Saturday, 29 October 2011

Due Date

Lowdown: A normal guy is forced to hitch a car ride across the USA with an eccentric guy.
Review:
The commercial success of The Hangover meant the formula is bound to be replicated one way or another and rather quickly. I did not expect the replication to come from the hands of The Hangover’s own director, but Due Date’s Todd Phillips proved me wrong (that said, since Due Date he also made a more conventional sequel to The Hangover).
Due Date stars Robert Downey Jr. as Peter, a seemingly normal person trying to catch a flight from Atlanta back to his pregnant wife (Michelle Monaghan wasted on another minor role). On his way to the airport he bumps, literally, into Ethan (Zach Galifianakis of Hangover fame); soon after he’s bumped off his flight home under suspicion of terrorism and put on the No Flight list as a direct result of Ethan’s eccentric behavior. With his bags, wallet and everything else aboard the plane flying home, Peter is left with no choice but hitch a ride with Ethan in his rental car.
Ethan is a would be actor with aspirations, a drug addiction and all sorts of other eccentricities; he is not the world’s most rational person. Peter is a guy with a burning need to get back home. The two don’t mix together well, which results in Due Date’s chemistry formula: a road trip in which the trippers don’t get along but are still glued together by need. As can be expected they get closer and farther apart throughout the film as if we are watching the graphic representation of y = sin(x).
The Hangover formula dictates crazy things happening, and crazy things do happen. Peter gets beaten by a disabled Western Union clerk as well as by the child of a drug dealer (Juliette Lewis). When the two heroes are forced to spend the night in their car, Peter discovers that Ethan’s way of falling asleep involves masturbating for 35 minutes. You catch the drift.
Does it all work? Sort of; Due Date is a passable film. It passes not because of the crazy formula or the occasional laughs but rather because of Downey Jr. being the great actor that he is. I mean, the guy seems capable of doing everything, and indeed everything is what he does here.
Best scene: The scene where Peter is neutralized on board a plane due to him explaining to Ethan that he should not be using words like "bomb" on board a plane is hilarious. It is hilarious mainly because it is entirely plausible; after all, we are living in a society happy to impose Patriot Acts upon itself without much questioning. Indeed, the crowd cheering after the air marshal shoots Peter down says a lot about us, a society where far too many of us are perfectly happy with porn scanners being installed at airports despite the hard evidence their contribution to air travel safety is dubious at best.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray through and through. That said, Due Date is worth watching on Blu-ray for the sake of its Grand Canyon scenes alone.
Overall: If the film emphasized the development of the unlikely friendship better than it emphasized its crazy aspects I would have given it more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

The Illusionist

Lowdown: A magician in early 20th century Vienna fights a prince for the love of a duchess.
Review:
2006 brought us two A list films concerning magicians, both of high star power gauge. The Prestige ended up the more famous, but I was still curious about the also-ran The Illusionist. My main source of attraction was Edward Norton, whom only a few years ago I considered one of the best contemporary American actors around but who seemed to have faded in recent years. Now that I watched The Illusionist, it seems to me as if the story of that film is the story of Norton’s fading.
We are set back to early 20th century Vienna, where a young teen befriends and falls in love with a would be duchess. Alas, class differences mean they are separated by force. Decades later, that teen returns to Vienna, referring to himself as Eisenheim (Norton), and making his living out of performing some amazing magic tricks. Personally, I failed to comprehend how the crowd couldn’t see those for the rather cheap digital effects they were.
Eisenham's tricks are so flashy they attract the attention of the head of police (Paul Giamatti), who in turn attracts the attention of the crown prince (Rufus Sewell), who in turn comes to see a show for himself, and in turn volunteers his duchess fiancĂ© (Jessica Biel) to aid Eisenheim in performing a particularly dangerous trick involving encounters with the dead. Guess what? On stage, the two realize they are each other’s forgotten love. Only that now there is a powerful crown prince in between them; a prince with the power of the police on his side, a prince also known for treating his women brutally. It would take special magic to bring the two lovers together and overcome the rational inquisitive efforts of Giamatti’s lot.
There can be no doubt as to The Illusionist feeling heavily contrived and quite predictable, despite its sort of an M. Night Shyamalan style twisty ending. However, I strongly suspect the film’s very poor presentation over Channel 9 GEM’s supposedly high definition presentation must have contributed a lot to my dissatisfaction with everything The Illusionist had to give. Everything was made to look worse than it is: Norton’s acting often looked pathetic, as when he grieves a personal tragedy that befell him. In a film that fails to utilize the supernatural card in order to disassociate itself from the regular template, the quality of presentation was crucial.
Worst scene: The big twist at the end is revealed to us through a vision in Giamatti’s head. Problem is, it is revealed to us only in that form. Us viewers are expected to ponder for ourselves whether the vision is true or not, which is rather unsatisfying. Frankly, and particularly with the way that conclusion is presented, I was just happy the film was over.
Overall: A lacklustre affair that wastes a lot of good talent. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Black Swan

