Sunday, 30 December 2007

DVD: Stranger Than Fiction

Lowdown: A guy discovers his fate is predetermined by a writer.
The wait took ages but it was worth it. After long months in the waiting I finally stumbled upon a good American film! Hooray! It's quite a thing to stumble upon a film that takes the good things from American cinema - the good production values, the easy going lightness of things - and actually adds some wisdom to the mix. Stranger Than Fiction is the film at hand.
Will Ferrell stars as an IRS agent who is really good at his work and who epitomizes everything one would imagine about IRS agents: everything is calculated and no stray actions is allowed. Ferrell keeps on hearing a narrator's voice (Emma Thompson), dictating the exact things that are about to happen to him and his private thoughts. Thing is, it's only Ferrell that is hearing these voices; no one else does. We quickly learn that Thompson is a famous writer who is going through a blockage period while trying to finish her book, a book about an IRS agent that just happens to have the same name as Ferrell's character. Thing is, in all of Thompson's books the hero ends up dying tragically, and when Ferrell learns that he is about to die he looks to change his fate. In the process he also falls in love with Maggie Gyllenhaal, who portrays a bakery owner that refuses to pay her taxes as a protest for all the wrong things the government does. Ferrell also seeks assistance for as extraordinary condition from Dustin Hoffman, who plays a literature professor.
There is much to take from Stranger Than Fiction, but essentially it is a story about taking control over one's life and learning to appreciate life for those small things that make it worthwhile. Essentially, the film says that we're all going to die, and while we're all aware of that, we shouldn't let that break us down; we should enjoy what we have instead. The beauty of the film is the way it makes its point: The wonderful performances by Gyllenhaal and Hoffman, the casting of Ferrell which hits the spot, the contradictions between the characters (for example, Thompson on a death wish like mission to finish her book vs. the calculated Ferrell), and finally - the lovely way in which the film is woven together.
Best scene: Ferrell plays the guitar in Gyllenhaal's living room while she is in the kitchen cooking. The camera is positioned so we see both of them simultaneously, each at their side of the screen, and the result is an exemplary act of good direction work and good acting.
Picture quality: Noisy and lacking in detail.
Sound quality: Overall way too subtle for its own good, although there is some smart usage of sound at key moments.
Overall: We've seen better films but the package, overall, is very charming. I'm going to be generous and give Stranger 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 27 December 2007

DVD: Die Hard 4.0

Lowdown: Oh McClane, you’ve done it again!
Twenty years ago, with his Moonlighting career coming to an end and his musical career never taking off, Bruce Willis has established himself as a big time action star with just one film – Die Hard. Die Hard, and its first sequel coming in just a couple of years later, worked as fine action films because they presented a simple to identify with hero that is seemingly stuck in a very ordinary situation (picking his wife from a party or picking his wife from the airport) but actually finds himself in the thick of action. The action itself was of the very extreme type (hence the justification for the cool sounding “die hard” name); mix both factors together with some good action oriented directing and special effects, spray some one liner jokes and some catchy tag phrases, and you got yourself a winner.
Twelve years since episode 3 came and went and Bruce Willis is back from the morgue in yet another episode. Just like the rather too forgettable third episode, the fourth DH installment abandons the simplicity ingredient and tries to compensate for it with some bombastic action. Off went John McTiernan the director, too, and episode 4 now offers some run of the mill formula based action cinematography that looks way too much like most other action films around – notably, fast editing and in your face close-ups that make it hard to see what really is going on. But when all the dust is settled, Die Hard 4.0 still delivers. Not as much as before, but it delivers.
This time around McClane is in for a fight with computer hackers who take over the web to bring the USA into a standstill. He also has a sidekick, played by the Mac guy from the Mac vs. Windows ads. While Mr Mac seems to be messing with Unix more than with Macs this time, he does the geek role well enough to couple with McClane as the muscles. Together they go to save some USA silicone.
There is some potential for discussion on the meaning of DH4. You can argue it demonstrates the importance of the virtual world against the real world (which of the two is the real world?), and you can also argue that it makes some worthwhile commentary on the role of the media in today’s world. But all that means nothing; it’s all just a simple excuse to get the action going, and action is what everybody watching Die Hard watches the film for. Brains are better left behind here!
Even if the villains are a far cry from the standard set by the original, DH4 delivers repeat action punches. It doesn’t even bother with introductions or anything close to proper character development (other than development through action); it’s all shoot to kill, with the some steep body counts and damage bills, and some trademark Willis comic relief moments thrown in occasionally.
Second most ridiculous scene: McClane takes out a helicopter with a car.
Most ridiculous scene: McClane takes out a jet fighter with a semi trailer.
Sound quality: It’s OK, but from a film entitled “Die Hard” you sort of expect more.
Overall: When all the dust settles you won’t remember much of DH4 but you will still be smiling. Of all the grand sequels of late, DH4 delivers the best: 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 21 December 2007

DVD: U2 - Rattle and Hum

Lowdown: The magical megalomaniac tour.
Joshua Tree is widely considered to be the best album U2 has produced, but at the time it was first published I didn't like it. Neither did I like its follow-up, Rattle and Hum. I did, however, fall in love with Achtung Baby, and for a time U2 was my favorite band. Rattle and Hum became a household name for me, and I even had the laserdisc (recently sold on eBay). By now, however, my love for U2 has greatly faded, mostly the result of their rather mediocre releases during the last 10 years or so. They should have retired 15 years ago; still, I was curious to see how Rattle and Hum the film would feel today...
First for some historical background. Rattle and Hum is essentially a collection of U2 songs compiled together into something that, at the time (late eighties), was out at the cinemas. The songs are performed in various environments, starting from weird studios on to conventional and unconventional live shows and ending in some more exotic recordings. The common themes to all the songs are that (1) they were shot/recorded while U2 was riding high on the success of its Joshua Tree album and (2) they are all very American in nature. Just like Joshua Tree, Rattle and Hum was aimed to hit at the dead center of American psych.
With that in mind, how do the songs fare? Well, I have to say they sound more than a bit dated. And as already stated, my love for U2 has greatly faded over the years. But still, I have to say it, the songs are still good. Not excellent, but good.
Rattle and Hum, however, is not only a collection of songs. It shows a band and it tells its story. What does the viewer take out of that? Well, two things, mainly. The first thing you take is Bono's extremely megalomaniac nature. The guy is a show-off to the 10th degree, and it's so annoying you becoming desperate to take a pin and deflate him. For example, in most of the songs he has a guitar on; does he play it? No, it's just for show. Eventually, he plays a few notes at the end of one song, and it sounds the way it would when you let a child play a guitar (clarification: a child that does not know how to play a guitar).
The second thing you notice is just how much U2 was aiming at mainstream USA. For example, in Bullet the Blue Sky, a song of theirs that is supposed to criticize the USA's involvement in central America during the eighties, performed live, you hear Bono giving the crowd a speech condemning priests that collect money from the sick and the old in the name of god. Excellent, you say; but why doesn't he say anything about what the song is supposed to convey in the first place, that is, why doesn't he say the stuff he really wanted to say but knows that most of the crowd would not like to hear? I guess this is how you end up selling records by the ton.
Worst song: Sadly, Helter Skelter, which is one of the better songs on the Rattle and Hum CD (naturally; it's a Beatles song) is badly performed in the film. It's cut into little pieces and you just can't enjoy it.
Best song: Bullet the Blue Sky, which enjoys a rather tense performance.
Picture quality: Horrible. There's noise all over the place, most of it intentional. Most of the film is black & white, but the bits in color are weird (some of it intentionally, some due to bad DVD authoring). Generally, detail is lacking.
Sound quality: Someone has played with an equalizer way too much and boosted high frequencies to such a level it's almost unbearable to listen to this film. Other than that, the mix has been done at 5.1 but it's not done well, and you get all these weird noises coming at you from the surrounds. This is not an audiophile recording to say the least.
Overall: Say what you say about it all, and you can even criticize Bono for not writing the best of lyrics, the songs are still nice. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

