Friday, 29 July 2011

R-Wards 5

It's that day of the year again when this blog looks back at the year that was and awards the coveted R-Ward to the best it has seen this past year. But before I go and do that, let me pause to commemorate a special occasion.
You see, today this blog is celebrating its fifth birthday. I therefore demand the right to pat myself on the back! In its five years the blog has achieved the following:
  • Quite a lot of reviews by any objective measure.
  • Helping me record the history of the films I’ve watched. As in, I no longer need to wonder whether I watched a certain film or not; I just google my own blog.
  • Mildly improved my writing skills.
  • Acquired me one proper friend and several acquaintances.
  • Significantly enhanced the amount of fun I am getting out of watching/reading stuff through forcing me to articulate my views.
  • Sleep deprivation by the ton.
Making it very clear that the costs of writing, as in the time invested, far outweigh its tangible benefits.
Enough about the blog; let’s have a look at the year that was and pick the best of its crop up.

A couple of years ago I reported a revolution on these pages, the revolution of high definition video and Blu-ray in particular. Both had an impact on my viewing, because they made watching films at home that much more attractive a proposition.
This year I am happy to report a much bigger revolution: the entrance of the ebook into my life. We can all be skeptical and claim there is no substitute for paper books etc, and I have been known to make that claim myself. However, from the minute I put my hands on my Amazon Kindle ebook reader, almost a year ago, I could see that this device was about to significantly change my reading habits. I won’t repeat how the Kindle changed my reading habits (you can read about it at great length here, here, here and of course here). What I will say is that I have been reading much more than I used to before acquiring my ebook reader, as can be noted by my much more prolific book reviewing escapades this year. That, I believe, is the biggest reference letter I can write in favor of the electronic book.
I will also add that the future of the paper based book looks bleak. We stopped buying them, other than exceptional specialties (e.g., books reach with graphics or children books). We’ve also stopped, effectively, reading the huge stocks of them that we have at home; it looks likely they will be condemned with the fate of my VHS and CD collections.
More importantly, I see no reason why my personal experience as an early adopter won’t be reflected in society et large during the very near future. The proliferation of tablets, in particular, is the signed death warrant on the door of the paper based book. The Federal Minister for Small Business has already predicted the demise of the conventional book shop within five years, to the great outrage of many. If you ask me, this affair only demonstrates how shooting the messenger is still a very popular sport.
Books are dying. Long live the ebook!

Best Film:
In contrast to the average year, where this bloggers’ favorite films happen to belong to the science fiction genre, this year had been almost empty of sci-fi. It started out looking as if this is going to be the year of the war film, first with Beaufort and then with The Hurt Locker. Then The Adjustment Bureau emerged as a candidate well worth crowning of the science fiction genre, almost pipping the post.
However, there was one film I enjoyed more than anything else this year. A simple film, a feel good film. Then again, given it was made by Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant, I should have seen through Cemetery Junction all along, shouldn't I?
It is very rare to watch a seemingly simple film combining the many elements required to make a film leave a lasting impression, but Cemetery Junction achieves that feat in a very entertaining manner.

Best Book:
Some would see it as a sign; I don’t care for such omens, but I cannot deny that the first book I ever got to read on my brand new ebook reader also happened to be one of the best books I ever read and one of the best things I have seen in fantasy literature in decades. John Scalzi acquired his general fame with the books he wrote prior to The God Engines, but as far as I am concerned it was The God Engines that cemented his status as one of my favorite authors, period. It was so good a book I simply knew there was no way I’d be lucky enough to read a better book this year.
Then again, The God Engines was almost sneaked at the post by another unlikely book. A rare example of quality science fiction humor, Agent to the Stars took me by total surprise as I read it from start to finish entertained from head to toe. Then again, what should I expect? It was written by one John Scalzi, who almost stole this year’s R-Ward for Best Book from himself. Almost.

Best on TV:
This year had been the year of the American sitcom for us, triggered by our discovery of the existence of a TV comedy series we can finally identify with: The Big Bang Theory. However good this sitcom is, and I think it is pretty good, it find it does not soar into Seinfeld heights the way other geek comedies do (I’m thinking about you, The IT Crowd). I also think that after four episode rich seasons the series has definitely overstayed its welcome. However, The Big Bang Theory did serve a purpose in making us open to the American sitcom concept, which has been largely forgotten by us in recent years (mainly due to our avoidance of commercial TV, coupled with the insistence of ABC to rely almost exclusively on British content).
Our openness to the American sitcom led to us getting exposed to Better Off Ted, which is definitely made of R-Ward deserving material. This comedy about corporate office life is not only funny and witty while offering some fine acting displays (most notably from Portia de Rossi); it does what all good comedies do, which is laugh at things that are extreme but also have more than a grain of truth in them. Given that I spend most of my non sleeping hours at work dealing with issues not dissimilar to Ted & Co, I greatly enjoyed Better Off Ted.
Which explains why the series has been discontinued after two relatively short seasons.

Best Video Game:
Alright, I will admit it. Call of Duty: Black Ops is not the best video game to be released this past year. However, Black Ops demonstrates very clearly how the good money that comes with a successful franchise, which triggers good production values, can combine with a good gaming concept to create a game that takes the first person shooter genre a small step forward. It doesn’t fail to entertain its players, either.
Sure, Black Ops’ main contributions are in new weapons and cut scene like missions having you do all sorts of nice things like fly an attack helicopter. My point, though, is that with the voice talents of Ed Harris and Sam Worthington at hand you can easily think Black Ops is the latest Hollywood blockbuster. Only that it isn’t; it’s better. It’s a very engulfing video game.

