Friday, 27 January 2012

Lying by Sam Harris

Lowdown: A philosophical discussion on lying and its damaging repercussions.
Review:
Like Christopher Hitchens’ The Enemy, Sam Harris’ Lying is a $2 Kindle Single. This means it’s an essay, far from book length, that's written by the fellow horseman of the anti apocalypse; who cares if neither’s subject matter has much to do with the analysis of religion that won both authors much of their acclaim? The Kindle Single format is not bad at all, offering me quality time out from the lengthy book I’m currently reading (a Christopher Hitchens book, of course).
Harris’ essay starts with his conclusion. Lying, he argues, is always bad and at least in all the cases he looked at it should have always been avoided. He then moves on to explain: he defines what lying is (in a meaningful, non dictionary like manner), and then he sets out to explore different forms of lying. By analysing the thinking behind the lies and the repercussions of these lies, he clearly points out lying’s damaging effects on both liar and victim. Even white lies, where we lie because we think the person lied to will benefit, get knocked by Harris’ hammer. Harris' conclusion is simple: the person who tells no lies lives a happier life, one that is unburdened by the weight of lies.
Generally speaking, Harris and I are in agreement. The life of a truthful person is the easier life, one of the main reasons why I aspire for truthfulness and transparency: I’m a lazy person at heart, a person who openly asks others not to share secrets with him because of not wanting that extra load to carry. It is exactly because of my general agreement with Harris that I have a problem with his all encompassing conclusion that lying is always bad.
Take my house rental dilemma (discussed here) as an example: looking for a place to rent, should I lie and say I am looking to rent a place for a year when I know fully well that I only need it for six months? By lying I know that I make myself an attractive renter to landlords; I also know I don’t stand much of a chance of getting a nice place to live at otherwise, if I was to tell the truth. So what should I do – be truthful and live in a dump for six months, or lie and be fully willing to pay the financial consequences of the lie? After all, I won’t be the first to ever break their leasing agreement; we call this experience of ours life because, amongst others, it’s ever changing. Circumstances change and so do leasing agreements; in the grand scheme of things lies may not matter that much.
I will therefore argue, based on Harris’ own arguments from The Moral Landscape, that there can be no absolute judgement on lying. The real question is the maximization of well being, which – as with the case of my house rental dilemma – could, in one way or another, be better served by a lie. Unlikely, yet possible. Enough to make me doubt Harris' conclusion as I admire his style of arguing.
Overall: Well written and thought provoking, Lying is well worth its admission price and its reader’s time. At 4 out of 5 stars, it leaves me waiting in anticipation for Harris’ upcoming [full length] book, Free Will.

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel

Lowdown: Three useless guys become involved in a time travel conundrum.
Review:
The connection between me and 2009’s Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel (let’s call if FAQ from now on, shall we?) is easy to draw: Chris O’Dowd, star of my favorite The IT Crowd, also stars in this small time British (Irish?) production.
FAQ features O’Dowd as a useless sci-fi geek, out of his theme park job because he's scaring the kids. Together with two similarly useless mates of his they go for drinks at the pub, where things go crazy when he goes to the bar get some drinks: there he meets a beautiful girl that obviously admires him, and is probably the first to do so. She also tells him she comes from the future, which makes the whole admiration thing that much more plausible. When one of the other friends goes to the toilet he returns to find everyone dead, but also sees enough evidence to note there is something very wrong with the flow of time. Eventually the gang of three regroups, and between trips to the toilet they wage their way through this time confusion to sort things out. Maybe.
Clearly, between its subject matter and its heroes, FAQ is a geek’s film. However, that does automatically mean FAQ is a good geek’s film; not at all. Personally, I have found it more boring than amusing. Hard to believe O’Dowd’s comic talents can be so poorly wasted.
Where FAQ totally lost me, though, was the point I realized the film would never even try to bother explaining what was going on. It seemed happy to settle with taking the charade further and further, but the lack of tying things down made the whole affair feel more like a little child's lie than a film I would want to watch. From then on I couldn’t really take it anymore, and from a potentially entertaining film that failed to entertain me thus far FAQ turned into a proper bore.
Overall: I felt like Frequently Asked Questions About Time Travel was working at a level that is beneath me. 1 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Hereafter

