Tuesday, December 02, 2008

Sabbatical

This will be my last post for the year, as the capricious complexities of the real world demand my immediate attention now and for the immediate future. I write this post to preempt any feelings of guilt my 'blog neglect' may have otherwise engendered. I hope to be back in January.

A quick digression to prevent this post from being more than a mere note. Having recently watched 'Eight Below', a film about a bunch of dogs in peril, I was struck by how much more empathetic I was towards dogs in such situations on screen than I typically am towards humans in similar situations (on screen). Maybe it's just me, or maybe it's this particular film - which is very good by the way - but I found myself genuinely concerned for the well being of these canine protagonists.

I'm going to put it down to the film being an excellent piece of storytelling, but I wonder...

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Black Book (2006)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Black Book (2006)

The gorgeous Carice van Houten is easily one of the main draws of 'Black Book', and not just because of her looks but because her stellar performance is the highlight of an otherwise unexceptional film. Van Houten plays Rachel Stein, a Jewish woman in the Netherlands during World War II who, after the brutal murder of her family, joins the Dutch resistance and infiltrates the Gestapo headquarters in The Hague. There she seduces the officer in charge, Ludwig M√ľntze (Sebastian Koch), but starts to fall for him when she realizes that he's actually a decent sort who likes to collect stamps instead of kill people. When the resistance uses her to try and help some captured prisoners while also trying to figure out who has been selling out Jews - like Rachel's parents - to the Nazis, she finds herself in an increasingly dangerous position.

Paul Verhoeven is the master of gratuitous violence, nudiy, and sex, and he doesn't dissapoint with this film, and neither does van Houten. Puerile elements aside, the journey Rachel goes through is harrowing and van Houten completely sells the character and her predicament, being sympathetic and convincing as a resourceful woman forced to go to extremes for the cause. She is by far and away the best thing about the film. The rest of it is pretty good as well but doesn't really fire on all cylinders; the film shifts somewhat uncomfortably between historical drama and cheesy action thriller, with the plotting and characterization often being more like a Hollywood summer blockbuster than a sober European war film. Some of the action scenes seem strangely surreal and at odds with the generally realistic tone the film usually maintains.

Having got those negatives out of the way, I can say that 'Black Book' is well acted and visually quite appealing, and while the writing may raise a few chuckles it is still strong enough to make for a gripping experience. As director, Verhoeven manages to conjure some tense scenes and more than a few horrific moments, as he often does, but there's very little in the way of overt humour in the film. Which is a shame, since black comedy is something the man does well, and it wouldn't have been especially jarring since the tone of the film is already fairly erratic.

Overall, a good film that comes across as more superficial and less weighty than most serious WWII movies; still, it's a fine piece of entertainment that features an excellent central performance to hold it together.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

No End in Sight (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


No End in Sight (2007)

'No End in Sight' is a devastating indictment of the misguided Iraq war, a documentary that presents, soberly, the facts and testimony from people intimately involved with the war and subsequent occupation. Much of the content shouldn't be a major revelation for anyone who has been paying attention over the last few years, but there is an undeniable power in this recap of the sequence of idiotic and callous decisions that were made; the end result is two hours of film that leaves one's mind reeling with incredulity and anger. It's a reminder that not only was the war unjustified from the outset, but that it was mismanaged from the outset as well. Things never had to get as bad as they have done, and the people to blame are still sitting smug and secure in the knowledge that they'll never be called to answer for what they did to Iraq (among the many other dubious things that they did, but that's outside the scope of this film).

Alright, so far this isn't much of a review. I'm not really sure what more to say about a film that is essentially archive footage and interviews. It's expertly edited and structured, and looks about as slick and professional as a documentary can get. Written and directed by Charles Ferguson, it seems to cover every relevant detail with an intellectual detachment and presents a lucid analysis of how events played out. Even the narration is low key - Michael Moore this ain't - but while it doesn't attempt to be overly dramatic, much of what is presented will still get your blood boiling, while the remainder will have you laughing at the tragi-comic nature of it all. Perhaps the only frustrating thing about the film is that it never answers the question 'why?', but seeing as that's open to so much debate and speculation, I can understand why it never goes there.

Overall, a terrific documentary and a must see, even for those who are familiar with the subject matter.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)


(Image from IMP Awards)


Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002)

A true story about three mixed race Aboriginal girls who were taken from their homes and who subsequently escaped their settlement and headed home - a 1500 mile journey along one of Australia's so called 'rabbit proof' fences. The film is credited with igniting debate on the issue of the 'stolen generations', mixed race children who were forcibly 'resettled' away from their families for various misguided reasons. The narrative is about as straightforward as it gets - the three girls are grabbed from their home in one of the film's early and most powerful scenes, and are transported to a settlement for mixed race children; they promptly escape and head for home, and are pursued first by a skilled Aboriginal tracker, and later by the police. Their story becomes something of a sensation throughout Australia, and as a result the girls are given aid by helpful strangers along the way.

It's a simple but emotionally evocative tale - I can't think of a basic narrative that is more immediately engaging than the quest for freedom against improbable odds and the struggle for survival such a quest entails. The cast is full of unknowns - apart from the jarring appearance of Kenneth Branagh - and all of the actors do terrific work, particularly the three girls the story revolves around. The writing hits all the right emotional beats; the characters might be a bit sketchy, but are sufficiently fleshed out for the story they are in. I have one major complaint about the film - the storytelling feels somewhat ordinary, with scenes rarely creating a sense of fear or hopelessness or of awe at how remarkable the girls' journey is. This is probably due more to the somewhat ordinary directing rather than the writing. There are some stunning visuals in there, however, particularly of the desolate and oppressive Australian outback (much like 'The Proposition'!)

'Rabbit Proof Fence' is a well made, inspirational film that falls short of being something truly special, but still packs quite a punch. The fact that it's based on true events does, as is often the case, give it some added gravitas, especially in the epilogue which features some of the real individuals portrayed in the film.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Death Proof (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Death Proof (2007)

'Death Proof' is Quentin Tarantino's half of the 'Grindhouse' double bill, with the other half being Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror. Tonally it comes across as more 'serious' than 'Planet Terror', and features a lot of the witty, verbose dialogue and character exchanges that Tarantino is famous for. The story is about a stunt man, Stuntman Mike (Kurt Russel), a serial killer who uses his specially rigged 'death proof' stunt car to kill women. Significant portions of the film are devoted to introducing Stuntman Mike's victims - in fact I'd say the majority of the film focuses on the women - who are played by a selection of luscious ladies including Rosario Dawson, Rose McGowan, Sydney Poitier, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and stuntwoman Zoe Bell as herself. Quentin Tarantino also has a bit part as a bartender.

The character exchanges are fun but seem to go on for a bit (this is the standalone international version, which is about 25 minutes longer than the original 'double bill' cut). I didn't much care for the semi serious tone of what is essentially meant to be a B-movie - the quality of the film is just too high for it to be a real grindhouse flick, and most of the actors are, ironically, too good in their roles. Kurt Russell is the exception, it must be said, because he seems to relish going over the top as the sadistic stuntman. Zoe Bell is also a laugh and terrific in the action scenes where she is obviously doing her own (dangerous) stunts.

Overall, it's not as fun as Planet Terror but still quite different and worth a watch, especially for fans of Tarantino's work. I'm not that big a fan of the guy to be honest, and this isn't one of his best efforts, but it's still fairly enjoyable stuff.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Proposition (2005)



(Image from IMP Awards)


The Proposition (2005)

Apart from the fact that it was a western set in Australia, I knew very little about this film, and was thus pleasantly surprised by it - it's not often I go into a film cold these days. The story, set in late 18th century Australia, starts off with criminal Charlie Burns (Guy Pearce) and brother Mike (Richard Wilson) being captured by Captain Stanley (Ray Winston). Stanley offers Charlie a proposition - find and kill the leader of the 'Burns gang', eldest brother Arthur (Danny Huston), or youngster Mike dies within 9 days. The Burns gang has committed heinous crimes and are despised by the townspeople, and Arthur is now a recluse who hides away in the mountains. Charlie sets off to find Arthur, and Captain Stanley takes Mike back into town as a prisoner but faces hostility from the townsfolk, who are impatient and want swift retribution. Stanley's wife Martha (Emily Watson) - who like her husband is from England and foreign to the harsh outback - begins to get involved in proceedings despite his attempts to keep her sheltered and safe because her friend was murdered by the Burns gang.

