Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The Tailor of Panama

Lowdown: A sleazy spy drags a naive tailor and the world to war over Panama's canal.
Review:
Our PVR adventures continued, this time with The Tailor of Panama, a 2001 film release. This was the third time I got to watch this film, but the unique thing about this current viewing is that The Tailor of Panama was the very first TV program we have recorded on our PVR more than six months ago, off Channel 10; yet one of the nice things about the PVR is that things you have recorded are always handily waiting for you to watch them.
The Tailor of Panama, like The Constant Gardener, is based on a book by John le Carré. I always had a problem with le Carré: the books of his that I have read as a teenager were all way too slow and boring. Perhaps things have changed, though, as both the Tailor and the Gardener are nice if not good films dealing with international conspiracies of one kind or another. Yet I suspect that overall, The Tailor of Panama is a film that is going to be remembered for its big screen debut of a kid called Daniel Radcliffe and for the sole reason that this nice kid went on to play in the Harry Potter conglomerate. Yes, I'm being cynical, but with a good reason: Tailor is a very cynical film to begin with, but it's also a film with some excellent acting (unlike the Potter franchise).
Tailor follows Pierce Brosnan, an MI6 agent relegated to a minor role in minor Panama after messing with a diplomat's woman at his previous international post. Brosnan has grand aspirations for his professional career, none of them of the good kind, so he engages a local British citizen tailor (Geoffrey Rush) in an effort to create something out of his nothing post. Rush, enchanted by the attention of the money flashing Brosnan, is only too eager to supply the goods in the shape of entirely fictional stories about the government of Panama's intention to sell the canal to Chinese interests and a "Silent Opposition's" plans of fighting that.
The fictional story gains momentum as, on one side, countries are recruited to fight for all that is fair and just, whereas on the other people find themselves in more and more complicated situations (most notably, Rush with his American wife, Jamie Lee Curtis).
Cleverly directed by John Boorman (whom I will always remember due to his The Emerald Forest being the very first film I got to watch with the aid of eyeglasses), The Tailor of Panama is an unassuming clever little [cynical] story that lies somewhere between being a drama, a thriller, and a comedy. Aided by well developed characters of real life authenticity, it is a clever story of how easily people can get carried away and how easily countries can do the same. The eagerness with which the USA will go out to fight for the canal in the film is very well matched by the eagerness I have experienced in the corporate world to go out and do completely meaningless and useless stuff in the name of a stupid agenda some would be hot shot manager woke up with one morning, all of which makes the film's premises quite believable. I only wonder how many of this world's problems are the result of big egos and sleaze like The Tailor of Panama's Brosnan.
Best scene: The very end scene, in which Rush cooks pancakes for his family. Because this is the way big stories end, with normal people going back to do normal things.
Overall: I'll be hard on Tailor and give it only 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 25 May 2009

The Lake House

Lowdown: A couple battles a two year barrier to fulfil their relationship.
Review:
The Lake House started for us when we were facing a Friday night with no rented movies at hand. What were we to do? Well, we chose to turn to the aid of our PVR and record The Lake House, a romantic drama from 2006, off Channel 9. Then we started watching it after twenty minutes or so, allowing us to skip over the ads and pause whenever we feel like. Ah, the wonders of technology; it's hard to imagine we ever had it differently.
The thing about The Lake House is that it proved itself perfect for watching at home by the fire on a quite night. The film was obviously engineered to be watched this way, and I can say the effect on us was remarkable given that we've enjoyed watching this, an obviously mediocre film by any reckoning. That said, The Lake House is a bit of a science fiction film, and I've always been a sucker for that.
The Lake House follows Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, both separate renters of this unique house by a lake near Chicago. It actually stands over a lake, it's got glass all around so there's no privacy but great views are assured, and it's got a tree at its center. For the record, I wouldn't mind living in such a house myself (although I doubt I could withstand a Chicago winter). Anyway, we start off with Bullock leaving the house in favor of a very consuming doctor's job at a Chicago hospital; Reeves follows her into the house to find a message from Bullock asking him to forward her any letters she may receive. Aiming to follow orders, Keanu then notices his post box seems to literally have a life of its own, and quickly enough we learn that Bullock is talking to Reeves from two years into his future. Their interactions become more and more personal and they keep on exchanging messages through their mysterious mail box, never for once abusing their special relationship to forward one another winning lottery numbers or stock exchange advice. So yes, they are both naive, and they demand substantial suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part.
