Friday, 29 April 2011

Edge of Darkness

Lowdown: A detective’s daughter is shot at his doorstep, and in contrast to popular opinion it seems the detective was not the target.
If Hitler was a good painter, would I be able to admire his pictures? That theoretical question about the shady border between art and the people behind it is a question that popped to my head as I watched Edge of Darkness. This is because Edge of Darkness is the latest film starring Mel Gibson after the guy took a bit of a break from movie making. Gibson, I couldn’t help notice, is a guy that seriously thinks I am responsible to many of this world’s problems. He is also a guy that genuinely believes I am going to burn in hell for an eternity. Can I enjoy a film whose main attention grabber such a person?
Edge of Darkness tells us of a puritan police detective Thomas Craven (Gibson) living and working in Boston. He picks his bright MIT daughter with whom he hasn’t been in particularly good contact over the years from the train station and brings her home. Shortly after, as the two stand by their doorstep, someone shouts “Craven” and blasts the daughter with a shotgun. Everyone assumes the father was the target of a criminal he helped put behind bars, but slowly it appears as if that might not have been the case. Things unravel fast as Craven visits the nuclear facility his daughter worked for.
Directed very clinically but not inspirationally by Martin Campbell (Casino Royale), Edge of Darkness is a reboot of Campbell’s 1985 TV mini series dealing with atomic hazards. I guess the subject matter received a boost given recent events in Japan, but regardless of that Edge of Darkness is a pretty effective thriller. The film deals with some important ethical concerns, mainly involving the sacrifices of one or a few to save the many. These themes are handled in a manner that explicitly suggests the saint rising from the dead, therefore you can easily see why Gibson might have found this particular role appealing. Indeed, Gibson feels right at home, performing in a manner not unlike the more serious moments of Lethal Weapon's. As much as the question of tolerating him had bugged me, I have to say Gibson fits Edge of Darkness like a glove.
Which brings me back to the question of whether it is possible to enjoy a film when its star induces justified negative reactions. My answer? Yes, I was able to enjoy Edge of Darkness; I quite enjoyed it, matter of fact. Gibson’s character, with his attire and posture, even reminded me of the deceased uncle of mine that I loved so much; it would be hard for me to come up with a greater compliment. I’ll put it another way: being able to enjoy the helicopter scene from Apocalypse Now, with its Wagner music, does not make a Nazi out of me in any possible way.
Leaving Gibson aside, I have to say I greatly enjoyed the performance given by Ray Winstone. Playing a British mop-up “consultant” hired by the baddies, Winstone manages to play up both sides of the ethical dilemma extremely effectively. So effectively that he points at a major reliability problem with the film, which is – how come the Gibson character is allowed to live for as long as it needs to get into the bottom of things.
Best scene: Gibson meets a terrified friend of his daughter’s at a remote area. The meeting is held in his car. The friend wants to get out of the car but stays, then wants to come out again and stays to provide yet another tip to Gibson, then… This well orchestrated scene feels like it came from a Hitchcock movie.
Technical assessment: While this Blu-ray offers fine picture quality, I couldn’t help being annoyed at the too subtle a role that sound plays in Edge of Darkness. The whole affair is pretty subdued, sound wise, other than for a few seconds long bursts of action.
Overall: A good thriller with something to think about that left me at the doldrums between 3 and 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 28 April 2011

Cemetery Junction

Lowdown: The adventures of three youngsters stuck at a dead end part of the UK during the early seventies.
Ricky Gervais had rightly won his claim to fame with me through his small screen escapades in The Office and Extras, both top notch comedies with plenty of smarts about them and clear relevance to the lives of their viewers. Since then Gervais went on to the big screen doing this and that; he did alright, but he didn’t exactly knock me off my sofa. In Cemetery Junction he collaborates as co-director with his TV world partner Stephen Merchant, and clearly that synergy of yonder came back to produce one of the most enjoyable films I have had the pleasure to watch at recent times. What else can I make of a film whose climax is edited around Led Zeppelin’s The Rain Song?
Set in early seventies’ England, the whole story takes place in the area around Cemetery Junction’s train station. Apparently, this suburb of Reading is a dead end area where no one can have a hope of a life considered successful. There is one exception to this rule: Ralph Fiennes’ character, who came from the ‘hood and its school but grew up to be rich and run a company selling life insurance policies.
The core of the film has us following three young guys from Cemetery Junction as they start their venture into the adult world faced with a life of no prospects. The first one goes for a white collar job with Fiennes, the second can’t stand his blue collar work and prefers a good brawl, and the third is a but too thick for his own good (and probably not as good looking). During the film’s hour and a half all three face their challenges with career, family life and the opposite sex, and all three come of age and learn what the more important things in their lives are.
Combine this trilogy of stories and you have yourself a great feel good movie. Cemetery Junction is more than that, though: it’s a very funny comedy, too, and it’s pretty smart as well. Smart comedies are rare but when done well they kick ass; smart comedies are Gervais & Merchant’s bread and butter, which they deliver plenty of here. So much so that I begun to wonder whether their particular line of smart comedy works so well on me due to both Gervais and I being outspoken atheists who share a lot of opinions and world views. I don’t have an answer to that one, but I will happily sit to discuss the matter with Gervais were he to have some spare time.
I feel like I summed the movie up thus far without providing enough insight as to its complexity. I will try to make amends by pointing a finger at the way Cemetery Junction picks up a fight with bigotry manifested in various forms but in particular in chauvinism and racism. I will continue to mention the excellent acting on display not only by Fiennes, from whom you take it for granted, but also from Emily Watson (playing Fiennes’ suppressed wife) and Gervais himself (playing one of our youngsters’ father). Then there’s the way seventies’ England is portrayed, a country still paying the price of winning The War but having most of its infrastructure in ruins as a result. Even the ending says something: all three stories end in some sort of a compromise, yet the three represent different compromises. That is a mature way to conclude a film by my book.
You could therefore say that Cemetery Junction is a complex film that delivers on multiple fronts: the quick gratification laugh, the complex motifs, and the feel good factor. I would say that’s a great achievement.
Best scene: One of our lads is having dinner with his family. Proceedings take place in a manner not unlike my own family’s: people uttering lots of bullshit while not paying much attention to one another. In this particular scene Gervais, playing the father figure, expresses his contempt for the lazy blacks coming over to our country to steal our jobs. Pointing the contradiction in this statement to him does not do much good.
Best joke: “Freddie, stop listening to music made by poofs. Stick on some Elton John.”
Technical assessment: This DVD’s picture is washed out on purpose to make things look seventies like, a fact made obvious by the very seventies like color palettes. The use of sound is interesting: although fidelity is relatively low, the volume and the aggressiveness of the use of surround channels are craftily and frequently varied in order to create the right atmosphere. And lest I forget: the seventies music soundtrack is just great.
Overall: Messrs Gervais & Merchant, I want more, please! 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Get Him to the Greek

