Thursday, 22 December 2011

Battle Los Angeles

Lowdown: Marines fight to retrieve Los Angeles from the clutches of aliens.
Some films make it clear one has to shut their brain down prior to watching them for risk of generating fatal short circuits. Battle Los Angeles is a prime example: a silly film made [probably] using gigantic budgets and doing its best to work on its viewer at the lower levels of the human experience. In its credit, Battle Los Angeles does what it does fairly well.
If you’re after a story then you’ll be disappointed: Battle Los Angeles’ is as basic as they come. We follow a marine sergent, Nantz (Aaron Eckhart) who has been there, done that, got his battle traumas, and is now about to retire. Lucky for him, these strange meteors falling upon the earth turn out to be nasty aliens attacking various cities across the earth. Nantz’ discharge is revoked, and his platoon is quickly scrambled under the hands of a new officer to a rescue operation in the occupied parts of Los Angeles.
What follows is a series of intense infantry battle scenes between our goodie marines and the vile aliens. The latter came all the way across the stars equipped with weapons not too different to those of our marines in grade, which makes for great Modern Warfare style battles as long as the viewer is able to disregard the fact it does not make sense. Further in the not making sense department is the explanation offered for the aliens’ visit: they are here to steal our water. As if there is such shortage of water in this universe that the aliens have to wage war to get some. Let’s put it bluntly: Battle Los Angeles is a dumb film.
As far as offences against the art of film making is concerned, the greatest one committed by Battle Los Angeles is its taking itself so seriously. When examined, Battle Los Angeles is not too different to other alien invasion film such as Independence Day. However, whereas the latter works by virtue of not taking itself too seriously and providing ample laughs, the former does most of its work by applying for its viewers’ patriotism. It is a very American film, with all the typical clichés one expects to find in an American action film sporting a gallant all American hero.
That said, the fight scenes are intense…
Worst scene: Nantz spontaneously stands to attention, salutes the waving American flag, and mimes something that I suspect all flag worshipping Americans would recognize. See my above point on how Battle Los Angeles works at the lowest of levels of the human experience.
Technical assessment: Battle Los Angeles is made to look like some sort of a reality show. It’s got long cuts and very – but very! – shaky handheld camera work (be warned). However, given the obviously rich nature of this production the picture on this Blu-ray is still good, and the soundtrack does very well at keeping suspense levels high over prolonged periods.
Overall: An intense but yet dumb experience. I’ll go for a middle of the road score of 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


Lowdown: The fight for controlling high tech corporations takes place inside the virtual world as well as the physical one.
I first heard of 1982’s Tron while reading an article in Byte magazine, which my uncle subscribed me to as a child in order to help improve my English by exposing me to my favorite subject matter at the time (and probably today, too): computers. The article was raving about the advanced technology utilized by this film, the pinnacle of which has been the large number of scenes that used a computer graphics generated world. When Tron hit Israeli cinemas it got the full on science fiction treatment, which meant I went to see it in the company of both my uncle and my father. We all greatly enjoyed it.
Roll back to the present, and Tron's sequel, Tron Legacy, happens to be my four year old's favorite film at the moment. As Tron Legacy proves, we treat computer graphics differently today; they're no longer a novelty. Our expectations of cinematic special effects are totally different, too. However, having watched Tron again I can venture my opinion there: although Tron is heavily outgunned by its contemporary sequel in the looks department, it is in no way outdated. Its depiction of the world inside a computer is still stimulating even if it is not as rich in style as more modern films. However, by the same token Tron is still a compromised film, a film where so much effort was put into the looks that other, more conventional aspects of a movie, were left neglected.
Tron has us following events in two parallel worlds. In our physical world, we have Flynn (Jeff Bridges), a brilliant computer programmer whose work was “borrowed” by a lesser programmer with better cunning skills, Dillinger (David Warner). With the help of two of his friends, Flynn infiltrates his former company’s offices to look for evidence showing he’s been wronged.
Meanwhile, inside the computer, the program created/borrowed/developed by Dillinger to maintain tight control over things and prevent leaks is running things like a dictatorship. Hungry for power, it takes control over every program it can put its hands own and then pits the renegades in gladiator like video games to the death. Renegade status is determined by programs' refusal to subdue themselves to the control program, the result of their belief in ultimate power lying at the hands of “users”. In the eyes of the computer programs, users are gods.
Things turn complicated when the evil computer system manages to get Flynn inside the computer world. There Flynn meets the alter egos of his real world friends, including Tron – a security program doing its best to obey its user and establish communication with the outside world. Will it manage that? And will Flynn be able to go back to the real world and claim what is rightfully is?
When considering the state of computers at the time Tron was released, and the non existence of the Internet, one has to credit Tron for its visionary qualities. The idea behind Tron is still original today. Further, the metaphor provided by the virtual world works quite effectively, too. I did have a problem with the analogy made between faith in the “users” and real world religion: I would argue that in both cases faith has nothing to do with anything; it’s evidence that matters. In the virtual world there is plenty of evidence for the users but also a tyrant that’s trying to hide these; in the real world, however, religion has no evidence to make a stand with.
Where Tron trips a bit is in the conventional side of movie making: it feels a bit clunky, it’s rather predictable, and its characters are too black and white. In this day and age where Tron’s special effects are less than dazzling, those deficiencies are much more noticeable.
Best scene: The cycle race / video game, of course. It’s still exciting, still original, and still brilliantly executed.
Overall: Tron is a 3 star film that’s worthy of more attention than its score would normally suggest.

