Saturday, 21 December 2013

Definitely, Maybe

Lowdown: A father traces the failure of his marriage through the history of his relationships.
Review:
What can be said inside the confines of the rom-com genre that has not been said before? Over the years, great minds in great Hollywood studios armed with great budgets have been struggling to offer answers. 2007’s Definitely, Maybe tries to apply some sort of originality through a collection of minor touches. First, it does not set out to tell us the tale of a happy, successful romance. Instead, it chronicles the story of how this one guy, Will (Ryan Reynolds) got into a situation where he and his wife are estranged.
Second, Definitely, Maybe tells its story in flashback form, allowing it to freely navigate the 4th dimension instead of the usual linear storytelling.
Third, the story is recounted to Will’s child, Maya (Abigail Breslin) as a countermeasure for her learning the realities of sexual intercourse at school and therefore asking questions concerning the intimacy between her parents.
And fourth, instead of a love triangle at the center of this romantic comedy we have ourselves a love pyramid: our guy Will at the top, with three female romantic interests. The first is Emily (Elizabeth Banks), the old love with whom Will breaks apart when he moves to New York for his political activism career (support for Bill Clinton’s early 90’s election campaign). Second is Summer (Rachel Weisz), to whom Will delivers a package from Emily that turns out to be a diary chronicling the two’s hot sexual adventures. And third is April (Isla Fisher), a girl Will meets during his campaign.
Which leads me to the fifth and last minor differentiator used by Definitely, Maybe to separate itself from the pack of rom-coms: us viewers are tasked with guessing which of these three love interests Will ends up unsuccessfully marrying.
One major area Definitely, Maybe does not stray from the too well beaten path is the ending. Although this movie claims to chronicle a relationship’s breakdown, it is anything but; in the best of Hollywood’s tradition, if you come in expecting anything but a happy ending then you must be high on some major drugs.
That is pretty much all I have to say about Definitely, Maybe. It’s an entertaining movie, in that mind numbing kind of a way; there is not much to criticize it with other than the usual issue with female roles being not much more than satellites for the central male character. Oh, and that total lack of anything in the way of substance.
Overall: Definitely, Maybe does its job by not pressing too many red buttons. This puts it somewhere between 2.5 and 3 crabs out of 5.

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Lowdown: A video game’s baddie gets sick of his continuous misrepresentation.
Review:
What could be a better idea for a children oriented computer animation film than depicting the events taking place inside video games once gaming is over? Or rather, how come we had to wait so long for Wreck-It Ralph, the movie that asks that very question?
Our Ralph (the voice of John C. Reilly) is the monster baddie from a famous video arcade game, Fix-It Felix. As the game has it, Ralph is the baddie that wreaks havoc at a residential tower while the player controlled Felix fixes things up. At the end of a successful level the residents gather up to throw Ralph off the roof.
The problem is, the same residents hate Ralph even when the game is over. While Ralph feels there would not be a game without him, they shun him to the dumpster while they party at their comfy flats. No more, says Ralph; he decides to seek his fortunes elsewhere in an effort to receive recognition for all his hard work.
He does so elsewhere, which in this particular case stands for another arcade machine. In this particular case, a shooter. Only that in his absence Fix-It Felix becomes useless and is threatened with unplugging, which would doom its residents. What will be the fate of the residents of this video game world?
As implied, the beauty of Wreck-It Ralph is in its setting, a setting that makes the most of the material granted to it by the richness of video games (a richness that, to this gamer, can easily surpass that of movies). Throw in references to familiar video games, including some of the arcade era’s top hits, and there is immediate appeal to this child of that era. But there is more to Wreck-It Ralph’s charms.
Seriously, behind Wreck-It Ralph there is this whole idea of doing good through not following the usual path, not doing what others necessarily consider to be good, and not following the path that everyone else seems to tread. While the idea itself may not sound too revolutionary to any thinker, by Hollywood’s standards it is. Particularly by Hollywood’s standards for kids movies, the epitome of conformism.
Then there is that peculiar reason I liked Wreck-It Ralph, a reason I probably share with only a few others: that warrior woman (voiced by Jane Lynch) that Ralph meets at that shooter game he has a go at? The absence of an N7 decal aside, she is Mass Effect’s Commander Shepard from start to finish. With the not so notable exception of hair color, she was obviously made to look like my favourite Shepard – that is, FemShep. No one can ever claim Commander Shepard never made it to the big screen!
It's not just Mass Effect. There are hints at Mario Kart's Rainbow Road level, to name but one example. That is, Wreck-It Ralph clearly points at some favourite gaming moments. Any gamer should be able to find their bit of bliss with Wreck-It Ralph.
Overall: One of the better computer animated movies for children young and old. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 12 December 2013

The Last Stand

Lowdown: There’s only one thing between this runaway Mexican drug cartel lord and the Mexican border: Sheriff Arnie.
Review:
It’s been a long while since we’ve seen Arnold Schwarzenegger take a lead role in a movie based around his physical qualities, but The Last Stand breaks that winter spell. It does so with style, taking its hero’s age into account as it provides us with a simple action film. An action film that, despite being heavy on the clichés, fully delivers.
Sheriff Ray (Schwarzenegger) is dedicated to his job of running the law at a small desert town near the USA’s border with Canada. Ray is so good at his job that despite having rather clueless deputies he seems to manage fairly well. Perhaps it’s the setting: his is one of those towns where everybody knows everyone, to the point where a couple of new truckers having breakfast at the diner are immediately noted.
In parallel we witness the FBI as its fortified caravan is brought to its knees and the Mexican drug cartel lord it was transporting runs away. The latter now occupies a super sports car, rushing to the Mexican border with a hostage inside; the former, headed by Forest Whitaker, is quickly running out of options. One option the FBI never seems to recognise, though, is that of our dedicated sheriff.
What follows is a basic action movie. By basic, I mean an action movie that doesn’t rely on spectacularly expensive special effect; instead, it relies on, well, action. I have to say I haven’t seen me such an action movie since those early eighties escapades featuring Clint Eastwood, at least not one that was genuinely well made. And thus I have to say I loved The Last Stand greatly: despite all the clichés about the inadequate crew, the simple rawness of things saves the day. Aid from the much expected one liner department (think “hasta la vista, baby”) helps; aid from the less expected comedy department, especially the one that refers to our hero’s age, helps even more.
What I ended up watching is a rather simple film that I found to be surprisingly entertaining. There are also some nice touches, such as the team work with which the simple town takes down the mighty cartel: what first seems to shape up as a High Noon style setup, with Ray refusing to let go of his principles in the face of insurmountable adversaries quickly turns out to be a group effort that shows us a lot of good things can happen when people cooperate for the greater good.
I don’t know if it’s the title that did it, but The Last Stand does feature some big names making surprise appearances to Arnie’s side. I already mentioned Whitaker, but then there are also Harry Dean Stanton and Peter Stormare, one of Fargo’s baddies reprising his “old” role and doing so very well. It’s fun to see these people having fun in this movie. Indeed, if The Last Stand stands for something, it would be for standing tall till the end.
Overall: Old style done well. I liked it a lot, and therefore I will be generous. In the context of the genre and the circumstances, I’m giving The Last Stand 4 out of 5 juicy crabs.
P.S. It’s good to have Arnie back!

