Monday, 24 September 2007

Film: Sicko

Lowdown: A call for a change of values.
Review:
Michael Moore’s documentaries are usually to do with presenting audacious ideas that seem ridiculous at first but, at least in my opinion, end up turning quite accurate, which leads me to believe he has a bit of a problem with his presentation. Take Fahrenheit 9/11 as an example: the guy was telling us the war in Iraq was all about oil at a time when you had to be a bonafide frog eating French in order to say anything bad about the war. Sicko follows the same line, only that now I can say that I generally agree with what Moore is saying from the start; the problem is still very much there with the way he makes his points.
Sicko tells the story of the American health system. The story is told through a collection of simple real life stories, and thus Moore takes us through the woes that befall those who don’t have health insurance and those that do have it but are still denied help. Then Moore tells us how the USA health system got to the point where it currently is (blame Nixon) and how it seems as if it’s impossible to change the rules of the game (just ask Hillary Clinton). He moves on to show the alternative – what he refers to as a “socialized health system”, a term that I find weird because I would put it as a “normal health system” while labelling the American one “a very stupid system” (and I think the word “system” is greatly misused here). In typical Moore fashion, he goes off to Canada, the UK and France to demonstrate how a health system should work. The conclusion is delving close to a comedy, and I refer you to the ‘worst scene’ paragraph below.
While I very much agree with what Moore is saying, I don’t like the way he’s saying it. As touching as the personal stories he is telling us about are, they are, well, personal; you can’t really tell whether those poor individuals whose stories are told truly represent the whole. And while the plight of the few is definitely not less worthy, I find it hard to believe that the American public wouldn’t rebel against the system if the majority was to receive the treatment Moore demonstrates in his film. OK, one of his points is that it is the weak that get the hard treatment and not the strong that can retaliate, but still – the quantification element that allows the measuring of the extent of the problem is missing. In a system serving 300 million people finding someone who is not happy with the service is inevitable; I think Sicko should have transcended that approach.
Another problem is that Moore is obviously leading us throughout the film down his path. Things look as if he’s investigating and researching as we go, but it’s clear that we’re following a very well laid out script.
Still, problems aside, let’s not forget the message in Sicko. I could easily regard Sicko as a comedy on how the American public gets screwed and have myself a good night’s sleep afterwards; but that would be a mistake on two accounts (and I'll politely ignore the fact that some nice Americans don't deserve this; yes, even some that voted for Bush). First, the health system in Australia has been going through an ongoing Americanization; if certain people have their way, we will be there in the not too distant future. After all, we already have a two tiered health system (private/public), with the main difference between us and the USA being that the public system is still tolerable on most accounts, with dental care being the most obvious exclusion. But the public health system is very much going down, and it would take ordinary people like us to set things right – which is exactly why a film like Sicko that shows the viewer both the good (France) and the bad (USA) is essential viewing.
The second vital thing about Sicko is that it’s not just a film about the health system. At its heart, it is a film that tries to alert people to the fact that they shouldn’t think about the “me” as much as they do, and that they should start thinking about the “we” instead. With elections coming up in just a couple of months, I hope as many Australians as possible will get to watch Sicko.
Worst scene: Moore grabs several ill 9/11 rescue workers with him and takes a boat to Guantanamo Bay, where the imprisoned terrorists receive better (free) health care than the rescue workers do (they are denied help by the system). The scene where Moore takes a megaphone and shouts across a mine field towards a remote guard tower is ludicrous.
Best scene: Moore asks a government employed doctor in the UK about how he copes as a doctor on the meager salary provided by the government. Turns out the doctor is coping very well indeed.
Overall: Rating Sicko is all to do with the way you feel about the balance between the importance of the message, the quality of the arguments, and the cinematic value of this documentary. I would rate it as 3 stars out of 5 just because I do think the message is truly important, even if the delivery mechanism is lacking.

