Sunday, 30 November 2008

Death Proof

Lowdown: The struggle between men and women, Tarantino style.
Let it be known: I am not a big fan of Tarantino. Sure, there was a period in which I thought very highly of Pulp Fiction, and I am pretty sure I will still enjoy that film as well as some of his other films (albeit to a much lesser extent); thing is, my appreciation for Tarantino as a movie maker has severely waned over the years. Whereas once he was a bold original, now he seems to me like someone who knows a few tricks (emphasis on few) and who is, overall, lacking in originality and trying hard to compensate through lesser means.
Which is my way of saying that I wanted to see Death Proof the way I wanted to see all of Tarantino's stuff after Pulp Fiction, but I wasn't holding my hopes up high. And indeed, Death Proof does not provide much of a reason to hold one's hopes up high.
The story, if you can refer to Death Proof as a movie containing a story in the first place, follows a bunch of girls as they go out to have some drinks one night. There they chat for what seems to be an eternity but is probably something like three quarters of an hour long pileup of the regular Tarantino dialog: much ado about nothing, but peppered with stuff that should make it sound cool. As I have said before, originality is lacking from Tarantino's arsenal, and said dialog is as invigorating as reading an old newspaper.
Anyway, as the girls make their way out they are stalked by Kurt Russell, a stuntman with a death proof car: A Ford Mustang, if I'm not mistaken, that has been enforced enough to allow him to go through any traffic accident without severe damage. Using his car Russell intentionally collides with the chicks we've met before, killing them all (I know some would say I am telling you much of the movie's plot, but my point is that this killing is not on the movie's critical path; the movie's experience is in the dialog, not the plot). In typical Tarantino fashion he goes over the killings quite thoroughly, showing us bits of limbs getting cut off and faces getting treated by the oncoming death proof car; it's all made in such a way that glorifies it and is meant to work on our emotions the way porn would, the primary reason why I no longer hold Tarantino to be an inspirational director but rather one who has gone to the dogs.
Next thing we know a year has past and there's a new bunch of girls out there. Prolonged dialog sessions endue, and eventually they get the Kurt Russell treatment too; only that they will not succumb like chicks to the slaughter, providing us with some exciting car chase scenes.
I think the main positive thing I have to say about Tarantino's Death Proof is that he doesn't do his usual time shifting tricks; Death Proof's plot is linear, thank you very much. If you are looking for a message under the thick layer of boring dialog, it is to do with the struggle between men and women. All the men in Death Proof, including Russell, are out there to satisfy their basic needs through women, and they will stoop as low as required to get what they want; the women, on the other hand, are basically trying to survive in this hostile environment.
Best scene: The car chase scenes at the end. It's very exciting, but once again it works on raw emotions and makes you feel as if you're watching porn. How else would you explain having cars bashing into one another with one of them sporting a girl in a crucified like position over one of the car's hoods as she's tied by belts?
Picture quality: In a bid to make Death Proof look like an old matinee film of yonder, the film was made to look old, with pops and reel replacement and color fadeouts and much more. If you ask me, it just feels stupid and adds nothing to the experience.
Sound quality: As uninspiring as it can be, I guess. You do get the usual Tarantino mix of old style music, though.
Overall: A rather pathetic 2.5 out of 5 stars effort. Without the chases at the end this would have been a mighty boring film.