Monday, 9 December 2013

Lincoln

Lowdown: The behind the scenes on Lincoln's emancipation of slaves.
Review:
There was a time when it was often said that Steven Spielberg is a director so good he could make a blockbuster out of the phone book. If you were to ask me, Lincoln is proof of Spielberg's ability to turn gold into phone book instead.
Lincoln has us joining the fray that was the American Civil War shortly after then President Lincoln gave his famous speech. That is, towards the end of the war.  With victory now almost assured, Lincoln turns his sights into passing revolutionary legislation that will forever free the slaves. Can he do it?
I will confess at this point and make it clear I only watched half of this two and a half hour ordeal. Exactly at Lincoln's half point I found myself at a point where I couldn't take it anymore; I was bored shitless, looking for better things to do with my life than watch this lengthy soap opera like depiction of the manoeuvring required in order to pass political legislation. Perhaps Americans revering the glory of that particular moment in history will feel that special sense of reverence; I don't know, because I didn't.
What I did find myself asking as I attempted watching this movie, and repeatedly asking as I was contemplating this half of a review, was the question of Spielberg's deteriorating output. Come on, this is the guy that brought us Indiana Jones, how come he's doing so badly? The only plausible answer I can come up with is that very same sense of reverence. My hypothesis is that Spielberg's demise came through his inability to tackle this holy cow without infringing on his own reverence. His only way out of this tight spot was to respect the subject of the movie too much. Way too much for the movie's own good.
Overall: I know this is an acclaimed movie, but I don't care; as far as I am concerned, this is the most boring movie I have seen in a long while and only the second movie to be reviewed by this blog that I couldn't get myself to watch to conclusion. 0.5 out of 5 Mountain Dews.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

The World's End

Lowdown: Twenty years later, a gang of 40 year olds attempts to recreate their “legendary” 12 stops pub run.
Review:
Satisfaction is all about expectations. We all know that by now.
What were my expectations of The World’s End? Well, it’s a Simon Pegg / Nick Frost starring film, and it’s directed by the same Edgar Wright who did Spaced, Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz with them. So yeah, between that and the title, I think I had every right to expect a weird/funny science fiction movie, didn’t I?
Well, no. As is turns out, The World’s End is all about a bunch of 40 year olds who moved on with lives looking back at their days of thunder some twenty years ago. They all lived in the same middle of nowhere English town and they were the kings of the world. Their crowning achievement? A night when they almost managed a pub run across all 12 of their town’s pubs, a night that should have ended at that pub at the end of the line -  The World’s End.
The problem is, as I said, they all moved on with their lives. They have their professions, their families, their commitments; they can’t just leave them behind for the sake of a silly night, can they? Well, not if you ask Gary King (Pegg), their former leader and the one person who is still definitely stuck two decades back. He’s family less, he still dresses the same, and he even still drives the same car. Somehow, he manages to drag his mates (who, by the way, include the likes of Martin Freeman and Eddie Marsan) to recreate this night of nights. And this time, finish it off.
Look, it’s nice and all, in that Cemetery Junction type of a way. Coming from a similar demography, more or less, to the heroes of this movie, I can see exactly what Pegg & Frost & Co are trying to achieve here: a look at a past now gone, an examination that asks the question of whether our past was as glorious as we think it was and whether what we made of our years since – family, work – actually made us better. Personally, my short stint with Facebook provided me with my answer to this question: virtually all reunions with mates gone by seem to have clearly indicated why our paths parted. Soon enough it became clear I should stick with the good memories instead of reviving them only to recall former bitterness.
However, then it goes and "spoils it all" by doing something "stupid" like turning into a weird/funny science fiction movie.
I won’t add too much detail here, but I will say The World’s End shifted to remind me of Frequently Asked Questions About Time TravelThe Watch, and Attack the Block.
It’s not only the movie that chucked a u-ey here. It’s also the message that changed. This time around, we are offered a lightweight but albeit subversive criticism of contemporary society’s culture of conformism and political correctness. Particularly in the UK, where ever present CCTVs “encourage” one to avoid straying from the paved path. It may be totally crazy, but The World’s End has something meaningful to say here. It clearly asks the question on the type of society we would like to have, and it also provides us with both the positives and the negatives of the options ahead of us.
Of course, the talents at hand float to the top with this change of gears. Freeman’s is probably the most notable; the addition of a female character to the equation (Rosamund Pike) helps, too. Yet, when all is said and done, The World’s End may be nice, but it misses things out as far as hilarity is concerned. This could have been a movie that would make me laugh to death. Instead, while it has its moments, it miles away from being the blockbuster the best of English comedy talent, with the notable absence of Gervais/Merchant, could have provided. Should have provided.
Overall: Very British, very Pegg/Frost like, very crazy. Not bad, but not funny enough. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Mass Effect: Foundation 1-4

Lowdown: Mass Effect revisited through the story of a thus far unfamiliar female Cerberus operative.
Review:
Mass Effect: Foundation is the fifth series of Mass Effect comics to be published (following on the footsteps of Redemption, Evolution, Invasion and Homeworlds). It promises to be 13 episodes long; this review concentrates on the first four, recently released as a digital bundle. The fifth episode is already out there but I prefer to read by the bundle.
The premises offer a nice, if unoriginal, way to revisit the good old Mass Effect universe. Episode 1 tells us of the making of a female Cerberus operative out of a slave girl working on asteroid mining. With that established, the following episodes move on to an older her, working with Kai Leng to do the Illusive Man’s bidding. On her way, our operative bumps into Urdnot Rex and Kaidan prior to them joining the Normandy’s crew, as well as revisit Ashley Williams’ adventures on Eden Prime prior to being rescued by Commander Shepard. In other words, Foundation seems to serve as a platform for telling the story of some of the lesser characters from the Mass Effect universe. Lesser by my reckoning; your mileage may vary, although the absence of these characters from the comics thus far does say something about the way they have been perceived.
Personally, I have found the stories less than impressive. They all deal with familiar aspects of the characters that the open eyed player should have already been aware of: Ashley’s complex with her ancestry, or Kaidan’s anger management issues. If the stories are less than impressive than the drawings are even lesser so, by far the worst I have seen from any Mass Effect comic thus far (and some of them have been pretty impressive!). Kaidan’s episode in particular qualifies as dreadful to this reader.
Overall: Look, I want to revisit the Mass Effect universe as often as possible. I would, however, prefer better quality offerings; we’ve had them before, there is no reason why we cannot have them again. I’m giving the first four episode of Foundation 2.5 crabs out of 5.

Monday, 2 December 2013

The Human Division by John Scalzi

Lowdown: Further episodes from the Old Man’s War universe.
Review:
Despite the fact of John Scalzi being my favourite author of fiction being public domain knowledge for years now, and despite me buying his latest book – The Human Division – on its release day, it still took me months before I actually got to read it. There are two reasons for that: first, The Human Division happens to be a very long book and I have become long book averse (even if, as Scalzi points out, it is but a short story in comparison with the likes of A Game of Thrones). And second, although I like the Old Man’s War setting and although Old Man’s War was the book that introduced me to Scalzi, that book and its sequels happen to be my least favourite Scalzi books.
Before getting to the book itself, I would like to point out that perhaps even more interesting than the book itself was the way in which it was released. Months before the book was released, its various chapters were released one by one in ebook form, one a week over twelve weeks. Then there was a pause, and then the book and the full ebook were released (it is the latter that I bought and, eventually, read). As far as I am aware of, this is the first time a book gets released this way, at least from a writer of a calibre as high as Scalzi’s (the calibre of the latest science fiction author to win a Hugo for best book). One has to remember Scalzi has a knack for frontier breaking, with an ebook of his also happening to be the first from Tor to come without DRM.
Surely, you would think, that unique release pattern would be reflected in the book’s structure. Indeed it does: The Human Division is made of 14 stories/chapters/episodes/whatever-you-want-to-call-them, the previously mentioned 12 plus two bonus ones that were also made available to those that did their weekly shopping before. The stories take place shortly after the events of Old Man’s War core trilogy (Old Man’s War, The Ghost Brigades, and The Last Colony) concluded and follow the further adventures of some previously mentioned characters, with the notable absence of John Perry, as well as some newly introduced ones. Each chapter/episode/whatever tells its own story and can therefore be reasonably sold on its own, but the stories have ongoing themes. The core theme has us following a bunch of B Team participants from the human colonial side as they embark on diplomatic duties to address the post John Perry universe: a universe in which the majority of species - but not the humans - have united into the Conclave, and a universe in which the humans from earth are no longer aligned with their fellow humans in the colonies. As the book tells us at its very beginning, the human species is not expected to make it past three decades under these conditions.
The stories have our B heroes go from one success to the other as they grapple upon surprise findings that lead them into thinking there is a division in the human race. As in, there are elusive human forces out there trying to undermine the efforts of the colonial union. As things evolve, our B team turns more and more into an all capable A team. But…
There is a big “but” with The Human Division. That “but” is to do with the not so minor issue of the book not having an ending, obviously leaving us hanging in for a sequel that may come in some future year (but not next year; August 2014 will see an unrelated book release from Scalzi). I can partially forgive the sin given The Human Division’s episode like construction, with each episode having its start and its ending, but still – there is no overall ending to be found here.
While analysing the book’s structure I will also note that in case someone chose to buy select, non consecutive, episodes then they will probably find they were short changed. While each story/episode stands in its own rights, they certainly do build up on one another. In other words, I am not sure whether excitement over this newly tested The Human Division release policy is to be justified; at least not positive excitement. [In the book’s defence I will mention I do not know whether the purchase of non consecutive chapters was encouraged; on the other hand I know it was certainly made possible.]
In order to avoid blooping I will settle with mentioning each of the stories here is formed to thrill. Scalzi tends to say he can "lose" a book when its first two pages are less than gripping; he makes sure the readers of The Human Division do not encounter such a problem. Indeed, the whole book "reeks" of classic Scalzi: the sense of humour I like so much, heavy on the sarcasm. Or the values I agree with, reflected in numerous women filling key roles and in men not afraid of doing the lesser tasks (e.g., going down to the guts of a carnivorous plant in order to rescue a dog). Like yours truly, Scalzi is a liberal (with a lower case l); clearly, our opinions running the same frequencies goes a long way into explaining why I like him (and his writing) so much.
Overall: He might have gone back to his least interesting set piece, but his writing is very much still there. The Human Division ranks a very tasty 3.5 juicy crabs out of 5, and that's after taking back half a kadam to dishonour the lack of an overall ending.

