Monday, 31 May 2010

The Last Colony by John Scalzi

Lowdown: John Perry leads a new human colony through galactic turmoil.
The Last Colony is John Scalzi’s third visit to the world he has created in Old Man’s War and followed up in The Ghost Brigades. Meant to close the series off, The Last Colony has since failed with two more books added to the Old Man’s War world: Zoe’s Tale and Sagan Diaries.
Set immediately where The Ghost Brigades left us, The Last Colony takes us back to the first book’s format and tells things in first person from the very cynical John Perry’s mouth. This old man whom we followed through numerous battles with various alien species in the first book is now a retired diplomat (of sorts) living with his new/old wife, Jane Sagan, and their adopted daughter Zoe.
Perry is offered a new challenge: to lead a group made of humanity’s various colonies and establish a brand new colony on a planet handed over as a gift from a certain alien species in debt to humanity for the gift of consciousness. At first Perry has to fend off political challenges from other humans in the colony aspiring for leadership; then he has to deal with the planet’s natives; but quickly enough Scalzi makes us forget and neglect these locals in favor of a major galaxy level scheme featuring Perry in a starring role and putting the whole of humanity on a path to extinction. Will Perry rise up to the challenge, again?
At the core of The Last Colony is a discussion involving some interesting and relevant ethical issues, many to do with information disclosure vs. secrecy but generally all to do with with determining what an individual should do when questions concerning the trade off of society's cost/benefit analysis arise. Yet while still intriguing and thrilling, The Last Colony is definitely not as good as its two predecessors. For a start, it’s just not as much of a page turner as before, a lot of which is to do with this reader’s familiarity with the format. A lot of it is also to do with Scalzi using the cheap trick of building up cliff-hangers only to stop at the peak and continue the next chapter way after the crisis has been resolved.
Indeed, sequel fatigue seems to have hit more than Scalzi’s creativity. Whereas Ghost Brigades was a decent standalone book that just happened to take place in Old Man’s War’s universe, The Last Colony relies way too heavily on the reader knowing what happened earlier. If anything, and by Scalzi’s own admission in the book’s closing notes, The Last Colony was there primarily to close things off.
While reading The Last Colony I seemed to have been suffering more than just Old Man’s War world fatigue; I was suffering Scalzi fatigue, too. Between reading the series’ predecessors and between regularly reading Scalzi’s blog I sort of got the hang of Scalzi’s writing, so much so that I am tired of his repeated motifs. I’m tired of him shaping up his characters to be like him and his role model family, and I’m tired of the manifestation of his political opinions in his books (Scalzi is an American left winger that, by his own admission – and I agree with him – European standards would label to the right of center). Most of all, I’m tired of his apologetic attitude towards religion, on one hand being agnostic while on the other hand admiring religion. None of the above is a crime and all are justifiable some of the time, but after reading three books fisting the same values down your throat you’d be allowed to feel some tiredness.
Overall: All in all, The Last Colony provides nice closure to the series. At 3 out of 5 stars, its main problem is to do with this construct called "the trilogy" that is so badly favored by contemporary publishers.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

