Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

Lowdown: Discussions on the theory that children are learning machines.
Review:
Us adults tend to refer to children as foolish creatures with not much sense that fool around doing their ultimately stupid stuff while we carry the burden of taking care of their every need. On the other hand, people like Carl Sagan view children completely differently: Sagan regards children as full of wonder, entities that want to know as much about the world as they can. Then, to Sagan's disappointment, they seem to be spoiled by the the system and come out generally bland and devoid of their former wonder. So where is the truth and which approach happens to be the correct one?
To the rescue comes Alison Gopnik with a popular science book entitled The Philosophical Baby. The book refers to kids up to the age of five as babies, and in a very simple and approachable style it lays down Gopnik's theories on what babies stand for and what motivates them.
At the core of Gopnik's theories stands one main claim: Babies and children are entities whose main purpose in life is to learn what life is all about. Everything to do with the way they live and act, the way their consciousness works and the way they treat others is a direct result of that main conclusion. It's their uselessness as kids that gives them the power to learn and adopt to life as an adult later; and once adults, their learning skills wane as their learning become their way of life. Of course, it's the theory's details that count, and Gopnik manages to successfully fill out a book discussing the implications of her main theory, even coming up to deep philosophical pondering about the meaning of life. And for the record, she managed to put me on her side.
Essentially, The Philosophical Baby is a book that mixes psychology and philosophy but relies heavily on scientifically acquired observations. In this the book differs significantly from most other baby guidebooks that are mostly driven by the whim of their writer, who seemed to have woken up one morning with an idea (often a stupid unfounded idea) on how to best raise babies/kids and thought the idea worthy enough to base a book on. The Philosophical Baby, on the other hand, relies on peer reviewed papers for its theories.
Another key difference between The Philosophical Baby and other kids books is that it does not pretend to offer you guidelines that would make your child a millionaire as it graduates from college at the age of seven. However, if you ask me, The Philosophical Baby's approach is even better: by telling you how the baby's mind works, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions on how to deal with their children their way. You can draw conclusions on your child's childcare related policies, and you can even implement simple tricks to help your child learn languages quicker and easier. Or, to point at another example, help them learn to use their memories.
Valuable advice? Sure is in my book. Yet The Philosophical Baby is not a perfect read. Although it should be easily read even by those who are totally foreign to popular science, it is not a page turner. It is not a book that encouraged me to get back to read the next page the way, say, a nice thriller would. Or even the way the better popular science books do.
Overall: The best guide to children I have encountered thus far. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Lowdown: A couple of means lacking platonic friends make a porno.
Review:
Like many of my generation, the child in me grew up to regard porn as something mythical simply because it was inaccessible. I was even too shy to buy my own dirty magazines (lucky for me, I had friends). Today things are different: the internet has made porn so accessible it had become mainstream. Mainstream, yet comfortably ignored by most people, people that prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist instead of tackling it head on for better or worse.
I therefore have an immediate affection to those that don’t shy from tackling porn, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno is one such fine example. Zack and Miri treats porn without any apologies.
Zack (Seth Rogan) and Miri are a couple of lacklustre school friends sharing an apartment together ten years after graduation. Essentially, their life has been on hold since school. Times are tough, though: they can’t pay the rent, they can’t pay their bills, and it is damn cold out there (and in there). What can they do to salvage themselves from their misery?
Several events open their eyes to the options before them. A candid camera video of Miri in her underwear becomes a YouTube hit; they meet a genuine porn star at their school reunion as Miri discovers the subject of her high school infatuation is gay; and their utilities get disconnected. They have no option but to make their own porno and star in it.
After lengthy discussions focusing on the title of their flick (e.g., Star Whores), they recruit a producer and some additional “actors” and head off to shooting. But how will the so far platonic relationship between Zack and Miri survive onscreen sex with alternate partners?
It doesn’t take long to realize Zack and Miri is a Kevin Smith (of Clerks’ fame) film. It’s a comedy with long, shallow yet funny nonsense dialog of typical Kevin Smith qualities. Don’t get me wrong: It’s nice and it’s funny as long as you’re not sitting in front of your TV expecting a profound discussion on the meaning of life.
Other than that, the most notable attribute of Zack and Miri is its lack of any proper sex scenes. Sure, we see boobs here and there, and there is some sex action going on during the making of the porno, but that is limited to the minor actors fuelling the laughter rather than erotic porno. Do not expect a porn experience with Zack and Miri, especially not with Zack and Miri themselves.
So, is this Kevin Smith’s way of bowing down to the puritans? No; it’s just a matter of perceptions. At its core, Zack and Miri is a typical romantic comedy not unlike, say, Jane Austen’s Emma. Both feature two lovers who never realized they were such and both tell the tale surrounding those circumstances. Zack and Miri’s element of porn is just a filler; it’s just that it becomes the talk of the town because of the way our culture is unable to deal with porn without any guilt feelings.
Best scene: Justin Long (the Mac dude from the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads) does one hell of a gay porn star impersonation.
Technical assessment: This is not the Blu-ray you would use to demonstrate the capabilities of your home theater. It’s not too bad, though, with some interesting sound design elements (e.g., the noise from Zack’s car), but it’s far from maximizing the benefits of the Blu-ray format.
Overall: A funny but not too deep, 3 out of 5 stars film.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Boat That Rocked

Lowdown: The life and times of a British pirate broadcasting ship during the happy sixties.
Review:
One of the pillars of my musical upbringing had been a pirate broadcasting ship off the coast of Tel Aviv called The Voice of Peace. Operated by a peace activist called Abie Nathan, the intention behind the ship was to act as another Israeli radio station in order to promote peace through [mostly] pop music. Given Israeli law, Nathan couldn't run a proper radio station in land, so he had to do it from outside the territorial waters of Israel.
I have lots of fond memories of this station: its music, seeing the ship off the coast, swimming all the way to the ship with my father... It was a part of my life. It had weird things about it, too, like its weird advertising campaign to promote water drinking when Coke cut down its advertising money, or its insisting on having only British guys to running its shows.
Fate did not fare The Voice of Peace too well. The authorities didn't like it, and eventually Nathan just didn't have the money to run it anymore using a ship and equipment that were breaking down. The legacy of The Voice of Peace still remains, though, at least in my head. It is exactly this type of a legacy that director Richard Curtis (of Love Actually fame) was aiming at with his recent film The Boat That Rocked.
Set in middle of the sixties UK, The Boat That Rocked tells the story of a pirate broadcasting boat off the North Sea transmitting rock music to the British Public, which, at the time, was almost completely deprived of off the air rock. The authorities, represented in the film by a Kenneth Branagh redoing the exact same role he did in Rabbit-Proof Fence, don't like the idea of this authority bypass trick and do their silly best to stop the station. That's the background; the main event of the film is the microcosm that takes place on a boat filled up with men (and one lesbian) and a lot of hippie sixties atmosphere. Plus tons of love for the music.
It's a kind of a setup to tell us lots of interesting short character based stories, not unlike Love Actually. The cast is superb (Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth special mentioning, but he's far from alone in delivering a quality act), the good times roll, and everyone is in for some fun. It really is funny, and its helped by having some good comedy talent on board (borrowed from TV acts like Flight of the Conchords, Coupling and The IT Crowd). And Emma Thompson has a smashing cameo, too.
In short, this is a funny feel good film where you can clearly see everyone had fun making it. I had much fun watching it, and I agree about the importance of the points it had to make.
Best scene: Given the way the film is made, this is a tough call to make. It's a question of which of the mini stories is best, and there are a lot to choose from (and then a few more in the deleted scenes). My vote? A guy about to lose his virginity loses his promising girl to a fat DJ while searching for a condom. Ah, it's a tough life out there!
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray suffers from the effort to make everything look sixties, colors wise. There's also a lot of wide angle shooting that causes optical distortions. The soundtrack, featuring a lot of period music that's very smartly inserted is magnificent, even if it completely ignores a certain Liverpool based band that was pretty dominant at the time and even if the overall sound on this Blu-ray is far from stellar in quality.
Overall: Entertaining from start to finish, this boat rocks to 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Terminator Salvation