The real trick about The Lake House is its examination of relationships and the effects of varying degrees of openness through its examination of the Bullock/Reeves relationship. The two really fall for one another but on the other hand they don't really know one another (and on the other extra hand there is an inseparable barrier between them). This study is further investigated by drawing parallels from Bullock and Reeves' existing relationships, where the lack of openness and transparency transpire to make those less successful. The better parallel is drawn in the relationship between Reeves and his old father (played by the ever excellent Christopher Plummer): the father was so busy with his architecture career he never had the time for his son, while the attention craving son is driven to act rebelliously. In short, what The Lake is trying to tell us is that by closing ourselves down to others we're only hurting ourselves and we'll soon regret it. On the other hand, it tries to say a thing or two in favor of fatalism, and it also suggests that this time barrier between the pair of heroes is actually responsible for the success of their relationship.
At its basic level, though, The Lake House is far from a deep film; most people will just take it as a story of an impossible romance. It works on that level, but it does have issues: the dialog between the pair is shown to be made of live, internet chat like communications, yet it's all meant to take place by a post box with written messages that should take time between answers if only because Bullock is spending most of her time at work rather than by a post box. Then there is the film's abuse of the time travel paradox: it does whatever it feels like doing with the paradox, ignoring potentially easy getaways for our lovers and often countering itself.
Best scene: Reeves shows his brother around the lake house, drawing conclusions from the house's design to his relationship with his architect father. I agree: as discussed in Architecture of Happiness, architecture and the way we are have a two way relationship.
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars, but only in the context of a quiet night by the fire.

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Eagle Eye

Lowdown: A regular dude finds himself fighting for the world's privacy.
Review:
From time to time I encounter people for whom the mere mentioning of me watching a made in Hollywood film generates immediate contempt. Bloody elitists the lot of them, I say, knowing fully well I'm just as much of a snob for many other reasons. Yet I have to give them some credit: after watching Eagle Eye, I wouldn't blame anyone for taking a u-turn whenever anything American comes nearby.
Eagle Eye follows Shia LaBeouf making another appearance in a Spielberg production. Don't ask me what Spielberg sees in him. Anyway, LaBeouf is a rather sleazy guy with not much of an aspiration other than going through life smoothly. Fair enough, but things don't go his way. First he hears that the twin brother of his, whom he hasn't seen for years, has just died; and then he finds his rented apartment has been filled to capacity with guns, ammo and explosives. While he's still wondering what the hell is going on he gets this phone call from this mysterious woman ordering him around. She's asking him to do all sorts of illegal stuff for her, and no matter how hard he tries he can't avoid doing exactly what mystery woman asks him to do: everything in his way, from electronic sign posts to mobile phones, cars and heavy equipment punishes him if he doesn't.
Oddly enough, Michelle Monaghan finds herself in the same boat. She's a single mother battling with life's hardship and with her former and now useless partner, and now that same woman forces her to do lots of illegal action movie style stuff or her son will be killed. With a threat such as this, Monaghan will stop at nothing. Quickly enough LaBeouf and Monaghan are in the same boat fighting the same battle, and the question is - can they defy this all seeing woman and do what should be done as opposed to whatever nasty agenda this woman has in mind?
Eagle Eye is a film discussing privacy in this modern age of electronics and networking where you can find everything about anyone just by googling their name. It suggests that we've crossed a threshold where our dependency on machines has gone so astray that we're likely to soon find ourselves surpassed or overwhelmed by them. All of which are fair claims, but... And it is with the "but" that things untangle very badly for Eagle Eye.
For a start, Eagle Eye is not original. It offers nothing that hasn't been thoroughly explored before by The Terminator, Enemy of the State and I, Robot.
Second, and by far Eagle Eye's worst problem, is that its premises is so silly the film cannot have any shred of credibility with its viewers. You have to be as thick as a dead post to accept Eagle Eye's suggestions about how our privacy can be infringed in such extreme methods; the film saying that this can be done does not constitute a good enough argument in my book; however, it does constitute as an insult to my intelligence.
The acting is nothing special, given the flat characters at hand, but Mongahan (whom I have praised in some of previous reviews) is quite bad. Don't ask me how she can put on a straight face and tell the camera during the film's "making of" supplemental that Eagle Eye represents an authentic problem. Sure, privacy is an issue, and sure, we should reign in our machines; but the main problem with Eagle Eye is not the problems it raises but rather it existing in the first place and it going way over the top to sensationalize reality in order to justify its existence.
The film is full of action so you can't say it's too boring; you won't be allowed to fall asleep with Eagle Eye. But like too many of its contemporaries it chooses to shoot with a hand held camera and to actively shake the camera during the action scenes, so the annoying seasickness turns into a complete incomprehensible mash. Throw in way too many not well hidden advertisements and Eagle Eye is a truly bad film worth avoiding.