DVD: Flushed Away

Lowdown: The team behind Wallace & Gromit takes the wrong turn.
The very British team that gave us Wallace & Gromit is back with another animal themed film, but this time there's a catch: instead of live action, they went the way of the everyone else and reverted to computer animation. What started as a unique move by Pixar with its Toy Story has turned into an infestation...
The real question, however, is not what technology was used to create the film but rather whether the film is any good. And the answer there is that it seems that the Wallace & Gromit gang not only lost their clay touch but also lost the plot. Not that Flushed Away is a bad film; it's just that it's nothing special, and ultimately quite forgettable. It's one of too many.
Hugh Jackman voices a mouse living as a pet in Kensington, one of London's richer areas. While his masters are away on leave and he's on his own playing with his rich mouse's toys, a sewer malfunction causes a fellow mouse to show up. That new mouse is tough and rough, and he flushes Jackman down the toilet. Jackman finds himself in an underground rodent city, but instead of being happy with having proper company he wants to go back home. He recruits the services of Kate Winslet, a mouse rogue captain of a boat, and together they make ends meet while fighting off an evil toad that wants to destroy all mice (Ian McKellen).
Thing is, there's nothing in Flushed Away we haven't seen before. The messages of love and friendship and family etc being more important than cash and property has been chewed to death in similar kids animation films, and the jokes that use contemporary culture as their starting point are just not funny anymore when all the films use the same type of humor. There is one truly funny joke in Flushed Away, when the hero scares a slug which runs away but very slowly, but that joke is repeated so many times (again, again, again, again, and again, and again) that you become annoyed whenever you notice the hint of a slug.
So on the positive side we have a good cast and some nice British character (including the obligatory jokes about the stupid Americans). But that's it.
Best joke: England reaches the World Cup finals. To the film's credit, however, the makers make it clear towards the end that they know such an eventuality is as likely as winning the lottery without filling a lottery form.
Picture quality: Quite good.
Sound quality: It's all there, all the ingredients that should make a film sound good. But it's just uninspiring.
Overall: At the risk of repeating myself, an uninspiring 2.5 stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

DVD: The Princess Bride

Lowdown: My name is not Inigo Montoya.
Personal history:
No, I'm not about to review The Princess Bride. I've seen it too many times before to start with, and everyone has seen it and has an opinion about it to continue with. Instead I'll just reminisce...
I was lucky enough to watch Princess Bride before it became a household name and before everyone started repeating the lines (as in, the entire theater going "my name is Inigo Montoya..." every time the matching line comes up). I was 16, and I went to see it during its first week on air with my high school friend Moshe (we used to sit next to one another in class, which really annoyed some teachers). We didn't know much about the film: we knew it was a legend story type thing, I was into reading fantasy books big time at the time, and Moshe heard that Mark Knopfler wrote the soundtrack. It was enough for us to give it a go; at the time I couldn't care less that the director was Rob Reiner, aka Meat Head from All in the Family. To be honest, little did I know that this is the guy who is going to direct When Harry Met Sally or Misery a few years later.
Anyway, we obviously liked the film, even if I still remember we were badly disappointed with the cinema sound and its rendering of the soundtrack. Only later did we become aware of the cult status this film has earnt itself.
Now, is this status justified? I would say so. True, the concept of "true love" is, in my opinion, quite a stupid idea that has probably served to ruin many a relationship over the years through false expectations. But to be fair with the film, it does mock quite a lot of other ideals that stand in its path, such as fairness and happy endings (yet it still provides them all). Go figure...
What I do know is that the script is one of a kind and the directing is superb. And I even like the awkward looking special effects; at least they're not CGI!
Favorite scene: The sword fight between Inigo Montoya and the dreaded Roberts sets the scene pretty well for the rest of the film.
Picture quality:
I own the first generation DVD in NTSC. Other than being NTSC, which is always a bad starting point, it is also not anamorphic and displays tons of analog noise. In short, this one is as bad as a DVD can ever be.
Sound quality: Average for the time the film was made, which means it's pretty bad.
Overall: Films don't come more 5 stars out of 5 than this one.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Film: Loser Takes All!

Lowdown: We all want to believe in fairy tales.
As a brief look at my recent reviews immediately demonstrates, the new crop of Hollywood made films we have been recently watching has been greatly disappointing to say the least. No inspiration, no originality, no value for the time spent watching the film other than mild numbing of the brain. In an attempt to remedy that we tried ourselves that good old medicine called "a foreign film" - the French speaking Belgium production called Loser Takes All! - and to our great satisfaction found ourselves a temporary cure. Loser Takes All!, like many other good French films, offers a different and less conventional look on things, thus rendering it a pleasant surprise to the eye. Add to that the mandatory seemingly redundant nudity and sex scenes you always get in French cinema, and you have yourself quite a good film to review.
The basic premises of the film is the discussion on how we, people, have this wild desire to believe in fairy tales. The best example I can think of is the popularity of religion, and I recall a friend telling me that one of the reasons she's a believer is that one night, while afraid of coming home to a dark train station, she was relieved to find some old school friends that walked her home; what are the chances of that happening without a good dose of divine intervention? Well, people tend to forget that if you through a dice, the chance of getting a 6 is the same as getting a 1. People neglect to notice that unlikely events happen all the time for the simple fact that so many things happen all the time: in a large enough population there are even people that win the lottery - almost on a weekly basis! On one hand people don't seem to notice that the biggest luck of all is being alive in the first place, while on the other people's brains are always on the lookout to try and find patterns where they don't necessarily exist. Hence your average fairy tale.
With that long introduction in mind, let's get to the film. A self proclaimed scientist wins the French lottery and organizes a press conference in which he declares that the win was no coincidence; he is actually able to forecast the winning numbers based on formulas he has devised after studying the results of tens of thousands previous draws. Things become truly sensational when on the next draw the same guy wins the lottery again. Is that possible? Do fairy tales really exist?
Not according to the leading female lead, the leader of a James Bond MI6 type organization in charge of making sure that all's healthy in the world of French gambling. And in order to investigate what really took place she joins hands with a lover of hers who happens to be an addicted gambler, unwanted by all known casinos after he won much more than he should.
And thus we have ourselves a mystery story at hand that unravels like your classic detective story. With excellent pacing, solid acting, and the thrill of the ride I was fully enjoying myself but also constantly worried that the film will disappoint and provide a poor ending - something along the lines of a mystical explanation. But it doesn't - it's all nicely and elegantly solved to make a nice coherent statement.
Overall: An exciting and thoughtful watch. 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Film: Coffee and Cigarettes

Lowdown: Different people having their coffee and cancer sticks.
As films go, not many can be less unassuming than Jim Jarmusch's (Broken Flowers) Coffee and Cigarettes. It's basically a collection of short sketches in which famous actors or other famous celebrities smoke cigarettes and drink coffee while having chit-chat of the type people tend to have when smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee.
Now I'm sure Jarmusch addicts will be able to see some sophisticated vision in there. Trying my best, I can see some sarcastic look at the culture of wasting time through messing about with legal drugs, but that's quite a stretch. The only things I can clearly see that stand up for Coffee and Cigarettes are:
1. The chats which are the center of the coffee/cigs action are, occasionally, witty. It's standard Tarantino long but cool chat material.
2. The actors involved in some of the gigs are interesting, mostly because some of them are not plain actors and the pairings are interesting. In one gig you have Iggy Pop and Tom Waits, while on another you have Jack and Meg White. Still, interesting as this may be, movies cannot stand on such flimsy basis.
3. There is an obvious sense of improvisation in the air. Sure, the core of each sketch is scripted, but there is an aroma of genuine surprise by the some times not that professional actors to what is going on. Still, should I invest my time on a film just because it has an improvised nature? I don't think so.
I guess what I am trying to say is that coffee, cigarettes and pointless chit chat do not make a film great no matter how cool the director is.
Best scene: The Alfred Molina gig is nice, but my vote for the best sketch goes to the Cate Blanchett one (and no, not because she's an Aussie). It's simply the most intelligent of the sketches, with Blanchette playing herself in a dialog with Blanchett playing Blanchett's cousin. She's not afraid to make herself look stupid (albeit in an intelligent way).
Overall: The chats are not too bad, but they're also so limited that they can never be good either. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Film: Jabberwocky

