Wednesday, 27 June 2012

The Art of the Mass Effect Universe

Lowdown: The pictures behind the development of the Mass Effect universe.
Review:
What is it, exactly, that allows the Mona Lisa to be perceived as highly as it does? I am no expert and I do not know the answer there, but I can testify for my own taste and sense of appreciation. I can claim to prefer science fiction / fantasy inspired art much more than the classics. It's stuff that may not be hung at a museum, protected by safety glass, but it’s much more exciting. If, like me, you are moved by such art, and if, like me, you are a fan of the Mass Effect universe and everything that goes with it, then The Art of the Mass Effect Universe may be right up your street.
This coffee table book, released a month prior to the release of the Mass Effect 3 game, is divided to three parts – one for each of the series’ games. Each game’s section includes some cool poster like action images, mostly featuring its heroes and villains. While nice, I find the rest even better: using pictures and a bit of text, the book tells us how each of the building blocks of the Mass Effect universe was developed and often why. We see the thinking behind the Turian body, what Krogans look like without their suits, and how the colors of Shepard’s armor were determined. We even see glimpses into what Tali might look like with her mask off.
The result is an impressive collection of impressive artwork with a story for those who want to listen and learn.
Overall: Obviously, The Art of the Mass Effect Universe has very limited appeal to outsiders. Insiders should find it an interesting read, a colourful browse, and a lovely piece of memorabilia. 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 22 June 2012

