Friday, 26 February 2010

Premonition

Lowdown: A depressed housewife deals with the seemingly imminent loss of her husband.
Review:
As our personal Sandra Bullock festival continues, I seem to have received a retrospective answer to the issue I have raised after watching The Proposal: At the time I said that it’s about time Bullock moved away from the typical romantic comedy role that had characterized her career for better and for worse. Well, it seemed like she heard me, because in 2007 she took part in a drama called Premonition; and given the way Premonition goes, I can’t blame her for going back to the green pastures of silly rom com.
As Premonition starts, we quickly learn a few things about Bullock character’s life. She got married to a loving husband, they live in a huge suburban house, they have two kids. Your typical American Dream story, in short. Next she receives a knock on the door and the police tells her that her husband has died in an accident. Then she wakes up the next morning and her husband is beside her, alive and well.
The rest of the film tries to go about providing a solution to this contradiction: is the husband alive or is he dead? As it goes about we learn a few more things about Bullock’s life, like her being a disillusioned housewife and her having not much of a life; her relationship with her husband wasn't going too great, either.
As we wait for a satisfying solution to this drama we have to endure a tiring and incredibly self contradicting set of mystical explanations and events, rendering Premonition the equivalent of a medieval torture. Essentially, Premonition is like a M. Night Shyamalan formula film that’s done even worse than usual. Spare yourselves and avoid it at all expense.
Worst scene:
In an attempt to find what’s going on, Bullock visits her local priest. The guy comes up with books quoting similar events, no doubt in order to render an aroma of authenticity to his upcoming words. He then he sits by Bullock’s side and tells her problems such as hers are a result of losing one’s faith. The faithless, he goes to say, are like doomed empty vessels.
Got it? Premonition is just another film where those who hold faith in that which can never be proven try to find some sort of a justification for their belief. Try very unsuccessfully, I have to add; if this is what theists/fatalists can come up with then they are stupidly desperate.
Overall: Dear Sandra, you would have been better off doing Miss Congeniality 37 than this Premonition crap. 1 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 24 February 2010

The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein

Lowdown: The residents of the moon rebel to free themselves from earth’s shackles.
Review:
Having read several imitations lately, I thought I’d go direct to the source and read the real thing: a classic science fiction book written by Robert Heinlein. The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress presented itself to me: I always found the title interesting, even if the only thing I remember from reading it in my early teens was that I didn’t like it. Oh, how times have changed!
Told in first person by a resident of the moon (or rather, Luna) living there at the end of this century, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress tells us the story of a simple computer technician with not much of an ambition other than to live his life comfortably, and how – with the extensive help of a computer that becomes self conscious – this technician ends up in a small group of people leading a rebellion to free the residents of the moon from the earth that rules is with brute force. Some background is due here, and Heinlein supplies quite a lot of it: the moon was first established as the ultimate penal colony at the end of the twentieth century (much like Australia was in its early days of European settlement), but with time most of its population now comprises of innocent descendants of those so called criminals. Unable to stand the earth’s gravity again, the moon’s population is locked: they can’t go anywhere, and the earth is sucking its resources dry leaving hardly anything for lunars.
The storytelling has its very distinct style, with our hero using much sarcasm (and oh, how I loved him for that). The hero doesn’t use regular English but rather a slightly lunarized version which I have found slightly annoying at first till I realized how brilliantly realistic this is and how well it reflects on Heinlein’s portrayal of the story at the detailed and incredibly plausible level he does. It’s not just the language: Heinlein does not shy from providing scientific explanations and delving into some math. He does it, though, at a very “popular science” way that makes it very easy to digest, especially as it comes out of our hero’s mouth.
Most of all, Heinlein uses the platform he had created in The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress in order to provide one of the most detailed analysis of society’s political structuring I have ever encountered. The way this analysis is done, closely fabricated with a very thrilling story while utilizing circumstances that are definitely science fiction but also very incredibly relevant to our lives today, is nothing short of brilliant. Amazingly brilliant; I found myself dissecting every word with much pleasure, the pleasure that comes when you see someone else pondering the same issues you do and the pleasure that comes when you see that someone extending your thoughts much further and providing you with nicely fabricated examples as evidence.
The political discussion is virtually all encompassing. It starts from discussions on how to best plot a revolution, and moves on to discussions concerning various social structure forms: anarchism, dictatorship, democracy, monarchy, you name it. To that extent, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress continues the discussion from what is probably Heinlein’s most famous book, Starship Troopers: Whereas in Troopers he seems to be mocking democracy in favor of a form of dictatorship, in Mistress he seems to be mocking democracy in favor of anarchy. Given that I have a warm fuzzy feeling towards the form of anarchy discussed in the book I kept on finding it more and more interesting. That said, I also found it depressing: like many others before him, Heinlein sees anarchy as doomed from the start given the one constant element of society: human nature.
That, however, should not distract from the depth of the discussion at hand. For a start, it's better to know what problems we're facing than hide our heads in the sand; and second, it's better to recognize all the problems our democracies face rather than blindly consider them to be the best form of government there is. On his side, Heinlein doesn’t leave things at the level of society at large; he given the exact same treatment to the social structure of families and to the relationships between sexes. Read the book, I’m sure you’ll be surprised to learn how many things we all take for granted and how many of those can be done differently.
By asking questions I had never thought before through the establishment of a detailed imaginary yet feasible world, Heinlein has created a science fiction classic that immediately jumps inside my list of all time favorite books.
Overall: In English, this book is called The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. In Hebrew, the way I originally read it, this book is called Aritsa Hee HaLevana. Frankly, I don’t care how you call this book; I just call it a masterpiece. This is a 5 out of 5 stars treasure of a book that has opened my mind and already has affected my thoughts.