Thursday, 20 September 2007

DVD: My Super Ex Girlfriend

Lowdown: Superman out, superwomen in.
Review:
Ivan Reitman is one of those directors that has been around for a while and has shot many a comedy in our general direction, yet none of his shots ever hit the bullseye. No, not even Ghostbusters. Some times, however, he can make you smile or even laugh a bit; My Super Ex-Girlfriend is a case in point.
It’s not just the laughs that turn Super Ex into a nice film to watch. It’s also the originality: with most films today, especially those coming out of Hollywood, everything is so predictable and everything always follows the same tried and tested formulas, and worse – everything adheres to this politically correct way of doing things. In short, films are too much like one another. Super Ex is slightly, but significantly, different here: it does not hesitate to step a bit off your run of the mill social conventions. Sadly it doesn’t go far, but from an easy going American made comedy one cannot expect more. Sadly.
Without further ado, let’s get to the plot. Luke Wilson, an actor whose face I’m familiar with but about whom I was never bothered to know much, is your average guy. In typical comedy fashion he is your good hearted lovely guy that never seems to have much of a success with the opposite sex – you know, the type of character that is meant to strike a chord of identification with all suppressed male viewers. Anyway, Wilson’s luck changes when he stumbles upon this girl who would finally go out with him. Little does Wilson know, however, that behind the simpleton looks this rather mundane Uma Thurman is actually the superhero commonly referred to as G-Girl, who – in a touch of male chauvinism – is famous for single-handedly stopping jewelery shop burglaries.
I’m actually misleading you here, because Thurman is so anxious to go out with someone that she tells Wilson who she really is within two seconds. Once she does, they go on to have these fantasy like experiences that one can have when one’s girlfriend is a superhero (refer to the ‘best scene’ paragraph below). And then, as is expected in a romantic comedy, the love triangle element creeps through, and Wilson decides that as super as Thurman is, she is not the right girl for him; which is actually one of the smarter points the film has to make, because too many people don’t realize that glamor does not necessarily mean quality.
So Wilson breaks up with Thurman, which is when the Ex part of Super Ex kicks in. Thurman is not that happy with being chucked out, and when a superhero is angry a superhero can be really angry: she goes on a rampage, doing all sorts of nasty fantasy things to Wilson: the opposite of what they’ve done when they were together. Do not worry for Wilson, though: there is a happy ending at the end of the rainbow.
For a romantic comedy, Super Ex is rather witty and full of nice touches. Idea wise, even though the film is easy going, there is quite a lot behind it: While you can dismiss it as chauvinistic, pointing at scenes in which the superhero leaves her bag with her boyfriend before going off to save the day, it is clear that what the film is about is the confrontation guys “trained” in a patriarchal society face when having to accept a world in which woman wield power, too.
I suspect we will see many more films of the like of Super-Ex once Billary Clinton takes power.
Best scene: Thurman takes Wilson for a flight above Manhattan, only that this time she’s not wearing underwear. And they end up doing what it is that Superman rather stupidly (if you ask me) never even thinks about. Mid air.
This is exactly what I’m talking about when I say that Super Ex treads off the beaten path (but not by that much).
Picture and sound quality: Average at best.
Overall: This is a light comedy of the 3 stars caliber. However, it deserves to be rewarded for its innovativeness – 3.5 out of 5. Recommended.

