Archive for August, 2007

Transformers

2007, US, Directed by Michael Bay

Colour, Running Time: 144 minutes

Cinema screening, Image: 2.35:1 Super 35, Audio: English language

While wandering around some foreign island the other day I made the unprecedented decision of stopping by to watch the new Transformers super budget blockbuster, primarily because I was passing a cinema, plus it was beginning to rain, and I needed the toilet quite desperately - four quid well spent for a comfortable, clean, and peaceful public convenience, and a film thrown in to boot. Plus I’d already seen The Simpsons the day before and sure as f**k wasn’t going to be watching that again (ever) whilst the remaining choice lay between girly crap such as Bratz and License to Wed, and the six screens being taken up with the latest Bourne movie, neither of the preceding films for which I’d seen anyway, so that was out. Oh, and Cal (along with just about everyone else) had given Rush Hour 3 the thumbs down. Really: Transformers was the best option…

Us geeks only get this kind of luck in the movies...

The movie version of the popular (almost cult, surprisingly) cartoon and toy series from the eighties starts out with a devastating attack on an army base by a mysterious machine that temporarily masquerades as a chopper that had been lost in combat some time before. Elsewhere a resourceful but cheeky teenager (Sam) is being bought his first car by his rich old dad and fate leads them to pick up a sporty looking thing that soon proves to be a modern day Kitt, having as it does a mind of its own. It turns out that the car is a shape-shifting ‘Autobot’ from another planet and the fact that Sam and the car ended up in each other’s company was no accident - Sam is unwittingly in possession of an artefact containing alien information and a group of evil, similarly extraterrestrial robots called Decepticons (led by Megatron, the leader who was found a hundred years before frozen in ice) are looking to acquire this information, and Sam’s ‘car’ along with several other Autobots are here to ensure this doesn’t happen for the sake of the universe. Thus begins a battle between Autobots and Decepticons here on Earth with Sam and some other teens caught in the middle (along with the army too of course).

Thing you're 'ard do ya?!?

Plots don’t get much more melodramatic than that - the entire fate of humanity and the universe hangs on some kid in possession of a pair of antique specs and later an alien box (surely a macguffin if ever there was one). Newcomer Shia LaBeouf does a reasonably amicable job as the lead teen, Sam, and (TV Barbie doll star) Megan Fox doesn’t have to say much to do a good job looking drop dead stunning as his newfound girlfriend, Michaela - it’s ironic because Sam, desperate to impress, tells Michaela that there’s more to her than meets the eye but she’s so shallow I don’t think he could be more wrong. They try to characterise her by giving her a criminal record and an aptitude for fixing cars (a boring attempt to subvert the stereotype of a gorgeous bimbo) - hell she can even drive a car in reverse at speed without needing to see where she’s going - but she really is there to look incredible and nothing more (and super babes have rarely been better represented than with Michaela here; phew!). In fact, these PC attempts at stereotype subversion are pathetic and contrived - there’s only one analyst more supreme at comprehending computer networks and code than a sexy female college grad (and she’s better than the army intelligence operators themselves of course), and that’s a jive talking black dude. The dialogue throughout is of a juvenile nature but I suppose it was aimed at younger audiences; what bothers me more is the fact that the writers seem to be trying to be hip and funny at every turn and very little of it actually is funny (unless you’re twelve). What does stand out as completely supreme (apart from Megan Fox’s facial structure), however, is the special effects - they’re simply as amazing as it can get I‘m sure, CGI seamlessly composited with live action in probably 80%+ of the film. In fact, it’s a jaw dropping example of sci-fi movie production planning with effectively two films having to be made with the intention of being spliced together.

Hold that pose...

