Agora – the accidental film

Why accidental? Well, I picked up two tickets this afternoon. One for Centurion, and one for a film later on. I got the tickets mixed up and walked into the second theatre first. Whoever checked my ticket on the way in obviously just saw the screen number and missed the film name and time! In fairness, so did I…

Anyway, by the time the title of the film came up I realised I wasn’t in to see Centurion. In fairness, they’re both swords and sandals films so I have a valid excuse. And by that point, the “correct” film would have started so I decided to sit Agora out.

I am very, very glad I did.

Agora

“Since when were there so many Christians?”

Plot-in-a-nutshell – a few decades in the life of Alexandria, as the pagan gods die off and the Christian one takes over.

I’m no Egypto-Roman scholar, but Agora seems more like a Discovery Channel docu-drama than a regular movie. The detail, acting quality, sets, scenery, plot… all are simply superb.

Rachel Weisz plays Hypatia, a philosopher and scholar – and historically the “first woman of mathematics”. At the start of the film, the Roman gods are still playing a major part in the lives of the inhabitants of Alexandria. Christianity, now no longer outlawed, is on the ascendancy. Also in the mix is a sizeable Jewish population.

As you may have guessed, this is no Clash of the Titans. The effects are predominantly geared towards some wondrous views of the city from space. Hypatia’s passion is for the mysteries of circles and planetary objects.

This is a simple story, at its heart, and takes place at a reasonable pace. There are several layers which intermingle nicely – the slow working out of the planetary objects and discussion of philosophy; the uprising and expansion of the Christian faith and the brutal treatment of both the pagans and the Jews; the treatment of slaves.

One things for sure and that’s that it doesn’t put the Christians in a good light. Again, how close this is to “real” history, I don’t know. In fairness, records from that far back are hazy to say the least. From what I’ve read up on since seeing the film, there’s a little artistic license but the core of the story is based on as much fact as we have available.

And that’s one of the best things about this movie. For me, at least, it awoke a desire to dig through the online encyclopaedias and learn a little more about what I’d just seen.

Great entertainment and education without noticing. If it wasn’t for the violence, very mild nudity and… erm… violence then this would be a fantastic film for schoolkids studying this period in history. Mind, it’s only a 15 so perhaps it could be used.

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Best Music Video… Ever

I’ve seen some amazing videos in the past. Imaginative, edgy, ahead of their time. But this one really takes the biscuit.

It’s a one-off display of a custom video for AC/DC’s Shoot To Kill which is part of the Iron Man 2 soundtrack. What makes the video special is where it was shown – on the wall of Rochester Castle. The video was designed to make use of the stonework and shape of the castle and is simply a magnificent piece of creative work.

Make sure you watch right to the end!

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Keeping up with… The Joneses

Just the one film this weekend. Sorry for such a poor performance.

The Joneses

Plot-in-a-nutshell: A new family on the block has all the new toys – and everyone else starts to want them.

SHOCK ALERT HORROR. This is a film with a pretty original plot. Possibly the first Hollywood one I’ve seen in a year or more. It’s not based on a book or comic. It’s not a sequel. There’s no “original version” or foreign film it’s based on. For this reason alone you should go and see it.

The other reasons are the cast, script and story. This is a neat little number that clocks in at 93 minutes so doesn’t drag like other films do. The Joneses move into a nice little suburban neighbourhood pretty much overnight. They have a ton of great gadgets, toys, food and the like. Product placement in this film is very much deliberate.

Thing is, the family have a secret – which is revealed in the trailer so I don’t mind giving it away here. They’re a fake family, sent there by an advertising company to “push” products subtly on the locals. However, there are consequences.

David Duchovny is great as the novice “dad”, his boss/wife played by an also-believable Demi Moore. They play well of each other as the story and their relationship change. The two kids (Amber Heard and Ben Hollingsworth) are also welcome additions to the cast and their characters add an extra couple of plot threads to the mix.

The closest film I can think of to this one is the excellent Arlington Road, another movie where everything hinged around people not knowing exactly who their neighbours are. OK, well, maybe The ‘burbs but that was a bit crap. The Joneses isn’t exactly up there with one of Tim Robbins‘ finest hours but it’s decent enough.

