Friday, 30 April 2010

Blindness

Lowdown: The whole of society has gone blind but for one woman.
Review:
Apocalyptic works of science fiction have always been a favorite sub-genre for me. The Terminator is probably the best example but there are more recent ones, such as Children of Man. The promise of another effort – Blindness - by the promising Brazilian director of City of God fame, Fernando Meirelles, meant this was one film I was looking to rent.
The idea behind Blindness is quite promising. One day a driver stuck in a traffic jam goes blind. People help him out while others use the opportunity to abuse the newly blind. The guy goes on to see the eye specialist doctor (Mark Ruffalo), and the day after the doctor goes blind as well as all the other people who were with him at the clinic (amongst them Danny Glover). And so the blindness spreads, touching everyone in its wake other than the doctor’s wife (Julianne Moore).
The government quickly provides its kneejerk reaction and places all blind people in detention. Not ordinary detention: they put them in an enclosure, erect gates and barbed wires around them, and let the blind to their own. Moore, however, would not be separated from her husband, so she pretends to be blind and joins the detention – thus providing us with a set of eyes to witness the atrocities of such a complex for the blind (think hygiene, think toilets).
Most of Blindness takes place inside the detention center. We follow the social interactions between inmates and we see how they cope. Quickly enough they are separated into groups, and quicker some groups are willing to use violence establish a rule of terror. As we go we witness the power of a person who was blind before the epidemic and knows how to cope with blindness as well as the power of the person with vision in a world of the blind when they are willing to use their powers for better or worse.
The analogy of this Lord of the Flies self contained world is obvious, as in Blindness telling us something about the things most of us can’t see and how they affect us. There are political, religious and social implications to this analogy. The problem is that things remain at the level of the analogy and fail to rise from there, or rather they are prevented from rising. For a start, none of the film’s numerous characters is ever identified by name; they’re all roles rather than people, as in “doctor”, “receptionist” or “Japanese wife”. That’s quite an achievement if you think about it! But the biggest manifestation of the problem is in the way many if not most of the events taking place in Blindness fail to make sense. I’m not talking about the blindness epidemic, which is unlikely yet possible; I’m talking about the way people behave in the conditions that Blindness puts them in and the challenges that face them.
On the positive side, Julian Moore is excellent as ever. Besides, one has to give the nod to a film that is not afraid to show us our own shit and to point a finger at just how cruel this indifferent world can make us; it’s a point most of us prefer to ignore.
Best scene: Talking about cruelty, the scene in which the women from one group of inmates are used as payment for the food being kept by another will not leave you indifferent. The sad thing is that it’s not science fiction either.
Technical assessment: Another DVD that was butchered for the Australian market with a picture that’s totally devoid of any shred of detail. What a shame! At least they didn’t mess with the sound, which is quite alright for a DVD.
Overall: I consider Blindness to be a missed opportunity. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

The Battle of Red Cliff

Lowdown: Massive battles between the power crazy and the peaceful in ancient China.
Review:
John Woo is a director far from his peak but I still like to give him credit for old times’ sake, which is why I wanted to watch The Battle of Red Cliff (henceforth just Red Cliff). That, and the promise of mighty CGI supported battles of the type I was sensitive to long before Braveheart turned them into pop culture.
Despite the Aussie version of Red Cliff being rumored to be but a pale short shadow of the original Chinese version in length, Red Cliff is still a two and a half hours long film. Set in ancient china and speaking Chinese (as such films ought to be), it tells a story based on historical facts about a Chinese Prime Minister seeking to accumulate power to allow him to get rid of the Emperor which he controls like a puppet on a string. Successful in his endeavors thus far, our PM sets his sights on the peaceful south of China as his next conquest. He has two things standing in his favor: the massive imperial army and the fact the southerners are busier taking care of their refugees – so as to prevent them from being slaughtered – than fighting him back. But fight they will, and the showdown will take place at a bay called Red Cliff.
What you get with Red Cliff is typical John Woo orchestrated action: zooms, quick editing, bullet (or rather, arrow) cameras, and doves. A lot of tricks that call the viewer's attention to the camera, but still - a lot of directors could use a lesson or two with Woo on how to create a flashy fight scene without the audience losing track of what’s going on and without pushing the audience’s vomit instinct too far.
Red Cliff delivers its manifest by focusing on the key characters leading each side of the war. Some of them are depicted to have virtual super powers, other are strategists and there are even the token women. Most are portrayed by faces familiar to me from Chinese martial arts films (e.g., Tony Leung). I did find it hard to keep track of who's who, but that was mostly because after a short while the fight scenes become too repetitive and you can't tell one from the other. John Woo may do flashy action, but he sure lost his originality years ago.
If you wish to summarize Red Cliff, you will call it a collection of massive big scale fight scenes + a collection of martial arts fight scenes (of the type where ropes holding the main characters are pretty dominant). Add that to the setting and the placing of a beautiful woman at the core of the dispute and the conclusion is imminent: Red Cliff is a Chinese remake of Troy.
Indeed, Red Cliff shares more than the plot with Troy – the two also share cinematic qualities. Both films provide beautiful vistas and impressive battles, both feature too much CGI for their own good, and while both entertain the two will leave you feeling a bit empty at the end. As in, after all was said and done, what was the point?
Silliest scene: The good general releases a dove that our camera tracks straight from behind while it flies across the Red Cliff bay and to the arms of an awaiting spy. I guess John Woo had to come up with a way to insert doves into his film, so he chose this.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray features a beautiful picture that made me wonder whether Woo feels like he needs to prove himself against the compatriot likes of House of Flying Daggers. The sound is also quite good but it's hampered by the too obvious use of ADR that sounds very detached from the rest of the film.
Overall: I’m a sucker for big battle movies so I’m giving Red Cliff 3.5 out of 5 stars even though it is less gripping than it should have been.

