Tag Archives: review

Paddington the Movie

20 Apr

paddington_posterAt my house, we tend to decide which movies to watch based on the score it gets on metacritic.com. The thinking is that, while you can’t trust a critic, surely you can trust all of the critics bundled together. This should work, but it frequently doesn’t. Metacritic told us that Before the Devil knows you’re Dead should have been a masterpiece (84%), and that Captain America: Winter Soldier would be a treat (70%). Nearly every one of them loves insufferable Mike Leigh movies for no reason I can work out.

And that brings me to Paddington–allegedly a charming British film that the whole family would love, starring the dad from Downton and that lady from Mike Leigh’s Happy-go-lucky. From 38 reviews, metacritic gave it an average score of 77%.

My eldest daughter begged me to let her leave the cinema (though mostly because Nicole Kidman is in it–an impulse I often have in Nicole Kidman movies–and she was a bit scary and was trying to kill the beloved bear). So I happily put my cellphone away and waited outside for the rest of the family to finish watching.

Now, it wasn’t without merit–if you like those films in which blundering, clueless characters keep embarrassingly screwing everything up (the Jar-Jar approach to comedy), it’s great, and it has some social commentary about London and xenophobia that makes it ‘deep’ etc.

But it’s also annoying (sorry Sally Hawkins) and completely self-contradictory.

I have psychological problems of a sort, but I really struggle when a film creates the rules of its universe and then utterly violates them, and Paddington is a chief violator of this sort.

The idea is that an explorer discovers these bears, and finds that they are intelligent, can talk and learn, and are essentially human, so he refuses to shoot one in order to bring a sample back to his funding body. In other words they are so extraordinarily unique and so unlike any other animal that he breaks the usual ‘shoot one’ rule of his society.

Then later, one of these bears turns up in London to find the explorer again, and… everyone treats it like it is a workaday immigrant, as though talking animals are commonplace. The entire film depends on both of these things being true at the same time, when of course they cannot be.

Ah, but it’s a kids’ movie, you may protest. But should our children really be subjected to incomprehensible plot-lines? Should our children be forced to digest Jar-Jar humour? Won’t you think about the children?

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Ten questions for Captain America

28 Apr
Ha! I can catch your magic shield with my magic arm! Wait, but why didn't that nice doctor give me two of these arms? And the same tech in my legs? And why don't I have one of these indestructible shields?  Why is there only one of everything??

“Ha! I can catch your magic shield with my magic arm! Wait, but why didn’t that nice doctor give me two of these arms? And the same tech in my legs? And why don’t I have one of these indestructible shields? Why is there only one of everything??”

On the recommendation of almost every movie critic in the world (89% on Rotten Tomatoes with a 94% audience rating) we went to watch Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It was utter garbage, and shame on you for liking it.

If you’ve yet to see it, from here on there are numerous spoilers, which I actually consider a public service to you, but I’m warning you anyway.

Firstly: why the critics liked it. It explores the oh-so-novel theme: ‘Those enemies of freedom must never be allowed to take away our freedom’, via a rebooted Nazi world domination plot (cf. reductio ad hitlerum). Apparently the topical issue of govt invading personal liberty in order to preserve public security is enough depth to get critical buy-in. The fact that the commentary is as complex as ‘I think it’s bad, you guys’, and padded out with 120 minutes of punching, seems not to matter.

But here are some other puzzles that the Marvel Universe threw up this time. In no particular order:

