Monday, 31 January 2011

Beware Dangerism by Gever Tulley

Lowdown: The case for letting children have hands on experience with danger.
Review:
By normal standards, Gever Tulley's Beware Dangerism is not a book. Were it to be printed on paper it would probably consume less than 50 conventional paperback's pages. However, Beware Dangerism is worth reviewing as a book for two main reasons: first, because after years of providing talks and intriguing presentations on the Internet this book represents one of TED's first attempts into the book publishing scene. Second, because this quick book provides an indicator for a potential future in the world of publishing, namely instant short stuff delivered straight to your ebook reader via the Internets. At $3 for my Kindle, and with an interesting subject matter at hand, I was aroused enough to have Amazon swipe my credit card.
My arousal on this matter was the result of Gever Tulley previously published book, Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Let Your Children Do). It contains a list of activities Tulley assumes most children should do not because they're dangerous - licking a 9V battery is hardly a dangerous activity - but rather because for some wrong reason or another we perceive them dangerous and therefore require our children to engage in them in order for them to learn to properly assess danger. You can argue Tulley advocates the partaking of mild danger in order to teach safety (refer to his TED presentation here for more).
In Beware Dangerism Tulley takes a more academic approach and discusses the theory behind his advocacy for danger as a safety measure. He defines the term "dangerism" as an irrational fear of danger that puts its subjects under real danger and explains where today's society suffers from dangerism and how, through physiological, psychological and social means we have become a society plagued with dangerism. Then he offers some solutions to the problem, as per his previous book and the above cited presentation.
There can be no doubt I agree with Tulley's main points. Growing up, I spent the bulk of my pre-teen years and early teen years playing in the street, out of direct adult supervision, and I think it did me well. By the age of 11-12 I used to go to the cinema with school friends without any adult supervision, getting there and back on a bus and engaging in other activities on the way. Safety was never an issue, I grew up to become a fine member of society and there was never a point in time where I thought the lack of adult supervision hindered my development; on the contrary, my ability to do as I wish contributed a lot to the development of my independent personality. Today things aren't like that, though: somewhere during the late eighties and the early nineties things have changed. Now parents drive their kids everywhere in armor plated four wheel drives. Now you never see children playing on their own in the street. What has happened to cause such critical changes in the way we raise our children?
My first quibble with Tulley's Beware Dangerism is that he never tries to explain this recent transition that took place in society. He does not study this historical change that took part within my lifetime (and I'm not that old!), which - in my opinion - severely affects his ability to shed light on the problem. Obviously, dangerism in the way it is manifested with children today was caused by recent factors, the study of which can shed light on the matter of prevention, yet Tulley does not delve there.
Next I'd like to move on to discuss Tulley's own way of introducing himself. He usually starts by saying he does not have kids of his own but he "borrows others'". That's fine, and I'm sure he does not mean other parents' kids any harm just because they are not his. Yet I have to question his authority on being able to relate to parents as he advocates them to let their children loose: I agree with Tulley that most of the activities we now consider dangerous, such as a play-park carousel ride, are anything but; but looking back at my own experience as a parent, remembering how hard it was to have a baby in the first place and recalling the near life events in my child's short three years old life thus far (including visits to the emergency room and ambulance rides), I cannot agree that parents should decide on their children's activities by looking at the statistics table alone. Sure, there is low danger in most of the activities Tulley cites, but there is also the fact that if something serious does happen there is no going back. Looking back at my own childhood experiences I recall jumping off a three meter wall and almost getting run over by a car as I crossed the road opposite school: both events I managed to get out of in one piece, but also events that could have easily left me dead or paralyzed. And then what?Tulley's neglectful view on this matter is evident when he mocks people for objecting to nuclear power plants despite their peerless safety record while failing to note there are other causes for objection to nuclear power (e.g., it creating the ingredients necessary for building nuclear weapons, or our inability to deal with leftover waste that will still be around for hundreds of thousands of years) and while also forgetting that in the unlikely event when things do go wrong with a nuclear reactor the result - Chernobyl, anyone? - are catastrophic. I'm not saying here that Tulley is necessarily wrong; I'm saying that it is hard to accept him as an authority on the matter when he's so casual about things.
Ultimately, my biggest criticism with Beware Dangerism is to do with its limited scope. Allow me to explain.
When I grew up I was allowed much more than going out on my own. I was also allowed to watch every movie and read every book I wanted to, and that included sexually explicit material as well as very violent stuff. Again, I am of the opinion this unlimited experience helped me grow into a better adult; however, I do not think this liberal attitude my parents allowed is adequate under today's conditions. Today there is much more material available at our fingertips, with much larger variety, and of much more extreme nature: want sexually explicit material? You can have things I wouldn't imagine physically possible with humans jump at you from the Internet instantly; want violence and you have the opportunity to be properly cruel in the very life like world of Grand Theft Auto.
One of the key events in my life I always mention is me going to watch The Empire Strikes Back at the cinemas after my first day at third grade: I mention it because it was such an awesome film, but I also mention it because it was my first proper movie watching experience. Today I have a three year old at home who already watches films on a regular basis and has, at his fingertips, access to plenty more. Such a world of change requires parents to take active measures and pull the brake before things derail, which is why we have things like film classifications nowadays, a concept completely unknown during my own childhood.
Tulley seems to totally ignore this contents related danger, focusing only on physical activities. This is where he is in the wrong: if you want to tackle dangerism, and you should, then tackle the entire package for it is all different aspects of the same problem. You cannot complain that kids no longer walk to school without acknowledging that one of the main reasons for doing that is not directly to do with fear of the child getting physically hurt by a passing car but rather to do with parents being afraid their kids get exposed to the nasty stuff that today's world is bursting to the seams with on their way. Instead of tackling the whole range of issues at hand, Tulley points at the obvious. That's fine; someone needs to do that. I, however, would welcome a more holistic approach.
Overall: Raising valid points but offering too shallow a discussion at the same time. I'll give Beware Dangerism 3 out of 5 stars, but my generosity is mainly the result of my appreciation to this format of short electronically delivered contents.

