Friday, 29 June 2007

DVD: Growing Up in the Universe - Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Five lectures by Richard Dawkins on the scientific way of grasping the universe around us.
Back when I reported buying the Growing Up in the Universe DVD's, I expressed the hope that they would be a good follow-up on Carl Sagan's Cosmos. Well, let me make it clear as we start: Growing Up in the Universe is no match for Cosmos. It is, however, a very interesting and stimulating presentation; good on its own rights, but not as astonishingly good as Cosmos.
What is Growing Up in the Universe? It's basically a collection of five lectures given by Richard Dawkins and recorded by the BBC in front of a crowd of mostly teenagers back in the early nineties. Each lecture is about an hour long, and the topics cover the "usual" Richard Dawkins themes, often following the themes of his books pretty much on a one to one basis: The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, Climbing Mount Improbable, and Unweaving the Rainbow to name a few. Assuming you didn't read any of these books, I can summarize it for you by saying that Dawkins spreads his views on the world around us, which are essentially the scientific way of looking at things, mainly through the main subject of his expertise - evolutionary sciences. His aim is to make us aware of the universe around us and appreciate it for what it truly is.
The result is everything you can expect from Richard Dawkins: A funny, entertaining, stimulating and educational presentation that serves to open your eyes and, well, help you graduate into the universe we're living in. While, generally speaking, the lectures are aimed at teens, I felt as if some of them go way over the top: some of the subjects discussed on those lectures will buzz over the heads of most of the adults I am familiar with. Others, though, are very good and will definitely serve to open people's minds young and old - most notably the 4th lecture, which is the Selfish Gene themed lecture.
Throughout the lectures there are all sorts of experiments and demonstrations done, usually using the help of kids from the crowd, which help in giving the subject matter some sort of a grip on reality.
What else can I say about the lectures? Well, it is pretty evident that Dawkins' taste in clothes and shirts in particular is devastatingly bad. It is also obvious the guy is in love with stick insects. But jokes aside, Dawkins keeps on referring to his written notes throughout the lectures, a habit that can really interrupt the lecture's flow; this point is really interesting given that contemporary presentations I have seen him giving are pretty much flawless, which implies that he has greatly improved his presentation skills with time.
Last but not least, given that we are talking here about Richard Dawkins, it is interesting to note the lectures' view on religion. While Dawkins doesn't go out and right expressing his views on religion here, he leaves no doubt whatsoever what he thinks of the matter. I suspect that those who think people like Dawkins (and I, for that matter) are disrespectful to religion will wish to avoid having their kids view these lectures; the loss will be entirely theirs (and their kids'). I have to admit it is pretty funny to see how Dawkins builds up his arguments, because by now I can tell when he is about to attack religion with an accuracy of plus-minus two seconds. Thing is, I might joke about his predictability, but I will be very hard pressed (if not totally incapable) to find a person with whom I agree more than Dawkins. And I'm not limiting the discussion here to religion alone, because there is loads more to Dawkins than an assertive atheist.
What can I say? I can only wish for more of him. Growing Up in the Universe is well worth the admission price, especially when considering that its revenues will be used for educational purposes.
Best scene: Dawkins demonstrates what good faith is by showing his faith in the universal laws of physics, placing his face millimeters away from a rushing cannon ball he knows will never get to him.
The next best scene is a cameo by a dude called Douglas who volunteers from the crowd to read a passage from his book, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. I'll put it this way: The guy knew how to read aloud. He knew how to write, too.
Picture quality: It's NTSC, it's 4:3, and it's very bad. It looks like a collection of cubes.
Sound quality: I suspect it's glorious mono. Not that it matters much given that all we see are lectures, but it would have been better to feel as if you're inside the theater with the rest of the crowd.
Overall: Not Cosmos, but still excellent and potentially attractive for kids. 4 stars out of 5, it made me wonder why my teachers weren't half as good as Dawkins is in making the subject matter so interesting.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Book: Foundation & Empire by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: The Foundation soldiers on in the second book of the original Foundation trilogy.
Asimov's original Foundation trilogy is one of those series of books I've read many times, but the last time I've read them I was probably 14. They represent the core of my early science fiction career and they are considered to be big time sci-fi classics, so with my admiration to everything Asimov I've decided to give them a new go and see how the years make them feel like. Does the accumulative wisdom I have gathered make them a better read?
Well, about a year ago I read the first Foundation book and found it very good. Not spectacularly good, but definitely a thrilling read. Foundation & Empire, though, was quite a disappointment.
The book tells the story of the Foundation once it has sort of established itself as a powerhouse in the corner of the galaxy, waiting for the old Empire to die so it can take over the galaxy with its advanced science. I suspect most readers will not know that in the first book of the series the Foundation was established as a colony of scientists that is supposed to stop the decay of humanity once inevitable historical cycles get the current rule of law out of the way. Established using psycho-history mathematical calculations, where statistics is employed to forecast what the general state of mind is going to be in the future, the path of the Foundation towards a long and uninterrupted rule of the galaxy was paved away. That is, until the dangers posed in the second book of the series step in, first in the form of the old remnants of the decaying Empire and then in the form of a mutant called The Mule. Will the Foundation manage to get through?
Sadly, the answers will only be provided in the next book of the series; I just hate it when books play that good old "to be continued" trick on you. Add to that a rather predictable plot, a list of characters that is way too long to keep track of, and this weird habit of scenes taking place in different places at different times with no passage breaks, and you get a rather annoying book to read.
Counter that with Asimov's rather laconic way of writing, which I quite like - it's very much to the point - and add the fascinating ideas he has thrown in, such as the way science can be corrupted and the way science has to fight emotions - and you get a book that is some sort of a compromise. How good a compromise is up to the reader.
Overall: Ultimately, I suspect Foundation & Empire should not be judged on its own, as the second book of a trilogy, but rather the entire original Foundation trilogy should be judged as one. That said, if I have to rate F&E, I'd have to give it only 3 out of 5 stars; that's what I gave The Stars My Destination, and anything more than that would be Asimov favoritism.

