Friday, 30 October 2009

JCVD

Lowdown: A former big time star faces the mortality of his situation.
Review:
I first heard of Jean Claude Van Damme during my army service when I was forced to watch his rather hideous karate film Bloodsport in the company of men who seemed to have an orgasm with every kick. With time, Van Damme either grew on me or rather his films improved, and by the mid nineties he had a couple of nice films under his belt. Yet since then he seems to have disappeared into an abyss, popping back for the first noticeable time in JCVD.
The unique thing about the JCVD comeback is that it’s not just another kick and punch movie. Rather, it’s a film about Van Damme the real person or Van Damme as a real person (an important distinction the film keeps blurry on purpose). Van Damme plays himself, an aging movie star way past his peak but still a national hero at his homeland of Belgium who spends his time between reading job offers for very B grade films and dealing with the legal fight for his daughter in the USA.
As the film starts we see Van Damme coming back to Belgium from a custody court case that didn't go his way. He has his taxi stop by a post office, and the next thing you know it seems as if he's holding the people at that post office hostages. The situation receives plenty of attention from everyone given the hero status Dan Damme has with his compatriots. Then we go through a series of flashbacks during which we quickly learn that Van Damme is in fact a hostage and that it's only his status that made us think he's the hostage taker. Thing is, the outside world still thinks he's a criminal.
The rest of the film revolves around exposing Van Damme as a regular human being with regular human being issues and desires through the hostage situation that places him, the mega star, in a pretty helpless position. That big time ass kicker is all submissive in front of several low caliber criminals and their measly guns.
JCVD is certainly no run of the mill Van Damme film; there's no action to speak of and Van Damme is asked to act instead of kick. We are left with no doubt as for the film's purpose: it's a cynical look at the the world of celebrities and/or a deep look at a regular person in times of trouble. It could also be Van Damme's ticket back to celebrity status.
Given the uniqueness of having a genuine star willing to expose himself this way, JCVD is a fine and unique effort. Problems wise, my main issue with JCVD is the style with which it was shot: a very shaky camera held too close to the action, resulting in headaches and severe difficulties comprehending what's taking place. I don't get this style no matter how fashionable it currently is.
Key scene: While being held hostage, Van Damme is suddenly raised up and we can see he's in a movie set. He looks at the camera and gives us a long, too long in my view, speech from the bottom of his heart. It's person to person, not movie star to person.
Best scene: Van Damme's captor tells him how good Hard Target was and how much of an idiot John Woo was for abandoning him afterwards, noting Woo paid the just price with Windtalkers. The dialog continues and the two exchange jokes about Steven Seagal and his ponytail. While most of the dialog comes from the captor's mouth, it is clear that what we're hearing is the real Van Damme spilling his guts over the fate of his career. And I agree: as an owner of the Hard Target DVD, my opinion is this is Van Damme's best film ever and Woo's best American made film; I also agree that Windtalkers is an incredibly bad film.
Technical assessment: Interestingly enough, our local video store only had JCVD on DVD, which is why I missed out on it thus far (most of my browsing attention is reserved to Blu-rays). As DVDs go it’s not a bad one, although it has absolutely no supplementals (a two disc DVD set is said to be available, too). The picture quality is hard to assess as JCVD seems to have been filmed on extra high contrast stock that makes it look almost black and white, but the sound is decent.
Overall: Not a film that will knock you off your seat, but definitely uniquely interesting. 3 out of 5 stars, and here’s hoping to see more quality stuff from Van Damn It’s direction.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Vicky Cristina Barcelona

