Sunday, 23 June 2013

Someone Could Get Hurt by Drew Magary

Lowdown: A dramatic/comedic first base examination of the experience of parenting babies and young children in the USA.
Review:
Veterans of my blogs will know I had spent many a post on the frustrations of parenthood. Most notably, I divulged on the differences between the expectations I had and the expectations society led me to have and the contrast between those and what parenting a young child is actually like. In other words, raising a child means dealing with shit – literally. I even ventured to start a brand new blog dedicated to this matter alone but then quickly retreated as I realized the return on investment is inferior compared to other ventures of mine (like video games).
One guy for whom the return on investment from recounting his parental experiences is obviously much higher, probably due to him being a much better writer than yours truly (by a few orders of magnitude), is American Drew Magary. Not only is Magary good at writing, he’s also good at parenting, or at least at replicating, having chosen to bring three children to the world. And in his latest book, Someone Could Get Hurt, he provides an account of the resulting experience. An account which he chooses to share with us through a collection of short stories, some times snippets, of some special parental experiences. The beauty of this particular affair is to do with two factors: first, Magary does not shy from telling things the way they are (oh, what a rare and noble feat!). And second, Magary’s sense of humor managed to make me LOL on the crowded trains at an unprecedented pace. This book knocked me out [laughing], literally.
Our story begins at the birth of Magary’s third son, where a collection of medical emergencies meant that newborn’s early start at life was less than tranquil. In many respects it was similar to my own son’s. Then we flash back to Magary’s first born, to hear a thing or two about the shocking experience that is having a baby at home. Later we are introduced to his second born, thus adding the element of interaction between the two kids. Eventually, we go back to the third’s hospital story. Can’t accuse Magary for failing to frame his tale properly.
Thus far I touched on the authenticity and on the humor of Someone Could Get Hurt, but I haven’t on what is probably its most important attribute: the ability of any parent (with the qualification of any Western parent) to identify with at least some of Magary’s stories. It can happen through common tragedies, like those Magary experienced with his third; it can happen through witty references Magary makes, such as his casual reference to the "parking lot of death" which caught my attention because crossing too many a parking lot really does feel like a death wish when done with little kids. But mostly it was him referring to specific children related issues that most of us parents have encountered somewhere along the way: things like children's inability to tolerate you, the parent, talking to someone else and not them. Or things like getting warned by a doctor that saw your child for two minutes and claims the child might have a flat head, sending the ignorant parents deep into the Internet for research and causing much anxiety - almost always unnecessary anxiety. The number of parents I know who received flat head warnings from pediatricians at some point or another is pretty close to the number of parents I know, period; of those, only one couple had to take actual measures, and even then I'm not sure there was a point to it.
All factors combined, Someone Could Get Hurt could serve as a real life guide to parenthood. Nothing like the serious, preachy stuff that we read out of guilt so we could allow ourselves to think that we did the right thing by our children and did try to be good parents, but rather a guide to the practical stuff that's involved with parenthood. As in, a book that clearly tells you there is no way you'd be able to get it all right, that you will be doing lots of stupid mistakes, but also a book that tells you that at the end those things don't really matter. And for that simple conclusion, and by arriving at that simple conclusion in such an entertaining way, Someone Could Get Hurt jumps to the top of my parental "guide books" chart.
Overall: The best compliment I can give Someone Could Get Hurt is me saying I already bought a copy as a gift for a first time parent. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 21 June 2013

