Sunday, 29 April 2007

DVD: The Queen

Lowdown: A tribute to pragmatism.
Review:
What is common to both Queen Elizabeth and Osama Bin Laden? Easy: Both are supporters of the Arsenal football club. Of the two, Osama is actually the one known to take famous participation, forcing an official denouncement from the club after the events of September 11. All in all, that's a good way for me to say that I doubt this review of the film "The Queen" will include much about the film; it's rather going to be more of an opportunity for me to express what I think of the constitution.
What do I think of the monarchy? Let's just say that I don't approve much of arguments by authority or tradition. Not that there's anything wrong with those if they happen to be good for reasons that make sense as well; but, for example, tradition for tradition's sake, as in the case of the British monarchy, is not my cup of water. I definitely have a problem with my Australian passport saying something like "the queen asks that I'd be taken care of" on it's front page; I don't know the queen, I don't recall ever electing her to act on my behalf, she's half a world away, and frankly - I don't see much of a reason to have an official head of state in the first place. We have enough politicians as it is that we can't get rid of, we definitely don't need ones that are born into the role and can't be kicked out of it.
With that in mind, let's discuss the film for a while. The Queen focuses on the events of a very short period of time: the few days following the death of Princess Diana, and what took place within the royal family, the British government (represented by the then newly elected Tony Blair), and the British public (represented mainly through TV clips). What we end up having is a clash between the old, represented through the comic relief like Phillip (the queen's husband) and Prince Charles, and the new - represented through Tony Blair with his promises for revolutions in the UK, and his wife Cherie whose opinions on the monarchy seem to be similar to mine. In between all this mess is the queen herself, who has to face a situation where all of a sudden her people seem to think of the monarchy as something to get rid of just because of the way the establishment has reacted to Diana's death.
You may as well argue that the main point of the film is to expose the queen as what she really is - yet another person - just through her handling of this tricky situation. At first the queen doesn't realize what's going on with the British people's state of mind. I have to admit I'm with her on this one: I don't understand why there was such a fuss about the death of Diana; as tragic and sad as it might have been, every day many good a people die, and many of them have contributed much more to society than Diana has. Not that there is a scale where you can say who was better, but that's exactly my point - the reaction to Diana's death epitomized the problems in today's society which seems to be in need of a glamorous mentor, regardless of his/her true skills.
In the film it falls upon the shoulders of Tony Blair to settle things right and to set the path of the queen the right way. That is, the way of the pragmatist: succumbing to the will of the people to give them exactly what they want while nurturing the monarchy even if there's no particular reason for doing so. However, as much as the film tries to make Blair sound convincing, I'm still with his wife on this one. I also think that as great as the film attempts to make Blair, the guy will mostly be remembered in the pages of history as the one who went along with George Bush to very wrongly invade Iraq. And for the record, I like Blair; I would have voted for him if I was a Briton and I would very much like to see someone like him in Australia, albeit with less religion oriented policies.
All in all, The Queen is an entertaining drama with solid performances. It definitely holds its own, and although I was spotted yawning a few times in the middle it cannot be said to be boring. It's not an action film and there are no sex scenes, but there is some comedy and the issue at hand is fairly interesting.
Where I do have criticism is to do with the way the film tires to force a certain image upon its viewers. For example, attempts to portray the monarchy as old fashioned go beyond the ludicrous, with the film giving Buckingham Palace old style dial phones and TV sets dating back to the early eighties. Given that the film’s events took place only 10 years ago this is plain silly; the palace would not be able to make outgoing calls, for a start. It's a shame, because this silly attitude is in the way of the fine display of acting and the proper character development the film sports.
Best scene: Cherie meets the queen for the first time, disobeying the "rules of conduct". She behaved exactly the way I would have, I think: respect the person, disrespect the institution.
Picture quality: There's some graininess throughout, and flesh tones are inconsistent and unrealistic.
Sound quality: Not much in the surrounds. Dialog is often badly recorded with evident hisses.
Overall: A solid 3 stars.

Wednesday, 25 April 2007

DVD: Capote

Lowdown: A famous writer becomes obsessed with the subject of his upcoming book.
Review:
The name Capote didn't mean much to me until I got to watch this film, but apparently this is the guy who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's. Capote, the film, seems to trace what seems to be the real story of how Capote wrote another famous book of his and how this book that made him famous was also his downfall.
The film starts with Capote going to investigate the murder of a family in the rural part of nowhere USA in order to write a story on it for the New Yorker magazine. He takes an old friend of his, Nelle Harper, with him on the trip to help with the research; as it happens, Nelle has just finished writing a book called "To Kill a Mockingbird". As Capote and Harper browse around the murder scene and the characters, Capote falls captive to the subject of his investigations and sees it as an opportunity to start a whole new book genre: a plot driven non fiction book. Quickly enough the killers are caught, and Capote finds himself captivated by them; he is unable to finish his book without knowing what their fate is going to be as they go through a process of multiple court appeals. He deteriorates, becomes a chronic lier, and gets overcome with jealousy over the success of his research companion's book.
The story of Capote might have been intriguing on paper but it isn't on film. Sure, idea of the writer falling in love with a subject has fascinating potential, and the obsessions that drags the writer down as he is unable to separate himself from the subjects of his non fiction book is also a subject with plenty of symbolism. It's just that the film is way too slow and way too subtle to be interesting overall; it has the potential on paper, but as much as I wanted to like it it just lost me to boredom.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman has received an Oscar for his portrayal of Capote, but although I like him a lot for his other work I couldn't see anything truly special with his performance here other than a really annoying voice. I never pretended to be a good judge of acting, but it seems like the easiest way to get an Oscar as an actor is to play someone who is deformed in one way or another.
Best scene: Capote examining the coffined bodies of the murder while obviously falling deeper and deeper for the subject. It's just that the scene is nicely made.
Picture quality: There is enough noise in the picture to distract. Often editing cuts are not as smooth as you'd expect from a contemporary film.
Sound quality: There was an obvious attempt here to use the 5.1 facilities to create a subtle soundtrack. The results are, well, pretty subtle - to the point of making the effort a bit of a waste.
Overall: This is the type of film where you go "come on, get on with it" every five minutes or so. 1.5 boring stars.

