Sunday, 28 January 2007

Book: The Futurological Congress by Stanislaw Lem

Lowdown: The future is in the shits; let us hide in the sewers.
Review:
Well, here is a bit of a controversial book for you. I read it as a child almost 25 years ago and I liked it.
It told this fascinating story of a guy in a near futuristic earth who goes to this futurological congress where people are supposed to discuss how humanity should face the future, but a revolution transpires to wreck quite a havoc on the congress. The hero ends up fleeing to the sewers, from time to time seeking salvage in some other futuristic world only to find that he was dreaming and that in actual fact he is still in the sewer.
To the 12 year old that read the book, the surveying of potential futures was fascinating, imaginative and thought provoking. I liked it so much I still remembered a lot of details despite the years that went by; quite a rarity for someone who is still surprised the good guys win each time he reads The Lord of the Rings.
Now, the question is what would I think of the book if I was to read it now. After mentioning the book in my personal blog I got to have this opportunity in the form of a birthday gift (thanks, Uri). This time, though, I was to read it in English, which unlike most other cases where I prefer to read a book in its language of origin (as opposed to my native tongue, Hebrew) is not an advantage given that the book was written in Polish. That's communist's science fiction for you.
Introductions aside, did I like the book? Well, yes and no. Mostly no, I am sorry to say (Uri must be delighted now).
I'll start with the positive. The various descriptions of the possible futures provided in the book are described to such an articulate level they are truly the work of a genius. Everything is mixed into the equation, including social, environmental, and technological aspects (to point at just a few). Most notable is the description of a future society in which everything can be acquired by the mind through chemical pills that go directly to your brain to create an alternate reality: you can upload the dictionary into your head by swallowing a pill, as well as purchase an enjoyable tailor made real feeling illusion of how your noisy neighbor is being tortured to death. Personally, I found this culture's reliance on edible drugs to be fascinating: after all, almost all of our religions include some reliance on drugs to promote the divine experience (starting from alcohol and progressing to all sorts of other stimulants). Everything is possible in this future world, until our hero learns that all the goodness of this world is yet another chemical drug; this overpopulated world no longer has the resources to support its population, and in order to keep the masses happy they are kept under a constant dosage of drugs that make them think they are happy.
This is but a slight facet of one of the potential futures the book discusses; mind you, all of them share one common element: they're all pretty bad. This book does not provide an optimistic appraisal of the direction our world and humanity are heading for.
But this pessimism is not the reason why, overall, I did not like Futurological Congress the second time around. The reason for my disenchantment is simple: readability. Or rather, the lack of it.
The book is quite an annoying read: there are no chapter stops, for a start, so it's hard to let go of and pick up on later. Crucial key events, such as the hero waking up from one future to find himself back in the sewers, are hidden as short sentences inside long paragraphs; you read them but it takes time to appropriately digest them. Now, you can say that's my fault, but my years as a student have taught me two things: (a) I may not be an Einstein, but I'm not dumb; and (b) when I don't understand something, it's usually the fault of the lecturer. My point is, the book may be great, but I don't want to spend my time on an unreadable book when there are so many perfectly readable ones out there that are just as good if not better. A lack of clarity should be punished, not awarded or admired.
And yes, there's another thing I don't really like in the book: This repetitive thing with constantly waking up to find that whatever took place was just a dream is too cheap a technique to write a proper book with. I'm sure one can think of a better way to transition from one scene to another.
Overall: Zero bullshit tolerance. 2 stars.

Saturday, 27 January 2007

DVD: An Inconvenient Truth

Lowdown: Global warming is not a political issue, it's a moral issue.
Review:
Referring to An Inconvenient Truth (AIT) as a film qualifies as being a bit unfair to the art of film making. AIT is not really a film: it's basically Al Gore doing a presentation on global warming shot on film. In between, you get a few tidbits on Gore's personal life. Point is, if you want to judge AIT as a film, even as a documentary, it wouldn't score that well; I've seen home movies that are more artistically explorative.
So what can this film be judged upon? Obviously, its message and the way it goes about communicating its message. So what is it trying to say? Well, I'm assuming that by now everyone knows that this film is a concentration of facts to do with man made global warming, the risks it brings upon us, and the need to quickly start doing something about it despite the various stakeholders who wish us to take our time about it so they'd be able to make more money. Note the DVD includes an half an hour long update with even more breaking news evidence showing the general direction the world is heading in.
Which leaves us with the question of how well the film conveys its message, and the answer I can give you is "very well indeed". Al Gore has this reputation for being a pretty boring man; that was definitely my personal impression from his time as vice president, but then again that was pretty much shaped by what others told me about him. In AIT, Gore is anything but boring, though (which is good given the one man show nature of the film). He is funny, he drives his message through in a very well paced manner, and overall he is pretty charismatic. One can easily see he is truly passionate about his message. It is all very effective: once you hear what he has to say any doubts you might have had about whether to "believe" in global warming or not would disappear. And just in case they don't, Gore brings forward plenty of evidence in the form of video clips and photos allowing viewers to also see that global warming is here with us.
Overall, AIT does incredibly well in pushing ahead the message of awareness to global warming. But, is it perfect? Well, it's good; and in many ways it is better than the book, simply through the use of moving pictures in order to make certain points clearer. Alas, the constant use of eccentric American units of measurement - pounds, fahrenheits - make it hard for someone used to the metric system (e.g., me) to accurately follow some of the things Gore is trying to say.
Another annoying element in the film are the personal story transitional scenes glued to the film at various key points. Sometimes they are interesting, other times they help the message's cohesiveness, but most of the times the attempt to deliver a personal face with the message just detracts from the quality of the message as an important one that is bigger than about just one person, almost president or not.
Don't get me wrong, though: AIT is a very good film; it's deficiencies are very slight compared to its excellence in delivering its message. If you look at it through the Carl Sagan index, a film that quotes Sagan twice (at its beginning and at its end) cannot be a bad film.
Best scene: The explanation on how CO2 and temperatures relate to one another is very well done; it's uplifting to see science delivered so effectively to the masses. It made me feel like I'm watching an episode of Cosmos.
Picture quality: This is not a film to look for picture excellence in. Not that its bad; it just does not attempt anything in the suspension of disbelief department. That said, the picture is pretty good, although highly varied given the large amounts of clips glued together here.
Sound quality: Again, it doesn't really matter. The lecture room ambiance is well delivered and the speech is very well recorded - extremely clear. That said, some of the sound effects added on top of the clips - say, ice breaking off mass structures in Antarctica - sounds very artificial.
Overall: While this is not a proper film, it is a deserving candidate for being one of the most important films you'd ever watch. 4.5 stars: every citizen of this planet should watch it, and if they still fail to see the light they're either well trained politicians or simply insane.

