Thursday, 30 August 2007

DVD: A Good Year

Lowdown: Ridley Scott singing the La Marseillaise.
Ridley Scott is a director I find most interesting because of the huge variance in the quality of his output. This means that on one hand you get pretty ordinary films, like Hannibal or G.I. Jane, whereas on the other side you get the truly state of the art Blade Runner. Scott is also notorious for producing films about himself: What is Gladiator, after all, if not an attempt to demonstrate how he himself has to gladiate in order to please the studios and the crowds?
On comes A Good Year, a film which I expected to be on the lower side of the Scott scale. I was, however, comfortably surprised on that; and I was also surprised to see that this is yet another film by Scott and about Scott.
First, I feel it is important to make one thing clear: A Good Year is not a film about tires. Instead, we are told the story of Russell Crowe, a nasty English piece of a stock trader who is not afraid to step on anyone in order to make a pound. Crowe is the ultimate capitalist / workaholic / consumerist you can ever imagine; yes, I am saying his character is taken more than a bit over the top. So does his British-ness: in yet another classic touch for the American market, the main consumer of A Good Year, Crowe is filled with all the British cliches you can imagine – to the point of making him unreal.
Cliches don’t stop there. Quickly enough we learn, through the notorious flashback tool, that Crowe used to have an uncle living in a large estate in Provence, where he (the uncle) did nothing but let his local wine guy produce wine from his vines. The cliche here is that the uncle role is portrayed by Albert Finney, who by now seems to have established himself into the niche of the old reminiscing relative he started out on with Big Fish.
Anyway, Finney dies and leaves Crowe his estate in Provence. Crowe flies there for a morning session in order to see how to make the most out of the sale of the estate, and through all sorts of comical situations he ends up stuck there; and just guess what happens next? Yes, he falls in love. With everything. What a major surprise!
Still, you can laugh at the plot’s predictability, but it’s not the point of the film; the point is the “how” rather than the “what”. And the “how” is quite good: I like Crowe even when he’s not at his best, for a start. But overall, I like the way this film is done: It is well done but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s good on production values but it’s not stupid. And it has some interesting (albeit small) twists and turns on the way. Most of all, it has France and Provence, which is usually enough to buy me in.
Nationalities play an odd role in A Good Year. Essentially, the film bases itself on the inherent antagonism between the British and the French. Americans are portrayed as the ultimate idiots while the British are portrayed as their cleverer cousins who are still stuck in the mire; the French, however, seem to know best (even if they’re not aware of that). I was puzzled by this until I started hearing the director’s comments, which begin by Scott saying that he lives in Provence and that the film was shot eight minutes away from where he’s living. This made the coin drop: Effectively, Scott has produced another film about himself, this time around explaining why he left the hustle and bustle (without truly leaving it) and settled in Provence; and as usual, he makes his statement with much arrogance. Arrogant enough, might I add, to cast a New Zealander (Crowe) as leading British role and an Australian (Abbie Cornish) as the leading American role.
Best scene: Actually, it is very hard for me to point to a specific key scene here. There are many good scenes but no standouts. What I did like was the joke where Crowe overtakes a bunch of French cyclists in his car rather aggressively, and to their complaints he shouts “Lance Armstrong”.
Picture quality: Good, but… There is some loss of detail and some blotchiness of colors. That said, often the picture is just marvelous with the French country side scenery at its best.
Sound quality: Now, this is how it should be done! From a film that works on subtlety, you sort of don’t expect much. Wrong! This soundtrack manages to be both subtle and engulfing. You’re there in Provence while watching the film, and the feeling is just marvelous!
Overall: Look, this is not the perfect film. Its place is somewhere between in the 3 star plus band. However, I can’t deny I liked it a lot: I liked the pacing, I liked the story, I liked the message. And let’s not be around the bush: I really like France, and I consider the area of Provence to be the most beautiful area I have ever seen.
Thus I will let my personal prejudices take over and grant A Good Year with 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 27 August 2007

