Friday, February 29, 2008

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Year of Living Dangerously (1982)

Peter Weir seems to be one of the most consistent filmmakers around - or rather, consistently good, since there are plenty of rubbish ones out there who are unwaveringly consistent. He also seems to take a lot of breaks between films, which is a shame, though perhaps that may be a reason for his consistency. Stylistically his films are linked by being generally restrained and unsentimental and full of detached observations. I like all of the films of his that I've seen, though the only one I'm a huge fan of is 'Master and Commander'. 'The Year of Living Dangerously' is one of his earlier films, but it still bears his hallmarks.

The year is 1965 and Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) is a reporter for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation who is assigned to work in Indonesia. It is a period of civil unrest, with President Sukarno caught in the middle of a brewing conflict between the military and the Communist Party. Guy is initially lost at sea even among the community of Western journalists stationed there until he is helped by Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), a dwarf cameraman who feels a great empathy for the Indonesian people and has lots of connections. Billy sees decency in Guy, something the other journalists lack, and he therefore sets up key interviews for him. He then plays at being a puppeteer (a metaphor that is established very early on) to set Guy up with Jill Bryant (Sigourney Weaver), a young woman who works at the British Embassy. As the political situation grows more unstable, Guy's ambition grows with his journalistic successes and leads to him having to choose between his friends and his career.

It's a very textured film with a lot going on. On the one hand the film is the personal story of Guy Hamilton and his career and personal life. On the other it tells of the political and social landscape of Indonesia and the perspective of the foreign media against that landscape. And then there's the tragic story of Billy Kwan, who is the fabric that joins all of the other elements together and is in many ways the heart of the film. As I mentioned earlier, Weir's eye is that of a detached observer - this film acknowledges the complexity and tragedy of what is going on and looks upon it with sympathy, but never really takes sides or preaches. It feels even handed and respectful.

Guy Hamilton's journey and growth make for a compelling central narrative, though it also contains the film's weakest aspect - the love story. It's important to the character's arc in that it creates a dilemma and conflict and also provides an insight into his personal life, but I simply didn't find it all that engaging; it derails the movie for a prolonged stretch during which the focus is solely on the romance. Billy Kwan's dealings on the other hand are always interesting as he acts a link between Indonesia and the West, and provides a great deal of perspective. His ideals and beliefs and his love for the people are the most moving part of the film.

Linda Hunt is superb as Billy, and one quickly forgets that he is being played by a woman after the first few minutes. It's an amazing performance, full of passion and intelligence and humour, and really elevates the film. Gibson is also very good as Guy, starting off as a man who is fearless and keen but inexperienced, who slowly grows cocky and brash and willing to do anything to further his career. Sigourney Weaver, sadly, is miscast - and this is from someone who thinks she's an excellent actress. She is just not convincing as a British diplomat (the accent in particular is woeful), and while she is intelligent and tenacious and an obvious counterpart to Guy, the love between the two isn't as convincing or as strong as the bond of friendship between Guy and Billy. The rest of the cast are fairly good in their roles, but only Bembol Roco really stands out as Guy's assistant.

Once again, a very good Peter Weir film that is well made in every respect and unconventional by Hollywood movie standards. 'The Year of Living Dangerously' is a film that is unique, thought provoking, informative, and entertaining, and one that convincingly transports you to a believable representation of a particular time and place. It may have some noticeable flaws, but these are minor when considering the film as a whole.

The 4400 - Season 3 (2006)

(Image from Slice of Sci-Fi)

The 4400 - Season 3 (2006)

I reviewed the second season of 'The 4400' back in June last year, and all I can say about the third season is that nothing much has changed since then. Here's what I concluded last time:

While it doesn't hold up against the best sci-fi dramas on TV (Lost, Battlestar Galactica, and (so far) Heroes*), it fills a niche for more sedate and safe sci-fi; it is entertaining even if it isn't always that thought provoking. I'm anticipating watching the third season, which promises increased friction between the 4400, the government, and the general population, which could result in some of that edginess the subject matter is ripe for.

Production values, storytelling style, acting - none of that has changed this season, so basically what I said in my review of the last season still applies. Worth noting perhaps is that the '4400 of the week' aspect that I wrote about where single episodes focused solely on a particular 4400 is still there but is handled much better, with those stories being integrated into the big picture in a more satisfying and substantial way. As for the season's overall storyline, it develops in the way I had hoped it would. The 4400s and the government are clearly at war, with a terrorist group formed by 4400s carrying out assassinations and making threats to a fearful populace. People are divided about what to do, and the government prepares itself for a conflict by running secret projects to help combat the 4400 'threat'. The 4400 are also divided, with many being afraid of the government after inhumane and illegal treatment; some feel pushed enough to side with the terrorists.

It's great stuff that is clearly an allegory for contemporary terrorism, the prevailing culture of fear, abuse of governmental power, and curtailment of civil rights, but as before the show doesn't take it far enough. This should be heavy subject matter, but after watching shows like 'Battlestar Galactica' and 'Lost' where the situations are pushed to extremes and characters are forced to make hard choices, 'The 4400' doesn't compare favourably. It always seems to have a convenient out that prevents it from ever really challenging its audience; whenever things start to look interesting, the writers always retreat back to safer territory.

An unexpected and irritating element this season is the spontaneous growing up of the Isabelle (Megalyn Echikunwoke) character and the death of her mother (apparently because the actress who played Lilly Tyler (Laura Allen) quit). One problem is how trite this 'fish out of water character trying to understand humanity' storyline is. Another is how tame her story arc ends up being - seriously, a large part of it involves forcing one of the other characters to marry her! The fact that Megalyn Echikunwoke just isn't that good at portraying what is meant to be an awe inspiring, powerful being, doesn't help the show too much either. The majority of the cast are fairly decent in their roles but no one really shines, with the exception being Billy Campbell as the enigmatic Jordan Collier, whose return is dramatic and really adds some much needed oomph to the show in the season's last few episodes.

The third season of the '4400' ends, once again, at a very interesting place. The stories being told are great, but the storytelling lacks the kind of bite that the subject matter really needs. It's sci-fi comfort food that dips its toes in the deep end of the edginess pool but never takes the plunge. And yet I still find the show strangely compelling even though I don't feel that deeply invested in it or its characters. The show only lasted one more season before being cancelled and I think the storylines are left unresolved, but I'll be sure to check it out just to see what happens next. And because it is fairly entertaining.

*and how that show disappointed by taking an interesting concept and ruining it with illogical nonsense and terrible revelations that culminated in a horrendously bad last few episodes.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The Shining (1980)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Shining (1980)

Stanley Kubrick's 'The Shining', an adaptation of a Stephen King novel, is a horror film that is quite iconic - that scene with Jack Nicholson tearing through the door has been referenced and parodied on many an occasion - and is widely regarded as a classic of the genre. It is an incredible piece of film-making, one that manages to take a slight story and extract out of it copious amounts of tension and suspense.

Aspiring writer Jack Torrance (Nicholson) gets a job as the winter caretaker of the Overlook Hotel situated in an isolated mountainous area; the catch is that the previous caretaker went mad during the lonely winter stay and chopped up his wife and daughters before blowing his own brains out, but this doesn't bother Jack. He brings his wife Wendy (Shelley Duvall) and their son Danny (Danny Lloyd) to spend the months with him in the creepy hotel where he plans to while away the days writing his book. It is revealed that Danny is a special child who has supernatural powers - he is telepathic and has visions. Before the hotel is handed over to the Torrances, the head chef, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers), tells Danny that he too has the same powers, called 'shining'. He also warns Danny to stay out of room 237 because it is dangerous. The family is then left completely alone in the spacious hotel, which has a hedge maze outside and enough food stored away to last them a long time. The hotel provides a fine environment for Danny to play in, when he's not seeing frightening images and being tempted by room 237 that is. As time passes by Jack, struggling with writer's block, slowly begins to go crazy as it becomes apparent that there is malevolent force in the hotel that is tormenting the Torrance family.