  1. Why is Cap’s shield sentient sometimes? How does it come back?
  2. Why, while shooting endless bullets at Cap’s shield with no effect, does no one think to shoot his legs? “Shoot him in the shield!! … It’s not working! … I know!! I’ll shoot him in the shield!”
  3. Dear pretty CIA nurse lady, if you are a superhero-level marksman (marksperson?) holding a dangerous special-ops guy at gunpoint, is it utterly necessary to stand within knife range?
  4. Why is it interesting to watch two invincible foes fighting each other? It either ends nonsensically or not at all, neither of which seems worth watching to me.
  5. Which sensei did these guys train with? Why in every fight does one hero finally get his deadly hands on his defeated adversary, only to toss him aside like it’s WWE. “I’ve got you right where I want you, so now I shall… throw you away from me to safety!! Take that!!!”
  6. If Nick Fury’s car has windows that can withstand all assault weapons and a swat battering ram for about five minutes, why can Winter Soldier assassinate the pilot of one of SHIELD’s planes through its windscreen with a single shot from a handgun? Why is there only one of everything?
  7. If you’re going to fake your own death, isn’t it a bit risky to do it by getting shot unexpectedly by an assassin that your enemy hired to kill you? And assuming therefore that it was a plan-B situation, who came up with the plan while Fury was busy being mostly dead? And why did the plan maker need to deceive even the doctors who were trying to save his life? To keep the secret very secret? How then did some other lot of doctors who did know the plan get his ‘corpse’ and save his now-even-more-threatened life in time and with no one noticing (so as to ruin the secrecy)?

    Some muppets did this in the live action version too.

    Why, CapAm, why?

  8. Why did the bad guys make their super soldier out of a broken American one that they found lying around instead of a well-made German soldier? Oh and he was also coincidentally Cap’s best friend. Surely this was not all just to manufacture human drama, surely?
  9. If you can make a near-immortal super-soldier with a super-strong bionic arm, and if you can do so even out of left-over soldier casualties, why wouldn’t you make another one, and another? And give them Capn America shields? Why only one hero for each side? Do superheroes get jealous and cannibalise one another? Why is there only one of everything?
  10. Given that Tony Stark is named in connection with the project on which the story is focused, why does he not bring his army of Iron Men to help out when the world is about to go belly up? You know he was going to be near the top of the bad guys’ hit list, but no need for a little warning there? Perhaps he was busy filming Iron Man 3.

And exposition! There’s going to be eleven questions now, it turns out. Why would Hydra go to the trouble of hiding their brains-trust in a hidden lair under old-SHIELD, and yet when the enemies of shield discover it, the brain in question blurts out all their secrets for no reason? When Samson told Delilah that cutting his hair would render him powerless, she at least had to nag him to tears, and even he faked her out three times first.

High-class Reviews!

17 Nov

Because of my roaring social life, I have had time to watch lots more of yesteryear’s television and movies that everyone has already forgotten about. You heard it here last! Reviews of blockbuster movie Pacific Rim, and
TV’s Suits.

Pacific Rim

Director Guillermo Del Toro is best known for giving me diagnosable post-traumatic stress disorder after watching most of Pan’s Labyrinth. Earlier this year, he released the less-disturbing bigger-budget sci-fi behemoth
Pacific Rim.

It’s about huge alien monsters, called Kaiju, who’ve invaded earth via a portal in the sea-floor. To avert their extermination, the humans unite to develop sky-scraper-sized mechwarriors piloted by pairs of synchronous street-fighting humans, who pound the aliens back to where they belong. But now, the monsters are evolving…

It’s full of colossal-scale martial-arts robot-alien battles, wrecking cities in the hope of saving mankind. What’s not to like?

<Minor-plot-hole-spoiler-that-might-ruin-the-movie-if-you-haven’t-seen-it to follow>

One thing.

The sword.

OK two things. The scientists are as annoying and cliched as it is possible to be. But the sword!

An hour into the movie… an hour full of epic battles in which the robots fist-punch the monsters, zap them with plasma weapons, blitz them with missiles, and so on, all of which only seems to annoy the creatures, and which is so dangerous that most of the crews are killed… an hour into this movie, the main surviving team seems to be all out of ammo and out of options when…
the sword.

One of the heroes even says, ‘Oh no, Other Lead Actor, we’re out of options! This is it!’

To which Other Lead Actor responds, ‘No we still have the sword!’

She then activates the sword, they whip it out, and cut the monster clean in half with the first swing. I know it would be a much shorter movie, but shouldn’t they just always be using the sword? They had to punch and kick the aliens through buildings for ages before they even dazed the suckers, but they could have just cut them in two without any effort? They have this 100% effective weapon as a last resort? So much of a last resort that one of them forgets they even have it?

I can’t forgive the sword.

