Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Movie Review: Untraceable

Untraceable is an enjoyably crappy thriller, that makes you ponder the validity of the title. The lead is a single mother who works for the FBI, researching internet crimes. She stumbles upon a site on which a kitten is tortured on a live-feed cam, while this is being discussed in an adjoining chatroom. Her boss is not too concerned about this and neither will you be, as the kitten looks obviously but un-intentionally animatronic. Watching people suffer realistically on-screen is entertainment, but animals would just be cruel. When the little sadist who runs the site moves on to people, a media-circus ensues.
His gimmick: the more people visit the site, the faster the people he tortures die. His first victim, for instance, is tied up, cut and fed fluids by drip that keep the blood from clogging, bleeding him dry. The more people watch it, the more fluids he gets: killed by hype and mob mentality.
Tracking the site and pinpointing the origin proves impossible because of some technobabble that the writers of the movie are betting will confuse you, involving switching ip's, servers, bouncy mirrors and possibly string theory. I was duly at a loss to completely follow the explanation, but wasn't quite buying that a site with a live chat-room could be set up in the way described. In any case, the killer turns out to be conveniently local and he is in fact revealed early on, turning the film from a who-dunnit into a why-dunnit. Probably not a
good idea, as the authorities aren't making much headway and the movie stalls a little until some savvy victims start mouthing clues to the camera while suffering and dying horribly. Now there's discipline for you. These clues are followed to great result, by making major intuitive leaps. And of course the hunt turns personal as the creepy killer turns his attention to the single mother and her daughter.
It is a bumpy road all the way when it comes to believability, both in motivations and logic, but it is all done capably enough to go along for the slightly nauseating ride. The climax is a let-down, as the killer suddenly experiences a major drop in intelligence and makes several bad judgement calls. The final shot of the movie was no doubt intended to be cool, even profound, but alas - it looks goofy and ends things with a laugh.

Untraceable, 2008, 100 min. USA. Director: Gregory Hoblit. Starring: Diane Lane, Billy Burke, Colin Hanks.

Movie Review: Juno

Juno just had sex for the first time at sixteen and finds herself with a bun in the oven. What to do: abortion or adoption? Friends and parents weigh in, but it will have to be her choice. And that first choice leads to other difficult choices that have to be made about her baby's future. Going by the plot, you might think this an after-school special, but it is a comedy and a pretty good one at that.
I had heard só many positive things about Juno that I was afraid it would let me down when I finally saw it. But while I do not completely get the hype, it is indeed an entertaining movie. It has a very liberal tone and will no doubt hit a nerve with conservatives. Teen pregnancy being portrayed in an upbeat manner is unusual, though I suppose it would have been more shocking if the story had ended with an abortion. I can imagine concerned parents foreseeing waves of knocked up teens, cheerfully shooting out babies at adoptive parents with baseball gloves. Given the rate of teen pregnancies though, it is refreshing to see a light-hearted take on the subject, maybe lifting the taboo somewhat. Admittedly, the movie is a bit tóó easy-going about what is really a major, dramatic event. The parents are slightly sarcastic but very supportive, as is the accidental father. Juno herself has only two scenes that show the deep emotional impact the situation has on her. The rest of the time she is a wise-ass, as wilfully alternative as the Indie soundtrack that pervades the movie. Her dialogue is often funny but a bit artificial, which keeps reminding you she is a character.
Juno - the movie - never quite feels realistic either; the script is too lovingly, neatly crafted for that. But because of a charming cast, you end up not caring about that. Simmons and Janney are a lot of fun as Juno's parents and Jennifer Garner pulls off a nice and subtle piece of acting, our feelings about her morphing over the course of the movie even though her character remains pretty much the same. There is one scene in particular that is brilliantly done, in which she talks to Juno's unborn baby by way of her stomach. You start out cringing at it but by the end you want to just give her a great, big hug. Especially if you just got accidentally knocked up, don't miss this movie. At the very least it will cheer you up a little.

Juno, 2007, 96 min. USA. Director: Jason Reitman. Starring: Ellen Page, Micheal Cera, Jason Bateman.

