Sunday, 29 July 2007

R-Wards

As this blog is now celebrating its first birthday, I thought I should do a regular yearly awards thing to celebrate the stuff I have enjoyed the most. So here goes - the best of what I've seen or read during the year that was, the R-Wards.

Best Film: This R-Ward is given to the best film I have watched for the first time during the previous year. There were two contenders for the crown: Inside Man and Children of Men. The fact neither won particular acclaim from the establishment goes to show one thing or two about what I think of the establishment, but I'll leave it with that for now.
Overall, Children of Men is my winner, mostly because in a globalized world going through all sorts of breakdowns - global warming, terrorism, etc - it is a very relevant film. It is also a film I will remember as the source for the name Dylan.


Best Book: It is interesting to note that in general, books have received much better reviews than films in my blog. I suspect the main reason is that I am much more selective with books, given that they represent a higher investment as far as time is concerned. But I also feel that some of it has to do with the more intensive experience that is reading.
Two books I have read this year for the first time stood head, shoulders and crotch (for all it matters) above anything else. Interestingly enough, both were written by one Richard Dawkins. The first is the recently published The God Delusion, a book that involved a methodological dismantling of this thing called religion for the farce it is; the second is a book published 30 years ago called The Selfish Gene, which gives a pretty thorough answer to the question of why we are here and what we are here to do, as well as explain how and why we go about doing things. The icing on top of the Selfish Gene's cake is the new edition's chapter on why being nice and forgiving to one another pays off, which works well in settling the turmoils created by the book title (which caused a lot of anguish with people who read the book by title only).
So which book is the better book? There can be no doubt of The Selfish Gene winning by a knockout here for substance. However, the better written and more enjoyable to read The God Delusion reaps the R-Ward: published this year, it is very relevant and is "in the air".
Regardless of which of the two won, I think I can safely say Richard Dawkins has won his place in my head.


Best Review: This is a category where I pat myself in the back for writing a good review. As it has been my purpose to review anything I watch or read, it is hard to imagine I would be able to sustain good quality reviewing throughout; there were obviously ups and downs, mood variations, stuff I didn't have that much to say about, and times in which I didn't really have the time to write a proper review. It is also interesting to note that after a while I noticed the better reviews come when I take a while before writing the review, as opposed to getting to it immediately, as this allows things to digest in my head.
Anyway, there are several reviews I'm particularly proud of, but the one I like the most is the one where I have made a conscious effort to write a good review and actually think I fared very well. And so this R-Ward goes to me, for reviewing The Selfish Gene. Given its qualities, no other book or film deserves a well written review than The Selfish Gene.


Lifetime Achievement R-Ward: This R-Ward goes to whatever I liked the most which I have seen this year but not for the first time. While I have watched many repeats during the year, in my mind there can be only one winner.
Carl Sagan's Cosmos has entertained me many a time during my teens, but when I watched it again this year I was surprised to see how much more I can learn from it and how complete Sagan's presentation is.
Dare I say it's the best thing ever to grace my TV? I sure do.


Now for the future. With Dylan around, I doubt I would be able to repeat last year's collection of more than 150 reviews; I don't know many who could muster that on their own. I did enjoy it, though, and more importantly I did gain some new friends through the dialog created by these reviews. Through my reviews conclusiveness, one can get a glimpse of what my life was like during the past year. But with that said, I suspect the year to come will be a rather bleak one as far as reviews are concerned; I will probably only get to see the major blockbusters this year, rather than the really good hidden gems. Somehow, I don't think something like The Transformers deserves an R-Ward. But still, I shall let time do its trick.
Till next year...

