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.

Monday, 13 November 2006

Film: The Final Countdown

Lowdown: What would you do if you were in charge of America's current most powerful weapon and you were given the chance to sort World War II up?
The Final Countdown is a 1980 film I first watched at the age of 9 under the name of "The Nimitz is not answering". At the time I was crazy about planes, and an aircraft carrier was a magical world to me, the way Disney Land is to most children. This film has shaped a lot of my childhood dreams.
Obviously, a lot has happened in the 26 years that passed since. For a start, four years in the army have diluted any respect I might have had towards anything that is even remotely associated with the military and with expressions of power. I was therefore very curious to see how this film would look to this current beholder.
The Final Countdown takes us abroad the modern day American aircraft carrier Nimitz, which at the time the film was made was the world's biggest ship that is not a tanker. Some weird storm takes place, and while the Nimitz is busy sailing off its port - Hawaii's Pearl harbor - it suddenly finds itself in the eye of the storm, after which it is suddenly faced with total silence.
At first it seems as if World War III has taken place; but soon enough reconnaissance photos, radar input and radio transmissions all found indicate one thing: The Nimitz has went back through time to the day before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (that's 1941 for you). And the question on everybody's mind is: What should we do?
I like the classic science fiction time-line dilemma, and in The Final Countdown - much like in my all time favorite Terminator series (I'll ignore T3) it gets some proper treatment.
At first you're exposed to the extreme differences between the periods: you see Japanese Zero planes have themselves a dogfight with F14 Tomcats. This scene could only be conjured in the mind of a child playing with his toys, and indeed it has been the stuff of many a dream of mine. Think about the power at your hand! To this day I still find myself thinking how far would one man with an M16 go back in the days of Rome; or whether a modern tank could win World War I single handedly.
Then you get the second layer: The debate of the Nimitz commanders (Kirk Douglas and Martin Sheen) on whether the future of World War II and the future of America should receive a second chance or whether the Japanese are to be allowed to do Pearl Harbor "again". On one hand, you get the chance to fix all the errors of the past; on the other, who knows where you'll end up in. World War II took the USA out of the depression; what would have happened if it was never to take place as far as American economy is concerned? Would the USA be the powerful entity it currently is? Would the Nimitz ever be built?
And then there are hints towards the third layer, which sadly is played around with but never really gets the treatment it should receive: Regardless of fantasy like concepts of time travel, if any of us was to get the chance to fix the errors of his/her past, should he/she do it? Or should we allow ourselves to learn from the past? Personally, I don't believe in delving in past events too much; yes, we should learn from them on how to improve the way we act in the future, but no - we shouldn't mourn or celebrate past events too much, because most of what has happened to us was controlled by things out of our own hands. It appears as though the film makers agree with me on this lesson in the philosophy of history.
Overall, I liked the film a lot. I found the military stuff funny, because it's so foreign to me now, having left my military background half a world away behind me. But with all my contempt towards anything that is army related, I cannot fail to admire airplanes - they are the most glorious of man's creations. Sadly, the fact that man's most glorious creation are agents of mass destruction says quite a lot about this world of ours.
Best scene: I can't help it - the dogfight between the F14's and the Zeroes is one mean scene.
Overall: A silly action film on one hand, a philosophical film on the other. It got to me; 4 stars.

