Friday, March 23, 2007

Unbreakable (2000)

Unbreakable (2000)

I can remember when this film first came out there was a lot of hype and expectation behind it. Writer / Director M. Night Shyamalan was coming off the unexpected mega success of The Sixth Sense and had already been hailed as a visionary. The reception Unbreakable ultimately received was lukewarm however, both critically and commercially. Reaction to it seems to be extreme either way - this seems to be one of those 'love it' / 'hate it' films where few people take the middle ground. Shyamalan the man is in many ways like this film - ambitious, distinctive, arrogant, and a tad pretentious. And just like this film, the man is loved and hated in equal measure. I can understand the dislike for his personality, but I have to say that as a fan of his filmmaking style I can't understand why some consider him to be a talentless hack. I love both Sixth Sense and this, and though I'm not such a big fan of Signs or The Village, I still enjoyed them and think that, at least on most technical merits, they're very well made. I'll take distinctive non-mainstream stuff over the derivative garbage that's churned out so routinely any day of the week.

But back to Unbreakable. The film is essentially a superhero origin story with a difference. That difference is that it's mostly a drama, an unconventional take on a genre that is almost exclusively action oriented. Unbreakable is a realistic and thoughtful interpretation of the superhero myth, a film that imagines what a real world superhero might be like. David Dunn (Bruce Willis) is a security guard who works at a university football stadium. He's having trouble with his marriage and is on his way back from a job interview in another city when tragedy befalls the train he's on. It derails, and David ends up being the only survivor; miraculously, he walks out of the hospital completely unscathed, accompanied by his wife Audrey (Robin Wright Penn) and son Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark). Shortly thereafter, he receives a note from a man named Elijah Price (Samuel L. Jackson) that makes him start to wonder about why he survived. He seeks out Elijah, who turns out to be the owner of an arty comic book store. Elijah suffers from a rare disorder that leaves his bones extremely brittle; he postulates that perhaps David is the opposite of himself - a person that is stronger than normal human beings, whose purpose is to protect the weak and helpless. Although David is naturally skeptical, his desire to make sense of his miraculous survival leads him to re-examine his life and see signs that suggest Elijah's theory might be correct. In closely related subplots, Joseph begins to look up to him as some kind of superhero, and his wife attempts to reconnect with him and save their marriage.

I find the realistic drama take on the superhero origin story to be an interesting premise, and in Unbreakable it's well executed. It plays to many superhero / comic book conventions - the costume, double life, Achilles' Heal, villain, etc - while still being grounded in a realistic world. The thing that irks a lot of people (besides hating the premise itself) is the lugubrious tone of the film. It's dour to the point of distraction, and I have to say it's a legitimate complaint. In shying away from the colourful antics of normal comic book movies, Shyamalan has gone to the opposite extreme. Still, the approach clearly works for the fans of the film, including me. I find that it accentuates the mundane reality of Dunn's world - he's a taciturn and humble individual who has been living an unfulfilling life and lacks purpose. The tone of the film coupled with the slow, deliberate pacing and self-important dialogue give the film an air of taking itself too seriously, which is also a legitimate complaint. But what can I say, I dig it, and I don't think it's a flaw that derails (heh heh) the film. I must confess though, there is some grating dialogue and one scene involving a kid and a gun that is just surreal and miscalculated; these elements sometimes draw you out of the film completely.

Although the script doesn't go into incredible depth, the characters are fairly well fleshed out, and the story builds up to a satisfying conclusion (including the obligatory M Night twist at the end). Dunn and Elijah Price are the chief protagonists, and their relationship, as well as David's relationships with his son and wife, are major aspects of the film. Dunn and Price are given plenty of backstory that inform their characters, with Elijah being perhaps more fleshed out and interesting than David. The performances are very good all round. I think Willis has always been a terrific in comedic and action roles, but here he does a great job playing the nondescript and bemused David Dunn. Samuel L. Jackson is excellent as the enigmatic genius Elijah Price, playing a role completely unlike the typical Sam Jackson role. Robin Wright Penn and Spencer Treat Clark are also solid in their roles, and Night once again proves that he knows how to pick good child actors.

Visually the film is very interesting and distinctive. Lots of long takes with the camera positioned almost like an invisible observer peeking in on the lives of these characters, giving it a pseudo docu-drama feel. The use of muted colours also enhances the tone of the film, while colour motifs and the occasional flash of bright colours are also employed as storytelling devices. Despite being a drama, there are loads of memorable scenes in the film that stick with me - the train station sequence, Dunn's battle with the orange jump suit man, Elijah's incident with the stairs, lifting weights, carrying Audrey - to me these moments are just a perfect combination of the various elements of the film that just click. The thing that really seals the deal is the fantastic soundtrack by James Newton Howard, which complements the film perfectly and also lends a real thumping 'superheroic' feel to it.

Alright, I love this film, it's one of my favourites. I can't really claim that it's a great film. It's definitely flawed in many ways, and I can understand that some people might dislike it as a result (though I can't understand the vitriol), but those flaws are too minor to detract from an interesting and entertaining (yes, slow paced doesn't mean boring!) cinematic experience. Shyamalan's films are always interesting, and Unbreakable is no exception. I'm certainly looking forward to whatever he comes up with, though I think it would also be nice to see him diversify a little in the future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Instruction Manuals or Doorstops?

After my last rant about how I think stuff made today is as good (or bad) as stuff from the 'good old days', this one may seem a bit hypocritical. After all, one of the plus points I mentioned about newer technology is how much more feature laden they are. Unfortunately, every silver lining has a cloud, and so the presence of a bajillion features results in... massive instruction manuals.

