Thursday, 26 February 2009

Department 36

Lowdown: Heat meets The Departed in Paris.
As far as writing movie reviews goes, Department 36 is one of the harder ones. This 2004 French production is one of those films that are good but not that good and where it is really hard for me to pinpoint at what it is, exactly, that detaches them from excellence.
For excellent it should be, at least given the lineup: this is the film that stars probably the biggest male guns of French cinema, Daniel Auteuil and Gérard Depardieu; the previous time I remember both of them sharing the screen, The Closet, has produced one of the better comedies I have the privilege to have watched. A joining of these two is not unlike Heat’s summit meeting of Pacino and De Niro, only that the French version sports actors that are much more versatile than their American counterparts. Auteuil, for example, has proven that he has much more to him than someone that can badmouth and sound cool enough to receive a ticket to the mafia: he played in comedies, he played tragedies, he played as a romantic hero, he did period films, and in 36 he is even a rough policeman and a bit of an action hero.
Department 36, or as it is known in French 36 Quai des Orfèvres (after the address of Paris Scotland Yard’s equivalent) revolves around two police officers, our two big guns, in charge of competing anti-rough-crime units who fight it out for the role of police commissioner. Auteuil is the main star here and we get to know a lot about his character through his interactions with criminals and colleagues; we learn, for example, that in the tough world of fighting the tougher criminals there is not that much of a distance between the tactics of the criminals and the tactics of those whose duty it is to fight them.
Talking about rough criminals, 36 starts off with a very cruel armored car robbery. As it turns out, this is but one in several such robberies, and the police are under pressure to find them robbers. Just the right ticket to guarantee a would be police commissioner the role, isn’t it? Depardieu is pretty desperate to get it and in contrast Auteuil is actually pressured to apply; fate and knowing the right people puts the tip on that vicious gang in Auteuil’s hands.
That tip comes with a price, though: the convict who tips Auteuil takes him for a ride in which he commits the brutal murder of a fellow criminal and uses the policeman as an alibi. Auteuil finds himself between a rock and a hard place: betray his contact and risk losing the coveted gang or follow the law to the letter?
He chooses the first option. Yet when the evil gang is ambushed, Depardieu has his own moment under the sun: unable to bear his opponent’s success at locating the gang, he drinks a bottle and goes out on his own to arrest the criminals. The rest of the police are forced to a less optimal battle and several of them are hurt, including the most senior cop in Auteuil team getting shot in the head.
A clash between our two leads is inevitable, and let me assure you: This time, it’s personal.
What evolves from this starting point is a thriller full of unexpected twists and turns where ethics and morality are tested. The type of conflict at hand, between the seemingly good and the seemingly bad yet overall very gray, the excellent supporting roles, and the heart pumping tension that results, are not unlike the conflict at the center of The Departed.
The problem is that I have the exact same problem with 36 as I have had with The Departed: although 36 is a good film, it didn’t feel like it was taking me anywhere new; I wasn’t swept away. Granted, 36 is a much better film than The Departed: the acting is at a level of its own and, unlike the American flick, this one stays on the right side of going over the top. Yet when all is said and done, 36 is a film you would forget over time.
Best scene: An imprisoned Auteuil overtakes two armed guards in some nifty commando action. Now, for the record, me telling you his character has been imprisoned is not a spoiler; the film starts with him in prison and then goes back in time in some sort of a fatalistic flick. The key element to this scene is the action, given that Auteuil did not acquire his reputation as an action hero (do correct me if I’m wrong); when the action comes, it’s unexpected.
Technical assessment: As with the previously reviewed The Way We Were, we watched 36 through our PVR after it went on air on SBS. The key difference, though, is that SBS broadcast the film in its original aspect ratio of 2.35 to 1. Hail SBS!
Overall: Good, but should have been better. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

