Thursday, 30 July 2009

George's Secret Key to the Universe by Lucy & Stephen Hawking

Lowdown: A whole new world becomes visible and accessible to an ordinary child.
Review:
Let the record say that the first Stephen Hawking book I got to read is not Brief History of Time or anything bombastic as that, but rather a book aimed at 9 year olds plus called George's Secret Key to the Universe. Then again, George’s Key was co-written by Stephen and Lucy Hawking (don’t ask me what relation if any exist), so it’s impossible for me to say how much of it was written by the famous scientist and how much by the person whose day job is being a writer.
Should I care? Not really, when the book at hand is a very engaging adventure story I gobbled enthusiastically despite it being aimed at significantly younger kids than yours truly while, at the same time, I was exposed to lots of interesting scientific facts and theories mostly relating to cosmology. Liberals, Nationals and Family First voters are warned, though, that the book has an overall greenie messages and poses the significant of causing your children think for themselves!
The story of George’s Key follows a child called George. George is a pretty ordinary child living in a pretty ordinary Western town. There is a catch, though: George’s parents are environmentalists of the extreme kind. They don’t allow electricity or cars, they eat vegetarian food they make on their own, and they don’t allow George to have the computer he covets so much. Instead, George has to settle with a pig.
Adventures commence when George’s pig breaks into his neighbors yard and George follows it. There he finds a girl his age, her father the scientist, and Cosmos – the most powerful computer in the world! Cosmos allows our new gang of friends to enter a window in space and explore it first hand. Which, indeed, our friends do, in the process teaching us lots of things about our solar system.
Every good story needs a villain, and in George’s Key that villain comes in the shape of George’s schoolteacher and a bunch of school bullies that like to pick on easy prey. That teacher covets Cosmos, and with the bullies’ help things come down to being able to rescue oneself from a black hole (no one would have expected black holes in a Stephen Hawking book!).
My edition of the book was obviously the English one; everyone was "cross" with one another and everyone speaks and behaves in very English ways. You can say that reading this edition is a bit of an anthropological experience. Yet the nice thing about George’s Key is its loyalty to scientific facts and its promotion of the scientific method. Indeed, the book carries in it a lot of the messages carried in Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World, a book on the virtues of the scientific method, only that George does it in a much simplified and distilled way that should be more accessible. The story is augmented by the occasional side panel providing straight facts about all sorts of celestial stuff that even I, a person not that foreign to astronomy, learned a thing or two from. The book also features some very sexy color photos of space artifacts which managed to captivate my two year old with their flashy colors. Yet with all of its scientific pretensions it has to be said George’s Secret Key to the Universe is very much a science fiction book, by virtue of the fact a tool such as Cosmos is not something we will be able to see any time soon. It is, however, a smartly crafted tool to help develop the story with.
Another tool that helps Geroge’s Secret Key to the Universe are the drawings / sketches accompanying the book. They’re really good! I often wonder why adult books do away with drawings; done right, as is the case here, I find they greatly enhance my book reading fun factor.
The last point I would like to emphasize about George’s Key is its villains. I was rather surprised to find teachers vilified as much as they do in the book, especially given Stephen Hawking’s own role as an educator. It’s not just the baddie being a teacher, but rather the entire way in which schools are described as a boring place that does nothing for its pupils’ good other than keeping them off adults’ hair. It sounds harsh, but I have to say totally agree with the Hawkings here: The way our education system has been going and the way it keeps on aiming at nothing more than high marks, its real value as an educator has long been forgotten and neglected. Want good education? Go read yourself a good book. Start with this one.
Another villain related issue is to do with the bullying factor. Personally, I don’t recall ever suffering from bullying at school, although I have witnessed it done to others. However, the way school bullying and cyber bullying are described today, it sounds to me as if the problem is much worse than it used to be. Given that bullying is usually the result of the bully’s own craving for attention, we once again get a glimpse at the wrongs of living in a society where money is the first and final arbiter and people come last.
Overall: A highly pleasurable read with insight for everyone to pick. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 29 July 2009

R-Wards 3

This blog is closing off its third year, and once again it is time to look back, summarize the year that was, and pick the best it had to offer me.
Trend wise, this year will be marked as the year in which the presentation qualities of watching films at home have surpassed what the vast majority of cinemas can offer, especially in the sound department. The year has been the year of and high definition video: whereas last year’s summary concluded that it’s best to wait before jumping on the Blu-ray wagon, Blu-ray was jumped upon during the middle of the year and I haven’t looked back since (other than when lamenting the lack of good music utilizing the best that Blu-ray can offer). Through a high definition PVR and through upscaling DVDs and downloads, which result in inferior yet similar picture to straight high definition, our picture had never looked better. Gone for good are analog sources like the VCR; by now they are intolerable.
As for future trends, I suspect more of the same. For now, internet downloads and off the air TV cannot compete with Blu-ray due to the severe levels of compression they have to endure. Yes, even high definition downloads dubbed as Blu-ray equivalent are a far cry. Yet with Blu-rays available for rent at $2 a pop or less, I see no problems with the way things are.

