Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Predestination

Lowdown: A time traveling agent is hunting down a mysterious bomber in order to prevent the bombings from ever happening.
Review:
One of the more celebrated niches of the science fiction genre is that of the small time movie making it big time through some divine like inspiration. I'm talking Moon stuff here. Ethan Hawke is familiar with this, having very successfully participated in Gattaca. The experience seems to have placed him as a niche specialist, since Predestination is essentially aiming for the very same effect: shock and awe the audience through an original twist. However, as they say, “not every day is Purim”, and Predestination is definitely no Gattaca.
The hour and a half long proceedings of this very Australian production start with us learning, in one short scene, that Hawke is some sort of a time travelling policeman trying to stop an elusive bomber from killing tens of thousands by preventing the bomber from successfully executing their plan. Only that in this one opening scene we witness Hawke fail. Not only does he fail, he gets severely burnt in the process and requires severe surgical fix ups.
Next we see a healthy looking Hawke (as far as I could tell, his character is never named) serving as a bartender and talking up a client (Sarah Snook). That conversation goes on and on, which implies it is closely related to Predestination’s story, but that’s pretty much as far as I can go without blooping. Suffice to say there is a deeply rooted twist deep inside Predestination, working towards a Memento grade revelation. That may sound cool on paper, but in my humble opinion the secret as pretty obvious and the positive shock factor is therefore minimal. Predestination thus ends up feeling more like Looper on a tight budget, and that’s a statement made with much generosity.
If one seeks to look behind the basic shock & awe attempt at the viewer, then one could argue Predestination is trying to make a statement on the cause and effect of some of the bad things affecting our society. Things like bombings, to use the movie’s example. Reading between the lines, Predestination is arguing that these problems may well be the result of the way we are trying to combat them. Given what we know today about the likes of Bin Laden and the support he got from the West before he turned on the West (see here for a fine example), Predestination might be making a very valid point.
Overall: A brave attempt at twisting that ultimately fails with 2 out of 5 unwound crabs.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Lucy

Lowdown: A woman forced into becoming a drug mule turns into an avenging superhero in the process.
Review:
Say what you say about Luc Besson, he does have his trademark touch on films. Trying to distill this touch into its core components, I would say these narrow into extreme action scenes, European flavouring, and a whole lot of nonsense. Besson’s latest, Lucy, sports all of the above. Especially the nonsense.
We meet the young American Lucy (Scarlett Johansson) at Taipei with her obviously dodgy week long boyfriend Richard (Pilou Asbæk, whom I am cherishing for his performance as Kasper Juul in Borgen). Richard is twisting Lucy's arm, literally, in order to make her deliver a package for him. We quickly learn the package is to be delivered to a gang of particularly ruthless oriental drug dealers. Those dealers distribute their wares by kidnapping people, planting drugs inside their bodies, and then forcing them to act as drug mules or die. Lucy is “lucky” enough to be one of those drug mules, only that in her case they beat her up a bit too much, causing the hidden drugs to burst. As drugs do, they turn our Lucy into a superhero!
Lucky for us, Besson makes sure we know the theory behind the supernatural. He even recruits Morgan Freeman to act out the professor telling us that our minds only act to 10% of their potential*, and that if we manage to unleash even a bit more then we would be able to achieve miracles. You know, mind over matter stuff. As it happens, Lucy gets more and more drugs in her system, thus gradually increasing her abilities into the realm of the god like. Did I mention this movie is heavy on the bullshit?
What does one do with god like abilities? Obviously one could take science into the next level and sort this world’s problems, but that won’t do this movie so it focuses on Lucy’s spectacular Parisian vengeance. Thus Besson delivers his trademark European touch, and I will admit: having action scenes led by non Americans is a bit of a refreshing affair. Does it compensate for all the bullshit, though?
No.
Overall: Lucy’s got the action, yes, but it doesn’t have anything we haven’t seen before. Other than the almost unprecedented amount of bullshit, that is. 2.5 out of 5 clueless crabs for this girl.

