Friday, 27 February 2015

The Two Faces of January

Lowdown: The death of a private detective puts the members of a love triangle together on an escape route.
Review:
1962 Athens. A middle aged American business man (Viggo Mortensen) is travelling with his trophy wife (Kirsten Dunst) when they bump into a young Greek speaking American working as a tour guide (Oscar Isaac). The tour guide helps them here and there. He even helps the business man help this drunk guy that was stuck in his hotel room; little does he know the seemingly drunk guy is actually a now dead private detective. He’s just interested in the trophy wife. When he does learn what’s going on, though, all three have to flee together.
Thus starts a solid thriller based on a 1964 book. It’s well acted, well directed, a very polished affair throughout. Nothing appears digital here; look and feel wise, it's simply the actors doing their work on [European] location from the period. A clear case of a movie that feels like a classic but is done under today’s production value standards.
The Two Faces of January is definitely entertaining despite me being unable to explain its name (there is a rather cryptic explanation at the very beginning, but it's not like it makes much sense). Where The Two Faces of January is lacking is in that elusive factor I refer to as depth: sure, there is an interesting story here, a thriller + love triangle affair. But there is nothing special about it; nothing we haven’t seen before in one guise or another. Nothing that seems to try and speak out so as to leave viewers pondering once the credits roll.
Overall: The Two Faces of January offers solid, quality entertainment. I guess we should be happy with that, given that solid+quality entertainment is rather rare in the thriller department. 3 out of 5 crabs that, yet again, are quite impressed with Mortensen’s acting.

Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Fury

Lowdown: An American tank crew fights for survival towards the end of WW2’s European campaign.
Review:
Saving Private Ryan is a tough act to follow, at least when it comes to the visceral portrayal of the horrors of World War 2 fighting. Since that movie came along, at the second half of the nineties, not many a movie tried to follow its line of attack. Yes, you get your The Thin Red Line, but that was more of a psychological experience. But perhaps due to a Brad Pitt wishing to establish himself as the next Tom Hanks, Fury tries to fit itself exactly into the foxhole occupied by Private Ryan.
Fury revolves around the crew of Fury, an adequately named Sherman tank that’s been to the thick of World War 2 since D-Day and is now firmly into German territory. Everybody knows the days of German resistance are coming to end. However, this does not mean that the Germans are not putting up a fight; it is their homes they are now defending, with their Nazi regime forcing even the children to put up a fight or hang from the top of a pole at the public square instead. That one last push aside, Nazi Germany had significant technological advantages over the Allies when it came to tank vs. tank warfare. The result? Heavy casualties to the Allied armoured divisions.
We meet up with Fury shortly after a battle that has it as the sole surviving Allied tank. Not all crew members made it: there’s tank commander Don (Pitt). There's gunner Boyd (Shia LaBeouf, whose alleged retirement I regarded as a win/win situation but which does not seem to have happened). There's the psychotic and menacing mechanic (Jon Bernthal, who – since dying in The Walking Dead – seems to have established a niche for himself through The Wolf of Wall Street and now Fury). There's even a tank driver, but there is no machine gunner; the latter is now in pieces.
Given that times are tough, a newly recruited office worker of extreme youthful appearance and zero experience in battle, Norman (Logan Lerman), is offered as a replacement. It is obvious this Norman is at odds with the battle hardened crew; predictability wise, given Fury is an American movie after all, it becomes obvious that either mentor Don or student Norman will not make it to the credits.
If you’ve seen Private Ryan then you’d know where Fury is heading off to. You will have your battles, you will have the windows into the souls of the warriors as they witness death all around them (both with comrades as well as civilian population), you will have conflicts between the crew members, and you will get your final suicidal epic last stand against the concentrated forces of Nazi Germany. As I said, predictable.
To its credit, Fury is very intense. If it’s a war movie that you seek, you will not be disappointed; some scenes here look like they came straight off World of Tanks. If you are after a movie that shows the horror of war, look no further; I will argue that of all the war movies I have seen, Fury probably tops the list when it comes to me wondering how a soul battered by such war experiences can ever go back to being a functional member of a healthy society. Yet there is one thing that Fury isn’t: it isn’t Saving Private Ryan, and it doesn’t reach half the peaks achieved by Spielberg’s masterpiece.
Overall: Fury is good, but it cannot rise above second best. 3.5 out of 5 hard shelled crabs.

