Tuesday, 31 October 2006

DVD: Joyeux Noel (Merry Christmas)

Lowdown: There's not much of a difference between the various parties fighting World War I.
Joyeux Noel is a European, primarily French, production dealing with events that really happened during the eve of Christmas 1914, when war came to a halt on certain sectors of the Western Front and both sides celebrated the holiday together. Before resuming the fight.
The film follows key figures from three sides thrown into the fight: A Scottish priest and two of his followers, a French officer disconnected from his wife who is in occupied land, and a German opera singer.
As of the word go, the film does its best to show us that despite the different language and contempt these various nations feel towards one another, the similarities between them far outweigh any differences they may have. Indeed, the film tries to work on three different layers: The first is the typical war movie theme of "we are all alike, so why are we killing one another", or "war- what is it good for". The second theme is the European Union theme - now that Europe is united, it tries to show that Europe should have been united ages ago and that the seeds for this unification were there even at the time when Europeans' favorite sport was the killing of fellow Europeans.
The third and the most interesting of the themes is the film's projection on contemporary events. By borrowing shamelessly from George Bush's famous "axis of evil" and "if you're not with us you're against us" speech, the film does its best to mock everything this speech stood on and to show that the current war against terror is not much different to the Great War. And just as everyone today will acknowledge that this war was a rather futile exercise in shedding blood, maybe the war on terror is just as fruitless; maybe, instead of fighting, we should strive to understand one another.
There are other interesting aspects to the film. For example, the German officer leading the trenched German side is Jewish; with everything that took place later between Germans and Jews, one tends to forget that lots of Jews fought on the German side during the pre-Hitler days.
Personally, I have several problems with the film. First, it portrays the Germans as humanists - even the film's French say they're treating occupied civilians humanely, when the history books I read portray quite a different picture (ask the Belgians for their version if you like). And I'm not even mentioning the reason why the war started in the first place, which most historians portray as the whim of a few Germans at the top to fulfill some weird dreams of theirs (while a minority of historians object to that view, there is no denying as to who started the actual fight).
So yes, I have a problem when in the name of European mateship truth is bent, a little. But I accept the fact that this film was made to make a point; it is not a documentary.
By far the worst problem of the film is that by dealing with several themes, it strays way too much for its own good. Lacking focus, it resorts to being to direct in delivering its message and ends up on the preachy side of things.
Still, with all the criticism, this is a fairly good war film.
Best scene: The Germans invite the Scots and the French to share their trenches with them prior to an upcoming German artillery shelling. The scene sets the tone for a truly united Europe.
Picture quality: Quite good, yet lacking in fine detail - probably due to relatively low bit rates.
Sound quality: Good, but not spectacular. The "going over the top" fight scene offers sound that truly makes you feel the terror of running towards machine guns.
Overall: 3.5 stars; I'm a sucker for World War I films.

Monday, 30 October 2006

DVD: Transporter 2

Lowdown: The transporter drives the action to new heights of imagination stretching.
The Transporter, made a few years back, took me by surprise. It sort of developed a cult following by the time I got to see it, and once I did see it I immediately knew why: the car chase action of its rather long opening scene was simply breathtaking. Set in Niece, it was ridiculous, but magnificent at the same time. The rest of the film tried to follow suit and sort of managed to keep up, but that opening scene was the main event of the film.
Transporter 2 tries to follow suit. It tries, but it's far behind its predecessor. This time around our punctual commando driver is set for a piece of action in Miami, with European flare provided by a newly introduced character of a French friend. Alas, like all the characters in both the original and this one, he is just an undeveloped token character, put there to help drive the stupidly unbelievable plot along and generate a few laughs.
The film starts with Mr Transporter, Jason Statham working on a "drive the rich parents' kid to school" job, when suddenly - out of the blue - action comes along in the form of some exotic looking criminals plotting some ridiculous plot to kill all of the world's drug enforcement officials in one quick swoop. Little did they know how miserably they were going to fail once they started messing around with the Transporter!
Sooner rather than later the film deteriorates into a collection of fights scenes, mixing totally loony drive stunts, martial arts and Jackie Chan like comedy. It's all done pretty badly with no attempt what so ever to be reliable or faithful to any sense of sensibility; there is not even one second where you're truly worried about the Transporter's chances of getting out of the next challenge alive.
Action aside, you can watch the film and get yourself pretty entertained by trying to identify the various cases of product placement in the film. These seem to be as numerous as the number of villains who are just stupid enough to stand in the Transporter's goal, whatever that may be.
But it works: 80 minutes after the film starts the credits show up, and you're left there smiling.
Best scene: The Transporter gets rid of a bomb attached to the bottom of his car at the last second using some ridiculously unbelievable stunt driving. The scene pretty much epitomizes the spirit of the film.
Picture quality: You look at the DVD menus and you realize the studio just couldn't be bothered to make an effort with this one. This, however, is no excuse for the grotesquely bad picture this DVD exhibits. Colors are totally surrealistic, the picture is lacking in detail, noise is everywhere - this has to be one of the worst, if not the worst, DVD's I ever got to watch.
Sound quality: Noise attacks you on all fronts, but none of it sports a lot of detail and finesse. This is a rough one.
Overall: No way of hiding around the bush with this one, this is one truly bad film; something of the likes of a Steven Seagal flick. However, if you're in the mood for silly action, the film works - 3 stars.

