Sunday, 30 December 2012

GoldenEye

Lowdown: A new for 1995 James Bond fights to save the world.
Review:
Apparently, there is/was a tradition in the UK of airing James Bond films on Christmas day. We thought we would follow suit, being big fans of tradition ourselves (#sarcasm); upon finding 1995's GoldenEye is rated PG it became our Christmas Bond of choice for viewing with our son.
GoldenEye will be remembered in the pages of history as the first of four (?) Bonds starring Pierce Brosnan, who stepped into the very small shoes left by Timothy Dalton. What mark did Brosnan leave? Well, if you ask me, while his Bonds were entertaining at the time, they completely fail the test of history. His are the least memorable James Bond (excluding the disastrous few Bonds that everyone acknowledges to be the case), and GoldenEye is a case in point. Starting from the name, actually, a name that is obviously there in order to bring back memories of Goldfinger.
The plot is quite feeble. Someone is trying to take control over a Russian satellite no one knows much about, a satellite that can destroy cities. James Bond stumbles upon the plot through luckily hitting on a beautiful woman stealing a stealthy helicopter (Famke Janssen). His only aid is Janssen's opposite, the beautiful Russian woman who is the only survivor of the satellite program after the baddies took over. What follows is a plot that is as loose as an old man's set of false teeth but is laced with nice action scenes and sprayed with comedy.
Alas, the comedy tries to mimic the Roger Moore style but fails, while the action that tries to impress with the latest in technology generally fails the test of time as a result. What we have left after all is said and done is a collection of silly scenes that never bore but never take off either. The introduction of Judi Dench as Bond's new female boss is nothing but a cheap gimmick; the result is cheap entertainment for the whole family. One can see where the Christmas tradition came from.
Best scene: Bond drives a tank through an East Europe city in search of baddies. That's Bond action at its best.
Worst scene: Janssen is deriving pleasure out of strangling her sex partners with a vice like leg grip. Who came up with this silly idea?
Worst product placement ever: It is obvious BMW paid good money to be included in the film, as made clear through Q introducing a BMW to Bond. However, that car's only appearance is limited to the single drive-through scene in friendly territory with a girl by Bond's side and an American helper's plane landing just in front of the car to deliver a message. That is really it - an entirely pointless scene that could not possibly be more artificial than it is.
Overall: I'm sorry, but this Bond - and the rest of Brosnan's - is just crap. I strongly suspect the memory of the Brosnan era would quickly fade off the Bond pages. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 27 December 2012

The Mask

Lowdown: The comic loving nice guy that always loses is finally able to get the girl with the aid of a magic mask.
Review:
1994’s The Mask is a film loaded with personal history. As a formerly proud owner of the movie’s laserdisc I have watched it many times – to the point of knowing its numerous one lines by heart. It wasn’t only I that loved it; my brother liked it so much it clearly influenced his decision to get a Jack Russell puppy. That puppy became a proper member of the family (he died of old age some five years ago). Roll back to the present day: I thought the time has come to acquaint my five year old with this old friend of a movie.
I am no fan of Jim Carrey, but in the case of The Mask he fits the role like a green magical mask to the face of the nice guy that never gets the girl, Stanley Ipkiss. Ipkiss works in a boring bank job to make a living. One day this hot woman (Cameron Diaz, for whom The Mask was her first big role; you might have heard of her since) walks in. The woman picks on Ipkiss to help her open a bank account because she identifies him as the lacklustre dude she can pick on as she gathers information for a bank robbery planned by her boyfriend, Dorian (The movie’s baddie). It turns out she is also the resident star of the hottest ticket in town, the Coco Bongo Club, the club Ipkiss is thrown out of. Indeed, Ipkiss gets screwed on all sides: at the club, at the garage, with the girls… What hope lies for him?
Hope comes in the shape of a mask he stumbles upon, a mask that unleashes the true person inside in comic style fashion and thus turns its wearer into a cartoon style superhero. With the mask, Ipkiss gets the girl and the baddies; but is it him or the masked figure that achieves all this? Regardless, both the baddies and the police are not about to take things lying down. Eventually, the burden of saving the day is laid on Ipkiss’ Jack Russell dog, Milo.
The Mask is not the most philosophical movie ever; it is easy watching. But it is cool, funny and original. It is a live shot cartoon story, reminding me a lot of both Aladdin and Shrek in the humor and musical performances.
You may argue The Mask is rather silly. It is fair to argue that by today’s standards its originality faded away, copied by many a cartoon; it is also fair to say that its once state of the art digital effect appear basic by today’s standards. I will argue in contrast that regardless, The Mask is still offering fine comedy with a geek of a hero at its core – a hero with whom I probably share a lot in common, starting from that basic drive to fool around.
Best scene: Milo the dog gets to wear the mask. Hilarious!
Overall: Simply charming and still worthy of 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 21 December 2012

Killer Elite

Lowdown: An ex SAS commando is forced to hunt other British commandos in order to rescue a friend.
Review:
After watching the awful artificially sugared The Santa Clause I had to seek some cleansing. I had to watch me a film with a body count. Killer Elite immediately sprang to mind by virtue of its name alone.
Titles may not be enough to get me to watch a movie, but casts sure are. Killer Elite sports some of my favorite names, specifically Jason Statham in the lead and Clive Owen. You also might have heard of one Robert De Niro doing a support role. Most importantly, though, Killer Elite utilizes the services of one Yvonne Strahnovski, the Aussie who gave not only her voice but her likeness as well to the character of Mass Effect’s Miranda.
Allegedly based on true events (although it’s hard to tell how loosely), Killer Elite follows Danny (Statham). He’s a pro SAS commando killer but he’s a good guy: as we are introduced we witness this merciful soul killing only the baddies and sparing the kids while taking bullets for his mercifulness. Lucky for Danny that Hunter (De Niro) is around to save him.
Years (?) later, in the early eighties, we see Danny again at a new life in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, near Melbourne. There he is busy building a house/farm of his own together with gorgeous partner Anne (Strahnovski), who is obviously completely clueless as to her partner’s background. Danny receives a wakeup call in the shape of a message informing him he has to show up before an Arab VIP or Hunter dies. Leaving Anne behind without much of an explanation, Danny ventures to the Middle East.
The Arab guy sends Danny on a mission: kill the three British intelligence people who killed three of his four sons and he will let Hunter go. Reluctantly, and after killing a few more people for dessert, Danny accepts. Obviously, the British won’t take his killing lying down; they will do their best to hide their dodgy dealings in Arab oil while the likes of ex commando Spike (Owen) will do their best to look after their mates. Action prevails in this bare knuckles movie.
There isn’t much to Killer Elite other than action. It’s a lot like Ronin in style, trying to issue some cynical statement about this world we live in through the action but generally failing. That said, the action is not bad at all; it’s very raw and does not rely on digital effects. Sadly, when things get to the face to face level Killer Elite reverts to the dreaded shaky camera coupled with fast editing technique which not only prevents being able to tell what’s going on but is also quite annoying at the headache/vomit induction level. Send the director to action filming school, please!
As is by now normal for films depicting seventies/eighties UK, things all look darkish, brownish and gritty. Miranda (I should say Strahovski, shouldn’t I?) brightens things up through easing the load on the eyes department but her role is that of the classic token beautiful woman. As in, shut up and look pretty.
Best scene: In an otherwise effective but unextraordinary movie, some of the nicer attractions came through recognizing the Melbourne landmarks significant bits of Killer Elite were shot at. For example, there is the Melbourne street that passes for a Parisian one. The best, however, is left to a shootout at an allegedly Parisian train station. It felt pretty cool to see De Niro shooting his way through the same train I take to work every day and at familiar City Loop stations.
Overall: Effective action, ordinary movie. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

