Sunday, 30 December 2012
Apparently, there is/was a tradition in the UK of airing James Bond films on Christmas day. We thought we would follow suit, being big fans of tradition ourselves (#sarcasm); upon finding 1995's GoldenEye is rated PG it became our Christmas Bond of choice for viewing with our son.
GoldenEye will be remembered in the pages of history as the first of four (?) Bonds starring Pierce Brosnan, who stepped into the very small shoes left by Timothy Dalton. What mark did Brosnan leave? Well, if you ask me, while his Bonds were entertaining at the time, they completely fail the test of history. His are the least memorable James Bond (excluding the disastrous few Bonds that everyone acknowledges to be the case), and GoldenEye is a case in point. Starting from the name, actually, a name that is obviously there in order to bring back memories of Goldfinger.
The plot is quite feeble. Someone is trying to take control over a Russian satellite no one knows much about, a satellite that can destroy cities. James Bond stumbles upon the plot through luckily hitting on a beautiful woman stealing a stealthy helicopter (Famke Janssen). His only aid is Janssen's opposite, the beautiful Russian woman who is the only survivor of the satellite program after the baddies took over. What follows is a plot that is as loose as an old man's set of false teeth but is laced with nice action scenes and sprayed with comedy.
Alas, the comedy tries to mimic the Roger Moore style but fails, while the action that tries to impress with the latest in technology generally fails the test of time as a result. What we have left after all is said and done is a collection of silly scenes that never bore but never take off either. The introduction of Judi Dench as Bond's new female boss is nothing but a cheap gimmick; the result is cheap entertainment for the whole family. One can see where the Christmas tradition came from.
Best scene: Bond drives a tank through an East Europe city in search of baddies. That's Bond action at its best.
Worst scene: Janssen is deriving pleasure out of strangling her sex partners with a vice like leg grip. Who came up with this silly idea?
Worst product placement ever: It is obvious BMW paid good money to be included in the film, as made clear through Q introducing a BMW to Bond. However, that car's only appearance is limited to the single drive-through scene in friendly territory with a girl by Bond's side and an American helper's plane landing just in front of the car to deliver a message. That is really it - an entirely pointless scene that could not possibly be more artificial than it is.
Overall: I'm sorry, but this Bond - and the rest of Brosnan's - is just crap. I strongly suspect the memory of the Brosnan era would quickly fade off the Bond pages. 2.5 out of 5 stars.
Thursday, 27 December 2012
1994’s The Mask is a film loaded with personal history. As a formerly proud owner of the movie’s laserdisc I have watched it many times – to the point of knowing its numerous one lines by heart. It wasn’t only I that loved it; my brother liked it so much it clearly influenced his decision to get a Jack Russell puppy. That puppy became a proper member of the family (he died of old age some five years ago). Roll back to the present day: I thought the time has come to acquaint my five year old with this old friend of a movie.
I am no fan of Jim Carrey, but in the case of The Mask he fits the role like a green magical mask to the face of the nice guy that never gets the girl, Stanley Ipkiss. Ipkiss works in a boring bank job to make a living. One day this hot woman (Cameron Diaz, for whom The Mask was her first big role; you might have heard of her since) walks in. The woman picks on Ipkiss to help her open a bank account because she identifies him as the lacklustre dude she can pick on as she gathers information for a bank robbery planned by her boyfriend, Dorian (The movie’s baddie). It turns out she is also the resident star of the hottest ticket in town, the Coco Bongo Club, the club Ipkiss is thrown out of. Indeed, Ipkiss gets screwed on all sides: at the club, at the garage, with the girls… What hope lies for him?
Hope comes in the shape of a mask he stumbles upon, a mask that unleashes the true person inside in comic style fashion and thus turns its wearer into a cartoon style superhero. With the mask, Ipkiss gets the girl and the baddies; but is it him or the masked figure that achieves all this? Regardless, both the baddies and the police are not about to take things lying down. Eventually, the burden of saving the day is laid on Ipkiss’ Jack Russell dog, Milo.
The Mask is not the most philosophical movie ever; it is easy watching. But it is cool, funny and original. It is a live shot cartoon story, reminding me a lot of both Aladdin and Shrek in the humor and musical performances.