The opening scene lulls you into thinking that the film might be predictable, but the story veers into unexpected territory early on. Expectations are subverted, and I'd go so far as to say that Ray Winston's Stanley is the real star of the film, and not Pierce. The story becomes more about his efforts to protect his wife from the ugliness of his job while dealing with the hostility of his own men and the town, who become restless with the waiting and angered by rumours that Stanley has cut a deal and intends to let the prisoner go. Meanwhile, in the secondary narrative thread Charlie heads off into the mountains in search of his brother, ostensibly to kill him, but there is some ambiguity about his intentions, possibly even ambivalence. Characters in this film aren't straightforward and predictable, with most being multi faceted and interesting, and in the case of Arthur, downright frightening.

There are aspects relating to racial tensions between the whites and aboriginals in the story, but this is secondary to the primary themes of family, loyalty, and (sometimes perverse) justice. The film is stark and uncompromising in its depiction of cruelty and brutality, as bleak as the harsh outback where much of the action takes place. Pearce is fine in his role, but it's Ray Winstone who shines as a character whose depiction transitions from loathsome to dignified and decent; Emily Watson is also excellent as the out of place wife becoming acclimatized to the harsh new world she finds herself in. There are plenty of other very good performances in the mix, including John Hurt as a bounty hunter, and Danny Huston's portrayal of Arthur. There's not much action in the film, but there is some cringe inducing violence that might put off the squeamish.

'The Proposition' is an excellent film, one that, despite having a lot going on, develops its storylines to culminate in a fitting, if slightly predictable, climax. It's a fine blend of character drama and tension, a film that creates an oppressively atmospheric setting. Director John Hillcoat's next film is an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road', which I hear is also very bleak and stark; based on this evidence, he seems the right man for the job (though, to be fair early word on that film has been mixed).

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Veronica Mars - Season 3 (2006-2007)


(Image from Wikipedia)


Veronica Mars - Season 3 (2006-2007)

I've given a fair account of the first and second seasons of this detective drama series, and since much of what was said in those reviews still applies, this review is going to be quick.

Time moves on, and Veronica Mars (Kristen Bell) and her pals are all out of school and (a tad conveniently) still together in Neptune, attending the nearby Hearst College. This season sees a departure from the earlier structure of having one ongoing mystery throughout and instead features mini mysteries that each last about a quarter of the season. I found this to be an improvement over the sometimes contrived season long mystery that often felt artificially dragged out and often lost focus. The heart of the show remains the relationship between Veronica and her father Keith (Enrico Colantoni), and the scenes between them are as terrific as ever. Her on again off again relationship with bad boy Logan (Jason Dohring) is interesting at times but becomes repetitive and forgettable after a while.

The mysteries themselves are fairly well done, but it's the characters and dialogue that make this show, and this season sees a slight dip in form. The acerbic banter isn't as prevalent, and while our heroes go through tough times the show feels a bit more light hearted. Some of the cynicism and edginess is missing. The supporting cast is also expanded and as a result characters wind up a little thin, and keep dipping in and out of the show sporadically.

Still, these aren't drastic changes, and overall the final season of 'Vernoica Mars' is still very good. Stylish, well acted, and well written... it's a shame it got cancelled, but on the plus side I suppose it didn't end up growing long in the tooth either - though, in this show's case it could have grown with the character, as a brief concept clip for future seasons showing Veronica as a rookie at the FBI demonstrated (sadly the clip doesn't seem to have the charm of the show). Who knows, perhaps someday 'Vernoica Mars' can return, reborn as a drama set in the adult world?

Monday, November 17, 2008

30 Rock - Season 2 (2007-2008)


(Image from Wikipedia)


30 Rock - Season 2 (2007-2008)

I think I somehow imagined that I'd have time to review this show properly for its second season, but since it did the unthinkable and got renewed for a third, I'll delay writing anything substantial about it till its eventual cancellation, when I will probably rant and rave and bitch and moan about great shows getting canceled.

'30 Rock' is the awesome comedy series created by and starring headline grabbing Sarah Palin impersonator Tina Fey. It revolves around the production of Fey's character Liz Lemon's TV sketch programme, 'The Girly Show', and all the people involved in it, from the ultra conservative Republican running the company (Alec Baldwin) right down to the simpleton page from hicksville (Jack McBrayer). The stories are unconventional and unpredictable, and often quite surreal; Fey and her team are unafraid of revelling in their geekiness from time to time, a fact that thrills me no end. What other show would cite Sarah Connor as an example of a great single mom?

Overall, the second season isn't quite as strong as the first and obviously lacks the element of surprise that heralded the show's arrival, but it falls only just short, and is still one of the funniest and quirkiest comedies out there. The cast is uniformly terrific and even the most minor character makes an impression, though it was a little disappointing to find that many of them have been relegated further down the food chain to the status of really really minor characters; these guys are gold and should be used more! Oh, and Alec Baldwin is still amazing - just watch his impression of a black family in one of the early episodes if you need proof!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)



(Image from Wikipedia)


Guess Who's Coming to Dinner (1967)

This film is probably more famous for what it's about than for being a classic of cinema. And that's probably because it ain't all that great a film. The story in a nutshell - Matt and Christina Drayton (Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn) are a well off liberal married couple whose daughter Joey (Katherine Houghton) surprises them by bringing home a black man she intends to marry, Dr. John Prentice (Sydney Poitier). The parents are forced to confront their own, probably subconscious and unacknowledged racial bias while coming to terms with their daughter's whirlwind romance and the consequences an inter-racial marriage might have for the entire family. The film is basically a talky drama where the characters awkwardly discuss the situation and all of its ramifications as the parents try to decide whether they can give their blessing.

It's an interesting film, one that touches on many of the race issues that were (and are, I suppose) prevalent at the time. The problem is how obvious and unsubtle the film is, verbalizing its ideas in a didactic manner that borders on patronizing. Subtle the script ain't, and it's a testament to the film's powerhouse stars that they managed to allay its failings and elevate the film into something that commands one's attention. While all of the characters are given a fair amount of personality, in the case of daughter Joey her overly overt sweetness and naivety starts to grate after a while.

My main qualm with the film is the way it stacks the odds in favour of its argument before arriving at an ending that, despite all of the hand wringing by the characters, is a foregone conclusion. Consider that the character of Dr. John Prentice is so impossibly awesome and decent that he beggars belief; black or not, the guy's a hell of a catch by any standard. And this is the part that bugs me - it's like the film is saying "look, this guy's black but he's also an incredible human being, alright?" What if he hadn't been such a great guy, would he have somehow been less acceptable to Joey's parents? Now that would have been an interesting scenario! I get that part of what the film is saying is that, despite how great Dr. Prentice is the parents are still filled with doubt, but I think this aspect of the story winds up being a betrayal of the broader theme of racial equality. It's like Dr. Prentice is acceptable because he's exceptional.

The other thing that bugs me is how the parents sit around contemplating the race issue while ignoring the more salient fact that their daughter is about to marry someone she's just met, a notion that would concern parents in the real world, especially ones who have children as seemingly naive as Joey.

Ultimately 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' is a decent enough film with a message that it delivers very clearly, but with little subtlety or intelligence. Definitely worth watching at least for its historical significance and for the central performances, but don't expect to be blown away or have your world view shaken, as the film really is unquestionably a product of its time.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

3:10 to Yuma (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


3:10 to Yuma (2007)

Russel Crowe plays charismatic criminal legend Ben Wade and Christian Bale the poor, grim rancher Dan Evans who helps escort the captured Wade to the 3:10 train to Yuma in this western action film. As the story begins, we find Evans desperate to keep his farm from being taken away - this desperation leads to him volunteering, for a tidy sum of money, to join a small group on what seems to be a fools errand trying to escort Wade; it's a fools errand because they are being chased by Wade's terrifying gang of cutthroats who are hellbent on rescuing their boss. Evans' group are slowly picked apart on the journey by various threats, including Wade himself, who regards the whole escapade with wry amusement. Evans leaves his family behind at his ranch, but his elder son William - who is somewhat ashamed of his father and idolizes Wade - sneaks out after the group and winds up joining them mid mission. Consequently there's some family bonding and friendships are forged amidst the shoot outs and horse chases.

'3:10 to Yuma' is a pretty good film but seems to just miss the mark of being really good or even great in virtually all departments. Many of its major story beats are predictable and don't really generate much suspense, and the script doesn't fully succeed in selling the grudging camaraderie between Wade and Evans. There's also something a bit unbelievable about the whole thing - Wade seems capable of walking all over these guys at any moment and is ridiculously cocky, but the escort group don't take even the most basic precautions to protect themselves; as a result it's a little hard to sympathize with them when they start being killed. The whole father son thing had the potential to resonate but never really gets there.