Monday, 19 December 2011

Cowboys & Aliens

Lowdown: Wild West gunslingers pick a fight with aliens.
Without help, a good idea can only push a movie that far. Cowboys & Aliens is proof: a film based entirely on the idea of pitting Wild West heroes against space age aliens. Sounds sexy; sounds cool! In reality, though, it’s pretty boring.
The biggest problem with the premises is that it’s an unfair fight. What can a bunch of horse riders expect to achieve against monsters with lasers, hovercrafts and spaceships? Cowboys & Aliens approaches this problem rather non creatively. It starts through the utilization of star power (Daniel Craig as the star, Harrison Ford in the uber supporting role). Then it cheats by starting the film with Craig sporting a magical bracelet on his hand, a bracelet that can fire grade A lasers capable of turning mean aliens to fodder. Can that bracelet be used to tilt the odds in favor of us humans? Can a cowboy ride a horse?
The beginning of the film’s Craig doesn’t remember who he is or why he is in the middle of the desert with a weird bracelet he can’t shake off on his hand. He quickly learns he’s a mean killing machine when three passer byes pick on him; he “borrows” one of their horses and lets the rest go in a manner quite atypical to the era where a horse was worth quite a lot but also a manner that repeats itself throughout the film. He then makes his way to the nearby town where all sorts of villains lurk around all sorts of good guys. I'm talking about guys like a Sam Rockwell, playing a role where his talents are totally and shamefully wasted on a minor role.
While Craig is busy learning his true nature as a wanted criminal, business as usual is interrupted when a bunch of hovercrafts attack the town and lasso some of its occupants away. The film's title gives away the baddie behind this foul did; it takes a group of our heroes to figure this out and attempt a rescue of the abductees, on the way turning the flock’s baddies into either bodies or goodies.
The number one problem with Cowboys & Aliens is not its predictability, nor it resorting to the stereotypes one has been trained to expect in a film such as this (token female characters, the lot). No, the number one problem is length: we watched the Blu-ray version that claims to be “extended” (it was the only one on the disc), but I would say the film would have greatly benefited if it was to be given an hour's worth of trimming. There is simply not enough action in between boredom to keep the viewer entertained and distracted from the silly crap the film has too much of, with the result being simply that – boredom.
So then the next question is, what are all these stars doing in such a crap film? Sadly, this question does not receive an answer. Indeed, if there is anything I took from watching Cowboys & Aliens, it’s how a mediocre treatment can ruin seemingly promising potential.
Technical assessment: As expected, Cowboys & Aliens is a good Blu-ray. The picture does suffer from scenery that doesn’t look as real as it should in the name of looking arty, while the sound is exactly what you’d expect from the genre and the budget of a film yielding star power of this caliber.
Overall: Proof that a film cannot rely on being built around a good idea, no matter how good that idea is, when there is no decent plot and decent characters to support it. 2 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Lowdown: A comprehensive biography of Steve Jobs.
Steve Jobs is a figure about which I cannot avoid having mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s in charge of creating incredible gadgets while on the other he’s in charge of generally pricing them out of my reach and artificially limiting their capabilities. Regardless, Jobs is one of those prophets under whose shadow my life is being lived: as an IT professional, as a child growing up in the PC era, as a gadget freak, wherever I go I am affected by Jobs and his creations. When I heard generally favorable feedback for this biography of his, I decided it was worth spending my time on if only to expand my understandings of this Information Age world we are living in.
You know what? Once I started reading the book I couldn’t look back. For a few weeks, Steve Jobs became an integral part of my life. Coincidently, I happened to buy my first Mac during the reading of the book.
Steve Jobs (the book) offers a very comprehensive look at the man’s life. Built as individual stories covering different aspects of Jobs’ life and told in chronological order (although some overlap is unavoidable), we follow Jobs from the time baby Steve was given away for adoption to the Jobs family and up until his immanent [recent] death. There’s him growing up, him building the first Apple computers with the other Steve [Wozniak], him artistically borrowing the Xerox interface to build the first Mac, him getting cast out of Apple, moving on to NeXT, Pixar, and then his resurrection back at Apple to turn a dying company into the world’s number one company, for better and worse. In effect, we have the rise, the fall, and the resurrection of the Jobs Messiah.