The Santa Clause

Lowdown: A non-believer finding himself in Santa’s shoes has to fight for his child.
Review:
Till now I have never seen me 1994’s The Santa Clause in full, but I had the impression the bits I did see appeared funny. Further, I seemed to recall the film receiving positive review. Under these assumptions I sat down to watch the film – me, an atheist with a non-Christian background. Hey, Tim Allen can’t be wrong, can he?
Yes, he can.
Allen plays Scott, a successful exec at a toy company but a failed family man, at least by the way he treats his divorcee and her new husband. He loves his son, though, but can’t for the life of him supply the son with a proper Christmas dinner experience. Things change when Santa crashes off Scott’s roof and he’s forced to replace him and become the new Santa. Together with his son they deliver gifts across the world, a feat they manage but which leaves the son at a problematic position: his arguing about the Santa experience causes people to think ill of him and his father. There lies the main conflict of this film, with the divorced couple pooling in different directions. Until the wrong side sees the light, that is.
Things quickly come down to a simple equation: if you believe in Santa you’re good, and if you don’t you’re bad and a spoilsport. Only problem is, what should kids (the movie’s target market) take from such a message? Should we really tell our kids that what is factually wrong is actually right just because you believe in it? And can we say this with a hand on our heart while knowing fully well the whole Santa thing is made up?
I really don’t see the point of movies like The Santa Clause (other than fetching money to Disney coffers, of course). Interestingly, we watched this one the day after my 5 year old told me some of his kinder colleagues insisted Santa was real (sending us off to one of those pleasurable “what do you think?” conversations). I’m pretty sure the conflicting messages he’s receiving are leaving him confused; I hope he’s got enough of a rational to figure things properly for himself and not fall for social ignorance.
Oh, and those funny bits I thought I remembered? They turned out to be as real as Santa.
Second worst scenes: I won’t even bother dealing with the film’s worst scenes; you should have got the gist by now. I will, however, point out how spoiled we have become through digital special effects. The Santa Clause is not that old a movie yet its special effects appear pathetic and so dead obvious! It is as if digital technology is rendering everything predating it obsolete.
Overall: I can only recommend The Santa Clause to people wishing to become schizophrenic. 1 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 17 December 2012

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang

Lowdown: A burglar turned would be actor and/or private detective finds himself deep in a sexual murder mystery.
Review:
I don’t know if you noted it, but coming up with the above one liner to describe Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with proved harder than usual; I cannot claim to derive satisfaction from the final result. This hardship stems from the movie being more than one movie or one genre, but rather a collection of ideas we are used to seeing in many separate movies. The fact Kiss Kiss Bang Bang creates such a mix and very successfully so may explain why my wife and I have been talking about watching it again ever since we first stepped out of the cinema back in 2005. By now I actually forgot how good this movie is!
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Harry, an East Coast good hearted burglar whose partner finds himself shot to death by an overzealous onlooker. Grieved but still running away from police, Harry escapes capture by pretending to audition for a movie. His grief renders him so impressive he is immediately ordered to show up in Los Angeles and take practical lessons from a private detective, Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), so as to improve his chances for the role.
His first encounter with LA culture comes at a party where he meets the film's other protagonists. Like Gay Parry, who lives up to his name; or like Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a girl who agrees with everyone else in the party other than Harry that being sexually poked while hung over is acceptable. Harry doesn't accept it, which is perhaps why he suddenly finds himself not studying the ways of a private detective but rather deep inside his own Hollywood murder mystery. This time around he cannot tell friend from foe - everyone is more than meets the eye.
This one is a film where 180 degree plot spins are the norm. Indeed, if there is anything I can blame Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for then it is the fact I would not swear to be able to understand the exact details of all the plot twists. That is, if you were to ask me how come our heroes got to a certain conclusion, I'd probably shrug. However, that does not mean my appreciation of the film is lacking; it just means there is so much more to this movie than the plot.
Instead of a plot to focus on we have twists. We also have great acting: Downey Jr. has proved himself inspirational many times before and after, but I vote for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being his best ever; Val Kilmer steps out to remind us how good a comedian he can be (Top Secret, anyone?); and Michelle Monaghan is as sexy as a female could be in addition to performing her role.
After all is said and done, we are left with film noir that's not truly noir. That is to say, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is more like film noir comedy. Film noir where the tragic hero is Hollywood's culture, and by extension our own culture. A culture that even a veteran burglar finds unacceptable.
Best scene:
Harmony undresses at Harry’s hotel room, with Harry “reluctantly” watching the scene through the mirror. He may be unsure whether to watch or not, but Harmony sure does know what she’s doing. The scene develops as the sexual tension builds, but – as with everything else in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – blows up into something completely different at the end. Or, to put it another way, romantic comedies don’t come any better than this, a film that does not really claim to be a romantic comedy.
The scene actually builds up on a previous scene where Harmony falls asleep in Harry’s bed as Harry finds a huge spider crawling over her. Harry fights the invader while the now awake Harmony is convinced he was after a good feel. Being a good Hollywood girl she says she doesn't care; it is clear that deep inside she does, though.
Together, these two scenes contribute to the movie’s ongoing theme on LA ethics being a substandard of the rest of the world’s. As in, the richer and famous you are, the less of a human you are, too. If you look at Kiss Kiss Bang Bang philosophically, the movie is all about overcoming this problem.
Overall: I have one nagging notion in my head since we finished re-watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – I want to watch it again! Movies like that are ever so rare, thus fully deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps even more.

Saturday, 15 December 2012

Mass Effect: Homeworlds

Lowdown: Background stories for key Mass Effect characters.
Review:
Homeworlds, the most recent and thus far last addition to the Mass Effect comics canon, is a direct go at providing the back stories to four of the game trilogy's most favorite characters. There really is not much more to it than that; however, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with delving further into the stories of the characters we know and love.
Starting off this roundup is James, who – having just escaped earth upon the arrival of the Reapers – flashes back to his family background story and the life of crime he was deprived of upon joining the Marines. I would say this story is the weakest of the lot, with relatively low add on value to the game and a story that we’ve all read and seen many times before. Obviously, James suffers from stiff competition in the face of characters that have been there since episode 1. On the positive side, this is the first time I see normal life on earth portrayed visually in a Mass Effect deliverable, which is rather interesting even if it’s very Blade Runnerish.
Tali’Zorah (Tali) picks things up with her story of how she got to that crucial point in time when she first met Shepard on the Citadel [back in Mass Effect 1]. As with James’ story, there is nothing here to really shake your perception of Tali as you know her from the game.
Moving on, we get to my pick for best story of them all, Garrus. It’s a bit of a rerun of James’ story, only done better: Archangel (Garrus) is defending his Omega balcony from waves of mercenary attacks, knowing all too well the end is as near as his ammo running out; what better thing to do under such circumstances than flashback to days gone by and recall the past’s poorly made choices? The story is not only good, it integrates perfectly with the Mass Effect 2 mission where Archangel is recruited.
Last, but definitely not least, is my favorite Mass Effect character: Liara. The previous subject of Redemption is now full time Shadow Broker, deservedly portrayed in a non baby-ish manner. The story, however, provides not much more than an answer as to how Shepard finds a Liara enjoying the best of Cerberus’ hospitality on Mars as Mass Effect 3 starts.
Animation styles vary, to one extent or another, between stories. The visual result is more than pleasing, but again – the trick is in the plots, and the plots are nothing more than dot connectors filling up the video games' lesser stories.
Overall:
Fills up some gaps for lovable characters, but mostly lacking in truly shedding light on the deeper layers of those very same characters. In other words, these stories won't amount to much without the games they rely on.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read, but then again it would be very hard to write me up with anything about Tali, Garrus and Liara that I would not enjoy. 3.5 out of 5 stars from this fan.
P.S. By the way, this means that Blasto is still the best Mass Effect comic out there.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Ted