Frankly, it’s just good to see something fresh on the cinema screen that doesn’t rely on special effects or that rides on the coat-tails of some other media. An entertaining bit of cinema aimed at making us think a bit about the whole commercial culture.

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Indians, organs and dates

Repo Men Billboards with Red Laser Barcode
Repo Men are coming

Three pretty quick reviews as I’m dead beat and just want to crawl into bed – It’s A Wonderful Afterlife, Repo Men and Date Night.

It’s a Wonderful Afterlife

“Use guilt. You’re her mother. It’s your right.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: Bonkers Indian mum is desperate to arrange a marriage for her somewhat chunky daughter.

Imagine a cross between Peter Jackon’s The Frighteners, Bend It Like Beckham (from the same team) and sorely under-rated Rowan Atkinson vehicle Keeping Mum. Of course, it helps if you’ve seen all of them. Each is superb - Afterlife plucks some of the juicy bits from them but doesn’t quite hit the winning formula. It’s still good though.

Mrs Sethi (Shabana Azmi) is a widow with two kids – an irresponsible son and a daughter who was engaged once, but (seemingly due to her girth) was dumped and now finds it impossible to find a new partner. In stero)typical Indian mother fashion, Sethi sets out to try to palm her off on anyone willing to take on a comfort-eating dump truck.

Thing is, she goes a little too far when some people turn her daughter down and… erm… kills them. Obviously, the police get involved – including Heroes‘ Sendhil Ramamurthy, who just happens to be a childhood friend of the daughter Roopi (Goldy Notay in a fat suit).

The two plot strands – marrying the daughter off and avoiding the police – are woven well, with four (to start with) ghostly companions following Mrs Sethi’s every move. The jokes are generally amusing, the acting very good and the special effects very simple and not showy.

The film does nod at a few other movies – the Carrie reference is actually more of a wild gesticulation with hands pointing and buzzers than a nod – so there’s the added fun of spotting the references.

Overall, fairly light-hearted given the subject matter and well-made. Given the fact that the cast and crew are predominantly Indian it does mean that they’re “allowed” to take the piss out of their own culture a little more than a non-Indian crew would, I feel – and this is great. If you can’t laugh at yourself, who can you laugh at. I thank them for letting us join in.

Repo Men

“Can’t pay for your car? Bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your house? Bank takes it back. Can’t pay for your liver? Well, that’s where I come in.”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: In a future where you can buy new artificial organs, there are a lot of people who default on the payments – and someone has to go and collect them.

Repo Men has little, if anything, to do with Alex Cox‘s 1984 cult classic Repo Man. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing in my opinion as I found that film to be rather… well… crap. As are many cult classics as far as I’ve found. But don’t take my word for anything. I thought Withnail And I sucked, so what do I know?

Jude Law plays Remy. Partnered with Jake (Forest Whitaker) they make the best repo man double team in the city. Anyone who buys an organ on hire purchase and defaults on payments for 96 days is automatically put on a list to have those organs retrieved. If they’re lucky it’ll just be one kidney. Or it could be a liver. Or a heart. Remy and Jake repossess them for The Union.

Thing is, Remy’s wife isn’t too happy that his job involved hacking people up and ripping out their metallic giblets. She gives him an ultimatum – quit and move into sales, or she’s leaving with their son. So Remy does “one last job”… which doesn’t go quite as planned.

Repo Men is quite bloody, given the subject matter this is hardly surprising, so if the sight of a bit of claret is likely to make you woozy then steer well clear. Also, if you’re into films with a deep and meaningful plot you might want to check out something else. Or indeed if you’re after anything that utilises the parts of your brain designed for piecing together great mysteries.

This is more of a schlock action film. There is a story and it’s OK. There’s even a twist but it’s pretty obvious what it’s going to be if you pay attention. What is does have is good action sequences and nice grisly effects.

No classic, that’s for sure, but if you want some gore and arterial spray to entertain you then this is one to catch.

Date Night

“He turned the gun sideways! That’s a kill shot!”

Plot-in-a-nutshell: A couple on a night away from the kids suffer a case of mistaken identity that leads to guns, gangsters, car chases, corruption and very sexy Israelis. Happens all the time.