Lowdown: An aspiring music fan has to escort a drunk/drugged performer to his live show.
Once upon a time not that long ago there was a comedy called Forgetting Sarah Marshall that was quite good. One of the trump cards held by that film was a British stand-up comedian called Russell Brand, thus enlivening things through overacting his supporting role. In Get Him to the Greek we have Brand playing the exact same character, only that now he’s at center stage.
Greek follows an aspiring music industry guy who is in it for the love of music (Jonah Hill). His on-her-way to become a doctor girlfriend is overworked and their relationship comes to a crisis just as he gets his professional break: his idea of having Brand’s character, a has-been rocker, to perform a comeback show at a venue called The Greek has been accepted. Now it is his job to escort Brand from the UK to the venue in LA.
That’s where the trick is, really: Brand has been comforting his fall from fame through sex and drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (and alcohol). Getting him to cooperate is as easy as getting humanity to act on climate change. Hence our two characters have a challenge on their hands: the revival of a career for one, and the embarkation on a new career for the other. Given that this is an American film we’re talking about here you know where we’ll end up being when this film comes to an end.
The point of Get Him to the Greek is not the plot or the moral challenges; these are just the setting for our hero characters to let go with their type of humor. The problem lies in that humor, which may work fine for supporting roles but is not enough to build a film on. There’s too much nonsense at hand, and whatever substance might lie in between is too well camouflaged. You do get the occasional (yet rare) laugh, especially in the bits aimed at celebrity culture, and there are some nice supporting performances (e.g., Rose Byrne playing a character that’s probably based on David Beckham’s wife). Overall, though, things are pretty bland.
Best scene: A threesome. Not in the way I’d expect (one man + 2 * woman), which at least goes to show Get Him to the Greek is brave even if it is still comfortably within the socially acceptable framework of “American films' status quo”.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray from start to end. I was particularly annoyed at the fact the menu option for watching the film’s extended version was only revealed to me after I finished watching the original cut.
Overall: My initial enthusiasm towards Russell Brand has severely waned. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past

Lowdown: Ghosts from the past, present & future change a non believer's opinion of love.
I am ignorant of most things in this world, and one of those things that I am ignorant of is A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. I've heard stories about it but I never read or watched a film based on this story, which means that a lot of what Ghost of Girlfriends Past's ammo is wasted on me. That is because this film takes the Christmas Carol story and adopts it: instead of an unhappy guy who doesn't think much of Christmas we have ourselves a guy who doesn't believe in love; in both cases our guys are exposed to ghosts from the past, present and future who teach them how wrong they are.
The next thing you need to know about Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is that this is a Matthew McConaughey film. Now that you know that fact there is not much else I need to add: a McConaughey film would automatically be an American mainstream production which would automatically imply this is another predictable romantic comedy oozing of sickly conservative values. On our hands here we have a guy, a successful fashion photographer guy who gets laid with a different supermodel girl every night and who breaks up with his girls on a Skype conference call arranged by his secretary. He doesn't believe in love nor marriage, and he is very open about this disbelief; so much so that when his brother invites him to his wedding our McConaughey tries to convince the brother of his wrongdoings.
Yet when McConaughey arrives at the scene of the wedding he encounters two things. The first is Jennifer Garner, who was "his" girl back when they were both 12 but for reasons unclear now hates his guts; the second are the ghosts. From then on you know what's going to happen.
The silly thing about Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is that the film would have worked much better if it was to lose its preachings of the importance of the wedding institution and of love (in that particular way "love" is currently interpreted in Western culture). The film is way too silly there and it doesn't need to be: I know enough people who love to love but are just afraid of commitments who act every way like McConaughey does; why take the film to unnecessarily annoying extremes?
I will clarify my point. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past is a silly and predictable film, but there's a but. We rented it on a Wednesday evening, looking for a dead easy to watch film that would make us feel good and won't encumber our fatigued brains much. Ghosts of Girlfriends Past, with all of its issues, delivered well in that department. If you can stand the preaching I would even recommend it.
Best scene: The guy running the ghosts' show is the ghost of McConaughey's playboy uncle, played by Michael Douglas. And what an excellent job does Douglas do! It's obvious the guy enjoyed every second of his part. I wouldn't say the scene in which he teaches a teen version of McConaughey how to hit on women is priceless, but it's definitely entertaining.
Overall: Middle of the road at 2.5 out of 5 stars, but worth watching under the right circumstances.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

