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January 18, 2008

A clutch of film reviews

I've seen a number of films over the last couple of months, and I thought I'd share my thoughts on them with you all.  I'll try and keep each review brief, as there are a few :-)

American Gangster

It's easy to say that as Ridley Scott directed this, it was a very good film; he does, after all, have a good track record.  Whilst it was masterfully directed, as one would expect, the real joy of this film is to be found in the treatment of the story and the acting.  Denzel Washington shone, and I'm gaining respect for Russell Crowe who has never in the past struck me as a particularly good actor; I found his performance in Gladiator rather wooden at times, for example.  2004's A Beautiful Mind changed all that; his portrayal of the great mathematician John Nash was truly moving.  He's not as good in this as he was in A Beautiful Mind, but it was another example of how he has discovered or grown his acting abilities. 

In the same vein as films such as Blow, American Gangster tells the story of the real-life drugs baron Frank Lucas (touting heroin in this case, as opposed to Blow's cocaine), his descent as the power and wealth accrued corrupts, and his moral recovery.  That, and how he allegedly helped to bring down a large portion of the DEA for corruption, although the veracity of this claim is being disputed.  Lucas' operation was a marvel of organisation and negotiation, employing the same "direct from the wholesaler" technique to heroin as has traditionally been applied to things like white goods. 

This is a long film, but doesn't really feel it until it's nearly over; there's a lot of story to cram in, and Scott just about manages it without dragging in the detail too much. 

Highly recommended.



I've not got much to say on this one, as it was generally pretty rubbish.  I did, however, go to see this in 3-d, which made it worth seeing, not least because a lot of it had obviously been made specifically for the 3-d version.  It was an enjoyable way to spend the time, but it was not a great work in any sense, and the only reason I woud recommend it would be for the 3-d effects and the interesting rendering techniques used.  Seeing it in regular 2-d probably wouldn't give you the necessary distractions from the movie's shortcomings.  

3-d version: 3/5; 2-d version: 2.5/5

I am Legend

Will Smith stars in this story of the last man alive in New York after a deadly virus sweeps the world, killing or mutating the entire population save the 1% who are immune to its effects.  

I am Legend is the tale of Robert Neville (Smith), a military scientist who has stayed behind in New York ("this is my Ground Zero") despite the advice to get the hell out.  He feels responsible for what has happened, and is looking for a cure.  Neville has been in New York, alone, for nearly three years when we join him at the start of the film, and the long shots of New York empty and abandoned are nothing less than chilling.  I literally had tingles running up and down my spine for a full 30 seconds or so.  But even this is indebted to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, which did the same thing to London. 

I am Legend is really two films, and this is what what lets it down.  Particularly because the second film is a bit crap.  The first film, running for the first hour of the picture's 1.5hr running time, is an interesting psychological study of a man who's been alone for too long.  Neville's only friend and companion in this first film is Sam, his dog, and it focusses on Neville's use of routine to cope with the loneliness and boredom.  Most people would have gone insane and probably killed themselves in this situation, but Neville is driven by his desire to find a cure to atone for his crimes.  And the deaths of his family.  That's not to say he's compis mentis; he holds conversations with mannequins, knows every line of Shrek off by heart, and has difficult adjusting to human company.  Will Smith plays Neville fantastically, carrying an hour's worth of monologue as though it were the most natural thing in the world - he is Robert Neville.  

The second film is an action-packed half-hour that winds the story up too quickly and in a different direction from the one you might expect.  There's a significant event at the end of the first film that leads us to the second, but it doesn't stop I am Legend feeling like it's spiralled out of control.  The last half-hour contains comparatively little plot development and is mainly zombies/vampires attacking Neville's house, and this is to the film's detriment. 

I had high hopes for this film, expecting it to be on a par with I, Robot but once it leaves behind the sometimes excellent first part, it loses any chance of even clutching at I, Robot's tail feathers.  



Charlie Wilson's War

I cannot recommend this film highly enough; it is an absolute joy to watch.  For fans of The West Wing in its original incarnation, you will recognise Aaron Sorkin's writing at its best throughout this film.  This is an accomplishment itself, because Sorkin's writing often takes a turn for the sentimental and he doesn't handle that sort of material as well as he does sharp political commentary.  As someone once remarked about Sports Night, Sorkin's first success:

It's like all the worst bits of The West Wing thrown together.

