Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Pineapple Express

Lowdown: Guys on drugs doing stupid things.
Pineapple Express is yet another comedy from the people who brought us Superbad. These people seem to be everywhere lately, but to their credit I have to say they seem to be on to something here. At least they have been on to something with Pineapple Express, out of which I didn’t expect much but through which I got many a loud laughing sessions.
As with Superbad, Pineapple Express pits weirdos in the center seat. This time around the weirdos are stoners, notable Seth Rogan (a regular in this group of people’s films) and James Franco (whom I know from the Spirderman series). Rogan is a 25 year old working as a guy who brings court orders to people who don’t want to receive them, which forces him to be quite resourceful. He also has an eighteen year old girlfriend who is still in high school and is likely to leave him in favor of college. Rogan thinks his life is complicated but it gets much more so when, while smoking grass, he witnesses a murder committed by a head honcho drug dealer and the police.
Rogan quickly gets rid of the weed and drives off; a fatal mistake. He was smoking the Pineapple Express weed, the latest and greatest in town, and the drug king murderer quickly identifies it. He knows the sole dealer selling this Pineapple Express (Franco), and so the carnival starts: Rogan and Franco run away but are usually too stoned to for proper decision making to take place, and the villains have their own personal issues.
Altogether, we have ourselves a recipe for a stupid film, don’t we? Well, we do, but it’s also stupidly funny. And in its final act the film also turns from an outright comedy to a more action oriented film, with proper gun fights, killings and all. The fact one of the guys stays alive despite being repeatedly shot is entirely credible, I assure you [not].
The greatest thing about Pineapple Express is that it actively steers away from normal cinematic conventions, where things always happen simply and with tons of glamor, and makes things happen more like they would in real life (although to be fair the film is still parsecs away from reality). There are examples aplenty, like a guy running over a villain with his car and shouting that most famous of punch lines, “You just got killed by a Daewoo Lanos, motherfucker!” I mean, my father drives a Daewoo Lanos, which makes it the last thing I would expect to see in a Hollywood flick.
It’s not just the cars. The fighting is all awkward with moves that don’t go as well as they do in all other films, things not going as smoothly as they do in your average car chase scene, and people get all bruised and dirty when they get hit and/or fall down and/or bump into things. The way they would in real life. And the greatest thing about it is that it works in making the film funny, because you don’t expect things to go the way they do in Pineapple Express – you expect what you normally get in "normal" films.
All this departure from glamorous cinematic conventions serves to emphasize Pineapple Express’ lack of political correctness, which, again, serves to make you laugh even harder when the unexpected politically incorrect takes place. In Pineapple Express, for example, women get beaten up and abused (in their credit the film’s women get what they deserve), and people in general fight dirty; there is no gallantry on display when characters fight for their lives.
Ultimately, I have found it amazing Pineapple Express works so well as a comedy. In my opinion, it comes down to originality derived through it willing to go places the establishment wouldn’t. And as you go to these place you discover there’s no harm in there; I mean, I wouldn’t show Pineapple Express to a ten year old, but I see no problem with sane adults that can tell right from wrong watching it. Once you accept the film’s stance you will probably also accept the film’s plea for legalizing currently illegal small time drugs in order to prevent the huge chunks of society that do use them from messing around with lots of not so nice people.
Best scene: Our two stoned heroes strap a guy to a chair for questioning. Then, to make him speak, they threaten him with a cactus. The great thing about the scene is that the cactus threatening act does not take center stage and does not grab for screen attention; it’s a subtle gesture done in the background, as if cacti are common truth elicitation devices.
Technical assessment: I suppose this one is as ordinary as a Blu-ray can get. In particular, the sound is impressive in its mediocrity: despite sporting a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, there is almost nothing coming out of anything but the center channel. Talk about a waste of potential!
Overall: A stupid movie, but one that would make you laugh hard none the less. Laugh enough for me to give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 January 2009