Tuesday, 26 July 2011

You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing by John Scalzi

Lowdown: A collection of articles conveying the insides of the writing lifestyle.
John Scalzi is a household name at mi casa, so much so that the household’s toddler “wrote” a song about him: John Scalzi on the Boat. He often pronounces it as Scalgi, but that is not the point; the point is that for the first time ever he borrowed someone’s name and used it in a sentence. That name could have only come from hearing me discuss a fine author’s work, which – I believe – says something of my regard for this fine author. Further on that point, you need to realize the only other full name our toddler has been known to use is that of Cars 2’s Finn McMissile.
The type of regard that makes me buy a book the minute I hear it’s out, as has been the case with You're Not Fooling Anyone When You Take Your Laptop to a Coffee Shop: Scalzi on Writing (a book I’ll politely refer to as Scalzi on Writing from now on). Scalzi on Writing is not your typical book: it’s a collection of posts from Scalzi’s popular blog, Whatever, that were written between 2001 and 2006. All these posts share a common theme – writing.
The book deals with several core issues, each at its separate section; each section is made up of similarly themed posts. Things start with discussions on the writing process itself, move on to discussing the life of a writer, and then stray to discuss various issues on the periphery. The trick, though, is not to expect a book that tells you how to write. This one is firmly on what life is like for a writer, both in terms of work and in terms of states of mind.
There are not that many straight writing tips in the book; what there is could be summed up into one word: practice. However, where the book excels is in conveying what living like a writer, as seen through the eyes of one uprising science fiction author. Scalzi is not afraid to share some intimate information with us, including his income figures and their different sources. More interesting, at least in my book, is Scalzi sharing the finer details of how he grew to become the writer that he is. Scalzi doesn’t settle with telling us what happened, he also tells us what he felt inside as things happened.
That last point makes a whole lot of difference with me; it touches on a soft nerve. You see, it didn’t take me much time since I’ve started regularly blogging, back in 2005, to realize I really enjoy it. It took me much longer to realize that in an ideal world, this is what I would like to do for a living. As in, hey, why shouldn’t I be allowed to make money out of doing one of the things I like to do the most, the thing I keep on doing despite years of sleep deprivation? Obviously, I’m passionate enough about writing to give it a shot.
Having read Scalzi on Writing I fully intend to give writing (as opposed to blogging) a shot. As per Scalzi’s advice, I already ordered my copy of the most recent Australian Writers Marketplace. That book contains a repository of Australian publishers from all shapes and sizes as well as information on how to submit them your material. Currently
I’m browsing and looking for ideas on how to approach the task, but I also intend to do the same with the American version (the 2012 Writer’s Market will be published in September).
There are catches, though. First, and most obvious, is the fact that my writing is not half as good as Scalzi’s. Some of it is the result of my limited English vocabulary, other the short amount of time I dedicate to editing my posts, and even more is to do with inefficient composition skills. According to Scalzi all those can be addressed through further practice, potentially aided by the feedback received from my attempts at publishing.
There is, however, a much bigger catch that places my personal writing career in that fantasy realm over the rainbow. That catch is to do with having a day job: it may bring me all my income but it also occupies most of my resources, so much so that straying into foreign fields is bound to include sacrifices I am probably unwilling to make.
Scalzi describes how the perception of his ideal reviewer’s job at a newspaper was suddenly shattered when his editors took him in to tell him they are turning him into a news reporter. At this particular moment of typing this review I am at a similar crisis, having been assigned with a work task that seems way too boring for me to accept without turning my time at the office into an agonizing hell. Scalzi solved his crisis by utilizing writing connections he had already established to upgrade his position as a writer and land himself an even better writing job; the problem is that I do not enjoy the privilege of having such potential opportunities waiting for me. There will always be that hurdle that needs jumping over as I make my way to become a writer, or for that matter most other big dreams I may have. The reality is that without hard work and a lot of luck these hurdles are pretty hard to jump over and are even more scarier to approach in the first place. Scalzi did his hard work and I take my hat off for him; I take another hat off for sharing this experience with me in this book of his, because as writing lessons are concerned this is the best lesson anyone could have given me.
Am I jealous? Sure, but so what? I’m happy for Scalzi and I am now in a much better position to face the challenges ahead of me. Knowing what’s ahead removes a lot of the uncertainty and anxiety, and through his candour Scalzi’s contribution there is significant. So much so that in more than one respect you can regard Scalzi on Writing as a self help book; compared to the famous Who Moved My Cheese, which Scalzi mocks in his book and which I have been mocking for years as well, Scalzi on Writing is actually a source of genuine, applicable advice. It has the potential to make your world a better place. It will take a lot of hard work, though.
It is at the latter stages of the book, where it diverges and touches on the here and there, that Scalzi of Writing sags a bit in the mire of direction lacking. Still, as with the rest of the book, the writing is always funny and interesting.
One area in that latter part of the book that touched a soft nerve was the discussion on the status of contemporary science fiction writing. As someone who grew up on the likes of Asimov and then generally abandoned science fiction for a decade, I am known to be lamenting at the current state of science fiction things (see here for one example). Scalzi addresses the same issue, suggesting there are two sub genres in science fiction: the first is old style Heinlein like, the type I grew up on, which also happens to be the more approachable type; he classifies his own Old Man’s War there. The second is the cutting edge science fiction coming from the likes of Charles Stross. I have been known to have a problem with the latter sub-genre, and I am happy for Scalzi to have pointed this division out for me. Now I know why my attempt at refereeing this year’s Hugo awards has been less than enjoyable!
The point remains the same, though: science fiction has an approachability problem. In my opinion, it needs more writers like Scalzi to get back into mainstream public domain. Scalzi laments the fact that since Asimov the world of science fiction lacks a face familiar to the general public. Well, grow your sideburns, John, because you’re probably one of the better candidates to achieve that target. You're not only a writer of fine and humor filled plots and blog posts, you're a writer with whom I can identify and a writer who happens to think like me more often than not. As an example, both Scalzi and I agree that sex with 18 year olds is not as attractive a proposition as most people would make it out to be. Read Scalzi on Writing if you want to know why.
3.5 out of 5 stars.
What, I hear you say? Only 3.5 stars? Yes, I answer. After all, Scalzi on Writing is not the world’s greatest piece of literature; it a collection of posts from Scalzi’s blog.
Regardless of the score this particular book receives, the book did further fortify Scalzi’s position as the person who is probably my favorite author at this moment in time. To him I am just one of many fans, but to me he is a special person that became more a part of my life than many others physically closer people are. Here is an author whose books I read slowly so they never finish; a writer whose books I read to cure the pain following a particularly tedious read; or a writer whose books I defer reading special occasions despite the fact they're already waiting on my Kindle (here’s to you, Fuzzy Nation). You can’t do these things with an author you don’t fully trust; me doing this with Scalzi therefore says more than any score can.
P.S. I allow myself to refer to Scalzi in first person because he claims to ego surf. That is, there is a certain likelihood he might read this post.

