Friday, 30 May 2008

DVD: Volver

Lowdown: Untangling the web of lies between three generations of Spanish women. Or: Women are doing it for themselves.
Volver is Spanish director’s Almodovar latest release and the third of his films I get to review in this blog. As with the rest of his films, or at least the ones I’m familiar with, this is yet another story glorifying the feminine and hailing motherhood. This time around, Almodovar takes his passion a step further by producing a film where male characters can hardly be seen let alone play a significant role.
As Volver starts, we are introduced to two sisters, one of them portrayed by Penelope Cruz, and Cruz’ young teenager daughter. They are visiting an elderly aunt of theirs at her residence in a picturesque Spanish village, and find the aunt is completely senile yet seems to be managing herself well with the help of a neighbor and the rumors of a ghost that is looking after her. The sisters go back to their apartments in the city, where Cruz’ husband is only interested in football and sex while Cruz works her guts off in order to provide for the family.
Next thing we know, Cruz’ daughter kills her father as he tries to rape her while drunk; Cruz decides to hide the body. Within a day, the elderly aunt Cruz & Co have just visited passes away. The two events trigger a chain of family reactions, and the handling of those is at the core of the film. As we go, we learn of more and more layers of secrets and lies that come in between the family members. Slowly, the harsh realities unravel themselves and transparency cures past illnesses.
I will not disclose any more of the plot as it would rob a lot of the pleasure that watching Volver is. I will say, though, that I found Volver quite intriguing despite its relative simplicity, mainly due to a simple reason: it is a credible story concerning ordinary people, as opposed to the normal Hollywood tendency to deal exclusively with the larger than life in the assumption that this is the only way to earn money at the box office. The only problem I have with Volver’s story is to do with the decision to hide the killing of the father when everyone who watched one of the 57 different CSI series would know that a child killing her rapist in self protection would be acquitted long before charges are ever pressed.
The acting in Volver is also superb. Penelope Cruz is an actress I never really grew to like but she does a great job in Volver, shedding most but not all of her stardom glamour. While Cruz is the only one of Volver’s actors I am familiar with and probably the film’s only international star, I cannot say that she overshadows any of the others; in fact, claiming that she is the film’s central characters while the rest are in supporting roles would be quite wrong. Altogether, the acting, the characters and the atmosphere contribute to a very enjoyable viewing: I can attest that with the web of secret and lies , the superstitions, and the mentalities involved in Volver, pretty much all Volver’s characters could fit very well as members of my own family.
One last thing: Watching Volver, I kept looking for clues as to the meaning of the name; I couldn’t find any. Afterwards, I looked the word up and found it means “back” (in the sense of a return). It’s a pretty adequate name, given the events taking place in the film, but it’s a pity this information is not provided to the non Spanish speaking viewer earlier on.
Best scene: Almodovar shoots Cruz cooking in her kitchen from above, in a short take that is memorable because of the unconventional yet quite detailed view of Cruz’ cleavage. I guess it’s yet another technique for emphasizing the motherhood motif.
Technical assessment: Quite poor. Although noise is not an issue, the picture lacks detail and colors are too reddish/brown. The soundtrack may be presented in 5.1, but sounded more like mono to my ears.
Overall: I will give Volver 3.5 out of 5 stars but that is rather harsh; the film is worth watching much more than its rating would suggest simply because it is different to the conventional crap we’re used to from Hollywood. We should be thankful we have French and Spanish cinema to save the day when we can’t take mediocrity anymore.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

DVD: Enchanted

Lowdown: Disney pretends to do a parody on its own films.
Back when I was a child The Magical World of Disney came to symbolize everything that's magical. I clearly remember how we would all gather at 17:30 in front of the TV to witness the fate of the latest wandering dog, bear, or any other weird animal Disney chose to focus on that week.
With time, however, I grew to despise Disney. The guy himself doesn't seem to have been the world's greatest humanitarian to say the least, and the studio is the emblem of commercialism and shallowness. Other than the Pixar films, everything Disney made since Aladdin reeks of capitalism's worst.
Apparently, that is exactly the starting point of Enchanted, a film that tries to capitalize on the cynicism we viewers have developed towards Disney. We start off in an animated world framed at a 4:3 aspect ratio and we're introduced to Giselle, a Snow White / Cinderella / Sleeping Beauty like oppressed princess that is withheld from her Prince Charming by the evil mother in law sorceress queen. As the couple is finally about to get together, the evil queen throws them separately into the real world - framed at 2.35:1. That is, they're chucked out in the middle of Times Square while totally unaware of the differences between their world and the real one. Those differences are what the film stands on: By mocking the unrealistic nature of the Disney cartoons of yonder it creates numerous laughs.
Eventually but pretty quickly Giselle is saved by a single father lawyer who is totally disenchanted with life and relationships. From that point onwards you can pretty much guess how the film is going to end like, and although I will not explicitly say how it ends I will add that your guess is 100% correct.
There are several critical problems with Enchanted. For a start, it is a musical, with that dreaded implication - more often than not characters just burst into song. How disgusting.
Second, there are some gross inconsistencies all over the place. People don't believe Giselle when she tells her story, but then they go on doing stuff that can only be accepted if they were to actually believe her. We're not supposed to notice these inconsistencies because we know that Giselle is telling the truth about the world she's coming from, but hey - if you were to be told Giselle's story, you wouldn't believe it; why do the people on the screen accept it? Given the context and the overall lightness of the film these inconsistencies are not the world's worst problem, but I was still annoyed because the filmmakers could have easily bypassed the problem altogether.
The problem that is pivotal and does ruin my enchantment with Enchanted is the film's boomerang effect on the Disney message. The film's entire premises is it mocking the old pretentious values of Disney's films; yet it joins in alliance with those very same values long before it quits joking on itself and we viewers lose as we end up with yet another typical Disney film reeking of capitalism's worst.
Worst scene:
Giselle savior's daughter has some quality mother/daughter like time with Giselle. What do they do together? What is the peak aspiration of a teenager that finally gets a worthy mother replacement? Well, lest we forget what Disney stands for, they go shopping.
My partner pointed out that shopping with her mother is nice. I agree: there could definitely be some fun in the process. However, does the fun come from the shopping, or does it come from spending time together? Why don't the film characters as well as real characters spend some proper quality time together instead of opting to waste it on shopping? Is it because they lack the capacity to think up a worthier experience to share?
I'll put it this way: I would much rather go for an aimless walk with my son or with my father and discuss, say, a book or a film we both read. Or at least start with that and see where we end up at. But shopping? No, thanks.
Technical assessment: Say what you say about Disney, they know how to produce a DVD.
Overall: Ideological criticism aside, Enchanted is still a funny film that just scratches the 3 out of 5 stars mark.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

