Saturday, 29 August 2009

The Robots of Dawn by Isaac Asimov

Lowdown: An earth detective is sent to investigate the murder of a robot in an outer space world.
For almost three decades now, Isaac Asimov has been one of my favorite authors. He was very prolific and wrote hundreds of books, some of which have established quite a reputation - such as his Foundation series. However, my Asimov favorites have always been his robot stories: From I, Robot to the teen oriented Lucky Star books, I was and still am a sucker for the ideas in Asimov's robot stories. Even more so now, I guess, since having read books dealing with the human mind and artificial intelligence (books such as Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works and Daniel Dennett's Darwin's Dangerous Idea). Of Asimov's robot books, my favorite had always been The Naked Sun, which happens to be my second ever science fiction book read and one of my top three nominations for best fiction ever. The Robots of Dawn, reviewed here, is The Naked Sun's sequel (which is itself a sequel to The Caves of Steel).
My point with all of the above exposition is simple: While Robots of Dawn has a significant weight of expectations to bear upon its 500 or so pages, one cannot expect an objective review out of me; when it comes to Elijah Baley, the hero of this series of books, I am quite emotional.
So what is Elijah up to this time around? Robots of Dawn has him called to the chief outer space world, Aurora, in order to investigate a murder case that puts the future of earth entire on the line through some sophisticated case of interstellar policies. The catch? As an earthman, he's not really welcomed on Aurora, has no authority, and has not much time to set things right. Oh, and there's another catch: the murder victim is a robot.
Thus starts the story of a murder mystery that does not reveal itself until the very last page of this very thrilling read. Sex, political intrigue and industrial espionage are all involved, making me think several times along the way that I have already figured things out; yet I was always proven wrong despite the evidence being there in front of me all along.
There is, however, much more to Robots of Dawn then a murder mystery: in classic Asimov style, we learn about the workings of planet Aurora to great detail, thus earning us an alternative view of our own society and culture. Robots of Dawn is proper science fiction by the book, with its entirely credible science (the only possible exception being the ability to hyperspace) and entirely credible societies to match. Thus Asimov is able to provide us an alternative glimpse at our own society with a good opportunity for us to look ourselves in the mirror. And naturally, the robot characters end up being more human than humans, perhaps stealing the show.
Interestingly enough for Asimov readers who read his books in the order they were first published, The Robots of Dawn represents an attempt by Asimov to link his Robots world with his Foundation world. The attempt is interesting, in a soap opera type of a way, but overall it doesn't subtract nor enhance the book; it's just there, providing Asimov the infrastructure for more sequels.
Carl Sagan said he recommends anything written by Isaac Asimov. I concur, but I would like to add a special recommendation to The Robots of Dawn. Granted, it's not as good as The Naked Sun; but then again very few books are. The Robots of Dawn is still a great book never the less.
Overall: I heart Asimov. 5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 28 August 2009

In Bruges

Lowdown: Two hitmen stuck in Bruges, Belgium.
Our local video store had filed In Bruges under comedy. A look at the Blu-ray's front cover tells you that it's a film about hitmen doing their job, which doesn't ring like comedy to me, but the back cover supports the notion it's a comedy. What is one to make of In Bruges? I was curious enough to know, with my curiosity aided by the film's cast.
In Bruges tells the story of a few days in the lives of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson, two Irish hitmen who had just finished a job in London and were ordered by their boss (Ralph Fiennes) to go the Belgium city of Bruges and lay low. The pair has two very opposite approaches to this opportunity that befell them: While Gleeson goes out of his way to make the most of sightseeing in Bruges, Farell sees it as a hole in the ass end of the universe and can't wait to get back to real life. This friction leads to a lot of dialog filled with four letter words and semi comedic situations not unlike stuff out of Pulp Fiction (and again, I'm not particularly original with this analogy; the back cover goes a long way into making you think In Bruges is a Tarantino sequel).
Then, at some point towards the middle of the film, we have ourselves a bit of a flashback moment where we learn what really happened in our heroes' last job, back in London. This sets events in a different light, and certain things are to take place; the film picks up pace and becomes more of a thriller than a blunt edged comedy.
Overall, In Bruges feels like a film that was great fun for all those working in it to make. It is, however, not a particularly good film: you won't suffer as you watch it, but you won't go "wow!" either. If you like the Pulp Fiction type of a dialog you'll have a good time here, but that's pretty much it. Other than that, the only thing that really makes In Bruges stand out is it being located entirely in the city of Bruges, a place not on the average tourist's map (and probably for the wrong reasons).
Best scene: A chase scene where one man hunts another towards the end is very well made. It's set up in night time Bruges, with all of its historical monuments; it's well shot and edited; and the music soundtrack turns into a mix of electric guitars and drums coupled with powerful classical music to make the scene truly exciting. Add the good acting talent involved with the film and you have yourself a powerful scene.
Technical assessment: In one word, I would say this is an average Blu-ray when it comes to picture and sound. Probably a bit worse than average in the picture department.
However, the main issue with this Blu-ray is its lack of subtitles. For a film featuring two Irish leads who go out of their way to make the most of their Irish accents in the film, this is inexcusable. I found myself focusing so much attention on what's being said I missed out on crucial things; I also missed out on a lot of the dialog, just because it was so incomprehensible.
Overall: Unique, but neither here nor there. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 26 August 2009