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Venus

Lowdown: An old man and a young bogan woman have an affair of sorts.
Review:
One of the best hidden secrets in Western society is that, barring the unexpected accident, we all become old. This allows us to treat our old people like shit but it also allowed the film Venus (2006) to exist: a film about old age featuring old people who do not shy from referring to their situation using various four letter words. A film, that is, which is very much an accurate depiction of the tribulations of old age. A film that makes a mockery of the way we treat the old. A film from Britain, because one cannot really expect Hollywood to come up with something so far from society's normal discourse, a film so politically incorrect.
Peter O'Toole stars as an old actor with some brains and a class act about him who lives in London and enjoys the fellowship of friends his age. He has all sorts of health issues and spends a lot of his time running around being mistreated by a collection of nurses and doctors. That is, they provide the services he needs but just don't treat him as a human.
One day an old friend introduces him to a maid (Jodie Whittaker). She's quite horrible: a bogan (what Israelis would call an "ars") lacking any intellectual merit who is simply awful as a maid - she even cooks the top notch fish the guy got in the microwave. Worse, from my point of view, she speaks with a distinct Yorkshire accent (not unlike that of my English side of the family), which immediately implies I can only understand half of what she says (as per the situation with the English side of my family). How I yearned for subtitles! Still, the girl is young and good looking (in O'Toole's eyes; not mine), and that's all O'Toole needs in order to start developing a relationship with her. That relationship is pretty much the core of the film, which moves about showing how the characters get to know one another, how they use and abuse one another, and how they change through the experience.
I guess Venus' message is about us (the not-old-yet) needing to remember we still have a thing or two to learn from the old, while also recognizing the beauty of youth and its innocence. The message is played back to us via an all too familiar Taming of the Shrew scenario. Then again, the message takes almost second fiddle to the main driver of Venus: the acting. It's not only O'Toole that gives us a nice show, his collection of friends provide a solid act that really makes a difference. Add the script that's not shy of properly used so-called abusive language and some nice touches of comedy, and you get yourself a film that's more entertaining than you probably expected from a film about the old.
Best scenes: The scenes in which O'Toole is going through medical treatment were the film's funniest. Especially the one prior to him going for a prostate cancer operation, where the doctor tells him there's a good chance he'll become impotent and a good chance he'll uncontrollably wet himself as a direct result of the operation, but hey - he'll still be alive.
Overall: A nice film with solid acting that gives it a lift over the 3 stars range but is just shy of getting into the 3.5 out of 5 stars realm.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Basic

Lowdown: The military investigates a shooting incident inside a training commando team.
Review:
Some fifteen years ago I would have told you that between Die Hard and Last Action Hero, director John McTiernan is one of my favorite directors. Since then we haven’t heard much from McTiernan and my taste has matured enough for my enthusiasm to wane. However, it was McTiernan’s signature over 2003’s Basic that made me record it on my PVR. A move I learned to regret while watching the film.
Reuniting John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson’s glory days from Pulp Fiction, Basic is yet another Rashômon style film that fails to live up to the original’s standards. A shooting takes place inside a training American army commando unit under Jackson’s command, with some casualties involved. Connie Nielsen heads the investigations, but [because she’s just a good looking woman?] she’s assigned the help of a cop under corruption investigation who happens to be an ex commando himself – Travolta. Together they interrogate the survivors and win us different flashback versions of what really took place as the mystery unfolds.
Wrapped up in lots of macho moments where characters move from one extreme to another for no particular reason, this take on Rashomon is nothing more than a collective attempt to repeatedly try and surprise the viewer. It works to one extent (the end is so weird it is unexpected), but most of the time it’s a predictable pile of cliches: Travolta is essentially reprising his role in The General's Daughter and you just know from the start the real culprit is in the army’s higher chain of command.
Unlike Rashomon, there is nothing you can take from Basic that will inspire you to think; you would be curious to know how it all ends, but throughout the film you’d feel like you’re just wasting your time. For a film that doesn’t rely on action the dominating drama is so pathetic you might just start laughing.
Worst scene: Travolta lights a cigarette. Why do the filmmakers think this is necessary to inspire an image of toughness? I know this is not the first film to feature smoking, but it's definitely one where smoking takes a major role in character development (given the lack of everything else). It's also one the film could have done without.
Overall: It’s bad but it’s not pathetically stupid, so I’ll be generous and give Basic 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

