Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Hancock

Lowdown: A superhero bum’s real struggle is in getting the public to accept him.
Review:
2008’s Hancock sounded like an interesting film back when it was released: a film about a guy who is a superhero on one hand but has a problem selling himself to the public on the other. Spiderman used to face similar issues, but Hancock seemed devoted to this unique look at the superhero theme. My opinion changed upon reading this review, which immediately relegated Hancock to filler status. Now that I watched the film in true filler fashion I have to agree with everything that review said.
Hancock (Will Smith) is a bum that happens to be a superhero. Sure, he saves the people of Los Angeles all the time, but his alcohol infused attitude means he tends to cause more damage while acting out his superhero role than good. Enter Ray (Jason Bateman) whose life Hancock saves: a failed PR consultant, Ray decides to help Hancock restore his image. His advice: go to jail as the authorities want in order to pay for all the damage you’ve done, and quickly enough they’ll be back on their knees asking for your help. Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlize Theron) doesn’t like the idea of Hancock interrupting their family routine.
As I said, the idea of having to sell a superhero to the public the way everything else is sold to us has merit: if good intentions need branding and selling, what have we as a society come down to? The problem is, however, that somewhere towards the end of its second act Hancock strays from its original course altogether. We get a surprising twist (hint: you wouldn’t cast Charlize Theron to just play the role of the mildly annoyed wife, would you?); this is nice, but we also get a totally new yet totally ordinary direction. What used to be a fresh look at the superhero genre (albeit one that is far from knocking you off your sofa) before the twist becomes something we’ve all seen many times before.
The result? Meh. At least Hancock is short and sweet.
Best scene: An annoyed Hancock sticks a guy head inside the ass of another’s. Superheroes don’t tend to exploit their special powers in such ingenious way, do they?
Worst scene: When Hancock discovers he needs to get as far away as possible from a very special person, where does he venture to from his native Los Angeles? New Zealand? Australia? China, perhaps? No, the furthest place from Los Angeles according to Hancock’s stupidly American centric moviemakers is New York.
Overall: Signs of promise are all too quickly subdued. Because I was so disappointed with the way this film disappointed me, I’m giving it 2 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

The Enemy by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: An analysis of Bin Laden in life and death.
Review:
The Enemy is sold for $2 as a "Kindle Single". That seems to mean it's not a proper book's length; indeed, I estimate it to be around 30 pages long. Still, an article by Christopher Hitchens is always worth reading, and given the pioneering aspects of releasing "book singles" electronically I thought I'd give it a try. You know, for the benefit of those reading my reviews here.
In The Enemy, Hitchens provides a thorough review of his opinions and analysis on all aspects of the life and escapades of one Osama Bin Laden. Given The Enemy's release shortly after Bin Laden's death you can rest assured that particular ending takes center stage.
If you know where Hitchens is coming from then you won't be surprised by what he has to say in The Enemy. While Hitchens and I agree on matters of religion we tend to disagree on many matters of politics: I am much more of a left winger than Hitchens is (he probably won't subscribe to being described as a lefty in the first place). The most obvious example is Hitchens still insisting the war in Iraq was justified; on the matter at hand, Bin Laden, Hitchens claims his termination at the hands of American soldiers was the best ending possible for this story. Even after reading The Enemy I am still quite reserved about that conclusion: While both Hitchens and I agree the USA had the means to capture Bin Laden alive, I think the West would have achieved more were it to put Bin Laden on trial and demonstrate the superiority of its values before the whole world.
Overall: Short, interesting and controversial even if it's not an eye opener. Or - classic Hitchens analysis at a slightly lengthier form than the one we usually get on Slate. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 20 May 2011

