Sunday, 29 September 2013

World War Z

Lowdown: A zombie uprising with plenty of money for special effects.
I don’t know why the topic of zombie uprisings became so popular lately, but World War Z is yet another exploitation of the theme. And frankly, I was quite unimpressed with its unoriginality.
We begin with a typical American family stuck in a traffic jam at downtown Philadelphia. Signs of distress start showing up, then escalate through an explosion, then total chaos with no one knowing what’s going on, and then the world comes to an end through bombastic special effects. Seen this before? Yeah, I know, I watched Independence Day and The Day After Tomorrow too. As well as countless more. So, this time around the cause is a rabies like infection that turns people into zombies – big deal.
Our hero for the duration of the war is Gerry (Brad Pitt), a family man that also happens to be some hot shot formerly in the service of the UN. Thus when civilisation dies he is rescued and transported to the seafaring UN fleet’s headquarters (no, such a fleet does not exist in real life). He’s given a task: help find the cause of the virus in order to help find a cure, and in return his family will be allowed to stay with the fleet instead of risk going back to the infected land.
Thus Gerry goes to try and save the world. First he goes to North Korea, where rumours say the plague begun; then his findings lead him to Israel, which managed to avoid its own infection thus far. In between highly effects driven action scenes, the plot thickens as the quest for an antidote gains momentum.
Let’s clear one thing out of the way: World War Z is, first and foremost, an obviously expensive special effects bonanza kind of an action film. Sure, there are some horror elements involved, but they are not the main event – this is not a “sit quietly till we make you jump” kind of a movie.
Clearly, though, World War Z also has some aspirations behind the cheap [expensive] thrill. UN taking over? A plot that moves between hotspots such as North Korea and Israel? There is a message here, and it is obvious. World War Z is trying to tell us we are all sharing this planet and should thus deal together with the real enemies confronting all of us, instead of pettily mongering about silly things and killing one another in the process. I can take that message; I think it earns World War Z a few brownie points over its peers to the genre, even if it loses many other points in the originality front.
Obviously, the point World War Z is making is very relevant. Think of what is currently taking place in Syria and the way Israel is handling the situation. Now think what would happen if the real Israel was to act the same way as World War Z’s Israel and let refugees into its borders: think what that might do to Arab-Israeli tensions. But also think why it’s not happening in real life to understand what World War Z is trying to tell us. It’s trying to say the zombies are already here and we are losing the war.
Best scenes: I liked Israel’s depiction in the movie. I suspect that what seems to have been shot at Malta was meant to resemble the Old City of Jerusalem, which is actually fairly tiny, but that aside things looked authentic. Anyway, the scene where the noise created by interfaith congregations attracts the zombies certainly appealed to this atheist’s world views. Pretty spectacular special effects, too.
Overall: When it comes to these “the world is coming to an end as we follow a family survive”, it’s usually a case of seen one, seen them all. These films can be fun, though; World War Z ups the ante with a worthy message, earning it 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Zombie Baseball Beatdown by Paolo Bacigalupi