The Boys Are Back

Lowdown: A recently widowed husband contends with parenthood.
Review:
Being a parent is hard. Every sane parent knows that (and everyone who is not a parent is almost certainly underestimating matters there). I concur but I also wonder: If things are this hard for a normal family with both parents around, I can only imagine how bad they are for single parents. I do get a glimpse of that every week now, with me staying at home one day a week to look after my two year old on my own. The experience has its rewards, but it's damn hard!
Tell this to Clive Owen's character in The Boys Are Back, an Australian production from Aussie director Scott Hicks (with the marvelous Shine under his belt). Owen is a British sports reporter living at a rural residence in South Australia (where Shine was set, too) with his Aussie wife and young child. Quickly after the film starts we learn the wife has cancer, and quickly afterwards she dies, leaving Owen to look after the child. But how the hell does one look after a child, especially when one was mostly away for work during most of the child's life, making only the occasional star appearance?
So Owen has to learn and learn quickly. But that's not the end of it: he also has to make a living, still a sports reporter required to attend sporting events; the internet can only get you that far. And then, if that wasn't enough, we learn that Owen actually had a previous wife (and a child) back in his old life in England. That other child is looking up at him, too, with his own demands. Poor Clive Owen!
Owen has his own unique way of dealing with the situation. His way involves utter freedom, the cancellation of all rules, and always saying "yes" to his kids. Which, as can be expected, leads the film towards some interesting developments.
I like The Boys Are Back. I liked it a lot. It's not only Clive Owen being probably my favorite actor at the moment; it's the way the film is so well made and extremely well directed, too. Hats off to Hicks, as he's done what I consider the best direction work I've seen in a long while here.
What I liked the most about The Boys Are Back, though, is its attitude. This is not Hollywood cutie-cutie parent meet children relationship; this is for real, this is in your face, and this does not shy away from confrontations but rather seeks any confrontation it can put its hands on and deals with them thoroughly. The Boys Are Back is a genuine film about parenthood, a film that can actually teach you something; which turns it to an excellent film about contending with life's hardships to the best of one's abilities.
Sure, I disagree with Owen parenting style. I think it's important to set a frame of reference for the world to the kids, in the shape of rules. This, I suspect, helps them better digest the world around them improves the odds of them turning out decent. However, I don't think mine is the perfect way: as a would be anarchist I detest such rules; it's just that I think parenthood is so hard that real life compromises force me to stoop down to the introduction of rules. My point is, there is nothing wrong with the disagreements I have with The Boys Are Back; on the contrary, these disagreements make me think my own ways. I have been known to be wrong and very often so, which makes an alternative yet plausible view a learning experience.
And what better a compliment can I bestow a film?
Best scene: Early on in the film, after the wife gets diagnosed with cancer, a friend of Owen's consoles him. With positive thinking and some fighting spirit everything will be alright, he says. Owen immediately silences him, informing him the cancer has spread out so much no bullshit positive thinking can help. And I agree: I am sick of these people that really think cancer and other illnesses can be cured just with "the power of the mind"; if anything, this attitude implies most of humanity lacks the mind skills that these unique people claim to have (at least until they die of their own cancer). My point with regards to the film, though, is that the scene sets the mood for the direct confrontation attitude that dominates the film. The mood I like so much.
Technical assessment: A pretty good Blu-ray for an Aussie film that was probably tight on budget. Lovely outdoor vistas and indoor scenes that feel as though they have been naturally lit dominate the picture side. The sound is nice as well (don't expect to be bombarded; this is a subtle soundtrack), with some very nice music from ex Dire Straits man Hal Lindes that is very well recorded and provides some extra ambiance.
Overall: I've seen me some more exciting films, but it's rare to see a film so authentic, so in your face, and so easy to identify with. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Bottle Shock

Lowdown: The story of the Napa Valley’s rise as a wine empire.
Review:
There are many films out there that aim to celebrate moments in recent history that seemed ordinary at first but turned out to have historical impact. To name but two recent examples, Milk does it for the gay movement while Frost/Nixon tells of Nixon’s final capitulation. Joining these ranks is Bottle Shock: the human story behind the rise of California’s Napa Valley to the world map of wine making as a direct result of the random collision between the private enterprises of a few good men (and the occasional sexy woman).
It all took place in the seventies. Alan Rickman’s character was an English wine seller living in Paris and not doing too well in business, so he comes up with an idea of having a blind wine tasting competition pitting French wines - the global standard for quality alcohol - against some unexpected opposition. He ventures to the Napa Valley to look for such.
There he travels in a rundown car and bumps along the paths of several struggling wine makers, all hard working and devoted and all searching for recognition for their efforts. Most notable of those wineries is the one headed by Bill Pullman’s character, with his fun loving but not too helpful son (Chris Pine of recent Star Trek fame) by his side. What follows are a collection of mini stories about the lives and struggles of those winemakers, their friends and their surroundings – all of which culminate at Rickman’s competition, said to have been the turning point for American wine’s international recognition.
Not much can go wrong with such an innocent story of lovable characters set in the Sideways setting I loved so much (to clarify, I adored Sideways, both the film and the setting). The problem is, the moviemakers seem to go out of their way to make a story out of what they have to play with here; thus, instead of having ourselves a tranquil film celebrating the beauty of the area we have a collection of cliché stories, none of which particularly good. Things narrow down to the struggle between father and son as well as a love triangle, and especially with the latter it’s all too predictable and of the “we’ve seen it a million times before” type.
Best scene: Rickman needs to take the American wine bottles with him on his flight to the Paris competition. He doesn’t want to check them in, fearing Bottle Shock (apparently, there is such a phenomenon – at least in the minds of wine aficionados). The airline, on the other hand, won’t let him carry them to the flight because of alcohol rules. What can he do? Every passenger in the check-in queue ends up carrying a bottle for him in a scene that cannot be replicated given today’s airport security hysteria syndrome.
Worst scene: Chris Pine and his father’s sexy intern (Rachel Taylor) attempt to hitchhike. No one stops for Pine, but when Taylor lifts her shirt things change… Haven’t we seen this one before, say, in Benny Hill?
Technical assessment: The picture on this DVD is pretty bad, as if someone did their best to remove details away. It’s just not fair on the scenery. The sound, however, is not bad with some nice music keeping the mood going. I suspect the dubious quality is a result of yet another botch job by an Australian distributer that won’t use the international version.
Overall: Peaceful if vacant of substance, Bottle Shock is saved by one thing: The greatness of one Alan Rickman, a truly talented actor. I shall therefore be nice to it and just manage to give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 17 April 2010

