Thursday, 31 March 2011

Anthony Zimmer

Lowdown: A hot woman opens a can of worms for an innocent guy as she exposes him to a world of crime.
Review:
The French film Anthony Zimmer (2005) starts by quickly teaching us a few facts, thus setting things up: Anthony Zimmer is a guy who made a whole lot of money through a brilliant scheme of illegal money laundering. As a result of that scheme he is sought after by the law as well as by all sorts of criminals, including some particularly vicious ones with KGB connections. In response to the threat Zimmer has an operation to change his appearance; no one knows what he looks like or what his next move is going to be. The only exception: his beautiful lover, Chiara, to whom he leaves instructions that should lead to them uniting. The instructions? Board a train to Nice and pick up an innocent guy.
Chiara (Sophie Marceau) boards the rather empty TGV train and sits opposite Francois (Yvan Attal). Francois, a recent divorcee on a low key translator's career, cannot avoid falling for the ravishing goddess that’s opposing him. When Chiara invites him to leave his mundane holiday plans behind and join her at an exotic hotel we know what his choice is going to be. What he doesn’t realize is that his submission puts him firmly in the middle of Zimmer’s plot, an innocent man surrounded by villains all around.
I won’t mess you about: I thoroughly enjoyed Anthony Zimmer. It’s been a long time since I found myself so thrilled by a thriller (as opposed to an action film), but I think the reason is pretty clear: due to various reasons stemming from the depths of their marketing departments, Hollywood is unable to come up with products as good as this one coming from France.
Let’s start with the sexual tension between Francois, the mere mortal I found myself so easily identifying with, and the goddess figure of Chiara that could bring him to his ruin. First there’s the noticeable fact Chira is played by a 40 year old actress; she still looks smashingly good and unlike the typically cast Hollywood Barbie doll she can act and she packs a whole lot of character with her. When Marceau plays the role of a high class temptress the viewer’s suspension of disbelief is not challenged in the least.
That sexual tension on which the film relies so much is aided by unique cinematography style that has the camera close to the ground and very tightly closed on its moving subject. This style helps maintain that sense of mystery, as when we first meet a Chiara walking French streets in a dress and high heeled shoes from the shoes’ point of view: we suspect there’s a sexy woman up there, we see what she’s doing, but we can’t tell much about her – her face remains a mystery. All that is achieved without rocking a handheld camera to the point of nauseating the viewer and without the quick edits that prevent you from knowing what’s going on. In other words, Anthony Zimmer does not jerk you off.
Then there is the music. Perhaps it’s too intense for the film; perhaps it's more suitable for a haunting atmosphere. I, however, found it gripping, seamlessly patching things up to complete the package.
Now let’s compare Anthony Zimmer to an American thriller where identities are also at the core of things, Shutter Island. Shutter Island is directed by a guy many would say is the best director out there and features stars of major Hollywoodian appeal, yet if you were to ask me the whole affair should have been named Stutter Island. In contrast, Anthony Zimmer uses simple techniques to render it effective; it does not rely on reputation, it just delivers.
For the record, in the process of writing this review I learned Anthony Zimmer served as the inspiration for a Hollywood remake called The Tourist, starring Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie. I haven’t seen The Tourist but I know it has the firm reputation of a flop. Somehow, I am not surprised.
Overall: I liked Anthony Zimmer much more than its 3.5 out of 5 stars rating would make you think.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: Lyra’s third and final adventure.
Review:
There is a first for everything, and when I sought to read my first paper book since receiving my ebook reader (for the simple reason I’ve exhausted the list of urgent reads on my Kindle), the first book that came to mind was the final in a trilogy I started reading two years ago. The first of the series, The Golden Compass, was a magnificent read; the second, The Subtle Knife, was the opposite - quite the disappointment. So much so I left the conclusion of the series to a time when curiosity takes the better of me: now.
Am I happy with my choice? No. The Amber Spyglass, the series’ final, has more in common with the second episode than the first. If anything, it reminded me of the Harry Potter series: a very promising and imaginative start turning into a tedious effort to seal things through in an artificially set number of books.
The plot starts off in a similar manner to the way Subtle Knife started. That is, straight from where the previous episode left us: Lyra, the twelve year old heroine and reader of the Golden Compass is the captive of her evil mother while Will, the similarly aged escapee from our world and bearer of the inter-world portal creating Subtle Knife is dragging his feet across mountains and plains to rescue her. As the plot in this rather thick book thickens we get one suspenseful peak followed by another, in between which we learn of an impending battle between the forces of the Church and the forces of the rebellious Azriel (Lyra’s father) who asks to rid the world(s) of its burden. Lyra and Will are prophesized to carry key roles in this battle, hence they become key targets for both sides, which puts them in dire straits till the point Lyra is meant to make a decision that would alter life as we know it.
While the story is mostly thrilling it does sag for significant lengths, especially in its middle where our heroes go on a special quest at the Land of the Dead. Why do they go there in the first place is a good question that is never properly addressed by the book (unless you count dreams and promises made long before and under totally different circumstances good enough). Even worse is the way the various climaxes are handled: twice, to name but a single type of malpractice, The Amber Spyglass has our heroes rescued by third parties popping out of nowhere; that’s not exactly good story telling. On other times characters are able to achieve "off screen" (that is, without the book telling us exactly what they've been doing) much more than what I would call possible.
By far the worst offence the book can claim to is that magical dilemma Lyra is supposed to face which would change the fate of the world as we know it. As far as I am concerned, that simply never happened; and if you were to point at a certain choice Lyra and Will end up making at the end of the book as The One, I will answer that it is the type of choice many people in this world are making all the time. I made the same choice when I moved to leave everything behind and went to live on the other side of the world.
Don’t get me wrong, The Amber Spyglass is not a total non event. Obviously, it deals with the freedom to live a life unshackled by religion and similar burdens, a life where life itself (as opposed to the afterlife) is the main event. One can argue the book is a free thinker’s story of legend, but I will argue that if I want to read free thinkers’ prose I will be better off elsewhere. Like, say, reading vastly superior The God Delusion. Unlike The Amber Spyglass, that is a book that deals with religion without getting down to its level.
Overall: A disappointing final to an overall disappointing series at 2.5 out of 5 stars. On the positive side, I discovered paper books are still perfectly readable (good for me, as I have a huge inventory of unread ones on my shelves).