Lowdown: Two naïve American girls mature through a visit to Barcelona.
Review:
I like Woody Allen even if he does seem to be an old pervert craving young girls. That said, issues with his latest film, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, made me wonder how good the film could have been if the same story was to be told in a better way.
Vicky Cristina Barcelona tells the story of two young American women that go to spend a few months at a friend’s place in Barcelona. Vicky (Rebecca Hall) is engaged to a promising business man and seems to know exactly what she wants out of life, while Cristina (Scarlett Johansson) is said to have just finished directing a short film she also stars in; she's totally disappointed with the result. In short, Cristina is meant to be Vicky’s opposite: someone who has no clue what she wants out of life. The clueless budding artist compared to the calculated. Film wise, the key element to Vicky and Cristina’s introductions is the extensive use of a narrator telling you what they are and what they’re thinking as opposed to expressing those elements using pure cinema language. I have found the narrator, who keeps coming back for long speeches, to be quite a detractor.
Anyway, as one may expect, upon hitting Barcelona our characters face evidence countering their preconceptions of life. Particular focus is given to Vicky, who – despite her engagement – falls for a smooth talking artist with an open approach to sex (Javier Bardem, the psycho killer from No Country for Old Men). Dilemma follows: from that point in time onwards, she can only see her fiancé is the boring guy he is (and always was); but should she leave the safety of his company in favor of the emotional Bardem?
Cristina’s story follows similar lines and augments Vicky’s. Most of the story is told using dialog (and that annoying narration!), and unlike what you may expect from Allen this is not a comedy although it has its entertaining moments. The point of Vicky Cristina Barcelona is to create an argument in support of following one’s sexual desires in order to ensure one’s happiness under the pretense of "art", as if to explain to us why it makes sense for certain old geezers to have a go at their young stepdaughters.
The problem with the argument, at least the way it’s presented in Vicky Cristina Barcelona, is that life is not black and white. You rarely have to make an extreme a choice as Vicky has, as in the choice between financial safety plus predictability as opposed to raw emotions and great sex. Usually, if given a choice in the first place, the various options vary only slightly in their shades of gray. Not only that, I argue that the film’s preferred choice (Bardem) is quite a bad one: we have every reason to believe Vicky would not have found life long happiness with him.
Perhaps Woody Allen is trying to tell us life long happiness cannot be found anywhere, and perhaps he’s correct. What I argue, though, is that were I to be in Vicky’s place I would have dumped the fiancé as quickly as possible because he was a boring Australian Liberals voter type person; and as for a replacement, as flashy as Bardem is I wouldn’t have thought of him as anything but a source of some short term pleasure that I can learn from (and then have a lifetime with which to look for someone worthy of spending the rest of my life with).
Oh, I do have further criticism: Were Hall and Johansson really acting there? I’m asking this because to me they seem to have presented a real lacklustre acting show, almost allowing me to say I could have done a better acting job than them (and I’m a male, for a start). It could have been that they were directed to act the way they did by an Allen attempting too hard to make them seem the typical dumb Americans one envisages when one thinks of Americans’ generalizations (especially during the Bush era). But those generalizations are false, and Allen’s output is problematic just the same.
So, do I have a good thing to say about Vicky Cristina Barcelona? Sure; it made me want to visit Spain and Barcelona in particular. And as I have recently discussed, I think visiting other places and getting to see the world through the eye of other cultures are two of life’s best experiences, eye openers that on a large scale should put an end to all wars.
Representative scene: Bardem, in a relationship with Cristina, brings his distressed ex-wife Penélope Cruz home. As they bring one another up to date with their situations, Bardem keeps on urging Cruz to speak English for Cristina’s sake. Only that he does it in Spanish. Great humor!
Sound quality: Woody Allen has a thing against surround sound, which makes this Blu-ray an example for wasting good potential away. It’s even sadder when you listen to the splendid soundtrack filled with Spanish style music in this limited fashion.
Picture quality: If you thought the sound is bad, wait for the picture: everything has this reddish-yellowish hue about it. It’s obviously intentional, but I couldn’t figure out what it was trying to achieve; it just made everything look so terribly artificial.
Overall: A very compromised film, so I'm going to be harsh and give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, with Barcelona and its surrounding earning most of those.

Monday, 26 October 2009

State of Play

Lowdown: A reporter on a murder case uncovers big money/power secrets.
Review:
Till watching it, I have learnt of State of Play mostly through its radio commercial. Assume that edgy male voice that’s used on all movie promos as you read the following: “Russell Crowe… Helen Mirren… [shooting sounds] State of Play…”
The weird thing about that promo is that State of Play features many other stars (e.g., Ben Affleck, Robin Wright Penn) doing much more than what Mirren does in her minor role of a cliché Brit. And the other weird thing is that State of Play, while featuring guns and ammo, is not an action film; first and foremost, State of Play is a film that tries to remind us why the newspapers of old are so important by showing us a reporter doing what a reporter should do. It’s an ode to proper, investigative, journalism.
Russell Crowe does run the show, though. This time he’s an old style investigative reporter working for Washington Globe (a newspaper meant to clone the real life Washington Post) who has a hard time accepting that the times, they are a-changing. For a start, his paper is now owned by MediaCorp (a company meant to clone Rupert Murdoch’s real life NewsCorp), and their interest is in money, not journalism; and second, he doesn’t acknowledge the potential professional talents that may hide in the paper’s internet side. That is, until he has no choice but to cooperate with a blogger from the electronic edition, Rachel McAdams, in order to uncover the details of a weird murder case.
As our pair works around its investigations, constantly beating the cops in their game, they reveal connections with other crimes. Notably, a connection with the death of Affleck's assistant, and the rather mysterious circumstances in which that death took place just as Affleck, a senator, was running a probe into a security company that tends to take justice into its own hands in areas such as Afghanistan and Iraq (and now the USA). And things get even more complicated as we learn Affleck is Crowe’s best friend and that Crowe has something going on with Affleck’s wife (Wright Penn).
Things get tense as Crowe gets closer to having his life prematurely concluded by that corrupt private enterprise his investigations lead him to. And the deeper we go into State of Play, the clearer it becomes that director Kevin Macdonald is trying his hardest to convince us that all this uncovering could not take place without a journalist being able to do his thing the way he should and that the internet cannot replicate the same benefits that good old fashioned paper based reporting can achieve. It is no wonder Watergate is mentioned on numerous occasions throughout State of Play, both directly and indirectly.
For the most part, I agree with the director. Bloggers are no substitute for proper investigative journalism. Because they are mostly tools for delivering opinions as opposed to facts and because they are mostly an individual enterprise with not much of a backing and not enough resources to support them, blogs cannot be relied upon for keeping those in power from abusing their power. It is also clear that proper journalism is mandatory for keeping our democracy at bay: Just check the case of Mohamed Haneef to see how badly we need objective reporters to prevent the government from abusing its power. However, my question to the film is this: Rather than praising an endangered occupation, aren’t we discussing an already extinct one?
Have a look at Australian newspapers today. Most are under the control of NewsCorp, that company that is so rightly accused by State of Play as a force playing against professional journalism and a force promoting their own agendas through the media they control. But have a look at The Age, Melbourne’s most serious newspaper: How many cases of investigative journalism can that paper boast? Barely a few each year; most of the news is made of “this politician said this” while “that politician said that”, with the rest of it made of news releases. Investigative journalism is dead and has been dead for a good few years now; big money has won the game a while ago.
There are just a handful of proper Crowe like journalists out there now. Never has the future of democracy as we know it relied on so few, and the sad reality is they don’t have much of a future.
Worst scene: As good as State of Play is, it’s ending is horrible. The build up is all nice, cool and reliable; but then the end arrives with the filmmakers trying too hard to surprise us. The taste in my mouth suddenly turned bitter.
Technical assessment: The picture is rather mediocre for a Blu-ray, but the sound definitely enhances the experience.
Overall: It would have been 4 if it wasn’t for that ending, but as it is State of Play still gets a credible 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Duplicity

