote for Howard, but I would be more than happy to give Al Gore a genuine hug. He is a soldier on my war.
Overall: A genuine 5 star effort that I hope as many people can read before it's too late. It's not often that you read a book and wonder whether this could be the most important book you ever read.

Wednesday, 13 September 2006

Film: Calendar Girls

Lowdown: The Full Monty worked well, so let's make more money by doing the female version.
Review:
For better or for worse, Calendar Girls is a very British film. Set in Yorkshire, the British-ness of it gives it a certain aroma of innocence that is lacking from American "let's make lots of money" attitude films. On the other hand, the film's symbol of success betrays its British origins: the successful heroines go to Hollywood.
But I'm ahead of myself here. The film's premises is very simple, too simple: a bunch of older (but not too old) women want to raise money for a new sofa to the hospital ward where one of their husbands lived his last days not too long ago with cancer. As they obviously saw The Full Monty, they decide to do a nude calendar, and from then on the film follows their struggle to produce the calendar and then cope with its success and then go back to their real lives.
It's all done with a very innocent spirit, but that innocent spirit is the culprit of the film - it's just too much to accept, and everything becomes way too predictable. A third of the way through you just wish it would end soon because there won't be any more surprises to keep the film alive; the concept of a nude calendar is just not enough to keep a film alive through and through.
Best scene: Following the success of the calendar, the heroines approach a Virgin Atlantic counter to check in to their trans Atlantic flight to Hollywood. They are told they don't belong there, and after a "big shock" they learn this is because they have been upgraded, and then they learn they can actually check in where they are. This scene is actually far from being the best scene in the film: it is, however, a good representative of its contrived and artificial spirit. And it also shows product placement at its worst.
Overall: 1.5 stars; watch the Full Monty again, instead.

DVD: Prime

Lowdown: A love triangle between the girl, the boy, and his mother.
Review:
Romantic comedies are a genre that has been choked to death with supposedly new and innovative ideas that fail to deliver. In Prime's case, the idea seems to have potential on paper: Instead of having the usual love triangle of a guy and two girls, let's switch one of the girls with the guy's mother.
And thus Meryl enters the scene as the psychologist working (for a rather unexplained reason) with Uma Thurman, who, by total coincidence, happens to fall in love with Streep's much younger son. The comedy element of the film is based on the Jewish mother's reluctance to have a non-Jew in the family (Streep is Jewish, Thurman is positioned as too good looking to be one) plus Streep's problem with her son falling for someone 14 years older than him.
Does this setup work? Is it a comedy worth watching? Well, we thought that with Meryl Streep around, things cannot go wrong; she was, after all, excellent in Adaptation. And Prime did get good reviews when it was out.
Alas, it doesn't work at all. The one gag running throughout the film - the conflict between the Jewish mother and the not so Jewish good looking girlfriend - is enough for about 10 minutes, after which the film becomes just another dull affair. The only positive thing I can say about it is that some of the compositions are interesting, but other than that this is a truly unoriginal and uninspiring film that is best avoided. The ending is good, though, if you manage to last till then.
Best scene: Thurman visits the Streep's house for Friday night dinner and brings a good bottle of wine, which the family stashes in the freezer so it would taste better. The scene is a good representative of the type of jokes you can expect to find in the film, and pinpoints the fact it is a rather thin and dull line that the film is walking.
Picture quality: Quite good, but... lots of digital artifacts such as edge enhancements give away the fact that not enough attention was paid to the digital mastering process.
Sound quality: The sound mixer forgot to use the surrounds (with the exception of one club scene). Don't ask me why.
Overall: A dull 1.5 stars effort.

