Wednesday, 28 February 2007

DVD: The Kid

Lowdown: Charlie Chaplin confronts the child within.
There is not that much for me to say about Charlie Chaplin's The Kid. It was made in the early 1920's, it features Chaplin's tramp character, and it's your classic silent film; I think that would sum it up best. It's also probably the shortest film I got to review, at just a bit more than 50 minutes.
The story is fairly simple, at least by today's standards. A mother abandons her baby child; the tramp find him and takes care of him; the baby grows to become a child; the tramp and the child face all sorts of troubles together, culminating in the child being forcibly removed from the tramp by the authorities.
There is not much in the way of hidden agendas to the film beyond its general criticism of a society that is critical towards women who stray out of convention and beyond the issues of the uncared for poor vs. the authorities (magnified later in Modern Times). At its core, The Kid is a basic story about the unconditional love between the tramp character and the kid; that's all there is to it. It is done well, and the result is surprisingly emotional, making you not notice the slapstick and the fact that Chaplin and the kid are basically criminals; you identify with them just as well.
According to the supplementals the film represents Chaplin's confrontation with his own childhood memories: Apparently, he was given away by his mother (I'm probably severely distorting the story here). Not that this should matter to you when you watch the film, but it does help explain why the emotional impact of the film is so impressive.
Best scene: Chaplin storms the government car that takes the kid to an orphanage Indiana Jones style (as in the Raiders scene with the truck carrying the ark). Pretty impressive, given the period.
Picture quality: Once again, black & white, 4:3. So what.
Sound quality: There's some nicely recorded music accompanying this one.
Overall: Very impressive even without taking the period aspect into account. 3.5 stars.

Tuesday, 27 February 2007

DVD: Modern Times

Lowdown: Chaplin versus the capitalist machine.
Classics don't come in any more classical form than Charlie Chaplin's modern times. The story of a factory worker / tramp driven crazy by the inhumanity of his work and its surroundings and by the automaton like people around him, eventually becoming a true outsider, truly surprised me: I have seen this film before, ages ago; yet I didn't expect what I remembered to be a slapstick comedian to also discuss very serious agendas in between stupid jokes.
Indeed, in modern terms the film suffers from its over reliance on slapstick comedy. Chaplin excels in performing his tricks, and some of them look as if they are quite dangerous and feel as if they took many takes to get them right (Chaplin blindly skating at the brink of an abyss is one example I can think of). It just feels way too over the top, not as realistic as what we're used to by now; I assume that back in 1935, when the film was produced, this was cutting edge material.
It's not only the slapstick that brings the film down: it is way too obvious, way too "in your face" to be accepted as it is by today's standards. The film starts with a shot showing a herd of cattle being led into a factory like compound, immediately followed by a shot composed in exactly the same way showing a herd of people coming out of the subway on their way to work. The comparison is dead obvious, but today's audience does not require it to be that blunt to get the point. At least I hope this is the case.
Still, complaints aside, Modern Times is - as I already said - a classic. I can repeat the film analysis from the DVD supplementals but I won't; I would just say that Modern Times is a true work of art in the cinematic side of things. Take, for example, the factory in which the first part of the film takes place: we have no idea what it is manufacturing; we just see it as a place that robs the humanity out of the people working in it, a place of utter futility that benefits no one. The artistry is driven to its peak in the famous scene where Chaplin ends up in between the cogs of the machines, rolling around like film does in a camera. Film making doesn't come any better than that, yet this is was shot in 1935! I have seen a copycat scene of this one only recently, in Woody Allen's Sleeper; the original is better.
As I already said, what really moved me with Modern Times is the way in which Chaplin tries to alert us about this materialistic world we built ourselves, a world in which machinery takes the place of humanity and making money is the noblest goal. A dog eat dog world. Between globalization and the Enrons of this world, the message that was relevant back in the days of the great recession is just as relevant today as it was 70 years ago, with Chaplin correctly asking what the benefits of this world we have created for ourselves are. His answer is provided through the actions of his tramp character.
Best scene: The classic scene inside the machine aside, the scenes in which Chaplin works on the production line tightening screws and going crazy in the process is not only smartly directed, it is also extremely funny.
Picture quality: Well, it's black and white, and it's 4:3...
Sound quality: Sound is a very interesting aspect here, as Modern Times was shot as a silent film at a time in which films were no longer silent. There is music, there are sound effects, and there's even dialog - but there are also still silent film captions. Chaplin himself never says anything coherent, although he does sing in gibberish.
Overall: By today's standard I would give the film 3.5 stars. It's brilliant, but it's also overly slapstick based. That said, this film should not be judged by today's standards: it is a relic of another time altogether, and as a piece of cinematic history it is a masterpiece.