The Hurricane

Lowdown: A recent and authentic story of racism in the USA.
Given the frequency one is hearing complaints about racism, one can almost justifiably develop a thick skin and wonder just how much of it really is racism and how much is to do with certain people having a chip on their shoulder. To take the case of black people in the USA in particular, as someone who is not that exposed to American social trends I could only speculate on just how important the election of President Obama was. However, after watching The Hurricane, the real life tale of black injustice as recent as the late eighties, one is made aware of just how revolutionary Obama’s election is.
To me, personally, this was the second time I got to watch The Hurricane. At almost two and a half hours of length and with its slow pace, this is not a film one would revisit frequently. However, the Bob Dylan song did make the idea of re-acquaintance rather compelling.
The Hurricane (released in 1999) tells the life story of Rubin Carter (Denzel Washington), a boxer by trade and a black guy by race. Life has been hard on Rubin, and through his circumstances of poverty he spent most of his life up until he became a professional boxer behind bars. His boxing powers, derived through the release of his accumulated hate, should have given him the world title if it wasn’t for racism affecting the judge’s decision. Soon enough, though, he encounters racism in a much more lethal a dose when a murder case is pinned on him and he is sentenced to three life sentences in jail.
The Hurricane, Carter’s stage name, maintains his sanity by writing an autobiography. Yet all of his struggles and all the help he gets from people who realize he is innocent and actively protest, Dylan included, are to no avail.
Years later, Carter’s book touches a young black teenager of a background not too dissimilar to Carter’s. However, that kid is lucky enough to be engaged by three [white] Canadians who were touched by him took it upon themselves to get him to college. All four are moved by Carter’s story, and years after his jailing they move to the USA and start their own private investigation to acquire new evidence that will prove Carter’s innocence.
Three main things stand for making The Hurricane a good film despite its slowness. The first is the story, which proves that the real can outdo fiction when it comes to people making other people miserable for no particular reason. The second is the uplifting manner in which the poor rise from their ashes, so to speak, through the help of a few extra altruistic individuals; they do rise to the occasion when the establishment doesn’t, making me wonder what you and I should be doing in order to get this world to make a move with global warming.
The third is the acting. Washington does his usual excellent act, but he enjoys some good support. The Canadian trio does a fine job, led by Deborah Kara Unger whom I will always remember from David Cronenberg’s Crash (for reasons that should be very clear to those that saw this 1996 film). Then there’s Clancy Brown, whom I will always remember as the evil prison guard from The Shawshank Redemption, doing the exact opposite of that former role of his. The combination of good characters does a good job at showing there is still hope, even if it comes late.
Best scene: The best acting job in the Hurricane is done by Rod Steiger playing the judge on the film’s final trial. And what a presence does he bring with him to create the film’s most uplifting moment!
Overall: I’ll be generous and give The Hurricane 3.5 out of 5 stars for its touching and real story. If only it could have featured more than a few brief second of the Dylan song in its soundtrack it could have received more…

Thursday, 15 January 2009

The Magic Pudding

Lowdown: It’s tough to fend off jealousy for endless pudding.
The Magic Pudding is an innocent Australian animation production from 2000 of a kids’ story that seems to be on air each year around Christmas time.
As the film starts, we are introduced to a ship in arctic trouble and its crew of three: a human, a penguin, and a dog. As their ship sinks they become stranded on the ice and with the hunger the dog sets his eye on the penguin. The hints for the dog’s vicious nature become widely exposed when the trio stumbles upon a magic pudding called Albert (John Cleese), a dish that provides endless serves of whatever its owner wants to eat. The person and the penguin are happy with their unexpected salvation, but the dog wants the pudding to himself. A fight ensues and the good guys win.
Back on dry land in Australia the two good survivors establish a society made of them two to protect the pudding from pudding thieves who want their magical asset. It’s a hard job looking after the pudding because on its own it is quite mischievous: it turns out this pudding's naughty behavior is responsible for many a key moment in history, including Napoleon’s affairs and the sinking of the Titanic. The duo becomes a trio when a young koala searching for his parents, the film’s lead role, is added to the society and all three help one another. And yes, as can be expected, it is that evil dog from pudding history that is responsible for the missing koala’s parents…
Overall, The Magic Pudding is a nice kids’ story, but one cannot avoid feeling that it could have been much nicer. It fails to really ignite the imagination and relies too much on its celebrity voices (Sam Neill, Hugo Weaving and Geoffrey Rush) as well as the very frequent use of Aussie lingo to keep its fire lit. On the bad side of things there are the occasional singing outbursts and the plot feeling too patched up and too predictable.
Most familiar scene: The evil dog taking control of the pudding only to lose it to his over-conquering jealousy for power (oops, a spoiler) looks way too similar to the evil Vizier Jafar from Disney’s Aladdin.
Overall: Kids could love it but that’s all there is to this pudding. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