Monday, 22 February 2010

Doubt

Lowdown: A power struggle within a monastery.
Review:
I first bumped into Doubt some four years ago. Back them it was a theater play I didn’t like that much (as reported here). During 2008 the play was adapted to the big screen and some major star power was attached in the form of Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman (as well as Enchanted’s Amy Adams; maybe she didn’t go through her full rites yet, but I am of the opinion she is a fine actress). Since a lot of my criticism with Doubt the play had to do with the theater format, I was curious to see how Doubt managed the transition to film and everything that came with it.
To recap the plot, Doubt takes place inside an American Catholic monastery where male priests run a community church and nuns run a school. Set shortly after JFK was assassinated, times are tough in America: They lost their beloved leader, racial tensions are high, and people are looking for guidance. The church can either choose to offer this guidance the old way, with its strict rules, or in a more modern open way; this dilemma is at the core of Doubt, and it’s triggered by the monastery accepting its very first black child to its school.
Three people take sides in this War of the Dilemma: Streep is the old fashioned tough school principle who is a conservative to the core, so conservative she won’t even accept ball point pens. Seymour Hoffman is the modernist priest who plays with the schoolchildren and gets closer to them. Adams, the third part of this triangle, is the school teacher who observes the evidence and needs to decide who is right once open war breaks as Streep accuses Seymour Hoffman of sexually abusing the black child and Seymour Hoffman insists on seeing the evidence against him. Doubt ensues, and in the end it all comes down to faith.
On the plus side, one cannot deny that Doubt the film sports some major acting on behalf of its participants. It is a genuine display of a power struggle between people with a third party representing the rest of us having to make the call. As a bonus, Doubt the film does a better job than the play in expanding the issue at hand from the personal “did he do it or not” to the more engulfing theological debate. But then there are the negative sides, all of which put hands together to render me unable to attach myself to the story at hand.
First of all, Doubt seems unable to detach itself from the shackles of the theater format under which it was born. You may be watching it at the cinema or on your TV, but it still feels as if you’re watching a play.
Second, given my opinion on matters of faith and all that for which there is no evidence, I couldn’t help but feel the entire dilemma and the entire premises are completely ridiculous and irrelevant; the fact such circumstances still exist may make it relevant to some people, but only because they voluntarily accept things which rational people shouldn't. Sure, the film takes care of my argument by stating the black child had nowhere else to go to but this Catholic school, but I cannot help it: by definition, all theological discussions are nothing more than exchanges of hot air, simply because by their very definition they are completely unfounded.
And third: with all due respect, I found Doubt rather boring. Too much talk, too little action. That monastery could sure use some doers in its crew.
Worst scenes: There are a couple of scenes in which the director tries to stray out of the world of theater by tilting the camera to give us a crooked view of the world. It doesn’t work; it only attracts unnecessary attention to the camera.
Technical assessment: Between Blu-rays and off the air high definition material, DVDs now seem like the poor cousin. Doubt, probably because of its lack of commercial appeal, was only available on DVD at our video rental shop, and therefore had a rather disadvantaged start. Problem is, as DVDs go, Doubt is a really bad one: The picture is very low on detail, especially in the darkness that dominates the film. You could have also tricked me by claiming the sound is monophonic.
Overall: Good acting does not necessarily make a good film. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 20 February 2010

