Saturday, January 30, 2010

The Case for Sad News

Considering how much I detest the “serious” television news services – who can’t even say “Port-au-Prince” properly – you can imagine how completely eviscerated I felt when C4 told me the following:

Subject: RE: C4 Feedback
Date: Thu, 28 Jan 2010 19:50:00 +1300
To: judge&jury

Thank you for your enquiry regarding C4 and The Daily Show.

After much consideration C4 has decided not to pick up The Daily show for 2010.

Due to the financial constraints placed on C4, we have decided to prioritise and focus on the Peak Programming. 2010 will see C4 return with All New Episodes of American Dad, South Park, 30 Rock, The Office, How I Met Your Mother and many more returning favourites plus new shows Heroes, Dollhouse, Rock Of Love, Melrose Place and The Cleveland Show just to name a few.

Whilst we understand your disappointment regarding The Daily Show, we hope you continue to enjoy C4's Programming in 2010.

Kind regards,

Verdict. And I cried (though I did appreciate the use of the word "whilst"). 0 days our of 4.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Case for Air Points

Combine the roguish charm of the effortlessly charming George Clooney with the talent and skill of the director responsible for Juno and what do you get? You get Up in the Air, which is a good film, but which pales in comparison with Juno and Clooney’s last effort, last week’s Fantastic Mr Fox.

The film follows Clooney’s character Ryan hitting the road (or the sky, hence the title) for a few months, and recalling his encounters with gorgeous fellow jet setters (Vera Farmiga’s Alex is completely captivating) and more homely relatives (such as a Kiwi nod to Melanie Lynskey as Ruan’s sister Julie there), as well as workmates (an all-business Jason Bateman) and those he is expected to fire. Ryan as a role that, if not written for Clooney, is hard to imagine in the thespian hands of anyone else. He has the affable demeanour yet underlying hard edge that the role requires – it is interesting to compare his own cool charm kiss with that of his associate.

To me, Ryan has a strange “only in America” kind of job: he gets to fire people for bosses who are too cowardly to do it themselves. And in the recent recession, the business was booming. Luckily, Ryan loves it – or rather, the lifestyle that comes with it. But as befits this kind of movie, this lifestyle comes into question when he gets pregnant. Actually, that was the other movie.

Juno was a lot funnier than this one, and there were some very deep moments – I have never had more respect for Jennifer Garner than I had after I saw that film. Up in the Air manages to be funny at times and quite poignant too (especially for we older, single folk), but never quite reaches the heights and depths of Jason Reitman’s first film. Its not for lack of star power – the film’s cast members are all fantastic (J K Simmons gets a small role) – but the subject matter just doesn’t lend itself as easily to fish-out-of-water situations and extreme reactions. The moments are smaller, the emotions several notches below hysterical.

Which is all to say that Up in the Air is good, just not a great or ground breaking film. It certainly kept me entertained for the two hour duration, and spoke to me at times of my own experiences and the differing priorities people have at different times of their lives.

I would like to say more about that, but I don’t want to wander into spoiler territory. The ending will, by anti-spoiler necessity, have to remain an undiscussed country. Suffice to say that Ryan and Julie do not end up on their back porch singing.

Verdict: Up in the Air is a fun, entertaining, and at times quite challenging (in a belief way, not a “why am I sitting through this” kind of way), and definitely worth a view. It does not need big screen treatment, but should make a great evening’s movie choice for those who don’t mind a healthy does of cynicism mixed in among their sugar. 8,000 airpoints out of 10,000.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

The Case for Retro Activity

A wee while ago, I began a (not yet exhausted) list of fond TV show memories from my childhood, with the occasional link to jog the memories of those who might really remember them.

