Thursday, 26 November 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Lowdown: Scenes from another year in Harry Potter’s life.
Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was always going to be a challenge to put on film, given that – in my opinion – it is based on a book that is by far the weakest of the seven Potter books. It’s a book that was clearly there only to set the ground up for the grand final. So how does the film manage things? It fares even worse.
In this, Episode 6, we’re basically offered glimpses of Harry Potter’s sixth year at wizard high school. That’s it, for better and worse: it feels more like an ongoing TV series that’s looking for the contract for another season than a film that’s meant to make an artistic statement.
Of course, being that Potter is in an enhanced environment and in a world reeking of evil, some exciting things do happen. The problem is that as with the book, these things are mostly there to help us prepare for the next episode; the truly exciting action is limited to the last half hour of this two and a half hour film. Which, if you catch my drift, implies that this Harry Potter film is a rather tiresome and boring affair.
Yet boredom is not Harry the 6th biggest problem. The main problem is that the film tries way too hard to be loyal to the book, a disease that has inflicted most of the previous Potter films. Instead of having a coherently developing film, what we have is a collection of scenes from the book or scenes that are inspired by the book. Sure, they do help in character development – a lot of the film is there to tell us about Harry & Co the adolescents – but the result never transcends into a unified film. If you haven’t read the book you’ll probably lose the plot somewhere in the middle, and even if you don’t you’d have a hard time getting into the thick of things unless you really have a thing for the book. It’s sad to say it, but of all the six Harry Potter films thus far, only one – The Prisoner of Azkaban (the third in the series) – was a well and truly worthy film by its own rights.
P.S. Talking about recurring themes in the Harry Potter series of films, did I mention the over reliance on digital special effects?
Worst scene:
Upon the death of a major character at the film’s end (now a mandatory feature of Potter films since the ending of the previous book/film), the grieving Hogwarts wizards demonstrate their respect by raising their wands. I’m sure there are some smokers in Hogwarts (it would be virtually statistically impossible for that not to be the case), so where were all their lighters? And come to think of it, where is all the sex a school like this should have?
Jokes aside, the scene is a demonstration for the convention following rather than convention setting series that Harry Potter had become. It's the stuff a kid with a sense of wonder is worthy off; it’s more like manure for stock than child worthy, stuff to make you feel like you're one of many.
Technical assessment: The Half-Blood Prince is a surprisingly inferior Blu-ray. The picture suffers from an eternal brownish-darkish hue that’s there to convey a sense of pending evil but grows more and more annoying all the time, while the sound department is pretty mundane up until the active film’s end.
Overall: Boring and incohesive, thus ultimately completely uninvolving. I’ll be generous and give Harry 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Valet