Little Fuzzy by H. Beam Piper

Lowdown: Adorable and intelligent creatures discovered at a frontier planet create a stir with us humans.
Review:
I will probably never experience it myself, but I strongly suspect having a book of yours published feels quite similar to witnessing the birth of your child (or to giving birth if you're a female). John Scalzi, one of my favorite authors and a person for whom I care on a personal basis through regularly reading his blog, is once again at a position where he can tell us exactly how a book release feels like given that he just had his book Fuzzy Nation published. Fuzzy Nation happens to be a reboot of a book I never heard of before, Little Fuzzy, written by a guy about whom I never heard of before, H. Beam Piper. As part of Scalzi's book launch preparations he recently referred readers of his blog to the web page where Project Gutenberg hosts free electronic versions of Little Fuzzy; given that I am quite looking forward to reading Fuzzy Nation (it's already on my Kindle), I thought this would be a great opportunity for a nice exercise in literature where I get to compare the original with the reboot. I therefore went to download my free Little Fuzzy copy (you can do so too here) as a prelude to Fuzzy Nation and went straight ahead with reading it. This review, therefore, represents the first part of my Fuzzy exercise, soon to be followed by reading & reviewing Fuzzy Nation (which looks like it has to wait a couple of books before I get to it; didn't want to needlessly tire myself with fuziness).
Little Fuzzy turned out to be a classic tale of science fiction. Set in a future where humanity has proliferated through space, things take place at a frontier planet that is mostly the property of a company. This company is there to make as much money as it can out of the planet's resources. Our hero, as in the guy at the center of the story, is an otherwise unattached "gold digger" guy, Holloway, who makes his money by digging for precious gems that are actually the remains of long dead ancient local life.
One day this loner stumbles upon a new creature that looks like a small humanoid. Indeed, it's very child like: smart and cute in a way the childless Holloway might fall for. Indeed he does; he names it Fuzzy and they become family.
The problem is that Fuzzy seems to be a sapient being. The presence of native sapience would prevent the company from exploiting the planet the way it wants to due to galactic treaties, therefore sending it on a crusade to vilify Fuzzies. Who will win this debate? The question comes down for the courts to decide.
When I say Little Fuzzy is classic science fiction I mean that it reminds me of the likes of Asimov. It tells a futuristic story that's exciting and thrilling, with characters you love and characters you despise, but in addition to that futuristic story it carries with it social messages very relevant to the era we live in. Or rather something like 20-30 years ago when Little Fuzzy was probably written, because for all of its space age technology the heroes of our story still record video to tape.
As befits a book of high quality like Little Fuzzy, there is more than one agenda here. The most notable are the one dealing with corporate ethics on one hand and the one trying to philosophically discuss what sapience is. The first is a matter relevant to our lives in a world where money has the last word, the latter is the question that stands at the core of many an idea: what is it, exactly, that makes us humans so unique? Can other animals share these traits with us?
Piper does deviate from the standard science fiction I grew up on (and for that matter, standard fiction in general). I noticed it first when I started having problems keeping track of the different characters: there are quite a lot of them, with good coverage of many shades of gray and lots of development on characters that are far from central.
The other deviation is more interesting. In a story that pits an individual against the big conglomerate, I would have expected things to take the individual to the very bottom and put him up against the wall before he can start fighting back to the inevitable happy ending. This does not happen here, though: the way Piper sets things up our individual never has his back against a wall and we do not get that familiar sensation of being taken from the very bottom to a high. Instead we get a middle of the road approach that is probably much more realistic and obviously less predictable. The approach certainly makes the book stands out as interesting even if it does so at the price of depriving the reader from an emotional roller-coaster.
What we therefore end up having on our hands with Little Fuzzy is an adorable science fiction tale that sets the scene nicely for Fuzzy Nation to reboot. I can clearly see why Scalzi sought to reboot this one: the story features classic Scalzi themes (e.g., cute/weird aliens, sarcasm/odd humor). On the other hand, surpassing the original would be a mighty tough job. Even equaling it is.
Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed the first half of my literature exercise. Highly recommended at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Yes Man

Lowdown: A guy’s life changes when he starts saying “yes” to everything.
Review:
When he is not busy lunatically advocating against vaccinations and thus being responsible for totally preventable human suffering, Jim Carrey tends to be busy acting out all sorts of lunatics. He does so in 2008’s Yes Man, a film that follows that usual American mainstream release pattern for comedies to the letter.
Carrey starts out as guy for whom life has not been a success story. His wife left him, he’s stuck at a boring dead end bank job, and he secludes himself from his friends. Change happens when one such friend takes him to see a guru advocating people say “yes” to everything (Terence Stamp). The guru puts a spell on Carrey, or so Carrey thinks; as a result, Carrey implements saying “yes” to everything to the letter. As one can expect from a Jim Carrey comedy, this gets him to all sorts of crazy situations but also gets him the girl (Zooey Deschanel), a promotion and his life back.
I will admit to have watched Yes Man voluntarily. The reason it was picked was its easy availability (we had it on our PVR) and us wanting to watch something suitable for the brain dead tired people we are. Indeed, if you’re brain dead, Yes Man would work; sadly, there is not much more I can say in its favor other than note the performance of Rhys Darby (Flight of the Conchords' agent). Yes Man never really made me feel for any of its characters, it was predictable, and it was mundane. Worst of all, you sort of expect a comedy to make you laugh, if only occasionally; Yes Man never did.
Interesting scene: Carrey receives some relief (yes, that type of relief) from a passionate old lady. I have to say I didn’t expect a Hollywood release to go down that path.
Overall: Not an unpleasant watch, but as far from being special as possible. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Tomorrow, When the War Began