Blackout by Mira Grant

Lowdown: Shaun & Georgia 2 are back to uncovering the greatest zombie conspiracy ever. And this time, it's personal.
Review:
The dead first rose for me two years ago in Mira Grant’s (the pen name of Seanan McGuire) Feed. That was the case, literally, with Feed being the first proper zombie book I ever got to read. I liked it so much I voted it the best book of the year at the Hugo's, the most prestigious science fiction award around.
A year later came the sequel I did not deem necessary, Deadline. As much as Feed surprised me for the good, Deadline surprised me for the bad. I read it as an overlong drama featuring a hard to relate to hero who made the read seem even longer. Worse, I found it hard to relate to Deadline as a book in the first place since it did not have an ending worthy of a book. Having the impression of being at the wrong end of a cynical publishing trick to make me buy a trilogy where I only wanted one short book, I saw Deadline as the end of my short term romance with the undead.
Only that then the living rose up against me. In an unorthodox move for an author, Seanan McGuire published a post on her blog referring directly to my Deadline review. Together with commenting fans she answered my arguments. I was moved, and I also felt really bad to have caused enough of a stir with the author to get her to address my review in the first place. That good old philosophical question at the center of all reviewers’ minds kept stinging my mind: who am I to come between an author and the fruit of her labor? I had to give what has now become a trilogy another chance.
And so I did. Armed with my trusty VPN I bought Blackout, the final chapter of the Feed/Deadline trilogy (aka Newsflesh), shortly after its American release date. Off to to the final rising I went, and now I'm here, alive, to tell the tale.
Blackout has two tricks up its sleeve. We knew about the first from reading the exposé published at Deadline’s back: Georgia Mason, the newsie blogger hero shot dead at Feed’s end, has been cloned back from the dead. The second trick is the revelation that her brother Shaun Mason, who took over first person narration duties from Georgia for Deadline, has developed immunity to the virus that turns mid 21st century people into zombies. Separately, these two heroes exchange chapters between them as they strive to find their place in the world and find out what’s at the bottom of the worldwide zombie epidemic.
With the exception of the chapter by chapter exchange of first person narration between Shaun and Georgia, the mechanics of Deadline follows the path carved by its two predecessors. The hero tells us a detailed tale of much suspense and frequent action for a chapter, building up to a climax and putting us readers at a cliff’s edge upon the chapter’s ending. This is then followed by blog excerpts from the various protagonists that shed more light on events. Perhaps too much light; the trick feels a bit cheap, like the narration at Blade Runner’s theatrical cut. Then again, if you’re after Shakespeare, go and read the original; if you’re after good entertainment, Grant/McGuire knows how to lead a reader through.
One of my complaints in my now notorious Deadline review referred to the introduction of cloning as a cheap trick. Now I can take these words back and go find a hat to chew on, because I think Blackout deals with the cloning side of things exquisitely, answering all the questions I found myself asking about the process and then some. Reflecting back, raising people from the dead in a more “conventional” way to the tried and tested zombie technique is not out of place at all for Blackout’s world; it is a repeat of a motif, and a wise repeat if hindsight allows me to say so.
One complaint may be removed from the list but another one firmly stays. In my humble opinion, Blackout is way too long for its own good. I understand I am behind the curve when it comes to science fiction literature trends, but there are some good reasons for why I never took to the writings of George R. R. Martin. Look at this blog's history: in six years of book reviewing, I only managed to read a tad more than a hundred books. There is simply no way I would be able to read all the books I want to read during this lifetime (I’m assuming no unexpected risings of the dead). Given it is clear to me there are many more books I should be reading than books I would be able to read, I am now actively applying length filters to prefer the shorter ones. There’s plenty of good stuff around when you look for it even in these times where publishers contract authors to deliver 100,000 words per book: looking at other recent science fiction book purchases of recently published books, the core story of John Scalzi’s Redshirts and the whole of Daniel Wilson’s Amped are about half as long as Blackout. Given their authors' past achievements, I do not think these two will suck due to their shortness of length.
Even without my potentially silly discrimination against lengthy reads, I found it more than a bit taxing to read and reread of our hero’s blood testing adventures at every point in time they needed to enter a place with some security pretensions. On the other hand, and while still chewing on that hat of mine, I can see the point to the repetition.
Looking back at the whole Feed/Deadline/Blackout saga, it seems obvious to me to zombie scare in Grant’s book is an analogy to our current security/terrorism scare. The constant blood testing is the equivalent of us taking our shoes off on our way to board a plane; the zombie security theater is just the same as our very real airport security theater, porn scanners and all. Blackout’s CDC is our real life's Homeland Security. George and Shaun represent the people whose minds are open enough to ask the questions that need to be asked – starting with the “why”. They are the activist heroes that fight our fight for an open minded society that continuously probes itself and refuses to find itself paralyzed by fear, a society that is now going extinct not only in the USA but in Australia and the UK as well. Just look at how the nonsense propaganda coming from the Coalition’s side here in Australia is making people regard the carbon tax as the most evil thing on earth while also letting mining billionaires go uninterrupted as they dig the earth for the benefit of their back-pockets. Repetition, and length, are minor prices to pay for a point well delivered.
My review is getting overlong, so let’s get to the point. A book that seals a lengthy trilogy, a book like Blackout, will ultimately be judged for its ending. Does it deliver? Yes, Blackout rises up to the occasion! (Pun very much intended!)
Obviously, I will not expand the point in order to avoid bloopers. What I will say is that the end is satisfying and as conclusive as it possible can be. There are a few open questions remaining here and there, such as the role cigarette companies mentioned in Feed and neglected since play in the whole affair. Overall, though, I have no complaints (alright, perhaps the slight exception is the too convenient closure of the trilogy’s romantic aspects). Again, my judgment here is blinded by the fact I liked the overall message and its relevancy; besides, mental or not, I liked the gang of heroes. The whole package had me conclude my reading with a good taste in my mouth, a taste made even better by the fact I think I can attest to know a real life Georgia Mason like character. She’s not a clone, she’s Asher Wolf, and her real life entanglements with American authorities over matters of freedom of speech prove there is potent relevancy behind Blackout and its predecessors.
Overall - Blackout:
After balancing the overlong nature of the book with its high octane thrills and worthy message, I will give Blackout 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Overall – Newsflesh trilogy:
I will now go on to address what I thought of the Newsflesh trilogy as a whole. I would argue the world would have been a better place with Feed on its own. More contentiously, I have argued and I still do that Deadline is too compromised a book by virtue of its endless nature. True, that argument will render many other fine books obsolete; Lord of the Rings comes to mind. However, Newsflesh is not Lord of the Rings, nor was it written in the same world as Lord of the Rings. The latter was a ground breaker, the former is one of many lengthy trilogies. To me the all-conquering argument is that were I to be hit by lightning and die during the course of the year that passed between Deadline and Blackout, I would have never known how Newsflesh ends (unless, of course, I was to rise again as a zombie). I’m happy to forgive Tolkien for his sins because by the time I got to read his books they were all available and I could read them as if they were one extra lengthy book, no waiting required. Now that Blackout is out, you can have your own Lord of the Rings like experience of consecutive reading if you will.
On the other hand there is that other Blackout book, the one by Connie Willis, the one that won the Hugo last year. For similar reasons I gave it a similarly damning review to the one I gave Deadline; yet there is a huge gulf between the two. When I started reading Willis’ sequel, All Clear, I simply could not avoid thinking “not that same old sh*t again”, and loaded another book to my Kindle within minutes. It was just loads more of the same tediousness. Grant’s, however, is a different story: An entertaining story.
In other words, everything’s relative.
With that in mind, I will score the Newsflesh trilogy in its entirety 3.5 out of 5 stars, too. Aside of me having a soft spot for the truth, a value at the trilogy’s core, Newsflesh represents a worthy read. I suspect the younger amongst us, towards whom the books are obviously aimed, would love and benefit from them the most. I had and I still have my misgivings about the series, but I humbly take my hat off before Grant/McGuire. She deserves it for serving the good cause just as much as she deserves it for writing some fine books.

