Thursday, 30 April 2015

Adore

Lowdown: Two middle aged women develop romantic relationships with their each other's sons.
Review:
There are numerous things about Adore that are worth praising even before one gets to watch this movie. For a start, it is a very female led movie – as female led as a movie can be, probably. It sports a female director (Anne Fontaine) and features two leading female actresses as its two leads (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts). But wait, there’s more: Adore is set in Australia; it was shot in Australia (NSW’s Seal Rocks is the movie's most notable feature); and its heroines are all meant to be Aussies.
The movie itself isn’t bad, either, offering fine drama and excellent acting. The two leads are two best childhood friends who grew up together by a Garden of Eden grade beach and constantly lived in each other’s company over the years. Now, as mature women with kids of their own, one loses her husband to become a widow while the other loses her husband (Ben Mendelsohn) to a job opportunity in Sydney. You see, no sane person wants to leave the heaven they have for anything else.
Not even the kids. When they become mature enough for a relationship, they do not go astray; they stick to what they know. And what they know are the two women that have been there their entire lives. Romantic relationships develop, with all the complications one would/could expect to drive the dramatic story that is Adore. It’s a fine story, but the main event here is the way the story is told – as I said, it’s a fine actors’ drama. In many respects, including its pacing, Adore feels like a play.
If one seeks to find messages here, then perhaps these are to do with our fear of the strange[r] or our built in reluctance to change when we think we have a been dealt good cards. You can thus argue Adore is an anti conservatism movie, but I think that would be stretching things too much.
Interesting scene:
Naomi Watts stairs at the mirror closely, examining the signs of her middle age appearance (given her much younger lover). I know, there was probably lots of makeup involved with the making of this scene and Watts' own features have little to do with what Adore shows us, but it is still rare for a female star to expose herself to an audience this way. The male equivalent is the much less interesting male hero examining his battle scars, and the analogy is interesting: do women's battle scar come purely as the result of ageing?
For what it’s worth, Wright has a similar scene, although she is not alone in hers.
Overall: Adore is worth adoring for many a good reason. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Wings

Lowdown: Celebrating the romance and mateship of WW1 American fighter pilots.
Review:
Wings, a 1927, is not a movie one would watch because one wants to watch a good movie; it’s a movie one would watch in order to see what people used to consider good movie making almost a century ago, back when it was all black & white, square and silent (with the exception of music). Wings is probably one of the better candidates for this anthropological exercise, being the very first “best movie” Academy Award winner in the competition’s very first year. Personally, I only heard about it through Bill Bryson’s One Summer book, in which this favourite author of mine tried to convey what the year 1927 felt like in the USA. Once I figured out I actually still have relatives who were alive at the time this movie was released, I thought I’d take the plunge.
It goes without saying that the version of Wings I got to see on my modern TV is a restored one. There is still no spoken dialog, but there is music all along as well as sound effects and – if I might venture a guess – some newly added, albeit minor – visual special effects. It is interesting to note relics of the original intermission have been kept. Your experience will thus vary from that of your typical 1927 viewer, but that would have clearly been the case anyway given that original viewers saw this movie in theatres of types that no longer exist. My point is, we can try and catch a glimpse of what 1927 was like, but we cannot get the complete experience.
Contents wise, the movie is a tribute to American pilots of WW1, or The Great War as it was known back in 1927. We follow a small American town guy, Jack (Charles "Buddy" Rogers), the love interest of Mary (Clara Bow, who – according to Bryson – was the Hollywood star at the time, until technology caught up and her voice brought the downfall of her career). Alas, Jack is not interested in Mary, but rather in another girl who happens to be the love interest of David (Richard Arlen), the son of the town’s richest family. Yes, Wings is a love triangle taking place in the shadow of that great war: the USA joins in, and our two boys volunteer to become fighter pilots. They start off as rivals, yes, but quickly they become friends as the violence of the war befalls them. They manage to defy the survival odds for pilots at the time, but war does have a way of catching up on the odds.
What is vividly obvious about Wings are (a) it’s length, at around 2.5 hours, and (b) it’s very complicated and grandiose war scenes, many of which involve aerial battles. Some crude visual effects are obvious, but I have my suspicions a lot of what we see is real – which makes Wings a mighty achievement, both for the time and even by today's standards.
Wings is not without fail, though. Many of its failures are probably the result of it being a pioneer of the art of cinema: some scenes are unnecessarily long (e.g., when we see our pilots receive heroes medals, we also see these being given to others both before and after them); given the silent nature of the affair, acting is exaggerated to the point of laughable; some of the acting is outright bad (like that of the many soldiers we see dying on the battlefield); the whole Clara Bow during the war story thread feels like it was jammed in just so the star could have her screen time; and much, much more. A lot of Wings’ failures still apply today, like the glorification of the American for being American, or just the fact we witness the death of hundreds if not more but the movie only cares for two.
Yet, with all of its shortcomings, Wings stands out for its pioneering spirit. It proves the love triangle formula has been around the movie theatre for a while and it shows just how bad contemporary Hollywood is at recycling. It also features nudity, including both male nudity and that of the biggest Hollywood star at the time according to Bill Bryson.
Overall:
By today’s standards, Wings is a poor movie. No surprise there, really. As an experience in history? While I would say Russian Battleship Potemkin provides a better lesson of cinematic history, I cannot deny the validity of the Wings experience. Bottom line is a middle of the road, 2.5 out of 5 bored/curious crabs.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Under the Skin