It’s no surprise to find this is another offering from the cinematic phenomenon that is Michael Bay - temporarily I thought the guy was about to show us another side with The Island, but unfortunately that was a bit of a flop and probably discouraged the director from implementing a touch of intellect into his films. So now we’re back in brainless Armageddon territory with Transformers, something that often looks like it could easily pass as an advertisement for cars or jeans or something, such is the artificial slickness of its appearance. It’s sort of like a frantic cross between Knight Rider, the Terminator films, and Gone in 60 Seconds. The ridiculousness of the whole thing is somehow pushed aside for what are admittedly exhilarating action sequences along with monumental destruction on the scale of Hiroshima multiplied by 9/11, and I suppose that’s the main attraction here (apart from Megan Fox’s body), and it will undoubtedly trick people into thinking it’s a cool film, at least until they get a chance to watch it again on disc and realise that it’s quite emptyheaded. If you have to see it, then you have to see it at the cinema (it‘s a hefty audio-visual experience), otherwise I wouldn’t bother (unless you still make love to your Transformers toys whenever the missus is out). It’s a pity such stunning special effects can’t be put to better use, but then again there’s a hundred and fifty million dollar investment to get a return on I suppose.

Posted on 24th August 2007
Under: Science Fiction | 2 Comments »

Sex, Lies, and Videotape

1988, US, Directed by Steven Soderbergh

Colour, Running Time: 96 minutes

DVD, Region 2, MGM, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital Surround

Affluent couple, John and Ann, are living an apparently idyllic lifestyle that conveniently conceals the adulterous behaviour and vocational amorality of the former (he’s a lawyer…) along with the marital discontent and sexual repression of the latter. John is mating with Ann’s sister (obviously without Ann’s knowledge) while Ann is in therapy talking about excess garbage around the house in an attempt to steer around the issues that are subconsciously disturbing her. Things are shaken up with the arrival of John’s old college friend, Graham. Graham stays at their house for a few days while looking for an apartment in the area, during which he gets to know Ann with significantly more intuition than her husband is capable of. Finally getting himself set up properly, Graham later receives a visit from Ann in his new apartment, the prudish woman clearly enamoured by the striking young man. There she finds, to her disapproval, he has built a large collection of personally filmed videotapes consisting solely of women talking about topics related to sex. She leaves immediately, later ‘warning’ her promiscuous sister (Cynthia) who has already become interested in the mysterious man she has only hitherto heard about. Cynthia is of course adamant she still wants to meet Graham and manages to dig up his address so she can visit him for herself. Being the complete opposite to Ann, Cynthia is more intrigued and decides to stay so she herself can be interviewed on videotape by Graham. Later on, Ann is shocked by Cynthia’s participation, the affair between Cynthia and John is put into jeopardy in addition to the fact that Ann herself is questioning the validity of her own marriage, particularly when she finds evidence of the affair.

Got anything stronger than this lemon juice?

Soderbergh’s feature-length directorial debut is impressive mainly due to its intensive character studies, an intricate weaving of the lives of a small number of people entwined, in one way or another, by sex. Graham is considered to be a disturbed individual by Ann due to the fact that his unorthodox lifestyle revolves around filming and viewing women discussing sex but, as he points out, compared to the suburbanites around him whose surface normality masks distorted psychology, he feels relatively healthy. Of course that’s not quite true, as his own unusual behavioural tendencies have arisen from a complex array of events just as they have in everyone, and are, as a result, difficult to explain (it’s still, however, something which Ann’s therapist tries in vain to do). The point I think is that there is not really any such thing as complete normality - abnormalities can only be concealed. Possibly this film may progress too slowly for some people but the dramatic microcosmic universe can absorb the senses to a degree where the viewer becomes almost as involved in the world portrayed as the inhabitants are. Indeed, when Graham’s videotapes are playing Soderbergh often fills the entire frame with them as if it’s us who’s watching them rather than just Graham. James Spader has had a knack for choosing roles that are unconventional and brave from a popular actor’s point of view (e.g. see also Secretary and Driftwood) and his interpretation of Graham was brilliant enough to earn him an award at Cannes. The other actors (including Andie McDowell [before her temporary rise to grace] as an easily embarrassed Ann) suitably become their characters also while Cliff Martinez provides a dark, ethereal, understated score that emphasises the twisted elements of the characters’ brains - he later also composed the exquisite score for Soderbergh’s often misunderstood Solaris remake. As an exploration of the way sex has become an isolated and sometimes maligned (but persistently dominating) entity in the wake of social progression using characters that are encumbered by its perpetual burden, Sex, Lies… is a fascinating study.

