Monday, April 28, 2008

Staving off Gattaca

"My father was right. It didn't matter how much I lied on my resume. My real resume was in my cells. Why should anybody invest all that money to train me when there were a thousand other applicants with a far cleaner profile? Of course, it's illegal to discriminate, 'genoism' it's called. But no one takes the law seriously. If you refuse to disclose, they can always take a sample from a door handle or a handshake, even the saliva on your application form. If in doubt, a legal drug test can just as easily become an illegal peek at your future in the company." - Vincent Freeman (Ethan Hawke), Gattaca, 1997

In a surprisingly lucid move, the US Senate is pushing through laws to prevent insurance companies and employers from discriminating against people based on their genetic makeup. So maybe the future depicted in the terrific Gattaca isn't quite on the horizon.

Hang on though, in that movie genetic discrimination was illegal but it happened anyway. I suspect that, eventually, it will happen in reality at some level or the other.

And while I generally abhor the notion, a part of me does wonder whether it might not be logical in some situations, such as working in particular environments or fields. But then, where would one possibly draw the cutoff lines for eligibility? And what of people like the character of Vincent in the film, who wish to do something with every ounce of their being and could perhaps do it better than someone who was genetically more acceptable?

It's a messy question, but I think it's one of those situations where ethics ought to trump cold logic.

*Edited to add the quote & clarity (proofreading is your friend!)

Deadwood - Season 2 (2005)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Deadwood - Season 2 (2005)

I'm quite surprised to find myself pleased with my review of the first series of 'Deadwood', and there isn't really much to add to my assessment of the show with regard to this second series, which maintains the same high standards throughout its twelve episodes. In summation, the primary storylines revolve around the possible annexation of Deadwood to the territories of Dakota and the attempted acquisition of much of the gold claims by wealthy businessman George Hearst. But of course the smaller stories and the characters collectively play such a large part in the show, and these include: Swearingen's debilitating illness; Sheriff Bullock's fragily alliance with Swearingen and his affair with Mrs. Garrett, followed by the arrival of his wife and stepson; Hearst's geologist Francis Wolcott's scheming and sexual dalliances; Joanie Stubb's attempts to start her own brothel; Cy Tolliver's alliance with Wolcott in their scheme to buy out people's claims; Mrs. Garrett's troubles with the Pinkerton's and her clashes with Bullock's wife; and Mr. Wu's problems with the 'San Francisco Cocksucker', amongst many others.

What I love about this show is how it's so rich, so full of detail and atmosphere, and populated with such diverse, interesting characters each of whom has their own unique voice and idiosyncrasies, each of whom plays some small but integral part in the big picture. It's all character driven, and there are a myriad little stories that criss cross and interweave, and yet it all ties together so perfectly in the end - it really is a supreme piece of storytelling. True, the pacing is deliberate and there is a dearth of action, but that's not what this show is about. I think it's all kinds of great, even though I have to confess to finding some of the more complex speeches a little hard to follow!

Once again Ian McShane rules the roost with his commanding portrayal of Al Swearingen, whose presence seems so intrinsic to the town that when he approaches the brink of death it's almost like the town itself collectively holds its breath. McShane is terrific, and spews out verbose commentary and foul language like there's no tomorrow, and it's a joy to behold. Timothy Oliphaunt has somewhat less of a presence but is still great, and the added dimensions of his awkward relationship with both his mistress and his wife and son adding to his burdens as town sheriff and Swearingen cohort. Powers Boothe, William Sanderson, Robin Weigert, and Brad Dourif are the other standouts from the regular cast, but one guy stands out above most of the other regulars - Garet Dillahunt, who plays the creepy, disturbed, very intelligent, and very persuasive Francis Walcott. Dillahunt also appeared in the first season as Wild Bill Hickok's killer, and he was excellent in that role, but his character here is as far removed as possible from that one - in fact, it took me a while to realize that it was the same guy! Truly an excellent performance; this guy ought to be one to look out for - he has popped up in 'The 4400' and 'The Sarah Connor Chronicles' as well, and has minor roles in 'The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford' and 'No Country for Old Men'.

'Deadwood' continues to impress in its second season, and I'm dying to see the third and final batch of 12 episodes. It's disappointing to realize that the series was canceled without some form of finality; reading up on the history of the real Deadwood just can't compare to watching David Milch's foul mouthed dramatization! An exceptional TV series that adds further weight to the argument that HBO are without peer when it comes to gritty, edgy dramatic fare.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)

In a word, disappointing. In another, mediocre. Following in the footsteps of James Cameron's classic 1984 thriller and 1991 action spectacular comes Jonathan Mostow's rather pedestrian third entry in the franchise (and I dread to see what 'McG' will do with the upcoming films). Even though 'Judgement Day' was itself something of a retread, it managed to up the ante and introduced new elements to the basic story framework of the original - two terminators, one ultra advanced assassin and one 'Arnie' model protector, the addition of John Connor himself as a kid, and the concept of taking charge and changing the future instead being resigned to fate. The film also had some good elements of emotion laden drama despite being a little heavy handed. This third entry is basically the exact same formula as part 2, and adds virtually nothing new up until its (admittedly terrific) left field ending.

A new terminator, the feminine TX (Kristana Loken), is sent back to kill future leader of the human resistance John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his lieutenants, including a young woman named Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). The resistance again sends a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) to serve as a protector for John. Sarah Connor is dead, so John and Kate take it upon themselves to once again attempt to change the future - though they succeeded in stopping Cyberdyne Systems in part 2, John figures it just wasn't enough to prevent the supercomputer Skynet from coming into existence and gaining sentience. So in the midst of running away from the TX, they devise a plan to destroy Skynet before it takes control of the US Military's computer systems and causes nuclear armageddon.

Right from the start, the film is markedly inferior. There's no suspense, everything happens in a purely perfunctory manner like they were ticking off items in a checklist. Monologue opening, check. T-800 arrival and acquisition of clothes from seedy joint, check. TX arrival and acquisition of a vehicle, check. These scenes feel like cheap echoes of the previous films, and while it's true that T2 could be accused of the same thing, T2 was also markedly differently from its predecessor in terms of how those scenes were handled. T3 feels like T2 lite. Watching this, I never felt like the characters' lives were at stake, much less the future of mankind!

