Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2

Lowdown: The end of Harry Potter.
Harry Potter and the Deathly HallowsPart 1 had the unenviable job of setting things up for Episode 8, the culmination of the Harry Potter series. In my opinion it failed because it was too busy in the setting things up department to act as a worthwhile film by its own rights. The question now is, how good is Part 2? Was it worth the wait?
Well, Part 2 does not wait for you to ask any questions – it just streams into action from the minute your Blu-ray player allows you to start watching the film (which, as people experienced in the Blu-ray experience would tell you, can take a whole lot of rather too long moments to get to). Right there is my first complaint at the film (as opposed to the Blu-ray format): it is pretty unforgiving to those of us who do not recall exactly where things were left off by Part 1 or, for that matter, do not remember many other fine details from previous episodes.
The plot of Part 2 centers around a Voldemort that’s finally making real moves in the real world to establish himself (the question of what he’s trying to establish himself as is left rather ambiguous). On their part, Harry Potter and his gang are out to search and destroy the various bits of his soul and thus, eventually, kill the menace once and for all. As with the book, any attempt at a worthwhile plot is held back by attempts to seal loose ends from previous episodes, but still leaving the more curious viewer with plenty of unanswered questions. As with previous films in the series, events are piled up one of top of the other in a manner that is hard to follow (unless one is fluent with the books); it feels as if the script was written with a checklist of scenes to cover in mind.
That said, there is a lot of intensity about Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. That is to say, there is a lot going on here in the action department, so most of the time you wouldn’t really stop to think about the plot but rather find yourself tossed from one rollercoaster to the other. Things culminate with the battle for Hogwarts, which is portrayed in a manner not unlike World War I films or footage depicting the evils of Nazis.
Worst scenes: One of the Harry Potter series’ trademarks has been the sporadic use of the best of British acting talents. This happens again, but the sporadic-ness is even more extreme with the likes of Emma Thompson or Miriam Margolyes having such marginal roles it’s a shame to have them waste their time on this project.
Technical assessment:
As with Part 1, Part 2 totally overwhelmed my LCD rear projection TV’s ability to render a picture worth watching by over challenging its black level rendering. I know I’m due for a new TV, but I would like to challenge the artistic reasons behind the creation of such a dark pair of films here. The real world, even when in dire straits, is not as bleak; not even holocaust movies go that far.
As for the sound department, this Blu-ray performs as expected to deliver a very solid presentation.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 is the best of the more recent Harry Potter films by virtue of the density of its activity levels. There aren’t many boring parts here! On the other hand, it is a far cry from the charm of the first films, where magic was more than adequate substitution for guns and bullets, as it is here, not to mention the charms of the books. I’ll put it this way: no one would be excited about Episode 8 of the Harry Potter series if it wasn’t for its prequels. Indeed, as I have been arguing for a while I do not think the films would have created as much excitement as they did if it weren’t for the books.
Which is my way of saying that as a whole, the Harry Potter film series is nothing special. This particular episode just manages to scrape the bottom of 3 out of 5 stars rankings. I consider series' third instalment, The Prisoner of Azkaban, to be the best of the lot by a wide margin.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

True Grit

Lowdown: A young and determined Wild West girl hires a marshal to bring her father’s killer to justice.
I greatly enjoyed watching True Grit. Between its fine display of acting, well developed mix of flawed and eccentric characters, and mesmerizing Western style cinematography it was easy to realize this is high quality cinema. Yet I couldn’t put my hand on what it is, exactly, that characterizes this film. Then the end credits came up, proclaiming True Grit to be a Coen Brothers film. And it dawned on me: the best way to describer what True Grit is like is to mention it is a Coen Brothers’ film. So there you have it; you don't need to read the rest of this review.
If you must insist, though, then I will tell you that True Grit is a Western. It follows a young girl, Mattie (Hailee Steinfeld) whose father was murdered by one of his own employees. The killer had fled justice, and with the wife lacking resolve it is up to the daughter – our young girl of a heroine – to sort things out. Sorting out she does, her way; and this time, it's personal.
Mattie manages to bargain her way through her father’s financial commitments and moves on to secure the services of the notorious marshal Rooster Cogburn, a man of true grit (the exceptional Jeff Bridges). Their plan is to venture together into the Indian reserve where the killer is hiding and bring him to justice (as well as give Rooster his money). However, Rooster doesn’t need the girl by his side at such a dangerous environment; he prefers LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas ranger hunting the same killer for past crimes.
It doesn’t take long for Mattie to show us all who’s got true grit where it counts. Rooster is a slave to the bottle, and LaBoeuf talks the talk but doesn’t really walk the walk. Both are your typical useless Coen Brothers characters, whereas the girl is the non contaminated, determined one who gets things done.
True Grit has its slower moments, but still: between it being so well made, and the actors – all of them - giving such a fine display, I greatly enjoyed it. Since Westerns are pretty rare nowadays, True Grit is to be very welcomed.
P.S. This 2010 version of True Grit is a remake of the 1969 True Grit starring John Wayne. I haven’t seen the original, or at least don’t recall seeing the original, and therefore cannot compare the two.
Technical assessment:
Roger Deakins’ wonderful cinematography alone justifies watching True Grit on Blu-ray and nothing else; it is truly exceptional. That cinematography also means that one can witness the occasional grain and unnatural feel, but it’s pretty clear these are intentional.
Things are much less spectacular in this Blu-ray’s sound department, where everything is front-centered and, in general, nothing much exciting happens.
Best scene: I really liked True Grit’s opening scene and the way we are presented to the small Wild West town’s world where the film starts. Did I mention the cinematography?
Overall: A fine, if typically Coen eccentric film, that’s drifting between 3.5 and 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011


