Monday, November 16, 2009

Bruce Willis is not a robot, Aliens are not African people, and Jews are not happy.

The Surrogates

Sci-Fi thriller starring Bruce Willis, adapted from the graphic novel. In the near future, people have created android bodies so lifelike, that - with the help of a neural uplink - they now use them to get around instead of their own bodies. Basically, taking the avatar concept to it's logical endpoint - literally be whoever you want to be. Fun concept, though the avatar metaphor isn't really explored in much depth. There's a mystery plot, which brings no surprises, and characters which fail to engage over-much. I guess there wasn't anything really awful about The Surrogates, but I'm hard pressed to really recommended it. Watch it, and then perhaps use it as a platform to launch into a conversation about the fronts people use online, and what it all really means for humanity. You'll probably come to more interesting conclusions than the film itself did.

Was it entertaining? Had a couple of moments. There's a chase scene with Bruce Willis being very Terminator which was kind of cool.

Is it worth watching? Couldn't hurt, I suppose.

District 9

Sci-fi action/mockumentary starring.... some South African dudes. Now this I enjoyed. The first third of the film is shot in pure documentary style, giving us a look at an alien reserve in Johannesburg, started when a starship came in earth in 1982. So, naturally, Apartheid references abound, and for the most part, it works really well. Just about the entire film is shot in an actual Johannesburg slum, which makes for a suitably messy, depressing setting. As the film goes along, a plot does begin to emerge, as we follow a bureaucrat as he wonders around the titular District 9, giving eviction notices to the Aliens (as they are being moved out of their current homes to another preserve, which, notably, is far away from the city). During the course of his wacky adventures in evil banality, he comes into contact with an alien substance. Things get worse for him, but much better for the audience, as the film takes a turn first from scene-setting mockumentary to body horror, and then from body horror to wacky 80's style action-fest. I've read reports of people finding this shift jarring, as though they expected the whole thing to be in the doco style, but personally, given the sheer amount of horrible things that happen to the protagonist, and the complete and utter bastardy of a lot of the characters, when our dude gets his hands on a giant alien lightening gun which pops people like balloons, it is THE MOST GRATIFYING THING EVER. It's be like if you were watching the Wire, and everything was totally serious business, except that McNalty finds a giant cannon and kills EVERYONE YOU HATED. HORRIBLY. Now, one could make a case that this style shift betrays the premise of the film but turning it into a cartoon shoot out, but if you approach the film as an action sci-fi instead of a complete straight up satire, the documentary style is an excellent mechanism for drawing you into the world, setting up the characters and the situation, and building a sense of contempt and discomfort everything and everyone we are exposed to (with the notable exception of a single Alien character. And his son). Thus, having pulled us in, the action pay-off carries real emotional weight, releases this tension, and cathartic-ally indulges our contempt for the villainous characters. Ultimately, while this film offers some commentary on humanities inhumanity to man (via insect-like alien proxies), and presents in all in an intriguing documentary style, it is, at it's heart, and action film, and should be approached as such if you really want to enjoy it. Which isn't to say that there's no depth at all, but just that as an action vehicle, it's set-up and pay-off is such a high that it's not to be missed. It also has a giant robot sequence which is far more entertaining than both Transformers movies put together. Not that that would be all that difficult...

Is it entertaining? Oh, most definately. Though the first half is really quite harrowing, the last half-an-hour or so is a total riot.

Is it worth watching? Totally.