Lowdown: An alien posing as an attractive woman roams about, seducing the men of Scotland.
Review:
It’s not just me; the science fiction genre is the genre with the greatest capacity to excite us. Think Star Wars, think Avatar, think Terminator 2, think Blade Runner. A science fiction movie with artistic credentials? Wow, just I have to watch it. I had to watch Under the Skin.
Under the Skin is one of those movies that leaves most of the processing to its viewer. There is no narration and no guidance, just a music soundtrack to guide the audience through eccentric and often surrealistic visions. What is clear, though, is that we are watching an alien disguising itself as a human female (Scarlett Johansson). She (?) then gets herself a van and drives around Scotland, seducing local men as she goes about her way. These interactions appear to be spontaneous, and indeed I recall being told that many of those interactions Johansson went through happen to be real life chats with Scottish people completely unaware of them having a chat with a major Hollywood star going about her business. I will qualify that celebration of spontaneity by saying that these scenes are limited; clearly, the majority of what we see has been scripted.
And what we see is probably there to shed a light on human society as viewed by an outsider. The fact Under the Skin makes it clear there is something sinister about supports this notion.
Personally, I am of the opinion that, in the cause of its art, Under the Skin errs way too far into the realm of the fart. If you’re into David Lynch style of cryptic ambiguity then you’ll probably like Under the Skin and praise it as one of the best things ever; me, I consider its main achievement to be the undressing of  Scarlett Johansson. Which is to say, Under the Skin does not achieve anything worth noting.
Overall: Under the Skin is a triumph of style over substance. 2 out of 5 eccentric crabs.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

How I Live Now

Lowdown: An American teenager visiting the UK finds herself in the middle of a war.
Review:
To put it mildly, I am no fan of the movie genre that pits youths in distressing to apocalyptic grade scenarios while eliminating adult support or putting the adults in the role of the villain. It’s not the idea itself that’s bad, it’s the execution: both Tomorrow, When the War Began and Hunger Games proved sub mediocre. 2013’s How I Live Now is another contribution to the genre.
Coming from the UK (at least as far as setting is concerned), How I Live Now pushes the stress knob to a higher levels than the above mentioned predecessors. I will argue a lot of the stuff it depicts is unsuitable to its target audience; not because they've never seen violence before, but because of the emotional impact it comes bundled with in this movie.
Elizabeth (Saoirse Ronan) – call me Daisy! – is an American teen coming to visit the UK with a bag full of personal issues the movie never delves into. She receives the same reception anyone visiting the UK today enjoys: deep pocket security checks, cameras everywhere, the works (the movie makes those look worse than normal; I’d beg to differ). Her reception continues along the lines I grew used to when visiting country UK (read: not London): inadequate roads and a messy house that seems to be ruled by its canine residents. Welcome to modern day UK!
With the adult of the house mostly away, Daisy mingles with its kids/teens. There’s understandable friction at first, given the different backgrounds, but quickly things become friendly; even romantically friendly. And then a strange war, about which we do not know much (World War 3? A limited affair affecting the UK and not much else?), breaks loose. Daisy and her new “family” are affected, having to fend for themselves in what all of a sudden turns out to be a very hostile environment. Think Kosovo.
The result is a sort of a vastly more serious version of Tomorrow When the War Begun. Like its predecessors, this version is based on a YA novel; like its predecessors, there is a lot about the background setting we do not know about; and like its predecessors, adults don’t play much of a role here; it's all about the kids rising up to the occasion and the adults that are there failing.
I therefore guess that if you liked the predecessors, there’s a very good chance you would like How I Live Now. I did not and I do not; the lack of a background made it hard for me to feel for the characters, and the whole initial “teenager feeling the pain of teenage years” sort of angst overtook me right at the beginning.
Overall: Clearly a YA only affair yet potentially quite overwhelming to its target audience. Personally, I found How I Live Now to be worth 2 out of 5 uninvolving crabs.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Data and Goliath by Bruce Schneier