Lowdown: A female CIA agent with James Bond like talents needs to prove the hard way she is no Russian traitor.
At the end of its hour and three quarters, the best thing I could say about Salt is pay tribute to it casting a female in the role of the ultimate action hero. Angelina Jolie’s Evelyn Salt looks and feels like someone who would flick James Bond aside the way we do a fly. But is that all Salt has to offer us?
Salt is a ruthless and devoted secret CIA agent. We know this because the film starts with her being held captive at North Korea and not breaking down despite all the torture inflicted on her (while, it has to be said, she is wearing nothing but fashionable lingerie; I guess the North Koreans are not the ruthless torturers we imagine them to be). She’s freed through a prisoner exchange and comes back home for her day job, where – suddenly, out of the blue – this Russian accented guy who claims to be a defector comes in and claims she is a Russian agent. Could that be? Her colleagues don’t want to take any risks, with the Russian Prime Minister in for a visit and a lingering threat of an assassination attempt on him. Our Salt has to take matters into her own hands, literally, escape her mates and prove herself right.
What follows is an action filled film featuring countless death defying stunts and thrills. Salt does a pretty good job in the action department; unlike most of its competition, digital effects and various other means work. It really is easy to believe it's Jolie that’s jumping from the top of one truck to another that’s on an entirely different freeway and heading in the opposite direction.
The problem is not in the action, the problem is in the plot. Essentially what we have on our hands here is a drama similar to Kevin Costner’s No Way Out: you don’t know whether the hero is a Russian or not, and indeed – you’re kept guessing who the goodies and the baddies are in the first place. While No Way Out was a drama, Salt is an action piece, and it takes its cues from the likes of Call of Duty - Modern Warfare. I shit you not, there are elements in Salt that are borrowed one for one. Thing is, the Modern Warfare series may be a great video game series, but it is not known for its plot. Credibility and reliability suffer, to say the least – and as a result of inspiring Salt, credibility and reliability greatly suffer in the latter, too.
The result? You watch Salt and you’re thrilled, but the minute you start thinking of what led to what you start getting a headache. When truths about characters are finally exposed it gets even worse, because it becomes retrospectively clear that none of them has acted in their own best interests; they acted in what the viewer perceives to be their best interest at the time when the viewer did not know everything there is to know about them. And that, ladies and gentleman, does not make sense.
Aussie director Phillip Noyce (Rabbit Proof Fence) has delivered plenty of action films in his career (Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger). They’re all slick, but they’re all suffering in one department or the other. Salt’s the same. It's a shame: Noyce is obviously quite talented, as films like The Quiet American unequivocally prove.
P.S. I admit to be puzzled by the film’s name. I’m unable to think of a worthwhile reason for calling the film Salt, other than it being the heroine’s name. Is it that the studio is planning to release a sequel called Pepper?
Best scene: Salt’s husband is being slowly killed in front of her in order to test her loyalties. Jolie can act, we know that already.
Technical assessment: A pretty spectacular Blu-ray with enough explosions to destroy any good feelings your neighbors might have hold for you and your home theater.
Overall: Good and bad at the same time, but entertaining nevertheless. I would place Salt somewhere between 2.5 to 3 stars out of 5.

Monday, 21 November 2011

The Rebound

Lowdown: A divorced middle aged woman with kids has an affair with a much younger guy.
MILF is a rather confronting term: I don’t know what’s more shameful, admitting to know what the term stands for or being so out of touch as to not knowing what it stands for. Yet MILF is the concept used by Hollywood’s marketing departments when they worked hard to think what other ideas they can use in order to come up with an excuse for a romantic comedy. The Rebound is the result of their effort.
The MILF factor is portrayed by a Catherine Zeta-Jones portraying the role of Sandy. Sandy is a 40 year old devoted mother whose entire life revolves around her two children, giving up on the promises of her talents and education in the process (tell me about it!). Her world shatters when she discovers a video that's too conveniently placed on her product placed Mac, portraying her husband’s sexual escapades with a female neighbor. In need of a rebound, Sandy gets a divorce, and moves from the suburbs to inner city New York.
Her friends try and help, but one thing leads to another and Sandy ends up rebounding through Aram (Justin Bartha), a nice Jewish boy in his early twenties. Aram is a divorcee of sorts, too, traumatized by the French girl who married and quickly dumped him to get her Green Card. As much as he was wronged, he is still unable to file for the divorce that would get his ex evicted. He’s a nice guy all around who is yet to realize how to get his own in life. That is, until Sandy steps in: he gets along well with the kids, he gets along well with the mother, so how can he go wrong? By now you can get the gist of what The Rebound is about; it’s as predictable as any American made romantic comedy, but it does pull a good one on you from time to time.
Casting is one of the ways The Rebound pulls its tricks through. On the one hand, the casting of Art Garfunkel is Aram’s father is brilliant: sure, I’m severely biased, but I think Garfunkel’s moments under the limelight are the film’s most interesting. However, with The Rebound things come down to one question: Can the glamorous Zeta-Jones truly portray the average midlife crisis struck woman? I don’t think so. Add Sandy’s own doing too well to be true on her new career path and The Rebound totally loses credibility in its attempt to tell us not to fear change so much as to avoid tackling the relationships that just don’t work anymore. Or is The Rebound trying anything at all other than mild entertainment?
Best scene: Sandy’s blind date isn’t going too well when her partner starts a discussion with her while he’s inside a toilet, proving there is lots of room for unexplored toilet humor.
Technical assessment: An average Blu-ray.
Overall: Mildly better than average but still a run of the mill romantic comedy. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 17 November 2011