I'm one of those weirdos that reads instruction manuals from cover to cover. Yeah, I even check where my nearest authorized agent is in the list at the back of the book (but I stop short of writing notes in the 'Notes' section). I like to know... no, I need to know about or at least be aware of every little feature of every device that I own, be it a digital camera or a washing machine. Ten years ago, this wasn't a big deal, because there wasn't that much complexity in these things. Buy a basic camera and there's not that much to learn, and what little there is isn't much different from most other cameras. Same thing with TVs, phones, portable music players, etc... (admittedly, VCRs have always been a bit messy. How the hell does OTR work again?).

These days though, it's a different kettle of fish. The average consumer electronics device seems to come with a manual that isn't short story length anymore. They're more like novellas, with some approaching full blown novel status. Soon, out trusty doorstops won't be authored by the likes of Tolstoy, Dickens or Tolkien; no, they'll be authored by Nokia, LG, or Sony. That's because the devices of today are so feature laden that they require mammoth manuals. I spent months reading my mobile phone manual, reading bits of it whenever I had the time. Ditto for my digital camera, which comes replete with all manner of settings and usage notes. I haven't even started reading my laser printer's manual, and I can't imagine why it needs to be that long! A recently purchased washing machine has a load of special 'settings' that can be used in various combinations... Thankfully, I don't have a portable music player or PDA, because if I did my head would explode.

Now, for most human beings this isn't really a problem, because manufacturers seem to be aware of how ridiculously long their manuals have become. They provide convenient 'quick start' guides that sum up the basics in a few pages, and for the most part this is enough to make use of your device. Only a small percentage of these features are actually useful to everyone, and that percentage is all that you need to really learn. But I figure, why let all these features go to waste... why not make use of them? Some features are actually pretty cool once you know about them. Sure, a lot of them are still things you'd only ever do a handful of times, but at least by reading the manual I know that they can be done, even if I won't remember how and will still have to refer to the manual to use them properly. Actually, this is probably how manuals are meant to be used now anyway - reference books that you consult when you're not sure. The problem is, I still need to read the manual to become aware of the available features (those good old unknown unknowns), and doing that takes more and more time these days.

My gripe then is not that I want fewer features. I want better manuals and better interfaces. Better manuals should give a quick start guide for everything, or at least an introduction to everything that a person can read in order to understand what their device can do without having to read about how it does it. Better interfaces because, gosh, do all these things really require consulting the instructions manual to figure out? It's a fundamental problem that arises because devices are made to do a boatload of things with only a handful of buttons that do different things depending on context. While it's a difficult problem to solve, I think lots of manufacturers are just not doing a good enough job of making these things intuitive - button functions can be inconsistent and contradictory, on screen displays are vague and misleading.

Manufacturers, make these things better! Better manuals, more intuitive interfaces! One of the things that intrigues me about the iPhone is the fact that the interface isn't restricted by buttons - the screen itself is the interface, and the 'buttons' can be customized to suit the context that the device is in. I get the feeling this could be much, much better than what we've got now. Here's hoping.

As an aside, how on Earth did those fine folks at Starfleet manage to do all those things with the meagre few buttons available on their tricorders? Just thinking about the type of manual that must come with a tricorder is enough to give me a headache.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)

His Majesty's Dragon by Naomi Novik (2006)

I bought this book on a whim, and I blame Peter Jackson, the guy who directed The Lord of the Rings films. See, last year it was announced that he had acquired the rights to the film adaptations of the Temeraire series of books by Naomi Novik, the first of which is His Majesty's Dragon. When the guy who made some of the best and most spectacular films in recent memory picks source material for his future films, I pay attention. I saw this while scanning the shelves of a bookshop and bought it on impulse. After all, who can say no to the heartwarming tale of a man and his dragon? (I'm in bad pun mode these days) Sadly, the first in the Temeraire series doesn't come even remotely close to Tolkien's classic, doorstop sized tome.

His Majesty's Dragon is set during the Napoleonic Wars, towards the end of the 18th Century. Only, it's the 18th Century Jim, but not as we know it. It's an alternate history where dragons exist, and are used in combat like aerial warships, complete with full blown crews. Captain Will Laurence, commander of a British Naval warship, takes a French ship as a prize. On board the ship is a dragon egg that's about to hatch. Unfortunately for Laurence, a dragon must be 'harnessed' and assigned an aviator as soon as it hatches, otherwise it ends up becoming feral. Being too far out from a friendly port to hand over the egg to the Aerial Corps before it hatches, Laurence ends up becoming the dragon's aviator. Dragons are born with the ability to speak - they learn through the shell - and when the hatchling asks what his name is, Laurence christens him Temeraire. An aviator is assigned to a dragon for life, so Laurence effectively gives up his promising naval career and all hope of a normal life in the name of duty; the British Aerial Corps is desperate for more dragons in the face of Bonaparte's superior forces. The secretive Corps is generally ostracized, and Laurence's new position puts him in a quagmire, as he becomes an outcast in his own society and the Corps, who are resentful towards him. What follows is the story of how Laurence and Temeraire (who turns out to be a rare and exotic breed of dragon that is more intelligent than most) bond as friends, train to become full blown members of the Aerial Corps, and do their utmost in the name of their country.

