Sunday, 14 December 2014

Ms Marvel (2014)

Lowdown: A 16 year old Muslim girl from New Jersey turns super hero.
Review:
I don’t normally go for superhero comics. I know I’m over generalising, but they provide a strong case for “read one, read all”. However, from time to time one does need to re-evaluate one’s core assumptions on such critical matters. When I read that the new Ms Marvel is proving a major hit, sales wise, I decided to give it a go. If any superhero can break through the wall of stereotypes, it is more likely to be a female one.
I was right, but it did not occur to me how right I was until I delved deeply in. The 2014 incarnation of Ms Marvel is not your average Peter Parker like nice person that turns into a superhero through some freak event. This Ms Marvel is a New Jersey 16 year old girl born to a family of Muslim Pakistani heritage. And that makes all the difference.
It was always sort of easy to identify with the story of the outsider turning into a superhero, but it is much nicer - and easier - when that outsider is a true outsider to “our” culture of the West. When the outsider has a name that the people around her can’t pronounce, when the outsider has problems fitting in because she doesn’t do alcohol, and when the outsider has to regularly deal with conflicts between her home culture and the culture of the majority of those around her – that is when yours truly can have a much easier time identifying with the superhero. Even before she turns into a superhero and her problems are magnified.
So yeah, we get the usual superhero vs. villain affairs, and past issue 5 (at the time of writing there are 9 Ms Marvels released) things turn into a more regular affair involving other Marvel superheroes. However, at its core the new Ms Marvel is still that immigrants’ daughter teenager with a twist. Which explains the sales figures and explain why I highly recommend this superhero.
Overall: Who would have thought this immigrant could find so much in common with a Marvel superhero? 4 out of 5 crabs for the new Ms Marvel!

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Jersey Boys

Lowdown: The personal story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Review:
Clint Eastwood’s notorious show at the Republican convention, as well as his general support of the party, do not mean that he is relegated from his hard won status as one of my all time favourite directors (not to mention one of my all time favourite online aliases). With Jersey Boys, Eastwood is back to directing familiar themes: he follows real life musicians as he did in Bird, with these musicians coming in from tough neighbourhoods like the one the heroes of Mystic River hailed from.
This time around the tough neighbourhood is a particularly tough suburb of New Jersey and the musicians are Frankie Valli and the guys around him with whom he forms The Four Seasons band. It’s familiar themes for Eastwood and familiar themes for us viewers: there is nothing in this rise and fall and rise and fall and rise story we haven’t seen before. There is the criminal part of the equation, into which our heroes fall too easily; there are the women they fall in love and betray trust with; you get the gist. Adding to the aura of familiarity is a Christopher Walken acting out his standard mafia boss with a heart role.
There are three things that set Jersey Boys apart from things of the past. First is the music: this is a musical through and through, designed to look and feel like the stage production it came from. If you love Valli’s music you’ll have a hell of a time with this fine production here - all the hits are there for the picking. There is even the typical get together of the entire cast at the very end of the movie, just like in Broadway, and the cast will frequently break invisible walls to talk directly to the audience.
Second is the Eastwood factor, sprinkling the otherwise ordinary with touches of brilliance. Like the scene in which our group of musicians first visits a music company while the camera pans across the outside of the building from bottom to top, as if tracing the heroes’ journey through the building from the outside. Us viewers end up witnessing different would be musicians as they audition for their bid of fortune and glory through the windows of each floor the camera passes by. Then there is the short Eastwood cameo when Valli sits to watch some period black & white TV (Eastwood is on TV, playing in some old Western).
Third is Jersey Boys overstaying its welcome. At two hours and a quarter, this movie is simply too long for its own good; we actually got to the stage where we checked how long it has to go, unable to believe we have to endure another half an hour of more of the same.
Overall: A fine musical that’s not too special otherwise. Definitely worth watching if you like that kind of music (I don’t mind it, but I cannot claim to be a fan), but otherwise not one of Eastwood’s best; probably another of his works of love to the world of music. 3 out of 5 melodic crabs.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Waking Up by Sam Harris

Lowdown: There’s more to life than this, but in order to get there we need to meditate.
Review:
At the time I noted Sam Harris’ 2012 Global Atheist Convention presentation was one of the more interesting ones. Interesting, but also weird: during the middle of his half an hour long presentation, Harris asked the audience to close their eyes and join him in meditation. When you think about it, that’s a very weird request to make of an audience brimming with self declared sceptics. Yours truly can attest to many eyes being kept wide open.
Harris’ latest book, Waking Up (a book that comes with the secondary title of “A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion”), is a book aimed exactly at that crowd. A book that takes it for granted that religion equals bullshit, although it can definitely still be read by the religious, and aims at satisfying those very same sceptics around me at that 2012 convention hall.
Waking Up’s core claim is that there is more to life than this, and that this extra life - aka spirituality - can be at the reach of us all if we meditate properly. Up until now, religion - with all the false crap that comes along - took ownership of this spirituality, as it had gained many a follower touched by these unique life experiences. Harris, however, argues that the benefits achievable through spirituality should not be kept in the domain of religion; everyone should be able to enjoy them. He continues to offer a path for getting there through picking and choosing from what the religions of the Far East – Buddhism in particular – have to say.
Harris’ claim is nice and interesting, even if it does feel like he’s trying to be pompous and grand about it by using phrases such as “the illusion of the self” and “free in the moment” without explaining what he means till much later. Following that laying of the claim is a discussion on the workings of the human brain and philosophical deliberations on the concept of consciousness. The aim is to provide some sort of scientific foundations for the existence and benefits of spirituality. For my money, this was by far the most interesting part of the book. Once Harris deems to have cleared the way, he moves on to discuss meditation techniques as well as telling the charlatan meditation guru apart from the real deal.
I do not doubt Harris when he says there is more to consciousness than we are normally aware of. My problem with Waking Up, however, has been it never managing to leave me feeling convinced. If anything, its arguments reek of desperation. There is a lot that Harris asks the reader to accept based on his own personal experience, which – last I heard – doesn’t pass for scientific evidence. As already hinted, there is too much “shock & awe” in Harris’ presentation of the facts: to prove the effectiveness and clarity of a particular Buddhist instructor, Harris compares the guy's teachings with an optical illusion; WTF?
We covered cheap attempts at shocking the reader, leaving the reader impressed through lack of clarity, and other methods of argument typically ridiculed by Harris when he criticises religion. Next, I would bring the whole focus on meditation as the best/only way (drugs aside) to enter the new realms of consciousness the author is talking about into question. As in, what about other types of spiritual experiences people have, experiences that have nothing to do with religion? Specifically, what about music? Has Harris been to a music concert lately to see what the crowd is like even without the use of drugs? Testifying for myself, I know that I have experienced and continue to experience a lot of what Harris seems to be talking about simply through listening to my favourite music through a proper hi-fi system. There is a reason why I like Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon as much as I do: it is consistently able to take my conscious away into otherwise unimaginable realms of pleasure where it is not encumbered by my day to day concerns. It is, if you will, my personal spiritual experience, yet I do not need a whole lot of hoopla and years with Tibetan monks in order to experience it – David Gilmour’s guitar will suffice, thank you very much.
The same can be argued about Western religions. Harris asks us not to leave spirituality to the domain of those religions; fine by me. He continues to argue that people of these religions are attached to their religion through their spiritual experience; true, at least for some of them. However, if that is the case, then how does he explain the fact these people get their spiritual experience without anything remotely close to Buddhist like meditation, but rather through experiences much close to the music concerts I am talking about? Talk about glaring omissions.
Overall:
Look, I’m not saying Harris is wrong. There is at least something to his arguments.
I am saying, however, that Harris builds himself a house of cards made with flimsy evidence that cannot sustain the level of arguments he is making. And yes, I am accusing him of at least some two faced behaviour in raising arguments of type and quality he is used to criticising.
You may still want to read Waking Up to check out Harris’ claims for yourself. The carrot of living a happier life is potentially too good to miss out on. Yet it is clear that the case meant to support this carrot isn’t there [yet]. I would understand Harris if he raised his hypothesis and left it at that, a hypothesis, but I have a hard time being asked to accept the business case he brings along to the table. I therefore feel that 2 out of 5 crabs is all that Waking Up deserves, most of which are earned by the second chapter that does offer interesting insight on what we know to be the workings of our human consciousness.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Pebble Smartwatch

