Saturday, 19 December 2015

Z for Zachariah

Lowdown: In the end of the world, all that’s left is one woman and two men.
Review:
If, like me, you’re into video games, then there is a fairly good chance that, like me, your world has been occupied recently with the post apocalyptic universe of Fallout 4. And if you ever wondered what the Fallout 4 world might look like in a movie, then Z for Zachariah could be your answer. Its entire plot takes place in and around a valley that, for elusive reasons, survived the radiation filled apocalypse all around.
The plot pivots around Anne (Aussie Margot Robbie), a young and attractive woman who is resourceful enough to raid the local shops and raise the crops required to keep her, the last woman on earth, alive. One day she meets a wanderer wearing a radioactivity protection suit, John (Chiwetel Ejiofor, of 12 Years a Slave fame); she rescues him, and through his engineering background they start forming plans for the future of humanity. John, who happens to be black, does have a certain streak about him when he gets drunk, though.
Affairs get complicated when a second man enters the equation, Caleb (Chris Pine). He had survived because of his underground mining job; he’s white, he’s attractive, and unlike John the atheist he shares faith with Anne. Clearly, a battle for the world’s sole female resource is about to break. After all, the movie is called Z for Zachariah, with the Z standing for the last person on earth, as opposed to Adam the first.
I quite liked Z for Zacharia, a science fiction film based on a book from the seventies. What I liked most about it was its subtlety, the way it worked by hinting rather than the in-your-face manner I would expect. After all, given Hollywood’s tendencies, one would expect a movie featuring such an attractive last woman on earth to give porn a run for its money. Or to at least have the two men tear each other’s flesh apart. Yet while there is a scene one might describe as erotic, and there is some violence, this is not Z for Zachariah’s way. Instead of the visceral, us viewers are required to run the stats – black vs. white, science vs. religion, man against woman – in our heads. And the movie is so much better for it.
Overall: A fine take on the end of the world theme, I give Z for Zachariah 3.5 out of 5 apocalyptic crabs.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Lowdown: At the height of the Cold War, a CIA secret agent cooperates with a KGB one to save the world from atomic terrorism.
Review:
Alternate versions of the James Bond themes have been common as muck recently (Spy, Kingsman: The Secret Service). However, if you ask me, ruling them all in the fun department is this latest incarnation from director Guy Ritchie, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. For a change this is not a movie of Ritchie's featuring many a famous star constantly mumbling to themselves in rather unintelligible style as per Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or Snatch. No, this is proper golden era James Bond stuff with the fun setting raised up a good few notches.
As it turns out, The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is based on a sixties TV series. It even takes place in the sixties. Or is it the fifties? Probably sixties, given the color palette chosen for this movie. Anyway, we follow the convicted thief, now turned CIA agent, Napoleon Solo (aka the recent Man of Steel, Henry Cavill) as he tries to rescue a “female asset”, Gabriella (Ex Machina’s Alicia Vikander), from East Germany. Only that this super talented agent has to fight off the equally super talented KGB agent assigned to stop him, Illya (the completely not Russian Armie Hammer).
Following a James Bond style expose, the unbelievable happens: the two archenemies are tasked to work together, as in cooperatively, to stop a terrorist organisation led by the glamorous Victoria (Aussie Elizabeth Debicki) from using the invention of Gabriella uncle. An invention that would totally revolutionise nuclear weaponary and put such bombs in the hands of all willing villains. Cue the floodgates for tons of action scenes and sexual escapades, Bond style.
Style is the keyword here (and definitely not substance). Ritchie was/is clearly oozing with it; throw in a Tarantino style soundtrack into all the visceral action (as opposed to the softish CGI action we’re mostly fed with nowadays) and you got yourself two hours of movie fun. Nothing more than fun, but oh, what great fun it is! Yes, Cavill seems rather limited in his acting (whether intentional or not is unclear), but Hammer and Vikander do an excellent job.
P.S. Do not expect this movie's name to make sense until the very ending, which sets things up nicely for a potential sequel. A kind of a "James Bond will return in..." goodbye.
Overall: Fun, fun, fun in the sixties sun, sun, sun. 4 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 10 December 2015

The Paladin Caper by Patrick Weekes

Lowdown: Loch and her gang of do good criminals fight to save the world from the ancients’ return.
Review:
If you were to read my reviews of The Palace Job and The Prophecy Con, the previous two books in this Rogues of the Republic trilogy (?) I only stumbled upon because its author Patrick Weekes was involved in my favourite video game ever (Mass Effect), you would get the impression I truly loved them. Which is nice and all, but also brings high tension into the air: would Weekes be able to conclude his trilogy as well as he started it? And since I get the feeling the first book was not meant to stand as part one of a trilogy, but was rather recruited into the trilogy later, does Weekes even stand a chance?
The Paladin Caper starts off immediately in the vein of its predecessors. That is, high octane action revolving between the numerous round characters that make this series stand apart, with each character moving from one near death experience to the next only to be rescued through some highly improbable turn of events. Sounds good, but… It was too much of the same, and frankly not enough octanes to rekindle the love given the already high octane stakes we had before.
Plot wise, affairs continue from more or less straight from episode 2. Back then we had Loch and her gang save the Republic and the Empire from the mutual annihilation that the ancients tried to trigger; this time around the ancients are trying to take over the world in a more conventional way. That is, more conventional by the terms of a magical world: they try to take over individuals using paladin bands. These bands are sold off to people at excessive prices and promise to make people’s lives easier by offering calendar and map services. Yes, you got it right: the ancients are trying to take over the world by offering it Apple like overpriced gadgets. Only that these products come with more than your regular Google tracking; they really do let the device take over its owner. Note this opens the backdoor for an extra dose of good characters turning evil and seemingly evil characters turning out to be goodies or redeeming themselves. But I’ll shut up now; suffice to say all my favourite characters are back, Tern, Hessler, Icy, Desidora, the unicorn, the magic hammer, Loch, everyone else I managed to forget, and my personal favourite – Kail. And this time around he’s joined by his mother!
The way I saw it, given the slight misfires at the start, The Paladin Caper could only redeem itself by taking its large collection of round characters and significantly developing them further while also throwing in tons of that good old Weekes political observations/criticism that made the previous two books stand out from the bulk of the swords & sorcery fantasy genre. I am therefore ecstatic to say that, against all odds (seriously, how can Weekes repeat this again and again?), The Paladin Caper manages to achieve that and then some. It might misfire at the start, but it sure turns into a great book!
Political insight deals with more than the mindless zombies our smartphones are turning us to be or the NSA grade trackers they act as. There is plenty of veiled criticism towards the way the media is controlling us and shapes our world views on matters such as terrorism, with crosshairs set firmly on the likes of Fox News. Taking things further, there are plenty of things for the reader to ponder through the analogies between the Urujar in the book (who happen to include the heroes Loch and Kale) and their real world equivalents in blacks and Muslims.
Add it all up, and you have yourself the conclusion of a trilogy featuring lots of characters you learn to love like they were your family members through a series of books advocating liberal values, gender and racial equality. All of which is happening in a very high action, fast paced setting. In other words, we have ourselves a Mass Effect series of books.
Overall:
To say that Patrick Weekes “did it” is an understatement. The Paladin Caper is the third successful book in the series and highly deserves 4 out of 5 crabs.
Way more importantly, though, is the fact the whole trilogy of books provided such great, insightful entertainment. Usually, by the time I finish a trilogy, I thank The Goddess for rescuing me from the clutches of a big time drainer. With Weekes’ trilogy, though, I came out plotting ways in which to influence the writer to come up with further sequels (in case you are unaware, Patrick Weekes is very open to feedback on Twitter).
A world as well crafted as Mass Effect’s would be wasted if there were to be no more sequels. The same applies to this trilogy, which – as a whole – truly deserves 5 out of 5 Commander Shepard grade crabs.