I quite like the premise of the book, and the story is a fair introduction into this faux history featuring dragons, aviators, and aerial combat. The best things in the book are the allusions to the war and how they relate to and deviate from real history, the workings of the Aerial Corps and how it integrates into 18th century society, and finally aerial dragon combat. When the book jumps into dragon battle mode, it's fairly engaging. Unfortunately, everything else is weak. The characters are two dimensional and clichéd - Laurence is noble, dignified, brave, and an all round incredible officer who cares deeply for his dragon, and gets all righteous at even the slightest criticism. Every other character has even less depth and complexity than him, and every conversation is stiff and formal and wooden. This manner of speech may be historically accurate, but that doesn't excuse the fact that virtually every conversation feels decidedly inhuman. Ironically, the most human character is Temeraire, who actually has a wee bit of depth. The downside is that he and all the other dragons behave like infants. They're needy, spend a lot of time sleeping, drool food all over themselves and need constant cleaning, and interact with each other with all the maturity of toddlers. While I suppose this is just as valid an interpretation as any other, I found it really... well, lame. I like my dragons as vicious beasts or wise and condescending bastards, not prima donnas. Also, the lovey-dovey stuff between Laurence and Temeraire is just... ugh... with 'my dear' this and 'my dear' that, you sometimes wish they'd get a room.

The story also has many repetitive beats. Laurence has trouble fitting in, and must act stoic and gentlemanly while earning someone's respect. Laurence has to console and take care of Temeraire, who regularly has mood swings. Laurence and Temeraire train hard, impress everyone, and prove themselves. Much of this stuff feels clumsy and simplistic. Even the big twist and the surprise during the final battle are telegraphed a mile away. There's also a lack of atmosphere and sense of place, with very little in the way of description. I think a lot of my understanding of the milieu of the book came from what I already knew, and not really from the book itself.

His Majesty's Dragon isn't an awful book; far from it. I can imagine liking this as a teenager, but right now I'm a little more discerning, and mediocre just doesn't cut it. It's an interesting premise and a fair introductory story to a series, but it's not particularly well executed. There's some cool stuff, and a few exciting moments. I can see a lot of scope for a cinematic adaptation, especially the aerial combat, but the characters will have to be given more depth - even the more minor characters in Lord of the Rings had more to them than the major ones in this. Jackson is a guy who brings verisimilitude and character to his spectacular films, so as long as it isn't overlong like King Kong, I'd be interested in watching the rest of the series as films even though I won't be reading them.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Night Watch (2004)

Night Watch (2004)

I can't recall ever seeing a Russian film before, so this is a first. Night Watch, or Nochnoy Dozor to you comrade (sorry, I know it was really lame), is the first part of a trilogy of fantasy films based on a series of books. It was a huge hit in Russia, becoming the highest grossing film there for a while. It was released in an International version that lost a few elements but also added some stuff in that made the story's universe a little clearer. The version I saw was the original Russian cut, and I have to admit it could do with a little clarity, as it's a densely packed film that made my head spin.

Night Watch begins sometime around 1000 AD, in the midst of an epic, mythic battle between the forces of light and dark, comprised of supernatural people called 'Others'. The battle is a stalemate, and the leaders of the two sides decide to come to a truce. They both agree to limit and control each sides activities; a group of 'Dark Others' called the Day Watch would police the 'Light Others', with a corresponding Night Watch to police the 'Dark Others'. A prophecy fortells of a chosen one of some sort who will appear in a thousand years and side with the Dark Others and allow them to win the war. Flash forward to the early 90s (the dark days). A man named Anton sees a 'witch' about casting a spell to get his wife back from a man she's run off with. Turns out this witch is breaking the rules though, and she gets busted by the Night Watch, who were using the unsuspecting Anton as bait. To the surprise of the Night Watch team, Anton can see them; turns out he's also an Other.

And from this point onwards, the confusion begins. Ten years after the witch incident, Anton is working for the Night Watch - he chose to become a Light Other. He's told to find a boy who's being illegally targeted by some Dark Others. Anton seems hung over or disoriented, but he goes to his Dark Other neighbour for some blood, which he needs to drink to track the boy (Anton appears to be a vampire). The boy meanwhile is 'summoned' through some kind of telepathy to the bad guys' lair, where a Dark Vampire and his vampire girlfriend await him. Luckily, Anton stumbles in there like a deranged man and saves the kid, but not before the Vampire is killed and he himself has taken a serious beating. Unfortunately for Anton killing is not allowed, and he finds himself in some trouble with the Dark Others, who also decide to finish 'turning' the boy (who may be special in some way). Anton is then assigned a partner to help him out - an owl who soon transforms into a chick. There's also a woman who has been cursed with a 'bad luck' spell that has created a vortex that is causing everything it interacts with to experience bad luck, and the Night Watch have to stop her somehow. These events appear to all be part of the prophecy that was foretold a thousand years earlier.

A lot of stuff happens, but the above summary is the gist of the plot. It's the details, though, that are confusing. Unlike, say, the Underworld films, Night Watch has the feel of being a rich and detailed universe which wasn't constructed purely for 'coolness'. The problem is the film doesn't give much context or explanation for what is depicted - it's almost like trying to watch a TV series from the middle, after the universe is established and viewers are expected to already understand the rules. There's a history to the characters that we are not privy to. This is sometimes a good thing, as with Anton's partner's backstory - she was punished for some unspecified crime by being turned into a stuffed owl for decades before finally being released. That kind of detail gives the universe depth. But often, unexplained things are directly related to the plot, and that's when it becomes frustrating.

Some of the cool but confusing things in Night Watch: Animal forms - the Others seem to be able to transform into animal forms at times, but the rules aren't made clear. Can they all do it, or just some of them? What are these licenses that are mentioned? There's an implication that the Night Watch issue licenses for the Dark Others to engage in their acts, but then bust them for it anyway, but this idea doesn't really go anywhere. Why is Anton a vampire if he's Light, or is that something that happens only when he drinks blood and becomes a 'seer'? And on a related note, what are the powers of the Others exactly? And can they be seen by normal people, since they're always surprised when someone sees them? If not, how do they go around interacting with the world - they drive cars and so on, do people see driverless cars? And what the hell exactly is the 'Gloom' (parallel universe) that they can enter? Why do the Dark Others have a videogame that appears to depict events in the film? And how is it possible for the Others to look up future events on a website, does the webmaster have powers of prescience?