Robot & Frank

Lowdown: Burglary schemes unite and old man and his caretaker robot.
Review:
Robot & Frank starts off by putting son Hunter in a difficult situation I can properly identify with: his elderly father, Frank (Frank Langella), has got to the stage where he needs constant looking after. He can no longer properly look after himself and his house. His memory betrays him more often than not, too. Sure, Hunter wants to help, but circumstances make it hard on him: he has his own family to look after, he lives five hours away, and besides – it’s not like his father makes looking after him a nice experience. Not only is the father ungrateful, he also doesn’t appear to be the world’s nicest person.
Hunter’s solution: give his father a caretaker robot. Yes, in the near future these are general, if expensive, consumer products. I wonder now whether one of these is awaiting me in my elderly future?
Despite initial reluctance, the robot quickly grows on Frank. For a start, it allows our not so heroic hero of the film to shoplift novelty soaps and it lets him chat up the librarian (Susan Sarandon). It is then that it dawns on Frank that through mutual interests – the interest of the robot to see his owner getting healthier and the interest of Frank to get his way - that the robot has the potential to be quite useful. And Frank’s way, the escapade in which the robot could be helpful, is burglaries; we learn these are the only thing Frank was really good at (even though it had him doing time twice).
What follows next is a sort of a dramatic comedy that deals and delves into all of the above mentioned themes. We have a look at the problems with growing old, both from the old side of the family as well as the younger (for example, notable in their absence are the grandchildren). We have a look at society’s acceptance of technology, in the form of a robot; Frank’s daughter (Liv Tyler) helps with that aspect. And we have your general heist story, too.
It’s nice and all but the combination of themes fails to do Robot & Frank too much good. The various themes are piled up on top of one another, making it hard to discern what this movie is trying to tell us beyond its basic story level. Add the problem of Frank not being the easiest person in the world to identify with - he’s quite an asshole, even to his children - and the whole affair finds itself unable to rise above the simple “nice” movie experience.
Overall: A clear case of a science fiction film with much potential that tries for too much and ends up with not much. 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Lowdown: The long story of locating and killing Bin Laden.
Review:
It didn’t take Hollywood long to tell us its version of the story of Bin Laden’s demise, did it? At least they compensated by letting the story be told through the work of director Kathryn Bigelow, who showed us how well she can tell a military drama through The Hurt Locker.
Claiming to be based on the testimonies of the actual people involved in the affair (on the American side, I assume), Zero Dark Thirty spans around a decade as it tells us the story of the group of people whose job it was to get Bin Laden ever since 11 September 2001. In particular our story revolves around Maya (Jessica Chastain), the CIA agent who relocated to Pakistan to support the cause and whose perseverance was the key to finishing off Bin Laden.
The story is told in three very distinct acts. The first revolves mostly around the torturing of Al Qaeda operatives in order to acquire for relevant information. The second puts our torturing “heroes” in the doldrums as terrorist attacks hit back at the world and at them directly and as they are forced to follow incredibly thin lines of investigation in their quest for the elusive Bin Laden. Obviously, the third act puts us in the midst of the American commando unit that raided the house Bin Laden was staying at.
Assuming Zero Dark Thirty is generally reliable, it does answer some interesting questions. For example, it does provide me with an answer to the question I was curious about from the moment I heard of Bin Laden’s death: why didn’t the Americans capture him? I won’t bloop too much of the movie, but it is clear the very Call of Duty - Modern Warfare like raid team was not geared for capture.
More to the point, Zero Dark Thirty is going to be remembered for one thing and one thing only. It is going to be remembered for its depiction of torture, torture performed by the people alleged to be the “good guys” fighting for our side. Indeed, the only thing I have heard about Zero Dark Thirty before watching it was to do with the controversy of it glorifying torture. On the other hand I have read reviews, such as this one from Widescreen Review, talking about Maya & Co using glorifying language yet avoiding any mentioning of the actions they took on their way:
living historical story of an elite team of intelligence operatives who… devoted themselves to a single goal
I disagree with both approaches. I disagree with the glorification for the simple reason I think those doing the torturing (and the administration people behind that provide the necessary support) are no better than those crashing buildings using airplanes; both deserve to go to court, and by my book both deserve similar verdicts if found guilty. I also disagree with the claim Bigelow glorifies torture, though: sure, her film shows that torture can deliver results, but assuming that claim is correct and not added as a pat on America’s back then I actually have to commend Bigelow for her very matter of fact story delivery. After you watch Zero Dark Thirty you will not be able to deny the cruelty involved in the torturing; it is up to you to decide what you want to do with these images that will now remain stuck in your head. Me, I could not avoid thinking of the innocent people caught in this circle of violence, from the innocent people at New York, London and Mumbai to David Hicks.
Overall: Long, thorough and memorable. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Taken 2

