Monday, 29 February 2016

Irrational Man

Lowdown: A philosopher tests the hypothesis that death is the only way to feel alive.
Review:
Another Woody Allen movie about Woody Allen, another step in this great filmmaker's downward spiral (need I mention Magic in the Moonlight?).
A middle aged philosopher, troubled with himself (JoaquĆ­n Phoenix), starts working as a philosophy teacher at an American campus, immediately attracting a young student (Emma Stone, an Allen regular by now - clearly, the guy has a thing for young women). The latter gets into a "friendship" relationship with the former, enough to forget all about her similarly aged actual boyfriend.
Amongst other issues, our philosopher sets out to test a theory which goes like this - in order to truly be alive, one must take a life. Thus rolls onwards the chain of events that troubles this incredibly troubled film over its short duration. A movie that, despite its hour and a half duration and a list of credentials measured in the parsecs, is actually quite boring.
Emma Stone, being her usual annoying self, made me hope our philosopher chooses his test subjects slightly better than he actually does. Clearly, the existential dilemmas troubling Allen are not doing his movies much good.
Overall: Tedious to the death, Irrational Man hardly deserves 1.5 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

Man Up

Lowdown: A woman ends up on another woman's blind date.
Review:
As romantic comedies go, there is much to like about Man Up. It's an OK comedy, it's got good actors, and most of all - it is relevant. However, I am rather pissed off with the movie, and it's all for a single reason: the credits go to Simon Pegg first when it is clearly the female counterpart who is in the lead for this movie. Lake Bell.
Plot wise, the idea behind Man Up is having a woman end up in another man's blind date. Through this and that, Bell's character, Nancy, happens to stand holding the right [wrong?] book in her hands so as to have Jack (Pegg) identify her as his blind date. Nancy follows along, being the "old witch" (34, if memory serves me well) in the room to Jack's 40.
We follow the two over the night of their date to learn about the excess baggage in both bags. If there is any message that comes through, it is just how hard it is for two people to make a connection nowadays. Despite all of the technology in our hands, or perhaps because of it, it is hard to expose oneself to a potential partner and even harder to deal with all the complexities in that potential partner (and in oneself). Is it sheer luck when we actually do find such a person, like happening to hold the right book at the right place? Do we need to work on our expectations?
Overall: A short, nice-ish romantic comedy. Nothing special, just 3 out of 5 crabs. But just to make it clear, Bell is the star of the show!

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

The Martian

Lowdown: Bringing an astronaut left for dead on Mars back to earth.
Review:
Ridley Scott is a director one can trust to use tons of extremely well crafted production values in order to produce mundane movies (Prometheus, Exodus). However, from time to time he fucks up and produces a genuine gem that shakes the very foundations of cinema (Blade Runner, Alien, Thelma & Louise). Lucky for us, The Martian is a fuck up.
The premises of this science of a science fiction movie are simple. A manned mission to Mars (clearly a fantasy for our generation) is forced to evacuate and rush back home due to a surprise dust storm of surprising intensity. In the chaos of evacuating under enemy fire [dust], one of the crew members is hit and, in the name of rescuing the others, there is no time to ask too many question so he's left behind. Presumed dead.
In this movie he's actually alive, and more or less well. Mark (Matt Damon) thus finds himself alone on Mars, with no prospect of getting back home or even, for that matter, letting home know he's actually alive. Through his resourcefulness, Mark manages to survive from day to day on Mars' hostile environment. Not only that, he pulls out one achievement after the other to give this very first citizen of Mars a chance to come back home.
In effect, The Martian is an Apollo 13 story of a space mission gone wrong that deals with a hero being dealt Cast Away like cards. But more than they did in Apollo 13, Mark (and his space agencies' colleagues, featuring an ensemble cast) resort to solutions that make the most of the science and engineering environment that is a manned mission to Mars. More than any movie I can recall, The Martian truly popularises science to show the plebs how its principles can be applied to entertain us (and save a fictitious figure stuck on another planet). As far as this illiterate person could tell, the only notable deviation from scientific truth comes in the shape of ignoring the effects of Mars' lesser gravity.
The result of the setting and the glorification of science is, as already alluded to, a Ridley Scott at his best. The Martian is, indeed, a good story that is very well told.

