Monday, 28 February 2011

The Time Traveler's Wife

Lowdown: The relationship between a woman and a guy who keeps on involuntarily travelling through time and space.
Our hero discovers his unique trait of time travelling as a six year old, when “beaming up” out of his mother’s car as it is about to crash saves him but kills her. The double edged sword nature of his gift for displacement is encountered again and again as our now adult hero (Eric Bana) meets a younger version of the girl he will end up loving (Rachel McAdams). The two settle down, but can they really settle down when the guy keeps on popping in and out, leaving the girl on her own for indefinite periods? And can the two lead a normal life when they have a pretty good idea of what the future has in store for them?
I like Eric Bana; he’s even starring in this blogger’s own image. What I liked more about The Time Traveler’s Wife, though, is that it made me think. Even though Bana takes center stage, the fact the film is named after his wife renders that inevitable thought, “why”, and makes you look at the relationship that’s at the center of the film from her point of view instead of focusing on exotic time travel.
Through the name that focuses on the wife rather than the traveller I got to think genres. On paper, The Time Traveler’s Wife is a science fiction film; after all, time travel has been the bread and butter of many a science fiction film. However, the way the is made renders The Time Traveler’s Wife much more of a romantic chick’s flick rather than a science fiction film. It’s a matter of emphasis: the emphasis is not on the details of time travel, so much so the film totally ignores the fact our traveller travels through space just the same in its title; the emphasis is on the dynamics of the relationship instead, and who cares if the details of the time travels do not make much sense (even if you accept time travel as physically possible it’s hard to accept it being caused by a genetic fluke, as the film suggests). Then again, one can argue the best science fiction is the science fiction that doesn't feel like science fiction.
This warm and fuzzy feeling the film leaves you with makes it hard to tell what message it is, exactly, that it wants to convey; just like reading the bible you end up making whatever message you want to take out of it. So if you ask me, The Time Traveler’s Wife errs on the fatalistic side of things, an approach I disapprove of. Its saving grace is that through the tale of romance whose chronology is known in advance it can be interpreted slightly differently: it says that the decisions are still yours to make, but with the way this world is the result is going to be the same whatever course it is that you choose to follow. Not too promising, is it? Yet you have to admit that it does fit a lot of what’s taking place in our world: scientists, for example, are telling us for decades now that we are boiling our planet to death, yet the result of their actions is the same as if they wouldn’t have said a word.
Interesting scene: Bana brings a winning lottery ticket back from one of his time travels. What took him so long? I would have done it the first time around.
Best scene: Hard to describe without causing a blooper, but the film’s climax – which draws the time travel card yet again and pulls out an ace – drew a tear or two from me.
Technical assessment: A mediocre Blu-ray. The picture is not as detailed as it should have been and the sound, while fresh and authentic, fails to envelope.
Overall: Often touching, yet fails to soar. 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 24 February 2011

