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Review: District 9

August 17, 2009

What a difference a brilliant campaign makes.

District 9, the feature film debut of South African director/effects whiz Neill Blomkamp, had every advantage a small budget, sci-fi flick could ask for; fanboy royalty Peter Jackson’s discerning eye, incredible buzz coming out of Comic-Con and a viral marketing campaign that rivals The Blair Witch Project‘s in terms of creatively blending reality and fiction.

In fact, this movie’s status was consummated well before it went on to general release. Consider after only its first weekend it sits at #26 on the IMDB Top 250 list (above Citizen Kane and Taxi Driver). More and more often the filmgoing experience includes what you make of a film before you even see it and this campaign had us expecting a revolutionary work of genius.

Fortunately most, but not all of the hype surrounding District 9 is well-deserved.

The premise is definitely intriguing and well-executed. We’re immediately dropped into Johannesburg documentary-style, where a gigantic spaceship has parked itself, hovering ominously above the city, apparently incapacitated. Curious earthlings discover a million languishing aliens on board and provide them a refugee camp in what appears to be a fenced-in landfill. The implications of apartheid are made right away through the interviews given by local residents who take none too kindly to the crustacean-esque creatures they seethingly dub “prawns”. Science fiction has long been a cache for good social commentary and in this respect, District 9 does not disappoint. So far, so good.

First-timer Sharlto Copley impresses as Wikus Van De Merwe, an awkward, fragile bureaucrat whose job it is to serve eviction notices to the aliens as the multinational he works for prepares to move them to a new camp. The multinational, in addition to its public humanitarian efforts, privately schemes to learn how the aliens’ advanced weapons work and Blomkamp crafts several nightmarish corporate R&D scenarios involving alien captives. For good measure he also makes sure to install a gang of heavily-armed Nigerian traders meddling in the periphery of this society and gives us at least one truly badass villain to despise. All the elements are there for the explosive alien uprising we’re promised…one which never comes. Over the course of the screening I had to unwillingly accept the reality that this movie was never going to be about aliens, only about us. Sigh.

That becomes the film’s sole flaw, that it creates only one alien character worth mentioning (or two if you’re feeling generous enough to include a cute-ish, infant alien) out of a supposed million. Imagine making a film about real apartheid in South Africa and only including one black character worth mentioning… So Wikus becomes our pseudo-victim and while his journey forces him into an unexpected kinship with the aliens, taking him from corporate dweeb, to desperate man on the run, to battle-ready savior, the film undermines its true victims by too-often ignoring them.

District 9‘s action and effects are visually impressive and well-directed by the young, talented Blomkamp. The pacing of the action is a little unbalanced with the front end of the film holding out a bit too long in my opinion and as always the trailer gives away far too many of the best bits but at least they don’t come the way you’d necessarily expect. At one point I was convinced we’d reached the climax of the movie only to be pleasantly surprised that there was more suffering to be endured. How many movies can make you say that!

It’s a rare summer action film that tries this hard to make its audience contemplate such recognizable injustices let alone successfully make them into an entertaining piece of pop culture that transcends its sci-fi trappings. I’ve spent more time dissecting this film than any other this year and it all started with a brilliant campaign.

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Review: HOME

June 11, 2009

Ten years. That’s what Yann Arthus-Bertrand’s non-profit documentary HOME wants us to think about; the next ten years and how we behave as a species during them. Glenn Close presents the argument with dramatic narration and details all the things we might lose if we don’t radically alter the way we live. Meanwhile, we’re treated to sweeping, Attenborough-esque shots of melting glaciers and majestic rainforests and reminded that they all have a role to play in the balance of our planet. More significantly, we’re reminded of the changes we’ve already caused in our ecosystem; a gentle admonition that we’ve already overfished most of our oceans (supported by a new study that estimates by 2048 there will be no more seafood), that the tar sands in Canada waste unimaginable amounts of water to feed a stubborn U.S. oil addiction and that our meat-rich diet is causing half the world’s grain to become animal feed while over a billion starve. “Entire forests turned into meat” as the film puts it. As far as simple mathematics is concerned, this arrangement is not sustainable. Common sense however, needs a reminder.

