Saturday, October 31, 2009

L'ennemi public n°1 - l'instinct de mort

I hadn't heard of Jacques Mesrine, or of this biopic about him, but when I found out what it was all about, I had to see it. L'ennemi public n°1 is a two part French film starring Vincent Cassel as the famed public enemy number one Jacques Mesrine (pronounced may-reen, but more French-like). This was directed by Jean-Fran├žois Richet who has previously done the average Assault on Precinct 13 remake, and Richet seriously banks good will with even simply the first part of this movie, called L'instinct de mort, named after the book Mesrine wrote while in prison. Let's get into it, shall we?

It's 1959 and Jacques Mesrine has just got back from a tour of duty in Algeria, where he may or may not have ignored the Geneva conventions and killed some prisoners-of-war. He's bored with his stale life and rebukes his parents' offer of a steady job at the factory. Instead, he and his friend Paul start burgling houses and paying up to Guido, the local crime boss. Eventually Mesrine becomes a close employee of Guido. At the same time, Mesrine indulges in his fascination with a prostitute named Sarah. When Sarah is horribly injured by her pimp, which is Mesrine's fault, Mesrine and Guido take the pimp to a country villa, and brutally stab him and bury him alive. Mesrine the soldier is being replaced by Mesrine the anarchist.

He meets his wife, Sophia, in Spain while on vacation, and once back in his native France, they have three beautiful babies. However, men like Mesrine could never settle down. He does a stint in prison, and when he comes back, he vows to go straight for the sake of his children. But he can't. He is Jacques Mesrine and Sophia abandons him.

Mesrine meets Sylvie, who he would eventually call his wife, and they enact a string of armed robberies together. But when a rival gang tries to shoot him in broad daylight along with his daughter, Mesrine takes Sylvie to Montreal, where they end up kidnapping a millionaire and robbing a bunch of banks. So much for laying low. Mesrine is called Public Enemy Number One by the Canadian government. Their time as Bonnie and Clyde come to an end in an impressive Arizona desert car chase. Extradited to Canada, they are sentenced to prison. For Mesrine, the prison is brutal and horrible.

Along with his friend Jean-Paul, they daringly escape, rob two banks in the same day, and return to the prison to help others escape, resulting in a huge bloody shootout that takes out as many guards as it does prisoners.

Once Mesrine and Jean-Paul leave the bloodbath, they swear to each other to live by either freedom or death. Upon which, Mesrine executes the forest ranger who snuck up on them. The first part ends with this amazing moment.

This movie is balls-to-the-wall action, but with style, subtlety and engaging performances. Cassel is a standout in his role as Mesrine. He comes across as bad-ass, but broken, the man ever chasing the high from crime, but never catching it. L'instinct de mort benefits from the spectacular life that Mesrine had which simply screams movie.

Not only does this movie have bad-ass moments like Mesrine punching a glass into a man's mouth while he drinks from it, but it has a kidnapping gone wrong, a desert car chase, two prison escape attempts, and a couple massive shootouts and Mesrine just doing what he does. It's like a couple action movies stuffed into one, but it never feels overlong or poorly paced at a breakneck speed. The film gets a chance to breathe with moments after the crazy incidents, when you get to see him watch TV, or hang out with his buddies.

Richet directs this like a documentary, in the Paul Greengrass-Steven Soderbergh style. It's like we're the crew following Mesrine along, watching him rip shit up. The shaky camerawork can be exhausting for some people, but I've always been a fan of it. Richet includes some fun split-screen sequences, and an amazing colour palette of blues and reds to make what's already good into great.

What astonishes me is that according to the reviews, part one is the lesser of the two parts. They say that the second part, confusingly titled L'ennemi public n° 1 as well, is absolutely perfect and way better than the first. (The reason why the title is confusing is that in France, the movie is called Mesrine: L'instinct de mort and Mesrine: L'ennemi public n° 1. As opposed to outside France, where the movie is called Public Enemy Number One Parts One and Two)

I can't wait to watch the second part, considering that I absolutely loved this film. It was exciting, interesting, dynamic and never boring, so I have high expectations for the conclusion. Check back here in a couple days for my review of the final part of L'ennemi public n° 1!