Movie Review: Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem delivers exactly what was advertised, no more, no less. While the title characters duke it out in a small town in America, plenty of humans - often entirely defenceless - get caught in the fray and are duly slaughtered in a variety of nasty ways. Be it by skinning, beheading by jaws, impregnation or acid spray. And during its relatively short run time, there is indeed plenty of running to avoid all these nasty possible endings. The cast consists entirely of relatively unknown actors, which is more fun in the beginning as you can't guess by star status who will survive and the order in which the victims will perish. As the focus is split over multiple characters, it is also not clear for a while who will be the Sigourney Weaver in this chapter - the smart and tough lady who will end up kicking some butt. Though to be honest, this movie's Sigourney never reaches her full potential and lets a man fill in for her. There are quite a few narrative dead ends in the story, mostly ended by death. The movie is brutal in killing off innocent people, women and children not exempted. Thankfully we are not all that invested in any of them, as not much time is given to make them more than a basic character outline. The dialogue is flat and thankfully sparse and the way the plot flows serves its purpose in keeping the action going continuously and keeping you curious about the next bit of bloodshed.
I am not spoiling anything in saying that an Alien-Predator hybrid appears in this movie, which follows off directly from the end of the previous flick in the series. I guess one would call him an Alienator? Apart from looking unique, I am not clear on the ramifications of this crossbreeding, as the movie doesn't show the difference that much, though it does give the Alienator a neat and disgusting new way to make babies. Much of the inter-species fighting is done in semi-darkness, which is atmospheric as hell, but makes it hard to see what is going on at points.
I will refrain from poking at too many of the holes in the plot, but a couple won't hurt. Why is an empty helicopter left behind conveniently on the roof of an evacuated hospital? How do the Aliens build large parts of a hive in what couldn't have been more than an hour or two? And what is up with the variable gestation time of the Alien embryos? Why does it take so long for those helicopters to arrive later in the movie? Feel free to discuss amongst yourselves. In short: an efficient and brainless scifi horror movie, that has a sequel shamelessly built into the last scene.

Aliens vs. Predator - Requiem, 2007, 86 min. USA. Directors: Colin & Greg Strause Starring:Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz.

Television Review: Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles

I love time travel stories, even though they generally drive me nuts. The first Terminator movie made fictional sense: something bad came out of the future and this future could not be avoided because - in a sense - it had already happened. When they apparently DID avoid this future at the end of the second movie, the logical thing to happen would have been a total reboot: Sarah back at the diner as a waitress. No Terminators, no son, no nothing. Because those events in the two movies ultimately wouldn't have happened and had been undone, you see? Back to the Future showed this effect at work, Michael J. Fox slowly fading out (though you'd think it would be more like an instant *plop*) when he messed with his past / his parents' future. But that trilogy threatens to make me go off on a long ramble about the butterfly effect, so let's get back to the Terminator saga.
By the third movie, the human-machine war starts - and it seems to be at the forefront of an upcoming new movie trilogy of the franchise. But now we also have the television series, which must be an alternate reality, as Sarah Connor sidesteps her death - as mentioned in the movies - by a jump from our recent past into present day. She is helped by a reprogrammed Terminator, who looks like a sweet girl. This machine is driven by curiosity and cold reasoning, fascinated by human behaviour while letting nothing keep her off her goal of protecting John Connor, the future leader of the rebellion. The fembot is played very well by Summer Glau, who previously showed off her kookiness in Firefly and in this role gets to kick quite a bit of ass. John and Sarah Connor unfortunately aren't all that interesting so far. Sarah is strong and stoic, but lacks charm, while James seems more a surly teen than a potential leader. Their main goal in the series is still to avoid the war which already became a reality in the movies.
There is a fair amount of 'reinterpretation' of Terminator lore here: where it once seemed there were only two models of Terminators - both made in large quantities - there are now a lot of them with different faces. On top of that, I think the first movie stated that only one man and one machine could be sent back in time. The second movie already messed with that statement and this series throws it completely out of the window: multiple machines and multiple humans travel back in time to suit the plot. This makes for major cause-and-effect headaches, such as: doesn't messing with the past on this scale change the future in itself, especially considering the previously mentioned butterfly effect (meaning: any minor change will have major consequences)? And if the Terminators didn't find themselves blinked out of existence after sending the first machine back, why send a second one? Didn't Sarah obviously fail to avoid the war? And why does Sarah want to avoid that future even though it likely means that her son will cease to be? Alternatively, in the case that changing the past doesn't erase the future but results in the creation of an alternate timeline, why bother going after someone in the past who can't affect 'your' reality? Is your head hurting yet?Apart from the special effects budget, I have to wonder why the improved, liquid metal Terminator model has not shown up yet. Is the future saving him as a last resort? And why wouldn't the last resort be sent back to an earlier point in time, as you don't have to be linear when time-travelling? It is somewhat worrying that all this shaky logic is at the core of the plot, but not being discussed. Maybe the show-runners are just stalling to be able to come up with a coherent explanation. The only way to enjoy the series is to let go of all reasoning, just watch the action and not ponder any of it. As it stands, Terminator: The Sarah Conner Chronicles serves as a run-of-the-mill action series with average writing that will need to find a way to stand out from the competition, aside from its affiliation with the Terminator franchise.

