Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tomb Raider: Legend (2006)

Tomb Raider: Legend (2006)

This is the first videogame I've played since I finished off the very cool Max Payne 2 a couple of years ago. I'd been jonesing to play a game for some time now, and almost played Half-Life several months ago before something new and shiny (this game!) came my way. I'd played a few of the earlier games in the Tomb Raider series, in which the law of diminishing returns kicked in quite quickly, but this one was meant to be quite good. Tomb Raider: Legend also presented me with the perfect opportunity to make use of my new X-Box 360 gamepad, which I must say is easily the best gamepad I've ever used - it feels solid, fits snugly into your palms, and the buttons and analog sticks are within easy reach and feel nice and responsive. Admittedly, I haven't used any other gamepads in a while, so my opinion on gamepads is far from authoritative.

Anyway, onto the game. As with the other Tomb Raider games, this one features the impossibly buxom Lara Croft in a third person action adventure game featuring lots of running, jumping, swinging, swimming, and of course, shooting. There's also a reasonably interesting and entertaining story involving King Arthur, Excalibur, Lara's mum who disappeared years ago under mysterious circumstances, and an old friend thought left for dead, all of which are connected together. In addition to a stronger story (or... any story at all), the storytelling aspects of the game are quite improved from the old games, with more interesting 'camera' work, decent writing, and strong voice acting (particularly Keeley Hawes, who plays Lara). Also of note are the graphics, which are terrific. The character models are detailed and the acrobatic animation is smooth, but best of all are the lush and detailed environments. Oh, and the music is pretty good as well, as are the sound effects. All in all, the production values are top-notch, and really help to draw you into the game.

For once in these games, the storyline and the actual game content jibe to a reasonable degree. The level design actually makes some sense now; instead of weird, randomly designed areas, the environments are now somewhat believable. This also results in the levels being shorter than in the earlier games, but as far as I'm concerned this is a good thing, since I found the levels in those games to be interminable. The game is well paced, with cutscenes or chatter between Lara and her support team back at her mansion (tech geek and archeology/history buff) popping up regularly to prevent tedium from setting in. The environments are varied enough to never feel repetitive.

The gameplay is also much improved, with smooth and responsive controls and a far more forgiving jump system - gone are the days of frustrating millimetre precise aligning and timing! All of that running and jumping and swinging over chasms stuff is actually a lot of fun, and the controls are intuitive and allow for some quite impressive acrobatics. Also of note are the puzzles, which are also a lot better than the old games - they are logical (as far as puzzles involving rolling giant rocks onto pressure pads can be logical) and fit in with the environments being depicted, unlike the random nonsensical puzzles of old. The action segments are the weakest gameplay element here, but they're still reasonably good. Much of it involves just running at enemies while holding the shoot button down, but there are some nifty moves that can be pulled off, such as the bullet time 'leaps' that allow you to take out a whole bunch of enemies whilst in mid-air! There's not much variety in the weapons, and the grenades are next to useless. Overall, the action is reasonably entertaining but not stellar. There are some cool boss battles as well that combine puzzle solving and action; these are not too tough, but I prefer that to frustrating (or cheap!) bosses.

There are a couple of mini-game type elements which are fun. One is an interactive cut-scene that kicks in mid game where some action sequence takes place and instructions (for button presses) are given onscreen that you have to respond to quickly, so that Lara takes appropriate action. These look cool, and failing to press the buttons correctly or in time often leads to some amusing death animations. The other mini-game is driving - you get to drive around on bikes while shooting other bikers and jumping off ramps. These aren't major, but they're nice touches that break the routine and are quite fun. Another thing worth mentioning are the incredibly fast load times - while this is system specific, it seems faster than almost any game I can recall, and I don't have loads of RAM - other games that I've tried out take way longer to load.

The game is relatively short and isn't overly difficult (autosave points are sprinkled throughout the levels quite regularly). I took around 15 hours to finish it, but I imagine a good player making a concerted effort would do it in under 10. To some this would be too short, but it fits in nicely with my available free time. In addition, there's some replayability in terms of having lots of stuff to unlock by finding all of the secret items and completing levels within pre-defined time limits. There's also a 'bonus' level of sorts - Croft Manor - that's full of puzzles to solve.

On the negative side, there are some pretty annoying elements. One is the camera, which has a habit of whirling around at inopportune moments; since the controls are camera relative, this means that the direction you were holding at the moment the camera turned ends up pointing Lara in the wrong direction. A lot of diving into chasms happens as a result. Another camera problem is the 'look' button which allows you to examine your surroundings. Unfortunately it doesn't always let you get a clear view. In fact, more often than not, it has the unfortunate habit of zooming in on Lara, which is quite embarrassing when someone else happens to be around because it looks like you're ogling her 'digital assets'! Another source of frustration for me was points where I got stuck without a clue what to do next. Yes, I confess, looked at an online walkthrough, and the solutions were usually annoyingly simple but also kinda obscure. There're also a few annoying bugs in the game that stop things dead in their tracks. The biggest bummer has to be the ending - the game ends on a cliffhanger, and it's quite unsatisfying. I was shocked to see the end credits start to roll, and my first thought was "it's over?"

Tomb Raider: Legend is easily the best Tomb Raider game, and is a darn fine game in its own right. I was surprised at how good everything was, because the previous game in this series is apparently absolutely terrible. This game is good in all departments. I hesitate to say it's great only because I haven't played any of its contemporaries (like Prince of Persia) so I'm not really able to reach a definitive conclusion. In any case, it was fun and just the type of thing to ease me back into gaming. Up next, Half-Life 2. Oh yeah!

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Linux just ain't there yet

I'm a huge fan of the concept of free and open source software, which is essentially an inexhaustible free resource that people can use in any way that they wish. The idea of software that can be freely customized, modified, and improved, and that can be scrutinized by anybody, and that belongs to everyone, appeals to me greatly. I try to use open source software wherever possible - i.e. when it is available and when it is of reasonably high quality. I try to use the Open Office suite as an alternative to Microsoft's overpriced Office software. I use 7-zip, Filezilla, Firefox, Thunderbird, GAIM, and even GIMP on occasion.

But the biggie in the Open Source pantheon (ok, maybe after Firefox, but that's still only a browser) is surely the Linux operating system as an alternative for Microsoft Windows (or rather, a GNU/Linux system, if we're going to be pedantic). Now, I've used Linux at uni and at work, but I've never used it on a home PC. The problem is that I am simply comfortable with using Windows (and am competent enough to keep it secure - haven't had a trace of malware or viruses in years) and I can do pretty much everything I need to do with it. The average Linux distribution has a lot going for it though, such as being more secure, customizable, and feature rich than Windows, and it has been improving steadily in the area of drivers and available software.

Switching to Linux from Windows has some major drawbacks though - many applications only work on Windows, especially games and multimedia related ones. Things are done differently and need getting used to - the user interface is different, the system management utilities, the command line, the software installation methods. And there are problems - a lot of this stuff isn't easy to set up and configure, and is sometimes lacking in the documentation department. However, Linux distributions have been continuously improving as home desktop systems, and I've wanted to start using it as an alternative for some time, with the hope that one day it would be my primary system with Windows being used as an alternative where necessary. Linux advocates have been going on forever about Linux being a suitable desktop system, and that it's such a piece of cake to install and configure and start using that there's simply no excuse not to. I figured, now is the time to get totally familiar with Linux.

The first major issue comes with distributions - there are so many groups offering their own customized version of Linux, and there is no clear standard. If you use one Linux 'distro', you might not be familiar with another one, which can be quite different. Different distros have their own strengths and weaknesses. They can have different installers, boot loaders, file systems, GUIs, and bundled applications. Interestingly though, one recent distro called Ubuntu has been gaining popularity and appears to have a large support base, so I picked this as a good one to start with.

