Friday, 29 February 2008

DVD: Wag the Dog

Lowdown: A spin king invents a war to secure a president’s re-election.
Having recently watched Man of the Year, the time was right for us to watch its senior brother, Wag the Dog – especially as both of us haven’t seen it but certainly heard enough about it to justify dedicating an hour and a half of our previous time (it’s a short film).
The story follows events taking place during the last two weeks prior to an American presidential election. The king, or rather the reigning president, is caught with his pants down, literally, and with a rather youngish girl in the vicinity. Actually, we never really know what took place there, we only know what the media makes of it. With a genuine risk for his re-election chances, the president brings in a specialist – Robert De Nero – to help salvage his image.
Within a few minutes De Nero has a solution in mind: invent an Albanian threat, and then wage war on Albania. The rest of the film follows how this war is communicated to the American public, mainly with the help of a bitter Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman in yet another excellent performance) who stages the production and comes up with a collection of made up news items, songs and memes to support the war policy.
As the film progresses it stretches the concept of spin further and further. Normally, spin is about the way news is presented; in Wag the Dog, spin takes giant leaps up the ladder when it turns into presenting invented news in order to distract from the real news. Eventually, spin becomes reality, and reality is so harsh that lives are lost because of it.
Director’s Barry Levinson’s point about spin is really well delivered. The film references the 1991 Gulf War quite a lot, and on the DVD supplementals they talk about the Monica Lewinsky affair, but there are much better examples for reality following film than the above. In Australia John Howard supplied us with such examples by the pound, with the children overboard and the AWB scandal being the easiest examples I can bring up with half a second’s notice. Then there’s the entire affair that is commonly referred to as “the war on terror”, including its sub-branch “the war in Iraq”, which is pretty much a collection of made up spin items in order to ensure certain powerful people maintain their power.
Still, Wag the Dog is far from being faultless. Its main problem is with credibility: there are just that many lies that can be invented using so many people without something leaking out to the outside world, especially when a war is waged based on those lies. Kirsten Dunst, for example, plays an innocent actress who was used as an Albanian refugee for a made up news item; even though she had to sign a non disclosure agreement, didn’t her parents recognize her on TV?
Then there is the matter of government agencies, the Secret Service in Wag the Dog’s case, committing murder for their president. I know they’re the president’s employees and all, but come on – are they recruited on the basis of their Hitler’s Youth skills?
Last in the list of bonkers is Anne Heche’s performance. Next to De Nero and Hoffman the token female lead stands out like a grade Z actress.
Best scene: The film’s last scene. After all is over and done with (that is, after the elections are over), a genuine Albanian terrorist threat pops up in a minor newsflash. Given the USA’s experience so far with foreign intervention, nothing seems more likely.
Picture quality: For an older film like Wag the Dog (1997) and an older issue DVD, I was surprised with how good the picture was.
Sound quality: Pretty ordinary (what an abuse of the word "pretty"!).
Overall: An important film that manages to fail just enough to miss out on being a potential landmark of a film. I’ll be generous and give it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

