Tuesday, 29 May 2007

DVD: Miami Vice

Lowdown: They're back. Sadly.
Review:
I never really liked the TV series; the only thing I did like about Miami Vice was the theme music. However, when I heard that the new Miami Vice film was directed by Michael Mann, of Heat, The Insider and Collateral fame, my interest in the film grew strong. If it was as good as Mann's previous efforts, it should have been smashing. But it's not.
As a film about cops and robbers, Miami Vice is as shablonic as a film can be. We've seen that movie before; not once or twice, but probably dozens of times. This time around we have Collin Farrell (who seems to have forgotten how to be involved in a good film ever since Phone Booth) and Jamie Foxx as the main culprits. They are cops in Miami, but they are unique: they drive a Ferrari, live in ultra expensive homes, and drive fast boats as a cover; and obviously, they are so inconspicuous that no one pays them any attention and they can work undercover at will. So when an FBI drug deal goes wrong and only Miami's police can save the day by establishing contact with an ultra drug lord, they are called in to pretend to be drug couriers. They step in, they impress, they do their thing, and eventually - and I don't think there's a risk of me spoiling it to anyone - they make arrests.
So far it's all pretty ordinary, so in order to make it even more ordinary the film uses every other means used by the other films of the genre to make it feel more alive. There are extreme sexual scenes, although nothing to really make a fuss about (as in nothing that would raise an eyebrow with a, say, French viewer, but definitely extraordinary stuff by American standards). And then there's the usual "good cop falls in love with supposedly sexy female villain who must be good at heart". And if one cop gets to have a lover then the other cop in the two cop team has to have a similar affair. There's even an attempt to move the audience by not having any credits or anything similar at the beginning; you're thrown in straight away, and only at the end does the film reveal its big secret - that you have been watching Miami Vice - to you. As I said, shablonic; it's all cheap and shallow stuff.
To add fuel to the fire, the way the heroes go about their stuff is amazingly unprofessional. Pretty much all dialog is ultra macho stuff; no sentence said carries any meaning other than some slogan like statement that's supposed to impress and sound cool. How these cops manage to work with one another and plan something constructive together is beyond me.
In its credit, the second half of the film is pretty tense, and in the usual Mann way there is some good cinematography on display. But there's absolutely nothing that really catches you on; three days have past since we saw the DVD, and I find it hard to recall what the film was all about.
Best scene: Ferrell rides a fast boat from Miami to Cuba. The shots of the boat on the water are very impressive! (Yes, I chose the scene purely for its cinematography)
Picture quality: The film has the appearance of being shot in a video camera. It gives an aura of authenticity, but it creates many an artifact and attracts too much attention to itself.
Sound quality: Is this supposed to be an action film? The soundtrack of Driving Miss Daisy will pump you up more than this one.
Overall: In one word, redundant; 2 out of 5 stars. It doesn't even feature the original theme music!

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Film: Andrew Denton's God on My Side