Friday, 27 October 2006

Film: Wedding Crashers

Lowdown: How long can the funny pair of Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn manage to rely on relationships established by crashing into weddings?
It's nice to see a comedy that is actually trying to say something meaningful and still manages to remain funny. Wedding Crashers has aspirations towards these noble goals, and in many respects it gets there while in others it fails.
Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn star as a pair of divorce lawyers with an extremely cynical look at life. Obviously, they know where proper relationships can take you, so they don't want to find themselves handling their own divorce: instead, they are having a hell of a time crashing into weddings using false identities and cover stories to have rather casual relationships with the vulnerable women prey they manage to capture at those weddings.
That is, until finally - in the typical way American films lead you - Wilson falls in love with his prey. And that's where the mess starts, with the pair of casual lovers entangled in a messy romance with two of the daughters of the US government's treasurer (Christopher Walken). They can't go out, they can't tell the truth, they have to compete with others for those girls. With all of those ingredients the gun powder does not need much of a spark to deliver some funny comedy.
It is obvious that behind its comedy related aspirations, the film is also some form of criticism towards the moral decay abundant in these modern times, with people seemingly unable to form proper relationships and choosing instead to have shallow and brief ones that require no commitment but bear no risks. According to the film, this is not enough to satisfy a person, and one day or another truth will hit you in the face; either that, or you'll end up as Will Ferrell, who in a typical "guest appearance" portrays a caricature of a person stuck way too deep in the wedding crashing way of living. However funny, though, Ferrell's character fails to convince, which mirrors the entire film: it's true intentions are unclear, and you don't really know the extent or degree of the moral decay the director is hinting at. Is he only talking about relationships? It's hard for me to accept the director wouldn't aspire for more. Is he aiming higher and tries to make a social statement on the corruption that comes with capitalism and the American way of life? Maybe, but you're left to speculate about that on your own.
It's as if the film doesn't really care what you make of it. It's funny, and that's all that matters. The funny aspects of it do not tend to come directly from the film's core motifs; most of it comes from slapstick style jokes or your typical American movie type "boy fights boy over a girl", comedy style. But that said, and as I already said, the film is quite funny.
Best scene: The scene that first exposes us to the wedding crashing exploitations of the two main characters. It's a rather sweeping and funny scene, taking us from the pre-wedding preparations and up to the post bedtime action results.
Overall: 3 stars for an effective comedy that fails to reach much higher than the laughs it produces.