Lowdown: An MIT professor learns the future holds a series of escalating global scale calamities.
Aussie director Alex Proyas has a credible science fiction record behind his name. First there was the Gothic superhero story of The Crow, then the wise but too self conscious Dark City, followed by the overly commercialized I, Robot (commercialized, but still good - and being Asimov based does go a long way). And now that we have Knowing, yet another science fiction effort, the question on my mind is this: How can a director that did so well in the past come up with a film as devastatingly bad as Knowing?
Knowing stars Nicholas Cage in the role the tormented intellectual, similar to what he did in Next (yet another "quality" science fiction production), the role I am so tired of seeing him in. He's an MIT professor who recently lost his wife and has his partially deaf son to take care of and to draw comfort from. Cage is obsessed with the question of whether we and the whole of life is but a pre-written coincidence or whether there is a purpose to it all (neglecting to consider there may be other options), but being that he's a scientist and all he's inclined towards the hard evidence side of things.
Things, however, change when he receives a message from fifty years ago, saved in a 1950's time capsule and retrieved from his son's school. The message, written by someone who was a little girl at the time, is a list of numbers that fills up a page; by coincidence, Cage stumbles upon patterns in the series of numbers, and realizes that the numbers are actually the dates of cataclysmic events - say, 11 September 2001 - and the number of people killed in those events. The trick is, the list doesn't stop at 2001; it goes into Cage's future, and it has some grim things to say about the world's immediate future.
The way I had just described it, Knowing sounds like a promising film. It could have been developed into a film warning us of what we're doing to this world of ours. The problem is that Knowing's premises are very ridiculously established indeed; the problem is it makes claims that are so absurd the film was more an insult to my intelligence than the entertainment piece it should have been.
Overall, the film is a statement that says there is more to this world than what we can see and measure; there is more to life than what science is telling us, at least if we follow Cage's journey from a hard core scientist and into a person who sees miracles happening right before him (e.g., being able to foresee the future and taking part in supernatural events). But is that the case? Can such arguments that there is more to this world than science would have us believe be made on the basis of an entirely fictional event (the acquisition of a list that foresees future events, written by a little girl who heard things)? After all, there are absolutely no credible accounts of such events throughout our history, so why should we take this film's word for it? And if there were - I can certainly hear people saying "how do you account for the bible stories" - then please go ahead and produce me the person who can foresee tomorrow's lottery numbers. These people do not exist and proof for "supernatural" events do not exist; had they existed, they wouldn't have been supernatural and science would have embraced them.
So much for the film's message. Now for the film's shaky premises, and there's no better point to start with than this list of historical and future cataclysmic events. Oddly enough for a global list, the list is very American oriented (at least judging by the future events that seem to all happen on Cage's doorstep). Not only that, the list tells you the number of people killed; yet how, exactly, is that number calculated? At what time do you need to be dead in order to count as a casualty? I'm raising the question because in the film, Cage compares the numbers in the list with news clips, yet casualty numbers tend to fluctuate over time (for example, it took authorities a while until the number of September 11's casualties was conclusively, more or less, determined). And how do you count someone that died a year later after suffering injuries? Or better yet: why doesn't the list include the millions that die of hunger in Africa or the millions dying of AIDS?
Then there are simple statements Knowing makes rather nonchalantly yet they're grossly incorrect. At one point, for example, Cage claims that a massive solar flare can instantly end all life on earth by destroying the ozone layer. Is that so? Sure, destroying the ozone layer would make life extremely hard and would cause a cataclysm through the destruction of microorganisms at the bottom of the food chain, but death would be far from instantaneous. Don't ask me why Knowing needs to make these false statements, but the result is obvious: ignorant viewers could easily end up taking Knowing's word for it, which is a big shame.
Between Cage's tormented performance, the stupid message and the even stupider premises, and the film borrowing a lot from the horror genre (there are many "make you jump" cheap trick moments), Knowing is a disaster of a film - in all respects.
Best scene: While pretending to take place in Boston, Knowing was actually shot in Melbourne. My pick for the best scene is a scene shot at the Melbourne Museum, simply because I like that museum quite a lot. The fact I choose my favorite scene based on its location alone says something about the film. It also explains why David and Margaret gave Knowing a lot of praise: they fall for everything Australian.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is excellent, often disclosing the digital effects for what they are (although to be honest, by digital effects' standards, Knowing's are quite good). The sound is not as good, coming to life only on key events. Interestingly enough, this Blu-ray offers both a Dolby TrueHD soundtrack and a DTS HD Master Audio soundrack; on paper, they should both offer the same quality. We went with the DTS option.
Overall: I recommend not knowing Knowing. 1 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 August 2009