Lowdown: A woman, a man and a child from three different countries are united by the touch of death.
Review:
Given that Clint Eastwood is probably my favorite director I certainly took my time to watch his Hereafter. That is probably the result of a somewhat lukewarm reception and lack of clarity on what this film is about; in retrospect, from this side of watching the film, I can understand why.
Hereafter is one of those stories where we watch several different threads, and  as we jump from one to the other we know fully well they are bound to collide, eventually, and probably in some unexpected manner. In Hereafter's particular case we follow three different people/threads.
First we meet the famous French journalist Marie (Cécile De France). Her exotic beach holiday quickly turns sour when a tsunami hits the shores; she does her best, but the debris get her. Eventually she regains consciousness, but not before her aiders give up on her dead body. Now she is awake, but she is a different person.
Moving on, we meet George (Matt Damon) from San Francisco, a medium fully capable of talking to the dead. For real! He think his gift is a curse and avoids it by working hard at a factory and seeking human company at cooking lessons. That’s where he meets the new to town Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), who is there for similar reasons. However, George’s inability to avoid touching people without seeing their related dead blocks him from any meaningful relationship.
Last we have two London twin children whose single mother is a drug addict. They are resourceful in protecting their mother and covering her up from the authorities, but one thing leads to another and one of the twins gets run over. The remaining one feels compelled to access his now dead brother so he can continue guiding him through life the way he always did.
What transpires from this point onwards is a touching tale, told in the typically Eastwood-ian relaxed and considered style. The acting of all leads is great, which adds a lot to the storytelling, with cameos from the likes of Derek Jacobi making things even better. Eastwood's management of the film's international aspects, such as multiple languages, is probably the best I've ever seen. All in all, one can argue Hereafter, through its dealings with the world of the dead, is a science fiction / fantasy film with a very human story concerning the longing for an understanding soul and the human touch.
Alas, there is an elephant in the room, and that mammoth is to do with Hereafter’s treatment of the concept of death and what lies behind it. I can understand a film that invents life after death and uses it to enhance its story; that’s a typical fantasy element. However, when the film keeps on insisting that there is proof for life after death, and that the world of science is actively trying to subdue the proof in some sort of a conspiracy, Hereafter crosses a very definitive border into the land of bullshit. Again, one can argue that everything’s fair in the land of fantasy storytelling, to which I will answer back that Hereafter clearly tries to pass as a regular drama and uses arguments that many if not most of the population (but no one with a bit of science in their blood) would unashamedly regard as authentic and real. For me it was just a bridge too far, and with all the sympathy I felt for the actors I could not truly relate to Hereafter.
I can only speculate on whether Eastwood choice of making this film has something to do with his advanced age. I’m troubled by this proposition, though, because I fully wish and expect many more films to come out of Eastwood’s hands. Perhaps Hereafter is not his best film ever, but do I really want to see him making the same film again and again?
Interesting scene: The tsunami at the beginning of Hereafter is interesting. I believe this is the first time I see a complicated effects shot involving massive CGI on a Clint Eastwood film. In typical Eastwood fashion the scene is exquisitely directed: on one hand there is the general chaos all around, on the other we are fully capable of focusing on Marie’s personal struggle to survive the calamity.
Technical assessment: Eastwood’s films never achieve more than average production value qualities, and this Blu-ray is no exception.
Overall: As touching as the tale is and as sympathetic as I am to its characters, I am finding it hard to endorse Hereafter. With that in mind I'll settle for 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Muppets