Where the Wild Things Are

Lowdown: A child ventures into an escape world populated by monsters.
Review:
Spike Jonze is a director with a distinguished record (Adaptation, some Fat Boy Slim music videos). Where the Wild Things Are is a famous children's book, so famous we bought it even though our son is not yet ready for it and even though it features monsters he would probably find too scary for quite a while. We haven't read the book yet, but with the two reputations combined I had high hopes for the film Where the Wild Things Are (yes, it's directed by Spike Jonze).
The film's beginning looks very promising. We follow the child of a single mother that is starving for attention. His older sister is too busy being an adolescent to pay him that attention, while his mother (Catherine Keener) is too busy juggling work with all of her duties. The beauty of this part of the film is the style in which Jonze teaches us those things about the characters: it's all very inferred. Coupled with a hand held camera, it feels as if we're secretly peeking into their lives (spoken by someone who detests the shaky hand held style).
The boy becomes desperate and runs away. So far away he ventures into a land where these big monsters - or wild things - are. The monsters do all sorts of weird things and are made up of all sorts of different characters. They take the boy in, and together they do all sorts of weird things together - mainly act the way little children do, but do it with monster force.
And that's it, really. The duration of the film is spent with the characters doing this thing and that, but without these things that they're doing making much sense. Other than the type of sense any chaotic child play makes, I guess. Is that worth some hundred minutes of my time? My answer is no.
Typical scene: The monsters destroying things.
Technical assessment: Where the Wild Things Are is quite a good Blu-ray, with vibrant and detailed picture (most notably in the darker scenes) as well as a well mixed and articulate sound.
Overall: I guess this is another film where you're supposed to see the "deeper meaning"and all that - excuse me - crap. Me, I was bored shitless. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

My Sister's Keeper

Lowdown: Conflicts within a family where a sister refuses to donate organs to her dying sibling.
Review:
I have never read Jodi Picoult and I doubt I ever will, but given the frequency I see her books being read on the train I doubt we should worry about her paying the rent. My Sister’s Keeper is a film based on a book by this American writer and it starts off with a incredibly original premises: A young daughter growing up in a loving family (Cameron Diaz is her mother) goes into the office of a big shot lawyer (Alec Baldwin) and asks for help suing her parents. What is she after? She wants her body emancipated from her parents’ control, because her parents are forcing her to donate organs to her older who is sister dying of cancer. If that’s not unique enough, we quickly learn that the donating daughter has been put into this world through a futuristic IVF process that ensured she would be compatible for organ donations as of the moment of conception. Wow! What a promising start to a film!
On paper, what we have on our hands with My Sister’s Keeper is a film discussing questions of ethics in light of futuristic scientific developments. However, despite this elaborate setup, the film settles down into a more basic question of ethics, which is how much can one person be expected to give away to another. That second discussion point is interesting and worth discussing on its own: for example, should I be spending my time writing this movie review when I could go and help the poor? However, My Sister’s Keeper goes out even a step further in its abandonment of the ethical issues at its core and turns into a character driven film of almost soap opera like qualities as the mother character grows more and more distant from the rest of the family through her belief the healthy child should stop at nothing to support the sick one.
The techniques in which My Sister’s Keeper deteriorates into a drama cheaper than the premises deserve are worth mentioning themselves. First to blame is the script, which has just too many coincidences that just happen to turn this tear dispensing drama into an even more tears dispensing drama: as the film develops we learn of more and more tragic circumstances unfolding in the family (and all the rest of the characters, for that matter), all of which are rather unlikely and thus even more unlikely when combined together.
Second to blame is the extensive use of voiceovers. In a unique manner, My Sister’s Keeper is told in first person mode through the mouths of alternating characters; thing is, since when do films get told by characters? I was under the impression films are meant to be acted, not told. If you agree to the generic assumption that voiceovers are a sign of lazy movie making then you’d have to agree My Sister’s Keeper is one of the laziest films ever made.
Also worth mentioning is the acting. My Sister’s Keeper features some big names, like the previously mentioned Baldwin & Diaz as well as Joan Cusack as the judge. None provided a performance that knocked me off my seat: The first two’s was rather too clinical, while the latter’s was a disappointment.
Disappointing scene: I was quite disappointed with the film’s climax, where all the characters’ breakdown points come to a simultaneous boiling point and we finally learn why it is that the healthy sister hates the sick sister so much she won’t donate her organs. Again, it comes down to the film’s extortion techniques: it just tries too hard to get you to cry I ended up feeling rather oblivious.
Technical assessment: A mediocre Blu-ray offering picture quality inferior to many DVDs and uninspiring sound.
Overall: I was disappointed to see what could have been a lovely science fiction film about the ethical issues facing humanity in the near future through medical advancements turned into just another drama. What could have been a great film feels more like a trashy paperback. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Brüno