Lowdown: A matchmaker encounters professional and personal issues.
We were on a Jane Austen roll. We finished watching the Pride and Prejudice mini-series from 1995, which was immediately followed by a revisit to the 2005 film (you can read the movie review and the comparison between the mini-series and the movie in the comments here). So what else can beat Emma, yet another chicks’ flick of a Jane Austen movie, as a follow up?
I actually watched this 1996 take on the Emma story back when it was playing in the cinemas. I was on a blind date, one of many, but despite the suppressing circumstances I remember greatly enjoying the film; the date itself, although not a disaster, was the usual waste of time that blind dates are. With the burden of expectations at both sides’ end, it’s hard for a blind date to work. Perhaps something similar took place when I watched Emma again at present time; perhaps it was the expectation of a good movie that made my second visit look bland. Perhaps it was me still being jet lagged at the time I got to watch it, or perhaps it was just a case of it having to compete with the superior story of Pride and Prejudice; the bottom line, though, is that I found Emma to be rather bland and nothing like the witty film I remembered.
Emma features an impressive cast, spearheaded by Gwyneth Paltrow in the lead role of Emma. Set in Austen times, Emma is an affluent daughter to an old father who is busy spending her time matchmaking those around her; indeed, as the film starts, we see the match of her best friend (Greta Scacchi) materializing in a wedding. Emma then puts her focus to matching a rather lacklustre acquaintance that doesn’t have her looks nor her charm and not even her status (Toni Collette), but doesn’t seem to have much of a success there. And then there’s the question of Emma herself – who will she couple with? As expected given Austen’s easy old style, the answer is right beneath Emma’s nose, even if it is sixteen years older than Emma.
Emma is rife with wit and a quality cast while Paltrow is definitely skilled enough to carry the weight of a film’s lead. Yet I couldn’t avoid the added feeling that all this wit is wasted on a rather empty agenda. Two hours of matchmaking and contemplations on the rather too mundane were too much for me to enjoy as much as I did Pride and Prejudice. Or, how shall I put it? A good comedy should have more depth.
Representative scene: Emma and a friend practice their archery skills while having a debate so upsetting Emma misses the target and hits a dog.
Technical assessment:
This Australian DVD version has to be one of the worst DVDs ever. The picture is panned & scanned and presented in the old 4:3 aspect ratio; it’s not even anamorphic. What cropped picture we do have seems really bad with poor detail level almost matching VHS and seeming to have originated from something very far from the film’s master copy.
A very basic Dolby Digital stereo soundtrack (as opposed to 5.1) and absolutely no special features accompany the presentation – not even subtitles, which would have been very welcomed in this old style English content.
Overall: Too light for its own good and utterly devastated by a poor presentation, this time Emma can only manage 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 20 August 2009