Lowdown: The struggle of a promising dancer to star in Swan Lake.
Review:
I am well aware of holding a minority opinion here, but I cannot say I like director Darren Aronofsky’s work. There are the films I detest, like The Fountain, and there are films like The Wrestler that I consider alright despite the director and not because of him. Black Swan belongs to the latter: a fine film that, in my opinion, could have been much better done under the helm of a director less interested in generating an aura of mysticism.
Black Swan is dominated by Natalie Portman’s performance of Nina, a ballet dancer with much potential that never really rose to the heights required to make her the star of the show. We quickly find out Nina’s constantly held in a childlike state by her possessive mother (Barbara Hershey). Mother is not Nina’s only problem: there is a lot of competition and jealously between the various members of her big time New York ballet band. Notable band members include a Winona Ryder representing the now too old queen of the ballet for whose position the others are fighting, and a Mila Kunis representing Nina’s chief opposition: not as technically capable as our Nina, but full of some elusive dark spirit that turn her performances into passionate ones.
Into this mixture enters Thomas (Vincent Cassel, one of the rare examples of French actors I could never stand) as the band’s artistic director on the lookout for the new star on his next project – a bare naked production of Swan Lake. Competition ensues, and Nina finds she has to deal with her “inner-self” problems if she wants to make the cut and turn into the band’s new queen.
The real story behind Black Swan is not the story of Swan Lake’s production but rather the story of how the truly devoted artist becomes the art they are trying to produce. As in, there is a part of us in anything we produce, but there is a lot of us in the stuff we are passionate about and make true effort at. Without blooping too much of Black Swan, the film makes its point by drawing parallels between the story of Nina’s own life and the story of Swan Lake. My personal problem with Black Swan is to do with the technical methods in which these parallels are made: Aronofsky does not shy from scenes where the camera moves and shakes so badly I almost wanted to throw up; he does not shy from cheap “make you jump” moments that one expects to find in B grade horror flicks; and he seems to love sticking in all sorts of mysterious and incomprehensible scenes in between. True, some of those turn out to make some sense later, but it cannot be said I like the technique; I don’t like being toyed with just for the sake of the director being able to feel good about himself. In other words, I don’t like Aronofsky’s style.
That said, Black Swan is an interesting film to watch. Between the music, the ballet performances, the more conventional acting performances and the good story, the result is definitely worth watching.
Technical assessment:
There is something about the look of the picture in Black Swan’s Blu-ray that I didn’t like. I suspect it could be something to do with the particular film or digital technology used to shoot the film with.
The sound of Black Swan deserves much applause. Its depiction of the music from Swan Lake, though interrupted by dialog and various sound effects, is simply great – probably the best reproduction of full scale classical orchestral music in a film, as far as I remember. Definitely worth watching/listening to via the Blu-ray format that offers the best possible sound reproduction there currently is.
Overall: Like the contrasting characters it depicts, Black Swan created mixed feelings with this reviewer. Still, it is a good film worthy of 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Wild Target

Lowdown: A hitman falls for the woman he’s supposed to kill.
Review:
We’ve seen that movie before in various guises: of all the people a guy should fall for, he falls for the one he’s forbidden to fall for. I suspect the formula was old at the time Shakespeare wrote Romeo and Juliet, but as far as I’m concerned the formula was never as fresh and as entertaining as it is with Wild Target.
Victor Maynard (Bill Nighy) runs the family business and has been running it very successfully for years. It’s at the top of its industry, actually, which is fine as long as you don’t mind it being a hitman’s service. The secret to Maynard’s success is in his lack of emotional involvement with anything in life, or rather anything other than his possessive mother.
On the opposite side we have Rose (Emily Blunt), a kleptomaniac who goes a bit too far and steals from Ferguson (Rupert Everett). The latter, being an ex real estate agent, won’t lie down; he hires Maynard’s services to take care of business. Instead of doing what is expected of him, what he's always done, Maynard trips; for the first time in his life he feels love. Thus instead of killing Rose he ends up protecting her, with the aid of a nobody they stumble upon on the way but which Maynard suspects to have true hitman potential (a Rupert Grint that’s probably working hard to shake the image of Harry Potter’s Ron from the rest of his acting career).
Into the picture steps Dixon (Martin Freeman), the hitman hired by Ferguson to finish the business off. Dixon is and has always been the second best, but does he stand a genuine chance with Maynard going off his rails? And does Maynard stand a chance with Rose in the first place?
As mentioned, there is nothing here we haven’t seen before. Yet despite the obvious lack of Hollywood grade budget, Wild Target is hilarious and fresh. Correction: it is incredibly hilarious and fresh. So how does it manage to pull the trick?
I think it is safe to say it starts off with a very cleverly written script, the type that can take a well versed story and make it sound smart and original. As much as I credit the script, though, I will give most credit to the cast. This all British cast is simply wonderful through and through: I don’t need to waste words on Nighy’s talents (he’s the reason I wanted to watch the film in the first place), but Emily Blunt, whom I recently fell for in The Adjustment Bureau, proves the latter was no fluke; she is an extremely talented actress, and like the polished Nighy she has great comedy talent in the timing department. There’s no point in spending words on Everett or Freeman’s talents, so let’s not do that, but I will add that Grint, seemingly the weakest link in the chain, is far from failing this affair.
Further credit goes to director Jonathan Lynn. To be honest, Lynn’s previous direction work did not capture me (e.g., Clue); to his credit, though, Lynn is one of the main men behind Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. That is, he knows his way around comedy, and this time around he applies his knowledge very well. The result is an exquisite and unassuming delight, a grand way to spend the night at home with a Blu-ray.
Best scene: To give you a fine example of how scenes can be made effective without splashing much cash, Wild Target features a car chase that has the camera stationary and set wide in front of a narrow lane. The lane itself occupies a small part of the screen's width. Enter the action: All we see is the occasional goodie/baddie car zooming across the narrow lane from one side to the other for a brief second, going almost unnoticeable. Add some funny sound effects and you have a very entertaining car chase on the cheap!
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray looked very natural to me and devoid of any blemishes. The sound department was rather too subtle, but sound is cleverly used throughout for great effect.
Overall: Delightful British humor makes Wild Target one the most enjoyable film I’ve seen in months. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 23 October 2011