Sunday, 24 June 2007

Film: Are You Being Served - The Movie

Lowdown: The Grace Brothers gang on vacation.
Are You Being Served is one of my all time favorite TV shows. Having watched it time and time again as a child, and as I re-watch it now, I realize how this series had a significant part in shaping my sense of humor.
A British show from the seventies, it follows the "adventures" of the men's and ladies' apparel salespeople from the Grace Brothers department store as they go about with all sorts of pretty foolish (and not so politically correct by today's standards) sexual innuendos and as they do foolish stuff in general. Enhanced by rather witty scripts, good self inflicting humor on the British way of life, and excellent chemistry between the actors this is one series that still works on me despite its advanced age.
But then comes the film. Riding on the success of the TV series it tries to take things one step forwards, but it only manages taking it many steps backwards. Unlike the TV episodes, the film doesn't take place at the shop; here, the crew goes on to a vacation in Costa Plonca, Spain (no, I don't think the place really exists), having been sent by Mr Grace there in order to accommodate for shop renovations. This idea has been used in the TV series before the film was made and that is pretty much the story of this film: all the jokes have been used in the TV series before the film was made, too. Obviously, once the gang hits Costa Plonca things are not going as expected, and they end up taking part in a revolution (I assume this was acceptable as at the time the film was made Spain was not a democracy).
Aside of the fact the jokes are all recycled, the entire movie formula doesn't work at all. The attempt to make things larger than life for the cinematic version fails, the jokes are not funny, and the plot is all way too ridiculous: gone altogether is the humor based upon what people say, to be replaced by silly situation comedy style gags which usually takes just a minor part in the series. Add extremely poor production values, featuring a soundtrack that seems to have come directly from an old porn movie, and you just wish the film to end so you can go back to watch the series.
One interesting thing to note was that I have found missing the laughing track that dominates the TV series quite badly. The actors still seem to have a bit of a pause after saying their lines in order to accommodate for those lines, but they never come in the film; it gives things a very eerie feeling when you see the same joke being repeated in the same way and realize that one of the reasons you're not laughing is the lack of people to laugh with. And I say that as a person who, generally speaking, despises laughing tracks.
Best scene: There are a few funny scenes, but none are as good as the better bits of the series itself. The best one here features Mrs Slocombe trying to have her passport photo taken but failing miserably, but while mildly funny the scene demonstrates the way too silly premises of the film.
Overall: Do yourself a favor and watch the series instead. 1 out of 5 stars, the film is to be avoided at all cost.