* Yes, human conscience utilises some 10% of the brain, but that doesn’t mean the other 90% is idle. Evolution would have ensured effective utilisation of our brain for whatever our ancestors needed to survive; maintaining a costly brain at 10% utilisation is a recipe for guaranteed extinction. In other words, Besson is 90% full of sh*t.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Gone Girl

Lowdown: A wife’s sudden disappearance after 5 years of marriage sets her husband’s world in turmoil.
Review:
Gone Girl is one of those movies whose arrival is bundled with severe expectations build up. First there was all the pre-release hype, including numerous references in sources like Time Magazine (and yeah, I know Time is mostly there in order to oil the gears of our consumption). Then came the realisation Gone Girl was directed by David Fincher, of Fight Club, Se7en and even House of Cards fame. Then I learned it was two and a half hours long and features some favourite actors such as Rosamund Pike and Neil Patrick Harris. It all adds up: Gone Girl will either be a flop or a pretty good movie.
Luckily, it is the latter.
Easily dividable into three distinct acts, each of which feels like having the potential to act as a film by its own rights, Gone Girl starts off with husband Nick (Ben Affleck) leaving his suburban home in the morning in order to go to the pub. Not your typical morning destination, at least not for a normal looking guy, but as it turns out this is not going to be a normal morning: upon returning home, Nick discovers his wife Amy (Pike) had disappeared without a trace, leaving only signs of mild violence behind.
Nick does the right thing and contacts the police. The police does the right thing and starts looking into the matter very quickly despite its normal cool off period policies for missing persons' cases. With everything done right, the viewer is left unable to shake off the notion there is strangeness about: Nick does the right things, but seems rather indifferent/reluctant about it all. What’s going on here?
Through the police's investigations and revelations we embark on the long journey of figuring out what it is, exactly, that's taking place before our eyes. Actually, most of the things we learn while watching Gone Girl take place through clever editing that carefully controls how much of what the characters already know is revealed to us viewers. What starts as a movie about a missing wife turns into something completely different and then turns into something even different-ier as we trod along and as dirt accumulated through five years of marriage starts to pile up.
In its development and ventures into the unexpected, Gone Girl reminded me mostly of another of Fincher’s movies, The Game. Like its predecessor, Gone Girl can be interpreted as a mystery thriller at face value, but it is also clear the movie is there mostly in order to serve as a metaphor. In the case of Gone Girl, the subject of the metaphor is made explicitly clear through the spoken words of the hero: “That’s marriage”. That is to say, the turmoilous journey taken by our married couple here is a statement on the journey that ordinary marriage is like, with its ups and downs and everything that comes with being intimately tied to a single person over the course of a lifetime. Only that Gone Girl has a very pessimistic outlook on this journey.
Statements aside, Gone Girl is certainly a very well made movie. Fincher is his usual slick self, but mostly it is Pike’s performance that intrigued me the most. She does an excellent job, proving how great it is for a female actress to be given the opportunity to act out a challenging role as opposed to merely having to settle for the part of the lead male character’s pretty girl. Sadly, Pike’s performance renders the rarity of such opportunities plainly obvious.
Overall: Not everything makes sense, the outlook is negative, but Gone Girl certainly has a point to make and makes it well. 4 out of 5 carefully engineered crabs for this girl.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