Lowdown: Even the Pythons can have a bad day.
For years I have been walking around in shame. The Monty Python fan that I am (well, to one extent or another; Jo's much more of a warmer fan) has never seen one of their feature length films, Jabberwocky! In fact, the only thing I knew about this film up until watching it now were my best friend Uri's famous words, "it's not a particularly good film to say the least" (freely translated and very freely shaped by my memory due to the effect of years gone by since those famous words were uttered).
Anyway, now that I've seen the film, the main thing I have to say is that Uri was on the spot there. Jabberwocky is a pretty bad film, one of those films that you're better off not watching.
The story is very simple; too simple, in fact. Set in medieval England, the times are tough and a monster (the Jabberwocky) is roaming the land eating all the villagers. Michael Palin plays a stupid son of a village cooper called Dennis Cooper who is in love with an ugly maid that doesn't look in his general direction. Circumstances force Palin to go to the big city to try his luck there, and through seemingly unexpected circumstances (yet very much expected because we've all seen this film hundreds of times in different guises) he ends up being pitted against the monster.
Not much of a plot, but then again Holly Grail didn't have much of a plot either but it was a smashingly funny film. Thing is, Jabberwocky isn't funny; it's mostly pathetic. Sure, there are some funny jokes (three; I've counted), but the rest is not funny and too heavily based on toilet humor or on giving people silly names. Yes, things are that sophisticated.
Production values are extremely poor. No doubt this is due to the film's poor budget, but this is way too much; it all looks way too pathetic. And given the plot and the generally not funny nature of the film, Jabberwocky is a film to miss.
Best scene: The king is hosting a tournament to find a knight that would face the monster, but with all the fighting too many knights get maimed. The solution: the winning knight is selected in a game of hide and seek played between knights in full plate armor.
Overall: Do yourself a favor and avoid Jabberwocky. Try Holly Grail instead: it's got the same look and feel but it's actually good. In the mean time, Jabberwocky scores 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 2 December 2007

DVD: Cream Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2005

Lowdown: Creme de la Cream.
It is not of my habit to review music in this blog, mainly because I do not feel I have the capacity to quantify and analyze why one piece of music is better than another. However, with all due respect, exceptions have to be made for the exceptional, and Cream's recent performance at the Albert Hall is one of those exceptional exceptions.
I'll start with the bottom line: This performance from 2005 of this band that last said goodbye back in 1968 is, in my view, much better than what things were originally like. The performance is just smashing, and the seemingly geriatric band proves that it takes more than age to take back such quality. Instead, the quality has improved like well matured wine. So, for the record, I will say now that the performanc includes all of Cream's hits, plus some interesting variations on familiar songs.
The thing that has always been unique about Cream is the musical talent in the band's stores. Sure, everyone knows Eric Clapton to be a top notch guitarist, but his fellow band members are just as world class if not more: Ginger Baker on drums can only be rivaled, in my view, by Led Zeppelin's late John Bonham; and Jack Bruce on bass cannot be rivaled by anyone I am familiar with. And it shows: The trio, using nothing more than a set of drums, one bass guitar, and one electric guitar manages to fill up Albert Hall so well you think there's an entire orchestra there. The effect is nothing short of amazing!
A lot of the impact of this performance seems to come from the band members obviously having a hell of a time themselves. Through alternate versions of the same songs (available as DVD supplementals), it is clear for all to see just how much improvisation there is in the performance and just how well synced the trio is that they can so smoothly interact with each other's gigs.
Cream was always labeled a super group. This performance proves why.
Best scene: Through repeated viewing, I think it is safe to say that Cream has established itself as Dylan's (my four and a half month old baby son) favorite band. Judging by Dylan's reaction, his favorite bits are Ginger Baker drum solo and his performance in Sunshine of Your Love. The light effects, a relic of the old sixties past, add to the attraction.
Picture quality: Quite good. In an attempt to look modern the camera zooms in and out of the performers while adding some artificial shakes, which is a bit annoying.
Sound quality: We're talking audiophile quality here. Smashing sound re-mastering for a DVD! One can feel exactly where each of the performers and when Baker drums across his set you can feel exactly where he strikes each time.
Overall: Poetry in motion, even if the lyrics are way too psychedelic. 5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 1 December 2007

DVD: Crank

Lowdown: Grand Theft Auto - the film version.
Jason Statham's specialty seems to be silly action films that are fun to watch. First we've had The Transporter and its sequel, and now we have Crank.
As Crank starts, Statham wakes up to find that he has been poisoned by this not so nice guy with a poison that supposed to make him drowsy and kill him slowly. A professional killer, Statham doesn't give up - he goes after the guy that poisoned him. Quickly enough he discovers that he can keep himself awake and hopefully extend his very limited lifespan by making sure adrenaline is pumping through his blood.
With that key observation in mind, Jason goes on a rampage throughout Los Angeles. He chases and get chased by cops, drives through shopping malls, meets with fellow criminals and people of all sorts of ethnicities, and encounters chicks left and right. And with all of his action adventures, the one thing that is very obvious is Jason's (and for that matter, everyone else's) total lack of respect to others. In Crank, people are there to be used - usually by getting stolen from, abused, injured, or shot.
The octane factor on the action is high and it's all quite fun. Quickly enough you realize that the film follows the exact script you would get if you were to play Grand Theft Auto: it all feels like one of those missions you get there and the action is carbon copy stuff to the game. The question then becomes this: Is Crank a film that supports the values embedded in the video game or is it trying to criticize the culture behind the game? That's a hard one to answer. I suspect the answer is that there wasn't much of a superior motive to this film, which is after all a very silly film. Silly, but at the hands of the general [ignorant] public this could be a dehumanization tool.
Best scenes: There are several extreme scenes in Crank that are worth mentioning. In ascending order of "coolness" (inverted commas apply here), we have:
1. In order to steal a cab from a foreigner looking cabbie, Statham shouts "Al Qaeda" and immediately a group of grandfathers/grandmothers crashes the hell of the cabbie and allows Statham to get away with the stolen cab.
2. Statham has full on sex with his girlfriend in the middle of a very crowded Chinatown. Everything to keep the adrenaline pumping! Just like Paris Hilton, though, he has to stop in order to answer his mobile phone.
3. Statham receives a blow job from his girlfriend while being involved in a very passionate car chase that would have been memorable enough without the extra curricular piece of action. I guess this scene is supposed to serve as your ultimate male fantasy.
Picture quality: Colors are fairly inconsistent.
Sound quality: Aggressive if inarticulate sound. Oddly enough, as aggressive as it is, the surrounds are not involved half as much as they should.
Overall: It's fun, but it requires the viewer to leave all morality behind. Or, like me, allow yourself to think this is all just cynical criticism and enjoy the ride. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 28 November 2007