Lowdown: In case you didn't know it, there are a lot of loonies in the USA.
Review:
In my limited Australian career I got to know Andrew Denton mainly as an interesting talk show host on the ABC (a government owned TV channel devoid of commercialism that's quite high on quality for a TV station). His interviews are intelligent and although he interviews people who are currently in the news because they want to sell you something the interviews themselves are not on how good that thing they're trying to sell is.
About a year ago this documentary that Denton has made, God on My Side, was released at the cinemas; critics have criticized it saying that it's much more suitable for TV. Having just watched it on TV, I tend to agree.
At its beginning, God on My Side is declared by Denton to be an attempt of his to show us how Muslims, which we tend to view as dangerous religious fundamentalists (do we?), view us when the telescope switches sides. And in order to answer this question Denton visits the yearly convention of the National Religious Broadcasters Convention, gathered at the Gaylord (!) Convention Center in Dallas. Basically, the entire hour and a half or so of the documentary is spent in interviews of people at the convention and interviews with people that took part at the convention. Obviously, most of the interviewees are of the typical American evangelist breed, but there are a few exceptions.
It works this way: Denton introduces us to a few characters in the convention, most of them quite bizarre; he then asks them a question that tends to be provocative, the type of a question an atheist would use to challenge a theist - yet he asks it in such a politically correct, unoffensive way, that it loses all potency; and then we watch as the collection of weirdos gives us an answer that is edited in such a way that would just about stops short of making rational people jump and say something like "but they must be mad!". Or something similar.
Amongst the issues at hand are homosexuality, relations between Christianity and other religions, Israel - which is actually the biggest presenter at the convention (it tries to attract the religious tourists), the end of days, and similar seemingly provocative issues.
There are some exceptions to the rule which make the film more interesting, such interviews with a couple of Israelis who try, on one hand, to make money out of the evangelists, but on the other hand think that those same people are loonies by definition since they believe in that phony Jesus story (their phony story is obviously incredibly superior); and more interestingly, there is a European Christian that tends to look at things in a different way to the American Christian, and he questions the way in which religion has been downgraded into a consumer product in the USA.
Indeed, there is not much you can take from God on My Side, but if there is it would generally be around the way in which American right wing politics has shaped belief in its own image.
Best scene: As expected, there are many a funny moment with people exposing the irrationality of their religious faith before the camera. The film seems to excel with those; if it weren't for them, the entire affair would have probably been too boring to watch.
There's a nice old saleslady that tries to sell Denton a copy of the bible where his name is entered into the text so that he would feel that god is talking directly to him. There is also a religious artist (as in a sculptor/painter) who holds Denton's hand and asks him if he sees god's sparkling lights over his fingers, claiming he has investigated them and found they are not of this world (yet both Denton and the camera fail to see anything other than fingers).
The top scene, however, could have been the funniest of them all if it wasn't tragically sad. A guy who took part in identifying bodies for three straight days after an industrial accident in Texas during the forties gives an account on how, after three days, the bodies started talking to him and telling him that Jesus has been waiting for them. The guy is utterly sure that this really happened and he tells his story with utter conviction; truly scary stuff!
Overall: God on my side is very interesting to watch because of its sensationalism factor and the Borat like comedy scenes depicting the stereotype American that votes for Bush. But as far as being a good documentary that questions and answers, it's a complete failure; it does ask some questions, but it never goes deep enough, and it definitely doesn't attempt any answers. You watch it and you cry out for Denton to be more aggressive with his questions, but even the declared aim of exposing the way we would look to a fundamentalist Muslim is unfulfilled.
So I will give it 3 out of 5 stars because it is still interesting to watch, but if I was to look for a proper documentary on religion - one that questions and answers - I would prefer to watch Richard Dawkins' Root of All Evil for the 10th time rather than watch Denton's doco.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

DVD: Friends with Money

Lowdown: In case you didn't know it, money does not solve all your problems or make you a better woman.
Review:
On paper, Friends with Money should be a boring chicks' flick drama. On DVD, however, this short 80 minutes film is indeed a drama, but it's also witty, often funny, and overall a pleasure to watch.
The premises are fairly simple. The film follows four different women, all but one of them happily married (with the notable exception being Jeniffer Aniston) and all but the same one quite well off financially. Ansiton, however, is all over the place: we're told that she quit her job as a teacher, she stalks a married guy she once had a one night stand with, she now works as a maid for a living, and she uses the vibrators she finds in the houses she's cleaning up. Unlike Aniston, her friends (Catherine Keener, Joan Cusack, and Frances McDormand) live the ideal life: aside of having husbands and money, they have enviable jobs (e.g., fashion designer, writer), and their lifestyles allow them to buy $10,000 dinner tables at charities.
But are they really happy? As the film progresses, we see that that's not really the case. Keener, for example, starts the film designing a second floor for their house in order to be able to see the sea, but as the construction unfolds she finds her neighbors dislike her for ruining everybody else's view. McDormand, by far the best performer in the film, falls into a crisis of her own when she loses the urge to wash her hair, finds out that the parents of her child's friend have no idea their child spends time at her place, has that same parent cut her off and steal her parking space, and finally goes berserk when someone overtakes her at a shop's checkout.
The plot thickens but the messages are pretty much the same: Having money does not make you a better than those who have less, and generally speaking money will not solve your problems. What will solve your problems, according to the film, is making an effort with the small things that each one of us does each and every minute - small things that when added up can truly make the world a better place for everyone. And who can argue with that? It's about time a film comes out and says things the way they are, even if what it says contradicts the agenda of the Australian Liberal party.
So we have ourselves a short film with some variety of acting quality on display (Aniston -> annoying, McDormand -> wow!) and some interesting things to say which are said in a pretty simple yet clever way. Technically, this is a very calm film with not much happening in it; it's not your average special effects laden action adventure, and so in order to liven things up the director resorts to using a hand held camera a lot. Note I'm mentioning that mainly because I hate it: makes me feel seasick.
Best scene: There are numerous contenders, but the scene in which McDormand loses it after someone overtakes her to the supermarket till is probably the best. Best both at the performance level as well as in directing the viewer to pay attention to the things that make the world better or worse.
Picture quality: Very good, with only a slight lack of detail. Makes sense when you think about it: the DVD is devoid of any special features, the film is short, and together with its calm nature this means there is not much of a need to be heavy on digital compression.
Sound quality: Pretty subtle with some sound effects thrown all over that don't add much to the viewing experience but can distract you if you pay them too much attention.
Overall: I'll allow myself to be generous to this film since I really liked it. A 4 out of 5 stars hidden gem.

