Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Priceless

Lowdown: Can buy me love.
Review:
One of the more interesting cinema related questions I can think of is what was it that made the French actress Audrey Tautou famous enough to star in Hollywood films. Sure, she did Amelie, but then again many French actors do good films. Anyway, Priceless, the latest film I got to watch Tautou star in, is a French production from 2006 where our heroine portrays a character which is just unaffordable (the correct, if not as sexy, translation to Priceless’ French title of Hors de prix).
To be more precise, Tautou is a young good looking girl living the life at the French Riviera with an old millionaire that will do anything to keep her by his side. The definition of “anything” in our particular case comes down to buying Tautou expensive jewelery and dresses and shoes on an hourly basis as together they constantly stay in ultra expensive hotel suites.
One night, after her partner falls asleep in bed, Tautou roams her hotel to find its barman (Gad Elmaleh). A useless barman he is: he sleeps on the job and walks around old ladies’ dogs for extra cash during the day. Only that on that particular night, Tautou mistakes our barman to be a millionaire even heavier than her old geezer, so they have themselves a night to remember at the barmen hotel’s most expensive suite (that he broke into).
A year passes and Elmaleh can’t stop daydreaming about Taotou and the glitter she brings with her; nothing in his life the way he knows it can compare. When they finally meet again they have themselves another night to remember, only that this time around they get caught: Elmaleh gets fired from the hotel and is exposed before Tautou for what he really is, while Tautou finds herself in the street with nothing but the clothes she’s wearing and no one to buy her new dresses.
Elmaleh jumps in to fill the gap in Tautou’s life. By gathering all of his life’s savings, he’s able to take her to expensive hotels and restaurants and buy her some new dresses and shoes she can wear once. But there’s just that much he can do before his money runs out, after which his only hope of being able to keep Tautou in his sights is… to take on her lifestyle and replace the old ladies’ dogs he used to walk with their owners.
Overall, Priceless is a very intriguing dramatic comedy to watch, driven by a wise script that doesn’t take itself too seriously, a pair of good actors at the lead, and direction work that often borders the genius. The nice French Riviera setting contributes a lot to the atmosphere, too: Nice is not only one of the nicer places I’ve been to (if we ignore the fact parking is virtually impossible), it is definitely expensive as well as glamorous in every respect. Although definitely a French production by look and feel, I do have to add that nudity wise Priceless fails to rise to French standards: it feels more like a puritan American production.
Priceless seems to be playing with us viewers as we go along. One moment we are amazed by the glamour, the next we are annoyed with Tautou for not realizing the love in front of her and opting instead for a dress. And another. And another. One can easily dismiss Priceless for that, but I found it altogether charming. Even with its corny ending.
Best scene:
As I said, there are some good shots at brilliance in Priceless. One of them could have been Elmaleh using his last Euro coin to buy ten seconds of Tautou’s time and spending those ten seconds just gazing at her face. Yet that scene is too obvious to pass as brilliant, and it even gets abused twice later on.
So my pick would go to a simple shot where Elmaleh is fetching five glasses of Champaign to his group during a party. Being that the party is rather crowded and being that Elmaleh is an expert waiter, he holds the glasses on a tray up high so that all we see through the crowds is the movement of the tray. And the events that take places with the tray’s flutes.
I know my description sounds mundane, but how often have you watched a recent Hollywood film and found yourself admiring a particular shot?
Technical assessment:
Picture and sound wise, Priceless is a very standard DVD that does a good job conveying the atmosphere at the Riviera. The real intrigue is supplied by the mundane feature of the DVD’s subtitles. Yes, the subtitles.
The main feature film has mandatory English subtitles that you can’t get rid of, which would probably annoy those whose French is good enough to want out. The supplementals, on the other hand, have no subtitles at all, rendering them entirely useless to non French speakers (myself included). Which raises the question, what were they thinking? Obviously, they weren’t.
Overall: Simple yet good, which is not an achievement to belittle. I would rate it somewhere between 3.5 to 4 stars out of 5 and recommend it to all lovers of French cinema.

