Tuesday, 29 July 2014

Top Crabs #8

Another year in the life of this blog, its eighth, is over. The time has come yet again to look back, analyse the year that past, and award the best of the year's crop.

Best Film:
Over the past few years films seem to have been growing out of favour at this household. It comes down to us being inundated by average material that's there to make money or fill a spot at Netflix' shelves but not much more. Add to that us having less and less time on our hands to spare on mediocrity and the conclusion is foregone.
In this non favourable climate there was only one movie that we have watched this past year to make the grade. This movie is Gravity, a science fiction analogy from outer space of a woman getting back on her feet following a depressing situation. It may be scientifically inaccurate, but it is already inspiring moviemakers with its style.
It is interesting to note Gravity represents director Alfonso CuarĂ³n's second time on top of this podium in as many feature films. Clearly, this guy knows how to make a movie.

Best Book:
Another revolution has hit my reading consumption this past year. Whereas 2010 brought me firmly into the realm of the ebook through the acquisition of an Amazon Kindle ebook reader, this year saw the acquisition of a personal iPad. This iPad is responsible for me spending more time reading than I ever did since school. I have all but abandoned paper based reading, with both comics and magazines now consumed through the iPad. Alas, between those, my RSS feed and the Internet in general, "normal" books are having a hard time competing. My book reading throughput was thus been reduced.
It is perhaps befitting that in year, the year I got to carry an additional tracking device (aka an iPad) in addition to the veteran tracking device (aka a smartphone), Edward Snowden came out and significantly changed my views on this world we live in. As far as I am concerned, this past year has been Snowden's year. It is therefore befitting to note the best books I have had the pleasure of reading this year were directly related to Mr Snowden's escapades.
Following the revelations, I found myself intellectually forced to have another go at reading the book that foresaw it all, George Orwell's 1984. Clearly, this is the best book I have read this year; however, the book I am going to award here is the book that drew much inspiration from Orwell in its account of how the Edward Snowden revelations came to be and its analysis of what these revelations imply to the society that we live in. That book, of course, is Glenn Greenwald's No Place to Hide.
Events of recent months have demonstrated how leaders all over the world, from Putin through those leading Hamas to Binyamin Netanyahu are failing their people and the world around them. No Place to Hide, however, points at Obama as the one who beats them all to the title of World's Most Disappointing leader.

Best Music:
I might betray my age by constantly lamenting at the lack of the likes of Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd calibre musicians in today's scene, but I will also admit that today's music offers a lot of variety and complexity that the musicians of yore whom I view through those pink tainted glasses have never achieved. That said, there is nothing in the large crop of fine recordings from the past year that stands out as much as, say, The Beatles did at their time. Maybe it's because it's much harder to stand out from a vast background of music creation as today's.
As hard as I tried to find that standout performance, armed as I am with various online music detection tools and a Spotify Premium account, I still failed. But when the dust settled I was fairly happy with the results of my effort, finding many a pleasing album along the way.
Amongst these it was Arcade Fire's Reflektor that proved to be the one album that survived the longest as the album I come back to again and again. Many factors stand in favour of Reflektor, including much variety is styles and songs that are not afraid of getting away from convention. Thus Reflektor is a truly fine album.
Allow me to indulge you with the title song, including a guest appearance of an old high calibre megastar David Bowie (on vocals only):

No, they don't make music videos like they used to.

Best on TV:
If in past years we got to notice how much better it is to consume TV series by watching one episode straight after the other, instead of waiting for the slotted air times, this year we went full on with this trend.
The nice thing about it is that TV show producers seem to have noticed where we are coming from. Some of them have clearly stopped producing shows that are mainly there to air advertisements and lure you to come again the following week so you can watch even more advertisements. Instead, they are using the freedom granted to them by this "viewing in the age of the Internet" to develop their messages and characters to levels much eclipsing the hour and a half to two that the movie platform allows. Those lucky enough to have enough funds are therefore able to create shows overtaking the movie world to create what we consider to be the superior motion picture artistic experience of this era.
Netflix' House of Cards represents the classic example for what I am talking about here. Quality A list actors, well sharpened scripts, and all the time in the world to push forward messages that a movie simply cannot cram into its scope.
However, the title of best of the breed goes to another series. That series, Breaking Bad, took more than 60 episodes to tell the story of a man going to the dogs (and back again). It's the detail that counts, and oh how those details shine. From that first episode sporting his white undies in the New Mexico desert till the very end, Walter White has enshrined himself as a household name all over Australia and the world.

