Tuesday, 28 September 2010

Invictus

Lowdown: Nelson Mandela uses the South African rugby team to unite a new nation.
Review:
It’s been a long while since I last watched a Clint Eastwood film, so his latest release – Invictus – was very warmly welcomed. The Eastwood films where he doesn’t act tend to be less involving, but Invictus compensates by utilizing Morgan Freeman and a plot based on true events.
Freeman, who played god before, acts as one of humanity’s most cherished specimen: the recently freed Nelson Mandela who was even more recently elected as the first South African prime minister since blacks were allowed to vote. Before him is a major challenge: improve the lives of the traditionally poor and suffering blacks while not losing the hearts of the still in control whites. How can that best be achieved?
While the majority assume Mandela will strive to subdue the whites as he empowers the blacks, Mandela chooses to act in the spirit of conciliation. One major way with which he achieves conciliation is to take the South African national rugby team, a symbol of white supremacy (rugby was played by the rich whites while the poor blacks played football), and turn it into a team that stands for all South Africans. In order to achieve that, Mandela recruits the team’s captain (Matt Damon) to the cause. Luckily for the two of them, the rugby world cup is about to be hosted in South Africa in a year’s time, giving them the opportunity to make their point. Unluckily for them, South Africa starts its cup preparation as the poorest team amongst the world’s ten or so rugby power nations, rendering this one an uphill battle. The result is a very effective sports film that tells an uplifting story about humanity’s better aspects. The Age wrongly criticized Invictus for having too much rugby, but then again they can’t say anything good about a sport other than AFL; what Invictus does have a lot of, perhaps even too much of, are depictions of how people can be good to one another when circumstances allow them to act this way; Mandela provided the circumstances.
Indeed, if there is anything to say against Invictus is that it is leaning way too much towards a presentation overfilled with saccharine. Everything is just too sweet to be true. The South Africans beat the New Zealanders, considered by far the strongest team at the time, but the film does not mention that most of the New Zealand team was suffering from food poisoning. Similarly, the film misleads us to think that a planned jet flyover the rugby stadium was the whim of a supporting pilot (who was, according to the film, mistaken for a would be terrorist) while in actual fact that flyover was planned. Worse, with the exception of one seemingly forced scene where his failed marriage is briefly discussed, Mandela is portrayed way too saint like. I was annoyed by these attempt to artificially sweeten the film for the simple fact they are unnecessary: the truth was much too powerful to require help. As a direct result of this, Invictus cannot be said to rank amongst the top of Eastwood’s crop.
Best scene 1: The national rugby team goes out to a poor black slum to play/train with the kids in what turns out to be a very touching scene.
Best scene 2: During the world cup final we witness sporadic scenes of this black kid doing his best to eavesdrop on the radio coming off some white guys’ car. As the match progresses, the two contrasting factions get closer.
Technical assessment: The picture was obviously artificially aged to make things look like stock shots. The sound on this Blu-ray is uninspiring almost throughout, with the exception of key scenes (mostly from the rugby pitch) where the surrounds suddenly come to life.
Overall: A nice feel good film that could have been an inspirational one had it been made less artificial. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 27 September 2010

For the Win by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: Gamers of the world unite to fight for their rights.
Review:
I have been following Cory Doctorow’s adventures over the web for a while now. Since we first met at his blog Boing Boing (a blog that happens to be one of the world’s most popular), Doctorow has quickly established himself as a guy that thinks like me and happens to think about many of the things I find myself pondering about. It was just a question of time before I got to read one of his books, and that time came when I finally put my hands on an ebook reader. Why is that? Simply because Doctorow stands up to his words of criticism concerning copyright laws and offers electronic copies of all his books, for free (under a Creative Commons license), on his website here. Of his books, I chose the young adult (YA, as in older teens) title For the Win to start my Doctorow career with for the sole reason it is his latest.