The Other Guys

Lowdown: Two useless policemen hit something big.
The Other Guys is an actors’ film, for the simple reason its plot is is too fabricated and disjointed for any film to rely on. There is one actor overshadowing all the rest in this actors’ flick, and as a result you can sum up The Other Guys in just a single short sentence: The Other Guys is a Will Ferrell film. Is it a good Will Ferrell film, like Stranger than Fiction, or is it a bad one, like Land of the Lost? I am of the opinion it is somewhere in between, but sadly it leans more towards the nonsensical latter than the classy former. Which is another way for me to say that given its potential The Other Guys should have been much better.
The plot follows a very simple line that we’ve seen many times before: two New York policemen partners (Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg), each with their own issues and both ridiculously useless. Ferrell’s uselessness is in him trying to avoid action by investigating accountancy allegations, but one day his investigations accidentally land him on a big rich whale (Steve Coogan) causing our pair to be in too deep in action.
That’s it for the plot; the rest of the film’s almost two hour long duration (for the record, we watched the Blu-ray's extended version) is dedicated to gags and improv like jokes adding flair to the characters. It starts with depicting our heroes as “the other guys” when compared to the truly awesome cops represented by Samuel L. Jackson and Dwayne Johnson, but the latter die of their own stupidity leaving the stage to Ferrell & Co; theoretically, this could have been nice premises to base a film on: the two useless guys suddenly having to prove themselves in the heat of battle as jokes fly around. The point, however, is totally wasted on and in between meaningless gags of the usual extreme Ferrell type.
There are other big name actors doing their round of jokes, too. Michael Keaton plays a police chief working a second job so he can financially maintain his bisexual son, and Eva Mendes plays Ferrell’s extremely hot wife of an extremely not hot geek. It would have worked if the gag wasn’t overstretched as much as it is, but then again that is the story of this film: it has some funny moments, some very funny moments; but in between it is nothing special and if anything it’s too silly.
What I can say in praise of The Other Guys is that this is a film with a definite social agenda: through a heroes and villains that mirror GFC events it openly criticizes the society that allowed the GFC to take place in the first place, the big bankers that had to be rescued with public money they never bothered returning, and the politicians that let them do so. It’s a statement worth making, but it doesn’t really work when attached to a Will Ferrell crazy show.
Best scene: It’s odd, it's unique, but The Other Guys’ closing credits with their documentary like run of GFC facts is by far the most interesting scene in the film and the best ever utilization of credit time.
Technical assessment: Isn’t it good to watch a Blu-ray again after a long break! What a difference good picture and sound can make. Indeed, the picture on this Blu-ray is pretty good with the exception of a few indoor scenes where colors are all over the place. Sound wise, other than the opening scenes featuring the soon to be dead Jackson & Johnson with ultra aggressive sound the rest is pretty ordinary. The Other Guys is saved by its music soundtrack: the action scene featuring The White Stripes’ Icky Thump would simply not work without the tantalizing tune.
Overall: A miss at 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Escape from Alcatraz

Lowdown: Disgruntled prisoners plan an escape from Alcatraz.
I actually remember when Escape from Alcatraz was at the cinemas. It was 1979, and although I haven't watched it at the time (I did watch it many years later) I remember it being an icon for tough manhood as well as the film to watch at the time. The beauty of it is that much of that original flavor still exists today in this Don Siegel film (Dirty Harry): despite its age, lack of special effects, and almost total absence of female presence, Escape from Alcatraz still works. I suspect it is exactly this quality that allowed films like The Rock to try and step in its shoes and gave them a marketplace in the first place.
As the film starts we find ourselves escorting Clint Eastwood, a prisoner, being transported into Alcatraz prison and learning to live in his new home. However, Alcatraz is not a place he intends to call home for long, and soon enough he thinks of the seemingly impossible: escaping. We follow him as he makes friends and enemies at the notorious jail; we follow him through the hardships of a hopeless jail term under an particularly evil warden (Patrick McGoohan); and we follow the progression of his escape plans.
At this point it is probably worth me mentioning that Escape from Alcatraz is based on real life events: indeed, some prisoners managed to escape Alcatraz, although the prevailing speculation is that they did not manage to cross the waters to the mainland alive. The film tries to take advantage of these events and build on the fact there was never any evidence to those escapees dying either.
The result of the above is quite a thrilling, in your face film. It has to be, with it being set entirely on the island prison's tight quarters. There is some crafty direction work at hand, utilizing top notch editing, which keeps the viewer on their toes despite the lack of flashy things taking place on the screen. I did found the film did not work that well in the department of making an ulterior message, though: unlike, say, The Shawshank Redemption, it's hard to pick a philosophical statement out of Escape from Alcatraz. It's there, but it's more to do with being in your face tough.
That said, the similarities between Escape from Alcatraz and The Shawshank Redemption (which, I have to add, is one of my all time favorite films) are striking. So much so that the thought of plagiarism occurred to me more than once or twice. Other than both being based on a prison escape, there are the similar characters of a warden who is the worst criminal around, being attacked for sexual reasons, finding salvation at the library, the method of escape, the old prison colleague with the pet mouse who happens to die just as the film hits its climax, and much much more. I'll put it this way: Stephen King published his novella, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption (on which the 1994 film is based) in 1982, three years after Escape from Alcatraz' release. So we know who was there first.
Best scene: Eastwood's naked welcome to Alcatraz.
Overall: A 3.5 out of 5 stars film that is old but still is a solid performer.