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Lowdown: An antisocial high schooler is forced to befriend a colleague dying of cancer.
Review:
Read the summary of Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and it won’t light you on fire. However, as is usually the case, it’s not the end that matters as much as how you get there. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is certainly a film that makes getting there nice while releasing some thoughts in its viewer’s minds.
We follow Greg (Thomas Mann), a Pittsburgh high schooler whose way of surviving in that tough savannah of the greater high school plains is to establish shallow connections with every clique out there, from super nerd to super cool, without really associating himself with any. He has only one friend, Earl (RJ Cyler), a black guy from a rougher neighbourhood. They spend their lunches together away from the chaos of the school lunch room and, while out of school, they shoot movies together – clever reinterpretations/parodies of cinema classics.
Tranquillity is interrupted when Greg’s mother forces him to make contact with a Jewish classmate of his, Rachel (Olivia Cooke), who was recently diagnosed with leukaemia. Greg is typically reprehensive about the idea, and frankly so is Rachel, but through his home movies a connection – a non romantic relationship – develops.
I’ll leave the plot with that. As I said, it’s the how that matters, and Me and Earl and the Dying Girl excels in its portrayal of the social issues facing today’s teenagers. It really is a case of survival of the fittest, and even they cannot be expected to survive without some mental scars. Given the way the movie portrays parents (to put it mildly, they’re rather peculiar), one can see the theme extended way further than the realms of the high school. Between some touching moments and fine acting all around, the result is fine drama.
Overall: A simple story told well, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl deserves between 3 and 3.5 crabs out of 5.

Saturday, 5 December 2015

Ant-Man

Lowdown: This unlikely superhero gets his powers from being tiny.
Review:
At the risk of stating the obvious, if there is one thing a comic based movie should be is fun. Clearly, a lot of the comics movie interpretations we have seen over the years fail at that, but Ant-Man certainly doesn’t. For Ant-Man is not a movie that claims to shake the very foundations of cinema; it is simply a fun movie. Works for me!
This latest piece in the Marvel puzzle stars Paul Rudd as our unlikely hero. His character is a criminal, sure, but a Robin Hood type criminal, so we can excuse him and accept him as our goody for the next two hours. As nice a guy as he is, employment is a rather painful affair for our hero, so in order to be able to continue seeing the daughter he loves (now living with ex + ex new boyfriend cop) his only choice of income is to revive his burglary career. Only that he robs the wrong guy – an inventor/scientist (Michael Douglas) who now seeks our hero’s help in securing the world from the clutches of the company he once established, now controlled by his evil son in law (Corey Stoll, of House of Cards fame).
What is this evil? It’s the ability to shrink stuff to ant size, thus enabling soldiers to infiltrate unseen and rule the world, Hydra style.
How are they going to fight this evil? By fighting fire with fire, thus creating our superhero Ant-Man. Oh, and he can also call on the support of ants while he’s tiny. Because, you know, ants.
And who is our romantic interest / token female? It’s Evangeline Lilly (aka the female elf from the recent crap Hobbit trilogy). She portrays the scientist’s daughter and the baddy’s ex.
The result: Fun. And there’s even a tank in there!
Pretty much the only negative I can throw in the mix is the forced attempt to glue this movie into the Avengers ongoing mega-story. It clearly detracts Ant-Man’s plot development, and it is even more clearly done offhand; the only Avenger bothering to show up is Falcon (read: the cheapest Avenger to bring along). It’s just silly and badly done.
Overall: Fine unassuming entertainment for a nice evening. And there’s even a tank! 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 30 November 2015

John Wick

Lowdown: They killed his dog and stole his car. This time, it’s personal.
Review:
If you ever wondered whether something as tiny as the eye of a needle can serve as the basis for an entire movie to rest on, then John Wick is your answer. As in, yes, it can; but no, do not expect much of that movie.
Keanu Reeves is our hero, John Wick, who starts the movie losing his wife to cancer. That wife leaves him a farewell gift so he’s not alone in grieving: a puppy. Alas, the spoilt son of the local Russian mafia branch (a typecast Alfie Allen, of Game of Thrones fame) fancies Wick’s classic Ford Mustang and comes stealing it, killing the puppy while at it. The rest of the movie is all about Wick executing his revenge.
Yes, they messed with the wrong guy, and even the head of the mafia knows that (Michael Nyqvist, the journalist from the original Swedish Girl with Dragon Tattoo). Thus what follows is an hour plus of Wick executing bad guys with much panache and very little regard for human life. The body count here is truly massive, in direct inverse correlation to any shred of sense. And that, really, is all there is to this movie.
The real mystery behind John Wick is why. Why do the likes of Reeves or Willem Dafoe take part in such a silly escapade? I suspect the answer is “money” and the role model in the minds of the studio powers that be was Taken.
Overall: Redundant, shallow and repetitive, John Wick earns a weak 2.5 out of 5 crabs (after throwing in a “so stupid it’s funny” bonus).

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Avengers: The Age of Ultron

Lowdown: The Avengers fight an all destroying AI they themselves have helped create.
Review:
It’s hard being a sequel, and Avengers: The Age of Ultron can tell you all about it. It’s hard for a sequel to come up with an original plot, and Age of Ultron proves the point by being yet another movie about artificial intelligence getting created by humans with all the best intentions but going wrong. It’s hard for a sequel to continue developing its complicated world and characters, and by having to go through each Avenger’s moment of crisis and then salvation it sure as hell sags. And by having the extra chore of setting things up for the next sequel in the Avengers universe, things often become rather tedious and unfocused.
So yes, there is a plot, and it is rather silly/unconvincing. Evil Hydra comes up with a baddie, Ultron, which isn’t really a baddie until Ironman/Stark turns it into one by fitting it with his software with which to cure the world of its problems. But no, the software doesn’t work, and Ultron sets forth doing its best to destroy humanity. Geographically, affairs focus on the an East European nation whose name sounds a lot like Slovakia; Action wise, affairs revolve around the ensuing battle between the Avengers, Ultron/s and two more superheroes for whom this movie is an Avengers’ recruitment piece. By the end of it all there’s not much left of poor little Slovakia.
With all the good intentions, good actors and megatons of special effects at hand, Avengers: The Age of Ultron is a movie too heavily burdened by being forced to act as a cog in the Avengers grand design to be a good movie.
Overall: If this is what the first Avengers sequel is like, I hate to think what’s next. 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 23 November 2015

The Great Buck Howard

Lowdown: A guy escaping law studies becomes the assistant of a has been illusionist.
Review:
2008’s The Great Buck Howard is one of those movies that makes one go “what were they trying to say in there, exactly”, but where the answer to that question doesn’t really matter because the hour and a half you spent with the movie trying to figure out the answer was pleasant enough anyway. Between its mildly interesting plot and its fine actors one really cannot argue with this film.
Troy (Colin Hanks, the son of) defies the orders of his father (portrayed by Colin's real life father Tom, who also happens to be a producer) and abandons law school in search of some dream. The matter of what dream it is rather elusive; he wants to be a writer, but then again who doesn’t?
Through this and that, Troy ends up supporting himself by becoming the assistant of a rather peculiar guy, an illusionist called Buck Howard (John Malkovich), whose character is apparently based on a real life dude. Buck is a has been: he used to be a regular on the old Tonight Show, but has been left high and dry for a while and therefore considers Jay Leno the enemy of all that is decent. He does go about the USA performing before smallish audiences at various not so famous establishments, which is where Troy fits. And as peculiar as he gets, Buck is also a decent person.
Eventually Buck comes up with a trick that would bring him fortune & glory back, which is why he calls upon for some PR aid. His agency sends a rather reluctant helper (Emily Blunt) instead of the guy he was after, but Troy sure doesn’t mind. Through this and that, all turns out well, and we learn that in this universe what goes around comes around; follow your heart, be good, do good things, and good things will happen to you.
Oh, that good old American dream. Pity it mostly happens in movies.
Overall: Not a bad way to spend an evening. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 20 November 2015