Friday, 27 March 2009

You Don't Mess with the Zohan

Lowdown: The Arab-Israeli conflict solved through an Israeli superhero and some humus.
Review:
Adam Sandler's got talent. The talent to make money off some silly films, but also the acting talent on display in films such as Punch Drunk Love. Sadly, the majority of Sandler's work falls under the first category, and You Don't Mess with the Zohan (or just Zohan in short) certainly belongs to that folder, too.
Zohan the film follows a character called Zohan (portrayed by Sandler). Zohan the character is an Israeli commando that is literarily a superhero: he's faster than a speeding plane, he stops bullets with his teeth, and he's got a huge dick; the ultimate Israeli weapon against the Arab terrorists menacing the country. Only that Zohan is tired of fighting; he wants his peace. So he smuggles himself to New York and attempts a go at his dream career - being a hairstylist. Stuck in eighties style, Zohan doesn't fair to well, and seems destined to rot in an Israeli run electronics shop selling overpriced crap to innocent Americans like many other Israelis coming to fulfill the American dream before him.
Zohan does, however, get his break at a hairstyle place run by an attractive Palestinian immigrant on the Arab side of the street (reality according to Zohan, it seems, is but a street with two sides). He starts as an apprentice but his commando talents allow him to make enough of an impression. In no time he establishes a reputation with all the old ladies, for whom he does a haircut with an intercourse thrown in as a bonus. Yet Zohan is plagued by his past, and when some Arabs he has confronted in his past life show up (John Turturro and Rob Schneider, who do a nice job of their role - especially the former) the stage is set for a showdown. You can rest assured that by the end of it all both sides recognize they have much more in common than they thought, and they all live happily ever after to eat their humus in peace.
There are some unique points to Zohan the film. It's got some good jokes going for it for a start. Then there are a lot of authentic Israelism to it: many things about Zohan the character, including his accent and culinary preferences, are very much there. The entire "Israeli gone to New York" story is also quite authentically portrayed, and there is also enough Hebrew thrown about for non Hebrew speakers to potentially miss out on too many things. Yet, in typical Sandler style, this whole Israeli thing is taken way too far on the silly side of the scale, especially in the sex department and in the meaningless talk department.
Indeed, the premises of showing how Arabs and Israelis can work together doing mundane stuff like haircuts is a good one. Supporting it through the use of genuine real life Arab comedians who take central roles in the film is also very good. So why did they have to spoil it all by throwing way too many jokes about having sex with old ladies, especially when these jokes are not that funny to begin with? And why do they repeat them so many times? It's not like I'm asking for political correctness; I'm just asking for quality control. It all becomes too hard to take when this silliness is added to the schmaltz that comes with genuinely suggesting Israelis and Arabs can just forget everything that had happened and live happily ever after.
Best scene: The scenes where Zohan displays his superhero skills are nice; they sort of take you by surprise because the film appears too serious at first for comics style silliness. But then they repeat the same themes again and again to ruin a good joke.
Technical assessment: The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and the picture are very ordinary, with just the extra resolution telling you this is more than a DVD. The Blu-ray does offer an extended version, adding some scenes featuring Sandler nudity (or are they in the original version too?), but the beach portrayed in that scene looks nothing like anything Israel has to offer.
Overall: Despite the promising framework Zohan is too silly for its own good. 2.5 out of 5 stars. And P.S: There is no such name as "Zohan"; at least not yet.

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Quantum of Solace

Lowdown: Bond seeks vengeance for Casino Royale.
Review:
There's not much that can be said about the James Bond franchise that hasn't been seen, so I will say it here: the Ian Fleming books suck. That anecdote aside, the previous Bond film - Casino Royale - was a huge success; its successor, Quantum of Solace (QoS), has had a tough act to follow. I know I'm repeating virtually every QoS review written when I'm saying it failed.
QoS starts from the point Casino Royale ended. A troubled Bond is seeking to learn who is behind the death of his love subject, Vesper (or was it Vespa?). Bond and his MI6 (or is it MI5?) boss M (Judi Dench) know only that they are facing a yet unfamiliar international terrorism group that has people everywhere, including the kitchen sink. In a completely unexpected fashion for a Bond film, Daniel Craig's Bond character seeks out the baddies while travelling all over the world (with a focus on South America this time), killing a lot of them in a series of action extravaganzas.
Personally, I have found the most interesting thing about QoS being the baddie using the cover of a green organization to do bad things; sort of reminds me of the Australian government that signed the Kyoto Protocol on its first day at the office but stalled on global warming ever since and eventually came up with a revolutionary plan to reduce carbon emissions by a whopping five percent through a stupidly complicated and obviously completely ineffective system of carbon trading that would glaringly allow the big polluters to continue with their business as usual and remove any incentives others may have for taking their own initiative (because any reductions they might achieve will be offset by the big polluters polluting even more).
But enough of personal moaning. QoS is a solid action film, and like its ancestor it is very visceral. Problem is, there aren't that many other compliments to hand the film.
On the negative side, QoS is full of bullshit. True, virtually all Bond films are, but the thing is that Casino Royale had made a significant effort in the credibility department; QoS sort of goes back with its directional explosives (that is, for unexplained reasons things explode in the exact direction Bond would benefit from) or the stupidly complicated databases at MI6 headquarters that always have the information you want already on display and are mega-huge touch screen operated ala Minority Report. Come on, MI6 is a government agency; they probably use Lotus fucking Notes.
In a typical modern action film style, action scenes are shot with a deliberately shaky camera hold and the editing is quick; often enough you can't really tell what took place, you only figure out what the end result was. Me? I think this sophiticated style sucks big time.
Quibbling aside, QoS biggest problem is its starting point: By starting off where Casino Royale had ended it forces the viewer to know what happened in Casino Royale. Well, excuse foolish me, but it had been a while since I have watched Casino Royale, and I haven't done my homework and refreshed my memory on its intricacies prior to watching QoS; I must be in the minority, because it seems QoS' makers are dead sure you would do exactly that. Thus I spent most of QoS wondering who the different characters I'm supposed to already know are and what their story is. Let me tell you this: it's quite annoying.
Add over-recycling (see below) and not much meaning in it all and you end up with a very forgettable film.
Recycled scene #1: During QoS' first act we have ourselves a rough encounter in an old city's streets. The way it is all done is a cross between the crane scene from Casino Royale and Bourne Ultimatum's market chase featuring alleyway terrace to terrace jumps. Whichever way you look at it, QoS is a copycat.
Recycled scene #2: Oilfinger. Bond finds his girl dead, stuffed and covered in oil.
Technical assessment: Now, I don't remember me such an aggressive soundtrack since the good old days of watching T2 on laserdisc. The DTS HD soundtrack on this Blu-ray is not only visceral, it is also very loud; in my opinion it is probably too loud, as in loud enough to sacrifice some dynamic range. Still, I like aggressiveness in the sound department and I liked this one quite a lot. The picture, by the way, is excellent too. Indeed, Bond films tend to be very good in the technical department; I should probably revisit Casino Royale on Blu-ray, because that also happens to be a good film.
Overall: Shaken and stirred. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Mamma Mia!