Lowdown: Two spies cooperate/fight one another over a case of industrial espionage.
Review:
I have raved about the virtues of Clive Owen only recently, so I will avoid doing so again for his part in Duplicity. What I will say, though, is that Duplicity is not a one man show; it features three other A list stars, Julia Roberts, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, the last two of which supply us with yet another signature performance. For Owen and Giamatti, Duplicity represents a bit of a reunion: the pair has worked together to produce a small marvel with Shoot ‘Em Up. Indeed, Duplicity shares a common attitude with Shoot ‘Em Up, both of which are films which do not take themselves too seriously; Duplicity, though, offers some more depth.
Duplicity starts with two introductory scenes: The first one shows us how Owen (MI6) meets Roberts (CIA) while on a field mission; the two do whatever a man and a woman tend to do inside film’s hotel rooms, after which Roberts drugs Owen and steals some secrets out of him. Then, over the opening credits (discussed below), we learn about a very personal business rivalry between Wilkinson and Giamatti.
Roll back a few years forward, and we meet an Owen whose career was ruined by Roberts’ treachery. Now he’s in industrial espionage between two rivalling cosmetic companies (run by Wilkinson and Giamatti), and he’s about to meet a mole from the other side. Naturally, this mole turns out to be Roberts!
The rest of the film portrays the struggle/affair that ensues between Owen and Roberts as their industrial espionage case gets hotter and hotter. Both regard themselves as more than ordinary people and both act according to this assumption of theirs, aspiring for more than what mere mortals can expect to have (in the materialistic sense of the word “more”). But, in their quest for that “more”, are they cooperating, the way the MI6 and the CIA are expected to, or are they still fighting one another? As the spying develops we receive the occasional flashback that throws things into a new light; many of the things we have been assuming up to that point turn out wrong, to be replaced by a new set of assumption, only to be replaced by the subsequent flashback.
It sounds frustrating but it isn’t; it’s all very entertaining and effective; it’s thrilling and it’s funny. Duplicity’s reason for existence is this constant transition between being in a state of confidence and feeling duped. Sure, it is often a bit silly, but so is the world of corporate affairs the film makes such a mockery of (and, as a side effect, the notion of nationalism).
There is a bit of a sting taking place at Duplicity’s ending. It came as a bit of a surprise to me, but it was also a bit silly in the sense that its lack of reliability detracted a bit from an otherwise authentic, albeit extreme, experience.
Best scene: Owen instructs Roberts how to deliver her lines so they can trick others the next time they meet in the field. Roberts looks at Owen and asks: “Are you directing me?”, a question that seems to be posed at Duplicity’s director and thus us, the viewers, more than at Owen. And it appears both heroes are aware of it; it’s that good old cinema within the cinema metaphor.
Technical assessment: This is a good Blu-ray in all respects. The opening credits, featuring Wilkinson and Giamatti having themselves a good old fashioned slow motion fight next to their private jets is poetry in motion for the sound department: the accompanying rhythmic music is very well recorded by movie standards, and Blu-ray’s superior sound delivery creates a majestic experience.
Overall: This comedy / thriller / romantic comedy is good all-around entertainment. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

Lars and the Real Girl

Lowdown: A guy adopts a sex doll to be his girlfriend.
Review:
In a cold and remote town somewhere in the middle of nowhere lives a young guy called Lars. Lars resides in the garage of his dead father's house, with his brother and the brother's expecting wife living in the main residence.
On the face of it, Lars is a normal person and a decent member of society: He goes to church on a regular basis (it seems as if the film's folk consider that a positive), he works and gets along well with his mates, and everyone in this close community just loves him. The only catch is Lars' distancing himself from others: he avoids unnecessary contact with others, and - most notably - he doesn't have a girlfriend.
Eventually, Lars succumbs to the social pressure and gets himself a girlfriend. A sex doll, which he names, pretends to have deep conversations with, carries with him everywhere he goes, and introduces to everyone as his girlfriend. His family and the rest of the town cooperate and take part in the pretend game - only too aware it's not really a game. Quickly enough, the rubber girlfriend acquires a personality of her own, a personality bestowed by Lars and augmented by the people around him.
As someone who never really had to contend with mental illness I found the concept behind Lars and the Real Girl quite interesting: it is very rarely that movies provide us with a real look at a mental disorder as it happens, preferring to avoid the subject for better revenue raising ones. But other than that, I quickly grew tired of the concept behind Lars and the Real Girl: quickly enough I realized there is not going to be too much tension involved with accepting the rubber doll, with everyone being so nice in this small secluded town; and what remained, a town full of compassionate people looking after Lars at his time of crisis, did not feel too real. Come on, if I were one of them it wouldn't take long before I would break down and stop pretending. Sure, Lars' brother has a tough time living with the concept, but are we really to believe that things are all just so sweet overall?
And the whole "rubber doll becoming a more real than real person" charade - come on, it's all just one overly sweet scene followed by the other. It annoys me to see a film that steps out of the beaten path u-turn to resort to cliches.
Best scene: The pregnant sister in law checks to see if the rubber doll is fully equipped.
Technical assessment: It is clear this film did not enjoy a big budget. The camera is hand held, the lighting is minimal, and the picture quality shows. The sound is as mundane as sound can be, with only one scene allowing music to establish some surround presence.
Overall: Lars and the Real Girl wears out its welcome too quickly but does receive a bonus for dealing with a tough subject. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 October 2009