Saturday, 24 February 2007

Book: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: A book that gives credible answers to one of the basic questions ever - Why?
Books that are so good they can actually change the way you look at the world don't just knock on your door every second Tuesday, so when I get to read one of those I cherish every moment. With The Selfish Gene I got plenty of such moments, because even of the number of pages doesn't seem that high the small font and the sheer concentration of ideas make this one a long and pleasurable read.
The book was written back in 1976 and made Richard Dawkins, two of his other books I've already reviewed in this blog, a famous household name: both for the sheer innovation of his ideas as well as for the impact and controversy caused by those very same ideas. Essentially, The Selfish Gene is a book about evolution - it gives away Dawkins' own interpretation to the theory first initiated by Darwin in order to provide an exciting theory on how Darwinian evolution really takes place.
The basic idea of the book is that evolution works at the replicator's level. For the living forms we are familiar with those replicators are commonly referred to as "genes", and while they are there doing their best to survive and multiply they use us - as in all living forms we know of, from single cell bacteria through plants and us humans - to achieve that target. Or, to put it another way, the genes are not here to help us get along; we are here to serve the genes.
Now, earlier this week someone hinted at me that I believe the things I want to believe in and disbelieve those I don't want to believe in (in particular, religion). So do I believe Dawkins' theory? Well, for a start, I wouldn't say that "believe" is the right verb to use. Even Dawkins himself presents his idea as a theory, and throughout the book he admits to various mistakes and problems the theory faces (especially with the perspective gained over the 30 years since the book was initially released). Those disclaimers aside, I have to say that Dawkins' theory makes sense, logically, and it does support plenty of observed facts: the indisputable fact that what passes between one generation to another is just one cell containing genes, as well as the fact that the famous "survival of the fittest" mantra works, essentially, at the gene level: good genes well help you survive, inferior ones will mean that your neighbor is more likely to survive on your account. Therefore, until I am to stumble upon a better theory, I will accept Dawkins' explanation as the best one we have so far.
Philosophical discussions aside, to me personally the issue of whether I'm here for my genes or my genes are here for me is a mere technicality; an interesting one, but still a technicality. The book's greatness does not come from its insight on evolution, but rather from the social implications of the idea. For a start, the theory tells us why we are here in a simple and explicit way (if only all those looking for this answer would learn to accept that simple reality instead of looking for the answer they want to hear). But that's not all: the theory, when you further project on it, also explains quite well why we behave in certain ways (as in, for example, why lifeforms can be aggressive and/or dovish; this is just a simple example, though), why most of the species we are familiar with have sexes, what is the reason for having sexes, the reasons and the motivations for the eternal conflict between sexes, conflicts between a parent and its decedents, and reasons why individuals often act as a group. It is incredibly easy to see the importance of receiving answers to those issues; if there is one thing that humanity tends to occupy its mind on through various ingenious ways it is the seeking of answers to those questions. I will not attempt to explain Dawkins' theories here, but I will say that book has been famously thrashed for portraying a very harsh reality - a reality in which selfishness is the light that guides us, as in all living things, along. However, those that think is such a way fail to observe several facts mentioned by Dawkins: For a start, Dawkins shows how, according to the latest research, being nice and forgiving to one another is clearly the best strategy for one to act with, even if it is for mere selfish reasons; the concept is proven using games theory, which is utilized quite a lot in the book. And second, Dawkins claims that our genes have put us, humans, at a unique standpoint where they actually gave us the tools to consciously stand up before them and defy them; we can tell out genes, "listen mates, we're doing things our way". Humanity is the only species we know that can, at least theoretically, decide to let go of selfish gene agendas and act according to the strategies that benefit all of the people all of the time. When I read Dawkins' theory I was not shocked at the bleakness it portrayed; I was rather at awe with the potential that we, people, have for making our world a better place if we actually put our minds to it.
Yet another interesting theory of Dawkins' is that genes are not the only replicating elements that pass from generation to generation. Another replicating element, which again is unique to humanity, is its collection of cultural memories - to which Dawkins refers to as "memes". Memes come in various shapes and sizes - languages, music, and even religion. When a human being passes away, what is left of him or her are two things - the genes they passed on to their descendants and the memes they left behind; say, the songs they wrote that hit the charts. The memes, therefore, have a life of their own: In certain ways, god actually does exist, because the concept has been going through a rather too successful process of Darwinian evolution as a meme (and to hear that from Mr God Delusion himself is quite unexpected).
So: I hope I managed to convey the gravity of the issues discussed in The Selfish Gene and my satisfaction with the answers it provides. Now it is time to discusses the technicalities.
Is The Selfish Gene a fun book to read? I would say that this is definitely the case. It is an exciting book to read, and often it is quite witty. Not as high on humor as The God Delusion, mind you - a book which often feels like a comedy - but then again the subject matter here is much more serious. That said, The Selfish Gene, as good as it is in popularizing a heavy message so that the masses can relate to it, is not that light a read; I can definitely not see my mother, for example, being able to read it. I can, however, see most of my friends - even those that don't really like heavy stuff - reading it and enjoying it, if only for the answers it provides. If getting the answers to the questions mentioned above requires reading a book that is as tough to read as The Selfish Gene, I would say that we should all read the book 10 times. I will make it very clear, though, that given the gravity of the subject matter and its complexity, The Selfish Gene is an easy and entertaining read that doesn't require any special knowledge or understanding. Dawkins does not ask the reader to solve differential equations here.
One thing that did annoy me is the handling of the footnotes. I mention this petty issue mainly to demonstrate how good a read the book is, you see: The footnotes added in later editions offer much in the way of enlightenment, and they are quite frequent, yet they are all grouped at the end of the book. Thus, in order to read the footnotes in association to the text they refer to I had to skip back and forth and use two book-markers to index myself. I am quite sure that if the Oxford Press guys put their mind to it they will find a better way to integrate the notes with the text.
Overall: Here is one book that delivered, withstood the test of time, and became a legend in its own rights. From now on, if I was to be asked to name one book that represents me and what I stand for the best, my answer would have to be The Selfish Gene. From now on, I am convinced and happy to know that this world of ours still continues to harbor people of the stature of the late Carl Sagan: people who stand for the principles of open minded scientific thinking and who are capable enough to bring down the scientific message to the masses.
Books don't come in more important a shape than The Selfish Gene: 5.5 stars.

