Sunday, 30 March 2008

DVD: Becoming Jane

Lowdown: A pale Pride and Prejudice.
Becoming Jane attempts to tell the story of Jane Austen, and as we liked the recent Pride and Prejudice film and as Jo likes Austen in general, it was but natural that we would eventually rent Becoming Jane. This is probably what went through the minds of the people who made Becoming Jane, which may explain why the end result of their fruit of labor is a genuinely bad film: with a guaranteed audience, there is no need to make an effort.
Anne Hathaway (again?) plays Austen. She grows up in this not that well to do family (albeit still a family that employs others to clean after it) somewhere in the middle of nowhere England, and she grows to be a talented self thinker who won't accept what tradition has in store for her as a woman. That includes not accepting a marriage proposal by a very rich young man, who doesn't seem too bad other than not being as poetic as Austen. Instead, Austen falls for this coolish (or is it stupidish?) dude who doesn't have much money too and who depends on his rather nasty uncle for an allowance. The conflict that ensues is between marrying for love or marrying for material comfort, and you can pretty much guess which corner Austen stands in.
In case the plot sounds a lot like Pride and Prejudice, it is of no coincidence: the film makes it seem as if Austen's real life events were her source of inspiration for P&P. Thing is, we know better: we know that Becoming Jane came to be because of the popularity of P&P. It's not only the timing of the films' releases that indicates that, it's also the way Becoming Jane is made.
It's made in a really bad way. The plot is thin and so stupidly predictable and the characters are as thinly developed as the typical slogans the script makes them utter. The scripts itself feels like it was written by today's standards and just transferred into an older sounding English.
Not that the acting is much better: there is no shred of originality or talent. That is probably the result of the poor direction work, which not only manages to create a truly boring film in Becoming Jane but also manages to attract lots of attention to itself through rather jerky camera movement and fast editing that simply does not become an Austen story.
Worst scene: A depressed Jane looks at the moving camera in several postures as the edits flow while being depressed because of a predictable misunderstanding with her lover. Simply badly done; it's like The Bold and the Beautiful was made into a feature film.
Picture quality: The picture looks like it took a ride in a tumble dryer before being put on the DVD. All the color and essence has been drained away, making it feel as if the DVD was prepared out of a theatrical copy rather than an original master.
Sound quality: Basic failure at the most basic level - dialog. It's hard to make what the actors say, speech is often out of sync with the lips, and with subtitles not available on the DVD watching Becoming Jane is even more annoying.
Overall: When the poor technical quality of the DVD is combined to the poor film, the result is very poor indeed. 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 28 March 2008

DVD: Blades of Glory

Lowdown: A team of two male ice skaters join hands and crotches to win the ice skating team title.
It's not often that you get a film that's based on a very simple idea, goes with it all the way, and comes through the other end able to say "mission accomplished". Blades of Glory, however, is one of those films. Sure, it's not the best or deepest films ever, but it manages to take its core idea and spread it across 90 or so entertaining minutes.
Blades of Glory features Will Ferrell in his natural habitat: extreme comedy acting, if one can call it acting to begin with. This time around he is an ex porn star that has turned into an ice skating champ and could have ruled the world if it wasn't for yet another ice skating champ with whom he has to share the spoils. The two take it personally and fight it out hard enough to get themselves banned from the sport altogether and become regular low lives.
A few years later they discover that they can still ice skate if they join a team as opposed to ice skating solo. The natural progression of the film is that the two enemies turn out to become allay team members that skate together in a male/male team, thus opening a very wide door to gay style jokes. When that subsides, we are left with a basic comedy about the good ice skaters (Ferrell and his now partner) who fight it out against a couple of evil ice skaters (who happen to be a male/female couple).
That's it for the film: Aside of this story, there's nothing more to it. It's basically a 90 minute long joke on having a couple of male ice skaters join hands as a team. Sure, there are tons of your average pop culture jokes, but they're more in the background given the main event; that is, if you want pop culture jokes you go and watch an episode of Family Guy, not a feature length film.
Best scene: Ferrell and the evil ice skater have themselves a chase scene that starts on ice and quickly moves in land, but the two are too dumb to realize they would go much faster on land if they take their skates off. Which, quite naturally, leads to some major silly scenes (silly yet funny).
Picture quality: OK.
Sound quality: Relative surround aggressiveness, but not of the high quality type.
Overall: So how long can you stretch a movie about nothing for? Blades seems to have balanced it well, yet I can't give a film that is so lacking in substance more than 2.5 out of 5 stars. Still, it's often quite funny.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

