Wednesday, 28 November 2007

DVD: The Black Dahlia

Lowdown: Old style murder mystery with new style sex.
Review:
As I have said in the past, Brian De Palma is one of those directors I look up to. Obviously, he knows how to make films. In his latest (which by now may actually not be his latest), The Black Dahlia, he proves this point once again. However, he also demonstrates how a well made film is not necessarily a good film.
Set immediately after World War 2, TBD is a kind of a film noir movie. The story is told from the point of view of Josh Hartnett, a Los Angeles police detective in his day job and a former boxer in his previous life (or is it his spare time hobby?). Hartnet's partner is also a boxer and they actually fought one another to help raise policemen salaries. Described as Fire & Ice, these two cannot be set apart, and the partner's girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is almost shared between the two.
Then a shooting incident happens, and then a bad dude that used to torture Johansson gets released from jail, and then this young actress get gruesomely murdered, and thus we have a murder mystery on our hands. The looks and the feel and the narration all make this murder story feel like one of those old black and white Bogart / Huston film, most notably The Maltese Falcon. The main thing that sets this one apart from the old vintage are the dominant sexual themes, another trademark De Palma feature (after all, De Palma is famous for directing Undressed to Kill). However, TBD is not as good as the Falcon. I had a real hard time understanding what was going on, partly because the film is meant to be one of those films where you slowly figure out what's going on, and partly because the film insistence on a particular style dictates that the actors talk quickly and using forties lingo, which means they are hard to comprehend. I know it sounds stupid, but I tell it the way it was for me...
Eventually, though, I did realize what went on. Then, however, I said to myself: so what? As in, was the trip worth the effort? I don't think so. Sure, De Palma wanted to say similar things to what Huston used to say in his films, but he didn't manage to say it that well. He ended up with a very stylish film, a very empty film.
Best scene: A trail of lesbian themed clues leads the detectives in their investigations and at one point they get to this lesbian club. In a show of fancy film making, we find ourselves in the middle of a K. D. Lang performance that is very well choreographed.
Picture quality: There is a dominant sepia finishing to the film that hardly leaves any colors in but doesn't wash them away altogether. Obviously intentional, it's a main contributor to the film's style.
Sound quality: Most of the time it is very subdued. However, in key action scenes the sound becomes very aggressive and very realistic. It's effective, but it's a pity not more of the movie is done with proper sound.
Overall: Style fails to conquer substance. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Book: Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: Applying scientific thinking to late 20th century issues.
Review:
Billions and Billions is the last book to be written by Carl Sagan. Not that this has stopped publishers from publishing stuff of his afterwards, it's just that when B&B was finished Sagan was in his deathbed (finishing touches were added by his wife).
B&B is actually a collection of articles more than a conventional book, with the articles grouped by their themes. The first batch discusses the importance of quantification when trying to assess everything around us. Essentially, it's vintage Sagan with his smooth style talking about the virtues of scientific thinking.
The second batch, entitled "what are the conservatives conserving", applies the scientific thinking preached in the previous articles and shows exactly how they relate to our modern lives through discussions concerning the ozone layer and global warming. In fact, the chapters on global warming often feel as though they are carbon copies of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, which made me ask myself who among the two really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and how dumb we humans are to have ignored the call to arms on global warming for so long.
Next come further discussions where scientific thinking is applied to major political and social issues of our times: nuclear arms, abortions, and others more. Take the issue of abortions as an example: Sagan quickly disintegrates the common arguments from both sides of the fence. The pro-life arguments seem particularly silly when you analyze their history and the reasons why they were brought up in the first place, but the pro-choice arguments lack foundations just the same. Sagan then comes up with his own line of arguments which he thoroughly explains, arguments that by relying on facts are that much more compelling.
The book ends with the exciting yet sad story of Sagan's fight for his life. The story is both touching and interesting but not in the tabloid kind of way; here is a man that is about to die sharing with us his vision for our future. Reading it I found myself in tears (which was a bit of a problem given that most of my reading is now done during train rides).
Looking back at my own blog's recent posts on the role of astronomy in life and about death, I find it interesting to see just how similar my views are to Sagan's. Now I am not saying here that my writing is as good as his or that I am as much of an intellectual as he was; what I am saying is that Sagan has had a profound influence on the way I view this world. And for that I will be forever thankful.
Overall: Simple elegance. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

