Friday, 29 January 2010

Samson and Delilah

Lowdown: Aboriginals’ current day tragedy through the experience of two lovers.
Review:
Samson and Delilah has pretty much won all Aussie cinema awards it could compete in during 2009, so you could say I was surprised to see ABC (a non commercial channel) broadcast it, in high definition, shortly after it went off the cinemas. Recorded by our much beloved PVR, we sat down to watch it a while later.
Samson and Delilah are young aboriginals living in a modern day derelict aboriginal village (for lack of a better word). Samson wakes up each morning to a life of doing nothing worthwhile: family and friends play monotonic ska music right next to his room's door, so instead of going crazy he opts for sniffing petrol as his favorite pastime. Delilah's prospects are not much better: she's busy looking after her elderly grandmother, with a daily routine of ensuring she takes her medicines, taking her to the medical care rounds, and taking her to church.
Days pass by but then two things happen: Samson can't take it anymore and breaks up the ska band's guitar, which earns him a good beating; and Delilah's grandmother dies, which earns her a good beating when relatives accuse her of not taking good care of her elder. What can our heroes do about it? Together, they run away to the outside world, what we refer to as the normal world (if my sense of recognition is right, they go to Alice Springs). But can they cope in "our" world? Samson and Delilah plays a very grim scenario there.
Overall, Samson and Delilah is a film that discusses the prospects - or lack of - of Australia's contemporary aboriginal community. Between their very miserable villages and the general society that doesn't give them a chance, aboriginals - and thus Aussie society as a whole - have a problem.
Style wise, Samson and Delilah is very minimalistic. Dialog is minimal, and everything is slow as far as the film's pacing is concerned (which serves the film's message perfectly). Still, I have to say that I was often bored enough to feel disconnected.
Best scene: Delilah pushes her grandmother's wheelchair along her village's dirt roads and keeps getting it stuck. As the driver of a baby's stroller I can definitely identify with the sense of frustration this can bring.
Overall: Interesting, but too eccentric to truly move me. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Dirty Deeds

Lowdown: Tales of crooks’ fight over Sydney’s gambling joints during the seventies.
Review:
Dirty Deeds and I have quite a history together: This 2002 Australian film was the first movie I got to watch at an Australian cinema after arriving to Australia as a resident. I was still jet lagged when my brother took me to see it at Melbourne’s Jam Factory but I greatly enjoyed it. I wasn’t surprised at all when I greatly enjoyed it again this time around, too.
Dirty Deeds follows a battle for controlling Sydney’s gambling slot machines (aka pokies) during the seventies. Two main local factions fight it out, while at the same time the American Mafia is trying to have its share of the cut.
We are introduced to story through the eyes of a Sam Worthington who is yet to know future his acting career is holding for him. Worthington plays a soldier coming back from Vietnam to be picked up by his uncle (Bryan Brown). Brown’s character is generally controlling Sydney’s pokies with the aid of his gang, but he’s also facing some annoying competition. Not only that, a couple of American gangsters land in Sydney (John Goodman is excellent as one them) with the latest invention on their hands – a digital pokie machine – and they’re looking to see which side would better suit their need for money. The question then becomes, should Worthington commit to a life of crime, with its immediate gratifications but also with the dirt, danger and violence? Or should he focus on his dream to start a restaurant selling just one product he’d heard about from American comrades back in ‘Nam, a food called “pizza”?
As can be deciphered from my plot description, Dirty Deeds is a funny crime action thriller. It’s incredibly Aussie in nature: the cast is full of big time Aussie or neighboring to Aussie names (Toni Collette, Sam Neill). Dialog is Aussie as, with not a word spoken without using heavy Aussie slang. And the character is Aussie: the innocence of the seventies’ crime scene, that feeling of being removed from the rest of the world due to sheer distance, but also the way small time crime is commonly accepted to such a level that everyone is a crook – not just those calling themselves crooks.
Style wise, Dirty Deeds copies its style very directly from the likes of the new Ocean’s Eleven films (ala Ocean's Thirteen) and from Guy Ritchie’s work (e.g., RocknRolla). It’s not just the plot revolving around small time criminals doing very pathetic things to themselves, it’s also the look, the editing and the camera work.
If it wasn’t for the accents and the slang, you could have easily mistaken Dirty Deeds to be a Guy Ritchie film. But you won’t, because Dirty Deeds is definitely Aussie: it’s simpler with its twists and it’s much more down to earth. Which means that at least in my book it’s a better film. Oh, and there’s the soundtrack, with AC/DC’s title song pumping at you regularly so you won’t forget where you are.
Best scene: Goodman teaching Worthington how to make real pizza, Italian style. Or should the title go to the scene in which Black expresses contempt to the whole idea of fast food in general and pizza in particular?
Overall: Excellent entertainment at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Land of the Lost

