Wednesday, 23 June 2010

Persuasion

Lowdown: Years later, a woman who turned down a marriage offer deals with her second thoughts.
Introduction: Our ongoing Jane Austen festival has reached new peaks this past weekend when we conducted our own special Jane Austen study through watching two different made for TV versions of Persuasion. First was the 2007 version starring Sally Hawkins (of Happy-Go-Lucky fame), followed the night later by the DVD of the 1995 version starring Amanda Root.
Common Ground:
As you can expect, the story is the same. We follow a typical Jane Austen heroine, Anne Elliot, who is the only decent person in an upper class household governed by a rather obnoxious father. The family, we learn at the beginning, has lost its fortunes and has to lease its mansion to a naval admiral as they move to Bath and leave Anne behind. We also learn that Anne knows that admiral, for his wife's brother is a naval captain that proposed to her several years ago; at the time she was persuaded (hence the title name) to refuse because the guy had no fortunes and went to war, but since then she lived to regret missing out on her love. Especially as, in a similar manner to Pride and Prejudice's Mr Darcy becoming the attraction once his castle is visited, the subject of her love has accumulated quite a fortune in the Napoleonic wars.
Now the captain is visiting Anne's area again and the tension takes over Anne. What does he think of her? Is he falling for other girls in Anne's vicinity, or could he still be interested in her? And what about her rich cousin, who also seems to be interested in her - should she forget her captain and go for the safety he presents, or is he another Mr Wickham?
Through my description of the plot one can clearly identify repeating motifs of Austen's work: the independent rational woman living in a world of rather mindless people where a woman is simply not expected to think for herself; women's necessity to marry well in order to acquire social status; and women in general being more like spoiled goods without proper men by their side. It's a sort of a please everyone world that Austen creates, a world where conservative values are still justified but women are still encouraged to make their own world based on their own merit. Most notably, though, it's a world where people can't communicate properly with one another due to artificially imposed etiquette: were our heroes to just say what they think the entire story of Persuasion wouldn't last a minute.
As per Pride and Prejudice achievement, Persuasion's story is quite the uplifting feel good romance story, uplifting because it tells us middle classers that we can get somewhere in this world. Mind you, while Austen uses similar techniques to P&P in Persuasion, like creating mirror characters that reflect different potential courses for her heroine, Persuasion is not as exciting as P&P; no wonder P&P gets most of the Austen attention.
Differences:
Having discussed the commonalities between the two versions it's now time to discuss the differences. Indeed, the differences are like night and day, literally: While the 1995 version is dark and creepy (also suffering from dreadful DVD rendering), the 2007 version is brightly lit and, despite the often dark themes, uses a brighter color pallet throughout. This is by far the most noticeable difference between the two.
The second most notable difference is the way the 2007 version relies on atmosphere to convey its message while the 1995 version relies on dialog. This manifests itself in many ways, most notably the featuring of an open mouthed Sally Hawkins at the core of the film to the point you're wondering if the entire affair is some sort of a commercial for dental treatment (her teeth are definitely not authentic early 19th century, no matter how unavailable sugar was at the time). This different attitude in telling the story leads to many other nuances: for example, the 2007 version does not bother telling us many things that the 1995 version does, such as why our hero characters chose to go to the seaside and how come they bump into familiar people there, just like that. Instead what the 2007 version does is take its characters to the extreme; everyone is either more than what the 1995 version has them to be, effectively more like contemporary movie making style but also effectively more unreal. Although I haven't read the book, it seems highly likely that the 1995 take is significantly more loyal to Austen's original.
Clarity is a bit of a plague with both versions. The 1995 version suffers from a poor DVD presentation lacking in subtitles; the 2007 version we saw featured no subtitles either, but although its dialog was [slightly] clearer it managed to totally confuse me. The heroine is sometimes called Miss Elliot and sometimes Anna, and as if to confuse things the bulk of the characters also answer to the last name of Elliot; they should have done better there.
Best scene: Hawkins running through the streets of Bath to catch her love is an exciting culmination for the 2007 version which the 1995 version misses out on. It works on me in particular because, having been to Bath, I really liked the place.
Worst scene: In a manner too similar to the American ending of the recent Pride and Prejudice film (the 2005 version starring Keira Knightley), the 2007 version of Persuasion ends with a way too cheesy an ending where the captain buys the heroine's childhood house for her and gives it to her as a surprise gift. An ending like this ruins a lot of the decency of the story up to that point.
Overall: Both versions are good and both are based on an excellent story but both are still flawed, to one extent or another; I rate them both at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

