Thursday, 30 October 2008

Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World

Lowdown: A manly romantic sea adventure.
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, or M&C from henceforth, has to have something going for it. It is, after all, a very rare specimen for a film we have been watching repeatedly despite the influx of new releases at our doorstep. Given M&C’s relative young age – it was released in 2003 – its achievement in managing to draw us back for repetitive viewings has only been surpassed by that Rings trilogy.
Regular readers of this blog would recognize me reviewing M&C is a direct continuation of my recent Russell Crowe festivities, with American Gangster and 3:10 to Yuma only very recently reviewed. To that argument I will answer that this time around my main motivation for re-watching M&C was Paul Bettany. You see, M&C belongs to the now extinct series of good films that Bettany took part in (including Wimbledon and M&C itself); since then Bettany has moved on to take part in crap productions like Firewall and De Vinci Code. However, there is a hope that the previously extinct might be revived: I have read they are making a film about Charles Darwin to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species, and Bettany will be playing the role of Darwin the naturalist there. Thing is, in M&C Bettany also plays the role of a naturalist, and just like the Darwin he will soon be portraying M&C puts him in the Galapagos Islands, admiring the versatility of life on board and wondering out loud how it came to be. It is this coincidence that attracted me to re-watch M&C this time around, and to its credit I have to say that M&C gave me the first view ever, as far as I remember, of those incredibly important Galapagos Islands. You may as well say I have re-watched M&C as a tribute to Darwin.
On to M&C itself. Surprisingly enough, given the length of my introduction, it is not a film where Charles Darwin plays a significant role; that part is reserved for Russell Crowe, who portrays a young, fiery and resourceful English sea captain. M&C takes us back to the early 19th century when England and France were at war (ask them today and the people of both nations would give you the impression the war is still going with much force). Napoleon is a big hit that threatens England, and Crowe's mission is to make sure France's circle of influence does not extend to South America.
With the slight exception of venturing the Galapagos, M&C is set entirely on Crowe's battleship as it circles South America in search of its nemesis: a French ship more powerful than Crowe's with a captain as resourceful as Crowe. Sometimes the French have the upper hand, sometimes Crowe has the upper hand; ultimately, it is a battle for supremacy between two masters and commanders, testing their mastery and commandeering skills all the way. We see things only from Crowe's side, as his crew faces a wide variety of challenges (from bad weather to basic survival) and as Crowe deals with them and especially with his ship doctor, Bettany. The way it all goes with its mostly invisible adversary makes for a great metaphor of a man fighting it out with the world in general. Indeed, M&C is a romantization of this theme.
I say romantization because everything is painted with lots of glamor thrown in. The sailboat and everything look real and all, but when you think about it things are not as authentic as they pretend to be; there is no way people would have looked and acted the same as they do in the film. Everything just looks too good to be true, given the harsh conditions: none of the crew has any sexual engagements (the bending down for the soap kind of way, as you would expect on a crowded ship full of men); although there are scenes showing maggots in the food, the food that is on display looks much too good given the lack of fridges; and no one seems to ever need to go to the toilet.
That said, M&C provides quite the adventure. Add some excellent production values, good acting, sets, and DVD mastering and you have yourself a very entertaining package.
Peter Weir, the eccentric director of M&C, has been known to make excellent films (Witness) and films that everyone seems to be very opinionated about (Dead Poets Society). In M&C Weir has managed to create something in between the two extremes, an entertaining film that you will still remember after putting its DVD back in the shelf.
Sound quality: M&C has to be praised for its sound, so I will do so here. In a very uncommon way, it features some very quiet moments of dialog and smooth sailing, some well recorded classical music, and some heavy pounding gun fights. The dynamic range on display is rare in its quality and depth, making M&C a true home theater feast.
Favorite plot theme: The ship’s sailors regard one of its officers as a Jonah that brings them all bad luck. It’s so bad that the officer starts believing it, too.
Overall: On its own, I would rate M&C at 4 stars. However, given the way it has attracted me to view it again and again, I’ll upgrade my score to 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