Thursday, 26 October 2006

Film: The Constant Gardener

Lowdown: Big companies are doing lots of nasty things to the people of Africa, right under the nose of our naive and not so heroic hero, Ralph Fiennes.
I really like Ralph Fiennes: I think he's one of the best actors around.
I don't really like John Le Carre, on whose book The Constant Gardener is based: I find his books way too slow and boring for me to enjoy, even if on paper their topics should be of interest.
I have found The Constant Gardener, a film based on a Le Carre book which I didn't read, to match the normal patterns of a Le Carre book: it is slow, you don't know much but you struggle through to learn stuff little by little, and it discusses topics that are interesting.
I do have to say that overall it seems the Fiennes side of the equation won: I liked constant gardening and I think the film is quite good.
The story follows Ralph Fiennes, a British civil servant who, by his own account, is not the best of the lot. While giving a lecture on behalf of someone else, in a rather boring way, he is interrupted by a rather impolite Rachel Weisz, who questions him about the UK's involvement in Iraq. While the rest of the lecture's crowd scorns her - even though she is asking the questions they should all be asking - Fiennes actually gets attached to her. Time passes by and Fiennes is sent to be a British representative in Africa; the socially active Weisz wants to tag along for her own private social agenda, so they get married.
The film's plot development is not linear, choosing to be flashback based - an approach which, generally speaking, I am not a big fan of. The film actually starts with us learning that Weisz has been murdered, rather brutally, in some remote place in Africa. This drives Fiennes, who up until then only cared about his garden, to look around and investigate what really happened: Did she have an affair? What was she doing there in the first place?
His private investigations turn out to be less than popular with the rest of his British friends. He learns things he was not meant to learn. He finds out that pharmaceutical companies have been using the people of Africa to test and approve drugs that were obviously not ready to be used on humans. And more importantly, through his investigative journey, he finds his own conscious.
For people who don't know much about what happens in Africa, probably the vast majority of "us" westerners, the film could and should be a fine lesson on how - by indulging ourselves with selfish consumerism - we have forgotten how others, who are not as fortunate as we are, and who are paying the price for our comfortable living. According to the film, the biggest criminals out there are private companies, but governments are not that far behind; and who are these governments if not our own, democratically elected, representatives?
The film goes on to show that each one of us - the individuals - can and should make a difference to the lives of the people of Africa, a point which made the news lately through the stupid amount of coverage the story of Madonna's African adoption has received. According to The Constant Gardener's director, we should stop messing about with Madonna and point our sights instead at the poor people of Africa, who we all crime by exploiting and ignoring them.
Weisz got herself an Oscar for this film; I don't know why, exactly, as I didn't really find her performance to be that powerful or captivating. But regardless of that, The Constant Gardener is quite a powerful film, a film which would hopefully stick in enough people's heads the problems of the poorer people of this world as well as the problems of the richer people of this world.
Best scene: Ralph Fiennes, who has previously refused to help an African youth and his young sister who just gave birth by driving them home and saving them from a 40 kilometer walk, realizes that he can make a difference. He asks to save a young African girl when a raid takes place in her village; but the only answer he receives is the answer he gave before when he himself refused to help: there are so many millions of them out there, what difference would one of them make? Well, if you ask Le Carre, quite a lot.
Overall: 3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 October 2006

DVD: The Muppet Show - Season 1

Lowdown: The Muppets' innocent fun stands the test of time.
The Muppet Show was one of the foundations of my childhood. I used to anxiously wait for Friday evenings at five, when this group of human like behaving animal puppets would their version of a talk show. At the time I was too young to either understand the spoken English or read the Hebrew subtitles, yet I still liked it and watched it with religious passion. And it was even broadcast in black and white.
I haven't really kept in touch with the Muppets over the years. I did watch a movie of theirs on TV from time to time, but these were - generally speaking - quite disappointing and obviously aimed at children.
So how does the first season of that legendary TV program fare now, in the twenty first century, more than thirty years after it was originally broadcasted?
Well, it does very well, thank you very much. The thing that is immediately noticeable is that the jokes and the shows have withstood the test of time. You watch the shows and you don't think for even one second that "this is old stuff"; it just works, even if it hasn't got any CGI special effects.
The type of material is not exactly of rocket science sophistication, so there is not much that can really go wrong; but where the Muppets really got it right is in having stuff that would appeal to kids but at the same time appeal to adults that are willing to be a bit foolish. This is not a DVD that would work only with those that have fond childhood memories of this TV program; it should work with anyone anywhere. And as far as children entertainment goes, I think this blows contemporary stuff out of the water: with its innocence and cleverness, this is what children should be watching - not Big Brother or other so called reality shows.
The one area where the show does show its age is with the guest stars appearing in each of the episodes. Of the 24 guest stars in the 24 episodes on this quadruple DVD, I could only identify 3; the rest were incognitos to me. Still, that hardly interfered with my enjoyment. What did interfere, a bit, was that after watching an episode after an episode you do get a tad tired of the formula; but that can be understood given the context: 24 episodes or 600 minutes are quite a lot by all accounts.
Best scene: The first scene of episode 1 - Mana Mana, starring Animal.
Picture quality: Well, to put it mildly, picture quality will not be the reason why you buy this DVD. For a start, it's not in widescreen. But that's the least of the problems, with the episodes looking as if they were remastered for the DVD format from someone's old VHS tapes.
Sound quality: The diagnosis is pretty similar to the one discussing picture quality...
Overall: 4 stars.

