Thursday, 25 October 2012

The Secret World of Arrietty

Lowdown: The daughter of a tiny people’s family, living in hiding under humans’ house, is discovered.
The Secret World of Arrietty, or Arrietty for short, belongs in that special niche of green Japanese animation movies. A niche made famous by the likes of Princess Mononoke, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle and Ponyo. The key difference is in Arrietty being directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi, who held animator roles in those previous films; however, other than that name change, you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Not that there is anything wrong with that, though: I consider these films to be a perfect hit with the adult children market. Nothing bad with being thought provoking as well as entertaining and appealing to the kids!
Arrietty takes place at a rural house, where daughter Arrietty lives with her parents under the floorboards. They are the last of their kind, tiny English speaking (for the sake of our five year old we watched the English dubbed version) humanoid people. All the rest of their keen, our little family believes, fell victims to the ever expanding humans. This is why the sighting of Arrietty by a young human boy coming to rest and relax at the house is a disaster: can the family now continue to make its living out of borrowing small things off humans, or will they have to seek their fortunes elsewhere?
Using colourful and magnificient animation – nothing like the computer generated stuff we’ve grown accustomed to see – Arrietty tells a touching story filled with adventure. Aided by well designed sound, Arrietty packs a punch that is entertaining as well as enjoyable. The green themes for which the genre is famous are as obvious as the great animation, and should hit home with a generation of kids growing up on iPads and fake grass.
Best scenes: I particularly liked the Prince of Persia like scenes where our tiny heroes managed around the humans’ house. The movie really does make the most of this for its own type of action scenes. That said, there is plenty of worthy drama in there, too.
Overall: Perhaps we can claim to have watched this film before by now, but regardless – Arrietty is a good all-around movie that is very well made. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Margin Call

Lowdown: A dramatization of the GFC’s moment of no return.
I seem to have a soft spot for films focusing on capitalist pigs / extreme neoliberals at work. Even though they hardly ever turn out to be great (Wall Street and its sequel are probably the most famous examples), they still appeal to that “I knew better” ego of mine. Now we have Margin Call entering the scene, packing not that much in originality but much more in the famous actors doing strong supporting roles department.
The whole movie takes place over two days, the day before and the day after the GFC came into our lives. Its stand is made very clear very quickly, with us being shown how an investment bank – in which the whole film takes place – fires the bulk of its employees for very Darwinian reasons. Its implementation of this Enron style (and, as recently exposed, Microsoft style, too) policy includes getting rid of previously devoted employees who worked for the company for the bulk of their adult life.
One such employee, a department manager (Stanley Tucci) was onto something big when he’s escorted out the building and finds his mobile disconnected. His last move as a company employee is leaving a USB stick to one of his employees (Zachary Quinto). The latter, one of the few to survive the employment massacre, manages to finish his former boss’ work and thus realize the bank – and the entire economy – is on the brink of collapse.
Alerts go up the food chain of managers (including, but not limited to, Paul Bettany, Kevin Spacey and Jeremy Irons). They all have their ideas of how the bank can survive the calamity that is to come, with the more ethically oriented (Spacey) to one side and most of the rest to the other. The outcome is known to us all; where Margin Call puts its focus is on the human drama and character interactions.
The world thus exposed to us is a rather scary one, a world where survival of the fittest rules not only during wholesale layoff day. I guess that should not come as a surprise to anyone, which is why I find Margin Call to ultimately fail. Granted, it is offers fine drama, albeit a drama that mildly falters towards the end, but it is not a carrier of new testimony. That is, unless you are surprised to learn the head honchos of these multibillion dollar banks do not understand the economic mechanisms they oversee (no news there; derivatives and their likes are thus far too complex to formulate and thus truly fathom). Or unless you were unaware that the world of big time players is dominated by middle aged to older men (if that surprises you then you are probably just as surprised each morning when that sun rises – again!). Indeed, Demi Moore is probably the only female face you will remember come Margin Call’s conclusion, and probably only because you would find yourself wondering “was that Demi Moore?”
Best scene: Kevin Spacey goes out with a motivation speech to his remaining employees, following the redundancy wave. He starts by getting all of them to clap and be cheerful about it and their future prospects, demonstrating an extreme but not an unheard of mechanism by which companies apply spin to their employees so that the latter can be further exploited.
Overall: Some fine drama, some nice performances by nice big names, but no brilliance. 3 out of 5 stars.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Barney's Version