The same missing of the mark is true of the scattered action scenes, which are fun but are also over the top and unconvincing, especially the final shootout which makes little sense and never makes you feel like anything's at stake. The performances of the two stars are solid - the naturally charismatic Crowe just cruises along while Bale is as reliable as ever in creating a somber and grim hero possessing quiet dignity - but the real highlight is the supporting role played by Ben Foster as Wade's cold, ruthless, unwaveringly loyal and effortlessly cool second in command Charlie Prince. Logan Lerman does a decent job as Evans' son William. Virtually everyone else is given little to do and is thus forgettable.

Despite all of my complaints, the whole thing comes together very well and is a fine piece of entertainment that's well above average. The story is compelling, the characters are interesting, the action scenes are, overall, fairly exciting, and the performances are good all things considered. It's just that the whole time I was watching it I was thinking that it really could have been better. Still, well worth a watch, and I loved the ending, which has some badass moments.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Get away from her you BITCH!*

Ever since reading this chap's spot-on review of Aliens, I had the movie stuck in my head - it was demanding to be watched! And so, watch it I did, and I was once again struck by how involving the film was despite the fact that it held no surprises for me. One of the best sci-fi action films ever made, and one everyone should watch (after watching part 1, that is). No full review here, because I just don't have the time to do it justice... Just watch the damned thing already!

*If you've seen the movie, you know what this line is all about!

Friday, October 31, 2008

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

I was able to look out the window to see this incredible sight of the whole circle of the Earth. Oceans were crystal blue, the land was brown, and the clouds and the snow were pure white. And that jewel of Earth was just hung up in the blackness of space.

'In the Shadow of the Moon' is an excellent documentary on the Apollo Moon Landings, one that is human centric and focuses on the astronauts' perspectives. Starting with Kennedy's famous 1961 speech about getting a man on the moon before the end of the decade, the film chronicles the development of the programme and the actual Apollo missions themselves - with a focus, naturally, on Apollo 11 - by featuring new interviews with most of the surviving astronauts, who give their recollections and thoughts on how things went down. Conspicuous by his absence is Neal Armstrong, but it doesn't really hurt the film all that much and gives Mike Collins (i.e. the guy who didn't get to land on the moon during Apollo 11, not the Irish guy) and Buzz Aldrin a chance to be in the limelight.

Featuring some stunning images from the Apollo missions together with archival footage of news coverage from the time, the film creates a feel for the excitement that surrounded the missions, excitement that transcended borders and encompassed the whole world. It never goes into technical depth but is more of a nostalgic recollection that highlights the drama and wonder of the events while touching on all of the major milestones; the focus on Apollo 11 is of course justifiable - the first moon landing is surely the most monumental event in human history - but it doesn't overwhelm the film and everything is covered fairly well up to the untimely end of the programme. My only real quibble with the doc is the religious stuff that gets thrown in there by some of the astronauts, but hey, what're you gonna do?

Overall it's a very well put together documentary that tells an important story very well and very accessibly, and should be seen by everyone. I can't imagine someone watching this and not being affected at least slightly by the achievement. When the credits start to roll, it's easy to get psyched for Project Constellation's proposed moon landings, naysayers be damned!

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)



(Image from IMP Awards)

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

I remembered enjoying the first 'Hellboy', which is based on a relatively obscure comic, quite a bit back when it first came out, so it came as a bit of a surprise when, upon rewatching it in preparation for the sequel, I discovered that while it was still a good (but not great) film, it doesn't have much appeal on repeat viewings. And Guillermo del Toro's follow up, 'Hellboy 2: The Golden Army', seems to fall into the same category.

It starts off interestingly enough with an animated intro explaining the truce between the warring humans and the supernatural world, and of the unstoppable Golden Army that was hidden away at the end of the war. Cut to the present, and the BPRD (Burea for Paranormal Defense) - comprising demon Hellboy (Ron Perlman), fire starter Liz Sherman (Selma Blair), aquatic Abe Sapien (Doug Jones), and plain 'ole human boss Tom Manning (Jeffrey Tambor) - is having PR trouble thanks to Hellboy's grandstanding. These problems soon fade into the background when Prince Nuada (Luke Goss) decides that man has broken the truce and goes about trying to locate the Golden Army in order to wipe out mankind. Hellboy and the BPRD, joined by new leader Johann Krauss (James Dodd / Seth MacFarlane), engage in a race to get to the Army first and stop Nuada, and they encounter various mythical friends and foes along the way.

Despite being a tad cliched and predictable, del Toro's script makes the story fairly engaging. The biggest problem for me is the dialogue and character interactions, as well as the humour, which fails to inspire; this seems to be a problem with all of del Toro's English language efforts to be honest. Having said that, however, the best scene in the movie for me is one of the quieter moments where Hellboy and Abe get drunk, have a chat, and start singing!

Another problem I have with the film is the action, which is conceptually imaginative but in execution feels clunky and staged, and far too often I found myself unable to suspend disbelief. Where del Toro really excels is in the visual department and in imbuing his films with atmosphere - often menacing - and in making the world and creatures wholly believable. Scene after scene features supernatural creatures and awe inspiring locales (see the Troll Market scene) that are so fantastic and fully realized and that you can't help but be mesmerized. The movie really is nearly flawless in this department. The performances from Perlman and Jones as Hellboy and Abe are very good, but once again Selma Blair is a real drag as the dour Liz. Seth MacFarlane's voicing of Johann Krauss is excellent and very funny, and Luke Goss makes for a fairly sympathetic villain as Prince Nuada.

On the second time out del Toro once again delivers a good superhero movie that doesn't quite cross the threshold into 'great' territory, though it comes close on several occasion. The tone, look, and performances are spot on and just right for the material, but some of the writing and action scenes left me cold - I just don't think they're good enough. Worth watching for those who enjoyed the first one, but it won't convert any non believers!

(As an aside, I'm now a little concerned about del Toro's Hobbit adaptations, but at least Peter Jackson and his crew will be involved in the writing of those movies.)

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)


(Image from IMP Awards)


Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

I'm a fan of Clive Owen, an actor who I think has an interesting and varied filmography; he tends to bring a cocky presence to all of his films (except, perhaps, Children of Men), and in 'Shoot 'Em Up' he really gets to crank that persona up to 11! Owen plays 'Smith', a man who at the start of the film reluctantly gets caught up in a shoot out, one in which he gets to deliver a baby amidst a hail of bullets! These opening scenes prepare you for what to expect from the film, which just continuously escalates its madness level. Entrusted with taking care of the baby, Smith turns to a lactating prostitute (yes, really) named DQ (Monica Bellucci) for help while running from the villainous decent family man Hertz (Paul Giamatti), who represents a group with a vested interest in killing the baby. Hertz always arrives on the scene with a seemingly endless army of thugs who obligingly provide target practice for the uber badass and completely unstoppable Smith.

Seriously, the action in here is so over the top that words cannot do it justice - if the baby delivery shootout sounds over the top, wait till you see the shootout / sex scene combo! This really is a live action cartoon, a fact alluded to by the completely overt references to Smith being Bugs Bunny (he eats carrots all the time, and in one scene says 'What's up doc?'). In between quarreling with DQ and dodging the scheming Hertz, Smith triest to find out why the baby is important enough for someone to expend so much effort to kill him. The revelation, when it finally arrives, is as fittingly goofy as everything else in the film!

Owen is great in the role, naturally. He's angry, violent, and completely badass. Monica Bellucci is sleazier than I've ever seen her, but still hot, and does a decent job in a fairly crude role. Paul Giamatti is every bit Owen's equal, the intellectual Elmer Fudd to Owen's arrogant Bugs (tell me you don't see it, go on!), and his calm scheming is every bit as enjoyable as watching him lose his cool every time Smith slips through his fingers.

The film is generally on overdrive all the way through, and is very much in the vein of Crank in that it is unabashedly crude, violent, and made purely for thrills. If you're not hooked within the first 10 minutes, then I can safely say it's not for you. The trailer, if I recall correctly, was a fair representation of the final film. There's nothing brilliant about 'Shoot 'Em Up' but it's quite good at doing what it says on the tin, and worth seeing if you're into this burgeoning sub-genre of insane action! I for one dug it, it's one of those films where I found myself grinning the whole way through!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wisdom of the Crowds?