 

The image quality, while displaying a little fuzz, is very detailed for a catalogue title but the sound could have done with a little muscle added, betraying as it does the limitations of the original recordings. It is technically a surround track but there is little surround activity, though the source is primarily vocal-based. As far as extras are concerned you don’t get a damn thing on the UK disc. This is one film that really could have benefited from a director commentary and is sorely missed here - indeed, the US disc included that commentary so why wasn‘t it on the UK equivalent? There’s not really much excuse for that. However I wanted to own this film so the disc (which can admittedly be cheaply purchased) will do until such a time as MGM consider this worth working on an SE for.

Posted on 19th August 2007
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The Good Girl

2002, US, Directed by Miguel Arteza

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Fox, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1

Justine is a thirty year old woman gradually losing her interest in life. She works in a local retail store surrounded by people who appear to be blissfully (or otherwise) ignorant of the perpetually meaningless nature of their mundane existences, while at home her husband is equally unaware of her discontent with their marriage as they unsuccessfully try for offspring and maintain the semblance of normal domesticity. A light seems to be projected into her waning life when a nerdy young man joins the store to work on the tills. Budding writer Holden is similarly disenchanted with the world, this being reflected in his work where he depicts characters based on himself and those around him in hopeless situations. Finding someone who is able to empathise with her snowballing cynicism the reluctant Justine embarks upon an affair with the younger man but fails to foresee the obsession that grows within him, an indicator that his grip on mental balance is not entirely rigid. But one thing that Holden does seem to be able to provide is unpredictability, an invaluable asset in a world that presents only commonplace experiences. How far is she able to progress with the amoral life of a bored adulteress and would it ever be possible to experience fulfilment with a husband that may just be a pot-smoking slob?

Another enthralling day at the office...

Combining comedy elements (though leaning towards black humour) with romance and metaphysical drama, The Good Girl does not end up going in the direction that you might expect. It adopts the attitude of an independent film taking on the analysis of everyday life and does a very good job of it. Playing Justine, Jennifer Aniston demonstrates her skill and flexibility as an actress - I mean, it’s always been evident in Friends, and I have no love for that show, but it takes daring excursions such as this to really show people what she’s made of. She doesn’t even look supremely attractive in this film; simply ordinary. Justine is an ‘everyman’ (is that term applicable to females too?), a person whose existence is directionless (other than following the same path of working and spawning paved by billions before her), someone who finally realises that to take a risk might break her free of the reigns which have entangled themselves around her. Her immoral behaviour is a derivative of her crumbling zest, but does that make it acceptable? Understandable certainly, but questions arise regarding the moral intentions of the writers (perhaps they’re merely reflecting a reality of life rather than passing judgement on it). The outcome of the story certainly embellishes these questions for me and a level of ambiguity results from the conclusion - I have a few theories on where they were coming from/going but to outline them here would be to spoil the first time viewings of others. Convincingly portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal, the Holden character is not the ray of light he first appears to be, rather a person ruined by unexplained circumstances. He presents an element of mystery that initially intrigues Justine, but ultimately may be too dangerous to associate herself with. Justine’s husband too is not what he first may appear and it might be that we’re seeing a reflection of the world through Justine’s eyes more than anything. The acoustic soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment to the reflections of an almost amusingly melancholic existence and reminds me of the music composed for The Straight Story. Coming from 20th Century Fox, this is a rare treat.