Lowdown: An ignorant gay Nazi Austrian tries for the American dream.
Review:
The success waves of 2006’s Borat! Might have ebbed by now, but that did not stop Sacha Baron Cohen from turning a third character from his late nineties’ Ali G TV show into a feature film (albeit a short one) while, for all intents and purposes, creating a good old fashioned sequel to Borat!.
What has changed? Instead of a news reporter from a –stan country we have a fashion reporter from Austria called Bruno (Baron Cohen). Bruno is pretty dumb, very gay, and seems to consider himself the next big thing to come out of Austria since Hitler. After being kicked out of the European fashion scene our hero sets out to the USA in order to become rich and famous there. It’s not only the setup that’s a carbon copy of Borat!, it’s also what happens next: Bruno interviews politicians and mingles with the general public as well as with celebrities. As we go along for the ride Sacha Baron Cohen tries to expose the best of American ignorance and bigotry on film through a combination of scripted setups and real life setups (with the edges blurred on purpose so we can't really tell which is which). The result: a mockumentary.
The question is, do the benefits of Bruno – the exposure of American ignorance – outweigh the price we have to pay for them? First I have to say I consider Sacha Baron Cohen’s efforts to be in the public benefit. Sure, they create laughter, which is a positive on its own, but by exposing ignorance and broadcasting it out to the world we can learn just how dumb we all are (given that American society mirrors Western society quite well). And it shows everywhere: it shows in the way we treat gays, the way we treat nudity, the way we idolize dumb celebrities, the overall shallow level of social discussions, racism, and much much more.
But the question was whether the benefits are worth the admission price. And the admission price is quite a hefty one: Aside of trivialities such as our time, we also have having to suffer through moments that make you cringe, moments that are just bland repetition of stuff we’ve seen before, and moments that just leave you bewildered (e.g., seeing a zoomed up dick being flung like a toy for a few good seconds). To be more specific, I don’t see the point in having the Bruno character trying to tempt some famous politician into a homosexual intercourse: sure, I have nothing against such intercourses, but that does not mean I consider watching such attempt to be a useful way for me to spend my time; these things are best left off to the bedrooms of whoever wants to take an active part, thank you very much.
Ultimately, my answer to the advantages vs. admission price relating to Bruno is a negative one. Bruno is, overall, a redundant experience, a shallow remake of its predecessor, made in a cynical attempt to grab more cash out of the milking cow. The sort of thing Baron Cohen goes against in the first place. Which leaves me wondering how, as a practicing Jew, does Baron Cohen reconcile all the things he does on the big screen with his faith?
Best scene: Bruno interviews a model who complains that walking the catwalk is hard. He agrees with her: “yes, you have to take a step with your left foot, and then a step with your right foot” (the quote is probably inaccurate but is faithful in spirit). She is happy with the unexpected sympathy, confirming with a glowing yes her falling into Baron Cohen’s trap.
Technical assessment: Below average to average, but then again you know not to expect Blu-ray reference material here given the live documentary style.
Overall: A redundant affair lying in the limbo between 2 to 2.5 stars out of 5.