The inferiority permeates every aspect of the film. Mostow isn't alone in bearing the blame as the screenwriters contributed some of the film's flaws. Clearly realizing they couldn't really outdo what had come before, they decided to infuse ill advised humour into scene after scene, and much of it falls flat. The characters never really come alive - Connor is brooding sidekick to the T-800 for the most part, and Brewster is mostly just hysterical, and both seem to be merely serving the plot. Mostow's sense of pacing and scene construction are competent but workmanlike, be it the character driven moments or the action scenes. The latter are definitely big, but they often feel lifeless and fall back on CGI on too many occasions. I can't think of a single standout moment in this film, while the first two had so many. The things that are most memorable are the bits that made me groan, like the Elton John glasses and 'talk to the hand' scenes, jokes that really should have been dropped at some stage during the production.

Which isn't to say that everything sucks. On the contrary, the film is on the whole fairly decent and is better than the average sci-fi action flick. The design work, which follows from Stan Winston's originals, is still excellent, for one - those early prototype robots in action are very cool. The basic concept of killer robots from the future wreaking violence and causing massive mayhem is still a fantastic one. And the story framework is solid, even if its execution is less than refined. And the ending... well, the first time I saw it I actually liked the film as a result of that ending, which is such an atypically sober surprise in a summer blockbuster and one that completely wipes away the sense of optimism the second film concluded with.

The performances, unfortunately, are almost uniformly forgettable. Schwarzanegger just coasts through with a distracting sense of self-awareness. He acted a bit goofy in T2, but that was part of the character arc - here, he's just goofy from the outset. Even when he's not approaching parody, he's still not as coolly mechanical or as physically imposing as before; the T-800 is merely a shadow of his former self. Kristanna Loken certainly tried as the TX and she's good on occasion, but following in the footsteps of Robert Patrick's phenomenal turn as the T-1000 is no easy task and the inevitable comparison leaves her wanting. The quirky mannerisms and poses seem forced, and the icy menace just isn't that frightening. You'd think playing cold, unfeeling machines would be easy, but based on the evidence it would appear not to be so.

The only good performance comes from Nick Stahl, who plays Connor as a weary outcast who still possesses a grim sense of determination, although it has to be said that neither the writing nor the performance indicate he has great leadership potential - which is weird when you consider that the 10 year old in T2 did demonstrate such potential! Claire Danes, a fairly good actress, is simply irritating as the initially hysterical and then somewhat bland Kate Brewster.

'Rise of the Machines' is a wholly unnecessary film, one whose most meaningful narrative element, its conclusion, could easily have served as some form of prologue to a film about the actual war against the machines (That film is coming soon, but is in the hands of McG, whose greatest claim to fame is directing the Charlie's Angels films). T3, even as a retread, falls well short in every respect. The score is another example of what's wrong with this film - it samples a few recognizable themes from Brad Fidel's distinctive and memorable work and evokes good will by doing so, but is ultimately by the numbers and never really comes alive. And really, the same could be said about the film as a whole.

A dog that's not for life

Holy shit. There's a dog rental service. I'm not sure why I'm surprised to be honest, but somehow the fact that this is really real is just... too much! Yes folks, you can rent dogs for walking and absolve yourself of all the real fun and responsiblity of having a canine companion in the first place! What possible satisfaction can one get out of this? Isn't this like dog prostitution or something?

Most hilarious is the woman who cycles through dogs depending on the occasion, probably in the same manner in which she cycles through shoes. Yet another stark reminder that there are sad sacks in the world desperately in need of a clue. I mean seriously, renting animal companionship to fill some kind of void in your pathetic life or as a status symbol? WTF?

What next, rent a baby? ...For all I know, it's already here.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Coupling - Seasons 3 & 4

Coupling - Seasons 3 & 4 (2002-2004)

Alright, so this isn't the more cogent review I was talking about when I reviewed the first two seasons, and frankly it's because I just don't have the time! The final two seasons of this sex/relationship based comedy series is weaker than the first two overall because of the departure of the Jeff Murdoch character in the final season (he goes to Lesbos believing it to be full of lesbians). The third season is fairly strong and carries on perfectly from where season 2 left off, building on all of the already established relationships. Again, Jeff's antics are the absolute highlight of the season, in terms of both writing and performance. Season 4 replaces Jeff with Oliver, who is amusing but never gut bustingly funny. That, coupled (no pun intended) with the maturing of some of the characters and their relationships takes some of the bite out of the show. These two factors together make the final season decidedly sub-par, and it's probably for the best that it was the last. In fairness however, these seasons did seem to break out of the formulaic storylines that I complained about by establishing more continuity and attempting some stylistic digressions like extended fantasy sequences.

Not quite as good as what came before, but all the seasons taken together make for a very funny, very entertaining comedy series that ends quite nicely (despite not being a true end to all the storylines, they end at a place from which one can extrapolate some finality with little effort).

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Animal Farm (1945) - by George Orwell

Animal Farm (1945) - by George Orwell

I first read Orwell's brilliant novella in school, and it's one of those resonant stories that stayed with me over the years, particularly because I began to recognise the elements of the real world that had been incorporated into it. Ostensibly it tells the story of a group of animals on a farm who become fed up of being subservient to their human masters and revolt. They set up a utopian socialist society where the animals are free and share in the farm's wealth. Everything is rosy at first, but things slowly start to change as the pigs, their de facto leaders, slowly and insidiously change the rules in their favour, accumulating wealth and power at the expense of the other animals.

The story is short, running at less than a hundred pages, and is very straightforward in its telling; as an allegory of the Soviet Union under Stalin, it's thinly veiled. Its elegance comes from its simple, matter of fact prose and from the fact that what it describes is completely true. The inexorable shift in the balance of power and the disingenuous justifications, hollow rhetoric, and threat of force that the pigs use to keep the rest in check are all the hallmarks of tyrants that have been witnessed in the real world throughout history.

