Thursday, 23 December 2010

True Crime

Lowdown: A reporter unable to take care of himself on a crusade to save a death row prisoner.
I can only say that many times that Clint Eastwood is probably my favorite moviemaker. Given that, and given I am currently reading a book about Eastwood’s films, I did not pass the opportunity to record True Crime on my PVR and even watch this 1999 release at my own convenience, skipping through the ads.
This time around actor/director Eastwood plays a journalist with a special talent for doing the wrong thing. He sleeps with his editor’s wife and everyone knows about it; obviously, he’s cheating on his wife; and he fails on his promises to take care of his young daughter. He does have one positive redeeming talent, and that’s his skill as a journalist: when he’s given the task to follow up on a fellow reporter’s work and write a sentimental piece about a death row inmate about to be lethally injected that night, he immediately starts asking the right questions.
At the same time we get ourselves acquainted with the death row criminal. Immediately we notice he doesn’t feel like a killer; it’s pretty obvious his guards share the notion. We meet his wife and daughter, we fall for them all, and – just like Eastwood’s character – we can smell something wrong. Hence starts the almost real time race to acquire evidence proving the inmate’s innocence before the clock turns midnight, a race of a type we’ve seen in plenty of other films. The difference here is that Eastwood is doing the racing while encumbered by all sorts of rather mundane affairs when compared to what’s at stake – a guy’s life. The race is not only tense: through superb acting by the likes of James Woods as the newspaper’s chief editor, True Crime works as an effective comedy just the same.
True Crime is your typical Eastwood film. It’s simple, unassuming and was probably shot for peanuts but it’s incredibly effective, perhaps as a direct result of its simplicity. The film is so simple it easily passes underneath everyone’s radar, yet when you think about it Eastwood’s ability to come up with such quality deliveries time and time again is incredible. Indeed, True Crime follows the Eastwood template to the letter: the compromised hero comes along to save the day and attain salvation yet remains compromised and real life like throughout. You can easily see some of Eastwood’s more recognized work, like Million Dollar Baby, staring back at you through True Crime: While the latter delivered a liberal pro euthanasia message, the former delivers a liberal anti capital punishment message. Both share the same technique for delivering the message, though.
Personally, I liked the non politically correct attitude displayed by Eastwood. When he interviews the inmate in their first face to face he stops the prisoner from telling him about his Jesus finding. Eastwood doesn't give a damn about Jesus, or so he says as he asks the prisoner whether he committed the crime he's to be killed for or not. Now, let’s be frank – how many times did we have an American movie’s hero, and a household name like Eastwood for that matter, express themselves about Jesus in such a way?
Best scene:
In a hurry to pursue his journalistic quest, but still under obligation to take his daughter to the zoo, Eastwood takes her for a special “quick zoo” tour where he puts her on a trolley and runs through the zoo. Things don’t end well, but as a parent who is always in a conflict between his personal pursuits and satisfying his son’s whims, I can certainly see where Eastwood’s character is coming from.
Interestingly enough, while watching True Crime I regarded Eastwood’s daughter to be the film’s weakest link. As in, how can a man in his sixties (Eastwood was born in 1930) father such a young daughter? Then I read the daughter character is played by Eastwood’s real life daughter. I shut up and sat in the corner.
Overall: A crafty piece of moviemaking that deserves much more acknowledgement than it got. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Hurt Locker

