Thursday, 11 August 2011

The Barbarian Invasions

Lowdown: Family and friends coming to terms with the father's pending death.
Review:
A special corner is reserved in my perception of the art of film to the French cinema, and it is films like the French-Canadian The Barbarian Invasions from 2003 (or Les invasions barbares) that earn this special privilege. In a world where most of the films I watch come from Hollywood, it is the sad reality the majority of this majority cannot compete with the level of depth displayed by this French speaking film.
The Barbarian Invasions tells the story of a father (Rémy Girard) who is about to die of cancer and is doomed to spend the last of his days at the hospital. He starts off at a crowded public hospital, where he seems doomed to spend the remaining days of his life sharing a room with four other guys and all the noise and commotion they, their visitors and their TVs bring along.
The picture changes when the wife "orders" the estranged son (Stéphane Rousseau), a successful London based business man, to come home and see to his father's remaining life. The father and the son don't get along; the father is a leftie idealist while the son is the manifestation of capitalism. There are also family frictions: we learn the father was not particularly loyal to his wife and actually takes pride in all the mistresses he had; it is obvious the father is not an easy person to get along with. Still, in spite of all the issues between them, and with the wide use of his extensive wallet, the son manages to sort proper accommodation for his father - the kind a person at the end of their life deserves. He manages to get the closest friends around; he even pays for some of his father's students to come along. By far the greatest extreme he goes to is in acquiring help to administer cocaine to the father in order to make his last days livable.
The story of The Barbarian Invasions is definitely an interesting one. However, it is the layers of depth presented by the film that are its best attraction: the clash between socialism, as represented by the father, and the capitalism represented by the son does not spare either from criticism. I felt the film goes farther than that, though: through its barbarians' invasion of Rome metaphor and the inevitable comparison with September 11, and through further mentioning of the proliferation of immigrant drug dealing gangs in the streets of Montreal, the film tries to tell the viewer something about the effects the passage of time can have on our perceptions. Specifically, the way with which we almost naturally feel as if we used to do things better while the current generation is up to no good; the way we tend to think, almost naturally, that the world is going down in the dumps.
What can I say? It's a pleasure to see a film so well made, weaving its complex story as well as it does. Most films today don't manage to provide one decent character; The Barbarian Invasions manages to define and handle multiple characters extremely well. A true gem of cinema making.
Best scene #1:
The mother explains to the son how, despite all the issues she has with the dying father and despite all the issues the son has with his father, the father still deserves his son's love. She brings back stories of early childhood sickness and the devotion and care displayed by the father, but summarizes it all by saying you cannot understand how much your parents love you until you become a parent yourself.
How very true! Only now, when I am going through the same motions with my own toddler, can I truly respect what my parents have done to me. Sure, I have my reservations about their parenthood skills; but the truth is that throughout growing up I was never short on anything, and up until I graduated from university (as well as long after that) they provided me with a sheltered life that made things so much easier for me. Easier, but not noticeably so until that shelter was gone and I left home.
Given my parents' old age, and given the number of continents between my parents and I, watching The Barbarian Invasions certainly had me thinking just how soon I would live through the film's same scenarios myself. I was also wondering what kind of a son I would be at those final stages of my parents' lives.
Best scenario #2 (spoiler alert!): The euthanasia, following a proper farewell from the friends and while being surrounded by the best of friends and family, and set at the dying's favorite place. Because we all must die, this is the way we should die by; not as the shadows of our former selves most of us will eventually end up like after lengthy periods of suffering unnecessarily at the hospital.
Technical assessment: I watched The Barbarian Invasions off the air from SBS HD. Although what passes as HD by SBS's terms is a far cry from what I would call high definition, I do feel complied to mention the stereo soundtrack provided more effective surround envelopment than the majority of other films I get to watch through much superior platforms. It's the wonderful music that does it.
Overall: The biggest compliment I can give The Barbarian Invasions is that this is a film that made me think. Not only did it make me think, it also made me act: it made me look at the writings of Primo Levi (who is referenced in the film) and made me acquire some of those. With such an impact you may as well argue I am being hard on the film when I give it only 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

Lowdown: The real world reasons for the paranormal.