Lowdown: Actors enjoying an feature length Abba sing-along.
Review:
After watching the first five minutes of Mamma Mia!, the alert message going through my brain was something like “mamma mia let me go”. The more rational side of my brain was thinking along the lines of “oh no, not another Across the Universe like disaster; can we turn the TV off now?”
As plots go, Mamma Mia! doesn’t have much to be proud of. Set on a Greek island, it’s a multi cast extravaganza that sort of revolves around Meryl Streep. Streep is the manager of a small time island hotel whose daughter is getting married the next day. The cunning daughter does not know who her father is, but after peeking at Streep’s diary of yonder days she narrows it down to three candidates and invites them all to her wedding. Of course, in order to provide a Greek tragedy like element to the film, Streep must not know about this because she hates those three guys who left her. Thus when the three arrive, including Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, the pressure cooker is boiling. And what do people do when pressure cookers boils? They sing Abba songs, of course, which is what tends to happen throughout most of the film as it tries to answer that most existential of questions: who is going to give the bride away in the upcoming wedding ceremony?
I have been quoted to say I don’t like musicals, and my reasoning definitely apply to Mamma Mia!: First, the performances tend to suck, and that is definitely the case here. All singing is done by the actual cast, and let’s face it – they’re not singers. Especially Brosnan, whom even a dead parrot can outsing. Second, when songs are forcefully pushed down a film’s throat they come at a price: plots don’t make sense and story development gets stalled, for a start.
Yet overall Mamma Mia! manages to skip between these traps. Through the sheer fun the actors obviously had making this film, and mostly through the Abba songs that have always been so stupidly funny, Mamma Mia! provides for an overall light fun type experience. Forget the meaningless plot or the bad singing, and enjoy a couple of hours under the Greek sun with some people making fools of themselves and some nice music.
So why is it not another Across the Universe? I would say because it does not take itself too seriously, does not try to bite more than it can chew, offers a superb cast of actors that can actually act (Streep is really something; such versatile actors are truly rare), and does not deal with Bono like ego trips.
I'll put it this way: The morning after Mamma Mia! started with some Abba music.
Best scene: There is no real memorable scene I can report. Of course, Brosnan’s singing is memorable for the wrong reasons, but then the one scene that made me laugh was the Abba pianist’s cameo at the peak of a Dancing Queen extravaganza on the beach.
Technical assessment: The problem with this Blu-ray is that the picture is so good it makes the abundant use of blue screens so stupidly obvious it’s distracting. The same goes for the sound, where the DTS HD soundtrack's level of detail exposes the ADR (dubbing) used for the singing. That said, the soundtrack is great for fun, and although there are no low frequency effects (and rightly so) I really liked it for the sheer joy it conveyed. Blu-ray is, indeed, the way to experience Mamma Mia!
Overall: A nice chill-out film. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Made of Honor

Lowdown: A dude performing bridesmaid duties tries to break a marriage down from the inside.
Review:
Patrick Dempsey seems to be the current George Clooney. That is, a manly man with much women targeted appeal making the transition from an E/R like TV series into the big screen. On his way to to Mecca Dempsey managed to disenchant me in Enchanted; in Made of Honor he does a bit better but makes it clear there is still a lot of room for improvement if he wants to become more than just a pretty face doing chick flicks (not that there's anything wrong with that, at least money wise).
This time around, Dempsey plays the bloke in his thirties that failed to mature. A womanizer that scores so easily it hurts, he fails to see the true love of his life is right in front of him and has been right in front of him since college in the shape of his best platonic friend, the ever charming Michelle Monaghan. Things change when Monaghan is sent for a six week work assignment in Scotland as through her absence Dempsey suddenly realizes how big a fool he was. He sets his mind on proposing upon her return, only that he's in for a surprise she breaks the news of her upcoming marriage to a Scottish guy of noble origins she met when he came Mr Darcy like on a horse to save her as she was stuck in Scottish mud. Being that Dempsey is her best friend, she appoints him to be her bridesmaid, which gives Dempsey the opportunity to break the marriage off from the inside but also annoys Monaghan's girlfriends who have aspired for the job. Wow, what a solid foundation for a movie!
Will Dempsey make it? Suffice it to say that horses play a significant role in Made of Honor.
There is not much else going for Made of Honor, though. It is a pretty standard Hollywood made romantic comedy, which means it's predictable, features lots of things that don't make sense, designed to be cute and inoffensive, and is full of cliches (the film's classic Scotland cliche jokes utilize every weapon in the arsenal). That said, Made of Honor is never really boring and has this sense of charm to it that kept me lightly entertained till its stupidly cliche/predictable ending.
I attribute a lot of the film's positive charms to Monaghan, who seems way too good an actress to be wasted on pretty face chick roles. Which brings me to ask, why isn't Hollywood providing more quality roles for women instead of going along with the chauvinistic lines we are all made to take for granted? Why is it, really, that a woman's wedding day is preached by everyone to be the most important day in her life when it clearly isn't (I would put dying miles in front for a start)? I guess what I'm trying to say is that Made of Honor sticks to conservative social conventions all the way and never tries to make us think or question.
Well, at least it taught me that in the USA they have a thing called "wedding shower" before the wedding which involves the exchange of gifts, although it was unclear whether the bride gives away gifts, receives gifts, or both. Still, I take my lessons whenever I get them.
Worst scene: Dempsey and his gang of friends are shocked and awed when they witness Dempsey Scottish rival's tool in the shower room. Aside of the lack of taste, isn't there like a pact or something between all dudes not to perform comparisons in shared bathrooms? Oh, I see: as this is a chick flick, the chicks watching the films are not meant to be aware of this secret pact.
Worst joke: In a premarital Scottish ritual, men compete for the bride by performing manly fits like throwing logs and such. The men are dressed in classic Scottish attire, but for some elusive reason Dempsey gets to wear a mini Scottish kilt. So sophisticated!
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray has nothing really going for it. The picture is per the format's standard but with inconsistent colors, and the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack shows the value of a lossless sound format but does not have much going for it otherwise.
Overall: A very standard and overly conservative chick flick that entertains a little. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 20 March 2009