Lowdown: The life and tribulations of a guy called Barney.
One of the greater talents in the field of storytelling is the ability to turn a story that may appear dry and ordinary, when looked upon at the bullet point level, into something that is extraordinary and interesting. Barney’s Version is an attempt to do just that, an attempt that in this reviewer’s opinion it very much succeeded in.
We follow an elderly Barney Panofsky (Paul Giamatti). At the very beginning we learn that he’s divorced with kids, and through his harassments of his former wife’s lover we learn he’s quite jealous about it. We learn he owns a studio producing cheap crap soap operas, and that although bitter, at his core he seems to be a likeable guy. That is, Barney seems to be an ordinary person with his various shades of gray about him.
Things take a dramatic turn very quickly when our hero is faced with an old nemesis, an ex policeman who accuses Barney of being a murderer in the middle of an otherwise sympathetic pub. As Barney travels back home he reflects on his version of things, taking us on a voyage of flashbacks. Moving back and forth through Barney’s life, we learn of his first marriage, in Italy, to a woman he only cared for because he thought she’s bearing his child (but then got quite angry with when it turned out the father was one of his best friends). We learn how his Jewish family connections arranged the ideal second marriage for him with a loaded princess (Minnie Driver). And then we witness him fall in love at first sight on his wedding night with Miriam (Rosamund Pike), the subject of his phone harassments from when the film begun.
The above description does not do Barney’s Version justice. This movie features plenty of themes as it depicts its very round characters over long periods of time, themes such as racism, adultery, suicide and mental diseases. The story told here is a complicated one where I found myself cheering for different characters at different times. I’ll put it this way: it was a pleasure to find such a story getting such a well deserved treatment.
Acting is the other element that works together with the story to render Barney’s Version into the high quality film it is. There are some stellar performances here, starting with Giamatti’s. There is the usual standard of excellence from Dustin Hoffman, portraying the corrupt down to earth policeman that’s Barney’s father. The female supporting roles are not in any way inferior: both Driver and Pike are simply excellent, with Driver generating numerous laughs while Pike generates sympathy.
Add the story to the acting, free these actors from the artificiality that often surrounds movie productions featuring A list stars, and the result is a film that’s just good and enjoyable. All that despite the story appearing ordinary at first.
Best scene:
One of the things we quickly learn about Barney is that the guy is into sex. Thus some of Barney's Version better scenes revolve around sex, like Barney learning that he is not the father of his son by virtue of that son's skin color, which happens to match that of his best friend. Or like Barney, desperate to find a way to get rid of his wife (Minnie Driver) in order to focus on the love of his life, is absolutely delighted at catching the wife having sex with another best friend of his.
Those, however, do not get my vote for best scene. That vote goes to the scene where Barney meets Miriam for the very first time and falls in love with her on the spot. I loved it because it was so well done I could feel exactly what Barney is feeling and I could remember that overwhelming feeling love at first sight is like. Obviously, the fact the subject of Barney's attention is Rosamund Pike helps a bit. Regardless, the point is that Barney's Version allows its viewer to deeply identify with its hero, imperfections and all.
Overall: I highly recommend this life story. 4 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Economix by Michael Goodwin