Friday, 25 March 2011

Creation

Lowdown: The story behind the writing of The Origin of Species.
Review:
The year 2009 marked two key Darwinian events: the 200th birthday of Darwin and the 150th anniversary for the publication of his landmark book, On the Origin of Species. Amongst the several means with which these landmarks were celebrated was the film Creation, directed by Jon Amiel (whom I fondly remember from the detailed supplementals on the Copycat laserdisc) and starring Paul Bettany as Darwin with Jeniffer Connelly as his wife Emma.
The story takes place long after Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle took place but before his landmark theory was published. In fact, it tries to tell the story behind the publication of the book: the pressure placed on Darwin by scientific circles to come out with his god killing theory on one side, and the torments he was feeling with the knowledge of the damage he is about to inflict religion - and his religious wife in particular.
Creation starts off in a very promising manner, presenting a multitude of arguments in favor of the theory of evolution by natural selection in various cunning ways. For example, we are exposed to the "humanity" of "inferior" apes through the story of an orangutan at London Zoo and we learn why god is made redundant through arguments Darwin has with his local vicar. The promising notions fade away too quickly, though: instead of dealing with the theory we drown in Darwin's personal life, most notably the guilt he's feeling after losing his oldest daughter to a mysterious disease. While on one hand the daughter's death exposes more about the progress evolution brought to our understanding and treatment of disease it still harms the film overall: we keep on jumping in time to before and after her death with often Darwin's receding hairline being the only clue as to when we currently are. The point is that these guilt feeling of Darwin's are blocking him from writing his book.
The question I have is to do with the authenticity of the story told by the film. What I know from a multitude of sources is that Darwin was hesitating to publish his theory both because of the shock waves he knew it would release and because he wanted to take his time convincing himself on the validity of his theory; it was only when he learned that Wallace came up to the same conclusion that he hurried to publish first. Creation takes the focus elsewhere, from the theoretical and the philosophical and into the family and personal level. I doubt anyone can come up with the evidence to say whether the film is correct or not, but to me it didn't matter: the fact of the matter is we have tons of films dealing with the personal torments of individuals, but we only have one Darwin that came up with the theory that made god redundant. And this is where Creation misses the point.
Worst scene: The DVD supplementals contain a so called debate concerning Darwin's theory, pitting three people holding university positions. One is a biologist who happens to be an atheist, the other a "theological evolutionist" (whatever that is), and the third a young earth creationist. The problem is that the weirdos, the "theological" expert and the creationist, are given the same platform and the same attention as the one arguing from evidence, which points at the number one sin the media is performing when it communicates science to the public. By pitting together the legitimate and the illegitimate at the same level, the media gives the ignorant public reason to believe the two have equal footings; the truth of the matter is that they don't, because the evidence point clearly and uniformly towards a single direction. When the debate deals with evolution we can almost dismiss the matter as philosophical (I don't! I value the truth, for a start); but when the subject matter turns to global warming and we let climate change deniers drive humanity to its doom the stakes are significantly higher.
Technical assessment: An average DVD with a bit of an edge. In addition to the standard Dolby Digital soundtrack the DVD offers a DTS soundtrack of a significantly more refined nature.
Overall: Starts very well but then falters to 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Mao's Last Dancer