DVD: Pirates of the Caribbean 3 - At World's End

Lowdown: Now where did those 3 hours of my life disappear to?
Review:
We never expected much out of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It was a Friday night, we wanted a light film that would be fun to watch but won't challenge our intellects too much, and most of all we were curious to see how that series ends. Not that we were terribly anxious or anything, given that the second installment was as forgettable as, but just - you know - wanted to see how ends meet.
Now I may have been able to tell you what PotC3 is about and what the plot is like but I can't, really. Not because I'm neglecting my duties as a would be film reviewer, but simply because there is none to talk about. More than its two predecessors, PotC3 is a collection of meaningless scenes that don't make much sense. It starts from the opening scene that shows rows of people getting hanged for no particular reason and moves on all through the rest of the film. Whatever progression the plot has is through the invention of new things that have mysteriously eluded the previous two films in the series, such as the introduction of a sea goddess.
Plot is not the only thing that is missing. Characterization is missing, too; the film relies on the characters "established" in previous episodes and doesn't bother spending even 1 cent on character development.
That's fine, I hear you say; the Pirates series is not about plot or characters, it's about the roller coaster action scenes. Not so fine, I answer back: the action scenes in this third installment are predictable, relatively rare, rely on CGI way too much, and to be frank - they're quite boring. Instead, most of the film is spent in meaningless dialog that doesn't really make sense but is full of pirate cliches of the type you would hear from the one legged character in The Simpsons.
When all of this ordeal spreads over close to three hours, the result is simply one of the most torturous movie experiences I have ever had.
Best scene: The closing credits, mainly because they signaled the end of the film. We thought that would never come! They also answered the most interesting question I had about the film, which was whether it was indeed Chow Yun-Fat that took part in the early part of the film.
Picture quality: Good, but should have been better. Too much noise.
Sound quality: OK, but nothing offering none of the qualities an action film with this kind of a budget should.
Overall: A complete waste of time, a film that has absolutely nothing to offer. 0 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 23 November 2007

DVD: Rocky Balboa

Lowdown: Rocky's back from retirement where he should have stayed.
Review:
The Rocky films represent childhood memories. Funny memories of times gone by when we could have enjoyed films as bad as Rocky 3, where the eye of the tiger (what a hit song that was!) fights it out with B. A. Burekas. Or Rocky 4, where the communist slime is shown who the superior species on this planet is. However, as bad as 3 & 4 were, they were so bad they were funny; #5, on the other hand, was pathetically bad.
And now comes #6 and in order for it to appear better Sylvester Stallone has decided to dump the numbering altogether and go for a more classy act with the name. The film, however, still retains the original qualities of the "better" sequels: stupid, predictable films.
This time around Rocky is long past retirement, a small time restaurant operator who is happy with his life but is captivated with memories of a better past. We know the past wasn't better, it was pretty bad - with Drago and such - but Stallone is obviously in such a bad position, career wise, that he has to live in a past that never existed to feel good with himself. And make no mistake about it, Stallone thinks that he and Rocky are the same.
Back to the film, and the current boxing champion is so good he's unpopular with the crowds because he wins too easily. However, a computer TV simulation shows that Rocky will beat him, which sparks the idea of a match between the two. Thus we have an excuse for Rocky to go back to the ring, for Stallone to produce another film in the series, and for the film to re-emphasize its point about past values vs. present trash.
On paper, the plot may sound interesting. On screen, however, RB is a very boring film - quite an achievement with only 97 minutes of length. The main problem is with the first two thirds of the film, which are basically an emotional account; only that Rocky is so shallow and so dumb, and the film resorts to sophisticated artistic shots that look so out of place, that you don't know whether to laugh or fall asleep. Then come the fight scenes and they bring nothing new along: it's more of the same from the previous films and it's too short and predictable to dent the film already very well imposed aura of boredom.
The film does end in a nice way (spoiler alert!): The end is similar to the end of Rocky 1, the only good film of the series. It's sort of a circle being closed, only that the DVD offers an alternative ending where Rocky actually wins. To me, this shows the general lack of direction that led to RB being such a boring film.
Corniest scene: The South Park guys knew what they were singing about with their song "Even Rocky Had a Montage" (taken from their film Team America). The montage when Rocky starts to practice for the fight, repeated in all Rocky films, has to be the biggest joke the film has to offer.
Picture quality: Very good, although as stated - the artistic look actually deprives the film.
Sound quality: For an hour or so you get sound that is obviously well designed but very subdued. And then the fight is declared, and suddenly the trumpets of the Rocky theme blow on all cylinders. What a magnificent theme it is, especially when it is so well rendered! It sounded so good I still keep having it playing in my head. During the fight sound takes center stage, but it's the music that turns you on.
Overall: This film is stuck in a past that never existed and its theme music is not enough to resurrect it. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