Friday, 28 January 2011

Bolt

Lowdown: A film star dog has to come to grips with reality if he wants his human owner back.
Review:
The institution that is the Disney animation film feels like it is as old as the institution of film in general. There used to be a time when animation films were hard to make, resulting in few but very famous releases, mostly from Disney; as technology improved these became more frequent, so much so that Disney institutionalized a yearly animation release. Bolt is one such film, a proper Disney animation release (it's computer animated but it's not a Pixar flick). As you can expect from what has become a frequent tradition, the good old Disney trademarks are there - talking, human like animals etc - but so is predictability.
Bolt, voiced by John Travolta, is a Hollywood TV action hero star. He plays in this TV series as his child master's dog-turned-superhero by the child's genius father, and when that father is kidnapped by an evil organization the dog and his master attempt continuous rescue. The catch is that in order to pass as an authentic hero our Bolt is made to believe he is truly a superhero with genuine superpowers and all, which makes life hard on him when - due to an accident - he finds himself in New York. Getting back across the USA to his rightful place proves hard, but don't worry: with the aid of an anorexic cat and a hamster that likes to live in his transparent ball no challenge can stand in the way.
There is not much to say, really, about Bolt. It is as standard a Disney release as one can expect: the nice story, the interesting lessons that are pushed hard down our throats, and the funky characters say it all. Unlike its Pixar siblings Bolt has limited adult appeal, although that hamster sure is fun.
Best scene: I liked the escape from the stray dog prison scene, but mostly because it reminded me of Terminator 2 escape from Pescadero's scene. I don't know if that was the intention Bolt's makers had in mind, but there can be no doubt these films try to appeal to the parent by touching on fondly accepted popular culture icons.
Technical assessment: A classic animation DVD with a very good picture and sound to match.
Overall: Kids will like it more, but for an adult this cannot bring more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 27 January 2011

Iron Man 2

Lowdown: Nasty rivals are trying to outdo the Iron Man.
Review:
When people talk about sequels being bad, they talk about sequels that offer nothing on top of the original. They talk about sequels that lack the ability to stand on their own and totally rely on the original being there. They talk about sequels whose idea of improving on the former is to have a bit more of everything the former had. Iron Man 2 is, sadly, the fine example for this bad sequel syndrome.
You want a plot? Well, start off from where the previous film (Iron Man) left off. Add a bit of time to let the Iron Man single-handedly establish world peace. Then take an old guy with a Russian accent, Mickey Rourke, who thinks Iron Man owes him everything and give him the brains to design weapons of similar prowess. Mix with another type cast actor, a Sam Rockwell doing exactly what he did at Charlie's Angels, who is a rival weapons manufacturer to Robert Downie Jr’s Iron Man character of Tony Stark. That's pretty much all you need to know about the plot's outline, because the rest of the film is made of action pieces based on the above set agenda. Even the added twist of Stark finding out he’s about to die soon because of the Iron Man’s power source only increases the predictability factor.
The first Iron Man was a surprisingly good film; the second one is surprisingly bad. In case you haven’t noted there’s no plot worth discussing, but there is a long list of stars performing minor type cast roles with a road to nowhere development plan. Stars like Scarlett Johansson, Gwyneth Paltrow and Samuel L. Jackson (whose presence the film does not even try to explain).
Between special effects and fight scenes involving more and more iron man clones there is not much to take from this sequel. It does not even work at the level of the "dumb two hour entertainment that makes you smile and forget about your troubles"; it just bored and frustrated me.
Technical assessment: Initially we rented the Blu-ray but had to replace it with the DVD after the Blu-ray disc would not be accepted by our PlayStation 3, the first time we had an experience of such magnitude with Blu-rays and evidence that the bane of the optical discs is still there in its latest generation and some thirty to forty years later. You would expect the DVD to be good but I found it anything but: the sound was alright, I guess, but the picture was lacking in detail.
Overall: I'm going to be harsh on this one because, following the pleasant surprise that was Iron Man, Iron Man 2 was a very unpleasant surprise. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs

Lowdown: A nerd invents a machine that showers food from the sky, but then has to face the consequences.
Review:
Upon presenting the DVD box of Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs to my three year old he immediately expressed his will to watch it. Why? Because “it has the same child from [How to Train Your Dragon]”. Note we are talking here of films coming from two different studios (Sony and DreamWorks, respectively); which goes to teach you that in this age of computer animated films targeting children, being formulistic goes way beyond the conventional meaning of sticking to a prescribed plot. Nowadays it goes even as far as making everything look the same.
After watching the film I can go even further and report product placement, too (most noticeably for the Jell-O brand). Yes, taking your kids to the cinema today and/or letting them watch a film at home carries with it more than just an artistic experience: you’re also making sure they grow to become good conformist consumers. Isn’t that great!
There is a film behind this exercise in commercialism, and that film is not too bad. We quickly follow a nerd inventor guy from childhood to his adulthood to learn he was and still is socially reclusive, finding more comfort in his inventions than real people. No one likes him, either. Then he comes up with a new invention, another one in a series of many that don’t work as intended: a machine that generates food out of water. That machine behaves more like a rocket and flies up to the sky, but from there it is able to rain down food – the food that our inventor asks it to shower down.
Here commences the more imaginative part of the film as it plays along with the different types of food falling from the sky in all shapes and sizes. Hygiene is not a problem in cartoon world, so we’re in for a treat! From now on you can imagine how things will progress using the regular [unlikely hero film] formula: there is a crisis, there is a good looking girl, and the rest is nothing we haven’t seen before.
There is a lot to be said for films where bacon and ice cream take such a prominent position as they do in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. There is also the bonus of having the Mr T (aka BA Burekas) dubbing one of the characters, even though that policeman character is made over ridiculous (and I don’t mean by the fact it actually protects our hero in a time of need).
Best scene: The Gummi Bears turn nasty on our heroes. By taking something we associate with sweetness and turning it nasty Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs went a long way in my book.
Worst scene: We’ve discussed the overly commercial and formulistic nature of the affair, but it goes even further into stereotyping land. The stereotype at hand is the nerdish one, and the scene to blame is the one where the hot chick “reveals” her true nerd nature by collecting her hair in a knot and wearing her eyeglasses. So this is it, Hollywood? Nerds are always doomed to ugliness and good lookers are always doomed to dumbness? I have seen my fair share of stereotyping on the big screen, but here the polarization is so clear the scene should be classified as damaging to young children’s brains.
Technical assessment: Another computer animation DVD with a relatively disappointing picture. The sound is not to bad, but nothing overly exciting.
Overall: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs lacks the adult appeal many of its compatriots from the land of Pixar are so abundant with. On the positive side, it is very imaginative. I would therefore rate it at 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Crazy Heart

