Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Must Love Dogs

Lowdown: A divorcee in her early forties struggles to find a mate.
Review:
If asked to point out what the worst thing about American cinema is, commercialism would be the number one culprit. On its own, commercialism may not be too bad; things go bad when commercialism rules over art. This task may be achieved through various techniques, but the one dominant in 2005’s Must Love Dogs is the “checklist” way. I imagine the film’s production went along the following lines: some executive came up with the idea of producing a romantic comedy to bolster the studio’s bottom line; the idea was then forwarded to the marketing department, where a checklist of rom-com must have items was quickly assembled; and then, as an afterthought, a director was hired with very specific instructions to follow the checklist as if it was the word of god. Indeed, in many a corporate, the people at marketing are self appointed gods, but I’ll quit this line of thought to focus on Must Love Dogs.
Diane Lane stars as a forty plus not much more recent divorcee. A preschool teacher, she’s good at the office and she’s doing well financially (well enough to drive a flashy convertible), but her life is in shambles: she’s unable to find herself since the divorce. To the aid come her sisters, with one of them posting an ad for her on an internet dating website. In typical fashion, the ad assumes a significant poetic license in its product description, including a “must love dogs” angle. After a few unsuccessful first dates (that go exactly the way a predictable comedy would take them), Lane bumps into John Cusack.
Cusack shares a similar background to Lane's, and just like Lane his life is stuck and in need of salvation. In particular, no one appreciates his classically designed hand made racing boats. But will the two find one another, especially when Lane is unable to decide whether to focus on Cusack or Dermot Mulroney, the divorced father of one her school children? Have no worries, because Must Love Dogs is so predictable, so soapy, so cliché, that you can always tell exactly what will happen next.
You would think Must Love Dogs is annoying enough with its predictability and it checking every item on the above mentioned checklist, but there’s more. In particular, there’s the story not having absolutely anything special about it; this one is as corny and unoriginal as a rom-com can get.
Worst scene:
Guess who is Lane first ever internet blind date? Her father!
Now, what are the chances of that happening? In a small middle of nowhere town with a population of a hundred, most of which are dogs, a father-daughter blind date may take place; but not in the city/town where Must Love Dogs takes place.
This is just one of several scenes where the extremely unlikely takes place and we’re supposed to accept it. Me, I was mourning the waste of Christopher Plummer’s (the father) talents on such a poor production.
Overall: Must Love Dogs is so unoriginal it’s plain boring. 1.5 out of 5 stars; films like that should never be made, not even for a relaxing evening by the fire.

Monday, 28 September 2009

I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry

Lowdown: Two heterosexuals get married and fall in love.
Review:
Why I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry? Because it was a midweek night, we were seeking light entertainment, and we needed to clear some space on our PVR – and a high definition feature film takes up a lot of that. And besides, I thought Chuck & Larry was a pretty good film. I guess what I’m trying to say is that under certain circumstances, a classic Adam Sandler film can be a good thing.
Sandler stars together with Kevin James as two New York firemen. Since September 2001 all American firemen are considered distilled altruism, but there is more to life than this for our pair: Sandler is rather promiscuous with the ladies while James and his two kids are mourning the loss of a wife and mother.
The chain of events that is the bulk of the film starts when James learns that he needs to get remarried in order to change his will and secure a future for his kids in the event of his death under professional circumstances (I have to add the point does not make sense at all, especially given its key position with the film’s plot; I wonder if it’s an American thing). And who can James marry quickly but his best friend, Sandler?
Thus the pair heads away from American backwaters to get married in enlightened Canada, where gay marriage is allowed (for the record, Australia is just as backwards as the USA is when it comes to gay marriage; only recently did our enlightened Prime Minister repeat his objection to gay marriage). Upon returning home they discover that getting married was the easy part: in order to be able to receive the coveted financial benefits they need to prove their love to the world. Thus starts a whole charade of foolish setups where every gay cliché ever conceived is “explored” in order to make sure that all the least sophisticated jokes possible are covered as the film tests us to see how far will our pair of lovers go with this cheat of theirs.
Don’t, however, think even for a moment that I’m condemning Chuck and Larry here: the formula, while basic and low, works very well: I caught myself laughing loudly on numerous occasions. There can be no denying the comedy talent displayed by the two leads.
It’s not only the gay world that is rinsed for jokes in Chuck and Larry, it’s also feminism. Except for one fat old ugly lady, all the women in Chuck and Larry look and behave like porn stars (including the one that, in typical fashion, falls for Sandler because she thinks he’s on “her” side of the fence). The difference between the gay jokes and the treatment of feminism is that while Chuck and Larry go out of their way to very bluntly deliver the point that it’s not your sexual habits that determine whether you’re a good member of society or not, when dealing with women there is no such protection to hide underneath; women are just demeaned through and through. In Chuck and Larry’s world, a woman doctor is only as good as her performance in bed (as demonstrated by a character called "Dr Honey").
To Sandler’s credit, the pro gay agenda covers for the treatment of women as far as offering viewers a movie they can watch is concerned. And he does have a thing or two to say to those holding on to the words of their gods while attacking gays, a move that takes a bit of courage in today’s USA.
Best scene: There are several artificially enhanced setups contending for the title here. I thought the one to rule them all was the shower scene at the firemen’s office. Imagine the communal shower; imagine the big muscly men having a shower. And now imagine the soap slipping of the hand…
One question, though: why didn't they think of liquid soap?
Overall: Shallow yet highly entertaining. 3 out of 5 stars, and I’m being rather harsh on this very funny film.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Waiter