Thursday, 21 June 2012

The Women on the 6th Floor

Lowdown: Spanish maids bring an atmosphere to an otherwise cold French dwelling.
Review:
As a person with much affection towards France, The Women on the 6th Floor (or Les femmes du 6ème étage as per its original French title) is a bit of a surprise. It’s a film where the traditional French culture is portrayed in a very English / Jane Austen like way, and where it takes some Spanish rays of light to liven things up.
Events take place at a Parisian house during the sixties. On the lower floors we have the masters of the house, Jean-Louis (Fabrice Luchini) and his wife Suzanne (Sandrine Kiberlain). They’re living fifty years ago, but to all intents and purposes they look and feel like the 18th century English estate owners we got so used to watching on English dramas: the husband takes care of the finances, the wife is busy doing all sorts of meaningless things with her time, and the two of them acting like a financial unit more than a loving couple. Up on the 6th floor the story is different: that area is populated by poor Spanish maids venturing away from their families and the Franco regime to earn a living. They may be financially poor, but they have their faith and their camaraderie to hold them together in warmth.
Against this background we have our plot develop as a new maid, Maria (Natalia Verbeke) arrives from Spain just as our French family gets rid of its old timer of a French maid under not so nice circumstances. Maria steps in, asks for much more than the French maid did, but delivers; the house is clean and even the breakfast eggs are boiled to Jean-Louis’ exact traditional specifications. Maria brings more than boiled eggs with her, though; she brings Spanish character. The initially reluctant Jean-Louis gradually opens up to this warmth, exposes himself to Spanish culture, and drives The Women on the 6th Floor towards a very predictable yet feel goody type of a romantic comedy movie we have seen plenty of times before.
The Women on the 6th Floor turns out to be a charming comedy dealing with a clash of cultures; it’s just a coincidence the two happen to be French and Spanish in the film, because it is obvious each of these two roles could be replaced by lots of other cultures and leave the film to still work relatively well. It is well executed if more than a bit naïve, as per the fact Jean-Louis is way too old for Maria; several decades of a gulf is more than enough to breach the reliability factor. Me, I would have liked to see the same film with an elderly woman and a young guy instead. Or am I the naïve one here?
Typical scene: All the Spanish women of the 6th floor help Maria on the first day at her new job to sort the house down and secure her position. Charming yet predictable for a movie such as this.
Overall: Nice is the word with this one. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

The Skin I Live In

Lowdown: An expert plastic surgeon holds skin experiments on a female patient he locks up in his house.
Review:
Spanish director Pedro Almodóvar is one of those directors I would do my best to watch whatever comes off his cameras. His are not my favorite films, but his are always interesting and original. The Skin I Live In, or La piel que habito as per its original Spanish title, is no exception. It is also unexceptional in the sense that like all the rest of the movies in Almodóvar’s portfolio, this is a film about women that’s made by a guy who is obviously obsessed with them.
Antonio Banderas gives the best performance I have seen of him as Robert, a brilliant plastic surgeon who is much appreciated by his peers. There is something werid about him, though, and that something is Vera, the woman he’s holding at a locked bedroom on the upper floor of his secluded and grandiose house (an Elena Anaya that provides yet another mesmerising performance for The Skin I Live In). Vera seems to be Robert’s wife, the victim of a vicious fire that resulted from a car crash. That car crash seems to have devastated her in more than one way; that is where Robert comes into the picture by conducting cutting edge and unethical experiments to give Vera new skin she can call her own.
Or is that the case? The Skin I Live In is one of those films that takes us through a journey to show us how our perceptions can be wrong. Our picture and our understanding of what it is, exactly, that is taking place at Robert’s house continuously changes as The Skin I Live In gradually unravels the tangled web of dark themes surrounding his characters. The result is a well told thriller with well developed character, well developed characters, and excellent film making. Yet again, Almodóvar manages to deliver a thinking person’s film.
Notable scene:
With its dark themes, nudity and sex scenes, The Skin I Live In is not a children’s film. Nor is it a film for the faint hearted. There are many scenes in which viewers are taken way out of the comfort zone of a normal civilized human being. I found the first of those the most memorable/disturbing.
The renegade son of Robert’s housekeeper comes for a visit to Robert’s house while the owner is away. This comes down to that, and the visitor has his mother securely tied up with her mouth gagged as she’s facing the output of the surveillance cameras in Vera’s room. The son then goes to have rough sex with Vera while his mother is not even able to turn away from his picture.
Overall:
The problem with The Skin I Live In, if you want to call it a problem, is that the film can be interpreted in so many ways I feel puzzled as to what Almodóvar was trying to tell us with this creation of his. That, however, is a rich film’s problem; it creates a thought provoking film that one will take a while to forget. For this, and for the excellent piece of filmmaking that The Skin I Live In is, I give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Max Payne