 

The DVD comes with a very naturally contrasted and coloured transfer as well as an audio track that rarely leaves the front speakers, overall looking and sounding very nice. Aniston provides a mini-commentary (about quarter of an hour of scene specific observations) while the director and writer give us the full monty. There’s the pointlessly indulgent gag reel featuring the actors laughing at their own cock-ups (something that hopefully should have disappeared thanks to Pixar spoofing the ‘phenomenon’ on a number of their animated film extras), as well as some unused scenes and a limited alternative ending that could have done with some explanation. Generally though, a reasonable disc. The cover is unfortunately emblazoned with one of Empire’s typically insightful comments (‘seriously funny’) which may help find the film the wrong audience, but slightly daring, offbeat films like this from Hollywood are always a welcome surprise.

Posted on 16th August 2007
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Videodrome

1983, Canada, Directed by David Cronenberg

Colour, Running Time: 89 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Criterion, Video: Anamorphic 1.82:1, Audio: Mono

Max Wren runs a small Television station providing the kind of sex and violence that Americans don’t usually get to see on broadcast, this allegedly being a means of survival in the face of much bigger and more financially powerful stations. Max is always on the lookout for harder stuff to pull in wider audiences so his interest is understandably piqued when one of the technicians introduces him to a show called Videodrome depicting sexualised torture and murder. Intercepted by their satellite, Videodrome is apparently being broadcast from Malaysia, as is evident by the distorted and delayed reception. He begins trying to track down the source of the show, finding out that the Malaysian origins are false when the signal delay is found to be a decoy - the broadcast is being sent from Pittsburgh. Max discovers that the mastermind may be an eccentric man, Brian O’Blivion, who he was previously interviewed with for a talk show, but after watching a tape personally prepared for him by O’Blivion, Max begins to experience vivid hallucinations. To his horror he finds out that the Videodrome program is actually responsible for inducing the growth of a tumour in his brain, one that’s causing the hallucinations that are predicted to get worse. Sure enough, before long he is finding it difficult to distinguish between the twisted visions in his mind and what is apparently reality: his grip on life is spiralling out of control.

Where's the bloody volume control on this thing?!?

Creating some disturbing sci-fi tinged horrors during the 70s Cronenberg really found his feet by the time the production of Videodrome came about. The plot is not only unique but also philosophically intriguing, questioning as it does the nature of perception of reality - that is, to what degree does an organism accurately perceive reality and how much more relevant are the perceptions of one organism over another considering these perceptions are all effectively contained within the mind anyway? This is a concept that the director later went on to explore further in Naked Lunch as well as eXistenZ (and, to a lesser degree, Spider). The fragments of the plot in Videodrome that may at first merely appear to facilitate genre-typical use of extreme special FX (skillfully created by Rick Baker) gradually reveal themselves to more cognitive viewers to be metaphorically representative of the hallucinogenic interpretations of what’s actually happening around and to Max - this is a film in which I noticed more and more subtle detail each time I watched it and even after something like eight or nine viewings I was deciphering certain things that had previously eluded me. As Max’s visions intensify and his confusion grows so too is the viewer taken along on the same trip, as Cronenberg refuses to signal when these visions begin and conclude (if, indeed, they do conclude). On first viewing this may be disconcerting but repeated viewings are rewarded with increased understanding. Another conceptual strand that underlines the film is contradictory at a glance: Cronenberg appears to be suggesting that people can be influenced by watching things on a TV screen (i.e. Max views a video transmission and this indirectly results in aggressive, homicidal behaviour on his part), an argument that was particularly rife in the 80s as video became popular and, in the minds of do-gooders, the media and politicians, threatened the very fabric of law and order (though they appear to have done a good job of allowing crime to become rampant in the UK without video; lack of discipline and appropriate punishment are far more potent here than video nasties ever were). For someone who effectively made his name creating violent films it seems strangely hypocritical to present something that appears to advocate censorship. Perhaps there’s more to it than that… One of the great composers of our time, Howard Shore, provides a soundtrack that weaves a path towards certain doom, reminding the viewer that there can be no upbeat result to the proceedings of this story. James Woods was a good choice for Max, satisfactorily representing a man on a confusing descent towards the unknown as his understanding of reality disintegrates piece by piece. Debbie Harry plays his girlfriend, an unhinged woman (ironically, she hosts a radio program to help emotionally imbalanced people) experimenting with S&M who becomes interested in ‘applying’ to appear on Videodrome after seeing some young girl being brutally whipped on the show while staying at Max’s house. With a multi-layered conceptual structure that is intriguing, thought provoking and highly entertaining, this engrossing film is somewhere at the top of Cronenberg’s produce and remains one of genre cinema‘s greats in my opinion.