I spent ages preparing ('be prepared', as the Scouts say) - I figured out how best to use my existing disk partitions, how to configure the partition manager to set things up exactly as I wanted to, basically the whole installation process. I backed up my boot sector in case the installation screwed things up. I backed up all my data. I burnt multiple copies of the CD just in case it failed on me during installation. And after all that, I was raring to go, I was totally psyched about finally, finally installing Linux. This was actually the second time I'd tried this by the way, the first time ended badly because I didn't really do my research properly and started the process on a whim. The installer for that distro had a bug that required downloading a patch and running it during the installation process, and the partition manager was a nightmare to figure out, so I gave up pretty quickly. I figured I wasn't ready for it, and the distro just wasn't user friendly enough.

This time was supposed to be different, because I was ready, and apparently Linux was ready as well. It was time to throw my weight behind open source more fully, time to broaden my operating system horizons, etc... So, I boot off my Ubuntu Linux CD, and it starts loading, and then... UGH! An ugly screen pops up with an error about the graphics system not loading properly. I start again and re-check the CD using a handy utility that is provided, which reports that the CD is A-OK. I try again. Same result. I try the backup disc I burnt. Disk is OK, same result. So basically, I can't even start the INSTALLER for Ubuntu on my machine. I haven't even BEGUN to install it.

I boot back into trusty Windows (I feel dirty just saying that) and look up the error. It seems some other people have had the same problem. The installer is buggy and it has problems with certain graphics cards. There doesn't appear to be a clear way to fix it. Some suggestions are present on message boards, but people who've tried them have reported failure. An alternative exists involving using the command line to install. I don't want to do this, because I'm not familiar enough with it and it'll take time to read up on it, and if I screw up the partitioning part somehow, I can potentially kiss my Windows goodbye. Besides, wasn't it supposed to be easy? I've heard people claim that Linux distros are now easier than Windows to install. As someone who has installed Windows dozens of times on various machines, both at home and at work, I can assure these people that I have never had an instance where the installer failed to run because of the graphics card. In fact, the default VGA drivers in Windows seem to work fine on just about anything.

Now, I'm not knocking Linux here. Ok, well maybe I am, just a bit. I'm just stating what is obvious. Despite what advocates think, Linux just ain't ready for mainstream use. If I can't even get the installer running on my machine, what am I supposed to do? I don't have any bizarre hardware, it's just a bog standard desktop machine. The Windows setup process may be clunky, but at least it's standard - there aren't multiple distros and installers to contend with, each seemingly having its own set of bugs.

I'm not ready to give up just yet. I'm going to try some of the suggestions people have made online. And failing that, I'm going to look into another distro. If Linux were truly ready for the desktop though, I wouldn't have to. The experience has been really, really disappointing. I may just put together another machine on the cheap that I can experiment with to my hearts content, because I know that with some effort and experimentation (and many, many mistakes), a well configured Linux box is something worth having, and something worth learning about. From a professional point of view, it's something that I really need to be familiar with. From a personal (and I suppose, ideological) point of view, it's something I want to be familiar with. I just wish that my second attempted foray into seriously using Linux at home hadn't ended up being such a quick and decisive punch in the face!

Monday, February 26, 2007

Extras - Season 2

Extras - Season 2

I mentioned the first season (or series) a few months ago, and I've just finished watching the second, and presumably final, season. Season two isn't quite as good as the first, but still has some very funny moments. SPOILERS for season 1 to follow!

Season one ended with Andy Millman (Ricky Gervais) getting a chance to produce and star in his own sitcom, 'When the Whistle Blows', with the BBC. This season revolves around Andy working on the show, with his friend Maggie (Ashley Jensen) being the one working as an extra on various film sets. The storylines deal primarily with Andy's dissatisfaction with his show, which he thought could be something special. Unfortunately, the guys in charge turn it into lowest common denominator tripe that relies on wigs and catchphrases. Andy has to deal with the humiliation that results when his show is a commercial success but is reviled by the critics. He then strives to attain recognition and legitimacy while also dealing with his newfound celebrity status. This season features a lot more of series co-creator Stephen Merchant as Andy's absolutely incompetent agent Darren Lamb, whom Andy turns to (unsuccessfully) for help with his career.

The storylines this season are a bit more varied and aren't confined to just film sets. This time round we also see Andy's show, celebrity hangouts, and even the TV BAFTAS, amongst others. The celebrity guest appearances are as solid as last season, if not better. The best are Orlando Bloom, Daniel Radcliffe, and Ian McKellan - Bloom acts completely self-absorbed, Radcliffe is a horny little devil, and Ian McKellan is just a little daft! And how can I forget to mention Warwick Davis!

Andy's story arc is well done and a natural progression given his character (he just wants respect, dammit!), although I have to admit some of his missteps are a bit too obvious in this season. Last season you kinda felt for him as he fumbled along, but this season he does some things that are just plain dumb or insensitive. Worse still is the impossibly stupid Maggy, who keeps getting Andy into trouble in ways that are just far too obvious at times. Having said that, the situations the characters ultimately wind up in are really, really funny, in large part due to the writing and performances.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are brilliant. Seriously. Just watch this if you need proof. I don't think the two of them make a single misstep in this show in terms of comedic timing. Funnily enough, Merchant is to my mind a little funnier, though the really uncomfortable and embarrassing, 'squirm in your seats' moments come courtesy of Gervais as he struggles to worm his way out of difficult situations. Gervais also has all of the more serious moments as he deals with his artistic failure. Ashley Jensen as Maggie just can't compete against these two unfortunately, given how poor her character is in general. I reckon she makes the best of it though. Also funny is 'Barry' - soap actor Shaun Williamson playing himself, although he's always referred to as 'Barry' (the name of his character on the soap he used to be in) by Darren Lamb.

Despite a few annoyances, season 2 of Extras is hilarious for the most part (the last episode is admittedly a bit weak, disappointing given that there's only six in total). It's not ever quite as good as The Office, but Gervais and Merchant's brand of humour is still terrific. If there is no third season, hopefully the two of them will start working on something else real soon.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Medical Tricorder + Flame Wars

This article on the BBC News website states "An electronic clipboard that has the potential to save lives has been unveiled." My first thought was "at last, we're one step closer to the medical tricorder!" The device, which goes by the rather lame name 'mobile clinical assistant (MCA)', promises to allow clinicians to "access patient records at the bedside, write notes and order essential tests in real-time". It also has, amongst other things, a camera for taking pictures of injuries. It's also expected to "cut mistakes made when administering drugs by up to 70%". Sadly, it's also "prone to frequent crashes"; rumours that Microsoft wrote the software have been vehemently denied. (Note: I made that last part up)

Not quite the tricorder, but merge it with the iPhone in some way and build in some kind of scanner, and we're halfway there! Also, rumour has it that because of the frequent green screens of death it turns users into crotchety people who mutter things to themselves... like 'that green blooded Vulcan'. Pointy ears sold separately.

The New York Times has a story about why people turn into uncivilized animals when engaging in online written communication. Huh? I thought this mystery had already been solved - isn't it because people are assholes and the anonymity of the web allows them to reveal their true nature? Apparently not. It's actually got to do with a "design flaw inherent in the interface between the brain’s social circuitry and the online world". A design flaw? Scientists that believe in intelligent design are not to be trusted! This is all bunk! The article goes on to state "Without the raised eyebrow that signals irony, say, or the tone of voice that signals delight, the orbitofrontal cortex has little to go on. Lacking real-time cues, we can easily misread the printed words in an e-mail message, taking them the wrong way. And if we are typing while agitated, the absence of information on how the other person is responding makes the prefrontal circuitry for discretion more likely to fail. Our emotional impulses disinhibited, we type some infelicitous message and hit “send” before a more sober second thought leads us to hit “discard.” We flame."