The Meaning of Things by A. C. Grayling

Lowdown: Applying philosophy to many practical aspects of life.
The first time I heard of A.C. Grayling was during 2010’s Global Atheist Convention. The way his name was mentioned made it appear as if he was one of the convention’s main events, yet I did not know a thing about him; obviously I was missing something, so I went and did my research. That research manifested itself in me buying The Meaning of Things, a book of Grayling’s; however, due to the invasion of the ebook into my life shortly thereafter it took me around a year to get to that book of mine. By now I know much more about Grayling, enough to figure out that here is a book by guy of topmost intellectual caliber.
The Meaning of Things turned out to be a collection of weekend articles from The Guardian where Grayling discussed various matters of philosophy as they apply to daily, practical, aspects of our lives. Those articles were sorted and grouped in order to order them in logical fashion and ensure the reading flows. With each article dedicated to one certain subject, like love or education (to name a couple of favorite ones), it is easy for the reader to digest the ideas expressed by Grayling despite their high potency and their density. Ideas per page, The Meaning of Things has to qualify as one of the highest concentrated books I ever read; as a result this is a book to be read slowly, preferably on multiple occasions, for optimal understanding to take place.
Each of the articles is relatively short, ensuring lots of variety. Most are around two pages long, although there are worthy exceptions to this rule. Inside each article Grayling quotes from others before him in order to develop his core argument concerning the matter. Using language that is not too obscure (although fairly challenging to this non native English reader), Grayling devices some very complicated ideas. His, however, is clearly a humanist’s agenda that will find a warm place by Richard Dawkins’ fire in the sense that it approaches religion and dogma with the gloves off but does so while rationally arguing instead of insulting or condescending.
You can therefore argue, and very rightly so, that Grayling would always find a seat by my fireplace, too. Reading The Meaning of Things was challenge, as potent as it is, but it always felt as if it was worth every second of my time. So full of interesting ideas and worthwhile insight it was, I could not avoid this warm feeling of pleasure that comes so rarely and only when reading a truly excellent book, for here is a book that truly expands my horizons and improves my outlook on life. Here is a book I can truly learn from.
This feat being achieved in such a low key manner renders The Meaning of Things priceless.
Overall: Clearly this was not the last I will be reading of A.C. Grayling. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Lowdown: Harry & Co are on the run.
There is not much for me to say about this latest escapade from the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. The reason is simple: this is a film with no beginning and no end. The reason for that is simple, too: the lack of a beginning is to do with this being the 7th episode in the film series, and the lack of an ending is to do with this being the story of the first half of the 8th Harry Potter book.
The question to ask, therefore, is simple: should the seventh Harry Potter film been made the way it was? Money wise I am sure the studio is laughing all the way to the bank, but artistically speaking this seventh episode has to be the worst film of the lot, a film that simply cannot stand by its own rights. This is not a film; this is a replication of the book's first half with hardly any attempt to translate from book language to cinema.
If you have to ask then yes, we do have a plot: Harry and his friends are on the run from the forces of evil, mainly hiding in the woods in between various escapades as they try to find and destroy the deadly artifacts containing evil Voldemort's soul. Yet even the action escapades are bad: they are so incomprehensible, with shaky camera, fast editing and the lot, that you have to rely on the characters' post event dialog to figure out what took place. Eventually, for this one is almost two and a half hours long, I was sick of asking my partner "what happened there?"
So what does Harry Potter 7 bring to the screen? Probably every British cinema actor alive today. That none of them (other than the three teen leads) gets to utter more than a sentence says it all.
Technical assessment: The dark picture on this Blu-ray overwhelmed my LCD TV so much that I cannot qualify to assess how good it is. With the sound, though, I can definitely attest to its aggressive nature and overall high quality.
Overall: I don't know if this one can be called a film in the first place, but I'll give it 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 17 April 2011