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Doctor Who - Series One

They say everybody remembers their first Doctor. You never forget who your first exposure to was, whether it be the First or Tenth Doctor. Mine has the dubious honour of being the Eighth Doctor, of the FOX tv-movie fame. Yuck. I remember not being terribly impressed with Paul McGann or anything about that particular thing. It's not like I know nothing of Doctor Who. I'm familiar with the set-up, and the basic gist of the series. When I heard all the accolades being lavished upon the revival, I took notice and got my hands on the first series.

I approached the revival series with trepidation. I wasn't sure what I was going to get. The only non-Star Trek:TNG show in the sci-fi genre that I've watched more than one episode of was the revival of Battlestar Galactica, which I didn't much care for (but I hear that the show gets better as it goes on... maybe I'll give it another try)

But, Series One of Doctor Who took me by surprise. It was equal parts inclusive of new audience member, and drippping with references to previous continuity. The whole premise of Doctor Who is conducive to attracting new fans, and that's exactly what this show did.

Both the leads are stand out. Christopher Eccleston as the Ninth Doctor was a mixture of sorrow, self-deprecating humour, unbearable smugness, and a desire for a happy ending. Meeting Rose, played by Billie Piper, you get the sense that he was lonely til she accompanied him. However, Rose is the real star of this show. The whole thing unravels from her point of view as she's the audience surrogate.

Rose is the more multi-textured character of the series. At the beginning of the show, she selfishly leaves her mother and boyfriend behind on a whim, going into the TARDIS with the Doctor. As the show progresses, and Rose learns more and more of the universe, she also learns more of herself, as she has hurt the ones she loves. Rose comes to realize that her family is important and that a healthy balance must be met between the present day and her adventures with the Doctor.

In those adventures, she and the Doctor encountered all sorts of creatures, in the future (the Face of Boe), in the past (the Gelth), in the present (Slitheen, Autons), and everywhere in between. Everywhere they go, both of them see this phrase "Bad Wolf" repeated over and over. What is the Big Bad Wolf? Who knows?

Along the way, Rose and the Doctor meet Captain Jack Harkness, a time-travelling con-man from the 51st century. Jack might be my favourite character from the show. His mixture of reluctant heroism, his charm and his arrogance make him extremely entertaining. He also represents the first character in Doctor Who history who isn't strictly heterosexual. In the 51st century, it's explained, sexuality is much more fluid. It's an interesting more modern take on the realities of the possible future.

The whole series comes to a head with the last two episodes, in which the Bad Wolf is revealed, the big bad is revealed (not the same, apparently...) and a huge moment in the relationship between the Doctor and Rose happens.

It's almost a shame that Eccleston didn't want to continue with a second series, seeing as how he's fun hilarious and interesting, but alas, it wasn't meant to be. In a heartwrenching scene, the Doctor regenerates, and we're left with David Tennant as the Tenth Doctor, and we're left with a cliffhanger.

All in all, I was immensely entertained. There was time travel, strange creatures, exciting action, and carefully plotted character arcs. Add to that the serial style of storytelling, and I'm please. I eagerly await the chance to keep watching with the second series, starring Rose and the Tenth Doctor. I also am looking forward to Torchwood, the spin-off starring Captain Jack Harkness. Excellent series and highly recommended.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Classic Tarantino versus New Tarantino

Last month, I had the pleasure of seeing Inglourious Basterds in the theatre, and I loved it. I almost loved it more than Kill Bill, and when I said that Kill Bill was my favourite Tarantino, people look at me like I'm crazy. They want to know why Pulp Fiction or Reservoir Dogs aren't my favourite. It turns out, that the one-two-three punch of Kill Bill and Inglourious Basterds retains the highest point on the Tarantino-Olympic pedestal. But why, people ask?

For the purposes of this post, we'll split his career into two. The first era spans Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, and Jackie Brown, while the second era spans Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 (considered one film in this post), Death Proof, and Inglourious Basterds. There's a six year gap between the two eras, and that represents a natural cut-off point. 