The Way We Were

Lowdown: A thorough look at the relationship of two very different people over many years.
Watching The Way We Were is like going back through time on a journey to see the way films were. Directed by the recently deceased Sydney Pollack and starring Barbara Streisand and Robert Redford, this 1973 film covers an interesting historical era as its subject matter but is also a mirror to an era gone by as far as movie making is concerned.
The plot follows the two hero characters over a significant portion of their lives, focusing and linearly progressing from one specific time to another. We start off with our heroes in a prestigious college, 1937: she is an outspoken and very ideologically motivated communist that is marginalized for her opinions; he is a popular dude that is good in sports and successful in everything he touches, girls included. She is attracted to him but is also offended when his story gets the nod from their professor and not hers.
Next we meet our heroes during the earlier part of the USA’s engagement in World War 2. She does radio skits, he is a navy officer, and romance beckons. By the time we meet them again, towards the end of the war, they are a couple; but friction is looming as Streisand’s ideological stances cannot give way to Redford’s pragmatic approach. We continue with them through the years as Redford becomes a proper author and then moves to Hollywood to help his book become a film, communists are hunted down by the administration, and the couple becomes pregnant. Through the conflict between the two’s approach and the events that shape their lives the prevailing notion is that people and things don't change much.
As films go, The Way We Were is pretty slow and subtle. It does not feature fast editing and the camera is quite stable; instead it relies on the power of its characters and its actors to develop a presence we can identify with through the short glimpses we get at them. Thus, while the plot is far from the most riveting ever, The Way We Were offers a moving experience.
Yet as I have already said, the main ace up The Way We Were’s sleeve is its blast from the past factor. I’m not talking about shots of New York looking not unlike the way it looked to me as a curious child back when I first visited it, but mainly the difference between the subtle ways in which The Way We Were is made and The Way We Were moves when compared to contemporary cinema. We have been trained to accept nothing less than constant stimulation, but natural life is not like that and cinema shouldn’t be like that; yet most of what we watch is like that, usually through artificial means. Watching The Way We Were made me mourn the world of cinema and what has become of it. Yet, to be completely honest, I was occasionally also craving the stimulus I am so used as I found myself wishing The Way We Were got a move on.
Best scene: Streisand shares her bed with a very tired Redford in a scene that starts as a comedy but ends up supposedly erotic. Supposedly, because by today’s standards of titillation it as is exciting as reading a women’s magazine.
Technical assessment:
Having watched this one on our PVR, after ABC2 has had it on air, I can’t comment much about the presentation’s technical qualities.
What I can say, though, is that according to its credits The Way We Were was shot in Panavision, which generally implies a 2.35 to 1 aspect ratio. Displayed on our 1.78 to 1 screen (falsely sold as widescreen to most people), the film displayed some gross panning & scanning effects that were truly distracting. An example includes a scene in which Streisand is in her college class listening to her professor who just gets cropped off the screen even though he was obviously supposed to be there. In another scene, Streisand is having a conversation with Redford’s nose (the only bit of Redford that managed to get in the frame).
This should no longer be the case. I have hated panning & scanning even when I was watching laserdiscs on a 20” TV, always opting for the version featuring the original aspect ratio. With big screens now being the rule rather than the exception, there is absolutely no reason for this habit to continue.
Overall: Not the most interesting film ever, but a film that did make me reminisce about the days when films were made the way they should have been made and not the way the studio thought they would sell better. The Way We Were is a 3 stars film, but when compared to contemporary material it gets an edge that gives it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 23 February 2009

The Host

Lowdown: A monster terrorizes the streets of Seoul and steers a dysfunctional family into action.
Last week the news showed Hillary Clinton, the new USA Secretary of State, arriving at South Korea to what seems to have been a very warm reception. That same night we watched The Host, a Korean film from 2006, and it made us think that maybe Koreans are not as in love with the USA as Clinton’s diplomatic reception might have indicated.
The Host’s opening scene shows an American guy bullying a Korean colleague into pouring lots of poisonous material down the drain, knowing fully well the poison would go down to the river that runs through Seoul. Apparently, this opening scene is based on a true incident.
Next thing we know there is a monster in Seoul’s river, and what is initially some sort of a pet attraction gets out of the water to lunch on some of the many people casually frequenting the river bank.
The focus of attention turns unto a specific extended family that runs a kiosk by the river. As we are introduced to the family we discover it is quite dysfunctional (but in the same way most families are): one is rather dumb, the other is afraid to take the initiative, the mother is missing, etc. Overall, they are pretty incompetent. That family is hit hard when its young daughter gets kidnapped by the river monster; at first they all think she’s dead, but then she calls her father’s mobile and reports she’s in some sewage facility that acts as the monster’s lair.
Naturally, the family wants to go and save her, but they can’t. American authorities have released a warning claiming the monster carries some deadly virus, and our family is being kept under medical arrest for its contact with the monster. No one listens to their pleas as they incompetently explain their situation to the authorities, leading them to utter frustration.
So our family takes matters into its own hands in order to rescue their young one. They need to fight the authorities, whom Americans lead by the nose, and they also need to fight greedy and generally indifferent members of the public. Plus the monster.
The Host turns out to be quite a different monster movie to what one has been conditioned to expect from monster movies. For a start, although there are scenes of the monster creating mayhem, there is no gore and no “make you jump in your seat for the sake of making you jump in your seat” scenes. Although I won’t recommend The Host as a kids’ movie (far from it), things are pretty cleverly done here and the emphasis is not on the monster but rather on the family sorting itself out plus the social aspects of it all. Despite the monster, The Host is closer to being a film about the journey our family goes through than a monster film. And in The Host’s background, but very strongly so, is the case against American imperialism and the will of Koreans to regain control over their own future; I ended up wondering who The Host title was referring to.
Best scene: The hero father breaks out of a hospital where he was lobotomized to remove the deadly virus from his frontal lobe. Once he’s out of the front door, he finds himself in the middle of a nowhere field, where the security people are busy barbecuing some sausages. The contrast between his struggle and the rest’s indifference can not be made any clearer.
Technical assessment: When one thinks of foreign films one thinks low production values, but that is not the case here. Although the special effects are not Hollywood slick, the DVD’s picture is very good (despite the frequent darker settings) and the sound is creative and aggressive, featuring nice elements such as directional dialog and even the occasional dialog in the surrounds. Normally avoided by mainstream Hollywood productions for fear of destructing the crowds, it worked astonishingly well on my partner during the main monster mayhem scenes.
Overall: Not the best film ever, but a film that definitely gains a lot by coming from a culture out of which we are not used to seeing many films. I guess this makes The Host an extraordinary experience, earning it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