Lowdown: An old but talented country singer’s life is hampered by alcohol.
Review:
A film about a performer that can’t get a break in life and is thus effectively sentenced to misery and gloom as he roams between one live show to another in a journey like experience is not something we haven’t seen before. To one extent or another Crazy Heart more than brings back memories of films such as Clint Eastwood’s Honkytonk Man or Bird.
Jeff Bridges is our man this time, though. Bridges roams the middle of nowhere parts of the USA performing his live country music act shows in such prestigious arenas as bars and bowling alleys, while spending his days driving 300 miles to his next show and getting drunk. Other than that there is nothing fixed in his life – if you can say there is much of a life in there in the first place: no true love, no home, no career prospects despite a promising start. In essence, Bridges’ character – Bad Blake – lives up to its name by sucking on past glory.
Then there’s a change (otherwise there won’t be a film!): a keyboard player on one of his shows asks Bad to give his reporter niece the interview she needs to kick her career off with. Bad, never the one to turn down a lady, complies; quickly he falls for the reporter (Maggie Gyllenhaal). In spite of her being a generation younger something happens between the two, aided by the fact Bad gets on well with Gyllenhaal’s toddler. Can this relationship get anywhere? Can Bad do something to recover his ailing career, perhaps with the help of a former protégé who is now famous (Colin Farrell)?
I already referred to the expectations I had of Crazy Heart. Every time something good happened to Bad I would just wait for him to mess things up. Crazy Heart, however, does not follow this formula to the letter. I will say this without causing too much of a blooper: Crazy Heart is not a tragedy. Yet if you were to ask the follow-up question, i.e., what is Crazy Heart exactly, you would have a hard time coming back with an answer. That is because Crazy Heart refuses to tell you what direction it's aiming at until its last ten minutes or so.
The result is a bit puzzling. Because of its rather lazy pacing and the frequent breaking into music (it's country music but it's more than fine), you spend most of the film's duration wondering where you're being led to. For for most of that time you simply don't know; you're also a bit bored. While Crazy Heart is not a film about nothing by any means, it does feel like it's lacking direction for too long.
The end result? A film showing off Jeff Bridges' acting talent, mixed with some nice music. Take it or leave it.
Technical assessment: A mediocre DVD through and through, even if the music is nice.
Overall: The acting and the music may be good but the film never transcends. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 21 January 2011

God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: A thorough review of what is bad with religion and why humanity needs to abandon it.
Review:
As I am writing this it looks like Christopher Hitchens is going to leave this world rather prematurely, to quote Hitchens himself, while cancer is getting the better of him. For a while now Hitchens has been a character I would look up to: granted, I disagree with him on many things, from the second war in Iraq to the value of Wikileaks; yet Hitchens is a person you can learn a lot from even in disagreement because of his sharpness. You can trust Hitchens’ opinion, whatever it may be, to be based on fact and reason; disagreements can only come through slight differences in personal interpretation of the facts we all do according to our private set of values and our world views.
Having never read anything longer than an article by Hitchens I thought the time is now right for me to plunge into a book of his. God Is Not Great seemed like the most natural choice for me to start with for the very obvious reason this is not a subject about which I am going to have any arguments with Hitchens.
God Is Not Great is, in effect, a single great speech regarding all that is bad with religion. You can even call it a rant if it wasn’t for the rich language Hitchens lays his case down with; if anything, the language is overly rich with Hitchens sending me to the dictionary at record frequency. You have to hand it to him, though: Hitchens is pretty thorough in making his point. He goes through the history of religion, the contradictions all religions have, the morality issues of religion, the way religion has tampered with humanity’s proper development, and much much more. Although Hitchens starts the book by saying the god he’s protesting against is the Protestant one, having been raised as such, Hitchens does not deal with that god alone but rather deals blows to all three major monotheisms as well as to the religions of the East that seem to be a hit with so many disenchanted Westerners looking for alternatives. Given my ignorance on matters of the East this has been my favorite part of the book, a part where I learned a lot about Ghandi, the Dalai Lama and the religions they represent – Hinduism and Buddhism. I learned enough to appreciate these religions suffer from all the same maladies “our” religions do. To others who may seriously think the East knows better than the West, I am sure reading these chapters of Hitchens’ book will bring much enlightenment.
Perhaps the best way for me to communicate what the God Is Not Great experience is like is through comparing it with its closest sibling and one of the best books I ever had the pleasure of reading, Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion. In The God Delusion Dawkins uses rational to dismantle religion and demonstrate the value of atheism in what I consider textbook demonstration of how ideas should be scrutinized. Dawkins is often accused as shrill but his God Delusion is anything but: sure, many a religious person would find it offensive, but the only possible source of their offence would be the book “daring” to discuss ideas they prefer left sheltered. In contrast, Hitchens is not as elegant: he hands religion one blow after the other while showing no mercy. Hitchens is as shrill as one could be while still keeping to well laid arguments from reason.
Between them I prefer the much more elegant God Delusion. That said, it has to be noted that both cover very similar subject matter and conclude identical conclusions. It also has to be said I liked God Is Not Great a lot for what it is, a case study in well laid aggressive rhetoric and a detailed case against religion, laid out as if Hitchens himself was the district attorney in the case against religion. The God Delusion user friendliness is aimed at showing believers the truth; God Is Not Great is a book that would punch believers in the jaw and knock them down in the first round. God Is Not Great takes it for granted that its reader is inclined towards atheism, otherwise it would leave the reader feeling like an idiot, ignoring the option the reader is merely ignorant.
As I read God Is Not Great Hitchens’ style grew on me. Researching his arguments and the evidence he uses to support them shows there is a lot of merit in some of the more controversial stuff he says, like the not so charming aspects of the Dalai Lama or Ghandi that are well kept secrets in the admiring West. I learned a lot and thoroughly enjoyed this rough, exhilarating ride. I also learned to appreciate Hitchens: the guy is probably one of the sharpest debaters one could ever meet.
Overall: Presenting a case against religion in a manner different to Dawkins’ is not necessarily bad. Not bad at all! Actually, it’s quite exciting and thrilling with much to learn from, fully deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars.
Barring an improbable recovery, it is a great pity we will not be seeing more like this from Hitchens.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Aladdin