Lowdown: Liam Neeson and family can’t shake the habit of getting kidnapped.
Review:
If some future historian bothers to investigate the development of this prolific, elaborate and humble movie critic into his current form, then one of the key events that historian will need to look at is the night my best friend & I went to watch Top Gun at the cinema. Oh, what a night! It was rainy, the cinema was crappy, but oh what a movie experience it was – we laughed ourselves to [almost] death.
Surely you are aware of the fact Top Gun is no comedy. In your face! Top Gun is the best comedy ever. Especially if you get to read the Top Gunk parody published by Mad Magazine before you watch the movie – it really primes you up!
What I am trying to say here is that Top Gun is a movie so silly, so stupid, it has to make you laugh with the seriousness it takes itself with. And if you’re already in a comic state of mind (a virtue Mad Magazine is fully able to bestow upon its readers) then the path to fully enjoy this silly action comedy is paved full of yellow bricks.
Since that night with Top Gun and my best friend I have been trying to replicate the experience. Alas, I was generally unsuccessful. Perhaps it was the burden of expectations; perhaps the sheer [lack of] quality material. But then came Taken 2, and without Mad to help but with my wife by my side I had found this good old bottomless pit of laughter: an action film so serious, so silly and so stupid that I found myself laughing from start to finish. A film that tries to glorify things I and every rational person should consider bad.
There is no attempt to supply any form of originality with Taken 2. Our broken American family from Taken is back, with the events of that film helping to mend relationships between ex husband (Liam Neeson), ex wife (Famke Janssen) and daughter (Maggie Grace). Neeson, still a body guard, just finishes off a private assignment at Istanbul; the rest of the family joins in for a surprise visit. Little do they know that also joining is the father of the gang member whose gang Neeson wiped clean in the first Taken, and that father (& gang) are intent on revenge. Not only that, they are obviously bad assess, one by one. Not only that, they speak Arabic, by now Hollywood’s Universal Language of Evil (even though they hail from Balkan countries that speak no Arabic, but hey).
Unlike Taken, where the daughter was “taken”, Taken 2 spins off at a completely different, dare I say original (I don’t) direction: it’s the husband and the wife that get “taken”. Those Arab speaking evil dudes are stupid, though: they actually think they can get the better of this white, English speaking, pure blood Western. In your face, evil henchman! Neeson would come and pick you one by one like the Death Reaper, in totally predictable yet outrageously silly ways that lack any ounce of thrill or excitement but are nevertheless extremely funny to watch for their very silliness.
At the end the bad guys win and our family is dead and forgotten.
Nah, I’m messing with you. Like Maverick at his time, nothing - not even the potential to trigger World War 3 - can come between our hero of the West and his fulfillment of the American dream. Seriously, though: why is Neeson messing around in this sort of crap is beyond me.
Overall: Pathetic through and through and well “deserving” of 1.5 out of 5 stars. Yet for all the wrong reasons I enjoyed the pure delight that was Taken 2 from start to finish.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Serenity

Lowdown: As the Firefly crew escapes the authorities, it stumbles upon a huge state secret.
Review:
Back in 2005, when Serenity was released, I watched it and I liked it. How could I not like this science fiction film? It tells the story of the crew of a pretty bare looking spaceship, the Serenity, as it tries to flee the powerful agents of the ruling Alliance chasing it. In the midst of escaping, one of the more eccentric members of the crew whose role is on the hazy side of things turns out to be a living Terminator machine; later it turns out she knows a secret that would put the Alliance in brand new light and let the residents of the galaxy see its rulers differently. The question is, what will the crew of the Serenity do with this secret?
I’ll tell you what they will try to do: they will aspire to do what Edward Snowden did. They will try to do the right thing in the face of vicious adversaries from the ruling government and worse. In this attempt to do the right thing lies a fine, entertaining movie, albeit a strange one: Where did this crew come from? What is the story of this ship they are flying on? And why name the movie after the ship?
As I learned since, there is a reason for this confusion. Serenity may be passable as a movie in its own rights, but it is actually the closing episode of the TV series Firefly. Firefly had 14 episodes during its time (2002-2003) and clearly had much room for further exploration, but for one reason or another did not proceed to season 2. Hence Serenity.
Roll forward to 2013. Being totally addicted to the world of the video game Mass Effect I ended up seeking the further adventures of those involved with the game. Thus we watched the TV series Chuck; and since Chuck's Adam Baldwin  is a Firefly graduate, we then moved on to watch Firefly. And since Firefly left us with a taste for more, we went ahead and watched Serenity again. Lo and behold, we finally got the film!
So, what do I make of Serenity now? I think it's a pretty cool science fiction film. I think it shows the leaps and bounds the world of CGI special effects has been taking when its less than decade long effects look outdated. I think it supplies enough closure for Firefly fans, although it leaves plenty of room for its world to be further explored. In other words, I like it; I wasn't knocked off my sofa with awe, but I thought it was good entertainment that was pretty effective at delivering its "question the authorities" agenda as well as themes of loyalty and friendship. I also got to learn where many a good ideas in Mass Effect came from...
Overall: Good science fiction even if it's "just" a feature film length finale for a TV series. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Despicable Me