Lowdown: Our nuclear holocaust survivors deal with the most human terminator yet.
Review:
The question on my mind before watching Episode 4 of the Terminator franchise was: Terminator Salvation or just saliva? After all, the first two Terminators were and still are amongst my favorite films ever, with T2 probably qualifying as the favorite. But since the first two a lot of sewage flawed down the river, including a pathetic T3 and a mediocre (though still entertaining) TV series. Or, to put it another way, can T4's director McG step into shoes of James Cameron's size?
Unlike its predecessors, T4 takes place after the apocalyptic nuclear war the other films promised. However, it takes place at a time before John Connor, the famous leader of the human resistance, rose to prominence and before he was about to win the war on the evil machines that destroyed our world. T4's aim is to tell us how Connor rose from a potential promise into the role of a Messiah like leader.
Connor, portrayed by Christian Bale, actually takes second place in T4 to the character played by Sam Worthington. Worthington plays a contemporary (that is, our age) murderer on death row that in an act of remorse decides to donate his body to science. He's executed using a lethal injection, and the next thing he knows he wakes up in a devastated Los Angeles and has to fight for his life as terminator robots try to shoot him down. To his help comes Kyle Reese, the character that portrayed John Connor's father in previous Terminator episodes, and thus starts a roller-coaster adventure as everyone fights for survival in a very harsh and unsympathetic world and as the various characters learn something about being human and about themselves.
There can be no doubt about it, T4 is pretty entertaining. Entertaining, but... It's a bit hard to point out what the "but" part is, but eventually it comes down to the regular sequel syndrome. T4 doesn't offer much originality where it counts; it tries too hard to place famous lines (e.g., "come with me if you want to live" and "I'll be back") and it copies certain famous scenes way too faithfully (the ending's foundry fight is very similar to T2's). It also fails to make sense in many ways: For example, given the time lines, how do the evil machines know that Kyle Reese is about to have an important role in history?
What originality T4 does offer comes in the shape of new terminator robot types that don't really make sense. You have hydro terminators that roam under water but are pretty useless overall, and you have racing motorcycle shaped terminators in a world that is not exactly well paved and where off-road vehicles would be much more suitable than racing circuit bikes. Another sign of the sequel syndrome.
As mentioned, Worthington beats Bale in the acting department despite the significant difference in star reputation. It's not only that Worthington has the more interesting role, he is clearly the superior actor of the two: While Bale has this monotonous expression on his face to match his badly written script, Worthington really seems like he came to have a good day at the office. Also notable in the acting department is Michael Ironside, one of my favorite actors (V, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) portraying more of his usual stuff.
So, what do I think of it all? Is T4 a shame or a hit? I have to say I've enjoyed it overall, but I also have to say it's not a film to leave a mark on anyone the way T1 and T2 did. And given Connor is shown to have a son coming up, I suspect we will be discussing the same question many times again in the future. Me, I would have preferred to leave things off with T2.
Worst scene:
The ending is such a pathetic cliche I went searching for my barf bag. And then the narrator steps in to tell us that the difference between a machine and a human is that a human has a human heart and that no machine could have the human spirit. And I say, bullshit!
First of all, we are adding some 80 million net new human like machines each year. Their number is currently totalling at almost 7 billion. Second, if we limit ourselves to silicon based machines and pretend to ignore carbon based ones, then the argument that humans cannot be replicated on a chip only shows that our chip technology is yet to be able to deal with the task, not that this task is unachievable. T4's argument is similar to past arguments along the lines of angels pushing the planets in their orbit or god making flowers bloom; ignorance is not a valid argument.
And as for the virtues of the human heart, as someone who is likely to die of some sort of a heart failure - like many of my human compatriots - I wouldn't argue against reliable artificial hearts being developed.
In short, I much prefer T2's closing statements: "If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too". That's what it's all about: the value of human life.
Technical assessment: An excellent Blu-ray in all respects, especially the picture that supports the dreary look very well.
Overall:
A fun 3.5 out of 5 stars' watch that's not to be taken too seriously.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Lowdown: Aboriginal girls flee authorities across Australia to unite with their family.
Review:
Before coming to Australia I didn’t know much about the aboriginal history post the arrival of Europeans. I suspected they were kicked off their land rather involuntarily, as with every other place Europeans got to, but that was it. I cannot say that migrating to Australia has improved my understanding of aboriginal history as these things are simply not discussed; for example, it took a book by an English author, Richard Dawkins, for me to realize how Tasmanian aboriginals were exterminated.
What you do hear about in Australian media is the concept of “The Stolen Generation”, a concept made popular since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology to aboriginals some two years ago. But what does “Stolen Generation” mean? Rabbit-Proof Fence, a 2002 release of a real story from 1932, attempts to familiarize its viewers with the concept through the first hand experience of three aboriginal girls, or rather “half castes”: the daughters of mixed white and aboriginal parents.
The girls live in relative peace with their mother in a remote area of Western Australia where they are a part of the aboriginal community. Trouble kicks in when the government official in charge of aboriginals (brilliantly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh) decides to implement his version of the Final Solution on these half-castes and orders the police to take them to a special institution for aboriginal kids. Aimed at exposing the kids to the best of white culture, the kids find themselves at a harsh and brutal place that’s run by nuns and their likes and is a far cry from the loving environment of their family. Determined to get back to where they belong, the girls escape the institution and walk their way home across thousands of kilometres. On their way and as they flee the chasing authorities they encounter a variety of conditions and a variety of people, both white and black; some are indifferent, some are good and some are bad.
Genre wise, Rabbit-Proof Fence reminded me of holocaust films. The similarity is scary: Between Branagh’s depiction of racial policies which entirely consume his character, the “we know what’s better for you” attitude, and the re-educations camps with their selections for white look alikes as the ticket out, one can clearly see how the Hitler phenomenon of racism was not limited to Nazi Germany but was rather widespread and a well enshrined part of those times’ zeitgeist. While no aboriginals appear to be exterminated during the making of this film, it definitely looks like a lot of spirits have been broken down by the authorities.
Overall, director Phillip Noyce had managed to create a touching film that is also quite thrilling. You really do feel for the girls and their comrades, you really get annoyed with the crimes done to aboriginals, and you really get scared by Branagh’s character.
Worst scenes: In a film that manages to drive the aboriginal problem home so well, I was annoyed by scenes of artificial mysticism thrown in by Noyce from time to time. One example is the girl and the mother each feeling one another despite being hundreds of kilometers from one another as they touch the rabbit-proof fence that ran across Australia. Is there a new kind of electric conductivity we don’t know about? Or another scene in which (blooper alert!) the aboriginals know that their girls are about to reach them soon because they feel it in the air: if aboriginals were indeed able to perform acts such as this they should have won all lottery draws since the arrival of white man, shouldn’t they?
Overall: A very worthy film that borrows successfully from depictions of others’ tribulations. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Guru

Lowdown: An Indian immigrant becomes a love mentor by giving away advice derived from porn.
Review:
The Guru was a film that, once upon a time following its 2002 release, we almost rented on several occasions. When Channel 10 had it on its sadly standard definition channel we finally took the plunge.
The story follows a young Indian guy (Jimi Mistry) that migrates to the USA to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor but ends up finding himself in the catering business. He doesn't give his dream up, so he auditions for a porn role and finds himself playing against Heather Graham, a major porn star (a role that indicates some specialization from Graham as she reprises her Rollergirl role from Boogie Nights; could portraying porn stars be her niche?). Alas, our hero fails to get a hard on and has to go home dry. What he does manage to achieve is some click with Graham, who starts teaching him the trade secrets of the porn industry.
Later, opportunity presents itself, and our dude starts reciting Graham's advice and find himself immensely popular because of that. It works so well that he starts getting special lessons from Graham in order to be able to play the part of the popular love guru he had become, a role that sees him swimming in money.
In parallel, Graham is miserable. She is engaged to a guy from whom she has to hide her profession, pretending to be a teacher at a Catholic school instead. She is also short on cash, which is a bit of a contradiction with everything else the film says, but never mind; trust the gods of American cinema to sort things out for everyone by the end.
The good thing about The Guru is that it implicitly criticizes a double standard society that treats porn as disgusting but consumes porn like there's no tomorrow (and as this article states, scientists are finding that virtually all men consume porn). So it's nice to see jokes about priests who recognize porn stars etc. On the negative side of things, The Guru seems afraid of treading too far into the realm of the politically incorrect, which is a shame. It's virtually afraid of fulfilling its own potential. The best example I can give for that is the lack of any meaningful sex scenes in The Guru; instead, the film relies on comedy based erotic tension and Graham's generous figure (and let's be honest: her big boobs) to keep the audience on its toes.
The end result? A promising film that could have been a hell of a comedy and ends up just another cheap romantic comedy, with very shallow and stupid comedy at that. Did I mention it's predictable?
Best scenes: The porn production ones, of course.
Overall: Only half as good as it could and should have been. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Gosford Park