Friday, 28 November 2008

The Counterfeiters

Lowdown: Dilemmas of the highest caliber in a concentration camp.
The Counterfeiters is a film belonging to a high prestige group of a very small membership: the high quality, intense holocaust film that is inspired by true events. As far as my notes recall, the group used to contain Schindler's List and The Pianist alone; now it has a third member.
The plot revolves around a German guy called Sorowitsch, who just happens to be a Jew and also be a master counterfeiter; any set of papers you want, Sorowitsch will arrange for you. That is, until the day he's caught by German police. With the way things are going in Nazi Germany he quickly finds himself at a concentration camp, but he is not the one to disappear there; Sorowitsch knows how to handle himself with the Kapo (the notorious criminals who ran the concentration camps for the Nazis). He can manage himself with the Nazis, too, if that is what it takes to survive.
The years goes by and the war is close to its end. The Nazis have a special plan for Sorowitsch: they get him to a special made facility inside a concentration camp and "spoil" him and a group of other prisoners with such goodies as beds with mattresses. In return, the Nazis want him to forge British Pounds and American Dollars so they can cripple their enemies economies before they are beaten in the battlefield.
Being that Sorowitsch is good at what he does he quickly delivers on the British Pound. But when the aim is set to the Dollar dilemmas start: how are the prisoners best serving their cause? Is it by prolonging their own lives and delivering for the Nazis, at the risk of becoming expandable when the goods are delivered? Or is it by making life as hard as possible for the Nazis so that their cunning plans do not materialize and they lose the war? Both sides are very well presented in the film and the conflicts between the two sides are at the film's core. Indeed, it's easy for us to stand here and be noble about the right thing to do in such a situation, but I doubt any of us would choose anything but self preservation when the alternative is so clear. In between the two opposing groups we have Sorowitsch, trying to pull the rope from both ends.
This German speaking film is relatively short at just a bit more than an hour and a half, but it delivers and delivers well. There are but a rare few films that deliver their message and their dilemmas better than The Counterfeiters, if anything because of the extreme circumstances of the holacaust enable the discussion of cutting edge motifs.
Best scene: I liked the way in which the core dilemma is explored. In particular, I liked the Jewish banker who works in Sorowitsch's team of counterfeiters. The guy keeps on making sure everyone knows he is decent and that he's only doing the counterfeiting because he's forced to; he even says it to the Nazis at the risk of death, only because his image of himself as a human being is more important to him than his life. In the circumstances where all that is humane is meant to be erased, maintaining humanity becomes the most important thing.
Sound quality: Although only a stereo soundtrack is supplied on the DVD, the surround envelopment provided through matrix encoding on my receiver made it sound better than many 5.1 releases.
Overall: An important film of 4 plus stars out of 5.

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

I'm Not There

Lowdown: A collection of thoughts "inspired" by Bob Dylan.
After writing what I did on Notes on a Scandal and after receiving lots of feedback in return, I wanted to watch I'm Not There in order to be able to watch Cate Blanchett in her performance of Bob Dylan that has earnt her so much praise.
Blanchett is not on her own in I'm Not There: The film, supposedly inspired by Bob Dylan's real life story, features several very famous actors seemingly portraying different aspects of the Dylan character. Blanchett aside, we have top man here to contend with. Who? Top man: Richard Gere, Heath Ledger and Christian Bale! Wow, this sounds promising!
Well, it isn't. Having watched half of I'm Not There I can report on it being not much more than a set of disjointed scenes, high on atmosphere but low on substance. You can make some meaning into it all, but that meaning would be the meaning you want it to have; for what its worth, you can make I'm Not There to have any meaning you want. Some people may say this is art at its best. I say this is arty farty. Boring arty farty at that.
Half way through I'm Not There not even the nice Dylan music soundtrack helped as I clicked the stop button and put the DVD back in its box.
Sound quality: Nothing spectacular at all, but the DTS soundtrack does favor Dylan's music.
Overall: I don't know if I'm eligible of ranking this one given that I wasn't there, but I will give it 0.5 of 5 stars. Best avoided.

Legally Blonde

Lowdown: A modern day fairy tale.
I know I might be behind with the times, but up until now I didn't get to watch Legally Blonde (LB). Well, at least LB had won the honor of being the first ever feature film I got to watch of my new high definition PVR after it was recorded off channel 7.
LB's plot is fairly simple. Reese Witherspoon is the homecoming queen (whatever that is; I suspect it's some highly praised virtue in American culture) of her college. She's rich, she's stupidly spoiled, she's into the latest fashion, she's the envy of her colleagues, and even if she doesn't seem so she's very smart. As the film starts she's about to get herself engaged to the man of her dreams, but alas - the man of her dreams wants to become a senator and dumps her in favor of a girl who would look better by the side of a would be senator as he goes to Harvard Law to start his career.
Witherspoon doesn't give up and decides to follow her love to Harvard. She achieves the seemingly impossible and gets herself into Harvard Law (making it look so easy the pet snake Reggie should look into getting there) where she attempts to wage war and retrieve her lover. However, once in Harvard her original quest takes second place to getting herself acclimatized and managing to get through her studies in an environment very hostile to the seemingly idiot blonde. But guess what? Witherspoon pulls through, and by the end of the film she looks like she's ready to run LA Law.
Overall, LB is done to the very basic fairly tale formula. You can map it one to one with stories such as Snow White or Cinderella. However, that's not the point; the point is its comedy value, with the joke about the seemingly dumb blonde proving her smarts rather unexpectedly getting a very long stretch throughout the film. Thing is, stretched or not, it works; LB is a fun watch!
It's the fact that it manages to pull this feat through that makes it so good for its genre. It's not like it has an easy life: For a start, I find Witherspoon as attractive as your average grandmother. Then there's the problem of LB reeking of the same values Sex and the City flaunts about so openly, mainly that a woman is as good as what she wears, what she owns, and the man she's with. There is a difference between the two, though, which is the key to LB's success: LB doesn't take itself too seriously; it does it all with a wink.
Representative scene: After being intimidated through finding herself the only person in class using pen and paper (the rest are using now archaic looking laptop PCs), Witherspoon shows her edge and her style by being the only person in class to use a Mac. Surely that's all it takes to come at the top of your class in Harvard Law.
Overall: LB is the type of film you watch for an hour and a half of relaxing fun. 3.5 out of 5 stars of escapism.

