Wednesday, 30 April 2008

DVD: Shoot 'Em Up

Lowdown: Concentrated high octane action generating more dead bodies than an invasion to Iraq.
I think I can safely say we’ve all seen films along the lines of Shoot ‘Em Up. Want examples? Well, on this very blog there was already some significant mentioning of The Transporter, Transporter 2, and Crank. Yes, we’re talking about yet another film that features a very silly plot, chauvinism in quantities competing with China’s GDP, and baddies that are so bad with their aim you’d send them to Iraq. But do we care? No, because it’s all wrapped up in action scenes that are so numerous, so concentrated, so visceral – and often so very funny – that you just watch it with sheer joy.
The plot doesn’t really matter but I’ll give you the basic rundown for the laugh. A guy just sitting there eating his carrot (later we learn he identifies himself as Mr Smith) is suddenly confronted by a pregnant woman being chased by a guy who tries to kill her. Smith does the decent thing and kills the guy, only to find himself and the woman chased by hordes and hordes of villains. So what does Smith do? He shoots ‘em up, of course, in a multitude ways that go in and out of style but are guaranteed to raise a smile.
Thus the killing continues on and on – probably into the three digit realm. The woman quickly dies leaving Smith to take care of the baby, so he retaliates by acquiring the services of a whore serving the lactation fetish community and aptly cast as Monica Bellucci. Eventually (but not that long after, given that Shoot is only 80 minutes long) we learn that the killers are government related, in a very complicated and nonsensical kind of a way, which serves mostly to add to the film’s coolness levels by seemingly protesting against conformism.
Overall, Shoot reminds me of John Woo’s Hong Kong era: the time in which he made silly films that specialized in concentrated action and a massively high body count and just happened to be so stupidly entertaining. However, the ace in the hole Shoot has on top of those films is its cast. Mr Smith is portrayed by Clive Owen, who by now has pretty firmly established himself as my favorite contemporary heroic male lead (as in, post Harrison Ford). Sure, he played in that crap King Arthur film, but he also played in Inside Man and in Children of Men; besides, have you seen him in Extras?
The real edge that separates Shoot from the others is to do with the boss baddie. Most of the genre’s films settle for a token character who is good in kung-fu, but Shoot brings along another favorite actor of mine, Paul Giamatti. Yes, I really like Sideways, but the point here is that Giamatti is able to give an aura of authenticity and lots of roundness to the character despite the silly premises. It works, and it works well.
Best scene: Learn how to kill a baddie with a carrot or how to kill many baddies while having yourself and your partner an orgasm.
Picture quality: Shoot goes for the ultra high contrast look, which gives it a surrealistic appearance but which also lacks detail and finesse.
Sound quality: Lots of noises and all, but again – no finesse.
Overall: Shoot is the Hard Boiled type film John Woo should have made when he moved to Hollywood. It is not a film that would change the way you think of life and the universe, but for its genre it is one of the best. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 23 April 2008

DVD: Shrek the Third

Lowdown: Yet another sequel.
Once upon a time not that long ago there was a film called Shrek. It was funny, it used computer graphics that gave it a unique look, it used pop culture references en masse, but most of all – it was original. It was so good that it spread these rumors around, saying there’s this animation film out there that kids would like but adults would like even better.
Then came the sequel that was still funny but not original. It compensated for its lack of originality by packing a concentrated dosage of pop culture references. And now… Now we have the third instalment which is neither funny (well, you laugh a bit but that’s it), lacks any shred of originality, and utterly fails in the character development department. It seems like the sequel’s bane is them taking characters for granted; Shrek 2 had the new cat character which was OK but far less inspiring than the donkey, but Shrek 3 totally abandons both of them without any real compensation. True, there are new characters offering some hot shot casting (Eric Idle as Merlin is a fine example), but these fail to leave a mark bigger than a passing joke that is not particularly funny to begin with.
Interestingly enough, the graphics which was once a drawing card now seems below par: character movement is rather jerky. Still, that’s me just being picky.
Oh yeah, there’s also a film out there, and it’s about something… As Shrek 3 starts we learn that Prince Charming is plotting a revolution in the kingdom of Far Far Away; then we learn that the frog king of Far Far Away is about to die. For some reason, we are expected to assume that Shrek would be the new king (I would have thought that would be Fiona?), and Shrek being Shrek doesn’t want to be the king. So he sets off on this quest to find Arthur, who is the next in line for kingship, in order to make him the king instead. Will Prince Charming succeed with his evil plan? Will Shrek face up to himself and stand up for the king the film says he should be? If you consider these to be rhetoric questions, you’re damn right.
Best scene: Fiona tells Shrek that she’s pregnant, but she breaks the news while he’s sailing away and this fog horn blows whenever she utters the word “pregnant”. It’s a stupid joke, but it’s the funniest in the film, thus demonstrating how low the Shrek film franchise can go. By the way, in contrast to the film’s merchandising, Shrek’s offsprings hardly play a role in the film.
Technical assessment: Picture quality is great, while the sound is very good but fails to create proper phantom imagery.
Overall: As I’ve said before, if you want a dose of funny pop culture references you’d be better off with an episode of Family Guy. Try Blue Harvest if you want the crème de la crème (we've just watched it again ourselves). With regards to Shrek, I’ll be generous and give it 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 20 April 2008