Lowdown: It’s all about class in this masters and servants story.
Review:
Late director Robert Altman is one of those directors I don’t really know how to digest. On one hand, he has made some heavy weight classics in his time: The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to name just two. On the other hand, while I fully acknowledge his cinematic talent I am still unable to point at a single film of his that knocked me off my seat. 2001’s Gosford Park is no exception.
The first thing you notice about Gosford Park, as the opening credits zoom by, is the extensive list of major big time stars. This park has enough to fill up ten different movies: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates and Richard E. Grant to name a few. So you can quickly tell Gosford Park is an actor’s act.
The next thing you notice about Gosford Park, as characters start talking to one another, is that it’s really hard to understand what they’re saying. We’ve watched the film off Channel 7 HD, and I don’t think the people at Channel 7 did anything in particular to damage the presentation but use a copy sporting rather muddy detailed picture and sound. I blame the filmmakers and/or the studios here, because a film like Gosford Park that depends on dialog cannot have its dialog muffled to unintelligible levels. Couple that with Channel 7’s close captioning choosing not to work (there was actually a caption saying that) and you’ll see why my experience with Gosford Park borders the speculative. So read the rest of the review while bearing in mind I only received a part of the total Gosford Park experience.
Onto the film itself. Gosford Park is the story of masters and servants told using a classic England of 1932 setting: lots of nobility and rich people gather together at a single mansion under the excuse of forming a hunting party, and they all bring their servants with them. What follows is the story of the masters, the story of the servants, and the stories of their interaction. Oh, and there's a murder in there, too.
At its core, Gosford Park tries to show how the masters and the servants are alike. Both are human beings, with the fallacies involved but also with some good in them (although it's the former that's more emphasized). Watching it, it's quite amazing to accept that people were so class oriented at such recent a time as 1932. Whether we assume the story is historically reliable or not doesn't really matter, as it is obvious that class issues are still a major part of society today and in England in particular; it's just that today money is worshipped much more than class. That attitude is also displayed in the film, as well as an American look towards British ways to represent the way we look now at those ways with a mix of mockery and contempt. I suspect Gosford Park's aim was for us to look ourselves in the mirror and see whether we can honestly mock or whether we're two faced. I think we are; too many of us crave to feel we belong somewhere and to be led, and what better way to satisfy the craving than to invent a class system with its rules and regulations.
Best scene: The servants sit themselves to their dinner table in the order of their masters’ rankings. What a delightful way for Altman to make his statement!
Overall: Good but unexceptional. That is, if I got it right in the first place. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Defiance

Lowdown: The story of a successful group of Jewish partisans living under Nazi occupation.
Review:
Director Edward Zwick's specialty is epic tales of adventure, things like Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. In general I like his achievements and I think they're good movies. Defiance is yet another one of tales of epic proportions, and like Zwick's Glory it is also based on a true story. However, unlike most of the Zwick films I've watched so far, Defiance cannot be said to be a good film.
Defiance tells the story of the two Bielski brothers from Belarus, Tuvia and Zus (portrayed respectively by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber). As the Nazis invaded the USSR during World War 2, their Death Squads set themselves busy rounding up Jews and killing them in various ingenius ways (those were the days before the gas chambers and the more production line like organized genocides). The two Bielskis escaped dying, but most of their family and acquaintances didn't fare so well. The brothers were powerful and self sufficient enough to escape into Belarus' woods, sustain themselves and a growing number of Jewish refugees that flocked to their shelter, and eventually even fight the Nazis back a bit.
Although the core of Defiance's story is true and although I have heard of the Bielskis before, I am not in a position to say how real the film's events are. What I can say is that Craig and Schreiber look nothing alike although the film pits them as brothers who see contradicting ways for managing their fate, thus causing some distraction. Tuvia sees the manifestation of Jewish defiance in survival, and thus sets to accommodate for shelter and food to as many refugees as he can find; Zus, on the other hand, prefers active retaliation, and sees all the refugees as a burden in the way of achieving that goal. Defiance is thus made of a collection of scenes depicting the struggles of the Bielski partisans in the face of insurmountable odds while revolving around the conflict between the brothers. But the problem there is that despite the mighty story it has to say, Defiance still feels like a collection of scenes as opposed to a cohesive epic of the usual Zwick type.
Another problem with Defiance is that it tries to tell the story through a modern pair of eyes with some politically correct standards. For example, there are hints here and there that the women in the Bielski group of partisans have had specific roles in satisfying the men's sexual needs; yet Defiance never goes into a discussion there. Which is a pity, in my view, because the way I see it the most interesting thing out of the Defiance story is the way the brothers managed to create some sort of a civilization under one of the most uncivilized circumstances in recorded history; yet instead of exploring that, the film prefers to focus on random acts of heroism instead.
Best scene: Zus discovers that even though the Russian army likes his partisans' fighting skills, it still treats Jews as scum - not much unlike the Nazis.
Technical assessment: The movie rental shop that I frequent only stocks Defiance in the form of DVDs rather than my preferred Blu-rays. After watching the DVD I know why: this is one of the worst transfers of A grade films I have ever encountered. The picture is very compressed and lacking in detail, and the sound is so bad you feel like you're listening to a film playing next door rather than your home theater. Dialog, it seems, is the main victim there. The DVD's credits imply it was mastered in Australia, so I dearly hope other nationalities get the privilege of watching better forms of Defiance. As it is, the DVD's poor quality severely hinders the Defiance experience.
Overall: A great story that's not told half as well as it should. Yet it's still a great story, so I'm giving it 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 26 November 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Lowdown: Scenes from another year in Harry Potter’s life.
Review:
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was always going to be a challenge to put on film, given that – in my opinion – it is based on a book that is by far the weakest of the seven Potter books. It’s a book that was clearly there only to set the ground up for the grand final. So how does the film manage things? It fares even worse.
In this, Episode 6, we’re basically offered glimpses of Harry Potter’s sixth year at wizard high school. That’s it, for better and worse: it feels more like an ongoing TV series that’s looking for the contract for another season than a film that’s meant to make an artistic statement.
Of course, being that Potter is in an enhanced environment and in a world reeking of evil, some exciting things do happen. The problem is that as with the book, these things are mostly there to help us prepare for the next episode; the truly exciting action is limited to the last half hour of this two and a half hour film. Which, if you catch my drift, implies that this Harry Potter film is a rather tiresome and boring affair.
Yet boredom is not Harry the 6th biggest problem. The main problem is that the film tries way too hard to be loyal to the book, a disease that has inflicted most of the previous Potter films. Instead of having a coherently developing film, what we have is a collection of scenes from the book or scenes that are inspired by the book. Sure, they do help in character development – a lot of the film is there to tell us about Harry & Co the adolescents – but the result never transcends into a unified film. If you haven’t read the book you’ll probably lose the plot somewhere in the middle, and even if you don’t you’d have a hard time getting into the thick of things unless you really have a thing for the book. It’s sad to say it, but of all the six Harry Potter films thus far, only one – The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third in the series) – was a well and truly worthy film by its own rights.
P.S. Talking about recurring themes in the Harry Potter series of films, did I mention the over reliance on digital special effects?
Worst scene:
Upon the death of a major character at the film’s end (now a mandatory feature of Potter films since the ending of the previous book/film), the grieving Hogwarts wizards demonstrate their respect by raising their wands. I’m sure there are some smokers in Hogwarts (it would be virtually statistically impossible for that not to be the case), so where were all their lighters? And come to think of it, where is all the sex a school like this should have?
Jokes aside, the scene is a demonstration for the convention following rather than convention setting series that Harry Potter had become. It's the stuff a kid with a sense of wonder is worthy off; it’s more like manure for stock than child worthy, stuff to make you feel like you're one of many.
Technical assessment: The Half-Blood Prince is a surprisingly inferior Blu-ray. The picture suffers from an eternal brownish-darkish hue that’s there to convey a sense of pending evil but grows more and more annoying all the time, while the sound department is pretty mundane up until the active film’s end.
Overall: Boring and incohesive, thus ultimately completely uninvolving. I’ll be generous and give Harry 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Valet

