Sunday, 27 January 2008

Film: Ten Canoes

Lowdown: A glimpse into aboriginal culture.
Review:
The number of films talking about love triangles probably exceeds the number of stars in a small galaxy, but Ten Canoes is not your ordinary love triangle story. Before watching it I knew that it's an Australian film dealing with aboriginals and shot in aboriginal lands with real aboriginals as its actors, but I didn't know just how aboriginal the film was.
It starts by telling us of a group of aboriginal warriors going to hunt geese on a swamp. As far as we can tell the story may have taken place today, but it also could have taken place ten thousand years ago for all we know: the warriors carry spears with them, they build their own canoes by removing bark off trees and processing them, and then they ride the canoes in swamps looking for geese and their eggs. While doing all those things, one warrior asks his older brother why he is wifeless while the older brother has three wives; he covets the younger one of the three. The older brother answers by telling him a story which, although told as a flashback, takes the film's lead and is actually what most of the film is about. The story is about a couple of brothers in a similar situation, and what takes place in their tribe as the situation folds along. It's a story of jealousy, war, and finding one's place in the world. The story is told slowly, in aboriginal style, and it would probably qualify as quite boring by normal standards; it's the way things are told that makes it an interesting experience.
The main event of Ten Canoes is the glimpse it provides into the aboriginal world. The plot does not really matter much; what matters is the exposure we get to the way aboriginal culture ticks, the way they think and the way they behave, all of which are significantly different to anything "us" people of the Western culture are used to. As such, the film is invaluable.
That said, I could not help think how far back that culture is. I don't mean no disrespect to aboriginal people; they have been severely wronged throughout the colonization of Australia and they are being criminally wronged still. However, let's call things the way they are: The aboriginals in Ten Canoes are living in the Stone Age, fair and square. If you want to glorify that culture and it's beliefs, good on you, but let's not ignore the irrelevance of such a culture in a world where people walk on the moon; while it's charming in its innocence, from which we should and need to learn a lot, it is not a culture we can migrate to this day and age. Even if you say "screw this, I'm moving to the back of behind and living like an aboriginal does", the global world of today would mean there is no true escape; like it or not, it would catch up with you.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that while we should learn the aboriginal culture and try and take good stuff out of it, glorifying it the way Ten Canoes does is a rather pointless act. Sure, show it for what it is as a document of historical facts, but glorifying it as a culture more suitable than our current one for this day and age does it a disservice. And for the record, I have exactly the same problem with people trying to glorify Bronze Age agendas in the form of the bible in a similar manner.
The anthropologist in me was certainly aroused by Ten Canoes. The depiction of a society that openly practices polygamy, with the dominating alpha males in control while the others fight for the scraps; the suspicious feelings towards foreign tribes who "want our women", contrasted on the other hand by the active curiosity from the females towards the foreigners; all combine to make a classic evolutionary textbook case. We humans think ourselves so sophisticated behind our suits and ties, but we are very similar to our primate relatives, much more similar than most of us realize and much more similar than many of us care to admit.
Best scene: After one tribe kills a member of another tribe by mistake, retribution is made in a particularly cold blooded fashion while everyone acknowledges it is the right thing to do.
Overall: A glimpse into another world that will probably not last much longer. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 25 January 2008