Monday, 21 February 2011

Pink Cadillac

Lowdown: A bounty hunter joins forces with the woman he’s after.
I sat down to watch 1989’s Pink Cadillac with much anticipation: According to the Clint Eastwood book I recently read this is one of his lesser films, and I was curious to see how such a phenomenon takes shape in a Clint Eastwood film I probably never seen before. If, indeed, Pink Cadillac turns out to be a poor show then one has to admire how the same moviemaker went on to make the glorious Unforgiven just a few years later.
Pink Cadillac follows a young mother (Bernadette Peters) in a dilemma: she loves her baby and obviously loves her husband, but the husband is pretty useless and looks to make his fortune with a gang of criminals. When the authorities find counterfeit money at their caravan she takes the blame and is released on bail, but then runs away in her husband’s pink Cadillac. She finds herself chased by the crooks as well as by a Clint Eastwood who is pretty good at bounty hunting. Eastwood thinks of her as a job, but upon acquiring his target ahead of the criminals he sympathizes with the woman and instead of bringing her in he aims towards solving her problems. Problem is, there are a whole lot of criminals in between.
Uninspiringly directed by Buddy Van Horn there can be no doubt Pink Cadillac is, indeed, one of Eastwood’s lesser efforts. The whole thing really feels like an episode of The A Team from the eighties, including the silly characters, the romance that doesn’t really feel like it’s working, and the artificially softened action scenes that always take care to show you no one got hurt.
On the positive side there are some bonuses here for the Eastwood fan. First of all, even in a bad film Eastwood himself is pretty good; after all, he’s doing his usual role of the stranger coming in to mend a family here yet again, and he’s quite good at it. Second, as a part of his bounty hunting job he gets to do impersonations and dress ups: where else can you see Eastwood dressed like a clown?
Best scene: Eastwood with a fake moustache and a shiny golden suit has a go at conning the criminals at a casino. Because of the suit.
Interesting scene: Jim Carrey does what is probably one of his earliest on screen appearances, playing his usual mad self. No wonder he grew up to become an anti vaccination lunatic.
Worst scenes: This film seems to have associated itself with the worst of eighties music.
Overall: A very limited film at 2 out of 5 stars, but still an interesting experience for the Eastwood fan. In many respects it beggars belief that such films actually existed after the rise of the summer blockbuster.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: A bleak human story set in a future post sustainability’s collapse.
Most science fiction fans will gladly tell you that science fiction is not about the future but rather about the present: it tries to tell you things about the present by projecting from a potential (or a fantastic) future. Thus stories from the golden age of science fiction, like Asimov’s, were influenced by humanity’s entry into the space age and the appearance of the first computers. Contemporary science fiction shares the trait, only that a lot of it is dominated by grim views of the world we are about to leave behind for our children through our unsustainable consumption of earth’s resources. The Windup Girl is one such work, only that it is a particularly important piece of science fiction work with it having won 2010’s Nebula and Hugo awards – the most prestigious in the science fiction community. It's not that common for the same book to win both.
The Windup Girl is set in Bangkok, probably around a century or two from now. It works by introducing us to a multitude of characters that the book follows as they are meticulously developed, all the while providing us with more and more information about this future world in slowly paced, lengthy and articulate descriptions. The world unravelled before our eyes is a world most of us would not care to live in: global warming is a reality, with water levels much higher, and destructive and unpredictable weather patterns the norm; oil is gone, and with it any chance of cheap energy; diseases are rampant; corporations determine who will have food on their plates; and gene hacking is the norm, manifesting itself in various forms. The result is a bleak world full of corrupt characters where the most decent person around seems to be the artificially created windup girl that gave the book its title. Indeed, the result is a world where human life is one of its cheapest resources.
The plot tells us that Thailand has weathered the storm relatively well, but Thailand still has to face the conflict between the forces that want external/commercial influences in and those that want to keep Thailand as clean as possible from potential external threats. Both sides happen to be much more corrupt than idealistic. The conflict between the opposing sides builds up in a rather convoluted way, and it is clear that the plot itself is not the main event but rather the portrayal of the world in which the plot is taking place. The best example I can give there is to do with the descriptions on the use of springs and kink for generating and storing energy (often in ways that do not make much sense), powering everything from fans to guns and scooters. The result of this book about a potential bleak future is that you, the reader, gets to think a lot about the setting instead of caring for the various characters and what takes place over them occupying the center of your attention.
The time has come for me to mention Ship Breaker, Paolo Bacigalupi’s follow up to The Windup Girl and the book with which I chose to start reading Bacigalupi for the simple reason that book is a simpler and much easier to digest (it's also much shorter). The two are very common yet very different: both are set in pretty much identical worlds and both share almost every element; on the other hand, while Ship Breaker is a simpler, straight to the point adventure story where the setting is in the background and almost taken for granted despite its elaborate nature, The Windup Girl is a book about those little details in the setting, a book where the details are the main event and the characters and plot almost feel secondary.
This difference is what makes or breaks The Windup Girl. That descriptive language and the length it goes by is often annoying yet there can be no denying the unique nature it gives the book. I’ll put it this way: I appreciate The Windup Girl for being written the way it is because it made me think hard of where us humans are heading, but on the other hand I am happy the majority of books are written in a more conventional way.
I’ll finish on a personal note: The Windup Girl was the last book I bought myself in paper form prior to delving into electronic books. I ended up reading it electronically and selling my paper book (pictured above) on eBay at a huge loss: I got an electronic copy of the book through my Aussiecon membership, and between reading on my Kindle and reading a paper book I know which I prefer.
Overall: It makes you wonder, it makes you think, but it can also makes you annoyed. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

