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Limbo state

Posted on May 06 at 9.13, 2012 by The occasional blogger

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Sorry folks, despite my best efforts, i can not keep this blog going at the moment. Too busy with other things. I hope to be back soon.

Please email me at emahleb(at)yahoo(.)com if you have any questions. I don’t check that email often but will try to respond asap.

cheers.
eric

2011: A Year in Review

Posted on January 05 at 13.11, 2012 by The occasional blogger

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As is the case every year, i find myself wishing i could have watched many more films than i did in 2011. I have a long list of films to watch that i keep in Delicious and every year i seem to only get to about 30% of that list. I suppose that’s the problem when your real love is cinema but your day time job has nothing to do with it.

Nonetheless, i managed to watch a few interesting films in 2011 and still hope to watch a few more in 2012.

My favorite film of 2011 has to be Drive. I posted before on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Walhalla Rising, and if i showed some hesitation back then as to whether he was a genius or an impostor, i now have the answer. Drive is a moody, atmospheric and violent piece that redefines what we should expect from B-movies. The soundtrack has some quality songs that gave me flashbacks of various bands i use to listen to in the 80s. Cliff Martinez provides the rest of the music, coming up with some amazing sounds as he did previously for Solaris.

Number two is The Artist. Chauvinistic pride aside, i found The Artist to be a little gem of a film. Simple, melodramatic stories normally don’t resonate much with me, but this one moved me quite a bit. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that i studied film and that for anyone who studies the history of cinema, the passage from the silent era to the talkies was an incredibly important and exciting time. And as the movie shows, it was also often a disastrous time for some actors who simply could not adapt to the requirements of the new medium. The Artist carries an inner beauty and nostalgia for a time when Hollywood was one of the most amazing places on earth.

Third on my list is Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. I don’t usually go crazy for spy movies or even le Carre novels but this one is definitively in a different league. Supported by an incredible ensemble cast, this is a claustrophobic film (almost stage-like) about mistrust and deceit on a backdrop of cold war intrigue.

In fourth and fifth place, i have Source Code and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I have already reviewed Source Code here. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a worthy prequel to one of the greatest Sci-Fi stories of all times. And i am very grateful to Rupert Wyatt, the director, for not making a mess out of it. I think many people, including myself, expected this to be a boring blockbuster, following in the footsteps of Tim Burton’s mess a few years ago. But no, this is a really good movie that refrains from cliches and easy action and too much special effects (the apes aside, of course). A believable story is created and Andy Serkis’s Ceasar is fascinating, leaving the rest of the cast in its shadow.

Then comes the rest. I had quite a bit of fun watching the X-Men: First Class (i think i could watch Fassbender sitting on his sofa for 2 hours and still be amazed by this exceptional actor – i want to watch Shame as soon as i can) and the last installment of the Harry Potter saga didn’t disappoint. Bridesmaids was hilarious and it is good to see Woody Allen give us a bit of his old magic again. As a guilty pleasure i added The Adjustment Bureau to my top 10, a film that is not remarkable in any ways but somehow connected with me.

Honorable Mentions
Super 8
The Descendants
Perfect Sense
Warrior
Another Earth
Margin Call
Thor

So what?
Hanna
Captain America
The Skin i Live in
The Tree of Life
Limitless

Forget it
Cowboys and Aliens
Unknown
Green Lantern
In Time
Real Steel
The Eagle
Battle: Los Angeles
The Green Hornet

Wish i had seen
Melancholia
Take Shelter
The Guard
Attack the Block
Tyrannausor
Contagion
Carnage
Shame
We need to talk about Kevin
Pina
A Dangerous Method
Hugo
A Separation

Buried (Rodrigo Cortés 2010)

Posted on December 05 at 22.30, 2011 by The occasional blogger

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I know many people who are not interested in experiencing certain negative emotions when watching a film. Sadness is often acceptable as clearly demonstrated by the popularity of dramas but when a film makes us feel scared, angry, confused, anxious or even exhausted, well, that’s not exactly what people tend to look for when they go to the movies.

I like any film that is well made (well, most of the time) and that arouses some emotion in me in a way which is deep and interesting. That can be a film that makes me laugh, a film that makes me cry, a film that takes me away to another world, a film that makes me learn, or a film that profoundly disturbs me and makes me feel uncomfortable.

Imagine heartthrob Ryan Reynolds in one of the most disturbing films i have ever watched. Good on him for trying to change his image by taking on such a challenging role. And what a great job he does, as a convoy driver in Iraq buried alive in a coffin by his kidnappers. Who wants to watch a 90 minutes film about a guy trapped in a coffin? Not many people i gather. But as far as i am concerned, this film is almost a masterpiece. The director Rodrigo Cortés keeps us completed riveted to our seat by using sly camera movements and angles within the coffin and by letting Reynolds express a side of himself that few of us knew he had. I was glued to the screen, my heart pumping, feeling disturbed and uncomfortable, wondering how this would all end. And the ending didn’t disappoint.

There is a time for love, a time for sadness, a time for laughing and once in a while, there are films like Buried that take you somewhere else, somewhere unexpected and disturbing. That’s the beauty of cinema.

Back

Posted on December 02 at 12.25, 2011 by The occasional blogger

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hi all, this blog was down for a while but is now back up, although problems persist relating to the tagging system. I am working on it and hopefully i can start posting regularly again.
I have watched quite a few films over the past few months but very few stand out with the exception of Drive, Buried, Senna, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. More to come soon. I hope.
Thanks for reading!

Source Code (Duncan Jones 2011)

Posted on April 16 at 16.17, 2011 by The occasional blogger

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source-code-movie-posterI am probably naive. It must be all that Sci-Fi stuff i watch and read. Because you see, i don’t find Source Code that implausible. All the reviews i have read on this film, whether positive or negative, have dismissed the ‘science’ as hogwash. I can’t go much further here without revealing spoilers (so, watch out, spoilers ahead!), but let’s just say that one of my philosophies, which is one that many Sci-Fi lovers share, is that, given enough time, nothing is impossible. We are today doing things and using devices that seemed impossible as recently as 50 years ago. Why people don’t understand this is beyond me. There is a tendency to always focus on this particular point in our evolution or history, but when viewed from a much larger time perspective – if you think we have made progress in the last 100 years, what will we be able to achieve in the next 5000? – nothing is impossible, and especially not things such as mind-uploading and alternate universes, virtual or not, that can be reached via a technologically enhanced brain.

Most of these same reviews also refer to time travel as the primary Sci-Fi angle of this film. But i don’t see time travel in Source Code. I see fate, destiny, free-will, multiverse, life and death ethics, virtual reality, human enhancement, and, last but not least, love. So Source Code does pack quite a heavy thematic punch, and all in 86 minutes, but it’s not about time travel, at least not in any significant way.

Duncan Jones previously gave us Moon, which was one of my top films for 2009. With Source Code, he proves that Moon was no accident and that he truly has a gift for making interesting Sci-Fi films. And i don’t mean Sci-Fi in the sense that unfortunately prevails in cinema today. I mean Sci-Fi in a purer sense, the type of Sci-Fi that use to draw the admiration of many, the type of Sci-Fi that made you think and ask ‘what if?’. This is what i have always loved about Sci-Fi, that it allows one to contemplate incredible scenarios and to remain open to what could be.

Source Code is a smart film, well-acted and well-directed. I believe Mark Kermode calls it “Inception-lite’ but i certainly do not think this is an inferior movie. It is perhaps slightly less ambitious but in opinion, not much at all separates the two. I might even favor Source Code in some respect.

In any case, well worth watching.

UPDATE 27 April 2011: I have now watched Source Code and Inception twice, and i can safely say that Source Code is the better film.

Sidney Lumet (1924-2011)

Posted on April 09 at 21.41, 2011 by The occasional blogger

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networkI don’t usually do this but i thought i would write a very brief eulogy for Sidney Lumet who passed away today at the age of 86.

Lumet was one of my favorite directors and his movies were always a source of inspiration for me. Like many other American directors who did some of their best work in the 1970′s, he made brilliant, well-crafted and intelligent auteur films and he had the ability to draw remarkable performances from his actors.

Among the many interesting films that he directed, i consider the following seven to be some of the best American films ever made: 12 Angry Men (1957), Fail-Safe (1964), Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), Prince of the City (1981), Before the Devil Knows you are Dead (2007).

Hollywood just lost a legend.