Lowdown: An affordable smartwatch with a lively ecosystem.
Review:
When I bought my last watch this March I did so with mixed feelings. Sure, it replaced a watch I bought back in 2008, so a refresh was called for (sort of); yet I knew Apple & Co will be releasing smartwatches into the wild later during the year, leaving little choice for this gadget aficionado but to be swept along. My fears turned out to be spot on: I did end up buying a smartwatch just six months later, only that it wasn’t an Apple or an Android. It was a Pebble, a smartwatch that has been there for a while. Yet it was this exact maturity that comes with successfully being there for a while that made me buy another watch.
Pebble smartwatches come in two shapes. There is the basic plastic model that sells for around $100 and looks like a dork’s delight, and there is the much better looking Pebble Steel that sells for about twice as much. I have good looking watches already and I also have a mortgage, thank you very much, so I went with the cheaper option. Hey, sue me.
What you get for your buck is a light, largish and potentially colourful rectangular piece of plastic equipped with a cheap plastic strap. At the centre lies an e-ink black & white screen of unremarkable resolution that utilises similar technology to a Kindle e-reader screen as opposed to your average tablet/smartphone's LCD screen. This implies that while appearances may be bland, battery life should be significantly better. Inside lie some accelerometers and a compass, too, lending this watch some sophistication. However, that aura fades away when us smartphone users are required to operate the watch not via a touchscreen but by using buttons to the side of the watch. Buttons! And not even slick feeling ones at that. How dreadfully 20th century.
The main point of the Pebble is to act as an extension to your smartphone. As such, your Pebble would [probably] be the first watch you ever owned that never requires you to set the time but is always accurate (it gets its bearings from your phone). Installation works by installing Pebble’s free app on your phone, and then pairing it to your new wrist accessory via Bluetooth. For reasons that still elude me, Pebble insisted on creating two Bluetooth connections between my iPhone and my Pebble watch; don’t ask me why, but it does complain when I try to severe any of them. [Browsing the Pebble website reveals the second Bluetooth connection is required for iPhones running iOS 7 and above in order for notifications to work.]
Through the smartphone app one can choose from thousands of apps and so called watchfaces for the Pebble, all of which are free members of what seems to be a well managed ecosystem. If, for some reason, you would like your Pebble screen to look like a Rolex’, you’d be in for a treat (at least until Rolex sues): there are plenty of watchfaces providing just that. But there’s more: there are compass watchfaces, timers/stopwatches... You think about it and it’s there. Affairs are not glitch free, and you’d encounter the occasional bugs, not to mention the gross inaccuracies of the built in compass (as trustworthy as a politician’s word), but overall the impression is positive. There really is an app for everything this unimaginative user wants of a smartwatch, at least for now. To give you an example, the app offering multiple timers and stopwatches proved incredibly useful when cooking different types of food on the barbecue: I get specific alerts to flip over each different dish at its exact due time.
If its sophistication you’re after, it’s definitely there. Apps such as Jawbone’s or Misfit’s will track your steps for the day and even the quality of your sleep, and if you install their matching smartphone apps they will collate the data nicely for you. If it’s running that tickles your fancy, the Pebble will work with some running apps to help you in that department, too. Note that since there is no GPS receiver on the Pebble you do have to run with your smartphone; it’s just that it’s easier to read your watch and receive alerts from your watch as you run than it is with the phone.
It really seems to be a case of the sky’s the limit. In my case, however, I voluntarily choose to limit what the Pebble and its apps are doing. I do so for two reasons: first, I do not want the Pebble to bite too much into my mobile data plan. Second, and more important, is the question of privacy: I know I’m at a minority in this department, but I do not want companies like Pebble or Jawbone to know of my exact location/activity/food consumption/sleep history, thank you very much. Being your typical American companies, they all sport privacy policies along the lines of “we can do whatever we feel like with your data” (I am yet to find an exception to this rule with the Pebble). However, even with the strictest of user imposed limitations your phone will still communicate with Pebble from time to time; and even if you block location services from the Pebble app, Pebble will get a good idea of where you’re located through your IP address. I guess what I am trying to say is that with this current incarnation of smartphone based business models, users’ privacy is at the top of the list of products to make money of. You might be getting great fitness apps, but your privacy is the currency with which you pay for such functionality. In this reviewer’s humble opinion, this does not have to be the case; I’d much rather pay a dollar or two a year for the services I like if it buys me decent privacy protections. Bear that in mind before you step into the smartwatch arena.
I will also add that I have been hearing reliable reports of the Jawbone app failing to reliably sync step counts between the Pebble smartwatch and its Android app. Given my self imposed privacy restrictions I cannot add much light there, but these things do happen.
Apps and smartwatches aside, by far the most useful feature  of the Pebble smartwatch is its handling of phone notification. Basically, it’s pretty easy to set things up so that every notification on your phone sends a buzz through your wrist. The advantages seem silly on paper, but believe me – once you experience it, there is no going back. It’s great to be able to read messages without having to take the phone out of your pocket, or to be able to screen calls in half a second. The biggest advantage? Forget about missing calls and messages because you failed to hear your phone in a crowded street or at a noisy shopping centre; your won’t miss your smartwatch vibrating. This is awesome!
Again, I will add a caveat: from time to time it occurs to me my Pebble stops providing notification alerts. Once it was because one of the Bluetooth connections got severed, but the rest of the times? I don’t know. Toggling app notifications off and on at my iPhone Settings app seems to have sorted things out, but who knows – maybe I’m just seeing patterns where there aren’t.
OK, let’s talk battery. How long does the Pebble watch last? Pebble will tell you “up to a week”; in my experience it took about 4 days for me to get the “low battery” warning and less than 5 for the smartwatch to become unusable. It’s not like the watches of yonder that allowed years between battery replacements, but it’s generous enough to let you fly across the world without a recharge. Just as long as you don’t forget to pack Pebble’s unique USB charger cable, otherwise you’re doomed!
The Pebble’s battery is nor serviceable, meaning you cannot replace it. In effect, that means this watch that you bought is a disposable item. If you’re used to the state of mind where watches are pieces of jewellery to be used over decades, forget it. On the positive side, the Pebble is rated with very decent water resistance: you can take it with you to the shower, you can swim along with it on your wrist, and if you believe the hype you can even go for a dive.
Overall:
When it comes to accepting the Pebble into your life or not, the real question is to do with your basic attitude towards the idea that your watch is as disposable as your smartphone. That is, it's a coveted item at purchase time but it turns into a piece of archaeological shit two years later, or even less, when the next model with the latest bells and whistles comes out.
As things currently stand, Pebble is the only viable smartwatch offering out there. The various Android models don’t really know what to do with themselves while Apple simply isn’t there yet. In my opinion, a breakthrough can only come through Apple. While I used to be sceptic about the whole need for a smartwatch, the Pebble thoroughly convinced me of the case for one. Now it is up to Apple with its design skills and market power to turn smartwatches from an early adopters’ toy into a mainstream affair.
I have no doubt Apple can do it. It’s soon to be released smartwatch features a proper smartphone grade screen and its already released SDK hints at a vastly superior user interface than the Pebble’s. However, there are also significant disadvantages to Apple’s would be offerings: starting at $400 in the USA, they would be costly (remember, we are talking disposable items here!); with the beautiful screen comes battery life of one day or less (no flying for you!); and, at the more down to earth level, it is not here yet and it doesn’t have an ecosystem yet.
The Pebble, on the other hand, is here and now. It works, it has an ecosystem, it has decent battery life, and it’s cheap enough for most of us to buy on impulse. Hell, it costs less than a Jawbone UP 24 wristband, but it does everything that wristband does while also telling the time!
Your mileage will vary depending on your own personal preferences. In my case, what started as a “it’s cheap enough for me to give it a try” sceptic approach turned into a “how come I didn’t get it earlier” affair within a day of receiving notifications to my wrist while being accurately informed of my step count for the day. Me, I’m giving the Pebble smartwatch 4 out of 5 disposable crabs.
Now let us see what the next year is going to bring along.

10/12/2014 update: Over the past week my Pebble's display started displaying distortions of sorts. Yesterday things got to the point where the watch was no longer useable. Clearly, this is a case of a malfunctioning e-ink display. I guess it's time for me to see just how good Pebble's customer support is. Stay tuned.

8/1/2015 update:
I got to hand it to Pebble, they certainly provided me with good customer support.
I contacted them via email, as per the warranty instructions provided with the watch. Within a day I got a reply (impressive on its own, especially given the time differences between Australia and the USA) asking me to provide a photo of my malfunctioning watch together with a note specifying the case number allocated to me. I did that, and by the next day I received another email informing me a new watch will be heading my way shortly. No faulty product return required.
About four days later I received notification that my new watch has been posted, together with a tracking number from Singapore Post. My only criticism is that this tracking number proved completely useless; Singapore Post could not tell me anything other than "item has been posted to Australia", while Australia Post claimed the item is un-trackable.
Some three weeks later I got my new watch, and I have to say: I am better for it. First, Pebble was kind enough to send me a black replacement watch instead of the original red that I had bought. Second, I now have two charging cables. And third, it already seems as if battery life on the new watch is significantly better (20%-25%) than that of my original watch.
Overall, Pebble had provided a positive and smooth service experience.