Lowdown: After years of disbandment, friends and Muppets organize a show to save the Muppet Studios.
Review:
Ours is a very Muppet friendly house. You can say all three members grew up on the Muppets: I remember watching the show in black & white on Friday afternoons, a boy still unable to read the subtitles or understand the English but a very amused boy nevertheless (oh, the days of having a single TV channel!); my wife has similar childhood stories, albeit with more channels and full listening comprehension; and my four year old son is a fan of the series we’ve been introducing him too. He doesn’t care whether the episodes he’s watching are more than thirty years old; Mahna Mahna is till hilariously funny. (Anecdote: Mahna Mahna is the first Muppet performance on the very first Muppets episode.)
Thus when The Muppets, the first Muppet film to hit the cinema in decades, finally landed in Australia some two months after its release in the USA (and then they dare complain about piracy), we made our way to the cinema. Not because we expected much – none of the Muppets movies have been particularly good – but because it promised fun for all of us. In retrospect, the results were exactly the way we've anticipated them.
We follow two brothers living in somewhere USA, a town that seems stuck in the fifties: Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter – who is a Muppet (finally, we know how they’re created!). Life can be hard, with Walter being a Muppet in a society of humans, but Gary stands by his side. When Gary goes for a tour of California with his wedding anxious girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) he feels compelled to take Walter with him so the latter can visit his sacred temple: the Muppet Studios.
Alas, when they arrive at the shrine they discover it to be a deserted dump. Worse, Walter eavesdrops on this rich millionaire (Chris Cooper) that plots to take control over the studios and turn them into an oil field. What can be done about it? Well, what do you think - is there anything else that can reconvene the Muppets after so many long years for a show to collect the money they need to keep hold of their theater? There are hurdles on the way, though. Like reluctant Muppets, not to mention the Muppets’ deadly rivals – the Moopets.
Let’s make two things clear: (a) plot is not The Muppets’ strongest point and (b) The Muppets is a musical, which means that characters burst into song all too often. Generally speaking, I have a problem with musicals but I don't have a problem with Muppets' musical performances because they're so funny and original. Sadly, The Muppets' musicals expose what is probably the biggest problem with the film: there is not enough Muppets stuff in it; too much of it is to do with either the human characters or that new Muppet, Walter. My gripe: as a veteran Muppet fan I have absolutely no emotional attachment to this Walter character!
Not that the human character are devoid of issues. Despite the good acting talent at hand, acting is not exactly at Oscar winning levels. Worse, Segel is not exactly Fred Astaire. And Amy Adams? In typical Hollywood fashion, her character is only interested in getting married. Because everyone knows a woman is no good without a husband by her side! Since when did such conservative values go together with the anarchic Muppets? Probably since Disney took over the joint.
The human side of the equation is not all bad. Cooper is a lovely baddie, and his musical number is entertaining purely for the surprise factor. Numerous cameos spread throughout the film add some extra laughs (I liked Emily Blunt's because I like Emily Blunt, but a David Grohl playing Animal's Moopet counterpart wins top spot); on the other hand, the cameos' value is nothing but anecdotal. They don't add anything to the film, especially not for the kids that have no idea they're witnessing a celebrity at work.
Add all the marketing attitudes, musical numbers and relative lack of Muppet action - most characters are never developed behind the two seconds used to introduce them - and you get an entertaining yet tedious film that's probably too long for its own good.
Best scene:
As much as I detest musicals, I have to hand it to “Am I a Man or Am I a Muppet”. First, because the song is so silly it’s incredibly catchy, and second because of the casting of Sheldon Cooper (or rather, Jim Parsons) to play Walter’s human alter ego. Still, as good as the movie song’s performance is, its best performance ever has to be my son’s while having a shower.
Another worthy contender to the crown is a Muppet barbershop quartet rendition of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit. Unlike Man or Muppet, which is a normal song performed normally for all intents and purposes, this one is a proper Muppet performance.
Extra feature:
We were surprised to see a Pixar short prior to The Muppets starting. I guess Disney is making the most of owning Pixar nowadays. The short was another Toy Story tale, this time about abandoned kids' meals toys. Its problem is that by now Toy Story has set the bar pretty high, but the recent inflation in Toy Story shorts (there was one with Cars 2, too) feels like it's chipping the brand.
Technical assessment:
Given how rare it is for us to visit the cinema I will spend a couple of sentences on the experience. First, the sheer size of the cinema screen does make for a different experience than home viewing; what I don’t understand is why the cinema feels justified in charging us $2 extra per ticket simply because we watched the film on a large (aka "max") cinema screen. Personally, I would refer to what we’ve seen the film projected on as a "normal cinema screen"; those small cubicle like cinemas at the multiplex are not “normal” cinemas, they’re blasphemy.
Second, it was amusing to see how poorly calibrated cinema sound is. It was all too easy, and actually quite distracting, for me to be able to identify exactly which speaker each bit of sound came from. That’s not surround sound, that’s sound coming in from a disarray of speakers.
Overall:
The Muppets is fun and its obvious it was made with love. However, it has too many issues to receive proper commendation. I’m giving it 2.5 out of 5 stars, but I will add that we will probably end up with the DVD/Blu-ray in our collection due to its compatibility with the household's four year old.
Personally, I would say there is much more fun to be had from watching any of the good old Muppets episodes than watching this film. Not because the film is so bad but rather because the series was just so exceptionally good! Given the abundance of episodes there really is no need to ruin the vintage taste other than the introduction of the Muppets to younger audiences.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

I Am Number Four

Lowdown: An alien with superhero abilities who is masquerading as a human teen hides from international assassins at an average American high school.
Review:
Teenage films feel like they’ve always been there. However, through successes like Twilight, Hollywood’s bean counters seemed to have realized there is a lot of money to be made out of producing contents aimed at dealing directly with teenagers’ anxieties (rather than, say, producing the gross comedies for teens I grew up with). I Am Number Four is a fine example for such a film, but it is also an example for the main problem besetting films made mostly by the bean counting / marketing departments: poor quality.
I Am Number Four pulls the science fiction card on the theme (again). Aliens have landed on earth, and they are goodie refugees escaping their home planet from a race of other, vicious, aliens. Ten of them goodies have superpowers that will develop as they mature, and in the mean time they have their individual guardians looking after them as they spread across the globe. However, they need to be careful: even upon earth they are being hunted by those evil aliens; plus the fact that by having supernatural abilities, like lighting up, they are rather conspicuous to the humans of earth (even if, for all other intents and purposes, they appear and behave human). Our dear aliens address this problem by moving around all the time.
Number Four (Alex Pettyfer), the film's alien of choice, embarks on such a move as the film starts. Defying his guardian’s instructions he decides to camouflage himself by going to school (what a silly idea!), where he immediately befriends a sexy girl, feels sympathy for a geek that’s being harassed by the cool guys, and develops a love/hate relationship with this same cool gang. We basically have ourselves the regular teenager themes here, as seen from the male point of view: teenage love, bullying and acceptance into social circles. However, in the case of I Am Number Four things are all supernaturally magnified by fantastic themes: the hero’s superhero abilities, the baddies tracking him down, and a mysterious blonde chick (Teresa Palmer) that’s also tracking him down and has a fetish to fire and explosions (not to mention an Aussie accent). Given the movie does its best to render the baddies ugly, it is pretty clear where the blonde's allegiances lies.
And there's the rub with I Am Number Four. It is pretty entertaining, in a simple sort of way; but it is also quite predictable (zero rewards for guessing school is going to end up as the film's battlefield), riddled with clichés, and overfilled with stereotypes. Not to mention various things that don't make sense, like the hero's guardian use of a particularly pathetic looking short sword to defend his master with from baddies carrying full blown blasters. Perhaps once upon a time when teens would rarely watched films aimed directly at them films could get away with such trash, but in today's scene where kids start watching feature films at the age of three I Am Number Four can no longer get way with being labelled teen fodder.
Worst scene:
Number Four’s geeky friend tells him he always knew there are aliens amongst us. The reason? His father told him so and he grew to believe in it so much. And real teens are supposed to acquire their inspiration from bullshit arguments such as that?
Let me break it to you. There are hundreds of millions of Muslims out there that believe strongly in their prophet; there are also hundreds of millions of Christians out there that believe strongly in their prophet. Obviously, with all their strong beliefs, at least one of these groups has to be wrong! I would argue that both are wrong, but regardless – my point is that hundreds of millions of people with strong beliefs have to be wrong despite all of their believing.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray on the picture side sporting above average sound. Pity the sound is used to make the viewer jump in their seat all too often.
Overall: While mildly entertaining, there can be no doubt Number Four is trash. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 16 January 2012

