Sat, Aug 24, 2013

: Compliance

What a fascinating and incredible film! I knew next to nothing about this and started watching, figuring I’d quit if I didn’t like it. In the first few seconds I was annoyed by giant text taking over the enter screen reading “Based on true events.” That seemed overly emphasized. But then the story got going and I was mesmerized.

Now I just preface this by saying that I now see why the director made that “true event” thing so prominent. It really is important. Basically, you’re watching people being manipulated into doing outrageous stuff — so ridiculous that it could be unbelievable. But this stuff really happened. Not just once, either, but over 70 times in 30 states.

I will also add that I just recently watched a couple of episodes of an interesting TV show called “Would You Fall For That?” where the hosts use psychological tricks to fool people. It’s fascinating stuff and a lot of it is the same stuff I saw in this film, which helps me understand why this works.

The movie is about a busy Friday night at a fast food joint. The stressed female manager receives a phone call from a cop telling her that one of her employees — a pretty blond girl — has stolen money from a customer. The cop says he’s in the middle of a larger investigation and can’t come there right this minute, but hopes the manager can help him out by questioning the girl.

The manager, in a brilliant performance by Ann Dowd, thinks she’s helping. The cop tells her he has her boss on the other line and names the man, comforting her as she thinks corporate is involved. She goes along with what the cop says, taking the girl to a back room. The cop explains they need to find the money — time is pressing, and he doesn’t want the girl getting rid of the evidence — and the next thing you know he’s insisting the manager strip search the girl.

I won’t spoil the whole plot, but the psychology this is based upon is real. When someone is authority tells us to do something, most of us will comply, especially if the request is minor. Once we’ve agreed to the first tiny thing, each subsequent request — even if more extreme — is easier to obey. So it really is understandable that the manager (and others) would go too far. It’s easy to watch this film and think, “That’s crazy! I’d never do that. These people are idiots!” But the truth is that any of us could be susceptible to this kind of manipulation.

You’ve probably figured out that the cop isn’t a cop: just a practical joker (of sorts), but the consequences of this guy’s actions are grave, and the movie’s a sobering reminder of the power of mindless obedience to authority. (It reminds me of a fantastic book called The Wave, about a high school experiment that recreates a Nazi-like environment with disastrous consequences, as students put in positions of power follow the orders of their superiors without question and do terrible things to their classmates.)

Compliance is not an easy or comfortable film. Outrageous things happen and it’s frightening to think that the movie is based on this “prank” happening over 70 times in real life. I do like the way it’s carefully written and directed and acted, as with this kind of psychological manipulation the tiniest misstep can throw off the whole thing. A single false note and the whole performance is ruined. This does really well, with the “cop” always coming up with an excuse for any errors in his story, and using intimidation to help encourage compliance. It’s pretty damned cool.

I am a bit annoyed with the “delicate” nature of the direction. One of my pet peeves is direction that works too hard to be coy. For instance, you know how on TV they show you the bare feet of a person in the shower and then cut to the person’s head and bare shoulders? You’re supposed to assume the person is naked, but they can’t actually show nudity so they do all these elaborate camera angles and stuff to make it seem like they’re showing something though they’re not. That annoys the heck out of me. It’s just so artificial. I’d rather they cut the shower scene entirely (it’s usually not necessary anyway) than tease me with stuff that’s not real.

Unfortunately, this film does that a little too often, and it does it in ways that makes it confusing. In a few scenes I wasn’t even sure what happened, or what was supposed to have happened, because the filmmaker didn’t actually show anything. That’s bad storytelling. It’s one thing to be careful about a sensitive subject matter, but it’s another to be so subtle that the viewer isn’t sure what happened.

It’s also sad because a more direct approach to the topic would have been even more shocking. It’s like the director was afraid of controversy and shied away from showing anything real. (A good analogy would be a comic telling a dirty joke and cleaning it up so much that it loses its humor.) The result is a slightly watered down film.

That doesn’t ruin the film — it’s still a great movie and worth seeing — but it could have been even better. On the whole, though, the film is full of terrific performances, writing, and directing, and the story is chilling. See it.