Lowdown: Another Roger Moore’s Bond.
By far the most important impact Octopussy has had on my life is to do with it being the only James Bond film I watched at the cinemas together with my uncle. It is worth mentioning because during those years I used to visit the cinemas about twice a week with him, yet the rest of the Bonds turned out the exceptions. That is, the few films my parents did attend with me were the films they had personal interest in rather than them wanting to spend quality time with their child.
Other than that there is not much for me to add about Octopussy, the 1983 incarnation of Roger Moore in the role of Bond, James Bond. It is fairly similar in character to its predecessor, For Your Eyes Only, in themes and style (not that big a surprise, given they were both directed by John Glen).
Octopussy does suffer in the script department: its story feels as feeble as a story could get, with a plot that ranges from an evil plot by an aspiring Soviet general, fake Fabergé eggs and other jewellery heists, to the woman smuggler lending the film its name: the woman reigning over a cult of woman running its own island, Octopussy (Maud Adams) provides Bond a target for his chauvinistic charms this time around.
What saves the film are its action scenes, in particular the race to dismantle a ticking atomic bomb at the core of a circus act. It’s a pity we don’t see classic action stuff like this anymore; today's action is synonymous with over the top CGI and shaky, nausea inducing camera work.
Best scene: Bond’s crocodile shaped personal submarine was the household four year old’s favorite.
Overall: Thin on most departments other than the action, Octopussy lies somewhere between 3 and 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

For Your Eyes Only

Lowdown: The further adventures of James Bond, the ultimate all around hero.
Our current escapade into my childhood’s episodes of James Bond, which started off last week with Moonraker, continues with its 1981 sequel For Your Eyes Only.
Roger Moore continues his less serious portrayal of Bond, James Bond. This time the thinner than air plot involves attempts to recover a secret British communications device, lost at sea, which could be used to order British nuclear submarines to fire their nuclear missiles anywhere the device’s owner wishes (obviously, those submarines are controlled by Windows running computers; wait, they actually do!). As usual, his missions lead Bond to all sorts of exotic places around the world, where he bumps into various people that try to kill him. In typical fashion, he also bumps into numerous women. In a slight contrast to Moonraker, action scenes are more robust and authentic (but still always carried with at least half a smile) and James’ attitude is slightly, but ever so slightly, less chauvinistic. We do get the typical formula, including that baddie woman that turns goodie and then dies a martyr's death for her sin; however, Four Your Eyes Only’s ace card is Haim Topol in the role of a baddie turned goodie that likes to eat his pistachios wherever he goes, gun fights included. He's so cool he even uses the shells to kill his enemies! Talking about the ultimate Israeli action hero - in your face, Zohan!
It has to be said: some of the action scenes in For Your Eyes Only are quite spectacular, even in this day and age of digital effects. That is no mean feat, and probably the reason why in this grown up boy’s view For Your Eyes Only is the best James Bond movie ever.
Yes, the best. Because between diving action scenes, skiing action scenes, driving action scenes and your average shootouts, James Bond establishes himself as the ultimate video game hero character long before video games came to be. It is obvious where today’s most successful games, like the Uncharted series, took their inspiration from.
Best scene: Bond and his Bond Girl outdo and escape a multitude of well equipped baddies driving a battered Citroen De Chevaux through some curvy Spanish hills and olive groves. It’s the classic James Bond funny action scene.
Overall: Silly, but also exciting and more than a bit visionary. 4 out of 5 stars.
P.S. According to my wife, East Germany had its communist answer to the James Bond series in the shape of their own secret-life-of-an-action-spy film which they creatively called Four Eyes Only. One is left to wonder whether that naming was intentional or the result of some poor communist's ignorance in the English language.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Little Brother by Cory Doctorow

