Tuesday, 30 December 2008

The World Without Us by Alan Weisman

Lowdown: An overview of humanity’s impact on the world.
Review:
I first heard of The World Without Us through Scientific American, where it got glowing reviews and where it earned a recommendation for being 2007’s the top of the crop in popular science books. The idea behind it is, indeed, intriguing: what is to take place in this world if all humans were to just suddenly disappear? What will happen to our cities and all the monuments we’ve left behind? Eager to find the author’s answer I dived into the book but quickly enough I have found myself rather disappointed. Although it starts with a nice idea and its contents is extremely interesting, the execution of The World Without Us is severely lacking.
In general, The World Without Us tries to assess the impact humanity has had on this world by examining:
1. What the world would have been like if humanity was never there to begin with,
2. What changes we have done to this world, and
3. What effect will these changes have in a future with no people around.
Essentially, the book’s lengthy answer to these questions can be summed up with:
1. Humanity has had a decisive and destructive effect on anything it touched since leaving its original home in Africa.
2. However, as great and as pivotal to this world as we might think ourselves to be, our long time legacy to this world will not be much more than some unnatural concentration levels of metals and other materials left deep underground for a future archaeologists to dig. Nothing we do, not even the Panama Canal (humanity’s biggest single achievement, size wise) will last long after us.
3. While there are many threats to humanity, the chances of it all disappearing are low.
4. In the shorter term, we are wrecking havoc upon this world with our petroleum industries, nuclear wastes in their various guises, the plastics we recklessly cast around, and much much more. Indeed, reading through this long list of horrors is one of the book’s biggest eye openers.
The World Without Us’ conclusion is imminent: Humanity is this planet’s most troublesome pest; if humanity wants to stay around a bit longer, it should take drastic measures to drastically reduce the world population to a sustainable level (estimated at between a billion to two, less than a third of its current number).
Overall, by walking its reader through subject after subject where the human impact upon this world is evaluated, The World Without Us has the potential to be an intriguing read; as the book itself testifies, we humans are really great in ruining this planet using many an ingenious way. Problem is, the book is compromised.
My first issue is with the book’s reliability. For example, it makes the claim that the Sahara Desert has become a desert due to human activity (albeit a long time ago). That huge claim is left rather unsupported, whereas I am of the view that big claims require big proof. Sure, proof may lie somewhere in the book’s thick list of references, but come on: one doesn’t buy a popular science book to go searching amongst dozens of scientific papers. In my view, if you want to make a claim as big as this one, make it; but do provide thorough explanations as to why you have allowed yourself to make such a claim.
The main problem with The World Without Us, though, is its style. Descriptions are over-lengthened in the process of providing a reality TV like atmosphere to the book’s descriptions. It manifests itself throughout the book, say when the author describes an interview with some expert and talks, at length, about how the expert’s coat is blowing in the wind coming from the south east thus making its wearer look like a prophetic prophet as he stand at the corner of the corner and looks to the setting sun with a very gazeful gaze in his two eyes, the eyes he has been using since he was born (but not while asleep). You catch the drift.
Similarly, the book tends to delve into grounds it shouldn’t delve to in the first place. The book’s conclusion is the best example, where the author goes to acquire the consultation of religious authorities in order to see what can be done in favor of the earth. What is the point of that? Why are these religious “experts” any more qualified to provide such answers than, say, a dentist or a plumber? And it’s not like they provide any meaningful tips anyway; they answer back with the same wishy-washy material the author seems to love so much.
Overall, it feels as if The World Without Us was based on a bright idea that was wrapped in a cover designed by some marketing department so it would sell, because someone decided that books sell better if they feel like reality TV and if they include stuff Mr and Mrs Average can relate to (regardless of relevancy). At the end of it all, the “world without us” trick – that is, the book’s core idea of trying to see what would happen if we were all to miraculously disappear – is just another marketing gimmick. At its core, The World Without Us is a good ecology book with enough wrappings on top to make it mediocre book dealing with ecology.
Overall: A promising yet disappointing book. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Ushpizin

Lowdown: A glimpse into the world of Orthodox Jews.
Review:
Ushpizin is a 2004 Hebrew speaking Israeli film that took me back a few years and reintroduced me to the unique world of the Israeli Orthodox Jew. Living in Israel means you stumble against this world from time to time and it often surprises you. As I have personally spent a lot of time in Jerusalem, near where Ushpizin was shot at the Orthodox area of Mea Shearim, watching the film sure brought back memories of this world that is so fascinating in its detachment from anything real.
It is quite a world on its own: many if not most male Orthodox Jews living in Israel do not work for a living and dedicate their time to their studies of Judaism. Living amongst their own in their ghettos, they make their living off charities and government funds (financed by the secular majority). This reliance on others to finance them is the unique attribute of the Israeli Orthodox Jew when compared to his/her counterparts from the rest of the world, who, generally speaking, work for a living.
Ushpizin’s story set around the time of Sukkot, a Jewish holiday when people are meant to spend a week in a Suka, a temporary dwelling with a flimsy walls and ceilings that is meant to simulate the way the Israelites lived between leaving Egypt behind and entering their promised land. We follow an Orthodox Jew called Moshe who lives in poverty with his wife Mali as they both contemplate how to pass the holiday with no money in their hands. Then, a couple of miracles happen: Through a friend, Moshe acquires a Suka that was abandoned by someone else, and a charity gives them $1000 which means they can celebrate the holiday properly.
One of the proper elements of a well celebrated Sukkot is to have Ushpizin (the Aramaic word for guests) at your Suka. Indeed, Moshe and Mali get their share of guests: two runaway prisoners who knew Moshe from the time he was a criminal himself, before he turned to religion, seek refuge in Moshe’s Suka. This triggers a set of conflicts: The fugitives find it hard to believe Moshe is now a dedicated do-gooder and do their best to get him to expose his old self. On their part, Moshe and Mali believe this is all just another trial from god as they go about trying for their most coveted prize: having a male son.
Overall, the events taking place in the film are nothing we haven’t seen before: a reformed guy facing his past while tension ensues with the hero’s woman. The way things turn out and the solution to this potential Greek tragedy are nothing new either. The trick about Ushpizin, though, is that on its way it exposes us to more than a glimpse of the world of the Orthodox Jew. That glimpse alone is why Ushpizin is worth watching. Call it the anthropological factor, if you will.
The way Moshe and Mali view their tribulations, as a trial from god, is indeed the generic world view of Jewish believers as they try to comprehend this world of ours and as they contend with basic questions that has troubled most people: how come there is suffering in the world, and how come bad people seem to be able to get away with it while good people often suffer. The Jewish answer is that the suffering is a part of god’s set of trials and that the bad things that happen to good people are the result of bad deeds. Needless to say, this mentality that Ushpizin exposes is very naïve to say the least; Judaism itself acknowledged that when it adopted the ideas of heaven and hell as sources of delayed gratification/punishment. This feeling of naivety is dominant in Ushpizin, and thus while I have a lot against this Jewish point of view and its unrealistic deception it does enhance that anthropological factor that is Ushpizin’s main drawing card. Believe it or not, we’re in the 21st century and people do live like they do in Ushpizin!
Best scene: The runaway prisoners test Moshe’s welcome to the max by using his Etrog (a citrus used during Sukkoth rites), which Moshe had bought for 1000 shekels, for salad dressing.
Overall: A compromised film that is interesting due to the unique glimpse into another world that it provides us with. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Shooter

Lowdown: A sniper finds himself trapped in his own trap.
Review:
Director Antoine Fuqua has had a relatively promising start with Training Day but moved on to mediocrity with his take on King Arthur. In Shooter he proves mediocrity is his middle name with an action film so predictable and so not unlike everything we have seen before it’s just completely redundant. The only attribute with which Shooter can boast a place for itself is in it basing most of its action around sniper rifles (as opposed to your average M16s or their likes).
Mark Wahlberg is the traumatized sniper left behind by his country after some mission no one was supposed to know about. Years later, he gets a home call from a lisping Danny Glover (why the lisp?): Glover calls on Wahlberg’s patriotism to help avert a sniper plot to kill the president by using Wahlberg’s skills to try and predict where and what the evil sniper would do. Wahlberg complies only to find himself in some sort of a conspiracy where he is blamed for shooting the president. How can he get out of it? By using his Rambo like skills to kill the baddies, of course. All of them.
On the positive side, Shooter is quite entertaining in its action. The film has this attitude to guns and ammo that made me think it was either aimed at the gun loving share of the USA’s population (witness the kind of inventory the film’s heroes maintain at their homes); either that or it was made as some sort of a joke on their behalf, but somehow I suspect the first (and scary) option is the valid one here.
To add more to the negative, Shooter is as predictable and as full of genre clichés as a film could ever be. In many respects it’s a carbon copy of Rambo, the lone wolf betrayed by the authority with some sort of a conspiracy taking place behind the scenes and with things sorting themselves out only through our hero taking matters into his own hands. Well, in my opinion, the only conspiracy in Shooter is the one where we are being pushed at with so many films like this one as they come out of Hollywood’s production lines.
Worst scene: The vigilante style ending (I would spare you the details).
Technical assessment: Shooter has to be one of the worst takes on Blu-ray ever (or one of the very first to be made). The picture uses old MPG technology for compression and the sound uses Dolby Digital, rendering this Blu-ray to be not much more than a DVD with a higher bandwidth for picture information. Granted, the picture and the sound are generally good, but it all conspires to leaving you wanting. It's the way you would feel if you could only drive your Ferrari in reverse.
Overall: Granted, Shooter is entertaining; sadly, it’s also a very bad film. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 20 December 2008

