Saturday, 31 March 2007

DVD: Basic Instinct 2

Lowdown: A poor attempt to redo a classic.
Review:
Back in the early nineties, Basic Instinct was the talk of the town. I have to admit I haven't watched it at the cinemas; I never really got the opportunity (couldn't get a date). I ended up watching it eventually on laserdisc when it was the only laserdisc I've had (my first ever laserdisc was Terminator 2, the reason why I bought a laserdisc player in the first place; but when it got damaged the only one they could replace it with was Basic Instinct). And given that at back then it wasn't easy to acquire films, unless you surrendered to inferior VHS, I got to watch Basic Instinct many times.
I thought it was ok, but nothing spectacular. I'll grant it that it's a classic, but it wasn't a particularly good film. I severely doubt it would have been the hit it was under today's terms and conditions, when porn (and pretty much everything else) has to be much more aggressive than what Basic Instinct had to offer in order to attract attention. The film's main attraction, Sharon Stone, is still an actress I remember mostly from her performance in Total Recall. In fact, what I liked most about Basic Instinct was the Gerry Goldsmith theme music and the house Sharon Stone had in the film - a magnificent house by the beach. I wouldn't argue against having one just like that.
Well, 15 years have past since the original, and now we get Basic Instinct 2 with a Sharon Stone that looks as if some heavily plastic surgery took place. There is silicon aplenty in her now, and I'm not talking about the CPU in the Mac she uses in the film. And it's not only the lead role that's second hand now; the director of Basic Instinct 2 is not exactly a Verhoeven. In fact, long before you ever get to watch it, you know that Basic Instinct 2 is going to suck big time; the only reason why I bothered renting it was curiosity, and I can only assume the producers were hoping for enough similarly curious minds when they set out to make this film.
The story of Basic Instinct 2 follows the agenda of its predecessor to the letter. Certain key scenes - for example, the disco scene - have been copied one to one.
We start with Stone making love to a guy who ends up dead as the sexual act reaches its peak, we move on with the police investigating the death, continue with someone associated with the investigation getting deeply personal with Stone, move along with subsequent murder cases where it seems obvious that Stone did it - and end up with another person being blamed for it all, while all the while our common senses tell us that it was Stone that did it.
So what did change, aside from Stone getting older and aside of her breast implants? [Disclaimer: To be honest, I haven't seen Basic Instinct for ages now, and I don't know whether she had them back then, too]
The thing that hits you immediately as you watch the the sequel is that what used to be sexual innuendos in the first film have become terribly explicit in the second. Every second sentence Stone says incorporates the word "come" in it, and it's not in the usual context of arrival. But it doesn't stop there: the entire film has a one big "contrived" label on it: things don't flow, things are artificially made to happen.
The plot is very second rate and in fact it's quite boring. There are way too many references to the first film - such as mentioning character names and events - which, given the 15 years that went by, I don't think the producers can expect everyone to remember to such a level of detail; not everyone has seen the laserdisc as many times as I have.
Once it arrives, the twist at the film's end feels as if we - the audience - have been cheated. In order for the twist to be accepted, you have to accept that a lot of the things you have just seen in the film didn't happen or didn't happen the way you thought they did; but unlike other films that are designed to make you think that what you expect to be real is not really real - say, The Usual Suspects, where the lies fit extremely well with the formerly perceived truth - the fit in Basic Instinct is loose, to say the least.
But the very worst thing Basic Instinct 2 has done is to move the plot from San Francisco to London without even the slightest attempt at explaining why. And that is pretty much the story of this film: an attempt to recreate the exact same sensation using the exact same formula with just a few minor changes; but those changes are not minor, and 15 years cannot be erased just like that. And worst, the changes are far from being improvements; they are a step back. Actually, not a step back; a giant leap back.
The only good thing I can say about the film is that it often quotes the original's theme music.
Worst scene: The opening scene in which Stone drives a Porsche at Formula 1 speed through the rather too empty streets of London while having sex with a doped passenger is so stupid and so badly done you think it's a joke. The scene's dialog is probably the worst ever.
Picture quality: The picture is too grainy and resolution is on the low side of things.
Sound quality: Inconsistent. Some scenes feature quite a good sound utilizing all channels, while the rest of the time everything comes at you from the center channel.
Overall: Silicon doesn't do it to me anymore. The entire film's a fake - 1 star.