The Simpsons Movie

Lowdown: An overstretched episode.
After god only knows how many episodes and years, the makers of The Simpsons have decided to break new grounds (?) and do a film version. Wow! Not!
To emphasize the point I'll state that in my opinion, the gods we people tend to fall for are nothing but wishful thinking. Let me make it clear: The Simpsons was a great series, a breakthrough in the world of TV. The key word in that last sentence is "was"; since six years ago or so the series began to stagnate. Nothing new has come from Springfield in a long while, just repeats of old ideas and obnoxious attempts to further milk the money cow.
The question is simple: Did the move to the cinema bring with it a change for the better?
Well, there are some good words in me for The Simpsons Movie. Made at a scope like aspect ratio, the wider picture is much more attractive to the eye than the squarish proportions of the TV episodes. That said, this together with the DVD's enhanced picture quality manage to make some of the computer graphics deployed in the making of the film rather too obvious, especially in the scenes featuring lots of characters and especially when "special effects", if you can say that about animation, are used - things like tilting the set.
Being that The Simpsons Movie is very short at 82 minutes, the DVD had room enough to store a DTS soundtrack in addition to the mandatory Dolby Digital one. Being significantly less compressed, that DTS soundtrack reveals a significantly enhanced level of detail that most other DVDs never achieve.
The problem with The Simpsons Movie is that its picture and sound are the only true positives I can report. The rest? The rest is mediocrity. The plot is of no importance, straying about in typical manner between very unconnected themes in order to provide the occasional joke through some pop culture innuendos. What worked in the first Shrek doesn't work anymore, though. The main theme is that through Homer's carelessness, Springfield has been locked inside a dome under the order of President Schwarzenegger. With no one going in or out, the mob turns on Homer for revenge; let me ruin it for you and say that Homer turns out to save the day.
Lacking originality and lacking laughs - I think I've smiled 3-4 times during the film and laughed out only once - I found myself wishing this short film is over so I can get a move on with my life.
What can I say? It's just not funny. Maybe it was funny a few years ago, but The Simpsons have overstretched their stay. Groening and Co should have went home ten years ago at their peak.
Best scene: An operatic audio only performance of Spider Pig, to the tune of Spiderman, running over the closing credits.
Scariest scene: Maggie's first ever words at the very end of the film - "Sequel?" - have caused my spine to chill. Why should we be subjected to such horrors? I'm innocent, I tell you.
Overall: Do yourself a favor and watch Family Guy instead. 2 out of 5 stars, and I'm being generous here.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

3:10 to Yuma

Lowdown: A Western look at our apprehension of evil.
3:10 to Yuma is a new remake of a fifties Western. I can’t say that I have watched or remember the original, but the remake definitely caught my eye given that it features two of the very best contemporary actors and action heroes around, Russell Crowe and Christian Bale.
As we start watching 3:10 through some pretty intense action scenes featuring a Wild West carriage robbery we get acquainted with the two. On one hand, Crowe seems to be evil incarnate: The bible quoting leader of a gang of vicious robbers that stop at nothing from putting its paws on the prize money, including cold blood killings and including killing its own. Known as God’s Hand, Crowe even has a Jesus on the cross emblem on his pistol; what can match such a symbol of sadism?
Bale, on the other side, is a low key farmer. Having lost his leg in the American Civil War he is treading softly, wishing to avoid trouble. Trouble, however, finds him: A rich patron from his town burns his barn to convince Bale to return his debts but then blocks the water supply to Bale’s ranch. And now Crowe takes away Bale’s herd in order to assist with his carriage robberies. How much can Bale take? His son, for one, is tired of his father’s lack of a spine.
Then a great coincidence takes place, and Crowe is arrested while messing about at Bale’s town. The Local Law still got a major task on its hands, though: they need to deliver Crowe to the 3:10 train going to the Yuma from another town, a few days’ ride away. The lure of money attracts certain characters to escort Crowe, including the guy that burnt Bale’s barn. And, for that matter, including the totally desperate for cash Bale himself.
The going is tough, though: Not only do the Crowe keepers need to fend themselves from the incredibly resourceful Crowe, they need to shake Crowe’s gang that keeps on chasing them to have their leader released and they also need to shake off the dangers they bump into as they go riding about. As our heroes ride we learn more about Bale and a lot more about Crowe, and thus up until the tense finale we are left to ponder an important question – who, exactly, is the evil party here? Is Crowe really that bad, is he bad at all? Does he represent a kneejerk reaction to the abuse by those with the power and the money? Is Bale’s sticking to the law book attitude sensible?
These are all heavy questions and 3:10 to Yuma does well in their dissection, aided very well by its stars’ acting skills. I like Bale, but it’s Crowe that really shines here, reminding me again why his performance in The Insider is the best demonstration of good acting I recall.
The brilliance of 3:10 is that the question it raises are not just philosophical, they are very much relevant, too. Take, for example, the matter of illegal music downloads: On one side you have the record companies, that go out of their way to teach everyone that this downloading is illegal; on the other hand we have the general public, the vast majority of it downloads stuff (at least the vast majority of those who know how to do it). Is the public evil, or are the record companies the real villain here with their control over the music? And what about those that don’t download music because its officially illegal – are they everyone’s suckers, Bale style?
Alternatively, look at this world’s current financial crisis. It was caused by the greed of those on top with the power, but in order to address it the simple tax payer is required to open their wallets wide. I don’t know about you, but I would definitely love to see some Crowe style Yuma justice executed on those bastards.
Dramatic scene: Crowe’s gang arrives at the town where Crowe is held and it looks like an even fight is due. Then they offer $200 for every kill of one of Crowe’s guardians, changing the numbers on each side drastically. Bale is the only one left on the side of good, setting the scene for a potential High Noon.
Overall: It’s been a while since I have seen a new release as good as 3:10, and it has been a pleasure indeed. 4 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Sex and the City