The Golden Compass

Lowdown: The secular antidote to Narnia.
Review: On the first day, the studio gods made The Lord of the Rings. Witnessing how much money they've made, they went on to make Narnia on the second day. Despite the inferior quality the money still poured in, so on the third day the studios went to do The Golden Compass. And then I saw the film and decided that it's good.
Indeed, the three film franchises could not have any more similar background stories. All are very British in nature, all our swords and sorcery fantasy stories, and all involve smaller characters showing that size doesn't matter. Unlike its two predecessors, I did not read the book on which the film is based.
In The Golden Compass' case, the hero is Lyra, a little girl growing up in a university not unlike Oxford or Cambridge.
There are two key things we need to know about Lyra's world. The first is that in this movie's world, souls live outside their bodies and take the shape of an animal, thus always providing Lyra's filmmakers the option of having someone she can talk to instead of using monologues or other means of plot progression (the movie implies that in our world we carry our souls inside our bodies, a statement that made me want to puke given what I think of this very overstretched and completely non evidence based concept of "soul"). The second thing we need to know is that Lyra's world is a world in conflict: on one side there are the universities who strive to know more about the world, whereas on the counter side there is The Magisterium, an organization that does its best to stop investigations and shut open minds so that they can maintain their traditional power over the population.
Lyra, and her accompanying soul, are destined for greatness; which is why Nicole Kidman is so interested in her. Soon, however, it becomes clear that Kidman's interest in Lyra is a very selfish one. Kidman, we learn, is a Magisterium agent; Lyra escapes from her clutches into an adventure full of fantasy, spanning across the globe and featuring magical fighting bears and witches. Eventually Lyra stumbles upon a vile plot by The Magisterium and goes to the north pole to sort things out.
The second thing that strikes you when you watch The Golden Compass is the imaginative nature of the tale. This is classic fantasy stuff, with magical creatures does fancy stuff and things that can't take place in our world occurring at the whim of the script writer. For the genre, I guess the film is quite good; so good it made me want to go and read the book[s], or, for all I care, another Lord of the Rings like clone of similar quality.
Unlike Lord of the Rings, The Golden Compass the film is rather compromised. Too many things happen for reasons unclear, and too many characters are introduced with some heavy name actors playing a relatively minor part. Take Daniel Craig, Mr 007 himself, as an example: He hardly does anything in the film, although it is clear he has a major role to come in the series' sequels. And there is the problem for you: Not only is The Golden Compass trying too hard to duplicate a thick book into a film, it also has to contend with not being able to provide an enclosed story to begin with. The Two Towers, for example, faced a similar problem but managed it by severely straying from the original book to provide some enclosed beginning and ending; Compass doesn't.
However, all of the above are not the main things I took out of Compass. The first thing that stroke me when I watched The Golden Compass is how different it is to the Narnia series in its relationship with religion: whereas Narnia is a pile of propaganda advocating faith, The Golden Compass is advocating inquisitive natures and asking questions. The evil Magisterium, in its part, is modeled so accurately after the Catholic Church I wonder whether any lawsuits were dealt with by the studios: the characters, the buildings, the dress ups - and let's face it, the way the junta deals its dealings - all reeks of the church.
Nicole Kidman's character probably symbolizes the relationship with the church best with the way she deals with Lyra: loving her most of the time, but clearly showing off her fangs whenever Lyra strays from what Kidman wants her to do. Altogether very similar to the church (and to virtually all other religions, for that matter), that pretend to love you and represent a loving god - until, that is, you commit the ultimate crime of starting to ask questions.
I cannot deny that The Golden Compass' attitude towards faith and its institutions on one hand, and its advocation for free inquisitive minds on the other, have earnt the film a lot of points with me.
Worst scene: The film's end, because there is no end; The Golden Compass finishes off rather abruptly in anticipation of a sequel. This really pissed me off, because otherwise I really liked the film. I wonder how I would have felt after watching Fellowship of the Ring if I didn't read the books and know what's going to happen anyway; I suspect I would have felt the way I did at the end of Compass.
Technical assessment: The Blu-ray's picture quality is nothing short of amazing, so amazing it exposes the film's overuse of CGI in virtually every scene. The sound, however, is even better: This DTS HD soundtrack has to qualify as the best movie sound experience I am yet to have the pleasure of listening to. If only all films could be like that!
Overall: Despite all of its deficiencies I liked The Golden Compass a lot; if it wasn't for its ending it would have been a personal favorite. Till the sequels arrive and I can see the whole picture, though, it would have to settle with 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story

Lowdown: A parody on all legend stories.
Review:
I like John C. Reilly, I really do. I thought he was excellent in Magnolia and I thought he did a good job of playing the dumb boyfriend in The Good Girl. I even thought he did a fine job in Talladega Nights. Nothing, however, prepared me for his performance in Walk Hard. How can I best put it? The guy made me piss my pants laughing.
Walk Hard tells the story of Dewey Cox, a musician flashbacking through his entire life before each of his performances. The majority of the film is one of those flashbacks.
We join Dewey as a little child in a very country bumpkin environment somewhere in southern USA during the fifties. Back then, Dewey is overshadowed by his child brother, who is talented in pretty much everything he does. One pivotal day the two go on playing with machetes for fun when the unthinkable happens and Dewey cuts his little brother in half. Before he dies, the now half brother makes Dewey promise he will grow to be as good as the two of them combined, thus providing the flame to Dewey’s inspiration.
Dewey’s life is not easy, though. His father is convinced the wrong kid died and his girlfriend tells him he will never get anywhere. Through his love for rock music Dewey is kicked from home at the age of 14, and within a year he has himself several babies and an opportunity to set his career as a musician off. Still, wherever he goes and whatever he does, he still has to fight the demon of his father and his partner telling him he will never be up to any good. Through walking hard, though, Dewey does good.
So far the plot’s description makes Walk Hard sound like a bit of a whacky take on that common rock star against all odds rising to fame story, and if you think this is the case here you’d be right. The trick is in the whacky element: Walk Hard does its best to mock all those classic stories it builds on. Indeed, mocking it does in pretty unconventional ways. Walk Hard is not afraid to offend, walking on a tight borderline with its racial innuendos; Walk Hard is not afraid to acquire the wrath of the censor, sporting lots of nudity and completely redundant male nudity in particular; and Walk Hard is not afraid to tread on sacred cows, with its portrayal of an unintelligible Elvis (acted very well by Jack White) as an example. Anything we take for granted Walk Hard has a go at: take, for example, the way it jokes about drug use and about artists so called “experimentation with drugs”.
The laughs come often and come loudly with Walk Hard, starting from all the previously mentioned and moving on, with the aid of a long line of cameos, through to music and musical encounters. Some of Dewey Cox’ lyrics sound as if they came directly from a Benny Hill script, others copy the likes of Roy Orbison or Bob Dylan (with lyrics that are totally meaningless but are deep, man!). Dewey Cox also has his moments of personal history when he meets the meditating Beatles in India.
In short, Walk Hard is everywhere, and it works!
The only problem I can report with Walk Hard is that it sags a bit in the middle. You start with roaring laughs and you end with roars to match, but about half way through the film is just a bit overstretched. That, however, may be explained by us not watching Walk Hard’s original hour and a half or so presentation but rather the optional version described on the Blu-ray disc as “American Cox: The Unbearably Long, Self-Indulgent Director's Cut”. At two hours long, this version is probably overlong, although one cannot complain about not being warned in advance.
Ultimately, Walk Hard left us wanting. Wanting hard to see Walk the Line, the film that obviously inspired a lot of Walk Hard’s gems.
Best scene: There are so many laugh out loud moments in Walk Hard it’s really hard to pick a winner. My vote goes for Mazeltov and L’Chaim, the two orthodox Jews that discover Cox in an black people’s erotic dancing club. Everyone knows Jews are in control of the music business, and Rabbi L’Chaim (played by Harold Ramis, director of Groundhog Day) is proof.
Picture quality: Some inconsistent colors, with a rather reddish look too dominating the scene.
Sound quality: Walk Hard is full of Dewey Cox’ musical performances which seem to be performed by Reilly himself all the way. The thing about Cox’ songs, though, is that they’re damn good! Sure, they’re heavily influenced by the music of those the film mocks and the lyrics are quite out of this world, but then again the originals weren’t much better; at least the Cox version makes you laugh as you listen. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack on this Blu-ray title does an excellent job at delivering the music to you in a manner that does justice to the excellent performance at hand; so good I can’t get the title track out of my head.
Overall: Since Stardust I don’t recall a movie I wanted to watch again and again the way I do with Walk Hard. Walk Hard is a 3.5 star film: films like it that laugh at the work of others rather than create something new of their own are limited in scope. However, Walk Hard breaks genre boundaries and breaks completely new ground in the field of satire; it is so fucking good (and hard) I’m giving it 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 15 December 2008