Tuesday, 17 October 2006

Book and documentary: Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: Modern day society is most likely to make us feel anxious about our place in the world; but it ain't necessarily so, according to certain philosophers.
It is rare to be able to point at a point in time where something in your life went through a significant change. Back in 2004, I recall driving while listening to Triple J radio's Hack program. That particular episode discussed a newly released book called Status Anxiety; several weeks afterwards, the book's matching documentary was aired on ABC TV, and from then on I never looked back. Not that I learned things I didn't know before; it's the presentation and the way the ideas were delivered that made me add one and one together to thoughts I was already thinking on my own, with the end result being that I had a brand new way to look upon this world we live in.
Last week I finished reading the book for the first time and also finished watching the documentary for the second time; now the time has come for the review.
The premises of Status Anxiety is relatively simple compared to the number of ideas discussed around it. According to De Botton, with the rise of the mertocratic society - a society where people are supposedly as high up the food chain as they merit, a concept that made its day with the rise of the USA - people have been gathering status according to their achievements. Today, the people who have more money have most of the status, and we tend to consider financial wealth as an indicator for overall success.
However, with this "be all you can be" attitude of meritocracy come nasty anxieties: what should we think about ourselves if we cannot keep up with the Jonses? What if we do not manage to be the next Bill Gates, but rather end up working as, say, a clerk for the government? Are we then to be considered failures?
De Botton claims that these negative feelings, which he coins status anxieties, are a relatively new phenomenon. Back in the days before the USA came to be, people were branded with classes, and no one had any illusions about being able to skip from one to the other. However, today, if you do not make it to richness then according to the same logic you do not deserve your status - you're a loser.
We stand no chance in case we want to forget that and go on with our lives; we are attacked by status signs wherever we look. De Botton provides plenty of examples, starting from the Sunday papers that tell us how the successful live like and what "essential" things we need to have in order to live a fulfilling life. Yet it has been proven again and again that the acquisition of these items - be it a Mercedes or an Xbox - does not make one happy.
So how can one avoid having status anxieties? According to De Botton, we cannot avoid them altogether; a man needs to feel close to others, and that process will automatically include some sort of a ranking to tell us where we stand amongst our peers. However, all is not lost, because - De Botton says - what we can control are the parameters according to which we judge our status. Or, to put it another way, we can estimate people's statuses according to what really matters to us; not money, which is not an indicator for a happy or a fulfilled life, but values such as love, intellect, and friendship.
De Botton presents a vast array of ideas with which to combat status anxiety. From a look at how the art guides us to see the things that really matter in life, through a look at Bohemian societies where alternate values to mainstream society reign, and finishing with a philosophical look at death - a point where absolutely everyone becomes equal, a point where the things that really matter are obvious and money matters not. Speaking from recent experience, from your sick bed the reality of who really cares for you shines through. Religion takes its own place in the discussion, serving both as a cause for status anxieties as well as a potential solution.
Seemingly, there is not much of De Botton himself in the book; he borrows concepts and quotes from other philosophers and intellectuals and puts them together in order to make his point. However, by pulling together others' ideas he creates a true manifest for his views. While the book may be judged as a self help book on how to make oneself feel better in our world, it is much more than that; it is an organized philosophical look at what we want in life, what we think we need, what makes us tick, and what really matters.
Written fluently in a manner which is bound to entertain, the book feels like a thriller when read. Examples are thrown in at an amazing pace, making it really easy to keep up with De Botton even when sophisticated concepts are on the discussion board. I simply cannot imagine a better written book discussing philosophies of this caliber.
If there are any faults with the book or the documentary they are to do with the fact many people will not accept them. I can imagine that true capitalists, or very patriotic Americans, for example, will have a hard time accepting the ideas presented in the book; after all, their entire concepts of right and wrong and why they should get up in the morning are shattered into pieces. When thinking of the book as a gift idea to friends of mine who seem to be consumed by the consumerist culture I concluded that I should probably look for alternatives in order to avoid offending these friends; the book's messages is that clear and unavoidable. Alas, reading the book has changed the way I look at the world: it made me happy with what I have; and it makes me feel pity towards those who, say, drive an expensive BMW in order to feel good about themselves.
Overall: 5 very glistening stars.

Sunday, 15 October 2006

DVD: The Producers

Lowdown: It's really hard to produce a Broadway flop.
Ok: I will make it very clear. I am pretty ignorant when it comes to The Producers. I know there were several different versions; I know it's a Mel Brooks thing; but only recently I have learnt that it's actually based on a play and not, originally, a movie; and only now that we watched it I learned that it's actually a musical.
And that's where I have a problem: I don't really like musicals. Call me what you want, but I find the concept of people suddenly bursting into overly choreographed mix of dancing and singing a rather artificial thing; I have been living for 35 years now and I never found myself bursting into such a fury of singing as they do in musicals. Add to that the fact that in most of the musicals the songs are not really on par with what you would like to see in the next Beatles album, and you'll understand why musicals are not my cup of water. I think the only musical film I would call "good" is Aladdin.
And with that introduction, let's see what the film is about. Nathan Lane, who is most famous as the voice of The Lion King's Timon, plays Bialik - a Broadway producer specializing in producing flops who gets the money for his next production by selling his body to New York's rich old ladies. One day he meets Matthew Broderick, an accountant, who notices that you can make more money through a flop if you cheat the people you get the money from as well as the IRS (the "how" for this cheat is rather thinly explained).
Together they then set out to produce the biggest flop Hollywood ever knew. They choose a script written by a mad Nazi, Will Ferrell, a gay director, and a Swedish actress (Uma Thurman) and go about producing a musical on Adolf Elizabeth Hitler. On the way to producing their show the producers lose every shred of conscience they ever had, which is what the film is really trying to tell us on what it takes to have financial success in this world of ours. I guess in this respect we are all producers, to one extent or another: we all sold our soul to the devil in order to make a buck; I don't think there is anyone out there, Pope included, that did not commit to an inferior cause or perform some obscene act. Watching The Producers makes you laugh, but a lot of this laughter is aimed at ourselves.
Talking about laughter - the film is quite funny, if less than plausible. Ferrell steals the show in a Looney Tunes like performance while Thurman is the one that delivers the goods as far as conventional acting is concerned. Theater like sets and the theater like style rule the day overall, so overall this feels more like a play that was shot for the cinema than a proper film; that said, you do get some grand sets that would not fit in a theater, some external shots, and you're always in the front row seat.
Best scene: Will Ferrell introduces the producers to Adolf, the chief of his carrier pigeons, and makes them take a Nazi oath.
Picture quality: Excellent! That said, there aren't any proper darkly lit scenes in this film, which is where the problems usually show up.
Sound quality: Effects and dialog are pretty limited, but the music is well spread throughout the channels for a nice surround effect.
Overall: Funny, yes, but I wasn't made for musicals. 3 stars.