Lowdown: A simple valet wins a sexual lottery.
The Valet is a 2006 French film (which means it should be better known by its original title, La doublure) directed by the same guy that did The Closet (La placard) a few years earlier, Francis Veber. 2001’s The Closet happens to be one of my favorite comedies of all time, in particular due to the collaboration between two of the best actors around: Daniel Auteuil and GĂ©rard Depardieu. The realization that The Valet features Auteuil meant watching it became a must.
The Valet’s valet is portrayed by Gad Elmaleh, whom I fondly remember from Priceless. Those fond memories are relevant here, because Elmaleh is essentially portraying the same character. He is a low income valet driver for a grand restaurant at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, which means that he’s driving exotic cars all day for a living but also means he doesn’t earn much and his social status is rather low, as reflected by him sharing a small flat with his partner in the valet driving business.
Elmaleh might have what is considered to be a lowly job but he does have his aspirations. Those are aimed mostly at the love of his life, the daughter of his father’s doctor, portrayed by Virginie Ledoyen. But he is aiming too high and is told he needs to settle for less: when he proposes to Ledoyen she basically chucks him out and tells him the main thing on her mind are the debts she’s in due to her opening a book store. You see, Ledoyen’s character has aspirations of her own: as The Valet makes pretty clear to us, Ledoyen has her principles, principles that include the love of books and antagonism towards the shallowness symbolized by the mobile phone culture.
As if on a parallel universe, there exists a character that is the complete opposite of Elmaleh’s: Daniel Auteuil. Auteuil plays a nasty piece of work billionaire who loves nothing but getting his way and doesn’t mind treading on others to get there. That includes marrying the very well French speaking Kristin Scott Thomas to access her family fortunes while, on the side, having an affair with a supermodel (Alice Taglioni) to whom he keeps promising an immanent divorce.
Things get complicated when paparazzi shoot Auteuil next to Taglioni in the middle of a Parisian street. How can he get away from paying the damage bill? His plan involves paying a random passerby that happened to be in the paparazzi's photo frame, Elmaleh, in order for him to pretend to be the supermodel’s true lover. Part two of the plan has to do with paying the model money to cooperate. Will the plan work? And what effect is its implementation going to have on the relationship between Elmaleh and Ledoyen?
The tension that comes as the film provides the answers to the above questions comes from the position Elmaleh is in. On one hand, he gets to spend his days and his nights in the company of a supermodel the rest of the world can only dream about, and dream they do as she makes an effort to prove Elmaleh's her lover. This puts Elmaleh is a position where he has to contend contend with a sky rocketing social status and the realization there’s more to life than this.
Overall, The Valet works extremely well. In my opinion, a lot of it has to do with the creation of sexual tension through the two female lead characters, the “original” girl (Ledoyen) and the supermodel (Taglioni) that flank Elmaleh on either side. And it’s a trap all heterosexual men with sexual organs between their legs would dearly want to find themselves in, because as much as Ledoyen is a good looking woman, Taglioni is made to look like an all out atomic bomb. Indeed, The Valet made me wonder whether Taglioni is really that good looking or whether it is all just movie magic; I suspect the answer is a lot of both, because there can be no doubt The Valet is using lots of well known cues taken from the fashion world to establish an image of beauty in our heads with regards to Taglioni’s character (starting from the obvious, showing hordes of men drooling at her). On the other hand, beauty is beauty, and Taglioni seems to have hefty amounts of un-Photoshopped beauty at her hands, face and body.
There is more to The Valet than sexual tension and pretty faces. There is also a clear demonstration for the value of truth and for the importance of being genuine, which are delivered in credible rather than forced ways. For example, Elmaleh’s attempt to propose to his loved one using an expensive diamond ring he could hardly afford but still got as a status elevation tool fails miserably. I would like to see more films provide this type of criticism to the institutionalized convention of associating diamond rings with engagements, as the two have nothing in common and diamonds are but an artificially overpriced piece of carbon.
Still, the main question I am left with after watching The Valet is whether the film would work on heterosexual women as well as it did on me given their severely reduced interest in Taglioni as a sexual object. And if that question is not the most classic question to take out of a French film, I don’t know what is.
Best scene(s): I didn’t know with which scene I should identify more, the scene where Elmaleh spends a night in bed with the supermodel or the scene in which his jealous flatmate comes over to inspect the supermodel under the guise of picking his left behind PlayStation up.
Overall: An excellent demonstration of how sexual tension can work to drive a film without a shred of actual explicit sex. A seemingly light yet deep 4 out of 5 stars romantic comedy for men that I highly recommend.