Lowdown: A contemporary styled Death Wish.
Taken, a 2008 French production, seems to be a different take on The Transporter’s formula of Euro style high octane action with an appeal to the English speaking world so that the film could make money in America. The main difference between the two, it seems, is in Taken taking itself seriously. Can an exaggerated action film manage to pull its tricks when done with serious pretensions?
The way Taken chose to deal with the challenge is by playing with its viewers emotions. The story starts in California, where we learn of a loving father (Liam Neeson) separated from his teenage daughter through a divorce. He will, however, do everything it takes for her; which makes her a pretty lucky daughter when she’s kidnapped while visiting Paris with a teenage friend of hers. Lucky, because Neeson turns out to be an ex CIA war machine that eats Rambo for breakfast.
Using his James Bond like skills, Neeson tracks down the kidnappers and starts waging his personal war to retrieve his daughter before she’s sold off as a sex slave. One by one he hunts down baddies and kills them in various ingenious ways.
Overall, Taken is very much a repeat of the tried and tested Death Wish. The fights are predictable in the sense that you get the boss fight just before the end (just like real life, isn't it?) and the mandatory "escape from capture" scene is way too similar to Lethal Weapon's. Yet it’s all high pumping action oriented, and indeed the action is quite spectacular; if you liked The Transporter you will feel right at home with Taken. Even when the camera is moving erratically, as it does from time to time, things feel natural. So yes, taken at face value, Taken is a very entertaining film. Which does not mean it’s flawless.
As I have already said, Taken attempts its way by playing with emotions. On one hand, we have the fatherly feelings driving the Neeson figure; understandable. On the other, though, we have significant xenophobia: Americans are not to trust Europeans, and Western Europeans are not to trust Muslims and Eastern Europeans. It’s all so very extreme and so finely targeted it made me want to puke: to the more ignorant viewer, Taken may well create a very distorted image of reality. On the positive side, it does portray government as corrupt to the core, which does resemble reality (at least the Australian version of it). The unavoidable conclusion, though, is that Taken is an insult to the intelligence of a thinking person and dangerous contamination to the rest. Political movements have been outlawed for lesser offenses.
Personally, I found Neeson to be a rather interesting choice for the main character. Interesting, but not necessarily good: On one hand, I appreciate his qualities as an actor; as Kinsey proves, he is way too good for what Taken requires. On the other hand, I have to add he never really managed to capture my heart as an action hero, not in Rob Roy nor in the dreaded The Phantom Menace. That same dilemma continued with Taken: to one extent or another, Neeson feels out of place.
One thing that amused me about Taken is the repeated theme of a divorced father having to fight his way to the heart of his estranged son/daughter. It’s a theme that dominates not only Taken, but also the previous three films reviewed by this blog: Last Chance Harvey, Life or Something Like It, and Night at the Museum. And what do I take from this repetition? That the world of cinema is finally coming to grips with reality. The core family concept of a married Mr and Mrs with two children and a dog that dominated American cinema from way back is finally breaking apart.
Best scene: In order to inform us that Neeson is an ex killing machine at the start of the film, the film chooses to have him meet with friends who tell us that fact verbally. I just thought it’s a nice way of doing things, being that I am as sick as I am with the overuse of flashbacks. Some times simplicity is the way to go.
Technical assessment: Picture quality varies, with some scenes colored way out of whack. The sound is good and aggressive as due for an action film, but not of the topmost fidelity.
Overall: Pumping action that misses out by being too serious for its own good. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 6 August 2009