Thursday, 25 January 2007

DVD: Hoodwinked

Lowdown: Little Red Riding Hood done pop culture Rashomon style.
Review:
Hoodwinked is a film we actually wanted to see at the cinemas but missed out on. In retrospect, we were lucky.
The idea behind this yet another computer animation film seems quite good, on paper: it's the story of Little Red Riding Hood, with all the characters from that story (and a few friends). You got Red, Grandma, the wolf, and the hunter. They all convene together at grandma's house under suspicious circumstances, and the police is there to investigate what took place. Things are more than meets the eye as each of the characters tells their version of the truth...
Well, on paper things are more than meets the eye, but just on paper. Because once you get the feel of what this film stands for it's pretty easy to see into the film and predict who the real culprit is. Generally, aside of the Rashomon style element, the film is very predictable and very thin - as in, the entire setup and character driven actions are not that well conceived. It all supposed to be this very cynical, pop culture take on the familiar story, but it's all very boring instead.
Twice during the film I found myself smiling; the rest of the time I was plain bored. True laughter was totally absent: Pretty bad for a film that's supposed to be a light comedy take on things, I would say. In fact, the thing that managed to keep me awake is the notion that a film simply cannot be that bad and that boring for too long; somewhere along the line an improvement has to come, and I'd better be awake to be there when it happens. The problem is that my assumption was wrong and this improvement never really came along.
Best scene: A tough for such a bad film. I would say it would be the hunter's schnitzel song (don't ask; I assume it's some kind of a take on the Schwarzenegger accent).
Picture quality: Good, but there are some color inconsistencies.
Sound quality: A very good, intense, surround envelopment. All speakers get a bit of a workout with this one.
Overall: A sad and boring affair. Something between 0.5 to 1 stars, but it's best summed up as a film to avoid at all cost.

Wednesday, 24 January 2007

DVD: Jindabyne

Lowdown: Issues of ethics and morality raise tensions in the middle of nowhere.
Review:
Jindabyne is a place we actually drove next to during our recent holidays excursion. "Next to" is a relative term here, because we were some 150km south of this town at the south east of New South Wales; but for a town with a population of 1600 in the middle of nowhere just being there on the road signs is a mighty achievement. And with that in mind, I had high hopes from this Australian film that takes place in the Jindabyne area.
The plot outline is fairly simple. An aboriginal woman is murdered, and the killer dumps the body somewhere along the river where no person should ever find it. However, this group of four man from Jindabyne who venture a bit out of town for their yearly male bonding fishing trip do stumble upon it. Thing is, instead of alerting the authorities about this body they have found they just continue their fishing activities, only to report the body as a mere afterthought when their expedition concludes. The rest of the film follows the tensions created by this act or rather by this lack of acting within the families of those man, within the Jindabyne community, and between whites and blacks (i.e., aboriginals).
That's it for the outline; things are much more complicated than that. Each of the four fisherman has his own complications, and each of them has his own family with complications. The lead example is Gabriel Byrne, who doesn't really get along with his wife Laura Linney. She is unstable and have left him for a while after their only child was born, and now she is pregnant again but won't tell her catholic husband because she looks for an abortion. Etc etc: There are complications aplenty, all emphasized by the rather surreal setting of Jindabyne - a very small community where everybody knows anybody, set as if on a planet of its own in the middle of nowhere.
Overall, the acting is superb and the obvious morality issues raised by the film are thought provoking and very well handled. But there are some catches: for a start, there is no character in the film one can truly identify with. All the characters are quite flawed, and flawed in ways that are pretty unique. Given the amount of flaws in town, Jindabyne becomes close to not passing as a credible story. There is also this weird atmosphere to the film that seems to be perpetuated and nurtured by the director, a feeling of ambiguity, that contributes to a certain level of confusion within the viewer. You can say it's natural and that's what real life is like, and I would agree, but the combination of that and the characters creates a film you watch from a distance rather than a film that takes place inside you.
Best scene: The conflict between Byrne's catholic mother and the disapproving Linney is well developed, and I have found the scenes depicting it to be easy to identify with given my inherent antagonism toward anything religious.
Picture quality: Obviously, this is a low budget film. That said, it has a very unique look: everything was shot in natural light. While on one hand this creates a grainy look, this also makes Australia look the way it is rather than a page from a Tourism Australia booklet.
Sound quality: Pretty good for a low budget film. All dialog is locked to the center channel, but the surrounds are thoroughly used for atmospheric purposes.
Overall: 3 stars, but the film is fairly unique; if it sound like this is your type of film, have a go - you might love it. Otherwise, give it a go just because unique films are hard to find nowadays.

Tuesday, 23 January 2007

DVD: Firewall

Lowdown: Harrison Ford tearing down everything he helped build.
Review:
Some things mature with age; Harrison Ford doesn't. By far my favorite actor, nothing he has done lately can compare to the stuff that made him legendary. Personally, I would say he should have retired long ago, and definitely should have avoided the Indiana Jones 4 shoot that has recently commenced (according to the papers).
Still, compared to most of his recent work, Firewall is not that bad.
The story is simple. Ford works as the IT security chief at a bank where he helped design all the network security. His credentials in IT security are quickly established in a scene where he utters some highly sophisticated IT gibberish that might be true but is obviously there for its pompous sounding nature rather than its true meaning.
Little does Ford know, though, that evil bank robbers headed by Paul Bettany plan on robbing his bank. They kidnap his family and then use Ford to infiltrate the network from the inside. Ford has to take down what he has helped build before; will he manage that? Will he save his family from the evil clutches of evil? Well, eventually it would come down to who is going to have the upper hand in a fist fight to the death; can conflicts really get solved any other way?
There is an obvious attempt here to make things look and feel real. Techno talk is used, but it's usually at a level that makes sense; and when computers are shown, they are shown with ordinary Windows XP or Internet Explorer screens (I would have recommended Firefox).
Still, as much as authenticity is strived for, the film has a distinct feeling of being made as a patchwork of scenes rather than a film made according to a specific director's vision. For a start, the name of the film has no role in the film itself; the film could have been called "Strangers in the Night" just as well. Then there are several key car scenes towards the end of the film that have obviously been shot in blue screen; these make the film look like vintage Hitchcock without the Hitchcock qualities. But by far the worst is the lack of utilization of key actors that do take part in the film, mainly Virginia Madsen who plays Ford's wife: they could have cast the talents of Paris Hilton and achieved similar results.
While Firewall is quite thrilling and very visceral, there is nothing new about it. You would watch it, you will enjoy it, but you will quickly forget about it. If asked what the film tries to discuss, apart from its literal action, I would say it's the way in which modern humanity faces the threat of the things it has built being turned back on themselves to hurt humanity. That, however, would be a very stretchy guess as the film does not seem to make even the smallest effort in the thought provoking department. Ultimately, Firewall is just a straight forward action film, a modern day Dirty Harry, with not much of a substance behind it.
Best scene: Ford runs away from his IT manager, Robert Patrick (aka Terminator 2's evil morphing killer) in a garage. Patrick runs after Ford's car in a manner not unlike the lift/car hospital escape chase scene from Terminator 2. And yes, the fact my favorite scene is my favorite because it reminds me of another film says a lot about Firewall.
Picture quality: Good, but colors are a bit unreal. They have a distinct NTSC feel about them.
Sound quality: Very good. Directional dialog, tight sound effects you can feel in your gut, and a punchy musical track add to create an adrenaline pumping experience. It's a pity the rest of the film can't rise to the occasion as well as the sound.
Overall: 3 stars for an effective yet totally forgettable film.