Thursday, 28 November 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard

Lowdown: The relationship between John McClane and his estranged son heats up as they spend quality time together blowing stuff up in Russia.
Review:
When pondering a movie franchise brand, one has to ask oneself what that particular brand stands for. In the case at hand the brand is Die Hard, and if you were to ask me that brand has a few distinct values at its core. Notably, it pits an unlikely and unwilling hero, John McClane, into conflict with well organised, trained and prepared enemies who have vast numerical superiority and are about to do something particularly nasty. It features a formidable evil mastermind as the head of those enemies. And the resolution of the ensuing conflict has McClane enduring daredevil stunts just in order to survive. At the end, our unlikely hero beats the baddies despite the very unlikely odds.
Personally, I think everyone should be able to come up with the above values I have written. Alas, it seems obvious the makers of Die Hard’s fifth instalment, A Good Day to Die Hard, have failed to ask themselves the question I just raised. It is my impression they took this franchise solely as an excuse to put Bruce Willis through the motions of yet another action movie and do so without bothering with any shred of a background story or character development. After all, why bother the fifth time around? Well, big mistake! A Good Day to Die Hard (let’s just call it DH5) manages to be even worse than its predecessor, Die Hard 4.0 (or if you want to call it by that hilarious name given to it in the USA, Live Free [under constant NSA surveillance] or Die Hard).
The high rise building that grew to an airport in the first two instalments have now grown to the largest country on earth, Russia, where this movie of ours takes place. Oh, and Ukraine as well, even though this slight geographical issue does not get a mention; I suspect our moviemakers did not want to impose even this most minimal of challenge on their viewers brains.
Russia, now a corrupt oligarchy, has one of its billionaires put on trial by its would be corrupt defense minister. Enter the CIA in the shape of McClane’s son (Jai Courtney) to sort matters out the way Americans have been doing forever, using the force. Back home at USA, good old John McClane (Willis) receives the news his son is about to face Russian courts. Knowing nothing about his son’s recent adventure, only his rogue past, Willis does what any good father does in a movie and flies to Russia to reignite relationships with his son and potentially help. Alas, as is always the case in Die Hard movies, things blow up, literally. In DH5, though, there are two McClanes to sort things out, tag team style; by the time our pair is finished half of Russia’s cars have been smashed to their death and a nuclear ploy involving Chernobyl is averted. In the process, more than an hour and a half of our lives has been wasted.
Wasted, because Die Hard fails to live up to its core values. McClane is/are no longer the unlikely, reluctant, hero; the villains are far from noteworthy; and the challenges, while spectacular, are just the same as those in any other high budget, special effects driven contemporary action movie. Then there are the insults to viewers’ intelligence: a father/son relationship that develops through both sides referring to one another using four letter words. Or our heroes getting themselves out of a tight spot through movie magic (see “worst scene” below). It’s so bad it’s pathetic.
Worst scene:
Our heroes are tied up, their guns removed off them, and are about to be executed by a gang of baddies that trapped them at a public library. McClane Junior manages to pull out a hidden switchblade and cut through his ropes while the baddies are distracted.
Then, at crunch time, we have McClane Senior reach out with his thus far tied hands, grab a pistol off the previously cleaned floor, and start a-shooting.
How the hell did Mr Senior get his hands untied? And where did that pistol materialise out of? Perhaps Die Hard 6 will help answer these metaphysical questions.
Overall: Look, I did not suffer watching DH5. As a collection of action scenes, it is not bad. However, as a Die Hard sequel? No crab cigar, I say. Or rather, 2.5 crabs out of 5.

Sunday, 24 November 2013

The Internship

Lowdown: Two middle aged men go for an internship at Google.
Review:
I will admit it from the start: I am rather tired of the typical Vince Vaughn / Owen Wilson type humour. Sure, they both have their moments under the sun, but clearly this is a case of been there, done that, move on. Only that these two won’t move away from their milking cow.
No, for me the only reason to watch The Internship was the Google factor. Simply put, I have heard from numerous sources that the essence of this one is a movie long commercial for the number one online advertising company in the world. With such product placement for a company I deal with all the time, I wanted to check out how low things can go. I proved right to come in with this attitude, because if The Internship can pass for a film than I can pass for the Commander Shepard that survived the Reapers and is here to review movies.
Our story follows Billy & Nick (Vaughn & Wilson), two salespeople who do everything together. They sell together and they even go to bed together if need be (only for sleeping purposes, though; as much as V&W like to think themselves politically incorrect, they won’t go that far). Alas, they learn the hard way their boss (John Goodman) closed their company down, leaving them jobless. Thus they face the harsh world that is currently out there, a world where the prospects of a job seeker are pretty miserable. What can they do?
Billy comes up with an idea: they can apply for an internship at Google, out of which they have the slight chance of getting a job to last with that most wonderful of companies. Alas, our boys do not have the skills one would normally associate with Google; still, they’re given the nod to embark on their quest, surrounded as they are by flocks of interns half their age. What is their quest? To be members of the one team of interns that’s deemed to be the best of its round, thus to be rewarded with proper jobs at Google. Rest assured, the competition between intern teams is tough; and given our swans are more than ducks out of the water, one intern team is heavily encumbered already.
[First thing’s first: what is an intern to begin with? It seems like this is an American term describing people who get a job they are not qualified for yet. These “interns” do the work as they learn, thus acquiring the experience for a proper job. All the while they receive piss all in terms of financial benefits. In other words, do not envy the young American wishing to get themselves into a profession.]
I can criticise The Internship on so many angles it’s not funny. I will not even focus on its movie aspects; as I expected, this is yet another V&W talkfest that can rarely induce a mild laugh but is generally a broken affair full of stereotyping and cheap movie making corner cutting. Instead, I will focus on the Google angle that brought me here in the first place.
And that Google angle is far from flattering, either. As in, for a movie that is supposed to portray Google as the ultimate place to work for, The Internship does an incredibly bad job. For a start, there is that whole concept of pitting teams of artificially divided interns against one another to [employment] death. Even Microsoft has quit its policy of setting one employee on another through peer performance reviews! To think that Google was so close to recruit the baddies' team.
Wait, there’s more. What is the one thing one can do to turn their Google career for the better? If you ask The Internship, one goes to a strip club. But of course! Oh, and who does one meet at the strip club? Well, amongst others, one should expect to meet exotic looking Google female employees whose daytime salary does not allow making ends meet. Again I will ask, is this the image Google was after?
Then there is the Rose Byrne conundrum. Byrne’s, is case you’re asking, is the token female romantic character for Wilson’s to fall in love with. She’s a veteran Googler, self declaring her dedication to her employer is so high because this is her character’s way of improving the world. As in, do Google’s employees really fall for that? Don’t they realise that as a publicly listed company it is Google’s legal duty to ensure maximum shareholder income, and fuck everything else (worldly improvements included)?
But let’s go back to Byrne’s character again. Later on, she describes herself as a thirty plus year old who was so dedicated to the cause she forgot her biological clock etc, thus needing Nick (Wilson’s) services to sort her life out for her. Again, let me ask: does Google really want to associate itself with such abysmal female stereotyping?
Overall: A pathetic excuse for a film. 1 Mountain Dew out of 5.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

