Tuesday, 30 October 2007

DVD: The Good the Bad and the Ugly

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

Monday, 29 October 2007

Film: Last Action Hero

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

Saturday, 27 October 2007

DVD: 16 Blocks

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

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

DVD: Superman Returns

Lowdown: Does the world need a superman?
Back in 1995 a formerly unheard of guy called Bryan Singer directed a most excellent film called The Usual Suspects. It was one of those films that really did change the world of cinema as we know it with a genuinely unexpected plot twist at the end and the revelation of one Kevin Spacey. Since then, however, Singer has been on a roll – a downhill spiral type of a roll – most notably with his mundanely stupid X-Men series. The result is that when Superman Returns came out for rental I didn’t exactly rush in to rent it, instead waiting for a time in which a dumb movie might suit my mood.
Given the expectations I think I can safely say that Superman Returns was a pleasant surprise; that, however, does not mean it is a good film. Watching Soup Returns, I felt at first like this could be a promising movie. However, as the film progressed I was more and more apathy with the end result being quite a forgettable film – the trademark Singer touch.
Even though the last Superman film was made at the age when the Atari games console reigned supreme, Soup Returns never really bothers telling you what Superman is about or what his background is. Some of it is implied, the rest assumes you’ve been addictively watching Smallville. Anyway, as it turns out Soup-man has been away for five years, going off to explore his home planet without letting anyone know. He’s back now, but so is his nemesis Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey), released from prison because of Superman’s deficiencies to quickly inherit a fortune that allows him to set out and [try] to destroy the world. Again.
We start with Superman re-establishing himself as Clark Kent at the Daily Planet (and no, it’s not Melbourne’s most famous brothel). Quickly enough Kent bumps into Lois Lane, only that by now Lane is a mother and she has a partner who is as super as a mere mortal can be if your definition of super matches the one that is usually projected in American films. So far so good, but then the usual trouble erupts and Superman steps in to save the day, at which point the film switches to become a special effects bonanza with not much in the brains department. The effects are good, but I’m fed up with CGI in general; everything looks so perfect now there is nothing to distinguish the good from the bad or the ugly. And the real. Then there are a lot of nonsense and contradictions: we’re told Superman flies near the speed of light but it still takes him minutes to get from place to place (on earth!); we’re shown that he’s totally useless around kryptonite one moment, but the next moment he picks up a mountain full of it and goes all over the place with it. All these problems and many more serve to emphasize one thing about Superman: unlike the rest of the superheroes, like Spiderman for example, Superman is just too perfect; he can do it all and his weaknesses are pretty weak. Of all the superheroes, Superman is by far the most boring one.
Indeed, if there is anything to take from Superman Returns (and I would argue that there’s none), it is to do with the Soup-Lane interaction. When Superman disappeared, Lane wrote an article saying why the world does not need Superman; now that Luthor has to be stopped and only Superman can do it, she writes the opposite article. The question really is do we, as in humanity, require a superhero to save us from ourselves? Sadly, it seems the answer is a yes; just look at what we’re doing to our world with global warming. We’re like frogs sitting in a not so slowly boiling pot, unaware of the upcoming oblivion; we need a kick from a Superman of sorts to steer us. Still, as interesting as this line of thought may be, the film settles with the most basic of surface scrapings here, settling instead on the stupid action/drama as its main catalysts.
Best scene: Spacey is the main saviour of this film, and the scene where he cons a rich dying ancestor out of her money is the only touch of good film making Superman Returns provides.
Picture quality: As expected from a film like this, very good.
Sound quality: As expected from a film like this, very good; lacking in originality, though, like the rest of the film, although trying to make up for it with tons of low frequency effects.
Overall: Entertaining, but nothing more than entertaining. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 22 October 2007