Monday, 23 April 2007

DVD: Double Indemnity

Lowdown: Billy Wilder's classic film noir.
Review:
Billy Wilder is one of those classic directors whose films I always enjoy watching. We watched Some Like It Hot not that long ago, for example, but The Apartment is by far my favorite film of his. When I stumbled upon Double Indemnity at the video store I couldn't resist renting it: it is one of those films with a reputation from here to eternity, and it happens to be film noir.
The film tells the story of an insurance agent who stumbles upon this beautiful woman and falls in her charms. One thing you can learn from this film is the subjective nature of beauty: I find the femme fatale as attractive as a toaster, but obviously she was good looking at the time in which the film was supposed to take place (1938) and at the time the film was shot (1944). Anyway, the woman convinces that insurance guy to put a policy on her husband and then to kill the husband. Given that insurance agents are evil by nature the guy falls for it (I think the tantalizing grip the woman had on him had an effect on his decision making, too), which is where the film noir effect kicks in. As of that point it's downhill for the guy. The couple goes for the double indemnity clause in the insurance policy and aim at a train murder, where - due to its low probability - the insurance money is doubled. The murder goes along well, but a perfect crime it ain't: suspicions pop all over the place and pretty quickly. The insurance agent ends up getting what all insurance agents deserve.
There is not that much to the film that stands up in particular, which is exactly why it's good. It is, indeed, classic film noir style wise, and Wilder directs it effectively in a style that never makes you notice its style. A few period related issues attract the attention, such as the way women are treated ("babe") and the way "colored" people are regarded. Let's just say we can consider ourselves to have progressed, generally speaking, even if certain countries can still elect a Bush for president.
The only problem I could find with the film is its relative lack of grip. Perhaps it was original at its time, but today it's nothing special as far as thrilling thrillers are concerned. Sure, it's nice, but it doesn't really grip you and it starts too calmly with the interest developing too slowly. By its end it's pretty gripping, but its rise to power is too gradual. That said, it is a 60 year plus old film, and one should respect it in the context of its contemporaries.
Best scene: The hate her - love her scene that takes place when the insurance agent meets the sexy lady for the first time. That's sexual tension for you, forties style.
Picture quality: It's black and white, but it's very good. Sure, one should not expect to find as much detail as the latest THX version of a major blockbuster, but for a film this old it is simply excellent. I assume not all DVD editions of this film are as good, though.
Sound quality: It's mono, but at least it doesn't sound like a lawn mower. Someone did a good job restoring the film for this DVD.
Overall: Interesting, but only 3 stars.

Sunday, 22 April 2007

DVD: Eragon

Lowdown: A boy, a dragon, and all the things that make a film truly bad.
Review:
How do you start a review for a film as bad as Aragorn? With a seemingly Freudian slip hinting at its total lack of originality, maybe? I really don't have an answer, but it's hard for me to recall a film as bad as Eragon. Sure, some other films were even more of a pain to watch; say, incomprehensible films or truly boring films. But Eragon just shows you how one can take a seemingly good idea - a Lord of the Rings like setting - and take every wrong turn possible in the making of the film.
The story is pretty basic. A Middle Earth like setting, only with dragons as the source of power instead of rings. All of the dragons have been killed by an evil king, and despair is ruling the land - that is, until a youth called Eragon stumbles upon a dragon's egg, learns that he was destined to ride this dragon, and sets forth in a liberation campaign to free the world of the evil king and his evil allies.
The problems with the film are just as basic as the plot. I'll list a few of them, but don't get me wrong - I could write all day and all of the night about how bad this film really is:
1. Poor acting: I don't know how they cast the guy who plays Eragon for the film, but it wasn't because of his acting skills. On the other hand we have Jeremy Irons, who seems to specialize in crap swords and sorcery like supporting roles lately, and John Malkovich playing the evil king - what the hell are they doing in such a bad film? Are they so desperate for money?
2. Originality: It's not only that the film is as original as a Modern Talking song, it is so full of typical movie cliches and so full of "quotes" from other films that are so badly inserted it's not funny. You have tons of riding a horse in the mountain scenes, Lord of the Rings and old westerns like style; you have Eragon as Luke Skywalker showing his displeasure with his situation against a setting sun background (only one sun this time, though); you have Luke again coming home to find his dead uncle. And more. The biggest problem is that all these "quotes" are not there to make you laugh Naked Gun style - the movie makers are pretty serious about them.
3. Things don't make sense: There are so many things in the film that don't make sense you really do think you're watching a Naked Gun. I'll give a more subtle example: the rebels fighting against the king are living in an enclosed enclosure; why, then, are some of them black and some white, and worse - why does each one of them sport a different accent? And on that matter, why does every film that features a group of just rebels have to give at least one of them a Scottish accent?
4. Ending: Don't expect Eragon the film to have a proper ending. The hinting at the upcoming sequels (whose mere existence proves the lord has no mercy) is not left to the viewer's imagination.
5. Fatalistic agenda: This whole thing with Eragon being "chosen" to ride the dragon smells bad. As well as the explanation for his divine selection - to quote the film, "his heart". If you know what that means, let me know, because watching the film doesn't educate you there.
Worst scene: The last scene, where the evil king shows us his dragon and marks the way to the sequel thus bluntly making a mockery of us viewers.
Picture quality: Some color inconsistencies, especially with effects scenes, but overall not bad at all.
Sound quality: Ok and more, but from a film that is supposed to have high octane action you sort of expect high octane surround aggressiveness, and this is very much lacking. Dragon action here is definitely low octane.
Overall: If there is a level one can enjoy Eragon at it's the "film is so pathetic it's funny" level. But even that is quite hard here; Eragon has absolutely nothing standing for it. A total pathetic waste of time. I know I'm being hard on it, but there is no excuse for such quality: 0 stars.