Sunday, 22 November 2009


Lowdown: A contemporary version of The Little Mermaid.
Like several other films of its era, 1984's Splash is a film packed with personal meaning. As a child, I saw it at the cinemas with my mother (Ramat Gan's Oasis in Israel, to be precise), at a time in which I stopped seeing films together with my usual movie partner - my uncle - due to his deteriorating health. No offense to my mother, but it wasn't the same. Splash also takes place in New York, my New York: the same New York I have seen just a year or two earlier during my first ever overseas trip. Watching that New York I fell in love with is not an experience that can leave me indifferent.
Splash does not only represent a special period of life for me alone. It represents a special period for its Star, Tom Hanks: it's the period in which his image was much less sterile than it is today and, at least by my book, much more charming overall. I'm talking about the period represented through films like Bachelor Party and Big, a period before he grew to be his current All American self. I'm talking about a period when films could have had some rough edges and not be completely politically correct and inoffensive. I'm talking about a period when films weren't designed by accountants or marketing specialists.
Splash features Tom Hanks as successful a New York fruit and vegetables wholesaler whose luck fails him in love. You see, he's not the typical male: He wants to fall in love with someone for life, he actually wants to get married and have kids, but things don't work out for him. Things start working out for him when he meets the rather strange and silent Daryl Hannah, who we know right from the start to be a mermaid: she can get outside the water and when she does she looks like a regular homo sapience, but put a drop of water on her and she'd become Flipper all too quickly. Hanks and Hannah fall in love and it all works out for them, but there are catches that interfere with the true happiness that falls on them: First, Hannah is restricted by a fairy tale type restriction that forces her to go back home (under water) within a week, thus putting an expiration date on Hanks' relationship bliss; and second, Hannah is being chased by an eccentric scientist out there to make a point. But by far the worst problem has to be Hannah keeping her mermaid secret away from Hanks, and you know right away this is just a kettle waiting to boil.
So yes, you could say that Splash is predictable. But it does have its coarse edges, edges of the type you won't see in contemporary films. First there's nudity: While the filmmakers go out of their way to have Hannah's long hair cover her breasts, there are scenes in which that is simply not the case and flesh is there to see. Oh, the horror! Today that would have been forbidden; flesh equals less kids being allowed to watch the film, which equals less money. No, say the bean counters (those that did not exist back in 1984): flesh is only allowed in the form of dead bodies, not sexy bodies.
Second, there is quoting from Penthouse magazine as well as some not so politically correct references to Swedish people and the film genre they tended to be famous for before the age of the internet. Again, nowadays a film could not quote from dirty magazines and expect to have the kid friendly rating required for maximum income. Besides, those references are made by John Candy, who may be very good at his role of Hanks' mischievous brother but he doesn't have the sexy body we'd like to see on our movie stars, does he?
In short, what I'm trying to say here is that Splash is a romantic comedy from an age in which a romantic comedy could actually exist (at this point I will say there are some good exception to the rule, like Forgetting Sarah Marshall; these do, however, seem to be relegated to a minor role in the fringes). It may be tacky but the heroes and the plot really grows on you. And besides, it's all taking place in my New York.
Best scene: The naked Hannah steps out of the sea to see the Statue of Liberty while looking for Hanks, causing some trouble with sight seers. What an excellent way to introduce a character!
Overall: Instead of coming up with crap like Angles and Demons, director Ron Howard should look at his past and revive his Splash days. 3.5 out of 5 stars, but due to personal reasons I like it 4 stars much.

Friday, 20 November 2009

Failure to Launch

Lowdown: Parents hire a woman to take their 35 year old son away from their home.
Most of what I said on the previous film reviewed here, Two Weeks Notice, applies to Failure to Launch (2006) just the same. Both are pretty predictable romantic comedies featuring stars doing their exact stereotype role; it's just a case where Failure to Launch replaces Hugh Grant with Matthew McConaughey and Sandra Bullock with Sarah Jessica Parker. So overall, you can rightly say that Failure to Launch "offers" a bit of a downgrade when it comes to the quality of its leads.
The premises are simple: McConaughey is a successful salesman who, at 35, still lives with his parents (with Kathy Bates featuring as the mother in a role that doesn't begin to challenge her talent). He has a trick: whenever a girl gets too close to him and wants a tighter relationship, he takes her home and relies on the surprise encounter with his parents to break things off and render him free again. His parents, however, are tired of his presence; he milks them left and right. So they hire Jessica Parker to lure him and cure him of his disease, that is: offer him a relationship he cannot refuse and thus force him to leave home. The rest, as they say, is predictably comfortable.
The problem with Failure to Launch, or at least its main problem, is that its subject matter is worthy of treatment much superior to what it gets in the film. What it gets in the film is the usual American cinema superficiality affair, a problem made worse by a surprise revelation concerning McConaughey towards the end of the film which adds nothing but over politically correct a film that's already too politically correct. In contrast, today alone I have encountered a paper published in the Journal of Quantitative Sociology discussing the evolution of trends in children's' autonomy and responsibilities. It discusses how today's kids do many less chores in the house, thus much more free there, while they're prevented from going anywhere outside the house on their own. That serves to offer a potential explanation for the rising popularity of kids staying at their parents' home way later than they used to in the past; sadly, Failure to Luanch completely fails to discuss things to a level remotely close to meaningful (never mind a level close to this paper's).
Another issue that Failure to Launch deals with rather miserably is the fact that Jessica Parker's occupation leaves her not too far from being a whore. Not that I have a problem with that, it's just that this film is too politically correct to be able to deal with that matter with a straight face. Instead, it goes through loops and bends to settle things down and it never manages it.
So... thus far, Failure to Launch sounds like a pretty ordinary film. Yet I have to say I liked it and I've enjoyed it. Why? Because of the minor character of Jessica Parker's room mate that is played by Zooey Deschanel. Deschanel's performance is so good it dominates the film: unlike the main stars, she is a born comedian. She doesn't have as many minutes in front of the camera as the main couple, but when she does she rules; those minutes turned out to be enough for me to enjoy Failure to Launch rather than suffer through it. I would love to see more of her!
Best scene: Deschanel and a suitor ambush an annoying mocking bird in order to kill it (as per the famous book's title, and against laws dealing with endangered species as well as against American sensitivities).
Overall: Saved by a supporting role. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Two Weeks Notice