And my Oscar goes to…

Posted on February 18 at 20.57, 2011 by The occasional blogger

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black-swan

Monsters (2010), or maybe Never Let me Go (2010).
Unfortunately, Monsters is not nominated. Which is a shame really as it would be a wonderful statement that would show that, in addition to Inception proving that there can be such as thing as a (fairly) intelligent blockbuster, it is possible to make quality films for little money. Personally, i think this is a much more powerful and needed message in a world where 200 million dollars could probably feed an entire small country in Africa for a year and where few aspiring directors can obtain financing for their film. Monsters was made cheaply and creatively and it is a film of very very high quality.

Thus, out of the nominees for Best Picture, and i haven’t watched all of them yet, my vote goes to Black Swan (2010). Aronofsky‘s mad look into competitiveness, paranoia and human nature is compelling and strangely absorbing. The fact that it takes place in the ballet world makes it even more intriguing. I was reminded of some early Polanski films such as Repulsion (1965) and it is being said that a few of the films of Dario Argento (i haven’t watched any of his) are probably even more closely aligned with the mood and idea of Black Swan. In any case, Aronofsky has been one of my favorite directors of the past few years (i did, however, fail to enjoy The Wrestler (2008) to the extent that so many people did), and i consider Black Swan to be another daring and original piece by a brilliant director.

Second on my list is The Social Network (2010). I remember watching the trailer months before the film came out and thinking that there was no way on earth i was going to go watch this film about a tool which i use all day for private and business reasons. I admire Facebook but a part of me also despises it. Despite this initial reluctance, i ended up watching the film anyway and found it totally absorbing. David Fincher is another one of those fantastic directors with only a couple of hiccups (Panic Room (2002), The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)) in an otherwise impressive filmography. Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay is witty, sharp and moves at a frantic pace, which is quite remarkable considering that we are watching a bunch of not-so-pleasant nerds becoming billionaires. Whether it is easy to admit or not, i think for many us, watching a success story, even in the IT world, holds a lot of fascination.

Third place goes to 127 Hours (2010). This is another one of those films from which i was not expecting much due to the nature of the story. I had watched a documentary a few years ago about the story of Aron Ralston, a spirited and driven young man with a love of the outdoors. One day, alone and far from civilization, he gets trapped (more specifically, his right arm gets caught) under a boulder. Except for the climax, there just didn’t seem to be much of a story for a film in this material. Yet Danny Boyle, and lead actor James Franco, manage to turn Ralston’s story into a riveting and moving cinematic experience. I have heard a few times from viewers and critics that we don’t have to care about a character as arrogant and selfish as Ralston, but, after watching the film, i did not conclude that he is indeed such an arrogant person. The love of nature, and the need to escape civilization, does not automatically make one arrogant. And the fact that he went hiking in the wilderness without telling anyone, does not make him selfish or naive. This happens all the time and i really don’t understand why it is such a big deal. Anyway, the film is visually creative, Franco acts superbly and the film grabs you til the end.

My fourth choice for this year’s Oscars is Inception (2010). I have already discussed on this blog why Inception is a good movie but not the masterpiece that many people make it out to be. I loved its originality but was bothered by a couple of aspects of the film. Still, a worthy effort.

Fifth, sixth and seventh place go to The Fighter (2010), True Grit (2010) and The King’s Speech (2010) respectively.

The Fighter is quite an entertaining and slightly moving film about a boxing family from the Boston area. Based on a true story, it has all of the usual narrative characteristics of boxing and ‘against all odds’ stories and movies. It also feels very much like The Wrestler (2008), which makes some kind of sense considering that Aronofsky is an Executive Producer on the film and was supposed to direct it but let O’Russell handle it due to his commitment on Black Swan. Christian Bale, who might be an ass in real life – i still don’t know for sure -, is splendid in this film and deserves the Oscar for supporting actor that he is going to get.

True Grit was a slightly disappointing experience for me. I love the Cohen Brothers (who doesn’t?) but True Grit just didn’t move me at all. A well crafted film with a bland taste. I have never been fond of John Wayne, who was a closed-minded, stiff, arrogant, homophobic, right-wing racist, and i also do not hold much appreciation for many traditional Westerns. But i will happily watch the more left-wing Westerns of Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Robert Altman. My point here is that True Grit lacks much of the quirkiness and originality of most of the films from the Cohen brothers. It is well shot, well acted, well written, but somehow, it has little end product. I am reminded of someone i heard last week on the radio. He is some kind of hotshot chef in the field of molecular gastronomy and he was saying how fruits and vegetables are wonderful because their taste keeps on giving. Chicken, on the other hand, says this man, is not as stimulating because the taste mostly disappears after you have chewed on a piece for a few seconds. Well, True Grit is my chicken.

And now we come to The King’s Speech, at the moment everybody’s favorite ‘Hollywood-enhanced’ true story (i know, it is an English film. Or is it?), and a film that’s going to provide Colin Firth with his first Oscar. Personally, i think Firth should have won for A Single Man (2009), which is by the way a much better film than The King’s Speech. I did not dislike this film, but i certainly did not like it that much either. There is something a bit too ‘fluffy’ about it and while it is pleasant enough, it left me with nothing, aside from the knowledge that Queen Elizabeth’s father had a stammer. The relationship between the two men felt exaggerated and unreal. While it did happen, i suspect it happened in a much less cinematic way. Thus, the cuteness factor makes this film drop to the bottom of my list, along with what are apparently several historical deviations.

I look forward to the 27th of February and in the meantime, i shall try to watch the other three nominated films. I have heard great reviews about Toy Story 3 and Winter’s Bone. The Kids are All Right also sounds interesting but seems to have divided critics more than the other two. Which is sometimes a good sign.

Update from 03.03.2011:

I have now watched Inception for the second time and i am feeling very disappointed. I picked up many nonsensical script elements that seem to be there only because Nolan couldn’t always make his twisted story work. I shall now drop Inception to sixth place, between True Grit and The King’s Speech.

I also had the chance to watch The Kids are All Right, which is a lovely film with great dialogues, wonderful acting, lots of sunshine and some bizarre choices for the soundtrack. Here is where it stands in my updated Oscars ranking list:

1. Black Swan

2. The Social Network

3. 127 Hours

4. The Fighter

5. The Kids are All Right

6. True Grit

7. Inception

8. The King’s Speech

And as far as the actual results from Oscars night, well, it’s the Oscars, so i stopped hoping for surprises a long time ago…

Happy Holidays

Posted on December 26 at 11.30, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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Happy holidays to all of you fellow cinema lovers.

One of my New Year’s resolutions will be to get back into blogging. Over the past few months, i have seriously neglected this blog and i sometimes wonder how i still manage to get readers with just one post per month.
I haven’t had much time for films recently and the little time i have had, i have spent mainly on re-watching older films that i love, mainly American films from the 70s.

I went through a few Woody Allen films and realized that to this day, none of his work touches me as much as Annie Hall does. I know it is the easiest choice, but i just can’t seem to love the other films (even ‘Manhattan’) as much as i love ‘Annie Hall’. I also re-watched ‘Vicky Cristina Barcelona’ with my wife and couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the obviousness of it all.

I regularly have the need to indulge in Westerns (but not the John Ford type) so i re-immersed myself into the world of ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’, one of my absolute favorite films of all time. I also pulled out all of my Peckinpahs and was still very much impressed by ‘The Wild Bunch’, ‘Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid’, and ‘Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia’ (although not a Western). To top off my Western binge, i added a new viewing of the recent and brilliant ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford’, which, although from 2007, has recently acquired spot number 30 on my top 30 films of all time list.

I was sick for a couple of days recently and decided that only a dose of British 70s oddity would help. ‘The Devils’, ‘Performance’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, while not among my favorite films, certainly can still amaze, derange and kill bacteria.

From the cinematic decade i love, three films underwhelmed me this time around: ‘The French Connection’, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ and ‘Little Big Man’. It is sometimes very strange how the passing of time can affect our opinions of certain films. I used to very much enjoy all three, but much less this time, especially ‘Little Big Man’, which i found farcical and uninteresting. I still consider ‘The French Connection’ a fantastic film but somehow, it did not move me in 2010.

Finally, due to the lack of interesting Sci-Fi out there at the moment, i decided to re-watch all five ‘Planet of the Apes’ films. While i consider only the first film as brilliant, as a package, it is still one of the most interesting Sci-Fi effort of all time.