Lowdown: Will Ferrell lost in a land of dinosaurs and aliens.
Review:
With the exception of Stranger Than Fiction, a typical Will Ferrell film is mostly crazy. Usually the result is good crazy, as in crazy enough to create some original comedy that can actually make you laugh (e.g., Semi-Pro). However, with virtually all Will Ferrell films, you always notice how close the films are to crossing that thin line where the good crazy becomes just the bad crazy. That is, when the film becomes crazy for the sake of being crazy. Land of the Lost turns out to be a case where this line has been crossed.
Land of the Lost makes a scientist out of Ferrell. Ferrell has thought of a way for us to go into parallel universes and as a result of publishing his idea he gets to become the mockery of the scientific world as well as YouTube. A fellow English scientist (Anna Friel) does believe in him, and convinces him to try and activate his machine at a venue where it's likely to work the most - a stupid entertainment ride run by a stupid person (Danny McBride, famous for being the owner of the killer Daewoo Lanos in Pineapple Express). Together the treo venture into a parallel universe featuring a Friel with some very short pants, dinosaurs, primates that can talk, and some aliens. They mingle with a T-Rex and save the world from an evil plot, amongst others, but mostly they are busy being stupid, doing stupid things, and uttering stupid lines (a lot of which are probably improvisations).
Other than repeat the fact I have found Land of the Lost to be stupid and meaningless I can only add that I didn't find it funny either. Sure, I smiled here and there; but mostly I was busy thinking to myself that this is just too stupid to be true. I just couldn't get into this film.
Best scene: One of the only scenes that genuinely made me laugh features Ferrell getting stung by dinosaur insect mosquitos that suck quite a lot of his blood without him noticing.
Worst scene: Ferrell, eaten by a T-Rex, is saved by being pooed out. That's the prevailing type of humor in Land of the Lost.
Technical assessment: A nice Blu-ray, if uninspiring. The picture is quite colorful, probably too colorful to be true, but almost certainly intentionally over colorful.
Overall: Land of the Lost is not good enough to deserve 2 stars out of 5 but it's not bad enough to deserve 1.5 stars.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Confessions of a Shopaholic

Lowdown: A modern shopping crazy woman gets in trouble when she can't sustain her consumerism.
Review:
In retrospect, the one main thing I took with me from the otherwise mundane Wedding Crashers was Isla Fisher. She was definitely the most interesting thing about that film, so when Confessions of a Shopaholic was released – a film that put Fisher in the starring role of a major Hollywood release – I was curious to see how well she’s done.
Confessions of a Shopaholic is your typical heavily tailored chicks’ flick. Fisher is a big time women’s fashion shopaholic, in a manner not unlike that of the Sex and the City women. The key difference, though, is in Fisher's inability to pay for the stuff she buys. As a result, her life is on a major rollercoaster where on one hand she’s avoiding debt collectors while on the other she’s trying to fulfil her dream of working as a journalist in a women’s fashion glamour magazine which should also be the ticket for her being able to pay her credit cards’ debts. The core of the film focuses on Fisher trying to achieve the latter, mainly though an unlikely enlisting at a financial magazine (with an editor that quickly and predictably becomes a love interest), while receiving little help from her friends and parents (Joan Cusack and John Goodman; where did he disappear to all these years?) and while cheating everyone around her.
The end result amounts to the typical American romantic comedy: a plot that is less than convincing, highly unlikely events taking place with the viewer expected to take them at face value, the occasional laugh, and predictability, predictability, predictability. And oh, add shallowness to the list, too.
Yet in the end there are two and half reasons why I have found Confessions of a Shopaholic to be just a tad slightly better than the rest of the crop. The half reason is the casting of the minor roles, which includes the previously mentioned Goodman but also the always effective Kristin Scott Thomas as the French [like?] editor of the glamour magazine Fisher’s character yearns for so much. That role has obviously been modelled after Meryl Streep’s character from The Devil Wears Prada.
The other reason is that despite the incredible amount of distractions thrown our way, Confessions of a Shopaholic does say something about the meaningless nature of consumerism and the fact that it cannot lead to happiness. I suspect most people won’t absorb that message with the way it was so effectively buried between all the fashion items and the hidden commercials the film drowns it in (everyone uses a Mac in the Shopaholic world), but at least Confessions of a Shopaholic does ten times better than Sex and the City.
And last, but not least, the main reason why I did like Confessions of a Shopaholic is Isla Fisher. This fine actress is, indeed, a fine actress with what seems to be incredible talent for comedy. I would love to see more of her, especially in more meaningful films where I can actually relate to the subject matter, because Fisher seems definitely able to carry a good comedy on her shoulders by herself and do it well. As Wedding Crashers proved, she can do a better job than the so called big names of the genre in Hollywood.
Best scene: Fisher doing an hilarious dance. It’s a short side scene that’s stuck in between more important scenes, plot development wise, but it shows just how talented Fisher is.
Technical assessment: Yet another average Blu-ray, although it knows how to make all the fashion look glitzy.
Overall: I’ll be generous with Fisher and give Confessions of a Shopaholic 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