Monday, 17 September 2007

DVD: Pan's Labyrinth

Lowdown: A grim modern version of a Grimm Brothers like story.
Review:
Pan’s Labyrinth is one of those films about which you hear only good stuff. That, plus it being Spanish, plus it supposedly being a children story with some fairy tale elements, have made me quite curious to finally watch it.
Set in 1944 Spain, just post the civil war and just after Fraco’s side has won it, it tells the story of a child (Ophelia) as she and her pregnant sick mother arrive at an army base governed by the Captain, the mother’s new husband, who is also the father of her pregnancy but not the father of Ophelia. The Captain’s job is to exterminate the last traces of resistance, and make no doubt about it: exterminate he does with extreme prejudice (this is not a kids’ film!). Ophelia, however, is not taken by the show of power; she gets relief through a fantasy world she encounters (or, as the film subtly hints, invents). And in that world she is a princess that has to fulfil a quest in order to ignite her princess-liness.
Thus the film revolves around Ophelia and her magic world on one side, and the Captain and his very materialistic world on the other. The Captain is a brutal killer that has no trace of emotion or empathy left in him while Ophelia is the emblem of innocence. The two stories are excellently woven together and the result is imaginative and gripping; it is rare to see films that are better done than Pan’s Labyrinth.
There’s more to Pan’s Labyrinth, though. There is a wide array of very well developed characters, all of them mirroring different character aspects; the world of Pan’s Labyrinth is far from being a black & white, “you’re either with us or against us” world. The portrayal of the Spanish civil war is also fascinating; I don’t know much about it but I have heard the stories of brutality that still haunt Spaniards today, and the film definitely depicts that aspect very well.
One problem I did find with Pan’s Labyrinth is that too many things are left unexplained. For example, some of the things that happen during Ophelia’s magical tasks seem to be there for no particular reason other than being there (without going into too much detail, the fig tree and the toad she encounters never serve any purpose and no attempt is made to explain existence in the first place). Director Del Toro explains that this was intentional because of his attempt to generate a simple story and because he doesn’t like it when everything is explained the way it usually is in a Hollywood film. While I can definitely see where he’s coming from, I have to say I disagree; I think he has a mix-up between giving purpose to things and between dumbing down, which is what Hollywood’s crime is.
Actually, this is an interesting philosophical debate: just how much purpose do we need to assign to things to make us satisfied with them? Personally, I think many if not most things and events do not have any particular purpose; they just happen, as in the case of the comet that killed the dinosaurs lacking any motivation to kill anything. If the problem is infinitely reduced then I will admit that I also have no idea why certain laws of physics behave the way they do, and I’m pretty sure my knowledge there will never improve significantly. However, as nice as all this is, a movie represents different territory: since a movie is essentially an artificial creation it has to have a purpose by definition. That purpose might be to demonstrate the lack of a purpose, but that is still a viable purpose. In my opinion, while certain movie elements may lack a purpose in order to stimulate the viewer down a certain path, too much of it helps create an inefficient and straying film; I don’t want to watch a black screen for an hour in order to be demonstrated how far a lack of a purpose can go.
My point is simple. There is a fine balance to be struck between purpose and the lack of it in an artificial artistic creation, and in my opinion Pan’s Labyrinth strays too much towards the chaotic side, to the point that some of its events feel like detached sub movies.
Another problem I have with Pan’s Labyrinth is its advocacy of Christian values with which I totally disagree. According to the film, it’s the choices we make in life that count, and thus far I agree: indeed, the evil Captain is bad by choice and the innocent Ophelia is innocent by choice. However, the film then goes on to suggest that the pain we endure because of our choices is to do with some heavenly game played by god; we are not meant to understand why we feel this pain, but eventually we will be permanently rewarded if we do make the right choices. A nice concept, but bullshit by any other name is still bullshit; regardless of the lack of permanent rewards, a decent god should have no problems disclosing information to those being affected by it. Or, to put it another way: our suffering here on this earth serves no purpose whatsoever.
Best scene: There are many candidates here. I’ll go with the flow and point at the film’s climax, where the Captain and Ophelia both face the consequences of their choices.
Picture quality: There is no digital artefact in sight. It seems obvious a lot of effort was made into creating this DVD. However, often the picture is far from being perfect, but that is probably the result of the lighting choices made during the shoot.
Sound quality: Nice, but nothing spectacular.
Overall:
Pan’s Labyrinth is a film with 4 stars written all over it. However, just as I have rewarded the 3 stars worth A Good Year with an extra star for touching some sensitive nerves, I will deduct half a star here for the annoying philosophies.
3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007