Wednesday, 11 October 2006

DVD: Pride and Prejudice

Lowdown: Keira Knightly searches for the ultimate husband in a very hostile environment - old English society.
When I think Jane Austin I think boredom. It's not like she disappointed me in the past; I had the same approach towards Emma and I ended up quite liking it. It's more to do with the setting of lots of people, mostly women, doing nothing but talking, mostly about men.
Fuel was added to the fire with the casting of Keira Knightly at the helm. So far I could not say that I was greatly impressed by her acting skills, nor can I say that I find her particularly attractive (even for her own class of fleshless skeletons).
All this introduction was basically a tool for me to be able to counter and say that in spite of my expectations, I actually enjoyed this film quite a lot and found it to be really well made. A very good film, to put it bluntly.
Jane Austin's story, which to the best of my knowledge was adapted before but with significantly longer versions, seems to work well here. Not that I read the original - it's just that the film is cohesive and effective. The story of a family of girls trying to get married in a society where status and money are all important and where women are nothing but a prize to decorate their husbands is extremely well told. The realistic settings - we could even identify some of the great mansions we visited in the UK - add a lot to the feeling of authenticity which contributes to the film, since nowadays one can find it hard to believe that people were so stupid in their quest for status inside a society that was obviously derelict. But then again, are we any better?
Well, the character portrayed by Keira Knightly obviously is; despite examples left and right, she ascends over the dominant state of minds to look for the true qualities one should look for in a husband.
Excellent performances by actors I did not see much of before, as well as by familiar ones such as Donald Sutherland, Brenda Blethyn and Judi Dench really help for a convincing presentation.
Not that the film is perfect. For a start, I had a severe problem with the spoken English: Given that English is not my first language, I just couldn't follow up with the quick spoken old English dialog (and it's not really old English, it's just structured in non-contemporary ways). I had to rely on the subtitles and the rewind button to keep track, which robs of the film's fluidity.
And then there is the kitsch. The best example is Mr Darcy's Superman like entrance at the end of the film, popping up out of the fog the way Arnie pops up from a ball of flames to save the day. I can understand why they did it, but in a film with serious pretentious such scenes feel out of place.
At least the Australian version has saved us from the puke inducing "American ending", provided on the DVD as an extra. Watch that scene at your own peril, but just be warned to have the barf bags prepared in advance.
However, please do not be discouraged by those problems. As far as films based on books go, this one is one of the very few films that can proudly stand on their own and claim to be good ones.
Best scene: The film's climax is really well done. You know very well what is about to happen, but because the film is so well made you're anxious to see how this is going to come about.
Picture quality: There is a lot of noise in the picture, but that can be easily ignored. Other than that, the picture is really good and adds a lot to the feeling of realism.
Sound quality: This film works on subtleness as far as sound is concerned. Or is it realism? Most of the time there is hardly any score and most of what you hear are sound effects, of which there are a lot of; so despite the fact this is not the most "noisy" of soundtracks, it is quite effective in letting you feel that you're there.
Overall: 4 stars.