21/5/2015 update:
Having encountered multiple failures of Pebble watches (read here), I can no longer recommend Pebble watches due to their unreasonable failure rate. I will add, however, that the warranty service I have been receiving from Pebble has been excellent throughout.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Lowdown: With the aid of humans, the apes lose their innocence.
Review:
A couple or so years since the apes took over the Golden Gate bridge in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the clan of mixed apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) has settled down at a nearby forest. They have their simple facilities, including basic shelter and education, and they’re more or less content. More importantly, they seem to be a cohesive society where no ape hurts a fellow ape. The only exception is the human ape, but humans seem to have disappeared off the face of the earth due to the disease spread out of Caesar’s old lab.
Naturally, the humans haven’t really disappeared. One day, a small group led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) stumbles upon our clan. They belong to a group of surviving humans that re-established itself in what remains of San Francisco and is very well equipped, thank you very much, weaponry included. The catch is, they’re running out of fossil fuels; they need a new source of energy, and a dam located at the ape’s area will serve them well. That, of course, leads to friction between human and non-human ape; and some members of the not homo sapiens side have less peaceful tendencies than Caesar.
To cut a long story short, tensions are rising. Both camps include subjects that are looking for peaceful coexistence (Caesar, Malcolm) as well as those that believe that peace can only come when the different is eliminated (the human side of which is portrayed by their leader Dreyfus, portrayed by Gary Oldman). In the resulting chaos violence is turned towards the inside and all apes discover they can have more in common with those with whom they share fewer genes than those with whom they share almost everything.
The resulting themes are obvious. In the real world we are not under threat from our fellow apes; it’s actually the opposite, with us making sure they are on their way to extinction. The lessons that apply to us are to do with the problematic nature of tribalism, human tribalism. In parallel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes points at the need to keep the war mongers and the selfish on a tight leash while also maintaining an open, pluralistic, society.
Regardless of these themes, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a pretty effective thriller/science fiction/action flick. It’s so good at what it’s doing that the fact it features talking apes, of the non human kind, most of which digitally rendered, gets taken for granted.
Overall: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is your classic science fiction featuring an interesting tale with morals. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

4/12/14 update: I kept on trying to figure out why it is that I didn't like Dawn of the Planet of the Apes more than I actually did. It seems to have all the right ingredients, so what gives? Eventually, it occurred to me this movie suffers from a severe shortage of characters one could identify with. I mean, Caesar may be a leader and all, but he's still a pretty menacing chimpanzee.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Captain America: The First Avenger

Lowdown: A superhero with a conscious saves the world from an enemy worse than the Nazis.
Review:
The oversupply of Marvel material nowadays meant that we were late to jump on the Captain America bandwagon. This one, Captain America:  The First Avenger dates from 2011 and by now has found itself sequeled by Captain America: The Winter Soldier. If you’re really into Marvel lore then you could also argue that The First Avenger was there to set up 2012’s Avengers puzzle of superheroes up. Me, I don’t care much as long as I get myself a good movie to watch.
As per typical first of a series superhero movies, proceedings start with the tale of the superhero’s creation and progress with the story of this brand new superhero fight against evil while coming to terms with said new superpowers. This time around our hero, Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) starts off as a flimsy New York teen who is so small and fragile the US Army won’t recruit him at the height of World War 2. By far the best achievement from our filmmakers was digitally gluing Evans' head to the body of a far smaller person during that part of the film.
Salvation [from the digital] comes in the shape of a doctor running an experimental program to develop super soldiers. That doctor identifies Rogers to be the meek person that he is, which renders him more suitable than your average brute of a Joe for the superhero role.
In parallel, we have the same doctor’s previous experiment, Schmidt (Hugo Weaving). He’s on the Nazi side, he’s already a super person, but he has also been corrupted as his extra powers took what was a bad person to begin with and made him worse. Schmidt now heads an organisation worse than the Nazis, Hydra, that aims to use some recently acquired godly powers to wreak havoc on the world. Would our hero in the making step up to the plate in time to save us? Would the sun rise tomorrow morning?
Generally speaking, Captain America offers promising material. The execution, however, is lacking in multiple departments. First there are the pace and the length: The First Avenger is simply too slow and too long for its own good. Let’s be honest, one doesn’t watch Captain America in order to embark upon thought experimentation; it’s is all about action, thank you very much, but the action is too rare and too ordinary when it does happen. The whole film is shrouded with a rather grim atmosphere that may coincide well with the Captain’s origins but ruins the movie’s fun department.
Then there is the cliché element. The baddie is just too uninspiring, effectively ordinary, a waste of a Hugo Weaving. Into that you need to throw in the usual cliche of the loss of a best friend at the right time for the film + the "love me/love me not" love interest for our Captain (a love interest who, by the way, is always equipped with extra glossy red lipstick – never leave home without it!). You catch the drift. Captain America is just more of plenty we’ve seen before.
Overall: Where is the humour? Where is the fun? Not with Captain America, it seems, shielded as he is at 2 crabs out of 5.

P.S. This is this blog's 1000th post. That's a lot of reviews!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Django Unchained

Lowdown: On the brink of the American Civil War, a slave freed by a German bounty hunter takes his vengeance.
Review:
Having rewritten World War 2 + The Holocaust’s history in Inglorious Bastards, Quentin Tarantino sets out to right the next historical wrong on his list: that of America’s history of slavery. Curiously, he uses a German agent to achieve that goal.
Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) is a German expat making his money bounty hunting across the USA. His ventures put black slave Django (Jamie Foxx) in his path: Schultz needs Django's help to identify his next bounty kill. But Schultz, being the bloody-progressive-UnAmerican-European that he is, cannot stand slavery. Thus when he recruits Django, he makes a free man out of him despite what the white populace around the two thinks.
Django proves himself more than just a source of intelligence; he is a worthy bounty hunter by his own rights, even if he’s a bit too trigger happy when it comes to eliminating white bounty. Schultz and Django become friends, and together they set out on Django’s ultimate mission: freeing up his wife, a slave at your stereotypical Southern plantation run by the evil (by today's standards and even then's) Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).
All the regular call signs of a Tarantino movie are on display at Django Unchained. There’s plenty of violence, plenty of blood, clearly artificially inflated violence and blood, lengthy dialog, Tarantino class black humour, the works. Throw in a wonderful performance by Waltz, a true world class of an actor, and the result is good throughout. Despite the two and a half hour long experience, there is never a boring moment; if anything, I would say Tarantino cut down on his trademark overlong dialog to produce much more sensible levels.
I actually learnt a thing or two from Django Unchained, such as the fact that French author Alexander Dumas was black. If I could hazard a guess while pointing that Django's salvation comes with an atypical German face, I'd say Tarantino is not necessarily trying to make a statement on black/white relationships here. It’s more about telling America off for not lifting its head up today in order to learn a thing or two from Europe on the virtues of being nice to one’s fellow human beings.
Best scene: A KKK gang is struggling to run its operations while wearing sacks over their heads. Hilarious!
Overall: Between Inglorious Bastards and Django Unchained, it definitely feels as if Tarantino has matured to the point of providing quality without the excess varnish he was infatuated with in his earlier films. 4 out of 5 crabs for Django.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Lock In by John Scalzi