Simple framework for a story, but it's in the execution that Kubrick really knocks this one out of the park. Right from the opening helicopter shots showing the mountainous path leading up to the Overlook Hotel set to moody music, you know this is going to be something oppressive and creepy. Stanley Kubrick had a talent for making things look beautiful and disturbing at the same time, and the photography of this film features some amazing shots that are wondrous even today and evoke serious levels of dread. There are no quick cuts or sudden movements; instead, there's slow buildup of tension. The design work is incredible, with the empty hotel truly feeling like a malicious entity. Kubrick infuses the film with atmosphere and makes nearly every scene and innocuous action either unsettling or mysterious. The script is fairly lean and leaves a lot of stuff ambiguous, including the perplexing twist of an ending. The adaptation apparently deviates from the book significantly and takes away some of the plot and character elements, but it works brilliantly on its own terms to be honest, and I'll take Kubrick's sensibilities over King's more often than not. Forget monsters and ghosts; the sense of utter isolation and despair and the insanity that grips the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel is more terrifying than any of those. Plus, there are supernatural ghostly goings on as well!

Jack Nicholson is crazy in this; one of the criticisms of his casting was that he seems crazy from the start, but that's just Nicholson. I think he seems mildly nutty at the start and is raving mad by the end. You could argue that his insanity isn't subtle, but so what - he is influenced by supernatural malevolence after all. And to be honest, the guy is pretty terrifying in the role and funny at the same time, a deadly combination that forces a bit of ambivalence upon the viewer. As his wife, Shelley Duvall is like a terrified mouse but one who is resourceful when push comes to shove. She gets a bit hysterical at times and perfectly conveys the sheer terror of her situation. Danny Lloyd is great as the frightened kid; he seems quite natural and his 'imaginary friend' voice is unsettling - "redrum redrum" indeed. Scatman Crothers is just OK as Hallorann, but there are some effective performances from the actors playing the hotel's more ghostly inhabitants.

'The Shining' is a classic and one that blew me away. I'm surprised at how I keep being surprised by not just how good Kubrick's films are, but by how much I actually enjoy them. My first experience of 2001 made me imagine that his films were all technical marvels that would fail to connect with me. 'A Clockwork Orange', 'Full Metal Jacket', 'Dr Strangelove', and now 'The Shining' have proven that little theory wrong, and I look forward to revisiting his and Arthur C. Clarke's landmark sci-fi film once more to see how I feel about it so many years later. As for this film, it's definitely a must see - don't expect a conventional horror film, and don't expect it to all even make sense in a narrative sense. It's an experience, and a memorable one at that.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Minority Report (2002)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Minority Report (2002)

Spielberg's follow up to AI was another sci-fi film, this time based on the short story 'The Minority Report' by P. K. Dick, an author famed for writing stories based on the nature of reality and self, and also for often writing while being on drugs. The original short is great, but the adaptation is only loosely based on it and is much more of a thriller than a sci-fi film.

John Anderton (Tom Cruise) heads the Pre-Crime Division of Police in Washington D.C. - it's a trial division that is on the verge of going national under the auspices of its director, Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow). Pre-Crime works off the predictions of three mutant 'precogs' who can see future murders before they happen, allowing officers to swoop in and stop the killing. Pre-meditated murder is now a thing of the past, and only murders of passion take place anymore in the D.C. area. At a personal level Anderton is a messed up individual who takes drugs to numb the pain of losing his son some years earlier and subsequently separating from his wife (Kathryn Morris). The main narrative kicks off when Anderton himself is predicted by the precogs to commit (inexplicably, as it turns out) premeditated murder in the near future, something he believes to be impossible. Determined to prove his innocence, he runs and is pursued by FBI Agent Danny Witwer (Colin Farrell), a hotshot gunning for Anderton's job. Anderton learns of the possibility of a 'minority report' - a future vision by one of the precogs, Agatha (Samantha Morton), that differs from the other two - and seeks it out in the hope that it will clear his name.

'Minority Report' is a 'man on the run' thriller with sci-fi trappings; as a thriller, it's excellent, but as sci-fi film, I'm a little mixed. The themes of the film are similar to the original novel, dealing as it does with the concept of free will vs. fate, the morality and logic behind arresting people for crimes they haven't actually committed, and the messy consequences of being able to see the future. The stories are, however, quite different, and in fact the titular minority report doesn't even really come into play in the movie. Both plots involve the mechanics of precognition; I seem to recall the short story's plot being more satisfying, involving multiple potential timelines causing havoc, though I can't honestly remember the details (but I'm certain that it would have been too complex to have a chance of appearing in a mainstream film). In the movie there's a temporal paradox at play, where Anderton is set on the path to potentially commit murder only because he was predicted to do so in the first place. This paradox is an interesting conundrum, but the film doesn't really dwell too much on it. In fact, one of the irritating aspects of the story is how this paradox is essentially brought about by a character (in order to cover up another crime), implying that he understood it well enough to exploit it, yet it is never explained how he did it.

The film does, in the end, address the ethical aspect of arresting people who are destined to commit a crime, albeit only after addressing the free will vs. fate question, which is a bit of a cheat as it changes the rules of the game before committing itself. The ethics of the scenario presented at the start of the film are still somewhat murky and dubious, but then again this is a quite dark and somewhat dystopian future. Also disturbing is the manner in which pre-crime is handled - those arrested are judged beforehand and incarcerated immediately in a facility where they experience hallucinatory visions for the duration of their imprisonment. Other disturbing elements of this future are the complete erosion of civil liberties, the forfeiture of privacy thanks to ubiquitous retinal scanning systems, massive social inequality, and the obnoxious encroachment of advertising into all walks of life. Hang on... did I say the future?

Tom Cruise is fairly good as a man with his back against a wall desperately struggling to stay ahead of his pursuers, though the emotional stuff relating to his son comes across as a little forced. Farrell is great as the cocky and ambitious FBI agent who, despite being an arrogant prick, is damned good at his job. Samantha Morton is the standout as the precog Agatha, seeming completely screwed up in the head but not in that showboating way that gets on your nerves. Max von Sydow is solid as the experienced and dignified mentor figure, while Kathryn Morris is fine as Anderton's wife. Also very memorable is Peter Stormare as an unhinged unlicensed surgeon Anderton turns to to get a new pair of eyes in order to avoid the ubiquitous biometric systems.

Visually the film has a very distinctive, bleak look completely drained of colour that matches the generally dark and sometimes grungy atmosphere of the film and makes it very arresting. At a design level, much of the technology in this future is fantastic, such as the autopilot cars that drive up buildings right to an apartment, the re-usable digital newspapers, the funky computer user interfaces, the holographic display technology, and the virtual reality systems. Sadly, some of it is also kinda silly - like, for instance, the vomit sticks that cause their targets to... vomit. Why would you design something like that? The crawly mechanical spiders that are used in one scene are cool but have a little too much of a cutesy personality to them that rings false. And then there's the flying around on jetpacks that seems to serve no purpose other than to create an admittedly quite entertaining chase scene. That scene actually highlighted one of my beefs with the film - Spielberg's inconsistent tone that mixes a serious thriller atmosphere with jarringly out of place humour that takes you right out of the film. Overall though, the film is well directed and is suspenseful and exciting. The excellent special effects and fairly decent musical score (again, somewhat uneven from John Williams) round out what is a very slick package.

'Minority Report' is a very good film that has a few annoying flaws that almost ruin it for me. I don't like it much, and I think that its sci-fi trappings are often window dressing for a thriller and not integral to the story or all that well thought out, leading to some lapses in logic - a criticism I lay at the feet of the writers, since the film excels in almost every other regard. It's definitely a worthwhile cinematic experience, and judging from other opinions my relatively mixed review is something of a minority report itself (sorry, I couldn't resist).

Friday, February 22, 2008

Galaxy Quest (1999)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Galaxy Quest (1999)

'Galaxy Quest' is the best Star Trek film in years. Ironic since it is actually a reverent spoof of Star Trek, but that's testimony to how poor the Star Trek franchise has been in the last decade or so. It isn't really all that similar to Trek content wise; rather, it manages to pay homage to the sense of adventure and fun of the original series while incorporating all of the distinctive trappings of the Trek universe.