Best film:
This had been the first year in memorable life where I have never been to the cinema. To compensate for this absence we got to watch lots of mediocre films just to feel we’re up to date with life; yet in between the banal some surprises emerged.
Most surprising of all was Walk Hard, a comedy that made me laugh very hard. It wasn’t only that the jokes were good; the musical soundtrack is genuinely good on its own.
My best film of the year, though, has been Speed Racer. The way Speed Racer did animation material in real life (with the aid of animation meant to look as real life) was just magnificent; coupled with the fantasy like car racing action, Speed Racer was genuine high quality fun, an oasis of originality amid sequels and sequels of sequels.

Best book:
Two books I have read this last year deserve this title.
The first is Richard Dawkins’ The Blind Watchmaker. Dawkins' detailed account of the way evolution by natural selection works and its implications is not only well written, it is also quite illuminating. Then again, I expect nothing less from Dawkins. It is also a very important book for our times, times in which religious circles in Australia are complaining that upcoming legislation will prevent them from teaching Intelligent Design; The Blind Watchmaker is the book they should give their kids instead of their regular brainwashing.
I’m sure Dawkins won’t mind me giving the best book title to another book, a book he admitted he should have written himself: Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Demon Haunted World is not "just" another book of popular science, but rather a book dealing with the importance of science itself and the scientific method in particular. In a day and age where humanity is facing one of its biggest challenges ever in the shape of global warming such a reminder is timely: it takes but a short look at the way Australia's attitude to the challenge is shaped by religious prejudice and the power of those that make a killing out of the current way of life to see how much the scientific method is missing from our day to day lives.

Best on TV:
It took us a few episodes to get into the thick of things, but three seasons onwards The IT Crowd has established itself as one of our favorite comedies ever. Its jokes about popular culture (e.g., the Friendface social website), corporate politics, and the geeks vs. the cool are top notch comedy; and I can definitely sympathize with the way its IT people are being treated by "normal" folk.
For the record, my favorite episode comes from season 2 and features our heroes going to the theater. One of them gets into trouble and pretends to be disabled just to be able to go to the toilet, the other gets into trouble and ends up a barman. You have to see it to get it, though.
The only sad thing about The IT Crowd is that being a British TV series, they only make six episodes a season. I really do hope we have many more seasons to come.

Lifetime Achievement R-Ward:
I liked him as an actor, from his Westerns through Dirty Harry and Firefox. But since he turned director Clint Eastwood seemed to be maturing better than quality wine.
Check out his five most recent releases: Between Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Gran Torino only one is not worthy of a five star rating.
He is, by far, my favorite filmmaker. Allow me to be greedy and wish him for more, many more.