DVD: Scoop

Lowdown: A thrilling romantic comedy is hard to make.
Woody Allen's latest British production after his excellent Match Point is an attempt at creating a romantic comedy murder mystery thriller, and it not only sounds too good to be true; it is. Something just has to give, and actually more than one thing gives in to create a rather boring deliverable.
As Scoop starts, we are told of this very famous journalist who always had the scoop first and who has just died. Then we cut to a very Purple Rose of Cairo scene to see this journalist on a boat full of dead people and led by the angle of death. The dead start chatting with one another, and quickly enough our journalist learns that this notorious serial killer everyone is looking after is actually of prestigious nobility - Hugh Jackman. He just has to go back to tell the world of this scoop, and he actually manages to cheat death and come back for a brief appearance at the world of the living. Only that he makes his comeback before Scarlett Johansson, a lackluster American college journalist, while she's attending a show held by a lackluster American magician (Allen himself) in the UK.
Johansson grasps the opportunity to become famous through this world class scoop with both incapable hands, dragging Allen with her as she conducts her lackluster research on this crime. Quickly enough (and as can be expected) she falls for Jackman's charms, and we're left to wonder how this is going to turn out.
Only that it all turns out exactly the way you would expect it to, thus ruining the rather magical setup from the beginning of the film. Add to the mix a Woody Allen that plays a minor role but can't stop taking screen real estate and doesn't stop uttering his usual funny lines in a very out of place fashion, top it with a Johansson that tries her best to portray a lackluster dumb American chick that is totally out of place in the sophisticated UK but ends up delivering one of the worst performances I have ever seen in an A class film, and you end up with a film that is nice but far from exhilarating.
Don't get me wrong; there are nice ideas in Scoop aside of that ship of the dead. There's the usual Allen style trivializing of the big things in life, there's the Allen humor, and there's this confrontation between the simple American and the sophisticated yet corrupt Britain with its royalty and such. But it's all piled up on top of one another, and at the end all you remember is Johansson's performance and some of Allen's nonsense.
Funniest scene: The scenes where Allen can't get along with driving on the wrong side of the road are funny, but the best joke comes when he chats up this sophisticated British couple and tells them that he comes from a Hebrew culture but moved to narcissism instead. In one line, Allen captured exactly what went wrong with Scoop (but he also managed to be funny).
Picture quality: There's a significant color problem with this film. Everything just looks overcast! I can understand if this is to do with scenes of the English countryside, some of which were obviously taken under overcast conditions. I don't, however, understand when this happens during indoor scenes.
Sound quality: In typical Woody Allen fashion the soundtrack is mono. As I watched the film I could easily feel myself succumbing into the boredom that is induced by this so inglorious of soundtracks. I can sort of understand where Allen's coming from - he doesn't want you to be distracted by the sound - but in my opinion this is a stupid notion; reality is made of sounds, too. If anything, I find that a movie's sound quality is much more important than its picture quality when it comes to me being able to suspend my disbelief. The shame is doubled when considering that the soundtrack is made of audiophile quality classical music recorded by Chesky. This could have been a mesmerizing soundtrack! Such a shame.
Overall: Nice but badly integrated ideas. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 19 October 2007

DVD: The Break-Up

Lowdown: A detailed look at a couple breaking up.
One of the bad things about American cinema is that it always distorts reality by trying to present the nice stuff that often happens in life as the representative of life entire, ignoring life’s nasty and sad aspects. This can have effects that reach way beyond the world of film: people who are thus trained to think of life as an eternally fresh bouquet of roses will suffer big time when something else happens, say, when a close friend or relative dies; they will simply have no idea how to react in such a situation.
The Break-Up breaks that convention to one extent or another. It is a film devoted entirely to the tackling of a bad event – the break up of a formerly loving couple. Its handling is rather on the polite side of reality but given my experiences and observations on others it is still very much on the firm side of reality. And given that it stars Vince Vaughn and Jennifer Aniston it is also a funny film, albeit not one that would make you explode with laughter; it basically relies on Vaughn’s big mouth to provide funny interpretations to ongoing events (while Aniston is mainly busy trying to look her annoying cute with her rather annoying gestures borrowed from Friends).
The film’s opening scene shows us how the couple has met. Then we move ahead, probably by several years, and the couple is living together in what seems to be the very warm and sunny city of Chicago, sharing an apartment they own together. Crisis starts immediately as a dinner party goes wrong, and by the end of the night break up occurs. The film then moves on to show how the heroes’ lives change: the effects on work, the effects of still living together in the same apartment, relatives and friends’ reactions, etc. It all does feel very authentic and real, even if there is no outright nastiness between the former couple as often happens in reality. For example, I really liked the way certain family members seem to mainly care about the financial implications of the break up with virtually no regard to the emotional turmoil the broken up family member is going through.
One can easily argue that The Break-Up is almost like a TV reality show with some comedy elements thrown in. I certainly would. The main differences between the film and such a TV production would be to do with the film’s superior production values; the common elements between the two would be in the voyeurism elements and in the fact that there is not much to the film other than documenting a break up.
Funniest scene: Aniston brings a guy over to make Vaughn jealous but the two guys hit it off playing video games, leaving Aniston in the background.
Picture quality: Quite good but with occasional artifacts.
Sound quality: I’m sure I had the surrounds switched on.
Overall: This is a funny 3 star film that reminds me a lot of my parents and other couples who have had shaky relationships. Given that I think it is a step in the right direction for the world of film in general I will bestow The Break-Up with 3.5 stars out of 5.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

