Friday, 30 March 2012

Super 8

Lowdown: A bunch of kids get deeply involved in a mysterious government conspiracy.
The best way to concisely convey what Super 8 is about is to say it is some sort of an E.T. with balls film, a new version of E.T. made for the same people that film was originally made for – only that now these same people are adults.
Set in the seventies (we hear about the Three Mile Island accident in the news), Super 8 follows a bunch of kids as they shoot an amateur zombie film on Super 8 (ah, those pre digital days!). One night they avoid the authorities (i.e., their parents), bunch up with this girl (Elle Fanning) who drives them without a license to the train station, and start shooting there. When a train passes by, adding production value to their film, the unexpected happens: a car comes rushing by, blocks the train, and causes it to derail. Our kids barely escape the calamity that follows, after which it turns out the train had a secret military nature to it. The army comes in, closes the area, and starts off with all sorts of spooky activities at our kids’ little town. No body knows what is going on, but answers may lie in our kids yet to be developed Super 8 roll.
I found Super 8 quite engaging even though its heroes are mostly kids. With the film starting off by telling us his mother has just died in accident at the town’s main factory, it’s quite easy to relate to the child at the center stage, Joe (Joel Courtney). It becomes even easier when Joe’s attention turns to the moody girl of the group, whose father just happens to have some arguments to resolve with Joe’s father. Yet the main event is Super 8 is the struggle with authorities acting inhumanely, to one extent or another, in defense of some unreasonable cause: Joe is a victim of his father’s issues with the girl’s father; the whole town is a victim of the army’s whims; and the inevitable alien is a victim of humanity’s fear of the strange. Why don't they all open up to one another, asks Super 8, the way our hero kids do?
Altogether this J.J. Abrams film feels too much like a Steven Spielberg movie, which is probably no coincidence given the way ads emphasize the latter producing Super 8. That is the exact problem with Super 8, though: it is not a bad film, but it is also not a film that tells us anything we haven’t seen before. It packages it all up nicely, but the story and the motifs are all too familiar.
Best scene: The new girl on the sound stage (Fanning) is proving to be more than an able actress when the film rolls at the train station. I liked the scene not because it was particularly important to the movie, but rather because it demonstrates how an actress can quickly change to get into her role. It made me ask how often I am fooled by real people in real life pulling an act on me. It also made me ask why that same actress is seen to have produced rather mediocre results when the kids’ final cut is presented to us over Super 8's closing credits…
Overall: A nicely arranged package of films we’ve seen before, with added spices of mild horror to the basic sci-fi / teen drama formula. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Your Highness

Lowdown: The reality of swords & sorcery adventures.
We are used to mythical adventures set in some fantasy world where the gallant hero rescues the beautifully pure girl from the clutches of the evil dragon and they all live happily ever after. We rightly regard these stories as fantastic, yet we keep on thinking in terms of gallant knights and fair women in distress at our real world. Until, that is, Your Highness comes along to show us how fantasy world events look like at a proper, authentic, fantasy world.
To help us along in our guided tour we have Prince Thadeous (Danny McBride), the spoiled son of the king. He cannot be bothered with risking himself for anything, but likes to eat and fuck (excuse the foul language; I am trying to be loyal to the spirit of the film I am reviewing). Thadeous lives in the shadow of his older brother Prince Fabious (James Franco), who really is the fairytale gallant knight that comes to the rescue of the distressed lady. In our particular case, Fabious just comes back from rescuing the virgin Belladonna (Zooey Deschanel), and announces he’s so in love with her they have to get married. While Thadeous is annoyed at how everyone likes his brother, the evil magician Leezar steps in to interrupt the wedding celebrations and kidnap Belladonna. You see, he needs her for a once in a hundred years event: The Fuckening.
Once in a hundred years, the moons of our fantasy world align, and if our evil magician fucks a virgin at that point he’ll be the all powerful master of the universe. Alas, evil plans were thwarted at the last minute during previous eclipses by a gang of gallant knights; however, with Thadeous around to interrupt proceedings, anything goes.
Still, Fabious and a reluctant Thadeous lead a quest to rescue Belladonna. On their way they face many a bitter enemy, like a gang of gorgeous naked chicks (yep, naked they are) and their fat ugly male leader that seeks to trap them; the frog like creature who child molested Fabious and thus created the fair prince he ended up to be (unlike Thadeous); and a powerful female warrior with a secret or two, Isabel (Natalie Portman).