Monday, 21 May 2007

DVD: Blood Diamond

Lowdown: Take the Constant Gardener, Americanize it, and spice it up with plenty of action.
Review:
Edward Zwick has had his fair share of thrilling epics which provide some good fun and are often quite exhilarating but repeatedly fail at being true state of the art films. Glory, Legends of the Fall, and The Last Samurai are the examples that spring to mind; now Blood Diamond can be added to that ever growing list.
The story behind Blood Diamond is supposed to be the story of Africa, its colonialization, and its repeated abuse even now when imperialism is supposed to be a thing of the past. And it's all told by using many actors (most of them quite famous) whose personal stories intertwine (and pretty quickly; complexity is not on the agenda here). Djimon Hounsou is a Sierra Leone fisherman who loves his family until he is captured by rebels who kill most of his fellow villagers but spare him in order to use him as a slave to dig up rough diamonds. Leonardo DiCaprio is a tough cookie diamond smuggler / weapons dealer who smuggles the illegal diamonds out of Sierra Leone and sells them to cover up companies that end up getting them to jewelery shops all across the world. DiCaprio also provides quite an excellent performance: I don't recall ever seeing him this good and this natural. And Jeniffer Connelly is the token female role / sexual tension provider (although nothing really happens on this front) who while wasting her acting talents on a simple role also plays an American investigative reporter looking to find how illegal diamonds get legit and wants to tell the world about the price other people pay for their engagement rings. All their stories start rolling along when Hounsou discovers a diamond the size of a football, which the whole of Africa to hunt it down.
I won't say more about the plot, but I will say that Blood Diamonds is a heavy octane film, action wise. Bullets fly and chases chase throughout the film, which pretty much signals the end of the similarities with Constant Gardener - a film dealing with the same theme, the price Africa pays so that we can sleep tight. It's not just the action, it's the lack of subtlety: Constant Gardener shows you people suffering, Blood Diamond shows you people dying left and right and in all sorts of atrocious manners. This is not a film for the light of heart!
It is, though, very much still an American film. The heroes are very skilled in the art of running in between the bullets and taking cover behind bullet proof paper while everyone around them dies (in a manner that reminds you of Star Trek: whenever a character that is not of the main roles is introduced, you can start the countdown to its death; usually, you don't need to count more than 10). The end, though, is very much a cliche ending: sort of an all's-well-that-ends-well but-not-really-yet we-have-to-make-you-feel-good-as-you-go-out-of the-cinema-because-after-all-this-is-an-American-film type of an ending. You know what I mean; an end that is very different to the end you get in Constant Gardener. If while watching Blood Diamond you start thinking about the futility behind using diamonds as status items, then by the end of the film your doubts vanish. After all, the bad guys lose and the good guys win, don't they?
Well, not in reality. I don't know how much truth there is in this story of the corruption of the diamonds industry, but I do know that corruption is widespread in Africa and in the world entire; I do know that the world's poor are being abused by those who stand to profit from their situation. Blood Diamond fails to stand for their cause; it does, however, provide for an entertaining and thrilling view.
Best scene: A child is blindfolded, given with an AK-47, and told to shoot without realizing he's shooting at a person - until the blindfold is taken away. Spine chilling stuff.
Picture quality: Digital artifacts, especially edge enhancements, are evident throughout.
Sound quality: Very good - aggressive and thrilling - yet short on true excellence. We're bombarded with sound effects but there is no true feeling of being immersed in the sound field.
Overall: An imperfect film, yet still a thought provoking one if you wish to think, and definitely a very thrilling one. 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 19 May 2007

