Wednesday, 30 July 2008

The Kingdom

Lowdown: Illegal aliens (Americans) are probing the guts of Saudi Arabia.
Review:
The Kingdom is another one of those [relatively rare] films designed to open American eyes to what is taking place around them and in their name, with emphasis on the pursuit to secure the world’s oil reserves. Like others of its genre it makes its claim to fame by pointing the blaming finger back at the American side, to one extent or another; what separates The Kingdom from the others is that it’s up to date with where the situation in the Middle East is (unlike, say, Jarhead).
The Kingdom starts in a very hectic manner. An American compound in Saudi Arabia, that is – an enclosed area for foreigners to live in and where Sharia law is not enforced – is being attacked by terrorists who do their best to hurt as many people as possible. The mayhem kills dozens if not hundreds, but worse – it kills Jamie Foxx’ best FBI friend, and when Jamie Foxxx is mad you don’t want to stand in his way.
Once the initial mayhem relaxes enough to allow us viewers to get into the groove of watching The Kingdom you notice what is, by far, the most annoying thing about The Kingdom (yes, even more annoying than Foxxxx and Jennifer Garner, one of the numerous co-stars): the camerawork. In an attempt to recreate that authentic feeling of being there the camera shakes at unprecedented levels; so much so that it drove me crazy even though I was watching the movie on TV as opposed to the really big screen. I pity those who saw this one at the cinema! More importantly, I fail to understand the logic behind this very artificial way of creating authenticity. Instead of authenticity it managed to create a headache plus a slight sick feeling.
Foxx’ FBI wants to send its people to Saudi Arabia to investigate the attack but they find themselves blocked by politicians who worry more about the oil. Nevertheless, through some cunning of his own, Foxx threatens important Saudis to expose their contributions to terrorism; in turn, they allow him and three of his mates to go forth and investigate the scene.
Initially, Foxx and Co receive a cold reception upon their arrival to Saudi Arabia; they are not allowed to do much. However, American quality and sense of resolve soon prevail as Foxx’ crew demonstrates their superior skills. They make new Saudi friends, kill many a baddie in some fierce street fighting scenes, and give us a glimpse of what the other side looks like while at it.
It’s this glimpse to the other side that is most important with the film, even though it’s subdued to one extent or another in order to emphasize the film’s more commercial qualities (mostly in the action department). By far the most interesting aspect of it is that The Kingdom does not lay all the blame for the terrorism on the terrorists; it is not afraid to delegate as much responsibility for it on American shoulders, including Foxx’.
As can be expected, you also get the crowd pleasing “oh, we’re so superior” scenes, though: the best example is when Garner is not allowed to touch the body of a dead terrorist victim as a part of her investigation because the dead dude’s a Muslim. Americans also seem to be much superior in all the technical stuff, such as investigating terrorists’ attacks and killing people with guns: for a film that works hard on authenticity, The Kingdom fails a bit with the introduction of shooting scenes featuring the famous cinematic infinite capacity magazine and bullet proof Americans (at least when it comes to the action scenes at the end of the film).
The thing that annoyed me the second most about The Kingdom (top honors go to the camera work) was the way the plot progressed. A lot of emphasis was put on how professional the FBI team led by Foxx is, but at the end they only get anywhere because the terrorists take the initiative. Or perhaps I was intended to become annoyed this way?
Best scene: While the film itself offers nothing we haven’t seen before, the opening credits provide an overview of how the kingdom of Saudi Arabia came to be during the 20th century. Unlike the ordinary film that followed, I found that short history lesson quite interesting.
Overall: It’s interesting but it’s also very compromised and the shaking camera will drive you mad. 3 out of 5 stars; Syriana was way better.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

R-Wards 2

Time flies when you’re having fun and it flies even faster when you’re looking after a baby, but this blog is now celebrating its second birthday and the time has come to summarize another year of reviewing. Without further ado, let us have a look at the year that came and went and reward the crop’s best with the greatly coveted R-Wards awards.
See you next year.