If the pigs represent the ruling classes in the microcosm of society that is Animal Farm, the other animals represent the other social groups within that society, from the hard working, unquestioningly loyal simpletons to the blind, loud, and devout sheep-like followers (literally sheep in the story), to the intelligent but indifferent or powerless. At every stage the pigs have a strategy to explain their actions and to silence the critics, and over time the animals' lives become miserable. But as their misery becomes the status quo, many continue to believe the lie that life is better simply because they are free of the tyrannical humans, being completely oblivious to the fact that they have traded in one master for another.

Ultimately, the book chronicles the way in which a revolution with the best of intentions and beginnings can be subverted by totalitarianism and fascism and leave the people (err, animals) even worse off than before, and it demonstrates convincingly how those in power get away with it. Despite being superficially simple, the book really whittles down these societal realities to their core. It doesn't have much in the way of plot or characters, nor does it need to; built purely on ideas, 'Animal Farm' is a quick and unforgettable read and an absolute classic.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Zodiac (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Zodiac (2007)

Man, I'm way behind on these.

David Fincher's 'Zodiac', his first film since the fairly good but not great 'Panic Room', is a terrific procedural crime drama. He's best known for 'Fight Club' (a film I need to see again), but this is much closer to his serial killer film 'Seven'. It's based on the true story of the Zodiac Killer who terrorized San Francisco during the 1960s, and is a meticulously detailed and apparently quite comprehensive recreation of the investigation into the killings. The film focuses on three men - Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper who is drawn to the case by the Killer's cryptic puzzles, Inspector David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) who works the case, and SF Chronicle writer Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), who writes about the killer. Spanning several decades, the film chronicles every significant detail relating to the investigation of the Zodiac Killer and the major players involved in the investigation.

It's a procedural, but one that is devoid of the usual Hollywood gloss that we have come to expect from the genre. I would say that it is toned down even compared to Fincher's own 'Seven', which is an excellent film that is already a decent example of restraint. 'Zodiac' is completely matter of fact and realistic, showing the investigation as something that takes time, tedious amounts of research and legwork, numerous dead ends, paperwork, communication with various - and occasionally uncooperative - parties, and working within legislature and bureaucracy. And often, lots of waiting around for something to happen. There are no convenient epiphanies that lead to exciting chases or shootouts. Despite all of the effort that went into hunting the killer, the case was never and probably never will be solved, even though those involved believed they had their man.

The attention to realism may sound boring - I'm fairly certain some people feel that way - what with there only being a handful of scenes showing the killer in action (face never revealed) and lots of scenes of interviews, meetings, and people throwing ideas around, but I found it to be utterly fascinating and a refreshing change. Having said that, it's not just the crime procedural aspects that make this compelling. The film also tells the story of how these three men become completely and utterly obsessed with their subject, and were unable to rest without following some new angle or another. Such was their obsession that it affected both their professional and personal lives, often detrimentally. These aren't conventional cinematic heroes; these are the guys who'll go through the grind day after day, committed to their quest for answers and closure, and ultimately, justice. The film allows us to experience the sheer scale of their Herculean task, and deals us the same sucker punch they received at the end - we'll never really know for sure who it was.

Cinematically it's like the serial killer version of 'All the President's Men', taking a seemingly mundane aspect of historical events and making it something fascinating and gripping by focusing on making the film atmospheric and believable. There is no narrative trickery and no caricatures. The style is muted with none of the overly showy camerawork Fincher demonstrated in his last few films. It presents a wholly convincing recreation of the era and lets the setting, the script and the actors take centre stage. The performances from the three leads, whose paths cross but who mostly work alone, are superb as they depict men who become, literally, addicted to their work while trying to maintain (mostly unsuccessfully) some element of normalcy in their lives. Ruffalo is no nonsense and street smart as Toschi, while Gyllenhaal unsurprisingly plays the bookish nerd with a proclivity for puzzle solving. Downey Jr. has the least screen time but he's terrific as the egotistical and charismatic star reporter.

All in all, an excellent and under appreciated film that came and went without many people taking notice. Overlong and slow? Hell no - honest and absorbing! 'Zodiac' is definitely one of the better films from last year - immaculately made and a fresh, revitalizing take on a genre that hasn't offered anything nearly as good in the last few years.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Ran (1985)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Ran (1985)

Akira Kurosawa was brilliant, one of the great directors - of that there is little doubt. The only film of his that I've seen that wasn't great (admittedly, I haven't seen nearly enough of them) was 'The Hidden Fortress' , but even that had plenty of redeeming attributes. 'Ran', which translates to something along the lines of chaos, was his last epic film. Loosely based on Shakespeare's 'King Lear', it's a period film set in Japan that tells the story of the aging Lord Hidetora Ichimonji (Tatsuya Nakadai), who gives up his power to his three sons, Taro (Akira Terao), Jiro (Jinpachi Nezu), and Saburo (Daisuke Ryu). Saburo defies him and warns him that this will lead to trouble when the brothers start jostling for power; angered, Lord Hidetora banishes Saburo. Despite being passionate and abrasive, Saburo is right and both Taro and Jiro waste no time in asserting their authority by ignoring their father's wishes and basically kicking him out of his own fortress. Taro's vindictive wife Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada), who was the daughter of a clan conquered (and mostly slaughtered) by Hidetora, is the real schemer behind the scenes, manipulating her husband to assert his authority and take full control of the clan. Events quickly spiral out of control as battles erupt and outside factions, sensing an opportunity for a quick power grab, amass their armies along the clan's borders. Driven half mad by events and his shame for banishing his only noble son, Hidetora finds himself abandoned with only two loyal companions beside him, his androgynous 'Fool' Kyoami (Peter), and his former retainer Tango (Masayuki Yui).