Review:
Prof Richard Wiseman's name should be familiar to anyone following the skeptic movement, and for pretty good reasons. This magician turned academic sure is witty, and reading his stuff over the web - YouTube videos, blog and Twitter - offers that rare mix of education and entertainment.
If that wasn't enough to tempt me to read Wiseman's latest book, Paranormality, then the story of its publication was. Paranormality was published in the UK to became a nice best seller, but no American publisher would agree to take it under the weird assumption that books claiming there is no such thing as the paranormal will not sell. Wiseman took the challenge and self published his book in the USA, at least electronically. Not only was proving the stupidity of American publishing a good enough reason for me to want to support him by buying his book, there were added bonuses: First, by buying a self published book I know my money goes where I want it to go the most - to the author. Second, because the book was self published in the USA it was actually cheaper to buy than everywhere else (Wiseman himself confirmed this to me over Twitter).
That is not the only unique fact concerning Paranormality. The book is quite an interactive read, with numerous video quotations. Yes, videos are quoted, via both conventional URLs as well as bar-codes you can photograph with your smart phone; both will take you to the videos Wiseman prepared for you, like this one:



I read the book on my Kindle and used my iPhone to watch the videos (and listen to several audio clips), but it definitely does look like this is a book best read on an Internet enabled tablet.
Now that we're done with the introductions, let's talk a bit about the book itself. Paranormality is a book that sets out to explain the real reasons behind perceived paranormal phenomena. It looks at the lot: ghosts, out of body experiences, talking with the dead, cult mentality, mind readers, palm reading - you name the phenomenon, you'll find it in Paranormality. What you will find are proper, scientifically supported explanations for the phenomenon at hand; do not, however, expect Wiseman to tell you ghosts really do exist (allow me to provide a spoiler and announce there never was non rebukable evidence to support any paranormal phenomenon).
What you should be expecting from Wiseman is a thorough discussion on the psychology behind the paranormal. In doing so Wiseman not only tells us what the psychological reasons for us falling for the paranormal are, but also what the psychological reasons for the existence of this so called paranormal are in the first place. He does it in the same witty, dry humor like manner I know Wiseman to sport on a regular basis over his web pages; that good old British dry sense of humor that won him my Twitter fellowship wins the day for Paranormality, too.
Wiseman's achievement there merits emphasis. Throughout my university studies I have been the victim of a line of professors who saw me and my fellow students as mere distractions to their "proper" work. They treated us accordingly with boring lectures that forced us to look for enlightenment elsewhere. Wiseman is different: his style helps the reader appreciate the subject; his humor makes the reading a joy; and his use of simple language makes the often complex subject matter easily comprehensible. In short, Wiseman is a gifted educator, one of those rare people whose destiny it is to popularize science with the wider public.
If you are looking for a caveat with Paranormality then here it is. For someone like me, a relative veteran in the skeptic ranks, it did not tell much I did not know before. There are notable exceptions, like the insightful discussion on the illusion of free will and the way consciousness works there, but in general I knew the paranormal to be bullshit before. I would therefore recommend Paranormality mostly for people who genuinely think the paranormal is real; people like the bulk of my family.
Overall: A fun and educational interactive read at 3.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. Given the context, I also have to recommend Lawrence Leung's ABC show, Unbelievable. The subject matter is essentially the same and so is the outlook. Wiseman himself appears on some of the episodes.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Unknown

Lowdown: What can a guy who finds his wife is with an impostor do?
Review:
After Taken, Liam Neeson seems to be developing a knack for European made films where:
1. He stars as an American stranger in Europe, and where
2. His family is in danger, and
3. only Neeson's carefully manipulated violence can save the day.
On the positive side, Unknown is more sophisticated than its predecessor.
Neeson stars as Dr Martin Harris, an American scientist arriving for a professional conference at Berlin. He arrives with his beautiful wife (January Jones) to their hotel but realizes he lost a briefcase on the way; leaving his wife at the hotel, he picks up a taxi to return to the airport. Big mistake! On the way back to the airport he finds himself in the middle of a serious accident, with the foreign taxi driver (Diane Kruger) saving him from drowning at the nick of time.