Wednesday, 28 March 2007

DVD: Children of Men

Lowdown: In a future with no future, a fight is waged for the future.
Review:
As films go, science fiction is the best genre. Sure, I'm biased, but I can't help it: from Blade Runner through Star Wars to Terminator II, science fiction rules. And when you expand the genre to include Lord of the Rings like fantasy the issue becomes an open and shut case.
Enter Children of Men. The premises are relatively simple, as far as science fiction is concerned: we have ourselves a 12 Monkeys like plot set in its own uniquely detailed world. In the very near future, all sorts of calamities fall on humanity: disease, war, you name it - a dirty bomb in Munich, a nuke in New York. England, it seems, is the only place in which something close to business as usual still take place, but even England has deteriorated into a police state. The worst, however, is that this future world does not have a future: for some reason - no one knows why - women stopped have children. And so, by the end of this century's twenties, the youngest people alive are in their twenties. The world has no future, and it shows.
Enter Clive Owen, the film's hero. Or rather anti hero: he buys a drink of coffee at a Fleet Street (London) coffee shop, and as he leaves a terrorist bombs the place; he goes back to his office.
Things heat up for him, though, when a blast from his past meets him and he is asked to arrange for counterfeit papers that would see a woman he doesn't know leave England. Circumstances mean that things don't go according to plan, and quickly enough he learns this woman's story: she is pregnant, about to give birth to the world's first human baby in twenty years. In a world such as this she is priceless; she has to be taken to a place where her secret can be unveiled, and Owen has no choice but to become the hero that tries to get her there. On the way, though, he has to fight the corrupt and racist government that is on the crusade against foreigners and the terrorist groups that want the woman in order to promote their political agendas.
Children of Men is one of those films that is so rich I can go on talking about them for ages without running of proper things to say. The richness starts with the film's striking visuals: just like Blade Runner created a distinct Los Angeles world you could feel as you watched the film, Children of Men achieves the same with England. Both worlds are bleak and corrupt, but both are also rich.
Every shot in Children of Men is packed with information. It's not just the main events taking place at the forefront, you have to be on your toes and notice all the slight cues in the background to get the film's full impact. Certain key scenes are shot with very long cuts, often incorporating complicated effects and action that must have been hell to synchronize; the effect of those is just amazing as it all feels so very real. Shots like a car being ambushed - we watch events unfold from inside the car as all hell breaks loose around it; lengthy battle scenes inside a refugee camp that reminded me a lot of the good old days in the West Bank, incorporating tanks and soldiers and a lot of plenty of action; and the coffee shop explosion scene set in mid London - all these shots deserve a place in cinema's hall of fame for being true masterpieces.
The actors do a fine job themselves in delivering the message. I have noted here before how much I like Clive Owen for his ability to portray a tough hero that also has a sensitive side and a thinking side; here he does it again, excellently, and he's aided by others who do a good job beside him - most notably Michael Caine.
But if hard pressed and asked to cut to the chase, I will say that what I liked most about Children of Men was its message. Our world will easily fall apart if we don't do the right things, and it's our future and the future of our children that's at stake. The film's political views are made pretty clear: it despises the war on terror and its polarizing effect on people, it is against the consumerist decadence that rules the West, and it cautions us to be very careful with what we do with our planet and the way we go about abusing it. It's a stark warning, but there is still a lot of optimism in it. And this makes Children of Men a science fiction social statement of the first degree: rich, detailed, and thought provoking.
Best scene: The best scene is the car ambush scene I have already mentioned, for the masterful way it was shot. If asked, however, to choose from the more conventional bits of the film, I would go with the scene in which the heroes arrive at the foreigners' refugee camp and get themselves a hospitality that reminded me of the descriptions I have heard from Holocaust survivors describing what took place when they arrived at the gates of Auschwitz. We should indeed be very careful with the way our leaders manipulate our xenophobic tendencies.
Picture quality: It's all very bleak, but that's what a world with no future will look like. As far as the technical DVD qualities are concerned, the picture is very good, bordering the exemplary.
Sound quality: While on the subtle side of things for my taste, the sound is very effective in creating an atmosphere. I have to add that the music soundtrack - the choice of songs used throughout the film - is not only first rate, but each of the songs fits the context perfectly.
Overall: I was swaying a bit, but the closing credits' song sealed it for me, providing the ultimate answer to the question posed by Midnight Oil - Who's running the world today?
5 magnificent stars.

Monday, 26 March 2007

Film: Hannah and Her Sisters

Lowdown: Woody Allen searches for a meaning through relationships.
Review:
The first thing that strikes you when you have a go at Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters is the cast. It's an ensemble cast that could sustain ten films, but with Hannah they're all in one and they all give away some performances. I won't even bother listing the names; just look at imdb.
Eventually you cool down and get into the film. Hannah is a mix of stories all revolving around characters from one New York family, where for one reason or another the pivotal character seems to be Hannah (Mia Farrow): one of three sisters, currently married to Michael Caine but used to be married to Allen. As the film rolls along you're exposed to more and more of the various characters' stories: Caine is married to Hannah but actually has a crash on a younger sister of hers; that sister is living with an older artist, Max von Sydow, who is so disenchanted with society he uses her as his conduit to the world outside; there's another sister who tries to establish a catering business of her own, having lived in the shadows of others all of her life; there's Allen, whose marriage with Hannah started breaking up when they discovered he's infertile, and who is now a paranoid producer looking to find meaning for his life; and there is much more.
The film commences with a Thanks Giving dinner locking all the characters at a common starting point. It's interesting to note how often the American institution of the Thanks Giving dinner has been utilized for this particular purpose by movie makers; I admit I don't know how original Allen has been with this, given that Hannah and Her Sisters was released in 1986, but it definitely works as a pivot for the plot. The stories go on their separate ways, intersecting from time to time (including through subsequent Thanks Giving dinners), and culminating in the Thanks Giving dinner three years after the original where some satisfying conclusion transpires.
Overall, Hannah and Her Sisters is a touching tapestry of human stories, carefully balanced by Allen at a seemingly impossible to maintain balance between a comedy, a drama, a nonsensical comedy, and a sincere philosophical quest to find meaning in life. But it works and works very well, thanks mostly to the touching stories and the superb acting.
Of the different stories, Allen's one is the one I like the most. He starts as a busy workaholic who is disenchanted with what work rewards him with. Then he goes through a made up medical emergency which makes him appreciate the tangible qualities of life, and which in their turn make him look for some meaning to this ordeal called life. He goes through a madly funny cycle of examining religions, only to conclude that there's not much meaning to life and that we should just make our own meaning to this experience - and to the film entire. And everyone who knows me will immediately see the similarities with my own way of thinking and the reason why I really like Hannah and Her Sisters.
Best scene: Allen and one of Hanna's sisters meet in a record store and have themselves a conversation while browsing records, as in vinyl. Now I know this is not the right reason to nominate a scene for being a best scene, but I just couldn't stop thinking how less than 20 years ago shops were full of vinyl and you would go about browsing through records, and then compare it to the way music is acquire today. So much can change so quickly!
Overall: 4 stars.

Sunday, 25 March 2007

Watched without reviewing: Halfon Hill

For a film I've watched dozens of times before, the fact I haven't seen it for the last five years - ever since coming to Australia as a resident - felt pretty weird. Halfon Hill is the quintessential Israeli movie experience, discussing everything from different people's background to the uniting element of army service in what, at least to me, is an hilarious comedy.
The difference came with the recent acquisition of the DVD version that features English subtitles, which allowed Jo to watch the film with me. Now, given the number of times I have watched it before, I cannot review the film, but I will state the following observations gained through the perspective of watching it, for the first time, as an Australian:
1. Halfon Hill is not a film you can enjoy without being fully immersed in Israeli culture.
2. Halfon Hill is not a film you can enjoy through subtitles.
3. Watching Halfon Hill was perhaps the best evidence I could come up with to show that I only have one home, and that home is called Australia.