Lowdown: Two mentally ill people recover together.
Review:
Mentally ill people aren’t always as good looking as Bradley Cooper (Pat) and Jennifer Lawrence (Tiffany), even when taking into account the bruise Pat has on his nose all film long. That, however, cannot distract from the fact Silver Linings Playbook is a nice, charming, film.
We start with Pat as he is released from the mental illness institution that's been hosting him for the past eight months. We gradually learn of his circumstances as he settles back into his parents’ home: we quickly learn he is still unstable; we meet his father (Robert De Niro), who doesn’t seem that great himself and whose current occupation is illegal bookkeeping; and we learn Pat’s main driving force in life is the quest to rejoin his wife, Nikki. However, the feeling is not mutual. Pat has to work hard to for Nikki to accept him. He is not intimidated, though: his plan is to embrace the positives of life, its silver linings.
One such silver lining could be Tiffany. That is, if she wasn’t so messed up herself. The wife of a now deceased cop, she quickly established herself a firm reputation for being a slut. Thus when Tiffany is introduced to Pat, it is unclear whether that is a blessing or a curse. Slowly and gradually, though, they will help one another recover. Not that this is going to be easy.
Our affairs for the duration of Silver Linings Playbook are set in Philadelphia, which is a bit of an exception for an American film. Rocky taught us Philadelphia is reserved for working class heroes, and indeed that is the case here: sure, Silver Linings Playbook has its sexy stars, but their affairs are very working class indeed (assuming one ignores the fact we never see them working for a living). Or rather, this one is a very down to earth movie, dealing with simple things in life: family, relationships and football. Nothing glamorous here.
The silver linings are provided through touching drama and fine acting. Now, I heard through the grapevine that Lawrence got herself an Academy Award for this one, and I do acknowledge her acting as well as her screen partners’. However, if I were to choose my pick of this acting class crop, I would definitely go with De Niro. I think the guy shows real signs of talent – one day, he might just get somewhere.
Best scene: Perhaps for all the wrong reasons, I liked the way Pat gets into trouble upon going to see his NFL team when some Anglo patriots decide Indian team supporters should go “home” instead. Whether you like his way of standing up for his principles or not is one thing; I just took notes of a phenomenon that is not uncommon in Australia, too.
Notable scene: The freshly released into society Pat is greeted by a mother that prepared “crabby snacks” especially for him. Given this is this blog’s first posting under its new Crab Juice moniker, one can argue I could not find a better film to [re]start things off with.
Overall: Look, there’s nothing truly special here other than a simple movie about simple people. Given Hollywood’s standards, though, that is really special. 3.5 out of 5 juicy crabs.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Man of Steel

Lowdown: A Superman 2 reboot.
Review:
The prevailing question with any new Superman movie, let alone Man of Steel, is – do we really need it? After all, it’s not like Superman Returns was such a success. In effect Man of Steel acknowledges that by restarting the whole Superman story again and attempting to prove its virtues through bleeding edge special effects and a long line of famous actors. Except, it has to be said, for the actor in the role of Superman himself – Henry Cavill.
And so we are taken again to through the story of Superman’s birth, starring his father Russell Crowe. Crowe does a decent job stepping into the shoes of Marlon Brando; his is a more lengthy role, though. Then we’re back to earth to see the story of a young adult Superman told to us through a series of flashbacks. We meet his earthly parents, Diane Lane and Kevin Costner, and we meet that investigative journalist who’s always at the thick of Superman things, Lois Lane (Amy Adams).
Then the challengers come in the shape of old baddies from Superman’s home world, who wish to recreate that world on this earth of ours. Not if Superman can help it; he may not be a human, but he sure is a humanist, raised as he was on the virtues of sacrifice and doing what’s right by the now too old to be dancing with wolves Costner. Fighting ensues, with our Superman facing numerous adversaries of similar abilities and much ruthlessness whose only fault is their lack of earthly prowess; would that be enough to overcome them? Give or take a few cities wiped off the earth and stupendous amounts of damage to lives and property, one cannot be taken by surprise through Man of Steel’s happy ending (an ending that leaves a definite hint of sequels, I must add). But yeah, we’ve seen it all before in Superman 2, minus the contemporary special effects.
If Man of Steel is to stand above its peers then its through its special effects. When superheroes fight here they don’t just throw punches; they’re chucked through buildings and dig holes in the ground as they smash. It’s all very flashy, but at the end when director’s Zack Snyder (Sucker Punch, Watchmen, 300) flashed through the credits I sort of realised the type of vision I have just seen. And yes, it was pretty cool, and yes, I did enjoy it; I’ve enjoyed it much more than I do your regular superhero movie.
But still: Do this director’s vision and this cast of A list stars justify another Superman? Or rather, wouldn’t the world be a better place if the same people were to engage in a brand new, original effort instead? I think it would.
Best scene:
A significant message Man of Steel is trying to push on us viewers is to do with the need of the powerful to restrain the exercise of their powers. Superman learns this the hard way when a flashback has his Costner father die in front of his eyes. Superman could have easily saved him, but Costner asks for restraint.
I would say that was a very not so subtle hint towards the attitudes of the filmmakers' USA.
Overall: Superhero movies rarely come as good and grandiose as this, but still – there is nothing to Man of Steel we haven’t seen before. 3.5 out of 5 stars. 

Friday, 8 November 2013

Dredd

Lowdown: Karl Urban shows Aussie politicians what being tough on crime really means.
Review:
One might ask what is the point with another take on the Judge Dredd formula, given the nineties version's most notable contribution was the introduction of one Sandra Bullock. [18/11/2013: Yours truly apologises for his advanced senility. As has been pointed out to me in the comments below, I managed to dreadfully confuse Judge Dredd with Demolition Man. Sorry.] But, you know, comic based movies are all the rage now, so why not? Plus it has to be said: as far as reboots are concerned, the new Dredd is not bad. Not bad at all. Perhaps this is because it feels totally different to its predecessor.
Karl Urban puts on the Dredd mask this time around (and, it has to be said, does not take it off throughout the movie; all you see of him is his chin). Dredd lives in a post apocalyptic future where radiation has confined the residents of the USA to a tight area that is now a single mega city. This new age Detroit is rife with crime and poor on resources, with the only force preventing total anarchy being the judges: police officers with the authority to exercise their own ruling on the spot. In other words, something like Obama’s FISA courts.
Essentially, Dredd takes us through a day in the life of Judge Dredd. But not your typical day: this time around he’s to be encumbered by a new young policewomen trainee (Olivia Thirlby) who failed her professional tests but who is still pushed on to the role because of her psychic abilities. Yes, we have ourselves a new Sandra Bullock, and yes, those psychic skills will prove useful by the end of the day.
Our heroes follow up some baddies through a conventional car chase. The baddies reach a 200+ storey skyscraper brimming with people, some sort of an ultimate slum. This slum turns out to be the layer of a particularly nasty drug queen (Lena Heady, who seems to have acquired monopoly over psycho yet powerful women roles at the moment). This queen won’t allow the secrets of her latest drug out: a drug that slows the perception of time by three orders of magnitude and thus provides ample opportunity for the film to feature plenty of slow-mo action. She closes the building off and wouldn’t let anybody in or out until the judges are dead.
Obviously, she picked on the wrong judge to pick on. Blood baths ensue.
Thus Dredd ends up a lot like an earlier Urban affair, Doom. It’s very violent, and graphically so (further enhanced by the prevailing deterioration around). And it’s all action, no mercy, and not much else. Style wise, the action is very reminiscent of video gaming: hero steps into a corridor, baddies await by side doors, hero uses various weapons to kill baddies and progress. Did I mention similarities with Doom?
I do have to say, though, that Dredd does its thing quite well: I’m all for violent films showing us what violence really looks like, or showing us more than the usual glorification of violence that we get elsewhere. Dredd tries to be very “in your face”, fully succeeds, and deserves to be acknowledged for its achievements there.
Between that and its short hour and a half long duration, Dredd is a very effective action rollercoaster. Way better than Stallone’s, no doubt about it.
Overall: I quite liked Dredd; I think it just makes the 3.5 out of 5 stars mark. 

