Monday, 29 November 2010

Avatar Extended Collector's Edition

Lowdown: A further developed version of Avatar.
Review:
Back in the days of its cinematic release, Avatar was known primarily as a 3D delight with not much in the way of a plot. However, I was very curious to see how Avatar would translate to the home cinema environment for one main reason: James Cameron, Avatar's director, is one of my favorite movie makers of all time (probably only second to Clint Eastwood). Although Cameron has had better and worse films in his career, all of his films have been exceptional home theater experiences. Not only are his films technical masterpieces, he is one of the few directors that shoots with home theater in mind: he knows his films are going to continue living in home theaters long after their cinematic releases are long forgotten. And it's not just the shooting itself: Cameron takes great care when mastering his films for home cinema release, tweaking them so that they'd work better at home (rather than blindly taking the version mastered to work well at the cinema and printing it on a disk). I know that very well, because I have owned special editions of his Abyss, The Terminator, Terminator 2, Aliens, True Lies and Titanic. Of these titles, Terminator 2 is the most notable for its extended edition adding further insight to the story and further developing it while accompanied by supplemental material that made me appreciate that colossal film much more.
When I bought the Avatar Extended Collector's Edition on Blu-ray, a very rare event for me nowadays of buying a film, I was looking to recreate my Terminator 2 experience. And recreate it I did.
Although this version is still 2D (as was the previous DVD/Blu-ray release of Avatar), it is still mighty impressive. Mastered in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio to fit the home theater screen perfectly (as opposed to the 2.35:1 scope cinematic ratio release), this Blu-ray sports the best picture I have ever seen outside the cinema, period - and probably better than the ones I have ever seen at the cinemas, too. It is simply perfect: incredibly detailed with accurate colors and so oozing in quality it just immersed me entirely despite being "just" 2D. The sound on this Blu-ray is very good, too, although not "the best I've ever heard" quality: dialog in particular seems to suffer from noise and inconsistencies. On the positive side, dialog is not limited to the center channel: you hear it coming from where the characters are, which adds to the immersion factor.
While it is of no coincidence I chose to focus on technicalities before discussing the plot it has to be said that the additional scenes (which now bring the film's length to 178 minutes compared to the cinema's 162) contribute a lot. Whereas we all came out of the cinema pointing at a weak plot and flying mountains, a lot of these issues have been addressed - to one extent or another - in this extended edition, leaving me a much more satisfied viewer. Also worth mentioning is the back on earth background provided for Sam Worthington's character: we now see him coming to the miners' moon from a very Blade Runner like world and we can understand why he came the way he came and what drove him to change.
The film is not the only thing to watch on this Blu-ray. Supplemental material on the making of this technological wonder is very well made (reminding me of the high quality supplementals in the Lord of the Rings' special editions; that's no coincidence since both films were the result of the concentrated efforts of many incredible talents, both cinematic and technical ones). The deleted scenes offer even further plot extensions that develop the more minor characters to a very satisfying degree.
Coming out of this Blu-ray is quite a lot of respect to the Avatar creation. James Cameron has done it again, creating the ultimate home theater experience.
Overall: Avatar proves that technical prowess can make a movie great by creating a home cinema event equaling the Terminator 2 experience of almost twenty years ago (and any Laserdisc owner would know what I am talking about). The extended edition proves my previous rating of Avatar was indeed correct: Avatar is a very worthy 5 out of 5 stars film.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