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

DVD: American Dreamz

Lowdown: A sarcastic look at the way we live.
Review:
I didn't expect much of American Dreamz. I didn't have any expectations at all; but as happens from time to time, I was very pleasantly surprised. I liked American Dreamz!
American Dreamz is the name of a reality show not unlike Australian Idol. It's hosted by Hugh Grant, who's a nasty piece of work that got to be successful by thinking only of himself. But Grant is just one of the characters the film follows: We also have Dennis Quaid in the role of George Dubya, a recently reelected president who put the USA in an Iraqi swamp and suddenly gets the urge to read the papers, which causes him to realize things his advisers never told him before. His revelations cause a deterioration in his ratings, so in order to increase his popularity he becomes a judge in American Dreamz. Then we have a contestant in and her would be boyfriend who is so stupidly obsessed with her he doesn't realize she only uses him and his background of an injured war veteran in order to win crowd votes. And last, but not least, we have a Muslim terrorist who moves to the USA as a sleeper agent only to get called to take part in the American Dreamz show in order to have the opportunity to kill the American president.
All these characters converge together through the reality show, which serves to expose the thick unreal layer of their lives. I won't say much more in order to avoid ruining the film for you, but as the film develops each of the characters is very sarcastically exposed and the very shallow substance behind which it lives becomes obvious for us all to laugh at. We laugh at the dumb boyfriend who's obsessed, the evil girlfriend who's thinks a game show win will make her a better person, and the president who is dumber than all of us viewers yet still wields so much power in his hands. We laugh at them, and we actually find that we're laughing at ourselves: the film mocks fictitious characters, but all it laughs at is our way of life - and we're not that different to the characters in the film. The only one who is different and who doesn't get mocked is the terrorist, who becomes the cleanest character of the lot.
Of course, you can think the film's focus on the USA means that it applies to the USA alone since it is "common knowledge" Americans are dumb and selfish; but that would be pretty foolish. I think it is very easy to see the film mocks the materialistic, hedonistic Western way of life in general. Is John Howard any better than Bush in the way he steers our emotions and the way we keep on reelecting him despite the damage he's doing to our society?
The film does its sarcastic work well, but it is not perfect: It doesn't go much more than showing us the problems; don't expect a solution. And when it does show us a problem, it doesn't explore it to get to the bottom of things; it settles for the cheap laugh. It's good, but it could have been done better. Sadly, it settles for the cheap laugh rather than the true statement.
Other than that, certain characters are taken too far to the extreme for their own good. Quaid does a very dumb Bush, but it's obvious he overdoes the dumbness. The same goes for most of the other characters.
Best scene: Dennis Quaid learns through the newspapers (they show us "The Guardian") that Iraqis are not all the same and are actually made of several ethnicities, and that North Korea is not exactly like an evil superhero's nemesis.
Worst scene: Dennis Quaid dumbs down Bush by moving his head from side to side in a retard like fashion.
Overall: A light but surprisingly funny sarcastic affair which made me laugh aloud quite often. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 2 July 2007

DVD: Genesis

Lowdown: Mythical mystery tour across the universe.
Review:
Some ten years ago this group of French dudes brought us Microcosmos, a film where the only "actors" were a collection of insects doing what insects regularly do. Quite the success story in Israel back then, it seemed as if I was the only one who didn't watch it (due to my affection to insects). Well, now the same Microcosmos group has brought us Genesis, a film that - according to the DVD cover - is supposed to do the same to the biggest story of all: how the universe was created and how we got to be here.
Not to be confused with its biblical namesake, this version on how things went along actually follows the real thing. There's this old black guy that speaks in a very myth inducing metaphorical way who acts as a narrator, taking us all the way from the big bang to death. And in between his speeches, the film demonstrates what it is talking about through some very flashy photography of live contemporary action. The big bang is demonstrated through what seems to be smoke, the formation of the earth through shots of lava and steam, and then moving on to live animal action as the film starts discussing living things: fish, frogs and sea horses, to name a few.
It's all very nicely shot and all, but the way that black guy narrates it just got on my nerves. Instead of saying things for what they are, he goes all "poetic" about it. Thing is, you can be poetic and effective, but you can also be a poetic pain in the ass; sadly, Genesis chose the second option. Instead of telling us what is really going on, the narrator just confuses things. Or worse, he even gets it totally wrong: for example, when discussing sex as the technique for life's continuation, the narrator in his all consuming sense of poetry bullshits about how lovely sex is and how it is the essential source of all life - which, as Richard Dawkins' favorite stick insect will tell you, is absolute bullshit. Sex is actually a relatively recent evolutionary invention, and there are lots and lots of animals of all sorts that multiply without sex.
Trouble is, once you remove the narrator from the equation, what you end up with is an 80 minute montage of interesting photography. It's nice to watch, it's all very flashy and colorful, and it's often very interesting; but it's nothing more than most other nature shows out there. David Attenborough would eat Genesis for breakfast.
So while it's no intelligent design bullshit, and while it touches some nice and interesting issues that are not often discussed, like how we are made from the matter around us and how we contribute back to that matter, Genesis is still bad. Why couldn't they just cut the crap? Why the need to try and cover everything with this layer of meaningless "spirituality" and "positive waves"?
Best scene: Shots of fish that can go on ground, presented while discussing how life moved from the sea to the land. Quite a fascinating fish!
Picture quality: The picture is very flashy and the shots are mesmerizing, but the DVD is betrayed by its single layer configuration. When the action gets tight, pixelization is all over the place, so abundant that it's really distracting.
Sound quality: This one sports a real aggressive soundtrack. Too aggressive: volume levels are way over the top, and the result feels way too manufactured.
Overall: Do yourself a favor and watch Planet Earth instead. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 1 July 2007

