Monday, 25 October 2010

My Year Without Sex

Lowdown: An ordinary Aussie family deals with the mother’s recovery from stroke.
Movie reviews indicated My Year Without Sex (MYWS) is one of those low key Australian films that deliver, and indeed we’ve found this to be the case with this 2009 release.
Set at Melbourne’s western suburbs, MYWS follows a very average Aussie family. Average in all respects: composition (father, mother, boy, girl), dwelling, financial situation, attitude to sports, friends et al. Even aspects like the typical for Australia long distances between family members are covered, with the grandparents relocating to the Gold Coast for retirement. Yet upon this ordinary family lands an extraordinary event when the mother suffers from a stroke. Luckily for her, that happens while she’s visiting a doctor, and thus she’s able to survive an event most people don’t. She is, however, yellow carded: she needs to take things easy, avoid physical effort, and as the name of the film implies – avoid sex. The rest of the film follows the family though the next year of their lives.
MYWS works as a simple touching film, but it also deals with ideas that are at the center of the Aussie experience as well as the center of most human families. First there is the question of what a family is, as we are presented with a family friend who keeps on dumping wives in favor of younger ones while fathering children from previous marriages (and while being financially well off, in contrast to the hero family). The main discussion, though, is on how bad things can happen to those who do good things and how failure can happen even if you mean well and make a genuine effort. Yet, as the film demonstrates, by joining forces even those bad events can be overcome, to one extent or another. The overall message is probably "don’t approach life expecting perfection".
There is some misfiring in the film, too. A lot of the discussion in this short hour and a half film has to do with faith [in the supernatural], as in religion’s role during times of stress. On the positive side, and as further evidence this is an Australian rather than an American film, the conclusion reached by the film is towards the agnostic side of things. That said, any time wasted on the powers of the supernatural is time wasted in my book. Come on, you can’t be objective and accept god as a source of comfort when times are bad given that it’s the same god that put you in dire straits in the first place.
Best scene: The father is late picking the son up from the cinema, and the son is there on his own as what seems to be a child molester starts harassing him. I found the scene funny because it uses the molester’s barracking for the Pies (Collingwood Magpies, an Australian Rules team) to establish that he’s a baddie. Most Melbournians would instantly agree with this approach.
Technical assessment: A poor DVD. I understand if such a film with its limited budget doesn’t sport a mighty soundtrack, but why should the picture lean towards VHS quality as opposed to high definition?
Overall: Charming in its authenticity. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 22 October 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Lowdown: Swords and sorcery at ancient Persia.
The history I share with the Prince of Persia meant I wanted to watch Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (PoP) as soon as it was available for renting. Although I was exposed to the original video game, it is the Xbox version that captured us for hours (back at those times when we still had time for ourselves). Frustrating as Sands of Time wise, at least as far as uncoordinated me was concerned, I am still fond of the game, fond enough to want to watch the film version despite most game based films tending to be a waste of time. My interest was boosted upon discovering the film features proper actors like Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead as opposed to the more frequent recipe of zombie muscle machines in action lead roles. Boosted enough to make me rent PoP upon its midweek release.
By the time we sat down to watch the film the hour was quite late and we were concerned with our ability to stay awake for its almost two hour long presentation. Not to worry, though – the prince delivers. You won't be falling asleep on his watch!
The plot is by far PoP’s weakest point. Back in ancient Persia, our hero (Gyllenhaal) is a boy from the slums brought to the palace of the king and adopted as his son. It was the boy's character that attracted the kind (I’ll put it this way: he’s a skeptic). Years later, that adopted prince finds himself in the middle of a conspiracy to replace the king, a conspiracy involving an unjust invasion to a city in order to acquire a magical dagger that can turn back time. Finding himself smack in the middle of the conspiracy, our hero has to fend for himself against the whole world that’s against him while trying to save the world at the same time. His to do list features items like controlling the rather progressive (for her time) princess that looked after the dagger before the prince (Gemma Arterton from Lost in Austen and Clash of the Titans), dealing with sorcerer/assassins, managing family relationships during times of stress, and keeping on the good side of an Alfred Molina playing a greedy merchant with a heart. Plot is the weakness because of the rules it has to keep on introducing in order to get away with the film's supernatural elements, but it is no biggie because it’s covered with a rollercoaster of quite engaging action scenes that – for a change – are shot well and are well presented (no shaky camera here, thanks). Extra support is delivered through the quality cast; this is not your usual dumb action flick.
If you do want to activate your gray cells you may just find messages relevant to contemporary Persia in the film, too, like those related to keeping oneself above the mire in the face of an unjust invasion. Time travel is also well managed, in a not too dissimilar a manner to The Terminator, although not half as deeply. Still, better than the run of the crop.
Extensive homage is paid to Disney’s animation film Aladdin, one of Disney’s better animation flicks. Our hero's character, background and fate are not only similar, but some scenes are carbon copies of Aladdin's. I guess the makers of PoP could get away from a Disney copyright lawsuit (an act quite popular with Disney) because PoP is just another Disney production.
Best scene: Action scenes, especially at the beginning, pay homage to the video game the film is named after. This manifests itself through camera panning, zooming and editing to the point it really does look like a live version of the game – very nice indeed!
It is important to note the the film is differs from the game in one crucial aspect: while the game takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, the film focuses on the quest to prevent the apocalypse.
Technical assessment: This one features a good picture that is artificially reddened to “suit” the desert setting, thus reducing this Blu-ray’s potential for quality delivery. That, however, is nothing compared to the sound: while effects and music are very well recorded and make good use of all speakers, dialog ADR is so very horrible it just ruins the presentation. It’s hard for me to recall a blockbuster failing with the basics this badly, but PoP is a technical failure. Big time technical failure.
Overall: Surprisingly good at 3.5 out of 5 stars. Popcorn films rarely come any better.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