The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The evidence for evolution by natural selection.
Review:
I know it’s weird to say it about a book, but Richard Dawkins’ latest, The Greatest Show on Earth, is a haunted book. On a personal basis, it is haunted by the high expectations I have of anything coming out of Dawkins’ brains, given the high regard with which I hold him (probably the highest regard I hold anyone). More importantly, though, The Greatest Show on Earth is a book haunted by its mega successful predecessor, The God Delusion. It is as natural as evolution to pick up this new book and regard it as a God Delusion sequel; and while it isn’t, the former's shadow is just too much for the new kid to live with.
So let’s start by spotting the differences. The God Delusion was a book telling us using rational arguments how silly our religions are (and I’m using the term “silly” because I have found the book to be quite a funny read). The Greatest Show on Earth, on the other hand, does not directly point a finger at religion; while Dawkins is unable to stop himself from pointing a finger at religion from time to time, he only does so when the occasion is begging for such pointing to take place. What The Greatest Show on Earth is, first and foremost, is a popular science book specifying the evidence for evolution by natural selection. Sure, resistance for evolution often comes under religious guises, but as Dawkins argues at he beginning of the book, religious beliefs do not automatically imply the countering of evolution. He even identifies allies for evolution within top religious circles.
Having read so many of Dawkins’ books, I was curious to know how it is, exactly, that Dawkins intends to list us the evidence for evolution. Curious, because he had done so many a time in his previous books; yet those cases were inconsequential, cases where evidence was provided as a side dish. Expectations wise, while I could recognize a development in Dawkins’ writing style from the more scientific paper oriented "to the point" approach to a more approachable "eye to eye" conversation level, I was still expecting The Greatest Show on Earth to be a lengthy list of bullet point like list of evidence. I was wrong.
The Greatest Show on Earth sets off by explaining what a scientific theory is. Indeed, I agree this is a mandatory beginning: the last two months alone I was approached twice by people seeing the copy of Scientific American on my desk and reacting to it by informing me that evolution is just a theory that has never been proven. I would have said such people deserve a complimentary copy of Dawkins’ latest book if I had any reason to believe they’d ever read it, but the point is that The Greatest Show on Earth is, indeed, aimed exactly at such people and not at people such as yours truly. More than being an account of the evidence for evolution, the book is the evolutionist’s answer to creationists. It does so by providing evidence for evolution in laymen terms, but it also goes the God Delusion way and makes a mockery of creationism and its foundations. Thus while I would have preferred to have less of my time wasted stating the obvious, Dawkins spends significant energies taking care of sporadic fires lit by creationists. Annoyed as I may be with Dawkins’ approach, I can see exactly where he’s coming from: those two evolution deniers at my office alone are justification enough for Dawkins’ approach, not to mention the countless others throughout the world. Things are bad in Australia, things are bad in the UK, things are bad in Israel (where evolution is not even mentioned in schools), and things are really bad in the USA and throughout the Muslim world.
Following the mandatory expositions, Dawkins goes on to systematically review the various types of evidence in favor of evolution: the evolution we can see before our very eyes, the evolution of domesticated animals and plants, the evolution we see in our bodies, fossil records, the genes we share with all other living things, and much more. As I have stated already, there is not that much more in there that hasn’t been discussed to one extent or another in Dawkins’ previous books; Dawkins does seem to ignore less noble evidence, such as the behavior of football supporters or, come to think of it, the way footballers celebrate their goals.
While always going for the serious, Dawkins' trick is in the way things are told. By aiming at those contemplating evolution from creationism, Dawkins’ explanations are dead simple to understand. Language wise, Dawkins’ amusing style is entertaining but not as entertaining as it was in The God Delusion; I guess the subject matter is not as good when it comes to providing raw comedic ingredients.
More often than not, Dawkins digresses and strays off the beaten path of evidence in order to fascinate us with the working of nature. Some times these digressions are useful, as in the case of his explanations of fossil dating techniques; some other times, though, these digressions are bit tedious, reminding me again that The Greatest Show on Earth was not directed at those already firmly on evolution and science’s side. The fact I still enjoyed the book is not coincidental, though, but rather a tribute to Dawkins’ talents as a writer.
Overall: As good as it is, The Greatest Show on Earth is unable to avoid the shadow of its predecessor. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 October 2009

Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock

Lowdown: Kirk attempts to revive Spock as everything around gets destroyed.
Review:
As with its predecessor in the Star Trek series of feature films, The Wrath of Khan, Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock is a film for which I carry a personal burden. The Search for Spock is the last film I saw at the cinema with my uncle; he had to leave in the middle due to medical issues, and from then on we could only watch videos or laserdiscs together at home. This uncle of mine was not just another uncle; while he was one of many uncles, there is only one that carries the title “my uncle”. Only one that is probably the person most responsible for me being the way I currently am, only one that dared question what everyone else took for granted while my brain was still not contaminated enough, only one that bought me my first Carl Sagan book, only one that bought me my first science fiction books, and only one that took me to see at least one film a week between 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back to 1985’s Search for Spock. Perhaps it does make sense that the two films enclosing this cinematic window of influence are both action packed science fiction sequels.
The Search for Spock starts exactly where The Wrath of Khan left off. The bruised Enterprise is heading home as heroes while researchers are left on the new artificially created Genesis planet to research the project’s success. While the Enterprise’s crew is mourning Spock’s death (during Wrath of Khan’s conclusion), clues accumulate to suggest Spock isn’t really dead (what a surprise). Kirk learns he needs to head back to Genesis and retrieve Spock’s body if there is to be any chance of reviving his best friend.
Kirk has a problem, though: Starfleet deems the Enterprise too old and sentences it for decommission while relegating Kirk to ground duties. Blasphemy! While Kirk can maneuver his way around this problem, he and his crew do risk court-martial. That is not their only problem, though: A bunch of renegade Klingons led by a rather vicious Christopher Lloyd will stop at nothing to capture Genesis’ secrets. Not only that, Genesis itself is dying. Will Kirk have enough time and resources on his hand to rescue Spock’s body and revive it in a religious ceremony on the planet Vulcan? Might as well ask if the sun will rise tomorrow morning. The real question, though, is what price will Kirk be paying for the revival of his best friend, and is it worth it?
The real problem with The Search for Spock is not its predictability, but rather it not leaving non-Trekkies any chance of getting into it. The film spends absolutely no time in rushing for the action pieces while providing zero introduction; it also assumes you know exactly where its predecessor has left you off. Quite a tall order, if you ask me, given the rarity of home film viewing back in 1984-1985.
Other than that, The Search for Spock is a cliché Star Trek adventure where each of the very familiar characters has another opportunity to show off for what made it famous in the first place and all the supporting cast is hardly developed at all. It works, though: if you’re into Star Trek then you will probably find The Search for Spock pretty entertaining.
Iconic scene: As with its predecessor, the makers of this film thought they have to go one step further than the series. This time it’s the retirement of the Enterprise that is the main talking point.
Best scene: Kirk has enough of the troublesome Klingon.
Worst scene: Spock's religious Vulcan revival. Highly illogical!
Technical assessment: An awful DVD that obviously was not invested in. The picture is horrible and the sound, although 5.1, sounds very dated. There seems to be a better release of this DVD out there, though.
Overall: 3 stars out of 5, but non Trekkies need not (and should not) apply.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Angels and Demons

Lowdown: A mysterious organization has a go at a Vatican busy selecting a new pope.
Review:
It feels strange saying so, but there are some books I regret reading. As in, I regret wasting my time on them. Angels and Demons is such an example: The sequel to The Da Vinci Code proved to be an exact replica of the same [now old] formula, with a new round of crap and completely fabricated myths to support its plot and overall very poor values when it comes to a piece of literature. Sure, it is thrilling to read and you want to know what is going to happen, but there is more to a good book than a cheap thrill.
Enter the film version of Angels and Demons, and just like its book it offers the same basic ingredients: It’s directed by the ever uninspiring Ron Howard and stars Tom Hanks. Given what the pair achieved with the film version of The Da Vinci Code I wasn’t expecting much, but reviews claiming Angels and Demons has an edge because it doesn’t take itself too seriously pumped me up: If that was to be the case then Angels and Demons could prove to be an entertaining film indeed. But is that really the case?
Angels and Demons has a mysterious organization of “scientists against the church”, The Illuminati, conspire against the Catholic Church. They steal some anti-matter from CERN; by “some” I mean more than has ever been manufactured in any lab anywhere in the world, enough to create a mini Hiroshima like explosion. That is to say, Angels and Demons is firmly into the fictitious side of reality.
Anyway, our Illuminati plant their futuristic bomb in the Vatican and threaten to detonate it just as the Vatican is busy electing a new pope to replace a recently deceased one. But the Illuminati doesn’t stop there; they hijack the four leading contenders to the pope’s throne, and threaten to kill them one by one, by the hour. They won’t do so in a simple manner, though; they will, for some elusive reason that is never explained by the film (nor the book), stick to some elaborate scheme of locations and killing methods corresponding to ancient riddles left by Illuminati members from the time of Galileo.
And who in this world has the best potential of deciphering the Illuminati’s riddles and stopping their evil plot? Well, no one else but a Tom Hanks portraying a Harvard professor of the occult. This time around, Hanks’ female sidekick is not Jesus’ grand grand daughter but rather an Italian scientist from CERN (portrayed by the Israeli actress Ayelet Zurer), the only one who knows how to dismantle a ticking anti-matter bomb. That is, how to replace its container’s battery. Together our couple will go through heaven and earth to reveal many a conspiracy as they stop the baddies and save the goodies in a "riddle me this, riddle me that" action thriller set around Rome.
For those that read the book I will state the film is fairly loyal to its origins, but that there are notable exceptions. For example, no one falls of a helicopter into the Tiber River. I have to add I was looking forward to this particular scene as it should have been the peak of silliness, and was therefore disappointed with its absence.
If one was to ignore the thrill of the chase for a brief while then one will recognize Angels and Demons to be a film about how science and religion can (and should) live together, happily ever after. Yours truly, however, thinks this to be a very silly notion: religion, especially Catholicism, is in direct contradiction with science, and living with both is nothing more than one side of your personality convincing the other to ignore certain annoying facts. After all, if it wasn't for this itchy scratch, films like Angels and Demons would not have been made in the first place. Sure, science and religion can co-exist; they do so today, and the last I've heard the earth is still circling the sun. But to celebrate this co-existence and to pretend this is the optimal state of being is not much more than aiming at the lowest common denominator, and in particular at the American movie viewing public that seems to be the direct target of Angels and Demons’ flattery. In my opinion at least, Angels and Demons delivers its flattery in a very serious manner; I was unable to find any winks that could have told us it was half joking.
In short, what we have on our hands with Angels and Demons is a film that is out there to appeal to the biggest source of potential revenues out there, and the movie does not hesitate to turn on all possible attractions with this market segment. Objective truth will not stand in the way of a good earning!
Worst scenes: Angels and Demons keeps on referring to the Higgs boson particle, the one that may be identified by CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, as “the god particle” that could potentially prove the existence of god. Why would any particular particle prove the existence of god? What is so unique about this particle in particular? Why is it closer to "god" than, say, an electron? This is exactly the type of bullshit that Angels and Demons is so full of.
Technical assessment:
Just as the film is a good sample for the efficiencies of formulistic, production line like movie making, so is this Blu-ray. It is good but it fails to stand out as anything special. If anything, I was surprised at the low quality of recorded dialog in some scenes (e.g., Hanks and Zurer climbing up an old building’s stairway).
For the record, the Blu-ray is equipped with both the theatrical version as well as an extended version. We’ve watched the extended one, which spans around two and a half hours.
Overall: Can you get away with murder by providing some light entertainment? I’m still debating the issue, but for now I’ll be [very] generous and give Angels and Demons 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Appaloosa