DVD: Whale Rider

Lowdown: A mystical Maori story of women's liberation.
A few years ago, when Whale Rider was released to the cinemas, it received tons of critical acclaim. It was the film to watch if you considered yourself a sophisticated kind of a guy or if production line American cinema didn't appeal to your sense of intellect. I didn't get to watch it back then; with the aid of my local public library I got to watch it now for free.
The story of this New Zealand made film takes place at a group of New Zealand Maoris. The descendant of a once great leader is having twins, a boy and a girl, with the boy destined to be the future leader; but things don't go well and the mother as well as the boy die at birth. Only the daughter survives, but she survives into a family of a shattered father and a grandfather that doesn't want her - he would prefer another go at having a boy.
The rest of the film follows the adventures of the [young] teen girl as she struggles with her dysfunctional family and with the expectations of the leader she could have been had she been born a boy. The main event here is the struggle between the girl, trying to acquire her grandfather's love, and the grandfather's overall disappointment with his family and with his failure to find his people a suitable leader.
As a film about a dysfunctional family and the conflicts that take place between the various characters in the film, Whale Rider is not bad at all. Whale Rider's problem, however, is that it doesn't settle with being a film about a dysfunctional family; it aspires to be a film that exposes the world to Maori culture, shows us just how great Maori tradition is, and in general - show us that mystical force of the power that ancient culture has in making us feel at home with the world. In that it becomes a very fatalistic film; rest assured [spoiler alert!]: by the end of the film all will be well, and the ancient Maori culture, lost amidst 21st century progress, will find its way back.
In order to achieve its noble goal the film reverts to the contrived. Things happen because they should happen if the plot is to go the way the film wants to go, and mysticism is the rule with people knowing what to do by staring at the sea for prolonged periods. Not that I have something against Maori culture in particular, but come on: ancient cultures have evolved at times when not much has changed between the generations; things have changed lately, though, and there is a good reason why we don't live by those ancient rules anymore. Romanticizing about those ancient times won't do us much good; our attention should be focused on the future, and the future won't be decided through some mystical whale riding leader.
Sadly, in the face of mystical agendas, the basic story about women's right in the Maori culture, which could have been a fascinating one, gets lost. The actress playing the young Maori would be girl leader offers some good acting, but that's all there is to Whale Rider: cutie cutie "look at how this girl can act like a grown up" fascination.
Best scene: While the Whale Rider girl does offer a few scenes of good acting, I found the best thing about the DVD to be the supplemental film called "Cracker Bag". In 15 minutes this short Australian film manages to say much more about what takes us up and what brings us down than Whale Rider.
Picture quality: Good, but there are often inconsistencies with color rendition between scenes.
Sound quality: Pretty ordinary.
Overall: A disappointing 2 stars.