Suits (TV)

Suits is like LA Law for people who were born after LA Law. Except the kid (not the Corbin-Bernsen-looking guy) in this one has law super-powers, and I can’t remember if LA Law had
super-powers in it.

Effectively, Corbin mark2 was supposed to find a new junior associate who would be the Next Big Thing, but all the Harvard graduates were cliches. So he accidentally finds this super-power kid who doesn’t actually have a law degree, but is better at law than all the lawyers.

He wants to hire him as an associate (because that’s the position he was supposed to fill, so what choice did he have?), but he’s not qualified.

What would you do in this situation, especially if you were Harvard-clever?

What’s that? You’d hire him as an associate anyway and find extremely fraudulent and incriminating ways to help him practice law without a licence, making it certain that you would lose your own lawyering licence and destroy the firm in which you’re senior partner if anyone found out? You too?

Because that’s the solution that drives the tension in this show from
episode one onwards.

Me? I’d hire him as a researcher so that I could get him to read all the stuff I didn’t want to, and so that I could take all the credit for his lawyering super-powers, which is mostly what happens anyway. Or, I’d find a way of getting him into Harvard legitimately, seeing as that is exactly what this very lawyer’s boss had done for him.

Again, it would be a shorter and more boring show, but at least it wouldn’t be incredibly stupid.

Why ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’ Needs a Punch in the Face

17 Oct

I didn’t know that you can’t fish for salmon in the Yemen, because I don’t know much about salmon and I wasn’t sure where the Yemen is (it’s on the tip of the Arabian peninsula, for what it’s worth). But this movie title was probably aiming at the more the more geographically aware, and presumably is trying to be intriguing and perhaps even a bit mystical. The roles are played by Serious Actors too — it’s got Ewan in it, and Emily Blunt and Kristen Scott Thomas — so you would be forgiven for expecting this to be intelligent, witty, perhaps too pretentious for its own good. You at least know it’s not going to be a formulaic rom-com nonsense fest. Despite that, here are some [SPOILER filled] reasons why SFITY needs a punch in the face.

1. It’s a formulaic rom-com nonsense fest

Miserably unavailable boy meets happily unavailable girl (vice versas apply). They dislike each other. They are forced into a bristly working relationship. As they get to know each other, things start to challenge their first impressions of one another. They start to like each other. One or both become romantically available (or potentially available). They start to fall in love. Shockingly one or both become extremely unavailable again. One is very sad about it; the other is at least disappointed and wondering what might have been. All hope is dashed and they move on with their li… NO WAIT, what are they doing? This is true love, people! Obstacle to love is removed and they live happily ever after.

This describes the plot of about a thousand movies. Most of them have the decency to be called, ‘She Loves Me She Loves Me Notting Hill’ or ‘How to Have Serial Shallow Relationships But Still be Deep and Emotionally Mature When The One Comes Along’. But SFITY pretends to be Something Different; it tries very hard to appear quirky and British and not-like-all-the-rest. Yet it’s the same predictable formula from start to finish. No deviations.

2. It’s heart-achingly, butt-clenchingly transparent

Movies like this try to appeal to the superiority complex in most of us, but they’re also afraid to lose the lowest common denominator that may have wandered in by accident. So they use about as much subtlety as a fight at the Gaulish fishmonger’s.

Subtlety

For example, Ewan is trapped in a rut. He hates his job, battles in his marriage etc. So he starts the movie in stuffy suits, speaking very formally, and behaving all rigid. By the end of the movie, he has become his own man again, has sexy hair and a tan, wears buttoned down shirts, and looks ready to rejoin Charlie Boorman for a quick desert adventure ride. It’s Clark Kent to Superman.

Why yes I am a hyper-conservative government-employed biologist

3. The main characters are spineless idiots

I know we’re supposed to rejoice when the heroes finally hook up, but why? Ewan divorces his wife because ‘they married young’, and she announces she’s off to work in Geneva for six weeks without asking him. No amount of counselling would fix those scars, right?  He also starts hitting on Emily before deciding on the divorce; but that’s OK everyone, because he decides to leave his wife anyway even when it looked like it was off with Emily too. That’s integrity folks. So how does he win the girl back? By moping, by making Army Man feel bad for coming back, and by telling Emily (who’d made him no promises but for a maybe) that he thought he had everything but now it’s all gone. Sniff… sniff… Poor him. Passive aggression basically.