What Happens in Vegas

Lowdown: A couple has to stay together in order to keep their Vegas prize.
If there is one thing What Happens in Vegas taught me, it was the realization Cameron Diaz’ sense in determining which films she should take part in is not foolproof. Sure, she took part in some bad films, but at least these weren't too dumb. What Happens in Vegas, though, is a tour de force in the field of mediocre cinema.
Typical of mediocrity, the plot is nothing we haven’t seen before as well as senseless. As per the norms of the Vegas sub genre, the film involves too lacklustre characters from New York (Diaz and Ashton Kutcher) who meet in Vegas, get drunk, and then get marries while drunk. The morning after they agree on their mutual foolishness, but then – quite coincidentally (too much so, actually) – they win three million dollars at the jackpot. How are they to divide it? Well, the judge they went to seek help from decrees they have to try to be happily married for six months before they can even smell the money, which opens the gates for scenes of one being obnoxious to the other in order for that other to leave and leave the money behind. Greed is the word. Quality cinema this might have been if it was actually funny; instead it’s pathetic.
Other than all the regular trademarks of films made by the marketing department (in this case, the marketing department wanted a romcom with familiar sexy faces/bodies), my biggest problem with What Happens in Vegas has to do with the ideologies it personifies. It never occurs to our couple to just split their winnings and go their separate ways; no, they have to go to a judge and make a movie long effort to take the whole plunder home. Second, the film documents Diaz’ efforts to get herself promoted with her cutthroat Wall Street company, efforts that are all to do with sucking up to the boss and nothing to do with being good at work; and everyone else around accepts that this is exactly the way things should be. Eventually, she secures the promotion because of… her lovely husband, of course. Go, feminism!
Thought misogyny is the worst What Happens in Vegas has to offer? I’d say there’s a slight stench of racism, too. Why is Diaz’ promotion competition the only non Anglo Saxon face in the film? Is it because it is easier for “us” to hold something against someone of Far Eastern appearance?
Worst scene: You think you’ve seen it all but then a live performing singer at an event starts singing Flashdance and our heroes dance. I think that was the only time I actually laughed during the film.
Overall: Very badly tasting at 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 18 October 2010