Charlie Wilson's War, however, is the exact opposite.  It's everything that The West Wing was when it was at its best, and somehow more too.  The script is sharp, witty, and incisive.  You could be forgiven for thinking that this was a comedy, the jokes come that thick and fast, but it's not.  It has a serious core, and that core is the story of America's intervention in Afghanistan.  No, not the 2001 incursion, but the original intervention, back in the 1980s on Reagan's watch.  It tells the story of the congressman Charles Wilson, who inspired the covert action against the then Soviet Republic's invasion of Afghanistan.  It was America that put the guns in the hands of the Afghan people, and, as Sorkin makes clear towards the end, it was America that didn't clean up afterwards.  

Tom Hanks plays Charles Wilson very well, with — certainly by the end — more than enough humanity to make him a loveable old rogue rather than a man with questionable morals.  Julia Roberts is disappointingly two-dimensional and uncommitted as Joanne Herring (compare this with her excellent starring role in Erin Brockovich), but doesn't appear in the film enough to take the shine off.  Philip Seymour Hoffman as CIA agent Gust Avrakotos steals the show, however, providing pure gold in every scene he is in.  The scene in Wilson's office when Gust and Wilson first meet is a masterclass in comic timing and farce.  

Having seen Charlie Wilson's War, you can't help but feel that actually maybe there is something in all this political rhetoric about Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, etc., sponsoring terrorism in Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.  The methods employed are very clever and constantly maintain plausible deniability: for example, using Israel's stockpile of confiscated Russian weapons to arm the Afghans so that there was no evidence of America's involvement, not to mention getting Israel to side with Arabs.

Very highly recommended.



This is not a film about an American woman (Cate Blanchett) shot on a bus, supposedly by terrorists.  This surprised me initially, as this is what the trailers seemed to promise, and I'm sure that had Alejandro González Iñárritu (most well known perhaps for 2003's 21 Grams) put together that film, it would have been excellent.  What is delivered instead, however, is something far more outstanding and unique. 

It's hard not to draw comparisons with Paul Haggis' Crash, but all those comparisons are favourable.  Crash was an excellent film, but Babel is outstanding.  Babel is to language and communication as Crash was to racial prejudice, but carries it off in a much more subtle manner, despite the obvious allusions of the title and the tagline ("If you want to be understood... Listen"). 

Like Crash, there are multiple and interwoven storylines traced concurrently.  Unlike Crash, they are taken out of sync, and time becomes as elusive as the comprehension the characters so desperately seek.  There's the married couple with problems that are in Morrocco to try and work things out; there's the Morroccan goat-farming family who purchase a rifle to keep the jackals away from their herd; there's the deaf-mute Japanese girl struggling to cope with her mother's suicide and rejection by men; and there's the Mexican nanny who takes her two charges to Mexico for her son's wedding and struggles to get back into the US that night with almost tragic consequences. 

The film is at its most vocal when the characters aren't talking; the most comprehension between the characters is gained when they're not actively communicating.  The Tokyo club scene is a clever and subtle exposition of this idea.  

This is a film that will either affect you or leave you a bit cold; it's "arty" in places, particularly with some of the Tokyo scenes, and this might put off some people.  But every story line is as moving as each of the others, as is the underlying theme.  

Highly recommended. 


August 28, 2007

Book Review: Moondust

5 out of 5 stars

Andrew Smith is a columnist for the Guardian.  Born in the US, he is lucky enough to remember that great day in July 1969 when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin first walked on the moon.  For that alone, I am insanely jealous. I put the question to my parents: "Did you watch the moon landings?  What were they like?" and was surprised to find that I got a mixed response (although perhaps I should not have been; this is a good example of the usual juxtaposition of opinions that I've come to expect from them).  My Dad claims to have been riveted by them, glued to the TV (as I would have been), whilst my Mum's response was "Probably".  Surely, I said, it was an achievement so monumental that you must have been inspired by it.  Mum's response was, "I seem to remember it being old hat by the time they actually landed on the moon, as there were launches seemingly nearly every week.  I found John Glenn's accomplishment more exciting".  John Glenn was the third American in space and the first American to orbit the Earth1; slightly disillusioned by my Mum's indifference, I never quite found out why this was more of an achievement than  Gagarin's first flight into space (he was the first person ever to orbit the Earth).

But back to the book.  Moondust is as moving as its premise: that a handful of men (twelve, to be exact), in a crazily optimistic period between 1969 and 1972, were able to fly to and walk on the moon, the very edge of Deep Space.  The journeys these men made were to change them forever: the divorce rate amongst astronauts is "astronomical"; Buzz Aldrin lapsed into alcoholism and was later treated at a psychiatric institution; Neil Armstrong retreated from all public life; Ed Mitchell, of Apollo 14 and sixth man on the moon, reported experiencing an epiphany on the way back from the moon that led him to found the Institute of Noetic Sciences (IONS), set up to reconcile the differences between science and religion, that has been a lure for hippies and new-age thinkers since its inception.  