Lowdown: A Chinese child from an impoverished childhood grows to become a ballet dancer and see the other side of the world.
Review:
Aussie director Bruce Beresford gave us films like Puberty Blues on one side and Driving Miss Daisy on the other. In Mao's Last Dancer he opens up another gateway to a new side of the world, the one leading to China.
We follow a Chinese called Li Cunxin, a real life character who grew up in Maoist China, a time in which China was famous for its population's use of bicycles. Living in a poor family at a poor village where he's known as "the sixth child", our Li hits the jackpot one day when party officials visiting his school choose him from millions of other children for selective special government programs. There he's taught how to become a ballet dancer in the hope of advancing the cause of communist China, but amongst the soulless environment there he shines as the only dancer who really digs ballet. Indeed, he stands out so much that when an American ballet producer sees him in action he decides to bring him over to the USA for a three month stint.
Li's life changes upon landing in the land where too much is not enough: the affluence, the opportunities to develop professionally, the women... Against the advice of the local Chinese consulate they all get the better of him.
Mao's Last Dancer is an Australian production about the real life story of Li, who now calls Australia home. The story is inspiring, it's touching, but it's also nothing we haven't seen plenty of times before. We've seen plenty of stuff dealing with Russian defectors to the west, from the story of Mikhail Baryshnikov to Robin Williams' Moscow on the Hudson; the only difference between those and Mao's Last Dancer are not even the ballet but rather the replacement of the villains from the USSR with those from China.
Indeed, the main impression Mao's Last Dancer left in my head was one of severe anti Chinese sentiments. In the age where Russia is no longer a menace but China is threatening the USA's hegemony over the world you can see why a film like Mao's Last Dancer would be made, but personally I was reaching for the barf bag every time the film tried to tell me how bad China is and how perfect the USA is. Not that I disagree with that; even today, when more Chinese are better off than they were for a long while, it is obvious to me that I would love to live in the USA but hate to do the same in China. The point goes without saying; why is it, then, that Mao's Last Dancer pushes that point again and again (and again)? It severely errs on the side of patting our own backs, to the point of taking the good flavor out of the human story.
Besides, I'm pretty sure Bradley Manning will have a thing or two to say concerning freedom in America.
Notable scene: Li tells his American patron that someone called him a "chink" and asks for the meaning of the phrase. The scene is notable for being virtually the only negative thing Mao's Last Dancer has to say about the USA and the American lifestyle.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray is closer to DVD technical standards than it is to its peers.
Overall: A nice story told badly. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 21 March 2011