Lowdown: A team of three American bomb squad soldiers struggle to survive the last month of their Iraqi tour.
Kathryn Bigelow and I go a long way. Back in the days of Point Break and Strange Days a lot of it was because of her short lived marriage to James Cameron, who at the time was my favorite movie maker and is still very much up there. Yet Bigelow is an excellent director in her own rights with a very in your face style, as the opening scene to Strange Days indicates and as The Hurt Locker certainly proves.
The Hurt Locker takes us to contemporary Iraq and we’re immediately introduced to a group of three bomb squad soldiers as they dismantle a bomb in the middle of a busy street. Things go wrong and the team leader (Guy Pearce) doesn’t make much screen time. He is replaced by a hotshot ranger (Jeremy Renner) who is not too careful about quickly building himself a reputation for being addicted to danger and perhaps careless in his ways. With his team only having a month or so to go on their tour of Iraq, his other two team members are not exactly fond of this newly introduced risk to them going back home in one piece. Team camaraderie and identity evolve as The Hurt Locker takes us and the team from one extreme situation to another without much time for them soldiers and us viewers to take a breath in between.
War films are a genre I generally like because they take the human condition to its extremes. There are plenty of good samples for the genre out there and The Hurt Locker joins the top of the rank by being the first to provide a certain look at war. With The Hurt Locker you’re not fighting a war; you’re just out there again and again with a group of soldiers trying to make it through. Being a bomb dismantling unit, they are not about conquering land or fighting enemy soldiers but rather they’re about countering traps and mere survival. Bigelow explores human nature through this unique mix of characters' ongoing fight to survive, with emphasis on the particular bit that seems to attract itself to trouble so much so it’s hooked on it.
It's interesting to note Bigelow does not have big time stars as main cast members. I wonder whether that was due to budget restrictions or whether it was an artistic decision, since the film does sport some famous names doing cameo like roles: the previously mentioned Pearse, David Morse doing a deranged colonel that seems to be a direct descendant of Apocalypse Now's Rubert Duvall, and Ralph Fiennes playing a mercenary commando trying to make millions by hunting down wanted Iraqis (the ones from the USA's famous pack of cards).
Style wise, The Hurt Locker is incredibly intense. Camera work and editing mean there’s hardly a rest and things are always tense. What captured me the most, though, is the realism. Now, we’ve had plenty of realistic war films before: Saving Private Ryan, for example, started a trend of war films showing us high friendly body counts, piles of dead bodies and much gore. The Hurt Locker doesn’t go there; what it shows us instead is the realistic playing field in which modern day war takes place. To borrow from the Call of Duty computer game series, The Hurt Locker is the Modern Warfare version. For the film’s two hours plus, we follow the heroes as they navigate Iraqi streets filled with local population overflowing with different emotions towards them but generally hostile. For the film’s two hours plus, I found myself back in the West Bank doing my non combat work while surrounded by civilian population with a variety of attitudes towards me: most want to just live their lives in peace and quiet, others are openly hostile, while others actually try to express their hostility to a level that keeps you on your toes and grinds you down so much that you are not your usual you anymore. I couldn’t help it: even if my experience was not half a percent as intensive as what takes place on the screen, everything just looked so similar, so life like, so authentic.
Best scene:
Perhaps the best remembered scene would be the suicide bomber one. I, however, liked the closing scenes where our heroes leave Iraq in a van that's being stoned by little kids in the exact same way my van used to get stoned at the West Bank. Then we cut to see Renner's characters back home at a supermarket aisle, not knowing what to do with himself as he's surrounded by shelves of cereal, and I couldn't avoid remembering how odd the ordinary world (often referred to as "civilization") used to seem to me after coming back home from the army state of mind.
Let no one tell you that being an occupying force does not have a negative effect on one's psych.
Technical assessment: The picture and the sound on this Blu-ray both collaborate with Bigelow's approach of putting you in the thick of things. It's done with camera movement but it's also done with high contrast, often grainy picture. The result fits the occasion well even if it does not feature the best picture ever. The intensive, claustrophobic soundtrack compliments the picture well.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars for this very authentic look at people doing war.