Now, we’ve all seen movies like this before. An Inconvenient Truth brought the message of climate change to an unprecedented number of people and was quickly followed by imitators. So why do we need another one? Well, it’s all to do with human psychology, namely Parkinson’s Law, which states that a workload will adjust based on the amount of time given to complete it. If we have ten years to clean up our act, Parkinson’s Law says we’ll use every second of it. Unfortunately, this probably means debating international trade deals and finger-pointing in politcal theaters for nine years followed by a mad scramble to save our planet at the zero hour. How perfectly Hollywood of us. We need movies like HOME to remind us (again!) that we all need to be aware of what’s happening and not wait for governments to fix it. We need to be propagandized for the cause. It sounds ugly but we’re simply not moving fast enough on our own.  The answer to our global problem will require sacrifice, but the earlier we start, the smaller the sacrifice. There are hundreds of thousands of resources online to help you figure out how to live greener. I, for one, have not owned a car since 2005 and I recycle and yet that’s not enough anymore either. After watching HOME, I’ll be taking my activism to the grocery store and looking for sustainable produce and joining rallies geared towards stopping the Tar Sands Project. I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I was to see a climate documentary finally expose this abominable practice which can now be seen from outer space. Great Canadian North indeed!

HOME is careful not to prognosticate terror and doom if we aren’t successful in reversing our practices. This is not Earth 2100 or some other sensational bit of mockumentary spectacle. Glenn Close simply tells us that science cannot predict the changes that will occur if all the methane living in the ground safely under vast ice sheets is released, if all the fresh water in Greenland melts into the salty sea, if coastal cities see a seven meter rise in water levels. The scariest things are truly what we imagine. Personally, I imagine massive displacement, starvation, water wars and the potential for a huge chunk of our planet to lose its ability to support life. We all know how well people behave during crisis (Katrina anyone?), which leaves me to believe that it’s not our planet that is at stake, but us and our humanity. HOME’s most impressive persuasion comes when it reminds us how little of our planet’s history even involves us and how quickly we can cease to be a part of it. Just like, say, dinosaurs.

I would quickly like to mention the importance of this film being released for free on YouTube until June 14. This film is free. That’s how important it is to the filmmakers that you see it. 217 days of incredibly difficult shooting in 54 countries done just for you to see this film. Surely we all have an hour and a half to reciprocate with. YouTube has taken a huge step towards offering original, feature-length content on your computer, which is what we’ve all known for years would happen. That it starts with this beautiful, thoughtful film is enough to help renew my faith in a global, green revolution. At some point, I will write a post about new models for distribution and why pirates will always be one step ahead but for now I’m just gonna enjoy the baby steps we’re taking towards a brave new world.

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Alive 1991 vs. Alive 2009

April 14, 2009

When you tamper with an album as awesome as Ten, it begs the question: legitimate remix or self-serving desecration?

Upon first listen of my favorite Pearl Jam track, Alive, I noticed how much louder it seemed. I immediately put on the original. Definitely subdued by comparison. But, also recognizable, correct. I couldn’t tell.

A few sleepless nights later, I decided to look at the waveform.

alive_original

Original 1991 Tim Palmer Mix - looks good to me

2009 Brendan O'Brien Remix

2009 Brendan O'Brien Remix - Um...that can't be good, can it?

I listened again, unsure of whether these images were influencing me the wrong way. The new mix now seemed too loud, while the original mix, which the band themselves seem to regard as amateur, nonetheless used its effects to enhance Vedder’s secrets and snarls, and it sounded more evenly distributed. I listened back and forth a few more times, my frustration growing…

There’s only one way to get to the bottom of this and know once and for all whether this re-release is the real deal. A side-by-side listen to both tracks.

I rigged this up in Final Cut Pro. The top tracks represent the original 1991 version from Ten while the lower tracks are from the 2009 remix.

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Personally, while I may feel guilty losing some of the bassline and all of the vocal effects, (mainly out of nostalgic loyalty for every last nuance of the original), there’s no denying that the new cut delivers more of what made the track a classic in the first place: Vedder’s powerful command of the vocals which (unfairly) draw comparisons to Robert Plant and the dynamic interplay between guitarists Stone Gossard and Mike McCready. These elements are stripped of any “produced” sound,  brought front and center and made loud. As you listen to the side-by-side you can literally hear the band’s balls disappearing every time it switches back to the original mix. When Gossard’s epic solo kicked off, it laid whatever was left of my skepticism to rest.

It almost seems unfair that this new offering could become the definitive version. I’ve since heard the rest of the album and can say it’s a pretty sweet improvement that seemed totally unwarranted. Double surprise!

Winner: Alive (2009)

I know there are bound to be purists who’d have me burned for saying so…

What do you think of the new remix?

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Double Feature: Mona Lisa and The Long Good Friday

April 9, 2009

Just in time for Easter! If you’re hard up for something to do this weekend after all the church and chocolate eggs, why not kick back and take in two amazing British films starring one of the most talented, criminally neglected actors still going. The inimitable Bob Hoskins. Best known for his performance as Eddie Valiant in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, here’s your chance to catch up with a few of his star-making turns that lead up to that role.

I’ve been struggling to decide which film to recommend watching first. Both films represent the best examples of solid gangster pictures and yet, they couldn’t be more different, nor could the performances given by Bob Hoskins be any more diametrically opposed. Best to start with a bang I suppose.