DVD: The Black Dahlia

Lowdown: Old style murder mystery with new style sex.
As I have said in the past, Brian De Palma is one of those directors I look up to. Obviously, he knows how to make films. In his latest (which by now may actually not be his latest), The Black Dahlia, he proves this point once again. However, he also demonstrates how a well made film is not necessarily a good film.
Set immediately after World War 2, TBD is a kind of a film noir movie. The story is told from the point of view of Josh Hartnett, a Los Angeles police detective in his day job and a former boxer in his previous life (or is it his spare time hobby?). Hartnet's partner is also a boxer and they actually fought one another to help raise policemen salaries. Described as Fire & Ice, these two cannot be set apart, and the partner's girlfriend (Scarlett Johansson) is almost shared between the two.
Then a shooting incident happens, and then a bad dude that used to torture Johansson gets released from jail, and then this young actress get gruesomely murdered, and thus we have a murder mystery on our hands. The looks and the feel and the narration all make this murder story feel like one of those old black and white Bogart / Huston film, most notably The Maltese Falcon. The main thing that sets this one apart from the old vintage are the dominant sexual themes, another trademark De Palma feature (after all, De Palma is famous for directing Undressed to Kill). However, TBD is not as good as the Falcon. I had a real hard time understanding what was going on, partly because the film is meant to be one of those films where you slowly figure out what's going on, and partly because the film insistence on a particular style dictates that the actors talk quickly and using forties lingo, which means they are hard to comprehend. I know it sounds stupid, but I tell it the way it was for me...
Eventually, though, I did realize what went on. Then, however, I said to myself: so what? As in, was the trip worth the effort? I don't think so. Sure, De Palma wanted to say similar things to what Huston used to say in his films, but he didn't manage to say it that well. He ended up with a very stylish film, a very empty film.
Best scene: A trail of lesbian themed clues leads the detectives in their investigations and at one point they get to this lesbian club. In a show of fancy film making, we find ourselves in the middle of a K. D. Lang performance that is very well choreographed.
Picture quality: There is a dominant sepia finishing to the film that hardly leaves any colors in but doesn't wash them away altogether. Obviously intentional, it's a main contributor to the film's style.
Sound quality: Most of the time it is very subdued. However, in key action scenes the sound becomes very aggressive and very realistic. It's effective, but it's a pity not more of the movie is done with proper sound.
Overall: Style fails to conquer substance. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

Book: Billions and Billions by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: Applying scientific thinking to late 20th century issues.
Billions and Billions is the last book to be written by Carl Sagan. Not that this has stopped publishers from publishing stuff of his afterwards, it's just that when B&B was finished Sagan was in his deathbed (finishing touches were added by his wife).
B&B is actually a collection of articles more than a conventional book, with the articles grouped by their themes. The first batch discusses the importance of quantification when trying to assess everything around us. Essentially, it's vintage Sagan with his smooth style talking about the virtues of scientific thinking.
The second batch, entitled "what are the conservatives conserving", applies the scientific thinking preached in the previous articles and shows exactly how they relate to our modern lives through discussions concerning the ozone layer and global warming. In fact, the chapters on global warming often feel as though they are carbon copies of Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth, which made me ask myself who among the two really deserves the Nobel Peace Prize and how dumb we humans are to have ignored the call to arms on global warming for so long.
Next come further discussions where scientific thinking is applied to major political and social issues of our times: nuclear arms, abortions, and others more. Take the issue of abortions as an example: Sagan quickly disintegrates the common arguments from both sides of the fence. The pro-life arguments seem particularly silly when you analyze their history and the reasons why they were brought up in the first place, but the pro-choice arguments lack foundations just the same. Sagan then comes up with his own line of arguments which he thoroughly explains, arguments that by relying on facts are that much more compelling.
The book ends with the exciting yet sad story of Sagan's fight for his life. The story is both touching and interesting but not in the tabloid kind of way; here is a man that is about to die sharing with us his vision for our future. Reading it I found myself in tears (which was a bit of a problem given that most of my reading is now done during train rides).
Looking back at my own blog's recent posts on the role of astronomy in life and about death, I find it interesting to see just how similar my views are to Sagan's. Now I am not saying here that my writing is as good as his or that I am as much of an intellectual as he was; what I am saying is that Sagan has had a profound influence on the way I view this world. And for that I will be forever thankful.
Overall: Simple elegance. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 25 November 2007

DVD: Pirates of the Caribbean 3 - At World's End

Lowdown: Now where did those 3 hours of my life disappear to?
We never expected much out of the third installment of the Pirates of the Caribbean 3. It was a Friday night, we wanted a light film that would be fun to watch but won't challenge our intellects too much, and most of all we were curious to see how that series ends. Not that we were terribly anxious or anything, given that the second installment was as forgettable as, but just - you know - wanted to see how ends meet.
Now I may have been able to tell you what PotC3 is about and what the plot is like but I can't, really. Not because I'm neglecting my duties as a would be film reviewer, but simply because there is none to talk about. More than its two predecessors, PotC3 is a collection of meaningless scenes that don't make much sense. It starts from the opening scene that shows rows of people getting hanged for no particular reason and moves on all through the rest of the film. Whatever progression the plot has is through the invention of new things that have mysteriously eluded the previous two films in the series, such as the introduction of a sea goddess.
Plot is not the only thing that is missing. Characterization is missing, too; the film relies on the characters "established" in previous episodes and doesn't bother spending even 1 cent on character development.
That's fine, I hear you say; the Pirates series is not about plot or characters, it's about the roller coaster action scenes. Not so fine, I answer back: the action scenes in this third installment are predictable, relatively rare, rely on CGI way too much, and to be frank - they're quite boring. Instead, most of the film is spent in meaningless dialog that doesn't really make sense but is full of pirate cliches of the type you would hear from the one legged character in The Simpsons.
When all of this ordeal spreads over close to three hours, the result is simply one of the most torturous movie experiences I have ever had.
Best scene: The closing credits, mainly because they signaled the end of the film. We thought that would never come! They also answered the most interesting question I had about the film, which was whether it was indeed Chow Yun-Fat that took part in the early part of the film.
Picture quality: Good, but should have been better. Too much noise.
Sound quality: OK, but nothing offering none of the qualities an action film with this kind of a budget should.
Overall: A complete waste of time, a film that has absolutely nothing to offer. 0 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 23 November 2007

DVD: Rocky Balboa

Lowdown: Rocky's back from retirement where he should have stayed.
The Rocky films represent childhood memories. Funny memories of times gone by when we could have enjoyed films as bad as Rocky 3, where the eye of the tiger (what a hit song that was!) fights it out with B. A. Burekas. Or Rocky 4, where the communist slime is shown who the superior species on this planet is. However, as bad as 3 & 4 were, they were so bad they were funny; #5, on the other hand, was pathetically bad.
And now comes #6 and in order for it to appear better Sylvester Stallone has decided to dump the numbering altogether and go for a more classy act with the name. The film, however, still retains the original qualities of the "better" sequels: stupid, predictable films.
This time around Rocky is long past retirement, a small time restaurant operator who is happy with his life but is captivated with memories of a better past. We know the past wasn't better, it was pretty bad - with Drago and such - but Stallone is obviously in such a bad position, career wise, that he has to live in a past that never existed to feel good with himself. And make no mistake about it, Stallone thinks that he and Rocky are the same.
Back to the film, and the current boxing champion is so good he's unpopular with the crowds because he wins too easily. However, a computer TV simulation shows that Rocky will beat him, which sparks the idea of a match between the two. Thus we have an excuse for Rocky to go back to the ring, for Stallone to produce another film in the series, and for the film to re-emphasize its point about past values vs. present trash.
On paper, the plot may sound interesting. On screen, however, RB is a very boring film - quite an achievement with only 97 minutes of length. The main problem is with the first two thirds of the film, which are basically an emotional account; only that Rocky is so shallow and so dumb, and the film resorts to sophisticated artistic shots that look so out of place, that you don't know whether to laugh or fall asleep. Then come the fight scenes and they bring nothing new along: it's more of the same from the previous films and it's too short and predictable to dent the film already very well imposed aura of boredom.
The film does end in a nice way (spoiler alert!): The end is similar to the end of Rocky 1, the only good film of the series. It's sort of a circle being closed, only that the DVD offers an alternative ending where Rocky actually wins. To me, this shows the general lack of direction that led to RB being such a boring film.
Corniest scene: The South Park guys knew what they were singing about with their song "Even Rocky Had a Montage" (taken from their film Team America). The montage when Rocky starts to practice for the fight, repeated in all Rocky films, has to be the biggest joke the film has to offer.
Picture quality: Very good, although as stated - the artistic look actually deprives the film.
Sound quality: For an hour or so you get sound that is obviously well designed but very subdued. And then the fight is declared, and suddenly the trumpets of the Rocky theme blow on all cylinders. What a magnificent theme it is, especially when it is so well rendered! It sounded so good I still keep having it playing in my head. During the fight sound takes center stage, but it's the music that turns you on.
Overall: This film is stuck in a past that never existed and its theme music is not enough to resurrect it. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