Limitless

Lowdown: A mysterious drug turns a failure of a person into a mega success, but also makes him very wanted by various all sorts.
Review:
What if a silver bullet to life has been found, and you’re given exclusive access to it? That is, more or less, the question behind Limitless. Only that in Limitless’ case, it’s not you that’s given the silver bullet but rather Eddie (Bradley Cooper).
Eddie’s a total failure: he managed to get a book contract but never managed writing a word; he lives at a dump with not much hope of paying the rent; and his beautiful girlfriend (Abbie Cornish, gradually making her presence knows at Hollywood) figures him out and dumps him.
By now one can already point some issues out with Limitless. Credibility wise, are we really expected to believe a first time author would have a contract before writing a word? And cliché wise, how come all movie heroes automatically get a ravishingly beautiful girlfriend even if they are total failures? And what’s wrong with an ordinary looking girlfriend in the first place? I’ll stop the rant under the assumption my point was made: Limitless is flawed at its core with the traditional plethora of Hollywood misconceptions.
On the positive side, Limitless greatly improves from that point onwards. Our hero meets a dodgy character from the past who gives him an alleged magic pill. Eddie’s a skeptic but he tries it still: immediately, he becomes much more aware of what’s around him. The pill has made him much, much smarter: he gets his way with the landlord, he plunges right into writing his book, etc etc. In short, from a failure he becomes a success. Yet again, though, Limitless suffers a mild reliability problem: we are told the pill works because it helps one uses the brain’s full potential, given that everyone “knows” we only use 20% if that potential in our daily lives. Bullshit alert: there is no way evolution would give us a brain and then let us use only 20% of it; we would either fall victim to those that use 21% or we would be wasting vast resources on something we never utilize.
But we’ll bite the bullet and return to our hero, Eddie, whose one off pill is starting to lose its effect. The pill was so good that Eddie goes off to get some more (naturally). When he arrives at his dodgy dealer’s place he finds him dead, or rather murdered; he finds the stash of magic pills before the police arrives.
Using the pills, Eddie’s life trajectory is suddenly pointing all the way up. Alas, the drug has side effects: physical ones, like those of any other drug, and less obvious ones too. Such as the fact him having the stash of drugs makes Eddie very wanted in the eyes of many others who seek similar powers. Thus start lethal games of cloaks and daggers between Eddie and the various power hungry people in his life (including a Robert De Niro), with lots of ups and downs for all. One rule of thumb prevails throughout: he (or she) who has the pill prevails.
Taken at face value, there is not much to Limitless other than being a thrilling ride with some sort of an imaginary nature to it. If anything, the film can be accused of having the exact same structure as Megamind, a kids’ film (both films start with their hero about to die off a fall, and then flashes back). However, this perceived shallowness could also be interpreted as Limitless’ main strength in the sense that it lets the viewer ponder on the applicability of its plot to the real world. And applicability there is!
First, pills such as Limitless’ do exist. For decades now, fighter pilots have been given pills to keep them alert for extra lengths of time at the cockpit. About two years ago Scientific American published an article on the merits of pills alleged to make students smart, pondering on the merits of taking these pills before tests. The problem posed by Limitless is therefore very real, and even though in the real world it wouldn’t be one person in possession of all the pills society would still have to contend with a world in which those that can afford it will suddenly turn into much better people than those that can’t. Now that would be something to riot about!
Expanding on the allegory here, one can argue Limitless is some sort of a tale on the “virtues” of capitalism (itself represented thoroughly in the film by De Niro and others). That is, the issues facing a dog eat dog world where those with the power are the only ones to truly make choices in life.
Problematic scene: Without blooping too much, Limitless’ ending found me somewhat disappointed (and not solely due to the horrendous hairstyle Copper adopts there). Given the alternate ending on the Blu-ray, it appears the filmmakers have grappled the matter, too. I will say this: Limitless, of all films, is crying out for a dark ending.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is a bit of a mixed bag. The constant alterations between an oversaturated world (when the hero’s on the drug) and a more monochromatic one (when he’s off) means that fidelity is not something one could look for here. Things are good on the sound side.
Overall: Always nice to watch a good science fiction film, and Limitless definitely qualifies. I’m giving it 4 out of 5 stars, which means I have found another film worthy of a Hugo nomination this year.