So there we go. The next time I get into an online argument, I'm going to blame it on my orbitofrontal cortex. That excuse is golden - God I hope my orbitofrontal cortex is still intact! Orbitofrontal cortex orbitofrontal cortex orbitofrontal cortex!

Babel (2006)

Babel (2006)

Alejandro González Iñárritu's much lauded Babel is a very good film that suffers from some flaws that prevent it from being truly great in my eyes. Like his previous film, 21 Grams (and Amores Perros, which I haven't seen), this is a somber film about tragedy and suffering and the way people's lives are interconnected. And like those earlier films, this also features multiple storylines told in a fractured, non-linear manner.

There are four stories being told in the film. One is about two American tourists in Morocco, Richard and Susan (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett). While driving through a remote area in a tour bus, Susan is mysteriously shot. Richard has the tour bus stop at a nearby village and tries to get her treatment while also trying to get assistance from the US embassy. The shooting of an American in Morocco leads to tension between the two governments, with the incident being attributed to terrorists. Another storyline concerns two young Moroccan brothers, Yussef and Ahmed (Boubker Ait El Caid and Said Tarchini) who are given a gun by their father to kill the jackals that hunt their livestock. In the midst of sibling rivalry, the boys end up testing the gun by taking shots at distant vehicles, resulting in Yussef shooting the tour bus and hitting Susan. A third story is about a Mexican nanny (Amelia, played by Adriana Barraza) in the US who, when left in the lurch by her employers, is forced to take the two children under her care with her into Mexico (accompanied by her nephew Santiago, played by Gael García Bernal) to attend her son's wedding. The fourth, and in my opinion the best, story is set in Japan and is about a deaf mute teenage girl named Chieko (Rinko Kikuchi) who is dealing with the death of her mother and feeling alienated, a feeling that is exacerbated by her disability.

All of these stories are linked together in some way. All of the characters in the film suffer and experience misfortune, with characters contributing to others' misfortunes in some way. The irony of the story is that, despite the fact that these people's lives overlap and influence each other's across the globe, there're still massive cultural and communicational barriers between them that contribute to their suffering. Even people who are close together physically are unable to reach out to each other.

There's a LOT going on in this film, most of which plays on these themes of communication and lack of understanding. In Chieko's case, her inability to hear and speak is an immediate hurdle that causes others to discriminate against her. Even her relationship with her father (Kôji Yakusho) is strained. Richard and Susan haven't come to terms with the recent death of their child, and are unable to talk to each other properly as a result. The kids under Amelia's care may be able to understand Spanish, but can't fully understand what happens at the Mexican wedding they attend (although they perhaps acclimatise to their environment better than adults would have). Amelia and her nephew also encounter difficulties with border patrol officials because of deep-seated mistrust. Yussef and Ahmed and their family have certain sibling issues, and there is a great deal of enmity between the local populace and the authorities who crack down on them to find the shooter.

And there's a lot more. The film is littered with overt and subtle elements that all feel real and add up to paint a complex and tragic picture. The diverse locations, languages, and cultures feel authentic; there's a sense of uniqueness and individuality to all the people depicted, but there are also common traits that connect them all together as human beings. The interaction between people feels genuine. All of this interwoven detail, diversity, and complexity should result in a brilliant film, and it almost does. There are, however, some incredibly incongruous storytelling devices that rob the film of greatness. These are implausible or unsubtle events that are used to throw the characters into difficult situations, many of which rely on characters doing incredibly stupid things.

Take Amelia's story, where she's (quite improbably, in context) unable to find someone to take care of her charges and so casually takes them with her across the border while being an illegal immigrant. Then, on the way back to the U.S., there is a series of decisions and incidents leading up to and following the border crossing which enters the realm of ludicrousness. The manner in which the two Moroccan brothers shoot the bus taxes my willingness to suspend disbelief - ignoring the fact that the shot was incredibly unlikely (a cinematic convention I can swallow), the two are mature enough to realize the consequences of what they've done as soon as they do it. Which begs the question, why'd they do it in the first place? We're meant to believe they were caught up in a moment of heated rivalry, but I can't buy that they were willing to attempt to shoot people to one up each other, especially given how quickly they realize the enormity of what they've done. Later, the two kids and their father also do some silly things like engage in an impossible and unnecessary firefight. Even the Susan / Richard storyline has some weak elements involving arguments between Richard and the other tourists who want to leave the village.

These criticisms may sound minor - after all, they are only a handful of scenes in a densely packed film. It may seem that I'm disproportionately playing up a few small negative elements. However, these moments are key events that directly cause the problems that the characters are forced to deal with. Normally, I can accept one or two such contrivances, but with so many of them being used in this manner, it feels like a cheat. These acts of stupidity are so egregious that they undermine a central theme of the film - that lack of communication leads to conflict - and replace it with the more obvious concept of stupid decisions leading to tragic consequences. The film is trying to convey profound truths (and I think they are profound); profound truths shouldn't have to rely on unconvincing gimmicks. If these key elements had been written more honestly and more in tune with the rest of the film, Babel would've been much, much, better.

Iñárritu's work on the film and the script are excellent, although this time around the fractured narrative isn't as effective. The connections between the stories are tenuous and don't pack the punch that they need to warrant the manner in which they are revealed. On technical merits, again the film is excellent. The acting is top notch across the board, with the young and unfamiliar players - Rinko Kikuchi, Ait El Caid, and Said Tarchini - being among the standouts.

Babel is a very good film that isn't as good as it could have been. I can understand how for some the flaws I've cited will seem minor (or nonexistent), and for those people the film will no doubt be something special. For me, the flaws detract substantially. Add to that the fact that it has a pervasively dour and depressing outlook on life, with only a few moments of joy, and the end result is a film that I'm not a fan of (I didn't much care for the morose soundtrack either). I'd still recommend it however, because warts and all it's definitely worth watching.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Back in my day...

Everything was better... They don't make 'em like they used to. I know I'm not the only one tired of hearing these hollow maxims. People continue to propagate the idea, based on scant evidence, that everything used to be better. Consumer electronics, household appliances, books, movies, people, and society in general. Typical examples of proof of this include the television bought years ago that outlasted two newer ones, or classic films from back in the good old days compared to the tripe that's out in abundance right now.

Bollocks. This is simply not true - at least, not based on the so called 'evidence'. I'm not going to comment on people and society except to say that I think they sucked just as much in the old days, it's just that back then the world wasn't as connected and people weren't as aware of how much everything sucked. I will, however, take a closer look at manufactured products and entertainment.

Do people actually keep track of all the old stuff they bought years ago that broke down? It's easy to point at the one item that survived for years, but what about all of those that didn't last? Did everything from the good old days survive? When someone buys 10 items today and 8 break down within a few years, it's immediately proof that these things are inferior. And 10 years from now, the 2 out of those 10 that did survive will be cited as proof that things made back in the 00s were better than all the crap being made in the 10s. Bah!

Is there any empirical evidence to show that electronic devices are of poorer quality today? And even supposing that they are, do we consider the comparative functionality and relative cost of what's available today? Seriously, most things made today are considerably better designed and useful, and often cost less in real terms. I can appreciate that in some cases additional complexity leads to problems (like, say, having moving parts like CD/DVD drives in video game consoles that result in them breaking down quicker than the old cartridge based ones), but that's a trade off between reliability and functionality that I find to be reasonable.

Then let us consider films. Apparently there were so many better films years ago than there are today. Were there? Or is it simply that the good films are remembered and the crap forgotten? When someone describes how crappy modern films are, I ask them to name an old classic. Then I ask them to name 10 other films from the same year as the film they named. They will almost certainly fail to do this, but they'll probably be able to name 10 films from this year (or last year) because they are CURRENT and still fresh in our minds! Bah! There's plenty of good stuff out there now, it's just that they'll only be widely recognized as classics decades from now. I will acknowledge, however, that the volume of output (or the ubiquity of output) seems higher these days, and assuming a constant ratio of good stuff to bad stuff, the sheer volume of crap can result in the impression that today's entertainment sucks more than yesterday's.