DVD: Fahrenheit 451

Lowdown: Ignorance is not bliss.
Francois Truffaut is one of those directors that bewilder me. For a start, why couldn't they just spell it "Franswa Trifo" the way it's pronounced and help me avoid looking his name up before typing it here? Second, and more importantly, I can testify that although none of his films shook me like, say, the first two Indiana Joneses did, all the Truffaut films I have had the pleasure of watching were truly a pleasure to watch. There is no way around it: the guy was a brilliant and original director whose every film was a work of art. Fahrenheit 451 is no exception; it proves how a good and original film can be made despite poor means. It doesn't take money and it doesn't take an abundance of special effects; it takes a true artist.
The first thing that strikes you about 451 are the opening credits. Or rather, the lack of opening credits. Instead, what we do have is a harsh voice over reciting the opening credits over shots of TV aerials. You see, 451 is based on the famous Ray Bradbury book, and this made in 1966 film tells the story of a society were the written word is abolished.
That's not the only thing about 451's society. People are narcissistic to extremes, going about hugging themselves; houses are fireproof; and firemen are employed to burn books instead of extinguishing fires. They go about their job with much passion indeed, running special schools teaching trainee firemen how to locate hidden books, maintaining a secret police like regime where no one can be trusted, and carrying special equipment to burn the books with.
As if to remind us of another society that used to burn books we're quickly acquainted to a character portrayed by the German accented Oskar Werner. He plays one hell of a fireman, a guy who is so good he's up for promotion. However, one day, on his way back from work, he's approached by a neighbor, Julie Christie. She turns out to be a teacher who got fired because she was actually teaching instead of doing the reciting she was meant to be doing with/to the kids. Christie asks Werner a simple question that ignites the rest of the film: "Do you ever read the books that you burn?"
Werner then returns home to his wife, Julie Christie. She is the complete opposite of the train Christie (which goes to show how brilliant the dual casting idea was): she is so dumb and occupied with herself she can't even remember when she and her husband first met. All she does is watch the stupid crap that's on TV all day and do as she's told and as she's expected to do. Werner, on the other hand, starts doubting.
Fahrenheit 451 is so well made it would make Hitchcock feel inspired. To be honest, it borrows a lot from Hitchcock: the editing and the colors seem to have that Hitchcock flavor, reminding me a lot of Vertigo. The dominant soundtrack was composed by the Hitchcock regular, Bernard Herrmann, and it is as impressive and as suiting as a soundtrack can be. Sure, the special effects are well and truly bad, but who cares when the film is so good? It's rare to see such a film where every shot is so well composed and so well edited. Every shot is a work of art, often deploying unconventional means such as blackening out the irrelevant part of the screen to emphasize the action.
The thing about 451 is that it is a very relevant film to the world we live in today. As the current war in Iraq started, for example, most Americans said they thought the war was just because of Iraq's involvement in September 11. You see, ignorance is a problem in today's world, and the problem is not limited to the USA alone; Australia joined hands with the USA in its war with Iraq, and Australia was led at the time by a guy who openly said he wanted to make the people feel comfortable. So comfortable he was reelected almost two years after the unpopular war was started and despite the war's lack of popularity, simply because Australians did value their own comfort the most.
Warnings aside, Trauffaut makes Fahrenheit 451 a true ode to the joy of the written word. So much so he made me want to go out and finally purchase his book, "The Films in My Life".
Best scene: The scene to remember, apart from the opening credits, is the scene where Werner first burns books in front of us. The ceremony that takes place with the burning is so well directed it's quite a feast to the eyes, making its point very well delivered. If you look at it carefully you will notice it was shot in reverse, which is what makes actions like wearing gloves appear so pompous.
Technical assessment: Picture quality varies significantly and generally shows the film's age. The soundtrack is mono, which is a shame given the great score.
Overall: Look, Fahrenheit 451 is not the most exciting film ever. However, compare it to the trash you get nowadsys - say, look at the previous two posts in this blog and the one that will follow it soon - and you will see why 451 stands out not just as a film but as a work of art. 4.5 out of 5 stars, it shows there's more to good art than just star ratings; there are some qualities I cannot measure yet, such as brilliance, and 451 is full of it.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