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Bridesmaids

Lowdown: A single woman going through a crisis triggered by her best friend’s wedding.
Review:
It’s funny how expectations can be deceiving, and Bridesmaids proved a fine example. Through all the reviews and snippets I’ve been exposed to, I have been led to believe Bridemaids is some sort of a vulgar comedy that mocks the whole institution of the wedding ceremony and does so from the female’s point of view. As it turns out, I was wrong: yes, Bridesmaids is all of the above, but it is mostly a film about a single woman in her thirties that’s struggling against social expectations (amplified and manifested through the wedding). The film’s journey sorts her out, more or less, and helps her realize what’s important in life (friends) and what’s less important (wedding ceremonies). By doing it all from the female point of view, instead of the male one that dominates the world of American cinema, Bridesmaids can be regarded as quite a revolutionary film by Hollywood’s standards.
Our hero is Annie (Kristen Wiig), to whom we’re introduced while she’s having sex with a fuck-buddy that doesn’t care much for her. We learn she used to run her own baking shop that went under due to the GFC; we learn she drives an old lemon; we learn she works at a dead end job; we learn she shares her apartment with two weird flatmates; and we learn her best friend since childhood, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) is soon to be married with our Annie nominated as the bridesmaids’ CEO (or best-woman, or whatever the term is).
At this point we’re introduced to the rest of the bridesmaids’ crew. These include the would be husband’s obese and weird sister, a friend who’s only ever had sex with her husband, another friend with kids who can’t tolerate parenthood anymore, and - most notably - Helen (Rose Byrne), the lonely wife of the husband to be’s boss. Helen’s got lots of money on her hands, no one to give her attention, and nothing to do with her time but compete for Lillian’s top spot against our Annie. As the war wages between the two, the already cracked ground breaks loose under Annie’s weight and her life takes a dive. Saving her will take a lot of initiative on her part, and a lot of effort from friends – including an unlikely highway patrol man, Rhodes (Chris O’Dowd of The IT Crowd’s fame).
Combine all of the above into the mix that is Bridesmaids and I would say the dish in your hands is a drama with comic elements that lacks [most of] the corny stuff that normally gets labelled under “romantic comedy”. Romance is not at the top of this film’s agenda but rather friendship, with males playing only a minor role to the dominant female characters. That, I guess, is exactly why Bridesmaids managed to successfully win the reputation it rightly acquired: it’s rare to see Hollywood treat issues besetting most Western females so thoroughly, even if it does so in its typical exaggerated manner. Perhaps that is why Bridesmaids sought comedy talent from overseas with its use of Rhodes as well as Matt Lucas (of Little Britain fame) for key supporting roles.
Best scene: In one of the pre-wedding gathering events that are held by American wedding traditions, Helen and Annie try to outdo one another and show just how they are Lillian’s bestest friend ever by repeatedly trying to surpass each other’s speech. The scene’s simply hilarious, and more sophisticatedly so than the subsequent tennis match between the two characters that turns into the two trying to kill each other with high velocity balls.
Technical assessment:
Whoever it was that designed the menu system on Bridesmaids’ Blu-ray should be shot. After we finished watching the film we went to the extras menu, where we discovered the existence of a longer (10 extra minutes) unrated version of the film. Why weren’t we told about it before watching the cinematic version? No one looks at the extras menu before they watch the film for fear of spoilers; the menu design should have taken that into account.
Other than that, this is an average quality Blu-ray. The use of sound is particularly mundane.
Overall:
I’ll be harsh and give Bridesmaids 3 out of 5 stars for being just a nice comedy.
However, I am seriously bothered by whether the film’s uniqueness should have earned it an extra half star; the main reason I didn’t give it that bonus is that Bridesmaids is only unique in the context of mainstream American cinema; it is not unique in the context of cinema as a whole. That is to say, Bridesmaids appears good just because most of the stuff coming from Hollywood’s direction is so bad.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Oranges and Sunshine