EA Sports Active 2

Lowdown: A complete personal training program.
Review:
Couch potatoes such as yours truly have a problem we need to contend with. How, exactly, are we to take up exercising when, you know, it’s such a pain? Clearly the problem applies to a large number of people but solutions are left wanting. One possible answer, offered by EA Sports Active 2, is the gamification of exercises: turning the painful affair into something you do through a video games console, in the comfort of your home, might make one less of a potato. At $20 asking price for the Wii version, I thought Active 2 was worth a try.
Unlike most games that come in a DVD jewel box, Active 2 comes in a much larger cardboard box. It contains the usual jewel box, but also several instructions booklet, an exercise resistance band, and the pieces de resistance: a sensor you strap on your hand, a sensor you strap on your knee, and a wireless receiver that plugs into one of the Wii’s USB inputs to receive those sensors' inputs. Together, the last three allow the game to provide you with feedback on your exercises; in particular, it allows the game to show your avatar performing the exercises on the screen. Batteries are included, by the way, although mine were obviously on the older side of things.
The first thing I noticed, even before sticking the game disc in the console, is the quality of the attached instruction booklets. Or rather the lack of it: they tell you have to pair your straps to your Wii, which is fine, but in general they are not much more than a lengthy disclaimer notice. They don’t even tell you how to make a resistance band our of the provided raw ingredients (two handles and a plastic strap); I had to use this video to learn how to do that.
As you start the game you create yourself a new exercising Avatar. The options are quite limited: Active 2 forced me to play/exercise as a black person with hair, neither of which are true. On the positive side, it's nice to sail this particular ship of the imagination!
Next on the agenda is the selection of your personal trainer. You can choose between a guy claiming to be tough and a woman; I chose the woman. We’ll get back to her shortly. You move on to select your exercise program: you can choose individual exercises, but the whole strength of Active 2 lies in its ability to offer you weeks long exercise programs that build your fitness gradually and are offered under several difficulty levels. I chose to start things easy, and I have to say it felt as if Active 2 read my mind.
Having used Active 2 for exercising over a good few weeks now I can attest to be quite impressed. There is quite a large variety of exercises to perform, and while the majority is mundane some of them are quite innovative in the gamification department. Take my four year old’s favorite as an example: mountain biking. This exercise has you crouched on your pretend bicycle, jumping from time to time to avoid onscreen obstacles, and running quickly to pedal up hills. Most of the exercises do not require the Wii remote, although some (like boxing) do.
Individual exercises apart, the exercise programs themselves appear to be well thought out. The number of repetitions increase as your exercise program progresses through the calendar, and the exercises themselves get harder: what started with push ups from knees turns into proper push ups, etc. All exercises programs start with effective warm ups and end with cool downs relevant to the particular set of exercises performed that day. Indeed, you will find that one day Active 2 will focus on your cardio while the next day it will focus on your lower body.
The game keeps progress of your performance. The hand strap collects your pulse, which is constantly displayed. It is not the most reliable pulse meter ever, but I see it as good enough. Using the metered pulse and your profile details, Active 2 calculates how many calories you burn as your exercise: I always find it disheartening to see how burning so few take so much effort. On the positive side, seeing the figures prevents me from assuming I can obliterate the contents of my fridge just because I did some exercising.
As one can expect, there are some genuine advantages to working out with the aid of a games console. There is the gamification factor that adds some attraction to the process, there is the cost factor (this is a personal training game that is available for less than a single real personal training session), there is the extra flexibility that comes from being able to exercise at home whenever suits you best, and there is the fact you don’t have to feel bad in front of all the gym’s regular Arnold Schwarzeneggers when you can’t even lift a kilo above your head. On the other hand, exercising this way at home meant that my wife can see exactly how unfit her husband is. Personally, one major advantage was my four year old being truly addicted to the game, often acting as my exercise partner; that certainly adds to my motivation to come back for the next exercise session.
Active 2 is not without its shortcomings, though. I found these started with the sensors, which often proved a bit less sensitive than they claim to be. It's not just the occasional inaccuracy of pulse readouts; rather, its the sensors' inability to detect subtle yet critical movement, which too often meant I was performing the exercise as per the instructions yet my onscreen avatar was left stuck somewhere in the middle. On some cases I managed to cheat my way out by shaking my foot/hand; on others I had to order the Wii to go ahead to the next exercise. Regardless of which option you go with, you're bound to get knocked off your exercise's rhythm. Further on the sensors, be advised they are quite picky about their orientation (wearing them upside down would pave you a path to exercising frustration), and they're also quite a pain when their batteries run down but no one bothers telling you about it.
My next gripe is with the personal trainer. For a start, I found her annoyingly politically correct. For example, she tells you to work on your leg muscles, hands muscles etc but when it comes to your ass she's suddenly talking about "glutes", sending me to the dictionary on the way. However, the main problem with the trainer is that she won't stop talking and she keeps on repeating the same expressions again and again. I want to commit murder each time she tells me that "this is all for you" or that I should "give it a hundred and ten percent"; but she's not only repetitive, her comments are often stupid. Add it all up, the political correctness, the repetitiveness, the constant chatter and the overall stupidity and you would have to agree the instructor is a pain in the glutes. So much so I suspect that her obvious American accent is used for Jihadist training camps' recruitment. If you don't have anything against Americans before Active 2 hits you, you're guaranteed to hate them afterwards. All curtsy of one talkative instructor!
Overall: The amount of value that can be derived out of EA Sports Active 2 is a very personal affair. With me it had a huge effect: the game can be annoying, but damn it - it works! Given that the game can be yours for $20, postage and batteries included, I suggest giving it a try. I'm giving it 4 out of 5 stars.
Note #1: EA Sports Active 2 is also available for the Xbox 360, where it uses the Kinect, as well as the PS3. I chose to buy the more primitive Wii version despite owning a PS3 because I do not want to invest in a PlayStation Move kit.
Note #2: EA Sports Active 2 includes social media elements. You can upload your performances to EA's servers, where they can be tracked and compared with others. Not only that, you can use the facilities to manage your diet, too. Personally, I find that my privacy is upon intruded enough without EA providing additional insults. However, if you're the type that thinks Facebook is a gift to humanity then perhaps you will enjoy these features, too.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

A Briefer History of Time by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