Thursday, 20 November 2008

Minority Report

Lowdown: Spielberg takes on Dick.
A lot has been said on these pages about the virtues of the films made so far out of Phillip K Dick’s books and stories. The concept started well with two astonishingly good films, Blade Runner and Total Recall. Lately, though, it has flat lined with a multitude of weird productions. In between the two we’ve had Minority Report.
Released in 2002, Minority Report is a film I will remember mostly for the time in which I’ve seen it: Having recently migrated to Australia, employed by the worst employer ever, and working in Sydney while trying to settle down in Melbourne. Minority Report was a bright light in a very cold winter (especially as I was coming directly from Israeli spring). I liked it; it offered intense action scenes and some futuristic visions. However, now that I watch it again in my quest to review the DTS soundtracks of my collection, I found myself looking at it in a completely different light. And no, it’s not because I have since read Dick’s original story (I have to say I was rather disappointed by the story, as per my general experience with Dick’s writing).
Set some fifty years into our future in Washington DC, Minority Report follows Tom Cruise, a policeman in the pre-crime department. What’s pre-crime? Well, during the next decades we are going to find people with psychic powers within our midst and use them to foresee crimes before they actually take place. These psychos give a few hours’ warning to Cruise, who then needs to rush and assemble clues from their visions in order to stop the crimes before they take place. To do that, Cruise uses some nifty iPod Touch like big screens in what will surely seem to future crowds as pathetic as the original Star Trek production values seem to us now.
Lightning strikes when one day, out of the blue yet curiously timed with a departmental inspection by Colin Farrell and an impending census on expanding pre-crime to the nation wide level (without finding more psychos to cope with the extra load, by the way; lucky us they don’t have a union to represent them), Cruise is advised about the first pre-meditated murder in a good few years. Thing is, that next murder will be committed by one Tom Cruise. Already battered by the loss of a child and the following breakup of his previously perfect life/marriage, Cruise goes on the run to prove that the future is not set and that there’s no fate but the one we make for ourselves.
In typical Spielberg fashion, all hell lets loose. And it’s pretty cool: you get to see visions of futuristic traffic and a glimpse of society where privacy is a thing of the past and everyone knows everything there is to know about you a mile away by scanning your retina. And there’s action to boot, and it’s all very nice, entertaining, and potentially thought provoking.
The problem is that lingering feeling of going over the top. Spielberg doesn’t miss on drawing any possible card to drive things into the extreme while his hero, Cruise, is busy exploring that ground to death Spielberg theme of a child left to his own. It’s in the cinematography, it’s in the settings, and it’s in the pseudo-science/spiritual (i.e., bullshit) dialog going on between the characters, especially the leading ones. As with the recent choice of getting Cate Blanchett to play so minor a role in Indy 4 that your average Ms Bimbo could have managed just the same if not better, Spielberg sticks with an ever intense Tom Cruise for the lead. You watch Minority Report and you can tell Cruise is a real life psycho.
The question then becomes why, why does Spielberg feel the need to go that far with the extreme plot, extreme special effects, extreme everything? What is he trying to prove and to whom is he trying to prove it?
Typical scene: Cruise, on the run from police, ends up in a very hi-tech robot only operated car manufacturing plant, sprinkled with evidence that the cars are being made out of recycled materials. Punches fly high as Cruise fights it out with the not even remotely as skilled in the art of fighting police, and at the end of it all he cruises away in a just in time manufactured Lexus. Nothing's better than that good aftertaste of product placement (someone had to pay for all the special effects!).
Picture quality: Hard to judge, as Spielberg really goes to extremes here with the lighting and a high contrast look that borders black & white. My question is, why does he need to go that far? It all feels as though Spielberg has this complex to outdo everything for the sake of it.
Sound quality: Gary Rydstrom was the sound designer for Minority Report, which says it all. Even if by Rydstrom standards this is not the peak of his achievements.
Overall: Minority Report demonstrates how much of a cynic I have become. An action film I would have once rated at 4 stars cannot receive more than 3.5 out of 5 stars due to Spielberg’s immaturity.