Miramar by Naguib Mahfouz

Lowdown: A young woman causes havoc within the guests at an Alexandria pension.
Review:
I've heard about Naguib Mahfouz on many occasion, but I only started entertaining the thought of reading one of his books after Miramar received a glowing recommendation from Benny Tsifer. Tsifer is the editor of Israel Haaretz newspaper's literature section, but more interestingly he writes a blog that I have been addicted to over several years now. I don't always agree with what Tsifer says, but I respect his opinion; when Miramar was recommended, and given the intrigue Egypt and its culture hold with me, it was just a question of time before I put my hands on a copy.
Set in the mid sixties and taking place at a seaside pension house in Alexandria, Miramar tells the story of the events and the troubles taking place when a beautiful young girl who escaped from family tradition and a forced marriage arrives to work at the pension. In good old Rashomon style, we read the description of the same events as they are told by various guests of the pension. Each story is told in first person, and the result in an intriguing game of perspectives where we learn a lot by the way the same story is told differently.
The various story tellers and pension guests each have different backgrounds that conspire to create a representation of Egyptian politics. There lies the book's main agenda: While on the face of it Miramar is a detective like story about the way the different guests fall for the same woman and the murder that transpires, things are obviously a metaphor for events transpiring in Egyptian society with its different factions trying to take over Egypt (or, in Miramar's case, the young and innocent pretty girl).
Miramar's story is well told and is quite intriguing, although I have found its numerous flashbacks too annoying. More disturbing was the frequent vagueness of the story telling, preventing the reader from knowing exactly who said what or figuring out exactly what's taking place from time to time. You can see the purpose this serves, but I still prefer clarity. That said, Miramar has been quite an eye opener for me, and that came as a direct result of the multiple first person story telling approach: I am so used to stories being told by the hero, who is always the good guy or at least the guy you're supposed to identify with, that the thought of reading a first person story from a person who is far from good, a person with whom one simply cannot identify, has been quite intriguing.
Overall: Because of its unique story telling and exposure to a foreign culture, Miramar is probably worth more than the 3.5 out of 5 stars I'm giving it.

Thursday, 17 June 2010

Bridget Jones's Diary

Lowdown: The trials and tribulations of a modern day Western single woman in her thirties.
Review:
Before we get down to the nitty-gritty of this 2001 release that I've seen so many times before, as probably you did too, let me ask this simple question: Why isn't the film called Bridget Jones' Diary?
Questions of English grammar aside, our main reason for revisiting this classic are to do with us revisiting the Jane Austen world again, in particular the Pride and Prejudice one. There can be no doubt about Bridget Jones being an attempt towards a contemporary Jane Austen style hero, Elizabeth Bennett in particular: First we have the main male attraction named Mr Darcy, and second we have that Mr Darcy enacted by the same guy who did Austen's original Darcy in the 1995 BBC production, Colin Firth (and let me state quite unequivocally that I consider his to be the best Darcy).
So how does a modern day Bennett manage? Well, she's portrayed by a cheerful Renée Zellweger who renders her into an average woman in size, figure, intellect and aspirations. Perhaps, as the original Bennett was, she's an average amongst the higher classes, as she's working at a slick publishing house in the cooler end of London. Oh, she's also thirty and she doesn't have a man to call her own.
Step in a Hugh Grant in the role of Mr Wickham and a Colin Firth/Darcy. The former has all the glitter around him but is as trustworthy as BP, whereas the latter creates negative first impressions but turns out to be deeper than Bertrand Russell. The question quickly becomes which of the two will Zellweger/Bridget/Elizabeth go for, and how she's going to tackle the challenges life throws down the path of a modern day lady in the first place?
Between Zellweger's acting and the cheesy script, this is your classic happy ending romantic comedy material. And let us not be around the bush there: As romantic comedies go, this one is one of the more effective ones. Perhaps this is due to it trying to say something about contemporary society through the comparison with Austen's 18th century original, pointing towards the conflicting challenges society imposes on modern day women: on one hand the need to be slim while on the other the need to bear children before the clock runs out; the need to have a career vs. the need to run family; the need to always be beautiful; and, let's face it, the need for a woman to stand by her man. It's that last point that troubles me the most, both with Bridget Jones's Diary and with Pride and Prejudice, for while both try to say something good about women both also end up admitting that a woman is no good without her man. Is it just an incident that in both cases the man has a much higher social status than the heroine, with the heroine using the man to jump up the social ladder?
My point is simply that while Bridget Jones' Diary is a nice film, it fails to point its finger at the real culprits. It wants to entertain us more than it wants to make us think and more than it tries to change the world. Perhaps this is why it has been as successful as it is; I would still prefer my films aiming higher, though.
Best scene: I always liked the scene where Firth/Darcy is introduced, wearing a home made sweater. So English, so sweet. I guess this love affair of mine with Firth also has to do with Firth playing me in Fever Pitch.
Worst scene: The Grant+Firth fight. Really, do guys still solve conflicts with good old fashioned fist fights?
Overall: Funny but not as funny as it could have been, interesting but not as deep as it should have been. Good entertainment, though. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 June 2010