Tuesday, 10 October 2006

DVD: The Weather Man

Lowdown: Nicolas Cage thinks he has the easiest life around with the easiest job around only to discover that life is not that easy.
Why is it that so many Nicholas Cage films feature a commentator (Cage) acting as an anchor point to the film? Could it be that this is an easy way to push the film ahead? Well, in the case of Weather Man, "easy" is the key theme of the film.
Cage has the easiest job possible: He works as a weather man for two hours a day, presenting Chicago weather on TV. He earns a lot of money doing this even if he doesn't know much about meteorology. But as easy as life may be on Cage, things in his life are not going his way: his wife left him and is now with another man; his daughter steals his money to buy cigarettes; his son seems to become a delinquent; his father, portrayed by Michael Caine, is about to die of cancer; people keep throwing fast food on him; and Chicago's weather sucks big time.
With all these things taking place, the film shows how Cage is slowly coming to grips with the fact he cannot just let life pass by him expecting everything to go his way the way his weather forecasting job is. He needs to make an effort, and slowly he does; the question is, will he be too late to save most of the things that really mattered?
The film is obviously trying to tell us that with the chase for fame, glory and cash leading the way, modern life has lost the plot on what is really important with our lives: first and foremost, our families. Director Gore Verbinski, of Pirates of the Caribbean fame, is trying to tell us that we should stand with them and even get our knuckles dirty fighting for them. And most of all, we should not lose the plot and succumb to the routine of working hard for the sake of achieving something that is way too lucid.
While the film's statement makes sense, the presentation doesn't. Not that it's bad, but it crosses the line into being overly preachy; besides, what's with commending violence as a positive thing when it comes to looking after your family? That's a no no in my book.
The film does create an atmosphere that sort of grows on you throughout its development, but I found the sudden ending to be a bit hard to accept as real. It's one of those endings where suddenly what didn't work before is finally working, and it doesn't really make sense.
Best scene: Cage gives an account of how his daughter persevered through less than one archery lessons after she chose archery as something she'd like to go into.
Picture quality: Colors are good, but there is such an abundance of digital artifacts you end up playing "spot the mosquito noise".
Sound quality: Too tame to be of much good to the film.
Overall: Enjoyable to watch, albeit depressing. 2.5 stars.

Sunday, 8 October 2006

DVD: He Got Game

Lowdown: Basketball is life, and life is all about the money.
Inside Man has helped me remember how much I like Spike Lee; I just had to watch He Got Game once again.
He Got Game is Lee's ultimate statement on basketball, his favorite sport. In much the same way as I treat football, Lee treats basketball as a religious experience (just watch the film's opening scenes, showing real people playing the game in very different setups); yet just like me Lee is disillusioned with the game because it has stopped being a game long ago and is now governed by money.
In typical Lee fashion, this is yet another New York story, too. Denzel Washington plays a prisoner, in jail for killing his wife. His son, played by the real NBA star Roy Allen, is about to graduate high school as the USA's most promising basketball prospect, and he is courted by pretty much everybody. Denzel is promised an early ticket out of jail if he gets Allen to sign up to the state governor's favorite college.
Washington is set loose in New York in order to convince Allen to make the right choice, but he is facing tough odds. Allen doesn't like his mother's killer, for a start; and Washington is quite late in joining the fight for convincing Allen: everyone else, from Allen's high school coach through the rest of his family and girlfriend tries to convince him to go their way - and everyone has some very selfish reasons for doing so.
Money is waved in Allen's face all the time, but he is convinced that education and personality are more important and that the choice of college should be made for the "right" reasons and not for the financial reasons. With all the temptations put in his way, which choice will he make?
Through basketball, Lee is making some severe statements in this film about capitalism, corruption, and how our world is being run. He is not an optimist, but he does suggest sticking up to what is right while playing along to the corrupt machine that runs the world (and as with Inside Man, the higher up the food chain one gets, the worse things become).
However, Lee is also telling the story of a family torn apart by a Greek tragedy like event. The story is touching and drives the film along to its highly potent climax. The climax is handled superbly, but the way there strays off the path slightly yet enough to detract from this highly potent film.
Best scene: The scenes in which people are trying to convince Allen are the most entertaining ones in the film. There's a scene where a couple of "gifted" female college students try their unique ways to convince Allen, but the best one is the scene where a rich sports agent tries to convince him to join the NBA by showing off with his sports car collection and indoor basketball court. What is the American dream if a guy needs to have several Ferraris, Mercedeses and Lamborghinis in his garage and a Rolex on his wrist in order to feel good about himself?
Picture quality: The DVD mastering is obviously "old"; there are plenty of artifacts about, of types you don't see in newer DVDs. The picture is usually of high contrast, but it is obviously the director's choice.
Sound quality: Ok, but far from mesmerizing. The classical soundtrack by Aaron Copland is superbly recorded and fits the film's climaxes like a glove.
Overall: 4 stars.