By far the greatest achievement of Steve Jobs, the book, is its careful depiction of a complicated reality. More than any book of fiction can do, Steve Jobs’ biography manages to portray a reality so complicated and involving so many characters that it feels real; it feels as if the book is taking its reader right inside Jobs’ world as his character evolves. The experience is simply fascinating: far from the normal portrayal of characters as either the defenders of all that is good or as the masters of all evil, this biography manages to portray Steve Jobs as a person. A person with ups and downs; a person that can be good and a person that can be bad. An utterly convincing person. A person just like the rest of us. I cannot recall a book that manages this feat as convincingly as Walter Isaacson does it here, be it from the fiction of non fiction department.
As comprehensive and thorough as the biography is, I found myself thinking a lot about the bits that weren’t there, the stories that were only half told, and the truths that were misrepresented. There are plenty of those around! On the omissions side, I found the book’s failure to mention the “I’m a Mac [and I’m a PC]” ads quite puzzling, especially given the ample room given to Apple’s advertising and marketing storydescribing. On the half truths side we have Ridley Scott, the director of Apple’s famous 1984 Big Brother TV ad, described as a director coming straight off the success of Blade Runner; alas, at the time Blade Runner was considered a major flop. It took years, decades, for the film to be recognized as the Pièce de résistance we tend to regard it as now. Another case of presenting the Apple version of the truth comes with the telling of the various shenanigans of the iPhone 4, such as Antennagate and the story where a Gizmodo editor’s house was raided by police at Apple’s request after Gizmodo managed to put its hand on an iPhone 4 prototype. The book describes the incident as a normal police raid, and tells the story in a non flattering way, portraying Apple as a company that tries too hard to take control over the world. It glosses over Apple describing the phone to the police as an item so valuable it cannot be priced; as with the later search for the elusive iPhone 5, Apple does not mind putting itself above the justice system.
All these deficiencies are worth pointing out because Steve Jobs’ biography tries to create an image of a person trying to create the best technological gadgets people couldn't even dream of through a vision of one company that controls everything from start to finish in order to create simple products. That’s fine; that’s what so great about Apple. But hey, what about all those third world people that pay for Apple’s success in sweat and blood? What about Apple’s abuse of its own customers, where the company happily killsits products once they reach their second anniversary? You won’t find much mentioning of that in the book.
The Steve Jobs at the beginning of the book was a pirate who built his success on the efforts of others. I say that in the most flattering of ways: that is what human civilization is all about. The Steve Jobs at the end of the book is almost the exact opposite: a person wary of collaboration, a person who – in many aspects – became an opponent of a sharing culture. A person that could be said to have sold his soul on his way to the throne.
So yeah, I think this biography missed out on some key aspects of its subject matter. As an advocate of the open source philosophy, I consider this disregard crucial if the purpose of the book was to provide a conclusive review of the person that was Steve Jobs. Indeed, it is clear to me that Steve Jobs and I would have never got along well with one another: he would have probably labeled me a B person, and I would have dismissed him as an inconsiderate two faced person that spat into the well he used to drink from. What this biography makes pretty clear to me is that the person I take as the real hero from this book is the other Steve: between his engineering smarts, easy character and willingness to share, Steve Wozniak is clearly a person I would have loved a chance to be friends with. Sure, Apple would not have become what it ended up as without the Jobs' Steve; but then again, the whole of human civilization is built on many bad things that took place in its history, things that at the time we would have preferred to have gone down better. In other words, I argue that the end results of Steve Jobs’ ventures do not justify the means with which they were achieved.
Despite all my criticism, once I regard Steve Jobs’ biography for what it is – a book, not the ultimate word of god – I cannot avoid crediting it for what it is. It is a complex portrayal of a complex person, and as such it is an intriguing, and an often touching, read. Given that, and given the amount of creative thinking the book had generated, I cannot avoid crediting it with 4.5 out of 5 stars. Highly recommended!