The prologue tells the story of Smith's first personal encounter with one of the Apollo men: the tenth man on the moon, Charlie Duke.  During the meeting, Duke received a telephone call informing him that Pete Conrad, of Apollo 12, had been in a motorcycle accident; later he was confirmed to have died from the injuries sustained in the accident.  

It was the words Duke left me with that set my mind reeling that day.  He said them quietly and evenly, as though uttering a psalm.

"Now there's only nine of us."

Only nine.

Correspondingly, Smith divides his book into nine chapters; however, he does not, as one might immediately think, devote one chapter to each of the remaining astronauts.  His journey leads him to meet with not only the remaining moonwalkers, but also the men who could not go "the last sixty miles" to the moon, the Command Module (CM) pilots, such as Mike Collins (Apollo 11) and Dick Gordon (Apollo 12).  

Smith's book combines personal memory, descriptions of the Apollo missions, inner thoughts and recent interviews with the Apollo astronauts to great effect.  His accounts of the Apollo 11 take-off and the Gemini 11 Extra-Vehicular Activity (EVA, or "space walk" to you and me) are heart-stopping and real.  His interviews with the astronauts and encounters with other "space nuts" really give you a feel for the characters behind the greatest achievement of mankind.  Alan Bean's (Apollo 12) artwork sounds gorgeous to behold, as he forever tries to capture the "human" part of walking on the moon that he regrets never being explored — too much emphasis was always placed on the scientific, and no time to just experience the moon.  

An undercurrent throughout the book is a sense of urgency to get back, and how we cannot let the Moon landings pass into legend.  Too many people already hold that they never happened, and too many people are alive now (myself included) who don't remember the Moon landings because they weren't alive at the time.  The last optimistic act of the 20th Century is also mankind's greatest achievement, and we should be looking to top it (by getting men on Mars) or equalling it regularly.  NASA's focus has shifted with the large budget cuts it has faced since 1972 and the need to replace the Space Shuttle, and so we haven't got out of low-Earth orbit in the last 35 years.  This is a great shame, and should be addressed.

Smith's book cannot come more highly recommended.  It will get you thinking about philosophy, the wonder of being a member of the only race on Earth to escape the atmosphere, and just how small we are in the grand scheme of things.  Not in a bad way, but in a way that really makes you feel so incredibly lucky to be alive.  What's more,you'll never be able to look at a photo from/on the Moon without thinking, "Wow. That's the Moon!", and a similar, but slightly magnified feeling now erupts inside me as I look at photos from Mars.  Read it. 

1.  John Glenn. (2007, August 17). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 15:02, August 23, 2007, from

August 15, 2007

Book Review: The God Delusion

4 out of 5 stars

Richard Dawkins is one of the most eminent Evolutionary Biologists around today, and also one of the most eminent atheists around today.  He has participated in a conference about how science should be the next evolutionary step beyond religion (people with an ATHENS login or online subscription can read the New Scientist report on the conference here), written numerous books on why religion is a Bad Thing™, and has accordingly been accused of being a "fundamentalist atheist".  He has also been hilariously lampooned in a two-part South Park story aired around the time of the afore-mentioned conference.

Dawkins uses The God Delusion as his manifesto for advancing the population of the world beyond religion, and a convincing one it is too, at least to the converted such as myself.  Unlikely to sell very highly in religious circles, and having spawned a number of counter-arguments, such as McGrath & McGrath's The Dawkins Delusion?, one wonders about the effectiveness this will have in converting the religious and the religious apologists. 

But this is not, in fact, Dawkins' aim.  Dawkins instead seeks to explain his opinion as to why religion is bad, and, by extension, why something needs to be done.  Interesting points he makes include the question of why religion is automatically afforded so much respect (citing an example of an American sect that won an exemption from the laws surrounding hallucinogenic drugs as their belief was that taking these drugs was the path to God; in the wonderful teenage phrase, not taking drugs is "against their religion"), that religion in moderation should not be tolerated as it provides a justification of fundamentalism and extremism, and that what we in the UK would consider as Christian fundamentalism is mainstream in the US.  He also rails against the indoctrination of children under religion, and calls for a paradigm shift in referring to children not as a "Christian child" or a "Muslim child", but rather "the child of Christian parents" or "the child of Muslim parents"; he maintains, quite rightly, that children should be able to choose religion once they are old enough to think for themselves, and not have it thrust upon 'em before they know what's hit them.  He uses political affiliation to provide a counter-example here: no one would refer to a "Tory child" or a "Marxist child".  