Body of Lies

Lowdown: Ridley Scott takes on the War on Terror.
Review:
When examining Ridley Scott’s body of work, the word that comes to my mind is standard deviation. While the average quality of his films is relatively high, the guy did manage to come up with tour de forces like Blade Runner on one hand and boring stuff like American Gangster on the other. Let’s face it, Ridley Scott does not follow the six sigma philosophy. Question is, which way is the standard deviation pointing at with Body of Lies, Scott’s latest? Sadly, my impression is the latter.
Body of Lies examines the morality and the culture clashes involved in the War on Terror. Leonardo DiCaprio is our hero for the duration of the film, a CIA operative whose edge comes from mingling with his enemies and local allies by using their ways and “forgetting” his (which mostly comes down to avoiding the use of technology). DiCaprio is handed the task of bringing down a specific Al Qaeda gang that’s rampaging through Europe (for the record, while Body of Lies was shot in Morocco, it’s all set up in the Middle East).
Contrasting DiCaprio is Russell Crowe, DiCaprio’s operative in the USA. Crowe spends the entire film glued to his mobile phone’s ear piece and managing the world while running around the daily errands like getting his children to school and attending to his child’s football match. The symbolism here is too obvious for me to spend more time on it.
As the plot thickens, Body of Lies turns out to be a thriller / action / espionage flick. It really is thrilling, but the catch is that you constantly witness events taking place yet find yourself unable to figure out exactly what took place. While this is often the case with films trying to create a sense of suspense, somewhere in the middle of watching Body of Lies’ more than two hours of duration you realize that you are never going to be able to make out what is going on. I guess it is an intentional effort on behalf of the film to demonstrate there are no good sides and bad sides to the war on terror and that everyone is just selfishly acting in their own interest while turning a blind eye to the effects of their selfish acts. Film wise, however, the end result is that while Body of Lies is thrilling to watch it did leave me in a rather confused and, to some extent, annoyed state of mind.
Some would say “wow”, what a mighty achievement Scott had achieved here; I say that Scott has had himself a miss here, creating a film that is not substantially different to others (e.g., The Kingdom).
Abused scene: Throughout the film we have the big brother looking over events back in USA headquarters through flying drones. At first it’s interesting, but as the film went along I thought they were over-milking the drone.
Technical assessment: A good Blu-ray production even if the colors are a bit confused from time to time. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is good (yet not excellent), but why the hell does the disc default to old style Dolby Digital instead?
Overall: Nice but no cigar. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Heartbreak Ridge

Lowdown: Clint teaches a group of useless kids how to be marines.
Review:
If you were to ask me who are the contemporary movie directors to which I look up to the most, the first name I would come up with is probably going to be Clint Eastwood. Yet, as 1986's Heartbreak Ridge demonstrates, Eastwood took his time becoming a great director; there was a learner in him before Unforgiven.
Heartbreak Ridge is a comedy/drama/war film in which Eastwood directs himself. This time around he's a disgruntled marine: the veteran of numerous campaigns, his tough marine like behavior off the battlefield has earned him a minor role in a supply unit. It's a chicken and egg thing, with his failure at the army driving his personal life to even deeper depths.
Then, however, opportunity knocks and an old unit no one cares about requires a sergeant. Eastwood jumps on the opportunity, only to find the squad he has been given is a squad of no good boys who expect nothing of themselves and from whom no one expects much. Yet Eastwood is not the one to avoid a challenge, and despite a mighty opposition made of idiot superior officers and the disapproving soldiers under his command he manages to turn his squad into men. Men of such pedigree that when the call comes, they go out and easily invade a country, raise the American flag, and kill themselves some commies for dessert.
The film that reminds me the most of Heartbreak Ridge is Top Gun: yet another film where a reckless dude comes of age under the supervision of mature superiors, and yet another film where coming of age means being good at dispensing the world of the Russian nemesis through severe war mongering. I guess the world we used to live in was different before the Berlin Wall came down, but still it has to be said that Heartbreak Ridge's spirit is particularly stupid. Couple that with relatively low production values (at least by today's parameters), and you get yourself a rather forgettable stupid film.
That said, in its favor it has to be said that unlike Top Gun, Heartbreak Ridge does not take itself too seriously. Time after time Eastwood makes jokes on his own behalf, as if asking us to take everything with a wink. If you do, Heartbreak Ridge passes by as an easy and pleasantly silly watch.
Representative scene: Eastwood teaches his squad in a rather creative manner the virtues of an AK-47, the rifle favored by their opponents.
Overall: By Eastwood's standards this is bad, but it also shows where Eastwood came from. 2.5 out of 5 stars, I wonder how much of the film is Eastwood's own personal story.