10,000 BC

Lowdown: This is what life wasn’t like back at 10,000 BC.
I’ll start this review by saying that if you really want to see what life might have been like for our Stone Age ancestors you should look elsewhere. Try Quest for Fire, for a start, but don’t look here; 10,000 BC is much more like a fantasy tale than a historic one.
We follow a guy called D’Leh who comes from a tribe of mammoth hunters living in snowy conditions. He and his fellow tribesman speak English with rather Middle Eastern accent touches (they look the part, too). One day they find a young refugee girl, and the tribe’s elder declares her as a sign and a prize for the tribe's future supreme hunter.
A fight for that supreme hunter title ensues but becomes rather moot when the tribe is captured by raiders on horseback who abduct most of its members. They don’t get D’Leh, though, and he starts his own quest to follow them back to where they came from and release his tribe fellows and his prize girl. The rest of the film follows this quest, which pits him against sabre tooth tigers and other exotics. Overall, the plot turns out to be remarkably like Apocalypto, only that it’s 10,000 times inferior to Gibson’s film.
There is so much bullshit packed into 10,000 BC that it must be breaking new records of bullshit per minute. I’ll start the account with prophecies: There are no less than three separate prophecies that get very actively used in order to advance the film’s plot! Guess what? All three prophecies come true. So life like!
Our hero and his tribe are rather dark looking, which is a bit of a problem when you’re living in a snowy environment the way they do. Given the relative lack of sunlight in such an environment, they would all suffer from severe shortages of vitamin D and probably fail to make adult life.
Then there are scientific inaccuracies. As our hero chases his tribe’s abductors, we see him going out of his snowy mountain habitat and into a rain forest. The problem is, we see both in the same frame, very close to one another, and with not much in the way height differences. Similarly, we later see the hero pass from the forest to a desert in one fell swoop. It’s not just our hero that goes through these transitions, because later on we learn that a certain technologically advanced culture has borrowed some woolly mammoths from their arctic habitat to use as laborers in their desert empire. Can you imagine a woolly mammoth managing to hang out in a desert environment?
There’s more, but let’s delve a bit deeper into this technologically advanced culture the film is portraying. According to the Blu-ray’s supplementals, the idea for that came out of this guy’s book on so called “advanced” historical societies that science has failed to notice but for which he has ample evidence. Then he goes to show his evidence and you can see that his claims are "very" credible. While there is a chance that what he is saying is true, his evidence are certainly very high on the bullshit scale. There is no doubt that cultures more advanced then their contemporary European cultures have existed in China, India, America and Arabia; why do we need to invent mythic ones on top of those? The fact that a director like Roland Emmerich of Day After Tomorrow and Independence Day fame could fall for such bullshit is rather worrying, even more worrying than him being able to produce such a sadly pathetic film as 10,000 BC.
All of the above could be forgotten if 10,000 BC managed to provide an entertaining experience. But it doesn’t: 10,000 BC is predictable, far from exciting, and its characters are just minimally developed through significant reliance on clich├ęs. Yet another case of a film that falls victim to its heavy reliance on special effects.
Best historical lesson: As it stands, the only scientific conclusion one can come out with after watching 10,000 BC is that human females have evolved body hair over the last 12,000 years. Otherwise you would have a hard time explaining how they managed to boast such smooth legs back in 10,000 BC.
Technical assessment: Impressive picture and sound, but why does this Blu-ray default to a Dolby Digital soundtrack when it features a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack?
Overall: It’s a shame this film has ever been produced. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

The Three Kings (Les Rois Mages)

Lowdown: Jesus’ three kings let loose in today’s Paris.
The Three Kings (TTK) is a French film from 2001 of which I first heard during its cinematic release. Like all time travel films, the premises have much potential in them: take the bible’s wise men from the east, put them in today’s world, and see what happens. Promises aside, I was worried about the film being too biblically religious; I didn’t want to see a Christmas film pushing its take on the so called Christmas values down my throat.
After watching TTK I can confirm the French moviemakers managed to get the most of the time travel potential while also creating an original angle on the Christmas feeling. In fact, they managed those very well. Most of all, they managed to create a hilarious comedy that made me laugh out loud for significant portions of the film.
TTK follows Jesus’ famous three kings (or rather, three mages) as they show up in our time, shortly before Christmas, to welcome a new baby Jesus. They three show up separately in different parts of the world (including Africa and the Far East), but being wise and all they speak the local languages and through their innocent charm they get along and manage to find themselves in Paris. Very handy, given that this is a French production!
Once in Paris, our three mages encounter all sorts of obstacles on their way to finding baby Jesus. Starting, for example, from no one believing them to be what they are, them not having any modern day currency, their gullibility which opens them to exploitation, and their general lack of familiarity with modern day technology. All this opens up much room for comedy, and indeed the opportunity is very well exploited yet it is not abused. Eventually our mages link up with a young woman from a rich yet dysfunctional family whose boyfriend keeps pumping with drugs and with a young delinquent, setting them on the right path for their quest.
Towards its very end the film falters a bit, as if not knowing how to provide a meaningful conclusion after all the laughing around. Overall, though, I highly recommend it.
Best dramatic scene:
The mages star at a reality show and find themselves confronted by experts who challenge them. The experts’ arguments involve the date of their quest (24 December), a date that was only celebrated as of the 4th century and before which Jesus’ birth was celebrated around April; and the fact the bible never mentions “three kings”, with that concept being invented during the 8th century by an English scholar.
Our mages never really address these points, which is the exact point the film is trying to make: It doesn’t really matter whether the three mages existed or not or whether Jesus existed or not, the point is that we should look at ourselves the way someone completely alien and detached from our culture would and strive to correct all the wrongs that we see.
Best joke: Given their experiences in our world, the mages’ currency of choice is the number of Big Macs and fries it would take to acquire a product or a service.
Overall: Funny, original entertainment. I really enjoyed it and I'm giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 12 January 2009