You may argue The Mask is rather silly. It is fair to argue that by today’s standards its originality faded away, copied by many a cartoon; it is also fair to say that its once state of the art digital effect appear basic by today’s standards. I will argue in contrast that regardless, The Mask is still offering fine comedy with a geek of a hero at its core – a hero with whom I probably share a lot in common, starting from that basic drive to fool around.
Best scene: Milo the dog gets to wear the mask. Hilarious!
Overall: Simply charming and still worthy of 4 out of 5 stars.
Friday, 21 December 2012
After watching the awful artificially sugared The Santa Clause I had to seek some cleansing. I had to watch me a film with a body count. Killer Elite immediately sprang to mind by virtue of its name alone.
Titles may not be enough to get me to watch a movie, but casts sure are. Killer Elite sports some of my favorite names, specifically Jason Statham in the lead and Clive Owen. You also might have heard of one Robert De Niro doing a support role. Most importantly, though, Killer Elite utilizes the services of one Yvonne Strahnovski, the Aussie who gave not only her voice but her likeness as well to the character of Mass Effect’s Miranda.
Allegedly based on true events (although it’s hard to tell how loosely), Killer Elite follows Danny (Statham). He’s a pro SAS commando killer but he’s a good guy: as we are introduced we witness this merciful soul killing only the baddies and sparing the kids while taking bullets for his mercifulness. Lucky for Danny that Hunter (De Niro) is around to save him.
Years (?) later, in the early eighties, we see Danny again at a new life in Victoria’s Yarra Valley, near Melbourne. There he is busy building a house/farm of his own together with gorgeous partner Anne (Strahnovski), who is obviously completely clueless as to her partner’s background. Danny receives a wakeup call in the shape of a message informing him he has to show up before an Arab VIP or Hunter dies. Leaving Anne behind without much of an explanation, Danny ventures to the Middle East.
The Arab guy sends Danny on a mission: kill the three British intelligence people who killed three of his four sons and he will let Hunter go. Reluctantly, and after killing a few more people for dessert, Danny accepts. Obviously, the British won’t take his killing lying down; they will do their best to hide their dodgy dealings in Arab oil while the likes of ex commando Spike (Owen) will do their best to look after their mates. Action prevails in this bare knuckles movie.
There isn’t much to Killer Elite other than action. It’s a lot like Ronin in style, trying to issue some cynical statement about this world we live in through the action but generally failing. That said, the action is not bad at all; it’s very raw and does not rely on digital effects. Sadly, when things get to the face to face level Killer Elite reverts to the dreaded shaky camera coupled with fast editing technique which not only prevents being able to tell what’s going on but is also quite annoying at the headache/vomit induction level. Send the director to action filming school, please!
As is by now normal for films depicting seventies/eighties UK, things all look darkish, brownish and gritty. Miranda (I should say Strahovski, shouldn’t I?) brightens things up through easing the load on the eyes department but her role is that of the classic token beautiful woman. As in, shut up and look pretty.
Best scene: In an otherwise effective but unextraordinary movie, some of the nicer attractions came through recognizing the Melbourne landmarks significant bits of Killer Elite were shot at. For example, there is the Melbourne street that passes for a Parisian one. The best, however, is left to a shootout at an allegedly Parisian train station. It felt pretty cool to see De Niro shooting his way through the same train I take to work every day and at familiar City Loop stations.
Overall: Effective action, ordinary movie. 3 out of 5 stars.
Wednesday, 19 December 2012
Till now I have never seen me 1994’s The Santa Clause in full, but I had the impression the bits I did see appeared funny. Further, I seemed to recall the film receiving positive review. Under these assumptions I sat down to watch the film – me, an atheist with a non-Christian background. Hey, Tim Allen can’t be wrong, can he?
Yes, he can.
Allen plays Scott, a successful exec at a toy company but a failed family man, at least by the way he treats his divorcee and her new husband. He loves his son, though, but can’t for the life of him supply the son with a proper Christmas dinner experience. Things change when Santa crashes off Scott’s roof and he’s forced to replace him and become the new Santa. Together with his son they deliver gifts across the world, a feat they manage but which leaves the son at a problematic position: his arguing about the Santa experience causes people to think ill of him and his father. There lies the main conflict of this film, with the divorced couple pooling in different directions. Until the wrong side sees the light, that is.