DVD: Knocked Up

Lowdown: An almost documentary about an unwanted pregnancy.
Review:
40 Year Old Virgin was the last film we've watched before I started this blog. I liked it and thought it was funny enough to merit 4 out of 5 stars. Now the team behind Virgin has produced a film that is also heavy on puberty humor and that is also supposed to be full of seemingly proper morales despite the puberty humor: It's called Knocked Up, and despite its similarities with Virgin it is also very different. Unlike Virgin, Knocked Up serves almost as a documentary, or pretty much the closest thing that could still pass for both a comedy and a documentary.
The story is simple to the point that the hard to swallow bits of the plot are almost indistinguishable. On one hand we have an incompetent guy who will never score, smokes illegal substances all day, and with his group of incompetent guys dreams up on creating their own porn website but doesn't really do anything about it. On the other hand we have a good looking chick who is also smart (at least by Hollywood standards, where a good looking chick is never allowed to be an intellectual, god forbid) and works on TV and is just about to get her chance to go on screen. She's also living with her older sister and the sister's family, which doesn't really make sense. The two meet together, and while drunk they go for it; an accident happens, and whoops - the girl goes pregnant.
There is actually some hard science involved here, you know. Research has shown that women look for sex when they are at their fertile peak of the month; however, the research also shows that they are looking for guys with specific signs of strong genes. Anyway, this is my way to say that Knocked Up is a film of two halves, roughly, and as of the point that we learn about the pregnancy the film turns from a comedy that works mostly through an American Pie type of "sophisticated" jokes into a documentary showing us both the physical and the emotional changes that the couple by force goes through, pretty much up until the birth.
As someone who, at this particular time, is very versed in the procedures of pregnancy and giving birth, I can attest that although often inaccurate Knocked Up is as accurate as I have seen in an American mainstream production. Yes, people who have no idea what takes place during that time of your life can learn a thing or two there; thing is, when the focus of the film turns to the intricacies of pregnancy, the film stops being an effective comedy and turns into this Friends like drama - foolish and not very funny. At about two hours long, this can become a bit of a chore.
Best scenes: There were no jokes that really knocked me up. What I did like is how the guys were always portrayed doing drugs. While I think a world without drugs would be a better world, I am against the hypocritical view of some that pretend not to see that everyone is using drugs. John Howard included.
Picture quality: Your typical let's not make an effort DVD, showing transfer issues even on the much less than HDTV capable DVD format.
Sound quality: There's no need to power more than your center channel with this one.
Overall: An educational 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