The Proposal

Lowdown, take 1: A guy is forced to marry his female boss so she can stay in the country.
Lowdown, take 2: A commercialized version of 1990's Green Card.
Review:
With our in-laws visiting us the variety of tastes confining our home theater forced me to go with the lowest common denominator when picking a Blu-ray to rent. I chose The Proposal, the latest in a very large number of romantic comedies starring Sandra Bullock. I knew The Proposal wouldn’t amount to much but I also knew we would watch it with a smile on our faces. I was absolutely right.
The Proposal is built around a simple idea, copied nonchalantly from Green Card. On one side we have Bullock as a very tough editor in an American publishing company with zero life outside the office. Her workers hate her guts but she keeps them on a tight leash, while her managers are happy with her professional performance. On the other side we have Ryan Reynolds, an innocent guy dreaming of becoming a writer who goes about fulfilling his dream by working as Bullock’s personal assistant. To this equation The Proposal adds the following twist: for relatively unclear reasons, Bullock – a Canadian – has to leave the USA for at least a year until her visa is sorted. What can Bullock do to keep her job? Marry an American, amongst other things. Marry Reynolds.
Bullock talks/forces Reynolds into it, and the rest of the film follows the consequences of them pretending to marry. Most of the film takes place in Alaska, Reynolds character’s home state, where Bullock goes to meet the family. The couple does not only need to convince the family, it also needs to deal with persistent immigration agents.
The rest of the Proposal can be summarized using very few words: Predictable, yet another promotion of typical American conservative/puritan notions (as in the way The Proposal cherishes the institutions of marriage and “family first”), stupid & shallow with the occasional laugh. And if you can’t tell how the film is going to end less than five minutes into The Proposal you better get yourself hospitalized.
The real catch with The Proposal, or rather its real problem, is with the casting. According to imdb, Bullock is currently 45 years old. The problem is obvious: By now Bullock is just too old to credibly play these silly romantic comedy roles that she seems to churn one after the other. Not that I’m saying she’s too old to act and that she should retire to an old people’s place; I think she’s a fine actress with great talent for comedy. It just wouldn’t hurt if she got scripts more suitable to her circumstances, that’s all.
Second, when Bullock is cast next to the 33 year old Reynolds, the age problem becomes even worse. Make up and camera work can only go that much to camouflaging the age difference; for too much of the film it feels like Reynolds is a boy next to his mother.
Worst scene: The second Bullock is told to be careful not to let the little family dog outside the house or eagles will get him you know what’s going to happen next. And when it does, in such a predictable and silly way, you have to feel shame for the cast and crew of The Proposal.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray all the way through.
Overall: With 2.5 stars out of 5, it’s time for Bullock to move to greener pastures.

Monday, 18 January 2010

Avatar

Lowdown: A corporation fights with the natives over the riches of their world.
Review:
Although I’m sure he never heard of me, James Cameron and I go together a long way. Cameron has directed the films that have influenced me the most, and in return I have been the repeat owner of all of his major releases thus far: The Terminator (laserdisc followed by the special edition DVD), Terminator 2 (laserdisc followed by the extended edition laserdisc followed by the ultimate edition DVD), Aliens (special edition laserdisc), The Abyss (special edition laserdisc), True Lies (laserdisc) and Titanic (laserdisc). Throughout his career, Cameron has been famous for breaking new frontiers: underwater filming in The Abyss, first proper use of digital effects in T2, filming budget records and and special effects on Titanic, etc. The result is that when Cameron releases a film, I’m interested. When that new release is said to be another ground breaking film the way Avatar is said to be, I’m even more interested.
In fact, I was so interested that when we were suddenly presented with the opportunity to go out and spend the night on our own without the company of our two year old, we chose to spend our first night alone in two and a half years in the company of James Cameron’s Avatar. Sure, a lot of it is to do with cinemas’ accessibility and flexible timetable, but a lot of it is also to do with Cameron.
The trivial aspect of Avatar is to do with its rather corny plot that probably damages the just cause it stands for with its cliché heavy standing. The setting is a moon called Pandora, orbiting a planet from another solar system. The moon is rich in a heavily sought after mineral called Unobtanium (deduct some points off the script writer’s account for being too silly), which is why this big time corporation is doing its best to settle down on the planet and mine it. They do, however, have to rely on military force to do so, because the planet’s dominant inhabitants, a race of humanoids with a society modeled after that of the Indians (as in, Native Americans) do not like this pillaging of their forest planet and fight back.
The corporation doesn’t rely on force alone. Its scientific department, led by a Sigourney Weaver paying some tribute to her Aliens persona, is working on an ingenious project: by mixing human DNA and alien DNA they were able to create avatar bodies that humans can drive, mentally, from the comfort of the home base while these avatars mingle with the locals. Enter Terminator Salvation’s Sam Worthington, the actor that seems to be the hottest thing in the movie world at the moment: he’s an ex-marine with non functioning legs that is offered to drive such an avatar in place of his now dead twin brother for the sole reason he can do it due to the identical genes he shared with the brother. In return, he might get himself new legs.
Initially, Worthington cooperates with the corporation’s marine commander and supplies him with military secrets gathered from the locals. With time, however, his loyalty shifts as he learns to appreciate the beauty of Pandora and its richness, which is firmly tied to the locals’ culture. When the corporation decides to step up its aggressive efforts in disregard of the planet’s eco system, Worthington and his mates are called upon to decide which side they cheer for.
For a science fiction film, one has to immediately acknowledge the weakness of the Avatar’s science. The incredible similarity between Pandora’s biology and earth’s is too incredible; all credibility is lost when we learn that it’s not only that the planet looks like a typical jungle with its typical fauna, but the Pandorians use a DNA code that is mixable with ours. That’s big time bullshit. Some smaller bullshit is there in the shape of connectors that all the creatures of Pandora have, allowing them to interface with one another (do they call these USB, I wonder?); I guess one can argue these interfaces evolved early and were kept by everyone due to their usefulness. Too far fetched, I know. But wait; we’re not over the full list of bull yet. Having had to learn to deal with the insults to your sense of biology as you watch Avatar, you also have to learn to deal with insults to physics: Pandora features floating islands of rock close to its surface that completely defy all sense of gravity (and look more like Magritte's famous picture).
I’ll quit while ahead with this discussion on the science behind Avatar. The main point to be taken from all of the above is the lightness of the plot and its lack of foundation; the second point to be taken from the above is that substance has been sacrificed on the altar of analogy, and by Cameron’s book that’s a fair sacrifice when you are going about preaching green agendas. I think twisting science is bad, but I have to be fair to Cameron and say I agree with his agenda and I fully understand what he was trying to say (some mocking references to our famous War on Terror certainly help me relate to Cameron, too). The Pandorians are too human like because they are an analogy (an avatar?) for us humans on this earth and the battle we wage to keep our planet viable for hosting the infestation called Homo Sapiens, one of the worst biological infestation the planet has known (personified through Avatar’s nameless big corporation).
So is Avatar a doomed film as a result of the problematic end-justifies-the-means way it brings forth its agenda? I say it’s compromised but certainly not doomed. I also say that Avatar, despite all of its deficiencies, is still a hell of a film. And what arguments do I have in my corner support such a claim? Well, it’s all in the presentation, stupid. Never before have I seen a film where special effects have taken center stage so dominantly and so successfully to the point you don’t notice they’re there because you think you’re in a real world.
Do you think Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy looks good? Well, you might want to re-adjust your sense of cinematic aesthetics after watching Avatar, because this film smashes the old scale and builds a new one from scratch. A scale where Avatar is on top and everything else is grouped together way down at the bottom.
With Avatar, you can literally see the millions of dollars poured into the making of each frame. We start with a futuristic human made world, where everything is metallic, symmetric and – well – lifeless. Then we move on to the lush jungles of Pandora, which look so good they’re larger than life. And then we are introduced to the avatars and to the Pandorians, and we never really register that we’re dealing with computer animated graphics and not real people because they just look so good, so convincing, so life like. Indeed, most of the film takes place with the animated avatars in charge rather than the real life actors.
At his point I should discuss Avatar’s 3D presentation. In general, while I like 3D movie presentations, I always thought them compromised: artistically, the effect used to be abused to death by throwing stuff between viewers' eyes; technically, the implementation was suffering and tended to cause nausea and headaches. Two things help remove these problems altogether from Avatar: On the technical side, 3D now uses phase filtering rather than the old green and red glasses, while the cinema projection is digital and avoids the flickering, noise and inconsistency of film. And second, Avatar simply never abuses its 3D ability; instead of poking you in the eye, it goes about using 3D to create a believable world. Suspension of disbelief? What are you talking about? For two hours and forty two minutes (based on my Casio’s stopwatch) I was in Pandora, traversing its jungles.
Last year, I raved here how good Speed Racer was for being able to stretch the art of cinema by combining elements from the manga world into the “real” world, to the point of even creating a surreal yet sense making world. This year, Avatar reshuffles the cards altogether and creates a brand new world out of nothing, a world that seems more real than the majority of conventional cinema’s worlds. And certainly more beautiful. Magritte would have loved watching Avatar.
Best scene: Worthington’s Pandorian female partner hugs Worthington in his human form. Especially in 3D, you can feel them touch one another in a scene that is a touching one rather than a scene boasting the latest in computer graphics. Gollum, it seems, has gone a long way.
Overall: I’m giving Avatar 5 out of 5 stars. Sure, I know it is a flawed film; I spent lots of words specifying just how flawed it is. Yet films like Avatar, where you know you’re witnessing a breakthrough in the world of cinema as you’re watching them, are rare; and make no mistake about it, Avatar is a major breakthrough. Avatar is history in the making. Cinema has gone where no man has gone before; James Cameron has done it again.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Rocky III

