Saturday, 28 June 2014

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Lowdown: A redundant employee of a redundant magazine goes on a meaning seeking journey.
It is no secret I love the Stiller family. The father was awesome in Seinfeld, while son Ben has been entertaining me for years. As good as he is, Ben Stiller seems to shine even further when he directs his own movies. Zoolander and Tropic Thunder prove the point; The Secret Life of Walter Mitty takes it even further.
Our hero, Walter Mitty, is working for Life Magazine. As has happened to the real Life magazine about a decade ago, the formerly proud paper based magazine sporting historical photography is shutting down in favour of turning into a web magazine. I don’t know about you, but I have been in organisations going through such changes myself, and it ain’t nice; as the film depicts, the process tends to involve lacklustre management and totally demotivated employees [not at my current employer, though; here, it is almost needless to say, management is superb through and through!]. The times, they are a-changin’, and the previously glorious is no longer so; our movie is saddened but accepts the reality for what it is.
As bad as things are for Life, they are even worse for Walter. There is a chance he might be able to keep his job, as some core crew members are kept to look after the web publication. Alas, Walter firmly belongs in the past: he is the Negative Man, the guy whose job is to sort negatives out. Negatives, remember? Those tiny bits of film that people used to take photos on before the age of digital photography? Well, goes to show what survival chances our friend Walter has.
But Walter does have a chance. The magazine’s top notch photographer (Sean Penn) has sent him the negative of the photo that he claims to be a superstar destined for the last issue’s cover. Alas, our Walter is unable to find this negative!
With some help from friends, unlikely as they are, Walter embarks on a journey across the globe to fetch the missing negative. It will have him swimming with sharks in the arctic, escaping volcanoes in Iceland and trekking the Himalayas. In due course he will find himself and form some identity for himself other than that of Negative Man. In due course he will also demonstrate to us, viewers, that the world is a small place filled with good people – even if they appear weird.
Given that I loved The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I will go straight ahead to the negative (pun intended). My main and only problem with this film has been that it’s dead obvious: everyone should be able to know right from the very beginning where that elusive negative is. Only the film’s characters seem oblivious.
One can focus on the negative, but I prefer to focus on the positive. Of which there is plenty. Although The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is shrouded with the pessimism involving job and culture losses, the message is very optimistic: yes, we all go through changes in life, but we can make it through and be better for it given the right circumstances and the will to make the most of it. Essentially, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a movie about seeking a meaning to life, and I agree with the message around people having to seek their own meaning out. I disagree with the idea that meaning acquisition requires putting one’s life at silly risks and doing things like suffering the cold and the exercise of the Himalayas, but to each their own.
Overall: A tad too slow, more than a bit obscure, but the eccentric nature of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty only makes the journey it takes its viewer through a more rewarding one. With 4 out of 5 crabs, I am looking for more to come my way from director Ben Stiller.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

All You Need Is Kill

Lowdown: A Japanese warrior dies fighting aliens every day.
The executive summary would say
I heard of the comic All You Need Is Kill online; it sounded promising. Then I read it and went: “meh”.
Which made me even more determined to see what the fuss is about.
According to Wikipedia, All You Need Is Kill started life a decade ago as a Japanese light novel. It was then converted into a comic which was released in English form just a month ago. At less than a hundred pages long, that is the version I was exposed to.
Our hero is Keiji, a Japanese member of a United Nations type force assigned with fighting the aliens that invaded earth. Keiji’s story is truly a simple workman’s one: he wakes up in the morning, trains, fights the baddie aliens, dies fighting, repeat ad infinitum. I mean, we all feel this way after a day at work; Keiji’s case is just a bit more literal.
Clearly, the idea at hand is a nice one. Where I was less than enchanted by All You Need Is Kill is the question of where the comic tries to take the idea to. Or rather, where it doesn’t. What is it trying to say, given the special place allocated to an eccentric American female axe wielding female character? Is there special meaning to be derived from this story of international interaction? And what are we to take home from those aliens, who turn out to be simply mimicking whatever they interact with?
My problem is, I found All You Need Is Kill's answers to those questions rather lacking. Perhaps the recently released Tom Cruise flick based on this story, Edge of Tomorrow, would shed further light?
I doubt it.
Overall: 2.5 out of 5 crabs. No, I still do not see what the fuss is about.