Somewhere in the middle of this, i squeezed in the surprisingly good ‘Barfly’, the puzzling ‘Punch-Drunk Love’, the sweet and solid ‘Son of Rambow’ and the ‘not-as-good-as-everyone-makes-it-out-to-be’ ‘Le Concert’.

As far as 2010 films, i remember little, except for ‘Monsters’, which shined.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (Edgar Wright 2010)

Posted on November 18 at 20.24, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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scott_pilgrim_v_a79_342770tTotally awesome dude! and just a tad boring at the same time…

Scott Pilgrim is so visually stimulating that it keeps you entertained and engaged until the end. Yet, one can’t help but wonder if 4 evil exes might not have been sufficient.

Scott Pilgrim is a 20-something unemployed musician who must defeat the 7 evil exes of his new girlfriend Ramona for the privilege of dating her. Based on the comic-book of the same name, and directed by Edgar Wright (who brought us Shaun of the Dead), the film is an audio-visual hurricane more than anything else.

Each battle with Ramona’s ex-lovers brings lots of eye candy, great sound edits and clever comic-book graphics are superimposed onto the action in each scene. It must be said that it is indeed very fun to watch. Unfortunately, the battles become a bit tiresome towards the end and the film start to feel somewhat repetitive.

Thus, not a great story on offer, just one battle after the next, with some fairly clever dialogue in the middle, and visuals that keep on impressing and do make up for whatever other weaknesses exist in the film. From a purely entertainment and aesthetic standpoint, this is a good film.

And let’s not forget the few great tunes by Beck…

Monsters (Gareth Edwards 2010)

Posted on October 17 at 8.14, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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mv5bmje4mzmynjexml5bml5banbnxkftztcwmzi5njm3mw_v1_sx214_cr00214314_Once in a while, low budget Sci-Fi cinema provides us with a little gem of a film.
Primer (04), The Man from Earth (07), Sleep Dealer (08) and Cold Souls (09) are somewhat recent examples of fairly intelligent films that explore Sci-Fi themes within strict budgetary constraints and manage to create a powerful atmosphere out of very little. Creativity often blossoms out of constraints. I am sure Lars von Trier would agree.
Monsters, directed by first time director Gareth Edwards on a shoestring budget (he apparently did the visual effects himself on his Mac), is a fantastic film, and much better than the four i mentioned above. As a matter of fact, i think it might even be better than District 9 (09), a film (with a much higher budget) to which Monsters has been compared due to the various social undertones and to their depictions of aliens as creatures that are only trying to survive in a foreign world.
With Monsters, Edwards decided to go the suggestion route, that is, suggesting rather than showing (hard to tell if this was the idea from the start or if this technique was chosen due budget constraints). We see the aliens occasionally, but we see them much less than we feel them. Their presence is constant but takes a back seat to another story: that of two people trying to get home and in order to do so, have to cross the alien-infested zone that stretches from somewhere in Mexico to the border with the US. During this perilous journey, they will fall in love.

The love story is believable and well-acted. I also enjoyed the production values with graphic design components providing a strong feel of believability to the environment and story. One can question a couple of the decisions that are made during the journey or even the logic of Sam being where she is in the first place and needing rescue in such a fashion, but overall the film holds very well together and provided me with perhaps the most pleasant cinematic surprise of 2010.

Keep an eye on the opening and ending title sequences: one of the most creative ways i can remember to add a twist to the story.

valhalla-rising-2009Due to the birth of my second son, my blogging activities, which weren’t so regular to start with, have diminished drastically, as has the number of films i have been able to watch. So i thought i would break with my tradition of just reviewing one film and group three in the same review. As lazy and convenient as this may seem, it just so happens that my mind stored away these three films under the same loose and inappropriate category: historical Sci-Fi. As i found myself watching these films within the span of a couple of weeks, i wondered why i had automatically classified them as Sci-Fi, even though they all take place before the 14th century and contain very few Sci-Fi elements, if any.

Centurion is a gory action/chase film in which roman soldiers are hunted down by a group of nasty Picts. Directed by Neil Marshall, who brought us the very scary ‘The Descent’ and the really bad ‘Doomsday’, the film is entertaining enough, up until the moment when the soldiers meet the witch in the forest, at which point the screenplay comes apart and several inconsistencies creep in, along with an unnecessary effort to provide us with a positive ending.

Black Death takes us to plague-infested 14th century England where a group of Christian soldiers are searching for a necromancer. The atmosphere is dreary and macabre and the story holds quite well for the duration of the film. Black Death is a slightly better film than Centurion, although not much separates the two in terms of direction and performances.

And finally, we have Valhalla Rising, a film that is either brilliant or absurdly pedantic and artsy-fartsy. This tale of a Norse viking with extraordinary strength who travels to the New World, first as prisoner then as warrior, could have been directed by Terrence Malick (ok, not really). This is a spiritual and mythical experience shrouded in heavy fog and mist and much of the film’s impact is dependent on the landscape and on the heavy presence of nature. The pace of the film is quite slow and i found myself dozing off on one occasion, but by the end of the film, i was glad i had stuck with it and felt that i had just experienced a very brave and unusual cinematic effort. So although i group it with Centurion and Black Death, i feel this is probably the best film of the three.



Inception (Christopher Nolan 2010)

Posted on August 09 at 21.37, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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inception_poster_41-535x779Word of mouth for Inception has been phenomenal. Everyone seems interested in this smart blockbuster, as if millions wanted the green light that it is finally ok to watch blockbusters without feeling guilty about it. After earning Warner Bros a nice bundle of cash with The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan, the extremely talented English director who also gave us Memento (2000), Insomnia (2002), and The Prestige (2006), apparently received Carte Blanche to do the movie that he really wanted to make. In these rare cases, directors usually aim small, preferring to try their skill at more artsy fares and indulging in a longing to create films d’auteurs

Nolan decided to go about it a different way. Memento to the power of 10. Cinema d’auteur on a large scale. Intelligent action. Smart blockbuster. But is it really all that? Kind of.

There is little doubt that Inception is a good movie. Possibly a very good one. But it is not the masterpiece that many have claimed. If it impresses on many levels, it is mainly due to its originality and to the perfection of its many elements. But like a perfectly crafted and engineered vehicle whose stiff suspension makes the drive only moderately comfortable, Inception suffers from the cold precision of an engineer who forgot that such an insistence on perfection can sometimes suffocate emotions. Kubrick dealt with this issue his entire career but managed it successfully for the most part.

Andrew O’Hehir’s piece in Salon on Inception is very much worth reading. One of the points he makes is how Nolan completely missed the boat regarding what dreams are really made of. And it is very true that when one thinks back on the film, the dream sequences are nothing like one would expect their dreams to be. Very linear, very boring, very….blockbuster-like (Dreamscape (1984) and In Dreams (1999) captured the essence of dreams a bit better, although not by much). I was quite annoyed by some of the action sequences that seemed straight out of a James Bond film and that seemed so basic compared to the overall concept of the film. I wish Nolan had gone the more artsy route and that the entire film had taken place without guns and bullets.

But enough complaining. I liked Inception. I liked it because it is original, very well made and because it wants us to think. These reasons are very much enough to, for the most part, offset the criticism i expressed earlier. And, as the theme of this blog indicates, i tend to be a sucker for anything that is a bit out there, so Inception was a delight of mind-bending originality. I found myself thinking about the film extensively for 2 or 3 days after watching it, going over each scene, trying to put the pieces together. The result is that I tend to side with the people who think that the entire film was a dream of a man in Limbo, but ultimately, it is fantastic that it created such a stir and such debates on blogs and forums.

So, congratulations on Nolan for giving us a very interesting and powerful cinematic experience, but Memento was a better film.

Green Zone (Paul Greengrass 2010)

Posted on July 28 at 11.54, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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poster_green-zone-2As the documentary No End in Sight (2007) explained very clearly (as have countless books and articles), one of the major mistakes the Bush administration made in Iraq was to dismantle the Iraq army, thereby turning thousands and thousands of influential and useful officers and soldiers into angry and unemployed people. Many experts today believe that, had the Bush administration not made this reckless decision, the situation in Iraq would have been stabilized much more quickly and effectively.