For the Win fits its YA aspirations like a gas pedal fits a Formula 1 car. It is a book about gamers, and it tells a fictional story that could take place as of tomorrow on how individual gamers from all over the world and under all sorts of circumstances unite in order to fight for their rights, rights which a collection of oppressors hold back from them through sheer greed. Our heroes range from game miners in China, playing to make a living, through groups of kids in India for whom gaming was ticket out of the mundane miseries of slum life, to what we would normally call spoiled teens in the USA who consider gaming a legitimate future career. On the other side are their oppressors: greedy bosses, game running companies oblivious or indifferent to the injustices committed in their domain, and governments that don’t care much about the rights of their people when those rights might clash with productivity.
I found For the Win very cleverly written for its target audience. It’s an extremely thrilling read, for a start; one of those books I found myself totally immersed in and hard to let go of when duty (or sleep) called. It’s well written, too: Characters are well developed, they fade in and out of the story smoothly. Overall, this is not a romantic book but rather a realistic one, a quality that is sadly missing from most of the work aimed at young adults. Second, it touches on many things that would be dear to contemporary teens: video games, finding their own place in the world, dealing with adults. Third, For the Win is not just an exciting read, it is also a valuable teaching tool: Doctorow uses the premises of gaming money to expand the discussion into the workings of the global financial market. He does so to quite a detailed level, providing explanations in a manner that is easy to understand given the complexity of the subject matter. I have found the tutoring element of For the Win to be exceptionally good, so much so that I can say it added a lot to my own understanding of world finances (and I haven’t been a young adult for a long time now). For the Win is worth reading for its educational benefits alone, especially if you do not consider yourself an authority on matters of finance.
There are disadvantages to Doctorow’s appeal to younger audiences, though. Language wise, For the Win is very simple. Although it mixes lots of foreign phrases into its melting pot, as suits a book taking place all over the world, this book is no sophisticated poetry. Usually, I complain about books that are too hard to understand; this time around I will complain that the book’s language made me yearn for something a bit more poetic.
Doctorow goes one step further with his youth appeal. He uses what I would consider cheap tricks to stand characters out: his cooler characters, unlike their parents, don’t wear watches; they just use the mobile phones they carry on them anyway. Fair enough, but I’ve seen this trick used before, so by the time For the Win presented it to me trying to make a character sound cool by telling me it doesn’t wear a watch was decidedly uncool.
I’m digressing here, though. The most important thing about For the Win, other than its economy lessons, is the agenda it pushes into its reader like a bulldozer with its pedal on the metal. This agenda is developed slowly; at first Doctorow explains through his characters why the virtual world with its virtual money matters in the real world. As we move on to the inevitable conclusion that the web gamers of the world should unite in order to make their stand in the global world of finances, Doctorow’s very left wing and liberal agendas become crystal clear. The feeling of togetherness you get when reading a book involving heroes from different backgrounds coming at you from all over the world certainly helps establish that left wing solidarity. And you know what? I so totally agree with the guy I could give him a metaphorical kiss. I can only feel sorry for myself not having encountered a writer like Doctorow and books like For the Win when I was a young adult, back in my ancient past, because having such a book at my disposal would have meant the formalization of the opinions I now hold concerning world politics could have taken place through a much easier process and much earlier than it did. I can hear right wingers and addicted capitalists out there complaining that Doctorow uses brainwashing techniques, but such arguments are easily countered: it is very clear Doctorow deals with facts and not speculation, and the biggest evidence is on his side – the GFC.
If there is one thing I have established with regards to Cory Doctorow by now is that he is going to play a major role in my life as I know it. Just like Richard Dawkins is helping me learn more about science through his books and helps me formalize my views on matters such as religion, Cory Doctorow is there to acquaint me with the world of politics while helping me formalize my opinions on matters of civil libertinism. In my book, such services are amongst the most important services a person can provide. Yes, you could say I hold Cory Doctorow in the highest regard.
Overall: For the Win is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between Doctorow and I. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Closing anecdote: I met Cory Doctorow at the recent AussieCon4 science fiction conference in Melbourne. I used the opportunity to purchase a physical copy of another book of his just so he could sign it (things were so hectic he actually signed it with a personal dedication before I was even remotely close to paying for the book). That meeting took place a day after I received my Kindle, and my experience thus far indicates that physical copy would remain unread. I will continue reading Doctorow through downloaded ebooks instead.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Robin Hood

Lowdown: Circumstances place an ordinary person in a position to protect the rights of all those deprived of rights.