Fiddler on the Roof

Lowdown: The tribulations of a poor hard working Jew and father of five daughters in early 20th century Russia.
Although I have been exposed to Fiddler on the Roof many a time, this week was my first time at watching the 1971 film in its original English speaking soundtrack. It was also my first exposure to this material since high school, where we studied the Sholem Aleichem book on which Fiddler is based, Tevye the Milkman; in retrospect this was one of the better pieces of literature the Israeli Department of Education made us study by virtue of the fact it actually had some good humor in it. Before the book and as a child I got to watch Fiddler on the Roof several times with Hebrew dubbing (probably the only feature film I ever watched dubbed to Hebrew) as well as the theater play.
Fiddler on the Roof follows the character of Tevye, or Tuvya the way the name would be pronounced in Israel today (the English version of the same name, based on the Greek translation from Hebrew, is Tobias). Played by Haim Topol, the role of Tevye is one of those roles that became so associated with the actor playing them it’s hard to tell them apart.
Tevye is a Jew living in a village under Tsar control during the early 20th century with his wife and five daughters. He is poor, hence the song everyone knows from Fiddler (“if I was a rich man”), but he is a hard working decent man. Tevye’s life, as the life of his fellow villagers, is run according to the rules of tradition.
The plot has Tevye facing challenge after challenge when the tradition that made is life so easy – in the sense that it enables life to go on without asking too many questions – is broken time and time again by his daughters as they seek to defy tradition and marry the people they love. In that sense, Fiddler on the Roof is fairly similar if not incredibly similar to Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, only that the plot revolves around the father rather than the second daughter (a note to Austen’s lawyers: sue!). Me, I just enjoyed watching a film whose essence is around the application of common sense to defy silly traditions. However, there is more to Fiddler: there are also the challenges stemming from the anti-Semitism that was so rampant in Russia at the time to spice Tevye’s life up.
I found it interesting to note how accurate the depiction of Jewish life in Eastern Europe at the time the film is meant to take place is. Essentially, it depicts Jews living amongst their own, in closed communities near but also secluded from the gentiles. There are economic connections between the two groups but they don’t interact much socially; when they do, those that do are considered rogue and are thrown out of their communities. In that sense of experiencing life a hundred years ago, an age not only before the Internet but also before the car, Fiddler on the Roof is pretty good.
Of course, accurate depiction is severely hurt given the musical interruptions that plague the film so often. It seems like the actors cannot utter more than one sentence before bursting into song, which I find quite annoying (yes, I generally dislike musicals, Ok?). That said, Fiddler on the Roof sort of grows on you; songs or no songs, I was quite curious to see what will take place with our hero and his family. I guess this means that Fiddler on the Roof, musical or not, serves as good entertainment in addition to being a bit of an education.
P.S. Also entertaining was the recognition of Michael Glaser’s young face as one of Tevye daughter’s suitors. Glaser grew up to star in Starsky & Hutch later.
Best scene: I liked the way Tevye’s inner thoughts/dilemmas were portrayed each time a daughter gave him a hard time. Instead of doing something technically complicated, Fiddler on the Roof resorts to placing the offending daughter far away and slightly out of focus. You know what? Simple as this technique is, it works.
Technical assessment: Once again we have ourselves a Panavision film (wide aspect ratio of 2.35:1 or so) that is presented on TV in the old aspect ration of 1.33:1. That is, almost half of the film is cropped for no good reason. This time the criminal was ABC, and the question has to be asked – why do TV channels continue to broadcast copies designed for standard definition viewing years after we’ve been made to upgrade to widescreen? Is it so nice to see half a face talking to another half face?
Overall: Educational light entertainment at 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Rachel Getting Married

Lowdown: A woman released from rehab to attend her sister’s wedding causes tremors to her family’s cohesion.
Rachel Getting Married is yet another story revolving around the workings of a dysfunctional family. On one corner we have Kym (Anne Hathaway), the loser sister of the family that’s just been released from rehab; on the other we have Rachel, the successful sister whose marriage ceremony got Kym out of rehab in the first place. When the two collide shockwaves affect everyone but mostly the divorced father in the middle. Slowly but surely we learn about the family and its dysfunctionalities, but crisis can also lead to rehabilitation.
There really is not much more to Rachel Getting Married than that as far as the plot is concerned. What sets it apart from other films is the style, and you have to hand it to director Jonathan Demme of The Silence of the Lambs’ fame: he did create a unique experience here. Not a particularly good one, and not one I would like to see frequently, but a unique one nevertheless. It’s the camera that makes the main difference: the film has that distinct look of a digital shoot that, in general, I can’t say I like much. There is a reason for that, though: the camera is handheld and finds itself so close to the characters all the time that it’s clear only smaller cameras could have worked for Demme here. Further sense of fake authenticity is achieved through the music: there is a lot of it in the film, but it’s all coming from the musicians playing on the side (mostly as a part of the wedding ceremony and its pre-ceremonies). To the film's credit it has to be said the music even sounds as if it's played live as opposed to being imposed on top. All in all, this style gives the Anne Hathaway acting show that is Rachel Getting Married some certain appeal that it wouldn’t have been able to achieve otherwise. And yes, Hathaway proves yet again she has some good acting credentials under her belt.
If you get the sense Rachel Getting Married is rather weird then you’re right. For example, god is invoked throughout the film, but you never really get what religion the characters are from. The characters themselves are of various ethnicities: the wife to be is Caucasian, the husband’s black, and there are Asians about, too. The message this cosmopolitan atmosphere is supposed to convey eludes me; perhaps we are all meant to be participants in Rachel’s wedding? Perhaps it's a story of unity?
As far as anthropological experiences are concerned, Rachel Getting Married taught me something about the nature of American wedding ceremonies. I got a hint that there is more to this than the ceremony itself when an American friend of mine got married and told me of the “showers” and other events that took place around the wedding; Rachel Getting Married covered these for me to a level that makes it easier to understand why [American] people can make so much fuss about their weddings. I still prefer the lower key approach, but I can see how an American society with the core values it sports will end up with its complicated wedding rituals.
Best scene: Kym discovers she is not Rachel’s maid of honor (or whatever it is you call the bride’s best man; the whole terminology is pretty foreign to me). She turns nasty and receives nasty in return.
Overall: Not the greatest film ever but a worthy educational experience still at 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