Lowdown: A short review of theoretical physics’ history.
Review:
Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time is one of the best selling popular science books ever. A Briefer History of Time, co-written by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, attempts to do the same with a slight twist: first of all, it is more up to date, published in 2005 as opposed to 1998; second, it attempts to be easier read by being both shorter and by avoiding elaborations which the average reader may have difficulties understanding.
The main goal of A Briefer History of Time is to present to its reader a simple and easily digestible review of modern physics, including subject matter such as relativity, quantum mechanics and string theory. In order to get there the book starts off with the basics. That is, Greek philosophers’ physics, progressing through Newtonian physics as it takes the reader down the path to modern age. Coupled with diagrams and easy to understand explanations that manage to avoid math altogether, A Briefer History of Time certainly achieves its primary goal. It has to be noted that it never deleves too deeply into its subject matter; you won’t know quantum physics after reading Briefer History, but you will have an idea what quantum physics is about and what its key ideas are.
Brief as the book is, I did notice how my reading speed got severely reduced the deeper I got into the book: while the first “trivial” chapters are easy to understand and familiar from my high school days, subject matter such as quantum physics always requires an extra thought or two.
The authors’ ability to put so much into so little has to be commended. However, their insistence on mentioning god on every second page annoyed me more than a bit. As in, sure – we don’t know everything there is to know, but why do we have to draw the god card whenever we encounter difficulties? Obviously, as Hawking & Co themselves mention, science is and always will be a work in progress; we cannot expect to have all the answers. The authors' insistence on going back to godly themes reminded me of Newton: unable to explain why the solar system is flat, he attributed that to god; today we know the phenomenon is entirely natural. Indeed, thus far no one ever came up with proof for the supernatural; and even if someone does, and I greatly doubt that, then the chances of this supernatural having anything to do with the gods our society currently favors is very, but very, close to zero.
Overall: A fine achievement in popularizing science for the masses and an excellent introduction to where modern physics currently is and where it aspires to be. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 17 October 2011

Jesus Camp

Lowdown: Following specific American children being indoctrinated with evangelical Christianity.
Review:
Given my personal opinions on matters of religion, 2006's Jesus Camp was a documentary I wanted to watch for a few years now. ABC gave me the opportunity to do so recently. In actual fact, they've opened a brand new movie watching world for me with Jesus Camp, for that particular film ended up being the very first film we watched via Internet streaming. We watched Jesus Camp through ABC's Australia only iView website playing on our PlayStation3; at 400mb for an hour and a half long film quality was wanting, but at least we did not have any reception problems (the reason why we went to iView in the first place).
Technicalities aside, Jesus Camp is a documentary that is aiming to communicate the phenomenon where little American children are being indoctrinated to the evangelical stream of Christianity. According to Jesus Camp, there are 80 million evangelical Christians in the USA today (out of a population of some 300 million), and their numbers are growing; Jesus Camp tries to expose the fabric of that group's being to the rest of the world. The exposure is done by exposing the viewer to two disagreeing opinions.
On one side we have a radio presenter presenting himself as a sane Christian and a typical American. The guy is afraid/worried about the evangelical movement, to the point of not hesitating to open his mouth and say what he thinks. On the other hand, and through the film's majority, we watch a select few children as they go through evangelical indoctrination: from home schooling with their parents telling them that science is bad and that global warming is a vicious lie, to the even more extreme case of children camps with a condensed agenda of imprinting the children with the evangelical agenda.
The beauty of Jesus Camp lies in it not taking sides. Personally, I consider that radio presenter to be a bit of a religious nut, which meant that the scenes from the children camp were utterly terrifying depictions of first rate child abuse. However, I suspect that when seen through the eyes of an evangelical Christian they might consider perfectly natural and even positive. As hard as it may seem to me to see those scenes in a positive light, my personal encounters with evangelical Christians at the office have led me to understand that anything is possible when it comes to the extremes religion can take otherwise ordinary people to.
That said, there can be no denying that those indoctrination processes are objectively horrible. Even if you do not count making children cry and suffer in order to indoctrinate them a bad thing, surely lying to children is a bad thing. When you tell a child they have to be on Jesus side, whatever that means, because children in Palestinian schools are being taught to become suicide bombers, then you are lying. First of all, there is no country called Palestine; there is the West Bank and the Gaza Strip [for the record, if it was up to me there would have been a Palestinian state for many years now]. Second, as someone relatively familiar with this subject matter, I can attest that while I am very worried about the hatred many Palestinian children are being indoctrinated with, none of them are actually brought up to be suicide bombers. Besides, the argument that global warming is a left wing conspiracy is the product of lunacy; the fact there is a solid link between global warming denialism and religion speaks loudly against the virtues of the latter.
By far the most important question raised by Jesus Camp is to do with the right of parents to indoctrinate their children with whatever beliefs they may hold. Jesus Camp makes its point by showing us what can happen at that extreme when there is nothing to hold parents back with. Personally, I value the truth the most, and as truth I define the things that we have evidence for; in effect, those are the things with confirmed scientific theories. No religion has any proper evidence supporting it (for example, any evidence that a member of another religion will be forced to accept), therefore no religion cannot claim to be true. Given this universal truth, I am of the opinion that the indoctrination of children with religion, whether through their parents or through the state, is a crime committed against the children. That is why I am against special religious education classes in Australian state schools and why I am against state sponsored chaplains roaming our schools under the guise of professional consultants. Jesus Camp proves my point by showing what the other side's logic can do when taken to the extreme.
That said, some clarification is required concerning the nature of the crimes. In today's world, the majority of human parents are too ignorant to know any better than to pass the religious beliefs their parents dumped them with onwards; one cannot expect these parents to teach their kids about science. I suppose this only goes to show that human civilization still has a long way to go in its improvement path. The first steps to be taken, as far as I can tell, should be taken by the state ensuring its education system is worthwhile; alas, what we are seeing in the USA, where the denial of both evolution and climate change is rampant, is rather worrisome. Sadly, Australia seems to be playing "follow the leader" there.
Best scenes: Any of the scenes where the children cry as they suffer in the way Jesus supposedly did.
Overall: An interesting documentary that is definitely worth viewing. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Robots and Empire by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: Two robots find themselves in the thick of galactic power struggles.
Review:
Isaac Asimov is probably the most important author of fiction in my life and certainly one of my all time favorite authors. His most famous series of books are the Foundation series and the Robot series. Of these, it's the Robots happen to be the bread and butter of the books I grew up on, and of these the series of books starring plainclothesman Elijah Baley are probably my all time favorite series of science fiction work. Those books started with the Caves of Steel, moved on with The Naked Sun, and much later had Asimov write a couple more: Robots of Dawn and Robots and Empire, which represents the beginning of Asimov’s attempt to link his Robot world with his Foundation world.
Regardless of where Robots and Empire stands, the book started off in a very favorable position with me: although it does not feature the character of Elijah Baley anymore (other than in mentioning and in the occasional flashback), it does sport my favorite fictional robot: the more human than human Robot Daneel Olivaw, Baley’s former partner detective. Plus it features a robot that quickly grew up on me, the elusive but quite non human Giskard. As far as I’m concerned you can keep your C3PO and R2D2 to yourselves; these two are the real thing.
So what are my robots up to this time? Taking place some two hundred years following Robots of Dawn, Robots and Empire takes place in a world where humanity is divided in two: there are the Spacers, made of humans that left earth eons ago, settled some fifty planets and then settled down into a sedate lifestyle featuring an average longevity of some four hundred years and multitudes of robots looking after people’s every needs. On the other side there are the people of the Earth, living their short lives in their caves of steel, but – as a direct result of Baley’s efforts back in Robots of Dawn – also free to settle planets of their own, thus spawning the Settler: a human not afraid of venturing and the tough life that venturing brings. Oh, the Earth side of the equation does not like robots.
In this world we are reintroduced to Gladia, the subject of Baley’s detective work in the two prequels, a middle aged Spacer (two hundred years plus old). Her tranquil and frankly boring life is interrupted when she is asked to accompany a Settler to Solaria, a recently abandoned Spacer world, by virtue of her potential familiarity with the world (Gladia, as readers of the series would know, came from Solaria but left it for Aurora). For reasons the elude even her Gladia embarks on this quest, accompanied by her principle robots – Daneel and Giskard.
It is the latter two who are the true heroes of the book. This time around it is Daneel who assumes the role of chief detective, previously reserved to Baley. By applying Baley style logic and lots of very philosophical thinking, heavily influenced by Asimov’s famous three laws of robotics that are embedded into them, our robots realize they are in the middle of a conspiracy that could shake the balance of power between Spacer and Earthman, cause lots of human misery, and thus affect the robots' ability to conform with the first law of robotics (“A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm”). With that in their minds, our robots embark on a quest of their own, a quest that has them constantly in the shadows of their human masters but, in effect, has them running the show. Or, to tie things with the Foundation series, it has the robots slowly establishing the groundwork of psychohistory: Asimov’s idea of a science that could allow the future history of humanity to be calculated and manipulated.
I couldn’t avoid marvelling at every passage in Robots and Empire. Asimov’s lovely game of introducing us readers to a situation and then having that situation methodologically analyzed by his robots is pure delight as far as philosophical exercises go; I could not avoid trying to read the book slowly so I could prolong the pleasure. There is the over reliance on moving back and forth through time in order to keep the suspense going and there is that certain artificiality that comes with forcibly, albeit delicately, trying to tie the robots world with the Foundation world. I was perfectly willing to forgive Asimov for those minor issues, though; my constant marveling at the careful way in which my favorite robots unravelled what the essence of being human is covered all blemishes quite sufficiently.
Overall: Asimov is definitely my favorite. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Every Which Way But Loose

