Thursday, 30 April 2009

The Duchess

Lowdown: Keira Knightley struggles with the bindings of high society.
Review:
Not many contemporary films feature females as their main heroes; definitely less than 50% of them. The Duchess is therefore an exception to this generalization, with Keira Knightley dominating it, this begging the question – what do they see in her?
Knightley seems to have secured the position of chief heroine in old style British films, and the Duchess is no exception. Taking place in the late 18th century, the film tells us how a youngish Knightley marries an oldish duke (Ralf Fiennes) and how this move, that should have been the pinnacle of a fairytale come true, is actually the one thing that seals Knightley’s fate and freedom away. We quickly learn that Fiennes regards Knightley as merely a tool to provide him with a male heir; he’s totally indifferent to the concept of love. Knightley seeks refuge elsewhere and becomes popular with the people, who follow her as a celebrity. She moves on to secure a woman friend in a position not dissimilar to hers, and she looks for male love too.
Overall, the main topic on The Duchess’ agenda is freedom. The world of high society, considered to be made of people with enough wealth to detach themselves from the normal bindings of hard life, turns out to be a world with its own bindings. Freedom, according to The Duchess, is something one can only come close to when one is in the company of friends sharing similar ideas. Or sort of.
Other than a discussion on the concept of freedom, The Duchess is a mainly slow film that is, first and foremost, a very dull and boring affair. Suffering from insomnia? Well, what are you waiting for? Go and watch The Duchess!
You would expect the slow pace to be used wisely in the development of characters, but that is not always the case with The Duchess. Take her popularity with the crowds, for example: we never learn why she had become popular, especially why she is more popular than any of her peers; we just have to take the film’s word for it, literally, which is not the most convincing way of developing characters.
With a cast that tends to be annoying (e.g., Knightley) or doesn’t know why it’s there in the first place (e.g., Fiennes), this go at milking the cow that is the Jane Austen type of British period films is a failure that, although not harmful, is probably best avoided.
Worst scene:
Knightley takes part in a meeting of The Whigs political party. She’s the only woman there, and she’s only allowed in because of her husband’s status as a major party sponsor. They’re having a discussion about freedom and about events taking place in America when Knightley lays down a speech on the absolute nature of freedom: One cannot be half free, says Knightley, just as one cannot be half dead.
The speech is obviously designed to make Knightley’s character seem just-so-smart before the movie viewers, but it just annoyed me. Knightley is wrong and freedom is obviously a relative concept: by her standards, I’m a really free person, yet I am not free to go on and steal from others or kill others. I would also argue there are varying degrees of death, but I won’t get into that discussion here and now. The point is, what is designed as a show of intellectual force fails miserably at the challenge of simple scrutiny.
Technical assessment: For a period film sporting lots of authentic settings and elaborate costumes, The Duchess’ picture quality is rather disappointing for a Blu-ray. The soundtrack is mundane, too.
Overall: A boring 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 29 April 2009

How to Lose Friends & Alienate People

Lowdown: A would be celebrity discovers what is really important.
Review:
The virtues of Simon Pegg have been discussed and re-discussed in this blog, most recently with Run Fatboy Run. Whatever misgivings I have had with Fatboy, I still remember Pegg favorably, and when given the choice of a free rental it was his latest release that I picked - How to Lose Friends & Alienate People (or HTLF for short).
Given it’s a British production, HTLF starts off in London as we are introduced to Pegg: a would be celebrity reporter that runs an amateurish magazine. In his efforts to be in the know, Pegg does a complete fool of himself to invade celebrity parties (where he meets true celebrities, amongst others; indeed, HTLF features many a famous cameo). A fool maybe, but a successful fool: His adventures earn him a job at the Numero Uno celebrity magazine in the world, operating out there in New York (where the majority of the film takes place despite its British-ness) and run by Jeff Bridges. Bridges, playing a rather flat character here, apparently sees his old self in Peg.
Pegg doesn’t really know what to do with himself as he starts at his new job in his new city and his very old apartment. On one hand, he can write articles that kiss stars’ asses in order to go up the food chain, but his ego and his conscious won’t let him do so despite the promise of potentially scoring with big time hot celebrities (Megan Fox); on the other, he gets to know a woman working on his team that is down to earth, decent and offers some perceived depth (Kirsten Dunst). Which way would Pegg go?
Given the nature of HTLF, the way things would go becomes very obvious. This is a predictable film that tries to work by flattering its viewers: No, says HTLF, those hot shot celebrities are not only no better than you, they are complete fools; you, ordinary people, are the true gems of this world. Naturally, the film does so by casting the ex-model Dunst to the role of the ordinary person that sets Pegg on the right track. Irony aside, I do have to say that the most positive thing I can say about HTLF is that I have never seen Dunst look so good on the screen before; by virtue of the fact she’s meant to look ordinary she comes out awesome.
Predictability aside, HTLF does entertain as a comedy. The problem is, it’s rather astray with its direction; you watch it and you don’t know whether it’s a vulgar comedy, a wise satire about our worship of celebrities, or your standard issue romantic comedy. It tries for all three and obviously fails in its quest to reach for the stars (pun intended): The vulgar jokes are a stupid turn off, the wise satire element never gets explored to anything deeper than a dew millimeters, and the romantic comedy part deteriorates into yet another stupid game of “she is the true one for me” (and any film going for that crap deserves to be puked upon).
Ultimately, HTLF fails at its core: it tries to mock the shallowness of the celebrity core, but it joins forces with the mundane. Again, Simon Pegg has sold his soul, or at least a part of it.
Worst scene:
While everyone at the magazine is celebrating the 4th of July in some elaborate outdoor picnic, a shorts/sandals/socks wearing Pegg climbs on top of the orchestra and shouts “England! England!”
This scene uses every bad English cliché in the book other than crooked teeth. It’s simply not funny, and serves mainly in alienating the viewer from Pegg’s character. The result is a hard time for HTLF as its running the show with a main character you, the viewer, feel indifferent to.
Technical assessment: A pretty mundane Blu-ray.
Overall: I guess HTLF is an effective way to pass the time, dwelling in the realm between 2.5 and 3 stars out of 5.