Friday, 9 April 2010

Paris, je t'aime

Lowdown: A collection of short films taking place in contemporary Paris.
Review:
As a veteran blogger recently to embrace Twitter I can testify just how different it is to blog on a subject as opposed to twitting on it. With Twitter you’re not allowed to delve into philosophical discussions or develop your argument; you’re allowed the punch line alone, so you better punch hard and effectively. Easier said than done!
The same applies when comparing feature films to short films, or, for that matter, books to short stories. My loyalties are firmly on the lengthy side of the business, as evidenced by my favorite films being rather on the longer side of things and as per my reading preferences. 2006’s Paris, je t'aime tries to work its way around these difficulties by packaging a collection of short films created by different directors into a single long film and attempting to connect the ingredients through a common theme. Question is, does it manage to pull the trick off?
Each of Paris, je t'aime's films is taken by a different director. Together, they all take place in modern day Paris. There is some further specialization involved: with each short film is entitled after the Parisian quarter it is associated with.
The next thing you notice is the star power is involved in the effort overall. These come in the shape of both directors and actors, with some of the famous names including the Coen brothers, Gérard Depardieu, Gus Van Sant and Steve Buscemi. You got it right: it’s all famous names but it’s all people who like to be (or want to be perceived to be) at the fringes of mainstream.
So, does it work? Well, if you ask me (and given that you’re reading this, you are), it’s not only that Paris, je t'aime doesn’t work; it fails miserably. It’s one of those films where the collection of hot names raises the stench of a lot of hot air.
I'll start with the short films themselves. Some are good; most are incoherent arty-farty crap that would appeal to New Age aficionados but completely overtook this brain. Some are just plain silly, like those that are built around English speaking characters being unable to tell the French speaking ones they don't understand French. Come on! And sure, the short films are all taking place in Paris, but I found very little in them that is actually Parisian and couldn’t take place elsewhere. I even find very little in the collection of them all that couldn’t take place elsewhere. And what’s with the artificial division of films between quarters? Aside from giving you some indication of the geography or some information about the film you’re about to watch (in the sense of immediately associating the upcoming Pigalle short film with seedy character), they add nothing.
I understand the need to create a film celebrating the spirit of Paris, but I don’t think Paris, je t'aime does a particularly good job of it. Watching it was proving to be such a torment I had the distinct feeling I should turn my TV off and do something more constructive with my time instead, like dig a hole in my garden (or, given today's news of Malcolm McLaren's death, listen to his lovely album Paris). I didn’t give up on the film, though, because I really wanted to give it a chance: I wanted to see if there is some sort of a redemption at the end. It’s not the first time I watch a bad film, but in most of those cases what keeps me going is the need to see how it all ends; given the way Paris, je t'aime is made, a conventional wrap up is impossible, so I was curious to see what type of a sealing would be provided by the film. At the end I can testify there is no proper ending to look for; I was left stuck with my misery.
Best short film: A mother leaves the baby she loves at a rather bleak childcare facility so she could babysit a rich yet seemingly indifferent woman’s baby. It’s one of the few films in the collection that actually make a coherent statement.
Worst short film: Elijah Wood has a vampire experience close to the old opera house. I’m sure there is a lot of symbolism and lots of other words finishing with –ism in that short film, but I didn’t get any.
Overall: I really couldn’t stand the ordeal but I’ll give it the benefit of doubt due to the hard task at hand. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Invention of Lying

Lowdown: In a world of truth sayers, the liar can be king (for a while).
Review:
I like Ricky Gervais; I think I’ve covered this point sufficiently enough in the past to avoid discussing it again here. What I will say, though, is that one of the reasons I like Gervais is that he and I share many opinions. In particular, we are both atheists who are not shy about the views that we hold. The difference between us? Simple: Gervais is in a position to create atheist state of mind films whereas I have to settle with reviewing them. Case in point: The Invention of Lying.
Like his previous effort, Ghost Town, Gervais’ The Invention of Lying (which he also co-directed) is another easy going romantic comedy with a science fiction like twist to it. This time around the twist is to do with the world the movie is set, a world where humans did not evolve the ability to tell a lie. That is, until Gervais’ character gets itself into a desperate situation.
Gervais, we quickly learn, is a forty something, not so good looking and not so successful at his profession of choice. He has his aspirations, though: he really wants to have a go at a relationship with Jennifer Garner’s character: a good looking and professionally successful woman that managed to get to where she is by not asking too many questions and by being risk averse. Things don’t work out well for Gervais: Garner doesn’t give him a second chance, work fires him, and his home owner evicts him. What can he do? He lies, a world first; and immediately he becomes the world’s most powerful man, as rich as he wants to be, and – quickly enough – the prophet of the world’s first religion. But will all of these get Gervais the things he really needs?
The idea behind The Invention of Lying is nice: a world where no lie has ever been told is a world of endless joke opportunities, mostly aimed at the incredible number of ways lies are being told to us real world people straight in the face and the incredible way in which we need these lies to maintain our civilization. Sadly, though, the film stretches the point: it is one thing not to tell a lie and a completely different thing for characters to go on and volunteer inconvenient truths about themselves at point convenient to the film. It’s sad, because the film seems to dwell on the latter rather than the former. Personally, I would consider the first world wittier and more consistent with the premises. I also consider the film’s choice rather sad, because there is a lot of wisdom in exposing the way lies provide the energy for much of humanity’s endeavors and the way these falsely based endeavours are getting us humans up to no good.
Perhaps through the intention to provide a thought provoking film, as per its agenda of asking questions and thinking things for yourself, The Invention of Lying seems almost subdued in its humor. From time to time it gracefully throws a meaty joke at us, but most of its time – perhaps too much of its time – is spent on the drama. Yet even while doing so the drama part still has its weaknesses, especially when it comes to answering the basic question of why Gervais is interested in the rather shallow Garner in the first place.
Best scene: Advertising in a world where no lie can be told is really cool, in particular the ads for Coke and Pepsi. I wonder if those brand names really agreed to have the stuff that is said about them told the way it is or whether litigation threats were involved.
Technical assessment: A pretty mediocre Blu-ray with average picture and a way too mundane sound.
Overall: A smart and overall calmly entertaining comedy that pulls its punches so much it prevents itself from being a real gem. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Cairo Time