Admittedly, some things become vaguely clear as you're watching, or rather it's possible to make reasonable guesses as more details come to light. Perhaps a re-watch would clarify things and allow me to pick up on details that I missed the first time round. Seeing this stuff is really cool, it's depicted with a matter-of-fact assurance that suggests that it all makes sense. While none of these ideas are original in their own - indeed, the broad concept of good vs. evil and chosen ones is trite - this particular interpretation and combination of elements is unique.

The film itself is well made, especially given the $5 million budget! At a time when the average Hollywood film costs in excess of ten times that, it's hard not to be impressed by Night Watch. Although the production is mostly constrained to real world locations and costumes, it still has a surreal look and atmosphere, and the accompanying special effects are pretty nifty. It all looks grungy and real, without that unnatural sheen that accompanies too many similarly themed films. It moves along at a fast pace and the few action sequences present aren't too shabby. The script is probably the weakest link - not only is the Universe not well explained, but the characters are also fairly two-dimensional. There's nothing special performance-wise either - Konstantin Khabensky is the standout as Anton, a mixture of confusion and bravado. Galina Tyunina is interesting in a mysterious sort of way as Olga. Mariya Poroshina is kinda creepy as the demure, cursed vortex ridden Svetlana. Dmitry Martynov does a decent job as the kid, Yegor. The rest of the cast are alright, but don't really register.

Night Watch is a mixed bag. It hints at something that could've been really cool, but it ends up being a frustrating missed opportunity. It's a distinctive take on familiar subject matter that feels original. It's entertaining and confusing in equal measure. Overall, it's kinda cool, and perhaps the sequels flesh things out a bit better. For genre fans, it's worth watching, not least because it's interesting to see a Russian take on the type of film usually associated with big budget Hollywood movies.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Half-Life 2 - First Impressions

I've finally started playing Half-Life 2, after a lengthy download period via Valve's Steam content management system. I know I'm only slightly over two years too late to the HL2 party to write down 'first impressions', but I felt like jotting down my thoughts nonetheless.

First impressions are everything, and things didn't start well - the first 10 minutes or so were a bit mixed. First, starting the game seemed to take forever; the Steam system has to sign on to your account before the game itself starts loading; I've decided to play 'offline' from now on. Then, the game took several minutes to start up. Once it did though, things began to improve. The menus (which have a dynamic view of a game environment for a backdrop) were similar to the original game, and setting things up took no time at all. Starting the game again resulted in waiting for the first level to load. The loading times aren't horrendous, it's just that compared to Tomb Raider: Legend and even the original Half Life, they're quite slow. And then, the game started.

Once again, you get to fill the shoes of scientist Gordon Freeman. The game begins with the creepy G-Man, now sporting detailed skin and realistic facial animation, telling you that you're basically back in the thick of things. You end up on a train that stops at City 17, a place that looks like a war ravaged East European town. The graphics are excellent, both in terms of design and technology. The game is incredibly atmospheric - decrepit old buildings with moss (or something) growing on the walls, cobbled streets with outgrowths of grass, an abandoned children's playground, a believable town layout, and so on. The physics are quite good as well, though I've yet to get the much ballyhooed gravity gun! The sound design is also excellent, from gunfire to the sound of doors being kicked in and people being clubbed with batons!

A lot of information is cleverly conveyed via background elements - as with the original game, there are no direct cut-scenes, you are pretty much always in control of Freeman even during the moments of exposition. The setting and situation are immediately made clear via the ubiquitous video screens featuring looped recordings of a Doctor Breen explaining (as propaganda) how City 17 is one of the last developed refuges on earth and the centre of the administration. It becomes apparent that Breen is working with some kind of occupying force, presumably alien, and that everything that is happening is supposedly for the further development of mankind, including a 'suppression field' that somehow prevents reproduction. Aliens you fought in the first game are now being used as slave labour. There's a strong military presence in the city called the Combine, and the people are clearly oppressed and unhappy. There's also a resistance force sneaking people out of the city, seemingly headed by Freeman's colleagues from the first game.

After a leisurely introductory period where you can get your bearings, the game throws you into the deep end without warning. This is what was so great about Half-Life 1, and it seems 2 continues in the same vein. It's like playing out an action movie, only it feels dynamic even though it's all scripted, and the result is exhilarating. After stumbling into a housing complex you're not authorized to be in, the Combine come after you. Residents try to help you out as you run to the roof, and you can hear them being beaten and shot in the background as you make your escape. I didn't bother to sit in one place and see what happens if the Combine catches up, I was so swept up in it all. Once on the roof, you get to run along from rooftop to rooftop while soldiers behind you and on the street start using you for target practice until you finally manage to get away by darting into a building through an open window.

You find an underground layer of the resistance where Dr. Kleiner and Barney the security guard from the first game, and Alyx, daughter of one of the other scientists, have been working on perfecting a teleportation device. You finally get your HEV suit back, and your classic weapon, the crowbar! The three of them have a humourous conversation; most impressive were the reactions of the characters, who make facial expressions and movements in tune with the conversation, and you can just stand next to any one of them and they sort of glance at you while doing it, with those impressively realistic looking eyes (really, they shimmer!). The voice acting is also really good, with the voice cast playing it straight but not overly seriously.

Later, when you finally get a handgun, you get to engage in gunfights with the Combine while fleeing through underground tunnels and around a set of railroad tracks complete with running trains. And that's about as far as I got...