DVD: 300

Lowdown: The good few beat the crap out of the evil many.
Review:
As hype goes, not much can exceed that which has been revolving around 300. Described as anything from “battle of the bulges” to “the first blockbuster of the year”, it was one of those must see films. And then there were arguments on what it is that it was trying to say.
Well, what the film has to say is said mostly through the mouth of David Wenham, whose talents are wasted on yet another film that requires nothing in the way of acting. Set in ancient Greek Empire BC times, Wenham tells us the story of Leonidas, the king of Sparta. Forged by the, well, very Spartan educational system they’ve been deploying there at the time, this guy was a mean warring machine. So when the Persians drop by with some million soldiers and decide it’s a nice idea to conquer Greece, you can trust Leo to have a thing or two to say about this.
On one hand, Leo has a lovely wife and both walk around naked at home in what may be very Spartan like manner but is definitely not very much like American movies like manners; the directors must have given up on child friendly ratings rather early for this one, given the abundance of CGI blood. On the other hand, Leo is impeded through traitors in his midst, which do not allow him to send his army to face the Persians.
Instead, Leo assembles a group of 300 volunteers, the crème de la crème of Spartan cubed abdomens, and off they go on what is surely a suicide mission to stop the Persians. They make their stand at a narrow pathway the Persians have to cross in order to enter Greece, and from then on the film follows the ensuing battles between Greeks and Persians.
And battle they do, in a very Matrix like style, against a multitude of enemies. These start with normal men but move through mutants, immortals and all sorts creatures of fantasy. There are even enemies wielding hand grenades, although nothing as effective as the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch. The key element here is that everything is larger than life, reaching its peak with the king of the Persians, Xerxes (interestingly enough, “Xerxes” is the Greek version of the guy’s name; his Persian mother didn’t call him by that name, which goes to show that Hollywood history is written with a pro-winner orientation in mind). Xerxes is made to look like a huge statue carrying more bling on him that an entire group of rappers. It all goes with the trend of the film, which accentuates everything and portrays the Spartans as the ultimate good facing the ultimate evil. However, one cannot escape the feeling that given the way certain characters and certain situations are portrayed, this is all done with one big wink in mind; otherwise, one would have a hard time explaining why Sparta is made to look very dreary and why all the characters seem to come directly from a Playgirl centerfold.
This leads me to the main discussion point out of 300, the good vs. evil element. While we should all be very thankful for the Spartan way of life dying with Sparta, the film keeps on praising it. The screenplay sounds as if it was written by George Bush, a notion that in no doubt is aided by Bush like phrases such as “axis of evil” and “if you’re not with us you’re against us”. This goes so far that it becomes the main thing you take off the film, but it goes far enough to make you think that it’s either a case of really stupid filmmakers or extreme sarcasm at work. Me? I’d pick the second option.
Best scene:
It’s not the fight scenes that are best remembered here, even though they can be quite spectacular, albeit too heavy on CGI for their own good (you get the feeling they just had the actors standing there doing all sorts of movements, with their weapons and their crushed enemies added later on a programmer’s PC).
No, the main events in 300 are the various Bush like catch phrases. They’re so funny they can kill you if you’re not careful. And the peak scene is when dusk sets on the battlefield after the first day, and Leo and his merry men stand there contemplating Spartan philosophy (read: exchanging George Bush like phrases) while Leo is eating an apple that seems to have come out of nowhere.
Which leads me to make my usual movie complaint: Nowhere in the film do you see a roll of toilet paper being used, a water container being carried, or supplies being delivered. Surely this is why the Spartans ultimately lost.
Picture quality: One of the things unique to 300 is its looks. It’s all shot in very high contrast and it all has a sepia tint to it. All the sets have this gloomy, bland look to them, naked of anything warm or growing. It is unique, but ultimately it is one of the reasons why 300 cannot be counted among those epic films of the Gladiator or even Troy caliber; it’s just a minor epic instead. Technically speaking, the look also makes it very hard to pass judgment on the DVD’s picture quality; let’s just settle things by saying it’s unique.
Sound quality: This is what films should be like – aggressive (and unsettling, as Dylan may venture) through and through, but with good fidelity while at it. If anything, this one could and should have been even more aggressive.
Overall: On one hand, 300 is spectacular viewing, no doubt about it. On the other hand it is a very bad movie: it doesn’t take long for you to anxiously wait the next gem to come out of the actors’ mouths in support of the “we’re so good and pure of heart” vs. the “they are just so evil and they’re not that good looking and they don’t have cubes on their abdomens” motif.
So what do I make of it? I think 300 is a film so bad it is actually good fun in that campy Priscilla Queen of the Desert kind of a way. I’m not sure it was designed to make you laugh, but I have found it to work better than most comedies; its epic and fantastic touches didn’t hurt, either.
3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 10 September 2007