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

An Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Richard Dawkins’ autobiography, from before birth to The Selfish Gene.
Review:
As far as people who have no idea of my very existence are concerned, Richard Dawkins is not only the person I most revere; during the past decade he has been the most influential, too. I’ll put it this way, whenever he’s stuck in or around Melbourne he can knock on our door. Not to mention him always welcomed for a chat around the dinner table (even my six year old, a big fan of The Magic of Reality, would love that!).
So yeah, when I heard Dawkins is releasing his autobiography, I was looking forward to it. I was hoping to learn more about the person, a person who is usually shy from the personal. I was seeking further inspiration from the man.
An Appetite for Wonder takes its reader on a journey of exploration guided by Dawkins himself. It starts with ancestral history and moves through childhood years in Africa, then public (=private) schooling back in England, then Oxford, and culminating through the turning into a scientist. Proceedings end upon the release of The Selfish Gene, which Dawkins considers a milestone separating his life in two. The story of that second half, promises Dawkins, will be told in a follow up to be released in two years’ time.
It is always interesting to read a well written autobiography in the sense of peering through a window into another world. In Dawkins’ case, a world that started with the British Empire and moved through an education system that, thus far, I was only familiar with through Pink Floyd’s “we don’t need no education” (I’m lying there, because I read about it in Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22, but that was only a recent thing). I guess what I am trying to say here is that An Appetite for Wonder works the same way as Downton Abbey: it shows us a world now gone that many people like to reflect on as “the good old days”. Only that with Dawkins being Dawkins we’re exposed to the honest truth, and that has a lot to do with things not being that great (think of forced cold water baths each morning or total segregation from the opposite sex). The changing perspectives that our always evolving culture brings along have a say, too; when examined through contemporary eyes, things look different to what they might have looked like at the time.
Dawkins may not be telling us things that would knock us off our reading chairs, but his retrospective analysis sure hits home. Consider his account of school bullying at the various prestigious schools he’s been to, and his regrets for not stepping in to defend the weak. I am bothered by the exact same notions myself: I recall with horror how, back at primary school, I watched and laughed when a guy I considered a best friend was forced to endure a garbage bin over his head. While I am happy to report that person is still a best friend, I often wonder why he still calls me a friend. Regardless, I agree with Dawkins’ conclusion in that despite common conceptions, we are not the same persons we were decades ago. While I see much room for self improvement, I would also like to believe that while my mechanics aren’t as good as they used to be during my younger years I am now a much better person.
With all the praise I can bestow on Dawkins and his latest book, I have to qualify and state I felt An Appetite for Wonder failed when it came to making me understand what it was that made Dawkins reach the status he now has. A lot of detail is there to explain his ability to communicate complex ideas clearly and his rise to professional fame; but I felt like I missed something when it came to that driving spark that ignited the passion that, surely, had to have driven Dawkins to his current heights. Perhaps I’m looking for something I shall only find in the follow up autobiography; perhaps this is omission is directly related to Dawkins’ rather humble nature. Regardless, I felt like I missed something important in the making of this great person.
Last, but not least, I would like to note a technical deficiency in An Appetite for Wonder. For an avid ebook reader, I have to note this is the first Richard Dawkins book I have acquired in electronic format (I own the rest in paper copies; all the rest). Perhaps I should have stuck to paper, because my Kindle had totally distorted all the poetry quotes Dawkins often invokes in his book. Check this photo as an example for what I had to endure and you’d understand why I had to skip through significant portions of the book:


There were times in which I had to hold myself back from asking Amazon for my money back.
Overall: I will passionately read anything coming out of Richard Dawkins’ pen or keyboard. In many respects, An Appetite for Wonder was a passionate read, yet I could not avoid feeling it lacked in this very department I was hoping for the most. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 1 November 2013

The Switch

Lowdown: A guy replaces his best friend's sperm donation with his.
Review:
I may as well say it: Why? As in, why do I bother watching Hollywood romantic comedies anymore when they are so predictable, so “seen one, seen them all”?
Case in point: The Switch (2010).
Wally (Jason Bateman) and Kassie (Jennifer Aniston) are best mates. As much as a man and a woman whose relationship started out through romance that got clipped after two dates can be best friends; clearly, Wally aspires for more than Kassie would relinquish. As my old saying goes, if I had a plane for every time I heard the dreaded “let’s just be friends”, I’d be a national airline. Maybe not American Airlines, but Qantas? Sure.
With New York life being the way it is, Kassie finds it hard to find a male partner. At the same time, her biological clock is ticking. She decides to try and get pregnant using a donor's sperm, and arranges a party for her friends where she would attempt conception. The Switch ignores conception being a matter most people would rather keep for themselves, but rather uses the scene for some comedy. A drunk (or was he drugged?) Wally finds himself in the same room as the sperm donation; one thing leads to another and the donation is spilled. What can a man do? Provide a replacement, of course. A switch.
Next thing we know, Wally wakes up without a clue as to what happened last night. Kassie gets pregnant and moves away from New York's hectic scene to focus on her single parenting. Fast forward a few years when Kassie returns to New York, with her child, for things to unravel. And if by now you do not know how this movie will develop then, my friend, you are naive.
There really isn't much more to say about The Switch other than point at its actors. They do a fine job keeping this movie alive by doing the exact thing they have been doing since Friends and Arrested Development. Helping them along are the respective best friends on each side: Juliette Lewis on Kassie's side, and Jeff Goldblum on Wally's.
Overall: An hour and a half of easiest entertainment. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Iron Sky

Lowdown: The Nazis haven’t been defeated, they just retreated to the dark side of the moon.
Review:
There are many reasons why Iron Sky will leave a lasting impression on me, chief among which is the fact it turned out to be the first movie I ever got to watch on Netflix. The other reasons probably matter more: this is a movie flogging a crazy idea, a movie that’s crazily works its way through to making a very viable statement. Crazy is the key word, because even defining Iron Sky’s genre is a tough call: is it science fiction or is it a comedy?
We discover the truth about the Nazis right from the start, when American astronauts land on the dark side of the moon and find themselves confronted with that age old nemesis. A nemesis that, even on the moon, wears those classic goggles, leather jacket and submachine gun we associate with World War 2 films.
One astronaut, James Washington (Christopher Kirby) survives and is taken captive, which gives us an opportunity to catch a glimpse of the contemporary Nazi machine. This includes the lovely and naïve schoolteacher Renate (Julia Dietze), her ambitiously Nazi man to be Klaus (Götz Otto), and even the current Führer (Udo Kier). The men are not particularly impressed by the fact this astronaut they caught is black, but they are impressed by his smartphone: it is powerful enough to run their spaceship of ultimate destruction, with which they can make a comeback and conquer the earth.
The only problem? The smartphone’s battery ran out, and they don’t have a charger cable. Now, in order to fulfil their plans, they have to infiltrate the earth and put their hands on a USB cable. It won’t be easy: opposing them will be the American female president and all the might of her marketing/propaganda department.
The above is just the beginning. Iron Sky goes deep into the crazy as it progresses, sometimes crazy funny but too often just plain silly. On the way it borrows scenes/cliches from plenty other science fiction movies and then some. One can easily dismiss it on the basis of its silliness and lesser special effects than the average Hollywood blockbuster, but I won’t. Sure, there is plenty of room for improvement; but in that razor edge equation dealing with whether the end justifies the means or vice versa I will go with the former on this one, because what Iron Sky is trying to tell us is worthy of its silly means: it tells us that, when looking ourselves in the mirror, our society did not learn much from its escapade with the Nazis. In other words, unless we do something quickly, we are doomed.
Best scene: The head of the US government marketing team (Peta Sergeant), the only government group that actually does something, reproduces that famous scene from Downfall where Hitler goes crazy. Very well done!
Overall: A good idea goes a long way even if the execution occasionally stumbles. I liked Iron Sky for its originality and daring and I’m giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Fast & Furious 6