The Dark Knight

Lowdown: Batman’s answer to the eternal question of whether the good are entitled to do bad things in order to achieve their noble cause.
Review:
Christopher Nolan and I do not seem to see eye to eye. With the exception of Batman Begins I did not particularly like his films. Sadly, despite The Dark Knight being the most hyped film of the year, Nolan does not make amends with it: In my opinion, The Dark Knight is too compromised to be considered a good film.
Taking us from where Batmen Begins left us, Dark Knight pits us once again with Christian Bale as Batman. Gotham City is engulfed by crime again, but with Batman in the hood the criminals are becoming more and more desperate. It’s not just Batman, though: Gary Oldman as a high ranking policeman and Aaron Eckhart is the district attorney aided by Batman’s ex girlfriend (Maggie Gyllenhaal) are all doing their best to vanquish evil from the streets.
Enters Heath Ledger as The Joker, a pathological liar, an anarchist, a deceptive guy with an agenda of setting evil loose throughout Gotham. Against a guy as resourceful as The Joker the law seems unable to do much and even Batman has a very hard time. The Dark Knight is the complex story of these hard times.
But Dark Knight is not about its plot. It is about the philosophical question at its core: Are the good people allowed to use evil means in order to achieve their good goal? What is the difference between “us and them” if we’re all using the same means to achieve our ends, then? In a way, Dark Knight reminded me of American Gangster, another forgettable film dealing with the similarities between good and evil and how close these two opposite poles are.
These are all very interesting questions, but The Dark Knight fails to deliver in the answer department. Or rather, it does deliver, but its delivery is too full of deliberations and tokens. In my book, The Dark Knight, like Nolan’s predecessor The Prestige, is quite decisively erring into the side of deliberations for the sake of deliberating rather than providing us with anything meaningful. It’s the sort of stuff that will probably appeal to those heavily in touch with their so called spirituality, whereas I have nothing but contempt for such pseudo science bullshit. Perhaps the best example for what I am trying to say is provided by The Dark Knight’s final scene, where Batman takes upon him the evils of everyone else so that the world can move onwards. The analogy with Jesus who supposedly died for our scenes is unmistakable, which leaves The Dark Knight wide open to a wide range of criticism I won’t even start specifying here; suffice to say the idea of atonement is inherently ridiculous. My point is simple: The Dark Knights goes way too far to the realm of the bullshit and does so under a serious pretense.
Once you turn a blind eye to the philosophical elements of the film, The Dark Knight becomes a case of the naked king: an overlong film at two and a half hours that tries to pack too much plot and too many characters (but doesn’t really succeed). There are some interesting action scenes but nothing that will truly blow you away and there is some suspense but nothing to really captivate.
In its favor, Dark Knight does host an excellent line of actors. You have to wonder, though, if the talents of Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman are not wasted on the minor roles they have here just because of Batman Begins’ legacy. On the other hand, Maggie Gyllenhaal shines as always – she is really something that directors should use more of, ten times better than Katie Holmes who played the same character in Batman Begins. Most credit, however, should go to Heath Ledger’s joker: For a start, it’s a Ledger first (and sadly last) where he’s not mumbling his role through. There’s more to it, though: Ledger is the one that keeps the screen interesting through his portrayal of the demented Joker. I am wondering, though, if his acting is so successful because he portrays the deformed character the way Hoffman did in Rain Man or Charlize Theron did in Monster.
Most annoying scene: As I have already said, Dark Knight has too much plot for its own good. To help navigate the film in the right direction the plot often suffers some major black holes, as in the case of passengers on two ferries finding themselves stranded mid-water when the Joker claims to have placed bombs on the ships. Everyone on the boats sits and waits for some sort of an elusive salvation and for some reason no one is doing anything about the circumstances: No rescue operation is taking place; no one even plans for one. Hell, if I was on one of those boats I would just jump in the water and swim for safety. The way the film shows it, the swim to the shore would have been irresistibly short...
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray title delivers consistently good picture and the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack delivers immense dynamic range: while most of the film is quiet but very well articulated, the action scenes really sound bombastic.
Overall: I’m sorry to say it but while the Dark Knight is not a bad film it fails to justify all the hype surrounding it. 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

The Forbidden Kingdom

Lowdown: Homage to the martial arts genre.
Review:
It might not seem this way to the naked eye, but I have a soft spot in me for martial arts films. Of those, I particularly like the films starring Jet Li, for their general style that takes itself so seriously it’s actually good laughing material (the same way that a Rambo or a Rocky film would work). Most of all, though, I like the Jackie Chan films: the guy obviously knows his martial arts, but he also knows how to generate a laugh out of his skills and generally speaking never takes things too seriously.
Given my general appreciation of violence, or rather lack of appreciation for violence, not taking things seriously is of major importance. The Forbidden Kingdom thus offers a unique combination: featuring both Li and Chan as its stars, it has both the serious and the jocular together. Which side wins? The good side, of course, as we end up having ourselves a feast of film mediocrity but an overall very entertaining film to watch. That is, we have ourselves the exact type of a film experience one should expect from a good martial arts film.
The story follows a teenager from South Boston (a virtue I mention mostly because it is repeated again and again, as if one is expected to know there’s something special about the place). He is rather eccentric (or the story is set a few years in the past), as the guy has a room full of martial arts decorations, a Sega Dreamcast games console and a CRT TV. The room’s a museum piece, in short. Our guy dreams of martial arts but doesn’t practice it, and in real life he’s a nerd that’s commonly abused by a gang of kids thinking themselves cool.
One night this gang robs the Chinese pawn shop our hero frequents in order to get his martial arts DVDs. The kid’s involved, and with things going really wrong he suddenly finds himself transformed Last Action Hero style out of reality and into the imaginary world of ancient China, where magic is as real as reality.
There he meets Jackie Chan, who plays an alcoholic martial arts master, and together they escape the authorities. The authorities, it seems, are bent on preventing this semi-deity (Jet Li) from coming back to life using a magic stick in a background story that is supposedly loyal to Chinese traditions but sounds as outrageously convoluted as your average bible story. Never mind the story's sanity, though: as our heroes go about we are treated to lots of martial arts fighting, mostly with the aid of wires, and lots of Jackie Chan type hectic action scenes. The result is a film you watch with a constant smile on your face, a fun filled experience. Oh, there’s also a token girl thrown in as the martial artist’s love interest. To summarize this review’s plot summary: It’s best if you don’t pay much attention to the film’s plot, just go along for the ride.
Indeed, The Forbidden Kingdom is mediocre through and through. There is not much originality in it, instead opting to borrow heavily from films like Drunken Master and Bride with White Hair. However, while this may sound bad when you read it, the result is not bad at all: the result shapes up to be more like a homage to those films of the past. Treated as such, The Forgotten Kingdom is actually quite an excellent vehicle in taking the best out of the genre’s classic, starting from the choice of actors and ending with the good Hollywood production values as opposed to the tight budgets of yonder.
Picture quality: A mixed bag. Some scenes are an insult to the Blu-ray format’s capabilities with heavy compression on picture detail, others offer so much insight you can see through the special effects much too well, and others are offer tantalizing views of Chinese scenery (where The Forgotten Kingdom was shot).
Sound quality: The Forgotten Kingdom, with its DTS HD soundtrack, is the first Blu-ray film I got to watch that seemed to deliver the promise of “high definition” sound. Sure, as a movie soundtrack it’s nothing special (nor is it bad); it does, however, feature effortless sound emanating from all speakers without that aftertaste conjured by lossy compression. Made me want more, made me crave for a good quality Blu-ray title that would give my hi-fi a workout.
Overall: Much more entertaining than what its 3.5 out of 5 stars rating would suggest.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