DVD: The Pursuit of Happyness

Lowdown: The movie version of The Secret.
Review:
Will Smith is back in The Pursuit of Happyness as a different kind of an action hero than we’re used to. This time he’s a family man thrown into a capitalist world.
Set in San Francisco during the early eighties, Smith is a father trying to make a living out of selling medical equipment no one really wants which he put his life savings into acquiring. The result is that his family, comprised of a wife that has to work double shifts and a small child who is in a miserable day-care where they watch TV all day and where they spell things like “Happyness”, is in severe financial stress. As the film progresses, things grow worse and worse for Smith, whose entire earthly possessions come down to less than $15 at one point.
However, Smith has a secret weapon up his sleeve. He sees all the happy people who have “proper” jobs and he wants to be like them. Through his will power he manages to secure an internship at a financial management company, which pits him in a position where he has to compete with twenty other aspirants in order to secure what he considers to be a proper job. Will he be able to make it into proper happiness, or will the financial and social chaos he is simultaneously going through break him down? Watch the film and learn what has happened in this story that is said to be “inspired by true events”.
Generally speaking, watching the Pursuit is one of those experiences that leaves you feeling good. We have ourselves a hero character whose situation only deteriorates, which puts us all in a position where we can see the darker times of our own lives reflected in him. And since we are all probably doing much better than what Smith is doing in the film (otherwise we wouldn’t be able to sit and watch this DVD), the result is some nice catharsis.
However, there is no way in which I am going to say that Pursuit is a good film. In my opinion, the film is inherently flawed, and the flaws are so severe the film ends up being annoying rather than comforting or inspirational. Essentially, my problem resides with the way the filmmakers define happiness. You probably know that the pursuit of happiness has been labelled on the American declaration of independence as one of the targets of this new country, but the question then becomes – how does one become happy or happier? Sadly, the inappropriate answer most Americans and most people in general seem to take for granted is that the acquisition of material goods, status and money will lead them there. Even sadder is the ignorance in the face of fact when science tells us that the money equals happiness assumption is very much wrong: no one really knows what makes us happy, but the answer seems to be more in our DNA than in our earthly possessions. Research actually shows that inherently happy people remain happy even after severe personal tragedies such as cancer, but inherently unhappy people remain unhappy even after winning millions in the lottery. Therefore, the film’s automatic assumption that money is equal to happiness is misleading! Sure, one needs more money than Will Smith has throughout the film in order to live securely, but security is not the equal of happiness. Seen in that light, Pursuit of Happiness becomes a very disappointing film, and its ending seems particularly miserable.
The idealization of money in the film goes beyond the portrayal of money as the ultimate source of happiness. There is also the glorification of making money for its own sake: Will Smith’s character is portrayed as smart and capable, but at the end of the day he is a salesman. Whether he’s selling medical stuff no one wants or financial plans worth hundreds of thousands doesn’t matter; what matters is that Smith does not produce anything, he just talks the talk to sell another person’s creation to another person/company. Call me na├»ve, but in my book such an act can never rank the same as the act of actual creation, be it in engineering or in art. No matter how much money you make in the process of the sale, you are still riding some creator’s back. Sure, selling is a respectable and important occupation, but in my opinion the bigger glory should go to those with the ideas and the creativity and not to those that can garnish it so that others will pay for it. This point is made more relevant to the film when some of the worst trouble Smith finds himself in are the direct result of him having to kiss up to his bosses; my idea of a hero is someone that stands up for himself/herself, not someone that cowers as a long term investment in order to achieve an eventual sale.
There’s more negative to the film than the glorification of the money god, though.
Throughout Pursuit we keep hearing messages, either direct or indirect, about how one can achieve anything if one wants it enough and about how one should seize the opportunities available to him/her in order to get there. If this line of thinking sounds familiar it’s mainly because it represents nothing new under the sun, and in fact it is a mantra that has been lately repeated in the sadly successful “The Secret”. In many cases, The Secret’s strategy is indeed an effective way to achieve your life’s ambitions. However, I strongly suspect that in most cases it doesn’t work. In fact, it can’t work. Just look at the situation Will Smith is in: He is competing for a vacancy with twenty other people. Are we to assume that the only criteria that would matter at the end is will power? That could only be true in a pathetic American film, but it cannot be true in life. Life is not black and white; life is full of infinite amounts of gray in between. For every winner there are nineteen losers, and the winners are often determined through parameters that are way beyond anyone’s personal control (which brings me to say that surprisingly, race never plays a part in Pursuit; Will Smith might have well been white as far as the film is concerned). Sure, Smith is motivated by his extreme poverty, but how do we know what is going on with the lives of the other twenty? Maybe one of them wants the job even more than Smith and is even more capable than Smith, but then she ends up sleep walking down a cliff?
The Smith character is portrayed to be a person who is capable of solving a Rubik’s Cube within half an hour of first putting his hands on one. A feat such as this requires much more than sheer will power; no matter how much you want to solve a Rubik’s Cube, you need to be significantly un-average in order to solve it within half an hour. Smith is obviously endowed with skills most of us, including your truly, can only dream of. Therefore, hinting that anyone can “make it” the way Smith did through will power alone is a gross exaggeration and a blatant lie.
Best scene: Smith arrives to an important job interview with no shirt on and with paint marks all over him. He doesn’t mess about and explains things the way they were, proving to us viewers that honesty is the best policy.
Picture quality: Like many other period films, the picture is made to look like stuff from “those good old days”. Which means the noise and the lack of detail are probably intentional.
Sound quality: There are some nice moments, but overall it’s a disappointment.
Overall: The Pursuit of Happyness is a very entertaining film. However, like any other work of art, there is more to a good film than pure entertainment; a film is also a statement. That is where my problems with Pursuit lie: Ideologically, it is nothing more than a lackluster attempt to flatter those that have a lot of money, and therefore I see no choice but to severely punish it with 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

DVD: The Holiday

Lowdown: Changes of continents bring changes in relationship fortunes.
Review:
On paper, The Holiday should have been an innocent way to pass an evening with a smile. No deep Blade Runner like experience, just innocent fun of the type romantic comedies should deliver. Add some big hot shot star names like Cameron Diaz, Kate Winslet and Jude Law and the expectations become rather high.
The Holiday revolves around its two female heroines, Diaz and Winslet. Diaz is a financially successful LA producer that knows how to handle business but is terribly bad at relationships, while Winslet is an intelligent British journalist who is terribly in love with a guy that is engaged to another woman while messing with her. Through a chain of events that can only take place in an American film they decide to trade places for a couple of weeks: Diaz will reside in Winslet’s English house and Winslet will reside in Diaz’ mansion.
Guess what? With the transition in place, their love fortunes reverse courses. Diaz falls for Winslet’s borhter, Law, that just happens to drop by, and Winslet gets to know Diaz’ old neighbor (Eli Wallach of Good / Bad / Ugly’s Tuco fame) which opens the door for her to drop her old love subject behind and move to a proper relationship with Jack Black. And they all lived happily ever after, and you can even accuse me for spoiling the film’s end for you if it wasn’t for the DVD cover telling you the same story way before I did.
The Holiday’s problem is not that it’s a formula film. Light years away you know it’s a formula film, but you can still enjoy formula films for some relaxation and a good smile. The Holiday’s problem is that it is so very badly executed.
Where should I start? First, I have identified a severe case of overacting on behalf of the main characters. Diaz is incredibly bad in here (there goes all the admiration acquired during Being John Malkovich) but Winslet gives her some good competition in the field of bad acting. I suspect the true criminal is the director that directed them this way, but why did they cooperate and why didn’t they realize they are plainly bad?
Second, the plot just doesn’t make sense. The entire residential exchange across the seas concept is flawed, especially as both characters agree to it after a two minute chat that follows an even shorter Google search by Diaz. And the way Law meets Diaz is stupid as well: Law is supposedly drunk and wants to spend the night at his sister’s place, but then again – who was taking care of his kids that night when he stayed with Diaz given that later in the film he is portrayed as the perfect widower parent?
There’s much more that is negative about The Holiday (e.g., the portrayal of Diaz as a person that is unable to cry), but still I have to admit there was something inside me that wanted to see The Holiday through. I guess it was the same instinct that makes you want to browse women’s magazines from time to time (when you have a fever and want to lose some IQ points).
Best scene: Naturally, a cameo by Dustin Hoffman.
Picture quality: Very bad indeed! Colors are stupidly badly rendered. The film looks as if you’re watching it through painted glass. Terribly distracting.
Sound quality: Your speakers would be bored to death with this one.
Overall: There’s just that much that the suspension of disbelief can be suspended. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