The TV Set

Lowdown: The ordeal of turning an idea into a sitcom.
I have heard good things about The TV Set for a while. Since watching the stupidly funny Walk Hard, though, my interest levels rose exponentially as both were directed by Jake Kasdan (who also happened to write The TV Set).
As The TV Set starts, we’re thrown into a rather abrupt no introduction experience with David Duchovny, who – it’s apparent – has written the script for a sitcom, based on his own life story, which is now in pilot stage. If deemed successful it will get itself serialized; otherwise Duchovny, whose wife is expecting a second baby, would have to find someone else to do with his life.
The TV Set takes us through just a few key occasions in the life of the sitcom. First there is the casting of the main lead roles, then decisions about whether the brother commits suicide or whether a happier alternative is found, then whether the original title of Wexler Chronicles is to remain, and then airing issues such as timeslots and more. As we go through we become exposed to additional characters and we learn more about them: We have an ex BBC producer who was imported to the American network and moved with his family to the USA for this lucrative job; the guy sees the potential in Duchovny’s script and helps promote it. Then there’s the guy who Duchovny didn’t want as the male lead but who ended up getting the role. Pulling the wires above all of them is Sigourney Weaver in another excellent performance as the monster with the smiling face that manages the commercial TV station’s scheduling.
The beauty of The TV Set is in the way it exposes the string of compromises Duchovny has to learn to accept as his sitcom evolves. The moral question faces him is whether to stand up to his values or whether to bite the bullet and get as close to his values as he can in the face of the Weaver adversary who is interested in ratings and ratings only (and doesn’t see anything wrong with introducing a reality show called Slut Wars during peak viewing time). Duchovny is not the only one facing moral dilemmas: The ex BBC guy shares the same dilemmas as he has to choose between family and work. The lead male actor is not deliberating a thing: we clearly see how his morals fly off as the smell of success replaces them.
The main problem with The TV Set is that it’s not funny. Now, many if not most films are not funny, but it does become a problem when the film is labelled as a comedy. I’m not saying The TV Set is bad; I think it’s a good film overall. It’s just that the labelling is wrong; in my opinion, it should be sold as a drama to set the expectations right, mainly because it doesn’t work by making you laugh your belly out (the way we’ve been trained to expect of comedy) but rather it makes you cringe as the film unfolds and the grotesque compromises becomes more so. Given that, the film’s short running time at less than an hour and a half is spot on.
On the positive side of the same thing, the story that The TV Set is trying tell is a story worth telling. The processes that take place over the sitcom are not unique to the TV world: politics work in exactly the same way, for example. We tend to have ourselves bright young candidates promising many a promise, but put them in office and let them face the bureaucracy that is the system and quickly enough promises are forgotten and compromises mixed with corruption become the rule. After all, that is why we still have to contend with global warming. I don’t even need to go as far as politics see The TV Set: I only need look at my own office.
Funniest scene: As I said, The TV Set is not funny. In my opinion, there is just one scene in it that is, and that is when Seth Green hosts an eviction episode of Slut Wars, Weaver’s flagship broadcast scheduling program.
Best scene: The sitcom’s male and female stars rehearse and then shoot a scene three times, over which you can see the [negative] changes taking place over the male lead affecting his acting. And more interestingly, you see how much the others care for the deteriorating performances. I found it interesting for a much more mundane reason too: I’m not much of an acting appraiser, so having the opportunity to see the same script performed in different ways proved quite stimulating.
Overall: Not funny but thought provoking and well made. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 9 January 2009