Lowdown: A slum hero uses three wishes to seize the day and become the prince of Persia.
Review:
Aladdin is one of those films that are so well entrenched in my perception of what movies are about that I cannot honestly review it. What I will do instead is provide an account for how this 1992’s Disney animation film became my favorite Disney film ever and perhaps my favorite animation film ever, too.
I did not go to see Aladdin during its cinema release; despite all the praise it won I could not bring myself to watch what I thought would be yet another sloppy Disney affair trying to mimic the glory of old. However, at the time I was also at the peak of my audiophile days; when Aladdin came out on Laserdisc – a special CAV edition, none the less, featuring a new concept called “supplementals” – I couldn’t hold myself back. I forked out more than $70 (a figure worth probably more than twice as much in today’s terms) for that Laserdisc. Actually, that was the standard cost of a Laser at the time: a time when high quality material was generally unavailable and even VHS availability wasn’t half of what you’d get today.
Perhaps I made a mistake that day I bought Aladdin, because during the following week my room became a place of worship. Everyone I knew seemed to want to watch Aladdin. Within a week I watched the film ten times; after that week it took me a while before I could bear watching it again.
I did, however, watch Aladdin again. I watched it many times more, for the simple fact I find the film too good to resist. The tale of Arabia story of an unlikely hero from the slums that captures the monarch daughter’s heart through his offering of freedom, some heroics and the mighty assistance of an all powerful genie granting him three wishes may not be what the original One Thousand and One Night story had in mind, but that original did not have the comedy talents of Robin Williams at its disposal. Even the villains are cool here. Hell, even the songs are: normally I abhor the concept of a musical, always pointing out that throughout my years on this earth I have never witnessed people bursting into coordinated song without the heavy involvement of alcohol or drugs, and even then the effort is always less than impressive. In Aladdin’s case things are different: not only are the songs good, but things actually happen during the singing which means you don’t need to wait for the song to finish in order for the plot to progress.
At its time Aladdin was touted as the pinnacle of animation. By today’s standards the animation is poor and often betrays the old computer technology behind it. Further evidence for issues of yonder with animation lies in the film’s duration of 80+ minutes, testimony to the effort involved but also a bonus: here is a film that doesn’t take its time making a point.
Pinnacle of animation or not, there is a lot to be said about the ethics of Aladdin. The story that preaches being true to yourself and to others (to quote a Robin Williams posing as a bee, “beeee yourself!”) had a definitive effect on me. My appreciation for the truth was always there, but my striving for transparency, calling things the way they are and making sure everyone hears me when I do so, and the urge to always be myself no matter what they say was heavily enhanced by repeat viewings of Aladdin.
Eventually, Aladdin won itself another piece of personal history: it was the last Laserdisc we watched before getting rid of Lasers for good. This week was the first time I watched the film on another format - DVD, the format that drove Lasers to extinction.
Favorite scene: The Prince Ali song is my favourite here. It’s funny and all, but what I like most about it is the reprise: initially, the genie sings it to introduce us to the made up prince, while later on the villain sings it to introduce us to the real Aladdin. It reminded me of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a song that is also very effectively reprised to give a sense of cohesion to an already excellent album.
Technical assessment: In contrast to what we normally expect from an animation DVD the picture here definitely shows the original’s age. So does the sound: the soundtrack that was once considered good (but never wow) now feels too mild; the scene where the rock falls on the flying carpet as the heroes escape The Cave of Wonders used to be a good subwoofer’s test, yet now it just sounds like a mild thump.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars, if a rating is what you insist on.

