Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Riddick

Lowdown: In order to get away from a god forsaken planet, Riddick has to invite mercenaries to hunt him down.
Review:
I am no fan of Vin Diesel nor the horror genre, but I consider 2000's Pitch Black to be a good movie; not my ultimate cup of tea, but a good one nevertheless. 2004's The Chronicles of Riddick, the sequel, was a different can of fish: it was a proper science fiction movie, and a pretty good one at that. Given the lineage, I expected 2013's Riddick to be even better. To put it bluntly, it isn't.
Problems start from the start: it is hard to figure out what's going on with this one. As in, after a brief exposition we witness Riddick getting himself stranded on a desolate desert planet haunted by a collection of vicious animals, I was missing the context. What led Riddick to where he got to? Are we expected to remember where Chronicles of Riddick last left us at, back in 2004? Diesel's way of slurring his dialog does not help in the comprehension department either.
Then there is the plot. Us viewers are stuck with scenes of Riddick fighting to survive on this desert planet of his for a long while once the movie starts, which left me wondering when it is actually going to start. It took a long while till it dawned on me that this is it, this is what the movie Riddick is all about. In other words, it is not about much at all.
What Riddick is about is some sort of an ego trip. At one point or another during his survival match with the vicious planet, Riddick realises a big storm is coming and he needs to get out of the planet, pronto (we are not told why he thinks that). His escape method? Show himself up at some remote station's cameras so that bounty hunters everywhere can come to get him. Not that he's planning on letting them catch their prize; he wants to hunt them down instead and use their spaceships for a getaway.
Two such parties of bounty hunters answer the call. The first thinks it can overpower Riddick, the second tries to outsmart him. That second group also includes a woman, Dahl (Katee Sackhoff, who is probably more familiar to viewers as Battlestar Galactica's Starbuck). The rest of the film is all about the stand off between Riddick and the two groups. One against many.
Which brings me to my next problem with this movie. It keeps on telling us how good and perfect Riddick is, and how the bounty hunters don't stand a chance against him, but other than Vin Diesel looking cool and trying to sound cool we have no proof for the matter. Or rather, little proof. What we do have is some sort of an immature teenager's fantasy: a male hero that sleeps with multiple naked ladies at once, all of them shaved downstairs; a male hero that talks the tough talk and can even screw armour directly to his flesh when required (hope he had antibiotics to go with that); and a totally redundant scene designed solely to show off Ms Sackhoff breasts (because we've waited through the whole of Battlestar Galactica for that to happen); and last, but not least, we have our Riddick turning a lesbian over - because if there is a man that can achieve that, it's Riddick.
I will summarise what Riddick brings to the table: A Dune like setting + Mad Max like clothing + Star Wars like technology + Rambo like plot + male fantasy wish fulfilment. I don't know about you, but when it's all added up, all I'm left with is bad taste in my mouth.
Overall: A hell of a nothing of a film, the redundant affair called Riddick earns 1.5 out of 5 crabs from me.

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Les Misérables

Lowdown: The famous musical is brought to the big screen.
Review:
Nowadays the name Victor Hugo reminds me of the Berne Convention, a cornerstone in today's implementation of copyright legislation. In my younger years, however, I knew Hugo mostly through a French TV series starring Jean-Paul Belmondo. That series seemed to last forever and told the story of a bunch of people that always seemed to get the wrong end of the stick. It was called Les Misérables.
Les Misérables, the 2012 version, is a far cry from that Belmondo series. Instead of bringing the book to the screen, it brings the musical based on the book to the screen. I have never seen that musical, although some of its songs are famous enough for me to recognise during the movie. The main point, however, is Les Misérables not being your average musical; it takes things further. It's not like the actors burst into song from time to time; the actors are always singing, even if they just tell one another "how are you" or "g'day". And that, my friends, is something I can hardly tolerate, let alone when stretched over a slowish two and a half hours movie.
Our plot tells us of Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), a prisoner set free at the beginning of the film after doing his time. Valjean is no ordinary ex-prisoner: his crime was stealing a loaf of bread to keep a child alive; his sentence was a harsh one, harsher than usual, because he tried to escape. Because of this breakout attempt Valjean is ordered by a police chief, Javert (Russell Crowe), to attend to a parole officer on a regular basis. Valjean finds refuge at a church but steals its candle sticks; upon getting caught, the priest lies to the police and says he gave the candlesticks to Valjean. Because of that noble act, Valjean vows to change his ways.
He breaks parole and assumes the identity of a fictitious person. Next time we meet him he's a rich mayor with his own factories. In one such factory works Fantine (Anne Hathaway), whose beauty makes her the subject of the other employees' jealousy. Valjean fails to pay attention to her as she is fired and then turns to prostitution; he only notes her when she dies and leaves a young daughter behind. Annoyed at his carelessness, Valjean vows to look after the girl; however, he has to keep an eye out for Javert, who is always a step behind.
Thus begins our story, a story that involves French revolutions and many more famous actors (Sacha Baron Cohen, to name a fine example). Alas, as I have already said, unless one is in the mood for dialog to be sung, one is in a bit of a problem. Personally, I had a big problem: although the end of this ordeal does bring some excitement into the air, the general state of mind is that of a bore-fest.
I will add my failure to understand the fuss around some of the performances here. Crowe seemed a bit strained when singing, but what's with all the fuss around Hathaway's performance? Aside from cutting her hair short I could find nothing extraordinary there. Just another brick in the boring wall of dialog singing.
Overall: Wow, I could not believe how hard it was for me to survive watching this one through. 1 out of 5 stars; only watchable to lovers of extreme musicals.