DVD: Knocked Up

Lowdown: An almost documentary about an unwanted pregnancy.
40 Year Old Virgin was the last film we've watched before I started this blog. I liked it and thought it was funny enough to merit 4 out of 5 stars. Now the team behind Virgin has produced a film that is also heavy on puberty humor and that is also supposed to be full of seemingly proper morales despite the puberty humor: It's called Knocked Up, and despite its similarities with Virgin it is also very different. Unlike Virgin, Knocked Up serves almost as a documentary, or pretty much the closest thing that could still pass for both a comedy and a documentary.
The story is simple to the point that the hard to swallow bits of the plot are almost indistinguishable. On one hand we have an incompetent guy who will never score, smokes illegal substances all day, and with his group of incompetent guys dreams up on creating their own porn website but doesn't really do anything about it. On the other hand we have a good looking chick who is also smart (at least by Hollywood standards, where a good looking chick is never allowed to be an intellectual, god forbid) and works on TV and is just about to get her chance to go on screen. She's also living with her older sister and the sister's family, which doesn't really make sense. The two meet together, and while drunk they go for it; an accident happens, and whoops - the girl goes pregnant.
There is actually some hard science involved here, you know. Research has shown that women look for sex when they are at their fertile peak of the month; however, the research also shows that they are looking for guys with specific signs of strong genes. Anyway, this is my way to say that Knocked Up is a film of two halves, roughly, and as of the point that we learn about the pregnancy the film turns from a comedy that works mostly through an American Pie type of "sophisticated" jokes into a documentary showing us both the physical and the emotional changes that the couple by force goes through, pretty much up until the birth.
As someone who, at this particular time, is very versed in the procedures of pregnancy and giving birth, I can attest that although often inaccurate Knocked Up is as accurate as I have seen in an American mainstream production. Yes, people who have no idea what takes place during that time of your life can learn a thing or two there; thing is, when the focus of the film turns to the intricacies of pregnancy, the film stops being an effective comedy and turns into this Friends like drama - foolish and not very funny. At about two hours long, this can become a bit of a chore.
Best scenes: There were no jokes that really knocked me up. What I did like is how the guys were always portrayed doing drugs. While I think a world without drugs would be a better world, I am against the hypocritical view of some that pretend not to see that everyone is using drugs. John Howard included.
Picture quality: Your typical let's not make an effort DVD, showing transfer issues even on the much less than HDTV capable DVD format.
Sound quality: There's no need to power more than your center channel with this one.
Overall: An educational 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

DVD: Falling Down

Lowdown: A wakeup call to society.
For a film as good as Falling Down, I am ashamed to say that prior to now I have only seen it once before from start to finish. That was on Israeli cable, not the best way ever for watching films. It still had its impact, being one of the sources of inspiration behind my main blog's name.
In a similar fashion to the recently reviewed The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Reservoir Dogs, Falling Down features a nameless hero - Michael Douglas. Divorced with a child he cannot see, one morning at this traffic jam Douglas stops doing what everyone expects him to do and leaves his car in the middle of the road. From then on he stumbles upon all sorts of people, creating interesting interactions demonstrating many things that are bad with contemporary society and many things that are bad with us as we interact with society (xenophobia and violence on TV, to name two). As Douglas goes about questioning society his adventure turns into a rampage that spirals down and grows more and more violent. Which is when we get to see his mirror image - Robert Duvall - a person very similar to Douglas but on police side of things - try and track Douglas down. Duvall has to contend with similar problems Douglas does, but he sort of shows us the right way to do it. Eventually, both of them meet for a duel.
There is not much more to Falling Down than the collection of criticisms concerning society. That is more than enough to sustain the film, though, and its all aided by the solid performance of the two leads. For a relatively lackluster director like Joel Schumacher falling down is quite the achievement!
Best scene: There are many contenders here, but I think the best one is the scene early in the film when Douglas loses his grip and leaves the car behind him. It's very well directed in the tradition of Hitchcock. I wonder what came first, Falling Down or the video for REM's Everybody Hurts.
Picture quality: In one word, obscene. They didn't even stabilize the telecine machine - the picture is shaking!
Sound quality: The stereo only soundtrack here shows signs of promise, but being stereo only in the age of 5.1 it sounds very inferior.
Overall: An inspiring film that is let down by a very badly made DVD transfer. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

DVD: Marie Antoinette

Lowdown: A feminine look at a history we all take for granted.
Going into Marie Antoinette the film, I had to admit I didn’t know much about the character. I knew she was the queen of France, I knew she said what she said about cakes, I knew how she died, but that’s it. And now comes this film that tries to give us its own version of this woman’s story, and I have to admit I don’t know how to accept it: Is what the film saying about Antoinette true? Is it one possible truth based on a small bank of evidence that managed to survive the years? Or is it totally fictitious? Given that I didn’t and still don’t know where the film lies, I chose to digest it as a film and not as a biography.
Marie Antoinette the film was directed by Sofia Coppola, Francis Ford’s daughter. As with her previous films that I have watched, Virgin Suicides and Lost in Translation, MA feels very laid back in the sense that nothing is pushed on the viewer; there is no spoon feeding the viewer here. Instead there’s just a collection of events taking place on the screen in front of you and you’re required to make whatever you want of it. In MA’s case, the events taking place on the screen tell us of a young Austrian princess, Marie Antoinette, who at a very young age is sent to marry the French crown prince in order to improve the political connections between the two kingdoms. As she arrives in France Antoinette has to face a world as foreign to her as Mars would seem to us (albeit with a breathable atmosphere). Quickly enough she finds herself trapped between having to produce a heir to the king in order to establish herself and having a husband of a prince who is rather reluctant to perform the acts required in order to generate such a heir.
As the film develops, we learn that Marie Antoinette is, first and foremost, a person. A person trapped in circumstances beyond her, a person with whims and weaknesses, and a person who can rise to the occasion from time to time. This may seem a bland message, but given the character’s historical reputation it is an important one, telling us not to take what we are being told for granted. The film goes further, actually telling us that Antoinette did not actually say that famous quote of hers; Coppola (Francis Ford this time, the film’s executive producer) repeats the point in the DVD’s supplementals, making me wonder how he knows what he claims to know. Regardless, the point is still the same: in this age of menacing terrorists across the seas that plot to kill us, what do we really know about them and about what it is that puts them in the situation they are in? Or do we only know what we are told?
My main problem with MA as a film is that it completely failed to captivate me and to get me involved as a viewer. More than with Sofia Coppola’s other two films, I was quite indifferent to any of the characters and never felt myself an external viewer. A lot of it is to do with Coppola’s laid back style, but I suspect a lot of it has to do with the things that are supposed to make the film work that just happen to be things that don’t “talk” to me. For a start, MA features a very feminine hero, something that is quite rare; the vast majority of films have male leads, something that as a male is very easy for me to get used to and take for granted. Second, the film’s most distinct attribute is its look, with everything looking so neat and so well arranged; again, a typically feminine way of doing things, which is fine and which should be applauded given the unjustified male dominance, but again – it doesn’t work on me. I was too ill conditioned, I guess.
On the positive side, the film was shot on location in France and the result is spectacular; when you see Antoinette walk up the stairs of the palace, you know that the real one actually walked those same stairs. I also thought that Kirstin Dunst has done an unexpectedly decent job in the main role.
Best scene: The scene in which Antoinette wakes up for her first post wedding morning only to have half of France around her in the bedroom is probably the scene mostly remembered, but I liked the scene where she crosses the border between Austria and France and has to let go of anything Austrian the most. It touched a chord and it really showed what this young girl in the film had to go through to satisfy political whims that would have been quite beyond her given her age at the time.
Picture quality: One of the main things about this film is its look, and one of the ways in which the look is established is through the color palette deployed in the film – the costumes, the backgrounds, etc. These tend to be in soft colors of the type that will commonly be described as “feminine”: pink and light blue, for example. As a result, the film has the potential to deliver a trip to the eyes, but it mostly fails to achieve that through noise and moderate color inconsistencies.
Sound quality: I like the sound design here. Not the most elaborate or detailed or well recorded one ever, to say the least, but what we have here is a soundtrack that often deliberately takes center stage. This is either done by varying sound levels or by playing rock/pop music in scenes where you'd expect the classical of classical music. A job well done; it’s good to see directors who value sound as a central element of their creation, because I surely agree with them. Woody Allen, eat your heart out.
Overall: Marie Antoinette is a good film that almost totally failed to captivate me. Grinding my teeth I will give it 3 out of 5 stars, although I cannot be said to have liked it that much.