DVD: Ratatouille

Lowdown: There’s a rat in the kitchen.
Review:
With some films, the idea they’re based on is so weird that you sort of don’t expect much of them. In some cases, however, they surprise you and you end up saying to yourself “how come they didn’t think of this before”. Well, Ratatouille is one of those cases, and almost naturally it was Pixar that thought of it and made this computer animation film.
The idea is simple: Where is the last place you would like to see a rat in? The kitchen. Therefore, let’s take a rat, make a successful chef out of him, and try and fit it all in a film. And since it all revolves around kitchen action, let’s set it all in France – culinary heaven.
Thus we follow the story of Remy, a country rat with a good taste that wants more out of his food and his life than his fellow rats. Obviously, he read Who Moved My Cheese and he knows that change is the way of the world, but will he survive change?
Through his cooking adventures he gets separated from his family and finds himself in Paris, where he stumbles upon the restaurant of his favorite yet now deceased human chef. Unable to resist temptation, Remy sneaks a peak: he sees the new garbage boy messing around with the soup and ruining it, so he feels obliged to sort things out. One thing leads to another and Remy ends up cooking multiple Michelin stars quality stuff when all the humans around the place think it’s the garbage boy that’s doing it.
Slowly but surely the plot develops and challenges pop left and right: can the human being garbage boy truly befriend a rat? Can a rat forget his ratty roots and do the right thing by our homo sapiens eyes? Can the people around accept the change that is brought through the new star chef?
The film works very well, thank you very much. It is very entertaining and by far the most enjoyable new film I got to watch for a while now: the animation is superb, the ideas developed by the filmmakers that utilize an environment of cooking rats are ingenious, and the plot flows along engagingly. There’s also the usual pop culture reference stuff that now plagues most animation films in the shape of a James Bond like chase scene, but it’s actually done well.
Still, as brilliant as Ratatouille is, and it is brilliant, it is not perfect either. It suffers from the usual American film syndrome: everything is always either black or white; there’s no gray in between. One second the rat and the boy are best friends, the next they hate one another, and the second next they’re back again. And so on, and so on. Sure, Ratatouille is a kids’ film, and as such we should expect simplicity and your average regular dose of value preaching, shouldn’t we? Well, I think we shouldn’t. There’s nothing wrong with presenting the gray to kids: it’s real and it’s in there and they should get used to it. It can also be done in a very nice and creative way, which I’m sure the Pixar talents could formulate if they put their minds to it. Besides, I’m not a kid and I watch the film; do I not deserve quality?
Best scene: The rat and the boy open up to one another for the first time. The scene is shot both from the rat’s point of view and from a person’s point of view, which is very original and works very well. It’s both touching and funny.
Picture quality: Faultless. I don’t think one can expect more of the DVD format.
Sound quality: Wow! Incredible use of the surrounds to create an experience where the viewer feels right in the thick of things. This is the reference all films should follow!
Also worth mentioning is Lifted - the short clip that accompanies the main film on the DVD, to the best of Pixar’s tradition. It’s directed by Gary Rydstrom, probably the best sound designer to ever walk the face of the earth. And it shows.
Overall: If there ever was a DVD that is worth purchasing, Ratatouille is the one with production values that are second to none. Me, my movie collecting days are over; I just enjoy watching as many films as I can, and Ratatouille is all so very enjoyable indeed.
4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

DVD: Zodiac

Lowdown: The story of how a Dirty Harry story goes on in real life.
Review:
Back in 1995 Bryan Singer and David Fincher have both directed landmark films: Singer did The Usual Suspects, Fincher did Se7en. These films were so good that I kept on tracking their directors' subsequent work: Singer, on one hand, went down big time, generating poor films such as the X-Men series. While Fincher was never able to climb to the peaks of Se7en again, he did do a fair enough job with The Game, Fight Club, and Panic Room; say what you will about them, they are all fairly original. And so is Zodiac.
Zodiac is supposed to be based on a true story, which is something this reviewer is not able to fully confirm other than state that I do have some corresponding childhood memories consisting of hearing about the famous Zodiac killer. According to the film, back in the early seventies there was this serial killer in the San Francisco area that killed people for no particular reason and was thus elusive to catch; the story follows a group of people tracking him and trying to get him, specifically a newspaper cartoonist that ended up writing a book on Zodiac (Jake Gyllenhaal), a crime newspaper reporter (Robert Downey Jr.), and the police detective hunting the Zodiac (Mark Ruffalo, who provides the most impressive performance in the film).
The plot of Zodiac moves on the same way most crime films work. There's a murder, there are clues, and the good guys get closer and closer to the killer. There is a key difference, though: as the film progresses you notice more and more that the film is not about catching the Zodiac killer at all; the film is actually the tale of the frustration that hits the main characters again and again as they fail to catch the criminal and as they go on living their lives despite the frustration over a period of many years. Some of them actually don't cope, others do, and others end up somewhere in the middle; the point is, Zodiac seems to be discussing a criminal investigation, but it's actually a gripping tale about human nature. The trick is that we the viewers have been so well conditioned through crime films that we don't realize this is the case until quite late in the film, which is exactly why I think so highly of Fincher (and also why I am looking forward to his upcoming Rendezvous with Rama).
Zodiac earns lots of points on the way through its interesting direction work and cinematography. Shots that should have been mundane and boring, like a car passing by, are made to look interesting and original. Sometimes it gets over the top and attracts too much attention to itself, but overall it gives the aroma of freshness and originality.
Best scene: All the heroes sit together at the cinema and watch Dirty Harry. I never realized that Dirty Harry is so heavily based on a real case: the baddie there calls himself Scorpio, the plot takes place in San Francisco, and the killer's escapades are pretty similar too. The main difference is that in Dirty Harry you have Dirty Harry who has his own way of addressing crime, while real life is [thankfully] significantly different.
Picture quality: There's a lot of noise and the picture has this outdated look, but it's obviously by design. Everything is made to look like old seventies stuff.
Sound quality: There is full use of the 5.1 palette to create an atmosphere of insecurity, mainly through the sounds of the big city. That's quite good, but more oomph wouldn't have hurt at all.
Overall: It all depends on how you deal with the unexpected. Me, I liked it 3.5 out of 5 stars much.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