Sunday, 18 February 2007

DVD: The Odd Couple

Lowdown: Friends will drive you crazy.
One of cinema's greatest acting duos has to be the pairing of Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. To be honest I don't know when their first adventure together took place, I just know that I saw a few of them and I enjoyed them all, so when The Odd Couple looked at me from the shelves of the public library I didn't think twice. The Odd Couple could indeed turn out to be their first collaboration, but regardless of that it's a funny display of acting on behalf of the two.
Set on what seems to be New York during the sixties and based on a Neil Simon script, The Odd Couple follows a couple of weeks in the lives of Lemmon and Matthau. Lemmon is a useless guy who was just dumped by his wife and can't even manage to kill himself; Matthau is the loyal friend who is already divorced and jumps to the rescue by inviting Lemmon to stay with him in his eight room apartment. Alas, eight rooms turn out to be much less than enough as the odd couple does not really manage to get along.
Given that this is a Neil Simon script, it feels more like a theater production than a film. True, there are some exterior scenes, but the editing tends to be on the slow side of things, camera movement is rather limited (although it attracts attention to itself when it does happen), and generally speaking plot advancement is heavily based on dialog and on the excellent acting - just as you'd expect to have in theater.
As a comedy, The Odd Couple is lesser than the funniest film ever made, and laughs are quite rare. Smiles, though, are frequent, and the film definitely has a certain charm that managed to work on me; I suspect that was caused mainly by the fine acting and the smart script. Overall, this is a relatively innocent film that tells the story of a friendship between people and the power of such friendship.
On a more personal note, the film has made me slightly annoyed. The group of friends depicted in the film seems to be able to just spontaneously show up at a friend's place and act as naturally as they would in their own place. Sadly, I cannot say that there is any risk of that happening to me; spontaneity has been greatly removed from my social life, replaced by a lot of formality and official coordination. Some of it is to do with the commitments that come as you become older, but a lot of it is a sign of modern times and the closing of doors between people.
Best scene: Matthau shows Lemmon what he thinks of his spaghetti (or linguine) in a fine demonstration of rage.
Picture quality: The film's age (made in 1968) definitely shows in the overall lack of detail, especially in the blacks.
Sound quality: Other than a few seconds at the very beginning and at the very end, this is essentially a limited mono soundtrack.
Overall: A recommended 3 stars display of acting.

Film: Plots with a View

Lowdown: Lite Chocolate.
If you're on the lookout for a lovely film to chill out on a 38 degree week with, not much can compete with a lovely European made innocent feel good comedy. Plots with a View delivers in both the innocent comedy department as well as the feel good department, and it also has some nice performances by its key actors.
Set in a small town in Wales, the film follows Alfred Molina in a role pretty similar to what he did in Chocolat (as opposed to his short lived role in Raiders of the Lost Ark) and a film that, overall, feels like Chocolat made in Wales.
Poor Alfred is in love with Betty, and it's obvious she likes him too, but he's too shy to make a move; Betty is grabbed by a fat bastard of a guy who uses and abuses her instead. She works all day minding after her husband's not so grateful mother and looking after things while the husband is busy messing around with his mistress (Naomi Watts, who gives a performance worthy of many an Ampere).
Things change when the husband's mother dies after chocking on her breakfast cereal. Molina, who grew to become a single funeral services manager, takes care of her body. In the process he convinces Betty that they were really meant for one another due to their love of dancing (an opportunity the film uses to throw in a few musical - dancing bits). Betty agrees, but the only way they can achieve being a couple is if Betty pretends to be dead so they can both run away together.
And so the plot thickens as Molina and Betty stage Betty's death and subsequent funeral, with things getting even more complicated once Watts and the mischievous husband confess over Betty's not so dead body and with Christopher Walken trying to establish a competing funeral services company with some American panache. It sounds complicated, but all the plotting works out just fine at the end...
As I already hinted, the film feels a bit contrived. Unlikely things happen just because they fit what the film would like to portray, and there are lots of contrived scenes and contrived twists (the musical / dance bits are an example, being totally detached from the reality of the film).
The film would not let us lose a grip on what it is trying to tell us, and it keeps on informing us who the good guys are and who the baddies are. Some perceptions change, though: The evil American entrepreneur turns out to be not as bad as you'd expect; actually, none of the characters turns out to be too bad. This is, after all, a feel good film.
Another surprising bit of trivia about the film is that the plot seems to be advanced through the usage of clips from Jerry Springer. Whether you consider this to be positive or not, Plots with a View is a nice, somewhat original, feel good comedy that is just perfect for the occasions in which such a comedy is due. The key thing is not to expect much - just relax and go with the flow.
Tell tale scene: A good scene representing the film's overall way of saying things is when Molina and Betty contemplate the staging of her death at a grocery store. Betty asks "but what would happen if I end up being buried alive" (or something along these lines), and just as she says it a tomato falls from the counter and splashes over the floor.
Overall: A nice, smile inducing 3 stars.