Lowdown: With much violence, a police detective uncovers the killers of his wife.
Review:
A movie based on a video game sounds like a disaster about to happen. Unless, of course, one cares for the game – it seems obvious to me, for example, that the soon to be made (?) movie on the Mass Effect world would be an excellent watch. Max Payne, however, would have probably benefited more out of remaining at Rockstar’s game world than showing up in this 2008 film.
Mark Wahlberg stars as our Max, a disgruntled police detective with a past so mired he’s been relegated to manage police archives. Apparently, he has been forever traumatized by the murder of his wife and child a few years back that he’s unable to function in society anymore. Further, he’s dead obsessed with finding the killer long after everybody else gave up. Following on his ongoing investigations, Max stumbles upon a Russian speaking beauty (Olga Kurylenko) and her mysterious sister (Mila Kunis). The mysterious death of the first sister brings Max to think he might just find that elusive killer of his, while it sends to rest of the police to regard Max himself as the killer. Violence follows!
There are numerous basic flaws with Max Payne. So much so that I’ll list them numerically:
  1. Things don’t really make sense: Max can go about town blasting at will without much in the way of implications. All the while, he’s keeping his day job despite not showing up to the office on time.
  2. Things are incredibly predictable: There are so few characters here that the second you see a big sign for a pharmaceutical company, you know they have to be behind this. After all, there’s no one else to take the blame.
  3. Characterization: Other than Max, everyone else is character-less. Including Kunis’ character, who is supposed to be central.
  4. Dialog: The fact Max Payne is based on a video game is no excuse for dialog to look and feel as if it came directly from Grand Theft Auto cut scenes.
The combination of it all – the violence and the overall mediocrity of this film – sheds even more light on the shady foundation of American culture. The fact Max Payne can exhibit brutal violence yet abstains from anything sexual places a very sad mirror for contemporary American values. A society like that is two faced; given the rest of the world imports American culture by the ton, we are all paying the price.
Worst scene: Kunis rescues Max Wahlberg while carrying a sub machine gun. The acting in this scene is so dreadful it’s amazing to think we’re watching the same Kunis that did so well in Black Swan. Perhaps the fault is with the director, who chose to give the film an ultra realistic video game like look?
Overall: Unless you’re after violent action scenes Max Payne is a time waster. 2 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Hanna

Lowdown: A girl trained to kill is set out by her father to kill a rogue (?) CIA agent.
Review:
Want Hanna summarized in one sentence? Here you go: Hanna is a modern action film that’s told in a fairytale kind of a way. That really is all there is to it; the rest is just fine details.
We meet our girl Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Banna) as they live out in the middle of a snowy wilderness, fending for themselves and totally disconnected from civilization. The father tells Hannah about the world that’s out there, but Hanna herself never experienced it first hand; she heard the dictionary definition but she doesn’t even know what music is. All Hannah does, all day and all night, is hone her killer skills.
Next we meet CIA agent Marissa (Cate Blanchett), our baddie for the duration of the film. She has a thing for Bana and his daughter, and when Bana tells his daughter she’s ready to be unleashed to this world and achieve the goal of eliminating Marissa a clash is inevitable. This clash is what the film Hanna is all about, and it includes many dead bodies thrown in as well as Hanna getting her first real contact with the real world through her bumping upon a British family camping out at Morocco.
Altogether, Hanna brings with it a James Bond like tale of international treachery and shootings that is told in a fairytale like manner. The fairytale aspect comes out through the Cinderella like story where Blanchett clearly is the evil stepmother. Mostly, though, it comes through the very stylized filmmaking at hand: the cinematography, the atypically long cuts in this day and age of fast editing, and the sets that often directly include fairytale elements. Style is probably the most important theme Hanna has to offer, and that style is probably best attributed to director Joe Wright (Pride and Prejudice, Atonement): one can clearly see this person directorial background in Hanna. The best way of putting it is saying it is clear this is not a director whose background is in making films like Transformers: Dark of the Moon.
Yes, Hanna does not suffer from too much depth. What it does have to offer instead is lots of smart action, something the bulk of today’s action films sorely miss. It’s funny to see what a difference an intelligent director can make!
I cannot finish this review off without mentioning the exquisite soundtrack The Chemical Brothers have provided Hanna with. In my opinion, this one is reminiscent of the masterful soundtrack that Daft Punk came up with for Tron Legacy. Both gain a lot by being included in real high quality Blu-rays.
Notable scene: The best demonstration of the style over substance nature of Hanna is provided by the climax scene, where our Kick-Ass like all conquering child of a heroine runs off Marissa only to have the latter confront her as she comes out of the mouth of the big bad wolf. Don’t ask how Marissa got there in the first place; it doesn’t matter. It’s damn stylish, though.
Best scene: Eric Bana fights off a bunch of evil agents at a Berlin train station in a lengthy action scene without any cuts. Oh, how I’d love more action films to be so well directed!
Overall: An action film with style but not much more. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Blue Thunder