The Ruins of Gorlan by John Flanagan

Lowdown: An orphan teenager living in a swords & sorcery universe reluctantly embarks on a ranger’s career.
Review:
If you read my reviews long enough you would know I have something against cheap fantasy books. Not that I don’t like them; it’s rather the opposite, I feel as if I spent too much of my precious youth reading such books instead of reading worthier stuff. What reason, then, did I have to turn into The Ruins of Gorlan, the first of many (10!) young adult titles in a series called The Ranger’s Apprentice? Well, I can invoke several good reasons:
  1. I had severe tooth pain and was looking for relief through easy reading.
  2. Author John Flanagan is Australian, and everyone knows that Aussies do it better than the rest. It’s in our blood.
  3. Ranger’s Apprentice was much talked about at the recent AussieCon 4 science fiction convention. Having heard so much about it, mostly from the mouth of the book’s editor, my curiosity was aroused.
For a swords & sorcery tale of fantasy The Ruins of Gorlan sure has some peculiarities about it, most notably its use of kilometres as a unit for measuring distance rather than miles. Over the years I’ve grown so used to sword bearing heroes talking distance in defunct empirical units that suddenly facing proper measurements felt strange, enforcing my conviction that Aussies do it better. However, the most peculiar thing about The Ruins of Gorlan is that for a tale of swords & sorcery it doesn’t feature much in the way of swords & sorcery. Sure, evil monsters are there to be slayed, but it takes backstage to the main event: the tale of a boy’s coming of age, and in particular the tale of the effect bullying has on a company of teenage friends.
As it starts, we are quickly introduced to a young orphan boy, Will, who grew to the age of 15 at a special orphanage with four other peers. Will is facing an important date in his life, a date where his future career as an adult will be determined: he wants to be a warrior and he dreads being a farmer, all the while knowing he doesn't have the physics to make a warrior. Eventually, though, he is elected to become an apprentice ranger, an occupation about which he doesn’t know much. He quickly learns at the hand of his new master, Halt, and through lots of hard work.
In the mean time, one of Will’s colleague at the orphanage, a big and strong guy called Horace with whom he used to argue a lot, is off to a warrior’s career – the career Will dreamt about. Yet things go sorely wrong for Horace as he is constantly bullied at the warrior’s school, with the resulting friction affecting everyone.
Thus we are set to a constantly exciting and quite thrilling tale of friendship, adventure, and - most importantly – coming of age. I was proven right: The Ruins of Gorlan is an excellent toothache choice of a book because it is easy to read, but it works even better because it’s so thrilling it takes your mind off the pain. It all brilliantly fits into the young adult framework, because things are not only short and simple but also very relevant to every young adult’s life: the terror before a crucial exam, tensions about what future lies ahead for you as compared to your seemingly more successful friends, and bullying to name just three.
The only rub is in the obvious fact this book does not stand on its own and requires one to read its sequel[s] if one is to come to peace with the characters. While The Ruins of Gorlan does have an ending, this ending is not conclusive enough: the chief baddie is still roaming about and big time war is looming. On its own having a sequel may not be too bad, but there is a catch: looking for the sequel at Amazon I noticed the paper version sells for $8 while the Kindle version sells for $10. That didn’t make sense so I tried it again, switching my country settings from Australia to the USA: this time around the Kindle version’s price was $7. I already talked about the way Australian companies are taking Aussies for a ride by considering them already bent down and ready to be shafted with the blunt end of the stick up their ass here, but this particular example really infuriates me. I really hope the Aussie publisher gets a sincere and mighty blow at piracy’s hand the way the music industry had, but on the other hand I will then lament the demise of an industry that is important to me. In the mean time, I will do the legal thing and purchase the next Ranger’s Apprentice as an American using the services of a VPN provider (as discussed here).
Overall: Excellent easy reading and excellent reading for all youth. 4 out of 5 stars. Shame about the way the Aussie publisher is treating the series' readers, though.

Monday, 22 November 2010

In America

Lowdown: The ordeals encountered by an Irish family moving to New York during the eighties.
Review:
An Irish family crosses the American border, seemingly illegally, and settles in Manhattan. That is the premises of Jim Sheridan’s 2002 film, In America. It’s your average young family with aspirations: the husband is a would be actor looking for an acting career in Broadway, the wife is a mother supporting her children and her husband, and two little girls. We have no idea what got the family all the way to the USA and New York in particular; the only other thing In America is willing to tell us about them is that they had a third child that died as a baby.
With that one big historical blemish on their record, our family is about to face the new ordeal of settling down in a new place. It’s the usual immigrant stuff: finding a place to live, finding a job, dealing with local conditions (e.g., the heat of summer). Everywhere they go our family has it the hard way, most notably with their residence: an old flat in a building full of drug addicts. Thus the story develops: we meet more characters as the family encounters them and we learn more about the family’s tragic past.
I found myself having big problems with In America. The total lack of setup information – why we’re here in New York, what is the motivation of doing this and that – got the better of me. Unable to identify with any of the characters whose ordeals are largely their own fault (as in, they should have known better) I also found myself unmoved by their gruelling experiences: big deal, as if I needed someone to tell me that the life of an immigrant can be hard. The actors, especially the husband, do not do the film much favor either; add the way a mysterious neighbor (Djimon Hounsou) is introduced got me to be openly hostile towards the film, angry at me wasting my precious time on a film that doesn’t know what it wants to do with itself.
Worst scene: The father gets his family an air-conditioner. In order to achieve his goal he has to carry it in traffic and against, up the stairs, and then go find a replacement power plug. The scene is supposed to demonstrate the hardship our family experiences, but give me a break: I had to go through some of those things myself. We all do, when we move, unless we’re millionaires; and you don’t see us making a film about it.
Overall: Bad films are one thing; at least you can entertain yourself by identifying what it is, exactly, that makes them bad. Films that don’t know what they want of themselves are another beast altogether, because they’re just a waste of everybody’s time. In America belongs to the latter group: I don’t know much about its background but it feels to me like a tribute to someone going through what the film’s family went through. Regardless, In America feels more like it should have been a home video, and should thus be treated as such: we know no one would be interested in our home videos so we keep them to ourselves. In America is a home video that wants to impose itself on its viewers, which is why I’m going to be harsh on it and give it 1 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson

Lowdown: Three friends in search of Jewish meaning.
Review: Books like The Finkler Question are not books I regularly read. I was, however, a bit fed up with science fiction and I wanted a worthy distraction; as I just happened to hear Finkler had won surprisingly the Man Booker Prize, the surprise being on account of it being a comedy, I thought this might be the distraction I was looking for.
After reading the book I would say "comedy" is the last term I would use to describe it. It's more like a tragedy where the rare funny moment comes out of sadness rather than the laugh out loud association we normally fix with comedy. Being a remotely funny tragedy is a trait of what I commonly refer to as Jewish prose, things like Fiddler on the Roof, the stories of Shai Agnon we were forced to study at my Israeli school, or the recent Coen brothers film A Serious Man. It is no coincidence I found resemblance between Finkler and Jewish prose: although I was totally unaware of it at the time I chose to read this book, The Finkler Question is Jewish prose. It is as modern an incarnation of Jewish prose as it gets.
The story tells us of three contemporary Londoner friends. Julian Treslove, a gentile, is the main character. At his late forties-early fifties, Treslove is still to form an identity for himself; all he knows is that he has a love-hate relationship with his former school Jewish friend Finkler that causes him to refer to all Jews as "Finklers". Both like the company of Libor, an old high society Jewish journalist who used to be their teacher. Libor and Finkler are recent widowers, but Treslove never had a meaningful relationship. One night, after a joint meeting, Treslove is robbed by a woman at a well lit street, which (through a very articulate line of arguments) starts him pondering Judaism and looking for meaning there. There follows the rest of the book, discussing the trio's personal relationship while the questions of Judaism, antisemitism and Israel are discussed through those.
There is a lot to say in favor of The Finkler Question's style. The book uses rich language throughout, sending me to use my Kindle's dictionary almost on a page by page basis. I'm not complaining; I appreciate Jacobson doing his bit to enrich my life. However, there is an air of artificial pompousness to it all: in my opinion, discussions that could have resolved in a few sentences tend to stretch over pages and pages. During this fairly lengthy read I have had repeated cycles of wishing to see what transpires quickly followed by lengthy "I wish he could get a move on" or "this is going nowhere" downturns.
Yet at its core this is a book about the Jewish question, and that question is analyzed quite ingeniously thorough the analogies the book offers between Judaism and the characters at hand. Do not expect to get your conclusive answers to everything Jewish or Israel related here, although I would say that in comparison to the Jewish prose we were forced to learn at school The Finkler Question is ten times better: it is both modern and relevant, in a way that should have better access to the minds of those that read it.
I have already discussed my views on some of the questions raised by Finkler here, mostly to do with my attitudes towards Israel and Zionism. My main remaining feedback concerning The Finkler Question is related to the human centric approach I have proposed in my discussion on Israel, and that is my conclusive answer to the questions raised in Finkler but never answered. My answer is simple: Although I was born to a Jewish family I do not consider myself a Jew nor do I consider Judaism a necessary part of my life. In fact, I am of the opinion my life is better without Judaism. I have a simple view of life: I do not need religion or tradition to tell me where I belong or what my identity is; I can form those on my own using things that are not arbitrary but are rather very well grounded. Science, common sense and human oriented world views give me all the identity and foundation I need to lead a healthy life; if more people were to follow this example they would see that we can all live in harmony together without having this unexplainable need to put artificial labels on each person's forehead. Thus The Finkler Question's failure to include humanism in its scope is by far its greatest failure.
Overall: I found The Finkler Question interesting enough to merit a read but I would certainly not award it as anything special. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Tears of the Sun