DVD: Michael Clayton

Lowdown: A lawyer on the road to redemption.
Most annoying scene:
Shortly after the film starts, we see George Clooney driving frantically for no reason we can tell. He then stops the car and steps out; we learn that he did it in order to admire three horses from a close range. He walks towards the horses, and as he does so his car blows up. We are thus expected to accept that the admiration for those three horses has saved his life and set the entire film up.
The next thing you know, the caption says "four days earlier", and the rest of the film follows Michael Clayton (Clooney) up to the explosion and a bit further.
Films named after their main character puzzle me. In an environment where everything is artificial and under the control of a director, what reason does the director have to choose a meaningless name for a film? The only reason I can think of is in order to attract further attention to a specific character, probably due to desperation caused by being unable to find anything better. Indeed Michael Clayton's character is central to Michael Clayton the film, and the story of its redemption is what the film is all about. And indeed, the film smells like an effort to do something big that ended up in despair.
Clayton/Clooney is a lawyer that doesn't do much lawyering anymore. Instead he acts as a cleanup guy for his law company, helping clean after rich clients that did nasty stuff. His own life is in the shambles, just like the miserable lives he protects: he invested his money on a restaurant that went under, and now he lost all of it and owes tens of thousands to someone who would not stop at using force if the money is not returned quickly. As if that's not trouble enough, Clayton is also into gambling.
Then he's assigned to take care of Tom Wilkinson, a fellow lawyer in Clayton's company who has been working for years and years to defend in court this huge company that knowingly poisoned people. Wilkinson suffers from a rare disease: he can't take screwing up the good people any more and goes crazy instead, undressing in court.
A chain reaction starts: the nasty company sets out "nice" people to "take care" of Wilkinson, and as they move about Clayton gets too involved in their affairs. Between that and the other troubles Clayton is in, you wonder what it is exactly that won him the pleasure of getting his car blown up.
I'll be honest and say that in contrast to the raving reviews bestowed on Michael Clayton I didn't like the film. Sure, it gives a rather sincere depiction of people, nasty and imperfect on all sides, and it sports some good acting on behalf of several actors - Clooney, Wilkinson, Tilda Swinton, and the regularly directing Sydney Pollack. Swinton tops the list in her portrayal of a good business woman who aspires to go up high and on the way doesn't think twice about killing people as long as she doesn't know much about it (sounds a lot like what all of us allow our governments to do in our behalf). But Michael Clayton has too many problems for me to ignore.
First there's this business with the horses. Sure, I accept that things in life can happen when you least expect them; but stopping a frantic drive to admire horses is way too much. Then there's the issue of blowing up a car to get rid of someone: if you want to subtly get rid of someone, you do something subtle; you don't blow up their car. And this entire scheme of showing you the end first and then taking you back to the beginning just to show you that the end you saw earlier is not really what you thought you've seen is just plain cheating; it's not good movie making.
There are other rough edges to the script, but here's one problem with the script that is not that easy to ignore: The film is so preoccupied with offering a sophisticated view of Clooney's development while trying to take the viewer by surprise, it fails a very crucial test. It's plain boring most of the time, with just the very ending to provide some salvation.
Picture quality: Solid, yet lacking in detail due to the high contrast photography.
Sound quality: Like the film itself, there are some redeeming moments, but most of the time it's too subtle and too center speaker oriented.
Overall: Too boring to capture my heart. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 March 2008