Lowdown: A review of the current, ominous, state of commercial and governmental data surveillance.
Review:
As testified by this blog, Cory Doctorow is one of my favourite authors. However, as much as I like Doctorow as a writer, I like him even more for his stand on matters relating to cultural sharing. To point at one example, all of his books are available as free downloads at his own website. Do you think this openness harms his income? Perhaps; but in Doctorow’s opinion, his income is harmed orders of magnitude more by the fact most of this world’s population has never heard of him and his books. The benefits of sharing his books, as per Doctorow, far outweigh the income loss that comes with giving them away for free. In other words, the biggest problem of an author trying to make a living out of their writing is obscurity.
That’s an interesting point that, in my opinion, applies to many more topics. I have been arguing against corporate surveillance and the need to take measures against them for years now; since mid 2013, I have been arguing the same against government surveillance (I haven’t been a fan of UK style CCTV coverage for practically decades before, though). However much I have been advocating for people to take a stand against such surveillance, the reactions I receive tend to narrow down to apathy or dismissal; rarely do I manage to gain a sympathetic ear, and even then rarely do I manage to get a person to actually do something. People are unaware of the problem and seem to prefer to stay that way and pretend there is no problem, thank you very much. In my opinion, the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing people they need to use Facebook.
Enter Bruce Schneier, a modern day security expert. I have been following Schneier’s blog for years now, and place him very high on my list of people I’d like to have dinner with. That list is currently topped by a guy called Edward Snowden, you might have heard about him. Just like yours truly, Schneier was moved by Snowden; so much so that he wrote a book called Data and Goliath, a book aiming to take the data surveillance problem out of obscurity and into the centre of a well informed public debate. Clearly, Schneier and I operate along similar wavelengths, only that he is much more of an expert than I am, he has direct involvement in these matters, and yeah, he has produced a book dissecting the state of things. A pretty bleak book at that, if I might add.
Data and Goliath is quite thorough in its review. It starts off by explaining the reasons why we got to where we are now. It explains in very layman terms how data is a byproduct of computers doing what it is that they do, and how this byproduct was harnessed to help finance the generally free-with-ads business model that dominates the Internet. In turn, this model caused the rise of data gathering behemoths like Google and Facebook. Further on, when the government noticed all this treasure trove of data gathered by private enterprise from the seemingly willing public, it decided to join in to the party – usually, by tapping into the information already gathered for commercial purposes. And all the while this was taking place right in front of our eyes, most of us were left completely unaware.
Chapter after chapter, Schneier reviews the state of surveillance and thoroughly points out to its harmful effects (very thoroughly: some 55% of this book is made of references to support his claims). His view is very American centric – he is an American, after all – but in general we get the gist of the international scene, too. It is in this part that Schneier proves, using an evidence based approach, how NSA style bulk data gathering is not only ineffective but actually harmful to the cause of looking after the security of the general public. As Schneier clearly points out, privacy and security are not a zero sum affair; taking good privacy measures is actually a guarantee for better security.
Data and Goliath ends with advice and suggestions as to what us, the public, can do in order to improve this bleak mess that we’re in. How to make the best of what big data can offer us, such as improved health care through the analysis of billions of data sets, while maintaining our privacy to levels that even yours truly would approve of. Schneier refers to David Brin’s book The Transparent Society as some sort of an inspiration to his vision, but I beg to differ; I have found Brin’s book, written ages ago by Internet terms, to be far too optimistic in its supposition that society will live with surveillance because that surveillance would allow it to survey the surveyors. Clearly, that has not been the case; if it wasn’t for one person willing to sacrifice his personal future on the altar of a healthy society, we would have had no idea how far the powers that be are getting under our skin.
That said, I cannot say I find the path ahead, as paved by Schneier, to be manageable. On one hand, I cannot see the Obamas of this world giving up on the power they took for themselves, let alone the Putins of this world. I actually see the opposite: two years past Snowden’s revelations, I see Australia sinking into the sea of data retention, Internet censorship and copyright blackmail letters – all either part of the surveillance monster of monsters feeding off it.
On the other hand we have the general public that, as comedian John Oliver has identified in his recent interview with Edward Snowden (watch it here, but you’ll need to use American VPN to bypass the geoblocking). Oliver rightly points out how the general public cannot be bothered with stuff it otherwise associates with IT geekery; it seems content with its state of ignorance regarding what’s really going on behind the scenes. On the other hand, people can definitely relate to private pictures of their dicks doing the rounds at the NSA. For better or worse, Data and Goliath – being the serious book that it is – falls under the umbrella of the former. We are still in dire need for that dick pic of a book to urge the public to demand change with. The intellectual reader out there, however, will do very well with Data and Goliath.
Overall: Data and Goliath is not the nicest book ever to read, but it is probably one of the most important book one can read in our era. Importance earns it half a notch with 4.5 out of 5 watchful crabs.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Le Chef