Lowdown: The fight for civil liberties in the USA is led by an otherwise normal 17 year old.
Marcus is a regular high schooler living in contemporary San Francisco. In his regular life he is tracked wherever he goes by surveillance cameras and various smart cards he carries on him. Even at school they have these special cameras identifying him by his gait and tracking his position. Marcus is smart enough, though, to know how to outsmart all these surveillance measures: starting from placing some sand in his shoes to deal with gait recognition and progressing through mild hacking, Marcus finds it all to easy to skip a class or two in order to go and play online reality games with his friends from the Bay.
One such "short" school day Marcus finds the entire paradigm changed. Without causing too much of a blooper, he suddenly finds himself labelled as an enemy of own country. He finds he’s being watched at his own bedroom. He has to be a good citizen and live his life quietly, not saying a thing even to his parents, or else the authorities would “take care” of him. But Marcus won’t take it lying down; his freedom, his real freedom - as per the Declaration of Independence – is too important. He starts off moderately by distributing Linux CDs to his friends so they can communicate unmonitored, but quickly finds himself the face of rebellion against authority.
Little Brother is the second young adult book from Cory Doctorow I get to read after For the Win. Just as For the Win, Little Brother is a winner: a very exciting book to read. Little Brother deals with very important and relevant material for this post September 11 world of ours. As with For the Win lessons in economics, Little Brother presents its agenda in a manner that is very easy to relate to. More than anything else, Little Brother is an explanation for how and why hacking, copying and sharing are fundamental to a healthy democratic society – just the opposite of what we are normally “taught” by the powers that be and the authorities. Indeed, Doctorow is ever so convincing when it comes to demonstrating why we needn’t take the crap shoved at us by authorities lying down. Things like smart cards that track and maintain our train rides and tollways’ histories as well as porn scanners at the airport: any security benefits these may give us are but an illusion when every Marcus like kid can outmanoeuvre them.
Little Brother’s story is told in first person from Marcus’ mouth. Perhaps it’s because we’re hearing things from the mouth of a 17 year old, Little Brothers’ language feels a bit too rough around the edges. Still, telling us of his online mischief that has the authorities running around in circles has Doctorow, in effect, telling us of the quickly falling boundaries between the virtual and the real world (just as he did in For the Win). In today’s technologically oriented information society, control over the online world means control over the people; the inevitable conclusion is that the fight for the freedom of the Internet is one of the most important fights today’s society has on its agendas.
The well versed Doctorow spices his book with authentic real life information on hacking, discussing things such as the use of TOR and encryption keys. While some of the descriptions and the technologies feel a tad out of date (smartphones, for example, don’t play a role in Little Brother), everything is quite high on real life authenticity: most of the technologies and hacks Doctorow mentions are out there to be used if you know how (and if you don't, the book's explanations will usually make sure you know). Authenticity doesn’t come only through the descriptions of real life technologies but from other real life stuff: key events from the past few decades of the American antiwar protest movement are widely referred to, as well as real life books and the fact that Domino’s Pizza tastes like crap when the fact the company contributes money too all sorts of fundamentalist organizations is taken into account.
It is this atmosphere of authenticity that is key to Little Brother being the good “call of arms” book it is when it comes to matters of civil liberties, because none of the measure taken by the authorities in the book against the citizens of the USA has not been used in real life. Turning suspects over to countries where torture is allowed, holding suspects without trial, not informing relatives of held suspects, preventing suspects from talking of their ordeals, this has all happened before – just ask David Hicks or Mamdouh Habib. If you think these things can only happen in the USA because, you know, the USA is such a backwards country, please have a chat with Dr Muhamed Haneef or count the number of cameras recording your every move in the UK. You don’t have to, though: you can ponder about the way you’re treated whenever you board an international flight.
Little Brother is book of extreme importance to the greater public. Not only does it highlight the dangers of a society surrendering the achievements gained over hundreds of years in order to make our society better, the war of worlds it describes is still being waged as we speak. Last week alone the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation) lost the legal battle for the privacy of users’ Twitter information, which implies American authorities can browse everything on American servers at will without needing anyone’s permission and without telling anyone. If you use Google, Facebook or Apple to look after your info (do you use iCloud services on your iPhone?), you’re in the pocket of the American government. Then there is the matter of the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) legislation that seems to be rushed through before the Christmas break and is probably the most dangerous piece of legislation to civil liberties ever! It’s all going on as you’re reading this, but it won’t be Marcus that would stop it from happening; Marcus is a fictional character. You're not.
Overall: Little Brother is not only an exciting, thrilling and authentic book to read. It is also a book that’s important to read, a book every thinking person should read. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. You cannot blame Cory Doctorow for not standing up to his own standards. You can download Little Brother for free at Doctorow's own website here.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Young Victoria

Lowdown: The young princess Victoria’s rises up to the challenge of becoming a monarch.
As I was watching 2009’s The Young Victoria I could picture the process that got the film makers rolling. I could see marketing people running amok, desperately trying to come up with ideas for a period drama that would appeal to women viewers and fetch money to the studio. “Give me a Pride & Prejudice, damn it!”, I could hear the department head shouting. Then, as everyone grew silent, the newest employee with nothing to lose whispered: “What about Queen Victoria?”
And thus The Young Victoria came to be: a period film designed to mix court politics, romance and beautiful period sets into something sellable. Something people would want to watch. Me, I wanted to watch it because it featured Emily Blunt, the actress that so very much impressed me recently with her performances in The Adjustment Bureau and Wild Target.
Blunt plays the young would be Queen Vicky, the sole descendant of the three sons and daughters of the previous English monarch. Victoria is protected and held, as if hostage, by her mother (Miranda Richardson) and her mother’s advisor (Mark Strong); however, she wants to grow to be her own woman. In parallel we see the would be Prince Albert, a member of a clan making up most of Europe’s monarchies (that same clan that brought you World War 1); Albert is also being groomed to be something he does not want to be, a political pawn. Can the two rise above their circumstances? Well, we know the story even without me providing any spoilers here already.
The real issue with The Young Victoria is whether this story and the elaborate period setup provides enough ammo to run a film with. I argue it doesn’t.
For a start, I couldn’t feel the least bit moved for any of the characters. Sure, Vicky has had her family issues. Big deal! She was still living in a palace with people wiping her butt for her at a time when three year olds were being groomed en masse to work as chimney cleaners with a life expectancy lower than my shoe size (as measured by American standard shoe sizes!). No, not even the inclusion of a Paul Bettany playing Lord Melbourne, the Prime Minister and a potential adversary in Albert’s path to Victoria’s heart, could trigger the slightest interest.
Instead it all felt like a particularly boring movie version of something we’ve all seen many times before. Boredom is the key experience I took out of The Young Victoria: for all its elaborate settings and extravagant costumes, I could not avoid looking at my watch every couple of minutes to verify the world did not come to a halt yet.
Overall: Perhaps it’s my natural tendency to treat monarchy with contempt that’s at fault here, but I was bored shitless by The Young Victoria. 1.5 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 11 November 2011


