Sunday, 31 December 2006

DVD: Doom

Lowdown: A theatrical version of Doom 3.
We don't go for horror films, especially not the type that tries to scare you by startling you with nasty surprises after particularly quiet moments. These types of films don't add much flavor to my life, which lately has been scary enough by its rights. However... being that we're both fans of the game, curiosity got to us and we rented the DVD out.
The film's premises follow the outline of the Doom 3 game quite closely (note these outlines are different to the supposed plot line of the first doom games): something goes wrong on Mars, and a team of supposedly SWAT soldiers led by the former wrestler gone actor The Rock are sent there to see what's going on. Surprise surprise, the area is full of nasty stuff: it turns out that by doing creepy experiments the people working on Mars have awoken some sort of a devil. Lots of people die, lots of ugly monsters kill and get killed, and that's pretty much it.
Now, did I like the film version?
Before answering I have to stress that the film was indeed made to look and feel like the game: sets, lighting, monsters - it's as close as things could get. The main difference is that unlike the game, where you shoot monsters from the word go till the end, the film takes its time to "develop".
What I did like about the film is that it tried to avoid the typical cliches: for example, people don't get killed a second after the soundtrack goes silent; they take a few more seconds to die. And the order in which the people die defies the order we've guessed they will die at.
If you get the feeling I'm mocking the film then you're onto it. Special mocking goes to the false pseudo scientific gibberish provided by the token woman character in the film, who naturally plays the scientist amongst the soldiers. In explaining the origins of the monsters she says things that sound really cool about genes and about how the soul is defined by them and how a certain chromosome added the a human gene would make it all powerful - lots of bullshit, in short. The problem is that I've seen to many people who don't tend to read publications such as Scientific American take such bullshit for real, and emerge from a film like Doom - a film where you're supposed to take nothing out of other than fun through terror - taking some newly found knowledge on science. If anything, the fact that films can get away with such bullshit pseudo science - regardless of whether they mean to confuse people or not - says something about our society today and the way we treat knowledge.
Anyway, Doom is what you expect it to be: a shallow, semi scary film that you'd like to forget after you watch it. And the only reason why you might watch it is the love of the game.
Best scene: A five minute segment that is shot as a continuous first person shooter like scene. At least the film makers knew how to pay homage to the game.
Picture quality: The film is mostly very dark, and therefore quite a challenge to our LCD rear projection TV. I suspect it's quite good, picture quality wise, but the deficiencies of the LCD format in rendering darker scenes prevent me from passing an authoritative view.
Sound quality: Can't judge that either - to prevent unnecessary startles, we watched this one at a pretty low level. Seems like the surrounds were quite active, though.
Overall: 1.5 stars.

DVD: The White Masai

Lowdown: A modern Swiss woman leaves her world behind to join her Masai lover in his world.
Several things contributed to make The White Masai an interesting film we wanted to watch. First there's the fact that it is based on a true story: the story of a Swiss woman who, while traveling in Africa, falls in love with a Masai warrior and stays there to live with him somewhere in the middle of nowhere. And second is the fact that this is a German speaking film, as in this is not a made in Hollywood film that would focus on the cheesy. Indeed, we were right on both accounts, and indeed the film is an interesting film to watch. I cannot, however, endorse it as a particularly good film.
The main problem with the film is that it's just not credible. Yes, I know it's based on a true story and as such it should receive more credit than the vast majority of all other films; but then again, the prospect of a European falling for a Masai warrior just because she saw him standing there and leaving her old life behind for a person she knows nothing about and with whom she has very little in common is a bit of a stretch. The film does show her disappointment from her European boyfriend which helps in driving her away, but at the bottom line I find it very hard to identify with the film's premises. It could be real, but the likelihood of it happening to me is lower than winning the lottery low.
Another problem with the film is that, being based on reality, it suffers in certain artistic departments. For example, several characters (e.g., the priest) are left undeveloped, and several plot lines which could have been interestingly explored are left abandoned. The result is a film that feels a lot like a documentary on Africa and the differences between the African and the Western ways of life. This is obviously one of the film's aims - for example, by showing us the development of the act of love making between the two lovers, from an animal like instinct to a proper womanly orgasm. The problem, though, is that you watch it to learn about Africa as opposed to watching it for the plot and the characters.
Still, one good thing to take away from the film is the warning it provides against the virtues of falling in love at first sight.
Worst scenes: The film has some good scenes, but what I remember mostly are the worst ones. First there is the scene in which the hero, searching for the Masai warrior she fell in love with at first sight, wakes up in the middle of the night "feeling" something. She gets up to see the warrior waiting for her outside. Come on, do we need such kitsch?
The second worst scene could be regarded as even worse. The hero returns to the Masai after a break in Switzerland, and upon seeing her warrior they run at one another in very poor slow motion.
Picture quality: There are not many digital artifacts, but overall the picture lacks resolution - typical for a film shot with less than your typical Hollywood budget on location. Some great African vistas, though.
Sound quality: Pretty basic, other than a few bursts of surround mixed music.
Overall: An interesting 2.5 stars, but it could have easily been more given the subject matter.

Book: Odd One Out by Monica McInerney

Lowdown: A short modern day Australian Cinderella story.
Make no mistake about it - Odd One Out is a chick's flick. It's just that I got it for free with the purchase of other, more scientifically minded books, and being a short and seemingly interesting book I reckoned it would be good holiday material. And I was right.
The story follows a Sydney woman in her late twenties, born to a family of divorced artists yet different to the rest of her family members. She loses herself between all of her gifted yet selfish family members, until her Melbourne based brother challenges her to come down to Melbourne and take control of her life. The rest of the story follows this process as it goes through rather unconvincingly if you ask me; yet it's still entertaining.
In an atypical fashion to the way most of my books go, this one tells you all about the makeup and the dressing of each of the characters, yet it fails miserably in describing the way emails work and with some of Melbourne's geographical descriptions. Obviously, it was not written with me in mind.
The comparison between this book and Cinderella is so obvious it's even made in the book itself. It cannot be said that this book is truly original, and personally I find its "happy end" conclusion to be rather far fetched and more suitable to a princess than to a modern day Australian woman. This problem is made evident by the fact the book does touch on Australian nerves in its discussions, where it covers a lot of the negatives in the typical way modern day Australians go about; basically, the selfish quest for money and easy living while keeping being better than the Joneses in certain fashionable ways, and while not caring much about others or the environment.
But being a rather short book - 150 pages in quite a large font - you cannot really go wrong with this pretty entertaining and easy read.
Overall: 3 stars.

Saturday, 30 December 2006

Book: A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Richard Dawkins' version of Broca's Brain - a collection of articles of personal interest, mostly to do with science and the philosophies behind it.
I noticed they have copies of the bible at the hospital day care center where we were recently going through IVF treatment. Thrown in between lots of cheap women's magazines in the waiting rooms, they do stand out from the crowd - for a start, they don't have glamor photos on their cover, making them look rather dull in comparison. It occurred to me that while anything would be a better read than a women's magazine, the concept of placing bible books at hospital waiting rooms has to be weird: do people really think this reading would help their loved ones? I would say that giving the doctor a good word to make them feel better would be a much more effective thing to do.
But the reason why people need bibles in hospital waiting rooms is pretty clear: people like to be consolidated with easy answers and cheap comforts all the time, so they would definitely go for such while at a hospital.
It is exactly those selfishly easy solutions to combat the hardships of life that Richard Dawkins is waging a war on in his excellent book A Devil's Chaplain. Dawkins claims to prefer the daemonic alternative offered by the devil's chaplain to the comforting truths of faith in immortality; he sets out to show what existence truly means according to the truths discovered by science, and how precious and exhilarating life can be. And he does it through a series of articles he has written over the years, collected in this book under several common threads.
First and foremost on Dawkins' list of targets for the book is the showing of the advantages of the scientific method over other methods that gained popularity over the years, namely tradition, authority and revelation. Being an evolutionary biologist by occupation, Dawkins uses evolution to provide most of the examples in the book.
Indeed, I have learnt a lot about genes and evolution by reading the book. Examples are aplenty: I did not know, for examples, that we are more closely related to Gorillas and Chimpanzees than Gorillas and Chimpanzees are related to other types of apes, such as the Orang Utans. Other gene related facts include the differences between various human races being so slight when compared to other differences that it renders the distinction on the basis of race quote a superficial thing to do.
There are many such additional examples, but their goal is similar: to show that we are all very chauvinistic and narrow minded in our views, and to show that science is the only proper tool we have for getting rid of that halo and seeing the world around us for what it truly is.
When talking about narrow mindedness, Richard Dawkins being Richard Dawkins cannot avoid pointing the finger at some of the authorities he blames for this narrow mindedness. On one hand we have religion, which is pretty thoroughly discussed as a major agent for viewing people not as the individuals they are but rather as belonging to a certain class, usually inferior to ours. Similar discussions evolve when Dawkins explains his views on why religion and science can not merge together the way many hope they would unless we change the way we define science or the way we define religion. As interesting as these discussions are, and I for one wholeheartedly agree with Dawkins' views, they are much better expressed and summarized in Dawkins' later book, The God Delusion.
Others who end up on the receiving end of Dawkin's wrath are the English monarchy, as the supporter and presenter of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion - an institution that tries to outwit the Noble Prize by offering larger money prizes. Prince Charles receives special mentioning as an advocate for "going back to living the way we always used to", with living off wheat as an example; Dawkins points out that wheat is just as natural to us as McDonald burgers are, given that the human race has only started eating wheat about 10,000 years ago - a minuscule period in evolutionary terms.
A significant portion of the book is devoted to Stephen Gould, a fellow/rival evolutionary biologist. Obviously, their constructive debate is important to Dawkins, but this part of the book is also the least interesting part of it; while I find evolution to be an interesting topic for discussion, I do not find it that interesting. Not that Dawkins cannot make evolution related discussions interesting: one of his arguments is that Darwin's theory of evolution could have been deducted by sitting in one's armchair and contemplating reality in economic like terms; yet he argues that Darwin's greatness comes from the fact no one managed to come up with this very sensible theory beforehand.
Overall: A Devil's Chaplain is an exhilarating yet imperfect book. If you are looking for a book to expand your horizons and make you enjoy it while at it, look no further. Personally, I know by now that Dawkins and I have a bright friendship ahead of us (sadly, only through his books): I simply agree with every line of his reasoning. I can only grant the book 4 stars, but I will add its main shortcoming is in the fact Dawkins wrote even better books.