Topic: [/movie]


Fri, Aug 23, 2013

: First Family

Author: David Baldacci

This is a strange book. I can’t say I really liked it. There are two problems with it. First, it’s basically split into two plots that have no relation at all. In the main plot, which is the interesting one, the First Lady’s niece has been kidnapped. In the second plot, our two heros, former Secret Service agents turned private detectives, Sean King and Michelle Maxwell, return to Michelle’s hometime because her mother has died and, of course, it turns out to be murder. I really didn’t care about the second storyline at all — it was too convenient having her mother murdered and she being a private eye, and the resolution of that story with all the family drama was terribly tedious and uninteresting and melodramatic.

The second big problem is that the reason for the kidnapping is saved as the big reveal until the very end of the book. Now that reason is actually interesting and quite dramatic, but it takes us 500 pages of boredom to get there. Instead, we must wallow through pages of inept mystery, tedium where shady people are doing mysterious things and every conversation is obtuse with all the key details carefully omitted so that the author can save the secret until the very end.

What’s really weird is that I didn’t realize this book was part of a series, nor that the new TV series King and Maxwell is based on these books, until I started in on this book and thought I was losing my mind! I’d just started watching the TV show and was freaking out a little at the similarities until I realized what was going on. The sad part is that I like the TV series much better: the characters have a repartee and distinct personalities. In this book, these two could have been anybody.

Worse, much of the “drama” of the detectives is based on their vague history and personal stories, which I didn’t know and didn’t really care about. To give you one example, the book opens with a dramatic burglary as Michelle breaks into her psychiatrist’s office and steals all her files. Then she throws them away without looking at them. As the reader, we’re left baffled. I don’t even realize that this woman is our main private detective hero, so I don’t know what’s going on. There’s mystery there, but it’s not interesting: just the author withholding information. And he does it badly: the files aren’t mentioned again until almost the last page of the novel!

The bottom line is that the whole novel is a mess of vague happenings, like watching people doing stuff from a mile away in the dark. You know something is going on, and it might be significant and interesting, but you can’t even see enough to know that. Sure, there are a few cool scenes, and I liked some aspects of the search for the kidnapped niece, and our head bad guy was also an unusual character, but because so much info is withheld we really can’t know anybody in the story: everyone is a mystery. The result is we don’t care about anyone or anything, and when you finally get to the end, the feeling is one of “Oh well, so that’s it.” A superior way to write this is to make the reader think they have all the info, and only reveal more at the end. Doing it this way is just cruel and unusual punishment.

Topic: [/book]


Fri, Aug 16, 2013

: Jobs

Being a huge fan and follower of Steve Jobs since the mid-80s, this is a difficult film for me judge objectively. I went in with the apprehension of a book-fan going to see the travesty of a movie made of a beloved novel, anticipating all sorts of factual and tonal errors and hating the performances of various actors, but I came away stunned at how much I enjoyed it. The question is: is it really that good or did I just like the subject matter?

Is it the best bio-movie ever made? Not by a long shot.

It’s clearly not a big-budget movie (though I was surprised at how many actors I recognized; there are few unknowns), and that shows in some awkwardness in pacing, acting, and directing. It feels more like an above average TV movie than a major motion picture. Everything is competent, but little is extraordinary. There’s not much imagination or vision.

For instance, the scene early on when Steve and his friends get high at Reed College is mostly shots of looking up at trees and the sky from ground view, and it’s very repetitive and goes on for much too long. (We get it. Steve did drugs, it inspired some of his thinking, move on.) This could have been handled in a much more interesting way.

Only occasionally is the writing striking, and that’s usually when they’re quoting the real Steve Jobs.