Friday, 22 June 2007

Film: How the West Was Won

Lowdown: How the west was won and where it got us.
For a long while now, How the West Was Won was one of those films I had on my to do list to watch. It's just that it's one of those historically important films. For a start, it's a Cinerama film: one of those few films made for a super wide screen, supposedly the cinematic answer to the rising popularity of TV during the fifties. It actually shows: you can clearly see that the picture is divided into three squares that are not on the same plane, with straight lines getting themselves twisted as they move from one screen to the other. Distracting when watched on the TV, but still interesting, especially when the wide screen area was filled using super wide angle lenses and generating some impressive panoramas. By the way, the only leftover from this age of the huge screen that we have today is the Panavision screen format (commonly referred to as Cinemascope), featuring a 2.35:1 aspect ratio, which is quite inferior to Cinerama (more like 2.8:1 and projected over three curved screens). Both, though, are incredibly wider than what we're being programmed to accept as "widescreen TV" (1.66:1).
HTWWW's epic stance is not only due to its cinematography but also its scope. Essentially, it is the story of several generations of one family during the 19th century, and how these family members have conquered the west side of the USA. The story of each generation is told in a mini movie of its own, so we're left with four (or was it five) mini movies covering a family crossing a river to go the west in the first place and stumbling upon a tough river and tough villains, a couple in a caravan crossing to the west, the USA's civil war, and the wild wild west.
Star power is also quite a powerful element here, and HTWWW offers the best of the stars of its era (the film was made in the early sixties): Gregory Peck, Hannibal Smith (also known as George Peppard), Henry Fonda, James Stewart, John Wayne, Eli Wallach (the ugly from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly), and many many more. There is no dominant star here, for despite an overall length of almost 3 hours, the small stories' structure ensures no one is there long enough to dominate the screen. A possible exception is Peppard, who gets to appear in two of the micro-films.
I will remember HTWWW for two main reasons. The first is the film being very funny but for very wrong reasons: there are just that many times that you can hear the film talk about how the west was "rescued" from "primitive men" by "god fearing" "good Christians" etc. Sure, some of that talk is proper, simply because that is the way the people of the time saw themselves; yet this talk continues when the narrator presents things from a current perspective, too. HTWWW is therefore not only very not politically correct, it is also stupidly wrong: it ends by showing us the achievements of those who conquered the west - a mighty freeway with lots of traffic on it, including even traffic jams. Wow! So this is how we managed to destroy our planet!
The second reason for remembering the film is the lesson in history it provides. Growing up in Israel, most of what I learned in school about history was focused on the history of the Jewish people, and that can be summarized in a single line as "the people went there, the locals hated them and killed them, so they went there". Which is interesting and you can learn a lot from it, but what you don't learn from it is just how tough life generally was back then for everyone - be it a good Jew, a good Christian, or a primitive Indian. However, you watch HTWWW and you gain some appreciation of this hardness: you realize that the people that made it to the west, while not the most intellectual of people and while motivated through not the most altruistic of motivations, are still the people you and I come from; and that at the time in which they did their crossing of the west they didn't exactly have rolls of toilet paper with them. It is a pity, though, that such an important lesson is conducted by exposing us to the nicer aspects of life at the time and not the really real way in which it went by, but it's still enough to learn something. It's cinema for the naive, but it's good cinema.
Best scenes: Several of the big time action scene can qualify here, from the ride through a river wild through an Indian wagon chase and a bison stampede to a gunfight on the rails. All are pretty equivalent, artistically, so I will avoid picking a specific winner.
Overall: The message is all wrong, but the lesson can still be learnt and the result is pretty entertaining. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 18 June 2007

Film: Love Me If You Dare

Lowdown: A psycho's Amelie.
The most interesting thing about watching Love Me If You Dare was the way in which we watched it: straight off the air, with no time shifting whatsoever. I don't remember the last time we did that; it felt really weird to have to wait till 9:30 for the film to start (how do you fill up those 15 minutes between the last thing you did and the film?), and then have these weird breaks in the middle of the film from time to time and for no apparent reason.
Notice I'm saying all of this already and I haven't said much about this film, for which I have heard lots of favorable reviews back when it was playing at the cinemas. Which is my way of saying that I was rather disappointed with this French film about a very weird couple of characters.
The film starts by showing us this young boy whose mother is dying of cancer and this young immigrant girl who the rest of the kids in class mock and shame as their favorite sport. These two make a weird couple: they go for one another, but only through daring one another to stupid dare games that go way over the top as far as taste is concerned (and which I will not mention here because I don't want to ruin the film for anyone). The point is, they do their best to be nasty to one another with their dares, yet they also have definite feelings for one another; and as they grow up, things escalate further: as adults they can't be nice to one another yet they can't be without each other.
I guess this is the point the film is trying to make - that we can be assholes to the people we love and need the most. Thing is, with the way the film is done - it's all very artistic and flashy, with surrealistic scenes thrown all over the place, massive time shifts (although always moving forward barring some flashbacks), and bits that look real but obviously only take place in the imagination - you sort of feel that if all this effort was made, there must be more to the film than this. Which made me think a lot about the film even though I didn't like it in particular or even in the least; I found the characters un-identifiable, the story too hard to accept, and the style way over the top. And worst, I'm still unable to come up with a good theory as to what the film was supposed to be about.
I have to add that Love Me If You Dare (quite a shit English name translation, given the original French "Jeux d'enfants") reminded me a lot of Amelie, another French film I didn't like. I know I'm at a minority with Amelie, a film which many people I know describe as almost a godly experience, but I just found it to be too annoying with its style and surrealism. Point is, if you liked Amelie, maybe, just maybe, Love Me If You Dare is for you.
Best scene: God sentences the couple to all sorts of weird punishments in a surrealistic Adam & Eve seduced by a snake scene.
Overall: Some like it hot; I like it good. Style on its own doesn't make a film good, in my book, especially when I find myself devoting hours to thinking what it was trying to tell me. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 17 June 2007