Book: Sleep Right Sleep Tight

Lowdown: The user manual for the “controlled crying” methodology.
One of the immediate and worst problems we have been facing since becoming parents is the lack of sleep that is involved with having a baby in the house and the lack of any scheduling abilities when it comes to planning your sleep. As we are obviously not the first set of parents to encounter this problem, advice can be found all over the place on how to address it. Sleep Right Sleep Tight is one of those sources of advice, written by Melbourne’s own Tweddle.
The book is basically a user manual for parents on how to implement the controlled crying methodology in order to teach their baby to be able to settle themselves to sleep. Once thus able, the baby is not only much easier to settle, they can also settle themselves to sleep when they wake up in the middle of the night without requiring parental help. Obviously, the greatest problem with this methodology is that it relies on the baby learning to do so the hard way – hence the name usually associated with this methodology, “controlled crying”. Being that we are living in the age of spin and euphemisms, the book refers to the methodology as “controlled comforting”, but make no mistake about it – controlled crying it is.
The book is divided into three parts: babies up to 6 months old, babies 6-12 months old, and children 1-3 years old. Having read the book I can tell you that the differences between the age groups are slight; the book therefore ends up being quite the repetitive read. Actually, this makes sense, given that the methodology is expected to work through repetition teaching the baby how to settle. Essentially, the method is all to do with settling the baby while providing as little a presence as possible so that the baby learns to go to sleep by itself; the differences stem from the babies growing ability to realize that when a parent is not there for them to see it does not mean that the parent does not exist. According to the book, babies up to 6 months old totally lack this capacity, and therefore they need to be continually comforted by the parent in ongoing iterations until they show signs of being ready to fall asleep, at which point the parent should clear the area and let them settle themselves (repeating the procedure if it fails). After 6 months controlled crying actually starts: the parent should leave the room for a couple of minutes after each 10 minutes or so of comforting, slowly increasing the away period with each iteration; and after 1 year, the away period becomes more like 10 minutes while the comforting period is more like 2 minutes.
Style wise, I have found the book to be very effective. Unlike most other parental resources SRST does its best to avoid any misinterpretations and to provide the clearest instructions possible for implementing the methodology. The result is that it’s clear but it also as exciting a read as a computer user manual; I guess such a book was never meant to be entertaining and that the authors have had to contend with aiming towards the dumbest parent around (I admit it: it worked on me).
Now, the million dollar question is whether the method works or not. Well, we have been implementing it to one extent or another, and it does seem to have a positive effect on sleeping habits; Dylan can, often enough, settle himself. But as with all methodologies spelt out in computer code like fashion, they have a hard time being implemented in real life because real life is not like a book: exact time control is hard to maintain, emotions are hard to control, and fatigue dumbs you down when the baby wakes up crying like a siren in the middle of the night. You have to be a robot to be able to execute it all by the book, but at least the book recognizes that.
Overall: Coming from a mighty Richard Dawkins book to a book like Sleep Right Sleep Tight is as anticlimactic exercise as one can have. Sleep Right Sleep Tight is not a book to enjoy reading but rather a book to make practical use of, and therefore I cannot rate it as a creation in literature nor in science. Given that I am no expert in baby sleep either, I cannot rate it on the merits of its methodology either. Therefore, I will resign to just saying I recommend this book for providing a view on how to handle baby settling issues; most parents I know have encountered severe problems in that area, and SRST seems like a good resource to reference.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

DVD: The Fountain

Lowdown: Love, death, mysticism, and all that crap.
It’s not often nowadays to stumble upon a film that feels like a total waste of time, a film where you prefer to just stop watching it in the middle but continue just in case some miraculous recovery takes place at the end. Rare, yes, but it does happen,; The Fountain is one of those lucky ones. It’s bad enough for any film, but for a film that’s classified as science fiction it’s even worse (pointing at the false logic that often sends everything that’s even slightly weird to the science fiction bin regardless of how much science there really is in there).
The Fountain’s story takes place over three different timelines. In the first and most conventional, we have Hugh Jackman portraying a scientist obsessed with finding a cure for his partner Rachel Weisz’ cancer. He does it by doing all sorts of weird experiments on non-human apes, and the plot progresses with him trying out this new bit of tree that someone has acquired from South America which causes miraculous recovery in one of his test subjects. While dying, Weisz is busy writing a book called The Fountain, which tells the story of the love of the same two characters in the second timeline: There, Weisz is the queen of Spain, pursued by the Spanish Inquisition, and Jackman is a loyal warrior of sorts sent to South America to find the secret of life. In the third and most obscure timeline, Jackman is floating in space (as in “space, the final frontier”) on board the tree of life and messes with it as he goes along.
All three stories are mixed and intertwined. In an annoying Pulp Fiction manner timelines are mixed and scenes are repeated, as if in a vain attempt to hide the severe lack of substance the film so terribly suffers from.
It is obvious that the film is about love and death, trying to say things like “love is beyond death” while trying to show how people cope with death and what death means to people. However, it makes its point, or rather tries to make its point, through the extensive use of mambo jumbo religious quotes and meaningless stuff that is very well padded with mysticism but amounts to nothing once you peel those layers off. I’ll be blunt: the film is so full of bullshit it’s bursting at the seams. Want to know about the meaning of life, love and death? By all means, read The Selfish Gene; don’t waste your time on this Fountain crap because it doesn’t say anything, at least nothing with any sort of a meaning.
The film is not just bad because of its active deployment of mysticism in its attempt to hide its lack of substance, it simply doesn’t work at the basic plot level in the first place. For Jackman to think that he can really find a cure for cancer just like that is incredibly stupid, yet the film has him managing a group of people who respect him and running an experimentation process that must cost a bundle. The queen of Spain could be saved using conventional manners before the quest for the secret of life is commenced, in order to secure the future of the quest; but no, our heroes jump over to South America leaving the queen to rot (at those times, just going there and back again would have taken ages). And what the hell is that tree doing floating in space?
Worst scene: I guess that would have to be the end, because it’s so bad I can’t even remember it three days after watching the film. What I do remember is that it further emphasized the “no point” element of the film.
Picture quality: I dare not pass judgement here, as the film is too dark to work well on an LCD based TV.
Sound quality: Ordinary plus. During some moments the director lets the sound take the lead, which is very interesting (but yet another attempt to hide that huge vacuum behind the film).
Overall: Avoid bumping into this floating tree at all costs. 0.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 16 October 2007