But all that doesn’t matter. What’s here is done well enough that I enjoyed it very much. Sure, there’s definitely stuff I would change and improve, but there’s a lot that’s very well-done. The casting is quite good. Ashton Kutcher gets the most controversy as the lead, but he was surprisingly good for most of the film. Only in a few places did he give off some sour notes (he especially overdid it in the anger scenes, where he went from zero to 60 in a split second and it wasn’t believable), and at other times he’s more of a caricature than a character, but most of the time he fades away and you just enjoy the movie. It is quite possible that in repeated viewings I’d find a lot more fault with his performance, but I’m not a Kutcher hater, so I found him to be okay in this.

The sets and period setting were also pretty good. I loved all the old Apple posters, old tech, and old cars. The only real oddity I noticed was Steve Jobs parking in a handicapped parking spot in 1980 — did they have those back then? It looked way too modern in design.

In terms of story, I wasn’t sure what this would cover — Steve’s initial Apple success or the triumph of his iPhone glory — but this focuses mostly on his early Apple days and getting kicked out of his own company. A fine choice, as the whole world knows about his eventual victory and this ends with him rebooting Apple and the future looking bright.

There’s lots of stuff left out — NeXT and Pixar, for instance — but there was a surprisingly amount of intricate detail included. I’m pretty familiar with the story and I don’t think I learned anything new, but fortunately nothing gravely inaccurate screamed out at me either, though I’m sure there are minor liberties.

Probably the weakest aspects of the movie are the pacing — it’s slow at times — and the whole board movement to fire Jobs was confusing and too abstract. It was hard to tell from this why Jobs was so bad for the company. The film needed more scenes of him doing crazy stuff. Also, the role of Arthur Rock as a clear villain was over-the-top, as though the writer thought he needed to tick the “antagonist” checkbox.

Along the same lines, while Steve was correctly portrayed as a visionary who could be a real jerk at times, there was little in the film that showed his actual genius. In particular, I wanted more of him forcing the best out of others, revealing his taste. There were scenes that set that up — such as the one to get an “impossible” design for a power supply in the Apple II built — but the film never followed up and showed us the success of that (it was just assumed, I guess).

In the end we have a decent film. It’s quite competent and not the disaster I feared. It may be a little dull for people who don’t know the story or who aren’t really interested in technology or history (or those who aren’t into boardroom fights), but I think it’s worth seeing if you’re an Apple fan or curious about Steve Jobs. I’m still more excited about the upcoming Aaron Sorkin version of the story (though wary of that as well), but this one is surprisingly entertaining. It’s also inspiring, as there are some great lectures by Jobs on the nature of being great, not letting anyone or anything stand in your way, and the importance of being honest to yourself. Jobs was a great man and this film gives us a glimpse of that.

Topic: [/movie]


Sat, Aug 10, 2013

: Elysium

Director: Neil Blomkamp

This is Neil Blomkamp’s big follow-up to District 9, and I was really looking forward to it. Sadly, it’s greatly flawed, and I’m sure much of my comments will make it sound like I didn’t like it, but I actually liked it very much.

Visually the film is awesome, and conceptually the story is good, but in execution it fails on several levels. The idea of an Earth where the poor live in squalor here while a handful of rich live in orbit is intriguing, but the film never actually explores this idea. None of the characters embody the idea either, which is strange. You’d think we’d have two polar opposite characters to show both classes, but that doesn’t really happen.

Matt Damon’s character, Max, hints at it a little, when a cop beats him up for no reason and his robot patrol officer degrades him, a brief glimpse of the life of the downtrodden on Earth, but it’s too little and not deep enough. We’re given no real look at the lives of the rich other than a few brief shots of them relaxing by the pool with robotic servants to do all their bidding. There’s one quick line where the rich owner of the company where Max works rebukes another for breathing on him, and we get a hint of the arrogance of the wealthy, but it’s really not enough to establish characters beyond loose stereotypes.

Even the President, who’s one of the Elysium rich, is confusing: in one scene he seems to be defending the earth-bound, while in others he’s dismissive of them. Without any character embodying the values of their class, it’s hard to know what they represent.

Thus, characterwise, everything we’re given in the film is generic and unremarkable. Even Max, who we’re told is “special,” never reveals why or what makes him unusual. He’s an orphan, he’s a bit of a smart-ass, and while he’s supposedly a resourceful criminal with a shady past, he’s been in prison several times so he can’t be that good if he keeps getting caught.

