Thursday, 27 February 2014

Flight

Lowdown: An alcoholic pilot saves a plane from crashing but suffers from the incident's attention.
Review:
Director Robert Zemeckis has his ups and downs; films like Polar Express do not do him credit. On the other hand, he's in charge of some glorious stuff like Forrest Gump or Back to the Future. So yeah, overall, I was willing to give him enough credit to watch Flight on Netflix. Besides, who can resist a movie that puts bare boobs in front of my eyes on its very first shot?
Those boobs belong to a flight attendant after a night of boozing, sex and illicit drugs with Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington). The two find it hard to get up in the morning, but getting up is what they just manage to do as they arrive on to their next flight assignment. It is there that things go wrong: not with the alcohol Whip slips here and there while piloting, but with their airplane breaking up on them in a very dramatic manner.
All seems lost, but Whip pulls the unimaginable (and the probably the physically impossible abroad a passenger jet) and manages to land his plane with minimal casualties. In other words, he's a hero - and an injured one at that.
Only problem is the inevitable investigations that will follow a commercial flight crashing with human casualties. Which is where the main story of Flight kicks in, the story in which Whip has to pull out even bolder manoeuvres than before in order to pull attention away from his vices. Will he manage to pull it off and deceive [almost] everybody? How far down the ethical ladder will he need to go to achieve that? More importantly, should he be forced to pull this off in the first place, being the hero that he is, the saviour of close to a hundred people?
Whereas Flight's first act presents us with a very dramatic, action filled affair, the follow up discussions on the virtues of Whip's alcoholism tends to drag into that predictable "we've seen it all before" realm. Quickly enough I learnt to expect the bottle to step in and ruin everything just when it seemed there's a hope for Whip. Yet the moral question at hand, that of taking responsibility for what one does and standing up for it still prevails. Flight explores several avenues of discussion, further expanding its NPC character from bare boobs into scenes that do not shy from portraying religion in negative light. For example, the scene in which Whip visits his copilot, a devout Christian accompanied at his hospital room by an ultra zealous wife, is outright scary.
When adding it all up I found myself regarding Flight as a tale of two movies. The first is a short action movie of a glorious scale, a scale reminiscent of the majestic train crash scene opening The Fugitive. The second is a lengthy discussion that, while offering some potency, overstays its welcome. Add the two up and you're left with a partly interesting movie that could have / should have been something truly special.
Overall: I will give this tale of two films 3 out of 5 crabs, mostly because that opening action flick is truly awesome.

Sunday, 16 February 2014

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Lowdown: A swashbuckling extravaganza.
Review:
Finding a movie that would entertain your young child but avoid scaring him or otherwise leave him scarred for life is a rather challenging affair, but we put ourselves to it from time to time. This time around, browsing through Netflix’ catalog, we stumbled upon this blast from the past: 2003’s Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, as in – the original Pirates of the Caribbean! Sure, the sequels (here and here for the first two) were a travesty, but the original was OK, wasn’t it?
Well, it turned out to be more than OK. It was fun! Sure, the kid didn’t like it that much – it’s probably still too much for him to take – and the plot is far too complicated for anyone to follow or make sense of. Still, there’s nothing wrong with spending one’s time in the company of some excellent actors having fun through almost two and a half hours of adventure, is there?
Just in case you lived the past decade on another planet, I will try and provide you with an overview of the rather convoluted plot. Taking place at and around British colonies in the Caribbean, during the high time of piracy, we follow a governor’s daughter (Keira Knightley). She’s intended to marry a promising navy officer she does not love (Jack Davenport, whom I will always remember for Coupling greatness); if anything, she has her heart going for a metal worker she helped rescue from the sea back when they were both children (Orlando Bloom). Circumstances change when a ship-less pirate hits town to seek himself a ship, Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp in what will probably be remembered as his most memorable performance). Sparrow’s aim is to re-acquire his former ship, the Black Pearl; problem is, that ship is now run by a crew of ghost pirates under the command of evil Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush). Sparrow’s quest reshuffles the various lovers decks of cards and provides ample opportunities for entertaining, slapstick and revolutionary [for the time] computer special effects.
Do not look for depth or anything with this one. However, if you’re up for some easy fun, Black Pearl delivers aplenty.
Overall: Easy entertainment hardly ever comes better than this (as proven by the sequels). 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