DVD: Curse of the Golden Flower

Lowdown: Masters and Servants, the Chinese version (cleavage included).
Review:
The Chinese director Yimou Zhang might have done plenty of films, but as far as I and most of the people relevant to me are concerned he was known for only two of them: Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Both became household names because of their stunning visuals, with both probably being the nicest films ever on the eyes as far as colors and looks are concerned. Colors were so pivotal in his films and you will certainly note that the word “color” is often repeated in this review.
Now the same dude is back with the similarly colorful Curse of the Golden Flower, yet he’s armed with a catch: unlike its predecessors, Curse is mostly a drama and not an action film.
Set in China some thousand years ago, the story takes place almost entirely inside the emperor’s castle. And what a mighty castle it is, huge, lavish and colorful, filled with everything one can imagine. To quote from Aladdin, this castle has servants to help the servants’ servants. All the servants are there to serve the royal family, which consists of father and mother emperor as well as their three princes.
There is a lot going on with the royal family. As the film starts we learn that the empress is being forced to drink her medicine on a regular basis. Quickly enough we, as well as the empress, learn that she is being poisoned through those medicines, and that it is the emperor who is behind it. This exposes us to a set of political intrigues, magnified exponentially as we learn about the various intrigues taking place with the three sons. All want their own way, all fight for power for one motive or another, and as the film progresses you realize that with all the spectacular-ness of the castle there is something very rotten in the kingdom of China portrayed through the film.
After a while that is too long a while in my taste (I started getting bored) the film reaches a point where disputes are being solved by force. This sets a collection of action scenes that are on the very spectacular side, including some colorful army fighting scenes that have all the good things Chinese martial arts films can muster. Those scenes compensate to one extent or another for the previous boredom, and eventually we have ourselves a very Shakespearean affair on our hands, albeit a very colorful one.
While most of the actors were unfamiliar to me, Curse does have Chow Yun Fat doing a passable job as the emperor and Gong Li doing an impressive job as the empress. She carries the film as the lead character quite impressively with the aid of one mighty cleavage. Now, I don’t know if you’ve seen photos from the film or if you’ve seen the film itself, but the one thing that you will take with you from the film other than the colorfulness is the cleavages. Speaking for myself, I never associated Chinese films with breasts; Curse of the Golden Flower exposes the viewer to new horizons there, even if it never delivers any nudity.
With the cleavages out of the way, I have to say the thing that annoyed me the most with Curse of the Golden Flower were the subtitles. The DVD’s subtitles were integrated to the film (that is, you couldn’t cancel them through the remote or choose another language). On its own that’s not bad, unless you speak Chinese and want to get rid of them. The problem was that the subtitles were only displayed when the characters were actually speaking, getting themselves removed the second the speaking is over; which usually meant that I couldn’t finish reading them on time and had to fumble for the remote to rewind or annoy my partner with “what did he just say, what did he just say” questions. There is really no excuse for that; anyone reading the subtitles could have realized they’re not there long enough. Things get particularly stupid when someone says a word in Chinese that translates into an entire paragraph of English, which (laughs aside) does happen more often than not in Curse and leaves you cursing.
Best scene: The drama is well built and the acting is good, but the gigantic army vs. army scenes are simply spectacular. You will know what I’m talking about when you watch the battle scenes in the castle’s court.
Picture quality: As expected, everything is, well, colorful. But it’s not just that: the colors are very well rendered in the DVD, with distinct hues for different moods and settings. There is some noise that spoils the party, but overall the DVD is well colored and rich in detail.
Sound quality: How can I best put it? I find it hard to remember the last time I heard a film as good as Curse of the Golden Flower. The magic word is dynamic range: there are scenes that are quiet and subtle, and they are contrasted with extremely bombastic scenes. All the while imaging is articulate and the level of detail is high. This “Made in China” film sure shows a thing or two to most American productions when it comes to production values!
Overall: Often exciting, very nice to the eye, but still – not the most interesting film ever. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Flying Daggers is still the best of this lot.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