The Social Network

Lowdown: The story behind the establishment of Facebook.
Review:
A few weeks ago, at a company gathering, the CEO of the organization I’m working for asked everyone whether they’ve seen The Social Network and whether, as a result, they adjusted their Facebook privacy settings. Personally, as a minor cyber civil libertarian, I have had a saying or two against Facebook (culminating in me deleting my account a few months ago). You can therefore say I was looking forward to watching The Social Network for reasons other than David Fincher being the director or the Oscar related hype. The build up worked its way to me, I watched the film, and now I have mixed feeling about it.
It seems The Social Network is trying to tell us the story of Facebook’s origins (we will discuss the “it seems” factor in a minute). Although it is not a stated documentary we are presented with characters bearing remarkable likeliness in name and looks to the Mark Zuckerberg, Time’s person of the year 2010, and Sean Parker of Napster fame. Zuckerberg is a genius yet frustrated Harvard student out to prove his worth to the world, and he starts by stealing the photos of fellow female university students and running a website called Facemesh where people can rate one over the other. That gets him punished but also alerts others of his talents; quickly enough he’s contacted by a three more senior students running with the idea of creating a Friendster like website exclusive to Harvard. Zuckerberg volunteers to serve as their programmer in return for a fair share, but instead goes on his own to develop the website we now know as Facebook. He starts Facebook with the financial aid of a friend; indeed, we start watching The Social Network through a hearing where several of Zuckerberg’s former friends sue him for his betrayals. The bulk of the film is in the form of flashbacks triggered by those hearings.
Zuckerberg is portrayed as a nasty piece of work: a guy for whom friendship doesn’t mean a thing when it comes to his self interest, which is rather an oxymoron when the same guy is creating, running and owning a website dedicated to friendship. The question is, then: how authentic is the film? Well, I don’t have an answer because I don’t know enough of the facts. What is clear is that Hollywood studios were bound to have their lawyers on high alert before coming out with a film that raises false accusations in association with the real life characters whose namesakes are portrayed in the film, yet the studios still came out with The Social Network; hence I suspect it is safe to assume there is more to The Social Network merely feeling like a documentary. It could well be one.
Let us assume the story told in The Social Network is true and Mark Zuckerberg is a nasty piece of work. The question I have is: does it matter? Do we care if the owner of any other company whose services we've been using is not a particularly nice person? I don't see people stopping to use Oracle databases just because Larry Ellison is rumored to be not the nicest person around, nor do I see people buying Microsoft just because Bill Gates is a philanthroper. The problems with Facebook which do affect us, namely its disregard for our privacy, are not directly addressed by the film; instead the focus is on Zuckerberg's personal relationships with the people immediately next to him.
Not that this disconnection between the film and Facebook matters much. Obviously, The Social Network is not a film about Facebook; it is a film about personal relationships in this day and age, an age where a lot of them are managed via the virtual world behind the veil of LCD monitors. It is a film about corporate culture where all's fair in hate and war, a culture that is not condemned but rather celebrated whenever we are told (directly or indirectly) to admire a certain head honcho for his money making abilities while failing to mention how often this money comes at the expense of others down the food chain. In exploring those aspects The Social Network is second to none; watch it and you'll see just how bad Time was with its choice and the glorification it bestowed on Zuckerberg.
The film's social discussions are all nice and everything, but does the film deliver in the more important department - does the film entertain? This, I believe, is The Social Network's biggest problem. Being what it is, a law/court drama, it is dry; personally I found it to be too boring too often. It simply failed to excite me. I suspect a part of the problem is directly related to a subject matter lacking any characters worth identifying with, which is understandable. Then again, I find it ridiculous that a film failing such basic criteria could have been the leader of the Academy Awards charts (to be toppled only by a film that grossly misquotes history).
Notable scene: The one suggesting Zuckerberg did it all in order to befriend the girl that dumps him in the film’s opening scene. That’s a bit of a bold statement to make, isn’t it? Lucky there aren't any references to the size of his dick.
Technical assessment: The Social Network’s Blu-ray works in strange ways. The picture is fine and with a few exceptions the sound is pretty mundane – as expected for a film that is essentially the telling of a court hearing. However, the music turns things around: the soundtrack by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails fame is something very special, truly stirring things around. Fincher did that before in films like Se7en: he really seems to know how to control a film through music.
Overall: Terribly relevant, ticks all the boxes, but ultimately fails to excite at the gut level. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 17 March 2011