Thursday, 19 April 2007

Book: Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors by Carl Sagan & Ann Druyan

Lowdown: How did we, humans, get to where we are now?
Review:
Having recently read The Selfish Gene I didn't expect to read yet another book of the type that is a good read and also a great mind opener so soon, but Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors certainly did the job and did it well. Surprisingly enough, I chose to read it at this time not because I expected it to be as good as it was, but rather because of all the books I haven't read in my bookshelf this one seemed the one best suited for a soon to be parent. The fact Sagan was quoted saying Shadows was his favorite out of the books he wrote made the choice easier.
The purpose of the book is to explain why we, humans, are the way we are. As in, why do we behave and act in certain ways, why our societies are structured in certain ways, why do we believe certain things, why are our lives going in certain ways, etc. In short, what is it that makes us tick the way we do? These are all very deep questions that many books have tried to analyze before by utilizing many different approaches, but Shadows is unique: it treats it all the way a historian analyzes ancient Rome. It makes its point and draws its conclusions by analyzing how we people came to be; but it doesn't start with ancient Babylon or something similar, it goes back all the way to the creation of the solar system.
Sagan & Druyan clearly demonstrate how crucial the way the solar system has evolved was to the evolution of humans. I invite you to read the book for more information, but just think about the most basic of examples - the comet hitting the earth some 60 million years ago, killing the dinosaurs and clearing the path for us mammals to rise into dominance. The book then continues to explain the basics of evolution and show how life on earth has slowly evolved to eventually create us humans, and more importantly show how we humans carry the weight of all that evolution in us: we are very much the sum of everything that has been there before us and next to us, and that history is what makes us what we are today. I am doing great injustice to this point with this brief summary, because this summary is full of examples on how and why we have inherited a lot of our behaviors from our ancient relatives.
Special attention is given to our closest relatives, the primates, the monkeys and the apes. As they are the closest thing to our closest ancestors, having only recently strayed off our mutual ancestors, the assumption is that by looking at them we can learn something about ourselves. And indeed, the book shows just how similar we are to apes; not just physically, but also in the way we behave and think. I admit that I wasn't aware just how similar we are (and also how different we are, in certain respects) to apes, and how much of a variety of behaviors you can get in apes in the first place.
So far I have discussed the way the book performs its analysis, but the main interest is not the way but rather the conclusions the books draws on who we are. And I have to say it rather bluntly: Those conclusions can be rather scary. We think that we are thinking creatures, and that this thinking capacity of ours makes us what we are - the superiors to everything else on earth. However, the book clearly demonstrates that most of what we consider to be thinking is actually a set of hard wired reactions; complicated reactions, sure, yet hard wired. For example, a lot of our reactions and a lot of the reasons why we act in a certain way are to do with us seeking dominance over fellow humans. You don't need to look too hard into reality to see how true these conclusions are: when I think of myself, for a start, it is easy for me to see I hardly get to really think; I certainly don't think much at work, for a start. Maybe twice a week, at best. I think thinking is an operation that is limited with me to the times when I think of what I am about to blog about and to my limited reading time. And as for the quest for dominance, that is evident if you look at another relic of our contemporary culture: porn. It might pretend to be dealing with sex, but most of what porn has to offer is to do with dominancy and not what I would call "making love". For other examples of animal instincts in action - say, tribalism or xenophobia - just visit your nearest football ground.
Given man's ability to destroy itself, man's inability to really think - or rather, this having a hard time when it comes to thinking - is rather dangerous; a source of major pessimism. Yet Sagan and Druyan are not all that pessimistic: they point out at two things that are a major source of hope for us. The first is our intellect, which is something where we humans seem to be unique as far as levels are concerned: we're the only species who seem to have discussions on the level of their awareness. Using this intellect of ours, we can recognize the dangers that are in our way and mitigate them. The key is in creating awareness and generating a discussion. Second, comparisons with animals shouldn't only make us despair; there is a lot in animals that is good and noble: altruism, friendliness, sacrifice. Being an animal is not all that bad after all!
As far as the experience of reading is concerned, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors is an incredibly easy book to read (not that you expect much else from Sagan). Coming from The Selfish Gene I have found the repeated reading about the basics of evolution rather tiresome and redundant (in fact, there are many direct quotes from The Selfish Gene in the book), but that has nothing to do with Shadows being bad and all to do with my rather too narrowly focused reading of late. One thing that did take me by surprise is a few chapters that are written as a street punk's diary, incorporating phrases such as "fuck" way too often; it turns out that these were written from a chimpanzee's point of view, but still - you don't expect to find such language in a Carl Sagan book. Which, as far as I am concerned, only shows how original and varied the guy can be.
Overall: 4.5 illuminating stars.