I will note the use of old Gold 104 style music from decades gone by: on one hand, it is one of many jokes; on the other, it is probably a good way for the movie to avoid the need to come up with its version of the music of the near future.
Last, but not least, I will note a peculiar precedent. The Martian movie experience was very much "blooped" for me by the iOS game that followed it, in which you play Mission Control as it tries to help Mark return safely home. This is the first time I am aware of a movie getting the blooper treatment by a video game.
Overall: The Martian is, indeed, a movie of planetary magnitude. 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 20 February 2016

The News by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: There is plenty of room for improvement in the news coverage available to us.
Review:
It used to be that Alain de Botton was counted as one of my favourite contemporary philosophers, a person that deeply affected my world views. Then came his book on atheism to greatly deflate that image. Regardless, I missed de Botton and his writing; upon learning he's got a book dealing with the way news is covered, a subject matter that annoys me so often given my opinions on the lackluster monopoly controlled things that pass for news agencies nowadays, I decided it was time to reacquaint myself with my man Alain.
In News, de Botton's core argument is that good news coverage should follow the same themes as good art. All those claims of neutral coverage prohibiting personal opinion are bullshit, de Botton argues (eloquently; he doesn't use the bull word), and I wholeheartedly agree. For there is no such thing as objective coverage anyway.
Alain continues. There is no way for media to effectively convey events in, say, Africa, while at the same time assuming Africa works just the same as the UK (the author's home). Media should do more to portray what things really feel like, as through the use of photography. Similarly, financial news coverage should not stick to dry figures but rather bear in mind that economics is a social science dealing with choices; there could be so much to financial news coverage that is exciting and interesting, yet virtually no media outlet dares venture there.
As the plot thickens, so to speak, de Botton recycles many an argument from his previous efforts. Discussions about similarities between art, architecture and news coverage reminisce statements made in The Architecture of Happiness, while the chapter on celebrity news coverage reads a lot like Status Anxiety. Like the news media he criticises, de Botton seems to struggle to come up with original ideas.
While, in general, I am in full agreement with de Botton on the issues affecting contemporary news coverage, I do think it is important to note that not all is lost. Take The Intercept as an example: here is an exemplary news coverer that does pretty much everything de Botton asks for, including not shying from lengthy coverage, complicated depictions of the very complicated, and clearly subjective writing - while also delivering ground breaking news.
Other examples, such as Australia's Global Mail, show that while de Botton may be correct, it could well be that the public isn't really interested in what the news agency has to say. Global Mail went for the lengthy, detailed coverage but ultimately failed and shut down. Perhaps the average Aussie, to whom Global Mail was aimed, actually prefers the dumbed down short snippets of trivially excruciating tidbits thrown at her by the kiloton from the direction of Murdoch's media empire? It wouldn't be the first time the public did not know what's good for it.
It's not like I'm not beyond fault myself. I like good news coverage, but do I have time for it? I cannot recall but one or two cases in which I read a Global Mail article from start to finish. Time, I believe, is a key factor.
I mean, look at Time Magazine, the elephant in the room. Its editorial line is so annoyingly mainstream and so deeply commercialised that no one is capable of competing with its might. Everyone talks about Time's choice for Person of the Year, but no one bothers discussing anyone else's choice. Yet even de Botton seems afraid to tackle matters of time and money.
Overall: The News is an interesting, often thought provoking read. Yet de Botton is clearly struggling. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

A Walk in the Woods

Lowdown: Two old people go on a trek befitting much younger, fitter, folk.
Review:
Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods (the book) was published several decades ago. Back then Bryson was a young to middle aged guy taking on the Appalachian Trail. Now that a movie starring Robert Redford has been made of the book, some things were changed while others remained the same. On one hand, the movie takes place today with a much older Bryson as the lead character; on the other, the movie's Bryson, portrayed by Redford, does not enjoy some of today's basic technology. Like smartphones.
Which would have really helped through many of the challenges faced by the movie's Bryson as he tackles the woods as well as an old travel colleague.
All of which means that, while the adventures befalling Bryson and his old friend (?) Katz (Nick Nolte) are of similar nature to the real life adventures Bryson documented in his book once upon a time, the prevailing themes are different. This Walk in the Woods is a story about old people trying to still feel alive, find meaning in life, enjoy it, but also find themselves put in their "rightful" place. The trail is the life, says A Walk in the Woods; it's got a start, an end, you plan for it, your plans fail, you adjust.
That is not necessarily worse or better than the book; it's just different. What doesn't go as well is the humour. I love Bryson's humour; that's the main reason I love his books. Alas, what works well on paper feels a tad childish on the screen. And childish doesn't go well with this movie's themes.
Overall: To me it felt as if the elaborate message A Walk in the Woods tries to deliver did not make it through that well. We do end up with a nice comedy, and that ain't bad, is it? 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Zoolander