Lowdown: Three girls change a [formerly] evil person plotting to steal the moon.
Review:
By now I’m as sick as anyone with computer animated movies. Alas, I have to watch many of them by virtue of also happening to be a parent and them being the main movie fodder my son feeds on. Perhaps this attitude of mine explains why I was rather pleasantly surprised by Despicable Me. Or maybe it’s just original enough and well made.
Our story starts with the discovery that one of Egypt’s pyramids has been stolen, replaced by an inflatable one. How come no one saw it happening? Obviously, this has to be the work of the world’s biggest criminal. As it turns out, our hero for the duration of the film, Gru (Steve Carell) is not that guy. He sure is a criminal, though, with his authentic rare animal based home furnishing (the panda bear throw rug is the Pièce de résistance). However, Gru like an upgraded status. He wants to be the biggest criminal in the world!
He comes up with a plan: steal the moon. In order to implement his plan he requires a special miniature-ing ray gun, but as he sets to get it he finds himself overtaken again by another criminal, the nerdy and stupid looking Vector (Jason Segal). What can Gru do to get the gun from Vector? Perhaps he needs three little girls that can sell Vector cookies and divert his attention while Gru steals the gun? A fine plan, only that in the process our Gru finds there are more important things than being a criminal with one's own personal agenda. Things like being a parent.
Despicable Me thus turns out to be a computer animation movie with plenty of adult appeal. There are your basic jokes aimed squarely at adults, like Gru paying the Bank of Evil (formerly Lehman Brothers) a visit to get a loan with which to finance his evil aspirations. But there's more. Despicable Me has plenty to say that every parent would find interesting and authentically touching: it discusses the demands of parenthood and the toll those demands take on the parents, and it also gives us a view from the other side – how the parent is perceived by the child. It does so through several angles, which generates a genuinely good cinematic tale.
In other words, this is not your average computer animation film. Which is all a parent to a child hungry for such content could ask for.
Overall: Surprisingly good at 3.5 out of 5 stars. We are [almost] looking forward to the sequel.

Friday, 7 June 2013

A Long Time Ago by Gib Van Ert

Lowdown: An autobiographical tale of growing up in the shadow of Star Wars.
Review:
The world of Star Wars means a lot to me. For example, if you were to ask me what was the first film I got to watch at the cinemas, my answer would be The Empire Strikes Back. Is that the true answer? No; by now I know I watched other films before Empire, including a James Bond and a Disney animation. But for some reason or another it was the world of Star Wars that captured me; and for the exact same reasons they seem to have captured Gib Van Ert at a similar stage of his life. Eventually, it had him write a short book called A Long Time Ago to discuss this experience.
A Long Time Ago is not a philosophical book, though. The book discusses Star Wars through the story of the person that was there at the time: the little boy who slept through the bulk of Star Wars, the slightly older boy who watched Empire, and the teenager boiling with anticipation for Jedi. Then come the years of quiet, until the remasters came out and later that thing called Phantom something. As I read A Long Time Ago I could not avoid recalling how I went through the exact same phases myself, including the ever arguing parents. Oh, and also including the process of reacquainting myself with Star Wars through the original series’ laserdiscs instead of going for the remasters, and, more importantly, the coming of age that dawned on me as the more childish aspects of Jedi became clearer and through that Phantom Menace abomination. Thus Gib Van Ert's personal story, the otherwise unremarkable story of a boy growing up in Canada, a story I could hardly be blamed for ignoring together with that of many others’, turns into a story I can relate to. A story well told.
Even the differences between Van Ert and I are interesting. For a start, it is clear I did not fall in love with Star Wars as deeply as he did. Although there was a period in my life, a few years before and after Jedi, where Star Wars was a major player, I was much quicker at moving over it. Perhaps it was due to other movies capturing my imagination, like the first two Indiana Joneses and The Terminator; or perhaps it was Van Ert’s deep involvement with Star Wars merchandise, a phenomenon from which I was totally deprived (as far as I know, non were available in the Israel of my childhood; and even if they were, I doubt my parents could afford them). The point, though, is that these differences in personal histories are a reflection of different cultures; thus they turn an already interesting book into a more interesting one.
Ultimately, A Long Time Ago is a story of growing up. A simple and entertaining one. Nothing that would shatter its reader’s very existence, but something that every person touched by Star Wars at one point or another would find interesting.
Overall: 3 charming stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Lockout