Film: The Motorcycle Diaries

Lowdown: What makes a man?
I don't know much about Che Guevara. What I know about the guy is mostly that he's dead and that tons of people who know even less about him than I do wear his figure as a fashion icon, totally unaware what the person who they think would make them look cool was really like. Motorcycle Diaries tries to make amends by showing us what made Guevara become the person that he ended up becoming.
To be fair to the film I have to say that we saw it on off the air TV. Due to constant interruptions, mainly due to the baby of the house, we missed bits here and there. Given that the film talks Spanish, all it took was a minor distraction for me to miss out on something. I don't know, therefore, if I'm eligible for reviewing the film, but I'll have a short go at it anyway.
Motorcycle Diaries tells the story of Che in his early twenties, which probably places it around the middle of the 20th century. As we start, he sets off on a motorcycle trip with a friend of his from his native country of Argentina across South America to its top (assuming we're using a north oriented map!). The friends start with mischief and adventure on their minds, but as they progress all sorts of hardships hit them and quickly enough the word "Motorcycle" in the title becomes redundant. They start conning people to help them, but as they meet others in trouble and as others help them out they become more and more sympathetic. You can clearly see the changes going through them, and you sort of understand how Guevara became a freedom fighter, at least according to some people's views. From a philosophical point of view, the film is basically about how life's experiences can shape a person, and how - with the right person - they can turn a "normal" guy into an idealist. I guess this lesson can be applied to anyone driven by ideals regardless of the specific ideals they're motivated by and regardless of what the viewer's opinion on these ideals is.
I have found Motorcycle Diaries to be a fairly interesting film, but I thought it was a bit over pretentious. It was hard for me to understand how Che has changed from the character we see in the film to a character that kills people for a cause (the film ends long before we get to that point in time); I don't think the film has provided adequate explanation there. Many people witness bad stuff, but only a few become Che Guevaras. Another problem is that the film seems too pretentious: it is far from objective in the way Guevara is portrayed. You watch the film and you think the guy's a saint and that you should rush off to get yourself a shirt with his face on.
Best scene: A rich company selects miners to work in its dangerous mine with total disregard to the people offering themselves to the dangerous job. Capitalism at its worst, that's one scene that could explain Guevara's communist tendencies. I don't know how true the setup is, though, just as I don't know how much fact is behind the rest of the film. That said, the scenario does not look that unlikely; it is repeated on a regular basis in modern day Australia, for a start.
Overall: A fairly interesting film that is worth some attention but not that much of it. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 15 October 2007

DVD: Spider-Man 3

Lowdown: The biggest enemy is the bad side inside us all. Or something like that.
Aside of being a rare case of a sequel being better than the original, Spider-Man 2 was, I can safely say, by far the best superhero film I have ever watched. Not that I am an expert or a superhero fan; I just thought it did a good job portraying the tormented hero. Obviously, this puts a heavy burden on Spider-Man 3. So heavy the burden is that episode 3 simply cracks under the pressure. Not that it's a bad film; I actually liked it.
This time around, we start with a spider-man whose success is taken for granted: he's popular and he has his girl by his side. Alas, by weird chance, the type of chance that can only happen in stupid films, three things happen at the same time: his old friend that turned on him for killing his father in episode 1 loses his memory and becomes Spider-Man's friend again - but for how long?; then you got this special goo that falls from the sky directly on Spider-Man and turns him into an even more powerful superhero but a dark one at that; and then you find out that the person who killed Spider-Man's uncle in episode 1 was not the person we thought he was but rather someone else, and that someone else just happens to stumble into a weird experiment which turns him into a sand made superhero (don't ask).
Spider-Man 3 pits our favorite superhero against all of these issues at the same time, which poses a few problems. First, there's the issue of extreme coincidences; they are just too extreme here: The goo falls on Spider-Man, of all people. The sandman superhero just happens to be Spider-Man uncle's killer. And the lady competing for Spider-Man's heart happens to study with Spider-Man (in his day job as Peter Parker), happens to be the daughter of the grateful police chief who organizes a city parade for Spider-Man when she's saved, and happens to be the girlfriend of a competing photographer for the Daily Bugle who just happens to catch Spider-Man in a bad moment. I can understand a world in which superheros exist, but so many coincidences in such a pivotal position for the film are a tough stretch.
Then there's the problem of cramming too many subplots into one film, which just means the film loses its plot. I can understand where the director is coming from: through repetition, he wants to show that the biggest enemy of good is the bad side within and that forgiveness and understanding are the key for a happy life. But as good as his intention is, it just doesn't work that well. The scenes in which Spider-Man turns bad under the goo's influence are too much on the stupid side of things, looking more like scenes from Saturday Night Fever and obviously interrupting the suspension of disbelief. They are funny though - my choice for the most memorable scenes in the film.
A film like Spider-Man is not meant to be a thinking person's film, even if that is what sets the series apart from its superhero genre competition. What should have taken the lead are the great action sequences, and indeed they are great. It is a pity, though, that they rely so much on CGI they look more like cartoons; it just doesn't cut it anymore, and I'm tired of this arms race for creating the best computerized animation around.
Still, with all of its problems, Spider-Man 3 is a decent superhero film that delivers a good point and some high octane action scenes. With the stupidly executed "bad side" scenes, it is also some sort of a weird comedy.
Best scene: Peter Parker tries to propose to his girl in a French restaurant. The scene is so foolishly done and so full of French cliches I had to like it.
Picture quality: Very good, with very minor issues of color inconsistencies.
Sound quality: Excellent. In addition to being a tight sound effects laden film, the music is very well recorded here. The jazz club scenes' music is so well recorded you could have mistaken it for a proper live music recording as opposed to a compressed, heavily mixed movie soundtrack.
Overall: I liked it despite its deficiencies. 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 14 October 2007