DVD: Falling Down

Lowdown: A wakeup call to society.
Review:
For a film as good as Falling Down, I am ashamed to say that prior to now I have only seen it once before from start to finish. That was on Israeli cable, not the best way ever for watching films. It still had its impact, being one of the sources of inspiration behind my main blog's name.
In a similar fashion to the recently reviewed The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Reservoir Dogs, Falling Down features a nameless hero - Michael Douglas. Divorced with a child he cannot see, one morning at this traffic jam Douglas stops doing what everyone expects him to do and leaves his car in the middle of the road. From then on he stumbles upon all sorts of people, creating interesting interactions demonstrating many things that are bad with contemporary society and many things that are bad with us as we interact with society (xenophobia and violence on TV, to name two). As Douglas goes about questioning society his adventure turns into a rampage that spirals down and grows more and more violent. Which is when we get to see his mirror image - Robert Duvall - a person very similar to Douglas but on police side of things - try and track Douglas down. Duvall has to contend with similar problems Douglas does, but he sort of shows us the right way to do it. Eventually, both of them meet for a duel.
There is not much more to Falling Down than the collection of criticisms concerning society. That is more than enough to sustain the film, though, and its all aided by the solid performance of the two leads. For a relatively lackluster director like Joel Schumacher falling down is quite the achievement!
Best scene: There are many contenders here, but I think the best one is the scene early in the film when Douglas loses his grip and leaves the car behind him. It's very well directed in the tradition of Hitchcock. I wonder what came first, Falling Down or the video for REM's Everybody Hurts.
Picture quality: In one word, obscene. They didn't even stabilize the telecine machine - the picture is shaking!
Sound quality: The stereo only soundtrack here shows signs of promise, but being stereo only in the age of 5.1 it sounds very inferior.
Overall: An inspiring film that is let down by a very badly made DVD transfer. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

DVD: Marie Antoinette

Lowdown: A feminine look at a history we all take for granted.
Review:
Going into Marie Antoinette the film, I had to admit I didn’t know much about the character. I knew she was the queen of France, I knew she said what she said about cakes, I knew how she died, but that’s it. And now comes this film that tries to give us its own version of this woman’s story, and I have to admit I don’t know how to accept it: Is what the film saying about Antoinette true? Is it one possible truth based on a small bank of evidence that managed to survive the years? Or is it totally fictitious? Given that I didn’t and still don’t know where the film lies, I chose to digest it as a film and not as a biography.
Marie Antoinette the film was directed by Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford’s daughter. As with her previous films that I have watched, Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, MA feels very laid back in the sense that nothing is pushed on the viewer; there is no spoon feeding the viewer here. Instead there’s just a collection of events taking place on the screen in front of you and you’re required to make whatever you want of it. In MA’s case, the events taking place on the screen tell us of a young Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, who at a very young age is sent to marry the French crown prince in order to improve the political connections between the two kingdoms. As she arrives in France Antoinette has to face a world as foreign to her as Mars would seem to us (albeit with a breathable atmosphere). Quickly enough she finds herself trapped between having to produce a heir to the king in order to establish herself and having a husband of a prince who is rather reluctant to perform the acts required in order to generate such a heir.
As the film develops, we learn that Marie Antoinette is, first and foremost, a person. A person trapped in circumstances beyond her, a person with whims and weaknesses, and a person who can rise to the occasion from time to time. This may seem a bland message, but given the character’s historical reputation it is an important one, telling us not to take what we are being told for granted. The film goes further, actually telling us that Antoinette did not actually say that famous quote of hers; Coppola (Francis Ford this time, the film’s executive producer) repeats the point in the DVD’s supplementals, making me wonder how he knows what he claims to know. Regardless, the point is still the same: in this age of menacing terrorists across the seas that plot to kill us, what do we really know about them and about what it is that puts them in the situation they are in? Or do we only know what we are told?
My main problem with MA as a film is that it completely failed to captivate me and to get me involved as a viewer. More than with Sofia Coppola’s other two films, I was quite indifferent to any of the characters and never felt myself an external viewer. A lot of it is to do with Coppola’s laid back style, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with the things that are supposed to make the film work that just happen to be things that don’t “talk” to me. For a start, MA features a very feminine hero, something that is quite rare; the vast majority of films have male leads, something that as a male is very easy for me to get used to and take for granted. Second, the film’s most distinct attribute is its look, with everything looking so neat and so well arranged; again, a typically feminine way of doing things, which is fine and which should be applauded given the unjustified male dominance, but again – it doesn’t work on me. I was too ill conditioned, I guess.
On the positive side, the film was shot on location in France and the result is spectacular; when you see Antoinette walk up the stairs of the palace, you know that the real one actually walked those same stairs. I also thought that Kirstin Dunst has done an unexpectedly decent job in the main role.
Best scene: The scene in which Antoinette wakes up for her first post wedding morning only to have half of France around her in the bedroom is probably the scene mostly remembered, but I liked the scene where she crosses the border between Austria and France and has to let go of anything Austrian the most. It touched a chord and it really showed what this young girl in the film had to go through to satisfy political whims that would have been quite beyond her given her age at the time.
Picture quality: One of the main things about this film is its look, and one of the ways in which the look is established is through the color palette deployed in the film – the costumes, the backgrounds, etc. These tend to be in soft colors of the type that will commonly be described as “feminine”: pink and light blue, for example. As a result, the film has the potential to deliver a trip to the eyes, but it mostly fails to achieve that through noise and moderate color inconsistencies.
Sound quality: I like the sound design here. Not the most elaborate or detailed or well recorded one ever, to say the least, but what we have here is a soundtrack that often deliberately takes center stage. This is either done by varying sound levels or by playing rock/pop music in scenes where you'd expect the classical of classical music. A job well done; it’s good to see directors who value sound as a central element of their creation, because I surely agree with them. Woody Allen, eat your heart out.
Overall: Marie Antoinette is a good film that almost totally failed to captivate me. Grinding my teeth I will give it 3 out of 5 stars, although I cannot be said to have liked it that much.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