Lowdown: A waiter dealing with his hard life and those writing his life’s story.
Review:
Waiter, or Ober the way it’s called in its language of origin, is the third Dutch film we got to see recently; this time it was curtsy of SBS. Made in 2006, it made us feel “at home” with some of its actors familiar from the other Dutch films we’ve watched as well as other European productions such as In Bruges.
Waiter follows the life of a middle aged waiter. His life is getting him nowhere: at work he’s exposed to the taunting of annoying customers; his attention demanding sick wife divides his attention from his middle aged mistress while all the while he is longing for a hot young one instead; and his neighbor is threatening him in more ways than just making apartment rattling noises in the middle of the night and throwing his garbage into our waiter’s apartment. So where does our waiter's life go from here?
Well, it goes into the living room of the couple/writers who are scripting his life for him in a very Stranger than Fiction kind of a way: Our waiter is but a figment of their imagination, the product of their aspirations to write a novel or a script that would put them on the map. And if our waiter has to suffer for their success than so be it; they won’t listen to his complaints too much as they send him back to his miserable world.
On paper, the premises of Waiter sound very promising. As a blogger, I couldn’t help identify with our writers and their urges to write the next big thing as well as their inability to let go of writing whatever it is on their minds, no matter how mediocre the end result turns out to be (and yes, I admit it: I am not the next Shakespeare). Not stopping there, Waiter made me delve into further Tron like philosophical realms: Given that our conscious, what most people refer to as a soul, seems to be the by-product of the neurons in our head interacting (although we’re far from being sure about that), then what is it, exactly, that prevents the document I’m typing into my word processor application from having some consciousness of its own? Perhaps this very post is a conscious entity, too; an entity that can die at my own private whim.
It all sounds very promising, yet Waiter fails to deliver on its promise as it develops by the film’s writing couple into a rather mediocre affair of silly twists conveyed in too surreal an atmosphere. I do not doubt this is intended as a way to portray how the things we regard as our greatest achievement are often only special to ourselves, but this does not mean I need to sit through a film and waste my own time as a result.
Best scene: As our writer falls asleep on his keyboard, our hero waiter gets lost for words. One of the better sophisticated comedy moments in Waiter.
Best scenes in general: In typical European filming fashion, and in contradiction to American film-making, Waiter shows us its heroes sitting at the toilet and having a dump; it also shows brief moments of causal nudity that take place in the lives of all of us normal people. By not hiding these moments from us, Waiter renders itself much more authentic and much less artificial. It’s a pity America is stuck in some weird and no good puritan agenda.
Overall: The idea alone is worth 3 out of 5 stars for the idea but the execution only 2.5; the end result is somewhere in between.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Sense and Sensibility

