Tuesday, 29 August 2006

MP3 Player: Toshiba Gigabeat S60

Lowdown: Music for every mood, as long as you're not moody for too long.
First thing I want to clarify with regards to this review is that I am no expert in MP3 players. While I have been using PDAs (both Pocket PCs and Palms) as MP3 player, I have no genuine experience with dedicated MP3 players. As a result, I cannot compare the Toshiba to the iPod; what I can report on, however, is on my experience with the Toshiba.
When I bought it I was looking for gigs. I wanted something that would host my collection of CDs (many hundreds), and then some. I also wanted radio reception so I'd be able to catch a few programs I particularly like even while on the train (or at the office, for that matter). And last, but not least, in following with current trends I wanted to have portable video capabilities; don't ask me why, though, it's just a trend thing.
While I think I can safely proclaim myself to be an audiophile, sound quality was not at the top of the agenda. The reason is simple: the venues in which I would be listening to my portable MP3 player do not allow for proper listening anyway; and when I'm home and I control the environment I don't want to listen to MP3 encoded music anyway - I would go for my hi fi setup instead.
Usability: Unlike most of the other MP3 players out there (read: unlike the iPod and its imitations), the Gigabeat does not feature a soft selector button, relying instead on an arrow key like hard central button. While on paper this choice makes it sound as if it would be hard to select a specific song from a list, the implementation is excellent and selection is dead easy with quite an amazing user interface that allows for precision while scrolling yet provides the feeling that only hard keys can provide. You don't need an instructions manual with this one: turn it on, load some songs, and you're all set to go. The iPod is always said to be super slick; this one is definitely super slick on its own rights.
Music can be selected by such parameters as the artist, the album, or the song. However, this can often get annoying, especially if you have an album where one song is by "Queen" and another is by "Queen and David Bowie", which means that songs from the same album appear under different artists. Similar problems occur when one album is under ELO, another under E.L.O., and yet another is under Electric Light Orchestra. But the worst aspect of the interface's limitations is exposed when playing classical music: the player let's you select a track by the performer (say, the London Symphony Orchestra) but not by the composer (e.g., Beethoven), which at least to me would have been more important.
Physically, the device is roughly the same size and weight as the iPod video 60gb device: significantly bigger than the Nano solid state range, but still smaller than a mobile phone.
Overall, as far as usability is concerned, the device is a top performer. Limited to some extents, yes, but still a winner due to its opting to go for simplicity.
Software: The iPod is famous for its ties with iTunes (although you can get plug ins that would do the job with Winamp or through open source applications). The Toshiba is similarly tied to Microsoft's Windows Media Player, which is required in order to synch songs to the device. To be honest, I don't know at this stage whether you just must use Media Player or whether you can get around it, but it certainly seems as if the Toshiba is a Microsoft application through and through, from the interface through to the easy integration.