Frost/Nixon

Lowdown: A talk show host tries to milk a confession out of an ex-president.
Review:
I certainly don't have enough data at my disposal to make c confident call on the matter, but it does seem to me as if Richard Nixon was one of the worst presidents the USA has ever had. He was corrupt and contributed to the corruption of politics and to the perception that politics are corrupt (as opposed to what the Kennedys did); there was Vietnam; and there is his contribution for shaping the American health system into the monster it had become. No doubt about it, though: as presidents go, Nixon makes good fodder for the cinema world.
Frost/Nixon is one such film to take advantage of the Nixon phenomenon. It starts as Nixon resigns his presidency in the early seventies and a British talk show host, David Frost (who is still very much active) decides to interview the ex. His assumption is simple: so many people watched Nixon's retire, an interview is bound to rate high and make him lots of money.
Frost, with all of his unlikely background, goes on to secure an exclusive interview with a Nixon anxious for cash. What follows is a review of the woes that beset Frost on his way to securing the interview's finances; the concentrated effort on Frost's side to put Nixon on the trial he never had and get some sort of a confession from him; while on the other hand we have a Nixon that wants to go back to public life. As the interviews themselves commence, it becomes obvious to Frost he is facing a mighty adversary.
Surprisingly for historically based material that is fairly loyal to reality and facts, Frost/Nixon proves to be quite an intriguing film to watch: I was expecting some sort of a political bore with good acting, and I got myself a pretty exciting (albeit not the most thrilling ever) drama that kept me well interested. And yes, the acting is much more than solid: Frank Langella as Nixon is often hard to tell from the genuine article, while Michael Sheen (about whom I never heard prior to his portrayal of Tony Blair in The Queen) seems like an actor who deserves big time.
The trick that makes Frost/Nixon an interesting film is it focusing not on the politics, but on the personal struggles of Frost and Nixon as individuals whose ambitions collide. This makes the story much easier to relate to. That said, director Ron Howard doesn't stray from his regular uninspired style, and while it has to be said he has created a good film I was left wondering what a more daring director might have come up with. A director that wouldn't have resorted to typical clichés prior to the last encounter between Frost and Nixon on whose balance Frost's future lied.
Best scene: The beginnings of the Frost/Nixon interviews, all but the last of them, share a common theme. Frost comes up with a question he considers a knock-out one; Nixon comes back with an answer that knocks Frost down instead. Its a lovely portrayal of a struggle between two individuals, and an even livelier portrayal of frustration.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray suffers from the attempt to make everything look the typical brownish red of the seventies. Sound is used to enhance the dramatic climaxes, but it is used too timidly for my taste.
Overall: Solid performances for a solid 3.5 out of 5 stars drama.

