Sunday, 30 December 2007

DVD: Stranger Than Fiction

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

Thursday, 27 December 2007

DVD: Die Hard 4.0

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

Friday, 21 December 2007

DVD: U2 - Rattle and Hum

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

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

DVD: Flushed Away

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

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

DVD: The Princess Bride

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

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Film: Loser Takes All!

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

Friday, 7 December 2007

Film: Coffee and Cigarettes

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

Film: Jabberwocky

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

Sunday, 2 December 2007

DVD: Cream Live at the Royal Albert Hall 2005

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

Saturday, 1 December 2007

DVD: Crank

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