Lowdown: Bullock meets Grant.
You know what to expect when you go to watch a Sandra Bullock film: you’d be watching a variation of the predictable romantic comedy starring an erratic and confused yet charming woman (e.g., The Lake House). The same applies for Hugh Grant: you’d be watching a variation of the romantic comedy starring a confused yet charming Englishman (e.g., Music and Lyrics). So when 2002’s Two Weeks Notice is on the agenda, a film starring both Bullock and Grant, you can predict what it is you’re going to watch to the point. And indeed, Two Weeks Notice provides absolutely no surprises there.
The plot is a bit on the redundant side, mostly because it’s rather stupid. Bullock is luckless in love but an idealistic hotshot lawyer fighting for the good of society, mostly her childhood community of New York’s Coney Island (and let me tell you, Bullock’s Coney Island is much more optimistic a place than He Got Game’s). In typical American movies' over simplistic fashion, Bullock identifies the source of the community’s problems to be a certain company headed by the rather charming Grant, who doesn’t seem to be half the monster a corporate headmaster like him should be (the film comfortably bestows that honor on his brother, who does the monstrosities behind the scenes). So when Bullock approaches Grant with her demands, he makes her an offer she does not refuse: she’ll become his lawyer, and in return he’ll accept her community related demands.
And thus starts the romance, only that in typical fashion our heroes don’t know they’re romancing up until the movie’s about to end. Till then, Bullock is driven crazy by a childish Grant and hands him her two weeks’ resignation notice. Grant, on his part, doesn’t accept it and makes sure no one will hire Bullock. Will she make her way back to Grant? Will Coney Island’s community ever be the same again?
Don’t worry, the tension won’t kill you. Two Weeks Notice is as predictable as a film can be, but I argue that this is where it draws its power from: Two Weeks Notice ips a turn your brain off, sit and relax film as the hectic heroes perform a tragedy derived Greek Tragedy like show in front of you. Given these circumstances, does Two Weeks Notice Work? Well, it works as a mind number, but it doesn’t really work as a film. It’s too ridiculous and relies too much on the stereotypical behavior of its stars to work.
Ultimately, Two Weeks Notice can be regarded as a mere tool for Bullock and Grant to perform their antics. Nothing less, but certainly nothing more.
Typical Bullock scene: A confused woman waving her hands and uttering unintelligible nonsense.
Typical Grant scene: Grant interviews a fat would be lawyer and wishes her all the best with her non existent baby. Typical, silly, yet as someone who has made the same mistake in the past I could identify with it.
Overall: A film best described as “mah”. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