The Bridges of Madison County

Lowdown: The impossible love story between a married woman and a kin spirited traveller.
The Bridges of Madison County (1995) starts at the end. The adult son and daughter of a recently deceased mother review their mother’s will to learn the seemingly devoted to her husband mother (Meryl Streep) has had a love affair some time during their childhood which shaped the rest of her life. All the while they had no idea it ever took place!
Thus starts a film about missed opportunities, a film that through the depiction of a developing romance tells us that some times opportunities may not be presented to us at the right time and we just need to learn to live with that, as frustrating as that may seem. I will gladly argue that it is not atypical at all to hear such a lesson from actor/director Clint Eastwood; this type of wisdom is exactly up his street.
Then we flash back to the story itself. Streep's character, a post World War 2 migrant from Italy, lives in middle of nowhere USA (actually, Madison County) with the ex-soldier husband of hers and their kids at the farm the husband’s family lived in for more than a hundred years. Having seen what she’s seen, coming across the world to the USA, she yearns for more from life, and opportunity knocks on her door – literally – when Clint Eastwood, a National Geographic photographer assigned to cover the area’s bridges, gets lost and asks her for instructions. Streep is hospitable, Clint is a well travelled man of the world with the tools to satisfy Streep’s yearnings, and a spark is lit.
The rest of what is to come is obvious but still very well told, albeit [too] slowly. Streep’s acting is [yet again] superb, while Eastwood reminds us again that he is a more than capable actor even without a gun to his hand. The movie’s climatic ending is riveting, and although we’re well prepared and despite the over cheesiness of it all it is nice to see the son and daughter learn from their mother’s last lesson to ensure they do not miss out on their own opportunities. You can thus say that while there is pessimism in The Bridges of Madison County’s message there is also realism mixed with optimism: sure, the life is harsh, but at least we all have tools to make the most of the hand we're given.
Best scene: Streep and Eastwood listen to a blues radio station, just because I can’t think of better ways to celebrate intimacy with a person you love.
Overall: Some aspects of this film are better than others, but this is still a grand offer from a filmmaker with one of the richest portfolios around. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 13 February 2011