Monday, 22 January 2007

DVD: Goal!

Lowdown: Cliches are having the time of their lives in this "making the American dream come true - the football way" story.
Review:
You would think a film about football cannot be too bad. After all, it has football in it. You would think that a film about football featuring some real footballers and real clubs and real setups has every right to be good. But you'd be wrong - because a film about football first has to be a good film, and Goal! is not a good film. It is entertaining, but there's a difference between that and being good.
The story is simple: A Mexican family crosses the border to become illegal immigrants living in LA. Years later, they all work in gardening rich people's gardens; but there's this guy, Santiago Munez, who also plays football after work, and he's quite good at it. One day Santi has the luck to be seen by an ex Newcastle United footballer who also has a history as a scout [to the ignorants amongst thee, Newcastle is one of the English Premiership football clubs that everyone respects but never manages to get any real titles; not because of any lack of passion, but mostly because of a lack of cash].
The scout manages to sort a test for Santiago in Newcastle as long as he gets his butt over there; and that's where this continuous spiral of cliches start, with Santiago first having to battle his father in order to get to England; his father, in the devil's advocate role, is of the opinion they were meant to serve the rich and shouldn't delude themselves with any dreams.
Cliches attack you from left and right as Santiago stumbles upon all sorts of hurdles on his way to becoming a fully fledged premiership footballer - let's not kid ourselves, this outcome is never in doubt - including (but probably not in order): telling a lie and then having to face the outcomes; falling in love with someone he's not supposed to fall for according the book, but in reality there's no reason for them not to be together; contending with the temptations that come with status; the death of a close family member; nasty team mates who turn out to be guardian angles; a seemingly evil manager that ends up as a Yoda like character; powerful people looking to spoil him... Excuse me if I haven't listed them all.
There's nothing wrong with cliches, but in Goal! their frequency is just so high you just burst into laughter and/or become annoyed the second the next one shows signs of popping up. They also tend to have a serial nature about them rather than a parallel nature, as in Santiago has to face them one by one and not several of them at once (the way it usually happens in real life when testing times befall us). I assume this was a conscientious choice in order to avoid making the film too hard to follow for some of the typical football fans that might watch this film [for the record, I am one].
The football world is nicely depicted. I have no idea whether its depiction is true to reality - I suspect it's not - but the fact that it's shot in Newcastle on the real grounds with real players adds to the authenticity. Mind you, the action scenes are shot in a manner that is obviously designed to make football attractive to people who don't necessarily know much about the game - and let's call a spade a spade, these people are commonly referred to as Americans. The whole football action bits are very over the top and badly shot as well (if following the game is what you're after, as opposed to following an individual player); even Ronaldinho won't perform in training the trickery that Munez does in a Premiership game. These tricks simply don't work in real life.
All in all, this is a film about the fulfillment of the American dream. Cinderella with a round ball, if you will. And I'll grant it one thing: it's entertaining. But convincing it is not: Munez might be a good footballer, but he never really makes an effort in the film. He gets where he gets to through his natural talent and by using a lot of favors from his friends; not through hard work. Which points at the film's biggest drawback: the story is simply unrealistic.
History shows it pretty clearly: one does not become an overnight success story in the English Premiership without years of hard work accompanied with very good coaching; Goal!'s story is something that can only happen on film.
If there is one film Goal! reminds me of, that would be Top Gun: stupid, ridiculous, mirroring tons of negative values - yet entertaining.
Best scene: It's really hard to come up with such a scene in here, because this is a story of mediocre film making. I'll settle for the scene in which David Beckham makes a guest appearance, as it's one of the film's peaks as far as stretching it is concerned.
Picture quality: Some level of detail is missing, but overall quite good.
Sound quality: Very good, although overall not exceptional. The stadium scenes are quite spectacular.
Overall: 2 stars; as silly as this one is, it is an effective feel good entertainer.