James and the Giant Peach

Lowdown: A Burton-esque take on Dahl’s book.
Review:
As a young child eager to read books, Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach was one of my favorites in an era where I thought his Fantastic Mr Fox was the best book ever. Ultimately my taste has shifted, especially through an evolution towards science fiction and fantasy, but James was and still is a favorite. Thus, when opportunity presented itself and the James and the Giant Peach DVD stared back at me at our local toy library, I went for it.
For the record, as we’ve started watching this 1997 film, it became clear we’ve watched it not that long ago (as in but a few years ago). While, generally speaking, I am notorious for being able to watch a good film many more times and much more frequently than your average mortal, my familiarity with the material did have a surprisingly disappointing effect.
I am getting ahead of myself, though. James and the Giant Peach tells the story of a British boy called (wait for it) James. James lives in England, some time during the first half of the twentieth century; James is also an orphan, having lost his loving parents through a mysterious rhino attack. Now he’s living with two old and ugly aunts of his, who treat him the way Harry Potter is treated by his foster family (only worse): they don’t only enslave him to do their house work with minimal compensation, they try to subdue his dreams, too.
That is, until one day James puts his hands on some magic. The magic runs loose and James loses it, but there’s enough of it around to create a giant peach in the aunts’ yard. Escaping from the aunts, and with the aid of some renegade magic, James gets inside the peach, at which stage the film turns from live action to what seems to be stop motion animation. Inside the peach James finds a collection of friendly giant insects, and together they set off in a world encompassing adventure with the peach as their preferred mode of transportation.
There can be no doubt the story behind James and the Giant Peach is marvelous. It’s a kids’ story, no doubt about it, but it’s a good kids’ story. It is imaginative, easy to identify with, and it even lets kids look at insects in a way that is admiring rather than full of disgust. Compared to most of the stuff churned out by the movie studios nowadays for the children's market segment (check out the recently reviewed Chicken Little), James and the Giant Peach is obviously better by an order of a magnitude.
However, James and the Giant Peach is far from being a good film. Its biggest drawback is that Tim Burton touch: Although Burton did not direct this film, his touch is very evident all over the final piece. While some of Burton’s films are good, I tend to find the Burton approach detracts from the films rather than adds to them: the grotesque look on everything; the way things tend to look scary even when they shouldn’t, really; and that dark feeling everything has. They’re all too much. Add on top the much too frequent singing breaks, and James and the Giant peach can be unpleasant and boring to watch despite the magnificence of its story. To its credit, though, at around an hour and a quarter, it doesn't outlive its welcome.
Technical assessment: The picture on this DVD is so dreadful it is major contributor to my dissatisfaction with the film. Full of noise and looking pretty dead, this widescreen presentation DVD is not even anamorphic. This implies I have had to set my TV from widescreen mode to 4:3 mode in order to watch it properly, which then meant I had to endure black bars on the sides as well as at the top and the bottom of the frame.
Overall: A great story that didn’t migrate to film all that well and was very badly transferred to DVD. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Lowdown: A call to bring the heart back to art.
Review:
Once upon a time not that long ago there was this film called Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind that was just so good it was the second best film I’ve seen in a few years (the firsts being The Lord of the Rings trilogy). So when I’ve heard that director Michel Gondry has a new flick out featuring a lot of that Spotless Mind spice, I wanted to watch it.
Be Kind Rewind is unmistakably the result of the same brains as Spotless: It’s quirky and eccentric in nature, and it includes science fiction like elements that are there not to impress us with their ingenuity but allow the delivery of the film’s main agenda – exactly what science fiction should be.
The story revolves around a small time video rental shop that still does VHS and only VHS, despite everyone else moving to DVD. The aptly named Be Kind Rewind, located in a soon to be demolished building in New Jersey, is owned by a slightly delusional Danny Glover (who is certainly made to look like he’s too old for this shit by the director). Glover employs two nerdy kids to run his shop, Mos Def and Jack Black, as he tries to give his shop that special nostalgic aroma by telling everybody some jazz star was born there.
The film’s main focus is on Def and Black. Black believes the power company residing next to his trailer home is some sort of an oppressor, so he decides to give them their own medicine and arrange a short circuit. Things go wrong, though, when Def has second thoughts and leaves Black behind; Black gets electrocuted, which does not seem to have too much an effect on him at first: he’s only slightly more weird than he was before. It does, however, have a lasting effect on Be Kind Rewind’s video cassettes: they all go blank as Black passes next to them. Quickly enough, renters knock of the shop’s door complaining.
Our duo decides on an interesting tactic: They shoot their own versions of the films. Sure, their versions are shorter and they’re the only actors, but that shouldn’t be a problem, should it? Not to mention the production values. They start off with their version of Ghost Busters, move on to Rush Hour 2, and continue with many other titles. They use simple means instead of the originals’ sophisticated special effects (most notably a washing machine to simulate the revolving space station in 2001: A Space Odyssey and a car radiator to simulate Robocop). The results are surprisingly good: they’re funny because of the way they are made, but they seem to capture the films’ essences none the less. The results are so good that Def and Black’s endeavors soon earn them cult status, with queues of people waiting to make their “special version” requests and rent others that were already remade despite the cost of $20 a pop for a VHS rental.
Be Kind Rewind is obviously a call for the movie industry to rewind back to what really matters. The VHS vs. DVD analogy as well as the poor production values of the home made films is basically a call to drop off the high costing special effects laden films and go back to what really matters, the same way that Glover's shop is really better than the heartless chains renting films they have no clue about. The message is very well delivered, and with the film's eccentric nature it is delivered in an entertaining manner, too. Although a slightly less esoteric nature would have probably meant more success for Be Kind Rewind at the box office, the entire point is it not conforming with industry standards. And yes, the alternative movie versions are pretty funny!
Even the film’s ending is great, taking us back to reality; it's not another manufactured happy ending. Sure, Be Kind Rewind is not Spotless Mind good, but it’s very good on its own rights; a film that demonstrates what films should be like; a film that is definitely not another run of the mill production.
Best scene: Sigourney Weaver comes busting into Be Kind Rewind as a lawyer representing the film studios. Hurting by our kids’ endeavours to shoot their own versions of the studios’ films, as she tells the shopkeepers, the damages from these escapades are expected to be around three and a half billion dollars worth. One may laugh, but sadly it would be a very realistic laugh the way the studios and the recording industry have been behaving.
Overall: Be Kind Rewind is quirky, very funny, and leaves you with something to think about. It’s a 3.5 star film, but I liked it enough to give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

The Gods Themselves by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: A tale about the ease with which comfort can make us turn a blind eye to danger.
Review:
Prior to me starting to read Asimov's The Gods Themselves, the biggest question on my agenda was whether I have already read it or not. While I am still not in a position to provide a reliable answer to that question, I'm glad to say I have read/re-read the book; it is a classic Asimov, meaning an excellent book.
The Gods Themselves is a science fiction book made of three parts. The first tells the story of humanity in a hundred years or so, when aliens from a parallel universe contact humanity and inform it of a way to seemingly gain energy out of nothing by transferring material from one universe to the other. Thing is, what seems like a free lunch on paper may not turn to be the case after all as the story follows a renegade scientist realizing the free lunch's price is our world becoming more and more like the parallel universe, with the implication being our sun may explode. Armed with this suspicion, he goes to warn humanity of the impeding danger.
The second story tells us what takes place in the parallel universe. There Asimov depicts a detailed account of a completely alien society to ours, eventually focusing on the similarities between us and them when it comes to dealing with free lunches. The third story takes place on the moon and wraps the package up in a neat way.
Asimov is famous for his social science fiction (a term I may be twisting a bit here, but who cares): that is, writing science fiction stories that are an analogy to our society, portraying extreme imaginative cases that imply on our real life society. Thus the blind eye turned by humanity in the book to the dangers of free energy acts as a very good analogy to the way humanity has been dealing with global warming this day and age. On top of that there is a lot of criticism thrown in by Asimov to the way science conducts itself: In The Gods Themselves the scientist who first established contact with the aliens acquires such an iconic status no one can say anything contradicting his words, even if they do use the scientific approach. While the particular scenario doesn't apply because we are yet to be contacted by a parallel universe, the problem itself very much applies: For example, physicists (to name but one example) often complain that those who do not accept the String Theory are cast aside. My point is simple: there is a lot to take from The Gods Themselves.
What most science fiction fans will treasure in The Gods Themselves are the detailed of the future's society and the society of the aliens. These are not just briefly detailed; they are so well specified, with reasons for the way things are explained and discussed thoroughly, that it all feels very real and authentic. This is no fantasy tale; this is heavy, classic, science fiction (with emphasis on "science"). There is a catch, though: Through the thoroughness things can get somewhat tedious. I know I'm opening myself here to a lot of criticism from the ranks of the serious science fiction fans, but I due to my lack of free time I seek matter of factness; The Gods Themselves is somewhat lacking in this department, opting instead for the detailed descriptions. I guess without the descriptions the book would lose most of its credibility, but the problem still remains: I was left somewhat wanting.
Overall: Classic science fiction, classic Asimov. 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Ubuntu for Non-Geeks by Rickford Grant

Lowdown: Your entry ticket to the world of Linux.
Review:
About a year and a half ago, following conversations with professionals, articles I have read, and most importantly lots of accumulated frustration with the way my PC was behaving, I first started entertaining thoughts about checking the world of Linux out as a potential replacement for Microsoft Windows. A recommendation in Bleeding Edge, one of my favorite technology blogs, talked about giving Ubuntu a try as the easiest way for Windows veterans to get into the world of Linux; it added a recommendation for the book Ubuntu for Non-Geeks as a good resource to have with you when taking the first steps.
Following the recommendation, I got the book through Amazon as one of the many books in an order. For months afterwards the book just gathered dust on my shelf. That is, until I gathered enough confidence in Ubuntu’s ability to reliably install itself in dual-boot mode on my PC (that is, installing itself as an option you can pick from while booting your PC, in addition to the existing installation of Windows) and until I just couldn’t take Windows’ misery anymore.
I read the first couple of chapters that talk about the installation, read a bit further more, and then read a few more installation articles on the web just to make sure I’m on the right track… and then I took the plunge using the Ubuntu installation CD supplied with Ubuntu for Non-Geeks. Since then, Ubuntu Linux has been by far the preferred environment on my PC. It would have been the only environment had it not been for applications exclusive to Windows (e.g., Outlook and Photoshop).
Introductions aside, what can I say about Ubuntu for Non-Geeks as a book? Well, as the name implies, this is not a book for computer experts; given enough patience, my mother should be able to take this book and use it in order to get Ubuntu up and running. That, however, is also its downside; even though the book contains more advanced material than my mother would probably care for (such as instructions on how to deal with scanners), it does not contain enough for those used to making the most of Windows and who really want to replace Windows all the way. In short, what I am trying to say here is that although Ubuntu for Non-Geeks is squarely aimed at those that are tired of Windows and want an upgrade, and although Ubuntu for Non-Geeks will serve you well as you start your upgrade, it will not take you all the way up the hill. You could regard it as a problem with the book, only that I am not aware of other books that are targeted at non-pros which would take you all the way either. Besides, let’s be frank: I have never finished reading Ubuntu for Non-Geeks, only using at the start of my Linux career; once inside, I found that I could Google my way to all the instructions and all the solutions I could ever want (mainly through the substantial and informative Ubuntu forums). Going further on that point, you don’t really need Ubuntu for Non-Geeks to begin with; you can find similar advice scattered all over the internet. The book’s advantage is in it being there by your side, always handy, and almost all encompassing as you start your way. And it does this specific job well.
Now that I hope to have answered the question of who the book is aimed at, I will finish this review off my providing an overview of the topics covered by the book. Well, you have your basic installation guide, get to know thy new desktop guide (and also thoroughly customize thy desktop guide, in case you thought Windows’ Aero interface is powerful), using the web, using the Linux terminal (a must for Linux users no matter what they tell you), installing applications, protecting your PC, handling peripheral equipment (from printers to iPods), and overall a pretty thorough overview of the various applications that come bundled with Ubuntu. Most people don’t realize it, but whereas Windows provides you with not much more than an operating system, with Ubuntu installed you already have most of what you need already there (word processing and spreadsheeting included, as well as stuff that would give Photoshop a run for its money).
Last, but not least, it is important to mention that the insight gained by Ubuntu for Non-Geeks is not limited to Ubuntu alone; most of the explanations are valid for other Linux distributions just the same, with my Asus Eee PC’s Xandros distribution serving as a real life example.
Overall: I will not give this book a star rating. Instead, I will settle with mentioning it has served me very well as a confidence inspiring tool when I started my journey into the Linux world.