It's just really engaging stuff, and while I've been out of gaming for a while, I suspect it's still up there with the best of them in terms of quality. Heck, I'd say the original which is nearly a decade old is still immensely playable! Half-Life 2 is atmospheric and exciting and has stunning graphics, involving storytelling techniques, an intriguing storyline thus far, and is bigger in scope and better than the original in nearly every way. I've yet to determine whether the gun battles are quite as exciting as those against the soldiers in the first game, but it's early days yet.

Hopefully, the game will maintain this level of quality throughout, and won't pull the same stunt as the original game by transporting you to an alien planet where you get to jump around on moving platforms like Mario!

Capote (2005)

Capote (2005)

Less than a week ago I mentioned how traditional 'epic' biopics are less interesting to me than ones that focus on certain key events in a person's life. And now, along comes Capote, a biographical film that covers the period in writer Truman Capote's life when he wrote his magnum opus, the non-fiction novel In Cold Blood. While the film tells a conventional narrative it is very character driven and focuses mostly on the man within the context of the events that occur.

Capote takes place across several years, from 1959 through to the mid 60s. It begins with a girl finding a family (the Clutters) murdered in their farmhouse in a small town in Kansas. It then cuts to New York and the high society world of Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman), whom we see regaling his audience with his witty conversational skills and clearly loving the attention. Later, Capote reads a brief article in the paper about the killing of the Clutter family, and he immediately decides he wants to do an article about it. He heads off to Kansas with his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), and they begin investigating the murder, going from house to house and coming across a bit like Mulder and Scully. Capote isn't interested in who committed the crime, rather he's interested in the impact the killings have had on the town. He manages to befriend the detective in charge of the case, Alvin Dewey (Chris Cooper), and plies him for information. Two men are arrested for the crime, and Capote becomes fascinated by one of them - Perry Smith (Clifton Collins Jr.), a man of surprising intelligence and artistic talent.

The rest of the film follows Capote's obsession with his work, which he decides to turn into a full blown novel. He has little doubt that it will be a masterpiece, a new type of novel that he bills the 'nonfiction novel'. In order to write it, he needs to get the inside story from Smith regarding his life and the murders. He does this by arranging for lawyers to continuously appeal the men's guilty verdict so that he can arrange for meetings with Smith in prison. Capote ingratiates himself with Smith, but soon develops a genuine affection for him and sees Smith as a spiritual sibling of sorts because of similarities in their childhood. Despite this, he still manipulates and lies to Smith to get what he needs for the book, and is ultimately faced with a dilemma - if Smith and his accomplice are not executed for their crimes, his book won't have the ending it needs.

Capote is a fascinating film, enough to make me eager to read 'In Cold Blood', as a matter of fact. There's a nice balance between story and character development, with the latter incorporated into the former in such a way that the characters become familiar without any major digressions. The focus is of course on Capote, who is arrogant and ambitious; this coupled with the fact that he's openly gay, of small stature, and effeminate makes for interesting interactions with the people he comes across. His relationship with Harper Lee is a major aspect of the film, and the two have that air of familiarity and comfort about them that you see in close friends. The first half of the film establishes who Capote is; once he meets Smith, the film delves deeper into his character and his past, as his artistic ambition wrestles for dominance with his newfound friendship. This conflict is the major focus of the film, as Capote exploits Smith, but not without compunction. The script also dwells on Smith and humanizes him, which makes Capote's choices more difficult and his eventual actions more despicable.

The film is fantastic as a character piece, but it is a bit slow paced, and despite not being overly long becomes a bit repetitive. There are several scenes with Capote and Lee questioning townspeople, several scenes with Capote at social gatherings, and many with him speaking with Perry Smith. While these scenes do build on and develop the character and narrative, they are... well, repetitive. There's not much interesting visually, though the bleak photography and barren landscapes figure prominently and effectively establish a quite dour atmosphere (appropriate, given the subject matter).

The most talked about aspect of this film is Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance as Capote, and justifiably so. Capote is what the film is about, and Hoffman manages to overcome the inherently 'showy' nature of the role - the conspicuous demeanour and distinctive voice - and make the character complex and compelling. Despite being an arrogant ass and a bit of a bastard, it's hard not to empathize with Capote in the end, and that's largely thanks to Hoffman's brilliant performance. Clifton Collins Jr. also does an excellent job making Smith sympathetic and even likable while still seeming dangerous and capable of bloody violence. Catherine Keener, who only features prominently in the first half of the film, is great as the self-assured and dignified Harper Lee. The interactions between these three actors are terrific and add considerably to the film, which is a huge plus given that said interactions comprise a significant portion of the running time. Chris Cooper also makes a solid appearance, as does Bruce Greenwood as Capote's lover (though it's never made explicit).

In conclusion, Capote's a very good film that features excellent performances and an engaging storyline, but which suffers from being a bit slow paced and which could maybe do with a bit more humour (what little there is, is quite funny). As a result it's probably not the most re-watchable film, but it's well worth watching at least once, and is quite memorable - it definitely stuck in my mind.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Darwin's God

I don't know for how long this New York Times article will be freely available online before it's archived (it's over a week old), but here it is anyway.

The lengthy article, entitled Darwin's God, is about a scientific explanation for mankind's belief in deities and religion in general. Since religion seems to have cropped up in societies all over the world, some evolutionary scientists and anthropologists figure there must be a logical reason for it. There appear to be two schools of thought - one that religious beliefs were 'adaptive' evolutionary traits that helped humans to survive, and the other that they are merely byproducts of other evolutionary traits - namely "agent detection, causal reasoning and theory of mind". No, I'm not going to explain them. The latter theory is given more attention than the former.