Lowdown: A simple valet wins a sexual lottery.
Review:
The Valet is a 2006 French film (which means it should be better known by its original title, La doublure) directed by the same guy that did The Closet (La placard) a few years earlier, Francis Veber. 2001’s The Closet happens to be one of my favorite comedies of all time, in particular due to the collaboration between two of the best actors around: Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu. The realization that The Valet features Auteuil meant watching it became a must.
The Valet’s valet is portrayed by Gad Elmaleh, whom I fondly remember from Priceless. Those fond memories are relevant here, because Elmaleh is essentially portraying the same character. He is a low income valet driver for a grand restaurant at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, which means that he’s driving exotic cars all day for a living but also means he doesn’t earn much and his social status is rather low, as reflected by him sharing a small flat with his partner in the valet driving business.
Elmaleh might have what is considered to be a lowly job but he does have his aspirations. Those are aimed mostly at the love of his life, the daughter of his father’s doctor, portrayed by Virginie Ledoyen. But he is aiming too high and is told he needs to settle for less: when he proposes to Ledoyen she basically chucks him out and tells him the main thing on her mind are the debts she’s in due to her opening a book store. You see, Ledoyen’s character has aspirations of her own: as The Valet makes pretty clear to us, Ledoyen has her principles, principles that include the love of books and antagonism towards the shallowness symbolized by the mobile phone culture.
As if on a parallel universe, there exists a character that is the complete opposite of Elmaleh’s: Daniel Auteuil. Auteuil plays a nasty piece of work billionaire who loves nothing but getting his way and doesn’t mind treading on others to get there. That includes marrying the very well French speaking Kristin Scott Thomas to access her family fortunes while, on the side, having an affair with a supermodel (Alice Taglioni) to whom he keeps promising an immanent divorce.
Things get complicated when paparazzi shoot Auteuil next to Taglioni in the middle of a Parisian street. How can he get away from paying the damage bill? His plan involves paying a random passerby that happened to be in the paparazzi's photo frame, Elmaleh, in order for him to pretend to be the supermodel’s true lover. Part two of the plan has to do with paying the model money to cooperate. Will the plan work? And what effect is its implementation going to have on the relationship between Elmaleh and Ledoyen?
The tension that comes as the film provides the answers to the above questions comes from the position Elmaleh is in. On one hand, he gets to spend his days and his nights in the company of a supermodel the rest of the world can only dream about, and dream they do as she makes an effort to prove Elmaleh's her lover. This puts Elmaleh is a position where he has to contend contend with a sky rocketing social status and the realization there’s more to life than this.
Overall, The Valet works extremely well. In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with the creation of sexual tension through the two female lead characters, the “original” girl (Ledoyen) and the supermodel (Taglioni) that flank Elmaleh on either side. And it’s a trap all heterosexual men with sexual organs between their legs would dearly want to find themselves in, because as much as Ledoyen is a good looking woman, Taglioni is made to look like an all out atomic bomb. Indeed, The Valet made me wonder whether Taglioni is really that good looking or whether it is all just movie magic; I suspect the answer is a lot of both, because there can be no doubt The Valet is using lots of well known cues taken from the fashion world to establish an image of beauty in our heads with regards to Taglioni’s character (starting from the obvious, showing hordes of men drooling at her). On the other hand, beauty is beauty, and Taglioni seems to have hefty amounts of un-Photoshopped beauty at her hands, face and body.
There is more to The Valet than sexual tension and pretty faces. There is also a clear demonstration for the value of truth and for the importance of being genuine, which are delivered in credible rather than forced ways. For example, Elmaleh’s attempt to propose to his loved one using an expensive diamond ring he could hardly afford but still got as a status elevation tool fails miserably. I would like to see more films provide this type of criticism to the institutionalized convention of associating diamond rings with engagements, as the two have nothing in common and diamonds are but an artificially overpriced piece of carbon.
Still, the main question I am left with after watching The Valet is whether the film would work on heterosexual women as well as it did on me given their severely reduced interest in Taglioni as a sexual object. And if that question is not the most classic question to take out of a French film, I don’t know what is.
Best scene(s): I didn’t know with which scene I should identify more, the scene where Elmaleh spends a night in bed with the supermodel or the scene in which his jealous flatmate comes over to inspect the supermodel under the guise of picking his left behind PlayStation up.
Overall: An excellent demonstration of how sexual tension can work to drive a film without a shred of actual explicit sex. A seemingly light yet deep 4 out of 5 stars romantic comedy for men that I highly recommend.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

Splash

Lowdown: A contemporary version of The Little Mermaid.
Review:
Like several other films of its era, 1984's Splash is a film packed with personal meaning. As a child, I saw it at the cinemas with my mother (Ramat Gan's Oasis in Israel, to be precise), at a time in which I stopped seeing films together with my usual movie partner - my uncle - due to his deteriorating health. No offense to my mother, but it wasn't the same. Splash also takes place in New York, my New York: the same New York I have seen just a year or two earlier during my first ever overseas trip. Watching that New York I fell in love with is not an experience that can leave me indifferent.
Splash does not only represent a special period of life for me alone. It represents a special period for its Star, Tom Hanks: it's the period in which his image was much less sterile than it is today and, at least by my book, much more charming overall. I'm talking about the period represented through films like Bachelor Party and Big, a period before he grew to be his current All American self. I'm talking about a period when films could have had some rough edges and not be completely politically correct and inoffensive. I'm talking about a period when films weren't designed by accountants or marketing specialists.
Splash features Tom Hanks as successful a New York fruit and vegetables wholesaler whose luck fails him in love. You see, he's not the typical male: He wants to fall in love with someone for life, he actually wants to get married and have kids, but things don't work out for him. Things start working out for him when he meets the rather strange and silent Daryl Hannah, who we know right from the start to be a mermaid: she can get outside the water and when she does she looks like a regular homo sapience, but put a drop of water on her and she'd become Flipper all too quickly. Hanks and Hannah fall in love and it all works out for them, but there are catches that interfere with the true happiness that falls on them: First, Hannah is restricted by a fairy tale type restriction that forces her to go back home (under water) within a week, thus putting an expiration date on Hanks' relationship bliss; and second, Hannah is being chased by an eccentric scientist out there to make a point. But by far the worst problem has to be Hannah keeping her mermaid secret away from Hanks, and you know right away this is just a kettle waiting to boil.
So yes, you could say that Splash is predictable. But it does have its coarse edges, edges of the type you won't see in contemporary films. First there's nudity: While the filmmakers go out of their way to have Hannah's long hair cover her breasts, there are scenes in which that is simply not the case and flesh is there to see. Oh, the horror! Today that would have been forbidden; flesh equals less kids being allowed to watch the film, which equals less money. No, say the bean counters (those that did not exist back in 1984): flesh is only allowed in the form of dead bodies, not sexy bodies.
Second, there is quoting from Penthouse magazine as well as some not so politically correct references to Swedish people and the film genre they tended to be famous for before the age of the internet. Again, nowadays a film could not quote from dirty magazines and expect to have the kid friendly rating required for maximum income. Besides, those references are made by John Candy, who may be very good at his role of Hanks' mischievous brother but he doesn't have the sexy body we'd like to see on our movie stars, does he?
In short, what I'm trying to say here is that Splash is a romantic comedy from an age in which a romantic comedy could actually exist (at this point I will say there are some good exception to the rule, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall; these do, however, seem to be relegated to a minor role in the fringes). It may be tacky but the heroes and the plot really grows on you. And besides, it's all taking place in my New York.
Best scene: The naked Hannah steps out of the sea to see the Statue of Liberty while looking for Hanks, causing some trouble with sight seers. What an excellent way to introduce a character!
Overall: Instead of coming up with crap like Angles and Demons, director Ron Howard should look at his past and revive his Splash days. 3.5 out of 5 stars, but due to personal reasons I like it 4 stars much.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Failure to Launch