I realize that my arguments are just vague thoughts and that I lack any real evidence to support them other than hand wavy logic, but I contend that there's more thought behind what I've said than there is in the casually uttered 'modern stuff sucks' statement.

This must be my worst blog post ever, but I will not apologize. Everyone's entitled to the occasional rant...

The Queen (2006)

The Queen (2006)

The Queen has sort of sprung up as an awards contender this year, and more than a few commentators have expressed surprise. I'm not a commentator, but I'll add my surprise to the list - I'm surprised people are surprised, because it's actually very good and because films that aren't as good have been award contenders in the past. It isn't a particularly brilliant film, but it's quite unique and revolves around some very strong performances, with Helen Mirren in particular being exceptional (she's definitely deserving of the accolades).

The Queen is, as the title suggests, about the Queen. To be more specific, it's a biographical look at a particularly difficult week for Queen Elizabeth II (Helen Mirren) - the week following the death of Princess Diana. The film begins with the victory of Tony Blair's (Michael Sheen) Labour party in the 1997 general elections. It depicts the first official meeting between the new Prime Minister and the Queen, which immediately highlights the tension that exists between the relatively young Blair who promises change and modernization, and the distinctly 'old fashioned' monarch.

Months later, Princess Diana is killed in a car crash. Blair and his team are quick to gauge public sentiment and respond quickly and appropriately to the incident by making a formal statement. The Royal Family, who are on holiday in Scotland, treat the matter as a private affair and refuse to react publicly (the bad blood between the Royal Family and the Princess is also alluded to). As the public react to the incident with an unprecedented display of grief, Blair's popularity goes through the roof because of his display of sympathy and compassion. As the week progresses and the (public) funeral proceedings draw near, the monarchy is slowly vilified for their failure to react. It becomes Blair's responsibility to convince the Queen, who holds steadfastly to her belief that the matter is being overblown, that it is in the best interest of the Royal Family to respond.

The film essentially revolves around two characters, Tony Blair and the Queen, but it is the Queen (and by extension the monarchy) that is at the heart of the story. Blair represents a counterpoint to the monarchy (the new vs. the old) and acts as a stimulus for the Queen, constantly making her aware of how the situation is spiralling out of control. The primary story thread is about the Queen's gradual realization and acceptance of the fact that the world around her has changed, and that the monarchy has become completely out of touch with the rest of the nation. The grieving on display is incomprehensible for someone who grew up during the War and who was brought up to be stoic in the face of adversity. She is forced to deal with the conflicting internal pressure from her family and the external pressure from Blair and the public.

'The Queen' is a dialogue heavy drama that revolves around performances. It primarily features 'stagey' indoor scenes and archival footage, with a few outdoor sequences. Visually it's quite uninteresting, save for the production and design that emphasizes the differences between Blair's modern, down to earth world and the quaint and archaic world of the Royals. Director Stephen Frears doesn't really bring much to the table that isn't script or performance based. Speaking of which, the script, regardless of how accurate it is (let's face it, most of it has to be made up), does a fine job of representing the different viewpoints and characters, and is laced with a healthy does of humour throughout. In many ways, the tone of the film veers towards the comical - the behaviour of both Prince Charles (Alex Jennings) and Prince Philip (James Cromwell) seem true but are nonetheless hilarious, and the rigidly formal interactions between the Queen and the hapless Blair are almost laugh out loud funny despite not being overtly comical. Perhaps the quaintness of it all is just inherently funny in this day and age, but there's no doubt that the filmmakers pushed it into comedy territory.

Helen Mirren is fantastic as the titular Queen. Her portrayal is full of subtlety - there are no big emotional scenes. She's full of 'stiff upper lip' stoicism but also lets through enough emotion to let the audience know what's going through her mind, whether it's anger and frustration, grief, or a sense of isolation and loss. All this while being quite accurate (at least to my untrained eye) to the mannerisms of the real Queen. Michael Sheen is also excellent as Tony Blair, and captures the quirks of the UK Prime Minister quite well despite being a tad too wimpy in some of the early scenes. James Cromwell, Helen McCrory (as Cherie Blair), Alex Jennings and Sylvia Syms (as the Queen Mother) all turn in very strong (and often very funny) supporting performances.

Overall I'd say The Queen is a very good film that deals with fairly unique subject matter - or rather, it deals with subject matter (Royalty) in a unique contemporary setting. While the film is memorable and full of excellent performances and writing, it still lacks that certain 'something' that can make a small scale drama like this seem like a grand achievement. Worth a watch, but not really a must see.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

'Foundation' by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Foundation by Isaac Asimov (1951)

Isaac Asimov is considered one of the most important contributors to the genre of science fiction - he's cited as one of the 'big three' sci-fi writers of his era (the other two being Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein). The Foundation Series is his most famous and acclaimed creation, a series composed of ten interconnected books. Foundation is the first book published in the series (though it isn't the first chronologically) and is the first part of the original three books that comprise the 'Foundation Trilogy'.

The book is made up of a collection of five short stories that span a time period of around 200 years. The premise of the story is that the millennia old Galactic Empire has become decadent and is on the verge of entering a new Dark Age. A group of scientists led by a man named Hari Seldon comes up with a plan to minimize the time period of the impending Dark Age from 30,000 years to 1000 years. Seldon and his team are psychohistorians, experts in a new branch of science that can, within some degree of accuracy, predict future events at a broad, societal level. The psychohistorians are treated with suspicion and contempt by the government and their findings are suppressed, but they are allowed to carry out their project on a remote planet at the edge of the galaxy. Thus the Foundation is formed on the planet Terminus, its function ostensibly being to create an 'Encyclopedia Galactica' that will furnish future generations with the knowledge to facilitate mankind's rise from a period of barbarism.

That's essentially a summary of the first short story. The four stories that follow deal with the development of the Foundation as it unwittingly carries out the 1000 year 'Seldon Plan' (unwittingly because the plan itself is secret, and knowledge of the plan would effectively invalidate it). The Foundation was set up in such a way that, as modeled by psychohistory, it would become the heart of a new Galactic Empire a thousand years in the future. The Foundation starts off as small and defenseless, and as predicted by the Seldon Plan, must deal with intermittent 'Seldon Crises' that threaten its survival. These crises typically bring about fundamental changes in the way the Foundation operates and interacts with the other 'barbaric' neighboring worlds; they force societal changes that allow the Foundation to expand its sphere of influence.

The concept reminds me somewhat of the fourth Dune novel, God Emperor of Dune, in which an all powerful ruler who has seen possible futures attempts to ensure the survival of mankind by carrying out a millennia spanning long term plan. Foundation is a bit more direct in dealing with its themes and plays in a far less complex sandbox, but it is also far more enjoyable to read. The stories deal with decadence, suppression of science, psychology, religion, trade, and politics; they are about the nature of these things and the part they play in the development of civilizations. Although all of these themes are universally relevant, the suppression of science angle seems particularly so. A group of scientists warn of an impending long term disaster that can't be averted, but whose harmful effects may be minimized if the problem is acknowledged and appropriate actions taken. The people in charge refuse to accept this and attempt to avoid taking direct action that might upset the status quo. Hmmm... sounds familiar.