Sunday, 26 April 2009

The Kite Runner

Lowdown: A tale of personal redemption mirroring the tale of Afghanistan.
Review:
There is a first time for everything, and in the history of this blog The Kite Runner becomes the first time ever I get to review the film version of a book I had previously reviewed. This means that while, in general, I don't particularly like comparing the book to the film because I feel the differences in the media forms make such a comparison problematic, I couldn't help looking for what I took with me out of the book while watching the film's DVD.
It has to be said the film is very loyal to the book, which is why I am not going to recount the plot or express my opinion on what is wrong with its predictability; feel free to read my book review instead.
The film does cut corners as it tries to fit an entire book into a two hour frame of work, so character development suffers: While the first half of the book mostly tells us of the friendship between to Afghan kids of different ethnicities, the film seems to cut to the chase with fewer childhood stories. Does the film suffer as a result? Probably, because the characters do not have the shades of gray real people have; yet when compared to other films, The Kite Runner does a decent job.
What else can I say about the film version? It was nice that the filmmakers tried to be authentic and cast seemingly Afghan kids in the main roles and even let the kids speak the authentic language (I can clearly imagine the fights that had to be fought in order to let the studio accountants let this one go). The problem is, these kids are not the greatest actors ever. Interestingly enough, I was constantly distracted by the physical similarities between one of the kids and my own childhood photos.
Another problem that interfered with my suspension of disbelief was the laid back style chosen by the director. This approach made key scenes pass by rather unnoticed whereas I would have expected them to be made in a way that would make my heart stand still. The best example is the scene where the boy's father confronts a Soviet soldier and is about to find himself riddled with bullets; the way the scene was done made me feel rather indifferent.
Other than that, The Kite Runner is a fairly ordinary film with somewhat exciting plot that deals with a problematic topic (Afghanistan).
Worst scene: The kite "fighting" scenes are just bad; they're not exciting at all, it's hard to tell what's going on, and the use of CGI is too evident.
Technical assessment: Not a bad picture for a DVD. The sound is subtle yet effective.
Overall: The Kite Runner dwells somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