Thursday, 19 February 2015

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Lowdown: With a little help from his friends, a sheep farmer tries to survive the hostile Wild West.
Review:
What image comes up in your mind when you think of the American Wild West? Given the conditioning we have received through numerous Hollywood exploits, your image is likely to boast the glamour of the shooting duels and the exploration of a new frontier. Well, with his A Million Ways to Die in the West, actor/director Seth MacFarlane has produced an entire movie in order to tell you that the Wild West actually sucked. Big time. There were a million ways to die back there! Instead of looking with a longing feeling to that past, we should really celebrate what modern society has to offer us instead: low crime rates, running water, food that doesn't taste like shit, medicine and even gadgets.
When I think about it, it seems to me as if A Million Ways to Die in the West is actually the first time I was to witness MacFarlane’s prowess as an actor. Sure, between Family Guy, American Dad and Ted I’ve heard his voice a million times already; I also enjoyed the fruits of his love with the new Cosmos reboot he had produced. But seeing him act? Never before. Perhaps not surprisingly so, given he’s obviously not the best of actors. Lucky for him, though, he has surrounded himself with a very able crew. There’s Liam Neeson as the baddie and there’s Charlize Theron as his female femme fatale; and Theron, in particular, is a very able actress whose performance reminded me of the first time I’ve encountered and fell for her at the cinemas, back in 2 Days in the Valley.
So yes, you guessed it, A Million Ways to Die in the West is set in the Wild West. Albert (MacFarlane) is sheep farmer at an environment that worships the horse and doesn’t think much of sheep; indeed, he is more like a modern person in his behaviour, surrounded as he is by Wild West grade thugs (read: almost everybody else around him). He does have a likeminded friend in Edward (Giovanni Ribisi), though, and that friend even has a girlfriend. But she works as a whore at the town’s bar/brothel, and unlike every other man in town Edward never had sex with her. Because, you know, the Wild West sucked.
Into this environment comes thug Clinch (Neeson, whose character may have been modelled after a famous guy whose first name is Clint). The guy is a ruthless thug, so much so that his wife Anna (Theron) leaves him. Anna is quite able to fend for herself, thank you very much, but she falls for Albert even though he’s clearly unable to fend for anything; he does, however, have a heart and a brain. Albert, on his side, is more focused on regaining the girlfriend that didn’t care for him in the least and abandoned him in favour of status and money (amusingly represented by Neil Patrick Harris). So you get your love pentagon, completed when Clinch seeks revenge on anybody coming close to his wife.
Clearly, plot and character wise, there is nothing in A Million Ways to Die in the West that we haven’t seen before. What we do have is the typical MacFarlane humour/insight. If you like Family Guy, you’ll like this; if, like me, you share MacFarlane’s core worldviews, such as atheism and admiration for science and technology’s potential, you will like it even more. I will add, at this point, that I found myself quite touched by the romantic story developing between geeky Albert and supergirl Anna. In many respects it reminded me of the similarly well developed relationship between tech support guy Chuck and super secret agent Sarah Walker in the TV series Chuck.
Also worth noting is the collection of cameos this movie has to offer. They’re not your regular actors' cameos; A Million Ways to Die in the West goes bigger with movie cameos instead. Look for your Back to the Future and Django Unchained, to name the obvious examples.
Best scene: Albert and a friend discuss how the new game taking the kids of the era, rolling a wheel with the aid of a stick, is bad for them and reduces their ability to concentrate.
Overall: It might be silly and rough on the edges, but A Million Ways to Die in the West delivers the MacFarlane goods. 3 out of 5 happy crabs.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: A high schooler discovers the hard way her father’s day job as a master of spin comes bundled with heavy casualties.