Thursday, 15 February 2007

DVD: Sleeper

Lowdown: A grotesque futuristic look at our society and its conventions.
You wouldn't expect Woody Allen to be a great science fiction performer, but Sleeper is science fiction and Allen definitely performs.
Made in 1973, the film tells the story of an average New Yorker, as in Woody Allen himself, who was frozen after a treatment gone wrong only to be awaken by an underground 200 years later. The underground hopes to use Allen as a secret weapon against the dictatorship running this futuristic USA, but through a collection of mishaps their plans go astray. A mishap follows another mishap, and Allen finds himself escaping the authorities disguised as a robot. He "befriends" his human master, Diane Keaton, and together and apart they have themselves a collection of adventures.
The thing about Sleeper is that the plot doesn't really matter much. The film is basically a collection of sketches ranging from the slightly funny to the too weird to be funny anymore. Some times you get a big laugh, other times you just smile, but the main point of the film is the way in which it attacks our normal conventions and the things we take for granted.
Examples for that are far too numerous to list here in full, so I'll just go with the more memorable ones: Fatty food is actually healthy; smoking is the healthiest thing you can do; and it doesn't really matter who your leader is and what their supposed ideology is, your life will remain the same old shit. Eventually, according to Allen, all that matters is sex and death. And I agree (in an interpretive kind of a way).
Still, as creative in the thought provoking department as Sleeper might be, it is still to defused for me and not funny enough to compensate for said fuzziness. Sure, there is a lot of creative genius in it, but it's just not thrilling enough. Maybe I've been spoon fed by Hollywood for too long; if that is the case than there's probably no cure for me by now.
Best scene: There are many notable scenes in Sleeper; the film is a collection of notable scenes. The one I can relate to the most is the scene where Keaton and a friend try and recreate a 20th century Jewish dinner in order to arouse memories of the ancient past in a Woody Allen that was brainwashed by the authorities.
Picture quality: There are some artifacts caused by the telecine process and overall the picture is somewhat lacking in detail, but for a 34 year old film the picture is overall surprisingly good.
Sound quality: Standard Woody Allen mono sound.
Overall: 3 stars. I suspect the film is a relic of an era where everyone was high most of the time.

I am not a number!

With more than 100 reviews now added to this blog, perhaps it's time for me to address a question posed to me at its very beginning: What is the scale according to which I rate the films and the books I'm reviewing?
Well, the grand design was to stick to convention and use the 0 to 5 stars system most of the reviewers providing quantified evaluations use. That didn't really require any specific explanations, so that's what I did.
However, my cunning plan was to deviate from the above plan from time to time by giving certain films/books a score that goes up to 6 stars instead. That was my way of telling the world that a particular creation has more to it than just being a good film or a book: it can have a profound effect, become a classic everyone quotes, have a significant impact on culture, and more. I kept quiet about this cunning plan simply because I wanted to shock the world the first time I was to give a book or a film the 6 star score.
To clarify what it is that I'm talking about, I thought I'd list the films and the books that, if you were to ask me today, I would rate with more than 5 stars. These would be (in some sort of a chronological order):
  1. Star Wars
  2. The Empire Strikes Back
  3. Raiders of the Lost Ark
  4. Blade Runner
  5. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
  6. Terminator 2 Judgment Day
  7. The Shawshank Redemption
  8. Saving Private Ryan
  9. The Lord of the Rings trilogy
Things are a bit simpler in the book department:
  1. Amber / Roger Zelazny
  2. The Lord of the Rings / Tolkien
  3. The Naked Sun / Asimov
I would make two conclusions based on the above lists. The first is that personal importance is a factor but not as major a factor as one can expect given that "Broca's Brain", the Carl Sagan book which probably had the most significant effect any book or film has had on me, is out of the list. The second is that given the number of items and their distribution over the years, the probability of me encountering new candidates for the "above 5 star club" in a given year is relatively low.
Yet during the lifetime of this blog I have already encountered such a book - Richard Dawkins' "The God Delusion", which I think deserves its 6 stars because of its profound analysis of an issue that affects all of us all of the time and because of the impact it may have. The thing that troubles me, though, and the reason why I am bothering with this post at this particular point in time, is that it seems like I have stumbled upon yet another 6 star book; and worse, it was written by the same Richard Dawkins again.
And the question is: Am I letting my standards down or did I really encounter something great here?