Well, someone from Whitcoulls must have been thinking about them too, as today I went in to the Lambton Quay store and found the Nipponmarionation classic Star Fleet on sale. Yes, that one. The brief video clip on YouTube that I linked to gave me pause, but the tantalising temptation that the tactile sensation of the DVD case stirred within me was almost too strong. The back of the case thrilled me even more, the bare threads of the plot in those brief sentences beginning to knit a tea cozy of childhood warmth in my mind. But the substantial price tag was enough to convince me to put the case (and a comic story book inside!) back down again and ponder this potential purchase, for perhaps another time and a 20% DVD sale…

Of course, I had said the same thing about the Mysterious Cities of Gold, the 6 DVD collection of which I also visited in that same store. Oddly, it is in the “Festival” section of the store, its French/Japanese origin perhaps relegating it to a more exotic categorisation than the kiddies animated aisle. I have been wisely warned that the reality of this series will be wildly different to the anime to which I have become accustomed later in life – though, to be fair, even most live dramas compare unfavourably with the story (if not necessarily the pacing) of Gundam: Seed – and so I should perhaps never go back again for my own sanity and fond memories. But still, and perhaps more so than with Star Fleet (for aforementioned reasons), the allure remains, though once again the hefty “normal price” tag acts as a powerful negative condition.

As I left the DVD section, I began to ponder that now, quite a while after the publishing of those posts, these shows (along with, and not to forget, the “best of Sesame Street” compilations available from the Warehouse) are being released here, and that perhaps these are but the prelude to a DVD nostalgical tidal wave. So, by the time I left the store, I had my fingers and toes crossed (which did make movement difficult and led to some fairly odd looks from fellow pedestrian) and a mesmerising mantra running through my mind: “Tiny Toons, Animaniacs. Tiny Toons, Animaniacs. Tiny Toons, Animaniacs…”

Verdict: Sometimes dreams do come true. They tend to be silly ones that don’t involve Lotto wins (though I would like to be proved wrong there with a large Lotto win of my own), but small crutches to get one from A to B with a (sometimes hefty) detour through one’s bank account. 4 steps of the Dance of Joy out of 5.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Case for Foxy People

After the pretty but unengaging films of late, I went into the Fantastic Mr Fox knowing the animation would be stop motion rather than computer generated; that the running time would be less than two hours; and that no real humans would appear on screen. However, despite its lack of high tech finesse and perfect rendering of human emotions on digital faces, the Fantastic Mr Fox wiped the floor with these other efforts in terms of warmth and engaging performances.

If anyone can play charmingly roguish with a strong sense of humour, it is George Clooney, which made him the perfect choice as the titular Mr Fox. Wes Anderson definitely knows how to stock a great cast: Meryl Streep as the grounded Mrs Fox, Jason Schwartzman as their moody (and a bit strange) cub Ash, and Bill Murray adding a world weary charm to Badger. And of course, the Wilson brothers (actually, their voices) pop up now and again as well, as befits a Wes Anderson effort.

The film is based on a Roald Dahl book (which I do not remember having read, though I do love his work), so the film keeps a somewhat English tone by all the humans being British (Michael Gambon works a different kind of grumpy magic here) and the scenery and clothing evoking the home counties, though the trains in the background remind me more of continental high speed versions than what British Rail generally tends to use.. Given all that scene setting, it is quite forgivable (and kind of makes sense) that all the hind-leg-standing, clothes wearing animals have a different kind of accent and societal structure to the humans that inhabit this land.

And being a Roald Dahl book, the story is… well, wonderful. There is some darkness, lots of light, huge amounts of silliness, and a lot of swearing – though any “real” swearword is replaced by “cuss”, so entire arguments are held like, “Cuss you – you are a cussing pain, you know that?” and it works. In fact, it all works.

I am not going to claim there is great emotional depth to all this, but that is not really its point. I am not going to claim it is a perfect film, as it is not. What it is though is a brilliant film, lovingly animated, with a fairly ludicrous plot and some amazing dialogue and (vocal) performances. While I tend to love going to Wes Anderson films (like The Darjeeling Limited, The Royal Tenenbaums), I have occasionally found fault in their pacing or their more heavy handed moments, but, try as I might in the brief “slow” moments of this film, I could find no such flaws. Lucky me.