Now it all depends on what your opinion is on Microsoft Media Center vs. Apple's iTunes. Personally, I hate the two of them: I don't like iTunes' interface, although I admit it's a very powerful application, and I certainly don't like the way Apple drives you towards its own formats and its own services using iTunes. On the other hand, I cannot be said to be a Microsoft fan either, and Media Center is a terribly heavy (PC resources wise) and terribly unstable application. So far I had a smooth life with it and the Toshiba, although I did get a few incidents such as a Simon & Garfunkel song stuck in the middle of a Foo Fighters album - obviously a synch related problem.
I would therefore say that the best option in my book would be to allow me to sort songs on my own in my own folder structure, the same way I do it on my PC's hard disk. However, with most players preventing me from such a privilege (probably in order to protect themselves from copyright breaching lawsuits), the best option here would be to synch to Winamp; since the iPod can do it, it's the winner of this category.
Cost: At $516, it's significantly cheaper than the similar iPod model selling for around $600. It also comes with a power supply, which you need to buy separately in the iPod. I haven't tested the bundled headphones: I don't like the models that stick in your ear; I prefer my Sennheisers.
Music: I read differing reviews on the Toshiba's sound quality, starting from "pretty bad" to "awesome iPod killer". My impressions is that overall, it provides a decent sound quality; no match for proper hi-fi, but enough for portable usage. It certainly beats the PDAs I've been using before and it works better than anything else we've used with our FM transmitter in the car (including an iPod).
Most importantly, with 60gb of music you can definitely find a bit of music to suit every occasion and every mood. It's just amazing to see how much can be crammed into such a small device!
Video: I was worried about the Toshiba's limited support for video formats, mainly its lack of Divx support. However, these worries quickly vanished after two minutes of watching a demo video provided on the Toshiba (dolphins swimming around). For the two minutes in which I watched the video I found myself hunched over and my eyes crossed in order to watch the petite screen; I did not enjoy the experience, and I realized I will never be using the Toshiba for watching videos, no matter what the marketing people say. Anything presented on such a small screen will not be enjoyable, which means only news bulletins or other stuff where information is the only thing that matters (as opposed to presentation) would work.
I will therefore totally ignore video playback aspects in this review, just as I ignore the S60's ability to conduct slideshows with photos you store on it.
Radio: The Toshiba's major advantage over the iPod is its built in FM receiver (there is no FM recorder or a generic recorder, which the Creative Zen Vision M provides). However, I found radio reception to be rather dodgy and unstable, with very minor obstacles causing total losses of reception. So FM is a nice feature, but you simply cannot rely on it - definitely not in venues such as a train.
Battery: By far the Toshiba's Achilles heel. Battery life is quoted to last 11-12 hours, but in real life I keep on getting more like 5-6 hours. I'm actually in touch with Toshiba about it, but they come up with stuff like "are you listening to MP3's or WMA's", or "at what rates are your MP3's encoded", or my favorite - "are you listening on long stints or do you stop and start all the time".
The problem is that 5 hours, or even 6, will not get you too far on a plane, or even on a day's drive. And with the lack of accessories, you can't even get a car charger for the Toshiba yet (although my GPS car charger seems an exact match).
I've been already stranded several times with the Toshiba at work after the battery ran out on me, and I wasn't happy. Its performance is so poor I need to charge it very frequently, and at a quoted life span of 500 charges it would probably last me 500 days.
A poor design indeed.