Monday, 12 February 2007

DVD: Aeon Flux

Lowdown: Nothing can stand between Charlize Theron's killer thighs and saving the universe.
Some things in life are more to do with style than substance. Most fashions are this way: take, for example, the iPod. It's not that good and there are many imitations that outdo the original, yet most people would get the iPod just because - well, because it's fashionable.
Well, if that's the case, then Aeon Flux is a fashionable film. Story wise, it's nothing we haven't seen before: set in a future where not much has been left of humanity due to some killer plague, what is left of us is concentrated in one city ruled through a dictatorship. Those that protest disappear mysteriously, and resistance is scarce. That is, unless you count Ms Aeon Flux - Charlize Theron - who can literally capture a fly with her eyelashes (I'm not joking). With her special powers - including a haircut that won't let a single her stray, a bra that would make my deceased grandmother look sexy, and thighs that can wrap themselves around even the most ruthless of enemies - you can count on Charlize to save the day.
There is a point to the story: there is an element of green policy preaching in the warnings against this industrial disease that might strike us through our seemingly innovative technologies. In the DVD supplementals they talk about genetically modified crops, which sort of annoys me because I think loose antibiotics put us under a much more severe danger yet no one seems to make a fuss about those. Ultimately, the film comes down to this sophisticated genetic trickery ploy, which might have been good and might have been interesting if it wasn't a total abuse of everything genes stand for: basically (and I'm trying not to ruin the film for you here), the film suggests that genetic clones can tell what happened to their originals, as in that they share the memories of their originals. The film also suggests that clones would be totally identical to their originals. The problem with both of these claims is that they are not science fiction, they are fantasy; the film, however, poses as serious science fiction with these two claims being at the center of its existence.
However, the film's messages are not the point. The point is that the message is quite irrelevant in this film that is all about style: the style in which people move, the style in which people talk, the style in which Charlize is dressed (or undressed, although disappointingly the film never delivers in this department), the sets and the choreography. That is pretty much all that matters.
At the bottom line we have ourselves a film that was made either to (a) satisfy (or rather tease) horny men and gay women and/or (b) satisfy the style council. I'll ignore the first option and say that although style is beneath me in day to day life, the end result of this film is intriguing enough to merit a look. Not bad at all; quite unique, come to think of it.
Best scene: Naturally for this film, it's the scene where Aeon Flux wakes up wearing a pyjamas. The point of the scene is the pyjamas - they are not particularly practical, if you catch my drift.
Picture quality: At times it's good, at other times it's hard to make out the finer details. For a film where looks are all that matters I would have expected a better job, although this DVD is not too bad.
Sound quality: Now this is how an action film should be like. Noisy, aggressive, cool. Sure, there are more articulate soundtracks out there, but this one kicks ass.
Overall: A stylish 3.5 stars.

Sunday, 11 February 2007

DVD: The Battleship Potemkin

Lowdown: One of the first proper films ever hails the people's revolution.
The main thing one needs to know about Battleship Potemkin is that this is a proper feature film from 1925. The film is Russian, and you don't need a vivid imagination to figure out what it will be about given its origin and its time. However, it is very much still a proper film around 80 minutes long; whatever you may say about it, Battleship Potemkin is an original film by definition.
The story is fairly simple by today's standards: The Russian battleship goes through a mutiny after its evil officers force the crew to eat meat full of maggots and then order to shoot those that refused. After the people take control of the ship it cruises to the port of Odessa, where the locals support the mutiny. However, the Tsarist Cossacks then come in and shoot down the demonstrating people Tiananman style in a scene that became very famous in the history of cinema.
The film is definitely lacking when compared to the better films of today's crop. Character development is lacking, for a start, and the story is not as well anchored as it should be. That said, if you take the time perspective into context, Battleship Potemkin is a mighty achievement: it is undoubtedly a gripping film with a lot standing for it. It makes a lot of statements on what people should be standing for, on blind acceptance of orders, and even on issues of faith and racism. It even has some special effects!
However, judging the film the way I would judge other films would be a crime. First and foremost, watching Battleship Potemkin is a lesson in the history of the art of film making. Not only that, it is a lesson in history, period: it is very interesting to see the way people behave and the way people dress (mustaches were very fashionable at the time). It is incredibly interesting to see how the world looked like 100 years ago! No media other than film can provide such an experience.
Best scene: There is a good reason why the massacre in the street of Odessa became the film's most famous scene.
Picture quality: Ok - it's black and white, it's not widescreen. It's pretty bad. But give the film a break - it's from 1925!
Sound quality: This is a silent film. Dialog is conveyed through captions popping up from time to time. However, the DVD is accompanied by what is claimed to be the original musical score "escorting" the film. Badly recorded, it does provide some accompaniment, but it is not of the attachment level one associates with a modern day film score.
Overall: 3 stars as a film, but don't take those stars into account; watch Battleship Potemkin for the experience: Battleship Potemkin is an anthropological experience of the first degree.