Thursday, 24 April 2014

Unfinished Song

Lowdown: A grumpy old man is challenged to come to grips with life through choir singing.
Review:
I take your familiarity with the specific genre of films that try to be more British than British for granted. A specific niche in that specific genre is dedicated to films depicting old British people (think The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel for a fine representative). Well, now you can add Unfinished Song to that specific niche of that specific genre. And you know what this means: it means that Unfinished Song is a sweeter than sweet film, full of British characteristics and fine acting; and you know that at the end of which you will suffer from sugar saturation. But you would also feel good.
Fulfilling the part dealing with fine acting is Terence Stamp in the role of Arthur, a grumpy old guy married to a sick with cancer but happy with life old woman, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave). Arthur takes good care of his wife, but is otherwise detached from life. She's the dying one who is clinging to life while he is the alive and well one who doesn't live. She goes to a choir and is very active there, while he does nothing meaningful with his life. Nothing except, perhaps, being actively estranged with his son (ex Dr Who Christopher Eccleston).
it's obvious that Unfinished Song is going to take our Arthur through a journey, at the end of which he will emerge a nice guy and we will all live happily ever after (with the exception of Marion). The question is, how are we going to get to that point? The answer comes through the young drama teacher that runs the old people's choir Marion sings at, Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). Hers is probably the movie's weak spot: Sure, Arterton fills the role of the pretty faced catalyst well, yet I could not avoid the impression the film would have done just as well without her character. Yes, there would be no sex appeal, but then again there was never a counterpart in the sex appeal department given everyone else in the film is oldish. There would just be better focused movie, I guess. Then again, we already know where the genre's priorities are.
When all the artificial sweeteners fade away, what does Unfinished Song leave us with? My answer is: the opposite of Breaking Bad. Breaking Bad tells the story of a person going through a change, becoming bad; Unfinished Song tells the story of a sort of a bad person going good. It tells us it is never to late to set things right. And it is also an ode to the institution of the family, whether it's the one we share genes with or whether it's an adopted one that makes us feel at home.
Overall: I said it from the start - Unfinished Song is a typical British film. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Enough Said