My House in Umbria

Lowdown: Terrorism survivors heal together in Italian tranquility.
My House in Umbria is a TV film from 2003 sporting a high quality cast. Set in Italy, it tells the tale of a group of a very diverse and international group of people that are brought together through a single life changing experience: They all shared a train cabin when a terrorist’s bomb went off and killed/injured most of the cabin’s population with the slight exception of a young American girl that came unharmed but lost her parents.
The survivors get out of hospital but they cannot go home as the Italian police is still investigating the bombing and requires their availability. So an old writer of trash romance books, Maggie Smith, invites them all to her place in Umbria (apparently, an exotic location in Italy). There the survivors all find that their unity brings back the good taste for life as they spend their days idling with the locals. And that good taste helps them forgive and heal of their emotional wounds.
What promises to be a good film about Italian sense of ease compared to “our” hectic way of life is ruined when the resting & recuperating characters are shaken upon the arrival of Chris Cooper, the American girl’s only relative. He comes to pick her up to his home in the USA, but should he do it or should he leave the girl with her new found family of survivors instead, with whom she seems more at home? After all, Cooper is a scientist, and as such – according to My House in Umbria – he has to be dry, devoid of emotions, and completely inadequate at taking proper care of the girl. Or any other human being, for that matter.
This assumption, together with a plot that’s driven by Smith's dreams and unsubstantiated notions, ruin what could have been a very promising film.
Best scene: Smith and Cooper walk the less travelled path through the backstreets of Sienna, an old style Italian town. Certainly made me want to go there!
Overall: What a waste of a promising cast and a stellar setting! 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 16 November 2009

Grumpier Old Men

Between them, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau have an illustrious career of collaborations that resulted in some of the finer displays of acting I have had the privilege of witnessing. Grumpier Old Men, from 1995 - the ebb of their careers - is not such a film.
A sequel to Grumpy Old Men from a couple of years before, Grumpier is your classic sequel: It continues from where its predecessor left off and it doesn't add anything new. Lemmon and Matthau continue to be the two bitter rivals that pretend to hate one another but can't live without the other. This time, their glue comes from their respective daughter and son getting married. They're also united against a new invader to town, Sophia Loren, who threatens to rob them of their favorite bait shop and establish an Italian restaurant instead.
From then on, the plot develops in a manner that cannot be more predictable. The relationship between the two leads revolves around them mainly calling one another names, rendering this so called comedy into a really bland and boring affair. The only thing attracting me to Grumpier Old Men was the ongoing notion that a film with these two characters cannot be that bad (yet it is) and the expectation that things cannot be that predictable (yet they are).
Overall: It's sad to have Lemmon and Matthau's talents wasted on material such as this. 1 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 12 November 2009

The Spirit

Lowdown: Superhero comics.
I’ve never heard of The Spirit before renting it, and I only rented it because an otherwise empty shelf of Blu-rays for rent sent me exploring for the expansion of my horizons (as much as that can be achieved through my rental library’s Blu-rays, which tend to be limited to mainstream stuff). I picked the Spirit because it was a superhero film and because it was made by the guy that did Sin City. Not that Sin City knocked me off my seat or anything, but it did have a fresh look.
And looks are all The Spirit can offer, because it sure doesn’t have a story we haven’t heard before. The Spirit is a guy who died but his spirit remained, leaving him unable to die despite severe the physical punishment he often takes in the line of duty. Being the ex cop he is, Spirit (portrayed by Gabriel Macht whom I don’t believe to have encountered before) uses his super power to protect the good and fight evil. In particular, he fights The Octopus, an evil mirror image superhero portrayed by Samuel Jackson. The battleground is Spirit’s city, about which he eternally romanticizes in his film narration. But between fighting the evil Octopus and his sidekick (Scarlett Johansson in yet another uninspiring appearance; does anyone still remember Lost in Translation by now?) over a flask of blood with divine qualities, our Spirit finds himself terribly occupied with the women in his life: His childhood sweetheart (Eva Mendes), the doctor that stays up all night to mend his wounds as quickly as possible, and a mysterious French super-heroine (portrayed by the rather Spanish Paz Vega).
Indeed, the plot is pretty mundane. The looks aren’t; the film is made to look like a comic book, and it does so amazingly well. It looks the part throughout, with every scene seeming to have just popped out of a comic book and into your TV. I can explain how this was done but I’ll just do The Spirit poor service; it’s a collection of elements all assembled together (with the aid of CGI, no doubt). Style follows suit, in the way the narrator tells us what goes on in characters’ heads and the transition scenes.
Yet when all is said and done, the style does not make up for rather boring and mundane plot with too many characters left way too under developed.
Worst scene: The only exception to the comics look is a scene where a Nokia mobile phone is boldly advertised. Shame on the film and shame on Nokia.
Technical assessment: This Blu-ray features exceptional picture that serves its presentation perfectly. The sound is very good, too, albeit a step behind top notch.
Overall: Yet another proof that style does not generate substance. The king, or in this case The Spirit, is too naked at 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 9 November 2009