Lowdown: A group of teen Aussies form a resistance when their country is occupied.
Review:
Tomorrow, When the War Began was reputed to be a sensational hit at Aussie cinemas and later on DVD & Co. I was curious to see what the fuss is all about.
The fuss turned out to be a film about teens and for teens. We follow a group of your typical Aussie teens, at least as far as general demographics are concerened: most of them are Anglos, with a token Greek and Asian; half are female and half are male; all are good looking. Surprisingly good looking: they look like they just came out of the shower even after a week in the outback.
The first act has us falling for these young and pure of hearts. We watch them chop wood for the fire and occupy themselves in your typical Aussie outdoor activities that anyone looking like they just came out of the shower in this age of PlayStations is bound to take part in most of the time [not!]. Especially when considering the majority of Aussies live in cities.
Our heroes go on this expedition to the outback that leaves them disconnected from the rest of the world for a while. When they come back they discover the world they left behind is no longer there: Australia was occupied by a vicious invading force that's left unnamed but is obviously of Asian nature. Thus our group of teens are thrown into a world where everything they took for granted is gone, adults included.
Our heroes will not surrender, though. They form a resistance and start their guerrilla war campaign. However, most of their attention seems to be spent/wasted on their teen anxieties: we have this good looking model material girl who cannot find a guy to ask her out, we have couples and would be couples dealing with all the tension that comes with teen relationships, etc. The way the film is structured it seems like our heroes always arrive to the peak of their relationship stress just when enemy soldiers are at the door or at the very minute they are about to embark on a counter attack. No worries, though: the enemy always waits for them to finish their squabbling first.
Tomorrow, When the War Began looks good for an action film. For an Australian film in particular, given its obvious shortage of budget when compared to equivalent American releases, this is quite an achievement. The enemy helicopter gunship, for example, is revealed - through glimpses - to be a tiny cheap helicopter; the enemy buggies look like they were handmade. But it works and production values turn the film into an acceptable one; pity the film itself doesn't, with too many things not making sense. For example, can we really expect the army that conquered Australia overnight to lack night vision facilities, thus allowing our kids to terrorize them? Besides, those soldiers are pretty bad at soldiering. One can only conclude the film is trying to tell us they are so useless because they are Asians.
Which leads me to my main criticism towards Tomorrow, When the War Began. I can understand the need for silly films and I can understand the need to camouflage a film about teenage angst through the guise of an action flick. What I don't understand is the way the film endorses that xenophobic world view that is so dominant in contemporary Australia, the one that has us regarding refugees arriving on boats to Australian shores as if they were criminals and the one that makes us think Australia is better than the rest of the world. By depicting the enemy as the nameless Asian and by contrasting them with the gold plated Aussie whose land is being invaded the analogy to the prevailing but stupid notion of "the world out there wants to steal our spoils" gets further nourished. We have too much of that already; we need to get rid of it, not enhance it.
Worst scene: The daughter of the vicar won't fire on enemy soldiers because she is a believer and the bible says thou shall not kill. How stupid is that? The bible I read us God & Co killing all over the place. From Noah through Joshua and beyond, the bible is one long killing fest. How dumb can you be to disregards that? And why seek to dumb down the typical teen Aussie viewer that's probably quite ignorant in the ways of the bible even further?
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is pretty good. The sound is not of the same quality, but still - this is the best Aussie Blu-ray I have seen other than Australia.
Overall: Sorry, but this one is pretty dumb. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 16 May 2011

Green Zone

Lowdown: When the search for WMDs in Iraq reveals nothing, one soldier is starting to ask questions.
Review:
Not much out there can beat the good old action thriller when it comes to sheer cinematic entertainment, at least in my book. It is therefore a thrill to see a good sample of the genre, for Green Zone genuinely thrilled me.
Set in 2003 Iraq, shortly after the USA and its allies conquered it, we follow a soldier called Miller (Matt Damon) whose mission it is to direct teams looking for weapons of mass destruction. As hard as they search they can only find garbage (literally), while Iraqis around them are suffering and while the eyes of the world are upon them. A tip from a local Iraqi to the hungry for good intel Miller leads the latter to a meeting of former high ranking Iraqi officials. Between the fighting and the slowly uncovering of clues, Miller find himself in between USA government officials on one side (led by Greg Kinnear) and a veteran CIA operative (Brendan Gleeson) on the other. More importantly, he has to make a moral choice.
Of the various films we had seen on the war in Iraq, Green Zone seems to have hit the soft belly the best. Although fictional, the film is heavily spiced with real or real like events, which it uses to ask us how USA government officials managed to cheat the entire world into this war. The process of waking up to reality which Miller goes through in the film is very similar to the one I went through: believing the mantra of WMDs, and given Saddam’s lack of inhibitions when it comes to using them, I considered the war in positive light at the time. However, today I know I was fooled. I have paid a price for my ignorance, but the price I personally paid is nothing compared to what has been paid by those closer to the scene (or, for that matter, by the generic American tax payer).
Thrills aside, the main thing you would notice about Green Zone is its style. Hand held cameras are the order of the day, and these are far from stable. Indeed, they shake so much you often feel it’s done on purpose. The Blu-ray’s cover claims this is director Paul Greengrass’ distinct style, and if you watched some of his former films (like Bourne Ultimatum) you would have to agree. Where we are in disagreement is whether this style has any merit: I will leave things by saying I despise a style that forces me to watch a film equipped with barf bags.
Best scene: Freddie, the Iraqi informant, demonstrates why Iraq is such a boiling cauldron of mixed interests. I won’t spoil the scene further, but I thought it is a great way to let the movie watcher feel Iraq for the complex entity that it is.
Overall: A very good action thriller hampered by annoying camera work, for which it is paying the price of receiving only 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 May 2011