DVD: Who Killed the Electric Car?

Lowdown: Cunts are still running the world.
Time after time, when called upon to review a documentary, I find myself facing a problem: how do I review a documentary based on its movie attributes when it is not really a conventional movie but rather a tool designed to deliver a certain message, often not far from the level of propaganda? And how do I review it when I'm far from being objective about the message delivered by the documentary? Serious problems indeed; take them into account when you read the following review.
Who Killed the Electric Car is a documentary that attempts to answer the question of why there are no electric cars on our roads when very successful electric cars were made available for a while just a few years ago. The story goes like that: The state of California came up with legislation forcing car manufacturers to sell electric cars; they've complied, and indeed GM outdid itself by coming up with a model that managed to gather a collection of fans. But then the car manufacturers changed their minds; the electric cars were gathered up and systematically destroyed, while the car manufacturers claimed they had to do it due to lack of public demand.
Well, according to this documentary, the car manufacturers were lying. They had a vested interest in maintaining a market where they can still sell us maintenance, the bulk of their total earnings and an area where the electric car didn't require much attention. The oil companies, for their part, wanted to continue selling us more and more oil. The legislative authorities were under the influence of both, altering the Californian legislation enough so that it became ineffective, and the federal government came up with a distraction called the hydrogen powered car (a distraction mainly because there is still no way to distribute hydrogen). And last, but not least, the consumer - us - was ignorant enough to let the whole thing pass under our noses without us paying attention to it.
WKtEC works quite effectively by doing its best to cover all options and answer all questions. In fact, it wrongs by going for a cover so tight it made me feel as if the filmmakers thought I'm dumb (repetition repetition) while on the other hand slacking on major weak spots for their argument. For example, when arguing that electric cars don't manufacture more pollution by raising demand for coal generated electricity, the film correctly argued that most cars will be charged at night when the power stations are still running but demand is low, but also waved this banner of a research claiming that the increased demand for electricity would still be better for the environment overall. The problem was that they left that last point at that, while we all [should] know that one can come up with research results claiming almost anything; it's the analysis of the research of the views of peers that make one research more acceptable than the other.
Another problem with WKtEC is that it was obviously designed for commercial TV rather than a DVD presentation. The pacing of things at short intervals and the obvious places left for the insertion of commercials betrays the point and makes it all feel rather cheap.
Criticism aside, WKtEC really works. At the end of it, or even at the beginning, you realize that we're all the fools of corporate greed and that we can make the world a much better place right here right now; alas, there are a few key powerful stakeholders who think they'd lose some power in the process, and utilizing their power they keep us stuck in place. That's a very chilling message, one all of us should remember the next time we think highly of a particular car maker. Whether they selling us a sexy car or whether they claim to be selling us a clean car, remember they could all do infinitely better but choose not to purely because of greed.
Best scene: The interviews with an old guy called Ovshinsky, who came up with the battery technology for the electric car - a very workable battery technology, according to WKtEC, which was purchased by the car manufacturers and the oil companies just so they can make it disappear off the face of the earth. The guy effectively makes his point that education is what we need, because if we were all able to think our way through this world we wouldn't fall for the car manufacturers lies like sheep to the slaughter the way we do now.
Technical assessment: The picture varies in quality as its sources vary; it's never particularly good. The sound, however, is surprisingly enveloping and effective for what is mostly a talk based documentary.
Overall: I'll be generous to the electric car and give it 4 out of 5 stars - it is a compelling watch, worthy of playing to kids at school so they can learn something about this world and how it is run.