Verdict: Well, the assessment is in the title – the Fantastic Mr Fox is fantastic. This movie can be enjoyed on the small screen as well as the large, so if you can’t make it at the movies, keep an eye out for it on DVD, HD-DVD or Bluray or whatever, as no matter the format, this movie will be brilliant. 9 BFGs out of 10.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Case for a Disquietening Canadiva

I am getting nervous.

Have you noticed how quiet the Canadiva Celine Dion has been recently? Like a volcano, the longer this towering mountain sits quietly on top of her bubbling bed of hot magma, the more perturbed those in her vicinity become.

She is well known for being a soulless destroyer of songs, her powerful voice capable of stripping flesh from bone in its tornado-like fury, but in these decadent times, that kind of thing goes over extremely well and she has made ridiculous amounts of money from her millions of fans. The tales of her inability to rein in her colossal voice are the stuff of legend, though whether one views said voice as being angelic or apocalyptic is a matter really depends on your point of view.

I did like the comment I overheard somewhere that “Celine Dion is the singer for those who hate music”, though I can’t really claim the air of musical superiority that one needs to utter that with complete conviction, considering my own musical tastes.

So, what is she up to? Actually, I am not really that curious as to what she is doing. More, I am interested as to when she will unleash herself once more upon the popular music scene. James Cameron did not create virtual Celine Dion lungs to belt out an Avatar theme tune about love and condescension, but there must be something gestating out there that eventually will give birth to another aural assault.
I wait nervously…

Verdict: Love or hate her, once her vocal chords get into gear, there is almost no ignoring her. Celine Dion, like the Terminator, will be back. 3.5 knocking knees out of 5.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

The Case for Clear and Present Understandings


When I was given Understanding the Present by Bryan Appleyard over Christmas, I was warned by said donor that I would probably hate this book. Quite an intriguing selling point on a non fiction book analysing the role of science in society, but I decided I needed something to get my brain ticking over the holidays, and so bit into it. And found it… challenging.

Okay, the guy writes awfully, and so even if the book itself wasn’t “challenging”, the literary style was almost enough to put me off. Almost. I certainly put it down a few times. But, again, I wanted to see where the guy was leading, and so I stuck with it.

I don’t want to ruin the book for you, so let me paraphrase the general theme, but instead of science and mathematics (as an exercise for myself), use cooking and agriculture as the topics in question.

Basically, the argument runs that, prior to agriculture and cooking, mankind lived fairly harmoniously, happy with where he was and in touch with nature, the big questions in life answered by beliefs in the spirits and food provided by nature in a very natural way. “Hello Mr Shrub! You provide me berries, magically, when you like! Hello Ms Mammoth! You come through here every so often, and your flesh is tasty, even if you don’t surrender it willingly. Nonetheless, I revere and worship you and the sky gods who occasionally help me stumble across you”.

But then, some people devised a way of harvesting and preparing food in a very productive way, discovering ways to combine and refine processes so that yields were high and food was more palatable. This had fairly profound effects: people could stay in one place longer; people built more permanent dwellings; people were more fecund with more food and thus produced more hands to assist with preparing more food; the elite experimented with food and discovered unnatural ways of preserving foods using chemicals like salt; and then created breads and pastes and all sorts of things that were certainly yummy and nutritious. But there were bad sides: direct issues like increased obesity, tooth decay, poison (if the mix was wrong); and then indirect issues like population explosions and overcrowding and sanitation issues, and of course (leading on from that and from the desire by others for the increased resources) war.

So, pretty soon, everyone decided that cooking and agriculture were bad things and that it had all pretty much been a mistake. Because cooking and agriculture did not provide a moral framework in which they could be developed. How dare eating copious amounts of chocolate be bad for you! And you could feed armies on the food you were able to grow – had these techniques no shame?