Worst scene: We meet and get ourselves introduced to the super computer in charge of surveying the entire galaxy and protecting the USA. Can you believe this computer is shaped like an eye, so it can literally see all the information thrown at it via a multitude of infra-red transmitters thrown in a very sexy pattern all over the walls next to it and broadcasting information collected all over the world? Yes, very believable. And for the record, Eagle Eye does much worse; it's just that I don't want to ruin too much of the film for anyone.
OK, the real worst scene: Can anyone treat a film with serious aspirations seriously when it's climax is a carbon copy of Get Smart's climax?
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray doesn't deal with the film's dark nature too well, but I suspect it's the fault of the original look the filmmakers tried to convey. Other than that, we're talking pretty standard action movie production values here.
Overall: It's a shame this stuff puts all American cinema to shame. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Get Smart

Lowdown: A lackluster spy saves the day and all.
Review:
Unlike many of my peers, I never got to see the Get Smart TV series. I've heard rumors about it, giving me the impression it was rather silly, but that was it; enough to make renting the new film version a rather low priority affair. Eventually I did rent it, though, and I'm quite happy with that: Get Smart is a rather smart laugh at the classic spy actions film genre represented by James Bond and his peers.
Get Smart follows Steve Carell as he portrays an incompetent intelligence gatherer at an American spy agency called SMART. Carell is a guy traumatized by his obese past, but he loses his weight in his quest to become a field agent. His dream comes true when SMART's real field agents have been compromised and new agents are sought. Together with his assigned partnet, Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway), they go on to investigate the events that led to SMART's breach of security, and together they stumble upon a conspiracy staged by the evil organization KAOS to use atomic weapons for some nasty purpose. In order to ward off the threat our couple goes off to Russia, where they make a big mess of themselves. Without spoiling the obvious fun, I can assure you that eventually Carell's unlikely hero saves the day.
The thing about Get Smart is that it is right on the border between being an action film and a comedy. That is, there is never any doubt about it being a comedy, but there is enough well crafted Bond style action to ensure this is more than just a satire. The balance is just about right for Get Smart to sarcastically mock those action films taking themselves too seriously, with many a scene evoking famous action scenes of yonder. There is a scene where Carell does a sexy dance with an obese woman while at a party hosted by a mega-rich mega-baddie, ala True Lies; there are scenes from Moscow's Red Square ala Bond/Bourne; and there's a scene where Carell and Hathaway flex their bodies to the max in order to penetrate a laser defended safe area ala Entrapment. The best example I can give, though, is for the climax scene being exactly like the climax scene from Eagle Eye - the evil plot is exactly the same - yet Eagle Eye takes itself seriously while Get Smart gives the likes of Eagle Eye the piss.
The well balanced formula works incredibly effectively, but it's all aided by the acting. There can be no doubt of Carell's talent for comedies, and there can be no doubt of Hathaway being a high quality actress; nothing like the normal bimbo cast for her looks we normally get at these film satires (or, come to think of it, in the serious action films these satires are mocking in the first place). Interestingly enough, the film comes up with a stupid twist to explain the pairing of Carell with a woman that could have been his daughter. With a good supporting cast including The Rock, Alan Arkin and Terence Stamp, Get Smart provides a smart silly comedy satire that is well made.
Memorable scene: Carell kisses The Rock on the mouth. My point here is simple: The Rock, or rather Dwayne Johnson, has turned out to be a very nice actor with an undeniable talent for comedy. The fact this muscly dude does not shy from being kissed onscreen by another guy indicates he could have the brains to go with the body.
Technical assessment: There are some inconsistencies with the picture, which often makes the overuse of blue screens during the shooting way too obvious. However, it's the sound that takes center stage with this Blu-ray: it is simply the worst I have experienced on Blu-ray. For a start, Get Smart offers only a DVD quality lossy Dolby Digital soundtrack; the main problem, though, is that this soundtrack sounds awful, making my ears feel like they're being tortured. I don't know what went wrong with the sound, but it suffers from hisses, often unintelligible dialog, and lots of inconsistencies.
Overall: Surprisingly good for a comedy of this type. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Day the Earth Stood Still

Lowdown: Aliens threaten to annihilate humans in order to save the earth.
Review:
Science fiction films can be problematic: On one hand they can be exciting while on the other hand they can step on so many scientific truths they become pathetic. Due to marketing related reasons it seems as if the latter form the majority, with studio accountants having seemingly determined dumb films sell better. Sadly, the recent remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still belongs firmly into that category.