Sunshine Cleaning

Lowdown: A desperate single mother takes cleaning up crime scenes as her financial salvation.
How low are we going to go when things get really bad just in order to make ends meet? Most of us have been to desperation at one point or another during our lives. My memorable low point was being unemployed for six months with not much of a prospect for improvement; so I did take some pretty horrible casual jobs whose memory lingers on. In Sunshine Cleaning similar events take place upon the film's hero (the ever excellent Amy Adams of Enchanted and Doubt fame); her solution turns out similar to mine only worse. Unlike me she also perseveres, pushing as she goes one of the key messages Sunshine Cleaning tries to deliver: the question should not be "how low" can we go, but rather just how far, because as long as you're on the good side of ethics all's fair.
Adams plays a young beautiful woman who works in cleaning. In the beginning of the film we see her going through a series of events that push her to the limit: she ends up cleaning the house of an old school friend who's now married, pregnant and obviously well off; that friend asks her how she's doing and whether she married the school's quarterback she used to date. Adams lies; she's actually having an affair with that quarterback, seeing him in cheap motel rooms while at home the guy has a pregnant wife. Then Adams' fatherless child is having issues at school that force her to take him out and look for a private alternative. With only her very teen minded sister (Emily Blunt) and her ever looking to make the killer deal but ever unlucky father (Alan Arkin) to help, Adams needs a quick win.
She gets it through the quarterback now policeman friend, who points her to the money to be made from cleaning crime scenes up. It's hard, but it's not that different to what she normally does, so Adams goes for it - in a partnership with her sister. As you can expect, things don't go that well - cleaning up after murders is not as "trivial" as it sounds.
The idea behind Sunshine Cleaning is not bad at all. On the face of it, there's ample room here for a brilliant statement about coping with life's harsh realities as well as some dark humor. However, the end result is a rather mixed bag. There are plenty of "death is a part of life" analogies hinting that through effort one can find hope even in the most troubled of times, but the overall message tends to be obscured and the comedy potential unfulfilled. Sunshine Cleaning is a drama, a nice drama, but a drama that could have been much more of a kicker.
One of my key problems with Sunshine Cleaning is to do with the way it contradicts itself. On one hand it advocates us not to use finances, a sterile office career and being married as key performance indicators when assessing a person; on the other hand it takes Adams a mighty long time to stop lying about her finances. I'm not sure she even got the message by the end of the film, even as she's using family and friends to keep afloat. Then again, I always say how family and friends are important, but am I doing enough on that front? Surely not.
Best scene: Adams goes to a baby shower (an American term explained to me quite frequently) involving many of her now married and financially secure school friends. She goes as the underdog that has to impress them because she used to be the year's best looker, and she faces a tough crowd that reminds me a lot of the crowd in my own child mothers' group - [almost] all looking the same, [almost] all living the life expected of them, [almost] all in a state that warrants me to question just how conscious they really are of the universe around them. Then again, just how conscious am I?
Technical assessment: A mediocre DVD featuring stereo only sound (as opposed to 5.1) and no subtitles, helping us miss out on a few key lines through the less than great dialog sound.
Overall: Interesting yet more than somewhat disappointing at 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Charlie & Boots

Lowdown: Estranged father and son come together during a drive across Australia.
Paul Hogan (Crocodile Dandy) and Shane Jacobson (Kenny) are two of Australia’s most famous comedy movie heroes, at least inside Australia. When you join the two of them together, as Charlie & Boots does, you expect big laughs. Well, you don’t get the big laughs, but you do get to tour Australia while witnessing an authentic drama.
Charlie (Hogan) is an old farmer and father of two, including the now divorced Boots (Jacobson) with whom the relationship is rather frosty. The film starts with the funeral of Charlie’s wife and Boots’ mother, which takes much of the reasons for living away from Charlie. A visiting Boots quickly decides to take matters into his own hands, organizing a quick get away from work (that will cost him later) and takes Charlie for a drive to do some fishing. Only that it’s not a simple drive: Boots wants to take Charlie to where Charlie promised to take Boots fishing one day, Australia’s northernmost point – Cape York. Thus the two are in for a long drive, starting off from around Port Fairy in the south side of Australia with some 4,000 kilometers ahead of them.
The rest of the film is your typical long car journey material. Challenges befall our heroes, they meet nice people and not so nice people, they learn more than expected about one another, and we learn more about the circumstances that drove them apart. And yes, in a completely unexpected manner, there is the obvious conciliation between the two.
If the film is as predictable as it is, what is it good for in the first place? Well, take comedy out of the equation because there’s not that much of it; what comedy we do have is a bit on the pathetic side (as in, guess who Charlie “volunteers” to ride a bull when the rodeo asks for volunteers from the crowd?). Besides, let's not be around the bush: Charlie & Boots is a mildly boring film. What we do have on our hands here, though, is a nice story about a relationship between two people that can pass for real.
Ultimately, Charlie & Boots is mostly a postcard from Australia. It’s main event is that act of passing through various Aussie attractions, many of which are not your commonest tourist destinations; this acts as the background for the development of our characters. It’s all done in a rather sloppy way through a script that is as fine as sandpaper is for use as toilet paper, which implies that rather than being a postcard to sell Australia with to the international crowds, Charlie & Boots is more of a pat across the shoulders of Aussies: as in, look at our beautiful country and its people. Ain’t it something? Aren’t we all just the greatest?
Worst scenes: A major part of the not so funny comedy in Charlie & Boots revolves around the very bad food our characters consume throughout their travels. If this film is supposed to sell Australia then the food part of it would be a major turn off. The sad thing is that it’s not an exaggeration: Aussie food is mostly based on Australia’s British heritage, which means it’s boring and tasteless. Luckily, Aussie cities have enough immigrants to offer variety, but once you get out of the big city you might as well switch your taste buds off.
Technical assessment: A below average DVD in both picture and very uninspiring, virtually mono sound.
Overall: Charming yet too flawed to pass, this is a film that will best serve those contemplating long drives in Australia (you know who you are). 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Up in the Air