Friday, 29 December 2006

Film: Bewitched

Lowdown: Falling in love is just as hard for a witch as it is for mere mortals.
I am not a big fan of Nora Ephron (Sleepless in Seattle, You've Got Mail) to say the least; had I known Bewitched is a film of hers I doubt I would have spent an hour and a half of my time with it. But I did, and I have to say I am as much of an Ephron fan as I was before.
The film follows Nicole Kidman, a witch from a family of witches and warlocks who can get her way around anything with a wiggle of her nose or a tweak of the ear. Nicole is unhappy with immediate yet superficial gratifications, so she decides to retire from witchcraft and settle in Los Angeles. Alas, fate gets her to bump into the producers of a remake for the old Bewitched series, and guess what - she fits the role of a witch like a glove.
Then she falls in love with the lackluster co-star of the remake series, Will Ferrell, but things go the wrong way when Ferrell uses Kidman to advance his own failing career and later when Kidman, who finds quitting witchcraft is just as hard as quitting smoking, tells him their relationship was based on incomplete truths and that she is, in fact, not "just" an actress witch. All the while, we have the background story of Michael Caine - Kidman's warlock father - love affair with Shirley MacLaine, who plays the witch's mother in the remake.
The story's point, I guess, is that ultimately we are all witches and warlocks when it comes to relationships; we just need to get our act together, accept each other's deficiencies, and learn to trust and expose ourselves to our loved ones. However, this is far from being well told; the plot progresses along rather awkwardly, and the film serves mainly for Ferrell to perform his usual absurd theater acts rather than making the point; and it's not like his acts blend well with the film, they are way too far out there.
Ultimately, we have ourselves a film that is mostly a waste of time and talent: The talents of Caine, MacLaine, and mostly Kidman. Yet another patronizing love affair story from the Ephron production line; as usual for her, laughs are very rare and subdued, even though it's supposed to be a comedy.
Best scene: Clips showing Ferrell's previous acting failures provide the film's funniest bit.
Overall: 2 stars.

Sunday, 17 December 2006

DVD: Derailed

Lowdown: A guy unsatisfied with his life pays a price when he sets out to have a bit of an adventure on the side.
What is it with films that just don't make sense? How come the filmmakers can't notice it while creating the film?
Derailed tells a story revolving around Clive Owen, who at the moment is probably my favorite actor - the one I would cast today to play Indiana Jones. Owen is a high flying advertising guy living with a beautiful wife, a daughter and a dog in a big house at Chicago's suburbs. Owen's daughter is sick with a rare disease, reflecting on Owen's lack of satisfaction with his life.
One day, on the train to work, he finds himself confronted by a conductor with no ticket and no cash. He feels doomed, but then he's saved by Jeniffer Aniston, who pays for his ticket. They start chatting, and then one thing leads to another - they end up in a dodgy hotel room late at night, about to betray both their marriages. Suddenly, someone breaks into the room, knocks Owen out and rapes Aniston. The horror doesn't end there, though: that criminal then sets out to blackmail Owen, threatening to let Owen's wife know what's going on.
The story continues to develop from this point onwards in a very Cape Fear like manner. Owen seems to be doing every mistake possible in his handling of the issue, and things just look bleaker and bleaker for him.
Overall, Derailed is an effective thriller - you're really thrilled while watching it. That said, it is not a particularly good thriller. For a start, it is very predictable; you've probably watched enough films with a twist to smell them coming your way in Derailed and take the surprise factor out of the equation.
But the worst thing about Derailed is that you simply can't believe the things that go on there. Owen's continuous film noir like tragic mistakes may be tragic and may plummet him down a bottomless pit, but they do not really make sense; Owen is supposed to portray the ordinary man we can identify with, but his actions are more ridiculous than ordinary. You sit there watching the film and you don't believe Owen is doing the things he does. I don't want to give away too much and ruin the film for you, but it is simply hard to believe a person would do the things Owen does in his situation; and the problem is the movie relies on his actions, most of which consist of him telling more and more lies that entangle him, to drive the plot forward. It reminds me of those cheap romantic films where the hero tells lies to get the girl and then has to fight his way back when she discovers he was lying, only that Derailed pretends to be a more serious attempt.
Overall, the movie - aside of being a thriller that tries to surprise you - is a story about the breakdown of the American household to the point where people have it all yet they are still unable to appreciate what it is that they have; only when they stare outside and get burnt do they realize how well they were doing. Now, I have toured the USA to one extent or another, but I cannot claim to know how people live their lives there (and I suspect there's more than one way for them to be doing it, anyway); but the image you get in most contemporary American films is an image of people living in huge houses with huge rooms and a huge backyard, with kids and a dog to add up to their American dream, yet they are dysfunctional as a family unit: the husband doesn't talk much to the wife, and both are in a race to satisfy work and financial demands while trying to tackle the "problems" caused by their kids. Given the repetitiveness of this concept in a great number of films, I suspect this disillusionment process with achieving happiness through material acquisition is an issue on a lot of people's minds.
Best scene: At the start of the film we see Owen in his bedroom waking up in the morning. He stares to the side to see his good looking wife having a shower (sadly there's no nudity there), but you can see by the expression on his face that he is as excited about seeing here as one would be when they receive a parking ticket. The scene establishes the film's premises quite well.
Picture quality: This is a DVD done bad. Colors are all over the place and vary from scene to scene, and there is noise aplenty.
Sounds quality: Nothing spectacular; pretty standard for an American film, which is not too bad.
Overall: As much as I like Owen and as much as I think he does a good job with his character, the script is simply too unbelievable. 2.5 stars.

Watched without reviewing...

For the record, we've watched the following movies over the last week but as I grew up on them I can't really review them:
  • Witness: Harrison Ford in one of his best performances. What an excellent film!
  • Top Gun: After watching Reign of Fire we couldn't hold ourselves from watching Top Gun again. For me, it was the first time I've watched it with 5.1 sound; however, it was still one of the most ridiculous films ever, the embodiment of everything that's wrong with contemporary Western culture. Featuring the highest ratio ever of cliches for the minute, I will always remember this film mostly for its Mad Magazine parody.