Cluster by Piers Anthony

Lowdown: A Stone Age man plays a crucial part in an intergalactic war.
Piers Anthony’s Cluster series of books has been one of my favorite reads during my early teens. Although I only read the first two of this nine book fantasy/science fiction series (at the time only those were translated to Hebrew), the two had captured my imagination with their tales of intergalactic adventures mixed with lots of sex. For years now I have been trying to recreate those good old times by putting my hands on Cluster (book one of the series) once again; it saw it a part of my quest to identify fantasy books worth my limited reading time. Only recently the series was re-released for the Kindle ebook reader, allowing me to quickly jump on board. The question in my head was, can this book that I read so long ago still excite me? Is it as good as I remember it to be?
Cluster is set in a world that is somewhat science fiction and somewhat fantastic. In the future, humans and aliens expand their civilization through interstellar travel. However, due to the cost of travelling far, the further you go from the center of your civilization the more primitive you become. Thus as human colonies get away from earth they regress to Elizabethan times and even Stone Age times. Unlike the Milky Way galaxy’s civilizations, the ones in Andromeda managed to keep their colonies up to date through massive energy expenses; running out of energy, they now turn to rob the Milky Way out of its own. Yet the Milky Way has a hope, because all living things have a Kirilian field around them (what most people would regularly refer to as a soul), and that field can travel through space into new bodily hosts relatively easily. Through Kirilian travel, the Milky Way galaxy can unite to fight its stronger neighbour; but for Kirilian travel to work you need entities with high Kirilian potency, and the Milky Way’s most potent entity happens to be a human Stone Age hunter called Flint.
Can Flint overcome his humble beginnings and spread the word of Kirilian technology to the galaxy in time to unite it? Well, read Cluster to find out through its account of Flint’s encounters with the culture and the physique of numerous entities, some human and some very not human, around the galaxy.
At its core, Cluster works at a similar level to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s John Carter adventures on Mars. A human, and an ignorant human at that, goes off to exotic worlds to have exotic and pretty thrilling adventures. He (Flint) risks life and limb, is close to failure most of the time – failure that would sentence the whole galaxy to doom – but he tends to prevail and score (as in sex wise).
Stories of high adventures and sexual conquests are nice and entertaining, but they’re not enough to make a good book by my current reckoning. Piers Anthony helps by providing detailed accounts on how alien civilizations work, including on how their sex life is managed. By providing plausible science fiction like accounts, Anthony renders the book a much more interesting read than your average pulp. Added to that are some ethical dilemmas Flint is facing in each of his adventures, dilemmas through which he learns as he progresses. The most interesting of those is what turns out to be a discussion on the ethics of rape, hardly a matter for light discussion. On the negative side, Anthony introduces Tarot card reading as a crucial element to the plot, which I have found to be rather annoying.
There was another surprising source of annoyance with Cluster. The book was filled with typos and editorial mistakes to the point I was considering asking Amazon for my money back. The worst was a drawing that was replaced with the caption “image is missing” that I’m used to encountering at my office's censored Internet connection but did not expect at an ebook I payed $12 for. However, those issues were explained by Anthony’s own notes at the Cluster’s ending: Apparently, he chose to retype the entire book for its electronic release, redoing the pictures as he went along. It’s his choice to make, but he could have hired an editor to help with quality control…
Overall: The glory of days gone by still affects my appreciation of Cluster. Although it’s nothing special compared to the top of the crop in science fiction and fantasy I will be generous and give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. A book that pulls me in after so many years deserves something in return.

