Monday, 30 August 2010

(500) Days of Summer

Lowdown: A guy falls for a girl who doesn’t return as much love.
Review:
Between the good things I’ve heard of (500) Days of Summer and the good opinion I have of Zooey Deschanel (as discussed here and given the release of her second She & Him album), I was looking forward to watching this one. A romantic comedy with delivered with the promise of not suffering from cheesiness is not to be trifled with!
(500) Days of Summer follows Tom (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a young guy on his first proper job. Tom wanted to be an architect but instead ended up finding himself composing greeting cards for a greeting card company, a compromise that leaves him on the frustrated side of things. Office prospects change when Summer (Deschanel) starts to work there as his boss’ assistant. With her natural magnetism, Tom falls for Summer straight away and convinces himself that she’s the girl for him. Summer, on her side, doesn’t seem that interested. Even when they do get together, eventually, they’re not truly together; and in a reversal of common perceptions regarding relationships, it’s the boy that wants the commitment and the girl who’s afraid. What shall be the fate of this relationship?
The main thing I took out of (500) Days of Summer is it being quite a boring film to watch, and that’s saying a lot given its just a 90 minutes film. The film seems aware of this problem and tries to compensate by being hip (e.g., narration, stylish crossovers) and by constantly skipping back and forth in time, from one day in the Tom/Summer relationship chronicles to another. Hence the justification for using the title (500) Days of Summer, even if the film is still boring at its core.
(500) Days of Summer is not all doom and gloom, though. At its core it has something interesting to say, which hit a personal nerve with me. Personally, my own relationships took me through all of the various torments Tom went through in his relationship with Summer; the difference was that my experience spanned over several relationships. I’ve seen it all: the girl who couldn’t make her mind up, the girl who made her mind up one day but changed it the next, the girl who said she was shying from a commitment but went on to get married the next day, and – obviously – numerous girls who just didn’t know what they wanted. As is the case with Tom’s character in the film, in retrospect I am happy with all of these experiences because through them I learned a lot about myself as well as a lot about what it is to have a proper relationship. Since maintaining a relationship is a very hard thing to do (and in no way can I claim to be good at it – just ask my wife), one needs all the help one can get. I don’t think I would have been able to be at the point in life I currently am, happily in the best relationship I could possibly expect to have, without going through the former torments. In this respect, (500) Days of Summer is all about the gift of hindsight when it comes to relationship management.
(500) Days of Summer even goes a step further to deliver an anti fatalistic blow by claiming there is no address on the true love that’s waiting for you out there; you just have to make the most of what you have. In saying so, as in having Tom truly happy only when he follows his true self, the film pretty much echoes my own relationship lesson #1: “Be yourself no matter what they say”.
Best scene (1): Tom has a Han Solo moment when Summer finally gives him the nod and he imagines himself to be the focal point the universe for a brief while. A nice celebration of what being successfully in love feels like.
Best scene (2): Tom, the frustrated architect, refers to Alain de Botton’s Architecture of Happiness book and gives it away as a present. I didn’t like that book much, but that’s despite the book carrying some potent ideas that we should all be aware of. Overall, it’s nice to see the book receiving pop culture recognition. It's also nice to see someone other than me thinking the book serves as a good idea for a present.
Technical assessment: An above average Blu-ray, both in picture and in sound (aided there by a great collection of soundtrack songs), yet far from reference levels.
Overall: It’s nice to watch a romcom that actually has something proper to say, but why does it have to be so boring? 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Kick-Ass

Lowdown: An average teenager decides to become a superhero and faces the consequences.
Review:
Kick-Ass is a film building on the tradition of comic based superhero cinema but with a twist: its superheroes have no supernatural abilities. Or at least that’s how things start when we’re introduced to the film’s story, told in flashback mode by its main hero: Kick-Ass.
Kick-Ass is an average New York teen with an idea. We all read, dream and watch stuff about superheroes, so why don’t we become superheroes ourselves? He takes on the challenge, buys himself a stupid looking costume over the Internet, and sets out to fight crime. Crime hits him, literally and pretty quickly, but this doesn’t deter him. Soon enough he acquires his fame through YouTube.