Lowdown: A Western woman falls in love with Egypt.
Review:
Although I have lived most of my life near Egypt I hardly got to explore it, a fact I tend to regret now that I live on the other side of the world. Thus when I received a recommendation for an English speaking film discussing the Egyptian way of life I went for it: It ignited an old flame in me, the memories of Friday afternoons spent at my uncle's place watching Israel's then only TV channel broadcast its regular weekly Egyptian made film. These tended to be silly films of poor standards, but they had their own Bollywood like character and thus their own unique charm. The fact Israeli TV has moved on since is more than a bit of a shame.
Cairo Time tells of an American woman (Patricia Clarkson) coming to visit her UN husband in Cairo. Only that the husband is stuck in the Gaza Strip and the only one to help her sort the situation out is the husband's former co-worker and now the manager of a men only Cairo cafe (Deep Space 9's Alexander Siddig). At first, Clarkson finds herself in a direct collision course with the hustle and bustle of Cairo's culture, but with a little help from the friend she gets by. She has the option to seclude herself among other Western wives that just hate being stuck in Egypt, but instead she chooses to embrace Egyptian culture and experience it as much as she can. She falls in love with it, in the process falling for Siddig.
Make no mistake about it: On paper, Cairo Time is a romantic impossible love triangle story we've seen a trillion times before. That, however, is just a minor aspect of the film; the main agenda behind Cairo Time is to expose the viewer, in particular the Western viewer, to the charms of Egyptian culture. Cairo Time is like a tourist ad for Egypt, only that it doesn't cut corners and doesn't make everything look like a postcard: it shows some nasty things about Egypt just as it shows the beautiful ones, leaving it up to the viewer to decide if the pros outweigh the cons. Me, I don't care that much about the weighing; I just enjoyed the experience.
Slow paced and encumbered by Clarkson rather getting on my nerves, I enjoyed Cairo Time for the glimpse it provided me into another world.
Best scene: Clarkson attempts to take matters into her own hands and takes a bus to Gaza. The bus gets boarded by Israeli soldiers who don't mind invading Clarkson's private matters and, eventually, send the bus back with all of its passengers. I liked the scene because as an ex Israeli and an ex Israeli soldier I am used to the portrayal of Israeli soldiers as the angels of pure good, making it truly interesting to see the view from the other side.
Overall: Far from a perfect film, Cairo Time is still quite an illuminating film. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 5 April 2010

Total Recall

Lowdown: A man whose memory was erased ends up a freedom fighter for Mars.
Review:
The recent spate of high quality science fiction films (District 9, Moon) made me recall another quality science fiction film I have been in love with for a long while and haven't seen for a while, Total Recall. Mind you, my feelings towards this 1990 film weren't always the way they are now: when it first came out to the cinemas I refused to go and see it because I had felt films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger to be too stupid to watch.
It was only when another Schwarzenegger film, Terminator 2, came out to knock me off my senses that I went looking for more. One such avenue was Total Recall, and a good army friend (Yair) gave me the film's video. I watched it twice in one afternoon in the company of my father, and we both agreed this was one hell of a film. A couple of years later, when I got my own laserdisc player and my first home theater setup, Total Recall was one of the first lasers I ended up buying and one of the films I ended up watching the most. As it is, Total Recall and I go a long way; and now, with the laser long gone, I wanted to see what the Blu-ray format has to offer for this film I had visited so many times before.
Time for the token summary of the plot, loosely based on a Phillip K. Dick short story that was made into something much bigger and better by the screenplay. Total Recall is set in a future where the earth is at a global war between the north and the south, with the north receiving vital mineral help from Mars to help its war effort. Those minerals are dug at the expense of the exploited Martian human population, which is left with minimal breathing air and mere cheap radiation protection that turns lots of them into mutants and causes them to rebel.
Enter Schwarzenegger, a lowly earth construction worker married to a sexy pre Basic Instinct Sharon Stone. We learn earth's society is a lot like today's China: people live in a dictatorship, washed by government prepared news, yet are generally free to live their day to day lives under Big Brother like supervision. In our hero's case, that supervision is something he prefers to ignore when it comes to his weird fetish with Mars. Schwarzenegger can't afford going to Mars, so he goes to a company called Rekall that sells memories of vacations and buys himself a vacation to Mars. Things go wrong, though, and his brain rejects the memory implants; Rekall chucks him out, and the next he knows the whole world is trying to kill him. Help comes from an unexpected direction: himself, as he receives instructions and aid sending him to Mars to help the freedom fighters there set Mars free using some secret the authorities strive to keep a secret.
Total Recall was the first Paul Verhoeven film I got to see. Since then he established himself as one of my favorite directors with the likes of Basic Instinct and Starship Troopers. In general, all his films bear his trademarks: extreme violence, sex portrayed in its full glory (for better and worse), and messages of the type you'd expect to receive from a director who spent his childhood starving under Nazi occupation. In Total Recall's case, the main question is whether the events transpiring over Schwarzenegger are real or the result of Rekall's memory implants; that is Verhoeven's way of asking, Matrix style, whether the world we live in is real or not. Verhoeven expands on the point of what is real and what isn't and what we should believe in vs. what we should be questioning when he shows us TV news broadcasts saying riots in Mars have been peacefully subjected and then showing protesters shot in cold blood. But Verhoeven is not into petty new age philosophy; his message is loud and clear: "You are what you do. A man is defined by his actions, not his memory." As in, get a move on, be practical, and sort the world you seem to be living in. On this point, as on most of the other points - graphic sex and violence included - I am with Verhoeven. If we consider ourselves adults, we should confront the world as it is, with all the harshness reality has to offer.
P.S. What do I think, was Schwarzenegger dreaming or not? I say he was dreaming, otherwise how can you explain Mars' gravity not having an effect on visiting earthlings?
Best scene: Oh, there are many candidates there, with scenes most memorable for their one liners. There's "consider it a divorce", "give these people air" (spoken with a very harsh Austrian accent), and "see you at the party Richter". My favorite, though, is "two weeks", the quote repeated when Schwarzenegger first arrives at Mars' passport control disguised as a fat lady with an explosive head. Because of Total Recall, every time I'm asked to quote an expected duration for a job, my answer is "two weeks".
Technical assessment: This is a rather minimalist Blu-ray in the sense it doesn't offer any special features, not even subtitles (thank goodness I know the film by heart). The picture is average for a Blu-ray yet obviously way better than my laserdisc of old; it's also anamorphic widescreen compared to the old laser's pan & scan, which means I could finally see bits of the picture I have never seen before. The 5.1 sound is not bad but it shows its age, lacking in low frequency effects that are now as common as muck. On the positive side, the laser's rather strident sound is gone in favor of a version that is much gentler on the ears.
Overall: Poetry in motion picture, 5 out of 5 stars. If it wasn't for Blade Runner I would have said Total Recall is the best serious science fiction film ever; I might still make that claim, as it seems Total Recall is excellent by design whereas Blade Runner became good through a series of flukes.