Review:
Tracking author’s Paolo Bacigalupi journeys in writing provides interesting insight. There’s a good chance that, like me, you first heard of him around 2010, when his The Windup Girl won the Hugo for best science fiction book. Personally, I did not like the book much, but it is clear its portrayal of a post global warming / bioengineering apocalyptic world is well etched in my brain. Bacigalupi seems to agree with me, because his next two books (Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities) were young adult books set in The Windup Girl’s universe.
If you think Bacigalupi took it upon himself to spread the word to people of all ages, his next book will support the notion: Zombie Baseball Beatdown was another young adult novel discussing heavy social issues closely related to his familiar turf, immigration and the processing of the food that we eat. And now, with The Doubt Factory, Bacigalupi moves to talk politics right at the level that his preferred young adult audience can best relate to: the level of the [rebelling] teenager and the authoritative old-guard parent.
Alix is the model high school girl: she attends a private school that’s a one way ticket to a prestigious university ("ivy league" in American), she’s got the grades, and she’s got the friends to go with the status she has earnt by being the daughter of her father – a highly successful PR guy. But then Alix’ entire perception of the world around her and her role in it is challenged. It starts with this black teenager showing up at her school and punches up the principle, it continues when that same guy turns her school into a huge pyrotechnic show, and it peaks as she learns that the whole affair is very personally related to her. A learning that’s achieved the hard way.
Alix is left with a difficult dilemma. On one hand, she has enjoyed the fruits of her father’s work throughout her life; it’s that work that put her at the privileged position she’s in. On the other hand, how can she live with herself when she knows those benefits were paid for by many people paying with their lives as a direct result of the spin manufactured by her father, the so called doubt factory product that her father sells?
Being an Israeli with a history of collaboratively working  with German companies and German colleagues, I was often exposed to very personal stories of young Germans having to face up to the fact their parents (usually the father) have done some awful things back in the days of Nazism. And really, how can a person cope with such a burden? In effect, that is the same burden that Alix finds herself dealing with. More importantly, it’s a similar burden that each of us has to face on a daily basis, albeit to a much more minute level, when we use smartphones made with minerals bought with blood by slave labours at a Far East country. Or when we contaminate our environment with global warming friendly gases or fill up our seas with plastics. The list goes on, but for each item on that list there are people whose work it is to "help" us forget the problems caused by our way of life. The doubt factory is real; often it is powered by the likes of the Koch brothers, but its employees are otherwise normal people like you and I.
However relevant and confronting to the average young adult The Doubt Factory is, I cannot glorify it by claiming it is a good book. Personally, I have found it to be quite a tedious affair that stretches for way too long and overstays its welcome. If it was up to me, I would have tipped Bacigalupi to trim down on The Doubt Factory to at least a half of its size. There is so much that I can read of the infinite loop of what Alix feels about this and that, repeated again and again. To its credit, the book’s ending did bring some tears to my eyes, even if it is overly Hollywoodian.
Between its style, subject matter, educational value and the fact that this science fiction like tale could take place any day now, The Doubt Factory felt a lot like a Cory Doctorow novel. The difference, I suppose, is with Doctorow never feeling as if he overstayed his welcome.
Overall: Rating The Doubt Factory represents a balance between appreciation for the subject matter and my contempt for the boring (yes, boring) style in which it is delivered. I’d settle on the generous side with 3 out of 5 rather reluctant crabs.

