Sunday, December 30, 2007

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 1 (2000)

Curb Your Enthusiasm - Season 1 (2000)

Larry David's 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is a witty comedy series, the type that is full of 'awkward moment' and 'bizarre circumstance' humour. Ostensibly about the life of Larry David himself (AKA the creator of 'Seinfeld'), it is a fictional show that focuses on the unfortunate encounters between Larry (played by Larry David) and various people, including his wife Cheryl (Cheryl Hines) and his manager Jeff Greene (Jeff Garlin). The typical episode features a number of events (many of which are interconnected) in Larry's day to day life that end up going disastrously wrong due to Larry's inflexible nature and difficulty in dealing with people, together with the intractable personalities of the people he meets.

I've seen very little of Seinfeld, but from what I remember I think this is stylistically very similar to that show. There's a deadpan nature to the humour, and much of it is based on strange situations coming to pass through coincidence or through the characters' own actions (typically, their mistakes). A lot of the humour lampoons aspects of human nature and societal norms, with Larry railing against things he sees as foolish. But it works both ways, with Larry being an obstinate ass on many an occasion and deserving what he gets. As the lead Larry David plays himself to perfection, making his bemusement and frustration perfectly understandable while also making himself irritating and detestable when the occasion demands it. His supporting actors and guest stars all essentially play off Larry and most are well cast and in tune with the show's idiosyncratic style.

'Curb Your Enthusiasm' is a very funny show - on occasion I had to pause to control my fits of laughter - that is insightful in its showcasing of adults behaving childishly. If there's any criticism, the show is kind of one note and feels a bit random at times. It also focuses wholly on the situations that it sets up and doesn't dwell much on anything else, like character or theme; as a result it's hard to really care about any of the characters on the show. The show is what it is however, and it is very good at being what it is (and this sentence is also very good at being what it is, which is mangled). I'm looking forward to catching up with the subsequent seasons and discovering just how many ways Larry David can get himself into a tough spot.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Heat (1995)

Heat (1995)

Michael Mann's 'Heat' is, quite simply, a brilliant film that is spearheaded by two of the best actors of their generation, Robert De Niro and Al Pacino. It was touted as the first film in which these two acting giants would appear together on screen, and while their scenes together are indeed standout moments, everything else about the film is nearly as terrific, including the work of the tremendous supporting cast.

'Heat' is a crime thriller that tells the story of two groups of people. One is a group of thieves - experts at what they do, consummate professionals - headed by Neil McCauley (De Niro) and including Chris (Val Kilmer) and his wife Charlene (Ashley Judd), Michael (Tom Sizermore), Donald (Dennis Haysbert), and Trejo (Danny Trejo). The other is a group of detectives working for the 'Robbery Homicide' police unit headed by Lt. Vincent Hanna (Pacino) and including Sergeant Drucker (Mykelti Williamson), Detective Casals (Wes Studi), and Bosko (Ted Levine). McCauley's group arrives in Los Angeles to carry out a few heists, and Hanna's group sets out to stop them - that's pretty much the plot, but it barely scratches the surface of what 'Heat' is about.

The film is essentially a character drama that just happens to also be a thriller about cops and robbers. Not only does it delve into the details of how these people go about their work, it touches upon all of their personal lives and examines the nature of their characters and how they interact with each other. While everyone gets some screentime, it's naturally McCauley and Hanna who are at the fore. McCauley lives by a Spartan code that allows him to be evade capture - "Do not allow anything into your life which you cannot walk out on in thirty seconds flat if you spot the heat around the corner". He lives alone and claims not to be lonely, but his lifestyle is put to the test when he meets and falls in love with a woman named Eady (Amy Brenneman). Neil subsequently wrestles between his unwavering commitment to his career criminal ethos and his newfound love. Hanna is a man who is equally committed to his career, only he has chosen to attempt - wholly unsuccessfully - to embrace a family lifestyle as well with his third wife Justine (Diane Venora) and her daughter Lauren (Natalie Portman). His zeal for his job overshadows his family and the hunt for McCauley causes a serious rift between him and his wife.

