Friday, October 31, 2008

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

In the Shadow of the Moon (2007)

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

Shoot 'Em Up (2007)

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wisdom of the Crowds?

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

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

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

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

Monday, October 20, 2008

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Privacy of Your Mobile

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Dark Knight (2008)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Dark Knight (2008)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, October 09, 2008

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

(Image from IMP Awards)

The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

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

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

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

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