Lowdown: A tough American platoon sent to rescue a Caucasian woman in Africa ends up crusading for the entire nation.
Review:
What is so wrong with Tears of the Sun, a 2003 action film starring Bruce Willis, that I am yet to see it? Indeed, a mystery given the fact I got to watch most of Willis’ action flicks, some of which are far from impressive. Having watched Tears of the Sun last night I finally have the answer to the riddle.
Tears of the Sun is set in an African nation recently going through a revolution. The rebels are performing ethnic cleansing, and in the mayhem that ensues Bruce Willis' crack American commando unit is returning to the safety of its aircraft carrier after rescuing American embassy staff. Theirs is a short rest, though: they are immediately recalled to rescue a female doctor working at a monastery (Monica Bellucci). She is only American through marriage, but she still won’t go when Willis comes to pick her up – not without all her monastery mates. Willis is reluctant at first, but events take the better of him as – against all odds – the company finds itself protecting a large group of fugitives from the mighty rebel army in a battle that may end up as crucial to the entire nation. In effect, Bruce Willis is playing a Rambo role here, only that he has a company to support him; and in another effect, Bellucci is playing the usual role of the typical action film dumb but good looking female bimbo. Oddly, Bellucci’s boobs do not have an active role in the film; I will leave it for you to determine whether that is a positive or a negative.
As far as action films go, Tears of the Sun is quite entertaining and thrilling, to an extent I quite enjoyed it. It is, however, let down by some severe unrealism. Granted, nothing we haven’t seen before: endless clips, goodies able to walk through a shower of bullets unharmed while the baddies never manage to dodge a single bullet, goodies always able to get up after being hit while the baddies never require more than one bullet to forever go silent, fighter jets that go on bombing runs with their signal lights on, and the biggest hit – extremely well lit night time jungles (albeit lit with this weird blue light). As I said, we’ve seen these issues before; they do, however, stand out in Tears of the Sun more than in other films because Tears of the Sun pretends to be realistic in plenty of other ways, including the army manners of Willis & Co (speech, dress, equipment).
Realism or the lack of it is the least of Tears of the Sun’s problems. You catch a whiff of the film’s spirit at the beginning, when the film tells you a revolution took place at this African nation made of Muslims and Christians. Then you get to meet the good African guys, and they are all very obviously good Christians: they live at a monastery, they nurture the poor and provide medical help to those in need (and there are lots of people in need). Then the baddies arrive: Tears of the Sun doesn’t explicitly label them, but the word Muslim does hang up in the air. Muslims or not, these dudes lack compassion: they kill everything Christian, have no respect for god, and even behead the monastery boss on his very altar. The point I’m trying to make is that Christians are portrayed as victims here by virtue of them being Christians, while the baddies are portrayed as baddies by virtue of them hating/killing Christians.
Then we move on to similar quality characterization of everything American: Americans are always good, especially if Bellucci is there to prove them right; they will save everyone; they’re the only ones that can do it. Combine the Christian motif with the good American motif, spice it up with stuff like “the blacks of Africa are the brothers and sisters of the blacks in America”, and you can see where Tears of the Sun is coming from. While ethnic cleansing of Christians did take place, and while the USA has been known to do a good thing from time to time, the unlikely combination of it all can only mean one thing: cheap war mongering propaganda.
Tears of the Sun is obviously a kneejerk reaction to the events of September 11, but of all the ways a knee can jerk itself following such a traumatic event this film chose the scummiest one. It reads as nothing more than a call to arms for Americans to go and rid the world of the evil out there by using force, and it does so by playing up the Christian victimhood card.
Worst scene: Willis & Co learn that amongst their caravan of fugitives hides the son of the country’s assassinated leader, a guy who was just on his way into turning his country to a democracy. There you go: by drawing the "democracy" card among all the other aces it pulls out of its hat, Tears of the Sun delves even further into being a propaganda film to justify wars through.
Overall:
You would have thought that we have grown too cynical and we know too much about this world than to have such cheap propaganda material as Tears of the Sun thrown at us, but obviously someone thought otherwise. Ethnic cleansing is bad enough without serious stereotyping of the George W Bush style good vs. evil, you’re either with us or against us type; these are out of place as of kindergarten level. It is logic such as this that has our soldiers drowning in the mud of Iraq and Afghanistan. Where is the real Bruce Willis, Mr Bush? You’ve retired in peace but the rest of us are still paying the price of your stupidity.
Tears of the Sun is therefore a sad, sad affair at 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Fifth Element