DVD: The Nativity Story

Lowdown: The uninspiring tale of the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.
Those who know me will probably ask – “Nativity? You?”
Well, yes, nativity and me, for a couple of good reasons: First, I do aspire to learn more on the subject. Even if there are other areas more worthwhile me spending my time on, it’s still fairly interesting to see what the fuss is about and how it has evolved in people’s perceptions. Being that many if not most of the people in my immediate surrounding consider themselves Christian and celebrate Christmas, to one extent or another, having more familiarity with their customs is probably worthwhile.
Besides, The Nativity Story virtually guarantees a laugh; why should I prevent myself from having a good time?
The answer to that last question would primarily consist of the rather obvious observation that as a film, The Nativity Story sucks.
The plot has a major part in its failure. Simply put, it is not a plot that would carry any film worthy of its title, and the only reason why they’ve made it into a film is the “holy” aroma attributed to the story by more than a billion of this planet’s human inhabitants (official records say there are around two billion Christian born people, but I give them the benefit of doubt as being born to Christian parents does not necessarily make you a Christian in my book).
Set in the land of Israel of 2000 years ago, the film starts by showing us that times are tough: Israel is under Roman occupation (actually, Israel didn’t exist at the time; it was wiped out long before, and only the southern kingdom of Judea existed). Herod is the local king/messenger for the Roman Empire, and the film goes to great lengths to show how ruthless he is towards everyone weaker than him. There’s this scene where Herod supervises the construction of Masada, but in typical crap film fashion doesn’t really tell us what Masada is. What the film does tell us about Herod is that he loves his tax income.
The other side of the film’s working environment is the little people. The film portrays the people of Israel as hard working. They speak English in a contemporary Israeli accent, they engage in Aramaic whenever whatever it is that they’re saying is clear enough to avoid subtitles, they pray in Hebrew, they seem to be of Middle Eastern appearance (skin tone wise), and they’re dressed in gowns and such that would be quite an overkill for Israeli weather but look a lot like what orthodox Jews wear today. While the film tries to expose us to their way of life and their survival hardships, what we do see is a rather clinical interpretation: for a time in which most kids didn’t make it to two and no running water was available, everything is way too smooth. Want to convince me with authenticity? Show them going to the toilet, please.
Eventually we’re introduced to Mary, portrayed by that annoying actress from Whale Rider. I can’t say much about Mary from the film other than attesting to her having just a single expression on her face almost throughout the film. One day, while at an olive grove, some trees shake, this bird flies, and suddenly an angel is telling Mary she’s about to be pregnant with god’s child. People around her do have a problem with her pregnancy, but her would be husband Joseph doesn’t – he meets the same angel while dreaming and receives an adequate explanation.
The rest, as they say, is history. Or is it?
Normally, I would avoid comparing the book to the film, judging each on their own as both are limited by their medium. However, in the case of The Nativity Story this separation is made very hard by the shallowness of the plot and by the fact it heavily relies on visions for plot advancement. Besides, the entire story would be pointless if it wasn't for the book telling us what happened to Jesus after he was born, thus rendering the film unable to stand on its own.
Let’s be realistic here: if I was to say that I had a similar vision to Mary, or Joseph for that matter, I would be ridiculed; and rightly so. If we were all to regard what we see in our dreams as real the world would be in chaos, and if everything in our dreams was real then most of this world’s men would be partnered with Angelina Jolly. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the story’s premises are so stupid you just have to marvel at the way it tries to get away with the story of the world’s first ever IVF, two thousand years before IVF was invented.
Another weakness with The Nativity Story is its rather uncreative and template like way of going about. Characters are single dimensional, everyone is either good or bad, godly visions are always signaled by this flying bird, and comic relief is thrown in from time to time to make the ordeal flow.
Talking about comic relief, this is supplied mostly through the three wise man who journey from far away east to greet Jesus at his birthplace. As everyone should know, the only thing the bible says about the eastern visitors is that they were men from the east; the common interpretation of them being three kings and such is folklore, but not scripture, based. The film settles with making them three astrologers who follow a constellation of three “stars” to track Jesus’ birth, when the tree stars merge: Jupiter (a planet, not a star, last I’ve heard), Mars (another planet), and a third mysterious star. Thing is, with stars/planets, we - 21st century people - should be easily able to track their historical trajectories; this mysterious star that joined hands with Jupiter and Mars should have been easily identified, and the fact it hasn’t tells something about the story’s overall credibility. As goes for the entire concept of following stars, given that stars tend to move all over the sky due to earth’s rotation. And since when does Christianity endorse astrology?
There seems to be more creative freedom taken by the film other than those three astrologers. According to the film, but not according to my recollection of the Jesus story, Herod was worried about the prophecy concerning the arrival of a new king and was trying to track and murder Jesus; on his way, he killed all of Bethlehem’s babies. This doesn’t really fit well with the more credible account of Herod meeting the adult Jesus and not killing him as well as with the fact that Herod didn’t really have any reason to fear Jesus, who was pretty powerless during his time. Besides, those three stars joining hands to shine a light directly on Jesus' birthplace should have been enough for a blind person to track this much sought after baby, let alone a king with an army.
In short, the story is pretty thin. The story of an office person on an ordinary day would be more inspiring than the story of the nativity. Combine the uninspiring storytelling and the bad acting to the rather eventless plot that defines new limits of suspension disbelief, and you can see why The Nativity Story is a bad film. It did, however, make me laugh – laughs of that “it’s so bad it’s good” type. I don’t think the laughs were intentional, though.
Worst scenes: There’s a multitude of them, but the most annoying ones are those where the angel shows up in visions. He looks like a poof, and for some reason he’s always accompanied by this bird doing a flyby. How can I put it? When a bird does a similar flyby over my head, I worry about droppings.
Technical assessment: The filmmakers have opted to sacrifice picture quality in their bid for that authentic biblical look, that is - a high contrast, desaturated picture. Sound is pretty ordinary.
Overall: The Nativity Story, badly made as it is, will probably only succeed in raising doubts in the minds of believers. In the age of moon landings and mobile phones, the unimaginative nature of the miracles of old is clearly exposed.
1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 May 2008