The awesome character actor Sharlto Copley gives a brilliant performance of a wild man named Kruger, a sort of mercenary for the rich people, but his accent is almost unintelligible and his babbling, while amusing, doesn’t explain anything about his character. We don’t even hate him, which says a lot about the emotions he doesn’t generate.

Another similar character is the very strange Delacourt, played by Jodie Foster. While her French is impressive, her English is in an odd accent I couldn’t place, and there seemed no reason for it. She’s runs the security of Elysium, and is seemingly ruthless, but we have no idea why. Is she simply interested in power? Or is she a true believer in the Elysium ideal? It’s hard to tell, and her storyline is never explored or explained.

That’s really the problem with the whole film: it feels like a first draft. The characters are interesting, but incomplete, and there’s very little that changes in the people. Characters die seemingly randomly, but it all feels empty and meaningless, as we care little about anyone since none seem real. Max and his childhood love, Frey, are the two we care most about, but even they are held at arms distance and we don’t really know who they are. Their backstory is shown in repetitive and overly sentimental flashbacks, and their modern day relationship is never completed. Frey’s daughter is supposedly sympathetic simply because she’s a sick little girl — that’s all we’re given.

There are also countless weird little flaws in plot throughout the film. For instance, why would Elysium, a space station, not have their own defensive system? Instead Delacourt resorts to having Kruger shoot missiles from a handheld rocket launcher on earth to knock out approaching ships in space. Huh? And in several scenes, illegal immigrants who arrive on Elysium, break into rich homes by smashing windows. Why would the rich bother to lock their homes in a paradise like Elysium? Surely such a place has no crime. There’d be no reason to lock doors. One gets the feeling that it simply looked more dramatic to break windows so that’s what happened.

The film just struggles with a very basic story, moving almost too quickly, and the ending has a “That’s it?” feeling. There was more action than I expected, and while that helped move things along, it also seemed superfluous and distracting, as though the action was inserted by studio demands instead of being a real part of the story.

Still, visually, the film is amazing, and it’s worth seeing for the visuals alone. The stark contrast between horrible earth and the paradise of Elysium is wonderful, and I loved the science fiction elements of the sets and costumes. There’s much to love here.

The film reminds me a lot of Oblivion, not in terms of looks, but in how the story itself is flawed and poorly executed. Similarly, Oblivion was visually interesting and entertaining, but just not great. In the same way Elysium was enjoyable to watch, but it’s not a great film. It’s worth seeing for certain aspects, but just be aware that they don’t add up to comprehensive whole. I still liked it, probably more than I should, but it’s also a shame because with some tweaks it could have been a really awesome film.

Topic: [/movie]


Tue, Aug 06, 2013

: Rise of the Guardians

I couldn’t believe how feeble this movie is, a vapid collection of weak ideas and stereotypes, congealed into a muddled mess of little story. Even the animation was poor, with a videogame quality to it that turned me off.

This is about trying to invent new legends of Jack Frost, Santa Claus, the Tooth Fairy, and the Easter Bunny, but it feels forced and awkward. There are bizarre ideas idiotically implemented, such as the concept that the Tooth Fairy takes children’s teeth because they contain the precious memories of the child. That’s a major point of the film, because they use it to motivate Jack Frost’s character, who doesn’t remember his past, to help recover all the teeth the bad guy steals as Jack needs to find his own teeth and get his memories back. Of course, when he finally finds his own tooth he uses it to remember how he died. How would a tooth know that story? Wouldn’t he have lost the tooth prior to dying? How else would the Tooth Fairy have gotten it? Idiotic!

Ultimately, the film’s got a good heart and it’s relatively harmless, but it’s got an artificial feel. It is geared at extremely young kids (ones that still believe in Santa Claus, I suppose), yet the themes and violence seem more suited to older ones. Very strange and awkward film. I really hated it.

Topic: [/movie]