Lowdown: More English women's adventures from Jane Austen.
Review:
In our home Sense and Sensibility was better known as Zenz unt Zenzibility, because my partner had a German VHS copy that had German dubbing (naturally). Yet with our ongoing Jane Austen fest we decided to put our hands on a “proper” English speaking DVD, so I can watch this 1995 release for the second time after more than ten years.
Watching Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility reminded me a lot of watching Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. Is it, perhaps, because so many of the plot’s main ideas are shared together with the added idea from Emma that it’s cool for a teen aged female to marry an old bloke?
Set in Austen times (18th century?), the story follows a family of women whose husband/father died. Contemporary English law has everything going to the deceased’s son of a former marriage, which means our women now have to leave the estate they lived in and grew up in, servants and all, and move to a lowly cottage as they see their old possessions taken by a rather nasty sister in law. The question then becomes, how are the now poor girls going to get a good marriage now that they’re poor and have nothing but their intellect and spirit to offer would be suitors? Potential suitors still fly by, but they all have their issues: old promises made to other women, losing their allowances through marrying lowly ranked wives, or just being too reliable and predictable for some tastes. Rest assured, though: all will end well.
Of the Austen films and TV series we’ve had the pleasure of watching recently, there can be no doubt that this Ang Lee directed film is the best made. This does not, however, mean it is the best: Production values are vastly inferior to the recent Keira Knightley take on Pride and Prejudice. And then there’s the script being the second cousin of Pride and Prejudice: come on, Austen, couldn’t you be more original? I guess I would have enjoyed Sense and Sensibility much more had I watched it ahead of its superior sibling.
Still, talent comes to Sense and Sensibility’s rescue again: not only does the film have a very talented director at the helm, it also oozes with acting talent. There’s Emma Thompson, Alan Rickman, Kate Winslet, and Hugh Grant to name the more prominent names; of these, each of the first two provides [yet another] excellent performance.
Best scene: The son who is about to inherit the women’s possessions gives his oath to the dying father, promising to support the women. A process of attrition takes place, and by the time he meets the women his wife convinces him it’s in the women’s best interest not to receive any support.
Technical assessment: This single layer DVD is pretty bad, with a picture lacking in details and often shaky (!) and sound totally lacking inspiration. I believe a newer DVD edition was released in Australia: the one we've rented was obviously one of the very first DVDs to be released.
Overall: Good, but suffering from Austen fatigue. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 18 September 2009

Seven Pounds

Lowdown: A guy dedicates himself to helping seven strangers.
Review:
Once upon a time there used to be an actor called Will Smith. Smith played in some very entertaining films, such as Independence Day or Men in Black. Lately, though, Smith seems to be channelling his career towards what, for a multitude of reasons, can be best described as just plain “bad”: stuff like I Am Legend or The Pursuit of Happyness. Sadly, Seven Pounds follows the lines of the latter rather than the former.
In Seven Pounds, Smith plays an IRS auditor who deals under mysterious circumstances and using mysterious ways with the cases of several Americans that happen to suffer from various problems: a cruel and violent husband, blindness (Woody Harrelson), and a heart that is about to fail at any minute and kill its owner (Rosario Dawson). In the process, and in typical Hollywood manner, Smith and Dawson fall in love.
Yet there is something going on in the background. We know that through the occasional brief flashback, through the unexplained tension between Smith and his brother, and through clues there is more to Smith than meets the eye (how can an MIT, the MIT, graduate end up with a lowly IRS job?). And what is Smith's motivation to help these people in the first place?
It is this mystery of “what the hell are the premises of this film” that supplies the tension to Seven Pounds, but it is also its ruin. The structure of the film is very similar to the by now standard M. Night Shyamalan production: seemingly unrelated, weird and mysterious events all cooperating to some elusive but major surprise twist at the end. Seven Pounds even shares its rather melancholy atmosphere with Shyamalan. Yet, after the initial charm of Sixth Sense has faded off, and it did, is there really any reason to copy Shyamalan? Not in my book; I’ve had enough of him.
Then there’s the question of whether Seven Pounds does the Shymalan formula any favors. In my view, it doesn’t: while it attempts to create a build-up for almost two hours, I was able to guess the ending some half an hour into the film. If anything, I was surprised at how accurate my initial guess came out to be.
So there you have it. Seven Pounds is a sad and confused affair that is too long for its own good, does not say much that hasn’t been said before, and is overall predictable. The only mystery about it is why it was made in the first place.
Worst scene: The montage in which Smith, being the MIT graduate he is, takes his DIY tools with him to fix Dawson’s Gutenberg era printing machine. It’s always so easy in the movies. So unconvincingly easy.
Technical assessment: Typical Blu-ray quality picture but a rather subdued sound that matches the feel of the film. Things do pump up at the climax, at least.
Overall: I think I can safely say Will Smith has ran out of credit. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Watchmen