As with a lot of sci-fi, the book is heavy on events and ideas and light on character. Characterization is virtually non-existent, with most characters existing as devices to propagate the story and act as key players in the Seldon Plan (presumably the individual isn't important in the grand scheme of things - psychohistory suggests that the right kind of people will end up in the right place at the right time). There's also very little descriptive text in the book - people and places are hardly ever described, resulting in very little atmosphere and sense of place. Most of the text is either dialogue or broad descriptions of events. I suppose this is partly as a result of the book being assembled from short stories, where the length of the story (given the nature of the story) doesn't lend itself to characterization and detail. It's a stylistic choice and it works well, although I have to admit I would have preferred more fleshed out characters.

Foundation is an excellent, compelling, and thought provoking book that is well worth reading. It's an intriguing concept that presents infinite storytelling possibilities. I look forward to reading the rest of the books in the series. Hopefully the universe will be expanded and given more detail, and characters given a bit more depth. Next up, Foundation and Empire.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Arrested Development - Season 3

Arrested Development - Season 3

So I've finally seen the third and final season of this brilliant and unconventional sitcom. Unsurprisingly, this shortened third season (there are only 13 episodes) is a thing of brilliance. Smart, irreverent, rich in characterization and plot, and above all, hilarious. I wrote a brief post on this some time ago, and I'm not going to elaborate any further in this post. Another brief summary just wouldn't cut it. I may write a proper, full blown (i.e. verbose) blog post once I watch the entire series from beginning to end at a later date. For the time being I'll just say that I've seen it, and it is, as the Doctor would say... 'Fantastic!'.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

Shaun of the Dead (2004)

I wasn't blown away by Shaun of the Dead the first time I saw it. I suppose the relentless online hype may have had something to do with that (these days I temper my expectations). It still stuck in my mind, however, and as time went by I felt the need to see it again. Having now watched it a second time years later, I realize that it isn't just a good film, it's a great one and one that I suspect I will be revisiting on many an occasion.

Shaun of the Dead is the creation of Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright, the duo behind the excellent British geek sitcom Spaced (of which I've seen only a few episodes and need to see more). Pegg and Wright wrote the film and Wright directed it. The film is a hybrid horror / comedy / romance about a guy in his late twenties named Shaun (Simon Pegg). Shaun is a slacker stuck in a dead end job who enjoys hanging out at his favourite pub, The Winchester, with his slovenly and slothful best friend Ed (Nick Frost), his girlfriend Liz (Kate Ashfield), and her oddball roommates David (Dylan Moran) and Diane (Lucy Davis, who played Dawn in 'The Office'). Liz is tired of the mundane routine nature of her relationship with Shaun, so he promises to change. He screws up, of course, and Liz promptly dumps him. To add to his woes, he has issues with his mother (Penelope Wilton) and stepfather (Bill Nighy). When the dead start coming back to life as zombies and overrun London, Shaun is finally given the impetus he needs to take control of his life. He sets out to gather all the people he cares about and lead them to safety - safety being The Winchester!

Shaun of the Dead is that rare multi genre film that somehow manages to be true to each of those genres. It's a genuine horror film and a genuine comedy, and it's excellent in every regard. It is hilarious and scary, with all the gore you'd expect from a real zombie movie. While it's ostensibly a parody of zombie films, it's actually a homage to them. The comedy element comes not from the zombies but from the characters and the situations they get themselves into. It's nicely plotted and the script is layered and fast paced - there's never a dull moment or wasted line, and a lot of information is conveyed to the audience economically, such as the clever use of background TV footage to let the audience know what's happening in the world with regard to the zombie situation. There are also loads of subtle references to other films. The characters are remarkably well fleshed out, and their behaviour consistent and truthful to what is established even when reacting to bizarre and improbably situations. Much of the humour plays on their obliviousness to what's going on in front of them, and on the silly ways in which they deal with things when they finally catch on.

Wright does a remarkable job balancing the horror and comedy elements, often juxtaposing the two within the same scene and creating something horrifying and funny at the same time. The 'action' sequences in the film are also well realized and, truth be told, wouldn't be out of place in a genuine horror movie. The frenzied (and really cool) editing style that is often employed lends the film energy and pacing that amplifies the already fast paced script. For a relatively low budget film, Shaun of the Dead looks terrific. The zombies in particular are well realized, and I'll have to express the same sentiment about them that I've been expressing right throughout - they could be right out of a pure zombie movie.

The film revolves around Shaun, and Simon Pegg is up to the task in the key role. He captures perfectly the attitude and mannerisms of a downbeat slacker (I ought to know), and his somewhat bumbling 'take charge' transformation and the emotional turmoil he goes through are all convincing. Also great is Nick Frost as the 'should-be-detestable-on-paper-but-strangely-charming' Ed, who's a great foil for Shaun. David Moran and Lucy Davis are also memorable and funny as the bickering couple, while Wilton and Nighy are fantastic in their straight faced, stiff upper lip portrayals of Shaun's mum and stepdad respectively. Kate Ashfield is solid as Liz and has her moments but isn't quite as memorable as everyone else. Last but not least are the zombies, who turn in some terrific, crunchy, munchy, squelchy performances - the wrangler is worthy of the highest praise.

Shaun of the Dead is now a film that I more than just like; I'm now a bona fide fan. It's an incredibly well made film that I'm certain will stand the test of time. I can't wait to see how Hot Fuzz, Pegg and Wright's upcoming follow up (also starring Pegg and Frost in very different roles from this film) buddy cop parody turns out. Early word is they've created a film at least as good as Shaun - no mean feat.

As an aside, since this film features romance and copious amounts of bloody undead violence, it's only fitting that I post this entry on Valentine's Day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Superman II - The Donner Cut (2006)

Superman II - The Donner Cut (2006)

When I was a kid, I used to watch Superman over and over again on VHS, so much so that I think the movie is now permanently ingrained in my memory. Needless to say, when the opportunity arose to finally see Superman II (this was years after it was originally released), I was more than a little excited. At the time, I loved it and thought it superseded the original - Superman's battle against the super villains in Metropolis was unlike anything I'd seen before. Many years later and with slightly more discerning cinematic taste, I realized that it was a much weaker film than the original. I still love it, but will be the first to acknowledge that it ain't all that great.

Which brings me to this, the Donner Cut. Superman I and II were originally meant to be shot back to back by director Richard Donner. After the release of the first film, he was fired and replaced by director Richard Lester, despite having already shot most of the sequel. Once on board Lester re-shot some of Donner's footage and added in his own scenes to complete the film that was finally released in cinemas in 1980. After Lester's film came out, fans wondered what Donner's film might have been like, and speculated about the possibility of seeing Donner's 'cut' of the film with his original footage. In 2006, they stopped wondering, because Warner Brothers and Donner (and his collaborators Tom Mankiewicz and Michael Thau) finally obliged by stitching together the available material to create a cut of the film - the 'Donner Cut' - that most closely represented what he had originally set out to make. Details of the history of the film and how the Donner Cut came into being can be found in the Wikipedia article.

Now that the protracted preamble is finally over, I can get around to actually talking about the film (major spoilers ahead). I think I should start off with a caveat (that is expressed at the start of the film as well) - this film isn't technically complete. Since Donner never finished shooting all of his scenes, it's cobbled together from his available footage, Lester's footage, some recycled footage from the first film, and footage from screen tests. Having said that, the finished work feels reasonably complete.

The story picks up with a recap of the first film, which concludes with Superman / Kal-El (Christopher Reeve) hurling one of Lex Luthor's (Gene Hackman) nuclear missiles into space. When it explodes, it shatters the Phantom Zone prison that was holding the three Kryptonian criminals - General Zod (Terence Stamp), Ursa (Sarah Douglas), and Non (Jack O'Halloran) - who were imprisoned by Jor-El (Marlon Brando), Kal-El's father. After a brief massacre of some astronauts on the moon, the villains head towards Earth. In Metropolis, meanwhile, Lois Lane (Margot Kidder) begins to suspect that Clark Kent (a cunningly disguised Christopher Reeve) might be Superman, and unsuccessfully (and rather ludicrously) tests this theory. The two are then assigned to investigate a scam at the Niagara Falls, and while there Lois finally tricks Clark into revealing his secret. They head off to his Fortress of Solitude in the Arctic, and after a bit of super sex, Kal-El asks his father for permission to be with Lois. Annoyed, Jor-El tells his son that he can't be Superman and have a normal life at the same time. Kal-El chooses to lose his powers and be with Lois as the frail Clark Kent.