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Charlie Wilson's War

Lowdown: Fighting the Russians in Afghanistan as a demonstration for the fallibilities of our political system.
Review:
There is something weird about Charlie Wilson’s War. For a film featuring the likes of Tom Hanks, Julia Roberts and Philip Seymour Hoffman there was an awful little I could boast to know about it prior to watching it; I didn’t even know what genre the film is. As I started watching it the uncertainty continued: a caption told me that what I was watching is based on true events, but then again the events taking place on the screen and the way these events were taking place on my screen were far from the way I would have expected a reality based film to take place. I was still unable to reliably determine whether I was watching a drama or a comedy.
Which is probably what director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, and more recently Closer) had planned for us, and exactly why Charlie Wilson’s War works as effectively as it does.
As Charlie Wilson the film starts, we are introduced to Charlie Wilson (Hanks) – an American hero of the war in Afghanistan, that is the war to oust the invading Soviet Union out of Afghanistan during the eighties. Then we go back in time, and the next thing we know we have a scene with Hanks in a Vegas jacuzzi together with some sleazy characters, strippers and nudity. Slowly, we learn that Hanks is a senator (yes, an elected senator) from Texas who definitely loves the opposite sex. Loves it so much that in order to get in bed with Julia Roberts, a Christian evangelist that believes the USA should do more to help rid Afghanistan of Soviets, he agrees to use his senate committee influence. Roberts pushes Hanks to visit neighboring Pakistan, where he ends up in a refugee camp that leaves its impression on him.
Thus one thing leads to another, and before you know it Hanks, together with a very unconventional CIA agent (Seymour Hoffman) is deeply into pulling strings all around the world to secure weapons for the Afghan Mujahidin and to secure their finances. It all seems to work: the American budget for the war in Afghanistan grows from five million dollars a year to a billion, and Soviet planes and helicopters are dropping out of the sky. Eventually, though, when the Soviets run out of Afghanistan, no one in the USA listens to Charlie Wilson anymore. The ground is thus set for the likes of the Taliban and Al Qaeda to prosper.
Having seen the film, I can now attest to Charlie Wilson’s War being a comedy. I have no idea whether the events depicted in it really took place or not, and I don’t think that is the film's point; the point of Charlie Wilson’s War is to point a finger at the way the political processes that shape the really heavy policies our society has to contend with – say, the so called War on Terror – and show how badly these processes are run. Charlie Wilson’s War is never a film that will make you laugh out loud (at least not in long bursts); it’s a film that will make you think, a comedy heavy on irony and cynicism. A smart person’s comedy, if you like.
There is not much in the political system that Charlie Wilson’s War doesn’t mock. You have the evangelists mingling in worldly affairs, Hanks admitting to be elected by his Jewish contributors rather than his Texan very not Jewish electorate (thus explaining where his loyalties are), and of course there’s the way the budget for the Afghan war is set through the whim of just a couple of people. In general, between sex and drugs, morality is entirely optional in Charles Wilson’s world; and that’s the point the film is trying to make, because it is this immoral world that pulls the strings of "our" world.
Most memorable scene: Tom Hanks, strippers, and nudity. I admit, the nudity is not the boldest ever, but still – who would have thought the three could be placed together in the same sentence? Now, nudity on its own is of not much good; the point I am trying to make here is that Charlie Wilson’s War is a fairly unconventional film in the way it brings forth its agenda, and this scene proves it.
Technical assessment: Rarely do I recall a DVD featuring such a heavily compressed picture. It’s like VHS! The sound is very ordinary, too.
Overall: Original and thus well worth watching. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

National Treasure 2: Book of Secrets

Lowdown: A brainless take on the Da Vinci Code.
Review:
The first question one needs to answer when reviewing National Treasure 2, or NT2, is why. That is, why bother watching a film such as this, the very definition of mediocrity: A sequel film to a rather mediocre and very much stupid and senseless film, directed by John Turteltaub aka the master of mediocrity, and priding itself of a plot that is obviously more stupid than the soon to be ex president of the USA?
The answer is simple. NT2 promises to be an easy going roller coaster ride, a switch your brain off for a couple of hours ride that could entertain you in a dumb primitive way as you go about watching it. And guess what? NT2 delivers exactly that.
The plot is quite meaningless, but let's recount it for history's sake. Nicolas Cage is back as the treasure hunting historian, now accused of being a descendant of a family of traitors: his grand grand grand grandfather or whatever is said to have been one of the conspirators behind the assassination of president Lincoln. Cage cannot accept this; in his words, he is what his ancestors have made him (a very, very silly notion that would degenerate all contemporary Germans to the sewers for a start; then again, looking for sense in NT2 is like looking for honesty in a politician). So he goes about trying to prove his ancestor's innocence by finding a treasure using a book with some elusive Da Vinci Code like clues with the help of his prequel friends. True to the Da Vinci Code style, an adventure follows another as villains seek the same treasure for themselves. They seek it here, they seek it there, they seek it in Paris, they seek it in London, they seek it all over the USA, and eventually it comes down to Cage having to kidnap the American president to put his hands on the treasure.
There is not much sense in NT2, as you might have guessed already. The various answers to the various clues are really thin and ambiguous, and towards the end they're not even explained altogether (the director explains in the commentaries that they cut twenty minutes of explanations to improve the film's flow). It is obvious no one really cares about the explanations just as it is obvious these are but a link to the next adventure; it is also obvious that while the filmmakers and the actors did not care much about the sense, they did have fun making this film.
Eventually, the question NT2 raises is - why? Why did actors such as Helen Mirren, Ed Harris and Harvey Keitel choose to play in a film of NT2's quality? I can't offer a verified explanation; maybe they wanted to add the element of silliness to their CVs, or maybe they got such a big fat check they didn't care.
Interesting scene (1): Cage meets the president, who is nothing like George W; he seems nice and smart. I wonder who they based the character on.
Interesting scene (2): The ultimate treasure, the city of gold (El Dorado), happens to be in the USA. Interestingly enough, this is the same treasure city that starred in the latest Indiana Jones, only that there it was located in South America.
Technical assessment: This second Blu-ray disc we got to watch was quite different to the first. The picture was so high contrast that there was not much of a difference in quality from what you get out of an upscaling DVD player. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack was also fairly undistinguished: although it offered all the sound effects you would expect of a Hollywoodian action film, it was very much less than inspiring in its originality and fidelity.
Overall: Stupid fun, 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Chicken Little

Lowdown: Exactly what Disney's marketing department prescribed.
Review:
Don't ask me why I wanted to watch Chicken Little but I did, after recording it off channel 7. In retrospect it seems a rather masochistic act, as Chicken Little is just one more member of that now way too common kids' computer animation film genre where all the films are virtually the same. To the best of my knowledge, Chicken Little is a Disney production meant to be displayed in 3D; obviously, when viewed off the air there is no 3D effect, so it's a pity Disney didn't make this one into a film worth watching in 2D.
The story follows Chicken Little and a bunch of his cliche nerdy friends (an ugly duckling, a fat pig) who live in a small American town where everyone's an animal and no humans are in sight. As the film starts, Little sees the sky falling and calls the alarm, creating huge mayhem; when, eventually, his fellow animals discover the reason for him calling the alarm Little becomes laughing stock and no one believes anything he says anymore, not even his father. No one has faith in Little even in sports, as he plays baseball together with the cool kids in class, and no one believes in him when the sky suddenly does begin to fall. Do, however, expect a happy end.
The main problem with Chicken Little is that it sticks so close to the template it has absolutely nothing new to deliver. We have the nerds element, the father-son breakdown element, and the aliens that help bring glory back to where it belongs. And we also have loads of not so funny jokes.
Originality? Nah, we have colors and music and pop references to compensate for that. Hey, our one year old liked the rather frantic color patterns and the animation, so Disney must be on to something here... They do say, though, that once upon a time Disney was able to create some real animation classics. Unbelievable.
At least Chicken Little is short.
Worst scene: In the midst of the alien attack with all the ensuing chaos, everything can be put on hold so the father and the son can finally make peace with one another. How credible. How corny.
Overall: Kids will probably like it, but then again they should be taught better. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 1 December 2008