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris

Lowdown: Issues of morality can and should be assessed using scientific tools.
Review:
Of the self proclaimed four horseman of New Atheism, Sam Harris was the sole remaining member whose books I never read. Given his comrades include Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Christopher Hitchens I already knew that here was a guy I’d love to host for a dinner and a chat, but Harris had to wait till The Moral Landscape for me to read a book of his.
In his philosophical book The Moral Landscape Harris is raising a revolutionary claim. Science, says Harris, can be used to determine the preferred option of any moral dilemma we face. This is no subtle claim to make, hence Harris having to write a whole book to defend his claim. Defend it he does; he sure managed to convince me.
It’s the implications of his claim that are interesting, and this is where The Moral Landscape spends most of its time. First, when making the claim that science should be used to arbiter ethical issues, one is effectively making the claim that there are better options and lesser options. Making such claims puts you on a collision course with popular relativism that says things like “all beliefs have equal claim”, “all cultures have equal claim”, and “scientists should tell us about science but leave the politics for the rest of us”. In effect, Harris is saying that science can and should have direct saying in matters of politics.
When Harris claims that one option is better than the other, and that its superiority can be proven, he has to offer a framework with which to measure such superiority. The framework he offers is one of optimization: according to Harris, the question most of us would like answered when dealing with issues of morality is the question of maximizing the well being of conscious living things. A lot of room is devoted to discussions on what “well being” is, probably because it is not a term that can be sharply defined. Harris would tell you that inability to define the term does not necessarily mean well being is not a good measure: we are unable to define what a healthy person is, either, yet that does not prevent us all from wanting to be healthy and from taking measures to ensure we are.
Most of us would say that we use our values in order to pass judgment on ethical matters. Harris argues that values are direct the direct result of facts, or at least perceived facts, which again paves the way for his core argument. In similar fashion and in clear language full of interesting examples Harris goes on to tackle hurdle after hurdle, with religion winning itself a dedicated chapter. Personally, I have enjoyed the book's discussion on free will the most, because the question of whether we are truly in control of our lives is one of the most interesting philosophical questions I have encountered.
If there is anything that is missing from The Moral Landscape it’s actual steps or directions to take in order to start making our world better by making scientifically guided choices. That is not the book’s point; Harris openly admits this is an area we’re pretty ignorant about. The entire point of The Moral Landscape is to create the urge to establish such a discipline.
At this point I will let Harris introduce the main themes behind The Moral Landscape himself. The clip below was taken at a presentation in Oxford. For the first half an hour Harris introduces his arguments, followed by a discussion with Richard Dawkins:



So far in this review I have done what I normally do when I encounter a book about which I don’t have much to say of my own: I provided a summary of the book’s arguments. The interesting question then becomes, why is it that I have so little to say about the book otherwise?
The answer is complicated. It starts be me pointing at the undeniable fact The Moral Landscape is a book dealing deeply complicated matters of philosophy for which my normal shoot from the hip level reactions are no match. Indeed, I can report that The Moral Landscape, despite using simple and down to earth language, is no easy read; a lot of thought needs to be paid while reading it. Reading it on train rides, with all the ensuing noise and distractions they offer, is not the way in which a book like The Moral Landscape should be read. Yet that’s exactly how I read it for I had no choice.
The most amazing thing happened while reading The Moral Landscape, train distractions or not: as I read one revolutionary idea after the other, I knew I was reading some ground breaking stuff yet it all seemed to make perfect sense to me. It felt as if Harris was telling me things I already know. I mean, it seems perfectly clear to me to argue that science has a saying in matters of morality: after all, there is a thing out there called “the truth”, and thus far the best method we developed for dealing with it is science; to say that truth applies in one case but not in another is a rather foolish thing to do when it is clear such exclusions are only made for the benefit of specific individuals and/or specific agendas.
There is also the matter of matter. We are all made of it, and everything we know and experience is the direct result of matter and material interactions alone: matter interacts before us, and matter interacts inside our brains to make us feel stuff. Given that everything we deal with in this world is of matter, and given that science is the only viable tool at our disposal for assessing matters of matter, then it is clear to me science has a saying in everything.
My casual observations don’t take anything away from the revolutionary nature of Sam Harris’ claims and from his achievement of putting them on the agenda. What seems obvious to me a second after I read it was not obvious at all before I read it, and will still not be obvious to the majority of this world’s population that prefers to follow unfounded moralities derived from Bronze Age scriptures over what contemporary advanced sources can provide. In this one can clearly observe a straight line connecting Harris’ previous books, Letter to a Christian Nation and The End of Faith, with The Moral Landscape. Given the doors opened by The Moral Landscape, perhaps I should devote more of my time to reading Harris' other books.
Overall: You would rarely find a book raising more important original ideas than The Moral Landscape. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Sarah's Key