Lowdown: 23rd century humanity can only be saved through a weird but good looking girl.
Review:
Let the record show that I never really liked The Fifth Element no matter how much praise French director Luc Besson gained by it. I saw it at Tel Aviv’s Lev cinema upon its 1997 theatrical release and I was very disappointed by that cinema’s poor presentation but also by the film’s lack of substance. Since then I’ve seen it here and there, never able to have it ignite my flame.
Technically speaking, various DVD incarnations of The Fifth Element have been promoted by Widescreen Review (currently celebrating its 150th issue) for their reference material qualities, especially in the picture department. That notion seemed to have passed over to at least one version of the film’s Blu-rays, which is why I did not mind giving The Fifth Element another go.
The Fifth Element takes place in a Blade Runner like world with aliens added on top. Some force of evil is unleashed on earth, as it does every 5000 years, and the only thing that could stop it is this mythical being – the fifth element – performing a certain ritual inside an Egyptian pyramid. Why? Don’t ask. Anyway, that fifth element is intercepted by baddies controlled by an evil dude called Zorg (Garry Oldman); you know Zorg is evil because of his American southern accent. Revived by human scientists, the fifth element takes the shape of an orange haired chick (Milla Jovovich). Pursued by evil forces, our orange girl’s only hope is with the talents of Korben Dallas (Bruce Willis), an ex commando turned New York cab driver overflowing with cynicism. On their way to salvation the couple have lots of adventures, both on earth and way over yonder.
Let’s face it: The Fifth Element is entertaining to watch and nice on the eyes, but depth wise it is as shallow as Sarah Palin. Sure, there are hints here and there regarding the devastation humans are causing the world through their indifference, but these are very minor; all in all, The Fifth Element is a space adventure, no more and no less. A pretty silly space adventure with some action and some nice moments, but nothing to merit the mythological status some have pinned it with.
Best scene: The New York flying taxi scenes are the film’s most entertaining ones, even if the concept was heavily borrowed from Blade Runner.
Technical assessment: There can be no arguing about the presentation on this Blu-ray. It is hard to recall a film with such color fidelity. The picture is pretty detailed, too, although it does show some signs of age we are exempted from with newer releases (this could also depend on the version of the Blu-ray at hand). The sound is good, too, although not on par with the latest blockbuster when it comes to shaking the roof off.
Overall: Silly fun does not make a film great. 3 out of 5 stars, and that includes extended generosity towards the exemplary reference quality picture.