Things quickly come down to a simple equation: if you believe in Santa you’re good, and if you don’t you’re bad and a spoilsport. Only problem is, what should kids (the movie’s target market) take from such a message? Should we really tell our kids that what is factually wrong is actually right just because you believe in it? And can we say this with a hand on our heart while knowing fully well the whole Santa thing is made up?
I really don’t see the point of movies like The Santa Clause (other than fetching money to Disney coffers, of course). Interestingly, we watched this one the day after my 5 year old told me some of his kinder colleagues insisted Santa was real (sending us off to one of those pleasurable “what do you think?” conversations). I’m pretty sure the conflicting messages he’s receiving are leaving him confused; I hope he’s got enough of a rational to figure things properly for himself and not fall for social ignorance.
Oh, and those funny bits I thought I remembered? They turned out to be as real as Santa.
Second worst scenes: I won’t even bother dealing with the film’s worst scenes; you should have got the gist by now. I will, however, point out how spoiled we have become through digital special effects. The Santa Clause is not that old a movie yet its special effects appear pathetic and so dead obvious! It is as if digital technology is rendering everything predating it obsolete.
Overall: I can only recommend The Santa Clause to people wishing to become schizophrenic. 1 out of 5 stars.
Monday, 17 December 2012
I don’t know if you noted it, but coming up with the above one liner to describe Kiss Kiss Bang Bang with proved harder than usual; I cannot claim to derive satisfaction from the final result. This hardship stems from the movie being more than one movie or one genre, but rather a collection of ideas we are used to seeing in many separate movies. The fact Kiss Kiss Bang Bang creates such a mix and very successfully so may explain why my wife and I have been talking about watching it again ever since we first stepped out of the cinema back in 2005. By now I actually forgot how good this movie is!
Robert Downey Jr. stars as Harry, an East Coast good hearted burglar whose partner finds himself shot to death by an overzealous onlooker. Grieved but still running away from police, Harry escapes capture by pretending to audition for a movie. His grief renders him so impressive he is immediately ordered to show up in Los Angeles and take practical lessons from a private detective, Gay Perry (Val Kilmer), so as to improve his chances for the role.
His first encounter with LA culture comes at a party where he meets the film's other protagonists. Like Gay Parry, who lives up to his name; or like Harmony (Michelle Monaghan), a girl who agrees with everyone else in the party other than Harry that being sexually poked while hung over is acceptable. Harry doesn't accept it, which is perhaps why he suddenly finds himself not studying the ways of a private detective but rather deep inside his own Hollywood murder mystery. This time around he cannot tell friend from foe - everyone is more than meets the eye.
This one is a film where 180 degree plot spins are the norm. Indeed, if there is anything I can blame Kiss Kiss Bang Bang for then it is the fact I would not swear to be able to understand the exact details of all the plot twists. That is, if you were to ask me how come our heroes got to a certain conclusion, I'd probably shrug. However, that does not mean my appreciation of the film is lacking; it just means there is so much more to this movie than the plot.
Instead of a plot to focus on we have twists. We also have great acting: Downey Jr. has proved himself inspirational many times before and after, but I vote for Kiss Kiss Bang Bang being his best ever; Val Kilmer steps out to remind us how good a comedian he can be (Top Secret, anyone?); and Michelle Monaghan is as sexy as a female could be in addition to performing her role.
After all is said and done, we are left with film noir that's not truly noir. That is to say, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang is more like film noir comedy. Film noir where the tragic hero is Hollywood's culture, and by extension our own culture. A culture that even a veteran burglar finds unacceptable.
Harmony undresses at Harry’s hotel room, with Harry “reluctantly” watching the scene through the mirror. He may be unsure whether to watch or not, but Harmony sure does know what she’s doing. The scene develops as the sexual tension builds, but – as with everything else in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – blows up into something completely different at the end. Or, to put it another way, romantic comedies don’t come any better than this, a film that does not really claim to be a romantic comedy.