Lowdown: Two very different chefs join forces, more or less, to their mutual benefit.
Review:
I consider Australia an excellent place to live in, if not the best. But Australia is not perfect. A fine example for Australia's imperfections is its lack of exposure to non English speaking cinema. Compare that with, say, Israel, a country that's not on any sane person's best place to live in list. As a person who grew up in Israel, I consider myself blessed to have been exposed to one level or another to French cinema. I suspect this is to do with the dominance of the English language: Australians are bothered with watching foreign language films, while for Israelis a movie with subtitles is a movie with subtitles regardless of whether it speaks French or English. Clearly, dominance breeds laziness.
This occurred to me as I was watching 2012’s Le Chef, a French movie following up on the great tradition of French movies involving an unlikely/contradictory pairing of male hero characters. I’m talking about movies such as The Sucker (originally Le corniaud, or as it was translated in Israel – The White Cadillac). Or the more recent The Closet, a movie I consider one of the best comedies I have ever watched (if not the best).
As per its name, Le Chef revolves around chefs. In contrast to its name, it revolves around two chefs. One of them is Alexandre (Jean Reno), a famous chef running a Parisian 3 star Michelin restaurant that seems to have peaked already; the general consensus is of Alexandre now living off past glories. The younger restaurant owner wants him gone, replaced by new blood. At the other corner we have Jacky (Michaël Youn), a wannabe chef whose self imposed high standards get him to lose every cooking job he ever got. Alas, Jacky has to compromise, because his girlfriend is pregnant and they need the steady income. But compromising is hard!
Don’t worry, though, because Le Chef is as predictable as. The twain shall meet, the old shall learn from the new, the new shall learn from the old, and both shall learn to cooperate. Sort of, at least, because they will do so in the classic, relaxed but crazy, French comedy manner. Indeed, this film is ever so French: from its dealings with matters of food to its distinct stench of chauvinism, Le Chef is your classic French dish. Which, as it happens, is not the worst way ever to spend a relaxing night at home in the company of Netflix.
Overall: 3 out of 5 tasty French crabs.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Cinema Paradiso

Lowdown: The tale of a friendship between a boy and a cinema projector in post WW2 Sicily.
Review:
Following a chain of rather disappointing movies, I sought for the tried and tested; Netflix handed me a fine opportunity with the 1988 Italian movie Cinema Paradiso (aka Nuovo Cinema Paradiso). I grabbed that opportunity with both hands, even if – production value wise – it cannot compete with modern stuff. Cinema Paradiso's frame may be squarish, as was common in European cinema prior to the introduction of the 16:9 TV screens; the picture quality may be bad, too. The movie, however, has more heart than everything Hollywood comes up with.
Proceedings start with a well to do Rome based guy coming back to his apartment to hear from the woman currently residing in his bed that his mother called with news that "Alfredo" died. Turns out our Roman guy hasn’t been home for more than 30 years. As he goes to bed, he flashes back to his childhood at a Sicilian town in immediate post World War 2 times, where the bulk of Cinema Paradiso - the movie - resides.
Our now successful Roman guy is the child Salvatore, an altar boy whose dad did not come back from the war yet. The general way of life is vastly affected by the war that was, but Salvatore has himself a refuge: the local cinema, Paradiso. You see, his employer – the vicar – goes there to review upcoming movies in order to ensure anything remotely sexual, like a kissing scene, is cut off. One doesn’t want the hearts and minds of innocent Sicilians contaminated by such obscenities!
The experience opens young Salvatore to the riches of this world, at least imagination wise. At first his relationship with Alfredo, the projector running things at the Paradiso, mainly revolves around him pulling children tricks on the adult. Eventually, though, they become good friends in a relationship that’s powered by Salvatore’s lack of a father and love of the cinema. The movie goes on to cover key events in Salvatore’s life as he grows up – like falling in love for the first time – and these are always in the shadow of the cinema. Those kisses that were cut also act as a running theme, contributing to the movie poster amongst others.
While there are numerous running themes in Cinema Paradiso, there can be no doubt the dominant one is to do with the love of cinema as projected (pun intended) when life mirrors film. There is most definitely a sense of longing for the way things used to be with cinemas: the whole town gathering, on a regular basis, if not every night, to watch the latest movie together. The contrast between that and the future state, which happens to be the state of our cinemas at present, is obvious. Yet, if I have to contribute my 2c, I will say - fuck the cinemas! I grew up on movies as well; definitely not the way they're portrayed in Cinema Paradiso, I'm much too young to have partaken in that world, but I know my way around a movie theatre (as opposed to the local multiplex).
What did the movie theatres do for us lately, though? Gone are those big screens; gone is the glamour; enter rip off, unaffordable prices and extra surcharges at every angle (even for watching a movie on a "bigger screen" that's actually smaller than the pre-multiplex screens that used to capture my imagination). So if this is what the world of cinema has to offer us, then screw the world of cinema; as noted, I was watching Cinema Paradiso on Netflix, thank you very much.
The situation is actually worse. Today's cinemas have much bigger aspirations than getting people to spend money at the movies. Village Roadshow, for example, has been a major donor to both of Australia's two biggest political parties. With recent court decisions going in favour of the company behind Dallas Buyers Club, suggested legislation to punish pirates, as well as web censorship, it seems as if Village is getting its value for money. Australian movie watchers suffer the consequences, though.
Cinema Paradiso clearly suffers from poor production values. These, however, pale in comparison to what the cinema industry is doing today.
Overall: A charming piece of nostalgia well worth 4 out of 5 nostalgic crabs.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