Gradually, things become more complicated, with gangsters and drugs joining the picture. When it seems Kick-Ass is biting more than he can chew he gets to meet another pair of natural superheroes, a father (Nicholas Cage) and his ten year old daughter. They’re the real deal who know what they’re doing; as far as the little girl is concerned, being the superhero is the only thing she knows about the world. Together, and in mysterious ways, our heroes fight the baddies to save the day and prepare us for a sequel.
Kick-Ass is quite entertaining. It’s funny, in that geek comedy type of way; and its action scenes are designed to go a step further than what we’re used to, meaning that Kick-Ass is no film for little children to watch. Between that and its message about the search for a self identity in our modern era you could be forgiven for assuming that Kick-Ass actually kicks ass as far as quality cinema is concerned.
I would disagree with you if that is what you think. The main thing one takes out of Kick-Ass is the sight of a ten year old killing baddies by the ton in ways that would make Rambo a humble pacifist. It’s all designed to shock you on the basis of letting you watch things you’ve never imagined before, but at one stage or another I stopped to think about the point of it all. Do I really want to see a ten year old behead people? Does that make me a better person? I don’t think so. Not because I’m against seeing stuff that takes me out of my comfort zone but rather because I consider it stupid to take me out of my comfort zone solely for the sake of taking me outside my comfort zone. I feel that this is the case with Kick-Ass simply because any positive thing it has to say is utterly hidden by its attempted titillation.
What started for me as quite an entertaining film ended with the feeling of deep emptiness, an emptiness only enhanced by the very strong product placement for Apple MacBooks and the MySpace website. Apple seem to have a monopoly on film good guys' computers, but does anyone use MySpace anymore?.
Best scene: Perhaps the best demonstration of what Kick-Ass is about is provided in a scene where gangsters try and get information out of a guy by putting him in a microwave oven and turning it on. As per Kick-Ass’ spirit of going where normal films don’t tend to venture, we witness the result of the cooking.
Technical assessment: Kick-Ass is one of those Blu-rays where, immediately as it starts, you sit back with joy at the reminder of just how superior Blu-ray sound can be to DVD sound. Shortly afterwards you’re annoyed at the less than impressive picture, where the struggle to maintain a high contrast look to match the comics appeal causes colors to mildly distort and the picture to be less sharp than it could have been.
Overall: I’ll be hard on this one, because I tend to think that style should not cover for emptiness. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Beaufort

Lowdown: The days before Israel’s 2000 retreat from Lebanon, viewed from inside a bunker.
Review:
I have distinct childhood memories of the Israeli war in Lebanon during 1982. I remember the empty roads, the result of many men being called for army reserve duty (a fact that helped my sister pass her driver’s test). I remember playing with friends during a break when we were told that the Beaufort (or the way it’s called in Israel, Bufor) was conquered by Israeli soldiers from the PLO but at a great price of human life, and I remember the questions being asked afterwards as to the wisdom of this conquest.
The Beaufort is a bunker located next to an old Crusaders forest a few tens of kilometres into Lebanese territory from Israel’s northern borders. As per the other numerous fortresses built by the Crusaders in the area, the Beaufort is beautifully located high on a mountain, so as to allow good vantage and control over the mostly hostile population below. Israel held on to the Beaufort all the way from 1982 to 2000, when it retreated out of Lebanon altogether (and when Hezbollah took over instead). Beaufort, the 2007 Israeli produced film, follows a fictional set of events taking place during the weeks before Israel’s retreat that's obviously inspired by real life events.