The Royal Tenenbaums

Lowdown: The rebirth of a dysfunctional family.
Review:
Films sporting an extensive A class cast of stars like The Royal Tenenbaums does are rare. Let me go over some of the names I have copied & pasted out of imdb: Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Ben Stiller, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray, Danny Glover, Alec Baldwin. What a list!
Equally amazing is that fact that up until I’ve encountered a comment relating to the film in a friends’ blog I was completely unaware of The Royal Tenenbaums’ existence. Historically speaking, this is probably the result of the film being released during 2002 and me going through significant enough events in my life to allow even the most star studded film to pass below my radar. Still, having learnt about it, I didn’t waste much time before renting the DVD. Now that I watched the film I can raise another speculation that might explain why I was ignorant of The Royal Tenenbaums: It’s not that good a film.
The Royal Tenenbaums follows a rather eccentric family, the Tenenbaums, featuring parents Royal (Hackman) and his wife (Huston), as well as their three kids and the neighbor that feels like a fourth kid (Owen Wilson). Back in the good old days the Tenenbaums were a success story: one kid (Stiller) became a mega successful estate agent by the age of six; another, the adopted Paltrow, was a Broadway playwright in her teens; and the third was a three straight times winner of the US Open tennis tournament; Huston herself became a best seller writer with her book on the success of her family.
But that was many years ago; today the Tenenbaums are but a shadow of their former self: Huston broke up with Royal Hackman after some infidelities of his; Hackman spent some time in jail; Stiller became a paranoid after his wife died and his own kids are suffering as a result; Paltrow married an old guy (Murray), suffers from depression, and didn’t write a play for years; and the tennis champ’s career is all over after a major collapse at a tournament final.
The main engine behind the plot is Hackman, evicted from his hotel room after he was unable to pay for his stay. Pretending his life is about to end in six weeks, Hackman comes back home, resulting in a cataclysmic chain of events that pits all family members with their demons.
Before watching The Royal Tenenbaums I sort of assumed the film’s a comedy. I guess it's mostly the result of casting Stiller and Wilson together. I was wrong; although there are some brief smiles here and there, The Royal Tenenbaums is mostly a drama about a dysfunctional family that realizes its strength does not come from what most people deem as success (e.g., earning money, winning prestige and doing well at tennis) but rather from being there for one another. This big dramatic fuss over a crumbling family rejoining forces features very similar themes to The Darjeeling Limited, another film sporting estranged (and strange) brothers going through similar motions; which probably shouldn’t come as a surprise given that both films were directed by the one and the same Wes Anderson.
By far the most dominant feature of The Royal Tenenbaums is its eccentric presentation. Relying heavily on narration by the aforementioned Baldwyn, the entire film is made of very artificially separated scenes with a theater like artificial look to them. Camera movements are restricted and the actors tend to look it in the face, as if conscious of it being there. It is sort of funny in the beginning but the effect wears off; it ends up just being a “special attribute”.
This, perhaps, is the story of the film entire. Promising to be unique, it falters along rather uninterestingly with the slight exception of the somewhat uplifting ending. How can I put it? Little Miss Sunshine does a much better job.
Best scene: A recap on Paltrow’s adventures as she runs away from home, done in condensed flashback style. Don’t ask me why, it was just funny. Funny enough to stand out in an otherwise not that funny film.
Technical assessment: A rather dreadful DVD, with a picture that’s more like VHS and 5.1 sound that could have fooled me for mono.
Overall: I thought I’d give it less but the ending did redeem things a bit, if only to a mild 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Babylon A.D.

Lowdown: Around a Blade Runner/Mad Max world in an hour and a half.
Review:
When it comes to quality actors Vin Diesel’s name is not the first that comes in mind. That said, his Chronicles of Riddick was not a bad science fiction film at all, so when Babylon A.D. became rentable I wanted to watch this latest of Mr Fast’s (or is it Mr Furious’?) science fiction adventures.
Babylon A.D. takes place in a slightly futuristic world that is a mix of the Blade Runner world and the Mad Max world. Blade Runner, because it’s a corrupt place that is mostly busy dying, and Mad Max because it’s a dog eat dog world where human life does not amount to much. In this world, we are introduced to a Diesel living in Russia; a Diesel that chooses to continue the silly name tradition and calls himself Toorop this time around, a worthy title for a very professional mercenary with more battle scars than hair.
Toorop/Diesel is hired by a Gérard Depardieu equipped with an even bigger than life movie prop nose (never thought that would be possible) to escort a young girl from a monastery in Asia all the way to New York. That good looking young girl comes accompanied by a chaperon, Michelle Yeoh. As the three go down the treacherous path to the USA, Diesel gets plenty of opportunities to exhibit his super soldiering skills and Yeoh demonstrates some martial arts skills. They also learn there is something special about the girl, something that makes her attract all sorts of not so welcoming people – including, in particular, the leader of a religious cult, Charlotte Rampling (who seems to have a knack for similarly styled science fiction films, as per Immortal).
Overall, Babylon A.D. is a pile of somewhat promising ideas that are badly executed or not explored well enough. The result is that there is nothing in there to make you think, only things in there to make you slightly excited for a short while (makes it sound like I’m describing porn, doesn’t it?). While never boring, things always feel contrived or copied from some superior source.
Action scenes are not more than okay. Again, they are not particularly original, and like most contemporary action films it suffers from the shaky camera syndrome that prevents viewers from knowing what is really going on plus some severe over-reliance on digital effects.
Notable scene: Our heroes stumble upon a pair of tigers. The girl asks Diesel about their nature, and Diesel explains they are not real but rather clones. For a start, I don’t understand what is unreal about clones; I’m sure the clones themselves would have a lot to say about being considered unreal. And second, being this is the last we hear of cloning or the tigers, this is a good example for an idea that is brought to our attention but doesn’t get further developed. The scene sort of demonstrates the superficial way in which Babylon A.D. tries to introduce us to its “world of ours gone wrong” universe.
Technical assessment: Featuring the latest in sound and vision codecs, this Blu-ray should have kicked ass. Yet the picture shows some graininess that is probably the fault of the original source and the sound, while aggressive, fails to captivate and immerse.
Overall: Although pleasant to watch, Babylon A.D. is entirely forgettable with nothing worth saying. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 20 April 2009