Monday, 20 December 2010


Lowdown: The triangle between an ex criminal, a soldier/brother and the soldier’s wife.
Jim Sheridan’s Brothers is a film I liked from start to finish, quite the contrast from the other film of his I got to review recently, In America. It certainly left me wondering whether Brothers is so good because it’s so heavily based on the Danish original from 2004 or whether it was Sheridan’s touch in moving it to a 2007 American setting that made the difference, but regardless – a good film is a good film.
Set in what seems to be a cold middle of nowhere American town where people can either join the marines or turn into the wrong side of the law, and where raw religion provides the main anchor for people’s identities, we are quickly introduced to the three characters around which the whole film revolves:
  • Jake Gyllenhaal, a criminal just released from jail for attacking a woman.
  • Tobey Maguire, a successful marine captain today and a previously successful quarterback. Maguire is Gyllenhaal’s brother; the film starts with him picking his brother’s up from jail upon Gyllenhaal's release.
  • Natalie Portman, Maguire’s beautiful trophy wife and the mother of his two young daughters.
Just as Gyllenhaal is released back to society Maguire is taken away from it, shipped with his unit over to Afghanistan. There his Blackhawk is shot down, leaving the army to think he’s dead and his family to try and cope with the loss. As Portman tries to deal with the loss, Gyllenhaal finds himself forced to rehabilitate out of the need to help her; something happens between them while we are exposed to the family's dysfunctionalities. Maguire, however, isn’t dead; he’s a Taliban captive, where he goes through horrific experiences in order to get back home. By now you can probably imagine where Brothers would be leading you to.
As dramas go I would say Brothers is top rate. Everything seems to work in its favor: the plot is credible and easy to relate to and the dynamics of things is excellent. There is no bullshit along the lines of a turnkey event dependent on a some stupid lie, as often happens with Hollywood dramas; the extreme circumstances of Afghanistan make sure turnkey events are easily acceptable and do not suspend disbelief. The characters are authentic, and the triangle at the center of things shifts our perception of good and bad nicely and effectively. This is movie making at its best: it looks simple but it takes us on a journey to catharsis.
Credit has to be given to the actors here. It is rare to see so much fine acting: all the center three as well as Sam Shepard playing the brothers' father give away excellent performances. As usual, I really like Gyllenhaal, but I have to say that it is Portman on whose shoulders most of the burden is laid. She deals with it in flying colors.
Best scene: The scene that touched me the most was the one in which Portman gives away her dead husband’s clothes to a guy working at her kitchen that had paint spilled over him. It’s a fine example for when a mundane incident hits on a major turning point, because I don’t think there’s a manual out there stating when the optimal stage for getting rid of a dead person’s possessions is. Especially when that person happened to be someone you truly cared for. Anyone that experienced a loss would identify with Portman there.
Technical assessment: To say this is a mediocre Blu-ray would be an understatement as the picture here offers less detail than a well made DVD (or, for that matter, an not so well made DVD). The sound isn’t spectacular either: other than one or two notable scenes you could easily mistake Brothers’ for a mono soundtrack.
Overall: An excellent drama where the things that matter in the making of a good drama click well. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Saturday, 18 December 2010

Zero History by William Gibson

A word of warning: This is not going to be your average book review.
I first heard of author William Gibson and his book Zero History through a glowing recommendation given to the book by Cory Doctorow (here). Given the respect I hold for Doctorow, I decided to follow his advice and get the book for my Kindle.
Having read about a third of the book I did the rare act of abandoning it. I did so for two main reasons:
  1. Despite reading a significant portion of the book I was still unable to figure out where the book was trying to lead me to. Never mind that; I was unable to pick out what's going on in the first place (it looks like something to do with industrial espionage in the world of fashion, but who knows?).
  2. Perhaps the main reason for the above is the way the book narrates itself. I found its style of extra lengthy descriptions very annoying; entire pages could be summarized in two short sentences if you were to cut the redundant descriptions away. Perhaps I have been too spoiled by young adult titles recently, but I always had a preference to "cutting the bullshit"; Zero History offers probably the farthest alternative to that view I have ever encountered in a book.
I respect opinions stating that it is its very style that renders Zero History great but I cannot agree. I also accept that some of the difficulty I had with the book has to do with it being an independent second sequel to books featuring the same heroes; yet the book is not selling as a sequel but rather as a book whose heroes you might know from earlier encounters.
Overall: I am in no position to reliably rate Zero History; I only sought to illuminate its potential readers as to the experience they are about to face. Feel free to illuminate me if you consider me wrong.