DVD: Apocalypse Now Redux

Lowdown: An extended journey to the darkness within us.
December 2001 Review:
Several scenes that place the film in its initial context – as a film about Americans fighting a war in Vietnam – were added to one of my all time favorite films. They help the film (and the viewers) stay in focus, in what was initially an extremely hard to digest film (which is probably why I like it so much).
Which version is better? It’s hard to say; it’s not like Blade Runner, where the “easier” version sucks in comparison with the director’s cut. It is like Blade Runner, though, in that it would be easier on the viewer to watch the Redux first. I guess both versions deserve their existence.
Additional interesting notes:
1. The DVD’s picture quality, with its lack of noise and its anamorphic capabilities, is way better than the LaserDisc version I was used to.
2. I got the DVD from the Internet before it became available here for rental.
3. Three of my all time favorite five films are also landmarks in sound design.
4. If I were to build a listening room, this would certainly be a good choice to initiate it with.

Contemporary review:
Apocalypse Now is and has been one of my all time favorite films. Not that this is a film I watch in order to feel like I'm having a good time, but because this is a thinking film. It is also one of Coppola's greatest films, together with his Godfather duo.
This introduction is there to say that because I am so used to Apocalypse Now I cannot truly review it; what follows is a pale imitation.
At the risk of repeating what every other person will tell you about Apocalypse, I will say that while this film seems to be about the war in Vietnam it is actually a journey into the good/bad conflict that takes place in our heads all the time and how society handles that conflict. Just look at Abu Ghraib and what normal people did in there to see that there is a dark side to us all; the people in charge there were not different to the people taking the upriver ride in the journey film that is Apocalypse Now.
Best scene: There's an ample supply of best scenes with this one, and the Redux version adds a few more. However, the best of the best is obviously the famous helicopter attack scene for its high impact.
Picture quality: The DVD I have of Apocalypse is an American NTSC version, so colors are all over the place. Signs of aging are obvious, too, but overall the picture is good and its look adds to the film's impact.
Sound quality: Fifteen years ago Apocalypse was the film to demonstrate your home theater with. While it lacked the brute force behind Terminator 2, it did offer superb imaging in a soundtrack that was designed with home theater in mind rather than the flawed cinema that has to cater for people sitting all over the place. However, by today's terms the lack of low frequency action is notable and what was once unique is now average (or what you would hope to be average). That said, the imaging is still excellent.
Overall: You have to be in the mood to watch this one, and the last hour or so of this very long film could take you to sleep all too easily. In the right mood, though, this is a 5 out of 5 stars film; if in the wrong mood, I suggest you hang on for the proper mood to come...