Lowdown: Bond in space.
When this little child first saw 1979’s Moonraker at the cinema I thought I went to heaven and back in a bit more than two hours. The film had laser shootouts in space, a watch that shoots killer darts, and space shuttles! Who can ask for anything more!
Moonraker was one of my favorite films for a long while back then. Later I grew to regard it as rather silly, but when opportunity presented itself this very film became my four year old’s first James Bond experience ever. Why shouldn’t it? He’s excited about the same things I was (and still am) excited about. The film is tame enough for a little child, especially given that all sexual innuendos pass way over his head; it's PG rated. Indeed, I can report that thirty something years later, Moonraker has worked its charms on yet another child.
Moonraker comes in the middle of Roger Moore’s reign as James Bond, which means it is not the most serious of films. Essentially it features a Bond trying to identify who’s behind the stealing of a space shuttle, but in general it is all about Bond showing the various people who try to kill him in various ingenious ways how he can outdo them. All the while and in between Bond tries to outdo the women of the world to bed. He does the first using an array of gadgets and he does the latter using charm that reeks of so much chauvinism it would not be tolerated today by anyone other than Liberal party voters. Thus, in between charming various beauty queens who just love to fall for this much older guy, and while flashing us with ample product placements for 7Up and Seiko watches, Bond realizes he’s facing an enemy (played by Michael Lonsdale) who is set out to get rid of humanity from space and has the funds and the technology to do so.
By far the most interesting character in Moonraker is the villain Jaws (played by the giant Richard Kiel while wearing a metal teeth prop). My four year old was absolutely fascinated by this character, much more than Bond could ever hope to be.
If you read till here you may be under the impression Moonraker is a silly film fit for kids and perhaps the chauvinists amongst us. You won’t be wrong, but I will add to that: I consider Moonraker an excellent testimony for the seventies. Granted, it only shows the glossy side of the seventies, but there’s nothing wrong with having a nostalgic look at the past: a past where space shuttles (whose first real space mission took place in 1981, two years past Moonraker's release) were the promises of a new space age (but reality showed they could only reach low orbits and way less frequently than promised); a past of care free jet setting in a world devoid of computers, mobile phones, tablets and global warming awareness; a past where AIDS was still an unknown; and a past where special effects had to be done the old fashioned way, as in through models and mounting one shot on top of the other. At its time Moonraker was futuristic; today it allows us to see how we thought our future would turn out. Today we have the advantage of witnessing how foolish we were.
Best scene: The speed boat chase that inspired hours of playing Spy Hunter some years later on the Commodore 64. Jaws & Evil Co fire mortars and sub-machine guns at Bond, who answers back with magnetic mines and self guided torpedoes before converting his boat to a hand glider and flying over huge falls. How many times did this child dream of this scene at night!
Overall: 3.5 out of 5 stars. Sure I’m biased!

Thursday, 10 November 2011

Galaxy Quest

Lowdown: Members of a Star Trek replica TV show are called to save a real alien race involved in intergalactic war.
Given the genre and the talent involved in Galaxy Quest, I’m more than a bit surprised at how this 1999 film managed to slip under my radar. I stumbled upon it a few years later on TV and watched it several times since; suffice to say I truly love this Star Trek parody, perhaps even more than the original.
Our story starts at a fans’ convention, where the aging stars of an old TV show that’s more than incredibly similar to Star Trek are gathered before their admirers. Only that they’re sick of doing the same tricks for a living and they don’t get along well anymore. In particular, no one likes Jason (Tim Allen), the old series’ starship captain and an obvious William Shatner spoof, who behaves as if he really is the commander in chief.
Things change when some mysterious fans contact our ex TV heroes with an assignment that turns out real: their alien race is at war with a particularly nasty and violent insect like race, and having received the “historical documents” that are the old TV series’ episodes they’re here to recruit our heroes to save them. After all, if they managed to get away from so many tight spots before, always winning the day, what’s another intergalactic war to fuss about? Heck, the aliens even built a replica of their TV starship, and it’s really real. The question is, can the crew unite, this time for real, and do something worthwhile for a change?
Galaxy Quest works and works so very well for two main reasons. First there is the enabler, which is the talent at hand here – the talent that makes this spoof of a film work better than all the rest of the Spy Hard and Hot Shot like movie parodies. What I'm trying to say is that films sporting Alan Rickman, Sigourney Weaver and Sam Rockwell are films that are off to a very good start. Having them together as crew members offers great potential, and Galaxy Quest makes the most of it.
The second factor in favor of Galaxy Quest is the script, a script that’s smart enough to have a laugh at every Star Trek joke out there: Kirk always losing his shirt, Kirk’s silly jumping, shooting and fighting motions, the dispensable member of the away team that always dies, and much more (I don’t want to ruin them for you!).
The greatest thing? It all works, the formula, the story and the cast. It works much better than the Star Trek films ever did: Galaxy Quest is both a big joke on Star Trek’s behalf as well as the biggest compliment Star Trek could ever get.
Best scene: The very earth bound teenager (Justin Long, aka “I am a Mac”) that knows the old Star Trek like TV show by heart is helping the noble captain sort out the soon to explode ship reactor. Only that at the key moment, with seconds to go before the ship explodes somewhere way out in space, the teen’s mother is forcing him to go out and empty the garbage. Star Trek mockery could not come any better than this!
Overall: I find Galaxy Quest utterly addictive. 4.5 out of 5 stars.
P.S. Given the idea behind Galaxy Quest, and in particular Sam Rockwell’s part of the expandable crew member, I have to add I cannot wait till John Scalzi’s new book Red Shirts comes out. Check out its book cover to see what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011