The Transporter

Lowdown: A mercenary in inner turmoil after breaking his own rules.
This is actually a first for me: In a first time ever move, I have rented a film that I have already rented in the past. The winner of this dubious honor is The Transporter (initially released in 2002), and the reason for this unconventional move was me wanting to see this kick ass film in full Blu-ray glory. The idea did come to me after reading a review of Transporter 3, now playing at the cinemas, which made me reminisce. Indeed, just as I suspected, The Transporter kicked ass yet again.
As plots go, The Transporter's one is almost inconsequential, despite some meaning that can be found if someone looks really hard at it (as indicated in the above lowdown). We have ourselves a hero, an ex British commando guy (Jason Statham), who now works as a professional mercenary driver and takes on missions of dubious character to make his living in the French Riviera. In order to live with his conscience intact while serving the wrong side of the law Statham has a set of rules he asks his clients to follow. It all falls apart one day, though, when after a hard day at the office Statham finds the package he was instructed to drive with no questions asked actually contains a sexy woman of Far Eastern appearance.
His employers don't really like him breaking his own rules and getting involved, so they try to kill Statham; only that Statham doesn't die easily, and at the end of a hard day's night he shows them villains where fish pee from and kicks some serious ass in the process.
Kicking ass is what The Transporter is all about, which is probably why I keep on using the phrase. Forget the plot, forget the characters, forget everything; nothing really makes sense and everything has as much credibility to it as a cheap comic. It's all about the action scenes here, and they are all about exaggeration and flashiness; it's a style thing. But it's so over the top it actually works, and it works wonderfully to create a super entertaining (if shallow) experience.
On a personal level, the fact this film is set in the Riviera (and in particular the opening scene set in Nice), an area that wins my personal award for being the most wonderful area I have had the pleasure to visit, definitely increases the appeal of The Transporter through that exotic factor. I mean, what's better, the film's hero living in some gray American city the way most action heroes do, or on the Riviera eating French food and driving in some of the world's curviest roads?
Best scene: Our introduction to Statham is through him driving a stylish BMW to escape the law with some dumb bank robbers. That's one car chase scene you won't quickly forget, and one hell of a way to set us in that unique Transporter frame of mind.
Silliest scene: There's tough competition for this award, but the prize has to go to the scene where Statham fights it out, martial arts style, with a bunch of villains who seemed to have forgotten to bring their guns to the office. In order to have an edge against his numerical inferiority Statham spills machine oil over the arena and over himself, and then goes down a slippery slope to beat the crap out of the baddies. Now, as silly as this sounds, in the context of The Transporter it is one of many action scenes that just work well.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray's picture is good but there are some color inconsistencies between the scenes (probably the fault of the original) and some grain (showing the age of the copy used for the transfer?). On the soundtrack side, the DTS HD soundtrack is good, but for an action film the sound is remarkably lacking in surround envelopment; the surrounds are mostly used for the French style theme music.
Overall: French style action that, as evidence indicates, is so good you will come for more. 3.5 out of 5 stars, but much more entertaining than this score indicates.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