Thursday, 17 April 2008

DVD: Death at a Funeral

Lowdown: A feature length episode of Benny Hill.
The answer to the question "what is the quintessential English film" is not that trivial and would usually be answered by proposing examples rather than coming up with a proper definition for what makes a particular film feel British. Well, as examples go, Death at a Funeral pretty much jumps to the top of my list as the most British of the British films. It's not only because it's directed by a guy who is a Brit, even if we know him better as Fozzie Bear or Yoda (Frank Oz); it's mostly because Death at a Funeral has this typical British humor that you find in all the traditional British TV comedies, from Are You Being Served to Benny Hill. You know, that seemingly innocent yet naughty mix of slapstick, sexual innuendos, and the rest of the elements of British humor that I won't dare attempt to define.
The premises are very simple: the father of the family has just died and the family is organizing his funeral. The film focuses on the family members as they all gather for the ceremony.
On that simple base the film builds its tower of entanglements that eventually (but pretty quickly, given that Death at a Funeral is less than 90 minutes long) reaches a crescendo of laughs. The tower is a pretty unstable one: the plot is driven by a rather silly affair, film credibility wise, involving one of the characters taking recreational drugs instead of Valium, and then an ongoing repeat as the same pack of pills gets lost only to be found (and used) by the most unlikely character at the most inappropriate time. Quickly enough we discover that the family at hand is a rather dysfunctional one, which adds more fuel to the comedy fire but also provides some potential for catharsis at the film's end as all the world's problems are settled. So they are settled in haste, but who cares if one laughs all the way to settlement.
There's not much more to Death at a Funeral; there are no agendas and no sophisticated messages. It's just silly humor, but it works. A touch of silliness here, a bit of nudity there, and we've found ourselves happily laughing. Unlike most of the other films Oz has directed, Death at a Funeral is both unassuming and effective. Interestingly enough, it is effective despite the lack of star power: while most of the faces would be familiar to those familiar with English material, there are no outright stars at the funeral. Thus perhaps the main thing to take out of the film is just how much stars are overrated.
Best scene: As scenes go there's nothing in Death at a Funeral that would end up forever engraved in your brain; it's more the way the scenes interact with one another that creates the fun. Personally, I liked the scene in which a friend of the family has to push the old uncle on the wheelchair up a hill and sweat like a pig in order to get to the funeral, only to have his lazy friend end up taking all the credit for it. Let's say it was easy for me to identify with the bloke.
Technical assessment: Death at a funeral doesn't only feel like a lengthy episode of Benny Hill, it looks and sounds like a TV episode, too. That is, the picture is washed and lacks detail, and so is the sound; it's that feeling TV stuff gives you given its low budget compared to the cinema.
Overall: Funny yet innocently meaningless. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 14 April 2008