One of Tarantino's strengths is his gorgeous profantity-laden dialogue. As readers of this blog know, I'm partial to good dialogue. If it sounds clunky, I'm perturbed and shaken. If the conversations float gracefully, up and down like arpeggios, then I'm in heaven. The dialogue of all of Tarantino's movies are unmatched. Often imitated and never duplicated, the conversations are like operas of words. Yes, there's profanity, racial slurs, slang, patois and slight tics, but all of those things are put together to make music.

However, the dialogue of the New Tarantino is just slightly better. In the Classic Era, he wore his international  influences on his sleeve but made his vision more American. With the New Era, Tarantino wallows in the influences. His movies are made up of other movies, so what does he bring to the table that's uniquely him? His strong sense of talk. Talk, talk, talk. That's all his characters ever seem to do, with brief interruptions of shocking violence.

In his newest film, Inglourious Basterds, the opening scene, which feels like half an hour, is a tense and beautiful conversation between a Nazi who hunts Jews and a French farmer hiding the Jews under his house. Using only the power of words, the Nazi intimidates the farmer into revealing where his hidden occupants are. It's an amazing scene.

Conversely, one of the best dialogue-focused scenes in the Classic Era is the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs, in which Mr Pink espouses his views on tipping. It's a fantastic scene, but it's built on observations, rather than pushing the scene forward.

Tarantino, in the New Era, has refined his use of dialogue, and perfected it. He's integrated that sense of talk into the movie. The film becomes about conversations, working to his advantage.

Secondly, a major improvement over the Classic Era is Tarantino's cinematography. He's actually learned how to shoot a scene, use proper composition, and frame his shots better. The mise en scene is better, frankly. This doesn't mean he's made his camera movements more erratic, or used jump-cuts or long cuts, but he's making the prescence of the camera less noticeable.

One of the most famous scenes of Pulp Fiction is the dance sequence, a veritable classic of the Classic Era. However, his camera placement is so intrusive, getting so close to the actors that it's claustrophobic. Pull back, I say. Let them breathe and shake and move around.

On the other hand, going to the New Era, the signature sequence of Death Proof is the car stunt near the end, in which stuntperson Zoe Bell gets out onto the car and rides the hood. It never seems like there's a dolly hovering over her. Tarantino cuts around, giving the car shape and substance and weight, making it more dangerous. It's a fantastic piece.

Really, Kill Bill Volume 1 and 2 is my favourite Tarantino movie for a bunch of reasons. The plot is engaging, the characters seem like more than caricatures, the acting is superb, and the action phenomenal. What is most appealing is the tonal shift between both features. The first is an epic Japanese samurai film, while the second is more of a spaghetti western via Hong Kong  flicks. Splitting the two features means the tonal shift is less abrupt, more natural. Also, it adds the cliffhanger aspect to the first, which is always a plus for me.

I absolutely love Tarantino, and every time he makes a movie, I'm fascinated. He's not perfect, and neither are his movies. Each and every one of his movies are funny, gripping, interesting, and always entertaining. I look forward to more films from this American virtuoso.

Friday, October 9, 2009

The Documentaries of Richard Dawkins

Everybody has their own folk hero. Some people follow sport stars. Some people obsess with fictional characters like Batman. Other people faint at the sight of rock stars. My girlfriend and I are different. Our folk hero isn't attractive, strong, athletic, or even a vigilante. No, our folk hero is British, arrogant, logical, intelligent, controversial and funny as all hell. He is Professor Richard Dawkins of Oxford University, and he's my favourite person in the world right now.

His bestseller The God Delusion is what brought Dawkins to the attention of the mainstream world, but Dawkins has been around much longer, publishing influential works such as The Selfish Gene or The Blind Watchmaker. His output before The God Delusion was more hard science, more in line with his academic background of evolutionary biology.

At some point, around 9/11, Dawkins looked around and realized that there is a dangerous enemy in the world, far more dangerous and elusive than the Al Qaeda. This enemy fights against logic, reason, and preys upon the whole world's imagination. This enemy is religion, in Dawkins' mind. It doesn't matter which religion, as they are all guilty of plaguing the thoughts and actions of humans.

Dawkins partnered with the BBC and released two documentaries, one after another: The Root of All Evil? and The Enemies of Reason. This post will take a look at the two documentaries and surmise my thoughts on the presentation, rather than the message.

