Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Guard

Lowdown: The only good policeman in a remote Irish town is the esoteric one.
As far as remakes of High Noon are concerned, we probably thought we’ve seen them all already. That’s a wrong assumption to make, with The Guard proves to be a High Noon done the Irish way.
Our Gary Cooper for an hour and a half is Sergeant Gerry Boyle (Brendan Gleeson), to whom we are first introduced when he indifferently sieves through the dead bodies of teenagers who killed themselves driving recklessly on a high. Our policeman stops his operation only upon finding an ecstasy tablet. Which, of course, he consumes.
The political incorrectness of our Gerry doesn’t stop there. He openly welcomes call girls to his dwelling, he openly admits to trying out drugs (and mocks claims that the addiction to crack is established after a single exposure), he deals weapons with the IRA… You name it. But he is good hearted about it all and, in his way, he truly cares about his job and the community – as we’ll quickly find out, much more than most of the rest of his colleagues.
The plot thickens when a black FBI agent (Don Cheadle) drops in to catch a notorious drug dealing gang (featuring, amongst others, Mark Strong). The FBI seeks the cooperation of the local Irish police, but the latter seem to be mostly messing them about. The exception is our Gerry, who is both openly racist towards Cheadle’s character as well as providing genuine contribution to its efforts, even if the latter is done the Irish way.
I gave too much away by hinting things develop towards a High Noon like replica, but that is not the point of The Guard. The point is the path to get there, and that path is full of witty jokes woven around the Irish setting and its peculiarities, particularly those of our chief protagonist. In a world awash with political correctness, The Guard serves as a good reminder that there are better ways to do things if we stop to think about it. These start with better ways to make films than the crap Hollywood pours all over us, a point well delivered through a simple unassuming comedy.
Just a word of warning before I finish off: it can be quite hard to understand what those bloody Irish are saying. When they speak Gaelic it’s easy because of subtitles; it’s when they speak English that us viewers have to work hard.
Best scene: Our sergeant wakes up in the morning in totally unglamorous fashion, wearing only Y-fronts, and gives his balls a good rubbing. The things they never show you at Hollywood!
Overall: A simple yet entertaining film. That is to say, The Guard is nice! 3 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Mass Effect: Ascension by Drew Karpyshyn

Lowdown: The second novel set in the Mass Effect universe.
In practice, any book set in the Mass Effect universe would have limited appeal: those unfamiliar with the related video games would seem to have no reason to approach the books. In the case of Mass Effect: Ascension, or Ascension henceforth, that is a pity. The book is quite a fine tale of science fiction adventure packing some interesting thoughts.
Published in 2008, Ascension is the sequel to Mass Effect: Revelation. While the former tried to provide a backstory to the 2007 released Mass Effect video game, Ascension comes in between the release of the first Mass Effect game and 2010’s Mass Effect 2. It lives up to its part, pretty much setting the scene for Mass Effect 2.
We follow multiple characters, chief amongst which are Grayson, a drug addicted mercenary killer in the services of Cerberus, and Kahlee Sanders: heroine of the first book in the series and now a trainer at an academy for children with biotic powers (to the uninitiated: these are powers that utilize dark energy to move physical objects). The plot revolves around Gillian, Grayson’s autistic daughter and the bearer of record biotic powers for the species. This puts her under the sites of the pro human (and anti everything else) organization Cerberus, who do not hesitate to bend ethical principles down in their attempts to gain humanity advantage over alien species. As a result of this setting we follow a story woven between different characters across different world and races, with a lot of attention given to the Quarians and their Migrant Fleet.
The adventure story created in Ascension is not a page turner only affair. There is some significant sophistication about it: there are multiple well defined complex characters in roles of varying shades of gray. There is political incorrectness about, including sex scenes one would not normally associate with a book allegedly created at a marketing department so as to make further killing on the back of a successful video game. More surprisingly, there are clear messages concerning cutting edge social issues such as our ongoing war with terrorism or the social virtues of the Quarian society. Virtues that, if one stops to think about it, are in contrast to the free market all conquering capitalism of the USA. I do wonder whether this was possible because BioWare, creator of the Mass Effect universe, is a Canadian company.
Ascension is not without blemishes, chief amongst which are some cheap means of plot advancement. These are of a type I also pointed at in my review of Revelation. For example, we first learn that a certain character we deemed a goodie is a baddie when, for no particular reason, another character tells us it has a bad feeling about “this guy”. Then again, there is a bigger elephant in the room: as good as Ascension might be, it would still have limited appeal to those unfamiliar with Mass Effect; and given the limited introduction offered by the book there is no chance of it ever breaking free to stand by its own rights.
Overall: A fine science fiction adventure that’s tied a bit too tightly to its video game origins to truly stand out. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ by Philip Pullman