Friday, 20 June 2014

No Place to Hide by Glenn Greenwald

Lowdown: First person views on the Edward Snowden revelations.
Back when Edward Snowden first started making himself into a household name, one of the many things I found puzzling was his choice of using Glenn Greenwald as the conduit of his public message. I knew Greenwald before, having generally admired his work and his stands; if I remember correctly, we even exchanged a brief Twitter dialog.
However, shortly before Snowden burst into the scene, Greenwald managed to get himself embroiled with another person I look up to, Sam Harris. The former was accusing the latter of Islamophobia.  Harris covered the clash on his blog, Greenwald responded over The Guardian. I was not at a position enabling me to determine right from wrong, but similarly to this guy I tended to drift Harris’ way. Briefly skimming through them, I did not feel like Greenwald was raising proper arguments.
Then history happened. Snowden came in and reshuffled the deck. More than that, the guy is responsible for completely revising my views on this world we live in. Greenwald’s No Place to Hide discusses the process behind the scenes of this reshuffling.
No Place to Hide is generally a three acts book. In the first we hear Greenwald’s first person journey from how he almost missed out on the whole Snowden adventure till roughly the time Snowden went underground in Hong Kong. The second act provides an overview of Snowden’s revelations; nothing that hasn’t been published already, but all organised here for maximum impact clarity. As in, if you haven’t delved into Snowden’s message yet but would like to do so now, this book is probably where you’d want to go. In the third act Greenwald takes the discussion into the philosophical level, discussing the meaning and implications. Basically, this is the part of the book that reads like Orwell’s 1984, only that this is much scarier than the original: unlike 1984, No Place to Hide is no work of fiction.
There is a river of criticism flowing out of No Place to Hide. A lot of it is directed at Obama, the president that promised a change for the better and instead turned out to be the harshest president yet on those who aspire for transparency, whistleblowers and journalists included. We all mocked George W, but in many respects Obama did much worse. He continued with Bush's surveillance programs despite promises to cease these operations, and he took them much further. I find it interesting to hear many people clapping their hands lately to Obama’s late-to-the-party words on global warming; sure, we need to do something and quickly, but let us not forget that this is the same person that ordered his agencies to track everything about us. Everything.
By far the harshest criticism coming from No Place to Hide is directed by Greenwald at fellow journalists of the majority type, the type that became institutionalised and is now nothing more than a loudspeaker for government agendas. By making it normal for us to automatically accept whatever the government thinks or does, these people have disabled society’s self correcting mechanisms (in much the same way as I alluded to in my recent review of Time magazine); thus they allow mistakes and misdirections to go through uninterrupted, while opposition is marginalised and removed from debate. Opposition such as Snowden, who was lucky enough to have a message so powerful even the most powerful were unable to marginalise him enough to subdue his message. In Snowden’s case, even the threat of an eternity in jail and exile in Russia did not stop the message passing through; problem is, Snowden is very much unique in this regard.
To say that Glenn Greenwald’s No Place to Hide is an important book would be to underestimate one of the most important stories of contemporary society. It is my opinion that while humanity has many great challenges on its hand, ranging from the threat of self annihilation to mass extinction through global warming, humanity will not be at a position to sort these problems out until we get to the stage where we sort ourselves out first. And sorting ourselves out means getting rid of tyrannical implementations such as the NSA and its complex net of surveillance.
The way I see it, the reason why the NSA’s tapping into everything we do online (and over the phone, for that matter) is such a great danger starts with the reason why the NSA is doing what it’s doing in the first place. Greenwald provides all the evidence one may need to prove the whole charade is not about that magical word, “Terrorism”, but rather about power. In the exact same way Orwell put it back in 1949, the NSA is all about control. Control over us.
At this point most people I know react by briefly pulling their shoulders and asking aloud in what way do the NSA tappings relate to them; they are but an innocent person, and in no way can they be harmed by that. Greenwald provides an answer to that argument, too: yes, he says, those who pose no challenge to the powers that be are rarely targeted by them; they are therefore in a position where they can convince themselves that oppression does not exist. But it does, it clearly does – as Snowden shows and as the news of the world have been informing us since humanity started recording history.
No Place to Hide culminates with the story of David Miranda, Greenwald’s partner in life, and his arrest in Heathrow under terrorism accusations. Miranda was no terrorist, and not even those who arrested him claimed he was one. Miranda was a normal person, like you and I, whose only “crime” was aiding the process of reporting on this scoop of the century – Snowden’s revelations. So yes, Miranda's own case  clearly demonstrates how innocent people can be oppressed if they dare cross the line and raise a challenge. I don’t know about you, but the next time I will be visiting the UK – for no important reason, just a family visit – I will be scared at what local authorities might do to me at their whim. If you’re a normal person, a person not unlike Miranda, you should be scared, too.
Overall: Did Greenwalrd alleviate the concerns I've had after his clash with Harris? Yes, and more: Clearly, No Place to Hide is a most important book covering one of the most important leaks ever. It’s a must, and it’s also worthy of a hefty 4.5 out of 5 crabs.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant

Lowdown: Things going wrong with a society that relies on parasites for medicine, as told by a woman whose life was saved by such a parasite.
My love affair with Seanan McGuire, also known under the pen name of Mira Grant, is well documented. I got to know her through her Newsflesh trilogy of books telling us of a near future world dominated by zombies. That zombie scene was used to tell us a lot about the world we live in, specifically a world where anyone can report the news. Now McGuire/Grant is up to a new trilogy, Parasitology, and me? I couldn’t wait.
Our story revolves around Sal. Formerly Sally, this young woman has had herself a car crash and was declared clinically dead. Yet through the parasite in her she somehow managed to come back to life, although equipped with a brand new consciousness – that of Sal’s. How could that be and what is this parasite thing? Well, in the near future – a decade or so from now – medicine as we know it will almost cease to exist. Instead, the bulk of society will put a tailor made parasite into their stomachs, a parasite based on the tapeworms inflicting the poorer people of our world. That parasite looks after its owners health for them; it’s just that Sal’s parasite took an extra step for her.
We join Sal’s very Newsflesh like first person account of events as things start going wrong around her at her San Francisco environment. Specifically, people seem to be randomly taken over by something that turns them into some sort of a zombie. Could this be parasite related? You betcha. Could the pharmaceutical conglomerate that brought the parasites to this world be involved with whatever is going on? You betcha. Could our Sally, with her unique parasite experience, find herself at the thick of things? You betcha, you betch, you betcha.
Clearly, styling and plot wise, Grant hasn’t ventured too far off familiar grounds with her new trilogy’s opener. Proceedings resemble a Tarantino movie: lots of talk about the seemingly mundane, followed by key eventful scenes, followed by more talk. To me, the difference between Parasite and the Newsflesh trilogy was in what I could take out of the story: the earlier books dealt with news telling in a terrorised society (just replace zombies with 9/11 and you’d be on track), but what is this one trying to say? If it tries to warn us about the dangers of doing science without conscience, it manages a bit; if it tries to warn us of a world where health is governed by pure capitalism, it manages a bit. It never fully convinces, though. Ultimately, I felt this to be a good adventure story with not much depth behind it for support.
Perhaps it is the scientific angle that had me lost. The excuse for the parasite medicine being as effective as it is in the book’s world is "The Hygiene Theory". That theory dictates that a lot of our modern day illnesses, such as autoimmune issues and the rise of allergies, are to do with us over-sterilising our environments. This could be the case in the real world, but we are far from any verdict. The most recent article I read on the matter at a March issue of New Scientist speculated such problems could be the result of less variety in friendly stomach bacteria, the result of the industrialisation+globalisation of our food supplies. If that is indeed the case then the solution would involve stomach bacteria intake rather than a parasite. Still, scientific debates aside, the science behind Parasite does not detract from the story telling. It is other factors that do.
By far the biggest issue I found myself having with Parasite is that of inconsistency and thus lack of reliability. I can point at numerous examples but I will limit myself with the aim of limiting bloopers. First there is a Sal visiting a building where a major outbreak takes place, just to learn – after the event – that her boyfriend was in the building at the same time for a job interview. The reason why the boyfriend did not inform Sal of his interview is never disclosed.
Second is the matter of this mysterious infliction that turns people into zombie like creatures. It turns out the hospitals and the army are hard at work on identifying the symptoms yet they all fail. Eventually, when we finally get some clarity on the matter, the affair seemed far too trivial for me to blindly accept these institutions failed to see what was going on right before their eyes.
The third incident has our Sal and her boyfriend stuck in a long line of cars that are not going anywhere. After they’re there for a while the boyfriend, in the heat of discussion, takes his hands off the steering wheel; Sal is immediately upset, being the victim of a traffic accident that she is, and the boyfriend apologises. Seriously, are we to expect him keeping both hands on the wheel for hours when the car isn’t going anywhere?
I will stop here. My point is simple: between my inability to perceive much depth, my perception of a rather laborious account on affairs (whatever happened to short and sweet?), and the various issues detracting Parasite of a lot of credibility, I found myself rather disappointed with this book.
Overall: Parasite’s attempt to ride on the Newsflesh wave of success did not work too well on me. This 2.5 out of 5 crabs affair will probably see me skipping the rest of the trilogy.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