Review:
I was very curious about this latest reboot on the Robin Hood theme. First, because it was made by Ridley Scott, a director I generally look up to. Second, because it stars Russell Crowe, who happens to be one of the best actors by my book. Third, because although the two have collaborated several times before, Robin Hood is the closest thing to their most successful collaboration, Gladiator. But fourth, and most importantly in the curiosity arousal arena, is the feedback I have heard of the film and its contradictory nature: on one hand, the majority of reviewers said this Robin Hood is boring as, with a script intending to make people talk rather than fight; on the other I heard from loud and generally reliable sources feedback on the film being smart. So what do I make of it?
Plot wise, this Robin Hood is the most eccentric of all the previous Robin Hoods I have bumped into thus far. Crowe portrays a crusader ("Robin Longstride") on his way back home (England) after ten years of fighting that robbed him of any sense of idealism he might have had. So much so that his king - Richard the Lionheart - imprisons him. But Richard dies sacking yet another French fortress on his way back to his throne in England, Robin escapes, and through a set of coincidences Robin finds himself assuming the identity of a dead knight and returning the crown to London. The plot thickens at this point: Robin finds himself assuming the knight's identity longer than he would wish for, at the request of the knight father (Max von Sydow) and his widow, Marion (Cate Blanchett); the new power hungry king, John, is looking to collect taxes from his barons, more than they are willing to pay; and the French conspire to "assist" John to collect those taxes in order to set the barons against their king and allow them a comfortable French invasion to England. And on whose shoulders lies the burden of sorting the whole mess out? You guessed it.
The critics are right: indeed, this new take on the Robin Hood story is heavier on the talk side than it is on the adventure side. I, however, saw no wrong with that: despite the lengthy ongoings (we watched the Director's Cut at more than two and a half hours) I was never bored; instead I found myself satisfied when the action broke through, because it didn't feel like it was action for the sake of having action and it didn't feel [too] unrealistic. To put it another way, Robin Hood felt like an epic, ala Braveheart; perhaps not the most exciting epic ever, but an epic nevertheless.
Like most good epics, Robin Hood holds out a proper agenda under its belt. At first, with the scenes of crusades' dissolution, it felt like this is going to be yet another Kingdom of Heaven like agenda where we are told that the West can and should be able to live peacefully with Islam instead of either side trying to kill one another. That quickly changes and you realize the film aims much higher: it fights for the rights of every deprived person out there, from women to any of the earth's other oppressed peoples. While doing so, Robin Hood assumes much freedom in its interpretation of true historical events (e.g., the Magna Carta), which is cause of some distraction. It all feels slightly disjointed, as if the film takes on more than it can chew, but as long as you're of liberal tendencies and believe in the rights of the individual you should not complain at yet another film where Scott is openly criticizing the way our society is allowed to run.
It's not only Scott's agendas that I liked; I also liked the way he directed the film. Action is shot properly, in that unfashionable manner that actually allows you to understand what is going on and does not make you seasick. Along with top notch production values, Robin Hood is a pleasure to watch.
Interesting scene: The French gather up villagers in a house and set it aflame while, at the same time, Robin & Co are having progressive discussions on liberating humanity. Sorry, but the first is probably a much better representative of the way the 12th century was like than the latter. It is this obvious contrast, though, that makes you think of Scott's message: indeed, it passes the message through, yet I would have preferred smoother delivery.
Technical assessment: I like the picture on this Blu-ray a lot; it just felt so real. The sound was good, too, although not as aggressive as it could have been (thus perhaps matching the overall feel of the film). One thing I will criticize this Blu-ray about is its relative lack of supplementaries: I really wanted to learn more about this magnificent production but the info just wasn't there. What was there, though, were trailers that downloaded from the Internet as we placed the disk inside our PlayStation 3, significantly delaying us from watching the film. It seems the studios are hell bent on sending us viewers towards piracy.
Overall: Put me in the minority ranks when I say I liked this new and weird Robin Hood a lot, 4 out of 5 stars much (some generosity won't harm me here). If anything, Robin Hood made me want to re-watch Kingdom of Heaven.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

2012

Lowdown: A dysfunctional family’s fight for survival as the world comes to an end during 2012.