DVD: Superbad

Lowdown: Socially challenged teenagers trying to score through the acquisition of alcohol.
I admit it. There is not that much I have to say about Superbad: I've rented it because I've heard it's a funny film and a good one at that; after watching it my opinion is that it is, indeed, a funny film - albeit not that funny. I also suspect that you need to be about half my age to think about it in terms of "wow, what a good film Superbad is", because to me it felt like a slightly better version of American Pie: Silly comedy about useless teenagers trying to score which will make you laugh, but is, overall, pretty silly.
The story features two main teenage characters. One is Seth, who dreams about sex wherever and whenever he is; the other is Evan, who is more of a softish kind of a fellow. They're as close as friends can be, but now they are about to graduate high school and go their separate ways to different colleges. Other than that, they're both socially inept and totally obsessed with scoring: Seth with anyone who looks like she came out of a porn magazine, while Evan has his mind on a teenage friend.
As the film starts we learn that an even geekier friend of theirs, Fogell, is about to acquire a fake ID that will allow him to put his hands on some alcohol. Seth and Evan immediately start spreading promises to bring over alcohol to a party featuring their kind of chicks, and from there onwards the film follows their adventures as the acquisition of alcohol turns out to be much harder than anyone could have imagined (other than the sick minds who wrote the script). The bulk of the movie and the bulk of the jokes are in that section of the film, and a lot of it revolves around Fogell's encounter with a couple of rather useless cops.
The element that differentiates Superbad from your average American Pie sequel is that Superbad features a built in redemption. At the risk of spoiling the film for you (not), Seth and Evan learn that alcohol won't get them laid or make them happy and that their friendship is the most important thing for them. Thing is, that side of the film is so well camouflaged by the alcohol acquisition silly journey bit that it becomes irrelevant and quite unnoticeable; it's not what you'll remember Superbad for. Superbad is a film you remember for the laughs you'd get after Seth finds himself in a mess when a party he invades to steal alcohol from ends up in a brawl after he has a very close dance with the host's fiance and finds a blood stain on his pants (the result of a time-of-the-month thing). That's what Superbad is about.
Talking about that particular scene, I have to say that I was surprised at how much I found myself identifying with Superbad's heroes. Not that I was ever a maniac like them; I was, however, just as socially successful, and like them I often found comfort hanging out in the company of my peers. Call it the brotherhood of the geeks if you like.
Best scene: Fogell's fake ID is an Hawaiian organ donor card under the name of McLovin. Every time he waved the card or had himself referred to as McLovin I found myself laughing, especially when the cops took it for real.
Picture quality: Low level of detail, washed up colors.
Sound quality: As ordinary as a film can get.
Overall: Not my type of film, even though it made me laugh. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 22 February 2008

DVD: Man of the Year

Lowdown: An honest man gets elected as the president of the USA.
Acclaimed director Barry Levinson of Rain Man fame seems to have developed a taste for the political comedy. With Wag the Dog under his belt, he moved on to make Man of the Year. This year, Man of the Year becomes more relevant than ever with the USA currently going through an election campaign aimed at replacing what most of the rest of the world regards as the worst American president they ever had the pleasure of knowing. I suspect the feeling is shared by many Americans, too, which makes the questions asked by Man of the Year about the political process producing a president and the mechanisms behind it all very relevant.
We have on our hands a guy called Obama who talks about change this and change that, but while I admit I am very ignorant in the way of American politics I am very much unable to identify any significant differences between him and his competitors. As in, change what? While my ignorance prevents me from being able to draw conclusions, my leading theory is that said Obama is mostly full of hot air.
This gets us to Robin Williams and the comedian TV talk show host he portrays in Man of the Year. Elections are coming up and an audience member tells him he should be running as he would be the only credible candidate; quickly enough, he realizes that maybe he should. His ticket is honesty, openness and transparency while not accepting any campaign money from anyone, and quickly enough he becomes the leading independent candidate. Guess what? Quickly enough he also becomes the next American president. The world is about to change!
Not that quickly, though. In a separate plot line we have Laura Linney as a software developer working for the company that does the software counting people’s votes. Linney discovers this bug that won Williams the elections even though he was far from winning a majority of votes. This Linney bit of the film feels more than a bit out of place with the Williams bit: For a start it’s a thriller as opposed to a comedy, focusing on how the software company wants to get rid of Linney using all sorts of nasty ways in order to avoid the imminent collapse. And second, while the Williams plot line is thought provoking and fresh, the Linney line is often stupid. For example, the bug that reshaped the election results is so stupid even Microsoft would have been able to identify it in time; there’s no doubt the filmmakers chose something that could be easily digested by non geek viewers, but they erred way too much and ruined the credibility of their film in the process. It would have been better not to tell us what the bug was in the first place.
Eventually the Williams and Linney plots unite, and then the question becomes – well, what’s next? Should the USA continue with the wrong president just because this president seems to actually offer some fresh ideas? Will the new president be in any way able to implement these new ideas? And most of all, what do all the rest of the people think about having a president elected on the basis of a minority vote.
All in all, lots of good questions about political systems are asked in Man of the Year, questions which are relevant to probably all democracies and not just the USA. And I agree, most of these questions do expose the king of democracy in his full nakedness. Still, as revealing as the film can be, it is what my mother would describe as “Parve”. That is, it is too neutral for its own good, too afraid to take a dive and commit to anything. It raises interesting questions but it only goes skin deep, reverting quickly to shallow answers instead of daring to go where no Hollywood made film has gone before. Especially with its very disappointing ending, you get the feeling that Levinson is quickly trying to mop up after himself in order to avoid being too outrageous and actually hurt some politician’s soul by accident.
Best scene: Williams takes part in a pre-election debate with the two main parties’ candidates and breaks debate rules to expose how the main candidates are puppets of the organizations supporting their election campaigns. Not that it exposes some top secrets, everyone should be able to see that Bush is a puppet of the oil companies, but it’s a funny scene and if it would make some people in the general public actually take notice of the fact their president is a puppet of companies with rather immoral agendas then the film has served its purpose.
Picture quality: Lots of noise, but that’s paled by disastrous color rendition making everything looks yellowish.
Sound quality: Nothing special.
Overall: A good idea that fails to take the extra step. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