The Little Mermaid

Lowdown: A princess mermaid falls in love with a human prince she’s forbidden to contact.
Given the amount of films that I watch it may sound surprising that I never watched 1989’s The Little Mermaid Disney animation film till now. In retrospect, now that I did watch it I’m thinking that perhaps I should have kept that status quo for the rest of my life; in my defense I will say we were watching the film for the benefit of the house’s three year old.
The story tells of a princess mermaid living under the sea, Ariel. Unlike the rest of her social group our Ariel is curious about the world she’s living in; she likes exploring it, even if that often gets her into trouble with her father, King Triton. One day she saves a human prince from drowning and falls in love with him, but she can only get him if she becomes human, and in order to become human she needs the favors of the evil witch Ursula…
I found The Little Mermaid to be a surprisingly troubled film. Let’s clear the main criticism aside – the fact that all the good people have to be royalty for the story to work – and deal with the film as a work of cinematic art. As such, it is surprisingly disjointed: the first act is spent on introductions, the second just goes by without any noticeable events, and the third – where everything happens – just passes by so quickly (including the chief crisis which is resolved ever so fast and surprisingly easily) the whole 80 minute affair seems totally redundant. To be frank, it’s also pretty boring, especially when there is nothing special about the film’s numerous musical bursts into singing mode.
The film is farther hampered by the lack of a spark to light it up. Aladdin, made only a few years after Little Mermaid, oozes with spark. Most of that spark comes from Robin Williams; compared to him, Little Mermaid feels, well, very little. It's desperately crying out for a talent of Williams' like.
The comparison to Aladdin is not coincidental at all. There are so many similarities between the two that Little Mermaid feels like a one big dress rehearsal to the main event that followed: the music sounds similar (but not as good), the characters look similar (the Mermaid’s prince is virtually identical to Aladdin, expressions and all), the voices styling is similar, and so is the animation. The conclusion is therefore inevitable: do yourself a favour and watch Aladdin once again before you sit to watch this one.
Best scene: A French cook goes crazy as he tries to cook our Mermaid’s favorite crab. Slapstick is this otherwise boring film’s only refuge.
Technical assessment: This is a surprisingly inferior DVD by any measure, not to mention by the Disney one that tends to otherwise set the upper edges of the benchmark. The picture looks severely dated and the sound is very unspectacular.
Overall: Well, there’s a film that did not survive the test of time. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Cedar Boys

Lowdown: Young Lebanese/Western Sydneysiders get too deep in crime.
Cedar Boys is a recent Australian production that received quite a lot of good feedback (relative to its production size), and rightly so. It tells a genuine Australian story, one that reflects into the country’s fabric of being.
Our story starts at Sydney’s poorer western suburbs, where there is a high concentration of migrant families, many amongst which come from Lebanese backgrounds. Our hero is one such guy, young Tareq (Les Chantery) who works as a panel beater. His work is the story of his life: a dead end job during the day while at night when he goes out to town he can’t get into the clubs that the Anglos visit; when he tries to mingle with them they won’t accept him.
Tareq decides to dare dream when he sees the gorgeous Rachael Taylor while cruising the streets with his friends in their pimp car. He unexpectedly succeeds and makes contact, enough to win him subsequent dates. However, it is unclear whether Taylor’s character wants him for who he is or for the drugs he can supply through his contacts.
In parallel, Tareq’s friend Nabil (Buddy Dannoun) stumbles – through his job as a cleaner – on a large stash of drugs. Together, the two start dreaming of a potential escape from their prospect-less lives: the drugs and the money that comes with them may earn them a ticket into girls, the richer suburbs and general social acceptance in a society where success is mostly measured by money.
Cedar Boys is pretty solid from start to finish. It features easy to identify with characters in believable scenarios, and it depicts the conflicts they have to face fairly well. As in, just a week ago ABC’s Hungry Beast ran a story about Aussie teens of Asian ancestry going through plastic eye surgery to make them look more Anglo and earn them their acceptance. Indeed, the problem faced by minor authenticities in the supposedly multicultural Australian society (but ever not so, if you ask me) are there and they are severe. So severe that people will go to great lengths to gain acceptance.
Not only does Cedar Boys deal with an issue that is fundamental to contemporary Aussie society, it also covers it very well. It depicts the collision of old traditions with the modern aspirations of the young boys (for whom the peak of existence is represented through new rims for their car) and it touches, if ever so slightly, on frictions between different social groups through its take on the Arab-Israeli conflict. This is no superficial effort.
Style wise, Cedar Boys feels more like a documentary than a fiction. No doubt this is done on purpose in order to boost authenticity, but it does introduce some rough edges. Take the lack of a musical soundtrack, for example: we only hear music when the characters do, like when they’re at a club; the rest of the time we’re mostly quiet, and I couldn’t help noticing how the lack of music takes me off guard and causes the film to lose its grip on me until its next intense scene.
Best scene: Dreams start to shutter when Tareq discovers Rachael Taylor character's secret. As in, what is it all for?
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is not much better than a DVD’s, but that is probably the result of poorer production values. The sound, too, will not shock your foundations. Still, more than a decent effort for a production this size; the mere fact I was watching a Blu-ray and not a DVD says something good about Cedar Boys.
Overall: A solid film that is definitely worth watching. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Leap Year