Lowdown: A fist fighter road tripping after a woman gets entangled with a biker gang as well as the police.
Review:
There was a time when I did not appreciate Clint Eastwood. That time is long gone – Unforgiven took care of that – but the truth is that for the majority of the eighties I didn’t think much of Eastwood. The reason is simple: films like Every Which Way But Loose.
When I was growing up, my natural association for the name Clint Eastwood was “the man from the monkey films”. In actual fact, 1978’s Every Which Way But Loose (as well as its sequel, 1980’s Any Which Way You Can) sport an ape as opposed to a monkey - a young orangutan to be more accurate. Regardless of species pin pointing, Every Which Way But Loose’s ape serves as not much more than an ornament. It did, however, cause me to watch the film together with my four year old, working under the assumption he will like the ape. Let the record show I’m a cool parent, letting my boy watch an M rated film with me.
The plot – if you could call this sad excuse for collecting a bunch of not so exciting, at least by contemporary standards, action scenes – has us following Philo (Eastwood). Philo is a truck driver by day and a prize fist fighter during breaks he takes through the course of an average day. Nothing can beat Philo in a fist fight, not even a gang of Neo Nazi bikers he somehow gets entangled with and not even the policemen he starts a fight with at the pub. Sure, his adversaries are not model citizens, but Philo himself is not that great either, even if he is meant to be portrayed as a character of simple charm.
While pubbing, Philo encounters a female singer, Lynn (Sondra Locke). They have their short lived affair, after which Lynn’s jealous boyfriend comes back at Philo with vengeance; this results in Lynn leaving and Philo deciding to follow her. Follow her he does, dragging his friends (humans and ape) with him as well as the revenge seeking baddies that follow him.
That is pretty much all there is to Every Which Way But Loose. It’s badly scripted and badly done, sporting very “old style” action and humor that must have lost its edge ages ago. I suffered watching this simpletons’ movie all the way to its end, and even the four year old couldn’t care much for it. During the love making scene he did ask when the ads are going to finish, probably supplying the best joke the film could manage.
Best scene: The biker gang attacks Ma’s house. It is unclear whether Ma is actually Philo’s mother, but in general they share their residence). Regardless, the bikers find themselves running for cover after Ma draws out her big shotgun and literally blows some of the bikes away. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so predictable; on the other hand, it raises the question of why the vicious bikers didn’t bother carrying guns themselves. Let us regard this as a mild to substantial reliability problem given that various other characters do not seem to have a particular problem conjuring guns at times of need.
Overall: The quality of this film is roughly on par with your average A Team episode from the eighties. I’m giving it 1 out of 5 stars as I find it hard to comprehend how such a film could have ever been as successful as this one was at the box office, some 33 years ago.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Four Lions