DVD: King Kong

Lowdown: An entertaining special effects laden flop.
Watching Peter Jackson’s King Kong made me think of this theory I have recently read about, attempting to explain why more men than women achieve the highest echelons of the academic world. The theory’s starting point is that men are different to women, and I fully concur: even though making such a statement could easily get you tagged as a chauvinist, it is obvious to me that women are way better looking than men. The theory further goes to say that due to evolutionary causes, women have higher intelligence than men on average, but the standard deviation of men’s intelligence is higher. The implication of this higher standard deviation is that while there are many more males that are complete morons, there are also the very few that are stupidly smart and therefore have more of a chance at securing the top spot at Harvard.
This theory doesn’t have much to do with King Kong, but its lesson about standard deviation does. Standard deviation is the factor I would use to explain the most interesting question posed by King Kong, which is this: How can a director fresh on the success of the incredibly good Lord of the Rings trilogy come up with such a flop?
Not that the phenomena is uniquely Peter Jackson related. He is in the good company of plenty other directors that seem to be capable of manufacturing masterpieces countered with duds. Take Ridley Scott, for example: Next to the brilliance of Blade Runner and several others he also directed the average (1492) and the flop (Hannibal). My point is this: If you want the utter brilliant, you should be prepared to take some of the crap that comes along with it. I therefore fully forget Jackson for King Kong, a film that feels more like the indulgence of a digital special effects specialist than a proper coherent work of art.
OK, now that my opinion on King Kong is well established, it is up to me to explain why I consider it a flop. Well, first and foremost, King Kong is a rather tedious affair. At approximately three hours of length, it takes its time introducing the human characters in a recession inflicted New York. It takes us about an hour to get to know Naomi Watts, Jack Black and Adrien Brody, and even then we are not really in a position to say we know them. On its own, that’s fine; Titanic has done the exact same thing. The difference is that Titanic works while Kong flops; everything feels tedious, too contrived, and rather uninvolving.
Then comes the second act in which our characters stumble upon the island on which Kong lives. Only half way through the film do we first catch a proper glimpse of the title hero himself, and shortly afterwards we learn that he is the king of an island stuck with a Jurassic like environment. Don’t ask me how a human can share a habitat with a T-Rex and survive, but the main point of this middle part of the film has nothing to do with logic and all to do with unleashing a tremendous concentration of special effects upon the viewer in what seems to be yet another Jurassic Park sequel. One scary monster encounter follows another as the plot staggers along; sure, it’s entertaining and you won’t feel bored, but it’s also meaningless. Amongst the superb special effects are a few that are an insult to the eye; I’m pretty sick of films’ over reliance on CGI.
Then we get to the third act which involves the captured Kong running amok through the streets of New York and the famous climax at the top of the Empire State Building. Slight reliability issues aside (how can Brody get all the way to the top of the tower without waiting hours in the queue or without handing over a small fortune to the greedy building?), that is probably the best made part of the film. It still leaves too many questions unanswered, though.
Chief of those questions is Jack Black: Just what did Jackson see in this guy when he cast him to a lead on such an expensive flick? Black is one of those cases where I can confidently say even I might do a better job. His arid performance in The Holiday was already mentioned, but Kong eclipses it by far. On the other hand, Watts, who as I have repeatedly stated is a very talented actor and one of the best female leads around, seems to have had an obvious hard time acting against the blankness of the blue screen. The attempt to act through facial expressions, as would be required when addressing a “dumb” animal (I’m not talking about Black now) simply fails to cut the mustard.
Best scene: Kong and Watts go ice skating on a frozen Central Park lake. More originality along these lines is exactly the type of ingredient King Kong is missing so badly.
Picture quality: Very good, technically speaking. However, Jackson has a tendency to wash different scenes with certain specific colors, thus rendering a very unnatural look to many of them. For example, New York looks too yellow – people and faces included, while the angry sea looks navy blue. It’s just that I think it’s too much for the film’s own good; again, it feels like the case of a child who had been given with too many toys for their own good.
Sound quality: We had to watch this one at a low volume, but it felt like it had the potential to be truly awesome had we watched it properly.
Overall: You might ask why I bothered watching Kong on DVD after watching it at the cinemas before. The answer is simple: Walking around town, I saw enough King Kong Blu-ray demonstrations to make me think about giving it another go.
Kong deserves it: it is entertaining. It is, however, not even half as good as Lord of the Rings. I’ll be very generous and hand it 3 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 12 April 2008