Lowdown: A personal Holocaust tragedy still has a lingering effect.
Review:
Sarah's Key is a French film that came at me from left field, but I'm glad it came along. The film revolves around an episode of the Holocaust that is usually forgotten for all the wrong reasons, an episode where the French took it upon themselves to do the Nazis work for them. An episode that took place during 1942.
We start by following a French family. They are Parisians through and through, but because they're Jewish they have French police knocking on their door and gathering them together with 12,000 others at a sports arena in the middle of Paris. In the case of our family, little Sarah takes the initiative and hides her little brother in a secret closet before leaving home. To prevent him from coming out the closet at the wrong time she locks him in, but when she and the rest of the 12,000 find themselves stuck in the arena for days and days with no provisions and no toilet facilities she realizes locking her brother was a mistake and does her best to go and rescue him. We follow her through her attempts to make use of her key and unlock her brother.
In parallel to witnessing Sarah's story we witness the one of a modern day American journalist living in Paris, Julia (Kristin Scott Thomas). Opportunity presents itself to Julia and she is able to research and publish an article about those events from 1942. As she researches she realizes the apartment she and her French husband are about to move to is the apartment that our Sarah used to live in up to 1942. She takes it upon herself to uncover Sarah's story for herself (and for us), but she is not ready for the effect Sarah's story is going to have on her. As they say, this time - it's personal.
The result of combining the Holocaust story with the modern day story is a very effective way with which to point out what an effect the "small" personal tragedies of the Holocaust have on everyone involved. Without being graphic and without showing us big time atrocities like the inner workings of the concentration camps, we are still bearing witness to some major events.
Sarah's Key goes to prove a simple point concerning human nature. When we hear, for example, that 100,000 people died in Haiti due to an earthquake the majority of us would just flip to the next page of our newspaper; this is a tragedy too big to digest. Can we even imagine what so many people look like? On the other hand, when we hear the personal tragedy story of a single character our empathy levels are on full. By providing us with two easy to identify with characters, one from the Holocaust and one from modern times - representing us - Sarah's Key takes us on a full on personal experience.
Best scene: As can be expected from a film such as this one is spoiled with many potential candidates. My vote probably goes to the scene in which little Sarah appeals to the humanity of a big French policeman to ignore her attempts to escape the camp the kids were temporarily stored at prior to their "processing".
Technical assessment: An average DVD at best; I doubt this one enjoyed a big budget.
Overall: At around 4 out of 5 stars, I highly recommend this one.

Tuesday, 10 May 2011

An Education

Lowdown: A promising high school student is tempted by what an adult man can give her.
Review:
Were you to ask me some ten years ago who my favorite authors are the name of Nick Hornby would have featured in my answer. Here is the guy that gave us Fever Pitch and High Fidelity, two books that could have been written about me; even their respective films weren't bad. Yet in a process that's probably best symbolized through the American version of the Fever Pitch movie, my affection to Hornby has severely waned since. He still arouses my curiosity, though, resulting in me wanting to check up on An Education (which he wrote).
An Education follows Jenny (Carey Mulligan), a promising high school student whose life is set out to her by her parents (with Alfred Molina doing the father role): she will graduate high school with high marks and go to study English at Oxford. She's almost there, she just needs to work on her Latin; the key point is, she needs to work and often hard. Her target is achievable, though.
Then comes David (Peter Sarsgaard): an adult, a Jew and a great charmer. He charms our Jenny, charms her parents, and with their consent exposes Jenny to a world of temptations (aided by friends played by Dominic Cooper and Rosamund Pike). Quickly enough our Jenny is no longer focused on her education; but is there a catch? What, exactly, does David want?
An Education turned out to be one of those films that left me staring at the glass' empty half. I failed to understand many of its key points: what was the fuss about David being a Jew all about when it didn't seem to make a difference? More importantly, and without giving away too much, David's reasonings for going through the motions with Jenny end up as clear to the viewer as mud. Given their importance to the coherence of the story, that's a key problem.
A lot of this film is based on Lolita like tension between the girl and the adult man. Often enough I felt a cringe while watching it, finding things a bit too disturbing for me to enjoy. Things go a bit further than The Police Don't Stand So Close to Me's wet bus station. There's nothing graphic taking place (and in real life Mulligan is an adult), but it works through the film's power of suggestion to make me fail to understand the relationship at hand.
On the positive side, An Education is a British film that's justifiably proud of it being British. Not only in its settings (sixties' London), but also in the acting talent on offer. Molina and Emma Thompson in a minor role steal the show, but it's not like the others are bad.
Best scene: Jenny has to start facing up to the facts after she first learns how David makes his money (of which he seems to have a lot). She's shocked but still prefers to turn a blind eye to the dollar (or, in this case, the pound).
Technical assessment: A truly bad DVD. The picture is washed and lacks any level of detail worth talking about. Sound wise, this DVD only has a two channel soundtrack (what happened to 5.1?), and a very mediocre one at that. Couple that with the lack of subtitles and you get a DVD that hinders the film it tries to communicate.
Overall: Sorry, but An Education is too incoherent for me to appreciate its better sides. Clearly, the fault is on the script's side. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Date Night