Overall: A murder mystery set in a world where humanity is coming to grips with a disease locking conscious people inside their bodies.
Review:
At the risk of stating the obvious, or at least that which has been mentioned here before on numerous occasions, I will repeat that:
1. I consider John Scalzi to be my favourite author of fiction, and
2. As a big fan I do his bidding by purchasing his books on the day of their release, and
3. A major part of that is to do with Scalzi’s ebooks being released without DRM, which merits further support, and
4. Since Scalzi releases about one book per year, yes, I have been looking forward to this – his latest – Lock In.
Intros aside, it is fair to say that the biggest thing about Lock In is the world it is set in. In order to help readers with the introduction part, Scalzi wrote a short story called Unlocked that acts as an exposition to the real thing (i.e., the book Lock In). You can read/download that short story for free here, but a word of warning: other than setting the scene, do not consider that short story to represent what Lock In is like. The two may share some DNA, but they’re certainly different species.
Technical introductions aside, it is now time for me to give you my brief intro into Lock In’s world. In the near future, humanity is afflicted with a highly contagious flu like disease. That disease has a high probability of leaving its patients locked in: that is, they are fully conscious, but they lack the ability for any motor movement. In other words, they are prisoners inside their own bodies. The world, led by the USA (Lock In is a very USA centric affair; I suspect Scalzi did the arithmetics to figure out where his core readership lies), invested billions if not trillions of dollars looking for a cure. It couldn’t find any, but it did come up with workarounds. Through advances in neural nets and robotics, locked patients can represent themselves in the physical world and conduct their affairs almost normal human like by mentally controlling robots that act as their avatar in the real world.
Which brings me to Lock In itself. Lock In is simply a first person murder investigation detective story set in this unique world created by Scalzi and told by a newly crowned FBI detective who also happens to be a celebrity. Oh, she also happens to be a she, a black she, and a locked in black she at that. What I am trying to say here is that Scalzi’s own liberal views on the world are quite evident throughout his book, not that there’s anything wrong with it. It’s about time we started having quality reading sporting females and minorities in leading roles!
The element distinguishing Lock In from any other detective story we’ve read so far is, of course, that it is set in this unique universe established by Scalzi. The setup, disease and robots included, is at the core of the story; there wouldn’t be a detective story here if it wasn’t for the complexities introduced by the setup. It is these complexities that render Lock In to be the quality science fiction material that it is: through this convoluted setup Scalzi gets to discuss plenty of matters that are at the core of our real contemporary world. He discusses social matters around disabilities; he discusses minority rights; computer hacking with its post Snowden era implications; human integration with computers as a door opener for discussions on how technology is going to change the way we are; and plenty more. Most interestingly, Scalzi drops in a gem of a philosophical discussion, comparing a computer programmer putting code inside a human’s head to a writer putting their “code” in the mind of her readers.
Yes, these discussions are cool and interesting. However, at the more basic level, Lock In is not your greatest detective story ever. For a start, I have found it rather predictable, at least once I learnt to accept its unique setup. More importantly, I was left feeling as if Scalzi had created this interesting universe to quite a detailed level only to use it in order to tell us of a minor affair taking place at its fringes. I can easily think of vastly more interesting stories to come up with given the setup, yet Scalzi chose to focus on what is, at the end, a murder mystery. I will put it another way: Lock In feels more like the pilot of a long running TV series than a standalone book. There is so much unexploited material to exploit in Scalzi’s made up universe that it’s not funny to see it left so unexploited.
Mentioning the word “funny” brings me to my final argument with Lock In. There is certainly plenty of humour packed into Lock In through Scalzi’s typical type of dry humour. But is Lock In good enough? Sure, it is a good book. I, however, could not avoid feeling Lock In misses out on the opportunities for great humour that Scalzi had been able to repeatedly deliver his readers during past performances. I guess what I’m trying to say is, what I really wanted from Scalzi is another Agent to the Stars. Instead, Scalzi chose to deliver me his unique take on the zombie apocalypse.
Overall: Lock in is not the Scalzi I was looking for. Not that it’s not good, though; it’s certainly worth 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Cuban Fury

Lowdown: A fat man dances the salsa to win the day.
Review:
Not all movies are based on grand ideas. Actually, most movie aren’t; it’s just that in the case of Cuban Fury the superficiality of its core idea is so extremely blatant. Take one fat guy, Nick Frost, and make him do the exact opposite of expectations - make him dance the salsa in order to fulfil his life's ambitions. Does this British production manage to pull a worthy film out of this idea? With Nick Frost at the helm, aided by Chris O’Dowd? Of course it does!
The exposition tells us of Bruce’s (Frost) backstory. A young prodigy in the field of salsa, a would be champ, that – on the eve of his career’s peak – threw it all away following a particularly nasty bullying incident. Fast forward a couple of decades and we see Bruce in his current form: no longer the athletic dancer, but rather a seemingly boring engineer leading a seemingly boring life. And oh, he’s rather fat now. Plus he’s got an asshole of a boss in the shape of Drew (O’Dowd). Clearly, Bruce’s life is meant to seem wasted in the eyes of the viewer, even if it is vastly superior to that of at least 99% of all humans in the history of our universe.
Along comes a catalyst in the shape of a new boss. An attractive, female boss (Julia, played by Rashida Jones). She’s even an American (which seems to be perceived as some sort of an exotic spice by the British men around her; or is this meant to help market the film over the Atlantic?). Drew wants a piece of her; Bruce has a crash on her. Who will be the one to put their hand on the prize? Would it be the sleazy good looking guy or the fat one with a heart? Hint: Julia likes to Salsa.
The stage is thus set for Cuban Fury, your ordinary love triangle tale of “who gets the girl”. Would it be the likely but evil candidate or the unlikely but easy to sympathise with nice guy? A multitude of scenes relying on viewers' memories off Dirty Dancing and a bit of Rocky will set things right.
There are two things one takes for granted with Cuban Fury, both to do with the very essence of Nick Frost around whom this movie was erected. First, there will be the obligatory Simon Pegg cameo. And second, you will get Frost to dance the salsa. Not as much as one would expect given the title and the premises, but it will happen.
And that is really all that there is to it. An hour forty of easy fun in the company of actors who know how to make people laugh.
Best scene: The evil Drew and the good Bruce have themselves a dance-off at the roof of a parking lot. The winner takes the girl in this all or nothing event.
Overall: Plenty of good, if unassuming, fun to be had here. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 12 November 2014

Chef

Lowdown: A renowned chef goes back to basics after a failure at standing by his principles costs him his status.
Review:
Yes, I have a problem with celebrity chefs. Sure, they can cook. As reality TV shows us again and again, they can also put on a show. So what? I know plenty of people who can cook a mean meal, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t take much more than a bowl of hummus to please me. However, in the process of raising chefs to stardom we tend to forget some of society's bigger heroes. The likes of teachers, nurses and scientists, people with true impact on our lives.
I am willing to forget that for take sake of an hour and a half plus of easy entertainment following a long week, which is exactly why I found myself watching Chef. Written and directed by Jon Favreau, Chef follows Carl (Favreau yet again), a celebrity chef working at a celebrated LA restaurant owned by a Dustin Hoffman character keen on nothing more than preserving the status quo of his joint.  The conflict between the two poses a problem when a famous blogger food critic (Oliver Platt) is due to visit the restaurant: Should the restaurant go bold, as Carl would like, or should it go conservative, as per the boss?
Following plenty of food porn scenes Carl finds himself on the losing side. Worse, his career takes further hits through Carl's own ignorance in the ways of social media. Worst, he is at risk of losing the love and admiration of his young son in the process.
Salvation comes through Carl’s ex-wife (Modern Family’s Sofía Vergara), who puts a revolutionary idea in our chef’s head: go back to basics. Which is exactly what we get, both in the form of going back to basic foods (the equivalent of that bowl of hummus I had previously mentioned) as well as the good old fashioned road trip across the USA that had served so many a film’s progression.
Easy going is the key word with chef. That ease is aptly supported by a wonderful soundtrack featuring plenty of Cuban jazz (listen to it here), coupled with plenty of food porn, and an under utilised cast that doesn’t mind the fact and goes with the flow. The latter includes Scarlett Johansson and Favreau’s long time friend and colleague Robert Downey Jr.
The result is relaxing, feel good fun. That is, if you can withstand the barrage of Twitter product placement thrown at you poor viewer: it’s constant, it’s relentless, and it comes in carpet bombing amplitudes. Not that this bombardment seems to have done much to help Twitter’s ailing business model. I hope nearly destroying this movie cost the company an arm and a leg.
Worst scene:
Perhaps the best conveyor for what Chef feels like is a scene depicting Carl shortly after his downfall. Getting ready for round two, we spend a few minutes witnessing him preparing – in great detail – a meal worthy of kings. Yet after all is said and done, he does nothing with this meal. Worse, us viewers are never told what happened to all that food (was the scene where Carl donates it all at the nearest shelter for the homeless cut?).
My point is simple. In the process of making Chef, Favreau shot some lovely scenes of him preparing stylish food with much bravado. These scenes were nice. Too nice, Favreau must have reckoned, to leave behind on the floor of the cutting room. His solution? Stick it somewhere inside the film, no one would notice.
Overall: I liked the food porn and I liked the counter master chef message even better. I also liked the prevailing feel good notions. 3 out of 5 tasty crabs.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The Machine