Saturday, 24 March 2007

DVD: Contact

Lowdown: First rate handling to Third Kind Encounters.
Review:
I have read Contact - the science fiction book by Carl Sagan - when it first came out. I was in school back then, and I didn't particularly like the book. More than 20 years have past now, and as this blog's reviews show I'm revisiting Sagan; I'm in the middle of a book of his at the moment, too. It was time to revisit Contact, this time the movie version (which I have only seen at the cinemas).
Contact - the film - stars Jodie Foster in the role of a scientist in a life long quest to find aliens. Countering her, sort of, is Matthew McConaughey, who plays a sexy priest on a crusade to get the positive out of science, claiming that with all that science has brought us we are less happier than we ever were. Anyway, while working on her array of radio telescopes Foster stumbles upon a signal coming from the Vega system, which, given its character - prime numbers - can only come from some sort of an intelligence. The signal is deciphered to include a broadcast of Hitler giving a speech during the 1938 olympic games - the first TV signal ever - as well as the design documentation for what seems to be a sophisticated transport device.
The world unites behind the USA in building this transport device, but a group of religious fanatics destroys it in a suicide bombing. However, a second alien transport device was built in Japan (to quote the film, "why buy one when you can buy two at double the price"), and Foster is chosen for the ride. She goes off with a bang, has an experience that would qualify in anyone's book as a religious experience, and comes back to a world in which no one believes her story of what has happened when she was away.
You can clearly see the Sagan roots in Contact. The concepts of discovering alien intelligent life through the use of radio telescopes, communicating alien intelligence through prime numbers, and creating a dialog between cultures through the language of science are very basic Sagan stuff - repeated in most of his books and on Cosmos too. It is clear that Foster represents Sagan's point of view - the skeptic who is open to anything but looks for proof before accepting it.
It is also clear that the main issue the film wants to touch is not aliens or their existence, but rather the conflict between religion - something taken on the basis of belief alone - and science, which is based or repeatable, peer reviewed and measurable experimentation. I have to say I was more than a bit troubled by the comparison the film was making between religion and science, simply because comparing the two puts religion at the same level as science when it is pretty clear - by definition - that the two differ; if religion was a repeatable, provable, affair it wouldn't have had to rely on faith; it would have been science. There are many specific points raised in the film whose treatment I didn't really approve of, and I would like to review a few of those here:
1. The film states that "the thing people are most hungry for, meaning, is the one thing science hasn't been able to give them". I would say this is very much wrong; since Darwin science has been very able to tell us what the meaning of our existence is. It's just that too many of us either don't understand it or don't like the answer.
2. The McConaughey priest character says: "Is the world fundamentally a better place because of science and technology? We shop at home, we surf the web. At the same time, we feel emptier, lonelier and more cut off from each other than at any other time in human history." In my view, however, science is there to help us get to know the world around us; the way we implement science is entirely up to us, and we can do it for better or worse. So while I agree with religion that science will not necessarily make us happier, I will also not look for happiness in some delusional world; I would seek to improve the implementation. In the case of the particular issues raised here, I would say humanity's problem is more to do with the culture of consumerism and capitalism than with science being evil.
3. Foster goes for a ride on the alien transport machine, has herself a revelation, and then comes back to a world where no one believes her. Surely, it's exactly the same as the religious experience - as in, aren't Judaism, Christianity and Islam based on revelations of a similar nature? How come, then, can we - as in the scientifically minded people - accept that what has happened to Foster is possible, within the terms and conditions of the film, yet we dismiss the stories of Jesus and Co as bullshit? Well, there is a catch there. Foster's experience might have been a revelation, but it was a repeatable revelation - if the people in the film wanted to, they could have repeated the experiment as many times as they felt like; they could have diagnosed the alien's machine to understand how it works; they could have improved on the experiment. However, the truly religious revelations are nothing like that; the idea of asking for god to resupply us with evidence for Jesus' true nature is considered blasphemy by the believers.
4. Foster is having an argument with McConaughey, saying that we have no proof to justify us believing in a god. McConaughey answers "Did you love your father?... Prove it!"; and the scene is cut, as if McConaughey has just said QED or something similar. Well, I would again disagree and say that our inability to prove we love our parents in our heads is equivalent to our inability to prove god's existence: Eventually, we will have the technology to read what is going on in our brains, and we will be able to point to the exact source of chemical/electric stimulation that governs our love for our parents in the same way as we are now able to explain how the sun generates its energy whereas less than 100 years ago we couldn't. We can even prove our love for our parents in indirect ways, such as through the listings of actions that we have performed in honor of our parents. However, the same methodologies cannot be used with religion; we have no idea what technological leaps will be required for us to come up with something to prove the existence of a god, and in fact so far what science has been pretty good at doing was to remove god from taking part in more and more activities where he was deemed mandatory before - things like pushing the planets in their orbit around the sun or making flowers blossom. And again, most religions would consider it blasphemy to even try and prove god exists, probably because if enough people tried and failed there would be no one left to actually believe anymore.