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

District 9

Lowdown: Extraterrestrials being treated like vermin in South Africa. And one white man, too.
Review:
How often can I boast to have the privilege of watching high quality science fiction? Not fantasy, not a film about some comics like war in space, but rather proper hardcore science fiction? Well, given the last example I can think of is Children of Men, my answer would be once in a few years. I therefore have to thank District 9 for breaking this drought; but it doesn't only break the drought, it does it with style.
District 9 starts in documentary style, shot in hand held video and telling us the "real life" story of an alien spaceship that appeared all of a sudden over Johannesburg during 1986. Eventually, the spaceship was boarded by humans, who found pretty ugly looking and helpless aliens in there. The people didn't know what to do with those aliens, so they housed them in an enclosed Johannesburg slam called District 9 where they pretty much formed their own anarchic community while humans regard them as vermin ("prawns"). In short, the aliens have become the new nigger.
Twenty years have gone by and the alien problem is only bigger: they breed, they're a pest, they threaten to take jobs away from humans, and they occupy valuable real estate. What can be done about them? Well, the company established by humans to take care of the aliens has a solution: they will evict the aliens into a new, purpose built refugee camp - District 10. We join things as Wikus, the guy put in charge of issuing the eviction notices, is going along to issue them accompanied by armed mercenaries. But things go wrong for Wikus: he touches something he shouldn't, and the next thing he knows he's developing an alien hand.
Which is not very handy when the secrets of the aliens' weapons technology, activated only by alien genes, are so sought after by the earth's weapon companies. Companies like the one Wikus is working for. They take him in and look forward to cutting him into little pieces in order to uncover the weapons' secrets; he has to cooperate with the aliens he regarded as vermin up until not that long ago in order to escape from his former friends, family and co-workers.
Cleverly done, District 9 starts mixing cinematic looking scenes into what started as a documentary as the film develops. The documentary bits tell you the things the public knows, as in the things it is allowed to know by big money; the movie like scenes fill in the gap for you with the stories behind the scenes. Add that on top of the clever analogy between the way the aliens are treated and the way blacks were treated in South Africa, and the way blacks still live in poor slams while the rich live in nice suburbia, and you can see what the film is trying to say through Wikus: District 9 tells us that those discriminating against some parts of the population - aliens, blacks - will not hesitate to turn on you the next day.
District 9 is not only clever, it is also very entertaining. The way it is edited and the way the action scenes go have quite a lot of the Paul Verhoeven touch about them; in particular, there can be no doubt about the role Robocop played in inspiring District 9. You can fault District 9 for having certain aspects where originality is lacking but I won't do it; I don't mind a film inspired by Verhoeven, one of my favorite directors. If anything, I'd like to see more films do it as well as District 9 does.
Unlike most of its peers coming to you from the USA, District 9 cannot be said to fall into the typical cliche trap. Its hero, Wikus, is a very compromised character; never do you think he's the ultimate nice hero and never can you trust him. He is, for all intents and purposes, a real human being. And when was the last time we've had such a person take a lead role in popular American cinema.
Best scenes: There are numerous scenes where Wikus is at critical turning points where he needs to do what was previously the unthinkable in order to survive. Sometimes he does the right thing, most of the time he doesn't, but each of those scenes is pure delight.
Technical assessment: Picture quality varies as the documentary scenes are meant to look low quality video while the cinematic scenes are meant to look high contrast. The sound is not the best we've ever heard but it's smart and very effective in the use of all channels, making District 9 a home theater delight.
Overall: District 9 is science fiction to the core, and my favorite type of science fiction at that. It's the entertaining type that also tries to tell you something about the world we live in through its extreme setup. A film like that deserves the ultimate kudos; I therefore rate District 9 at 5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 15 February 2010

Revolutionary Road

Lowdown: A young couple trapped in the expectations of fifties’ society.
Review:
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet collaborated very successfully in Titanic. Revolutionary Road sees them collaborating yet again, this time in a very pessimistic mood set by director Sam Mendes of American Beauty fame.
Set in America’s fifties, Revolutionary Road follows a young couple from the first time they meet till a few years later, when they’re still young but with two young kids and a huge house located on Revolutionary Road. These are not the only changes in their lives: On their way from their humble beginnings to where they currently are, DiCaprio ended up taking this boring job at a big IBM like company, a job which he detests but does out of necessity; and Winslet has had to give up on her dream career of becoming an actress.
On the surface of things, our heroes have it all. They are young and good looking, the husband has got a respective job, they have two kids, they have a nice house in the suburbs. So why is it that they are not happy with their lives when everyone else thinks they should and when they seemed to have fulfilled the American dream to the letter?
Winslet comes up with an idea: Move to Paris, where real living takes place; she can get a diplomatic job that will earn the couple their living and then some, and DiCaprio can use the time to find what it is really wants to do with his life. For a while, prospects seem promising. But then reality kicks in: people around don't understand why our heroes feel they need to leave, even though everyone seems to be unsatisfied with their lives or jealous of others; and how can the wife take care of the family instead of the husband?
Acting plays a strong part in Revolutionary Road. Kathy Bates plays a minor part really well, and Kate Winslet gives such a performance you can see she's seeking official recognition for her acting talents with every fiber of her being (and deservedly so). DiCaprio? I've never found him particularly convincing, and in this film he peaks in that particular quality and ends up acting as a major detractor to an otherwise quite a solid film all around. One thing I do have to say about the cast: in true [?] fifties style, they all spend the duration of the film smoking; I really feel for their lungs.
What Revolutionary Road lacks in pacing and visceral impact, it makes up and then some with its serious and authentic discussion of the true values most people aspire to. As in, is a big house in the suburbs worth? I guess this message is ever so relevant for young Australian families, with house prices over here sky rocketing to make houses really unaffordable. Is family life all its cracked up to be, in the sense that everything else has to be sacrificed? Revolutionary Road claims that life without those small personal things that give us a sense of purpose isn't worth living, because those things we are programmed to aspire to by society - a respectable job, a big house, kids - will not lead to a happy and satisfying life on their on. It goes further to question even deeper foundations, such as the notion that the husband works and the wife stays home with the kids: we're not in the fifties anymore, but the vast majority of us still act by this rule. And did we ever stop to ask ourselves why?
Me? Trapped in my own little real estate adventure that threatens to consume years of income, I can not help agreeing with Mendes & Co. Nor can I help feel trapped like Winslet. As Revolutionary Road's example demonstrates, a truly happy life is a rather hard to hit moving target.
Best scene: Our hero couple agrees to meet a lunatic out on a break from his asylum house. However, we quickly realize this so called lunatic is probably the most sane person around, the only person that sees the situation through and tells things the way they are; everyone else is still running society's program code of house-job-kids in a robot like manner.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray seems rather inconsistent, but overall it's pretty average. That's a bit of a shame considering Roger Deakins' masterwork of a cinematography job. Sound is a pretty subdued affair here.
Overall: As a film, Revolutionary Road deserves 3.5 stars out of 5 after the DiCaprio penalty. However, I'm giving it 4: the importance of the message and the thorough way in which it's discussed makes this one a film that will truly impact its viewer. It did me: This is not a film I am going to forget any time soon.

Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Valkyrie

Lowdown: The story of a German plot to take Hitler down and end World War II.
Review:
Valkyrie is all about how certain things we hold true are potentially wrong. For example, director Bryan Singer: After The Usual Suspects I thought he was a genius, but since then he went out of his way to prove me wrong (e.g., Superman Returns). Or Tom Cruise: The guy may have done some nice films in his life (e.g., The Last Samurai or Minority Report), but the guy’s obviously a nut case. Or take the belief that all Germans during World War II were Nazis, a belief Valkyrie aims to prove wrong.
So, how do Singer and Cruise go about breaking the myth that all Germans were evil? Simple: they provide an example for a good German. Their case in point is one Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, portrayed by Tom Cruise. We meet him fighting the Allies in North Africa and already plotting to get rid of Hitler and end the war, but then he gets severely injured. Recovered, and now serving in German headquarters, we meet him again; this time he joins another group of fellow plotters that has a plan which he leads: get rid of Hitler and the SS by invoking the emergency order called Valkyrie, which calls on reserve troops to secure control of Berlin. And the best excuse for triggering this Valkyrie operation is killing Hitler.
Which is what Cruise & Co set out to do in a plot that everyone studying their World War II should know about: a bomb was smuggled into Hitler's command room, but Hitler was saved by his thick desk and the plot failed. Essentially, the film Valkyrie recounts in a very intense manner the details of the failed assassination attempt and its follow-up, which included a coup that had a bright and promising start before it was overtaken by the Nazis and the war was allowed to go on.
Two things stand in favor of Valkyrie: As I said, it's thrilling and intense; and then there's the strong cast, made mostly of big time English talent like Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson. The rest of the cast is made of people from the film Black Book. Interestingly enough, all the characters in the film - regardless of their actors' nationalities - are German. You never see the face of "the enemy".
The things that go against Valkyrie are the fact that we all know the obvious ending, which terribly spoils the fun and makes you just wait for things that go wrong. That, and the too commercial approach Singer took in directing the film; it manifests itself mostly in Cruise's character being just too good to be true. A man so perfect he's ever so flawless. A man that never existed and could have never existed. You watch Valkyrie and you think all these good characters were ever so good, but the reality is slightly different: Romel, for example, who was in this plot, was not exactly famous for making the Allies life easy. These people were not happy with Hitler, true, but they still fought very hard for their country - right or wrong.
As for Cruise himself: well, surrounded by the likes of Wilkinson, he does appear rather talentless.
Worst scene: Cruise and his family spend the night in a bomb shelter as the Allies bomb Germany, but Cruise is completely unphased. Unnaturally so.
Best scene: Nighy forced to issue order Valkyrie despite his inherent fear. Now, that's fine acting.
Technical assessment: A very slick Blu-ray that's good but not that good. The picture is sacrificed on the altar of giving Valkyrie that famous "World War II" look.
Overall: I was expecting an action thriller but ended up getting a thrilling drama. A good one at that, even though it's still flawed. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 9 February 2010