I, Frankenstein

Lowdown: The Frankenstein monster finds itself in the thick of battle between angels and demons over the fate of humanity.
Review:
I, Frankenstein has some very obvious B movie indicators. These start with its general absence from cinemas and progress through its immediate availability at Netflix. However, contrasting those indicators are some very big names in the starring list: there’s Aaron Eckhart as the lead, Bill Nighy as the chief baddie (a role always best reserved for Brits, of course), and last but not least this blog’s favourite Miranda Lawson, aka Yvonne Strahovski. The latter was the one and pretty much only reason I took any interest in the movie.
Story wise, this is no Frankenstein remake. Instead, after Frankenstein (the monster's creator) died, his artificially made monster (Eckhart) finds itself sought after by a bunch of demons from hell (yep, hell). Lucky for him (it?), he is saved by the demons’ nemesis – the gargoyles (a rather peculiar manifestation for the role typically reserved to angels, but let’s go with the flow). The gargoyles bring the monster, whom they name Adam, back to their “home base”, where it’s protected by the gargoyle queen (Miranda Otto), her chief warrior Gideon (Jai Courtney) and a slew of other Australian actors (because this movie was shot in Melbourne).
Our Adam proves more than meets the eye not just in super strength but also in longevity. He makes it to modern times without missing a beat. And it is at these times that the bulk of I, Frankenstein takes place. You see, the devils have a plot to take over the gargoyles and the world with, a plan that involves creating artificial Adam like monstrosities. Unknowingly aiding them in their quest is scientist Terra (Strahovski). Whether the devil can take over the world or not will come to depend, eventually, on Adam/Frankenstein.
If I did not manage to convey just how silly the plot is, then you will need to take my word for it: it is silly. Padding it are tons of pseudo-scientific statements that make no sense but allow the lab coat clad Terra to look oh-so-professional in addition to just looking good (the way girls in movie are supposed to look by your typical Hollywood agendas). Characters are very single dimensional, with Eckhart starring in this department but Nighy proving the exception; in between lies Strahovski who, for the first time I can recall, offers a disappointing performance. To her credit, hers was an impossibly pathetic position to be in the first place.
Thus what smelled like a B movie turned out to be a proper B movie, with everything that comes with that. There’s plenty of silly action that’s as involving as reading last year’s winning lottery numbers and… not much else. What a waste of resources and energy.
Best scenes: As usual for movies shot in Melbourne, the best scenes are those involving the city itself (even though the movie’s city remains nameless and is obviously not meant to be Melbourne). There’s a scene where Eckhart is on an old Hitachi train (I wonder if it stunk for him the way it stinks to us), Stahovski alighting off a tram, and a major action scene at the gates of the National Gallery of Victoria museum posing as the movie city’s central train station. Woot.
Overall: Do not contribute any further to this waste; steer away from I, Frankenstein. 1.5 out of 5 useless crabs.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Young & Beautiful

Lowdown: A teenager disappointed with her love experiences turns to prostitution.
Review:
French director François Ozon has a track record of exploring the feminine (here's an example), with 2013’s Young & Beautiful (a rare case of a faithful translation from the French title Jeune & Jolie) is a case in point.
Divided into four episodes, one per season of a year, we follow 17 year old Isabelle (Marine Vacth). We start in summer, when she, her family and family friends are on vacances at a sunny Mediterranean site. Isabelle loses her virginity there to a German teenager, but the experience leaves her cold. So cold, that when we see her again in Paris at autumn we meet her as a prostitute.
Needless to say, such an approach comes with problems that are further magnified by Isabelle’s age. Things don’t always go well with her clients, and there is that much that she can hold back from her family. You can guess the rest: eventually, the dams break on Isabelle.
As artistic as Young & Beautiful is, I found myself wondering throughout what its point is. That is, beyond Ozon doing his best to undress another beautiful French girl before us viewers in yet another movie. Answers are not obvious, but if I could venture a guess I would say Ozon is trying to show how hard the modern world is on people growing up. Isabelle is not doing what she is doing inside a void; she does it in a world where she can see the infidelities of adults and where her young brother Victor can freely play extremely violent video games.
Overall: A challenging artistic statement or a semi erotic movie in the guise of an artistic statement? Given the Ozon factor, probably a bit of both. 2.5 out of 5 French crabs.

