Thursday, 29 July 2010

R-Wards 4

Four years on and north of five hundred reviews under its belt, this blog is still going strong. This past year didn’t see to many new developments under the sun: by now we grew so accustomed to high definition as to consider it normal, which implies taking a dislike to standard definition. As for the latest buzz, 3D? I think it’s going to be a buzz for a while yet.
With that in mind, it’s time to award the best I have encountered during this blog’s fourth year with the much coveted R-Wards, the most prestigious rewards ever granted by this blog.

Best film:
We have had the pleasure of watching many good films this past year (and many bad ones, but let’s focus on the positive). Last Chance Harvey was the first film I really liked this year with its superb acting and The Boys Are Back demonstrated the distance between the truly well made films and those vying for formal recognition in the shape of Academy Awards and their likes.
With the dust settled, this past year shall be remembered as a year of rejuvenates science fiction. District 9 was clearly the best film I have watched this year (and the film I have voted for in this year’s Hugo awards), with the low budget Moon not too far behind. However, quality isn’t everything, and I’m giving my award away to Avatar. Undoubtedly, Avatar is a mediocre film, but it is also the film through which this past year will be remembered for years to come.

Best book:
Through the combined influence of friends, films and me seeking greener pastures, this year saw a bit of a comeback with my science fiction reading. Of the sci-fi I got to read this year, The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein was the best. In fact, it is one of the better books I have ever read.
Yet I will hand the award over to The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain de Botton. The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work earns the prize for two main reasons: For a start, it was a pleasurable read from start to finish and a reminder of why I like de Botton. Second, and more importantly, it is the only book I know that deals with the basic idea of the activity I spend most of my wakeful time on – work. The fact that it is alone in the field, as well as scarily relevant, makes this one a unique read. In addition, the accompanying photos from Richard Baker are worth mentioning by their own rights. If you doubt me, think about this: does anyone really care about the stuff you do at work, in the sense of the legacy you’re leaving for generations to come? Can you really look back and say that you’re proud of what you’ve achieved? I doubt any office worker can.

Best on TV:
I cannot say this has been a good year for TV programs. We’ve watched the same recycled "good" old stuff and we became more an more frustrated with the material broadcast on commercial TV; so much so we’ve abandoned it altogether.
The light at the end of the long tunnel came from the likes of John Adams, a mini series on the life of the USA’s second president. I liked it because it didn’t try to glorify and it didn’t try to hide the ugly teeth or the poor hygiene; instead it showed the man as a human being.
Most of all, I liked a couple of smart local comedies aired by ABC. 30 Seconds was a good parody on the advertising world that, in the manner of all good parodies, actually teaches you quite a lot. My winner, though, is Lowdown, a series about a tabloid journalist and his photographer friend. It was sarcastic to the bone, providing healthy criticism on our culture and especially on our celebrity worship. A lot of my affection to Lowdown comes from it being shot in Melbourne, but it also won points through Nick Cave’s title music song, There She Goes My Beautiful World.

Lifetime achievement R-Ward:
If this was the year of science fiction then this was also the year Jane Austen grabbed my attention. During this year we’ve watched everything related to Austen that I could put my hands on; I even read Austen stuff even though she’s not my regular cup of tea. The selection includes:
Of the above, my favorite by far is Pride and Prejudice. The choice is obvious: it has the best “feel good” factor with a rugs to riches story that makes everyone feel like they can own a Pemberley, and its heroes are easy to identify with. Of the different Prides and Prejudices, the one I like the most - more than the original book and by quite a big margin - is the 1995 TV version featuring Colin Firth. However, to give credit where credit is due, the lifetime achievement reward for this year goes to Jane Austen.