Lowdown: It’s love that matters, stupid. And a designer bag to go with it.
The world, it seems, is divided in two: those that watch Sex and the City and those that didn’t. Yours truly belongs heavily into the second camp, having never watched more than snippets of the TV show and having identified the source of that most annoying ring-tone relatively lately.
There can be no doubt about me not belonging to SatC’s target demographics. This is the queen of the chick flick if ever there was one, aimed fairly and squarely at women considering themselves educated, mature, and most importantly – sophisticated. That said, although I wouldn’t have rushed to rent SatC right away if it was up to me, I was curious to familiarize myself with the phenomenon. Thus I have found myself sitting on the sofa on a Friday night eager to watch the DVD.
For a TV series expanded into the big screen, SatC is relatively long. In all other respects, however, it looks and feels like a souped up TV episode. Not that there’s anything wrong with that when it’s done well.
SatC revolves around four New York women, of which Sarah Jessica Parker seems to be the leader. All of them seem to have more money than they could spend, no real jobs, too much time on their hands (despite some having kids), and an extreme obsession with ensuring high status looks through the acquisition of material possessions (mainly clothing and accessories from brand names I have never even heard of that sound Italian or French). They also have problems, though: Getting married to someone who was married before and is afraid to do the same mistake again, midlife crises, infertility, pregnancy, a cheating husband, losing interest in their partner (to name a few). The film revolves around the handling of these issues, with the usual pattern one can expect from a Hollywood film that is out there to make a buck - things go well, all of a sudden things don't go well, breakdown, things recover for a happy ending. Hope I didn't spoil it for anyone.
The answer, my friend, to all of the above listed problems, at least according to SatC, is love. Fair enough; only that the answer is wrapped up in this cellophane cover and made much sweeter than it really is, and Sarah Jessica Parker gives these meaningless monologue speeches about how we make our own rules about love... and it all comes down to a pile of meaningless bullshit. The premises behind SatC is, to quote a colleague film reviewer, the selling of a certain myth to women looking for someone to sell them that myth; and in the case of SatC, those women will find themselves being pushed with the myth of love till it comes out of their ears.
That, however, is not the main problem with SatC. The biggest problem is to do with the values on display: Just as with The Devil Wears Prada, SatC claims that you're a good woman if you're in love and tolerant etc, but you're a much better woman if you wear a designer dress, shoes that cost as much as a car, and a handbag that requires a second mortgage. The stench of consumerism was way more than I could bear, and the notion that you're only as good as your possessions was even worse. Take that, Gandhi!
Representative scene: Jessica Parker hugs her token black assistant. "You gave me love", she says; the black assistant hugs her back and says, "and you gave me a [insert famous Italian brand name] handbag". Note: do not quote me on the exact wording.
Overall: Light entertainment that should not be taken seriously or as a source of inspiration. 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Across the Universe