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

Food, Inc.

Lowdown: A damning review of the state of the American food industry.
Review:
Veterans of 2006’s Fast Food Nation sort-of-a documentary (not to mention the 2001 book on which is based) will know exactly what to expect out of 2008’s Food, Inc. The latter is even co presented by the author of the former, Eric Schlosser. By going over the current state of the American food industry, Food, Inc. is a straight documentary that basically claims there’s a horror show running behind the scenes there, and by extension, the whole world.
The core argument made in this documentary is that during the past 50 years our diet has changed more than it did in the previous 10,000 years, yet we seem oblivious to the fact. Not accidentally, though; the industry has been doing its best to keep things that way. According to Food, Inc., it all started with McDonald’s and the strict demands it put on its suppliers; coupled with an already substantive and subsidised corn industry, one thing fed the other to lead to a market where the whole of the American food industry is dominated by a mere few players. These, in turn, both control the market and run off giant, pretty scary, farms. Compare that to the illusion of choice one seems to have upon visiting the supermarket to realise just how badly we’ve been played!
The problem lies in how the above two factors impacted on the rest of the food industry. The poultry industry isn’t doing much better than the meat [beef] one, in terms of industrialisation to the point of losing humanity; neither does the pork industry. Nor does “regular” agriculture, where players such as Monsanto are now in control of the game.
The message delivered by Food, Inc. is an important one. As far as documentaries go, I cannot say it is well delivered, though; perhaps given the big guns the movie has set its sights on, the affair feels more than a bit eccentric and thus uninvolving. Viewers could have also benefited if some advice on how to deal with one’s food needs was to be provided.
I will stress that this does not take away from the core message, even in Australia: sure, things here are much better, but it doesn’t take much more than reading food labels to figure out that the abundance of brands at the supermarket is but an illusion given that the bulk of said brands are owned by a few international companies. And if you think giant paddock beef exists in the USA only, think again: to its credit, Costco Australia is very open in informing its shoppers that its beef comes from one giant mega-farm in Queensland, where beef purchased from all over the east coast is grain fed for fattening in a very calculated – industrial – manner. Why Australians should accept grain fed beef is beyond me, but that’s our reality.
Better yet, think about it this way: when was the last time you’ve seen a pig out in the open? You haven’t, because aside of kids petting zoos, pigs do not exist out in the open anymore.
Overall: Food, Inc. lives by the importance of the message it carries. 3 out of 5 crabs with very poor appetites.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Melancholia

Lowdown: The tribulations of two depressed sisters as, in the background, another planet is on its way to collide with earth.
Review:
Lars von Trier is one of those directors that, like him or hate him, creates strong feelings with his viewers. Generally speaking, his is not my kind of style; on the other hand, I do give him credit for Breaking the Waves,
one of my more memorable movie experiences from the nineties. With his 2011 film Melancholia described as science fiction, I’ve been wanting to give it a go for a while.
Melancholia starts off with a very stylish exposition depicting key characters and the end of the earth as another planet (which, we learn later, was named Melancholia) collides with it. That sets the scene for preceding events, which start with the wedding of Justine (Kirsten Dunst) at the mansion of her sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) and Claire’s husband (Kiefer Sutherland).
How shall I put it? The wedding doesn’t go that well. First, the limo bringing the couple gets stuck on the tight bends leading to the mansion. Then there are all the various characters and the issues they’ve accumulated over the years, starting with the divorced father (John Hurt) and mother (Charlotte Rampling) and moving through best man who is also wife’s boss (Stellan Skarsgård). All the bickering and issues seem to continue without end, leading me to wonder what the hell is going on in here and why I have to endure all of the above for the duration of this much longer than two hours movie. Eventually, and particularly towards the second half of the movie (that focuses more on Claire) it becomes obvious the main source of issues is the depression suffered by both heroines. Planet Melancholia, drifting closer and closer to earth, is just a too obvious symbol to the mental issues affecting the two.
I had a really hard time keeping myself focused on Melancholia; it felt insurmountably boring, slow and uninvolving throughout, no matter how many famous actors it featured because they were attracted into making an arty-farty flick with fellow big named artists. Add to the bill a way too jerky handheld camera attracting too much attention to itself in addition to its nausea inducing qualities. I had to take a break half way through, and it took a lot of focus to get me to watch the second half in the hope that things will turn more interesting then. They probably do, in the sense that Melancholia’s core message finally starts to gel together. However, they still don’t make Melancholia into a movie I would recommend in any way.
Overall: Melancholia proved true to its name in describing my opinion of it. I will be very generous and give it 1 out of 5 bored shitless crabs.

