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 clich├ęs, 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.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Guardians of the Galaxy

Lowdown: An unlikely crew brings the fun back into saving the galaxy.
Review:
With all the potential science fiction offers for having some fun time while switching the imagination on, very few of the genre's movies actually manage that. Star Wars did it, yes, at the beginning, but otherwise crops have been suffering from severe drought. Into this gap is where Guardians of the Galaxy steps in.
It’s based on a comic, it features a crew of unlikely heroes (are a racoon and a tree good enough for you?), and it’s filled with imaginative alien worlds and personalities. Yes, Guardians of the Galaxy does a good job of wrapping epic science fiction action scenes with good natured, fun packed silliness.
The setting sounds a bit complicated but it isn’t, really. The chief protagonist of our Guardians occasionally goes by the name of Star Lord (Chris Pratt), a very Han Solo/Indiana Jones type scoundrel who acquires precious artefacts from all over the galaxy for a fee on one side and is glued to his very eighties original cassette Walkman and headphones on the other. One of the artefacts he picks seems to pack more punch than meets the eye, which results in him being chased by:
  • The green woman Gamora (Zoe Saldana, singlehandedly conquering the niche of brightly colored good looking alien females) for the artefact;
  • The heavily mutated bounty hunter racoon Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and his fellow tree Groot (Vin Diesel in a role that finally makes the most of his acting potential);
  • A mega evil dude that wants to destroy freedom in the galaxy using the power locked in the artefact. This one comes with a crew of henchmen and villains, including a bluish bold woman that looks a lot like Mass Effect’s Jack, Nebula (Karen Gillan);
  • A criminal gang looking for compensation on some old debts, not unlike Jabba the Hutt did with Han Solo back in Star Wars; 
  • The innocently annoying but somewhat charming police, headed by an ever charming Corpsman (John C. Reilly).
Shake things up and mix it a bit and you have yourself Guardians of the Galaxy.
You will notice me mentioning Star Wars and Mass Effect. Elements taken on loan from Star Wars are very clearly visible all along Guardians of the Galaxy; but it is the Mass Effect factor I’d like to delve into. Simply put, Guardians of the Galaxy is the most Mass Effect like movie I have ever seen: it’s the tale of a hero joined by a diverse, unlikely gang that's slowly building up its loyalty in order to save the galaxy; some of these heroes look like carbon copies of Mass Effect characters (Gamora is obviously an Asari, while Star Lord looks awfully like a human multiplayer character once he puts his mask on);  the various world are very Mass Effect like, from the prison colony to remote asteroids and most notably the multi species filled metropolises. Throw in a the common goal, saving the galaxy, and you have this Mass Effect fan fully hooked.
Even the humour bears resemblance. Mass Effect may have Mordin, but Guardians of the Galaxy has got the overly literal Drax (wrestler Dave Bautista), for whom jokes keep flying over the head. There are certainly plenty more examples, but the point is Guardians of the Galaxy holds on to a viable position in that hard to get to quadrant of high action as well as high humour.
Overall: I don’t know about you, but I am looking for a sequel, thank you very much. So much promise in this massively effective 4 out of 5 crabs movie!

Monday, 1 September 2014

Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley

Lowdown: Interferences to successful chef Katie’s plans to move on to her own restaurant are dealt with by changing past choices.
Review:
I was very late to the Scott Pilgrim bandwagon, but when it hit me I quite liked it. I liked the movie, and although I suffered technical difficulties with the comic I liked that one as well (to a degree). Having recently heard Pilgrim’s father, Bryan Lee O'Malley, has released a much anticipated "other comic" I thought I’d give it a try.
Seconds, this new other comic, is all about Katie. Katie is a young and successful chef, whose venture – a restaurant called Seconds – has been truly successful. So successful that she has been arranging for replacements for herself while working on opening a brand new restaurant, one that she would own. Alas, various elements conspire to keep Katie ties up to Seconds, first amongst which her living right above the restaurant. Between the cost of renovating her new place and unresolved personal affairs, she may not be going anywhere.
It is then that Katie stumbles upon magic mushrooms that let her write down her mistake, take a bite, go to sleep, and then wake up to a universe where that error was never made. Starting off with good intentions – helping a waitress whose hands got burnt – Katie quickly finds herself addicted to the mushrooms. But will she be able to find an alternate universe where she’s truly happy?
In much the same way as Scott Pilgrim did before, Seconds is a comic utilising fantastic elements as it deals with the anxieties of the modern day youngster: finding their identity, finding success in their various endeavours, seeking confirmation, and most obviously finding friendship and love. All in a world full of competition and, well, other folk wanting to achieve stuff themselves.
There is definitely grounds for Seconds, but I found myself repeatedly struggling through what should have been a great read. First there’s the art style, which I have found to be too eccentric-cartoonish to my taste. It's definitely not the flashy art style many other comics seduce me with. Second, and more important, was the feeling that none of the devices utilised by Seconds are particularly original. Most of these ideas involving fantastic choice re-making and the potentially negative repercussions have been seen before and aplenty.
Overall: While I have enjoyed Seconds, I found myself rather disappointed. I give it 3 out of 5 crabs; I suspect those more at home with Bryan Lee O'Malley's style would fare better.