Vantage Point

Lowdown: A Rashomon like take on a presidential assassination attempt.
Akira Kurosawa Rashomon from 1950 is one of those films that many have borrowed ideas from. The concept of having the same story told from different subjective points of view until the objective truth is exposed is, indeed, widely mimicked. Vantage Point is one of those films to have another go at the Rashomon formula.
Boasting an extensive list of A class Hollywood stars, the reason why we’ve decided to rent it in the first place, Vantage Point puts us at the opening ceremony of an anti-terrorism convention held in Spain. The convention’s main player, the president of the USA (William Hurt) is due to arrive, with many in the crowds viewing him as the world’s biggest villain. This seems to point at the Bush era as the period the film takes place in.
Hurt arrives accompanied with a large bunch of security people, most notable of which is Dennis Quaid. A year ago, Quaid took a bullet for Hurt and now this task represents his return to proper duties. Guess what happens next? Just as the president arrives, he gets shot; soon afterwards an explosion rocks the area, and seconds later another explosion takes the entire platform where the opening ceremony should have taken place apart.
What follows next are repeats of these events, essentially the half hour or so before the assassination attempts and afterwards, as viewed by various stakeholders. These include Quaid, Hurt, Forest Whitaker (playing an American tourist who finds himself in the thick of things) and several more. The idea is probably to show us the events from different points of view, but in reality this mechanism is not as well utilized as in Rashomon; effectively what Vantage Point does is to show us things from the point of view of those who have no clue about what took place first, and slowly move on to the point of view of the perpetrators who do know what's going on. Thus, instead of providing us with a philosophical statement on the nature of reality and perception we are taken for a rather deceptive ride where things are purposefully hidden from us in the beginning but slowly get exposed to us later on. It’s more of a detective story than anything else, but it’s all artificial and entirely under the control of the director that chooses which information to provide us with and when.
In many respects, Vantage Point is not unlike things we’ve all seen before many times. There are a few loopholes in there that don’t make much sense, but for a Hollywood made film these are not too bad and overall Vantage Point is not an insult to common sense.
Where Vantage Point does fall is in its American chauvinism. The whole thing takes place in Spain, yet barring some minor “incidents” everyone speaks English and everyone’s English is quite good; that’s definitely not the case in countries like Spain. More than that, in Vantage Point’s world everyone watches CNN (or GNN, the way the film refers to it), including pubs and such; I think you would have a hard time finding a public venue airing CNN in Europe, unless that place is targeting Americans as its clientèle. Overall, we are not talking about major chauvinistic offenses here, given that most American films take it for granted there's not much to this world but their own country (perfectly understandable given their target audience, yet still regrettable). Thing is, in a film that tries to tell Americans there is more to this world than their country, these minor issues contribute to detract Vantage Point’s credibility.
On the plus side, I do have to say that Vantage Point is a very thrilling thriller. At around 90 minutes long this is a relatively short film, but through extensive parts of its short lifespan it managed to keep my heart pumping at a rate that not many other films can equal.
Technical assessment: Vantage Point is a demonstration for Blu-ray done right. The picture is excellent and full of detail, and the very detailed Dolby TrueHD soundtrack knows how to keep things subdued one minute and how to pump things up with energy the next.
I want more films to be like this one, please!
Best scene: Which one, really, given that most of the film repetitively shows you the same scene from different objective perspectives?
Silliest scene: As I said, there are some areas where suspension of disbelief is suspended. Like in the concluding car chase, where Quaid proves that you don't need an airbag or a seat belt to survive a series of traffic accidents (including one with a truck); you just need to be the star of the film. It's yet another interpretation of the movie world's endless clip syndrome.
Overall: Vantage Point is a rather forgettable 3 star film, but I’m giving it 3.5 out of 5 stars to commend the quality of its Blu-ray presentation in recognition of the difference it has made to the viewing experience.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: The case for the scientific method.
One doesn't need to look far in order to see the fallacies in the ways this world conducts itself and in the way decisions are made. Check, for example, the comment I have received for my recent review of WALL-E, a film I have disliked: someone who obviously likes the film has attacked me for my review on the basis of (a) me being an idiot and (b) everyone else saying the opposite. Well, me being an idiot does not necessarily guarantee that what I am saying is wrong, and if Galileo, Copernicus and Darwin would have agreed with what everyone else said we would have still been in the dark ages.
There has to be some way for getting to the bottom of things. A way for us to be able to make as objective a judgment on reality as possible, a way that takes all valid evidence into account and strives to constantly re-validate our assumptions based on newly acquired evidence, a way that corrects itself when a mistake is found. And if you read Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World, you will receive a through and very well written explanation for why Sagan has accepted the scientific method as the best thing humanity has managed to come up with thus far in order to achieve this objective. Because of that, Sagan believes, the scientific method is one of the most important of humanity's achievement, more important than the scientific discoveries findings themselves.
In order to make his point, Sagan does not hesitate to look into all aspects of the scientific method, including social and political ones. Most of the first third to half of this relatively thick book is devoted to demonstrating the inherent fallacies of us humans, the demons that haunt us. By examining the phenomena of aliens in our modern culture and alien abduction in particular, Sagan shows how people are prone to hallucinate and to believe in things for the sake of believing; we're very credulous creatures by nature. While alien abduction might seem a rather eccentric example for demonstrating these problems, and while the discussion there often borders on the tedious, no room is left to doubt the example applies to any other belief that has no evidence supporting it, religion included. However, Sagan is gentle on religion and on popular pseudo sciences (e.g., astrology) in certain respects, claiming their obvious popularity demonstrates just how much of a gap in needs we humans have; according to Sagan, there are very good reasons for why these things filled those gaps up, even if they do so in a very awkward way.
Sagan then proceeds to explain the scientific way. According to him, that way is an enchanting mix of skepticism and wonder; it is the sense of wonder that brings forth new ideas when you least expect them, and the skepticism that filters the crap majority of ideas from those that turn out useful. In order to help the book readers understand the way the scientific method works, The Demon Haunted World contains a "baloney detection kit", with full explanations and examples for what makes bad arguments bad and what qualities make a good argument good.
We then move on to explanations through examples for why it is so important for the scientific method to be utilized by as many people as possible and as often as possible. Sagan demonstrates how knowledge is power and how the lack of it can kill you, as in his example for how gullibility to the cigarette companies' propaganda suggesting smokers are real men literally kills. The ethics of science are discussed to, with Sagan fully recognizing that most of this world's scientific powers are dedicated to creating machines of war; he calls on scientists not to forget their ethics and morals.
Towards the book's end Sagan does not hesitate to delve into contemporary politics, showing how not much has changed throughout the years and how the powers that be are afraid of the utilization of the scientific method because that will make people ask too many questions. Sagan mourns the loss of freedom of press in today's world to a limited number of huge companies and the inability of those responsible for educating us to deliver the important traits of critical thinking and analysis while not subduing the natural sense of wonder all kids start their life with. Yet Sagan doesn't stop at criticizing alone: he suggests ways in which science could be made popular, in culture as well as on our TV screens.
Crisply written in a way that never fails to capture the reader, The Demon Haunted World is a non fiction book that reads like a thriller.
A truly inspiring book.
The Demon Haunted World is one of these rare cases where I can literally feel the difference it has made since I have read; and I feel that on a daily basis.
As usual, I agree with Sagan - the scientific way is one of our most important resources, worth fighting for, and definitely worthy of being used all the time and any time. My score of 4.5 out of 5 stars is a bit misleading, because this book belongs to a very distinguished pantheon of non fiction books that are just too awesome to miss out on. Books that can really illuminate their readers.
By my reckoning, The Demon Haunted World, Sagan's penultimate book released shortly before his death in 1996, is also his best ever book.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Step Brothers