Best Video Game:
Before discussing the best games I have had the pleasure of acquainting myself with this past year, I would like to point at the elephant in the room. More than two years after I first bumped into Mass Effect 3, this game and its prequels are still dominating my video gaming world. There may be newer stuff out there, but as far as I am concerned I know which Mass Relay to go to when in dire need of video game escapism.
With that in mind, I have spent the bulk of this year trying to find games that may relieve me of my Mass Effect addiction. I tried various Game of the Year award winners, but from Skyrim to The Last of Us I found myself ultimately disappointed. Of those, Tomb Raider was the only one that managed to pull me through to truly wanting to go back for another go (instead of going back to Mass Effect).
It wasn't all disappointing. That iPad I was talking about earlier also opened a new gaming venue for me, with plenty of interesting opportunities. Of those, Magic: The Gathering - Duels of the Planeswalkers 2014 was probably the one I spent the most time on, at least when it wasn't crashing on me. Ultimately, though, I regard gaming on the smartphone/tablet as nothing more than a filler for a few empty minutes; when I have the time and ability, the bigger guns are almost always better.
Eventually, my quest for games worthy of Mass Effect succession did prove winnable. Child of Light combined a wonderful story, great and unique visuals, and gameplay reminding me of ye olde Dungeons & Dragons mechanics to create a wonderful gaming experience that looks awesome on the PS4.
As far as addiction, fun, and the need to come back for yet another round are concerned, there was one new title and only one new title to truly convince and occupy me and the rest of my family. That new title is a remake of an ancient title for the much malingered Nintendo Wii U, Mario Kart 8. Between playing on my own against cheeky opponents, playing online against savage fellow humans, or playing multiplayer with the rest of my family, Mario Kart has it all.
If you are after the most challenging mode of Mario Kart, have a go at playing the wingman for your young child. The challenge of helping my son push up the ranks and then keeping just behind him so as to absorb the barrage of red shells coming from behind and allow him to win is the toughest offered to me by far. And the funnest.

One other thing:
There is another trend from this past year that did not get explicitly mentioned in all of the above, and that's the complete and utter digitisation of our media consumption. With the exception of some hard bound comic books, where the presentation is of particular importance, as well as children's books, we've steered away from both paper and plastic media. Blu-rays may offer superior picture and sound quality, but they're a pain to acquire and return. They are also fairly unreliable. DVDs are even worse, taking up space but offering poor returns; they truly belong to the by now gone era of Standard Definition video.
Which bring me to thank all those who helped me in this digitisation movement that's been making our lives so much easier and so much richer: to the Netflixes, iViews, SBS on Demands and the Spotifys, I thank you from the bay of my heart. You kick ass, too.

Friday, 25 July 2014

The American

Lowdown: A hired killer tries to stay out of sight and mind at an Italian village.
I don’t know what your expectations of The American might be, but between this and that I was under the impression it would be another George Clooney in an action movie like The Peacemaker type affair. Wrong! While there is some action, The American is no action movie.
We meet Clooney at a cabin in the thick of the snowy outdoors, somewhere up very north, making love to a woman. But there are others about, and they don’t mean well; so Clooney does what any lover would do. He kills the infiltrators. And then kills the woman he was busy loving just moments ago. Yes, this is the type of person that he is.
Next thing we know, Clooney is ordered to lay low far away at an Italian village. All he needs to do is avoid contact with others, but he defies these orders; he gets into philosophical discussions with the local priest, for a start. More importantly, he gets busy having sex with a prostitute at the local brothel (Violante Placido). There is some steaming sex there. Between this and that, Clooney’s past catches up on him. Eventually.
Plot setup aside, there are two things worth noting about the essence of the movie that is The American. First, this one is a movie that’s poor on details.We do not know much about Clooney’s past, motives or anything. It is not the purpose of this movie to tell us (which is why I’m referring to the main character by its actor’s name). Second, this is a movie that captures a period of change in the life of its chief protagonist. Specifically, we witness the change in the relationship with the prostitute and the priest: the lust turns into love, the indifference turns into caring. Is the killer losing his killer instinct, too?
The third element (no, I did not lose count) is to do with the mechanical way The American was made. Utilising medium to long shots, medium to long cuts, and slowish camera tracking, there is that certain look and feel to The American that is certainly not the look and feel one would associate with an action movie. This is the look and feel that befits an examination of a person as that person lies low in a remote Italian village kind of a look. It has to be said, The American is very flattering to the Italian countryside, "making me want to hop on a jet" kind flattering.
The result? A brooding, poignant movie. Once again we witness the superior quality of European made movies that bother to make an effort over their generic American counterparts.
Overall: Not what I expected. Much better, actually. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