An epic film, 'Ran' features lush production values, stunning visuals, and some incredible battle sequences. It also tells a riveting story, and being based on Shakespeare it's tragic and (surprise!) a load of people die by the time the credits roll. There's a streak of hopelessness in the film, which presents a world that is indeed filled with chaos and devoid of happy endings. It's full of scheming, treachery, and familial strife, with honour and loyalty occasionally making an appearance but ultimately failing to balance the scales. The decent, good intentioned people in the story always end up paying the price for their ways, and the seemingly wisest character who often sees things as they truly are - the Fool - is always ignored as the tragedy unfolds. Hidetora is the central character and the key tragic figure, the one who is brought down to his knees both physically and mentally by betrayal and forced to confront the shameful actions from his past. It all sounds quite morose - and it is - but the film is often quite entertaining and holds your attention from start to finish. Visually it's also surprisingly colourful and bright, though this does have a habit of highlighting quite effectively all the blood that is spilled. Speaking of blood, the action sequences really do deliver in spades; they're massive and awe inspiring, and of course completely devoid of any digital trickery.

While sometimes very theatrical, the performances are great, especially that of Tatsuya Nakadai as Hidetora, who transforms from a powerful and commanding presence to a broken man who virtually loses his mind. Peter (that's the guy's credited name!) is irritating but effective as the 'Fool'. Mieko Harada's Lady Kaede is perhaps the best of all, a woman who is intelligent, cold, and calculating, and seething with hatred - she veers between stoic and formal, deadly, and seductive as the situation demands, even within the same scene. Last but not least is Saburo as played by Daisuke Ryu, a charming roguish hothead who could have easily been played by Toshiro Mifune. But Ryu is great in the role and it's a shame his character disappears for such a prolonged stretch of the film.

'Ran' is a magnificent film by any standard. It's a huge epic brimming with action, but one that has a thematically rich and involving story and complex characters, a combination that makes for great drama. It might not be as great as 'Seven Samurai' or 'Rashomon', but those are admittedly tough acts to follow. It's a classic in its own right, and definitely worth checking out.

Sunday, April 20, 2008


A scotoma is "an area or island of loss or impairment of visual acuity surrounded by a field of normal or relatively well-preserved vision". In other words, a blind spot. And yours truly developed one a few weeks ago. My vision looked something like this:

Though, not as bad as in that picture. I had a light grey spot, not a black one. Thankfully, it's all but gone now thanks to the medication I was on (I'm still on some eyedrops and vitamins), but I have to confess it had me freaked out for a while there.

It appeared without warning one evening - it was the end of a particularly tiring day, and I sat down at my computer only to discover that everything was horribly blurred. I was marginally concerned, but put it down to tiredness and went to bed. It was, as I had hoped, better the next morning. In fact, I thought it had disappeared completely, but then I noticed that it was still a little difficult to read and that sometimes people's faces appeared blurred. Also, my eyes felt strained all the time. I still couldn't couldn't pin down what the real problem was, as it just seemed like slight irregular blurriness; I could still make things out clearly when I focused hard enough. Being the fool that I am, I thought I'd give it some time to go away on its own before seeing a doctor.

About a week later, I figured out what it was by chance. Incredibly, up to this point I hadn't tested each eye individually. Well, actually, I had but not with text. When trying to read with my right eye, I noticed that letters were horribly blurred. After a little experimentation, the grey spot suddenly stuck out like a sore thumb! When I blinked a black spot stood out for a fraction of a second before my eye apparently compensated for it (marvelous, eh?) and turned the spot grey. It was especially conspicuous when looking at white. Naturally, I googled the phenomenon and learned that it was called... a scotoma! At this point I was a little worried because it appeared that scotomas could be associated with all kinds of things - multiple sclerosis, tumours, brain injury - and some scotomas are apparently incurable. Needless to say, an urgent appointment with an eye specialist followed.

Have I mentioned that I'm paranoid? Probably. As you can imagine (or probably can't, actually), all kinds of nightmarish scenarios ran through my head, even though the rational part of me knew that, apart from the symptoms, I didn't have a clue about what was wrong. What if I needed surgery? What if it was permanent? Such were the thoughts that overwhelmed my fragile psyche. I'd rather lose a limb than an eye, or so I told myself while sitting outside the doctor's office. Actually, I still believe that - except for my right arm, which is quite useful (I know this last comment leaves me exposed to a very obvious joke, but so be it). After an interminable wait, it was finally my turn to see the doctor; following a brief examination using high powered lenses the doctor informed me that there was a swelling in my eye that was probably stress related, and that I should take the prescribed medication and take it easy for a while. I assured her that I wasn't stressed, but she seemed skeptical of my claims. Having dwelled on the notion for a while now, it occurs to me that perhaps I was fooling myself, because even though I don't have nearly as many problems as a lot of other people, I spend way too much time worrying about the ones I do have (and sometimes about ones I don't have). So it is entirely possible that I am, in fact, stressed.

Long story short, the medication alleviated the blurriness and strain within a few days, and the scotoma itself faded away to almost nothing after a couple of weeks. It seems to be all but gone now, though I have to continue treatment for a few more weeks. During my follow up visit I was assured by the doctor that it wouldn't recur and was also reminded once again about the importance of relaxing. Which is easier said than done!

Ah, the vicissitudes of life. I can't wait to see what curveball comes my way next. Actually, strike that - I can wait. I can wait a very, very long time, as a matter of fact...

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Passage to India (1984)

(Image from IMP Awards)

A Passage to India (1984)

Based on E. M. Forster's classic novel about English colonialism in India, this adaptation was acclaimed director David Lean's last film. I'm not a big fan of his epics - Lawrence of Arabia, Bridge on the River Kwai - and haven't seen his earlier works, but this one was quite enjoyable, doubtless in part because I enjoyed the book.