It's an interesting read, but one thing that disappoints me about the article is the lack of insight into why some people don't believe. There's a couple of paragraphs that touch on the idea right at the end, and that's it. It basically concludes that rationalism requires a lot of effort and entails suppressing natural instincts - i.e. the desire to 'believe'. No thoughts on whether we'll ever evolve to leave behind religious beliefs. If anything, it implies the latter: No matter how much science can explain, it seems, the real gap that God fills is an emptiness that our big-brained mental architecture interprets as a yearning for the supernatural. The drive to satisfy that yearning, according to both adaptationists and byproduct theorists, might be an inevitable and eternal part of what Atran calls the tragedy of human cognition.

End of blog entry. I'm going to get back to my "emotional and intellectual struggle to live without God in a nonatheist world".

Idiocracy (2006)

Idiocracy (2006)

Idiocracy, from writer / director Mike Judge, was buried by 20th Century Fox, who treated it like a child they were ashamed of and gave it a perfunctory limited release with zero marketing. There's a lot of speculation as to why, with the popular theories being that this was done either because there was a falling out between Judge and the studio, or because the film was something that hit too close to home for the masses - it attacks cultural decadence, anti-intellectualism, and corporate omnipotence. Whatever the reason, it's a shame because the film is quite good, though I don't think it reaches the greatness of Judge's last film, Office Space.

Idiocracy is sci-fi comedy about Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), an average man serving in the Army, and a prostitute named Rita (Maya Rudolph), who become part of a military hibernation experiment. Unfortunately, things go wrong, and instead of hibernating for one year as intended, they end up in hibernation for 500 years. The opening sketch that serves as an introduction to the film informs us that as a result of stupid people breeding more than smart people, average intelligence would fall drastically over the years. When 'average' Joe wakes up, he's literally the smartest man on the planet. Disoriented, he breaks into a man named Frito's (Dax Shephard) apartment and is promptly chased out. The truth slowly begins to dawn on Joe as the stupidity of the populace is revealed - people are barely literate, speak with simplistic words, watch inane television programmes, and lack even the most basic comprehension about how pretty much anything works.

After Joe goes to a 'hospital' for a check up but is unable to pay, he winds up getting arrested. During the goofy trial that ensues, his lawyer turns out to be Frito, who aids the prosecution in getting him convicted. Joe uses his superior intellect to break out of jail quite easily and convinces Frito to help him try to find a way back to his own time, promising to reward him by opening a bank account for him in the past (thus allowing 500 years of interest to accrue). They find Rita and take her with them. While being guided to a Time Machine by Frito, Joe is caught and brought in to the White House because the IQ test he took before going to jail has singled him out as a genius, and the wrestler/porn-star President (Terry Crews) wants his help to solve society's problems within a week. To give you an idea of what the president of the future is like, I submit his opening line when addressing the nation: "Shit. I know shit's bad right now, with all that starving bullshit, and the dust storms, and we are running out of french fries and burrito covers. But I got a solution."

Idiocracy is a satire that mocks the dumbing down of society, and I love the concept of the film. There's rampant anti-intellectualism (Joe is branded as "talking like a fag" by everyone), people are stupid and reliant on machines, and mega-corporations control everything - water is banned because it hurts the profits of a soft-drink company, and corporate marketing is ubiquitous. In execution the film is slightly flawed but still does the concept justice. The details of the world are fantastically imaginative, and they are outrageous enough to be funny while still remaining true to present reality and therefore immediately recognizable. There's no subtlety here, even an idiot will be able to figure out what the film is saying, and it'll probably piss him off. There're loads of little sight gags throughout the film, and the story is designed to explore as much of this futuristic society as possible. The narrator who explains things concisely is also a very effective device, and his tone is nicely balanced between being serious and sardonic.

While scenes are well written and play out with comedic effect, the story itself isn't particularly inventive and the characters aren't particularly memorable or endearing. These are admittedly minor quibbles, since the future society is what the film is all about. Still, when compared to Office Space's plotting and characterization, it's a bit of a let down. There's also a fine line between satirical depictions of puerile elements and indulging in those same elements, and sometimes Judge seems to have indulged a bit too much (such as the groin kicking gag). The special effects are cheap looking but they seem appropriate for the film's wacky milieu. The quality of production elements like sets and costumes also show signs of being low cost, but again these feel appropriate to the film's sensibilities. This last quibble is also probably budget related, but I have to say I didn't find the film very engaging visually.

The performances are solid all round given that there isn't much to the characters. Luke Wilson is suitably 'average' as Bauers, and his behaviour is pretty much serious throughout - it's the world that's gone mad, after all, and Wilson mainly has to react to the madness. Maya Rudolph is occasionally funny, plus I found her strangely attractive (not sure why I needed to mention that - I guess it's a plus point for the film). Dax Shephard pulls off the part of an idiot to perfection. Best of all is Terry Crews as the outrageous, over-the-top President.

Alright, it's not as instantly memorable as Office Space was, nor as quotable. And the characters are a bit rough, as is the story. That doesn't, however, stop it from being very funny and very scathing in its indictment of many, many things in the world today. It doesn't pull any punches. It's not a movie that makes any insightful new observations on society; it's more a movie that can be watched to vent frustrations by laughing at all the stuff that raises ones blood pressure on a daily basis. I'm not sure how re-watchable it is, but I'll certainly be re-watching it to find out.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Sting (1973)

The Sting (1973)

Heist / caper movies are fun - I really enjoyed the first two Ocean's films and am looking forward to Ocean's Thirteen. There's something outrageous about the whole idea of them, a bunch of people pulling off an improbable and convoluted scam that requires many different people to do very specific things at specific times, all the while ignoring or working around capricious happenstance. I think the Ocean's films acknowledge that by not taking an overly serious approach. The Sting is also a heist movie - a classic that won a boatload of awards in its day and reunited Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stars Paul Newman and Robert Redford, and director George Roy Hill. The Sting is quite different however; while Newman, Redford, and Robert Shaw bring it that larger than life quality that Clooney and friends bring to the Ocean's series, it has a much more serious tone to it.