DVD: Happy Feet

Lowdown: The story of a dancing penguin in a world of singing penguins.
George Miller has directed many films in his life, but I think it is safe to say he will mostly be remembered for directing the Mad Max trilogy. Lately, however, he seems to be focusing on more child oriented work, and the guy who delivered the excellent Road Warrior certainly proved his worth with Babe (even though the sequel was less worthy). Happy Feet is another story though, and despite the hype caused by the Australian-ness of the filmmaker and much of its cast I have to say I didn’t like it in the least.
Happy Feet is yet another computer graphics children’s film that follows most of the conventions set by the genre’s predecessors. The story takes place in a colony of emperor penguins, where apparently each penguin has a “heartsong” that serves to find a mate of the opposite sex (always the opposite sex) by finding someone with a matching song. So, to this couple of penguin lovers, the Australians Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman, a baby penguin is born (the un-Australian Elijah Wood). Alas, because his father dropped the egg earlier on, Wood is born defective: he can’t sing. He can, however, dance, yet no one seems interested in this quality. Wood is cast aside as an outsider while the film goes on to thump the message of “accept the stranger” into our heads using the same subtle qualities the Creation Museum uses to promote its agendas.
Wood is cast aside from the rest of the clan but finds the company of a different species of penguins, who happen to speak English with a Mexican accent (and are led by a penguin voiced by Robin Williams, who overall does many voices in Happy Feet). They treat him like an equal, once again emphasizing the “accept the stranger” motif.
When Wood goes back to his clan and has a go at spreading dancing happiness, he finds himself portrayed as a criminal by the clan elders for driving all the fish away with his dancing and leaving his tribe with no food. At this point the film diverts slightly from the previously developed “accept the stranger” motif into something of the likes of “open your mind to the nonconformist” by portraying the elders to be blinded by their religious faiths; it is Wood that tells them the truth, that the fish are being taken away not by their gods but rather by outwardly aliens. The rest of the film then sends Wood on a quest to prove his claim, and the rest of the film becomes the story of how a dancing penguin saves his clan from ecological disaster by dancing before humans. Needless to say, the solution is as contrived and as senseless as the rest of the film.
Happy Feet suffers from a multitude of problems other than the ones already hinted at. First, for a film that pretends to have some scientific basis (and is busy mocking the not scientific), Happy Feet goes way wrong with its portrayal of penguin loyalty. True, a pair of emperor penguins will be loyal to one another, but their loyalty breaks apart after their baby matures and the next year they will seek other partners.
Second, the film is, in many respects, a musical. On its own that’s already pretty bad, but the main problem is that the songs it plays – familiar rock/pop classic standards – have all been redone by contemporary artists with the result being they all sound the same. Thus instead of the music livening up the film I was looking for the remote to fast forward or lower the volume.
Third, while the film is full of Australian talent and some Australian aspects are emphasized – as with certain animals encountered during Wood’s quest featuring very Aussie accents – the film is very much focused on the American market. All the typical pop culture references that films of Happy Feet’s genre tend to be full of (sadly; Ratatouille was the exception) are USA related, and when Wood is caught by humans and gets taken away from his natural habitat he find himself in… the USA. I guess the filmmaker’s business case was well established and they knew where their money would be coming from, but this artificial orientation made me want to puke.
And fourth (I’ll stick with just four), what were the filmmakers trying to achieve with some of the characters? There’s this Lovelace penguin (voiced by Robin Williams) character who is supposed to be like this smart village elder but talks in slogans and generally doesn’t make much sense, yet it’s clear the film wants to portray him in a positive light for reasons that elude me. It also feels inconsistent with the film’s general antagonism towards religion.
Worst scene: The thing about Happy Feet is that it’s all so made to a formula that no scene stands out as particularly mesmerizing or particularly bad. If pressed, I will nominate the choreographed underwater penguin swim scene for the title of “worst”, mainly because it broke new records of artificiality.
Picture quality: For some reason, all these computer animation films look good.
Sound quality: Quite good, directional dialog and all, but far from inspiring.
Overall: Just like manufactured food, Happy Feet feels processed, is tasteless, and overall it will harm you. I see it as a shame that Happy Feet is a film many expect to inspire our children. Commercialized to the Nth degree, this 1.5 out of 5 stars film requires viewers to bring a barf bag along.