Book: Sceptical Essays by Bertrand Russell

Lowdown: Skepticism as the ticket for a healthy society.
After expressing my opinions concerning religion, I am often accused of being a fundamentalist anti-religion-ist who just replaces the common Judeo-Christian religions with the religion of science. It's not just me that's been put in this corner; better and smarter people than I will ever be, like, say, Richard Dawkins, have been accused of similar crimes before.
As a result I often had to express my line of defense to the above accusations. These are based around the claim that religion is a form of bad science in the sense that it pretends to deliver similar answers but fails to rely on fact. That explanation tends to be tedious and often falls on deaf ears; instead, I should have just adopted Bertrand Russell's main point of his Sceptical Essays, which is simply this: One can either make a call based on prejudice, or, alternatively, one can make a call based on evidence. Religions are prejudice based, which is why there are so many of them and why there are so many contradictions between them. They also lack in the evidence department, which is why all of them sanctify the value of belief so much. Russell, however, asks us all the recognize the inherent uncertainties of our beliefs: when the experts in a field do not agree, the opposite opinion is not certain; actually, no opinion is certain. And when there is insufficient evidence for them to make a conclusive call, it is best to suspend judgment.
That is the starting point from which Russell, a British philosopher (1872-1970), commences a personal trek across 17 essays in his book Sceptical Essays. You sort of get the feeling most of the essays if not all of them were written in the twenties, shortly after The Great War. In his essays, Russell explains what is skepticism, why skepticism is important at the personal level and at the level of society at large, and then he goes on to apply skepticism across multiple pans of life. He demonstrates the value of skepticism at the workplace; he argues for the importance of it in education; he claims that skepticism is exactly what we need in order to get away from blind capitalism that only serves the ruling classes and from the bad implementation of Marxism in Russia; and he finishes by providing his vision for a less bitter future than his future and our present and how that can be achieved through the application of skepticism and the consideration of things for what they are rather than what we blindly think or wish they are.
Let my opinion be as clear as it can be: While I have definite issues with some of what Russell has to say, you can definitely count me as someone who agrees with Russell, his approach, his attitude, and his opinions. That said, the essay collection is far from perfect.
For a book written almost a hundred years ago, Sceptical Essays is surprisingly (or unsurprisingly if you agree with Russell) still very much relevant. This does not, however, exclude some significant parts of it from expiring as irrelevant. Take, for example, a rather tedious and long overview of 19th century philosophies and their standing at the beginning of the 20th; virtually all of the philosophies discussed there are philosophies hardly anyone would hear of today, and for a very good reason: they're stupidly silly. Yet the mentality of the early 20th century made them relevant at the time, or at least relevant enough to bring them to the top of people's agendas. We have been blessed by enough science since to clear the drawing board of such nonsense, but Sceptical Essays still retains them.
Another problem with the book is its reliance of psychoanalysis to support its arguments. Granted, Russell is true to his skeptic word and keeps on emphasizing that we don't know as much as we would like about psychology, but then again he still hangs on to psychoanalysis whereas today the world has moved on. In contrast, glaring in its absence is evolutionary psychology, which would have clearly helped Russell in the promotion of his ideas much further.
At the personal level, Secptical Essays is a bit of a miss. Was I to read it just a few years ago I would have found it to be a revolutionary book that took me light years ahead in my understanding of the world around us. However, being at a point where I have read enough similar books, Sceptical Essays did very little to further expand my horizons. It did, however, help in organizing them further. Don't take me the wrong way: I would argue Sceptical Essays is a book that should be taught in schools at the early teenage years if not earlier in order to promote open thinking in future generations. That has been Russell's goal, and between his mostly flowing style and flowing sarcasm I think I can safely say he did his bit of the task, the writing of the book, very well.
Overall: While the irrelevant bits make me want to give it 3 stars, the relevant bits are surprisingly relevant. I will therefore rate it as 3.5 out of 5 stars, but regardless of ratings I would recommend the book to anyone who values thinking.