And… as facetious as I am being, you get the gist. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated than that with science and mathematics: there are “paradoxes” which seem to undermine the disciplines; understanding and changing one part of a system can impact on other parts of the system, sometimes with catastrophic and far-reaching effects; and the biggie from Appleyard’s point of view – it did away with “meaning” and/or “religion” without replacing it with anything.

And this, for me, is where I get really mad with this book. By understanding cooking and agriculture, mankind was able to achieve a great many things. And people created gods to assist with their cooking and agricultural needs. And cooking and agriculture did give some societies a “way of life”. But a meaning to life? A meaning to existence? So, similarly, why should we expect mathematics and the scientific method, which are tools to help us understand and control the world for our benefit, provide us with any answers?

None of which matters when he comes to the final chapter of the book, when he dispenses with the sham of attacking science by coming to the crux of his problem - he hates liberalism because he wants certainty and he wants to be right. Liberalism either doesn't make judgements, or judges after weighing a whole lot of boring evidence, when what people really want is clarity of vision, and freedom from uncertainty. He doesn't go into whether he wants a freedom from independent thought as well, but I kind of get the impression that is where he is heading. However, his final line undermines absolutely everything that has come before, with me paraphrasing (as I have a heavy cat on my lap so can't get to the book) the summation as being "that's what I want, even if it doesn't make me happy". Of course.

For all that this confusion, the book is interesting in that it presented views and opinions and discoveries in a way I have never thought of before. Possibly, as from my perspective, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense at all. But then, that is just me, and I am sure it will appeal to someone out there. Possibly. Open invite to those who wish to try...

Verdict: Understanding the Present does not really live up to the promise of the title. It criticises the present and finds fault with... well, almost everything, but criticism does not always mean one actually does understand what is going on, and is a poor way to teach others as well. I know I was no better off from when I started the book. But I was... challenged. 2 unscientific and unliberal certainties out of 10.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Case for Meatiness

Is it too much to ask for a beautiful film to have emotional depth these days? Because there are a huge number of painfully gorgeous films out there, with stunning visuals, imaginative special effects and luscious colour, but beneath the glorious surface beats a weak heart and a thin layer of flesh.

And yes, this is a dig at Avatar, which is of course an incredible technical achievement for which the story serves the purpose of connecting the different scenes together, but little else. But it is also a bit of a deeper dig at the Lovely Bones, a film which is based on a popular (though unread by me) novel and which has attracted its share of criticism.

Not because it is a bad film. Just that it tends to focus on the visual splendour of an imagined afterlife, and the tension in tracking down a murderer, and kind of skips any real attempts to create characters with depth or emotional resonance.

It’s a shame too: Mark Wahlberg puts on his best 1970s Calvin Kleins and does a great job as the Dad; Susan Sarandon pumps up her hair and lights up her cigarette as the glamourous Grandma; and Stanley Tucci puts on disturbing blue contacts and acts all creepy. But no one is really given a lot to do, as Saoirse Ronan, haunting as ghostly Susie Salmon, narrates what is going on and what everyone is feeling from her spectral gazebo. The living characters play a small role (Rachel Weiss is even more wasted than most), shine briefly as they contribute something to the story, and then are gone, as they fade from Susie’s attention.

All of which is fine, if all you want to do is lose yourself in what is a murder mystery with an otherworldly twist, and which, for the duration of The Lovely Bones, I was – and as I also was with Avatar. It’s only when coming out of the movie, coming to write about it and review it, that the flaws in the storytelling really come through.

I would hate to say of such a beautiful movie as this (and Avatar) to “leave your brain at the door”, as they are too good for that, but similarly, don’t go in expecting a story that will knock your socks off. Instead, go in expecting a film that will blow your mind, and leave your heart relatively untouched.

Verdict: The Lovely Bones shows how to waste a talented cast when what you really want to do is make a beautiful looking movie. That’s a very harsh criticism though of what is actually a very watchable, if occasionally disturbing, film. 7 bones out of 10.