Saturday, 16 February 2008

DVD: Family Guy Presents Blue Harvest

Lowdown: Family Guy takes on Star Wars.
To be honest, the biggest deliberation I've had with Blue Harvest is whether it deserves a review or not. On one hand, it's just a 45 minute double episode from the Family Guy series that's been packaged into a DVD. On the other, it does have a lot of good things standing for it, including a very well prepared DVD and, let's not beat around the bush, some hilariously funny loud laughs filled 45 minutes.
The plot starts with the family watching TV when suddenly there's a power failure. The solution for passing the time is to retell the story of the original Star Wars film in the Family Guy way, which means that it covers the plot, roughly, and adds a sarcastic take on each of the key scenes it picked up on. Needless to say, the Star Wars characters are reenacted by Family Guy characters, with the highlight being Stewie's portrayal of Darth Vader.
One thing I am unable to explain, though, is the choice of name. What does Blue Harvest mean?
Best scene: There are many contenders here. Jo's favorite is the one featuring the musicians in the Moss Eisley bar pretending to take requests from the crowd but always opting to continue playing the same tune; my favorite was the argument between the gunners on board of the imperial cruiser ordered not to fire at the escape pod R2D2 and C3PO are in because there are no lifeforms on it and because they are now budgeted by the laser.
Picture quality: There's not much that could go wrong here, really, with the type of animation Family Guy goes with. That said, some of the space scenes look remarkably like the original, making me wonder whether the Family Guy crew actually used the originals there (they certainly had Lucas' cooperation; he is appearing in the DVD supplementals). Other than that, the only grip I have with the picture is the aspect ration of 1.33:1; aren't we on widescreen now?
Sound quality: With a full on 5.1 sound, the sound here is pretty good. Much better than everything else originating from a TV show I know of, but then again we hardly ever watch TV through the full blown hi fi system.
Overall: Let's take things in context here; this is just a TV episode thing. However, it's a good one, as good as they get. It's the best take on Star Wars I'm familiar with and it shows how movie parodies should be done. The fact Family Guy picked on the original Star Wars and not on the sick newer episodes also says something about where the makers came from.
5 out of 5 stars - no Star Wars fan should miss this one!