Up

Lowdown: An old man re-learns what matters in life through an adventure featuring a flying house an a pain of a kid.
Review:
With WALL-E being the complete and utter disappointment it was, one cannot blame us for not rushing to watch Up - Pixar's subsequent release - the moment it became available. Ultimately, it was the promise of 3D that got us to rent Up, thus leaving us disappointed even before we started watching the film: Turns out Up's Blu-ray disc does not feature a 3D version despite the film being a 3D release at the cinemas. If Coraline can do it, why can't the multimillionaires at Pixar?
So yes, Up is yet another CGI animation film from Pixar that's aiming at the child level but could prove lethal to adults just the same if not more. Its hero is an adult, or rather an old [retired] guy: Carl, we learn, used to be a child with a great sense of wonder. He got married to a childhood sweetheart with similar aspirations, but circumstances prevented them from boldly going where no man has gone before and instead they lived their lives rather ordinarily yet happily in each other's arms. That was the exposition; the next thing we know the wife is dead, and Carl is on his own in his house, a refugee in the middle of a huge construction site. He still aspires to fulfil his and his wife's childhood dreams, though.
An incident happens and Carl is forced to leave his and his wife's house to a retirement home. Leave the house? Over his dead body. Carl inflates a multitude of colorful balloons, attaches them to his house, and sets of flying to conquer old demons and explore some mysterious falls in South America. Only that something has gone wrong, and Carl finds himself locked in the flying house with this pesky boyscout he can't shake. Together, and with the aid of an exotic bird and a talking dog, the two will go on an adventure that will remind Carl yet again that it's relationships that count, not real estate.
Real estate is obviously a metaphor for everything our culture teaches us to wrongly hold in high esteem. Essentially, Up is arguing you don't need the big flashy things when you have a good relationship. Carl didn't need them when he had his loving wife, and he doesn't need them now that he has the boyscout as the replacement son he never had. In typical fashion, the point is emphasized through others going through the same revelations as Carl and even others going through the opposite (as in the film's baddies).
Overall, the plot and the message all smell a lot like Gran Torino, even though I'm pretty sure the two did not copy one another. While Clint Eastwood definitely holds the upper hand in a direct comparison between the two, such a comparison would do great injustice to Up simply because Up has its own marvelous virtues. Sure, it is obviously a commercial product intended to sell first and then work as a piece of art (in the usual way American cinema achieves such goals); sure, like most of its CGI peers it is overfilled (or is it over-killed?) with pop culture references and silly homages (e.g., the planes trying to get King Kong off the Empire State scene); yet one has to credit the imaginative way in which it conveys its message. I mean, people walking and holding a flying house with a cable the way you'd hold a balloon? That's quite a nice piece of originality, even if the talking dogs come at you from left field.
Up helped me forget the nightmare that was WALL-E and have a bit of faith in Pixar yet again.
Best scene: I couldn't help finding the montage scene at beginning of Up to be ever so touching in the way it showed Carl's relationship with his wife from the time they met as kids, through several crises, and up to the wife's death. Effective and touching.
Technical assessment: As expected, the picture on this Blu-ray is simply stunning perfection. That is, if you've stopped being disappointed from it lacking a 3D version, a particular shame given the film's short duration (92 minutes) allowing for the 3D version to reside in parallel to the 2D one on the same Blu-ray disc. The sound is nice and it uses all channels well, but I have found it to lack the aggressiveness former Pixar releases had.
Overall: Up-lifting. 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 5 February 2010