Monday, 27 July 2009

The Front Page

Lowdown: Journalists and authorities make a killing out of death row misery.
Review:
This blog has expressed its admiration to Billy Wilder in the past (Double Indemnity, Some Like It Hot). Although I can’t point at any of his films and say I find them truly remarkable, I think I can safely point at his films and admire the systematic way in which they were done and the Wilder vision that is written all over them. The Front Page, a 1974 release, is another Wilder film to join this club, and it even features the stars that seemed to have been created for Wilder – Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Set in 1929 Chicago, at the height of Prohibition, The Front Page is a tale revolving the world of journalism. Jack Lemmon is the best journalist Chicago has, but he’s tired of the pressure and wants to marry and live a comfortable life with his girl of choice, a very young looking Susan Sarandon. His editor, Matthau, is not one to give up his best asset, so he does his best to convince Lemmon and/or to trick Lemmon into staying.
At the same time, an inmate is waiting to be hung for shooting a cop. Chicago’s main group of journalists is busy playing cards at the jail’s press room while making news up about the matter as Lemmon comes to bid them all farewell. But Lemmon is trapped without knowing it: between the mischief of Matthau, the amateur corruptness of the authorities dealing with the hanging, and his chance of a scoop, he is swept back to the world he wanted to leave so badly.
In typical Wilder fashion, The Front Page is a very theatrical affair. Most of it takes place in one room, the press room, and power is provided by the acting talents of the film’s leads and their witty lines. And in typical Wilder fashion it’s all one big satirical farce, that – in typical Wilder fashion – is not that funny, yet one cannot avoid admiring its smartness.
The Front Page makes it obvious Wilder has had a thing or two to say about the press as well as the authorities. Both are portrayed as vultures that couldn’t care less about decency and about the price their victims – the wrongly reported or the wrongly jailed – have to pay so they can make a buck or get themselves re-elected. As far as Wilder is concerned, the only innocent person in the film is a prostitute, an analogy of biblical proportions; the rest are either indifferent to the suffering of others or a part of the great plot, which doesn't say much that is good about us viewers either and the way most of us turn a blind eye to the fact the companies we work for do some pretty nasty things. That Wilder manages to deliver his message so effectively and so entertainingly is testament to his direction skills.
Best scene: The special psychiatrist brought from Vienna to assess the sanity of the death row shooter asks the guy to recreate the shooting as best as he could. Which is exactly what he does.
Overall: The Front Page is entertaining and it’s a great demonstration of fine acting, but it failed to captivate me enough to give it more than 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Beaches

Lowdown: Two women's relationship across distance and time.
Review:
Another quiet night by the PVR brought us Beaches, a 1988 release whose age showed despite (or perhaps because of) its high definition transmission.
Starring Bette Midler and Barbara Hershey, Beaches starts with Midler as a very famous singer about to go on a Los Angeles stage before tens of thousands for a live show. Shortly before the show she receives a mysterious note that sends her driving all through a rainy night to San Francisco, a long drive spent mostly flashbacking (where the bulk of Beaches lies). Flashbacks start with a glimpse at her Atlantic City childhood, where she was auditioning as a girl performer and where she met the younger version of Hershey - a rich girl visiting from San Francisco.
On the face of it, Midler and Hershey are opposites: Rich vs. poor, outgoing vs. caged. Yet the kids decide to keep in touch, a policy they follow as they post one another letters through the years. Yes, Beaches is a film that could not have been made in this day and age of Skype free video conferencing across the world. As the film develops and our characters grow up, occasionally meeting and spending time together, we get to realize how similar they are: they both fall for the same guy, they both get bound by circumstances, and they argue (thus raising the question of whether the film should have been called Bitches). When push comes to shove, though, it is obvious these two are kin spirits.
The pattern used in Beaches is identical to the one used in the recently reviewed Dutch film Twin Sisters. However, given Twin Sisters is a 2002 production, it is clear who which was the more original film to follow two close characters divided by physical distance across a lifetime in which they occasionally meet using flashbacks. The endings are pretty similar, too. The result in both cases is what most people would dub "a chick flick": a pleasant if empty affair with story elements that appeal more to the female of the species rather than us muscular and testosterone overflowed males.
To me, the most interesting aspect of Beaches was the way in which it managed to capture the spirit of the eighties so strongly. Between the film's color palette, the music soundtrack (most of which performed by Midler), the editing, and the sets (the film's New York reminded me of what New York looked like to me when I visited during the eighties), Beaches is so eighties it could act as a future anthropologists' delight.
As to the reason why the film is called Beaches of all names, I suspect it is to do with key moments taking place on opposite USA coasts' beaches.
Best scene: Midler plays the role of an industrial devil surrounded by robots on a very eighties Off Broadway production. It reminded me of your typical eighties music video.
Overall: Entertaining enough to watch on a quiet evening by the fire. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Man About Town