Last Chance Harvey

Lowdown: Two complete strangers could potentially be each other’s ticket to happiness.
Some two years ago I got to watch a film featuring both Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson called Stranger than Fiction. I really liked it. Now I got a similar opportunity on my hands with Last Chance Harvey, a film where the above are the main stars.
Dustin Hoffman is Harvey Shine, an old American musician making his money out of commercials. He travels from his home to London to take part in the marriage of his daughter: she’s marrying another American but she does it in London. We learn his employer doesn’t really want him back from this trip and we quickly learn his daughter doesn’t really want him either: she is much happier with the step dad who married her divorced mother. So much so that she prefers the step dad to hand her over and has no problems with Hoffman disappearing before her wedding reception to deal with his waning career.
In parallel we learn about Emma Thompson, a single woman despite her age (the real life Thompson is 50 years old). Still very much attached to her mother, or rather having her mother attaching herself to her, she craves a relationship but has problems acquiring it despite attempts from her fellow workers at Heathrow airport.
It is at the airport that Hoffman and Thompson meet. It takes them a while, but eventually they start to open up to one another, telling one another secrets they haven’t told anyone else. Hoffman, for example, admits that his life long dream had been becoming a jazz pianist, but when asked again he also admits he’s just not good enough. Not many people I know can make such a statement, and the result hits home: by opening up to one another the two become closer. The question is, can this relationship, our heroes’ last chance, work? After all, they come from different countries, different backgrounds, and there’s a significant age gap between them. They’re even the wrong way around, height wise!
The point is made stronger with a side story that copies the same theme from the main one: Thompson's mother is suspicious of her new neighbor, a Polish guy that seems more like a murderer given his dubious backyard activities. Or is he so?
Overall, Last Chance Harvey is a very charming film. It’s charming because it’s an optimistic call for people to open up to one another, demonstrating just how much can be achieved by being open and transparent. It made me want to go out and call on the world’s population to write their own personal blogs so they could potentially engage the whole world with theirs. True, exposure can lead to abuse, but I tend to think the positives significantly overpower the negatives. I also apply the same thought at the country level: for example, when making my mind up on whether I want to see immigrants from various backgrounds in my neighborhood; but that gets me out of the film’s scope. The point is to open up and make a genuine attempt to get close to one another.
On their part, Thompson and Hoffman are both terrific actors that help drive Last Chance Harvey home all the way. Hoffman has always been a favorite of mine, and indeed in here his performance is at its peak: he truly captivated me from start to finish. I just love the guy.
Last, but not least, is the city of London. London serves as the background for most of Last Chance Harvey, and unlike other films where it is portrayed as a business center or the larger James Bond headquarters, here London is portrayed as a nice, cozy and charming place. Last Chance Harvey definitely reminded me why London is one of my favorite places to visit, even if I don’t think of it in terms of a particularly romantic place; it’s enough that it can be such a place if one wants it to, and it definitely been so for me.
Best scene: There are many to choose from, but I find the most memorable one being Hoffman’s wedding reception speech. It’s his second wedding related speech; the first was a disaster, and you just cringe as he forces his way into a second one.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is reference quality. Great colors and amazing level of detail allow you to pick out on Hoffman’s individual hairs. The sound, while the complete opposite of aggressiveness, is well done and supports the film’s atmosphere very well. A great effort.
Overall: What a lovely experience Last Chance Harvey is! 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Life or Something Like It