Almost the entire film takes place inside the Beaufort bunker as we follow the [Israeli] people manning it. We start off with the soldiers unable to contact the outside world other than by air after an explosive is set on the path leading to the bunker. A bomb dismantling specialist is brought in to help, providing viewers with an introduction to the people at the fort – most central of which is the young lieutenant commanding it, Liraz. As the film progresses we witness an escalating chain of Israeli casualties at the Beaufort, putting Liraz in conflict: on one hand he’s grabbed the opportunity to command the post with both hands and he genuinely believes he’s doing great service to his country, but on the other he’s slowly realizing his and his men’s sacrifices at the fort are nothing more than a political chess game. Or rather, he’s the last to realize it amongst the fort’s people as they’re either physically or mentally removed from their post.
As an ex soldier in the Israeli army I was never in situations and settings as extreme as the ones played by the Beaufort’s soldiers. I can, however, recognize the incredible authenticity created by the film in its description of the situation and its description of army life. From that dumbed down way of talking that is full of bad mouthing and army lingo yet is quite to the point, down to the way the bunker and the equipment look like, Beaufort feels as real as. It was so real that I was very vividly reminded exactly why I detested my own army service for being a waste of time, for making me do things that are of no importance whatsoever to any worthwhile cause, and for preventing me from doing much better things with my limited time upon this earth. The one single thing that drove me away from Israel and towards Australia the most was this feeling of deep hostility I have towards army life, and Beaufort was good enough to hit that soft nerve of mine with the power of a sledgehammer.
Beaufort is good for much more than that, though, because it packs with it an important political message. By showing us how soldiers are led to their meaningless deaths by detached commanders uttering meaningless commands from the safety of their homes, Beaufort makes a statement about the way our political system runs. With regards to Israel’s situation with Lebanon it asks the question of whether there was no point for Israel’s eighteen year occupation there, while in contrast it asks the question (albeit much more subtly) of whether that year 2000 retreat was dangerous because it allowed Israel’s enemies to take over and, as we now know, put a lot of the country under the direct threat of a missile attack. One can easily find more philosophical issues to discuss out of Beaufort, but the political one is by far the most immediate.
It’s also by far the most relevant, even in Australia. Take the situation Australia is in by looking at the events of this last week alone: in separate events, two Aussie soldiers have died in Afghanistan and two more were injured. In parallel, federal elections took place in Australia but the war in Afghanistan was never an agenda item. Why is that? Why do we have Australians fighting in Afghanistan in the first place, what good comes out of that, and is there a point to the soldiers' deaths? Watch this film and you’ll probably agree there is not much point there; you’ll agree that the soldiers are dying for nothing more than their leaders’ political ass covering and for people being generally unable to change their minds even in the face of clear evidence.
Best scene: One moment a soldier is there, eating chocolate; the next he’s lying dead after a booby-trap takes him by surprise. That particular scene is set in a way that reminded me a lot of Hezbollah’s videoing of its attacks on Israeli soldiers, prominent videos in Israeli news services back in the nineties.
Overall: A very potent film at 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

Lowdown: A nonconformist girl gets her Prince Charming.
Review:
So much has been said about Jane Austen in general and Pride and Prejudice in particular over this blog recently that I see no point in further introductions. The only thing I will fuss about is me declaring I finally read the book this fuss is all about.
With that out of the way, I find the most interesting question to be: what is all the fuss about? What is it that Austen was trying to say in her book that made this book the success it is? A lot of theories have been suggested to answer this call, most of which are mentioned in the modern opening and closing notes accompanying this Penguin edition of Pride and Prejudice that I got to read. They start with the obvious speculations on Austen’s balancing act between giving power to women and aligning with her contemporary society’s ultra conservative ways (at least when judged by modern eyes, as in not through Tony Abbott’s eyes). They move on to theories I find more interesting, theories dealing with more basic philosophy: what does it take for us to say we “know” something? Elizabeth Bennet thinks she knows Darcy and Wickham early on in the book, but three hundred pages later admits her first impressions were wrong. Is there a way for us to come up with objective criteria for determining whether what we think we know is actually the truth?