Wednesday, 13 February 2008

DVD: Stardust

Lowdown: Prince's Bride.
I first encountered Stardust when Uri gave the Neil Gaiman book to Jo for her birthday. The book comes up in conversation from time to time, as Jo claims it is the best of the books Uri ever gave her (and that's saying a lot). As for me, I am yet to read the book and up until now I didn't see myself reading it any time soon; my experience with Gaiman so far has been less than favorable, and my attitude has been that given the limited time I have for reading I want to make every book count. That is, I want to read books I can take a lot from, and frankly it seems as if a Gaiman book is vastly outmaneuvered in this department by, say, a Carl Sagan book.
Needless to say, that perspective of mine is flawed. Not that I ever presented myself to be anything other than an inherently flawed person, but even I should know there is much more to take from a book than just mere facts. There is more to literature than meets the eye, I guess.
With films, however, the problem does not exist: films are much easier to digest than books and demand much less time. And thus when Stardust presented itself I took the opportunity to get into it; and I'm glad I did, because Stardust is one hell of a film.
Stardust's story is quite complicated, reminding me of Princess Bride with diluted cynicism. It takes place, sort of, in 19th century England, in a town called Wall that features a wall. One day a curious inhabitant decides to go and see what lies behind the wall and finds himself in a world of swords and sorcery. He adventures there for a while and then returns home, only to receive a young baby at his doorstep 9 months later. Years pass by and the baby is a guy totally unaware of his origins but in love with this girl who doesn't even look in his general direction.
At the same time, the swords and sorcery world world is having a fight for its throne between the sons of the world's newly dead king. The next king would be the prince who brings in a fallen star the king drops on his last act.
Our loving hero sees the same star fall and promises to bring it to his love, who in turn argues that she would marry him if he does. So like his father he crosses the wall and finds the star, only that the thing he finds is a woman (Claire Danes). So he ties a rope around the woman/star and starts the quest to bring that woman/star to his love. On the way, however, he has to fend of evil witches who seek the woman/star for the immortality to be gained out of her heart (led by the still good looking Michelle Pfeiffer) and some of the remaining nasty princess that seek the woman/star to gain a kingdom with the slight bonus of immortality.
The result is a gripping tale of adventure with a marvelous plot and well developed characters that go through a typical process of enlightenment as the film progresses. It's all a lot like Princess Bride, really, only with more special effects and more fantastic elements. It's a proper fantasy film the way fantasy should be filmed: imaginative, often funny, yet gripping. Yes, most of all, Stardust is imaginative.
I often think that certain films receive too much credit. Take Matrix, for example: the idea of us living an illusion is not exactly new, and I feel the execution of the idea in Matrix is significantly flawed. I mean, in a world where anything I can imagine can happen, I would let my imagination run much further than a few martial arts stunts. Stardust, on the other hand, does not suffer from a lack of imagination; it is full of imagination. It's bursting at the seams with imagination. And that makes it a great film!
Stardust throws in a long lineup of cameos by actors of the likes of Ricky Gervais, Rupert Everett, Ian McKellen, Peter O'Toole, and many many more into the mix. Unlike many other films that feature cameos for the sake of cameos, Stardust's cameos actually enhance it. Gervais, for example, plays a similar character to the one he does in Extras, so his blending into the Stardust environment is quite smooth.
If there is something Stardust suffers from is its over reliance on special effects, mostly of the CGI type. Sometimes the screen is just flooded with them, and most of the time they are not done as well as, say, the Lord of the Rings' standard dictates. Given that CGI has already become an epidemic ruining films en masse, Stardust should have settled for a more subtle approach there.
Best scene: I've already mentioned the long lineup of stars making a cameo. Robert De Niro's role is a bit more developed than your average cameo, but whether you define it as a cameo or as a supporting role, the scenes with De Niro are so smashingly hilarious he is bound to completely reshape your view of pirates.
Picture quality: Inconsistent. Some scenes look very good, while others feature low detail, much noise, and overall color inconsistency.
Sound quality: Quite good, especially in its aggressive use of the surrounds. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement in fidelity and clarity.
Overall: As far as I remember, last time I saw a film for the first time and felt like I want to immediately watch it again, I was watching Return of the King. Stardust broke the long spell, and despite its minor flaws it deserves 5 out of 5 stars. Simply excellent!

Monday, 11 February 2008

Film: How to Steal a Million

Lowdown: A Parisian woman recruits a burglar to steal her own stuff.
The phrase “they don’t do make them like that anymore” seemed to have been invented for How to Steal a Million, a 1966 comedy set in Paris and starring rather youngish versions of Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole.
It’s all very simple, really: Hepburn is the loving daughter of a Parisian father whose hobby is to sell his drawings as original Rembrandts and such. Hepburn wants her father to stop, but he’s as addicted to it as I am addicted to blogging, and he even goes one step further by offering a high caliber Parisian museum his own “original” statue for them to display. However, he falls down his own trap and looks to spend some time in jail when the museum plans to inspect the statue’s authenticity in order to have it insured.
Help comes from an unexpected source: Hepburn catches a burglar trying to still a “valuable” painting from her own house, Peter O’Toole. Seemingly a villain, O’Toole, in a “totally unexpected” fashion, is recruited to save the day by stealing the fake statue before it can be inspected. In the process, the inevitable happens and Hepburn and O’Toole fall for one another.
Both Hepburn and O’Toole do an excellent job in this romantic comedy. It’s all very light and very unassuming, but it’s very entertaining just as well and doesn’t feel its age at all (apart from the repeating displays of antique Parisian police cars and the not so sophisticated museum security systems). Eli Wallach, recently seen in The Good The Bad and The Ugly and in The Holiday, excels yet again in a supporting role where he does an obsessed art collector; reprising a lot of the characteristics that made Tuco great, Wallach displays immense comedy talent.
The things to take from How to Steal a Million, a part from the laughs and the good feel, are to do with the way it was made. For a film set in Paris and involving Parisians, there is no word of French to be seen and not even an accent to be heard. For a male hero like O’Toole, the lack of any muscularity or any attempt to appear cool is evident by its contrast with what one is used to seeing today in all contemporary films; there is no modern day male hero that doesn’t stare at the camera as if saying “I’m an alpha”, unless the hero is an anti-hero. And overall, for a love story, there is a total luck of pornographic elements: I’m not talking about gross nudity and such, but the rather more “subtle” forms of pornography that by now we take for granted and most of us don’t even consider pornography anymore. I guess what I’m trying to say is that you won’t find anything that looks like it might belong in an FHM magazine while watching How to Steal a Million, even if the movie does make you think of what takes place behind the scenes. Thing is, the movie leaves it all for the viewers to handle inside the privacy of their brains, which in my view is a much better and much more effective way of doing things.
Best scene: I suspect the scene where Hepburn and O’Toole are locked in a tight museum cleaning cupboard is the most memorable scene the film offers.
Overall: Modern films can learn a lot of good things from this 3.5 out of 5 stars movie.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Film: Walk on Water