Ender's Game

Lowdown: A child goes through rigorous training as he's prepared to lead humanity against an attacking alien race.
Review:
As much as I have issues with Orson Scott Card’s religious beliefs and views on homosexuals, I got to hand him the credit of writing one of science fiction’s cornerstone books: Ender’s Game. I read the book and loved it long before I knew much about its author. Card’s standing makes me regard him negatively in many a way, but it still does not change the fact he wrote one hell of a book. Throw Harrison Ford into the cinematic version and you have yourself Ender’s Game, a film I was anxiously waiting to watch.
I got to hand it to the movie: I liked it, finding it plenty exciting. But like all great books translated to the big screen, I could not avoid running ongoing comparisons with the original. When these comparisons find the movie version lacking, there can be no doubt my enjoyment suffers (the process was most recently endured with the first Hobbit film). Sure, I know the differences between the projected image and the written words mandate changes; but did these changes have to be so bad?
Ender’s Game is set in a not too terribly futuristic universe where humanity is attacked by an insect like race of aliens. On the brink of defeat “we” managed to pull a stunt and win the battle for earth, albeit at a high cost. Now, as we are preparing for the next round, earth deems its best hopes lie with its children. It establishes special training to groom the children into the strategists that could win the video game like war with the aliens come the second round.
Of these children, Ender (Asa Butterfield) seems the most promising. His tactics in dealing with bullies have him winning every round, even when outnumbered by much bigger kids. He has his issues, though, feeling eclipsed by his older brother etc, issues that earth’s command (manifested through Ford’s character) try to make the most of in order to forge their future leader. The military commanders consider Ender’s ability to understand his enemy and draw conclusions from this understanding to be the one advantage he has over everybody else. Thus they ensure Ender is always marginalised, disadvantaged and outright suffers as he progresses through his training, with the aim of taking his skills that much further. The training itself is comprised of a series of games simulating the upcoming battles, hence the title “Ender’s Game”.
I said already that I was troubled by Ender’s Game’s deviations from the written word. My troubles came twice: first through the feeling that Ender’s marginalisation, as portrayed on the screen, did not feel half as bad as it did in the book. Perhaps this was due to the very sanitised look and feel of the movie in comparison with the rough and dirty settings I had imagined while reading the book. I have to give credit to the movie, though: it looks good. However, I do wonder whether a scruffier look would have enhanced viewers’ abilities to feel for Ender.
Second, and more important, is the deviation from what is probably the book’s winning card. The book plays a trick on its reader with regards to the nature of the games that Ender goes through, a trick the movie avoids; us viewers know exactly what’s going on all along. It is only Ender that doesn’t. Thus, again, I found another barrier forming between Ender and I. I understood the reason for this change and the movie’s need to offer several big time action scenes as opposed to the book’s numerous little games, but I cannot claim to approve this deviation.
Overall:
Here is another big time book interpretation that’s playing a lose/lose deck of cards. Those who did not read the book will regard Ender’s Game as a small blip on the radar, a movie they’ll forget by the start of tomorrow’s working day. Those who did read the book, however, will forever lament the various ways in which their old time favourite has been backstabbed.
Pretending this controversy did not exist, I will still give Ender’s Game 3.5 out of 5 crabs for offering exciting damaged goods with a worthy message on needing to understand one’s perceived enemy. Even in the most militarised society, once one understands one's enemy, one may realise there is no enemy.