The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian

Lowdown: It’s time to believe again.
Review:
One of the first films I got to blog about was the first Narnia film, which I have found to be annoying and rather mediocre in quality. Do not, however, claim that I am not into giving second chances away; Narnia’s sequel, Prince Caspian, has earnt the honor of being my first ever Blu-ray watch. Indeed, Blu-ray delivered the quality in spades, which is much more than I can say about Prince Caspian as a film.
Caspian tells the story of the same gang of four kids from the first Narnia film. As the film starts they are back in World War II London going through the motions of being teenage kids (that is, fighting with other kids). Quickly, however, they are drawn back to the world of Narnia when Prince Caspian calls them using a magic horn.
So what’s the prince’s story? Well, he belongs to this race of humans that speak English with a Spanish accent and look slightly darker than your average Anglo Saxon (that is, they look Spanish). This race has come to Narnia and did its best to exterminate its magical citizens, pretty much the way the Spaniards did South America. Now, however, they are ruled by an evil tyrant who plots to murder Caspian, the heir to the throne, so Caspian won’t be king and the evil dude's son will instead. Caspian, in turn, escapes and calls on the Narnia kings & queens (that is, our four kids) to return and help him sort things out in Narnialand.
And come back they do. On the way they encounter magical creatures (most notably a badger and a knight rat), they fight some wars, and essentially don’t do much to determine the course of things despite all the hoo-ha. Through their belief, though, they manage to survive things out to the end of the film and its inevitable happy ending. Belief is at the core of this film, as it is obvious Prince Caspian has been created to act as a propaganda machine for the prorogation of religious views.
Although never truly annoying, there are many problems with Prince Caspian that make it a rather lesser film than a swords & sorcery fantasy film with such a high budget should be. The first and most obvious of these is the film’s length: at two and a half hours it’s way too long and although never boring it feels the plot progresses like a river streaming uphill; for a film this long, there is no real dominant plot to drive things along. Prince Caspian is just never exciting enough to justify dragging itself over two and a half hours; given that it’s a film made for kids, the length becomes an even bigger issue.
Second, there is the issue of belief. Our kid heroes face many a challenge during the film, but the message that the film does its best to deliver is that anything is possible if you just believe in it. Talk about an awkward and misleading messages, hey? What about some realism, please? Or should I just start believing that tomorrow all my problems will disappear and I will earn a million dollars (or better yet, that tomorrow everyone else will realize their lives will be much better if they were to give me 10% of their worldly possessions)? I know Caspian is a kids’ film, but let’s not fill our kids’ brains with hot air.
And third, there are some severe ethical issues with Prince Caspian. The films’ baddies, the Spanish looking humans, are being killed left and right by our heroes; yet it is very clear that these Spaniards are not evil but rather that they are ruled by evil rulers who lead them down the wrong path. Wouldn’t it be wiser and more just to just go at the head, instead of hitting the body first in order to get to the end? How can one pretend to be truly good if one is killing innocent people in the cause of good? The analogy of Narnia as the land saved by the crusaders is very much evident in Prince Caspian, and it doesn't really flatter the film.
Maybe I should focus on the positive side. There is some great cinematography in Prince Caspian, with some really spectacular shots…
Most annoying scene(s):
Aslan, the mighty savior of all that is good in Narnia, is repeatedly asked during the film why he wouldn’t move his ass slightly quicker and jump to the rescue slightly before everything looks doomed. His answer, which he repeats several times during Prince Caspian, is that “things never happen the same way twice”.
The first question I have is to do with the need for repeating this statement. Is it that the film is so long lines need to be repeated again and again just in order for us to be able to remember them, or is there a need to repeat them under the assumption that if repeated enough times we the viewers will learn to accept the statement as true?
Well, I won’t accept that statement as true no matter how many times mighty Aslan repeats it. Here’s why: I pick up a ball, raise it a meter above the floor, and let go of it; the ball falls down. I pick the ball up again to the same height and let go of it again, and guess what? It falls down again! Who could have anticipated that! Who would have guessed things can happen the exact same way twice? Don’t tell me I could repeat this again and again, no way!
In short, my point is that there is a lot of bullshit in Prince Caspian. Then again, given that Aslan is just a thinly disguised Jesus and that the entire world of Narnia reeks of good old Christian values with its lot of bullshit, what can one expect? Or rather, what can one expect from yet another Walden Media production?
Picture quality: Well, it’s excellent. Colors are amazingly detailed, and the beauty of the New Zealand scenery where at least some of Caspian was shot is so well laid out this could be a tourism ad. It’s the first Blu-ray disc I ever got to see so I cannot compare it to its peers, but its delivery of a high definition is obviously better than anything I have seen before in a home environment.
Sound quality: As soundtracks go, this one is good but not reference quality. The main event with Caspian was my first exposure to DTS-HD sound, a lossless sound encoding system delivering sound at the sound master’s original quality. Well, I can’t say that the extra sound quality knocked me off my seat in comparison to the standard Dolby Digital sound we get on DVDs, but there was a definite lack of the hard edges that you get with Dolby Digital; it was like listening to a CD as opposed to listening to an MP3. If anything, the experience reminded me of listening to PCM encoded soundtracks from good old laserdiscs, only with the advantage of having discrete full bandwidth 5.1 sound as opposed to the stereo signal being crudely separated to four channels.
Overall: The magnificence of the Blu-ray format aside, Prince Caspian is a very average film (and that’s a compliment). I rank it as a 2 plus stars film out of 5.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Death Proof

Lowdown: The struggle between men and women, Tarantino style.
Review:
Let it be known: I am not a big fan of Tarantino. Sure, there was a period in which I thought very highly of Pulp Fiction, and I am pretty sure I will still enjoy that film as well as some of his other films (albeit to a much lesser extent); thing is, my appreciation for Tarantino as a movie maker has severely waned over the years. Whereas once he was a bold original, now he seems to me like someone who knows a few tricks (emphasis on few) and who is, overall, lacking in originality and trying hard to compensate through lesser means.
Which is my way of saying that I wanted to see Death Proof the way I wanted to see all of Tarantino's stuff after Pulp Fiction, but I wasn't holding my hopes up high. And indeed, Death Proof does not provide much of a reason to hold one's hopes up high.
The story, if you can refer to Death Proof as a movie containing a story in the first place, follows a bunch of girls as they go out to have some drinks one night. There they chat for what seems to be an eternity but is probably something like three quarters of an hour long pileup of the regular Tarantino dialog: much ado about nothing, but peppered with stuff that should make it sound cool. As I have said before, originality is lacking from Tarantino's arsenal, and said dialog is as invigorating as reading an old newspaper.
Anyway, as the girls make their way out they are stalked by Kurt Russell, a stuntman with a death proof car: A Ford Mustang, if I'm not mistaken, that has been enforced enough to allow him to go through any traffic accident without severe damage. Using his car Russell intentionally collides with the chicks we've met before, killing them all (I know some would say I am telling you much of the movie's plot, but my point is that this killing is not on the movie's critical path; the movie's experience is in the dialog, not the plot). In typical Tarantino fashion he goes over the killings quite thoroughly, showing us bits of limbs getting cut off and faces getting treated by the oncoming death proof car; it's all made in such a way that glorifies it and is meant to work on our emotions the way porn would, the primary reason why I no longer hold Tarantino to be an inspirational director but rather one who has gone to the dogs.
Next thing we know a year has past and there's a new bunch of girls out there. Prolonged dialog sessions endue, and eventually they get the Kurt Russell treatment too; only that they will not succumb like chicks to the slaughter, providing us with some exciting car chase scenes.
I think the main positive thing I have to say about Tarantino's Death Proof is that he doesn't do his usual time shifting tricks; Death Proof's plot is linear, thank you very much. If you are looking for a message under the thick layer of boring dialog, it is to do with the struggle between men and women. All the men in Death Proof, including Russell, are out there to satisfy their basic needs through women, and they will stoop as low as required to get what they want; the women, on the other hand, are basically trying to survive in this hostile environment.
Best scene: The car chase scenes at the end. It's very exciting, but once again it works on raw emotions and makes you feel as if you're watching porn. How else would you explain having cars bashing into one another with one of them sporting a girl in a crucified like position over one of the car's hoods as she's tied by belts?
Picture quality: In a bid to make Death Proof look like an old matinee film of yonder, the film was made to look old, with pops and reel replacement and color fadeouts and much more. If you ask me, it just feels stupid and adds nothing to the experience.
Sound quality: As uninspiring as it can be, I guess. You do get the usual Tarantino mix of old style music, though.
Overall: A rather pathetic 2.5 out of 5 stars effort. Without the chases at the end this would have been a mighty boring film.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Counterfeiters