Monday, 25 July 2011

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps

Lowdown: The GFC exposes farther immorality at Big Money.
If you thought director Oliver Stone was a man with a mission back in 1987, when he did the first Wall Street, you better wait till you watch 2010’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. There you will see what a man with a lot of money on his hands and a reputation that allows him to get away with anything can do when he is on a mission.
Money Never Sleeps takes place in 2008, just as the GFC starts to unfold. Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), the first Wall Street’s villain, is out of jail and embarking on a book authorship career through a book warning society of the perils of speculation and putting too many eggs in hedge funds. You know, the stuff that brought us the GFC. In parallel we meet Jake (Shia LaBeouf doing the first film Charlie Sheen role’s equivalent), a young and promising Wall Street insider with ideals on his side: his passion is for this fusion energy research company that could rid us of our addiction to fossil fuels. His passion is also for Winnie (Carey Mulligan), who happens to be Gekko’s estranged daughter.
Take this “love triangle”, stir in a powerful banker in whose dictionary the word ethics does not exist (Josh Brolin), and shake it all the tune of the unfolding GFC, and you get the drift of Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps. That is, you will witness a film where the interaction between characters unfolds in a rather unconvincing manner. A film where characters are introduced in all sorts of weird ways, like Jake’s apartment being more like an office with diagrams and wind turbine models to tell us what he’s like (why would an investor have a wind turbine model at home?). What I am trying to say here is that Oliver Stone, the man with the mission to tell us just how bad extreme capitalism can be, just tries too hard.
Trying too hard leads Money Never Sleeps into the realm of films that are way too long, progress too much to the tune of events outside the viewer’s realm of awareness, and contains hero characters who – at the end of the film – are just as much of a riddle as they were at the start. The use of the occasional uncharacteristically fast pan of the camera or the sudden zoom attracts too much attention to the director himself (Stone does have a cameo or two in there, too). Even the soundtrack by David Byrne and Brian Eno is eccentric, although in a positive way; I suspect this is a soundtrack that will stand the test of time.
But you know what? I still enjoyed Money Never Sleeps, even if it was a bit boring and even if too much of it was carbon copying from the first film. I enjoyed the whole thing for a couple of reasons: Michael Douglas is an excellent actor (and I wish him all the best in his dealings with cancer); and besides, I totally agree with the core message that Stone is trying so hard to push. I am no fan of capitalism, and like Stone I despise its extreme manifestations. That aside, I can't say I can detect anything being done to prevent the next GFC from taking place.
Interesting scene: With all the scandals he’s been through, it was funny to see Charlie Sheen’s cameo.
Interesting haircut: Gekko and his switch of a hairdo to Wall Street style, featuring pulled back hair and a lot of jelly.
Worst scene: The motorcycle racing scene between Jake and the baddie banker was one of the silliest things in film ever. What did that have to do with anything?
Best scene: I enjoyed the aerial tour of downtown Manhattan at the film’s opening credits scene. It truly demonstrated just how much power lies in this area. A comparison with the Melbourne CBD views from my own office window reveals just how much power is concentrated in that relatively small area of New York.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is quite horrible, with inconsistent colors and poor detail in too many scenes. I suspect Stone was trying to make an artistic statement, but I would say he failed. That said, the sound is not bad and the supplementals are pretty good at explaining where the director came from - much better than the film itself, actually.
Overall: Tries too hard, but at least it does so with intentions. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Animal Kingdom

Lowdown: An innocent Melbourne teen suffers for being a member of a criminal family.
The question of how much seeing a depiction of one's home town on the cinema screen affects one's appreciation of a film did pop into my mind as I viewed and then reviewed Animal Kingdom. As objective as I can be, a film taking place on the same streets I live my life at is automatically much more effective than a film taking place at some arbitrary American city I’m unlikely to ever visit.
Watching Animal Kingdom’s Melboune may lead you to regard the city as a high crime location. We follow a teen, Joshua or J (James Frecheville) whose mother dies of an overdose just as the film starts. J goes to live with his grandmother and some of his uncles. That environment is not a healthy one to grow up in, with the uncles being criminals of various magnitudes, some time bordering on mental illness. Overlooking them all is the grandmother, who is not a criminal herself but certainly seems to enjoy the outputs of her children’s work.
The plot has us following the collision course between our gang of criminals and the police (represented, amongst others, by Guy Pearce). Through the eyes of J we witness the demise of the criminals, the corruption on the police’s side, and the effect this charade has on innocent bystanders like J and his girlfriend. There are thrills, there is some action, and there is a good human centric story at the core.
I did have a couple of reservations about Animal Kingdom, though. The first is to do with some inconsistencies: at the beginning of the film, the most wanted of the uncles – Pope – is so wanted the police is running twenty four hours stakeouts on grandmother’s house. Then, all of a sudden and in an unexplained manner, Pope is back home, the police don’t mind it, and things are as if Pope was never wanted by anyone. Strange.
My second gripe is to do with authenticity. Animal Kingdom has our criminals kill two policemen in a cold blooded shooting. However, throughout my time in Melbourne I don’t recall a single policeman killed, especially in such an evil manner (this manner that probably gives the film its name is one you won't forget once it hit the news). I realize Animal Kingdom is a work of fiction, but it doesn’t fit the scene in which it is set. Yes, Australians have a love affair with criminals – check out the emotions that one Ned Kelly stirs and the way he is regarded as a hero. The reality, though, is that Australia is generally lacking the shoot to kill life of crime attitude that we got used to seeing on American material.
Best scene: One of the uncles, a guy that would not hesitate to use his gun in anger, gives J a lesson in hand washing following a visit to the toilet after which the latter does a quick and dirty botch job.
Technical assessment: An average DVD in both picture and sound. I should have rented the Blu-ray instead, because this one is not a bad one at all.
Overall: A good films with a couple of issues that stands somewhere along the 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5 continuum.