Your Highness is not the funniest film around. It suffers from severe bouts of relatively lengthy boredom and from other escapades of too silly “try to be funny but fail miserably” moments. However, it is greatly politically incorrect; it waves its political incorrectness in our faces throughout. What it does with its political incorrectness is mock our perceptions, and mockery it does of the likes of The Lord of the Rings and Clash of the Titans: do we really expect those heroes from those rough old times to be as gallant as they were? No, says Your Highness; just like the heroes of Your Highness, and just like us, they are principally motivated by much more earthly needs. They’re after sex, status and the easy life.
One can thus argue that Your Highness is the most realistic tale of fantasy coming at us from Hollywood’s direction.
Best joke: The Fuckening, obviously. What great use of old English! Shakespeare must be quite annoyed at not having thought this word up himself.
Overall: Sagging enough to be punished with 2.5 stars, bold enough to deserve 3 out of 5 stars. Your Highness is therefore in the middle ground between the two.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

The Hangover Part II

Lowdown: Same hangover, this time in Bangkok.
Two years ago we had the crazily funny The Hangover; a sequel in the shape of The Hangover Part II could not have come any faster. As sequels go, this one brings the art of sequeling to such a level of perfection it can be summarized in very concise manner-
1. The Hangover Part II is a virtually exact replica of the original,
2. Set in Bangkok instead of Las Vegas, and
3. Totally devoid of any funny moments.
Do the math yourself: 1+2+3 = a very uninspiring movie that even a Mike Tyson cameo cannot cure (but the obvious inclusion of Bangkok’s iconic shemales definitely takes deeply into the realm of the cliche). That, sadly, is all I have to say about The Hangover Part II, a film whose commercial success qualifies as sad testimony to human civilization: we say we love originality, but we flock to see the sequel no matter how bad.
Best scene: The only scene that was mildly entertaining was the car chase through the streets of Bangkok.
Overall: It is rare for me to watch a film that declares itself to be a comedy but turns out to deliver such a dreary experience I find myself forced to check the time and hope it would be over soon. The Hangover Part II was such a film, a sequel so beset on repeating its former’s success to the letter it totally fails to get anywhere and do anything. Like, say, entertain. 1 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Free Will by Sam Harris

Lowdown: Free will is but an illusion in a generally deterministic universe.
In last year’s The Moral Landscape, Sam Harris touched briefly on the matter of free will. As I noted in my review that was my favorite part of that book; I wasn’t alone, it seems, because incidental evidence seems to suggest the topic has stirred much emotion. Enough, it seems, to make Sam Harris write a book dedicated to the subject, Free Will. Or rather a booklet, because Free Will is not much longer than his recently published Kindle Single Lying.
Harris goes straight to the point in Free Will: there is no such thing, he argues, by virtue of the fact all the thoughts that come to one’s consciousness do so at their own free will; one can seem to choose between thoughts, but one is in no control over which thoughts pop up in the first place. This matter, the matter of where thoughts pop into our consciousness from in the first place, is purely the result of the specific way our bodies are configured out of specific physical particles. In other words, our thoughts are deterministic: create another person in the exact shape of me and you will not be able to tell us apart, not even at the thought level.
Note that while Harris’ expressed philosophy is put in secular terms (Harris is an outspoken atheist aside of being a writer and a neuroscientist), Harris makes it clear his argument applies to those believing themselves to be governed by souls just the same. Alright, say you are controlled by a soul rather than the atoms of which you are composed; where do the thoughts popping into your soul come from? Why does your soul choose to write a book review instead of thinking of the idea of playing Uncharted on the PlayStation?
From this not so humble start – our society seems in love with free will, and dispelling the concept will not be too popular a move – Harris moves on to discuss counter arguments and implications. I adore the way he discusses rival theories on free will, such as the compatibilism suggested by fellow celebrity atheist and full time philosopher Dan Dennett. Harris discusses counter arguments using a very matter of fact manner that is characteristic of scientific analysis but is normally absent from the more common forms of arguing we are exposed to in the media. No, you won’t find Harris saying those who disagree with him are idiots.