This was of course a big mistake, since in the interim the super villains had arrived on Earth and decimated a small town, raided the White House, and essentially taken over the entire world. The mortal Kent rushes back to the Fortress of Solitude to try and get his powers back and force a confrontation with Zod and his gang, who are pissed off that the 'Superman' they've heard so much about is actually the son of their jailer. Lex Luthor, who has by this point broken out of prison, lends his 'genius' to the evil trio in exchange for rulership over a few small portions of the globe.

That's virtually the whole story in a nutshell. Broadly speaking, it's virtually the same as the original Lester version. The execution, however, is quite different. Over half of the footage is new - unused scenes or alternate takes - that change the tone of the film and lend it much more dramatic weight than the Lester version. Gone is much of the campy comedy that plagued the original, gone are the bizarre super powers used by the villains and Superman himself (although Zod still has a bit of telekinesis). This version sits more comfortably alongside the original as a companion piece. It is certainly more dramatic, and the scenes featuring Marlon Brando are golden (they were cut from Lester's version to avoid paying Brando royalties). The villains in this version are far more menacing because their comical moments are excised and some of the footage featuring them in action comprises alternate takes that make them seem more ruthless. The goofiness of Lex Luthor is still present, and it's one of those love it or hate it aspects of these films. The romance between Lois and Clark is still childishly charming; this is an element Lester got right in his version as well. Clark's identity being revealed is handled much, much better in Donner's version despite the fact that it's screen test footage that runs too long and is incongruous in almost every way.

While there's a lot to like in the Donner Cut, if I'm being honest I'll have to admit there are also lots of flaws. Much of these are due to the fact that Donner and his team had to use 25 year old material to assemble the film, and he never finished shooting his version, so some compromises had to be made. The structure of the film is a bit shaky. The opening Eiffel Tower action sequence from the Lester version is gone, which means the real Superman action only shows up towards the end of the film. The buildup to the confrontation in Metropolis also feels a little awkward, with the story jumping from Lois and Clark to the super villains spasmodically - there are some scenes which feel like incomplete snippets. A lot of the music is also noticeably recycled from the first film, probably because the music that was done for Lester's version was a bit rubbish. The main problem I had with the film was the logical inconsistencies. In this version, Superman sleeps with Lois and then speaks to Jor-El and gives up his powers. It seemed more logical that he would have done it the other way round as he did in Lester's version. Also more sensible is Lester's method of having Lois try to get Clark to reveal his identity (compared to the first attempt in Donner's Cut) - both are insane, but jumping into a river seems somewhat less fatal than what happens in Donner's version. The big twist at the end of Donner's film - Superman rewinds everything back such that the whole movie never happened - is a huge cop out, as it invalidates the whole film. To add insult to injury, the final scene of the film contradicts the time reversal! Donner apparently never thought of how to end the film before being fired and was thus forced to bolt on the ending from part I, though I suppose it would have been next to impossible to create a brand new ending for this cut in any case.

Aesthetically, apart from the screen test footage, everything is as good as in the Lester version. The sets and costumes are all the same as in part I, so no surprises there. There are some new effect sequences that were created to complete the film; some of them are noticeable, but not in a jarring way. The highlight of the film in both versions is the battle between Superman and the super villains in Metropolis, and it's still quite spectacular today despite the aged effects work. Most of the battle was directed by Lester, so I can't give Donner credit for it.

Which brings me to the performances. What more can be said about the late Christopher Reeve's Superman? He IS Superman in these films, bringing the character to life in every way possible; Brandon Routh doesn't even come close. Reeve's physicality and mannerisms as both Superman and Clark Kent are flawless and charming, and he somehow sells the duality of the character. Margot Kidder is also the best Lois Lane there has been - she's goofy and childish but also believable as a tenacious reporter. Hackman delivers an unpopular interpretation of the Luthor character, but for what it's worth I think he did it well; he is comical but still manipulative and vicious. In this version the super villains have less screen time, but they are more effective as a result. Terence Stamp seems colder here, but this probably has more to do with the editing and alternate footage used. And last but not least is Marlon Brando. I'm not certain how seriously Brando took this role (probably not very), but he adds so much gravitas to the film and is sorely missed in the Lester version.

So what's my final verdict on the Donner Cut of Superman II? It's a mixed bag to be sure - the main problem is that while ostensibly complete (for the most part) it's not really a complete film, and can't be judged as such. It shows the potential for being something that could have been great had Donner been allowed to finish it properly back then. As it stands, the Lester version is more complete and stands on its own feet as a whole film, but is something that never aimed for the epic feel of Donner's. Donner's aims for something grander and more in tune with the original. The fact that his version can't reach those heights isn't really Donner's fault. Watching it we can see what might have been. Objectively I'd rate them equally, but ultimately I much prefer the Donner Cut.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Wild Bunch (1969)

The Wild Bunch (1969) 

The Wild Bunch, from the late acclaimed director Sam Peckinpah, is a western that is credited as being hugely influential in the action movie genre, and is widely regarded as an all time classic. I'm not going to argue about its status as a landmark film, but I will say that I didn't much care for it.

The Wild Bunch is a western, but a non traditional one - it takes place in the early twentieth century, during the twilight days of the 'old west'. It's about a bunch of outlaws led by Pike (William Holden) and his lieutenant Dutch (Ernest Borgnine) who are getting a little long in the tooth and looking for one last (big) payday. During a botched bank robbery the gang becomes aware that their former partner Deke (Robert Ryan), who was captured and abandoned by Pike, is working with the authorities to help catch them. They flee to Mexico and wind up working for the vicious General Mapache (Emilio Fernandez) - they agree to acquire arms for him. This causes a bit of a conflict of interest for one of their crew, Angel (Jaime Sánchez), a Mexican whose village was attacked by Mapache's men. Meanwhile, Deke continues to track Pike and his gang with the aid of a vile and incompetent group of bounty hunters.

There's a lot going on in this film - themes of friendship and loyalty, honour (amongst the lawful and the unlawful), betrayal, and trying to fit in to a changing world. These themes are layed out with some degree of subtelety, and the characters are for the most part multi dimensional and the world they inhibit morally murky. The film is well acted, with the performances of William Holden and Robert Ryan being standouts. On technical merits its outstanding, with some beautiful (and desolate) imagery and innovative use of slow motion and quick cut editing - The Wild Bunch was hugely influential in the use of slow motion in action sequences, the use of rapid cuts to convey a sense of chaos, and the use of extreme violence (the actual bloodiness is tame by today's standards, but it still packs a punch). The two major shootouts in the film are thrilling in a messy and bloody way.

Despite all of its merits, I never really got into the film. That's not to say there's anything inherently 'bad' about it though. I found it somewhat dull, and didn't care much for the characters or events, although there are some moments that pack quite an emotional punch. I'm not big on westerns, but I have enjoyed some of them - Unforgiven, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West. The Wild Bunch just didn't work for me, classic or no.

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

This is one of those independent films that hardly anyone has heard of, but which is adored by critics and has won several awards. It's a quirky comedy slash drama.