I've been hunting for a new mobile phone - having lost my old one - and have discovered, to my chagrin, that finding something that hits that sweet spot between price and functionality isn't as easy as I'd hoped. I'm not one of those people who is happy with a basic mobile that just does calls - I actually use some of the nifty little utilities like calendars and to do notes (a decent screen makes using these things easier as well!), and I like having a camera in my phone (hey, it's come in handy on several occasions!), so I have some basic requirements.

The thing that I've found off-putting is that every time I read a review for a phone, the comments section or the user submitted reviews are often all over the place. Once you read a few, you learn that the phone has great / mediocre battery life, has a good / crap screen, has an excellent / rubbish keypad, etc... it's amazing, because after reading such verbal diarrhea you end up being less sure about the damned thing than when all you had were an image and the specifications to go by! The fact is, user reviews or reviews by the masses seem to only be good at identifying when things fall into extreme categories - i.e. things that are either brilliant or absolutely rubbish. Things that fall into the grey area in between those extremes tend to have reviews so all over the place that they are often next to useless.

And then there are the so called 'expert' reviews, which are fairly good at presenting the facts but sometimes forget that certain products are targeted at consumers who aren't too concerned with having the best of everything. So, all too often a reviewer will talk about a low or medium end phone and criticize it in the way a guy who drives a Porsche might criticize your Toyota - these reviews will usually have pearls of wisdom like 'for a little bit more you could do better!'. Sadly, that argument applies to pretty much anything; while I'd surely like to get the best of the best, the constraints of this little thing I like to call reality dictate that I settle for something optimal. Unfortunately the genius advice of the type given by some spoiled reviewers is, like the wisdom of the crowds, quite useless when applied to reality.

Having said that, I'll still take the informed expert opinions over the peanut gallery ones nine times out of ten! At least real reviewers tend to be relatively literate!

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)


(Image from IMP Awards)


The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

Since I reviewed the first two, I feel compelled to finish my trilogy of reviews by writing this one up. It's going to be brief, however.

The first two Mummy films weren't exactly masterpieces of cinema, but they got a lot right - they were simple, straightforward stories with charming characters, humour, a sense of adventure, and an epic scope backed by a surfeit of (admittedly cheesy) special effects. Despite being derivative, they had an identity of their own and, surprisingly, managed to be quite memorable. Sadly this latest installment rounds out the series (I hope) with an attempted bang that comes across as more of a whimper.

Set some years after 'Mummy Returns', 'Dragon Emperor' finds Rick (Brendan Fraser) and Evey (Mario Bello standing in for Rachel Weisz) O'Connell reluctantly retired from adventuring while their son Alex (Luke Ford) is out secretly digging up mummies in China when he's supposed to be getting an education. Naturally, when the mummy of Emperor Han (Jet Li) is accidentally awakened and tries to take over the world, Rick and Evey come out of retirement and join Alex in China to stop him, and drag Evey's brother Johnathan (John Hannah) along. Aiding our heroes in their quest are two mysterious Chinese women (played by Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong) who seem to know a lot about what's going on.

Alright, I haven't really gone into much detail about the plot, but it's mostly irrelevant so that's all you really need to know. In films like these it's mostly the execution that counts - the characterization, the writing, the set pieces, the music, and so on. And in most respects 'Emperor' is decent, but suffers from feeling wholly derivative of not just the previous Mummy films but also of so many other classics of the genre; watching it is akin to watching some sort of retrospective 'Best Adventure Films' documentary. This series of films has never felt particularly original or consequential, but they never before felt quite as light and superfluous as this one either (though I can't really remember all that much of 'Scorpion King', truth be told). And while they were predictable, the first two parts had a whimsical charm that only occasionally crops up here, and this is largely because of the absence of the wonderful Rachel Weisz (who worked so well with Fraser) and the presence of the now strangely annoying John Hannah.

What about the action and adventure elements then? In addition to being derivative - not a fatal flaw in itself - they just aren't all particularly engaging. I wasn't expecting a sense of genuine danger here, mind you, just some inventiveness and humour, but alas, it doesn't even deliver enough to meet my moderate expectations. The effects and production values are fine, however, and are about par for the course. The cast is fairly decent but lacks the spark that made the earlier films - where even very minor roles were well cast and acted - such good fun. Admittedly, part of the reason is that the characters aren't written as well, and have little in the way of a personal story that fits in to the bigger picture.

I don't mean to sound too negative, as this is actually a fairly decent film and I think in many respects superior to the borderline bad 'Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull'. It's just that while I enjoyed it, it didn't make me want to revisit it any time soon. I must of course confess at this point that I didn't like 'Returns' the first time I saw it either, but that was more a reaction to the wanton excess of that film than to any serious failings on its part (though, wanton excess can be a serious failing as well, I suppose!). Recommended for completists of the series only, or those who somehow avoided Dr Jones.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Privacy of Your Mobile

I lost my mobile phone a while ago; fortunately it was several years old and a little battered, so I wasn't especially aggrieved by the loss [I was of course furious with myself and vowed to never wear the offending trousers, which don't have pockets nearly deep enough, again]. This may sound odd, but the thing that concerned me most was the data on the phone. The thought of some stranger going through my stuff was a little unsettling, and the possibility of that information being exploited concerned me. I needed to know how bad the damage was, so I wrote down a list of things on my phone that could be considered personal, sensitive, and private.

Now, I'm generally very careful when it comes to privacy and the like, so I was pleased and mostly unsurprised to find that there wasn't much on there to be worried about. There were photos, but all were inconsequential (yeah, I always delete the salacious ones!); I had notes and to do items, all inconsequential; I had some low priority passwords stored on it, but those were in an encrypted 'safe' application protected by a strong password. The phone book was mostly basic, I didn't have any details on most people besides their name and number, though for some people I had foolishly entered address and other details as well. Text messages were also a bit worrying because I couldn't remember what was there - plenty of frivolous personal stuff, but what about my SMS banking messages? Did the new possessor of my phone know my bank balance and account number? After mulling it over I felt fairly confident I hadn't used the service in a while.

The point of all this is, a mobile phone is an item easily lost that can potentially contain a load of information about you and people you know that you might not want in someone else's hands, if only because of the creepiness factor. Full names with birthdays, addresses, work details, and a few pieces of other personal info gleaned from text messages, and who knows what some unscrupulous person could do? Improbable perhaps, but still, not impossible. I'm relatively cautious, so I shudder to think about how much info the average person keeps on their phone that could be exploited!

Despite having been cautious, I'm still more than a little disappointed with myself for slipping up in a few areas. A phone is here today but might be gone tomorrow; it's the type of thing that can be lost in an instant in all manner of situations. So, from now on I've decided to adopt an absolute worst case scenario mentality and not store personal info on my phone unless absolutely necessary. Because, well, you can never be too safe... and besides, thinking about it, did I really need all that stuff on there in the first place*?

* Of course, it has to be stored somewhere, and this is something I've been pondering for a while now. Online storage makes information accessible anywhere with net connectivity (which is becoming increasingly ubiquitous), and you'd only have to worry about the reliability of the service provider and their privacy policy. Local copies on a personal computer are also relatively safe, though, imagine if someone stole your computer and looked through the contents of the hard drive?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)


(Image from IMP Awards)


The Dark Knight (2008)

After smashing virtually every significant box office record known to man or bat, 'The Dark Knight' wasted little time in establishing itself as the biggest film of the year. Director Christopher Nolan's follow up to his excellent 'Batman Begins' is a phenomenon not just in terms of raking in the moola but also in terms of critical cred, with the Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator giving it a 94% fresh rating. So, does this cinematic behemoth live up to all of the hype and expectation? Well, sort of - there are some caveats.

Set a year after the events in 'Begins', 'Dark Knight' establishes early on that Batman (Christian Bale) has spent that time cleaning up much of Gotham City. He has teamed up with Detective Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), who now heads his own special hand picked unit within the Police Department, and together they've been cracking down on organized crime. Meanwhile Gotham's dashing new District Attorney, Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), proves to be an unlikely ally, a man who really is as noble and virtuous as his nickname, the 'White Knight', suggests. As these three men slowly tighten the noose around the remnants of the criminal underworld, billionaire Bruce Wayne begins to believe that he can soon retire Batman for good and leave the city in the capable hands of Gordon and Dent. He hopes to reunite with his old flame Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhaal), despite the minor fact that she is - to his chagrin - with Dent. Of course, this wouldn't be much of a story if things went according to plan, and the unexpected and rapid rise to power of a twisted criminal psycopath calling himself the Joker (Heath Ledger) acts as the spanner in the works; the Joker's intelligence and ruthlessness make him a deadly foe, and he sets about systematically bringing Gotham City to its knees.