DVD: 1492

Lowdown: Scott's prelude to Gladiator.
You would expect me to have watched 1492, given that Ridley Scott has directed my favorite film and given the Vangelis soundtrack. But up until yesterday I didn't; I saw bits of it, but I never saw it from start to finish. It was time to make amends.
Released in 1992 to celebrate the 500th anniversary of Columbus' discovery, the film tries to portray the story behind Columbus the man (portrayed by one of my favorite actors, Gerard Depardieu). It tells the story of a visionary who suspected the world was round before Copernicus came up with his famous book and despite the Spanish Inquisition doing its best to subdue free thinking. Columbus suspects there is a western path to India, and sets out to convince the Spanish queen (Sigourney Weaver) to support him on his quest, and eventually he gets his way. As we all know, he makes his historical discovery and gets to some islands close to America; but that's just the first act of this film, which focuses mostly on the utopian world that Columbus tries to establish on the islands he had discovered. It seems like the nature of man is there to ensure that despite all the vision and ideals he has, he is still doomed to fail.
I don't know how authentic the events portrayed in the film are. For a start, the Spanish queen is portrayed very favorably, but at the same time she allowed Columbus to use her resources on a quest for an elusive path to India she also kicked all Jews from Spain; not the greatest humanitarian in history. Than again, authenticity should not be the thing standing between the viewer and a satisfactory film watching experience.
The main thing standing between the viewer and some satisfaction is the rather boring nature of the film. The first hour is brilliant: exciting, full of cinematic vision. However, just as Columbus has his first encounter with the new land's locals, the film starts to lose its focus. From a film about a visionary defying all odds to make a difference, 1492 turns into a film about a failed vision and the nature of human beings. It goes into disarray.
Still, the positive is there and it's very positive. You can clearly see where Gladiator came from a few years later: Both 1492 and Gladiator are films about a creator defying orders to create something of a new show for an ungrateful crowd. I suspect in both cases Scott is actually talking about himself when he makes this statement, and about us, the viewers and the establishment, as the ungrateful crowd. The bottom line, however, is that while 1492 is unfocused and boring Gladiator is sharper and more attractive (yet also far from being a true state of the art film).
Best scene: Columbus demonstrates to his son how the world must be round using a ship sailing to the horizon and an orange in a show of how facts and logic work together to create a vision that defies common perceptions.
Picture quality: Pretty dated.
Sound quality: Dated as well; some of the sound effects really stand out badly. That said, there is a significant attempt here to engulf the viewer with the sound, in a way hardly many other film come close to. Add Vangelis' majestic music and you have yourself quite a nice experience.
Overall: It's a pity 1492 isn't as good as starts out to be. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 14 June 2007

DVD: Oliver Twist

Lowdown: A remake of the same Oliver Twist.
Roman Polanski seems to have always been one of those directors that I look up to, someone who can make something out of nothing and rarely (if ever) disappoints. From Knife in the Water through Rosemary's Baby and Chinatown and even Pirates, let alone his more recent films, the guy can direct. So when his recent version of Oliver Twist hit the weeklies shelf at the video store I grabbed it with one hand (that's all it takes to hold on to a DVD).
Story wise, Polanski's Oliver Twist is not different to the Twists of old. Set in Victorian England, Oliver is an orphan brought up in a typical orphanage run by the church. When he shows signs of rebellion he is sold to a funeral/coffin business, where he encounters harsh treatment. He escapes to London by foot, where he meets up with a gang of criminal kids run by an old guy, the famous Fagin (Ben Kingsley). The point of it all is that wherever he goes he is used and abused, with no kindness whatsoever. That is, until he stumbles upon a rich guy who is willing to give Twist a chance, only to have the child taken away from him by the criminal gang.
The point Polanski is trying to make in the film is just how far a bit of kindness and appreciation to your fellow human beings can take a person, and the contrast to the way in which institutions and society treats people. The church receives special treatment here, but generally speaking you wonder whether this point is emphasized because of the way Polanski himself was sentenced to a jail term in the USA, thus forcing him to become a fugitive.
The film is definitely well directed and it's interesting to watch, but other than that there's nothing truly special about it. We watched David Lean's Oliver Twist from 1948 not that long ago, and I have to say that I couldn't really find much in Polanski's version that adds to Lean's. If anything, I think it is very obvious to say that Alec Guinness, Lean's Fagin, is a much more interesting and complete character than Kingsley's.
Best scene: Polanski plays a lot with darkness and light in the film to drive his point across, and naturally for a Charles Dickens story most of the film is dark and therefore depressing. However, when Oliver flees to London there's suddenly light (an abundance of it) and everything seems living again. Obviously, this is a film made with children in mind.
Picture quality: There is an obvious attempt to emphasize light and darkness games. The result of this high contrast picture is a severe lack of detail. In addition, colors are all over the place, with way over the top saturation in the lit up scenes. I suspect some of it is intentional, though, even if I do think it has been implemented with exaggeration.
Another comment is that often you can really see through the special effects setting up the period. Those mat paintings in the background become pretty obvious too often.
Sound quality: Pretty ordinary.
Overall: A good film but nothing special. 3 stars.