Lowdown: Butchering Beatles songs.
From time to time one stumbles upon a film that raises the question within one’s inner self, “what were they thinking”? Luckily for me, I get to ask this question relatively infrequently, at least with regards to films. Across the Universe, though, has made me ask the question very repeatedly throughout the two nights over which we sat to watch it.
The premises behind Across the Universe are simple: Build a film out of Beatles songs. The idea has been tried before through incorporating Beatles songs or covers in the soundtrack. Across the Universe is different: Instead of settling with background soundtrack activities, it is the actors themselves who burst into song. And they do it for the vast majority of the film’s duration.
Before continuing to explain why saying I didn’t like Across the Universe is an understatement, I think it is important for me to establish my relationship with The Beatles in general. Well, for most of my life I wasn’t a fan; I thought their songs are too simplistic for sophisticated me. Eventually, and out of boredom with my own CD collection, I borrowed a certain Sgt Pepper CD from my sister’s collection. With time I noticed that I kept a firm grip on the CD and started buying my own Beatles CD collection. By early 21st century I have realized that The Beatles are probably my favorite band (“probably” because I don’t believe in ranking highly subjective preferences which are very whimsical and volatile to begin with, especially when they don’t contribute to much). I do have to add a disclaimer: Everything before Revolver is okay but often mediocre; Let It Be is nice but that’s all; but the stuff from Revolver to Abbey Road is sheer brilliance.
So what crimes do I hold against Across the Universe?
1. The plot crime: Across the Universe doesn’t have enough of a plot to fuel a five minute long Road Runner cartoon. It’s a tale about a guy from sixties Liverpool who goes to the USA in search of luck and falls for a girl while the Vietnam war is playing in the background, c'est tout.
I guess Across the Universe is trying to do a Forrest Gump and discuss nation shaping events that took place during the sixties against a Beatles background: black rights, gay rights, drugs, Vietnam, etc. It fails, though, because things are completely overshadowed by the items further down its list of deficiencies.
2. Character development offenses: None of the characters are developed enough to drive a film with. You get some superficial understanding of motives with the main characters but that’s it; the side roles are only there to provide lame excuses for people to burst into singing certain Beatles songs.
3. Excuses, excuses: The gutter level Across the Universe steeps to in order to justify the playing of certain Beatles’ songs is amazing. Just to give you one example, the character names include Jude, Lucy, Prudence and Sadie to name a few. What’s wrong with being more imaginative? My one year old would have done better.
4. Taking things out of context: As I have said, I like The Beatles. I was therefore greatly annoyed when certain songs of theirs were taken out of context. Let me clarify: it’s nice to take a song and use it out of context as a joke. It could even be nice in hundred more ways. But to take a song like I Want You (She’s So Heavy) that is obviously about the obsession that comes with love and turn it into an army recruitment song is a bit too much. The surreal way in which this is done (as per most of the film, come to think of that) doesn’t really contribute.
5. Cameos: The film is flooded with cameos of people singing Beatles stuff. There’s Joe Cocker, lots of people that are obviously famous but I don’t really know, and then there’s Bono whom by now I have grown to detest.
6. Illegal abattoirs: By far the worst crime committed by Across the Universe, worth sending off to The Chair on its own. The problem here is simple: The songs’ performances are so bad it is not funny. There is the issue of arrangements, and then there’s the issue of the actors’ singing level being something that degrade the quality standards of Australian Idol. To do that to some of the best songs this world has ever listened to, such as Happiness Is a Warm Gun, is a crime against the universe et al. Allow me to be blunt: there is not one song in Across the Universe that is even remotely passable; they’re just horrible, the type of thing that requires you to run and wash your ears immediately to avoid eternal contamination.
The only positive thing I can say about Across the Universe is that the prospects of watching it have caused me to re-listen to Beatles music. The film was so horrible, though, that I had to re-listen to Beatles music afterwards in order to ensure the performances' memory is erased. Which brings me to make a simple recommendation: If you want to get in touch with Beatles songs, by all means go ahead and do it; but do it by listening to their music. Their original music. It really is as simple as that. If you want to delve deeper into the meaning of the songs and the stories behind them, I would recommend the book A Hard Day’s Write.
Worst scene: The title of worst scene is heavily contested in Across the Universe. My choice is rather simple, a demonstration of how badly Beatles songs are integrated into the film. Prudence, one of the very randomly named characters in the film, who also happens to be one of the least developed and one of the most redundant, locks herself up in the heroes apartment’s toilet. In order to get Prudence out of the toilet, our heroes burst into singing “Dear Prudence, won’t you come out to play”.
Overall: Unbelievably bad. 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 16 October 2008