Book: The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini

Lowdown: The rise and fall and rise of an Afghan child who is not that dissimilar to Darth Vader.
The Kite Runner is one of those books that really makes you want to read them quickly because it's so intriguing and you just need to know what happens next. Anyone who read The Da Vinci Code will know what I'm talking about here.
The book tells the story of a kid growing up in Kabul, Afghanistan, during the seventies. His father is rich, and his best friend is the similarly aged son of their servant. Together they have lots of fond childhood memories, especially memories to do with flying kites. However, the hero kid is always jealous for his father's love, feeling the servant's kid gets too much of it. And while the servant's kid is always loyal to the hero the reverse does not apply, and when put to the test the hero betrays him in a very tragic way. The rest of the book follows the hero as he tries to redeem himself, while in the background we get to hear of all the calamities that befell Afghanistan as the story unfolds all the way to post 11/9 Afghanistan.
To paraphrase on Beavis & Butt-Head, those great oracles of book reviews, The Kite Runner is full of ism. Mainly symbolism and analogies, with the events taking place on the hero's soul mirroring what takes place over Afghanistan and vice versa. Together with the enticing plot, and the fact it is very well written (Or is it very well translated? After all, I read the Hebrew version) the book is quite a pleasure to read.
That said, readers of this blog will know that a book like The Kite Runner is not my usual cup of book material. I would not, under normal circumstances, read a book like this; I did it because my father bought it to me as a gift. The fact he kept nagging me to read it helped, too. I guess what I'm trying to start saying here is that despite it being an exciting read, I cannot endorse the book as a truly good book. Allow me to elaborate.
I'll start with something that will probably annoy most of you. During the redemption process the hero goes through, he goes through a process that a person living in a mostly Christian country would refer to as "finding Jesus" (or, in the hero's case, finding Muhammad). I know people tend to fall down such traps when times are hard - as in, believe in things that don't exist in order to make life's ordeal easier to accept - but I cannot be said to enjoy reading about it.
However, if that was the only problem with the book, I wouldn't have even mentioned it. The main problems are to do with its similarities the book has to that notorious book I've already mentioned, The Da Vinci Code. For a start, both books are written like a cinematic script, flashbacks included; I think there are better ways to do things in a book than to write according to a cinematic formula, thus accepting the limitations of the language of cinema in a format that does not need to be so limited.
Second, both books don't have much in them that we haven't read about before. The Da Vinci Code might have excited people with so called "revelations" about the true nature of Jesus (most of which are fictitious bullshit), but as stories go it has nothing we haven't read about before. The same applies to The Kite Runner: this story of brotherly jealousy, betrayal and then redemption is nothing new; we've read about it in books and seen it in the cinemas many a time, with the best example being the story of one Darth Vader. While there is no "Luke, I am your father" scene in the book, it comes pretty close to that. I would argue the only place where the film breaks new ground is in telling the story of Afghanistan, a land we all prefer to forget.
The third negative is the most serious one: just like The Da Vinci Code, the book is all so predictable. If a character is saying something or holding something in the beginning, you know it would be referenced again later on. Nothing the book throws at the reader can really said to be surprising, and it's not because the book doesn't attempt to surprise and thrill its reader; it's all to do with its lack of originality.
The book concludes with an optimistic view that Afghanistan's fate might now change for the better with the American led invasion and a newly elected president. I'm wondering what Hosseini makes of it now, some four years after he wrote the book; I suspect he would not be the careful optimist he was when the book was first published.
Overall: It's a question of how you would rate the book being well written and thrilling on one hand to it being less than original and predictable on the other. Personally, I would give it a 3.5 star rating, but I would also recommend it overall as a good read regardless of ratings.

Saturday, 16 December 2006

DVD: Reign of Fire

Lowdown: In the near future, dragons have taken over the world and humanity has been reduced to a refugee status. Until people discover they can fight back.
Some films are just so bad they're good. The best example I can come up with to demonstrate the notion is Top Gun, a film celebrating pretty much all that is bad in modern culture in such a serious way you can only laugh at it. Reign of Fire is not as bad, but it certainly qualifies as a film that's just so bad you enjoy it, in a perverse kind of a way.
The film's main problem is that it simply doesn't make sense. While digging underground in modern day London, diggers suddenly stumble upon a big chasm which turns out to be a dragons' lair. Yes, you've read it right. The dragons emerge to conquer the universe, and humanity is helpless in its war against them: even nuclear weapons don't do the job. As civilization falls apart, scientists discover - all too late - that it was the dragons that made dinosaurs extinct and that it was dragons that caused the occasional calamity to life on earth in general. The world is reduced to dust, and 30 years after dragons first emerged there are no more cities or anything like that, just small groups of refugees doing their best to survive: they do crops, hiding them to prevent the ash eating dragons - yes, ash is very nutritious if you're a dragon - from burning it for their consumption; they even invent religions to get their kids to properly behave in the face of the dragon threat.
The film follows a colony of refugees living somewhere in northern England (or southern Scotland?), and led by Christina Bale. Life is hard for them, and then one day a group of American soldiers led by Matthew McConaughey knocks on their door; at first they're afraid of potential looters, but soon they join forces as they realize that McConaughhey has figured out a way to fight back and win the war with the dragons.
I do have a lot of patience towards dragons and fantasy; I used to be a big fan. But Reign of Fire goes way too far as far as credibility is concerned. You could think that maybe the concept here was to warn us of a danger we might expose through something that we're doing today that could be the end of civilization as we know it: maybe global warming, or perhaps the tinkering with our genes. However, I suspect the explanation is much simpler: the directors looked for an excuse to make a semi horror movie featuring dragons as the main event of a special effects laden meal.
What they ended up with is very stupid, often thrilling, but also quite funny. Especially when you watch a bald McConaughey that is hard to recognize with all the makeup on running around with breathing sound effects and a voice that make him sound like a Darth Vader.
Best scene: The refugees recreate the famous "Luke, I am your father" scene from Empire Strikes Back to their kids as a bedtime story. Not that this line of thinking is that original, it's just that the film is overall lacking in originality or creativity.
Picture quality: This THX certified DVD features excellent picture quality. A lot of it is dark, but you don't see much if any in the way of artifacts.
Sound quality: Quite good, although not world class. Effective surround envelopment.
Overall: 2.5 stars, most of which because the film is ridiculously funny.

Thursday, 14 December 2006

DVD: Kenny

Lowdown: Kenny is a real shit pro, but everybody is shitting on him.
You'll have to excuse the foul language in this review. Not that I care much about foul language, but in this particular case there's no avoiding it: Kenny is a film about shit.
Kenny is also an Aussie bloke living in Melbourne, whose profession it is to take care of people's shit. His company runs toilet facilities in major events, and Kenny is the one behind the scenes making sure it all works well: the film starts by exposing us, through Kenny, to some rather scientific facts about the qualities of shit and the act of generating it. We see Kenny talking to a potential client running a show and discussing the food and drinks served there (curries, lots of alcohol) in order to analyze the correct blend of toilets.
Kenny is very good at what he's doing: we see him handling some very tough situations at live shows where the state of affairs is in the shits, literally. But through sheer professionalism, a positive attitude and a good spirit Kenny prevails.
The problem with Kenny, though, is that everybody seems to be shitting on him: he's a good guy that's exploited by everybody and receives zero appreciation and credit from society despite all the good he does and despite his achievements. We see Kenny in a series of scenes exposing this problem: no one appreciates what he does for a living, mainly his father who thinks it a disgrace. Things go to the extreme when he's even being condemned to rot in hell, in a scene that exposes Kenny as an atheist; now, for the record, note I'm only bothering to mention this particular bit because it feels contrived and does not really go well with the flow of the rest of the film, raising my suspicions that it was added as a way for the filmmakers to expose their personal views (for the record, I would like you to note this extremely rare case of me saying something that might be interpreted as pro-religious).
The issue of us taking things for granted while not paying enough respect to those giving us those things we take for granted is at the core of this film. We all commit this crime: personally, it took a move to Australia for me to appreciate just how much I owe my parents. Kenny's particular case also made me notice the low status society gives to those of us who do the less glamorous jobs, which also tend to be the toughest ones, at least physically. Australia is actually not that bad in this respect: in Israel, for example, if you're not a lawyer or a doctor you're nothing, probably due to the ongoing Jewish mother pathos.
Overall, Kenny reminds me the most of a relative of his, Borat. Both comedies are shot to look like reality documentaries when in fact they're anything but, and both of them have some gross subject matter that is there to help us pay attention to things to do with ourselves. Both films were also quite successful at the Australian box office, with Kenny being a rather surprise hit for a low budget local film. However, while Borat goes to the very extreme, Kenny is a much more subtle, almost a "for the entire family" film affair. Personally, having found Borat good yet way too extreme, I prefer the Kenny version even though it does not have as much sting.
Best scene: You wait all film long for Kenny to answer back to all those giving him the shits. When that happens, it happens in style - a very suitable conclusion given the subject matter.
Picture quality: Like Borat, this one is made to look rough. I suspect that in this case the roughness is also the result of a low budget: An Australian film shot in Melbourne cannot compete with Hollywood's production qualities.
Sound quality: Quite poor, but on some scenes the music provides some nice surround envelopment.
Overall: 3.5 turds.