Lowdown: The totalitarian makers of a humanoid robot fighter discover the adverse effects of giving their creation consciousness.
Review:
There is a problem with science fiction movies, you know. Because the genre holds such promise, one almost feels obliged to watch every science fiction movie that passes under one’s radar for fear of missing out on the next best thing. The obvious side effect of such habits is occasionally – frequently? – stumbling upon bad apples. Which brings me to The Machine, a science fiction movie that passed through my radar yet about which I knew nothing prior to watching it.
Proceedings take place at a miserable, 1984 like dystopian near future, where the West is in eternal war with China. This is total war, which means the everything has to be dedicated to the cause, with the obvious implications this spells for society (as well as some not so obvious ones, like the world depicted as eternally very dark). We find ourselves at a struggling Britain with a scientist, Vincent (Toby Stephens), working on creating the ultimate soldier, an artificial intelligence with an edge – an artificial intelligence with consciousness. Because that will show the Chinese!
Toby’s research is stuck, which is where a prodgie female scientist (Caity Lotz) is brought to assist him. Not only is she American, but she also brings with her the missing link for the creation of the consciousness and thus for the pleasure of the ruthless arms manufacturing boss (Denis Lawson, aka Star Wars’ Wedge). Several things go wrong in the process, owing to the 1984 like society our affair is set at. When, eventually, the conscious robot figures things out, the unexpected happens.
As science fiction flicks go, The Machine can be easily dismissed as one of those that tries too hard with too little. Its aspirations are obvious: there’s plenty of that’s meant to remind us of Blade Runner, even down to the too Vangelis like soundtrack. Then there are the obvious Terminator themes to do with the rise of the machines. Our AI robot looks, sounds and behaves a lot like Mass Effect’s EDI, too (not that there is anything wrong with that). The whole package feels rather eccentric, too eccentric; however, it never crosses the border into the realm of the dismissible.
The Machine may not be the best science fiction ever, but it is still interesting enough and sort of original enough to justify its existence.
Overall: Not unmissable; if science fiction tickles your fancy, feel free to give The Machine a try. I will be generous and give it 3 out of 5 crabs, for EDI’s sake.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

A Long Way Down

Lowdown: Four not entirely suicidal people find comfort in one another.
Review:
There was a time when I considered fellow Arsenal supporter Nick Hornby to be my favourite author. A lot of sewage was pumped into the sea since, with Hornby losing his status and morphing into an author I consider flawed but still enjoyable. He seems an author who builds his books around raising interesting social questions while ultimately failing to provide adequate answers. Perhaps I’m too naïve to think there can be a solution to every question, but I do admit to preferring the books that aspire for more.
One such ultimately disappointing book from Hornby came in the shape of A Long Way Down, now turned from an easily digestible book into an easily digestible film. The premises are ingeniously simple: while most of us regard New Year’s Eve as a time of peak happiness, it is also – and for obvious reasons – a time of peak sadness to the many amongst us who have a hard time feeling happy. That explains why suicides peak on such dates, at least according to Hornby; I haven’t researched the matter myself. It makes sense, though.
Thus on the eve of peak suicide we meet our four core protagonists at the roof of London’s most popular building for jumping off to one’s death from, a building that – for elusive reasons – is not particularly well guarded given its dubious popularity. We have ourselves Martin (Pierce Brosnan), a slick ex TV host whose career was ruined when he was caught making out with a too young to be legal girl; Maureen (Toni Collette), the single mother of a very disabled child whose maintenance consumes her entire existence; Jess (Imogen Poots), the teenage daughter of a famous politician (Sam Neill) whose older sister disappeared several years ago and left the family shattered;  and the young American JJ (Aaron Paul), an aspiring musician who doesn’t like the pizza delivery boy he ended up as.
Through the discovery that they are not alone, that there are more people like themselves around, our Fantastic Four not only cancel their suicidal aspirations for the night, they make a pact not do embark upon them till at least Valentine’s Day (apparently, the next most popular suicide date). What follows in the rest of the film is the story of how these four turn into a made up family of self support. Between various rifts and tendencies, we get some nice comedy made better by the great acting talent at hand.
A Long Way Down really is made great by its superbly cast actors. Brosnan, probably at the pilot seat, is obviously superb as the slick & sly guy you wouldn’t buy a toothbrush from but who can turn up as a goodie when you least expect. Collette established her entire career on playing the miserable woman. Aaron Paul proved his worth in Breaking Bad, and despite the slipup that was Need for Speed he reassuringly returns in fine form here. Paul’s partner from Need for Speed, Poots, confirms why I easily mistake her for Emily Blunt: because she’s pretty good. Even the minor roles, such as Neill’s or Rosamund Pike’s, are brilliantly executed to a level that renders the whole so much better.
Ultimately, A Long Way Down is a lite story about people’s basic need in life: the need for friendship, the need to be acknowledged by the people in our lives. It does a fine job even if it fails to provide the ultimate recipe for the prevention of suicides or depression.
Overall: It was the actors that made me enjoy A Long Way Down way more than its 3.5 out of 5 crabs’ rating would suggest.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Blueprint for Armageddon by Dan Carlin

Lowdown: A history podcast covering World War 1.
Review:
My colleague Sam Harris and I may not see eye to eye on everything, but after he recommended Dan Carlin’s history podcasts and his World War 1 series in particular I had to give it a look. And once I did, I had to stay for the ride. Yes, it was so good, it even made me change my attitudes towards audio books; it was so good my young son wanted to listen to it; it was so good the whole family listened to it in the car.
Currently, Blueprint for Armageddon numbers four episodes, each between 3 to 4 hours long. You can reach out and grab them for free here. Each of those is narrated in a very professional manner by one voice (I assume it’s Carlin’s) with no hiccups of errors whatsoever – as production values go, this is as professional as it gets.
The first episode deals with probably the most interesting thing about World War 1, the world setup that got it to start in the first place. We hear of the politics and we hear Carlin’s views, that a lot of the politics that led to war could have been circumvented if it were for a luckier roll of the dictatorship dice dictating who the rulers of Germany, Russia and Austria-Hungary were as well as the issues with the democracies of the time. We also see things from the refreshing point of view of the Germans, a rather refreshing approach given how easily dismissed as evil they are. So easily dismissed we forget they had their reasons to be involved in what was hell for them, too. Carlin even dares to ask a question that although raised by others is still rather brave: wouldn't the world been a better place had the Germans won?
Episode 2 takes off very early during the war, where the first episode left off, and covers the crucial first few weeks/months of the war. The months that led to the following years of stalemate. Carlin goes into a lot of detail in order to explain the technological background leading to this rather unique stalemate that also churned through human bodies at an unprecedented rate.
Episode 3 covers 1915, including Gallipoli and the Armenian genocide, while episode 4 covers 1916 including the battles of Verdun and the Somme. The rest of the war is not covered, although I assume it may be just a question of time till Carlin follows up with additional episodes. Given the depth of preparations on display, these are clearly intensively time consuming affairs.
Although each episode is long, there is that much that Carlin can cover. Thus he did leave me rather annoyed at not being told why, exactly, the Germans chose to turn their army away just as they were on the verge of conquering Paris.
On the positive/constructive side, Carlin directs most of his energies towards the human side of things and trying to figure out what the human experience of the war was like. This manifests itself in trying to look at the war through our modern eyes and answering the question of whether the current generation would fight this war. Or whether we would choose the practical approach, and when the officer with the revolver orders us to go over the top us soldiers would go over him instead – in a cynical 6 bullets vs. troves of machine guns calculation.
The ultimate question is why did people fight the fruitless fight and continue to do so over the years, coupled with why did their societies support them in doing so? There are no definitive answers there, but Carlin seems to think it was product of the culture of the time. The world is a very different place today, and while it does seem easy to send our poorer members to fight and die on our behalf in places such as Iraq or Afghanistan, society will not tolerate punishment laid to higher classes. At the time, however, the gulf between the upper classes and the majority was so large that the rulers of the time were able to put their hands on the meat fodder their armies needed. Given that logic, it can be argued that perhaps the biggest danger to contemporary society is the rising inequality between classes and the reduction in interclass mobility?
This point aside, I agree with Carlin that World War 1 is fascinating due to the fact we are still fighting this war. Essentially all the troubles of today’s world, from the Middle East through terrorism, are a direct result of the world that World War 1 had created. If we seek to be able to solve these problems, then studying World War 1 would be a great start. Thankfully, Carlin is there to make our job easier there.
Overall:
I thoroughly enjoyed Carlin’s learning experience. The facts may be similar to those in Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August, but the modern eye perspective and the learnings are much more significant. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.
It is also important to note that in this year where many countries celebrate the war's 100th birthday by glorifying the sacrifices of the soldiers in not so thinly disguised attempts to get us to endorse their modern day war mongering, Dan Carlin stands and boldly points a finger at the leaders responsible for that great war. Important because we, too, seem to have scored poorly in the current generation's roll of the leadership dice.