Monday, 16 February 2015

The Wolf of Wall Street

Lowdown: An extreme abuser of capitalism shares his story.
Review:
If The Wolf of Wall Street can be summed up in one sentence, then it would be the tale of excess; the story of the too much. Granted, I already had too much of Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio already: previous way-too-long partnerships in The Aviator and Gangs of New York proved one should steer away from yet another three hour long collaboration. But I got there, eventually.
The Wolf of Wall Street represents the story of real life conman Jordan Belfort (DiCaprio), or at least his version of his real life story. It tells the tale of an ordinary wife loving guy who dips his feet in Wall Street and becomes permanently, hopelessly, sick with excessive capitalism following lunch with his new boss (Matthew McConaughey, whose Hollywood status reached a level allowing him to focus on the weird short cameos and weird long "cameos" in True Detective). The boss calls it like it is: no one really knows what stocks are going to do; all a professional Wall Street guy can do is milk their clients so that they (the Wall Street guys) make as much money as possible from their clients. Oh, and to get through a day of living such a life, one has to rely on hookers and drugs.
Belfort loses his job in one of the famous Wall Street collapses, but quickly finds himself another job selling off the chart stocks to ignorant victims. Because these are off the chart stocks, Belfort makes 50% commission out of each transaction; because he's good at conning people out of their money, he quickly establishes himself an empire. An empire that has him surrounded by sex, drugs and fellow weirdos whose humanity was long lost to the American Dream (e.g., Jonah Hill).
The Wolf of Wall Street is a tale of two halves. In the first hour and a half we witness Belfort going from one excess to another. It's very extreme, it's very in your face, and it's just unbelievable how low a man can go. The second half is much better and is more conventionally entertaining: it's the tale of Belfort's facing up to the consequences of his actions. More or less, given that we know the real life figure behind the movie managed to find asylum in Australia, wrote a very successful book about his escapades, and got himself a big fat cheque and a cameo after a movie was made about him by an Academy Award winning director and a Golden Globe winner actor.
Best scene: A heavily drugged Belfort's only way to get back home and warn his friend that the FBI has his phone tapped is to roll over the floor, very gradually, all the way back to his car (a Lamborghini). I'm not a big DiCaprio fan; there is something about him that annoys me. However, I have to give it to him: this scene and many others have him at the top of his acting form. This scene, in particular, made me laugh my pants off.
Overall: This first person story you'd never want to hear proved a worthwhile experience in the end. 3.5 out of 5 overdosed crabs.

Wednesday, 11 February 2015

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Lowdown: In a world on the brink, the manager of a grand hotel goes to great lengths.
Overall:
If you’ve seen one Wes Anderson movie, you would know what to expect out of The Grand Budapest Hotel. Between The Royal Tenenbaums, The Darjeeling Limited and Fantastic Mr Fox, you should know what I’m talking about when I say this director’s style is both unique and eccentric. Frankly, I am no fan; but that only meant I was pleasantly surprised by The Grand Budapest Hotel, a movie that actually makes sense of Anderson's style.
The Grand Budapest Hotel incorporates the best of Anderson’s idiosyncrasies, such as the long shot, the weird set and the odd camera movement. Into this Anderson adds the extra complexity of telling us a story within a story within a story. He manages it by varying the image’s aspect ratios, which feeds back into the story, which helps create a positive feedback loop, which positively helps…
We start off with the narrator, a writer (Jude Law), whose contemporary-ish visit a grand hotel in what seems to be old communist Europe gets our story rolling. There he meets the eccentric current owner of the hotel (F. Murray Abraham), who tells him of the place’s history. That story takes place when the owner’s character was a young bellboy employed by the hotel’s then manager (Ralph Fiennes). Fiennes’ is a character that likes the sound of his own voice but, most importantly, likes to put the needs of the hotel’s visitors above everything else. This unique world he lives in becomes endangered through wars and greedy hotel owner family members, which sends manager and bellboy through a tumultuous journey full of interesting cameos by very famous stars.
If The Grand Budapest Hotel is trying to convey some elaborate messages as it goes along then these managed to completely miss me. What this movie did convey, and very satisfyingly, is a sense of entertainment, the result of the fantastically convoluted stories and the magnificent tapestry of actors doing a wonderful job each, led, as they are, by MC Ralph Fiennes.
Best scene: In case you were wondering how it is that certain people always manage to get the a last minute tickets to something no one else can get near to, wonder no more; The Grand Budapest Hotel explains exactly how this is done (with the aid of several helper cameos, including Bill Murray).
Overall: Between invoking impressions of an old Europe and an exciting story, The Grand Budapest hotel provides for 3.5 out of 5 well entertained crabs.

