Thursday, 24 December 2009

The Philosophical Baby by Alison Gopnik

Lowdown: Discussions on the theory that children are learning machines.
Review:
Us adults tend to refer to children as foolish creatures with not much sense that fool around doing their ultimately stupid stuff while we carry the burden of taking care of their every need. On the other hand, people like Carl Sagan view children completely differently: Sagan regards children as full of wonder, entities that want to know as much about the world as they can. Then, to Sagan's disappointment, they seem to be spoiled by the the system and come out generally bland and devoid of their former wonder. So where is the truth and which approach happens to be the correct one?
To the rescue comes Alison Gopnik with a popular science book entitled The Philosophical Baby. The book refers to kids up to the age of five as babies, and in a very simple and approachable style it lays down Gopnik's theories on what babies stand for and what motivates them.
At the core of Gopnik's theories stands one main claim: Babies and children are entities whose main purpose in life is to learn what life is all about. Everything to do with the way they live and act, the way their consciousness works and the way they treat others is a direct result of that main conclusion. It's their uselessness as kids that gives them the power to learn and adopt to life as an adult later; and once adults, their learning skills wane as their learning become their way of life. Of course, it's the theory's details that count, and Gopnik manages to successfully fill out a book discussing the implications of her main theory, even coming up to deep philosophical pondering about the meaning of life. And for the record, she managed to put me on her side.
Essentially, The Philosophical Baby is a book that mixes psychology and philosophy but relies heavily on scientifically acquired observations. In this the book differs significantly from most other baby guidebooks that are mostly driven by the whim of their writer, who seemed to have woken up one morning with an idea (often a stupid unfounded idea) on how to best raise babies/kids and thought the idea worthy enough to base a book on. The Philosophical Baby, on the other hand, relies on peer reviewed papers for its theories.
Another key difference between The Philosophical Baby and other kids books is that it does not pretend to offer you guidelines that would make your child a millionaire as it graduates from college at the age of seven. However, if you ask me, The Philosophical Baby's approach is even better: by telling you how the baby's mind works, it allows the readers to draw their own conclusions on how to deal with their children their way. You can draw conclusions on your child's childcare related policies, and you can even implement simple tricks to help your child learn languages quicker and easier. Or, to point at another example, help them learn to use their memories.
Valuable advice? Sure is in my book. Yet The Philosophical Baby is not a perfect read. Although it should be easily read even by those who are totally foreign to popular science, it is not a page turner. It is not a book that encouraged me to get back to read the next page the way, say, a nice thriller would. Or even the way the better popular science books do.
Overall: The best guide to children I have encountered thus far. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 21 December 2009