Tim Allen plays Jason Nesmith, an egomaniacal washed up actor who played the Captain on the defunct TV show Galaxy Quest, and who now spends his days attending fan conventions with his fellow former cast members. The other actors - Gwen (Sigourney Weaver), Alexander (Alan Rickman), Fred (Tony Shalhoub), and Tommy (Daryl Mitchell) - are less popular and resent Jason's grandstanding. Things take a bizarre turn when Jason and his 'crew' are mistaken for real space adventurers by a bunch of aliens called Thermians led by one Mathesar (Enrico Colantoni, aka Veronica Mars's dad); they are whisked away to a fully functional recreation of the show's ship to help the Thermians fend off the evil alien Sarris (Robin Sachs) and his marauding ship. The in over their heads actors are revered by the Thermians and this ego stoking spurs them on to help despite being clueless about what they're doing. Hilarious Star Trekking adventure ensues. Also in the mix are Sam Rockwell as a one time bit part character on the show who gets caught up with the main cast and beamed aboard the ship, and Justin Long as a die hard fanboy.

This is simply a wonderful film in every respect, and it's dismal box office performance is a shame, although on the bright side that will probably also prevent any ill advised sequels. The characters, particularly the main 'crew', are sympathetic and appealing; you can't help but cheer for these underdog lovable losers. The story, ludicrous as it is, is engaging from start to finish and the whole thing is fast paced, non stop entertainment. There's a fine balance between character moments and action, and all of it is quite funny and sometimes surprisingly affecting. It spoofs and pokes fun, but always in an affectionate manner. It's feel good in many ways, with the characters going through a journey of self discovery and learning to get along, but avoids being mawkish. The film has loads of atmosphere thanks in large part to the excellent production values and effects - seriously, this looks more like a real space ship and crew than much of modern Star Trek. It also feels much grander, like the dramatic reveal in the scene where the crew first behold their ship in space dock. The aliens also seem more alien than most of the cheap simplistic ridged foreheads that populate the Trek universe. And the space combat and action sequences are thrilling even when they're goofy! The film is a terrific blend of elements that just works, right up to its clever finish that parodies Star Trek TNG.

I quite liked Tim Allen in Home Improvement even though his shtick was repetitive, but everything else he has appeared in is / looks terrible. Except this - Allen is surprisingly good here, both as an arrogant actor and as a starship captain. The always great Alan Rickman is, unsurprisingly, great as the Shakespearian actor reduced to surviving off fan conventions while wearing tacky alien makeup. Sigourney Weaver, under appreciated as a comedic actress, is hilarious and kind of adorable as the dumb blonde whose function on the ship is to repeat what the ship's computer says. And then there's the brilliant Sam Rockwell as the 'extra' living in constant fear that he will die the same way insignificant characters on the show were offed early on "to prove how serious the situation is". Tony Shalhoub is very funny as the dry and seemingly unconcerned engineer. Daryl Mitchell rounds out the primary cast as the former child character all grown up, and he gets to pilot the ship while generally being irate (almost as irate as Rickman's Alexander). The cast really gels together and it feels like they really are bickering old friends - great casting and performances all round. And that's not even mentioning Colantoni, Sachs, Justin Long, Patrick Breen, and Missi Pyle, who all make memorable appearances.

'Galaxy Quest' is a fantastic sci-fi comedy and a must see for anyone who has ever enjoyed Star Trek, particularly the original series. Even for people who haven't experienced Star Trek, I can't see any reason not to recommend it; some of the references may be lost on them, but it stands on its own as a genuinely funny film that has aged very well and should be a comedy for the ages. "As long as there is injustice, whenever a Targathian baby cries out, wherever a distress signal sounds among the stars, we'll be there. This fine ship, this fine crew. Never give up... and never surrender."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Clerks II (2006)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Clerks II (2006)

The follow up to Kevin Smith's breakthrough comedy 'Clerks' is in many ways more of the same but with a bigger budget and more contemporary pop culture references. A decade after the first film, Dante (Brian O'Halloran) and his lifelong buddy Randal (Jeff Anderson) work as clerks at Mooby's, a fast food restaurant, under the supervision of their boss Becky (Rosario Dawson). Dante is finally moving on with his life by marrying a woman named Emma (Jennifer Schwalbach) and moving out of New Jersey to work as a manager with her dad's company. The film takes place during his last day, as he deals with the implications of getting married to a woman who loves him but doesn't understand him while leaving behind his best friend and the woman who does understand him - Becky. Randal, still full of vindictive vitriol, has trouble coping with the imminent departure of his friend. Meanwhile Jay and Silent Bob (Jason Mewes and Kevin Smith) hang out outside Mooby's selling drugs. The drama between these characters plays out against the backdrop of working life at Mooby's, with various customers coming in during the day and being subjected to their antics.

'Clerks II' is a funny film. Visually it looks a far cry from the static camera work of the 94 original (not a criticism per se, it was low budget after all), but it still feels like a natural continuation of that story. It's mostly chuckle worthy but there are some but gusting moments in there as well. And it's definitely as crude and rude as the original. One of the problems with it, though, is that it feels too much like a retread, only with older characters. Twenty something guys living irresponsibly and immersing themselves in pop culture and crude conversations while under pressure to do something with their lives was a premise one could relate to and empathize with. When they're in their thirties, not so much. These guys haven't grown at all as people - they're still doing the same jobs and having the same conversations, and the only change on the horizon is a miraculous out for Dante by way of marriage. As a concept, I think this film needed to be tweaked and changed, because it feels too familiar.

The conclusion of the film is also one I'm mixed about - while it ends with the characters taking on more responsibility, it also ends with them being in a very similar situation, accepting their lot in life. This is portrayed as a happy ending. I can appreciate that conventional notions of happiness - having a well paying, 'important' job - aren't some kind of panacea that everyone should blindly seek, and the film does dare to be different by flagrantly eschewing these notions. BUT, I can't help but be disappointed that the characters haven't really shown any personal growth or maturity either. Is that something to be embraced? Is it OK to strive to be a man-child for your entire life? Should these guys still be talking Star Wars and crude humour and nothing else during their twilight years? I'm not saying they shouldn't talk about them (I probably will be), but aren't they ever going to broaden their horizons and talk about other things as well? Mind you I'm not really criticizing the film for having this perspective, and my feelings towards the ending are purely subjective; in fact, I'd have to say it has given me something to think about!

As a writer and director, Kevin Smith has obviously matured (even if his sense of humour hasn't, which is either a good or bad thing depending on your point of view) since the original and this film is stylistically worlds apart (let's face it, it's hard to say that the first film had any kind of style). The writing feels familiar though, but contemporized to incorporate new fodder for discussion. Still, I don't think it's quite as funny as the original. Also familiar are O'Halloran and Anderson, who are still the not so great actors they were in 1994. This was fine back then, but in this movie they play alongside the terrific Rosario Dawson who is simply in a different league, and they look a bit amateur as a result. Particularly O'Halloran, who has to play off of her in quite a few scenes.

All in all, 'Clerks II' is pretty good and worth watching if you even remotely enjoyed the original. Kevin Smith fans will love it - I think he definitely knows how to please his loyal followers. I had hoped to see something more but am fairly satisfied with the final result. As you may have guessed, I'm not the biggest Kevin Smith fan, but I generally like his movies and I love 'Chasing Amy', which I think is still his best film.

Tech Stuff

There's a brain control headset for gaming. It reads electrical impulses in the brain and can map facial expressions, emotions, and movements of a person directly into a gameworld. Needless to say - awesome! If the success of the Nintendo Wii has taught the gaming industry anything, it's that more intuitive and simple interfaces are the type of things that can lead to more entertaining, accessible, and innovative gameplay (which translates into greater profits, of course). And this type of interface should be just as usable for interaction with any computer system, not just games. This is the stuff of sci-fi come to life people! I for one welcome our new brain scan controller overlords!

There's also another interesting BBC article about the evolution of mobile phones as gaming platforms. Damn, these things are becoming more and more powerful; forget Tetris, we're talking genuine home console level gaming on mobiles. I guess it shouldn't be surprising, seeing how Sony's PSP did something similar by fitting last generation level console gaming into a handheld, but in the more limited and energy conserving form factor of mobiles? I'm impressed - I mean, these things have dedicated 3D graphics chipsets on board! Also cool are the potential interfaces, which include iPhone style touch interfaces and Wii style motion sensitive control systems.