The Wrestler

Lowdown: An aging wrestler has to deal with forced changes.
None of us has went and seen a black hole from the inside and came back to report it, with the possible exception of Mickey Rourke. Since Nine and a Half Weeks and its sort of a sequel Wild Orchid you could have easily been led to believe the guy went down a black hole. Sure, he had an appearance here and there, as in Sin City, but compared to the impact of his days of old – nothing. The Wrestler, however, brings Rourke back on the agenda.
This time around he’s not the sexy macho lover of old. Or rather he is, but with two extra decades down his belt: The Wrestler has Rourke playing a once world champ wrester living, twenty years later, in the shadows of his former career. His health is in the ruins and his body cannot take the punishment anymore: between the drugs to pump his body up with, the tanning and the hits received on stage, Rourke collapses with a heart attack. He then needs to decide how to move on with his life: continue living as the shadow of his former self and risk dying, or change? Change, in Rourke’s case, means potentially embracing his estranged daughter; getting a day job; or getting into a serious relationship with a stripper with whom he seems to have something of a click. That stripper is played by the always excellent Marisa Tomei, who does the female equivalent of Rourke's wrestler through her stripper character having to contend with motherhood and an aging body that is not as sought after in the strip club as it might have been before.
It’s interesting and all, but once you start getting the hang of The Wrestler it all becomes too predictable and obvious: Quickly enough I stopped cheering for Rourke’s character and developed ambivalence towards him, because there’s just that much you can take from a person that keeps on making all the wrong moves.
There’s an obvious metaphor with The Wrestler, and the main ingredient that makes it work is Rourke himself: The story of The Wrestler living off his former glory has obviously been tailor made for Rourke, an actor in decay – physical as well as mental - now living off his former glory. In many respects, this theme is shared with Van Damme’s recent JCVD.
What made The Wrestler work on me is the extension of the metaphor. This inability to change the way we work despite the guaranteed self destruction and the hurdles we put ahead of ourselves on the way towards more sustainable, and ultimately more rewarding options, is very much the story of the human race and its dealings with global warming. The warning signs are there for us and have been there for a while, yet – at least judging by the actions of our leaders – we prefer to go to hell rather than depart from our precious fossil fuels.
An odd note to conclude this review with: The Wrestler takes it for granted that wrestling matches are a pre-orchestrated circus. The wrestlers themselves sure beat one another up, but they do so in a controlled manner. Not that this comes as a great surprise to me (I used to like watching wrestling action as a teen), but it always seemed to me like a taboo subject; something no one would openly admit to.
Notable scenes: Marisa Tomei’s numerous full on striptease scenes. Seriously: the scenes – well executed as they are – made me feel sorry. Sorry for Tomei, an accomplished actress by all accounts, having to do them. As in, did she have to take her clothes of and then some in order to keep her career alive? On the other hand, I could see how she may be interested in doing the scenes for artistic reasons, and I find it hard to think up a scenario in which I'd have a real problem with nudity.
But still: Tomei really takes her clothes off and perform; Rourke gives us a short glimpse of his ass. Isn't that sexual discrimination?
Best scene: Rourke walks into an empty house but pretends he’s about to go into a wrestling match, shaking from side to side Rocky style (and the similarities between boxing and wrestling are obvious, even though boxers will point at wrestling’s predetermined outcomes). The point is that the film support’s Rourke’s imagination by providing crowd noise and music to go, sort of telling you what is going on in Rourke’s head and the contradiction between that and the reality around him. A nice moment of cinematic artistry.
Technical assessment: You could have fooled me and told me this Blu-ray is actually a DVD, because the picture was what I would rank as average DVD quality rather than Blu-ray. Sure, it’s obvious The Wrestler was not made with a budget that will allow for slick looks, but it is also obvious The Wrestler went for the bad looks on purpose; problem is, it went too far in my book.
The sound is pretty average, to say the least, and the nostalgic eighties’ hard rock music is pathetic / stupid / nice (all of the above), which probably supports the film well.
Overall: The power of this film is in the relevancy of its core metaphor. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 5 November 2009