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Film: Lifeforce

Lowdown: Straight from Hailey's comet comes a naked chick vampire to suck our souls.
Review:
Those were the days! Back in 1984, Hailey's comet made its last pass at earth (for now). Since, traditionally, comets were considered to be the bringers of cataclysms, and since due to many other reasons a lot of loonies have decided that the end of the world would take place during 1984 (some of them even claim that it really took place), certain movie producers have decided that the time is right to create a horror film which would utilize people's fear of the comet in order to make some money. And so Lifeforce was made.
To the best of my knowledge it was actually released after Hailey came and went. I did go to see it at the cinema, though, with my best friend Uri, and I remember mainly two things: I was a bit scared (Uri wasn't), and we were both greatly impressed with the fine display of tits provided by the film.
Yes, Lifeforce puts tits at center stage. The story goes like this: In 1984, a manned spaceship is sent to intercept Hailey's comet. When the astronauts go near it they find this huge artificial object, which they go and investigate to find it is full of dead bats. Dead bats, as well as the bodies of two naked men (whose genitals are hidden from view) - and of one naked woman (who is very well exposed to the camera from all angles). They bring the three plus a dead bat into their ship. And then all hell breaks loose.
As it turns out, the three are vampires. We learn this from an authority back on earth, who is there to use the viewers' inherent susceptibility to accept things said with an aroma of authority as the truth in order to explain to us what is going on in the film and lead its narrative line: there is life after death, he tells us, and this happens because of a "life force" in us that is still there after our bodies die; those evil naked vampires from the comet are here to suck this life force out of us and pump it back to their ship.
And so the film provides us with the following: (a) A detective like chase scenes after the vampires; (b) horror scenes of London being taken over by vampires; and (c), lots of scenes featuring a naked chick walking about nonchalantly and sucking people's souls through sexual temptation.
There can be no denying it: Lifeforce is a very silly film. At its basis it aims to scare you, but it fails because it puts the naked chick in too many a silly situation and shoots her from every possible angle and it just doesn't make sense. Like, for example: how come she finds herself, towards the end of the film, on an altar at a cathedral - and all of a sudden, after walking about through the entire film entirely naked, she is wearing a white dress?
The film silliness is rather surprising given the effort and the obvious technical expertise invested in it. This is no B movie; I mean, it is definitely a B movie, but it wasn't intended to be a B movie: the title music, for example, was composed by Lalo Schifrin (Mission Impossible); amongst the leading actors you find one Patrick Stewart; the special effects, like the rest of the film, appear very dated, yet it is very obvious that for the eighties the effects were not bad at all (it's just that a decade of CGI has spoilt us all).
So what went wrong? It seems as though the answer is obvious: the filmmakers decided that naked chicks would bring the film more box office revenues than a coherent plot.
Cynicism aside, there is also a dark side to Lifeforce: As the vampire's force on people is transmitted through sexual attraction, and as the main characters fight the vampiress by trying to avoid her taking sexual control over them, the film could easily be interpreted as males' attempt to regain control over women in an age where women have been liberating themselves to become equals. Given the silliness of the film, though, such conclusions are more than a bit of a stretch, though.
Best scene: Well, any of the scenes featuring the naked vampire chick would qualify. The best is probably when the chick "escapes" a high security place by walking in between a group of old security guards, numbed by what they see in front of them.
Overall: This is truly a bad film - 1 star material. However, one has a duty to commend the inclusion of such vast amounts of totally redundant nudity somehow, so I'll give it 2 stars.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Film: My Family and Other Animals