That summary only skims the intricate plot as there are so many little substories and characters in the mix that it's a minor miracle the film manages to stay as coherent as it does. It's an incredibly layered story that touches on every conceivable aspect of Gotham society. In many ways 'Dark Knight' is less a superhero film and more a crime thriller that just happens to take place in Gotham City and feature Batman and the Joker as major characters. This is made evident right from the opening scene that depicts a thrilling bank robbery that would have been just as at home in a non superhero film (and apparently it was inspired by Michael Mann's 'Heat').

Also made evident from the outset is the unrestrained brutality and capriciousness that permeates the film - anyone who thought the first one was dark is in for a surprise. Nolan's decision to keep things reality based continues, with far out technology and over the top action set pieces making themselves felt only sparingly. Unfortunately, there are a couple of techie elements that are completely over the top (one involving mobile phones that comes across as a clumsy commentary on privacy rights) that they take you right out of the film, sort of like the first film's moisture vapourizer device. Fortunately the focus is almost always on character, drama, and plot, the film's true strengths, and not faux technology. Also worth noting is that the city of Gotham is, for perhaps the first time, realistic instead of stylized, which also helps instill a sense of this being a conventional drama and not a comic book tale.

Which brings me to one of my problems with the film - the fight scenes. While they flow naturally as an integral part of the story, the hand to hand combat scenes that crop up quite regularly are surprisingly mediocre. It's almost like Nolan had to meet a quota of fisticuffs and threw in repetitive scenes of Batman punching people to meet it. Even the vehicular combat scenes are sometimes a tad underwhelming. This is a relatively minor quibble however, as much of the build up and action is tense and thrilling, but a noticeable one nonetheless.

A dark atmosphere enshrouds the entire film, from the lighting to the production design right down to the dour expression on Christian Bale's chiseled visage, but as the death toll rises and hope fades for our heroes the script still manages to throw in a few comedic quips here and there, and while not all of them work they do prevent the whole enterprise from becoming a frown fest. Another aspect worthy of praise is how even minor characters are well drawn out and memorable, a combination of good casting and writing. The main characters are infused with surprising amounts of depth given how busy the film is in general, and their individual storylines bring to the fore the film's themes of hope and sacrifice in the face of overwhelming corruption and anarchy, as well as playing around with the concept of duality (in one case, quite literally). The story deals directly with the concept of good being overwhelmed by evil, but manages to make situations murky and complex instead of clear cut, although I can't help but question some of Batman's views on his right to use any means he deems necessary!

The plot twists and turns, which brings me to another problem - the excess of schemes! The film is a tad too long and could have done without quite so many overly clever schemes by the Joker; the excess cheapens the effect and by the end one almost feels completely unsurprised when the Joker 'surprises' everyone for the umpteenth time. It's to the film's credit then that the Joker's final scheme is still gripping despite the fact that everyone knew one was coming.

The performance everyone's been talking about is that of the late Heath Ledger as the Clown Prince of Crime, and it really is phenomenal. Ledger is almost unrecognizable, and not just because of the makeup. At no point does the Joker seem like anything less than an unhinged maniac ready to go off, but at the same time he manages to appear both brilliant and disturbingly likable (or maybe that's just me). You can call it showy, but everything from the odd mannerisms to the sneering voice are absolutely spot on, and I think it's hard to argue against the notion that this is the definitive live action incarnation of the character; it's easy to see why some are calling Ledger's Joker one of the all time great villains of cinema.

While ostensibly the star of the film, Christian Bale is much more subdued than the others around him; don't get me wrong, he's pretty good in the dual role of Batman and Bruce Wayne, but both of those characters are overshadowed by the Joker, Dent, and even Gordon. And, there is something a little off about his face as Batman - he looks a little chunky, and there's something odd about the way his mouth hangs open when he talks! Gary Oldman makes the most of a supporting role to make Gordon an upright, tough and resourceful policeman pushed to his limits by the madness around him, while Aron Eckhart uses the natural charisma that made him such a likable sleezebag in 'Thank You For Smoking' to good effect to make Harvey Dent believable despite being impossibly noble. The four principal actors head a cast that also includes the likes of Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Maggie Gyllenhaal and many others, all of whom do solid work.

There are some other minor quibbles that I ought to raise - the gruff voice of Batman works at times but seems strangely out of place at others; the music is decent if unmemorable, though the disconcerting music that accompanies the Joker is a memorable highlight; and the plot, with all its twists and turns, might not hold up under close scrutiny during repeat viewings. These are relatively minor flaws in an otherwise very good film, easily one of the best superhero films yet made and a worthy successor to 'Batman Begins' that improves upon it in nearly every way. It's one of those rarities that manages to satisfy as an action film without being dumbed down and without sacrificing character or thematic depth. It's not the masterpiece that some seem to be calling it, but it is very good, and well worth any movie fan's time!

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)


(Image from IMP Awards)


The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

Paul Greengrass returned to direct the second sequel in the Bourne series, the follow up to his excellent 'Supremacy', and he picks up virtually exactly where the last one left off... well, sorta, since the epilogue from the last film takes place in the middle of this one (not as confusing as it sounds). Anyway, if the first film was about Bourne (Matt Damon) discovering what he was, and the second about changing and trying to atone in some small way, then the third is about Bourne trying to discover his origins and bring to an end his involvement with the CIA. Through a newspaper reporter (Paddy Considine), Bourne learns of a new organization within the CIA, Blackbriar, that runs the programme he was a part of. Blackbriar is run by a man named Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), and when it learns of Bourne's presence it enlists Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) to help capture him. Landy is, however, suspicious of Blackbriar and sympathetic towards Bourne based on their past encounters. Bourne's journey leads him to various locales in Europe, Africa, and the US, and he once again encounters operative Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) in the course of events. Of course, his visits to these places don't stop at mere sightseeing, but instead entail car chases, foot chases, spying, bullets aplenty and some old fashioned fisticuffs.

All of the elements that made the first two films so great are now honed to perfection - 'Ultimatum' really fires on all cylinders. It's storytelling style is incredibly economical, and it hurtles along at a relentless pace from start to finish. Admittedly some of the finer plot points don't really hold together that well, and it could be argued that Bourne has now ascended into a wholly robotic action machine. I don't think this is a bad thing though; from a characterization point of view I can see why Bourne might be colder and more inured to his life and past, and there are still some key moments where his feelings on what he has done and what he is peek out. For the most part the atmosphere sticks to the unshowy, perfunctory style that is a hallmark of these films, one that makes it much easier to suspend disbelief when required. There's a grounded in reality feel throughout, from the stark photography and locales to the look of the offices and the people populating them, right down to their wardrobes. There's rarely a sense that choices in this movie were made purely to appear cool.

Matt Damon is again terrific as Bourne, both physically and in terms of demeanour. There's an unwavering confidence about him now, and in the action scenes he is completely believable as an unstoppable super agent. The supporting cast is also excellent, with Joan Allen, Strathairn, and Stiles delivering in key roles and Paddy Considine making his bit part into something compelling and memorable. Greengrass once again employs his pseudo documentary style to good effect in his directing of the film; it's not going to win over people who hated it in Supermacy, but I reckon it's one of those choices that elevates these films above its ilk. Greengrass also does well to make everything hold together despite the ludicrous pace and sheer number of incidents that come flying at the viewer. There's always cohesion and a sense that it all clicks despite appearing that it might fly off the rails at any moment!

Bottom line, great performances and storytelling make for a great film, one that takes the character to new places (including a startling revelation!) and ups the thrills and action; it feels true to the earlier films without feeling overly familiar. The thematic throughline of the lone man against the oppressive and corrupt system is always compelling, and the Bourne series does it about as well as it has ever been done, at least in terms of action thrillers. 'Ultimatum' makes for a fitting conclusion to the story arc started in 'Identity' so I'm not sure where they'd take it from here in another sequel, but if Greengrass and Damon return for another Bourne outing (they're currently working together on 'Green Zone') you can bet your bottom dollar it'll make my 'must see' list!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Hot or Not?


This has been bugging me of late. I've seen it mentioned on several message boards and blogs that Sarah Palin is hot, often jokingly implying that this alone would get her votes despite the fact that she is woefully unqualified in virtually all other respects.

Erm, what? Has the hotness bar really fallen so low, or is there some kind of weird conspiracy to cement at least one 'positive' attribute with regard to this woman? Alright, she's fairly attractive, but why do so many people insist that she's hot? It does not compute!