Interesting as that question may be, I much prefer to seek answers to questions such as these with the likes of Bertrand Russell than I do with Austen. If you ask me what it is that Austen was trying to say in her book I will tell you about my own theory: in my view, Austen’s Pride and Prejudice is an attempt to diversify the English gene pool. I’m serious! Think about it: Elizabeth won’t marry her cousin, Collins, and Darcy won’t marry his cousin, the daughter of Lady Catherine de Bourg. Instead, the two marry one another to create a healthier mix of genes. QED.
Other than being silly, what am I trying to say with this theory of mine? I’m trying to say that with all due respect to Austen, hers are not the type of books I would normally read. Not that I suffered reading it; it’s just that with my limited time upon this earth there are books that resonate better with me and the things that are on my mind.
For a start, I found Pride and Prejudice to be a bit tedious to read, especially in its first two volumes (the book is made of three). A lot of it is to do with the use of old style English, which is a bit of a pain, and a lot of it to do with the fact that – let’s face it – not much is actually happening in the novel. I mean, the entire affair can be summed up in just a few sentences if you really wanted to do it, an act that exposes a lot about the real charm of the book: the fact that at the core, we all like it because it’s an effective rags to riches story. I also had trouble identifying with the heroine Bennett girl: unlike the filmed versions, she does not stand out much in my modern reader's eyes; in today's world I wouldn't have given her the second chance Darcy does. While I admit that she lived in a different world to mine, a world where conventions were strict, my point is that there is too much of a gulf between my world and Austen's for me to truly enjoy Bennett's story.
That said, Austen’s writing demands a lot of respect. The articulate way she uses even the basic of things – stuff like card games – to differentiate between different people and what we should be really thinking about them is quite amazing. She does have her lesser moments, though, like when she explicitly tells us that Elizabeth is her mother’s least favorite daughter; I would have preferred this impression to be conveyed through dialog or an event taking place instead, especially in this book that is all about impressions (Pride and Prejudice's initial title was "First Impressions").
Still, I liked this peek into the world as it was two hundred years ago. If anything, it shows how people at the time couldn’t write a letter for the life of them: all the letters quoted in the book, some over a few pages long, are just one big block of text. Hey, 17th to 18th century letter writers, have you heard of the use of paragraphs? Think about your reader. Think readability.
What I enjoyed the most during my reading was the ongoing comparison between the original book and the various interpretation of it I have encountered, in particular my favorite – the 1995 mini series with Colin Firth. It was nice to identify the discrepancies between the two and to wonder why they were there. Given that I already knew the book’s plot very well before reading it, this study of differences proved out to be my main source of enjoyment from this reading experience. You can say mine was an analytical read, simply because I had no other choice.
Overall: Good, but not my usual cup of English tea. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Box

Lowdown: A struggling family offered a million dollars on the condition that someone dies.
Review:
The Box comes straight at you with a plot from one of those Tales of the Unexpected / The Twilight Zone TV programs of old. We start with a typical family that’s not doing too bad but has its struggles: the wife (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher with a limp that is told her salary is going to be cut; the husband (James Marsden) is resourceful NASA employee told that his dream of becoming an astronaut is going to stay that way – a dream.
Into the picture comes a weirdo with only half his face still in place (Frank Langella). He pops at our family’s doorstep and leaves them a box containing nothing but a button: if they press it, they’ll get a million dollars but the price is that someone they don’t know will die. What will our family choose to do? And what will the repercussions of their choice be?
As you can tell, The Box sounds promising. Style wise, there is a heavy investment here on establishing the setting at 1976: the colors, the furniture, the radio news broadcasts we get to hear, and the landing of the Viking spacecrafts on Mars. Then there is the great ethical debate opened for us explore with this whole button affair, once you overcome the obvious problem of having a button press causing someone you don’t know to die just because you pressed it.
That’s exactly where The Box’ problems start: as the movie continues to pursue the matter of the button and what’s behind it further and further, it does not let you forget that its entire premises is rather silly. It doesn’t let you do so because things slowly become sillier and sillier; quickly enough I found the anticipation I had at the beginning of the film, to be shocked and awed, turning into a “why the hell am I wasting my time on this crap”. Once all is said and done, especially after the ridiculous ending, you realize The Box is one of those films that tries to work by making you feel “deep in that spiritual level”: that is, by overwhelming you with nonsense you’re meant to feel that perhaps there is more to this universe than we can understand etc.