Monday, 11 December 2006

Book: The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The complete and unabridged guide to the atheist agenda against religion and the institution commonly referred to as god.
I will openly admit it: book reviews are still very much an enigma to me. By now I have developed some structure for reviewing movies, but with books it's a less systematic seat of the pants thing. The God Delusion makes things even harder: it represents such a conclusive and systematic approach to a subject, I simply cannot find anything to cling to as far as criticism is concerned. So I will approach it the way I tend to approach a review when I don't really have much to say: I will summarize, to one extent or another, what the book is trying to say. Before that, I will just mention that Richard Dawkins is an Oxford biologist who first became famous with a book he wrote 30 years ago called The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins starts by defining the scope of the issue he wishes to discuss, or attack, depending on your point of view. He quickly defines the "god" term he wishes to address, and makes it pretty clear it is not the god commonly referred to by Einstein or Hawking, which is closer to the Spinoza god, but rather the overseeing god that pretty much all religions talk about.
He then moves on to surveying arguments for the existence of god, from things like "the world is so beautiful there has to be a designer" to arguments based on supposedly holy scriptures. Systematicness is the rule of thumb here and elsewhere throughout the book, and one by one he presents an argument only to counter it using what is commonly referred to as the scientific methodology (i.e., the gathering of observable, empirical and measurable evidence subject to the principles of reasoning - a definition copied from Wikipedia). Interestingly enough, Dawkins does not despair from turning every stone and presenting every pro-religious argument he can come up with, at least to the best of my familiarity with pro-religion arguments; say what you may say about what Dawkins, he does not shy away from an intellectual challenge.
At a pretty early stage of this relatively long book he moves on to express his agenda on why there is almost certainly no god. Again, it is all countered by pro-god views and all explained using the scientific methodology, but if you want this chapter to be summed up in one sentence then it would be the argument that the probability of the god we tend to delude ourselves with truly existing is extremely low. Very extremely low.
Dawkins recognizes that his arguments would be incomplete without explaining why a concept as flawed as religion manages to have such a firm grip on humanity; usually, when something is in our way the way religion is/was in the way of people, you'd expect us to get rid of it. Yet, most of us embrace it. Here, Dawkins relies on his background as an evolutionary biologist to suggest a wide array of theories, mainly along the lines of religion being a by product of evolution. A basic interpretation of mine to the idea, in order to explain what I am trying to say here about Dawkins' arguments, is to compare the urge for religion to the urge for sex: we all know why evolution has programmed us to like sex - it's in order to ensure the survival of the species; yet we still like sex when we use a condom or a pill, knowing fully well the species will have zero benefit tonight.
Next on Dawkins' agenda is the tackling of an idea commonly used in order to support the concept of religion: the arguing that without religion we would have no morality. Immediately he disqualifies this argument by saying that if the only reason a person does not kill and rape is because of that all seeing surveillance camera up in the sky, then by definition that person is immoral. He then moves, again, to offer evolutionary related reasons as to why we prefer to be good to one another; basically, that humanity has spent most of its time in small, tight, communities, where being good to one another offered significant advantages to the group; today, we call this effect synergy and team work and we look for it when we interview potential employees.
After that, Dawkins moves on to a full collision course: a blunt attack on religion, exposing it for all the bad things in it - the racism in it, the advocating for mass killings, the slavery it approves of, and much more. Dawkins is often desribed by his adversaries as an atheist fundamentalist, and as a result his attack is followed by equally lengthy and detailed explanations on why he has so much against religion and why he thinks the world would be a better place without it (or rather, why he considers the world to be that much worse with it). Special attention is given to the introduction of religion to children, which Dawkins considers to be one of the worst, often government endorsed, crimes humanity is performing upon itself, thus perpetuating all the bad things that come with religion and ensuring the the suffering of later generations.
In conclusion, Dawkins provides an uplifting finalle with his take on looking at life and for seeking explanations. Again, it is heavily based on science and the wonders of this world as we begin to discover them. If you seek a single sentence summarizing all of Dawkins' arguments in one sentence, it is that religion limits our view of our world to the tiny slit on a woman's burka, while science is there not to expand that slit but rather to get rid of the burka in the first place.
Now, those who know me will know that my opinions are pretty much identical to Dawkins', and that as far as I am concerned this book is a sermon preached to the preacher. Yet I argue that such an argument would constitute a great disrespect to this book, as Dawkins' arguments are much articulated at a level much higher than I can ever hope to achieve. I can only say it that many times: the book is truly a conclusive attack on a problem, so conclusive that it is rare to find such an approach not only when discussing religion but in any discussion; it is a fine example of what a thoughtful human being can come up with if he/she sets their mind to it.
And it's not only its conclusiveness and depth that make it good. The book is very fluently written, and given the issues and the level of its discussion it is an easy book to read. Not only easy to read, but also fun to read: Dawkins is no comedian, but he does mix in a joke or two often enough to keep the reader amused; he certainly is capable of serious yet humorous writing. I'll sum my personal evaluation of Dawkins up this way: The God Delusion was my first interaction with Richard Dawkins, but by the time I finished reading it I was owning five of Dawkins' books (and very much looking forward to having the time to read them).
I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone, if only for the fine example it represents on how to approach an issue and properly discuss it. I would dearly love to hear others' opinions on it and its arguments, most especially the opinions of those who disagree with Dawkins; naturally, I don't care for things like "may he rot in hell", preferring to stick to constructive arguments, of the type that sticks with the scientific methodology. I severely doubt such arguments can be found, if only because Dawkins is a one mean intellectual; but I would definitely like to be surprised on this front, if only for the intellectual challenge it would bring along. In any case, I will not accept arguments claiming that religion is exempt from being argued scientifically, because I see no reason for that exemption to be granted; that is, in fact, one of the main arguments Dawkins is presenting when discussing what is wrong with religion: if you can't argue for or against it, how can you ask for it to be accepted?
This free "out of jail" card religion, flogged about on a regular basis, is something I find most annoying, and I'll explain with an example. I would dearly love, for example, to buy The God Delusion as a gift for my friends and family; after all, books of such excellence do not come by on a frequent basis. However, I know perfectly well that if I was to give this book to certain members of my family they will find it so offensive I will be risking the severing of family ties; I dare not speculate the potential effects such a naive act can have on my life. Poisonous books have been written before: Main Kampf is a good example. But The God Delusion is no more such a book as, say, Alice in Wonderland is; it is an exemplary work of thought and intellect, and Dawkins is a humanist of the first rank. And this, my dear reader, is probably the best example that I can give in support of Dawkins' message.
Overall: On a scale of 1 to 5, The God Delusion ranks 6 stars. Yes, it is that good.

Sunday, 10 December 2006

Film: Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress

Lowdown: Nothing can suppress the human spirit. Other than communism and capitalism.
I have a problem with Balzac. I really hate him: back in high-school we were forced to read his book Pere Goriot; I started reading it, but just found it way too boring to actually consume. It was so boring I didn't even read the short summaries of it, and as a result I had to spend a good few months of school under the terror of potentially being tested on it.
Fast forward 20 years into the future, and now Balzac comes back, sort of, in this Chinese speaking film. The film, set in the early seventies, follows a couple of young Chinese guys from the city who are sent for "communist re-education" in some remote mountain village because the father of one of them - a dentist - did some work on Chiang Kai-Shek's mouth.
In that village they are required to give up on their spirit: their books are burnt, their hi-tech possessions (an alarm clock) are confiscated, and their violin is very close to being burnt until they play a Mozart tune they claim to be called "Mozart thinks of Mao". And then their intellectual skills are thrown out of the window when all they are required to do is hard labor - a lot of it.
Quickly enough they find a secret hideout where the villagers' women go for a bath. They get close to one of them, a young seamstress. She is illiterate, and their mission becomes opening her eyes to what this world has to offer through books. They steal a bunch of books from another re-educated guy who claims to have become a true hard laboring communist but who is actually just bluffing in order to get back to the city and his rich family. They read the books to all the villagers, but most importantly to the seamstress - who just happens to love Balzac the most (weird girl). Most importantly, through the books they manage to stir some spirit back into their existence as well as the villagers'. As optimistic as that may seem, though, [spoiler warning!] all is not that well that ends well; eventually, capitalism and the quest for more will replace communism as the abductor of the human spirit.
There is no doubt about the merit of the film's idea, and a lot of it is good: it exposes Western viewers to a world they probably weren't exposed to before, it offers some nice sceneries, and overall the concept is an interesting one. However, it is also lacking in many respects, which can be summed up in a single word: boredom. The film is simply too slow for comfort, and even though it is the type of film on which you may say "oh, that's a nice film" and on which you tend to think afterwards, it just doesn't cut the mustard.
Best scenes: The first is the scene where the two heroes' items are scrutinized in order to find anti-communist material. The second is when three peasants discover one of the forbidden books the heroes are hiding, and have an argument on whether the author's photo (a French author) on the book's cover is Marx, Lenin or Stalin; the scene goes a long way in showing what the limiting of the scope of people's thoughts can do to us, and it made me think of the many other artificial thought limitations we tend to burden ourselves with.
Overall: The boredom eclipses the positive. 2 stars.