DVD: Lady in the Water

Lowdown: A confused modern day fairy tale.
M. Night Shyamalan has surprised us all with Sixth Sense, but since then all of his films follow the same formula: a slow gathering of facts throughout the film, and then a climax that takes these facts and puts a twist on them. I, for one, grew tired of this formula; to be honest I never did like Sixth Sense to begin with. With Lady in the Water it becomes obvious that Mr Night simply doesn't know when to stop.
This time the story takes place inside an apartment complex in Philadelphia managed by one of my favorite contemporary actors, Paul Giamatti. Through his eyes we meet the various characters living in the place, ranging from a famous art critic to other rather loony figures. Things change when, one night, he finds someone swimming in the swimming pool - a rather mysterious girl called Story. He quickly finds that this girl is being stalked by this wolf like monster made of grass.
Quick is the word here: Through the residents he quickly finds that the girl comes from this fairy tale world. She came to this world to meet a writer (portrayed by M Night himself) that will have a major effect on the future of humanity, and then she needs to go back to her fairy tale world using fairy tale means and under some very fairly tale like circumstances. Together with the rest of the residents, who unite for this purpose, Giamatti sets out on his fairy tale quest.
The film has this driving force on you, making you interested to know what is going to happen. However, as it progresses, you realize there is nothing more to the film that draws you into it other than the curiosity concerning what is going to happen; and worse, as those things happen, you will probably find yourself quite disappointed.
Credibility is a major problem with the film. Sure, it's a fairy tale, but that's not the reason why; the reason is to do with the fact that everyone in the film, all of which takes place in a very believable setup of an apartment complex, accepts the fairy as a fairy - no questions asked - and immediately acts accordingly. You can say that this is on purpose, you can argue that this is a part of the director's message, and you can also say that our religions are not based on much more than that; but I will say that these arguments still do not change the fact the film suffers in the credibility department.
I would say the biggest problem of the film is that it's unfocused. It's the director's attempt to aim at multiple targets at the same time that make it a failure: On one hand, it's a fairy tale story; on the other there are some horror elements, mostly of the make you jump type that I just hate so much. Then there is this element of using the story to sort of look for meaning in life, and then there is this element where the director makes a statement about his creation and about what he thinks about the critics who say bad things about his films - things along the lines of them being predictable. It all becomes convoluted, a meaningless mishmash; the film's ending feels like it was glued to the end of the real film.
Best scene: Giamatti researches Story's background through a older Chinese woman, aided by her daughter who acts as a translator. Not that the scene is that good, it's just that it's better than the rest of the film - it's somewhat funny.
Picture quality: Too much noise and severe lack of detail on the dark scenes hamper this DVD.
Sound quality: Too anchored to the front channels; surround are on mostly during the "make you jump" scenes, in which overall volume levels jump up by several dozens of decibels in one millisecond.
Overall: A disappointing waste of time. 1 star.