Lowdown: Parents hire a woman to take their 35 year old son away from their home.
Review:
Most of what I said on the previous film reviewed here, Two Weeks Notice, applies to Failure to Launch (2006) just the same. Both are pretty predictable romantic comedies featuring stars doing their exact stereotype role; it's just a case where Failure to Launch replaces Hugh Grant with Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock with Sarah Jessica Parker. So overall, you can rightly say that Failure to Launch "offers" a bit of a downgrade when it comes to the quality of its leads.
The premises are simple: McConaughey is a successful salesman who, at 35, still lives with his parents (with Kathy Bates featuring as the mother in a role that doesn't begin to challenge her talent). He has a trick: whenever a girl gets too close to him and wants a tighter relationship, he takes her home and relies on the surprise encounter with his parents to break things off and render him free again. His parents, however, are tired of his presence; he milks them left and right. So they hire Jessica Parker to lure him and cure him of his disease, that is: offer him a relationship he cannot refuse and thus force him to leave home. The rest, as they say, is predictably comfortable.
The problem with Failure to Launch, or at least its main problem, is that its subject matter is worthy of treatment much superior to what it gets in the film. What it gets in the film is the usual American cinema superficiality affair, a problem made worse by a surprise revelation concerning McConaughey towards the end of the film which adds nothing but over politically correct a film that's already too politically correct. In contrast, today alone I have encountered a paper published in the Journal of Quantitative Sociology discussing the evolution of trends in children's' autonomy and responsibilities. It discusses how today's kids do many less chores in the house, thus much more free there, while they're prevented from going anywhere outside the house on their own. That serves to offer a potential explanation for the rising popularity of kids staying at their parents' home way later than they used to in the past; sadly, Failure to Luanch completely fails to discuss things to a level remotely close to meaningful (never mind a level close to this paper's).
Another issue that Failure to Launch deals with rather miserably is the fact that Jessica Parker's occupation leaves her not too far from being a whore. Not that I have a problem with that, it's just that this film is too politically correct to be able to deal with that matter with a straight face. Instead, it goes through loops and bends to settle things down and it never manages it.
So... thus far, Failure to Launch sounds like a pretty ordinary film. Yet I have to say I liked it and I've enjoyed it. Why? Because of the minor character of Jessica Parker's room mate that is played by Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel's performance is so good it dominates the film: unlike the main stars, she is a born comedian. She doesn't have as many minutes in front of the camera as the main couple, but when she does she rules; those minutes turned out to be enough for me to enjoy Failure to Launch rather than suffer through it. I would love to see more of her!
Best scene: Deschanel and a suitor ambush an annoying mocking bird in order to kill it (as per the famous book's title, and against laws dealing with endangered species as well as against American sensitivities).
Overall: Saved by a supporting role. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Two Weeks Notice

Lowdown: Bullock meets Grant.
Review:
You know what to expect when you go to watch a Sandra Bullock film: you’d be watching a variation of the predictable romantic comedy starring an erratic and confused yet charming woman (e.g., The Lake House). The same applies for Hugh Grant: you’d be watching a variation of the romantic comedy starring a confused yet charming Englishman (e.g., Music and Lyrics). So when 2002’s Two Weeks Notice is on the agenda, a film starring both Bullock and Grant, you can predict what it is you’re going to watch to the point. And indeed, Two Weeks Notice provides absolutely no surprises there.
The plot is a bit on the redundant side, mostly because it’s rather stupid. Bullock is luckless in love but an idealistic hotshot lawyer fighting for the good of society, mostly her childhood community of New York’s Coney Island (and let me tell you, Bullock’s Coney Island is much more optimistic a place than He Got Game’s). In typical American movies' over simplistic fashion, Bullock identifies the source of the community’s problems to be a certain company headed by the rather charming Grant, who doesn’t seem to be half the monster a corporate headmaster like him should be (the film comfortably bestows that honor on his brother, who does the monstrosities behind the scenes). So when Bullock approaches Grant with her demands, he makes her an offer she does not refuse: she’ll become his lawyer, and in return he’ll accept her community related demands.
And thus starts the romance, only that in typical fashion our heroes don’t know they’re romancing up until the movie’s about to end. Till then, Bullock is driven crazy by a childish Grant and hands him her two weeks’ resignation notice. Grant, on his part, doesn’t accept it and makes sure no one will hire Bullock. Will she make her way back to Grant? Will Coney Island’s community ever be the same again?
Don’t worry, the tension won’t kill you. Two Weeks Notice is as predictable as a film can be, but I argue that this is where it draws its power from: Two Weeks Notice ips a turn your brain off, sit and relax film as the hectic heroes perform a tragedy derived Greek Tragedy like show in front of you. Given these circumstances, does Two Weeks Notice Work? Well, it works as a mind number, but it doesn’t really work as a film. It’s too ridiculous and relies too much on the stereotypical behavior of its stars to work.
Ultimately, Two Weeks Notice can be regarded as a mere tool for Bullock and Grant to perform their antics. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.
Typical Bullock scene: A confused woman waving her hands and uttering unintelligible nonsense.
Typical Grant scene: Grant interviews a fat would be lawyer and wishes her all the best with her non existent baby. Typical, silly, yet as someone who has made the same mistake in the past I could identify with it.
Overall: A film best described as “mah”. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

My House in Umbria

Lowdown: Terrorism survivors heal together in Italian tranquility.
Review:
My House in Umbria is a TV film from 2003 sporting a high quality cast. Set in Italy, it tells the tale of a group of a very diverse and international group of people that are brought together through a single life changing experience: They all shared a train cabin when a terrorist’s bomb went off and killed/injured most of the cabin’s population with the slight exception of a young American girl that came unharmed but lost her parents.
The survivors get out of hospital but they cannot go home as the Italian police is still investigating the bombing and requires their availability. So an old writer of trash romance books, Maggie Smith, invites them all to her place in Umbria (apparently, an exotic location in Italy). There the survivors all find that their unity brings back the good taste for life as they spend their days idling with the locals. And that good taste helps them forgive and heal of their emotional wounds.
What promises to be a good film about Italian sense of ease compared to “our” hectic way of life is ruined when the resting & recuperating characters are shaken upon the arrival of Chris Cooper, the American girl’s only relative. He comes to pick her up to his home in the USA, but should he do it or should he leave the girl with her new found family of survivors instead, with whom she seems more at home? After all, Cooper is a scientist, and as such – according to My House in Umbria – he has to be dry, devoid of emotions, and completely inadequate at taking proper care of the girl. Or any other human being, for that matter.
This assumption, together with a plot that’s driven by Smith's dreams and unsubstantiated notions, ruin what could have been a very promising film.
Best scene: Smith and Cooper walk the less travelled path through the backstreets of Sienna, an old style Italian town. Certainly made me want to go there!
Overall: What a waste of a promising cast and a stellar setting! 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Grumpier Old Men

Between them, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau have an illustrious career of collaborations that resulted in some of the finer displays of acting I have had the privilege of witnessing. Grumpier Old Men, from 1995 - the ebb of their careers - is not such a film.
A sequel to Grumpy Old Men from a couple of years before, Grumpier is your classic sequel: It continues from where its predecessor left off and it doesn't add anything new. Lemmon and Matthau continue to be the two bitter rivals that pretend to hate one another but can't live without the other. This time, their glue comes from their respective daughter and son getting married. They're also united against a new invader to town, Sophia Loren, who threatens to rob them of their favorite bait shop and establish an Italian restaurant instead.
From then on, the plot develops in a manner that cannot be more predictable. The relationship between the two leads revolves around them mainly calling one another names, rendering this so called comedy into a really bland and boring affair. The only thing attracting me to Grumpier Old Men was the ongoing notion that a film with these two characters cannot be that bad (yet it is) and the expectation that things cannot be that predictable (yet they are).
Overall: It's sad to have Lemmon and Matthau's talents wasted on material such as this. 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Spirit