Monday, 16 March 2009

21

Lowdown: Good Will Hunting goes gambling.
Review:
Once upon a time there was an actor called Kevin Spacey who gave performances of a lifetime in two supporting roles, one with Se7en and another with The Usual Suspects. Since then, with a few notable exceptions, the guy has mostly fumbled his way through riding on past glory. This is exactly the case in 21.
21 tells the story of a bright student at MIT, played by Jim Sturgess of Across the Universe notoriety. Unlike Good Will Hunting, a former MIT colleague, he is a full time student there. Like Will, however, he has a tough time making ends meet. His trouble seems to be over when he bumps into a university professor (Spacey) who leads this gang of smart students that go together on Las Vegas ventures in order to play 21. Being that these guys are smart, they have developed this team work methodology for counting cards; when done right it brings the odds in their favor, enabling to clean the house down.
Quickly enough Sturgess becomes the main gang member. From a decent guy focusing on his studies and friends he becomes addicted to gambling more and more (and to this cool chick in his gambling group). On his way down [to Las Vegas] he forgets about his old world, but how long can that last? Not too long if you were to ask Laurence Fishburne, an old style private detective who works for the casinos and breaks the bones of cheaters for dessert.
Although potentially exciting, watching 21 is more like watching a farce. It is so very mundane, mostly because (1) it uses every cliche in the book and (2) it uses dramatic effects to hide the flaws in its logic and (3) it is SO predictable it's not funny. Come on, we all know Laurence Fishburne cannot be all bad (and that's just one example).
The result is that 21 becomes interesting to watch just because you're wondering how low it can go, but given the unfathomable depths it goes to the answer is a rather disappointing one.
Worst scene:
I think the best way to explain what I'm talking about is to provide an example that won't ruin too much of the plot.
When Sturgess first meets Spacey, it's in Spacey's class for non linear equations. Spacey's take on non linear equations does not have much to do with math but seems more like a history lesson, probably because math would not pass with the movie crowds; history, however, does not pass credibility wise.
Spacey asks a historical question and Sturgess answers. Then, in order to check Sturgess' mettle, Spacey asks him the Monty Hall Problem; which is nice, but has nothing to do with non linear equations. The Monty Hall Problem is a question of probabilities, and it's so famous that even I know about it; suffice it to say that one cannot judge an MIT student based on that, and that a professor would be deemed an idiot for straying so much from the subject at hand. He might as well have asked Sturgess to show him where Africa is on the map.
In short, in order to constantly impress its crowd of viewers, 21 does not hesitate to cross credibility and believability borders. Do note the above example is one of the more sophisticated ones; for the more benign, just check the way Sturgess accepts a life of crime all too easily (Note counting cards at a casino is not a crime; it just annoys the hell out of the casino. I'm referring to other stuff here).
Technical assessment: This is a high quality Blu-ray with some excellent aggressive sound through the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack. Pity the sound is used to camouflage the stupid things taking place on the screen.
Overall: Yet another poor effort for the Sturgess camp. When people talk about the fallacies of American cinema, they're talking about crap like 21. 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: A young girl goes far in a fantasy world.
Review:
For a while now I have been quoted complaining that maybe the time has come for me to give fantasy books another go. On one hand, during their golden age at my teens, I greatly enjoyed them; on the other, when looking back they seem like empty time wasters, sort of a women’s romance paperback for the deprived male teenager. While I definitely acknowledged this need of mine to revisit fantasy, I had a problem choosing the book to reacquaint myself with the genre through. That dilemma, however, seemed to have received its due answer after I got to watch The Golden Compass film recently: it’s a decent enough film based on a book by a similar name. More importantly, it was dead obvious the book would be ten times better than the film. So I gave the book a chance and confirmed my suspicions.
The Golden Compass is the first of a trilogy labelled His Dark Materials, which is set to follow the adventures of a young girl called Lyra (well, at least The Golden Compass follows her; I haven’t read the other two to know what takes place with them). Lyra lives in a world where all humans have a daemon attached to them: at first we don’t know much about these daemons, but slowly we learn through experience they are like soul mates and eventually, some two thirds into the book, we learn that a person’s daemon is their soul. This daemon concept is at the core of The Golden Compass’ plot, a plot I shall cease describing here because I have done so already for the film's review. For the purpose of this review, the film’s plot is loyal enough to the book.
Mind you, reading the book has significantly improved my insight on the film, simply because The Golden Compass is a rare case for me: a case where I got to watch the film before reading the book. It allowed me to appreciate the art of converting a massive book to film, but it also spoiled many of the book’s surprises for me. It allowed me to criticize the way the film had chosen to end and it allowed me to appreciate just how much the book’s sophisticated use of language and detailed descriptions add on top of what one can take from a film. Most of all, though, it made me suspect that had the film been done by a Peter Jackson and had the film been allowed to span some four hours in length instead of its insufficient two, The Golden Compass might have been a film of the same league as The Lord of the Rings; after all, both stem from world class books.
Like The Lord of the Rings books, The Golden Compass is a major page turner. Aided by the fact it does not need to supply a satisfying ending (yet), The Golden Compass is a rollercoaster ride with three peaks, one for each of the parts it is made of. While the first part does take time to pick up given the necessity to introduce us to a whole new fantasy world that is similar yet significantly different to ours, unlike The Lord of the Rings that introduction is done very well and never delves into the realm of the tedious. The rest is just a thrill that is obviously aimed at younger readers but should not disappoint older ones.
The Golden Compass has some unique attributes in its favor. For a start, its hero is a rare case of a female; we’ve been conditioned to take our heroes as males for so long we haven’t noticed half of the population is female (the much better looking half at that, and if some research I have recently read is correct, also the smarter half on average). Second, there is the way our female hero behaves: she is a chronic liar but a good person at heart, and most importantly – she will not accept authority without questioning it. And questioning she does, as throughout the book she learns the things she used to take for granted are not what they seem to be and that change is a part of life. In a world where critical analysis is just as sparse as it is valuable, our world, learning from Lyra’s attitude could prove highly beneficial. As the book evolves we are even introduced to meaningful discussions on the subject of fatalism and concepts coming directly from the world of quantum physics. These are so well integrated into the book I suspect quantum physics has never had such good publicity with the masses before.
Given its target audience and its nature, The Golden Compass is obviously screaming to be compared to the Harry Potter series. The first conclusion of such an introduction would be that all my opening statements about me not reading fantasy books since my teens are completely false, given that I have read the Harry Potters and that I attribute my renaissance with reading to that very series. That aside, what can I say through comparing the two books? Not much that is worthy of my typing here other than recommending both very warmly; both are excellent, and statements along the lines of one being better than the other do not have much objective legs to stand on. That said, I know that in Harry Potter's case the earlier books are much better than the latter; they are more original, funnier and creative. I hope the same would not apply to the two further episodes of His Dark Materials.
Overall: An excellent sort of a re-introduction to the world of fantasy. 5 out of 5 stars.
End note:
Does this mean that I am a fantasy reader again? Well, yes; but let me put it this way. Between The 5 star Golden Compass and the 4.5 star Demon Haunted World by Carl Sagan, I know which book I would like to take with me to my grave and it isn't the fantasy one. It may not be as thrilling to read, but the bang for the buck (as in bang for the time I devote to reading it) is much higher with well written popular science.
Which is my way of saying that the scores I give to each book and film I review have to be taken in the context of that particular review and the environment the book/film operates in.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Lowdown: An authentic love triangle story.
Review:
It is nice when someone surprises by doing well when you’re not really expecting much of them. Jason Segel, a co-star in the rather mundane How I Met Your Mother TV series, is a case in point: Not only does he conduct himself well as the lead role in the feature film Forgetting Sarah Marshall (FSM), he also wrote the movie’s script. And although you can argue there is not much that we haven’t seen before in FSM, I argue that it is probably the most authentic love story I have seen on film for a long time if not ever; I will argue it’s a fine comedy, too.
Segel plays a guy who, for the last five years, has been the partner of Sarah Marshall. Although a successful musician by his own rights, he is overshadowed by celebrity Sarah, because – as everyone knows – Sarah Marshall is the star of the successful TV series “Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime” (not to be confused with “Crime Scene: Phoenix”). However, life as Segel knows it ends in the film’s opening scene, when Sarah Marshall pays him a visit to tell him in person that she’s breaking up with him.
At first Segel tries to convince Sarah to stay with him, but quickly enough he moves over. Or tries to, otherwise the film would not be called Forgetting Sarah Marshall: Wherever he goes, he’s always looking for his Sarah; even in bed. Obviously, he needs to get over Sarah to get on with his life, so he decides to go on vacation to this resort in Hawaii that Sarah used to brag about. And guess who’s staying there, too, with her new super successful rock star of a boyfriend (played by Russell Brand)?
Thus the drama develops, with Segel constantly moving from yearning to hatred and with another girl fitting into the picture quickly enough. Overall, what we have here is a drama telling the story of a young man trying to find himself after someone he relied so much is suddenly removed from him, your classic broken heart story.
The edge to FSM comes from three main directions. First, there is the comedy element, spearheaded by jokes on Sarah Marshall’s TV show and very well augmented by the comic talents of Russell Brand.
The second and the third edges are closely related and work together to make FSM a unique film in its genre: an authentic film. On one hand there is the film not caring much about political correctness and sporting many a sex scene and much nudity, including male nudity. Both sex and nudity are welcome ingredients to the world of cinema by virtue of the fact that both are a part of ordinary life (yet for reasons I won’t delve into here, this basic fact is regularly ignored by the Hollywood institutions); in the case of the story at hand they are crucial because of the sexual gap left open with Sarah Marshall’s departure from Segel’s life.
On the other hand we have a script that provides us with hero characters who, for a change, are actually life like. No, I’m not talking about Sarah Marshall herself; her being a TV star has obviously been positioned her in the non authentic realm, a sort of a distant star mortal men can never reach. She is there to show us that the dream girls from TV are actually nothing special in real life. I’m also not talking about her star of a boyfriend that stole her from Segel. I am, however, firmly talking about Segel’s character: not only is he portrayed as a normal guy, shortcomings and all (quite a lot of them, actually), his actions all make perfect sense. As in, he is put through some dilemmas and such, but I could easily see myself doing the exact same things he did were I to put on his shoes. It’s the circumstances that put him under rather tight decision making scenarios, but just like me Segel’s character likes a life devoid of uncertainties; and just like I aspire to be, Segel’s character is a decent guy. The main trap avoided by FSM but frequented by most other love triangle films is that of the hero cheating on his/her lover for no particular reason other than him/her being way too stupid to pass as a real life character; or rather, for the stupidity of the script writers, who think they can get away with very improbable behavior. Not in FSM, and not by Segel; his character definitely follows modern day cultural trends, but it is also very authentic.
Mix all these ingredients up, and you have yourself a very pleasurable film to watch.
Memorable scene: Segel goes to have dinner at a restaurant on his own, only to confront waiters that first cannot believe he is partnerless and then make a big fuss of it. It used to be such a familiar scene for me!
Best joke: It’s worth repeating – “Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime”.
Technical assessment:
The Blu-ray’s picture is detailed yet has some color matching issues and the DTS HD soundtrack is easy on the ears and pretty clear but light years away from exploiting the lossless format’s potential. Pretty standard for a Judd Apatow production.
As per what seems to pass as Judd Apatow productions' standard, FSM’s Blu-ray comes with an extended version (which is the one we’ve watched). It also comes with a large array of well thought of supplementals, which – for a change – actually proved fun to watch. The best example I can think of there is additional scenes exploiting the “Crime Scene: Scene of the Crime” motif.
Overall: This is what romantic comedies should be like. 4 out of 5 stars, a lot of which due to the so well produced Blu-ray presentation.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Waltz with Bashir