Lowdown: A love story between divorcees with children who have been there, done that.
Review:
It is no secret that I am occasionally attracted to a movie by virtue of its actors. Enough Said is a classic case: with Julia Louis-Dreyfus (or should I say Elaine Benes?) in the starring role, my attention was guaranteed. Throw in the recently deceased James Gandolfini and I'm caught.
Often attraction for name related reasons proves to be a bad idea. Not in Enough Said's case, though. While many a movie claim romantic comedy credentials but end up delivering junk, Enough Said proves there is substance to be had in the genre. This one is a high quality offering, even if it tends towards the drama more than the comedy.
Louis-Dreyfus plays Eva, a masseuse, a divorcee, a mother. You catch the drift: life isn't easy, but life is not too bad either. At a party her friend (Toni Collette) takes her to she meets two new people in one night: one is a poet, Marianne (Catherine Keener). The other is an overweight guy with a certain charm about him, Albert (Gandolfini). Eva becomes friends with Marianne, who also becomes a customer of hers; she also starts dating Albert, and even though there are no immediate fireworks the two seem to have chemistry going between them.
Now for the twist. As it turns our, both new mates are divorcees. Not only that, they turn out to be divorced from one another. Eva thus finds herself in a position where she hears all the bad things about Albert from Marianne, but then goes out and spends the night with Albert. Obviously, this is not a healthy position to be at, yet Eva finds it too addictive.
Several factors conspire to make Enough Said the quality film that it is. First is the script, which establishes several relationships while emphasising the similarities and differences between them all: there is the still married couple (Collette's); there is that married couple problematic maid; there are the various divorcees; and there are the various daughters, including the friend of a daughter, and their relationships with their respective mothers and friends' mothers.
Next comes the acting factor: I've already mentioned the names, so I will just add that they all do a great job. Couple the two, the script and the actors, and you have a fine drama that's interesting, entertaining and often touching. That is to say, Enough Said excels because it does the basics right.
As I said, Enough Said is a proper romantic comedy. The fact it does not deal with the young and beautiful, but rather with the parents in their mid forties and onwards whose lives are far from glamorous, only makes Enough Said better.
Overall: This is how you do it. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

Nebraska

Lowdown: A loving son helps his old father journey to Nebraska in order to chase a fleeting dream.
Review:
Director Alexander Payne seems to excel with movies depicting people past their prime going on road trips. The obvious examples for the phenomenon I'm talking about are About Schmidt and Sideways, both movies I highly regard. So much so that when a new member of the genre came out, Nebraska, I had to see it. I was not disappointed.
Shot in unique black and white, Nebraska follows the family of old Woody (Bruce Dern). Residing in Montana, where his two kids also live, Woody is past his mind's prime. He interprets a junk mail pamphlet promising a million dollars as the real thing, and decides he has to venture to Nebraska for "his" cash. When he starts walking there the cops stop him on the highway, but Woody is persistent. Eventually, his son David (Will Forte), a hi-fi salesman who recently broke up with his girlfriend - you cannot blame David for being too successful - decides to help. It does not matter To David how fruitless the objective is; with Woody being as old as he is, what other chance will he get to follow a dream?
Thus David and Woody go on a road trip to Nebraska. On the way they stop at the town Woody grew up in, the place where most of his family still resides at. No matter how many times David explains things, the family thinks Woody is about to become rich; and between them not being too successful either, and various old friends wanting a piece of the cash, tensions ensue.
Nebraska thus turns out to be a touching film about the things truly important in life. It's a film about family, both the better and the worse sides of it; it's a film about following one's dreams; and it's a film about settling old affairs down.
As someone who recently lost his old aged father, I found so much I could identify with in Nebraska that it became obvious this movie came to me at the right time. With all the sorrow that came with the death of my father, I could not avoid noting how the bulk of the tensions came from family arguments rather than from my father's situation. All the while, I could not avoid lamenting on how the death of my father means us two can no longer embark on anything together anymore, the way David and Woody did in their journey to Nebraska. And just like David and Woody, my father and I are/were far from perfect; both of us have/had our issues.
Between its story and its style, Nebraska offers fine drama.
Overall: While the journey Nebraska takes us through is not as much of an eye opener as, say, Sideways, its story is still relevant and touching. 3.5 out of 5 crabs to this very well done movie.