DVD: Apocalypto

Lowdown: The Mayan culture going down, and this time - it's personal.
Review:
For the record, I like Mel Gibson. I mean, I like his films, not necessarily the person. The guy took part in some brilliant stuff - The Road Warrior, entertaining stuff - Lethal Weapon, and even directed films I liked - Braveheart. So yeah, when he opens his mouth off the screen he projects an image of a true idiot, and The Passion of the Christ was a masochist's delight; but who cares? Just let me watch his good films.
So how does his recent effort as a director, Apocalypto, fair? Well, it's a mixed bag. I will start by saying that although I liked Braveheart, I never thought that highly of Gibson's skills as a director. Apocalypto did not make me change my mind.
The story is set in the last days of the Mayan culture. Not that there is anything to tell you where and when the story is set (other than the DVD cover); you just have to collect the clues as you go along watching the film, but you need to do it all the way to the end. The story follows a member of jungle tribe who looks a lot like Ronaldinho (and given that there are absolutely no familiar actors in Apocalypto, that is the name by which I am going to remember him). Ronaldinho's tribe is nice and small and very family like, but they're also pretty tough characters. They eat their prey's balls without cooking it first. But tough as they may be, they are not tough enough to survive an attack by an outsider army of particularly vicious Mayan people who take most of the tribe as captives with some vary nasty purpose in mind. Rest assured, though: by the time Ronaldinho finishes with them, they will wish they never left their bowl of cereal at their respective moms' breakfast table. After all, in Gibson films revenge is very, well, vengeful. As nasty as it can be, Apocalypto is highly entertaining as a thriller - I found myself quite excited. I was also annoyed with the way too frequent rate of miracles saving the day for Ronaldinho, but once again - these can be taken for granted in a Mel Gibson film, at least those coming after Passion of the Christ...
I was told the film is quite full on blood and gore, and indeed it is; but to be honest, there is not much in there on top of what you see in Temple of Doom. The difference, though, is in the seriousness of it: when a heart is taken out of someone's body in Apocalypto, it looks and feels real. And there's a good reason why: there is a heavy emphasis in Apocalypto on authenticity, so while I have no real idea how much like real Mayan culture Gibson's vision is, there is no doubt the film's firm commitment to the authentic portrayal of alternative cultures to ours. I have to add that given what I do know about Mayan culture, the film does a very good job portraying it. You could argue that Apocalypto is quite the anthropological delight; I was quite fascinated by the result.
What is not so delightful is the message that Gibson is trying to convey with his film and the way in which he conveys it. Gibson is not being around the bush - his views are made very clear the second the film starts. Basically, he's saying that it's not the Spanish that took the Mayans down, it was the Mayans that had a rotten culture to begin with because at its basis the heart of men is corrupt. Basically, he's implying that we (Westerners? Citizens of the planet earth?) are all on the brink of an apocalypse, and the apocalypse can only be averted if we repent and go back to nature. The true nature of his natural solution is not specified; given Passion of the Christ I have my suspicions, but Apocalypto leaves that area relatively open for personal interpretation. Which, however, does not compensate for a very childish, black and white way of looking at the world.
Talking about Passion of the Christ again, all actors speak Mayan exclusively in Apocalypto. Given that most of the actors here are not exactly Academy Award material, the film suffers a bit with their linguistic efforts. That said, the Mayan does contribute to the authenticity of the film; it would have been hard to accept this very different culture if the characters were to speak English and sound like the guy from the supermarket down the corner.
Best scene: An eclipse takes place during a ceremony in which live people are being sacrificed to the sun god on top of a pyramid with thousands of people in the crowd. Viscerally, this is a very impressive scene, and again a tribute to the film's authentic feeling.
Picture quality: Very good indeed, with lots of details and zero noise. There is, however, a slight weird feeling to the colors, as if the film was shot with a video camera.
Sound quality: Ok, but not half as impressive as it should have been.
Overall: Exciting and controversial. The story of Mel Gibson. 3.5 out of 5 stars.