Lowdown: Two childish 40 year old step brothers doing stupid things.
With the recent success of Walk Hard and Semi Pro we felt like more of the same, so when Step Brothers came into our video store we couldn't resist the combination of Will Ferrell and John Reilly. The question was, what type of film are we going to watch? Would it be a hit that would make the most of its stars' comedy power or would it be a bit of a miss like Talladega Nights?
Well, let's start with what Step Brothers is all about. It tells the story of two older professionals who meet and get married at this late stage of their life, each bringing into the mix their forty year old son: Reilly on one hand and Ferrell on the other. Both sons are a major pain in the ass, behaving like five year olds, doing nothing to sustain themselves, and having no prospect of getting anywhere with their lives. Given logistical limitations the two end up sharing a room, which brings forth a world war between them. Quickly enough, though, the two become allies in the face of Ferrell's stupidly cocky brother.
The above account doesn't do justice to Step Brothers, because the plot is not its main event; the main story here is the platform given to the two stars to bring forth their type of crazy humor. It feels as if the two actors are in a competition to see who is crazier, so much so that Step Brothers feels like an exercise in self indulgence: the actors are doing stupid things to make themselves laugh and such, but it's just too crazy and too ridiculous to be really good laughing material and the genuine laughs are too far in between. Doing a comedy about forty year olds living with their parents is a good idea; I don't understand why the film had to take it to the extreme of making the forty year olds complete morons.
That said, the type of humor involved in Step Brothers is good in the sense that it doesn't give a fuck about any film conventions (note the word "fuck" was specifically used because I think it is the best word to convey the film's state of mind). Do not look for political correctness here; it's just a pity that Step Brothers strays too far on the wrong side of nonsense.
Representative scene #1: Reilly warns Ferrell not to touch his drum set, so in respite Ferrell rubs his balls on them. I suspect that the balls we actually see are props, but regardless we do see the explicit act.
Representative scene #2: Our heroes are made to lick dog shit. Ferrell's tongue fills the screen as he explicitly licks the shit.
Representative scene #3: Our heroes are also sleepwalkers, and in their sleep they wreck havoc on their parents' house.
Best scene: Our heroes join forces for some kung fu fighting and beat the crap out of a gang of little kids (as I said, screw political correctness). The scene is shot Matrix style with some bonus white doves, John Woo style.
Technical assessment: The Blu-ray features an extended edition, which is the one we've watched. Other than that, the picture and the Dolby TrueHD soundtrack are very, but very, below average. It's a shame, really.
Overall: I was disappointed. 2 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 February 2009