Aloha

Lowdown: A Hawaiian is brought home to promote a private space launching operation.
Review:
Some movies are good. Most are mediocre. Too many are bad. Some movies, however, make one go “WTF”. Aloha is such a movie. And no, I do not mean it as a compliment. It is a movie that feels as if it was made with everyone involved high on something; it is a movie that feels as if its audience is meant to watch it while high on something, too.
We follow Brian (Bradley Cooper). We’re introduced to the character through a quick flicking montage implying the guy is some sort of an astronaut/rocket scientist/soldier/superman. Or, in other words, we have no idea what he did/does for a living despite all the good intentions. What we do learn, eventually, is that he is originally from Hawaii, and was brought back to Hawaii at the whim of billionaire Carson (Bill Murray). The latter seeks to have his private space launching facilities established at Hawaii.
Carson is working in partnership with the US Army; both billionaire and army are encumbered by the need to appease the aboriginals before they can have their spaceport, hence Brian’s presence.
Countering Brian in this triangular romantic comedy are Tracy (Rachel McAdams), whom Brian almost married but abandoned and who is now married with two kids yet clearly wondering what could have happened; and air force ace Captain Ng (an Emma Stone who, as has often been often noted, looks nothing like an Ng). The former represents the careless character that Brian used to be; the latter is the idealistic person whose role it is to turn Brian into the man he could be.
The challenge is Hawaii. Or rather, does Hawaii need a spaceport, with all the military involvement that would bring (as if Pearl Harbor does not exist)? Should we put such facilities in private hands? And should we endanger that mystic Hawaiian state of mind (remember, this film is meant to be consumed on a high) for such earthly (pun intended) endeavours?
The way I summed it up makes it sound as if Aloha actually has something going for it. Clearly I have wronged the movie, because Aloha has nothing going for it but that druggish feeling and a multitude of pretty faces exposing their perfectly white teeth to us because there’s nothing better for them to do in this movie (sadly, it seems American Sniper was not badness enough for Cooper). Aloha is a movie that never gets anywhere, is never clear about its intentions, and really – makes one wonder what happened to an otherwise talented Cameron Crowe.
Overall: 1 out of 5 crabs. Save yourself an hour and a half of WTF and avoid Aloha at all cost.

Monday, 16 November 2015

Inside Out

Lowdown: The imaginative struggle taking place inside a girl’s head after she and her parents move interstate.
Review:
Truly imaginative movies are hard to come by. Take The Matrix as an example; I know I’m at a minority opinion, but I always argued that in a world one can imagine anything there is so much more to do than kung fu. Similar arguments apply to Inception. On the other side of the scale we get movies like Tomorrowland that do have imaginative stuff all over but, alas, are just bad at the basics. Against this background, Inside Out stands like a true gem.
The narrative along which Inside Out is based is very simple. A family of three, including loving mother/father/daughter is moving from middle of nowhere USA (Nebraska, if I remember correctly) to San Francisco. From the daughter’s point of view, everything she has known is taken away from her, replaced by the uknown/scary/inferior. The movie is all about how she copes with that, and the bulk of it takes place inside her head, where the various states of mind a person feels are personalised and the various inner workings of the mind are modelled through physical contraptions we are familiar with in our daily lives. Thus the leading characters of Inside Out are Joy and Sadness; memories are represented as bowling balls doing their things in the gigantic/complicated bowling alley that is the brain; the mind is a control centre, not unlike Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex (But Were Afraid to Ask).
As I said, imaginative.
This creative idea at the core of Inside Out overshadows its relatively simple narrative (people moving from one place to another) and the fact that, at the core, this is a Disney movie with all the predictability a Disney movie can bring to the table. On the other hand, Inside Out is a kids’ movie, and given the subject matter is so easy to identify with – we all went through scary changes of the type our heroine goes through – it is probably one of the better movies your child can watch (file that last statement under “understatement of the year”).
Overall: Although personally I did not like Inside Out as much, I think it deserves 4 out of 5 crabs for its marvellous imagination and for the way this imagination has been utilised to resonate with children.

Thursday, 12 November 2015

The End of All Things by John Scalzi

Lowdown: The causes of the human division are finally unveiled.
Review:
Another year, another Scalzi book. With this, The End of All Things, the sixth book in the Old Man’s War saga and the long awaited direct sequel of the two year old The Human Division, Scalzi proves he’s like good wine. Not only is can he be counted on to always deliver, he’s actually improving as he goes. [I should have really found a better metaphor here, since I do not like wine, but let us go on with the show.]
I will avoid pretty much any plot discussions here; let us just say that The End of All Things acts as the second half of The Human Division and provides a satisfying ending to that end-less book (while opening the window wide to further sequels that, through Scalzi’s much hyped contract with his publisher, we know will come). There are differences in style between End of All Things and Human Division, though: the newer episode is made of only four stories, and they are each told in first person mode by different people (some of which are non human people). One story teller per each story.
Probably what I liked the most about The End of All Things was the way Scalzi plays with the politics of the world he had created. Make no mistakes about it, although our book features action, it mostly concerns the unfolding of a political drama. The power play at hand, and all the detailed factors causing it to traverse the specific path it does, remind me of another series of science fiction books altogether: Asimov’s Foundation. That used to be the cornerstone of my sci-fi universe; it therefore brings me great delight to witness a contemporary author step up to take the role of a contemporary Asimov and provide entertaining, clever and, well, contemporary science fiction.
The only sad part of this equation is that Asimov delivered us with several hundred books, while Scalzi only manages a fraction of that. Come on, John Scalzi, you can do it!
As an anecdote, I will note The End of All Things features bits where it is clear Scalzi wrote himself into the story. How do I know? Well, being a daily reader of Scalzi's blog for the past seven years or so has granted me with some familiarity with the author, to the point he sort of feels like a family member. I guess that's what happens after daily interactions over so many years. Seriously, though: if you haven't done it thus far, do examine his blog; it is one of the Internet's best. Even better than mine.
Overall: A clever, entertaining, conclusion in an ongoing space opera. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 10 November 2015

Jurassic World

Lowdown: A reboot/remake of 1993’s Jurassic Park.
Review:
I did not like Jurassic Park; I was impressed by it. It had ground breaking sound design, ground breaking digital effects, and some scenes that were just state of the art Spielberg at his best (think first t-rex encounter, or that kitchen scene). But as a movie? Meh. The two sequels that came and went proved my point.
Jurassic World attempts to set things right by offering an up to date, bigger than the biggest, sequel. It is not trying to be episode 4; it's going for the reboot experience. To achieve that, Jurassic World uses a simple formula: do everything the first movie did, because that first movie was the best one, but make it all bigger.
On paper that should have been easy, given technological progress. The filmmakers even had a seemingly sound idea in mind, a park of genetically enhanced dinosaurs to scare the people that got used to “ordinary” dinosaurs. However, the outcome, Jurassic World, turns out to be the classic uninspiring sequel; an entertaining action movie that lacks in each and every department other than special effects.
Plot wise, we have the exact same story as Jurassic Park. Kids stuck in the park with dinosaurs on the loose, adults having a crisis, an adult that stands out by figuring the dinosaurs out, people who see nothing but dollar signs where everyone with the least amount of sense sees dangerous animals, and villains that seek to exploit the situation for their own special interest.
At the core stand two characters: ex navy (and therefore, by implied definition, a real man) Owen (Chris Pratt). Owen is the only guy in this flick that can handle his way through a dinosaur cage. Against him stands the cold blooded, high heeled, park operations manager Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard). Together they demonstrate how Jurassic World fails at the character development department: beyond the “he was always right” angle, Owen’s character does not change through the course of this movie. Neither, it has to be noted, do Pratt’s substantial comedy talents receive their chance to be deployed. On the other hand, Claire’s journey is of the classic misogynist type, that of the clueless woman wearing a skirt and high heels to a monster infested jungle, the woman that can only be saved by having a good (ex navy!) man come to her rescue. In more than one way, the affair at hand is a carbon copy of Romancing the Stone (duplicate scenes included). If it was progress that you sought in Jurassic World, prepare yourself for a hell of a u-turn.
If all of the above wasn’t enough, I will point out the climax of non originality: even the ending is the same as the original’s.
Overall: It’s kind of amazing how so many dollars resulted in such an uninspiring step backwards, but that's Jurassic World for you. If it is a dinosaur's world that you seek to visit, do yourself a favour and stick to Spielberg’s original. 2 out of 5 Jurassic crabs.