Set during the 1980s, The Squid and the Whale tells the story of the Berkman family. The family comprises once successful writer Bernard (Jeff Daniels), up and coming writer Joan (Laura Linney), and their two sons Walt (Jesse Eisenberg) and Frank (Owen Kline). The family goes through some tough times when Bernard and Joan get divorced and share custody of the children. The film is essentially about the personal turmoil that engulfs each of the characters after the separation, and the silly and painful situations that subsequently occur.

The parents, being writers, are extremely literate. Bernard is a pretentious and insufferable man who always maintains an air of superiority, the type of guy who'll criticize the judge for being an idiot if he doesn't win a contest. It's natural then that he has a hard time dealing with the rejection of his latest manuscript. Joan is a more modest person, but her failings are also apparent - her adulterous ways were part of the reason for the divorce. There's a lot of ill will between the two, and a lot of ugly pettiness as a result; but there's also a hint of shared feelings of regret. Walt takes after his father, and tries to act like an intellectual; he also blames his mother for the separation. Frank takes his mother's side, and is less interested in arts and more interested in tennis and has a fondness for his tennis coach Ivan (William Baldwin).

The film is about how fucked up families can be, and how messy parental break ups and squabbling can have profound effects on children. Although real life certainly isn't as funny, most things that happen in the film ring true. The kids pick up some of the attributes of their parents, and you can see them changing as the film progresses. It reminds me of the Philip Larkin poem 'This Be The Verse'.

It's a very funny and honest film that isn't dumbed down and reduced to a bunch of contrived set pieces. The comedy comes from the characters. The story is semi autobiographical - it's based on the experiences of writer / director Noah Baumbauch. The characters are well rounded and realistic, although they are certainly unconventional. The dialogue is smart and funny, and despite a very short runtime the film packs in quite a bit of content. Boambauch maintains a fine balance between humour and pathos and never veers too far down either path. The performances are excellent across the board, very natural and without any showboating. In addition to the actors already mentioned, Anna Paquin and Halley Feiffer also play prominent roles.

The Squid and the Whale is an excellent film that deserves to be seen. I'm not going to say that I loved it - I didn't really connect with it. I guess it hits a bit too close to home in some ways as well, and real life just ain't as funny. Lots of people who saw it did love it though, and I'd say it's worth checking out.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

OLPC Project - Tech Specs

As a follow up to my earlier post on the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project, here's a link to the offical site, which contains all kinds of info on the device which is now officially named the XO. The Executive Officer? Anyway, it's a nicely designed site which seems to give a broad overview of all aspects of the project.

[Edited to include the next paragraph]
There's also a story at Wired about the security paradigm that is being implmented in the XO's Operating System. It sounds restrictive but sensible, and as long as the option is there for advanced users to tweak things it might be a viable system for other operating systems as well.

The New Blogger

After months of avoiding it, bloody Blogger rudely forced me to switch! The wankers! I was annoyed to discover that I had to create a new Google account, because my old one is already associated with other blogs and I'm always signed into it for my mail. And since you can't be signed into two accounts at once with the same browser, I'm forced to use Opera to sign into my new Google account for blogging. Opera's not too bad, but it's a bit clunky in some ways and the javascript / cookie management system isn't as good as with Firefox and its extensions.

I digress... back to the new Blogger - despite the inconvenience caused during the switch, I'm quite happy with it. The main improvement is that it seems much faster than before, which is great news. The interface is familiar but slicker, with a bit more functionality like the ability to see comments associated with blogs. The 'label' system is also pretty cool for organizing posts. Best of all, because of the more solid Google accounts system (which is more adept at warding off spam accounts), the annoying CAPTCHA crap is no longer forced upon me when I post comments.

All in all, there's a slight annoyance involved in using a different browser, but the benefits outweigh the negatives. For people who don't use Google accounts normally, the benefits are such that making the choice to switch should be a no-brainer.

Running Scared (2006)

 Running Scared (2006)

This has to be one of the best thrillers to come out in a while - it's certainly the best I've seen in recent memory. It doesn't sound like much on paper, but it's definitely a dark and original cinematic experience.

The film focuses primarily on two central characters during a time period of about half a day (by my reckoning), and the film's title is appropriate for both of them. One is Joey (Paul Walker), a guy who works as hired muscle for a mafia / drug dealer gang. The other is Oleg (Cameron Bright), a young boy of Russian descent who lives next door to Joey's house and is best friends with his son Nicky (Alex Neuberger). When a drug deal goes bad and some corrupt cops get killed, Joey is entrusted to dispose of his boss Tommy's (Johnny Messner) somewhat distinctive gun. He doesn't, and instead hides it away in his home as 'insurance'. Unfortunately for Joey, Oleg discovers the gun and uses it to shoot his abusive father-in-law Anzor (Karel Roden) before running away. Anzor is the nephew of the boss of a Russian gang who demands an explanation as to how the boy got the gun. The Russian gang happens to be doing business with Joey's gang, who (in order to appease their business partners) promise to find out what happened and begin searching for Oleg. A panic stricken Joey, realizing that his employer will kill him if he learns that the gun wasn't disposed of properly, is forced to track down Oleg and stay one step ahead of the others who are looking for him. To add to Joey's woes, a crooked cop (Chazz Palminteri) figures out that the gun used by Oleg was the same one used in the shootout earlier in the day that caused the deaths of some of his corrupt buddies.

And that's just scratching the surface, as the plot is actually quite dense and features loads of twists and turns and characters popping in and out. I don't want to go into any more detail, because I've already written too much and wouldn't want to spoil any more - it's best to just see the film. The script by Wayne Kramer (who also directed) is excellent and effectively lays out the plot and creates some memorable characters and snazzy dialogue. I'm impressed by how Kramer squeezed in so many characters and events into two hours without making it confusing and without reducing any character to the role of a perfunctory cipher. Case in point - I haven't even mentioned Joey's wife Teresa (Vera Farmiga), and she has a prominent role in the film! Thematically the film deals with notions of honour and decency - no one in this story is a paragon of virtue, and many are ostensibly 'bad', but decency does exist amonsgt them, while people who might appear decent are the most depraved and despicable of all. The Oleg storyline is apparently based on the Grimms' fairy tales, and I can see the influence, especially in one subplot involving a paedophile couple which while conceptually taxing my suspension of disbelief was quite well executed. My only major complaint is the twist near the end, which just didn't sit too well with me. It seemed to come out of nowhere (although it was set up in at least one scene), and the actual ending itself while satisfying felt a bit safe and conventional.

The performances are very good for the most part, and the most important roles are perfectly cast. Paul Walker is great as Joey - it's hard to believe this is the same guy from The Fast and the Furious! He's completely convincing as a gritty but desperate tough guy, and as a husband and father (the type of husband and father a man like him would be, at any rate). Vera Farmiga is also excellent as Teresa, a character that goes from being simply a concerned housewife into someone who is forced to take drastic action. The seemingly ubiquitous Cameron Bright is suitably traumatized after a life of constant beatings - he has the glazed and haunted look in his eyes. Although it has to be said that he's like that in everything (and more than a little creepy, as in Birth), it's fitting for this role. Karel Roden is bizarrly memorable as the John Wayne loving, wife beating Anzor. Johnny Messner and Chazz Palminteri unfortunately make less of an impression in their respective roles. The rest of the supporting cast do good work, and there's too many to name them all individually in this already excessively long blog post.

The real star of the film is Wayne Kramer, whose direction is excellent. Not only does he juggle a large cast with aplomb, he infuses the film with a distinctive and gritty visual style. It's dark and grimey and bloody violent. There's fancy camerawork that isn't just style for the sake of it but is actually a part of the storytelling. There's a real sense of urgency and fear that permeates the film, and there are plenty of tense moments, including a sequence involving hockey pucks that should make just about anyone squirm. While being limited in quantity, the action is also stellar; in particular, there's a chaotic and frenzied shootout during the opening sequence that sets the scene and lets you know this is something a little bit different and possibly something special.