Set in the 1930s, the story begins with small time con-man Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford, playing a character who presumably has no relation to the one played by Bill Shatner) and his mentor and partner Luther (Robert Earl Jones) unknowingly conning a crime boss's courier out of thousands of dollars. The crime boss, Doyle Lonnigan (Robert Shaw) decides to make an example out of them; Luther winds up dead, and Hooker winds up on the run from both Lonnigan's assassins and a corrupt cop (Charles Durning). He seeks out a man named Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman), one of the all time great con men now seemingly no more than a washed up drunk. Hooker convinces Gondorf to help him pull off a major con - he wants to avenge the death of Luther by scamming Lonnigan. Gondorff, enticed by the challenge, agrees and assembles a massive crew to pull off a massive scam. Gondorff becomes something of a mentor figure for Hooker, and in an ironic twist, part of the scam involves Hooker becoming something of a protégé figure for Lonnigan as they draw him into their trap.

The plot is actually really quite good; it's surprisingly tight and the con isn't as outrageous as those often seen in modern films. It's apparently inspired by real-life cons, so perhaps that has something to do with it. There's no high tech stuff on display, just good old fashioned deception and manipulation, and it's all very inventive and entertaining, and there're a couple of nice (though not so surprising) twists. The script builds up the con as well as the relationships between Hooker and both Gondorff and Lonnigan. Most of the film revolves around Hooker as he works the biggest con of his life while keeping his desire for revenge in check. It works primarily as a great piece of entertainment, but it's also a character piece that deals with themes of friendship, loyalty, corruption, and revenge. As a period film it's very atmospheric, thanks in large part to the distinctive score. Like with Butch Cassidy, director George Roy Hill made the film a mixture of light-hearted playfulness and seriousness, a formula that succeeds on this occasion as well.

There are three performances of note in the film. I'm going to start with the terrific Robert Shaw, the man immortalized as Quint in Jaws. The guy's dispassionate, ruthless, and greedy, and Shaw does a great job of showing us how an intelligent guy like Lonnigan could slowly succumb to temptation and fall for a clever con. Robert Redford is excellent as the roguish and impetuous Hooker, a character completely unlike the cool headed and taciturn Sundance Kid. And then there's Paul Newman - there aren't too many stars who can be as charismatic while doing virtually nothing (Toshiro Mifune was one), but a lot of the time, that's what Newman does here. He mostly just smiles and says a few words, with the exception of one brilliant scene where Gondorff plays poker with Lonnigan. It's easy to buy him as not just a great con-man, but also a leader that others would readily follow.

The Sting features great performances and a good solid script and direction, and it's very entertaining. It's one of those films where it's easy to get behind the protagonists despite the fact that they are technically bad guys, because they're so cool and because they're stealing from even badder guys. It's an expertly crafted piece of entertainment with a bit of depth.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Linux Part II

I've received a lengthy comment on my earlier post. Given that it goes into a great deal of depth on the topic (longer than my post, by the looks of it!), I've decided to reply with a separate post.

Firstly, thank you anonymous individual for taking the time out to make a well reasoned and insightful comment. Having read over my post again, I realize that my tone was occasionally a bit harsh. I was (understandably, I reckon) more than a little annoyed at the state of affairs. Still, I think I made it clear even then that I wasn't anti Linux; if anything, I expressed my eagerness to embrace Linux.

Perhaps I went too far in making such an all encompassing statement - that Linux wasn't 'read for the desktop'. While looking into my particular problem, I did overlook the fact that I was in the minority - most people have no problems installing Ubuntu, and the installation process is reputed to be much better than that of Windows, probably in part due to the fact that it can be installed from a Live CD. And yes, I am aware that Windows has problems with driver support as well. The thing that irked me about my experience with Ubuntu was that it didn't fail gracefully, it just left me in the lurch. And the problem is apparently a glitch with the installer. I've had issues with Windows where drivers weren't available, but it was able to run with basic VGA drivers; I'm not sure why this didn't happen with the Ubuntu installer.

I am well aware that Linux is getting better all the time with regard to these sorts of problems, and with regard to general usability. And yes, driver issues are the biggest stumbling blocks, but even here things are improving. This is one of the reasons I felt it was time to start using it. This is also why, if I don't find a way to resolve my current problem, I'll get the next release of Ubuntu and give that a try - the driver issues will hopefully be resolved by then.

Once again, I agree my comment was unjustified with regard to the actual usage of a Linux desktop, seeing as how I have very little experience with a modern distro! I am aware that most basic things can be done with a Linux distro straight out of the box, with minimal effort. And the new package managers are meant to be a piece of cake to use. A person with some technical skill shouldn't have many problems. I have no doubt that once I get Linux installed I'll still have issues that need to be resolved, but I should be able to find solutions online, as you mention. I suspect you're right when you say that someone, somewhere has already experienced whatever problems that might crop up...

I think the major contentious point is in terms of advanced usability. You mention that to do things besides basic web-browsing and email will require some effort. The reason being that it takes time to get used to the Linux way of doing things. Quite often, though, from what I've read I get the impression that sometimes getting things done can be complicated - as in more complicated than the Windows way. If Linux is to be ready for the desktop, these things need to be made easier. Now I acknowledge that I could be wrong, seeing as how my practical knowledge on this matter is limited, but that's the general impression I get. Perhaps once I get used to Linux, things won't seem quite as complicated. And quite often the reason things are harder is because Linux always faces an uphill battle when it comes to getting support from developers and manufacturers, which results in complicated workarounds to get things done.