Saturday, 9 September 2006

DVD: The World's Fastest Indian

Lowdown: Uncle Anthony's old age dream fulfillment as the ultimate in catharsis.
Review:
Amongst film genres there is that small niche of films that are meant to make you feel good. Frank Darabont, the maker of (amongst others) The Shawshank Redemption, seems to have made a career out of making such films. However, in this day and age of overdoing things, good make-you-feel-good films are rather rare; you may have thought they were extinct, but then Fastest Indian came along to prove that the last good word has not been said yet.
The story is as simple as stories go: Anthony Hopkins is an old guy with only one thing in his life - his ambition to break the world's speed record using his old Indian bike. Alas, his native New Zealand cannot provide him with the means of doing so, and thus the film becomes a journey film depicting his trek to Utah's salt lakes and [excuse me for telling you the totally unexpected ending] how he succeeds in his task. The film's formula for moving the plot along is simple and predictable: the hero encounters a problem on his way, and using the help and the good will of the people around him at that certain moment he addresses the problem and quickly moves on to face the next challenge.
As a "make you feel good" film, Indian is special in two ways. The first is that aside of Anthony Hopkins, there are no other main characters competing for screen time - characters come and go, but they're not there for long.
The second, and more unique feature, is that there are no baddies in this film. Yes, there are a couple of brief bad encounters upon arriving to the USA, but they're just passing glimpses. Everyone else in the film, even those alien to the hero's cause, quickly becomes supportive and "good" to the cause. Which is a bit of a problem for me: the world's conservatives, with whom I have a lot to argue about, often aspire to some mythical past that never really existed other than in their imagination; this film will definitely add a lot of fuel to their passions with its portrayal of a past in which everyone helped anyone and the world was just a shiny bed of roses.
My problems with the film do not end there. A major issue I have is with the Hopkins character repeatedly stating the mantra that it's the risks that you take in life that make it worth living (case in point: his dangerous bike rides). While we all take risks with everything that we do (or even when we do nothing), I do not think that it is the risks that make my life worthwhile; on the contrary, I think that those who must take risks to feel alive probably suffer certain psychological deficiencies that mean they feel they have to prove something to the world around them by taking risks. If there was no one else in the world besides them to observe their achievement, would there have been any value to the risks they take?
My last gripe is with the film presenting the hero's success at his ultimate goal as the thing that would make or break him. I simply cannot accept that and for a simple reason: for every person that sets out to achieve a certain noble goal and manages to achieve it, there are many others that fail.
Take the AFL or the English Premiership: there are 16 to 20 teams fighting out for a title, but only one of them manages to clinch it at the end of the season (and with the Premiership's case, the title holder comes from a very narrow group of privileged teams). Does that mean that all the other teams do not have a place in the record books? Does it mean that their achievements are meaningless and that only the ultimate winner is remembered? Well, if that is the case, it would greatly diminish the value of the winner's title.
However, with all the criticism I have at the film, it certainly does one thing well: it makes you feel good. Its simple formula proves that simplicity prevails, and there is just no way for you to resist the charm of the main character and identify with his fight to fulfill his dream.
Best scene: It's hard to pinpoint at a specific scene. In the end, I probably liked the scene where the rival motorcycle gang, who at first mocked Anthony Hopkins for his old bike, ended up supporting him with money for his trip to the USA. It was the film's first genuine case of people changing their mindset to support the hero, and it was a case of excellent acting on Hopkins' behalf when he switched from suspicious to grateful.
Picture quality: Some of the film's early scenes were shot with high contrast film, making them look very noisy. Other than that, the DVD sports one of the best pictures I've seen from the DVD format, with excellent color rendition making the picture look as real as high definition.
Sound quality: Other than the scenes were the speed contests are held, the usage of sound to promote the film's agenda is pretty limited, both in the effects department and in the score department. Pity.
Overall: A cheerful 4 star effort.

Tuesday, 5 September 2006

Book: Stark by Ben Elton

Lowdown: The earth's sustainability story covered with a thrilling story.
Review:
This is the second Ben Elton book that I get to read (the first being Popcorn), and just like its predecessor it faces me with a problem: on one hand here is a book discussing a very important issue that is also quite a pleasure to read, while on the other hand - I don't really like the way it's written in.
The plot is relatively simple: The world's most successful business men, having had a major hand in killing the earth as a habitat for living creatures (mankind included), devise an evil plan to rip the maximum benefits from the earth's dying moments. The only opposition the world offers to face them is a bunch of unlikely heroes; will they manage to stop the most influential people on the planet?
Most of the story takes place in Australia, which is nice, if only because it's interesting to see what another "outsider" thinks of the place and how similar his opinion is to my own. It's also interesting to see how Elton manages to squeeze in characters that bear more than a slight resemblance to famous business people - the ex-Australian Rupert Murdoch would be the best example.
However, looking at the book at the plot level does it a great disservice. Written in the late eighties, when "global warming" was a phrase that might be used to describe going to the beach to get a tan but that's it, the book's obvious main aim is to expose its readers to the various ongoing calamities that are slowly (or maybe not so slowly) killing our planet. From describing the dumping of shit into the oceans to describing how US acid rain is generated and how it kills maple trees up in Canada, the book contains tons of subplots and diversions discussing various sustainability issues. Which is probably good, because the plot itself is nothing special. If anything, it reminded me of the old James Bond films; Moonraker to be precise. However, even with all these subplots, don't ask me how Ben Elton managed to fill 500 pages with this story: the book is way too long for its own good.
The book exposes Ben Elton's talents as a writer, but also shows his deficiencies. On one hand you get his flowing descriptions and the jokes that are so full of insight which remind you immediately of his witty stand up shows; on the other hand, the language and the style used in the book are what I would describe as "simple contemporary common tongue": it's full of phrases you don't really expect to find in a book but more in crap rap music. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the language is far from being overly rich and the overall level is quite low. While I'm no big fan of Shakespeare, I still expect more richness in a book than what I get listening to a couple of teens on the train.
One of the reasons for this problem could be that Ben Elton is a British writer writing in a very British style and a very British language, while I'm definitely American oriented in my upbringing (i.e., the films I'm used to watch and most of the books I read). I could notice that some of the problems I have with Elton's style are common to the problems I have with Nick Hornby's books. However, I still find it hard to believe that this is a case of British-phobia; I would rather think it's a case of Elton stooping too low to the masses, which makes sense if you consider that the book's primary aim was to expose the public twenty years ago to topics that are only starting to find themselves up on people's agendas now.
Overall: 3 stars.