Lowdown: A consultant specializing in sacking people has to deal with revisions to his place of work.
One of the things that make me wonder about human nature the most is the way people are able to do the most atrocious things under the guise of doing it for work. Up in the Air discusses that particular problem and many of its nuances and does so in an entertaining manner.
A much older than usual looking George Clooney plays a mercenary consultant with a twist or two: his day job is to replace chicken managers when the time comes for them to fire their employees, and his expertise are so sought after that his home is the airplane that takes him from one sad place of work to another. He's so into planes that his life's ambition is to be the seventh American Airlines frequent flyer to accumulate more than a billion gazillion miles. The lack of a home means Clooney is able to isolate himself from fellow human beings, at least as far as meaningful contact is concerned, which is definitely beneficial when one's job is to be the bearer of nasty news. How else can you perform such a task when you actually have feelings?
Up in the Air deals mostly with the cracks that appear in Clooney's wall of isolation when two things happen. The first is him meeting a fellow woman frequent flyer (Vera Farmiga) who leads a life similar to his and with whom he finds himself having a better time than usual. The second is when this young graduate with a diploma that would put Stephen Hawking to shame is recruited by his company based on her idea to cut costs by firing people via a web conference call as opposed to doing it in person. Clooney is so change averse and so worried about not achieving his dream that he takes this young recruit with him on a tour of duty during which both learn a thing or two about life.
I can't say whether Up in the Air is a comedy or a drama but the cavalcade of analogies that form the basis of the movie's message concerning the importance of relationships is, overall, quite impressive. They're everywhere and in every scene; sometimes they're funny and sometimes they're sad, but they're effective.
With an atypical ending finishing things off in a broody kind of a way, Up in the Air left me thinking. No, by now I'm not used to seeing a seriously good mainstream American film, especially not one that tries to make you think, but Up in the Air is one such film.
Best scene: Clooney and his young apprentice inform the ever excellent J.K Simmons he’s fired. As Clooney scrambles to spin the event and present it as an opportunity for Simmons to finally fulfill his dreams us viewers receive a demonstration of some very fine acting.
Technical assessment: The picture is quite good on this Blu-ray. So is the sound, although it has to be said this is a soundtrack that works through subtleties rather than bombardment. I like it because it demonstrates how the Blu-ray format’s sound delivery capabilities can be used to deliver a fine rather than aggressive experience; I doubt a DVD would be able to come up with the goods as well.
Overall: Smart and made well enough to merit 4 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Mona Lisa Smile