Sunday, 12 November 2006

DVD: Talk to Her

Lowdown: Follow the unique story of two men who take care of their vegetable state female love subjects.
Most of the films I watch come from Hollywood. Most of them are not that good, but I still find them easy to watch. Often enough I watch an American film which has no chance of satisfying me, just because I know it's going to be light on the digestive system; two hours of easy pleasure to clean the head with.
Spanish films, like their European counterparts the French, usually don't fall under this category. They usually require a more active viewer as they are more subtle; they also tend to have less aspirations into making bold statements, often being reserved and encouraging the viewer to think about what went on. In doing so they are usually much more effective at message conveying.
They do reward the more tired viewer with acres of flesh. I find it weird that American films do not hesitate to display blood and gore, but they definitely hold back on the exposed flesh; European films tend to do the opposite, and in that I am totally with them.
Almodovar is one of the more famous representatives of Spanish cinema. The last I've seen of him was All About My Mother, which I have watched more than five years ago. It was good but it wasn't the type of film I would praise; however, with the passage of time I feel I have become better prepared for the Almodovar experience, so I gave him another go with Talk to Her.
I wasn't disappointed.
The film starts when we watch two man watching a ballet. The ballet is weird: it features two scantly clad women running around a stage full of chairs with their eyes closed; in order for them to avoid crashing into the chairs, a man is observing them and clears the chairs out of their path. That opening scene pretty much defines the scope of the film, which follows the two man - who, at this stage, don't know one another.
One of them is a male nurse, who treats a girl he used to watch from his mother's apartment as she would train in ballet. She was involved in a car crash, and now in her fourth year of a coma. The other is a journalist who used to write travel books; he falls in love with a woman matador who gets rammed down by a raging bull and finds herself in a coma, too. Both men's ways collide again at the hospital, and from this point on the film observes the differences between these man - one talks to his woman and the other is rational and won't do it - and the differences their attitudes make. Effectively, this is a story about men's dependence on women and vice versa; yet another story about women, strong women, which are Almodovar's favorite subject.
The story developes extremely well, the characters are very well defined, and everything is very well orchestrated - there can be no doubt concerning Almodovar's qualities as a director. It is a pleasure to watch.
And talking about pleasures of watching, we are not denied our pound of flesh in this one, either. Naked skin is visible throughout the film, yet it is not a pornographic experience the way American films that expose the usually unexposed bits of flesh manage such affairs; it is more at the erotic level of things.
All in all, after watching a film like Talk to Her, I cannot avoid thinking that maybe I should give Spanish and French films more of a go. Sadly, you don't hear much of these films, making them rather hard to find at the video rental store; that's a pity, because there are bound to be others of Almodovar's quality out there.
Best scene: I liked the ending scene the most. Problem is, I can't tell what's in there without spoiling it, so I'll just say that I really liked the shots' composition as it follows the various characters watching a ballet, this closing the circle that started with the opening scene.
Picture quality: Lacking detail with digital artifacts aplenty and a low bit rate. There are also white lines at the very top and very bottom of the picture, pointing towards a rather shoddy transfer job.
Sound quality: Like the rest of the film it is rather subtle, but it fits the film. The musical soundtrack is just great, and it is also very well mixed to stir the emotions. The kind of a soundtrack that makes you go "wow".
Overall: A pleasure - 4 stars.

Saturday, 11 November 2006

Film: Kandahar

Lowdown: Afghanistan is one tough place to live in, especially if you're a woman.
Compared to my regular feed of films, Kandahar is truly unique: An Iranian film quite low on production values and actors that stand no chance at next year's Academy Awards. Still, the film is quite unique.
The story is about a Canadian woman whose family left Afghanistan when she was a small child, leaving her sister behind. She receives a letter telling her the sister is about to commit suicide, so she goes to Afghanistan to try and stop her. Thus we get what is basically a journey through Afghanistan as a result: the film is not really plot driven but more of a collage of scenes from Afghanistan, most of which are pretty shocking.
We follow the woman as she enters Afghanistan by pretending to be the fourth wife of a guy and his family, returning home from Iran. On their way "home" they are robbed; the so called "family" splits, and the heroine takes a child that was expelled from school as her guide to take her to her sister in Kandahar. On they go, encountering all sorts of calamities: doctors that won't talk to women patients directly, and won't even look at them other than through a hole in the wall; a red cross station specializing in foot prosthetics for land mine casualties; and a wedding procession that is more than meets the eye, to name a few.
All of which give you a lasting and seemingly authentic impression on life in Afghanistan: everything is pretty bad, and women are even worse than bad. If there is one thing you will take from this film is the way the women's burkhas dehumanizes them.
The film is quite effective and works well despite many deficiencies until it reaches its ending. Now, for the record, I am not the type of person to complain against a non-happy ending; on the contrary, I think that since all things must die a happy ending should usually be the exception as it is unreal. That said, I would like my films to have an ending, and Kandahar simply doesn't have one. I assume this is a deliberate act, a symbol for what Afghanistan is at; but I still don't like it.
Best scene: Each of the various incidents the film depicts is uniquely interesting. The one I like the most was the scene in which women were applying lipstick under their burkhas, showing that regardless of whether anyone can see the makeup they still need it there to feel human.
Overall: Somewhere between 2.5 to 3 stars, depending on how forgiving I am to the ending.