Lowdown: Superhero comics.
Review:
I’ve never heard of The Spirit before renting it, and I only rented it because an otherwise empty shelf of Blu-rays for rent sent me exploring for the expansion of my horizons (as much as that can be achieved through my rental library’s Blu-rays, which tend to be limited to mainstream stuff). I picked the Spirit because it was a superhero film and because it was made by the guy that did Sin City. Not that Sin City knocked me off my seat or anything, but it did have a fresh look.
And looks are all The Spirit can offer, because it sure doesn’t have a story we haven’t heard before. The Spirit is a guy who died but his spirit remained, leaving him unable to die despite severe the physical punishment he often takes in the line of duty. Being the ex cop he is, Spirit (portrayed by Gabriel Macht whom I don’t believe to have encountered before) uses his super power to protect the good and fight evil. In particular, he fights The Octopus, an evil mirror image superhero portrayed by Samuel Jackson. The battleground is Spirit’s city, about which he eternally romanticizes in his film narration. But between fighting the evil Octopus and his sidekick (Scarlett Johansson in yet another uninspiring appearance; does anyone still remember Lost in Translation by now?) over a flask of blood with divine qualities, our Spirit finds himself terribly occupied with the women in his life: His childhood sweetheart (Eva Mendes), the doctor that stays up all night to mend his wounds as quickly as possible, and a mysterious French super-heroine (portrayed by the rather Spanish Paz Vega).
Indeed, the plot is pretty mundane. The looks aren’t; the film is made to look like a comic book, and it does so amazingly well. It looks the part throughout, with every scene seeming to have just popped out of a comic book and into your TV. I can explain how this was done but I’ll just do The Spirit poor service; it’s a collection of elements all assembled together (with the aid of CGI, no doubt). Style follows suit, in the way the narrator tells us what goes on in characters’ heads and the transition scenes.
Yet when all is said and done, the style does not make up for rather boring and mundane plot with too many characters left way too under developed.
Worst scene: The only exception to the comics look is a scene where a Nokia mobile phone is boldly advertised. Shame on the film and shame on Nokia.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray features exceptional picture that serves its presentation perfectly. The sound is very good, too, albeit a step behind top notch.
Overall: Yet another proof that style does not generate substance. The king, or in this case The Spirit, is too naked at 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Wrestler

Lowdown: An aging wrestler has to deal with forced changes.
Review:
None of us has went and seen a black hole from the inside and came back to report it, with the possible exception of Mickey Rourke. Since Nine and a Half Weeks and its sort of a sequel Wild Orchid you could have easily been led to believe the guy went down a black hole. Sure, he had an appearance here and there, as in Sin City, but compared to the impact of his days of old – nothing. The Wrestler, however, brings Rourke back on the agenda.
This time around he’s not the sexy macho lover of old. Or rather he is, but with two extra decades down his belt: The Wrestler has Rourke playing a once world champ wrester living, twenty years later, in the shadows of his former career. His health is in the ruins and his body cannot take the punishment anymore: between the drugs to pump his body up with, the tanning and the hits received on stage, Rourke collapses with a heart attack. He then needs to decide how to move on with his life: continue living as the shadow of his former self and risk dying, or change? Change, in Rourke’s case, means potentially embracing his estranged daughter; getting a day job; or getting into a serious relationship with a stripper with whom he seems to have something of a click. That stripper is played by the always excellent Marisa Tomei, who does the female equivalent of Rourke's wrestler through her stripper character having to contend with motherhood and an aging body that is not as sought after in the strip club as it might have been before.
It’s interesting and all, but once you start getting the hang of The Wrestler it all becomes too predictable and obvious: Quickly enough I stopped cheering for Rourke’s character and developed ambivalence towards him, because there’s just that much you can take from a person that keeps on making all the wrong moves.
There’s an obvious metaphor with The Wrestler, and the main ingredient that makes it work is Rourke himself: The story of The Wrestler living off his former glory has obviously been tailor made for Rourke, an actor in decay – physical as well as mental - now living off his former glory. In many respects, this theme is shared with Van Damme’s recent JCVD.
What made The Wrestler work on me is the extension of the metaphor. This inability to change the way we work despite the guaranteed self destruction and the hurdles we put ahead of ourselves on the way towards more sustainable, and ultimately more rewarding options, is very much the story of the human race and its dealings with global warming. The warning signs are there for us and have been there for a while, yet – at least judging by the actions of our leaders – we prefer to go to hell rather than depart from our precious fossil fuels.
An odd note to conclude this review with: The Wrestler takes it for granted that wrestling matches are a pre-orchestrated circus. The wrestlers themselves sure beat one another up, but they do so in a controlled manner. Not that this comes as a great surprise to me (I used to like watching wrestling action as a teen), but it always seemed to me like a taboo subject; something no one would openly admit to.
Notable scenes: Marisa Tomei’s numerous full on striptease scenes. Seriously: the scenes – well executed as they are – made me feel sorry. Sorry for Tomei, an accomplished actress by all accounts, having to do them. As in, did she have to take her clothes of and then some in order to keep her career alive? On the other hand, I could see how she may be interested in doing the scenes for artistic reasons, and I find it hard to think up a scenario in which I'd have a real problem with nudity.
But still: Tomei really takes her clothes off and perform; Rourke gives us a short glimpse of his ass. Isn't that sexual discrimination?
Best scene: Rourke walks into an empty house but pretends he’s about to go into a wrestling match, shaking from side to side Rocky style (and the similarities between boxing and wrestling are obvious, even though boxers will point at wrestling’s predetermined outcomes). The point is that the film support’s Rourke’s imagination by providing crowd noise and music to go, sort of telling you what is going on in Rourke’s head and the contradiction between that and the reality around him. A nice moment of cinematic artistry.
Technical assessment: You could have fooled me and told me this Blu-ray is actually a DVD, because the picture was what I would rank as average DVD quality rather than Blu-ray. Sure, it’s obvious The Wrestler was not made with a budget that will allow for slick looks, but it is also obvious The Wrestler went for the bad looks on purpose; problem is, it went too far in my book.
The sound is pretty average, to say the least, and the nostalgic eighties’ hard rock music is pathetic / stupid / nice (all of the above), which probably supports the film well.
Overall: The power of this film is in the relevancy of its core metaphor. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Star Trek