Bon Voyage

Lowdown: Tales of French chaos as Germany invades during 1939.
Review:
The only thing I knew about Bon Voyage before I’ve started watching it was the TV guide’s rather laconic description: “a 2003 war film starring Gérard Depardieu”. I reckoned Depardieu is worthy of my time so I had my PVR tape (or rather, record) the film off SBS, expecting a war drama. Should have known better…
Bon Voyage starts off with Isabelle Adjani, a French movie star from whom I haven’t heard for a while, playing a French movie star femme fatale who gets into trouble when a man dies in her house under dubious circumstances. She calls a former lover who didn’t fare as well as her and who has dreams of becoming a writer to help, but he gets arrested after having a traffic accident while carrying the dead man’s body. One lover down, Adjani turns to a much older French minister (Depardieu) for help and in return becomes “his woman”. Then we have a Jewish physicist who escaped from Nazi Germany but is still sought after by the Germans for his invention of heavy water; this old guy is accompanied by his lovely assistant (Virginie Ledoyen). And then there's a felon called Raoul with whom Adjani’s luckless lover becomes acquainted in jail. And then… then we have Germany invading France and all of the previously mentioned characters seeking refuge in the south of France while the German army keeps on getting closer and closer.
Sounds confusing? It is. The answer to the confusion has to do with the nature of Bon Voyage. You see, much more than being a war time drama, it’s a parody about human nature in times of strife. You’d be more touched by Bon Voyage’s comedy than by its story, which on its own is nothing special if it weren’t for the way the film keeps on shaking and remixing its characters. Eventually, everyone gets what they deserve: the idealistic win the day, those that adapt to the times get their own little clever punishments, and even criminals have to pay their bills off.
Best scene: The host of a Southern France home that accommodates many refugees, starving for entertainment, reviews the draft our aspiring writer carries with him and comes up with some interesting insight. Guess it reminds me of my childhood days when I, too, was starving for good contents.
Overall: A nice, if overall lacking in depth, tale of commotion. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

Cordelia's Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

Lowdown: A woman specializing in doing the right thing wins an interplanetary war and saves planet struggling with internal politics.
Review:
I’ve never heard of Lois McMaster Bujold prior to receiving Cordelia’s Honor as a gift, which shows how disconnected I am from the contemporary science fiction scene: while I’m stuck to old favorites like Asimov, writers like Bujold go on acquiring much acclaim for their science fiction work. Question is, can the cream of modern science fiction writers tickle the feet of the good old giants?
Cordelia’s Honor is actually made of two separate books originally published a few years apart, Shards of Honor and Barrayar. Both are written in the same style, providing a detailed account of events taking place upon the hero Cordelia but not told in first person. The second even continues straight off where the first ended, yet the books are different.
Shards of Honor starts off with Cordelia surveying an alien planet thought to be devoid of humans. By the second page or so she gets shot at, starting off a page turner of an adventure story that goes all the way through to the book [rather unsatisfying] ending. As things develop, Cordelia encounters an enemy that becomes a friend and plays a key role in an interplanetary war. It’s exciting and you want to know what happens, but there’s nothing particularly special about the story.
Barrayar follows a Cordelia that’s now settled on a foreign planet with a very militaristic culture to counter the progressive one she grew up with. Political turmoil eschews, and Cordelia finds herself a soldier yet again. The story is more complex than Shards of Honor’s, but on the negative side it is not as much of a page turner. I’ll stop with the plot account’s here; the book's back cover says just a tad more but managed to ruin a lot of the plot twists and turns for me, so I don’t want you to go through the same.
Overall, the two books together comprise of an exciting read. Question is, how far can excitement take you? The story can be intriguing, but I kept feeling like there’s not much more to it than meets the eye. Sure, it’s science fiction, but it could have been set on an historical earth and worked just as well; in many respects, the story is not too different to your typical Napoleonic saga or War and Peace. Worse, especially for a book selling itself with its page turning credentials, Cordelia’s Honor is a fairly predictable book.
Ultimately, I have found the story to be about your classic hero types: the people that do the right thing as opposed to the easy thing. Being that it’s not that easy to do the right thing, the hero goes through hard times while we admire them and contemplate on the virtues of the ideals they live by and wonder if we could be their equals. Interestingly enough, the author herself claims that her book is about parenthood and the price of becoming one; I have to say that while I find this statement true, it is only mildly true as parenthood starts to dominate the picture only three quarters of the way through and is certainly irrelevant if Shards of Honor was to be read on its own.
Oh, and there’s another thing worth mentioning to do with the book’s style: Lois McMaster Bujold is a woman, a relatively rare attribute in science fiction. Her womanhood shows with Cordelia’s Honor reading more like a romantic novel than proper science fiction all too often and with detailed descriptions of what everyone’s wearing all the time. How shall I put it? Maybe I’m too much of a male, but these didn’t speak to me. Hugos or Nebulas, Asimov is on another league.
Overall: Cordelia’s Honor deserves more than 3 stars out of 5 for its intrigue factor, but it is not 3.5 stars good.