Friday, 9 November 2007

DVD: The Transformers

Lowdown: You wouldn’t want this film to meet either of your eyes.
Review:
At the risk of sounding childish I openly proclaim myself to be a fan of the Transformers animation series (at least the original one). Yes, I know, a recent re-watch has made it clear the series I liked during high school did not survive the test of time well even if I still know the title song by heart; but still, I could not hold myself from holding my hope up high when I’ve heard of Transformers the movie coming out. Initial doubts crept in when I heard it would be a Michael Bay film; one doesn’t want another Pearl Harbor. Still, Bay did some nice stuff, too: I quite like The Rock, and even The Island was pretty entertaining.
All that is to say that now, having watched Transformers the film, I can say that I was greatly disappointed. So much potential, so bad a delivery!
Failure, in my opinion, is the result of two factors: character development and special effects. Allow me to explain…
Unlike the good old animation series, the film focuses on the humans as the main characters with the robots being mostly called into action for the action sequences. And so we have ourselves a kid whose father buys him his first car. It looks like a total lemon, but guess what – it’s actually an Autobot transformer! Meantime, in some remote desert, US forces find themselves under attack by Decipticon transformers! With one unlikely event leading to another, things all come down to the kid with the car (who finds himself a good looking girl) being the focal point of the fight. The point I am trying to make here is that none of the transformer characters, be it the good Autobots or the evil Decipticons, gets developed into anything close to a round character; it’s just “we’re good” and “they’re evil” type thing. Second, none of the human characters is worth a fuss; they’re all as interesting as yesterday’s newspaper, topped by the hero’s girl whose idea of portraying depth is exposing us to her way too white set of teeth.
Fine, I hear you say, no one watches a film like Transformers for character development; people watch it for the action sequences. I agree, but then again those action sequences are just as annoying as the one dimensional female leads: All are glaringly CGI, and all are shot in this very annoying manner of fast sweeps and quick editing that make it next to impossible if not impossible to tell what’s going on. Pretty tasteless, I would say.
Add plenty of plug-ins (the film feels like an elongated eBay commercial), and you truly wonder what characters such as John Voight or John Turturro are doing there; or what is one Stephen Spielberg doing there as an executive producer.
Best scenes: I would say the scenes with Turturro shine as the best ones here, but that is only because the rest of the film is so bad. He does what he did in Big Lebowski: provide a short appearance as the comic relief.
Picture quality: Shot in high contrast stock, detail is lacking on this one even if the transfer to DVD seems to have been well made.
Sound quality: As expected from such a high caliber stunt, quite aggressively good.
Overall: A mildly entertaining yet totally forgettable 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Book: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: Much ado about Shakespeare’s world but not much ado about Shakespeare.
Review:
For the record, I don’t care much for Shakespeare. Sure, I understand the importance of his work and its cultural value, but please do not expect me to enjoy plays I can’t understand even when subtitles are employed. What I am trying to say here is simply this: I did not read Shakespeare, a biography of the famous playwright, because of what I think about William; I read it because it was a book written by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, and when a new Bryson is out I get it.
Even before starting reading Shakespeare I couldn’t help noticing the relative thinness of the book. At around 200 well spaced pages, we are not talking thickest book ever league here by all accounts and especially by the Bryson account. Indeed, as you read the book, you quickly realize why this is the case: we hardly have any data about Shakespeare the person. We know basic stuff about his real estate deals and shows he had before the monarchy and his tax avoidance schemes, but that’s it; not many facts to fill up a book with.
The way Bryson addresses this problem in order to still manage writing a book about a person on which we know next to nothing is interesting. Instead of telling us much about Shakespeare, Bryson tells us a lot about his environment. The result is that by reading Bryson’s Shakespeare I managed to learn a lot about the lifestyle during Shakespeare’s time: I didn’t realize, for example, just how bad things were at the time with the plague; I thought that was over and done with by Shakespeare’s time. I didn’t realize that the meat eaten by most of the people at the time was meat we wouldn’t even dream of eating – stuff like, say, storks; in fact, it’s quite interesting to ponder just why our choices of meats have become the way they are. I got to learn a lot about how London, one of my favorite cities (don’t know about living there, though) was like at the time and what leftovers from Shakespeare’s time I got to see in my travels there. And I also got to learn a lot about the main power source behind most of the more eventful events back at Shakespeare’s time, religion, and namely the fight between Protestants and Catholics and its ensuing side effects – like the minor affair with the Spanish Armada. With more than half of the book devoted to the background Shakespeare has operated from, you can argue that you know a lot about him even if you don’t know much about him; and given that the story is told by Bill Bryson, a writer who knows how to convey facts in an interesting and readable way that makes you laugh from time to time, the background part of the book is surprisingly interesting.
Things, however, are not always that good for Shakespeare the book. There is a dark side to Bill Bryson: As has been revealed in his books about the English language, The Mother Tongue and Made in America, Bryson has the potential to become quite boring with his tedious analysis of the mundanely boring. In the past it used to be words, and in Shakespeare it is to do with trying to learn about Shakespeare through his plays; quickly enough, we go down to the level of words analysis, and for 50 pages or so I was wishing I was reading another book. Granted, Bryson means well; it’s just that his love for English can too easily get the better of him.
One mystery Bryson’s Shakespeare seems to have solved for me is the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity. By reviewing the various conspiracy theories concerning who was truly behind the plays on a historical timeline and through the analysis of the claims, Bryson shows us pretty quickly – and very entertainingly – how facts are the most missing element of those theories. As in the case of religion, the various conspiracy theorists never let the truth get in the way of their wishful thinking, even if that wishful thinking was pretty limited in its scope; and as is the case with religion, we cannot really verify from where we are now whether Shakespeare was indeed the person behind the plays we know, but what we can tell is that the various conspiracy theories are very unlikely to be even remotely true.
Overall: For a review of what is by now a forgotten era, Shakespeare is not a bad read at all. The final score depends on your view about the balance between interesting background reviews vs. the tedious language analysis; I would go with 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