American Gangster

Lowdown: Heat 2.
The film American Gangster is a collaboration between three of my most appreciated cinema personas, director Ridley Scott with actors Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. With such an alliance you could say I’ve had high hopes; I can report, however, that after watching American Gangster I was mildly disappointed.
In what feels like a remake of Heat, AG pits Washington and Crowe on opposite ends of the law but hints at the great similarities between them and the vast grayness that lies between good and bad.
Supposedly based on real events, AG takes place during the sixties/seventies in New York. Washington plays the driver of the old black gangster boss of Harlem for whom he does the dirty work. That is, not just driving but killing and other things mob people do with their lives. The old master dies, though, and Washington quickly implements what he has learnt by organizing his own gang. He imports huge amount of very pure drugs from Vietnam while utilizing American soldiers and sells them at half the price the other gangs do. Quickly enough he becomes a rich and powerful man but Washington does not forget his roots and takes care of his family while being this ruthless old world conservative morals guy.
In contrast we have Russell Crowe, a policeman so dedicated to his job that in a background of a mostly corrupt police force he hands a million dollars he finds in a criminals’ car as evidence. Crowe is a recent divorcee with not much money, a son, dubious morals when it comes to the ladies, some criminal friends – but also a sense of justice that prevents him from doing anything against the law and puts him on a mission to fix this world of its bigger drug problems.
And thus Washington and Crowe’s paths are set to collide.
Look and feel wise, there can be no doubt AG is a Ridley Scott film. The settings, the backgrounds, the editing, the camera movement – all smell heavily of the Blade Runner spice. On its own that’s good; I think Blade Runner is a smashing film. Yet there are enough issues with the Ridley Scott implementation of AG to make it a bit of a dud.
For a start, there is a lot of confusion throughout the film. It’s always a case of “what did he do there”, “what did he say”, “who is this guy” etc. The viewer is intentionally left with no answers until very late into the film when Crowe explains things for us in a monolog that would befit the theatrical release of Blade Runner but which Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut did well to dispense of. On one hand this uncertainty keeps you on your toes, on the other it’s quite annoying: you never know whether you should have realized what’s going on or whether it is this intentional strategy of ambiguity again.
I have often asked myself whether I would have liked Blade Runner as much as I do if I was to watch the Director’s Cut before the theatrical release. The reason for this deliberation is that while obviously a better film, the Director’s Cut is much more ambiguous due to the lack of explanatory monologs. Having watched the theatrical version first I have had the benefit of knowing what was going on in the Director’s Cut regardless of its ambiguity. But back to the subject at hand, American Gangster seems to have given me an answer to my Blade Runner question, and it’s not the answer I would have liked to hear.
Ambiguity is not the only problem with AG. Despite its solid performances, 150 minutes of American gangsters and problematic policemen proved to be a bit too much for me. You want to know what is to happen, but there is no denying I checked the time more than a couple of times while watching AG. It tries to be meticulous in its character development but it ends up being a bit too boring for its own good.
Can’t believe it scene: When, at last, Washington and Crowe share the same shot, more than two hours into the film, all you get is a hand gesture before the fadeout. One sorts of expects more. For the record, there is more; in the tradition of Heat it’s not much more, though.
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars. Undoubtedly, American Gangster is a good film. It’s just not a film I have particularly enjoyed watching.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Iron Man