DVD: Charlotte's Web

Lowdown: An anemic Babe.
Some 12 years ago, the story of a piglet called Babe knocked me out. I rented it on laserdisc expecting a mushy kids' film but instead I have found myself crying tears of joy, truly moved by the film. Therefore, when I have heard that there's a new pig in town, Charlotte's Web, I looked forward to watching it.
Like Babe, Charlotte's Web is a film where humans play only a secondary role. The chief human protagonist is that kid that pops up in every second film, Dakota Fanning. She catches her father as he is about to kill a baby pig and comes to the pig's rescue. Through the attention she bestows on the pig the pig becomes quite the character, so when he’s put in an animal farm full of a variety of other animals living in close contact with one another (how realistic is that?) he becomes friends with everyone.
Quickly enough the film's attention focuses on the young pig's chances of making it till after Christmas. Needless to say, being that this is an American film aimed at kids, the answer is pretty obvious; the question is how the pig's spared. Well, in Charlotte's Web's case, it comes down to help from Charlotte: an ugly spider voiced by Julia Roberts who finds a friend in the pig, the only character who would give her a break. Using her web she writes nice things in English about the pig, which make the humans realize just how unique the piglet is (lucky for the pig she wasn't a French speaking spider). And that's pretty much it for the film.
As my plot summary might have conveyed, Charlotte's Web's plot is pretty anemic. There's nothing terribly exciting and nothing terribly surprising about it, and the story is basically a repeat of most of what the original Babe has already provided.
The animals in the farm are shot in realistic style and even their speech looks authentic. Some major voice talents are used on them, including people like Robert Redford whom you would not expect to find in a film like Charlotte's; however, it cannot be said that these stars' presence is truly felt. This is not a Robin Williams doing Aladdin; they could have taken people off the street to achieve the same effect.
Best scene: The gag reel on the DVD includes a bit where the actors find themselves fighting with flies, unable to act their scene. Obvious proof the film really was shot in Melbourne, not that far from where Babe was shot.
More seriously, though, there's a scene at the film's start where immediately after Minnesota pleas her father to save the pig there is a cut and the camera focuses on the strips of bacon on Fanning's breakfast plate. This is the only true wise wink the film provides, though.
Overall: Charlotte's Web failed to stir me. It isn't boring and there are a few good jokes, but it is nothing to call home about. The story has its morals and they're OK, I guess, in that eternally patronizing Disney spirit, but I suspect that today's kids want higher octane films.
2 out of 5 stars; your time will be better spent re-watching Babe.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Book: The Ancestor's Tale by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: The bible the way it should have been written.
Ancestor’s Tale is one of those books that you buy in order to look at. Its premises is exciting: the cover tells you it is a pilgrimage to the dawn of life; books don’t come more promising than that. However, given the book’s most obvious attribute – its thickness - it is more likely to stay on the shelf and handle the duties such as “look how smart I am given the books that I own” when guests come around. I am therefore proud to say I didn’t take the bait: let the record say that I read Ancestor’s Tale cover to cover and that I am grateful for doing so, because there aren’t many books around from which you can learn more; certainly not many that are so well written.