American Hustle

Lowdown: A sting operation movie with an agenda of mocking the seventies.
How far can a movie go when its agenda seems to be nothing else than make a mockery of a certain period? Well, if you ask American Hustle, the answer is two hours and a quarter. Whether you're up for the mileage is another thing. I wasn't.
Set in the seventies, with brownish/reddish hues on everything to cover for you in case you missed the date setting caption, American Hustle is your average sting movie. Irving (Christian Bale) is a man with a bit of money who joins forces with Sydney (Amy Adams) to make proper money by cheating people in distress out of theirs. Irving's marriage to Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) does not interrupt him from pursuing further interests with Sydney, either. Alas, federal agent Richie (Bradley Cooper) catches up with the pair, and now - if they want to avoid government funded hospitality - they have to aid him catch a big prize. In their case, that big prize comes in the shape of a politician (Jeremy Renner) aspiring to get jobs for New Jersey residents by reviving the state's gambling scene.
Let's cut to the chase. In my opinion, there isn't enough original stuff here to fill much more than two hours with. The sting is nothing we haven't seen before. However, what we definitely haven't seen before is a fat/bold Batman (Bale), or a Renner with a "classic" hairdo, or a Bradley Cooper living with his mother and wearing hair rolls, or a Robert Di Nero made to look particularly ugly. I also don't recall Amy Adams' boobs hanging out as often as they do here.
In other words, American Hustle is not about the hustle; it is rather about taking A list stars and making them look like the exact opposite of A list stars under the guise of the seventies. I can see it working on a shorter, more intense film; but over the length of American Hustle I simply grew bored.
Best scene: Irving's family receives the latest technology, the Science Oven. You might have heard of it being referred to as a microwave oven.
Overall: I seem to be with the minority opinion on American Hustle. I was disappointed; 2 out of 5 crabs from me.

Monday, 21 July 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Lowdown: Tom Clancy's Jack Ryan figure is reinvented as a tech spy.
There was a time Tom Clancy was deemed my favourite author. I grew up since, but I still keep a warm place by the fire for his main character, Jack Ryan, and its escapades. Some of Jack Ryan's adventures have been put well on the big screen, too: The Hunt for Red October and Patriot Games offer fine examples, while Clear and Present Danger and The Sum of All Fears are lesser movies.
Now it seems as if a movie exec decided they ran out of ideas and a revival of the Jack Ryan character is due, hence Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit. However, the character that was once a navy expert and grew to become the USA President has been severely rebooted: as we meet Jack Ryan (Chris Pine in yet another set of big shoes to fill), he's an American studying in the UK and deeply affected by the newscast of the Twin Towers under attack. He joins the American army as the patriot that he is, gets himself severely injured while saving another's life at Afghanistan, goes through long rehabilitation, gets himself recruited to the CIA as another reward for his patriotism by none other than Kevin Costner, and starts working as a very smart Wall Street guy who tips the CIA whenever some financial dodgy-ness is afoot (given we're talking Wall Street standards, this doesn't amount to much).
To keep the tension running throughout the movie, Ryan hides the identity of his true employer from the doctor who helped his rehabilitation and now happens to be his girlfriend (Keira Knightley). And if it all seems a bit too far stretched then Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit stretches it even further when our Ryan identifies something dodgy in the financial dealings of a Russian billionaire (Kenneth Branagh, who - believe it or not - also directed this movie). That's because he, Ryan, is the one the CIA sends to Putinland in order straighten things up.
Rest assured, Ryan will get in too deep. But it will be his wit, his prowess and an ex American soldier, his friends, and - naturally - him being a good all American kid that will save the day. As well as save the world from an evil Russian plot. Because, reboot or not, Jack Ryan could not get too far from the Clancy's Cold War heritage, can he?
As you might tell by my tone, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was not exactly a favourite of mine. There were too many leaps of faith thrown in, like Ryan automatically assuming that given the major financial conspiracy at hand there also has to be a major terrorism attack. Because, hey, he saw September 11 in the news! Predictable, shallow and suffering from an abundance of single dimension characters, I found it to be a top contender for Forgettable Film of the Year. I also failed to see what was gained by rebooting the Ryan character that could not be gained from inventing a brand new one; it is as if the movie knew that without the weight of Clancy on its side, it really has nothing to offer but a cast of three heavyweights + Pine wasting their time and talent.
By the casting of a young crew (what the hell is Knightley doing there?) one can only assume we are to withstand an onslaught of Jack Ryan sequels. Let us hope we can offer better resistance to this attack then what Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit had to offer.
Overall: The new Jack Ryan tries to be some sort of a puritan American's James Bond but achieves immediate forgetfulness. 2.5 out of 5 crabs for the light minded.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Persuasion Psychology by Akash Karia