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Now You See Me

Lowdown: Once they rob a bank during a live show, everybody’s after a group of four illusionists.
Review:
Now You See Me seems to have everything going for it. The cast includes names such as Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Woody Harrelson, Mélanie Laurent (Inglorious Bastards), Jesse Eisenberg, Michael Caine, and even one Morgan Freeman. Seriously, wow. Then there is all the marketing hype, with teasers showing how a group of illusionists comes on everyone’s sights as they pull of the seemingly impossible. Wow again. I had to see Now You See Me, didn’t I?
Well, in retrospect, this is a clear case of Don’t See Me. Not now or ever.
The plot has a mysterious character recruiting for small time illusionists, each with their own speciality. A pickpocket, a hypnotiser, an escape artists, etc. Next thing we know these four become a team, and next thing we know they’re hosting their own live magic show in the grandest venue possible for magicians – Vagas (all those who said meh, I hear you). In front of a full house including their sponsor (Caine) and an illusionist specialising in exposing the techniques used by fellow illusionists (Freeman), our crew does the impossible. A randomly picked member of the crowd goes out to rob his home bank branch back in France and steal millions, all during the show!
Which is where the police, headed by Ruffalo’s character, steps in. And because the crime took place in France, he’s given the token [French] female character to fill the role of the sexy assistant with the moral compass (Laurent). Thus starts this cat and mouse catch me if you can affair between all the previously mentioned characters. Sounds good, doesn’t it?
Well, no. There are numerous faults at hand here, and I will count just a few.
First, the relatively large number of characters means that non is properly developed. Fisher’s, for example, hardly get her screen time. The implication is that Now You See Me is a film of stereotypes.
Second, illusions don’t work that well in a movie. When the viewer knows everything can be created using digital effects, hiding that rabbit in the hat is as exciting as watching paint being applied. This fault is made worse through things that simply do not make sense, such as Harrelson’s character ability to hypnotise people to the point of gaining total control over them in just one second.
And third, the movie tries too hard. This one is all about keeping its viewer surprised by the next plot twist. A fine aspiration, I agree, but it comes at a price. Plot twists either rely on crucial information kept hidden from us and then revealed just at the right time, or on something being too silly to conceive. The former fault is there but can be lived with; the latter is there in way too high a quantity.
Come the end of this affair I could not believe I just wasted two hours of my life on something so shallow. Worse, I could not believe all the talent this movie features had several months of their lives sacrificed on such a dud.
Overall: I guess I got myself overworked over typical Hollywood shallowness with this one. Regardless, I would advise steering away from this 2 out of 5 crabs mind numbing time waster.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Arthur Newman

Lowdown: A man assumes a new identity to escape from his life and adopts a similarly inclined woman on his way.
Review:
There are many strange things about 2012's Arthur Newman, starting from the casting of two Brits - Colin Firth and Emily Blunt - to play uniquely American characters. Then again, as he showed in A Single Man, Firth seems to specialise in the particular genre of the melancholy that Arthur Newman boasts.
Arthur Newman is a construct invented by Firth's character as a way to escape his life. A divorcee with a son that doesn't care for him, he decides to leave his career at FedEx and his girlfriend (Anne Heche) and starts afresh. So, as one does, he fakes his death and assumes a new persona - that of professional golfer Arthur Newman.
A strange character such as Newman needs a strange character by his side, which is where Blunt comes in. Hers is a con's character whom Newman fancies (no wonder) and who, through this and that, finds herself accompanying Newman on his journey. And what a journey it is: it takes us a while to learn its purpose, yet on the other hand it exposes the characters before us. We learn, for example, that our two lead characters have a lot in common through the process of them trying out the lives of various people they encounter along their path. In parallel, the estranged son and the grieving girlfriend learn about the space filled by Arthur's former self in their life.
In case you find my description strange, I would have to agree. As I said, this is a rather strange affair, even if it pales in comparison to the portrayal of the relationship between these two characters, considering there is a 23 years gap between Firth and Blunt. Eventually there is a message popping out of all the weirdness, as Arthur Newman tries to tell us we belong exactly where we're at and that the fantasy of living someone else's life is likely to be a let down. Or rather: revel in your life.
Overall: Arthur Newman packs an interesting message, but its way of getting there proved rather too eccentric and often illogical for me to happily accept. 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 8 February 2014