The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: Lyra wanders between prequel and sequel.
Review:
Recently, I have written a very favorable review for the first book in Philip Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy, The Golden Compass. I have found the book so exciting I couldn’t wait to delve into its sequel, The Subtle Knife. The question was, could Subtle Knife keep up or even better its prequel, especially when given the burden of responsibility that comes when one is sandwiched in the middle of a trilogy?
Given Subtle Knife’s nature as a sequel I don’t want to disclose too much of its plot, so as not to ruin things for those that are yet to read episode 1. What I will say is that the story keeps on following Lyra, the child born in another world’s Oxford. This time around Lyra befriends Will, a boy of a similar age who comes from our world. Together, the duo navigates three parallel universes: Lyra’s, ours, and a transitional one. They are not alone in their wandering: on one hand, witches and explorers go about world touring to help Lyra, and on the other agents of the religiously inclined Magisterium does the same to capture her and learn her secrets; like the Inquisition before them, they have no problems being ruthless. While in the previous book Lyra learned to use The Golden Compass, this time around the artifact of interest that pulls the strings behind Will and Lyra’s scenes is a knife that is said to be subtle.
On The Subtle Knife’s positive side, I can say it is quite exciting to read. Mind you, it’s not half as exciting as The Golden Compass was, but still a book I wanted to finish reading just because I needed to know what is going to happen to our heroes.
The problem is, there is not much else I can add to the positive side. The Subtle Knife is a compromised book by virtue of its sandwiched position, but it takes the sandwich compromise to new heights by being a book that fails to stand by its own rights. It is a book with no start and no ending worth talking about, a book that should have never stood on its own, a book that has obviously been marketed on us in order to create a sellable trilogy and to feed fans with some fodder while the author is busy writing the rest of the story.
What we do have on our hands is a book that fails to add much on top of its predecessor that did create a very fascinating world. Instead, we get more of the same, and we get something that resembles more of a soap opera than a good creative book. In my Golden Compass review I have differentiated between good fantasy stories, that is – stories that involve unreal elements in order to tell us something about the real elements of our real world – and the lesser fantasy stories, that are there primarily to excite us but leave us with no intellectual prize worth talking about after we finish reading them. The Subtle Knife firmly belongs to the latter group.
At its core, Subtle Knife argues that our consciousness is the result of subatomic particles; a fine argument for a fantasy book to make. Things get stretched when the book identifies these particles to be what we call dark matter in our real world. That is, the particles today’s scientists are looking for when they try to explain why our universe expands in a certain way that requires it to have some 70% more mass than we can visibly detect thus far. You can argue that a fantasy book is still entitled to make such claims, and you’d be right, but fantastic arguments lose their exciting taste when they are so closely matched to authentic facts with nothing to support their claim. The path from fantasy to bullshit is a short one, especially when angels and such are added to the mix (and add them the book does).
Indeed, according to The Subtle Knife, its story is all about the fight between evil religion and good science, a fight that manifests itself with said particles. While at the personal level I cannot be said I have much sympathy for religion, I don’t think many but a few religious people consciously go out to fight science and the sense of discovery and wonder it embodies; they just try to maintain their hold on power, like the rest of us. Such bold arguments as the one at the core of The Subtle Knife leave it high and dry.
The Subtle Knife was so dry it made me wonder about problems with its predecessor, things that didn’t really make sense. Take, for example, The Golden Compass itself – a device that tells the truth. Lyra, our hero, has one, but she uses it for minor tasks (e.g., where is this guy, and how do I get to the corner of the Fifth Avenue and Broadway?). With all due respect to Lyra, if I had such a device on my hands I would ask it to help with core questions of the deepest meaning. Things like (a) the winning numbers on tomorrow’s lottery, (b) what happens after death, (c) the theory that combines quantum physics with relativity, and (d) why does a book built on such promising foundations as The Subtle Knife ends up being as unimaginative as it is. Come on, a story about multiple universes that settles with just three of them (all so stupidly similar) is not an imaginative story. The third installment might rectify things, but I didn’t read the third installment; I read the second one, and that second one failed to stand by its own rights.
Add to the above a plot which relies way too much on unlikely circumstances, as in – the father of the hero happens to be the only other person in the world that did the same as our hero, years ago – and you have yourself a book that is more of a caricature than a book worth reading.
I will read the third installment, eventually, because I’m hungry to know what transpires. That said, no matter how exciting The Subtle Knife is, I cannot endorse it.
Overall: The Subtle Knife does not do the fantasy genre any favors. 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Star Wars: The Clone Wars