Zack and Miri Make a Porno

Lowdown: A couple of means lacking platonic friends make a porno.
Review:
Like many of my generation, the child in me grew up to regard porn as something mythical simply because it was inaccessible. I was even too shy to buy my own dirty magazines (lucky for me, I had friends). Today things are different: the internet has made porn so accessible it had become mainstream. Mainstream, yet comfortably ignored by most people, people that prefer to pretend it doesn’t exist instead of tackling it head on for better or worse.
I therefore have an immediate affection to those that don’t shy from tackling porn, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno is one such fine example. Zack and Miri treats porn without any apologies.
Zack (Seth Rogan) and Miri are a couple of lacklustre school friends sharing an apartment together ten years after graduation. Essentially, their life has been on hold since school. Times are tough, though: they can’t pay the rent, they can’t pay their bills, and it is damn cold out there (and in there). What can they do to salvage themselves from their misery?
Several events open their eyes to the options before them. A candid camera video of Miri in her underwear becomes a YouTube hit; they meet a genuine porn star at their school reunion as Miri discovers the subject of her high school infatuation is gay; and their utilities get disconnected. They have no option but to make their own porno and star in it.
After lengthy discussions focusing on the title of their flick (e.g., Star Whores), they recruit a producer and some additional “actors” and head off to shooting. But how will the so far platonic relationship between Zack and Miri survive onscreen sex with alternate partners?
It doesn’t take long to realize Zack and Miri is a Kevin Smith (of Clerks’ fame) film. It’s a comedy with long, shallow yet funny nonsense dialog of typical Kevin Smith qualities. Don’t get me wrong: It’s nice and it’s funny as long as you’re not sitting in front of your TV expecting a profound discussion on the meaning of life.
Other than that, the most notable attribute of Zack and Miri is its lack of any proper sex scenes. Sure, we see boobs here and there, and there is some sex action going on during the making of the porno, but that is limited to the minor actors fuelling the laughter rather than erotic porno. Do not expect a porn experience with Zack and Miri, especially not with Zack and Miri themselves.
So, is this Kevin Smith’s way of bowing down to the puritans? No; it’s just a matter of perceptions. At its core, Zack and Miri is a typical romantic comedy not unlike, say, Jane Austen’s Emma. Both feature two lovers who never realized they were such and both tell the tale surrounding those circumstances. Zack and Miri’s element of porn is just a filler; it’s just that it becomes the talk of the town because of the way our culture is unable to deal with porn without any guilt feelings.
Best scene: Justin Long (the Mac dude from the “I’m a Mac and I’m a PC” ads) does one hell of a gay porn star impersonation.
Technical assessment: This is not the Blu-ray you would use to demonstrate the capabilities of your home theater. It’s not too bad, though, with some interesting sound design elements (e.g., the noise from Zack’s car), but it’s far from maximizing the benefits of the Blu-ray format.
Overall: A funny but not too deep, 3 out of 5 stars film.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Boat That Rocked

Lowdown: The life and times of a British pirate broadcasting ship during the happy sixties.
Review:
One of the pillars of my musical upbringing had been a pirate broadcasting ship off the coast of Tel Aviv called The Voice of Peace. Operated by a peace activist called Abie Nathan, the intention behind the ship was to act as another Israeli radio station in order to promote peace through [mostly] pop music. Given Israeli law, Nathan couldn't run a proper radio station in land, so he had to do it from outside the territorial waters of Israel.
I have lots of fond memories of this station: its music, seeing the ship off the coast, swimming all the way to the ship with my father... It was a part of my life. It had weird things about it, too, like its weird advertising campaign to promote water drinking when Coke cut down its advertising money, or its insisting on having only British guys to running its shows.
Fate did not fare The Voice of Peace too well. The authorities didn't like it, and eventually Nathan just didn't have the money to run it anymore using a ship and equipment that were breaking down. The legacy of The Voice of Peace still remains, though, at least in my head. It is exactly this type of a legacy that director Richard Curtis (of Love Actually fame) was aiming at with his recent film The Boat That Rocked.
Set in middle of the sixties UK, The Boat That Rocked tells the story of a pirate broadcasting boat off the North Sea transmitting rock music to the British Public, which, at the time, was almost completely deprived of off the air rock. The authorities, represented in the film by a Kenneth Branagh redoing the exact same role he did in Rabbit-Proof Fence, don't like the idea of this authority bypass trick and do their silly best to stop the station. That's the background; the main event of the film is the microcosm that takes place on a boat filled up with men (and one lesbian) and a lot of hippie sixties atmosphere. Plus tons of love for the music.
It's a kind of a setup to tell us lots of interesting short character based stories, not unlike Love Actually. The cast is superb (Philip Seymour Hoffman is worth special mentioning, but he's far from alone in delivering a quality act), the good times roll, and everyone is in for some fun. It really is funny, and its helped by having some good comedy talent on board (borrowed from TV acts like Flight of the Conchords, Coupling and The IT Crowd). And Emma Thompson has a smashing cameo, too.
In short, this is a funny feel good film where you can clearly see everyone had fun making it. I had much fun watching it, and I agree about the importance of the points it had to make.
Best scene: Given the way the film is made, this is a tough call to make. It's a question of which of the mini stories is best, and there are a lot to choose from (and then a few more in the deleted scenes). My vote? A guy about to lose his virginity loses his promising girl to a fat DJ while searching for a condom. Ah, it's a tough life out there!
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray suffers from the effort to make everything look sixties, colors wise. There's also a lot of wide angle shooting that causes optical distortions. The soundtrack, featuring a lot of period music that's very smartly inserted is magnificent, even if it completely ignores a certain Liverpool based band that was pretty dominant at the time and even if the overall sound on this Blu-ray is far from stellar in quality.
Overall: Entertaining from start to finish, this boat rocks to 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Terminator Salvation