Sunday, 21 January 2007

DVD: Talladega Nights - The Ballad of Ricky Bobby

Lowdown: The American and the un-American compete in NASCAR racing.
Review:
I've always found NASCAR racing to be silly. No, this is not something I have concluded after watching Days of Thunder, it's just the lack of variety in the oval circuits that made me draw this conclusion. After watching Talladega Nights, I know I'm not alone in thinking this way.
First and foremost, Talladega Nights is a Will Ferrell film. The film follows his escapades as Ricky Bobby (Ferrell) from the minute he is born in a speeding car, through his school years where he adopted the motto "if you're not first you're last", onto him becoming a NASCAR race car by accident, then becoming the NASCAR champ, and then facing a nemesis. In the process he loses everything, but as this is an American film he also makes a comeback. That is all, in a nutshell; the most important thing to know about the Ricky Bobby character is that he is a dumb cliche American that manages to achieve the American dream through a fluke; and the American dream, in his case, is becoming too rich to know how to spend his money, having a dumb but good looking wife that only cares about his money, and having two rude sons that are - how can I say it? - extremely self centered.
Being a Will Ferrell film - he even takes credit for writing it - you know this is going to be a crazy film where he will show off his controversial talents in doing crazy stuff. He is not alone in this one, though: sharing the scene are John Reilly as a NASCAR veteran from good old Days of Thunder who plays Ferrell's frustrated number two, and Sacha Baron Cohen (i.e., Borat) who does a magnificent job playing Jean Girard, Ricky Bobby's nemesis.
If you can point your finger at one thing that this rather crazy film is about, it would be the pitting of Ricky Bobby as the generic American standing for everything that is American - as in advertising a very vicious looking blade that no person should find useful but is available at Walmart - against his exact opposite, in the shape of Jean Girard. Girard is French, he is gay, he is married to a guy, he comes from Formula Un (you know, that series where they actually turn), and he reads philosophical books and drinks his macchiato while racing his car. Ferrell is the straight ignorant guy, Cohen is the sophisticated European guy... but the combination of pitting them one against the other doesn't really work. Instead of a "clash of the Titans" sort of thing, where you would expect them to clash on the circuit and clash ideologically, you don't get much of a racing clash and the ideological clash quickly deteriorates into a farce of improvisations by both actors. While these improvisations are good - allow me to say that I think Cohen is the better of the two, outmatching Ferrell in his own game and becoming the one really good thing this film has to offer - the entire point about the American vs the un-American just washes off to become meaningless. To be fair, I would say the fight here is not between American idiocy vs. European sophistication, but rather a no brainer satirical look at the culture currently dominant all over the world: the culture of adoring so called celebrities for their meaningless achievements in fashion and sports, the culture of dismissing and ridiculing anything that requires thought or a brain, the culture of consuming (both in merchandise and in sex), the culture of worshiping the money god. But as I said, the message is too unfocused to truly pass through; the main event of the film is not the message, but rather the funny sketches it offers throughout.
Yet, are these funny sketches really funny? At the beginning they are; but then Ferrell has his breakdown and loses everything, and from then and up until he recovery (the bulk of the film, time wise) things stretch far too long between laughs; it looks as though the director couldn't bring himself to cut a few scenes that he liked in favor of having a well streaming film. The result? Essentially, a pretty boring film.
So there you have it. Talladega Nights is:
  1. A Will Ferrell film that is not a one man show but rather a three Ferrells like show.
  2. A film that has an unfocused laugh at American culture that is not really American but world wide
  3. A film that, despite featuring some good laughs, is overall too boring.
  4. All of the above.
Best scene: The great Ricky Bobby family, featuring his sons Walker and Texas Ranger (yes, Texas Ranger) have themselves a dinner featuring the full goodness of the family kitchen - Dominos Pizza and KFC. They say grace to baby Jesus because that's how Ricky Bobby likes to see him, and the kids shout out profanities at their grandfather.
Picture quality: No artifacts, but colors look all washed out. Did anyone bother to watch this DVD after it was mastered and before it was sent to production?
Sound quality: Inconsistent. The racing scenes are quite good, but some of the other scenes feature noise and distortion aplenty. Dialog, too, is often not that very well recorded.
Overall: The laughs are too infrequent and the message too hazy (and too crazy). 2.5 stars.

Friday, 19 January 2007

DVD: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask

Lowdown: Woody Allen going crazy about sex.
Review:
If you consider this film was made back in 1972, and if you then continue to compare it to what the cinema world is offering us lately, I would blame you if you were to say that the last 35 years have seen quite a significant decline in the field of film making.
Other than that, there is not that much for me to say about this film.
It's made of a collection of short sketches, all of which sort of dealing with issues to do with sex. I say "sort of", because the things they're actually dealing are things that would only constitute as sex to perverts; take, for example, Gene Wilder falling in love with an Armenian sheep. You sort of get the feeling that this Woody Allen film is more to do with laughing at social conventions while doing some outrageously original film making fun.
The various short stories vary a lot. Some are more funny than the other, but all offer extremely cynical and unconventional insight at us and what we take for granted. Allen simply makes his living by challenging conventionalities. Take, for example, the story of the king's joker who manages to get the queen interested in his love, only to find that what he really needs is the key to her chastity belt.
While not every story represents something to call home about, the very last one is a case of sheer genius; film making artistry at its best; the pinnacle of creation, if you will. I am talking, of course, about the most famous scene that shows us what takes place inside the male body of a guy who is dating this lady at a restaurant and looks forward to getting laid. We see things through a mission control like center that acts as the guy's brains, an oil drilling operation that acts as his penis, a garbage cleaning operation as his stomach, and a group of crack suicide paratroopers as the sperm about to jump into action (including Woody Allen as a sperm with second thoughts).
Second best scene: Rabbi Chaim is tied up with rope and beaten up by an attractive lady wearing not much more than stockings while his wife is at his feet eating pork chops. And all this as a part of a game show.
Picture quality: Very, very dated. Low resolution, lots of noise; they don't come much worse than this, but at least color fidelity is not too bad.
Sound quality: Very dated, very compressed, mono. They don't come much worse than that.
Overall: Obviously, this film should not be judged according to technicalities but rather by its originality. The mission control scene is definitely 6 star material, but it is the exception; overall, I would rate the film as 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, 17 January 2007

DVD: Zathura

Lowdown: A spaced out Jumanji.
Review:
Back in 1995 there was a film called Jumanji. It didn't do that well at the cinemas, but after reading reviews praising the laserdisc as one major reference in sound design I rented it. It did have an excellent soundtrack, but the film sucked big time.
More than a decade later we have Zathura, which is pretty much an exact replica set in space. You have your distressed family, fathered by Tim Robbins, and kids that hate each other's guts. While arguing they find this board game, which takes them out into outer space and puts them through all sorts of deadly horrific tests. The result is that they suddenly love one another and all's well that ends well. That's pretty much it, and the key word is "suddenly": the plot is driven by the horrific tests, and there's no real basis for the change in attitude that takes place between the characters. Yes, shared tough experiences do help in creating a bonding effect, but you need more than that; and in the film it just feels so contrived. The film is extremely bad in this regard: it takes the formula and does nothing to enhance it in any way what so ever; it just follows it to the letter in a very, but very, dull way. I have no idea what Tim Robbins does in a film as lacking and as unoriginal as this one.
That said, the "tests" that befall the kids do constitute some sort of a roller coaster ride, and it is entertaining to one extent or the other; but that's not enough to justify the film's existence. However, as this is a kid's film, I think kids will find some of those scenes too scary.
I don't think there's much point in spending more words on such an uninspiring film. It is basically an exact replica of Jumanji but with a different setting. Or, to put it another way, the studios are selling us the same product all over again.
Corniest scene: The older version of one of the kids merges with its child version. Makes you puke at what they feed into kids' minds these days.
Picture quality: No artifacts, but color fidelity is truly bad. Flesh tones appear as yellows and oranges.
Sound quality: Pretty impressive, but nothing special for an action film.
Overall: 1 star.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