Paul Greengrass’ Green Zone is a fictional account of the events that unfolded in Bagdad around the time of this major decision. And while it has a strong political message, the film feels more like one of Greengrass’ previous Bourne films than a proper social treatise. Although i was initially put off by this blurring of the lines between the real and the fictional and by the use of the thriller genre as a means to convey a political message (something that Ridley Scott has tried to do a few times – unsuccessfully), Green Zone grew on me as i watched it and as i began to think that at least Greengrass and Damon’s reach and notoriety can help spread the message to audiences that normally would not be inclined to watch left-wing documentaries on this subject.

Green Zone is entertaining, the way the Bourne films are entertaining. But it doesn’t really go much further than this, and this feeling was reinforced two nights later when i had the pleasure of watching Kathryn Bigelow’s oscar winning The Hurt Locker (2008). The Hurt Locker is riveting and flows like a thriller although it isn’t meant to be one. Unlike in Green Zone where the social message is almost shoved down your throat, in The Hurt Locker, the harsh reality of life in Iraq for soldiers is enough to convey all kinds of messages and to leave the viewer with plenty to chew on. The two films can not really be compared, but if you are going to watch a recent film about Iraq and you have to chose between these 2, make it The Hurt Locker.


the-yes-men-fix-the-world-poster_thumbAndy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are The Yes Men. They impersonate key members of various corporations which they have identified as being particularly representative of the worst of capitalism, and they make statements and announcements on these companies’ behalf. These statements, while ‘false’, would however be called the truth in an ideal world, a world in which corporations were more socially and environmentally responsible and accountable. The strategy of The Yes Men is called tactical media, and more specifically, identity correction. The idea is to raise awareness about specific problems by creating situations that embarrass (and sometimes, financially damage) companies that have a history of caring only for shareholder value at the expense of the planet and its people.

And the result is explosive. Andy and Mike are putting their safety on the line and risking innumerable jail sentences for some of their actions. It takes a lot of courage and determination to go on TV as the representative of a major corporation and to make an announcement that sends this company’s stock valuation tumbling down by 2 billion dollars in a few hours. I have worked on and off with an organization that uses media, sometimes in a slightly disruptive way, to raise awareness for social and environmental issues, but our work pales in comparison to what The Yes Men are willing to take on. But i suppose we all do what we can in the best way that we can.

At some point in the film, the two protagonists ask the very valid question: is this making any difference? And some of their critics point out that their actions usually also have a negative impact, not only on the people who believe in the fake announcements but also on many others who are unknowingly involved in the scam. The film makes it very clear, and i fully agree, that the benefits are very much worth the costs. And as to whether this is making any difference, the answer for me is a resounding yes. Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno are using their skills and ideas to raise awareness and to bring attention to issues that deserve much more of our attention. They try to make us aware that unimaginable crimes on our planet and people are going on in the name of money and are going unpunished because they have become acceptable collateral damage in a society where greed and traditional capitalism (as opposed to natural or social capitalism) prevail.

The Yes Men try to wake us up from our collective stupor and they do it in a way that is pertinent, courageous, effective and entertaining

Robin Hood (Ridley Scott 2010)

Posted on June 19 at 10.02, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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robinhood-posterIt has been a long time coming but now, it’s official: i have lost what little respect i had left for Ridley Scott.

Much has been said about the historical distortion around which this story of Robin Hood was written. I don’t necessarily approve of such inaccuracies – after all, cinema, as with most visual media today, is a powerful tool with much reach and impact that can influence minds and values – but i can live with them if the movie holds solidly on all other cinematic foundations. Unfortunately, in the case of Robin Hood, it doesn’t.

As i mentioned in my review of Body of Lies, the films of Ridley Scott are usually well-crafted. It is clear upon viewing that one is watching the work of an experienced filmmaker who knows his trade. Yet, in his drive towards the false epic and the commercial saga, Scott has let plenty of weaknesses creep in. Superficial, predictable, stereotypical and clichés characters who can not possibly surprise us with their actions and emotions (except when ridiculous things happen such as Cate Blanchett appearing out of nowhere to fight with the others on the beach, or when we are confronted several times with the face of a screaming Russell Crowe rising out of the water in slow motion – didn’t someone poke fun of this cinematic cheesy faux-pas? Perhaps it was Ben Stiller in Tropic Thunder or Mike Myers in Austin Powers. I can’t quite remember – ), a carelessness towards making sure that the actors speak with proper accents, an over reliance on what is now starting to seem like a ‘passé’ camera and editing style for his battle scenes and last but not least, a dependence on the limited Crowe as lead actor.

I think Scott has squeezed the last drop of moaning and groaning and growling out of Russel Crowe and there is only one thing left to do, as suggested wisely by The Onion, and that is for Scott to trade Crowe for Johnny Depp. And also to abandon his delusions of grandeur and go back to simpler, more artsy and intelligent films where his craft as a director can shine.

The Box (Richard Kelly 2009)

Posted on June 01 at 19.29, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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the-box-poster-diazDonnie Darko was an ambitious film that successfully managed to live up to its ambition. Richard Kelly’s latest, The Box, is even more ambitious than DK, but unfortunately, only partly lives up to its grand aspirations.
The premise is simple and original: one day, someone comes to your house with a box that has a big red button on it. A man tells you that you have 24 hours to push the button. If you do, somewhere, someone whom you do not know will die. And you will receive one million dollars. If you don’t push the button, the box will go to someone else. What would you do?
This disturbing concept holds the movie very well for 30 to 45 minutes. But there has to be a greater explanation for the idea and this is where Kelly starts to lose us. Although never completely off the mark, the film feels stretched and tries hard to overachieve. We are never fully convinced by the connections to NASA, Aliens, the afterlife and by the film’s attempts to enter into philosophical discussions about good and evil. Too many angles and too many stories to tell. The Astronaut’s Wife meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets The Arrival. So despite good intentions and obvious signs of an intelligent director who wants to challenge us, here are a few questionable things i learned from The Box:

- it is usually women who push the button
- visiting the afterlife is akin to taking a cold shower
- highly evolved alien civilizations can’t decide whether to exterminate us so they first make us play a little game, the results of which could make them change their mind (a bit like that super intelligent alien dressed as Keanu Reeves in the awful remake of the Day the Earth Stood Still, who suddenly changes his mind after seeing a sign of human empathy – don’t these aliens do their homework before they get here?)
- these same aliens have mastered highly complex technologies, such as the ability to travel across the universe, to control minds, to give us a glimpse of life after death, and to give eternal life to their ‘human’ emissary, but somehow, they can’t fix the huge hole in his face
- if you keep asking people, especially teenagers, to constantly tilt their head forward and stare at you with their eyes rolled upward into their skull, at some point, they are bound to become spooky (a fact already established in Donnie Darko)
- NASA seems to be a pretty laid back place where everyone does whatever they want

Clash of the Titans (Louis Leterrier 2010)

Posted on May 19 at 16.24, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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clash_of_the_titans_movie_poster_sam_worthington_medusa_head_01So here i am in mythical Delphi Greece, minding my own business – as i usually do -, taking in the sights and hoping to get a glimpse of my future when, out of the sea of tourists that surrounds me emerges the silhouette of Louis Leterrier. He rushes towards me, screaming like a maniac, his hands reaching out towards my neck. Ever since my scathing review of his Hulk, a review that thanks to the thousands of loyal followers that my blog attracts, was brought to the attention of his agent, Leterrier is out to get me. Years of Jujitsu practice allow me to swiftly dodge his attack, and in a slow-mo Spiderman moment, i brush Leterrier to the side, his momentum carrying him headfirst into the magnificent remains of a temple wall behind me. I hear the impact, see the blood, but i have no time to dwell on his fate. A boat to Corfu awaits me, and as i leave Delphi behind, the ghostly form of a strangely dressed and bearded Liam Neeson appears on the side of the road and says ‘thank you’.

Dorian Gray (Oliver Parker 2009)

Posted on May 12 at 14.35, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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dorian_gray_ver3Oscar Wilde’s only published novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, was first turned into a film in 1913. There have been several other attempts since, mostly failures or cheap TV productions, with the exception of Albert Lewin’s 1945 adaptation, a masterful and chilling version of this Faustian tale about a young man who barters his soul in exchange for eternal youth and a hedonistic lifestyle.

It is an ageless (no pun intended) story about our quest for immortality and the question of whether life is better and more pleasurable because it does not last. It also raises issues about the impact of our actions on our soul.

This modern version has its flaws. The scenario is broken down in various parts that sometimes advance from one to the next in strange fashion, the erotic scenes are cheaply shot and there is not enough insight into Dorian’s mind when he begins to turn into a monster.  On the other hand, the film has fairly decent acting (Colin Firth is particularly interesting to watch in this role) and enough suspense to keep one interested for the duration.