Friday, 17 December 2010

The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas

Lowdown: 44 atheists’ essays themes around Christmas.
The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas is a book selling itself with the promise of being a book the conscious filled atheist can give their [presumably theist] grandmother for Christmas. I don’t know if that statement can apply to all grandmothers; aside of the fact they are past being able to read anything, mine grandmothers couldn't care less about Christmas. However, given the interesting premises and writers collaborating here I took the plunge and spent a whole dollar buying this book for my Kindle. For the record, all proceeds go to secular charities (I believe these are HIV related but don’t take my word for it).
Essentially the guide is a collection of 44 essays written by prominent atheists, mostly British ones. Comedians make a significant portion of those while famous skeptics like Richard Dawkins make another, but there are also some unexpected faces like Simon Le Bon. Personally, I happened to realize some people I've previously met in the world of Twitter happen to be fellow atheists (e.g., Ben Goldacre): it's interesting to note how like meets like through the vast world of Twitter even you're not truly aware of your likeness.
Most of the the book's essays can be related in one way or another to Christmas through their themes, and the book further helps us by dividing them into separate sections like personal stories, events and philosophy (my pick of the lot). The best way to describe the outcome? It feels like reading lots of different bloggers discussing the same thing in their own different ways.
As can be expected, quality varies. Le Bon’s entry, for example, is quite personal but will not deliver much in the way of illumination; AC Grayling’s entry gets my vote for best essay, confirming that here is another person I would very much like to have dinner with. Another essay that touched me tells the story of a young boy growing up in a religious family while pen-palling the famous skeptic James Randi and eventually meeting Randi at Oxford, at the house of Randi’s friend Richard. This guy f-ing spent a weekend at Richard Dawkins’ house discussing the most interesting things with the most interesting people, just like that, without giving me a call! Who do I need to start writing letter to?
Granted, a significant portion of the essays are not particularly interesting, especially to non British readers. Given the format, one cannot expect discussions that would take your understanding of the universe into another dimension. I was also dismayed with the fact I didn’t know who most of the authors were, only to find short resume like accounts of them piled at the book's very end; I would have preferred to have those associated immediately with their respected essays. However, criticism aside, there can be no denying The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas works and works well:
  1. It provides genuine views on Christmas, starting from historical facts and moving through alternating views on how to celebrate it. Most notable is the fact that in contrast to radical Christian myths there is absolutely no atheist out there who has a problem with celebrating Christmas (at this point I'd like to refer you to a post by PZ Myers, who raises the hypothesis that the association between "the war on Christmas" and atheism was first made as a cold war tactic - read about it here).
  2. It provides a good introduction to the atheist state of mind, contemporary atheist trends and overall atheist philosophies. It does it so well the book would serve those who want to know more about atheism but can’t be bothered to take the plunge.
  3. In doing the above, and in its proceeds going to worthy charities, The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas becomes a worthy Christmas gift. I can’t give it to my grandmothers anymore, but I can easily shortlist some friends & family I suspect would greatly benefit from this book. As gifts go, this is much better than the mindless consumerist crap that is the bulk of the Christmas gifts we end up exchanging.
One last note regarding the importance of this book existing in the first place. When I hear calls at my workplace that we should have Christian Christmas celebrations for our work celebrations, as opposed to just Christmas celebrations, I get annoyed. I don’t mind people celebrating Christmas in any way they feel like, but I do mind being dragged into their way. Christianity has hijacked Christmas some 1600 years ago from others whose traditions are still very much there (let the Atheist’s Guide to Christmas tell you about the way the holiday is celebrated in Scandinavia for evidence). My point is that the rest of us, that is – the majority of us – need to stand up to protect our right to celebrate what we feel like, whenever we feel like and however we feel like. The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas stands up for that cause.
Overall: Don’t let the 3 out of 5 stars I’m giving this book deter you; The Atheist's Guide to Christmas is worthy of everyone’s attention.