Lowdown: The Star Trek tape is rewound to its beginning.
Review:
It’s been a while since the last Star Trek film, Nemesis, has hit the screens during 2002. Since then The Next Generation has withered away and the Star Trek franchise has faded away from TV screens. So, what angle should a new Star Trek film take in its attempt to revive the series? The angle of choice was to go back in time to explore the beginnings of the enterprise’s biggest heroes, the Kirk generation, and in particular Kirk and Spock.
Star Trek’s exposition shows us the young James T Kirk being born in the middle of a space battle during which his father dies a hero’s “die so that we can all live” style death. Then we’re offered some short scenes showing us the resulting orphan’s troubled yet potential filled childhood, and after that it’s quickly off to the Starfleet Academy where the young Kirk quickly meets most of future shipmates: Bones, Uhura and Spock. Spock gets his own background story, telling us of the torments of a half human / half Vulcan child growing up in Vulcan.
Quickly enough we’re thrown into the action: Nero, a renegade Romulan (Eric Bana) travels back in time to avenge something that the old Spock did in the future. That same Nero killed Kirk’s father and now he’s going to focus on Spock’s family in circumstances that quickly place Spock as the brand new Enterprise’s acting captain with Kirk his first officer. The two crew mates are bitter rivals, but the film takes them for an action filled ride in which goodness prevails over Nero, the normal state of affairs is renewed in the captain / first officer relationship, and things are set for a multitude of sequels to come.
While it’s quite entertaining throughout, Star Trek is one hell of a compromised film. Its main problem is it going out of its way to set thing up the way we remember them to be from the good ol’ series while trying too hard to reuse events and characters mentioned in the previous films (all of which are supposed to take place in the film's future). A lot, for example, is borrowed from The Wrath of Khan, such as the idea of Kirk cheating his academy exams and an Enterprise manned by cadets due to an emergency.
The result? Star Trek feels a very contrived film, and the better you know your Star Trek history the worse it feels. The worst crime, by far, has to do with twisting the plot really badly so as to be able to introduce the old Leonard Nimoy as the future version of Spock.
Resulting from the contrived nature of the film are some severe continuity issues that kept bugging me as I watched Star Trek. For example, Kirk’s world is full of aliens; he even has a go at having sex with a green woman at the academy. Yet on William Shatner’s Enterprise there was only one alien, Spock. And what about the Enterprise itself, now full of sexy screens with video game like graphics scrolling all about them? How very different these are to the Shatner enterprise with its bulky buttons!
Indeed, the continuity issues raise the question of the plausibility behind Star Trek. We forgave the Shatner Enterprise for being low tech because we knew it was low budget and because it was a breakthrough concept; yet if you ask me, I would expect the Enterprise to be flown using telepathy by some sort of a human that’s heavily modified with artificial intelligence. Or, in the very least, using 3D models of reality. Definitely not using today’s heads up display technology in a space enabled environment; that’s way too unimaginative. And don’t get me talking about all aliens speaking English, or the probability of finding aliens that look just like us but have green skins, or and the probability of finding aliens with which we can copulate and even have kids. That’s not unimaginative; that’s plain stupid. We are much more likely to procreate with a frog with whom we share the basics of our genes than any alien, no matter how humanoid in shape.
You may say I'm being picky and those points are easy to live with and ignore, but I argue they have an effect on the plot that cannot be ignored. For example, the film's baddie, Nero, is motivated by a star going supernova and destroying his home planet. Now, come on: even 20th century technology will allow you to know your sun is about to go supernova; it's not something that comes as a surprise to anyone, in particular space enabled cultures. Thus the entire plot is relying on shaky premises.
What else? In contemporary pop style, Star Trek is overfilled with CGI abuse and is shot using an annoying shaking camera style that always keeps you in doubt as to what’s taking place (or the director’s confidence in his own directing).
The final outcome is entertaining but very unoriginal. Just how many Star Trek films have resorted to time travel as a main ingredient? And why is it that all of Kirk’s escapades end up settled with a good old fist fight?
Best scene: Simon Pegg making an appearance as Scotty and providing a silly, yet effective, comic relief. Given the film’s vast list of issues, it should have taken the hint and regard itself with much less seriousness than it actually does.
Technical assessment: I was expecting the world out of this Blu-ray, but while the picture is good it is not perfect; and while the sound shines from time to time, it does not shine half as much as I would expect from such a special effects party.
Overall: Ultimately, a forgettable escapade of the 2.5 out of 5 stars realm. William Shatner provides for much better entertainment.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: A philosophical overview of a collection of professions.
Review:
What is it that we do for most of our adult life, the activity we dedicate most of our time to (with the possible exception of sleeping)? The answer is work, of course. Work is so important to us that most of us would present themselves to others by stating their profession first. Yet, when you look at it, we tend to overlook work when we think about ourselves and what we stand for. Compare work with procreation: We spend much more time on the former, yet we tend to focus our attention on the latter.
To the rescue steps Alain de Botton, a writer that took a hold of a special niche: the philosophical observation of the mundane. And by mundane I mean the things we're taking for granted, like the buildings we live in (Architecture of Happiness) or the underlying reasons for the things that motivate us (Status Anxiety).
In his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton provides us with a collection of photo essays, each looking at different professions. The main idea is that these professions represent most of what working adults do nowadays, and look at what these professions say about us and what we say (or avoid saying) about them. Thus de Botton goes sailing with tuna fishermen in the third world, visits the launch of a satellite to space, accompanies a touring career consultant, interviews the head of a major internaitonal accountancy, covers a major international aviation exhibtion, and analyzes the design of a chocolate biscuit (to name a few of de Botton's escapades). More importantly, he analyzes how the work conducted by these professionals affects their lives outside of work, too.
The approach to all of his professions of choice is similar: de Botton tries to identify a representative individual, or a collection of representative individuals, and then he casts an examining look at their lives - both during and out of work. The results of these investigations is a collection of observation tending to the philosophical, not unlike this blogger's but definitely much more interesting and much better written. Indeed, de Botton's writing style is unique: Unlike my preferred approach of trying to write the way I would talk to another person in order to guarantee their comprehension, de Botton utilizes intentionally elongated sentences and a rich vocabulary one does not tend to encounter outside of a dictionary. It could sound pompous, and it often is, but de Botton doesn't abuse his language: he uses his rich vocabulary to specify the slightest nuances of the ideas he is trying to convey, and it works well. Combined with the accompanying photos, de Botton's messages are touching and direct; there is no beating around the bush when, for example, he describes his opinion as to why the multinational accounting company needs to have the very strict code of conduct regulations it has, and why - for very similar reasons - the accountant he travels on the train with to their London office tends to find herself sharing the ride with people who hide behind the morning newspaper.
The accompanying photos are worth an extra word. They're simply superb and they contribute a lot to the stories de Botton is telling (and you can see some of them, probably the lesser ones that didn't make it into the book, at de Botton's website here); I would love to see more adult oriented books incorporate graphics this way to enhance the delivery of their message.
The end result is a book loaded with ideas that will make you think a lot about the work you do and the work others do. I'll demonstrate it on myself first by asking what worth does my IT job represent given the fact that whatever it is I am doing at the office is bound to be discarded and replaced in just two or three years. Or, looking at it from another perspective, what are people looking for when they go to the office given that what they do fails to directly contribute to my own good or to society's greater good.
Overall, interesting insight is plentiful; there's a dedicated point to almost every page. It's all very relevant and quite intriguing, so much so that I could not hold myself from picking the book up and reading, something that in this age of the Internet and the PlayStation does not happen too often. de Botton managed to create a book that is relevant to virtually all of us, and did it so well the book is bound to entertain all that come in its way. What de Botton has produced is an ode to work similar to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but an ode that looks at both the good and the bad, the pleasures and the sorrows.
Overall: Entertaining, thought provoking an exciting. But most of all, unique. 5 out of 5 stars.

A Note added on 4 November 2009: As per this post's comments, the book's photographer (Richard Baker) has asked if I could add a link to a far wider archive of pictures that were produced for this project. Have a look at them here.