The Root of All Evil? is a question for a title, but the answer is quite clear from the first couple minutes of the program. Dawkins loathes religion. He blames it for mass murderers, suicide bombers, genocides, stoning, rape, and a whole host of other serious crimes. In the course of the program, Dawkins interviews numerous religious experts, psychologists, sociologists, the Bishop of Canterbury, novelist Ian McEwan, and a bunch of pastors, preachers and priests.

The best part of Dawkins as an interviewer is his sheer politeness. When somebody says something completely ridiculous, Dawkins never argues, he merely states the opposing point. His graciousness and quiet British manner are like a subversive tool, making him seem much more sane than the person being interviewed.

One of the highlights of the show is the interview with Pastor Ted Haggard of the New Life Church in Colorado Springs. Dawkins is impressed with the sheer size and theatricality of the building itself, and sits through a sermon with Haggard, and thousands of believers. Watching Dawkins' silent, unimpressed sour face is a hoot. This face appears a hundred times throughout this program, but this is the best example. Once the sermon is over, Dawkins gets a chance to ask Haggard if religion is dangerous. Of course, the conversation spirals into Haggard making wild claims about the veracity of evolution (something near and dear to the Professor's heart). Haggard says Dawkins and other "evolutionists" are guilty of scientific arrogance, and Dawkins begins pressing his points much stronger. There's a great sense of tension but both men try to stay calm. However Haggard's facade slips briefly but his smile never leaves. It's an awesome scene.

In Jerusalem, Dawkins talks to high ranking officials of both Islam and Israel, and comes up with nothing satisfactory. It's obvious that both sides are irreconcilable. So, Dawkins goes to meet an American born Jew who on traveling to the Holy Land, switched sides and became Muslim. His name is Yousef al-Khattab, and he is an angry young man. Immediately, he begins accusing of Dawkins personally of allowing women to dress like whores and he advises Britain to fix their own land, and fix their own women, and get their troops out of Jerusalem. It's unsettling, and Dawkins almost loses his composure.

There are some other great highlights to this show, but none as good as those two. In the rest of the series, Dawkins looks at the invasion of religion in the education system, how some American teachers were accused of being "Satan's incarnate". He examines the morality of the Bible, and comes up with a bunch of examples of why we should never ever ever use the Bible as a moral compass. He concludes the discussion of morality, by discussing the lessons of morality from an evolutionary standpoint. Reciprocal altruism is used by countless species of animals, and it seems to work for them.

The major conclusion that Dawkins comes up with is that atheism doesn't contend that life is an obstacle to the hereafter, the reward that can't be proven or disproven. Therefore, atheists believe they have only one life to live for a short time. Atheism is ultimately more life-affirming than religion could ever hope to be.

A year later, Dawkins produced the second documentary called The Enemies of Reason. In this program, Dawkins takes a look at the intrusion of alternative beliefs rooted in pseudo-spirituality, and alernative medecine such as homeopathy.

Dawkins argues that there are so many wonders in the natural world, and science is doing so many amazing things, but 25 percent of Britain still believes in astrology and the horoscope. This is dangerous, Dawkins believes, and he attempts to get an understanding of it, and why it's never been put to the proper scientific method of testing, retesting, and retesting again.

He visits a health fair that features tarot card reading, crystals, and angels and whatnot. Every time, Dawkins submits to their nonsense with a polite tone and a gentle pressing of logic. When he gets frustrated, the arrogance and stiff-upper-lip come out, which is what makes Dawkins such an entertaining presenter. He demands answers of people who can't give them, and when they don't, he dismisses them, and lectures on the benefits of the scientific method.

He calls this alternative medicine and beliefs dangerous because there are better, more scientific healing methods that are given a bad reputation from the media, and people avoid them. Modern medicine is the boogeyman according to the press. He cites the MMR vaccine scandal as the best example. He argues that one of the reasons why people distrust modern medicine is because it has become far too complicated for the layperson to even attempt to undersand, and therefore, that which man doesn't understand, man fears.