Thursday, 16 December 2010


Lowdown: A tormented hero’s only salvation is in planting an idea is someone’s head by invading their dreams.
Judging by the hype, one would be forgiven for thinking Inception was this year’s Avatar: the biggest thing out there in the cinemas that everyone must see and that would leave a hole in your life were you to miss it. I was highly skeptical: hype is often generated through pure consumerism and herd tendencies. Besides, while I liked director Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins I really didn’t think much of his other – over-hyped in my book – efforts, including The Prestige and Dark Knight. With arguments in favor of both sides, I was curious to see which end of the scales would tip for Inception.
The idea behind Inception, as well as its execution, reminds me a lot of The Matrix. In the world of industrial espionage, the latest fashion is stealing ideas from people’s brains by invading their dreams. Apparently, while dreaming there is this whole tangible world inside the dreamer’s head, and other people can dream their way in (using the latest gadgeteria), take part in the dream, and put their hands on the ideas so that when they wake up they have it, too. So far so good: much worse ideas were used to base science fiction films around.
Our hero at Inception is Leonardo DiCaprio, who, we quickly learn, is not only a master dream thief but also a tormented lover. His wife (Marion Cotillard) used to be his collaborator until she died in mysterious circumstances that left him hindered at his day job through her haunting him in his dreams and trying to jeopardize his success at “work”. In real life DiCaprio is wanted for the murder of his wife, which prevents him from going back to his native USA to see his children.
Opportunity knocks, as they say, with an offer DiCaprio can’t refuse: Ken Watanabe offers to ensure allegations against DiCaprio are removed if DiCaprio does the ultimate job for him. Not stealing info from one’s head, but rather planting an idea inside a competitor’s head. Planting an idea, or the act of inception, is so hard it hasn’t been done before (or so tells us the film); yet odds don’t matter for DiCaprio as he plans the impossible, arranges a crew of supporting actors to help him in his plot, and goes ahead with an intricate plan for planting an idea in someone’s head without that someone noticing: doing it via a dream inside a dream inside a dream. When going that deep one should expect complexities; when doing it in the head of a person trained against dreams’ theft one should expect commando guards everywhere. Thus us, viewers, have ourselves two and half hours of sophisticated action.
I have many problems with Inception, starting from the idea in its premises. Actually, not the idea itself; as I said, there have been worse ideas at the core of films. Sure, if you can access someone’s brain, why do you need to do it through a live action dream instead of randomly accessing it the way you would a hard drive, but hey – let’s not get carried away and forget we are dealing with an excuse to run a film around. No, the problem is with the way the premises are justified and explained to us: again and again we are told that ideas are the most viral thing out there, more so than viruses and microbes; that is, again and again the film bullshits us, since viruses and microbes were there long before the first idea ever had and will be there long after intelligence bearing brains required in order to form ideas with are long gone. Then there is the theory behind the power of dreams, which starts with and is based on – you guessed it – “we’re only using a fraction of our brain power” and “by utilizing the subconscious we can get more”. It’s all repeated again and again, the way pseudoscience always assumes that by hammering down the same message it can make it true; and then piles upon piles of assumptions are thrown on top of that to justify what DiCaprio’s gang is doing and to conjure a set of rules “explaining” to us what’s going on. A lot of time and effort in what is already too long a film is spent doing that, only that, at the bottom of it all, there is no escaping the fact it’s all bullshit! By all means, base your film on a fictitious idea; but don’t forcibly coerce us into thinking it’s anything but a fictitious idea.
Once you accept the bullshit framework what is left is an admirable collection of action scenes with some crafty special effects that is overall incredibly predictable. You know the question of whether this whole thing is a dream or not is going to come up, and once you learn that “no one has gone to the level of dream inside a dream inside a dream before” you know the film would take you one level further – it has to in order to keep the flame burning, otherwise the film can’t be as exciting: you never excite people by meeting their expectations; you need to go over the top.
Going over the top is exactly what Inceptions does. The exaggerated way it does it with belittles it: after less than an hour I stopped caring about its explanations for what is taking place and started laughing instead at its continuously over-stretching arguments.
Best scene:
One of DiCaprio’s mates tries to shoot a dream protecting sentry with a rifle. Another comes in with a suggestion: since they’re in a dream, dream big; he kills the guard with a huge grenade launcher.
The point about this scene is that it recognizes one of the biggest issues I have had with The Matrix, which applies to Inception just the same despite this scene. If everything takes place in a dream world, why shouldn’t you dream big? Why can’t you be a shape shifting, all capable flying superman with your own time machine up your ass? Why should you be limited by what seems to be a studio’s budget for special effects?
My point is that for something that’s meant to be imaginative, Inception is not half as imaginative as I can imagine its world to be.
Notable scenes:
The film’s climax, in which all the different layered dreams come together, is a study in crafty direction work and editing in particular (including sound editing and the use of music). The main reason for it being a case study is its length: Nolan manages to pull the climax over a period of many minutes.
Does it work? Does Nolan pull it off? Yes and no. It works because it managed to keep me suspended for a long while, but it didn’t work because it drew too much attention to itself at the same time (especially by overusing slow motion).
Technical assessment: There is something that makes the picture on this generally excellent Blu-ray look artificial to me; perhaps it is the way the look of each dream was tailored to make it unique. But that is only a minor complaint. The sound is impeccable, with Hans Zimmer's music delivered with force and extra low frequency special effects.
Overall: There is more to Inception than your average time wasting action flick. That said, there is also more bullshit to it than ten stupid films crammed together. I would therefore say it’s better than the average 3 star action film but it’s not as good as a proper 3.5 out of 5 stars film.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Men Who Stare at Goats