Given my general agreement with Harris’ arguments, I found the discussions on the implications of the lack of free will to be the most interesting part of the book[let]. As Harris points out, our justice system is reliant on the fact people are in charge of the choices they make; but given that is not the case, what should be the implications? What should we change, and can we make these changes in the first place given the majority of us prefers to live under the illusion of free will? Due to the applicability of these questions to our daily lives, I was rather disappointed with the brief discussion granted there by Free Will’s short length overall. Think about it: the implications of having no free will have a long reach, most of which missed by Free Will. On what ethical grounds, to name but one example, does the advertising industry stand in a world without free will? And why doesn't Sam Harris try to address this interesting question?
In a society that is all too happy to throw any real world problem affecting our wishful thinking, Deepak Chopra style, to the hands of mysticism and unfounded interpretations of quantum physics, a book such as Free Will is a major asset. Note the way even the likes of atheist author Phillip Pullman regard the matter of free will in books such as The Subtle Knife: Pullman suggests we have free will by virtue of quantum mechanics hinting at the potential existence of parallel universes, universes where different outcomes of our lives exist. Let’s assume for a minute that Pullman is right and that everything that can happen does happen, somewhere; how does that have any effect on my free will? In each of these multiple universes we potentially live with a still fully deterministic fate.
Overall: Important, enlightening, but way too short on scope for a subject matter this worthy. 4 out of 5 stars.
Added on 15/4/12: Sam Harris uploaded a presentation of his on free will. Here it is:

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Close to Home

Lowdown: Two female Israeli border police soldiers grapple with life, love and occupation.
Close to Home, or Karov LaBait in its original Hebrew title, is an Israeli film from 2005. It follows two female soldiers on mandatory army service drafted to the border police and stationed at Jerusalem, where their main duty is to patrol the city center’s streets and collect the details of Arabs passing by. Despite the shadow of suicide bombings always looming our soldiers are much more focused on the mundane: their romantic relationships, fashion and the fact they don’t care much for one another.
I have a problem with the way Close to Home is expressing itself. As I watched it I felt mildly puzzled as to what it was this movie was trying to tell me. In retrospect, though, it becomes clear the intention was to show the corrupting nature of the Israeli occupation: all the shit that happens to our two female heroines during the course of Close to Home, whether personal or occupational (if one can refer to army service in such a way), is affected by the Israeli occupation of Palestinians. However, even with this insight in hand, Close to Home is still unable to avoid the most basic of narrative problems: I felt very unable to identify with, relate to or even mildly understand its two main characters.
Not that I found Close to Home entirely bad. With its fairly accurate depictions of Israeli army life, you could say I had plenty of reasons to like Close to Home: it reminded me of the years I have wasted in that service and how much I hated it (and, for what it’s worth, still do). Officers’ silly and aloft notions, the whole absurdity of the circumstances the soldier finds himself/herself at when surrounded by other mandatory draftees, it’s all there. So, for that matter, is the presence of central Jerusalem, an area that is not often talked about when Jerusalem is referred to as a tourist destination (in contrast to the Old City), but the area where the core of contemporary Jewish Jerusalem life is and also the area where most suicide bombings took place. If one is after a relatively authentic depiction of Israeli army life, then Close to Home would not be a bad start.
I do, however, have to qualify this observation: most female Israeli soldiers do not serve in such confronting roles. More anecdotally, and based on my personal familiarity with girls serving with the border police, the characters from Close to Home do not match the personalities I have seen in the field.
This brings me to note how a peculiarity: watching Close to Home and its personally familiar environment, I realized that viewers unfamiliar with Israeli culture might miss a lot of fine detail. (Which leaves me wondering how much I’m missing when watching films coming from cultures I’m generally unfamiliar with.) Take our heroeines’ female commanding officer, for example: she is commonly referred to as “Dubek”, and the SBS subtitles kept it at that. However, as any Israeli would tell you, Dubek is a brand of cheap Israeli made cigarettes that’s popular with soldiers (whose income is quite low throughout their mandatory service). Thus Dubek is not the officer’s real name but rather something between a nickname and an insult, a point that is probably lost with most international viewers.
Another such case is delivered by the film’s name. Close to Home, in Israeli army jargon, refers to being placed at a position where the soldier gets to go home every night (or almost every night). The alternative is being stuck at the army base, often for weeks on time; one can clearly see how close to home positions would be sought after and fought for by would be soldiers. However, I suspect the point of the movie was to show the less than glorious side of such “close to home” positions (as well, of course, as pointing out the harm of being an occupier reaches into people's homes).