Side Effects

Lowdown: When a depressed woman does the unthinkable, could the blame be laid on her medicine?
Our strange Rooney Mara festival is continuing with force. Only recently did I acquaint myself with this actress through the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Then I watched Her, and now the trilogy concludes with Mara in Steven Soderbergh's Side Effects.
Side Effects has Mara playing the depressed woman, Emily, whose husband (Channing Tatum) was sent to jail for inside trading, thus causing her world to collapse. We join proceedings as the husband is released just to witness Mara attempting to take her own life. Luckily for her, she's assigned with what seems to be a good psychiatrist (Jude Law) to take care of her; that psychiatrist even consults with Emily's psychiatrist of old (Catherine Zeta-Jones).
Trying to do his best for Emily, the psychiatrist prescribes her with an experimental drug he happens to be paid to test by its pharmaceutical owner. Alas, the unthinkable happens, and it seems as if the medicine hindered rather than helped. The question now is, who is to blame? Is it the pharmaceutical company? Is it the psychiatrist prescribing the medicine? Or is it simply that it is still the person who did the unthinkable who is still to answer for their deeds, drugged or not?
Side Effect thus drifts from a thriller into a movie that seems to be there in order to point out the deficiencies of our health system, at least in the context of the way that system is being manipulated by gigantic conglomerates. However, it also time shares with a very Double Indemnity like set of ideas, to the point I started to question whether this one tries for more than it can chew by dancing at two weddings. Eventually, though, I concluded Side Effects fairs well on this front; if anything, I would say that once again Steven Soderbergh managed to produce a small gem. Side Effects is yet another demonstration of his ability to produce very focused visual impact.
It is also a very nice demonstration of Mara's abilities as an actress. Unlike Her, Side Effects has Mara doing pretty much the same role she did in Dragon Tattoo (sex scene included). The difference is that this time around it is a full time, starring role job. Clearly, Mara was unphased by the challenge. I will not deny being quite pleased with this movie doing the rare act of putting a woman in charge.
Overall: The feminist side of Side Effects help nudge this one to the right side of 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

About Time

Lowdown: The ability to relive life's experiences helps a guy get more out of it.
Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) is an ordinary British guy, even if he does come from a well off family. He's nerdish enough to miss an opportunity to have a great kiss with a nice girl at the New Year's party; similarly, he misses out on having a go at this most beautiful of girls that stays at his house all summer long because he left it out too long. What if he could have had another go at these two life experiences?
Well, he actually can. As his father (Bill Nighy) informs him, the men in the family are able to go back in time and have another go. To stop us asking pesky questions, he also tells Tom (but really, us) not to use this ability to make money or ask any pesky questions concerning the mechanics of this time travel affair, so as to allow this movie that we're watching - About Time - to continue on its course.
Well, Tim has another go. One thing leads to another and he meets Mary (Rachel McAdams), the girl he properly falls in love with. You guessed it: in a very romantic comedy style way, our Tim needs several goes at Rachel before they can call themselves a couple. As a bonus, he has three goes at their first night in bed. Because, hey, why not?
If thus far About Time felt like your average romantic comedy, things eventually do take a turn. We follow Tim as he establishes his own family and as people around him get older. In other words, instead of a Tim & Mary romantic affair with a time travel element, we get a story about life in general. Things do not feel the most cohesive ever, but the message does manage to be conveyed: About Time is a film about life as a whole, about growing up, finding your way through the world, establishing a family, and living through the passing of other family members. That is to say, About Time is about the circle of life as we know it nowadays (as opposed to life as it used to be up until a hundred years ago or so, when the order of events was much less firm than it is today).
The message is clear. Us viewers do not have the ability to relive key events of our lives at will. Therefore, we should make the most of the single pass we do get. Or, as the movie itself tells us rather too explicitly, we should live each day of our lives as if it will be our last. Oddly enough, I have discussed this very view not that long ago, concluding it is indeed worthwhile to make the most out of our time here on earth but also concluding that living each day as if it was our last can be rather problematic when we turn out to live for yet another day. That is to say, About Time's message is nice; but just like its too well off and too comfortable main characters, it is more than a bit unrealistic. It errs too badly into the side of schmaltz.
But to add to the discussion at hand, I will say it's really the memories that count: it does not matter how good the hero was in bed on his first night of sex; what matters is how the two partners remember this experience. The same applies to deceased family members: it's their memory and the way that memory continues to affect us that is their lingering heritage.
Overall: A bit tacky, a bit funny, and overall not too bad. I give About Time 3 out of 5 crabs.