The irony of the film is that under different circumstances the two men could have been friends, so similar are they in character, and this is embodied beautifully in the scene in which they first meet. It is evident throughout that the two develop a respect for each other, though each is aware that if put to the test the other will not hesitate to pull the trigger. The characterization and writing are subtle, and the thematic material manages to avoid being heavy handed. Everything is presented with a believable, matter of fact approach. The different characters and their personal storylines interconnect elegantly with the overall story and weave a tight and cohesive narrative. Despite a stylish visual approach, the film is aesthetically grounded in reality. The heists also come across as believable, and even the spectacular shootout sequence outside of a bank, though unrealistic (automatic weapons don't carry THAT many bullets), has an air of reality to it. Unlike Mann's recent 'Miami Vice', however, 'Heat' doesn't take the realism angle too far; there's still a semblance of the cinematic that allows for thrilling set pieces and exciting shootouts filmed without a 'docu-drama' feel. This is a film that still embraces it's 'movie-ness', for lack of a better word.

Then there are the performances, which are as excellent as one would expect given the pedigree of the cast. Pacino and De Niro are front and centre and dominate the screen. Both of them create nuanced and well rounded characters who are intelligent, obsessive and meticulous. De Niro's McCauley presents a stoic, steely exterior but occasionally lets emotions through the chinks in his armour. Pacino's Hanna is more emotional and occasionally acts like a raving maniac, but it's a mania that appears to be controlled (or restrained) by his intellect. The rest of the cast are in supporting roles - no one really stands out because they are pretty much all equally strong. Apart from the cast members already mentioned, there are appearances made by the likes of William Fichtner, Jon Voight, Hank Azaria, Jeremy Piven, and Kevin Gage; pretty impressive!

'Heat' is obviously a film that made a strong impression on me. I like Mann's films despite their generally stoic, unemotional style (a style employed by Heat as well), and I think most of them are exceptionally well made. Of all of his films that I've seen, though, Heat is the one that resonates with me the most and I reckon it's his masterpiece. This is, without a shadow of a doubt, a crime thriller that's worth watching!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Fargo (1995)

Fargo (1995)

I've only seen a few of the Coen Brothers films, but already I see a clear trend emerging. They make excellent films, but not the kind I find myself wanting to watch over and over. 'Fargo', one of the more celebrated of the Coen Brothers' already illustrious oeuvre, adheres to that trend.

'Fargo' tells the story of a man named Jerry Lundegaard (William H. Macy) who arranges for two goons (Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare) to kidnap his wife, with the aim being to get his rich father-in-law to pay the ransom money that he will then split with the kidnappers. Of course things go horribly and hilariously wrong, and Jerry's plans begin to unravel spectacularly when the goons leave a trail of bodies behind them, a trail that is picked up on by shrewd (and very pregnant) small town police chief Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

Most of the events take place in small town locales and revolve around Jerry, Marge, and the kidnappers. Despite the subject matter and the fact that everything is played straight tonally, the film is very, very funny. The humour derives from the situations, the characters, and the milieu, with the small town aesthetic being a constant source of amusement (Yar? Yaaar!). The story if full of twists and turns and is generally quite unpredictable. The writing, directing and performances achieve that fine balance between realistic and absurd and maintain it throughout the film's running time. While there isn't much depth to the characters, the storyline serves as a reflection on the baseness of human nature when people are driven by greed, while at the same time providing a counterpoint in the form of Marge, who is an intelligent and decent person who appreciates the simple things in life (like a good buffet).

The performances are great across the board, but the standout is William H. Macy as the hapless Jerry who is foiled at every turn and whose every move seems to get him deeper and deeper into trouble. Despite the nature of what he's doing, Macy manages to make the character sympathetic and I found him to be the most likable person in the story! Steve Buscemi is, as always, devastatingly funny but in a sinister way. Stormare on the other hand is completely sinister and appears to be on the verge of violence at any given time (which is actually perversely funny in its own way). And then there's McDormand as the tenacious Marge, who somehow manages to merge 'small town goof' with 'genius detective' and sell the character as someone completely believable. The rest of the supporting cast are also terrific and serve the story well.