DVD: Close Encounters of the Third Kind

Lowdown: The varieties of religious experience.
Review:
Surprisingly for a Spielberg fan, I only watched Close Encounters from start to finish once. It was when I was 11 or 12, in an after school thing I took part in dealing with science fiction at a time in which films were extremely hard to watch once they were off the cinemas. Since then I never saw much appeal in Close Encounters: there was no action or anything else to attract me to it. However, years went by and from time to time thoughts crept into my head regarding the film. Mainly, what the [insert profanity] did Spielberg aim at with this film?
The story is fairly easy to follow. It starts with all sorts of weird phenomena taking place all over the globe - planes disappearing, ships showing up in the middle of a desert. Francois Truffaut, the deceased French director - one of those film makers I always look up to - plays a French researcher investigating those. Then it moves on to different people in the USA (why?) who sight UFO's, focusing on Richard Dreyfuss. The film moves on to show how these people handle their experience, eventually culminating in an encounter between humans and aliens (oops, spoiler).
Well, what did Spielberg mean with that? After watching the film again I think I can safely say that Spielberg wishes to discuss the religious experience. When we pray to god for something, we are in fact asking for a miracle, a deviation from the standard way in which nature goes about; those missing planes and ships in the desert constitute that. And then the various people who encounter the aliens, which the film follows, they all experience things of the type that caused many a religion to come into being; and they also experience revelation, which is usually the basis of religion (especially as no religion can be substantiated by simple stuff such as verifiable facts). The film's aliens take upon themselves the role of god; I think it was Arthur C Clarke that said that if one culture encounters a civilization much more advanced than itself it would think it met god, which stands to reason; just think how a person from 200 years ago would react to a mobile phone.
I therefore speculate that Spielberg used the film to tell us something about the religious experience, where it comes from, and how he thinks it should be handled (my interpretation of the film is that Spielberg is a warm admirer). The aliens themselves are nice and poetic, at times, but at the end of the day the film is not about whether to believe in UFO's or not; it's a film where the UFO represents a way for us to feel at one with the universe, a need we usually tend to nurture using the invention of religion and god.
Having concluded the above, the next question is whether I like the film. Well... it's nice and it's entertaining, but it's not that spectacular; I can see, in retrospect, why I always considered this to be one of Spielberg's lesser films, even though it's clear it is a cornerstone film for Spielberg and even though it is regarded as a science fiction classic.
Best scene: Dreyfuss collects items from all over the neighborhood to build a replica of the mountain conveyed to him in revelation. It's a funny scene, but the way his neighbors react to his obvious lunacy makes me think how we would react if one of them biblical prophets was to turn up on our doors now; they'd find themselves locked in an asylum in a manner of minutes.
Picture quality: This special edition double disk release obviously went through much effort. There are no digital compression artifacts to talk about, but the picture shows its age.
Sound quality: Again, very dated; you know this is a film from 1977. That said, the soundtrack features a pretty aggressive surround soundtrack. It's old, but it packs a punch.
Overall: 3 stars.

Saturday, 13 January 2007

Book: The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: Sagan's version of The God Delusion.
Review:
Carl Sagan has been dead for 10 years now. This does not, however, stop him from publishing new books: The Varieties of Scientific Experience is a result of his wife's (Ann Druyan) editing of lectures Sagan gave during the eighties to a forum in Scotland which invites people of distinguished persona to lecture them on natural theology. While I doubt most of us, including the Sagan admirer in me, would categorize Sagan as a a professional in the filed of theology, the result of his lectures is so good I would gladly have him appointed as the pope.
Natural theology, according to both Sagan and your average English dictionary, is to do with the studying of god through natural phenomena - as in, according to Sagan's interpretation, thorough science and through critical observations and the conducting of repeatable experiments in peer reviewed processes. Naturally, this is a bit different to the methodology most of our religions come from, which usually is more to do with revelation and blind faith rather than verifiable facts.
Sagan uses the opportunity provided to him through these lectures to marvel at god's work: the book starts with an overview of just how big and how varied the world we live in is, and just how small and narrow our scope of looking at it is; a fact that becomes obvious once one looks at our extremely limited and species biased religions. Sagan continues to explore his scientific based approach and compare it with what religion offers us, and without really trying to do so he ends up constantly mocking our religions. The result ends up raising very similar issues to the ones raised in Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, yet there are some significant differences between the books: while Dawkins' book is an all out attack at religion, Sagan is exploring, not attacking, and just happens to conclude that our religions are lacking. Sagan is also much more philosophical, as evident by him exploring his subjects and speculating on issues using his expertise in astronomy (as opposed to Dawkins, who as an evolutionary biologist tends to explore the same ideas using findings from his field of research): Sagan discusses what we can learn from other objects in our solar system regarding the evolution of life on earth and regarding the way we treat this gift of life that was handed over to us with, say, nuclear weapons and global warming. He moves on towards further speculation through his research into the subject of UFO's and through discussions on a topic he was very passionate about, the search for extra terrestrial life and in particular intelligent life. While those may sound exotic and unrelated to religion, Sagan uses such subjects to explore around religious concepts and question them.
Eventually, while he marvels at the work of god, he is very much in agreement with Dawkins on the issue of Western religions. The example that I took from the book involved Sagan asking why, when we buy a used car, we take such great care in testing to see that it is any good, while when we take on a system of rules and morales that govern the way we conduct our lives from start to finish we're fine with taking others' words for it, no questions asked - and most often, questions are better off not asked. If you ask Sagan, the religious admirer who wants to delve further and study god's work should not bother wasting his/her time with the familiar religions; the studying of math, for example, would be much better.
Given that the book is lecture manuscript based, it is written almost as a dialog, and as such it is very clear and extremely easy to follow despite the heavy subjects it digests. Overall I would say the book is just about perfect in the way it handles its subject matter; better yet, it is simply a pleasure to read Sagan as he analyzes his matter. The one fallacy the book does have is in its introduction, written by Ann Druyan: it reads as rather apologetic, as if trying to tell the reader that despite Sagan saying a lot of nasty things about our religions, he is "old testament". Don't ask me what being old testament means, but it's fairly clear the introduction was written in order to help the chemistry of the book with the current state of mind in America - a place where religious zeal seems to be on the rise.
Overall: I gave The God Delusion 6 stars out of 5, which is the wrong thing to do by many's accounts, especially as Sagan's version is just as good a read. Still, I will give the Sagan book just 5, as The God Delusion is a much more conclusive book that also has the potential to be a more important book, historically. But don't let The God Delusion being the good book that it is stir you away from the Varieties of Scientific Experience.