Thursday, 7 December 2006

Film: A Private Affair

Lowdown: Meaningless French film-noir.
There is something about film noir that attracts me; yet most its recent treatments have been a failure, and the French film A Private Affair definitely qualifies as one.
The film follows a private detective assigned to find a 21 year old who has been missing for more than six months. He follows her last recorded foot steps, going to the places she has been to and meeting with the people she used to meet. In the process, we get to see him handling his own life affairs, meeting the people he usually meets and doing the things he usually does; and given that it's film noir we're talking about here, there is always some tragic atmosphere to it all - the way he has sex with a married woman, his gambling, the way he is beaten up ala Chinatown...
Overall, there is a lot of cynicism about this film established through the randomness of the events taking place: what is it that we're doing in this world? Where is this entire affair called life leading us to? If anything, the film tends to suggest, through the various encounters the hero character has, that our fates are all entangled with one another's. Problem is, the film does it by being rather pointless, boring and way too obscure.
I like thought provoking films, but this one is a waste of time. If I want a collection of interesting yet pointless scenes, I play a computer game.
Best scene: The hero has a pee while holding a coffee peculator, demonstrating fine French hygiene values.
Overall: A waste of time; 0.5 stars after adding a bonus 0.5 stars for nudity and sex scenes (just because every good film should have some of those).

Tuesday, 5 December 2006

Film: The Castle

Lowdown: Nothing can come between an Aussie and his real estate.
If asked what is the most representative of Australian films, most people would probably answer Crocodile Dundee. I know I would. However, after watching The Castle, it is obvious most people have got it wrong, for I have never seen a film that manages to capture the spirit of its people so well as The Castle. It is, by far, the most Australian film I have ever seen.
It's basically a simple, predictable, happy end type comedy about a rather naive family guy heading a rather dyslectic family. They all live happily right at the edge of Melbourne airport's runway, until one day they receive a notice that as some big company wants to expand its airport operation and thus they are forced to sell their house. But the family guy won't give up: he recruits his unlikely group of neighbors and his conveyancer into a legal fight against the big companies trying to steal his castle away from him. And as this family guy is pure of heart, he manages to touch the right cords in the right people and - here's one spoiler that will not surprise anyone - win the day.
However, the plot is not the main event with this film; it's all about the Australian way of life. The examples are so numerous I can't count them all here: The affection Australians have to real estate, their devotion to their home with endless grooming and extending and renovating, their love of their cars in their own particular way, their love for a bargain, the co-existence between "real Australians" and "bloody immigrants and wogs", the simple/boring food most of them eat, the chauvinistic way in which they "adore" their women while comfortably locking them up in the kitchen, the very relevant way in which big companies are threatening the Australian way of life... But most of all, it's about that famous "no worries", dumbed down attitude Aussies are so famous for; it's charming, but it can also drive you crazy: everything is done with a smile on the face, only half seriously; the film is full of foul language, but you never feel as if it's an issue.
Another surprise is Eric Bana appears in a little role as the Greek son in law; the guy's just great with the way he acts and the way he talks truly matching the character.
However, as charming as the film is, it is also too shallow and too predictable to merit a truly serious appraisal. This is a film that winks at you and makes you laugh, and it does that well, but no more than that. It is, however, the quintessential Australian film experience.
Best scene: The introduction to the family members at the beginning of the film quickly establishes the film's mood and the film's sense of Australianism.
Overall: 3.5 stars.

Thursday, 30 November 2006

DVD: Munich

Lowdown: If there is anything we can learn from the way the Israeli - Palestinian conflict has been going on, the war on terror is already lost if we keep on waging it the way we have been.
Since 11/9/2001 Spielberg has directed two films discussing the event. The first was about a faceless enemy materializing out of the blue in the middle of New York and killing people left and right, and it showed how society fell apart the minute this new menace popped up. Eventually, though, the faceless enemy was destroyed from within by yet another faceless menace.
That film was called War of the Worlds, and amongst others it tried to show us the truly important values we need to hold on to in this fight we're waging against the faceless enemy terrorizing us.
And now it's time for me to discuss Spielberg's second attempt at this subject, Munich. This is actually the second time I am discussing the film, although this time it's the DVD I am reviewing and this time I am doing it in a more systematic way.
Munich tells us the story of what took place when the Israeli government tried to react to the murder of its athletes and officials at the Munich Olympic Games back in 1972. The true account was never released to the public, but it is common knowledge by now that the Israeli government sent out assassins to kill the perpetrators of those killings, sending killers to kill the killers. We follow Eric Bana as he is assigned with the task of leading a diverse group of characters on this search and destroy mission. Things start out nicely with Bana being optimistic about achieving the goals of the mission and releasing the world from the presence of the evil terrorists, but as the film goes along and as Bana & Co kill more and more Palestinians they learn that they are more similar to the Palestinians than they would like to think they are; and later on they also discover that they are losing whatever it is they thought makes them better than their enemies, until they lose most of their humanity.
Throughout the film, Spielberg leaves us with no doubt about his true intentions: not to recreate history and tell us what went on after the Munich events, but rather make us think on how the current war on terror is going and where it is that we're heading for with it. Basically, he's saying that if we will fight force with force we will only up the ante until both sides fall on their knees - just like the Israelis and the Palestinians are at the moment, and just the way both of them seem to drag the entire world down with them. Instead, he suggests we try and get closer to our perceived enemies, establish a dialog with them and understand where they come from; after all, they are much more similar to us than we would like to think.
As usual for Spielberg, he uses every mean available to him to make his point as loud and as clear as possible. In the case of Munich, the emphasis is on authenticity. For a start, the cast is full of authentic figures, with both Israelis and Palestinians portrayed mainly through leading Israeli and Palestinian actors. Although the language is English when the main characters are talking, some Arab and Hebrew dialog takes place during the recreation of the actual Munich killings, and otherwise the characters do a fine job maintaining Israeli / Arab accents; I was quite surprised by how Eric Bana's English sounds a lot like my own.
The sets are a magnificent effort at authenticity: Tel Aviv's beach front truly looks the way it had looked back in the early Seventies, if memory serves me right, and so does the Tel Aviv airport. Cars and shops look authentic, and even the haircuts look real: Bana's haircut is a lot like my father's in the photos where he's holding me as a baby. And for some particular reason, the unit tag on the shoulder of the Israeli Chief of Staff is actually the tag of my old army unit; don't ask me why, it has nothing to do with the Chief of Staff's actual unit, but it is a real Israeli army tag. And last, but not least, the events portrayed in the film are fairly loyal to the way things really were: the way Israelis killed Arabs, the way Arabs retaliated by killing Israelis and Jews and others, and the way politics played a major part with the USA collaborating with both sides; you can argue that this is all quite similar to what is taking place today, with the USA waging war on Iraq, a nation that not that long ago it sold weapons to.
It all works very well; the point is well made and the film is quite thrilling. It is not, however, a perfect film. Towards the end it tends to stretch a little bit too much and suffer from what I refer to as the Apocalypse Now syndrome: a bit too long, a bit too hazy, a bit too arty. The process in which Bana loses himself to his quest is a bit too clumsily portrayed, probably in an attempt to avoid the film earlier part's bluntness. And the culmination of this process, with Bana having a weird sex scene while flashbacking to the most crucial moments of the Munich Massacre is, well, too surreal in my book.
Another drawback is Spielberg's "overdoing". He tries to outsmart us with cinematic tricks all along, and while it is nice at first it's a bit of a distraction later. For example, there is a scene where we watch Bana run after a car, and the camera pans to follow them; while panning, the camera goes inside a restaurant, and we don't see what takes place with Bana anymore, but it stops panning at a window where we just see a glimpse of Bana catching the car. Very arty, but not always the best way to tell the story.
What I like the most about the film is the cast. I am very famous for my admiration to Bana (it was Chopper that really got me into him). But the true gem of the film is Daniel Craig, the new James Bond; he is truly amazing as a ruthless guy whose motto is "don't fuck with the Jews".
Best scene: Bana and Co. meet a similar group of Palestinians, and Bana gets to see how similar they are to him. Eventually, Bana & Co kill them.
Picture quality: Cinematography work by Janusz Kaminski is up to his usual standard of excellence. The film is made to look like an authentic Seventies film would look like, and so it is fairly grainy and low on saturation; if you take that into account, the DVD features excellent picture quality with no noise or artifacts.
Sound quality: As with the rest of the film, the emphasis here is not on a bigger than life sound but rather on authenticity. Explosions sound like explosions, and bullets sound like bullets (spoken from true experience). A great job.
Overall: 4 stars looking upwards.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Movie: Borat! Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