Lowdown: An American woman’s adventures in Ireland, where tradition allows her to propose to her would be husband.
I like Amy Adams; this blog knows I do. Which allows me to ask the following question: what the hell did Adams think when she decided to star in a film as bad a Leap Year?
We are not talking about an ordinarily bad film here. We’re talking about a horrifically bad one, a film that acts as the best example for all that is bad with mainstream American cinema: predictable, laden with clichés, and oozing with conservative agendas that would make a young earth creationist look like a progressive thinker.
Adams stars as an American real estate industry specialist (read: someone who does not perform in a productive capacity). She’s dating this cardiologist who is obviously as charming as used toilet paper and together they’re buying this dream apartment and everything. One day she thinks he’s going to propose to her because she heard he walked into a jewellery shop, but then it turns out he only bought her earrings. Then the guy's off to a conference in Ireland; Adams thinks for a change and decides she wants to marry him. Her plan is to follow him to Ireland and propose to him on 29 February, a date when – according to Irish tradition – women can propose.
The weather disagrees with Adams, who ends up having to travel in all sorts of awkward ways to reach her destination (Dublin). To her aid, but not particularly wilfully, comes another guy – a barkeeper desperate for money to keep his Irish pub. The unlikely two venture together, and although they start off hating each other’s guts you won’t earn two points by guessing where this will lead to as they take part in what seems to be a rather too lengthy Ireland tourism ad.
Where should I start accounting for Leap Year’s woes? Should it be with the artificial performance from Adams that has to qualify as one of the worst demonstrations of acting ever stamped on a Blu-ray disc? With the collection of plot twists that simply don’t make sense?
No, I’ll settle with discussing the film’s preaching of certain social values that take feminism back a millennia or two. I mean, the whole affair is based on the “fact” that women can’t propose to their men. But let’s look at an matter critical to this film: the engagement ring. As in, the diamond ring.
Obviously, most people are unaware of the history of diamonds’ marketing. The shorter version of the story goes like this: When diamonds were first discovered and identified as a limited resource by this company called De Beers, the company decided to monopolize them. It then (early 20th century) embarked on an advertising campaign to train people to regard diamonds as precious while it controlled their availability in order to make them an expensive commodity. That is all there is to it; diamond cravings are a totally artificial and recent notion, perhaps demonstrating human fallacy better than everything else.
The problem with Leap Year, therefore, is that it takes the diamond fallacy, combines it with others, and builds a tower on top.
Best scene: Adams comes back from Ireland to her flashy new apartment and sees it and its housewarming guests for what they are – a status symbol for status anxious people. That’s a notion I can identify with (as per the example here).
Worst scene: Pretty much every other scene in this film, a film that’s meant to be a comedy but is actively painful to watch.
Overall: Avoid this one like the plague. 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Agent to the Stars by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A Hollywood agent is tasked with selling an alien race to humanity.
Readers of my blogs will know that although I haven’t been aware of author John Scalzi for too long he has quickly become a household figure. Hell, the guy even won my 2010 Person of the Year award, and not solely for exposing himself to me in person while he was moist (don’t ask!). The result is that I look forward to picking Scalzi books up; yet in the case of Agent to the Stars, no build up could have prepared me for the experience ahead.
My fascination with Agent to the Stars started with Scalzi’s own introduction to the book, in which he informs the book is his first attempt at fiction, written for him to test whether he can write it in the first place. It was then published on his blog, Whatever, for free sharing; you can still read it for free here. Only years later was it published in paper form, eventually manifesting itself in that piece of processed wood I was holding with two hands.
It can be argued that Agent to the Stars is an offshoot of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos. We are introduced to a young Hollywood agent who is quite bright and appears to be doing a good job for his actors, even when they give the impression of being the least aware of what benefits them and what doesn't. Then our agent’s boss introduces our agent to his new client: a slimy alien of a race recently arrived at earth’s orbit via an astroid serving for interstellar travel.
The business proposition is simple: make humanity accept this stinky and slimy alien species as its friend in the universe. The approach preferred by the aliens, exposed to humanity primarily through off the air TV transmissions, is to use the powerbrokers behind the entertainment industry to achieve their goal. But can it be achieved? And how will our agent toggle the rest of his life – his other actors, the media, his neighbor’s dog – with this enormous pressure on his shoulder?
I will lay it on the table in no uncertain terms: in my opinion, Agent to the Stars is the best easy reading I have had for a good few years now. It's incredibly approachable, set as it is in Hollywood and the movie scene we're all familiar with. It’s light reading, providing exciting twists and thrills. It’s incredibly witty and funny as a result, but not silly funny; its is the smart humor domain. At the same time Agent to the Stars deals effectively with heavy moral dilemmas and subjects such as the Holocaust and racism. The mere fact Scalzi is able to mix and match lightness with Holocaust, and do it so effectively, is testimony to his skills as an author.
Let’s appreciate Scalzi’s achievement further. I am a person of similar attitudes to Scalzi (undoubtedly this similarity greatly helped in me liking Agent to the Stars). As in, I have the tendency to take everything, no matter how bad/hard, with a smile/laugh on my face. Often at work environments, or in situations where I am assessed for my work abilities (to quote a real life scenario, my ability to deliver effectively while working in a team being examined at a job interview), this tendency of mine is quoted as an indicator for lack of seriousness. Yet as Scalzi clearly demonstrates in Agent to the Stars, sometimes the apparent lack of seriousness increases the impact of the truly serious: the majority Agent to the Stars’ readers who weren’t brought up in Israel and pumped up with Holacaust history studies at school will probably learn more about the Holocaust and its human aspects from Agent to the Stars than everything else they encountered in their lives before.
Another interesting aspect involving Agent to the Stars is to do with Scalzi’s general science fiction portfolio, of which Old Man’s War is probably the most famous and the best selling. I read the Old Man’s War book; I also read its two sequels (here & here). I liked them all, but I liked a less acknowledged book from John Scalzi much more: The God Engines, which I consider the best fantasy book I read in decades (alright, I haven’t read that many fantasy books, but it’s still an astonishingly good read). Then comes Agent to the Stars, another Scalzi book with not even half the halo of Old Man’s War, yet a book I so thoroughly enjoyed reading I found myself deliberately reading it slowly in order to make it last. It’s extremely rare nowadays for a book to make me feel this way; Old Man’s War certainly didn’t.
If you want me to my grips with Agent to the Stars I will gladly do so, but I will issue a petty alert first. For a start I found the book too American centric, but then again - Scalzi is American and so is his main target market. Besides, Hollywood is in America. The second problem is the book's lack of Twitter readiness: breaking news spread in the book through phone calls to radio stations, whereas that is firmly in Twitter land today. Sure, I know Scalzi wrote the book before Twitter was conceived, but he himself admits to updating it in order to keep it up with the times (an effort that is very evident throughout the book); I am therefore allowed to raise silly complaints even if I only do so because I love Twitter.
I’ll summarize things this way: with Agent to the Stars John Scalzi has firmly placed himself in that exclusive club of writers whose every book I will buy without a second thought. There are probably less than five people currently in that club, but Scalzi earned his place there fair and square.
I can't wait for Fuzzy Nation!
Overall: Scalzi can definitely write fiction. 5 out of 5 stars, and I’ll say it again: the best light reading I have had for many years.