Another (somewhat related) article is this one about how mobile smartphones will soon overtake laptops and become the mobile computer of choice. I have to confess, a few years ago I was one of those smug jackasses who'd sneer with contempt at gadget phones, arguing that there was no use for so much multimedia functionality. Phones should be for calls and texting, I argued. Well I'm eating humble pie, because to be honest the potential is huge and it's amazing what you can now do with these relatively affordable smartphones. They're getting some fairly powerful low energy consumption processors in there (even multicore!) that can match low end laptops in terms of basic functionality and applications both for work and for multimedia, including proper gaming (as above) and high def (720p) video. And this is on top of its use as a digital camera, a GPS device, and of course a phone! Yeah the size and interface are probably big stumbling blocks, but then some of these screens are decent sized and very high res, and there's even potential for a mobile projector. And there's always a roll up keyboard for typing. Even if you're not interested in mobile computing technology, the potential for more compact and energy conserving devices is something to be welcomed, as it will eventually filter through to the rest of the industry.

And finally, how could I not comment on the impending death of HDDVD? Yep, the format war is all but over and Sony and the Blu-Ray camp can rest easy. It's a good thing too, because the lack of a standard would have sucked and killed the possibility of there being a next gen successor to DVD. Actually, there still might not be - DVD is still pretty terrific and the leap from DVD to Blu-Ray is only in terms of picture quality. The leap from VHS to DVD was huge and allowed people to make the most of their existing televisions. Hi-def formats offer no significant new improvements apart from the picture (and sound), which require more expensive equipment to take advantage of in any case. And in the meantime, with ever improving video compression and global bandwidth increases, there's also the possibility that people will simply migrate from DVD to buying (or renting) movies online directly instead of moving en mass to a new disc format. Personally, I think Blu-Ray will take off but will never be as huge as DVD, and I think online video is still a long way off from becoming ubiquitous, simply because the network infrastructure isn't quite there yet and won't be for a while, and because there is no standard for online video distribution on the horizon.

And finally, a little humour to wrap up this post, courtesy of XKCD.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Point Break (1991)

(Image from IMDB)

Point Break (1991)

I'll state right up front that the only reason I watched this movie (and the only reason I watched Bad Boys II) is because of the way it was spoofed in the brilliant Hot Fuzz. It seems that 'Fuzz' is actually much better than both of the two movies it directly pays tribute to. Still, while it pales next to Edgar Wright's brilliant film, 'Point Break' is a fairly decent action movie.

Keanu Reeves plays Johnny Utah (awesome name), a young hotshot FBI Agent just transferred to the bank robbery division. He's partnered with Agent Angelo Pappas (Gary Busey), and together they wind up investigating a bank robber gang called 'The Dead Presidents' that the FBI has been unable to get even a single lead on. Pappas has a theory that the robbers are actually a group of surfers, and so Utah goes undercover to hang out with surfer gangs to try and suss out the criminals despite the protestations of their boss Agent Harp (John C. McGinley). It is here that he meets Tyler (Lori Petty), a woman who teaches him to surf and whom he falls in love with. Through Tyler he meets the charismatic Bodhi (Patrick Swayze), a master surfer who embraces the spiritual aspects of surfing and who sees in Utah a kindred spirit. As Utah and Pappas's (between these two and Bodhi, my 'weird names in the blog' quota has now been met) investigation leads them to a suspicious gang, an 'unexpected' twist throws things for a loop.

As bizarre as that plot sounds, it makes for a fairly entertaining and original film. The twist isn't all that surprising really; even though I knew about it before seeing the film, the way the story plays out it had to work out that way or the narrative focus of the first half of the film would have been somewhat redundant (in a mainstream film, at any rate). The script is quite cheesy and full of not so memorable lines and attempts to appear deep and spiritual on the part of the surfers, but I can forgive that because it's still fun and is never truly bad (plus some of that spiritual stuff ends up looking like hypocrisy in the story itself). There's a lot of diversity in this film in terms of action - surf boarding, sky diving, a thrilling foot chase in and around houses, bank robberies, shootouts - and director Kathryn Bigelow handles them all quite skillfully. And yes, I did bust a gut when the 'firing your gun in the air and yelling AAAAAAAH' scene came up! *BANG* *BANG* *BANG* AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHH!

Reeves is miscast in this role and is completely unconvincing, and some of his line deliveries are hilarious - "I AM AN F--B--I--AGENT!". He just seems too similar to his Bill and Ted persona playing at an FBI agent, and not like the persona that worked so well in Speed. Patrick Swayze is great as the enigmatic Bodhi, and it's easy to see how the Utah character gets caught up in his aura. As supporting cast, Lori Petty makes for an appealing love interest and Gary Busey is fairly goofy and effective as Utah's veteran partner (though it's kinda weird seeing him as a good guy). John C. McGinley - aka Dr. Cox from Scrubs - is a hoot as Utah's boss, and I wish there had been more of him. He gets some great snide, verbose lines, and anyone who's seen Scrubs knows how great McGinley is at unleashing that kind of material!

'Point Break' is a fairly enjoyable two hours with some very good action sequences. It's not brilliant, but it's not mediocre either. Good, but not great. There's extra entertainment value for fans of 'Hot Fuzz'.

Monday, February 18, 2008

West Bank Story (2005)

(Image from IMDB)

West Bank Story (2005)

'West Bank Story' is a charming and quite clever musical short film that spoofs West Side Story, only set in the West Bank. It tell of how a Palestinian woman, Fatima (Noureen DeWulf), who works in a Palestinian fast food falafel restaurant falls in love with David (Ben Newmark), an Israeli soldier stationed in the West Bank. Naturally the animosity between the Palestinians and the Israelis, here symbolized by the competition and resentment that exists between Fatima's restaurant and a competing Israeli restaurant next door, keeps the two apart. At a mere 21 minutes the film surprisingly crams in quite a bit - including a few musical numbers - while acting as a light hearted satire of the irrational unwillingness of the two sides to resolve differences through dialogue and compromise. The film is very slick and a touch unsubtle, but it's meant to be an overt lighthearted comedy, so I can't really hold that against it. Overall it's quite good and worth the small investment in time.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

(Image from IMDB)

Look, Up in the Sky: The Amazing Story of Superman (2006)

I haven't got much to say about this, really. It's a fairly informative and seemingly thorough but somewhat dry and ultimately unremarkable documentary about the history of Superman. Released at around the time of 'Superman Returns', it is obviously a tie-in for that film and is narrated by one of its stars, Kevin Spacey. Starting with the origins of the character in the 1930s, it chronicles his various incarnations in media, from the comics through to radio shows, cartoons, TV series, and movies, while also portraying the character and stories as a modern myth that stays relevant by adapting to the social climate of the day. There's plenty of interesting little nuggets, and some downright embarrassing stuff from the character's past. Many people related to the various incarnations of Superman are interviewed; for obvious reasons these tend to be people from Superman's more recent history. One of the disappointing aspects is that many key players fail to make an appearance - I can understand an elder statesman like Gene Hackman not showing up, but Tom Welling seriously had better things to do? All in all, this would have made for a fine extra on the Superman Returns DVD, but doesn't really warrant a separate release.

Evil Incarnate

The BBC has interviewed George W. Bush, and it is very revealing indeed.

The full transcript is worth a read, as it highlights not only how terrible a speaker Bush is (I've read a fair few transcripts in my day, and this one is downright painful to read) but also the level of cognitive dissonance he maintains. He dodges questions, squirms for answers, and contradicts himself with frightening regularity.

Some choice excerpts (emphasis mine):
And you have committed troops - American troops around the world in other cases throughout... Afghanistan. Why not in this case?.

Mr Bush: Well, that's a good question. I mean, we're committing equipment, you know? Training, help, movement. I think a lot of the folks who are concerned about America into another Muslim country. Some of the relief groups here just didn't think the strategy would be as effective as it was. I mean, actually, believe it or not, listen to people's opinions. And chose to make this decision. It's a decision that I'm now living with. And it's a decision that requires us to continue to rally the conscience of the world and get people to focus on the issue. You know, you're right. I mean, we sent marines into Liberia, for example, to help stabilise the country there. And Liberia's on my itinerary where I'll meet with the first woman, you know, elected president in Africa - history. And - but, I just made the decision I made.

Lot of conviction in that response.

See, I happen to believe we're in an ideological struggle. And, those who murder the innocent to achieve political objectives are evil people.

