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.