Wednesday, 8 November 2006

DVD: The Polar Express

Lowdown: Christmas can turn into a collection of mildly entertaining adventures in 3D if you just believe.
Robert Zemeckis has made a few good films in his time. Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, Cast Away. Even Contact.
So I was quite looking forward to seeing his ventures into the field of computer animation, even if it is about a subject foreign to me as Christmas; hopefully, Tom Hanks would even things out.
The film tells the story of a "doubter": a kid that has severe doubts about Christmas being the way it is told to be, Santa Claus and all. As if to address his doubts, he is visited by this huge steam train on the eve of Christmas, taking him to the north pole to meet the man himself.
On the way he meets Tom Hanks in a multitude of different variations, each of which is drawn a bit differently with a voiced that is somewhat more synthesized. Apparently, according to the DVD's supplementals, Tom Hanks acts most of the roles in the film while wearing these sensors, which later translate his movements into motion captured animation. Much like Gollum.
Further on his way the kid goes through a multitude of adventures that make very little sense but are supposed to be quite thrilling when watched the way the film was originally meant to be watched - a 3D IMAX presentation. However, even there I severely doubt those thrill rides would make any sense other than provide cheap excuses to stick things directly into the eye of the viewer.
Eventually, the kid learns that in order to get into the hang of things he must "believe". Once he starts believing he gets his Christmas gifts and overall becomes happier - all of his non existent "problems" are immediately solved.
I found the film to totally fail to deliver. It's a mix of the senseless plot and the crap motion capture - with all due respect to advanced technology and to computer graphics, most of the characters still feel as if they're operated by a transparent string.
But most of all, I found the film lacking simply because it is empty of any contents, and what contents it has is totally meaningless. The kid is told to believe, but believe in what? The bullshit piled on him by adults? I would much rather have an inquisitive child that ponders things than a child that accepts things the way he's told; I know I'll regret that statement if I get to have my own children, but I would still like to give their brains some credit.
But personal views concerning hereditary religion aside, the film simply doesn't tell you anything about the Christmas spirit, even if you are someone who celebrates it. You watch the film and you get the feeling that Christmas is all about Christmas presents, nothing more and nothing less. And that's a sad and empty way to look at it.
Best scene: The scenes involving the elves at the north pole; they're the most imaginative ones in the film.
Picture quality: Given the animation character of the film, it's hard to judge; overall, I would say picture quality is excellent.
Sound quality: Quite good, yet not top notch.
Overall: This is a pretty bad film. 1.5 stars? 1 star? Does it really matter?