Best Film:
As this past year started I have found myself in the rather awkward position of being a father a good few weeks before I was supposed to become one. Fatherhood, it seemed, brought with it the inability to watch films; pessimism hit me as the potential for severely reducing my film consumption hit me.
Happily enough, things didn’t turn out that way. Some time between six to eight weeks after our angel terrorist’s birth things have stabilized, and we begun watching films like there’s no tomorrow. Literally: With no babysitters at our disposal we could no longer go to the cinema (with one unique exception), so DVD’s were the order of the day. Luckily for us, DVD’s were never more accessible and never cheaper: renting three DVD’s costs us $4 to $5, allowing us to drown in source material to waste our time on. On its part, the internet has allowed us to access films that have so far eluded our reach.
The future, it seems, has many DVD’s ahead for us still. Blu-ray and its high definition counterparts would probably have to wait longer than the upcoming year for me to take them in; in my opinion, the technology has not matured enough to offer consumers a usable product that would last. Usability has certainly been made to suffer there in the name of copy protection! In my humble opinion, the future is with downloads and solid state storage, not even more sensitive optical discs. Anyhow, an upscaled DVD picture, although definitely inferior, can definitely give Blu-ray a run for its money; it’s in the sound department that the hi definition formats win through their potential for uncompressed sound.
Then again, with a baby in the house we have been forced to severely subdued listening levels, which have quite an impact on my overall satisfaction with films. That, as well as the all too frequently ill baby, mean that reviewing quantities are expected to be lower next year.
Our baby also has an effect on the choice films we get to watch. Having a baby means that I do not have as much time learning about new films, and the result is that during the past year we tended to watch the big name sequels rather than the quality stuff that tends to shy from the limelights. The result is that looking back, I find it hard to recall the names of films I have watched for the first time during the past year that truly knocked me off my feet. The names that do come up are Ratatouille, Stranger than Fiction, Eastern Promises, and the surprising The Band’s Visit.
However, this year’s R-Ward for best film has to go to Stardust. I like fantasy and science fiction, and Stardust is pure fantasy done right: thoughtful, imaginative and full of character. Looking back at last year’s R-Ward, Children of Men, enhances the point: I’m a sucker for good science fiction / fantasy. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if next year’s winner follow this trend, too.

Best book:
Despite its very rewarding nature, reading seems to be the first casualty when spare time is sparse. Thus, in my first year of parenthood, I managed finishing only ten dismal books.
In my defense I will say that I have also been reading three other books which I am yet to finish and I’m working on finishing, and that some of the books I have been reading this year are amongst the longest I have ever read (including a book that is undoubtedly the longest).
My reading preferences are the same as they have been, science fiction on the fiction side and popular science on the non fiction side. Between the two, my personal preference is for popular science, as evident by their higher average ratings. When it's well written, popular science offers me more bang for the buck when it comes to taking stuff out of the reading experience.
It is therefore no surprise that this year’s R-Ward for best book goes to The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins. Unlike last year, where two books I have encountered were considered to be true masterpieces and the choice between the two was hard, Ancestor’s Tale doesn’t go that high. It is, however, a book that has taught me more than any other book I can think of. It is a book I keep constantly referring to in thought. It is, in short, one mighty reference.
Interestingly enough for a book that recounts the evolution of life from us to its beginning, less than two years ago I have stated in this blog that evolution doesn’t interest me much. Well, since then a lot has happened, and through the reading of just a few books by Dawkins and Sagan my perception has changed quite significantly. If my choice of best films can be predicted through genre, then it seems obvious that my choice of books can be predicted through author, namely Richard Dawkins. The guy really has the ability to write marvelous and simple explanations of his accounts. I wouldn't put money against Dawkins getting his third R-Ward next year.

Best on TV:
This year we have watched plenty of TV material. When you don't have much time to watch a feature length film, TV programs are much more suitable and flexible. Let's be frank: most TV stuff does not require much gray cell effort to digest, either. Interestingly, though, hardly any of our TV watching was done off the air; the days in which someone determined our schedule according to some arbitrary money making algorithm seem to have gone by, reserved only for major football games.
Of the TV programs we have been watching, I think it would be safe for me to say that Family Guy was the most reliably entertaining series with some episodes being true knock outs (e.g., Blue Harvest).
However, being that this is awards night, the R-Ward for best TV goes to the most surprising and innovative program I have seen on TV this year. And that one was Alain de Botton's The Perfect Home, his follow-up TV documentary to his book The Architecture of Happiness. I have found the book disappointing but the documentary anything but; I never imagined myself being as intrigued as I was out of a program dealing with real estate.

Lifetime Achievement R-Ward:
One guy that seems to have created quite a collection of travel adventure chronicles which never fail to entertain and to show us the world as it is/was is Michael Palin. Just like deBotton showed me how to properly deal with real estate, Palin repeatedly demonstrates how to do travel documentaries that really make you feel like you've been there.
Between Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole, Sahara, Himalaya, and New Europe, the guy is quite prolific but not at the sacrifice of quality.
I found Around the World in 80 Days, Palin first travel effort, to be the most interesting of the lot. Shot towards the end of the eighties, it captures a world gone by but a world in which I grew up in. His glimpse on Chinese rush hour, featuring hordes of bikes virtually stampeding once another while Palin begs us to imagine what the world would be like if all these people had cars instead, is one of TV's most prophetic moments ever.
So the R-Ward goes very deservedly to Michael Palin. And I didn't even mention that he's the lumberjack.