'Fargo' is a small scale drama that is entertaining, funny, idiosyncratic, and thoroughly engaging from start to finish. Though it isn't exactly the type of film that I love, I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it - it's deserving of anyone's time.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Erin Brockovich (2000)

Erin Brockovich (2000)

I usually don't like Julia Roberts in anything - Pretty Woman notwithstanding - but I can safely say that she's pretty darned good in this, and dare I say it, endearing. Oscar worthy? Probably not - I think Ellen Burstyn was still robbed for her turn in Requiem for a Dream - but it is, in my humble opinion, Roberts' best performance to date.

Based on a true story, Roberts plays the eponymous Erin Brockovich, a single mother of three with a foul mouth and no qualifications struggling to find employment. She eventually lands a job as an assistant at a law firm run by a man named Ed Masry (Albert Finney). At the same time she enters into a relationship with her friendly biker neighbour George (Aaron Eckhart). Things get interesting when she begins to investigate a case involving the residents of a small town getting sick, and discovers that an energy company nearby has been polluting the local water supply. She then starts a campaign to get the company to compensate the victims, and Masry's firm initiates legal action. A David vs. Goliath story unfolds, one in which Erin has to rally the townspeople together, keep her company committed to the case, and deal with being away from her kids while an increasingly resentful George takes care of them.

This is, I suppose, feel good filmmaking at its finest - if you're in any doubt as to the outcome, you haven't watched enough movies. It's designed to be moving and inspirational as our heroine defies the odds at every turn, rises above her social status and becomes a respected figurehead for her cause. Yeah, it's fairly by the numbers and apart from Erin the rest of the characters are sketchy at best, but it works despite the prosaic writing. And I think that's partly because of the character and the lengths she goes to (how much of this is real I don't know), but mostly it's because of the way Roberts plays her as a completely irreverent and tenacious woman who simply refuses to back down. She's endearing and ultimately great in the role (Roberts should play foul mouthed more often), and so is Albert Finney; the two play off of each other perfectly. Aaron Eckhart does a fair job, but his appearances and impact on the story are fairly minimal. Also worth mentioning are the minor roles, primarily the townsfolk, that are very well cast and convincing across the board.

The film gets a little repetitive after a while and probably runs on a bit too long, but it still held my interest all the way through to its somewhat abrupt climax. The only thing that really took me out of the film were the sometimes overblown for comedic effect scenes where Erin outdoes someone or proves herself; it seemed to be trying too hard to show how awesome she was - such as in her little 'duel' with the other lawyer's assistant - which felt completely unnecessary and a little smug.

Overall, a very good film and worth seeing. Not exceptional in any way, but it avoids feeling bland and generic despite its subject matter (see: A Civil Action) and is consistently entertaining. Roberts' detractors like me will probably be surprised to find her delivering a winning performance. I'd rate 'Erin Brockovich' up there with director Steven Sodebergh's other mainstream films like the Ocean's series; they're not brilliant, but they're well made and engaging.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Spaced (1999-2001)

Spaced (1999-2001)

I caught a few episodes of 'Spaced' during its initial run on Channel 4 in the UK many years ago and was quite taken by it but never got around to revisiting it and watching all of the episodes from the start. Until now. 'Spaced' is a geeky sitcom that came out in 1999 that was created by Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright, and Jessica Stevenson and also starred Nick Frost. Pegg, Wright, and Frost have gone on to make Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, both movies that I loved and that have brought the group much acclaim. So how does their initial creative collaboration hold up? In short, it's great!

The two seasons of seven episodes each focus on the lives of Tim Bisley (Simon Pegg) and Daisy Steiner (Jessica Stevenson), both twentysomething layabouts - Tim is a budding comic book artist who works in a comic book store and Daisy is an unemployed writer - who meet randomly and pose as a couple in order to rent an apartment that was advertised as being for professional couples only. The apartment has its share of crazy characters; the landlady, Marsha (Julia Deakin) is a chain smoking alcoholic, and the other tenant, Brian (Mark Heap) is a deranged introverted artist. Also in the mix is Tim's gun loving best friend Mike (Nick Frost) and Daisy's ditsy best friend Twist (Katy Carmichael). Together this group of misfits have many bizarre and surreal adventures that usually revolve around various aspects of Tim and Daisy's lives, including their work, love lives, and leisure activities.