Lowdown: A lackluster reporter embeds himself to a supernatural warrior venturing into Iraq’s battlegrounds.
A lot of the charm sported by The Men Who Stare at Goats comes from past glory. Grant Heslov, the director of this rather eccentric flick, is perhaps best known as the baddie from True Lies; and its hero figure, portrayed by Ewan McGregor, suits the role because once again the actor is playing a Jedi. A real life Jedi this time around.
McGregor plays a small time reporter who, disappointed at his wife leaving him in favor of his one armed editor, decides to go to war: Iraq has just been invaded, and an embedded reporter’s career could make him feel useful for a change. His luck doesn’t bid him well, though, as he’s stuck in Kuwait while nobody thinks much of him as a reporter. Until, that is, McGregor meets a George Clooney playing a supernatural soldier entering Iraq on his own in some sort of a secret mission. They two end up journeying into Iraq together, and as they go through a variety of ludicrous adventures which they survive in rather miraculous fashion despite their stupidity we learn more – mostly through flashbacks – about this secret US army unit of supernatural warriors. That is, warriors capable of killing a goat just by staring at it.
In case you might not have realized it, The Men Who Stare at Goats is a comedy that takes itself seriously. Nothing in what it depicts is done with the direct intention to make you laugh, but it’s all a one big parody at the silliness of the army: the way it takes itself way too seriously, the way it wastes our tax money, and the way it protects its stupidity in a veil of secrecy. In this age of Wikileaks you could argue that The Men Who Stare at Goats is the most Assange like film out there…
The parody works well, but it still suffers along the way. Things are too disjointed, for a start, plot wise; you get things happening here and there with too many flashback in between to realize just what took place and why. Then there are the actors, who obviously had great fun making this film but make slightly too much fools of themselves to pass as serious army caricatures: I’m talking primarily about Clooney (who does the same silly performance he did in Burn After Reading) and Kevin Spacey here. Jeff Bridges does a better job portraying the Jedi superheroes unit commander, and McGregor does an excellent job at passing for a useless American despite being Scottish. My favorite, though, was Stephen Lang doing the opposite of what he did in Avatar.
Best scene:
While there are enough silly superhero scenes in the film worthy of acknowledgment, the best scene award goes to the Blu-ray supplemental telling us the film is based on the story of a real superhero unit established by the US army. We see genuine people from that unit telling us of their history of staring goats to death and doing so with a serious face!
Well, superheroes, if you’re that good, why didn’t you do Bin Laden or Saddam Hussein? And why is it impossible to find a single peer reviewed paper on the merits of looking goats in the eye?
It’s a good job The Men Who Stare at Goats is there to tell us stupidity like this really exists, although I’m afraid some viewers might take it at face value.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is nice and detailed, although too reddish/yellowish, probably to go along the Iraqi desert atmosphere. The sound is nothing special, too polite and inoffensive for its own good.
Overall: Entertaining but not as effective as it could have been. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Dorian Gray