Lowdown: A family with lots of variations goes through an enchanting experience together.
Review:
There is not much for me to say about My Family and Other Animals. This rather unassuming British film (which seems as though it was made for TV) is, well, unassuming. As a story told from a child's point of view it is also very innocent; but I have to hand it: anyone that points at the fact we humans are just another animal gains a lot of favorable points with me.
So let me try and be more analytic with my approach to this review. My Family and Other Animals is all about a British family and what happens to it during a few years of living together abroad in a foreign yet lively country. As the film starts, the family is living in England. The family, in the film's case, consists of two older boys - one with art aspirations, the other with a love for shooting, a young girl, and a young boy whose only interest in life is animals and who happens to be the film's narrator (the book on which this film was based was written by the boy character). The core of the family is its mother, who holds everything together; there is no father and it is sort of implied that he is dead.
Anyway, the first minute of the film starts by reviewing just how unhappy the family is in England. Not that they're truly unhappy, it's just that they really suffer from the cold and the miserable weather and they really want to go and do stuff. And so, by the second minute of the film, the family finds itself in Corfu - a Greek island. From then on the story is all about what happens to the various members of the family as they grow acclimatized to the island, and it is all portrayed mainly by showing us the contrast between the different characters through some funny but not cruelly funny incidents; this is not Borat, this is innocent fun here.
Eventually, after lots of small and innocent adventures, the family has to go back to England as World War 2 is about to start - an inevitability we, the viewers, become aware of the minute we start hearing the occasional news updates throughout the film. Which sort of raises the question, if we know what the end is probably going to be like, what is the reason for making this film in the first place?
Well, that's a good question for which I do not pretend to have a good answer. For a start, the point of the film could be just to innocently entertain and make us laugh - and the film manages that very well, thank you very much, and with typical British panache. Then you can argue that the film is all about how essential and how central to us people is the institution that is the family; you can also argue the film is there to show us how a family of humans is not that different to a pack of animals. But most of all I would say the film is a nice portrait of how a kid, busy growing up without really considering his family as the center of his existence views a world in which his family is the center of his existence and how he - as well as everyone else in his family - matures through the unusual experience at Corfu. As I always say, not much can rival travel and exploration as far as opening one's eyes is concerned.
Best scene: The shy mother who never tries anything and always lets her kids do the messing around, tries - for the first time - to get into the sea and bathe. Despite the simplicity of the task on paper she fails miserably while emphasizing her importance as the element that holds the family together on the way.
Overall: Don't expect too much and you'll enjoy an hour and a half of innocent fun. 3.5 stars.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

DVD: Kong Fu Hustle

Lowdown: Everybody was kong fu fighting.
Review:
I first heard of Stephen Chow through Shaolin Soccer, a comedy which - how shall I put it? Portrayed football in a very weird way and wasn't funny at all, at least not in my book. Kong Fu Hustle, however, has received rave reviews; enough to get me to rent the DVD.
The story is rather confusing. Kong Fu Hustle takes place in a generic Chinese city, and is set in the past (how far past is rather unclear). The city is ruled by a gang of vicious criminals called the Axe Gang; however, this gang is not powerful enough to enter the city slums. A couple of make believe gangsters who want to join the Axe Gang decide to cause trouble in the slums in order to pass the gang's initiation, but their plan fails and instead they reveal several kong fu masters from within the slums that kick Axe Gang ass. From there on the story continues unfolding in a rather convoluted kind of a way, exposing masters and villains, creating heroes, and ending up with the boy getting the girl. Of course.
From the word go Kong Fu Hustle feels weird. The look of it is inconsistent; the sets and everything else don't look real, and you sort of wonder whether it's a bad DVD or whether it's intentional.
It's not just the look that's inconsistent, it's the plot as well; it moves all over the place, with characters changing character all the time. the Axe Gang starts as a really vicious and cruel company at the opening scene where they kill someone and his girlfriend in cold blood, but from then on they're nothing but the comic relief. The character that turns out to be the film's hero, identifiable at first only because you identify Stephen Chow, starts off as a character that's as interesting as last week's paper and only begins receiving the film's attention somewhere towards the middle.
So plot and direction are not the film's main attributes. What are they, though? Well, they are in the action and in the weird - may I say unconventional - way in which things take place. More than anything, the film feels and behaves like a cartoon. A loony tunes cartoon, if pointing a finger is required: You get weird and grotesque characters, just like the cartoons feature, developed just like they do in the cartoons and behaving just like they do in a cartoon. The lack of focus, the surreal atmosphere - they all contribute to the cartoony feel. And yes, the action - lots of kong fu - is heavily exaggerated, cartoon style; it doesn't take much to realize there is not even the slightest attempt to make the fights look authentic. It's all just crazy, but in a nice way.
Kong Fu Hustle also pays homage to many films (and cartoons). There's a scene that's just like Kill Bill (check the DVD cover to see which scene), but there are also Batman and Spiderman references, to name a few.
Best scene: The Road Runner homage, in the shape of a classic Wile E Coyote like chase, is my pick of the lot.
Picture quality: You can't say whether it's intentional or not, but colors are all over the place. Other than that the picture is ok, if a bit lacking in detail.
Sound quality: Effects hit you left and right, with aggressive use of the surrounds (although low frequency effects are somewhat lacking). However, and I can't believe I'm saying that, it's a case of quantity vs. quality here: sound effects are compressed and of a low fidelity overall; they're just there, having a go at you, instead of making you feel like you're a part of the action. My ears protested after watching this DVD.
Note the default soundtrack on this DVD features some very shifty English dubbing. Do yourself a favor and watch the original Chinese soundtrack instead.
Overall: Weird and inconsistent, yet cheerful, somewhat funny, and original (especially for a film of the martial arts genre). Overall I'll go for a middle of the road score - 2.5 stars.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