DVD: I Am Legend

Lowdown: High aspirations fall flat in the face of a Doom.
Oh, how the mighty have fallen! Will Smith used to be involved with some great fun filled science fiction films (Independence Day and I Robot come to mind), so I was expecting a lot of I Am Legend; I was eager to rent it and give it a go. However, just as I was eager to give it a go before getting it, I was eager to click the “stop” button on my DVD remote once I’ve started watching it. Indeed, I Am Legend is an incredibly bad film for so many reasons I hope I would do these reasons justice by not forgetting the key ones in this review.
Let’s rewind back to the beginning and see where things went wrong. I Am Legend starts with a news clip featuring Emma Thompson saying she has found a cure for cancer using some genetically modified virus. The next thing we see is Will Smith racing around a Manhattan fully devoid of people, hunting deer with the company of his dog.
Through ongoing flashbacks and additional bits of information the film is kind enough to throw our way at a rather slow pace (even though they’re all pretty obvious to all the characters involved), we learn that Smith is the last human alive; for some elusive reason he is immune to the disease caused by Thompson’s experiment. Most of humanity died, whereas the rest turned into ultra strong cannibal zombie like creatures with rabies like symptoms that feed on healthy human flesh, are generally stupid enough to be lured by the smell of blood, and are referred to in the film as “Darkseekers” because they have this thing against UV radiation.
Smith is a physician/soldier in profession who spends his days running errands in the name of civilization and his nights shut off in his apartment building (conveniently located on Washington Square; obviously, he had lots of money in his time), working on a cure for the Darkseekers, and essentially hiding from them.
And then things happen; we are made to jump time and time again as ridiculous events take place. Eventually, even god is added to the narrative line. Luckily, I Am Legend is a rather shortish film.
The basic problem with Legend is that while it promises to be a serious science fiction film it’s nothing more than your very basic “make you jump” horror film. Any seriousness it might have had is completely demolished by all of its inconsistencies and the issues it chooses not to discuss.
Let’s have a look at some of them, if you will. First, we are never provided with an explanation as to why Manhattan was chosen by the USA federal government for detachment; it’s just a choice that provides for some sexy scenes with fighter jets knocking down the Brooklyn Bridge (I would have thought that ground demolition experts would have done a much better and safer a job).
We never get any explanation as to Smith’s role in the grand scheme of things: he’s a high ranked army officer, we can gather that, but he’s also working on a vaccine in this ultra modern lab he has at his home basement; some more background, rather than avoidance, would have been great.
Let’s examine the evil monsters, the Darkseekers, next. I agree humanity is facing definite danger with viruses gone wrong affecting the entire human population of this now globalized planet; after all, one of the reasons why humanity tended to evolve along small and culturally distinct societies is the advantage (that is no longer there) of these societies being varied enough for some of them to survive in the case of calamity. So we're off to a good start.
Next I ask, what are the probabilities of this virus turning people into aggressive with rabies like symptoms? High enough, I would say, as that would be an efficient mechanism to distribute the virus. What are the chances of rabies like symptoms when the virus is already airborne, the way it is in the film? Pretty low, thank you very much; you don’t see flu victims jumping at you to bite you, just because flu has a much better way of distributing itself. You see people cough at you instead.
And what are the chances of the virus victims turning into light sensitive creatures? And what are the chances of the virus victims turning into creatures sensitive to the smell of blood? Why are the Darkseekers so scary looking? And why are the virus victims so super strong, all of a sudden? Why do they only communicate with loud shrieking shouts? Why do they have a leader and a society of their own that doesn’t accept others, as in – what prevents them from eating one another? Why do they focus on killing healthy animals alone? I don’t know why I bother asking those questions; it is stupidly obvious the filmmakers did not go for credibility with their monsters but rather aimed for the conventional horror theme of the zombie.
Which is exactly where they went wrong. Your average horror film can get away with such blatantly improbable misrepresentations as blood sucking zombies in order to pass their agenda, but in a film discussing the potential fall of humanity, the “how” bit of the equation is very important; the treatment the “how” receives in I Am Legend is simply appalling.
Interestingly enough, Scientific American has recently published an article forecasting how Manhattan would be like if humans were to suddenly disappear off the face of the earth. The article concluded the area would quickly deteriorate: Apparently, Manhattan is built over several rivers that used to be overground until buildings were erected on top of them, and now they get pumped into Manhattan’s surrounding rivers. Without the people doing the pumping, some major floods will take place within just a few days. In addition, with no people to collect fallen leaves and such, fires are very likely; with no people to extinguish them, fires are likely to take down most of the island within just a few years.
I am not asking I Am Legend for such a level of authenticity; the film explains how Smith has power and that’s enough for me. It is clear the film neglects a layer of authenticity in favor of sexy abandoned skyscraper shots portraying the perceived height of humanity’s achievement and the size of its fall. I forgive I Am Legend for this loss of accuracy as it is there in order to make a good, if not original, point; what I do not forgive it for is commercializing a good idea for yet another zombie movie.
Originality is yet another ingredient that is missing in action as far as I Am Legend is concerned. How many films have shown us New York being destroyed by now? I won’t even bother counting them. The idea of having Manhattan as a one big exclusion zone has already been very well explored in Escape from New York. The idea of blood sucking light sensitive super strong evil monsters has been the basic premises of the Doom series for decades now. The idea of a man and his dog facing an apocalyptic future together was also explored in a film called A Boy and His Dog. In short, none of I Am Legend’s key motifs add to the discussion board in any way.
The DVD comes with some comics like animation clips. Unlike the film, these discuss hypothetical events taking place during the fall of humanity, perhaps the most interesting part of the crisis depicted by I Am Legend which is totally ignored in the film itself. Sadly, those clips focus on the rather eccentric, and join the main film in being silly and missing the point. Interestingly enough, one of those clips was written by Orson Scott Card; sadly, it is probably the worst of the four clips.
Technical assessment: The picture is good, so good it exposes way too many of the CGI effects for what they are; need I express my antagonism towards blatant use of CGI yet again? The sound is good, but it is used mainly as a tool for scaring the viewer.
Overall: Make sure that I Am Legend maintains its legendary status and give it a miss. 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Film: The Man from Snowy River