Friday, 15 July 2011

The Messenger

Lowdown: A wounded American soldier back from Iraq has to deal with the new task of telling families their loved ones died in service.
A good friend of mine from the Israeli army was offered the task of letting families know of army casualties at his city of residence. This was to be his sole army reserve duty; he will not be called to do anything else for the army, ever. He turned the offer down, declaring himself unfit for the task.
The Messenger looks at a similar scenario in which the soldier does not have a choice but to accept the assignment. Will (Ben Foster) is an American soldier back on home soil following serious battle wounds in Iraq. His life is like his body: he spends his nights agonizing his neighbors with loud music, and for sex he does the old girlfriend who is with another man since he left for Iraq. With only three months left on his enlistment, Will is given a new assignment: support Captain Tony (Woody Harrelson) in his work of initiating first contact with the families of deceased soldiers in order to be the first to break the bad news to them.
The core of The Messenger takes place during the breaking of the bad news and in between. As can be expected, there is never a good time to break news of such grave nature to anyone, which paves the way for some excellent performances by everyone involved (most notably Steve Buscemi as an angry father). These scenes really tore this viewer’s heart, making me contemplate how hard accepting such news would be if I were to be on their receiving end. I was also paying tribute to humanity in general: after all, up till a hundred or so years ago, death really lurked behind every corner. Children commonly died at a young age and most adults did not see past forty. There was a time, not too long ago, when the grief portrayed in The Messenger was a regular part of life rather than the exception.
Anyway, I’m straying. The other half of the film deals with the way our own messengers deal with their line of work. At first, Will follows Tony’s instructions on avoiding personal contact. His inherent humanity prevails against his captain's inhumanity, perhaps aided by some good old sexual attraction as Will gets closer to a war widow (Samantha Morton). While in this half, we are violently exposed to the dark side of our duo in a manner that often actively references Apocalypse Now. Obviously, this part of the film tells us a lot about human nature; I couldn’t help feeling this part sags compared to those tearful scenes of messengering that surround it.
Best scene: Pick any of the bad news breaking scenes. They’re all great emotional drainers.
Technical assessment: The picture on this Blu-ray is quite mediocre, looking as washed out as the characters are. The sound is nothing special but is suitable to the task at hand.
Overall: I felt like The Messenger was a tale of two halves. Some moments were great cinema, others were ordinary; I’ll go middle of the road here and give The Messenger 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Blackout by Connie Willis

Lowdown: Time travelling historians find themse lves stuck in the London Blitz.
There are certain things we take for granted when we pick a book up for reading. For example, we expect it to have an ending. The weight of expectations is even higher when the book at hand is an award winner, as is the case with Blackout – the winner of this year’s Nebula award for best science fiction book. Alas, for a book I read from start to finish, a book no one has forced me to read, Blackout failed my expectations in an unprecedented manner.
The premises are promising. In the year 2060 time travel is not only possible, it is used extensively for the studying of history. Historians are sent to the past in order to experience firsthand what key moments and key experiences in time were like (Blackout does not delve into what those historians do with the experiences they collect). Our story focuses on three such historians going back to World War 2 England: one to experience evacuations, one to experience the bombing of London, and one to experience Dunkirk. Things go wrong for them, and for some reason or another, some of which are clear and some of which aren’t, our historians find themselves stuck. The result is that they get to experience more than they bargained for while we have ourselves a thrilling read.
The best thing I can say about Blackout is that it appears to be thoroughly researched. Connie Willis obviously did her historical research and did it well. I would go forth and state that as far as I am concerned, Blackout conveys the feeling of World War 2 England better than anything else I had before; schools should use it, given its mix of education and entertainment.
The above paragraph was probably the last good thing about Blackout you’re going to read here. Let the rants parade commence…
First and foremost, Blackout is long. Tediously long, and for no good reason as far as I can tell. Sure, it is never boring; neither does it offer good enough reasons for stretching over so many pages, though. Blackout is probably the longest book I have read this year.
Eventually, when you get to its ending, you will discover yet another shocking truth: Blackout has no ending. It is not an independent book by itself, but rather the first part of a story that continues in a sequel called All Clear. Now, we’ve all read prequels and sequels before; what makes Blackout unique, as in uniquely bad, is the fact that the cut off point is right in the middle. The book has absolutely no standing by its own right, depending totally on its sequel. What, then, was the point in cutting it in two? The only reasons I can think of are commercially related: avoiding the reader intimidation that comes when faced with a 1600 page long book, instead dividing the toll; making more money out of selling one for the price of two; and the technicalities of being unable to bind a book that thick without it falling apart. Still, the bottom line remains: in my book, a book has to have an ending; a book that doesn’t cannot call itself a worthy book.
Don’t think for a second that my gripes with Blackout are only to do with my definition of what books should be like. I also have issues specific to contents.
First, I have found the lack of any worthwhile discussion on time travelling mechanics to be fatal. I happily accept that historians use time travel for work in a science fiction book; but what about everyone else? If historians can go back to witness World War 2, what is preventing lunatic Nazi supporters from doing the same in order to change the war’s outcome? What about terrorism?
It almost goes without saying – how can academics go back in time without expecting any changes to its flows? Perhaps not the final outcome of World War 2, but definitely changes to the survival of one person here and another there, persons whose descendants would number in the thousands a century later?
Beyond the mere technicalities of it, there is the obvious lack of cultural baggage that the people of the future bring with them to the middle of the 20th century. Surely they would note that people are shorter, that certain foods are absent, that things smell different, that women are not treated as equals... None of this is there, though. With all due respect to the people of England, as a reader I am just as interested in the people of the future; the absence of background for them renders Blackout an interesting history book, but nothing like what I would label as quality science fiction literature.
As if to fill in this gaping hole in the background of the future, Willis stuffs us with plenty of over enthusiastic descriptions of England and and the heroism exhibited by its population. Not that I can deny the heroism, but the way it's poured on us makes it feel contrived. It feels exactly the way you would expect someone who hasn't been there and done that to tell the tale; it feels artificial and very "American" in the sense that the style is what you'd expect of a cheap Hollywood flick.
The notion of being short changed for the cheap option dominates the book. Thrills, for example, are mostly achieved by cutting the story of one hero in the middle of something exciting in order to switch to the tales of the other heroes, only to return to the original a few chapters later. Willis did not invent this technique, and in many respects it delivers - I was thrilled. However, one cannot escape the stench of artificiality, especially when the plot skips between historians who are at totally different times. I can understand cutting from one story to the other when the stories affect one another, but what is the point of cutting from Dunkirk to VE Day other than hold the reader hostage?
Quality takes further dives with the climaxes Willis leaves us at. One chapter has us leaving the heroine just as she's jumping into shelter with bombs falling over her head; when we return to her story line a few chapters later we learn no bombs fell at her area that night. Another hero, lying in his hospital bed, has his chapter ending with shouts concerning German tanks rolling down the street; upon returning to his story we learn it was just the shouting of a fellow inmate under hallucination. And so on and so on; the conclusion is imminent, though: Blackout cannot be counted as quality literature.
Of all books, Blackout reminded me of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Undeniably thrilling, Da Vinci is nothing but cheap sensationalism and cheap thrills. Blackout is better given its reliance on well researched history, but it is cheap entertainment just the same. Pity it is so tedious at the same time.
Perhaps my opinion would change after reading All Clear, but I cannot think highly of a book that does not qualify for my definition of what a book should be like. At this point in time I can only grant Blackout 1 out of 5 stars.
I will probably take the time to read All Clear, though. Having invested so much time in Blackout I feel like I have to see how Connie Willis is going to get herself out of this mess, Nebula or not. Alternatively, I should remind myself of the concept known as "sunk cost".