Sunday, 3 September 2006

Film: Clerks

Lowdown: Life is like a day spent running a grocery store.
Review:
Several years ago I watched Clerks for the first time after it was recommended by a friend. I didn't expect much at all, so I was quite surprised by how good it was. With Clerks 2 now airing, I thought I'd revive old memories and watch the original again. This time I did expect much, and this time I was quite disappointed.
Clerk's premises are pretty simple: it tells the story of a day in the life of two young clerks running a grocery store and an adjacent video rental shop. The film threads along the handling weird customers, having deep discussions about rather mundane issues, dealing with the frustrating circumstances of their work, and dealing with their girlfriends.
All that transpires is served as a mirror to the circumstances of the modern day Western adolescent. It is also made to make us laugh, and although laughs are relatively far apart it managed to make me laugh hard on several occasions.
However, this time around I couldn't help noticing that at its bottom line, despite all of its witty insight, the film is pretty shallow. Yes, with the way we're going our lives tend to be as deep as a grocery store, but that doesn't mean I have to spend some of my precious time learning something I already know. I guess I have outgrown the film, age wise.
Best scene: The two clerks discuss the morality of the Star Wars' rebels killing all the innocent construction workers working on the second Death Star in the film Return of the Jedi. Alas, a scene that was once original is no longer so when everybody from Family Guy to the British series Spaced uses Star Wars jokes as a main running theme.
Overall: 2.5 stars.

Saturday, 2 September 2006

Movie: Thank You for Smoking

Lowdown: An intimate look at the inner workings of the spin machine.
Review:
Thank You for Smoking is one of those rare occasions where an American film manages to be original and smart. When they manage to achieve that, American films tend to be really good, and indeed this one is quite a good film.
The story follows the guy who serves as the tobacco companies' spokesman. While going through various events taking place in his life, the film explores the morality behind the way the big companies treat the public on their way to rub it out of its cash. While focusing mainly on the tobacco industry, the film makes sure you know the same rules apply to other industries: alcohol, fire arms, oil, food, pharmaceutical, communications - you name it; it's just that cigarettes are probably the easiest to pick on because they do not provide any benefit whatsoever.
It's one of those films that may help the more naive viewer realize how much they're being manipulated by the big companies. Al Gore's book, An Inconvenient Truth, mentions that one of the reasons why global warming is not on the top of the agenda is the "noise" generated by companies who do not want it to be at the top of the agenda, causing half of the articles discussing the phenomenon to express doubt about its authenticity. Well, the film definitely shows how this twisting of the facts takes place. The problem, however, is that I doubt that the people who need to see the light will get to see a film like this; they are more likely to avoid a smart film and settle for the normal trash Hollywood tries to feed them.
Other than that, the film's main shortcoming is that despite its short duration (circa 90 minutes), it fails to excite. It's interesting, it's smart, but it won't keep you at the edge of your seat.
Best scene: The film's hero tries to convince the guy who played the Marlboro Man not to sue the tobacco companies now that he is sick with cancer by offering him a suitcase full of money. The scene shows how incapable we are compared to the big companies to change the world by showing the weakness of the individual trying to change the world.
Overall: 3.5 stars which could have easily been 4 or more with a slightly more exciting adaptation.