DVD: Manhattan

Lowdown: Manhood got lost in Manhattan.
Best scene: Manhattan opens up with a black & white montage of glorified scenes from Manhattan to the sound of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (a concept later copied by Fantasia 2000). Seeing New York like this is the stuff of my childhood dreams; it always melts me.
Manhattan is perhaps the film with the most attractive poster ever. A few weeks ago, while lazily walking about on a weekend stroll, we stumbled on this shop that sells movie products (serious stuff like books and art, not trash merchandising). On their main window they had a huge poster for this Woody Allen 1979 made film, and I immediately short listed Manhattan as a film we should be watching soon. Well, with the aid of our local rental store we did just that. I have to say this, though: The poster is probably the best thing about the film.
Manhattan features a 40+ Allen as both director and star. This time around he is a divorced father whose ex-wife, Meryl Streep, has left him for a woman; frustration is obviously filling Allen up. As Manhattan starts, Allen is currently going out with a 17 year old (Mariel Hemingway); as much as Allen tries to explain to her that theirs is a casual relationship, she sees in him something she can’t get from men her age and falls for him. Next we are introduced to a long time married couple that are friends of Allan and whose relationship is under some stress because the wife wants children and the husband doesn’t. And then we learn that the husband is actually having an affair with Diane Keaton, but as the film develops it seems quite clear that Keaton is more suitable for Allen. And that’s where the regular complexities of the romantic comedy genre start developing, allowing Allen to fully exploit his built in mannerisms on film, as per the usual Allen style. Don’t ask me to define it; you should know what Allen’s style is.
It’s fair to say that Manhattan’s plot is as simple as things can be for a romantic comedy; we’ve seen it all before. For flavor, things get well wrapped up with a New York packaging. So, say, when a character goes for a drive, we watch the car from the outside so we can see the city around and not from the inside where we can see the character. The question is, does it really work? Do we have an innovative breakthrough in the field of romantic comedies on our hands here?
Well, my answer is no. Maybe we did have one back in 1979, but I can’t really tell. What I can tell is that Manhattan is a pretty un-involving film. Allen is portrayed as a character that has lost his manhood, perhaps as a tale of the era or a tale of the place; he is not, however, a character you can identify with. Hardly anyone in Manhattan is. The rest of the film, being a plain love triangle story (or rather a love square or a love pentagon), is still plain enough so that even Allen’s occasional joke – even the good ones, like “I think people should mate for life, like pigeons or Catholics” or “You think you're God? - I gotta model myself after someone” are not enough to keep the flame going, even for a shortish hour and a half long film.
Then there is this whole Manhattan affair. Sure, it provides a unique feel to the film, but is Manhattan so unique to the way the film develops? In my opinion, the answer is no. Manhattan could have easily been called Tel Aviv or Melbourne, to name just a couple of cities I am familiar enough with where the exact same plot could have taken place. As much as Manhattan creates an atmosphere for the film, that atmosphere is not absorbed enough in the film itself to make it a uniquely Manhattanish experience.
Last, but not least: I already spoke about how Manhattan is the stuff my dreams are made of. However, if you really go and visit Manhattan you would so there is a dark side to it, too – crime, corruption, dirt. It is therefore very important to be able to clearly distinguish between our dreams and what our imagination would like things to be on one hand and what reality is on the other. A glorified Manhattan is nice, sure, but it is also wishful thinking.
Picture quality: Between the softly shot black and white picture and the signs of age, the picture is on the compromised side of things.
Sound quality: In typical Allen fashion, Manhattan sports a mono soundtrack. And what a shame this is given the Gershwin soundtrack!
Overall: With all due respect, the plot is just too un-involving and Manhattan just passes by you. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