Ooh, the irony.

Religious beliefs are... you know, the only religious belief you can hold is the one we tell you. And, oh, by the way, it's great. You can be a suicider. Well, hopeless people are the ones who get attracted by that point of view. And, therefore, it's in the world's interest from a national security perspective to deal with hopelessness.

Which is why he created a black hole of hopelessness in Iraq.

I think... when history marches on, there will be a little more objective look about the totality of this administration.

And he expects this to make his administration look BETTER in the future?

And I'm happy with Iraq. The... decision to move Saddam Hussein was right. And this democracy is now taking root. And I'm confident that if America does not become isolationist - you know, and allow the terrorists to take back over - Iraq will succeed.

To take back over? Amusing, seeing as how they only got in there after the invasion.

The Senate yesterday passed a bill outlawing water-boarding. You, I believe, have said that you will veto that bill.

Mr Bush: No, look... that's not the reason I'm vetoing the bill. The reason I'm vetoing the bill - first of all, we have said that whatever we do... will be legal. Secondly, they are imposing a set of standards on our intelligence communities in terms of interrogating prisoners that our people will think will be ineffective. And, you know, to the critics, I ask them this: when we, within the law, interrogate and get information that protects ourselves and possibly others in other nations to prevent attacks, which attack would they have hoped that we wouldn't have prevented?

My head is spinning. Huh? Also amusing is how the question is about how Bush is trying to prevent a law from being put into place, but he goes on about how they will act within the law. Of course you will, when the law is shaped the way you want it!

We're having a debate in America on whether or not we ought to be listening' to terrorists making' phone calls in the United States. And the answer is darn right we ought to be.

Yeah, way to tear down a strawman. Or maybe the real debate was about warrantless surveillance and providing telcos immunity for illegally handing over information to the government. Maybe it was about judicial oversight and checks and balances? MMMKAAAY?

Frei: But, given Guantanamo Bay, given also Abu Ghraib, given renditions, does this not send the wrong signal to the world?

Mr Bush: It should send a signal that America is going to respect law.


We're a nation of law. Take Guantanamo.


Frei: Can you honestly say, Mr President, that today America still occupies the moral high ground?

Mr Bush: Absolutely - absolutely. We believe in human rights and human dignity. We believe in the human condition.

Yeah. Take Guantanamo. Rendition. Iraq.

I happen to believe free societies provide hope.

Which is why you're busy taking away freedoms from your own people?

Could Monty Python have provided a more ludicrous scripted interview? I doubt it. Reading this seriously pissed me off. Reading some of the associated comments from readers where so many people defend the man makes me think mankind deserves him.

Videos du jour

I don't normally embed videos on this blog, but I'm going to make an exception this time (might become a habit, actually).

First up, I was reminded about Neil LaBute - by most accounts a good film director and an even better misogynist - while reading about his film In the Company of Men. This led to me perusing his IMDB profile, where I was also reminded that he directed the Nicolas Cage 2006 remake of creepy and weird 70s horror flick The Wicker Man. Now, I haven't seen the Wicker Man remake, but I have seen this hilarious Youtube video, "Best Scenes from The Wicker Man". If you've never seen a man in a bear costume bitch slap someone, then you need to see this clip. MAJOR SPOILERS for the Wicker Man, btw, but if you give a damn about that fact, you need to go see a doctor ASAP.

I've posted about this clip before, over a year ago, but it never gets old!

Next up is the just released trailer for one of the most anticipated films of the year, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

There are links to high quality versions at Dave's Trailer Page. There are a couple of things I don't like about the trailer - Indy's quip when he falls onto the truck feels off, and some of the effects look wonky (including, bizarrely, Ray Winstone's pants) - but overall it's pretty cool and looks old school with modern effects (kinda like Jackson's King Kong - there's even a cliffside scene in this trailer that looks reminiscent of Kong). And I can't deny that when that iconic Indy theme music kicks in, I get a little excited at the prospect of there being a new Indiana Jones movie. Oh, and Evil Commie Cate Blanchett? Awesome.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Species (1995)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Species (1995)

Mankind receives signals from outer space that give instructions for creating a new life form. A bunch of scientists (led by one played by Ben Kingsley) foolishly grow this life form in a lab (as we all know, scientists are dumb and repeatedly wreak havoc on mankind), which promptly escapes, grows rapidly from a child into a gorgeous woman (Natasha Henstridge), and looks for a man to mate with. A team of other scientists (Alfred Molina, Forest Whitaker, Marg Helgenberger) and one 'hunter' type guy (Michael Madsen) and a bunch of armed men who are never around when they're really needed try to track her down and kill her, because she is actually a lethal monster seemingly sent to wipe out the human race.

This movie is awful, plain and simple. It's idiotic; if the plot summary doesn't sound dumb enough, pretty much every scene is defined by stupidity. The 'scientists' who help track the creature, named Sil, are almost comically clairvoyant with their intuition of how the alien behaves. Except for the one guy who is actually clairvoyant (Whitaker). Well sort of - he is an empath who can feel people's emotions off of a VHS tape at the start of the film, but his powers seem to degrade from there on in and are mostly useless. The investigation proceeds in an idiotic manner - at one point they learn that Sil has checked into a motel and when they get there they find that she has gone out 'looking for a man'. Instead of setting a trap for her, they surround the place with police cars and make a lot of noise, and predictably enough, when she gets back she sees the commotion and avoids the place. And then there's the logic behind the team composition - why would one guy with a handgun and a bunch of inept civilians be at the vanguard of this hunt? The military guys are never around. It's asinine. It doesn't help that Madsen looks bored and wasted, and grips his gun with all the conviction of a child playing cops and robbers.

There are some talented actors in this mess, but they are wasted and saddled with inane dialogue. Molina, Whitaker, Kingsley, all wasted. Kingsley in particular seems to be an actor with no shame (as some of his recent acting choices prove), and he really hams it up here with a jarringly fake American accent. Natasha Henstridge came to fame with this film, and it's easy to see why. She's actually quite good in the role, which requires appearing naive and looking good. And boy, does she look good. She's stunning. And naked. And stunningly naked. It beggars belief that she has that much trouble finding a man to have sex with. It's like Bizarro World or something.

'Species' is a limp, lifeless film, that looks cheap and ugly and features some laughable effects. There are two memorable things in this film. One is Natasha Henstridge. Naked. The other, I kid you not, is nipple tentacles. Seriously, these suckers have to be seen to be believed. I almost choked on my pretzel when they were whipped out! It's a health hazard, that scene is! Oh, by the way, the IMDB Plot keywords for this film are: "Assassin / Cocoon / Killing / Male Rape / Merciless". Chew on that! Needless to say, avoid this if you have taste. Even if you are a fan of nudity, merciless male rape and cocoons.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Anonymous is for real

I saw this video recently where a group called 'Anonymous' claimed that they would destroy the Church of Scientology - that pseudo religious cult that seems way more evil and harmful than regular religions. I thought this was just a practical joke of sorts, but it turns out that these guys mean business. This Newsweek article offers some insight into the group (warning: there's a picture of Mad Tom Cruise in the article that may be harmful to your psyche), which has apparently been around for a few years and has a membership numbering in the thousands. And yesterday the groups members took to the streets in front of various Scientology centres around the world in peaceful protest. The BBC article's photos indicates that the protesters wore Guy Fawkes masks to protect their identities, creating a scene somewhat reminiscent of the climax of the excellent 'V for Vendetta'. Intriguing. It seems that 'Anonymous' started off their campaign last month with some illegal activities against Scientology but have now shifted to more civilized methods. I don't know if any of this will be effective, but I hope they succeed with their goals. And stick to legal activities.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

(Image from Imp Awards)

(Image from Imp Awards)

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) & The Matrix Revolutions (2003)

This follows on directly from my 'Matrix' review, and I'm going to do both sequels in one go because there's so much that the two sequels have in common that set them apart from their classic progenitor. And much of that is decidedly not good.