I can go on and on with these arguments, because the film provides many such points for argument. It is obvious that the filmmakers, as well as Sagan, wanted this discussion to take place and this provocation to make people think of their stand in this battle between science and religion. Again, I will repeat my view that comparing the two is like comparing elephants with tomatoes, and that the actual comparison is an insult to science; however, it is obvious there are enough people out there who have a vested interest in creating such a discussion in order to promote their religions, and it is also obvious that such a discussion is one hell of a coffee table discussion material. You can therefore rightly claim that the film has served its purpose.
Other than that, is Contact a good film? I mean, as a film, do you enjoy watching it? Well... it is definitely well done, but it feels contrived - as if the film was made according to a formula. You watch one scene and you sort of know what the next scene is going to be; if we saw the good guy (Foster) saying something in favor of science, we know that in the next scene we will see the bad guy saying something in favor of religion. And so on.
Contact was directed by Robert Zemeckis of Forrest Gump fame. He does a good job here, but he goes a bit too far with the Gump special effects department, putting Bill Clinton as the American president in many scenes without any real contribution to the film as a result. Instead of focusing on the plot, the viewer is instead thinking "ooh, they got Clinton to work with them on the film!". And then there's the date stamping effect, which after too many years under George Dubya gives away the film's age too easily.
Best scene: The opening scene, showing us earth, then slowly zooming out to show the various parts of the solar system, then our area of the galaxy, then our galaxy, then our neighboring galaxies, then our cluster, and so on and so on is a classic Sagan theme. Most people, however, still don't get how tiny and insignificant we earthlings are in the grand scheme of things.
Picture quality: This is obviously an old analog picture transfer. I don't think they do them this way anymore, and for a good reason - there are analog artifacts aplenty.
Sound quality: As with Forrest Gump, most of the time the sound is too subtle for the film's own good, but when it makes an attempt to be good it shines (making me feel sorry that it didn't make a more prolonged attempt at being good).
Overall: It's provocative, it's entertaining, but it's not that good. 3.5 stars.

DVD: Kokoda

Lowdown: Australia pats itself on the shoulder.
Review:
As far as myths that help build a nation up are concerned, Australia's count is on the lower side of things. As far as the ruling white perspective is concerned, the country never had to fight for its independence, nor were its shorelines ever invaded. As a result, stories that would have been relegated to the bottom of the pile anywhere else - say, the story of the petty criminal Ned Kelly - become famously dominant.
Out of the war time heroics pile, which Australia seems to have no shortage of (having participated in pretty much every famous war over the last 100 years or so), two stories of heroism stand out as far as national psyche is concerned: The first is the story of the disastrous Gallipoli landing during World War 1, where hundreds of thousands of allied soldiers landed in Turkey only to retreat a short while after with an incredible 400,000 casualty count on both sides.
The second story of heroism is the story about the Kokoda Trail fight during World War 2. The Kokoda trail links the north part of Papua New Guinea, the side closer to Japan, to its southern side - the side closer to Australia. The Japanese were massing large amounts of troops along the trail in an effort to establish a landing force that would invade Australia, while the vastly outnumbered and under-trained Australians had to rely on guerrilla tactics, heroism and courage in order to stop the Japanese that were already bombing the northern parts of Australia. Well, at least this is what it took if you take the word of Kokoda - the film - for it.
The film follows a group of Australians on the Kokoda Trail as the Japanese are about to be engaged for the very first time. They are not trained soldiers; they just happened to be at the wrong place at the right time. Long before the Japanese first indicate their presence we see just how harsh the jungle environment of the trail is: everyone suffers from some sort of an infection or dysentery. Then the Japanese come and the fighting begins, with different people reacting differently and most dying in one of many horrible ways. After a few skirmishes and near misses what is left of our group of soldiers joins other Australians for a major stand, the film's climax, and after that we get a short slideshow telling us the Japanese never got anywhere and that the Australians ended up winning. And that's it.
I find it hard to just watch a simple, plain clothes, war film like Kokoda - a film that is there to say not much more other than "look at us - we're such heroes". While that is true - and people like me owe their existence to those that fought on the right side during World War 2 - this does not make for a particularly good film, not by today's standards at least. Just compare it to Letters from Iwo Jima, an American film about the Japanese side of the war, and you can clearly see how you gain much more appreciation towards what took place by looking at things through the other's perspective than by just praising yourself.
Kokoda's Japanese are ghosts. You never see their faces: you see their boots trotting along, you see their camouflaged soldiers suddenly appearing as mirages out of the jungle just behind an unsuspecting Australian to slit his unsuspecting innocent throat, you see them out of focus. But you never see their faces, which automatically elevates them to a ghost like status - i.e., the Australians weren't fighting people at Kokoda, they were up against superman or something similar. And the fact the Australians won just goes to show how great a bunch Australians are. Well, call me a cynic, but I can't go with that. Again, I would prefer the Iwo Jima way.
An overabundance of self praising is not the film's only problem. At its basis, it is not a cohesive pack. There is no real lead, no real plot that progresses along, no real start and no real ending. I assume this is very much intentional, but it mainly served to leave me wondering about better ways in which I could have spend an hour and a half of my time.
Kokoda is an overly patriotic and nationalistic film. You don't really learn much from watching it about what really took place, but you do gain a perspective for the environment in which the battle took place. Mainly, though, you are supposed to be a proud Australian.
Worst scene: I couldn't find a "best scene" here, so I'm settling for the opposite.
The film starts with an overview of an Australian caravan of soldiers moving through the trail. One of them slips in the mud and gets himself covered in mud from head to toe, Rambo style; he then searches for his wounded brother, finds him, but in what turns out to be a nightmare scene learns that there are snakes in his brother's stomach.
Now, we've all seen nightmare scenes before, but this one is not only very long and tiresome, it is also very much pointless. I was under the assumption we will revisit the scene later on, but the "revisitation" never touched the nightmare part. Very weird film making, if you ask me.
Picture quality: Obviously, the film makers didn't have the budget to properly light the scenes. If you take that into account, things are not that bad. Some scenes still look spectacular, others suffer from low resolution. Overall, color inconsistencies are the rule.
Sound quality: Surprisingly for a war movie, sound effects offer nothing special. Even the battle scenes fail to immerse you in the spirit of the fight.
The real issue, though, is with the dialog: it's incredibly unintelligible, and not just for me (a person for whom English is the second language) but also for native tonguers. It would be a safe estimate for me to say that I did not understand about half of the film's dialog. I just can't think up any other DVD with problems that are even remotely close to those of Kokoda in the dialog recording department.
Overall: Maybe if it was done immediately after the war Kokoda would have been another successful story of heroism. In this age of Private Ryans and Letters from Iwo Jimas, Kokoda feels pointless. 1 star.