Lowdown: Two guys come in to help a town get rid of evil elements.
Review:
Appaloosa is one of those low key film that you just know have the potential to be really good by virtue of their low key release allowing artistic aspirations to prevail over those coming from the marketing or accounting departments. Appaloosa is directed and led by Ed Harris, one of Hollywood’s icons of unfulfilled potential; its co-star is Viggo Mortensen with his excellent track record and a tour de force performance in Eastern Promises up his sleeve. And, indeed, Appaloosa is a classic member of the Western genre that delivers the quality its ingredients suggest it would.
The town of Appaloosa is suffering from a menace that prevents its financial development: Jeremy Irons, who refuses to abide town law and kills its agents. The “town elders” are scared, but not scared enough to surrender: they bring in Harris and Mortensen, a couple of law enforcers with a good track record of helping frontier town rid themselves of Irons’ likes. Our couple of heroes are rather unique, especially in comparison to their environment: professionals all the way, they are not flashy in their ways, they don’t tell everyone how good they are, and they know one another well while fully respecting one another. Most of the time they uphold the law with themselves before asking others to do the same (with the exceptions being good philosophical fodder). Can these two rid Appaloosa of Irons, a guy backed up by a large company of brutes?
The situation gets a tad more complicated when a woman enters the scene. Renée Zellweger arrives with just a suitcase as company and immediately sets her sights on Harris. But is there more to her than meets the eye? And will her arrival crack the connection between Harris and Mortensen?
Overall, Appaloosa is a slow paced, cool and relaxed exploration of human values put under stress: the friendship between our duo on one hand and the all so very human way of turning a blind eye when money is at stake on the other. Not that its pacing means it’s uneventful; Appaloosa is full of thrills, it’s just that it doesn’t bombard you with camera shakes. It doesn’t hype itself, instead letting the action do the talking.
With a magnificent desert like setting and cinematography that is a pleasure to the eye, coupled with good performances from its very talented cast, Appaloosa is a very well made film that delivers on all accounts.
Best scene: Zellweger accuses Mortensen of laying his hands on her, but Harris doesn’t believe her even for a second even though she his is wife to be. The scene demonstrates the value of unconditional trust that comes with well founded camaraderie. Personally, the scene touched me because it is exactly such camaraderie that I find missing in my current place of work: that sense of automatic trust between team members and between employers and managers that I did find, to one extent or another, in the better organizations I have had the pleasure of working for.
Technical assessment: A good Blu-ray in all respects. Although quite pleasant on the eye, what I really liked the way the sound was designed to compliment the spirit of the film.
Overall: It’s a pity low key films like Appaloosa are a minority. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army