Monday, 28 July 2008

Run Fatboy Run

Lowdown: A guy that dumped his pregnant fiancé on the aisle tries to win her back by running a marathon.
Review:
I really don’t need to go over my admiration to the works of Simon Pegg again; I have done so already while reviewing Hot Fuzz. Granted, Pegg did some overly eccentric stuff in his time, but he more than compensated for it with the stuff he did since Spaced. You may as well argue, then, that I was looking forward to Pegg’s latest appearance in Run Fatboy Run (RFR), a comedy set in Pegg’s native London.
As is usually the case with high expectations, RFR failed to go to Pegg’s previous heights. As the unoriginal naming technique that tries to cop a feel off Run Lolla Run suggests, RFR is severely lacking in the originality department. Worst, it suffers from a severe excess of cheesiness that comes as a result of making a seemingly British film by Americans and for Americans. Interestingly, this might be explained by the choice of directors: RFR was directed by Friends’ David Schwimmer. At least we know where the kitsch came from.
RFR starts with wedding celebrations as Pegg is about to marry a very pregnant Thandie Newton (Mission Impossible II’s lead chick), only that Pegg is too afraid to take the commitment; he leaves Newton and their guests behind and just runs away.
Fast forward a few years into the future, and now Pegg sports a slightly different hairstyle (so that you can tell the passage of time; in my own personal case, you can tell it by the loss of hair rather than the change of styles). Pegg is now working as a rather lacklustre security guy in this fashion shop, lacklustre because he’s fat (or rather, fattish by contemporary scale) and unfit enough not to be able to run after transvestite robbers stealing women’s underwear from his shop and running away on high heels. Indeed, that is the type of humor you should expect of RFR: unoriginal slapstick that takes the sexual innuendo aspect and pushes it for that unavoidable laugh that is also far from being the greatest laugh ever.
Pegg managed to successfully avoid the wedding but it is clear he’s still hurting the loss of Newton. He learns she is now seeing Hank Azaria, who seems to have been typecast for the same role he so successfully performed in Along Came Polly (but cannot manage the same comic performance): the comedian that comes in between the two lovers. Azaria even has a very similar joke to the one he ran in Polly, featuring him naked with certain bits of his body in close proximity to Pegg’s face.
At first, Azaria seems to be perfection incarnate, the best thing that could happen to Newton: An American with a successful career, a high income, and a liking to running marathons for charity. In order to compete, the desperate Pegg books himself to the Marathon of London (heavily slogganned in the film with Nike ads) with just three weeks to prepare himself to the impossible; the closer he gets to his target the more of the real Azaria we see, until everything untangles in a marathon of a final.
If the predictability, cheesiness and the humor weren’t bad enough, RFR also suffers from a bit of a credibility problem. In general, RFR is a story on how we must take commitments and assume responsibilities in our lives if we want to achieve anything. Granted, that's a fine and dandy message. The execution is bad, though: the characters, especially Pegg’s, are so stupid you can’t really identify with them. RFR fails to carry you emotionally, and thus it has to settle with being a vehicle for second grade jokes only.
Representative scenes:
1. Pegg’s best friend chats people walking the street from the height of his balcony, where these people can’t notice he’s undressed from the waist down.
2. Pegg talks to his landlord, an older Indian guy with an extra long name who reminisces his long gone wife and the fucks they’ve had together (I’m only quoting the language used by the film).
That’s the type of humor you should be expecting out of RFR. It’s up to you to decide whether it appeals to you.
Overall: Way below expectations but still manages to raise the occasional laugh. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