DVD: Fast Food Nation

Lowdown: All about the politics of the food we eat.
Review:
A few years ago, Super Size Me has changed my life. I knew fast food wasn't the best thing for me, but I didn't realize just how bad it was. It's not like I really found the film to be good; it was mostly the DVD's supplementals, especially the bit where they let hand made burgers and hand made chips rot in comparison to McDonald burgers in chips, that made me realize that I should put an end to eating chemicals that make me feel bad afterwards. And indeed, since watching that film we've only been eating at the really fast food joints on emergencies where we're stuck in the middle of nowhere with nothing to eat.
All this introduction was in order to say that I was looking forward to Fast Food Nation, expecting it to be a more thorough discussion on things that by now I did some investigating about on my own. I wasn't disappointed as far as the level of discussion was concerned.
Fast Food Nation aims at being a regular film, as opposed to a documentary, that exposes its truths about the realities of fast food through the happenings of a collection of characters whose lives touch fast food in one way or another. We have ourselves a marketing specialist who moved from CNN to a fast food company, a teenager who works at a fast food place to support herself, a group of illegal Mexican immigrants who work at a meat processing plant, a rancher who used to compete with the big meat processors, and many many more. Some of these roles are portrayed by veteran actors, but here's the thing that makes me avoid mentioning any names: given the large numbers of characters and the relative distance between the various subplots - whose only common ground is their involvement with the fast food industry - there is no real lead role in Fast Food Nation. Everyone is a supporting actor.
And that's the main catch of the film and its biggest downfall: by wanting to cover as many aspects of the fast food industry - slave labor, evil working conditions, ill treatment of the cows, chemical makeup of the food, the marketing behind it all, the politics (to name a few) - and by wanting to do it all through a plot driven film with characters as opposed to a doco, the film reaches for the sun but falls significantly too short. Don't get me wrong - I do agree with pretty much everything the film has to say about the fast food industry; in fact, the film goes way beyond the fast food industry, criticizing the American lifestyle as a whole - parenting and schooling, to point at something out of the top of my head. It pretty much uses the fast food industry as a pivot for criticizing the capitalists' way of life. But alas, as much as I agree with it, a film is a film and it needs certain ingredients to work or it need to be truly brilliantly original; Fast Food Nation is not truly brilliant, and it fails in being rather too uninvolving by aiming at too large a number of targets.
Best scene: There can be no doubt about it: the scenes from the killing section of the slaughter house, with which the film ends, will stay with the viewer for a long time. Especially every time they have a piece of meat. Indulgences include the killing of cows, their skinning, and then the basic separation of the body parts.
I can see it coming: "Aww... I'm not watching that". Well, I can't force you to watch it, but I will say this - if you choose to eat meat (and I do), it is your duty to see what is done in your name. Do not make yourself like an ex Nazi and say "I didn't know such thing were going on in my backyard, I thought all the Jews were just going for a school trip". Watch the film.
Picture quality: Despicable. For a modern film to have such a shit looking picture (and excuse the language, the picture is one big piece of shit) is inexcusable.
Sound quality: I couldn't believe it, but it's true. The Fast Food Nation DVD I have rented and reviewed here features a stereo soundtrack only (as opposed to 5.1), and a very low quality one at that, too. Allow me to point a finger and say that it seems as if Australian viewers were severely shortchanged with this DVD.
Overall: Important viewing that would hopefully get you to think, but not a particularly good film. I have to balance the score somewhere in the middle, so I'll go with 2.5 stars.

Friday, 6 April 2007

DVD: The Prestige

Lowdown: A magicians' fight for who can give a better show as an analogy to reality vs. perception.
Review:
The team that gave us Batman Begins is back with a vengeance in The Prestige: Director Christopher Nolan, Christian Bale and Michael Caine. It seems like they all got a follow-up contract, and joining them this time is Hugh Jackman, an actor I'm only familiar with through the X-Men series which I detest. However, being that Jackman is an Australian he has to be good. Sarcasm aside, though, with such a team and such a record you have to have high expectations of The Prestige; sadly, I have to say I was disappointed.
The Prestige is all about a rivalry between two magicians - Bale and Jackman. They started out as a team, but when a fatal error causes Jackman's wife to die on stage it's an all out war between the two. Both are truly devoted to being showmen magicians and are willing to sacrifice it all for their shows, and both of them indeed sacrifice it all during the film. Eventually Bale comes up with a trick that Jackman cannot match, and so Jackman ends up pursuing a scientist called Tesla in the USA. Tesla, portrayed with much intrigue by David Bowie, is actually a real life character - the unit for measuring magnetic flux density is named after him, and amongst his achievements is us using AC currents to run the PC's on which screens you're reading this now. Jackman comes back from Tesla with the jackpot - a trick no one has ever done before (and to be frank, until the days of Captain Kirk arrive no one ever will, either) - and thus a showdown between the two is held. This time, though, it's personal.
There is a lot of potential in The Prestige, with the issue of what it is that really matters - what you really are or what others perceive of you - at its core. But while it deals with such an interesting and potentially provocative issue, it cannot be said to be dealing with it well.
For a start, I found the film to be far from engaging. Sure, you want to know what's going on, but the film is closer to being described as a boring film than an intriguing / thrilling one. Engagement is not helped by the ever changing time lines: The Prestige starts from the end, at a point where Bale is charged with the murder of Jackman, then jumps back to their beginning and moves back ahead while jumping from time to time back and forth. It's not that this is confusing, but it detracts from the engagement.
Add to that an overuse of a hand held camera. It's not to the level of being puke inducing, but I do prefer smooth camera work that doesn't attract too much attention to itself as it jolts along.
And then there's the catch at the end. Everything builds up towards it, the great surprise that's supposed to shock you as you discover just how far the magicians at hand - Bale and Jackman - are willing to go for their image. But alas, even I with my gullibility and mediocre intellect was able to foresee the catch somewhere during the middle of the film. Sure, I still wanted to know whether what I expected is going to happen, but I wasn't really surprised. In fact, I'm surprised that given what takes place in the film the characters themselves couldn't see the outcome midway, because every person who is not blind would have seen it if he/she was there instead of Jackman. What I'm saying here is that the script has some significant weak spots.
Ultimately, the promising discussion that is the premises of The Prestige feels like a hit or miss affair that has missed. The discussion is rather muffled and unfocused, and all the good acting at hand does not help save the day.
Best scene: Bale and Jackman, still friends, see just how far an old Chinese magician is willing to go for his own show. The guy presents himself to be weak and frail, but in reality he has to be as strong as an ox to be able to perform his tricks. This scene becomes the pivot of the film, as it shows how a person can twist his entire life just in order to be able to get away with his show.
Picture quality: Exemplary. I haven't seen such a good picture - detailed, noise free - on a DVD for a long while.
Sound quality: On some special effects heavy moments it's aggressive and very good, but most of the time it's average Hollywood quality - good, but it can be better.
Overall: A promise that fails to deliver. 2.5 stars.