Doctor Zhivago

Lowdown: Revolutionary Russia as viewed through unfulfilled love.
Review:
Doctor Zhivago might be a famous David Lean film that's been out there since before I was born (1965) and features actors who won their fame through it (Omar Sharif), yet I still never got to watch it till this past weekend. I guess I should thank the new musical namesake and the promotional campaign it triggered for the film being aired.
The story starts with an Alec Guinness playing a Soviet Union army general in search of his brother's missing daughter. He finds this good looking girl who seems to have intellectual potential if the right opportunity might have been provided, and he tells her the story of her suspected parents in flashback mode. That story takes us back to pre-revolution Russia where we meet Yuri Zhivago (Sharif): a young poet just graduating from his studies to become a doctor. We also meet Lara (Julie Christie), who lives in the same area of Moscow and occasionally even bumps into Yuri without them realizing so. Then the 1917 Russian revolution starts and everything turns around; as far as our heroes are concerned, things generally turn bad. Those bad circumstances mean that Yuri and Lara get to know one another and love one another too, but their relationship is doomed: Yuri has the wife he knew long before, and Lara has her own revolutionary husband. What follows is a lengthy epic tale of their impossible love affair's ups and downs.
In order to be able to tell a story of epic proportions Doctor Zhivago needs to go to great lengths, and indeed this is a film of around three hours in duration (the Lean standard?). It suffers as a result: I found the first half of the film rather too tedious; things just take too long to develop. Eventually, though, things get in rhythm and the film grows on you: you become involved, you care for the characters, and the epic proportions of the film become a benefit.
It is pretty obvious what this epic is about. The story of the lost child, the story of the forbidden lovers with their ups and downs as reflected through the Russian revolution, the stories of starting from scratch only to be uprooted later, these are all different reflections of the story of Russia itself. In particular the story of a Russia starting a revival into a time where poetry, as in Yuri's, is once again popular and even endorsed by the authorities. In many respects, Doctor Zhivago is thus similar to Naguib Mahfouz' Miramar, a book that tries to do the same for the story of Egypt.
Best scene: After running a military hospital for months with Yuri the only doctor and Lara the chief nurse during the Great War, and while the two avoid anything that Yuri would have trouble telling his wife, the couple breaks off into their separate ways pretending there is nothing special between them. Having been in similar situations where necessity dictates almost pretend alienation myself I couldn't avoid identifying with the heroes. I also couldn't avoid appreciating the acting talents on display, especially Christie's.
Technical assessment: We recorded this film off the air from Gem (Channel 9's high definition channel). It occupied around 20gb on our hard drive recorder, yet the picture was awful and exhibited many scenes where heavy pixelization was way too visible. I can only wonder whether the fault was with Channel 9 or whether we are unable to look after our film treasures before they fall into pieces.
Overall: After a bit of a tough start I couldn't resist this epic, so I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars. The experience reminded me of a book I recently read, The Windup Girl, which I didn't like too much but which also sports a very detailed epic tale: I resented having to go through all the details as I read the book, but in retrospect those details became so well etched in my head their memory eclipses most of the books I've better enjoyed reading.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Lowdown: Scott has to fight Gideon again in order to get Ramona back.
Review:
Having really enjoyed watching Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, I thought I should give the comics on which the film is based a chance. I went looking for an electronic version, and the only one I was able to find at Amazon for my Kindle ebook reader was Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour.
Before continuing, let me tell you this: do not make the mistake I have made. Do not purchase this book for your Kindle! The drawings' rendition on my Kindle were way too small, with dialog text requiring me to stick my eyes half a centimeter away from the screen in order to read and even then a lot of it was simply unintelligible. Perhaps Scott Pilgrim would work on the Kindle DX' bigger screen, but on the standard Kindle it was simply pathetic; it shouldn't have been made available for sale in the first place.
Rendition aside, the simple story of Scott Pilgrim's Finest Hour takes place after the film's events. Scott is alone, dazed and confused, with Ramona seemingly leaving him for Scott's nemesis Gideon. Things unravel and a battle for Ramona's ownership is about to take place...
Involving the same characters and the same motifs as the film (music, computer games, the incorporation of dreams as well as other fantastic elements) the story here is fairly similar to the film and won't add much to your inventory. It's entertaining, it's fun, it's quick and dirty; if anything, it proves just how well Scott Pilgrim vs. the World was converted to the big screen while still being very loyal to the comics on which it was based.
Overall: Simple fun, but do yourself a favor and get it in print; the ebook version violates the Geneva Convention. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