Lowdown: A workaholic news reporter learns she will die in a week's time.
It seems like the commercial TV channels have conspired to turn Friday night into some sort of a gentle, almost chicks' flick like movie night. Probably a good idea, given it's the night you unwind yourself off another exciting week at the office and into a couple of days where life revolves around you for a change. Which makes Life or Something Like It (a 2002 release) a suitable candidate for the time slot.
Suitable, but not enough to trick me into watching it yet. Not even Angelina Jolie in the lead role does that trick; she may be a good actress (a very good actress when the material allows her acting talents to surface), but to me she looks too made up to attract me to watch her in action just for the sake of her. No, in the case of Life or Something Like It it was the co-star that did the attraction: Edward Burns, whom I remember favorably from his own direction work in the simple yet charming She's the One (1996) and even more favorably from Saving Private Ryan, a film that is still one of my all time favorites.
Life or Something Like It puts Jolie in the role of an ambitious TV news presenter from a local Seattle channel. Opportunity for a national network position beckons, so she agrees to going back to work with her old cameraman with whom she had a breakup due to professional and not so professional issues in the past (Burns).
Then while covering a very professional item on a hobo with some prophetic powers, the hobo tells Jolie she will die in a week's time. In the face of such serious a prophecy (and the efforts made by the film to show just how unnaturally reliable the guy's prophecies are), Jolie starts looking back at her own life and questioning it: her relationship with her father, her sister, and her famous baseballer fiancé all indicate she is basically craving for attention; her career path indicates the same. So, what should we do with her life now that she has one week left in order to defy that prophecy?
The way Life of Something Like It deals with these seemingly heavy topics is rather clumsy. It is not at all subtle in presenting its answers, yet its answers are completely expected: family, true friends and love are what makes life worth living; career? Sure, but only while it serves the above. And guess what? Love is there right in front of you, etc etc (that is, add a few more things that hardly ever come true in life but do come true in American films).
The film's idea is not bad, it's the execution that is problematic. It's predictable, it holds the viewer by the nose, and it's also boring. And behind it all there is that looming question of "what is the meaning of life", a question that is compromised from the start by virtue of the fact it assumes there is meaning to life in the first place; we humans seemed to be obsessed with the notion that everything must have a purpose when clearly life lacks it (unless you call the survival of your genes a worthwhile purpose; I don't).
So to Life or Something Like It I say, please cut the bullshit and stop wasting my time.
Worst scene: Was it a case of truly bad editing or did Channel 9 cut off a bit of the film? I suspect I'll never know, but there is a scene where Jolie and Burns go through their typical rounds of arguments at work that make it seem they hate each other's guts. Then there is a cut, and the next thing you know we're watching Jolie wrapped up in a blanket and sitting on a sofa. At Burns' apartment. Excuse me?
Overall: A redundant waste of its stars' talent. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Night at the Museum

Lowdown: A museum's exhibits come alive at night.
Night at the Museum is a film one could not have avoided hearing about. What I have heard did not compliment the film: in a case of rare unanimous reviewing, everyone said this is a bad film. The result was that we didn't bother renting it despite it being a Ben Stiller film, but when opportunity presented itself we watched it off air from Channel 10. Which is an opportunity for me to say that unlike its competition, Channel 10 chose to dedicate its high definition bandwidth to a [boring] sports channel, thus relegating its normal transmissions (and Night at the Museum, too) to standard definition only. And that's a shame.
Another shame worth mentioning has to do with commercial breaks. We recorded Night at the Museum to our PVR and started watching it some 35 minutes behind; by the time the movie was three quarters gone we had caught up with the live broadcast. Just how many commercials does Channel 10 cram us up with?
On to the movie itself. Ben Stiller stars as a useless guy who has failed in everything life had challenged him with. This includes a marriage, a child, and a job. At rock bottom desperation (by this film's standards), he takes the last opportunity offered to him at a job agency and goes for a night guard job at New York's Natural History Museum. To his surprise, and ours if it wasn't for the movie being talked about as much as it had, the museum's exhibits come to life at night; can Stiller master roaming dinosaurs and plenty of other exhibits that seem less to do with natural history and more to do with human, especially American, history? And can he perform his guarding duties when some cunning evil plot to take over museum property rolls on?
Well, it wouldn't ruin anyone's enjoyment out of the film if I was to say the answer is "you betcha". It wouldn't do so because Night at the Museum is a very contrived film that fails to make sense in any respect other than it being made to satisfy entertainment hungry kids. Or, to be more specific, dumb entertainment hungry kids. For example: can we be truly expected to believe one night guard is all this huge real life museum utilizes?
Yet all is not lost, because Night at the Museum is saved (to one extent or another) by a multitude of good comedic talent doing a whole bunch of minor roles as museum exhibits: Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Koogan, and many more. Do they compensate for the cheesy love affair and the overall contrived nature of the film? That point is rather contentious.
At the end of it all, Night at the Museum feels like one big ad for New York's Museum of Natural History. Is that bad? No, when you consider that a visit to such a museum by the target audience (kids) would do them lots of good. I know, because I have been there as a child and was awe struck.
The real problem with Night at the Museum, then, is not what it turned out to be but rather what it could have been had it been well made.
Worst scene: Ricky Gervais, as the museum's manager with a thing against Stiller, is just awful. I don't know if it's him or the part they gave him (which he obviously took for the money), but he made me want to puke.
Overall: Entertaining enough to pass the time with, but could and should have been way better. 2.5 out of 5 stars.