Saturday, 17 March 2007

DVD: The Departed

Lowdown: It's a thin line between good and bad.
Review:
I was never a fan of Martin Scorsese. Taxi Driver failed to move me, and his mafia movies were always under the shadow of the first two Godfather films. His more recent efforts, Gangs of New York and The Aviator, were exercises in being boring and eccentric. The Departed, however, is better than those recent efforts, although I wouldn't label it as anything special.
The Departed's story appears to be complex and involves many characters, but once you get the hang of it things become simple to follow: it's one of those films we've seen before under numerous guises. Set in Boston, which - at least if you let the film dictate your impression of the place - is one big fertile ground for gangs of criminals who pretty much control everything that takes place within the community; no one is out of touch with them. Jack Nicholson plays the head honcho of the ruling gang, and to help himself get out of the police's reach he nurtures a policeman to become his own double agent - played by Matt Damon. On Damon's opposition side we have Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays a cop of a background pretty similar to Damon's; however, instead of falling for the dark side of the Force, Leo sacrifices his life to become an insider for the police with Nicholson's gang. Thus, and with the aid of many other famous actors, the scene is set for a showdown between Damon and Leo - one seemingly evil, the other seemingly good, as they struggle to remain in favor with the police and with the gangs.
This struggle works pretty well, and The Departed offers lots of tension. The main reason why it works is the collection of characters and actors involved, which add a layer of complexity to this struggle between good and evil, which in its turn gives an aroma of authenticity. We're talking here about actors such as Alec Baldwin, Martin Sheen and Mark Wahlberg.
The main thing working in favor of the film's attempt to show the thin edge between being good and bad, to the point of showing there is no difference between being good and bad, is the comparison between Leo and Damon. They're made to go through similar experiences and they're even made to look the same, especially through the use of the wardrobe department; and if anything works well in The Departed, it is this.
However, there are many things that don't work well in The Departed. For a start, everything is just way over the top: the cinematography attracts attention to itself, the editing, and yes - even the acting is overcooked. The way the characters behave and pronounce themselves is just more than what could pass with me for real. Case in point is Wahlberg's character, who never stops swearing and acting quite violently towards anyone, whether friend or foe. I realize this goes with showing that the good is not different to the bad, but the high octane also makes for low credibility.
I have already mentioned the acting as a positive, but I will also add that while I think The Departed is the first time I recall DiCaprio portraying a genuine person in a genuine way, I wasn't that greatly impressed with some of the work. Nicholson, for a start, gives a good performance, but it's the typical Nicholson performance we've seen 100 times before.
And talking about things we've seen 100 times before, let's talk about the script. At its basic level of a good cop / bad cop fight, we've definitely seen this film before. True, The Departed is quite thrilling and you don't really notice its length, but it's also a film that wouldn't really leave its mark on you. Give it a couple of days and you'll forget all about it.
Personally, there is one thing I will take from this film: there is a scene where a character offers another one a croissant, and asks "care for a French donut?". What can I say other than "oh my god".
Best scene: DiCaprio and Damon, on the hunt for each other, have themselves a silent showdown over their mobile phones. It's the first time I recall a duel scene where guns are replaced by mobiles.
Picture quality: I've mentioned already that the cinematography attracts too much attention. The picture is very grainy and high in contrast, which I suppose was a very conscientious decision by the filmmakers. I just found it too distracting.
Sound quality: Less than nothing special. Most of the action takes place over the center channel, and the surrounds are rarely utilized. You sort of expect more from a film with such a high claim to fame as The Departed.
Overall: I'll be generous and give it 3.5 stars.

Sunday, 11 March 2007

Book: The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester

Lowdown: Book sized science fiction comics.
Review:
The Stars My Destination is one of those books that everyone who is into science fiction will list as one of the all time classics. I, however, didn't like it that much when I read it as a teen: I found it thrilling and interesting, but not that moving. I did, however, wanted to give it a second chance. Turns out my teen notions still apply today, for a change.
The story takes place during the 25th century or so. By then it was discovered that people can do all sorts of things if they set their minds to it: almost everyone can teleport themselves, and some can even read others' minds or transmit telepathically. People's ability to teleport means that economic practices that used to work for thousands of years no longer apply, and war breaks within the solar system as a result.
Gully Foyle, the book's hero, is one of this war's victims: the book starts with him stranded on his severely hit spaceship, totally helpless but for his will to survive. A friendly spaceship passes by and sees him, yet it doesn't stop to rescue him; Foyle becomes so angry that he makes it his life's quest to rescue himself and seek vengeance. He sets his will power to it, becomes a MacGyver, and goes on a major vendetta rampage.
There is no doubt The Stars My Destination is a thrilling book. It keeps you on your toes and you want to read ahead to see what happens to Foyle as the plot thickens. However, thrill alone does not make a book great (otherwise crap like Da Vinci Code would be the ultimate book ever). There is also no doubt that the book paints an interesting and a very cynical version of the world as a world controlled by companies and brand names, a world in which anything goes if it serves those with the power and the money: you can definitely see how this vision applies to today's corporate led world. And the statements the book makes on how far people can go if they set their minds on something and how far we can go if we expand our horizons and use our imaginations are also fairly interesting.
All that said, I cannot say I think The Stars My Destination is a good book. I think a lot of it is Neil Gaiman's fault: in the book's introduction that he wrote, Geiman says that Alfred Bester turned to become a comics artist after writing the book; the result was that throughout reading the book I couldn't help but feel how well it all fits into a comics framework. I was, in effect, quite distracted.
But there is more to my lack of satisfaction with the book than comics. I think it comes down to the book not having much to say other than delivering its thrilling plot. I mean, it does touch some interesting subjects, as I mention above; but their treatment is rather superficial as Bester just browses by them. You sort of feel it's a waste for him to create this world and leave it with so much unfulfilled potential. And then there's the book's ending, which feels like it was written on drugs; but I won't go too far into that, as I don't want to ruin the experience.
Overall: The book hasn't aged but I wouldn't call it a classic. 3 stars.