The Magic of Reality

Lowdown: Great narration turns an already great book into a great audiobook.
Review:
Long drives require special preparation. In Australia one is privileged to particularly long drives – 800 kilometers or 10 hours plus in one go, to name just one example that residents of other countries would find unimaginable. As in, how many other countries can generate GPS instructions along the lines of “drive straight for 576 kilometres, then turn right”?
Usually, I would prepare for these extra long drives with playlists of favourite music, particularly on the noisy side for that extra wakeful kick. In two words, Led Zeppelin. This time around we decided to try a different approach: identify an audiobook that would keep the whole family intrigued during the entire there-and-back-again drive.
We embarked ourselves on a quest to find the right audiobook. We needed something the whole family would like, for a start. Sampling various sources for both suitable fiction and non-fiction, it soon became apparent the challenge is a mighty one: picking material exciting enough to keep a driver alert and the whole family interested requires more than meets the ear. Worse, we noticed that in most cases the narration simply fails to turn us on regardless of how good the book is: even if the source material is exciting as hell, a boring/bored narrator will ruin the experience. And I was very surprised to hear how even A title releases sport narrators on sleeping pills.
Our quest seemed stuck.
I do not recall exactly how it happened, but it occurred to me that I might give Richard Dawkins a go. After all, his books are top favourites, he is my favourite author, and he does have one book that the whole family already likes and that book is of the type that one can read again and again: I’m talking, of course, of The Magic of Reality. A book I have even awarded best book of the year (here).
There were a couple of hurdles, though. The Magic of Reality is a rather interactive book, relying heavily on graphics. As it happens, it is narrated by a guy called Richard Dawkins, who may be a great scientist and a great author, but is he a great narrator? I was doubtful.
The drive came along and we gave several audiobooks a go. [Almost] all failed miserably; only one managed to make the cut, intrigue us through and through, and turn our car into an exciting venue of discussions: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins, read by Richard Dawkins and wife Lalla Ward. I already knew the contents was great; but I was surprised by the quality of the narration. Dawkins’ is as clear as his text, making it very obvious he is really into it. Ward, for her part, is a professional actress that obviously knows how to convey a message effectively. Altogether, The Magic of Reality audiobook is no boring affair: it very effectively combines the excellent source material with excellent narration. I did not feel for even one second as if the absence of graphics and interactivity made for a lesser experience.
Overall: Yet another excellent, and unexpectedly so, production from the House of Dawkins. There really is a lot to learn from The Magic of Reality, and the audiobook version makes that learning accessible through yet another avenue. 5 out of 5 intrigued crabs.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

The Pink Panther

Lowdown: An elusive international thief tries to steal a precious gem, but not if a French police inspector can help it.
Review:
As it happened, we’ve bumped into several respected sources urging us to revisit 1963’s The Pink Panther (and avoid the recent remakes, or – for that matter – the numerous sequels). Most notable of these sources is Richard Dawkins, who urges the young readers of his wonderful The Magic of Reality to check out Peter Sellers’ slapstick display. If Dawkins goes so far with his recommendation, how can I avoid complying?
With its lengthy opening credits, The Pink Panther proved a peculiar film to watch right from the start; they simply don’t do that anymore. Reading those credits, it occurred to me that all the people I’m looking at are people that were probably around during my childhood years but have mostly passed away since or are very old in the better case. No doubt this feeling is not limited to The Pink Panther, yet there are a few actors whom I respected as a child that could trigger the notion. Peter Sellers and David Niven certainly are, and they're both in The Pink Panther (Steve McQueen is the only other name I can think of at the top of my head).
The Pink Panther tells the story of a gem, The Pink Panther, which was gifted by the dictator of a 10 million strong country to his princess daughter (Claudia Cardinale). That daughter is now roaming about internationally, which makes her an attractive target for a very successful thief with an illustrious record of breaking in to secure spots and getting out unscathed with the treasure. He's known as The Phantom (David Niven) for this trade of his, but in day time he's a famous Sir. Also happening to be in the neighbourhood is said Phantom’s nephew, a conman by his own rights, attending probably to drink more of his beneficiary’s funds (Robert Wagner). However, the police isn’t too far behind the trail, with the dreadfully clumsy French Inspector Clouseau (Peter Sellers) sticking his nose, literally. To add further twists, Clouseau’s wife is actually cooperating with The Phantom against her husband.
The whole complex, and never to be fully explained, setup is there to initiate proceedings at some First Class European hotel where all the characters meet and play before us in what feels a lot like a play (as in, theatre). Some try to steal a jewel, some try to catch a thief, and the mixture is meant to be highly combustible. Only that it isn’t. By today’s standards, The Pink Panther feels more like a punctured tyre.
Sure, Sellers’ slapstick is good. But it’s not that frequent, and with the old fashioned action scenes (read: none that any modern person would refer to as action) never truly heat up. Dialog is dubbed and badly matched to lips. There’s even a musical interlude stuck in the middle, as if actively trying to shatter the experience by having a mysterious woman come up and break the camera/viewer barrier by staring us directly in the face. Very weird.
Not all hope is lost, though. The Pink Panther still serves, but less as a film and more like an anthropological relic on the evolution of our culture. There’s plenty of that to be found, like the totally politically incorrect (by today’s standards) seduction scenes and implied sex vs. the total lack of violence; if you ask me, they had their priorities right back in the sixties. More obvious is the constant smoking and the way women are treated, demonstrating just how far feminism has advanced in the course of less than a life time (even if it still has a long road ahead of it). Most notable is the attempted seduction of a 20 year old (Cardinale) by a 50 year old (Niven); the fact it could have been regarded as plausible at the time says a lot about the times.
Best scene: Two thieves, both dressed up as gorillas, attempt to break into the safe holding the Pink Panther at the same time. Sellers isn’t one of the thieves, but it’s got the best humour in the movie by far.
Overall: Not much of a movie anymore, The Pink Panther serves mostly as a blast from the past. A blast that’s there to show just how far society has moved during recent decades, some times in the wrong direction but mostly forwards. With that in mind, I will give the panther 3 out of 5 crabs.