Monday, 21 April 2014

12 Years a Slave

Lowdown: A free black man in the USA's pre Civil War days is hijacked into slavery.
Review:
We all know, or should know, that once you acquire something it is very hard to give that something away. Take broadband, for example: once we moved from dialup into broadband, not that long ago, there could be no going back; the faster, always available Internet was too addictive for that to happen. Well, if broadband is so easy to give up on, think about what it means to lose one's freedom. Which is exactly the kind of notion that 12 Years a Slave is trying to generate.
Based on a real story, 12 Years a Slave follows Solomon (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a free black person living in northern USA during the days before the American Civil War. That is, the days when most of the black people in the USA were slaves.
Solomon, a musician, is tricked by two guys to go on a business trip with them. During that trip they drug him, then pass him on to slave traders who do what they do best. Following a treacherous journey with other kidnapped mates, Solomon finds himself forced to accept a new identity, that of a slave who was never free. He is then forced to work at southern plantations.
At first Solomon's owner (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a relatively gentle one, who protects him from vindictive whites. But when push comes to shove, Solomon finds himself under the tyranny of a harsh owner (Michael Fassbender). All the while, Solomon carries the hope of regaining his freedom and reuniting with his wife and two children. As it is, we know he was destined for 12 years of slavery; the catch is just how hard those years are.
Through this trick of freedom loss, a trick we can all imagine ourselves stuck in as we watch this movie, 12 Years a Slave manages to create a new angle in the smallish genre of films dealing with slavery. It works, definitely, but it is also hampered by proceedings going too slowly and the movie being overly long. Sure, the topic is worth making a film about; I just hope this film could have been made better, if only to justify the subject matter. Not even a large cadre of A list names (Paul Giammati, Brad Pitt, to name but two) could make me consider this one to be a true classic.
Best scene: Solomon is forced to whip another slave. He tries to be gentle, but fails.
Overall: An important movie that, alas, was made too uninteresting. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

The Lego Movie

Lowdown: An unlikely, unfamiliar, Lego character has to step up to save Lego World.
Review:
On paper, The Lego Movie has the potential to be the perfect children's movie. Well, at least by my Lego crazy child's account, on account of it mixing many if not most of the things he cherishes the most. That said, we've all been to "that movie" before: a movie that promises to be the next best thing but turns out to be a disappointment. In other words, The Lego Movie has a lot of expectations to satisfy, and the question is - can it rise up to the challenge?
Want the short answer? Yes.
Now for the slightly longer answer.
The Lego Movie follows the evil plot of Lord Business (Will Ferrell), who plots to apply his doomsday weapon to the Lego world. Who can step up to this force, yielding the full might of the corporate world behind him? There's a weirdo Lego wizard and there is a very cool looking Lego girl called Wildstyle, but can they and their Lego mates save their Lego world? That's where a prophecy steps in, claiming that an ordinary Lego character will save the day.
Or can it? It turns out this character is Emmet, a very ordinary Lego character of lower than average achievements. Emmet cannot even fit in with his construction worker mates, with whom he spends most of his days. Days that start to the tune of a catchy song, "Everything Is Awesome", move on to gulping overpriced coffee, continue through work, and unwind through reality TV and a visit to the pub. But our Emmet does not, really, fit this mould; can he fit into the role of a world saviour instead?
As per the norm for children's movies today, The Lego Movie is a computer animation movie; it does, however, strive for a stop motion look and feel (and it does so well). As per the norm, it is full of jokes aiming at the adults accompanying the children to the cinema: from Star Wars to Terminator jokes, you'll find them all here. As per norms, it is full of cameos and famous characters stepping in and out (Batman, anybody?). These work well, but they are not enough to make a movie great.
What really make The Lego Movie great is its message and the way this message is conveyed. Essentially, in order to save the world our heroes have to abandon the instruction manual, apply their imagination, break free of the mould, step out of the box - you get it. They need to think for themselves, as opposed to being fooled into believing that overpaying for coffee is both normal and awesome. The imaginative nature of the way this message is conveyed is what makes The Lego Movie great and what is obviously making this one a big time box office hit with the kids.
The irony of it is with Lego, the company. It fails to follow its own advice, releasing the movie tie in Lego kits in a very restrictive form. Instead of general kits to run wild with one's imagination, Lego is selling us very specific kits of very specific movie sets. At the price tags are obviously designed by the evil Lord Business, too; even the movie's Lego characters sell for $5 each. Sure reminds me of the movie's overpriced coffee.
Overall: Criticism of Lego aside, The Lego Movie is an excellent kids' movie. I liked it 3.5 out of 5 crabs much; as far as my son is concerned, this is probably the closest movie ever to his current movie ideal.