Lowdown: A boy and his come to life teddy bear find it hard to turn into adults.
Review:
Seth MacFarlane has long established a reputation for crazy and original comedy through his TV animation series like American Dad and Family Guy. In case you were wondering how the MacFarlane thing works with live action on the big screen, look no further than Ted. It’s a direct answer written and directed by the man himself.
Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis reunite after their “legendary” Max Payne adventure. John (Wahlberg) is a kid so unpopular his only refuge is the teddy bear his parents got him for Christmas, Ted. He loves Ted so much he wishes for Ted to become alive, and as all Christmas wishes go this wish comes true – Ted the teddy bear is still a plush toy, but a conscious one at that. One that speaks with the voice of MacFarlane himself.
Roll the tape from 1985 to 2012, and John is still best friends with Ted. So much so that Lori (Kunis), the girlfriend that is way too overqualified for a guy with a dead end job who smokes pot all day with his teddy bear, feels marginalized. Something’s got to give: either John stops being a child and lets go of Ted, or Lori goes. Which way would it be? Perhaps, in the face of subplot driven adversity, one can have the cake and eat it to?
Ted embodies everything we grew to expect from Family Guy. It starts with that all too familiar voice (a voice that by now cannot be used on any non Family Guy like character), moves on to the use of actors from the Family Guy enterprise (like Patrick Stewart doing the narration), but mostly focuses around that good old crazy feeling of the cartoons. The basic concept, the one of the teddy bear coming to life, already puts us on a good starting point there; the crazy and often chaotic and perhaps sloppy direction and editing style takes things further.  The politically incorrect jokes seal the deal, though.
Those jokes stretch along a lengthy continuum of wanking and deliberating on things that have no direct implications on the plot. Most obvious is the fixation on the cultural icons MacFarlane grew up on, particularly that bad old Flash Gordon movie. Perhaps because Star Wars was the subject of many a MacFarlane piece of work already, Ted puts a lot of focus on Flash Gordon and its hero character instead. If that film meant anything to you then you will like Ted regardless of anything else it does or doesn’t (it sure did matter to me; I recall watching it nine times in one weekend when my uncle rented the VHS, an experience that left my aunt in total despair). If, however, you find all this messing about nothing more than much ado about nothing then you will probably be too disturbed by Ted’s focus on the nonsense rather than being the good old plot driven film that every good [conforming] movie should be like.
Best scene #1: John flashbacks into his first meeting with Lori. In his mind, that was something like Officer and Gentleman meets Saturday Night Fever to become Airplane.
Best scene #2: John tries to guess the name of Ted’s new girlfriend. His only clue: it’s a bogan name. John starts spitting out candidate names machine gun style, leaving me to wonder how many takes the scene required before Wahlberg managed it (regardless, I bow my head with appreciation).
Worst scene: Ted and John fight in a scene that is perhaps the most Family Guy crazy in the movie. It’s not bad, but it’s just too crazy; in my opinion, it does not enhance the film but rather detracts. Unless, of course, crazy is what you seek.
Overall: I’ve enjoyed watching Ted, yet I cannot honestly say it’s a good movie. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Computing for Ordinary Mortals by Robert St. Amant

Lowdown: Computer science gets the popular science treatment.
Review:
Living in the 21st century, those reading this post will not only be doing so through a computer but will also be wearing some on them. Computers are becoming an integral part of us. However, can we claim to know how these computers of ours work? Computing for Ordinary Mortals sets out to solve this problem of relying so much on things we are generally unfamiliar with by explaining computer science to the masses.
One by one, the book’s chapters introduce its reader to key computing concepts. We start with a basic portrayal of computers’ components, and move on to discuss the workings of a CPU, the network, the computer program, algorithms and even artificial intelligence. In order to explain the potentially complex concepts at hand to the layman, St. Amant uses mundane stories about ordinary human activities (e.g., filing) and then makes the analogy between that and the way computers work. Those analogies work, most of the time, even if they do feel occasionally overstretched.
Does the book work? Does it manage to popularize computer science? I would say it does, definitely so. Even for this computer professional, sorting the story of computers into an ascending tier of subjects helps in the sense that it takes things that I take for granted and puts them into perspective.
At the end of the day, Computing for Ordinary Mortals’ main problem seems to be its lack of flash. It does its explanations well and it is certainly comprehensible; it just lacks the ability to grip and thrill its reader. I have to admit such a task is hard to achieve in popular science books; however, there are plenty of examples to prove it is definitely possible (refer to the likes of Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan for examples). Perhaps the only way this book managed to keep hold of me is by reminding me of my earlier escapades with computers: my primary school days of machine language programming, or the war game I wrote for my high school project. Incorporating artificial intelligence, that game took ideas from Dungeons & Dragons mass combat rules to create a single player turn based strategy game. I called it The War Machine, after the D&D set of rules it was based on. Yeah, those were the days when I was allowed to achieve nice things!
Overall: A popular science book on a popular subject that’s useful but, ultimately, not dazzling. Computing for Ordinary Mortals is found somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Perfect Sense

Lowdown: A man and a woman fall in love while humanity as a whole is starting to lose its senses.
Review:
Science fiction doesn’t have to be about special effects and aliens trying to take over the earth and eat us alive; I often argue the better sci-fi comes when subtle changes are made to reality in order to make a certain point more obvious. To one extent or the other, such is the case with Perfect Sense.
Michael (Ewan McGregor) is an asshole. We know that because we are introduced to him as he politely kicks out a naked lady he just had sex with off his bed. He has “every right” to be the way he is: he’s young, he’s good looking, and he’s a successful chef at a successful Scottish restaurant. Why shouldn’t he regard the female population as his personal library service?
Opposite Michael is Susan (Eva Green), a scientist living just off the back of Michael’s restaurant and working on epidemics. Like the current one, which has people losing their mind for a brief session, after which they appear to lose their sense of smell; no one can really tell why this is happening.
Michael and Susan meet when the ever arrogant Michael asks Susan for a cigarette, and then a light, upon taking a work break. Susan complies from her window; shortly afterwards she agrees to go on a date. But can she trust Michael enough to develop a relationship with him when she knows what he’s really like and while everyone seems to be losing their senses, literally?
Perfect Sense is one of those beautifully created films where every shot is a marvel to look at and appreciate its composition. Beauty is further supported by the acting, particularly that of the leads: McGregor has long ago established the fact he can portray any character perfectly, and the beautiful Green knows how to play the closed but good looking woman. Frequent natural nudity adds to the viewer’s acceptance of their characters.
All this careful work is there to promote the message concerning the things that truly matter to us humans as we lose the things we think matter. For example, Perfect Sense suggests that losing one’s sense of taste does not mean that one would not want to go out to a restaurant anymore; it just means one would be able to better recognize that it is the social element of the going out that is the important thing rather than the food itself. The point about the importance of the social nature of human beings, particularly as demonstrated by the love affair at the center of our film here, is well made; however, the relationship between humanity losing its senses and the basic story feels more than a bit forced. It is as if Perfect Sense had a good idea to start with but fails to determine where to take things further. Perhaps this is why Perfect Sense resorts to the occasional bout of narration.
Regardless, Perfect Sense provides a great mix of a human story told in the background of some creatively apocalyptic scenes. It certainly does not lack imagination.
Best scene: Our senseless heroes, separated by trauma, seek one another for that final moment together. Things don’t go their way, though…
Overall: Creative, attractive, yet somewhat broken. I will be very generous and give Perfect Sense 3.5 out of 5 stars; after all, I do have a soft spot for science fiction.

Monday, 3 December 2012

Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn

Lowdown: An exposition to the Halo story.
Review:
Almost ten years ago, Halo provided our household with a revolutionary experience. It was the game bundled with our brand new Xbox console, and for a few straight weeks my wife and I fought through its campaign mode cooperatively. It was one of those gaming memories to cherish for life, a type of a once in a lifetime experience. No game since had managed to get my wife to play with me as much as Halo did (probably because local co-op is virtually extinct nowadays).
Since then we had the pleasure of becoming disappointed with Halo 2, and later we dumped our Xbox in favor of a PS3. With the recent release of Halo 4, a game I'd love to play but can't, Halo was brought back to our consciousness. Together with this release came Forward Unto Dawn, a film very well tied to the game. Since I can't play the game I thought watching the film is the least I could do.
After an obligatory introduction, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn takes us on a flashback to some sort of a space academy for upper class space marines. There we meet a group of teens practicing to become warriors. We see them training in catch the flag tournaments with rival units (hey, just like they do in Halo!) and we get to superficially get to know a group of them. We also learn about the world they live in, some future in which humanity is divided into two factions that are locked in a forever war with one another. This half of Forward Unto Dawn feels a lot like Starship Troopers (the film, not the book).
Then, before we arrive into any sort of a resolution with that Starship Troopers theme, Forward Unto Dawn changes from top to bottom. The Covenant arrives, and attacks our heroes' academy big time. It looks like it would take some sort of a superhero to save the day. Now, imagine who could that be!
If the first half gave a nod to Halo's multiplayer mode, Forward Unto Dawn's second half goes out to try and enliven the single player campaign. And liven it up it does: in contrast to my expectations, this one is a live action film where the only animation comes from the often crude CGI.
Does the package work? Yes and no. Yes, because it is a fine tag along-feature to the game. But no, because it is a film that doesn't know what it is trying to say whose ending feels stuck on with very poor quality glue.
Overall: A mediocre film, a nice supplement to the game. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

xkcd: volume 0 by Randall Munroe

Lowdown: A collection of cartoons from the famous geeky website.
Review:
Thus far, my following of xkcd cartoons has been limited to reading others’ blogs post cartoons from that website. Usually it would be along the lines of atheists quoting xkcd in matters of religion or liberals quoting xkcd on matters of, say, freedom of the Internet. I liked what I saw but never liked it as much as to make the effort to visit the source. Recently, though, I have acquired xkcd: volume 0 through the Humble Bundle, which drove me to conduct an experiment. I tested my perceived quality of this comic book, and I also tested the virtues of my iPad as an ebook reader (given that I already know my default ebook reader, the Amazon Kindle, sucks when it comes to comics).
As one might expect when conducting experiments, I learned a few things in the process. First, I learned that xkcd became famous after one of its cartoons was referenced in Boing Boing, thus firming my conviction that in these days when we witness the death of conventional media one can still find worthy, if not far superior, alternatives for keeping one aware. Second, I learned that at least for yours truly, the iPad sucks big time as an ebook reader: sure, I can use it at home under stable conditions where I can control lighting and such, but for reading on the train? Might as well sell the gadget as an iHeadache.
It’s about time I get to the point and discuss xkcd, right? Well, the point is that there isn’t that much to say. volume 0 is, according to author Randall Munroe, a collection of favorite cartoons from the site. I concur: this is exactly what you get. You get a collection of cartoons drawn in the crude style the website is famous for and dealing with subject matters such as math, science, technology, liberal culture, and occasionally relationships and sex. Some of the stuff is politically incorrect, which spices things up, but in general we are talking geek humor here of a type that often reaches outside conventional boxes. Take this one as a fine example of the species:

