Martin wakes up at the hospital, surprised to see no one waiting on him other than medical stuff (in their credit it has to be said that Germany looks like the best place to be in need of a hospital). Eventually he goes back to his hotel and the conference, where he finds his wife with another man - a man who also claims to be a Dr Martin Harris and won't willingly go away once Neeson shows up. What could be the reason behind this identity theft? And why isn't Neeson's wife bothered by her new husband?
The concept of sophisticated identity theft is a nice one to base a film on. It certainly is relevant to this day and age, where so much information on so many of us is freely available on the web - usually donated by us - making the life of an identity thief particularly easy. Unknown capitalizes on this modern times' reality, but does so in a fairly superficial way. It never sets out to offer a thought provoking discussion; it prefers to stick to the tried and tested arena of action packed thrills mixed with plot twists. To its credit, Unknown does quite a decent job at this niche it picked on, even if it is a bit of a waste given the base potential: I was certainly thrilled and excited, willing to let go when things didn't make much sense.
Needless to say, the likes of Kruger are not cast on film for the sake of a thirty second role; she's too beautiful for that. Sooner rather than later our prudent taxi driver returns to the thick of the plot, with the end result reminding me a lot of two films. First there's Frantic, which is incredibly similar in plot and all, only that its emphasis is not on the action. Second there's Total Recall, which is yet another film where everything you knew for real might not be real at all and where the wife turns out to have a secret or two of her own. January Jones might not equal Sharon Stone by any stretch of the imagination, but Kruger certainly outlooks Rachel Ticotin.
Silliest scene:
As mentioned, Unknown does have more than a scene or two where the implausible is expected to be taken for granted. For instance, we have a scene where Dr Martin takes a shower at the taxi driver's flat. One minute he's in the shower, the next minute an assassin bursts through the door looking for him. Where is our hero?
The next time we see the doctor he's up there on the roof, fully clothed. He sure is fast at drying himself up and getting dressed!
Technical assessment: While the picture quality on this DVD is inconsistent, probably in an attempt to create a certain "European" (?) atmosphere, the sound is quite good. I suspect Unknown would make a decent Blu-ray experience.
Overall: Not without flows, but exciting enough for me to gloss over them and give Unknown 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Made in Dagenham

Lowdown: The story of a landmark event in the fight for equal pay to women.
Review:
Idiot Taxes do have the occasional benefits, as is the case with the British National Lottery's sponsorship of a lot of good films coming out of the UK recently. Among these is Made in Dagenham, a film that takes upon its narrow shoulders the duty of telling us the story of a landmark event in women's rights: the first time in which women were on strike for the right to receive pay equal to men's, back in 1968. The fact most progressive countries now have laws that prohibit pay discrimination due to sex tells us something about what happened since the events depicted in the film took place. The fact that statistics clearly tell us that, effectively, women do not receive equal pay shows us we still have a long way to go.
As mentioned, the film's events take place in 1968. Yes, back at the time my parents were at the peak of their productive lives it was commonly taken for granted that women do not deserve equal pay. Some women in the Ford factory at Dagenham, England, begged to disagree, though. Rebellion develops at the factory's all women sewing team: Their work environment is miserable to begin with: the heat was so bad they had to take their shirts off to work their sewing machines, a fact the film does its best to capitalize on. Then management makes things worse by degrading them from professional workers into unskilled ones, affecting their pay.
At this point we are introduced to a union member (Bob Hoskins), who needs female candidates to add the numbers up at the management discussion table meeting that is generally an all men affair. Lacking options, he lands the quite and unlikely figurine of Rita (Sally Hawkins). Rita may be unlikely, but come the discussions she won't take the crap that passes for usual union to management negotiations; she quickly makes a stand, and soon enough the matter escalates into the question of the right for women to receive the same pay as men.
Things get complicated when cracks start appearing in the women's stand. There are enough temptations for them to abandon their unity on one hand, and on the other hand there is the general stance of men that have their own pressures and do not see much of a reason why women should deserve equal pay in the first place (now I know where all the bigotry my parents' generation often exhibits comes from). Will Rita/Sally manage this pressure cooker?