Friday, 5 November 2010

Religulous

Lowdown: A comedian’s look at the ridiculousness of religion.
Review:
As an true blue atheist I have had mixed feelings about watching Religulous, comedian Bill Maher’s documentary on religion. On one hand, Maher is a fellow atheist and I should have expected to agree with most of what he’s going to say in the film; on the other there is the question of whether comedy is the right channel to navigate the idea of religion through. Maher’s own character didn’t help when he expressed some antagonism towards vaccinations, lining himself up with loonies from the creationists’ side. Release dates did not do Religulous much good, either: although it has been a 2008 release in the USA it took a long while for it to reach Aussie screens and then a while longer to materialize as a DVD (cue in the movie studios rolling their eyes to the sky as they unashamedly complain about piracy). Now that I finally sat to watch Religulous all those deliberations are behind me, with the main remaining question being whether Religulous is a worthy documentary.
Religulous uses Maher as the commentator/narrator who raises questions regarding the validity of religion in the 21st century universe and then takes him on a journey to places and people where these questions are discussed. Most of those places/people Maher goes to are religious (as opposed to atheist/agnostic), so most of the time Maher is in a very confronting position where you wonder how close he is to being on the receiving end of some violence as he goes about pointing at the thorns up religion’s ass to people that prefer to either ignore them or refer to them as roses. Amongst others, Maher goes inside a truckers’ church, Ken Ham creationist’s museum, various evangelical churches/shows, the Vatican, Israel, and Amsterdam – where he discusses Islam and its violent nature in particular.
As I expected, I have no problems whatsoever with the issues Maher raises to all the people he meets. Evidence is firmly on his side, and he does ask very valid questions (unlike the answers one often gets from religious people trying to justify their beliefs, which are usually vague and always beyond verification). The problem is in the style: it is obvious that those Maher interviews are not fully aware of what his intention really is, and therefore they are not well prepared for the occasion. It is also obvious some crafty editing took place to make Maher look cool while his interviewees often look dumb. Granted, some of them are ignorant, as in the case of the truck driver invoking the Shroud of Turin as evidence for Jesus’ claim to messiah status (adding it contains female DNA to the list of ridicule). The question is, is that the level of debate we expect to see from a quality documentary with a claim to make it clear to us that religion is not only ridiculous but also dangerous? Claims of this severity require us to take action if we agree with them, but can we really be expected to take action because we watched a a manipulative comedy?
I therefore prefer the more serious approach to converting those that follow religion into rational thinking, as expressed by the likes of Richard Dawkins in his superb The God Delusion. Dawkins digests his subject matter to the full, invoking arguments for both sides until the religious side is exposed for its lack of substance; Maher never gives religion a chance to adequately speak for itself.
Don’t get me wrong, though. I have enjoyed Religulous: it is a highly entertaining comedy, funny throughout and often generating big time laughs. It is, however, not much more than a stand up comedy show that takes place at a variety of places and involves a supporting cast. I laughed a lot, but I suspect the religious amonst us would mostly consider the film as mockery to their deeply held beliefs; I do not see them seeing the light through Religulous. Then again, I could be wrong: while I seek rationalism, maybe others will realize how big the mistake called religion is through ridicule? Whatever the case is, I have no problem with Maher openly mocking religion; no idea should be exempt from criticism, and by openly butchering the supposedly sacred religious cow Maher does great service to society as a whole.
Best scene: I have found the scene in which Maher’s mother tells him the reason why his family stopped going to church to be the most touching one in the film and also the most effective, probably because there was no comedy involved and probably because Maher never attempts to ridicule the mother he obviously respects. In case you’re curious, the reason why the Mahers stopped going to church many decades ago was to do with their use of contraceptives and the Catholic Church’s attitude on the matter. The fact Catholicism is still barking up the contraceptive tree only shows how Religulous religion still is.
Technical assessment: This is no DVD to look at for technical reasons. The film was obviously shot in low budget without much in the way of adequate lighting, and the DVD shows. Same for the sound, which is only mildly rescued by the occasional song.
Overall: As an investigative examination of religion, the way a proper skeptic should consider any theory, Religulous fails. But as stand up comedy this is top notch: both funny and controversial at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

The A-Team

Lowdown: The longer version of the story on how The A-Team came to be and how they achieved renegade status.
Review:
Back at the time and place I grew up in, The A-Team was staple TV food. Friday afternoon in eighties’ Israel were devoted to The A-Team cause. Personally, I still remember the double episode pilot featuring a different Face to the one that was later borrowed from Battlestar Galactica’s Starbuck role. I also have fond memories of the other characters, mostly BA Burecas, the character that transformed Mr T from being the bad guy in Rocky 3 to a generic bad boy. Yet with all due respect, no one had ever assumed The A-Team was anything more than mediocre TV; the main reason why it achieved the popularity it had at its peak was to do with the lack of competition. In today’s contents filled world of hundreds of channels as well as the Internets I doubt a series like The A-Team would have survived five seasons. Yet the studios decided to revive the formula for a cinematic escapade and even brought some new familiar faces to fill in the familiar characters’ shoes: Liam Neeson plays Hannibal Smith while Face and Murdoch of yonder have been relegated to cameos.
For the story, the film version decided to focus on the background. Every TV episode started by telling us The A-Team is a group of professional soldiers hunted by the law for a crime they didn’t commit, but never bothered telling us how these soldiers got together and why they are chased by the authorities. Well, with the film you get your chance to fill this gap up, so just switch your brains off for a couple of hours and relax. You'll be taken for an action packed gathering of characters in Mexico, from which you will travel to the battlefields of Iraq and eventually go on a Trans Atlantic adventure featuring our heroes chasing after both a bunch of dollar bill forgers and their reputation. Exaggerated action scenes are all around and our heroes always survive in one piece, so there really is no reason to worry.
It is this lack of worrying that is the bane of The A-Team. It’s nice silly action and all, but it’s hard to get involved and to feel like you care for the characters whose personal back stories are pretty meaningless. As meaningless as the dilemma the new B.A. Baracus faces with his decision to become a pacifist. I strongly suspect that for those who did not grow on The A-Team the story is even worse.
Best scene: The A-Team flies a tank. They even land it safely, at least by the movie’s reckoning (obviously, the fact they crash on water instead of land means we have no reason to expect them in anything other than top shape).
Technical assessment:
This Blu-ray comes equipped with an extended edition, which is the one we watched. I suspect (but I’m not sure) the extensions come in the shape of the leading characters performing silly improvisations.
As for the Blu-ray’s performance, this one is a top notch performer. The picture, although of high contrast, is excellent. The sound is exactly what you would expect from an American action film with too much money on its hands.
Overall: I suspect we won’t have five seasons of this one to go through. It’s fun but not much more than that so I’ll be harsh and give it only 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The Incredible Hulk