Very Special Relativity by Sander Bais

Lowdown: Einstein's theory explained through graphs.
Review:
Einstein's special theory of relativity is one of science's few achievements that everyone knows about, enough so that some brilliant person (albeit a probably significantly less brilliant than Einstein himself) came up with a brand name for baby toys - Baby Einstein. Anyway, cynicism aside, we've all heard of relativity, and most of us can quote the famous E=mc^2 formula. However, do we really understand what relativity is about, and for that matter, do most of us know what this formula actually means other than it being a brand name?
Speaking for myself, I am unable to say I understand relativity to a satisfactory level that would allow me to confidently discuss it with others. I was curious about relativity for most of my life, so when I heard of this new book by Sander Bais - an Amsterdam based physicist - called Very Special Relativity, I became curious. The thing about this book is that it's not just another lengthy textbook to bore the hell out of you while pretending to provide laymen relativity explanations; no, VSR is a thin booklet (albeit a thin hardcover booklet of 120 pages or so) that steps its reader through the various issues raised by the theory of relativity. Each of these issues is accompanied by a graph through which the reader is meant to be able to acquire instinctive apprehension of the subject matter. I guess you can argue that the strategy utilized by VSR is that of the "a picture is better than words" type.
Are the graphs and their accompanying text that easy to comprehend? Well, as Bais himself states early on, you do need to have some basic understanding in physics to start with (things along the line of x=vt); and in order to understand the graphs you need intermediate high school trigonometry. I know, trigonometry sounds scary, but nowadays I find it not half as bad as it seemed like during high school. Then again, nowadays I'm an engineer, so if high school trigonometry was to knock me off my feet something would have been really wrong. I guess the point I'm trying to make is that VSR should be approachable to most people, but not necessarily a trivial read.
Okay, we've gone through the prerequisites; can I say that now, after reading VSR, I understand Einstein's special theory of relativity?
Well, yes and no. First, a disclaimer: the book covers Einstein's special theory of relativity but only touches the edges of Einstein's general theory of relativity. Yes, there is a difference: it's the second one that deals with curved universes and such. Still, the first one is enough for you to build an atomic or a hydrogen bomb with, so one cannot complain.
The key message of this review, though, is that while I think I can safely say my understanding of Einstein's special theory of relativity has greatly improved, I still cannot say that I understand it enough to confidently discuss it with others. I seem to have lost the plot around page 80, when momentum issues started their involvement, which is not too bad when you think about it - it's 2/3 of the way. I understood the key messages following that point, but I cannot say I understood them well enough to now be able to develop them by myself. I suspect a lot of my problems were to do with my inability to read the book without significant breaks, which meant I forgot just enough in between sessions to allow me to drift away.
Talking about key messages, it's important for me to explain the book's approach: it does not explain how Einstein got to his conclusions; it merely explains what his conclusions are. It's like Inconvenient Truth telling you the weather is changing without covering the scientific research saying why and how it's changing. Is that bad? I say it isn't, because the book never tries to pretend it's more than a beginners guide.
Overall: VSR is not the world's greatest piece of literature ever, but it is a good attempt at explaining something quite unintuitive to the big masses out there. I will rate the book at 3.5 out of 5 stars.
In conclusion, I think it would be safe for me to say that Very Special Relativity would be at its best form as a series of interactive web pages featuring graphs that develop as you move along, thus allowing you to have an easier time following things up.

Monday, 21 July 2008

War and Peace

Lowdown: From Russia with love.
Review:
Last Saturday we've had ourselves a special treat. We watched a film live off TV! The film was off ABC2, which meant there were no ad breaks. That really made it feel like those days of yonder when watching a film off Israel's only TV channel was the only way to watch a film past its cinematic release. This experience could only be rivaled by watching a new episode of Dallas! Anyway, the film we got to watch is not your average ordinary film: it was the 1956 rendition of Tolstoy's War and Peace, a three and a half hour long film. How can I put it? It was really strange to have to rush to the toilet in fear of missing out on key scenes. At least we didn't get any baby or phone interruptions.
W&P is set in early eighteen hundreds Russia as Napoleon was invading. It follows the lives of a bunch of Russian aristocrats led by Audrey Hepburn and Henry Fonda, and it puts me in a strange position where I need to explain how come a film so long has not that much of a plot. Well, it does, but its slow development and the lengthy length of individual scenes mean that I can't tell that much without spoiling it. Fonda is the illegitimate son of a major aristocrat who acquires recognition as his father dies and then marries an attractive woman just because he must have her but not because he loves her, which gets him in trouble. Hepburn, on her part, falls in love with a prince who got injured fighting Napoleon and whose life was saved by Napoleon himself but whose father thinks too lowly of Hepburn's family; their marriage is delayed with inevitable consequences. In the background, Napoleon advances through Russia and all is not the way it was before.
Three and a half hours into the film I realized W&P is just one long romantic story with the usual twists and tricks of the genre but with major bonuses: for a start, it's two hours longer than your average film romance. And second, it features some lavish settings and some war scenes that wouldn't shame today's CGI boosted crop. In fact, the war scenes do shame today's crop, because they show just how annoying CGI is and how good looking movies can be when they done for real. Or for realer, at least.
Now I wouldn't go and analyze what it is that Tolstoy is trying to tell us through this epic. I suffer from a well developed phobia of major Russian novels, spawned by having to read Crime and Punishment during high school. Despite repeated attempts I couldn't make it through this boring torture and ended up reading the short summary instead. I even read a book devoted to Crime and Punishment questions and answers in preparation for my high school tests, and I have to hand it to the summary and those Q&A sessions - my final literature score was quite high.
Back to Tolstoy, what I will say is that despite the movie's length I never felt bored and never wanted the film to let go: it was a pleasant watch and a well made period film that felt quite authentic even though it was clearly robbed of some of the period's rough edges. To explain by example: in a film this long and this thorough, you'd expect to see someone going to the toilet.
Memorable scene: Hepburn and her prince think of one another. Yes, they think out loud. Each of them is on her/his own, staring at the camera without moving and with nothing else taking place, and you hear their thoughts. I don't recall films portraying thoughts this way before; I guess it's a method that would be too demanding on today crowd's patience.
Overall: It doesn't really go anywhere but it goes well. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