I'm going to be taking this doll back to my place for a good seeing to, you'll see.

Thank God for both Videodrome and Criterion. Available from Universal on both sides of the pond in its R rated version, Criterion came along and blew that one into oblivion. This is a 2 disc set collating just about anything worth having, including the indispensable commentary by Cronenberg, documentaries, plus a 40 page booklet containing three articles plus credits. The uncensored transfer was extensively restored from the 35mm interpositive and, while grainy in the opening reel, settles down to become the definitive presentation of this film. No 5.1 remixing has been done, as one expects from Criterion: purism is the operative approach and a very clean mono track provides the audio. However long DVD continues to survive in the wake of HD’s arrival, this package (nicely designed inside to look like an old betamax cassette) will remain one of the all-time greatest DVD releases for me.

Posted on 11th August 2007
Under: Horror, Science Fiction | 2 Comments »

Made

2001, USA, Directed by Jon Favreau

Colour, Running Time: 91 minutes

DVD, Region 2, Momentum, Video: Anamorphic 1.75:1, Audio: DTS

Struggling professional boxer, Bobby, has managed to bag himself a gorgeous girlfriend who also happens to be a lap dancer, the problem here being the fact that he can’t stand seeing her slide her smooth body all over other men. Because his main vocational passion isn’t proving to be particularly lucrative (even when he pays his mate to fight him and take a fall he ends up with a draw) he also supports himself doing small jobs for a mob boss while accompanied by his loser friend, Ricky. After beating up one of his girl’s punters Bobby is forced to do the boss a favour, this fortunately landing him and Ricky with a shot at big time earnings as they’re persuaded to temporarily spend some time in New York performing some ‘drops’ there for gangster Ruiz. Once on their way, however, the socially retarded Ricky can’t seem to help making complete fools of both of them as he manages to get on the wrong side of just about everyone (including the gangsters) they encounter in a vain attempt to somehow prove himself worthy of street credibility and sex-god status. Will Bobby’s one chance at carving a normal life for him and his woman be ruined in the process?

We had a little tiffle, what of it?

Probably financed on the success of Swingers and with a bigger budget to boot, this reunites the two main stars of that film once again though Made is not actually a sequel (as much as the marketing department would probably have wanted you to believe otherwise with statements such as ‘They used to be money but now they’re made…’ and ‘The guy‘s [sic] from Swingers are back…’). The similarities are this: Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn play the lead characters (here, Bobby and Ricky respectively) in both films, and Favreau wrote both films. They’re not the same characters so this is no sequel, plus they’re in entirely different situations compared to Mike and Trent. In fact, with Favreau also producing (alongside Vaughn) and directing, this seems like something of an ego trip. Despite that, it’s Vaughn as Ricky who gets most of the onscreen lines, his voice probably taking up about 70% of the soundtrack and becoming a little tiresome along the way. Ricky’s irritating nature is well played by Vaughn but he also succeeds in irritating the viewer no end, to a point where you’re hoping his head will explode just to shut him up. The dialogue is good (aside from exorbitant use of the word ‘fuck’) but it’s not as relevant to the human condition as in Swingers, seeming to go nowhere of any significance. The other thing that bothers me is the documentary-style shaky-cam - there’s no talent involved in randomly swinging the camera back and forth between two conversing characters and visual composition becomes a redundant term in the process. The soundtrack and editing are much better but they almost appear to be concealing the fact that there’s not a great deal of value in the core material itself. It’s not actually a ‘bad’ film but the ostentatiousness on display along with Vaughn’s excruciating character prevent it from rising above average. On first viewing it almost tricks you into thinking you’re watching a credible follow up to Liman’s film but after a while (or perhaps a second viewing as was the case with me) you realise Made is not nearly as smart as it is pretending to be.