(As an aside, Tina Fey is hot, despite the passing similarities between the two.)

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Urinal Etiquette

I find it rather disturbing to frequently witness grown men undoing their belts and pulling down their pants when doing their business at a urinal. Seriously, it's just disturbing. And yes, I'm fairly certain it's not because their equipment is that unwieldy.

I think some people didn't get the memo about the usefulness of zippers.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Greatest Match Ever?



(Image from Wikipedia)


I finally got around to seeing the much talked about Wimbledon final between five time defending champion Roger Federer and third time (consecutive!) finalist Rafael Nadal. It has been hailed as one of the, if not the, greatest tennis matches ever played. I can't claim to have seen more than a mere handful of the great matches from tennis history so I'm not really qualified to comment on its relative merit, but as far as I'm concerned it is undeniably a classic. Right from the opening point the game is competitive, and the whole match is populated by lengthy rallies full of powerful and accurate groundstrokes.

It ended up being the longest men's final in Wimbledon history, justifying the pre-match hype where it was talked up as a historic confrontation by virtue of the caliber of the two players and the records that were at stake. Plus, it was seen as an unofficial battle for the crown of Number 1 player in the world and possibly an end to an era of tennis dominated by Federer. I'd say that in terms of being momentous and dramatic it is certainly the best match that I have ever seen; a true event match if ever there was one. But... but I'm not convinced that the tennis on display was the greatest ever.

Again, I may not be qualified to comment, but as a point of comparison I also recently watched the '93 Wimbledon final between Pete Sampras and Jim Courier. Now, this one isn't - as far as I'm aware - hailed as a classic, but the tennis was still exciting and varied. There were big serves, serve volleying aplenty, rallies, passing shots, drop shots, smashes, half vollies and even the occasional lob! Contrast this with the Nadal-Federer match, in which despite the excellent quality of play every point seemed to follow a very predictable pattern of hitting from the baseline. Five sets worth!

Don't get me wrong, it was a terrific match, and the quality of play was tremendous. I'm just a little sceptical about calling it the greatest match ever, at least in terms of the tennis that was played. The greatest match in terms of significance to the game and resultant drama, perhaps... I just think the media and commentators have a tendency to blow things out of proportion at any given opportunity, and it's a little early to name this one 'greatest ever'.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Planet Terror (2007)


(Image from IMP Awards)


Planet Terror (2007)

'Planet Terror' is director Robert Rodriguez's half of the 'Grindhouse' double bill, with the other half, 'Death Proof', being directed by Quentin Tarantino.

'Grindhouse' is meant to be a homage to the type of films shown as grindhouse features. From Wikipedia:
The film's name originates from the American term for theaters that played "all the exploitation genres: kung fu, horror, Giallo, sexploitation, the "good old boy" redneck car-chase movies, blaxploitation, spaghetti Westerns—all those risible genres that were released in the 70s." According to Rodriguez, "The posters were much better than the movies, but we're actually making something that lives up to the posters."

This film is certainly not as low budget as those it seeks to pay tribute to, but it's made to look like a trashy exploitation flick complete with dodgy effects and poor quality, degraded 'film' reels. The story is about a chemical weapon being unleashed on a small town that turns people into zombies. A small group of people band together to try and survive, while an elite military unit gets up to no good behind the scenes.

Rodriguez is right in that his film really does live up to the posters! I haven't actually watched any real grindhouse flicks, but I'm fairly certain that they are a lot crappier than the faux crappiness on display here. The film is outrageous - gory, over the top, and very funny, and the wacky atmosphere and artificially cheap looking visuals add to the film's entertainment value. It's a tad too long (though, I did watch the extended standalone version of the film), but still makes for a thrilling ride.

And although it's all meant to look cheap, the effects and production values are surprisingly impressive in their own kitschy way. There are some fun performances in there as well, especially from Naveen Andrews (Sayid from Lost!), Rose McGowan, and Michael (where has he been?) Biehn.

I'm not sure if I can really recommend 'Planet Terror' to a casual movie fan, as it's definitely out there and a little bit absurd. But if you can embrace its intentional cheapness, there's a lot of fun to be had.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

28 Days Later (2002)



(Image from IMP Awards)


28 Days Later (2002)

Danny Boyle and Alex Garland's once unconventional take on the zombie genre was at the time of release fresh and invigorating - speedy zombies! Watching it again years later, however, it's clear that this one is not just a one trick pony - it's a little bit special and will endure for years to come.

Following a brief and rather shaky prologue the film proper begins mysteriously enough, with a man named Jim (Cillian Murphy) waking up in an abandoned hospital. He walks out and discovers a deserted London, a scenario that is revealed in hauntingly dramatic fashion. Most of the populace has fled, and he soon discovers why; the remainder have become the 'infected' - people who are essentially zombies - and have overrun Britain. After surviving his first harrowing encounter with the infected, Jim ends up with fellow survivors Selena (Naomie Harris), Frank (Brendan Gleeson), and Frank's daughter Hannah (Megan Burns). Hearing transmissions from the military telling them that there is a safe haven in Manchester, they set out across the desolate landscape in Frank's car, braving the possibility of being attacked by the infected.

A simple yet interesting premise, and one that is extremely well executed. After the iffy prologue the subsequent first two acts of the film are superb. The sense of desolation is palpable and the isolation permeates nearly every scene. The scenario is made believable by being unremittingly bleak and hopeless. The zombies generate a genuine feeling of terror, and the film doesn't hold back when it comes to delivering shocks and gruesome gore either. The best part though is that despite the bleakness there are several moments that are poignant and joyful, such as the scene where our heroes raid a supermarket with the gleeful enthusiasm of participating in a shopping spree.

The characters are complex, fallible, and very vulnerable - basically, human. This impression is created in large part by the excellent performances from the four leads, who generate a convincing sense of camaraderie. The bemused and delicate looking Murphy makes for an atypical lead who guides us through the shock and horror of what has happened. The character also makes an incredible transformation towards the end, one that is actually quite over the top but which Murphy manages to pull off. Speaking of the end, the last act takes the film into interesting territory but I didn't find it to be as well executed as what came before. A whole new bunch of characters are introduced and the tone of the film becomes twisted and sinister, and also somewhat comical. The cast members who show up here, including Christopher Eccleston, are all very good in their roles, but it still feels a bit incongruous and jarring.

While the final act - which ironically is somehow more bizarre than the stuff with the zombies - is a slight let down in terms of execution, it doesn't drag the film down too much, and it does provide a compelling commentary on the fragility of society and the simplicity with which people can descend into barbarism. The psychological aspects of the film ring true, and are also a part of what make this better than your average zombie flick.

Boyle is a filmmaker who doesn't seem to be limited by genre, and '28 Days Later' demonstrates his versatility by being effective as both a character piece and an edgy post apocalyptic horror film. There's a haunting beauty in the hellish nightmare world he creates, and despite the annoying digital video look in the early scenes the film delivers some captivating visuals. Those early shots of a deserted London are iconic. The horror elements are also well done, with tense and suspenseful scenes leading in to explosive moments of action. And yes, even the incongruous comedy elements are quite funny! The zombies themselves aren't all that impressive visually but they make up for it with their wild and unsettling behaviour, charging at people with manic rage and impressive speed.

I can't finish this review without mentioning the very cool and distinctive soundtrack, which complements the film well.

Overall, it's a very good film that lets itself down towards the end but still makes a strong, lasting overall impression by being absorbing and thought provoking, and by featuring characters worth giving a damn about. Quite, quite unlike its risible sequel.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Checking the Time

It's been almost a month since my last post! Frak!

Sticking with the temporal theme of that opening sentence, I'm going to spend the rest of this post discussing my watch, which came into my possession just recently. I'm talking about the watch not because it's some ridiculously expensive timepiece that deserves a blog post dedicated to the fact that it adorns my wrist - it's a Casio with dual analogue and digital displays, and I think it's pretty cool - but because it's the first watch I've worn in nigh on half a decade.

The reason for this is fairly mundane - when my last watch (also a Casio, one that I had for over 11 years) broke, I decided that my mobile phone was sufficient for telling the time. During the last five years, whenever I needed to know what the time was I fished my mobile out from my pocket. Sounds inconvenient, but minor inconvenience is something you get used to pretty fast, plus I often found myself using oft unused alternative time sources like wall clocks, my computer's time display, and even other people's watches! After doing this for a while, I convinced myself that I'd never need another watch again.