The film tells us of an alien spaceship landing in the middle of Central Park. But of course; where else would it land? Or are you suggesting there is actually more to this world than the USA? Anyway, out of the ship pops one dude, Keanu Reeves; he quickly gets shot by one of the many nervous soldiers waiting there, which triggers the release of a giant robot. This one is an invincible robot that seems capable of destroying anything on its way. Quickly enough we learn that what is at stake is the future of humanity: some interstellar collective has decided humans pose a risk to their planet and that the best course of action, in the name of all that is living, is to remove the problem.
Two things stand in Keanu’s way to green salvation: One Jennifer Connelly, an exobiology specialist wearing a white coat and other bits of equipment essential for making one appear smart; she sides with Keanu and tries to convince him to change his mind through positive feedback. On the other hand is one Kathy Bates playing a Hillary Clinton like role of Defence Minister; she tries to beat the aliens down using force. In both cases I got the feeling the actresses are way too overqualified to portray the flat roles they’ve been handed. I would go even further and suggest the two were willing to participate in the film due to its green agenda, not because of the film being a professional challenge they would like to tackle at the current stage of their careers. With a rather robotic Keanu at center stage, acting is a bit of a sad affair in The Day the Earth Stood Still.
As implied, though, the biggest problem at hand is the amount of things that do not make sense or just pure bullshit that’s being poured on the viewer. The Day the Earth Stood Still really asks a lot of its viewers in terms of shutting one’s brains and accepting the crap it proposes for a plot. True, others have done so before and got away with it, as per Independence Day. But unlike its partner in showing famous human artifacts being destroyed by faceless aliens The Day the Earth Stood Still maintains an aura of seriousness all along, whereas the genre’s better specimen just shrug things off with a laugh.
Worst scene: To point at one example where the film has been dumbed down in favor of the audience’s thicker members, the aliens are seen collecting animal specimen into pods. As the film literally says, these pods are meant to act as a Noah’s Ark, to be returned to earth once the humans are no longer there. But is that the way to save the planet? And if you are such a technologically advanced culture that you can make your representative (Keanu Reeves) appear all human and carry human DNA, why do you need to collect animal samples in the first place? Why can’t you just store the digital code of the animals’ DNA on your hard drive? After all, a human’s entire DNA code fits on one single layer DVD.
The conclusion is inevitable: The Day the Earth Stood Still is all about appearances!
Best joke: The supplementals go on talking how green the film's production was. They report being very careful with the napalm that they used.
Technical assessment: Good, but nothing inspiring.
Overall: Being green and having a good agenda does not mean you can get away with murder on the screen. 2 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Almost Famous

Lowdown: A road trip movie about music and growing up.
Review:
Where were you the first time you saw Almost Famous? Many would answer "the cinema" or "on the soft at home" while others will say they've never heard of Almost Famous. But my answer would be on the more original side of things: I was at my university's swimming pool. As exotic as watching a film at a swimming pool can be, it made getting into the spirit of the film really hard; some technical projection issues made it even harder. With Almost Famous now available as a Blu-ray release, the time had come to revisit this year 2000 release from Cameron Crowe.
Cameron Crowe does seem to specialize in films dealing with naivety, the likes of Jerry Maguire and Elizabethtown; Almost Famous is no exception. The difference about its story is that, given Crowe's famous affection to music, it has this sort of an autobiographical feeling to it. I almost wonder if the film tells the story of Crowe himself, or perhaps the story of the way Crowe would have liked to grow up. Regardless, the Blu-ray gives an elongated take on matters with an almost three hours take on the story.
Yes, let's get to the story. It revolves around an American Baby Boomer teenager, William Miller, during the early seventies. We start with the kid living with his single mother and sister; the mother, the ever so excellent Frances McDormand, cannot bear not to have her kids firmly under her protective grip. Yet, or despite that, the kids rebel; our William's rebellion takes shape in his investigative journalism on the subject of contemporary rock bands. William is so good at this writing that he gets an opportunity to write a cover article for Rolling Stone magazine on the emerging [fictional] band Stillwater. Grasping the opportunity with both hands, despite mother related conscience issues, he goes on a tour across the USA with the band.
It is during this tour that the bulk of the film takes place in the shape of your classic road trip movie. William gets to know the members of the band and the politics between the band members; he gets exposed to the feeling of the tour - the sex, the drugs and the rock 'n' roll; he gets to know the opposite sex, mostly in the shape of a youngish Kate Hudson (who shows up she sucked big time even when she was younger). And yes, through it all, he grows up. Society as a whole grows up around him, too.