Thinking back on it, there's a lot going on in this film that I didn't immediately pick up on. I was too busy enjoying watching it. I suspect it'll make for good repeat viewing. It may not be to everyone's taste - it's violent and has a healthy 'swear words per minute' rating - but it's hard to argue against how well made it is. Definitely worth seeing.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Speed (1994)

Speed (1994)

Before seeing Speed for the first time I turned my nose up at it because, being an arrogant youth, I thought such low brow action fare was for idiots. Then I got around to actually seeing it and had to admit that I enjoyed it immensely. I've seen it several times now, and after this most recent viewing I've come to the conclusion that it's one of the best, if not the best, action movies of the nineties.

Speed begins with excitment, and it pretty much never slows down for a breather. During the first act, an insane bomber (Dennis Hopper) traps some people inside an elevator and threatens to blow it unless he's given a lot of money. Unfortunately, his dastardly plan is foiled by two police officers - the stoic and somewhat loopy Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves) and the more restrained and intelligent Harry Temple (Jeff Daniels). The mad bomber is more than a little pissed - he takes it personally and sets out not only to get his money but to get even with the two cops. He blows up a bus, and then tells Traven that a bomb has been placed on another bus. It will become active once the bus exceeds 50 MPH, and if the bus subsequently drops below that speed, it'll blow up. Traven manages to get on to the bus (via a daring leap from a moving vehicle) too late, as the bomb is already armed. An accident on board results in the bus driver being incapacitated, which results in one of the passengers, the vivacious Annie Porter (Sandra Bullock), getting behind the wheel.

The movie is non stop thrills from beginning to end - the opening elevator sequence is only a teaser compared to what follows. The occupants of the bus have to contend with traffic, near misses with pedestrians, a gunman, and various other obstacles, which are topped off with an impossible leap across a gap in an incomplete freeway. As if the events on the bus weren't enough, there's also an incident involving a train that beggars belief. Events on the bus are intercut with Harry Temple's attempts to track down the bomber. The interaction between the passengers, in particular Jack and Annie, and the antagonistic exchanges between Jack and the bomber take up the rest of the film's runtime.

This isn't a movie to be taken seriously - it's a roller coaster ride of a movie. And as such a movie, it's terrific. Sure, the events are improbable to say the least, and there isn't much character depth, but the plot is coherent enough and the characters are sketched well enough for the genre. The writing is excellent, possibly due to the work of an uncredited Joss Whedon. It's funny in a smart way, and the action dialogue is self-consciously overblown ("whaddaya do? WHADDAYA DO?!?"). The exchanges between Jack and the bomber are witty and memorable, with the latter toying with the hapless and not too bright cop.

The three leads are all great, but best of all is probably Keanu Reeves, who seems to have taken the role quite seriously. It's quite a departure from playing Ted 'Theodore' Logan. Reeves plays the role of Traven with an animal-like intensity and single-mindedness. He's convincing as a man driven by instinct and not thoughts, a man who will throw himself in harms way with reckless abandon. Even his physical movements are often akin to those of a prowling cat. Dennis Hopper is outrageously over the top, but he's supposed to be a nutter and it works - he delivers his lines with manic enthusiasm, and it's fun to watch. Last but not least is Sandra Bullock in the role that made her famous. She's sweet and tenacious and really funny - there's no sense of Hollywood glamour about her, just natural charm. The supporting cast on the bus are pretty good as well, and Joe Morton and Jeff Daniels make the most of their roles.

Director Jan de Bont has made lots of crappy films since debuting with Speed, which is a shame. Speed is tense and exciting and has well coreographed action sequences which are all the more remarkable when you consider that a lot of them involved moving vehicles (CGI cheats weren't quite so easy back in those days). Even the handful of emotional scenes are handled respectably. On technical merits, it's excellent - well edited and shot, and there's no weak link to be found in any production aspect of the film. The thumping score complements the film perfectly.

Action movies don't get much better than this. Seriously. Speed is a great example of how action movies ought to be made (and it's sequel is a great example of how they ought not to be made). It's a terrific piece of entertainment.

Friday, February 02, 2007

Doctor Who - Season 27 (2005)

Doctor Who - Season 27 (2005)

The legendary Doctor Who - in the UK the adventures of the good doctor are an institution, an ingrained part of popular culture. Doctor Who is apparently the longest running sci-fi show in the world, having started in the 1960s. I'd never gotten into Doctor Who before watching the revamped series that began in 2005; what little I'd seen had always turned me off. This new version of the series enticed me however - I suspect it was meant to draw in new fans as well as old - and I'm now eager to see more.

It's difficult to explain what this show's like, as it's quite uncnventional. It's about a being called simply The Doctor (Christopher Eccleston). He belongs to a race of aliens called the Timelords, who have the ability to travel through both time and space. The Doctor is an adventurer who visits different places and times and rights wrongs (if that makes sense). He travels in his ship, the TARDIS, which looks like an small, old fashioned police box (think phone booth) on the outside but is actually much larger on the inside. In the first episode, he comes to present day London to stop an alien invasion of the earth by plastic beings. It's here that he meets Rose (Billie Piper), a young woman who (in the tradition of the series) becomes the Doctor's travelling companion and co-adventurer. Occasionally they pick up another traveller, but usually only for a brief while.

The 27th series is 13 episodes long, and most of the episodes are standalone stories although there is strong continuity between them. There are also several two parters. A typical episode will have the TARDIS dropping Rose and the Doctor into some time period (strangely, all of the episodes take place on Earth) where some kind of alien or supernatural problem arises, requiring the Doctor to fix it somehow. Tonally, Doctor Who is light hearted, and a lot of the alien shenanigans are tongue in cheek. It does have its dramatic moments however, and there are times when it's quite poignant. There's even an episode that's quite creepy, with a little child who has a gas masked melded to his face wandering the streets of World War II era London.

The show is less pure sci-fi and more adventure, with only the loosest of sci-fi aspects thrown in to spice up the story, like temporal upsets and nanobots (although this is true of most television sci-fi, to be honest). There's a fair bit of good old fashioned human drama thrown in, particularly with relation to Rose and her mother and boyfriend. I can say one thing about this show - it's depiction of aliens is more imaginative than most, despite the cheesy effects. Amazingly, the Doctor's classic enemy the Daleks eventually take on a sinister and frightening visage despite looking like garbage cans with plungers for guns.

One of the most appealing things about the show is The Doctor. He is is a non-violent man of science who tries to think his way out of problems (a bit like MacGuyver I suppose). He's almost always cheerful, even in the face of danger, and seems to simply enjoy being a part of the universe. Despite all these virtues, including being selfless, the Doctor isn't above feeling fear or anger, as when he confronts the Daleks. A lot of the credit has to go to Christopher Eccleston, who seems to be having a great time as the Doctor (it's a shame he only did one season). Billy Piper does good work as the inquisitive Rose, and her relationship with the Doctor (purely platonic, by the way) is quite charming and makes for some amusing exchanges between the two. The guest and recurring supporting cast are hit and miss, although even the worst of them don't detract from the show too much.

Visually the show's a mixed bag - the special effects are mostly cheesy, and there is a look of cheapness to the photography and production design, but then again this is relatively low budget stuff so it's hard for me to cite it as a major flaw. The theme tune is nice, but the music is generally quite cheesy and doesn't really make much of an impact.

I enjoyed watching this first season of the new Doctor Who - it's imaginative and wacky and plays with a near limitless palette of ideas in a well established universe. A large part of this season's energy came from Eccleston, so it'll be interesting to see how his replacement fares in the next season. The show is definitely not for everyone, but sci-fi fans who don't mind a bit of goofiness will have a good time with this. That last comment is probably redundant, though, since most sci-fi fans will probably already have an idea what Doctor Who is about!