Lowdown: A free thinking woman teacher bumps into full blown conservatism at a reputable female only college.
Dead Poets Society was a good film that took place in a male boarding school. Hollywood’s bean counters thought hard on how to create a proper sequel, and the solution they came up with – Mona Lisa Smile (2003) – is it: the same story wrapped up around a conservative female only American college.
Set in fifties’ Massachusetts at what is described to us as an ultra conservative but also highly reputable girls’ college (so reputable I have no idea whether the institution is real or fictitious, but then again I’m pretty ignorant about most things), we follow a Julia Roberts portraying a relatively unqualified new arts teacher arriving from California. With the terms and conditions for the room offered by the college being rather too restrictive to our liberal teacher, Roberts has to find a place to live. Quickly enough she realizes she needs to make a special effort with the girls she’s teaching, because they all learned the course material before her lectures started and they all seem smarter than Einstein and Hawking combined. We then meet the girls (portrayed by the likes of Kirsten Dunst, Julia Stiles and Maggie Gyllenhaal), each of whom perfectly fills the niche of a particular stereotype the film would like to capitalize on: the ugly, the conservative, the promiscuous, etc. All in all, Roberts learns the girls aspire to quickly get married and live the rest of their lives as adoring housewives, which implies all of their sophisticated education is going to be wasted. Roberts will not allow for that; this time, it’s personal.
Mona Lisa Smile works on two main agendas. First we have liberal vs. conservative and then we have the issue of women’s rights and the way our patriarchal society treats women. A lot of it relies on us looking at things from our contemporary perspective, as if mocking fifties’ treatment of women and its entire conservative package. Yet are we entitled to take such a perspective, the way the film urges us to do? I would tend to disagree and point towards the ongoing discrimination against women that is still considered very acceptable. Couple that to the glamour associated with Julia Roberts as an actress and you will understand why Mona Lisa Smile fails to hit the targets it set itself. I mean, it’s nice and entertaining and all, but between its cliché treatment of the problem and the shallow way it does so it becomes hard to consider Mona Lisa Smile as a thought provoking film. Yet another near hit/miss from director Mike Newell (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire)...
Talking about the miscasting of Roberts, I have to say I wasn’t particularly impressed with her acting either. Essentially, she’s doing another Erin Brockovich act here, to the letter; as usual, it is left to Gyllenhaal to save the day, performance wise, but her role is too small to have a meaningful impact.
Time to discuss the film’s art lessons…
Worst scene:
Roberts takes her flock to see a Jackson Pollock picture. She stares at it with awe as the girls are struggling to come to grips with it and determine whether it’s good or bad art. Us viewers are meant to know that Pollock=quality, but you’ll have to excuse me: staring at something and saying “wow!” does not guarantee quality; I often do the same when I look at my output in the toilet.
It’s a very American movie trait, this automatic allocation of awe we should have whenever a famous name is mentioned but without explaining to us why the subject deserves the awe in the first place. To me, this sounds like a sophisticated way of arguing from authority, which is something you do when you don’t have any proper arguments.
Now, the question is whether a film like Mona Lisa Smile needs to provide us with a quick lesson in art appreciation in the first place. In my opinion it does, for the simple reason it already tries to provide us with such lessons. Problem is, according to this movie an art appreciation lesson mostly involves placing a picture in front of you and gazing at it with wide open eyes.
Overall: Mona Lisa Smile touches on some big issues that deserve our attention. On the other hand, the treatment it gives these issues does not do justice to them. I’ll stick with giving Roberts & Co 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 17 May 2010

The Dinner Game

Lowdown: A man toying with another pays the price for his mischief.
I like the work of French director Francis Veber, whose portfolio includes The Closet and The Valet. I like it enough to watch an earlier effort of his from 1998, The Dinner Game (a bad translation of the original title, Le dîner de cons). Indeed, there is a thread linking Veber’s work, a link that makes researching his past work even more interesting: all of his films feature a character called Pignon in the lead.
The Dinner Game’s Pignon is a nice but not overly smart guy, still devastated by his wife leaving him two years ago and channelling his energy to building matchstick models. Hear him talking about his models and you could easily misinterpret Pignon’s passion with idiocy, which is what the other film lead (portrayed by Thierry Lhermitte) does.
Lhermitte is a rich successful publisher who stole his wife from his best friend. For fun he plays golf with his rich mates and for entertainment he and his mates run dinners where they each bring an unaware "idiot" to make fools of themselves in front of a crowd of predators. Pignon, it seems to Lhermitte, is a perfect dinner guest.
Things don’t according to plan, though. Lhermitte sprains his back in a golfing accident, finding himself a prisoner in his own home with Pignon as a visitor. While the former tries to take advantage of the latter, the latter makes enough innocent mistakes to ruin the life of the former.
The affair that is The Dinner Game feels more like a play than a movie. For a start, other than a few minutes at the beginning and some other slight exceptions, things all take place inside Lhermitte’s apartment and the number of characters is limited to a select few. Under normal circumstances I would object because I tend to find plays turned into movies rather boring, but The Dinner Game – while not the most exciting film ever – just gets away with it. From the cinematic point of view, the play’s monotonic atmosphere tends to be broken by cuts and changes to camera positioning. Then there’s a plot smart enough for a film and some fine comedy moments.
Best scene: The corrupt Lhermitte needs to hide all of his art away from a tax auditor Pignon brings over to help locate Lhermitte’s wife which Pignnon turned away thinking she’s the mistress.
Overall: There can be no mistaking this for anything but a French comedy. The Dinner Game just, but just, manages 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Footy Legends