Friday, 12 January 2007

DVD: Good Night, and Good Luck

Lowdown: We all have a tendency to avoid bad news; but a good media's role is to let us know of what is taking place, like it or not.
Review:
As films go, Good Night, and Good Luck is one very serious film attacking its subject matter face on. The film, directed by George Clooney, follows the real story of a CBS reporter - Edward Murrow - and the battle he waged together with his colleagues at the station against the lies spread during the fifties in America by senator McCarthy.
The times back then were extreme, in many respects: World War II was recently over, a huge economic boom was taking place, and everybody was afraid of the unseen menace in the form of communism, which by then had the ability to wipe the USA out. Step into the scene one power hungry senator, McCarthy, who - by spreading lies accusing lots of people that don't have much to do with communism - starts a scare campaign and creates a witch hunt atmosphere where one person cannot trust the other.
The film starts assuming we know all of this background, and its scope is rather narrow: it follows Murrow as he does a program on a victim of McCarthy, then another program on McCarthy himself, then the follow-up with McCarthy's respite, and the inevitable conclusion. It is pretty limited: most of what we see is Murrow preaching his agenda to the camera during his program and the buildup towards the next show. The film's message is thrown at us very bluntly with Murrow and his colleagues looking at the camera and saying exactly what they think.
One can easily appreciate the relevance of the subject matter to today's world: a world in which the leader of the USA expresses himself along McCarthy like lines of "you're either with us or against us"; a world in which the alleged war on terror motivates governments who seek to remain in power to legislate new "anti terrorism" legislation which severely restricts civil rights that took centuries to establish both in the USA and Australia; a world in which a TV station with its own agenda - say, Fox - has more political clout than most other entities, and it enjoys abusing it. Watching the film, one can clearly see where Clooney's stand is. But while I appreciate his message and value the and importance of people like Murrow, who represents one of many people to whom we all owe quite a lot, one cannot avoid the fact that the way in which the film's message is presented is so blunt that it gives it a negative effect. It simply removes thinking out of the equation.
The film has certain distinct artistic qualities: a characteristic black and white look and excellent acting, for a start. Most interesting is the mix of stock footage with modern day footage: McCarthy takes a very active role in the film, but there is no actor playing him - he's the real deal. However, if you ask me, the quality most dominant about the film is its very boring nature: it's just slow, it's blunt, and you know what's going to happen because it really happened and it's a famous story. There's not much tension involved. Which is a pity, given that I totally agree with what Clooney is trying to say here.
Maybe the film has more appeal to the American viewer, the one directly affected by both McCarthy and Fox. It certainly didn't appeal much to me despite me wanting to find it appealing.
Best scene: The opening scene where Murrow provides his theories on what the role of media in society is. It's simply the most provocative thought raised in the film.
Picture quality: It's hard to judge a black & white film, as issues such as color fidelity don't count here. The lack of digital artifacts and an overall very smooth picture lead me to believe it's quite good overall.
Sound quality: Shameful, to say the least. Although fidelity is good, especially in the jazz singing transition scenes, almost everything comes out of the center channel - which is not very exciting to say the least.
Overall: Boredom wins the day over the importance of the message. 2 stars.

Wednesday, 10 January 2007

DVD: Millions

Lowdown: Money can't buy you love, but you can do a lot of good with it.
Review:
I've been searching to rent Millions for more than a year now yet the DVD kept on eluding me; eventually I discovered the video store has filed it under the "Children" section. Go figure; yes, the film stars children, and children will like it, but it packs more punch in the message department than most adult films.
This British film follows two kids who move with their father to a new prestigious housing estate somewhere near a power plant and railway tracks after recently losing their mother. They're trying to cope with their new school: the older by fitting in, the younger one - an imaginative five year old - through his enchantment with Christian saint figures. He simply sees them and thinks about them wherever he goes, including the cardboard house he built next to the railway lines.
One day, while he's busy spotting trains in his man made shelter, a miracle happens: a bag full of money - 200,000 pounds - suddenly falls next to him. He shares the secret with his brother, and both decide not to tell anyone - because the tax authorities will take 40% of it, which is almost all of it.
The rest of the film focuses mainly on how the different characters in the film cope with this miracle that befell the children: some try to use it to establish a name for themselves, other acquire worldly comforts, but the biggest hero is the little kid who tries to use it to help the poor and those in need while various saints keep on making guest appearances and help him out. Eventually we learn the true nature of the money's arrival, and the story develops into a mini thriller, too (interestingly enough, the money ends up being related to a tragic Arsenal defeat to Newcastle in Highbury).
The end result is a lovely film, a true success story, where the main ingredient in the secret recipe is its unassuming nature: the film has this spirit of innocence about it that make it hard to develop expectations, yet when it delivers it's hard not to love the result. The second reason for the film working and working so well is the message it packs: money does not matter, in the grand scheme of things; even when miracles seemingly happen and money falls at you from the sky, you cannot buy yourself happiness. What you can do, however, is stop worrying about interest rates and investment properties and use it instead to make your world and the world of those around you a better world.
Given the wide use of religious connotations in the film, I have to address the question that most of my friends are bound to ask me - how come I liked a film that uses such motifs given my antagonism towards anything religious. First I will argue that the film does not use the things I despise about religion to promote itself; it uses things I approve, such as being good to one another, helping those in need, and not doing unto others what you wouldn't want done unto yourself. There's nothing wrong with that; my argument against religion there is simple: one doesn't need religious excuses to be a good person, thus rendering religion redundant.
Second, it is clear that while the film uses religious motifs, it also mocks organized religion as being a twisted representation of what it's supposed to stand for. This sarcasm becomes quite clear through a side story of a family of Mormons similar in nature to the hero's family - a father with two sons, albeit a bit older than the hero kids. They present themselves as a family that does not seek out the simple easiness that modern life can provide - say, a dishwasher. But when the hero kid stuffs money in their mailbox - 5,000 pounds - they rush into the nearest store and fill up their house with electrical appliances. You can clearly say that the film makers are using this side story to mock what religion currently stands for: a tax exempt institution full with money to the hilt that uses its money for its own sake instead of using it to support the poorer people of this world, the way the hero does with the help of his saints.
If anything, the film has helped me learn a bit about Christian saints and their origin, including Santa Claus. I have to say it made me wonder about the so called monotheistic nature of Christianity given the semi god status its saints have, but that has nothing to do with the film Millions - a film I would highly recommend.
Best scene: The hero 5 year old kid invites a group of poor people he meets on the street to a grand meal at Pizza Hut, his version of a grand meal out. Given my experience with the English side of my family, I can see where that notion comes from.
Picture quality: Too many digital artifacts, a picture that's a bit low on detail - mainly due to high contrast filming - but overall most of it doesn't look bad at all.
Sound quality: Some scenes offer a pretty intense sound, but most of it is on the polite side of things. Not bad, overall, for a film filed under the "Children" section.
Overall: A surprising 4 star film.