Lowdown: A group of baseball playing teens discover there is more to their town’s meat factory than meets the cow.
There can be no doubt concerning Paolo Bacigalupi’s skills as a science fiction author. I got to know him with a bang through his Hugo winning Windup Girl; then I got to love him even more through his YA novels Ship Breaker and Drowned Cities. Yet as good as his books are, their scope is limited: they all take place in the same post global warming apocalypse universe, thus rendering them more like one big book than separate creations. The question is, can Bacigalupi prove himself able to write another book without sacrificing quality? Zombie Baseball Beatdown, or ZBB, is Bacigalupi’s answer to that question.
ZBB aims lower than its predecessors. As in, it is another YA book, but it feels like it is aimed at the younger YA market. Or am I getting that feeling because ZBB’s story is told in first person by a teen?
We follow Rabi, a resident of a small town somewhere in the middle of nowhere USA, and the son of an Indian (from India) mother and an Anglo father. Rabi plays baseball with his peers, who – like him – happen to be typical Americans. Yes, including Miguel, the son of illegal Mexican immigrants whose parents were deported and who now lives with his uncle and aunt. At least Miguel can play baseball, unlike Rabi. The other kids tend to be your average pale skinned Americans, and some of them have a problem with the darker skinned ones.  Especially Sami, whose father runs the town’s meat factory: a massive paddock of cows supplying all the beef consumed by the seven surrounding states.
Oh, there is a lot going wrong at that meat factory. Not only are the cows held in abysmal conditions, not only does the money they generate corrupt those who run the factory, and not only are the factory labourers slave driven. There is something else going on there, an experiment to make the cows bigger, an experiment with rather fishy results. And now it is up to our group of three baseball+comics loving youths to save the town. They have a lot on their hands: they have to fight prejudices, they have to fight immigration authorities, and they have to deal with the food industry with its rich lawyers. All in addition to some zombie cows.
Clearly, ZBB is not taking place in the same universe as Bacigalupi’s predecessors. Clearly, though, it still deals with similar themes, showing us that while Bacigalupi can take us into more than one imaginary world his mind is still very much occupied with the same as before: basic human rights and civil liberties in contemporary USA, the environment, and the hand to hand relationship both have with one another. Once again he shows us, this time in a book that will turn plenty of its readers into vegetarians, how too much regard for capital turns into disregard to people and the world they live in. After reading this book, and knowing what I already know about the American meat industry through films like Fast Food Nation, I would find it quite hard to touch meat the next time I visit the USA. It’s makes me feel good to know this very approachable book might make the difference with children who read it and perhaps stir them towards making this one a better world.
ZBB is certainly approachable. It is an easy, relatively short read; and it doesn’t mess its reader about, taking its reader for a thrilling ride from start to finish. It has the humour (zombie cows – say no more!), its discussion on immigration is very relevant to "stop the boats" Australia, and its ending is way cleverer than your average happy ending clich├ęs of normal YA standards. In other words, Bacigalupi produced yet another class act.
Overall: Entertaining and inspiring while being easy. I can’t ask for anything more. 4 out of 5 stars.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

The Hunt

Lowdown: A person’s life is shattered after rumours of him child molesting spread.
I’ve been having good experience with Danish films over the past few years, and The Hunt (or Jagten, originally) is no exception.
Set at a small town preparing for Christmas, The Hunt follows Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen), a teacher in his forties. He used to be a school teacher but now he works at a kindergarten; he used to be married but now he’s on his own and fighting for custody over his son. At least he has friends.
Or does he? When the little daughter of Lucas’ best friend is not happy to share Lucas with her kinder compatriots, and utters a few words she heard elsewhere, the kindergarten supervisor takes matters very seriously. An investigator comes in and puts words in the mouth of the girl; Lucas is quickly suspended. Shortly afterwards, more children come up with similar stories as investigations aim wider. It doesn’t take long at all before most of Lucas’ friends, including his best, renounce him, before he loses his job, and before even the supermarket violently kicks him out of its midsts.
A simple film made with what is clearly a small budget, at least by Hollywood’s standards, The Hunt is highly potent drama. It tells us how quickly and easily the world we carefully constructed all our lives can crumble for no good reason, and how fragile human relationships can be. By aiming at a matter that has become universally accepted, the violation of the innocence of children, The Hunt becomes even more effective: it shows us how society went mad with this particular concept. As in, can you imagine a Nabokov publishing Lolita today?
We don’t have to go that far, though. In 2008 Australia, police confiscated photos from an art exhibition depicting teenage nudity (see here). Last weekend, upon visiting the Melbourne Museum, I noted their long running exhibition on the human body has been partly blocked “for renovations”; I was able to take this photo from behind the barriers:

