Sunday, August 21, 2011

Troy (2004) - Director's Cut

Image from IMP Awards

Troy (2004)

Since this is a fairly mainstream and well known film I'm going to make this quick. Director Wolfgang Peterson released a very compromised version of this film theatrically back in 2004. Based on Homer's 'The Iliad', it told the story of the Trojan War, of the armies of King Agamemnon with the heroic Achilles as his trump card battling against the Trojan armies of King Priam led by his son Hector, and of the war sparked off by Priam's younger son Paris stealing a Queen, Helen of Sparta. It was a historical epic that depicted a massive battle and larger than life characters fighting for territory and power, for personal glory and immortality, and for love and honour - it was grand in scale, epic and operatic.

The original film was certainly well made with magnificent sets and costumes and an impressive cast, but it was marketed on the back of some massive and thrilling battle sequences. As a result the film was heavier on the action than the drama. This version restores many of the character moments while also making it bloodier and more brutal, resulting in a significantly better film than the already pretty good theatrical version. Brad Pitt and Eric Bana are both superb as Achilles and Hector, and the supporting cast including Peter O Toole, Brian Cox, Sean Bean, Orlando Bloom, Rose Byrne and Diane Kruger are all very good (yes, even Bloom).

The storyline ignores the Gods of the source material and is, in my opinion, better for it. I'm not certain how accurate it is as an adaptation - certainly the length of the war is significantly reduced from a decade to what seems like a few weeks - but it works on its own terms. It is broad and theatrical and not very subtle, but it never pretends to be anything more than it is, and the end result is a very satisfying film that is entertaining without being stupid and full of mindless action. The re-edited score, sadly, is still severely lacking and remains the main weakness of the film, but it isn't too offensive - just bland and derivative.

If you hated the original this version won't change your mind but if you thought it was passable but could have been better, then the Director's Cut makes the film worth revisiting. For people who've never seen the film before this is the version to watch, and if the genre is of even a passing interest then you can do far worse than spend three hours watching an excellent interpretation of an ancient tale.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Morons of Ebay!

I've been buying a game or two on Ebay lately for my shiny new PS3 (OK it's a few months old now, but whatever). I hadn't used Ebay in almost a decade and returning to it I was struck by how little it has changed. In many ways it looks and feels like a relic of the last century. More surprising though was the behaviour of some of Ebay's userbase, who seem like relics of the stone age.

Let me expound upon that last statement.

As far as I'm aware most auctions on ebay work using a secret bidding process whereby the bidder with the highest maximum bid wins. I'm sure there's a technical term for this, but frankly I can't be bothered finding out what that might be as it's not relevant to this rant. What it means in layman's terms is that when you bid on something you can stipulate what your maximum bid is, i.e. the most you are willing to pay for an item. This bid is hidden from other users. The system then automatically bids on your behalf until you become the high bidder or your limit is reached (i.e. someone else has stipulated a maximum bid that is higher than yours).

Now, if you are bidding on an item the rational thing to do is to immediately enter your maximum bid and leave it at that. There's simply no point in bidding a bit more than the current bid, seeing if you're the high bidder and then bidding again if you aren't. The system automatically bids till one of the maximum bids prevails over the others (I believe the oldest of the two bids wins out if maximum bids are equal).

Unfortunately, a fair number of the users of Ebay appear to be morons. Here's why. What these MORONS do is wait till the last minutes of the auction and then rapidly start increasing their bids, as if they are - like a dramatic movie auction - engaging in some kind of bidding war against the clock.

This phenomenon is irritating to say the least, since on many an occasion I've seen myself as the top bidder for days, only to suddenly lose at the last minute (literally). I never change my maximum bid - after all that is the most I'm prepared to pay for the item. If these idiots put in their maximum straight away then we'd find out who the winner was straight away instead of in the final moments of the auction.

What's hilarious is that on occasions in which I've won I can see (in the bid history) that some idiot tried to outbid me in the dying seconds of an auction by raising their maximum bid in increments and then running out of time because my maximum bid still trumped theirs. News flash moron, if you'd just put your maximum in straight away, you may have beaten me! I on the other hand don't engage in such foolishness and so will not increase my bid at the eleventh hour.

Seriously, is there some kind of explanation for this? Are people that foolish? I suppose in an irrational world where most of the bidders behave this way it makes some kind of sense, but really, if there's something you want you place a value on it and leave it at that. If these last minute bidders beat me then they were willing to pay more, plain and simple. It matters not at all that they beat me 5 seconds or 5 days before the end of the auction.

There must be some sociological or psychological explanation* for this truly bone headed phenomenon, or I'm missing something fundamental about the way Ebay works. I doubt the latter because apart from the annoyance of it all, at the end of the day I pay no more than I'm willing to pay, and often when I win I pay less than that. It's the rest of the loons who are missing something - probably a few brain cells.