Saturday, 10 November 2007

DVD: Apocalypse Now Redux

Lowdown: An extended journey to the darkness within us.
December 2001 Review:
Several scenes that place the film in its initial context – as a film about Americans fighting a war in Vietnam – were added to one of my all time favorite films. They help the film (and the viewers) stay in focus, in what was initially an extremely hard to digest film (which is probably why I like it so much).
Which version is better? It’s hard to say; it’s not like Blade Runner, where the “easier” version sucks in comparison with the director’s cut. It is like Blade Runner, though, in that it would be easier on the viewer to watch the Redux first. I guess both versions deserve their existence.
Additional interesting notes:
1. The DVD’s picture quality, with its lack of noise and its anamorphic capabilities, is way better than the LaserDisc version I was used to.
2. I got the DVD from the Internet before it became available here for rental.
3. Three of my all time favorite five films are also landmarks in sound design.
4. If I were to build a listening room, this would certainly be a good choice to initiate it with.

Contemporary review:
Apocalypse Now is and has been one of my all time favorite films. Not that this is a film I watch in order to feel like I'm having a good time, but because this is a thinking film. It is also one of Coppola's greatest films, together with his Godfather duo.
This introduction is there to say that because I am so used to Apocalypse Now I cannot truly review it; what follows is a pale imitation.
At the risk of repeating what every other person will tell you about Apocalypse, I will say that while this film seems to be about the war in Vietnam it is actually a journey into the good/bad conflict that takes place in our heads all the time and how society handles that conflict. Just look at Abu Ghraib and what normal people did in there to see that there is a dark side to us all; the people in charge there were not different to the people taking the upriver ride in the journey film that is Apocalypse Now.
Best scene: There's an ample supply of best scenes with this one, and the Redux version adds a few more. However, the best of the best is obviously the famous helicopter attack scene for its high impact.
Picture quality: The DVD I have of Apocalypse is an American NTSC version, so colors are all over the place. Signs of aging are obvious, too, but overall the picture is good and its look adds to the film's impact.
Sound quality: Fifteen years ago Apocalypse was the film to demonstrate your home theater with. While it lacked the brute force behind Terminator 2, it did offer superb imaging in a soundtrack that was designed with home theater in mind rather than the flawed cinema that has to cater for people sitting all over the place. However, by today's terms the lack of low frequency action is notable and what was once unique is now average (or what you would hope to be average). That said, the imaging is still excellent.
Overall: You have to be in the mood to watch this one, and the last hour or so of this very long film could take you to sleep all too easily. In the right mood, though, this is a 5 out of 5 stars film; if in the wrong mood, I suggest you hang on for the proper mood to come...

Friday, 9 November 2007

DVD: The Transformers

Lowdown: You wouldn’t want this film to meet either of your eyes.
At the risk of sounding childish I openly proclaim myself to be a fan of the Transformers animation series (at least the original one). Yes, I know, a recent re-watch has made it clear the series I liked during high school did not survive the test of time well even if I still know the title song by heart; but still, I could not hold myself from holding my hope up high when I’ve heard of Transformers the movie coming out. Initial doubts crept in when I heard it would be a Michael Bay film; one doesn’t want another Pearl Harbor. Still, Bay did some nice stuff, too: I quite like The Rock, and even The Island was pretty entertaining.
All that is to say that now, having watched Transformers the film, I can say that I was greatly disappointed. So much potential, so bad a delivery!
Failure, in my opinion, is the result of two factors: character development and special effects. Allow me to explain…
Unlike the good old animation series, the film focuses on the humans as the main characters with the robots being mostly called into action for the action sequences. And so we have ourselves a kid whose father buys him his first car. It looks like a total lemon, but guess what – it’s actually an Autobot transformer! Meantime, in some remote desert, US forces find themselves under attack by Decipticon transformers! With one unlikely event leading to another, things all come down to the kid with the car (who finds himself a good looking girl) being the focal point of the fight. The point I am trying to make here is that none of the transformer characters, be it the good Autobots or the evil Decipticons, gets developed into anything close to a round character; it’s just “we’re good” and “they’re evil” type thing. Second, none of the human characters is worth a fuss; they’re all as interesting as yesterday’s newspaper, topped by the hero’s girl whose idea of portraying depth is exposing us to her way too white set of teeth.
Fine, I hear you say, no one watches a film like Transformers for character development; people watch it for the action sequences. I agree, but then again those action sequences are just as annoying as the one dimensional female leads: All are glaringly CGI, and all are shot in this very annoying manner of fast sweeps and quick editing that make it next to impossible if not impossible to tell what’s going on. Pretty tasteless, I would say.
Add plenty of plug-ins (the film feels like an elongated eBay commercial), and you truly wonder what characters such as John Voight or John Turturro are doing there; or what is one Stephen Spielberg doing there as an executive producer.
Best scenes: I would say the scenes with Turturro shine as the best ones here, but that is only because the rest of the film is so bad. He does what he did in Big Lebowski: provide a short appearance as the comic relief.
Picture quality: Shot in high contrast stock, detail is lacking on this one even if the transfer to DVD seems to have been well made.
Sound quality: As expected from such a high caliber stunt, quite aggressively good.
Overall: A mildly entertaining yet totally forgettable 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Book: Shakespeare by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: Much ado about Shakespeare’s world but not much ado about Shakespeare.
For the record, I don’t care much for Shakespeare. Sure, I understand the importance of his work and its cultural value, but please do not expect me to enjoy plays I can’t understand even when subtitles are employed. What I am trying to say here is simply this: I did not read Shakespeare, a biography of the famous playwright, because of what I think about William; I read it because it was a book written by Bill Bryson, one of my favorite authors, and when a new Bryson is out I get it.
Even before starting reading Shakespeare I couldn’t help noticing the relative thinness of the book. At around 200 well spaced pages, we are not talking thickest book ever league here by all accounts and especially by the Bryson account. Indeed, as you read the book, you quickly realize why this is the case: we hardly have any data about Shakespeare the person. We know basic stuff about his real estate deals and shows he had before the monarchy and his tax avoidance schemes, but that’s it; not many facts to fill up a book with.
The way Bryson addresses this problem in order to still manage writing a book about a person on which we know next to nothing is interesting. Instead of telling us much about Shakespeare, Bryson tells us a lot about his environment. The result is that by reading Bryson’s Shakespeare I managed to learn a lot about the lifestyle during Shakespeare’s time: I didn’t realize, for example, just how bad things were at the time with the plague; I thought that was over and done with by Shakespeare’s time. I didn’t realize that the meat eaten by most of the people at the time was meat we wouldn’t even dream of eating – stuff like, say, storks; in fact, it’s quite interesting to ponder just why our choices of meats have become the way they are. I got to learn a lot about how London, one of my favorite cities (don’t know about living there, though) was like at the time and what leftovers from Shakespeare’s time I got to see in my travels there. And I also got to learn a lot about the main power source behind most of the more eventful events back at Shakespeare’s time, religion, and namely the fight between Protestants and Catholics and its ensuing side effects – like the minor affair with the Spanish Armada. With more than half of the book devoted to the background Shakespeare has operated from, you can argue that you know a lot about him even if you don’t know much about him; and given that the story is told by Bill Bryson, a writer who knows how to convey facts in an interesting and readable way that makes you laugh from time to time, the background part of the book is surprisingly interesting.
Things, however, are not always that good for Shakespeare the book. There is a dark side to Bill Bryson: As has been revealed in his books about the English language, The Mother Tongue and Made in America, Bryson has the potential to become quite boring with his tedious analysis of the mundanely boring. In the past it used to be words, and in Shakespeare it is to do with trying to learn about Shakespeare through his plays; quickly enough, we go down to the level of words analysis, and for 50 pages or so I was wishing I was reading another book. Granted, Bryson means well; it’s just that his love for English can too easily get the better of him.
One mystery Bryson’s Shakespeare seems to have solved for me is the mystery of Shakespeare’s identity. By reviewing the various conspiracy theories concerning who was truly behind the plays on a historical timeline and through the analysis of the claims, Bryson shows us pretty quickly – and very entertainingly – how facts are the most missing element of those theories. As in the case of religion, the various conspiracy theorists never let the truth get in the way of their wishful thinking, even if that wishful thinking was pretty limited in its scope; and as is the case with religion, we cannot really verify from where we are now whether Shakespeare was indeed the person behind the plays we know, but what we can tell is that the various conspiracy theories are very unlikely to be even remotely true.
Overall: For a review of what is by now a forgotten era, Shakespeare is not a bad read at all. The final score depends on your view about the balance between interesting background reviews vs. the tedious language analysis; I would go with 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 November 2007