DVD: The Astronaut Farmer

Lowdown: An ordinary farmer on an uplifting quest get himself in orbit.
Films that make you feel good when you watch them are rare nowadays. Speaking for myself, I like that uplifting feeling I get when I watch them, so you can definitely call me a fan. Of the films I classify under this category I would say The Shawshank Redemption is the best of the breed, and if memory serves me right The World’s Fastest Indian was the last of the genre I got to watch. That is, until The Astronaut Farmer came along.
The story behind Astro Farmer is simple. A contemporary Texan farmer, answering to the name Farmer, has built a rocket ship on his own and plans on using it to fly into space on his own. As the film starts the rocket and the plans are all ready and Farmer is just going through the last motions of executing his plan. That, however, is the point in which problems come up: In order to sustain the building of the rocket he has mortgaged his ranch, which is now about to default; the extreme focus on his dream of flying to space and the potential risk to his body and mind is causing rifts in the Farmer family; those surrounding Farmer, including close family and friends but also ex army commanders (Farmer is an ex fighter pilot) don’t really believe in him and his lunatic ideas; and the authorities, in the shape of NASA, the FBI, and the FAA are not that kin on this dude stepping into their domain (either the domain of space travel or the domain of building weapons of mass destruction delivery mechanisms).
The film pits Farmer against all of the above. Farmer is portrayed as a simple and honest person that has people picking on him for no particular reason but also family and friends he gets help from. Coupled with a rather stoic performance by Billy Bob Thornton, one cannot avoid the severe identification syndrome caused by the film as Farmer’s prospects diminish by the minute (despite some comic relief provided by the lackluster FBI ). Thus when the film’s genuine feel good uplifting moments arrive, and rest assured – they do arrive – one cannot but feel, well, uplifted.
As effective as the Astro Farmer is in the uplifting department, there are a few glaring holes in its logic. For a start, there are some basic script problems. That is, certain things just work out miraculously well for our hero. I won’t elaborate because I don’t want to be accused of spoiling the film for anyone, but let’s just say that the disappearance of the press and the authorities at certain key moments sure makes life easy for Farmer.
The more annoying problem is with what Astro Farmer is trying to say. It starts nicely as a film that tells us we shouldn’t always listen to what people are telling us we should do and we should not always do what we are expected to do; instead, we should take control over ourselves. In the age of conformism at all costs, as represented by Disney and many others (say, through the High School Musical franchise), having a film urging people to think for themselves is a positive. However, the film quickly deteriorates into a film about achieving one’s dreams and holding on to the hope of achieving one’s dreams despite all signs telling the hero to lose hope. Unlike The Shawshank Redemption, the dream here does not involve regaining one’s freedom that was wrongly deprived, but rather achieving a pretty selfish act (a quickie in space). This means that while Shawshank Redemption is a film about the human spirit in general, Astro Farmer is a film about achieving the impossible, or in other words – yet another film about that miraculous concept called the American Dream. As much as achieving the American Dream is nice and all, the agenda pushed by the film – that anyone can do it if they really put their minds to it – is simply wrong. For a start, although Farmer is portrayed as a simple farmer, he is not that much of a simpleton; he is an almost ex astronaut, which means he is well trained, and he also has some significant engineering skills to be able to construct a worthy rocket. No one I know can boast either of these skills. Now you go and tell the Sudanese refugee starving in the middle of nowhere that they can achieve anything they set their minds to achieve!
The problem is that any further attempts to impress upon people the agenda of “anything is possible if you want it enough” will actually depress them when their lives don’t turn out as flashy as Farmer’s despite the best of their intentions. Then, in order to continue the rolling of society’s wheels, propaganda films along the lines of Astro Farmer would be required in order to continue the public’s mass delusion. In other words, Astro Farmer is a film generated in order to sustain an unsustainable concept.
Last, but not least, there is some aroma of chauvinism in the film. All the glorious things are done exclusively by men, while the few women are only there to take care of the kids.
Best scene: I liked it when Farmer takes his son out of school so the son can help Farmer along with the last of the rocket preparations. The teacher complains to Farmer that the kid is in the middle of studying history, and Farmer answers back that they are not studying history but rather studying how to read history. The scene demonstrates what my main quarrel with conventional education is and why I have lost most of my faith in it; it also adds tons of roundness to the development of Farmer’s film character.
Picture quality: Compression artifacts and dreadful color fidelity.
Sound quality: Pretty boring for most of the film, but the uplifting moments are well designed to uplift. It’s a pity that in order to emphasize those key moments the rest of the film had to suffer.
Overall: Astro Farmer has its deficiencies, but I have my own deficiencies and one of them is being a sucker for the feel good movie. A mediocre film that earns 4 out of 5 stars from me.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