 The above cartoon is embedded here under a Creative Commons license, which says a lot about Munroe and the type of humor and views you can expect to find at xkcd. Needless to say, I like it; but do I like it enough to religiously follow xkcd from now on? No; cartoons are nice, but I feel they cannot compete with a narrative driven comic (or book, for that matter).
Overall: As much as I’ve enjoyed xkcd: volume 0, I will continue to follow its adventures only through references from other blogs. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Careless Love

Lowdown: The struggles of a Sydneysider student working as a call girl.
Review:
On the surface Linh (Nammi Le) seems like most other university students, but there is a catch: whenever she disappears, telling her friends she’s going to work at the library till late at night, she’s actually working. Working as a call girl, driven through Sydney from one job to another by a male driver and accompanied by a fellow girl from the agency specializing in oriental women.
Through snippets of Linh’s work, Linh’s studies, Linh’s social life and Linh’s family life we get to learn more and more about Linh’s situation as well as the message Careless Love is trying to convey. The work side is obviously of most interest, but it has to be said that the sex itself is never on center stage; it’s everything else around it that is. In other words, we get to see the before and the after, thus focusing more on the interpersonal aspects of Linh’s line of work and their effect on their personal. More specifically: this is not an erotic film.
From Linh’s student life we can gather Linh’s a pretty smart girl; we also get to think of religious issues her studies get her involved at. From all of her different lives combined we learn how hard the whole affair is on Linh, and when the different worlds collide we arrive at this movie’s climax.
I greatly enjoyed this low budget Australian made film. It is very well made, deals well with volatile subject matter, and leaves its viewer – or at least me – pondering. Watching Careless Love, I was wondering what the point of all the religious references were; however, by the movie’s conclusion things got obviously clear. Taken at face value, Careless Love is only a movie about a call girl's adventures; what it is really about is a discussion on society’s taken for granted family values. That is, Careless Love discusses the notion that a proper family is one of eternally loyal husband and wife with kids. The film challenges those perceptions on all front: we have a crook that is still a good father to his son and takes care of the mother despite being cheated by her and despite his love for Linh; we have Linh’s family, who won’t accept Linh's working as a model cover story due to promiscuity but will gladly use the money Linh ships home; we have social authorities, the police, chasing the working girls but letting them go in exchange for special favors; and so on and so on. Then, of course, there is the overarching religious frame to protect the traditional core family perception. Debunking that is the whole point of the religion references Careless Love chucks at us.
Best scene: There are many loaded scenes to pick from. I will go with the one where Linh arrives at a customer’s house only to find a bunch of young “kids” daring a rich friend whose girlfriend is away. The group’s various reactions to the concept of a girl not unlike them doing this type of work for a living reflects well on society’s approach to matters of sex.
Overall: A very smart film sitting in between 3.5 and 4 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended.

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Life After People

Lowdown: What will the world be like if all humans were to suddenly disappear?
Review:
A few years ago I read a book called The World Without Us that was trying to provide a detailed answer to a simple question: what would the earth be like if all humans were to suddenly disappear? I found the idea interesting even if the book’s execution was lacking, and therefore sprang into action when I learned of another attempt to deal with the same question. This time it was a 2008 documentary called Life After People.
In many respects, Life After People is similar to The World Without Us to the point of me wondering whether they are related in more than the core idea. For example, both bring at their very beginning the example of Manhattan flooding once the pumps keeping the subway tunnels dry stop working. Similarities continues as Life After People moves along, telling us how our world would turn out to be days, months, years and millennia after humans disappear.
The bottom line: in not that long a time it would become quite hard to figure out we were ever here through anything other than an archaeological dig. The nice thing about this documentary is that it puts its money where its mouth is and shows us how the world would look like, either through poor quality and repetitive digital effects (boo!) or through real life examples of places people have abandoned (hooray!). Chernobyl serves as a fine example for the latter. Through this depiction, Life After People shows us how fragile human existence is and how important it is for us to take care of our civilization.
Alas, all is not well with Life After People. The problem, in one word, is “Americanisation”. Allow me to explain.
Life After People adopts a rather annoying style that seems to be catering for the lowest common denominator American viewer. It treats this viewer as if she was dumb. The treatment manifests itself in various ways, starting with the narration that sounds like the voice of the movie teaser personality (“…and this time, it’s personal”) but stretching throughout. Moving on with exaggerated sound effects repeating themselves, as with the annoying demonstration of steel cable breaking under pressure to take our hanging bridges down. Most importantly, the documentary avoids making any statements that require an IQ higher than one’s shoe size to fathom. All the while, Life After People avoids making points I would deem important about matters Americans might find offensive, such as the environment: surely a documentary dealing with the legacy of humans to our planet should tackle our toxic heritage?
The narrowing of scope to fit the dumbest ever American ruins things for this doco.
Overall: Judging by both book and documentary, it seems as if this is a subject matter rife for abuse. I still consider the core question compellingly interesting, which explains my disappointment and my giving Life After People only 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

The Choice of Hercules by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: [Another] Grayling guide to living the good life.
Review:
A.C. Grayling seems to be a man on a mission to teach us the good values of humanism. Of course, much worse quests can be imagined: not only do I agree with Grayling in principle, I also think he does a great job promoting these views with the public. However, with this being the third such guide that I’m reading from Grayling, I find myself a bit fed up with reading the same messages again and again.
In 2008’s The Choice of Hercules, Grayling starts off with the choice given to Hercules, as portrayed in many a classic drawing (see below). Hercules had to choose between two wives: a beautiful one that symbolizes duty, and in most generations has been interpreted as some form of Church piety, and an even more beautiful one with whom Hercules would have had much bodily pleasure. Hercules chose the former, but Grayling goes out to ask – how do we really know which of these choices is better? Could it be that we do not really have to choose between the two but rather have them both?


From this point onwards, Grayling goes out to propose his take on how to live a good life and thus be able to make our own herculean choices. The answer is divided into the three parts that make the book up: the first deals with the personal life, the second with the issues society faces in general, and the third makes the argument that a truly good life can only take place in a good society and therefore goes to discuss the makings of a good society in depth. You can argue the connection between where Grayling ends up and his starting point with Hercules is a bit loose, but regardless, The Choice of Hercules presents an inspiring and illuminating framework for living the good life. A framework that, by the way, does not require its practitioner to believe in imaginary friends and anything else out of this world.
My problem with The Choice of Hercules is that I recently came off a Grayling book that tried to pretty much do the same thing, The Good Book. Thus I felt quite frustrated when I happened to reread the same things I read in The Good Book, while on the other hand feeling totally fixated and served an excellent lesson when presented with ideas I haven’t got to read in The Good Book (either because that book doesn’t deal with them or because I never got to read The Good Book from start to finish). For example, reading on the need to live the examined life bored the hell out of me, while reading Grayling’s views on family values and sex had me totally transfixed.
You may argue the problem is entirely mine, for The Good Book was published after The Choice of Hercules, and therefore I was reading the books the wrong way around. True; on the other hand, I will not be the first to point out Grayling has been writing the same book again and again for quite a while. With that said, The Choice of Hercules stands over the Good Book in several important factors: page number wise, it is a very digestible as well as easy to consume quantity wise; and language wise, it utilizes Grayling superb mastery of the English language to express itself in plain language rather than the Good Book’s annoying bible copycat style. Since I did not read The Good Book in its entirety I cannot, however, comment on which of the two is winning the day on matters of scope and breadth.
Overall: I can only give The Choice of Hercules 3 out of 5 stars, and even that comes with an effort. However, if this was my first ever Grayling I would have probably given it something like 4 to 4.5 stars; to the right reader The Choice of Hercules can be a truly inspiring read.