Lowdown: Dilemmas of the highest caliber in a concentration camp.
Review:
The Counterfeiters is a film belonging to a high prestige group of a very small membership: the high quality, intense holocaust film that is inspired by true events. As far as my notes recall, the group used to contain Schindler's List and The Pianist alone; now it has a third member.
The plot revolves around a German guy called Sorowitsch, who just happens to be a Jew and also be a master counterfeiter; any set of papers you want, Sorowitsch will arrange for you. That is, until the day he's caught by German police. With the way things are going in Nazi Germany he quickly finds himself at a concentration camp, but he is not the one to disappear there; Sorowitsch knows how to handle himself with the Kapo (the notorious criminals who ran the concentration camps for the Nazis). He can manage himself with the Nazis, too, if that is what it takes to survive.
The years goes by and the war is close to its end. The Nazis have a special plan for Sorowitsch: they get him to a special made facility inside a concentration camp and "spoil" him and a group of other prisoners with such goodies as beds with mattresses. In return, the Nazis want him to forge British Pounds and American Dollars so they can cripple their enemies economies before they are beaten in the battlefield.
Being that Sorowitsch is good at what he does he quickly delivers on the British Pound. But when the aim is set to the Dollar dilemmas start: how are the prisoners best serving their cause? Is it by prolonging their own lives and delivering for the Nazis, at the risk of becoming expandable when the goods are delivered? Or is it by making life as hard as possible for the Nazis so that their cunning plans do not materialize and they lose the war? Both sides are very well presented in the film and the conflicts between the two sides are at the film's core. Indeed, it's easy for us to stand here and be noble about the right thing to do in such a situation, but I doubt any of us would choose anything but self preservation when the alternative is so clear. In between the two opposing groups we have Sorowitsch, trying to pull the rope from both ends.
This German speaking film is relatively short at just a bit more than an hour and a half, but it delivers and delivers well. There are but a rare few films that deliver their message and their dilemmas better than The Counterfeiters, if anything because of the extreme circumstances of the holacaust enable the discussion of cutting edge motifs.
Best scene: I liked the way in which the core dilemma is explored. In particular, I liked the Jewish banker who works in Sorowitsch's team of counterfeiters. The guy keeps on making sure everyone knows he is decent and that he's only doing the counterfeiting because he's forced to; he even says it to the Nazis at the risk of death, only because his image of himself as a human being is more important to him than his life. In the circumstances where all that is humane is meant to be erased, maintaining humanity becomes the most important thing.
Sound quality: Although only a stereo soundtrack is supplied on the DVD, the surround envelopment provided through matrix encoding on my receiver made it sound better than many 5.1 releases.
Overall: An important film of 4 plus stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I'm Not There

Lowdown: A collection of thoughts "inspired" by Bob Dylan.
Review:
After writing what I did on Notes on a Scandal and after receiving lots of feedback in return, I wanted to watch I'm Not There in order to be able to watch Cate Blanchett in her performance of Bob Dylan that has earnt her so much praise.
Blanchett is not on her own in I'm Not There: The film, supposedly inspired by Bob Dylan's real life story, features several very famous actors seemingly portraying different aspects of the Dylan character. Blanchett aside, we have top man here to contend with. Who? Top man: Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale! Wow, this sounds promising!
Well, it isn't. Having watched half of I'm Not There I can report on it being not much more than a set of disjointed scenes, high on atmosphere but low on substance. You can make some meaning into it all, but that meaning would be the meaning you want it to have; for what its worth, you can make I'm Not There to have any meaning you want. Some people may say this is art at its best. I say this is arty farty. Boring arty farty at that.
Half way through I'm Not There not even the nice Dylan music soundtrack helped as I clicked the stop button and put the DVD back in its box.
Sound quality: Nothing spectacular at all, but the DTS soundtrack does favor Dylan's music.
Overall: I don't know if I'm eligible of ranking this one given that I wasn't there, but I will give it 0.5 of 5 stars. Best avoided.

Legally Blonde

Lowdown: A modern day fairy tale.
Review:
I know I might be behind with the times, but up until now I didn't get to watch Legally Blonde (LB). Well, at least LB had won the honor of being the first ever feature film I got to watch of my new high definition PVR after it was recorded off channel 7.
LB's plot is fairly simple. Reese Witherspoon is the homecoming queen (whatever that is; I suspect it's some highly praised virtue in American culture) of her college. She's rich, she's stupidly spoiled, she's into the latest fashion, she's the envy of her colleagues, and even if she doesn't seem so she's very smart. As the film starts she's about to get herself engaged to the man of her dreams, but alas - the man of her dreams wants to become a senator and dumps her in favor of a girl who would look better by the side of a would be senator as he goes to Harvard Law to start his career.
Witherspoon doesn't give up and decides to follow her love to Harvard. She achieves the seemingly impossible and gets herself into Harvard Law (making it look so easy the pet snake Reggie should look into getting there) where she attempts to wage war and retrieve her lover. However, once in Harvard her original quest takes second place to getting herself acclimatized and managing to get through her studies in an environment very hostile to the seemingly idiot blonde. But guess what? Witherspoon pulls through, and by the end of the film she looks like she's ready to run LA Law.
Overall, LB is done to the very basic fairly tale formula. You can map it one to one with stories such as Snow White or Cinderella. However, that's not the point; the point is its comedy value, with the joke about the seemingly dumb blonde proving her smarts rather unexpectedly getting a very long stretch throughout the film. Thing is, stretched or not, it works; LB is a fun watch!
It's the fact that it manages to pull this feat through that makes it so good for its genre. It's not like it has an easy life: For a start, I find Witherspoon as attractive as your average grandmother. Then there's the problem of LB reeking of the same values Sex and the City flaunts about so openly, mainly that a woman is as good as what she wears, what she owns, and the man she's with. There is a difference between the two, though, which is the key to LB's success: LB doesn't take itself too seriously; it does it all with a wink.
Representative scene: After being intimidated through finding herself the only person in class using pen and paper (the rest are using now archaic looking laptop PCs), Witherspoon shows her edge and her style by being the only person in class to use a Mac. Surely that's all it takes to come at the top of your class in Harvard Law.
Overall: LB is the type of film you watch for an hour and a half of relaxing fun. 3.5 out of 5 stars of escapism.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Minority Report

Lowdown: Spielberg takes on Dick.
Review:
A lot has been said on these pages about the virtues of the films made so far out of Phillip K Dick’s books and stories. The concept started well with two astonishingly good films, Blade Runner and Total Recall. Lately, though, it has flat lined with a multitude of weird productions. In between the two we’ve had Minority Report.
Released in 2002, Minority Report is a film I will remember mostly for the time in which I’ve seen it: Having recently migrated to Australia, employed by the worst employer ever, and working in Sydney while trying to settle down in Melbourne. Minority Report was a bright light in a very cold winter (especially as I was coming directly from Israeli spring). I liked it; it offered intense action scenes and some futuristic visions. However, now that I watch it again in my quest to review the DTS soundtracks of my collection, I found myself looking at it in a completely different light. And no, it’s not because I have since read Dick’s original story (I have to say I was rather disappointed by the story, as per my general experience with Dick’s writing).
Set some fifty years into our future in Washington DC, Minority Report follows Tom Cruise, a policeman in the pre-crime department. What’s pre-crime? Well, during the next decades we are going to find people with psychic powers within our midst and use them to foresee crimes before they actually take place. These psychos give a few hours’ warning to Cruise, who then needs to rush and assemble clues from their visions in order to stop the crimes before they take place. To do that, Cruise uses some nifty iPod Touch like big screens in what will surely seem to future crowds as pathetic as the original Star Trek production values seem to us now.
Lightning strikes when one day, out of the blue yet curiously timed with a departmental inspection by Colin Farrell and an impending census on expanding pre-crime to the nation wide level (without finding more psychos to cope with the extra load, by the way; lucky us they don’t have a union to represent them), Cruise is advised about the first pre-meditated murder in a good few years. Thing is, that next murder will be committed by one Tom Cruise. Already battered by the loss of a child and the following breakup of his previously perfect life/marriage, Cruise goes on the run to prove that the future is not set and that there’s no fate but the one we make for ourselves.
In typical Spielberg fashion, all hell lets loose. And it’s pretty cool: you get to see visions of futuristic traffic and a glimpse of society where privacy is a thing of the past and everyone knows everything there is to know about you a mile away by scanning your retina. And there’s action to boot, and it’s all very nice, entertaining, and potentially thought provoking.
The problem is that lingering feeling of going over the top. Spielberg doesn’t miss on drawing any possible card to drive things into the extreme while his hero, Cruise, is busy exploring that ground to death Spielberg theme of a child left to his own. It’s in the cinematography, it’s in the settings, and it’s in the pseudo-science/spiritual (i.e., bullshit) dialog going on between the characters, especially the leading ones. As with the recent choice of getting Cate Blanchett to play so minor a role in Indy 4 that your average Ms Bimbo could have managed just the same if not better, Spielberg sticks with an ever intense Tom Cruise for the lead. You watch Minority Report and you can tell Cruise is a real life psycho.
The question then becomes why, why does Spielberg feel the need to go that far with the extreme plot, extreme special effects, extreme everything? What is he trying to prove and to whom is he trying to prove it?
Typical scene: Cruise, on the run from police, ends up in a very hi-tech robot only operated car manufacturing plant, sprinkled with evidence that the cars are being made out of recycled materials. Punches fly high as Cruise fights it out with the not even remotely as skilled in the art of fighting police, and at the end of it all he cruises away in a just in time manufactured Lexus. Nothing's better than that good aftertaste of product placement (someone had to pay for all the special effects!).
Picture quality: Hard to judge, as Spielberg really goes to extremes here with the lighting and a high contrast look that borders black & white. My question is, why does he need to go that far? It all feels as though Spielberg has this complex to outdo everything for the sake of it.
Sound quality: Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for Minority Report, which says it all. Even if by Rydstrom standards this is not the peak of his achievements.
Overall: Minority Report demonstrates how much of a cynic I have become. An action film I would have once rated at 4 stars cannot receive more than 3.5 out of 5 stars due to Spielberg’s immaturity.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Wind in the Willows