9posterIt may seem unfortunate that one can only describe a film by referencing previous ones. But in the case of 9, while every scene and visual element reminded me of something i had seen before, the craft and vision that brought all these influences together is powerful enough to make this film an interesting work of its own.

As i watched 9, a post-apocalyptic animated film about a group of puppet creatures left behind by the scientist whose work into AI and robots was responsible for the end of the human race, a myriad of cinematic works and influences came to mind: some of the films of Hayao Miyazaki and Tim Burton, WALL-E, Les triplettes de Belleville, Terminator, Casshern…

9 does not invent very much but provides nonetheless for an intense and entertaining experience, assuming of course that one is entertained by post-apocalyptic tales…

Kick-Ass (Matthew Vaughn 2010)

Posted on April 14 at 19.59, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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kickassfinalposterIt is likely that the people who took issue with my review of Planet Terror are probably not going to enjoy what i am about to say about Kick-Ass, a film that currently enjoys a very generous rating of 8.5 on IMDB.

I recently watched Matthew Vaughn’s Stardust and found it to be an extremely entertaining piece of fantasy storytelling. And i read somewhere that Kick-Ass, the story of a teenager who decides that it’s time to stop being a coward and instead decides to help his fellow citizens by becoming a superhero with no superpowers, draws on Vaughn’s ability to build films around a solid storyline with nicely developed characters. Well, that may be partially true but i certainly don’t understand how Kick-Ass is worthy of such praise, or of an 8.5 on IMDB.

And it’s not the amount of gratuitous violence that i found the most disappointing. After all, we shouldn’t give it more credit than it deserves. There is nothing original or interesting about the violence in Kick-Ass. Tarantino precursors, lovers and followers have made sure that we have become numb and desensitized to heads being blown off and people exploding in giant microwave ovens. This type of superficial violence no longer has a meaning and is instead a purely stylistic exercise, and even this statement might be a bit of a stretch. The sad reality is that violence in films today doesn’t even have to enhance or detract or signify. It is just there. The only slight originality with the violence of Kick-ass is that is perpetrated by and on an 11 year-old girl, which, really, contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, isn’t very cool.

No, the biggest disappointment for me is that Kick-Ass doesn’t have a soul. The pace moves unevenly from one scene to the next, with one of the most annoying narration i can remember, and the characters are sometimes interesting but for the most part cliche and detached. There are some good moments but even these seem to be overplayed and they drown under a score that tries too hard to carry these scenes. After watching Kick-Ass, i was left with very little, most of these mini-episodes having disappeared from my memory shortly after. Watchmen this isn’t.

Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson 2009)

Posted on April 01 at 19.57, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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Wes Anderson continues to show why his quirky and unique style makes him one of the most original filmmakers today.

Using stop-motion animation to bring to life Roald Dahl’s novel about a sly fox that angers the local farmers in an attempt to bring prosperity to his family, Anderson creates a world that is incredibly funny, emotional and real.

The voices of Clooney, Streep, Schwartzman and Murray are perfect and bring just the right amount of anthropomorphism to the animal characters, but without ever creating any type of disconnect. These are animals whose adventures we truly want to follow.

the-book-of-eli-posterIn true Terrence Malick fashion, it took nine years for the Hughes Brothers to give us a follow up to From Hell (2001). But while these long periods in between films are used by Malick (as they were by Kubrick) to plan and strategize and perfect all aspects of his next film, i am not sure that is exactly what happened in the case of The Book of Eli. A post-apocalyptic tale of a lone man crossing a Mad Max-like United States (although A Boy and his Dog came to mind as often as Mad Max did) in search of a place or group of people who will once again embrace the word of God (which is apparently what destroyed the world in the first place), The Book of Eli plays like a western with a light dose of spirituality and lots of sword and martial art fighting. But Denzel Washington is no Ghost Dog (or Blade for that matter), and while he carries the film acceptably, he does not manage to turn it into much more than what it is: an honest but fairly weak attempt at meaningful Sci-Fi. That being said, from a purely action standpoint, the film is entertaining enough and there is little room for boredom.

avatar-poster1It would be naive to assume that Avatar only works because of the technology. There is little doubt that, in this case, the 3D aspect enhances the filmic experience. However, as Michael Bay and George Lucas, and countless others, remind us too often, placing most of the focus of a film on CGI and visual effects while neglecting everything else, can have disastrous consequences.
James Cameron, while not king of the world, is probably one of Hollywood’s princes of perfection. His reputation as a very hard man to please make him a respected, yet also apparently often disliked director who is not afraid to ask for expensive sets to be completely redone in a very short amount of time and for staff members to be dismissed right away if they fail to comply. It is somewhat unfortunate that these types, whether in Hollywood or not, are often rewarded for being unpleasant but the positive side is that it is exactly what makes them difficult that also allows them to create interesting works.

Avatar provides a fairly average story with extremely cliche characters. The acting is nothing special, the soundtrack is over the top, even a bit annoying, and some of the dialogues are ‘cheesy’. So what works? As mentioned earlier, despite the fact that the CGI and visual effects are of the highest caliber, this in itself is usually not enough to carry a film. Cameron has succeeded in creating an overall experience that is so enthralling that the mediocre aspect of some of its parts is forgiven. A bit like Star Wars in 1977, a film which after all was fairly amateurish at times, Avatar immerses us in a very believable world of fantasy, legends and myths. The acting may not make much sense but the details of the world do. It is this meticulously crafted visual and non-visual environment that succeeds in transporting us to a very interesting place for 160 minutes or so.

While i like intelligent, cerebral and artsy cinema, i also love when cinema just entertains and when it does it well. Avatar has sucked all that it could from the little book of entertaining cinema and offers perhaps the best visual effects ever created on film. But more importantly, it works thanks to the clarity of an artistic vision and thanks to the perfectionism of James Cameron.

The Road (John Hillcoat 2009)

Posted on January 28 at 15.27, 2010 by The occasional blogger

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the_road_movie_poster1I hereby nominate Viggo Mortensen for Best Actor at this year’s Academy Awards.

Not being a real writer, i feel reluctant to blame my lack of blogging for the past month on writer’s block. I was hesitating and desperately trying to find an angle, something to latch on to, in the various films i have watched during this period, but nothing came. The sweet but bland The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009), the original but ephemeral Where the Wild Things Are (2009), the annoying and commercial Twilight New Moon (2009), and even the cult and cerebral Slaughterhouse-Five (1972), all left me with no inspiration to write.

But The Road….well, The Road just completely threw me off my chair. I am still reeling from the experience of watching this film. Amazing acting, beautiful beautiful cinematography, gorgeous soundtrack and poignant and sparse dialogue. And sad. So sad.

I never read Cormac McCarthy’s Pullitzer Prize winning novel, so i am not constrained by the usual novel-to-film adaptation discussions. I can not evaluate how good of an adaptation this film is, or whether it is too literal to the novel or not. But i can judge, as far as your humble blogger can judge, that John Hillcoat, the director of The Road, has done a magnificent job at telling this desolate and somber post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son trying to survive in a world that pretty much no longer exists.

I wanted to incorporate one of the two trailers for the film with this post but as i watched them again, i felt that they both dumb the film down considerably and that they do not do justice to the essence of the story. This film is not about action, survival, cannibalism or about the end of the world. Instead, it is about what makes us human and about the beauty of life, and i dare say, the beauty of parenthood. As the father of a 2.5 years old son, this movie touched me on a level deeper than most of the films i have watched in my life. The usual post-apocalyptic and horror movies aside, which should not be compared to The Road, the film reminded me of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s eerie The Return (2003) and of Maggie Gee’s The Ice People, both great and surreal works in their own ways.

The Cove (Louie Psihoyos 2009)

Posted on December 28 at 11.11, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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coveThere are stories about the world around us that we carry with us since our childhood. The origins of these stories are sometimes so distant that it is no longer possible, or needed, to determine whether they are based on fact or fiction.

One of the stories i seem to have believed in for as long as i can remember is that of an otherwise gentle dolphin that one day hit its trainer hard in the upper body and broke a few of her ribs. Not only injured, the trainer was sad and surprised by the unusual behavior of her dolphin. That is, until she went to the hospital and the doctors found a tumor next to the area that had been injured by the dolphin. The story goes that the dolphin noticed something and that without the dolphin’s intervention, the tumor may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Dolphins are amazing and wonderful animals. They remind us that animals that are capable of self-awareness deserve better rights than the ones they have today. How are human beings capable of murdering such intelligent creatures? How is this justified?