Saturday, 10 February 2007

DVD: Fearless

Lowdown: Audience force feeding through a martial arts film.
There was a time, not that many years ago, when through an eclipse like effect I grew fond of martial arts films and watched them one after the other. At that time Jet Li was my favorite action hero of the genre, although to be honest his only film that I consider to be good is Hero (a film I saw only several years after my personal martial arts fad has subsided). Watching Fearless - the latest Jet Li martial arts film - in this day and age made me realize why my affection to the martial arts genre was not long lasting.
The story behind Fearless is very simple, and on paper quite a beautiful one. Jet Li starts as the arrogant spoiled child, the son of a rich martial arts master who has everything and doesn't really need to make an effort. As he grows up his sole ambition is to be recognized as the best martial arts fighter in his county, and he doesn't care much about how he achieves that. But he does achieve it, on the way losing everything else that he had, which causes him to run away from everything. He starts from scratch as a poor peasant, slowly learns what is really important in life, and then makes a comeback as a true martial arts hero that puts China on the map. You see, the character the film is based on is real (although I don't know if what takes place in the film is real, too): early in the 20th century the character fought against representatives of the colonial empires that controlled China at the time, showing them that the Chinese are not to be messed with.
So - what is wrong with the film? Well, here we go:
  1. Nationalism: I don't see myself giving the nod to a film that promotes nationalism. True, the Chinese have been wronged, but so have most of the other nations on this planet. That said, nationalism is not that high in the film's agenda.
  2. Story: Am I the only one to notice that this type of a story is not that original? It's a case of "been there, done that" with better interpretations.
  3. Violence: Most of the people watching the film will watch it because of the martial arts fights. True, they are nicely choreographed, but in this age of the Matrix they are nothing we haven't seen before. Creativity and originality aside, as well as respect to the Chinese culture of martial arts, I fail to understand how violence can be put with such a central place in a culture and be considered as a positive trait. Yes, even in a controlled and disciplined way as it is when martial arts are done the right way, which, by the way, is not the way most of the people watching the film would like it to be. Simply put, violence - regardless of shape and color - is ugly. Just think of where humanity might have reached if all the effort spent on martial arts would have been spent on more constructive issues.
  4. Subtlety: By far my worst problem with the film was the very not subtle way in which it told its story and delivered its message of "oh, just look at how this noble hero of ours has been transformed into pure good from pure shit". With the way the story is told there is simply no room for free thought on behalf of the viewer; everything is said out loud. It's as if the story is being told to an audience of five year olds.
Best scene: Jet Li fights it out with a Japanese fighter. They both respect one another, adding a bit of culture into an otherwise highly violent event.
Picture quality: I would say it's impeccable. It's quite rare to see a job so well done.
Sound quality: The surrounds could have been used more; as it is, the film is not as gripping as it should have been.
Overall: You'll probably enjoy the fights, especially if this is the type of thing that turns you on, but the film itself is nothing we haven't seen before. 2 stars.

Saturday, 3 February 2007

Film: The Spanish Apartment

Lowdown: The European Union should be a success story if it follows the trends set in the Spanish Apartment.
Yet another French film that is more of a European film, this time about the European Union itself. Or so to speak.
We follow Xavier, a young Parisian dude who wants to have success in this life. His father sorts him out with this guy that offers him a lucrative job handling Spanish financial issues from Paris if Xavier could go on this student exchange program in Spain and get to know what Spain is all about.
Xavier goes through all the bureaucracy, and quickly enough we find him at the airport saying goodbye to his mother and his girlfriend (Audrey Tautou, the only famous face in the film). On the plain he breaks down, but soon he stands up again as he looks to find a place to live in Barcelona while doing his studies. He meets this weird French couple and stays with them for a while, but eventually he ends up sharing an apartment together with other youths of his age: A German, an Italian, a Belgium, a Dane, a Spaniard, and an English (hope I didn't forget anyone). Together they have lots of adventures and lots of bonding, and that's pretty much the story in a nutshell.
Although shot and edited in a hip, let's aim at young audiences style, there is not much substance behind this film to support it. Most of the plot is driven by the hormones of the various apartment sharing heroes, although surprisingly for a French film nudity is disappointingly missing. While the film ends up feeling like a European take on American Pie, it is quite entertaining and at its basis lies the premises of trying to show the bright future ahead of the European Union, as symbolized by the apartment dwellers.
Together the people of the apartment face lots of tough challenges: People with prejudices who don't believe in the merits of the union, mostly. Examples include the annoying girlfriend (Ms Tautou again) who has a hard time accepting her boyfriend having a good time in Spain, the English brother of the English apartment partner who is full of prejudice towards the rest - especially the German, and so on. It is not to anyone's surprise that one of the key conflicts in the film is caused by a love affair between the English apartment dweller and a shallow American guy she met - explained by the English as the result of sexual urges.
If that's not surprising then the presentation of Paris as a boring place next to Barcelona definitely is, thus showing the overly aggressive and artificial way in which the message of Euro-ism is force fed on the viewers.
Best scene: All the apartment dwellers join forces to help the English dweller hide her American love affair when her English boyfriend comes over for a visit. This spirit cooperation is exactly what the film is trying to convey.
This scene is closely followed by another scene in which a lesbian woman teaches Xavier how to win the heart (and more than the heart) of a woman in a scene that, despite keeping all of its clothes on, would not be out of place in some adult only production.
Overall: The force feeding is annoying, but the film is pretty entertaining at its shallows - 2.5 stars.