Lowdown: A gang of superheroes watch over as humanity is on the brink of a nuclear holocaust.
Review:
Watchmen is one of those rare cases of a comics turned feature film to receive virtually unanimous praise; I had to watch it. A work colleague ordering the special-special edition Blu-ray from overseas pushed me to rent the Blu-ray out. To him, the “normal” special edition Blu-ray was not good enough; it was more than two and a half hours long but obviously not long enough.
Watchmen takes place in some alternate reality that is not too far off ours, with the main difference being the existence of superheroes. Their existence, starting off with World War II era nuclear experiments, causes history to go slightly differently: the war in Vietnam was won conclusively and, perhaps as a result of that victory, now in the eighties Nixon is in his fifth term as the president of the USA. Friction with the USSR is at its peak with both sides arming tens of thousands of warheads, all ready for a nuclear exchange (for the record: while that number may sound excessive, it's not even an order of magnitude larger than the number of warheads the USA and Russia still have today). The only thing stopping a nuclear exchange is the fear of the Watchmen.
But who are the Watchmen? We don't really know; we learn about them slowly, one by one, as the film progresses [slowly]. They appear to be a gang of friends working together, and we learn the older generation had superhero children as they went into old age retirement.
At present, the question becomes who is watching the Watchmen, as they appear to be the target of someone out to rid the world of them. Our heroes have to retire from retirement or, at least for the younger female superhero, find their place in this world so they can solve that mystery and make sure there is someone to stop a nuclear war. Eventually, the solution proposed by the film is a rather dark one, a solution that says a thing or two about the nature of human beings.
The cast of Watchmen managed a twist to my eyebrows: for a film that obviously required a big budget with special effects and all, I was unable to detect anything more than a vaguely familiar face. Subsequent peeks at IMDB revealed I had met some of the characters before: The blue animated superhero played some familiar roles before, including a starring role in Almost Famous (to his credit he does make a brief in-the-flesh appearance); and the femme fatale superhero character did have a central role in Heartbreak Kid (guess I should have recognized her breasts; more on those below). Still, I praise the use of the unfamiliar and the lack of reliance on star power: obviously, it did not hinder the film but it did give some unfamiliar talent, at least in relative terms, a fair go.
Style is of the essence in Watchmen; it often takes center stage. Action shots are full of sudden slow motion breaks, in a style not unlike Matrix’. Not only that, they are designed to look so artistic that a punch in someone’s face is meant to be perceived by the viewer as poetry in motion. Then there’s the basic look and feel: Watchmen features a high contrast picture with an emphasis on certain colors that give it a unique feel. At this point it's probably worth mentioning Watchmen was directed by the same guy who did 300, as similarities between the two films are very obvious.
Overall, between its multiple superhero plot and its look & feel with its dark themes, comparisons to The Dark Knight are almost unavoidable. Personally, I am of the opinion Watchmen does a better job when it comes to using its look & feel to generate an unconventional notion that makes it feel unique; given The Dark Knight’s failure to stir me away from indifference, I am of the opinion Watchmen is the superior film of the two. I am, however, well aware of being in a minority opinion here.
Ultimately, though, despite all of its credentials, Watchmen is a bit of a miss in the sense it could have been much better. The uncertainty that comes with not figuring out what is going on a long way into the film, together with its too slow a pace, hurt what could have been the best superhero film ever.
Best scene:
Watchmen has an unconventional aura about it and I find it difficult to point out what it is, exactly, that causes this aura. Since it is very much there, though, I suspect it is the result of many small things; things like the superhero sex scene it features. Obviously, a superhero film should not boast its sex scenes as its best, but Watchmen’s one reminded me why I’m often annoyed with American cinema’s rather too clean portrayal of its heroes.
Case in point is Spiderman 2, overall my vote for best ever superhero film. There is a scene there where the hero takes the girl for a superhero night out, but that night out ends in a rather too innocent a way. Watchmen, on the other hand, goes all the way in its portrayal of a relationship that is significantly less intensive than Spiderman’s as a superhero girl torn between two lovers gets down and dirty. That’s the way films should go: I want to see reality. I want to see my superhero going to the toilet for a dump. I want a proper sex scene, nudity and all, the Watchmen way.
Technical assessment: A great Blu-ray with a wonderful picture (although ultimate quality is hurt by the film’s artistic choice for looks) and a very good soundtrack that knows how to hold you in its grip when it wants to. Talking about soundtracks, I almost forgot to mention the kick-ass music featured in Watchmen, with songs from Hendrix, Simon & Garfunkel and Leonard Cohen.
Overall: Unconventional, interesting, but still not as good as it could have been; it’s too long, for a start. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 14 September 2009