Book: Kid Wrangling by Kaz Cooke

Lowdown: A hitchhikers guide to handling babies from 0 to preschool.
Review:
What would a father to do in order to get a grip on what's up ahead? Well, one of the things I tend to do when I get into new stuff is to read books about them in order to get to know my enemy. The question that follows then is, which book should I get? Which is not an easy question to answer given that I don't have a clue on anything remotely to do with raising children.
The extent of my knowledge, at least as far as books were concerned, was limited to books handling whatever happens up to the birth itself. There I was exposed to the pregnancy book by the British Miriam Stoppard. We got a second hand version through the family, but after reading a few chapters I failed to be impressed with its rather detached, preacher like, and idealistic view of the world; it didn't feel like it was addressed to real people. However, through friends we also received Australian Kaz Cooke's book Up the Duff (published in the USA as A Bun in the Oven); I never really even touched that book, but my wife Jo really liked it because of its informal and realistic approach. Up the Duff's babies are not all rosy and the writing is less clinical and more at the eye to eye level.
Then we went to Borders in search of the ideal baby book that we will actually read, and Kaz Cooke's sequel, Kid Wrangling, was quickly identified as the best pick. Not that there's a shortage of baby books to pick from, but all of them seem to have some shortcomings; some are way too focused, others focus on one particular kid raising philosophy that they become obsessed with it to the point of advising you to shoot the child in the case he/she refuses to follow suit, while others seem to be catered for the American public with paragraphs such as "what should I do if my baby sticks something in their left ear" immediately followed by the paragraph "what should I do if my baby sticks something in their right ear" (and no, I haven't made that example up).
In contrast to most of its contenders, Kid Wrangling is quite broad in its scope. A thick 750 plus pager (albeit at a relatively big font), there is quite a lot in there: it covers babies since they are born and up until they are pre-schoolers; it covers parenthood; and it covers what it refers to as "stuff", meaning things around child raising such as equipment and vaccines. Each of the subjects is divided into many paragraphs, some short and some longer. For example, the baby bit covers items such as breastfeeding, bottle feeding, addressing the baby's exhaust "fumes", sleep, and baby routines (to name just a few); while the parenting part includes issues such as baby raising philosophies, teaching your baby how to behave, and what to expect the baby to know and understand at various ages. Even issues like names and circumcisions are addressed, and there and everywhere Cooke is not afraid to say what she thinks.
So yes, there is quite a lot of scope there in Kid Wrangling; but that said, nothing is really thoroughly covered, and often enough you are just referred to other books or experts in order to get to know more (our version refers to Australian references; I would imagine that the American version has been updated to refer to American references, otherwise there is no way Amazon would have sold the book). The child raising philosophies section, for example, mentions something like a dozen of them, but they are all mentioned briefly and at very shallow levels; levels that might suffice for regular readers of New Woman, but they're definitely far from allowing me to decide whether a certain philosophy is up my street. I guess this is both good and bad, because if the book was more detailed it would have been to heavy to read. More importantly, there is nothing wrong with referring you to a specialist; and even more importantly, the book looks you in the eye all the time and pretty much tells you quite explicitly to forget about all these philosophies and realize that there is this thing called real world and that you baby is going to be growing up in that world, not someone's imaginary vision. The book pulls you down from the philosophical realm and from the realm of the "raising a baby is eternal pleasure" into the realm of the real - and that is simply an excellent approach.
This real world, eye to eye approach is at the core of the book. Even the author's name and the book's title signal towards it: I mean, Kaz? I suspect it's Australian for Catherine or something. The book is full of pages telling you to be prepared for the lesser things in child raising, because these are going to be the things that you're be handling most of the time; and that is where it is different from the likes of the Stoppards. The writing is witty, or at least it's trying to be witty, but often enough it is trying too hard to be witty; not that I can do better, but don't expect a Shakespeare with Kid Wrangling. Language wise, it's as if you talk to someone in the street.
This streetwise approach is probably the book's main selling point as well as its main failure. While street talk is easy to follow and easy to implement, it is also incredibly shallow. By far the most annoying aspect are the occasional widespread contradictions (which seem to feature in everything to do with raising babies, including all the other books we looked at so far): one chapter may tell you to do one thing and to avoid the other, while the next chapter will tell you (albeit at a slightly different context) to do the opposite. Most readers and most of the mothers we have been talking to don't seem to notice these issues, but to the analyst in me they seem scream out. It's everywhere: it's with what you are allowed to eat, the way you're supposed to put your baby to sleep, the way you should set the baby's routines... But I guess you can also say that this is intentional: At the bottom line, the book pretty much tells you that raising a baby is a matter of high variance. No book, Kid Wrangling included, can offer you the exact baby user manual; if a book promises to do so than you know you should look elsewhere. Kid Wrangling definitely sets the expectations right in this department. One way in which it does so is quoting from real mothers that answered surveys on which the book was based; those quotes can be both interesting because they tell you what takes place out there, but there's also a heavy element of conformity there that is combined with a heavy spicing of the "babies are so sweet" type (noticeable mainly because the book usually avoids such tinting).
Last, but not least: While the book is aimed at parents in general, and while it keeps on saying it was written for both mother and father, the reality is that it is written by a mother and for mothers (other than some very thin chapters that are directly aimed at the father and say things like "don't expect your wife to fix breakfast for you anymore"). I was quite tired of reading how much my boobs would hurt when I breastfeed.
Overall: I cannot really grade this book so I won't. For a start, I didn't read it all; a lot of it will only be of relevance to me in several years' time. And then there's the obvious fact I am no subject matter expert on raising babies.
Kid Wrangling is definitely not a book I would read for fun; I read it because I have a necessity on my hands, and it took me a long time to go through because it is not the most inspiring read ever. It's also a conformist's book that tries to pass under the radar as an innovative and cool book. However, from what I can tell, it is up there at the top of the pile when it comes to your idiot's guide to raising a baby; not a particularly good book, but it does seem more suitable to the real world than most of the rest, especially if you're after a lighter book and not a heavily analytic one. Then again, I always prefer the analytic approach...