Best scene: The opening scene, where a soldier supervised by an officer searches through an Arab woman’s handbag and then body searches her, is incredibly effective.
Overall: A mixed bag. I’m happy to have watched Close to Home, but I find it hard to give it more than 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Couples Retreat

Lowdown: The adventures of four couples through their week long stay at a relationship mending resort.
You can tell it is business as usual at Chez Moshe when we watch ourselves a silly American film knowing fully well that we are wasting our time. Yes, the time has come yet again for us to clear our mind using some re-synthesized trash.
Couples Retreat certainly qualifies in this department. It tells the story of four middle aged couples, all of them close friends, who follow the request of one of the couple to join them at a retreat aimed at healing relationships. They all think they’re going to go to a resort, but we know better! Yes, they do end up at a resort; but instead of doing resorty type activities, they are into relationship analysis and building activities, full time.
Thus our four couples have to deal with the demons of their relationships: the seemingly normal couple with kids whose relationship has been forgotten between the pressures of family and paying the mortgage (Vince Vaughn and Malin Akerman); the couple whose struggle to conceive is ruining their relationship (Jason Bateman and Kristen Bell); the high school sweethearts that cannot stand one another anymore; and the guy whose wife left him and who is seeking compensation through a twenty year old. This twisted setup is made even weirder through the eccentricities of the various resort attendants and their supreme commander (Jean Reno).
Where does all of this lead to? On the positive side, it leads to a film discussing the issues commonly affecting the middle aged: the demands of work, the demands of parenthood, having no time to do anything, and the loss of the spark that was there at the beginning but is now gone when love has to leave the stage for real life. Indeed, credit has to be given to Couples Retreat for dealing with an issue that affects almost every member of Western societies.
That, however, is where the credit stops. In typical fashion for an American film, Couples Retreat has to provide a happy ending even if that happy ending is more forcibly thrown on the film than particles are inside an atomic bomb. This can be forgiven if the comic element of the film worked, but while there is the occasional laugh these laughs are too far apart. By far the worst offender is the casting: while the men appear normal for their age, more or less, the women’s side of the equation is made of models that in no way reflect how the typical middle aged woman looks like, particularly after giving multiple births. Come on, how can Malin Akerman be cast as a typical middle aged mother of two? Where I come from, we call this chauvinism.
Best scene: Vaughn has to duel an attendant “to the death” in Guitar Hero in order for the couples to be reunited. I suspect the producers did not anticipate the demise of the Guitar Hero franchise that shortly followed the release of their film.
Overall: Typical Hollywood mildly entertaining trash. 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

Lowdown: Quantum physics for the uninitiated.
There is a holy grail for popular science books. That holy grail is a book that would manage to convey the intricacies of quantum physics at a level that practically anyone can understand, or at least everyone with decent high school education. I'm talking about a book that would achieve for quantum mechanics what The Selfish Gene has achieved for evolutionary biology, a book that would not only explain how the science works but would also demonstrate how it applies to life as we know it.
I had reason to believe The Quantum Universe may be the book that does it. That reason is Brian Cox, the physicist from Manchester who is running experiments at CERN's Large Hadron Collider. The guy who brought The Wonders of the Solar System and The Wonders of the Universe to  our TVs. In my opinion, the guy who is best placed to replace the likes of Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins as the public's face for [popular] science. With apologies to Jeff Forshaw, about whom I know nothing, my question was whether Brian Cox can bring the magic touch to quantum physics and explain them at a level that even I would understand. I, a person who read numerous books on quantum mechanics already and who studied basic physics at university level, but was always left with a bad taste in my mouth.
The Quantum Universe starts off in a very promising manner. Easy to read and often even funny, it details some of its subject's history and basics. The problems start at a relatively early stage, about 20% into the book, when it starts explaining how the wave functions of quantum particles work. As of that point the book's reader needs to either have a pretty solid background in maths, start reading the book extremely carefully and often read the same page again and again, or give up and take the authors' word for it. I could feel my knight anguishing about yet another wild goose chase for his coveted grail.