Monday, 6 November 2006

Movie: Flags of Our Fathers

Lowdown: Regardless of expense, marketing people will even sell you a war if money is needed.
I think I can safely say that Clint Eastwood is my favorite contemporary director. I like him so much that we even left our home theater behind, and after a few months' gap went to the cinema to watch his latest film.
Flags of Our Fathers, besides having a less than catchy name, is a film telling us three different stories, interwoven together through flashbacks. The first is the story of a marine unit taking part in the first round of the bloody Iwo Jima fight; the second is the story of how three soldiers from the unit, who just happened to take part in raising the American flag over Iwo Jima (in what became a very famous photo) are taken around the USA as heroes in a tour aimed at raising money for the war effort; and the third is the story of the son of one of those three soldiers, as he explores and learns about his father's history.
The first story pretty much tells us that war is hell. The second and the third explore the meaning of heroism, as Eastwood forces ask to ask who is the hero - the person who fought and died to help his friends or the person who just happened to be at the right place in the right time to stick a flag to the ground when a photographer just happened to be around to take a sexy photo. Eastwood even gives us his answer to the question as the film ends, but I won't disclose it; I will just say that in my view, as a person that doesn't believe in symbols of any kind, the term "hero" is quite a loose one. I would tend to use it to describe people who do the right thing, as in doing their best to support others and do what is morally right. Obviously, "morally right" is a rather loose term, which is probably why Eastwood bothered to make a film out of the subject; I will just conclude this discussion by saying I think most of us, people who live a decent life through the normal routine of earning money and supporting our families and friends, are heroes in my book. They don't kill baddies, but they do what they have to do; and people like single mothers, for example, are major heroes.
Further links between the cynical use of "heroism" in advancing capitalist goals are heavily hinted at by Eastwood. But let's go back to the film and ask: Does it work? Did Eastwood ring my bell again?
Well, to put it short, no; I think Flags is the worst Eastwood film I've seen for probably 20 years.
For a start, it's not that original. The war scenes are pretty much Private Ryan reincarnated, even to the monochromatic filming; the main exception is the extra gore in the form of showing what shelling does to bodies.
Then come the flashbacks, which I found very distracting. You manage to immerse yourself in the film, and then all of a sudden you're flashed back to another plot and have to re-immerse yourself.
But the biggest fault I found in the film was its presentation. To focus my complaint, I would say it was the sound: it was so un-involving I can't see how anyone would take into the suspension of disbelief with this film. That said, the fault could be with the cinema and not with the film; we have grown so used to the quality of presentation in our home theater that maybe we over spoiled ourselves.
Best scene: The scene where the famous flag is put on top of the mountain at Iwo Jima. The scene is so mundane, showing events that were put into American myth to be nothing more than sticking a pole to the ground, it's amazing; compare it to the equivalent John Wayne film and you can easily see Eastwood greatness in conveying us messages at the risk of carrying the wrath of his own nation. And I thought Eastwood was a capitalist!
Overall: 3 stars; I wonder if that evaluation would change when I watch the film at home.

DVD: March of the Penguins

Lowdown: A year in the life of a penguin can be such a schmaltzy affair, according to Morgan Freeman.
March of the Penguins is obviously marketed at kids. That is made obvious by the avalanche of kids' film teasers when you just load the DVD into the player (need I express my opinion on that?), but it is also evident by the text coming out of Morgan Freeman's mouth when he narrates the action.
The story of this French documentary is pretty simple: It follows the life of a group of emperor penguins living in Antarctica through a year of their lives, representing a full circle of life. It starts in a journey to an area where they mate and raise their baby penguins, and it ends when the cubs leave home. In between, it follows the torments bestowed upon the penguins, from the cold of winter through predators and the long marches in the cold after which the film is named.
It's all pretty straight forward natural documentary stuff. The twist here is Morgan Freeman's text, which attempts to humanize everything the penguins do, translating it all to terms like "love" and "grief".
It all works so smoothly that you can understand why the main fuss with the film had not much to do with penguins but rather with the way supporters of that legend called "intelligent design" tried to use the film as a tool to advance their propaganda. Personally, I see no signs for anything other than evolution in the film, but more to the point I was mainly restraining myself from puking at Freeman's comments. Yes, there are human like elements to the way penguins behave; but do I really need to have these shoved up my ears? Can't I just think of them on my own?
The film also appears overly sanitized. You don't see shit and pee, nor any blood. These penguins can, apparently, live for a year without going to the toilet.
Yes, I realize that I'm older than the film's target audience; but I think even they could do with some subtlety of the type that comes with realism. People, even young ones, can think; they're not penguins. Bring on David Attenborough.
Best scene: Forget about the feature film itself; a National Geographic documentary in the DVD's special features is just hilarious. They fit this "crittercam" unto an innocent penguin, making it look like the James Bond of penguins; and their commentary sounds like Die Hard 4, with comments like "the seal makes it check-mate for this emperor" and "this time it's personal" (actually, that wasn't said, but that's probably the only film like cliche that wasn't used by this so crappy it's stupidly funny documentary).
Picture quality: Well, I didn't expect elaborate lighting crews to accompany the crew in Antarctica, but this is no excuse for plenty of digital artifacts.
Sound quality: The dubbing is pretty bad. The music is nice, and provides some nice yet shallow envelopment with a bit of low frequency action.
Overall: 2.5 stars due to the insulting commentary. The shots were great; the romantic spouting accompanying them were pretty bad.