Lowdown: A social worker is amazed to discover children were abducted by the English state and sent off to Australia.
Review:
It’s the nineteen eighties. A British social worker from Nottingham, Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson) coincidentally stumbles upon two similar stories. One is of an Australian woman claiming to be English but forcibly abducted to Australia as a child. The other has to do with a familiar woman who faintly remembers having a brother when she was a little child, and has reasons to believe that brother has been sent to Australia. Could this really be a coincidence?
Humphreys starts investigating the matter, and the more investigating she does the more people with similar life stories she identifies: English people who were forcibly detached from their families as children and “exported” to Australia, where they were treated as slave labor for the institutions raising them. The numbers are astounding; there is no way so many kids could go through that fate without some governmental approval. But if that is the case, how come no one heard of this scheme?
Humphreys finds her commitment levels to the cause constantly rising, and as they do they have an effect on her person and family. In parallel, she starts identifying abductees and uniting them with loved ones. The simple drama behind the film begs the question how far she can. Is she in for the long ride?
The scariest thing about Oranges and Sunshine is that its story is entirely true. It is the tale of what is now known in Australia as that of the Forgotten Children: between the end of the Second World War and 1970, tens of thousands of children were exported from England to Australia (as well as other Commonwealth countries). On the UK side of things, these were children from “problematic” backgrounds, such as those born outside of wedlock. Against their will, and usually against the will of their families who were left in the dark, these children were then exported to an Australia that welcomed them as positive contribution to the White Australia agenda. Typically, the kids would be raised at church related institutions, where in effect they would be used as slave labor and where they’d often be raped in that typical style the church is so good at (and so good at getting out of).
Oranges and Sunshine, a film named after the promises made to these kids in order to entice them to board the ships that would take them to where the rest of their now desolate childhoods would be spent, attempts to portray to its viewers just what this Forgotten Children phenomenon is all about. It does so in a rather subtle manner through the invocation of a few true personal stories: the social worker that uncovered the whole thing to the public (Humphreys), as well as two victims brilliantly portrayed by Hugo Weaving and David Wenham.
If you ask me, the greatest compliment I can bestow on Oranges and Sunshine has to do with the way it shows us just how badly the entities we trust the most can fail us. Most of us tend to regard our own governments as trustworthy: we are the good side, it’s the others that do bad things. Well, Oranges and Sunshine comes in to tell us that even the goodie governments of the UK and Australia can commit atrocities, and not just upon the citizens of remote countries like Vietnam or Iraq. It's not only countries whose population happens to look slightly different to “us” that suffer: no, we can do the worst things ever to our very own. And if that is the case, then surely we can do unjustifiably bad things to those slightly different to us, can we? The lesson is simple: we need to check our governments and check our corporations. We need to vote for the transparent politician, not the one that only promises. And we need a society with healthy media. And don't get me started about the church!
Under such light, Oranges and Sunshine is more than a riveting true story about great injustices performed by supposedly advanced Western countries, affecting hundreds of thousands of people, and taking place during the lifetime of many reading this review. Oranges and Sunshine is a lesson in what good citizenship should mean: good citizenship means the ability to look your country and institutions in the eye and call things the way they are, even if those things disturb some holy grails.
Best scene: While walking along a beach, Weaving breaks down before Humphreys and shares some stories about his identity deprived childhood. A marvellous display of fine acting helps communicate this important story.
Technical assessment: Not that bad a DVD, but not one you’d be using to test your speakers and TV with.
Overall: Oranges and Sunshine should be integrated into the school curriculum of all the countries involved. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Gone with the Wind

Lowdown: A southern love triangle set around the American civil war.
Review:
One of the more amusing feuds I have had with my mother had to do with which of the two is the best film ever. To this young child, Star Wars looked the undeniable winner; my mother always went with 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Silly choice, if you ask me: how can a love story even begin to compare with death stars?
Oddly enough for a movie fan such as yours truly, who also happens to be the son of my mother, I never watched Gone with the Wind till last week (at least not in full). Having watched it I can rest assured now that my childhood preferences were, indeed, valid: Gone with the Wind is a classic for historical reasons, but Star Wars beats the hell out of it.
The story takes place at America’s south, specifically in Georgia, at around the time of the American Civil War. Our hero is Scarlett O’Hara (Vivian Lee), the spoiled daughter of a plantation owner from Ireland. Scarlett is admired by all the men around her, but she truly covets a guy who happens to be committed to another woman. Scarlett will stop at nothing to be with "her" man, including marrying other men altogether. In between that and the war, Scarlett gets exposed to the flamboyant Rhett Butler (Clark Gable), a sort of a playboy whose allegiances are vague but who, nevertheless, is the only one who recognizes Scarlett for the smart manipulator she really is. The rest of this overly long (close to four hours) film is the tale of the love triangle between Scarlett, the guy she really loves, and Rhett. The tale is made more interesting, of course, by the war setting and the character building exercise it proves to be.
So no, I didn’t like Gone with the Wind. Obviously, I found it too long, even if the story is conveniently divided into two halves (before and after the war) and even if we watched each half on a different seating. Scarlett’s annoying character is a major problem, too – she is far too annoying to sympathise or identify with, which left me un-associated with any of the characters for the whole movie. There is also the rather annoying way blacks are treated by the film as comic relief material; then again, at the time Gone with the Wind was made racism was more than politically correct, it was politically endorsed.
Most of all, though, I was annoyed with the over-acting rampant in Gone with the Wind. None of the characters act naturally; they all behave as if they’re playing at the theater all the time, or even worse. It made Gone with the Wind Go on my Nerves: people just don’t talk like that to one another. I guess one can therefore argue that through Gone with the Wind we are able to see just how far the art of movie making has advanced since. Or did it, really, given the artificial taste most contemporary Hollywood films leave in my mouth?
Best scenes: Being that Gone with the Wind is as classic as any movie can ever aspire to be, it is full of quotes one keeps on hearing everywhere. My favorite would have to be Rhett’s “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn”, because it encapsulates exactly what I felt about the movie after watching it for around four hours. Second place goes for the immediately following “After all... tomorrow is another day” by Scarlett, because it concludes the film (by which time I was perfectly able to forgive the rather detached manner in which this statement was made: it doesn't have much to do with the feel of the film that preceded it).
Overall: Worth watching to understand what the fuss is all about; however, I do advise preparing for a disappointment. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 9 January 2012