What the museum won’t let you see are photos of a naked boy and a girl. Because, as you can now see, contemporary society will not tolerate that. Not even at a place of knowledge such as a museum! Surely, we’ve gone mad; yes, we need to defend children, but at the same time we need to protect art and knowledge. The Hunt proves that point and lets its viewers ponder how it applies elsewhere.
Best scene: I liked the analogy of a bleeding Lucas, punched out of the supermarket and crippling away, on Christmas eve. All for others’ sins.
Overall: Well made and thought provoking. 4 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, 19 September 2013

Movie 43

Lowdown: A collection of vulgar comedy skits.
We were after a short movie when we chose to spend a weekend night with Movie 43. We got what we expected for about an hour and a half; we were, however, taken by total surprise with the non PC vulgar nature of what we got. And no, I’m not complaining; not at all.
Essentially, Movie 43 is a collection of short comedy skits, apparently directed by separate directors and featuring some big time names. And I mean it when I say big time names: you get Seth MacFarlane, Hugh Jackman, Kate Winslet, Liev Schreiber, Naomi Watts, Richard Gere, Justin Long, Uma Thurman, and many – many! – more. Given the nature of the affair they all appear for short periods, which I have found to be rather distracting: half the time I was like “ooh, isn’t that face familiar?”, rushing to my iPad to check who that person is and where I remember them from.
It’s interesting to note the various skits are connected through a “cover story” running throughout the film. That cover story itself doesn’t matter much; it’s too silly. The interesting aspect is that it seems Movie 43 was distributed with different cover stories in different countries. Why they would choose to do that is beyond me.
So what are the skits like? Perhaps it is best to offer some examples. Otherwise, you won’t believe me when I say “crazy”. Well, we have Winslet and Jackman go on a blind date, during which Winslet – but only Winslet – notices Jackman’s balls are hanging off his throat. Next we have parents Watts & Schreiber deciding to teach their teenage son about life’s disappointments themselves instead of him learning it the hard way; so mother Watts hits on him and then dumps him (and much more). And we have a Richard Gere in the role of a Steve Jobs like CEO who is required to handle an iPhone 4 antennagate like crisis. You see, the company’s music player, shaped and sized like a naked woman, has a problem: for some odd reason, people are trying to fuck; however, when they do so, their members get chopped off by "the music player" cooling fan, located exactly where you think it is located. The company is therefore in dire need to teach its customers not to fuck with its products.
As I said, it’s vulgar and it’s non PC. If that matters to you then so be it; me, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it thoroughly, mostly because I am unused to seeing such stuff coming off the an otherwise stupidly conservative Hollywood. I can see Naomi Watts doing crazy stuff from time to time; but Richard Gere? And goody two-shoes Jackman?
Overall: Yeah, it’s silly as hell. But if you’re after a fresh comedy, Movie 43 should do. 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