Lowdown: An actors’ superhero film.
I’m not a fan of Robert Downey Jr. At least I wasn’t one until relatively lately when he started coming up with performances that captured my imagination in films like Kiss Kiss Bang Bang or Zodiac. In his latest, Iron Man, Downey continues the trend but this time as a full blown action hero. A superhero. A complicated one at that, though, with an ego to match: Downey is a rich arms dealer with morals so low they would make a politician whimper.
Downey is not alone, though. Next to him we have Gwyneth Paltrow, an excellent actress who seems to have gone the way of the Hollywood actress once deemed beautiful and talented and now deemed too old to attract an audience based on sexuality alone (that is, she disappeared off the radar). Naturally, she can’t be back to the world of film in the lead role she deserves, so she got casted as Downey secretary.
Downey’s opposite is played by Jeff Bridges, type cast as the older dude that doesn’t get much screen time but everyone is meant to appreciate due to his past roles. Bridges portrays a character called Obadiah, and sporting a shaved scalp with a long beard he does look very much like his namesake Ovadia Yosef. Obadiah is Downey weapons company’s second in command and former number one, who took over the company after Downey’s father died and had to relinquish the post to Downey once Downey was old enough to take it over. Naturally, Obadiah like Downey very much for that.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Iron Man starts with Downey taking a trip to Afghanistan to demo his latest mass destruction missile system to the American army when his convoy is attacked and he is both severely injured and captured by the evil enemy. While in captivity he has an epiphany and realizes that his morals were wrong, yet his ego doesn't suffer much as he builds an iron suit and a super duper power supply to run himself and the suit with. He escapes his captors, and soon enough he ventures to kill them all and get rid of this world's evil in general. He won't, however, get rid of his own ego.
There is not much to say about Iron Man. It is entertaining, yet although you can argue it delivers a message of sorts – as in, something for the American people to think about as they go about spreading freedom using the power of their weapons – this is not a movie to cause much pondering. Indeed, it was never designed to be such a film; it's merely a film where some good actors are having themselves a good time in an action film that is not overly devastated by crude CGI effects but actually has some characters worth making a film about instead.
One thing that has to be said about Iron Man is that it doesn't always make sense. Take, for example, the suit itself: it seems as if its revolutionary energy source not only provides it with energy but also with a jet like propulsion system. And at the end of the film's evil iron man vs. good iron man battle, why does the evil iron man's suit change the normally normal voice of its evil user into an evil sounding voice? Anyway, just wanted to further emphasize Iron Man being not much more than light entertainment. Good light entertainment.
Annoying scene: The very end, just before the closing credits, and the cameo scene just after the end credits. Both spell out the looming arrival of a series of Iron Man sequels. I admit, Iron Man is a fine film; but personally, before seeing its sequels, I would much rather explore more original avenues. I would rather see Aluminum Man and Stainless Steel Man before seeing Iron Man 2.
Overall: An excellent choice for light Friday night entertainment. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