Tuesday, 9 January 2007

DVD: Shakespeare in Love

Lowdown: Love is the perfect inspiration. Ask Shakespeare.
Review:
Back in 1998 I liked to hate Shakespeare in Love. This obviously boring film took the Best Film Oscar award away from one of the films I actually still consider to be one of the best films ever - Shaving Private Ryan. I only allowed myself to see this blasphemous film long afterwards.
A lot has changed in me since 1998. As far as Academy Awards are concerned, I couldn't care less about them anymore; by now I'm convinced it's all about the money or the PR, and not about the movie. Otherwise, how can you explain how the most brilliant film of this century, Eternal Sunshine, didn't receive the accolades it deserves? But anyway, I'm straying.
Once I did see Shakespeare in Love at the cinema I really had to admit it was good. Not Private Ryan good, but a good comedy. I remembered it to be a rather clever comedy, and I also remembered it had quite a lot of nudity for a comedy (not that there's anything wrong with that). But eight years have past and it was now time to renew my acquaintances with the film. How does it fair today?
It is still a very good comedy. I wouldn't call it exceptional, because it doesn't send me roaring with laughter the way a truly good comedy does; but it does have several attributes that make it stand above the crowd: a clever story, excellent direction, and a cast of a caliber that is rarely brought together to perform on one "stage".
I'll start with the story. Set in Shakespeare's own time, back in small London town, the film tells us about young Shakespeare - a theater script writer who had some good work but is yet to make his mark on the stage. While writing his next comedy script, Romeo and Ethel the Pirate's Daughter, young Will suffers from writer's block. The only way around that, it seems, is to fall in love; and love finds him in the shape of Gwyneth Paltrow. Alas, Paltrow is to engage a rather materialistic Collin Firth; the fight between them for the mind, body and purse of Paltrow is epitomized in the play that eventually comes out of Shakespeare's quill.
I have mentioned a couple of the actors already, but please allow me to list the actors that truly make this film a pleasure to watch: Geoffry Rush, Tom Wilkinson, Judi Dench, Colin Firth (my favorite here), and Rupert Everett. And I'm sure I've missed a few; not that the main actors, Paltrow and Joseph Fiennes (where has he been to since?) do a bad job.
Overall, the point of the story is pretty simple: Love can take you to higher heights. Love is an inspiration. If you ask me, love is probably a load of chemicals released into your bloodstream that make you do all sorts of things you wouldn't normally do, but then again - what's wrong with that? For now, a person cannot be said to have truly lived without going through these motions several times in his/her lifetime. Please allow me to politely ignore the debate on what makes love better than other chemical drugs, or discuss the prospects for love once its chemicals will be artificially reproduced and consumed; superficial handling of such debates could lead people to think along the lines of "maybe we're better of ignorant, maybe we shouldn't let science discover what love truly is", and you know me - once I'm in anti-flat-earthers mode, I can't get out of it.
That said, the chemical type of love that is often celebrated in films does not tend to last too long, a fact most films (especially those made in America) tend to neglect to mention; this one gets around this problem rather well. And that said, plot cleverness and twists aside, the film cannot be accused of breaking new grounds, ideas wise; it is, first and foremost, a comedy - albeit a good one.
Best scene: Judi Dench's last appearance, which I would spoil if I was to provide any further details here. It probably caused her many a typecast.
Picture quality: You can see this is an older DVD. Details level is low, and there are lots of analog artifacts - of the type you don't see much of in newer DVD's - all around.
Sound quality: Pretty basic other than the occasional climatic moment handled by the score. Overall the amps and the speakers will have an easy day at the park.
Overall: Somewhere between 3.5 to 4 stars, depending on the weighing of the cast against the relatively shallow premises.