The scene actually builds up on a previous scene where Harmony falls asleep in Harry’s bed as Harry finds a huge spider crawling over her. Harry fights the invader while the now awake Harmony is convinced he was after a good feel. Being a good Hollywood girl she says she doesn't care; it is clear that deep inside she does, though.
Together, these two scenes contribute to the movie’s ongoing theme on LA ethics being a substandard of the rest of the world’s. As in, the richer and famous you are, the less of a human you are, too. If you look at Kiss Kiss Bang Bang philosophically, the movie is all about overcoming this problem.
Overall: I have one nagging notion in my head since we finished re-watching Kiss Kiss Bang Bang – I want to watch it again! Movies like that are ever so rare, thus fully deserving 4.5 out of 5 stars. Perhaps even more.
Saturday, 15 December 2012
Homeworlds, the most recent and thus far last addition to the Mass Effect comics canon, is a direct go at providing the back stories to four of the game trilogy's most favorite characters. There really is not much more to it than that; however, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with delving further into the stories of the characters we know and love.
Starting off this roundup is James, who – having just escaped earth upon the arrival of the Reapers – flashes back to his family background story and the life of crime he was deprived of upon joining the Marines. I would say this story is the weakest of the lot, with relatively low add on value to the game and a story that we’ve all read and seen many times before. Obviously, James suffers from stiff competition in the face of characters that have been there since episode 1. On the positive side, this is the first time I see normal life on earth portrayed visually in a Mass Effect deliverable, which is rather interesting even if it’s very Blade Runnerish.
Tali’Zorah (Tali) picks things up with her story of how she got to that crucial point in time when she first met Shepard on the Citadel [back in Mass Effect 1]. As with James’ story, there is nothing here to really shake your perception of Tali as you know her from the game.
Moving on, we get to my pick for best story of them all, Garrus. It’s a bit of a rerun of James’ story, only done better: Archangel (Garrus) is defending his Omega balcony from waves of mercenary attacks, knowing all too well the end is as near as his ammo running out; what better thing to do under such circumstances than flashback to days gone by and recall the past’s poorly made choices? The story is not only good, it integrates perfectly with the Mass Effect 2 mission where Archangel is recruited.
Last, but definitely not least, is my favorite Mass Effect character: Liara. The previous subject of Redemption is now full time Shadow Broker, deservedly portrayed in a non baby-ish manner. The story, however, provides not much more than an answer as to how Shepard finds a Liara enjoying the best of Cerberus’ hospitality on Mars as Mass Effect 3 starts.
Animation styles vary, to one extent or another, between stories. The visual result is more than pleasing, but again – the trick is in the plots, and the plots are nothing more than dot connectors filling up the video games' lesser stories.
Fills up some gaps for lovable characters, but mostly lacking in truly shedding light on the deeper layers of those very same characters. In other words, these stories won't amount to much without the games they rely on.
I thoroughly enjoyed this read, but then again it would be very hard to write me up with anything about Tali, Garrus and Liara that I would not enjoy. 3.5 out of 5 stars from this fan.
P.S. By the way, this means that Blasto is still the best Mass Effect comic out there.
Wednesday, 12 December 2012
Seth MacFarlane has long established a reputation for crazy and original comedy through his TV animation series like American Dad and Family Guy. In case you were wondering how the MacFarlane thing works with live action on the big screen, look no further than Ted. It’s a direct answer written and directed by the man himself.
Mark Wahlberg and Mila Kunis reunite after their “legendary” Max Payne adventure. John (Wahlberg) is a kid so unpopular his only refuge is the teddy bear his parents got him for Christmas, Ted. He loves Ted so much he wishes for Ted to become alive, and as all Christmas wishes go this wish comes true – Ted the teddy bear is still a plush toy, but a conscious one at that. One that speaks with the voice of MacFarlane himself.
Roll the tape from 1985 to 2012, and John is still best friends with Ted. So much so that Lori (Kunis), the girlfriend that is way too overqualified for a guy with a dead end job who smokes pot all day with his teddy bear, feels marginalized. Something’s got to give: either John stops being a child and lets go of Ted, or Lori goes. Which way would it be? Perhaps, in the face of subplot driven adversity, one can have the cake and eat it to?