Advantages: Simple interface, FM reception, large storage capacity, good price for features ratio.
Disadvantages: Lackluster radio reception, inability to act as a simple hard drive, ridiculous battery life span.
Most MP3 player reviews seem to be on an eternal watch for the arrival of the dreaded iPod killer, an animal that seems just as likely to exist as the abdonimal snowman. Is the S60 an iPod killer? Maybe. If you look at it by its features, the answer is "probably", despite its very poorly performing battery.
However, there's more to purchase decisions than functionality. The vast majority of the iPod purchasing public buys it for a certain perceived image, and therefore I suspect that purchasing decision will come down to one thing:
To belong or not to belong? That is the question.

Sunday, 27 August 2006

DVD: V for Vendetta

Lowdown: Freedom starts with the small things; but films with high aspirations need to tackle their subject matter better.
Good intentions are important. We all fail in certain ways most of the time, but if our intentions are pure then usually all can be forgotten.
V for Vendetta is a film with very good intentions. It tells us the story of a not so futuristic England, where disease has struck deep and killed hundreds of thousands, where queers of all sorts and races have been removed, and where freedom of speech doesn't exist anymore - all in the name of protecting the nation and its citizens. It tells the story of a few people that wake up to smell the roses and realize that without variety and without freedom, life is not really worth living.
The film was obviously aimed at the heart of current "war on terrorism" controversy, with people who obviously share my own personal views that with the way this war is currently going the terrorists have already won. I watched the film and I couldn't stop thinking how similar the film's England is to current day Australia: In the film the leadership makes up stories to get rid of unwanted races and homosexuals, in here you get children overboard stories told by the PM and politicians saying lesbians should be burnt at the stake; the films shows detention centers, and Australia is investing billions in its own detention centers; the film refers to anything that may harm the government as sedition, while in Australia they have new anti sedition laws that are awfully ambiguous; people in the film get arrested and disappear for being suspected terrorists, while Australia has recently passed these laws that allow suspected terrorists to be arrested for a long while outside of regular justice procedures and without anyone being allowed to inform the public about the arrests.
In short, the film is very relevant and it should be awarded for talking out loud about issues governments don't really want discussed. If watching this film is going to make people aware of the way their own government treat them, then the film has achieved a lot.
That said, the film suffers heavily in one major department: It's very shallow in its handling of the noble ideas it discusses. Yes, it knows where to go in order to touch on sensitive nerves; but when it does, it just goes berserk and doesn't try to offer anything other than nice visuals and bombastic sound. Everything is just so smooth and everything fits so nicely, in a very un-life-like manner, or rather: a very mainstream film like manner. It's a pity, because the film could have been a major player, and instead it's an also-run.
Best scene: A little girl sees through the government's propaganda and refers to it as bullshit. If only more Australians can see what this girl knows. On the other hand, the scene also shows the film's superficiality; it's just so convenient to have a kid see through the emperor's new clothes.
Picture quality: Impressive. Most impressive.
Sound quality: Very dynamic. This one is a test of your sound system's nerves, with many scenes starting as really quiet and developing to a cacophony of immersive and loud sounds. A true delight.
Overall: 3.5 stars that could have been much more had commercialism not taken over art.

Film: Fantastic Four

Lowdown: Four times the crap.
I have my problems with Hollywood's run of the mill films, but as much as I complain I also enjoy them for the "forget yourself for two hours and just have fun" element of them. Fantastic Four, however, is sadly just too bad for me to forget myself with.
Everything about this film is cliche based. All the relationships between the characters, all their motives - it could all be summed up with "I want the girl", "I want more money", "I want power", or "I want chicks". And thus you don't really need me to tell you what takes place when five people end up being exposed to this mysterious radioactive cloud which gives them unique super powers: one of them becomes the baddie, the others are the goodies, and let the special effects reign.
You can well argue that the film never intends to satisfy any superior artistic needs, being aimed directly at kids or at those looking for very basic entertainment. While there's nothing wrong with that, I think it is bad that those who are at their weakest (e.g., kids) get exposed to a film that specifically shows the winners taking home lots of money and girls. Call me an idealist, but I think there's more to life than getting more money than you can spend. I certainly hope the producers of this film didn't get much back for their investment - maybe next time they'll be up to something more constructive.
Best scene: The end credits.
Overall: 1 falling star.

Wednesday, 23 August 2006

Film: Kops

Lowdown: What would you expect the police to do when there's no crime around?
This one is a weird film: It's a low budget Swedish film, which sort of tells you what to expect. Directed by Joseph Faris, who gave us Jalla! Jalla! a few years ago (dubbed "The Best Friend's Wedding" in certain countries), this indeed turns out to be a very similarly styled film featuring the same cast.
The plot idea is simple yet ingenious: A quiet police station in a regional area of Sweden is about to be shut after no crimes were committed for over ten years. Accidentally, the cops discover that the only way they can hold on to their world is by generating crime - simulating it the way footballers simulate dives. And as the idea becomes more and more successful, their simulations become more and more problematic.
There is not much more to the film other than stupid jokes and this overall stupid atmosphere that really works because the film feels authentic. It comes from the heart, rather than a Hollywood production line of teen movies, even if a lot of it is obvious and some of it requires a memory breakdown in order to accept the way the plot progresses. However, although it's not a film one should watch in seriousness, it is extremely effective as a therapeutic experience at the end of a tiring work day; if you don't expect too much of it and realize the genre it belongs to, the film delivers.
Best scene: The policemen conduct a news conference to discuss the closure of their station. One guy shows up to listen to their serious analysis of the situation.
Overall: 3.5 stars for originality and true spirit.