Monday, 26 July 2010

Julie & Julia

Lowdown: The parallels lives of two would be chefs living fifty years apart.
I don’t care much for cooking shows, especially not the reality cooking shows that dominate Aussie TV at the moment. Nor do I care much for the celebrity chef phenomenon, which I consider incredibly silly: you know society is sick in the head when Nigella Lawson is a common household name but no one knows the names of the two scientists that identified the problem with our ozone layer and helped humanity deal with a potentially cataclysmic event.
Not that there is nothing to learn from cooks, as Julia Child (Meryl Streep) proves in Julie & Julia (J&J), a film based on real life characters. J&J follows the adventures of Julie Powell (Amy Adams) during 2002. Powell is a frustrated government employee living in a crappy little apartment above a noisy pizzeria in New York’s Queens. In parallel we follow Julia, a frustrated housewife who is looking for a fulfilling way to spend her time while at Paris with her diplomatic husband during the nineteen fifties. Both find similar salvation: Julia gets into a prestigious French cooking school, and Julie gets the cookbook on French cooking for Americans written by our very own Julia years ago and decides to challenge herself by cooking all five hundred plus recipes in one year and blogging about it.
These decisions set the wheels in motion for the main trick up J&J’s sleeve: The two stories about Julie and Julia are interwoven to show the parallels between the two. Fifty years may separate them but, for what it’s worth, their stories are exactly the same: stories about women looking to fulfil themselves, stories about the ups and downs that come with every task worth fulfilling, and – ultimately – stories about the process of creation and its agonies. Eventually, Julia becomes a household American name with her cooking books and TV shows (at least according to the movie; I have no idea how famous she really is) while living through a happy marriage. And Julie? I don’t want to spoil the film for you.
It’s always nice to see a film with more than a passing sense of plausibility about it, even if the inevitable happy ending is usually a rarity when it comes to real life ambitions such as making a living out of writing or out of cooking. I was surprised by how much I’ve enjoyed J&J, especially given its maker - Nora Ephron – and her record of implausible and generally bad films (e.g., Bewitched, You’ve Got Mail). I suspect there are two main reasons why J&J grew on me: one is to do with the acting and the other to do with identification. I like Amy Adams and I think she’s a good actress, but she is but a pale shadow next to Streep – probably the best actress of a generation (or two). Identification wise, how can I not relate to someone setting out to write a blog and committing themselves to it despite challenges all around? Sure, no one reads my blogs while Julie became famous through hers, which raises the question of whether Hollywood can sell tickets for films telling stories of failure? I say yes they can, if they bother telling the story right.
For now, though, we have to settle with J&J. It could paint too rosy a picture and it could be too long for its own good, but it’s still a pleasure of a story to watch.
Best scene: Julie “chucks a sickie” so she could stay home and cook dinner for an interested journalist, only to be confronted later by a boss that reads her blog. There goes the dilemma most bloggers face: what can one discuss on an open blog and what should be better kept to oneself?
Technical assessment: A mediocre Blu-ray. I suspect the Julia side of the story was made to look old through the use of reddish/yeallowish colors while the Julie one was made to feel cold using bluish hues, but I just found those rather annoying. Sound wise, you could have fooled me if you told me this was a mono presentation instead of full blown DTS Master Audio.
Overall: Not without its disadvantages, but still a well told story (or two). 3.5 out of 5 stars.
Epilogue: Since watching the film I managed to put my hands on Julia Child's French cooking book. I have to say it does look like a major labor of love: this is one thick book. It also looks like your arteries won't appreciate it much, although on the other hand Julia did live to the age of 92, so maybe there is something to French cooking. What I can say, for now, is:
1. Most of the stuff seems pretty challenging to cook properly. As in, it's not in my "I know how to boil water" league.
2. I want to eat that raspberry bavaria.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010