Lowdown: Rocky, the undisputed boxing champ, finally has something to lose.
Review:
1982's Rocky 3 (or Rocky III the way it would like to be called) set something of a precedent for me: It was the first movie event I remember attending. By movie event I am talking about a film people went to see because of the hype surrounding it rather than it being a good film; and indeed, Rocky III has had so much hype around it at the time you just had to go and watch it or risk marginalization. Another interesting point about me and Rocky III is that I went to see it together with a class mate and neighbor of mine (Eli, in case you know him) at Ramat Gan's Oasis cinema. That meant two things: that us eleven year olds had to walk all the way to that cinema on our own, and that us eleven year olds went to the cinema on our own in the first place. You don't see many kids that age going to the cinema completely unattended anymore, but back then it was natural. Who said we keep on progressing the right way?
So Sylvester Stallone's Rocky III is a film with a bit of history attached. Surprisingly, it also has a plot, and that one starts with a typical Rocky montage from the end of Rocky II. For the record, in the first Rocky we had our low life hero lose his title bid in a rather gallant manner; in the second he has himself a rematch with his nemesis Apollo and he wins. Now, in the third, we learn that Rocky has established himself as world champ, has grown affluent, and has a loving family to boot. In short, he has something to lose, which makes him vulnerable to those with nothing to lose: people like the bad ass character portrayed by the then new to the world of cinema Mr T (who later grew on to become the A Team's famous B. A. Burekas). Will Rocky survive the challenge? Well, in order to do so he will have to do two things: befriend a former rival and regain his now lost eye of the tiger, his killer instinct that got cast out and replaced by affluence. And in order for us to see whether Rocky can do it we have to survive a very mediocre film with lots of silly montage scenes.
Indeed, Rocky III is a very bad film, especially by today's standards. The boxing scenes are very unrealistic, the entire plot structure is pure cliche, and the acting is pretty bad (Notably Stallone's in the lead role). As far as meaning is concerned, the film is a tribute to old style streetwise values, the type of things most of us would sneer at (but Stallone still sees as worthwhile promoting in his rather boring recent sequel to the Rocky series, called simply Rocky Balboa - probably because even he had lost the sequel count by now).
So is there some good about Rocky III? Sure. For a start, it's a rather short film so the torment is not too long. And second, Survivor's hit title song, Eye of the Tiger, maybe a song we laugh at in nostalgia nowadays, but it's a damn good song. And right there is the key to understanding Rocky III's charm: it's the nostalgia and the fact the film is so silly it's funny. How else can you react to the sight of a supposedly tough Stallone wearing a tank top? It's strange to see what used to pass for a movie event thirty years ago.
Worst scene: Rocky and his wife Adrian have themselves a polite debate, only that in their school a constructive debate means outshouting the other. Is this meant to be an example for the workings of the average bogan?
Overall: 2 stars out of 5, most of which are earned through nostalgia.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Milk