Science Is Golden by Dr Karl Kruszelnicki

Lowdown: Science, easy reading style.
To many people in Australia, especially the younger, Dr Karl is the face and embodiment of science and the scientific approach. In this blog I have reviewed books from many an author who bear titles much more impressive than “Dr”, the likes of Asimov, Dawkins and Sagan; yet in none of these cases did I bother with the titles. Dr Karl’s case is different, though, because Dr Karl is a brand name.
Dr Karl has a yearly habit of consolidating his weekly articles from the Sydney Morning Herald into a book, and Science Is Golden is the latest of the lot. As expected from a collection of weekend articles in a widely distributed newspaper there is a lot of variety in the articles, but there is also the issue of a generally low level of discussion. The articles are discussing science and scientific issues, but we are talking about science for the masses here; a sort of a Woman’s Day for those seeking trivial interest in science.
I’ll explain what I am trying to say here with an example. Of the articles in the book, we have ourselves discussions on flight safety statistics, black holes, CERN’s new particle accelerator, and much much more; there is real variety. However, if we look at the article discussing the viability of idling your car when you start it on a cold morning in particular, we read Dr Karl advising us to avoid the habit and rather start driving away gently as the best way to warm the car up. The good doctor comes up with two reasons for that: First, fuel efficiency; you get very low mileage if you’re not going anywhere. Second, and more interestingly, it’s to do with engine reliability: apparently, when the engine is cold, not all the gasoline burns (or rather, more gasoline is unburnt than in a warm engine); the unburnt droplets go down through the cylinder walls and its rings to the oil sump, contaminate the oil, and in the process damage the cylinder wall’s fine construction. It’s all very interesting, but the extent of the explanation leaves me unsatisfied: why do these unburnt fuel droplets do these nasty things? How, exactly, do they damage the cylinder walls? What evidence does the book provide us with in support of this damage claim?
Dr Karl’s quest in writing his books is to dispel myths and promote the scientific approach instead. That is, show us what real life evidence indicates at as a way for us to get rid of our misconceptions. And that’s really great! The problem is that by not providing the full extent of explanations, the way you would get in, say, books by the previously mentioned more-than-doctors authors, you end up having to take Karl’s word for it. That is, you may replace one myth (the conventional myth) with Karl’s myth, under the assumption that Dr Karl is correct. One can argue that you always have to take someone’s word at one stage or another, and indeed I never got to personally verifying whether the earth is as round as they say it is; however, while the earth being round can explain why the sun disappears in the evening and reappears on the other side of the world in the morning, Dr Karl tends to discuss issues that come down to conventional wisdom or his word. The skeptic in me wants more.
Another example might emphasize that last point on skepticism. On page 32, Dr Karl says something along the lines of it being long known that women living together synchronize their periods. But do they? Recent research I have read challenges that famous assumption that everyone seems to be taking for granted and indicates it might be wrong. Now, I’m not here to argue whether women synchronize their periods or not, I’m only stating that there is too much ambiguity in this area and that a good scientific article should provide me with enough info so I can make my own mind up.
Science Is Golden is not such a book; it is designed to entertain more than to teach. When all is said and done, though, it’s better if people are entertained through Dr Karl than commercial TV. When all is said and done, Science Is Golden is a fairly interesting and easy read; for a start, it made me avoid idling my car and instead starting to drive right away (gently!). Yes, I took Dr Karl’s word for it; it’s not like there’s too much at stake here, and I fully intend to monitor my car for any signs of cold distress. Scientific experimentation is cool!
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 8 January 2009

Tropic Thunder

Lowdown: A war movie production turns into a war.
Ben Stiller’s Zoolander is, in my book, one of the better comedies ever. When Tropic Thunder came out, another comedy directed by Stiller, I was looking forward to watching it with great anticipation. It’s not only Stiller; it’s the premises of a tough guy macho war movie featuring Stiller, Jack Black, and a black Robert Downey Jr in the leading roles. It sounded ridiculously good!
As it turned out, Tropic Thunder did not live up to my expectations. Partly because it was different to what I have expected it to be: it’s a film that does Hollywood the way Zoolander did the world of modelling, i.e., it’s a film that ridicules Hollywood; it’s not a war film per se but rather a film about making a war film; and it’s not as good as Zoolander in the laughing department. It is fairly funny, though.
As Tropic Thunder starts we are introduced to its key actors: Stiller, an actor that made his name in a series of silly action sequels that has deteriorated over time, then tried to do a serious film about a retard that totally flopped; Jack Black, an actor who made his name in a series of films featuring fat people and farts; and Downey Jr, a serious award winning Aussie actor, obviously tailored after Russell Crowe, who gets so deep inside his characters he went through a special pigmentation process to play the role of a black guy. Together, they act in a war film based upon a real Vietnam War story, Tropic Thunder, written by a guy whose both hands have been amputated during Vietnam commando action called Four Leaf (Nick Nolte).
This leading trio is hard for the film director, Steve Coogan, to control. Stiller is too stupid, Black is a drug addict, and Downey Jr is the only genuine actor but he’s too deep in his role and can’t distinguish real life from film. Oh, and we also have Matthew McConaughey as a Nintendo Wii player who also happens to be Stiller’s agent and whose biggest concern is to ensure Stiller’s contract guaranteeing him TIVO access is followed to the letter. The filming goes wrong and a lot of money is wasted, putting lots of pressure on Coogan from producer Tom Cruise (featuring heavy makeup to make him look fat, bold, ugly and Jewish).
The decision is to change the course of the film. Instead of a big time production, send the actors to a jungle adventure on their own with basic script guidance only, and make a film out of candid camera work and cameras placed up trees. The actors are dropped off a helicopter with their director, who immediately steps on an old landmine and gets shred to pieces. The actors are too stupid and/or too much in a world of their own to act on this, so they believe the explosion was a trick meant to get them into their roles. They start acting out the script while on their own, and when they cross the border and confront a very real drug militia they engage it as a part of their script. If you thought things have been crazy thus far then you ain’t seen nothing yet…
Indeed, Tropic Thunder is a crazy film, most notable for its cast full of celebrities. The bold Tom Cruise joke is quickly overused, but Downey Jr manages to provide a hell of a performance yet again: if I didn’t know it was him I would have been sure he was black; and later on he even does a good Aussie impression. Through his collection of excellent performances since Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Mr Jr is quickly shaping up to be one of those actors I really look up to. And last, but not least: I can’t believe I’m saying it but Tropic Thunder actually features a good performance from Jack Black.
Best scene: Well, it’s not really a scene, but the Blu-ray supplementals include a “documentary” (or rather, a mockumentary) on the making of Tropic Thunder. Entitled Rain of Madness, it is obviously a joke on behalf on Heart of Darkness, a real documentary on the making of Apocalypse Now. The joke works…
Real best scene: Stiller's retard comedy failed, explains a Downey Jr talking the black folk talk, because he went full retard. No one else went all the way: Hoffman's Rain Man was still pretty clever, Hanks' Gump wouldn't have been a war hero if he was a full retard. The scene echoes quite well the type of movie world satire Tropic Thunder is full of.
Technical assessment: I believe the picture on this Blu-ray is rather mediocre for the format. The Dolby TrueHD soundtrack, although nice, is also far from delivering all it can.
Overall: Funny, but too crazy for its own good. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