Monday, 21 August 2006

DVD: Immortal

Lowdown: Half Life look-alike making zero sense.
We never heard of this film before encountering the DVD at the video rental place; we ended up renting it because it was science fiction and we're ever so sensitive to that genre. Alas, now we know why we never heard of it: It just doesn't make sense.
Set in a futuristic world that looks a lot like the world of Half Life, with similar computer graphics making the most of it (small bits are shot live), this is a tale of a future New York mixing aliens, gods, and companies after increasing their profits.
Sadly, I cannot tell you more about this film, simply because I failed to understand most of what took place. Ok, I got the basic plot (I think), but it didn't shape up into anything of any significant meaning. Watching the supplementals it seems as if this film is a based on a collection of comics stuff written by its director, Enki Bilal.
One thing you can see in the film is its French heritage: the film freely borrows quite heavily from the Fifth Element. In its favor, the film looks good; but looks alone do not make a film good. Next time around it should try starting with a plot and some meaningful characters.
Best scene: The opening scene, due to its aggressive and immersive surround sound. And that's it.
Picture quality: It's really hard to judge, given that most of what you see is computer graphics that is aimed to look arty. Overall it's probably pretty good at conveying the director's intentions.
Sound quality: aggressive and immersive - just the way movie sound should be. You're in it, not looking at it.
Overall: 0.5 meaningless stars. Pretty bad, in short.

DVD: Rumor Has It...

Lowdown: The Graduate gets the Harry Met Sally treatment.
Once upon a time there was a funny actor called Rob Reiner who played in the Archie Banker TV series and went on to direct two great films: The Princess Bride and When Harry Met Sally. However, after you watch his latest, Rumor Has It, you can't escape asking the question: What happened to you, Rob?
Rumor Has It is supposed to be a sort of a sequel to The Graduate, the famous Mrs Robinson film starring a very young and rebellious Dustin Hoffman who just can't get along with the path his parents set out for him and the expectations everyone has of him. Rumor Has It stars a significantly inferior Jennifer Aniston as what seems to be daughter of Dustin's runaway bride, trying to come to grips with that shocking truth given her recent engagement to a seemingly boring lawyer.
However, while the Graduate was a groundbreaking film, this one is just a shallow comedy of the type you'd forget about a couple of minutes after the lights turn on. Sure, it has a few nice performance from Shirley MacLaine, and it does try to tell you that it's not the flashy flash around which you need to build your life but rather the steady and the reliable, but the bottom line is just worthless and shallow. Funny at times, but as of much substance as artificial sugar.
Best scene: Rob Reiner tries to mimic his famous split screen scene from Harry Met Sally. There's no split screen here, but there's abnormal fast editing taking you between separate dialogs to create a similar effect. Not as original as the first one, and overall not as good, but probably the best this film could muster.
Picture quality: Wow! One of the best I've seen on DVD.
Sound quality: Typical for shallow comedies - everything is in the center speaker, with the surrounds mainly acting as room decoration.
Overall: 2.5 stars, after adding 0.5 stars for playing Simon & Garfunkel's Mrs Robinson.