Inglorious Basterds

Hey, Tarantino, my old friend. You know what I liked about your films? It wasn't the feet, and it wasn't the copious film references, nor was it the sudden, high impact violence. It was the way you told stories through dialogue. So, by that rationale, I must have really loved Deathproof, seeing as about 60% dialogue, right? Well, no, I'm afraid not. I think what was missing mostly from Deathproof was that, drowning in vapid dialogue from vapid characters, there is practically no plot. No tension, no story. Just chicks in a bar/chicks in a diner. Well, good news, Quent old sport, because Basterds is a real return to form, showcasing everything I liked about your earlier films, with only a few of the annoying elements of your later stuff. Are there gratuitous pop culture references? Well, yes, but I didn't even notice most of them, and a lot of them are more about German cinema of the 1940's, which, given the context, is somewhat relevant. Is there sudden impact violence? Oh my yes, and it offers a marked anti-climax to the build up preceding it... kind of like a Sergio Leone Western, really. Are there feet? ...yes. There are feet. But no, forget all that, because what this film has, and what no Tarantino film has really excelled at since Pulp Fiction, are long, drawn out and painfully tense conversations. What makes them so tense? Because whilst a vast amount of time is spent observing the surface tensions, with every single scene there is an additional piece of information that takes every line being said and adds about 30 layers of menace to it. Breezy talk about Milk with a SS officer? There are Jews hiding under the floor boards. That celebrity guessing game where you stick the name of a famous person to your forehead? The participants are a mix of Allied spies and suspicious German officers. Dinner with a refined gentlemen in a Parisian restaurant? You're a Jewish woman sitting across from the man who had your family killed. Scenes like this are so laden with menacing subtext, that every single word and action by every single character carries with it a resonance that reaches far beyond whatever simple word or action has occurred. These scenes are brilliant.
There are annoying parts - I'm not fond of the way Tarantino's gotten into the habit of editing the music against his scenes. But the way it's shot, and the way the story is told, is also interesting, and not just from an aesthetic standpoint (although, just about every set looks wonderful, and the camera's milking every last scene for all their worth). Despite it's setting, this film is shot like a Western. No where is this more prevalent than in the opening scene. A farmer, his daughters, a sweeping vista, trouble approaches from the horizon - 2 black riders heralding a black carriage. The whole thing is so timelessly Western that it informs the rest of the story, even though the plot doesn't quite fit the style - Once Upon a Time in Mexico is possibly the closest parallel I can think of off hand, simply for the way we follow multiple protagonist through parallel and somewhat interconnecting plot-lines - though they never really meet. There's probably a wealth of subtext to delve through here, but as a piece of spectacle, it's quite enjoyable on it's own. Recommended, if you can forgive the travesty that was Death Proof and the snooze-fest that was Kill Bill vol 2.

Is it entertaing? Swings right from entertining to tense to outright distubring.

Is it worth watching? I certainly enjoyed myself, so I think I can reccommend this to any fans of Taratino's, especially his earlier films, and of dialogue-driven thrillers.

Ocular Cancer - A Transformers 2 review

Like most things from the 80's, it seemed pretty awesome at the time. Nostalgia lets us strap a large near-opaque block to our eyes, shielding our present perspectives from the harsh reality: things weren't really that much better in the old days. That said, Transformers were a really awesome little toy, and will forever stand as such. The original Generation 1 show however... knew it's target audience, and gave them exactly what they wanted, and our little 6-14 year old minds lapped it up. With this in mind, Transformers - Revenge of the Fallen, is an incredibly faithful continuation of this vision. It nets everything a strapping young lad on the cusp of adulthood might enjoy, and tosses it on screen like so much flapping fish, hoping that the results will somehow create a coherent piece of action entertainment. However, all this has resulted in is a screen covered in scales and fish slime that slowly sinks into the audience pit, 'til there is no escape. It smells bad, too.

Now, naturally, no one's going to go into this movie expecting a Lean-esque cinematic masterpiece. We're here to watch giant robots kick the shit out of each other with gay abandon, and God Dammit, there's nothing wrong with that. Pure, mindless action is a cornerstone of cinema, and the spectacle that the cinema experience can present is second to none. And, naturally, the effects are top notch, with the same incredibly detailed androids that prevailed in the first film. What is required for a film like this to fulfil its obligation to the audience is very simple: make it fast, make it exciting, make it funny, make it cool. It's a fairly simple formula to follow, and going into an action film expecting mindless fun should be a simple equation. Of course, if I flatter myself to think that you, good reader, have taken note of the title of this review, it would seem that I am less than satisfied with the results of this cinematic experience. What, then, does Transformers 2 do wrong?