Lowdown: Civilization's recent history through the prism of economics, told using comics.
There is ample evidence to indicate complex ideas can be explained in popular terms. That is, in terms even my grandmother would be able to understand (in her grave). The best example for that would be Richard Dawkins, who got my award for writing last year’s best book by virtue of extending the format so as to maximize its effectiveness.
Economix does pretty much the same thing as Dawkins did. It takes a complex set of ideas, that concept we regularly refer to as “economics”, and it goes out to explain it in a book that reviews human history through the eyes of economics. For example, it tells us about World War 1 not in terms of this battle and that battle, but rather in the terms of the economic struggles that led to it as well as “won” it. As it progresses through history it exposes us to the financial theories prevailing at the time, from Smith through Marx to Keynes and neoliberalism. Its message is pretty clear: the bigger trends of our human civilizations are the direct result of economic ones; we should therefore do our best to understand economics.
Economix is not just another achievement in the field of popularizing the portrayal of complex idea; it is a mighty achievement, similar on scale to Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality. The reason for that is brilliantly simple: the whole story, told to us in person by author Michael Goodwin, is actually done in comics! That deserves a major “wow”, because here is a book that in many respects eclipses university grade material yet is incredibly accessible. Not only is it accessible, it is a pleasure to read, too! Credit obviously needs to go in the direction of its illustrator, Dan E. Burr.
“Plot” wise, Economix takes with its story all the way up to this year. In doing that, it shows us amazingly clearly how the wrongs of the past keep on repeating themselves. I strongly suspect neoliberals and the likes of American Republican or Australian Liberal supporters would classify it is left wing propaganda, but I will argue that one cannot argue with facts. And the facts are firmly supporting one side. I’ll put it this way: I doubt anyone reading Economix would be able to vote Romney afterwards. Not that Obama is a star, but in light of what Economix teaches its reader one cannot call the neoliberal fiscal policy anything but a sad joke.
I thus learned quite a lot from this seemingly simple book. I learned, for example, why my childhood days of coming home early from school to a welcoming home with a father and other relatives coming back from work the same time I did is no longer feasible (the answer has to do with the Vietnam War, amplified by heavy doses of Reaganomics as it was applied in various guises since the eighties). This annoys me a hell of a lot: my main problem in life at the moment is my inability to relax and/or feel like I’m a good parent, and the stress that’s causing that is all to do with the demands of work. Demands that, at the better financial times of my childhood days, did not exist. The social effects go further: as a child I used to spend most of my leisure time outside with friends, totally unsupervised; can anyone see that happening now? Read Economix and you will see that it is because of financial circumstances that we border ourselves, and our kids, up.
Moving back to the global level, our world is currently troubled by the problem of getting out of the GFC. Economies such as Spain's are set to impose austerity measures upon themselves; the USA is printing two dollars for every dollar it actually produces; and in Australia, a country that managed to escape the wrath of the GFC through its natural resources and a healthy amount of spending, the whole fiscal debate revolves around producing a budget surplus as quickly as possible. Who would have believed we have Labor running the show when they are doing their damn best to out-Liberal the Liberals?
The point is, in all three cases I presented above the proposed and implemented policies are clearly wrong (if you don’t believe me, read Economix). Yet the powers that be are allowed to go ahead with measures that would make the vast majority of the population miserable as they give the powerful ones, that famous one percent [of the one percent], their license to print money. This can only happen in a democracy when the general population is ignorant; Economix is exactly the type of cure to remedy this sad situation with. It worked for me!
Overall: Here is a heavy book I did not mind carrying with me in this era when the ebook vastly dominates my reading. Invaluable, entertaining and dare I say revolutionary, you owe it to yourself to give Economix a go. This is a 5 out of 5 stars of a book that takes the whole format a step forward.