Clint: A Retrospective by Richard Schickel

Lowdown: Clint Eastwood as reflected by his work.
Clint: A Retrospective is the first and so far only paper book that I bought myself since getting heavily into the world of electronic books, which says a lot. It says that this is a book that works because of its format: a heavy coffee table book, made of glossy paper throughout and rich with photos, Clint: A Retrospective is not necessarily meant to be read from start to finish but it definitely invites the occasional flick.
Yet I did read it from start to finish and found myself not only enjoying the proceedings but also learning a lot about Clint Eastwood, who – as I have said on these pages many times before – is probably my favorite moviemaker of all time. Reading the book explains why.
Let’s make it clear: Clint: A Retrospective is a book about Clint Eastwood. Contents wise, the books starts with an intro from the man itself (Clint Eastwood again!). It moves on to an overview of Eastwood’s early years, and then goes through each of the films Eastwood took part in as an actor or as director, finishing things off with Invictus (obviously, the book is too old to include Eastwood’s Hereafter). The movie discussions take up most of the page real estate, supplying some glorified photos but also – and surprisingly – containing some articulate reviews of the works at hand, their impact on Eastwood and the impact Eastwood made on them. Often delving into the personal realm, they reveal the details of a person who is anything but the image I used to have of Eastwood once upon a time before I learned to appreciate the man and his pursuit to explore new realms while leaving his uncharacteristic macho image behind.
The final result proves to be not only an interesting book to flick through in order to see the photos, not only a highly entertaining experience, but also a good read. You read the book and you witness proper character development, as if you’re reading a great work of fiction. It is obvious that author Richard Schickel knows his subject matter.
Note the book is bundled with a DVD. That DVD is a rather short twenty minute affair mimicking the spirit of the book but replacing printed stills with clips from Clint's repertoire at Warner Studios. It's nice, but let us be clear: the book is the main event here. That said, let the record show Clint: A Retrospective has tremendous gift appeal with its magnificent presentation.
Overall: Clint: A Retrospective is a great book for any film buff and an even better book for anyone with special interest in Clint Eastwood. I started this review by stating this is the first paper book I got since going electronic; I will finish by saying this is the first and only book of its type I ever read in its entirety. A book with such achievements under its belt deserves 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Mary and Max