Friday, 3 April 2015

Space Battleship Yamato

Lowdown: The anime series Star Blazers receives a live action treatment.
Review:
I won’t bore you with things I have already said in my review to the anime feature film Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato. Suffice to say that Star Blazers, the English series interpretation of the same anime affair, was a childhood cornerstone of mine which I still hold dear. To my surprise, I had recently learned that there is a 2010 live action version ***of the same series***. I guess there is something to be said about the relative feasibility of a modern day computer special effects. Clearly, I had to watch it. I had to watch Space Battleship Yamato.
The most glaringly obvious thing about Space Battleship Yamato is just how loyal it is to the original anime. The characters are the same, the plot is essentially the same (although, when compared with the series, it was obviously condensed into one 2 hour long episode), the costumes are the same, the weapons are the same, the look and feel is the same. Someone went to great lengths there! Sure, there are some differences (I don’t see the point in mentioning them here), but in the grand scheme of things they are truly negligible.
The story takes place in a space age future where an alien race (here subtitled as Gamelas, originally Gamelons) bombards the earth with radiation bombs and thus drives the remaining population underground. That offers only temporary relief; the human race has a year, at most, before radiation takes over the joint. And it’s not like we’re doing well militarily: in the decisive battle, with which the movie starts, we’re pretty much wiped out.
Hope still lives in a message found by Kodai (aka Derek Wildstar). According to the message, the solution to earth’s problems is available on the planet Iskandar, lying somewhere in the Magellan Cloud. Luckily for us humans, the message includes info on engine technology that can allow humans to make it there and back within a year. Now all hope lies with the Yamato, earth’s last remaining space battleship, and its volunteer crew. Can it make it there and back? Not if the Gamelas can help it.
Once I was able to overcome my appreciation to the fidelity of this Star Blazers manifestation I could not avoid noting how Japanese this movie is. That is, how weird the people in it act: they constantly shout at one another, and they seem OK with it. I guess it goes with Space Battleship Yamato being a military movie, as well as the dark themes it involves (it follows similar lines to film Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato, rather than the optimistic affair that was Star Blazers). That, however, does not excuse weirdness; I still blame Japan with that. The final nail on the coffin has to come from the oh so pathetic treatment of the romantic subplot.
Talking of the Japan factor. One thing I am aware of today, which I was completely unaware of as a child, is the existence of a real Battleship Yamato. If you read your Wikipedia you will learn the Yamato was the biggest ever battleship and Japan’s pretty much last attempt to turn the tide of World War 2. It did not work, but – when one sits to watch Space Battleship Yamato – one has to wonder what the movie is trying to say to its native Japanese audience. There is no mistaking the link, because the movie’s Yamato looks exactly like the WW2 weapon. Whichever way you look at it, I doubt you’d come back with stuff that makes you feel warm and fuzzy. This is nationalistic stuff, through and through.
Overall: Not the best movie ever, but if you’re a Star Blazer then dare not miss it. 3 out of 5 nationalistic/militarist crabs.
Now, where can I get me one of those leather jackets worn by all crew members? (Yes, they are exactly like the uniforms in the original anime.)

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

The Led Zeppelin Trilogy: The Song Remains the Same, No Quarter, and Celebration Day

Lowdown:
With Led Zeppelin’s remastered rereleases completely dominating the music I have been listening to these past few months, particularly Physical Graffiti, I thought the time is right to go over some Led Zeppelin performances available on video. There is nothing new here, just me observing trends with one of my favourite bands through videos I have watched countless of times. I’ll go about it chronologically.

The Song Remains the Same
If you’re after Led Zeppelin at its creative peak, this is the video you’re after. Essentially, this is a video of a live performance at New York’s Maddison Square Garden from 1974 / early 1975 (I am entirely speculating here based on the songs lineup: these include material from Houses of the Holly but nothing from Physical Graffiti).
Video wise, the live performance is packed with a drug inspired thematic story about the band members (including sightings of a child called Jason Bonham, whom we will revisit later down this review). Nothing to distract from the music, though. Better yet, a few years ago this video was remastered as per modern standards, which means the picture and – more importantly – the sound are much better than they used to be in the older renditions, including the performance’s double CD set I still own (which followed up on ancient vinyl). There are also more songs than on the CD set and fewer cuts. For example, on the CD we have Robert Plant introducing “John Bonham, Moby Dick”, whereas on the video he goes “our percussionist, John Bonham, Moby Dick”. Go figure; I suspect the first edition had to contend with the time limitations of the vinyl format.
Let’s cut to the chase: the performance at hand is that of a well coordinated machine of a band that is full of itself, but rightly so; the talent levels oozing from all four band members are exceptional as they provide a masterful, well planned, rendition of their best titles to date.
My favourite piece here has to be Dazed and Confused, inflated to a 25 minute performance that varies in style from your blues to your hard rock and features Jimmy Page playing his guitar like a violin. It is a masterpiece, no doubt about it; Whole Lotta Love receives similar, if less grandiose, treatment, too. These two are not on their own: in my book, the Stairway to Heaven version here is the Zeppelin’s best ever.
Overall: Ignore the surrealistic video and focus on the 5 out of 5 crabs, best of the best, musical performance.