Revised Avatar rating in light of this (just to show that I can review my decisions based on new evidence): 8 unobtainium balls out of 10.

Friday, January 1, 2010

The Case for Vicariosity

Into 2010... wow. Let's start with another movie verdict.

I suppose Avatar was always going to split audiences. After so much build up, so many revelations about the innovative technology to tell a story with a heart, and of course the options of seeing the movie in either 2 or 3D mean that it was never going to live up to everyone’s expectations. Case in point: see the debate that has raged on Moosetastic’s site.

And this Judge’s perspective? To summarise first: amazing special effects, so-so story. I knew I was in trouble when halfway through the film I decided to stop trying to like any of the characters and instead decided to root for the most enjoyable one. As that character ended up being an ex-Marine Colonel Quaritch hell bent on raising hell on Pandora, and so of course was always going to end up on the “bad” side, I knew my favourite character was not going to end up victorious in the end.

Perhaps its Sam Worthington’s (as Jake Sully) fault. I saw Terminator: Salvation the night before, and so I knew he had huge difficulty maintaining an American accent, so the fact it continued to vary throughout Avatar was not that much of a shock though it was a bit disappointing; and I could lay the blame at James Cameron’s script for rendering his character an annoying self involved idiot who doesn’t really have much of a revelation in the film but more has people learn to accept him, for no reason I can really fathom. Sigourney Weaver gets to play Ellen Ripley mushed up with Diane Fossey, though only utilises the most annoying traits from both. In the end, it’s the rotten eggs – Giovanni Ribisi’s Burke-light Selfridge (what kind of name is that?); Michelle Rodriguez’s Vasquez with a pilot licence, Chacon; and of course the evil Quaritch – who have, and provide, the most fun.

The Na’vi, the blue-skinned local inhabitants of the savage yet somehow noble planet of Pandora, are an interesting lot. Not because of who they are: their culture is an hippie amalgamation of “in touch with their environment natives” (predominantly based, I would hazard a guess, on a very PC view of Native Americans); but more for their evolution – how on earth (well, on Pandora), did a humanoid form develop on a planet where 6 limbs appears to be the norm?

Zoe Saldana takes a break from her red Starfleet miniskirt to become 10 foot tall Neytiri, who teaches Sully how to be a Naboo - oops, Na’vi. Warriors, it seems, are more highly valued than elders and teachers in this highly spiritual touchy feely society, so the Na’vi decide that a highly impressionable, young, single woman would be his perfect teacher (as I said, the culture is really… dumb). Becoming a Na’vi involves lots of running, apparently, and Sully never really learns the language but apparently that’s not a biggie. Looking at the cast photos on IMDB, it is interesting to note that all the Na’vi are played by black actors – perhaps that was a back up plan in case the digital effects engine broke down. Apparently, just “acting alien” was not going to be enough.

Gah. It’s so easy to find fault with the film and the production that I really should stop it. On the positive side, the special effects are utterly amazing, and I was completely immersed in a video game of colour and spectacular action sequences. And, if you see Avatar as a Phantom Menace style film, aiming to capture a kiddie audience while satisfying adults, then I don’t think you will be disappointed, as Cameron is a much better writer and director than Lucas (based on this and the prequel Star Wars trilogy films anyway). Just don’t expect a thought provoking message or well rounded and engaging characters – the only third dimension to this film is visual.

Verdict: Come with the Na’vi and you will see (in 3D) a world of pure imagination. Pandora is an incredible creation and James Cameron has every reason to be proud of what he has accomplished. However, while his powers have increased in the visual arena, his writing skills appear to be getting a bit rusty as Avatar is filled with lots of characters who interact with the environment, but not with each other. And perhaps one day, Sam Worthington will be able to prove he can act in a decent role. 7 kilos of Unobtainium (another ridiculous name!) out of 10.