Fool's Gold

Lowdown: Matthew McConaughey’s take on the Da Vinci Code.
Do you feel the way I do, from time to time?
You step between the corridors of your friendly neighborhood video rental store looking for films to rent. You have already picked two films and you’re looking for a third to balance the overly serious choice thus far. You browse and browse, and then this notion grows on you: if it’s dumb light entertainment that you’re after, nothing beats a good old Matthew McConaughey flick. Even if it’s actually a new one.
Thus we ended up with Fool’s Gold, a film I would normally dare not watch, gracing my sacred DVD player. And lo and behold, as foolish as Fool’s Gold is, I will be lying if I was to say we didn’t enjoy the experience (disclaimer: to one extent or another, given that everything is relative). Fool’s Gold has served its due purpose of lightly contaminating our brains with foolishness over close to two hours.
If there is a theme to attach to Fool’s Gold it is the inherent foolishness that graces the film from start to finish. We start with a McConaughey that loses his boat through sheer foolishness while diving on a treasure hunt; only that it’s not really his, it belongs to some dubious characters who gave him money so he gets them a treasure. McConaughey does manage to get a clue to this mysterious Spanish armada treasure, and so he embarks on a quest for resources to help him get the treasure. Only that he’s a chronic liar, and the people that helped him out thus far now wish him dead. The people that used to care for him, notably his wife Kate Hudson, wish to divorce him; she married him only for the sex anyway.
Yet one thing leads to another and McConaughey ends up recruiting everyone on the treasure hunt, some as helpers (notably a millionaire and his dumb but good looking daughter) and some as competitors (notably a gangster rapper who is heavy on the gangster part). No holds are barred as everyone tries to acquire the clues that lead to the treasure’s location, leading us to a foolish version of the Da Vinci Code: one that is more comical and features much more exposed skin. Skin is a key motif in Fool’s Gold (although nudity par excellence is rare): the film uses its sunken treasure element to the full by offering us a tropical setup with more inviting sea water than The Blue Lagoon. Apparently, shooting was based in Queensland; it must have been tough, though, given the large number of underwater scenes.
One thing that is missing from Fool’s Gold is acting. McConaughey himself is not that bad, but Kate Hudson gives the impression she was there due to an accident or something. Donald Sutherland, on a minor role, gives the impression he was there to have some foolish fun while getting paid for it.
One thing is clear: Fool’s Gold is not a film to be taken seriously. But is some masochistic way it is fun.
Best scene:
McConaughey is left in the middle of the sea by some villains with nothing but an esky to rest on. Almost dying, he’s saved by a bunch of kids driving a speed boat. The kids are so drunk that the two girls accompanying the two guys on the boat show McConaughey their boobs in a celebration of all that is cerebral.
Now, you must be asking what is so good about a scene featuring two chicks and their bare breasts. Well, if you have to ask, my answer is: remember the context. This is a Matthew McConaughey film we’re talking about here!
Technical assessment: Being spoiled by Blu-rays this DVD definitely looks inferior, but for a DVD it’s not bad at all. It’s not state of the art or anything, but it is a well produced DVD betrayed by the total lack of extras (I guess Fool’s Gold always had “rental” written all over it).
Overall: I guess Fool’s Gold imposes a mandatory requirement for foolishness if you are to watch it, but at least you will probably do so with a good and relaxed feeling. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 9 February 2009


Lowdown: A humane robot delivers a message to robotic humans.
Pixar movies are always something I hold high anticipation for, and WALL-E must win top honors in the anticipation department after reading some very rave reviews. On the other hand, not all that is Pixar is gold; I know I'm at a minority, but I can't say I liked Finding Nemo much. So which way will WALL-E go?
Well, as expected, Pixar's WALL-E is yet another computer animation film. This time around it tells the story of a garbage collecting robot called WALL-E, living some 700 years into our future and dutifully cleaning up the mess after humans. Only that humans no longer live on earth; having contaminated it beyond livability, we learn that humans now reside in huge spaceships. On his own, WALL-E has only a cockroach for a friend; yet even though he is dumb (as in, he can't speak) he is obviously more human than human in character, and it's also obvious that he suffers from extreme loneliness.
One day a spaceship brings him a visitor: a very flashy flying robot, EVE, who is armed with a laser and is not afraid to use it. Quickly enough, though, the two robots become friends (and lovers) with WALL-E assuming the male role and EVE the female one (or is it just their names that make me associate the sexual roles?). As the plot thickens, WALL-E follows EVE to space where he meets what currently passes for humans. Have no fear, though: by the time WALL-E shows them humans what it is to be a human, all of this world's problems (as well as the solar system entire) will be solved.
Overall, WALL-E is a very green film: it's a warning about what would happen to our planet if we continue treating it the way we do. It does it by going to extremes, showing us what the earth would be like if our current emission and consumption trends continue. It shows us what humans will be like if our current behavioral trends continue: In WALL-E, humans spend all day lying on mattresses, staring at fixed screens in front of them, avoiding all direct social contact, and consuming Supersize Me serves of foods and beverages. The people of the future are all obese but also suffer from small bones for reasons not made entirely clear by the film; it can't be evolution because there won't be selection for smaller bones, so I have to assume it is the lack of gravity and its effect on hormones' generation. Then again, the spaceships do seem to have gravity, so who knows! The point is that WALL-E serves as a warning about the future of humanity by going to extremes and by showing us a glimpse of proper humanity through a couple of Adam and EVE robots.
So far so good, but the main question for this review to answer is whether WALL-E the film is any good. Well, is it? My answer there would be a resounding NO-E. I have found WALL-E the film to be a major disappointment. I have found WALL-E the film to be a rather boring film that clings too tightly to cliches. Those, in turn, make it a rather predictable film that render WALL-E an even more boring film.
Take the first part of WALL-E as an example. We have ourselves a poor robot that can't talk and has no company, so in order to develop its character we go through an ordeal of character developing events. Events that we've seen before in the great encyclopedia of "how to make a character appear so cute you want to give it a kiss without the use of dialog". I realize WALL-E might be aiming at kids' levels there, but why should kids be indoctrinated with these cliches through something that is sold to us as a quality film?
The next problem with WALL-E is that for a film with scientific pretences, the way a film talking about global warming and the environment has to be, there are way too many things that don't make sense and other things that are very un-scientific and only make sense because they, too, belong to the great encyclopedia of redundant and stupid science fiction film cliches. Examples? Why the hell should EVE, an explorer robot, be armed with a powerful laser and programming that make her use it quicker than Billy the Kid? Why does EVE require a separate robotic arm to program her by typing commands when she could easily interface her spaceship? What's the deal with our robots playing with Saturn's rings? [Spoiler alert till the end of the paragraph:] How come the boneless humans suddenly cope well with earth's gravity? How can those humans build a society based on the one plant that WALL-E has found, and why couldn't they just genetically engineer suitable plants at their whim given all the technology they have with them? And why does their orbit take them beyond Saturn when they could efficiently stay closer to earth? And why does the film need to resort to "space jumps" when the human ship goes back to earth, instead of a more realistic and Theory of Relativity compliant space cruise? And last, but not least, cockroaches are not as robust as cliches make them out to be; without people's artificial heating they won't make it through a New York winter, for a start.
I know I'm being somewhat petty with my complains, but these are all things I have noticed when WALL-E bored me to near sleep. That, and the fact I have a problem with unnecessary twists on science that distract even further and contaminate people's minds. I mean, the message of global warming comes from science, so if you want to discuss it you should stick with science all the way or you risk becoming just another boneless argument that has to rely on extreme "shove it in your face" tactics to deliver its not so fine message.
Best scene: As usual with Pixar movies, they are accompanied by a short animation film of superior qualities. This time around it's called Presto and it's about a magician and his hungry rabbit. It's ten times better than WALL-E in the entertainment department!
Technical assessment: Like all Pixar DVDs, this Blu-ray features exemplary picture. The sound is also of excellent fidelity sporting a DTS HD soundtrack, but surround envelopment leaves a lot of room for added aggressiveness.
Overall: In Hebrew I would say that WALL-E is Hantarish. For those who don't speak Hebrew I will say it's a disappointing 2.5 stars out of 5 while adding that the score includes consideration for the Blu-ray presentation's technical prowess and for the lovely Presto.