I Am Sam

Lowdown: A single retarded father fights the authorities for custody of his daughter.
Review:
I first heard of I Am Sam in the context of its soundtrack. Back when the film was released back in 2001 I was at the height of my Beatles fandom, so hearing about a film whose soundtrack is made entirely of Beatles covers was certainly interesting news. I did not, however, watch the film until it was recently broadcast on Aussie TV.
I Am Sam stars Sean Penn in a role that’s always tricky but has a rather rewarding Academy Awards tradition: a retard. As the film start, we see the birth of his daughter followed immediately by the mother leaving him to care for the baby on his own (later we learn the mother was a homeless person who took shelter in Sam’s apartment). Sam finds it difficult to adjust and accommodate for the daughter, but he does all it takes and we find him fathering a very lovely Dakota Fanning as a result just a few scenes later.
Trouble starts when Fanning begins to eclipse her father’s intellectual capabilities at the age of seven. That, as well as the friction caused when her friends encounter Sam, reaches a boiling point after which custody over Dakota is taken away from Sam. Sam may be retarded but he loves his daughter and he won’t give her up; he goes out to secure the services of a lawyer who never lost, Michelle Pfeiffer. Sam is not Pfeiffer’s type in character and depth of wallet, but eventually she takes over his case in order to impress her peers. Together, they go through life and everything that comes along with it as they wage legal battles.
Overall, I Am Sam is a nice and touching film. Its main idea is not the concept of being retarded itself but rather the more philosophical question of what is a successful life, a question that is mirrored through the contradictions between the Penn character and the Pfeiffer one: one is dumb and poor but is also a loving and compassionate father, the other has everything materialism can deliver (a mansion, a Porsche, and a career so successful only celebrity movie stars can acquire a hotter social status) yet her personal life is a total failure from relationships to parenthood.
I Am Sam is not without its faults. First on the list is the very shaky handheld camera work that annoyed the hell out of me; I’m glad I haven’t seen this one at the cinemas. What was the director trying to do there?
Second is the artificially sweetened nature of the film. It’s just too artificial to absorb without a barf bag, leaving me to wonder why the filmmakers went as far as they did to avoid tainting the Sam character even by a tiny bit. Can we really expect a parent, be it a normal or a retarded one, never to have a moment of anger with their son or daughter? Anyone who’s had the dubious pleasure of having kids, which qualifies for most of this film’s viewers, will know better; their appreciation of the film will suffer, as mine did. Significantly.
On the positive side, I Am Sam has the great privilege of sporting some very talented cast. Acting for our viewing pleasure are Pfeiffer, Fanning, Laura Dern and several others, but they are all eclipsed by a Penn who really gives a tremendously convincing and powerful performance. Yet, can a film rely on performances alone when the substance is suffering from an excess of Sorbitol? No.
So, what about the soundtrack, I hear you ask? Well, let me put it this way: stick to the originals.
Representative scene: While Sam is struggling to afford a place that can host his daughter and provide her with a room separate to his, he visits Pfeiffer’s residence to find a huge mansion that is empty in volume and emotion. This seemingly accidental contradiction is just one of those things that are too big to be good for I Am Sam.
Overall: Beatles’ references cannot make a mediocre script shine. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Ghost Town