Monday, 19 November 2012

Prometheus

Lowdown: A space crossing expedition to find mankind’s maker is rather surprised with its findings.
Review:
I cannot blame Ridley Scott for making Prometheus. Can I blame him for wanting to revisit the grounds of two of his most ground-breaking films, Blade Runner and Alien? Should I blame him for dealing again with ideas he dealt with in the past, notably what it is that makes us human, now that budget is no longer a restriction and computer graphics allow for anything to be portrayed on the screen, even in 3D?
I can’t blame Scott for going there. I will, however, blame him for the flawed creation he came up with after going there.
In around a hundred years from now, archaeologists discover several unlinked ancient pointers to a unique solar system in the sky, a system with only one habitable planet. There can be only one plausible explanation: those ancient artifacts are pointing humanity at its maker. With FTL drive already in the history books by the movie’s then, a private enterprise with its private agenda sends a spaceship – Prometheus – to the planet in order to see what the fuss is all about.
On board the spaceship we have captain and crew as well as a collection of scientists to investigate that mysterious planet. The latter include the the archaeologist couple that found the place in the first place (Noomi Rapace, aka The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Logan Marshall-Green). Oh, and as we had on Alien, there is a very human looking but much more capable robot around (Michael Fassbender).
Prometheus lands on the planet (I would have expected it to stay in orbit and send down shuttles, but never mind) after finding some obvious signs of intelligence. An expedition is sent to investigate, and guess what? In the process of meeting their maker they get to meet their maker. Indeed, what we have on our hands here is a mix of Blade Runner style ideas with an Alien style world. Very Alien style world: Scott is not hiding the fact Prometheus is meant to act as a prelude to Alien not just through its fixation on the female archaeologist as the main hero.
As Alien goes, Prometheus is a semi horror science fiction film. Alas, it is not half as good. Perhaps because we’ve been well trained since, I found proceedings to be terribly familiar. As in, the two scientists that separate from the main group and get lost, what do you think is going to happen to them? There is no possible way you would take a wrong guess with this one. The bells and the whistles are here, with Prometheus being a grand production that is a pleasure to watch and listen to. But the quality? Poor.
I argue it all comes down to the idea at the core of the movie. That idea is that humans are defined by the irrationality of their faith in their maker “despite three centuries of Darwinism” (to quote the film). Apparently, we are striving to meet our makers, we would do everything we can to meet them, and we would believe such makers exist no matter what evidence we have and what we learn about the nature of this maker. That's what gives us our soul, something the robot lacks. Want to hear what I think of this thesis, in one word? Bullshit. Starting from the idea that humanity is the epitome of creation, as expressed in the film’s beginning, to the idea we are driven by this need for intimacy with the maker – it’s all bullshit.
Sadly, the bullshit show that is this high profile mega budget movie served to demonstrate to me yet again why mainstream cinema is, but for a very few exceptions, a waste of my time. Terribly disappointing.
Best scene: Our suffering heroine cures herself from the alien inside using an operation theater machine that analyses and fixes from start to finish. I want one.
Overall: All sizzle with no sausage, Prometheus left me very disappointed. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Blasto: Eternity Is Forever

Lowdown: Parody comic set in the Mass Effect universe.
Review:
I usually refrain from reviewing single comic issues, but exceptions have to be made in exceptional cases. Blasto: Eternity is Forever is such a case.
Those of us who played the Mass Effect video games will know who Blasto is. Your Commander Shepard would have been exposed to various ads relating to Blasto’s latest movie adventures in the games, and Mass Effect 3 even features a longish teaser for the “latest Blasto film”. So who is this Blasto?
Blasto is a Mass Effect universe Spectre, which means he’s something along the lines of a James Bond – an agent of the law who is allowed to be bad in the name of all that is good. Only that Blaso is a member of the jellyfish like Hanar race, which – as any Mass Effect veteran would tell you – are pretty useless when it comes to warfare. That’s the exact point the comic at hand is trying to stretch to the best of its abilities.
Our favourite Hanar gets his Bond girl (an Asari, of course) and together they venture to deal with a threat to the universe as we know it. On their way to save the world they kill hordes of Krogan (the toughest creatures in the Mass Effect universe), drop sexual innuendos left and right, and utter pop culture references (“do you feel fortunate, scum?”). Do not expect the ending to be anything other than Bond like, too; remember, the Hanar have 8 hands at their disposal.
Sadly short, I do not recall a comic I’ve enjoyed better than this one. It really does use all the elements at its disposal, be it from our universe or the Mass Effect one, to make a good joke.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. I certainly hope more of Blasto’s adventures will head down our way shortly.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Lowdown: Our animal heroes join a European circus in order to go back to New York.
Review:
I’ll be honest with you: I did not see myself writing this review. Years ago, when I first watched Madagascar, I thought it was a rather pathetic affair; I couldn’t see how anyone could laugh at the jokes. My young son disagreed, of course, but even though I probably seen Madagascar 2 many a time I never sat it from start to finish. Given the universal law of deteriorating sequels, what could I expect of Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted? Well, as it turns out, I could have expected some fine entertainment.
The premises are of the “who cares” type. We start off from where the previous Madagascar finished. The penguins leave Madagascar with their friends the monkeys flying their plane for a gambling bonanza at Monaco. In the meantime, our heroes – notably Alex – feel homesick and decide they want to use the same plane to go back to their Central Park home. So they go in some mysterious way to Monaco, too (don’t ask me why they couldn’t just go directly to New York using the exact same elusive way of theirs). There they retrieve the penguins, alright, in a high octane caper scene. However, they also incur the wrath of a French police captain (Frances McDormand) in charge of animals. The captain seeks to add Alex the lion to her collection of stuffed animals, thus triggering a chase that lasts through the rest of the movie. Our heroes’ only escape is joining a circus under, faking their CVs as it is to get their way in. As it happens, the circus is vying to attract an American tour that will see the series’ four heroes back at their New York home; to get there, though, they must pull a hell of a show in Europe first.
They key factor about Madagascar 3, a factor I generally found missing in the franchise’s previous episodes, is its entertainment factor. It’s not just animals saying silly things to one another anymore: there are some genuinely thrilling and creative action scenes here, of a caliber that wouldn’t shame a good Pixar flick (from the days before Disney took over). There is more adult appeal, too, in the shape of pop culture references that would go way over the heads of the series’ typical viewers but hit home with the likes of yours truly: finally, DreamWorks managed to copy some of the better ideas from its Shrek world into its Madagascar one.
While the whole thing is less than serious or particularly meaningful, there are some surprising deviations. [Skip to the next paragraph to avoid a blooper that should not surprise any viewer able to read this sentence] I found it very mature for our animals to arrive back at their Central Park origins only to see the place through their now changed eyes and realize their memories and their yearnings tell a different story to reality. Hey, one can claim Madagascar 3 is thus throwing us an anti-conservatism message.
Best scene: That Monaco caper, of course. Because the casino scene is so like a sophisticated heist movie (say, an Oceans’ flick), followed by an A-Team like escape with a van, followed by a Transporter like chase through the French streets, and culminating in a narrow escape. Who can ask for anything more?
Overall: Nothing here but fine entertainment for the whole family. 3.5 out of 5 stars. Or, in another words, it's amazing how far low expectations can take me.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Molokh