Monday, 17 January 2011

It's Complicated

Lowdown: A former couple has another go.
Review:
From time to time we rent a film for its sheer star power, as was the case with It’s Complicated: I consider Meryl Streep the best female actress around even if I don’t like most of her films, and Alec Baldwin – her partner on the Blu-ray’s cover photo – has had enough small comedy roles recently to make me want to watch more of him. Granted, upon a closer inspection of the Blu-ray at home I was rather dismayed to find It’s Complicated was directed by The Holiday’s Nancy Meyers, but by then it was too late.
While It’s Complicated may boast complicated circumstances, it is still essentially a love triangle story delivered as a romantic comedy that is obviously heavily oriented towards the female viewer. The premises are uncovered a tad slowly but they’re clear enough:
Between them, Streep and Baldwin have three kids, all of which have left home. Both parents are successful at their respective careers, and as becomes clearly evident by the stuff they’re surrounding themselves with they have not known financial strife for many years. However, following many years of marriage our heroes have been divorced for ten years now, the result of Baldwin hitting things off with a much younger woman to whom he eventually got married. By now cracks appear in Baldwin’s second marriage and the disadvantages of being married to a young woman with certain expectations are taking their toll, while Streep has obviously never recovered from her divorce and is still looking for a sense of direction.
Now comes the detonator part. After their long years of separation, Streep and Baldwyn meet at their youngest son’s graduation ceremony. A few drinks later they find themselves in bed. In parallel, a certain spark is lit between Streep and the architect working on extending her home, an under utilized Steve Martin; Streep has to decide which is the right way for her while contending with the notion she is now an adulterer.
It’s Complicated tries to tell us an important story about getting over your past and moving on with your life with the help of the people in your life and while helping the people in your life. However, it tells this important story without sending off any sparks; the story is told in a rather bland and unexciting manner despite the bottomless comedy talent in store here. Most problematic is the duration of the ordeal: there is simply no justification for this film to take two hours other than a successful attempt to waste our time and bore us.
Another problem of sorts with It’s Complicated is its overly American nature. Most of the films we watch are made in the USA, but that is mostly testimony of the dominance of the American movie industry rather than an indicator of my preferences. At the same time, most films are perfectly watchable for non Americans by virtue of the fact they can take place anywhere, to one extent or another. That is not the case with It’s Complicated: a lot of the cultural nuances it uses, like the graduation ceremony that is pivotal to the plot, are very American and too conspicuous for this non American to pass without attracting too much attention. I realize I am not the film’s target market but the film’s relative lack of universal appeal needs to be noted.
Best scene: The most interesting thing about It’s Complicated are the similarities between Streep’s character in this film and in Julie & Julia. In both cases she visited France where she learned to cook and in both cases she makes her living from her cooking expertise. It was fairly natural for me, then, to find the scene where she cooks chocolate croissant for Steve Martin’s character as the film’s most interesting scene, if only because it was interesting to see how these cookies (?) are made.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray sports a good but still average picture. The sound is too mundane and a bit of a waste of the Blu-ray format’s capabilities.
Overall: It’s a nice story that should be told; the execution fails it, though, and places it at between 2 to 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 14 January 2011

It Might Get Loud

Lowdown: Jimmy Page + The Edge + Jack White = electric guitar heaven.
Review:
If you were to ask me who my favorite musician of this millennium is, the answer would probably be The White Stripes' Jack White; Elephant is probably my favorite album of the decade that was.
The decade before that was probably U2's: I started listening to them during the eighties, but it was Achtung Baby that made me an addict. I remember buying the album at a Jerusalem record shop during a rare getaway from my army base shortly after the first Gulf War started. True, by now I developed a lot of contempt for U2, but that contempt is owing to them simply failing to realize they should have retired at their peak, some time during the mid nineties. That and Bono's stand on matters of copyright. Still, nothing can take their past achievements from them.
Before that? As far as I am concerned, what came before U2 was the age of the mighty. That time when the truly awesome rock musicians walked the earth: the likes of the Pink Floyds, the Creams and the Zeps. That era before sampling, hip-hop and the synth was probably the era where the electric guitar shone the most. Of the guitarists from that age of the titans, my personal favorite by a wide margin is Jimmy Page; when I think electric guitar it is he who is most often at the top of my mind.
Now imagine what you get when you combine the guitar talents of all the above decades/ages: Jack White, The Edge and Jimmy Page. Imagine what would happen if you were to get them all to a summit meeting. Now you can stop imagining, because that is exactly what It Might Get Loud - a 2008 documentary - does. We follow Page, White and Edge as they tell us about their roots, where they come from and what happened to take them to where they are now; and in between we catch glimpses of what took place when the three met face to face, armed only with their electric guitars and amps.
The previous paragraph's description might have made it sound bland, but It Might Get Loud is anything but. To say that the artists' stories about the beginning of their careers are interesting is quite an understatement. Jimmy Page's evolution at an age that was yet to know rock is a story about how those artists shaped rock to be what we now know it to be, and The Edge taking us through the school where U2 met and showing us the noticeboard on which Larry Mullen published a wanted ad for the musicians that would end up forming U2 is like watching history come to life. We also learn a bit about the technical achievements of our heroes here: most notable is the scene where Page shows us to the mansion where Led Zeppelin IV was recorded and explains how the drum sound on When the Levee Breaks (a personal favorite of mine) was achieved. That said, the main lesson I took from this part of the film is that you don't necessarily need to burst with talent to get to this trio's heights: you need the ambition and the perseverance. Life lessons such as these are hardly ever better delivered than in It Might Get Loud.
Then there is the summit meeting. I have to admit I was a bit disappointed there, but then again what could I expect? Did I really expect them all to burst into song together and come up with a spectacular new super group as we watch? Did I really expect The Edge and Jack White to just join Page as he plays my favorite Led Zeppelin songs? Silly me. Instead what we have is a glimpse at how people who are the top subject matter experts in their field exchange news and views as we learn how they themselves learn. Disappointed as I was, there are still pure gems in the summit, such as when the trio join Page through the riff from In My Time of Dying, one of my favorite Zeppelin songs.
It's interesting to note It Might Get Loud is clearly a case where the DVD experience is far superior to the cinematic one, mainly through its supplementals. The deleted scenes are not just outtakes: they feature a scene where Page teaches the other two how to play Kashmir and White teaches the other two how to play Seven Nation Army. If you're a guitar fan you'd have an orgasm watching those; if you're a music fan you'll just enjoy knowing more about a few of the best songs ever made.
Best scene: It Might Get Loud is rich with best scene material. After great deliberation my money goes to the scene where Page casually picks a guitar and strums the notes from Whole Lotta Love. You should have seen the face on Edge and White! They were exactly like mine...
Technical assessment: The director went for an artistic look here, so the picture is of very washed up and high contrast nature on purpose; do not expect much of your DVD player. The sound is mostly the result of the trio's guitar playing and some clips of their songs, so it does have its moments of shining.
Overall: I was in nirvana land, somewhere between 4.5 and 5 stars. More importantly, I can't stop thinking of what I saw; this documentary is so good it would make a corpse want to pick a guitar up.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