Saturday, 19 August 2006

DVD: Batman Begins

Lowdown: Nothing is more frightening than your own fears.
We watched Fatman in the cinemas, and the fact we watched it again when the DVD rental got to the cheap weekly rate can tell you something such as: we liked it a lot. However, I did take my time posting my review here for quite a benign reason: I could not find anything special to say about it.
Good comics based films are hard to come by. I try to watch most of them, not because I like comics in particular, but rather in the hope of getting to see one of them done well. I find most of them to be below par (e.g., the Supermans); if you ask me, the only truly good ones are the latest Spidemans. Which is why I have a problem with this one: I like it, but I cannot say it is a true original because most of the things I like about it were already covered by the Spidermans. I'm mostly referring to the torment faced by the hero upon using his powers and the torment he faces when handling society around him.
The film takes us back to Batman's beginnings, showing him as a traumatized youth looking for answers and deteriorating until saved by a mysterious mentor. After your standard issue mentoring montage, the would be Batman goes back to where he belongs in society and establishes himself as a superhero by becoming what he fears the most (bats). And yes, he gets an opportunity to save the day, and I think I can safely tell you without ruining anyone's expectations that he manages to win the day.
Given the lack of uniqueness anywhere in the plot, the question then becomes what makes the film as good as it does? I think the answer starts with the director (Christopher Nolan, who did Memento and Insomnia), who is not your average production line director. It continues with a great cast: Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Gary Oldman, Rutger Hauer, Tom Wilkinson, and Morgan Freeman to name a few - all of which (maybe with Oldman is an exception) playing exactly the type of roles you'd associate them with.
And together with a story that really develops its characters and moves along reliably, the result is a very good superhero film! For one thing, it helped reminding me how as a child (and probably when I was more than a child) I used to dream of being a superhero of one sort or another, but in most of those dreams I ended up abusing my powers and things often went wrong. At least according to what I remember...
Best scene: Batman, trying to establish his true self as a careless playboy in order to avoid being recognized as a superhero, bathes in the fountains of a hotel lobby with his bimbo girlfriends and ends up buying the hotel. I liked it just because all of us probably thought of doing something extremely stupid but could not afford its price; in the film, Batman could.
Picture quality: In general, exemplary. However, there are a few scenes in the beginning where the darkness of the scene and the lack of bits to cover it make Liam Neeson look like a joke.
Sound quality: What you'd expect from a well funded American action film (i.e., very good), although it could have been better.
Overall: It's always nice to see an action film done right, especially if it's a superhero one. 4 stars.

Friday, 18 August 2006

DVD: Match Point

Lowdown: We think we control our lives, but random events - regularly referred to as luck - are much more in charge than us.
I like Woody Allen's work; I can't deny that. When asked to quote the best films from the last few years, I will name Melinda and Melinda (amongst others), despite what most critics say. We missed out on Match Point at the cinema, so I was quite eager to wait for its DVD release.
I wasn't disappointed: the film is both an excellent thriller, a great story about morals, and a statement on how seemingly minor things that happen around us control our lives much more than we do (something I can definitely relate to in my current personal circumstances, but that discussion does not belong here).
The story is led by Jonathan Rhys Meyers, who plays a tennis instructor that aims high. In order to get to his ambitious highs he befriends his pupil's rich family and becomes the lover of his pupil's sister; things go wrong once his ambitions lose all of their inhibitions and he goes for his pupil's fiance (Scarlett Johansson) , too, which rolls out the story about our morals and aspirations. The film is relatively long - over two hours - but never felt this way; the more it progressed, the more I was anxious to see what is about to happen. Rarely does a film manage to captivate me so badly.
Not that the film is without faults. First and foremost, I find Mr Rhys Meyers (whom I first remember from Bend It Like Beckham) to be quite a "single expression only" character. Instead of being able to see the film through his eyes, I kept getting annoyed with his constant hazy expression.
Next there is the issue of the portrayal of London's top financial echelons, in the form of the tennis pupil's family. They simply don't feel real and life like; everything is too ideal and too convenient as far as what the film is trying to say. Obviously, this is done on purpose in order to make a point, but the fact it goes a bit too far draws away from the suspension of disbelief. And obviously, while the film may take place in England, it is aimed at American audiences, for the simple fact that there are just that many times an English person will use English English phrases that seem to get the film's knickers in a twist.
Best scene: I like the scenes where small innuendos established the relationships between the characters while allowing the audience to see what they really think. Such a scene was the one where the tennis instructor goes to the opera with his pupil and meets the pupil's family for the first time, already targeting the different family members. The scene helps in establishing one of the more interesting aspects of the film: all of the characters are inherently flawed and all of the characters are motivated by selfishness.
Picture quality: Shots look very life like, but despite the more than conventional bandwidth provided in this DVD the picture constantly shows heavy signs of digital compression - jagged edges, halos around objects. I wonder what caused this one to go so horribly wrong.
Sound quality: I like Woody Allen, but I don't like him sticking to mono sound on all his films. Good immersive sound can add so much to a film!
Overall: An excellent 4.5 star effort.