Not that I'm saying The Quantum Universe is a bad book. Far from it. It does explain its subject matter's inner working in a relatively accessible manner, at least when compared to other books. It is also an often exciting read, as with the part where readers are offered a magnificent explanation on how transistors work. An explanation of the type that made me sad to think that, yet again, I was wronged at both school and university with teachers that should have delivered as clear an explanation as Cox and Forshaw do but instead left me perplexed and agitated.
Even without fully taking the authors' explanations in, basic reading of the book should let its readers understand why quantum physics is telling us in a rather unequivocal manner that there is no such thing as "nothing" in our universe. That observation has significant implications and serves as the basis for books such as Lawrence Krauss' A Universe from Nothing (a book that happens to be next on my reading list): because if there is no such thing as nothing, then we do not have to explain how our world came to be out of nothing; and if we do not have to supply such an explanation then there is yet another reason for us to stop wasting our time with man made inventions such as God, a concept that came to explain the very phenomenon quantum physics debunks. In other words, The Quantum Universe demonstrates the victory of science yet again, in the sense that even when the explanations it provides are unintuitive, these explanations really do work by virtue of them being real through withstanding scientific scrutiny. What good is an intuitive explanation if it fails the test of reality? We can definitely tell what good the real explanation is, as that real explanation supplies us with the transistor - billions of which are powering the equipment on which you're reading this.
Before finishing off, I have to provide a disclaimer and say that a lot of the hardships I have faced with The Quantum Universe are the result of the stressful times I have been through while reading the book. This direct result of personal circumstances meant I was not able to concentrate on my reading as much as I would have liked to. Let's face it: quantum physics is probably not the best reading material for train rides, with all the distractions they bring to the equations. However, through all of the distractions it still has to be said that The Quantum Universe is probably the most approachable popular science book out there dealing with this particular subject matter.
Overall: No holy grail, but a fine effort and a great read still. Unless you're a physicist by trade, expect to learn a lot here! 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Midnight in Paris

Lowdown: Time traveling to old Paris inspires second thoughts in the mind of an otherwise engaged American.
After a line of so-so films, of the likes of Scoop, Vicky Cristina Barcelona and Whatever Works, Woody Allen is back. He’s back with a film that’s set in Paris for a change. He’s back with a film that heavily embraces fantastic themes in order to make its point. He’s back to producing good cinema!
Set in present time Paris, Midnight in Paris follows Gil (Owen Wilson), a Hollywood script writer who is quite successful at his job. He’s in Paris with his fiancé, Inez (Rachel McAdams) and her parents. In between arguments with his future Tea Partying parents in law, aggravations caused by Inez dragging him to take part in activities involving her friend Paul (Michael Sheen), and Paul being the pompous know it all scholar, Gil is pondering his future. His dream is to become a writer and abandon script writing: although he is good with the latter he feels cheap for the work he produces. Perhaps he should settle in Paris instead? The place seems to fit his vision much better than home.
Our Gil goes to wonder the marvelous city he’s at. He does so on his own; his fiancé is much more interested in Paul’s stuff. He loses his way around Paris, but at the stroke of midnight he’s rescued by an old car filled with revelers that drags him to a party. Between meeting the rather too youngish Cole Porter and Ernest Hemingway, Gil realizes he stepped back to what he considers Paris’ golden age: the twenties. By morning he’s back to his [our] present, but he makes the most of his revelation: he goes back to have his manuscript reviewed by his idols. He even meets a girl, Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who seems to much more compatible with his passions and attitude to life than his contemporary Inez. Eventually, as he’s torn between the past and the present, Gil learns where his stand should really be.
The first question I would like to address with regards to Midnight in Paris is – what is Midnight in Paris? To begin with, is it a comedy, given Wilson’s casting, the witty Allen script and the occasional laugh? Is it a drama, given the serious contemplations at hand? Or is it science fiction, given the important role time travel plays? I will address the latter first: while John Scalzi argues Midnight in Paris should not be classified as science fiction, I will argue it definitely should. Not because it’s competing with Star Wars, but rather because I consider the science fiction on display at Midnight in Paris to be the best science fiction around: the type that is subtle enough so you hardly notice it, but also the type that is pivotal to the overall message. With this in mind I will add Midnight in Paris is also a comedy and a drama. Not the most laugh inducing comedy ever and not the most dramatic feature ever, but I would be hard pressed to nominate a film that does the comedy-drama-science fiction thing better. When I think about it, such a film would probably be also a Woody Allen one.