Thursday, 17 May 2007

Film: Bad Education

Lowdown: Brokeback Mountain, the adults' version.
Review:
Bad Education is the second of the Spaniard's Almodovar films that I get to review here, and like the rest of his films this one is also trying to deeply explore femininity. However, the way Bad Education goes on in its exploration is quite unique as there are absolutely no key female roles here; there are hardly any women in the film throughout. Instead the film is dominated by gays and transvestites, as if Almodovar chose to explore the womanly side of man.
The film starts by telling the story of a young guy who meets up with a friend of his that became a famous movie director in order to offer him a script he wrote and get an acting role in the film that will be based on that script. The two are gay; in fact, through "flashbacks" taken of the proposed script we learn they first explored their tendencies when they were in a Catholic school together as kids. We then learn of the things that went on at the school - mainly the pedophilia and the sexual acts taking place between the headmaster and the kids. And while this affair is explored, a series of plot twists are revealed in a way that robs attention away from sexual crimes related issues.
By the time the film has ended I ended up feeling confused. What was the film trying to say? It wasn't just simply trying to tell a story on pedophilia and what it does to its victims. Sure, that was there, but it didn't feel like the main event. It did tell stories on gay love affairs, but again - that wasn't the main event. It feels as though the main event was to do with the plot twists exposing the sexual identities of the characters, but then that has left me dumbfounded because I was not able to see the point there.
So no, I didn't like Bad Education and I didn't think it was a good film. I will mostly remember it for its single gender-ness and for the very explicit gay sex scenes it features, scenes that make Brokeback Mountain feel like a kids' film. Not that there's anything wrong with that; I think it's about time films show us such stuff instead of wrapping themselves in sterility. It is of no wonder that films that dare to go that far come from places like Spain as opposed to places like the USA where the box office has to do the talking.
Best scene: A guy falls asleep while another guy is giving him a blow job. Take that, Hollywood!
Overall: It's daring but it's not a good film. 2 stars out of 5.