Wednesday, 13 June 2007

DVD: Babel

Lowdown: We're the same but we don't realize that. Babel, in short.
I'll make it very clear: I think Magnolia is a hell of a good film. So, when I've heard that there's another film out there that follows the Magnolia formula of weaving together seemingly unrelated stories and giving them a bit of a shake, the way Crash has done quite well (but not as well) more recently, I was interested. This interest led to me reading too many Babel reviews a while ago, and the result of that was that when I got to actually watch Babel I knew way too much about it to fully enjoy it.
On the other hand, being that Babel is directed by the same guy that did 21 Grams, which I thought was a pretty bad film, I didn't expect much of it. So you could say I had somewhat of a compromised yet balanced approach to the film.
Before I start with my basic analysis, let's cover the plot. As I said, it's a mix of independent stories which have one connection or another. At its pivot, but only through star power and not through being the true axis, Babel features the story of Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, a married American couple who are out to revive their marriage in Morocco. They left their children behind with their housekeeper, who needs to leave to Mexico in order to attend her son's marriage. Then we have ourselves a deaf Japanese female teenager who is hungry for attention and her ex-hunter father (the mother has died), and on top of that we have a Moroccan family living in the middle of nowhere that has just bought a gun to keep the predators away from their sheep. Take all these stories, shake them up with Blanchett getting shot in Morocco by a kid looking after his sheep, and you end up with the story of the tower of Babel repeated in a modern setting. Essentially, the film is all about how similar we are yet how through the differences in our cultures we cannot properly communicate with one another.
There are many good things about the way the film tries to make its point. Analogies run all across the different plot lines, showing us how similar people of different cultures are: A Moroccan girl in the middle of the desert takes her clothes off so her brother can watch, in much
the same way as the well off Japanese teenager does at a diner while trying to attract boys' attention. The motifs about us not being able to understand anything that is foreign to us are also well emphasized through the deaf Japanese teenager, in scenes that portray her deaf point of view; the reality of places we take for granted seems awfully twisted when we look at it through the eyes of a deaf person. And then there's the strong acting: Brad Pitt puts on a very worthy performance, and the rest of the cast - most of which I've never seen before - are not that bad, either.
Most of all, though, the film's point about Babel being here is made through the interaction between the various people in the stories. The American kids in Mexico, American and European tourists in Morocco, and the Japanese in Morocco. The end result is not flattering at all to the people of the West, but my point here is that this "opposites do not attract but actually go their opposite ways" is portrayed very well in the film.
But then there are many bad things about the film that spoil the fun. First, it's quite predictable: Quickly enough you realize that this is one of those films where if something can go wrong, it will; so just as quickly you can figure out what is going to happen. Then there are the time shifting games, where we're not only moving from one plot to another, we're also moving back and forth through time all the time; call me a "has been", but I don't like this trick. I've had enough of it already and I think that since its birth in Pulp Fiction it has been way too abused.
What else? Some of the plot developments don't really make sense when you think about them (and even when you don't), and the way in which some of the plot lines relate to one another is rather thin (a problem that applies mostly to the Japanese side of the story).
Best scene: As mentioned, the scene where the deaf girl goes to a disco is an educational experience. It just looks so weird when you don't have the sound; almost like you're off the earth altogether. The director makes sure you'll have the most annoying experience possible, though, by skipping between the normal point of view and the deaf point of view every couple of seconds.
Another scene worth mentioning pits a tourist bus in the middle of a forsaken Moroccan village. The attitude of the tourists looks as though it came directly from Borat, yet you can clearly see how it got to be the way it is.
Picture quality: Lots of detail, but there's also evident noise.
Sound quality: Nothing spectacular, especially with the sparse use of the surrounds. However, there's an emphasis here on realism that works very well. Music is also very well recorded, and with the solo string work you can hear exactly what every string is doing.
Overall: You watch Babel and you realize it's a film with a worthy cause done by a director who wants to show off his film skills more than he wants to make a good film. The result is a film that can earn anything from 3 to 4 stars, depending on what you feel about the tricks the director tries to pull off his hat. Personally, I would rate it as somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.