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Tamara Drewe

Lowdown: A peaceful English village turns chaotic upon the return of a now sexy female.
It was a hard day's night and we were seeking a peaceful and easy film to relax with. A quiet drama with some comedy elements that won't insult our intelligence. We were seeking a quiet British film. We were seeking Tamara Drewe, or so we thought.
Taking place at a quiet English village, Tamara Drewe pivots around a resort of writers seeking peace, quiet and disconnection from the rest of the world to stimulate their muse. There they are catered for by a D list womanizing writer, his loyal wife on whom the whole operation seems to depend, and a young muscly assistant. Into this peaceful yet twisted setting returns Tamara Drewe (Gemma Arterton, recently seen in Prince of Persia): a former resident who everyone knew as the young ugly duckling, due to her huge nose, is back from London. Without her nose, left at the plastic surgeon, and with a promising career as a writer this sexy woman turns heads wherever she goes. Suddenly, every man in the area is interested in Tamara; celebrities not from the area (represented by Dominic Cooper) are also in the running. Events, however, seem to be dictated by the whim of two bored teenage girls rather than any of the adults. Chaos ensues.
You sort of know what to expect from a film such as Tamara Drewe: A Jane Austen like drama, dry British humor and sex-appeal. You get it, but things don't work as well as they should for such a simple formula that on paper should have resulted in easily delivered viewer's satisfaction. I felt as though the film lacks a sense of direction, with Tamara straying from one option to another. Mostly, I felt like this hour and three quarters long film should have been at least half an hour shorter, because what we have on our hands here is a generally boring film.
Best scene: Tamara causes some severe palpitations with the local population as she shows herself to the whole village for the first time wearing some very short pants and maneuvering herself like a model on the catwalk. More than the scene itself, I liked the supplementary showing how this scene was shot: a seemingly simple walk across a grassy path takes a lot of effort to shoot!
Technical assessment: A nice Blu-ray all around. The sound was far from knocking me off my sofa, but its easy transparent nature does suit the quiet village atmosphere.
Overall: If you thought this Austen like formula could never go wrong then here's an example where the film runs on the wrong gear. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Cars 2

Lowdown: James Bond meets Hitchcock at Pixar's Cars universe.
The original Cars was not Pixar’s greatest effort but it did prove a landmark movie at our household. Not only was it the first Blu-ray title we ever bought, for the benefit of our in house toddler, it was also the toddler’s first film to be watched from start to finish. That is not an achievement to trifle with: it means Cars is exciting enough to sit through in its entirety, but it also means it's not too scary to make our sensitive toddler want to quit while ahead. You could argue it is currently the most successful film at our household and that's without us even putting the fact cars are pretty attractive to the male toddler on the table.
Cars 2 is off to a good start, too. Given the success Cars has had with our toddler, we reckoned Cars 2 would be a worthy candidate for him to start his movie going career with. Let the pages of history say that Cars 2 (in 2D) was the first ever film seen by our toddler at a proper cinema. Also let those same pages say that Cars 2 represented the first time us parents have been to the cinema since our January 2010’s Avatar adventure. In many respects you can say that the visit to the cinema has been more central to our Cars 2 experience than the film itself; thus far it also looks like this review supports this notion.
Yet Cars 2 by itself is a worthy, highly entertaining movie. It’s set in the same world as before, a world populated mostly by cars and devoid of organic organisms such as us humans. At this point I shall refer you to John Scalzi’s brilliantly entertaining analysis of the Cars world here, an analysis in which Scalzi attempts to explain how a world such as this could have evolved.
In this weird mechanical world we meet the same characters from the previous film, namely Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater the dumb but sweet tow truck. In contrast to episode 1, it is Mater who takes center stage in Cars 2: while a world wide car racing competition takes place in order to prove the merits of a new environmentally friendly fuel, thus supplying McQueen some racing action, Mater stumbles upon an evil conspiracy. Aided (or pushed) by the MI6 like secret agent car, Finn McMissile (Michael Caine doing the coolest car ever) and his sexy Moneypenny like assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer), Mater finds himself to be the classic Hitchcock hero that slowly realizes he's in some big time trouble.
McQueen provides racing action, McMissile provides James Bond like action, and Mater provides a Hitchcockian flair. The same as well as other characters supply ample comedy (most notably the John Turturro voiced Italian Formula 1 car). Mix it all together with lovely computer graphics, some good jokes and a gripping plot and the result is a film this adult found highly entertaining. My toddler agreed with me, although I suspect the more philosophical aspects of the discussions on friendship and the environment went way over his head.
Who cares if Cars 2 is not the deepest film in the world when it is great all-around fun for the whole family?
Best scene: Finn McMissile pulling exotic car water tricks straight from the pages of The Spy Who Loved Me, one of my favorite Bond films. That’s just one of many winks towards film classics featured in Cars 2.
Technical assessment:
Coming into the cinema straight from my home theater setup, I was appalled with the presentation. At least in the first half hour the picture was mildly out of focus; throughout the film, though, the sound system was playing way louder than it was meant to play, resulting in very harsh sound that was quite uncomfortable on the ears. Sure, the cinema has its appeal – in going out of the house and socializing – but the home theater experience beats the crap out of it when it comes to quality.
That same day we rented a Blu-ray just so we could enjoy that delicate sound that comes with an uncompressed Blu-ray soundtrack played through a decent system.
Overall: Pixar has done it again. 4 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 11 July 2011