The Blind Side

Lowdown: The true story of a well off white southern USA family adopting a black teen off the street and nurturing his venture into American football.
Review:
Let’s get it out of the way, shall we: I like Sandra Bullock even before she first Sped; yes, I liked her since Demolition Man. I am therefore happy to see her doing a proper dramatic role in The Blind Side, even if it is very clear she is dealing the normal Sandra Bullock comedy style card.
As always with these films that are supposedly based on real facts it’s hard to tell what the facts are and where the flavoring is (The King’s Speech springs to mind there); however, in relatively atypical a fashion we are talking here of a story that took place only recently and in essence is still taking place. Set in Tennessee, we follow a black teen called Michael Oher (Quinton Aaron): coming from the bad side of town to a mother that’s heavily into drugs this child does not have much prospects in life with no home to call his own; he does manage to stay clean, though. His physics (huge yet athletic) get him a spot at a Christian high school hungry for sporting achievements yet our boy is totally helpless in class.
Some people give Oher a chance: at first it’s one of the teachers who notices that the boy does respond to certain types of communication. Then there’s Leigh Anne Tuohy (Bullock), who can’t stand the sight of a boy about to spend the night in the street and brings him to her rich white people mansion’s sofa for the night. Then another night and another night, until Oher becomes a part of the family and the center of attention focuses on his American football prospects.
I have discussed my sensitivity to feel good films here before, and The Blind Side exploits that sensitivity very well, pressing those sensitivity buttons with much power. The result is a riveting emotional drama that blackmails you into feeling good for our heroes and the sacrifices they make for one another, almost making you feel as if you would have done the same if in the Tuohy’s shoes. Yeah, right; if things really worked this way we would have had socialism all over the USA and no black person would feel disadvantaged.
Instead we witness a film depicting heroes that often claim to act altruistically because they’re Christians, as if Christianity has a monopoly over doing good things to one another and as if Christianity was never used in order to do bad things to others. Granted, this may be the director’s way of being loyal to true events: after all, we are talking here about events taking place deep in the USA’s south, Republican heartland. People there are weirdos. [A bit off topic, I couldn’t avoid noticing one of the questions in a school quiz handed to Oher was about evolution; perhaps things are not as bad as they seem in those southern lands]
The question is, how should I walk away from this emotional manipulation? If I look at The Blind Side from the social point of view I would say this is trash and bury it. I, however, tend to watch films for their entertainment value first; clearly, The Blind Side was designed to entertain first and make you think last. I would therefore say that The Blind Side fulfilled its purpose by making me feel good for a couple of hours. And I like feeling good.
I also liked Bullock’s acting, by the way. She was really good.
Best scenes: Ignoring the emotional ones for a minute, isn’t it amazing how exciting American football always looks on film, whereas in real life (or live TV) its plagued by extraordinary lengthy waits for a brief few seconds of action?
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray with a nice picture that suffers from reddish hues, especially indoors, and a soundtrack that’s too held back for my taste.
Overall: I’ll be generous, the way I tend to be with feel good films, and give The Blind Side 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Easy Virtue

Lowdown: An American woman challenges the traditions of an aristocratic English family.
Review:
The Brits have have been in love with the concept of American troublemakers coming in to ruin or invigorate their traditional life since long before the days of Dempsey and Makepeace. Easy Virtue (2008) is yet another manifestation of this same fetish, one that we rented because my dear friend Colin Firth was in the news again, Oscars and all.
Firth is not in the center of the action at Easy Virtue, though. Set in the 1920s, we follow an independent American woman (Jessica Biel) who had just won the Monaco Grand Prix but had her victory disqualified on the merits of her sex. She falls in love and marries the male heir of British aristocracy (Ben Barnes) who takes her to his home to meet the family. Meet them she does, with all the pomp the family can muster as we meet the mother hell bent on her traditional ways and terribly annoyed with the trans Atlantic invasion(Kristin Scott Thomas), the father who never really came back from the Great War (our Firth), and the two jealous sisters (including Katherine Parkinson of IT Crowd fame). You can sort of see what's coming up next: a battle of cultures, with the progressive Biel fighting off the traditional Thomas. As we go about, more and more secrets are revealed about our English family and about our American transgressor and we learn no one's perfect. At the end of the day it is those that can live with one another's dark side that make it through.
The problem with Easy Virtue is that there's not much virtue to it. It feels much more like a play than a film (a notion confirmed by the end credits); it's all a actors' game of dialog and duels of wit rather than a film with a plot that's progressing along. Most of the wit was wasted on me: I felt bored and I was annoyed by the predictability. I was saved by the terrific acting exhibited all around (but especially from Thomas and Firth) and by a soundtrack featuring "The Easy Virtue Orchestra" performing contemporary hits in early 20th century style. I'll put it this way: the film was worth renting just for hearing Tom Jones' Sex Bomb sang as if from a 78 record.
Notable scenes: The film tries to create comic moments to carry its burden with, but it does so too predictably. The scene in which Biel sits on Thomas' favorite puppy has been copied from who knows how many before, and the scene in which the younger daughter dances the Can-can underwear-less feels like it came straight from Benny Hill.
Technical assessment: I have mixed feelings about this Blu-ray. The picture side handles the challenging dark interior scenes very well and the soundtrack is nice even though it is not allowed to take reign over the surround channels. However, dialog is quite unintelligible for lengthy periods, truly challenging my attention as I was trying to understand what the actors are mumbling about. Usually this is not an issue because I use the subtitles, but for some odd reason the producers of this Easy Virtue Blu-ray chose not to include such an essential feature. What a shame.
Overall: Ultimately, Easy Virtue is wasted potential. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 4 March 2011