Lowdown: Hitler spends a few days at the Eagles Nest with his cronies and Eva Braun.
Review:
In the middle of World War 2, Hitler and a few of his linchpins, notably Josef Goebbels, arrive at the Eagle’s Nest fortress to spend a few days without talking politics. While Hitler is treated like some sort of a deity by most people around him, like the scriber who writes down every word coming out of his mouth, the otherwise bored Eva Braun teases him left and right. Between their moments in the bedroom and between taking a dump in the woods, Hitler is exposed under a different light to the one we are used to. In the meantime, the insanity of the whole Nazi idea is exposed.
That’s the gist of the message pushed forward by Russian director Aleksandr Sokurov (famous for his Russian Ark). The catch, though, is not in what Molokh is trying to say but rather in the way it chooses to say what it does. The best single word to describe that way is “arty”.
I’ll start with what I seem to be able to tell by the credits: the film features Russian actors dubbed into German speech. Beyond that, the film is incredibly slow and often seems to intentionally avoid getting to the point; it is as if the director is actively trying to defy the rules of conventional cinema as we know it.
Add element to the other, and the feeling I got was that distinct “why am I watching this” feeling. Molokh may be an orgy for some cinema buff, but to me it was plain boring; I don’t like that fuzzy feeling of vagueness, sorry.
Distinct scene: The film starts with a long scene featuring the woman that turns out to be Eva Braun dancing and prancing through the Eagle’s Nest naked. This rather long scene raises the question of “what is it trying to say”, a question I found myself asking several times during Molokh (although, once the answer became clearer, I started asking myself “why is the director saying what he wants to say in this weird kind of a way”).
Overall: Molokh is a movie that forgot movies also need to entertain. 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: A teenager producing pirate films fights to set the Internet free through his creations.
Review:
Cory Doctorow is an author whose books I like even before I read them. There are reasons for that: the guy stands by his principles, and publishes his books online, free for all to download. Those books happen to be very well targeted at me, with examples such as Little Brother discussing the way in which our personal freedoms have been happily sacrificed on the altar of an elusive war on terrorism. Or For the Win, which has a lot to say about the illnesses of our world's economy through the prism of the world of online gaming. Pirate Cinema loyally follows this formula: a young adult science fiction book, of the type that could happen tomorrow and is already happening to one extent or another, this time dealing with the concepts of piracy and the freedom of the Internet.
The story starts at northern England’s Bradford, a kind of town no tourist has any reason to visit. Our first person hero for the duration of the book: 16 year old Trent. Trent is a mad fan of a now deceased cinema star, and the manifestation of his fandom lies in his creation of mashup films that use the star’s original footage to tell completely different stories. Being the son of a poor family, with a disabled mother and a father for whom paid work is not easy to acquire, Trent does not ask the movie studios to send him their material; he acquires his raw material through piracy. Problem is, this piracy causes the disconnection of his house off the Internet, bringing catastrophic outcomes to the family: the mother cannot get her disability allowance, the father cannot work from home, and the sister cannot do her homework anymore. As in, they all can do their tasks still, but everything becomes so much harder it is, in effect, unfeasible.
Trent takes his blame hard, hard enough to disappear with only his laptop and a change of clothing and head for London. There harsh reality strikes: he has no place to stay, no money, and his bag and laptop are stolen. In desperation he looks at beggars for inspiration, and an enterprising member of that community – Jem – takes our Trent as an apprentice. Jem shows Trent how to get luxury food off skips, how to squat, and how to share the spoils with their less capable fellows. Together with a few more allies they develop an ideal anarchistic society at the pub they’re squatting, and Trent finally has the time and the means to be on the Internet again. The community he is now part of airs his films at cemeteries and sewers across London, and Trent becomes famous. He gets himself a girlfriend, he is the head figure of a fight against Internet suppressing legislation, and as a direct result he is now enemy #1 of the copyright industry.
If I have any criticism towards Pirate Cinema it is to do with the obvious similarities in style and story with Doctorow’s Little Brother. The two are essentially the same tale told the same way but with different baddies. Other than that, though, Pirate Cinema won me through and through.
If you are familiar with Doctorow (and this reader of BoingBoing is), you will see Doctorow in person at every corner of this book. From the things Trent packs when going away through jibes at Dominos Pizza and references to home brew coffee, all the elements that make a Doctorow book are firmly here. Including, of course, that pro Internet freedom stand this hero of mine takes on a daily basis on his blog and as an activist. Being that Doctorow and I pretty much agree on almost everything, Pirate Cinema certainly hit home with this armchair pirate.
Although unequivocally set in our future (probably two to three decades away), the relevancy of Pirate Cinema’s message is unmistakable. The UK already has its legislation for cutting households off the Internet in cases of piracy, and the USA is just in the process of commencing its own program. In the meantime, between taking down Megaupload for all the wrong reasons and coming up with legislation proposals such as SOPA, it is clear the copyright industry owns our legislative bodies in its pockets. And through secretly coming up with international agreements such as ACTA, they work their way around our Internet and our culture. These are exactly the things Doctorow talks about in his book, showing us the light and clearly demonstrating which side is in the right.
I agree with Doctorow that the copyright industries are fighting a losing battle and that the only questions are how long it would take them to lose and how many of us they will take down with them. However, as with The Case for Copyright Reform, Doctorow goes further to demonstrate why the revolutionary idea of piracy is so important by showing piracy is essential for the development of our culture. By Doctorow’s logic, with which I concur, pirates are doing society a favor! Think about it this way: without the pirates, there would have never been an iTunes shop, not to mention Spotify. If more people realize this through Doctorow’s entertaining book then the world would be a better place. Me, I was happy to spend several days with this highly entertaining, thought provoking, easy to read yet educational book.
Overall: Doctorow excels at bringing his personal views to the level of a young adult and doing it ever so entertainingly. I love the guy and am very proud to have met him in person. For now, Pirate Cinema gets 4.5 out of 5 stars from me – highly recommended to any pirate or would be pirate!
Closing comments: Even though I downloaded Pirate Cinema from Doctorow’s website here, I bought it “again” through the Humble Bundle a few days later. Clearly, I have such a massive dick. Either that or I appreciate everything Doctorow is trying to do in his book as well as in the Humble Bundle (in whose coordination he was involved).

Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Lowdown: The daughter of a tiny people’s family, living in hiding under humans’ house, is discovered.
Review:
The Secret World of Arrietty, or Arrietty for short, belongs in that special niche of green Japanese animation movies. A niche made famous by the likes of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. The key difference is in Arrietty being directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who held animator roles in those previous films; however, other than that name change, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Not that there is anything wrong with that, though: I consider these films to be a perfect hit with the adult children market. Nothing bad with being thought provoking as well as entertaining and appealing to the kids!
Arrietty takes place at a rural house, where daughter Arrietty lives with her parents under the floorboards. They are the last of their kind, tiny English speaking (for the sake of our five year old we watched the English dubbed version) humanoid people. All the rest of their keen, our little family believes, fell victims to the ever expanding humans. This is why the sighting of Arrietty by a young human boy coming to rest and relax at the house is a disaster: can the family now continue to make its living out of borrowing small things off humans, or will they have to seek their fortunes elsewhere?
Using colourful and magnificient animation – nothing like the computer generated stuff we’ve grown accustomed to see – Arrietty tells a touching story filled with adventure. Aided by well designed sound, Arrietty packs a punch that is entertaining as well as enjoyable. The green themes for which the genre is famous are as obvious as the great animation, and should hit home with a generation of kids growing up on iPads and fake grass.
Best scenes: I particularly liked the Prince of Persia like scenes where our tiny heroes managed around the humans’ house. The movie really does make the most of this for its own type of action scenes. That said, there is plenty of worthy drama in there, too.
Overall: Perhaps we can claim to have watched this film before by now, but regardless – Arrietty is a good all-around movie that is very well made. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Margin Call

Lowdown: A dramatization of the GFC’s moment of no return.
Review:
I seem to have a soft spot for films focusing on capitalist pigs / extreme neoliberals at work. Even though they hardly ever turn out to be great (Wall Street and its sequel are probably the most famous examples), they still appeal to that “I knew better” ego of mine. Now we have Margin Call entering the scene, packing not that much in originality but much more in the famous actors doing strong supporting roles department.
The whole movie takes place over two days, the day before and the day after the GFC came into our lives. Its stand is made very clear very quickly, with us being shown how an investment bank – in which the whole film takes place – fires the bulk of its employees for very Darwinian reasons. Its implementation of this Enron style (and, as recently exposed, Microsoft style, too) policy includes getting rid of previously devoted employees who worked for the company for the bulk of their adult life.
One such employee, a department manager (Stanley Tucci) was onto something big when he’s escorted out the building and finds his mobile disconnected. His last move as a company employee is leaving a USB stick to one of his employees (Zachary Quinto). The latter, one of the few to survive the employment massacre, manages to finish his former boss’ work and thus realize the bank – and the entire economy – is on the brink of collapse.
Alerts go up the food chain of managers (including, but not limited to, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons). They all have their ideas of how the bank can survive the calamity that is to come, with the more ethically oriented (Spacey) to one side and most of the rest to the other. The outcome is known to us all; where Margin Call puts its focus is on the human drama and character interactions.
The world thus exposed to us is a rather scary one, a world where survival of the fittest rules not only during wholesale layoff day. I guess that should not come as a surprise to anyone, which is why I find Margin Call to ultimately fail. Granted, it is offers fine drama, albeit a drama that mildly falters towards the end, but it is not a carrier of new testimony. That is, unless you are surprised to learn the head honchos of these multibillion dollar banks do not understand the economic mechanisms they oversee (no news there; derivatives and their likes are thus far too complex to formulate and thus truly fathom). Or unless you were unaware that the world of big time players is dominated by middle aged to older men (if that surprises you then you are probably just as surprised each morning when that sun rises – again!). Indeed, Demi Moore is probably the only female face you will remember come Margin Call’s conclusion, and probably only because you would find yourself wondering “was that Demi Moore?”
Best scene: Kevin Spacey goes out with a motivation speech to his remaining employees, following the redundancy wave. He starts by getting all of them to clap and be cheerful about it and their future prospects, demonstrating an extreme but not an unheard of mechanism by which companies apply spin to their employees so that the latter can be further exploited.
Overall: Some fine drama, some nice performances by nice big names, but no brilliance. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Barney's Version