Captain Phillips

Lowdown: The personal story of an American cargo ship attacked by Somali pirates.
Review:
Nowadays, when we think piracy, we usually think along the lines of bit torrent. That, however, is the result of copyright industry brainwashing, as there is very little similarity between true high seas piracy and what people do in order to watch Game of Thrones. Captain Phillips demonstrates this difference quite vividly.
Back in 2009, an American cargo ship sailing across the coast of Africa and ferrying mostly food and humanitarian aid to that continent was engaged by Somali pirates. That American ship was captained by Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks), and the story of the movie bearing his name is alleged to be the true story of what happened back then: how the ship fought the pirates, what happened between the ship and the pirates, and how matters deteriorated to the point of using the full might of the American navy. Our story is told in a very intimate manner, the way Paul Greengrass movies usually are (shaking camera et al, as per Green Zone and Bourne Ultimatum); this time around I did not suffer much sea sickness, though. More so, I think the style helps in making this a personal story rather than the tale of naval engagement. At two hours and a quarter, Captain Phillips was thrilling throughout.
What is even more interesting about the Captain Phillips story is that it does not cover the American side alone. We also see things through Somali eyes, enabling us to witness the human element on that side. While definitely a nice addition, this inclusion did see me raising some questions concerning the story’s authenticity: Richard Phillips, the author of the book on which this movie is based, was obviously absent from the Somali villages out of which the pirates came.
One thing I did not find nice was the potential use of Captain Phillips as a tool for promoting American military might. As in, “look what could have happened to our poor captain if it wasn’t for the navy battleships, SEALs & Co”. Or, taken further, “let us invest more in our military so as to make sure no Captain Phillips incident ever happens again”. I would consider such conclusions being drawn a rather tragic turn of events; it would make much more sense to invest in improving the state of Africa than to seal oneself in a military fortress. And it would definitely make America much more popular than it currently is.
There one more thing I want to say, and that is: Tom Hanks. If, like me, you were wondering whether the guy is past it, then wonder no more. Hanks’ performance is just as good as the one he gave us in Cast Away.
Best scene: The mechanical efficiency with which the SEALs execute their plan of attack, and the human cost of that attack. I don't want to say too much here, but the operation's depiction represents excellent cinema work.
Overall: Potential interpretation issues aside, Captain Phillips is not a film for the glorification of America but rather a film that tells stories of heroism in authentic and tragic conditions. It does so well enough to dwell in that nice chasm between 3.5 to 4 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

The Italian Job

Lowdown: A gang of goodie thieves go on a daring caper from a baddie thief, utilising Minis in the process.
Review:
I love The Italian Job and it loves me. We've been through a lot together: back in 2003, when this reboot of the 1969 Michael Cane version came out, we watched it at the cinema; later we watched the DVD on a couple of occasions; and moving on with the times, we watched it again via Netflix. We greatly enjoyed this fun movie each and every time.
How could we not? Just look at the cast, featuring names like Mark Wahlberg, Charlize Theron, Donald Sutherland, Jason Statham, Seth Green and Edward Norton. Sure, it's a pity there's only one token female character in the entire affair, but this one is all about the action anyway. Do not worry, there's plenty of action, live action of the authentic type; The Italian Job is not just another CGI extravaganza. Living up to its name, the action places Minis in starring roles.
So where were we? A group of friendly and cheerful thieves, led by Wahlberg, steals a crate of gold bars through a daring operation at the heart of Venice. Alas, one of the group members (Norton) betrays them, leaves them drowned for dead, and runs off with all the gold. Only that they aren't dead, at least not all of them; they will recruit Theron, and together they will go on an even more daring caper to get what was wrongfully theirs back.
Fun, raw action, good actors doing a good job - that is pretty much all there is to The Italian Job. Granted, by now this movie shows its age here and there. The Minis are not as cool as they used to be when BMW first released their German reboot of the British classic; and the ongoing jokes on Napster's behalf, even featuring cameos by Shawn Fanning, are no longer on the cool side of things (not even when their perpetrator is the voice of Mass Effect's Joker). Yet there is clearly much more on the positive side with this one.
Overall: The winning classic action film formula. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 3 February 2014