Lowdown: A group of four utterly useless Muslim Brits plans their act of terror.
Review:
The people committing some of the worst terrorist acts in the USA and the UK were people that lived in those countries for significant durations. In particular, those responsible for the 2005 London suicide bombing attacks on public transport were proper Brits, born there and all. So where did those Brits truly come from? What were their lives like? Four Lions attempts to provide an answer to this question, but it does so in a unique way. You see, Four Lions is a comedy. It’s a black comedy that takes us into a parallel universe and provides its own background explanations for those London terrorists. It goes to such extreme ridicule with its explanations that I found myself simultaneously laughing off at the comedy while being unable to avoid noticing just how real and authentic the message behind the laughter is.
Perhaps the best indicator of what you can expect out of Four Lions comes from the fact the film was directed by Christopher Morris, of The IT Crowd fame. We follow a group of Muslims Brits, some of them equipped with a beard and some quite indistinguishable from the British stereotype other than their skin tone. That group has one thing on its mind, and that is the need to show the rest of the world that Islam will not be subdued; the problem is, they don’t really have a mind. It’s hard to imagine a group of people more lacklustre than these are, yet – through the deficiencies of those around them and of the authorities – our group finds itself at Pakistani terrorist training camps and on its own way towards its own act of terrorism. That is, if they can decide who they want to blow.
There are jokes aplenty. The classic example is the video the group is making in the classic manner where the suicide bomber gives the post bombing world his two cents. Only that the gun the would be suicide bomber is holding is a small kids’ AK-47 like toy. However, in between the silly jokes there is some serious stuff hiding. For example, when Four Lions’ protagonists argue their car’s sparkplugs are Jewish you know they’re dumb, but you’re also made to think about the anti-Semitism that is rampant with Muslim groups to very worrying levels. Without giving away too many spoilers, I found Four Lions excelling in this department of satire that touches on reality, and on the reality of the 2005 bombings, to unprecedented levels. By the same token I thought it went too far with the silly jokes, as in going past the point after which more silly is just pure silly. I guess that equilibrium is too delicate and too personal for the film to accurately hit home with every viewer.
Personally, I found the characters around our nutty group to be the most interesting. The general British public, as it is portrayed in the film, is simply unable to fathom what it is that is going on in our group’s heads, where they’re coming from etc – the exact questions Four Lions is trying to answer. In particular there is the otherwise normal looking family of one of the would be terrorists, the wife and the child that know what the husband is planning and yet – despite their seemingly sane and normal appearance – do nothing to stop him. If that was the family of a real would be terrorist I would be quite worried; given the fact some of the 2005 bombers came from similarly normal looking families, I am quite worried.
Best scene: There are many good terrorism jokes to pick on with Four Lions, including the likes of suicide crows. The one that made me laugh the most was when the would be terrorists kept shaking their heads while outdoors in order to prevent clear photos of their faces from being taken.
Technical assessment: Four Lions is made to feel like a bit of a reality show, hand held camera and all, and it shows on the poor picture and the way too loud dialog of this DVD. You won’t be demoing you home theater with this one.
Overall: Not the best film ever, but one has to praise the original approach. 3.5 out of 5 stars for a film that should leave you thinking long after you’ve stopped watching it.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Monsters

Lowdown: A man and a woman have to pass through an alien infested area in order to return from Mexico to the USA.
Review:
Here’s a philosophical question for you: can a science fiction film worthy of finding its way to Blu-rays be created on a very tight budget and still be good? Alright, maybe that question is not that deep, with films as good as Moon already giving us an answer. Monsters is far from being Moon good, but it’s a very decent science fiction film by its own rights. And it was obviously made on a very low budget.
In the not too distant future, a satellite crashing back on earth brings alien viruses back with it. These quickly develop into monsters that infest the area around the USA-Mexico border, giving a lot of things for the American army to occupy itself with and leading the USA to erect a huge wall along its border to prevent monsters’ infiltration. As the slides informing the viewer that just sat down to watch Monster of the above fade, you will meet Monsters’ two chief protagonists: Andrew (Scoot McNairy), a photojournalist anxious to get a proper monster shot; and Sam (Whitney Able), the attractive daughter of the Andrew’s rich publisher. Both are American, and both are currently in Mexico. However, with a large military operation about to start, an operation that will prevent the about to get married Sam from returning home any time soon, Andrew is ordered to abandon his photography and make sure Sam comes back home as soon as possible.
While Andrew is attracted to Sam, and while there are signs Sam is not particularly in love with her soon to be husband, he is less than excited with the task of chaperoning a woman away from his monsters. Through one accident and another, the pair find themselves stuck in third world circumstances that imply their homecoming would have to expose them to more of the infected area’s monsters than they would have liked.
Contrary to expectations, Monsters is not a horror film. There was one entirely artificial “make you jump” moment when a boat’s motor is started, but other than that you rarely see the aliens. The Aliens you do see are the product of cheap digital effects, of a quality roughly similar to the very first film sporting digital effects: James Cameron’s The Abyss. It is clear the aliens are there to represent the unfamiliar stranger on the other side of the fence rather than monsters per se. It is also clear the entire story of Americans, Mexicans, large walls along the border and monsters in between is an analogy to the current state of affairs along the USA-Mexico border.
Monsters takes pride in taking us over the wall and showing us what is on the other side: people like us; people suffering of what “our” army does to them as it bombs innocent people while trying to get the monsters; and monsters with their own type of beauty. Shape aside the monsters are probably not different to us and in many ways they are wondrous creatures.
Although I cannot claim much familiarity with the situation between the USA and the Mexicans trying to enter it, I can easily see how the same message applies across many other similar scenarios. Just recently I came back from Israel, where among other experiences I was driven across a relatively new road ("Road #6"), a road that goes right alongside the wall built to divide Israelis from potential West Bank hotspots. Then there is the matter of boat people arriving at Australia and the way the phenomenon is exaggerated by power hungry politicians, thriving on power generated by basic xenophobia. As Monsters puts it, one has to ask oneself who the real monster is.
As nice as its message is, it has to be said that Monsters is less than the most riveting film ever. Indeed, once you get its point - and that happens pretty early on - it becomes quite predictable.
Best scene: Our heroes try to bargain for a way out of Mexico after Sam's passport has been stolen. Having had similar encounters with authorities lacking any interest in helping me, I could really identify with their plight. One can also identify with the plight of those who are stuck living in those places our heroes are anxious to leave behind.
Technical assessment: There can be no mistaking the cheaper production values on display with this Blu-ray. Cameras are very hand held, lighting is typically limited to natural light, and it shows. Still, when that is taken into account, this is not a bad Blu-ray.
Overall: As a film, I would rate Monsters at 3 stars. However, I'll be generous and hand it 3.5 out of 5 stars for managing to produce a piece of science fiction with a very relevant message out of nothing.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