In the absolute best scene of the both series, Dawkins visits a holistic and alternative healing spa, where a mixture of chanting and meditation. The woman who runs the spa believes that she can alter DNA. In the beginning of the interview, she tells Dawkins that some people have three strands of DNA in a form other than the double helix. The woman's voice fades out and Dawkins' voiceover says "I know what you're thinking. 'I thought I was watching a serious program about science and here's Richard Dawkins' picking on an easy target'." While this is being heard, the camera closes in on Dawkins' silent, unimpressed sour face. My girlfriend and I were laughing so hard.

The second documentary takes a look at other alternative medicine such as homoepathy, which involves the belief that water has a memory and dilution of a substance is a cure against the same substance. It's all nonsense, Dawkins says, but what is worse, is that the British taxpayer is subsidizing homoepathy.

Skeptical rational inquiry is best to figuring how the body works, and what is needed to heal it, not superstition and other dangerous beliefs. It's a very compelling argument that he makes.

A common theme in both programs is Dawkins' unwavering stance that the scientific method of experimenting and testing and peer-review is best. He asks people to submit to double-blind experiments or rigorous studies to prove their claims and very few rise to the challenge. Individual scientists can be immoral or biased, but the scientific system is designed to remove all such biases and morality. There are only facts, logic and reason. For Dawkins, you can see the excitement in his voice when he gets a chance to say this. His enthusiasm for science is palpable and contagious.

For this reason, and his absolutely hilarious method of interviewing people, Dawkins has become my hero. His books entertain and educate me, his documentaries enlighten me, and he is simply a funny man to watch. I propose that he be given a man-on-the-street style program, in which he is launched at imbeciles around the world and watch him get utterly frustrated with the idiocy in the world.

Both series are highly informative, highly entertaining and extremely compelling. Religion is dangerous, superstition is dangerous, and science is the better more rational method of divining the secrets of the world. Highly recommended.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

What I've Been Watching

A little update to tide you out there on what I've been doing. Mostly, like usual, the only television I've been watching is shows from the U.K. However, the girlfriend and I have been slowly watching the entire run of The Sopranos, from beginning to end. It's her first time with the show, and my second time going through the entire thing. This is a follow-up to both of us watching The Wire for the first time. Both are amazing shows and testament to the power of the serial storytelling medium. 

I love serial stories. The ongoing storyline, the A plot, the B plot, the characters, the mysteries teased out for weeks, the cliffhangers, there's so many elements that make television so unique, and nobody does serial television quite like the British. I'm going to highlight two shows that I've been watching with excitement.

The first is Life on Mars, starring the imitable John Simms, who also starred in the amazing State of Play (the serial I reviewed here and was made into an American feature film that I haven't seen). The premise of Life on Mars is absolutely amazing. A cop, Sam Tyler, in the year 200- is hit by a car and wakes up as the same person in 1973. Is he in a coma, is he dead, or is he a time traveler? While he tries to figure this out, he comes into conflict with the bygone era of cops in 70's era England.

A combination of science fiction and mystery, this is a police procedural in the British sense. Each episode follows an A plot, for example, the cops chasing robbers, or a kidnapper, and in the B plot, Sam Tyler has problems reconciling the 1973 way of doing things with his more politically correct and technologically oriented style. The overarching mystery of why Sam is in 1973 gets teased throughout the entire show.

I love cop shows, I love time travel, and I love John Simms. This is an excellent show filled with great cop moments, and a tantalizing mystery. The series is comprised of 16 episodes over two series (or seasons) and was followed by a spin-off series, Ashes to Ashes, also named after a Bowie song.

The other show I've been loving is Primeval. Strange time anomalies have been opening up in Britain, letting creatures loose from a prehistoric or alternative time, and it's up to Cutter and his team of scientists to figure out what's making these creatures appear and how to stop them.

This is classic British science fiction, sort of like Doctor Who, but without the space or alien angle. Again, this is serial television, so each episode follows a monster-of-the-week format, while slowly advancing the plot of the overarching story. In the first of three series, it's the mystery of where Cutter's missing wife is.

The show was created by the people who created the Walking with Dinosaurs show that captivated many English viewers with its mixture of cutting-edge CGI and actual science. But Primeval is not about real science, as many of the creatures are futuristic and imaginary.

While the writing isn't top notch or the characters very fleshed out, the show's premise and execution are enough to keep me watching.

Stay tuned to a lay of the land as I watch Torchwood and the classic show, The Prisoner.