Sunday, 13 August 2006

Film: Over the Hedge

Lowdown: Shrek worked, Madagascar earned lots - let's do it again!
Is it just me that is getting tired of the continuous stream of look alike and tell alike CGI based films, all trying to capitalize on the success of the original Shrek? Is it just me that finds these films' constant pop culture references to be way past their originality expiration dates?
Not that the concept is too bad in this one, especially if you bear in mind that the film is mostly aimed at kids. You got yourself a bunch of hibernating animals that wake up to find themselves surrounded by a new suburb. Instead of collecting food for next winter the old fashioned way, they resort to stealing junk food from their new neighbors. And since this is not enough to fill a film on its own, even if the film is quite a short one to begin with, we get the usual American film formula of a hero who has to betray his friends only to realize that his friends (being friends) will take him the way he is.
Thing is, I would have been touched if I haven't seen it all before: the animation, the plot, the morals. The film is definitely entertaining, but it's of the usual American cinema industry run of the mill crop: we have a winning formula, let's continue printing money by doing the same again.
I'll give it one thing: I found it much better than Madagascar, which I thought was a really bad film. At least with Hedge you get a slight attempt at substance.
Best scene: The squirrel drinks a Red Bull like drink and becomes so hyper that everyone around him slows down to the point that we can see laser beams progressing slowly. A nice touch of physics to an otherwise very unoriginal film.
Overall: 2.5 stars for the entertainment, plus 0 for originality.

Saturday, 12 August 2006

Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean - Dead Man's Chest

Tag: Indiana Jones, the lowly pirate.
Times are hard: We have several cinema vouchers we have to use by the end of August, and for a while now there haven't been any worthwhile movies at the cinemas. With our hi-fi system at home guaranteeing superior sound to the cinemas for more than 10 years now, and with our new TV almost matching the big screen effect of the cinema, there are not that many reasons left to go to the cinema in the first place.
But we had to, so we chose the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel, assuming this would be the best option as far as big screen gains are concerned.
And why do I bother with all of the above exposition? Simply because there is not much to say about the film itself.
It doesn't mess about starting: There is no recapping of the previous episode, which was a shame as we hardly remembered anything (no wonder, given the lack of plot). Within a few quickly cut edits the film kicked off at full swing, basically offering a barrage of extreme action scenes connected by some manufactured dialog that feels as natural as dry dog food. Anything to do with a plot or with character development is done off hand, just because the film has to do something in order to connect its action scenes.
The action scenes themselves are basically a pirate version of things we've seen before in the Indiana Jones film: extreme action (as in pulling it to the ridiculous) with a comedy twist. However, I thought the action scenes go too far in stretching the imagination, and I just couldn't take them for real; it was yet another case of over CGI-gification. Besides, as much as Johnny Depp is a good actor, he cannot match a younger Harrison Ford in stepping into the shoes of a good action hero; and neither can Orlando Bloom.
Overall, the result is entertaining, but it is just so shallow that I couldn't stop thinking about what the shallow [pun intended] Pirates of the Caribbean franchise says about us as a society given that this sequel broke a few box office records in Australia. What happened to the search for quality? How come we accept such shallow entertainment?
The film's conclusion is far from inspiring either. After two and a half hours you realize this is not getting anywhere; and indeed, there simply is no conclusion: Just like the Matrix' trilogy first sequel, it leaves you on a cliffhanger like ending to wait for the next sequel.
Best scene: Two rivaling gangs of pirates try to climb a cliff while improsoned in a cage made of their colleagues' bones and while trying to avoid detection by a guard standing on an Indiana Jones like bridge. The scene is the closest the film could get to Indiana Jones quality.
Overall: A redundant 2.5 star effort.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