That synopsis makes 'Spaced' sound kind of like 'Friends', but it isn't anything like that show. For starters, even though the characters are quite atypical they have a more down to earth, common man vibe which is also reflected in the show's locations and production design. The storylines here are, broadly, quite normal and cover the usual stuff like job hunting, romance, partying, and the usual fooling around between friends. It's the writing and execution that make this show something quite different however. It's very stylized and unlike any sitcom I've ever seen, with lots of unconventional camera-work and quick cut editing that hurls visuals at the viewer without restraint. And it's fantastic! The visual style and scripts also reference loads of things from pop-culture, also at a break neck pace.

The amazing thing is that these stylistic choices never overwhelm the story or the characters, and the way they're integrated feels so organic and so right even when scenes cross over into the surreal. The broad story arcs are also excellent and come together nicely in terms of plotting and characterization. The characters are well rounded and full of personality, and most of them develop and change over the course of the 14 episodes. Oh, and did I mention that the thing is damned funny in terms of visual and written comedy? Well, it is... And then there's the music - there's an eclectic array of music varying from songs to movie and TV themes to video game music, and all of it works with the style of the show and perfectly complements individual scenes.

Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson as the central duo come across, strangely enough, as the 'normal' characters when placed next to their oddball supporting characters. They have to give the most rounded performances that incorporate comedy as well as the more serious dramatic stuff, and the two pull it off. As much as I like the two protagonists it's hard not to love the supporting characters more, because they're detached from reality in the most endearing ways possible. It's hard to pick a favourite from the bunch of them, they're all brought to life so memorably, but I'd have to pick Brian for his angry, socially inept and introverted ways. I'll confess, if they made a game of 'which Spaced character are you', I'd be Brian.

There's a story floating around that 'Spaced' is going to be remade for the US; surely a pointless exercise when the original is so good and hasn't aged a bit (with the exception of a handful of references). It's something special and unique, and deserves to be seen in its original and best incarnation. In case you haven't figured it out yet, the show is terrific and a must-see!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Sunshine (2007)

Sunshine (2007)

Danny Boyle's first (and purportedly last) science fiction film is an interesting and frustrating experience. Set 50 years in the future, 'Sunshine' tells the story of a spaceship, the Icarus II, that is on its way to the sun to detonate a nuclear explosive with the aim of 'reigniting' it. The sun needs reigniting because it is dying, and the human race will die along with it. Icarus II is the second ship (the 'II' is a clue) to be sent on such a mission after the Icarus I mysteriously disappeared. All goes well with the mission initially, but as the multi-ethnic crew go about their routine tasks it is apparent that their nerves are frayed, and the closer they get to the sun the more strained their behaviour becomes. Things take an unexpected turn when they receive a signal from Icarus I, which appears to still be intact; a divisive decision is made to attempt to salvage the nuclear explosive from Icarus I (because two bombs increase the odds of success). This deviation from the mission sets into motion a chain of unfortunate events that leads to tragic consequences and forces the crew to improvise and make sacrifices while trying to maintain a grip on what remains of their sanity.

The first two thirds of 'Sunshine' are pretty great, and despite the presence of some dodgy science and dubious plot contrivances the film attempts to make the journey at least feel realistic. It's one of the few space travel based movies of recent times to really put across the complexity and dangers of such an endeavour. The script also introduces psychological aspects of the journey, with the isolation and danger of the mission coupled with the enormous responsibility the crew bears taking its toll on them. The ramifications of being so close to the sun, a heavenly body that dominates mankind's immediate universe, are also worked into the story. The last third of the film, unfortunately, completely derails as it introduces a ludicrous plot device (that is quite appropriately depicted in a surreal fashion) and turns into something reminiscent of a slasher horror film. Which is a shame, because while said plot device is linked to the psychological themes of the film it is jarringly incongruous; had the story simply stuck to its more restrained and thoughtful approach, the film could have been great.

I've thoroughly enjoyed Boyle's last couple of films and think that this one matches up to them in terms of filmmaking quality (script issues aside). 'Sunshine' is extremely tense throughout, and has its moments of abject terror, horror, and surrealism. It is impeccably put together, with terrific sets and some truly eye popping visuals. And like his previous films this one is thought provoking, and it works as a psychological sci-fi film. The characters don't have any background or depth and are essentially just crewmembers carrying out their duties, but the gravity of their situation feels palpable and their behaviour rings true. The diverse cast - Cillian Murphy, Chris Evans, Michelle Yeoh, Rose Byrne, Hiroyuki Sanada, Cliff Curtis, Troy Garity, and Benedict Wong - are all fairly good in their respective roles, with Evans in particular being a surprising standout. I also found Sanada to be quite memorable as the quietly dignified captain of the Icarus II.