Lowdown: An over-hyped version of Jackass with some little wise insight on human nature thrown in between.
"You just got to see Borat". That's all you can here lately from people you just bump into with whom you are not familiar enough to hold a proper conversation. And I got to admit it, I like the Borat bits from the Ali G show, and this is definitely the type of film where the inferior presentation at the cinema doesn't matter that much but being around a large crowd of people does support the laughter. So off we went.
In case you just came from Venus or Mars, Borat follows the adventures of Sacha Ali Baron G Cohen Bruno (aka Borat), a patriot Kazakhstani reporter - who also just happens to be a racist, chauvinist and an anti-Semite - as he is sent from his poor village in Kazakhstan to do a documentary on the USA. While there he quickly falls in love with Pamela Anderson, which then sets him on a road voyage through southern USA to California in order to meet his love. In between, we get to laugh a lot. We really get to laugh here; this is not your ordinary comedy, this is a laugh pump.
Laughs, however, can be sorted according to three categories. The first is where Borat says something that really shocks the system of any person brought up with something close to normal Western values, such as "this is my sister, the number one prostitute in Kazakhstan" (insert proud smile). Most of the anti-Semite jokes fall under this category.
The second laugh type is when Borat performs some Jackass like stupid tricks, such as chasing a chicken let loose on a New York subway train, or runaround in the nude - in public.
I refer to these two laughter types as cheap laughs, since there's nothing wise about them: anyone with enough guts to do some nasty stuff to himself and to others can achieve those laughs; there is no real creative thinking with them. These two types are quite abundant in the film. Sometimes you even get a mix of the two types together, as when Borat says and does stupid things. I actually got an extra laugh from his Kazakhstani speeches, which are actually in Hebrew; some times they are properly subtitled, sometimes they are not, but most of the time they are just gibberish.
It's the third laugh type that really makes the film what it is: the type where Borat meets genuine people who have no idea they are taking part in a comedy - people who really think Borat is a reporter from Kazakhstan - where, through his eccentric Kazakhstan like behavior, Borat makes them say or do things they would normally not do in public. To make it clear: they expose an aspect of themselves they would normally hide. There are several good examples for such laughs in the film, but not as many as you would think given all the hype the film has been receiving: a rodeo crowd exposing their real thoughts on Muslims and Arabs, a group of youths that long for slavery to make a return, and an evangelistic church crowd behaving like a bunch of lunatics from another planet are the best examples I can give. Sure, Borat meets many others and tries to get them to slip: some people at a dinner party and a group of feminists to name two - but most of the laughter there comes from Borat rather than the people he meets; it's mostly laughs of the first type.
But when it works it works, and Borat provides some smart and careful insight about the nature of humans (albeit not particularly encouraging insight). Many I've talked to dismiss it as "obviously, he's dealing with dumb Americans", but I think this is exactly the attitude Borat is criticizing when he makes us cringe as we laugh at others making a fool of themselves with their big mouths; those that dismiss Americans are just as foolish as the people Borat exposes for idiots on the screen.
There's more to the film than this. Baron Cohen's overall criticism at the American/Western way of life, portrayed throughout the film with many examples - the chase after Pamela Anderson vs. the film's conclusion, Borat getting an iPod while his jealous neighbor gets an iPod Mini - has a lot of wise insight in it. The fact the entire film is shot "reality TV" style as we follow Borat's adventures, when we know perfectly well Borat is not real, is yet another way for Baron Cohen to tell us something about ourselves and the shaky foundations of our comfort zones. But those elaborate insight are very much eclipsed by the laughter moments; as you get out of the film, it's hard to think of those in the face of all the rest.
Alas, I felt like there are not enough good and insightful moments to the film. There is, however, too much cheap slapstick, a lot of which in pretty bad taste and usually at the expense of innocent others (including Pamela Anderson) - enough to counter the wiser insight and ruin the ratio of good material to bad one. I have to say I was also a bit disappointed with some of the better parts already shown on air in the "Ali G in da USA" TV show.
Worst scene: Yes, since I've mentioned the better scenes already, I'll mention the worst one here. Basically, it involves Borat's head being buried in a naked fat man's ass. Yes, you read it right. The scene is a part of a relatively long wrestling in the nude match between the two.
Overall: There is a lot of good stuff in this film, but not enough to outweigh the bad. 3 stars, but you are guaranteed to laugh a lot.

Saturday, 25 November 2006

DVD: Code 46

Lowdown: A milder Blade Runner.
When people ask me what I think is the best film ever, I usually answer Blade Runner. There are films I liked more - Lord of the Rings, even Terminator II - but Blade Runner is usually the best (I say "usually" because it's a very subjective call that depends on all sorts of things, mood included).
Most people consider Blade Runner to be great film because of its vision of the future. However, I feel that Blade Runner's ultimate greatness stems from the way it handles a very deep question which is at the heart of our cultures: what makes a human humane? Religion thinks it supplies us the answer on that, but it seems Ridley Scott is in a bit of a disagreement there, saying that ultimately machines can be just as human as us, and thus telling us a bit about ourselves.
Code 46 is a lot like Blade Runner: it portrays a future that is near enough to where we currently are, enabling us to identify with it; yet its future is also a scary future. Genetics has progressed so that people can be controlled through viruses, and most people are conceived artificially; People are tracked wherever they go through their insurance cards, and those that cannot afford insurance are cast to the "outside" world where their existence is in great doubt; And globalization has become dominant enough so that you get people from all over the world all over the world, and language is a mix of English, Spanish and Arabic.
However, where Code 46 fails is in using this vision of the future to discuss a coherent philosophical issue. The film basically settles for a bleak and scary vision of the future, one that would make us all scared and wonder where this world of ours is heading for - especially as all the nasty stuff going on in the future is heavily based on current trends - but aside of giving us this vision of a bleak future it doesn't do much more. One could argue, though, that such an achievement is enough on its own; that helping us to stop and think about, say, how the war on terror is serving in the shutting of our mouths through the various anti libertarian legislation and free speech limitations now being imposed in both the USA and Australia is worth the time spent watching the film. I tend to disagree, though, simply because as a movie, Code 46 is not that exciting; in fact, it is often boring despite being on the shorter side of things.
The story follows Tim Robins, an expert mind reader who uses dedicated viruses for insurance related investigations. Robins is sent to China to investigate an insurance fraud. He quickly finds the culprit but also quickly falls in love with her, which is when the real story begins. Directed by Michael Winterbottom, a director not unfamiliar with controversy - 9 Songs and The Road to Guantanamo spring into mind - the film is quite unique in its look and feel. It is obvious this is not an American film. However, this is just not enough to create an exhilarating film; its vision of the future is not a wide enough basis to have an entire film established upon.
Best scene: Robins visits the hospital where his lover is in, only to find the full extent of what genetic engineering and playing with memories can do.
Picture quality: The picture has a distinct washed / high contrast look which was obviously meant to go along with the bleak vision of the future. So while it is significantly less than optimal, it is probably exactly what the director wanted. That aside, the picture is very good with no noticeable distortion.
Sound quality: Pretty average, with some nicely mixed music.
Overall: I was disappointed. 2 stars.

DVD: The Squid and the Whale

Lowdown: A divorce in your family can really mess you up. Or: Together we stand, divided we fall.
The Squid and the Whale is a rather unique film in the sense of that it handles only one issue, it doesn't really get anywhere with that one issue, and it does not attempt to act as some sophisticated metaphoric message convener the way most films do. Luckily, this just-a-bit-more-than-70-minutes film manages its single topic quite effectively.
And the topic is fairly simple, although not simple at all for those involved: the film follows a family of four as it goes through a separation/divorce. Jeff Daniels and Laura Linney are the parents, whose story we start being involved in at a fairly advanced stage of antagonism. Their two kids, one in his high teens and the other in the low teens camp with their favorite parent once the news of an upcoming divorce is broken to them, and we continue following the story and learning what has transpired before the current time-line mainly through the eyes of the older son.
The film really goes into the details of what happens to each character. The wife messing with other lovers, the husband jealously going at it with a young student, and the younger son becoming an alcohol consuming rebel.
The most interesting part belongs to the older son, who also provides the film's main weakness: He claims to have written Pink Floyd's "Hey You" song (taken from the album The Wall), and reaps some rewards for that. Personally, I have a problem with so many Brooklyners - the story takes place in New York - not being able to identify a famous song from a very famous album. We also see the child looking for guidance from his father but failing to get it, and becoming jealous when his father hits it our with a young student.
All in all, we see that the divorce really messes everyone up. We see how, but we don't see much more than that.
Best scene: The older son regrets leaving his girlfriend after following his father's advice, and stalks her while she's at a restaurant with her family. Quite a revealing scene.
Picture quality: The film is shot hand held at what seems to be like truly authentic settings. As a result, the picture is very grainy and overall the DVD format's capabilities eclipses what the film requires. This does provide for quite a specific look which matches the film's atmosphere, though. That said, everything is washed with a red hue; I doubt that is intentional (it could be the result of using in room incandescent lighting).
Sound quality: Again, production values don't reign high here; it's mostly to do with realism. But if you take that into account, the sound is not bad for what it is asked to do.
Overall: A solid 3 star performer.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