The plot follows the book fairly closely - barring the usual omissions that are a necessity in film adaptations - but the ending is different as is the perspective from which the film is largely told. In the book, there was a greater focus on the Indians, particularly Dr. Aziz (Victor Banerjee) and his friends and their perspectives on British occupation. The film shifts the focus greatly to Adela Quested (Judy Davis) and Mrs. Moore (Peggy Ashcroft) as they arrive in India with the intention of having Miss. Quested marry Mrs. Moore's son, Ronny Heaslop (Nigel Havers). Upon arrival, the two women are horrified to discover the schism that exists between the English and the locals, with the former treating the latter with contempt and an air of superiority. The two women, seeking to be get to know the locals better, wind up in the company of Dr. Aziz and the one Englishman who likes the Indians, Richard Fielding (James Fox), headmaster of the local college. Dr. Aziz proposes a trip for all of them to the famed Marabar Caves nearby (which none of them has bothered visiting before), during which an incident occurs that leads to Aziz being incarcerated and charged with rape. The subsequent trial brings to the fore all of the cultural and racial tensions between the two groups.

There's more to it than that of course, but as a synopsis that ought to suffice. The film lacks a lot of the texture of the book, though I can see why it makes sense from a narrative point of view to show things from the English women's point of view instead of the more fractured manner of the book - it flows better and allows the milieu to be more easily introduced. But, the loss of the Indian perspective does in some ways devalue the story and diminishes the commentary on colonialism that permeated the book. On the other hand, in both the book and the film Aziz and his friends come across as a fairly insufferable, whiny bunch, so perhaps this is a good thing. Judy Davis's take on Miss Quested is more sympathetic than in the book; an improvement in my opinion as it makes her behaviour after the Marabar caves more forgivable. Fielding as portrayed by James Fox as the gentleman with an unflappable streak of decency is pretty much spot on. Banerjee's portrayal of Aziz as a hapless fool also is accurate and very entertaining. The rest of the characters are well represented in their somewhat diminished roles - Alec Guiness in blackface as the Hindu Professor Godbole is, despite being initially distracting and amusing, particularly good.

Strong performances and an atmospheric, believable recreation of a time and place lend weight to the story's themes of colonialism and racism. It's fairly slow and quaint and won't set your pulse racing, but it's a worthwhile film and a very good adaptation. As for the ending, I personally think that the more optimistic ending is apt for the post-colonial era in which the film was made, even if it isn't true to the original story, which was written during occupation. The film is more Hollywood, but it works, and it's one of those changes I can get behind.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

The Hidden Blade (2004)

(Image from IMDB)

The Hidden Blade (2004)

Yoji Yamada's follow up to The Twilight Samurai is similar in many many ways, but still offers enough that is new, and perhaps more importantly, enough in the way of quality, to make it worth watching. As with its spiritual predecessor, 'The Hidden Blade' is a Samurai drama that takes place in 19th century Japan. It tells the story of a low ranking 'working class' Samurai, Katagiri (Masatoshi Nagase), who following the death of his mother, the marriage of his sister, and the departure of the servant girl Kie (Takako Matsu), lives alone in his family house. It is a time of social change; the Japanese are embracing Western warfare techniques, and the Samurai of Katagiri's town are forced to learn the way of the rifle. There is also unrest, and Katagiri's loyalty is put to the test when an old friend is caught rebelling. Offsetting his troubles is Kie, whom he rescues from an abusive family and once again employs as his servant. Despite enjoying her company and having strong affections for her, their relationship is tinged with hopelessness because their caste differences will never allow them to be together.

I recall someone calling these Yamada films "Samurai stories as Jane Austen might have written them". Whoever said it wasn't far off the mark! There is one terrific fight sequence in this, and an interesting scene where we learn why the film is titled as it is, but by and large it's purely a drama about social norms and people struggling to cope with the rapid changes occurring to their once immutable, rigid world. Katagiri makes for a compelling, heroic character who tries to live decently and with honour while remaining true to the spirit of his code, even as many around him merely regurgitate hollow rhetoric. The conflict within him to choose between friendship and loyalty to his clan, and to sacrifice his own personal happiness to conform to societal expectations take their toll on him, leading to two conclusions that make the story both tragic and uplifting at the same time.

The film is deliberately paced but is never boring, and the characterization is excellent, with well rounded protagonists. As with 'Twilight', the film evokes a believable sense of place and manages to demythologize Samurai culture by showing them as ordinary folks who had to deal with ordinary family and domestic problems same as everyone else. Not that there's anything wrong with the conventional Samurai film - indeed, many of them do touch on these elements as well - but it's always interesting to see things from a different and unique perspective. While fairly small scale the film is quite appealing visually, with many of the domestic scenes in particular evoking a sense of warmth and homeliness. It's all rounded out with a fine sedate and unobtrusive score. The actors manage to be expressive while still behaving within the emotional constraints of their characters' places in the class structure. The two leads, Masatoshi Nagase and Takako Matsu, are terrific; Nagase's portrayal is infused with dignity despite his low position and circumstances, while Matsu is immensely endearing as the sweet natured, devoted, but somewhat damaged servant girl. The rest of the cast are supporting, but they're all effective in their roles, particularly Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Katagiri's deranged friend Hazama.

'The Hidden Blade' may surprise many people who watch it expecting something more action packed, and based on comments I've read it doesn't seem to appeal to a lot of people, but I think it's a wonderful film. It is narratively and stylistically incredibly similar to 'The Twilight Samurai' but there are enough thematic and character differences to make this feel like it's own thing. Though I can certainly understand the viewpoint that there is often a strong feeling of deja vu if you've watched 'Twilight'. I think 'Twilight' is ultimately a better film, but this is also definitely worth watching.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut (1999)

(Image from Cinema Blend)

Payback: Straight Up - The Director's Cut (1999)

This is one of those interesting situations where a director who lost control of his film gets to come back and do it his way. I haven't seen the original, Mel Gibson overseen cut of Payback, but Brian Helgeland's Director's Cut (which uses around half of the theatrical footage and features a new score, new colour timing, a different tone throughout and a whole new ending) is a thoroughly enjoyable crime thriller. It's a remake of the 1967 Lee Marvin film Point Blank, which was pretty good but not quite as fun as this one. Mel Gibson stars as Porter, a thief who is betrayed after a risky heist by his partner in crime Val (Gregg Henry) and his wife Lynn (Deborah Kara Unger) and left for dead. He survives, and comes back to town looking for... you guessed it - PAYBACK! Plus, he wants returned his share of the heist money. His quest leads him to cross paths with an old flame, Rosie (Maria Bello), some crooked cops, and the mysterious 'syndicate' that is responsible for organized crime in the city.