The Long Good Friday

“I’m not a politician. I’m a businessman.”

If you grew up idolizing Tony Montana and Michael Corleone, just wait until you meet Harry Shand. Bob Hoskins’ pit bull of a mob boss finds himself on the cusp of a huge international land deal that will see East London’s Docklands become his very own empire. However, just as he’s wining and dining his American backers for the last time a series of bombs and murders threatens his enterprise and kills off several of his loyal crew. What makes this film so impressive is that it spoon-feeds us nothing. We are as clueless as Harry as to what’s happening and more importantly, why. A whodunit this complex just begs to fail, but TLGF hangs in there effortlessly on the strength of its performances from a variety of familiar faces including Helen Mirren, Eddie Constantine and a young Pierce Brosnan in his first film role.

But in the end, it’s Harry’s sheer brute magnetism that keeps us rooting for him when we know full well he’s as big a bastard as the ones trying to destroy him. Director Peter Mackenzie does a wonderful job keeping up the pace in a film with more questions than answers while DP Phil Meheux comes up with more than a handful of truly impressive camera setups which never call attention away from the plot. Make no mistake, this isn’t one of Guy Ritchie’s hyperkinetic, dub-fuelled bits of British eye candy. This is an authentic gangster film the likes of Mean Streets or Eastern Promises. It doesn’t need to demand your attention with flashy gimmicks; within the first few minutes you know had best give it over or find something else to watch. So please, take my advice and make the effort. By the time you reach TLGF’s brilliant, brave ending you’ll have been amply rewarded on your investment.

Make this Good Friday a long one!

Mona Lisa

Same setting, same decade, same underworld, completely different experience. Where Bob Hoskins’ Harry Shand was virtually devoid of any emotion except rage and desire, his Oscar-nominated performance as George, an ex-con struggling to find his place in a criminal enterprise that’s moved on without him, is rife with sentiment.

After being turned away by his ex-wife and daughter, George reconnects with his old friend Thomas (a pre-Cracker Robbie Coltrane) and takes a job driving for Cathy, a high-end prostitute operating in London’s West End. Though clearly at odds when they first meet, Cathy eventually enlists George to help her find a young prostitute she once suffered with under the hands of a brutal pimp. Neil Jordan plays tour guide through the seedy underground clubs and porno shops that George is drawn to in his search for the young girl. Hoskins plays the role brilliantly as a character almost completely clueless as to how to behave in his surroundings. He’s more than rough around the edges, no doubt a result of his being incarcerated for seven years. There’s a wonderful gag when George is first introduced to the technological wonder that is the pager. But what he lacks in intelligence, he more than makes up for with heart. Simply put, this has got to be one the most endearing portraits of a criminal ever committed to film. George is a decent man, clearly evidenced by the way he swaps detective stories with Thomas as well as his unyielding efforts to reintroduce himself to his estranged daughter (who reminds him a little too much of the prostitute he’s looking for).  But it’s more than just that, Hoskins really manages to break your heart several times over when trying to introduce the same decency to Cathy and criminal lord Mortwell (as played by a menacing, mean-spirited Michael Caine). I promise you will feel his frustrations and his helplessness and the violent ending might just bring you to tears as we see a man teetering on the edge of emotional collapse.

Just how bleak is this film? Consider the exchange when George asks Cathy why a pimp would run one of his girls from a church.

“It’s the only place no one ever goes,” she coolly replies.

Bob Hoskins has seen his profile lowered to supporting roles in films like Maid in Manhattan and Son of the Mask. This Easter, lets pray he can resurrect his career one last time with a performance to rival either of these.

Happy Easter from Filmpunk!

(PS. I’ve not included trailers for either of these as I felt they gave away too much).

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Generation A.D.D. (or how I learned to stop worrying about Fox News)

March 28, 2009

Recently, I engaged in behavior that would’ve normally made me ashamed: I indulged in a bit of online self-righteousness when I ranted about Fox News for some disparaging comments made on one of their late-night genius fests. I don’t want to rehash the whole thing suffice to say that the comments were made about the Canadian military and the clip of it has become one of this week’s YouTube phenomenons. At the time I even posted the link in my Facebook status with a snarky comment designed to incite more self-righteous hatred towards the “Fox fucks” as I was calling them. Even more embarassingly, within 24 hours I had joined and left a “Boycott Fox News” Facebook group which was spewing all sorts of pious comments left and right.