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Wind in the Willows

Lowdown: An English kids' story gets the Python treatment.
To be fair, I never really went for the Wind nor the Willows; as a child I have read the book but found it rather uninteresting. I much preferred the radio skit show they made out of it. Today, The Wind in the Willows manages to attract more of my attention than it ever did for the simple reason that today I am wise enough to realize this is as British as a story can get. The particular version reviewed here, released in 1996, is even British-er still: there is a lot of Monty Python in it.
Given the Pythons involvement you sort of know what you can expect: a kids' story about animals that are very human and do lots of crazy stuff. To be honest, by now I don't remember what the book's plot is like; this DVD, however, tells the story of Mole who finds his underground hole destroyed and with the aid of his friend Rat asks for the help of Toad. Toad, however, is infatuated with technology, especially with motor cars; his love for the wheel makes him lose all his money and when he finds himself in jail it's only Rat and Mole that can set things straight. And this time, it's crazy.
It's British in character and in scenery but some bits are better than others. Notably, some bits are better and in the others the characters burst into song; luckily, they don't do it that much and it's mostly limited to the first half of this 80 minute plus engagement.
You can, however, argue quite rightly that The Wind and the Willows is about the things that are really important in life: friendship and a good picnic as opposed to machinery and capital. Most of all, it is innocent. For a kids' story, one cannot ask for much more.
Best scene: Our heroes escape from a mincing machine. And what a narrow escape it is.
Overall: Inconsistent but good entertainment still. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Terminator 2: Judgment Day

