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.