Lowdown: The story of the first openly gay elected official in the USA.
Review:
We tend to take the things we were born into for granted. We don't question electric light, for example, despite it being a relatively recent innovation that has had significant impact on the way people live their lives. Similarly, I find it hard to think of a time in which gays were actively prosecuted for their sexual preferences. Sure, they are heavily discriminated against, but it's never done under the pretense of actively seeking to harm them. Yet there were times in which this was not the case, and to my surprise I actually lived during those times.
Milk, a film by Gus Van Sant, tells the story of a gay activist called Harvey Milk (Sean Penn) who lived in the closet for most of his life in New York, but then decided he can't take it anymore and moved to San Francisco with his lover (James Franco) during the seventies. Circumstances make an activist out of him, and Milk soon runs for official posts in the city of San Francisco and finds himself a key representative in a fight against evangelical Christians who fight to promote anti gay legislation of a nature that makes me shiver with fear (and disgust). And then there's this catch: as the film starts, we learn that Milk was shot dead before making it to 1980. Thus the film builds up by telling us the story of Milk the activist while building things up towards his immanent death.
Milk's importance in gay politics cannot be underestimated, and the way Van Sant portrays it his main ticket was his call for gays to come out of the closet so that the whole population can see they know someone who's gay and that the gays don't bite. Personally, I agree with this policy and I try to follow it when it comes to my views on irrational beliefs: I'm not only an atheist, I openly publish my atheism and make sure those around me know the arguments in favor of atheism. I do so even when it's uncomfortable and even when it can earn me negative points, such as at the office, because - as Milk had said it - if you don't stand up for what you are, someone will come and take your right to be what you are away. What I'm trying to say here is simple: Milk's story is not only historically important, it is also a story I can personally identify with, and it's a story anyone who belongs to some sort of a minority can relate to.
In typical fashion, Sean Penn delivers a performance that is so good you really think he's Milk. Also in typical fashion, Gas Van Sant delivers a film that's thought provoking but rough around the edges (my impression is that the only time he wasn't rough was when he went commercial, as in Good Will Hunting): there's too much hand held photography, to the point of causing a bit of a seasickness; the story and the characters feel a bit disjointed, probably because the story is a real one and in real life not all events conspire to connect; and the character of Milk's killer was not developed as well as I would like to. That is, I finished watching the film and I still couldn't find myself convinced in the understanding of its motives.
Key scenes: There are many, but many, man to man kisses and sexual interacting going on in Milk. Which is fine because it's natural and it's fine because it's a key element of the story. Thing is, roughly 10% of sexual interactions are of the homosexual type; why is it, then, that such interactions occupy significantly less than 10% of the sexual interactions on mainstream cinema? I believe the answer to be that Milk's fight isn't over yet.
Technical assessment: The picture is rather mediocre as far as Blu-rays are concerned. Some scenes exhibit the result of insufficient lighting, either the result of shooting in authentic settings, going for authentic looks, or budget issues. The sound is nothing to call home about either.
Overall: An interesting story of significant importance that we should all be aware of given its relevance and its recent settings. Yet with all due respect, I have found it to be told in a bit less exciting a manner than I would have hoped such a story would be told. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Transporter 3

Lowdown: Our driver and his Audi go from West Europe to its East to save himself, a girl and the world
Review:
The first Transporter really knocked me of my seat with the excitement its opening car chase, set in Nice, brought along. It was just great action! Then Transporter 2 came along, and in an effort to refresh the by then familiar formula it changed the equation's order and put our driving hero, Jason Statham, in a position where instead of saving a girl he was fighting a girl. Or something, because no one really cares about the plot in Transporter films; they’re all about the action, and the action comes in two forms: high speed chases and martial arts fights that wouldn’t look like they don’t belong in a Jackie Chan film.
The formula refresh for Transporter 3, the latest in the series, is not a refresh at all: the franchise goes back to its grassroots and has Statham saving a girl. A rather annoying girl, a girl I was hoping he’d get rid of as soon as possible. We’re also reintroduced to Statham’s set of professional rules, familiar from film 1, and again they’re only there to be broken. On the positive side we have the rather funny French police inspector from a couple of films ago to provide the occasional comic relief.
Yes, there is also a plot, if you insist on one and if you don’t care for flimsiness or thin excuses to connect action scenes with: An evil international company is pulling an extortion trick on an idealistic Ukrainian minister in order to be allowed to dump its toxic waste in his country. The company hires the services of a big time American villain to do its dirty work, and that nice dude forces our favorite Transporter to take a package and a girl for him across Europe. In order to further motivate Statham to comply with his driving tasks despite serving the bad guys, Statham is strapped with a wristband explosive that will go off if he gets too far from his coveted Audi.
That’s it for the plot. Did I mention that Audi must have paid Transporter 3’s producers lots of dough for all the publicity its cars are getting? Especially when the baddies tend to drive rival luxury German cars that are so unreliable they keep on exploding or flying off the road. Besides, wasn’t Statham a Beemer in the first film?
It’s time to narrow the discussion down: Transporter 3 is not half as good as the first, and not even as good as its second. Having been trained by its predecessors we know what to expect so there’s no surprise factor while the car chases (and even the fights) are not as good as the original’s. Add the lack of plot originality (the difference between 3’s and 1’s is slight) and you have yourself a remake that won’t kill you or offend you if its action that you seek but will certainly not dazzle you. As far as silly action films are concerned, Transporter 3 is pretty standard; you might as well go and watch some Steven Seagal films next.
Silliest scene:
There’s some tough competition for this category, but if you accept the film’s spirit then you won’t count scenes where Statham drives his car on its side at more than 200km/h as silly; you’d just complain that it is clear the scene was shot at much slower speeds.
No, the winner of the silliest scene competition is the climax scene where Statham is so busy arranging a very sophisticated death to his nemesis he doesn’t bother thinking of this sophisticated death’s outcomes.
Best scene: Audi vs. train.
Technical assessment: The use of high contrast stock means you don’t get too much of a benefit watching Transporter 3 on Blu-ray. The soundtrack is aggressive, as expected, but far from appealing.
Overall: The Transporter series has overstayed its welcome. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Coraline