The Adjustment Bureau

Lowdown: Two passionate lovers fight a group of mysterious men in hats that work to separate them.
It has been a while since I have last seen me a good, high quality science fiction film. Last year we had several (District 9, Avatar & Moon); this year, up to this last weekend, none.
That long established desperation that built itself up over the year let go immediately as my PS3 started playing The Adjustment Bureau’s Blu-ray. Clearly, this was something special: this was the end of that long drought.
Based on yet another Phillip K. Dick story (which I either didn’t read or don’t remember), The Adjustment Bureau has us following a young but promising New York politician coming from a rough neighborhood background, David Norris (Matt Damon). We join David as he is about to lose an election which he was leading promisingly up to a point where a shameful photo of his was published by the media.
Securing himself in the men’s toilet to work on his defeat speech, he stumbles upon the hiding Elise (Emily Blunt). The circumstances work, something clicks between the two, and David goes on to make the speech of a lifetime that sets the stage up for his political comeback.
Shortly after that, David randomly bumps into Elise while taking the bus. They continue from where they left before, and this time he also gets her number. Quickly after that David learns, through a chain of mysterious events, that there are a bunch of people wearing suits and hats whose job it is to ensure he never gets together with Elise. Can the spark between the man and the woman be enough to overcome these mysterious people? Who are they in the first place, and what is it that they want?
What follows is a thrilling science fiction drama where our heroes, as attracted as they are to one another, have to climb up insurmountable obstacles in order to be together. In the process of the thrill we get to have an interesting discussion on matters of free will vs. fatalism.
There are several reasons for why I consider The Adjustment Bureau to be a top notch film. First is the acting: Damon may be a bit too muscly for the role, but the chemistry between Blunt and him is undeniable. It is Blunt whom I would label as the one who makes the film work, because through her acting I got to truly feel the pain of the constantly and forcibly separated lovers. I wholeheartedly identified with the sacrifices the heroes had to make; after all, in my personal life I have the privilege of partnering a woman who came from the opposite side of the world just to be with me, so I can detect dedication to love when I see it.
By the way, Terence Stamp as a particularly cool under fire baddie agent, not too dissimilar to the famous Agent Smith, doesn’t do a bad acting job either. Looks like the role of the ubiquitous gray clothed government agent is best fulfilled by the folk of the Southern Pacific.
The way The Adjustment Bureau delivers its story is the second good thing that works in its favor. The presentation is very polished, with terrific cinematography by John Toll, surely one of the best in the business. There is more to the presentation than the cinematography, though: although this is clearly a science fiction film, there are no special effects shots to talk about. Instead, the film relies on plenty of location shooting, including many New York landmarks that must have been hard to secure (Yankee Stadium, Museum of Modern Arts, and of course – The Statue of Liberty). We also have plenty of cameos from media celebrities and politicians playing themselves.
Surely, special effects are everywhere in various forms, including CGI; but these are not in your face, and even when fantastic things happen they take place in ordinary fashion. That fashion might not attract blockbuster status at the cinemas, but they make the film feel that much more realistic: it makes The Adjustment Bureau a film about ordinary people going through a struggle rather than a film about some weird fantasy. It puts the philosophy at the center of the viewer’s attention rather than the effects.
The philosophy itself is discussed only at the pop level. I find that a bit sad, although understandable: The Adjustment Bureau is an action film, not a documentary. I will still complain, though, on how the concept of “the illusion of free will” is put on board but left undiscussed. It appears society is still not ready to discuss a matter that could put our whole justice system under the question mark and challenge the social mechanisms we all take for granted.
The story, the acting and the presentation combine to bring us something special. The Adjustment Bureau demonstrates what science fiction at its best can be: a film utilizing fantastic elements in a way that does not attract too much attention to these elements with the purpose of making a fine point about us, living in this present real life world.
Best scene: David leaves Elise behind, injured at a hospital, believing he is acting at her best interest. The acting and the way the scene is set up worked to tear my heart up; at the personal level it reminded me of each time I left family members or friends at the hospital so I could get on with my mundane life.
Technical assessment: A fine but not a stellar presentation from this Blu-ray. I do have to say that having not watched a Blu-ray for a few weeks, I was once again surprised – in the most pleasant of ways – to recall just how nice and soft on the ear Blu-ray quality soundtracks are.
Overall: It is a true pleasure to see a film so well made. 5 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Lowdown: Innovative 3D platforming with the Mario characters for the Wii.
Less than a week ago I was lamenting how bad the Nintendo Wii's presentation is compared to my good old PS3. This week I rented Super Mario Galaxy 2 for the Wii, and immediately my concerns for the Wii's presentation vanished into thin air. It's all for a very simple reason: Super Mario Galaxy 2 is such a good game that I simply didn't care whether it would have looked better in high definition.
The game is a redo of that good old platforming action gaming that Super Mario always was, but with a twist: it's in 3D. You play with the Wii remote in one hand and the nunchuk on the other, stirring your character around through some wonderful and incredibly well designed scenarios. These scenarios are not only numerous, they are also very innovative and original, each coming with its own twist: on one you may find yourself on a round "planet", having to dig holes to get to the planet's other side; on another you will find yourself jumping from one platform to another where you have to jump into thin air and conjure your landing spot as you fly. Your controllers will be used in various ingenious ways, from star collectors to aiming a dinosaur's tongue. The mix of originality and wisdom on display with the game design here can only mean one thing: Super Mario Galaxy is terribly addictive.
The transition from 2D to 3D platforming can be a bit of a challenge. Often, as with Worms 3D, the game loses too much appeal when it gains that extra dimension. Not so with Super Mario: yes, there are some orientation issues here and there; but the game does lend a hand to the user. Shadows help you figure out just what is on top of what, and a good fairy will come to your aid if you're having too much trouble.
A second player can join hands to as a guardian star to the main character, helping in collecting treasures and fighting enemies. The limited functionality on offer for player 2, coupled with the relative simplicity of the tasks they are in charge of, render player 2 duties ideal for young children whose skills leave them unable to master player 1 duties (or, for that matter, for a player in need of a rest). What a wonderful way for Nintendo to improve its game's family appeal!
Super Mario Galaxy 2 left me wondering why Sony (or, for what it's worth, Microsoft) have been unable to come up with the goods that would demolish Nintendo out of the market. After all, they have the technical superiority, so what is stopping them from coming up with similar games that will beat Nintendo in its own game (pun intended)?
The answer seems to be that both Sony and Microsoft are unable to come up with the goods that Nintendo is able to deliver regularly. Sony's best answer is probably Little Big Planet, which is a good game; but Super Mario Galaxy 2 eats it for breakfast when it comes to the variety of challenges and ability to keep the player coming back for more. Sony's technological advantage, manifesting itself through superior presentation and user designed platforms available on its Internet network, is there for all to see; but it doesn't work half as well where it counts the most, the heart of the game.
Overall: Game design at its best, providing sheer entertainment for everyone at 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Black Rain