The Jane Austen Book Club

Lowdown: A collection of contemporary characters as they live the Jane Austen stories.
Our ongoing Jane Austen festival is reaching its desperate stage with us watching 2007’s The Jane Austen Book Club (TJABC), a contemporary take on Austen’s familiar themes.
TJABC follows a bunch of semi familiar actors portraying a bunch of characters, each with their own distinct issues. There’s one who just discovered her husband is cheating on her, another who is a teacher disappointed with her husband and is looking towards an affair with a student, another who can only relate to dogs, another who is a young lesbian, another whose hobby is to get married, and another – the only guy around – who is a computer wiz and a science fiction fan. Circumstances and a decision to unite in running a Jane Austen book club bring them all together: each month one of them hosts a session where the group focuses on another Jane Austen book.
TJABC follows the characters evolution through and in between club meetings. What we end up thus following is a collection of Austen like stories taking place on each of those characters. In doing so, TJABC provides us with a double the Austen experience: a take on each of the Austen stories as well as a take on how relevant the Austen stories are today. Or are they?
There can be no doubt about TJABC being a chicks flick. If anything, the numerical superiority of the female sex is evidence there. On its own that is not a problem, but I did have a problem with TJABC, a problem I consider to be quite problematic: watching the film I was unable to find any character with whom I could identify, a problem I didn't have with characters such as Elizabeth Bennett or a Ms Dashwood. One has to admit that lacking a character to relate to makes movie watching a rather detached experience, and indeed that is what TJABC proved out to be.
Things come down to your typical American film problem: although a lot of the usual Hollywood sweetness has been removed from most of the film (but not from its cheesy ending), stereotypes dominate still. Especially with the sole male club member, who should have been the easiest character for me to identify with. On the positive side, the film does sport some liberal values; most Hollywood flicks are horribly conservative.
As for the story being a modern Austen one: no it’s not. It’s a collection of dramas not unlike those inflicting many simplistic American dramas, and as such they lack the grandeur and the sophistication of the Austen stories. After all, if mimicking Austen was that easy we wouldn’t have held Austen with as much regard as we justifiably do.
Key scene: Our heroes meet for the first official book club meeting at a coffee shop (guess which chain won the rights for product placement). All the women are there waiting, and then to everyone’s amazement the guy arrives wearing bicycle riding attire. How dare he! Then he continues on to read notes he prepared in advance. The female characters are shocked by it; we're meant to be on their side. Obviously, this initial meeting of the club is meant to be a key scene. However, to me it just serves to point out the film’s weaknesses and it's often contrived nature.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray with a generally sharp picture but distorted colors, with everything appearing yellowish. The sound is nothing special, as per normal chick flick regulations.
Overall: As far as contemporary takes on Austen’s stories are concerned, I liked the TV mini series Lost in Austen much more than I did this feature film. Which shows that production values and resources are still no match for better ideas, and that the supposed reproduction of Austen’s good ideas is not a guarantee for quality. While I can't recommend it I didn’t suffer that much, so I’ll be generous and give TJABC 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 19 July 2010

The Road

Lowdown: A father and his son’s journey through an extremely hostile post apocalyptic world.
With the World Cup behind it was time to get back to watching films in earnest, and the film we chose to kick things off with is The Road. We wanted to watch it for a while: we love Viggo Mortensen and we like science fiction films. In retrospect, The Road showed me just how good the Blu-ray experience is compared to everything else around, but perhaps we should have started with a more cheerful film.
The Road takes place in a post apocalyptic world. We don’t get to know how the world got there; we only see a few colorful glimpses of our world that was in a few flashback scenes. However, The Road’s current world is pretty hellish: all flora and non human fauna have died, taking most humans with them; the sun is always hidden by clouds/dust; the world is dry; earthquakes and fires abound. Whatever few humans that managed to stay alive survive either through scavenging or through cannibalism.
The Road’s heroes are a father (Mortensen) and his young son (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who was born post the apocalypse to a mother (Charlize Theron) that decided she cannot live in this world anymore and left the two behind. The only hope our duo seems to have is to travel south to warmer areas (the film never explicitly says so, but I am assuming things take place in the USA); we follow them on their journey as they encounter gangs of cannibals, human remains and other atrocities.
The Road is obviously working at the symbolic level, in a manner similar to Blindness. Like Blindness, none of the heroes have a name; it’s all “father”, “son”, “thief” and the like. I suspect there is ample room for interpretations here, but I read The Road as a film about civilization. As in, the importance of what we leave behind for the generations to come, a heritage without which we are just like any other animal: a machine rigged for survival. In this message lies a warning for us real life people with regards to the world we’re about to leave our children behind.
Generally speaking, films dealing with an apocalypse always had an appeal with me. There’s Planet of the Apes as a familiar member of the genre, but my favorites are Quest for Fire (not a post apocalyptic film but rather a film about early humans setting the cornerstones of civilization in a world lacking one), Children of Man, and of course – The Terminator and Terminator 2. There is a significant difference between all of the above and The Road, though: Most of the "normal" films dealing with an apocalypse deal mostly with the situation prior to the apocalypse, perhaps even in ways to avoid it, whereas The Road takes it for granted and deals purely with the aftermath. Worse, The Road’s world is probably the most hostile; not only that, it’s a film where the core of things is directly dealing with the world’s hostilities. In short, what I am trying to say here is that watching The Road proved a very uneasy experience: I knew I was watching quality cinema but I was not enjoying myself at all. It felt more like watching a horror film, and I even kept cringing in wait for the seemingly inevitable “make you jump” moment – but that moment never came because, after all, The Road is quality cinema. My unease is perhaps the best testament for its quality in managing to take me away into another world.
Indeed, The Road is very well done. The cinematography is excellent (in its portrayal of a bleak world), and so is the acting. Sure, by now we don’t expect less than perfection from Mortensen, but the kid’s performance hits you just as his screen father. Aussie director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) has done well to create contemplative piece of quality cinema.
Yet the over extremeness of The Road’s situation cannot be ignored. There is no reason why humans can stay alive and animals can’t (not even insects), not to mention vegetation. After all, life on planet earth has survived billions of years of hostile conditions, collisions and volcanoes; what gives The Road the credentials to take that away? Nothing. There are other issues with the way The Road’s world goes along (e.g., the heroes lighting bedtime fires while hiding away from cannibals is not exactly good camouflage).
I’ll conclude this review with a personal angle. Assuming the world does come down to this, what would I do? My answer is simple. I consider civilization to be humanity’s most important invention; I would not want to live in an uncivilized world, where living is an experience limited to the struggle for survival. Put in this situation, the way the film’s heroes are, I would choose Charlize Theron’s way – probably sooner than her and with much less hesitation.
Best scene: Our heroes stumble upon a cannibal gang’s live food storage. Truly horrific!
Worst scene: Our heroes spend the night in a broken down church under a cross. I fail to see any worthwhile analogy coming out of that.
Technical assessment: A truly good Blu-ray. The picture is excellent, although most of the time the excellence is used to portray an ash colored world. Sound tends to be more subtle than aggressive, but it fits the occasion (as does the rare bit of music from Nick Cave).
Overall: High on quality but too bleak for its own good, I settle with giving The Road 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Northanger Abbey