The story in a nutshell - it's been several months since the defeat of Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and Neo (Keanu Reeves) and the resistance have freed many minds. In retaliation, the machines are preparing for a full on assault on the underground city of the free humans, Zion. The head of Zion's armed forces, Commander Lock (Harry Lennix), believes in using military might to defend the city. Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) however believes in the prophecy of 'The One' and seeks to invest resources in aiding Neo in his quest. He, Neo, Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) and their new annoying crew mate Link (Harold 'WAAAAAAAALT' Perrineau) seek the help of the Oracle (Gloria Foster) to determine how to save Zion. This leads them on a quest to meet the enigmatic Merovingian (Lambert Wilson) and his stunning wife Persephone (Monica Belucci) and free the 'Keymaker' (Randall Duk Kim). Meanwhile Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) is back, and he's more powerful than ever - he can seemingly replicate himself into anyone within the Matrix and can't be stopped by even the likes of Neo. All of that describes 'Reloaded'; the final film, 'Revolutions', takes place mostly outside of the Matrix and splits the story up between the defense of Zion and the journey of Neo and Trinity to the Machine City.

The one thing these films had going against them from the get go was the lack of the element of surprise; the original came out of nowhere. One could even argue that the lukewarm response they received was partially attributable to this fact. One would, I believe (by the way, this phrase - 'I believe' - is uttered a ridiculous number of times in 'Reloaded'. There's a lot of believing going on in Zion), be wrong. Time and distance have revealed these sequels to be, while not bad movies per se, certainly monumental failures with respect to the film they were following.

The first major stumbling block is the story, or rather the lack of it. It's slight and it flows with all the elegance of a video game, going from one action sequence to another, only broken up by cutscenes of exposition that give the protagonists instructions on how to get to the next action sequence. Speaking of exposition... Now, I'm not the type to complain about philosophical concepts like determinism and nihilism being explored in film, which is what these films - 'Reloaded' at any rate - do. But, while these discussions are certainly interesting as they are presented in the film, they are grafted onto proceedings so inelegantly that the end result is like major plastic surgery gone awry, with chunks of incongruous material all over the place. 'Revolutions' doesn't have this problem though - when it comes to the final film, it's one big extended climax that doesn't adequately address much of what came before. The storyline of these sequels isn't unsatisfying; it's just that when you're expecting a nice juicy steak and you end up with a Big Mac instead, you're bound to be disappointed (or not, if you're a McDonald's fetishist).

Then there's the characters - they just don't seem alive anymore. They're like avatars being guided by a plot that they themselves aren't all that interested in, spouting embarrassing and portentous dialogue as they go. What's worse is the relegation of the main characters as bland, cliched ones that we don't give a damn about take centre stage, a particularly noticeable problem during the big battle sequence in 'Revolutions'. The biggest character mess up on the part of the Wachowski's is Morpheus, who goes from being the series' Gandalf to the series'.... I dunno, I guess there's no equivalent to his vapid character in 'Reloaded' or his hollow husk of a man in 'Revolutions'.

Another big problem is the 'more is better' attitude embraced by the filmmakers. More action, more bullet time, more grandstanding, and all of it bigger than before. There's a point where it becomes too much, especially when you begin to feel that the films are trying way too hard and are seemingly aware of their own status as pop culture icons. The coolness is too forced. Where the original had cool moments that became iconic, these films seem to be going for iconic at every turn and failing more often than not. The action scenes are overlong, aren't engaging, and don't feel organic and integrated with the story. The fights lack any sense of danger as well, and often look more like dancing than life or death combat. And some of the effects work here is awful, with CGI characters sticking out like a sore thumb, particularly in the 'Burly Brawl' featuring Neo fighting a multitude of Agent Smiths. 'Reloaded' is the biggest offender with regard to most of these criticisms, with 'Revolutions' being marginally better, particularly when it comes to the effects - the final assault on Zion is dumb as hell (those mechs should have been swatted aside in minutes), but it sure looks spectacular! In terms of production values, everything certainly looks good if a little too green and a little too 'product placement' and 'designer'. One area where the film is as strong as what came before is its score, with Don Davis providing some very effective musical cues in both sequels.

If there's one guy in this cast who comes out on top, it's Hugo Weaving. The man's a champion, make no mistake. If there's one character who seems alive and spontaneous and makes proceedings engaging, it's Agent Smith, and I think Weaving is a big part of the reason the character works so well. Every moment he's on screen is pure fried gold. Also worth noting is Ian Bliss, who does a fantastic impression of Smith in 'Revolutions' when his character's body is taken over by him. Keanu is fine in a role that requires perfect stoicism and an aura of self assurance. There are also moments of doubt that crop up - every messiah has this problem - and Reeves is quite adept at handling those scenes as well. Laurence Fishburne, sadly, gets carried away with his regal shtick to such an extent that it gets annoying. There's no humanity in the performance, just a smug 'I'm Morpheus, bitch!' attitude that comes crashing to earth at a certain point and leaves him looking blank for much of 'Revolutions'. Carrie-Anne Moss is actually pretty great in both films and it's a shame she's given relatively little to do in them. Lambert Wilson and Monica Bellucci make memorable appearances in their minor supporting roles. Gloria Foster and Mary Alice are also quite good as the two incarnations of the Oracle, and Helmut Bakaitis is just plain groovy as the Architect / Colonel Sanders (it's a lame joke, but it's so true!). The rest of the cast range from mediocre to terrible, and aren't worth mentioning.

At the end of the day despite what appears to be a torrent of negativity in what I've written, I'd say that these films are decent, even good perhaps. They are, for the most part, well made and they are certainly far from vapid. They engage the old gray matter, no doubt. And they are often exciting, thrilling, and spectacular. But there are, as I've written, many things wrong with them. The best way I can describe these films is that they are like 'The Matrix', only bigger, bloated, less assured, and made with a touch of hubris and too many resources to play with. They want to tell a story but get too caught up in tangential ideas, being cool, and topping everything that has come before while paying tribute to it at the same time. They are an example of what can happen when talented people are given free reign and are riding a wave of good will and credibility - said people can get carried away. I enjoyed watching 'The Matrix Reloaded' and 'The Matrix Revolutions' and would even recommend them to some degree, but I don't feel the need to revisit them. For me, the story of 'The Matrix' ends with Neo launching himself into the air at the end of the first film with a new perspective of the world, one where anything is possible. What happens next, well... that's left to the imagination.

Monday, February 11, 2008

People who break your stuff

Maybe I'm overly cautious, or maybe I'm just an asshole (probably both), but I tend not to lend stuff to people. And by stuff I mean stuff that can be easily broken or damaged... like DVDs. I'll admit it, sometimes I even lie about having stuff that people might want to borrow. Why, you might ask? Experience tells me that, apart from a few who are reliable and trusted, most people that borrow your stuff act like it's some freebie piece of junk they can use to play fetch with their dog. Or do something even more destructive with. I've had stuff of mine never returned or returned in an unusable state more often than I care to remember.

What I hate even more than getting something back like this are the lame excuses people come up with. I once lent a 'friend' a CD many years ago, which he returned in a really bad state - the thing was scratched like it had been taken back to medieval times and used as a shield in a jousting tournament. Needless to say, it didn't work anymore. My buddy was nonchalant and said it wasn't his fault as he had lent it to his cousin, who was probably the guilty party. His cousin! Well that made everything better, didn't it? Because when I lent it to him, I obviously meant for him to integrate it into his personal lending library! I guess it's a more original reply than the usual 'it must have been like that when you gave it to me' routine. Then there was that time someone ERASED over my VHS copy of Street Fighter the Movie - is there no decency???

Is it really that hard to not destroy things that other people have trustingly given you under the assumption that you won't treat it like you'd treat a Jar Jar Binks fan at a Star Wars convention? What the hell is up with people? I tend to be organized and take care of my stuff without tossing them here and there; I take even better care of things I've borrowed, because whoever gave it to me was doing me a favour, and it's the least I can do to repay their generosity.

So as a result of these bad experiences, these days I'm more miserly than I used to be. Whenever I do lend something to someone, I always make it explicit that I expect it back in good condition, meaning I don't expect the borrower to give it to their retarded brother-in-law to use as a teething instrument.

Yeah, I just needed to rant.