DVD: Reservoir Dogs

Lowdown: Glorification of male violence.
Review:
Having read a review of Death Proof, the latest Tarantino film, I thought it’s time to recollect on Tarantino’s first effort – Reservoir Dogs, which I haven’t watched for many years.
It turns out that the timing was good for another reason: Reservoir Dogs is remarkably similar to the recently reviewed The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Both films feature characters whose real names are unknown, in both films we hardly know a thing about the characters’ history, in both films all the characters are quite bad (at least in my book), and both films are a celebration of the masculine with hardly any hint of a female presence on the screen. In fact, most of the female attention in the film is spent on a detailed analysis provided by Tarantino himself to Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Simplicity is the key with the setup of Dogs: A group of criminals is organizing a robbery; then things go wrong and they suspect a mole as they gather one by one in their post heist meeting place. With a policeman one of them has hijacked, they set up to see how they can get away with it and who the mole is.
Thing is, like we all expect by now from Tarantino (but we didn’t when Dogs first came about), timelines are mixed, and the plot repeatedly takes us back to the future as more and more stuff gets unravelled. It’s a nice trick, but I have to say it made me ask why Tarantino has to resort to such means; is it to cover for the so basic premises? Or is it just to flatter his ego? I suspect the answer is both of the above.
There are some memorable things to Dogs. There’s a cast that includes some heavy talents like Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi. There is some unconventional direction work, with atypical camera positioning and shots taken at unusual angles. And as per another Tarantino trademark, there’s dialog that will either bore you to death or thrill you; with me it’s more of the former. But generally, though, Reservoir Dogs is a film that everyone remembers for its violence, and despite the “[almost] every dog has its day” message of the film, Dogs is and has always been celebrated as a feast of violence. Many people I know describe it as the coolest film ever, a statement I find hard to swallow since it points at a twisted values system where holding a gun in an impractical way, shooting innocent people, badmouthing for no particular reason, and generally disregard fellow humans is considered to be “cool”. I know, I know: Other films, including Good/Bad/Ugly, have done so too, so why do I take my wrath out on Reservoir Dogs? Simply because in Dogs it is all done so seriously, without a blink, suggesting a total removal of the comedy factor; in Dogs’ world violence is the norm, not the exception.
While on one hand it does seem as if Tarantino was trying to tell us that the masculine world is getting us nowhere, his glorification of that world’s violence ends up sending a confused message; given that most people take the glory and ignore the lesson, I conclude that Reservoir Dogs is a bad film.
Worst scene: Needless to say, the scene in which one of the criminals cuts the policeman’s ear to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You”. Did I mention that the film glorifies violence?
Picture quality: Pretty bad. Colors are distorted and the level of detail is low.
Sound quality: Most of the time it’s mono.
Overall: No, I’m not a big fan of Tarantino. 2 out of 5 stars, mainly because there is still a lot of brilliant filmmaking in there.