Thursday, 5 February 2015

Citizenfour

Lowdown: The Edward Snowden revelations as they happened.
Review:
Yours truly does not hide his admiration for Edward Snowden. I consider him to be a hero of mine, nowadays probably the hero of mine. Reading Glenn Greenwald’s award winning book on the Edward Snowden affairs my appetite was left on hunger mode: In his book, Greenwald revealed his partner in the crime of exposing the truth, Laura Poitras, filmed the duo’s historical encounter with Snowden at a Hong Kong hotel. I wanted to watch that video, and now CitizenFour (verify) gives me the opportunity to do so. You can do so, too, and quite easily so: Citizenfour is available for what seems to be perfectly legal online streaming here.
Citizenfour is built around that very hotel engagement. We start off beforehand to learn where Poitras and Greenwald come from; then we have them meeting Snowden. We literally take part in those initial meetings where they learn who this Snowden guy is, it's all there on video! Kind of amazing when you think about it: Poitras shot this historical event before she knew the gold she had on her hands. As a result the rest of us can now receive the same dose of Snowden's reality checks as the Pulitzer winning journalists did.
Segway-ing the recorded encounters with Edward ("I go by Ed") Snowden are segments pointing at the relevancy of what Snowden has been saying. When Snowden says Americans' phone calls are tracked, Poitras shows us a video of a government official declaring the government will never do that, etc. Indeed, there is quite a parade of blatant liars exposed for what they are by Citizenfour. The list includes this guy you might have heard of, going by the name of Obama.
Proceedings are supported by numerous activists, including Julian Assange and Jacob Applebaum. Both share Snowden's refugee status to one extent or another and for similar reasons, and both are technical experts in the areas related to Snowden's exposures.
Finally, Citizenfour shows us what happens when Snowden is forced to escape his Hong Kong hotel, literally running for his life (a review of the legal aspects of the case raised against him by the USA, courtesy of Poitras, makes it very clear Snowden is not going to enjoy a fair trial were he to fall into American hands). On one hand we see this very determined guy who knows exactly what he's in for, but on the other we see a human trying to cling to hope. And it's not a reenactment; it's the real thing, as it happened. We are then told of Snowden's eventual escape to Russia and receive an update from barely a few months ago on Snowden's current status.
Aside of the real life drama on display, a key factor of Citizenfour is its style. There is no commentator here; we are eyewitnesses to events as they happen. What there is, aplenty, are scenes of online text chats between Snowden and the journalists. These are coupled with scenes allowing us to read some of the encrypted emails the two sides exchanged. I guess those scenes may not be everyone's cup of tea, and the online streaming version we watched struggled with the small letters, but I can see the need for such scenes given Poitras very successful attempt to let the story narrate itself.
What can I say? Poitras shows us Snowden as the hero that he is. You'd have to be one of those dumb George Brandis like persons (here's proof) to watch Citizenfour and not admire Snowden for his braveness. The guy went through a lot to be able to make a stand for the truth while, at the same time, risking everything he ever had for something that could have easily ended up a useless folly.
If you ask for my personal opinion on Citizenfour, rather than the cold analytical view of a movie critic, I will say that this is a movie that touched me deep inside. It touched me because I am deeply interested in matters of online liberties, security and privacy. But more importantly, for me, Citizenfour touched me because it provided me with a very detailed - voyeuristic, if I may say - look at this hero of mine. If I used to regard Snowden as a hero of mine, now I regard Snowden as the ultimate role model. If I ever to get to a point where I need to ask myself what the right course of action is, all I need to do is ask myself what would Ed do.
Best scene: Snowden dyes his hair and puts on contact lenses while preparing to escape. Obviously troubled but amazingly composed at the same time.
Notable scene #1: A copy of Cory Doctorow's book Homeland, discussing a fictional yet very Snowden like realistic world, lies on the shelf of Snowden's hotel room.
Notable scene #2 (blooper alert!): At the very end of Citizenfour we see Snowden at his Russian dwelling, in the company of his girlfriend, cooking a meal together. Although I suspect Snowden's is not going to be a life of tranquility, it is nice to see a bit of a happy ending at the end of an otherwise grim and serious affair.
Overall: Due to its personal touch, I find rating Citizenfour a tough act. Although excellent, it does have its eccentricities, for which I will rate it at "only" 4 out of 5 truly inspired crabs. Personally, though, I find Citizenfour packs a much bigger punch than most 5 star flicks.