Thursday, 5 April 2007

DVD: Sliding Doors

Lowdown: Things as slight as a sliding door can completely change the course of a life.
Review:
Sliding Doors is a film I first encountered through stories from a work colleague who claimed the film has changed her perception of life. Since those high expectations were set I got to watch it twice, but never under favorable circumstances as far as critical viewing is concerned. The DVD offered a good opportunity to give the film a proper break, although I never expected my life to be changed from this chicks' flick.
The premises behind Sliding Doors is very simple. It starts by following the life of Gwyneth Paltrow, a London PR agent who has just been unjustifiably sacked, as she takes the tube home. Movie magic hits Paltrow as she runs towards her train causing the film splits in two: one half follows what takes place when Paltrow misses the train, the other when she catches it. In one half Paltrow goes back home to find her boyfriend cheating on her, on the other she misses out on the cheating. As of that key point, her life rolls along the same way in the sense that Paltrow is the same Paltrow on both halves, but the effect of that turnkey event - catching the train and then catching the boyfriend - makes a whole of a lot of a difference. On one hand we get a Paltrow that's independent and flourishing as she meets a new boyfriend, and on the other we get a seemingly failed version of a Paltrow that has to work two hard working jobs a day to keep herself and her cheating boyfriend afloat. And so the two halves transpire simultaneously, showing us how a very dismissable event can have such a significant effect on one's life. And luckily for the film, this idea works and works well!
The key element that makes Sliding Doors work is its simplicity. The story is simple: there's no magic, there are no aliens involved, the time-line is rather short, and the number of characters is pretty limited. For a film revolving around relationships there are very few characters around; things come down to (a) old boyfriend and (b) new boyfriend. No family is ever mentioned.
All this simplicity helps the core ideas behind the film to float: the idea that events we might dismiss can have significant impact on us - what most people dismiss as luck; the idea that we are who we are and that often this "luck" is the result of our own doing; the idea that what we call a failure and what we call a success story could be the results of events beyond our control, therefore requiring us to change our definitions of success and failure; and also the unpopular idea that bad things can happen to good people when they least expect it just like that - out of the blue - because that's the fragile nature of life. Plus a few good things about relationships and how they should really be like.
If Jane Austen was to live today, Sliding Doors might have been one of her creations.
Best scene: I really like the scene in which Paltrow misses / catches the train, which is the scene in which the main concept behind the film is presented - the split personalities start there. What I like about it is the simple means used in order to convince us, the audience, that Paltrow has split in two: all it takes is some very simple "special effects" and a bit of a mystical sound, and that's it. Nothing flashy, no CGI, no major dramas - and it works, and through this simple cinematic magic we immediately accept what follows afterwards. Brilliant film making.
Picture quality: Pretty awful. Simply a bad transfer, probably from an inferior source.
Sound quality: Basic. Surrounds are rarely used if ever, and almost everything other than the music is locked to the center channel. This film has low budget written all over it.
Overall: For a film this short and this simple Sliding Doors packs a mean punch. 4.5 stars.