Saturday, 7 November 2015

The Five-Year Engagement

Lowdown: A couple’s engagement drags on as the guy sacrifices his career in favour of the gal’s.
Review:
Jason Segel comedies do have the tendency to be tediously silly, but some of them also pack a punch – take Forgetting Sarah Marshall as a fine example. As it happens, The Five-Year Engagement belongs to the latter. Not only that, but in addition to Segel it stars Emily Blunt, a long time favourite of this blog.
The premises are simple. A short flashback tells us how the promising would-be-chef Tom (Segel) and student Violet (Blunt) met and fell in love at San Francisco. Now, a year later, they decide they want to get married – cool, even if Violet’s sister and Tom’s best friend (a Chris Pratt that often steals the show) decide to do the same, not long after, on account of them getting pregnant.
Alas, life happens. Or, in our couple’s case, Violet gets a job offer she cannot resist from a Michigan university. Our loving Tom is perfectly happy to put his culinary ambitions on hold for a year so that Violet’s career can take off. Alas, once they actually get to Michigan, reality hits: Michigan really sucks (as in, the movie does not do the state any favours); and besides, what was supposed to take a year drags on and on. And on.
There is a price to pay. Tom deteriorates on all accounts while, in parallel, Violet flourishes and love wanes. In contrast, Pratt’s character now runs his own restaurant despite being the lesser chef, and with Violet’s sister that couple seems to have a lovely family + kids going for them.
If you read between the lines, you would see The Five-Year Engagement goes the opposite of conventional wisdom. We tend to take it for granted that, in a relationship, it’s the guy’s career that’s matters and the woman is there to look after the kids (as per Pratt/sister’s case). However, our movie tells the opposite story, with the ups and downs that come along. And for that it should be praised!
Not to mention the fine, non politically correct comedy it offers along the way. The Five-Year Engagement may be two hours long, but it never feels long (excuse the pan). Some scenes, such as Pratt’s engagement party song (based on Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire) got me laughing so badly I was crying.
Ultimately, The Five-Year Engagement is an allegorical story on the realities of love and relationships. Not every day can be fireworks; the heights of passion that are there at the beginning do not last, and no one is perfect. Most of us are, by definition, average. In my book, packing such a message in a funny comedy is quite an achievement.
Best scene: Violet and her sister hold a serious discussion on the state of Violet’s relationship with Tom. Only that, because the discussion takes place in front of little kids, it is held Sesame Street style. It’s funny how such a serious and pretty deep conversation can take place in such a way, but the result is testimony to the qualities of Blunt as an actress.
Overall: A fine comedy with a punch that fully deserves 4 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Spy

Lowdown: When all the proper spies are out, the unlikely, however farfetched, will step in to replace them.
Review:
The James Bond movies have turned into a genre of their own, involving international roaming, over the top action scenes and various misogynist activities. Clearly, a genre waiting to be preyed upon, with Spy coming in for the kill.
Susan (Melissa McCarthy, around whose presence the whole movie has been constructed) is a spy operator. From her CIA basement she guides the real spy (sexy Jude Law) as he goes about being all James Bond. Alas, that spy – acting like the James Bond that he is – dies in the thick of the action. And when no one else can defend the world from the evil portrayed by Rose Byrne, Susan has to do it. And do it well, the way she always could had people not discounted her due to her sex and excess kilos.
So yeah, between McCarthy and Byrne, we have ourselves a worthy answer to James Bond. Throw into the equation Jason Statham playing a guy who thinks himself the world’s most capable spy (but really is useless and a danger to himself), and you get the point.
The point being Spy taking the piss over James Bond and doing it better than most Bonds. [But yeah, it is good to see Statham abandon his usual super-macho persona and assume a more casual position.]
Overall: Clever in its own way, funny and entertaining. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Tomorrowland

One of the issues with modern day cinema, particularly Hollywood, is its reliance on special effects at the price of forgetting the basics. Basics such as having a script.
Tomorrowland is a good example. Yet another movie about a Disney attraction (here’s looking at you, Pirates of the Caribbean), Tomorrowland features top notch special effects and some amazing sci-fi ideas in its background. Like, swimming pools suspended in mid air. However, those cannot compensate for a plot that makes no sense, top acting talent that’s just wasted, and an overall confusing script that takes way too long to say what it wants to say and then climaxes into the childish.
Plot wise, we follow two characters (George Clooney and the much too young to co-star next to him Britt Roberson) who catch a glimpse of a futuristic ideal world residing in some alternate universe but then discover, the hard way, that this world is in danger. Can they save this world, starting as they are in our world? Ask a stupid question; it’s a Disney film, mate.
Failures come hard and fast. We learn Clooney’s character has been deported from Tomorrowland but never really know why. We stumble upon contradictions, like our characters fusing a bomb only to immediately do their best to prevent it from exploding. I would say “go figure”, not only with regards to these two issues but concerning the film entire.
Weeks later, my main recollections of Tomorrowland are to do with its Disney and Coke shameless product placements.
Overall: Lost and confused in its visuals. 2 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Terminator Genisys

Lowdown: The machines are back for another round.
Review:
Assume, hypothetically, the position of a Hollywood studio bean counter. You know you have potential treasure in your hand with the Terminator franchise, especially now that Arnie has given up on his political aspirations and allows his presence grace our screens again. On the other hand, those last two episodes in the series, 2003’s Terminator 3 and 2009’s Terminator Salvation? There's general consensus they suck. Now, my friend, what would YOU do?
Well, we know what the real life bean counters did. They came up with a 5th episode, which they dubbed (using currently cool misspelling trends) Terminator Genisys. And in order to outmanoeuvre them pesky painful past episodes, Schwarzenegger’s latest incarnation of living tissue over metal endoskeleton comes as a direct follow up to the first two movie while completely ignoring the latter two. Indeed, our new movie starts with some very interesting, almost one to one replicas of the scenes at the beginning of that 1984 movie that changed it all, The Terminator.
Oh, and since Hollywood can do just fine with old male actors but totally rejects older females, we have Emilia Clarke (aka Mother of Dragons) step into Linda Hamilton’s shoes. She does well; so does Arnie. Something that cannot be said for the movie they star in.
Simply put, in order to be able to take off from the pretty well sealed plot line of Terminator 2, our bean counters had to come up with some pretty convoluted ideas. And you know what? These ideas, involving your usual time travel paradox lame excuses, suck. Enough to render the whole movie into a collection of action scenes, which – as good as they are, and they are pretty good – are not enough to lift affairs up to James Cameron tiers. Couple that to the latest excuse for how Skynet comes into being – by releasing a new operating system that connects everything – and you can see where sucks comes from (I thought we call this thing that connects everything “The Internet”).
 So yeah, there is a plot that redoes things as we know them from that first movie, there is some going back and forth in time, and there is even a new Kyle Reese that doesn’t die when he should. But the whole thing stinks and feels like not much more than an excuse to open the door up for a whole new series of shiny Terminator movie sequels. After all, if Disney can do it with their Marvel universe and Star Wars, why shouldn't our bean counters do the same?
If there is justice in this world, the rumours that have Terminator Genisys failing to make enough money to justify the risk of further sequels will turn out to be true. As for me, just like I refuse to recognise anything Star Wars past the first appearance of the Ewoks, I will continue to regard the first two Terminator movies as the only true Terminators.
Overall: Yet more meaningless entertainment from Hollywood. It’s not a bad catharsis for a brain made numb by a week of work, but it certainly isn’t good cinema either. 3 out of 5 terminated crabs.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Cleopatra