Lowdown: A seemingly successful guy's world crumbles around him.
Review:
It was a Friday night, we were tired, and once again the default was a filler off our PVR. Man About Town, a film starring Ben Affleck, seemed perfect for the job. It wasn't great, but it proved right for the occasion.
Man About Town, a 2006 release, follows Affleck, a successful and affluent script writers' agent in LA. Successful, rich, married to a beautiful wife, Affleck seems to have everything going for him. Is that really the case, though? No. Affleck seems to be suffering from some sort of a midlife crisis that sends him to a class where he is taught how to write a journal of his own life (the teacher, by the way, is John Cleese in a very typical Cleese sideshow appearance). Then we learn that his wife, played by Rebecca Romijn, has betrayed him with one of his clients; so he kicks her out. And then we witness Affleck stumbling into professional woes as his fatigue prevents him from being attractive to clients; not only that, but shadows from his past begin to haunt him, and they seem related to his journal.
What Man About Town is trying to be is a film discussing the emptiness of Western life, the way money, having a good looking partner, and professional success do not seem to yield true happiness on their own. Indeed, I have to say that Romijn, with whom I am generally unfamiliar (how do you pronounce her name anyway?) has to be one of the better looking specimen of the human female species. Yet there is a problem with Man About Town: all of its attempts for deep discussions are thwarted by its inherent lack of seriousness; the film doesn't know whether to take itself seriously or just pass as an hour and a half of slight and predictable jokes.
I have to admit I am yet to make my mind up about the film's ending. On one hand it demonstrates the film's emptiness and its inability to break any kind of news to us, while on the other one can argue that it is exactly this inability that is the real message here: there is no real solution to these problems, you just have to work them out for yourself.
So is it great or is it not? Ultimately, Man About Town is just forgettable.
Worst scene: Affleck's bedroom has this huge tropical fish aquarium in its open space like arrangement. I don't know how he's able to go to sleep with this next to him. Anyway, in typical corny fashion (and under circumstances I won't disclose) he ends up scuba diving in it. How original.
Overall: A pleasant film that is not a bad way to pass the time when challenges to the intellect are unwelcome. Nothing more than that, I'm afraid. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett

Lowdown: Deep discussions about the implications of Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection.
Review:
And the winner of the "longest book I have read this year by a mile" award goes to... the philosopher Daniel Dennett, for his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Now, I don't know if you've ever heard of Dennet; I only heard about him for the first time after reading Richard Dawkins books. Dawkins quotes and refers to Dennet's writing quite often and it appears the two are good mates. There appear to be some good reasons for that, for reading books written by the pair has left me with the impression they are both intellectuals of the first degree and, despite what first impressions might lead you to believe given the title of Dennett's book, both are very firmly on the side of evidence when it comes to "that" debate between evolution and creation. Or, as Dennett says in the beginning of his book, you have to be totally ignorant not to accept Darwin's theory
of evolution by natural selection as fact.
So what is Darwin's Dangerous Idea about? Well, it's a philosophy book, and it discusses the implications of Darwin's theory. It starts off where most people have started off prior to Darwin, with the assumption that there is a god and that this god gives essence and meaning to things; then it explains evolution (albeit not to the same level of detail as Dawkins did in The Blind Watchmaker) and shows how Darwin's theory strips that old view bare and demonstrates its complete lack of a foundation by discussing the opposing view from Darwin, the view that meaning and complexity can come out of no meaning through the process of evolution. All this is done without the need for any magic, but rather through the gradual buildup of one crane on top of another.
The first thing to become redundant when viewed along the lines of Darwin's Dangerous Idea is god. Dennett shows how, through evolution, you don't need god to have us humans living here and now; and by adopting the same line of thinking (otherwise known as Darwin's Dangerous Idea), you realize that you don't need other forms of god that religious people have been running away to shelter under ever since Darwin came out with his idea. I'm referring to ideas such as "god the law giver", the idea of god as an entity that set the rules according to which this world runs but then went on to retire.
God, however, is only one of the many concepts the book analyzes under Darwin's magnifying glass. There are many others, such as language and culture, morality and ethics. I will argue that Darwin's Dangerous Idea packs more ideas per page than any other book I have ever read, which is a mighty accomplishment. It's well written, so that it reads flowingly even when discussing complex ideas.
For a better overview of the ideas expressed in the book, I welcome you to watch the following video in which Richard Dawkins interviews Dennett for his documentary on Darwin, aired last year:



I do have to add that it is the book's very richness of ideas that is its bane, too. I had noticed several times that it takes me ages to finish reading a page of Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Repeated measurements have indicated I was reading the book at a rate of 12 pages an hour, which explains why it took me several months to finish reading this 520 pages long book (at least in the American edition I got through Amazon; do bear in mind that each of those pages is relatively large in size and contains more words than your average book's page). This slowness indicates to me the book is complex to digest, a hard read after all despite its flowing nature; given that I don't have that much time to dedicate to reading in the first place, perhaps Darwin's Dangerous Idea wasn't the right book for me to read at this stage of life.
Yet when the dust settles one thing is clear: The abundance of throughly discussed ideas in the book and the way they are discussed had left me a different person to the way I was before reading Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Having read the book I now look at things differently, which is perhaps the best compliment I can give it. It was a hard climb, but it was worth it.
Overall: I have had a 3 star experience out of a 4 star book, so I will rate it at 3.5 out of 4 stars overall. I do, however, clearly see how some people will want to kill me for giving it anything less than 5, while others - those whose unfounded beliefs it vaporizes - will want to give it a negative score.