Lowdown: Episode 2.1
Review:
I don’t think it would make me seem extraordinary before others if I were to say the first Star Wars trilogy has had a major part in my growing up. The problem is that George Lucas decided to come and shatter the memories with a second trilogy that was redundant and forgettable. Now there’s a new kid on the block, Star Wars: The Clone Wars (or just Clone Wars for short), which promises to fill the gap between episodes 2 and 3 and tell us something about the happenings of the war between the droids and the cloned soldiers. This time around, Lucas chose to do things using animation.
We know how it all ended, so there’s no real tension in the air; the main question is whether Clone Wars of the first trilogy’s quality or whether it is of the second trilogy’s mediocrity. The answer is neither, and I am afraid this is because Clone Wars delves into new levels of shallowness.
Once again we join hands with our favorite Jedi heroes, Anakin and Obi-Wan, only that this time around they (as well as most of the other characters) are made to look the same as they do in the “proper” films but are actually dubbed by [cheap] imitations. Our heroes lead an army of clones fighting droids in some remote area, when suddenly they are told their attention is required elsewhere: First, Anakin is being assigned with a young Jedi trainee he needs to look after, a girl that seems to make a genuine attempt at being as annoying and superficial as Jar Jar; and second, our heroes are relieved of their previous duties and told to retrieve Jabba the Hutt’s son. This son has been kidnapped and on his rescue lies the collaboration of the Hutts with the Federation, and everybody knows the Hutts control the “outer rim” and therefore their collaboration is sought after by both sides.
So much for plot. Everything else in this film is just a collection of a few lines of meaningless dialog (with Yoda a particular pain with his ongoing reverse speeches) and tons of action scenes, which wouldn’t be too bad if the action scenes weren’t as dry and unimaginative as they are. Clone Wars is aimed fairly and squarely at kids, but why does it assume it has to aim at kids with single digit IQs?
With not much of a plot and character development that would be eclipsed by any surrealistic painting at your local museum, this one is a dumb film from start to finish. Talking about a finish, Clone Wars doesn’t have an ending worth mentioning, because it fails to link between episodes 2 and 3; it just hangs there, somewhere in between, leaving the door wide open to sequels and such.
What can I say in closing? My partner gave up watching Clone Wars after less than half an hour. I lingered to the end, attracted by the sound quality and waiting for a miracle to come and save the film. Only that it never did.
Worst scenes: Heading into battle, as one often does in Clone Wars, both our heroes lead their armies by jumping into battle with commands such as “you know what to do”. They have the spaceships, the have the weaponry, but they don’t have a briefing room. No wonder the dumb droids were hard to overcome. That said, I didn't understand why our duo needed armies to accompany them in the first place, given that all their battles are solved by them jumping around doing Jedi stuff.
Technical assessment: The picture is excellent yet quite unforgiving to the jerky and very annoying animation that doesn’t seem lifelike at all. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is aggressive and detailed, as befits an action film; it’s a pity this Blu-ray opts to default to an inferior Dolby Digital soundtrack and that manual intervention is required to rectify matters.
Overall: This is not just a dumb movie, this is a film that will dumb you down. I’ll be generous and give it 1 out of 5 stars. Steer away!