'Sunshine' is a film that's two-thirds very good and one third 'WTF?', which is a weird combination. The climactic denouement is bizarre but I found it to ultimately be satisfying. The film stayed in my head for quite a while and I think it's one worth re-watching - being prepared for the jarring change of tone and style may put me in a better position to actually appreciate it more on a second go round. It's visually spectacular and has something for your mind to chew on which, despite its egregious flaws, makes it pretty good in my book.

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Gift (2000)

The Gift (2000)

I'm a huge fan of Cate Blanchett, who I think is the best actress working today, and I present 'The Gift' as evidence to support this claim. It's a supernatural drama / thriller that was released seven years ago, and it's also the last non-Spider-Man movie directed by Sam Raimi!

Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a single mother of three living in a small Southern US town who lost her husband in a factory fire a year before the story begins. Annie has supernatural psychic powers - the titular 'Gift' - and has been making ends meet as the town fortune teller. In the first act we're introduced to the people she interacts with in town; this includes a battered wife, Valerie Barksdale (Hillary Swank), her redneck husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), her mentally unbalanced friend Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), her close friend Linda (Kim Dickens), school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and his fiancée Jessica (Katie Holmes). Donnie takes offense when Annie tells Valerie to leave him; he begins to harass her and her kids, but this is only the start of her problems. Jessica disappears and Annie is co-opted by the Chief of Police (J. K. Simmons) to try and help them out. Her visions lead them to Jessica's body and the discovery directly implicates Donnie Barksdale in the murder. In the midst of Donnie's trial, however, Annie continues to have visions that indicate something sinister is still going on.

The story being told here is fairly pedestrian, and the writing isn't really all that great either. Some of the revelations are anything but, and the characters as written are more than a little clichéd. What makes this film quite good are the performances from the supremely impressive cast and the infusion of atmosphere and tension by Raimi, together with some good old fashioned scares. It's mostly a small town drama, but there's an overriding sense of dread and menace throughout and the buildup to the handful of 'horror' scenes is very effective. Raimi's casting is immaculate and he really gets the most out of his actors. Blanchett is of course the star and is in virtually every scene, and she is brilliant; humble and reserved but with an air of the mysterious about her, she is at once just another citizen of the town and also someone clearly more intelligent and dignified. She goes through the whole gamut here as a psychic 'consultant', a struggling single mother, a lonely woman with romantic inclinations, a helpless individual being harassed by a dangerous redneck, a witness interrogated and humiliated in public during the trial, and a victim of frightening ghostly visitations; she's completely convincing in portraying all aspects of the character.

And then there's the rest of the cast! Seriously, every single one of these actors does great work (the only exception being, perhaps, Hillary Swank, who I thought was just good), particularly Keanu Reeves who seems perfect as the dim witted and belligerent Donnie Barksdale. Besides the ones I've already named, there are some other minor but strong performances from Rosemary Harris, Gary Cole, and Michael Jeter. Visually the film is quite somber and accentuates the morbid tone, as does the moody musical score.

Ultimately 'The Gift' is a very good film that on paper is just so-so. Worth watching for the excellent work by Raimi and the performances of the cast, particularly Blanchett. It's a bit of a mish-mash of genres, but it works and I enjoyed watching it again for the first time in years and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was as good as I remembered!

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Dead Zone - Season 5 (2006)

The Dead Zone - Season 5 (2006)

Season 5 has severely dented my liking for this show. I was quite favourable towards Season 4 almost exactly a year ago, but most of the plus points I mentioned have gone and the negatives have exacerbated, with the end result being a truly mediocre season.