Okay. The action is... impressive, to a point. However, it is chaotic, confusing, and not remotely engaging. It's a good example of CGI work... a great one, in fact, just for the sheer amount of movement going on all at once. Sparks fly, fluid sprays, paint chips, and cybernetic eyes go flying in all directions. It's going to make any CG aficionado squirt all sorts of happy fluids over their unlucky companions, but unfortunately, it's clear that nothing else in the film was given more than a cursory glance, before being palmed off to a chimpanzee with a learning disability for quality control. And that is the real problem with this film. Yes, this film is clearly meant for an extremely specific demographic. However, everyone outside of that, or people who are unable to empathize with the mindset of a 13-year old boy with a re-bar stuck through his brain, are going to be left wanting.

Simply put, this film is dreadfully, inescapably juvenile, and will not let you enjoy the spectacle for one second without something reminding you of this fact. And not juvenile in the way that, say, Harry Potter is - which is clearly aimed at a younger market, but doesn't talk down to it's audience. No, this is something clearly trying to appeal to the idiot child, fingers sticky with their own semen (and only semen, if we're lucky), who doesn't know what a character is and doesn't care, who thinks that women can be interesting to look at if they bend in certain ways but has never thought it necessary to listen to one, who thinks that cars are the greatest thing in the universe because they're so damn loud, for whom the punchline of every joke is either a reference to a bodily function, sexual act, or sexual orientation, for whom Egypt (and possibly every nation which isn't theirs) consists of two guys on a camel, pointing at the pyramids and grunting. Not just children, but lowest common denominator. And it'll do spectacularly. And more films in this ilk will be made. And I will have to have a basement dug out under my house, simply so I can hang myself in it.

To make a mindless action film wrong, follow these instructions: make as many sub-plots as you can without developing anyone of them, present half-dimensional characters who exist either to stammer or flop all over the screen, scrape the absolute bottom of the Freidberg/Seltzer slush pile for comedy (which, amazingly, is somehow ALL bottom), create dialogue that somehow manages to swing between boring and excruciating, pad it out so that it's at least twice as long as it's meant to be whilst killing the pace stone dead, and general offend the viewer at every interval to the point where they can no longer indulge in the base pleasures of watching robots punch each other to pieces without wanting to tear their own eyes and fling them at the screen in a last, feeble protest, before - through sheer force of rage-born will - dragging their mangled body to Michael Bey's office and collapsing head-first into his lap, vomiting blood all over his legs, and limply wheezing a final plea of 'Whhhyyyyyy?' as they expire. Michael Bey took this simple pleasure away from me, and for that he deserves at least one eyeless corpse in the genitals. In fact, that sounds like the perfect way to rate this movie.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen - One eyeless corpse in Michael Bey's lap out of five.

Is it entertaining? ...I would say no. Maybe for fans of monster trucks, but only if your preferred vantage point is from having your eyeballs stapled to the car door, obscuring any goings-on that aren't a shiny piece of metal.

Is it worth watching? No. No, I don't think so at all.

Man Bites God! Matthew Stover's Blade of Tyshalle

I'm somewhat of a fan of Stover's for his Star Wars books, if nothing else- he seems to be one of the few authors who take writing for the franchise seriously, employing all his considerable skills to write adventures stories that are a little deeper than the standard fantasy fare. Yes, this book contains a lot of the standard epic fantasy trappings, especially in regards to the setting, but at the end of the day, apart from the escapist metaphor, the setting is mostly there for backdrop and plot purposes. This book is not about taking you away on a magical journey with amazing short people who speak like middle-class gentry. It is, rather, a novel constructed around a series of specific philosophical points, connected with a series of monologues, dialogues, and pretty awesome action sequences. This novel, more than any of his others, is probably the most idiosyncratic Stover book, containing many elements and ideas seen in his other novels, collected in one place, turned up to eleven, set on fire and catapulted to the moon. This is Matthew Stover: OFF THE FUCKING CHAIN. That one that he was on. Before. The chain of not-being-as-Stover-y-as-he-could-be.