Lowdown: Good people with fast cars beating bad people with fast cars.
Review:
It’s not often that I feel the need to defend me watching a particular film, but Fast & Furious 6 is such a case. As in, why did I bother wasting my time in front of a film that I know with quite a lot of confidence, even though I only caught snippets of its prequels and never watched one of them from start to finish, to be pathetically silly?
My excuses are two. First, there is nothing wrong with the occasional mind numbing that comes with the likes of a Fast & Furious. Call it catharsis from the grinding daily routine. And second, it’s not me; it’s my son. As in, we watched the trailer while he was sick and we ran through a movie trailer marathon on our Apple TV. He got very excited with the prospect of an action scene featuring fast cars battling a tank, so we progressed through watching the entire scene in YouTube (through a video that must have infringed every copyright and user agreement ever conceived, but yeah, I cared a lot). And now that the movie itself became available for proper viewing at home, that was the next possible escalation.
You might stop me at this point to ask what a six year old is doing watching a movie that’s rated for humans older than twice his age. The answer is that I do my own classifications: I do not see much harm in my son getting occasionally exposed to that most evil of words, “fuck”, which seems to be the classification board’s most dreaded nemesis. It’s the violence that counts, and Fast & Furious’ type of violence - people driving cars in so improbable a way it feels more like a video game - is perfectly fine for the video gamer that happens to be my son.
Anyway… Being that I don’t know much about the series, it was surprisingly easy to figure out what’s going on in Fast & Furious 6. Essentially, we have ourselves a gang of criminals (but good Christians) who made their money robbing things with fast cars, led by Vin Diesel. They did their thing already and now they’re retired, living out of USA law enforcement reach in all sorts of exotic locations. On the other side of the ring we have a carbon copy gang that is now doing its round of robbing. For reasons the movie never bother clarifying, the former are goodies and the latter baddies; so when fast cars are used in an exotic robbery at Russia, American law enforcers (now taking care of Russian law enforcement too, obviously) led by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson come knocking on Diesel’s door for help, offering amnesty as a reward. Because, you know, the only way a gang of robbers with fast cars can be stopped is with another gang of robbers with fast cars. Let’s make a film or six out of that!
Adventure follows. A silly adventure, because things don't make sense and the laws of physics are defied left and right. For example, did you know that falling off a high speed car would get you killed, but jump off a high speed car to land on another car and you'll be perfectly fine (whether that destination car is stationary or not is of no consequences in the F&F world of physics)?
The resulting film does feel a lot like James Bond. Not only do we have men being machos, good looking women playing various support roles, cool cars and gadgets; we also have an adventure that moves about a world connected by one theme - wherever one goes, Americans are the ones that call the shots. Oh, and arguments are settled either by standing firm and looking tough/cool, or with some sort of a car chase.
Best scene: That tank vs. cars chase on a Spanish highway doesn't make the slightest of sense, but it is exciting.
Funniest scene: At the end of the day, our heroes - people who do not hesitate to kill, to rob and to put the public around them in danger - join hands for a Christian prayer to commemorate their upcoming meal. That's religion in a nutshell for you.
Overall: This mind numbing nonsense with fast moving cars does not deserve more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

Lowdown: Wrath of Khan reincarnated.
Review:
Back in 2009, Star Trek provided a rather feeble excuse to reboot the original Star Trek story, with Kirk, Spock et al. And now it’s time for the reboot's sequel.
You know what the formula for a sequel is, right? Don’t bother thinking too much, just press the pedal harder. And that’s exactly what Star Trek Into Darkness brings, from the silly opening action sequence that is so full of things that don’t make sense till the credits come up more than two hours filled with things that make no sense later. It also happens to be a collection of exciting action scenes delivered in a very exciting package filled with cutting edge special effects.
The story doesn’t try to tell us anything new. Essentially, Into Darkness is a reboot of The Wrath of Khan: a super human, now denounced by the rest of humanity on account of his disregard for his inferiors, comes back to take revenge. As things pun out, the crew best positioned to stop this Khan is “ours”: a newly demoted, now promoted Captain Kirk (Chris Pine); the Spock with whom our captain is always in disagreement (Zachary Quinto); the beautiful Uhura (Zoe Saldana) doing the token female role whose most interesting contribution is its romance with Spock; Bones, the doctor in charge of reviving dying characters (Karl Urban); Scotty, the engineer who always complains but then delivers (Simon Pegg); and the Starship Enterprise, the one spaceship that's always there.
Together our heroes will uncover deceptions and traitors in our midst. They will even sort things out after a very September 11 like attack. But while this all things happens, the viewer that bothers to think will not be able to avoid reflecting on the massive lack of sense throughout. 
There are positives to Into Darkness other than it being exciting. If you recall your Wrath of Khan, a major character dies at the end of proceedings in order to save the Enterprise entire. That character is later revived, through rather feeble excuses, in the sequel The Search for Spock. Into Darkness twists things around when it comes to that major character dying (I will leave you to determine how original its approach really is), but spares us when it comes to that character inevitable revival. As in, we do not have to wait for the sequel; revival is immediate, even if it is done in a manner as contrived as organised religion. Indeed, finding a cure for death was never less appreciated than in the world of Star Trek.
Overall: For better and for worse, Star Trek Into Darkness is the perfect manifestation of what passes for a popcorn movie during 2013. In other words, highly entertaining bullshit. I give it, rather reluctantly, 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Oblivion

Lowdown: An Adam & Eve crew looks after an earth devastated by aliens.
Review:
In the near future, earth is attacked by aliens. They start with the moon, whose destruction causes massive earthquakes, and move on to earth. Eventually, the earthlings win through use of their nukes, but at the cost of their planet. Humans have fled to Titan, and only a two person crew made of scout Jack (Tom Cruise) and operator Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) remains behind to ensure Titan gets its supply of earthly energy. The two have a fight on their hands, though, because although supported by killer drones those nasty aliens are still out there to put up a fight.
A film that requires the dictation of an exposition along these lines is off to a bad start. Indeed, there isn’t much more for me to say about Oblivion’s plot that wouldn’t bloop the hell out of this movie for you. So I will go right ahead to the criticism.
By no means can it be said Oblivion is original. Plot elements are heavily borrowed from others, most notably from Moon and then from Matrix and even Independence Day. Then there is the not so slight problem of too many things not making sense that is coupled with the problem of combining too many coincidences to support the suspension of disbelief. No, I am not finished yet: there is also the problem of the audience being actively deceived as to the true nature of things. I can accept Tom Cruise deceiving himself, his personal track record there speaks for itself; but why trick us?
Throw in a complete waste of acting talents like Morgan Freeman and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (better known as Jaime Lannister) and I’m positive you would concur: just like director Joseph Kosinski previous film, Tron Legacy, Oblivion is a science fiction tell full of missed potential. On the positive side, though, M83 provides a nice soundtrack to proceedings, albeit a far cry from Daft Punk’s work on Legacy.
Last, but not least, I have to add I am sick and tired of films that regard “the world” to mean “the USA”. Our Jack is limited in his scope of travel to radiation free zones, which in this case means – don’t hold your breath – New York. What a surprise! I was sure he’s going to find himself lost in Africa. Hollywood is not doing itself any favours with its Americanism.
Favourite scene:
As critical as I am of Oblivion, it still has to be said there are pretty entertaining sci-fi elements throughout. One of those depicts Jack approaching the ruins of a tower, ready for any surprise that may come as he examines things through the scope of his assault rifle upon entering the structure.
The look and feel reminded me so much of a specific Mass Effect mission I could not avoid savouring every second of it. Alas, our Shepard did not find his Liara there (although in another very Mass Effect like scene he does).
Did I mention too much of Oblivion feels like it's been borrowed from elsewhere?
Overall: As much as I like these big time science fiction movies, and as much as I appreciate those that go beyond humans shooting aliens and vice versa, Oblivion is simply too flawed to matter much. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Griff the Invisible

Lowdown: It’s not easy being a modern day Sydney superhero.
Review:
Would you believe there is a living breathing superhero in contemporary Sydney, or at least in 2010 Sydney when Griff the Invisible was released?
That superhero Griff (Ryan Kwanten) is something special. During the day is a lowly accountant, a nerd that’s routinely abused by the guys he shares office space with. At night, however, our lone wolf tracks the dodgy with the latest equipment, puts on his G suit, turns invisible at will, and beats the crap out of all those who mean harm. Alas, police as well as residents treat our Griff like a vigilante: instead of being thankful they are scared; instead of welcoming his actions they hunt him down.
Things get more complex when his brother Tim (Patrick Brammall, recently on ABC TV via Upper Middle Bogan) comes to town and visits Griff; but he cannot be allowed to know too much. Even worse, when Tim introduces Griff to Melody (Maeve Dermody), the girl he recently met, Griff can immediately tell she sees right through him. How can a superhero perform under such conditions?
Quickly we find out there is more to Griff than meets the eye. As in, this movie about a superhero with amazing invisibility capabilities is more than just a superhero movie. I won’t go into details and ruin it for you, but at the bottom line Griff the Invisible is a movie that tells us it is alright to be different. Perhaps even much better than simply being ordinary.
In order to deliver its message, Griff the Invisible employs the eccentric and the dark. There are a lot of bullshit statements being aired to the level of plain weirdness, and the whole thing is obviously a low budget affair. Does it matter? Well, if you’re going in expecting some sort of an Australian answer to Batman and Superman, you will be severely disappointed. If, however, yours is an open mind willing to take in a bit of the eccentric, Griff the Invisible can be quite charming. A film that dares going where most others won’t. A movie that shows the superhero theme can take viewers much further than it usually does.
Overall: Granted, Griff the Invisible is weird. But why should that be a problem? 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Mass Effect: Deception by William C. Dietz