Game Review: Phoenix Wright: Justice for All (NDS)

Phoenix Wright: Justice for All is the middle part of a trilogy of games that were ported from the Game Boy Advance for the Nintendo DS. In all three games, you play defence attorney Phoenix Wright and have to get a 'not guilty' verdict for your clients by doing research, gathering evidence, picking apart testimony in court by cross-examination and by presenting evidence at the appropriate moments. An overarching story serves to string the separate cases together, concerning your colleagues, rivals and friends.
The presentation is fairly simple but effective: in front of backdrops of certain locations like Wright's office, the courtroom or the scene of a crime, characters pop up - drawn in manga-style - who you can chat with. They are fairly limited in their animation, having only a couple of signature expressions each and some standard 'moves' that sometimes make little sense when people start appearing at several locations. For instance, a dignified lady sips a cup of tea, which seems right when we see her at home, but gets silly when she is later seen sipping the same cup of tea on the witness stand. The design is deeply charming however and though the cases might be grim - all of them are murders - the game revels in coming up with outlandish people and funny scenarios. One case involves circus people, another one spirit channelers and yet another costumed television Ninjas. The smart balance of seriousness and oddness is what makes the game so addictive. And though the solution to most of the cases is very unlikely, it does make sense within the context of the game.
At first I was a little put off by how little influence you seem to have on the story. Though there is ultimately a 'good' ending and a 'bad' ending, this is the result of one single decision to be made during the final case. And even here you can just skip back in the story to find the 'good' ending. With the help from an occasional hint from an online walkthrough, there is no way you will not be able to finish this game. So you are pretty much just following along with the story, trying to find the right logical action to advance it. Sometimes you will have to go with a hunch, but often a bit of reasoning will keep you from getting stuck. By shouting 'Hold it!' or 'Objection!' into the DS microphone you can press witnesses on their statements - or you can just push a button instead, so you won't have to embarrass yourself on public transport. You will likely end up always pressing witnesses on everything they say. At best it will further your case and at worst it will give you some amusing dialogue in which you get made fun of. I felt a little thrown out of the games at times, as Wright - who is supposed to be you - can suddenly go off on an unexpected tangent when you present evidence, which you picked for a different reason. Vice versa, you can be on - what turns out to be - the right track but have trouble finding the right combination of testimony and evidence to get your point across. Being penalised because the game doesn't understand you, gets frustrating at points. Another nitpick is that during the investigations, characters have repeated standard replies when questioned about irrelevant people or evidence. These take too long to zap through every time you hit on them. Some of the music - which is tied to specific characters or locations - also gets a little repetitive. The stories and cast are very engaging and there is a lot of fun to be had in slowly uncovering the bizarre truth behind a case, as it twists and turns. Though each of the four cases in this volume will take you one or two long afternoons to get through, you will have trouble putting it down. After I finished, it felt like I just read a good book and I was left hungry for more. Just a tip though: as the story arcs throughout the three games, I would advise playing them in sequence: Ace Attorney, Justice for All and then Trials and Tribulations. The last one seems to be the best one - going by reviews - so the story ends on a high note. A new entry in this genre, especially developed for the DS, has also just come out: Apollo Justice: Ace Attorney. It makes more use of the touch screen and promises to be as good as its predecessors. Look online for the Flash interactive trailer! Court adjourned.