Sunday, 4 December 2011

A View to a Kill

Lowdown: James Bond at the Silicon Valley.
The pages of history will probably remember 1985’s A View to a Kill in the light of the family experiences Bond films have provided me: this is the series’ only episode I had the pleasure of watching at the cinemas in the company of my sister (for the record, the cinema was Ramat Gan’s now dead Ordea). You can also argue A View to a Kill is remembered as the last of Roger Moore’s Bond and/or as a film that clearly takes its cues from its two prequels, For Your Eyes Only and Octopussy. No surprises there, really: Moore’s age clearly shows (he was in his late fifties by then), and this trio of Bond films were all directed by the same guy – John Glen.
However, A View to a Kill is clearly the inferior of the three. It follows all the normal queues, starting with an extreme action scene that’s totally unrelated to the main film, moving through avant-garde opening credits, and then exposing us to a villain that can only be stopped by a gadget equipped Bond taking action into his own hands and various women into his (or their) beds. This time around the villain is portrayed by Christopher Walken, an actor I could never really sympathize with, in the role of a psychopath silicon valley millionaire that’s out to do something nasty. The key problem is the film focusing too much on Walken character’s horse racing ventures, which are dead boring. So boring that even Grace Jones in the role of Walken’s right hand can’t get the film started.
It’s not just the plot, it’s also the locations. Most of the film is set in the USA, and despite a short excursion to Paris there simply isn’t that exotic feeling that other Bonds were saturated with. Even Paris doesn’t do it anymore: most of has have been there, unlike the locations most other Bonds go for. The same goes with Bond's cars: there is nothing flashy this time around, certainly nothing to rival the car that turns to a submarine (The Spy Who Loved Me) or the boat that turns into a glider (Moonraker).
On the positive side, one has to praise the visionary side of the Bond series yet again: although by 1985 we all knew computers were important and we’ve all heard of the Silicone Valley, it was up to the Bond series to take the task of portraying the end of that valley as a cataclysmic event that requires no one but the best to dismantle.
Disappointing scene: The final showdown over the Golden Gate Bridge is quite disappointing. Even when considering digital effects didn’t exist at the time, the scene simply fails to impose the grandness of the location on the action.
Overall: My four year old and I agree, A View to a Kill not only feels more contrived than usual, it is a fairly boring film too. And “boring” is not a word one should find in the James Bond dictionary. 2 out of 5 stars.