Lowdown: A couple of nerds try to help an alien escape earthly authorities.
Simon Pegg and Nick Frost grew up a lot since I first saw them together in the brilliant series Spaced. Now they’re big time movie stars, with Paul being their third collaboration on the big screen (as far as I can tell) following the brilliant Shaun of the Dead and the funny Hot Fuzz.
This time around the pair depicts a couple of English science fiction nerds whose big dream to visit Comic-Con and follow it up by renting a caravan and visiting famous alien “close encounters” hotspots is coming true. It’s coming true, alright: the two meet a bona fide alien who calls himself Paul (voiced by Seth Rogan) and has an unusually large male sexual organ. That alien is being chased by American authorities (chiefly represented by Jason Bateman), so our geeks can’t help but help. On their way they stumble upon various misadventures, such as the half blind young earth creationist girl (Kristen Wiig) for whom the mere existence of Paul shatters her entire perception of life as she knows it.
The problem with Paul is that it tries to be funny, it tries to be a successful silly action comedy, but it fails. It’s just not that funny, and not even Rogan with his typical style of jokes can do anything about it (if anything, he makes things worse). However, Paul is more than your average E.T. on steroids story: Paul is a homage to science fiction/nerdy culture. When seen in that prism, Paul is a good film that redoes the whole Star Wars themed geeky jokes Frost and Pegg used to do back in Spaced. They’re still good at it, but this time they go further: they pay tribute to much more than Star Wars. Take the character of “the famous science fiction author Adam Shadowchild” as an example: it’s obviously a Terry Pratchett lookalike.
What I liked the most about Paul was its non politically correct attitude. This approach shows in Paul's dealings with the film’s bible thumpers characters and the total disrespect it pays them. It’s great to see a film that’s a skeptic’s delight after years of Hollywood trying to train us to respect belief for belief’s sake.
Best scene: The former believer sees the light through Paul and realizes she can now lead a life of fornification and bad mouthing.
Technical assessment: Below average Blu-ray, with a picture that’s relatively lacking in detail and less than immersive sound.
Overall: Not the funniest comedy ever, but it does have its strengths. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 7 November 2011


Lowdown: A clash between Norse gods reaches the earth.
A necessary precondition for watching Thor is shutting one’s brain. Once that is achieved, some fun can be had from the rollercoaster of special effects' action scenes Thor brings forth.
Based on a Marvel comic, Thor takes place at two realms and follows two main characters, one of each realm, as it moves back and forth between realms and time lines. First we have the realm of the Norse gods, ruled by Odin (Anthony Hopkins), where old conflicts are being revived and the prodigal son Thor (Aussie Chris Hemsworth) is found abusing the powers of his magical hammer by warmongering. Odin casts Thor to the earth, where aside of his body builder’s body and godlike English dialect he is powerless.
In parallel we have the film’s second realm, the earth, where we follow physicist Jane (Natalie Portman) as she investigates the weird phenomenon that us smart viewers know to be the portal that brings entities from the gods’ realm to the earth and vice versa. The key question turns out to be whether Thor can redeem himself and settle things in both realms, and the answers are as predictable as ever (like, guess who’s getting the girl?).
There is nothing special to Thor as a film. It is nothing more than a special effects’ extravaganza, and as long as you remembered to switch your brains off you will not be offended with the gruesome way in which Thor explains to Jane the physics behind the phenomenon she’s investigating. Where Thor does stand mildly above the rest of the typical "too high a budget for its own good" blockbuster is in the direction work:  Kenneth Branagh is at the helm here.
Branagh and Shakespeare go together like humus and pita, but what the hell does the former do with silly action material? I don’t know, but the result speak for itself. Between frame composition, look and feel as well as editing, Branagh has clearly managed to put some certain extra qualities to Thor that give it a cut above the rest. Mind you, he still handles most action through shaky cameras and faster than light editing, both approaches I quite dislike.
Worst scene: Why is it that every Marvel based comic film now has to include a strange and otherwise unrelated scene featuring an eye patched Samuel L Jackson? At least Thor’s takes place after the end credits.
Technical assessment: This is a Blu-ray to shock and awe with. The picture is good, even if it has the occasional artifact, but the soundtrack could easily knock down flimsy construction work.
Overall: It’s silly, but a bit better than average. In the context of silly summer blockbusters Thor gets 3 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Fighter

Lowdown: A boxer has to fight family demons before he’s able to give a fight in the ring.
Once upon a time there was a film called Rocky. It told the story of a loser boxer who, for some elusive reason, gets to have a shot at greatness. In order to achieve that greatness he needs to do more than just win a battle in the ring: he needs to deal with lots of inner devils and issues with his surroundings. The sequels that followed were generally abysmal, but that original Rocky was quite good; only that it was entirely fictional.
Into the ring steps The Fighter, a film that follows very similar outlines. The main difference is that The Fighter’s story is based on a real one, and that the film does everything it can to create an authentic atmosphere.
We follow Micky (Mark Wahlberg), a small time boxer from a small time American town. His agent is also his mother and his trainer is also his drug addict brother Dicky (Christian Bale), a former boxer himself that had his shot at greatness and missed it. The current management is letting Micky down: they keep on sending him to fights he’s bound to lose, seeking short term income and ruining Micky's motivation in the process. They damage him so badly he’s even ashamed to try and hit things off with this bar girl he’s interested in, Charlene (Amy Adams). A change is due if Micky is to get anywhere other than become a repeat of the failure his brother was, but the question is whether a change is possible given the circumstances everyone is trapped in.
One can easily argue we’ve seen this film before. Hey, I’ve argued that at the beginning of this review. The Fighter does feel like a cut above the rest, and that comes from what seems to be a very authentic setting. For example, the role of Micky’s trainer Mickey O'Keefe is portrayed by the real Mickey O'Keefe!
Authenticity flows from many sources. There is the inclusion of real people and real facts about these real people (e.g., famous boxers like Sugar Ray Leonard). There is the general attitude of the film, which strives to pass as a reality show where the not so beautiful aspects of life are not glossed over. And then there is the acting.
Christian Bale stands out in his portrayal of a drug addict dethroned from former glory. In typical Oscar winning form, he changed his physical appearance in order to portray his character, and while I started this sentence on a cynical note I do have to say he does a hell of a job.
Yet it was Amy Adams’ character I liked the most, probably because we share some personal frustrations. In Charlene’s case, the frustration of nearly making it out of the jail that is a middle of nowhere town via college, but ending up in a dead end job with no salvation prospects. Amy Adams changed her physical appearance for her role, too: she still has that pointy nose of hers, but she added a few kilos; no longer looking like something that came out of Photoshop, she looks like a normal person with a bit of a tummy. The point I am trying to make is that Adams had to stray from the Hollywood norms in order to appear normal so that she can pass as a “lowlife”. That has to say something about the state of American cinema!
Couple the whole package together, and The Fighter can be seen as one of those ultimate American dream films. It tells us that we can work it out and make it out of anywhere (in Micky’s case, making it involves receiving 7 figure payouts). In doing so, The Fighter provides something close to catharsis.
Best scene: The rehabilitated Dicky doesn’t want to do it, but he still knocks on Charlene’s door. She doesn’t want to see him, but the two still manage to reconcile in order to give Micky a fighting chance. The combination of the reluctant characters trying to do good together was touching, perhaps a statement in humility to humanity as a whole.
Technical assessment: The Fighter is made to look and feel like a TV reality show, while the fights are made to look as if shot on video for TV coverage. Do not expect too much out of the picture on this Blu-ray. Sound wise the film is alright and has its moment, although they’re far from knocking the viewer out.
Overall: A solid actors’ movie. 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins

Lowdown: An introduction to science, its findings and philosophies.
For more than a week Richard Dawkins was at fault for breaking my back as I carried his latest book, The Magic of Reality, with me to read on the train. Hard cover and all, this is a big heavy book, especially when compared to the anorexic Kindle ebook reader I do most of my reading with.
Still, I took the burden happily. Obviously, this reader will do his best to read everything coming from Dawkins’ direction, but this time there was more to it: The Magic of Reality is a book aimed at younger readers, and past evidence – coming in the shape of the very last essay in Dawkins’ Devil’s Chaplain – suggested the author has a special knack when it comes to writing for children. You can say how good The Selfish Gene is and you can argue how influential The God Delusion is, but if you were to ask me which specific Dawkins article I enjoyed the most I will point you to that particular book closing letter he wrote his daughter. Not to mention Dawkins’ Growing Up in the Universe lectures, where he proved his ability to deal with the younger amongst us.
Structure wise, The Magic of Reality is a book that raises questions, one question per chapter, and then provides answers for them across 15 chapters or so. Questions range from who was the first person ever to why we have seasons, how rainbows work, whether we are alone in the universe and what constitutes a miracle. In laying the answers to all of these once sentence long questions Dawkins uses a repeating trick: he starts by providing the mythical answers (e.g., Adam and Eve in the case of the first person ever), and then progresses to science’s answer. By doing so he clearly demonstrates just how much more fascinating the true answer is to the imaginary one – hence the book’s title. As one can expect from the sample questions I provided here, in answering the questions Dawkins provides the reader with a grand yet simple overview of where the forefront of science is at. Not only that, but through discussions on concepts such as miracles and other supernatural stuff he gets to discuss and impart on the reader what the philosophy of science is, a concept much more important to grasp then the latest achievements in quantum physics. As if by accident, Dawkins gives religion a good bash here and there as he guides us throughout the book.
Where The Magic of Reality excels is in conveying the very basics of scientific knowledge. I’ll give you an example that I’ve mentioned here in the past: I graduated a technical high school and did several university physics courses, but during the course of it all no one explained to me why the moon orbits the earth and doesn’t just fall into it. Dawkins does, and he does it so elegantly a child should easily understand it; similarly, children should have an easy time understanding his explanations on the spectrum or natural selection. You can argue I’m pretty dumb if I didn’t figure out for myself why the moon doesn’t fall down on us using the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years; I won’t argue with you there. What I will argue, though, is that having a teacher like Dawkins by my side would have made life so much easier, so much more exciting.
There was a reason for me straying from my habit of ebook exclusive book purchasing, and that reason is the graphic design of The Magic of Reality. Every page of this book is loaded with graphics by artist Dave McKean. The artwork is quite good and works extremely well in conveying the book’s message. Take my four year old as an example: he was so tempted by the photos that by now he can tell you why frog with the longer legs managed to escape the snake and bring forth future generations of frogs. In other words, the four images of frogs escaping from a snake featured in two pages of the book were all it took for my son to be interested and then understand the basics of evolution by natural selection. Quite an achievement, isn’t it?
I liked the way the artwork is integrated into the book more than I liked the artwork itself. Usually with books that include images of sorts you have to break the flow of the reading in order to check the images out, and then go back to the main story; not with The Magic of Reality. Here the art is so well integrated that the reading is flawless. You read The Magic of Reality from start to finish, graphics and all. [At this point I will add the book’s iPad version, available at the iTunes app shop, is rumoured to offer a fully interactive reading experience. If you can bear reading of an LCD screen (I can’t, at least not for long periods), and if you have an iPad at your disposal, then perhaps this is the version for you.]
Those of us familiar with Richard Dawkins’ writing will recognize repeating motifs. Obviously, the guy knows how to explain evolution, but readers of Unweaving the Rainbow will find a lot of similarities with that book, too. The main difference between earlier books and The Magic of Reality is the language: aimed at younger audiences, the latter features much less a poetic language and short sentences. It’s obvious Dawkins made some significant efforts to appeal to younger readers, and as far as I am concerned it works well: although the subject matter can be complicated, nothing in The Magic of Reality proved hard to understand. In other words, Richard Dawkins kept to his trademark ability of explaining things in fluid language that even my grandmother should be able to understand while not sounding as if he’s even slightly condescending. Of all of Dawkins’ qualities, this one is the one that appeals to me the most. So much so that every time I read something of his I feel sad for not having him as one of my university teachers. Luckily for me, Dawkins is a prolific book writer of consistent greatness. Indeed, The Magic of Reality left me in anticipation for what Dawkins may throw my way next.
I can only lament not having a guide of Richard Dawkins by my side when I was at the age group The Magic of Reality is aimed for. I can only lament all the years I spent not having a book providing the basic overview of science that The Magic of Reality provides.
I needn’t lament any longer. The Magic of Reality is an excellent book and an excellent all around experience that delivers through and through, both to younger ones as well as this older reader. I missed my chances, but my son won’t have to. The Magic of Reality deserves a glowing 5 out of 5.
P.S. Richard Dawkins, you can break my back any time you feel like.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Love & Other Drugs