Lowdown: The ever greatest action movie.
Terminator 2, or T2, is by far the most historically important film ever. One can argue that with the exception of The Empire Strikes Back there are no other historically important films to talk about. The history I’m talking about here is my own personal history, of course. Isn't that all that matters in the first place?
In order to explain myself I will let the stats do the talking:
- I have watched T2 an estimated 80 times. Nothing else comes even halfway. Granted, most of those 80 were not start to finish viewings, but still…
- I have owned T2 in four different versions: The original laserdisc twice (the first got destroyed by a malfunctioning player), the special edition laserdisc, and the ultimate DVD edition.
- Back in the early nineties, after reading articles about home theater in general and T2's performance there in particular, I set out to spend the little money I’ve had as a soldier on assembling my own home theater mostly so I could watch T2 the way it should be watched. It took about 8 years for my audiophile passion to start subsiding with the realization there is no end to this pursuit; you could say T2 has earned me a nice lesson on the meaning of happiness.
- T2 has even made me buy a pair of Persol sunglasses. The model name was Schwarzenegger, and at the time they had a cool new design that was very imitated since with round curved lenses.
With all that has happened, I still remember the first time I watched T2. It was 1991, I was on weekend army leave, I was very tired, but it was the only opportunity I have had so I met Moshe Tandlich (with whom, I am sorry to say, I have lost touch since) and we watched it together sitting on the first row of Chen 1 cinema. It felt like I needed a new neck afterwards, but it was an awesome experience.
The key thing about that particular experience and the way T2 was meant to be experienced in the first place is to do with something we all take for granted now; but we only take it for granted because T2 was a damn good film, a sequel that demonstrated that sequels can be better than their prequels even if the plot and the formula are generally the same. That key thing I’m talking about is the positioning of the previously evil terminator as the goodie that saves the day, while the seemingly innocent and policeman like dressed counterpart turns out to be a particularly nasty and an unimaginably capable evil terminator.
As T2 starts, it tries its best to convince us Arnie’s bad. He ruins a game of pool for a bunch of bikers, fries one of them on the stove, and steals his bike. A Harley Davidson at that! Shot from below and wearing motorcycle attire, no helmet and cool sunglasses, Arnold’s terminator is indeed bad to the bone. The evil terminator, on the other hand, is rather skinny and seemingly polite; you only hear a hint of him hitting someone. That is, until he has John Connor up his sights.
Once the two terminators collide with Connor in between, T2’s handling of its adverse terminators changes. Schwarzenegger is shot more and more from above and in warmer light while he is learning to be more human, smiling and all. His counterpart, on the other hand, goes through a role reversal that renders him dark and nasty.
In between, we have ourselves a fast flowing action film with some of the best action scenes ever. Unlike most of today’s action crop, T2 doesn’t resort to jerky camera movement; you see it all and see it pretty clearly, allowing you to marvel at the shots. Indeed, there is a lot to marvel at: the attention to details is just amazing. Take, for example, Arnold firing a grenade at a car; you don’t just see an explosion, you see the car’s window breaking with a small round hole at its center and then you see the car explode. Not only that, it’s imaginative but not stupidly so; Arnold’s casualty count is 0.0, the shape shifting evil terminator doesn’t turn around but shape shifts his front to his back, etc. If that’s not good enough for you, take the way he hijacks a helicopter instead. Yes, T2 was one of those first films to visibly use CGI, but unlike more contemporary films CGI doesn't outlive its welcome. It is clear that a lot of money has been poured to make T2 run so smoothly, but at least it is also clear by the results that money was well spent.
Praises aside, T2 suffers from several inconsistencies, some of which are addressed by the special edition (for example, Arnie’s very crooked smile, as in – why does he smile when he picks up a Vulcan chain gun?). There is also an obvious point to be made that by just a slight bit of running the evil terminator could have killed John Connor some ten times during the film, yet for all of his processing power he chose not to do so (and gave us more than two hours of pure joy for that).
Traditionally, acting has been pointed to as T2’s weak spot. Edward Furlong’s John Connor is, indeed, weak; but I argue the rest of the cast fits perfectly to their roles. Schwarzenegger was never an actor, really, but it is his inability to act that renders him the perfect robot; and Linda Hamilton is so effective as Sarah Connor you never recall seeing her anywhere else (sadly, not even in the new Sarah Connor Chronicles series).
Overall, T2 is an action masterpiece by a director at his peak, James Cameron. It works hard to look cool, and, indeed, I cannot think of a film that rocks as much as this one. The only thing that comes close is The Matrix, but while that may be a good film it is not half as funny as T2 is (and T2 has a lot of funny moments in it), not as cool, not as original, and definitely not as well made. The Matrix is bantha fodder.
Best scene: With T2 you’re really spoilt for choice. My personal pick would be the truck/bike chase through LA’s canals, which was my regular home theater demo piece for years (till I got myself a life).
Picture quality:
Unlike the laserdisc, the DVD sports a rather grainy look. It could be the age of the master, but it’s more likely to do with T2 being shot in the Super 35 format with the DVD being a more capable platform for showing off the problem of that format.
Okay, you ask: tell us what this Super 35 thing is?
Well, let’s start at the beginning. Most films are shot on squarish 35mm film stock that looks not much unlike the old camera film of yonder. In order to generate scope wide films out of the squarish film, most directors that opt for scope wide production utilize an anamorphic lens that compresses the scope wide picture into the square shaped film; a similar but opposite lens is applied when the film is projected in order to decompress it.
Super 35 is different: It truncates the top and the bottom of the squarish film in order to utilize just a thin strip in the middle. That thin strip is in a wide scope ratio. The disadvantages of working this way is that you lose a lot of resolution: that thin strip of film is not as capable of storing as much information as the full height of film. However, there are also advantages: most notably, you don’t need sophisticated lenses so you save some money, and you don’t need as much lighting so you save some money.
In T2’s case, however, the motivation for using Super 35 was different. When setting T2 up, James Cameron realized the film will be viewed on very wide cinema screens but very squarish TVs at people’s homes. Even today’s widescreen TVs are squarish compared to a scope cinema screen (1.78:1 vs. 2.35:1). In order to fit wide films on TVs before the age of the DVD, films used to have their sides chopped off in a process called Pan & Scan so they would fill up an entire square screen. The price you had to pay was the loss of almost 50% of the overall picture, and with it the loss of the composition the way the director intended it to be.
Cameron came up with a plan to protect his vision. He figured out that T2 is going to spend just a few months of its life at the cinemas and the rest of its life in video, so he compromised with Super 35's picture quality in order to be able to fill up the video at home with height information. That is, the film you watch at home on your square screen may actually contain more information than the one you've watched at the cinema, because while the cinematic version uses just the thin strip at the middle of the film the home version can use the entire film by using the space above and below that thin strip. Pure genius!
Of course, it comes at a price: sets and lighting and all have to be prepared for a much larger area, which means production costs are significantly increased.
When all is said and done, one has to admire Cameron's dedication to quality.
Sound quality:
The vast majority of the occasions I got to watch T2 were on laserdiscs sporting a Dolby Surround soundtrack, a soundtrack famous at its time for being the best (until it got eclipsed by others through time). However, T2 was famous for being one of the first films ever to feature a digital soundtrack. Indeed, the T2 DVD version I own sports a DTS soundtrack, which, with significantly higher bandwidth than the DVD default of Dolby Digital soundtracks, has the potential to provide a more transparent soundtrack.
A comparison between the analog version I remember and the digital one should have been a clear winner for the digital one given its clearly separated 5.1 channels. However, I cannot say that this turned out to be the case here. The old Dolby Surround T2 soundtrack was extremely aggressive and visceral, so much so that I used to make so many people jump at that skull being crashed in the opening scene I probably deserve a hospital wing dealing with heart failure named after me. The new digital version, however, tries to work on atmosphere instead; gone is that in your face feeling, which, frankly, I think is much more suitable for a film like T2.
Overall: T2 is the exact definition of a film that breaks all familiar grounds. 6 out of 5 stars and my vote as for most entertaining film ever.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Bee Movie