Two other women add their input to the process, allowing two other talented British actresses to contribute to make Made in Dagenham a film full of British talent. First we have Lisa (Rosamund Pike) playing the top Oxford/Cambridge graduate turned reluctant housewife to a Ford manager; Lisa has to determine where her allegiance lies. Then we have the ever wonderful Miranda Richardson playing the government minister in charge of settling the dispute that is threatening to drive the whole USA-Britain relationship special relationship up a certain creek. Sadly, at least by me, the two's contribution to the film is rather minimal.
I do not know how loyal Made in Dagenham is to actual events, but the film that starts on very promising grounds often fails to rivet. It ends up a nice feel good film, which is a fine achievement by any right, but I couldn't help feeling it could have aimed higher. Perhaps the biggest disappointment with the shallow handling of the subject matter is with the way Made in Dagenham fails to address its events' aftermath: There is no Ford factory at Dagenham anymore, or at least nothing like the monster factory the film depicts.
What I have found most interesting about Made in Dagenham is something totally different to the main agendas it promotes. The factory workers back then all lived near their place of work; colleagues at the sewing machines were also next door neighbors. Socially speaking, as of the 19th century there was a conscious effort in places like England to locate employees far from their places of work and far apart, in order to make any attempts to unite harder. It seems as if those efforts bore their fruits more than a century later, over the last few decades alone (and probably as of the time that factories like Dagenham's became irrelevant). Perceived financial affluence drove this process, in turn rendering our society much less cohesive than it was before. What a shame.
Best scene: I liked the period's depiction; it brings back memories. Made in Dagenham does a pretty good job there, even if you can clearly see a lot of the background is digital special effects. Where do they dig up those old Ford Transits from?
Technical assessment: There is an obvious attempt on this DVD to make things look seventies like (it should have been sixties, but I associate the sixties with the colorfulness of Austen Powers). That means the picture ends up suffering, and suffering it does - a lot. The sound is pretty average, in the bad sense of the word.
Overall: Fails to transcend to the heights it could have reached for, but still a nice film with good acting from everyone. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The Town

Lowdown: Guys growing in a neighborhood of bank robbers have a hard time changing their ways.
Review:
Ben Affleck’s big time directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, was a very solid performer. I might have some reservations about his acting but he gave me all the reasons to see his next film, The Town. You could argue The Town indicates Affleck is stuck with material from his home town of Boston, but I would have to argue The Town is yet another solid performer – which is all that matters.
The setting is a small Boston suburb called Charlestown, which happens to be heavily populated by armed car and bank robbers. For the record, I have no idea how realistic this setting is; I don’t think that matters much, though. We are quickly introduced to several guys from the hood as they perform armed bank robbery with much aghast and panache, most notably Doug (played by the director himself) and James (Jeremy Renner, of The Hurt Locker fame). Doug is the brains but James is hot headed, and in order to secure their escape they take a bank employee hostage. As can be expected from an American film, that employee happens to be an attractive young woman, Claire (Rebecca Hall).
Our “heroes” make their escape and release the hostage, but then realize Claire is also a Charlestown resident and could therefore pose a threat. Doug doesn’t want James to apply violence so he pursues that cause himself, but – as can be expected from an American film – falls for the girl. She falls for him, too, despite obvious class gaps. Indeed, we are meant to perceive Doug as a smart good guy who ended up bank robbing for the sole reason he was born into the wrong area.
Further complications and characters are introduced. An FBI agent (Jon Hamm) is always close on the hunt for both our guys and the romantic services of Claire. We also learn Doug has something going on with James’ sister, although the sister’s child is not his; at the same time we learn our gang is being forced to commit further crimes. The question then becomes whether Doug can tear himself apart from his background, as represented by James, and establish a honest life as represented by Claire?
The Blu-ray we watched contains the standard cinematic version of a bit more than two hours as well as an extended version of two and a half hours. We watched the latter, and it showed: The Town is quite full of depth, with extraordinarily well developed characters. Two and a half hours may be a long time to watch a film, but I greatly enjoyed watching this complicated web of human stories untangle slowly and carefully before my eyes. The Town did not sag but rather told its story well.