Lowdown: A pharmaceutical rep falls in love with a Parkinson’s patient.
Coincidences happen. This time around the coincidence is with us watching two films sharing the same theme in a raw: No Strings Attached was immediately followed by Love & Other Drugs, both being films dealing with a man trying to establish a proper relationship with a woman interested in sex alone. No Strings Attached was a disaster of a movie; could Love & Other Drugs do better?
There can be no denying Love & Other Drugs starts with better equipment at its arsenal. Director Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance) knows how to create epics, and actors Jake Gyllenhaal and Anne Hathaway are probably two of the best younger talents Hollywood can offer us. However, can these talents do well in the unfamiliar territory of a romantic comedy?
Jamie (Gyllenhaal) is the oldest son in a family of otherwise successful people; it’s just that he prefers to work as a stereo equipment salesperson and womanize. That is, until he’s caught doing what he was doing at the shop’s warehouse. Under new pressure to acquire a more prestigious vocation, he turns into selling pharmaceuticals for Pfizer (yes, I was surprised the film picked on a real pharmaceutical company) and finds that despite the claim to help people it’s all about the money. Doh!
As Jamie tries to fill his quota and beat the Prozac yielding competition he bumps into Maggie (Hathaway), a surprisingly young Parkinson’s patient, as she takes her bra off before the doctor he’s accompanying. Jamie falls for the challenge and quickly enough his courtship is successful as he beds another woman, but just as quickly he falls in love. The notion is not mutual, though, and Maggie – who was obviously burnt before – likes to keep things at the non emotional level.
The film progresses to tell us more about the implications of Parkinson’s as well as about the general commercialization of the health industry. This brings about Love & Other Drugs’ biggest problem: I couldn’t tell whether it’s a romantic comedy, the story of a sick person, an alarm call to the state of the health industry, or a general call to the risks of running a capitalist society. Alas, with so many targets to aim at, Love & Other Drugs cannot score a direct hit on any of them; it comes out as a not so interesting film with too rare moments of interest to work.
It was nice to see Gyllenhaal and Hathaway cooperating again after their mighty acting display at Brokeback Mountain. This time around, as a bonus, the two are the film’s main characters. It also was nice to see Hank Azaria provide a very decent and serious supporting act. However, I could not avoid thinking that perhaps Zwick is out of his playing field with romantic comedies.
Interesting scenes:
It’s interesting to compare No Strings Attached’s sex scenes with this one’s. Hathaway does not have much reservation and showcasing her evident talents where Portman won’t take her clothes off.
Don’t get me wrong; I am no advocate for nudity on film. I am, however, a person who enjoys films more when they present things naturally, and as far as I know sex tends to be orchestrated in the nude.
Still, we have to remember we're in Hollywood's domain here. That is, we’re still pretty conservative: men (both Kutcher and Gyllenhaal) are not allowed to expose their penises, while woman may only expose their breasts and behinds. That said, In Hathaway’s case it did seem as if she couldn’t wait to show us her body.
Technical assessment: A fairly decent Blu-ray.
Overall: Neither here nor there or anywhere. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

No Strings Attahced

Lowdown: A guy seeks a relationship with a girl who is only interested in the sex.
Much an ink and many a film were dedicated to answering an old age riddle, whether two people can have a sexual relationship without a proper relationship attached. The question is well related to the one on whether a man and a woman can ever be “just friends”, as per Harry and Sally, as seen by the fact Hollywood seems to always answer both questions with a resounding “no”. Taken in that context, No Strings Attached is just another patronizing film presenting the conservative agendas of Hollywood, only it is worse than most because it points the finger towards the younger generations and their “twisted” way of relating with one another.
Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) have known each other since they were kids. At the present time Adam is lamenting his breakout with a dumb but beautiful girl, which is when he bumps into Emma yet again; only she’s no child anymore, she’s a busy medical intern with no time for nonsense but definitive needs of the physical kind. The two agree to a relationship that is nothing more than your basic supply and demand sexual relationship. There is a twist, though: in contradiction to conventional stereotypes, it is the male that wants to turn this affair into a proper relationship and the female that doesn’t. Who will prevail? One only needs to remember we are talking here of a Hollywood production to figure out how this one is going to end and what should constitute a happy ending if Hollywood has its say.
If attitude and template like structure weren’t bad enough already for No Strings Attached, boredom presented itself as by far its biggest problem. Although only slightly longer than 90 minutes, I found myself struggling to keep awake at this lingering and pointless torture. Slight salvation was provided by Kevin Kline (didn’t recognize him at first!), to whom the best and probably only joke belongs. Then there was a surprise realization that it is non other than Cary Elwes himself that I was seeing performing a very minor role.
I was never one of director Ivan Reitman’s biggest fans. Even Ghostbusters was far from triggering many laughs. With No Strings Attached, however, he seems to have sunk to an all time low. At the end of the day, I will remember No Strings Attached for nothing but the shameless product placement for Apple products this film reeks of.
Worst scenes: I can relate to Portman not wishing to appear nude on film; that’s perfectly within her rights. I do question the casting decision to put her of all people at the center of a film about sex, because No Strings Attached’s sex scene all looked terribly contrived and unnatural with clothes on.
Technical assessment: A fair Blu-ray, given genre and all.
Overall: Sorry, but I have found No Strings Attached quite an annoying waste of time. 1 out of 5 stars.