Lowdown: A dentist able to see ghosts falls for a ghost’s ex wife.
Review:
Ricky Gervais is a guy I admire, not only because of his frequent use of his status (while potentially endangering it) for the causes atheism and rationalism but mainly because of the brilliance of his act in The Office and then Extras. Thing is, to the best of my knowledge Gervais is yet to make an impact on the big screen; he did have a nice cameo in Stardust but that was just a cameo, whereas on the other hand he’s had an awful part in Night at the Museum. Ghost Town represented his first proper foray into cinematic stardom, and I was therefore curious to witness the result.
Ghost Town is a comedy that puts Gervais right at home, doing the type of comedy and characters he likes best (albeit in a much more politically correct manner designed to appeal to wider audiences and, no doubt, raise better revenues). Gervais is an ultra selfish Brit living in New York and working as a dentist, with everything about him being to do with keeping away from the world around him. And so it is that when he goes to a routine hospital check-up he asks for unnecessary total sedation.
When he wakes up he realizes something weird: he is able to see and converse with ghosts. It turns out that while sedated, he was technically dead for a while; seeing ghosts is a side effect of being partially dead. These ghosts are all around us, representing dead people who left behind earthly matters when they died and must sort these out prior to vanishing. The ghosts, finally able to find someone who can relate to them, chase Gervais up in the hope he’d help them to fulfill their earthly duties; only that the Gervais character, being as selfish as it is, couldn’t care less about them. Dents do start appearing when the ghost of a rather sleazy guy (Greg Kinnear) looking to make amends with his living wife (Téa Leoni) makes enough of an impact on Gervais that he falls in love with Leoni.
This sets the wheels in motion for a classic love triangle romantic comedy (in which one of the triangle’s pieces is a ghost). It’s funny, even if it’s not too original; it’s often touching, but then in a rather patronizing and predictable manner; and it tries to say a thing or two about people’s approach to life and the need to be open to others. Indeed, Ghost Town is a rather simple affair: instead of relying on special effects, the way you’d expect a modern day ghost story to do, it relies on the power of its performances.
All three leads are good, all three are good comedians, and I quite like Kinnear and Leoni; but it’s Gervais and his talent that pick the film up from the mundane to the nice, and occasionally even further than that.
Now, if only a someone could arrange a role for Gervais that is not so politically correct.
Best scene: I really liked the hospital scenes featuring the hospital’s lawyer, especially his explanation on how Gervais had relinquished all legal rights concerning his medical treatment to the hospital. It fits the image I have of the law profession and it fits the way I see many lawyers selling their soul to their profession of choice. It’s also damn funny.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is what passes as standard for Blu-rays nowadays, which means it’s quite good but also means it could have been much better. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack is rather too subdued for my liking.
Overall: A fairly regular romantic comedy made better through Gervais’ talents. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Bride and Prejudice

Lowdown: A contemporary Indian take on Pride and Prejudice.
Review:
Bride and Prejudice could not have hit Channel 9 broadcasting schedule at a better time. Just as we were thinking our Jane Austen festival over, after watching Pride and Prejudice (both TV series and film) as well as Emma, Bride and Prejudice came marching in.
A 2004 Indian production aimed at Western viewers, Bride and Prejudice does two things: It takes the Pride and Prejudice story across time to a contemporary 21st century setting, and it takes it across space from an English setting to an Indian one. Other than that, it's all the same affair: A family with four (instead of the original's five) daughters is going through the ordeal of getting them married. The eldest daughter is beautiful and comes under the watchful eye of an admiring celebrity that happens to be rich, while the second daughter seems to be caught in a chain of bitter arguments with the celebrity's best friend: the American hotel chain mogul, Mr Darcy. Things get even more complicated when Darcy's accountant, Mr Kohli, an Indian living in Los Angeles, comes over to find an Indian bride to take back to LA and through circumstances ends up with an eye on the second daughter.
At this point I will stop outlining the plot and assume you know the rough outlines of Austen's original. Indeed, Bride and Prejudice follows those outlines all the way; where it does stray is in its broad daylight advertising of India and what it stands for. Not that there's anything wrong with that; it's just that in between exposing us to the positives of Indian culture, the film also takes us a bit too deeply into Bollywood. While there, we're attacked by a few musical pieces that entertain in a "what the hell is that" sort of a way but can also get on your nerves, and production values that wouldn't dare come out of Hollywood such as poor lip syncing on songs. At least the soundtrack is pretty exciting with its aggressive use of the surrounds in the musical numbers, even if fidelity is left wanting.
That said, I really enjoyed watching Bride and Prejudice. I can put it down to two reasons, both directly related to my current familiarity with the original work.
The first is the nice way in which the original was migrated to contemporary times. Darcy, the rich aristocrat from Derbyshire, is now an American real estate emperor; Lidia, the youngest sister who used to chase officers, is now busy texting guys; and Mr Collins, the old fashioned and rather silly priest, is now an accountant who thinks highly of himself because he owns a house in LA with two swimming pools. It left me wondering whether I would they should have turned Mr Collins into a lawyer instead...
The second thing I liked about Bride and Prejudice is the nice way with which the film remained loyal to the original. The various character names are very similar but they went through Indianization; London remained London but Derbyshire was replaced by LA; and time spent in Mr Bingly's estate is now time spent on a beach at Goa. It all works exactly as before and as intended; it keeps the original spirit of the story intact while applying Indian charm and wit.
Best scene: Mr Kohli performing body stretches before proposing to the second daughter. It's way too slapsticky a scene, which means it's silly, but it totally fits the spirit of Bride and Prejudice. Besides, the execution of the film's Mr Kohli character was by far the best thing about it.
Overall: I've enjoyed this one a lot, so although it is compromised I will be very generous and give it 4 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended to Austen fans and to those seeking an easy but entertaining film to watch.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Ocean's Thirteen