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - The Graphic Novel

Complete Credits:
Pride and Prejudice and Zombies - The Graphic Novel
By Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith
Adapted by Tony Lee
Illustrated by Cliff Richards
Lowdown: Same Pride & Prejudice story taking place in an alternative universe.
Review:
There’s a first time for everything I do. For example, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is the first ever Jane Austen book I get to read. Sure, it deviates somewhat from Austen’s original vision, but all events taking place are carbon copies of the original only they're set in a zombie infested England. The carbon copying is done with such passion that most quotes are very close if not identical to the original (a fact I can attest to having watched the recent Pride and Prejudice film, the recent Bollywood version, as well as the 1995 TV mini series several times).
The second personal first with Pride and Prejudice and Zombies was it being the first book length graphic novel I got to read. Sure, I’ve read comics here and there, but never a full length effort; I have sort of imagined that honor would go down to Watchmen, but as it turned out an unlikely candidate has pipped it to the post.
Precedents aside, I think it’s worth mentioning I first learned about Pride and Prejudice and Zombies through John Scalzi’s blog, Whatever. The important lesson there is that blog exposure does count when it comes to spreading memes; in my case all it took was the photo of a Victorian attired zombie on the book’s cover to convince me this book might be a good, refreshing idea. It was.
Plot wise, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is an exact copy of the Jane Austen original. The differences are to do with Austen’s England being in a situation where the gates of hell have been closed, forcing the dead to become zombies. Zombiness is contagious, so the people of England have to protect themselves; those that can afford it go to Japan (to study the way of the samurai?), while those that can afford it less – like the Bennet family – go to China to study martial arts. Our hero, Elizabeth, is one such grand master whom no zombie can bother (they can, however, get her dress dirty); yet she has a point to prove to the better connected, mainly that Chinese training can be potentially better than Japanese. It’s the devotion that counts.
You get the point: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is a rather silly take on Jane Austen’s original. Silly is perhaps the wrong word; satiric would be a better way of referring to it. Between Austen’s built in criticism of the class system and its culture, this new incarnation adds a lot of references to Victorians’ hidden sexuality, to point at just one contemporary improvement. It becomes clear as you read through the book: through zombie references added to this new version, we are able to laugh at all the silly elements of Victorian society that Austen criticizes and which, to our modern eyes, appear silly. It works, but the silliness does grow upon itself and quickly enough it becomes a bit too silly as you get the point and the zombies become more of an interruption to Austen's original story. Lucky for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, Austen's original story is so good that you can easily focus on it and regard the zombies as some sort of contemporary silliness.
The pleasure to be had out of reading Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is very well aided by the graphic novel format. This ensures that the zombie idea does not get too tedious, since it's a much faster and flowing a read than a conventional book (and for the record, Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is also sold as an ordinary paperback in addition to the comics version). Additional help is supplied by the graphics, which I have found to be exceedingly good. Granted, I am not experienced in the art of the graphic novel to venture an opinion on how good the drawings are compared to others' work; yet I can confidently say I've enjoyed it greatly.
Overall: Original, flowing and great fun at 4 out of 5 stars. Most of all, it made me really want to get to know the original better; I've already watched the mini series again, and I'm seriously considering reading Austen's original. Heaven forbid!