DVD: Reservoir Dogs

Lowdown: Glorification of male violence.
Having read a review of Death Proof, the latest Tarantino film, I thought it’s time to recollect on Tarantino’s first effort – Reservoir Dogs, which I haven’t watched for many years.
It turns out that the timing was good for another reason: Reservoir Dogs is remarkably similar to the recently reviewed The Good the Bad and the Ugly. Both films feature characters whose real names are unknown, in both films we hardly know a thing about the characters’ history, in both films all the characters are quite bad (at least in my book), and both films are a celebration of the masculine with hardly any hint of a female presence on the screen. In fact, most of the female attention in the film is spent on a detailed analysis provided by Tarantino himself to Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Simplicity is the key with the setup of Dogs: A group of criminals is organizing a robbery; then things go wrong and they suspect a mole as they gather one by one in their post heist meeting place. With a policeman one of them has hijacked, they set up to see how they can get away with it and who the mole is.
Thing is, like we all expect by now from Tarantino (but we didn’t when Dogs first came about), timelines are mixed, and the plot repeatedly takes us back to the future as more and more stuff gets unravelled. It’s a nice trick, but I have to say it made me ask why Tarantino has to resort to such means; is it to cover for the so basic premises? Or is it just to flatter his ego? I suspect the answer is both of the above.
There are some memorable things to Dogs. There’s a cast that includes some heavy talents like Harvey Keitel, Tim Roth and Steve Buscemi. There is some unconventional direction work, with atypical camera positioning and shots taken at unusual angles. And as per another Tarantino trademark, there’s dialog that will either bore you to death or thrill you; with me it’s more of the former. But generally, though, Reservoir Dogs is a film that everyone remembers for its violence, and despite the “[almost] every dog has its day” message of the film, Dogs is and has always been celebrated as a feast of violence. Many people I know describe it as the coolest film ever, a statement I find hard to swallow since it points at a twisted values system where holding a gun in an impractical way, shooting innocent people, badmouthing for no particular reason, and generally disregard fellow humans is considered to be “cool”. I know, I know: Other films, including Good/Bad/Ugly, have done so too, so why do I take my wrath out on Reservoir Dogs? Simply because in Dogs it is all done so seriously, without a blink, suggesting a total removal of the comedy factor; in Dogs’ world violence is the norm, not the exception.
While on one hand it does seem as if Tarantino was trying to tell us that the masculine world is getting us nowhere, his glorification of that world’s violence ends up sending a confused message; given that most people take the glory and ignore the lesson, I conclude that Reservoir Dogs is a bad film.
Worst scene: Needless to say, the scene in which one of the criminals cuts the policeman’s ear to the tune of “Stuck in the Middle with You”. Did I mention that the film glorifies violence?
Picture quality: Pretty bad. Colors are distorted and the level of detail is low.
Sound quality: Most of the time it’s mono.
Overall: No, I’m not a big fan of Tarantino. 2 out of 5 stars, mainly because there is still a lot of brilliant filmmaking in there.

Monday, 5 November 2007

DVD: Dead Poets Society

Lowdown: Be yourself no matter what they say.
July 2000 Review:
When I first saw the film, some ten years ago, I utterly despised it. I thought it was one of the most boring things created; I don’t even think I’ve watched it all. The situation is very different now: I think this is the best film I have seen for quite a while (at least since Magnolia).
It’s funny to note the effects of time. That kid who could only watch action and sci-fi movies, turned into someone who watches film for the sake of their technical merit, now enjoys drama the most (this one, by the way, is far from being of high technical quality). As I said in a funny accent back in 1991, “the more contact I have with humans, the more I learn”.
I’ll use my famous “time test” on it, and if I’ll still be thinking of the film in the future, then Amazon will have another order to ship.
One last note: The cinematography in the film, by John Seale, is one of the best ever. On its own, it’s worth watching the film for.
Contemporary review:
Indeed, the thing that interests me the most about Dead Poets Society is my reaction to it. Back in 2000 I saw it as a carte blanche for trying to seize the day, interpreting it as "get yourself a motorcycle" (something I ended up not doing; instead, I settled with merely taking one step towards that goal by migrating to Australia). Now, however, with much less bias between me and the film, I see it as a film scorning conformity and advocating a second look at life and everything in it. Basically, a film that asks the audience to think for themselves.
The story is one of those stories about a magic teacher that makes a difference to the lives of his students. Set in a prestigious American high school in the fifties, a school that acts as a production line for generating high scores so that future doctors and lawyers can choose the university that would make them doctors or lawyers, it tells the story of Robin Williams. Williams is an ex graduate who is now the English literature teacher, and he tells the kids that they should seize the day, avoid conforming for the sake of conformism, and try and have their own look on things instead of just accepting things for the way they are. The result is magical; the impact on the kids' lives is immediate. But the result is also tragic with the inevitable confrontation between the now free spirited kids and their parents.
All in all, Dead Poets is another interesting yet eccentric film by Peter Weir, the Aussie who did Witness. It is a good film, a thought provoking film, but it is a bit too much of a sugar coated lollipop even if it doesn't follow regulation Hollywood standards and supply a happy ending. It is also quite predictable: from the minute you first see Williams you figure the inevitable confrontation that is to take place later and you guess its outcome.
Don't ask me why I thought so highly of the film's cinematography back in 2000; it's good, but it didn't draw enough attention from me now, at least not until I have re-read my old review. What I can say, though, is that watching a very young Ethan Hawke was an interesting experience; it made me wonder how Dylan will look like in a few years' time.
Best scene: I have found the scene where Williams makes some of his students walk while the rest observe, thus giving them a lesson about conformism, to be most interesting. I wonder how I would react in such a situation.
Picture quality: Bad, with significant noise and distortion from the analog copy out of which the DVD version was made. I understand there is a new version of this DVD, and I hope they redid the picture side.
Sound quality: Bad. Aside of two climatic scenes I wasn't able to detect much from anything but the center speaker.
Overall: Dead Poets seems to be a film where I see the things I want to see. I guess that is good, even if it is too predictable. I generously hand it 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