Friday, 5 January 2007

Film: Work Hard Play Hard

Lowdown: It's survival of the fittest with our economy. But at what personal price?
Review:
The French film Work Hard Play Hard is a bit of a problem for me. On one hand it's not the product of superior film making artistry; on the other it's one of those rare films with which I identify from toe to head.
The film starts by following Philippe, a recent graduate now turned consultant in a big global company at La Defance in Paris. At his heart, Philippe is a compassionate person: he helps a lady in distress in the Metro. Quickly enough, they fall in love with one another and have passionate sex together (the way one tends to have in a French film).
Philippe is assigned to work on a project in a factory somewhere in the middle of nowhere, France. The owner seeks out to sell the business and rip the rewards, so Philippe's company is hired to ensure the company is set to get the maximum price from its potential buyer. Naturally, the employees don't know what truly is taking place around them; they are told that the consultants are coming in to improve the efficiency and guarantee the company's future.
As Philippe becomes involved in the project, the film expands its scope and shows us glimpses of the various characters in the factory: from top management to the various production line employees. We get to know the single mother who just can't work weekends, the disabled employee that still receives the opportunity to work, the old guy who worked for the company for 40 years... even the big hearted Arab immigrant company cafeteria cook, who does his best to support his sister and her lackluster husband and dreams of saving enough money to open a restaurant of his own.
And as Philippe gets deeper into the project, he gets torn between his identification with the characters that he knows are going to lose their jobs and between doing his job, which represents his entry ticket to a world of status he worked so hard to get into. His torment causes trouble in his relationship, trouble with his boss, and trouble with the people at the factory. Which side is going to win?
The film is very interesting and touching, and as I said - I've identified with it. Unlike Made in America films dealing with similar concepts, such as Fun with Dick and Jane, it is not a film where everybody's problems are solved at the end and where a giant rainbow covers the screen at the end; it is a much more realistic take. However, as good as it is, it does present things in a rather too much of an in your face way; it makes the message clear, but it also takes away a significant bit of the fun out of watching a film. The way it is, the film borders on propaganda.
Overall, the film is all about a very simple question. Our economy is based on constant expansion and constant efficiency improvements, achieved through a Darwinian like process of competition - basically, survival of the fittest between companies. The film shows us the personal toll this system charges us with: it's not only the people who get to lose their job and those who will have a hard time getting replacement ones; it's also the people on the winning side that lose their morality and their humanity, as well as their family life, in the process of devoting themselves to winning the survival battle.
My personal views on the matter are no big secret, and they are the reason why I identify with the film so much. I was a capitalist myself until relatively not that long ago, and if you were to ask me about my opinion on the unemployed I would have told you that it's their fault for not getting a proper degree and for breeding like rabbits. Things changed, slightly, when many of my friends lost their jobs in the IT slump of 2000-2001; things changed all around when I was unemployed myself for 5 months upon arriving to Australia and had to rely on personal favors within the Israeli community in Melbourne to get myself a job. Basically, I got to learn the hard way that sometimes things are not within one's reach; sometimes, it's not that bad for society to lend its hand to one of its troubled members.
It's not only that. There is also the question of work/life balance, or, to put it differently - what are we working for? Are we living for work or working for a living? In Israel it was mostly the former for me; true, I earned lots of money and had company cars and restaurant lunches all around, but I did not have life in the sense that I have now. Now I earn much less, my status at work is significantly lower, but I also work much less and my job is relatively secure - helping me to live a relaxed life and enjoy my relationship with my wife. That said, I still have to fight off the occasional taunt from family and friends when they wonder aloud why I don't aspire for superior financial success.
At the country level, the film is all so relevant in contemporary Australia, with the Howard government's Industrial Relations legislation making the richer that much more powerful in their relationships with their employees. The film exposes the contradiction in conservative policies, which on one hand call for economic liberalism while on the other they call us to go back to good old family values - while failing to notice the contradiction between these calls.
To sum it up, I will quote from Richard Dawkins yet again. Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist by profession, will tell you that there is no doubt in his mind about the validity of basic Darwinian model of evolution. Yet, as much as the model is valid, it doesn't mean he needs to like it; in fact, as a humanitarian, he stands for everything that contradicts the concept of survival of the fittest in the values department. I concur.
Best scenes: There are two and I can't decide between them.
In the first, Philippe's boss talks to his wife on his mobile, telling her he won't be able to make it home before 10 (pm); in his next sentence he tells Philippe that his family - his wife and child - always come first.
The other best scene is Philippe's company gathering at the end of the film, where the big boss preaches his capitalist agenda to his employees while justifying it using scientific like explanations - arguments not much better than the Nazi master race theories. At the end of his speech, he asks everybody to chant the mantra "work hard play hard" in a scene that reminded me most of Steve Ballmer's famous speeches at Microsoft gatherings.
Overall: I'm a bit torn here. As a film, Work Hard Play Hard qualifies for something between 3 to 3.5 stars; however, the identification element causes me to be quite emotional about it. So allow me to go with my emotions: 4 stars.

Wednesday, 3 January 2007

DVD: Shopgirl

Lowdown: According to this examination of two rather exaggerated relationships, for a good love affair all that you need is love.
Review:
Shopgirl is a rather weird film. I couldn't really work out what it was about until quite late into the film, which is rather extraordinary for an American made film. Eventually, though, I concluded the above lowdown statement.
The film follows Claire Danes, a Vermont native living on her own in Los Angeles and working at a boring job in a huge high class fashion shop. And if there is one word with which you can describe her, it would be 'lonely'.
Then one day she meets Jason Schwartzman while doing her laundry. Jason is the ultimate repulsive guy that would stir any girl - other than the utterly lonely girl - away. While he's not a rude jerk, he lacks any social skills whatsoever. Still, Danes gives him a chance and lets him in her apartment, and he manages to ruin it, too.
And then she gets courted by Steve Martin, a rich old guy who works in Seattle but lives in LA. He buys her lots of stuff, and being the lonely person that she is Danes falls for him. Yet Martin doesn't really care much for her, treating her as the provider of sexual services while in LA.
I won't go deeper into the plot and into describing the relationships that transpire as it would ruin the film for you. I will just say that at its core, Shopgirl is a not that funny romantic comedy that I actually did enjoy, overall, even if this last sentence doesn't sound that promising. You see, I narrowed it down to being a story about love, examining the concept by presenting us with two very different extremes: Danes has relationships with two characters a normal person would not encounter under normal circumstances, if only because characters of the like of Martin and Schwarzman don't really exist much, if at all. It's this extraordinary way of the film that makes it uniquely nice, if still far from great.
The film helps us figure out what's going in two ways. On one hand, we have a sub-story where a fellow shop assistant of Danes becomes jealous of her dating this rich guy, so she sets up a trap to get Martin - only she ends up with Schwartzman instead. And then there's a rather annoying narration thing going on, that sort of acts as "if you didn't figure out what's going on in this film because you're an idiot, well - here's the executive summary for you". The bottom line is, as I already said, that the film tries to examine what love is all about and what is really important in love by examining exaggerated scenarios (which help the comedy work, to a point). The film's conclusions, though, cannot be said to be truly mind numbing: it basically says that money can't buy you love, and that the most important thing people look for in a partner is being loved in return. Still, is the film worth the ride? I think it is. It's entertaining enough to make you care for Danes, despise Martin for being a dick-head, and get truly repulsed by Schwartzman (no person who is the product of billions of years of evolution can be as bad as him!).
And just for the record: I never really liked Steve Martin, yet it's his book that the film is based on.
Best scene: The scene when Danes brings Schwartzman home the first time and it turns out he doesn't have a condom with him. I won't spoil it for you, I will just say that it's funny and it gives you the same shivers that Borat like humor does.
Picture quality: Devastatingly bad. Amazingly bad. It's not bad in the way that digital picture can be bad; it's analog bad. It's as if someone took a cinematic copy of the film, left it at the bottom of a train station's toilet for a month or so, and then made a DVD using that copy.
Sound quality: Very basic other than the occasional expansive bit of music. Hardly anything in the surrounds throughout the film, though.
Overall: I was thinking of a 3.5 star score, but the DVD's awful technical quality caused it to be relegated to 3.