Film: The Great Dictator

Lowdown: Chaplin takes on Hitler.
Review:
Trivia junkies will surely point at the fact that Chaplin and Hitler were born on the same week. I, however, will gladly settle with stating that Chaplin's take on Hitler (and Mussolini, for that matter, as well as the rest of your average generic dictator) is quite the masterpiece. A dated masterpiece, in certain respects, but still a tour de force of original film making.
The Great Dictator is built on a simple analogy. On one hand you have Charlie Chaplin playing a Jewish barber guy, who just happens to look and behave the way Chaplin's tramp character does. This Jewish guy is a well meaning person who is not that good at fighting - as evident by the opening World War 1 scenes, yet he is truly a hero when it comes to taking care of his friends.
On the other hand you have Charlie Chaplin playing a character that cannot be mistaken for Hitler, even if its name is slightly different. This character is abusive, feeding on hate and fear to build its own power, as well as on the aid of its lieutenants (notably Garbage, who takes the role of Goebbels).
The fact the Jewish barber and the great dictator happen to look pretty similar to one another is well used by the film, both in making its point against fascism and in advancing the film's plot. As the dictator's storm-troopers wreck havoc with the Jewish people and then plot to invade their peaceful neighbor country, the ground is set for some major false identification issues to take place.
There are several key elements that make The Great Dictator a great film. First, I'll concede: It was released in 1940, and it isn't as funny as you might expect, and at a bit longer than 2 hours it is a tad too long and too slow for its own good, and it is obvious that Chaplin has a bit of an issue with doing a talking film (and in the Great Dictator he talks a lot). However, first and foremost, this film will be remembered as the first true stand the free world took in front of Hitler: I mean, yes, the film was released after the war was started (but before the USA joined it), but preparations must have taken place way before it started. Chaplin's ability to forecast some of the events that will take place, at least as far as what Hitler is going to do, is phenomenal. That said, even Chaplin was unable to forecast the lengths through which the Nazis would go in their handling of Jews and other pests.
The next ingredient of this masterpiece is a collection of some truly ingenious scenes. There's the scene in which the Hitler character plays with a globe like ball in a weird dream like context, a scene which has become very famous. There is also the scene in which Hitler and Mussolini sit on chairs that can be adjusted for height, and in their great dictator like foolishness they constantly try to be the one that is taller: this scene has been replicated by so many other comedies it would be easy to ignore Chaplin's as yet another copy, yet this is the real thing.
The film's final scene, though, is its greatest one as well. Chaplin looks at the camera and gives us a heart warming speech about his true agenda, quoting from the bible and appealing to the humanity inside us to knock off this man made evil that is fascism and work together for the betterment of humanity. And how right he is!
Best scene: If I was to ignore previously mentioned scenes, I would say the best scene as far as comedy is concerned is the scene in which, earlier on, the Hitler character gives out a speech to its adoring massive crowd. Chaplin speaks in gibberish, yet through the strategic placement of carefully selected words - say, "Juden" - and through the intonation of his voice, done in a manner so Hitler like it's scary - you understand exactly what he's talking about. And the result is roaringly funny.
Overall: A mighty 4 star effort that would have been much more in the past.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Mini Series: Hogfather

Lowdown: Discworld's version of a Christmas story.
Review:
Generally speaking, it's not in this blog's business to review mini-serieses, or anything of a TV orientation for that matter, if only because were I to do it I would have to spend my days as well as my nights blogging reviews.
Hogfather is an exception I would like to make, though: because it is based on a Discworld novel, because it is based on Terry Pratchett's work, and because we saw it on proper high definition, I thought I'd better write a short review.
Hogfather tells the story of the night before Christmas, the Discworld version. The accountants of the world, being accountants, seek out the services of the assassins' guild to kill the Hogfather - what we would tend to refer to as Father Christmas. The assassin uses an ingenius tactic: he invades the Tooth Fairy's castle out of the assumption that he who control the teeth controls the world, and he manages to dispense of the Hogfather. Death, sent to dispense with the dead Hogfather, doesn't really like what's going on, so he takes over the place of Hogfather and goes around distributing gifts to kids. And so the plot unravels, with many a character and many supposedly funny eccentricities taking part in a way that mirrors the real world but exemplifies the ironies of what takes place in the real world.
I have to say that I never really read a Discworld novel from start to finish and that I never really read the works of Terry Pratchett. I know that what I am about to say will incur the wrath of many readers of this blog (all two of them), but I will say it anyway: whenever I try to read Pratchett's work I realize pretty quickly why I didn't get into it before. Sure, it's imaginative, and sure - it's funny, but it's all so disorganized and lacking in meaning that it doesn't attract me. I can find myself better ways to amuse myself, and when I read I look for more than just a laugh. Usually.
In this sense, the Hogfather mini series worked exactly the way I expected it to work: it's imaginative and from time to time you do laugh (although way too rarely, if you ask me). But as I watched it I couldn't help thinking "so, what's the point?"; it was, it seemed, an exercise in being imaginative for the sake of being imaginative.
As far as having some sort of a position on Christmas, Hogfather also behaves pretty much as expected. It doesn't really take a position; it mocks everybody: the scientists, the atheists, and the Hogs Watch holiday's advocates. It finally (and quite reluctantly) does settle for a position that is similar to the one taken in the excellent book Life of Pie: If you don't believe that the sun is the sun, that is - if you don't believe - then the sun would be just a fiery ball of gas. That, according to Mr Pratchett, would be a great shame and a boring way to look at the world. I will end this discussion by saying I disagree: fooling ourselves that there is more to the sun then there actually is will not make our world a better place; the sun is even more marvelous when you appreciate it for what it actually is.
Best scene: Death has a philosophical discussion with the smartest thinker in the world - an analog computer with AntHill Inside technology - about the meaning of believing.
Overall: Creative yet boring. 2 stars.