Lowdown: A person and a myth face off.
Review:
By all accounts, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a strange film. Check out the film's title, for a start: It's so atypically lengthy! Continue with the name telling you what is going to happen in the film but then the film itself taking most of its two and a half hours to get there while taking its time establishing where it's heading in the first place. And what's with starting the movie without telling you what the name of the movie you're watching is until it's very end? It's rare to see a film so in love with fatalism.
The film's lead is Brad Pitt playing Jesse James, a train robber from the late 19th century USA who has a myth associated with him. This myth allows him to to avoid the law at will, mingle with the unsuspecting general population at will, and attracting much in the way of fandom. Despite being obviously psychotic and quite evil, JJ is loved by the general population that treats him like a Robin Hood. On the other side of the film we have Robert Ford (Casey Affleck), a young wanna be guy who is impressed by JJ's myth and does his best to come close to the person. When he does, by joining the Jessie James gang and taking part in its notorious escapades, he gets exposed to the real person. Can he become a man and overthrow the myth?
In between the two leads we have a large collection of fellow gang criminals. At first they take part in the robberies, then they see things from the other side as James hunts them down in bouts of psycho killer sessions while choosing some as partners for seemingly no particular reason. It's all quite weird, and while you can understand Robert Ford you can't really understand Jessie James, which detracts from the film's appeal; I guess psychos always make for intriguing subjects, but their lack of predictability means it's just that far you can get with them in a film.
Eventually - this is a rather slow film - Ford finds that people don't like their myths to be destroyed no matter how unfounded they are. It can be argued that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is therefore a film about religion, but its main point is not the message itself but the way it's being delivered through the meticulous studying of characters and the interactions between them.
Now, I have stated already that The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is weird, and there's more to its weirdness than its name. There's the acting, for example: I think Brad Pitt is a good actor, but by now I can't stand him doing his typecast psycho role; Casey Affleck is even more annoying, and Sam Rockwell (playing Ford's brother) is an actor that always gets on my nerves.
The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is quite a hard to follow film. In an effort to convey that authentic 19th century wild west feeling, dialog is in that famous authentic lingo we're all familiar with (not). Even with the subtitles on I've had trouble figuring out what's going on. Add the large number of characters, all with similar names (half of them seem to be called Ed) and often with similar looks, and you get the feeling the director is trying to trick us on purpose.
Best scene: Ford reenacts the killing of Jessie James on stage to an interesting crowd reaction.
Picture quality
: Although there is some inconsistency with colors, this DVD does great homage to Roger Deakins' cinematography.
Sound quality: The emphasis on realism means this is a rather dull sounding film overall.
Overall: You got it - this one is a weird one to call. It has quality cinema features in the way it conveys its story and its messages, but it's also weird and annoying. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Clue