How to Train Your Dragon

Lowdown: A misfit Viking boy befriends the enemy – a dragon.
Review:
How to Train Your Dragon might have been a bit more scary than we would have liked our three year old to endure, but it was still successful family night viewing. Perhaps it’s the computer animation that makes us automatically think a film is toddler friendly.
Taking place in a fantasy world, on a remote island populated by rough and tough Vikings, How to Train Your Dragon follows a boy called Hiccup. Hiccup is an exception to the rule, the only Viking around who is not big and tough, and that’s despite being the son of the mightiest boss Viking around (voiced by Gerard Butler, who like all other adult Vikings in the film displays a very Scottish accent). Island life is pretty boring but also quite unsafe: the island is under frequent attacks from all sorts of dragons who steal and pilfer, “forcing” the community to focus on becoming brute warriors whose main aim in life is to unconditionally kill as many dragons as possible.
Hiccup, being Hiccup, is again the exception, too much of a weakling to mess with dangerous dragons face to face. He builds his own harpoon like device, and in the chaos of a dragon attack fires it at the sky… and hits a dragon! That dragon, of the mightiest dragon breed around, is injured. Yet Hiccup cannot bring himself to kill it; instead he starts caring for the dragon to help it recover. And guess what? They become friends, a friendship that has an effect on Hiccup’s achievements in dragon fighting school and a friendship that could have a life changing effect on the entire Viking way of life.
How to Train Your Dragon is a nice and easy watch. Probably too easy, being a film that follows the typical formula to the letter and suffers from typical predictability problems. While offering what my eyes deemed as cruder and rougher animation to Pixar’s lot, How to Train Your Dragon (a DreamWorks production) does not hesitate to apply the tradition of most computer animation kids’ films and is generous with features that are not that relevant but are “just so nice”, like dragons who are more like bumblebees and references to contemporary culture. Yet despite the simplistic plot and the uninteresting characters, How to Train Your Dragon does carry a nice message regarding the need to understand the other before you judge them; if a decent proportion of the kids watching the film take that message home then so be it.
Best scene: It’s quite hard for me to think a scene that stood up. But hey, did you see those cute buzzing bumblebee like dragons?
Technical assessment: In typical computer animation style, the 2D picture on this Blu-ray is excellent (the film had a 3D release at the cinemas). The sound, however, is too uninspiring for my taste; a case of an alright soundtrack yet unfulfilled potential for a film that does deal with subject matter like dragon flight.
Overall:
I guess I’ll be generous and give this one 3 stars, but here’s your disclaimer – don’t expect as much depth and adult appeal as your average Pixar film here. Better yet, I’ll give this film the 2.5 out of 5 stars it deserves, and add that you should expect your kids to like it despite its mediocrity.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that dragons deserve more.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Whip It

Lowdown: Bliss from middle of nowhere America becomes Babe Ruthless at the rink.
Review:
Whip It is such an unassuming film I even rented it as a filler. Yet as is often the case, you get the best surprises from those you do not expect much of.
Whip It's plot follows a teen called Bliss from a middle of nowhere town in Texas. Her mother still treats her like a child, taking her to compete at pageants, but Bliss is over that; her focus is on getting out of town and into big time, getting out of the dreary diner she works at with her best friend where they serve food to their moron school friends who never tip. Bliss wants a future.
Salvation comes in the shape of a team skating competition. Bliss decides to try it out and quickly finds she has a knack for it. She joins a loser team of girls fighting some mighty opposition, but through will power and talent her team starts rising to the occasion just as Bliss starts finding her own identity. This new identity is called Babe Ruthless at the rink, and Bliss falls in love with Babe Ruthless and everything that comes with her. Yet questions remain: how long will Bliss be able to hide this sport from her parents? How long will she be able to take part in a sport where the minimum age is 22? And will skating get her anywhere in life - is there a future there?
When analysing the film, I managed to come up with the following reasons as to why Whip It managed to take me by surprise and provide me with a great movie experience:
  • Let’s start with the obvious: there’s a very good line-up of actors here, starting from an Ellen Page (Juno, Inception) that already proved she can carry a film on her shoulders as Bliss. Juliette Lewis is also notable as the head villain that, through being bad, helps our Bliss more than most others.
  • Then let us not ignore the obvious fact that Whip It is a film where the rounder characters are female and the chief protagonists are female. How often does that happen on the big screen? Not often enough!
  • Moving on through the list of factors in favor of Whip It, there’s the mater of the ending. How lovely it is to have an end that is not the usual improbably sweeter than sweet ending, but rather a realistic one. Billion times better!
  • Most of all, I liked Whip It because of its authenticity. It is not over the top; the teen in the film, her parents, her friends, the skating – none of them is larger than life, none are particularly better looking than in reality, none are without blemishes. To put it bluntly, Whip It’s story is a simple story that can take place anytime, anywhere. Most importantly, it can happen!
At the end I was quite surprised to see Drew Barrymore as the receiver of Whip It’s director’s credit. Good on ya, Drew; if this is what you can come up with as director, I want to see more!
Best scene: I really loved the adjoining scenes where Bliss leaves home after arguing with her parents on the merits of skating but then realizes she lost something in this rebellion of hers, eventually retuning home. I loved it because I am now able to see it from the point of view of a parent worried about their child who is still able to recall his own days of rebelling, and I loved it because I was able to see authenticity in everything that transpires between Bliss and her parents. What an excellent portrayal of real life teenage adventures!
Technical assessment: The sound on this DVD is mediocre but is more than compensated by a large collection of groovy songs that fit the occasion and keep the spirits high. However, the picture is outright horrible and qualifies for the worst I have seen on a mainstream release for a few years now. It’s highly likely this quality issue is limited to the Australian version of the DVD as the credits indicate the DVD was authored in Australia. A film like Whip It deserves better.
Overall: I loved Whip It through and though. Such authenticity coming out of Hollywood! Are you sure this is not an art house production? 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 10 January 2011