Monday, 20 July 2009

RocknRolla

Lowdown: A remake of Lock, Stock and Snatch.
Review:
Guy Ritchie is a capable director, no doubt about it. So why does he keep on making the same film again and again? First it was 1998's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, a film I remember as the first DVD I ever rented; then, in 2000, it was Snatch, which was pretty much an elaborate and richer version of the former. Now, after a sabbatical, Ritchie's 2008 comeback is a somewhat inferior take of the same good old themes, dubbed RocknRolla.
And what themes am I talking about? I acknowledge I won't be able to provide a proper representation of them here, but here's my attempt: I'm talking about a film set in England; very English accents - from Cockney to Geordie accents; very English slang; a full set of characters, virtually all of them crooks of one kind or another yet some "good" and some "evil"; a script that has us running from one character to another as we take our time figuring out what confusing entanglement Ritchie has set us up for; and a plot that revolves around one crook stealing from the other in a very closed loop affair.
This time around the plot revolves around some real estate conspiracies in London. If I may have a go at giving away the basics, we have ourselves two "good" crooks, including Gerald Butler from 300, who borrow money to buy property from another crook - a rather vicious and powerful one played by Tom Wilkinson - but find themselves unable to return the loan after Wilkinson betrays them so he can have their real estate. Then we have ourselves a Russian billionaire who is made to look very (but very) similar to the Chelsea Football Club real life owner, Roman Abramovich; that Russian crook needs to gain a foothold in London's real estate scene, so he uses Wilkinson as a mediator to the corrupt authorities. Only that our billionaire has a greedy accountant, Thandie Newton, who keeps on telling her bunch of crooks - Butler & Co - where the Russian money is. And we have ourselves a loop!
It gets more complicated than this, but that's the basic overview. And I can see where Ritchie is coming from, because if real estate corruption in London is anything like it is in Melbourne (and it should be much bigger), then there is a lot of room to make a fuss of it and point a finger at the stench. Just check out my lovely government's water plans for Melbourne to see how corrupt they are: on one hand they pour millions of liters of recycles water to the sea, claiming it's too expensive to make them drinkable (expensive my ass; show me the cost breakdown, please!), and on the other hand they're promoting a desalination plant that will suck greenhouse power and supply us with the most expensive water possible. Don't tell me they're not getting kickbacks from a Wilkinson lookalike!
Despite the touching conspiracy theories, RocknRolla is nothing special. That is, it could have been special if there weren't two other films before it that pulled the exact same trick; as it is, it is just an entertaining, aggressive action drama with some funny moments (a lot of them on the cheaper side of things, like jokes about a homophobic doing gay stuff).
Best scene: Our good heroes rob Russian money, only to face two Russian guards that seem to have been modeled after a Terminator (and the Terminator references are more than obvious). On the other hand, the scene is also quite bad, because it doesn't make sense; one of the Russians gets a clip full of bullets on his stomach and still makes a comeback, something that won't be possible even with a very mighty bullet proof vest.
Technical assessment: Nice overall, with a mildly aggressive sound and very nice rock music tracks that are often mixed to take center stage. Not a reference Blu-ray, but a good one to watch never the less.
Overall: It's time Ritchie moved on to direct other films. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