The idea behind Ancestor’s Tale is simple. Modeled after Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it is a story of a pilgrim on his way to Canterbury as he meets other people making their way there. There are slight differences, though: the pilgrims are us, modern day homo sapience, and instead of Canterbury we’re going back through evolution to the fundamental evolutionary unit that started all living things. On our way to this new Canterbury, which is basically a journey back through time, we keep on encountering existing species with which we share common ancestors (referred to throughout the book as “concestors”). Thus, as we set of on our journey, we encounter the chimpanzee pilgrim’s concenstor some 6 million years ago, followed by the gorilla pilgrim, followed by the rest of the apes, then monkeys, then fellow mammals, then lizards and such, fish of sorts, starfish, insects, plants, amoebas, bacteria – basically, all living things on earth – and up until that primary unit of evolution. Most people, even those that accept evolution, don’t think of it this way but we actually do share common ancestors with every other living being on the planet; it is quite surprising to learn just how not that far long ago the human with whom all currently living humans are related to lived, and it is also fascinating to think that something like your 300 millionth grandfather is also the 500 millionth grandfather of your pet snake Reggie (don't take my word for the actual numbers there; I was being figurative). It is also interesting to see that during this voyage of billions of years we encounter just 40 such concestors, which sort of puts us humans in perspective as to how grandiose we really are.
Throughout this pilgrimage Dawkins tells us stories about the concestors we meet. The stories vary significantly in nature and I was surprised to see just how interesting they were; you sort of think “OK, what can I learn from an amoeba”, but the answer turns out to be “quite a lot”. And as you read through the stories you sort of say to yourself “OK, now that we’ve covered this fascinating topic, surely Dawkins has no more interesting stuff up his sleeve to discuss during the next 500 pages”; but again, you’ll be wrong: Dawkins, and you might say evolution, are not exactly short in the fascination department. Overall, the stories cover issues such as the tools available for us to know who came in when in the grand evolutionary scheme and who has developed from what, stories with insight on human nature – as in things that we can observe in animals that shed light on us (I would say these are the most interesting), stories on life and evolution in general, and much more. Specific examples include things like why humans are bipedal, how did humans lose their body hair, racism, why are our bodies symmetric, how do different cells in our bodies know whether to become heart tissue or skin tissue, and much – and I do mean much – more.
Given that Ancestor’s Tale was written by Richard Dawkins you can trust it to be very well written, flowing, and full of Dawkins humor (e.g., his reference to Windows compatible computers as “virus compatible computers"). And given that it’s Dawkins we’re talking about here, you can also trust that issues will be presented in an interesting way and that as complex as the subject matter is the reading would still be a pleasure ride.
Then we come to the “buts”. By far the biggest but of it all with Ancestor’s Tale is its size. Given the premises I don’t think Dawkins had much of a choice, but as it is by the time we reach the smaller life forms around too many special long words pop up and the reading just borders the tedious side of things. It’s still fun, but you want to get to Canterbury, and let’s face it – hippos are much more interesting than bacteria that behaves like hair.
Still, Ancestor’s Tale is a mighty achievement. Educational and thought provoking, but also a major achievement in documenting history as we know it; I will gladly argue that Ancestor’s Tale represents the bible story the way it should have been told, because if people were to read it then a lot of the bible nonsense that encumbers us today would just fade away into redundancy. The comparison with the bible is not just random, as both books attempt to tell us where we should be heading for given where it is that we came from. However, the reality exposed by Ancestor’s Tale is much richer and way more fascinating than the petty stories of the bible; and the recognition of that, the richness of life around us, is – by far – the book’s biggest achievement.
Overall: What score can do justice to such a comprehensive effort? I don’t pretend to know. I can flatter its epic nature and the surprisingly gripping stories by giving it 5 stars or I can punish its intimidating length by giving it only 4 stars. So I’d settle for 4.5 out of 5 stars, while noting that regardless of the score Ancestor’s Tale joins The Selfish Gene as a book that is not only a must read but also something that represents my state of mind.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Film: Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato - In the Name of Love