Review:
Some fifteen years ago, director Roland Emmerich released one of my favourite films at the time: Independence Day. ID4 was highly entertaining with its mix of comedy, action and scenes of destruction of world famous icons. It was also pretty silly, but it knew that all along and never took itself too seriously, a quality that is badly missing from Emmerich’s latest, 2012.
2012 takes place at the end of 2012 and [mainly] follows an unsuccessful divorced writer (John Cusack), his attempts to get closer to his children, and his attempts to save them and his ex (Amanda Peet) when the world suddenly starts to fall apart all around them.
How does the world achieve such a feat all of a sudden? Aha! Ask a silly question and get a silly answer. 2012 offers an incredibly stupid mesh of bullshit made to sound like science so sophisticated there is no way mortals can understand it, plus some new age bullshit about Mayans and them predicting the end of the world during 2012 (they didn't), plus - for added flavoring - drop in every conspiracy theory out there. Even Princess Diana's death at a Parisian tunnel is included in the great conspiracy mix. The end result is pathetic, but I can see how the more ignorant amongst us could actually fall for it. What I fail to understand is how so many of the people involved with making 2012 can keep a straight face while seriously discussing the "science" behind 2012 in the film's supplementaries.
Never mind the explanations; what 2012 has on offer is special effects scenes of destruction by the ton, provided to us through the introduction of a wide collection of minor characters - most of which fail to last long. Indeed, if there is any straight word of praise I can place on 2012's cinematic qualities is that it does not hesitate to kill its characters. Quickly enough there aren't many humans left, yet we are still meant to care for our hero's family and not much else.
At about two and a half hours of length, and through the style and the calamities, it is obvious 2012 is yet another application of the same old Emmerich disaster/adventure film formula that worked for him before. The main difference is that this time around, as with The Day After Tomorrow, the film takes itself pretty seriously; while in the global warming story this may have been justified by the genuine clear and present danger at hand, 2012 has no such excuse. It manages to entertain quite a lot of the time, but for the rest of the time it is simply pathetic.
Most improbable scene: The American president is convinced the world is about to end after listening to the opinion of one scientist. Yeah, right! In real life thousands of scientists are saying global warming is man made and no one gives a shit, so it's obvious one scientist saying the world will end soon is going to be heard. Not only that, this single scientist offers no peer reviewed papers or anything; yet again the general public, ignorant in the way science works, is going to come out of a film equipped with a very twisted impression on science. And then we wonder why science is unappreciated!
Best scene: Our heroes’ last minute escape from a breaking down California is a long collection of thrilling rollercoaster special effect rides.
Worst scene: We learn that our hero’s daughter no longer needs nappies at night. Hooray! Seven billion people just died, but who cares? On the other hand, maybe there is some justification for the celebrations given there are no nappy manufacturers left in the world.
Technical assessment: Judging by the look of 2012’s picture, this film was shot in digital (as opposed to film). I can’t say I like the way digital looks in darker scenes, and the result is that even on this otherwise very good Blu-ray those scenes (mostly the water diving scenes ala Poseidon towards the end) feel like they are home video stuff. Sound wise, 2012 is beyond reproach, sporting a suitably aggressive soundtrack that fits the occasion well.
Overall: Never was the wire stretching between plausibility and entertainment stretched as much as with 2012. Ultimately, rating how good 2012 is has more to do with your preferred position along this equilibrium than the objective quality of the film itself. Me, I’ll give it a middle of the road score of 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Astro Boy

Lowdown: A robot boy searches for an identity in a world with odds stacked against him.
Review:
I have distinct childhood memories featuring Astro Boy in Arabic dubbed cartoons, the result of which was me fully expected the new feature film version of Astro Boy to be a cheesy children affair done with good animation. As often happens when I approach a film with low expectations, I found myself in for a welcoming surprise.