Ted embodies everything we grew to expect from Family Guy. It starts with that all too familiar voice (a voice that by now cannot be used on any non Family Guy like character), moves on to the use of actors from the Family Guy enterprise (like Patrick Stewart doing the narration), but mostly focuses around that good old crazy feeling of the cartoons. The basic concept, the one of the teddy bear coming to life, already puts us on a good starting point there; the crazy and often chaotic and perhaps sloppy direction and editing style takes things further. The politically incorrect jokes seal the deal, though.
Those jokes stretch along a lengthy continuum of wanking and deliberating on things that have no direct implications on the plot. Most obvious is the fixation on the cultural icons MacFarlane grew up on, particularly that bad old Flash Gordon movie. Perhaps because Star Wars was the subject of many a MacFarlane piece of work already, Ted puts a lot of focus on Flash Gordon and its hero character instead. If that film meant anything to you then you will like Ted regardless of anything else it does or doesn’t (it sure did matter to me; I recall watching it nine times in one weekend when my uncle rented the VHS, an experience that left my aunt in total despair). If, however, you find all this messing about nothing more than much ado about nothing then you will probably be too disturbed by Ted’s focus on the nonsense rather than being the good old plot driven film that every good [conforming] movie should be like.
Best scene #1: John flashbacks into his first meeting with Lori. In his mind, that was something like Officer and Gentleman meets Saturday Night Fever to become Airplane.
Best scene #2: John tries to guess the name of Ted’s new girlfriend. His only clue: it’s a bogan name. John starts spitting out candidate names machine gun style, leaving me to wonder how many takes the scene required before Wahlberg managed it (regardless, I bow my head with appreciation).
Worst scene: Ted and John fight in a scene that is perhaps the most Family Guy crazy in the movie. It’s not bad, but it’s just too crazy; in my opinion, it does not enhance the film but rather detracts. Unless, of course, crazy is what you seek.
Overall: I’ve enjoyed watching Ted, yet I cannot honestly say it’s a good movie. 3 out of 5 stars.
Monday, 10 December 2012
Living in the 21st century, those reading this post will not only be doing so through a computer but will also be wearing some on them. Computers are becoming an integral part of us. However, can we claim to know how these computers of ours work? Computing for Ordinary Mortals sets out to solve this problem of relying so much on things we are generally unfamiliar with by explaining computer science to the masses.
One by one, the book’s chapters introduce its reader to key computing concepts. We start with a basic portrayal of computers’ components, and move on to discuss the workings of a CPU, the network, the computer program, algorithms and even artificial intelligence. In order to explain the potentially complex concepts at hand to the layman, St. Amant uses mundane stories about ordinary human activities (e.g., filing) and then makes the analogy between that and the way computers work. Those analogies work, most of the time, even if they do feel occasionally overstretched.
Does the book work? Does it manage to popularize computer science? I would say it does, definitely so. Even for this computer professional, sorting the story of computers into an ascending tier of subjects helps in the sense that it takes things that I take for granted and puts them into perspective.
At the end of the day, Computing for Ordinary Mortals’ main problem seems to be its lack of flash. It does its explanations well and it is certainly comprehensible; it just lacks the ability to grip and thrill its reader. I have to admit such a task is hard to achieve in popular science books; however, there are plenty of examples to prove it is definitely possible (refer to the likes of Richard Dawkins or Carl Sagan for examples). Perhaps the only way this book managed to keep hold of me is by reminding me of my earlier escapades with computers: my primary school days of machine language programming, or the war game I wrote for my high school project. Incorporating artificial intelligence, that game took ideas from Dungeons & Dragons mass combat rules to create a single player turn based strategy game. I called it The War Machine, after the D&D set of rules it was based on. Yeah, those were the days when I was allowed to achieve nice things!
Overall: A popular science book on a popular subject that’s useful but, ultimately, not dazzling. Computing for Ordinary Mortals is found somewhere between 3 to 3.5 stars out of 5.
Wednesday, 5 December 2012
Science fiction doesn’t have to be about special effects and aliens trying to take over the earth and eat us alive; I often argue the better sci-fi comes when subtle changes are made to reality in order to make a certain point more obvious. To one extent or the other, such is the case with Perfect Sense.