Friday, 18 April 2014

Escape Plan

Lowdown: An prison escape specialist is challenged to escape the most secure prison ever.
Review:
Most of Escape Plan fails to make sense, and it starts when the movie introducing us to its main character, Ray Breslin (Sylvester Stallone). Ray is an escape artist, but not your average Houdini; Ray escapes from prisons. He is not a criminal either; he's a paid contractor who pretends to be a criminal so as to get access to a prison from the inside, study the way it works, and then escape from it to prove his point. Ray is so good at his job he even wrote the book on the ultimate jail design.
As Ray learns the hard way, someone did read his book. When he receives a request from the CIA to study a jail and earn 5 million in the process he hesitates at first, but then goes for the mega job. Upon arrival, however, he learns this particular prison is different to everything else he had encountered before: it is very loyally designed as per Ray's own outlines, it is managed by a nasty warden (Jim Caviezel), and for some elusive reason they won't let Ray out when he gives up and tells the guards who he really is. Ray has no choice: no matter how hard escaping out of this prison may seem, he has to do it; otherwise he would spend the rest of his life in this hellhole. Lucky for Ray, some of his co-prisoners are "friendly". Like Rottmayer (Arnold Schwarzenegger).
There are two core problems with Escape Plan. The first is Stallone, who seems set on proving just how bad an actor he can be. He does so by failing to provide any kind of subtlety, by portraying a very unlikely and not well explained character (who would willingly want to spend the majority of their life in jail?), and by slurring his lines to the point of being quite unintelligible.
The other problem, which I have already alluded to, is that Escape Plan doesn't make sense from its very core. The whole escape artist idea is silly; the mega prison idea, as implemented in the movie (to a way that more than brings back a memory of the Mass Effect 2 jail Commander Shepard rescues Jack from), seems way unrealistic.
But Escape Plan has an ace up its sleeve, and it's called Schwarzenegger. Sure, he's not a good actor either; but he sure knows how to bring the fun into a movie. Everything Arnie does seemed to remind me of things he did in previous movies of his. Since I'm a fan - a big fan - I became happy.
It's just a pity Schwarzenegger's role is a supporting one.
Best scene: Schwarzenegger does not settle for firing a chain gun out of its helicopter mount; he picks it up by hand instead. Because, as everyone who watched Terminator 2 knows, that's the way cool dudes fire their chain guns.
Overall: Escape Plan is an average to bad movie that's saved by its second in command actor. I like that second in command actor, so I'm giving Escape Plan 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: Looking at key events from the USA's summer of 1927.
Review:
Bill Bryson acquired his claim to fame with his travel writing. Through books like A Walk in the Woods and their entertaining yet enlightening tales of a normal person gone travelling, Bryson established himself as one of my favourite authors [also one of the influential ones]. Probably due to age, Bryson then ventured into personal history with The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. And Bryson saw all that he had made, and it was good; so he went forth and prospered into a writer of history. Not you average historian, though; Bryson's are works of amusing insight, popularising trivial and otherwise neglected facts into books that shed light into our very way of life. Shakespeare and At Home represent that trend.
And now, adding color, comes One Summer: America, 1927. A book that does the same to America of 1927 as At Home did for our homes: a book that dissects key events of this otherwise forgettable year, analysing both how things got to where they got to during 1927 and how things ended up, and doing so while popularising seemingly trivial facts that history had otherwise neglected.
Why 1927 America? Bryson never bothers answering this question; I suspect the answer lies in him coming from the USA and the period being otherwise forgotten, standing as it was between the calamities of World War 1 and the Great Depression. 1927 probably has the added advantage of being close enough to remember (I have living relatives who were alive during the summer of 1927) yet far enough for us to be able to draw relatively unbiased conclusion from.
So, what were the key events of America's 1927 summer? By Bill Bryson's account, at least given the number of pages dedicated to the cause, the most important event was Charles Lindbergh's first ever flight across the Atlantic. Following up closely are the adventures of Babe Ruth, whose performance peaked that summer; the number of pages dedicated to Ruth will surely deter many readers who are not sport fans or, worse, do not like baseball. That number also betrays Bryson's own heritage, being the son of a sports journalist that he is. Obviously, there is more to 1927 than these two: there were bombings, mobsters, anarchists, and a bit of a weirdo president. There were even technological innovations, such as key live radio coverage events, a new Ford model and the beginnings of TV.
All is told in Bryson's familiar style, but I'm afraid things do not work as well as they did in earlier Bryson efforts. Given the lack of a personal angle, events are harder to tie up together. Some times I even felt cheated by Bryson: after going on and on about the eccentricities of President Coolidge, the president who did not seem to want to be president, he tells us in a sort of a slip of the mouth that the son's president died as a result of a freak accident on the White House lawns. Could anyone be blamed for not wanting to be in the White House after losing a child there?
More importantly, for a book dedicating as many pages as it does to matters of aviation, One Summer never truly seems to take off. Unlike previous Bryson books I never felt captivated by what I read. Sure, I was interested and I can honestly say I learned a lot from the experience, but One Summer was never a page turner; I felt it was my duty to finish reading it rather than my pleasure. Yes, it was better than the history books I've been forced to read at school, but that is no meaningful compliment. A book as long as One Summer should really do better.
Overall: An interesting experiment that failed to interest me as much as it should. 3 out of 5 crabs; perhaps Bryson should focus on something sexier for his next book?