Little Fockers

Lowdown: The larger family now has to cope with the stresses of raising children.
Review:
First we had Meet the Parents, then we had Meet the Fockers, and now we have Little Fockers. Although the third instalment in the trilogy has Paul Weitz replacing Jay Roach on the director’s seat, all of this franchise’s films share the same key elements. They share Ben Stiller and Robert De Niro. They share a multitude of other A list stars doing minor roles, some even ridiculously minor; stars such as Dustin Hoffman, Barbra Streisand, Owen Wilson, Jessica Alba, Laura Dern and Harvey Keitel. And they share the same humor: playing on the theme of senior Republican De Niro vs. the junior liberal Stiller to create cringe inducing scenes that, frankly, make me smile a tiny bit at best.
So, we met her parents first and met his parents second; what does the third episode bring along? Children. Little Fockers revolves around the tensions of having young children while the world continues as it always has: the need to ensure the children do well at kinder, dealing with competition between the children, the stress that having children is having on the parents and their relationship, the stress of running a household with additional mouths to feed. All of these, combined with a Jessica Alba providing the perceived stimulant for adding betrayal to the list of potential marriage destructors, are at the base of Little Fockers’ plot.
On top of all that stands Robert De Niro’s character as the ex CIA self appointed overseer who is sure Stiller is up to no good when Stiller is generally innocent. That allows Little Fockers to celebrate on De Niro’s established cinematic image, running a stream of Godfather like jokes culminating in Stiller having to inject medicine into De Niro’s dick. Yes, you read it right.
If that and a Barbara Streisand doing an exaggerated Jewish mother’s voice make your day, Little Fockers is a must; for the rest of us it’s a passable comedy we will quickly forget despite having our own real children instigated crises.
Best scene: Probably the best joke Little Fockers has to offer is when De Niro appoints Stiller to act as the large family’s patriarch, or GodFocker the way Di Niro has it. Now, try pronouncing GodFocker aloud a few times and you’ll understand where the film is leading with this joke.
Worst scene: Deepak Chopra making a celebrity appearance. Because it’s Deepak Chopra being celebrated.
Technical assessment: Following on the footsteps of its predecessors, Little Fockers offers the same rather inferior experience. This time around it’s an inferior Blu-ray, with a less than average picture and sound that is generally screen fixated.
Overall: Little Fockers has its tiny moments and its subject matter is often particularly relevant to this parent. I didn’t suffer watching it, yet I find it hard to justify giving it more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Surrogates

Lowdown: A society where people have been replaced by robot surrogates is forced to rethink its ways.
Review:
We live in a society where more and more of us find it easier to get absorbed in our own virtual worlds than it is to interact with the people around us. I started noticing the phenomenon when iPods became popular and people around me enclosed themselves in their own little worlds. Matters further developed with the proliferation of the smartphone. I am not immune myself: I interact with my friends through the virtual world much more than I do in the read world; I even have friends, good ones, whom I never physically met. Now, take this trend forward and imagine a world just like ours, but where all human interaction has been totally replaced by surrogate look-alike robots operated by their human owners from the depths of their dark bedrooms. The world you would imagine wouldn’t be too dissimilar to the world depicted by 2009’s Surrogates.
Is this the eutopic world we should aspire to, a world where everyone looks beautiful (all the robots are designed to look young and attractive), where everyone is unnaturally powerful, where accidents and crime never have an effect? Police detective Tom (Bruce Willis) is not convinced; perhaps it is because he and his wife (Rosamund Pike) did lose a child. An incident where the son of the guy who invented the surrogates (James Cromwell) is killed in bed when his surrogate is attacked, many a kilometer away, does convince him something is wrong. It unravels a major weakness in this whole surrogates affair: if one isn’t safe using a surrogate then what is the point of having a surrogate in the first place?
The problem is that this new weakness of the surrogate based society is too big to be accepted; society is too dependent on surrogate technology. That is why Tom sets out to investigate matters with his partner Peters (Radha Mitchell). Awaiting them is an action adventure with some interesting and thought worthy ideas.
There can be no doubt that Surrogates was heavily inspired by Asimov. The whole concept of a society of people avoiding physical contact and relying on robots was thoroughly explored in books like The Naked Sun; just replace Solaria’s robots with the surrogates, replace the uncomfortable detective Elijah Baley with Bruce Willis, and do the same to the supporting characters. Oh, you can keep James Cromwell doing the exact same role he did at I, Robot; matter of fact, you can keep a lot of the designs from I, Robot, too.
On paper, a film that celebrates Asimov’s ideas should be a film I love. Let the record show I regard The Naked Sun as one of the best books I ever read. However, Surrogates does not reach the peaks Asimov does in his books; it’s not a bad film, but it fails to soar.
One can probably start the blame game with director Jonathan Mostow, who – as with his previous films (U-571, Terminator 3) has a knack for taking highly potent concepts and manufacturing uninspiring results. There are also script weaknesses here and there, things that don’t make sense, stuff that works for the goodies but not for the baddies, and other sorts of small touches that good science fiction films do well to avoid but the lesser ones seem to drown in. Even the basics are flawed: I can understand why people hide in their bedrooms, but why do they have to look so wrinkled and dead like as they do in Surrogates? Things like that just break the suspension of disbelief.
Add to that the excessively strong anti progress and anti technology atmosphere that Surrogate seems to preach. Asimov, in contrast, wrote books where technology wasn’t the enemy but rather pointed at issues with the way technology is implemented. I therefore argue that Surrogates is wasted potential. It’s a waste of a good story and a waste of some good actors’ talents (cough Rosamund Pike cough).
Best scene: The scenes of mass surrogate “deaths” are quite spectacular. Them being set in a modern day city, rather than a futuristic one, renders the scenes so much more effective.
Technical assessment: Again we have to suffer deliberately matted colors in an otherwise good Blu-ray.
Overall: Surrogates is an interesting watch at 3 out of 5 stars. It could have been so much more, though!