DVD: 2046

Tag: Arty-farty, Chinese style
I like films. I really do. So when I get to watch a film that makes me think "why am I wasting my time on this one" and look for the stop button on the remote, I take particular notice to mark the event. Overall, I cannot recall many such film; but 2046 qualifies.
The story is quite simple and could have been told in 10 minutes instead of two hours plus: A guy falls in love, gets hurt in the process, tries it out with other women, but slowly finds himself descending into this story that he's righting about this perfect place in the year 2046 and loses touch with reality. That's it, pretty much (sorry I have spoilt it for you).
In order to thicken the thin plot, the film tries to do it all the arty-farty way: time lines are mixed, imaginary scenes from the book the guy is writing are mixed in, and overall the film is overcome with artistic like photography and quite a mezmerizing soundtrack. If you like films because of their look, you will adore this one.
But I just found it all too excessive (starting with the film's length). Yes, when Tarantino first introduced me to the concept of mixed time lines I thought it was clever; now I know it was a copy, and since 1994 (or whenever Pulp Fiction was released) I noticed that the trick was usually being used by directors who tried to cover for one deficiency or another by using it to distract the audience. I know that many who read this will beg to differ, but then again everybody is entitled to have an opinion.
And in my opinion 2046 sucks.
Best scene: The hero tries to get a hotel room from a rather racist hotel manager. It was the only scene in the film that made me laugh, I guess.
Picture quality: I've seen DVDs with better picture, but given the artistic nature of the film, I think I can sum it up with one word - nice.
Sound quality: As per the picture quality - nice.
Overall: A pretty boring 1 star.

Sunday, 6 August 2006

DVD: Ladies in Lavender

Tag: Harry Potter refugees' chick flick
Ok, you might have guessed it the minute you read the headline: this DVD was rented by my beloved wife. I didn't mind it at all, though; for the right mood you can do much worse than a chicks' flick.
The film stars several Judi Dench with some old refugees from the Harry Potter film franchise. They live together near an English beach at the brink of World War 2, mainly minding their own business and being very British about it. Then, suddenly out of the blue (literally), they find this young guy thrown at their door step by the angry sea.
They take care of the young boy, and while doing so they all fall for him one way or another. But eventually the boy wants to go on living his way and doing what interests him (which in this case is playing the violin), so the old women have to learn how to let him go.
Overall, the film is a nice and relaxing one. It's quite a pleasant experience to watch it, and in particular I enjoyed the very English way in which people go about their ways in the film. I have been exposed to English-ness quite a lot lately, and personally I find a lot of it to be quite weird and lacking in sense: things like all the characters in the film wearing suits and ties all the time, wherever they are (the same suits and ties all the time, by the way).
But the film is less than satisfying in many other respects, too. Nothing at all is said about the boy and where he came from and what caused him to find himself thrown at the beach that fatal day. Nothing unique is said about his origins, which - given that this is a film where every item is supposed to let us think of whatever it is the director wants us to think about - is a bit of a waste.
Overall, you can treat the film as a nice metaphor to relationships in general and parenthood in particular. As a parent you may long for a child, and then when you suddenly get one you will work hard at raising it. You won't get much gratitude, though, and eventually the child will abandon you in favor of one whim or another.
Best scene: When someone plays the violin very badly for the boy, who takes the violin and plays quite well. Mainly because the music is nice.
Picture quality: Some scenes are so well composed and the colors and everything are so beautiful it's just a pleasure to watch. Other scenes suffer from excess noise and lots of graininess; this inconsistency is quite frustrating.
Sound quality: This is no major action film, so don't expect to be in the middle of a show down. However, given the genre, surround envelopment is quite effective. The music scenes, especially the final one, are very well recorded.
Overall: A nice and calm 3 stars.