Lowdown: An examination of the effects the war in Lebanon had on Israeli psyche.
Review:
Back in 1982, Israel waged war in Lebanon against the PLO and the Syrian forces supporting them. Today it is acknowledged the purpose of that war has been to place the local pro-Israeli Christian leader, Bashir Gemayel, at Lebanon’s helm. However, Gemayel was assassinated through a car bomb a day after his new job placement.
I have distinct childhood memories from that war, which is more than the hero of Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli film from 2008, can boast. It’s a guy who knows he took part in the war, but through chatting with a friend who recalls his current war related nightmares in a contemporary Israeli pub he realizes his mind is completely blank about his war time endeavors. He knows recovering his memories of significant importance because there must be a good reason for forgetting, so he sets out to interview a collection of people who were involved in the war (some of which directly with him): they recount their wartime adventures to him, and as he listens his own memories start coming back to him.
That is, essentially, what the hour and a half of waltzing with Bashir is all about: It’s a collection of interviews with some five or so characters, intertwined with recollections of our hero. The trick to the film is the how, and in there Waltz with Bashir plays a trick of constantly mixing surrealism with reality to one degree or another. Up until the film's end it’s hard to say what is real and what isn’t. For example, some of the interviewees are famous real life characters, such as the military news reporter Ron Ben-Yishai; and while some of Ben-Yishai’s stories sound authentic, others – like the one where he’s calmly walking through crossfire on a crowded street – do not sound highly plausible.
The main credit for Waltz with Bashir’s surrealistic aura has to go to its animation. Yes, despite its serious adult nature and the total absence of comedy, Waltz with Bashir is an animated film. The trick is with the type of animation it utilizes, which is a far cry from the cute Disney stuff we’re normally conditioned to accept as animation. I do have to say, though, that I have a problem with Waltz with Bashir’s almost psychedelic type of animation: sure, it is smart, but it’s also annoying.
Overall, I cannot be said to have connected with Waltz with Bashir. Sure, the attempt to investigate what took place with the Israeli soul, so to speak, as a result of the war is worthy; but the way it was done is not the way I would choose. I would prefer less surrealism and more realism myself, although it can be argued this has been done before and that on a low budget it’s hard to recreate war scenes, Private Ryan style. Still, I found myself quite bored watching Waltz with Bashir; given that I have more personal involvement in its plot than most people on earth, I have doubts how much people who do not know what took place in Lebanon back then would be able to appreciate the film’s events.
Or maybe they would because the film would work on them. After all, Waltz with Bashir was a candidate in this year’s Academy Awards for best foreign film. Not that I think too highly of these awards, but the film does seem to have an undeniable effect on many Israelis who have watched it. To quote from an Israeli sports blog I frequent regularly, Waltz with Bashir is deemed a good way to export the Israeli state of mind to the world because it demonstrates Israelis as people who contemplate what they have done rather than just brutal killers. Personally, I would have preferred Israelis to stop engaging unnecessary and often inhumane wars in the first place; then they wouldn’t need films like Waltz with Bashir to clean their conscious up.
Memorable scene: Waltz with Bashir slowly builds up towards its finishing line, when you finally realize what the purpose of all the surreal torment you had to endure for an hour and half is. I won’t disclose what it is as I don’t want to ruin the film, but I will say that in my case I didn’t deem the punch line to be worth the path it took to get there.
Overall: Waltz with Bashir missed me. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