Lowdown: A struggling New York cop is in for a real struggle against Japanese criminals in their homeland.
There are lots of reasons with which I can explain the special place 1989’s Black Rain has with me. For a start, it’s a Ridley Scott film with a lot of stylistic similarities to Blade Runner: although set in modern times, it still takes us to foreign lands (Japan) and it is still very visibly stimulating in similar manners. Then there’s the fact Black Rain, a film containing lots of motorcycle action scenes, landed at the peek of my motorcycle fandom era. Special attributes aside, Black Rain is a hard knuckle action film made at the pre-digital era and very well shot, which implies at its brute force nature; you don’t see many films like that anymore in this digital era of blurry action.
Despite the special affection I have towards Black Rain I never owned it in my personal film collection. That came down to its laserdisc carrying distinct reputation for being of inferior quality. In effect, this meant I haven’t watched Black Rain for many years – at least 15 – and aside of its original cinematic presentation I never got to watch it at a high quality presentation. Channel 10’s One HD sought to remedy the situation, broadcasting it a week ago, but it was clear the source was of poor technical quality for a film such as this.
Black Rain has us following Nick (Michael Douglas), a New York police detective in love with his job yet struggling. Divorced, he’s having a hard time paying up for his kids, while at work he’s under internal investigation for taking money he shouldn’t have. The result is an extravert person who will not shy at taking significant risks to get his way, as Black Rain clearly demonstrates through its character introducing action scenes.
Nick and his partner Charlie (Andy Garcia) find themselves in luck one day when the pub they visit is occupied with Mafia guys and some Japanese characters. Another Japanese guy bursts into the scene and kills a guy, setting our policemen after him. They catch him, but that is not the end of their story: they have to take him back to Japan where he’s wanted for a lot of nasty stuff.
Thus we fly to Osaka, where the greeting party for our cops turns out to be more than meets the eye and our criminal escapes. Between trouble at home and the shock to his professional reputation, Nick & Co decide to stay in Japan and help the locals. They are only visitors, though, and they’re not allowed to take control of things; but how long can that last?
I used to remember Black Rain fondly for its bare knuckles action scenes, and these are very much as effective as they were twenty years ago. A rare case given how digital effects manage to make all pre digital special effects look pathetically obsolete, probably the result of not relying much on special effects in the first place but rather on lots of stunt work and good old cinematography. No blurry images or shaky cameras here.
One area where the film is very obviously showing its old age is the music. The ongoing eighties pop soundtrack is way out of touch with the macho action. The contrast with Blade Runner, which enjoys a timeless musical soundtrack from Vangelis, cannot be more obvious.
There is, however, much more to Black Rain than motorcycle emptiness under the neon loneliness of eighties’ Japan. Beyond the story at the front of the film there is the story about the struggle between a society anxious to impose its rules, even at the price of numbing good sense out of its citizens, versus the struggle of the individual to maintain their individuality and make their own minds by themselves. In Black Rain that struggle is first put on record by the contrasting of Nick with his police authorities, but later made even more obvious by the contrast between Nick the loud American and the obedient Japanese around him. Nick the rider of a Harley in a land of Suzukis. There are many ways in which this struggle is relevant to each and every one of us, starting off from the current accusations of Victoria being a nanny state.
Favorite scene: I forgot how many of Black Rain’s catch phrases I have been using over the years. My favorite comes from a scene where a Yakuza boss explains to our Nick why his favorite pastime if forging American Dollars. The explanation lends the film its title but also allows the guy to explain his notes are “p-e-r-f-e-c-t” in a heavy Japanese accent I used to often quote.
Overall: As far as I am concerned, Black Rain is a very successful sequel to Blade Runner. I like it a lot, and I mourn the fact contemporary bare knuckle action films are either too commercialized or too silly. I thus give Black Rain 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