Lowdown: An attention seeking girl needs to choose between her real parents and seemingly better ones.
Review:
The last Neil Gaiman based film we got to see, Stardust, turned out to be a major success at our living room. Which is exactly why I was looking forward to putting my hands on a copy of the newest Gaiman based film, Coraline.
Unlike Stardust, Coraline is done in a very Tim Burton like style of stop motion animation, ala Corpse Bride. The puppet we're following is Coraline, a little girl that just moved with her working from home parents to a new area that seems rather a middle of nowhere dump and is occupied by rather eccentric neighbors. What's occupying Coraline's mind, though, is acquiring more attention from her parents; and thus when at night she finds a secret portal that takes her into an "other world" where she finds parents similar to hers in everything but the buttons sawed to their eyes and their going out of their way to please her, the temptation to leave her real world in favor of the other is really there.
I have found Coraline to be a rather problematic film. For a start, despite its rather short length (circa 80 minutes), it took a long while before I found it to cease being boring. Second, in the typical Tim Burton style the film mimics, it is a very dark affair that's not for the overly timid; Gaiman turns Coraline's dilemma into a proper horror story. Literally, the film is a nightmare; even the good characters are rather scary, and identifying with anyone takes too much from the suspension of disbelief. In a film that is obviously targeted towards younger audiences, all of the above are - excuse the repetition - problematic.
Yet perhaps the worst problem with Coraline has to do with the way it delivers its message. Coraline ends up having to choose between good parents that don't pay her attention and parents from the dark side that overindulge her; according to Coraline, there is no middle ground. Well, I wholeheartedly disagree. Regardless of my own opinions, it seems Coraline is Gaiman's way to make children behave: by scaring them to death.
Worst scenes - blooper alert:
The film's climax, where Coraline escapes the horrors of the other world, are properly scary ones. If it wasn't for the stop motion they'd be classified as horror. I wouldn't want my kids exposed to that.
Technical assessment:
The picture on this Blu-ray is downright impeccable, the type that makes you go wow and rush to buy a Blu-ray player. The sound is not up to the same standards but it's damn good, too.
For the record, the Blu-ray contains the film's 3D version in addition to a "normal" 2D version; our rental shop did not provide the glasses, though. Nice to have the option, though!
Overall: I was disappointed. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Old Man's War by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A 75 year old joins the army to fight nasty aliens.
Review:
In an oddity as far as my reading schedule is concerned, I went and read a book about which I knew almost nothing prior to me starting to read it. What I did know about Old Man’s War was this: (1) it was a science fiction book we’ve received as a gift from a credible source of quality science fiction and (2) my wife read it through really quickly. That’s it; I didn’t even read the back cover.
So what is Old Man’s War about? It’s a story told in first person and starting off on its narrator’s, John Perry, 75th birthday. That special day starts with him paying a visit to his late wife’s grave, followed by him enlisting to humanity’s colonial army: an army in charge of defending humanity’s space colonies from competing aliens short on territory. Despite the story being set a good few centuries in our future, at least judging by the technology and the ease of space travel, an army is still an army and it comes with all the dumb things joining an army includes: things like thick commanders who think they own your ass. Perry addresses those by being incredibly sarcastic, which meant I had a very easy time identifying with him.
Upon recruitment Perry is exposed to extraterrestrial technologies that lead to him (and us) receiving the answer to the book’s ultimate question: what is the point of recruiting frail seventy five year olds to fight? Once this question is answered we follow Perry through his training and then as he fights a multitude of aliens that come in this form and that.
The army side of the story is incredibly similar to books such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers and Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War. Their accounts of a military society, space battles with aliens, and the survival of their narrator against all odds are copied by Old Man’s War almost one to one. The question then becomes, what is the point of Old Man’s War other than provide us with quite a page turner; and the problem is that I am not able to provide a good answer to this question. You can argue that Starship Troopers was written to mirror its era (post World War 2 + Korean War + communist threat); and you can argue that The Forever War is an analogy to the Vietnam War. But what is Old Man’s War about? Don’t know.
Not that this should trouble you much while reading the book because it is quite thrilling and you want to know what’s ahead for Perry. When adding in some philosophical ideas on the morality of war and why it is people go to kill others one cannot argue there is no justification for the book to exist. After all, these are issues I still find myself pondering when I consider my own army career and its morality.
Old Man's War is rightly labeled a science fiction book, but I had a bit of a problem with its science. Coming from the Asimov school of science fiction, I like my science rigid (but not too hard to figure out like is often the case with Arthur C. Clarke). Scalzi's book attempts to provide us with explanations but these often come out rather feeble, as with the explanation on how consciousness is transferred from one body to another. Or, as another example, the way two persons sharing the same genes seem to have some sort of a link between them that's more than the link between your run of the mill twins who also share the same genes. And then there's the biggest challenge of them all: what are the odds of two species from different solar systems having similar technologies that send them into bitter fights, as opposed to one being incredibly superior to the other?
However, with weak spots in mind, I do have to say that Old Man's War biggest problem is its ending: the closer you get to the end the more you realize it has no satisfying ending. I guess you can say the same about Starship Troopers, but in Old Man's War case the book ends with teasers from its sequel and a note from the publisher saying "this is the first book of the trilogy". How shall I best put it? This way: My experience with the Golden Compass trilogy has taught me to be careful with trilogies that seem to start in a promising manner; they might bite more than they could chew.
Overall: I can't deny being a sucker for the Starship Troopers / Forever War sci-fi war books genre. They are great page turners. On the other hand, one expects some more value add to the genre than what Old Man's War delivers. I'll be harsh and give it 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