1984 by George Orwell

Lowdown: A personal story from inside the ultimate totalitarian society.
As I mentioned at my recent review of the film Nineteen Eighty-Four, I have read the original 1984 book by George Orwell on several occasions. However, thus far all my readings were of the Hebrew translations and all of them took place during my teen years. At the time I appreciated the book as the good science fiction take on the communism and fascism plaguing Orwell's world back in 1947; I think it is safe to say I failed to comprehend the nuances that turn 1984 into the warning sign it is. Something must have ingrained itself in my head, though, because when I recently read Chelsea (formerly Bradley) Manning’s apology before the USA military court I could not avoid reflecting on the similarities between that apology and the submission of Winston Smith before Big Brother with which 1984 ends.
So I went and did the only thing I could do: I reread 1984. This time I read the original English text; this time I was also able to download it for free off the web, and legally so since the book is no longer protected by copyright in Australia.
There is not much I can tell you about 1984 you probably do not know already. The plot follows Winston Smith, a Londoner in his late thirties, who works for the Party – the only party. A party that represents the most totalitarian regime ever conceived, where citizens are constantly watched, are constantly brainwashed, where the truth is constantly modified to conform with the latest party views, and where the worst crime imaginable is the thought crime. We follow Smith’s daily routine of implementing some subversive thoughts, including the establishment of a relationship with a woman (Julia) and contacting an inner Party member (O’Brien) whom he regards as likeminded. The end is pretty much a foregone conclusion; it’s the journey that counts, and the journey that Orwell takes us through is like no other.
Through careful, detailed descriptions of Winston’s world and inner thoughts, Orwell depicts a horrific world of a total totalitarian society. Explaining its whole philosophy and analysing its odds and ends, Orwell provides us a wonderful political document of a type that often reminded me of Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress; only that Orwell’s is much more thorough, much more detailed, much more focused, and much scarier.
There is no point in me analysing this book as a piece of literature here; others have done a much better job than I could ever do. I will say, though, that as a piece of literature Orwell’s is clearly the best thing I have ever reviewed in this blog. I am making this claim on the basis of the richness of the book’s [bleak] vision and on the richness of its language, with which only Christopher Hitchens can compete. But most of all, I am making this claim on the basis of 1984’s relevancy: the book might have been written in light of regimes that are now removed, but oh how many warning signs it lights up with regards to today’s society!
By far the most touching was the image Smith is exposed to early on through a war propaganda film depicting a refugee boat being shredded to pieces by a “friendly” helicopter’s machine gun. A mother's (a “Jewess”) effort to protect her child is fruitless; the severed hand of one of the refugees flies up in the air, tracked by a camera celebrating the glorious victory. Me, I could not avoid thinking of Australia enlisting its military to “stop the [refugee] boats” as of today, one of PM Tony Abbott’s first moves since coming into office. Today. Neither was I able to stop thinking of the American gunship pilots, eager to find reasons to shoot at innocent Iraqi bystanders many of whom they just killed and injured, as seen and heard in that video made famous by Chelsea Manning. In other words, we are no different to them, the people living in Orwell’s 1984.
66 years might have passed since Orwell put his vision down and we are still to learn from it. At Smith’s real life London cameras track you wherever you are; recently even garbage cans. Spin is taken for granted. Politicians take us on wars of folly across the globe. The threat of terror is constantly being used to rob us of more and more of our hard fought liberties. In effort to exercise their power over us, the ruling classes are trampling over us financially while taking billions of taxpayers’ moneys home. And just recently we’ve learned that all non face to face transaction we perform, including online and over the phone, are being monitored by our governments.
1984 reminds us we live in a sad world. In some respects even sadder than Winston Smith’s: Orwell could not have imagined us all wilfully carrying tracking devices on our bodies and us going out of our way to give our personal stuff away to cynical commercial enterprises like Google and Facebook. By far, that is 1984’s most depressing aspect.
Overall: A visionary warning that society has thus far ignored. A 5 out of 5 stars piece of literature we owe it to ourselves to study and learn from.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die

Lowdown: A thousand song recommendations spanning past decades.
In this age of the Internet, the online and the tablet, what good is a paper book? This philosophical argument is often used by people praising ebooks' ease of use when they debate conservatives holding out for good old paper books sold in good old bookshops. Who’s right? A book called 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, recently borrowed from the library, helped me arrive at my own conclusion.
As books go, 1001 Songs is clearly one that is not meant to be read, at least not cover to cover. It’s more like a coffee table book, intended to be browsed until some catchy graphic holds your attention. Essentially, what you get here is one heavy thick pile of pages recounting song recommendations dating back from before the fifties to our current decade. Each song gets a bit of a spill, some more than others; recommendations range through languages and style; and that’s pretty much it. While I cannot claim to have read it all, it seems obvious no significant enlightenment can come from the text. The main event is the song recommendations. In essence, 1001 songs provides its reader with a 1001 songs long playlist.
Which is exactly where the question of relevancy in this day and age of the Internet comes from, and exactly why the existence of a book such as this tells us more about the conflict between the pre-Internet generation and those born into the Internet. Do we really need a book recommending us with music when playlists recommendations are shoved in our face constantly by Spotify, iTunes, apps, websites, and goddess knows what else? Do we really need a book to shed some light on the story behind some song when we can simply run a Wikipedia search? And most importantly, in this age where I can acquire the exact same information from Spotify, plus have that slightly more important ability to actually listen to the music while at it, what good is this book? What justification does it have to exist in the first place?
It doesn’t. Yet when I actually went to listen to some of the recommended songs on Spotify, I encountered numerous moments of glory along the lines of “oh, so this is the song I liked but could never identify!”. Many such numerous moments of glory.
I will therefore ask again. Is there justification for 1001 Songs to exist? Yes, because most of the musical facilities at my disposal require me to pull references from them, and often enough I don’t know what to pull at; a book such as 1001 Songs solves the problem by pushing the music at me, graphics and text included. Nowhere was the point made clearer than with rap music recommendations, given the genre seemed to have completely ignored me.
However, can a book like this be replaced by an online playlist with some added graphics and bonuses? Sure as hell.
Back to square one? Don’t think so. Not really. 1001 Songs has the potential to be nice, but seriously – its days, and the days of the paper book, are numbered.
Overall: Nice to reference, and even nicer as a philosophical exercise. I’ll give it 3 out of 5 stars, but be warned: it’s not the contents that counts in 1001 Songs, it’s the concept.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Iron Man 3