Lowdown: Our nuclear holocaust survivors deal with the most human terminator yet.
Review:
The question on my mind before watching Episode 4 of the Terminator franchise was: Terminator Salvation or just saliva? After all, the first two Terminators were and still are amongst my favorite films ever, with T2 probably qualifying as the favorite. But since the first two a lot of sewage flawed down the river, including a pathetic T3 and a mediocre (though still entertaining) TV series. Or, to put it another way, can T4's director McG step into shoes of James Cameron's size?
Unlike its predecessors, T4 takes place after the apocalyptic nuclear war the other films promised. However, it takes place at a time before John Connor, the famous leader of the human resistance, rose to prominence and before he was about to win the war on the evil machines that destroyed our world. T4's aim is to tell us how Connor rose from a potential promise into the role of a Messiah like leader.
Connor, portrayed by Christian Bale, actually takes second place in T4 to the character played by Sam Worthington. Worthington plays a contemporary (that is, our age) murderer on death row that in an act of remorse decides to donate his body to science. He's executed using a lethal injection, and the next thing he knows he wakes up in a devastated Los Angeles and has to fight for his life as terminator robots try to shoot him down. To his help comes Kyle Reese, the character that portrayed John Connor's father in previous Terminator episodes, and thus starts a roller-coaster adventure as everyone fights for survival in a very harsh and unsympathetic world and as the various characters learn something about being human and about themselves.
There can be no doubt about it, T4 is pretty entertaining. Entertaining, but... It's a bit hard to point out what the "but" part is, but eventually it comes down to the regular sequel syndrome. T4 doesn't offer much originality where it counts; it tries too hard to place famous lines (e.g., "come with me if you want to live" and "I'll be back") and it copies certain famous scenes way too faithfully (the ending's foundry fight is very similar to T2's). It also fails to make sense in many ways: For example, given the time lines, how do the evil machines know that Kyle Reese is about to have an important role in history?
What originality T4 does offer comes in the shape of new terminator robot types that don't really make sense. You have hydro terminators that roam under water but are pretty useless overall, and you have racing motorcycle shaped terminators in a world that is not exactly well paved and where off-road vehicles would be much more suitable than racing circuit bikes. Another sign of the sequel syndrome.
As mentioned, Worthington beats Bale in the acting department despite the significant difference in star reputation. It's not only that Worthington has the more interesting role, he is clearly the superior actor of the two: While Bale has this monotonous expression on his face to match his badly written script, Worthington really seems like he came to have a good day at the office. Also notable in the acting department is Michael Ironside, one of my favorite actors (V, Total Recall, Starship Troopers) portraying more of his usual stuff.
So, what do I think of it all? Is T4 a shame or a hit? I have to say I've enjoyed it overall, but I also have to say it's not a film to leave a mark on anyone the way T1 and T2 did. And given Connor is shown to have a son coming up, I suspect we will be discussing the same question many times again in the future. Me, I would have preferred to leave things off with T2.
Worst scene:
The ending is such a pathetic cliche I went searching for my barf bag. And then the narrator steps in to tell us that the difference between a machine and a human is that a human has a human heart and that no machine could have the human spirit. And I say, bullshit!
First of all, we are adding some 80 million net new human like machines each year. Their number is currently totalling at almost 7 billion. Second, if we limit ourselves to silicon based machines and pretend to ignore carbon based ones, then the argument that humans cannot be replicated on a chip only shows that our chip technology is yet to be able to deal with the task, not that this task is unachievable. T4's argument is similar to past arguments along the lines of angels pushing the planets in their orbit or god making flowers bloom; ignorance is not a valid argument.
And as for the virtues of the human heart, as someone who is likely to die of some sort of a heart failure - like many of my human compatriots - I wouldn't argue against reliable artificial hearts being developed.
In short, I much prefer T2's closing statements: "If a machine, a terminator, can learn the value of human life, maybe we can, too". That's what it's all about: the value of human life.
Technical assessment: An excellent Blu-ray in all respects, especially the picture that supports the dreary look very well.
Overall:
A fun 3.5 out of 5 stars' watch that's not to be taken too seriously.