Lowdown: A parents’ night out turns into a nightmare.
Review:
By now we take it for granted that most mainstream Hollywood releases are aimed at younger audiences. It appears the marketing departments consider these to be the best grossing ones. When a mainstream release strays from the formula this appears odd, as is the case of Date Night: a comedy that most people can watch and enjoy, but which is obviously aimed at the middle-aged part of the mainstream.
On the face of it, Date Night is an ordinary action comedy (with much more emphasis on the comedy). Steve Carell and Tina Fey are middle aged parents, cracked between the pressures of their careers, parenthood and running a household. All that pressure makes their lives pretty mundane and predictably boring. When they learn that friends of theirs with seemingly more exciting lives decide to split up because they realized that original passion is gone they decide to “dare” a night out in the big city. The New Jersey couple books the babysitter and tries for the coolest restaurant at Manhattan. Predictably, there is no room for them there; but when someone calls for the Tripplehorns to come to their table and no one answers, they assume the role of the Tripplehorns. At first they enjoy dinner, but then – as can be expected for a comedy such as this – their identity theft leads them on a night to remember. Between various criminals, police and secret agents (Mark Wahlberg), the couple’s ordinary lives become extraordinary – if only for a night.
I cannot say I like Carell’s exaggerated style much, but I did like Date Night a lot. I liked it primarily because of its accurate depiction of what life really is like for a middle aged parent: the pressures of having to balance home and work, the demanding children who are totally indifferent to the efforts you’re making, the total annihilation of sexual drive, the lack of sleep, the feeling that's always there of not being a good enough parent because you have to deal with everything else in life. It’s all there, in a manner very different to the sweet way parenthood is normally sold to us. And I like it: I like watching a film whose characters are in the same shit I am. Not superheroes, not celebrities: just ordinary people trying to make ends meet.
Sure, there is comedy in the film, too. We’ve seen it all many times before; it’s alright, I guess. I didn’t care much for it, though. I was held captive by a film that puts on the agenda the troubling fact that when you're a middle-aged parent your life becomes like a small time business and your family are usually stakeholders in that business.
Best scene: The film starts. We see a little boy and a little girl viciously jump on their obviously tired parents’ bed, waking them up with much anguish. The camera pans over and we see the time on the alarm clock: 5:00am. So true!
Technical assessment: Given that a lot of Date Night takes place at night this one must have been a tough shoot; it shows on the Blu-ray with some inconsistencies and too few details in the darker side for my liking. The sound is average for such a mainstream release.
Overall: An ordinary film that managed to be quite special by its realistic and unashamed look at how parenthood ruins the life of us. 3.5 out of 5 stars. How nice it is to see Hollywood daring to go where it usually doesn't!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