Lowdown: More adventures for the characters from previous Mass Effect books.
Review:
Hard to believe, given the scope of discussion here revolves around a video game, that a book can create as much controversy and antagonism as Mass Effect: Deception. This fourth, and thus far last, in the series of Mass Effect books (the previous entries are Revelation, Ascension and Retribution) was denounced by fans and later modified for consistency’s sake. Most notably, it was not written by Drew Karpyshyn, author of the previous trilogy, but rather by William C. Dietz. Were the fans right to criticise? Were the modifications able to fix the damage? I did not have much in the way of expectations, but given I had a few days to wait out prior to the release of a new book I was highly anticipating I decided to go for the easy intermediate read and give Deception a go.
Despite the new author, the plot continues from shortly after the third book in the series and revolves around familiar characters. This implies things are set in the period between the Mass Effect 2 and 3 games; however, unlike the previous book in the series, Commander Shepard is not mentioned in the proceedings.
We start off with David Anderson and Kahlee Sanders presenting their findings regarding Cerberus’ attempt to recreate Reaper technology before a sceptical Citadel Council. Nick, their teen biotic prodigy, uses the opportunity to run off and join a biotic underground movement set on Omega. And, in parallel, the biotically talented and previously autistic teen Gillian, travelling with the quarians in the company of previous tutor Hendel, gets to learn of her father’s fate and decided revenge is due on Cerberus. That leads her to Omega, too, where the Cerberus assassin Kai Leng is lurking.
For multiple reasons, there is not much point for further account of the plot. First, because there is not much point to the plot; it is essentially a collection of thrilling action encounters of the type that’s too predictable and cliché filled. Second, and more importantly, because the plot does not seem to lead us anywhere.
What do I mean by a book that goes nowhere? I mean a book where major characters die "just like that". Sure, people die for no particular reason all the time; yet no one writes a series of four books about them. What is the point of a long spanning space opera career if it is to end in such a dismal manner? My feeling was that the book simply chose to dispose of any of the series’ characters that did not make it through to Mass Effect 3. That conclusion leads me to assume the purpose of Deception is therefore to set things up for Mass Effect 3, but then again did Mass Effect 3 need any further introductions? I argue it doesn’t. I argue all we already knew all we needed to know about the relevant characters through the previous books in the series. Thus it is clear: Deception serves no purpose in the Mass Effect canon.
There is a difference between serving no purpose and subtracting from what has already been achieved, and Deception crosses that border. Most noticeable is its departure from previously set literature standards. As in, it is written in a bland, too simple a way. I’ll put it this way: quality wise, it feels as if I wrote it with my limited vocabulary and all rather than a writer who knows their trade.
More troubling to series fans are the inconsistencies. I believe I was reading the modified version of the book, as opposed to the original, yet I could not but feel amazed at Gillian’s miraculous recovery from the autism plaguing her in previous books (achieved entirely while secluded from human society on a remote quarian ship, no less).
So yeah, the action was a bit of fun if one puts one’s mind in gear for reading trashy book. Was it so good as to make reading Deception worthwhile, though? Simply put, no.
Overall: A pointless, redundant book if ever there was one. 1 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Warm Bodies

Lowdown: The relationship between a zombie and the girl he saved.
Review:
As hard as it may be, it is important to try and see things from the other side’s point of view before condemning them. That is one of the lessons one can learn from Warm Bodies, an unusual zombie movie about an unusual zombie.
Yes, that cataclysmic event has happened and now most of the human population turned into mindless zombies. Yes, the remaining humans have to fend for themselves in horrible conditions: they live in a walled society and have to send scouts to scavenge the hostile outside world. But it’s not that great on the other side: our zombie for the duration of Warm Bodies (Nicholas Hoult, the kid from About a Boy and later Skins) isn’t exactly happy either. He can’t remember much of his past, only seeming to recall his name starts with R. He’s annoyed at being slow moving and slow thinking, too. He envies the living.
A zombie got to do what a zombie got to do, and in one of their feeding expeditions R’s group encounter a group of young scouts. R eats the brains of one of the guys, thereby inheriting his memories. These include memories of love for Julie (Aussie Teresa Palmer), also amongst that scout group being eaten. R won’t let the same fate happen to his now loved one; by helping Julie pretend to be a zombie and teaching her the zombie shuffle, he manages to sneak her back home with him. Alive. Home, in this particular case, is a now abandoned airliner at a zombie infested airport.
The begging question is, of course, “and now what?”. Which is exactly what Warm Bodies explores in a very entertaining, witty, manner. I don’t want to ruin it, but I will say that any suspicions you might have by now as to Warm Bodies’ originality would turn out to be true. Yes, it digs into its genre’s archives, but not half as much as classic horror movies do; this one is more of a romantic comedy that just happens to be set in a Romeo and Juliet type scenario that happens to be set in a zombie post apocalypse. Note the Romeo and Juliet analogy is not out of place, as a lot of the tension comes from the zombie community’s difficulty of accepting a living person into their ranks on one side, and the living’s total rejection of anything zombie on the other (as embodied by the character of the human leader, portrayed by John Malkovich).
The result is a movie that achieves two things. First, and as mentioned, it demonstrates the need to see things from the other’s side. And second, it demonstrates the glories of the living and the synergy that happens when the living interact with the living. For if common ground can be found between zombie and human, then surely common ground can be found between human and human. Between warm bodies.
Best scene: A rather depressed R informs us of the dull nature of zombies and his yearnings to be more like the living, able to interact with one another and explore the world. Cut into a pre apocalypse scene where we see a group of humans roaming about a shopping mall, each focused on their individual smartphone screen.
Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed Warm Bodies, both as sheer entertainment and as a fine example for how simple cinema can effectively deliver worthy messages. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

The Gatekeepers

Lowdown: Interviews with six former Shin Bet heads.
Review:
As running jokes at work have it, I am an Israeli secret agent on some exotic assignment at Australia. This implies others should be wary of me. The fact evolved separately on different occasions implies this is no laughing matter; on account of looking different and behaving differently, people are intimidated by me. Either that or their sense of humour is universally suffering. On my part I will say that my actual interactions with genuine Israeli Mossad/Shin Bet agents have left me unimpressed: to put it politely, I wouldn't be inviting any of them to dinner.
The qualities that make one work at such organisations do not make one a nice person to hang out with. The problem is probably magnified when discussing those who made it to the top of the food chain with the Shin Bet, as The Gatekeepers has: it interviews six former heads of the Shin Bet (essentially, all living former heads) and discusses events taking place with their organisation, either under their command or previously, from 1967 till today. 1967 is an important junction in Israeli history because that was when the Six Day War took place with Israel conquering the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. That was when Israel became a conqueror and an occupier of more than a million people.
Accompanied by old videos, photos and computer enhancements of old photos we basically hear those former Shin Bet heads talking (in Hebrew) for a bit more than an hour and a half. They discuss the adjustments their organisation had to make upon Israel assuming ownership of the occupied territories, the rise of the settlements, the number 300 bus incident, and both intifadas. The beauty of the affair is in the common themes raised by all six: the lacklustre nature of the politicians giving the orders, never managing to miss an opportunity to avoid peace; while on the other hand they acknowledge becoming more aware of the other side's plight so that while they were all in charge of doing awful things to Palestinians they also developed some soft spots. In other words, their unique position as head of the Shin Bet had turned them into lefties arguing, one by one, that Israel should just sit down and open an honest dialog with its Arab neighbours. Either that or forever live on its sword.
The sad part of this insight is that due to the former insight concerning the nature of politicians this will never happen. In other words, The Gatekeepers is telling us - straight from the horses' mouths - why the Arab/Israeli conflict is ongoing, why we should not expect to see it solved any time soon, and why the whole affair is a sad tragedy. In taking us through this eye opening journey, presenting us with the evidence along the way, and then delivering us the inevitable conclusion, The Gatekeepers renders itself a top class documentary.
On a higher philosophical plane, The Gatekeepers suggests why humanity in general is unable to contend with problems that are obviously there and for which the solutions are known. Think global warming, for example: the same failures that have Israelis killing Palestinians and vice versa are having the whole planet walking fast towards a point of no return that could well see civilisation as we know it collapsing. All the while, by focusing on the short term tactics rather than the strategic solutions, our gatekeepers are failing to protect us.
Favourite scenes: I don't know if "favourite" is the right word, but fact of the matter is that I have intimate familiarity with some of the subject matter. Seeing these matters discussed now, with the benefit of hindsight, makes it clear my years with the Israeli army have been nothing but folly. A waste of some of the best years of my life.
Overall: A mesmerising, in the bad sense of the word, documentary. There is a lot to be learnt from The Gatekeepers; I doubt anything would change, though. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Elysium