No Quarter
We’re now at the early nineties. Led Zeppelin hasn’t existed for more than a decade now, but Jimmy Page and Robert Plant decided on a sort of a reunion (which they forgot to tell John Paul Jones about). The result is intriguing, though, and although not officially Zeppelin so I consider it a part of the Led Zeppelin canon.
Essentially, No Quarter is Led Zeppelin’s contribution to the unplugged theme that was popular at the time. Its performances include straight renditions of Led Zeppelin titles with significantly more straight, less post production processed, renditions; songs performed in outdoor settings; Moroccan/Egyptian/Arab themes; classic/philharmonic themes. Location wise, some of the songs appear to have been shot on location at Morocco, some in some sort of a quarry looking setting, and most are at a live stage. Most songs feature our Page and Plant joined by band member replacements (drummer, bass), some feature an Arab band, some a classical orchestra, and some a mix of the above. The combination of all three is what, in my mind, makes No Quarter stand out.
Page and Plant are still on top of their game here. If you liked Page’s double guitar from The Song Remains the Same then you will like the triple guitar he uses here! Together, the two perform some original songs but mostly Led Zeppelin covers (as they should!). The latter includes a personal favourite, When the Levee Breaks, which may not be the best rendition of a Zeppelin song ever but is valuable because this song is so rarely performed (relying, as it does, on post production processing); that said, don’t hold your breath for that famous drums sound.
As I said, in my opinion No Quarter shines when all three elements are synergised together. The peak is its rendition of Kashmir, which – in my humble opinion – is the best Kashmir ever and probably the most creative rendition of a Zeppelin song ever.
Overall: It’s good and its original, but the absence of Bonham and Jones is felt. I’m giving No Quarter 4 out of 5 unleaded crabs.

Celebration Day
Fast forward to 2007. The band that was at its peak in The Song Remains the Same reunites for a single show, with members now aged around the 60 mark and Jason Bonham, the son of, sitting in place of his legendary father. The question on everybody’s mind, and most evidently in our band’s mind, is – can they/we still do it? Do they/we still have what it takes?
You might have guessed it: the answer was a resounding yes. The band can still do it. They start off with a rather shaky Good Times, Bad Times (the first song from the first Led Zeppelin album), but a couple more songs later they’re running on all cylinders. The music is definitely still alive and kicking, thank you very much!
So yes, the renditions are less pompous. Dazed and Confused still has Page playing the violin guitar, but it’s a short go. Similarly for Stairway to Heaven: Page’s solo is significantly shorter, but that does not mean it’s in any way inferior. And yes, Plant’s voice doesn’t reach his former highs, but he adjusts for it; and the younger Bonham is not his father, but he isn’t bad either. As for John Paul Jones, he is definitely at the top of his game – just listen to his fretless bass guitar to see this versatile and talented musician still has a lot to offer.
Combined with the previous two videos, Celebration Day is an interesting document on the personal development of this world conquering band. There is humility (dare I say insecurity?) in the performance here, in total contrast to what we’ve seen in The Song Remains the Same. The band members know it: just note the way Page kisses his guitar and guitar pick at the end to see what they think.
As for personal favourites, there are some good pickings to be had here but I would go for what is probably my all time favourite Led Zep song: In My Time of Dying. It’s the fourth track, and it’s the one where our band members finally realise they’re doing it and doing it well. The combination of great sound, a performance that does justice to Led Zeppelin’s longest studio track, and a shining performance from John Paul Jones in particular, captivates me again and again. It also forces me to state that, in my personal time of dying, I would very much like to have this song playing. I know I’m not likely to be able to know when my time arrives, but if I can then I want it to be to the tune of music that clearly reminds me just how much life is worth living.
Overall: Celebration Day proves that the song does not necessarily remain the same; it can get better. 5 out of 5 crabs take their hats off to this inspired performance.


If you are after more Led Zeppelin on video, there is also How the West Was Won. It’s a collection of live performances from the band’s active years. In my opinion, The Song Remains the Same does a much better job of representing that era, even if it lacks songs from later albums.