DVD: The Devil Wears Prada

Lowdown: A fashionable Cinderella story.
No doubt about it: Dylan Wears Prada is as much of a chicks' flick as a film can ever be. That, however, may not necessarily be a bad thing. Which, however, does not mean that Prada is not a bad film; it is pretty bad.
We've seen that film before: Anne Hathaway plays a young idealist woman who just graduated with enough aspirations and skills to ensure world peace, but the journalist job she's craving for is just not there. Instead, she has to settle for a job as the PA of an editor of a high caliber Vogue like fashion magazine, aka Meryl Streep. On her part, which is a very limited part because she doesn't change her facial expression throughout the film, Streep is the devil incarnate employer: totally selfish, totally demanding, totally inconsiderate; in short, the boss you and describe to our friends when we moan just how bad work is, regardless of whether there's much truth behind our moans.
Somehow, Hathaway becomes convinced that through the tortures of her job she will have the world's best jobs available to her. And so, Jesus Hathaway suffers her boss' torments to the best of her abilities, in the process sacrificing to the devil all she has (as in friends and time) and all of the ideals she used to have to move ahead in life. Will she become Satan incarnate instead of the innocent idealistic girl she was before? Is there any point in raising this question, given that this is, after all, the most typical of typical American films?
So yeah, in case you don't get it, I didn't like Prada in the least. It's as stimulating as yesterday morning's cup of coffee is tonight. There is nothing in it to keep you on your toes, nothing to build any tension, nothing but very flat characters: Hathaway on one side, tons of others who think that clothes make the person on the other side, and an inconclusive statement regarding the question of whether the clothes make the person at the end. It's not just the end, the film entire tries to say that status items don't matter on one hand, while glorifying all the status items you can think of with the other half of its mouth. After all, one doesn't want to go against the capitalistic fashion world too hard!
Best scene: Hathaway decides to go with the flow, abandon her old clothing and get herself "properly" dressed. As in, fashion magazine fashionably dressed. Thing is, in my opinion she looked better before the transformation. I think authenticity is the word to be used here. Then again, you can tell a lot of my fashion inclinations by the fact I've never heard of said brand before Devil Wears Prada came out.
Picture quality: Sub par. There's no noise, but there are digital artifacts, significant lack of details, and unsaturated colors. The best example for the trouble is in the Hathaway's hair: there is no detail there; it just looks like a blob of black.
Sound quality: Worse than pretty ordinary. Surround action is limited to the occasional musical bits.
Overall: Boring and as original as a newspaper from a decade ago. 2 out of 5 stars.

DVD: Hot Fuzz

Lowdown: High noon at a middle of nowhere English village run by old folk.
For a film I like, I have surprisingly not a lot to say about Hot Fuzz. Simon Peg and Co., the people behind Spaced and Shaun of the Dead, are back with another sophisticated comedy that will really make you laugh and feel good. But not much more.
This time around, Peg is a London policeman who gets kicked out to the country because he's so good he makes the others look bad. The country, in this case, means a village in the middle of nowhere, England, where nothing has happened for the last few centuries as far as police work is concerned. Or is that the case? When Peg arrives, he immediately stumbles upon major crime all over the place - teenage drinking, graffiti; he also stumbles upon a dysfuntional police force "supported" by a large network of village elders who have formed a neighborhood watch and have a thing or two against human statues. Slowly, Peg digs in the dirt to unravel some hideous crimes, leading us to an hilariously stupid High Noon like ending.
Like its predecessor, Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz relies on you the viewer being familiar with movie culture for its jokes to work. And work they do; Hot Fuzz is a very funny film that works mainly through laughing at the seriousness in which the films it mimics take themselves and their political correctness. For example, Hot Fuzz laughs at the films that tell you stories of murders and such atrocities but never show you a drop of blood; in Hot Fuzz, you will swim in blood instead.
Usually, parodies such as Hot Fuzz are accompanied with poor acting, a poor script, and poor production values. None of that applies to Hot Fuzz, though; as we know by now, when Peg & Co. set their minds on a project, they do it well. For actors we have a wide range of top and established English comedy talent, some times in roles so minor it's a waste (timothy Dalton, the ex-Bond, does a stand out performance). For a script we have a witty tale which, if stretched, can have a say or two about the way we regard that which is strange to us. And the production values are up there, if not better, than most of Hollywood's production line productions.
Best scene: The High Noon ending. The lesser words spent describing it the better, though.
Picture quality: Very good! There's just this tiny bit of detail level that is lacking, but that is really nitpicking.
Sound quality: Good and aggressive, but as it has been deliberately made to sound over the top it attracts to much attention to itself. You don't feel like you're there; you're just swamped with sound effects. It serves the filmmakers' goals, but it's not where my preferences lie.
Overall: I like Hot Fuzz and I recommend it. However, no matter how funny and sarcastically good it is, it is not much better than an elaborate Naked Gun in the sense that it does not stand by its own right. I am therefore going to be harsh on it and give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 August 2007