Saturday, 7 October 2006

DVD: Vertigo

Lowdown: James Stewart finds out the hard way that fighting your fears - in his case, vertigo - is not that easy to do, even if you get repeat attempts.
I have bought the DVD of Vertigo's restored version back in 2002. A week after buying it I got a letter telling me I got my visa to Australia, and by the time I received the DVD most of my stuff was packed up and on its way to Australia. It's amazing, given my love of cinema and my admiration for Hitchcock, and the fact I only saw this film from start to finish once and even that was in high school, that I waited so long to watch this film from 1958.
So was it worth the wait? I'll say this: It's an excellent film, but it does not stand the test of time as well as others.
The story follows James Stewart, who plays a retired police detective traumatized by his vertigo that caused a fellow cup his life while on a San Francisco rooftop chase. He is a bachelor, like his only friend, portrayed by Barbara Bel Geddes (who is most famous for her role of Miss Ellie in the notorious TV series Dallas). Together they try various tricks to help Stewart overcome his fear, but keep on failing.
Then Stewart is asked to follow a woman that is behaving very strangely (Kim Novak). He follows her, falls in love with her, but when action time arrives his vertigo strikes back and Novak dies on him. Stewart gets another chance to fight his fears, Miss Ellie gets a chance after chance to let Stewart know that she really loves him, but everyone just cannot overcome their fears and end up doomed by through their own weaknesses.
The film is very well done - there's no doubt about it. Hitchcock's direction is probably the best one can ever see as far as creating the setting and the compositions, the use of San Francisco as the film's background, camera setups and editing. In those aspects, Vertigo is a true work of art. However, I feel the pacing suffers quite a bit with the film tending to border the boring in its slow development, even if Hitchcock is trying to tell us something important in each and every scene.
Worse than that, the plot has a few holes in it that no good film of our time will get away with. For example, there's a scene where Novak parks her car, blocking an entire street; and if you watch the end scene (which I won't detail here), you will not be able to avoid asking, "but why?"
Still, despite the reservations, the film is an effective thriller with a candid saying about human nature. First and foremost, though, it is a masterpiece of plot progression and message conveying through advanced exploitation of cinematic means. I suspect this is what they use for text books in cinema schools.
Best scene: Needless to say, Steward chasing Novak up the stairs while being hit by his vertigo. A classic scene that fully deserves its status.
Picture quality: A jihad on all non-anamorphic DVD's! I can't understand how Universal / Paramount allow themselves to release a widescreen DVD and not "enhance it for 16:9 screens". You watch the film and you simply see the poor resolution staring back at you - and for no particular reason. This DVD that I bought from Amazon is actually in NTSC (as opposed to the much superior PAL), so the picture was even worse; but regardless of that, shame on the studios for releasing a "collector's item restored version" DVD while not utilizing the best that the DVD format can deliver. And it's even the industry standard to do so.
Sound quality: Sound was surprisingly good. You could hear the date on many of the sound elements, and the soundstage was not as full as many contemporary films can deliver, but on the other hand the music was quite dominant in delivering its message well enough.
Overall: 4 stars.

Wednesday, 4 October 2006

DVD: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Lowdown: Harry Potter in three contests and a funeral.
Well, here's one film where I don't really have much to say. We saw it not that long ago in the cinemas, and because we fell prey to the marketing ploys we rented the DVD to watch it again; we definitely didn't do that because the film is so exceptional we just had to watch it one more time.
The [currently] last film of the Harry Potter franchise is similar to its predecessors in the dominant factors of (a) a plot that doesn't really make sense and (b) very poor acting on behalf of the younger players. I guess it's the problem you have to face when converting a book dominated by atmosphere into a film driven by the plot.
In this one Harry and the gang have to go through a tournament of very weird and dangerous challenges. The challenges related action scenes are pretty exciting as long as you don't ask why the whole affair is taking place; and in between, Harry goes through his initial phases of puberty.
Puberty is quite the key here, because it is obvious that the film is aimed at the young teenager (and not at someone like me). Yet I cannot hide my disappointment of the fact the film makers chose to make a film that most teenagers will probably enjoy, yet no one is going to come out a better person for it. It's pretty shallow, to put it bluntly.
As with the other films of the series, the film is made to look and feel very British. Which is nice since it helps the film stand out amongst the majority of American films; however, I think this one overdoes it a bit after the 729th time the actors utter expressions such as "brilliant" or "wicked" and drive you mental.
The bottom line is that the action scenes are pretty exciting but the rest of the film is just good enough to pass a few hours with but not much more than that. While it is immensely better than the first two Potter films, I think Azkaban was so far the best of the Potter films.
Best scene: Harry meets Voldemort face to face. It's exciting, and it was nice to see how much of a difference the presence of Ralph Fiennes makes.
Picture quality: Overall quite good, but there are just too many and too noticeable digital artifacts.
Sound quality: Ok, but for a film that's supposed to be a roller coaster it is way below what it should be.
Overall: 3 stars after receiving a bonus for being an ok film for its particular genre and specific target audience.