 

Surprisingly accompanied by a very able DTS track the image on the disc is detailed and naturally coloured while the ratio is slightly pillarboxed to anamorphic 1.75:1 rather than the 2.35:1 claimed on the back of the UK DVD packaging - a strange choice anyway considering the intended projection ratio is reportedly 1.85:1. There are lots of extras padding out the disc making it a package worth trying out if you can find it at a reasonable price - you may like the film (Empire magazine did, for whatever that’s worth) but I think it fails to hit its intended nail on the head by a notable margin.

Posted on 6th August 2007
Under: Other | No Comments »

Swingers

1996, US, Directed by Doug Liman

Colour, Running Time: 96 minutes

DVD, Region 1, Miramax, Video: Anamorphic 1.85:1, Audio: Dolby Surround

Mike Peters has moved to a small apartment in Los Angeles in a simultaneous attempt to use the locale to advance his stand-up comedy career while putting his long-term New York girlfriend behind him. Neither plan is working. His career involves a once weekly evening at some low grade joint while his depression over the split relationship persists even six months after the fact. His best friend, Trent, is adamant that he’s going to show Mike a good time to take his mind off the woman and takes him to Las Vegas for a weekend of gambling and pulling. There he lectures Mike in the art of acquiring phone numbers and they continue to put this into practice when back at home touring various parties and bars. Despite Trent’s convincing instruction Mike can’t seem to help making a complete mess of any attempt at forging a new relationship and the poor guy now seems ‘doomed’ to a life of bachelorhood and misery. But then he meets Lorraine, someone who provides the compatibility that may have been lacking in the others.

Look, all we want you to come back for is coffee and biscuits, I swear!

There are two things that really help this low budget ($5 million) comedy-drama hit its mark: the performances and the script. As reflected in the above synopsis, the story is relatively simple: one man’s battle to recover from a broken partnership through meeting as many other potential mates as possible while hanging out with buddies. His clumsy ride is at once embarrassing and funny, one of my favourite bits being the aftermath of actually managing to acquire a woman’s phone number - his foolish telephone conduct becomes cringe worthy as he manages to both almost begin dating someone and putting an end to the whole thing within a matter of minutes (and then getting dumped anyway). Mike (Jon Favreau, who also wrote it) mopes around with the weight of a planet on his shoulders, refusing to permit himself the freedom from melancholy we’re not even sure he truly desires. Trent (Vince Vaughn) is the irritating friend who can seem to pull women despite (or because of?) his obnoxious, arrogant nature, and is probably inherently unable to appreciate his good fortune with experience. Their trip to Vegas is equally hilarious - initially setting out as a pair of excited youngsters they’re almost ready for bed after several hours of driving later, plus their infiltration of the wrong casino table is suitably embarrassing. It’s truly a sad existence to have one’s entire motivations revolving around the female species and thankfully it only happens to me periodically, but that’s enough to provide amusing identification with the traumas that Mike endures. The soundtrack does a thorough job of capturing the moods while visually Swingers goes for the grittily realistic look. The film has the word ‘cool’ stamped all over it and its cult status was destined from its inception, but aside from those potential stumbling blocks it’s an original and captivating metaphysical ride through the trivialities of the mating game.

 

On both sides of the pond this has been released in bare-bones editions followed by SE versions. Obviously opt for the latter. Extras are quite plentiful and image is good, if somewhat over-saturated. Audio arrives in the form of outdated Dolby Surround, but most of the sound is centre-driven anyway, this being a primarily dialogue focused movie, and thus the track serves its purpose adequately. A 5.1 upgrade would not sufficiently enhance the experience. Check out Swingers if you’ve not already done so.

Posted on 3rd August 2007
Under: Other | 3 Comments »

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