Saturday, 3 April 2010

The Reader

Lowdown: A younger boy contends with learning the older woman had an affair with was a Nazi.
Review:
As Holocaust films go, The Reader is not your average one because it's more to do with the way Germany contends with its own history than it is a film about the tragedies done to others. As film rentals go, The Reader almost slipped under my radar because our rental place stocks it on DVD only and we primarily search for Blu-rays, indicating at the dangers of sticking with the more mainstream releases one tends to find on Blu-ray (while bearing in mind that at least by my criteria, The Reader is very a mainstream release, the way most English speaking film with major film stars are).
The Reader's story tells us of a young Berlin boy (German actor David Kross) in post World War 2 Germany, later switching to the story of the same boy but now as an adult (Ralph Fiennes). As a boy, our hero falls ill one day on his way back home and receives help from an adult woman (Kate Winslet). Liking the help he received he comes back to her place to show his gratitude, quickly finding himself in a very sexual affair with the woman, an affair that materializes through having sex and him reading the woman some classic stories. And then we learn the woman was a Nazi looking over Jews in concentration camps and overlooking the process of selection for extermination. Our boy - already damaged goods from having an affair with an older lady that prevents him from having affairs with girls his age - has to deal with the knowledge he was making love to the most notorious incarnation of evil in Western culture.
While most of the films that follow The Reader's lines I have been exposed to before have been based on a true story, The Reader's is based on a fiction book. As such it can stretch things here in there in order to make us think of things, and in this particular case the prevailing thought is about the way post Nazi Germany, represented by the boy, is dealing with the Nazi heritage represented by the woman. The metaphor works quite well, but... I couldn't help but feel The Reader wasn't half as good as a film as it could have been. It's hard for me to point exactly where the fault is: the acting is fine, although I did not find it spectacular (if you ask me, Winslet isn't half as good as she was in Revolutionary Road). True, there is some nudity in the film, even male one, but other than that the film seems to have been made in tried and tested ways rather than anything we haven't seen before. You can enjoy The Reader and you probably will, but that will almost surely be the result of the wise script and its metaphors rather than you witnessing something new and great in the art of cinema; and if that is the case, then perhaps it would be better to just read the book.
One complaint that was often thrown at The Reader was that it trivializes the image of the Nazi baddie and makes her/them appear approachable. I agree: The Reader makes the Nazi in the film look human and approachable but I don't see any problem with that. Unlike those who complain, I think it is of utmost importance for people to understand that the Nazis were humans who looked, ate and shat just like all other humans. This is important because people need to know everyone can become Nazi like, and once they know it they might even do something to prevent themselves and the people they're in contact with from becoming ones and from doing Nazi like acts. There is, after all, a lot of facism around us even though we tend to think of ourselves as living in purer societies. I therefore think The Reader is a step in the right direction: after all, people like Rudolf Höss were famous for being family men.
Best scene: Winslet, on trial, prefers being recognized as an evil Nazi to being recognize illiterate.
Technical assessment: Perhaps my lack of satisfaction with The Reader is a direct result of the poor quality picture on this DVD, incredibly sub-par for a contemporary film. All details are robbed of the picture here, and colors are all distorted.
Overall: I'll be harsh on The Reader and give it just 3 out of 5 stars, mainly because I was annoyed with the uninspiring way in which it was made.