11/2/2015 update:
Having now listened to the recently released 5th episode of Carlin's World War 1 series, I am now raising my rating to 5 out of 5 very well informed crabs. There are two reasons for this change:
  1. The 5th episode deviates from the battles themselves to discuss the setting for America to enter the war and for Russia to go through its revolution. It proves Carlin is just as good with politics as he is with war. As per the previous material, the relevancy of the subject matters to today's world is nothing short of amazing.
  2. Having now listened to many other audiobooks, it is clear Carlin's narration is far superior to the vast majority of them (if not all of them). What can I say, the guy is incredibly talented. Perhaps this is due to the fact he prepares his own material for a podcast rather than read a book that was never truly intended to be read aloud, but who cares?

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Way Way Back

Lowdown: A kid devastated from his parents’ breakdown finds himself with the help of a summer and a trusting guy.
Review:
Given the line-up of A level talent on deployment at The Way Way Back, I will forgive you if it takes you a while to realise it’s actually Duncan the teenage weirdo (Liam James) who is the star of the show here.
It's also got to do with the way we are introduced to Duncan, sitting as he is at the wagon end of a station wagon headed towards a family summer holiday. The family is made up of father Trent (Steve Carell), mother Pam (Toni Collette), teenage sister and Duncan. And in a conversation that reveals we have ourselves two families here instead of one, Trent asks Duncan to rate himself on a scale of 1 to 10. Trent’s own rating for Duncan is revealed: 3.
The family arrives at is American summer holidays destination to quickly settle at its summer house right next to all its summer neighbours and the summer mates that Trent and his daughter have known for all these years. While Pam quickly mingles, Duncan sticks out like a sore thumb; he clearly doesn’t want to be where he’s at.
Salvation/redemption comes in the form of Owen (Sam Rockwell), a stranger that happens to bump into Duncan on several occasions. Through his easy going nature, Owen and Duncan get closer. Owen proves the only one willing to give Duncan a break, and thus Duncan starts working at Owen’s water park, the place where he finally feels in place. Thus when the seemingly perfect starts breaking apart (courtesy of neighbour Amanda Peet, an actress specialising in the role of sexually induced family breaking), it is actually only Duncan that finds his feet.
The true beauty of The Way Way Back is in the relationship between Duncan and Owen. It is strange to see such a relationship develop on film between teenager and adult during these days when airlines have official policies dealing with the separation of adult males from younger passengers. Yet even though The Way Way Back fails to provide a satisfying answer to the question of why Owen takes interest in Duncan in the first place, it does prove why trusting in the basic goodness of thy fellow neighbour pays off. I can personally attest to that, as I had an Owen like character to support me during my childhood and it made all the difference. I could also see a lot of myself in both Duncan, with his obvious lack of social skills, as well as Owen with his trademark reluctance to take anything – even crises – without a smile. Because Owen and I both know what things truly matter in life, and frankly office meltdowns aren't in that list.
The combination of an hour and a half in the company of fine actors revealing to us an interesting tapestry of comedy and drama works very well. I thoroughly enjoyed The Way Way Back.
Best scene: When a child get stuck in the water slides, Owen looks for helping volunteers by quoting that great sage, Bonnie Tyler – “I need a hero,  I'm holding out for a hero, he's gotta be strong,  he's gotta be fast, and he's gotta be fresh from the fight”.
Overall: I thoroughly enjoyed what The Way Way Back had to tell me. This is a 3.5 crabs out of 5 movie that I have enjoyed at least 4 much.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Intouchables

Lowdown: A special relationship develops between a carer with a dodgy past and the disabled rich guy he’s looking after.
Review:
Let’s say you’re a millionaire. Not just your ordinary millionaire, you live in a chateau smack in the middle of Paris. Let’s also say that you’re disabled, able to run your head but feeling nothing below the neck. Clearly, you have enough money in your hands to acquire the best support possible. Who would you go for when hiring such a support person, a person you’d expect to constantly look after all your physical needs?
I don’t know what you will choose in such a scenario, but the guy in the 2011 French film The Intouchables – Philippe (François Cluzet) – opts for the least likely option. He’s got lines of qualified carers that bore him to death with their promises and are basically there for their own selfish reasons. So instead of churning through yet one more of those, he opts for the black guy with the criminal record who has zero qualifications, Driss (Omar Sy). Why does he take this gamble? Because unlike all the others, Driss has this basic integrity about him. He calls things the way they are, thus enabling him to have the potential to be a true companion. Which is exactly what our Philippe is after. And if you accept this story to be based on true facts (the actual real life duo is presented to us at the end of the movie), then you’d come out of this one feeling rejuvenated. You’d feel as if there is still hope for humanity. Or rather, you would enjoy a nice feel good movie with some fine comedy and drama woven into it that tells us yet again, Pride and Prejudice style, that rugs can make it into riches. Or at least look after them.
Thus Intouchables develops with the development of this exotic relationship between poor and rich, the older and the younger, the black and the white. In parallel there is Driss getting along with the rest of the staff (and the rest of the staff’s built in pomp). There is also Driss trying to sort out his own personal stuff, which turns out to be the main cause of tension in the legendary relationship that the core of this movie creates for us.
If it all looks and feels a bit too familiar, you’re probably right: The Intouchables is, essentially, a French reboot of Pretty Woman. Yes, you read it right: between exotic cars and private planes, there are 1:1 correlations here.
I am not saying the similarities with Pretty Woman are bad. Who cares about copying as long as the copying works? (And who cares if it doesn’t, either?) This one is a pretty entertaining film, thank you very much. Where I did find it to lag, potential sugar poisoning aside, is in what seems to be an artificial rift created during the third act so as to create the necessary tension between the two heroes. I failed to understand the movie’s explanation for the rift occurring in the first place and, worse, I failed to understand why our heroes paid attention to this reason. I guess that’s the problem when trying to generate a drama out of a real life story: often the drama has to be added on top.
Overall: It’s not Pretty Woman; rather Pretty Man, perhaps (Sy is quite good looking). But it’s definitely a fine feel good movie still, at 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 17 October 2014

Edge of Tomorrow

Lowdown: A guy recruited to fight humanity’s war against an invading alien race repeatedly wakes up to relive the same day of fighting each time he’s killed in action.
Review:
Edge of Tomorrow is a film on the edge. Silly pun, I know, but bear with me.
Its starting point is on the compromised side of things. The movie is based on a Japanese science fiction tale, with the book's related comic called All You Need Is Kill leaving me rather unimpressed. Then there is the Tom Cruise factor: I could accept Mr Cruise as that flawless but ultimately silly hero in Top Gun, but come on – surely we’ve matured in the three decades since? I’m way past the point of being attracted to Cruise’s star power; I’m rather repelled.
But then I actually sat to watch Edge of Tomorrow. I will be blunt (another pun!): I thoroughly enjoyed this movie and consider it the best new film I’ve seen in a while. The question is, what makes this movie so good?
First, let us discuss the movie’s backstory. In a very WW2 style presentation, albeit in color, we are informed that aliens have invaded the earth and have taken a stronghold in Europe. WW2 motifs continue with the whole of humanity taking part in the war against these aliens: the Chinese advancing in the east the same way the Russians did back then, and the West about to have its D-Day moment. A moment when it will launch an all-or-nothing attack, landing its forces on the European mainland in order to eliminate the alien threat once and for all. Shards of Paul Verhoeven’s brilliant Starship Troopers are there to be seen.
Into the frame comes Cage (Cruise), an American propaganda officer whose role is to lure volunteers into the human meat grinding army. Only that the British General in charge of the invasion would prefer Cage to be embedded with the landing force; Cage is smart enough to refuse the “offer”, which lands him instead in the position of a subordinate Private placed in a platoon of fighting misfits.
Cage lands on the shores of Europe with humanity’s million wise invading force, only to be a witness to the human army getting massacred. He quickly dies, too, only to wake up on that very same morning yet again in order to live (and die) through the landing again. And again. And again, and again. It’s Groundhog Day on steroids. But Cage has an advantage: he can learn from day to day, allowing him to slowly extend the time he survives on that European beach till the aliens get to him again. Through repetitions he extends his time enough to meet the human super soldier, sword yielding Rita (Emily Blunt); perhaps together our reluctant soldier and super soldier can actually win the war?
OK: I’ve mentioned Edge of Tomorrow is a film on the edge, and now it’s time for me to explain myself. The edge I meant is to do with the way this movie does its best to stay on that optimal peak between the potentially conflicting needs to provide action/suspense, comedy and plot progression. All three are strongly mixed here, and all three can be either difficult to achieve or overdone. I will start with plot progression: if you think about it, you will realise it could be quite hard to drive forward a movie that has to repeat the event of a single day again and again without stumbling. By the same token, for a movie promising so much potential in the action department, it would have been all too easy to turn Edge of Tomorrow into another special effects orgy that Hollywood likes to push our way. And last, there is plenty of potential for comedy here around the way Cage has to deal with repeatedly living the same day.
I would therefore “blame” me liking Edge of Tomorrow as much as I did on it actually managing through this highly elusive holy grail of optimisation in the field of filmmaking in flying colors. Edge of Tomorrow is an excellent mix of action, comedy and plot. Sure, the movie has a lot going for it, from script to a Tom Cruise that actually does a fine job in the role of his compromised character rising to the occasion. But I feel it is in the editing department that Edge of Tomorrow wins the day.
I will not shy from giving Emily Blunt credit, too. This actress seems to have a knack for high quality science fiction flicks, as per The Adjustment Bureau and, to a lesser extent, Looper. She seems to own the role of supporting female actress in this genre; given her excellent fit into the main role in Wild Target, I would hope the next time we see her would be in the pilot seat of a high quality science fiction movie. I’m sure she would do an excellent Commander Shepard!
My sole disappointment with Edge of Tomorrow is to do with its ending. It’s not too bad, but if you read the book’s you will see the original is better. Once again we have Hollywood sticking a stick in its own wheel for the sake of supplying us with yet another hero & heroine kissing into the sunset type ending. Surely we have matured enough to not require that out of every film?
Overall: Edge of Tomorrow brings further weight to the claim science fiction can do a hell of a job in providing interesting yet entertaining movies. 4.5 out of 5 crabs from me.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Noah