Lowdown: The life and tribulations of a guy called Barney.
Review:
One of the greater talents in the field of storytelling is the ability to turn a story that may appear dry and ordinary, when looked upon at the bullet point level, into something that is extraordinary and interesting. Barney’s Version is an attempt to do just that, an attempt that in this reviewer’s opinion it very much succeeded in.
We follow an elderly Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). At the very beginning we learn that he’s divorced with kids, and through his harassments of his former wife’s lover we learn he’s quite jealous about it. We learn he owns a studio producing cheap crap soap operas, and that although bitter, at his core he seems to be a likeable guy. That is, Barney seems to be an ordinary person with his various shades of gray about him.
Things take a dramatic turn very quickly when our hero is faced with an old nemesis, an ex policeman who accuses Barney of being a murderer in the middle of an otherwise sympathetic pub. As Barney travels back home he reflects on his version of things, taking us on a voyage of flashbacks. Moving back and forth through Barney’s life, we learn of his first marriage, in Italy, to a woman he only cared for because he thought she’s bearing his child (but then got quite angry with when it turned out the father was one of his best friends). We learn how his Jewish family connections arranged the ideal second marriage for him with a loaded princess (Minnie Driver). And then we witness him fall in love at first sight on his wedding night with Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the subject of his phone harassments from when the film begun.
The above description does not do Barney’s Version justice. This movie features plenty of themes as it depicts its very round characters over long periods of time, themes such as racism, adultery, suicide and mental diseases. The story told here is a complicated one where I found myself cheering for different characters at different times. I’ll put it this way: it was a pleasure to find such a story getting such a well deserved treatment.
Acting is the other element that works together with the story to render Barney’s Version into the high quality film it is. There are some stellar performances here, starting with Giamatti’s. There is the usual standard of excellence from Dustin Hoffman, portraying the corrupt down to earth policeman that’s Barney’s father. The female supporting roles are not in any way inferior: both Driver and Pike are simply excellent, with Driver generating numerous laughs while Pike generates sympathy.
Add the story to the acting, free these actors from the artificiality that often surrounds movie productions featuring A list stars, and the result is a film that’s just good and enjoyable. All that despite the story appearing ordinary at first.
Best scene:
One of the things we quickly learn about Barney is that the guy is into sex. Thus some of Barney's Version better scenes revolve around sex, like Barney learning that he is not the father of his son by virtue of that son's skin color, which happens to match that of his best friend. Or like Barney, desperate to find a way to get rid of his wife (Minnie Driver) in order to focus on the love of his life, is absolutely delighted at catching the wife having sex with another best friend of his.
Those, however, do not get my vote for best scene. That vote goes to the scene where Barney meets Miriam for the very first time and falls in love with her on the spot. I loved it because it was so well done I could feel exactly what Barney is feeling and I could remember that overwhelming feeling love at first sight is like. Obviously, the fact the subject of Barney's attention is Rosamund Pike helps a bit. Regardless, the point is that Barney's Version allows its viewer to deeply identify with its hero, imperfections and all.
Overall: I highly recommend this life story. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Economix by Michael Goodwin

Lowdown: Civilization's recent history through the prism of economics, told using comics.
Review:
There is ample evidence to indicate complex ideas can be explained in popular terms. That is, in terms even my grandmother would be able to understand (in her grave). The best example for that would be Richard Dawkins, who got my award for writing last year’s best book by virtue of extending the format so as to maximize its effectiveness.
Economix does pretty much the same thing as Dawkins did. It takes a complex set of ideas, that concept we regularly refer to as “economics”, and it goes out to explain it in a book that reviews human history through the eyes of economics. For example, it tells us about World War 1 not in terms of this battle and that battle, but rather in the terms of the economic struggles that led to it as well as “won” it. As it progresses through history it exposes us to the financial theories prevailing at the time, from Smith through Marx to Keynes and neoliberalism. Its message is pretty clear: the bigger trends of our human civilizations are the direct result of economic ones; we should therefore do our best to understand economics.
Economix is not just another achievement in the field of popularizing the portrayal of complex idea; it is a mighty achievement, similar on scale to Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. The reason for that is brilliantly simple: the whole story, told to us in person by author Michael Goodwin, is actually done in comics! That deserves a major “wow”, because here is a book that in many respects eclipses university grade material yet is incredibly accessible. Not only is it accessible, it is a pleasure to read, too! Credit obviously needs to go in the direction of its illustrator, Dan E. Burr.
“Plot” wise, Economix takes with its story all the way up to this year. In doing that, it shows us amazingly clearly how the wrongs of the past keep on repeating themselves. I strongly suspect neoliberals and the likes of American Republican or Australian Liberal supporters would classify it is left wing propaganda, but I will argue that one cannot argue with facts. And the facts are firmly supporting one side. I’ll put it this way: I doubt anyone reading Economix would be able to vote Romney afterwards. Not that Obama is a star, but in light of what Economix teaches its reader one cannot call the neoliberal fiscal policy anything but a sad joke.
I thus learned quite a lot from this seemingly simple book. I learned, for example, why my childhood days of coming home early from school to a welcoming home with a father and other relatives coming back from work the same time I did is no longer feasible (the answer has to do with the Vietnam War, amplified by heavy doses of Reaganomics as it was applied in various guises since the eighties). This annoys me a hell of a lot: my main problem in life at the moment is my inability to relax and/or feel like I’m a good parent, and the stress that’s causing that is all to do with the demands of work. Demands that, at the better financial times of my childhood days, did not exist. The social effects go further: as a child I used to spend most of my leisure time outside with friends, totally unsupervised; can anyone see that happening now? Read Economix and you will see that it is because of financial circumstances that we border ourselves, and our kids, up.
Moving back to the global level, our world is currently troubled by the problem of getting out of the GFC. Economies such as Spain's are set to impose austerity measures upon themselves; the USA is printing two dollars for every dollar it actually produces; and in Australia, a country that managed to escape the wrath of the GFC through its natural resources and a healthy amount of spending, the whole fiscal debate revolves around producing a budget surplus as quickly as possible. Who would have believed we have Labor running the show when they are doing their damn best to out-Liberal the Liberals?
The point is, in all three cases I presented above the proposed and implemented policies are clearly wrong (if you don’t believe me, read Economix). Yet the powers that be are allowed to go ahead with measures that would make the vast majority of the population miserable as they give the powerful ones, that famous one percent [of the one percent], their license to print money. This can only happen in a democracy when the general population is ignorant; Economix is exactly the type of cure to remedy this sad situation with. It worked for me!
Overall: Here is a heavy book I did not mind carrying with me in this era when the ebook vastly dominates my reading. Invaluable, entertaining and dare I say revolutionary, you owe it to yourself to give Economix a go. This is a 5 out of 5 stars of a book that takes the whole format a step forward.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Kramer vs. Kramer