Climate Code Red by David Spratt & Philip Sutton

Lowdown: The case for immediate and drastic action to mitigate global warming.
Review:
We all read or watched An Inconvenient Truth (here and here). Over the years I have been reading lots of popluar science on global warming as well as browsing through proper scientific papers. Recently, I got to read several science fiction works dealing with our world post a global warming catastrophe (e.g., The Windup Girl). Put together, all these sources made me think we should do something about climate change; what I found lacking is a view of things not from the eye of those trying to convince me that human induced climate change is real, but rather an already convinced view offering more quantified details regarding what the damages from climate change are going to be and what we can do about it. As in, I wasn’t looking for someone to tell me “stop carbon emissions”, I wanted someone to tell me how much air travel humans can afford and how much fossil fuels we can afford to burn or how many cows we can afford to raise for meat while still living in a liveable world.
The above need was met by Climate Code Red. Written by two Aussie non scientists, the book looks at the science to create a detailed picture. First it shows what has been going on to date as far as global warming effects are concerned (or to the date of its publishing, which seems to be around 2008). It moves on to discuss the implications and it progresses to discuss what we can do to deal with this impeding danger.
The dominant message of the book is pretty grim. We are already past the point of having a decent world to live in; with the emissions we’ve already released we stand to have ourselves a 2 degree rise in average temperatures. This would trigger events like the permanent melting of the arctic during the summer, which would cause huge meltdowns in places like Greenland, which would cause severe sea level rises, which would cause much grief to billions of people. That is actually but one example of what the science is telling us. In contrast we have our politicians: even the Stern report, commissioned by the UK government, takes it for granted that we will not be able to take measures on reducing climate change before temperatures rise by 3 degrees. Such a temperature rise would be horrendous; them again, if we continue with our business as usual, as the world seems fixed on doing, we will have ourselves pure cataclysm at something like a 7 degree rise.
Obviously, the question of what actions we should take becomes political, and Climate Code Red accuses our politicians and the political system in general for being too restricted to act: we need to adopt an emergency program the way we did during World War 2, but with governments being more the representatives of big business than carers of this world this will not happen unless drastic actions are taken and soon.
While captivating in the extent of the tragedy it portrays, Climate Code Red is not a nice read. It does not seem to be written in a captivating manner: there are too many dry accounts of evidence quoting and too many repetitions; by the time you finish the book you may well vomit each time the melting of the arctic is mentioned. There is also the matter of Climate Code Red not really revealing anything new to those who are relatively up to date with the science, being that it simply quotes from scientific sources rather than present its own scientific agenda.
On the other hand there can be no doubt as to the importance and relevancy of its message, especially as it delves into the complexity of solving the problem (and shows how "stopping carbon emissions" on its own is, surprisingly, not enough anymore). At the core of this Australian centric book written by Aussies is a country that is currently debating placing a price on carbon emissions, yet the level of debate is ludicrous: Prime Minister Julia Gillard told us a couple of weeks ago that she wants to go with carbon tax, but she wouldn’t give us the critical figures of how much and who gets to get away with what; on the other hand, she made it clear she expects a carbon cap and trade program to start a few years down the line in order to appease those craving business as usual mode (in one disguise or another). What is clear is that Gillard is probably aiming at a three degrees or more heating target which spells disaster for our children (and at the rate it’s going, us too). In contrast, Gillard opposition’s climate change plans have been verified (see here) to cause an increase in carbon emissions by official government sources...
Obviously, our politicians are incapable or unwilling to take action. We must do it ourselves by applying pressure on them, but first we need to be aware of the problem; books like Climate Code Red help in this regard, it’s just a pity the book is not better written so as to capture hearts in addition to minds.
Overall: Not a particularly good read but an important one. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