Monday, 5 November 2007

DVD: Dead Poets Society

Lowdown: Be yourself no matter what they say.
July 2000 Review:
When I first saw the film, some ten years ago, I utterly despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring things created; I don’t even think I’ve watched it all. The situation is very different now: I think this is the best film I have seen for quite a while (at least since Magnolia).
It’s funny to note the effects of time. That kid who could only watch action and sci-fi movies, turned into someone who watches film for the sake of their technical merit, now enjoys drama the most (this one, by the way, is far from being of high technical quality). As I said in a funny accent back in 1991, “the more contact I have with humans, the more I learn”.
I’ll use my famous “time test” on it, and if I’ll still be thinking of the film in the future, then Amazon will have another order to ship.
One last note: The cinematography in the film, by John Seale, is one of the best ever. On its own, it’s worth watching the film for.
Contemporary review:
Indeed, the thing that interests me the most about Dead Poets Society is my reaction to it. Back in 2000 I saw it as a carte blanche for trying to seize the day, interpreting it as "get yourself a motorcycle" (something I ended up not doing; instead, I settled with merely taking one step towards that goal by migrating to Australia). Now, however, with much less bias between me and the film, I see it as a film scorning conformity and advocating a second look at life and everything in it. Basically, a film that asks the audience to think for themselves.
The story is one of those stories about a magic teacher that makes a difference to the lives of his students. Set in a prestigious American high school in the fifties, a school that acts as a production line for generating high scores so that future doctors and lawyers can choose the university that would make them doctors or lawyers, it tells the story of Robin Williams. Williams is an ex graduate who is now the English literature teacher, and he tells the kids that they should seize the day, avoid conforming for the sake of conformism, and try and have their own look on things instead of just accepting things for the way they are. The result is magical; the impact on the kids' lives is immediate. But the result is also tragic with the inevitable confrontation between the now free spirited kids and their parents.
All in all, Dead Poets is another interesting yet eccentric film by Peter Weir, the Aussie who did Witness. It is a good film, a thought provoking film, but it is a bit too much of a sugar coated lollipop even if it doesn't follow regulation Hollywood standards and supply a happy ending. It is also quite predictable: from the minute you first see Williams you figure the inevitable confrontation that is to take place later and you guess its outcome.
Don't ask me why I thought so highly of the film's cinematography back in 2000; it's good, but it didn't draw enough attention from me now, at least not until I have re-read my old review. What I can say, though, is that watching a very young Ethan Hawke was an interesting experience; it made me wonder how Dylan will look like in a few years' time.
Best scene: I have found the scene where Williams makes some of his students walk while the rest observe, thus giving them a lesson about conformism, to be most interesting. I wonder how I would react in such a situation.
Picture quality: Bad, with significant noise and distortion from the analog copy out of which the DVD version was made. I understand there is a new version of this DVD, and I hope they redid the picture side.
Sound quality: Bad. Aside of two climatic scenes I wasn't able to detect much from anything but the center speaker.
Overall: Dead Poets seems to be a film where I see the things I want to see. I guess that is good, even if it is too predictable. I generously hand it 4 out of 5 stars.