Twin Sisters

Lowdown: Twin sisters find themselves on opposing sides during World War 2.
Review:
How many times can yours truly boast to have watched a Dutch film production? Well, as far as I can tell, up until I got to watch Twin Sisters last weekend the answer would have been 0. Thanks to SBS, though, I can now boast to have explored brand new realms. It really is good to have a public TV channel dedicated to bringing Australian viewers material from all over the world!
Twin sisters is a film from 2002 that tells the story of two German twin sisters born in the 1920s. Raised without a mother, they are pretty close to one another and to their father. Fate, however, kills their father through consumption before the opening credits are done; fate continues to split their kin souls apart. The healthy sister remains in Germany to live with her ignorant Catholic uncle who wants her as a working force on his farm and thus prevents her from going to school. The other sister suffers from her own consumption and is thus unwanted at the farm, so she gets to go to a Dutch branch of the family that is rich and caring enough to see her out of her disease.
The sisters grow up completely disconnected. The German sister doesn’t even have her sister’s address because the Dutch foster family doesn’t want the barbarians to be able to take the other sister away once she’s healed up, and for similar reasons the Dutch family avoids sending all the letters the Dutch sister sends her twin. As the years go by the Dutch sister becomes an authentic Dutch in behavior and speech, but underneath she still has a German label.
Then history takes over and Nazism rises. The German sister finds herself involved with Nazis even though she can’t care less about their agendas, while the Dutch sister falls for a Jewish guy. Just before the war erupts the two finally meet in Germany, being that they are old enough to take control over their own lives. The Dutch sister’s encounter with Nazism doesn’t leave her indifferent, and her sister’s passive cooperation with evil drives them apart. And then the war starts and the German sister marrying an SS officer further polarizes the relationship.
Told as flashbacks from when the two sisters meet as very old women in contemporary Europe, we learn about their circumstances and the effect these had on them over the years. The key question is, would things happen differently if the sisters were to switch places? This seemingly innocent question has severe implications, as they can be related to arguments saying the German people, in general, were innocent of the crimes committed by them. The present conciliation between the twins also serves to symbolize the present unification of Europe, with all of its attached disclaimers.
The problem with Twin Sisters is that it is all very intriguing. What’s so problematic about that? Well, it’s the type of intrigue that’s the problem. Essentially, Twin Sisters is a soap opera taking place around World War 2 and the Holocaust. As a soap opera, it doesn’t fail to use every cliché on offer through the war's circumstances in order to enhance its impact, but it does so without adding anything we haven’t seen before and in a way that drowns the good stuff. There is not much to learn here, not even on the Dutch’s point of view on the war. The philosophical questions mentioned earlier regarding the sisters’ fate is sunk between waves and waves of predictable clichés.
I guess this is a film that is aimed fair and square at women who like to read romantic novels.
Best scene:
Count the number of World War 2 movie clichés in the following description.
During the German occupation, the Dutch family hides a Jewish family at their place. Food is scarce, so they settle for minute amounts of stuff that looks like shit. Then, however, the Dutch sister learns her adopting father receives extra food from the resistance, meant for their refugees, that he keeps for himself.
Overall: Quite intriguing and dealing with potent stuff, but way too soapy for its own good. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 3 March 2009