Astro Boy is a computer animation film taking place in a futuristic world where humanity is split between those leaving on earth – essentially a giant dump – and those living on a floating city up in the sky. The floaters are so advanced they have robots taking care of their every whim while the robots themselves are treated like we treat migrants from poorer countries (or, in Australia’s case, boat people). The floaters are able to maintain this lifestyle thanks to the genius of robot maker Dr Tenma (Nicolas Cage), who is more like a slave to the power hungry politician in charge (Donald Sutherland). When Tenma’s child dies after a military robot goes berserk he goes berserk himself and builds a super robot in the shape of his late child, Astro Boy.
Yet there is no room for Astro Boy in a city where robots are treated like boat people, so Astro Boy – equipped with rocket feet and other nifty gizmos – finds his way down to earth. There he befriends a group of children working for an outcast scientist (Nathan Lane). As the plot clearly turns into a futuristic version of Oliver Twist, our Astro Boy has to keep his good heart at bay and his robotic defenses on alert if he is to sort out his identity crisis for himself.
Astro Boy turned out to be everything that WALL-E failed to be. Set in similar worlds where consumerism, lack of care for the environment and power hungry cartels have ruined the world, with refugees sheltering in artificial and spoiled worlds, WALL-E is rather strident and preachy whereas Astro Boy has a heart. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s charming and at a world stage where everything aimed at kids nowadays is made of computer graphics it is also original. Genuinely appealing to both adult and child, this is quality manga that remained so for the big screen.
Best scene: The film introduces us to the Peacemaker, a particularly vicious war mongering robot. I liked the way this film managed to pack some smart adult appeal in its mostly teen aimed agenda.
Technical assessment: While the animation is not up to the Pixar benchmark, the picture on this Blu-ray is excellent and the sound will rock you on many an occasion. I still don’t know why the best Blu-rays (and DVDs, for that matter) seem to be animation ones, but I can definitely enjoy them a lot.
Overall: By the time my son’s naivety in the ways of our world deteriorates enough to a level allowing him to endure what us adults calmly refer to as mild violence, Astro Boy would be a film I wouldn’t mind us watching repetitively together. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Clash of the Titans

Lowdown: An unlikely demigod fights Greek mythology creatures to save a city of humans.
Review:
Thus far I am yet to encounter a good word being said about this new film version of Clash of the Titans. The fact the film was retrospectively turned into a 3D cinematic release for the simple desire of riding the Avatar wave of hype did not contribute to me wishing to watch the film either. Hell, I didn’t even like the older 1981 release. So why did I watch it out of my own choice? Well, it was a Thursday night and we wanted to watch a film that would entertain us but wouldn’t tax us; Clash of the Titans fit the bill. It fit the bill, but it was still a bad film nevertheless.
The rather chaotic plot follows Sam Worthington, fresh from Avatar’s waves of successful hype, in a Greek mythology action flick. Worthington plays Perseus, a fisherman whose adopting family is killed through a conspiracy of the gods (Zeus & Co) to hurt the people of Argos. The gods are annoyed because they gave life to these humans in the first place, but now they depend on these people’s faith for power; the people, on the other hand, are annoyed with the poor return on investment the gods provide in exchange for prayers (i.e., their lives suck). So the people rebel, the gods set out to destroy the people's city, and Perseus fits somewhere in between as the unlikely saviour of all that is good blah blah blah… In short, what we have on our hands with Clash of the Titans is a poorly constructed film that is a mere excuse for massive amounts of action special effects being thrown at us, most of which are of the way too obviously digital kind.
The whole affair called Clash of the Titans is a case study for films conjured by the film studio’s marketing department. The cast is full of famous names doing minor roles, as if to try and convince us the film is good by virtue of the likes of Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes taking part. The plot is simply pathetic, devoid of anything remotely like “cause and effect”: things happen because they happen; afterwards the film may be gracious enough to provide an explanation as to the why they happened, but usually these explanations are as plausible as the Tooth Fairy. Character development is a non issue as it doesn’t exist, and understanding characters’ motivations for doing what they’re doing is a task best neglected by those of us who like to use their brains. Even with the lead character of Perseus I found it hard to fathom why he’s helping the humans fight the gods and save their city, given that for him this is all about avenging the death of his adopting family.