Lowdown: The tale of a man free to sin because his picture pays the consequences.
I suspect you could argue Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is one of my favorite classic literature books given the fact I read it out of my own free will twice and enjoyed the experience. The Dorian Gray myth has started early with me, the result of childhood stories my father used to tell me about this book where a guy stays young as his picture grows old. Described this way, the story of Dorian Gray sounds quite innocent; reading it meant it left a significantly less innocent impression in my head. The film interpretation discussed here, from 2009 - where the name was truncated to just Dorian Gray - is anything but innocent; it doesn’t leave much room for the imagination to conjure any sense of innocence.
As we start, we meet a young Dorian Grey (Ben Barnes) living in Victorian England. The heir of an old dude no one liked, our country boy arrives at London a very innocent youth to claim his heritage. That youth and innocence is quickly spoiled by his adopting mentor of a lord (played by Colin Firth), who keeps on telling our Dorian to lose himself to temptation. Other friends, like a painter who draws a wonderful picture of Dorian’s image, warn our hero but to no avail: quickly enough Dorian Gray turns into an evil dude heavily into hedonism with total disregard for anyone but himself. Gray does not hesitate to use any woman in town sexually, even when his actions live them dead – either physically or mentally. That's because he has a secret: his portrait, which he keeps secret in his attic, takes all the punishment for his actions. He gets to keep his youth while his drawing gets uglier and uglier. The question is, how low can he go?
I will admit to not being able to tell how loyal this Dorian Gray is to Wilde’s original; the eight years that passed between me last reading the book and me watching the film mean I only have the book’s rough outline in my head. What I can say is that the film seems to tell the familiar story, period. The problem is that the film does not leave much room for the imagination. I’m perfectly fine with its more visceral than we’re used to depictions of Gray’s sexual adventures, even the homosexual ones; in fact I praise films that dare go where Hollywood’s accountants and marketing department don’t (Dorian Gray seems a British production, sponsored by British Lottery none the less). Yet being too visceral means that you’re also leaving not as much room for the imagination and not much room for doubt, which makes the film lesser for the thinking viewer and instead pushes it more towards the more conventional genre of Victorian horror. While the directors have every right to go down that path, I cannot say I’m much of a fan. So yes, I enjoyed watching the film, but I also couldn't avoid feeling disappointed.
Worst scenes: Every time we encounter the picture we are exposed to attacks of the cheap horror kind. Why does the picture need to have monster snorting like sound effects associated with its screen appearance?
Technical assessment: The picture is quite good, even if the colors seem to be purposefully distorted towards that good old dark Victorian look. Sound is finely depicted, even though it cannot be said to be anything particularly special for a Blu-ray.
Overall: 3 out of 5 stars, but it could have [easily] been much better.

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Toy Story 3

Lowdown: Looking for someone to play with them, our toys end up at a childcare that's more like a POW.
It’s been more than ten years since the last Toy Story instalment, but although the idea of a second sequel after so many years may raise stale connotations, Toy Story 3 feels as fresh as it did back in 1995. While it is a sequel to a sequel it still broke new grounds for us: let the history books show that Toy Story 3 was the first all-family movie night at home for us – the first time ever we sat down and watched us a film we’ve never seen before together with our three year old from start to finish. May we do it thousands of times more!
The point is that Toy Story 3 is a film suitable enough to that purpose, which is not as trivial an affair as it sounds: keeping a three year old’s attention span for more than an hour and a half while not scaring him too much and not introducing him to things we do not want him introduced to yet (e.g., violence) demands pickiness in choosing your material. Add the need to entertain us adults in the process – we haven’t sat down to watch Toy Story 3 for the sake of our son, you know – and you realize the might of the challenge.
I do have to say I am envious of my son. He’s getting his exposure to the fascinating world of film through Blu-rays projected on a big TV with surround sound far eclipsing CD sound quality; when I was his age all I had was a black & white TV with one channel broadcasting a few hours a day (mostly past my bed time). Maybe, eventually, he’ll realize how lucky he is.
Alright, let’s talk a bit about the movie. Time did not fair well on Andy’s toys: as he grew up a lot of the toys were given away, and those that remained are not played with anymore. Still, the basic gang - Woody, Buzz, pig and dinosaur - are still there. As we join the foray their owner is about to leave for college tomorrow and has to quickly decide what to do with his toys; as per the series’ standard affairs, misunderstanding occurs and our toys find themselves donated to a childcare facility.
At first it seems like they reached a toys’ heaven, a place where they’re always loved by an endless supply of children. They quickly realize there’s more to their new home than meets the eye: the facility is managed by an evil toy (whom I picked on early on because of its similarity with the baddie from Toy Story 2) running a Stalag 17 POW like camp with those in power abusing the weaker and the newer toys (in a manner not unlike Blindness’). Can our toys perform The Great Escape and return to their rightful owner?
As already hinted, Toy Story 3 borrows a lot of themes from other films, notably World War 2 ones. Perhaps this make the film sound unoriginal, but that is not the case: for a start, it is obvious these elements are borrowed with a wink towards the adult viewer, the way most child+adult friendly animation films have been acting for years now. Second, Toy Story 3 uses these themes to support its own main themes – the ones we know about from its predecessors, mainly of the need for a toy to be loved and the value of friendship.
There are some moments that stretch things out as far as the schmaltz factor is concerned, but the package feels very complete overall. It is clear some people have had fun making this film, and as per usual Pixar standards Toy Story is high octane fun without a glitch.
Best scene:
There is a scene towards the end of the movie when all of our favorite toys are facing certain and imminent death at a furnace and there is absolutely nothing they can do about it. The certainty of the matter, coupled with its hopelessness, reminded me of the famous shower scene from Schindler’s List, thus contributing to my impression Toy Story 3 borrows a lot from famous World War 2 themes.
The beauty of this scene is in what the toys choose to do at their hour of death: they hold hands in solidarity, celebrating them being together. Like many of the other Toy Story themes this is also something we can relate to: our [eventual] deaths are certain, and the dearest things to us all are those we love the most; we should therefore make the most of this connection we have with them during our limited time on this earth.
Not the most child friendly scene ever, but a powerful and worthy one still.
Technical assessment:
As has always been the case with Pixar films, the picture on this Blu-ray is state of the art quality (unlike the cinema presentation, though, this Blu-ray is 2D only). As I’m used to animation flicks having excellent picture quality my senses focused more on the sound department, where this Blu-ray offers a 7.1 soundtrack. Not that I can tell the difference (I don’t have that many speakers), but those that do should give Toy Story 3 a chance because while it’s not the most aggressive of soundtracks out there it does do a great job at the envelopment department – probably one of the best "you're right there in the middle of it" jobs I have ever had the pleasure of being involved at.
Overall: Mildly tacky, Toy Story 3 is still a worthy 4 out of 5 stars contender.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Lady Chatterley