Sunday, 23 March 2008

DVD: A Scanner Darkly

Lowdown: An undercover policeman is assigned to track down himself.
As science fiction writers go, Phillip K Dick may not be the most renowned, but as science fiction writers whose books have been converted to films he certainly is. Films based on his books include pure excellence such as Blade Runner and Total Recall, good stuff like The Minority Report, and not as good stuff like as Paycheck. Into the arena now steps A Scanner Darkly, and I have to say that it joins the latter camp rather than the former; that said, it is, by far, the most characteristically Phillip K Dick film of the lot. Then again, I was never a big fan of Dick's writing.
A Scanner Darkly is set in a near future world that is but a simple exaggeration of ours. In this world, people are openly pursued by the state for their opinions, something that is not done as openly in our world but is still very much done on a regular basis; and in this world there is a new drug called Substance D to which 20% of the population is addicted, which is not far from our world where more than 60% of the population has tried illegal drugs they shouldn't have been able to put their hands on in the first place.
Keanu Reeves stars as undercover cop whose role it is to uncover Substance D dealers. The police is so undercover that they really are undercover: policemen wear disguises that hide their identity even from their own colleagues.
In his home Keanu is hosting, for no apparent reason, a couple of weirdos; one day, Keanu's boss orders him to track Keanu himself in order to see what he's up to. It turns out that Keanu, who deals with Substance D dealers as a part of his covert operations, is being suspected of being a drug dealer simply because no one knows of his covert operations.
And so the plot thickens, but only slightly, with these twists of logic that in typical Dick fashion aim to destabilize the perception of reality and leave us, the viewers, as well as the characters, wondering what is real and what isn't. Thing is, things are so convoluted you never know where you're truly standing and you feel like you're watching a David Lynch film (not a positive experience in my book). Add on top of that a plot that never really gets much anywhere and you can see why A Scanner Darkly is not a film I think highly of.
Two things do stand out as special for A Scanner Darkly. The first is the cast, which is both very narrow in numbers and very unique in composition: Aside of Reeves we have Robert Downy Jr, who seems to have developed a niche of his own for the role of the sophisticated weirdo (as per Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and Zodiac); we have Woody Harrelson, who seems to have got to a point in his career where he is able to choose only the weirdest roles to make a living; and we also have Winona Ryder in the female lead - now, where has she been for the last ten years?
The second thing that makes the movie unique is its look: A Scanner Darkly was shot in real life, but everything was animated on top to give the film this surrealistic look one would associate with a drug experience. It's weird, you can clearly see why other films don't follow suit, but it fits Darkly.
Representative scene: The heroes come back home after they left it with the door unlocked and a note inviting people to go in stuck on the door. They find that the intruders that must have visited managed to hide all traces of their intrusion. At the next scene, we learn that people did go in to install hidden surveillance cameras in the house.
Picture quality: It's hard to tell with the surrealistic animation thing, but at least there's no noise.
Sound quality: Other than a few sparks of interest at the beginning, this is a very boring affair.
Overall: Too convoluted for its own good. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 20 March 2008

Film: Demonlover

Lowdown: Porn is just the start of a slippery slope.
The heat wave continued for another night of random old VCR recording's selection, and this time around the luck of the draw brought us Demonlover. Or rather it was an unlucky draw, as Demonlover is far from being a movie I felt lucky to watch.
This French film is a story of two halves. The first half tells the story of a French company negotiating some commercial rights of distribution with a Japanese company. We start becoming involved as the French, who are actually made of a group of multinationals, come back from a trip to Japan; we can immediately tell the relationship between them by the fact one of them, Connie Nielsen (the most famous of the actors in Demonlover), poisons another during the flight in order to take her out of the negotiation table. All the while another colleague is not exactly happy to have been left in tourist class while the rest fly business. The film does everything it can to show us that we are dealing here with a bunch of immoral capitalists who would stop at nothing to increase their personal gain.
As the first half develops, we learn in a rather casual way that the negotiations with the Japanese are actually about the rights to distribute pornographic manga animation; again, it does not seem as if any of the characters has any problems with the subject matter of their negotiations as they do their dealing the same way one would deal the purchase of groceries. However, the plot further thickens as we see Nielsen sabotaging the negotiations without really understanding why; the film sort of develops into a thriller as you're trying hard to understand what it is exactly that is going on, feeling that this is one of those movies ala Sixth Sense where everything reveals itself at the very last minute.
That, however, is not the case. The answer to Nielsen's escapades is revealed around the midpoint of the film, leaving the viewer (or at least me) quite disappointed, while still failing to explain a lot of the film's obscurities.
Then, however, the film takes a sharp turn and commences its second half. This time around we learn that an American company is negotiating the rights to distribute the Japanese manga now owned by the French company. Quickly enough we discover that this American company is pretty dirty and that it has, amongst its run of the mill porn ventures, websites specializing in live torture. From then on the movie becomes stupidly predictable, and between Nielsen's continuing escapades and the live torture you sort of figure out how the film is going to end pretty quickly.
Overall, I can see what Demonlover's filmmakers were trying to say. They were trying to send us a warning message against the dangers of capitalism that, when taken to extremes (the way it actually is in real life), can cause morality to step aside. And once morality steps aside it's all downhill; we start with porn, we learn to accept it, and we end up with torturing people. It may sound extreme but it's not; we already have mainstream films that take the next step from porn and into extreme violence in the shape of the Hostel film franchise.
However, as important a message as Demonlover is trying to convey, it fails to convey it properly. The film is too obscure and too falsely sophisticated for its own good. For example, it hides information from us in order to create tension, but when we figure out the missing information we end up disappointed because it wasn't half as dramatic as the culmination of Sixth Sense. Between its unjustified sense of self importance and its eventual predictability, Demonlover is really nothing special.
Worst scene: When we finally learn what Nielsen's secret is; after an hour's worth of a buildup, it's just so disappointing.
Overall: A waste of time that doesn't even deliver in the erotic department. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