Lowdown: The board game’s movie version.
Review:
Isn’t if funny to realize the movie studios were desperate for ideas for a while now, desperate enough to base a film on a board game way back in 1985? Yes, Clue is based on the famous board game that is even more famous in Australia as Cluedo (probably because of some stupid copyright issue). As its premises might hint, Clue is a very silly film; not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Clue takes place in a secluded New England mansion during the fifties. A group of rather peculiar personalities is invited one stormy night to the mansion. They’re not allowed to identify themselves by their real names, so instead they’re allocated with the board game’s famous names (Col Mustard, Mrs Peacock, etc). Quickly enough we learn that all the invitees have something in common: they’re all being blackmailed by their host for the evening; the evening’s purpose then becomes exposing the blackmailer to the police, only that quickly enough the blackmailer is found dead. From then on the rest of the film is a quest to identify the killer as the various characters roam around the mansion making fools of themselves.
The most important thing to note about Clue as a murder mystery is that it is far from the Agatha Christie type thing. That is, this is not another case of a film where the clues where right there in front of us all the time and it takes a Poirot genius to connect the dots. Instead, Clue is just a roller coaster of characters making fools of themselves and a collection of rather silly jokes, at the end of which anyone and everyone can be your killer. Indeed, that is exactly the case in Clue, as in a flash of brilliance the film offers three consecutive alternate endings, all of which similarly plausible.
So is there a drama in the air? Well, personally, the biggest drama Clue has supplied me was the realization, upon reading the closing credits, that the Miss Scarlet character was not portrayed by Susan Sarandon the way I was thinking all along (a theory supported by the abundance of familiar names such as Christopher Lloyd and Tim Curry). Instead, Scarlett was portrayed by a rather mysterious actress called Lesley Ann Warren. Upon realizing my mistake it became pretty evident as I re-watched a couple of movie scenes, demonstrating once again that the human brain has a tendency to see what it wants to see.
Anyway, back to my original question: No, Clue does not provide its viewers with shocking dramas. There is no character development to talk about and no new grounds in the art of movie making are being broken; instead, the emphasis is on silly humor, bordering on the slapstick, with jokes familiar from old British TV series that would never make it into contemporary cinema – cleavage based jokes and gay jokes. All in all, Clue seems like a very British attempt to replicate silent movie comedies.
Picture quality: Heavily compressed, devoid of detail, with artifacts aplenty. Pretty bad, in short.
Sound quality: A compressed mono delight.
Overall: Pretty silly, but oddly enough still somewhat entertaining if an hour and a half of innocent brain relaxation is what you’re after. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

The Darjeeling Limited

Lowdown: Three brothers go on an Indian bonding spiritual journey.
Review:
Now that I'm starting to write this review, I have just realized the only reason we've rented The Darjeeling Limited (DJ) DVD last night was a mistake of mine. You see, I heard it was directed by Wes Anderson, and I confused this dude with Paul Thomas Anderson of Magnolia fame. Since I liked Magnolia so much I really wanted to check DJ out. Well, it wasn't like I've wasted my time...
DJ follows the adventures of three brothers: Owen Wilson, who recently survived a bike crash; Adrien Brody, whose partner is pregnant and he doesn't know how to digest the news; and Jason Schwartzman, who still listens in to his ex girlfriend's answering machine messages. Yes, they're all messed up, and yes, they come from a highly dysfunctional family. Wilson seems to think the cure to their issues may be found in a spiritual train journey across India, and that's where the bulk of the film takes place. It's pretty safe to say the film was shot mostly if not entirely in India, and that Indian feeling of enchantment and chaos reigns supreme across DJ.
The question then becomes, will the brothers get along and sort out their issues? Well, DJ does not give its viewers an easy time acquiring answers to these questions. All sorts of weird things happen as the film progresses, like an intro by Bill Murray that seems totally disconnected to the rest of the film, or a second and a half unexplained appearance by Natalie Portman, and even a train getting lost. It all appears a mishmash of sorts and you have to manage it to the end of the film, after which you can start putting the puzzle pieces together. When you do the message becomes clearer: the film tries to advocate Indian values by trying to act like an Indian, as in messy and chaotic but very human while at it. Things are left wide open for interpretation, but I read DJ as an invitation to let go of worldly possessions and of the social ties that bind us and have a go at the Indian way of life, just marvelling at what we have in ourselves and the friends we have with us. Taking things easy.
On the way there it appears as if DJ is having a go at religion, especially Catholicism, but then again I'm pretty sure your addict Catholic would interpret things the other way around. The bottom line is that DJ appears a boring and confusing film while you watch it, making you ask "why" as you go along despite the mildly entertaining stupid comedy taking place between the various pathetic characters; after you watch it you begin analyzing it all, which is when the real fun kicks in.
Best scenes:
The first scene is when the heroes have their first spiritual stop. The train stops for an hour and a half and they go to admire and pray in this famous temple. They arrive outside and admire the temple but the first thing they do upon their arrival is go shopping. For rather ludicrous items.
The second scene is when our heroes arrive at a middle of nowhere Indian village following a convoluted set of events. The village's people live "old style": houses are open and everyone is free to roam around, as evident by the kids that go all over the place. We don't live like that anymore, although for most of humanity's history we did; we may be more advanced technologically than those poor Indians, but I sure envy their way of life.
Picture quality: Everything is washed with a yellow hue. It's obviously intentional, probably as an attempt to portray the feel of India, but it's distracting.
Sound quality: Contrary to what you may expect from a film abbreviated to "DJ", the surrounds didn't play a role and the main speakers were only utilized with the music (and a rather interesting mix of classical, rock, Indian and chanson music it is). Other than that, it was a one speaker show by the center channel.
Overall: As we've finished watching it I thought of giving DJ 2.5 stars. Since then I realized DJ is one of those films that grows on you like a good video game does (but not like wine, as never did wine grow on me). I'm ending up giving it 3 out of 5 stars, but I can easily understand much variety in the scores it receives.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Flatlander by Larry Niven