Lowdown: To save his life, a man must don a cyborg suit and head for an orbital station where the rich and powerful reside in isolation.
Review:
Nowadays it’s all but impossible for cinemas to offer a superior experience to that of good home theatre. Barring specific exceptions that can be counted using a single hand, the home offers much better potential for quality sound;  and flat screen TVs and projectors can rival the envelopment experience offered by your average multiplex’ image. Cinemas are down to marketing themselves on the basis of exclusivity, something I personally don’t care much for when all I need is wait 3-6 months for that “next best thing” to arrive at my home environment. Melbourne’s Astor Theatre defies that equation, though.
This old theatre has never been converted to a multiplex. It still has the proper lobby, it still has a huge hall, and it still has a huge screen – just like the cinemas I grew up on. However, it’s up with the times when it comes to quality projection and sound (eclipsing, IMHO, that of the supposedly superior Melbourne IMAX). I haven’t been to the Astor for years, pretty much since I became a parent. Last week I got the opportunity to rekindle an old flame and with good material at that: a proper science fiction movie, Elysium.
In all honesty I did not know much about Elysium prior to attending the cinema. However, it did not take long at all for me to realise this is another piece of science fiction filming by the guy behind District 9, Neill Blomkamp: the styling (and many of the actors) are too similar.
Set some 40 years from now, it tells the tale of a crumbling and overpopulated earth that was left to rot by the wealthy as they moved themselves to a heavenly space station, Elysium. From there they control the world harshly using a massive army of robots while the citizens of the earth provide the cheap labour required to support their ostentatious lifestyle. This setup leaves us following two key characters and plenty of supporting acts: on one hand there is Elysium security chief (Jodie Foster), while on the other we have a guy fighting hard to keep his earthly job at the factory in a world where hardly anyone can get a job (Matt Damon). The latter tries so hard he ends up on the receiving end of a massive dose of radiation that would leave him dead in a manner of days. His only hope is to go "upstairs" to Elysium and cure himself through one of the devices each household there has: a scanner that fixes all diseases at the atomic level. Just think what one of those devices could achieve down on earth were the elitists allow it to be deployed there!
Getting up there is not easy, though. The Elysiumites have a tendency to blow uninvited visitors up. They also have earthly agents (Sharlto Copley, of District 9 fame) that are very well armed to help with their dirty work. Besides, our hero is weak and sick. A cyborg like suit he acquires, that amplifies his muscles, offers him a starting chance.
At its core, Elysium is a tale of class wars. On one hand there's Elysium, the land of plenty, that doesn't want to share; on the other hand there is earth, with its poverty, ill health and unemployment. We all cheered when Matt Damon gave those evil bastards a taste of their own medicine, but come on: who are we really barracking for? Australia just voted to "stop the boats". And who are those boat people? They are the exact likes of Damon's character, living in even worse conditions, who seek to come to a land where they could get health services and lead a decent life. All the while Australians buy themselves more clothes and gadgets than they could ever need, made with the blood of those digging up the minerals making up the batteries to the blood of the zero paid Chinese factory line worker. If you want to catch a glimpse at the baddies from Elysium, all you need to do is take a look at the mirror.
Class wars aside, there is an action movie there. It's a spectacular action movie, made even more spectacular through the Astor's huge screen and decent sound. It's nice and all, but it ain't as good as District 9; while the earlier movie proved to be nothing like anything we've seen before, Elysium is a movie we've seen many times before. Perhaps not in a semi apocalyptic future setting, but definitely in more ways than none. It is often predictable in the sense of "given that we are now in the middle of the second act, it is time for the hero to suffer a setback". These problems are not severe, but they're definitely noticeable.
It is a pretty safe bet for me to say I will remember Elysium mostly for its depiction of a very likely future. Perhaps it won't happen in 40 years time, but between global warming, overpopulation and technological improvements implying the lesser skilled do not stand a chance of getting a job in a capitalistic society, either our children or our grandchildren will have to face the same problems Damon's character does. Unless, of course, we wake up to start sorting this world of ours. With the recent election of Tony Abbott, I do not hold my hopes up high. Not from Australia, not from the rest of the world.
Overall: Grand science fiction that tells us a lot of the world we currently live in. A predictable story. Important lessons. A mixed bag overall, but I'm a sucker for big time science fiction so I will give Elysium 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

World War Z

Lowdown: A zombie uprising with plenty of money for special effects.
Review:
I don’t know why the topic of zombie uprisings became so popular lately, but World War Z is yet another exploitation of the theme. And frankly, I was quite unimpressed with its unoriginality.
We begin with a typical American family stuck in a traffic jam at downtown Philadelphia. Signs of distress start showing up, then escalate through an explosion, then total chaos with no one knowing what’s going on, and then the world comes to an end through bombastic special effects. Seen this before? Yeah, I know, I watched Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow too. As well as countless more. So, this time around the cause is a rabies like infection that turns people into zombies – big deal.
Our hero for the duration of the war is Gerry (Brad Pitt), a family man that also happens to be some hot shot formerly in the service of the UN. Thus when civilisation dies he is rescued and transported to the seafaring UN fleet’s headquarters (no, such a fleet does not exist in real life). He’s given a task: help find the cause of the virus in order to help find a cure, and in return his family will be allowed to stay with the fleet instead of risk going back to the infected land.
Thus Gerry goes to try and save the world. First he goes to North Korea, where rumours say the plague begun; then his findings lead him to Israel, which managed to avoid its own infection thus far. In between highly effects driven action scenes, the plot thickens as the quest for an antidote gains momentum.
Let’s clear one thing out of the way: World War Z is, first and foremost, an obviously expensive special effects bonanza kind of an action film. Sure, there are some horror elements involved, but they are not the main event – this is not a “sit quietly till we make you jump” kind of a movie.
Clearly, though, World War Z also has some aspirations behind the cheap [expensive] thrill. UN taking over? A plot that moves between hotspots such as North Korea and Israel? There is a message here, and it is obvious. World War Z is trying to tell us we are all sharing this planet and should thus deal together with the real enemies confronting all of us, instead of pettily mongering about silly things and killing one another in the process. I can take that message; I think it earns World War Z a few brownie points over its peers to the genre, even if it loses many other points in the originality front.
Obviously, the point World War Z is making is very relevant. Think of what is currently taking place in Syria and the way Israel is handling the situation. Now think what would happen if the real Israel was to act the same way as World War Z’s Israel and let refugees into its borders: think what that might do to Arab-Israeli tensions. But also think why it’s not happening in real life to understand what World War Z is trying to tell us. It’s trying to say the zombies are already here and we are losing the war.
Best scenes: I liked Israel’s depiction in the movie. I suspect that what seems to have been shot at Malta was meant to resemble the Old City of Jerusalem, which is actually fairly tiny, but that aside things looked authentic. Anyway, the scene where the noise created by interfaith congregations attracts the zombies certainly appealed to this atheist’s world views. Pretty spectacular special effects, too.
Overall: When it comes to these “the world is coming to an end as we follow a family survive”, it’s usually a case of seen one, seen them all. These films can be fun, though; World War Z ups the ante with a worthy message, earning it 3.5 out of 5 stars.