Then there are simpler questions, such as how does Perseus’ character manage to keep his neatly shaved hair in the same shape throughout the film and how come he always seems to have a five o'clock shadow type shave. Even if you dare ask what message the film is trying to leave behind you’d have to struggle between two opposing factions, because on one hand the film seems to say we should take our fate in our own hands while on the other it says that we shouldn’t forget the gods who made us in the first place. This is it, really: Clash of the Titans is a film that’s aimed to please, but it tries to please so hard it fails on all fronts. The result is a film that is mildly entertaining as an easy watch with the brain switched off, but that’s it; suitable for a Thursday evening watch, perhaps, but a very imperfect film all the same.
Silliest scene: Io, who earlier on told us she was cursed with immortality, dies. Don’t worry, though, she makes her comeback.
Silliest alternative scene: The Blu-ray is equipped with an alternate ending in which our hero goes for another girl altogether. If there was ever a sign for a disjointed film whose creators didn't know what they were doing, this is it.
Technical assessment: A good Blu-ray all around, especially in the sound department where it uses the surrounds very well to create an aggressive and palpable presence. Still, perhaps because the film was far from great, I couldn’t help feeling this is not an exceptionally good Blu-ray.
Overall: The marketing department failed, as it usually does when it tries to create a work of art. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The God Engines by John Scalzi

Lowdown: Engine problems on a spaceship powered by a god.
Review:
The God Engines is the short story ("novelette") I chose to initiate my ebook reading career with, having received my new Amazon Kindle 3 less than a week ago. I chose it in particular because of my favorable experience with John Scalzi, author of the surprisingly good Old Man's War, and because it was short and I miss those good old days when books did not feel the need to take months of your life away for you to consume them.
John Scalzi has entered my life as a science fiction author less than a year ago, and although I have read only three books of his till The God Engines came along he was already classified as a favorite author of mine because of his approachable writing: here was a guy who was obviously transmitting on my wavelength.
I did have problems with Scalzi's writing, though: Old Man's War, though brilliant and entertaining, was far from being original; most of its ideas were thoroughly explored by other sci-fi authors before him. By the third installment of the Old Man's War world, The Last Colony, I got further annoyed with Scalzi (in the mildest way one can be ever be annoyed): I grew tired of the ongoing manifestation of his personal world views in his books. The God Engines, I am happy to say, suffers from non of the above: it is brimming with originality and its ideas could easily be labeled as subversive by the majority of people. I'm not the only one thinking this way of The God Engines; in an AussieCon4 panel yesterday, Scalzi told us in person that Old Man's War publisher, Thor, would not publish The God Engines because it wanted to maintain its own friendly version of the John Scalzi brand. Instead, Scalzi has had to go underground to get The God Engines published. For him doing that I shall be eternally grateful.
Set in a futuristic fantasy world, The God Engines tells us of a universe opposite to ours, a universe where religion and faith are reality and where science and hard facts aren't. It is a very Bible like world (or the way Christians would put it, an Old Testament world): The God of humans has subdued all the other Gods, and in return for human faith in Him - the source of his power - He let the humans use the beaten up gods as power sources for their spaceships (hence "god engines"). Using the power of their ships' gods, humans can jump through space and expand their territory the way their God did with the other Gods. In this world we follow Captain Tephe, whose battleship's subdued God is becoming more and more rebellious. In parallel to this rebellion, humans suffer several defeats. As Tephe learns more about the big picture, his faith in his God is put to the test.
Other than the originality of the idea behind The God Engines, what I liked the most about it was the way the book took many ideas from the Bible and expanded on them in a way that contemporary religious readers avoid doing. Examples include the ideas that different gods have different territories where they are powerful and territories where other gods are; one god subduing other gods; gods taking an earthly appearance; and the whole concept of sacrifice to the gods. Reading the Bible, especially the older parts of it, you quickly realize all these ideas were taken for granted there; only later on did the God of Israel establish itself as the only real god and the all powerful one. Most of all, The God Engines explores the idea of faith and the jealous God of the Bible: why is it, for example, that the all powerful Bible God is so jealous of his people and their faith in Him, as is very explicitly expressed in the Ten Commandments?