But I do believe that for the average user, these problems are an issue when compared to Windows. Most software used by the average Joe is designed to work with Windows and is not likely to cause problems. With Linux, however, it may be a bit more complicated for the average person - being used to Windows, and having to deal with problems that they might not have to deal with normally (the reasons for these problems are irrelevant to most people; I understand that it might not really be the 'fault' of Linux that things don't always work - i.e. lack of driver support from manufacturers). Basically, Windows' ubiquity is a hindrance to Linux being 'ready for the desktop'. It can involve jumping through hoops to get proprietary file formats and software to work with Linux, if it's possible at all. Most people expect these things to 'just work'.

It's an interesting point you make about advanced Windows users being wary of going in to Linux - like jumping into the deep end! I think there's some truth to that statement. It's hard to get used to a new way of doing things, following instructions and stumbling around, but I guess it's a good way to learn. And yeah, it is easy to just give up without trying, especially for relatively advanced users, and I agree that it is a feeble excuse. And while I did come close to using that kind of excuse, you'll note that I haven't given up.

Anyway, in short I agree with most of what was said in your comment... Linux is getting better and will continue to do so, and the type of problem that I encountered is an exception. Most Linux problems can be resolved with a little effort. Much of what can be done on Windows can be done on Linux. But it does take time to get used to the Linux way of things. The only thing I'm not sure of is that it's as usable for the average Joe as it is for those who are more technically inclined. For my part, I will (as I originally stated) be trying again, and look forward to having a dual boot system set up in the near future.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Malcolm X (1992)

Malcolm X (1992)

I've never been big on 'biopics'; I find them interesting, but there's something about the formula of depicting a summarized life story that fails to engage me. I personally prefer biographical stories that focus on a few key events and aren't epic in terms of encompassing all major aspects of a person's life. But hey, that's just me. The Aviator and Ray are two recent examples of biopics that I'm not enthusiastic about despite the fact that they are both good films (actually, The Aviator is pretty terrific). Often regarded as Spike Lee's best film, Malcolm X is yet another excellent biopic that I enjoyed but can't really claim to be a fan of.

Malcolm X tells the story of black nationalist leader Malcolm X (Denzel Washington). Born Malcolm Little, the film divides the story of Malcolm X's life into three distinct segments. The first is during his youth as a burglar and drug dealer. The second is during a stint in prison, where he discovers Islam and becomes a devoted member of the Black Muslim organization the Nation of Islam. The third and longest segment deals with his life after prison, where he becomes a very public figure and the most prominent spokesman for the Nation of Islam. Each segment covers key events and people during those years in Malcolm's life.

Malcolm X is an excellent film in every respect. It's informative and draws you into the life of a fascinating individual. It's certainly brought the man to my attention - prior to watching this, my knowledge on him was sketchy at best. Now... well, it's much less sketchy; I'll be sure to remedy my lack of knowledge even further in the near future. The film is more than just a summary of Malcolm X's life, it's also a detailed study of the man - we can see how and why he changes and ends up doing what he does.

The film doesn't feel sketchy, mostly because most sequences are fleshed out quite well. This does lead to a lengthy 3.5 hour running time, but it doesn't feel overlong (lengthy running times are fairly normal for biopics, but 3.5 is longer than average). It certainly isn't lacking in depth; my outline of the film barely scratches the surface, as there's a lot that is depicted within those main three acts that defy easy summarizing. I don't think there's anything significant from Malcolm X's life that isn't at least touched upon. Lee's film is immersive and informative, and while it is certainly serious it also manages to be quite colourful, entertaining and funny. It's very atmospheric and evocative of its time and place, from the costumes and sets to the music.

The best aspect of the film in my mind is, without question, Denzel Washington. He's always good in pretty much everything, but I'd say that this is the best performance of his that I've seen, and looking over his filmography I can't imagine any other role in which he could possibly be better. As Malcolm X, he's just incredibly charismatic and full of conviction. The rest of the cast is excellent as well, particularly Angela Bassett, Delroy Lindo, and Spike Lee.

So, in short, it's an excellent film and well worth watching. It may not have changed my feelings towards biopics, and I wouldn't call myself a fan, but I can't deny that it was one of the most enjoyable biopics that I've seen.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Star Trek Lives!

Well, it's finally officially official! Although it was virtually official for some time, Paramount has now confirmed that Star Trek 11 will be released Christmas 2008, 6 years after the last travesty that was Star Trek Nemesis! And it's going to be written by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci and directed by Lost and Alias creator J.J. Abrams, the same people who made the mediocre Mission Impossible 3! Grrrreat! While they should certainly be able to churn out something better than Nemesis, I have my doubts this is going to reach the heights scaled by Wrath of Kahn, Undiscovered Country, and Generations (sorry haters, it was good, and easily the most cinematic of the TNG films).

The most interesting thing about this film is that it will "focus on the early lives of Captain James T Kirk and Mr Spock". Although it's easy to dismiss this as creative bankruptcy, I find the idea interesting. Abrams aims to recapture the "brilliance and optimism of Roddenberry's world" by setting it in Kirk's time. After the horrors of Voyager and Enterprise (alright, the last season was OK, but OK just doesn't cut it), this may be a good thing. The major downside is the sense of inevitability that naturally accompanies a prequel. Oh, and the tendency for prequels to suck.

The other factor is that feeling of Star Trek burnout. I just have to say... too soon! Enterprise has barely been gone two years, so by the time this film comes out it won't have been the lengthy hiatus that was needed for weary fans like me to wash away the bitter taste. On the plus side though, the talentless hacks that ran things into the ground won't be running the show, and that fact alone gives me a bit of that Roddenberry optimism Abrams promises to infuse into his film. Rumour has it... Matt Damon, Matt Damon! is in... talks to play... the iconic role that formerly... belonged to William Shatner. All will be revealed in good time, and I am mildly interested.