Lowdown: Yet another sophisticated casino heist.
Review:
The 2001 remake of Ocean’s Eleven was a film that created a bit of an echo out there. It was an effective thriller but also an effective comedy, it had style and it had a mighty cast of A list celebrities. To me it felt like that film took the “let’s rob a bank” genre a step forward. Then came Ocean’s Twelve in 2004, a film that took the genre to Europe but also took the excitement factor out of the frame and frankly bored me. And now we got to watch Ocean’s Thirteen, a 2007 release I didn’t bother watching upon release due to sequel fatigue syndrome. Should I have waited so long?
Ocean’s Thirteen features the same gang and the same formula, only that we’re back to Vegas. Al Pacino wants to rule Vegas so he builds this even harder to ignore casino while stepping on the toes of Elliot Gould. Gould’s friends, including the Ocean gang led by George Clooney and Brad Pitt, take offense and decide the best way to avenge Gould’s shame is to ensure Pacino’s casino loses as much money as possible on its opening night; we’re talking hundreds of millions on the Ocean scale.
So they go about scheming and devising ways of beating the casino at its own game. Money is not an object for them, distances mean nothing to them, and technologies that don’t exist yet are readily available to our guys. Will they make it? Well, ask a silly question. More to the point, though, my main grip with Ocean’s Thirteen is that it really doesn’t have any thrill in the “will they make it or will they get caught” department that is so crucial to the bank robbery genre; sure, they have a difficulty here and there and there is the unexpected, but it’s all too smooth and too predictable. Too sequely is probably the best phrase here.
So what are we left with? Lots of style. It’s not just in the acting, it’s not just in the Vegas aura of artificial glamor, it’s in the way the film is directed: mostly the use of high contrast, highly saturated shots throughout. Ocean’s Thirteen has a very distinct look and feel to it that nicely supplements the sophistication of the robbery and the overall nice comedy taking place in front of us.
Representative scene:
Our gang’s Matt Damon wears a sophisticated bit of material on his face that seduces a woman so much she falls for him and lets him go ahead with a major part of a robbery. Well, if such material really existed, it would probably be the best selling item in the world, wouldn't it?
My point is simple. Ocean’s Thirteen stretches the credibility barrier a bit too much. Sure, they’ve done it before, but in Ocean’s Eleven we probably didn’t notice it as much because the entire premises were new; now we’re more sharp eyed on one hand while on the other the film producers feel they need to go even more over the top than before.
Now, going over the top in the context of what is, after all, a comedy is not necessarily bad. But when we’re expected to believe our heroes can bring the device that dug the British Tunnel into Vegas and use it directly under Pacino’s hotel without being noticed – twice! – then there is obviously a severe over the top issue at hand.
Overall: Fun to watch, but really nothing special. Nothing like the first Ocean, that is. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 4 September 2009