The Dark Crystal

Lowdown: A young boy goes on a fantastic quest to regain a divided planet ruled by evil creatures.
Review:
I might be going on a limb here, but I do feel as if prior to the age of computer special effects Hollywood has failed to give children enough in the fantasy department. One can find plenty of fantasy books dealing with all sorts of fantastic universes, but in the movie world things tend to be much more grounded in familiar territories. Of this particular genre, 1984's The NeverEnding Story was probably my childhood favourite although I cannot say it preserved its status during more recent viewings. That said, 1982's The Dark Crystal seems to have left its mark on many, too; and while it was never a favourite of mine, it does have the might of Jim Henson (of Muppets glory) on its side.
This puppet starring movie takes place at a fantastic world divided between its rulers, the evil vulture like Skeksis, and the peaceful goodies Mystics. The Skeksis have been ruling for a while now, using power gained by the dark crystal that gives the movie its name; however, their reich is destined to be doomed in a prophecy claiming that a humanoid child would topple them over by fixing the now broken crystal and turning it pure again. Cue in the humanoid orphan boy Jen, who will fight monsters and encounter all sorts of creatures on his fatalistic path to make that prophecy real.
It's funny what modern technology can do. The Dark Crystal I remember always had fading colors and poor quality picture overall; this time around I got to watch it in all its sharp and colorful might. On the other hand, modern technology has pretty much rendered this one obsolete in anything other than the nostalgic department; it cannot compete with the full might of CGI.
Even through nostalgic lenses, I cannot claim I particularly enjoyed this predictable movie. Sure, there is some fun to be had with some of the characters, but the whole thing feels lacking in depth; baddies are baddies because they look ugly, and characters are developed to the level of cute or nasty. Clearly, the production lacked the money to render the story to its full potential.
Still, one does have to give The Dark Crystal credit: not only is it an amazing achievement in puppetry, it is also one of the few children tales of fantasy to grace our screen during the decades prior to the forceful entry of the digital world.
Overall: An interesting museum piece of 2.5 out of 5 crabs quality.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Blue Jasmine

Lowdown: A formerly rich New York wife stirs everybody up when she crashes on her poor San Francisco sister.
Review:
I don’t know about you, but I have some specific expectations when I sit to watch a Woody Allen film. Like, I know that I am in for an hour and a half of humoristic chitchat fest focusing around the city the movie is set at. In the past, Allen would base all his movies around New York; nowadays he tries to confuse us by moving from one city to another, but that’s it for surprises.
Not so for Blue Jasmine. Sure, the chitchat was there, but the humour? What humour? This one is a rather depressing affair.
We follow Jasmine (Cate Blanchett), an obviously affluent and accustomed to affluence woman, as she arrives at San Francisco. It immediately becomes clear there’s something quite wrong with her: she keeps talking about the way things were with her husband; then we learn she was talking to a perfect stranger who couldn’t care less about her; and then we watch as Jasmine continues the same conversation with no one around to listen.
Clarifications start coming when Jasmine arrives at her carbon copy negative image of a sister, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). Ginger’s life is that of poverty, hard work, and tough circumstances; yet unlike her glamorous sister she doesn’t talk the talk, she walks the walk. Jasmine, we quickly learn, lost all of her money and now comes to crash on the sister she couldn’t care less for while she had the money. What follows next is a journey to both past and present, where we learn the exact circumstances in which Jasmine and husband’s (Alec Baldwin) star rose and fell, and where we also learn of how Jasmine is now ensuring everybody else’s star falls, too.
There is more than a bit of a Greek tragedy element to Blue Jasmine, including the fatalistic elements. Jasmine does not miss an opportunity to miss, yet Jasmine is the one that feels and acts as if she deserves everything while the unassuming Ginger carries all the weight. There is also plenty of catharsis to be had when we see how far the rich and mighty have fallen and how the meek are inheriting the earth. This leaves us with an actors’ movie, and yes – there is plenty of good acting to share. In my book, Hawkins wins the day, even if she’s portraying the role we grew accustomed to see her in.
Perhaps because of my expectations, Blue Jasmine felt strange to watch. Perhaps because I kept expecting jokes to pop up I felt bored, almost betrayed; perhaps because I was delving too deeply into other people’s lives I was feeling uncomfortable. With the very notable exception of Ginger, there is no character in Blue Jasmine that leaves the scene unblemished: everyone is a criminal of sorts, and those that are not outright criminals are guilty of looking out for the trophy wife.
Overall:
I’ll be honest. Immediately after we finished watching Blue Jasmine I thought it worthy of 2.5 mutant crabs, being the strange and borderline painful experience it was. Then I noticed the movie growing on me: days later I kept on analysing events and characters in my head, till eventually concluding this convoluted movie is a work of art. The well crafted characters and the contrasts between them are what makes Blue Jasmine, and make it they do.
Thus I will rate the movie at 3.5 crabs out of 5 and recommend it to those searching for a serious cinematic experience. Just don’t expect the typical Woody Allen experience.