This is not the first time I have been completely and utterly wrong (in truth, I've lost count!). My new watch was given to me as a gift, and I was initially quite sceptical about having it - after all, it was unnecessary! But after only a few hours of wearing the damned thing I realized how wrong I had been all those years. How the frak did I get by without a watch all that time? It's so easy; when you need to tell the time, you simply raise your arm a bit and glance downwards. Even a monkey can do it!

By now you may have gathered that I'm a fool at best, and perhaps even a retard. But folks, retarded or not I encourage you to relegate your cellphone to the status of call making device and let watches do your timekeeping for you! Even if wearing one means you end up silently cursing yourself every time your arm bumps into or grazes against something; routinely inspecting my watch for scratches seems to be my new weird idiosyncrasy!

A bizarre random post to end the blogging drought, one that promised to be about a watch but which ended up being about the act of wearing one (Christopher Walken was, sadly, unavailable). Hopefully the next post will be less nonsensical, and won't be such a long time coming!

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Password Safe

I have around 60 different accounts with passwords to manage. That includes all of my various website login details - online banking, mail, message boards, social networking sites, etc... - and my computer account credentials. And this count doesn't include my dozen or so work accounts, only my personal ones. So all in all, I have to manage around 75 different credentials - that's 75 usernames and passwords! And I'm certain there are sites out there I've registered with but can't even remember! Don't ask me how or why I have so many accounts, I just do. And truth be told some of them I hardly ever use anymore, and I probably ought to get rid of them... But I digress...

So the question is, how on Earth does one manage so many usernames and passwords?

Usernames tend to be simple enough, since you rarely obfuscate a username. It's the passwords that are tricky. The simplest method of remembering passwords is to use a single password, or a small set of passwords, for all of your accounts. The drawback is self-evident however - if one password is compromised, a whole bunch of accounts are also compromised with it! As far as I'm concerned, this is not a viable option.

It should be immediately obvious that - barring an eidetic memory - it isn't feasible to memorize 75 different passwords either. From a practical standpoint, you need to write them down somewhere so that you can look them up when you need to use them; the risks involved in doing this should also be immediately obvious.

My solution - and the solution of many others - is to use Password Safe (or something similar, but this one is open source and fairly well known). It's a piece of software that allows you to manage your passwords and keep them secure by storing them in an encrypted file, making them accessible only via a master password. On the one hand this system introduces a single point of failure, but as long as you pick a complex enough password it becomes computationally infeasible to crack it, and as long as you don't write it down somewhere (this is the one password that absolutely must be committed to memory) no one can accidentally stumble upon it. Of course, you'll probably still give it up under torture if it came to that, but if someone's torturing you for your password, you've probably got major issues that make your passwords pale into insignificance!

So, I use Password Safe with a very strong master password and use a wide array of passwords for all of my accounts, safe in the knowledge that they are stored securely and can be readily looked up. Not every account needs a unique password, only the important ones that are associated with finances or personal information; I still share passwords between accounts that I consider trivial, although even then I tend to ensure that there's no link between those accounts. That is, I group accounts under a common password only when those accounts are completely independent of each other.

Of course, I still have frequently used passwords committed to memory (it's just practical and happens automatically over time in any case), but there can't be more than 10-15 of those. One of the things I've noticed about using a password safe is that it's very easy to come up with complex passwords when they don't need to be 'memorable' - sometimes when I look one up even I'm surprised by it, since they do not adhere to any pattern or 'system'! (the downside is that the ones that I need to commit to memory take a little longer to memorize)

There are other issues surrounding passwords - such as what constitutes a good one and how long you should use the same one before changing it - but I'm not going to go into that right now! What I will do right now, however, is recommend Password Safe to anyone who feels overloaded by the number of passwords that they have to manage.

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)

The latest, probably last, and mostly unnecessary installment in the Indiana Jones franchise arrived this summer and made more of a whimper than a bang. I'm not going to waste time summarizing the plot on this occasion. Oh hell, scratch that - here goes. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and a young whippersnapper named Mutt (Shia LaBeouf) become embroiled in a race with evil commie Russians led by Col. Spalko (Cate Blanchett) to acquire a mysterious crystal skull that will unleash the arcane powers of a mythical ancient civilization. Also entangled in their adventure are old flame and mother of Mutt, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), new Indy ally Mac McHale (Ray Winstone) and nutty Professor Oxley (John Hurt). Sure, there's more to the story than that, but in a nutshell, that's about it.

The biggest question mark regarding this film when it was announced was Harrison Ford's ability to sell the idea of an adventurous archaeologist at his age. And yes, Ford is too old for the role, truth be told, but despite that he manages to hold the film together and even impresses physically. This is his best performance in years and there are moments when that old Indy charm shines through. Not a patch on the Indy from the original trilogy mind you, but still, surprisingly good stuff. As for the rest of the cast, well, this film excels at wasting good actors - Blanchett and Hurt in particular really should have been used better. Blanchett is actually fairly good given the material, grating accent aside. Hurt just dodders throughout the film. The increasingly ubiquitous Ray Winstone just blurts out some lines every once in a while like some sort of video game sidekick. The surprise package is the promising Shia LaBeouf, who is actually pretty great as an up and coming adventurer. As for Karen Allen... she just seems happy to have been invited to the party, if her eternally giddy expression is anything to go by (or is it botox?)!

The basic premise of the film is sound, and could have been quite interesting. The plot is of course nonsense, but that is a given with this type of film. The problem is that the overall narrative suffers from modern action movie-itis: an indestructible hero who seems to know that he's indestructible (refer Die Hard 4.0); an excess of characters, none of whom have enough screen time or memorable moments; a dearth of quiet character moments; and an overly complicated narrative with too much dull incident and exposition.

To add insult to injury, the film violates established character continuity - for instance, Indy actually helps the Russians along the way, something the Indy of old would never have done, and for the most part he just seems to be getting dragged along during the adventure in a film in which he is purportedly the protagonist! Despite its failings, the film is still above average for the genre, and the fact that it features an established - and quite iconic - hero in a new adventure gives it some cachet.

Despite all of the original bigwigs behind the original films being involved, this one feels strangely incongruous. It feels inconsistent with the original films; even the look is weirdly different! The action is fairly typical for modern adventure films - it never feels like anything is at stake, with the heroes just going through the motions. There's a nonchalant feel to the whole film. And worst of all, some sequences are ridiculously over the top and way beyond anything featured in the original films (except perhaps Temple of Doom's plane crash) - witness the nuclear explosion at the start of the film, or the scene that features a car jumping off a cliff and onto a tree branch. Even the music - which is occasionally rousing - doesn't jump out and grab a hold of you like it did in the original trilogy. It's just there and it sounds familiar, as if it expects to simply coast on the reserves of good will we have towards its predecessors.

I've seen the movie twice now, and I have to admit that I liked it better the second time round - lowered expectations and all that! As an Indy movie it's well below par, but as a modern adventure film, it's actually fairly decent. The production values, action, drama, and comedy, are wrapped together nicely by Spielberg's natural storytelling abilities; his touch makes this better than most summer fare. Having said that, perhaps there's just a little too much George Lucas in there as well! At the end of the day 'Crystal Skull' is entertaining enough to be worth the price of admission, but it is also fairly forgettable. Ah well, they can pry my original trilogy boxset from my cold, dead hands!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Golden Compass (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


The Golden Compass (2007)

Last year's adaptation of the first part of Phillip Pullman's much lauded (but somewhat overrated) blasphemous fantasy trilogy was met with indifference by audiences and apparently pretty much sunk New Line Cinema as an independent studio. The marketing didn't really sell the story too well, focusing as it did on the films visual aspects. And that's probably because the film itself doesn't sell its story particularly well either.

'The Golden Compass' (aka The Northern Lights) takes place in a parallel universe and tells the story of Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards), a young orphan girl living in Oxford's Jordan College. This universe is somewhat like ours, only here people's 'souls' exist in physical form alongside them as talking animal 'daemons', and society and technology are reminiscent of the 19th century but with steampunk sensibilities. Lyra's uncle, Lord Azrael (Daniel Craig), is a scientist looking into the nature of a mysterious substance called 'dust' and its relationship to parallel universes, but he is opposed by the powerful Magisterium (i.e. the Church).

Meanwhile children are being grabbed off the street by the so-called 'Gobblers'. When Lyra is invited by the alluring but sinister Mrs. Coulter (Nicole Kidman) to join her in London and mingle with high society, she begins an adventure to rescue her friend Roger from the Gobblers, an adventure that sees her hooking up with the nomadic 'Gyptian' people and traveling to the north where she meets the mighty polar bears and Witches - including bear king Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellan) and witch Seraffina Pekkala (Eva Green), as well as the charismatic aviator Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott). Lyra has one very handy tool to aid her on her quest - an alethiometer, an arcane device that tells its user the truth.