La Vie En Rose

Lowdown: The life and times of French singer Edith Piaf.
Review:
I cannot be said to be a fan of Edith Piaf, although when in the right mood I can enjoy her songs for a limited duration. A film about her? I was hoping the film would have enough songs played using the best sound the Blu-ray format can deliver so at least I'll enjoy the musical performnace.
So, what does La Vie En Rose teach us about Piaf? Well, we learn that she was born to a broken French family during the first World War, which means she was born into hard times. Her family didn't exactly raise her lovingly, and she ended up growing up in a brothel and later a circus only to become a street performing beggar. Then, however, she is discovered by the owner of a cabaret, where she makes her breakthrough to become the famous singer that she is. Another important detail we learn about Piaf is that she was always on the sick side of things, from early childhood till her death at a relatively young age. I think we can safely sum up Piaf's life by stating that aside of her success as a singer, hers was a hard life.
Now let me add two comments to the above plot summary. The first is that I don't know much about the real Piaf to be able to comment on La Vie En Rose's loyalty to the truth; what I do remember is that Piaf always reminded me of a hunchback, the way the older Piaf is portrayed in the film. Second, I have to say that the above plot summary is not just a brief overview of the film La Vie En Rose; it is more like a detailed description of the events depicted in the film.
Therein lies one of my biggest problems with La Vie En Rose: It managed to fill some two hours of my precious time with contents that should have lasted no longer than ten minutes. Not only that, it dares to deliver just brief accounts on some key questions, such as Piaf's connections with the criminal world and/or Piaf's activities under a Nazi occupied Paris. Call me a weirdo, but when judging people I would put a lot of weight to the behavior under that most extreme of conditions, Nazi rule.
There is also an obvious tendency to compare things to contemporary standards. Piaf is depicted as someone who has had a miserable childhood; but then again, didn't many other French suffer during her times, too? Remember, we are talking about living in a country where two world wars were fought. By focusing on Piaf and telling us how miserable she was the film does ill service to most of Piaf's colleagues from the period.
To make things even worse, La Vie En Rose plays these artistic time shifts on us. Every scene takes place in different times, and it tended to take me a while to realize when we are each time around. With people looking slightly different in each scene, but different enough to make recognition a problem, I had a tough time sticking to the plot. Luckily for me, and as I already said, there is not much happening here anyway; but I don't like to be toyed with, especially not if this toying is solely for the purpose of hiding the inherent shallowness under a thick cloud of pomp.
On the positive side, Marion Cotillard, the actress that plays Piaf, does a hell of a job. It's amazing to see how she does the young Piaf and the old Piaf so seamlessly you would never guess she was 32 when the film was released. Thing is, the other movie I remember her from, Love Me If You Dare, had suffered from very similar issues. It therefore seems as if Cotillard's talents might be wasted.
Best scene: In general, the scenes I like the most were the singing ones, if only because they offered relief from the annoying time shifts. Of the musical performances, my favorite has to be the last one offered by the film. It has to be said Cotillard does an amazing job miming the songs (allow me to assume that miming was involved).
Technical assessment: The thing I took from this Blu-ray was that it was loud. Not in the sense that provides a wide dynamic range, but rather loud all the way, requiring me to significantly lower the volume on my amplifier. Given that there are reference levels for playing movies this cannot be a good thing. That said, musical performances are nicely rendered (although not much more than that).
Overall: An annoying film that lost me less than ten minutes inside. I'll be on the low tolerance side of things and give it 1 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Changeling