I recently reviewed The Age of Stupid, and deemed it to be fairly average in quality from a cinematic standpoint (message aside). The Cove reminds me of Man on Wire and shows us what a quality documentary feels like. It is enthralling, riveting and emotionally, incredibly powerful. It also makes its point well and leaves a clear message for action.

After watching The Cove, there is no reason for you to not:
- donate to your favorite animal or whale and dolphin NGO
- become more aware of the efforts of the IWC, regardless of how ineffective it can be sometimes
- refuse to visit marine centers such as Seaworld that encourage the trade of dolphins and place human selfish amusement before the well-being of these sensitive creatures
- watch your fish consumption
- and of course, refuse to eat whale and dolphin meat

A great film.

the-age-of-stupidIt is the year 2050, and we seem to have turned Earth into Mercury. One man remains, isolated in an indestructible tower that has been built to preserve humanity’s legacy: famous works of art, DNA samples of animals, plants and fauna, and naturally, a large digital media archive…This man proceeds to tell us about the many ways in which we screwed up the planet, calling us stupid in the process. I recently came across a solar modules manufacturer whose slogan reads: don’t leave the planet to the stupid. So, is humanity stupid? Are we indeed not realizing the extent of the damage that we are inflicting on our Earth due to our consumption habits?

My field of work these days is directly related to social and environmental issues. As such, i keep abreast of the latest when it comes to global warming, habitat loss, and our fossil fuel addiction. While i leave a bit of room in my beliefs for the skeptics, i am nonetheless very convinced by the fact that we are headed in the wrong direction and that we must quickly turn to renewables and change our consumption patterns. Yet, despite these beliefs, i find these references to the stupidity of the ‘non-believers’ or of those who do not care, banal and not particularly useful. Moreover, i found this documentary to be somewhat devoid of interesting facts and compelling stories (and full of bad CGI and low-quality infographics). It is perhaps because i watch documentaries on similar subjects relatively often, documentaries that explore a particular subject in much more depth, that The Age of Stupid felt too general and broad. I was not convinced or moved by the stories (Iraq and Africa being the exception) and learned very little. The man from the future felt very gimmicky and did not help tie it all together effectively. I certainly do not think that anyone stupid would watch this and become less stupid.

The Age of Stupid made the headlines thanks to the astuteness of its marketing campaign and Indie release system. The endorsement of many celebrities and politicians helped bring this low budget documentary to a record number of screens across the globe, getting a Guiness record in the process for biggest film premiere ever. Local groups of activists here in Berlin, some of whom i know, helped organize the premiere and ensured that as much publicity as possible was generated via the blogosphere and social media platforms. And most of these bloggers rated the film highly, only too happy to find a common outlet for their beliefs and message, which they have not been able to do on such a scale since The Inconvenient Truth.

I share these beliefs for the most part but, as someone who watches lots of documentaries, from a purely cinematic standpoint, i found The Age of Stupid slightly underwhelming.

The Age of Stupid: Trailers: Global Premiere from Age of Stupid on Vimeo.

surrogates-posterSurrogates raises some very interesting issues but unfortunately, does not do it in a very effective way. There is very little differentiating this film from the the average Sci-Fi/Action blockbuster. A bit less action and a few more thought-provoking moments perhaps, but still too much bad acting, poor casting and awfully written scenes that make you gasp in astonishment at such lack of respect for plausibility and consistency.

Nonetheless, for anyone interested in transhumanism, Surrogates will be somewhat stimulating. Human enhancement and the rise of artificial intelligence, along with the explosion of Genetics, Information Systems and Nanotechnology (the so-called GRIN technologies), will lead in the near future to some of the most complicated and important ethical questions that mankind has ever faced.

Surrogates describes a future where people’s only way of interacting with others and with their surroundings is through the use of Surrogates, robotic or cybernetic entities that look like younger versions of their human owners. All one needs to do is to lay at home on a comfy sofa, put on a not-very-fancy headpiece and one is immediately connected to their avatar and thus, to their ‘immortal’ younger, better looking and stronger selves. The difference with today’s virtual reality or simply net-based avatars is that these surrogates ‘live’ in the ‘real’ world, although once again, we start getting into all kinds of speculations about what real is. Surrogates is about the future but it is a critique of the present. Our increasing dependence on social media and virtual worlds is turning our conception of the word reality upside down. More and more people are choosing web and virtual-based reality over traditional reality. Some people are scared, while the younger generation plunges head fist into this new way of socializing and of experiencing life. We can not stop this pattern but we can discuss its ethics and fight for ways to make it better. Ultimately, virtual reality will become a natural part of existence, perhaps the only one and we will learn to upload our minds and to exist outside the confines of our fragile and limited bodies. After all, humankind, on the whole, has always wished for immortality and this is one way to do it.
But Surrogates does not discuss the possibility of mind uploading and presents us with a world that seems content to rot away at home while their Surrogates live on their behalf. I find that there is a logic flaw here, unless, of course, one can ultimately leave their dying body behind and just continue to live on by going from one new Surrogate model to the next. The film does not go into this level of detail – this is after all a big budget action film – which is a shame as the concept of Surrogates is fascinating.

Moon (Duncan Jones 2009)

Posted on November 14 at 22.47, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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moon-officail-poster-fullsize-500x736Attention: Spoilers right from the start!

Let’s get one thing straight: there is no need to further reinforce the naive belief that so many people have that clones are exact visual/physical copies of a person and that they can just be produced to be born adults. The technology to make this happen will exist sooner or later, but Moon plays on these cliches with too much ease. Let’s leave that for mediocre films such as The 6th Day (2000).

Now that i have gotten this out of the way, i can focus on why Moon is one of the best Sci-Fi films i have watched in quite some time. The comparisons with classics such as Solaris (1972), 2001 (1968) and Silent Running (1972) are inevitable. When was the last time you saw a Sci-Fi film that required you to think? A Sci-Fi film with no action, no crazy camera movements, no overbearing and loud soundtrack? A Sci-Fi film that was courageous enough to dispense with most of the requirements that seem to be de rigueur in 21st century cinema? A couple of exceptions aside, probably not in the past 20 years or so.

Adroitly directed by first time director Duncan Jones, the son of David Bowie, and sublimely acted by Sam Rockwell, Moon is a superb moody piece about a man working a three-year solitary shift on the moon, on behalf of an earth-based corporation. As he is about to reach the end of his shift, and eagerly awaiting to return to his family on earth, a series of bizarre events begin to unfold. I was prepared for a lot of potential scenarios around the subject of loneliness and madness, but i was not prepared for the twist that Moon offers. With the exception of that small issue i mentioned earlier, the explanation for this man working on the moon alone and starting to suffer from hallucinations is quite satisfying. Although, one might think that the corporation would probably terminate the shift earlier than three years if they knew that there were a potential for problems to start occurring before the end of the shift. Nonetheless, the screenplay is quite clever and keeps one riveted until the end.

Sam Rockwell is as good as he usually is, and probably even better (twice as good?). I can’t imagine what it must feel like to play in a movie on your own. Only a certain type of actor can probably handle it, and turn in a spectacular performance in the process. The production design reminds us of 2001, and of a time when the future looked clean. While a bit disconcerting a first, there is something soothing about letting one’s self be engulfed in this hygienic, white and clean vision of a lunar base. It feels like surrendering to the dreams we had and were forced to abandon after the 80s made us realize that the future is dirty, wasteful and gray. But the production design of Moon also makes sense in the context of the story, and becomes even more so appropriate once the truth is revealed. And then there is the soundtrack by Clint Mansell, who has previously composed beautiful tracks for the films of Darren Aronofsky, which is haunting and ideal and enhances the sense of unease that permeates the film.

A great film.

sleep_dealer_version2Small budget films have the advantage of needing to attract smaller audiences to recoup their costs. As such, i would imagine, it must release some pressure to conform and compromise while at the same time enabling the type of creativity that often comes only with severe budgetary constraints. The majority of good Sci-Fi films these days appear to be associated with lower budgets, as directors and writers attempt to tell real stories around serious and contemporary issues. Science Fiction was not always the stuff of explosions and superficial entertainment, but the past 20 years or so have certainly given the genre a terrible reputation. We have Hollywood to thank for this, although we must not forget that once in a while the machinery can still produce quality films.