Lowdown: A group of poor misfits competes on a big time rugby tournament.
When I watch a football game involving teams I have no particular affection towards I generally find myself rooting for the underdog. It seems the decent thing to do and it’s what most people tend to do in such situation, if only for the love of watching a good competition. Films have been exploring this underdog sports phenomena for a while now, with the first Rocky probably being the most famous of the genre (we tend to forget how that first film in the series was actually a good film). 2006’s Footy Legends carries that underdog flame to the western suburbs of Sydney.
Our hero is an Aussie of Vietnamese origins. His mother died and he’s looking after his little sister and his grandfather, an ex anti-commie fighter (who’s at an old people’s place). However, our hero is not doing a particularly good job at it and he’s frustrated with not being able to find a job. Then he learns of a rugby tournament he can apply to, so his bunch of unlikely misfits join hands to form a team. Comprising of migrants of various origins, a guy helplessly in love with his unappreciative neighbor and a guy whose partner is in jail, our footy legends go to defy all odds as they fight adversaries on the pitch and tackle social and personal issues on their way.
There is not that much to be said in virtue of Footy Legends. It is as basic an underdog Cinderella story as one can imagine, following the formula to the letter with terrifying predictability. This is no Hollywood production either, with obviously meagre budgets that make the film feel more like a home video than something that was actually released to the cinemas.
Yet there is something going for Footy Legends. Sure, it’s miracles are just too unnatural to accept, but it is a film that doesn’t shy from showing you things normally left out of the over clinical film presentations that usually grace our screens. Footy Legends has got some scary characters as the good guys, it lacks characters that are particularly handsome, and all its leads live in pretty below average houses and drive old models… I guess what I’m trying to say is that Footy Legends feels authentic. Being set in Sydney, rather than some unnamed American suburb, helps there too.
Worst scenes: The way our team of heroes always go from being thumped in the first half through to a miraculous recovery at the very end is just too predictable. We’ve seen this too many times not to watch Footy Legends and be completely cynical about the experience.
Overall: A bad film, but its local setting and grassroots feeling earn it 2.5 out of 5 stars. Guess you could say this is a very basic feel good film.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

What A Girl Wants

Lowdown: A 17 year old American girl gets in touch with her aristocrat English father.
According to the stuff that passes for information in tabloid media, some 10% of all internet passwords are “princess”. I can only testify for myself and say that “princess” has never been a favorite password of mine, nor do I suspect it would ever be. I will add, though, that this supposed 10% market share is the exact market segment the film What A Girl Wants (2003) is aiming at.
For all intents and purposes, What A Girl Wants is a contemporary version of the good old Cinderella story. Amanda Bynes is the seventeen year old daughter of a cool American rock & roller who is not too famous but is gladly making ends meet at New York’s Chinatown (Kelly Preston). She is also the daughter of an English aristocrat with claims to the English throne and high political aspirations (Colin Firth). Trouble is, while Bynes’ parents met on a Moroccan adventure and fell in love, Firth’s advisors did not like the threat Preston posed to their master’s status so they got rid of her. As a result, Bynes never got to know her father.
Until, that is, she finally puts her backpack on, catches the nearest plane, and flies over to London to break into her father’s castle and meet him face to face. What follows is the story of how the two get together, how Bynes fights off the threat of the evil stepsister and how Bynes finds her prince charming.
The trouble with What A Girl Wants is that it’s a pretty bad film. Sure, it won’t bore you, and you might even smile from time to time; but the amount of clichés on display is nothing short of amazing. Top of the pops in the cliché ladder is the “Americans are cool rock & rollers” stereotype versus the “the English are so stuck up to their old aristocracy and class system” stereotype, which allows Bynes to barge in on the British party and show them old English fools how cool she/they could be if only they could act like a proper American. For example, Bynes never gets off her double-decker bus when it stops at a station; she always jumps off it on a street corner.
The puzzling thing about this very gross use of stereotyping is the way it exposes the hypocrisy behind What A Girl Wants: if the English love affair with aristocracy is so uncool then why is it that Americans bothered making a film about it? Why is it that so many girls really do dream of being princesses? There has to be some sort of a deficiency with their own societies that causes them to try and make up Prince Charmings in their dreams. The kingdom of rock & roll is not as cool as it may seem.
Clichés, predictability and an overall miserable plot aside, the next problem that hits you with What A Girl Wants is the acting. Or rather, lack of. Sure, Firth provides the film with some moments of genuine acting; but between Bynes and the rest of the girls and the boys, “acting” is not the verb you would use to describe what took place in the shooting of the film.
It's a bit of a pity the film avoids discussing the question of why Bynes' character is so interested in finding her father in the first place. As things come out, What A Girl Wants is not a film to confront serious questions in the face; instead it's yet another American production reeking of old fashioned conservative values hiding beneath the shroud of being young and cool. It doesn't deal with what girls want, it's more to do with its version of what girls need. If the film really wanted to show us young, cool and modern they could have come with a love story that dispensed with kissing authority’s ass. You know, the love stories that each and every one of us took and takes part in during our lives.
Worst scenes: Why is it that the filmmakers had to throw in at least 36 double-decker busses into the frame on every scene that's supposed to depict London ?
Overall: What the hell is Firth, a quality actor, doing in a film like this? I don’t know, but because of him I’ll be generous and give What A Girl Wants 2 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