Monday, 14 May 2007

Film: Blow Out

Lowdown: John Travolta reconstructs reality from a sound recording.
Review:
They don't make them like that anymore: thrillers that have something to say; films that are designed to make you think while being thrilled; films without much if any in the way of special effects; films that try to be innovative in the art of filming, as in through unusual camera angles and clever compositions; films that don't attempt to have a go at providing a happy ending [oops, there goes the spoiler].
Blow Out qualifies for all of the above. Not that it's a particularly good film, but Brian De Palma's effort from 1981 certainly qualifies at being unique and original even if it does borrow heavily from the likes of Antonioni's Blowup and Coppola's The Conversation.
The story is about a porn films' sound technician, John Travolta. We start the film watching a scene from a horror/porn flick and you might as well think that you're already watching the real Blow Out film when suddenly you realize that you're actually at a sound stage, assembling the sound for the film. This is pretty much Blow Out's way of telling you that things are not always what they seem to be and that what we perceive as real is not necessarily so - a very Brian De Palma motif. Anyway, John Travolta is set on a quest to find proper sounds to use for the film, including the scream sound to be used in the flick's key scene given that the actress there was hired for her tits and not for her acting. Tits, by the way, are yet another very Brian De Palma motif - after all, he is famous for doing Dressed to Kill (or the much more proper way Mad Magazine has coined it, Undressed to Kill).
Travolta goes out to record wind sounds in the woods, when suddenly a car shows up, loses control, and falls into the river. He dives and saves a woman's life, but the guy that was with her is dead; yet it turns out that this guy was the likely candidate to become the next president of the USA, and despite everyone not believing him the sound recording taken by Travolta "shows" that the car didn't just lose control on its own - someone has had a shot at it.
From that point on Travolta sets out to find what has really happened that night. He chases people up, he tries to match pictures to the sounds, and slowly he figures out what has really happened that night. Alas, he is on his own, no one believes him, and the reality he has unveiled is not that pleasant for people to believe in; no one really wants to believe him. Eventually, though, he find just the right scream sound effect for his film.
This was the second time I got to watch Blow Out. The first time around was around high school time on a Friday night. I was all alone at home, and I remember being really thrilled by Blow Out. This time around I was expecting much more out of it as my appreciation for the art of film making and for Brian De Palma has grown exponentially; I no longer watch films just for the thrill effect. However, I was more than a bit disappointed: the film is interesting and there is definitely a thrilling element to it, but it is not even close to being as high octane as I remembered it to be. The main attraction is, indeed, the wise way in which the film is made, and the general "no mocking around" attitude that is so missing from most contemporary films and is evident here is the redundant use of nudity - something that just wouldn't happen today with the studios anxious to earn a softer rating and guarantee wider audience appeal. Then there is also the thinking aspect of the film, which is not exactly flattering towards American ideals.
Best scene: Travolta matches newspaper photos to the soundtrack he has recorded in an attempt to reconstruct reality. Did I mention the heavy borrowing from Blow Up and The Conversation?
Overall: I would say this is a must watch for any film buff, even if it's not the best film ever. 3.5 stars.