Lowdown: The American army is still after its green weapon.
Review:
To someone relatively unattached with the starring characters, the fact a second Hulk film was released during 2008 - only five years after Ang Lee's notorious version starring Eric Bana - raises some questions concerning redundancy. Not that I mind this potentially redundant new version: I actually liked Lee's film, and as I found out during The Incredible Hulk's open credits' montage this new version takes place after the previous one. In effect, we have ourselves a sequel, not a replacement.
At this point I might have told you what the Hulk is all about - a comic based character of a scientist involved in an experiment gone wrong, a scientist who now becomes a gigantic green man with superpowers whenever he gets angry. But should I really tell this tale? The Incredible Hulk takes it for granted that you know who Bruce Banner is.
This time around, Bruce Banner is played by Edward Norton. As we start, Banner works as a lowly factory guy in Brazil, a country where he seeks refuge from himself - a place where he can find enough solace to avoid turning into his Mr Hyde of a hulk. He can't hide forever, though: an American army general (William Hurt) seeks him out, potentially to avenge the injuries Banner had inflicted on his daughter (Liv Tyler) upon becoming The Hulk. Perhaps there is more to this chase, given Hurt's character recruiting the best commando soldier he can put his hands on (Tim Roth) to deliver him what he considers his prized possession. With this setting established, The Incredible Hulk turns into exactly what one would expect a fantastic comics based story to turn into: an adventure filled with action scenes that, eventually, pits our supernatural hero against an adversary of even further fetched supernatural qualities.
There is nothing wrong with a loyal cinematic exploration of a comic book; this lack of loyalty to the spirit of comics was at the core of the problem with Ang Lee's version. It is, however, a bit of a shame to see how this potentially terrific story was made to look like any other cheap action flick coming out of Hollywood's clutches: predictable and featuring all of the action hero cliches one would expect (e.g., the way the leading female role stands for nothing but being her man's prop). One cannot avoid feeling a better director could have turned the material at hand into a masterpiece.
Criticism and too cheap digital effects aside, I enjoyed watching The Incredible Hulk. It's simple yet good entertainment that does stand out to one extent or another above its more mundane counterparts. If asked why, I would point at the cast: the talent at hand is more than what one normally gets for such a film. In my opinion, and with 25th Hour as my witness, Norton is one of the best talents to come out of Hollywood; it's a pity these talents have not been better exploited in recent times.
Silliest scene: The Hulk fights off the American army at the grounds of a university on a lovely clear sunny day. Until, that is, he dispenses with the last straw the army throws at him, a helicopter gunship; the minute that gunship is destroyed, day turns into night and heavy rain ensues. What the?
Overall: The most loyal to the spirit of your run of the mill comic book film I can recall. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 November 2010