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Rabbit-Proof Fence

Lowdown: Aboriginal girls flee authorities across Australia to unite with their family.
Review:
Before coming to Australia I didn’t know much about the aboriginal history post the arrival of Europeans. I suspected they were kicked off their land rather involuntarily, as with every other place Europeans got to, but that was it. I cannot say that migrating to Australia has improved my understanding of aboriginal history as these things are simply not discussed; for example, it took a book by an English author, Richard Dawkins, for me to realize how Tasmanian aboriginals were exterminated.
What you do hear about in Australian media is the concept of “The Stolen Generation”, a concept made popular since Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s official apology to aboriginals some two years ago. But what does “Stolen Generation” mean? Rabbit-Proof Fence, a 2002 release of a real story from 1932, attempts to familiarize its viewers with the concept through the first hand experience of three aboriginal girls, or rather “half castes”: the daughters of mixed white and aboriginal parents.
The girls live in relative peace with their mother in a remote area of Western Australia where they are a part of the aboriginal community. Trouble kicks in when the government official in charge of aboriginals (brilliantly portrayed by Kenneth Branagh) decides to implement his version of the Final Solution on these half-castes and orders the police to take them to a special institution for aboriginal kids. Aimed at exposing the kids to the best of white culture, the kids find themselves at a harsh and brutal place that’s run by nuns and their likes and is a far cry from the loving environment of their family. Determined to get back to where they belong, the girls escape the institution and walk their way home across thousands of kilometres. On their way and as they flee the chasing authorities they encounter a variety of conditions and a variety of people, both white and black; some are indifferent, some are good and some are bad.
Genre wise, Rabbit-Proof Fence reminded me of holocaust films. The similarity is scary: Between Branagh’s depiction of racial policies which entirely consume his character, the “we know what’s better for you” attitude, and the re-educations camps with their selections for white look alikes as the ticket out, one can clearly see how the Hitler phenomenon of racism was not limited to Nazi Germany but was rather widespread and a well enshrined part of those times’ zeitgeist. While no aboriginals appear to be exterminated during the making of this film, it definitely looks like a lot of spirits have been broken down by the authorities.
Overall, director Phillip Noyce had managed to create a touching film that is also quite thrilling. You really do feel for the girls and their comrades, you really get annoyed with the crimes done to aboriginals, and you really get scared by Branagh’s character.
Worst scenes: In a film that manages to drive the aboriginal problem home so well, I was annoyed by scenes of artificial mysticism thrown in by Noyce from time to time. One example is the girl and the mother each feeling one another despite being hundreds of kilometers from one another as they touch the rabbit-proof fence that ran across Australia. Is there a new kind of electric conductivity we don’t know about? Or another scene in which (blooper alert!) the aboriginals know that their girls are about to reach them soon because they feel it in the air: if aboriginals were indeed able to perform acts such as this they should have won all lottery draws since the arrival of white man, shouldn’t they?
Overall: A very worthy film that borrows successfully from depictions of others’ tribulations. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 December 2009