* One theory is that perhaps by increasing the bid value too early they increase the perceived value of the item. I.E. not bidding till the end is feigning disinterest in the product, in the hope that others will also not be interested or will not bid higher values, thereby 'tricking' people into not bidding too high. This allows these last minute vultures to swoop in at the end and win by making marginal increases to their maximum bid. Of course this strategy doesn't work against rational bidders who will still set a maximum for an item regardless of its current bid price (as a basis for comparison I look at how much the item costs on other online retailers' sites and set a maximum bid that is lower than the cheapest of those prices - why bother buying second hand from Ebay if the price goes above Amazon's, for example? And yes, I have seen people paying more for something second hand on Ebay that could have been purchased for less brand new somewhere else! THE FOOLS!)

Sunday, August 07, 2011

The Tree of Life (2011)

Image from IMP Awards

The Tree of Life (2011)

I think Terence Malick's The Tree of Life is mostly a brilliant film. It's also a hard one to explain. It's less a story and more a set of thematically and chronologically interconnected events and scenes. There is a narrative framework that bookends the film featuring Sean Penn as the adult version of the protagonist who on the anniversary of his brother's death is seemingly trying to find meaning in his life.

And that, basically, is a large part of what this film is - a look at what life is. And it goes right back to the beginning, the Big Bang itself that brings the universe into being. This stunning sequence goes through the development of stars and the formation of planets, in particular the Earth, and the beginnings of life in a primordial ooze through to the development and extinction of dinosaurs. Yes, there are dinosaurs in this film, though sadly they represent the film's low point.

Flash forward to 1950s USA and into the lives of a suburban family headed by the stern and authoritarian father (Brad Pitt) and the almost angelic mother (Jessica Chastain). We witness in condensed form the birth of three sons, their childhoods, their relationships with one another and their parents, whose marriage is slowly falling apart. This comprises the bulk of the film - just scenes of this family and the world around them. Make no mistake, this is unabashedly an 'arty' film with very little dialogue and copious lingering shots of people and plants and animals and beams of light.

I can think of no other film that captures the ineffable feeling of being a child and growing up like this one does. How Malick has done this almost purely with imagery is mind boggling - and the imagery on display here is beautiful and at times awe inspiring. While the specifics of 50s suburban America may not match many people's childhoods, the feeling of growing up, having parents and siblings and experiencing the world is a universal one that transcends culture and race and various other human divides, and this truth is brilliantly captured here.

It seems that the overriding theme of the film is the universal nature of life, and while there is a strong and overt 'spiritual' aspect on display, Malick presents the scientific truth of how we got here front and centre and makes it profound. We're insignificant in cosmic terms but at the level of individual lives we are part of something bigger and we're all bound together by fundamental things that we have in common. Much of this can seem a tad, well, cheesy, but one has to admire Malick for wearing his heart on his sleeve and going for broke when expressing himself.

The part of the film that doesn't work so well are the bookends featuring Sean Penn. They are there to give the film context but just don't approach the level of the rest of the film; there's also a concluding sequence that, while open to interpretation, does cross the boundary into religious territory in a way that feels too literal.

A major part of what makes 'Tree of Life' work is the performances, which are uniformly excellent. The three child actors are so good its easy to forget that you're watching a film. In terms of visuals  it's stunning, and the various pieces of classical music and score throughout make it aurally captivating as well.

This isn't a film everyone will like - it will try the patience of people who require their films to have a conventional narrative with problems to be solved and heroes to root for (quite a few people walked out of the cinema within the first 30 minutes). That's because it is, at the risk of sounding pretentious, a deep and contemplative film that tries to ponder the big questions in life. In a cinematic landscape littered with cartoonish CGI, adaptations, sequels, and prequels, it's a breath of fresh air that should be welcomed!

Monday, August 01, 2011

Senna (2010)

Image from Imp Awards

Senna (2010)

In a word, wow! I haven't been caught up in a documentary in a long time, but this one had me hooked from the start.

Senna tells the story of the late Brazilian Formula 1 legend Ayrton Senna. It is composed entirely of archival footage from the late 70s through to the mid 90s sourced from TV shows, documentaries, home videos, and race footage. Eschewing a narrator, the story is conveyed by sound bites both old and new of people who were involved in the events depicted, including Senna himself. The film captures the key moments of Senna's career and presents them in dramatic fashion, starting from his early go-karting days through entry to Formula 1 and the accumulation of successes and controversy, including a bitter rivalry with Alain Prost.

While there is an element of idolising at play, it never feels fawning or overly biased. Senna was clearly a remarkably skilled driver and a charismatic individual, with some of his achievements and dramatic moments putting a lot of fiction to shame. He is the star of the film and in much of the footage he freely expresses his views and feelings. It's easy to become fully invested in his journey as events build up towards his untimely demise. And, speaking as a person who is not a fan of motor racing, the racing sequences are thrilling affairs edited to encapsulate the most exciting and interesting moments of the races and set to a lively soundtrack and excited commentators.

In short, it's a terrific film. Director Asif Kapadia's achievement in assembling all of this footage into a documentary that is thoroughly informative while being entertaining and absorbing is remarkable. As an insight into the life of a sporting legend and the sport itself during his time it is brilliant; 'Senna' deserves to be seen.