Lowdown: Iron Man returns. Again.
My approach to Iron Man 3 had everything to do with the franchise’s history. I was pleasantly surprised by the first Iron Man, particularly with it sporting fine actors having fun doing their thing. The sequel, bearing that most original of titles, Iron Man 2, was the exact opposite: an entirely forgettable, disappointing redo that should have never existed.
I thought I’d forget about the series, Robert Downey Jr. and all, but then Iron Man 3 came out with an ace up its sleeve: it is written and directed by Shane Black, the guy who wrote some of the most influential action films of my career (Lethal Weapon, Last Action Hero) as well as directed one of the past decade’s better movies – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. Can Black put Iron Man back in the black?
Iron Man 3 takes place some time after The Avengers (and, naturally, after its prequels). Numerous references to the latter shake the ground a bit too much, because one would expect the world to be slightly different after aliens wreak havoc to New York (see what two planes hitting New York did to the world twelve years ago today, and multiply by several orders of magnitude). However, Iron Man 3’s world thinks nothing of it; life goes on, with our Elon Musk – sorry, Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) – spending his days and nights further perfecting his Iron Man suits. He's obsessed with them.
A flashback takes us to the time before Iron Man and sets the film up. An arrogant Stark mocks and ignores the plight of a geeky scientist (Guy Pearce) with an idea, focusing on sex instead. Guess what? That geeky scientist will come back to haunt him for a bit more than two hours.
Back in the present, that geeky scientist is transformed into a handsome cool guy. You know, Guy Pearce. And he’s clearly up to something, engaging Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), Stark’s neglected love interest. In parallel we learn the USA and its president are being threatened by a Bin Laden like villain (an awesome Ben Kingsley), only that this Bin Laden is much more capable as well as brutal than the original. And the worse thing? When push comes to shove, the home of our hero Stark is destroyed; now it is up to him to save the USA from this cadre of villains using the one remaining Iron Man suit to survive that destruction, and a prototype at that. Will he manage? Oh, the tension!
The good thing about Iron Man 3 is that it does not take itself seriously. It is, first and foremost, an action film; and like the first episode in the series, it is an actor’s action film. Which is much more than can be said about most of the crap coming out of Hollywood these days!
I do have to add I felt the Shane Black promise failed to deliver. Sure, there is that same aura of bullshit fun most recently experienced with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, but things fail to soar to the same heights. And unlike KKBB, we still get cheap and dirty resolutions to the movie. Such as when, all of a sudden, the rest of the Iron Man suits suddenly become available – and not a moment too soon, obviously. There are some existential deliberations relevant to this era of government snooping its nose into innocent people's business, leaving us unable to tell who the real villain is when both sides’ ethics suffer. Seriously, though, Iron Man 3 is all about fun and games. It's like a special feature film length episode of Chuck.
Notable scene: A henchman surrenders to an unironed Stark while claiming his employers were always weirdos. Since Austin Powers I am yet to recall a movie going for that joke.
Overall: Not too bad for an Iron Man movie without much Iron Man for the bulk of the film. But not particularly good either; just 3 out of 5 stars.