Lowdown: A Japanese take on the Star Blazers’ Comet Empire story.
Back when I was about 10 years old, Star Blazers was all the rage. The 10 minute broadcast of half chapters on Monday and Thursday afternoon were all me and my compatriots at the time were talking and dreaming of.
Essentially a Japanese manga animation series, Star Blazers had two series-es that were broadcast on air in ancient Israel. Both told the story of the crew of the spaceship Argo, some 250 years into the future, as they fight evil villains wanting to take over the earth. The first series involved the planet Gamelon, led by Deslok, bombarding earth and killing it slowly after destroying the entire earth fleet; but then the Argo is found, and it flies across space for a year while defying all Gamelonian opposition to get the cure for earth’s problems. The second series featured the Argo a year later, when a new threat is there to enslave or annihilate the earth: Comet Empire. Again, it was the Argo that stood in its wake.
All of the above exposition is basically there to say that Farewell to Space Battleship Yamato – In the Name of Love (from henceforth: FSBY) is basically a new take on that second Star Blazers series. Essentially, it is like a director’s cut of the fight against Comet Empire. Having recently re-watched the entire Comet Empire series, I find that it is the differences between the two takes on the same story that I find most intriguing.
The two most obvious differences are the length and the language. The TV series I grew up on had around 20 episodes, each a bit longer than 20 minutes; the FSBY film is a bit longer than 2 hours. While a lot of overheads are cut with the lack of need to recount the happenings of the previous episode and the removal of the annoying narrator asking us if our heroes will make it to the next episode, there is an obvious dire need to get a move on with the plot. Indeed, if you do not know the characters or the setup look no further, because you won’t have a clue as to what is going on here (or you might have some because it’s not rocket science, but it won’t be the same).
The second major difference between the TV series and the film is the language. While the TV series helped me learn my first words in English and featured heroes such as Derek Wildstar, Mark Venture and Nova, the FSBY film speaks Japanese with subtitles; Wildstar is now Kudai and Nova has been demoted to become Yuki. Plus, every voice now sounds the same (with the slight exception of Yuki).
Thing is, it’s not only the language that has changed between the versions. It’s also the culture; I am left to wonder whether the TV series from my childhood days is but an Americanized version of the Japanese version. Let me now explain why this seems to be the case.
The first item on the agenda is nudity. In the West, nudity and animation don’t go together; animation is kids’ domain. Not so in Japan, where nudity is rife within the realm on the manga. It’s not like FSBY is pornographic, it’s just that certain female characters that used to have clothes on in the TV series lose their clothes in FSBY.
Then there are the plot differences between the two versions. In FSBY, people die left and right; people from the “good” side; central characters. In fact, most of the cast does not make it through the film. The ending is also severely different: FSBY ends in a rather poetic / lyrical way, not your average happy ending from the TV series.
All of these slight differences lead to one conclusion that explains exactly why I have spent so many words comparing a TV series to a film without really reviewing the film: It is the cultural differences between the American minded TV series and the Japanese oriented film that I find the most interesting to take from the film. Sometimes these differences are obvious, as in the case of handling nudity, while other times they could slip under the carpet. It took those big differences for me to realize that the way the different characters were operating was all about being Japanese: the obedience and the reverence to the leader, the way orders are carried through and through, and the kamikaze like way in which some of the characters end their career in the film. If there is anything I took out of watching FSBY, it is those cultural differences; the fact I wouldn’t have noticed them without watching the TV series first is the reason why I went to such great lengths in discussing them.
But now let us talk about FSBY as a film by its own rights. Well, what can I say? It is not the perfect film ever, even if the plot is very thrilling (if space battles such as sneak attacks by space submarines do it for you; they certainly do it for me) and the whole setup is full of imagination (e.g., space submarines). For a start, the film doesn’t really stand on its own; it is in such a hurry to progress the thick plot that characters are very underdeveloped.
Second, the film follows the series so closely, that events which took place in the series and lose their meaning in the context of the film due to the slight plot alterations are still very much in the film. This doesn’t only sound stupid, it is very stupid! Add to that some severe continuity issues, like the Argo getting torn apart in one scene only to go into battle with guns a-blazing in the next scene, and you have quite a problematic film on your hands. As a child I couldn’t care less about such things, but now I find them to be a pain.
The animation is obviously pre-Pixar quality. For a start, movement is very juddery instead of the smooth standards we’re used to today. However, the most obvious shortcut is the use of one still image with the camera panning across it for a while, creating the illusion of movement when the only movement is that of the camera itself. If there is some movement, it is usually in the fashion of one foreground drawing moving across a background drawing. While it may sound as if I’m mocking the animation here I’m actually trying to do the opposite: I find it amazing how effective and seemingly rich the animation can be while still using such simple techniques.
Overall, I have to say FSBY is a rather lackluster film; it is the plot that saves the day to make it an entertaining film to watch. In addition, the direction of the film – given all the above mentioned issues – is simply superb, with some of the key scenes being of true high impact.
Best scene: The standoff between Wildstar and the previously defeated Deslok would not have felt out of place in films like High Noon. It is very well done indeed.
Overall: It is very hard for me to rate anything to do with Star Blazers objectively as this is the stuff my childhood was all about. By my current standards FSBY is a very flawed film, yet with all the observations mentioned in the review I really enjoyed watching it in this day and age. Call it a very personal 3 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