Book: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J. K. Rowling

Lowdown: Harry's finished.
Something strange yet predictable has happened to the Harry Potter series of books as a result of the writer committing herself to a seven part series and as a result of the books’ commercial success. The first two books were nice and dandy; with the third, the weight of expectations has added more volume. By the fourth the success was more like a bonanza, and the result was a very thick book featuring a very redundantly long exposition about some quiditch tournament. Then we got to the transitional books, the ones that are there only so that the final seventh book can take place; hence the way too long, relatively badly written and often boring fifth and sixth instalments. And now it’s time for the seventh and final chapter; how does it fare?
Without giving anything of the plot away, I would say the answer is a mixed bag. The saga does conclude in a very exciting and even a very surprising way, with the last 200 pages of the book read while holding my breath. However, in order to get to those last 200 pages you have to get through 400 previous pages which are more like the previous two books, mainly transitional in purpose. Still, it was worth it, even if the book doesn’t soar to Lord of the Rings heights at its very ending and even if it does end as expected with the bad guys winning etc.
The most interesting aspect of reading through the last Harry Potter is the way absolutely everything merges together. There is not one character, there is no one place, and there is no one event that was/were mentioned in previous books which don’t end up converging to have an impact, usually quite a severe one, on the way the Harry Potter concludes his adventures. On one hand this is quite a feat of book writing: I suspect Rowling had to manage all the different threads with a very sophisticated mainframe database in order to achieve this. You read the seventh Potter, and you do realize why you had to endure its tedious instalments. Question is, is this convergence necessarily positive? Here I have to disagree with Rowling. In life, things often happen just because they happen. In life, things that transpire usually don’t have a meaning. In life, not everything ends up having critical impact on everything else.
Another good thing that is sacrificed on the altar of making all the ends meet is good story telling. There are simply too many cheap ways to further progress the plot thrown all over the place. Flashbacks or semi flashbacks (like eavesdropping on someone having a flashback) are the most obvious problem; you can understand it in a film, maybe, but in a book they’re pretty inexcusable. Yet another thing robbed by commercial success and yet another loss to the dominating yet unnecessary complexity of the plot. Then you get to these transitional scenes, where on one hand you have a major battle at hand and things are looking bad and Harry is just about to die and it’s just so close and you’re so nervous and you can’t put the book away and you’re peeing in your pants… and then Rowling tells you something along the lines of “Harry woke up to find it was all just a bad dream”. OK, she doesn’t say that, but what she does say is not far from that.
The book does manage to portray the things that go inside the head of a teenager quite well, only that what we get is a rather distilled version. I mean, you know everything that takes place in Harry’s head, and there’s never a thought about sex? Come on! Did they cut his balls off in a previous episode without me noticing?
The clean and over pure morals continue throughout the book, and on top of that we get a system of rules and regulations to do with the world of magic that seems just as artificial and just as contrived. Reading Deathly Hallows, you learn all you ever wanted to know and didn’t ask on the rules governing a soul or the rules of wand ownership; it’s as if Rowling is in a race to give us the rules so that she can demonstrate them in action later in the book. Again, the way it all works together is amazing, but does it really need to work this way? I guess all is fair in trying to get the book to end the way Rowling wanted it to end.
But as I said, I wouldn’t argue with you if you were to say that you’re willing t forget all of the book’s woes for that wonderfully thrilling ending. It really is good.
Overall: Let’s face it. It’s very hard to rate Deathly Hallows on its own, and the task gets even harder for me given the personal impact Harry Potter has had on me.
First and foremost, it was the first Harry Potter book that got me back into reading books in the first place after years of university desolation where I had no time to read. Second, Potter was there for me in critical times: while I was recovering from my laser vision correction I was reading a Harry Potter in the dark. And now it was a Harry Potter that I read immediately after the birth of my son. OK, a part of it is to do with the childish simplicity of the books, but who said that was wrong?
Back to the point. Through its first two thirds, Deathly Hallows is nothing special, a 2.5 to a 3 star effort at best. The gripping ending, however, is 4 star material and even more when you consider that this is, after all, a children’s book. How do these two estimates add up together? I’ll take the simple way and average them out:
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows gets 3.5 out of 5 stars from me; at the same breath, however, I will add that the series entire is worth more than any stars I can bestow on it. Pity about them mediocre films, though…