Lowdown: A boy becomes a man in Victoria’s high country.
The Man from Snowy River is one of those central pillars of Aussie culture that is routinely referenced yet up to the last weekend we haven’t seen it. It was time to remedy that.
The story follows a teenage boy who lives the hard life of mountain ranching together with his father. One day, while lumberjacking with his dear papa, they suddenly find themselves under attack by a horde of renegade brumbies. When the attack is over and the dust settles, the teenager finds his father dead. Worse, he’s cast out of his mountain home by his fellow mountain people, since the mountains are for “men” only and he’s just a boy.
Seeking shelter and food, he goes to a friendly one legged gold miner (Kirk Douglas) and eventually lands a ranching job with another guy (also portrayed by Kirk Douglas). He doesn’t really get along with the people he’s working with and he doesn’t really get along with the second Kirk Douglas, but he does get along with Douglas’ daughter. The plot thickens as the film develops, becoming one of those films that drip of fatalism and where everything’s connected: “the horse that killed the mother of the daughter is the same horse that killed the father whose son saves the daughter and secures the horses” type thing. When the dust settles, our boy is no longer a boy – he’s a man, with a worthy woman by his side, and a lovely home up the mountains. Hooray.
There is not much positive for me to say about Snowy. The film is badly directed and edited, featuring shots that have this “good old feeling” normally associated very with old films that just couldn’t technically muster it. Only that Snowy is not that old: it was released in 1982, a good six years after Star Wars. There are also some gross acts of bad acting, which – when you combine it all to create a mixture – make watching Snowy a rather entertaining experience because you just find yourself laughing at the foolishness on the screen. However, unlike, say, Transporter 2, this laughter was certainly not intended by the director.
The movie’s illnesses actually start with the script. In what has to pass as a rather weird omission, the script never allows the film to tell us much or anything about the environment the film is taking place in. All the characters speak of “the mountains” with much reverence, but no one really tells you what mountains they’re talking about and what the nature of these mountains is. For all you know, they could be talking about the Alps or the Himalayas; you need knowledge from the outside world to realize they’re talking about Victoria’s high country. And the Snowy River itself? As far as I could tell, the phrase is only used once towards the end of the film, and again with no explanations as to what river it is that they’re talking about. The brumbies, that play such a pivotal role in the film, are yet another unexplained term: brumbies are the Aussie name for “wild” horses, that is – horses that were abandoned and became wild. You can sort of figure out the brumbies from context as you watch the film, but why should you?
The script doesn’t do much favor to women, either. They’re more like decorations, something that’s there at the end of the day to help the tired men coming back from work. Douglas’ daughter, for example, is portrayed as a rebellious self minded woman who knows what she wants; but what she wants is to basically be by the side of the man of her choice, as opposed to (god forbid) actually doing the things that man can do.
Watching Man from Snowy River, you can sort of see why there is a lot of room for Australian society to evolve if Snowy River is its cultural representative. The film is still being used to promote the political agendas of contemporary mountain cattlemen in the face of the law that demands they take their cattle off national park land. While there is definitely room to debate whether people are to be removed from the land they make their living from, the artificial glorification of the mountain men and their ye olde “values” is quite detached from reality. Today’s debate is not about values; it’s about resources and it comes down to money, the only true value to motivate most people.
Worst scenes: Any of the film’s numerous montages qualifies. The South Park gang makes a mockery of Rocky and the montages that are a central part of each of the series’ films, but the dude from Snowy has himself more silly montages in one film than Rocky has had in all six.
Overall: For a bad film, Snowy River is still enjoyable to watch – but mostly because it’s so silly. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Film: Thirty Five Something