Saturday, 4 November 2006

DVD: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Lowdown: It takes a poor kid with a loving family to remind a sweet rich man what is really important in life.
Conservatives come in many guises. In the USA they are commonly referred to as Republicans, which is Australia, oddly enough, they are known as Liberals.
One of the things the conservatives keep on preaching about is the value and importance of family values. However, there are inherent faults in their arguments: when you ask them what family values they vouch for, it usually comes down to having the wife cook and take care of the children while the husband takes care of the income. And then, in an incredible loop-de-loop, they advocate for all sorts of monetary policies to do with free enterprise and free capitalism, policies that usually come in between a person and his/her family.
Another trait that seems common to conservatives all over the world is their relative lack of respect for the environment. Both George W in the USA and Johnny W in Australia seem to be doing their best to impede anything that might help the environment.
It is those conservatives views that Tim Burton sets out to mock and counter in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, a film aimed at children that is more politically charged than the vast majority of adult films.
Based on the Roald Dahl book I've read so many times as a child, the film starts by following a little child called Charlie Bucket. Charlie comes from a poor but loving family: his father is the only income earner, which is hardly enough to sustain Charlie, his parents and both sets of grandparents, all of which share a broken down shack at the edge of town.
Hope arises when Willy Wonka of the world famous Wonka chocolate factory issues five golden tickets allowing their winners to visit his chocolate factory. Tickets are won all over the world by four very spoiled children - children exhibiting the values Burton's favorite conservatives preach for - but then, when all hope seems to fade, Charlie wins the last ticket.
Charlie wants to sell the ticket and help his family out, but the rest of the family convince him that money is not worth much in comparison to a once in a life time visit to the shrine of all good things on earth - Willy Wonka's chocolate factory.
The film works very well - you can see a five star film in the making - until the point where Charlie enters the factory with the other spoiled kids and meets up with Johnny Depp (Willie Wonka); that is the point where Tim Burton commences with his usual eccentric routines, which in my opinion greatly detract the film but also make it quite unique.
The film then takes us through a tour of the fantastic chocolate factory - a place where machinery takes second place to natural processes, a place where chocolate is mixed using natural waterfalls and nuts are processed with the help of trained squirrels. As we go through the factory the various spoiled children get themselves out of the way through their own conservative / capitalist values taking a hold of them, and we slowly learn more about Willy Wonka and what drives him - mainly, lack of communication with his father (portrayed magnificently by Saruman, aka Christopher Lee).
As we go along with the plot, Burton pumps his views unto our brains: competitiveness, money and technology don't amount to much if you don't have a loving family at your side. Even the sweetest man in the world - the owner of its most prestigious chocolate factory - is a poor man without his family.
It's just a pity that Burton cannot let go of his eccentric acts - in the form of over the top sets, effects that look somewhere in between animation and reality, and songs that are somewhere in between nice and horrible. Otherwise, this could have been a 5 star film; as it is, it is just a film that should have been a 5 star act. I wonder if kids would like this film.
Best scene: When Charlie wins the golden ticket, only to be immediately attacked by greedy onlookers. He ends up being saved by the black shopkeeper (Is that a coincidence? He's the only black guy in the film). The cinematography of this scene is quite unique in relation to the way the rest of the film looks.
Picture quality: Pretty poor for a film with such production values. Digital artifacts' haven.
Sound quality: Nothing special. No low frequency presence to talk about.
Overall: Somewhere between 3.5 to 4 stars, depending on what you think of Burton's style.