Lowdown: Murder mysteries in a futuristic world where organ recycling can usher immortality.
Review:
Back in high school I read this Larry Niven book called The Long Arm of Gil Hamilton (freely translated from Hebrew, the language I read it in). I don't remember much of that book other than me finding it quite boring. I do, however, remember it was to do with a police detective in charge of dealing with organ crimes: in a world where substitute organs can bring immortality to people, organs become the most precious items around, which automatically mean some sophisticated crime evolves around them.
I wouldn't have remembered that about Gil Hamilton if it wasn't for me mentioning the book's idea in my Bagrut (Israel's VCE or A-Level equivalent) essay writing test. By now I don't remember what the subject of my essay was, I only remember borrowing and quoting ideas from Gil Hamilton.
Fast forward twenty years, and Flatlander was recommended to me as a result of me reviewing yet another science fiction mystery book. The thing about Flatlander is that it is basically the same Gil Hamilton book I read before, but with an extra fifth story added on top of my high school era book's four. I managed to put my hands on a cheap copy of Flatlander using a Borders discount voucher and quickly took the task of seeing just how boring Gil Hamilton would seem to me now. That is, reading Flatlander was more of an attempt to gauge how much I have changed through the years rather than an attempt to read a good book.
The bottom line? I have changed quite a lot, because this time around I found Gil Hamilton's adventures to be intriguing, fascinating and immensely interesting.
Hamilton lives in a world just a bit more than a century ahead of us. Humans have spread across the solar system but the earth is still way overpopulated and strict birth control rules apply. However, what started as a trickle of organ donations has evolved into the key element of future society: people can go on living forever, more or less, through the acquisition of replacement organs. The main trick becomes ensuring an ongoing supply of spare body parts, and these come through tougher and tougher capital punishment legislation: starting with murder, moving to rape, and ending with repeat driving offenses, "criminals" are dissected for their body parts which are then recycled to enhance others' longevities. Yet there are not enough limbs to satisfy everyone, so criminals - organleggers - are out there to ensure everyone can live forever.
Step in Gil Hamilton, a organ crime detective with a twist: Hamilton is not only your nice and straight in your face detective dude telling you his stories firsthand, he also has superpowers. Losing his hand to a small asteroid, he has developed the ability to use an imaginary hand to feel around with as if it was his real hand; and indeed, he uses this imaginary hand in his investigations. Even though the hand is not used often enough to feel as if Larry Niven is cheating while making Hamilton's very real like world feel like a joke, this hand is enough to become a dominant feature in Hamilton's character.
Essentially, Hamilton's stories are very Agatha Christie like. A murder takes place, Hamilton is called to investigate, we follow everything through Hamilton's eyes, and then at the end Hamilton points at the killer as we wonder how come he's so smart to name the killer whereas we had exactly the same information he has had yet we were unable to make the call. On one hand, that is exactly what I dislike about Christie's books - that feeling of "I'm not worthy"; on the other hand, the solutions to Hamilton's murder mysteries are but a minor part of the plot. The main event here is to tell us of the future world we might be living in soon enough if prosthetics do not become advanced enough and if people are unable to grow replacement limbs, a future that's already happening in some parts of the world where organ trade is already taking place. In very characteristic Niven style, we are exposed in detail to the technology of the future, the social trends of the future, and the science of the future; other than the imaginary arm it's all very solid stuff. The reason why we can't tell who the killer is on our own and have to rely on Hamilton instead ends up not us being too dumb, but rather the future world being so amazingly different to ours we're unable to imagine it until Hamilton tells us exactly how it works.
Overall: Science fiction at its best. Imaginative, entertaining, thrilling, and thought provoking. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Band's Visit