The first major problem, and this is something I had issues with before as well, is the low visibility of the Stillson arc - this season is even worse than the last in this regard, with the Stillson story being touched on in only the first and last of the 11 episodes. And this time around, despite there once again being only 11 episodes, there is plenty of stuff that feels like filler. The stories are starting to feel tired and repetitive despite the introduction of a few new ideas, like villains who try to manipulate or subvert Johnny's powers. The writing is stale and goes through the motions and most episodes don't even have enough content to make it to the 40 minute mark! Where character development was lacking before, it has now become virtually non existent. The sense of camaraderie between cast members can't really be commented on because they barely interact together anymore, with many of the cast being absent from a lot of the episodes (this in a show that only has 4 lead actors). The performances also seem weaker, especially Anthony Michael Hall who often appears to be just phoning it in and hitting character beats reflexively. The guy is still funny and isn't bad per se, but just isn't as good as he used to be.

All in all it's a disappointing season. This is the stage when the series should be ramping up and doing new and interesting things, not wallowing in the same old stories. To make matters worse, not only does the show spin its wheels, it also dips in quality with many elements being inferior to what has come before! The season is so insubstantial that most of the major events and characterization could have been condensed into a handful of episodes, and to be honest based on how the season ends I think one could conceivably skip from Season 4 to 6 without missing out on much. And that's assuming Season 6 actually has content worth watching. Since I've been a fan for so long I'm going to give it a chance and see if the creative impetus of the show returns. If not, I will sadly have to part ways with what was once a pretty good, entertaining television series.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby (2006)

'Talladega Nights' is a sports comedy centred around the world of Nascar Racing. It's one of those outrageous goofball comedies full of absurd moments. Ricky Bobby (Will Ferrell) is an idiot with a gift for driving fast. Inspired by his father's (Gary Cole) words - if you ain't first, you're last - he dedicates himself to the art of Nascar racing and becomes an unbeatable success. He has a dedicated best friend and teammate in Cal (John C. Reilly), all the money he could ever want, a gorgeous wife (Leslie Bibb) and two obnoxious kids, all of whom live together in his mansion - life, is good. Then comes the fall - a gay, sophisticated French Formula 1 driver named Jean (Sacha Baron Cohen) shows up and defeats Ricky, who winds up in a car crash that causes him to become traumatized and unable to drive. Brought down to the lowest level and usurped by his nemesis, Ricky must overcome his fears and climb back to the top, while learning what's really important in life along the way (well, sorta).

Pretty typical as far as story goes. Some of this stuff is very funny, and some of it ain't - it's hit and miss script-wise. This isn't meant to be a 'witty' comedy, it's all fairly sledgehammer-like in its approach, so when I found myself just smiling or chuckling I didn't feel like the jokes had worked all that well. The cast is a mixed bag - Will Ferrell I've never liked and my opinion of him remains unchanged. He is amusing, but not funny. I feel the same way about John C. Reilly as well; his performance is very good (the guy's certainly a pretty terrific actor) but I just didn't find myself liking his character. The really funny guys in this, and the guys I wish there was more of, are Sacha Baron Cohen and Gary Cole. These two are hilarious and own every moment that they're in. It's a shame they never share the screen together, as that would have surely have made for some golden moments. As for the rest, the women in the film are bare bones supporting roles, but Leslie Bibb makes a strong impression with her slutty gold digger character. And then there's Ricky's kids, Walker and Texas Ranger, who are quite amusing in a strangely creepy sort of way throughout the film. And on a final note, the racing scenes are actually quite enjoyable, and though they are clearly exaggerations they almost make Nascar look interesting. Almost.

It's a fun film that has a fair few laughs and some very funny moments. Fans of goofball comedy will probably dig it, and I imagine that everyone else will, like me, find something to enjoy. I wouldn't say it's a film worth going out of one's way for, but if the opportunity presents itself one might as well watch it, I suppose.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Tremors (1990)

Tremors (1990)

Aah, Tremors... it's a classic, and let no one tell you any different! It's a lean, mean, creature horror comedy with zero pretensions about its subject matter. It has all the trappings of the genre - a small bunch of isolated, disparate, and distinctive caricatures fighting off an assault from mysterious giant deadly worms (that have a lot in common with the worms from Dune) in the middle of a small desert town. There's the two wisecracking physically fit manual labourer buddies (who hilariously enough pick this fateful day to try and leave town, only to be thwarted when the shit hits the fan!), the cute scientist / potential love interest, the annoying kid, the gun nut couple, the two ethnic minority guys, and a few other scared 'background noise' people. Kevin Bacon is the only real big name in this surprisingly effective cast; they're all consistent with the horror comedy tone and they all really connect as a group, while each is also memorable in his or her own right. Basically, the winning combination that only the most memorable films of this nature possess.