Star Trek

Lowdown: The Star Trek tape is rewound to its beginning.
It’s been a while since the last Star Trek film, Nemesis, has hit the screens during 2002. Since then The Next Generation has withered away and the Star Trek franchise has faded away from TV screens. So, what angle should a new Star Trek film take in its attempt to revive the series? The angle of choice was to go back in time to explore the beginnings of the enterprise’s biggest heroes, the Kirk generation, and in particular Kirk and Spock.
Star Trek’s exposition shows us the young James T Kirk being born in the middle of a space battle during which his father dies a hero’s “die so that we can all live” style death. Then we’re offered some short scenes showing us the resulting orphan’s troubled yet potential filled childhood, and after that it’s quickly off to the Starfleet Academy where the young Kirk quickly meets most of future shipmates: Bones, Uhura and Spock. Spock gets his own background story, telling us of the torments of a half human / half Vulcan child growing up in Vulcan.
Quickly enough we’re thrown into the action: Nero, a renegade Romulan (Eric Bana) travels back in time to avenge something that the old Spock did in the future. That same Nero killed Kirk’s father and now he’s going to focus on Spock’s family in circumstances that quickly place Spock as the brand new Enterprise’s acting captain with Kirk his first officer. The two crew mates are bitter rivals, but the film takes them for an action filled ride in which goodness prevails over Nero, the normal state of affairs is renewed in the captain / first officer relationship, and things are set for a multitude of sequels to come.
While it’s quite entertaining throughout, Star Trek is one hell of a compromised film. Its main problem is it going out of its way to set thing up the way we remember them to be from the good ol’ series while trying too hard to reuse events and characters mentioned in the previous films (all of which are supposed to take place in the film's future). A lot, for example, is borrowed from The Wrath of Khan, such as the idea of Kirk cheating his academy exams and an Enterprise manned by cadets due to an emergency.
The result? Star Trek feels a very contrived film, and the better you know your Star Trek history the worse it feels. The worst crime, by far, has to do with twisting the plot really badly so as to be able to introduce the old Leonard Nimoy as the future version of Spock.
Resulting from the contrived nature of the film are some severe continuity issues that kept bugging me as I watched Star Trek. For example, Kirk’s world is full of aliens; he even has a go at having sex with a green woman at the academy. Yet on William Shatner’s Enterprise there was only one alien, Spock. And what about the Enterprise itself, now full of sexy screens with video game like graphics scrolling all about them? How very different these are to the Shatner enterprise with its bulky buttons!
Indeed, the continuity issues raise the question of the plausibility behind Star Trek. We forgave the Shatner Enterprise for being low tech because we knew it was low budget and because it was a breakthrough concept; yet if you ask me, I would expect the Enterprise to be flown using telepathy by some sort of a human that’s heavily modified with artificial intelligence. Or, in the very least, using 3D models of reality. Definitely not using today’s heads up display technology in a space enabled environment; that’s way too unimaginative. And don’t get me talking about all aliens speaking English, or the probability of finding aliens that look just like us but have green skins, or and the probability of finding aliens with which we can copulate and even have kids. That’s not unimaginative; that’s plain stupid. We are much more likely to procreate with a frog with whom we share the basics of our genes than any alien, no matter how humanoid in shape.
You may say I'm being picky and those points are easy to live with and ignore, but I argue they have an effect on the plot that cannot be ignored. For example, the film's baddie, Nero, is motivated by a star going supernova and destroying his home planet. Now, come on: even 20th century technology will allow you to know your sun is about to go supernova; it's not something that comes as a surprise to anyone, in particular space enabled cultures. Thus the entire plot is relying on shaky premises.
What else? In contemporary pop style, Star Trek is overfilled with CGI abuse and is shot using an annoying shaking camera style that always keeps you in doubt as to what’s taking place (or the director’s confidence in his own directing).
The final outcome is entertaining but very unoriginal. Just how many Star Trek films have resorted to time travel as a main ingredient? And why is it that all of Kirk’s escapades end up settled with a good old fist fight?
Best scene: Simon Pegg making an appearance as Scotty and providing a silly, yet effective, comic relief. Given the film’s vast list of issues, it should have taken the hint and regard itself with much less seriousness than it actually does.
Technical assessment: I was expecting the world out of this Blu-ray, but while the picture is good it is not perfect; and while the sound shines from time to time, it does not shine half as much as I would expect from such a special effects party.
Overall: Ultimately, a forgettable escapade of the 2.5 out of 5 stars realm. William Shatner provides for much better entertainment.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton

Lowdown: A philosophical overview of a collection of professions.
What is it that we do for most of our adult life, the activity we dedicate most of our time to (with the possible exception of sleeping)? The answer is work, of course. Work is so important to us that most of us would present themselves to others by stating their profession first. Yet, when you look at it, we tend to overlook work when we think about ourselves and what we stand for. Compare work with procreation: We spend much more time on the former, yet we tend to focus our attention on the latter.
To the rescue steps Alain de Botton, a writer that took a hold of a special niche: the philosophical observation of the mundane. And by mundane I mean the things we're taking for granted, like the buildings we live in (Architecture of Happiness) or the underlying reasons for the things that motivate us (Status Anxiety).
In his latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, de Botton provides us with a collection of photo essays, each looking at different professions. The main idea is that these professions represent most of what working adults do nowadays, and look at what these professions say about us and what we say (or avoid saying) about them. Thus de Botton goes sailing with tuna fishermen in the third world, visits the launch of a satellite to space, accompanies a touring career consultant, interviews the head of a major internaitonal accountancy, covers a major international aviation exhibtion, and analyzes the design of a chocolate biscuit (to name a few of de Botton's escapades). More importantly, he analyzes how the work conducted by these professionals affects their lives outside of work, too.
The approach to all of his professions of choice is similar: de Botton tries to identify a representative individual, or a collection of representative individuals, and then he casts an examining look at their lives - both during and out of work. The results of these investigations is a collection of observation tending to the philosophical, not unlike this blogger's but definitely much more interesting and much better written. Indeed, de Botton's writing style is unique: Unlike my preferred approach of trying to write the way I would talk to another person in order to guarantee their comprehension, de Botton utilizes intentionally elongated sentences and a rich vocabulary one does not tend to encounter outside of a dictionary. It could sound pompous, and it often is, but de Botton doesn't abuse his language: he uses his rich vocabulary to specify the slightest nuances of the ideas he is trying to convey, and it works well. Combined with the accompanying photos, de Botton's messages are touching and direct; there is no beating around the bush when, for example, he describes his opinion as to why the multinational accounting company needs to have the very strict code of conduct regulations it has, and why - for very similar reasons - the accountant he travels on the train with to their London office tends to find herself sharing the ride with people who hide behind the morning newspaper.
The accompanying photos are worth an extra word. They're simply superb and they contribute a lot to the stories de Botton is telling (and you can see some of them, probably the lesser ones that didn't make it into the book, at de Botton's website here); I would love to see more adult oriented books incorporate graphics this way to enhance the delivery of their message.
The end result is a book loaded with ideas that will make you think a lot about the work you do and the work others do. I'll demonstrate it on myself first by asking what worth does my IT job represent given the fact that whatever it is I am doing at the office is bound to be discarded and replaced in just two or three years. Or, looking at it from another perspective, what are people looking for when they go to the office given that what they do fails to directly contribute to my own good or to society's greater good.
Overall, interesting insight is plentiful; there's a dedicated point to almost every page. It's all very relevant and quite intriguing, so much so that I could not hold myself from picking the book up and reading, something that in this age of the Internet and the PlayStation does not happen too often. de Botton managed to create a book that is relevant to virtually all of us, and did it so well the book is bound to entertain all that come in its way. What de Botton has produced is an ode to work similar to Beethoven's Ode to Joy, but an ode that looks at both the good and the bad, the pleasures and the sorrows.
Overall: Entertaining, thought provoking an exciting. But most of all, unique. 5 out of 5 stars.

A Note added on 4 November 2009: As per this post's comments, the book's photographer (Richard Baker) has asked if I could add a link to a far wider archive of pictures that were produced for this project. Have a look at them here.