Lowdown: A young and naive girl finds her lover while learning bad people exist.
Our Jane Austen roundup is coming towards its ending with a TV version from 2007 of the last of Austen's original work I am yet to watch, Northanger Abbey.
The story starts from that same old Austen starting point: A young girl in the lower echelons of early 19th century English upper classes or the higher echelons of its middle class. This time around the girl is one of ten children in a means lacking family that compensates for its shortage of funds through lots of affection, so our girl (portrayed by Felicity Jones) grows in a bubble fortified by the romantic fiction she loves reading.
Friends of her parents take her with them away from the country home she lived all her young life in to the "big city" of Bath. There she gets to dress up, go out and meet people. She meets a guy she immediately falls for (portrayed by JJ Feild), but she also meets other guys and girls that try to take advantage of her - people who are mostly motivated by the search for power and status. Later on, her lover's mean looking general father invites her rather unexpectedly to his grim mansion, Northanger Abbey, where we have ourselves a bit of a climax.
Northanger Abbey works the way all the other Austen stories work: by comparing between the contrasting behavior of different characters set in similar situations, Austen gives us a lesson on the virtues of love and the fallacies of greed. In Northanger Abbey's case this comparison is rather too extreme: the good are just so obviously good (the "secret" they're supposed to be harboring is too cheap a trick to really work in alienating them from us), whereas the baddies are obviously baddies from the word go - they even look that way. Most annoyingly, our heroine is just too naive; watching Northanger Abbey felt more like watching Pinocchio falling for one trap set by a supposedly friendly character after the other.
Still, things do work along. The story is interesting and I found Northanger Abbey's hour and a half long adventure to be pleasant enough; I did not feel like I was being overdressed with Clich├ęs.
Worst scene: The baddie would be lover convinces our naive hero that her guy forgot about her so that he can take her for a carriage ride instead. My three year old would have seen through this plot!
Overall: A simple 3 out of 5 stars affair.

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Piracy by Adrian Johns

Lowdown: The history of intellectual property and its piracy.
Being as annoyed as I generally am with the contents companies of this world severely limiting my access to the material under their control has not only turned me into a generally frustrated person, it has also turned me into a somewhat of a pro piracy advocate. Yet the ethics of piracy is always troubling me, and while it is obvious to me that current intellectual property and copyright laws are a joke at best I am on the lookout for resources to help me form a constructive opinion on the matter.
Enter Adrian Johns’ Piracy, a very thick hardback aiming to lay down the history of intellectual property wars since their inception till today. By doing so it asks to demonstrate how historical factors that might have had some sense under long gone conditions are still in effect today. In effect, the book presents a detailed case for the obsolete nature of today’s copyright legislation, thus calling for a revolution through historically founded arguments.
On paper, and there’s a lot of it in the case of Piracy, the book should have been a thrilling read. I have to admit, though, that I only read a small portion of it, got the point, and put it back on my bookshelf feeling that this one occupies way too much space there. It comes down to a simple reason: as much as I identify with the cause and as much as I find the subject interesting, reading through Piracy felt like fighting a battle I did not want to take part in.
My reasons are to do with style. Piracy seems to try its best at outwitting its reader: if there is a way to express an idea in the most complicated of manners, trust Piracy to do it so. Couple that with a rather tedious style that stretches things too much and you could excuse me from what I consider to be the inevitable comparison with Richard Dawkins: both Dawkins and Johns set out to express complex ideas, yet while Dawkins has a way of explaining them that feels as if he’s having a chat with his readers, Johns feels like he’s trying to condescend his readership. That approach may be acceptable in a textbook, and perhaps this is what Johns has set out to write here in the first place; yet even in my university days I always preferred the professors who communicated to me eye to eye and tried to keep as much distance as possible from those who went out of their way to establish their authority through some sort of mysterious aloofness.
Overall: Promising premises, but rendered useful only as a reference through its anti readability style. 1 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Mansfield Park