Lowdown: Freakish superheroes save humanity from a vengeful enemy.
Review:
The story of a bunch of freaks fighting for the sake of all humans without a shred gratitude from their beneficiaries. Is this the story of Al Gore and his fellow global warming campaigners? No, it’s Hellboy 2: The Golden Army, of course.
We’ve watched the original Hellboy film a few years ago and found it good entertainment, enough to merit the rental of its sequel. By now I don’t remember much of the first, but it doesn’t matter: Hellboy 2 would make you feel right at home and give you all the character introductions you will need.
Hellboy 2 features an ancient elf plotting to rid this world of its main problem, humanity, through the reactivation of an army of golden robots designed for that exact purpose eons ago. The only opposition to said elf is a bunch of freak superheroes kept in secret by the American government. The film’s hero freaks are made of four characters: an intelligent fish humanoid, a ghost with a German accent (the result of Seth MacFarlane doing a voice not unlike Klaus’ from American Dad), a woman that occasionally goes on fire, and Hellboy. Hellboy, if you didn't guess it by now, is a creature from hell that looks the part, is quite powerful, got a concrete like arm, and is overall quite a cheerful and good hearted juvenile. Together, our group of heroes will start at New York and go till the ends of the earth to save us all. And lest we forget, there’s also some romance between our Hellboy and the fiery woman.
Directed by Guillermo del Toro, Hellboy 2 features plenty of the concepts from his previous film, Pan’s Labyrinth; the various freaks and monsters mingling in a world dominated by humans with mythical elements are good examples for those. There is a major difference between the two films, though: while Pan is a dark and often scary film, Hellboy is sheer fun. Sure, it tries to raise the question of whether we humans deserve this world that we are so effectively bringing down to its knees. And sure, it does criticize people for their reluctance to accept the foreign even when that foreigner is saving their lives.
But those points are of relatively minor importance in the grand Hellboy 2 scheme. Between its fine special effects, numerous actions scenes and plenty of fooling around, Hellboy 2 is a fun film to watch. Sure, it’s overall forgettable, but it’s nice escapism too.
Best scene: The leading freak superheroes, Hellboy and the fish-humanoid, get drunk and do stupid stuff together as their respective lovers give them a hard time. Call me a freak, but I like to see the human side of my superheroes, and Hellboy does that well: its heroes are very imperfect, often stupid, and most importantly – political correctness is beyond them.
Technical assessment: This is a Blu-ray to lick your fingers with. The picture is very good, but the sound – oh, the sound. It’s loud, it rocks, it’s detailed, and it’s damn good; it made me long for those pre-baby days when we could listen to movies at the volume levels they were meant to be listened to. Indeed, Hellboy 2 is a Blu-ray to alienate your neighbors with; it’s so good it’s worth it (disclaimer: I don’t really mean that last statement; you know what I really meant).
Overall: Cheerful entertainment. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan

Lowdown: Kirk & Co revisited by an old enemy.
Review:
In our sins we have been re-watching the original Star Trek series lately. Although full of bull, even in Spock’s so called logical ways, I have to say we find it pretty entertaining and much less of the soap opera than the Next Generation. Having watched the Khan TV episode (Space Seed, dated season 1 episode 22 from 1967) we thought the next rational thing to do is to follow it up by watching Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan, which was first released in 1982.
Wrath of Khan is the second of the Star Trek feature films, the first one being too artistic and grandiose for its own good and thus quite boring. Wrath of Khan, on the other hand, is a film with tons of historical importance: I watched it for the first time in New York’s Queens as a child getting out of Israel for the first time. That visit to New York has had a significant impact on me; I still recall the pleasurable and massive awe I had experienced upon wandering the Big Apple. One afternoon my father took us to visit an old friend of his now [then] living in Queens, in this huge apartment building. The kids were playing baseball in the building’s courtyard, but I was as interested in that game as I am now; instead I listened to the host’s battle stories about New York crime (crime was not something you would experience first hand in Tel Aviv), ate the generous dinner steak on offer, and for dessert – watched Wrath of Khan on cable. Cable! What a wonderful intention! At the time I even thought the ads were great (Israel’s sole TV channel back then was just transitioning out of black and white transmissions, and ads took more than a decade to enter more to enter the scene). I didn’t enjoy the film much; I couldn’t understand the English well enough to understand what was taking place and overall found the film too boring. But oh, what a pleasure it was to be able to watch a film just out of the cinemas at a home environment, and in New York none the less!
Since that childhood experience I never got the opportunity to revisit Wrath of Khan properly again. I was curious but low in expectations ahead of today’s DVD viewing.
Wrath of Khan takes place around two decades following the Space Seed, an episode in which the Enterprise’s crew rescues a spaceship floating in space for several centuries with its inhabitants frozen. They discover, albeit too late, that these refugees are escaped convicted criminals from late twentieth century earth led by Khan (Ricardo Montalban, an older version of whom also plays Khan in the film). Khan’s gang turns out to be the result of eugenic experiments to create super humans, and as such they think they are superior to the Enterprise’s crew and try to take the ship over. Kirk outdoes Kahn, though, and sentences him to exile on a remote planet nearby.
Move on to the film, and Kirk’s an admiral with Spock the captain of an Enterprise manned mostly by aspiring cadets. We learn Khan’s exile was rather rough, and we see Khan secure himself a spaceship with which he plans to make his revenge on Kirk. This time it’s personal; will Kirk, reassuming his commanding position on the Enterprise’s bridge, be able to stop Khan again? Not only is Kirk’s personal fate at stake here, but also the fate of the Enterprise’s young crew and that of the new experimental Genesis machine that is able to generate a living world out of nothing; at the hands of Khan it could prove to be a mighty weapon. Rest assured, though: with Khan’s superior intelligence stuck in twenty century thinking, the fate of humanity is in good hands.
Overall, Star Trek 2 - The Wrath of Khan is a pretty entertaining affair. It’s entertaining because of its silliness, as in the case of these small crappy looking insects that penetrate innocent ears and render their subject controllable. It’s entertaining in its Star Trek world of clichés, as per standard issue logical Spock vs. spontaneous (?) Bones. And it's clumsily entertaining in the way it copies The Empire Strikes Back and gives Kirk a renegade son, thus creating a poor replica of the legendary "Luke, I am your father" scene.
In short, if you like Star Trek, you would like to reminisce with this one. Indeed, reminiscing seems to be what the film does best, with very long expositions telling us rather too tediously that our heroes have been aging through the years; you will only suffer through this if you care for the characters in the first place.
Other than that, there are some inconsistencies between the film and the TV series that set it up. For example, if memory serves me right, the Chekov character that takes a pivotal part in the film did not exist in the Space Seed episode. The changes that matter more are the changes to the spirit of the Enterprise: the uniforms and the rituals are much more navy like than that free enterprising spirit the series boasted. I guess all is fair in love and the war to differentiate the film from the TV screen.
On the more positive side, production values have significantly improved. The visual effects, although not digital (thank goodness), are quite impressive and are used to create thrilling spaceship duels. These are more intense and clever than anything the TV series could muster.
Iconic scene:
It seems like whenever a TV series moves to the big screen it feels the need to escalate matters so that the transition will seem justified. In Wrath of Khan that escalation comes in the form of the death of one of the Enterprise’s key crew members (which I won’t name here as I don’t want to ruin the film for you; I will, however, point out that Wrath of Khan’s sequel, Star Trek 3, is called The Search for Spock).
Of course, the problem with using such escalation tactics is - what do you do on your next sequel? Go even a step further and destroy the Enterprise itself? And what do you do on subsequent sequels – destroy the Enterprise yet again? Not that I’m suggesting in any way that this would be the course of action taken by the producers of Star Trek; no way, they’re bound to be smarter than that. After all, that ship lasted through countless TV episodes; it would take more than a couple of sequels to destroy it several times.
Technical assessment: The DVD we had on our hands here sported a nice collection of supplementary material that proved quite interesting, including some recounting of the film’s history by key characters collected during the late nineties (a long enough time to allow the benefit of historical perspective). Other than that, the DVD sports poorly constructed menus that limit soundtrack and subtitles accessibility, a rather aged picture and an even older aged sound, especially in the dialog department. The musical soundtrack is very eighties, with pompous symphonic music escorting every pan of the Enterprise across the screen.
Overall: Star Trek fans should love to reminisce with this one. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 1 October 2009