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Kramer vs. Kramer

Lowdown: A family coming to terms with the mother leaving.
As classics go, 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer is a film well worth revisiting if only for the superb acting on display. There is a lot more going for it, though, which I hope to cover here.
We follow a New York family of three. The father, Ted Kramer (Dustin Hoffman) is more engaged in his advertising career than he is with his family; the mother, Joanna Kramer (Meryl Streep), cannot take the frustration anymore. That same evening the film starts, she puts their seven year old boy Billy (Justin Henry) to bed, packs up and leaves home and a startled, just back from post work drinks Ted, behind.
The next morning Ted starts his new life. This life around he is a parent first and a career person second; obviously, it takes time for both him and his son to get used to that. When, eventually, Joanna comes back for her child our Ted knows where he wants to make his stand. Things deteriorate into the Kramer vs. Kramer trial the film has become famous for.
The thing that blew me out about Kramer vs. Kramer was its realism. With the exception of the obvious age gap between Hoffman and Streep, this is a no bullshit movie where things are portrayed as they truly are, most particularly the joys and tribulations of parenthood but also those of the working parent. Take parenthood as an example and check out all the little details: the way the child plays with his toys, eats his food, ignores his father’s pleas, falls at the playground… The relationship side of the equation is just as authentically managed, dealing with problems most couples would face through their relationships. When complimented by the acting skills of two of the world’s best actors, Kramer vs. Kramer is a film that goes out and reaches deep inside its viewer. It certainly did with this parent of a similarly aged boy whose main challenge in life is balancing life’s demands, career and other duties, against the demands of parenthood. Especially when the feeling of failure tends to dominate.
The realism of Kramer vs. Kramer also serves as an authentic historical document of the seventies. We can see the way people dressed and behaved at the time and we can also see the way New York City was like at the time: the same New York I visited as a boy. At the time I was mesmerised by the perceived relative affluence of Americans, as symbolized by comparing the toys Billy plays with and the toys I used to have as a child. Back to the here and now, it is clear globalization and the Internet have shrunk that gap and even made things worse for the average American. On the other hand, the rest of the world tends to have to pay more for things than Americans do. I’ll finish off with this: you know a film works when it makes you ponder indirect ponderings such as mine here.
Best scenes:
There are three scenes where Ted and Billy have breakfast together that are meant to symbolize the status of their relationship at the time. The first takes place immediately after the breakup and, as expected, what starts as French toast ends up a disaster. The second has our heroes adjusting: father and son share donuts as each reads their respective morning paper, mimicking fairly well the meals I tend to have with my son. The third breakfast, towards the ends of the film, goes back to French toast. Now, however, everything runs smoothly. Just the way they ran when my wife prepared us all a French toast breakfast this past Sunday.
Overall: If you’ve watched it ages ago, go pay Kramer vs. Kramer a visit, especially if you’ve turned parents since. And if you never watched Kramer vs. Kramer, go do yourself a favour! 4.5 out of 5 stars from me.

Monday, 1 October 2012

I Love You Phillip Morris

Lowdown: Not a film about cigarettes.
I Love You Phillip Morris turned out to be a film with only one ace up its otherwise uninspiring sleeve. I came in expecting something along the lines of Thank You for Smoking, and found myself taken by total surprise by a film having nothing to do with cigarettes. If anything, I was reminded of Catch Me If You Can.
In what is alleged to be a true story, we follow Steven Russell (Jim Carrey). We start with him at hospital following a traffic accident as he is reconsidering his life thus far: given away for adoption as a baby left him scarred, and a career as a disloyally married policeman left him unsatisfied. Russell decides not to open a new page upon his release from hospital; instead he decides to start a brand new book.
He becomes openly gay, establishes a relationship with a hot guy, and sports a lavish lifestyle. How can he pull it off? By cheating, of course. Conning can only get Russell thus far, though, and quickly enough he finds himself in jail. He knows how to take care of himself there, but he also meets a guy who doesn’t – Phillip Morris (Ewan McGregor). The two fall in love, Russell takes it upon himself to take care of Morris, and upon his release goes back to being a conman in order to support the cause. Probably because it’s the only thing he knows, too.
The rest of the film is mostly made of the interactions between Russell and the law, including some incredibly enterprising methods of escaping jail. The question I found myself asking, though, was – is that enough to build a film on? And id that is the case, is this what the film should have been like? The answers I kept giving myself were "no".
For a start, I found I Love You Phillip Morris, with its short duration and all (just a bit more than an hour and a half) to be quite boring. Second, I could not avoid the Jim Carrey factor. Not necessarily because I grew to despise his anti vaccination efforts, but also because his acting stands out and not in a good way. I agree that some times his style works; I don’t think I Love You Phillip Morris represents such a case. In contrast, McGregor provides a perfect display that just shows how bad the Carrey affair is.
Want some positives? There is plenty of male to male kissing here, probably doubling the amount Hollywood generated thus far in all the films predating Phillip Morris.
Best scene: We learn how Russell escaped jail by dying of AIDS. I mean, wow! (Remember, this is based on true events)
Overall: The case of I Love You Phillip Morris collapsed on me through its Jim Carrey factor. 1.5 out of 5 stars.