He Loves Me... He Loves Me Not

Lowdown: A love story with a sick twist.
Review:
Yet another French film starring Audrey Tautou? That could be a potentially good start: even if Tautou has an established reputation for getting on my nerves, she also has a tendency to occasionally take part in interesting movies. And “interesting” is probably the best word I can use to describe 2002’s He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not (or, as per the original French title, À la folie... pas du tout). Otherwise, I’d have a hard time telling you whether it’s a romantic comedy, a drama or a thriller; so let's just say it's interesting.
He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not starts by introducing us to Tautou’s character, a charming young student with friends and an active lifestyle who manages to navigate through her art studies, her work as a waitress and her social life. In fact, she’s so good in the art department she’s been picked to do something special. The only problem? She’s in love with a married guy who can’t seem to shake his annoying wife despite promising to do so. You sit there in front of your TV, watching He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not and you just wonder when Tautou will get the point and switch off the guy. But she doesn’t, and for the first act of the film you absorb one disappointment after the other for Tautou as frustration after frustration hits.
But then the film takes on another point of view, and what you might have thought to be a conventional love story triangle (perhaps with a bit of sex, given that this is a French film after all) turns out to be something completely different. No, it’s not the sex (there’s no sex at all in this film – what a disappointment!); it’s the film turning into a Rashomon type movie where different perspectives tell different stories. At first it’s like a detective mystery where you’re trying to draw the lines between the points and figure things out, and slowly it creeps up on you: the film is actually dealing with mental illness.
At this point I’ll stop discussing the film due to the immanent blooper risk. What I will say is that this seemingly conventional film that we’re all tired of seeing turns into an original and interesting film. The boredom at the outset is switched into intrigue somewhere in the middle and quite effectively. Not many movies can achieve that feat, so it’s nice to see a film that does so while dealing with a tough subject.
That said, the toughness of the subject does cause some corner cutting. Some of the plot and events are just too improbable while others don’t make sense. In the grand scheme of things, though, I was willing to forget those hard edges.
Best scene: There is a nice shot where we see events taking place from the point of view of a water glass sitting on a table. I’m a sucker for such original shots.
Overall: Starts dull but the twist caught me, leaving He Loves Me… He Loves Me Not somewhere between 3 and 3.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Miracle on 34th Street

Lowdown: Santa Clause is put on trial.
Review:
First, let’s clarify the versions: The Miracle on 34th Street reviewed here is not the version considered to be a classic from 1947, but rather a remake from 1994 that was aired during Christmas day itself on Channel 10. Second, let’s clarify the why: I watched the old version ages ago and wanted to refresh my memory about said miracle, given the high regard with which the film is considered (many quote it as their favorite Christmas film); my partner, on the other hand, wanted to watch it because it was referenced in a book she was reading.
In retrospect, we should have known better. Miracle on 34th Street, at least in its 1994 incarnation, seems more like a film coming out of the Joseph Goebbels production lines than a film worthy of air time and my time.
The story is only slightly different to the 1947 version; it was modernized. An American store chain, Cole’s, is in financial trouble and becomes the potential takeover target of a heartless rival chain. Things pick up for Cole’s when they pick up a new guy off the street, literally, to act as their 34th street shop’s Santa Clause ahead of the Christmas sales. That new Santa (portrayed by the very Santa like Richard Attenborough) turns out to be quite a success story, attracting and touching the kids that pay him a visit to discuss their Christmas plans. But there is something unusual about the guy: For a start, he refers to himself as Kris Kringle. Second, he seems to really believe he is the genuine article, the real Santa Clause. But is he? The rival chain puts that claim to the test, and eventually we end up with a trial to decide whether Santa exists or not.
In parallel we have ourselves another story of a single mother (Elizabeth Perkins), who is rather dull and depressing with work the main thing on her mind; her daughter, who craves the love of a family; and the mother’s lawyer of a boyfriend that aspires to be more than a boyfriend, Dylan McDermott. They’re all brought closer together through Kris Kringle when Perkins hires him for Cole’s; but Perkins, unlike everyone else, doesn’t believe in Santa, and thus dooms herself to a miserable life. Can she be convinced to see the light?
As films go, this version of Miracle on 34th Street is a very cheesy affair that features all the bad things one normally associates with an American film: pretentious and unreal morality, predictability, and some very badly imposed conservative values. It is definitely not a good film, even when taking into account it is primarily aimed at young kids.
However, there is something that takes Miracle on 34th Street further down from being just another bad American film and into being a truly horrendous film of the Goebbels production line. And that is the way faith and the matter of Santa Clause’s existence are discussed, and in particular the way the film insists on Santa Clause’s existence while criminalizing doubt in his existence.
First there are the reasons the film comes up with for the existence of Santa. It basically comes down to a statement that’s repeated by Attenborough’s character: if you don’t have faith, you are doomed to a life of doubt. Naturally, the film provides its handy version for the way a life of doubt is lived through Elizabeth Perkins’ character: a cold blooded, boring and depressing person with no love for her family and no way to relate to fellow human beings. The film goes on to say that you’re either happy with faith or sad and gloomy in doubt. The film, in short, provides a misleading and untrue representation of skeptics in a way not dissimilar to the way Goebbels portrayed Jews as cunning rats. Miracle on 34th street has its own agenda that it likes to push, and if that agenda doesn’t align itself with reality then hey – who gives a shit about reality? We don't need truth, we have faith.
Well, the truth is that there is no Santa Clause. The Santa Clause we know, dressed in red and white uniform and a white beard, is a less than a hundred years old product of Coke’s advertising (hence the choice of colors). No child has ever received a Christmas gift where Mr Clause or any of his elves had anything to do with the gift, and that is an undeniable fact that even the most devoted Christian will not be able to deny. Not to mention that you won't find any non Christian believing in Santa.
The reality is also that there is good living to be made in a life of skepticism and doubt. I know that because I know myself, and I know that because my policy is to not believe in anything that doesn’t have evidence to support it; further, I know to keep on doubting even that which I believe in until I find a better explanation. I’m proud of this attitude, an attitude that's the best recipe of uncovering the truth, and unlike the Perkins character I think I lead quite a happy life. I even have friends whom I like and trust, simply because I know that this is what friends are like and I know that like me they have their ups and downs. Yes, my friends are human beings, and oddly enough I don’t require imaginary friends to allow me to enjoy their friendship.
Worst scene (blooper alert):
The film’s climax, where the trial’s outcome is determined by the writing on a dollar note – “in god we trust” – is indication towards all that is bad in American society. It’s got both the overemphasis on everything to do with money over humanist values, as well as the religious fanaticism that seems to run loose in the USA. Indeed, there can be no better demonstration of the way religion overtook reason in the USA than the history of America’s favorite motto.
And as for taking the words on a dollar note as evidence in a court of law...
Overall: Pass the barf bucket, quickly! 1 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 3 January 2010