Lowdown: An English kids' story gets the Python treatment.
Review:
To be fair, I never really went for the Wind nor the Willows; as a child I have read the book but found it rather uninteresting. I much preferred the radio skit show they made out of it. Today, The Wind in the Willows manages to attract more of my attention than it ever did for the simple reason that today I am wise enough to realize this is as British as a story can get. The particular version reviewed here, released in 1996, is even British-er still: there is a lot of Monty Python in it.
Given the Pythons involvement you sort of know what you can expect: a kids' story about animals that are very human and do lots of crazy stuff. To be honest, by now I don't remember what the book's plot is like; this DVD, however, tells the story of Mole who finds his underground hole destroyed and with the aid of his friend Rat asks for the help of Toad. Toad, however, is infatuated with technology, especially with motor cars; his love for the wheel makes him lose all his money and when he finds himself in jail it's only Rat and Mole that can set things straight. And this time, it's crazy.
It's British in character and in scenery but some bits are better than others. Notably, some bits are better and in the others the characters burst into song; luckily, they don't do it that much and it's mostly limited to the first half of this 80 minute plus engagement.
You can, however, argue quite rightly that The Wind and the Willows is about the things that are really important in life: friendship and a good picnic as opposed to machinery and capital. Most of all, it is innocent. For a kids' story, one cannot ask for much more.
Best scene: Our heroes escape from a mincing machine. And what a narrow escape it is.
Overall: Inconsistent but good entertainment still. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Lowdown: The ever greatest action movie.
Review:
Terminator 2, or T2, is by far the most historically important film ever. One can argue that with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back there are no other historically important films to talk about. The history I’m talking about here is my own personal history, of course. Isn't that all that matters in the first place?
In order to explain myself I will let the stats do the talking:
- I have watched T2 an estimated 80 times. Nothing else comes even halfway. Granted, most of those 80 were not start to finish viewings, but still…
- I have owned T2 in four different versions: The original laserdisc twice (the first got destroyed by a malfunctioning player), the special edition laserdisc, and the ultimate DVD edition.
- Back in the early nineties, after reading articles about home theater in general and T2's performance there in particular, I set out to spend the little money I’ve had as a soldier on assembling my own home theater mostly so I could watch T2 the way it should be watched. It took about 8 years for my audiophile passion to start subsiding with the realization there is no end to this pursuit; you could say T2 has earned me a nice lesson on the meaning of happiness.
- T2 has even made me buy a pair of Persol sunglasses. The model name was Schwarzenegger, and at the time they had a cool new design that was very imitated since with round curved lenses.
With all that has happened, I still remember the first time I watched T2. It was 1991, I was on weekend army leave, I was very tired, but it was the only opportunity I have had so I met Moshe Tandlich (with whom, I am sorry to say, I have lost touch since) and we watched it together sitting on the first row of Chen 1 cinema. It felt like I needed a new neck afterwards, but it was an awesome experience.
The key thing about that particular experience and the way T2 was meant to be experienced in the first place is to do with something we all take for granted now; but we only take it for granted because T2 was a damn good film, a sequel that demonstrated that sequels can be better than their prequels even if the plot and the formula are generally the same. That key thing I’m talking about is the positioning of the previously evil terminator as the goodie that saves the day, while the seemingly innocent and policeman like dressed counterpart turns out to be a particularly nasty and an unimaginably capable evil terminator.
As T2 starts, it tries its best to convince us Arnie’s bad. He ruins a game of pool for a bunch of bikers, fries one of them on the stove, and steals his bike. A Harley Davidson at that! Shot from below and wearing motorcycle attire, no helmet and cool sunglasses, Arnold’s terminator is indeed bad to the bone. The evil terminator, on the other hand, is rather skinny and seemingly polite; you only hear a hint of him hitting someone. That is, until he has John Connor up his sights.
Once the two terminators collide with Connor in between, T2’s handling of its adverse terminators changes. Schwarzenegger is shot more and more from above and in warmer light while he is learning to be more human, smiling and all. His counterpart, on the other hand, goes through a role reversal that renders him dark and nasty.
In between, we have ourselves a fast flowing action film with some of the best action scenes ever. Unlike most of today’s action crop, T2 doesn’t resort to jerky camera movement; you see it all and see it pretty clearly, allowing you to marvel at the shots. Indeed, there is a lot to marvel at: the attention to details is just amazing. Take, for example, Arnold firing a grenade at a car; you don’t just see an explosion, you see the car’s window breaking with a small round hole at its center and then you see the car explode. Not only that, it’s imaginative but not stupidly so; Arnold’s casualty count is 0.0, the shape shifting evil terminator doesn’t turn around but shape shifts his front to his back, etc. If that’s not good enough for you, take the way he hijacks a helicopter instead. Yes, T2 was one of those first films to visibly use CGI, but unlike more contemporary films CGI doesn't outlive its welcome. It is clear that a lot of money has been poured to make T2 run so smoothly, but at least it is also clear by the results that money was well spent.
Praises aside, T2 suffers from several inconsistencies, some of which are addressed by the special edition (for example, Arnie’s very crooked smile, as in – why does he smile when he picks up a Vulcan chain gun?). There is also an obvious point to be made that by just a slight bit of running the evil terminator could have killed John Connor some ten times during the film, yet for all of his processing power he chose not to do so (and gave us more than two hours of pure joy for that).
Traditionally, acting has been pointed to as T2’s weak spot. Edward Furlong’s John Connor is, indeed, weak; but I argue the rest of the cast fits perfectly to their roles. Schwarzenegger was never an actor, really, but it is his inability to act that renders him the perfect robot; and Linda Hamilton is so effective as Sarah Connor you never recall seeing her anywhere else (sadly, not even in the new Sarah Connor Chronicles series).
Overall, T2 is an action masterpiece by a director at his peak, James Cameron. It works hard to look cool, and, indeed, I cannot think of a film that rocks as much as this one. The only thing that comes close is The Matrix, but while that may be a good film it is not half as funny as T2 is (and T2 has a lot of funny moments in it), not as cool, not as original, and definitely not as well made. The Matrix is bantha fodder.
Best scene: With T2 you’re really spoilt for choice. My personal pick would be the truck/bike chase through LA’s canals, which was my regular home theater demo piece for years (till I got myself a life).
Picture quality:
Unlike the laserdisc, the DVD sports a rather grainy look. It could be the age of the master, but it’s more likely to do with T2 being shot in the Super 35 format with the DVD being a more capable platform for showing off the problem of that format.
Okay, you ask: tell us what this Super 35 thing is?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Most films are shot on squarish 35mm film stock that looks not much unlike the old camera film of yonder. In order to generate scope wide films out of the squarish film, most directors that opt for scope wide production utilize an anamorphic lens that compresses the scope wide picture into the square shaped film; a similar but opposite lens is applied when the film is projected in order to decompress it.
Super 35 is different: It truncates the top and the bottom of the squarish film in order to utilize just a thin strip in the middle. That thin strip is in a wide scope ratio. The disadvantages of working this way is that you lose a lot of resolution: that thin strip of film is not as capable of storing as much information as the full height of film. However, there are also advantages: most notably, you don’t need sophisticated lenses so you save some money, and you don’t need as much lighting so you save some money.
In T2’s case, however, the motivation for using Super 35 was different. When setting T2 up, James Cameron realized the film will be viewed on very wide cinema screens but very squarish TVs at people’s homes. Even today’s widescreen TVs are squarish compared to a scope cinema screen (1.78:1 vs. 2.35:1). In order to fit wide films on TVs before the age of the DVD, films used to have their sides chopped off in a process called Pan & Scan so they would fill up an entire square screen. The price you had to pay was the loss of almost 50% of the overall picture, and with it the loss of the composition the way the director intended it to be.
Cameron came up with a plan to protect his vision. He figured out that T2 is going to spend just a few months of its life at the cinemas and the rest of its life in video, so he compromised with Super 35's picture quality in order to be able to fill up the video at home with height information. That is, the film you watch at home on your square screen may actually contain more information than the one you've watched at the cinema, because while the cinematic version uses just the thin strip at the middle of the film the home version can use the entire film by using the space above and below that thin strip. Pure genius!
Of course, it comes at a price: sets and lighting and all have to be prepared for a much larger area, which means production costs are significantly increased.
When all is said and done, one has to admire Cameron's dedication to quality.
Sound quality:
The vast majority of the occasions I got to watch T2 were on laserdiscs sporting a Dolby Surround soundtrack, a soundtrack famous at its time for being the best (until it got eclipsed by others through time). However, T2 was famous for being one of the first films ever to feature a digital soundtrack. Indeed, the T2 DVD version I own sports a DTS soundtrack, which, with significantly higher bandwidth than the DVD default of Dolby Digital soundtracks, has the potential to provide a more transparent soundtrack.
A comparison between the analog version I remember and the digital one should have been a clear winner for the digital one given its clearly separated 5.1 channels. However, I cannot say that this turned out to be the case here. The old Dolby Surround T2 soundtrack was extremely aggressive and visceral, so much so that I used to make so many people jump at that skull being crashed in the opening scene I probably deserve a hospital wing dealing with heart failure named after me. The new digital version, however, tries to work on atmosphere instead; gone is that in your face feeling, which, frankly, I think is much more suitable for a film like T2.
Overall: T2 is the exact definition of a film that breaks all familiar grounds. 6 out of 5 stars and my vote as for most entertaining film ever.