Monday, 11 June 2007

Film: Somersault

Lowdown: A troubled girl looking for love in a troubled world.
Australian films that are really bad are quite rare. The third Crocodile Dundee installment definitely qualifies, but so far it didn't have any friends in this highly prestigious category. That is, until Somersault came along.
Somersault tells the story of a teenager (Abbie Cornish) who is looking for love and attention. She doesn't get it from her single mother, who is busy making ends meet, so she seeks it with her mother's boyfriend (who, in turn, is more than happy to supply that "love"). When her mother finds them in the thick of it Cornish runs away from her home in Canberra to the town of Jindabyne, which has been the subject of a more recent film (there must be something in the air there).
Cornish looks for a job but instead ends up more like a tramp in order to secure a meal and a place to sleep. Wherever she goes and whoever she stumbles upon she finds distorted characters who, while better off financially, have their own problems - often very nasty ones.
Overall, Somersault is a very depressing film. Can you say this is a bad thing? Not really, because that is obviously the film's intention, yet it is so depressing that you can't be expected to actually enjoy it for its artistic values. Not when it's also relatively boring and too surrealistic - with all sorts of weird scenes thrown in (say, Cornish playing around with items she finds in a dumpster or scenes where everything is tainted blue). For most of the film you're asking yourself what it is that they're trying to say there; only towards the end things seem to sort themselves up a bit, but I felt that by then it was a case of a lost cause. If I have to pinpoint at anything specific, it's just that the general collection of miserable characters Cornish ends up meeting is just too miserable to pass as true. Credibility is probably the word to use here.
An interesting point about Somersault is that some of the shots of Jindabyne Lake seem like carbon copies of similar scenes from the film Jindabyne. I don't know if the films are related, but at least Somersault was the first to be released.
Most troubling scenes: The film is quite abundant with nudity, which seems to get more frequent as the film progresses. While usually I won't complain against that, Cornish's character seems so young that I found those scenes very troubling: it was as if I was watching a very young girl, way too young for me to want to view in the nude. I don't know if that's just me being weird, but I suspect it was the intention of the director for me to feel this way. The point is that I think this is a good indicator of the type of feelings Somersault intends to steer in its viewers.
Overall: Too disturbing to be enjoyable, too weird, too boring. 1 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 10 June 2007

Book: Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: Good science is poetry in motion.
Whenever we go and visit our obstetrician I take my current book with me. Between the queues and the waiting, it's a good opportunity for reading. One of the midwives there has noticed this habit, and by now she regularly asks me to show her the book I brought along as "he always brings interesting books with him". Alas, her reaction to Unweaving the Rainbow was somewhat different: While at first she marveled at the cover, she then noticed the author's name and said "I don't like him, he's weird". She didn't have an answer when I asked why, and she refused the challenge when I said I'm willing to have ourselves a bit of an argument about Dawkins' nature.
Anyway, the point of this whole gossip story is to say that this unexplainable attitude of "this guy is weird" simply because "this guy says things that upset the way I like to see myself in the world" is exactly what the book is about. Unweaving the Rainbow is a book about the philosophy behind good science and the power it can have in inspiring good things. The book's premises are not unlike the midwife story: Keats had once written a poem sharing the book's title in which he accused Newton for ruining the rainbow as a source of poetic inspiration by explaining how the rainbow really works; Dawkins picks up the gauntlet and proves Keats wrong.
To summarize, the book starts by telling us how a rainbow really works, demonstrating that no one who understands how a rainbow truly works can claim that this reality is less poetic than the false illusion in Keats' head (shared by many others today, still). Dawkins goes on to show what other discoveries were made using the same knowledge that unweaved the rainbow - say, the discovery of the ability to tell what stars are made of, or the age of the universe, or that the universe is expanding etc - all things that could easily be at the centerpoint of many a poetic poem.
Dawkins uses the analogy between poetry and science to demonstrate what he considers good scientific poetry vs. bad ones - astrology and such, and even scientists who tend to glorify themselves by being obscure (like my university professors, I must add). In the process, Dawkins knocks about a few of his colleagues, but while he ensure he's providing adequate explanations as to why he shoots them down I did get the feeling he was picking on a few of them too much; at least too much as far as the book's flow, which was pretty excellent till then, goes.
Eventually Dawkins retires to his familiar territory of evolution and genes as he further digests his familiar theories on the subjects in order to show the potential of science as a source of inspiration. While it feels as if this third and final act of the book is a bit disconnected from the book's previous acts it is very interesting; the chapters discussing the brain and how it perceives the world are quite illuminating, and I have to say they were more than a bit of an eyeopener to me. Basically, Dawkins discusses how what we perceive as the reality around us is, in fact, just a model built inside our brain.
But don't take my word for it, read the book. It provides a whole of a lot more than what I can jot here! In the usual Dawkins fashion, it is a flawing read, and despite the potentially complicated issues it discusses it is also a fairly easy read. And most importantly, between the subject matter and Dawkins' style, it is also a very interesting read.
Overall: Again, Dawkins proves his skills in communicating science to the masses. Despite some deviations it does very well - 4 out of 5 stars; Unweaving the Rainbow provides additional ammo to the my notion that Dawkins currently reigns on high as my favorite author.