Lemon Tree

Lowdown: A Palestinian woman, an Israeli woman, and the soon to be demolished lemon trees in between.
Review:
There are some genuinely excellent films coming from Israel over the last few years. You could argue this is because the areas’ conflicts supply a lot of movie making ammunition, but regardless there can be no denying the quality of films like The Band’s Visit or Beaufort. Now, after watching Lemon Tree, I can confidently add another film to the list of excellence.
Lemon Tree captures contemporary nuances of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to a T. It follows the lives of two women over a short period of time, two women of similar age living in two neighboring houses. Only that one of them is Palestinian, the other an Israeli, and in between them lies the path through which a wall of separation between the two peoples is meant to pass. The Palestinian woman is a poor widower whose kids left home and who makes her living out of the lemon tree plantation her family owned for generations. The Israeli woman is newly moved to the area with her husband, Israel’s Minister of Defense, and with all the secret service security such a role brings. Unlike the Palestinian woman, who lives in an authentic Arab dwelling, the Israeli woman lives in a newly built flashy house she designed herself along Arab motifs; money, it seems, was not an issue for her.
However, the lemon tree plantation does become an issue for the minister’s security people, who deem it a threat: terrorists could easily launch an attack under the trees’ cover, and therefore the trees have to be uprooted in the name of security. For the rest of the film we witness the ensuing conflict as the Palestinian stands strong and hires a young hot-shot Palestinian lawyer to defend her trees while the Israeli woman identifies with her neighbor but finds herself unable to do much as she witnesses her husband’s double talk on the matter and as her family falls apart through the conflict that follows.
Lemon Tree really does tell you most of what you need to know in order to experience the damage that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict inflicts on everyone it touches. You witness the Palestinian suffering, but you also witness the Israeli suffering as the people that care find themselves unable to act and those that don’t care find their humanity suffering, which has subsequent effects on their personal lives. The great thing about Lemon Tree is the seeming ease with which it achieves this portrayal of slight nuances without attracting much viewer attention. A lot of Lemon Tree’s success has to do with its authenticity: characters speak authentic languages, people dress and act accordingly, sets and outfits are authentic down to the unit tags on the shoulders of Israeli army personnel, and neither side of the conflict is portrayed as pure of sin.
Best scene:
The Israeli woman crosses the “border” to confront her Palestinian neighbor and tell her in her face that she supports her stand for her lemons. However, the secret service follows her and prevents the confrontation that could have resolved the whole affair at the center of the film.
Living in Israel I often had the feeling that Israel is an army with a nation around it, a feeling shared by many left wing Israelis. This scene perfectly demonstrates why that notion is there: the army stands between the two sides, making sure they remain in conflict despite the obvious need and will of each side to talk to the other and find a better way out.
No wonder I chose to do what some of Lemon Tree’s characters did, leaving the conflict I never wanted to be a part of behind me.
Technical assessment: To put it mildly, this is not a DVD you would get for its technical qualities. One can only wonder whether this is due to an artistic decision, poor budget or unprofessional DVD authoring.
Overall: A film that manages to successfully tell the story of today’s Israeli-Palestinian conflict by personifying it into two innocent women on either side of the fence is a film that deserves much praise. Lemon Tree deserves more than 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 7 January 2011

The Expendables

Lowdown: A group of has been mercenaries fights to liberate a small island.
Review:
Could I resist The Expendables, an action film loaded with a cast featuring names such as Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger? No, I couldn't. True, none of these names are noteworthy because of their acting skills, and the likes of Lundgren are only noteworthy because of the comedy factor of past performances (e.g., Rocky 4). Reminiscing, though, has a lot going for it.
Sadly, names are the only factor that's going in favor of The Expendables. In any other way this is a pathetic effort, starting from the plot. Indeed, the plot has all the sophistication of a Call of Duty video game, including characters as full of depth as a small drop of water on a concrete floor. Our group of heroes (led by Stallone, who wrote the script and directed this flick) is a group of old mercenaries very good at what they're doing despite their advanced age; and let's face it, between Stallone, Lundgren and Rourke there's a lot of plastic around. They get a job at a small island ruled by an evil dictator, where Stallone gets involved with this pretty girl. Things become personal for him so he goes back to liberate the island, Rambo style, but his mates won't leave him alone and we're all in for an action party. There is, indeed, a lot in common between The Expendables and Rambo: they share a director, they share motifs, and they both suck. Obviously, Stallone is stuck in limbo as he repeats the same old crap we grew out of thirty years ago again and again.
Between all the famous action heroes here, including perhaps the biggest names ever (and let's not forget the Planet Hollywood reunion), Statham is the only one delivering a credible performance. The rest look like they didn't wake up in time for the shoot. Director Stallone, for whom this was probably a make or break film, is the worst offender: it is rare for me to be able to point at a major release and be able to confidently claim it was badly directed, but The Expendables gives me all the leeway I ever needed in order to make such a claim. It is badly edited, and worst - the action scenes are very badly choreographed. Perhaps because our band of geezers is no longer action capable, all the action scenes are an unintelligible mess of fast camera movement and ultra fast editing; there is no way to understand what is taking place with them other than guess at their hectic nature. Now, given the abundance of these action scenes and the fact that duration wise they consume a lot of the film, I ended up feeling bored: for minutes on end things took place without me being able to figure out exactly what's taking place. It was a case of "please, wake me up when the killing is over", only that things are so shallow there is nothing worth waking up for.
You know what the worst thing about The Expendables is, though? The one liners when a goodie kills a baddie are just so bad. Who wrote the script? Ah, it was Stallone.
"Best" scene: Dolph Lundgren repents betraying his team of Expendables. Because in this scene, you see him close up, and he just looks scary - all those attempts to make him look young make him look more like a Frankenstein.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is good but colors are inaccurate; the sound is good for a modern day action flick but nothing too special.
Overall: A big waste of big stars' names, a big waste of our time. Totally expendable indeed! 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: The fates hold a new future for a boy growing up as a recycler of old tanker ships.
Review:
Paolo Bacigalupi’s first book, The Windup Girl, has won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards for best science fiction book of 2010 – an achievement it shares with a rare few others. Feedback from reliable sources (my wife) informed me that book’s style is of a type that often gets on my nerves, full of lengthy descriptions and taking a while to get to the point. I probably will read The Windup Girl sooner rather than later, but I decided to go for a softer Paolo Bacigalupi debut: Ship Breaker, a young adult science fiction book that shares many a theme with its prestigious sibling but doesn’t go around the bush.
Ship Breaker takes us to a world a few centuries in our future, a world where drastic climate change already took place, cheap energy humans can dig from the ground ran out, and most other earthly resources have already been dug. This is a world where no planes fly anymore and ships use vast sails to get from place to place, a world where the poor’s only choice for making a living is scavenging on relics left from the so called Accelerated Age - our age. Our hero is a teen called Nailer whose entire life thus far was spent child laboring on a beach at the southern part of contemporary USA, with him creeping up old oil tankers duct tunnels to recover wires and other precious resources in a manner similar to children being used for their small size in order to clean chimneys back in Victorian England. These scavenged materials Nailer recovers are then passed on to the big conglomerate running the beach while the beach dwellers themselves live in dog eat dog conditions where nothing resembles civilized social welfare.
Fate has something special in store for Nailer. One day he falls out of a duct tunnel and into a pool of oil. He nearly drowns there while his scavenging partner prefers to let him die and reap the rewards of the precious rare find. Nailer, however, is resourceful enough (or lucky enough?) to get away by the skin of his teeth. That experience proves a life changing one for him as a city killer storm hits his beach and brings with it changes no one in our boy’s environment expected.
Ship Breaker is high quality beginners’ science fiction. It is an exciting read interwoven with futuristic ideas so subtly and with such depth you hardly notice them while you read the book, yet the book would be nothing without the future it proposes and the effect that future has on its population. Science fiction motifs and adventure tales aside, Ship Breaker offers a very decent debate on the merits of fate, fatalism and taking matters into one’s own hand. The human aspect of the story is not neglected either: the conflict between Nailer and his father is at the center of the book and is used to form a discussion on the merits of family, friends and who the major stakeholders in our lives really are, a discussion that develops just as Nailer develops his own identity. All is done at a level that is perfectly suitable for a young adult and doesn’t fair too badly for this adult, either.
I did feel like there were forced soft spots here and there, such as the excuse for the political conflict driving the plot (the ethics of sourcing energy from tar sands), but while I did get the occasional itch I found Ship Breaker a very pleasurable and rewarding read.
Overall: Ship Breaker may not have delivered too much to this adult but it didn’t demand much either; if anything it was an excellent holiday read. To its target audience of young adults Ship Breaker is guaranteed to deliver much and serve as a good appetiser for the science fiction genre as a whole, making it a very worthy 3.5 out of 5 stars read.