Thursday, 7 October 2010

At Home by Bill Bryson

Lowdown: A thorough review of the development of modern culture as reflected by our homes.
The first thing you noticed about Bill Bryson's latest book, At Home, is its bulk. In its current hardcover form, each copy of this book is a manifestation of what used to be a whole Brazilian jungle. It's a big one, not unlike Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything, the Bryson book most resembling At Home.
The premises of At Home is uncannily simple. Disappointed with George Bush's presidency, Bryson moved a few years ago back from his American birthplace to his adopted land of England. Living in this new [old] house he got there, he started asking questions about its history; the result of his questions is the book At Home. In each chapter of At Home Bryson looks at different rooms in the house, from the hall through the bedroom and the toilet to the nursery, and in each of those rooms he tells us stories of how these rooms that we now know and take for granted got to be the way they are now through history. You learn a lot in the process; At Home is packed with trivia, things like what dinner tables used to be like (parked on people's knees), expanding to bigger things like the darkness that prevailed over the night time world prior to the invention of electric light. This big journey that Bryson takes you through culminates in one big theme, which is a celebration of human culture: how we started off from humble beginnings, living in this harsh and indifferent world, and rose to live in a world where living can be a pretty comfortable affair and a world where we have risen to develop science. Yes, Bryson argues that such developments are the direct result of the way we used to live. As such, At Home is a celebration of what us humans have achieved; read it and you will be relieved that you are not living in any age earlier than ours, times when life was significantly more miserable than it is now. Thus At Home left me wondering what its 22nd century edition would say about us...
Describing the contents of At Home does not do it justice, for this is a Bill Bryson book first and foremost, and a Bill Bryson book has its quirks. Those who know Bryson from his travel writing will recognize the style, that massive collecting of trivia that is communicated in a very readable and humorous way. Most of this trivia will be forgotten by the time you flick the page, but it does have a lasting effect; you will finish At Home with a certain impression even if you don't remember all the tiny details. On one hand this is a positive, whereas on the other I was left craving for more substance I can cling to rather than a large collection of relatively shallow facts. Bryson doesn't help himself when he strays all over the place, discussing things that have not much to do with the room he is meant to be talking about (most notable is the chapter on cellars, which discusses everything but cellars). But that is Bryson for you; don't expect focus, expect easy yet enlightening entertainment.
At the personal level, Bryson's At Home was the last book I started reading before putting my hands on my very first ebook reader. With its thickness and bulk, At Home is probably the best advertisement electronic books can receive. And while on the subject of anecdotes, let it be noted that At Home was released in Australia some six months ago but in the USA it was only released a couple of days ago. If you thought movie studios are alone in subjecting the world to their twisted divide and conquer strategy then here come the book publishers showing us they can be just as dumb. You know what would come next: they will complain that piracy is killing them, yet they'll never look in the mirror to see how their own actions provide the manure on which piracy so beautifully prospers.
Other than that, the main thing I took from At Home is this: Make sure you close your toilet lead. Forget this tip at your own peril!
Overall: A long entertaining ride packed with trivia that's somewhere between 3.5 and 4 stars out of 5. Classic Bryson.

Saturday, 2 October 2010

Sherlock Holmes

Lowdown: Holmes and Watson’s reincarnate on the big screen to fight a nemesis with supernatural powers.
The new Sherlock Holmes film is all about names. First there’s the director, Guy Ritchie (RocknRolla), with his distinctive aggressive style. Then there are the lead actors, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law, quality actors in the lead roles of Holmes and Watson: with such high calibre names you can rightly expect them to be the main event, and indeed the film revolves around the almost homoerotic relationship between the two. Even if given the mainstream target audience we only have hints to work with on the homoerotic front. Last, we have the legend of Sherlock Holmes that the film needs to live up to. Sadly, that last part of the equation is poorly fulfilled, taking the whole film down.
The plot is virtually irrelevant. A villain with seemingly supernatural powers (Mark Strong, an actor seeming to specialize in being the baddie) involves our heroes in a plot filled with mysticism, occult and dead bodies. As the good detective and co hunt him down they find themselves involved in a collection of action scenes that are nothing special other than their Victorian England setting but are pretty entertaining in that over reliant on CGI kind of way. The links between the action scenes form the rest of the film, and here we have ourselves a pathetic collection of meaningless stuff that artificially progress the plot. This progrss is mostly achieved by pitting our two homo lovers with women on either side and seeing how their relationship can manage the stress.
Couple the poor plot with having to live up to the Sherlock Holmes name by having Downie able to guess what someone ate for lunch that Monday forty two years ago to the day just by looking at their little finger and you get yourself a silly film where you don’t need to have your brain switched on; if you do, you’ll run the risk of realizing things don’t make sense.
Trademark scene: Holmes planning his boxing moves on his opponents in his head, in slow motion, then goes ahead to execute them perfectly. Very Guy Ritchie, very unrealistic in the sense that plans hardly never materialize so perfectly. Not even for Sherlock Holmes.
Disappointing scene: At the end, when Holmes tells you how he figured out the multitude mysteries the film holds up its sleeve. They all come down to either silly resolutions or things you could have never figured out yourself because you didn’t have the info. Compare that with the end of Sixth Sense, when you realize the “truth” was right in front of you the whole time, and you’ll realize why Sherlock Holmes is a failure of a film.
Worst scene: The way things are set up for a potential sequel is just pathetic. Can't a film be a proper film anymore, with a beginning and an end?
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is good, but perhaps too good for the too obvious CGI and blue screen effects. Then again, there are scenes where some graininess are evident and others where colors are unrealistic. Sound is typical Guy Ritchie: aggressive, which is pretty good – makes you proud of the money you put into that surround system – but not audiophile grade in the quality of the sound coming through.
Fun, but totally forgettable. 2.5 out of 5 stars.