Lowdown: The long version of the love affair between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.
Review:
The phrase “they don’t make them like that anymore” was probably invented in reaction to 1963’s four hour long Cleopatra. I would like to add “and we’re all better for it” to that phrase; however, I will add that by the same token this movie serves as a historical artefact. For the history of cinema, that is, rather than the history of the Roman Empire.
For a movie this long, it is surprising how little effort Cleopatra makes in setup and how much the audience is expected to know. Starting off at the end of the war between Julius Caesar and Pompey, we’re never told what this war was about or who Pompey was [I will note that while Caesar is a household name, Pompey isn’t; the outcome of this war was the turning of Rome from a sort of a republic into a dictatorship].
Caesar (Rex Harrison) doesn’t go straight home, instead choosing to visit Egypt, where - in one of cinema’s most famous scenes ever - he is introduced to the local queen Cleopatra (Elizabeth Taylor) as she is brought to him folded up in a carpet. They fall in love, or perhaps he is manipulated to fall in love, and have a child. An hour and a half later, Caesar goes back to Rome where he is murdered at the Senate. His successor, Mark Anthony (Richard Burton) ends up succeeding him in Cleopatra’s department, too. However, both are doomed to suffer the fate of those standing up against Rome’s rising star, Octavian/Augustus.
The package that is Cleopatra is certainly odd. It starts with the duration, emphasised by the noted hour and a half of romance that is unrelated to the centre story, the multitude of scenes of exaggerated lengths, and the prominence of scenes that do not drive the story (such as extravagant dance scenes through the streets of Rome when Cleopatra drops in for a visit). One can get the sense the people of the sixties, for whom this movie was made, had no smartphones or Twitter to distract them from the movie.
Next in notability is the sanitised presentation that conforms to conservative Hollywood values. Everything is white (including Egyptians and particularly Cleopatra’s maids), everything is clean (despite historical fact), and everything is oh-so politically correct (and naïve). I do not claim to know what the love story between Cleopatra and Mark Anthony really was like, but I would take Rome’s (the TV miniseries) interpretation of a drug induced orgy as making much more sense than the noble but ultimately clueless choices made by the heroes here. Cleopatra serves as nourishment for those who think things were better back in the old days, because if they were to think about it they would see they clearly weren’t.
All of which puts Cleopatra into perspective for us modern day viewers. It is not an accurate depicter of historical fact; there are some gross violations in that department. What it is is a window into a glamorous Hollywood of the past, of days before special effects (analog as well as digital), days where star power was main event and the star’s wardrobe of choice was of peak interest. Also, with the male leads, days when they could put on a show that did not include bulging muscles; days when they appeared quite human like.
Overall: Not a good movie, but a good window into a long gone era of a Hollywood more than half a century away. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Little Boy

Lowdown: A little boy befriends a Japanese in order to get his WW2 MIA father back.
Review:
As it happened, Little Boy turned out to be the third feel good movie I got to watch in a relatively short span. First there was Australia’s Paper Planes, then France’s Populaire, and now the USA’s Little Boy. The funny thing about the experience is that these films evoke all the stereotypes one would associate with their countries of origin. Which doesn’t bid well for Little Boy…
Our premises are simple, as per the genre. Our hero, the Little Boy, is an abnormally little/weak boy raised at your nice all American loving home. Time are tough, though: it’s World War 2. When the older brother isn’t accepted into the army, the father feels he needs to do so instead, thus leaving our Little Boy without his only friend. Worse, the father gets lost in the thick of the war with Japan, with everybody assuming him dead. Everybody other than our Little Boy, whose faith can move mountains. And bring the father back.
The core of the movie revolves around the boy being told by the local priest (Tom Wilkinson) that, in order to bring his father back, he needs to befriend “the enemy” – that is, a Japanese guy residing in the same town that, for unclear reasons, has not been locked up in camp the way the rest of the American Japanese were during WW2. Our boy is rather reluctant, but remember this movie’s genre; this is all about the sweet and the sweeter. The two “enemies” get along, and we all cruise along into a happy ending sunset (albeit following the aftermath of another Little Boy).
Look, Little Boy is not the first or last sweeter than sweet movie to be made. There is nothing wrong with a rare indulgence along these lines. Its problem, however, is in its relentless sweetening; this is a movie that doesn’t know when to let go. Everything bends down before our Little Boy regardless of likelihood. When that includes moving mountains (exactly at the time and place convenient to our hero), you know the movie stepped too far.
Overall: Nice and all, but clearly Hollywood has a sugar addiction problem. 2.5 out of 5 diabetic crabs.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Page Eight

If you like your low profile British spy drama, if you’re a fan of Callan or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then you would probably feel like Page Eight equals winning the lottery. It’s a British spy drama made for TV whose power comes mostly from its acting and dialog, not from action (leave that with high budget American trash, please).
Actually, 2011’s Page Eight is the first in a series of three. It’s followed by  Turks & Caicos and then Salting the Battlefield. I haven’t seen the latter yet, but it looks as if the common theme is them revolving around an old British spy (Bill Nighy) and his adventures in political international espionage plotting. In Page Eight, Nighy is co-sharing the screen with mighty names such as Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, Ralph Fiennes and Judy Davis. So you can see where the limited budget was spent.
The plot is difficult to summarise without ruining affairs, but I will say that tension comes from the conflict between the Prime Minister (Fiennes) and our spy. Their quarrel is to do with the very relevant question of how far we are allowed to go in order to protect our societies, based as their are on liberal concepts of freedom. In the face of threats, Fiennes’ is the David Cameron like position, where we’re allowed the most immoral of acts, whereas Nighy stands for what I, personally, regard as the common sense position.
Whether I would recommend Page Eight to you comes down to the question of how well you handle the piles of dialog and the lack of adrenaline pumping action. I admit I often struggled and found myself on the sleepier side of things, but hey, I’m shallow as.
Overall: While I definitely take sides in the quarrel at the core of Page Eight, the movie itself left me rather ambivalent as to whether I should follow it up with its sequels. 2.5 out of 5 underwhelmed crabs.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Populaire

Lowdown: A French country girl becomes top a contender at speed typing competitions.
Review:
Having recently reviewed the Australian movie Paper Planes, Populaire feels like its French speaking replica. It really is the same story told to the exact same feel good formula: the unlikely candidate rises up to the occasion and wins world recognition through some competitive bizarre feat. The differences are directly related to the place of origin: while the Aussie version deals with a kid recovering from a trauma, the French is all about the clash of chauvinism and feminism. Where the movie stands on that continuum is entirely unclear, but hey, this is a French movie so what can one expect?
Taking place shortly after World War 2, we focus on Rose (Déborah François, who is actually Belgium). Rose is a country bumpkin girl from Middle of Nowhere, France, who breaks the mould and seeks more in life. In effect, given her circumstances, she’s a feminist.
So she moves to Paris and applies to a job as a secretary to Louis (Romain Duris), an attractive guy carrying a bit of a baggage off the war. Through this and that, Rose gets the job; it quickly becomes clear she’s not that good at it, at least from Louis’ point of view, but the latter seeks redemption through Rose’s fantastic speed with the typewriter. And thus starts off a sort of a My Fair Lady affair featuring a Louis trying to make something out of Rose, as in a faster typist, while what is really taking place is Rose making something out of Louis. And yeah, expect all the usual romantic shenanigans between the much older man and the young girl to take place – this is a French movie, in case you haven’t notice. Plus this whole speed typing competitions thing.
As mentioned, the main point of contention with Populaire is its chauvinism. It makes the most of the cards it was dealt with: while we see that good looking girl acting as the older man’s assistant as a rather chauvinistic affair, that was progress at the time. While we would now look at a "women only" career as fast typists archaic, the mere fact women had access to the workplace through their typewriter was progress – at the time. Yet we still have ourselves a movie where a woman’s redemption is dependent on a man saving her, even if the reverse applies just the same (albeit with the man always being in a superior position, power wise).
Vive la France.
Overall: Not a bad romantic comedy that makes the most of the tension created by feminism. A pleasant 3 out of 5 crabs affair.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer & August Cole