Lowdown: The biblical story, rebooted.
Review:
One of my core complaints against the recent Peter Jackson filming of The Hobbit is that Jackson takes a beautiful short story and adds to it, with the end result being – in my opinion – significantly interior to the original. Yes, even when taking into account the need to cross the dreaded book/movie barrier.
Noah presents its viewers with the same sort of an abomination. Take a familiar short story, and add tons to it so as to be able to make a star studded movie version. The key difference between The Hobbit and Noah? While the former is a wonderful children’s fantasy tale, the latter is not a story one can relate to or identify with. It is also a story that fails to make sense at many a level, compared with the first which does not pretend to be anything more than fantastic. Perhaps we should thus be thankful to Noah, the movie, for making it bluntly obvious how silly this biblical story some still allege to be genuine is?
So yes, Noah isn't all too loyal to the original tale (that was, if you were to critically study the Bible, copied from even more ancient tales). This version has lots of things added to it, but most importantly its portrayal of the sinful world God wants to get rid of differs. This time around God does not want to destroy humanity because it's evil, but rather because of what it's doing to the earth. In other words, this is the green 21st century take on the story.
Alas, the very core assumption behind the tale of Noah is problematically handled. I’m not talking about the mysterious koalas, who managed to find their way across land and sea from Noah’s ark all the way to Australia without leaving a shred of evidence of their epic journey. I’m talking about the basic ethical discussion that drives Noah's character and thus Noah the movie.
Humanity is evil/doing evil things to the earth, so it is alleged, and therefore God decides that only descendants of Seth (Adam & Eve’s third son, who - like Cain - managed to somehow reproduce despite the obvious lack of females in the vicinity) are to be left in this world. And, according to the same God, the best way to achieve this goal is to kill not only the sinful descendants of Cain but also destroy the whole world in the process. Note the assumption that evil runs in one’s blood. Also note that Noah (Russell Crowe) is far from purity either, being quite good at killing when given an opportunity. His sons, Shem, Cham and Yefet are all flawed, too – just like all people still are. But still, God perseveres with His agenda, while communicating his divine plans using vague and vastly open to interpretation means. I would have said that destroying the world justifies direct communication, but God chooses to persist with His mysterious ways.
These ways are good enough, though, to create all sorts of conflicts with the movie characters, starting from Noah and moving through sons, adopted Cain descendant daughter (Emma Watson) and wife (Jennifer Connelly). None of these should make sense to a thinking human being. Take, for example, the question of whether Noah should seriously consider the murder of his grandchild because of his particular interpretation of a dream? But that’s the type of thing that drives Noah, the movie. And that’s the type of thing that convinced me that watching Noah, the movie, was a complete waste of north of two hours of my life.
In its awkward way, Noah is there to provide a message of redemption. We can redeem ourselves before God even in dying, it argues. Well, I will counter argue that Noah is just another flawed product from the same mystically wrapped brains of director Darren Aronofsky. If it’s Noah’s origins that you seek, look no further than his The Fountain; it's yet another movie about people struggling to reconcile their faith with a world that's sending them contradicting messages.
Overall: Between its inconsistencies and the way it abuses the acting talent at its disposal (think Connelly), Noah is a serious wasteland of a movie. 1.5 out of 5 crabs managed to survive this flood.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Mr Peabody & Sherman

Lowdown: A dog has to rescue his human son who is rescuing his girlfriend from a time machine entanglement.
Review:
As far as computer animation movies designed primarily to squeeze parents’ wallets during school holidays are concerned, Mr Peabody & Sherman is an above average affair. It’s mildly educational, with its history lessons, and it will appeal to both pre-teens as well as younger teens who have reached the age where they notice members of the opposite sex are mysteriously attractive. The fact these are all wrapped up in the movie’s plot is a positive indicator by its own right.
Providing for a Modern Family actors’ reunion, we start by meeting Peabody (the very prolific Ty Burrell), an unconventional dog who is smarter than all humans and never fails at whatever he embarks upon. Of course, he’s up for a challenge with his adopted human son, Sherman: as much as Peabody prepares Sherman for the intellectual challenges of school, he fails to take social aspects into account. As a result, Sherman gets into a quarrel with popular girl Penny (Ariel Winter). In turn, this presents the powers that be with an opportunity to separate dog father from human son.
Not if Peabody can help it. He convenes the opposing parents for dinner at his house. Only that Sherman uses the opportunity to try and impress Penny with the time machine Peabody had built, and now Peabody has to be more than a host: he needs to travel to ancient Egypt, revolutionary France, Troy and Florence to save the kids from trouble. Do not worry, given this one is an American movie you will also encounter some pieces of American history. Even if a bit out of context.
The collection of funny and aptly portrayed characters, combined with the fresh plot that makes as much of the time machine concept as a kids’ film can make, work to create an entertaining adventure that even adults can enjoy.
Overall: A fresh candidate in a field littered with leeches, Mr Peabody & Sherman earns 3+ out of 5 crabs. In other words, I actually enjoyed it.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Need for Speed

Lowdown: The path for redemption and revenge passes through plenty of public road street races.
Review:
Walter White is not the only memorable Breaking Bad character. Alongside Walter there was always Jesse Pinkman, the Funyuns munching character portrayed by Aaron Paul. I was left wondering where to from here for Paul, looking forward to the next adventures from this fine good looking actor. Alas, after watching what he was up to in Need for Speed, I sure hope Paul chucks a quick u-ey and considers playing in stuff that’s actually good. Again, like he did for five excellent seasons.
The concept of Need for Speed is based on the famous video games franchise from Electronic Arts. Paul plays Tobey, the boss of a car mechanics shop specialising in turning any lemon into a Formula 1 grade car. In his spare time, and for the extra cash, Tobey does street racing: races where a group uses public roads in the company of the public and the police in order to determine whose dick is the biggest and also to make some cash on the side.
Things get complicated when Tobey is contracted by ex rival, now millionaire, Dino (Dominic Cooper) to revamp a Ford Mustang. This comes to that, and in the senseless street race that things end up at as a means of sorting a financial dispute one of Tobey’s friends dies. To be honest, it was clear this baby face character won’t make it ten minutes into the film, but obviously Tobey was oblivious to the fact. Dino disappears and conjures himself an alibi while Tobey ends up in jail, where he undoubtedly belongs for putting hundreds at risk.
A quick montage later and Tobey is out of jail, broke, with only one course of redemption and revenge: get across the USA from New York to California at illegal speeds so as to partake in the biggest street race of them all, run by an eccentric radio shock-jock (Michael Keaton).  On the positive side, he has his old mechanic friends by his side as well as the film's token female character.
Yes, what we have on our hands is a silly excuse for a movie hell bent on capitalising on that Fast & Furious formula. On its own that is not necessarily bad; what is very bad, though, is the set of values promoted by Need for Speed. This is one hell of a chauvinistic movie, a movie that tells you – literally – that women can’t do it [drive] as well as man. This is a movie that glorifies people putting themselves in great danger for the sake of a cheap thrill, and much worse – it glorifies people putting everyone else around them in danger while paying little regard for the consequences. Last, but not least, this is a movie that tells its audience some significant portions of the laws that make up a healthy society can be ignored by a certain select group.
It’s also interesting and worthwhile noting that in contrast to today’s militarised American police services (refer to the township of Ferguson for additional details), Need for Speed’s police services are extremely under resourced and generally useless. In contrast, the grand race organisers are able to conjure multiple angle live coverage of their race over live Internet feeds and through iPads (cough product placement cough) with little effort. Let’s just say that historical accuracy is not amongst Need for Speed’s achievements.
Silliest scene:
There’s plenty of competition for this title, but the winner is probably the scene where our heroes refuel the rushing Tobey on his road to Damascus (sorry, California). While driving on a public road at high speeds, of course, because the loss of five minutes that’s incurred while stopping at a gas station is more than what can be compensated for over the course of a few straight days’ worth of driving.
Overall: Come on, Mr Paul, you can do much better than this crap movie. You did it before over dozens of episodes! 1.5 disenchanted crabs out of 5 for now, though.