That piss poor summary only scratches the surface. Needless to say it's considerably more complicated and eventful than that, but hopefully the words above will provide some idea of what this movie is about.

As an adaptation, 'Compass' falls short, coming across as a breezy summary of the source material, which truth be told isn't very cinematic (at least in terms of structure) to begin with. The story stumbles from one scene to the next without much cohesion, and is never all that gripping as a narrative. On the one hand, it feels rushed; on the other, the book admittedly has lots of leaden bits that probably wouldn't have been all that compelling on screen! Taken on its own terms as a film, I can't imagine the storyline being all that clear to neophytes, and the very clunky introductory narrative (attempting to channel Fellowship of the Ring) doesn't work all that well. And yet, despite not being particularly accessible it's not exactly awash with thematic depth either, with the religious elements being toned down - direct references to the church are absent - and the importance of dust never being rammed home (though, I'll have to concede that they could have been planning on doing this in the sequels).

The screenplay isn't the only thing that's middle of the road however. The film is generally devoid of atmosphere and key moments seem to lack any real dramatic punch. The production values are adequate but generally unimpressive - sets and costumes don't have that lived in, "real world" feel that separate the great fantasy films from the also-rans. It doesn't exactly transport you to another world because it all feels fake. The effects are also a mixed bag, generally bland and unimpressive. I'm also really tired of lame CGI animals; did they really have to be CGI in every shot? The few action sequences present are decent but barely get the pulse racing - there's a big battle at the end that is short and mildly exciting, but that's about it. It's all tied together by a fairly generic and forgettable musical score.

Dakota Blue Richards was a casting coup as she impresses throughout and perfectly captures the impertinent and sharp tongued spirit of the character in the book. Sam Elliott is spot on as the aviator Lee Scoresby (strange that Pullman apparently imagine Samuel L. Jackson in this role!). It's also great fun to hear Ian McShane (from Deadwood, cocksucker!) as the evil polar bear Ragnar Sturlusson. The other major polar bear character, Iorek Byrnison, is quite well played by Ian McKellan, though it does seem to be a paycheck performance. Eva Green is stunning and physically just right (wink wink) for the role of the witch queen Serafina Pekkala, and she also has an appropriate 'otherworldly' quality about her. Nicole Kidman is a natural for the icy Mrs. Coulter, though hers also seems to be a half hearted performance for the most part. As for Daniel Craig, he's barely in the film and never really registers.

Overall, a decent film but nothing to write home about. I can't imagine fans of the book being too pleased. Despite the stronger source material, it's a step down from say "The Chronicles of Narnia", and falls well short of its New Line stablemate. The anti climactic ending is really a slap in the face as well given that the prospect of the sequels coming to fruition seem somewhat remote at this point.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Crank (2006)


(Image from IMP Awards)


Crank (2006)

'Crank' is an improbably entertaining movie. It's as high concept as it gets - professional assassin Chev Chelios (Jason Statham) is injected with a poison by gangster Verona (Jose Pablo Cantillo) that will kill him slowly; it is also debilitating unless he keeps his adrenaline level high. The story that ensues is basically a race to find a cure and take revenge, with Chev being hyper and excited the whole time and doing insane things to maintain enough adrenaline in his system to keep the poison at bay. Also along for the ride are Chev's girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) and his snide doctor, Doc Miles (Dwight Yoakam).

Much like its protagonist, the film has a surfeit of adrenaline flowing through it from start to finish. The outrageous plot is not half bad given that it's basically designed to get Chev from one ludicrous scenario to the next. It features lean storytelling that is fully committed to its premise; it's also completely irreverent, with a hero who is a remorseless, amoral killer willing to do whatever it takes to survive. And while the movie is action packed and full of violence - there are car chases and shootouts aplenty - it is also very funny, with a darkly comedic tone throughout. If you think about the premise, the inherent comedy value of a guy doing anything to stay excited ought to be self evident. And Chev stops at nothing to stay frantic, including having sex with his girlfriend in a public place in front of a throng of cheering onlookers!

In many ways 'Crank' has the feel of a video game, with stylistic flourishes that seem to evoke the GTA series, and it even references video games directly on a few occasions. The action is exciting, with inventive sequences, snappy editing and kinetic camerawork; there's also an interesting use of first person / odd camera perspectives and sometimes bizarre on screen text. Overall, with its colourful visuals and thumping soundtrack, the film is quite successful at making the viewer maintain the same level of excitement as its hero! Jason Statham is by no means a great actor but he has his niche and is perfect in this sort of role - he's an explosive presence and has always exuded an air of barely contained rage, and this film allows him to unleash it. Amy Smart is also smokin and strangely sweet as his dumb blonde girlfriend. Dwight Yoakam is hilarious as the Doc who seems like he's just wandered onto the set by mistake. The rest of the actors make for a colourful lineup and round out an effective cast.

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor crafted an inventive and exhilarating experience with 'Crank', one that I thought might be somewhat fun but which ended up leaving me wearing a pretty big grin throughout its runtime! Sure it's daft as hell, but it isn't ashamed of that fact at all - in fact, it embraces it! I'm quite curious to see how the forthcoming sequel will turn out; needless to say, it's on my to watch list!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Into the Wild (2007)



(Image from IMP Awards)


Into the Wild (2007)

I expected to find 'Into the Wild' to be a good film, but I was surprised at just how good Sean Penn's latest directorial effort is. His other films that I've seen - 'The Pledge' and 'The Indian Runner' - were pretty good but just shy of being truly great. This film, however, is at another level and is absolutely terrific.

Adapted from the non-fiction book by Jon Krakauer (which I now must read!), it centres on Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch), a young man with promising career prospects who upon graduating from college decides to leave his life behind, assume the name Alexander Supertramp, and journey to Alaska to live in the wild. He gives away all of his money to charity and moves from place to place by hitchhiking or sneaking rides on trains while doing odd jobs to get by. He also befriends various interesting people along the way. The film cuts back and forth between his journey to Alaska and the story of his subsequent life in the Alaskan wilderness. The different threads are bound together and given context by the narration from his sister Carine (Jena Malone) that explains his troubled childhood. There's also the occasional scene where we witness his parents (William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden) trying to cope with his disappearance.

I was captivated by the film from the start. There isn't much meat to the story, which is surprising given its 150 minute runtime, and at its core it's simply a journey - but what a journey! There are some stunning visuals and unforgettable moments that bring McCandless' adventure to life - many scenes are devoid of dialogue and rely on visuals and sound alone, and they bring to the fore the solitude and beauty of the environments he passes through. It's also very much a character study that attempts to explain his behaviour, to allow us to understand him and his past and how it affected him and drove him to find meaning outside of society and people (though ironically his journey brought him into contact with many interesting people along the way). Despite his actions being borderline insane, the manner in which he tried to push himself to the limit somehow comes across as strangely romantic. The film is only successful in explaining McCandless upto a certain extent though; at some level there's something about his actions that really defies logic and explanation, and Penn almost seems to be mythologizing the man and his adventure. Ignoring his love of adventure, McCandless character also embodies the undercurrent of contempt towards modern society and consumerism that permeates the film as well, but fortunately this isn't too heavy handed and as a thematic element never overwhelms the film.

Emile Hirsch is simply brilliant, disappearing into the role and really becoming the character (cliched, I know, but so true here!). McCandless was intelligent and good natured, and perhaps a little quixotic and foolish as well, but always fascinating, and in many ways his audacious recklessness was inspiring. Hirsch really brings these traits to life without making the man ever seem bonkers or too detached from reality; he's relatable and sympathetic. His interactions with the supporting cast are also terrific, and while there is at times a sense of over-earnestness to them they serve to show how he affected the people he met, and how he himself grew and changed as a result of meeting them. All of the cast are terrific, but Hal Holbrook's much lauded performance as the lonely old retiree Ron Franz is worthy of the praise and accolade it has received.

On paper this film could have been repetitive and dull, but it ends up being incredibly varied and with its intercutting timelines and sense of progression it never comes close to being boring. It's a bit long but, I think, quite well paced. I found it to be exceptionally well made in every way; the performances I've already mentioned, but there's also the awesome photography and soundtrack that add so much to the mood and enhance the overall experience. Despite being overlooked during awards season, I'm fairly confident when I say that 'Into the Wild' is one of the best films of 2007.