Wednesday, 4 September 2013

Nineteen Eighty-Four

Lowdown: Orwell’s 1984 filmed in 1984 England.
I was unaware of it at the time, somewhere around 1985, but I actually managed to pull my mother to join me for the Israeli premier of Nineteen Eighty-Four. I believe it took place at Tel Aviv’s then rejuvenated but alas short lived Gordon cinema. Most importantly, it had John Hurt attend in person, talk to us about the movie and attend a Q&A session. There was another production stakeholder there, I recall, but I don’t remember who; what I do remember is an impressive hour long procession. I also remember the movie that followed was rather disappointing.
By that time I already read George Orwell’s 1984 twice. Once because it was hyped as one of the must science fiction reads of all time, twice because the year was 1984 and [people seem to forget, but] there were lots of doomsday prophecies at the time. Probably even more than the 2012 bullshit parade we saw more recently, and with the cold war peaking there was probably more reason to entertain oneself with various incarnations of the collapse of civilization as we know it.
We live in a different world today, a world in which the Sword of Damocles no longer hangs on our necks. At least not as much. However, courtesy of one Edward Snowden, we now know that our governments have been systematically abusing the technological means at their hands to spy on us at previously unprecedented levels. We know our phones are tapped and that everything we do online passes under the government’s watchful eye. In other words, we know that Big Brother is here, making sure we do not commit any thought crimes he might disapprove of. In too many respects, 1984 is firmly here with us and we might have not even noticed it. Obviously, it was time to revisit Orwell’s masterpiece.
Revisitation started with the book; half way through I watched Nineteen Eighty-Four again, too.
Perhaps the most telling comment I can make of Nineteen Eighty-Four is that there is not much for me to say about the movie that will not be covered by my future review of the book. The movie lies completely under the book’s shadow. Perhaps that is not too bad, given the greatness of the book; but I think the problem is with the movie’s rather pale appearance, obscured by shadows as it is. Reading 1984, with its lengthy descriptions of the horror of its totalitarian regime, is a truly mesmerizing experience that has me constantly comparing hero Winston Smith’s escapades with what we are going through at this day and age. The movie simply fails in that department: sure, it conveys the annoyance of living under constant surveillance and constant propaganda bombardment, but it fails to horrify. For a start, nowadays the citizens of London are probably under observation much more than their imaginary movie counterparts. By leaving too little to the imagination, and by missing out on the finer details from the book, Nineteen Eight-Four comes out more like criticism towards communist/fascist societies. That was probably the book’s starting point, too; however, the movie fails at showing viewers how close today’s society is to 1984’s.
Sure, all the key plot elements are there. But it just doesn’t work, to the degree I found it hard to stay awake towards the end. I wonder if it would ever be possible to produce a movie version of 1984 that is both loyal enough to the book while standing out as a good movie by its own rights, the way Peter Jackson managed with Lord of the Rings (but thus far failed with The Hobbit). For it's part, Nineteen Eighty-Four doesn't even qualify.
Notable scene: Nineteen Eighty-Four starts with a depiction of Two Minutes Hate, which happens at the book’s early stages too. The fact the filmed version was so much lesser than the one my imagination came up with as I read the book says it all.
Interesting scene: There is plenty of nudity in the movie, mostly on the part of Suzanna Hamilton playing the part of Smith’s female co-conspirator. That part is fairly loyal to the book; however, I remember that uneasy feeling I had when John Hurt appeared naked on the screen while I could see the real John Hurt sitting just a few meters away from me.
Overall: Even Richard Burton doesn’t save this one. Only the relevancy of the book’s original message does, which is why I still give Nineteen Eight-Four 3 out of 5 stars.