The God Delusion, like most books, is divided into a number of chapters; each chapter in this book is titled with a question or statement to be tackled: "A deeply religious non-believer", "Arguments for God's existence", "What's wrong with religion? Why be hostile?", etc.  The chapters tackle subjects including the roots of religion, the roots of morality, why religion cannot be moral (if said morality is derived from the holy book), focussing mainly on Christianity.  The root of Dawkins' arguments comes from his own particular field of specialty, evolution, and he uses natural selection to argue how and why religion and morality arose, and how he foresees a world without religion as the next step in the evolutionary path of religion.

Generally speaking, the book is particularly readable, and Dawkins conveys his message clearly and eloquently throughout.  The bit I struggled with most was chapter 5, "The roots of religion", which contained a lot of fairly Darwin-heavy reading.  For someone who thought they "got" the theory of evolution and natural selection, I can tell you that it was a tough read, and I'm now re-evaluating that assumption.  However, it is worth persevering; there is much joy to be found in chapter 6 "The roots of morality: why are we good" that outlines how morality might have evolved, along with — importantly — evidence to support the theories.  There are also stories later in the book of the journeys people have made when trying to reconcile a religious upbringing with the rationality they have gained as an adult, and one moving story of a man (I think a scientist himself) who ultimately chose religion.  

I award it 4 stars for a particularly high-level of writing, as would be expected of an academic such as Dawkins (the "Further Reading" list appears to formatted according to the Harvard system), and for the logic, strength of argument, and evidence presented.  The harder-going midsection around chapter 5 already mentioned is what loses the book the last star, but I really can't recommend this book enough. 

August 30, 2006

Black Holes and Revelations: a grower, and a quick one at that

4 out of 5 stars

I listened to this first, as some of you will know from my previous blog post, on my way back from London at the weekend. Driving as I was at the time, I was paying quite a bit more attention to the road than to the CD I had on, by the time the last track had finished, despite thoroughly enjoying the final two tracks – at the time, seemingly joined together into a seamless and fucking awesome 10-odd minute jam – I had labelled this as a grower: there were some good songs, but nothing really stood out for me.

Having had it on at work today, I just want to get back to Leam so that I can play this loudly on my speaker set-up and get the full range of noise on the album. It’s a seriously good album. Every single track had me tapping along in the way that only Muse and a couple of other bands can, wanting to play air guitar, bass and vocals around my office in the most enthusiastic display of appreciation I can muster. Yes, it was a grower, but it’s a really fast one!

In short, this is a fantastic album; I can’t go through each song because I don’t have the time, but it is well worth your money; even the over-the-odds £13.95 I paid for it in HMV is well within my upper limit of £15 for an album. Yes, it bugs me that high street stores will still charge that amount of money for a chart album when they are being grossly undercut by their online rivals, but I picked up a couple of good deals (two Portishead albums for a total of £14, and Barenboim’s recordings of Bruckner’s 9 Symphonies for £25) in the same purchase. Either way, you don’t seem to get anything special for buying the special edition other than a nicer sleeve than the standard plastic, and it seems to cost the same as the standard edition.

The album sees Muse depart from their usual style of writing; there is much less piano-based artistry than on previous albums, but this seems to be the album of Bellamy’s guitar. As has been demonstrated previously (Plugin Baby immediately springs to mind, although it may not be the best example), he is an equally accomplished guitarist as he is pianist. None of this is to say that the synths and piano are missing; they are just used much more sparingly within the context of the album, and this is to their credit. The lyrics are typical Muse, as is hinted at by the title of the album.

If you have heard Supermassive Black Hole already, you will not be disappointed by the rest of the album. I was initially very surprised to hear how far they have strayed from their usual style with this song, and there are so many new influences (Mexican and Cuban are the two most notable) that this could quite easily have become a mish-mash with no real identity. This is not the case; the album just gels in a wonderful display of cohesion between musically diverse styles.

You may well be asking yourself why I’ve only given it 4 stars if I think it is so good. The answer is this: it’s no Absolution. Muse’s last album was just perfect for me; it completely and flawlessly encompassed their musical style, with every song a lesson in good writing. Whilst I do not dislike their new sound and am happily embracing it (see comment about air guitaring), it will take a little getting used to if you are a fan of the likes of New Born et al.

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