Kate & Leopold

Lowdown: A 19th century aristocrat and a 21st century career woman fall in love.
Review:
The question I was asking myself after watching Kate & Leopold was simple: why does an actor as talented as Hugh Jackman choose to appear in films that tend to offend one’s intelligence?
With that in mind, let’s skip to the plot overview of this 2001 release. Kate & Leopold starts with a rebellious British aristocrat, called – hold your breath! – Leopold (Jackman) who is visiting New York on 1876. His mind is on science and invention, yet his family is pressuring him to fulfil the duties his position in society requires him to. Our Leopold is tough, but is he tough enough to stick up to his ideals?
Opportunity to stand up to them presents itself when Leopold follows a mysterious visitor through a crack in time and into the guy's modern New York apartment, just on top of the apartment where a successful advertising career woman (Kate, played by Meg Ryan) lives. From this point onwards the stage is set for an unlikely romance to take place between the two. Unlikely? Well, actually it's as likely as the sun showing up tomorrow morning given the film’s own marketing, but you have to admit the setup does provide the film a lot of material to play with: Leopold’s ideals vs. Kate coming from the world of advertising where the twisted truth is reality, and of course the fact there’s more than a hundred years between them. Which, in natural fashion, opens a very wide door for an assortment of jokes dealing with the way a person out of our world would come into grips with our world.
It’s all very nice and charming, in that “sit by the fire and relax in front of an easy film” sense: it’s a rather funny affair with two good actors in the lead. Jackman proves he is a force to be reckoned with, and Ryan – well, she’s doing the typical Meg Ryan thing. Only that this time her age shows: perhaps it’s the high definition speaking here, but on close-ups Ryan really betrays her age. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with that – it’s about time Hollywood stops pumping us with talentless bimbos that look like they came out of Photoshop. It’s just that I did not expect her age to show up so clearly given my experience with Hollywood’s make believe habits.
Despite all the good things about it and despite the promising premises for a romantic flick, there is something awfully wrong with Kate & Leopold. That something is to do with the way the film romanticizes the past: In a manner that seems to come directly from some conservative party’s propaganda, Leopold is portrayed to come from a past where a man was a man and where ethics were on everyone’s mind. Compare that to Ryan’s work environment, with the lying her work requires, kissing up at the office, and abuse from her boss, and you could think that our world has gone down a lot since 1876. I therefore consider it my duty to remind viewers things weren’t as great in 1876 as Kate & Leopold might lead you to believe: They didn't have antibiotics back then, for a start. Then there's the fact Kate herself would be a second rate citizen given she is, after all, a woman. Well, at least she’s not a black woman…
Worst scenes: The film’s first act features sporadic references to Meg Ryan’s lost Palm Pilot. I agree those Palms used to be great products, but the repetitive nature in which they are referenced does age the film (let’s face it, as good as they were, products based on the Palm operating system have died long ago). The references also beg the question of just how far product placement should be allowed to go, both for artistic and for moral reasons: the crowd paying to watch Kate & Leopold did not pay to watch an ad.
Overall: Entertaining on one side but looks to the past through a viewing glass that's been tainted pink to a significant excess. I’ll be harsh and grant it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Traitor

Lowdown: An FBI agent in battle with a Muslim American plotting a September 11 like attack.
Review:
Traitor is yet another film from the production line of American action thrillers dealing with Muslim terrorists and taking place between the USA and the Middle East, films such as Body of Lies and The Kingdom. Like them, it’s a thrilling affair; like them, it tries to be realistic but blunts things out in the name of selling movie tickets; and like them, it is an uninspiring mediocre affair that is far from shaking the foundations of your local cinema or home theater with excitement. No new ground have been broken with Traitor.
Traitor pits two major forces on opposing sides. On one side we have Don Cheadle playing a Muslim ex USA army hero who betrays his country and joins forces with an extremist group in Yemen. The group has some nice community terrorist activities in Europe but also has some grand designs for something truly spectacular in the USA. On the other side we have the rather undeveloped character of Guy Pearce, an FBI agent whose day job it is to stop the truly spectacular from taking place on American soil. The film follows the couple’s adventures and occasional professional rendezvous as the plot thickens and each side seems filled with traitors.
Other than thrilling its viewers, the main point behind Traitor is to show that there is more to Islam than terrorism by showing there is a face behind the terror and by showing there are Muslims with good intentions around. I guess that is where the film's name comes from: the question of who is the true traitor to the Muslim faith, the terrorist or the Muslim that fights to stop the terrorist.
This is all a fine and dandy discussion, only that on the way to nirvana the film sort of stabs itself in the back: in one scene, for example, our terrorists ponder how to shock the American public into submission by terrorizing them. Well, if you ask me, they don’t really need to do anything: the films Hollywood itself is churning out do a good enough job terrorizing Americans through their creation of fictitious ultra terrorists that blow stuff up all over the world while failing to remind the viewing public there’s not half as much terrorism going on in the real world around them.
Worst scene: Terrorists blow up a bus, turning it into a sexy ball of flame. For a film that’s designed to look realistic to one extent or another (do FBI buildings really look so space age metallic?) this is a bit of a shame: diesel fuel is not as combustible in real life as it is in the movies. That is one of the reasons why, for example, buses in Israel are running on diesel and not on LPG, a fuel that would turn an even mundane bomb into quite a horror. As it is, the result of a bomb going off on a bus should be torn metal and torn limbs, not an orange ball of fire. Which raises the question: where were the torn limbs in Traitor? Lost on the way to the rating panel?
Technical assessment: A pretty average Blu-ray with a good picture overall but some color inconsistencies and a soundtrack that is more restrained than what normally takes place in this genre.
Overall: Entertaining yet entirely forgettable. 3 out of 5 stars.