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Anchorman

Lowdown: A new anchorwoman creates havoc at the TV station.
Review:
With Anchorman 2 grabbing a lot of media attention, we decided to finally give 2004's Anchorman a chance. If only to examine why it took 'em a decade to come up with a sequel.
In retrospect, we should have known better. Anchorman is another member of the "let the gang of boys have silly fun" genre of movie, as made famous by Judd Apatow. In the specific case of Anchorman, our gang of immature boys includes names such as Will Ferrell, Paul Rudd, Steve Carell and plenty of cameos by regular members of the gang such as Seth Rogen.
Our story is set in seventies/eighties San Diego. A local TV station rules the ratings with its news show, anchored by Ron Burgundy (Ferrell) and supported by a crew of other men. The key point being they're all men working in a men's world. Our men's world comes into turmoil when the station recruits a new employee, and she happens to be a woman (Christina Applegate). The boys simply do not know how to digest this new intrusion into their world. The result? A very silly film that tries to make the most of the sexual revolution that took place since, with women now being accepted as capable equals (at least in some fictitious PC universe). It's never made clear whether all the chauvinistic jokes are genuine or whether they are there in order for us viewers to laugh at the misanthropic idiots uttering them; I suspect the film is designed to work both ways.
The question is how good that humour style is for you. Me, I've fed up of it by now, but to be honest I always deemed it too silly. Your mileage may vary, but if you were to ask me whether Anchorman is a hit or a miss I would go with the latter.
Best scene #1: There aren't that many good jokes in Anchorman, and the scene where rivalling news crews are having a fight that's almost to the death is not exactly one of them. It is, like the bulk of the rest of this movie, too silly. However - the fact this scene provides cameos from Tim Robbins and Ben Stiller, amongst others, makes it shine. The result is that Anchorman's version of West Side Story catches fire.
Best scene #2: Jack Black, in his cameo, goes through a bout of Road Rage towards our Ron Burgundy. He picks Burgundy's cute little dog and kicks it, football style, from the bridge they're at to the water below. What can I say? I like it when films go so politically incorrect in previously untested directions.
Overall: At the risk of repeating myself, I don't particularly like this type of humour. 2.5 out of 5 stars will stop me from rushing to see the sequel.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

Lowdown: In order to save its futuristic earth, the Enterprise's crew needs to save the 20th century whales.
Review:
Straight off 1985's Star Trek 3: The Search for Spock comes 1986's Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home. Not only is The Voyage Home a quick successor, it takes off exactly where its predecessor left us. The Enterprise has been destroyed, and its core crew is now flying the Klingon ship the previous movie's baddies came in with.
But as our heroes fly back to earth to face the consequences of their actions, something new appears in earth's orbit: an unknown object that seems to be sending signals down to earth, signals no one knows how to answer. In the mean time, this object is wrecking havoc on earth.
Lucky for us earthlings, we have Kirk, Spock & Co to rely on. They figure out this mysterious object is calling upon the earth's whales. However, since in Kirk's time there are no whales left, the object will not receive the answer it is expecting to get; it is therefore expected this ancient object will stay there to ruin the earth with its unanswered messaging.
What can be done about it? Again, Kirk & Co come to the rescue. They quickly cook up a course to 20th century earth (failing, in the process, to explain why time travel isn't further exploited in Star Fleet's escapades if it happens to be as trivial an affair as the case seems to be here). Once at the 20th century, they land at San Francisco, where they spend the duration of the film trying to put their hands on whales they can take back with them to their future so as they could answer the mysterious object's call and thus have the object leave the earth alone.
Whichever way you want to look at it, the whole setup of The Voyage Home is there to serve one cause. It's there to allow the crew of the Enterprise to mess about in the world that the movie was produced at, eighties' USA. While there, us viewers are exposed to the culture of the time, often with a wink. For example, we have the Russian accented Chekov wandering about San Francisco asking for the location of nuclear power plants.
As far as The Voyage Home's intended message is concerned, there is a whole romantic story between Kirk and the 20th century woman looking after two whales, the two the Enterprise's crew put their eye on for some time travel. The key message to us is that by mistreating the animals of the earth at our time, we are risking cataclysmic results in the future. I do not know why the script writers had to go as far as a mysterious ancient cone travelling to the earth to seek out whales, but it probably seemed like an exotic notion at the time.
Best scene: Scottie trying to talk to a first generation Mac the way he talks to the Enterprise's computer. Having that Mac in this film feels like a major archeological find from three decades ago.
Overall:
Look, The Voyage Home is a pretty lousy film as far as the advancement of the art of moviemaking is concerned. It is certainly dated, too, particularly in the special effects department.
As far as fun is concerned? It's damn good, with all its period jokes and attitudes. It's a page of our history books, and an often funny one at that. I liked it 3.5 out of 5 crabs much.