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Black Book

Lowdown: Paul Verhoeven tackles World War II childhood memories.
Review:
Paul Verhoeven is one of those few directors I really look up to. He did one of my favorite films ever, Total Recall; he did other excellent films, like Starship Troopers; he’s had his flops, like Showgirls; and he’s not unfamiliar with controversy, especially the type that makes enough commotion to make studio accountants happy as with Basic Instinct. If there is a Verhoeven trademark, it is his tendency to outdo convention by going to extreme violence as per Robocop on one hand and sexuality of the type that annoys the good souls amongst us on the other.
Black Book is a two year old film by Verhoeven of which I didn’t hear much. Yet when I stumbled upon it at the video shop and noticed whose name is on it I knew I had to watch it; I wasn’t disappointed. For a start, this is a proper Dutch production that speaks Dutch and everything, making it the second Dutch film I got to watch recently (together with Twin Sisters).
Taking place between 1944 and 1945 (if we were to disregard its flashback setting), Black Book follows a young Dutch singer who happens to be Jewish and thus has to live in hiding at her Nazi occupied homeland. One night she is advised by a member of the resistance that the Nazis are on to her and that she should hide; the guy also tells her how to cross to the area freed by the Allies. She takes his advice, joins the rest of her family, but then the Nazis find them and kill everyone but her; she escapes.
Having nothing to lose and not much hope in life, our hero joins the resistance herself. Portrayed by the yet unfamiliar Carice van Houten, who is clearly on the better side of average in the looks department, the singer soon finds herself running high risk jobs for the resistance and managing to get away with it through her looks. Things do get complicated, though, when she discovered that her family’s death was no accident and that there’s something fishy with the resistance, while also getting involved with a Nazi officer who seems decent despite being a Nazi but is obviously the exception rather than the rule. With everything going against her, van Houten has a relentless fight on her hands. Indeed, if there is anything Black Book is trying to tell us, is that life is one relentless fight and that moments of peace are an intermediate illusion that should be treasured.
The main problem with Black Book is that there isn’t much to its plot that we haven’t seen on other films, be it World War II / Holocaust stuff, or be it your average thriller. On the positive side, Verhoeven claims (in his running commentary) that the stories in Black Book are all based on real events that happened to a collection of people in the Netherlands during the war; viewers who don’t listen to what Verhoeven has to say have to settle with a caption at the beginning of the film saying it’s inspired by real events.
Look and feel wise, Black Book feels very authentic. Style wise, it feels as authentic as films of the period and doesn't feel like your typical Verhoeven film; there are no Starship Troopers like transition scenes and no overuse of digital effects. What is clear to me, from watching the film and hearing Verhoeven (both here and in some of his previous films), is that Black Book is a highly personal affair for this director that spent his childhood years in occupied Holland and then in a recovering Holland. Verhoeven’s personal views on sensitive issues such as racism in contemporary society and about the way the so called War on Terror is going are also made plain obvious.
Verhoeven scene #1:
van Houten tries to hide her Jewish identity. Being the perfectionist she is, she dyes her hair blond. All her hair. I have to regard this scene as a tribute to the famous Sharon Stone scene from Basic Instinct.
In his running commentary, Verhoeven says he had to include this scene because the film would feel unreal without it. I disagree; I think this is an obvious Verhoeven touch. I do, however, think that our world is rotten if scenes such as this make a fuss. Why shouldn’t it be normal for normal life nudity to take part in our films?
Verhoeven scene #2:
van Houten is stripped naked and then a bucket full of feces is poured on her in yet another glimpse at the Verhoeven touch. For a film that’s marketed as an erotic thriller (at least according to the Blu-ray’s back cover), I have to say I didn’t find the scene particularly erotic despite the nudity. I guess it would appeal to very specific fetish lovers.
On a more serious note, though, I didn’t find Black Book particularly erotic. It is certainly no Basic Instinct, even if it has more nudity than your average film.
Technical assessment: The picture and the uncompressed PCM sound on this Blu-ray are obviously the result of a lesser budget than your major Hollywood production. Still, it’s a solid performance.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars that reconfirmed Verhoeven’s status in my eyes.