Wednesday, 4 April 2007

DVD: Casino Royale

Lowdown: A successful revamp of the Bond character into a down to earth man.
Review:
There are plenty of good reasons to think that James Bond has not only been here way before I was, but he will also be here long after I'm no longer here. In case there were any doubts about it, the owners of the Bond franchise gave us Casino Royale - with a new Bond reincarnate, Daniel Craig, and a new character altogether: the movie feels as if the only resemblance between Craig and the ye olde Bonds is in the name and the 007 title.
The film starts with a short scene showing us how Bond received his license to kill in the first place. It's just like the opening scenes from previous Bond films, yet the difference is striking: It's simple, it's visceral, it gets down to basic violence - no more gizmos or catch phrases before/after making the kill. The new Bond is simple: what you see is what you get. And as the film takes care to show us on plenty of occasions throughout its 135 minutes or so, what you're getting now is a very manly man. Condensed testosterone, reduced sophistication.
One thing that didn't really change from the previous Bonds is the level of the story. We're still talking about a shallow plot of a nature that is hard to accept - unless you're a conspiracy theorist or you just like to think that there's more to life than this. However, the James Bond world is still a fantasy world of intrigue and violence and sex appeal even without the gadgets. I suggest you forgive me for not going over the plot; it's entirely coincidental to this film, especially when the main villain's character is of such a shallow nature as it is in Casino Royale. You do get some of the familiar Bond routines, though: a few jokes here and there (although they're of a different nature to the old Bond jokes; they sort of laugh at the old Bond image), you get the car chases (featuring flashy cars), you get exotic locations, and you get guys beating up one another (a lot). The basic violence is where things have changed: It's much more in your face and it's much more graphic; Bond gets injured, Bond gets covered with blood. Generally, Bond becomes flesh and blood.
The lead female character in Casino Royale is a bit of a change as well. This time around, the character played by Eva Green is quite a round character; she's not only there to serve as the sexy sidekick, she takes an active role in the proceedings. She becomes a bit of an alter ego to Bond, which makes it good that she's very well portrayed by the French Eva Green - whom I saw first in Kingdom of Heaven and who gave me reason enough to want to see more of her acting. And talking about acting, I've got to hand it: Mr Craig has done a very good job as Bond; I liked him in Munich, and now I like him even more.
One thing that's bad about Casino Royale, though, is that it's full of shit. Shit takes form in plenty of ways, most of them have been mentioned before in Last Action Hero. Product placement, for a start, is a very dominant factor in Casino Royale. After you finish watching it you'll either rush to the nearest Sony shop or puke every time you see the brand's name (the second option is more likely). Then there's the over the top action: Excuse me, Mr Bond, but some of the things you do on screen are impossible (hence the rather obvious usage of CGI to replace live characters on certain action scenes). And then there are the usual action film exaggerations: the endless clip, the bulletproof thin piece of wood that just happens to save the day 235 times for Bond, managing to run in between the bullets (which works only if you're the lead good guy), and general sexy usage of weaponry rather than the realistic way.
Ultimately, Casino Royale is one of those films you watch and really enjoy but forget about the moment the curtain rolls (or the DVD goes back to its menu). On its way back to the menu, though, Casino Royale is very entertaining: action so visceral and so full of impact has rarely been seen since Terminator 2.
Best scene: One of the earlier action scenes, featuring Bond chasing a black guy in an African location. The chase takes place over cranes and in between shafts, in a manner that reminded me of both Donkey Kong and Prince of Persia. It's exciting, but it's also as believable as your average bible story.
Picture quality: Quite good, but the filmmakers' choice of going for a high contrast picture means there is noticeable graininess to the picture.
Sound quality: Now, this is what all soundtracks should be like! Enveloping, aggressive, bass that goes so low you'll need to redo your foundations! But most of all, it's immersive and it's effective.
Overall: Grading Casino Royale is tricky. As a film it's not worth more than 3 stars, and that's quite generous. As entertainment, though, it is very much up there. I'll therefore settle for something in the middle - 4 stars.

Monday, 2 April 2007

DVD: Corpse Bride

Lowdown: Death can be much more interesting than life.
Review:
Corpse Bride is one film that I reluctantly rented just because I got it for free. Sure, Tim Burton's films are good, but they're also pretty eccentric - eccentric enough to never really get me enthusiastic about watching them until after I watch them. That, and the fact I didn't like The Nightmare Before Christmas, meant my expectations out of Corpse Bride were low. And sure enough, as with most things you don't expect much of, I was pleasantly surprised.
The main thing about Corpse Bride is its visuals - made entirely of stop go animation (I have to take someone's word for the stop go entirely thing, but there's no doubt the result is magnificent). That, and its imaginative nature: there's more imagination and vision in Corpse Bride than ten regular run of the mill contemporary animation films - you know, the Madagascar & Shark's Tale production line.
The story is set in Victorian times and follows Victor, the clumsy son of a nouveau riche couple. His parents arrange for him to marry Victoria, the daughter of aristocrats who lost their money and need the marriage to maintain the financials of their elevated status. Up until a day before the wedding Victor hasn't met Victoria; but meet they do, and with the aid of a piano they quickly fall in love (yet another realistic portrait of how relationships should work). Alas, Victor is so afraid of the wedding he can't remember his vows, and so he goes to practice them in the dark woods (stupid idiot) - where, by accident, he ends up finding himself married to a corpse.
He finds himself in the world of the dead, but quickly enough he finds that the world of the dead is much brighter than the world of the living. Less constraints, no restricting social codes, no evil priests - just lots of funky music. Eventually things work out for everyone despite the various baddies, but till then there's quite a bit of an adventure coupled with some basic generic statements on life that befit a film that's basically aimed at children who are at an age they're capable of handling a bit of horror: things that are foreign can be good, don't judge a book by its cover, etc.
So yes, simplicity is a problem with the film, but it's a problem you can forgive; it is a kid's film. The main problem, if you ask me, is that characters suddenly burst into song and way too often - and I just don't like that: I never burst into song in real life, nor do I recall others doing so. I can't remember a film in which I thought this formula works well, but I can forgive Aladdin; Corpse Bride is good, but it's not Aladdin. Yet, at the end of this short film, it's a case of all can be forgotten given the vivid imagination on display.
Best scene: In a second take on the piano music motif, Victor and the corpse get together with the aid of a piano. It's just a scene that is so well done, utilizing the best the animation can offer.
Picture quality: Digital artifacts are noticeable too often, but overall it's not too bad.
Sound quality: Very good! Not the truly aggressive / immersive soundtrack I really like the most, but still - effective and entertaining.
Overall: In the realm between the 3.5 and the 4 stars, I'd go with the higher option - just because good animation films deserve a go.