Lowdown: A strategic vision for humanity’s future in space.
As has been noted many times before, Carl Sagan is more than just another person to me. His story about the Jewish spaceman orbiting the earth and the moon and wondering when to conduct his prayers (the Jewish prayers' timetable is governed by the moon) has opened the floodgates of my personal skepticism, and his TV series Cosmos is still – in my honest opinion – the best thing to ever grace my TV. When Sagan speaks (sadly he does so no more), I listen.
The last episode of Cosmos ended with the question, who stands for the earth? With Pale Blue Dot Sagan takes this question and expands on it. His starting point is simple: what is our goal, as in humanity’s goal? All these things we’re doing, what is their strategic aim? After food has been brought to the table and we all got very rich, what’s next? Humanity, Sagan argues, lacks an overall strategic goal; no country or government has made even slightest attempt at coming up with such a thing. Well, in Pale Blue Dot Sagan attempts exactly that, providing his vision for the future of humans in space. If our species is to survive and flourish, going out to space is an inevitable move (if only because otherwise our civilization will be wiped by the next mega asteroid hit that boldly follows where no dinosaur has gone before).
One doesn’t go about coming up with a strategic vision by just pointing at the final goal; background has to be provided in order to explain that goal. Sagan does exactly that by examining how humanity’s perception of the world has evolved. The initial third of Pale Blue Dot does exactly that, looking at the way cultures used to think of themselves as the pinnacle of creation is a world created exclusively for them, and how slowly – through science and the technologies it brought – we came to realize we’re the inhabitants of a pale blue dot on the faraway corner of one galaxy amongst hundreds of billions of galaxies. Evidence points towards a universe indifferent to us, yet we still find it incredibly hard to unshackle ourselves from the chains of old dogmas. Although he’s not specific with his arguments, Sagan hits out at the religions of the world left and right in this part of the discussion. Personally, I have found this section of the book to be quite illuminating: it’s just amazing to see what we can learn from history if we put our minds to it, and it’s also amazing to see how bad we are when it comes to learning from history.
Sagan then moves to explore what we know of the world and how so much of what we know came from stuff we’ve learnt by examining outer space. His point is simple: the sky is not the limit. Sagan discusses what we know of our solar system’s planets and moons in much detail (or as much as was known during the mid nineties, when the book was written) and points out at how the studying of Venus has taught us of the potential risks to earth’s own ozone layer, and how similar studies have indicated the potential of man made global warming and man made nuclear winter. Space exploration is not only good at potentially identifying dangers, it is also good at getting the best out of humans, as in the case of cooperation between supposedly rival nations; from space, Sagan argues, international borderlines are not as obvious as we think they are.
Finally, in the third part of Pale Blue Dot, Sagan goes on to discuss his suggestions for what the careful yet feasible next steps for a species going out into space should be while taking political and economical concerns into account. Add it all together and what you have is a wonderful account provided by a wonderful person of a potentially optimistic and bright future for humanity. It could take us thousands of years to do what Sagan suggests we do, but I agree with his well presented case: humanity’s future is not in the tinkering between nations; if we want to have a future, especially given the damage we’ve been inflicting on our only home, our only hope is to look up at the stars.
Pale Blue Dot is yet another reason for me to think this world of ours is much poorer since Sagan’s departure. Sagan knows how to build an argument and how to present it. The reading flows even when tougher subjects are at hand, and unlike those textbooks I used to dread from university it’s all laid out so well that you can clearly see where Sagan is coming from and where he’s heading to with his arguments. Between this and a couple of other of his last books books, Demon Haunted World and Billions and Billions, Sagan has produced one must read after the other that are all still very relevant.
Overall: It may be not as exciting a read as some works of fiction but it’s pouring out with insight that should and would change your view of the world. 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