Lowdown: WW3, starring China against the USA, as a cyber/techno war.
Review:
Back when yours truly was a little boy he picked up a book by a previously unfamiliar author called Tom Clancy. That book, Red Storm Rising, caused a paradigm shift in my reading habits, leading me to put down the previously dominant science fiction in favour of the military thriller. In retrospect I consider that to have been a bad move, a step that had me neglecting the imaginative in favour of the cheap thrill. Yet I do hold a warm spot for the detailed technicalities of warfare that Red Storm Rising was so full of and, yes, I was sad to hear of Tom Clancy's passing even though I am almost certain we do not see eye to eye in the battlefield of politics.
All that is to say that when I heard of Ghost Fleet, it immediately sounded like Red Storm Clancy. Could it be, or did my ears deceive me?
They didn’t. Ghost Fleet is a straight page out of the Clancy book, a military thriller whose strength comes from its detailed descriptions on how the chip at the bottom right corner of an anti aircraft missile makes the difference. The only difference, as far as I could tell, was in Ghost Fleet’s more modern nature: taking place a decade or two from now, the cyber element of warfare is much more dominant than it did in Clancy’s books. I also think there is a difference in page numbers in Clancy’s favour, although I’m not sure since it’s hard to judge an ebook’s length.
Setting wise, Ghost Fleet takes place in a world where the current Communist Party that’s ruling China has been replaced by a sort of a corporate/military junta referring to itself as The Directorate. Once that Directorate discovers huge reserves of natural gas in the middle of the Pacific it is compelled to rise up to the call of history and take ownership; given the USA is bound to disagree, it is also compelled to join hands with Russia and knock American opposition off the map. It does so quite effectively, knocking off the American aircraft carriers quite quickly (pretty much the opposite of what the Japanese did in Pearl Harbor). The only cards left up American sleeves are its old fleets of ship and jets [read: today's fleets], the ones less reliant on computer controls. Would those be up to the task of redemption?
This is a very rhetorical question, given Ghost Fleet was written by Americans and for Americans. The question turns even more rhetorical with the book’s descriptions of the Chinese as unimaginative / uninspiring, as opposed to the oh so resourceful Americans. Clearly, nothing has changed since Clancy’s days (including the fact this book still needs to sell the bulk of its copies in America). Seriously, though, the book’s collection of single dimensional characters is an insult to literature.
I also have my grievances with the setup. A world like the book's, in which the US Dollar is equal to the Euro and the Yuan, is a world where the USA could not exist the way it currently does by virtue of the fact it has been bankrupt since Nixon’s days; it's only relief has been sustaining itself by printing more money. That’s something the world accepts through American military might and a China that keeps piling those dollars up. Clearly, it is not even in China’s interest to have the dollar lose its status. And that’s aside of the fact the Communist Party does not appear to be going anywhere anytime soon.
If there is any message to take home from Ghost Fleet, it is to do with the dire need of America to further invest today in its military might so as to prevent such potential conflicts with China and Russia. Tom Clancy, who openly credited the USSR’s demise to Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars, would have probably approved that message. I do not.
Overall: The thrills of this techno thriller cannot hide the shortcomings of its core assumptions or its literature. 2.5 out of 5 red crabs.

Monday, 12 October 2015

Minions

As this blog has noted before, by far the most appealing aspect of the Despicable Me franchise has been its minions. Frankly, I’m surprised it took the studio two movie releases (Despicable Me & Despicable Me 2) to figure this one out and determine that the third instalment should be just Minions, but hey – that’s Hollywood for you.
So, if you’re in for a collection of slapstick jokes told while uttering plenty of gibberish, this one is for you. In the same package you would get our little banana fans' evolutionary story, taking them from billion years past all the way up to a teen Gru (with heavy emphasis on their adventures in the UK just prior to that).
Just don’t come with any expectations of actual quality cinema. Even if the previous episodes did, ever so slightly, err in that direction.
Overall: Minions is all about having cheap fun while milking the cash cow. 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

My Old Lady

Lowdown: A luckless American guy finds out the Parisian apartment he inherited puts him in a lifetime debt to an old lady.
Review:
If there is one message I would like to convey with regards to My Old Lady, it is this: My Old Lady is not a comedy.
Which is important for me to stress given my expectations and how this movie smashed them over and over again with a wrecking ball. You see, between (1) the connotations with My Fair Lady and (2) Kevin Kline in the lead, I was pretty sure I was in for some laughs in the next Fish Called Wanda episode. Instead I got myself a drama, and a serious one at that. Dare I say even a sad one.
The premises are simple enough. Mathias (Kline) is an American guy who most people would classify a failure (because most people judge other people by their financial success). Salvation comes in the shape of a Parisian apartment he inherits from his estranged father: given the location, he’s in to become a millionaire overnight!
Alas, the apartment comes with a catch. His father bought it with a special French contract that had the owner pay a substantial monthly fee to its current resident until their time of death, which is when - and only when - ownership is effectively transferred from the tenant and to the owner. [Note a salute to the French, who know how to protect residents’ rights from greedy owners.] That tenant is portrayed by Maggie Smith, a woman who clearly has no expiration plans. Thus our Mathias is royally screwed: not only is he not going to be a millionaire, he has no way of paying his old lady's "salary" either.
My Old Lady is about the drama that unfolds when Mathias digs into the circumstances that had his old lady put in her position and why his father left him with such a vengeful inheritance. Supporting affairs is Kristin Scott Thomas, the official English woman in France actress. Affairs are rather gloomy and, with all due respect, slow and boring despite the short duration. I will also add that affairs are pretty predictable, too. Or, to put it in other words: once the viewer gets over the idea at the core of this movie, the movie has nothing else to offer them.
Overall: It could have been my false expectations, but I was quite disappointed with My Old Lady. 2 out of the 5 crabs that noted how American cinema should grow up and get over its Paris fetish.

Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Prisoners

Lowdown: When two girls disappear, both a diligent father and an analytical policeman conduct their own investigation.
Review:
If you ever asked yourself the question “what can a good director achieve with the help of a good script and good actors nowadays”, then Prisoners (2013) is the answer you’ve been looking for. Superficially speaking, it’s a film we’ve seen many times before – a mystery/crime thriller – but oh how so well made this one is! All without the need to resort to modern pyrotechnics along the lines of CGI.
Stepping into the role of the good director is Denis Villeneuve, about whom I have never heard before but now I know to be the guy slated to direct Blade Runner’s sequel. For the actors part of the equation, Prisoners supplies Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal; clearly, this is as fine as one can get.
The script? It’s a tale of the sudden disappearance of two girls on Thanks Giving night. One girl comes from the paternal family headed by the Bible thumping Keller (Jackman), the other from their black neighbours’ friends. The police doesn’t mess about, sending its big gun along right off the start – detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), whose record sports no unsolved cases. Their only lead is the recollection the girls did express an interest in the campervan parked outside their home.
Thus commences a process where both detective and parent search for the girls their own way. Keller goes about the biblical way, if you will, apprehending his suspect without concrete proof and applying Guantanamo style torture. Loki, on the other hand, is very analytical; he has his own way of achieving progress, and won’t lift a finger without evidence. Prisoners uses the contradiction between the two approaches to raise before us this dilemma which our societies have been facing for a while now: do we follow our instinct or do we follow our brain? And when we do follow whatever we choose to follow, how far down the ethical abyss can we allow ourselves to plummet even in the name of the most sacred of causes – in Prisoners’ case, the rescuing of two young girls? Well, we know what path the USA chose.
Not that it really matters, but Prisoners seems to say you need a little bit of both approaches in order to “get there”. I disagree, but that does not detract from the fact the discussion is oh-so-well presented.
One of the beauties of Prisoners is the way it keeps us in the dark. As I have already mentioned, we’ve seen Prisoners before plenty of times; yet Prisoners has an edge in the fact it keeps us knowing only what the two leads know. We are in the dark just as they are, stumbling on dead ends and backtracking to find a new lead as we strive towards a solution. Yet, eventually, it turns out Prisoners is a clear case of Chekhov's gun. I will shut up now for fear of bloopers, but my point is – what a clever script!
Best scene: The injured Loki drives himself to the hospital under very hostile weather conditions. On paper it's a trivial scene, but it's so well directed and edited that it becomes a thriller ride of its own.
Overall: Prisoners is as good an offering as modern day commercial cinema can offer. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 7 September 2015

Chinatown

Lowdown: A private detective specialising in taking photos of cheating couples stumbles upon a plot to control Los Angeles’ water supplies.
Review:
Chinatown has quite a lot going for it. This 1974 movie features director Roman Polanski at his prime (and still in the USA). It’s got a slew of talented actors, from Jack Nicholson through Faye Dunaway to John Huston. Most importantly, a lot of the reviewers I grew up on regard Chinatown as the manifestation of perfect cinema, the best movie ever.
Me, this was not my first time with Chinatown, but it is worth mentioning Netflix’ HD copy does a huge favour to a film I previously associated with low fi (particularly in the key darker scenes). My question, though, is whether 41 years later Chinatown still is the state of the art?
Nicholson plays private detective Gittes, an ex Los Angeles policeman that nowadays runs a shop for proving to suspecting husbands or wives that their partners are cheating on them through candid photography. But Gittes is conned, and one such job ends up having him inform the newspapers of a high water industry roller cheating when, in fact, it was his wife (Dunaway) that Gittes saw him with. Naturally, it is hard for our Gittes to accept such humiliation; he perseveres with his investigation, almost drowning and almost losing his nose to a thug (Polanski, none the less) in the process. A process that has him slowly, perhaps too slowly for the 21st century viewer, uncover a plot to take over prime time real estate – huge areas – through a water supply con job.
So, does Chinatown still cut it? Well, no. Don’t get me wrong, it’s particular brand of film noir, the characters that always fail even when they try to do good, the characters that turn out to be pulling the strings being the manifestation of pure evil, these are all great. But it’s just that humanity proved it can do better than that by now. Prisoners, a film I had watched on the same day as Chinatown, proves the point. The comparison clearly indicates that it’s not that Chinatown is bad, it just that psychological dramas/thrillers can be far more thrilling, that is all. And they do not even have to rely on the use of modern day digital effects.
Or rather: give it a bit of time, a good director, a good script, and some fine actors and even the best of movies can be eclipsed.
Overall: Chinatown is worth studying as a classic but is no longer the one and only. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Once Upon a Time in Anatolia