Lowdown: A Mossad agent befriends a German in order to track his Nazi grandfather.
I was never a fan of Israeli films and I hardly ever seek to watch Israeli cinema. The only Israeli films that truly talked to me are comedies that work as cult films mainly because of how bad they are, like the previously discussed Halfon Hill. However, Walk on Water is an Israeli film that I liked despite and perhaps because of its inherent Israeliness.
The story follows a Mossad agent called Eyal, whom we get to know when he assassins a Muslim terrorist in front of his family in the middle of broad daylight Istanbul. The next thing we learn about this cold blooded killer is that when he comes back home from his mission he finds his wife dead in their bed, having just committed suicide.
His employers give him a break with a simple task: act as a tour guide to a young German tourist coming to visit his sister, who conveniently enough for the film works at a Kibbutz. The aim there is to try and see whether this German knows something about his Nazi grandfather, who up until recently was hiding in Argentina but disappeared all of a sudden. As the mission goes along the killer and the tourist become friends, have their intimate moments, and also have their breakdowns. Eventually, Eyal goes to see the German in Germany, which sets up the film's climax.
Overall, the film feels very international: Roughly half of it (the larger half) is set in Israel, the other half in Germany, and it speaks Hebrew, English and German (with just a tiny bit of Arabic for spicing). As can be expected, the Israeli bit takes you through a lot of the more famous tourist attractions, such as the Sea of Galilee, the old city of Jerusalem, and the Dead Sea; it then moves on to take the viewer, albeit at a brisker pace, through some of the more famous attractions of Berlin.
Essentially what the film is trying to do by pitting an Israeli and a German together while always discussing the Israeli-Arab conflict in the background is to demonstrate the similarities between what happened with Germans and Jews and what is happening now between Israelis and Palestinians. The death of Eyal's wife and the disconnection between the German and his ancestors symbolize the price you pay for subduing other people. The comparison between the two "conflicts", which when put straight on paper might raise accusations of antisemitism along the lines of "how can you compare what the Germans did to us to what we are doing to the Arabs", is only hinted at, but it's very much there. What Walk on Water is trying to say is that just as the Israeli can now live in peace and actually befriend the German, and just as the German can now live with his past, so can the Israeli and the Arab live together in harmony as long as they all start listening to one another.
As much as I agree with this message, I also have to admit that what attracted me the most to Walk on Water is the face of Israel it exposes before the viewer. There are some genuinely authentic symbols of Israeli culture in the film, of the type that are rarely discussed, and of the type that I was only last exposed to when watching Munich. I'm talking about things such as the bare tiles in Eyal's apartment (for comparison, Australians mostly live in houses, and floors are always either made of wood or carpeted); and I'm also talking about the way Israelis tend to dismiss others, especially foreigners, as idiots all too easily; and of course, I'm talking about the way most Israelis feel and treat Arabs (at least judging by the way most of the Israeli public is quite fine with Israel's continued occupation of large Palestinian populations and the way the Israeli public is generally fine with what is done in its name to these occupied populations).
There are, however, some major problems with Walk on Water. For a start, I had a problem with the Israeli dialog: the way the Israeli characters talk to one another doesn't sound convincing at all; no Israeli would talk to another Israeli in such a way. This problem is evident in a lot of Israeli films and it makes them all feel quite artificial, with dialog feeling as if the actors are reading a script to one another rather than conversing with each other.
Second, there are some key plot issues that just cannot pass by the viewer, like Eyal suddenly popping up a gun in the middle of Berlin and then explaining the existence of the gun in his pocket with "I forgot I had it with me". Can anyone expect a person to be able to fly internationally with a gun on their body, especially in a post September 11 world? Not to mention the German guy finding Eyal's gun lying down in Eyal's car while they travel around Israel, which is not exactly up to the standards of a Mossad agent.
Best scene: A few scenes can qualify, but the climax scene tops them all. Of course, it would be a crime for me to expose what takes in this scene here and now, especially after several reviews discussing the film managed to ruin it for me.
Overall: An entertaining and often sharp film with something good to say, too. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