Friday, 2 January 2015

This Is Where I Leave You

Lowdown: A dysfunctional family goes through a sort of a healing process as it congregates to mourn its dead father.
Review:
The whole Jewish mother genre of comedy is, in essence, an exaggerated extension of the dysfunctional family genre. As such it cannot boast much in the way of originality; once you get the drift it’s the same joke repeating again and again. Yet I could not avoid watching This Is Where I Leave You, a film about a dysfunctional family of Jewish origins/heritage that congregates together for a Shivaa when the father of the family dies. The reason is simple: I went through the exact same ritual this year myself. Mine was even more exaggerated in the sense that family members such as yours truly had to travel to the other side of the globe in order to attend the Shivaa, but let’s leave that at that.
Quickly, for the uninitiated: a Shivaa is a Jewish ritual where first grade family members of the deceased gather at the deceased’s home and stay there for a week while friends and relatives come to pay their respects. If you’re into faith and all that crap then you’re meant to pray and praise God for killing your favourite person, but neither mine nor the movie’s family were into that. In the case of the movie at hand the father, like yours truly, was an atheist; yet, according to the Jewish mother (Jane Fonda) his last wish upon his death bed was for the family to gather in a Shivaa. So be it.
Joining proceedings are:
  1. Judd (Jason Bateman), coming straight from the big city after catching his life partner in his own bed together with his boss and then learning he’s the would be father of the baby inside said partner.
  2. Sister Wendy (Tina Fey), whose life revolves around motherhood and whose husband is very obviously a bit of an asshole.
  3. Oldest brother Paul (Corey Stoll, of House of Cards fame), the only "loyal" child to stay in the vicinity of the parents and run the family shop, now struggling to have children with a wife that used to date Judd in a previous life.
  4.  And last and least, son Phillip in the role of the black sheep of the family.
As you can imagine, they all have their secrets and they all have their burdens. Following congestion into one house for a week, one need not expect to require a spark to ignite proceedings. Judd is the main event of this film, though, and aside of the issues I have already mentioned there is the added stress of bumping into an old female acquaintance (Rose Byrne) who clearly is his most natural match ever .
I came into this movie expecting laughs. Sure, there are laughs to be had, but they are rare and generally less than explosive. More than a laughing comedy, This Is Where I Leave You aims to pass a message of to its viewers. It’s there to say that we should forget what every responsible adult ever told us, accept that life is a bumpy road, and go with the flow – unless, that is, we want to end up as the loaded bombs this family of ours here is like. You’re going to be a father but you actually despise the mother and love someone else? Cool, embrace it!
I don’t know about that, but I do know that Jason Bateman comedies are a safe bet as far as passing the time is concerned.
Best scene: Under constant pressure, Judd breaks down and tells the whole Family & Co exactly what’s going on between him and his partner. I can tell you from personal experience, such confessions make for great Shivaa scenes.
Overall: Nothing special, just another dysfunctional family movie. 3 out of 5 crabs.