Friday, 8 June 2007

DVD: Poseidon

Lowdown: Noah's ark got tipped over. Again.
With some films you just know they are going to be bad, or even worse, but you still want to watch them. Don't ask me exactly why: one reason could be that you just want to watch something simple and stupid to cleanse the mind with after a bad day at the office, while yet another reason might be that the well oiled marketing machine behind the film did its job so well that while you know the product is going to be bad you still have this need to watch the film anyway. Well, whatever the reason may be, the new incarnation of Poseidon certainly falls into the category of films that are just so bad you know they're bad just by smelling the DVD's box.
The film's crappiness could actually be considered to be a surprise given that this redo work of the Shelley Winters original was made by Wolfgang Petersen. He gained his fame with his rather fascist Das Boot, Airforce One and In the Line of Fire; I do consider them all to be good films, to one extent or another. Yet as Perfect Storm has shown, he is fully capable of creating a bad film, and in Poseidon he sinks to a bottomless pit: the special effects heavy yet totally dumbed down film.
The plot is very simple: A state of the art cruise ship with all the amenities you can imagine and then some is hit by a "rogue wave" which topples it over. A group of people decide they are not waiting and start climbing up to the top (which is the bottom of the boat, since it's upside down). In between they have to tackle all sorts of special effects laden obstacles, and most of them die in the process, until salvation arrives.
So, what is wrong with the film? Let me count briefly. Unlike the original, in here the acting sucks. The plot doesn't make sense. Plausibility simply does not exist. There is no plot to speak about, just a collection of obstacles to tackle. Special effects are the real star of the show. There is no morale or anything, even though it wouldn't be too hard to have one central motif in a film like this. It's all pretty predictable. And probably the worst, with the way the film shows it, certain lives are more important and more valuable than others.
As far as positives go, there are some wow shots in the film. In particular the opening scene, featuring an actor jogging along the deck of the huge ship with the camera panning all over the place. However, in the DVD supplementals we learn the ship only existed on a computer screen and the scene was shot on a blue screen. Overall, I would say Titanic did a much better job in the realism department.
Worst scenes: Pretty much any of a large collection of scenes where the heroes need to dive through an obstacle and end up being under water for 5 minutes, no problems whatsoever.
Or are they the scenes that show the carnage of the sinking boat, with more blood and gore than your Private Ryan meets Letters from Iwo Jima?
Picture quality: Lacking in detail but also lacking in digital artifacts.
Sound quality: A cacophony of sound effects that are well recorded, yet there's nothing special about it all.
Overall: A badly made film that's totally redundant unless you really want to wipe your brain clean. 1.5 stars out of 5.

Wednesday, 6 June 2007

DVD: The Family Stone

Lowdown: Truth and reconciliation during Christmas.
Take an ensemble cast, cast them all as members of one family, add some tension, time at to around Christmas, and you have the basic formula behind The Family Stone. Does it work? Well, it's entertaining, but that doesn't mean it works.
The Stone family is a weird twist of everything in American society. There are loving parents (with Diane Keaton as the mother), sons, daughters, divorcees, grandparents, a gay son with a black partner - we're talking about a very liberal family here. Enter Sarah Jessica Parker as the would be fiance of one the sons, and she just happens to be a tight conservative woman. Clashes are due, tensions peaks, and all just in time for Christmas. Things get even more complicated when Parker's sister, Claire Danes, arrives to smooth things out; or does she?
Thing is, as you can probably tell, this is one of those films where you can tell exactly what is going to happen the second you see the opening credits. It's not only predictable, it's plain silly; the premises itself is rather unbelievable. Come on, how often have such a mix of family members in one family? Oh, you say, it's all just one big metaphor for American society, showing that we can all live happily ever after together in the spirit of Christmas. Oh, I say, pigs can really fly.
And then there's the acting that is way over the top. Diane Keaton has stopped delivering for a while now, but it's Jessica Parker that tops the charts with a display of acting that would look bad in something like The Bold and the Restless. The film's entertaining, though, in a bit of a masochistic kind of a way; I mean, at least you're not bored the way you would be when you watch the B&B.
Most annoying scene: The politically correct family, incorporating a gay couple, is having its holiday dinner together with the "ultra conservative" (to quote the DVD cover) Sarah Jessica Parker. Somehow the conversation gets to the gay son, and Parker asks whether the parents really wanted a gay son. The moment of stark seriousness is replaced with a moment of foolishness when the father answers by saying that they "believe" being gay is determined by the genes, and therefore the son had nothing to do with it and therefore cannot be blamed for being gay. Which left me annoyed, because what does "belief" have to do with it? Experiments with animals, for examples, show that in cases of over population (often in zoos), a significant portion of animals becomes gay - at a much higher ratio than their ancestors ever were. So, is it genetic? Maybe, but there are obviously other factors involved, and there is no need to "believe" something when we know it's not the whole truth.
I just hate it when reality is twisted in the name of political correctness. Personally, I don't see much wrong with someone being gay just because they like being gay.
Picture quality: This is an edge enhancement extravaganza! It's like they did a demo disc for digital artifacts.
Sound quality: While this is one of the quietest soundtracks around, it does have some few moments where the surround channels take you by surprise. Sadly, these are secluded moments.
Overall: Yet another merry-kiss-my-ass film, to quote a friend. Which goes to say it's somewhat entertaining yet overall redundant. 2 stars out of 5.