But if Hollywood continues to mainly spit out one brainless action and explosion-driven film after the next, other countries, such as Japan, Korea, Spain and France, unable (or unwilling) to compete on budget terms, sometimes produce very interesting, more character-driven Sci-Fi pieces. And recently, District 9, a South African production, showed us that a USD 30 million budget can go a long way if the film is built on a good base of intelligent screenplay and solid acting.

Now, from Mexico, a country that has in the past few years produced some pretty remarkable films, directors and actors, comes Sleep Dealer, another low budget film that is filled with good intents and is more entertaining than 99% of what comes out these days and pretends to be Sci-Fi. Like District 9, Sleep Dealer attempts to tackle lots of contemporary issues on a background of social criticism.

Sleep Dealer tells the story of a young restless Mexican who, wanting to be connected to the world rather than to continue living the life of his elders, heads to Tijuana to work in a Sleep Dealer. Sleep Dealers are factories where workers are hooked up to virtual reality networks that allow them to provide work remotely for many US-based companies. In this not-too-distant future, the Mexican labor workers, still driven by the dream of a better life, are once again exploited but they never cross the border to the US, thereby ‘solving’ one of North America’s most pressing social issue today, at least from a US point of view. Our protagonist realizes soon enough that the traditional land-based life that his family has been living for generations is perhaps not so bad after all, and that the capitalistic and technology-driven dreams that he and other people of his age harbor are based on deceit and empty values.

So immigration, capitalism, social movement and technology are the overarching themes of Sleep Dealer. Within these, smaller thematic issues are depicted, such as mind uploading, water scarcity, DNA fingerprinting, memory ownership, death as a spectacle and the rise of shock-based entertainment, threat of bacterial infections, and more…

Too much for one film probably, but Sleep Dealer manages to pull it off reasonably well. Like with most films, we are reminded of many previous Sci-Fi efforts such as eXistenZ (1999) -virtual reality nodes as an extension of body and the experience as a drug-, Minorty Report (2002) -the visualization and interaction for memory viewing-, Code 46 (2003)-social mobility/division-, Strange Days (1995) and Total Recall (1990)-memories for sale, and even Blade Runner (1982)-Tijuana in Sleep Dealer is reminiscent of Ridley Scott’s Los Angeles- and Babel (2006)-are we getting closer to one another or further away?-. But whereas some films tend to just rehash or steal bits and pieces from previous works, others use the influence intelligently and create something new and fresh out of it. This is the case for Sleep Dealer.

Although i may not agree with its seemingly very black and white critic of technology, and although the film feels a bit amateurish at times, i still very much enjoyed what Sleep Dealer is trying to tell us and how it does it.

Pandorum (Christian Alvart 2009)

Posted on October 11 at 14.02, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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pandorum-coverWatching Pandorum has made me realize how anxiously i await Duncan Jones’ Moon (2009). How long has it been since we have had an interesting, grown-up and cerebral film about the emptiness and scariness of space without the film resorting to superfluous tricks and cheap thrills? Around 30 years since Outland (1981) and Alien (1979), 37 since Silent Running (1972) and Solaris (1972) and more than 40 since 2001 (1968), every effort since feels hesitant, disjointed and happy to compromise for the sake of reaching out to a wider audience. Event Horizon (1997) is perhaps one of the scariest films ever made but i remember the gore much more than i remember the psychological. Sunshine (2007) had a lot of potential but eventually disappointed by turning into ‘just another horror film’. And then there is Pitch Black, Red Planet, Dante 01, Mission to Farce, and countless others, films that range from the decent to the terribly bad and that use space as an excuse for superficial entertainment.

ATTENTION SPOILERS AHEAD
Pandorum reminds us of many such past efforts. On the positive side, its production design owes much to Alien with its sweaty, smoky, dark and claustrophobic corridors where what one does not see is more terrifying than what one does see. There is also, on a couple of occasions, a reasonable depiction of the madness that can ensue after too much time spent in cold-sleep (Pandorum is the name given to such a condition). Yet, we are very far from what Solaris showed us about madness in space and much closer to Event Horizon’s extrapolations. On a more negative side, the camera movements are obscenely fast and disorientating and i continue to wonder why an increasing number of directors and cinematographers endorse this type of film making. It always feels a bit like a cope-out to me, a method to avoid thinking harder about how to create tension or confusion or even rhythm. The result of combining such camera movements with lots of darkness, smoke and selected light sources is that one spends a large part of Pandorum seeing pretty much nothing. But the most disappointing aspect of the film for me were the mutants who looked straight out of I am Legend (2007) and The Descent (2005). First, for them to have evolved in such a manner in a few decades (at least i think it is a few decades – someone correct me if i am wrong as the time frame was not made exactly clear; i am assuming this is the time for Cam to age into Dennis plus a few additional years in cold sleep) makes absolutely no sense, especially not when you consider that they all seem to have a penchant for Mad Max fashion. And second, couldn’t the creators just come up with something a bit more original and plausible?

Pandorum feels to me a bit like Sunshine did. Lots of potential, a good premise that becomes weaker towards the end, and too much energy and focus spent on the wrong parts of the screenplay. If only there had been a bit less of a ‘i am going to eat your flesh’ angle and more time spent (with less crazy camera movements) on the symptoms and consequences of Pandorum in the humans, i would have liked this film a lot more.

District 9 (Neill Blomkamp 2009)

Posted on September 03 at 13.51, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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district_nineI had the pleasure of watching the German premiere of District 9 as part of the Berlin Fantasy Film Festival. It is not often that a Sci-Fi film rises above the ocean of mediocrity that plagues the genre so when it does happen, it is worth praising it.

District 9 is the debut film of Neill Blomkamp, Peter Jackson’s 29 years old protege. An action flick with a heart and a bit of social critic, the film revolves around issues of intergration between the residents of Johannesburg and a community of weakened Alien creatures that landed on Earth 20 years earlier and were forced to live in the slums of the South African city.

Made on what is today a fairly modest budget of $30 million, District 9 feels much bigger and better than most sci-fi films that cost two or three times that amount. The 600 visual effect shots are for the most part splendid and the level of detail impressive. Add to this some quality acting (Sharlto Copley is a lot of fun to watch), solid directing on the part of a young and ‘in’experienced director and a cinema verite documentary style of filming that is effective in building a sense of the real in the film while covering up nicely for potential errors, and you have a cult favorite in the making.

Yet, it is not the masterpiece that many have talked about. A few inconsistencies and one major (in my opinion) gap in the storyline prevent it from becoming already one of the best Sci-Fi films ever. Attention Spoilers Ahead. I am referring to the liquid that allows for the shuttle to return to the ship. I found it a bit of a stretch that this liquid also happens to turn a human into an alien through inhalation. Perhaps there was a good explanation for it in the film and i missed it. In which case i would need to edit this blog entry at a later date. In the meantime, i was a bit disappointed that they could not find a better way to handle the transition between the two ‘halves’ of the film. I also picked up a few other things, albeit small, which made me realize that the film still felt a tad amateurish at times. For this reason, it certaintly should not be discussed in the same vein as 2001 or Blade Runner or Alien…

But perhaps time will prove me wrong. In the meantime, District 9 is a very good film and a breath of fresh air in the otherwise usually boring and unsurprising Sci-Fi film landscape.

terminator_salvation__the_future_beI hear Will Smith was offered the part of Marcus Wright in Terminator Salvation but decided to turn it down due to the softness of the ‘spirit of giving’ angle. Instead, Smith went for the soapy Seven Pounds (08). Too bad as i can imagine very well Will Smith playing an existentially troubled machine that thinks it is human and that decides to donate its heart to the main protagonist, John Connor.

If i just made up the part about Will Smith, it is only to illustrate how silly of a film Terminator Salvation is. While i respect Will Smith, i found Seven Pounds to be way over the top in terms of cheese factor and this latest Terminator is not far behind, although, after just a bit of reflection, i might have to say that Seven Pounds is a better film. So way to go Will, you have once again chosen wisely. The same can not be said for Christian Bale whose performance in this film certainly did not warrant his much publicized verbal assault on a crew member during the shoot. Ever since The Machinist (04), Bale has built a reputation for strongly getting ‘in-role’ and for his Method Acting intensity, but lately that does not seem to translate into a whole lot. His Bruce Wayne is uneventful and dull, as is his John Connor. But Bale is not a bad actor. He just needs to start choosing better roles.