Walk the Line

Lowdown: The treacherous life of Johnny Cash.
One of my more memorable teenage memories is going to watch Top Gun at the cinemas with my friend Uri. Top Gun is a really bad film, so bad it’s funny, but at the time it was made even funnier by us reading Mad Magazine’s take on the film before we actually saw it. Thus when we sat at the cinema we couldn’t contain ourselves laughing at all those movie moments that made us recall the Mad version. It was weird: Mad’s version was better than the real thing.
Exactly the same thing happened to me as I sat and watched Walk the Line. Having recently watched Walk Hard, an excellent comedy by its own rights and very obviously taking a direct piss Walk the Line, I couldn’t help comparing the two. And just as the unlikely Mad Top Gun version was better than Top Gun, it turned out Walk Hard tramples Walk the Line.
Walk the Line tells the story of singer Johnny Cash, and according to the film’s opening credits it is indeed based on Cash’s autobiography. We start of with a kid Cash growing up in a country bumpkin family whose living is quite tough and whose favorite son dies in an accident. Johnny, who is not the favorite, is sort of being blamed by the old style father (Robert Patrick, who seem to have found himself a niche as the brute and thick father now that his terminator days are over).
An older Cash (now portrayed by Joaquin Phoenix) leaves his family behind and goes for an army stint in Germany while his country wages war in Korea. He finds solitary comfort in his music and his love for a girl he met briefly before going away. Upon Cash’s return they get married and breed some kids. Cash finds cash rather hard to acquire: he’s no good in his door to door salesperson job; he craves the music. Eventually, he manages to get a record of his done, and with the success of this record he goes on tour, which brings forth Walk the Line’s core plot.
The touring Cash is exposed to alcohol and drugs. Cash, physically removed from his family, begins a tour of torment with himself; his only salvation, at least according to him, is his new love subject – fellow touring singer June Carter (Reese Witherspoon). And thus we are condemned to two and a half hours of sex, drugs and rock’n’roll with Cash and his battle to come to terms with life as we know it.
Condemned, because the film is way too long for what it has to say and the amount of events it deals with. Tormented, because with all due respect I didn’t think too highly of Joaquin Phoenix’ portrayal of Cash, especially not him performing all of Cash’s songs. Not even a DTS soundtrack gives Phoenix the qualities that the real Cash's voice has had. Maybe it’s just me and my general indifference to Cash’s music, but for a film dealing with music at its core I was less than moved; Walk Hard’s music parody offered a soundtrack and performances that in my book were ten times better (I know I’m allowing myself to be stoned to death here by Cash’s fans, but hey, that’s my opinion).
Overall, my biggest problem with Walk the Line is that I simply but totally failed to identify with Cash’s character. Come on, who amongst us can boast to have perfect parents? Is Cash the only alcoholic / drug addict on the planet? What is the deal with all this torment and with all these struggles he supposed to be going through, struggles which I would just label as “ordinary life”?
Indeed, watching Walk the Line made me realize just how accurate the flak it had received from Walk Hard is.
Worst scene: Cash, performing live at a tough jail, glorifies the inmates and their ability to manage prison’s life. Does society really need to glorify that of all things? Are they supposed to be our heroes, according to Cash?
Overall: Walking the Line is a rather mundane affair, somewhere between 1.5 to 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009