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Megamind

Lowdown: A baddie superhero is forced to reconsider his ways.
Review:
Most films’ heroes are good guys. That’s perfectly natural given that it’s much easier for audiences to identify with a goodie. What if a film was made where the baddie was the central character instead, grabbing the majority of the crowd's attention? One can argue some of the Batman films already went in that direction, but Megamind does so much more conclusively. That is, if you take into account the fact Megamind is a computer animated film aimed at children, where being a baddie is not necessarily that bad to begin with.
Megamind (voiced by Will Ferrell) and Metro Man (Brad Pitt) both start off as the sole baby evacuees off neighboring planets as they (the planets) are swallowed by a black hole. Both land on earth, but Metro Man’s baby capsule lands at a rich family’s mansion while Megamind lands at the middle of a jail. The two grow up in their respective environments and both have special powers: Megamind is a brilliant evildoer, and Metro Men is the Superman like superhero who defends Metro City from the evil of Megamind. The pattern repeats itself over and over: Megamind plots, Metro Men defeats him.
Things change when Megamind plots to destroy Metro Man on the  grand opening day the of the museum Metro City’s people dedicated to their devoted superhero. Megamind starts by kidnapping Roxanne (Tina Fey), a news anchorwoman perceived to be Metro Man’s girl, and holds her hostage. Then – for the first time ever – he actually manages to kill Metro Man. What is Megamind to do now his nemesis is gone, though? On one hand he is free to do as he always wanted, on the other his life has just lost its entire meaning.
Megamind therefore plots to create a new superhero to counter him, and through one coincidence or another that honor falls on the shoulders of Roxanne’s cameraman, Hal (Jonah Hill). Things don’t go according to plan, though, and Megamind realizes that the recipe for a fulfilling life might lie in being less bad and more of a friend (and lover).
Directed by Tom McGrath, who brought us what are probably my four year old’s favorite films at the moment – Madagascar and Madagascar 2 – Megamind’s mix of aliens, weird and inventive robots, and a smooth plot proved to capture this household toddler’s heart. During the course of a Saturday and a Sunday my son watched Megamind four times. I guess that rests the movie’s case, doesn’t it?
Personally, I liked Megamind’s music track the most. Things start off with George Thorogood’s Bad to the Bone, an old favorite from my favorite film. There is even an orchestreal version of the tune escorting the rest of the film, but then there are also delicately placed gems from AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses.
Best scene: My son liked the giant robot Megamind is driving/flying the most. Because it’s a giant robot.
Technical assessment: As per the general standard for computer animation A list films, Megamind is a spectacular Blu-ray. The soundtrack even features 7.1 channels!
Overall: Everything you can expect from a child friendly computer animated film. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 3 October 2011

Morning Glory

Lowdown: A newly recruited female executive producer tries to resurrect a TV morning show.
Review:
It’s hard for me to come up with a film where the sole central character is a woman. True, there is the occasional Sandra Bullock flick, but hands on your heart: how often do we see such a film with someone who is not a guaranteed crowd pleaser in the main role? Morning Glory is such a film, and it is definitely nice to see a well made film where a woman does the job most other films reserve for men.
The woman is Becky (Rachel McAdams), who starts the film working on a small time New Jersey TV morning show. She takes us to a blind date where it becomes clear Becky is a walking men repellent because her entire life is dedicated to work. Then our Becky loses her job when the network decides to bring someone with a proper degree instead, putting her in a situation where all of her passion and devotion might be in vain.
In desperation Becky fires her CV off in all direction. Eventually she gets her chance to executively produce a failed national TV morning show. She grabs the opportunity with both hands, moves to New York, and starts her war to resurrect the show. Battles revolve mostly around getting the crew to act professionally and cooperate, not an easy task with the egos you would get on national TV. By far her biggest challenge, though, is taming Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), an ex news person with a prestigious Pulitzer filled past, into a morning show he obviously deems beneath him. Can Becky succeed in turning her de facto family from a dysfunctional one and into a functional one?
Let’s talk about Herrison Ford for a minute. The guy was my childhood idol; he still was an idol long after that. In Morning Glory he may be limited to a supporting role, but his performance is the best I have seen from him since the age of Solo/Jones/Deckard. Generally speaking I have to say all the primary actors, and there’s a long list of them (Diane Keaton and Jeff Goldblum, to name a couple) do a good job; Ford is the one whose performance you’ll remember.
As charming as it is, Morning Glory does have its reliability problems. Take McAdams' character, for example, whose boyfriend-less status is emphasized as an indicator for her devotion to work: suggesting that men overlook her because of that is an insult to all the men I know, men who would grovel at the feet of such a good looking woman and be happy they don't need to invest much in the relationship. There’s also the matter of McAdams’ behavior under pressure, as in, would she really make the professional choices she makes at the end of the film in real life? No way.
Other than that, Morning Glory is a good story on what makes people work together. It’s a rare combination of good drama, effective comedy and a romantic film. To this blogger, for whom the city of New York carries special personal meaning, the film was a rare case of production design so successful I truly felt like I was in New York again. Last time I felt this way it was Splash's fault; indeed, director Roger Michell (Notting Hill, 1995’s Persuasion and Venus) did a fine job with Morning Glory.
Best scene #1: Our initial introduction to Harrison Ford’s character in a well done but a typical elevator scene.
Best scene #2: In order to spice ratings up, the morning show’s weatherman is sent to perform special weather reports. I cracked my stomach laughing – I can hardly recall laughing so hard at home, without the effect of a crowd laughing around me.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray with occasionally distorted colors but a nicely mixed soundtrack. I even enjoyed the contemporary pop songs, which is incredibly rare for me.
Overall: Well made girl power entertainment. 3.5 out of 5 stars.