On the Beach

Lowdown: Coping with the fact everyone will die soon.
On the Beach is a fifties film of which I have heard through a newspaper article. The article said this film, shot in fifties’ Melbourne, is often used in order to show Melbourne based students how life was like back in the good old days when everything was either black, white, or something in between. That article made me curious enough to want to watch the film, but the reality is I already knew most of what there is to know about On the Beach through a mini-series based on the same story and released early this century. I didn’t watch all the episodes and I was curious to see the beginning of the story, so I went out to seek the original.
Turns out the beginning is, indeed, interesting. On the Beach starts with Gregory Peck, a US navy submarine commander, as he navigates his vessel through Point Nepean (the entrance to Port Phillip Bay in which Melbourne resides). And while this takes place we hear a radio broadcast saying that the radioactivity from the nuclear exchange that took place recently seems to have killed the entire world, that is – no radio contact outside of Australia – and that carried by the wind, this radioactivity is now descending on Australia and is expected to reach Melbourne within five months. In effect, Melbourne is the last place on earth and it has a nearby expiry date, too.
Soon enough we are introduced to other characters. We start with a pre-Psycho Anthony Perkins portraying a young Australian navy officer from Frankston who is also a recent father. His wife refuses to acknowledge their imminent end but Perkins’ realism is and the ensuing conflict are at the core of the film.
Next we move on to a rather austere Fred Astaire, who in contrast to my expectations doesn’t do even a single dance step but rather spend his time as a serious scientist driven to alcoholism by the imminent cataclysm. That, and the knowledge that his work on nuclear weapons has helped bring the end of the world sooner rather than later.
Last, but not least, we bump into Ava Gardner as the femme fatale with whom Peck falls in love but can’t really fall in love with given that he has his wife and kids back home (but then again he doesn’t have them anymore).
The funny thing is that all the movie’s characters other than Peck are supposedly from Frankston, which defies any common perceptions the current Frankston may have. True, Frankston does have a nice beach, but at least today its reputation of roughness far exceeds its reputation as a lovely place by the beach.
As the reader can already figure out from the characters’ descriptions, On the Beach revolves mostly around the heroes and their surroundings coming to terms with what took place, what is taking place, and the imminent end. How do you live your life when you know it’s going to end soon? How do you raise a child when you know there nothing to raise them for? How do you love someone? What is there to live for in the first place? Each of On the Beach’s characters brings their own answer to these questions. Some look for a solution at whatever cost and don’t lose hope, others ignore the problem, some lose hope to become morbid, others put their faith in god, and others become suicidal.
Thus, by showing us a very possible future, On the Beach attempts to act as a warning to us all about the danger humanity is facing with nuclear weapons. This rather depressing film is, indeed, quite effective at pointing to this greatest of dangers, a danger that is still very much there even though the Cold War is officially over. Think about it this way: If, in every given year, there is a 1% chance of a nuclear exchange (for whatever reason - be it Iran, Pakistan or Russia), then what are our chances of making it to the end of the century?
On the Beach also points at the rational behind a nuclear exchange, or rather the lack of it. Is it worthwhile to kill the entire world in order to defend some ideal? Are our ideals so different to the other side’s that protecting them with two edged swords begging to be used is such a wise idea?
By dealing with imminent death, On the Beach takes another step towards relevancy. While, hopefully, a nuclear exchange may never happen, one thing that is guaranteed to happen is that each living thing around us will eventually die. That includes all of us, all of our parents, and all of our children. How do we and how should we, the condemned, cope with this very tragic outcome? Most of us are busy denying or ignoring it, but as On the Beach points out this is probably not the wisest course of action.
While being thought provoking, there is an oddity or two with On the Beach. For a film taking place in Australia with three out of its four stars being supposedly Australian, there is a definite lack of Aussie accents. Other than an NPC saying “mate” as a passing comment and the Melbourne views, On the Beach would have been deemed to take place in California. Today I would suspect the American filmmakers would go the other way around, with all Aussie characters riding their kangaroos to work and killing the occasional trespassing croc with their bear teeth. Then there's the incredible coincidence of all the key Australian characters featured in the film not only knowing one another but also ending up cooperating to save the world using the last remaining nuclear submarine. And if stretches are what we're discussing, another stretch is a world full of radioactivity yet also full of places with no visible physical damage as a result of the nuclear war. I don't particularly like it when films stretch things that far; yet the biggest potential stretch that may be open to debate is in the world coming to an end without society deteriorating into a state of utter anarchy. Could that really happen?
As for its impressions of Melbourne in the fifties, On the Beach definitely delivers. It’s interesting to note just how flat Melbourne’s CBD, now dominated by high rises, once was. One thing that didn’t change is Melbourne’s “electric train” service: The film’s trains look just like those run by Connex today, fifty years later. The similarity is staggering, just like the quality of service on Melbourne's trains is nowadays.
Best scene: The last car race in the world takes place in Phillip Island, and people will kill and be killed to win it. Funny things can happen when no one has anything to lose.
Overall: On the Beach is a rather weird film but definitely worth watching. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 3 October 2008