The King's Speech

Lowdown: The king of England has to come down to using the services of an unlikely Australian in order to deal with his speech impediment.
Review:
It’s rare to encounter a film with more fuss around it than The King’s Speech. Here is a film that, according to what the entertainment industry has been telling us, snatched the major Oscars from the hands of The Social Network. Here is a film starring one of my favorite actors, Colin Firth, who won his Academy Award for the role. And here is a film with a lot of controversy about it.
The King’s Speech is based on true events taking place during the first half of 20th century England. We follow a Firth playing the role of the second son of the post Great War's King of England. Firth performs the duties he was born into with great dedication, but he has a problem: he stutters and he can’t utter a word in public. This deficiency of his lets him endure some rather embarrassing times, but at least he has a wife that loves him and looks for solutions (Helena Bonham Carter, playing the person now known as the Queen Mother). When the pair seems to exhaust all conventional solutions, the wife learns of an unorthodox speech therapist from Australia (Geoffrey Rush) and decides, in desperation, to give him a try.
The rest of the film revolves around Firth’s issues with stooping so low as to use Rush to help him while, on the other hand, acknowledging Rush’s undeniable achievements. Then there is the historical background, with Firth’s ailing father and the question of who would take his place. That question is in the air because the king’s successor, Firth’s older brother (Guy Pearce), is busier running around an American divorcee rather than looking after a nation pushed to a corner by one Adolf Hitler.
The first thing I noticed about The King’s Speech is the direction work. It’s brilliant; it manages to convey seemingly boring scenes of one person talking to another in interesting ways, mainly through the use of unorthodox camera placement, camera movement and wide angle lenses. Then again, it is obvious that the direction work calls more than a bit of attention to itself and thus somewhat detracts the viewer from the film itself.
Then there is the acting. First a little anecdote: between Firth and Jennifer Ehle playing Rush’s wife, there is a bit of a 1995 Pride and Prejudice mini-series reunion here. Talking about Rush, his brilliant self is taken for granted by now, so much so you almost fail to notice it; but Firth manages to play the stuttering, tormented, would be king so very well. He deserves his accolades; in fact, both main actors do, because if you were to ask me The King’s Speech stands for nothing more than the tour de force of the acting it contains.
What are you saying, I hear you ask? The King’s Speech stands for nothing?
Yes, you heard me right. The King’s Speech does stand for nothing. Allow me to explain.
First and foremost, The King’s Speech is not as loyal to historical fact as it pretends to be. I will allow my esteemed colleague Christopher Hitchens to explain the problems with The King’s Speech's historical inaccuracies through his Slate articles here and here; the abridged version is that this film we have here politely neglects to mention the not too well hidden sympathy that members of the British royal family had for Nazi Germany. It is worth remembering they are, after all, a German family in many respects. Indeed, many of the characters that win our sympathies in The King’s Speech do not deserve it.
Which brings me to discuss the entire concept of the British monarchy. The King’s Speech is, in effect, the story of how the monarchy survived the relevancy test imposed on it by World War 2: the answer, according to the film, is in the King’s speech that galvanized the British empire against their Nazi foe (in much the same way as the recent royal wedding was pushed on us as means to maintain the relevancy of the same monarchy during our day and age). That argument, however, falls miserably in the face of historical facts; in many respects the royal family acted as a fifth wheel in the face of the German threat.
I will go on and speculate further. Let us assume the misrepresented history of The King’s Speech is actually true. Are we really expected to believe that it is a miserable speech that managed to keep England’s resistance firm? Would the pilots of The Battle of Britain flee in fear were it not for The King’s Speech? Of course they wouldn’t; the Brits would do very well, thank you, even without this monarchy of theirs. There is more to them than that crown. Surely the nation that produced my most favorite music albums (see here) did not do so just because of the queen.
If you ask me, the British monarchy has become an entity whose main purpose in life is to accumulate power for its own sake. It is there just so it could be there; in effect, it is a lot like religion. Or, for that matter, cancer.
Best scene: Firth’s character hears the recording of himself reading Shakespeare following his first visit to Rush’s “clinic”. He, and the Queen Mother next to him, cannot avoid astonishment as the virtually perfect read. I, on the other hand, was mesmerized by the brilliant direction work.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray always appears a tad washed, probably appealing towards that periodic look but in effect sacrificing a lot of quality. The sound won’t knock you of your feet for aggressiveness but is very effective for the subject matter at hand. The classical music soundtrack is sublime.
Overall: If it wasn’t for the controversy and the acting I would have said The King’s Speech is boring. Still, it is an acting extravaganza, so I’m giving it 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Ponyo