Lowdown: A geek has to fight his new love subject’s former lovers in order to “secure” her.
Review:
One undeniable fact that has been lamented over many posts in this blog is the lack of originality coming at us from Hollywood’s direction. When something original does come out it is almost always a cause for celebration, as is the case with Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: not a film that would shatter your perception of the world, but still a film that feels like a fresh breath of originality and sheer fun amidst the dull mundaneness dominating movie releases.
Perhaps it’s because of its roots: Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is rooted in the world of comics, it is heavy with fantasy elements, it carries a good sense of humor with it, and it contains a lot of cultural references to computer geeks – references of the type that would make any gamer an instant fan (yours truly included). Let alone the basic storyline which would appeal to teen or young adult whose main struggle in life is to secure a love subject. Or even those that have been out of contention for a while now but can still recall the heartache of days gone by, like yours truly.
The story is something we’ve seen before many a time. A geek in his early twenties, Scott Pilgrim’s (Michael Cera) main occupation is rock culture and his rock band. He doesn’t have a job and shares an apartment with a cynical gay guy (Kieran Culkin) in a generally bleak looking Toronto, and he is still lamenting his girlfriend dumping him a year ago to become a successful singer in a rock band. In his desperation he takes up a high schooler, an aptly names Knives Chau, as a girl friend.
But then a new girl starts appearing in his dreams and later in his life. This Ramona quickly becomes an obsession, perhaps because of her dying her hair pink (and many other colors as we go) and perhaps because of her exotic origins (New York). Our Scott goes for the challenge of obtaining the seemingly unobtainable, but then finds out – in rather too casual a manner – that he has to fight Ramona’s former seven exes if he wants to get anywhere in this relationship. Fight, as in to the death.
Indeed, it doesn’t sound like this film is up to much. I agree: as films go, it isn’t. The trick is with the way this film does what it does, which is to bring a fantasy comics tale into life and do it while making the most of the tale’s links with music and [retro] computer games. If you’re willing to sacrifice a bit less than two hours of your life for such shallow affairs then you’d be in for good laughs and highly entertaining entertainment – and isn’t that what films should be all about in the first place?
Things worked so well, and the actors (Cera in particular) do their job so well, that I was fully immersed in this experience. I fully identified with Pilgrim’s anguish to try and get somewhere with Ramona, and in parallel I felt the craving to put my hands on the new Mortal Kombat 9 game that will soon be released: the game is referenced in the fight scenes, and MK9 has been banned from Australian shores due to Australia’s lack of an 18+ classification for video games. All the more reason to go and get it overseas. [I know I strayed here with this Mortal Kombat thing; blame stupid censorship with that]
Best scene: Universal’s opening logo performed 8 bit style provides a very effective introduction to what is in store during the rest of the film.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray in quality it nevertheless does the job effectively.
Overall: I would say this is a 3.5 star film that I liked 4 stars much, so this is my final rating for what seems to be the best science fiction film in a year of science fiction drought. A great film for making geeks feel good about themselves!

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Shutter Island

Lowdown: A marshal goes to investigate the disappearance of an inmate at a mental asylum set on a small island.
Review:
Leonardo DiCaprio must have a thing playing the husband who is tormented with the loss/losing his wife, because he did it in Inception and in Revolutionary Road, and here he is doing it again on Shutter Island, where he joins forces with Martin Scorsese yet again.
Shutter Island takes us back to the years shortly after World War 2, when the main activity people partook was smoking cigarettes. DiCaprio plays a US marhall, accompanied by his brand new partner with whom he never worked before (Mark Ruffalo) as they go off on a stormy ferry ride to Shutter Island: a small and severe weather probe island off the Massachusetts coast that hosts a mental asylum from which a patient just seemed to have disappeared into thin air.
The reception our heroes receive as they arrive on the island is almost as cool as the weather. The guards are a scary looking bunch, and the chief psychiatrist (Ben Kingsley) may claim to be a kind person whose patients' welfare is at the top of his agenda but he certainly does not seem to be acting up to his word. Obviously, something is very sick with the place, and it’s up to our detectives to find out what it is as they delve into the mysteries of this foreboding place where things are not as they seem to be.
The key to understanding what Shutter Island is like is in the words “things are not as they seem”; this is one of those The Six Sense type films where perceptions change by the minute and you, the viewer, are expected to have fun through you being tricked by the director who knows more than you do but only exposes the thruth in modetration as if it was more precious than gold. I don't like feeling as if someone is doing their best to trick me, hence me not liking The Sixth Sense and hence me not liking Shutter Island.
I guess you can argue in favor of Shutter Island being a film that tells us what can take place in a society that lacks confidence and follows a McCarthyite line, something along the lines of what the USA is becoming like since September 11 and as the whole Wikileaks affair clearly demonstrates. That argument won't buy me in; there are better ways of making such statements than with this tale, particularly when this tale uses a Leonardo DiCaprio that continues to disappoint me by always seeming to try too hard.
Best scene: A special effect hallucination scene where DiCaprio sees his literally burning wife. Usually such scenes don't work because they are not convincing enough to make you think the dream is real, but this one works very well with excellent special effects.
Technical assessment: A good Blu-ray with a decent picture and an even better soundtrack that's augmented by often haunting music.
Overall: I'm sorry, but while this may be considered good cinema it is not my cup of tea. 2.5 out of 5 stars.