The Man Who Knew Too Much

Lowdown: Would you sacrifice your son for a higher cause?
I like Alfred Hitchcock's work, and of the Hitchcock films I got to see my favorite has usually been The Man Who Knew Too Much. It's not just that the film is good; a lot of it has to do with the circumstances in which I saw the film. Until I saw it again in cable during later years, it was a case of watching it twice at the cinema, both occasions through school outings to cinema Lev Dizingoff at the heart of Tel Aviv: the first during a primary school excursion, the second during a high school excursion. How can I not like the film given that already it helped me skip two school days?
On both occasions we've had a lecture by famous newspaper movie critics about Hitchcock and the film before we got to watch it, which made it a particular delight to have David Stratton introduce the film with a short lecture when ABC2 aired it last Saturday. Interestingly enough, all three of them (Yehuda Stav, Gidi Orsher and Stratton) said roughly the same things, give or take a bit.
Actually, the 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, starring James Stewart and Doris Day, is a remake. Not your usual remake, though; it's Hitchcock remaking one of his older films (both of which share the same title). I have seen the "original" once, and I don't think there can be much doubt about the "sequel" being vastly superior.
Stewart is an American doctor devoted to his career and Day is a devoted wife who gave up her career as a famous singer to be with her man. That's the typical Hitchcock woman for you. They visit Morocco, a place Stewart has helped liberate during the war and through a collection of incidents meet several characters to whom they say everything about themselves while they let them take care of their child yet about whom they know nothing. Day becomes suspicious but Stewart calms her down repeatedly.
Then, while touring a street market, one of those characters appears in front of Stewart and dies in his hands with a knife stuck in his back. While dying he tells Stewart a few words; words that make Stewart know too much. The next thing Stewart knows, he receives a call telling him to keep his mouth quiet or his son, a hostage, will die. But can Stewart keep his mouth shut and should Stewart keep his mouth shut, given that the information the dying man gave him was about a plot to kill someone? Who is more important, the subject of the murder plot or the son? What is the right thing to do in such a case?
Stewart decides to use the clues at his disposal and track his son. The couple arrives in London, where the plot thickens Da Vinci Code style (but much better) until it reaches its climax during a musical concert at Albert Hall and later while Day sings her famous rendition of Que Sera Sera (the song was originally written for this film). That's is yet another personal point of emotional contact for me, as we've studied the song in English class back at school.
Overall, beyond the ethical dilemma that drives the film, The Man Who Knew Too Much is simply cinema at its best. Day and Stewart's performances are excellent, their characters are very slowly but thoroughly and without a minute of boredom developed, and the thrilling drama scenes are so slowly and artfully stretched for maximum effect they are a delight to watch. Magnificent entertainment.
Best Scene: The final Que Sera Sera, of course; it's touching.
Overall: The Man Who Knew Too Much is, indeed, a lesson in the art of movie making. 5 out of 5 stars for Hitchcock.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Lowdown: A man finds his way.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Raider's of the Lost Ark's sequel, takes a rather unique approach. Unique as far as sequels are concerned: It tells us a story that took place before its predecessor.
The younger Indiana Jones, portrayed once again by Harrison Ford, starts the film a young adventurer hell bent on getting his share of fortune and glory. An archaeologist by profession, he does not hesitate to sell his findings for the right amount of money (or rather, for a precious diamond) instead of putting them where they belong, in a museum. It's only when things go wrong and he comes face to face with the dark side within him that he comes to his senses and realizes what is truly important in this world of ours. And guess what: those truly important things are not fortune and glory.
Ok, it's time to cut the bullshit. We've all seen Temple of Doom and there is no need for stupid introductions; my only intention with the above description was to show that beneath the adventure film I have watched god-knows-how-many-times lurks a story, and not a bad one at that. It's just that the story is so well hidden under extremely thick layers of action that one tends not to notice it.
In Temple of Doom Spielberg has managed to create this uncommon beast: a sequel that is better than the original, a sequel that turned out to be the best of its series. Not many other a movie series can boast an improvement with their sequel; off the top of my head, I can only name The Empire Strikes Back for Star Wars and Terminator 2.
So good Temple of Doom is that we wanted to reminisce on it before we finally put our hands on an Indy 4 DVD, and having watched it again after a good few years without I can see exactly why I think so highly of it: Temple of Doom is entertaining, original, and technically perfect. Sure, some of the special effects are more than a bit dated, but at least they're not of the crap or overdone digital type that attracts too much attention to itself and look as real as Pamela Anderson's breasts. Between its editing and the cinematography, Temple of Doom is second to none; however, where it stands head and shoulders above the rest is in its musical soundtrack: John Williams has created a masterpiece with themes that take us viewers throughout the journey that is the film and guides us along.
Till now, I have watched Temple of Doom twice at the cinema, many (many) times on VHS, and many times on laserdisc. This was my first go with the DVD, and I have to say that being able to watch the film in its original aspect ratio on a widescreen TV has made a huge difference: it just felt so good, composition wise. The picture was astonishingly good and the sound excellent, especially given its age. Shots that I remembered as eccentric suddenly made sense when I could see the entire frame. Hell, I know this would be controversial, but I even thought Kate Capshaw was good - as in, doing a good job given the context - and that Anything Goes, the song, fits the occasion.
I must be getting too old.
Favorite scene: The opening roller coaster, of course. Beats the crap out of everything from the Bond corner.
Overall: Temple of Doom is at the foundation of my movie watching experience. If I was to rate it, it would feel like me rating the alphabet. I will therefore stick with saying that Temple of Doom is not only a film I consider amongst the very best I have ever seen, but it is also a film that has become a foundation stone for the person that is me.