Saturday, 5 August 2006

DVD: Brokeback Mountain

Tag: Romeo & Romeo (not that there's anything wrong with it)
I don't think there's a person out there who hadn't heard about this film, but still allow me to briefly go over the plot for the simple reason that while I've heard a lot about the film I never knew much about its plot.
The film tells the story of two cowboys who go together to illegally guard this herd of sheep up in what looks like a freezing place called Brokeback Mountain. It's very boring up there and very cold, and eventually circumstances cause them to share a tent, and quickly enough they're all over one another. And they like it.
That's roughly the first movement of the film. The next one tells us about how these two guys cope with their newly found innerselves realities in the face of a society that has its preconceptions and in the face of married life. The third and final movement gives the stroy a suitable ending.
At the base of things this film is yet another story of an impossible love, much like Romeo & Juliet; the new element here is that it's a gay love affair, and not your average gay love affair but a tough cowboy gay love affair. To me, since I couldn't care less about gay people (in the sense of that as far as I am concerned they can do whatever they want to do and I wish them all the best), this story does not represent something I can identify with. That said, the story is exteremely well told; this is not your average Hollywood cheap love affair to get money in the box office story, this is a true work of art.
Something I could relate to and something that made me think a lot about the film is the way society is mirrored. Society is the true hero of this film: the way the people around the lovers behave is the most interesting thing, since those people are us - there is nothing to differentiate between us and them. And what do we see? We see ignorance all over, we see lack of acceptance for other people just because something in them that does not concern us any more than, say, their preference for meat over poultry. We see lots of bad things that don't apply only to gay people's acceptance, but to everything that has anything to do with people being different from one another. And that is why the film is so good.
Best scene: I liked the love scene between the rodeo gay cowboy and his rodeo woman lover. It was a piece of good acting, with the gay hero slightly hesitating before satisfying what everyone expects of him and stornming the anxiously awaiting woman.
Picture quality: Depsite an abundance of lovely scenery, picture quality is far from spectacular with lots of noise to mar the experience.
Sound quality: Dialog is a pain and I had to use subtitles to manage the film; but that's mostly because of Heath Ledger's habbit of murmuring to himself instead of talking. Other than that, sound is quite unimpressive and the stage is fixed to the center channel. The main exception is when the usually annoying score decides to make a name for itself (usually at the most unlikely time) and burst into the surround channels, in which the sound becomes quite glorious.
Overall: 4 stars.

Wednesday, 2 August 2006

DVD: The Triplets of Belleville

Tag: Imaginative French romantic animation
I first heard of the Triplets of Belleville when reading a review in The Age. I can still remember this review because the reviewer (who recently stopped reviewing for that newspaper) has given this film a very rare 5 stars, which made me notice the film's existence and also morn me missing out on it when it was taken off cinemas within a couple of weeks. Since then I kept looking out for it in the video rental shops, but it took three years until I actually got to rent it.
And all that exposition is there for me to tell you it was worth the wait, for this French animation film shows the big guns of animation - those big American studios - how to do animation right. They used to be able to do it themselves, you know, with the Looney Tunes and their lot, but now it's all about the money and imagination tends to be left at home barring a few exceptions from Pixar. But then this French film comes along and shows us how the powers of animation can be properly used to tell a story and use everything that animation can use - mainly in the form of things that can't really take place in reality or by severely twisting things that we know from reality.
The story is fairly simple; it's the way in which it is told that makes it so good. A French grandmother living with her grandchild in the outskirts of Paris notices his love to bicycles and the Tour De France in particular. She nurtures him towards his dreams, until he becomes a Tour rider; but then during the race itself he is kidnapped, and she follows him across the seas to America in order to save him from the clutches of the Mafia.
The story takes second place to the twists and the clues thrown throughout the film, leading the viewer towards what the film is trying to tell us: throughout its less than 90 minutes length, the film is a call to arms against the culture of consumption and in favor of the good old values of friendship and love. It is not an accident that the only character that is not twisted is the old cripple grandmother, while everyone around her seems to be sinking. As a result, the fact this is an animated film does not mean that it is a kids' film.
It is, however, an excellent film. The type of film that makes all those watching all those mediocre films in order to find the true diamond in the rough worthwhile.
Best scene: The scene in which the grandmother chases the freight ship holding her kidnapped grandchild while peddling a pedal boat across the seas is pure magic.
Picture quality: For what has to be some type of a cost cutting exercise, this is an NTSC DVD. There is no excuse to selling the inferior NTSC format in PAL Australia. But NTSC is not the only fault of this rather poor quality single layer DVD.
Sound quality: Sound is anything but spectacular - this is a low budget film, there can be no argument about that. With no dialog at all, music takes center stage; luckily, the score is recorded in quite a lively manner, utilizing the surround channels, and the overall result is not bad at all.
Overall: 4.5 stars.