Friday, February 08, 2008

The Matrix (1999)

(Image from Imp Awards)

The Matrix (1999)

'The Matrix' snuck up on me back in 1999 - as it surely snuck up on a lot of other people as well - when everyone was still anticipating the forthcoming disappointment that was 'The Phantom Menace'. Written and directed by the virtually unknown Wachowski Brothers and produced by action movie veteran Joel Silver, 'The Matrix' was a phenomenal surprise, a mishmash of genres rolled together in a brilliant package. Immediately after seeing it I wondered if Lucas's Star Wars prequel could possibly top it, and I wasn't at all surprised when it didn't. It had been several years since I had last visited 'The Matrix' (I hadn't watched it since seeing 'The Matrix Revolutions'), and while loading the DVD I wondered how the movie would hold up nearly a decade since its release and with the baggage of two inferior follow ups.

The film begins with a bang. A woman named Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) is chased by a group of business suit clad 'Agents', led by an Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving), and a group of policemen. Trinity and the agents exhibit superhuman powers during the chase, which ends with her just barely making her escape. The Agents learn that she has been monitoring a man named Thomas 'Neo' Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a nondescript computer programmer who engages in illegal computer activities. Neo has been in search of the answer to a seemingly profound question that is haunting him - "what is the Matrix?" - and he believes that a man named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), a terrorist whom Trinity works with, may have the answer. Agent Smith gets to Neo first and tries to co-opt him into helping them catch Morpheus, but being somewhat rebellious by nature he refuses.

Spoilers follow! Neo eventually meets Morpheus, who lays on him a revelation - the world as they know it isn't real, but is in fact a computer simulation called the Matrix, and mankind is an oblivious slave race to machines. Neo is freed from the Matrix and discovers that the real world is a post apocalyptic wasteland. Morpheus is actually the captain of a rebel ship that forms part of the human resistance, people who have been disconnected from the Matrix and are fighting against the machines to free mankind. Neo learns that he may be 'the One', a man prophesied to help the resistance defeat the machines. Within the Matrix (which the freed humans can still enter using their 'pirate signal'), through willpower and a heightened awareness, it is possible for freed minds to bend the rules and exhibit superhuman powers; the 'One' is believed to be able to manipulate the Matrix itself. Neo's training for his role as 'the One' begins, and it involves learning a lot of martial arts and getting to grips with how the Matrix works. Meanwhile the tenacious Agent Smith, who is actually an AI computer programme in the Matrix, continues to try and ensnare Morpheus and destroy the rebel humans, and with the help of a traitor in Morpheus's crew sets major events in motion.

Many of the conceits in 'The Matrix' are not exactly original, but they are presented in such an engaging manner that they feel fresh. The sci-fi concept of an artificial world is both amazing and ludicrous, but the Wachowskis present it with such an assured hand and with such clarity that it's very easy to accept. The script is quite exemplary in how it lays the groundwork with tantalizing hints as to what is really going on by revealing it layer by layer while wrapping the mystery around the classic 'hero's journey' character arc that Neo follows. It's also notable for featuring some exceedingly quotable dialogue. It dabbles with weighty ideas relating to religion and messianic prophecy, fate vs free will, the perception of reality, liberty, and the nature of mankind. None of these elements come across as didactic though; they're interwoven into the story, and the film can be enjoyed purely as a sci-fi action thriller. The story is structured and paced incredibly well, with the mystery and buildup paying off fairly early and leading to some thrilling action sequences towards the climax. If there's a complaint to be made about the script, I'd say that there isn't much emotional depth in it and the characters are very archetypal, but to be honest that fits in perfectly with the tone and subject matter of the film, which is very cyberpunk in that it is dark and heavy on plot and technological milieu.

Keanu Reeves surprised a lot of people by being perfect in the role of Neo, but I think it was a spot on piece of casting more than anything else. He's not a bad actor but I think he has a limited range in which he can excel. As Neo, Reeves embodies the right mix of naiveté and curiosity; he begins as a blank slate but gains understanding and confidence as his journey progresses. Reeves also impresses with his physical performance, particularly in the martial arts sequences. Laurence Fishburne is also great as Morpheus, regal and sagely but also imposing and convincing as a badass warrior. He is saddled with a lot of exposition, and his dulcet voice is used to good effect to makes those scenes flow. Carrie-Anne Moss is as cool as Morpheus and possibly even more badass physically, full of graceful movement and iconic poses, but in addition to the action stuff she is also effective at being the most empathetic character in Morpheus's crew. Then there's Joe Pantaliano as Cypher, one of Morpheus's crew, a cynical and somewhat weaselly individual who is more pragmatic and skeptical, and is thus less awed by Neo and Morpheus than everyone else on board the ship. Last but by no means least is Hugo Weaving, who absolutely steals the show as the AI Agent Smith. Not only is he fantastic in the action scenes (economical and brutal with his movements), but his portrayal of Smith as a being who is at the end of his tether and absolutely pissed off with his situation is simply brilliant. His mannered line delivery, mechanical but full of menace, is iconic.

Then there's the film's visual style that is quite eclectic. It's part traditional epic sci-fi with computers, hover-ships, and a post apocalyptic wasteland; then there's the surreal imagery with squid like robots and fields of humans in pods; within the Matrix we get visual distortions and people flying around and the camera slipping into slow motion, the effect everyone now knows as 'bullet time'; and of course, a lot of the visuals are framed and play out like panels straight out of a comic book. Amazingly, all of these disparate elements gel together. The action set pieces are stunning, visually inventive, exciting, and yes, iconic. Who can forget the lobby shootout, the dojo sparring scene, the subway fight, and the spectacular helicopter rescue? The Wachowski's also handle the thriller / mystery aspects extremely well, drawing you in and keeping you in suspense. Despite the exposition heavy nature of some scenes, they make full use of the 'Matrix' conceit to show as well as tell. Nearly every scene in the film is superbly realized, and everything is in service of the story or the characters. Even the sparingly used humour works, as do the moments that are cool in a blatantly contrived way.

The design work on the film is fantastic, and despite the wide range of elements being incorporated there isn't a weak link in the bunch. Morpheus's ship, the wonderfully animated organic looking 'squiddies', the rectilinear and cold look within the Matrix and the more organic look outside of it, and the spot on classic (if perhaps impractical) costumes, all of it is stellar. I don't know if the 'bullet time' effect is all that original, but it is used with restraint and is incredibly effective in conveying the unreality of the Matrix and the hyper speed movements of the characters (which are, counter-intuitively shown in slow motion to allow us to follow the action). The rest of the effects are often forgotten, but there's a lot of other near seamless effects work in this film that is worthy of praise. The martial arts heavy fight scenes, performed mainly by the actual cast and not doubles, may not impress martial arts aficionados but there is a certain grandeur to them that makes them unforgettable. While much of it was broadly conceived by the Wachowskis, credit should go to choreographer Yuen Wo Ping for bringing them to life so memorably. And finally, there's the soundtrack - Don Davis' original score makes for a terrific accompaniment to the film, but the soundtrack also features some excellent and complementary musical selections.

'The Matrix' is a classic, there's no doubt about it. It made a massive impact on filmed entertainment and popular culture (for better or worse), and while the franchise as a whole may have squandered the goodwill generated by it thanks to the not so good sequels, the original film still stands alone as something special. I'm happy to say that this film is now well and truly secure in my list of favourite movies, and I don't see it ever being nudged out of it. Anyone who has had the stamina to read this far will realize that I've expended more words on this review than I usually do, because I guess I can't help but wax lyrical about this film.

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Pi (1998)

(Image from IMDB)

Pi (1998)

Darren Aronofsky's first film (and he has only made three so far in a ten year span) is an interesting indie film. Shot in black and white, it tells the story of a mathematical genius named Maximillian Cohen (Sean Gullette) who notices numerical patterns everywhere in the world. He works with a homemade supercomputer in his apartment to try and find a pattern in the stock market. Max is also beset with a mental condition that causes him to hallucinate and blackout - this condition is intrinsically linked to his mathematical prowess. Max works in isolation, but he is friends with his old mentor Sol (Mark Margolis), and is often engaged in conversation by his curious neighbours. He also draws the attention of a Jewish sect and a Wall Street firm who are interested in his research. When his work leads him to a mysterious 216 digit number, he realizes that he has stumbled upon something big, something other people are desperate to acquire. Is the number something holy, or something fundamental in the Universe? Max's paranoia takes over as his severe blackouts and hallucinations continue, blurring the lines between reality and imagination.