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Bad Science by Ben Goldacre

Lowdown: Raising awareness to the way science is publicly misrepresented and the damage that causes.
Review:
The way I familiarized myself with Ben Goldacre is testimony for what can be achieved through modern technology. I first “met” Goldcare through Twitter re-tweets; then, when I was curious enough, I started following him on Twitter myself to learn of his Bad Science blog and column with The Guardian. Then I found out he's an atheist by reading his contribution to The Atheist's Guide to Christmas. Then I learned of his book, Bad Science, which summarizes a lot of what Goldacre is saying in his various online resources and decided to jump the bandwagon.
In many way, Bad Science takes Carl Sagan’s Demon Haunted World further. Sagan focused more on the philosophical aspects of science and its importance in today’s society; Goldacre goes along by taking us through ongoing and escalating examples of cases where science is being misrepresented before the public and, as we go along, explains what the problems are, how they affect us, and what can be done to rectify the situation. According to Goldacre, at is as if the very complexity that brings us technological wonders is also working against us when it comes to understanding what lies behind it. That, plus - as Goldacre shows - the fact that we seem to have grown fond of misrepresenting science.
Goldacre starts with obviously bogus scientific claims (e.g., homeopathy) and moves forward with less obvious examples, all of which are pretty relevant: detox, the adventures of various nutritionists and big pharma, the treatment of AIDS in South Africa and various court cases. In all these cases science has a major saying but science is also routinely misquoted or twisted to serve some narrow commercial needs, and Goldacre points his fingers at those culprits as well as the various tools they use to get their way – mostly the bad way science is reported in mainstream media, where populism beats accuracy every time.
The overall image is pretty scary and Bad Science acts as quite the eye opener in the sense that it shows some of the traps each and every one of us fell into from time to time if not most of the time when we think we know it all or we take someone's word for it when we shouldn't. Despite its non fiction nature, Bad Science is a thrilling and pleasurable read: Goldacre knows how to drive the narrative home despite the lack of a plot or characters to identify with, aided by a sense of humor that would put many a stand-up comedian to shame. Check his style for yourself through this presentation of his, touching many of the points raised in the book:

Ben Goldacre Talks Bad Science from PopTech on Vimeo.

There can be no doubt as to the importance and relevancy of Bad Science’s message to today’s society. I live in a country where, according to surveys, more than 40% of the population does not “believe” humanity has had a hand in the shaping of earth’s climate despite the substantial science on the matter. Still, those 40% plus vote and help shape my country’s policies on climate change. In effect, their ignorance in science and the way science is misrepresented to them mean that future generations will have to pay a heftier price in order to deal with the climate and the grimmer world we're leaving behind.
Or, more the the book's point, as a book dealing mostly with personal health issues rather earth scale affairs: I live in a country where whopping cough has become a baby killing epidemic despite the easy availability of effective immunisation for the very simple reason that quacks have managed to convince enough people they don't need the immunisation or that the immunisation would harm them and/or their child. When such simple ignorance costs lives you know something has to be done concerning people's perception of scientific affairs.
Overall:
Bad Science reads like a 4 star book, but I will give it 4.5 out of 5 stars because it’s very rare to have books of such relevancy and importance deliver their goods in such an approachable and readable way. Goldacre is obviously very talented at popularizing science.