DVD's: Lord of the Rings - Special Editions

Lowdown: Simply the best.
Not really a review:
To celebrate the arrival of our new speakers, which have already been deployed even though the surrounds are yet to be fixed and the front are yet to be bi-wired, we’ve decided to go for the best sounding movies at our disposal: the three Lord of the Rings Special Edition DVD’s. While noting that it felt strange to watch DVD’s that we own rather than rent for a change (taking them out of the shelf and putting them back in felt really strange), I will add an important note: as good as the sound in the three Lord of the Rings films is with their surround sound and all, fidelity and overall sound quality are very poor cousins to a well recorded audiophile recording. The reasons for that are mainly to do with movie sound being mostly artificial and the large number of tracks getting mixed together during the creation of a movie soundtrack, complimented by the fact that both Dolby Digital and DTS soundtracks available on the special edition DVD’s are heavily compressed (as they are on all DVD’s).
At this point I would like to make one point very clear: this post does not represent an attempt to review the three films. By now I have seen them so many times that a review would be a rather futile way of wasting time. What I will do here is share some anecdotes about the films.
Let’s start in the beginning: Fellowship of the Ring. The funny thing about this film is that while this is my least favorite book of the trilogy, the film version is my favorite of the three films. It’s hard for me to say why: Maybe it is because it’s the first film of the lot so it opened new grounds. Or maybe it is the innocence that dominates the first film: the shire scenes, the party… I do suspect it is mostly to do with the film’s themes, which are significantly different to the ones that seem to dominate Two Towers and Return of the King. Or perhaps I like it because Jackson managed to take the boring tedious stuff out of the book, the stuff that makes it an ordeal to start reading the trilogy (although as of the end of Fellowship and all the way to the end of King the reading is very flowing): the early setup in the Shire, while severely reduced, is entertainingly flowing; and the redundant Tom Bombadil was retired, too.
By the way, the scene in which Frodo is healed after being stabbed at Weathertop, and the following horse chase scene, are the ones I used most regularly to test projectors with: they offer quite a large mix of elements to test an image with, most noticeably dark, bright and intermediate scenes.
Two Towers is a good film, but it is a film I always remember as a film that disappointed me, too. The disappointment is mainly caused by what I consider to be some severe parting of ways from the book. Now, it’s important for me to make one point very clear: I do not think that straying from the original book when creating the film version is necessarily a bad thing; film is a different media to books, and in order for it to work things have to be changed. What I don’t like, though, is the way the straying was done: I do not think that turning Gimli into a comic relief character improves the film; I think it makes it feel like your usual Hollywood corny production rather than the glorious film Two Towers is, in general.
There is more to my problems than Gimili, but the point has been made. When I will direct my own version of Lord of the Rings I am sure I will do a much better and loyal job than Peter Jackson has done; the only thing that stops me from doing right now so is the issue of copyrights, of course.
Return of the King is traditionally the book I like the most in the trilogy, but the film has raised a bit of a mixed reaction. When I saw the original version at the cinema I couldn’t contain myself from pronouncing that if this has been as good as it was then the special edition just has to be the best film ever. I was wrong, though.
The main problem I have found with the original version was in the Frodo/Sam story. It just felt as if after the Shelob encounter they had this big dash and found themselves on top of Mount Doom; it was too straightforward. This was very well addressed by the special edition, which added depth (and misery) to the trip through Mordor on the way to the mountain. However, this extra depth came at a price: yes, you do get a nice end to the Saruman story, but the beginning of the film becomes too tedious. The film finds it hard to take off; and lift-off is only achieved an hour and a half through, by the time Minas Tirith is put under siege. Another added scene, showing Merry riding his pony next to all the Rohinians is simply badly made, with the special effects obviously not on par with the rest of the film.
While criticizing Return of the King, let us not forget the truly silly theme of “death is just the beginning” that threatens to dominate the siege scenes. I don’t know why Jackson bothered with this bullshit that, to the best of my memory, is absent from the book.
Criticism aside, the Lord of the Rings trilogy certainly qualifies as one of the best cinematic experiences I have ever had. Its effects are pretty obvious: Driving to the shopping mall just after we finished watching Return of the King, we were deliberating whether to take the short path through Highett and risk the wrath of the Frankston line boom gate or whether we should take the long way around the mighty forest (or rather, small park). A couple of days later, Jo was inspired to start reading the Lord of the Ringses trilogy again.
Best scene: There’s no one really good scene that stands on top of all others. Sound wise, I like the scene of the run down the Moria mines’ bridge the most. It provides an intense experience and it is accompanied by a deep voiced choir chanting “doom, doom” in a way that knocks you off the sofa.
Picture quality: This was actually the first time we have watched the trilogy on our big screen TV, and the experience was mesmerizing; the type of thing that makes the purchase and the careful calibration of the TV worthwhile. Obviously, a lot of work was done on these DVD’s to reduce digital artifacts. One thing you do notice, though, is the artificial coloring that sets the theme for every different location on Middle Earth; I can see where Peter Jackson is coming from with this, but I cannot say I agree with this approach that I find too distracting.
Sound quality: It’s hard for me to judge the sound because I am lacking in references, having just substantially altered my sound system. That said, there can be no doubt this (or should I say “these”?) is one of the best soundtracks around, both in the music and the sound effects. From previous experience I can say that in my opinion the main opposition that gives Lord of the Rings a run for its money in the sound department comes from Saving Private Ryan and especially from that initial landing scene. Not much music in there, but the realism and the intensity are second to none.
Back to Lord of the Rings, dialog does suffer from time to time, as in it sounding a bit detached; probably the result of an ADR overdose. And as good as the soundtrack can be it is not perfect: a good sound system will reveal bugs here and there. But yes, I am being picky now.
Overall: While each of the three films can be scored on a zero to five stars scale, and while all three would score at or near the top of that scale, I will not attempt to do so here; even when judged on their own, but especially when put together as one long movie experience, the three transcend any scale I can judge a film by. Overall, though, I will say that the special editions do a much better “transcension” work than their original brethren.
To use the terms I have used before in this blog, this trilogy is 6 out of 5 stars material.