Now, let us assume you wake me up in the middle of the night (don’t, please!) and ask me what Midnight in Paris is all about. My answer to you would not be “a film about an American’s engagement breaking apart in Paris” or anything along these lines; my answer would be “Midnight in Paris is a film that thrashes the foundations of the modern day conservative movement”. Bear in mind it is no coincidence the would be parents in law are Tea Party supporters!
My explanation is simple: the conservative movement’s main reason for keeping things the way they are, i.e., conservatism, is the assumption that there was a golden time – “the good old days” – when things were just great. But then progress came and ruined us all! Woody Allen, through his time traveling protagonist, is showing us there was no real golden age in the past: Gil thinks the 1920s were better, but those from the 1920s consider the latter part of the 19th century better, and those from the 19th century think the days of the Renaissance were the real deal… Instead of looking at a past that never was, Allen suggests we focus on the present. He seems to agree with the likes of Stephen Pinker, who suggests in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature that humanity has been steadily improving with time. It comes down to the basics: the amount of violence the average person is exposed to has been on a constant decline through time. In other words, our world is not deteriorating from some sort of a glamorous past; our world is getting better all the time. Our job is to make sure it continues along this trajectory.
Given my personal opinions and given Midnight in Paris’ stand, you can start seeing why I loved the film. I loved it for several other reasons, too. I loved it for its cast, for a start. Not only are the previously named stakeholders actors that I like who get to play the roles they’re best suited for, there are also plenty of cameo appearances that enrich the film: from the joker card of Carla Bruni to your regular aces of Kathy Bates and Adrien Brody, to name but two examples of eccentric performers of the celebrities of yonder. Even the French cameos of the likes of Gad Elmaleh’s are excellent.
Then there is Paris. A city so beautiful it doesn’t need much of a film to stand out with, but a city that nevertheless stands out when the film that revolves around it is excellent. Even though the bulk of Midnight in Paris centers around Americans “in exile” at Paris, there is probably no other city where the trick could have worked to produce a wonderful film. Even if the sense of wonder is caused by association – I have never lived in Paris to know whether it stands up to the hype - Midnight in Paris is a wonderful film taking place at a wonderful city.
Best scene: I never realized how much of my cultural background is the result of people that migrated to live their lives in Paris. The scene where Gil first encounters the celebrities of 1920 Paris and some of their work was therefore a bit of an eye opener.
Technical assessment: Woody Allen is still playing his weird games, providing yet another Blu-ray lacking surround sound.
Overall: I really dig Midnight in Paris from start to finish. Woody Allen is finally back to making good cinema with a film deserving 5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Lowdown: An alien looking like an human male and a woman bond as they take a road trip through a hostile USA.
1984’s Starman is a bit of a blast from the past. It features a youngish looking Jeff Bridges and a Karen Allen fresh from her role in Raiders of the Lost Ark; it even has John Carpenter, the classic horror director, at the helm. Watching Starman certainly took us to the days of yonder, the days when science fiction films had no CGI to rely upon.
Starman’s exposition tells of the Voyager spacecraft being intercepted in its space journey. The recording it carries is taken by an alien race as an invitation to contact the earth (it is; the recording has been specifically designed to do so by Carl Sagan). And come to earth they do!
They do get the typical earthly welcome, though. Upon entering earth’s atmosphere the alien spaceship is intercepted by American fighter jets (you would expect the aliens to be wiser with their choice of country to visit, wouldn’t you?). The spaceship happens to crash near the secluded home of Jenny (Allen), who recently widowed her husband. The alien traveler finds Jenny and, through picking her place out, takes on the form of her deceased husband (Bridges). There’s a bit of a shock, out of which the alien kidnaps Jenny so she would take him to his rendezvous point with his fellow aliens so he can get out of earth and thus stay alive. How very Paul-ish of Starman, but notice there is not much sense there, if you ask me: what is the point of the earthly visit if the alien’s original intention had been to land at his evacuation point and go away immediately? And why will the alien die if he was to stay longer?