Film: Australian Rules

Lowdown: Conflict between black and white Australians reflecting through a game of football.
With the heat wave that recently heat Melbourne, we didn't want to turn the stereo on and boil ourselves and our electronics just in order to watch a DVD. We therefore turned to our collection of VHS videos that we have recorded over the last few months and which gathered dust in the corner and picked one in random; Australian Rules was the pick of the draw.
This Australian film from 2002 tells takes place in a middle of nowhere South Australia fishing town. The local teenager football team, playing Aussie rules football (hence the film's name) is about to play the grand final (the Australian equivalent of a title decider cup final) and tensions are high. The team is equally made of white Anglo-Saxon players and black aboriginal players, and the film follows a white player called Blacky who is a good friend of the best player in the team that just happens to be black. The rest of the team reflects the small community is comes from: the coach is the local butcher, the captain is the coach's son, and so on; most of the characters are pretty lackluster, and generally speaking you cannot say that Australian Rules promotes life in rural Australia. It all looks pretty bleak to say the least and soaked with racism to the bone.
It's not only the town that's going through tense times because of the football game, it's also Blacky's family. His father is more like a tyrant who doesn't hesitate beating his wife, and when racial tensions are on a high after abject discrimination against a black player in the football team, Blacky's father does not hesitate to shoot and kill Blacky's black friend. Blacky is then forced to choose between father, family, team, friends, and his black love interest.
Overall, there is no doubt that Australian Rules is a good film. It touches sensitive subjects and handles them well: Primarily, by addressing racial tensions within the Australian society through sports, a powerful cohesive force in Australia, it emphasizes the issue. It goes further to show the issues facing country towns located in the middle of nowhere with absolutely nothing to offer the younger generations (and not much to offer the older ones either). What I have found to be most interesting was the way in which the film demonstrated that a person who discriminates against others due to racial reasons will not stop there and soon enough continue to act similarly towards others who, on paper, are closer to him.
However, as interesting as Australia Rules is, it is also problematic. While not on the longer side of films, it does take a while to figure out what it's trying to say, and when it does say stuff you're sort of wondering what it's trying to say. I guess what I'm trying to say is that it's too unfocused; it aims to high and spreads its shots too widely to hit the target, so while it tells an overall interesting story it does miss the target.
Best scene: Blacky confessing before his aboriginal love interest that his winning move on the football oval was pure luck; he actually tried to avoid the ball. I guess I liked it because it demonstrates how turnkey events can happen just like that, when we least expect them and when we don't mean for them to happen.
Overall: 3 stars out of 5 is more than the Australian Rules deserves, but 2.5 would dishonor it. So let's say it's somewhere in between.