Vanity Fair

Lowdown: English society issues during Napoleonic times.
The films I have a lot to say about tend to be either really bad or really good. 2004's Vanity Fair is not such a film, probably because it is quite mediocre, which comes as a bit of a surprise to me given it's directed by Indian Mira Nair: she's a woman, she's done Monsoon Wedding, so you sort of expect things to be good. Or at least interesting.
Set in England during the times of the wars with Napoleon, Vanity Fair follows the character portrayed by Reese Witherspoon. She's not rich but she's not poor, she's not noble but not dead common either. She does have character and brains, though. Looks, too, at least as far as the film's characters are concerned (personally, I fail to see Witherspoon's charm). Using her wits Witherspoon gets to know rich people and influential people and goes up places but tends to come down places, too. The film's a bit vague about it but my impression is that she's meant to be perceived as a good character in a world locked with stupid social and class dogmas that cause misery for everyone; I suspect exposing this misery is the purpose of the film. The relevancy of that message to this day and age, or lack of, is probably the main reason I was left indifferent towards Vanity Fair.
Other than that I will mention a cast full of familiar quality names (take Gabriel Byrne and Bob Hoskins as examples), yet no one really shine.
Worst scene: It is obvious Vanity Fair was made to look and feel a lot like a Jane Austen based film, in particular Sense and Sensibility. The Jane Austen films I have seen tend to conclude with a happy ending concerning a wedding ceremony or an implied one; having Vanity Fair follow the Austen tradition smells like a rat to me, especially when an Indian background is set and you know the director's background.
Overall: Vanity Fair, while not boring, is quite uninvolving. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas

Lowdown: A young German boy befriends a Jewish boy from the camp his Nazi father is running.
Holocaust films are common because their extreme setting allows for an extremely effective delivery of messages and emotions. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas is a case in point, a fictional film set under realistic Holocaust circumstances designed to make the most off ripping its viewers’ emotions apart.
We start with a boy living in World War 2’s Berlin, acting and behaving like a boy despite the war, soldiers and oppression around him. Then we learn the boy’s father (David Thewlis) is a big time Nazi officer and that he’s been promoted to a new position outside the city, a position that takes his family away with him.
We quickly realize the father’s new position is to do with running some sort of a slave labor camp, but as we learn more and more about said camp the boy remains oblivious. The adults either prefer not to talk about it or live in ignorance, but he sees it the way a typical boy would see it: some sort of an adventure ground; he can't even imagine what it really is. The fact he’s forbidden from exploring it only makes it more attractive.
After the boy finds his way undetected through his backyard and on to the camp’s electrified fence he meets a similar boy wearing a striped pyjama on the fence’s other side. Still oblivious to the things taking place in that big fenced playground "our" boy befriends the other boy. The pyjama attired boy, despite being a lowly Jew, becomes our German boy’s only friend since leaving Berlin. Problem is, we – who are not as naïve as the boy and who know what used to take place is such camps – know that this friendship has a hurdle or two to face.
This seemingly German film is English from start to finish, at least when it comes to the actors taking part in it and their accents. That feels strange! I’m used to Holocaust films depicting the Germans as people that sound threatening even when they speak words of love, but instead the baddies here sound like Harry Potter. Another interesting aspect of this Holocaust film is that it’s probably not that much of a Holocaust film at all: the emphasis is very much on the German side of things.
When pressed one could detect the film trying to say a thing or two about what took place with German society during the Hitler days through the analogy of the naïve boy losing his naivety the hard way. However, watching The Boy in the Striped Pyjama made me feel that rather than being pushed to think I was being pushed to feel. The entire affair feels like a mechanism to activate the more extreme feelings within the viewer as we’re quickly being jerked from feeling fear to feeling compassion. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas feels very contrived, tailor made to push us to the extreme; yet one has to give it credit: at the time conditions were as extreme as they could get.
Best scene:
The gas chamber scene is extremely effective as the film’s climax. The beauty of the scene, from a cinematic point of view, is that as far as actions are concerned nothing going on in the scene is particularly exciting; it's all made of simple shots. We only see a group of people forced to walk through the camp and enter its showers. It’s the screechy music that leads the way, providing the atmosphere, guiding our emotions and making them peak at the right moment.
Interestingly enough, in a very Schindler’s List like manner the camera does not dare stay in the showers once the poison gas is released. Can anyone recall a mainstream release that does stay inside?
Technical assessment: This DVD offers mediocre picture at best. The sound is alright, though.
Overall: Contrived yet effective at 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 3 May 2010