Lowdown: A single mother fights the authorities in her battle to find her lost son.
Review:
What a rare pleasure it is to be able to watch one newly released Clint Eastwood film after the other. Two weeks ago it was the excellent Gran Torino that grabbed a hold of me and this time around it is Changeling.
Set in Los Angeles and starting off during the 1920s, Changeling follows Angelina Jolie, a single mother that manages to do a decent job raising her son while working at a demanding job to make a decent living. Lightning strikes Jolie’s life when, upon returning from an unexpected office engagement, she finds her son missing. Eventually, the LA police steps in, but their delivery is grotesque: The child they have retrieved and claim to be Jolie’s son is obviously not. At first Jolie is shocked enough to walk away with the wrong child, but a day later she cannot take it anymore and wages a mighty battle with the corrupt authorities. Helping her is a priest, played by John Malkovich, who runs a popular radio program dedicated to the cause of exposing corruption within LA’s authorities. Together, they have a mighty two hours and a quarter battle on their hands to prove the authorities wrong and to find the Jolie’s child; and the authorities are hell bent on giving them a fight.
Changeling proved to be quite an emotional experience for me. I couldn’t help but feel for the mother as she kept on banging her head against a thick fortified concrete wall; I couldn’t help but feel total contempt for the corrupt authorities; and I couldn’t help but feel total admiration for the people who went out of their way to help Jolie. The trick question is, what is it in Changeling that makes it such a powerful experience?
The answer is a case of “all of the above”. For a start, Changeling claims to be based on a real story; no matter how much of it is real, that label of authenticity does have its power, because otherwise it would have been really hard to accept that what the authorities did to Jolie’s character could have been possible.
Second, Changeling offers very solid acting showmanship. True, I am not Jolie’s biggest fan, but I do acknowledge she is a very skilled actress (it’s just a pity her talent is routinely wasted on trash like Wanted). In Changeling there is a decisive effort not to bring her looks on the agenda, but her overblown lips are still irritatingly present in most scenes.
The third argument in favor of Changeling power is simple: Clint Eastwood. With a smooth and flowing style he managed to direct a very flowing drama that keeps you on the edge of your seat despite its relatively lengthy length. Well, he certainly had me hooked.
Finally, I have to add a personal note. Being relatively new to the field of fatherhood and having already seen my son in states where his mortality was tested, I do try to play the occasional imaginary game of “how would the world be like” without my son. None of those gaming sessions last long for the simple reason this imaginary game is too hard to contend with; it’s definitely not the pleasure ride my usual games of the imagination are. I therefore suspect Changeling has had such an effect on me because it forced me to play this imaginary game of mine for over two hours. Eastwood has created his powerful experience by using the parenthood instinct natural selection has hard wired into us.
And if you’re looking for me to say a genuinely bad thing about Changeling then I will say this: It’s a pity it doesn’t feature Clint Eastwood, the actor.
Best scene: There are so many to choose from that picking one will obviously do severe injustice to the rest. I will therefore stick with a scene that touched me more than the rest, a scene in which the head psychiatrist in the mental health institute Jolie has been forced into diagnoses her and interprets every observation at his disposal to confirm a conclusion he had concluded long before the session (and not because of any worthwhile evidence). I liked it because we all make the exact same mistake of reaching a conclusion before assessing the evidence all the time, yet we tend to be ignorant of the results of our mistakes; in Changeling’s case, the results were quite severe for Jolie's character.
Technical assessment: Is it just me or does Eastwood tend to slack in the technical department? This Blu-ray’s picture is inconsistent, with some scenes offering more detail than the other. Sound wise, although an improvement over Gran Torino, this is still a rather too subtle effort. Eastwood’s own jazz music is nicely conveyed, though.
Overall: 5 out of 5 intensive stars. Clint Eastwood, I want more, please!

Thursday, 9 July 2009

Happy-Go-Lucky

Lowdown: An always smiling woman deals with life’s challenges.
Review:
A few weeks ago we’ve watched Vera Drake and greatly enjoyed the experience (thus proving we have some masochistic tendencies in us, given the rather tragic nature of that film). We’ve enjoyed it so much that we wanted to see more from director Mike Leigh. Turned out we’re lucky: Leigh’s most recent release, the 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky, has recently become a weekly rental item at our video rental store.
Like the other Leigh films I am familiar with, Happy-Go-Lucky is a very English production of a very English setting. Unlike Vera Drake, though, it’s a contemporary story taking place in contemporary London. The film follows a short period in the life of Poppy (Sally Hawkins), a 30 year old single woman. You can say a lot about Poppy and you learn a lot about her as the film develops, but the one thing you notice as of the word go is that she always seems happy and always carries a smile on her face no matter what. Even when her bicycle gets stolen in the film’s opening scene. Guess that’s why they called the film Happy-Go-Lucky.
As we progress in the film more and more challenges beckon Poppy through her interactions with the people around her. We learn she lives with a female friend of hers and hangs about with her sisters and other females but we don’t see guys. Through pressure from her friends we see her start taking driving lessons. We learn she works as a teacher and we see her start a Flamenco class with her school principle. Poppy seems to be dragged along, but then she also exposes herself as a doer: She makes special efforts to be creative in class and she deals with a kid bullying others in school. The main event, if anything can be labeled as a main event in Happy-Go-Lucky, is Poppy’s interaction with her driving instructor (portrayed by the ever excellent Eddie Marsan, who also played in Vera Drake and showed some comedy talent in Sixty Six).
The lack of a genuine main event drives the notion that Happy-Go-Lucky is a film that raises speculations on how to deal with life’s challenges. The film exposes us to a set of seemingly random challenges taken from a random sample period of a normal woman’s life and, aside of giving us a glimpse into modern British society, goes on to demonstrate a sample of methods to deal with these challenges: closing oneself off (the driving instructor’s way), conformism - as in blindly doing what everyone else does, and Poppy’s way of just dealing with things one at a time with a smile on your face. The problem is that Poppy, as happy and laughing as she is, can also be quite annoying: when she takes on driving but does so with a silly attitude she managed to annoy the hell out of me. Her driving instructor might have been a compromised character, but that still doesn’t mean driving should be taken lightly. I have to add that Poppy’s character reminded me of my sister in law, and not only because both share professions as well as an incomprehensible English accent: both are talented, both have had to deal with a lot, but both have attitudes that drive me crazy. And I guess what I’m trying to say is that I did find myself identifying with Happy-Go-Lucky’s chief character.
Best scene:
Poppy, her roommate and her youngest sister go to visit another sister. That sister is pregnant and moved to live far from London with her husband and her mortgage. As they chat the night away (with the husband forbidden from touching his Playstation), the pregnant sister presses Poppy not to waste her life and have a child and a mortgage sooner rather than later. Now, doesn’t that sound familiar? What is also familiar is the way the pregnant sister’s arguments end up exposing her insecurity with life rather than Poppy’s shortcomings.
A typical high quality scene from Mike Leigh.
Technical assessment:
Let me start by saying it's always nice to have subtitles, and especially so when dealing with a film featuring local dialects and accents. I know it’s London and I know London is a central place, but a fact’s a fact – dialog in Happy-Go-Lucky is hard to comprehend. So why did the producers of this DVD opt for no subtitles?
I was impressed with the picture quality. It goes to show that a properly upscaled DVD can give genuine high definition a hard time. Sure, it’s not Blu-ray quality, but I suspect the majority of people won’t notice.
The sound was also nice. Granted, there wasn’t much taking place other than dialog and the ring of jewellery on Poppy’s hands, but whatever was there felt like it was there. The choice of having a DTS soundtrack probably helped.
Overall: Happy-Go-Lucky is a rather weird film, especially with the way it ends. That makes it unique, but I cannot say I’ve enjoyed its uniqueness. I therefore give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Burn After Reading