24/2/2015 update:
Citizenfour won an Oscar! Hooray! It sure been a while since I actually cared about something to do with the Academy Awards. More than being award worthy, the main event with Citizenfour's recognition is the fact a conventional/conservative American institution chose to award a movie that glorifies a character the USA officially regards to be a criminal. If the Academy Awards figured Snowden is on to something, then what does it say about American government?
On a completely different note, it appears as if the link I have provided above for watching Citizenfour does not lead to an official copy. I apologise for leading you on the potential path to piracy, but can assure you that was not my intention. Hell, I am far from sure regarding the legality of the copy behind the link. I will, therefore, note how easy it is to not be able to recognise whether one is looking at a legal copy of a movie or not. Perhaps the companies claiming monopoly of our culture can take note of the futility of it all?

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Better Living Through Chemistry

Lowdown: A husband kept subdued by wife and parents in law goes on fire through the lethal combination of a woman and chemicals.
Review:
The question of what makes a film good is one of those philosophically unanswerable questions, at least not during the time available to humanity till this universe of ours slowly dies out with its accelerated expansion. We all know that a good original script goes a long way, but Better Living Through Chemistry proves that one needn’t be that original to make a nice movie; a little bit of flare will do nicely.
Sam Rockwell plays Doug, the husband of Kara (Michelle Monaghan) and the son in law of Kara’s parents. Doug doesn’t have much of a presence of his own; he may be the one running the show at the family’s pharmacy, but the father in law won’t let him change its name from his. He may be a good pharmacist, but Kara would still take her father’s word on medicine over his. Besides, all Kara cares about is her bicycle craze, and she doesn’t hesitate in humiliating Doug in front of friends and colleagues in the process of achieving her professional turn personal aspirations. Which leaves our Doug rather supressed, or more like a volcano waiting to erupt.
Eruption comes following a chance encounter with Elizabeth (Olivia Wilde), the bored stay at home wife of a busy rich husband (Ray Liotta). First there’s this & that; then there’s sex; then, to take things further, Doug borrows on his expertise with pharmaceutical chemicals; and then there’s a murder plot to help sort things out for Doug. It seems as if Better Living Through Chemistry is hell bent on sending this comedy into the realms of the tragic film noir love triangle story we've seen many times before.
Regardless of whether it gets to those realms or not, Better Living Through Chemistry proves to be a fairly entertaining movie. Sure, there is not much in it that we haven’t seen before, but it does have an ace up its sleeve: its hero, Doug, goes through a journey from being the well trodden over victim into an, excuse me, a Sam Rockwell character that is lucky enough to be portrayed by Sam Rockwell! How cool is that?
Better Living Through Chemistry is the second off beat Sam Rockwell movie we get to watch in recent months alongside The Way Way Back. Although both won’t shatter viewers existential perceptions they both turned out to be nice surprises. Good on Rockwell, I say.
Best scene: A Doug brimming with drugs tries to undo his wife in a bicycle race full of laughs and accidents.
Overall: Unassuming, unoriginal, yet entertaining. 3 out of 5 amused crabs.