The Burning Bridge by John Flanagan

Lowdown: The further adventures of the boys as their kingdom faces an evil invasion.
Review:
The Burning Bridge is the second book in the Ranger’s Apprentice young adult fantasy series. That is, it is the sequel of The Ruins of Gorlan. By now the series includes 11 books with more to come, which sort of tells you what you can expect out of each of its title: a series of adventures and an open ending that leaves the ground fresh for the next sequel.
The Burning Bridge has our hero apprentice, Will, and his master Halt discovering the plans for an invasion to their medieval like kingdom. Through that intelligence the army prepares for the coming attack, while Will is sent in the company of some young colleagues to a side mission of peace. Things go wrong there, though, and in a totally expected manner Will finds out the true secret behind the pending invasion; the question is, will he and his younger colleagues be able to do enough in time?
There can be no denying The Burning Bridge is pulp fiction, a cheap tale of fantasy aimed to entertain but not much else. While Ruins of Gorlan had some good motifs to appeal to a growing up teen looking for their place in the world and shaping their identity, The Burning Bridge feels empty in comparison. It is a tale well told, with multiple narratives handled in parallel to heighten the suspension, but it is a simple swords and sorcery like tale; nothing more and nothing less. I used to consume a lot of these books as a young adult myself, and I’ve enjoyed The Burning Bridge as entertaining easy reading. I can clearly see its appeal.
One thing I did not like about The Burning Bridge are the things it takes for granted. The goodies’ society it portrays is not a democracy; it’s a monarchy. However, with each of the ruling class characters described as essentially flawless in character, the book can easily create the wrong impression with its younger readers as to the virtues of dictatorships. Another thing that’s taken for granted by the goodies is the need to invest in an army and to always defend one’s land, even at times of peace; those that don’t pay a price for their “negligence” in The Burning Bridge. To put it another way, The Burning Bridge seems to have been written by the same school of thought that sees the Aussie taxpayer paying billions for a new fleet of submarines regardless of justification as a positive thing. Again, this is not the example I would like set before young adults: more than anyone else, young adults should be versed on the ways of questioning things older folk take for granted.
Another problem with The Burning Bridge is its ending, which – as expected – leaves the door wide open for a sequel and leaves its reader without the level of closure most of us expect from our books. I have been known to inflict ratings punishments on books that do this to me (see here and here for examples), and The Burning Bridge is no exception. However, The Burning Bridge is definitely better than the two cited examples in the sense that it has an ending in the first place. Which is to say there are different closure levels for a book, and The Burning Bridge just, but just, falls on the side I consider acceptable.
Overall: Trashy, but entertainingly so. With 2.5 out of 5 stars, I expect to read its sequel the next time I’m in the mood for very easy reading.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Instructions and inspiration to a would be dissident.
Review:
It’s hard for anyone’s death to bring tears to my eyes, let alone a person I have never met and a person who never heard of me. But the loss of Christopher Hitchens, as predictable as it was, did significantly stir me. The thoughts it triggered made me realize I would be a better person if I was to read more of Hitchens’ stuff. Taking immediate steps, I downloaded an allegedly inspiring little book by Hitchens – 2001’s Letters to a Young Contrarian.
Apparently, this book belongs to a series of titles in the series of “letters to a young something”; the series even includes, god forbid, Letters to a Young Catholic. I have no idea what format these other books are built around, but Hitchens’ is actually written in the form of personal letters addressed to X – as in you, the reader.
The letters take us through a journey of what it means to be dissident in Hitchens’ eye. The starting point is with explanations on the type of calling that this represents – not something you do, but rather something you are. Hitchens then moves along to provide example for proper forms of dissent, many of which are based on personal examples of his. This involves matters of expression, including a lengthy discussion on the use of humor. The book closes off with an inspirational summary.
You might notice I have used the phrase “inspire” more than once already, and that is no coincidence. Letters to a Young Contrarian is, indeed, a very inspiring book. I was touched by it: I was touched by the descriptions of Hitchens’ own wars, and then his projection on what wars the young dissenters who read the book will be fighting. According to Hitchens, the next big war to be fought is the war of a globalized world where many powers of old are doing their best to stick to the ways of the past so as to protect their power source. How prophetic can a person be? In a single sentence, Hitchens managed to bring the contemporary struggles for knowledge sharing in the age of the Internet (e.g., pirates vs. copyright holders and freedom of speech fighters such as Wikileaks) together with global warming under the same umbrella.
By far the most inspirational aspect of Letters to a Young Contrarian was the comparison I could not avoid making between this would be contrarian blogger and the one Hitchens models in his book. I may be flattering myself too much here, but the similarities seem too obvious to be a fluke: this whole writing is being feeling, the matter of holding strong opinions and not being afraid to express them, or the matter of standing up for what one believes in even if those beliefs come at a personal cost and even if they annoy important people (I just had such a brawl with my family, who did not like what I had to say about their country – see here and here). Most of all, it’s about that conviction that hopefully forces me not to stand by when something bad, like some sort of an injustice, happens.