Lowdown: A French take on the story of the English lady falling in love with the servant.
Over the years I have seen me several adaptations of the Lady Chatterley story, but this 2006 release is by far the weirdest: set in England with English clothing, English characters and all, this Lady Chatterley is a French production speaking French and featuring French actors. I’m so used to English’s dominancy that hearing an English story told in French feels bizarre.
It may be told in French, but the story is roughly the same as before. Taking place probably around the early 1920’s, Lady Chatterley (Marina Hands) is married to a wealthy husband and lives with him and a bunch of servants at a castle with huge grounds. The sir of the house (Hippolyte Girardot) has been injured in WW1, rendering him sexually dysfunctional. Normal cravings for sex and for a child open the door for the lady to fall in love with her husband’s gamekeeper (Jean-Louis Coullo'ch), starting off a tale of forbidden love.
The trick with this version of Lady Chatterley is not in the story but rather in the way the story is told. Two and a half seconds into the film you figure out this film is going to be slow on its going abouts. Shots tend to linger, and although long cuts are not the order of the day the slowness of English country life is more than emphasized: a walk in the woods, for example, features lots of shots of the character walking in the woods mixed with intermittent shots of woods - just the woods. Generally speaking I don’t have a problem with slowly developed films, but in my opinion this one gets to you, especially given the film’s longer than two hours’ duration.
Indeed, eccentricities know no bounds with this one, narration being the next example: As we start off we get the occasional captioned narration, but as the film progresses we receive voice over narration. Only later does it become apparent who the narrator is, and it never becomes apparent how they got to know everything to the point they're able to narrate. Oh, and in between major scenes you get a fadeout followed by a few seconds of a blackout. As I said, eccentric.
Best scene:
The husband and wife go on a stroll by the woods, the husband riding a motorized chair. As they walk they discuss socialism, and the husband discounts it saying that low class people are always in need of a master; then he gets stuck as his chair’s engine won’t take him up a hill, but he still refuses offers to have his chair pushed.
I find this scene interesting because of what it tells us of the husband: he trusts machinery that doesn’t deliver more than he trusts people; he’s not only dead in some of his body, but he’s deal mentally, too.
Then again, we might mock the husband’s anti humanist approach, but aren’t the religions most of us worship designed to keep the masters in power in the first place? We should look at ourselves before we mock the husband’s figure.
Notable scene:
The lady and her lover decorate each other’s pubic hair with flowers. Indeed, there is a lot of nudity in the film, as has always been in Lady Chatterley’s various adaptations. If memory serves me right this French version – perhaps by virtue of it being French – sports more than its serious predecessors.
It is therefore important to note the way nudity is portrayed. We witness characters in the nude and we see them having sex, but it does not feel like pornography – at least not the pornography one is used to seeing under that label. I would say that what we see in Lady Chatterley are normal people dealing with their bodies the way normal people do, procreation included. It’s good to see film treat such subject matters adequately.
Overall: While there are some interesting aspects to this Lady Chatterley interpretation, I could not avoid being too bored for comfort by its slowness. 2.5 out of 5 stars.