Thursday, 5 February 2009

The School of Rock

Lowdown: A Jack Black festival.
Watching The School of Rock can be a problem if, like me, you are no big fan of Jack Black. It’s a Jack Black overdose. You wake up in the middle of the night afterwards in terror with Black’s image engraved in your mind. You need some sort of therapeutic treat to rid yourself of the Black plague.
Not that The School of Rock, originally released in 2003, is a bad film; it’s just that it is built around Black’s persona, and let’s face it: there is not much of a persona behind Black.
The film itself acknowledges this undeniable fact. Black portrays a lacklustre band’s lacklustre guitarist, totally out of touch with his band, band’s audience, and life in general. His old friend in music, now turned “conventional”, cannot cover for Black anymore, forcing Black to find a way to make a living and pay for his rent; so Black naturally impersonates his friend in order to acquire the position of a substitute teacher at this prestigious private school for kids with very rich and demanding parents.
Given that Black is as far from being a teacher as politicians are from being honest, he stirs the time available to him with his class towards the only venue he can think of: he makes his class into a rock band. Black’s starts with his rock schooling quite selfishly, as a way for him to be able to manifest his dreams; quickly enough, though, this is turned into a class wide enterprise. Black’s quest is aided by several factors: First, there the coincidence of the kids being very musically talented to begin with (albeit classically trained); second, there’s the kids’ parentally imposed repression that brings these kids into a boiling point seeking a way to let the steam loose; and third, there’s him getting a very unrealistic level of autonomy with the kids, essentially having them entirely at his disposal for entire school weeks (very credible indeed).
There are hiccups on the way, but indeed credibility is not high on The School of Rock’s agenda so these are dealt with quickly enough. Despite the threatening school headmistress, complaints about noise from other teachers, and parents getting more and more suspicious, the music keeps on playing to a very happy ending (and if you complain that I have just spoilt the film for you, please have your sanity checked).
Overall, The School of Rock is aimed primarily at kids. Otherwise you would have a hard time explaining the sheer impossibility of the film’s premises, its predictability, and its "only in Hollywood" sweeter than sweet filling/feeling. That, and it saying that what Black did is good for the kids.
Then again, it’s probably kids alone that can successfully withstand a Jack Black all film long.
Best scene: Black takes the school principle, Joan Cusack, out to a pub. Cusack the principle seems as if she never had a day of fun in her life, exposing Cusack the actress who (unlike Black) has a genuine talent for comedy.
Worst scene: While preaching the rock mantra to his flock, Black puts minor bands (say, The Ramones) alongside the big guns (say, Led Zeppelin). Come on, I know this is a film that should never be taken seriously, but why contaminate kids’ minds with such bullshit?
Overall: Me, I like my entertainment to be more life like and not that light. And I don’t like Jack Black. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Around the World in 80 Days