Michael (Ewan McGregor) is an asshole. We know that because we are introduced to him as he politely kicks out a naked lady he just had sex with off his bed. He has “every right” to be the way he is: he’s young, he’s good looking, and he’s a successful chef at a successful Scottish restaurant. Why shouldn’t he regard the female population as his personal library service?
Opposite Michael is Susan (Eva Green), a scientist living just off the back of Michael’s restaurant and working on epidemics. Like the current one, which has people losing their mind for a brief session, after which they appear to lose their sense of smell; no one can really tell why this is happening.
Michael and Susan meet when the ever arrogant Michael asks Susan for a cigarette, and then a light, upon taking a work break. Susan complies from her window; shortly afterwards she agrees to go on a date. But can she trust Michael enough to develop a relationship with him when she knows what he’s really like and while everyone seems to be losing their senses, literally?
Perfect Sense is one of those beautifully created films where every shot is a marvel to look at and appreciate its composition. Beauty is further supported by the acting, particularly that of the leads: McGregor has long ago established the fact he can portray any character perfectly, and the beautiful Green knows how to play the closed but good looking woman. Frequent natural nudity adds to the viewer’s acceptance of their characters.
All this careful work is there to promote the message concerning the things that truly matter to us humans as we lose the things we think matter. For example, Perfect Sense suggests that losing one’s sense of taste does not mean that one would not want to go out to a restaurant anymore; it just means one would be able to better recognize that it is the social element of the going out that is the important thing rather than the food itself. The point about the importance of the social nature of human beings, particularly as demonstrated by the love affair at the center of our film here, is well made; however, the relationship between humanity losing its senses and the basic story feels more than a bit forced. It is as if Perfect Sense had a good idea to start with but fails to determine where to take things further. Perhaps this is why Perfect Sense resorts to the occasional bout of narration.
Regardless, Perfect Sense provides a great mix of a human story told in the background of some creatively apocalyptic scenes. It certainly does not lack imagination.
Best scene: Our senseless heroes, separated by trauma, seek one another for that final moment together. Things don’t go their way, though…
Overall: Creative, attractive, yet somewhat broken. I will be very generous and give Perfect Sense 3.5 out of 5 stars; after all, I do have a soft spot for science fiction.
Monday, 3 December 2012
Almost ten years ago, Halo provided our household with a revolutionary experience. It was the game bundled with our brand new Xbox console, and for a few straight weeks my wife and I fought through its campaign mode cooperatively. It was one of those gaming memories to cherish for life, a type of a once in a lifetime experience. No game since had managed to get my wife to play with me as much as Halo did (probably because local co-op is virtually extinct nowadays).
Since then we had the pleasure of becoming disappointed with Halo 2, and later we dumped our Xbox in favor of a PS3. With the recent release of Halo 4, a game I'd love to play but can't, Halo was brought back to our consciousness. Together with this release came Forward Unto Dawn, a film very well tied to the game. Since I can't play the game I thought watching the film is the least I could do.
After an obligatory introduction, Halo 4: Forward Unto Dawn takes us on a flashback to some sort of a space academy for upper class space marines. There we meet a group of teens practicing to become warriors. We see them training in catch the flag tournaments with rival units (hey, just like they do in Halo!) and we get to superficially get to know a group of them. We also learn about the world they live in, some future in which humanity is divided into two factions that are locked in a forever war with one another. This half of Forward Unto Dawn feels a lot like Starship Troopers (the film, not the book).
Then, before we arrive into any sort of a resolution with that Starship Troopers theme, Forward Unto Dawn changes from top to bottom. The Covenant arrives, and attacks our heroes' academy big time. It looks like it would take some sort of a superhero to save the day. Now, imagine who could that be!
If the first half gave a nod to Halo's multiplayer mode, Forward Unto Dawn's second half goes out to try and enliven the single player campaign. And liven it up it does: in contrast to my expectations, this one is a live action film where the only animation comes from the often crude CGI.
Does the package work? Yes and no. Yes, because it is a fine tag along-feature to the game. But no, because it is a film that doesn't know what it is trying to say whose ending feels stuck on with very poor quality glue.
Overall: A mediocre film, a nice supplement to the game. 2.5 out of 5 stars.