DVD: Wah-Wah

Lowdown: A dysfunctional British family in Africa's seventies.
Review:
Correct me if I'm wrong, but my impression is that all British guys called Richard have been born in Africa. This has been the case with Richard Dawkins, and this is also the case with Richard E. Grant. Grant played in lots of stuff - I remember him mostly from his rather minor role in Coppola's Dracula - and Wah-Wah represents his directional debut. The thing about Wah-Wah is that it is supposed to be autobiographical; not that this matters much when you watch the film.
The film's plot is relatively simple, containing not much we haven't seen before. It's set in Africa, starting from the late sixties and moving towards the seventies - the last days of the last shreds of the British empire's in Africa. We follow life through the eyes of a boy, and the first thing we follow is him seeing how his mother betrays his father with another man. Next we see the parents break up with the mother leaving home, next the son is sent to a boarding school, next he returns home to find his father remarried to an American, and the rest of the film is about the teenager trying to come to grips with all that has transpired. As well as with his alcoholic father.
All the while, the British are handing over the country to the locals. It's never the focus of the film, but you're sort of left with the feeling that maybe what the film actually is about is the story of the locals taking over the country, and the story of the child and his dysfunctional parents is just a metaphor. Or is it the other way around? Or is it none of the above? With the way Wah-Wah is made, you can't really tell what it was trying to aim at.
The story is interesting and the film is mildly entertaining, but it's neither here nor there in the sense of you not being able to tell what it is trying to do to you. It reminded me a lot of The Squid and the Whale, which is another story of a family breakup that doesn't have much more to say on top of the family breakup.
Best scene: The mother returns home after several years away and the boy is ecstatic; then he finds out why she came back home and the boy is shattered. Nicely done.
Picture quality: Pretty bad, although I've seen worse. It's hard to tell whether the quality is bad because of poor production values on what is pretty obviously a low budget film or whether it is bad because of poor DVD mastering (this DVD came from the same company that did the worst job ever on Fast Food Nation; it's not as bad, but there are obvious signs of a shoddy job).
Sound quality: Surround effects are limited to the occasional music. Pretty elementary, that is.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5 stars. It's not bad, but it doesn't take off.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

DVD: You, Me and Dupree

Lowdown: Owen Wilson abandons Ben Stiller in favor of Matt Dillon.
Review:
The American comedy – that cheap and inoffensive way to pass the time when you’re tired or stressed. Nothing lets you pass the time without too much agony and without making your brain work too hard better than an American comedy. You, Me and Dupree is yet another classic representative of the genre.
The story is as simple as a story can be. A couple gets married – Kate Hudson (she looks familiar but I can’t say I remember her from anything else) and Matt Dillon (who obviously wasn’t able to ride on the success of his performance in Crash). This alone is rather unrealistic, as Hudson is portrayed to come from a mega rich family, yet she works as a teacher and marries a lowly employee in her father’s company.
As the couple gets married, the best man, Dupree (Owen Wilson) loses his job and ends up with no place to stay, so guess what – the Hudsons/Dillons host him in their place. Now Wilson/Dupree turns out to be the friend you never really wanted to have; you know the type, they’re usually called Haim. All sorts of calamities take place at the Hudson/Dillon house, starting from finding Wilson naked on the sofa and evolving towards a three way love affair, with Dillon’s father in law adding additional drama to the drama.
It’s all innocent fun, it’s mildly funny from time to time (as in you may smile occasionally), but it’s far from being sophisticated, it’s predictable, it’s corny, and as the film ends you realize you’ve spent almost two hours of your life on nothing. Which can be the right thing for you, from time to time, as long as you don’t expect much.
Best scene: Pretty close to the beginning of the film you see Michael Douglass for the first time, and immediately you wonder – what is he (as in, an actor that is associated with high quality stuff) doing in a film like this?
Other than that, the cameos from Lance Armstrong are nice.
Picture quality: Obviously, not much effort was made there. Colors are all over the place, some noise is about, and details are not as clear as they could be.
Sound quality: Obviously, not much effort was made there, either.
Overall: This is your average typical Hollywood production through and through, which is to say it’s average in every respect possible. That said, we knew what we were in for with this one, and it did make for a relaxing afternoon. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 3 September 2007