'Payback' is a vicious and violent thriller that takes place in a crime ridden, mafia controlled, corrupt city. There are many elements of black humour, but overall it's a fairly somber affair. Gibson is somewhat aloof as the relentless Porter but he doesn't come across as an invincible superman either; he also doesn't appear nearly as angry as Lee Marvin did. He lives by a simple code, and he wants his money back as a matter of principle - it doesn't matter to him if he has to go all the way up to the syndicate's top brass to get it. The rest of the performances are pretty good, with Gregg Henry's sleazy Val being especially memorable. Oh, and Lucy Liu pops up as a silent, violent seductress - natch! The story is fairly straightforward, with the manner in which Porter goes about his business being almost comical. There are some excellent scenes in here, like Porter's confrontation with some of the senior brass of the syndicate, his exchanges with the corrupt detectives, and his showdown with Val. The action sequences are infrequent but effective - the finale in particular is quite thrilling.

It's not a classic, but as a streamlined old fashioned crime thriller complete with an appropriate score, a fun central performance, violence, and humour, it's well above average. Entertaining and memorable; while Gibson is no Lee Marvin, I prefer 'Payback: Straight Up' to its progenitor.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Extras - The Christmas Special (2007)

(Image from HBO)

Extras - Christmas Special (2007)

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant are a terrific comedy duo, and as with 'The Office' they wrap up their terrific series 'Extras' with a 90 minute special. I enjoyed the first two seasons that chronicled Andy Millman's (Gervais) transition from lowly extra to star of a critically reviled but massively popular TV series, 'When the Whistle Blows', a journey he was accompanied on by his best friend Maggy (Ashley Jensen). The Christmas Special sees Andy enjoying his life as a B grade celebrity while trying desperately to have credibility at the same time. What really stings is the fact that one of his former 'extra' colleagues has hit the big league in movies, earning both critical and commercial success. Envious, Andy fires his useless manager Darren Lamb (Stephen Merchant) and gets a new, professional manager to try and earn some credibility with better roles. Meanwhile Maggy gives up the demeaning life of an extra to become a cleaning lady; she becomes despondent with her life, which she perceives as a failure. To add to her woes, her friendship with Andy becomes strained as she witnesses him change into an arrogant, obsessed celebrity who's never happy with what he has.

I remember reading somewhere (I think it was CHUD) how this show captured perfectly the curse of mediocrity. Andy is a mediocre actor / artist / celebrity, but he refuses to accept his own mediocrity. Despite having come so far, he still wants more and believes that he deserves it. On the one hand he enjoys the benefits of his success but on the other he has nothing but contempt for the people who like his show, which he feels is beneath him. And thus, the obsession with becoming something more, one that consumes him and causes him to push aside his real friends. I think the show captures a genuine human dilemma - most of us are never going to make a big difference to the world or be massively successful (the measure of which is, naturally, subjective), no matter how much we may want to. While there's something to be said in favour of ambition and drive and seeking to do great things, there's also something to be said about being happy with what you've got and not losing it while trying to reach for something bigger and better. This final episode allows Andy to finally come face to face with the reality he's been doggedly ignoring.

This final 90 minute episode is about as good as the series. The awkward moments, the embarrassments, the bizarre situations, and the silly conversations between friends, they're all here. The writing is sharp; I love the way this continues the story from the series and wraps it up with a truly moving conclusion. In addition to chastising human foibles, it also eviscerates the hollowness of celebrities and celebrity culture. If there's one major flaw with the episode it's the Maggie storyline, which is often dragged down by some overblown scenes depicting her misery. Apart from that, it's terrific. Gervais and Jensen are in top form. Gervais somehow manages to make Andy Millman sympathetic and funny despite him being an asshole at times; without Gervais's performance the awkward moments wouldn't work at all because we wouldn't give a damn about his predicament. Jensen's Maggie was sometimes annoying in the series with her stupidity, but she was always endearing and is still so despite the overly morose nature of her storyline. She's also, strangely, the voice of wisdom and reason in this final installment. Stephen Merchant is as hilarious as ever with his portrayal of the inept doofus of an agent who seems to be oblivious to everything but still has a good time being Andy's agent (his sole source of income). There's also some fun cameos from Clive Owen and George Michael in there, amongst others.

'Extras - The Christmas Special' is a fitting conclusion to a great comedy series that features some truly side splitting moments and also manages to be an insightful depiction of human nature that contains a strong element of pathos. There are some scenes from these 13 episodes that have been indelibly burnt into my memory, and I can't say that about too many TV shows. Watch this, but only after watching the series of course.

La Môme (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

La Môme (2007)

This biopic of French singing icon Édith Piaf is mostly notable for one thing, and that's the performance of Marion Cotillard as the titular character. Her performance is incredible, and it rises above everything else in the film. The make up (including the old age stuff) is excellent and doesn't distract, and Cotillard simply becomes a character brought to life vividly and memorably. She portrays Poaf as a vivacious but also sometimes shy and naive woman who endured a great deal of hardship throughout her life, ultimately transforming through experience and substance abuse into a cantankerous and tired shadow of her former self. The rest of the performances are, well, peripheral at best, which actually becomes a problem because it's sometimes hard to figure out who's who. This is partly as a result of the film's strange, unnecessary structure where it jumps back and forth in time, sometimes confusingly. I suppose it tries to avoid the conventional biopic structure that feels like a 'Cliff notes' of someone's life, but the trick doesn't really work and ends up being more annoying than anything else. Maybe there's some significance to it that I missed, but I can't imagine what it could be.