Lowdown: A magical sea creature befriends a child and seeks to become human.
Review:
Ponyo is another animation film from Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away and Howl’s Moving Castle fame. In many respects, saying that should give you most of the information you would need to take from a review of 2008’s Ponyo: it tells you what you should be expecting in terms of animation style, child oriented approach, eccentric yet lovely story telling, and environmental motifs. All those qualities that made me keep an eye open for new Miyazaki deliverables apply to Ponyo, which is why I think you should watch it.
By Miyazaki’s terms, Ponyo’s hour and a half are rather short. We follow a seafaring family's child (Sosuke) who finds this strange fish that got stuck in an empty can. He takes the fish with him, helps it recover and names it Ponyo. Little does Sosuke know that Ponyo is actually the child of magical sea creatures that will stop at nothing to get Ponyo back to where it came from, including creating tsunamis and storms that threaten the whole of human civilization. Ponyo, on her side, falls in love with the innocent boy who rescued her and seeks to leave her watery past behind to become human.
Conflicts between the creatures of the sea are mirrored on the human side. Sosuke’s mother is a hard working one who struggles between her nursing career and looking after her child, while her husband captains a ship and is away most of the time. Stress is often the result.
Put together, Ponyo is a lovely pastel of stories all mixed together and told in Miyazaki’s typical charming way. His films are great because they are unique, and Ponyo qualifies in that department too; the contrast between Miyazaki’s and Hollywood’s formalistic approach cannot be more apparent. The result ends up more than a film that tells a lovely story and conveys environmental messages quite effectively. Most notable is the very loyal to science way the tale is told, as opposed to Hollywood’s often religiously saturated messages.
The Ponyo DVD features the original Japanese soundtrack as well as an English version (which is the one we went for). That English soundtrack has some famous names behind it, like Cate Blanchett and Liam Neeson. To be frank I don’t understand why we need A List mega-stars to do a dubbing job that plenty of less famous actors could use in order to establish a name for themselves; must be one of those demands coming from the marketing team.
Best scenes: Some of the more magical scenes involve classical music coupled with rich and colorful animation. They’re a delight of creativity.
Technical assessment: Ponyo’s an average DVD, which is to say that compared to the spectacular picture we get on many Hollywood animation releases it looks a bit off mark.
Overall: Another hit from Miyazaki at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 2 May 2011

A Pain in the Ass

Lowdown: A hitman’s work is made complicated by a pathetic guy.
Review:
I didn’t rent A Pain in the Ass solely because of its title (its original French title is L'emmerdeur, which Google Translate says is "the troublemaker"). I like French director’s Francis Veber body of work: The Dinner Game was alright, The Valet was very good, but The Closet is listed as one of my all-time favourite comedies. It’s a pity Veber couldn’t keep things up in his latest from 2008.
A high caliber informant is making is way to court, escorted by an armada of commando policemen, in order to testify. His testimony is expected to step on too many sensitive nerves, therefore we are next introduced to a hitman setting up to shoot the informant as he arrives to court. The shooting is meant to take place from an overlooking hotel room where the bulk of the film takes place.
Another guest checks into the room next door to the hitman: Pignon (the usual protagonist’s name in all of Veber’s films). Shattered by his wife leaving him for her psychologist, Pignon tries to commit suicide. He doesn’t manage that, but he succeeds very well in becoming a pain in the hitman’s ass and ruin his plans for a comfortable and easy hit.
The best thing I can say about A Pain in the Ass is that at around 80 minutes it’s pretty short. Other than that it is unconvincing, under developed, and way too silly. When you see the wife that left Pignon you will understand why the film is unconvincing: There is no way the sexy Virginie Ledoyen, who plays the wife, will ever be married to a guy like Pignon. Even if she is a Veber regular.
Next we have motifs that hardly get any development, to the point where you wonder why they’ve been introduced in the first place (e.g., a couple riding a stolen scooter).
The biggest problem, though, is the silliness. Between Pignon’s hotel room escapades with the killer and the witness vomiting all over his security escorts, the humor here is a grade or two too low; certainly much lower than Veber’s better films.
Technical assessment: Quite a poor DVD, both in picture and sound.
Overall: I wanted to like this one, for Veber’s sake, but it was just too silly. It feels more like one of those silly films from the fifties. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Robots

Lowdown: In a world made entirely of robots, a socialist robot saves the world’s poor from a greedy corporation.
Review:
One of the bad things about Hollywood is that once a new successful formula is identified it is copied to its death. Pixar showed us that computer graphics can generate good films and tons of money, so everyone jumps on the bandwagon. The result? Mediocrity, in the shape of 2005’s Robots.
Not even famous voices can save this one. The starting point is not too bad: our world is one of robots, where everything from pet to human is robot. Our hero is a young idealistic robot made of spare parts to loving but poor robot parents. He compensates for his circumstances by being inventive, and eventually he embarks to the big city in order to achieve his dream and work at this big time robot company that does all the good in this world of robots. Or does it? We quickly learn the original owner is out and the company is now controlled by a greedy robot and his mom, who plot to make money by holding off the production of spare parts. Who cares if many robots will meet their doom as a result? Well, our hero does.
The problem with Robots is that it is so “to the formula” the whole thing falls flat. Even the more imaginative implementation of a robot world or the anti extreme consumerism messages fail. Sure, the three year old of the house enjoyed Robots (that’s good, given we got the film for him in the first place); but to the adults of the house there was nothing new under the sun to cling to.
Worst scenes: Robin Williams may have done Aladdin a whole lot of good, but the overuse of his talents on computer animation flicks since certainly shows signs of sacrificing quality for quantity. He didn’t make me laugh, not even once. Neither, by the way, did the character bearing Mel Brooks’ voice make me raise a smile.
Technical assessment: Don’t ask me why, but the non Pixar computer animation films don’t look half as flashy as the Pixar ones.
Overall: For the kids only, 2 out of 5 stars.