Lowdown: A multitude of contemporary adults do lots of stupid things in Washington DC.
Review:
Generally speaking, I like what the Coen brothers have been cooking for us over the years. They got their Oscars for No Country for Old Men, but it’s the Big Lebowskis, the Fargos, and the Oh Brothers for which I really like them most. Burn After Reading is more like the latter in style, yet it also way below them in quality.
As per the Big Lebowski standard, Burn After Reading follows a multitude of seemingly serious but actually very silly characters doing lots of silly things and getting burnt for it; some seriously and some less so. So what characters do we have ourselves here?
First we have John Malkovich playing a CIA agent who resigns after being demoted and decides to focus on writing his agency memoirs. Second we have his doctor wife, Tilda Swinton, who is as sympathetic as a concrete wall, disloyal to her husband, and generally incapable of withstanding an unemployed husband at home. Third we have George Clooney, a Coen regular, portraying a government security agent that never had to touch his gun throughout his career and likes to betray his wife, a children book author, with Swinton or anyone else he can bump into. Then we have Frances McDormand, a fitness club employee, who is absolutely sure the answer to all of her problems on this earth, including the lack of a partner, could be solved by a series of plastic surgeries. And to conclude this overview, we have Brad Pitt, a dumb fitness trainer in McDormand’s gym, who acts as her accomplice. So yes, it does take a while to get to know your characters in Burn Before Reading.
It takes even longer to figure out what the film is about. It’s all set in contemporary Washington DC, for a start. Without disclosing too much, I will say the wheels start rolling when Malkovich’s memoirs fall into the hands of Pitt, who then conspires with McDormand to extort money in order to pay for the latter’s coveted surgeries. Sound silly? Sure as hell. The funny thing about it all is that for a 90 minutes long film it took me more than half the film’s length to start understanding what was going on and where this whole charade of silliness is going to.
The answer, I’m afraid, is that it’s not really going anywhere. Burn After Reading is a film that is aimed at putting seemingly serious people portrayed by A class film stars in silly circumstances due to their sheer silliness. That is all there is to it! Sure, it’s entertaining, once you realize this is what this affair is all about, but you can also rest assured Burn After Reading will not take you to new cinematic heights.
Best scene: JK Simmons as a CIA head honcho portrayed in typical JK Simmons style supplies the best jokes by trying to figure out what is going on and sort the mess out through unassuming descriptions he gets from an employee of his.
Technical assessment: This is one of those Blu-rays where you can’t really tell the difference from a DVD. The picture is nothing special, certainly not in its level of detail, and the sound is pretty much center channel centered with the exception of the soundtrack that dares going where no sound effect had gone before (but does so almost reluctantly). For the record, Burn After Reading does feature a nice soundtrack.
Overall: A somewhat funny exercise in being amusing for the sake of being amusing that just, but just, manages to scrape 3 out of 5 stars.