Lowdown: A crazy basketball comedy.
It’s weird when I think about it, but I hardly knew anything about Semi-Pro when I rented its Blu-ray out. It had Will Ferrell on its cover with an afro and a basketball, and that was all I need to know. Indeed, I got what I paid for: a crazy loud laughter filled hour and a half with Ferrell.
Semi Pro is not just a crazy comedy, though. Somehow, it manages to tell the true story of the ABA’s merger with the NBA back in the seventies. In the basketball world, the NBA was the place to be whereas the ABA was somewhere between pro and amateur. The powers that be decided to take the best four teams off the ABA and merge them to the NBA while dismantling the rest of the ABA. Semi-Pro tells us this story through Jackie Moon (Ferrell), the owner, manager and dominant player of the Tropics ABA team from the small town of Flint, Michigan.
The trouble is that Moon is not a pro. He has good intentions, he knows how to give a good show, he loves his team and dedicates a lot of himself to it, but being an ex-singer he’s not much of a pro basketballer. Help comes in the way of Monix (a Woody Harrelson armed with a sexy wig), an old geezer ex Boston Celtics player who sat through the entire finals on the bench while the Celtics won the NBA title. Traded for a washing machine, Monix can provide the professionalism while Moon can provide the showmanship.
Will that be good enough for the Tropics to come at the top four? Will coming at the top four be good enough, given the Tropics’ crowd attendance is lesser than the number of honest people in parliament? Well, this is where the film goes crazy and this is where most of the laughs come from as Ferrell does what Ferrell is famous for doing: crazy stuff. Thus a film that is pretty silly all the way becomes seriously funny, with Ferrell wrestling a bear, Ferrell choreographing half time shows for the crowd, Ferrell organizing competitions with prizes he can never afford (free food if the Tropics score more than a hundred or so points, which then send him to play against his team when they do too well), and the general chemistry between the team players. Overall we’re dealing with characters dumb enough to play with guns and end up shooting themselves, so you can easily tell how silly Semi-Pro is; yet it’s undeniably funny. And stupidly so.
Best scene: Ferrell, as Jackie Moon, performing his song “Love Me Sexy”. It’s amazing that it works and just how well it works. Given the genre, seventies type soul, this is one excellent song by its own rights! The Ferrell treatment makes it even funnier.
Technical assessment: This is a mediocre production as far as the Blu-ray platform is concerned, but the DTS HD soundtrack shines. Despite the significantly less than awesome artistic quality of the soundtrack, it provides an air that you simply can’t get with Dolby Digital and its likes and which makes the whole movie watching affair that much more pleasurable.
Overall: Very silly, but I have to give it credit for making me laugh so hard. At 3 out of 5 stars, this is pure entertainment.

Monday, 5 January 2009

Speed Racer

Lowdown: Real life Manga.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time, Manga has had a significant effect on my childhood. Back when I was single digit old, Star Blazers was all the rage, supplemented by Grantyser or whatever it was actually called. That second case was actually viewed off Jordanian TV with all the bad reception and the Arabic dubbing, but it was still exciting and – more importantly – highly imaginative. It is no wonder I delved heavily into the realm of science fiction since.
There were several other Manga productions I got to watch around that time and slightly later, one of which was Speed Racer (again, off Jordanian TV, and again, Arabic dubbing included). I don’t remember much of it by now, but I do remember liking it. Thus when Speed Racer the movie came along, made by the Wachowski brothers’ powerhouse of Matrix fame, I was highly anticipation to see the result. Later I have learned the movie flopped at the cinemas so the enthusiasm waned, but now – having seen Speed Racer on Blu-ray – all I can say is that Speed Racer is further indication the majority can get things wrong. The reason for that is simple: Speed Racer is an excellent movie!
The story follows the Racer family and in particular their middle son, Speed (indeed, names play a significant role here, in particular with a police character called Inspector Detector – what a lovely name!). Speed grew up in the shadow of his older brother Rex, a spectacular racing driver by his own rights. As a result Speed’s a motorhead to the bone, drinking gasoline for lunch at school etc. However, we quickly learn that as Rex topped the amateur racing classes he disobeyed the family’s father, Pops Racer (the ever so excellent John Goodman). Shortly after leaving the family and severing family connections, Rex dies in a horrific racing accident. Can Speed get up there and succeed where Rex had failed before?
He will give it his best. We follow Speed as he progresses up the racing ladder, high enough to attract the attention of a big racing conglomerate that then want to contract him. The entire family goes to check the proposal’s details out: As befits a family outfit, Speed is accompanied by Pops, Mom Racer (Susan Sarandon), his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci), his little brother, and even the family’s chimpanzee. They get an impressive show, but the more they get to the thick of things the more it becomes obvious to Speed that the conglomerate might have the power and the facilities but not the heart. He refuses to sign, acquiring the wrath of the big powers and learning in the process that all the pro races are fixed.
Speed, being Speed and being good, has no choice but to go out and fight the big powers. But can he achieve much by doing the only thing he knows and the only thing he does best – race? And who is this mysterious Racer X that keeps on tailing him?
Overall, Speed Racer’s plot is not something we haven’t seen before: the David against the Goliath type thing. It is, however, very effective: the characters are easy to identify with, there is a lot of thrill in the air, and the film doesn’t take itself too seriously; it always winks back at you.
By far the most dominant feature of Speed Racer the film is its look and feel. The picture is extremely saturated and bright colors are used throughout in a very unrealistic manner. Add futuristic and fantastic settings and you get a very animation like feeling despite the use of real life actors. There is more to it: racing action is extremely hectic, so much so that it is obviously over the top unreal; it makes video games look pale and tranquil. Remember those epilepsy warnings that come with video games? Well, Speed Racer should come with a turbo warning.
The bottom line, though, is that Speed Racer looks more like real life Manga than anything else before it. And that’s where its originality is. As the original Matrix did, to one extent or another, Speed Racer delivers stuff we have never seen on the big screen before. Obviously, no one was as bold and as resourceful as the Wachowskis have been with Speed Racer, and the sad thing is that Speed’s failure at the box office may delay future bouts of originality for coming along.
For now, though, I can only marvel at the thrilling, funny and positively childish adventure the two hours plus of Speed Racer deliver.
Best scene: Speed’s grand prix race at the film’s climax. Given the heavy action taking place in the film’s previous race I was wondering how it can be topped for the climax. But it could: the action starts slowly, quickly gathers pace to the hectic, and then moves to the surreal. Towards the end we can’t really tell what is going on anymore, and the end itself is just a collection of color patterns that seem to have come out of a sixties drugs influenced bonanza. But it works well as the next logical step of the hectic action and it works well in symbolizing Speed’s unconscious synchronization with his racing car. The effect is rather like Evolution 9’s effect at the closing of The Beatles’ White Album: it’s weird, but if you’re in sync with the album it does feel like the next logical step. Well, I was in sync with Speed Racer, that’s for sure.
Picture quality: The picture on this Blu-ray is not the best the format can provide, with some inconsistencies and compression effects that are probably somewhat derived from the original through its overdose of special effects and saturation. Still, given the importance the film’s looks have in the package that is Speed Racer, I wouldn’t want to watch it at home any other way.
Sound quality: Speed Racer’s bane, by far, is its sound. It’s simply falls way too short of what a film like this should deliver, with a mediocre soundtrack that hardly uses the surrounds. The worst thing about it is the Blu-ray coming only with a Dolby Digital DVD grade soundtrack. What a shame!
Overall: Speed Racer brings something new with it to the world of film. What can I say other than 5 out of 5 stars? I say: Go, Speed Racer, go!