So, for anyone who's read this man's other books, we should know what that means. Lots of one-liners, gruesome and violent hardcore action scenes with more splatter than an Dario Argento film, author tracts discussing the virtues of independence, self-analysis and deconstruction, myth making, myth breaking, the relationship between illusion and reality, and how they each influence the other, self-image, self-definition, self-centredness, self-pie*, a colossal, apocalyptic finale, and some rather disturbing descriptions of cannibalism. It's fun for all concerned.

I'll quickly detail the plot, because I hate this part – Hari Michaelson/Caine, former superstar 'actor' (actor in this instance being a sort of combination of stage actor and gladiator, who is sent to an alternative world to have crazy adventures, with much of the population back on Earth watching events through a neural uplink in his head. It's like the ultimate in Reality Tv mixed with fantastic escapism – actually be someone else for a little while, someone whos' life is much more exciting, without any personal threat to the audience. The actor, of course, is under personal threat all the time), has assumed managerial control of the broadcast corporation responsible for the creation and distribution of the actor's 'adventures'. When he discovers a virus has been released on the alternative world, he must overcome his greatest obstacles to save the population of Overworld, as well as his family. Stuff happens.

This is actually the sequel to one of Stover's previous novels, Heroes Die, which allows the story to make one of it's larger thematic points: what happens to the hero after he kills the baddies, gets the girl, saves the day and rides off into the sunset? The answer is, naturally, he becomes very bored, depressed, and is also a paraplegic. This is, by and large, not a happy book, and it quickly moves from every-day sort of ennui to full blown horrific tragedy. Structurally, the plot is simply about taking an unhappy, yet somewhat comfortable man, stripping away everything he loves, and seeing if there's anything left. This being a Stover novel, it turns out that what is left is a force of ass-kicking nature, as stripping away a man's comforts is paramount to stripping away his personal delusions, and also freeing him of the fear of consequence. Our protagonist, Caine, was always a bit of a tough cookie, but book makes a point of the fact that at the end of the day, all that separates Caine from any other person is sheer force of will. What stops the novel from being one great Ubermensch tract is the fact that Caine pays and pays and pays for being who he is. There is no real great physical or spiritual reward for such a character being absolutely who he is. All he really has, in the end, is himself. The pros and cons of such an outlook are pretty clearly layed out in the novel, and I don't really think one can consider Caine to be a role model – he is, however, a wholly compelling, flawed character – and a great excuse for some people to get decapitated.

Prose is florid, but sparse – this is not a book for incredibly detailed descriptions of locations or people. It instead strives for a more physical and psychological realism – what is of real interest to the reader in a book like this should be who these people are, why they are who they are, how this informs their actions, and the actions themselves. Locations' physical appearence is less important their the impressions they leave. I, for one, am perfectly content with this, as I often find some writer's obsession with environmental description tedious in the extreme, so while this novel is not utterly bereft of poetic description and detail, neither is it generally all that concerned with it. The writing is crisp, clear, and mostly focussed either on inner-monologues or conversation, giving the proceedings an air of subjectivity – though the perspective moves between first and third person regularly. It ends up creating the effect of a near-epistolary novel, which, given the framing device, makes a lot of sense.

In short, this is a great book for lovers of solid action with a philosophical bent. It's got some clear points to make, and constructs the story and characters around those anchors, giving its points some real impact. It's fun, but it's smart, intense and occasionally heartbreaking fun, and that's probably the best kind.

*There is no self-pie. Please do not attempt auto-cannibalism.

Is it entertaining? Well, I certainly think so. Its most compelling feature is its characters, and given how much they drive the story, that is a very good thing.

Is it worth reading? I would say so, if you're up for something that's clearly devoted to the principles of awesome, but carries a little more bite.