DVD: Blade Runner - The Final Cut

Lowdown: The best got technically better.
Overview (as opposed to a review):
While I make no secret of the problems I have with rating "the best films ever", or anything that is "best" for that matter, I also make no secret of the fact that when called upon to name my nomination for best film ever my quick off the sleeve answer is Blade Runner. I add disclaimers, such as "best does not necessarily mean favorite", but I still answer Blade Runner. For the record, I am not alone in naming Blade Runner the best: a recent Australian survey by ABC came up with Blade Runner being the best film in most Australian minds (at least those that watch the ABC who bothered taking part in the survey, which is significantly different to the average Australia). In fact, I represent the very average Aussie according to the ABC: Their survey for best album ever came up with my vote too, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon; and their survey for best book ever came up with a book that for most of my reading life I would have voted the best book ever, namely The Lord of the Rings.
Thus when director Ridley Scott has released his Final Cut of the film to celebrate its 25th birthday I just had to watch it to see whether it has, indeed, improved an already thoroughbred of a film.
In order to understand my affection to Blade Runner one needs to go back to a short history lesson. Going back to 6th grade, if I'm not mistaken, I missed out on the film's initial tour at the cinemas. Then I heard it's playing at this boutique cinema near where I ended up going for high school, so I dragged my regular movie partner at the time - my uncle - to come and see it. He brought my aunt with him; she mostly came because by then his health was poor, and indeed Blade Runner was amongst the last films we saw together at the cinema after years of watching at least one film a week.
Despite the cinema conditions which, by my current standards, I would label as "absolute crap", I really liked Blade Runner. By the time Roy Batty was chasing Harrison Ford I was scared shitless but in a positive way: I was totally immersed in the film. When it was over I had one of the biggest "wows" ever to say how much I liked the film. Indeed, in a 6th grade school project about me and my roots I wrote that Harrison Ford is my favorite actor and I named Blade Runner as the main reason for this choice; not Star Wars or Indiana Jones, but Blade Runner. That school project got me into trouble, by the way: I wrote there that I don't think school has contributed in any way to the way I think or to my values and that school just stuffs mostly redundant information into my head and then tests me on it; my teacher, Aliza, took me out of a class to discuss this observation and try to talk some sense into me, which is quite unprecedented for 6th grade. Anyway, she failed.
Back to Blade Runner, I only saw the cinematic version three more times off the air. Most of the times I have seen I was actually viewing the Director's Cut, released in the mid nineties: I saw that one around twenty times, mostly on laserdisc. The Director's Cut dispensed with the cinematic version's narration and putsi-mutsi happy ending and added the unicorn scene instead, thus creating a significantly more thought provoking film. There is no doubt in my mind that the Director's Cut is way better than the cinematic version, although to be frank I have no idea whether I would have managed to comprehend it to the level I actually had if it wasn't for the previous experience with the cinematic version's narration. In my next incarnation I'll try and watch the Director's Cut first and then the cinematic version and see what I think (check this blog for updates!).
The main problem with the Director's Cut laserdisc and DVD was their quality. The picture was very noisy and lacking in detail and the sound was poorly mixed. The worst thing about the laserdisc was that it seemed to have been mastered by an idiot: in the scene where Ford shoots the striptease dancer, you see him shoot, then the laserdisc side ends; when you flip it over to watch the next side and click play the first thing you see is the dancer getting hit by the previously shot bullet and falling down. A worst cut-over timing could not have been chosen!
So far for the history lesson. Now, where does the new Final Cut fit in all of this? Well, as a self proclaimed expert in Blade Runner (having seen it so many times I have to be), I can tell you that the differences between the Final Cut version and the Director's Cut version are very slight. Essentially, it's the same thing, unicorn included; contents wise, the differences are in a few extended scenes that really add nothing to the film's experience. For example, in the scene where Batty kills Tyrell, the murder itself is shown for a few gruesome seconds longer, and then we see more of Batty chasing J. F. Sebastian in order to kill him, too (but we don't see that murder). That's it, really.
Picture quality: Vastly improved over the Director's Cut. There are shreds of analog noise from the original stock footage, but not more than you'd expect. Detail, however, is high on the agenda, and colors are done properly: for the first time ever I noticed the patterns on Ford's shirts, to name but one difference.
Sound quality: This is where The Final Cut comes into its own. Scott knows how to make good sounding films, but obviously he didn't know that as well when he originally made Blade Runner (either that or he didn't get a much of a saying then). This time he made things right with an aggressive mix that puts you in the thick of action and does justice to the wonderful views and to the majestic Vangelis soundtrack. True, the dialog and many of the sound effects show their age, but for the first time since the first cinema viewing, Batty chasing Ford took my breath away with tension.
Overall: Contents wise, if you've seen the Director's Cut you can say that you've seen The Final Cut. Technically, however, the presentation in the new version is very significantly better. It's the same, but it's better.
Rating wise, the Director's Cut was always a 6 out of 5 stars film; now it has a presentation to match.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

DVD: The Good German

Lowdown: Take 2 on forties’ films.
Picture quality: In a very unorthodox way, The Good German sports a black and white picture and an old fashioned 4:3 aspect ratio. The picture is of a very high contrast, making any discussion on picture quality rather moot.
Even special effects are made to appear particularly bad, so that when you see the characters driving in a car you know that they’re really sitting in a studio and it’s just a film behind them that shows the passing scenery.
Review:
It’s fairly unorthodox of me to start a review with a technical discussion about the film’s picture quality, but that attitude is entirely justified in the case of The Good German. From start to finish, the film is a tribute to the black & white films of yonder, most notably Casablanca, with special emphasis on film noir. The Good German is a modern film that goes out of its way to appear like a film from the past; it even deals with matters from the same period it tries to mimic.
The plot takes place in Berlin soon after the Germans were beaten but before the Japanese surrendered. George Clooney is an army reporter arriving to cover a meeting between the leaders of the UK, USA and USSR in which the spoils of the war would be allocated. The army assigns Tobey Maguire to be his designated driver, and quickly enough we learn that Tobey is a corrupt person who wants to make quick money out of the war at the expense of the German population’s misery, represented by his prostitute girlfriend Cate Blanchett (who does an excellent job in her role, as usual). This, however, is just the very beginning, and soon enough everything develops further and further and The Good German becomes film noir with Clooney as the tragic hero. He finds himself surrounded by human filth and state run filth: Everything is someone’s plot to advance their own personal aims, and nothing is sacred in order to achieve that: even the prosecutors who set out to identify the nasty Nazis are polluted. There is no idealism left in the world.
The true evil is at the state level, though, and in the fight between the USA and the USSR for world domination everything is kosher. The two are trying to make the most out of the evil committed by the Germans as they go about convincing themselves that atrocities are not too bad when they’re committed in the name of good. I suspect director Steven Soderbergh of Ocean series fame is trying to make a statement there about what the USA is currently doing to the world with its self declared war of good on evil, but ultimately this entire point takes second fiddle to the film’s overly dominative style.
Memorable scene: A scene made to look and feel exactly like one of the more famous scenes from Casablanca, with a few slight (yet important) differences. More details would spoil it for you, but the climatic similarities between the two films must have been at the forefront of The Good German makers’ minds.
Sound quality: As can be expected after reading the rest of the review, normal sound doesn’t play much of a role in this film. What does play a role is the music, which sounds bombastic and dramatic, the way it did back then in those old newsreels.
Overall: I don't care much for the style, but I’m a sucker for good film noir and The Good German definitely rocks in that department. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