Book Review: Books with Mental Issues

I seem to have accidentally run into a recurring theme in the books I have been reading lately: mental issues. I am choosing to see this as a fluke rather than a cosmic warning, but it is interesting nonetheless. In Running with Scissors the narrator is actually the most sane person in the book. It is a memoir of writer Augusten Burroughs' childhood. During the seventies, his mentally unstable mother ditched him with her psychiatrist in a messy, filthy house where he ends up having a fling with a paedophile. The psychiatrist knows and approves of this, but then he also thinks God is speaking to him through his faeces. He is a mental patient with a license, diagnosing other mental patients. The book consists of stories starring Augusten's crazy adoptive family and makes you convinced people should have to pass an exam to be parents. The writer was not surprisingly sued by his adoptive family after the book appeared, claiming he made a lot of it up. A settlement was reached, though Burroughs still holds to his version of events. In any case, his memoir is an amusing and at times baffling read.

In Running with Scissors, Augusten's brother is diagnosed as having Asperger syndrome, which is what the writer of the next book I read also has. The title is Born on a Blue Day, which illustrates one aspect of Asperger: synaethesia, a cross-wiring of the senses. People with the syndrome strongly associate shapes and colours with numbers and words. For the rest they share symptoms with people with autism. They have trouble reading people's expressions, need a lot of structure and routine and some of them are capable of astonishing things like complicated calculations from the top of their head, done in seconds. A lot of these people can't live an independent life, but Daniel Temmet is thankfully 'high functioning', so he manages to. Through his memoir he gives some insight into his mind and how it works. It is a fascinating book, even if his writing can get a little dry and I zoned out during some of the bits about numbers. You end up imagining what it would be like to have a brain that works so much more efficient in some ways, but in others handicaps you.
The next book I am reading is Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, which is a novel said to be written from the perspective of someone with autism, specifically Asperger. There is some controversy about this interpretation, so his condition is not official, but comparisons were made in reviews to the autistic lead character from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon. Both books are written from the point of view of a sensitive young boy who goes on an investigation and both titles have some drawings and textual experimentation. Extremely Loud is a love-it or hate-it sort of book from what I heard, so I'm curious to see which camp I will land in. I suspect I will like it, as I loved Haddon's book.

But maybe I need to take a break from autism first. Sit down and watch a movie. I hear Rain Man is pretty good...

Book Review: Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star

Secrets of a Gay Marine Porn Star sounds like the kind of book you would read with one hand in your lap. But this is not the case - for better or worse, depending on your expectations. It is the autobiography of Rich Merritt, better known in xxx-rated circles as Danny Orlis. Rich initially ended up in the news as the anonymous source for a New York Times cover article that made big waves when it was published in 1998. It illustrated the difficulties of being a gay marine with the American navy, forced to live a double life due to their 'don't ask, don't tell' policy.
His real identity wasn't too hard to figure out for people who knew him personally and when The Advocate discovered that Rich had starred in a couple of porn movies while in the service, they did not hesitate in making it public knowledge, causing another scandal.
The book starts at this point in time and then regresses to Rich's childhood, suffering under a highly religious regime at the Bob Jones University. Rich has plenty of material to pick from: a masturbation virgin until his twenties, in denial about being gay until his mid-twenties, his double life with the marines, ill-advised outings into the worlds of stripping and porn, clinical depression, suicide attempts and an addiction to pills and booze.
While there are too many uninteresting details in the book, and a fair amount of pages should have been culled, his story is fascinating even if the style in which it is written won't blow you away. Rich shows himself to be impulsive and eager to please, sometimes arrogant but at other times charmingly open, like when he admits to having had a premature ejaculation problem. By the end of the book he seems to think he now has his life well and truly back on the rails, but as a reader you are left wondering if he could not go off-track again in the future. For the moment things are going well, however: in January he published his first novel: Code of Conduct. Making use of his insider knowledge, he tells the love story of two marines circa 1993, when Clinton was promising to abolish the army's 'shush' policy on gays. It looks to be an interesting and historically accurate read.