A Week at the Airport by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: Musings invoked during a week at Heathrow.
Review:
I would have a hard time answering you what my dream job is, but I can easily tell you which of the jobs I actually had was my favorite. Working at an airline has its perks, like the occasional free flight or the ability to quickly catch a plane for an exotic weekend , but there is more to it. There is something truly special when giant 747s park closer to your office window than your car is; something magical about working at a place where you know each takeoff, spaced only minutes from its predecessor, requires the effort of hundreds and some $100,000; something enchanting when you pass by a passenger jet taken apart for maintenance on your way to lunch; and something emotional when, on a daily basis, you witness the automatic doors taking in people who just departed from loved ones and other doors opening up so that families can reunite.
I miss working for an airline. In many ways I am annoyed with myself for ever leaving, a quality I seem to share with others who have had an airline job in their past.
My love affair with the world of civil aviation meant I could not step aside upon learning that pop philosopher Alain de Botton, famous for his multiple R-Ward wins (here and here), has released a book about his experience being locked at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 for a week. Upon hearing of this book I ordered its Kindle version, and given its short length (estimated at about 100 normal paperback pages according to my private reckoning) I started reading it at once. There is a mighty advantage to reading short books: you can get into all sorts of many different worlds at the same time a lengthier book would take you to just one. A Week at the Airport does even better by incorporating the brilliant photos of Richard Baker (de Botton’s regular partner in crime, it seems) into the plot: even on the Kindle’s screen, limited to 16 shades of gray, these photos look great.
The story behind this short book seems almost trivial. Commissioned to do so by British Airways, de Botton dutifully spent five days at Heathrow’s new Terminal 5 without ever stepping out to the big wide world, and wrote about his experience. To his credit, de Botton visits everything the airport has to offer: departures/arrivals, the parking lot, maintenance facilities, management, security, shops, an airport hotel (where he also slept), and even the first class lounge. More credit goes to him never kissing British Airways ass: wherever he goes, de Botton tells us what is on his philosopher’s mind in a manner very similar to his previous book – The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work. If anything, you can regard a Week at the Airport as a direct sequel to its predecessor with a focus on having a head up the clouds.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that; I like de Botton’s writing in general and I find myself repeatedly illuminated by his insight. In those short hundred or so pages de Botton manages to capture not only a lot of what takes place at the airport but also a lot of what takes place in society as a whole, contemporary one in particular. By looking at the extremes of the airport environment de Botton takes us apart to find what makes us tick.
Overall: Exciting, interesting, often illuminating – and short. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Wall Street

Lowdown: A personal story of moral decay caused as the result of extreme capitalism.
Review:
Upon the release of its sequel, Money Never Sleeps, Channel 10 graced us by airing the original 1987 piece by Oliver Stone. Surprisingly for a film with such reputation as Wall Street I never sat through its entirety. Watching a film in bits over a lengthy period of time is never a recipe for cinematic fulfillment, so this Friday night we sat down to rectify the situation.
The story, in case you’re not familiar with it, has us following an aspiring Charlie Sheen. The son of an airline mechanic and union member (real life father Martin Sheen), our Charlie works as an investment manager and spends his day cold calling potential customers for their business out of his nightmare of an office where he is surrounded by people like him, some young, some old, and some crash landing. He is looking at the stars, though, and his favorite supernova is Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), a cutthroat investor that ploughs through people and businesses like a bulldozer powered by pure greed. With his father's airline on the line, soon enough our young apprentice needs to make the personal call between humanism/consciousness and making money/getting the girls/having the supposedly good life; Gekko’s extreme capitalism cannot tolerate a compromises there.
While the plot may sound simple, the devil is in the style. And the style is unmistakably Oliver Stone's, even if in many respects it is outdated by too eighties music and computer monitors smaller and less flashy than the one on my hand watch. You get the fast pacing and fast editing, especially with characters talking the Wall Street talk at such pace and with such vigour that you can only hope to get the gist of things by the general atmosphere. The combination of this very confronting as well as polarizing presentation is what gave Wall Street its classic reputation, coupled with Douglas’ by now legendary performance.
Best scene: Obviously, the classic scene in which Gekko boasts the power of greed before a meeting of shareholders is the film’s most memorable one. I found it interesting because Gekko invokes arguments from evolution to justify his greed, namely survival of the fittest. The likes of Hitler and other advocates of eugenics have done it before him, neglecting to notice that human civilization’s biggest achievement has been countering the normal order of nature in order to prevent the rule of the fittest. None of us wants to live like an animal, not even the richest; it’s time our society got bold enough to acknowledge that and behave accordingly, embracing humanism instead of capitalism.
Overall: It may be old by I like it; there certainly is a lot to learn from Wall Street still (read: GFC). 3.5 out of 5 stars. Sadly, while speculative jobs will probably never appeal to me, it does not seem like Wall Street’s lessons are getting to the minds of those that count.