Lowdown: It's hard being a [close to] middle aged woman.
Having only recently watched The Last Kiss, an American film that gives relationships a good dissection and focuses on the early thirties age group, it was very interesting to watch another film that deals in similar issues from a bit of a different perspective. Different, because Thirty Five Something is a French film, and different because while Thirty Five Something deals with relationships quite a lot it's primary reason for existing is to give us an impression of just how hard contemporary circumstances make a modern woman's life; it's just that it does most of the demonstrating through relationships. In typical French film fashion, the film dissects the issue at hand by exposing us to the daily nitty gritty of women's life, rather than by focusing on some elaborate setup or trying to actively preach the viewer.
The plot follows three Parisian women in their mid thirties. One is a doctor with kids, married to a guy who thinks himself an artist and in the name of art doesn't do much to help around the with the running of the household. The second works for a marketing company and enjoys the pleasures of a horrible boss and a husband that seems much more attached to work than to her or her son. The third is single, yearning to find a mate, and as the film starts gets dumped and tries to contend with the ensuing hardships.
The rest of the film follows the three as they fight it out to survive and live the life they should be living. In a very American fashion, they do manage to solve their problems, but as with The Last Kiss the solutions are not perfect and require significant sacrifices. Interestingly enough, while the American made The Last Kiss offered French style explicit sex scenes, the French Thirty Five Something refrains from nudity in a very American style.
Still, the main point of the film is to do with the expectations people have of a modern day woman and the hardship they encounter in fulfilling those expectations: always having to look attractive, finding a guy who is decent enough (a task that grows harder as they grow older), managing career expectations, managing the family, and much more. It seems like the more educated and sophisticated the woman is, the more is expected of her, and thus - perversely - the harder life is for her.
Memorable scenes:
For the worst scene, there's the totally artificial scene when the evil boss, angry at the woman's victory, shuts the door with such anger the glass door breaks; that's corny.
For the best scene, there's the scene where one of the women is having sex but she's so consumed with the troubles of daily life that she keeps thinking of those and does the sex like an automaton.
For the scene I will remember the most, there's the scene early on when the three friends meet and walk about the street while fooling around (it's the scene that's in the attached photo). They mess around like kids, making me wonder what exactly were the director's instruction for the scene.
Overall: A solid, if overall forgettable, 3 out of 5 stars performer.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

DVD: Next

Lowdown: Yet another failed Phillip K. Dick interpretation.
It feels like only yesterday when I have explained on this very blog how, generally speaking, Phillip K. Dick's science fiction stories have been so far well converted into movies, with A Scanner Darkly being the first major exception. With Next, the exception count is now two, which leads me to suspect that the former success stories are paving the way to subsequent future disasters.
Make no mistake about it, Next is a disaster. It's one of those films that are an insult to viewers' intelligence, one of those films that are so bad you just have to laugh them off.
Next's story follows Nicholas Cage, who seems intent lately on featuring himself in sh*t films (National Treasure, anyone?). This time he's a Las Vegas illusionist that actually has a superpower: he can see two minutes into his future and altar his course of action to get the desired results from his future. While the film says this is his superpower, he packs a bigger punch doing lots of other stuff which the film comfortably ignores explaining but uses in order to set its direction where it wants to go.
Next we learn that a nuke was stolen from "the Russian Federations", which given Next's orientation to address the moron in us has to be the film's way of saying "Russia". We don't know how and we don't know why, but for some reason every FBI agent is sure this bomb is going to reappear in LA. Julianne Moore (what is she doing in such a crap film?) is one FBI agent who knows how to locate the bomb - use Cage to help - so she focuses her efforts on catching Cage, only that Cage doesn't want to be caught.
Through a really badly written chain of events Cage gets in trouble with the law while Moore chases him. Then he gets chased by the terrorists themselves, who somehow realize Moore's plan and decide to prevent her course of action from ever taking place. Trouble is, we never learn who these terrorists are and what their motivation for blowing LA up is; all we know about them is that they appear to be slick and ruthless and they speak European. Yes, just like Die Hard 4.0, Next tries to work by appealing to the viewer - in this case, the dumb American - through their patriotism, xenophobia and ignorance - with "European" being the true manifestation of all things evil. One only needs to have an accent to be perceived evil.
Chased by the FBI, the police and the baddies, Cage meets a girl he kept on meeting in his dreams (Jessica Biel, who was obviously not cast for her acting skills). With Biel next to him, Cage can see longer into the future than two minutes, which helps him combat the evil terrorists.
Events turn into a self fulfilling prophecy: the baddies are being exposed by Cage only because they're hunting him down because they're afraid of him, and Biel on the other hand is in danger through her involvement because Cage got in touch with her in the first place.
You would think that from here on the plot would thicken, but it doesn't. Next is basically an excuse to have some lame action scenes connected together with what passes for a story, but as mentioned already the story lacks any logical affirmation. Actions are not explained, and many a silly thing happen for no particular reason. Characters are as full of depth as a TV reality show, and act the way they act for unfathomable reasons (why did Moore start the film tracking down a mysterious gambler with an army of agents in the first place?).
You sit, you watch, and you can't believe what it is that you're watching.
Best scene: Biel and Cage visit the Grand Canyon. The lovely scenery shots distract you for a second from the bad film you're watching.
Technical assessment: Colors are all over the place and details are lacking, whereas the sound is below par for what is a Hollywood action flick.
Overall: Next is one of those films that makes you wonder how come the filmmakers didn't realize they were creating such a lemon. It's raw bad, 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