Of course, things are aided by the action scenes. Directed in a very visceral way, these are exciting and well shot but not too overwhelming to take center stage. Further credit is acquired through the acting: Renner shows his Hurt Locker performance was no fluke, the late Pete Postlethwaite made me shiver with his portrayal of the film’s true baddie, and even Blake Lively does a convincing job playing James’ slut sister.
Between the bank robberies, the seemingly decent guys running them, and the rather problematic approach of the law, The Town reminded me a lot of Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break. Now, that was a film whose influence was way under appreciated! Thing is, The Town is not that far behind.
Best scene: If forced to choose I would pick on the scene where Doug and James have themselves a fight. Doug wants to leave Charlestown but James can’t leave everything his life is based on, so much so he won’t let Doug leave either. Cue some violence.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is quite disappointing, with noise and other effects that probably come from an artistic wish to create a certain dark atmosphere. The sound, however, is quite good (especially during the action scenes).
Overall: Like Gone Baby Gone, The Town is not exactly an inviting postcard from the city of Boston. It is, however, a film that tells a good story very well and well deserves 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Top Spin 4

Lowdown: An elaborate tennis simulation for the PS3.
Review:
In a market flooded with variations on the tennis theme, a game needs to specialize in order to be able to stand for itself. The Wii tennis games worked on the use of the Wii Remote; others, like Virtua Tennis, tried to have an edge through arcade like mini games. Top Spin 4, one of the latest tennis video game releases, aspires to work as a simulation.
You can choose to play as one of twenty something famous tennis players, from my childhood hero Bjorn Borg to a modern Nadal. Oddly enough, women have only six famous names to choose from, and even those include names that have already faded from the public’s attention without leaving much of a mark (say, Safina and Ana Ivanovic). If you ask me, though, much greater fun is there to be had by creating your own character and grooming him/her up the ranks.
This career mode starts at January 2011 and has your player taking part in one training activity and one tournament a month. These gather the player skill points, which allow the player to go up in levels by specializing in different aspects of the game: you get to choose between improving your serve and volley, your defensive skills, or your mastery of backline court dominance. The better you get the more prestigious tournaments open their doors to you, thus getting the wheels of your career moving. Further specialization can be acquired through the appointment of coaches that work on improving specific skills.
Eventually, after significant loading time waitings (yes, in plural!), you get to the match itself. Player graphics is good but more than a bit weird, and – if you ask me – not on par with the quality you see in other PS3 sports games like FIFA. Players will start the match walking to the court with their tennis bags floating over their shoulders; as you watch their facial expressions you will notice that these humanoids are more than slightly freaky. You know how they say that a human like replica that is good but still imperfect can look scary? Well, if you don’t, Top Spin 4 will introduce you to the concept. It’s not just the players' graphics that are lacking, the crowd doesn’t do much better.
All my grips disappear the minute the ball is served. That is when Top Spin 4 shines, because that is when you notice you are not playing an arcade but rather a simulation that very much feels like the real deal. I noticed that at first when I asked to change the running direction of my player and felt how it takes time and effort. More interestingly, I really got to notice how my player’s preferred style has an effect on the game; further, I got to notice how my opponent’s style has an effect on my game. You can’t just apply the same strategy all the time, with each opponent requiring a different approach and the early stages of the match feeling more like playing in the dark as both you and the computer assess one another. Just like real life!
Things continue to feel real as the game develops. Unlike other console tennis games, playing a set number of tricks on your opponent won’t get you too far; your opponent will quickly adjust to specific patterns and repeated serves. Your opponent will also go through stages, producing a set of wonderful strikes but then going into bouts of easy point losses – till they recover. Just like real life!
With such potential for ecquisite gameplay at hand, you should not be surprised when I tell you of some epic battles my developing characters have had against the likes of Federer and Murray. As games draw out and you get into tie breaks you will notice your player getting tired and visibly sweaty (again, in a freakish kind of a way). Captions will inform you how long the game is lasting and provide other TV like statistics. It won't take long before you get will find yourself at a stage where you actually look forward to those small breaks between serves in order to be able to relax, take a breath, and think your strategy through to the next ball. Did I mention Top Spin 4 is very life like?