DVD: Ice Age 2 - The Meltdown

Lowdown: Global warming was having an effect on life at the end of an ice age, too.
Sequels. You know they are going to be bad, you didn't really like the original to begin with, yet you almost always give them a chance. Why? Don't ask me, because after watching Ice Age 2 I strongly suspect I have some severe masochistic tendencies.
The story of this computer animation film, if you can refer to it as a story, follows the same three characters from the original: a sloth, a mammoth and a saber tooth tiger all living it out at the end of an ice age. It's almost needless to say that before you actually get to the thin story you have to watch several teasers telling you all about everything you didn't want to know about the other lovely films the studio wants you to buy. But anyway, if you survived the teasers, you will get to those lovely characters as they live it out with lots of other prehistoric animals in peace and harmony - a sort of a garden of eden, you can argue.
Trouble is at the doorstep, though, as global warming causes ice to melt and the garden of eden to flood. Our animals have to seek shelter elsewhere, and so begins a short journey to a new haven. And in this journey they meet other characters, none of which are well developed and most of which exhibit severe symptoms of contemporary pop culture; amongst which they meet a female mammoth which falls into the square of the romantic tension maker.
It's all extremely shallow, and none of the characters - including the three leading ones - are developed to any sort of a degree. The plot, whatever might exist of it, is thin and meaningless, and as the film progresses you're mainly left to wonder why you decided to waste an hour and a half of your life watching such a bad film.
I find it interesting to note the film had a few biblical connotations. I already mentioned a garden of eden, but it also has a Noah's ark and a postmortem heaven. As far as I can tell, none of those actually lead us anywhere - a fairly similar status to where the global warming motif leads the film, too. The only thing you're left with is a thin story about friendship.
Best scene: Forget the main characters, the real hero is the weird squirrel who madly hunts an elusive acorn, forming the transition scenes to the main story. His best appearance, though, is not in the film at all but rather in one of the supplementals, which tells a short story about the squirrel and a time machine in the shape of an acorn.
Picture quality: Surprisingly enough it's quite mediocre, with plenty of digital artifacts and noise.
Sound quality: OK, but not much better than the minimum you would expect from an American production whose main quality is in its production values.
Overall: A keep away from 1 star.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

DVD: Cars

Lowdown: A car finds that there are more important things in life than fame and fortune; status anxiety for cars.
Only one preview attacks you when you load Cars into your DVD player, which is quite admirable for a kids' film. However, there's no doubt the latest computer animation film from the house of Pixar is a kid's film, or rather - a film that aims at people with limited capacity to digest a film.
The film follows the adventures of a sexy racing car, voiced by Owen Wilson. In a world where the entire population is made of cars, Wilson is a hot shot rookie who thinks only of himself and his quest to get laid, become rich, and enjoy the privileges of those who hold high status in modern day society.
After Wilson and two other cars end up tied for the title at the end of the NASCAR season, the race organizers declare a tie-break round to take place in California within a week. Wilson is put in a truck and driven to California, but his arrogance costs him to be dropped of the truck and get lost. Instead of going on the interstate he finds himself in a remote small town, somewhere in the middle of the famous Route 66.
Wilson becomes more and more desperate to get to California and fulfill his dream; he causes a big mess in town (in a very cartoon like way), and in turn is sentenced to fix the town's road - something that would take him about a week. He tries to escape, then tries to do a quick job at fixing the road, but both don't really work. Alas, he has to serve his sentence by making a true effort. He does, it works, and in the process he befriends the town's locals - a bunch of unlikely cars if ever one encountered such. In short, he learns there's more to life than expensive cars. But then his former life catches up with him...
For the record, in case you're not a regular reader of my posts, what the film is trying to tell us - that friendship is probably the most important thing in life, the only thing that can really lead to a fulfilling life; that quality can be found in the most unlikely of places; and that the harder things in life are usually the worthier things in life - are all things I truly appreciate and advocate for. That's good. There are also some nice touches to the film, in typical Pixar style: imaginative characters, as well as imaginative casting (e.g., Paul Newman - an ex racing car team owner himself, giving his voice to an old racing car who ends up managing a racing team).
However, with all due credit, the message is delivered in a very unsubtle way - it's all spoon fed to you, just in case you don't have the intelligence to figure things out. Everything is simple, everything follows all the formulas that previous film and cultural stuff have established way long ago. And the perfect example is the happy end, where - be careful, a spoiler is coming up - people learn the virtues of the long road over the interstates, and Route 66 becomes alive again.
Best scene: Be careful again, here's another spoiler. Wilson's "hideout" in Route 66 is disclosed to the press, who circle him and end up pushing up back on the truck that takes him to California against his will. I liked the scene because it portrayed, to me, the way in which society pushes us all to conform with its values - be they right or wrong. Watching the scene made me hail Bohemia.
Picture quality: In one word - exemplary.
Sound quality: Wow! Directional dialog and effects, low frequency information in the surrounds - this one is a case of "who can ask for anything more".
Overall: As a film, this is something like 2.5 stars. However, given the technical excellence of the presentation and the appreciation I have for what it is trying to say, I'm giving it 3.5 stars.

Sunday, 19 November 2006

DVD: A Sound of Thunder

Lowdown: Under the cover of a sophisticated science fiction film lies a basically stupid "make you jump" horror film.
On paper, you would think that Peter Hyams would know his way through serious science fiction films, having directed many in the past. But that's only on paper; most of his films qualify as misses (Timecop), although I do like some of them (Outland, Capricorn One). A Sound of Thunder is based on a Ray Brad Bradbury story I've never read, but his name was enough for me to give this DVD a chance at the rental store. Sadly, it did not deserve it.
The film takes us into the near future, when time travel is possible. Possible, but used only (so it seems) by businesses taking rich people on dinosaur hunting expeditions. Starting not to make sense?
The scientist involved in the tours justifies his participation in an attempt to gather animal genes, as animals on earth have become extinct through some virus. He informs us with this through one line of casual dialog, but that's all that is ever mentioned of this point; nothing more and nothing less. That's not good film making.
Sooner rather than later some mishap happens, and a slight incident that happened 65 million years ago while leisurely hunting a T-Rex changes the present as we know it. The effects on the present don't take place the way we've been "trained" by Hollywood: instead of taking place instantly, they take place through "time waves" that come every once in a while. You even see them coming (at what speed does time travel?). And with every time wave that goes by, the present the way you know it changes more and more to the present that would take place as a result of the slight incident from the past. Mechanical things stop working (although auxiliary power generators seem fool proof throughout the film), followed by plants, and then by a new hunter species that is "monkey meets dinosaur" becomes the dominant animal. The only chance our heroes have of saving life as we know it is to prevent that slight incident from happening before the last time wave, the one that erases humanity, washes along. Apparently, humanity is erased last because it's the most sophisticated life form; I don't know who drew that conclusion, but I would assume it would be the first to be erased if that was the case. Did I mention the film doesn't make sense?
All in all you get the feeling that although this film has some sound foundations it was supposed to stand on - the corruption of private companies, the bending down of the government before private companies, the randomness of life and how the slightest thing like the flutter of a butterfly's wings can make a whole lot of a difference - the film is just one big staging for some horror scenes to take place in a modern day like New York, with lots of weird CGI monsters chasing heroes down narrow corridors. It's sad to see all those sound foundations coming down to that. And even this doesn't work that well: the special effects are nothing special; in fact they look quite bad.
Eventually, the question one asks is what an actor like Ben Kingsley doing in a film such as this? Probably the same thing he did in Species.
Best scene: That's a tough one to pick in a shallow film like this. I guess I'd go with the T-Rex hunting scene; it's far from original, but at least it has an impact.
Picture quality: Lots of noise, and overall the special effects are not well blended in. I don't think any real effort was made in the making of this DVD.
Sound quality: Some good moments, but overall quite average for a film so heavily reliant on special effects.
Overall: A disappointing 1.5 stars.