Monday, 7 May 2007

DVD: Labyrinth

Lowdown: A fantasy that's neither here nor there but is all eighties.
Review:
The eighties! Those were the days of bad hairdos, weird clothing and the worst music imaginable. Oddly enough, all three have a significant role in Labyrinth, a film that up until now I've only seen once - when my sister took me to see it in Tel Aviv's now dead cinema Paris by the beach. And what a unique cinema it was: I've had my first glimpse of the Monty Pythons there; I didn't really remember it for Labyrinth.
Probably for a very good reason, because Labyrinth is a pretty bad film. The story follows Jennifer Connelly, whom I consider to be one of the better actresses around, at a time in which she didn't really get her act together (the film was released in 1986, so I suppose she was 15 around shooting time). Little Jenny doesn't really get along well with her father and step mother (I may have mixed the stepness here), and most of all she despises little baby Toby - her step brother - who seems to end up with her toys. She wishes he would be taken away, and lo and behold - he is taken away, by the Goblin King - David Bowie clad in very eighties frocks and piles of makeup.
Connelly comes to her senses and sets out to retrieve her brother before Bowie turns him into a goblin in your typical magical land of fantasy, but she only has 13 hours to save the earth and in those 13 hours she has to cross the labyrinth leading to Bowie's castle.
Which is where the Hanson element of the film starts. After all, Labyrinth is remembered mostly for being a Muppet Show like film, with similar puppetry and similar characters run by the same lot that did Kermit & Co. The film is also produced by one George Lucas and has a Terry Jones involved, too (he's the Python that played Brian's mother); so you'd expect the film to be good. But then again, you'd also expect Episodes 1 to 3 to be good, and they were as bad as they could ever be, so at least you can argue that Lucas has become consistent with time.
Why am I arguing that Labyrinth is bad? Several reasons. First, as I have already said, the acting is really bad. Second, all dialog is ADR (looped recordings done in post production); it's all done pretty bad, with voices sounding totally detached from what you see on the screen and the lack of lip sync driving you crazy. But it's not only that: the plot is very much contrived, as if saying "this is a kids' film therefore we can get away with anything", and the various characters Connelly encounters while in the labyrinth have the potential to be interesting but never really get developed. The labyrinth itself is supposed to be a source of intrigue and imagination, but other than throw the occasional curiously weird thing at you it fails at both.
The soundtrack deserves special mentioning, as David Bowie is one of my all time favorite musicians. Yet, how can I put it? The songs of his that grace Labyrinth are no Ziggy Stardust; not even Let's Dance.
The bottom line is that Labyrinth is a failure of a film. It may work for children, at which it is squarely aimed (if lack of sense and development are what make a children's film good), but ultimately it only serves well as a reminder for the "good old" eighties.
Best scene: Connelly and Bowie have themselves a duel on an Escher painting like set, which is quite original. The set, not the duel.
Picture quality: Pretty ordinary and showing the film's age, with severe lack of details and colors all looking washed out.
Sound quality: I already talked about the ADR, but the first thing that took me by surprise was the DVD settling for a stereo soundtrack instead of a 5.1 one. Shame. The sound we do have is quite short on resolution, though.
Overall: It tries to be original. It fails. 1.5 stars.

Wednesday, 2 May 2007

DVD: Fantasia 2000

Lowdown: Classical music to the tune of computer animation.
Review:
Fantasia 2000 is a title packed with personal meaning. Roll the clock back 25 years, and Fantasia 2000 becomes the title of a monthly Israeli science fiction magazine that never got to be published more than 6 times a year; I didn't care, though, I just loved it. Fantasia 2000 is one of those cornerstone childhood memories I like to reminisce on.
This, of course, has nothing to do with Disney's Fantasia 2000. Unlike the magazine, Disney is not a company I like to reminisce on; Disney is actually a company that symbolizes a lot of bad things for me, not unlike McDoanld's. However, if I ignore that and focus on the film at hand, I have to say that the concept behind Fantasia 2000 (and the original Fantasia, too) is not bad at all: have some classical music tunes accompanies by animation.
The choice of classical tunes is as mainstream as one can pretty much get: The opening scene sets the expectations right with Beethoven's 5th. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but don't expect much in the way of originality. Some of the pieces are brutally shortened, too, while others are limited to just the famous movement.
The animation itself varies in quality. Beethoven's 5th is accompanied by rather surrealistic animation; other pieces are accompanied by animation that is probably aimed at kids - flying whales and flamingos messing around with yo-yos; and others feature the good old Disney milking cow characters of Micky Mouse and Donald Duck (the latter in a very schmaltzy interpretation of the Noah's ark story). Overall, when compared to the original Fantasia, the scripts are at the same mediocre quality but the computer animation lacks the hand made passion; it's all too sterile.
Things are being made worse by the cut scenes in between the musical bits. These feature famous celebrities of the cinema and music world saying supposedly funny yet stupid things about the upcoming gig. Again, this might work on a five year old, but given the subject matter I don't understand why Disney chose to ruin it for the more mature crowds that will probably view Fantasia 2000 just as much.
Best scene: By far the best gig is Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue. Depicting a day on the life of recession era Manhattan, it is the only bit of Fantasia 2000 that is truly original and fascinating. And the music is not bad either! Some jazz definitely livens up the film.
Picture quality: Some digital compression artifacts are evident throughout (but especially in the more hectic scenes of the 5th), as well as the finishing touches (or rather, the lack of them) on some of the computer animation scenes.
Sound quality: It doesn't make you feel like you're in a concert hall, but I don't think Dolby Digital is capable of achieving that in the first place. The music is mixed to produce quite an immersive soundfield, and the result is very nice - I found myself reaching for the remote to raise the volume.
Overall: It has its ups and downs, but it's not too bad, and it's certainly something that ranks high as far as repeatable viewing is concerned. 3.5 stars.