The thing about Almost Famous is not the personal story of William. It is rather a case of William's growing up in the shadow of a band tour acting as a metaphor to the way the music industry was shaped by a society waking up from its idealism in favor of pure capitalism. Almost Famous thus tells the story of how music seems to have lost that sense of mysticism that it had back during Crowe's childhood days and how the industry turned its back on its supporters in its greed. And I can identify with that: Like Crowe, I grew up under the misty myth of bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd, who were more like deities than real people; the world back then was not equipped with the means to tell me what each band member ate for breakfast the way it does today. And like Crowe, I still seem to harbor that myth within me, so much so that when in a recent debate about the qualities of The School of Rock I was left breathless when my fellow arguer had dared to claim "there's a LOT of filler in Led Zeppelin's catalog". I suspect the ability to make such a statement is the direct result of the age difference between us.
Still, there is no true need to look for depth in Almost Famous. At its core, this is a film about music, inspired by that Led Zeppelin atmosphere of yonder. It's relaxed, it's funny at times, and it takes it's time; it's naive. Throughout it's inoffensive length and you'll have a smile on your face, even if you don't happen to be watching it at a swimming pool.
Best scene: The various sharp edges between the Stillwater band members get some extra sharpening when the plane they're on is about to crash and the band members make their last minute confessions to one another.
Technical assessment: Although not bad, this Blu-ray's picture does show its age with some dirt and grain. The sound follows on the generally relaxed atmosphere of the film, but during the concerts it really shines; never aggressive, it does make you feel like you're there. The Blu-ray uncompressed sound definitely does the nice rock soundtrack a favor.
Overall: A pleasant progressive 4 out of 5 stars experience.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Lowdown: The story of a teenager from Mumbai’s slums who doesn’t want to be a millionaire.
Review:
When asked, I gladly express my opinion on the Academy Awards, most notably about the less than robust correlation between quality and award winning. That said, the Oscars do seem to have some effect on me, because when facing the choice of renting either Slumdog Millionaire or The Day the Earth Stood Still I chose the former; it was a conservative’s choice. I do have to hand it in to Slumdog Millionaire, though: it was a choice we really enjoyed, for Slumdog is a good take on the feel good / uplifting formula represented by films such as The Shawshank Redemption or the previously reviewed World’s Fastest Indian and The Astronaut Farmer.
As the film starts, we are introduced to Jamal, a Muslim teenager from Mumbai’s slums. Jamal has just won millions on the Indian version of the Who Wants to Be a Millionaire TV show, but enough people believe he could not have achieved such an achievement without cheating. As a result of this doubt Jamal is not out there celebrating his victory, but rather being tortured at a Mumbai police station for information on his scheme. Only that, according to Jamal, he did not cheat; and after the police finish giving him their worst without any outcomes, they sit and listen to his story on how he happened to know the answers to the million dollars questions.
And just like Darwin’s simple idea for explaining complexity using lots and lots of simple mindless events, Slumdog Millionaire develops simply through Jamal giving the police his life stories, flashback style. One by one, these stories explain how he was able to answer the questions while we end up with the resulting pile of flashbacks that make the film up.
Conveniently enough for the film, the questions/answers flashback happen to follow Jamal through his life, from a small child to the teenager he currently is. Sure, it feels contrived, but who cares when it’s so easy to drown in the plot? The resulting tapestry of stories exposes us to the magnificently strange world of India. We learn about life in the slums under conditions of extreme poverty, we learn about religious tensions in Indian society, and we learn a thing or two about the Indian class system. We even learn a bit on how the Indian call centers work. In short, Slumdog Millionaire works by taking most of us to the world of fantasy that is India.
Another process that happens as we go through Jamal’s account is that we learn more about Jamal, the person. He’s no longer an unlikely TV game show winner; he’s a person. He is someone who grew out of an environment of poverty, crime and exploitation. He is someone who doesn’t give up when he wants something. And he is someone whose current quest is to find a girl he and his older brother grew up with in the slums, a girl he is now in love with. It is the love for this girl that brought him to the TV show, not greed. Through Jamal’s idealism and the contrast between it and his brother’s more practical approach to life under harsh conditions we have ourselves an uplifting story of fascinating circumstances about an unlikely hero rising up to the occasion despite very unfavorable circumstances. It’s really easy to find yourself identifying with Jamal; even the process of going through the Millionaire questions with him brings you closer to him, simply because you feel you’re being quizzed yourself. Things are, literally, very exciting.
There are some issues with Slumdog, though. As I have already mentioned, it does feel contrived and there are too many coincidences. For a start, our hero doesn’t know much, so the likelihood of him getting the few questions he does know the answer for is pretty low. Things are made worse by the film’s way of addressing this problem: it basically says that this is the way things were meant to be. Problem is, I cannot accept such a solution, and the formerly mentioned Darwin is on my side of the debate here: he did not accept such an answer as a good explanation either.