After watching the film I realized The Box was directed by Richard Kelly, the same guy who did Donnie Darko. I didn’t like Donnie Darko for the exact same reasons I don't like The Box, thinking it a bunch of highly stylish crap that is ultimately meaningless. The Box, it seems, is Kelly's direct sequel.
Ultimately, I was greatly disappointed with The Box. Have a think about it: the idea of a film discussing the moral issues of someone doing something for their own personal benefit without thinking twice about it and causing some mischief to another as a result is an idea that’s definitely worth delving into. It’s highly relevant, because this is exactly what happens when we take a car for a drive and emit carbon into the atmosphere, carbon that ends up causing the home of some poor family on a remote Pacific island whose name we’ve never heard of before go under water. The Box' insistence on linking the landing of a spaceship on Mars to its main affairs (to name but one example example), instead of dealing with potential ethical issues with a straight face, turns it into an annoying farce.
Badly done scene: In retrospect, even the key “should we press the button or not” scene was not made as well as it should have been. I can understand the director tyring to go for the underwhelming, but it just didn’t work.
Technical assessment: An all around average Blu-ray. No major faults but nothing that will knock you off your sofa.
Overall: If you like your bullshit in high doses then you might like this one. I don’t. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The Hangover

Lowdown: Friends recover from an eventful stag party they remember nothing of.
Review:
Bachelor parties are a mini genre by their own rights. The first I recall is an 18+ one with a young Tom Hanks, Bachelor Party, that I got to see at the cinema despite being severely underage; these are the advantages of being tall and of cinemas wanting to make as much money as they can.
If anything, films belonging to this genre prove that you can make a decent film without having any significant artistic claims. The Hangover provides further evidence to support this claim.
The Hangover doesn’t start in realms that haven’t been explored before, it just takes these realms to new extremes. A group of Californian male friends drive off to Vegas a few days prior to one of them getting marries in order to conduct the ritual known as the stag party. The group includes the would be groom, two of his friends (each accompanied with their own set of faulty backgrounds), and the would be groom’s would be brother in law (a rather eccentric fellow). They hit Vegas, they have their first drink of the night… and the next thing we know it's morning time and they’re awake in their stupidly expensive hotel room: the room has been destroyed, a human baby is in one of the storage cabinets, a very live tiger is in the toilets, and the would be groom is missing in action.
Henceforth starts a search and rescue operation where the friends find more and more about what happened during the previous night, a night about which they remember nothing, all in the just cause of locating their friend so he can have his wedding. It’s all pretty extreme stuff, as one can expect given the tiger and the baby, and it all combines everything one is normally led to expect about Las Vegas. It’s funny, even though a lot of it is not a straight out comedy but more like an extremely active drama; and it’s not shy of crossing the line into realms the politically correct amongst us would find in the wrong. For the record, the Blu-ray features the cinematic version as well as a less refined extended edition; we went for the latter, of course.
For what is a good comedy I was surprised to say that although some of the faces were familiar, the only truly familiar face (and body) was that of Heather Graham, who plays a rather minor role.
Best scene: There’s a whole lot of craziness here, but I was really taken by surprise when Mike Tyson showed up.
Technical assessment: A nice Blu-ray. Not outstanding but not bad either.
Overall: Crazily funny. No higher message here, just a fine attempt at outdoing all crazy stag party films done before. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 2 August 2010

A Single Man

Lowdown: The last day in the life of a single gay professor.
Review:
Colin Firth is a favorite actor of mine. Sure, he stumbled when he chose to take part in the likes of What a Girl Wants, but he more than made up for it in his portrayal of the ultimate Mr Darcy (at 1995’s Pride and Prejudice). Besides, he played an Arsenal supporter in Fever Pitch; who can ask for anything more?
I can, because although it is clear the guy is talented, it is also clear he never had the platform to truly show off his talent with. Until A Single Man, that is.