DVD's: Elizabeth + Elizabeth the Golden Age

Lowdown: The story of Queen Elizabeth losing her humanity to become a queen, and then becoming a human while already an established queen.
Elizabeth is a film I have watched once, on laserdisc, soon after it was released back in 1998. I didn't remember much of it; what I did remember was that I had a really hard time understanding what was going on, I had a really hard time understanding the dialog, and overall I found the film to be very boring.
Times have changed, though; by now Elizabeth has had herself a sequel that is now available for renting, and given that we wanted to rent the sequel we thought we should give old Bettie a go, too.
Times didn't only change for Elizabeth: I have changed just as well. My taste in films is now significantly different, and overall I am significantly different to the person I was ten years ago. Elizabeth proved to be an interesting test of the changes I went through with time.
For a start, I know much more about the background of Elizabeth's story. The story begins as the queen that reigned over England after the death of Henry the 8th is a Catholic that is married to the ultra Catholic king of Spain (the dude with the inquisition). That queen is sick and without a son of her own, so when she dies Elizabeth, Henry's daughter, becomes queen. Elizabeth is a Protestant, and the conflict that ensues between the about to be kicked out Catholics who don't like Elizabeth and Elizabeth's loyal protestants is at the center of the film. Overall, this goes a lot into explaining why I didn't understand much when I saw Elizabeth for the first time, ten years ago: At the time I didn't know much about the gulf that lies between Catholics and Protestants, pretty much to this day; to me they were all Christians. Not that I can now say why this gulf exists; both sects seem just as bad to me, with the main difference being who has the political clout (and let me just say this: the Pope doesn't really impress me with the way he yields his power). Watching Elizabeth certainly made me realize how lucky I am to be living in an age where reason has enough power to relegate the stupidity that is religion into the level of an ornament that is resurrected during public holidays.
Back to Elizabeth, the film basically follows her character as she matures into a queen. She has her royal surroundings with their politics and the perceived necessity to marry for political reasons, her loyalists (Geoffrey Rush), a lover (Joseph Fiennes), and a lot of plots against her to contend with; and in order to establish herself she goes through a process of becoming less and less human and turning into what was dubbed by the film as "the virgin queen". And it's all interesting and quite intriguing, now that I know the setting, now that I watch a DVD with subtitles, and now that I am much more inclined towards dramas than I was before; but the ending comes too quickly as all of a sudden Elizabeth disposes of all threats to her majestic self.
The Golden Age has similar themes but is much more simplistic. Now Elizabeth is an established queen, but the king of Spain still wants to get rid of her because of her religious inclinations. He initiates the building of the Spanish Armada, while back in England Elizabeth is fretting around with Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen), an explorer adventurer with colonies in America and an inclination to pirate Spanish ships that serves as the token male in the film because it seems like the filmmakers didn't think Blanchett can carry the film on her own without a man by her side.
The plot progresses along no particular route, and The Golden Age feels more like a collection of golden shots. That is, it is made of lots of nicely shot scenes, featuring cameras stuck in exotic places such as behind people's asses and such. No, they don't really go that far, but it does seem as if the director is so keen on impressing us he overdoes it.
Characterization in Golden Age is extremely weak. First there is repetition: In Elizabeth the first, Rush's character is portrayed as particularly vicious when he slits the throat of a young boy that came to assassinate him but couldn't go ahead with it; Golden Age has a fairly similar scene featuring an older Rush. And then there is the good vs. evil technique: The king of Spain is always shown murmuring in rather dark settings, whereas Elizabeth and Raleigh are always well lit and bright. In short, people become good because they look good rather than do good, and vice versa. According to the filmmakers, the king of Spain should have worked on his lighting rather than his armada, which - as everyone knows - has failed.
Interestingly enough, I have recently read a book about the Elizabeth period. From what I read, it seems obvious that many key elements of the Elizabethan period were not accurately reproduced in the film. Specifically, the sea battle with the Spanish Armada is significantly different from its acknowledged historical account: it is now believed that the Spanish Armada was mostly a collection of merchant ships rather than fine tuned battle ships. Then again, that would have made the English victory a bit of a lesser one, and one doesn't want to extinguish the flame of one's own film.
Acting is problematic in both films. While Cate Blanchett has rightfully made her claim to fame with Elizabeth, some of the casting decisions are rather weird. A lot of the actors simply don't fit into their roles, and some of the actors are just bad. Take, for example, Eric Cantona, who plays the French ambassador in the first film: I liked him as a player and I really think he was one of football's very best all round entertainers, but as an actor he sucks. Overall I would argue that the poor casting is just a symptom of the bigger problem of poor direction: Especially in Golden Age, director Shekhar Kapur seems more interested in creating fancy artistic shots than creating a film with a meaning and a plot.
Best scene: As the first Elizabeth starts, we see three Protestants being burnt at the stake for their "crimes". The scene is quite effective in setting up the film and telling us what the conflict around Elizabeth is all about, and as I said - it shows you just how mad religion was until it was tamed by rationalism. Sadly, religion is yet to be subdued.
Worst scene: Elizabeth gives her pre-war speech to her troops before the Spanish Armada arrives in Golden Age. We've seen Mel Gibson do this very effectively, we have seen Viggo Mortensen do it not half as well in Return of the King, but Blanchett is just pathetic.
Technical assessment:
Don't ask me why, but the picture is Elizabeth shows its age with way too much analog noise. The sound, however, is excellent for a mainly dialog driven drama - it's quite powerful.
Golden Age, on the other hand, is nothing special: the picture is nice but not brilliant, and so is the sound - standard issue for today's age.
The Pope has recently declared that "limbo" no longer exists, but I would rate Elizabeth as a film stuck in the limbo between 3.5 to 4 out of 5 stars. It is good and it is intriguing, but it is let down by some acting and direction quirks.
Golden Age is just a nice collection of shots with not much of a plot - 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Update from 14/8/14:
Having recently re-reviewed Elizabeth, I thought I'd drop a word about The Golden Age here, too.
This time around I could not avoid noting the triple force of the Australian contingency presented in the cast, courtesy of Abbie Cornish joining the ranks of Rush and Blanchett. The video gamer in me also noted Elizabeth's armour was not your average boob enhancer of an armour that our current culture likes to dress women in, but rather an effective armour instead.
More to the point, this time around I have found The Golden Age to be a decent movie. If I have to fault it with anything then it is it being the perfect sequel, in the sense that it is a pretty much exact copy of the original Elizabeth that has been pasted a decade or two onwards (both in real time and in Elizabethan times).
This time around I rated it at 3 out of 5, if not more.