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

Transcendence

Lowdown: Old vs. new species after a soon to die scientist uploads himself into a computer.
Review:
Transcendence is one of those science fiction movies that comes packed with a big promise. On the technical side, it sports the acting talents of the likes of Johnny Depp accompanied by Paul Bettany and Morgan Freeman. Even House of Card’s Kate Mara is there, as well as Rebecca Hall. More importantly, on the story side it deals with material of great potential and relevancy: what’s to come of humanity once the humans and computers blend even further than each of us glued to their smartphones?
As we start in some sort of a near future universe, we learn that scientists are on the verge of creating convincing artificial intelligences. If you ask Will (Depp), we’re at it already. Motivated by this exact threat, a group of terrorists (led by Mara and including Lukas Haas of Witness fame) strikes at the leading scientists in the subject matter, leaving them all dead or – in the case of Will – dying. Whether the terrorists intended to trigger the cataclysm they were warning against or not is unclear: Will and his now desperate lover (Hall) have no choice but to attempt Will's preservation through uploading his personality into their computer.
Problem is, once this is done there is no turning back. Evolution had just taken one of its biggest steps ever, leaving both sides feeling threatened. Which of the two will make it out to the end of Transcendence - the humans or the humanised computer?
As promising as Transcendence was, the same two things that built up so much promise around it end up actually hindering it. First is the rather anaemic performance from Depp, whose character does not survive the transition to the virtual as well as it should. Perhaps it’s not Depp that should be blamed but rather the script that fails to provide him with opportunities to shine, but then again none of the other actors seem to rise to the occasion. They just wander around looking grim, if anything.
On the plot side of things, Transcendence fails to deliver any shred of freshness in its message. It’s the usual warning sign that we’ve seen before in movies like Terminator, but it’s artificially (pun intended) dumbed down. Why, to point a finger, do things have to come up to a zero sum game of “us or them”?
Overall:
If it’s a mediocre action thriller with some sci-fi spread on top that you’re after then, by all means, try Transcendence. If, however, you’re after serious brain indulgence wrapped up in an easy to digest package then do go for those that have been there, done that, and proved themselves. Lucky for us, there is a long list of candidates: as mentioned, there is The Terminator and Terminator 2; in the book department we have the likes of Robocalypse; and in the video game scene there’s my all time favourite, Mass effect.
As for Transcendence, it’s probably worth 2.5 out of 5 dull crabs.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Godzilla

Lowdown: When giant monsters attack the earth, the world has only one way to defend itself.
Review:
I don’t mind silly fun, and as such I did not mind 1998’s Roland Emmerich’s Godzilla that much. I actually quite enjoyed it. But still, the only reason I sat down to watch the 2014 version was Walter White (you might know him as Breaking Bad’s star Bryan Cranston). Sadly, I was disappointed on all fronts with this new take. Yes, I was disappointed by Walter, too.
The premises offer an interesting take on past Godzilla efforts. Instead of the past takes telling us Godzilla & Co were the result of humanity’s nuclear bomb experimentation, this new Godzilla tells they were actually cover up for humanity trying to exterminate some giant monsters it bumped into. Only that they turned out to feed on radiation rather than be threatened by it.
Now, or rather 15 years ago, a mining operation gone wrong ended up exposing such a monster. Seeking the nearest centre of radiation it went directly for a Japanese nuclear power plant, where it wreaked Fukushima style havoc and – amongst others – killed Joe’s (Cranston’s) wife (Juliette Binoche in an extremely short a role) + orphaned his son. But that was it; the monster went dormant, under the covert control of Male Scientist (a Ken Watanabe whose main acting task was to open his mouth and appear astonished throughout) and Female Scientist (the severely overqualified Sally Hawkins).
Roll back to the present, and Joe is still trying to find out exactly what went on that day in Japan. He gets himself arrested, which sends his now American soldier of a son, Ford (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), all the way back to Japan to get him on parole. But now the two of them get into trouble together as they investigate, and in the process – look at that amazing coincidence – witness the unleashing of indestructible huge dinosaur like monsters upon the earth. Most notably upon San Francisco, because the earth always deteriorates to the USA in American movies.
What follows is a dreadful film by all accounts. With all the stars at its disposal, Godzilla picks Ford's character to be our hero for the duration of the movie. He’s the ultimate good, the loyal family man, the good looker white boy, the never faltering American soldier. Let’s just say I would have preferred him being called General Motors instead.
More seriously, nothing in Godzilla makes sense and nothing tries to. It’s all a bunch of clichés, stuff we’ve seen time and time again from similar movies coming at our direction directly out of Hollywood’s arse. Single dimension characters, American goody two-shoes values stuffed down our throat, and absolute reliance in special effects to drive anything larger than an ant – they’re all here.
Overall: A movie that takes such a collection of fine artists and makes them look incompetent has to be special. So special it is better avoided. This new Godzilla resides somewhere between 1.5 to 2 stinky crabs out of 5.

Thursday, 4 September 2014

Sabotage

Lowdown: A DEA undercover team has to defend itself when it’s alleged to have stolen money from drug lords.
Review:
One of the nicer tricks pulled by Terminator 2, a movie full of nice tricks, was playing on audiences assumption that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character is a baddie when, in fact, he’s a goodie. You've seen the previous movie; you "know" he's a baddie. T2 stretches the point for as long as it can by utilising various techniques like lighting, camera angels and ominous sounds. More than twenty years later, Sabotage tries a similar angle, placing Schwarzenegger at the centre of the action while placing doubt in the viewer’s mind as to whether he is a goodie or a baddie.
We know right from the start there is something unusual going on here, with Sabotage’s exposition showing us Schwarzenegger watching a weird video before commencing with the movie properly. It is once the film starts that we learn the basics: John (Schwarzenegger) is the leader of a crack DEA team that boldly goes into the heart of drug lords’ realm for the kill. And to steal, too, from the baddies loot, which is why the law authorities turn into as menacing an enemy to John and his team as the drug lords themselves. The millions might have been worth the trouble if they were there in the first place, but through what seems to be a double crossing they aren’t.
Our team of high volume macho men (including one portrayed by Sam Worthington) and an ultra lethal woman is thus left virtually to itself as it tackles drug lords, the DEA and what seems to be a traitor from the inside. It’s not going well for the team, let me tell you that. All the while there is that dark secret in the back of viewer’s heads, the one from the exposition.
The differentiator separating Sabotage from the rest is not Schwarzenegger but rather style. Sabotage goes for the ultra visceral, in your face type reality look and feel. John’s team are mucho-muchacho, the type that takes their machine gun along to the toilet just to make sure and uses toilet language to express itself. Body parts and violence not normally seen on the big screen complete the package. Make no mistake about it, Sabotage is not just another movie milking the famous Schwarzenegger bold hero image.
Praise has to be directed at Schwarzenegger, who is proving through Sabotage and The Last Stand that he will not do the same movie again and again Stallone-wise but rather go exploring different directions and styles. Sure, I didn’t really like Sabotage’s direction, but it’s much better than a Rocky 8. Even if Schwarzenegger proves yet again he’s not the world’s best actor, he certainly proves that even at his age originality is not unheard of.
Overall: Not my cup of action flick but also not something we’ve seen before, either. 3 out of 5 crabs.