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Lowdown: The party of dwarves, wizard and hobbit continues on its route to the dwarves' old city and the dragon that lays there.
Review:
Not a moment is wasted with The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (or just Hobbit 2), as it continues straight from where its predecessor - The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey - left off. Our heroes are straight after their last escape from the clutch of the evil orcs, and they are still on the path towards the dwarves' old city of gold in order for the dwarves to claim what is rightfully theirs. This time around they have a secret weapon, in the shape of Bilbo's ring; it does prove handy from time to time.
Alas, many a danger lie awaiting our brave party. They are chased by the orcs still, and those feature a particularly gruesome new leader. They encounter elves along the way, amongst which is good old Legolas and a standout female elf whom I have never encountered before in neither book nor film. Alas, elves like dwarves and dwarves like elves as much as water likes oil. And finally, our party's destination, the gold city, is guarded by a mighty dragon, Smaug.
Will our heroes be up to the challenge? No.
At least not during Hobbit 2, because if ever there was a movie that lacked an ending it is this one. Hobbit 2 takes its viewers hostage, leaving us half way through a scene to force us to pay to watch the third episode. That is, if we are the type of people that seek plausible conclusions.
Between the start and the end of Hobbit 2, us viewers get to enjoy pretty much the same formula from the first Hobbit movie: a bit of a story followed by special effects rich action scenes, repeat many a time to create a two and a half hour long movie. This is pretty much it.
As I have discussed back in Hobbit 1, there are many an enhancement to the book with which Peter Jackson & Co are trying to fill the time up. In my opinion, the bulk if not all of these enhancements detract rather than enhance the subject matter, but do feel free to argue with me. At least some of these enhancements are clearly there to serve as a link to the Lord of the Rings movies that "follow", as is clearly the case with Legolas' appearance or with the ring effects (that are absent from the book). In my opinion, Hobbit 2 is trying too hard in that department; I wish it could just relax and let go.
I will concede, though, that matters are much better in Hobbit 2 than they were in Hobbit 1. This time around I enjoyed the roller coaster ride of adventures and was able to turn a blind eye to the butchering of the source material much more easily. In other words, I was entertained.
Best scene: The dwarves escape the orcs by hitching a ride in some barrels as they whitewater raft an angry river, which sets the scene for a very video game, Mario like, chain of events.
Overall: While better than its predecessor, Hobbit 2 is still a mediocre adventure movie without an ending. On the other hand, it is pretty entertaining over a rather long period of time, so I will give it 3 out of 5 crabs as I reserve my final judgement for the trilogy's last episode.