The Myth

Lowdown: Jackie Chan does an Indiana Jones.
Raiders of the Lost Ark and its immediate sequel, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, are both films that shook the very foundations of the world of cinema. Copycats did not wait long before starting to pop out: in 1985 we’ve had King Solomon’s Mines starring Richard Chamberlain and a then unfamiliar Sharon Stone, 1989 brought us Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and 2008 had us with Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Common to all these later sequels is their mediocrity and overall crappy nature. The Myth, a 2005 production from Hong Kong, happily joins this tradition of crap remakes based on the original theme. It does have one ace up its sleeve, though: Jackie Chan.
Whereas Raiders had some Jewish folklore at its background and Temple has some Indian one, The Myth capitalizes on Chinese folklore to tell its Indiana Jones tale. That implies the action involves martial arts and lots of people flying on ropes.
Jackie Chan plays a modern day archaeologist (don’t say he’s totally identical to the original: Indy was set some seventy years earlier) who suffers from dreams where he’s an ancient Chinese general out to save a young princess from all sorts of evildoers. A physicist friend of Chan's recruits him to help find a mythical anti gravity device somewhere in India. They go there, the friend steals the ancient artifact, and as can be expected this sets of a chain reaction of chaos and baddies as everyone strives to uncover this myth that’s slowly developing.
The problem is in the way that myth is developed. There are many inconsistencies in the plot, and often you don’t really understand why our heroes got to where they are. It doesn’t matter, though, because the whole Myth is just an excuse to let Chan apply his charm through action scenes choreographed in the action/comedy style that won him his reputation. We’ve seen them before, but he is genuinely good!
As good as Chan is, his talents are not enough to render The Myth good. The whole affair lays on some very shaky foundations, relying on reincarnations to advance the plot and having us move back and forth between the modern world and Chan’s ancient flashback dreams. Flashbacks hardly ever work well, but in The Myth they work horribly.
Then there are the cheap digital effects. I can live with those, but why do they have to repeat them again and again (as with Chan’s horse kicking back at baddies)?
Still, by far the worst offence made by The Myth is with numerous characters, scientists and Chan included, telling us again and again that science cannot explain everything, that science takes second place to myths, and that science cannot be relied upon. That’s more than a bit cheeky coming from a film that couldn’t have been made without some pretty modern science.
Best modern scene: Chan & Co fight it out with the baddies on top of a conveyer belt. The scene would have been a carbon copy of the conveyer belt fight from Temple of Doom if it wasn’t for the belt being made of very strong glue (thus setting the scene for some typical Chan pirouetting) and the scene's happier ending.
Best flashback scene: Chan the ancient Chinese general fights on his own against a whole army of infantry men. Upon the culmination of the fight we find him standing a top a mountain of his enemies’ bodies. Cool.
Overall: The myth is a very bad film that is occasionally saved by a Jackie Chan action scene. 2 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 3 July 2011

Shall We Kiss?

Lowdown: Can two people kiss one another without any consequences?
Shall We Kiss?, or Un baiser s'il vous plait by its original native French title, is one of those films I’ve heard about and filed under “seems interesting, should watch when opportunity presents itself”. Thanks to SBS opportunity did present itself last week, and while I cannot claim Shall We Kiss? is the best film ever – it’s pretty eccentric – I will claim it’s unorthodox enough to justify viewing under certain circumstances.
The keys to understanding Shall We Kiss? lie in two basic themes: (1) the story within the story and (2) When Harry Met Sally. Our journey begins when Émilie (Julie Gayet) gets out of Paris to a foreign city for work and stumbles upon the helpful local, Gabriel (Michaël Cohen). Something clicks between the two, but when Gabriel tries to initiate a kiss he receives an unconventional sort of a reply: the telling of the events that took place between acquaintances of Émilie’s, Judith and Nicolas.
Thus begins our ongoing travel through time and space as we engage in flashbacks towards these latter two, flashbacks that dominate the film overall. Judith (Virginie Ledoyen, the main familiar face in the film) and Nicolas (Emmanuel Mouret, who also directed this film) are lifelong friends, but that is where their relationship ends; Judith considers herself happily married to someone else while Nicolas is unable to find his true mate.
One day Nicolas decides on an experiment to help him overcome his issues with finding the right woman: he’ll have sex with Judith, for whom he has no romantic intentions, and that would sort him out. Always the helpful friend, Judith complies; problem is, their sex leads them to fall in love with one another, which is a bit of a problem given their personal circumstances. Hence we have ourselves a discussion on the merits of kissing and just how much weight a kiss, even a seemingly casual one, can have. Can the love of the flesh lead to the love of the spirit? The discussion applies to the two relationships discussed in the film, which – as expected – are somewhat intertwined. As mentioned, the shadow of When Harry Met Sally looms over the discussion, and there is always the unanswered question of whether Judith and Nicolas were in love even before they realized it. Or rather, does the love of the flesh reveal one's true intentions?
The discussion is interesting, but the way it is handled is what makes Shall We Kiss? feels rather strange when viewing. The film tries hard to make a name for itself through the technical means of simple shots, long and short edits, reserved camera movements and lots of classical music. It also tries to break down the act of love making into small physical acts – moving a hand there, holding a breast here – an approach that tries to demonstrate the irrationality of approaching love rationally.
The result is not the most entertaining film ever, but still a strong statement on that latter observation. Perhaps this is my biggest issue with the film: I am firmly of the opinion that anything and everything is open for rational assessment, and I do not see any contradictions between that and wilfully switching one’s rationality circuits off to fall in love and enjoy this once in a lifetime (or a mere few in a lifetime, if you’re lucky) experience. Critical as I am towards Shall We Kiss?, the mere fact it puts this issue on the discussion board earns it plenty of credit.
Notable scene:
udith and Nicolas’ first attempt at making love is a long scene where the two ask one another for permission to perform the slightest of movements. Given the nature of the movements they’re talking about the scene will be pretty memorable, but that nature also implies a somewhat disturbing feeling.
The scene had me feeling like a voyeur at a porn production. That is not the type of feeling one normally seeks when one watches a film for entertainment, but if you’re into challenging entertainment then perhaps Shall We Kiss? is right up your alley.
For what it's worth, I would just like to note that Shall We Kiss? achieves all it does achieve with hardly ever using nudity. It's interesting to note that fact given the way films are rated by their square meters of displayed genitalia rather than the impact their contents has on the viewer. Perhaps we aren't rating films the way we should?
Overall: Weird but unique. I’m going to be generous and give this one 3 out of 5 stars.