Lowdown: Jules Verne meets Jackie Chan.
You would think Jules Verne's story, Around the World in 80 Days, is so good it doesn't need any retouching. You would think so, but obviously you would be at a minority in Hollywood: their latest version of this story from 2004 twists the original so strongly it managed to really annoy me.
Don't get me wrong; Around the World in 80 Days is an entertaining film, albeit it being aimed fairly and squarely at the kids' department. The problem is, it aims itself at the dumb kids' department.
The basics of the story are the same as the Verne original: A 19th century British guy (Steve Coogan) wages a bet on which a lot of prestige is hanging, claiming he can go around the world in 80 days; the film follows said journey. So far so good; the problem is that in the role of Passepartout, his helpful servant, we have ourselves Jackie Chan. I like Chan, but in order to fit him in the plot was drastically altered: Chan is a Chinese warrior who steals an artifact that was originally stolen from his native Chinese village and now hitchhikes as Coogan's servant in order to get back home. And yes, other Chinese warriors, evil ones, are constantly on his tail, so Chan has to do his fighting shticks to get around.
The thing I disliked the most about this version of the film was the need to transform Coogan's character of Phileas Fogg into the mad scientist type. I never really liked Coogan, so this take on Verne's story suffers from the word go, but why the hell does the film need to distort his character so badly? What point is achieved by doing so, as well as by portraying his counterside on the bet as evil scientists? I find it a pity that science can only be marketed to kids if either crazy or evil scientists are involved. No wonder kids shy away from science or anything truly meaningful if this is the way society trains them to deal with it.
Throw in a token female character so that Coogan can have a romantic side, and you get yourself a very predictable film with not much standing for it other than the silly action scenes at the core of every major touristy place our heroes hit on their world tour. No doubt the moviemakers have realized the weakness of their film, so there is a significant reliance on some very famous and unlikely cameos throughout the film to spice it up. Those, however, are not always well linked to the film and are even sillier than its regular bits.
Silliest scene: No doubt there - Arnold Schwarzenegger as a narcsistic Turkish Sultan wins the title easily.
Best scenes: At the end of the day, the only reliable qualities come from Chan's action scenes.
Overall: Chan's good, but the film is a big flop. 2 out of 5 stars.


Lowdown: A young couple shares a residence with an unrelenting nanny.
As I have been known to say, I like Ben Stiller. Thus when the opportunity to watch a Stiller film about which I never heard before presented itself I took it. Duplex, directed by Danny DeVito, is a black comedy from 2003. It is also classic Stiller, for good and worse.
The story follows a young middle class couple. He (Stiller) is a writer working from home, she (Drew Barrymore) works in a hot publishing position. Together they go looking for a place to live in New York that would flatter their status aspirations but would still be affordable. They settle for a place in Brooklyn, but there's a catch: the place is a duplex, which means they would have to share with the current occupant - a old nanny that looks and sounds as if she's going to die in a matter of minutes. Or is she?
Well, once they move in they discover the granny is not planning on going out yet. What she is planning on is watching Hawaii 5:0 reruns loudly during the middle of the night and harassing her new landlords during the day. Stiller & Co, who obviously never had to contend with a baby, find their sleep deprived life a nightmare. They both lose their jobs, and as they are about to lose their sanity that adopt a new tactic: trying less and less moral ways to get rid of their tenet.
Duplex' comedy is derived from two sources: the straight forward ordeals the nanny takes our couple through, and the more sophisticated plots for ridding the world of said nanny that the "heroes" go through (and fail through). The result is funny, yet extremely predictable; it all fits the standard comedy templates way too well. There is not much in the way of originality with Duplex, which raises the question of whether having a laugh is worth going through something we have seen before and many times? I will let you decide.
Best scene: Stiller going out of his way to catch an airborne doze of a flu while riding the New York subway, intending to pass it on to the granny. Yes, Duplex deals with biological warfare.
Overall: Middle of the road 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Conversations with Carl Sagan edited by Tom Head

Lowdown: Sixteen Sagan interviews spanning three decades.
Conversations with Carl Sagan is a book with an interesting premises. It is a collection of sixteen interviews with Carl Sagan or articles about Carl Sagan or radio program scripts where Sagan was involved, collected between the early seventies and up to Sagan's death in 1996.
As none of the conversations were meant to be assimilated into a collection later, there is some significant overlap in the subjects they cover. For a start, reading those sixteen conversations means that you need to read some sixteen introductions telling you who Carl Sagan was (aside of the book's own intro dealing with this matter). However, this also means that a lot can be learned from the slight differences between the similar descriptions. Indeed, given the generation wide period that is covered by the book, one can learn a lot about Sagan's own evolution as a person dedicated to science and the scientific way.
As we start the book, we meet a younger and optimistic Sagan involved with the search for life on Mars. He tells us he expects to find it. Then, as we progress into the book, we see a Sagan who is less enthusiastic about the prospects of finding other life in the universe during his life time and a Sagan who is more and more worried about the human race and what it is doing to itself and its earth. Throughout the book, though, we find a person dedicated to the scientific way who goes out of his way to teach the masses the value of such an approach. More than anything, Sagan is concerned that in this day and age we simply cannot afford to have people's minds governed by disinformation. It is the very fact that science has brought us to where we are that means it is a must for us to utilize its approach if we do not want to fall down from where we are.
On a personal basis, I have to say I am a long time admirer of Sagan made to admire him even more after getting to know the person behind the scenes of Cosmos better through this book. I admire his standings for the things we both hold dear, and I admire his patience and openness to new ideas.
Overall: A very interesting way to know one of the worthier persons this world has had the pleasure to host. 4 out of 5 stars.