Memorable scene: As a young child, Jamal is locked in an outdoor toilet by his brother just when his most beloved Bollywood childhood hero is coming to pay their slum a visit. Jamal would stop at nothing, so he jumps into the pile of shit underneath the toilet to get out and secures the Bollywood star’s signature. It’s very exciting and all, but as I already said – it’s also very contrived: It’s not only that Jamal was willing to swim in shit and it’s not only that he managed to get a signature; he managed both. Reality doesn’t work this way.
Picture quality: Slumdog features a very high contrast image that’s flashy and sexy to the eye. On the negative side, the picture is often grainy, which is quite surprising for the Blu-ray format. Apparently, Slumdog was shot in digital, which sort of explains my observations (and makes it seem as if digital is not there yet for filming purposes).
Sound quality: Slumdog knows how to be aggressive when it wants to, resulting in a pleasing sound experience that makes the most of its settings. Quite nice, especially when considering that Slumdog is not a mega blockbuster action flick.
Overall: Slumdog is a good film, but if Slumdog went on to earn the Academy Award then Shawshank should have won a few years’ worth of Academy Awards. For now, though, I’ll rate Slumdog somewhere between 4 and 4.5 stars out of 5; it earns this rating mainly because of its India factor.

Friday, 8 May 2009

The Bank Job

Lowdown: Back in early seventies’ London, daddy was a bank robber (but he never hurt nobody).
Review:
When one is going to watch a film starring John Statham, one would normally expect a Transporter like experience: lots of action scenes so silly they're good. The Bank Job, however, is not that type of film; it’s actually a serious thriller. Don’t get me wrong, though: I was never disappointed by The Bank Job. Not in the least. After all, how can a movie featuring a naked woman in its very first frame ever go wrong?
Set in early seventies’ London, The Bank Job tells the story of a bunch of honest thieves that go on and commit one of England’s biggest robberies ever (in case you didn’t guess it yet, they rob a bank). The trick is with their description as “honest”: you see, they’re not your average criminals. Unlike proper criminals, plenty of which are featured in the film for comparison, they’re not violent; unlike most of the police featured in the film, they’re not corrupt. No, our guys have a good sense of ethics on them, so much so that if you don’t really think about what they are doing you won’t notice they’re actually doing something that is obviously morally wrong. Which probably means the movie does a good job in developing characters you identify with and care about.
The main reason for us thinking of the robbers as the good guys is to do with the setting. Our robbers are enticed to go and perform the robbery by England’s MI5/MI6, who wish to put their hands on some incriminating evidence located in the bank’s vaults. Their way of getting those coveted items is to cheat a bunch of criminals into breaking the bank’s defences and getting them the goods. So you see, our thieves have been tricked into committing this robbery.
Premises aside, The Bank is not more than a detailed account of the robbery’s preparation, execution and aftermath (including dealing with fellow, but nasty, criminals). Doesn’t sound like much, but it’s a thrill; there is not a boring moment in its close to two hours duration. What The Bank Job does provide is a look at the seedy nature of British society and an opinion on the level of corruptness that is hidden behind the appearance of tradition and high class; if you ask The Bank Job, it's our criminals that are the decent fellows of society and the ruling classes that are the real criminals. It is worth mentioning at this point that The Bank Job claims to be based on real events; however, a short documentary Blu-ray supplemental providing the real story’s account makes it pretty clear that other than the robbery’s basic premises, the film is very reliant on the script writer’s imagination.
The Bank Job does do its best to give that good old seventies feeling. Everyone has a moustache and looks like they came out of an old porn flick (or that Sabotage video clip), and the sets and the looks are very well matched. Authenticity is also in the acting and the language, all very (but very) cockney. There is not a sentence that passes by without the use of very British English, to the point the viewer – even the British viewer – will get their knickers in a twist. It definitely felt like they were overdoing it a bit, but it didn’t bother me even when the subtitles weren’t enough to understand what gov was saying there.
While there is violence in the film and a sense of sexual liberalism as befits the period (i.e., liberal use of nudity – hooray!), it is interesting to note The Bank Job is not an action film. Statham does not kick ass in this one, relegating himself to just looking tough with his cool piercing look and unshaved face coupled with his token boldness. The guy he portrays is a macho, no doubt about it, but Niko Bellic would have kicked his ass (and let me say the movie’s premises would not have been out of place in a the Grand Theft Auto world Niko comes from).
Last, but not least: The Bank Job features an old time favorite actor of mine, Peter Bowles, whom I remember fondly from the TV series The Bounder. It was good to see him again after so many years!