Lowdown: Two very different people share their loneliness as pen pals across continents.
Mary (Toni Collette, mostly) is an eight year old living in 1976 suburban Melbourne and having a hard time finding friends, a lot of it the result of her shame for the birthmark on her forehead. Her parents aren’t that great, either. So she picks up a foreign phone book at her post office, chooses a random name, and fires off a letter.
Max (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is an obese loner from Manhattan New York. This Jew turned atheist is a loner, too, probably the result of the mental illness inflicting him. Mary’s letter therefore hits his soft spot, and despite the anxiety attack it triggers he answers it. Henceforth starts a friendship in letters between the two, a cure for its subjects’ loneliness that crosses age differences, physical distance and plenty of obstacles as it goes through rough times over many years.
The above plot seems like nothing we haven’t seen before from Hollywood but that is not the case with Mary and Max. The product of Adam Elliot, the Melbourne based Oscar winner from the short film Harvie Krumpet, Mary and Max uses Elliot’s signature style of stop motion animation to discuss miserable characters in a way that highlights society’s illnesses while making us smile or occasionally laugh.
The result is a mixed bag. On one hand, there can be no denying the talent at hand, from both Elliot and the slew of voice actors (on top of the above mentioned we have the likes of a very busy Barry Humphries doing narration work and an Eric Bana as a sort of a love subject). There is also the matter of the lovely stop motion animation – imagine the effort there – and the observable nature of the film, like its use of generally gray looking everything with the occasional splotch of color.
Yet when all is said and done there can be no ignoring the fact that despite Mary and Max’ short duration it is a rather boring affair. The distance between good laughs is just too far, and even the touching ending is not enough of a redeemer.
Favorite scene:
The better scenes in Mary and Max are the ones that tell us more about our characters by straying, often severely, from the main plot and delving into minor sub stories. These sub stories are usually of extremely absurd natures, done in a manner not unlike that of the Family Guy cartoon series. Unlike Family Guy they are usually not that funny even if they are original and inventive.
Of these scenes I liked a rather milder one where Max explains how he became an atheist despite being raised a Jew: we see the pile of books he read to open his mind with. Starring in this pile is a book by Asimov, who is not only one of my favorite authors but is also one of the people responsible for me opening my own mind up to new ideas despite being raised a Jew.
Overall: I want to rate this film highly but the fact it is rather boring prevents me from doing so. I’ll therefore stretch my generosity as far as I can to give Mary and Max 3 out of 5 stars, but stress that my generosity is due to my appreciation of the style, the effort and the locality of the subject at hand rather than my liking of its contents.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Perfect World

Lowdown: A runway convict is a lonely child's ultimate father figure.
One of the great things about Clint Eastwood films is that even the less famous iterations pack a punch. In the case of 1993's A Perfect World it does look like the only reason this is one of Eastwood less famous films is to do with its marketing, but still - a nice surprise is a nice surprise even when viewed the second time around.
Eastwood himself plays only a supporting role in A Perfect World, leaving the limelight to Kevin Costner. Costner is a runaway prisoner that dug himself a hole out of jail, but unlike the fellow prisoner with whom he broke out Costner has some brains on him as well as some morals. In order to allow for their escape the pair abducts a young boy from his single mother and takes him hostage, only that in this case they probably did the boy a favor: With his mother being a Jehovah's Witness, the boy seems to have never known fun in his life. Costner, on the other hand, an adult who knows where a bad father can lead you, immediately connects with the boy and something special takes place between them.
The setting has us back in the early sixties' Texas, just before President Kennedy gets shot. Chasing after the convicts is police chief Eastwood, accompanied by other police, FBI and a newly graduated extra smart criminologist, Laura Dern. Between them Dern and Eastwood's characters are the only ones that seem capable to understand what takes place over Costner's character; the rest are just blood thirsty. Between this blood thirst, the need to return the boy to his mother, the simple minded public, and Costner's vicious nature at the presence of the child abuse the "father and son" pair keeps on encountering on his quest to freedom, you know something has to go wrong.
The concept of a hostage that befriends their kidnapper is not the newest under the sun, but it works well in A Perfect World because of the superb acting: Kevin Costner gives what is probably his best performance ever, the child is very convincing, and Eastwood does his job perfectly. The result is a story that is both entertaining and touching, featuring a catch that's revealed later and sheds new light on events that are already interesting as they are. Thus, and in total contrast to his perceived image, A Perfect World provides us with a glimpse of a progressive thinking Eastwood long before the more obvious True Crime and Million Dollar Baby arrived.
Best scene #1: The boy reaches to hold the hand of a rather reluctant Costner. Shot from behind as the characters walk away from the camera, this is one memorable shot despite the short duration of the scene.
Best scene #2: At the end Clint Eastwood tells us that he knows nothing, not a damn thing. He says it so convincingly his acting almost takes over Costner's, reminding us that we are mostly ignorant about most things.
Overall: A Perfect World sits on the higher end of the 3.5 out of 5 stars' scale.