It sounds really interesting, and it is at many levels, but I just didn't find myself getting into it all that much. Which is weird, because my own synopsis makes it sound like something I'd be completely into. It's a good film, very stylishly put together by Arronofsky, utilizing some visual tricks he would put to equally good use on his follow up film, the brilliant Requiem for a Dream. The harsh black and white photography is distinctive and gives the film a weightier feel. And Clint Mansell's music is, as always, phenomenal and in tune with the story - I may not want to own the soundtrack, but it's great and fitting music. The film is well made; it takes an interesting setup and weaves an often surreal tale that focuses on an obsession and an unraveling mind while drawing upon ideas relating to mathematics and its significance. Most of the performances are merely adequate, but star Gullette is a standout with his frightening (though strangely unsympathetic - or maybe I'm just cold hearted) portrayal of a tortured but brilliant mind.

'Pi' is worth seeing. Even though I didn't particularly enjoy it, I can't really highlight any serious flaws with it. I guess it's just one of those things where the cumulative effect of the film's constituent elements just doesn't work for me. It might for others though, and I always recommend decent indie films because inferior mainstream crap gets seen way too often; films like this deserve a larger slice of the viewership pie.

Tuesday, February 05, 2008

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

(Image from Imp Awards)

The Last Boy Scout (1991)

From writer Shane Black (whose script for this sold for a then record breaking $1 million) and director Tony Scott comes 'The Last Boy Scout', an action extravaganza that's full of violence and cool, laconic dialogue. Joe Hallenbeck (Bruce Willis) is a washed up detective eking out a living for himself and his estranged wife and daughter. Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans) is a washed up former football player whose stripper girlfriend Cory (Halle Berry) is killed while under the protection of Hallenbeck. Even though they realize that Cory was involved in something big and therefore dangerous, Joe and Jimmy team up to bring her killers to justice and get caught up in a plot involving a powerful sports mogul and a corrupt politician who are protected by a variety of gun wielding hoodlums. Also along for the ride is Joe's pre-teen daughter Darian (Danielle Harris), whose sharp tongue attempts to provide some comic relief.

'The Last Boy Scout' is a fun if unremarkable action film. The story is fairly run of the mill with the sports angle being the unique element, but to be honest it doesn't really add too much to the story. The writing leans heavily towards the comedic, with the heroes having an ironic sense of detachment towards events; they walk around as if they know they're in an action movie. This leads to some hilarious lines and moments, but also virtually eliminates any sense of danger. Hallenback is in effect invincible, and Willis plays him with his trademark insouciant swagger. Wayans is surprisingly watchable and entertaining as the relatively serious sidekick. Danielle Harris is fairly irritating as the little girl, and her presence really hampers the last half of the film. The rest of the cast - ranging from an irate police chief to sneering thugs through to the big bad villains - are run of the mill.

The biggest surprise for me was how unspectacular the action sequences were - they too have the dsame etached air of the protagonists, with shootouts simply taking place with no tension or sense of danger. And some of the shootout scenes are simply poorly done, with the action becoming chaotic and incoherent.

I wouldn't really recommend this except for action movie buffs or movie completists like me. While it's fairly entertaining and reasonably well made, only its humorous script is above average. Worth a watch if there's nothing better on TV perhaps, but not worth tracking down.

Monday, February 04, 2008

Torchwood - Season 1 (2006-2007)

(Image from Imp Awards)

Torchwood - Season 1 (2006-2007)

Man, this is a surprise. I do not like this show. In fact, I borderline detest it. Going in I was expecting to at least marginally enjoy it, but it proceeded to sucker-punch me in the solar plexus at regular intervals. 'Torchwood' is a spinoff from Doctor Who, which I love, that was set up with little subtlety in the latter show's second season. It's about the Cardiff branch of the super secret Torchwood Institute (though everyone seems to know about them and they make little effort to be secret) which is assigned to keep watch over a temporal rift in the area that is causing all sorts of weird things to happen. Their mission also involves collecting and cataloguing various alien artifacts for use in helping to defend the Earth against future alien threats.

'Torchwood' doesn't seem to know what kind of show it is. It tries to be serious and edgy - ooh, swearing and sex! - but at the same time it is utterly nonsensical. Doctor Who can get away with his lack of accountability because he's a wanderer who meddles like a kid in a toy store. These guys are in an overtly more serious show, yet they get away with being a team of incompetent, selfish eggheads who keep screwing up in dramatic fashion! Seriously, other shows have done incompetent and foolish character behaviour (Galactica), but they made their characters believable and human, and made the audience understand said behaviour. And, those characters usually had to account for what they did - their actions had consequences. Torchwood arrogantly run all over the place announcing themselves to all and sundry, they usually fail to fix any problems without causing a massive mess, and they quite often cause problems themselves.

The fact that the characters are unlikable and have few redeeming traits exacerbates things. Only the somewhat tortured main character, Jack Harkness, played by Tom Cruise-alike John Barrowman, is worth giving a damn about, and that's largely thanks to Barrowman's endearing performance (though he's not as much fun as he was in Dr. Who). The other semi-likable character, Gwen (Eve Myles), loses her charm a few episodes in. There are a few standout episodes in there, but for the most part the plots and writing are run of the mill. I can't recall ever feeling amazed or awed or gleeful during the adventures that take place with this morose bunch. Yeah, it ain't meant to be Dr. Who, but if it ain't, what is it meant to be? Without the playful nature of its progenitor, the plots and sci-fi concepts are shaky and just don't work in a more serious setting.

And while ostensibly serious, the show rarely attains the dramatic depth of 'Who' with any consistency either. While I can appreciate the frank and open approach to sexuality (although, why is it that virtually everyone is bisexual?), the show seems to be going more for shock value and titillation than trying to say anything meaningful. The production values are on a par with 'Who', which also isn't a plus point for a more serious show. And apart from Barrowman, the rest of the performances are merely adequate; they are just about effective in portraying the complete lack of professionalism and competence of these characters without an ounce of charm or vitality. They don't even look that cool walking in slow motion towards the camera, which they do quite a bit (seriously).

'Torchwood' is watchable and is often entertaining and even moving at times, and I would say that overall it is decent. The cynical and darker aspects of the show are noteworthy, with characters often behaving against convention and stereotype and often immorally (although such perspectives are relative!), but those elements still feel forced and don't really elevate the show by much. I'm not sure what I was expecting out of this show apart from hoping that it would be inventive, well written, and well acted (which it generally isn't). I'm certain of one thing though; what Torchwood finally turned out to be isn't all that satisfying. Even putting aside my own general dislike of what it is, I don't feel that it's particularly well made. In short, unlike Doctor Who, Torchwood isn't very good at being the type of show that it sets out to be. Perhaps it can improve in future, but I can't imagine ever liking this sorry bunch of characters.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Outdoor Education

And by Outdoor Education I mean stuff like Outward Bound, which a lot of people have heard of. Having recently gone on such a programme, I can attest that it was indeed a ton of fun and lived up to expectations. The one I participated in involved a few team based activities on the ground - crossing a bunch of barrels and getting the team through a 'web' - that were followed by the fun stuff that involved strapping on a safety harness and performing activities a fair few feet above ground. Like crossing a stream on an elevated metal wire, or climbing a fairly high pole.

You end up doing stuff you wouldn't have imagined doing; granted, there is a safety wire, but truth be told until you experience the safety wire in action and realize that you're perfectly safe, it's still unnerving. After the first fall (actually, hardly anyone ever falls, but some events require that you be lowered with the safety wire), you gain enough confidence to move without constantly wondering what it feels like to fall from 20 feet up. The amazing thing is how virtually everyone ends up participating, even the people you would have doubted at the outset (like the relatively old or obese).

As for the educational aspect of it, yeah there's a bunch of stuff about how important teamwork is and the usual yadda yadda. Honestly though, the team building that takes place is not that much different from what happens when you play a sport. It's a load of fun and I guess you bond with your co-workers to an extent. As to how far it goes towards improving team work and work flow at the office... I remain to be convinced. A worthwhile experience though, leeches, stumbling around in the dark, fumbling around inside a tent, and all. Maybe for some groups it ends up having a long term effect on their work environments, and is genuinely 'educational'; for me, it was a perk, and a fairly good one at that.