The film is successful in creating atmospheric reconstructions of different eras, and the production values are pretty good. The music is, of course, terrific and a major part of the film, though it's not really to my taste. Though I will confess that the appearance of 'Non, je ne regrette rien' towards the end is affecting. There are some wonderful scenes in the film, and it is often moving even when the weight of tragic occurrences begins to make the whole thing more than a little depressing, perhaps unnecessarily so. It's the music and the magnetic personality that keep it going, however, and the end result is a very good biopic that probably would probably be just OK were it not for Cotillard's bravura performance, which alone makes the film worth recommending.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Moonlighting - Season 3 (1986-87)

(Image from Amazon)

Moonlighting - Season 3 (1986-87)

I've left this write up way too long, and it'll probably be even shorter than my blog post on Season 2 ('Explanations can't do it justice'? What a cop-out!).

The winning formula continued to work wonders during the third season of the definitive comedy mystery drama; if it ain't broke, why fix it? The show did however introduce a new element in the form of Herbert Viola (Curtis Armstrong) as an up and coming junior member of the Blue Moon Detective Agency and a potential love interest for Ms. DiPesto (Alice Beasley). The stories are as out there as ever, and Maddie Hayes (Cybill Shepherd) and David Addison (Bruce Willis) trade barbs as regularly as they draw breath. It's all quality, with the weirdest episodes including an interpretation of Shakespeare's 'Taming of the Shrew' and a take on 'It's a Wonderful Life' where Maddie sees how things would have ended up if she hadn't kept the agency open (Addison marries Cheryl Tiegs!). Even the potentially rubbish clip reel episode turns out to be quite good, as does the one focusing on DiPesto and Viola as they investigate a haunted mansion. Standout guest stars include Brad Dourif, Donna Dixon, Mark Harmon, and Gary Cole, and there's also a brief hilarious cameo by Pierce 'Remington Steele' Brosnan.

The biggest development in the third season is the progression of Maddie and David's relationship, a mini arc that drags on a bit in the latter episodes of the season but is still full of great material and some surprisingly serious dramatic moments. Oh, and they end up consummating their relationship. If you think that's a spoiler... erm, it's a twenty year old show.

The season ends with a rather apt scene of a car freewheeling downhill. Apt because this was the show's last great season; it went downhill from here and truth be told I'm not really interested in watching the rest again to be reminded of how bad it got. The first three seasons, however, are dynamite and are enough to ensure Moonlighting's place as one of the great, classic TV shows.

Really, explanations can't do it justice!

Monday, April 07, 2008

The IT Crowd - Season 2 (2007)

The IT Crowd - Season 2 (2007)

I'm not sure if I was on something (accidentally, of course) when I reviewed the first season of 'The IT Crowd', or if the first season was just plain better. But I found myself cringing and staring at the floor quite often during this second season. The first episode was actually quite fun, but I just didn't enjoy the rest of it. This show always had a cheap feel to it, like a relic from the 80s reanimated for the 21st Century, but in these six episodes that cheapness stuck out like a sore thumb. Forget what I said about the characters with regard to Season 1, these are a bunch of cheesy cliched caricatures who act dumb in an idiotically contrived way, and their behaviour often doesn't come from character or logical story progression. Worst of all, there's scant little to do with the IT aspect of things (and there wasn't much to begin with in the first season either) - this could be any old generic office comedy. In summary, if you've ever watched the brilliant 'Extras'... this show is like 'When the Whistle Blows', the crappy show within the show that Ricky Gervais's chracater Andy Millman stars in.

I must have been influenced by the fact that 'The IT Crowd' was a show about geeks when watching the first six episodes - I'm convinced they are not remotely as good as I thought they were. Though I also think they were actually better than these six. Not terrible by any means, but not worth setting aside time for either. Season 3? Fuggeddaboutit!

Visions of Light (1992)

(Image from Wikipedia)

Visions of Light (1992)

Cinematography is one of those interesting aspects of cinema that doesn't get a lot of attention (it's probably up there with editing) despite being significant to the art of filmmaking. I'll readily confess that my knowledge of cinematography is at the level of pretentious dilettante; I think I know good cinematography even if I can't fully explain why I think it's good. 'Visions of Light' is a documentary that seeks to enlighten its viewers about the key role that lighting and cameras play in cinematic storytelling. It does this by interviewing various current (i.e. 1990s) cinematographers and charting the evolution of the artform from the early part of the 20th century onwards. There are clips galore from various films that are presented as examples of great cinematography, with the interviewees often waxing lyrical about the great films and artists.

It's a pretty good documentary, and is perhaps revelatory for those who don't have even the foggiest notion that camera and lighting and shot composition are important visual elements in a film. Unfortunately, as a fan of film it doesn't really tell me much that I wasn't already aware of to some extent, and it winds up being more of a 'best of' clips reel. Except for a few occasions, it merely reiterates similar generic points about good lighting and shows a few clips. It doesn't often delve into WHY that lighting is great, or how it serves to tell the story. In many ways, it's a tease that keeps the secrets of the artform close to its chest. Which is disappointing. Still, as a summary of the history of cinematography, it's informative and holds your interest. I just wish it had more to offer.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Knocked Up (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Knocked Up (2007)

Judd Apatow and crew follow up the fairly funny '40 Year Old Virgin' (a film whose unrated extended version really drags) with this irreverent, profane, heartwarming tale of a chubby loser-ish guy named Ben (Seth Rogen) who has a drunken one night stand with a hot blonde named Alison (Katherine Heigl) and gets her pregnant. When she decides to keep the baby, Ben agrees to help and support her despite being an unemployed irresponsible stoner who lives with his stoner friends and works on a website that tracks female nudity in movies. Alison is a successful professional TV presenter, completely out of Ben's league, and there's naturally a lot of hurdles the two have to surpass. In addition to Ben's friends (Apatow alumni Jason Segel, Jay Baruchel, Martin Starr), the supporting cast also includes Alison's sister and her husband (Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd).