The Guru

Lowdown: An Indian immigrant becomes a love mentor by giving away advice derived from porn.
Review:
The Guru was a film that, once upon a time following its 2002 release, we almost rented on several occasions. When Channel 10 had it on its sadly standard definition channel we finally took the plunge.
The story follows a young Indian guy (Jimi Mistry) that migrates to the USA to fulfill his dream of becoming an actor but ends up finding himself in the catering business. He doesn't give his dream up, so he auditions for a porn role and finds himself playing against Heather Graham, a major porn star (a role that indicates some specialization from Graham as she reprises her Rollergirl role from Boogie Nights; could portraying porn stars be her niche?). Alas, our hero fails to get a hard on and has to go home dry. What he does manage to achieve is some click with Graham, who starts teaching him the trade secrets of the porn industry.
Later, opportunity presents itself, and our dude starts reciting Graham's advice and find himself immensely popular because of that. It works so well that he starts getting special lessons from Graham in order to be able to play the part of the popular love guru he had become, a role that sees him swimming in money.
In parallel, Graham is miserable. She is engaged to a guy from whom she has to hide her profession, pretending to be a teacher at a Catholic school instead. She is also short on cash, which is a bit of a contradiction with everything else the film says, but never mind; trust the gods of American cinema to sort things out for everyone by the end.
The good thing about The Guru is that it implicitly criticizes a double standard society that treats porn as disgusting but consumes porn like there's no tomorrow (and as this article states, scientists are finding that virtually all men consume porn). So it's nice to see jokes about priests who recognize porn stars etc. On the negative side of things, The Guru seems afraid of treading too far into the realm of the politically incorrect, which is a shame. It's virtually afraid of fulfilling its own potential. The best example I can give for that is the lack of any meaningful sex scenes in The Guru; instead, the film relies on comedy based erotic tension and Graham's generous figure (and let's be honest: her big boobs) to keep the audience on its toes.
The end result? A promising film that could have been a hell of a comedy and ends up just another cheap romantic comedy, with very shallow and stupid comedy at that. Did I mention it's predictable?
Best scenes: The porn production ones, of course.
Overall: Only half as good as it could and should have been. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 2 December 2009

Gosford Park

Lowdown: It’s all about class in this masters and servants story.
Review:
Late director Robert Altman is one of those directors I don’t really know how to digest. On one hand, he has made some heavy weight classics in his time: The Long Goodbye and Short Cuts to name just two. On the other hand, while I fully acknowledge his cinematic talent I am still unable to point at a single film of his that knocked me off my seat. 2001’s Gosford Park is no exception.
The first thing you notice about Gosford Park, as the opening credits zoom by, is the extensive list of major big time stars. This park has enough to fill up ten different movies: Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Kristin Scott Thomas, Stephen Fry, Clive Owen, Helen Mirren, Emily Watson, Derek Jacobi, Alan Bates and Richard E. Grant to name a few. So you can quickly tell Gosford Park is an actor’s act.
The next thing you notice about Gosford Park, as characters start talking to one another, is that it’s really hard to understand what they’re saying. We’ve watched the film off Channel 7 HD, and I don’t think the people at Channel 7 did anything in particular to damage the presentation but use a copy sporting rather muddy detailed picture and sound. I blame the filmmakers and/or the studios here, because a film like Gosford Park that depends on dialog cannot have its dialog muffled to unintelligible levels. Couple that with Channel 7’s close captioning choosing not to work (there was actually a caption saying that) and you’ll see why my experience with Gosford Park borders the speculative. So read the rest of the review while bearing in mind I only received a part of the total Gosford Park experience.
Onto the film itself. Gosford Park is the story of masters and servants told using a classic England of 1932 setting: lots of nobility and rich people gather together at a single mansion under the excuse of forming a hunting party, and they all bring their servants with them. What follows is the story of the masters, the story of the servants, and the stories of their interaction. Oh, and there's a murder in there, too.
At its core, Gosford Park tries to show how the masters and the servants are alike. Both are human beings, with the fallacies involved but also with some good in them (although it's the former that's more emphasized). Watching it, it's quite amazing to accept that people were so class oriented at such recent a time as 1932. Whether we assume the story is historically reliable or not doesn't really matter, as it is obvious that class issues are still a major part of society today and in England in particular; it's just that today money is worshipped much more than class. That attitude is also displayed in the film, as well as an American look towards British ways to represent the way we look now at those ways with a mix of mockery and contempt. I suspect Gosford Park's aim was for us to look ourselves in the mirror and see whether we can honestly mock or whether we're two faced. I think we are; too many of us crave to feel we belong somewhere and to be led, and what better way to satisfy the craving than to invent a class system with its rules and regulations.
Best scene: The servants sit themselves to their dinner table in the order of their masters’ rankings. What a delightful way for Altman to make his statement!
Overall: Good but unexceptional. That is, if I got it right in the first place. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Defiance