DVD: The Last Kiss

Lowdown: The complete guide to relationship issues.
We don’t watch Scrubs in our household, despite it looking relatively promising, but we did like Zach Braff’s Garden State. It had a nice soundtrack, it was nice, and it was good enough for me to want to rent The Last Kiss. Well, it was that, as well as the kind words it had received from David & Margaret’s David.
The film starts with a stag party and some confronting striptease scenes (that is, confronting in terms of Hollywood’s holier than thou approach to filmmaking, where beheadings are fine but sex is a no-no). Quickly enough we’re introduced to Braff and a load of his late twenties / early thirties mates, all of whom share one common attribute: they’re all facing problems with their relationships; all other than the guy about to get married, who gets neglected by the film from that point onwards.
It’s not a case of asking “what relationship problems do these dudes have”, but rather a case of asking “what relationship problems are not addressed by the film”; that second questions will get you a shorter answer. We have a guy who recently broke up with his girlfriend and can’t get over it; a guy who is into relationship as long as they’re all about sex, but the minute they get more involved he’s out; a married guy who agreed to have a child in order to reaffirm the relationship but found that it actually triggered the opposite; and then there’s Braff himself, who has a lovely girlfriend but is afraid to commit to marry her and now found that they are pregnant. These issues are augmented by the parents of Braff’s girlfriend, featuring the ever excellent Tom Wilkinson (I’ve had my eye on him since the first Rush Hour), who demonstrate how fatigue can ruin a relationship just as well as youth’s enthusiasm for “more”.
But the story doesn’t end there. During the wedding that follows the stag party, Braff meets a younger girl. She quickly attaches herself in a rather un-credible way to Braff, who fails to shut the door on her initiative; one thing leads to another, and we have a set of relationship crises for the film to solve. Do not worry, though – problems do get solved, if not seamlessly, because despite the straight in your face sex scenes this is, after all, an American film.
I have encountered a few problems while watching The Last Kiss. At first the dominant issue was boredom, but soon enough that was replaced by admiration to the film's thoroughness with the way it tackled the problem at hand.
Next I had a problem with the film's credibility. First, as I have already hinted, I had a bit of an issue with this beautiful girl suddenly putting all of her attention on getting this guy who, by his own admission, is happily engaged with someone else. Speaking from experience, these things just don't happen; I know I'm way too ugly to speak from experience in this department, but I really don't know any guy who had something like that come at him from a good looking girl while he was not actively seeking it. There are good reasons why this doesn't happen to guys, and they're to do with evolutionary psychology; a good looking girl should not have the motivation to hunt for guys when she would be better off identifying the best of the guys that's already attracted to her.
Next on the credibility department are the collection of characters the film features, each with his/her own problem. I was watching the film and thinking how stupid these guys are, one by one: the guy who is only interested in sex and doesn't realize there's more to life than sex, the guy who had a baby just to please his wife, the guy who is afraid to commit because he's waiting on some unexpected lottery prize to be handed to him by life... No one can be that stupid, can they? Well, on second thought, they can. For a start, the film clearly demonstrates how even the cool and calculated can fall (Braff's original girlfriend, who thinks she's got everything under control, takes care of that department). That's not all, though: each of those compromised characters I have mentioned is not far from people I know really well; and come to think of it, I could have easily been one of those guys if my circumstances were only slightly different. Say, if I loved someone enough to want to please her with a child back when I wasn't mature enough, I could have easily regretted it upon realizing how tough a job raising a child is. Or, if I was to fall in love with a childhood sweetheart, only to realize she's not my type years later as my personality has evolved and I find myself a different person to the one I was then. This are things that didn't happen to me mainly because I was so lackluster with my relationships that none lasted long enough to develop such complications.
In short, The Last Kiss made me realize just how lucky I am. And that I should strive to work hard to make sure my lucky run continues.
Best scene: Wilkinson explains to the disillusioned Braff that when it comes to relationships, it's not what you feel that matters but what you do. I liked the message because I think it applies to everything, not just relationships.
Picture quality: Pretty bad. Hues are all over the place, people looking yellowish...
Sound quality: Last Kiss features some directional dialog, but that's pretty much the only positive thing I can say about it.
Overall: Not the most exciting film ever to watch, but a solid 3 stars out of 5 for treating issues that are so relevant to most people, especially those in their twenties/thirties, in an atypical straight forward way.