DVD: Tess

Lowdown: A woman finds herself a victim of society in 19th century England.
I won’t deny Roman Polanski is one of those directors I look up to, and Tess is yet another reason for that. While long and tedious, Tess is still a statement in the art of moviemaking.
Set in the second half of a very class oriented 19th century England, Tess follows the story of the life of one woman who happens to be called Tess (Nastassja Kinski). She was born to a low class family with a useless father who is busier complaining than taking care of his family. As the film starts, the local priest tells the father that he is actually a descendant of a famous noble family, and the father immediately tries to make the most of this news.
The father sends his daughter Tess to pay a visit to a rich branch of the noble family in an attempt to get some of the crumbs off their table. This turns out to be a tragic mistake for Tess, who ends up being caught in the middle of having to support her family while being the subject of continuous sexual harassments from the leading son of the rich, and rather eccentric, family. Along the way she also learns that the rich family has actually bought their title, which meant they were not true relatives.
Her affair with the rich family ends abruptly with tragic consequences, and Tess attempts to start her life again hard working on a dairy farm in order to continue supporting her family. There she meets a seemingly charming and smart guy called Angel, and they both fall for one another (in that incredibly shallow way that some movies portray, where people fall in love with one another just by gazing at one another from afar; that said, the social limitations of the time and place probably meant options were rather limited). Will the couple manage to get along while Tess carries the burden of her past experience with the rich family?
As already stated, Tess the film is long, slow and quite tedious to watch. However, it is this tediousness that makes it rather special because of the way the story is told: it starts with a tragic mistake, ends with redemption, and in between the mechanics of it works by duplication. Most key events seem to be happening twice, with the differing results of the deja vus serving as the catalyst that propels the film forward. The technique also serves to garnish the film with a thick layer of fatalism, which is key to the story told here even if I, personally, consider fatalism to be a rather foolish notion.
Polanski dedicates the film to his murdered wife, Sharon Tate, and you can sort of see why Tess’ tragic story found its appeal with the mourning husband. Tess also fires lots of poisoned arrows towards religion and its institutions, which are often to blame for the calamities that fall on Tess the character; again, these can be considered as signs for Polanski’s frustration with the incapable hands of the authorities as they handled the events in his personal life. And last, Kinski serves as a sign for Polanski’s personal and continued affection to the young and good looking.
Best scene: To be honest, I could not identify any particular standout scene in Tess. The ending scene set in Stonehenge is beautifully done, but then again that is not that much of a challenge given the setting.
The scene I find most memorable is the scene in which we see Tess for the first time after we previously saw her being raped by her rich sort-of relative. We see her working on a field of grain, and then the workers stop for a break. Without any warning, Kinski (as in, Tess) reveals a breast, picks up a baby that was out of the frame until that second, and starts breastfeeding. It is not like the nudity shocks you or anything; I have to say I’m all for nudity, especially when it’s a natural part of the events taking place in the film. It’s just that the scene represents the rather shocking way in which Polanski conveys the news of what happened after the rape to the viewer. In one simple move he tells us that Tess got pregnant, left the rich family, and is now laboring hard to support her recently extended family. Thus Polanski quickly covers the events of a year or so, perhaps more, in a manner that is atypical to the rest of the film (which is quite slow). It’s those touches that make Polanski a great director in my book.
Picture quality: Hideous. Plenty of analog noise, and even more digital artifacts of the worst types that are really distracting and annoying.
Sound quality: Even worse than the picture. The sound is bright and harsh and way too artificial to pass by without severe distraction. Dialog is even worse: it’s very unintelligible, and the lack of subtitles on the DVD meant repeated rewinds and tons of “what did this guy just say” questions that hurt the flow of the film.
Overall: There are signs of brilliance but Tess is also tedious and is severely hampered by a very poor DVD production. 3 out of 5 stars.