Lowdown: A milder Seinfeld.
You can say a lot of bad things about my friend Haim; I certainly do. As bad as he is, though, he does have some mighty achievements up his sleeve, and one of them was to do with convincing me to stop working on our joint physics lab report during a Saturday night and have a break to watch this new TV series, then quite unheard of, called Seinfeld. Needless to say, I got hooked; in my humble opinion Seinfeld is and has been the best TV comedy ever, even if the later seasons weren't as good as its mid years.
Well, some ten years have past since the curtain was pulled on Seinfeld the TV series and since then we haven't heard much from Seinfeld the person. Unless, of course, you count those horrible recent Windows Vista ads that even Microsoft decided to best leave archived. Before doing those, however, Seinfeld put his hand in Shrek style computer animation to produce Bee Movie.
In Bee Movie, Seinfeld returns as a rather unassuming bee that tells a kids' story with the same old morals all kids' animation films seem to be telling nowadays: a mix of an environmental story with good old values of friendship etc. Oh, and guess what? The hero is a bee who doesn't feel like doing the stuff expected of a bee; the concept must have never been tried before in an animation film!
How can I best put it? You don't watch Bee Movie for to nourish the intellect, you watch it because of the Seinfeld jokes. And the good thing about a film dealing with talking bees and providing an imaginative vision of bee society (it all seems a lot like a cliche Jewish family to me) and their quest to have their hard work recognized by the humans who exploit them is that it provides a wide palette of Seinfeld (the series) type jokes. It's funny, because less than a week after watching Bee Movie I can't really remember any of the jokes, but I do remember watching the film with a constant smile on my face and the occasional laugh. It's somewhat subdued, given that this is a kids' film; it doesn't have a George Costanza to spice things up; but the key thing is that this is unmistakably Seinfeld in contents and in voice (including voice shenanigans). The key thing is that it's funny.
Bee Movie has received bad criticism upon its release and perhaps this is why I didn't expect much of it and why it managed to surprise me (as in a good surprise). I liked it; it wasn't as good as Seinfeld at its peak, but it was good unassuming fun.
Best scenes: The imaginative settings of the beehive factory, with orderly workers going to work in all sort of weird yet bee world jobs. Not as imaginative as Monsters Inc, but good fun just the same.
Sound quality: Some of the scenes, in particular the bee organized formation flight scenes, sport top quality sound. The rest is too ordinary.
Overall: I was surprised at how delightful Bee Movie is. A far cry from a B movie, I rate it at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 6 November 2008


Lowdown: The world’s greatest pacifist is back.
Sylvester Stallone must be going through a midlife crisis. He’s so desperate to have his presence on the radar that he did a final episode of Rocky a year ago and now he’s revisiting Rambo. The question is, again, does the old series need revisiting, and if so – is the new visit up to the task or is it just sinking in Vietnamese mud?
The question certainly deserves asking. While the first Rambo, First Blood (based on a book by a similar name), was a high octane action film dealing with the trauma of coming back home from Vietnam, the rest of the series took a turning. I was told that John Rambo dies at the end of the book, but in the films he’s back to sort this world’s problems and some under-population problems in the next one, too: First he sorts Vietnam out and then Afghanistan. Who cares if such sorting as his doesn’t really seem to sort anything out in real life? Not Stallone!
Thus we start Rambo with Stallone living a meek’s life in Thailand when suddenly his peaceful life is disturbed by a gang of American Christian missionaries who ask for his help: they need a guide to drop them off in Burma, where they can support their Christian brothers and sisters as they get the crap beaten out of them by the local authorities. At first Stallone won’t budge; he’s seen it all before and he knows those people are putting too much faith in their ability to change the world. Luckily for the Christians, one of them is a good looking woman, and through sophisticated arguments and Rambo having the hots for her she gets him to help them.
The rest is as expectable as any Rambo film can be. The missionaries get caught by the evil Burmese; a party of mercenaries is sent to rescue them with Stallone providing transport; they do their rescuing; they get caught; the world is about to come to an end. That is, until Rambo puts his hand on a machine gun and all hell breaks loose.
For a short film (less than an hour and a half) Rambo packs quite a lot of heat. It is extremely violent and heavy on visceral impact: no precautions were made in order to guarantee a child friendly rating with this one; if anything, it’s the opposite, and a lot of effort is made to convince the viewer just how bad things are in Burma. You can argue this is a good thing, as something should be done by this world with regards to Burma and its very oppressive regime: millions of people are suffering there, and at best you read about it at the very back of your newspaper. But is Stallone’s way the right way for promoting awareness? I would prefer accurate accounts rather than bloody propaganda in disguise. I’m even more disgusted by the pitting of “us pure Christians” against the “evil Burmese”; while Burma may be extra harsh on its Christian population (I have no idea whether that is the case), history clearly indicates that more crimes were committed in the name of Christianity than probably anything else. What we end up here is just a simple brash philosophy of kill or be killed, and if that is what Stallone has to offer this world then he’s better off retiring.
We are watching a Stallone film here, for gods’ sakes. What on earth makes me think I need to take things seriously? No sane person could have ever taken any of Stallone’s long list of sequels seriously; Rocky 3's B.A. Bourekas and 4's Drago were always a good joke. The same should apply here; a Rambo is a Rambo, not a contender for the next Palm d’Or.
When looked upon in this perspective, Rambo changes colors. From a brutal action film with a vicious agenda it becomes a nice farce that you watch with a smile on your face as you wait for Rambo to come and show this bad-mother-f*ck-ups where fish pee from. And show them he does, in a variety of colorful and imaginative ways.
When looked upon in this perspective, Rambo becomes a cool and the gang action flick that is actually well done: unlike most of its contemporary compatriots it does not feel full of cheap digital special effects and it does not sport overly quick editing and a nausea inducing fast moving camera. Come to think of it, I can’t really recall an action film of such purity and such good production values.
Between its short duration and its action scenes, Rambo is quite a flowing and exciting film. Personally, it left me waiting for Stallone's next visit to the past. What treasure will be unveiled in his next bout of nostalgia? Are we up for a sentimental look at Cobra?
Best scene: Rambo kills the evil boss character with a knife. He does it in such style and such panache it gave me a hard on (disclaimer: before anyone takes my words out of context, note I’m being sarcastic here).
Overall: As a film, Rambo is a bad 2 star film. If, however, you set your mind up to Stallone mode and watch it with a smile on your face and popcorn in your mouth then this one is a perfectly enjoyable 3 out of 5 stars experience.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull

Lowdown: Indy’s back.
For a while there it seemed as if I’m the only person on earth who is yet to watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skill (aka Indy 4). Friends have been urging me to put my babysitter less baby in a straight jacket and head to the nearest cinema so I watch this rollercoaster of a film as soon as humanly possible, yet I still held on and life seemed to continue its normal flow. That is, until the DVD was released, when I’ve made my way to the video rental store straight after coming back from work on Friday afternoon. What can I say?
I’ll tell you what I can say. I’m saying that I should have probably rented The Counterfeiters instead, as Indy 4 sucked big time. Even the music, which I recently noted for its brilliance after watching Temple of Doom, sounds like everything else.
There is not much to say about the plot of Indy 4, if one can actually scrap through the layers of scenes piled up on top of one another to detect the shredded remains of a plot. Harrison Ford has aged significantly since the previous Indy and so Indy has aged with him, and Indy 4 is now set in the fifties and the baddies are Communists instead of Nazis. Remarkably, these new baddies are very similar to the old ones in their quest for world domination through the acquisition of ancient artifacts that just happen to cross the path of one Indiana Jones, too. This time around the quest focuses around an alien crystal skull, and yes – the Indy series has stepped up (?) a notch, upgrading (?) to alien themes instead of its regular dealings with the occult.
As I have already mentioned, Indy 4 feels like a collection of disjointed action scenes. Plot progression isn’t really on the agenda; things progress the way they do not because they make sense but because it enables Spielberg and Lucas to introduce us to the next action scene while keeping the slightly less than two hour long roller coaster running at full steam. It is as if they felt adding some sense into the film would encumber its pace, so they let the plot progress through the introduction of a John Hurt lunatic character that mumbles mumbo jumbo at the right time to tell our heroes what they should do next. However, the problem is that the action scenes, while spectacular, are far from captivating: there is no sense of genuine thrill in them and you’re never really worried for Mr Jones. Whereas in Raiders of the Lost Ark you really felt the pain Indy went through in order to take over the truck driving the Ark, in Indy 4 you see Indy spotting a convoy a few light years away and you just know that in a couple of minutes he would be in charge of it all. Another notable mention goes to the overabundance of digital effects that are just too digital to pass incognito.
Character development is the next victim on Indy 4’s altar. Simply put, there’s none; and while you can get away with it in the case of the lead Indiana Jones character whom everybody knows, you can’t do the same with the newly introduced characters. Shia LaBeouf, an actor about which I don’t know what the fuss is all about, is introduced is Indy’s long lost son; what can I say other than Short Round beating the crap out of him in the role of the loyal and entertaining sidekick?
By far the worst victim of Indy 4 is Cate Blanchett. I can see why she’s in the film in the first place: Spielberg has this habit of bringing the best he could put his hands on for his films, and with his clout Spielberg can definitely put his hands on the best. Blanchett, on her side, is probably anxious to establish herself in more mainstream material, hence the two shaking hands. Alas, Blanchett’s character in Indy 4 is so undeveloped and so meaningless – she comes down to pretty much a pretty girl with an accent and a sword – that I think the world should press charges against Speilberg for so ambivalently putting Blanchett’s incredible acting talents to waste.
Almost worst scene: A baddies vs. goodies car chase through a jungle, featuring LaBeouf in a sword duel with Blanchett while dangling in between two cars. The scene is very similar to the mineshaft car chase from Temple of Doom, yet it demonstrates how Temple of Doom has got it so right and where Indy 4 has gone wrong. The Indy 4 version simply doesn’t work: the digital effects are way too obvious and the entire premises are just a cheap excuse to have an action scene that just has to look over the top of everything else done before. Well, it does; but it’s over the top. And I won’t even mention the bit where LaBeouf is hanging off jungle trees, Tarzan style.
Very worst scene: The wedding.
Overall: I thought the third Indiana Jones put its predecessors to shame but that turned out to be nothing compared to the fourth. Indy 4 is a bad film with nothing standing for it other than its brand name. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 1 November 2008