Firth plays a single British gay university professor living and working in the USA during 1962 as we follow what he intends to be the last day of his life. Through a series of flashbacks we learn that his lover died at a car accident, and between them being gay and with the attitudes at the time (which are probably not that different to today’s attitudes) he wasn’t even able to say goodbye properly. He’s frustrated and sees no point in living anymore; we follow him as he nonchalantly buys bullets for the revolver he intends to use at this, the last day of his life.
Aside of the previously mentioned flashbacks, the entire film revolves around Firth’s would be last day of his life. It’s not your average last day; it’s full of events which make Firth feel more alive that day than most of the days before. The events include reminiscing with an old friend (Julianne Moore) and him getting to know a student of his that can actually think for himself. Thus, as the day rolls on, we learn more about life than death; we learn about the important things in life.
It’s interesting to note that although Firth plays a gay character, A Single Man never feels like a film about homosexuals. Homosexuality is just a tool used to further insulate the hero character at the beginning of the film, as if to magnify the effect of him living his last day to the full and coming out of his insulation.
Other than the lesson about life and the acting lesson provided to us by Firth, A Single Man stands out for its style. This one is a cinematographer’s delight, with unusual use of colors and lenses, pans and edits. The end result doesn’t feel like a film, it feels like a work of art.
Best scene: Firth waits at the bank to withdraw his possessions from his safe. Someone interrupts him, and we follow Firth's stare from his point of view as he slowly raises his eyes towards the subject of the interruption. The slowness, the style and the colors of the shot call much attention to the technique, and rightly so. It’s beautiful!
Technical assessment: I liked this Blu-ray a lot. The picture is overwhelmed with the browns that used to dominate the times the film is set in, but it also knows how to tackle the contrasts thrown at it. For a film that works at the subtle level, the sound is just great; I found it overwhelmingly good despite its lack of aggression.
Overall: An artistic creation I warmly recommend. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Nim's Island

Lowdown: An imaginative girl is alone on an island after her father is lost at sea.
Review:
Some times I expect certain things out of a film but then watch it to learn I was totally misleading myself with my expectations. 2008's Nim's Island is a case in point: I knew it was a film aimed at kids, but I worked under the assumption that a film featuring Jodie Foster must have some serious credentials under its belt. I was wrong.
Nim's Island follows Nim (played by Abigail Breslin, who had a starring role in My Sister's Keeper), an imaginative girl whose mother seems to have died (?) a while ago. In what is meant to be a fuzzy mix of reality and imagination, we learn that Nim lives on a Pacific island alone with her researcher father (Gerald Butler). They live an eco life, with animals as Nim's best friends (animals that behave very human like); for human company, Nim reads books written by Jodie Foster's character about this big macho hero (whose flashbacks are portrayed by Butler, too). Foster's, however, is a character that won't leave apartment, unable to manage human contact.
Circumstances force Foster to leave her apartment when Nim's father goes missing during a sea research quest. Nim won't call for outside help because she doesn't want her island to be charted, but as independent as she is Foster feels obliged to get out of her apartment (and her flock of product placed Apple Macs) and get in touch with her human side. The rest, as they say, is incredibly predictable.
The problem with Nim's Island is not that it's a children's film, but rather it being a film that presents a twisted picture of reality to children. The premises are just too pathetically weak, there is over reliance on stereotypes, and everything is just meant to be simply digested by the child even though nothing stands the test of reason. I guess what I'm arguing for is that even films which are meant to set sail into an imaginative realm need an anchor in reality or it least some good reasons for leaving reality behind, and Nim's Island lacks those. What it does have, though, is the stuff of below average films. It's not only the plot, the acting is pretty pathetic - Foster's included
Worst scene: The scientist Butler wears eyeglasses; the adventurer Butler doesn't. Stereotypes, anyone?
Overall: What was Foster thinking, taking part in this pathetic effort? I don't know, but I rate Nim's Island somewhere between 1.5 and 2 stars out of 5.