And Emily. Early on, she makes a promise to wait for her new-found army-man love while he goes off to war, thereby establishing her as a committed, invested lover. He is presumed dead for a week or six, and then reappears after all. Very much like early Ewan himself, actually, Captain Army Man says some disparaging things about trying to grow salmon in the desert, which establishes him as ‘not as Mr Right as we thought’, so instead of giving him time to see the good in the project (time that Ewan had in spades) she chooses the almost-divorced Ewan instead. So let’s review that: she’s effectively saying, ‘Mr Army Man, I know I promised myself to you, but I thought you were dead and I quickly discovered that I could love again. If you were actually dead, I would be released from my promise to you, so I’m just not going to tell my promise that you came back.’

4. Hackneyed, generic, PC statements about faith and sustainability and cross-culturalism

The sheik who bankrolls this crazy plan to put fish in his desert keeps telling everyone that they are people of faith, thereby establishing the cliche that we’re not actually all that different, you and I. In fact, we often really are exactly that different, although that’s beside the point. The point is that when ‘faith’ is left as open a concept as ‘you believe something that is not strictly factual’, then yes, every human is ‘of faith’. For Ewan — the doctor of science — to be transformed into this kind of ‘believer’ by the end is about as momentous as me realising that broccoli soup is better than I remember.

Oh, and then in the pit of despondency, when his hopes and his new-found faith (in nothing in particular) are both feeling poorly, he suddenly sees a fish and realises he can believe again, and he starts babbling about how they’ll try again, but this time smaller, and less arrogant, and they’ll consult with the local people, they’ll find out what they need, they’ll let them be involved and feel part of it, and they’ll do it a bit at a time, and make it sustainable, and occupy Wall Street, and save the Rhino, and everything that the kids-with-causes love. Thereby establishing him as a truly good guy and so-much-more-Mr-Right-than-he-seemed-at-first. I’m all for those good things in real life, but it is as corny a movie moment as has ever been written. It’s like having sixteen crates of National Geographic sponsor-appeal cards dropped onto your pelvis.

In short, this movie is like Hugh Grant. It’s foppish and sweet and funny and desperately obvious in generous measures, but it also has slept with the Deevine Mz Brown and deserves to get punched in the face lots more than it does.

Six Dreadful Product Designs Part 1

16 Mar

The following list of design disasters comes from one’s man’s unwitting mission to purchase the utter garbage. At least that’s the conclusion I’m slowly coming to. This is not a list derived from extensive market research. These are my actual, sad, purchases.

And before you point out my undeniable cheapness, it’s not like everything I’ve bought is entry level junk. For example:

6. Koss PortaPro Headphones

As a music lover, and with the prospect of a 2 hour daily commute ahead of me, I began researching headphones to determine which would be the best for my buck. I settled on these, because their main con according to reviewers was the 80s look (they’ve been making them since 1984), but otherwise they scored top of their class on sound quality. That is certainly true on both counts. They’re a bit ugly, but the sound is wonderful. Their recommended retail is $50, but for some reason, they’re about R700 or more here. (While the link lasts, you can check out how the phones look when they’re not broken too).

They also come with a lifetime warranty, which I interpreted to mean that they’re built well. In fact it means the opposite. Koss seem to realise that they’re going to break really quickly, and so they make sure that people can get their set patched up whenever they need. If said people are American. I’m not and so:

My Repairs Include:

The little plastic sleeves that allow one to adjust the size of the sprung-steel head pieces are criminally flimsy. I (predictably?) have a big head, so I needed them stretched out to their fullest extent, and after a short while they snapped off. After a bit of glue and tape they were sturdy again, but it was the end of their adjustability and so the handy carry bag was now rendered useless.
Next, Koss try to counteract the skull-crushing effect of a sprung-steel alice band by including a ‘Comfort Zone’: two little sliders that tuck the earpieces firmly in, or open them so they’re a little looser on the earhole. Those sliders, being delightfully plasticky, only partially worked and inexplicably returned themselves to the ‘firm’ position at every opportunity. The onset of a headache would alert me that the brain clamps were back on.