Lowdown: The story of Jesus and his twin brother, Christ.
Author Philip Pullman is a bit of an enigma to me. As an atheist, we share many a worldview; on paper it should be easy for us two to see eye to eye through his books. Alas, while I found his The Golden Compass to be a fantastic YA adventure story, its sequels – The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass – were very disappointing. Not only did they disappoint in the plot department, their fixation on various forms of mumbo jumbo (I cite the questionable references to quantum physics as a fine example) was not what I would have expected from a look-at-the-world-with-eyes-wide-open atheist. I did wonder, though, whether things improve with Pullman’s adult material; The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ seemed like a perfect opportunity to test this hypothesis with.
The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ starts off like the conventional nativity tale. Through the use of simple language as well as reliance on miracles we are told pretty much the same story the New Testament tells. It very much feels like a one to one retelling of The Nativity Story. The main difference is that Pullman’s tale has Mary mothering two children: Jesus, the rough and tough one; and Christ, the feeble and smart favorite.
It takes a while for this relatively short book (2000 Kindle units) to reach the point where the matter of these two brothers starts to make a difference over the story we already know. Once it starts, the purpose of this deviation is clear and the rest of the story is pretty much foretold: Jesus grows to embody the ideal that Christians claim to follow today, while Christ turns into a representation of what organized religion grew to become – a far cry from that ideal.
Is this message worth the whole affair of reading the book and the establishment of the two brothers’ concept? That, in a nutshell, is the problem with The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. It takes a book to raise a question that could have been raised in an essay or even an article. And more importantly, it doesn’t take us to realms we haven’t visited before. For example, if one wants a proper atheist’s bashing of religion, go to the source and read your God Delusion or God Is Not Great. If you want an alternate nativity story that actually packs a worthy punch, try The Book of Rachael. And if it i’s the real story of what took place with Jesus et al that you’re after then you just have to visit the real thing and watch Life of Brian again.
As it is, The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ is nothing special. It is definitely no page turner. the only niche I think it can serve is raising heretic thoughts in the mind of a believer who will never dare reading some of the proper books I’ve cited above. In other words, it is easy to digest atheism that's wrapped in enough cellophane to make it accessible and digestible to the moderate believer.
Overall: The Pullman mystery thickens as The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ receives 2.5 out of 5 stars.

Monday, 10 September 2012

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens

Lowdown: Christopher Hitchens looks death in the eye.
The subject matter of Christopher Hitchens’ last book, Mortality, is him dealing with the cancer that brought his life to an end less than a year ago and made this his last book ever. In the short span of less than a thousand Kindle units we’re taken across from when Hitchens first learns of the devil inside to the last jots he left just before death came along.
There are many reasons why the end result, Mortality, is a great book. First there’s the subject matter: how often are we in the Western world allowed to discuss death in the open, particularly our own deaths? I don’t know about you, but I can’t avoid noticing active censorship on this subject matter wherever I go. Mortality does the opposite: it looks our nemesis in the eye.
Moving along, Hitchens reviews his life with cancer. He discusses how society wants individuals to battle cancer instead of the more accurate reflection that it is the cancer that is fighting the patient. He discusses how the people around him deal with his sickness, including the prayers said on his behalf. And he is very candid about the treatments he has been receiving, leading him to mock the claim that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
All of these discussions come out as pure poetry in motion to read. I have noted Hitchens’ eloquent use of the English language before, but I would argue he peaked with Mortality; it is such a beautiful book to read, so well argued I could not fail to notice I was deliberately slowing down my reading to savour every paragraph.
Thus I argue Mortality is the perfect read. It’s not just that it is relevant and concise; it is a book that manages to turn death into a pleasure. A writer managing such a feat deserves the highest of accolades. I will greatly miss you, Christopher Hitchens; I already am.
Overall: 5 out of 5 stars. A must read for anyone ever going to die.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Dictator