Sunday, 1 October 2006

DVD: Straw Dogs

Lowdown: What would it take to make an average man into a raging killing machine?
The first time I watched Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs, a 1971 film starring a youngish Dustin Hoffman, I was a young teenager. My sister was in a Dustin Hoffman mood, so she rented The Graduate and Straw Dogs, and we watched them in sequence over a weekend night. I was quite impressed with The Graduate, and both me and my sister really enjoyed it, so I didn't expect much from Straw Dogs; however, I was even more impressed by Dogs. It was one of those films that really made an impression on me; although up until now I remembered it mostly as a member of the same category as John Carpenter's original Assault on Precinct 13 for its siege like scenes, I was clever enough to recognize that I probably didn't take as much out of the film as I should. I therefore decided it's time to revisit this film.
Having just watched it again, the first thing I need to say about this film is that it is pretty disturbing. This is definitely not a film for the faint hearted, nor a film for the young teenager I was when I first watched it. For reasons why look no further than the very detailed gang rape scene featured in the film; but it's not only that: It's a story of low morals where violence is presented as the ultimate cure.
Introductions aside, let's get on with the film. The film follows Dustin Hoffman, who portrays a geeky American mathematician married to an attractive English wife, who retires to his wife's remote village in England in order to work on his mathematical breakthrough for a year.
Signs of malice are evident from the word go, with the local villagers giving you every possible impression of them being inconsiderate of their fellow human beings (those that are foreign to them, such as well educated Americans), drunk, corrupt, and dangerously lacking control over their sexual drives. The contrast between their supposed manhood and Hoffman's geekiness is emphasized by Peckinpah with Hoffman's glasses, gestures, politeness, and inability to drive his sports car - he actually let's his wife drive for him.
In the dog eat dog world that is this English village which serves as a metaphor for the world entire, the young guys at the village soon start taking advantage of Hoffman. They start by teasing him and mocking him, and he does his best to avoid confrontation; they move on to hanging his cat to death in his bedroom closet, and he still accepts it. And on and on the teasing goes (remember the rape I mentioned earlier), until - eventually - Hoffman becomes the man Packinpah has always believed him to be, becoming a cold blooded killing machine.
What Peckinpah is trying to tell us in this film is quite disturbing. He is saying that in this world of ours it is only the strong that prevails, and if the civilized side of humanity wants to be the one that is in control then it must use violence to establish its inherit superiority over the mob. Basically, his message is pretty similar to Don Siegel's one in Dirty Harry, or to George W Bush's one in his invasion to Iraq (assuming that was not made because of minor reasons such as controlling oil reservoirs). Discussions and negotiations do not belong in Peckinpah's world, where such gestures can only be interpreted by the other side as signs of weakness that would ultimately be exploited and could easily lead to our ruin.
Peckinpah's extremely disturbing message is delivered in a way that is bound to take you off balance. It's not only the plot: through crafty editing and cinematography that is designed to take the viewer psychologically off balance (for example, by slightly tilting the camera), Peckinpah makes a lasting impression. As I said, this is not a film for the faint hearted.
For the record, I do not agree with Peckinpah's point of view; I think it is overly pessimistic. That said, I cannot avoid remembering cases from my own personal history where I was facing similar (although significantly less extreme) scenarios to what Hoffman was facing in this film. The time I served in the army was the time in which I was first exposed to people of inherently different backgrounds to mine, people that didn't think the way I thought even though we were both in the same army and supposedly acting for the same cause; and often enough you would get this gang of people that would abuse your good will and constantly tease you to get their way and prove their superiority, and I have to admit I was not able to find the cure for handling them. Usually I just ignored them, the way Hoffman does (early in the film).
I guess what I am trying to say is that as much as I disagree with Peckinpah on the proper methodology for addressing the people that try to enforce themselves upon you/us, I do think that he did a good job in raising the issue and presenting it in such an extreme way where discussing it become a necessity.
Best scene: All the village congregates together for a yearly meeting run by the local priest, with all the disturbing facades of its population exposed in a myriad of disturbing ways. Religion and ethics are all mixed in together, and Peckinpah's opinion on the role of religion is made very clear.
Picture quality: To say it's bad is an understatement. I believe there is Criterion version of this DVD, and I hope that version is better, because this one is simply a disaster. It looks as though the DVD was mastered from some cinema film stock.
Sound quality: I understand that older films featured a mono soundtrack, but this one is a disgrace for the studio. It is so bad that much of the dialog is unintelligible, and with the lack of subtitles on this DVD version you just have to figure things out by their context.
Overall: 5 stars for the excellently delivered message. Even though I disagree with it, I cannot ignore it. 1 star for the DVD presentation.