Lowdown: Easy to implement techniques to help one sell with.
Self help books are not my cup of tea, but desperate times call for desperate measures. Through the powers that be I am about to become a jobseeker again. Given that I've been out of the market for a long while now, I thought it a good idea to learn how to sell the most important commodity I have to offer: myself.
Opportunity presented itself in the shape of a free offer on the Kindle edition of Persuade Anyone. I had myself a quick look, saw that this one is short and sweet, reckoned there shouldn't be much harm in the affair, and went for it. In retrospect I think I can safely say reading this book was not a bad move.
Persuasion Psychology is, essentially, a short overview of 26 selling techniques. Almost all of them are practical, most of them are easy to implement if one pays attention, and only one ("publish a book") borders the realms of fantasy. If you're looking for the gist of the book, I think most of the techniques can be best described as ways to make others like and appreciate you. This can be achieved through certain behaviours as well as through establishing oneself a reputation; the overall effect is in affecting the way others relate to you.
And yes, Persuasion Psychology proved to be a very relevant book for a jobseeker such as yours truly. It does not only deal with how to be a good salesperson, but rather deals in how to offer a likeable image; an image that could prove very useful at a job interview. Furthering its appeal to me is the fact the book tries to base its techniques on science and research, and although a short and basic publication such as Persuade Anyone cannot offer much in the way of depth this approach is certainly better than the usual "trust me, I know" spirit of most self help books.
Overall: Cuts to the chase, very practical, and therefore worth 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

All Is Lost

Lowdown: Alone on a damaged boat in the middle of the ocean, a man fights for survival.
In these days when films are designed by the bean counters, it can be quite hard to find a movie having a go at making an artistic statement that still gets the full deal of A list stars and production values. All Is Lost is such a case, a case of a film that feels as if it belongs in the seventies yet is very much up to date.
It must have been a tough shoot. I recall learning through the Making Of on James Cameron’s The Abyss just how hard filming on/under water can be. Perhaps to compensate for the production costs, the cast of All Is Lost is limited to one actor (Robert Redford) and one hand. Joyful cynicism aside, my point is that this one is an artistic statement that is full of the symbolic.
We join a lone Redford abroad a yacht in the middle of the ocean as that yacht is hit - and damaged - by a stray shipping container. This starts a struggle that last till the end of the movie, where a cool, calculated, well organised, and very resourceful Redford struggles – all on his own – to keep on floating in a world that sends man made shipping containers and naturally occurring storms down his way. But yeah, the title of the movie says it all: eventually, all is lost.
Obviously, given the nature of the affair – a single actor filling up an entire movie with hardly a spoken word – All Is Lost is unique. The messages it is trying to convey range from the dead obvious to those requiring deep thought, but clearly we have ourselves some statements on the themes of man vs. nature and/or technology vs. nature. It can also be argued the entire affair is an analogy to the struggle of life: from the second it starts it knows it is doomed, yet it struggles to the best of its abilities to survive for as long as it can. Until, that is, All Is Lost.
Clearly, Redford and director J.C. Chandor (Margin Call) deserve their accolades for this one. It may not be the most exciting movie ever, but it sure is a statement. And a good one at that.
Overall: If cinema interests you as a form of art, as opposed to just entertainment, dare not miss All Is Lost. I will be generous and claim it is well worth 4 out of 5 thoughtful crabs.
Closing note: Between Redford's escapades here and Tom Hanks’ in Cast Away, I think we should make it mandatory for freight ships to put someone on constant watch for drifting Hollywood stars seeking refuge.