Lowdown: A day in Anatolian life viewed through the mirror of a murder investigation.
Review:
One of the many achievements of that wonderful movie called The Water Diviner was it putting me on a quest to experience what Turkish cinema has to offer. If I need to pinpoint, it was mostly the performance of Yılmaz Erdoğan that gripped me. So I went and had a look, and it looked like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia offered me to have the cake and eat it too: an accomplished Turkish film that stars, amongst others, my dear friend Erdoğan. I will tell you this, though: Once Upon A Time in Anatolia did not give me an easy time.
The first half or so of this slow two and a half hour affair takes place over night. A police convoy is driving a couple of murder suspects around rural areas during the night in search of the body they hid. They are escorted by the local prosecutor and a doctor. Between events – or the frustrating lack of events and the way this gets to the characters – we see into their inner souls and the world they reside in. We see a world stuck in the past, a world more busy with the dead than with the living. A rather tragic world. Dare I say, our world as seen from the prism of Anatolia.
Three main characters stick out for us to focus on, and each carries his own personal tragedy about. The doctor (Muhammet Uzuner) coming in from the big city, with his learned self, is deeply affected by his recent divorce. The police chief (Erdoğan) focuses on his work because life at home with his autistic son is much harder than gruesome murder investigations. And the prosecutor (Taner Birsel), he goes about telling fatalistic tales about a woman that decided to die at a certain date and miraculously achieved just that.
Following the night we return back to the town, a picture perfect derelict small town, to witness the day after that night. The trends continue; there is no start or finish to Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, it’s just a glimpse into a foreign world. I guess this therefore qualifies the film as rather eccentric, and it certainly is; I suspect many will find it boring. But if you’re willing to give the less ordinary a chance you will be rewarded with an experience that the run of the mill flicks can never deliver. This is art, and good art at that.
Today’s news shows us photos of a Turkish policeman standing near the drowned body of a Syrian refugee boy. It’s a picture that tears your heart apart. And image wise, it felt like it came directly out of Once Upon a Time in Anatolia.
Overall: Not the easiest movie to watch, but well worth the effort. 3.5 out of 5 Turkish coffee sipping crabs.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Going Clear

Lowdown: The recent history of the Scientology movement.
Review:
Before we start tackling a documentary about Scientology, let us dispense with the pleasantries: people critical of the Scientology movement have been known to personally suffer for it. So I will say this: I am equally against Scientology as I am against all other cults and religions. As far as I am concerned, Scientology is generally no different to Christianity, a religion that got its claim to fame when the Roman Empire sought out a way to control the people. The key difference is that with Scientology, the various myths were created right under our noses with proof to match.
I will add, though, that on the other hand I do have a Scientologist friend who’s perfectly normal (other than the tendency to focus on rather bizarre discussion items). Then again, most people are religious and most people are good people.
With that in mind, let us discuss Going Clear, an HBO documentary whose claim to fame is to do with it getting aired despite of all the litigation threats that go with airing material critical of Scientology. Structure wise, the documentary covers the history of L. Ron Hubbard, inventor and founder of the movement. Then – mainly through interviews with ex Scientologists – Going Clear tracks the movement’s history and handling of itself and the world around it up to our present day. Let’s just say the picture coming through is not a rosy one: it’s a picture of corruption, the usual case of a cult that’s there for power and money, a cult that will tread on people to achieve that. Special focus is dedicated to the cult’s handling of its most famous members, John Travolta and Tom Cruise.
As to answering the magic question of “how did it come down to that”, Going Clear provides two answers. First, it claims Scientology mirrors the mind of its creator, and that creator was not the healthiest mind around. And second, Scientology was dealt an ace from the American government when the IRS, the ultimate decision maker in matters of theology, declared it to be a religion and thus tax exempt. That last point, it is argued, is all it takes to explain the existence of this financial juggernaut in today's landscape.
There can be no doubt as to the side Going Clear takes in this far from impartial documentary. That position can be defended by Scientology's refusal to participate in affairs, but let us not be around the bush here; commons sense prevails. Thus I will argue Going Clear does feel rather slow and tedious. Still, we do need Going Clear to fill in the details.
Overall: If you seek to understand the roots and evolution of Scientology, Going Clear is the way to go. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 28 August 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Lowdown: Two hours of post-apocalyptic car chases with a feminine touch.
Review:
Arriving at the junction point ahead of the 4th Mad Max movie, Fury Road, the question that bothered me the most was what Mad Max am I going to watch. Is it going to be a weird/eccentric Mad Max, like the first instalment in the series? Is it going to be crappy and forgettable sequel, like the third? Or – and that’s where the meat lies – are we going to get a majestic movie like the second Mad Max, The Road Warrior, a movie of such vision and such a gripping atmosphere I still feel very afraid each time I watch it?
The short answer to the above question is a good one. Of all its three prequels, Fury Road is closest to The Road Warrior. It is, in effect, a two hour long car chase set in a post-apocalyptic Australia and featuring some gruesome settings and even more gruesome characters. That said, commercialism certainly prevails here, severely reducing the impact of the vision and turning Fury Road into some form of entertainment rather than a statement.
Replacing Mel Gibson in Max’ shoes is Tom Hardy, who – it has to be said – does an excellent job even if he is too much of a mountain of a man when compared to the more fragile looking Gibson. I do predict that the duo of Hardy and Chris Pratt are going to fill the role filled by Harrison Ford in previous decades.
The real hero of Fury Road, however, is Imperator Furiosa. While Max’ character fills the role of linking to the previous episodes in the series, it is the Charlize Theron played character that actually drives the little bit of a plot this movie does have. Between the variety of her portfolio and the quality of her work, did I mention Theron is probably my favourite actress nowadays? Anyway, as we quickly find out, her character is busy rescuing a bunch of girls from a mean old abusing dictator, Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who controls a large chunk of post apocalyptic Australia through water rationing and a gang of thugs who is under his godly control through some sort of a purpose made car fetish religion. To which I will add that this particular villain is not half the menace that-guy-in-the-hockey-mask was in The Road Warrior. That masked guy would eat Darth Vader for breakfast and add pepper on top!
But the point remains, Fury Road is a movie with a feministic (and thus humanistic) message. And that's pretty cool by me!
Australia plays a large part in this Mad Max movie. Not only through its dreary vistas of large expanses of nothing, but also through a collection of actors that through this and that fill in their post-apocalyptic roles with much panache. Take the likes of John Howard, whom I know best from the romantic comedy TV series Seachange, now playing the villain’s lieutenant. Or supermodel Megan Gale playing a rough woman warrior. Even AC/DC can be said to have its contribution to the spirit of this movie.
The end result is the first movie in a while – well, in the year since Guardians of the Galaxy – that made me go “hey, I want to watch this flick again!” My only disappointment lies with the ending: whereas in previous episodes our Max ends up getting screwed, this time he sort of screws himself by his own choice and through no reason other than the potential to create a fifth and unrelated Mad Max. Well, if it as good as Fury Road, I will not complain.
Overall: Fury Road brings back the fun into the post-apocalyptic. 4 out of 5 feminist crabs, but it still falls way short of Road Warrior's majestic heights.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Life of Crime