Worst scene: Don’t get me wrong, The Bank Job is a very good film; it’s just that there’s this one scene that sticks out because it’s the only one where you think “right, luv, that was as likely as me winning the lottery tomorrow when I didn’t even fill the bloody form up”. It’s a scene where the police arrive at the scene of the robbery while the robbery is taking place but our heroes do not get caught just because one of them drops something he shouldn’t have dropped in the first place. Too convenient to be credible, but my point is actually that this is the only un-credible bit of an otherwise credible film despite its numerous plot twists.
Technical assessment: The will to give the movie that “look of the seventies” with everything looking brown or dark red means that picture quality is not as good as it could have been. The DTS HD Master Audio soundtrack is good but not half as aggressive as I expected it to be (then again, I expected action and got a thriller).
Overall: Good, simple, and extremely effective. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Silent Running

Lowdown: The future of earth’s biodiversity is in orbit around Saturn.
Review:
Today, Douglas Trumbull is famous mostly for doing the special effects on Blade Runner, one of the most visionary films ever (at least as far as influencing other films is concerned). Before his work on Blade Runner (and afterwards too, for that matter), Trumbull has directed a few films of his own. It was his Blade Runner reputation that made me record Silent Running, his 1972 director’s debut, when it was aired by ABC a few months ago.
The entire Silent Running film takes place on board of a spaceship manned by four astronauts. Through their misadventures on the ship and through dialog we learn that this American Airlines spacecraft is harboring earth’s last remaining samples of natural flora and fauna. The earth is now completely under humanity’s control: the temperature is fixed, and the food is artificial, and everyone is so happy with this state of affairs that the planet's only natural remnants have been cast out into space for safety keeping as well as to keep it out of humanity’s way.
After setting things up, Silent Running turns to revolve around one of the astronauts. He’s unique: he likes nature and dislikes the artificiality that prevails. When company orders arrive, asking the crew to destroy their cargo and return to earth, he’s the only one that’s unhappy to go back home. But what can one man do to fix things up?
Silent Running starts very well, with a hardcore science fiction approach and an interesting, if somewhat dated, setting. It also ends well. The problem is the middle section, where the film strays too much off its basic stance: For example, in a scene where the ship “falls towards Saturn”, a rather psychedelic scene that serves for nothing more than allowing Trumbull to show off with his special effects (at least they’re not digital). And then there is the long messing about with the ship’s drones, cutie-cutie robots that look a lot like WALL-E and behave the same, too; they’re way too childish for a film of such serious agenda. They overstay their welcome and end up tiring.
Oh, did I mention WALL-E? The main thing a contemporary viewer will take out of Silent Running are the obvious similarities between this one and WALL-E. It’s everywhere: the setup (a spaceship where the last non artificial living thing is located), the orbiting of Saturn, and of course – the more human than human drones that not only look very similar but also do the exact same things. There can be no doubt about it: WALL-E had to be inspired by Silent Running.
Given the similarities between the two, which one do I call better? Well, I didn’t like WALL-E for a start, but I have my reservations with Silent Running too. Both films can be childish, although with WALL-E this is an end to end thing whereas Silent Running has a solid core to rely on. Both films have their share of bullshit, as with locating the ships next to Saturn of all places. For me, things come down to WALL-E’s patronizing approach, that regular Disney trademarked spoon feeding the audience type feeling, that is far from dominant in Silent Running. That, and the avoidance of a cheesy ending, win me over to Silent Running’s side.
Soundtrack wise, Silent Running features songs by Joan Baez. How can I put it diplomatically? What might have sounded nice and touchy back when this film was made sounds more like a joke now. Definitely outdated!
When all is said and done, one thing has to be said in favor of Silent Running: It is probably among the first films, if not the first, to run with such a pro environment agenda. I find it amazing that people with such foresight have been living amongst us for more than thirty years before An Inconvenient Truth came along. Yet we did nothing with their foresight.
Best scene: The crew (or rather, most of it) receives the cheerfully dictated order to terminate their cargo with much cheering.
Overall: Showing its age and deficient but carrying a good idea at its core, Silent Running ends up with 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, 4 May 2009

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Lowdown: A white man getting into trouble in black Bronx is an opportunity for everyone else.
Review:
Brian De Palma may be a controversial director, but he sure can make a good film when he's firing on all cylinders. In my opinion, he's one of those old style directors that really control the artistry of the film media, an old school art that has virtually disappeared in this world of sticking to the formula dictated by accountants so money can be earned at a seemingly low risk and/or relying on digital effects. It's the De Palma way of doing things that got mortally wounded when blockbusters such as Jaws and Star Wars started to come out.
The Bonfire of the Vanities is a 1991 release from De Palma, and if you're asking me he's still very fine tuned indeed there. He tells a story narrated by a fresh out of Moonlighting Bruce Willis, a drunk but very successful writer whose ass is being kissed all over. Willis' success, it seems, might have had something to do with the demise of Tom Hanks' character, the main figure in Bonfire, whose story is flash backed to us by Willis.