Thursday, 7 April 2011


Lowdown: A collection of retired secret agent commandos find themselves in a tassel with someone up the food chain.
In contrast to my initial reaction to its title, Red is not a film about communists; it's just another case of stupid acronyms, this time "Retired Extremely Dangerous". As the acronym will lead you to believe, we are talking about yet another action film that's high on comedy, sort of a Lethal Weapon's "I'm too old for this shit" type thing.
We follow a Bruce Willis who is a retired secret agent with much fluency in commando skills, a fact we discover when a group of luckless commandos break into his house and try to kill him. Emphasis on try. Well, he never did get along well with civilian life, as his Christmas awareness (or lack of) testify; all he can do now is grab the [much younger] girl he chatted with a lot over the phone and really cares for before she's killed, too, and seek help from fellow geezers to try and find what the hell is going on. Together, this bunch of geezers - all of which retired commandos - fight it out to discover the one calling the shots against them is someone way up the American food chain, and their direct enemy, the one who hunting them down to kill them, is a young and very capable agent (Karl Urban of Lord of the Rings fame).
Things come down to this. Red is an ordinary action film that, for its own good, doesn't take itself too seriously. The extraordinary twist is with the cast: we have ourselves some heavy artillery acting talent here, including Morgan Freeman, Helen Mirren, John Malkovich, Ernest Borgnine, Brian Cox and Richard Dreyfuss. Hell, even Rebecca Pidgeon (a name that should be familiar to fans of audiophile recordings) plays here. In this plot about old people/stars making a comeback it can be argued that Red is similar to Sylvester Stallone's The Expendables, but clearly that is not the case - The Expendables fails miserably when it tries to take itself too seriously, whereas Red is sheer fun. If anything, I would say Red is very similar to Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys, both in themes and in plot structure.
Of course, it helps when Red does the action well. It's great to see Mirren with her heavy machine gun, and clearly Mirren has had fun in the process. It's also just as great to see the action properly instead of suffer from shaky camera nausea and the rest of the tricks commonly played by action directors who can't direct action.
Technical assessment: A decent Blu-ray in all respects that is helped quite a lot by a well recorded soundtrack reminding me a lot of Booker T & the MG's.
Overall: A worthy contender in the funny action film genre that is somewhat more than 3 out of 5 stars worth.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Irma la Douce

Lowdown: A guy in love with a prostitute will do anything to ensure she’s his alone.
Irma la Douce (1963) is another one of those Billy Wilder films that are widely considered as classics despite their light nature. The film belongs firmly to that special Wilder breed that includes members such as Some Like It Hot. Given that I am a Wilder fan I sought the opportunity to revisit Irma, and this past weekend I got it.
Set at a Parisian seedy market the story follows Irma (Shirley MacLaine), commonly known as Irma la Douce, a prostitute widely popular and acknowledged as the area's top of the pops. She lives in a positively corrupt environment, between vicious pimps that are busy gambling their women's money away and corrupt cops. Things change when a decent policeman arrives at the scene in the shape of Jack Lemmon. He sticks out so badly that he loses his job on his first day out, but Irma picks him up and shortly after they become a couple. Only that Lemmon cannot stand the thought of others sharing his Shirley/Irma with him, so he goes and does all sorts of crazy things to earn exclusive rights.
The similarities between the Some Like It Hot formula and Iram la Douce’s are fairly obvious. Both involve a young hot woman that’s worshipped for her looks, and both involve men putting on customs in order to secure the “services” of their respective women. Obviously, Billy Wilder realized he hit a soft spot with movie audiences, but to his credit his male leads are awfully good at their job; the females are not bad, either.
What else can I say about Irma la Douce? Well, at times it’s funny, at other times it’s ridiculous/stupid, but there can be no denying one thing – Jack Lemmon is an immensely talented actor. Oh, and Shirley MacLaine used to be a knockout.
Other than that there is not much to say about this film. It doesn’t feel like a film, really, if we’re being honest: it’s more like a play, with a limited number of sets and characters. Indeed, you may even argue production values are rather poor given that the story is supposed to be set in Paris but virtually no one looks even remotely French.
Technical assessment: For the record, we had this film on our recorder for more than a year since Channel 7 aired it in HDTV. I am making this comment for two reasons: first, to say that if this counts as HDTV quality then we’re all doomed. Second, the film’s credits sport a Panavision logo, which at the time implied a very wide presentation (probably around 2.35:1); the version aired by Channel 7 sported black bars on each side of the frame, not even filling our 16:9 screen. Channel 7, you suck!
Overall: Good light entertainment at 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Cancel Cable by Chris Fehily