I did not get to watch Zoolander when it was released to the cinemas, way back in 2001. It sounded too silly. When I did get to watch it, eventually, I fell in love: A movie so silly it is so extremely smart.
And that feeling remained as I watched it, 2016 style, through Netflix. Zoolander is not just a very funny movie; it's a movie that told the future ahead for humanity. A future of vanity and narcissism.
Overall: Zoolander was, and still is, a perfect 5 out of 5 crabs movie.
P.S. The David Bowie cameo made me cringe. The world is emptier without this guy in it.

Monday, 15 February 2016

Sicario

Lowdown: The war on drugs.
Review:
From the director that brought us the most impressive movie Prisoners, who happens to be the director assigned to bring us the sequel to Blade Runner, comes Sicario - literally, assassin. What it is all about, though, is a grotesque caricature mirroring America's futile war on drugs.
We follow multiple characters starting off with an FBI swat bust, led by Emily Blunt. Her character is the goodie we're meant to identify with; the one that controls her use of power. However, in an effort to make a dent with the Mexican drug cartels, she is joined by a mysterious American guy with plenty of  string pulling power (Josh Brolin), including access to Delta Force soldiers. Amongst others he utilises the services of an even more mysterious character portrayed by Benicio Del Toro. With the latter, we really have no idea who he is and what he stands for. Together they all adventure into Mexico to kill some people.
Sicario offers an artistic, somewhat surrealistic, view on the war on drugs. Affairs are clearly meant to demonstrate both its futility and the similarities between "us" and "them". I appreciate that, I do; but what I do not appreciate are the not so well developed characters the movie keeps skipping between None gets the time they deserve, really. Neither did I revel at the unlikely turn of events.
Ultimately, Siccario serves as an actors' tool. Blunt gets to play tough again, the way she did in Edge of Tomorrow (not that there's anything wrong with that), and Del Toro plays a true bad-ass.
Overall: Full of pretence but too artistic for its own good, I did not think Sicario deserves more than 3 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Absolutely Anything

Lowdown: An ordinary guy gets godly powers.
Review: What if you, an ordinary person, were given god like powers? That's the question Absolutely Anything explores. Sort of, because it's a shallow comedy that doesn't really explore anything. A very British comedy.
In order to set things up for answering this most philosophical of questions, we have aliens (voiced by the good old Monty Python crew), on their way to destroy the earth, give us one last chance. If an ordinary person (for some reason they pick on Neil, aka Simon Pegg) can be proven to use the god like ability they will give him to good use, then earth will be spared.
As it happens, our Neil is a frustrated geek. He's having a hard time at work, loves his dog despite the hard times that dog brings on him, and got the hots for his hot neighbour Catherine (Kate Beckinsale, who, as I learned here, is a Brit). So guess what Neil is going to actually use the power to make everything he says come true for?
Directed by Terry Jones, a Python himself, Absolutely Anything stands out for the talent it employs. Pythons and Peggs aside, the dog is voiced by a Robin Williams doing such a great job it makes his undue departure even worse to endure. And American comedian Rob Riggle does an excellent job playing out the Not Quiet American to the stereotype's letter.
As for that philosophical question I have mentioned, the movie cops-out big time. Yes, we know that with great powers come great responsibilities, and we know it is easy to twist the best of intentions to get something nasty instead. In order to justify its focus on the mundane romantic comedy, despite the vast scope at hand, Absolutely Anything plays the legalese care: everything Neil asks for is very literally implemented. Me, I'm sure any decent lawyer could have helped Neil solve this world's problems and easily so, but I'll let bygones be bygones and accept Absolutely Anything as the simple romantic comedy it is.
Overall: A short dose of fun worth 3 out of 5 non godly crabs.