Book: The Dragons of Eden - Speculations on the Evolution of Human Intelligence by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: Knowledge is what sets humanity apart from all other known living beings. The Human brains owes a lot of its reptilian ancestors, but it has constantly evolved and still is evolving.
Here is a popular science book you won't be able to let go of. Sagan manages it by employing a formula that worked for him before: presenting the latest scientific findings (a relative term in the case of this book, as it was written in the seventies), and then adding his own speculations on top. Sometimes those speculations seem to go over the top, other times they are interesting and thought provoking; but the combination works well because it is exactly what scientific thinking is all about: examining the facts, then coming up with theories to explain them, and then doing the best to counter those theories.
This time around the subject of discussion is human intelligence. Sagan claims that it is our brains that set us apart from all other known living things on the planet, as our brains seem capable of holding significantly more information than what simple beings are capable of storing in their genes or in their inferior brains. It is the knowledge this advantage has allowed us to gather that sets us apart, and it is the knowledge we are now gathering in addition to what we have on us that is continuing to set us apart - things like libraries and computers. Our brains are also the source of the sanctity of each one of us, since they are so complicated that no two brains can be identical to, therefore making each person unique; and our brains also give us the gift of self consciousness, which is not necessarily as good as it may sound, for it also allows us to know that we will die.
Sagan progresses the agenda along step by step, showing the evolution of the brain. If ever one required further proof for the theory of evolution, one need only look at the inside of our heads. As a baby develops in its mother's womb, it first develops gill like members and the brain parts we have in common with fish; then come the reptilian parts, to be followed by the neo-cortex which we share with other mammals but which is the biggest with humans. The only way you can read this and not accept the theory of evolution is if you think Sagan is bullshitting you.
But it's not the size that counts, as other humanoid species have had bigger brains than ours (e.g., Neanderthals). Here Sagan speculates that what separated us from the rest is evolution, again: we had the brain bits to allow us to use language, which in turn allowed for sophisticated tools, which in turn allowed us to exterminate all the primates that could rival us.
The book moves on to examine our brains in detail. It provides illuminating descriptions and theories about the battle for dominance taking place in our heads between the territorial / religious instinct of the reptilian parts, the intuitive right hemisphere of the new-cortex, and the overall dominant logic based left hemisphere. Based upon this battle, Sagan speculates on the physiological aspects of mental illness, learning, and the future evolution of our intelligence - which, according to him, lies mostly with computers and their integration with us.
This overview fails to capture the true spirit of this exhilarating book, which - by progressing step by step through our intelligence - provokes us into committing to utilize our brain in the best way possible and do the unthinkable: think.
Overall: Highly illuminating 4.5 stars.

Thursday, 16 November 2006

DVD: Wallace & Gromit the Curse of the Were-Rabbit

Lowdown: An insightful cartoon on an English man, his dog, and their position on nature and the environment.
From the team that brought us Chicken Run and lots of TV stuff like Creatures Comforts comes a feature film (that is, a bit more than 80 minutes) featuring the familiar Wallace & Gromit characters. Familiar, that is, from various short films.
As this film is an animation film, composed entirely of play-dough stop & go animation, it is automatically labeled a kids' film. You realize that immediately once you encounter the storm of teasers knocking you down when you stick the DVD up your DVD player, in an effort by those lovely film companies to have kids torture their parents to death asking for more DVD's. However, there's more to this film than meets the eye; children will hopefully like it, but it has definite adult appeal, too.
Wallace is a food old fashioned English chap, who together with his dog Gromit runs a pest control operation - Anti Pesto - helping the local English town look after its collection of giant fruits and vegetables collection, prepared with much sacrifice for the yearly competition at the local grand estate.
Wallace is a good old chap and he just can't bring himself to exterminating all the rabbits he collects at work, so he and Gromit collect them all at their house. Wallace is also a technology freak, and he comes up with this design for a mind bending machine to use on the rabbits so that they'd avoid harming the town's fruits and vegetables. Alas, his Frankenstein like operation of twisting nature fails, and as a result the town is now facing an even greater danger: were-rabbits.
Wallace is called to fend off the new curse, vile hunters and superstition in the process. But as is usually the case with such films, salvation comes from the unlikely Gromit, who turns out to be the resourceful sidekick that saves the day without asking for any of the glory.
If asked to describe the film in one word, I would say charming. It's not a roller coaster ride of laughs the way, say, Top Secret was; but it is full of subtle funny anecdotes, such as things taking place in the background that you don't notice until you watch the film the third time. It is also full of character, and unlike the production line cartoons of late - say, Over the Hedge - it is not just a pointless mind numbing collection of pop culture anecdotes, but rather a well told story in a well portrayed old-English environment with well developed characters. It's not a copy of other films; it's actually creative.
As I mentioned before, the film has some grownup appeal. It offers more than a bit of criticism towards conservative English-ness, ridiculing institutions such as British aristocracy, hunting and conservatism in general. But most of all it tries to tell us that we should pay respect to nature and avoid trying to outdo it with technology, warning us that such attempts are bound to fail.
That said, most people will just enjoy this film for its superb imaginative animation and the occasional funny joke.
Best scene: Gromit is flying a roller coaster bi-plane, trying to save Wallace, while being chased by an evil dog on a Red Baron roller coaster plane. Suddenly, the coins run out and the chase scene comes to a halt. You'll have to watch it to see what I'm talking about, but this is one creative scene.
Picture quality: Given the nature of the animation it's hard to tell, but overall I was quite happy.
Sound quality: Nothing spectacular, but overall a nice experience.
Overall: A charming 3.5 star effort. If I had kids, I would like them to watch this one rather than most of the crap that is out there for children at the moment.

Wednesday, 15 November 2006

DVD: Hidden

Lowdown: Relationships break down when a couple keeps on receiving surveillance videos of their own house.
To continue the trend of foreign (as in not Hollywood made) films, here is yet another one. I would call it a European film, as it's directed by a German and features French actors speaking Froggish. And it's definitely not a straight French film, as it features no nudity or sexuality at all; that said, it's a very good, effective and unique thriller.
The story follows a French couple, portrayed by Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche. They keep on receiving surveillance videos of their own house at their doorstep, and they have no idea who is behind it and why. The police would not talk to them unless something really nasty happens, leading them to just become more and more frustrated. Nerves start showing up in their professional careers, relationships with one another and with friends, as well as with the raising of their teenage son.
Eventually we begin to suspect that this is all to do with some dark event from Daniel Auteuil's past. Slowly, as the film progresses, we learn more about that, but the film becomes quite disturbing as it goes along without answering our questions. In this regard, the film is quite unique: It is not a happy end film, nor a film that closes the loop on the events taking place in it. In fact, it is quite a disturbing film: Auteuil's character, for example, is not one you would identify with, despite the fact it is leading the film; he makes some weird choices. Instead of the normal way lead characters are developed, Auteuil's one is made into a tragic character.
The film drives us to see how, by not communicating with one another and by being selfish, we ruin ourselves and those around us: examples start from family relationships that break down, but it is also clear the director wants us to view the way the West treats the Middle East (in the film's case, the way the French treat Algerians). Basically, he's saying that our selfishness and our lack of will to really share this world with those that have slightly dissimilar faiths to ours and slightly darker skins than ours does not only hurt them, but us as well. We turn into monsters. We turn into tragic characters. Personally, as an ex-Israeli that spent four years in the West Bank, I'm with the director with this one.
Meanings and metaphors aside, the film is truly unique in the way it is made. It is utterly realistic: there are no sound effects, no special effects, no music, nothing artificial. Everything is made to look and feel exactly the way it would in real life.
The film is also quite brave: There are several long scenes where we just watch a house from the outside for several minutes without much happening. While this is an easy way to lose the crowd's attentions, those willing to give their attention to the film are greatly rewarded. So while it's not for the short attention spanned the film really delivers for the viewer that is willing to invest when it comes to experiencing something new and authentic.
Personally, I enjoyed the film a lot for another reason, one that may sound too mundane: I liked the French-ness of the film, that window it provides us into the way the French live their lives. You see cars parked only centimeters away from one another, which - while very common in France - is actually illegal in Australia; even in Israel such tight parking would not be accepted. You see people closing the door behind them when they enter their living room, whereas both in Israel and in Australia the living room tends to be of the "open floor plan" type. And you also see the ritual that is the French dinner, with small servings designed to look well and the people actually sitting at the table instead of eating in front of the TV.
There is a lot to observe from this film. It's just happens to be an effective thriller, too.
Best scene: I don't know if "best scene" is the way to describe it, but the long scenes in which we see the street or a schoolyard without any significant activities taking place are quite unique.
Picture quality: Digital artifacts lead me to conclude not enough bandwidth was allocated to the picture here. Some dark scenes are quite grainy and noisy, but that has a lot to do with the artistic choice of making the film look realistic.
Sound quality: As mentioned, the sound is quite realistic. Don't expect heavy surround action, because most of the film is in the dialog and the acting. That said, the sound that is there is quite supportive to the way the film feels.
Overall: The best way to describe this one is with the word "unique". 4 stars.