Sunday, 3 June 2007

DVD: Deja Vu

Lowdown: Time travel as a religious experience.
I have often been found criticizing American cinema in this blog while at the same time openly admitting that the films I like the most are American. However, I never really said what it is that I regard as "American" in a film. What is this "American" spice that is so often added to a film and makes it so much worse than it could have been? Well, I am not about to give you the ultimate answer here and now, but I will point at the most classic demonstrator of this American attribute: Tony Scott. Case in point: Top Gun, a film that tries to glorify almost everything this world should get rid of, but in a cool way. Tony Scott's latest, Deja Vu, shows he hasn't really been learning much since the days of Maverick and Goose.
Deja Vu's story seems to be truly up to date: It doesn't only take September 11 for granted, it also builds upon hurricane Katrina; I don't know how they managed to create it so quickly given that. As it goes, a ferry carrying some 500 people during a holiday explodes in the middle of New Orleans, and ATF agent Denzel Washington is there to start an investigation. He finds some clues as he goes about, but then he's invited by the FBI to use their newest facilities: screens that show you exactly what happened exactly four days ago from any angle you want. The FBI wants to utilize Washington's investigative capabilities, but quickly enough we learn that these facilities of their are, "in fact", some sophisticated mechanism to fold the space-time curve and bring the events of four days ago to the present. By examining the past, Washington comes up with new leads. But why stop there? If we can see into the past we can go into the past, and that's exactly what Washington does.
Sounds like your regular nerve recking sophisticated time travel action film, only that it isn't. I mean, it is very thrilling and it is a time travel film, the only problem is that it's not sophisticated. At least not properly sophisticated. You see, there is a prominent religious agenda that hijacks the film: early on we see Washington taking part at a funeral, and the priest says something like "whatever happened shall happen" and "all that happens is god's will". The rest of the film seems to go out and prove those very words, and the result is that instead of the film feeling sophisticated it feels as if it was hijacked. Everything, including the science that is there
to support the main time travel idea of the film, is twisted in order to support the film's cause; it all feels very artificial as a result. There are many other films out there that deal with time travel and tell you much less about the science behind it - say, The Terminator; however, none feels as contrived as Deja Vu.
Problems don't just end there. After all, this is a Tony Scott film, and in the Tony Scott way everything is over dramatized and made to look and sound bombastic. As Washington goes to the toilet the camera sweeps across with a multitude of short edited panning shots, while thunders strike with each drop of pee hitting the toilet's surface. No, such a scene doesn't really exist, but all the rest of the film feels exactly like that. And just as with Top Gun, there are plenty of inconsistencies (Washington walking inside the FBI compound while an FBI agent follows him with a car - when Washington hasn't left the building).
Also rampant are things that just so conveniently seem to happen - like the female victim that is the main lead in the investigation just happening to be so conveniently black, as if tailor made to act against Washington. Which is exactly the problem: under the guise of a science fiction film we are also asked to accept Scott's not so well hidden social agendas, which - in this case - include blacks dating blacks. And only blacks. No reason to ask why.
Most annoying scene: Washington discovers the true nature of the FBI surveillance system, triggering a "deep" discussion (I'm being very sarcastic here) about the nature of the system and the physics behind it. It's all handled as short sentence slogans, and it's all so very twisted in order to serve the film's agenda. This is exactly the way brainwashing starts.
Things get worse, though. The FBI tells Washington that the recent blackouts in the USA are the result of power drains caused by this system, and the point is further emphasized later in the film. Thing is, that's bullshit: we know exactly what the causes of those blackouts were, and none was as exotic and mystic as what the film is suggesting; however, the laymen watching this heavily "spiritual" film can easily use its mis-education to further advance any existing notions about mysticism and spiritualism they might have already had in their heads. Fodder for more conspiracy theories. To me it's just lies; why do we need more disinformation?
Picture quality: To make things look even bigger than they are, Scott uses high contrast stock. This has a bit of a grainy and compressed look to it, but other than that and the occasional washed out colors the picture is good.
Sound quality: Over bombastic at times, the sound is disappointing in its failure to immerse the viewer.
Overall: Because it's quite tense and action packed, and because I think Washington is a world class performer, I thought of giving Deja Vu 3 stars. However, if you were to ask me whether I like this film and whether I would recommend it, my answer would simply be "no"; I'll therefore downgrade it a bit and settle for a cold 2.5 out of 5 stars. After all, the concept of the government tracking us wherever we go is, after all, something we should be worried about.