Lowdown: Die Hard in space.
Review:
Most action films coming out of Hollywood’s way nowadays are pretty crappy. As in, most stuff coming out of Hollywood is pretty crappy, but the action genre suffers even more given its over reliance on digital effects is deemed to compensate for rising levels of stupidity. Under such circumstances, how can an action movie acquire itself an edge? Well, the answer offered by Lockout is through the use of an actor. A proper actor, one that can actually act. Guy Pearce.
Don’t expect much sense in this futuristic sci-fi action movie. Pearce’s character Snow is some sort of a government agent that falls victim to some sort of a double cross plot that has him arrested and tortured by the government. In parallel, we learn of a prison set in earth orbit where the worst criminals are brought to serve their sentences under cryogenic freezing (raising the question of what their punishment is given that as far as they are concerned, they wake up to freedom a minute after being frozen).
We also learn the President’s sexy daughter (Maggie Grace) is arriving to inspect the prison. Things go wrong through her thick security guards and quickly enough the formerly frozen prisoners take over their flying fortress. Now, the only hope for our lady in distress is one sole infiltrator (guess who?). Coincidentally enough, that hero of ours also finds out the person who can help set things right for him and his original quest resides at the prison, too.
As I said, don’t expect much sense. What you should expect is Die Hard style action set in space and often reminiscent of Outland. There are some fine digital effects here, that's for sure.
What you should also expect are lots of jokes that are truly well delivered by Pearce. And what you receive is proper acting from the lead action hero, a quality very much absent from the genre since the day the blockbuster was invented.
Me, I also liked the anti authority / don't trust the government theme that prevails throughout. In these days when Bradley Manning is standing to trial, Lockout's message rings truer than before.
Overall: Mix it all up and Lockout turned out not at all bad. Silly, yet fine entertainment worth 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 3 June 2013

Safety Not Guaranteed

Lowdown: An ad seeking time travel partners sends a group of would be reporters down a quest.
Review:
The acquisition of every good thing in life requires some risk taking. Usually, the better the reward the higher the risk. While we may not openly acknowledge it, the best rewards we can collect during our lives come in the form of relationships and friendships; thus they may require us to take significant risks. However, these risks are certainly worth taking – just ask Safety Not Guaranteed, a movie that is all about not being afraid to take risks in order to award oneself with the adventure of being in a relationship. The beauty of this film comes not necessarily through the message it is trying to convey, as nice as it is, but rather through its eccentric Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind influenced way of conveying the message.
Our chief heroine is Darius (Aubrey Plaza), a young but not so beautiful, not so successful and not so popular woman. That is, a normal person, unlike what usually passes for normal in the movies. Oh, and she even lost her mother at a young age. Currently, she’s interning at a magazine where she is often given shit jobs (literally); but when the task of investigating who is behind an ad asking for companionship in time travel adventures, safety not guaranteed, she is allowed to escort the established reporter Jeff (Jake Johnson, whom you may have seen in The New Girl) and another intern to the task.
The trio journeys afar for their investigative journalism duties. Jeff totally messes up his first encounter with ad publisher Kenneth (Mark Duplass), forcing Darius to take his place. At first she naturally expects to meet a weirdo, but then again could Kenneth be really up to something with his claims of time travel? And does it matter when time spent with him is good time? Jeff, on the other hand, turns out to have only been interested in the assignment because his first love lives in the same area. He sets out to meet her, but finds her older and fatter than he remembers. So, is that it? And that second intern on assignment, well, he's a virgin.
Thus all three investigative journalists are on to a relationship related assignment of their own. And everyone will be better for it, including us viewers. Better because in an era where [almost] every film is a replica of a film we have watched before, Safety Not Guaranteed is a breath of fresh air.
Overall: Not the world's best film, but an original film nevertheless. 3.5 out of 5 stars for this short and sweet effort.