Wednesday, 7 March 2007

DVD: Capricorn One

Lowdown: If you believed they put a man on the moon...
Review:
To me, Capricorn One is a blast from the past. This is one of those films I used to watch when I was about 10 or so on VHS, time after time, mainly because of the dogfight scene at its end. I was curious to see how things look like 25 years later, and I think I can say that while I liked the film for different reasons now (the dogfight's special effects are pretty bad by today's standards), Capricorn One is still a very good film.
The film is directed by Peter Hyams, who seems to specialize in fringe science fiction: he did Outland, which I quite liked, but he also did the more recent A Sound of Thunder which was pretty bad. Consistency seems to be an issue for him.
But the director's qualities are not of direct concern here. What is of direct concern is the film, which tells of a fascinating plot: Taking place at around the Apollo period, the USA is about to launch a manned mission to Mars - a mission that would have humans step on another planet for the first time. Everything is ready for launch when suddenly the three astronauts are told to get out of the rocket and end up being secretly transported to a hidden army base. There they learn that there was a problem with their ship that would have meant they would have died on the way to Mars, but since NASA doesn't want the project canned they were going to pretend everything is still going according to plan and the mission to Mars is still alive and kicking.
The astronauts end up playing being Martians inside a film studio, and they don't particularly like the idea. Questions start to be asked by certain people, mainly Elliot Gould, but those that ask the questions seem to disappear in all sorts of spectacular ways.
There is not doubt this film could supply enough thinking material for every conspiracy theorist out there. I used to regard the film's premises as a joke, something that can never happen - no one can do a fake landing without the bubble bursting - but over the last few years I have met more than a few people who seem rational in every way yet they truly believe that the American moon landings never took place. They blindly accept other things - say, that they can take a photo and that this photo could be seen by someone across the world in just a few seconds, but they won't accept the landings. Go figure.
As hard as I find accepting the notions of such people, this is what Capricorn One is all about: it's about the way we people seem to need to have some illusion to stick with so that the world would seem a nicer place to live in, and it's about the ease and the danger with which this fake reality can be created, especially given today's technology. The film definitely hints towards religion as one of those illusions that we seem to require (through a scene in which the soon to be launched astronauts are given with a copy of the bible to take with them to Mars), but most of its sting is to do with the danger of accepting higher authorities for granted at an age where these authorities can shape reality at will.
Philosophy aside, Capricorn One is a pretty effective thriller. It is well directed and it offers some good acting, good action, and good thrills. Sure, by now it looks more than a bit dated, but on the same note it is a good representative of the realities of the post moon program years. It feels authentic, even if it has quirks like helicopters that seem to need to face one another in flight in order to communicate instead of using a radio; the type of silly things that make me afraid I just like the film because of good old memories rather than it truly being a good film. But then again, do I really need to explain myself that much? A film discussing space exploration that features some dogfight scenes as well as some other thrills will always start from a higher ground in my book.
One last anecdote: OJ Simpson plays one of the three astronauts. He's not too bad, actually...
Best scene: The astronauts talk to their families, apparently from space, but really from a hidden studio. There is a lot of well nurtured tension there, between the astronauts that don't want to cooperate, the project directors who have a big secret to hide, and the rest of the world that is hungry to see its heroes.
Picture quality: This has to be one of the worst DVD's ever, if not the worst. The picture is just horrible: very low detail, noise all over, digital artifacts, colors that are not there, fuzziness and lack of focus - it looks like it was mastered from someone's 8mm bootleg copy. And for a film shot in 2.35:1, a 4:3 presentation is inexcusable.
Sound quality: Very badly compressed mono; I wonder if the film was originally mastered in mono.
Overall: 4 stars, but I wonder how many of those are due to the child who loved a good airplanes.

Monday, 5 March 2007

Movie: Letters from Iwo Jima

Lowdown: Eastwood's flip-side on Iwo Jima is a masterpiece.
Review:
The last movie we watched at the cinema up until yesterday was Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers. That film wasn't bad, but I didn't find it to be that special; it did make me think that maybe I should not go about saying I think Eastwood is the best contemporary director out there.
You can call it a coincidence or call it a luck of the draw, but yesterday when we went to the cinemas again we went to see Eastwood's second half of his private battle of Iwo Jima saga: Letters from Iwo Jima. In retrospect, it is obvious that in order to fully appreciate Flags of Our Fathers one has to see its second half. It is also clear which of the halves is the better one, because once the lights were on at the cinema one thing was very clear to me: Clint Eastwood is the best contemporary director out there. And if you want a second thing that was clear to me, here you go: Letters from Iwo Jima is a masterpiece. True, it starts a tad on the slow side of things, but it's one of those films where, once the curtain is up, I had to take my watch's word for it and accept that the film was 140 minutes long because it felt like a short clip.
The thing that is most unique about Letters is that it's a film presented from the enemy's point of view. In its entirety, the film looks at the Iwo Jima battle from the Japanese point of view; it features what seem to be Japanese actors and Japanese dialog (at least so they say; I couldn't understand a word, and I wonder if Eastwood could). Now, looking at a battle through the eyes of the enemy is not that unique: All Quiet on the Western Front did it twice, and Das Boot did it again more recently. Still, there is a difference to the level of personification in Letters, because unlike its brothers in arms Letters does not attempt to show how "we are all the same" - in fact, it tries very hard to show how Japanese the Japanese were; yet, unlike Das Boot, which often feels like some propaganda material for the Third Reich even if it is somewhat sympathizing towards the evil British, Letters shows both the good and the bad about both sides. Das Boot is a film about Germans that was made by a German; Letters is a film about the Japanese that was made by an American, and that makes all the difference. That, and the fact Eastwood is damn good. The best contemporary director out there.
So - what is actually taking place in the film? The film follows the Japanese on the Iwo Jima island as they prepare for the imminent American invasion. By then the American military superiority is pretty obvious, and the Japanese know that the best they can do is fight to the death in a one big kamikaze act. The film follows several characters in the Japanese side throughout the before and after of the battle, and we see how the very different characters handle the war. The battle scenes themselves, once they start, are not for the feint hearted; they are, however, eclipsed in horror by the scenes portraying what takes place in between the Japanese themselves as they face their ultimate demise. The American side is encountered, from time to time, but mainly in order to expose different sides of the Japanese psyche. All in all, you may very well argue that Letters from Iwo Jima is a film exploring muscularity and male heroism in the face of extreme conditions - a pretty familiar Eastwood theme - while utilizing the colorful palette that is the Japanese psyche during World War 2.
Another recurring Eastwood theme is to do with the conflict between absolutism and relativism. Eastwood's take on things has been pretty obvious to me since he finished his Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil with the words "truth, like art, is in the eye of the beholder". Nothing, however, is better at exposing the shortsightedness and futility of absolutism as the mind of a determined soldier; and Eastwood does a very good job exposing that through the medieval concept of honor that plagued the Japanese in the past.
Just like it's hard to watch The Two Towers without watching the other members of its trilogy, Letters cannot be fully digested without Flags. The combination of both, though, serves as a major reality check for all of us living in this day and age where we are asked to take part in a war that is not really there.
Best scene: A group of Japanese soldiers who lost their bit of the battle commits mass suicide. War never looked more meaningless than this on the big screen.
Overall: The best film I have seen at the cinema for a few years now, and one of the best new releases I've seen for quite a while overall. 4.5 stars.