Lowdown: The greatest threat to Los Angeles is the new super weapon introduced to protect it.
Review:
As far as reasons to sit down and watch a film are concerned, this one has to qualify as one of the silliest. My wife recently bought my four year old son a toy Matchbox style helicopter called “Mission Helicopter”; I couldn’t avoid noting the very non coincidental similarity between this Mission Helicopter and the Blue Thunder helicopter from the 1983 film by John Badham. I have fond memories of that film: I saw it at the cinemas with my father, and its dogfight scenes where Blue Thunder fends for itself against a couple of F-16s were the stuff of many a childhood dream. I therefore set forth to introduce my son to the real version of his toy helicopter.
Let me start by saying Blue Thunder is clearly not a film suitable for four year olds. Not necessarily because of the sex scenes, which totally went over my son’s head (for the record, I much prefer he learns about sex through/with me than through surfing for porn at a slightly older age); no, the problem is to do with the movie’s themes. These are of such a grade many adults won’t recognize them. Luckily, everything is wrapped in a good action package we can all enjoy.
Blue Thunder takes place at the soon to host the 1984 Olympics Los Angeles. We follow police pilot Frank Murphy (Roy Scheider), a guy who obviously knows more than the book about flying police helicopters but a guy who is also disturbed by old visions of Vietnam to a level that implicates his personal life. Murphy and his new co-pilot (Daniel Stern in an atypical performance) fool around doing things they’re not supposed to with their helicopter, like voyeur-ing on women practicing yoga in the nude, and they pay the price for that. However, they are still deemed the best to test out the new super weapon introduced to deal with securing the upcoming Olympics: Blue Thunder, a helicopter with a kick.
Blue Thunder is equipped with stealth and surveillance mechanisms allowing it to eavesdrop unnoticed on virtually anyone. It bites, too, with a canon that’s aimed through the pilot shifting his helmet to “look” at a target. According to Murphy, that’s much more than Los Angeles’ police force needs, especially in the collateral damage department; when he discovers the helicopter comes with an old Vietnam nemesis of his (Malcolm McDowell), you know things would escalate. By the end of the film Blue Thunder and Murphy show us all they can do.
Critically speaking, the first thing I want to say about Blue Thunder is that it is obsolete. It was obsolete even at the time the film came out. I’m referring here to the helicopter, not the film: at the time Blue Thunder was released, with its helmet aimed canon, Apache attack helicopters already had their sights tracking the pilot/gunner’s eyes (rather than the movement of the pilot’s head). Which is my way of saying that reality has a way of turning more horrible than we can imagine.
One thing that isn’t obsolete with Blue Thunder the film is the message it entails. The theme of the powerful authority trying to be perceived as a power for good when what it actually tries to do is enshrine totalitarian measures is, sadly, one we have to deal with on a regular basis. Londoners, for example, face a string of security measures on the eve of their upcoming Olympics: huge, up to 5 hour long queues at Heathrow airport that one is not allowed to talk about, while missile launchers are to be place on top of residential buildings (see here). Then there is the legislation debated in the UK, where security authorities are to be allowed to everyone’s phone calls and Internet activities (here). It’s all in the name of security, of course; the collateral damage is all but ignored.
Not that Australia is immune. We have our Communication Minister, Stephen Conroy, who is still officially supporting Internet censorship in the name of protecting children from pedophiles. Indeed, some limited Internet censorship has already been implemented in Australia. Whether you truly believe this Internet censorship is all to do with fighting pedophilia and has nothing to do with the control of public opinion or looking after the interests of the copyright industry just goes to indicate how naïve you are.
I like John Badham’s work. Between WarGames, Short Circuit and this – Blue Thunder – he created a nice portfolio of entertaining films that show what can happen when we let authorities lead non transparent regimes. I’m sure Badham agrees we should work harder to ensure the accountability of those we put at the helm.
Let down scene: Blue Thunder has clearly aged, but at its core it is still a satisfying action film. However, excess aging is too noticeable in the special effects department where nothing 1983 could offer can compete with today’s CGI. In particular, those F-16s I raved about at the beginning of my review? To my contemporary eyes they were clearly models imposed on the skies. What used to be an exciting scene, the most exciting scene in the Blue Thunder arsenal, is now the subject of a laugh.
Best scene: How daring is the ending? Just compare it to that other dogfighting film from the same era, Top Gun, to see what I'm talking about.
Overall: I’m obviously biased, but I like this package of action with a relevant and meaningful message. Blue Thunder gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Saturday, 9 June 2012