Letters to a Young Contrarian is not devoid of faults, though. Personally, I found Hitchens’ prose to be rather annoying. The man is obviously a master of his language, but I am not; he kept on sending me to the dictionary at the rate of twice per page, and that terribly impacted on the flow of reading (score one for the Kindle's built in dictionary!). I realize the problem is with me more than with Hitchens, but I maintain that a clearly readable book is the better way of doing things. Hitchens’ colleague in many matters, Richard Dawkins, is an example for the style I look for: a writer who can express the most complex of ideas in such an easily readable manner that my grandmother would have an easy time understanding him. From her grave.
Overall:
I had many arguments with myself on the score I should give Letters to a Young Contrarian, the direct result of my ebbing and flowing sentiments towards Hitchens’ writing style. What I have no doubt about is that Hitchens is an inspirational philosopher, one of the greatest of our times; I will therefore give him credit and go with 4 out of 5 stars to this book.
Regardless of the score, it is very clear to me I should be reading more of Hitchens. Just the same, it is clear to me the world has lost a major asset this past December.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Fuzzy Nation by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A lone miner fights an interstellar corporation over cute alien creatures.
Review:
I bought Fuzzy Nation for my Kindle the day it came out but kept it aside since for a rainy day. After all, anything by John Scalzi can be trusted on a rainy day, can’t it?
Well, the rainy day did not arrive yet. Instead, following Scalzi’s own recommendation, I read Little Fuzzy, the book which Fuzzy Nation reboots. Yes, that’s one point worth spending a sentence or two on: Fuzzy Nation is not an original book, but rather a rewriting of an existing book (Little Fuzzy). Fearing the rereading of the same story yet again, I held Fuzzy Nation back. Then the Christmas holidays came along and I decided it’s stupid to wait for rainy days anymore and that I’ve waited long enough since Little Fuzzy.
Or did I? As I started reading Fuzzy Nation, deep worries crept up. I was reading Little Fuzzy all over again! Granted, it was a Scalzi story: between tales of cats and dogs (and later, bacon) I was able to read the Scalzi mind as I was reading through; indeed, I kept looking for Coke Zero to be mentioned (alas, it wasn’t). Yet I could not avoid the feeling that I’ve read this before, and with that feeling I could not avoid the notion that this might be it – this might just be the very first time I was to feel as if John Scalzi failed me as a writer. Indeed, if you want to know what Fuzzy Nation’s general plot is about, just go ahead and read what I have previously written about Little Fuzzy.
So – is that it? Did John Scalzi fail me? Did I feel disappointed after reading Fuzzy Nation? Was it a waste of time better spent reading the original once again?
The single word answer to that question is: No. And the more elaborate answer to that question is: I greatly enjoyed reading Fuzzy Nation. In fact, this has been the most enjoyable science fiction read I have had of a book published during 2011, which directly implies I will be nominating Fuzzy Nation for the upcoming Hugo awards (and, assuming I will end up eligible for voting as well, Fuzzy Nation will get my top vote).
How did that happen? How could Fuzzy Nation turn from a pending disaster into the best science fiction book I’ve bumped into during 2012?
The short answer is simple: I just continued reading the book. The longer answer will form the rest of this review.
To put things simply, Fuzzy Nation turned out to be an excellent book because it took the raw ingredients of Little Fuzzy and it improved on them. Improved on them greatly.
First there is the injection of that additional ingredient John Scalzi uses in his kitchen, the “Scalzi humor”. Fuzzy Nation is rife with Scalzi’s geeky sense of humor, that smart and subtle yet loud laughs generating thing that made previous books of his (like Agent to the Stars) and a large amount of his blog’s posts so entertaining to read.
Second, and more importantly, Scalzi addressed Little Fuzzy’s biggest problems and mended them perfectly. As I noted in my review of the original, Little Fuzzy suffers from lack of tension: we always know the goodies are going to win. That is not the case with Fuzzy Nation: I won’t bloop to tell you whether the goodies win or not, but I will say there is plenty of tension around. I will also add that for the majority of the book I was hard at work trying to figure out who the goodies were in the first place! It wasn’t my trademark daftness that prevented me from figuring this out: it was Scalzi gradually revealing additional layers of information to the reader as the plot thickened, expertly heightening the tension. Oh, and I need to report one other nice touch of Scalzi’s: he reduced the original's count of characters into something much more manageable by this daft reader.
With its added humor, mended thrills and ongoing anti corporate / pro environment spirit that wouldn’t shame the Occupy Wall Street movement, Fuzzy Nation takes what Little Fuzzy had to offer and delivers a significantly superior result. If you ask me, my best science fiction read of a 2011 published book.
One last comment: Fuzzy Nation is the first Scalzi book that was written while I was reading every word Scalzi was publishing on his blog. In retrospect, it feels as if I can trace specific pages to specific posts. In other words, the experience of reading Scalzi's blog has greatly enhanced my enjoyment of his book.
Overall: To quote the famous Aussie ad, “Oh Sclazi, you’ve done it again!” (as in, 4.5 out of 5 stars for Fuzzy Nation!)
Less than a year ago I reported thinking so highly of Scalzi that I couldn’t wait for Fuzzy Nation to come out. Now I will repeat the notion for his 2012 upcoming new release, Red Shirts. Given Red Shirts is a “proper” original title, there should be no reservations there – so yes, I can’t wait! This time around, I won't be waiting for the rain to come, either.