Sunday, 4 March 2007

DVD: Out of Africa

Lowdown: A personal voyage through Africa.
Review:
Having seen Nowhere in Africa a while ago, and having liked it quite a lot, we thought we should be giving Out of Africa a second chance. I don't know if a "second chance" is the right way to describe it, given that I've only seen once and I don't remember much, but still - we had ourselves a motive.
Out of Africa tells the story of a Danish noble woman, accurately portrayed by Meryl Streep, who through the circumstances of the time - 100 years ago - finds herself going to Africa to be married to a convenient husband and establish a farm there.
Things don't really work according to plan, and a lot of things happen during the way. For a start, she has to go through a world war; then there is disease, and then there's a failed marriage. Salvation comes in the shape of Robert Redford, who seems to portray the character of what you and I might think if we were to be put in Africa some 100 years ago, at least as far as our respect for the locals and our respect for the wildlife would be. Between the Victorian like English and the simple Muslim African folk, Redford definitely stands out as a progressive character.
The film stretches over more than two and a half hours at a fairly slow pace. Too slow, if you were to ask me. Being that it starts with its own ending - Meryl Streep going back to Europe - we are sort of locked in a fatalistic loop, trying to see what it is that makes the inevitable happen. In this way you can sort of see Meryl Streep's coming of age story - how she came to Africa as a spoiled rich woman but matured with it and learns to respect it - serves as a metaphor for the way Africa is regarded in general. But that is a bit of a stretch: Out of Africa, while being a nice and epic story, failed to make an impression on me in any way other than the interesting memoir that it is.
At the end, Out of Africa was just an overly long, relatively boring yet well acted, epic story about cultures colliding in Africa.
Best scene: Streep gets down on her knees to beg the local governor not to remove the locals off their land, now owned by British banks.
Picture quality: Showing its age through a general lack of detail. Not too bad, though.
Sound quality: Very basic usage of the surrounds, no low frequency effects, and the sound shows its age through compression. The film is 20 years old, but much better efforts have been produced in the eighties.
Overall: Too boring - a disappointing 2 stars.

Saturday, 3 March 2007

DVD: Little Miss Sunshine

Lowdown: An intellectual's National Lampoon's holiday film.
Review:
Some films look to be nothing much on paper but end up being pretty entertaining. Little Miss Sunshine falls under this category: it's surprisingly entertaining, yet it does not ascend to the level of true genius.
The film follows a collection of characters, all of them belonging to one family, and all of them going through some sort of a crisis that wouldn't shame a comparison with the Cuban missile crisis. In short, it's a very dysfunctional family; in fact, it's a made up family, with some of the relations acquired through divorces and second husbands. The dysfunctionality embodies itself through a loser husband that looks for income through writing a book on how to be a winner; a gay uncle who just tried to commit suicide; a son that hates everybody and didn't say a word for the last three years; etc etc.
Then we learn that the young daughter of the family has won an entry to a national beauty pageant in California - the Little Miss Sunshine contest, open for girls aged 6-7. Despite of all their problems, the family knows that they cannot disappoint the girl on this one (as in they know they should do their best to prevent the girl from being as fucked up as they are), so despite all their differences they join forces to drive her 1000 miles or so away to California over the weekend in an old Volkswagen van. Thus the film becomes a journey film, and lo and behold - despite all of their differences, the family emerges from the experience stronger and more united than ever. It's easy to see why: All the things that take place during their journey are not only funny (sometimes hilariously funny), they are also the type of things they give you in team building sessions that companies often send you to; while those include all sorts of made up activities, what the family goes through in the film is anything but made up.
The journey, the jokes, the good acting, and the smart script all combine to make a film that packs quite a punch. Or does it? It seems as if the film's main problem is that it does not seem to go beyond those relatively basic levels into the level of making a statement of the type that would make the audience rethink their ways once the DVD stops spinning.
It is fairly easy to interpret the film as a film about the importance of the family nucleolus; sort of a "like it or not, they will always be your family and they will always be there for you no matter what" kind of a message. While I have no idea what the filmmakers have actually aimed at and while this interpretation is definitely a viable one, I would put my money on the true intention being not to point at the family but much higher, at society in general: we are all made of very different people - gay, old, drug users, penny less - each with their own idiosyncrasies; but we all share this world together, so we'd better recognize the differences between us and learn to love ourselves and the others for what we/they are. And as Ali G likes to say, we should "keep it real".
Best scene: There is a very funny scene when a cop stops the van on its way to California after its horn starts going off for no particular reason, but as funny as this scene is it pales in comparison with the talent scene in the Little Miss Sunshine pageant itself. I will say no more because I'd hate to ruin it for you.
Picture quality: Oddly enough, everything is wrong with the picture here, but nothing is too bad to ruin the experience all the way. There are digital artifacts aplenty, low effective resolution, color infidelities, noise - you name it; none are too bad, although when some of them join forces the picture is pretty ordinary, to use a euphemism.
Sound quality: My processor said this is a 5.1 soundtrack, yet it seemed like the surrounds were on vacation for the duration of the film.
Overall: Just scraping the 4 star level.