Red Dog

Lowdown: A stray dog unites an Aussie mining community at the middle of nowhere.
Review:
Australia is a country with a chip on its shoulders. Not that this is an Australia exclusive club; I don’t know a country without one. Australia, however, seems to have the need to prove itself more than others. One only needs to check on Australian Olympics medal tally anxiety to witness the problem, or check on the anxieties involving an Australia – England cricket match.
One potential theory for Australia’s aggravated syndromes could be the lack of a founding myth. The USA has its war with Britain, tea parties, George Washington and a declaration of independence to rely on; Israel has its holocaust and its war of independence. Australia, however, has nothing to compare to such momentous events. If anything, Australia is in a constant process of reformation, with significant portions of its population – some 30%, if I remember correctly - not made and born here. Rushing to fill this very gap is Red Dog, a film that is more Australian than Australia.
Red Dog has us trekking across space and time to the Western Australia of the seventies. Just as it is today, the economy of WA was mining driven; one such mining community is the focus of Red Dog. That is, both Red Dog the film and Red Dog the stray dog that decides to adopt the town as his own. The town is made of a non homogeneous collection of people from all over the world, including – as the movie takes care to tell us – Italy, Russia, the USA, and even Melbourne. Red Dog depicts the place to be full of tough yet gentle men; everyone looks like a bully, but they’re all gentle bullies along the lines of Monty Python's lumberjacks (only that Red Dog's seem to avoid anything sexual like the plague). The exceptions to the rule are the token pretty girl (Rachael Taylor) and, of course, our Red Dog. As one can expect from a feel good film such as Red Dog that’s aimed particularly at making Aussies feel good about themselves (and forget what has been done in our name to the native owners of this land), Red Dog takes its characters and us to short journeys where they/us find themselves/ourselves through the dog. The story is told in flashback mode: Red Dog is about to die, and the local heroes tell his tales to a passing by truck driver who is suspiciously interested in the weird town’s stories. Oh, cynical me.
The problem is, Red Dog is one of those films that overfeeds me with cynicism fodder. It is cliché incarnate, drawing a picture so flawless it is obviously telling a lie. Red Dog is schmaltz incarnate, too, and the fact its myth is said to have its roots on a real red dog is completely meaningless. This film belongs together with fifties episodes of The Wonderful World of Disney, not contemporary 21st century cinema. The fact Red Dog was a big hit with Australian box offices is rather worrying.
Best scene: That big brute from Melbourne, with a porn style mustache? Behind closed doors, when no one is looking, he’s into knitting.
Overall: A shameless pat on our Aussie backs that we shouldn’t really need. 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 7 June 2012

Fantastic Mr. Fox

Lowdown: The extended adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book.
Review:
There was a distinct period during my pre-teen years when Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was my favorite book. I distinctly recall borrowing it again and again from the library and gobbling it within a matter of minutes. Not only because of its short children book’s length, but also because it was funny, exciting and quite original.
Fast forward to 2009 when director Wes Anderson releases his take on that glorious story, and two issues immediately pop to my head. First, Anderson seem to specialize in turning potentially promising subject matters into films I deem mediocre (refer to The Darjeeling Limited and The Royal Tenenbaums). Second, given the book is very short and a movie needs to have at least 80 minutes to count as a feature film some padding had to be added; can I rest assured that padding won’t scratch the mental image of the book that was once at the top of my charts?
George Clooney voices Mr Fox, a human like fox with a craving for stealing food. Even if that craving goes against the wishes of his wife (Meryl Streep). His son, Ash (Jason Schwartzman), is looking up to his father as a role model yet seems unable to repeat his father’s past and current achievements. Against this background, our Fox decides to steal from three nearby human corrupt industrialists. At first things go well; then it turns out things went too well as the victims fight back and the family needs to sort its issues out. To those familiar with the book I will add that the book’s plot is not only extended through the addition of family and other background affairs; the book’s story represents roughly the first half of the film, which then marches onwards with a brand new plot.
I know the process of converting a book to the big screen takes its toll (although some times, as with Blade Runner, it can greatly enhance the original). However, I think the case of Fantastic Mr Fox abuses the book way too much; I did not like the additions, nor did I think they offered positive contributions to the book’s spirit. Wes Anderson was on a mission to convey a new message to us with this film but I didn’t get the point; I got a film I didn’t enjoy watching instead. If you’re an Anderson fan than you probably will like Fantastic Mr. Fox given it repeats motifs from the director’s previous works; for me, what didn’t work before didn’t work yet again. The same goes for my four year old, for whom this potential hit was probably his most forgettable film experience thus far.
This is all a bit of a pity given the fantastic stop motion animation at hand (one has to watch the Blu-ray’s supplementals to appreciate the achievement) and the multitude of A list voice talents on the film’s payroll (in addition to the previously mentioned we have Bill Murray, Willem Dafoe and Owen Wilson – to name a few). It’s a pity these weren’t enough to sort out the damaged story.
Worst scene: Following the successful escapades of Fox & Co at robbing the industrialists, the human villains flood our heroes with cider. This marks the point where the book ends and Fantastic Mr. Fox deteriorates further down its own slippery slope.
Overall: The stop motion animation manages to earn this fox 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

