Friday, 30 October 2015

Tomorrowland

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

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Terminator Genisys

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

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Cleopatra

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

Monday, 26 October 2015

Little Boy

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

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

Page Eight

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

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Populaire

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

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

Ghost Fleet by P.W. Singer & August Cole

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

Monday, 12 October 2015

Minions

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

Thursday, 1 October 2015

My Old Lady

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