Thursday, 16 August 2007

IMAX: Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Lowdown: Yet another Potter film that still thinks it's a book.
The Harry Potter films so far have been a mixed bag. None were stellar performers: the first two, by Chris Colombus, were dreadful, being more like a collection of key scenes from the book than an attempt to create proper standalone films. The third film, however, was a step in the right direction, and the fourth wasn't bad either.
The question I was asking before watching Order of the Phoenix was this: Did they manage to make a decent film out of the worst book in the series thus far? (Actually, the sixth is the worst, so I'll have to ask that question again in a couple of years)
The answer, in short, is that the film is quite mediocre, recreating many of the first two's failures; it is, however, saved by its ongoing action, which manages to grip despite many moments where you wonder why the movie makers fail to just get a move on things.
Given people's sensitivity to revealing bits of the plot I won't say much about it other than that this film is supposed to tell the story of Harry Potter's fifth year in magic school. The main events this year seem to be a new and rather evil headmistress and a coalition of "good" students combining together for self studies in magical self defense. On top of that we get the regular dose of evil Voldemort, which is supposed to be the driver of the film, but as with the first two films it feels more like an afterthought.
When trying to analyze the source of the film's problems, it becomes obvious that it is in its insistence to replicate as much of the books as possible. Thing is, that is not a good way to create a film. The result is that in a film featuring dozens of unique characters with a lineup of star power quality actors that could run ten separate films, there is only one round character and a collection of others that have their short cameos and then dissaparate into oblivion. The only characters other than Potter that get something coming close to proper coverage are of Ron and Hermione, but given their quality of acting you wish it wasn't the case. Daniel Radcliffe (Potter), however, whose acting was suffering in previous efforts, seems to have become an acceptable actor at last; his mates may lag behind, but at last he's able to sustain a film.
So yes: sub plots come and go, you wonder what's going on and where the film is heading to, and then you finally get to this showdown scene with a baddie about whom you don't know much unless you read the books. That final scene, however, is quite the kick ass scene on an IMAX screen: some 30 minutes prior to the end of the film a sign alerts you to put your 3D glasses on, and from then to the end you're immersed in an action packed special effects extravaganza. It's stupid fun, but it's still wow!
The IMAX advantage is not only in that last 3D bit. The size and the quality of the picture make a huge difference on the impact this blockbuster makes, and for the better part of the film's first half hour I was chewing my popcorn in total awe. It is definitely worth making the trip to the IMAX theater if a film you want to watch is showing there!
Finally, is there any other positive thing to say about Order of the Phoenix to top the excitement and the presentation? There is. I really liked the way the new headmistress, Dolores Umbridge, was portrayed: It was a real demo case for portraying how nasty and evil people can be while still appearing polite and social. In real life you often encounter these people that drive you crazy and you can't say why; Umbridge embodies lots of those whys.
Finally, if there is anything the film is trying to say, it's a saying about the difference between good and evil. Potter is supposedly established as the good character, Voldemort as the ultimate evil (I'll ignore the film's problem of being quite bad at establishing the supporting characters for now). For some reason which you will only know if you read the books, both Potter and Voldemort have similar qualities; the result is that Potter is tormented, thinking he's also evil, only to be rescued at the end from his torments by yet another unestablished supporting character telling him he is different to Voldemort. Now, the reason I bringing this badly developed theme up is an article from August's Scientific American which looks at the Abu Ghraib Prison incidents in order to identify what it is that makes ordinary people become truly evil. The article's conclusions are different to Rowling's ones: Its conclusion is that we all have bad things in us and that it just takes something, often something special, to release that bad. No one person is inherently good or inherently evil; that clear division is something that can only happen in books/films about magical worlds.
Best scene: That 3D fight, of course, even if some of it was too much like Jedi fights.
Overall: A bad film that's exciting enough to merit 2.5 stars. However, the IMAX edge gives it 3 out of 5 stars.