On the face of it Knocked Up is crude, a real guys film, but counter intuitively it's also full of heart. While there's no doubt that it veers heavily towards the male perspective of the equation, it gives the fairer sex a fair shake and is in some ways an indictment of the man child. Although one that still shows how that irresponsible lifestyle can be fun and appealing. The film is a mix between the typical rom com and the crude Animal House inspired comedies. There's a lot of rudeness but also a lot of, I think, fidelity towards the schism between the sexes. It's often laugh out loud funny, but still poignant at certain moments. And while the ending is a little too neat and convenient, it works and is quite satisfying. Like 'Virgin', the film runs a bit long however. Rogen is the star of the show and proves to be a capable and endearing leading man, and his dry deadpan brand of humour drives a lot of the films jokes. He's ably supported by the ever reliable Paul Rudd and the rest of the Apatow crew. Heigl is good in a fairly non comedic role, while Apatow's wife Leslie Mann is delightful as Rudd's character's nagging, frustrated wife.

'Knocked Up' may not be a classic, but it has enough originality and humour in it to make it worth checking out, and Rogen is a very watchable and atypical lead. The sensitive PC crowd with an overly developed sense of propriety will probably hate it, but that's their loss.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

The Departed (2006)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Departed (2006)

I think I've mentioned on this blog how I admire the films of Martin Scorsese but don't really consider myself a fan of any of them - not Taxi Driver, not Raging Bull, and not Goodfellas - but that has now changed. 'The Departed' is, unsurprisingly, an excellent film, but it's also one that I loved from start to finish.

The film is a crime thriller that revolves around the story of two men in Boston - Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon). Costigan is a kid with family links to the local Irish mafia who becomes a cop and enters the State Police. Here he meets Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and Sgt. Dignam (Mark Whalberg) of the undercover division who tell him he has no future in the Police department, but that his background and ability to blend in within mafia neighbourhoods make him an ideal candidate for undercover work. Sullivan meanwhile is groomed by mob boss Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) to be his man on the inside of the Police Department. So while Sullivan lives the life of a successful bright young rising star in the State Police Department reporting to Captain Ellerby (Alec Baldwin), Costigan becomes a gangster who works closely with Costello and his henchman Mr. French (Ray Winstone). Coincidence leads to both men striking up a relationship with the same woman, Madolyn (Vera Farmiga). As the police try to build a case against Costello, both sides become aware of a mole in their ranks and enlist their own inside man (i.e. Costigan and Sullivan) to find out who the other side's mole is.

Its high concept belies what is actually a complex, intricately plotted thriller full of drama, humour, violence, and great characters. The Hong Kong movie this is based on, Infernal Affairs, is a slick thriller but it doesn't really attain the type of depth and scope and impact its remake does. 'The Departed' borrows a lot of plot elements from its progenitor but the writing grafts it superbly into a completely different world and adds more layers of complexity and fleshes out the characters, including the more minor characters. There's some terrific dialogue in here, sharp and often verbose, and some of it very foul indeed, especially a good 50% of what comes out of Mark Whalberg's mouth.

The symmetry between the police and the mafia is an overarching theme here - they're two sides of the same coin, and in some ways they are like two duelling families complete with father figures and complementary tough right hand men. The deception and duality of the central characters is also significant, with both playing at being someone else who isn't that far removed from their actual personalities. Sullivan is a smarmy and ambitious opportunist, and Costigan is a resourceful but hot headed firebrand. The deception and sacrifice take their toll and wear them down however, with Costigan having to assuage the guilt of committing crimes by downing pills, and Sullivan being tempted to just get out of the whole business and start over.

Scorsese makes this compelling from the beginning, and does so while fusing his usual sensibilities with a more crowd pleasing and mainstream sensibility (I guess I am a complete sucker for the mainstream). His interpretation of these characters and realization of every scene is nigh on perfect. The atmosphere is palpable and the fear and excitement in so many scenes feel genuine; but it's also very, very funny at times, and also explosively violent, two qualities you don't often expect to sit well together, but here they do. The drama is tense, the action sequences are exciting, and the violence is often flinch inducing but avoids being gratuitous. Despite how meticulous and unlikely the plot is, it plays out in a realistic tone and there is often a feeling of spontaneity and capriciousness to proceedings.

When it comes to the performances, there's just too many good ones to really do them all justice. One look at the cast list and you can see the potential for greatness, and amazingly everyone delivers in spades. The man that stands out most is probably Mark Whalberg in a limited supporting role. He's brilliant, funny and apoplectic at the same time and his personality fills up the room; it's testament to how good everyone else is that he never really steals the show. Matt Damon is fantastic as the weaselly Sullivan, a guy who's charming and resourceful but also a complete asshole - watching him is always interesting and it's incredible how Damon still manages to make the character likable. Then there's DiCaprio. Anyone who still questions the man's acting talent is surely delusional, because despite his babyface he is perfect as the smart but burdened man who doesn't belong anywhere. He seems uneasy, out of place (not in an undercover cop sense, but more in the sense of a person angry with the world), and also capable of unrestrained violence. The character has to go through a lot more than Sullivan, including some physical stuff and a fair amount of verbal sparring with Nicholson's Costigan, and DiCaprio pulls it off superbly. Speaking of Nicholson, he is an actor I've never really liked but he is well suited to playing psychotic and slightly unhinged characters as he does here.

The rest of the supporting cast are equally good. Despite being the only woman in an impressive male cast, Vera Farmiga holds her own in a fairly limited role, and her interactions with Damon and DiCaprio work well in revealing facets of those characters that are usually kept hidden or in check. Alec Baldwin, who I'm fast becoming a fan of after '30 Rock', is hilarious as the smug, cocky Captain Ellerby. The scene where he assaults a technician for screwing up had me in stitches! Martin Sheen's Captain Queenan on the other hand is down to earth and fatherly, and amazingly he makes for a good team with the foul mouthed Wahlberg. And finally, there's Ray Winstone as Mr. French; one word - badass.

Everything in 'The Departed' just comes together like precision engineering - from the camerawork and photography to the editing, music, costumes, locations, and performances, it all just clicks. Let me mention the music again; Scorsese has always been a master of marrying songs to images and the choice of songs and their use here really makes a strong impact. All in all, it's a phenomenal film, a brilliant crime thriller, and a remake that supersedes the original. The epitome of great filmmaking, and a must see.