DVD: The History Boys

Lowdown: A group of high school graduates make a special effort to get into prestigious universities.
Review:
History Boys’ main contribution to my film watching experience is in demonstrating the differences between expectations and actuals. I looked forward to watching this film, described as a comedy about some smart kids from middle of nowhere England that make a special studying effort in order to get to either Oxford or Cambridge some time during the middle of the eighties. In order to help make their quest successful, they were arranged to have a new hotshot teacher to replace their existing one, and the friction resulting from this change was suppose to supply fuel for the movie to run on.
That was the expectation. The reality, however, was significantly different. True, the plotline is very much as described above, but the execution is anything but. Instead of being a drama following the rigorous efforts the kids have to make in order to combat the insurmountable odds facing a child from an average background in an average school that wants to get high up the status chain, History Boys is a collection of scenes pitting the students against themselves or against an adult and having the students talk Smarty. By Smarty I don’t mean chocolate beans, I mean talking in pompous English while quoting from all sorts of supposedly famous literature sources but without making much sense; that is, the main purpose of the talk is to demonstrate how smart the talker is rather than to convey a specific message, and this is achieved by using such sophisticated a language that the listener stands no chance comprehending it (probably because the process of making the language sophisticated meant most of the contents had to be sacrificed).
That is pretty much all there is to the film. Sure, there is some tension between characters, students and teachers, most of it revolving around the children’s evolving sexuality. And there is some slight discussion about studying for the purpose of enlightenment rather than studying for the purpose of passing a test. There is also a passing remark about the futility of going to Oxbridge when eventually the graduate just ends up being yet another lawyer or something similar instead of being someone with an impact, like, say, a teacher. History Boys does have all those things, but they’ve all drowned in a sea of bullshit.
If anything, History Boys feels like it needs to be a play rather than a film. Who knows, maybe it is? Although I wouldn’t want to see it, a play would provide better grounds for people to just talk bullshit without really doing much, if only because in the theater you don’t expect much more than dialog.
I am also unable to figure out what it was that History Boys gained or was trying to gain by having it take place during the eighties. Unless there was something uniquely British about English public schools during the eighties, the film could have worked just as well (or rather, just as bad) in any other time period.
Worst scenes: Any scene in which any character starts quoting some famous poemist, which qualifies most of the film for the title.
Picture quality: Pretty bad with analog noise by the ton and missing picture detail. I have seen better on VHS.
Sound quality: Mostly mono through the center channel.
Overall: Tedious and boring, 1 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 January 2008

Film: Kinsey

Lowdown: A scientist reveals controversial truth and pays the price for doing so.
Review:
At ground level, Kinsey the film should have bored me to death. It’s the story of a scientist conducting his research, and what could be interesting about that? Well, it turns out the answer is “a lot”. As weird as it may sound, I found myself identifying with Kinsey, the film’s hero, at a significantly higher level of identification than I am used to.
Surprisingly enough, the film Kinsey tells the story of a guy called Kinsey (Liam Neeson). Kinsey the guy is famous for researching and publishing books about the sexual habits of the American male [homo sapiens] and the American female [homo sapiens], which is indeed the subject matter of the film. However, I really do not know how loyal Kinsey the film is to what actually took place, most of which in the fifties, all of which in the USA.
We start by learning that Kinsey is the son of an oppressive priest that became a biologist despite his father’s wishes. Like Richard Dawkins after him, through biology Kinsey has found that many of the conventions and assumptions we lead our life by, most of which have originated through various religious interpretations, are quite false.
When Kinsey gets married and encounters physical problems performing sexual acts with his wife. He is shocked to find that he cannot get much help because society knows hardly a thing about the sexual habits of humans: no one has ever bothered to research it since the subject is a taboo. Kinsey moves to take matters into his own hands, starting a very successful class handling sexual education based not on religious interpretations of Bronze Age scripts but rather on observations. Using his students as research samples for research on sexual habits, he himself is surprised by his findings; as things roll onwards, Kinsey finds himself conducting federal surveys of male and female sexual habits. He publishes his findings in two famous books, and given the breakthrough level of these findings – essentially that there is a lot going on in American sexual habits that no one has ever dreamt of – he encounters controversy.
Generally speaking, Kinsey the film portrays an image of Kinsey the man that is not too different from the image we all have of other scientists who were prosecuted for telling the truth, like, say, Galileo. There are a few key differences, though. First, while Galileo and most compatriots to the controversial old scientist club measured easily verifiable and quantifiable facts, Kinsey was dealing with material which interpretation could be easily disputed by those that want to dispute them. This matter of hard sciences vs. soft sciences was obviously a big issue for Kinsey that could explain why differences two and three:
(2) The intensity in which Kinsey conducted his research. Kinsey took active part in the research he was performing. Most notably, performing same sex acts mainly (but probably not only) for research purposes, and actively researching specimen that he himself thought of as criminals (e.g., pedophiles). By doing these things Kinsey has made himself not only a researcher but also the subject of his own research, which – given the nature of the research – was quite extreme and quite controversial, even more controversial than the findings themselves. Thus the film raises important ethical question on what is allowed in the name of research and what is not: when a researcher conducting sexual experiments ends up with broken relationships that affect his family and friends, is that OK? I would say no, especially given the sample numbers Kinsey had which meant he wasn’t short on subjects. But would I say that under all circumstances? Or, is a researcher allowed to mess with unethical elements (e.g., pedophilia) in order to go into greater depths? I would agree with Kinsey and say yes to this one, because problems do not disappear if we ignore them; what we should do is maintain our own integrity. You do not become a pedophile by researching one and you don’t encourage others to become pedophiles when you research a pedophile. Still, would I be able to conclude that under all circumstances? I doubt an absolute answer can be found.
As I have said, I found my level of identification with Kinsey to be higher than normal for a film. The reasons seem obvious: Kinsey’s views were similar to mine, notably that we humans are animals that have evolved to become what we are now but are still heavily influenced by basic animal urges, notably the will to make our genes immortal. In the same way that I have been protesting in my blog against ignorance, and notably against the ignorance caused by religion, Kinsey has been doing the same (albeit way more effectively) through his research and his books. And most notably, Kinsey became unpopular the same way I am risking the wrath of friends and family when I say things which they will consider offensive; sure, Kinsey went much further than I will ever go, but the analogy remains effective. Even at the simplest level, the fact that Kinsey has a lot of similarities with Richard Dawkins whom I greatly admire goes to say a lot.
When all the dust is settled, one basic question remains: Is Kinsey the film a good movie to watch? Well, it is, but it is not perfect. The story is flowing and the acting is superb, especially on Neeson’s part, and even if he reminded me too much of Oscar Schindler too many times. John Lithgow, playing Kinsey’s father, also gives a notable supporting performance.
While the story builds momentum gradually and uses comedy sporadically to relieve viewers of the heavy loads involved with the subject matter, Kinsey is overflowing with that artificial sweetener drug that kills most American films. It gives the impression that it won’t go into the really nasty depths that Kinsey the person went to because it’s too much to bear for your average viewer, and it presents a black and white interpretation of events on the other. The end in particular is rather stupid: It seems as if the moviemakers did not want to leave us with a bitter taste in our mouths so they just settled for a dumb yet symbolic ending in which Kinsey returns to his biological roots for a short while.
Best scene: The scene where Kinsey performs homosexual acts as a part of his research is probably the scene most people will remember, followed by the scene in which he interviews a guy who turns out to be a pedophile. However, the scene I liked the most was when Neeson returns to his father, this time as a researcher, and learns about the sexual circumstances of his father in a very touching scene.
Overall: This is a 4 star film on which I will bestow 4.5 stars out of 5 stars because films doing a good job at glorifying scientists working to promote knowledge are rare.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