Lowdown: The story of a successful group of Jewish partisans living under Nazi occupation.
Review:
Director Edward Zwick's specialty is epic tales of adventure, things like Legends of the Fall and The Last Samurai. In general I like his achievements and I think they're good movies. Defiance is yet another one of tales of epic proportions, and like Zwick's Glory it is also based on a true story. However, unlike most of the Zwick films I've watched so far, Defiance cannot be said to be a good film.
Defiance tells the story of the two Bielski brothers from Belarus, Tuvia and Zus (portrayed respectively by Daniel Craig and Liev Schreiber). As the Nazis invaded the USSR during World War 2, their Death Squads set themselves busy rounding up Jews and killing them in various ingenius ways (those were the days before the gas chambers and the more production line like organized genocides). The two Bielskis escaped dying, but most of their family and acquaintances didn't fare so well. The brothers were powerful and self sufficient enough to escape into Belarus' woods, sustain themselves and a growing number of Jewish refugees that flocked to their shelter, and eventually even fight the Nazis back a bit.
Although the core of Defiance's story is true and although I have heard of the Bielskis before, I am not in a position to say how real the film's events are. What I can say is that Craig and Schreiber look nothing alike although the film pits them as brothers who see contradicting ways for managing their fate, thus causing some distraction. Tuvia sees the manifestation of Jewish defiance in survival, and thus sets to accommodate for shelter and food to as many refugees as he can find; Zus, on the other hand, prefers active retaliation, and sees all the refugees as a burden in the way of achieving that goal. Defiance is thus made of a collection of scenes depicting the struggles of the Bielski partisans in the face of insurmountable odds while revolving around the conflict between the brothers. But the problem there is that despite the mighty story it has to say, Defiance still feels like a collection of scenes as opposed to a cohesive epic of the usual Zwick type.
Another problem with Defiance is that it tries to tell the story through a modern pair of eyes with some politically correct standards. For example, there are hints here and there that the women in the Bielski group of partisans have had specific roles in satisfying the men's sexual needs; yet Defiance never goes into a discussion there. Which is a pity, in my view, because the way I see it the most interesting thing out of the Defiance story is the way the brothers managed to create some sort of a civilization under one of the most uncivilized circumstances in recorded history; yet instead of exploring that, the film prefers to focus on random acts of heroism instead.
Best scene: Zus discovers that even though the Russian army likes his partisans' fighting skills, it still treats Jews as scum - not much unlike the Nazis.
Technical assessment: The movie rental shop that I frequent only stocks Defiance in the form of DVDs rather than my preferred Blu-rays. After watching the DVD I know why: this is one of the worst transfers of A grade films I have ever encountered. The picture is very compressed and lacking in detail, and the sound is so bad you feel like you're listening to a film playing next door rather than your home theater. Dialog, it seems, is the main victim there. The DVD's credits imply it was mastered in Australia, so I dearly hope other nationalities get the privilege of watching better forms of Defiance. As it is, the DVD's poor quality severely hinders the Defiance experience.
Overall: A great story that's not told half as well as it should. Yet it's still a great story, so I'm giving it 3 out of 5 stars.