Lowdown: A family coming to terms with the mother leaving.
Review:
As classics go, 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer is a film well worth revisiting if only for the superb acting on display. There is a lot more going for it, though, which I hope to cover here.
We follow a New York family of three. The father, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is more engaged in his advertising career than he is with his family; the mother, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), cannot take the frustration anymore. That same evening the film starts, she puts their seven year old boy Billy (Justin Henry) to bed, packs up and leaves home and a startled, just back from post work drinks Ted, behind.
The next morning Ted starts his new life. This life around he is a parent first and a career person second; obviously, it takes time for both him and his son to get used to that. When, eventually, Joanna comes back for her child our Ted knows where he wants to make his stand. Things deteriorate into the Kramer vs. Kramer trial the film has become famous for.
The thing that blew me out about Kramer vs. Kramer was its realism. With the exception of the obvious age gap between Hoffman and Streep, this is a no bullshit movie where things are portrayed as they truly are, most particularly the joys and tribulations of parenthood but also those of the working parent. Take parenthood as an example and check out all the little details: the way the child plays with his toys, eats his food, ignores his father’s pleas, falls at the playground… The relationship side of the equation is just as authentically managed, dealing with problems most couples would face through their relationships. When complimented by the acting skills of two of the world’s best actors, Kramer vs. Kramer is a film that goes out and reaches deep inside its viewer. It certainly did with this parent of a similarly aged boy whose main challenge in life is balancing life’s demands, career and other duties, against the demands of parenthood. Especially when the feeling of failure tends to dominate.
The realism of Kramer vs. Kramer also serves as an authentic historical document of the seventies. We can see the way people dressed and behaved at the time and we can also see the way New York City was like at the time: the same New York I visited as a boy. At the time I was mesmerised by the perceived relative affluence of Americans, as symbolized by comparing the toys Billy plays with and the toys I used to have as a child. Back to the here and now, it is clear globalization and the Internet have shrunk that gap and even made things worse for the average American. On the other hand, the rest of the world tends to have to pay more for things than Americans do. I’ll finish off with this: you know a film works when it makes you ponder indirect ponderings such as mine here.
Best scenes:
There are three scenes where Ted and Billy have breakfast together that are meant to symbolize the status of their relationship at the time. The first takes place immediately after the breakup and, as expected, what starts as French toast ends up a disaster. The second has our heroes adjusting: father and son share donuts as each reads their respective morning paper, mimicking fairly well the meals I tend to have with my son. The third breakfast, towards the ends of the film, goes back to French toast. Now, however, everything runs smoothly. Just the way they ran when my wife prepared us all a French toast breakfast this past Sunday.
Overall: If you’ve watched it ages ago, go pay Kramer vs. Kramer a visit, especially if you’ve turned parents since. And if you never watched Kramer vs. Kramer, go do yourself a favour! 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.

Monday, 1 October 2012

I Love You Phillip Morris

Lowdown: Not a film about cigarettes.
Review:
I Love You Phillip Morris turned out to be a film with only one ace up its otherwise uninspiring sleeve. I came in expecting something along the lines of Thank You for Smoking, and found myself taken by total surprise by a film having nothing to do with cigarettes. If anything, I was reminded of Catch Me If You Can.
In what is alleged to be a true story, we follow Steven Russell (Jim Carrey). We start with him at hospital following a traffic accident as he is reconsidering his life thus far: given away for adoption as a baby left him scarred, and a career as a disloyally married policeman left him unsatisfied. Russell decides not to open a new page upon his release from hospital; instead he decides to start a brand new book.
He becomes openly gay, establishes a relationship with a hot guy, and sports a lavish lifestyle. How can he pull it off? By cheating, of course. Conning can only get Russell thus far, though, and quickly enough he finds himself in jail. He knows how to take care of himself there, but he also meets a guy who doesn’t – Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two fall in love, Russell takes it upon himself to take care of Morris, and upon his release goes back to being a conman in order to support the cause. Probably because it’s the only thing he knows, too.
The rest of the film is mostly made of the interactions between Russell and the law, including some incredibly enterprising methods of escaping jail. The question I found myself asking, though, was – is that enough to build a film on? And id that is the case, is this what the film should have been like? The answers I kept giving myself were "no".
For a start, I found I Love You Phillip Morris, with its short duration and all (just a bit more than an hour and a half) to be quite boring. Second, I could not avoid the Jim Carrey factor. Not necessarily because I grew to despise his anti vaccination efforts, but also because his acting stands out and not in a good way. I agree that some times his style works; I don’t think I Love You Phillip Morris represents such a case. In contrast, McGregor provides a perfect display that just shows how bad the Carrey affair is.
Want some positives? There is plenty of male to male kissing here, probably doubling the amount Hollywood generated thus far in all the films predating Phillip Morris.
Best scene: We learn how Russell escaped jail by dying of AIDS. I mean, wow! (Remember, this is based on true events)
Overall: The case of I Love You Phillip Morris collapsed on me through its Jim Carrey factor. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Guard

Lowdown: The only good policeman in a remote Irish town is the esoteric one.
Review:
As far as remakes of High Noon are concerned, we probably thought we’ve seen them all already. That’s a wrong assumption to make, with The Guard proves to be a High Noon done the Irish way.
Our Gary Cooper for an hour and a half is Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), to whom we are first introduced when he indifferently sieves through the dead bodies of teenagers who killed themselves driving recklessly on a high. Our policeman stops his operation only upon finding an ecstasy tablet. Which, of course, he consumes.
The political incorrectness of our Gerry doesn’t stop there. He openly welcomes call girls to his dwelling, he openly admits to trying out drugs (and mocks claims that the addiction to crack is established after a single exposure), he deals weapons with the IRA… You name it. But he is good hearted about it all and, in his way, he truly cares about his job and the community – as we’ll quickly find out, much more than most of the rest of his colleagues.
The plot thickens when a black FBI agent (Don Cheadle) drops in to catch a notorious drug dealing gang (featuring, amongst others, Mark Strong). The FBI seeks the cooperation of the local Irish police, but the latter seem to be mostly messing them about. The exception is our Gerry, who is both openly racist towards Cheadle’s character as well as providing genuine contribution to its efforts, even if the latter is done the Irish way.
I gave too much away by hinting things develop towards a High Noon like replica, but that is not the point of The Guard. The point is the path to get there, and that path is full of witty jokes woven around the Irish setting and its peculiarities, particularly those of our chief protagonist. In a world awash with political correctness, The Guard serves as a good reminder that there are better ways to do things if we stop to think about it. These start with better ways to make films than the crap Hollywood pours all over us, a point well delivered through a simple unassuming comedy.
Just a word of warning before I finish off: it can be quite hard to understand what those bloody Irish are saying. When they speak Gaelic it’s easy because of subtitles; it’s when they speak English that us viewers have to work hard.
Best scene: Our sergeant wakes up in the morning in totally unglamorous fashion, wearing only Y-fronts, and gives his balls a good rubbing. The things they never show you at Hollywood!
Overall: A simple yet entertaining film. That is to say, The Guard is nice! 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Mass Effect: Ascension by Drew Karpyshyn

Lowdown: The second novel set in the Mass Effect universe.
Review:
In practice, any book set in the Mass Effect universe would have limited appeal: those unfamiliar with the related video games would seem to have no reason to approach the books. In the case of Mass Effect: Ascension, or Ascension henceforth, that is a pity. The book is quite a fine tale of science fiction adventure packing some interesting thoughts.
Published in 2008, Ascension is the sequel to Mass Effect: Revelation. While the former tried to provide a backstory to the 2007 released Mass Effect video game, Ascension comes in between the release of the first Mass Effect game and 2010’s Mass Effect 2. It lives up to its part, pretty much setting the scene for Mass Effect 2.
We follow multiple characters, chief amongst which are Grayson, a drug addicted mercenary killer in the services of Cerberus, and Kahlee Sanders: heroine of the first book in the series and now a trainer at an academy for children with biotic powers (to the uninitiated: these are powers that utilize dark energy to move physical objects). The plot revolves around Gillian, Grayson’s autistic daughter and the bearer of record biotic powers for the species. This puts her under the sites of the pro human (and anti everything else) organization Cerberus, who do not hesitate to bend ethical principles down in their attempts to gain humanity advantage over alien species. As a result of this setting we follow a story woven between different characters across different world and races, with a lot of attention given to the Quarians and their Migrant Fleet.
The adventure story created in Ascension is not a page turner only affair. There is some significant sophistication about it: there are multiple well defined complex characters in roles of varying shades of gray. There is political incorrectness about, including sex scenes one would not normally associate with a book allegedly created at a marketing department so as to make further killing on the back of a successful video game. More surprisingly, there are clear messages concerning cutting edge social issues such as our ongoing war with terrorism or the social virtues of the Quarian society. Virtues that, if one stops to think about it, are in contrast to the free market all conquering capitalism of the USA. I do wonder whether this was possible because BioWare, creator of the Mass Effect universe, is a Canadian company.
Ascension is not without blemishes, chief amongst which are some cheap means of plot advancement. These are of a type I also pointed at in my review of Revelation. For example, we first learn that a certain character we deemed a goodie is a baddie when, for no particular reason, another character tells us it has a bad feeling about “this guy”. Then again, there is a bigger elephant in the room: as good as Ascension might be, it would still have limited appeal to those unfamiliar with Mass Effect; and given the limited introduction offered by the book there is no chance of it ever breaking free to stand by its own rights.
Overall: A fine science fiction adventure that’s tied a bit too tightly to its video game origins to truly stand out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.