Saturday, 5 April 2014

Game Change

Lowdown: The story of the McCain presidential campaign and its choice of Sarah Palin as deputy.
Review:
The 2008 American elections had more buzz around them than usual. The most obvious reason was the fact a black guy was running, and a promising black guy at that (for the sake of this post I will avoid discussing the disappointment this guy turned out to be, regardless of skin color). The other reason for these elections being more interesting than usual was the fact Americans were on the brink of voting a person I would generally label a moron into the White House in deputy role. I am talking, of course, of Sarah Palin. How such a person got into such a historical position is the story of the film Game Change.
Game Change revolves around three characters. First there is the McCain campaign manager, whom we witness being recruited for the role while in his tracksuit (Woody Harrelson). Then there is his boss, John McCain, the Republican candidate for presidency (Ed Harris). McCain faces a problem: he has to bring an unconventional candidate for deputy or he's guaranteed to lose the race, given Obama's talents at gathering money from his supporters as well as Obama's general attractiveness. The trick the McCain campaign is trying to pull is the offering of a woman; and in the limited list of electable women they can find, Sarah Palin (Julianne Moore) seems to be the best candidate. So Palin it is.
The real drama starts when Palin gets exposed to the media. The woman that seemed the powerful governor from Alaska, the mother of four, comes out as dumb and archaic. Obviously, this is a problem for the campaign, a problem around which the bulk of Game Change revolves. Now, we all know how the story ended; therefore, the Game Change tries to attract us not through dramatic surprises, but rather through building a strong platform for the talented actors to perform on. And perform they do, especially Moore.
The result is more than good; Game Change is a very interesting human drama. McCain himself is portrayed as almost faultless, while Palin is the virtual negative image of her superior.
I do find it interesting to note this actor's drama was directed by Jay Roach, with whom I was mostly familiar through the Austin Powers trilogy. Let us just say that Game Change is a significantly different movie to Austin Powers.
Overall: An actors' drama that is rewarding to watch even when we know how it all ends. Or did it? Should we worry about a Palin comeback? 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Closed Circuit

Lowdown: A lawyer defending an alleged terrorist stumbles upon suprising revelations.
Review:
Perhaps no country symbolises the decadence of democratic values in the Western democracies better than the UK. This is a country where one's every move is monitored by CCTV and where opt out filters were introduced to "protect the children" (and then quickly subverted to block other stuff). A country that holds travelling journalists and treats them like terrorists. Indeed, it is no surprise the UK was chosen as the setting for Closed Circuit, a film that is all about this culture and what it is doing to our state.
A terrorist bombing hits a bustling street market at the centre of London, causing many casualties. The security forces set their sights on a foreigner alleged to have provided the bombers with their mobile phones and other forms of support. No, I do not think the character's resemblance to Australia's Mohamed Haneef is coincidental. A trial is set with a caveat: because the evidence against our terrorist will reveal top secret information, the accused and his defence are not allowed to listen to them; instead a special, privileged agent will be appointed. This agent will have access to the material and will be able to communicate whether the evidence is of substance or not. No, I do not think the resemblance to Israel's Prisoner X saga and the trial that the public was not allowed to hear of is coincidental. In the background lies the UK's Attorney General, who just like Australia's Brandis and his approval of Aussie intelligence forces rampaging through the office of a lawyer representing East Timor, does everything in his powers to support British security forces.
This is the point where our heroes for the duration of the movie are introduced. As the defence lawyer we have Martin (my long time avatar Eric Bana), who takes the helms following the weird suicide of the previous defence lawyer. And as the special liaison we have Claudia (Rebecca Hall). The catch? The two are ex lovers, which sort of contradicts the whole idea of the two not having any contact whatsoever in order for them to fulfil their court appointed duties. If that's not enough tension to start with, Martin quickly reveals some revelations that shed a brand new light about the whole story behind our alleged terrorist. Martin, however, should be careful; his every move is followed by the good services of the United Monitored Kingdom. He and Claudia should also be careful of potentially losing their professional credentials if they dig too far into these revelations.
There can be no doubt as to the relevancy of this movie. Almost everything it depicts took place sometime, somewhere, in a Western democracy, recently. Ongoing revelations from Edward Snowden only add fuel to the fire behind the claim that in the name of security, the powers that be that we have appointed to protect our democracy, our freedom and our way of life are doing the exact opposite and are managing to get away with it.
Alas, as much as I like Eric Bana, I do not consider Closed Circuit a good movie. As important as its subject matter is, there is nothing there we haven't seen before in third grade legal dramas. With Closed Circuit's message being clear from the start, it doesn't take much to guess where the film will take us down, either. I found the ending, in particular, to ruin much of the good job Closed Circuit does manage: by trying to be an all encompassing ending it only manages total hollowness.
Overall: I couldn't avoid feeling that all the good intentions missed their mark. 2.5 out of 5 crabs for a film that could and should have been so much better.
Anecdote: Closed Circuit offers a reunion between Eric Bana and fellow Munich Israeli secret agent, Ciarán Hinds.