Like Get Shorty before it, Life of Crime is a movie based upon an Elmore Leonard book. Not that there is anything wrong with that; it's just that through this simple fact you should sort of get the vibe of the 2013 film.
The core idea behind Life of Crime is simple but clever. Two criminals (John Hawkes and Yasiin Bey/Mos Def) kidnap a wife (Jennifer Aniston) in order to extort money from the criminally inclined husband (Tim Robbins). Only that the husband doesn't cooperate; he's actually quite happy with his wife getting off the stage this way, being that he wanted to divorce her anyway and focus on his new bimbo (Isla Fisher). You can see where the wind can blow from here.
Well, as nice as it is to have Tim Robbins grace us with his presence again (where the hell has he been?), the fact of the matter is Life of Crime is no big hit. It's not bad, but it fails to rise or leave a mark.
Life of Crime is left lurking in the nether realm with 2.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 24 August 2015

The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan

Lowdown: The story of the life of an Aussie who turned into a hero at the Japanese POW camps.
Review:
One of the ways my local library has been returning my affections is by pointing me at a books of types I am rarely exposed to. One such example is the award winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, a book which - amongst others - can be described as a romantic tale. Definitely not my usual type of a book, but given the rewarding read you will not hear me complaining.
Dorrigo Evans is the Australian hero of this book that was written by an Aussie. Born in Tasmania during hard times, around a century ago, Dorrigo rose above the rest and eventually given the opportunity to move to Melbourne to study. There he jumps up the social ladder, turning into a surgeon and befriending women above his rank. Only that as much as he likes breathing the thin air of society's peaks, his real love lies with Amie - a woman he bumped into in South Australia, a woman he is forbidden to love through social conventions.
And then the war, World War 2, happens. Dorrigo is off his women to provide his medical skills to his fellow Australian soldiers. First fighting at Syria against French Vichy (a part of history we tend to forget), but later - through the surrender of Singapore to the Japanese - at a Japanese POW camp where the Aussies were utilised and brutalised as slaves in order to build a rail line that offered Japan the only hope to win the war. As the guy who ends up the highest ranking of the POWs, it is up to Evans to make decisions that would affect the life and death of his mates. But his position is a tough one, with the brutal Japanese demanding results on the other side.
That's just the beginning of Dorrigo's life, though. He survives the camps, true, but the rest of his life is shaped by that experience as well as his frustrated love. Actually, The Narrow Road to the Deep North does not settle with following Dorrigo Evans alone; we follow the course of other characters' lives, including - and that's a big deal - key Japanese figures from the POW camps.
The tapestry thus woven by The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a marvel of a read. The story is provided to us in the form of snippets, sometimes of thoughts, delivered in short chapters and third person form that flash back and forth in time like thoughts inside a dream. The result is a deep discussion on the question of where imprisonment truly lies and the notion that the Japanese POW camps, as brutal as they are, are "just" the worst manifestation of a prison in which we're doing time. Think of the Senegalese, fighting and dying in droves for the lost cause of French Vichy; then focus on Evans and his fellow inmates, trying to survive; follow that with the recently freed POWs rescuing the fish stock of a fish & chips shop and putting it back in the sea; and, as we are constantly reminded through repeat infidelities, the frustrated love life of Dorrigo as he is able to conquer every woman other than the one he truly loves. What can a person really do in the face of such opposition, locked as we are? Can we control our lives or is life controlling us? Charge the windmills, says Dorrigo Evans. Charge the window-seal!
Still, the POW experience is at the core of this book and what the reader is bound to remember the longest out of The Narrow Road to the Deep North. For all the good reasons in the world, it is those camps around which the book pivots. In the weeks since I have finished reading the book I certainly noticed how the matter keeps creeping up into my mind upon contemplation of matters, matters usually completely unrelated to the war or the camps.
Then there is a completely different type of magic to the book. To name one example, I was captivated by Dorrigo's feelings when he was out with an incredibly beautiful woman that wasn't his. Hey, Dorrigo, I know that feeling!
More seriously, from title to a lot of its structure, The Narrow Road to the Deep North is modelled after Japanese poems. In case you're wondering, though, the north stands as a symbol to the unknown.
Overall: A real masterpiece providing much food for thought. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel

Apparently there were enough people out there who liked the concept behind The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to push the pencil pushers into making a sequel. You know what I mean with the concept: take a bunch of old classic English actors oozing with quality and stick them at a crumbling Indian hotel for their retirement. Only that now, with The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, that hotel is no longer crumbling; the owner (Dev Patel) is actually seeking to expand. And of course, the residents (featuring Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Maggie Smith, and newcomer [American] Richard Gere) have their own romantic issues to deal with, again.
The first warning about the horror to come over the next two hours lies with the movie starting off, of all places, in the USA. Clearly, this one has been designed to bedazzle the Average American Viewer with both English class and Indian colors (and yes, The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel paints such a bright picture of India). Then there is the poor excuse for a plot that follows, with financial and relationship problems that do not necessarily make sense and what amounts to total abuse of excellent acting talent through boring and trivial grind of a plot. Must have been such a humiliation for these actors to stoop so low!
Half way through I willingly put myself out of the misery and gave in to the urge. I fell asleep.
0.5 out of 5 oh so wasteful of talent crabs.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

Three Days of the Condor

Lowdown: A CIA clerk finds himself in the middle of a very life threatening political conspiracy.
Review:
If you were ever wondering how an ancestor of today's techno thriller might have looked like, look no further than 1975's Three Days of the Condor. A movie that many of today's conspiracy theory type thrillers owe a lot to.
Robert Redford is a CIA agent code named Condor. He's stationed at what seems to be an ordinary American office building but is, in fact, a secret CIA base that scans all published books using the latest technology (a scanner that very mechanically flips through pages and then prints them on a dot-matrix printer!). Redford is no James Bond; his day job is to simply read the books and report anything deemed worthy of reporting.
Well, something he has read must have been deemed worthy, because shortly afterwards, while Agent Condor is out for lunch, a group of people enter the office and kill everyone in there. Thus our Condor is left to cater for himself as he slowly uncovers what the hell is going on around him and why everyone seems intent on killing him. On his way he kidnaps a civilian (Faye Dunaway) and an unlikely, and frankly credibility lacking, relationship follows.
Three Days of the Condor definitely shows its age. There are no special effects to talk about, and by today's standard things look dreary. However, make no mistake about it: it is exactly this simplicity that gives this Sydney Pollack film the authenticity most of today's crop lack in their quest to bedazzle. Of course, that authenticity is aided by real life demonstrating to us that the ghosts our Condor ends up fighting with are very real; I will refer you to my comrade Mr Edward Snowden for further discussions on what happens to a clerical agent who seeks to do good as they uncover the scheming of the powerful organisations pulling the strings of our society, unchecked.
Guess nothing has changed in the past 40 years.
Overall: Old style, for better and a tad of worse. 3.5 out of 5 crabs for what was once a benchmark and probably still is.

Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Girl on a Bicycle

Lowdown: A guy reconsiders his existing relationship after bumping into a glamorous bicycle rider.
Review:
Paolo (Vincenzo Amato) is an Italian working in Paris as a tour bus guide. He's engaged to the German flight attendant Greta (Nora Tschirner), and after a couple of years their successful relationship is clearly due for a wedding. Or is it?
While driving around on his bus, Paolo repeatedly bumps into a French bicycle rider (Louise Monot) and falls for her. Or at least a fantasy of her. Enough to make him reconsider his relationship with Greta. With the advice of his close British male friend (Paddy Considine), he decides to explore this new avenue. The result? A romantic comedy.
There is much to praise in Girl on a Bicycle. It is a truly European show, with everybody speaking their own language when able (but reverting to English when crossing borders). The key observation the film features, the one that says "there is always going to be a girl on a bicycle", is one of those statements of universal truth that virtually all of us will benefit from paying attention to. And yes, as per European standards, there redundant nudity about.
Alas, this European production suffers from all of the illnesses of your typical Hollywood romantic comedy and then some. It is predictable, silly, and fails to make sense on more than one occasion. Probably the worst part of it is that all the tension could have easily been dismantled with a bit of communication. Maybe Girl on the Bicycle is a metaphor for the breakout of World War 1?
Chauvinism plays a big part in this movie. When Amato (born in 1966) is paired with Tschirner (born in 1981) and Monot (born in 1981), the result stinks.
Overall: Girl on a Bicycle has a good idea at its core but fails in the execution department. 2 out of 5 crabs.