The story in these sorts of films is hardly ever worth talking about - monsters show up, humans try to survive - but the locale and the situations in 'Tremors' feel quite unique and it is refreshing (an 18 year old film, refreshing!) to not have lame pseudo science thrown in to explain what's going on. In fact, the way the townsfolk rationalize what's going on (and the way the scientist always seems bemused when they look to her for an explanation for the creatures despite her field being seismology) is actually more believable than in most 'serious' horror films! The townsfolk figure out how the creatures behave and try to use their surroundings and the resources at hand to survive and take some of the creatures out in the process. There are some very memorable signature moments in this film, from the car being sucked into the ground to the lads being chased and forced to dive over a culvert, to everyone in town being stuck on their roofs, right through to the little buggy being sent through the middle of the town as a diversion. And then of course there's the hilarious denouement with the tractor and the home made explosives that is just hilarious.

The effects are quite cheap and cheasy and in all honesty there are no genuine scares, but the adventure is engaging and entertaining throughout. The action scenes are well constructed and despite the prevalence of humour still manage to be quite thrilling. And at 96 minutes this thing just flies by with nary a wasted moment. If you're fan of the genre... well, you've probably already seen it. If not, you owe it to yourself to do so. If you're not a fan, I can still heartily recommend this, because I think a lot of people will be pleasantly surprised by how much fun it is!

Monday, December 03, 2007

OLPC Update

The OLPC saga continues, and things are looking a little grim according to this BBC article. The likes of perennial bad guys Microsoft and Intel seem to have taken off the gloves and entered the ring, and have already fired off a few low blows. They've also influenced the referees it seems, since demand for the thing isn't quite what was expected. It's not all doom and gloom however, and there is still optimism for the project.

An interesting related story tells of the pros and cons of the laptop in the wild, as evinced by its use in a 'test school' in Nigeria.

Little Children (2006)

Little Children (2006)

'Little Children' is a drama laced with darkly humourous undertones. Set in a bland and rigid suburban town, it tells the stories of three people. One is Ronnie (Jackie Earle Haley), a just released sex offender forced to deal with hostility from the townsfolk, pressure from his mother to stay out of trouble and be normal, and reigning in his own deviant desires. The second protagonist is Brad (Patrick Wilson), a househusband enduring a stifling existence raising his child and studying for his bar exam while his wife (Jennifer Connelly) enjoys a successful career as a documentary producer. The third is Sarah (Kate Winslet), an intellectual housewife who faces a future filled with the boredom of suburbia and who barely maintains any interest in her daughter. Brad and Sarah meet and find in each other an element of excitement and a release from the mundaneness of their lives, and they begin an affair while maintaining the guise of friends who take their kids out to the park and the pool together. The lives of these three characters cross paths and eventually their stories culminate in a tense and eventful climax.

The film is very sardonic but maintains a serious dramatic tone while still being quite funny and scathing in its portrayals. If features a very dry voice-over that enhances comedic effect. The script draws some very well defined and sympathetic characters whose loneliness and longings are understandable. Still, they are only sympathetic to an extent, and they all certainly have detestable qualities that are laid bare in the course of the story's telling. Even the more minor and supporting characters are fleshed out and come across as three dimensional. It's a testament to the director and his cast that, despite how easily the tonal balance could have derailed and how easily the characters could have become ones we despise, everything holds together right up to the end. The end, by the way, is emotionally powerful but does feel a little too contrived for my taste. Coming back to the performances, the three central players are fantastic and feel completely genuine. Haley is perhaps the most brilliant; he manages to capture the sympathetic and the frightening, creepy aspects of his character incredibly well.

'Little Children' is exceptionally written and put together, and features some sterling performances. As a commentary on aspects of modern society - isolation, infidelity, personal sacrifice, emasculation, conformity, the culture of fear - it is effective and somewhat depressing, though the humour goes some way towards alleviating any dourness. Overall it is a film well worth seeing.