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: A normal person goes out hiking in America.
I have been quoted to often say Bill Bryson is one of my favorite authors and I still stand by those quotes. Bryson has acquired his reputation through a series of travel books that he wrote in which he provides his own personal travel accounts; of these travel books the only one I haven't read so far was A Walk in the Woods, and the time has obviously come to make amends.
A Walk in the Woods is Bryson's account of travelling the USA's Appalachian Trail, a more than 2000 miles long hiking trail running through woods from Georgia to Maine. There was no particular reason for Bryson to do this; amongst the reasons he quotes the one that makes most sense is him being able to feel like a real man for having shat in the woods.
Bryson doesn't hike on his own, at least for the majority of the book. With him is his long time companion Katz, whom regular Bryson readers would remember from Thunderbolt Kid but mostly from Neither Here Nor There, Bryson's account of his travels through Europe. Thing is, by the time the pair has done Europe they were more likely to kill one another than hike thousands of miles together, which makes the prospects of walking for so long together in the confinement of the woods rather interesting.
While reading the story of this long walks one encounters many repeating themes, most of which are classic Bryson themes. First, Bryson does not miss an opportunity to provide as much detail as possible about the potential dangers of hiking the Appalachian Trail, focusing mostly on bears and serial killers. Reading those would make you think thrice about ever getting out of your front door, but then again Bryson knew about it all before commencing his hike yet he still walked; so take the warnings with a smile on your face (not much of a problem given that Bryson's classic sense of humor is well spread throughout the book).
Second, there is the theme of encountering rather simple/stupid people. Our pair of walkers get themselves a third wheel for a part of their walk which they do their best to shed, but most notably our pair of walkers decide to quit hiking the southern states and go to "normal" areas instead after Bryson reads a local newspaper article about the teaching of Creationism in schools. I can definitely relate there; it's just one of many issues in which I tend to think the way Bryson does, lacking much patience towards taking pride in stupidity. This agreement Bryson and I have emphasizes another point in which I relate to Bryson, which is that I try to model my own writing (including my blogs) after the Bryson model. Not that I'm saying that I'm even remotely as good as Bryson when it comes to writing; my point is that of all the hundreds or thousands of people whose writings I have read, it was Bryson who made me say "geez, that's how I want to write my own stuff".
The third theme is to do with the confinement one experiences while walking the woods for longer duration. It made Bryson appreciate the simple pleasures in life, like having soft drinks and a warm bed taken for granted. I can definitely identify with these notions: not that I walked the woods for days and days like Bryson did, but I clearly remember going home for the weekend after two weeks in the desert while at boot camp, marvelling at the sight of cars driving by and the sound of music emanating from them as if they were the most marvelous things I have ever seen. The point is, at that time they were.
The confinement of the woods, however, have also made Bryson appreciate how much we could benefit by getting rid of many of those things we take for granted. Which got him to deal a lot with a favorite motif of his, the loss of character America has been going through since the late fifties and the way it manifests itself in its treatment of the woods. Bryson clearly demonstrates how the USA will either viciously subjugate or totally ignore nature, but hardly ever learn to live next to it / with it in harmony.
Most of all, though, A Walk in the Woods is about two unlikely friends going through a major bonding experience and what they make of it. And in this regard, A Walk in the Woods is not only a funny travel account book by Bill Bryson, it is also quite a touching read.
Overall: Vintage Bryson, 3.5 out of 5 stars.