Thursday, 9 April 2009

Australia

Lowdown: A western set in Australia and packed full with clichés.
Review:
I find it hard to recall a film that has been hyped as much as Australia. Marketing noise attacked me from left and right; news reports on these vile Americans that failed to flock to their measly cinemas to watch “us” were airing regularly on the news; the Australian Government used the film to promote the brand name called Australia; and controversy on whether the film gives an accurate impression of the times and the way white Australia treated black Australia reigned high. Australia became a film I was quite curious about even though I knew it wouldn’t amount to much. Now that I finally got to watch it I can confirm my initial prejudice: Australia doesn’t amount to much.
Set during World War II, Australia takes place in the Northern Territory. Nicole Kidman is a British aristocrat coming to pay her husband a visit only to find him murdered and the cattle farm he was running in shambles. She realizes things have gone wrong mainly because of David Wenham, a farm employee that seems to be working for the farm’s main competitor, so she gets rid of him and thus turns him into the role of the film’s evil baddie. She does need someone to help her out running the farm, though, so she gets the services of Hugh Jackman, a drover. Jackman & Kidman Ltd need to run a huge drove of cattle to an army shipment taking off at Darwin, and the question is – will they make it against all odds and against Wenham?
The plot thickens as we move along (as much as shallow plots like this can thicken), with Kidman and Jackman falling for a young kid of a mixed blood (as in half aboriginal half Wenham) and the Japanese making themselves heard.
The end result is two and a half hours of a film that is never really boring but never really says anything we haven’t heard or seen before. The only exception I can think of is the fact that Australia’s cast features pretty much every Australian born that ever happened to pass by a cinema screen.
That, and perhaps the title of having most cinematic clichés packed in a single film ever, and pretty much uses up everything up the Australian lexicon. Take Kidman’s character, for example: She plays this aristocrat that steps out into the dirt and gets annoyed with it. Thing is, we’ve seen this so many times before that it’s pathetic. That’s not the only problem with Kidman’s character: As an actress, Nicole Kidman has repeatedly proved her merit; yet in Australia she is just awfully bad. She overacts so badly I suspect I could have done a better job myself (in a female role).
Everything is so shallow the film expects us to settle with Jackman’s character being referred to as “Drover”. Since when do we call people by their profession? Luckily, there aren’t any porn stars or call girls in the film.
Beneath all the clichés, Australia is a nicely packed western that aims at too many targets at once and misses most. It’s got beautiful scenery shots on the positive side, but that’s it, and even those are marred by the obvious excessive use of blue screen technology.
As for the film’s reliability in conveying the facts of the period: While, through ignorance, I cannot comment much about the authenticity of the white/black relationships portrayed in the film, I can say that Australia starts off with another complete misrepresentation of the truth. As the film’s title shows up in the opening credits we have this kid doing the narration saying “Australia”. Well, wrong! Ask the average Aussie what country/continent they live in and the answer would be much closer to “sht-eya”. I guess that’s as good a sign as any that Australia was designed to please the [American] viewing market rather than convey any meaningful statement whatsoever.
Best scenes: Although cheap and corny, Australia does have a couple of uplifting moments. Those come down to characters we thought dead showing up alive at various points in the film with some very dramatic music in the background.
Technical assessment: As Blu-rays go, Australia is exemplary in both sound (DTS HD) and vision. The music is well recorded, too. This is reference quality material, hurt only by the previously mentioned overuse of special effects that are simply not Blu-ray grade.
Overall: A poor 2.5 out of 5 stars effort of a film that does not represent the real Australia at all.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman

Lowdown: An appealing introduction to physics.
Review:
I first heard of Richard Feynman while reading Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World. In there, Sagan provides a list of reading recommendations: he recommends literally anything written by Asimov and Richard Dawkins’ books on biology to name two. However, Sagan’s warmest recommendation seems reserved for Richard Feynman's ability to write purely about science in a way that would appeal to people and encourage them to have a go and learn.
Feynman is actually a Noble award winner in physics, and as a writer his most famous legacy are the transcriptions of physics lectures he gave during the sixties at an American university. Although it didn’t seem so at the time, these lectures are now acknowledged as exemplary in the sense of them being able to capture the hearts of the reader as opposed to scaring them away. Indeed, scaring people away from science is one of science’s worst enemies; if my personal history with physics studies is anything to judge by, I can definitely identify with people’s wishes to steer clear of science. Between high school and university studies, I did have the dubious pleasure of encountering some of the worst teachers ever. Yet even Feynman’s transcripts are hard for most people to digest, especially those lacking in mathematical foundations.
Into this picture stepped this wise publisher who decided to take a mere six pieces of Feynman’s transcripts, the introduction pieces to subjects such as particles, electricity, gravity and quantum physics, and pack these up in a book marketed at laymen. At an asking price of $7 and 140 pages, I deemed Six Easy Pieces to be a good tool for me to assess Feynman’s physics tutorials with.
And now to the trick question: Does Feynman deliver the magic one would expect after such a glowing recommendation by Sagan? My answer to that question is a mixed bag. I guess it always had to be that kind of an answer.
First and foremost, Feynman’s explanations of basic physical phenomenon made me simply go “wow”. Things that I haven’t understood before despite years of studying physics at quite a high level were made stupidly clear by Feynman, including phenomena such as why the vaporization of liquids from a hot coffee mug leaves the mug cooler, why the moon circles the earth with such precision and why the earth doesn’t just fall towards the moon given that the moon is pulling the earth (but the earth does not orbit the moon). The explanations are so intuitive and so appealing I could only wish I’ve had teachers like Feynman instead of Mrs Sari Galezer (I hope she reads this and weeps, because I still remember the trauma of being called to answer questions near at the blackboard before the entire class).
Perhaps the best indication of how good and appealing Feynman is compared to his dreary “competition” is Feynman’s introduction to quantum physics. He does it by describing three experiments, one using old style Newton physics, one using the physics of waves, and one using quantum particle physics. After reading these three you will know why quantum physics has gained the reputation it had for being unintuitive and hard, but you will also know a bit of something worthwhile about this world of ours.
The mixed bag of my review is to do with the obvious fact that even when explained by a teacher as capable as Feynman, physics is still hard and often unintuitive. The book might be called Six Easy Pieces but often enough the reading is not easy at all, and occasionally it does require some knowledge in mathematics. If these are the easy pieces, I doubt I will give Feynman’s unabridged transcripts a go any time soon. It is my impression that Feyman is still not as good as Dawkins in explaining the seemingly unexplainable, but then again to date I have never seen someone do a better job than Feynman when dealing with physics.
Between Feyman’s passion for science as an umbrella for all things verifiable though repeatable experiments (thus discarding pseudosciences such as the so called intelligent design) and his appealing explanations, I warmly recommend you give Six Easy Pieces a go. It could just illuminate you with basic understandings about this world in which we live.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Gone Baby Gone