The International

Lowdown: An Interpol detective hunting a bank selling weapons to the highest bidder.
Review:
Clive Owen was the star of the two films that probably constitute the best new films reviewed by this blog, Children of Men and Inside Man. That, plus his excellent guest performance in Extras, earns him a lot of credit; it also makes me wait in high anticipation for his next releases. The International is one such release, and it doesn’t settle with featuring Owen alone: the film was directed by Tom Tykwer of Run Lola Run fame. Expectations are rarely higher, and lucky me has the privilege of stating they are entirely justified.
In The International, Clive Owen plays an Interpol detective with an obsession. He is positive this Luxemburg based bank he’s been tracking for years is heavily into arms dealing, and he is also sure that the bank is covering its own tracks by killing every person that can potentially compromise it. This obsession of his cost him his job in English police, relegating him to Lyon, and as the film starts it also costs him the life of his partner. Only a rare few believe Owen’s bank obsession, and these include a Naomi Watts playing a DA from New York (where the bank is quite active in its dealings).
On their own, the couple finds clues to help decipher the bank’s mystery. They move about from one international scene to another, including Milan, New York and Istanbul. On their way they encounter mystery and action, rendering The International very thrilling indeed; it’s like a James Bond but without the gizmos and the glamour.
Indeed, Owen’s hero character is the complete opposite to Bond. It’s hesitant, lacking the killer instinct; and throughout the film, Owen takes extra care to appear scruffy (perhaps even unreliably so). It sort of reminds me of his character in Children of Men spending most of the film in its thongs but without the comedy element of it.
Interestingly, The International’s story is based on a real bank that did all the naughty things the film’s bank does; it’s just that the film's bank has been moved twenty years forward to modern times. However, the real beauty of The International is in what it is trying to tell us. That goes through certain levels, from a discussion on the bad things that can take place in businesses and the way the corporate world is the real ruler of our universe, to the value of the objective truth as opposed to perception.
Too many people I know, including some I regard as friends, seem to behave under the assumption that laws of morality and ethic codes applying to their personal lives do not apply to their professional lives. Real estate agents seem to be able to sleep soundly at night after systematically cheating their clients, insurance agents denying money from those in true need are still distinguished members of society. I argue, and so does The International, that this should not be the case; ethics and morality codes may change with the zeitgeist and there cannot be a definitive set of such rules in our world, but an obvious wrong is a wrong. And when a close friend of mine signs his emails with a signature saying “perception is reality” it annoys the hell out of me, because it implies there is never an objective truth and in effect implies we can determine issues of morality as we feel like.
A film sending me on such philosophical trains of thought has to be worth watching.
Best scene:
A shootout at New York’s Guggenheim Museum has to qualify as one of the more intense action scenes out there. Given how real things looked and how well they compare with my personal memories of the museum, I was actually surprised to learn filming did not take place at the real Guggenheim but rather at a studio . On the other hand, given the destruction taking place during the scene, it doesn’t make sense for it to be shot at the real thing.
On that Guggenheim note, and as the supplementals on the Blu-ray suggest, architecture does take a major role in The International. The different buildings in which key events take place tell us a thing or two about the people in them and the people we are becoming. Most notable is the setting for the rogue bank’s headquarters, shot in Volkswagen’s city of Wolfsburg. Overall, the intent is to show how architecture affects us and how our ways affect our architecture; architecture is very much there with the supporting cast.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is rather mediocre with much more noise than acceptable. The sound, however, is amazingly good: it doesn’t go for a bombastic atmosphere, and many moments in The International are just eerily quiet; it rather goes for realism, and does so to a great effect (especially when the action kicks in).
Overall: A solid performer through and through. 4 out of 5 stars.