By setting things up in a world where faith and God are as real as scientific fact is in our world, Scalzi goes out to explore what faith really means and, in particular, explore the small letters of our real world's faiths and what it would mean to live in a world where those faiths were actually as true and real as their believers say they are. Scalzi's answers as to the way such a world would rate would probably count as heresy by most believers, especially as Scalzi makes sure to take things to the extreme and expose the virtues of faith for everything they can deliver. The God Engines, it seems, is a fictional way with which to deliver a message similar to Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. I have to say this took me by surprise, given the more than politically correct attitude shown towards religion in the other Sclazi books I have read, and given the way Scalzi takes care to present himself as an agnostic rather than an atheist. Regardless of that, The God Engines is a book that examines the concept of faith to the extreme, and in doing so shows its author to be very familiar with the Bible; given my own familiarity to this latter work of fiction, the result of ten years of Israeli schooling, I found great delight in reading The God Engines.
Overall: The God Engines is proof that a good idea can take you a long way. It's the best fantasy I have read in years, and it deserves the 5 out of 5 stars rating I'm giving it for originality alone. I hope that tomorrow night it would also receive official recognition and win a Hugo award.

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Serious Man

Lowdown: Real life hardships befall a Jewish guy living in Mid Western USA during the sixties.
Review:
The Coen brothers might have won their Oscars with the thriller No Country for Old Men, but their reputation has been built firmly on the grounds of their movies about rather silly yet authentic people in rather silly circumstances (as per Burn After Reading). In A Serious Man they revisit these root themes and even more so than before: not only are they revisiting the theme of silliness, they also visit their personal roots. Being raised as Jews, the Coens have now produced a film on Jews that is soaked to the brim with Jewish culture - so much so that I have doubts on the ability of those unfamiliar with Jewish culture to get through the film. On the other hand, that may not matter much because A Serious Man is far from being a serious film; then again, I'm getting ahead of myself here...
The film starts with a short scene detached from everything that follows. Set in 19th century Eastern Europe, we visit a Jewish family being visited by an old rabbi who appears to be possessed. The scene speaks Yidhish, and it marks the first point in the film where you ask yourself "what the fuck?" or just "what did this have to do with that?"
Then we cut to the rest of the film, which takes place during the sixties at a Mid West location in the USA. Our main character is a Jewish university professor (Michael Stuhlbarg) who seems to have a collection of tragedies fall on him: his wife wants a divorce because she's seeing a friend of his, his son is busy doing all sorts of irrelevant things and focuses on TV reception instead of studying for his upcoming Bar Mitzvah, a sick relative is staying with him and makes life a bit harder, and a Korean student of his is trying to bribe the professor so he doesn't fail him in his studies. Nothing here is particularly unusual or extreme, but our professor is driven to extremes in typical Coen fashion. He seeks help with Jewish sages, but wherever he goes he fails to find adequate answers.
Not that I managed to find an adequate answer to the question of what were the Coens trying to say to me in A Serious Man. The film just seems to be a collection of mundane situations driven to be perceived as extreme coupled with sessions of failing to find answers to explain these extreme situations with. Is there a point to it all, other than to have an opportunity to smear viewers with Jewish acronyms and give us a parade of actors with particularly big noses? I don't think so. The result is a very fragmented cinematic experience that is highly forgettable.
Best scene:
Our hero's teen son is having his Bar Mitzvah in front of a full synagogue crowd while being totally stoned. The scene is funny but only mildly so; nothing in A Serious Man gets to the totally hilarious level. Yet the scene is undeniably the film's crescendo.
On a personal note, I liked this scene for a very mundane reason: The Torah passage our Bar Mitzvah boy gets to read is the same as the one I read out loud in my own Bar Mitzvah. I wasn't stoned at the time, although in retrospect I consider having a Bar Mitzvah one of the more foolish things I ever got to do by choice. It seems I have a lot in common with the Coens.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray with rather too subdued sound, although the picture does do justice to the very sixties like sets and shows them in all their glory.
Overall: Occasionally funny, but most of the time I was bewildered as to what the film was trying to tell me. It seems to come down to a rather indirect way of telling me that shit happens for no particular reason, and I don't think that deserves more than 2 out of 5 stars; I know that very well already, thanks. Not the Coens' best.