Lowdown: A missing baby investigation uncovers many open wounds.
Review:
Ben Affleck is a controversial character. On one hand, people remember him fondly for giving this world the Good Will Hunting’s script; on the other people will tell you the world is better for Affleck not ending up as that film’s hero character, especially when taking into account the dubious work Affleck has done since (remember Daredevil?). Thus when Gone Baby Gone (aka GBG) is dissected on the operation table for everyone to review, the film tends to be regarded primarily as Affleck’s directional debut more than anything else.
Set in Boston, GBG reveals the unflattering side of the city. After watching GBG you will be excused for revising your travel plans and opting to visit the Gaza Strip ahead of Boston when looking for some good relaxation, because GBG’s Boston is a shelter for gangs and such, full of people that are very Catholic yet lack the compassion and the humanism that should come from their religion of choice’s values.
In this background we have ourselves a private detective (Casey Affleck, who probably didn’t have to audition for the job) and his partner in life and at the office (Michelle Monaghan). Young in appearance and in career yet very well acquainted with the occupants of Boston’s lesser suburbs, the couple is being called to help in a case of a missing baby. The police have been looking it up for several days now and the media is buzzing all over the place, so you’d expect a young detective wouldn’t be able to contribute much. Yet Affleck defies the expectations of the police detective working on the matter (Ed Harris) and the chief of police (Morgan Freeman) by starting a process of unraveling facts concerning the characters in the baby's life. The picture exposed by the investigations is a picture of crime, greed and lack of compassion, as one might expect out of people living their lives in a place characterized by these same attributes.
Overall, GBG is a slick drama with its fair share of thrills and some bit of action. Unlike most of today’s crime stories, the plot is quite unpredictable and things unravel – yet unravel sensibly – just when you think the film will soon be over. It all progresses very well and raises some interesting questions in the process, such as what is the better place for a child to be at: a loving family or their biological family? While this question sounds detached from reality, various nuances of it are quite important. As in, how important is genetic kinship compared to true affection? Not to mention questions about the punishment we endow are kids when we fail to raise them well through our deficiencies. Overall, GBG is not only thrilling to watch, it also leaves you thinking afterwards.
Other than its interesting story, GBG is notable for its solid acting. Ed Harris in particular provides a lesson on the art (for the record, I have had my eye on him since The Abyss). His colleagues are not to be left unmentioned, though. Monaghan, for example, proves my previous Made of Honor claim that there is more to her than just a pretty face.
Last but not least: Affleck’s direction. I have to hand it to him, he does a good job. There were a couple of scenes that drew too much attention to themselves through a deliberate lack of focus, but the end result would have made most established directors proud.
Memorable scene: The ending, where our detective watches TV in others’ company and wonders silently how wise his previous decisions (for which he paid a hefty personal price) are. I can’t say more without ruining things, but it’s a scene I’ll remember for a while and a good reflection on the film.
Technical assessment: This is a nice Blu-ray. Its most interesting attribute was its use of uncompressed surround sound: interesting, because Dolby TrueHD and DTS HD offer lossless compression which reduces the bandwidth necessary to carry the same quality sound between two to three times (as per my Blu-ray player’s bandwidth indicators). Therefore, offering uncompressed sound does not really make sense on paper, only that in reality lots of people do not have the processors to deal with Dolby or DTS’s advanced sound formats; uncompressed takes more space that could have been used in some other manner (e.g., supplementals no one cares for), but gives more people access to sound master quality sound.
Overall: A solid 4 out of 5 stars performer.