The PS3 version supports the PlayStation Move, which I wasn’t able to test. I wonder, though, whether the physical action would add or detract from what is otherwise the best tennis game/simulation I have has the pleasure of playing.
Overall: Top Spin 4 is exactly the type of game the PS3 excels at. It not only looks more real to watch than any other tennis game I tried before, it feels incredibly real to play. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Donkey Kong Country Returns

Lowdown: An imaginative 2D platform game for the Wii.
Review:
I was there when the Game & Watch consoles first came out during the early eighties. I had a few of them and exchanged many with friends, but my favorite was always Donkey Kong – the original one, played across two screens. Those were the days!
Actually, compared with today’s technology those weren’t the days at all. A few years ago, we played Donkey Kong to the death on our DS. With our recent acquisition of a Wii console we thought we’d give our gorilla of choice a try on the big screen through Donkey Kong Country Returns (DKCR).
You may have thought the 2D platform video game is dead, eclipsed by the technology that allows the likes of first person shooters et al. Nintendo would beg to differ, and they plea their case very well with DKCR. In front of us is a brilliantly designed game that packs so much fun and originality in it you would never question the death of the 2D platform genre again!
The plot has these mysterious African drum like demons coming off a volcano and hypnotizing the jungle into submission. They can’t control our gorilla and his little mate, though, which gives us the opportunity to become gorillas as we jump across jungle hurdles and shake the Wii controller to create our own rumble in the jungle effects. Originality comes mainly from the occasional innovation, such as riding rhino, being shot from a cannon or flying a rocker; extra originality comes from being able to utilize Donkey Kong’s little gorilla friend’s jetpack while on single player mode. The cooperative two player mode allows the two differently sized gorillas to be played separately with similar effective powers. Things are so imaginatively rich and carefully designed you don’t even realize DKCR is a 2D platform game, a format that otherwise had its heydays decades ago.
Yes, there are similar games to DKCR around, most notably Little Big Planet and its sequel on the PS3. However, as a veteran Little Big Planet player I can attest the PS3 game cannot compete with the technically inferior Wii game when it comes to originality and sheer enjoyment; Little Big Planet’s only genuine advantage is in its customization and personalization options, as well as the ability to play user generated contents from the Internet.
Still, the number of worlds our Donkey Kong heroes have to traverse in their quest to free their jungle is extensive. Given the uniqueness of each level (I like the one that takes place during sunset in particular, rendering everything as silhouettes) I would say there is good replay value with DKCG.
By far the biggest issue I have had with DKCG is its non forgiving, tough nature. For a start, make too many little mistakes or one big mistake and you’ll have to restart from the last check point; in my book these checkpoints are rather too far apart. More importantly, there are no difficulty level adjustments, and I found that as I progressed through the levels I got stuck on certain challenges more and more often. I’ll admit to it: I am not the world’s greatest video games player in terms of skill, but that is exactly why I appreciate games that adjust their difficulty to my skills so much more. Sadly, DKCR is not a game that can boast such capabilities. What it does offer is help clearing out levels on which you die too much (six times in a row or so) by taking control, turning Donkey Kong into gray, and finishing the level for you. Thus you can progress instead of getting eternally stuck; however, that artificial progression does nothing to improve your satisfaction with the game.
The sheer toughness of DKCR could be placed entirely on the player’s shoulders to grapple with. As in, each time you die it is clearly your fault for doing something wrong. Still, are we here to feel guilty for our sins or are we here to have fun, Nintendo?
Don’t get me wrong. Fun we had, and plenty of it. As with Super Mario Galaxy 2, Nintendo can clearly create worlds this house’s toddler finds immensely more appealing than anything he has ever seen on the PS3 over the years. His emotional attachment levels to these games is unparalleled, and speaks volumes in explaining how the low tech Wii managed to dominate the console market for as long as it did/does.
Overall: Spectacularly imaginative, but sadly also mildly frustrating. 3.5 out of 5 stars.