Lowdown: A practical guide to Internet piracy through bit torrent.
The first thing that has to be said on behalf of Cancel Cable is to praise the idea of publishing a book that praises, advocates and tells you in great detail how to commit piracy via the Internet while asking you for your money so you could buy the book. For the record, I did not pirate the book (I wouldn't know how to do it in the first place prior to reading the book, would I?); I thought this one's is a cause worth pursuing and put my money's worth to get the Kindle version. For another record, do not blame author Fehily either: he's firmly advocating the piracy of his own book.
So what is the book about? It's an introduction to Internet piracy, setting the scene by telling you what's going on in that arena as far as legal and social aspects are concerned. Then it goes on to tell you how the Internet is used for piracy, and it moves on to provide detailed explanations - at the very practical/mechanical level - on how to commit your own Internet piracy.
The value of the book is obvious to anyone not bothering to put their head in the sand. Virtually everyone I know (with the exclusion of a few idealistic souls) is interested in committing Internet piracy, yet those of us less technology inclined are often scared of it as if the matter is so complex the process involves selling one's soul to the devil. I, on the other hand, hold the view that in many if not most cases you actually contribute to the betterment of society by committing Internet piracy, by virtue of your act working against the establishment to force them to change their business models to more user friendly ones. If they get their act together there is nothing preventing them from making more money than they currently do; instead they choose to close the door on society as it marches on.
The book does falter in several areas worth mentioning. For a start, most of it is not an intriguing read unless you're really excited by instructions such as "click here" and "click there". I find such instructions more suitable to an interactive web facility than a book, even if from time to time they include a point worth remembering.
My main grip with Cancel Cable is to do with the way it trivializes piracy. It does so first by not even considering that piracy may be unjust, not just illegal. The point is worth discussing in depth, which the book doesn't do: as much as I hate copyrights, I think that if copyrights were to be abandoned tomorrow then some of my favorite authors would have a hard time making a living for themselves. Sure, they should be able to find alternative way to make money through their talent, but as it is they are not ready; I am not sure I'm ready for the impact of them not writing anymore either. Besides, what is wrong with paying someone for their effort in the first place?
The second trivialization committed by Cancel Cable is with the way it dismisses the dangers of piracy. It settles the matter by stating the chances of ever being picked upon are low, so go ahead and do it. I disagree with this approach, and I'm sure the guy mentioned here would, too: first of all, there is considerable effort made in many countries to subdue piracy by making an example of a few pirates; none of us would like to be in that select group. Second, there are [probably] some easy ways to reduce the danger of being picked upon, ways that are absent from the book. Third, it is very easy to identify the IP address of those taking part in bit torrenting activities, and between that and having your name the distance may not be too far. And fourth, a book advocating piracy should care of its community and advise people on the up to date status of piracy in various countries. That last point is made very obvious when it is very clear the book is very much up to date on many other matters (no doubt an advantage for electronic/independent publishing).
Overall: Not the most interesting reading in the world but praise has to be said for it being there in the first place. Only 3 out of 5 stars, but if you're technology averse and want to enjoy the fruits of piracy you should find this book has great appeal.

Friday, 1 April 2011


Lowdown: A Jewish teenager from Budapest comes of age big time at a concentration camp.
Fateless was a rather unique experience for me: a Hungarian film is not a common occurrence these days; it’s pretty hard to bump into non English speaking films in Australia. In other ways it is common, in the sense that it tells the story of a person experiencing the Holocaust in the flesh. The premises and the story telling are not too different to The Pianist’s.
In this 2005 release we follow a Jewish teenager from Budapest, György. His story starts when the end of World War 2 is already in sight but the Nazis are yet to give up on their anti-Semitic agenda. The Jews of Budapest wear yellow stars and hatred from the rest of the population pours at them. Jews are still able to live a life resembling normal at first but that normality is quickly eroding: first György’s father has to hand his factory over to non Jewish hands (albeit caring ones); then the father is called to a work camp. By that time everyone knows what the Nazi definition of a work camp is.
Yet György’s life still goes on for a bit. That is, until he’s taken off a bus on his way to work, together with a bunch of his friends, and is forced on a long journey that eventually places him at a concentration camp. There our boy encounters unimaginable challenges that shape him up for better and worse.
First and foremost, Fateless is a human story. It boasts to be a true story, too, and if you would like to take it beyond the personal than this is the story of the classic Jewish psych, something along the lines of: as long as we’re here there will be those who will get a kick of tormenting us, so we might as well learn to live with it. Obviously my way of spelling this state of mind out is far from accurate but it is still this very state of mind - the world is doing its best to kill us - that leads Israel to be the country it is, a country always suspicious of the world it deems to seek its harm. The contradiction between Israel’s psych and the way it deals its own blows on its neighbors is not obvious to most Israelis.
Back to Fateless, the way the story is told is through a collection of powerful scenes. On the plus side some of these scenes really get to you, yet on the negative side the result feels disjointed: it does not feel like we’re watching the boy’s story but rather as if we’re catching some key glimpses of his life. There is a flow problem here.
Still, some of the scenes are incredibly touching. The policeman arresting the kids and gathering them towards the train that would take them to selection at Auschwitz: the almost unnoticeable look he gives György as he hints getting away might be a better option than sticking with his friends. The selection process itself, with people all around knowing what is taking place yet find themselves in a totally helpless position. The expression of peculiar curiosity displayed by the prisoners when one of them finds a genuine piece of meat in his soup. György coming back home to find a Budapest hostile to its former residents; indeed, I doubt Hungary remembers how a significant proportion of its population went up and disappeared.
All of the above are genuine gems, but they are also indicators to the film's style. As far as explicit scenes are concerned, Fateless is no Pianist; we see suffering but we do not witness explicit cruelty, just the banality of the evil. The scene where we fear the horror the most, when the camera goes inside the showers, turns out to be a replica of the scene from Schindler’s List.
Overall: A powerful experience but not the greatest film ever. 3 out of 5 stars.