Or that I'd had enough Mars Volta for one day

The next issue involved the way that the phones themselves clipped into the head scaffolding (that’s the proper terminology, honest). A little triangular plastic ball joint is supposed to clip into an equally plasticky socket. If the plastic gets at all worn, the earpiece falls out, rendering the headphones unusable. That happened after a month or two.

My solution was to get the hammer drill out, and very carefully tunnel through the triangle without drilling into any the inner gubbins (also the technical term). Once a hole was made, I could sew the earpiece onto its scaffolding again. I was proud of my kludge work, but I didn’t appreciate having to take powertools to a month-old piece of audio equipment.

Have I pointed out yet that all of these design problems are just related to the thing that keeps the phones in the region of your ears. In 25 years they haven’t found a sturdier way to stick them on your head?

Eventually, a year or so on, the wiring in one side (could be the drill side, now that I think of it) gave up, and the person I paid to solder it back for me could do nothing to save them. I’ll miss you, little buddies. Crappily built, skull squashing little buddies.

5. Look-alike Dustpan

If you look closely, you'll notice it's not exactly in showroom condition

OK, so who cares about a retarded dustpan design, seriously? I won’t dwell on it for long. But it deserves a mention, because it’s one of those products that was made by someone who had clearly seen a working one in action, had the desire to copy the arcane device for his own profit, but was darned if he understood the principle upon which it operates.

It reminds me of a time in the hardware store when I witnessed a customer complaint. The customer said, ‘I bought this axe here and the first time I hit a piece of wood with it, and the axe head shattered in pieces.’ The manager honestly said something like, ‘Ah, yes, but this is one of the really cheap ones, so…’. He completely implied that if you wanted an axe for axing stuff, then you should really have bought the more expensive variety. That one is cheap because it’s one of those looking-at axes.

Apart from the fact that the handle of our dustpan is clearly broken off in the picture, because it’s cobbled together out of used yoghurt containers, the main problem is not actually with the build quality. The main problem is the very clever dirt ramp that guards the lip of the dustpan:

It is quite hard to convey in a photo just how steep that lump really is. It exists to keep the dust from falling out of the pan once it’s in, which frankly, for people without neurological disorders, is not usually a serious problem. What this lump successfully does is either staunchly defends the pan from any dust entry, or vaults the mess clean over the back.

I wouldn’t have thought it possible that someone could see such an uncomplicated object in wide circulation, try to copy it, and not manage to do so, but here it is.

Honourable mention: Genius Drawing Tablet

It’s not really fair to include this device, because it is really good for the R600 that it costs new. It is worryingly flimsy in parts, but it works more than OK. The trouble is the instruction booklet, and the unfortunate results of combining bad instructions with an excited me.

I got it by mail order to replace a Wacom tablet that used a serial connector and so couldn’t fit into my laptop. Wacom pens work by magnetic field and so don’t use batteries, but the Genius pen needs one. The instruction leaflet for installing the pen battery looks like this:

I was extremely excited that it had come, so I pulled it out the box and set to work getting everything installed. The instructions are almost entirely diagrammatic, so I noted that I had to pull the pen-halves in opposite directions until it popped apart. When I did this, I noted that it was a little stiff, and when I finally got it apart all sorts of wires came out, and bits fell on the floor. When I looked a little more closely at the diagram, I saw where I had gone wrong:

Why, that's not cylindrical hatching!

What looks like a design on the pen body has a tiny (really, really tiny) arrowhead drawn on it, and is meant to illustrate twisting. The unnecessary large black arrow above ‘Step 1’ that seems to be saying ‘pull’ is not actually an instruction at all, but a comforting reminder that unscrewing the pen will result in the one end moving away from the other.

The text clearly states that twisting is required, but on a product made for drawing, one should not rely on your user being much of a reader. You should also probably have mastered the art of drawn instructions.

After an hour or so of sobbing and feverishly trying to put wires and bits back, I managed to get it to work, albeit with a crack in the shaft and the left- and right-click buttons forever removed.

[Part II here]