Friday, 30 October 2009

JCVD

Lowdown: A former big time star faces the mortality of his situation.
Review:
I first heard of Jean Claude Van Damme during my army service when I was forced to watch his rather hideous karate film Bloodsport in the company of men who seemed to have an orgasm with every kick. With time, Van Damme either grew on me or rather his films improved, and by the mid nineties he had a couple of nice films under his belt. Yet since then he seems to have disappeared into an abyss, popping back for the first noticeable time in JCVD.
The unique thing about the JCVD comeback is that it’s not just another kick and punch movie. Rather, it’s a film about Van Damme the real person or Van Damme as a real person (an important distinction the film keeps blurry on purpose). Van Damme plays himself, an aging movie star way past his peak but still a national hero at his homeland of Belgium who spends his time between reading job offers for very B grade films and dealing with the legal fight for his daughter in the USA.
As the film starts we see Van Damme coming back to Belgium from a custody court case that didn't go his way. He has his taxi stop by a post office, and the next thing you know it seems as if he's holding the people at that post office hostages. The situation receives plenty of attention from everyone given the hero status Dan Damme has with his compatriots. Then we go through a series of flashbacks during which we quickly learn that Van Damme is in fact a hostage and that it's only his status that made us think he's the hostage taker. Thing is, the outside world still thinks he's a criminal.
The rest of the film revolves around exposing Van Damme as a regular human being with regular human being issues and desires through the hostage situation that places him, the mega star, in a pretty helpless position. That big time ass kicker is all submissive in front of several low caliber criminals and their measly guns.
JCVD is certainly no run of the mill Van Damme film; there's no action to speak of and Van Damme is asked to act instead of kick. We are left with no doubt as for the film's purpose: it's a cynical look at the the world of celebrities and/or a deep look at a regular person in times of trouble. It could also be Van Damme's ticket back to celebrity status.
Given the uniqueness of having a genuine star willing to expose himself this way, JCVD is a fine and unique effort. Problems wise, my main issue with JCVD is the style with which it was shot: a very shaky camera held too close to the action, resulting in headaches and severe difficulties comprehending what's taking place. I don't get this style no matter how fashionable it currently is.
Key scene: While being held hostage, Van Damme is suddenly raised up and we can see he's in a movie set. He looks at the camera and gives us a long, too long in my view, speech from the bottom of his heart. It's person to person, not movie star to person.
Best scene: Van Damme's captor tells him how good Hard Target was and how much of an idiot John Woo was for abandoning him afterwards, noting Woo paid the just price with Windtalkers. The dialog continues and the two exchange jokes about Steven Seagal and his ponytail. While most of the dialog comes from the captor's mouth, it is clear that what we're hearing is the real Van Damme spilling his guts over the fate of his career. And I agree: as an owner of the Hard Target DVD, my opinion is this is Van Damme's best film ever and Woo's best American made film; I also agree that Windtalkers is an incredibly bad film.
Technical assessment: Interestingly enough, our local video store only had JCVD on DVD, which is why I missed out on it thus far (most of my browsing attention is reserved to Blu-rays). As DVDs go it’s not a bad one, although it has absolutely no supplementals (a two disc DVD set is said to be available, too). The picture quality is hard to assess as JCVD seems to have been filmed on extra high contrast stock that makes it look almost black and white, but the sound is decent.
Overall: Not a film that will knock you off your seat, but definitely uniquely interesting. 3 out of 5 stars, and here’s hoping to see more quality stuff from Van Damn It’s direction.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Lowdown: Two naïve American girls mature through a visit to Barcelona.
Review:
I like Woody Allen even if he does seem to be an old pervert craving young girls. That said, issues with his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, made me wonder how good the film could have been if the same story was to be told in a better way.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells the story of two young American women that go to spend a few months at a friend’s place in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is engaged to a promising business man and seems to know exactly what she wants out of life, while Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is said to have just finished directing a short film she also stars in; she's totally disappointed with the result. In short, Cristina is meant to be Vicky’s opposite: someone who has no clue what she wants out of life. The clueless budding artist compared to the calculated. Film wise, the key element to Vicky and Cristina’s introductions is the extensive use of a narrator telling you what they are and what they’re thinking as opposed to expressing those elements using pure cinema language. I have found the narrator, who keeps coming back for long speeches, to be quite a detractor.
Anyway, as one may expect, upon hitting Barcelona our characters face evidence countering their preconceptions of life. Particular focus is given to Vicky, who – despite her engagement – falls for a smooth talking artist with an open approach to sex (Javier Bardem, the psycho killer from No Country for Old Men). Dilemma follows: from that point in time onwards, she can only see her fiancé is the boring guy he is (and always was); but should she leave the safety of his company in favor of the emotional Bardem?
Cristina’s story follows similar lines and augments Vicky’s. Most of the story is told using dialog (and that annoying narration!), and unlike what you may expect from Allen this is not a comedy although it has its entertaining moments. The point of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is to create an argument in support of following one’s sexual desires in order to ensure one’s happiness under the pretense of "art", as if to explain to us why it makes sense for certain old geezers to have a go at their young stepdaughters.
The problem with the argument, at least the way it’s presented in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is that life is not black and white. You rarely have to make an extreme a choice as Vicky has, as in the choice between financial safety plus predictability as opposed to raw emotions and great sex. Usually, if given a choice in the first place, the various options vary only slightly in their shades of gray. Not only that, I argue that the film’s preferred choice (Bardem) is quite a bad one: we have every reason to believe Vicky would not have found life long happiness with him.
Perhaps Woody Allen is trying to tell us life long happiness cannot be found anywhere, and perhaps he’s correct. What I argue, though, is that were I to be in Vicky’s place I would have dumped the fiancé as quickly as possible because he was a boring Australian Liberals voter type person; and as for a replacement, as flashy as Bardem is I wouldn’t have thought of him as anything but a source of some short term pleasure that I can learn from (and then have a lifetime with which to look for someone worthy of spending the rest of my life with).
Oh, I do have further criticism: Were Hall and Johansson really acting there? I’m asking this because to me they seem to have presented a real lacklustre acting show, almost allowing me to say I could have done a better acting job than them (and I’m a male, for a start). It could have been that they were directed to act the way they did by an Allen attempting too hard to make them seem the typical dumb Americans one envisages when one thinks of Americans’ generalizations (especially during the Bush era). But those generalizations are false, and Allen’s output is problematic just the same.
So, do I have a good thing to say about Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Sure; it made me want to visit Spain and Barcelona in particular. And as I have recently discussed, I think visiting other places and getting to see the world through the eye of other cultures are two of life’s best experiences, eye openers that on a large scale should put an end to all wars.
Representative scene: Bardem, in a relationship with Cristina, brings his distressed ex-wife Penélope Cruz home. As they bring one another up to date with their situations, Bardem keeps on urging Cruz to speak English for Cristina’s sake. Only that he does it in Spanish. Great humor!
Sound quality: Woody Allen has a thing against surround sound, which makes this Blu-ray an example for wasting good potential away. It’s even sadder when you listen to the splendid soundtrack filled with Spanish style music in this limited fashion.
Picture quality: If you thought the sound is bad, wait for the picture: everything has this reddish-yellowish hue about it. It’s obviously intentional, but I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to achieve; it just made everything look so terribly artificial.
Overall: A very compromised film, so I'm going to be harsh and give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, with Barcelona and its surrounding earning most of those.

Monday, 26 October 2009

State of Play

Lowdown: A reporter on a murder case uncovers big money/power secrets.
Review:
Till watching it, I have learnt of State of Play mostly through its radio commercial. Assume that edgy male voice that’s used on all movie promos as you read the following: “Russell Crowe… Helen Mirren… [shooting sounds] State of Play…”
The weird thing about that promo is that State of Play features many other stars (e.g., Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn) doing much more than what Mirren does in her minor role of a cliché Brit. And the other weird thing is that State of Play, while featuring guns and ammo, is not an action film; first and foremost, State of Play is a film that tries to remind us why the newspapers of old are so important by showing us a reporter doing what a reporter should do. It’s an ode to proper, investigative, journalism.
Russell Crowe does run the show, though. This time he’s an old style investigative reporter working for Washington Globe (a newspaper meant to clone the real life Washington Post) who has a hard time accepting that the times, they are a-changing. For a start, his paper is now owned by MediaCorp (a company meant to clone Rupert Murdoch’s real life NewsCorp), and their interest is in money, not journalism; and second, he doesn’t acknowledge the potential professional talents that may hide in the paper’s internet side. That is, until he has no choice but to cooperate with a blogger from the electronic edition, Rachel McAdams, in order to uncover the details of a weird murder case.
As our pair works around its investigations, constantly beating the cops in their game, they reveal connections with other crimes. Notably, a connection with the death of Affleck's assistant, and the rather mysterious circumstances in which that death took place just as Affleck, a senator, was running a probe into a security company that tends to take justice into its own hands in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq (and now the USA). And things get even more complicated as we learn Affleck is Crowe’s best friend and that Crowe has something going on with Affleck’s wife (Wright Penn).
Things get tense as Crowe gets closer to having his life prematurely concluded by that corrupt private enterprise his investigations lead him to. And the deeper we go into State of Play, the clearer it becomes that director Kevin Macdonald is trying his hardest to convince us that all this uncovering could not take place without a journalist being able to do his thing the way he should and that the internet cannot replicate the same benefits that good old fashioned paper based reporting can achieve. It is no wonder Watergate is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout State of Play, both directly and indirectly.
For the most part, I agree with the director. Bloggers are no substitute for proper investigative journalism. Because they are mostly tools for delivering opinions as opposed to facts and because they are mostly an individual enterprise with not much of a backing and not enough resources to support them, blogs cannot be relied upon for keeping those in power from abusing their power. It is also clear that proper journalism is mandatory for keeping our democracy at bay: Just check the case of Mohamed Haneef to see how badly we need objective reporters to prevent the government from abusing its power. However, my question to the film is this: Rather than praising an endangered occupation, aren’t we discussing an already extinct one?
Have a look at Australian newspapers today. Most are under the control of NewsCorp, that company that is so rightly accused by State of Play as a force playing against professional journalism and a force promoting their own agendas through the media they control. But have a look at The Age, Melbourne’s most serious newspaper: How many cases of investigative journalism can that paper boast? Barely a few each year; most of the news is made of “this politician said this” while “that politician said that”, with the rest of it made of news releases. Investigative journalism is dead and has been dead for a good few years now; big money has won the game a while ago.
There are just a handful of proper Crowe like journalists out there now. Never has the future of democracy as we know it relied on so few, and the sad reality is they don’t have much of a future.
Worst scene: As good as State of Play is, it’s ending is horrible. The build up is all nice, cool and reliable; but then the end arrives with the filmmakers trying too hard to surprise us. The taste in my mouth suddenly turned bitter.
Technical assessment: The picture is rather mediocre for a Blu-ray, but the sound definitely enhances the experience.
Overall: It would have been 4 if it wasn’t for that ending, but as it is State of Play still gets a credible 3.5 out of 5 stars.