Terminator Salvation is a poorly written film with lasily developed characters and some of the worst editing i have seen recently. Scenes jump from one to the next without much logic and with very little smoothness. Much of the script is driven by the action without much regard for plausibility and common sense. For example, the resistance penetrates Skynet with such ease, it makes you wonder what the whole fuss with the machines has been about. Then there is the sexy female character who so conveniently meets the machine and falls so madly in love with it that she makes a fairly ridiculous decision that has no other purpose than to drive the action forward. My list of complaints goes on.

McG, the director, recently had a feud with Michael Bay, my old nemesis. I suggest that instead of fighting over who has the biggest robot, they should go have a beer and exchange ideas on how to make crappy films. Bay still has the most knowledge in this area, but it looks like McG is catching up fast.

caprica1This two hour pilot for the new series Caprica surprised me. I certainly was not expecting Battlestar Galactica all over again, but i also was not prepared for such a ‘character-driven’ experience. I use the term loosely here, and mainly to highlight the move away from space as the main narrative background. Intended to gain a wider audience, Caprica may also end up leaving some BSG fans behind…

Caprica takes place on a planet that, aside from a couple of minute differences, looks exactly like our earth. Its main city, Caprica, is any 1950s North American city with a few futuristic skyscrapers added here and there for good measure. I read that the idea of using the 1950s as an influence was to emphasize the fact that all this is taking place in our distant past but to nonetheless convey a sense of excitement towards the future. Personally, i found the production design of Caprica to be one of its weakest points. There is an underwhelming sense of lack of imagination as we stroll through streets and alleys that look like the types we would see in any other TV show. I understand that Caprica takes place in our past, but that knowledge is not enough to overcome the disconnect that one experiences when seeing our present when one is in fact thinking about either the distant future or the distant past. The fact that Caprica and BSG take place millions of years ago is already quite a challenge from a production design standpoint, one that i have discussed already in a couple of BSG posts. But in Caprica, it has become worse. The creators did not even see it fit to show us a game of Pyramid. Instead, we just see a few foamy pads laying around while around 70 extras jump up and down in what looked to be an ice-hockey arena. This is of course intentional, the producers and writers either held up by budgetary constraints or intent on ‘keeping it real’ in an effort to cater to a larger audience than the usual Sci-Fi fare traditionally does. In the end, i see no reason for Caprica to look like 1950s New York or Chicago, as i saw no reason for pens, paper, cancer, cigarettes and many other things to exist in the universe of BSG. One can not have invented interstellar and faster-than-light travel and still be bogged down by so many 20th century human weaknesses and memes. And this applies to design and architecture as well. I also felt uneasy by some of the casting choices, including Eric Stoltz as Daniel Graystone, the driven and selfish scientist who brings about the beginning of the end. Stoltz failed to convince me as a technical genius and as a father, even as a bad one.

A week after having watched Virtuality, it was interesting to see again virtual reality being depicted on TV. Ron Moore has been recycling some of his ideas since in both pilots, a character dies but continues to exist in virtual reality. And in both cases, VR is used pretty much as a recreational tool where a simple headset is enough to transport the ‘user’ into an exact replica of the real world, whatever that real world may be, all five senses included. But Caprica goes much further and attempts to explore some potential societal and moral implications of not only virtual reality but also of immortality, transhumanism, artificial intelligence and genetic engineering. The theme of religion is emphasized from the very start and Dr Graystone’s experiments provide the required foundation for the standard science vs religion debate. Where the debate becomes more interesting than usual is in Dr Graystone’s ideas about merging (mind uploading?) the encoded data of his daughter (drawing on current lifelogging trends – blogs, social networks, data capture…) with an AI-enabled robotic shell. The potential result is immortality for a new a type of being. These concepts are not too far-fetched and many people today in transhumanist circles are working on such ideas. So credit to Ron Moore for keeping it believable. I suppose Mary Shelley did not come up with the idea for Frankenstein. She must have found some old book somewhere telling tales of immortality based on Caprican rather than Summerian or Egyptian mythology.

In spite of what i consider to be weaknesses in the production values and in the casting, the pilot for Caprica had plenty of interesting moments and clearly warrants further viewing. It is hard to imagine that the Cylons were created only 60 years before the fall of Caprica, but i am sure the creators will find a satisfactory way to put it all together.

Virtuality (Peter Berg 2009)

Posted on July 10 at 11.52, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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“There’s more humor probably in the first 10 minutes of Virtuality than there was in the entire run of Battlestar Galactica.” This comment made by Ron Moore in an interview with Wired Magazine illustrates exactly why i feel that Virtuality, had it been picked up as a series by Fox, would have ended up being 10 times less interesting than BG.

Virtuality is a series pilot about a group of astronauts on a 10 year journey to a nearby star system. Increasingly difficult conditions on board as well as a strange and dangerous behavior from an AI in the virtual reality systems slowly lead to an atmosphere of instability, suspicion and aggression. To make matters more interesting, or so Ron Moore thought, the group is also the subject of a reality TV show transmitted ‘live’ back to Earth.

For about 60 minutes, Virtuality feels amateurish, boring and filled with cliches and stolen ideas. The acting is very average, the casting often inappropriate (all these doctors and scientists who look straight out of the pages of Seventeen or Vogue – the selected Elite of Earth?), the characters are poorly developed and feel like we have seen them a hundred times before in films and TV shows, the dialogues are uninspiring and the camera movements are such that one wonders if the DOP was drunk or on speed.

But the film picks up a bit in the last 30 minutes, as the writers felt understandingly that they had to take us towards some kind of climax to increase their chances of the pilot being turned into a series. However, one can easily imagine that the first 60 minutes would be a more accurate reflection of the quality of the entire series, and as such, i unbelievably find myself agreeing with the Fox network, or at least with the executive who pulled the plug on Virtuality.

Body of Lies (Ridley Scott 2008)

Posted on June 28 at 9.07, 2009 by The occasional blogger

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body_of_liesI just had a flashback to 1982. I am coming out of the movie theater having just watched Blade Runner with some friends. My head is spinning, my imagination flowing. Blade Runner has just taken me to another world, a world richer than that created by any other movie before, and very few since. And all i can think about is that Ridley Scott is perhaps my favorite director. Or maybe third, after Kubrick and Coppola.

Forward to 2009. I just finished watching Body of Lies, Scott’s take on terrorism, intelligence services and the US’s involvement in the Middle East. And all i can think about is that Ridley Scott has become one of my least favorite directors. I still like him more than Michael Bay though.

Scott has become the expert in, and has perhaps invented, a new genre in cinema. The false epic. The shallow political deepness. The smoke and mirrors saga. Whatever. Films such as 1492, Kingdom of Heaven, American Gangster, Gladiator, and Body of Lies are nothing but big commercial vehicles shrouded in a pretension of intelligence and resting on a fairly unstable historical base. That is not to say that they are bad films. Scott is an extremely talented filmmaker, and his films are always perfectly crafted. But they have lost so much of their uniqueness and artistic inclinations since Scott started as a film maker. Where is the envelope pushing and non-conformity of The Duellists, Alien, Blade Runner, and even of Legend? Well, it is long gone, perhaps when Scott found fame with Thelma and Louise. Scott may have pulled a Nicolas Cage on us, succumbing to the dark forces of fame and commercial appeal. In this he resisted only a little bit longer than his brother Tony who has been making blatantly commercial films for the past 30 years (True Romance and The Hunger aside).

Body of Lies tells the story of an American intelligence agent in the Middle East, played by DiCaprio, who sets up a fake terrorist organization in an attempt to capture the mastermind behind several bombings in the West. DiCaprio does a fairly good job, as he usually does, although he unfortunately rarely seems to rise anymore above the level of fairly good. But i admire his on-screen professionalism and his off-screen political activism. Russell Crowe plays DiCaprio’s boss, a cultural stereotype who almost by himself is supposed to tell us everything that is wrong with the US’s policy in the Middle East. But the role is poorly written and Crowe’s performance ends up being for the most part boring and uninteresting.

Body of Lies is what i would call a ‘Tom Clancy’ political film, meaning that it is not a political film at all. It is an action-driven yarn with big explosions, car chases, fast editing, good cinematography, big name actors and, with regrettably, only a semblance of political depth.