Inherit the Wind

Lowdown: The story of the 1925 trial that pitted Darwin against the bible.
Review:
Back in 1925, in a small American town at the heart of what is known as the Bible Belt, a schoolteacher was arrested for teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection to his pupils. The accusation was that he broke a law that said the words of the bible cannot be contradicted. Inherit the Wind, a film from 1960, assumes to tell us the events that took place in the trial that followed. Known as “The Monkey Trial”, it had the effect of removing evolution from USA school curriculums for decades later. We are probably still paying the price today.
The focus of Inherit the Wind is not on Darwin vs. the bible at all. There are hardly any Darwinian arguments raised in the duration of the film, although the bible is questioned for a while (perhaps the filmmakers were afraid of being jailed?). Instead, we have a film that discusses the people on both sides, in particular the defense and the prosecution attorneys. On the bible side we have Matthew Brady (portrayed by Fredric March), an ex presidential candidate very popular in the USA’s south who is also a firm creationist but a pragmatic one never the less. When the trial is first announced, Brady realizes its potential historic importance and volunteers to lead it; in return, a Chicago newspaper sends a cynical reporter (portrayed by Gene Kelly) to cover the events, and later organizes for an ex colleague of Brady and a famous Chicago attorney by his own rights to handle the case for the defense: Henry Drummond, portrayed by Spencer Tracy.
And so we are set on a collision course pitting the two strong personalities, Brady and Drummond, thus pitting the south with the north. All the while we have the community in the background, most of which is very bigoted (with the local priest starring there), some of which is tormented, and a small quiet minority of which wants to release itself from the shackles of dogma.
Put together, Inherit the Wind’s two hours plus are quite riveting. Through family circumstances we had to watch it in bits, but in between sessions I could not stop myself from thinking of the film and wonder what is to happen next (even though I knew of the trial and its result in advance). That said, Inherit the Wind is not without its problems.
To start with, as I have already said, Inherit the Wind is not a film pitting evolution vs. creationism, as I have expected. I was in for a bit of a laugh at creationism but I ended up disappointed even though there is more than a bit of comedy to Inherit the Wind. I was disappointed because the film portrays the legal issue at hand as a conflict surrounding free speech rather than a conflict dealing with truth vs. fiction. In its defense I have to say that if I am to accept the film as a reliable document of what really took place then it has to be said this limitation on the scope of the discussion was imposed by the judge.
Accurate documentation of events is key to my next argument. I would have liked Inherit the Wind to be a neutral spectator and tell things the way they were without having a position of its own; I would have liked facts to lead viewers’ opinions. Instead, that is not the case; it is pretty clear the film sides with the defense in most parts. However, it has to be said that the film takes ownership of the spirit of conciliation, and tries to offer its own take of the trial by arguing Darwin and the bible can live together. Well, one can certainly argue for that; but if one was to accept such arguments then one will also be able to use the same type of arguments to reconcile between Jews and Hitler. The reality is, and a part of the film agrees with me there, that the bible can only be reconciled with facts if we were to pick and choose specific items from the bible and interpret our picks in a specific way that is favorable to our agenda. That is to say, I agree with the creationists who view evolution as a danger to their creed; it's just that what they deem dangerous I consider an illuminating fact.
As styles go, Inherit the Wind has a very theatrical atmosphere. It is as if the actors are playing on stage and use exaggeration methodologies common in the world of theater where the people sitting at the back need to be able to hear and understand what goes on the stage. I can understand this behavior in court scenes, where the jury has to be impressed, but it’s not limited to that arena alone and it resulted in significant interruptions to my suspension of disbelief. Gene Kelly is probably the worst culprit here, playing a character whose every word sounds like a poem, whereas Spencer Tracy plays the only character that can pass for real. Indeed, Tracy gives an excellent act.
The balance of things is in Inherit the Wind’s favor. As a portrayal of an era gone by, a time when air-conditioners did not exist and people didn’t have much to do with themselves as of dusk, it is an interesting film. As a portrayal of a trial with significant historical impact, it is a very interesting film.
Best scene: The two opposing attorneys sit on a veranda and reminisce days gone by, demonstrating how at the end of it all we are all people with much in common that can talk to one another. But then they start discussing the matter at hand and an argument erupts…
Overall: Due to the importance of the events it portrays, I’m giving Inherit the Wind 3.5 out of 5 stars.