The Descendants

Lowdown: A Hawaiian guy has to contend with a multitude of family issues.
Review:
I watched The Descendants with great anticipation. At the shallow level, Hawaii – where the film takes place – is likely to be the subject of my next visit to the USA; it's a geography thing. It’s not the most attractive place that country has to offer, but between Pearl Harbor, volcanoes and telescopes the place doesn’t seem bad either. Second, and more importantly, The Descendants is a film from Alexander Payne, whose previous two features – About Schmidt and Sideways – were simply marvelous. As usual, though, the higher the anticipation the greater the disappointment.
George Clooney plays Matt King, the guy around which The Descendants pivots. He’s middle aged and his marriage went past its peak, but that did not prepare him for his wife getting herself at a critical condition, unconscious at the hospital, following a boating accident. In parallel we learn King is in charge of a large piece of land he and his family inherited all the way back from the pre Western days of Hawaii, a land whose worth is now measured in the hundreds of millions. The extended family wants to cash in on the land, while King is rather eccentric in refusing to use the regular money coming from the land. As a result of these two challenges, the wife and the land, our King faces multiple challenges of his own: he needs to get his two daughters on his side and he needs to get the rest of his family on his side. Things are not easy, though, and as King goes along things become even harder. The Descendants’ focus constantly shifts between the daughters and the connection to the land.
There can be no denying The Descendants is fine drama that is well made. However, I thought it lacked the spark from previous Payne flicks. Instead, The Descendants feels too slow, too long for its own good, and dare I say even boring. True, there are some very touching moments across, but it just failed to grip me. Ultimately, the only credit I could give The Descendants is to do with it openly dealing with matters of grief and death, subject matters America seems reluctant to consider.
Best scene: A very disturbed King goes on an extended run, wearing very casual and non athletic footwear, in order to quickly verify a rumor he heard about his wife. This scene, which other directors would have trimmed very tightly, is reminiscent of Payne’s previous films. However, even this seeming humiliation of an A list Hollywood star lacks the power of Payne’s previous efforts.
Overall: A good drama without a sharp edge, The Descendants gets 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 4 June 2012