Monday, 5 May 2008

DVD: No Country for Old Men

Lowdown: Three men fight out for a major money prize.
The Coen brothers have established a reputation mostly by creating films which mock the stupid people of southern USA (at least according to them). With No Country for Old Men they have created a thriller that is atypically low on humor (although humor is not fully absent) and uses the same stupidity to make a point - a point about the destructive qualities of the chase for money.
No Country follows three characters. The seemingly main one is Josh Brolin, a Texan welder who - while deer hunting - stumbles upon a drug deal gone wrong. In between all the bodies he finds a bag full of money, so he takes it home with him. Next we have the previously unfamiliar Javier Bardem who plays a psycho killer. Originally employed by the drug dealers to retrieve their money, he quickly disposes of them, everyone around him, and those that are sent to kill him as he hunts Brolin and the money. And last, we have Tommy Lee Jones, an old sheriff who dreams about the days when lawmen didn't have to carry arms as he follows the carnage left by the two other characters. Essentially, No Country is the heart pumping tale of Bardem chasing after Brolin.
No Country leaves you with this melancholic feeling. Lee Jones, who is there to represent you and I, gets tired of all the carnage around him that is the result of the Mammon idolization. He declares the country no longer fit for old men and retires; thus the simpletons of Texas serve to pass through an anti corruption message that would be much harder to communicate using a more complex environment.
There is some major high tension in the air while watching No Country. Fingernails get bitten, toes get tiptoed, and in general the tension is so tight you can cut it with a knife. The knife metaphor is very related to the film: No Country is extremely violent. It's not too graphic, but prepare yourself for some gruesome murders.
Tensions are so high that when the film concluded I was thinking something like “wow, now that’s one great film”. Then, however, I started thinking; and the more I think of No Country the less I think of it.
I feel like I was being cheated. For a start, the main catalyst in the film is a psychopath, so while you may as well argue that many politicians and other key people up the food chain are psychopaths (and a recent research I have read tends to support this call), it does feel rather unnatural; that is, if I am asked to conclude that the world around us is coming apart, I would prefer this conclusion to be based on sound facts as opposed to psycho babble.
Then there are the regular Coen bros tricks of manipulation. We watch the film tracking the events that transpire over the three main actors, but the feeling of “we know it all because we’re watching all three” soon shows itself to be just an illusion. You don’t really feel it while watching the film, it’s more of a thing you realize afterwards, but things you were not kept up to date about have a pivotal role in the way No Country’s plot untangles. I don’t want to give too much away, but I’ll just say we’re only exposed to the American view on events while the Mexican side remains mostly hidden. You can argue that not knowing everything there is to know is part and parcel of living but my problem is that I feel conned; the Coens make me feel like I know everything when in fact I don’t. As cinematic tricks go it’s a good artistic trick, but I see it as a cheap trick. Plus, as you will find out through a certain character’s demise, you don’t always get to see everything that happens to the main guys either.
Best scene: The psycho killer closes on Brolin’s motel using a bug stashed between the dollar bills. The slow process of pinpointing where the money is while leaving our hearts pounding with worry for Brolin’s immanent fate works incredibly well in the thrilling department.
Technical assessment: Like many other recently reviewed films, No Country opts for a high contrast look that robs details away and renders the picture rather unrealistic. The sound, however, is made to be more realistic than usual, which means that it’s mostly quiet but then downshifts strongly when the heart pounding moments arrive.
Overall: Immediately after watching No Country I wanted to give it 4.5 stars. The film’s deception, however, makes me want to give it 3.5 stars. It's not that I really mind being deceived; all films deceive us one way or another, otherwise the director would tell us the end right at the beginning and that would be it. I just feel the deception was there to hide relative shallowness.
I will therefore settle on 4 out of 5 stars, and add that regardless of its artistic qualities No Country is one mean thriller.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Book: Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: At last, the truth about the Second Foundation?
It’s been a long time but it was worthwhile: it took me two years to revisit Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, featuring his second most famous idea after his robotic laws: that in the grand scheme of things, human bahavior can be calculated using mathematical formulas in a similar way to the way we calculate the trajectory of a missile.
The Foundation series follows the Foundation, a world of scientists created by a genius who forecasted them to be the saviors of the galaxy’s civilization following the immanent collapse of its corrupt central rule. The first book followed the Foundation as it established itself through a set of previously forecasted crises that, by design, had to inevitably finish off with a Foundation win. The second book pitted the Foundation against a mutant that could not have been forecasted, and it was taken over; now, with the third book, we learn how a Second Foundation – made of mind reading psychologists - comes in to save the day for the first Foundation. Then, in the second half of the book, the Second Foundation fights for its own life against the first Foundation, now afraid to find itself under the control of mind readers.
Essentially, Second Foundation is a murder mystery type book. The mystery is not who the killer is but rather who the Second Foundation is; the rest is essentially the same. Like a good Agatha Christie mystery (conceptually speaking, of course, as there is no such thing as a good Agatha Christie mystery) the book exposes us to a wide range of characters, perhaps too many as I had problems tracking who’s who. Each of those characters seems more suspicious than the other, and eventually – as they say – “it’s always the one you least suspect”. Written in Asimov’s typical rough but effective style, Second Foundation presents a good thrill that is only solves in the book’s very last words. By being yet another murder mystery, however, one cannot say Second Foundation is anything special.
That, however, is not the end of the book’s story. The real fascination of the book comes from the type of mystery it indulges in when Asimov opens the wide door of mind controlling psychologists. After all, the advantage science fiction has over other genres is in its ability to credibly present extreme situations that will not pass with normal fiction. Throughout the book, you and the characters are always in a dilemma: How can they tell what is real? How can they tell whether they are in control of their own actions? Taken out of the story’s context, the grand question is how much of what we do is done because of our initiative and how much of what we do is done because we are programmed / destined to act in a certain way. Then again, is there a difference between the approaches in the first place?
And that, my friends, is what the thrill is all about.
Overall: Second Foundation is good but not as good as the series’ opener. I’ll be hard on Asimov and give it just 3.5 out of 5 stars, but I would also warmly recommend the classic Foundation trilogy to anyone wishing to indulge in high quality, thought provoking, science fiction.