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Dragonlance: Dragons of Autumn Twilight

Lowdown: Distilled swords and sorcery.
Back when I was in high school fantasy was all the rage with my reading, with swords and sorcery starring there. Of these, the Dragonlance set of books (starting with one trilogy and continuing the franchise with more and more trilogies and sequels), heavily based on the world of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D), was the star of the show. To date, I still own the books, the board game, the special AD&D rule book, and the special fantasy world atlas designed with AD&D in mind. That said, despite the soft spot I have for Dragonlance, I now regard this former love affair as a waste of time: despite the fun they offered this ex-teenager, these books offer not much more than basic swords and sorcery.
And now, some twenty years later, they finally made a film out of the first book of the first trilogy. An animation film at that. A crap animation film at that: in fact, Dragonlance the film has "crap" written all over it. It's crap animation, for a start (especially in this day and age of slick computer animation attacking from every direction), but it's also a rather crappy story that is told in a rather crappy way.
Set in a fantasy world, Dragonlance tells us the good gods have abandoned the world as its population of humans, elves, dwarves etc became too arrogant and forgot the gods that took care of them. Into this void steps an evil goddess with her flock of dragons and dragon lords. As with all evil organizations on film, they try to get control over the world and inflict misery on its occupants.
Hope is not lost, though, as a party of unlikely Dungeons & Dragons classic type of heroes is sort of thrown into the mix and ends up sorting things out. They flee, they have themselves some fights, and eventually - through the belief in the gods of old of their leader, a half elf called Tanis who is tormented between his elven and his human aspects - they prevail.
Dragonlance the film is quite loyal to the rules of AD&D; as I watched the film I quickly got to recall the game's rules, even though I hadn't played it for more than a half life. There, however, is its downfall: by being loyal to a game of swords & sorcery it cannot offer much more than that. What it can offer is its views on the power of belief, which start OK with it saying one needs to believe in oneself but deteriorates to the Narnia level by saying that things sort themselves out if you believe in the gods. Personally, I think comparisons to Narnia do Dragonlance some ill favor, as its characters are more active and have a bigger role in shaping their own world.
Dragonlance is also fairly loyal to the book. Given the film only deals with the first book of the first trilogy, it does not offer a satisfying solution; clearly, it indicates of sequels to come. This is rather annoying, especially as it's unclear whether these sequels will ever come (given the quality of the first film as it is and given the rather quiet way in which this film was released).
Favorite scene: As our group of heroes assembles and then finds itself the target of evil authorities, they flee the pub they met in. They all use a rope to go down and run away, except for Raistlin the magic user who uses a levitation spell to go down with panache. You see, us magic users do things with style.
Overall: It's a bad film but I do have a soft spot for it. If you like the books, you may find the film a worthy reminder of days gone by the way I did. I liked it 3 stars much, but it is a 2.5 out of 5 stars film if not less.