Saturday, 5 June 2010

The Invasion

Lowdown: Bacteria from space is turning humanity into a race of passive compliers.
Review:
The Invasion is not the first nor the last film to try and make a political statement through the horror genre, or in this particular case a semi-horror genre film. It is, however, probably one of the better budgeted ones and definitely one of the few sporting a genuinely talented cast. I didn’t know whether to expect a lot from this 2007 science fiction meets tame horror film or whether to rely on its lack of box office success as an indicator for its quality.
Taking place in contemporary Washington, The Invasion follows a professional psychologist and divorced single mother, Nicole Kidman. The space shuttle Patriot crashes back into orbit ahead of time (in very much Columbia style), bringing with it to earth pieces of alien bacteria. People around Nicole seem to get infected with this bug, and as they do they seem to be turned into passive zombies whose whole life (if you can call this state life) is devoted to a disconnected affair with the noticeable exceptions for ensuring everyone else catches the bug, too.
On one hand this alien bug promises a comfortable life devoid of conflict. Is that worth the loss of freedom that comes with it? Not according to Kidman. She goes on fighting for herself and her son, aided by a few (mostly Daniel Craig, her would be boyfriend of 007 fame). While the world around her is quickly turning upside down and the police seems to be an enforcing agency for the bug, Kidman has to stay awake and avoid the bug making a zombie of her, too.
There are many problems with The Invasion. For a start, it does not shy from using cheap cinematic tricks. For example, the film starts with a scene taken from its climax and then goes back to telling the story from the beginning. Then there are various short flashbacks and “what if” scenarios thrown all over the place. Essentially, the editing of The Invasion tries too hard to be cool or, under a more pessimistic view, tries to hard to hide some of the film’s deficiencies. Indeed, this may have been required in order to hide the glaring problems with some of the film’s events simply not making sense.
The question then becomes whether The Invasion’s deficiencies are justified in the face of what it is trying to say. Its message is pretty clear, especially given the frequent mentioning that the USA’s invasion to Iraq receives: According to The Invasion, we’ve all been turned into mind numbed zombies by this War on Terror affair. Worse, those that do decide to think for themselves and question the agendas set by the powers that be end up prosecuted by the government’s law and order authorities that are supposed to be there to serve and protect instead; the rest of society encourages this condemnation.
As someone who often finds himself marginalized for having a nonconformist opinion, I definitely feel for The Invasion’s plight. Patriotism has been used way too often to silence others; in this 21st century of ours the time has come for a change. We should keep ourselves awake, on our toes, and fighting the fight.
Worst consistency: After one scene in which we see how useless Kidman is with a gun (she’s so terrified of having fired a shot in anger that she shoots the floor next to her and almost injures herself), the next scene featuring her and a gun has her shooting down some seven zombies or so with precise shots that wouldn’t shame a professional. Police statistics indicate it takes an average of three to four shots fired from a Glock to stop a person; Commando Kidman manages with one shot per zombie.
Worst haircut: What did they do to my James Bond? Turned him into a Laflaf?
Overall: A pretty mediocre film yet I was taken by what it was trying to say. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 3 June 2010

Whatever Works

Lowdown: An old New Yorker paranoid gets in a relationship with a young ignorant woman.
Review:
If you were wondering when would Woody Allen stop making films about himself then perhaps you shouldn't watch Whatever Works. It's not only a film about himself, it's more like a court case for us to believe that him getting along with a young woman is a fair thing to do. Fair? He was actually doing her a favor.
Larry David of Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm fame plays Allen's role. Alright, I admit: he's not Allen all the way, but he's close enough. He's old, he's brilliant (a Noble prize candidate for physics), he's paranoid, he's irritating and annoying. He used to be married to a rich wife but now, after trying to commit suicide, he's separated and lives on his own in New York flat under poor conditions. His only company are his friends, old guys who delight in annoying one another.
Then a young girl from the South arrives (Evan Rachel Wood). David's character is kind to her, enough to leave a lasting impression. She asks to stay with him until she can get herself sorted in New York, having escaped her family in the South and being so naive etc. David is reluctant but doesn't really have a choice, the girl really is in trouble. So the girl stays with him, not only for a night or two but for a while. As she's with him, David starts to feel some changes: the girl is becoming more like him, as in smarter; and his vitality is on the rise, too.
Not only is Whatever Works a tool for Allen to deliver his own case to his audience, it's also a tool for him to deliver his philosophies. Allen does not spare us from criticism towards the Republican states and conservatives in general; even religion gets quite a knock. Mostly, though, we hear Allen's rants about the nature of life being unpredictable and the nature of the universe being harsh and indifferent to life. You hear David's character uttering his views and you hear an old man complaining fruitlessly. You hear, I'm alarmed to say, someone that sounds not much unlike me: someone so pessimistic you wonder if he's there to convince you life is so pointless you're better off committing suicide. Obviously, that's not Allen's intention: what he's saying is that whatever works for you is fine, and eventually through some accident - say, meeting a young girl - life would sort itself out for you to the point of becoming worth living. I, on the other hand, do not share Allen's pessimism to the same degree: I like to think I'm in charge of my own life to enough of a degree to have control over it, control that allows me to use my life in order to pursue the goals I set myself. These goals are the things that turn life from a pointless affair of gene survival into the experience of a lifetime. Am I doing as good a job pursuing these goals of mine as I should? Definitely not, which is where I'm thankful for Allen making me think about it in the first place even if I find his philosophy distorted.
Other than the philosophical discussion around which Whatever Works revolves there is not much else to the film. I actually found it a bit boring despite its short length (circa 90 minutes). Some jokes about conservative Southerners suddenly discovering sex or realizing they're gay are not enough to make Whatever Works an hilarious comedy, while David is simply too limited an actor to be truly convincing.
Worst scenes: As the film starts, David abandons his discussion with his friends to talk directly to the camera. At first the gimmick is nice, especially as the film is yet to reach the point where the viewer is so immersed in the viewing experience to be distracted. However, Allen reverts back to this gimmick several times during the film, and there the self attention it demands becomes too annoying. Talking to the camera is a bad habit that can be used here and there to make a point, kind of like starting a sentence with an "And"; but when done too often it leads viewers to realize this trick is more to do with the director's limited vocabulary than trying to make a point.
Technical assessment: Allen's DVDs are always bad given Allen's insistence on mono soundtracks, but Whatever Works breaks new records. The picture is just awful, lacking detail and having inconsistent and distorted colors. The sound is not only monaural, it's also shrill. Why oh why is Allen so conservative in the sound department is beyond me.
Overall: I'll give Whatever Works 3 out of 5 stars, but only because it did make me consider my ways and my philosophies.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Gamer