Why is this behavior something to be ashamed of? Mainly because it’s a complete and utter waste of time. Instead of doing something productive with my Wednesday afternoon, I sat glued to my computer stewing in a rage towards people who’ve made absolutely no difference in my life. There I was fantasizing about being locked in a small, windowless room with a bunch of comic hacks who’s message would’ve only been seen by the legions who watch Fox News at 3AM if not for all the internet exposure it picked up later. As I thought about it more, several notions came together and I realized how such wannabe vigilantism can do us great damage in large enough numbers.

When I first read Manufacturing Consent ten years ago as part of a Social Media course, I remember how the concept of 80% of all media being subverted into a source of distraction (including newscasts) struck me as absurd. How could the news be a distraction? Well with time grows the cynic and the cynic-makers and it’s become painfully obvious that organizations like Fox News are only interested in generating controversy and anger. Hype. Hype that I willingly helped create this past week.

Even more disturbing among current trends is that Fox is not simply happy to be a distraction. It’s primary goal seems to be generating rage, something which spreads like wildfire across the blogosphere. I suppose it makes perfect sense from a business point of view, generating controversy after controversy, one free publicity incident after the other. But as a society we should be weary when a network who’s desired outcome is creating anger succeeds as often as Fox News. Hell, Keith Olbermann has practically made a career out of his anger towards Fox News. And while he plays good cop, Fox rolls out an assembly line of jerkoffs to say inciteful things and MSNBC rolls out counterpoint efforts to each one resulting in two cable news networks doing battle on the airwaves whilst trying to spin what’s left of the daily events to their owners’ advantage.

In fact, the networks are so good at reporting only the most knee-jerk, reactionary snippets of the news that entire presidencies filled with unimaginable corruption are not forgiven but instead forgotten because there’s a newer reason to be angry. So not only are we filled with rage all the time, but we’re being robbed of our long-term memory by the sheer volume of crap out there masquerading as important news. The most recent example being AIG bonuses. This is not the most important issue within the global economic crisis. Not by a long shot, and yet because it incites understandable anger, it’s exploited.

Meanwhile attention-deficit-disorder, a term I had always considered as the medical community’s easy answer for troublesome kids, has now become a self-fulfilling affliction in large part because of the way we consume media. Constantly and ubiquitously. And in the end, the genuine threats to our society that require sustained focus go unchecked as we accept small doses of fake justice as part of our news cycle of shock and rage.

So what’s the answer? I mean the volume and intensity of the crap out there is a by-product of the technology that makes thousands of channels available and puts YouTube on your phone. How can we resist becoming victims of our own propaganda? The answer is as simple and clichéd as one you might give to a child struggling with a bully. Ignore it. If Fox wants rage, withhold it. If they want hype, be secretive. Shrug off infantile comments by actors posing as journalists; there only to perpetuate their failed careers. If you hate Fox News then make sure you’re not getting it with your cable package. I sure did. Write letters to advertisers letting them know where you stand. This seems to have worked once already with UPS responding to consumer pressure by saying they won’t advertise on Bill O’Reilly anymore. Believe it or not this type of legitimate, tangible activism makes more of an impact on a network than all the wasteful hate messages on Facebook combined.

And if you really want the news, make the effort to get it from several sources. International sources. It can be as easy as Google News. You’d be amazed how coverage of an incident varies paper to paper, country to country, so polish off your bullshit detectors. It’s an important skill to hone if you really want to be informed.

It may seem pretentious to be giving out such advice on a blog but we all have the potential to be sucked in by such an adept machine specializing in viewer manipulation. I thought I was insulated from such depradation here in Canada where our news is smaller and less sensational, but when you have the internet you’re exposed to everything and when Fox baited me, I went for it hook, line and sinker.

I’d like to think I can break the cycle, at least for myself.

Noam Chomsky excerpt on why propaganda works:

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Chomsky criticizes the issue of concision in the US media. Very important in understanding the structure of most news shows and why you may have never heard of him.

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Lonely? There’s an app for that.

February 24, 2009

An iPhone ad as re-imagined by a lonely video editor.

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An app for just about anything.

Made on a Mac.

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2008 Movie Mashup!

February 22, 2009

Here it is as promised, and just in time for the Oscars!

A few months ago while wasting time at work, I came across the work of barringer82 on Youtube. He does absolutely amazing tributes to various filmmakers and particular decades in film. I highly encourage you to check them out while they’re still around (Youtube’s newfangled piracy policy has ruined or caused many of them to be deleted). Anyways, by the time my boss yelled at me to quit screwing around and get back to work, I had decided to create my own personal tribute to the films of 2008. I figured if nothing else it might be a good piece for my demo reel once I finally get fired.

So without further delay, a handful of favorite moments from the films that made a huge splash in 2008. Enjoy!

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Of course now that it’s posted, I can see a million and one ways to make it better, but it’s time to let 2008 go. My girlfriend can only take so much neglect…