Anyway. Following on the great tradition of films featuring aliens that are hunted down by the army, Starman’s alien gets chased around by vile bureaucrats and a SETI agent (whatever that is). As the couple traverses hardships and challenges in their journey across the USA to the evacuation point, and through some superhero style displays by the alien at various points, a special relation forms between him (?) and Jenny.
The end result is a nice film whose main power source lies with the actors. Allen has this naïve charm to her, but Bridges is Bridges – a fine actor if ever there was one. I particularly liked the way in which his alien portrayal happens to be very similar to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s depiction of a cyborg in The Terminator. The problem lies in figuring out what Starman is trying to tell us, particularly when it doesn’t tell us anything that the Spielberg hasn’t told us already through his superior Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. (both released prior to Starman).
Best scene: The alien revives a shot down deer.
Overall: Starman is a nice film, but it never manages to transcend into the classic status many of its compatriot have established for themselves. 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 5 March 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Lowdown: The prelude to the classic Planet of the Apes.
Once upon a time there was a genuine classic of a movie that pressed all the right buttons in the fear department, Planet of the Apes. Since that original 1968 version a lot of attempts have been made at reproducing the success, but between lackluster sequels and a weird display from Tim Burton nothing managed to come close. Now, more than four decades later, we have ourselves the latest candidate, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Its draw-cards? Attempting to be original through the telling of the story that predated Charlton Heston, the story of how the apes overthrew humanity as the planet’s dominant species. That, plus the use of modern production values with modern computer generated special effects and motion capture technology. The good old question is still the same: does the new movie cut the mustard?
We start by following Will (James Franco), a doctor experimenting on chimps in order to concoct the cure for Alzheimer. He’s a person of ethics, and when things go wrong and a corporate decision is made to terminate all lab apes Will smuggles a baby chimp home. Quickly, through the aid of a quick montage, we realize the lab environment did baby chimp well: he’s very smart by all account. Will’s Alzheimer suffering father (John Lithgow), who shares the home, names the baby Caesar.
Ceasar’s wisdom coupled with his father's deterioration convinces Will to ignore ethics and give his father a dose of ape medicine. It works: the next morning the father is playing the piano like he was Beethoven. However, as one can expect, there is plenty of room for things to go wrong: a chimp surrounded by humans is still an alien no matter how smart he is, and drugs do have their side effects. Eventually Caesar will have to fend for himself, and in the process fend for the rest of the apes; this will lead to the alleged rise of the apes, of which we will no doubt be told in future sequels.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses familiar formulas to present its case with. It regularly evokes images from the classic Planet of the Apes series, and it regularly refers to events that took place there (e.g., the mere use of the name Caesar, or references to a space mission gone lost). The film also plays all the familiar notes in the plot development department, starting from the well meaning scientist that ends up creating devastation and moving through to the rise of an unlikely hero. There is nothing new in anything on offer by Rise of Planet of the Apes; that said, it all works well enough to create a cohesive, entertaining and often thrilling experience.
Thus we come to the point of the portrayal of the film’s apes. Apparently, these were mostly done via human, motion tracking, suit wearing actors on whom ape features were later superimposed through a computer. In particular, Andy “Gollum” Serkis is back to doing the thing that won him his fame in the role of Caesar. Once again this triggers the question of whether he’s entitled to be referred to as any of the “proper” actors in the cast. John Scalzi presented the case for regarding his the same way we regard Franco’s performance (see here); personally, having watched the supplementals detailing how his work was done, I do have my doubts. In principle, I see no reason to discriminate the digital from the physical; however, before/after comparisons seem to indicate to this illiterate blogger that Serkis’ main value has been in helping the actors around him relate to his performance and act accordingly rather than his performance on its own. It seems to me that the digital retrofitting kills most of Serkis’ own nuances in the process. Still, I have no doubt we are only a decade or so away from entirely virtual stars; the main thing holding Hollywood back there is probably the marketing value of real star power.
Best scene: The show down on the Golden Gate Bridge, of course.
Technical assessment: As I mentioned in my previous review, I will withhold technical reviewing for now. What I did want to mention here is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been the first film we got to watch on our new cheap yet big TV. We watched it while the TV was only half way through calibration, and it showed. So if there is anything you need to take from my account it is the value of properly calibrating your TV (properly = doing so through the use of reference material rather than the personal taste of your eyes).
Overall: Nothing new under the sun, yet it has to be said the end result is not bad at all. 3 out of 5 stars.