DVD: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

Lowdown: Well cooked spaghetti.
A recent discussion helped me realized that I am yet to watch The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at home where the good sound and picture are, so I went up and did something about it. And I’m glad I did.
To be honest, I don’t know what the differences are between GBU’s special edition and the original cut are; the last three times I have watched the film I was watching the newer cut: In 2001 I watched it on cable back in Israel, not long before leaving for Australia, and back in 2003 Jo & I went to a special screening at the Astor Theatre, a proper old style cinema with a huge screen that befits a film like GBU.
As the title hints, GBU follows the adventures of three characters: the ugly, Tuco (Eli Wallach), a petty criminal but a very successful criminal at that who is pretty good as the film’s comic relief; the bad, Angle Eyes (Lee Van Cliff), who is as cold hearted as a person can be and then some; and the good, who is unnamed but regularly referred to as Blondie (Clint Eastwood). GBU’s plot is quite unique in the sense that we never hear much about the main characters; all we know about them comes from what they do on the screen with dialog very much limited to minor characters. Thing is, when you watch the film you realize they are all good, bad and ugly; goodness suffers big time here, in fact, as there’s hardly any of it. GBU is, indeed, a story about treachery and treason under harsh circumstances.
Times could not be harsher. Set in the Wild West during the days of the American Civil War, this three hours long film tells the story of how our three heroes will not stop at anything - including the worst acts imaginable - to put their hands on a treasure of two hundred thousand dollars in gold. On their way they meet lots of interesting characters, but the main event in GBU is not the plot or the supporting acts but rather the way it is done; as befits an Italian made film, it's all about the style.
And style it has aplenty. The cinematography/direction puts most if not all other films to shame when it comes to having a go at making original shots: extreme closeups, shots from unusual angles that reveal more than meets the eye, and just plain creativeness (and all without a hint of the CGI plague that has infected contemporary cinema). The famous score is exquisite and exhilarating, and the three main actors match their roles like fish in water. Special kudos goes to Wallach, whose Tuco is by far the most interesting character in the film.
True, GBU is a rather slow film, as Jo has pointed out while we were watching it; but she also added that it's deliberately slow. It's all a part of the presentation, and if you've got the patience you'll be rewarded. In short, GBU is a film that needs to be watched rather than talked about.
Best scene: GBU provides many a candidate for the role of best scene but one clear overall winner.
First, I like the scene in which Tuco runs around the graveyard looking for the grave hiding the treasure: it’s a lovely work of acting, direction and cinematography to watch him running about.
Second, the line uttered by Tuco when someone explains to him how he is going to kill him while Tuco is having a bath, only to have Tuco shoot him with a gun hidden between the bubbles, is one of those immortal lines that is often quoted by my brother for a laugh: “When you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”. Say no more.
But the clear winner is obviously the scene of the final duel between Tuco, Angel Eyes and Blondie. Again, the direction and cinematography there are astounding, especially the close-ups on the faces and on the gun hands; music properly builds the tensions up; and this time around, editing plays a significant role. What a masterpiece of a scene!
Picture quality: GBU is 40 years of age or so and it shows every second. The DVD’s picture is not substantially better to what you would get on VHS, with lots of analog noise of varying intensities and often washed up picture. That said, one thing the DVD does provide is a cinemascope like aspect ratio of around 2.35:1, which is essential in order to properly enjoy GBU; more than any other film, GBU uses the entire width of the screen so effectively you cannot be said to have watched the film if you were to watch it in a cropped pan & scan version.
Sound quality: Like the picture, it shows its age. Although the DVD supplies a 5.1 mix, the film feels like it is essentially a mono production that was later modified for 5.1. Most of everything comes in through the center channel, with the occasional dialog from a character at the side of the screen coming in from the left/right speakers (in a very artificial manner) and the surrounds limited to limited reverberation effects.
Dialog is worth its own mentioning as everything is obviously dubbed and as it is obvious that many of the actors were not speaking English. I guess you can say things are pretty bad in the sound department.
Overall: It’s a rare pleasure to watch such a well made film. 5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Film: Last Action Hero

Lowdown: A pathetic yet funny look at movies.
Last Action Hero is a film I watched many a time but not during the current millennia. Being that it was the first thing Schwarzenegger did after Terminator 2, the film I watched the most, it was only natural that I would acquire the laserdisc and watch it again and again. With the changing trends in my movie preferences Last Action Hero got revisited less and less, so it was time to check it up again. And you know what? With all the criticism this film has received, I still like it a lot.
I like it despite the awful story. A magic ticket takes a child into the film he’s watching and then takes him back into the real world together with the film’s hero to sort out the mess? Can’t that concept be implemented without the use of such poor mechanisms as a “magic ticket”? On the other hand, there is a lot of wisdom in the film, with witty sarcastic jokes thrown around in large quantities, generally mocking the way films are done (and marketed) nowadays. We even have Schwarzenegger making a complete fool of himself as he plays his real self being interviewed.
These jokes about the movie making world and everything that surrounds it, the many funny references to other films, the large number of effective cameos, the way in which other films are used (as with Schwarzenegger blaming F Murray Abraham, the actor who played Salieri in Amadeus, for the murder of Moe Zart), and some great performances – most notably Ian McKellen as death – all contribute to an environment in which the stupid can be forgotten and a truly entertaining film can be enjoyed.
At its core, Last Action Hero is a romantic look at how films contribute and shape our lives, and to one extent or another it mourns the industry's loss of innocence. Be it with the multiplex replacing the proper big screen or the dumb marketing, films have become more of a money making tool than an artistic statement.
It’s a pity Last Action Hero's script called for such childish stuff as a magic ticket, but when taken the way it all should be taken – lightly – the film provides enough ammo for a very enjoyable viewing.
Best scene: Of all the jokes, I liked the one where Schwarzenegger plays a Terminator type Hamlet when he decides “not to be” and kills everything that moves in the kingdom of Denmark.
Overall: It’s a question of what your feelings are towards the delicate balance of bullshit and wisdom offered by the film. I have a soft spot for it and I admit it. 4 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 27 October 2007

DVD: 16 Blocks

Lowdown: Salvation through a ride in downtown New York.
Richard Donner is one of those directors that had lots of money on their hands but never really delivers the punch. His Superman films were OK, I guess, and the Lethal Weapons were good to even excellent, but none left you saying "wow, this director must be hot". With 16 Blocks Donner has at his disposal a big time action hero, Bruce Willis, doing another policeman's story; does Donner waste this precious resource yet again and create another mediocre film? Does he exceed his Lethal Weapons' performances?
16 Blocks tells the story of a tired old New York policeman, Bruce Willis. The plot seems to be in real time or sort of, so we get to watch an hour and a half or so in Willis' life (plus a retrospective ending). It's really nothing we haven't seen before: Willis is just about to go home and get himself drunk when he is asked to take this guy who is under arrest to court, 16 blocks away, so that he can testify. Nothing to it; Bruce accepts the assignments reluctantly. Is Willis in for a surprise when it turns out that the guy is about to testify against corrupt policemen and he finds himself hunted by all of his friend! At first he contemplates ignoring the guy's plight and letting the police get rid of him, but quickly enough he changes his mind and fights to get him to court through 16 blocks of hell.
16 Blocks delivers action aplenty but really nothing we haven't seen before; it's main draw card is that the action takes place in downtown New York. There is not much more to this film than the action, which is pretty entertaining yet pretty shallow, too. Still, there is an obvious attempt by Donner to portray Willis as a hero of biblical proportions: religious symbols everywhere are there to tell you that while Willis is saving the other guy he is actually saving himself, redeeming himself from the corrupt and inactive person he used to be to stand up for what is right. Problem is, as exciting as this might be, it is pretty shallowly done, as if the director thought "ooh, I'll stick a cross to the wall in scene X to add some depth to the film".
Aside of the shallowness and the imposed symbolism, the film suffers from Willis himself. It goes on to prove that Willis is a pretty limited actor: his shticks make the hero of 16 Blocks look like John McClane with a bad haircut; there's hardly anything to separate the two. As the film progresses it becomes obvious Willis is not going to take the character any further than his usual gestures and stares.
Still, after all is said and done, 16 Blocks is an entertaining Lethal Weapon like film set with an older lead and a significantly less funnier plot. We even get a white guy / black guy pair in the lead, but the outcome is not as good as the Lethal Weapons; maybe Donner is getting too old for this shit?
Interesting scene: I have found the way Willis is introduced at the beginning of the film as a tired guy who can't be bothered with living to be interesting. Not because it was so good, but rather because it was something we've seen so many times before in other movies or even TV stuff.
Picture quality: Good.
Sound quality: Very aggressive (and loud) envelopment, which is good, but lacking in detail.
Overall: Fun to watch but nothing more than that; a typical Donner film. 2.5 out of 5 stars.