DVD: Sunshine

Lowdown: There’s always the sun; the same cannot be said about humans.
Review:
Sunshine is the latest film from Danny Boyle (Trainspotting, Millions) I’ve had the pleasure of watching. Not that I liked them all, but Sunshine is unique: it is a science fiction film, and I like science fiction.
Immediately as the film starts we are given the premises by a narrator: Set in the near future, the sun’s output has suddenly gone through a drastic reduction. The earth is in frozen desolation as a result, and humanity is about to expire. Icarus, a spaceship designed to drop a huge bomb made of all the fissile material on earth (or rather, half of it – read on) was sent out towards the sun several years ago, but all contact has been lost with it when it got close to the sun and radio couldn’t work anymore; obviously, given it not returning and the sun still being frozen, the ship has failed its mission. Icarus 2 was sent to do the same, and we’re following its crew as it sails into the sun in present time.
The basic premises of the sun’s death aside, this is a very solid science fiction film. As in, it is very scientific: no bullshit aliens, and things are the way you’d expect a manned mission to the sun to really be like (assuming the technology is available).
That’s all fine and dandy, but then all sorts of trouble start befalling the crew of Icarus 2 – trouble of the sort I won’t specify here to avoid ruining the film. In the process, we are reminded of HAL, the computer from 2001; in fact, all the way to the end we keep on receiving reminders of 2001, including the very end itself. And as the trouble comes forward, so does the scientific robustness fade away, at first to doubtful feats and then to the plain mythical.
The question, then, is simple: why go there? The answer, it seems to me, is also simple: through the tension of the drama and the horrors involved (yes, there are horror elements in Sunshine, although this is not your cheap “made you jump” film; think more like a subdued Alien), the purpose of the film is to tell us that we, people, are but a speck of nothing in the universe. The sun was here before us and will be here long after we’re gone, and in the grand scheme of things the universe is totally ambivalent towards us humans.
Fair enough, I say; as messages go, this one is a mighty good one. The usage of the sun in this age of global warming and the burning of fossil fuels is also a nice trick: Boyle is showing us where the answers lie.
But still, I’m asking myself: Does the end justify the means? Is the important message worth the turning of the film from glorious science fiction (emphasis on science) into a tale about the sun god? I can see where Boyle is coming from, and I can see him trying to appeal to the religiously oriented as well as the scientifically oriented, but still I wish he could have stuck to the science to produce a film that could have been a much better Sunshine.
Best scene: The computer is taking control of the ship, preventing the crew from saving two astronauts because of the danger to the mission. Very HAL like.
Picture quality: Everything looks pretty impressive, with high contrast picture and flashy effects. Dylan, whom I held in my arms throughout the film, was quite impressed. However, a closer look reveals that the high contrast comes with a lesser level of detail in the picture.
Sound quality: Sound is a major actor in this film that lacks famous faces. Since the film takes place in close confinement, sound is used to amplify the drama, and it is extremely effective in that. It does, however, come with a price: it is often over the top, attracting attention to itself.
Overall: This could have easily been a better film, but I’ll still be generous with it (call it science fiction favoritism) and grant it 3.5 out of 5 stars.