Lowdown: A lower class woman finds love in an upper class mansion.
Having liked our experience of watching two different small screen versions of the same Jane Austen, Persuasion, we now turned to perform the same ritual on what is probably Austen least familiar book: Mansfield Park. On the left hand corner we had the 1999 cinema version while on the right, viewed on the following night, was the 2007 TV version.
As one can expect, the two's plot is similar; that said, there are significant differences between the two despite their similar durations (100 and 90 minutes, roughly speaking). Given my unfamiliarity with Austen's original I cannot say which is the loyalist. Set during the early 19th century, both stories tell us of a young girl from Portsmouth called Fanny (there's a name you won't see used today), who is of a relatively lower class to Jane Austen's typical heroine. The girl's mother sends her to her aunt's much posher place, Mansfield Park, where she can lead a better life. There, however, she is second class, living in between the dramas the afflict the more affluent: a worrying paternal character busy running slave labor camps in the West Indies, an intolerant aunt and an indifferent one, spoiled female cousins who marry for the wrong reasons, and an ala Pride and Prejudice's Mr Wickham suitor that is best avoided. A ray of light is provided by Fanny's cousin Edmond, and it's hardly a secret that the two will find one another eventually so that Fanny can have the typical Jane Austen favorable heroine marriage.
Overall you get the usual Austen themes here, with the core being the heroine who has to stand up for her own feelings against authoritative pressure to marry for money. There is also an anti slavery theme, although I wonder whether this is due to the modern day interpretation or whether Austen was truly a progressive.
This time around, Austen's tale is just not as good; or perhaps I've grown used to her too repeated motifs by now. Or is it the Fanny character that is not that easy to relate to as Elizabeth Bennet? I don't know. Yet of the two versions, the 1999 one is by far the superior even though it can not be said to be particularly good.
The 1999 version feels like a soap opera. It deals with many small subplots over most of its duration, to the point it's hard to tell what exactly is going on even though you get the general gist of it. The 2007 version takes a different approach, focusing on a few of the subplots and enlarging them to give them the center stage. By doing so it provides clearer light on the characters so that instead of shades of gray they're more polarized into good vs. bad, thus making the whole affair a bit too simple. The lack of subplots also makes the newer version feel empty in comparison to its older sibling.
The acting aspect of the two versions is interesting. The guy who plays Edmond in the 1999 version, Jonny Lee Miller, also plays the character of Mr Knightley in the 2009 TV adaptation of Emma; and the guy who plays Edmond in the 2007 version plays Mr Elton in the same Emma adaptation. I have a problem with the latter which helped me dislike the 2007 version, but the question remains: Is the world short on potential Jane Austen drama actors?
Best scene: I liked the scenes in the 1999 version where Fanny goes back to her own family in Portsmouth for a while and experiences the grittier side of life. Interestingly enough, this whole bit does not exist in the 2007 version, which takes place entirely at Mansfield Park's estate.
Overall: While the 1999 version can be a good watch under certain circumstances at 2.5 stars, the 2007 version ranks at 2 out of 5 stars.

Further review notes added on 7/9/10:
I almost forgot to mention one of the worst elements of the 2007 version, which is its extensive use of hand held cameras. I simply don't get why a heroine's relaxing walk in a garden has to make me vomit as I watch her. My heart goes out to those who will watch this version on a big screen with a projector!
I have made this point before: I see no artistic gain is using such cinematography. In the case of a Jane Austen novel the lack of fit between the shooting technique and the script is just grossly obvious.