DVD: The Bourne Ultimatum

Lowdown: A gripping version of a serious James Bond like adventure.
Review:
I'll start by making it clear: I am no big fan of the Bourne series. I liked the first one even if I thought it was nothing special; the second one made me seasick. Now that we have a third episode, the answer to the question of "what is this third one like" is probably "an extreme version of the second".
Jason Bourne, the ultimate killing machine, continues his ongoing quest to find more about himself. The main difference is that this time we actually end up with an answer, which at least means that episode four will have to explore some alternative themes (either that or it will to come up with something special up its sleeve). As with the previous episodes, we have ourselves an international James Bond like serious action adventure with Bourne being tracked by professional killers as he fights with a CIA that thinks he's out to get them while he's only trying to understand who he is. As already said, the difference is that this time the action is more extreme and more realistic in the sense that it takes place in famous public places and in a manner we can all relate to: a shootout in London's Waterloo station or a gunfight in New York's Port Authority, for example. In the similar James Bond series the locations are there to add an aura of exoticness; here the locations are there to add an aura of authenticity.
Authenticity is highly required for this Bourne adventure, because with its super high-tech aroma (mainly through the facilities available to the CIA) one can easily think something along the lines of "oh, this is such bullshit". Thing is, a lot of it isn't. For example, the film argues that the CIA can tap any phone call it wants and can actually flag those where certain words are said; sounds too bad to be true, but it is true. I doubt it's as easy as the film portrays it to be, though, which leads me to say that despite its hard efforts towards authenticity Bourne Ultimatum is still way up high in the bullshit factor. You get Bourne surviving explosions and falls that would kill or cripple most people most of the time, but you also get some technological bullshit. For example, a CIA manager asks to have the names of all CIA operatives who had their mobile phones shut during a particular time on a particular date, and within less than 5 seconds they have names flickering on the screen in front of them. Obviously, the CIA has a database query tool that works by telepathy, and that's ignoring the feat of having such a database available in the first place!
By far the most annoying thing about Episode 3 is its style. Shot entirely hand held with high zoom levels and fast editing, this is not a film to watch on a big screen without puke bags ready. Personally, I just hate this style; you can't understand what is taking place until the action ends and the camera finally retreats a bit to allow you to figure things out.
Still, when the dust settles I have to say that Bourne Ultimatum is a very gripping film, even if it is quite forgettable. You sit there and you bite your nails and you want to see how he's going to get himself "out of this situation".
There is also some substance to the film: Ultimately, Bourne Ultimatum is about having an open, thinking mind. The baddies in the film are people just like Bourne (read: just like us) who are doing bad things not because they're bad but because someone who is genuinely bad has told them to do so and they fail to question that. The film goes further by putting the CIA as the film's baddies, which works well in the current contexts of CIA abductions and of Abu Ghraib prison guards going off the rails. They, too, failed to question, just like most Nazis before them.
Best scene: There's not much to Bourne Ultimatum other than the action scenes, and in there it's really hard to choose a winner because they're all good. I like those set in an international city, like London, Turin, Tangier, or New York. If forced to choose I'd pick Tangier for being the most exotic and for reminding me of a chase scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
Picture quality: Good, but you don't notice it because you're busy barfing.
Sound quality: Very aggressive, quite good. My six months old was certainly gripped by it.
Overall: It's thrilling but it's annoying, so it scores only 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada

Lowdown: A journey to bury an illegal Mexican back at his home.
Review:
When it starts raining, it pours. I have just recently raved about a good American film, and here comes another one; however, unlike the previous example which was a genuine American film, Three Burials feels more like what I am used to see from “foreign” cinema. Although contents wise Three Burials shares quite a lot with Lone Star, feeling wise it reminded me of Hidden.
It all takes place in a small Texas border town where Mexican illegals are part and parcel of normal everyday existence. Tommy Lee Jones is a nice American that appreciates a good person when he sees one, thus recruiting a lovely Mexican illegal immigrant - Melquiades Estrada - to work with him on a ranch. On the other side of the film we have Barry Pepper (Saving Private Ryan’s sniper), a new border patrol guard who treats the Mexicans he catches like he treats his beautiful wife – the same way we humans treat other animals.
One day, while Pepper takes a Hustler break from his guard duties somewhere in the middle of nowhere, he hears shots. Being caught in the act he fires “back” and finds that he killed a Mexican (guess who?). Being that it was only a Mexican that he killed Pepper hides away from it all, but when Tommy Lee Jones learns what took place he takes his vengeance on Pepper and together they journey Estrada’s body back to his home in Mexico for a proper burial. Most of the film deals with this journey, while the rest is mostly a collection of flashbacks exploring the events before the murder.
Tommy Lee Jones’ cinematic directional debut is a stunning work of cinema. The devil is in the details, and the above plot summary fails to do justice to the various themes at work in this film: the small town atmosphere where everyone knows everybody, the frustrations coming from living in the middle of nowhere, the indifference of the police, the corruption of the government, and the way in which people cheat on one another left and right. The most obvious topic of discussion is the treatment of Mexicans by the Americans who feel themselves superior just because they happened to be born on the right side of the border, but there’s more to it. Pepper portrays that supposedly typical American, and Tommy Lee Jones portrays the better American; however, Lee Jones is far from being perfect as well: he is delusional and he fails to see the cynicism around him. And it is the passive society in between the two contrasts that the film criticizes the most.
Best scene: There are many well created scenes here. My pick would be the one where Lee Jones takes Estrada to a cheaters’ motel with Pepper’s wife so that Estrada can have some fun (and the wife can relieve her small town boredom). Estrada, however, is so shy he doesn’t know what to do with himself in this contrived setup. The embarrassment is finally broken when the wife invites him to dance with her to the tune of the room’s alarm clock.
A lovely scene that’s packed with symbolism: Cheating, the contrasting ways in which Estrada and Pepper handle Pepper’s wife, and the way in which Pepper ends up unknowingly killing the person with whom his wife was cheating on him.
Picture quality: There is some excellent cinematography here that gives the desert border areas a life of their own. Sometimes the picture is distorted with over-saturation and high contrast, but that is obviously intentional. Lucky for us, the DVD does justice to the camera work.
Sound quality: The one thing that annoyed me the most about Three Burials was the lack of subtitles. Between the accents and the low level talking dialog was a real torture to keep up with, and the number of times I had to stop and ask “what did they just say” was stupidly excessively high. Especially as often my partner was just as unable to comprehend the dialog, making rewinds the order of the night.
I guess it’s one of those things that happen with low budget cinema: they cut costs by avoiding DVD subtitles. However, this cannot be the explanation here, since Three Burials is full of extra features on a double DVD set.
It’s just a shame that a film so good is let down by something so stupid.
Overall: Three Burials is one of those films you keep thinking about for days after you watch them. I’ll be harsh and give it only 4 out of 5 stars: you can blame the missing subtitles for ruining the rhythm and the exploration of themes already explored in Lone Star under similar circumstances.

Wednesday, 2 January 2008

DVD: Music and Lyrics

Lowdown: A has-been makes a come-back thanks to a random-encounter.
Review:
When dictionaries want to explain the meaning of the term “type cast”, the example they surely bring up is Hugh Grant. I don’t know how long he has been playing the Commonos Hughestos Grantos type character for, but I have to hand it to him: when he does, he does it well, and even better – it works. Grant has this talent to appear in innocent like films that do not knock you off your seat but are still quite enjoyable, and in Music and Lyrics he repeats the act.
The plot is everything we have seen before. A has-been pop star, modeled after Wham’s rather forgettable drummer who always played second fiddle to George Michael, is about to go down: with all of his talent, the only places where he can still perform his stuff are fairs and such. However, a stupid pop star teenager who is described as more successful than Britney to the power of Christina asks him to compete for writing a song on her next CD with eight other has-beens. Never doubting the need to cooperate with the devil in order to become famous again, Grant seeks the help of a lyricist to help him write his revival song, only that he can’t find any that share his vision for a proper love song.
His problems are overcome when a new florist is coming to take care of his New York apartment’s vegetation. Drew Barrymore pops by for a minute and in a couple of seconds draws a few rhyming one liners that make the basis for a splendid song. Can Grant recruit Barrymore to help him on his noble cause? Can Barrymore fight off the ghosts of her past and come up with good lyrics? Will Grant manage to have a hit while avoiding throwing out all of his and Barrymore’s ideals down the drain? Does anyone have any doubts that this film is going to have the happiest ending possible?
With such a predictable plot it’s hard to pinpoint at why Music and Lyrics works, but it does. I guess some of it is to do with my age and the appeal that a Wham based character would have to a person who grew up in an environment where every girl in his primary school class was in love with George Michael. But there has to be more than that: it’s the combination of witty jokes thrown throughout the film, the comical performances the film is full of, and the adverse sarcasm with which the film is quite full. I mean, the entire premises of the film are based on the good guy using the success of a young teenager pop star who is portrayed as dumb and materialistic and whose success has a lot to do with her pornification; the film thus suggests a theory of “if you can’t beat them join/exploit them” to us viewers tired of seeing whatever it is that constantly goes on in contemporary culture and pop culture in particular. You’re allowed to pretend that you’re an alternative music listening rebel even if you’re really mainstream pop.
Best scene: The film starts by showing us a made up eighties like music video of a song by Grant’s Wham like old band. The song is stupidly catchy, just like the old Wham songs, and the video is more eighties than eighties – it’s stupidly funny.
Picture and sound quality: Ordinary.
Overall: Nothing to expand one horizon’s with, but a solid performer still. 3 out of 5 stars.