Friday, 3 November 2006

Book: Broca's Brain - Reflections on the Romance of Science by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: An encouragement to us all to be open, think and doubt everything about the world around us.
Broca's Brain is a book of immense importance to me, personally. I read it first when I was 10 years old, and I remember that at the time I took it with me wherever I went - a habit developed over years of being dragged by my parents to visit boring relatives.
On one of those visits the cousin whose place we were visiting, a grown up, giggled at the sight of the book's cover (pictured here; it's the book's Hebrew version). The cause was the drawing of a naked man accompanied by a naked woman.
When I explained that this is the drawing attached to the Pioneer spaceships in order to portray what people look like to an alien passing by, my cousin reacted just the same as she would have reacted if I was to recite the first 1000 digits following 3.14; my words belonged to a world totally foreign to her.
My cousin should have probably read the book; then she may have understood me better, because it is thinking and openness to a systematic evaluation of ideas that Carl Sagan is trying to install in his readers through this book.
Made of a collection of independent thoughts to do with the world of science and its philosophies, the book approaches many different aspects of one basic thing - scientific evaluation.
Sagan starts by trying to entice the reader into admiring this world that we live in for its many marvels, most of which we fail to appreciate because we take them for granted or just fail to notice them. He warns us of delving into the exotic world of unfounded theories - be it religion or some conspiracy theories claiming extraordinary claims along the lines of life being created by aliens, for while these should be evaluated they should also be judged along the same harsh lines a scientific theory should be judged upon. He also scorns people who block free thought in the name of some holly idea and calls them "paradox" people, devoting significant efforts into explaining the weaknesses of their approach.
Sagan doesn't just preach, he makes his points by telling us stories of scientific discoveries, both old and cutting edge. His style his fluent and the read is just fascinating, making a popular science book a thrilling read - quite a rare feat. There is no denying that Sagan is an enthusiast that knows how to excite others along.
The book is not perfect, though. Written in the mid seventies, some of it does feel as if its past its expiration date. For example, Sagan dedicates quite a lot of pages to counter a theory saying that Venus (the planet) is actually a comet that split out of Jupiter, shaved the earth a few times, and then settled to where it currently is; the theory is used to explain a few biblical events, such as the parting of the Red Sea. Thing is, while this theory might have been "popular" and talked about in the seventies, no one sane would even mention it now; and while this may be attributed to Sagan's great efforts to counter it, one does feel as if Sagan is wasting his effort on nothing.
Another drawback is Sagan's eternal love and devotion to the concept of us not being alone in this universe. While I tend to think that Sagan is right there, due to the same statistical reasoning he's applying, I also think that paying the issue too much thought at this stage where we can't do much about it is a bit redundant. Once again, the passage of time makes us look at things differently, and the way we used to think when going out to space was "hot" is different to the cynical way we look at our current spin driven world.
Despite its age, the book discusses issues that are hot on today's agenda. Way before the greenhouse effect became the hot topic it is today, Sagan analyzes its effects on neighboring solar system planets and moons, trying to deduct on the way it would apply to earth. He does it to prove his point that by thinking systematically and exploring things which might seem out of our world, we can learn a lot about this world and thus benefit significantly. If some of us weren't already doing so, we would have still thought our world is flat.
However many problems the book may have, it is the best manuscript I am aware of for instructing people on how to open their minds and think; and that achievement cannot be trifled with.
Overall: Personally, I would give this book 6 stars; but to contemporary readers interested in knowing whether they should devote their time to the book I would quote 4 stars.