Lowdown: The story of a real life first person shooter.
Review:
Gerard Butler seems to be everywhere nowadays with Gamer being just one of many of his film appearances. In Gamer he takes on the role normally reserved to Jason Statham: the action figure specializing in kick ass manoeuvres and killing more and faster using hi-tech sex appeal. Coupled with rough edges, unshaved looks and the occasional silly joke, Butler makes quite a good Statham for directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, themselves Statham veterans (Crank and Crank High Voltage). One can only wonder whether the real thing was otherwise engaged at the time Gamer was shot.
Set in the near future, Gamer tells us of a grim world in which a billionaire that puts Bill Gates in his small pocket (portrayed by Dexter’s Michael C. Hall) establishes a virtual gaming world with a twist: Instead of playing virtual characters in a virtual world through your computer, people are playing other real people whom they control through their computer through nano implants in their characters’ brains. You can imagine the sleaze taking place in this not so virtual world!
For advanced gamers, Hall offers an even bigger experience (that is very similar to the concept offered in Statham’s Death Race): the players can control real people in first person shooter like competitions for survival, only that the shooting and the killing is for real. The controlled characters are death row inmates fighting for the promise of a pardon, presumed to take place after their 30th successful game. No one managed to survive this long before, but Butler is pretty close; can he make it? Will he be able to make it, hindered by having to subdue his talents to his human controller? Or can Butler (who is obviously innocent) break free from this gladiator regime enforced by Hall, and – in the process – expose the reality behind this charade?
I have a basic problem with the idea behind Gamer. It’s not that I doubt people have the potential to stoop so low as to control others into doing things they wouldn’t dare do themselves; it’s just that I suspect it would be much cheaper to create a gaming environment feeling just as real through other means, such as drugs or virtual reality. Still, Gamer’s setting serves to make a fine point on the nature of human beings to do wrong, which is to be praised.
The problem with Gamer, however, is that while it could have been a science fiction class act of Total Recall levels with its idea and its kick-ass action, it fails to realize its potential. Instead of aiming high, Gamer always goes for the cheap thrill: instead of exploring the events that could take place in this semi-virtual universe we have to settle for flashes of exposed breasts. Instead of properly orchestrated action scenes we have to settle with loads of fast camera action and quick editing that leave the viewer puzzled (however, given Gamer’s predictability, you can rely on the baddie being the one that’s dead at the end of the scene).
Instead of coming up with a proper cinematic statement, our duo of directors came up with an extra long 90 minute video clip featuring action, boobs and sleaze. The end result is not even half as good as Crank, simply because Crank had no serious aspirations whatsoever.
Worst scenes: An obese guy controls Butler’s sexy wife through some dubious acts. At first the concept is interesting, but when it’s repeated again and again you start asking yourself why the filmmakers chose this particularly ugly character and why they use him so often. In my opinion it’s just an example of Gamer always choosing the cheapest option rather than the thought provoking one.
Technical assessment: A good Blu-ray overall. The picture is detailed but the colors feel unnatural, while the sound is aggressive and detailed but not quite refined.
Overall: I’ll be kind to Gamer and give it 2.5 out of 5 stars, but I will add that the missed opportunity it represents has left me annoyed. What could have been a seriously spectacular science fiction film has ended up a cheap predictable thrill.