Lowdown: A 3rd world dictator finds himself a normal person in New York.
Having recently read a guide book aimed at dictators, the time was ripe for me to pay a visit to Sacha Baron Cohen’s latest film, The Dictator. Following on the footsteps of Borat and Bruno, this is the first of the Baron Cohen genre that is not a direct descendant of an Ali G character; and while still uniquely a Baron Cohen film, The Dictator is much more conventional film like in structure than its predecessors and much less of a reality show.
This time around our Baron Cohen portrays the role of Aladeen, the ruthless dictator of a fictitious country in Africa. Aladeen is the worst of his kind: he develops nuclear weapons for the sole purpose of erasing Israel, he orders his top scientist dead for daring to produce a nuclear missile with a round head instead of a fear inducing pointy one, and he has an armada of celebrities that have sex with him on call in return for a Rolex or two (including Megan Fox in the role of Megan Fox). Aided by a brother (Ben Kingsley) that should have been the ruler but for some reason isn’t, the only principle our Aladeen follows is closing his country to foreign oil companies.
The threat of an attack called on his nuclear facilities has Aladeen venturing to New York, where he is supposed to present his agenda to the UN. Alas, Aladeen is attacked by a rogue agent (the ever excellent comedian John C. Reilly). While he makes it out alive, he loses his identity and his trademark beard in the process. Rescue comes from a hippie green New Yorker woman who doesn’t identify him for the evil dictator he is (Anna Faris), but Aladeen is forced to watch as his former empire is about to be turned into a democracy by his brother. Over his dead body!
The Dictator checks all the boxes in the gross humor department that a Sacha Baron Cohen film needs to comply with: sexism, racism, the lot. The only box it doesn’t tick is the cringe one: The Dictator is surprisingly poor there, which – in my book – makes it by far the best Baron Cohen movie around. It has the extremely non PC jokes to fire the engines with, but behind the jokes lies pointy criticism at our society. We only laugh at the jokes that compare females to trash because that’s what our modern democratic society often does, and we only laugh at the racist jokes because there is so much racism in our societies already.
The Dictator features a very Cinderella like structure, a soundtrack of Western pop music sung in Arabic, the usual cases of Baron Cohen using Hebrew/Israeli phrases in his speech (to replace the English vocabulary for sex organs, for example), and various jokes featuring unnaturally large breasts. Between all these weird elements lies a very smart gem of a film.
Best scene:
Our Aladeen gives a speech to the world in which he asks what is so bad about dictatorships. If America was a dictatorship, says Aladeen, then one percent of the population would have all the wealth, the rich could cut their own taxes down, they could get bailed when their gambles fail, phones can be tapped, foreign prisoners tortured, elections rigged, prisons can be filled with one particular demographic, the media gets controlled by one person and his family, and the population can be pushed to be in favor of policies that contradict its direct interests.
What can I say? By far the best worded criticism of the USA I have ever read.
Notable scene: Aladeen gets arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on New York from the air while, in fact, holding a chat in Hebrew.
Best joke: Aladeen pays for an extravagant hotel suite but gets repeatedly annoyed at the $20 charge for the Internet. How very true!
Overall: Highly recommended for its cleverness. And the jokes. 3.5 out of 5 stars.