Lowdown: An esoteric Egyptian band is stuck in the middle of nowhere, Israel.
Review:
It wasn’t like our TV sat idle, but for more than a couple of weeks we didn’t indulge ourselves with a proper film. Blame the Euro, but I definitely started developing withdrawal symptoms. Thus, weary and tired after a long day, we forced ourselves to sit in front of our favorite TV and watch ourselves a film. Luckily for us, the film we chose to watch – The Band’s Visit (TBV), an Israeli film first released in 2007 – turned out to be an excellent choice to break the fast with.
TBV follows the events taking place on the day and night following the arrival of the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra into Israel. The band arrives at Tel Aviv’s airport with much pomp but quickly has to resort to improvisations when left to their own devices with no one to greet them. Eventually, they decide on taking the bus to their destination, but when they finally arrive at their destination they discover it is a rather god forsaken middle of nowhere desert town. Being that by then they’re hungry, they stop to eat at a simple workers’ restaurant, where they learn they got their destination wrong and that there will be no other buses in town till tomorrow. Being that there are no hotels in town, the female owner of the restaurant and a couple of the bums that frequent it host the various band members for the night. The bulk of the film follows up on the events taking place that night as Israelis and Egyptians open up to one another.
With its lyrical and slow approach, I found TBV to be a very touching film. By touching I mean that it touches many issues and handles them well despite their inherent fragility. Unlike its more commercial cinematic relatives (allow me to point the finger at mainstream Hollywood), it doesn’t attempt to solve the world’s problems and it doesn’t offer quick solutions that would leave everybody happy. Instead, TBV works by touching one’s emotions and one’s thoughts.
One of the core issues touched by TBV is the relationship between Egypt and Israel. Although a peace agreement between the countries has been signed back in 1976, the relationship is best described as cold; at least at the time I left Israel the prevailing notion was that you don’t go to visit Egypt unless you’re looking for trouble. On the other side, a lot of nasty anti Israeli statements were made by prominent Egyptian characters, and these didn’t really serve to negate the cold. At the personal level, I am ashamed to say I failed to use the opportunity to hop on a bus and see what Egypt is like for myself as it is clear there is a lot to be learned from Egyptian culture. I may have not liked the place much, but surely the experience would have been unique, an eye opener. Back to TBV, the film capitalizes on the suspicion that acts as a barrier between the two people, but then shows how meaningless that suspicion is when at both sides the people are very similar: they like the same things, they speak in similar languages (the film’s Israelis use a lot of Arabic in their speech), and they all face similar problems. That gulf that is there between the people of Egypt and the people of Israel is effectively converted into a metaphor for the gulfs that lie between people in general.
The metaphor is quickly put into use in the relationships between the characters, most of which are very well developed despite the film concentrating on a single day of their lives. The main conflict, for lack of a better word, is between the orchestra’s conductor and the restaurant owner. On one hand we have a pompous guy who takes the matter of managing of his ceremonial orchestra very seriously and conducts himself in a similar way: reserved and dignified yet truly sincere. On the other hand we have a divorced loner who craves having someone to pay attention to that would pay her some attention back. As the film progresses they open up to one another.
Then there’s the issue of life in the middle of nowhere, with everything that goes with living in the middle of nowhere: poor socio economics, high unemployment, rather miserable architecture that makes the poor feel even poorer, youth with nothing to do, and all the family fabric tension that come with that. While the Israeli desert provides a very suitable environment for TBV's presentation, the problem is not unique to Israel but is rather shared by secluded towns everywhere (especially in Australia).
TBV reserves a special place for music. The orchestra at hand, the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra, is facing budget issues: because a police service does not really need an orchestra in order to police, our orchestra is in a fight for its life. It has to prove its vitality, and its misadventures in Israel are not really contributing its cause. Thus the orchestra and its music serve as a metaphor to everything that we don’t have to have but which lights up our lives, all the stuff we are happy to give up on just to have a few more dollars in our pockets as we mourn the loss of flavor to our lives. Again, I was touched at the personal level, because music is one of those things I seem to have abandoned as life’s struggles become tougher and tougher. There used to be a time when listening to music would be my dominant pastime (and I’m not talking about listening to music while doing something else; I’m talking about fully concentrating on the listening). Most of my resources were spent on making the most of that experience. Now I can hardly afford the time to listen, and when I do it’s usually through some MP3 with all life compressed out of it and through poor PC quality speakers. But from time to time there are those moments when I turn the hi-fi, raise the volume on the amp to where it should be, and click play; and those short moments are worth all the grunge that comes in between.
Worth special mentioning are TBV’s cinematography and the acting. The placement of the characters in the bleak and lonely desert is quite effective, and the actors (including several names that would be familiar to Israelis and Arabs) do a truly fine job at portraying their rather reserved yet tormented characters.
Best scene: An Israeli bum who doesn’t know how to hit it off with a girl gets a lesson from an Egyptian expert. The thing about the scene is the way it’s directed: all three are sitting next to one another on a stool, filling up the frame. Communication is limited to pantomimes, and everything is rendered rather surreal.
Overall: TBV is a hidden gem well worth watching. At the personal level, it made me want to pay Alexandria a visit: I could visit the place where the fabled library used to be, and I might even try to catch the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Orchestra live.
I would say TBV is a 4 star film, but I liked it so much I will give it 4.5 out of 5 stars.