Tuesday, 1 April 2008

DVD: Eastern Promises

Lowdown: A Russian gangster in London.
David Cronenberg is one of those directors that is not afraid to go to extremes, often mixing sex and violence at levels one is not used to seeing on commercial cinema. While most of his films are eccentric (Crash, a tale of people who crash themselves in their cars while having sex, is the primary example I can come with), I do find his films to gradually improve. eXistenZ was fine, if confusing, and Spider was very interesting. However, with History of Violence Cronenberg has finally managed to come up with a film that knocked me off my seat because it was so good; will Eastern Promises follow suit?
Well, yes, it does, thank you very much. It also features Viggo Mortensen in the lead role, again, and in a plot that revolves around Violence just like its predecessor.
This time around the story is set in London. Naomi Watts, a nurse of Russian origins, finds this young Russian girl who dies while giving birth. Watts takes care of the baby as her job dictates, but also goes out to find more about the mother in order to take care of the child.
In her quest she stumbles upon a Russian mafia family that is very cold blooded indeed. She gets knee deep with them, and soon her entire family is in trouble. However, she can't help being intrigued by Mortensen's character, a helper in the service of the family, who is both helpful as well as extremely violent.
In a typical Cronenberg way, Eastern Promises raises questions about violence and its justification. As in, is it OK to harm someone who is bad? Is it OK to harm someone in order to save others? These questions are raised through the use of extreme violence that would probably turn many peoples' stomachs. Then there's the issue of immigrants lives in a new country and the conflicts that living in a new country while keeping a firm hold of older values and supposedly integrating.
Aside of the gripping plot and the thought provoking aspects of Eastern Promises, the one thing I'll remember EP by is the acting. Watts gives a high amperage performance, but Mortensen stands out with a performance of a lifetime one is rarely subjected to: in his looks, talk and slightest gestures the guy would pass for nothing but a Russian gangster. If that is what Mortensen's second engagement with Cronenberg brought along, I can't wait for a third installment.
Best scene: There are many candidates worth mentioning here. For the role of the most esoteric scenes, the one where Mortensen ruthlessly fights for his life with two gangsters at a Turkish bath - while in the nude - is probably the most memorable.
Then there is the scene where Mortensen is interviewed by the Russian mafia bosses as they try to estimate his worthiness for a managerial role. It's like a glimpse into an alien world, but an acceptable alien world at that.
However, the one scene I liked the most is a much simpler one, where Mortensen warns Watts to stir away from bad guys like himself. Mortensen is just so good in there it's amazing.
Picture quality: It's dark and it's got its unique look, but it's also good.
Sound quality: The emphasis here is on realism, so while this is not the most engulfing soundtrack ever it does work in this sense.
Overall: One of the best films I've seen for a while, robbed half a star by the slightest of Cronenberg's eccentricities. 4.5 out of 5 stars.