Tom Hanks plays a successful Wall Street trader who makes a million before lunch but is still unsatisfied with his beautiful wife and huge upper east side apartment; he wants more. More, in this case, is an affair with Melanie Griffith. One night, while driving her in his Mercedes, the pair take a wrong turn and end up in The Bronx, surrounded by blacks. Things go wrong, and in a moment of panic Griffith hits & runs a black guy. Hanks wants to go to the police but his mistress won't let him.
The black community starts to become angry, stirred by a cynical priest. The Jewish district attorney (played by the excellent F.Murray Abraham from Amadeus), wishing to become mayor, looks for the rich owner of the Mercedes, knowing such a "victim" would earn him the black vote. A would be lawyer wishing to acquire a position of power with the district attorney stops at nothing to find this victim and victimize him. Eventually it's Willis, a lowly reporter, that ties the knots and pins Hanks to the hit & run, unleashing a chain of greed and power lust in a dog eat dog society where no one is human or humane and appearances are the only thing that matter.
Aside of the wonderfully witty plot and well developed characters, Bonfire relies heavily on its cast. And an excellent cast it is! On top of the previously mentioned figures there's a Morgan Freeman that's adding his share as the only decent person in New York that can see things for what they are.
More than anything, though, Bonfire is a tour de force of a director at his best. There are virtually all of De Palma's trademarks here: the long opening shot with no cuts, split screens (both obvious and hidden), clever camera work, and tons of cynicism. Interestingly, the nudity that's a De Palma trademark is missing from Bonfire; a shame, if you ask me. Still, The Bonfire of the Vanities is thus an entertaining film that appeals to cinema buffs, too.
Memorable scene: It's hard to pin a specific scene. There's the long uncut opening scene, but De Palma does it better later in Snake Eyes; therefore, what took me over was the scene where Morgan Freeman stops the roller coaster of shams and calls things the way they are. On one hand, it's a redundant scene, because he's only stating what should be very obvious to the viewer; on the other hand, the fact the world listens and still goes on as before is one of the more important points the film is trying to make.
Technical assessment: This DVD features only a very compressed stereo soundtrack that sounds more like mono and features cheap sounding eighties like music. The picture is even worse, with a transfer that seems to have been made off a cinema copy rather than a master.
Overall: An excellent film let down only by technicalities. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Lowdown: A Chinese Mummy.
Review:
It's been something like seven years since the second episode of The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, and now we've been hit with Mummy 3 (or, by its full name, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor). Once again, it's a story of an Indiana Jones like archaeologist who just happens to stumble upon a resurrected mummy keen upon ruling the world rather ruthlessly and leaving our hero with no choice but to make sure our the mummy is retired to its former status. The main difference is that now our mummy is Chinese (and portrayed by Jet Li), the story is in China, and some personnel changes with the actors and director.
So, did the series survive this migration? Before answering, let me ask you this: given that the story follows an evil mummy, what is the scariest thing about Mummy 3? My answer is that, at least according to Widescreen Review, Mummy 3 has been the best grossing film of the trilogy thus far. And why is this so scary? Simply because Mummy 3 is an incredibly bad film.
Where shall we start? With the cast, if you please. Brendan Fraser is back for the main role, but seems like he never really woke up for the job; on his opposite side, Rachel Weisz has decided not to come back and play Fraser's wife (a very weisz move), so this quality actress is replaced by
Maria Bello about whom I cannot say much other than that she's doing an awful job. And Jet Li? Well, he spends most of the film as a digital effect anyway.
Yes, like many of its compatriots that try to make a killing at the box office without delivering much, Mummy 3 is digital heavy; way too heavy, so heavy it drowns. Similarly, its action scenes are shot with a shaky camera that doesn't allow you to figure out what is really going on (other than notice the rather unreal digital nature of it all). Pretty bad.
Character development? You mean, you're asking for character development in a film that puts digital effects ahead of everything? What are you going to ask for next, a decent plot? No, this one relies on you knowing the characters from before, and settles for just the very basic cliches the book can offer.
The bottom line is that Mummy 3 is a cheap excuse for a foundation lacking sequel to be set in China. It's predictable, it does not thrill in the least, and it's not funny like its predecessors were (to one extent or another). The magic that was there, at least with the first film (and despite its blatant copying of the Indiana Jones formula), is gone; Mummy 3 is exactly the type of film that gives sequels a bad name.
Worst scene: There's a tough competition for this title, but I'll hand it out to the scene where Yetis are introduced on a mountain scene. Digital yetis (say no more).
Overall: Bad from start to finish. 1.5 out of 5 stars.