Inglourious Basterds

Lowdown: Cinema rewrites the history of World War 2.
Review:
My relationship with director Quentin Tarantino has known its ups and downs. First I didn't like him because of his love of extreme brutality (Reservoir Dogs), then I like him because he's cool (Pulp Fiction), then I grow indifferent because he's boring (Jackie Brown, Kill Bill), then I grow to hate him for lacking originality and for using annoying tricks (Pulp Fiction again), and then I hate him even more for directing porn with the clothes on (Death Proof). But I'll grant him this: I liked Inglorious Basterds, liked it enough to label it Tarantino's best thus far. Sure, it still has all the good old, annoying Tarantino trademarks (we got a discount on the time shifting this time around, though); so down to the subject matter to make things work this time around.
And the subject matter is World War 2, and Tarantino pulls the trick by giving us the version of World War 2 we always wanted: the one where the Jews kick Nazi ass. Who cares if this version does not have much to do with reality? It is the world of cinema Tarantino cares about, or rather a demonstration of the power of cinema to create a palpable reality and to please people.
The story features two main threads but lots of side characters with their own minor shticks that don't contribute much to the plot's advancement other than through prolonged dialog of typical Tarantino style. The first thread follows a group of Jewish American soldiers led by a native American (Brad Pitt, of course) who roam about Europe kicking Nazi ass all over the place and making themselves the terror of everything German. The second thread follows a Jewish girl called Shoshana (named after my third grade school teacher, no doubt about it): with her French family killed by the Nazis, she flees to Paris where she owns and runs a cinema (like most other Jewish refugees of the time); then opportunity for revenge presents itself when the head Nazi honchos decide to gather at her cinema to watch a film. Eventually, the various threads tie up together, even if not as nicely and elegantly as one normally expects of an American made film.
While Inglorious Basterds features some famous names in its cast, there is one actor who steals the show big time: Christoph Waltz, in his portrayal of the Nazi officer in charge of hunting down Jews and loving every second of it, is nothing short of amazing. Especially when compared to a severely over acting Pitt (although I suspect that's intentional). I guess you could say it's typical of Tarantino to bring up unfamiliar or forgotten talents to center stage.
He's also famous for doing that in the soundtrack department, and indeed Tarantino does that in here, too. This time, the most notable music piece is David Bowie's Cat People (Putting Out Fire), a song that was used in the not that great film Cat People. I'm familiar with it due to its inclusion in Bowie's Let's Dance album; in Inglorious Basterds it is wonderfully revived.
I've mentioned Tarantino's affection to porn earlier, so I will state that Inglorious Basterds is not exempt from the disease even if it's not as bad. Obviously, you can regard the entire theme of kicking Nazi ass as some sort of porn, but there are specific scenes that are more explicit. The scene in which a good hero and a German hero kill one another to leave their bodies in a very stylishly posed death scene is one example, but more notable is a scene in which a French farmer's daughters are presented before a German officer; you look at their presentation and you wonder whether you're witnessing people under war time conditions or people auditioning for the a starring role in a porn flick.
Best scene: Blooper alert!
The film's climax, where Hitler's body is both burnt and riddled with bullets in the background of a film presentation.
Technical assessment: In typical Tarantino fashion, this Blu-ray is not a technical achievement. It's probably made to feel old and dated on purpose. At least the soundtrack is nice...
Overall: Nice and interesting at 4 out of 5 stars.