I Love You, Man

Lowdown: A heterosexual engagement is in danger when the guy falls for his new best friend.
I Love You, Man comes from reputable American comedy powerhouses. To name the two most noticeable examples, it’s directed by John Hamburg of Along Came Polly fame and it features Jason Segel whom I loved in Forgetting Sarah Marshall and who stars in How I Met Your Mother. Yet while watching the film I kept on wondering whether I was watching a comedy or a drama.
The story of I Love You, Man follows a Paul Rudd portraying a nice real estate agent (perhaps we should classify the film under fantasy?). He successfully proposes to his girlfriend for close to a year now, Rashida Jones, who raises an interesting issue: while she has many girl friends she does not know any real boy friends of his. Indeed, it turns out Rudd was always a girlfriend’s guy that never bothered developing deep male to male relationships, not even with his family. With the need to come up with a best man sooner rather than later, and in an attempt to nullify his fiancé’s fear of him ending up too dependent on her, Rudd sets out to find some best male friends.
As you can expect, forcing his way into the issue does not get him too far (but supplies the film with some cheap laughs). He does strike gold, however, when he meets Jason Segel at an open house inspection and they both seem to click: they are very similar, with their shared love of the band Rush the most notable aspect there; but they’re also opposites, with Segel having lots of friends but also being the totally independent male that won’t let anyone tell him what to do and, as a direct result, is the eternal bachelor.
Slowly but surely, Rudd and Segel grow closer and closer. Their relationship never gets sexual (at least not explicitly so), but it does begin to overshadow Rudd’s relationship with Jones. Will a middle ground be found?
I have found I Love You, Man to be an interesting film for several reasons. Being funny, by the way, is not amongst these reasons; humor is rare here and what you do get is stuff that would make you cringe uncomfortably. Still, you got to give a film discussing taboo matters such as male to male friendship a lot of credit: with most males I know being self declared homophobes, yet having no problems doing pretty intimate stuff together and even being proud of it (check out them goal scoring celebrations), it’s pretty fresh to see a full frontal attack on people’s perceptions. Yet I Love You, Man does not stop there: it goes on delving into other related topics that for some reason or another are off our discussion boards and it asks – why are they off? Note it doesn’t urge us to discuss them, it just asks us to openly recognize they’re off the board. I consider that a great service.
My next intersection of interest with I Love You, Man is to do with it hitting a sensitive nerve. Just like Rudd’s character, I am a person unable to claim to have a best male friend. Sure, I have several, but they’re all in Israel, half a world away; sure, I know some Aussie mates, but – like it or not – the depth of our friendship does not match the heights you get to with childhood friends. Besides, by now we’re all family man and we lack the time to mess about doing male stuff together. My days when a friend could just knock on my door uninvited and we’ll have ourselves a good time together (probably playing video games) are all gone.
That sense of identification with Rudd has made me realize something: that best friend gap in my life has been fulfilled through the internet. Sure, there are many disadvantages to having virtual social interactions; but in a world where no one has the time to be social anymore, in my world, the internet makes a huge difference.
Best scene: Segel and Rudd’s first encounter, which really leaves Rudd’s character impressed by Segel’s ability to analyze a guy’s movements as a precursor for the upcoming production of a fart. I have to say I was impressed with the detailed, accurate and lifelike analysis myself, but the point of me pointing this scene out is that it’s a precursor for I Love You, Man raising other issues that the [male] taboo list has removed off the discussion board. Most notably: masturbation.
Technical assessment: As average a Blu-ray as one can come up with. I guess this film never had the system demo material stuff in it.
Overall: Not the funniest drama ever but it scores points for touching the normally untouchable and for hitting a personal nerve. Quite a lot for a mainstream American release at 3.5 out of 5 stars.