The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: A cast out girl fights for personal and cultural survival in a post apocalyptic USA.
Review:
Coincidences take place all over all the time. The Drowned Cities, the latest book from Paolo Bacigalupi and a sequel of sorts to his Ship Breaker is so full of them that it becomes obvious there are no coincidences here at all; rather what we have on our hands with this YA (young adult) science fiction novel is a carefully tailored analogy of our world today. When even the initials of Drowned Cities correspond to D.C., where the story takes place, I can tell what the author’s intentions are. Having read the book I can vouch for his total success: Drowned Cities is an excellent read, both because of its gripping adventure filled tale and because of the analogy it creates between a post global warming apocalyptic world and the USA of today.
The story of The Drowned Cities can be summarized in two sentences if one wishes to. There really is not much happening, especially not in the book’s first half; but as with Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, the devil is in the details. Unlike Windup Girl, we do not receive as thorough a description of the world things are set in; there is a hidden assumption the reader is already familiar with the author’s detailed post global warming apocalyptic world, and specifically its post USA incarnation as per Ship Breaker. So we do have details but these are not the setting’s details but rather the most detailed descriptions of the simplest actions and what these convey on our hero characters.
Our hero is Mahlia, a young girl who is a victim of circumstances. Her mother was an American but her father a Chinese peacekeeper soldier who returned to civilized China after it became clear the rabble left of what used to be America is not interested in peace. Mahlia fell victim to a religious local militia who, not liking anything that came from China, cut off her right arm and was about to kill her if it wasn’t for the bravery of Mouse, a fellow kid. Now both Mahlia and Mouse live together with their caretaker, Dr Mahfouz, in the ruins of an old Accelerated Age town along the Potomac. Mahlia serves as Mahfouz’ left hand, aiding the ill sighted doctor at his work, but the locals are not fond of her and her race. Then Mahlia and Mouse stumble upon the seriously injured tool, the genetically engineered half man warrior from Ship Breaker, and all hell breaks loose: the world as they know it finds itself in the middle of a war between rivaling militias of child warriors, and these have no appreciation for doctors. Definitely no appreciation for the half Chinese.
As I started reading The Drowned Cities I thought it a nice coincidence that the world described in it feels a lot like Afghanistan, right hand removal and all; I found it amusing to think the book’s Afghanistan like world is actually today’s USA. I found it an odd coincidence that it is the Chinese that are portrayed as the civilized people sending their army to help the American rabble lead a good life when the Americans seem intent on living by the sword. I found it amusing the only rational person in the book, the only person who sees the anarchy of the militia led world of the futuristic USA for what it truly is, is a Muslim by the name of Mahfouz. Eventually, I realized there are just too many coincidences about: surely this is all a carefully packaged plan by Bacigalupi serving to issue us with a warning. This time around, the warning is not about the world we will be leaving our children, a world of rising temperatures, diseases and no easy energy in the form of fossil fuels. This time around the warning is to do with the world of the here and now: a world where we are not too tolerant of others’ views and culture, especially if they’re in China or if they’re Muslims; a world where religion has too much of a saying; a world where we let the power of our guns solve our problems, not realizing we are only digging our own holes in the process; a world where books, literature and knowledge are becoming less and less fashionable in the face of easy superficiality.
I started reading The Drowned Cities thrilled with excitement over the action it portrays. There really is a minimal number of idle pages on this otherwise high octane action book (again I will stress: action packed despite everything happening could be summarized in a few brief sentences). However, as I started figuring out the analogy at the core of this book I became even more thrilled: I became excited to see how effective this seemingly unpretentious work, aimed at teens, can be. In my book, The Drowned Cities is science fiction at its best.
Overall: A thrilling adventure wrapped in a thrilling analogy and deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 2 June 2012

The Monarchy by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Hitchens lays down the case against the British monarchy.
Review:
I have been on the lookout for Christopher Hitchens' The Monarchy for quite a while. This essay was initially published in the nineties and only became available on ebook format a few days ago, probably in an attempt to capitalize on the queen's diamond jubilee. For what it was worth, it worked on me, even though I would have preferred the ebook to be available regardless of special occasions.
It shouldn't surprise anyone to learn Hitchens was not a fan of the British monarchy. Contents wise, The Monarchy is split in two: in the first, Hitchens lays down the reasons why the monarchy is bad. If pressed to sum it up in one sentence, he argues the British fetish with the queen and company is similar to religious faith in its nature (and we know what Hitchens thinks of religious faith). The second half looks at the arguments in favor of the monarchy (e.g., "the monarchy does not have political power"), and refutes them one by one. All in all, I would say it's a well laid case against the institution.
Style and language count with Hitchens, yet I was still surprised and perhaps even disappointed with Hitchens' approach in laying his arguments. The British monarchy is such a house of cards it cries out for a sweet and witty knockout blow, the way Hitchens is famous for delivering upon the religious authorities with whom he used to debate so often in the past. Alas, such a knockout punch never arrives; instead, Hitchens lays out layer upon layer of articulate arguments. Don't get me wrong, that's perfectly fine, but I was hoping for better comedy values. I mean, Prince Charles is excellent joke fodder, so why doesn't Hitchens have a go?
Another aspect I felt missing was an examination of the monarchy through the eyes of a commonwealth member. Hitchens mentions the absurdity of the current queen being the [former] ruler of countries like Pakistan, but does not stop to ask the question of why do some citizens of the commonwealth still wish the queen as their head of state. I argue that many of the Aussie monarchists feel this way because they want to preserve their culture at all costs in the face of non white, non Christian, non English speaking immigration that makes many Aussies feel a minority in their own country. Politicians use and abuse these feelings, hence the need for that good old Hitchens treatment - that, sadly, never came.
Overall: The Monarchy is probably too articulate for its own good, while also lacking some important relevancy to the non British in our midst. Still, it is a fine collection of articulate arguments worthy of 3.5 out of 5 stars.