Steve Carell is definitely a bit hit and miss in his choice of roles. 40 Year Old Virgin was superb. Get Smart was better than it had any right to be. Date Night plays like the latter without the spy stuff. Or most of the jokes. And less slapstick, shy of Tina Fey walking into drawers that have been left open.

Carell and Fey play Steve and Claire Foster, a married couple who find that life’s getting just a little boring. When their friends announce they’re divorcing due to their relationship going a little flat, the two decide to spice things up with a night out in a slightly more posh restaurant than normal. Only they can’t get a seat, so they pinch someone else’s reservation.

Obviously, the people they pretend to be are being sought by gangsters. Isn’t that always the way? Cue a night of being chased, shot at, hit and so forth.

In its favour, Date Night does have a couple of good laughs. The “boat chase” is very much a laugh-out-loud moment. Very well done. The car chase has a novelty element to it, so marks for originality (as far as my memory goes) for that. There’s even some tolerable dialogue.

However, it just plods along in places and overall it’s just not outstanding. The plot’s been done before, or at least it feels that way. The characters are cardboard and recycled from a score of previous films. The whole thing gets wrapped up ridiculously quickly towards the end.

I have seen far, far worse films but I still don’t understand why Date Night is getting such incredibly favourable reviews. It’s entertaining, but it’s not a comedy classic by any stretch.

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Is Flash really “closed and proprietary”?

Adobe Systems Incorporated
Already used an Apple logo this week...

Again, I’m going to really try and not Apple-bash but their statement this week regarding Flash apps really has got me wondering about what world they live in.

Apple have just released the new version of their development kit for the iPhone. This SDK is tied down incredibly tightly and prevents access to the system APIs in many ways. There are good arguments for this, the most obvious of which is security – Microsoft made changes to the Windows XP API many moons ago that actually caused some existing software to require patches (Freedom Force rings bells with me – ah, yes) or fail to run.

As far as I can ascertain, these changes make Flash pretty much a no-go area on the iPhone. Adobe were just about to release a new version of their software and with the update it will no longer function.

Apple’s cry is that Flash is “closed and proprietary” and I’m struggling to wonder why. OK, so it’s not exactly open source. It’s a fully commercial product so that’s not surprising. But then, so is the Apple SDK.

Flash is like Java – designed to allow developers to create one application and expect it to run in any environment for which there’s a translator – hence the multitude of players, plugins and the like. You download one for your machine and you can then run any Flash application designed by anyone. Essentially there are three methods of doing this – a browser plug-in, a stand-alone player or the new(ish) Adobe Air on which such popular applications as TweetDeck and BBC iPlayer run.

This is a step forward from ye olde days. A quick memory trip to the 1980’s brings back the techniques of porting from system to system. The Amstrad CPC and the ZX Spectrum computers both ran on Z80 processors. Often a game would be written on the Spectrum and ported to the Amstrad, complete with monochrome graphics and colour clash – it it was easy. If you were lucky, someone would spend some time tidying it up so it at least looked better.

The Commodore 64 used a 6510 processor so games for that had to be developed separately, often by a different team.

This split continued with the advent of the Atari ST and the Commodore Amiga. On the whole, software written for one would not run on the other – two versions had to be developed separately.

Nowadays we have three major platforms – Windows, MacOS and Linux. As before – and without bringing virtual machines or emulators into it – this effectively means developing up to three versions of your software if you want it to run on all three. Instead, by using Java or Flash (or other software of this type) you can avoid this.

Unless you’re on an iPhone.

Apple are bringing this platform right back to the 80’s by making it impossible to run a cross-platform environment on it. It wants apps which run on the iPhone to have been written specifically for it.

Now, there’s a good point to this. Bespoke apps will often work better than generic ones. However, it means more work for development teams. Some will and can afford the budget to develop on multiple platforms. Others may have to divide their time or focus on one above others.

I think this is their gamble.

Apple are hoping that due to the huge existing userbase, developers will opt to focus on the iPhone and drop other platforms – Android, Blackberry, Symbian and so forth in the mobile field. To some extent they will get what they want. Small apps developers will focus on the biggest market, the same way that there are more small bits of software available for Windows machines than Macs or Linux boxes.

However, it may also deter others who want to get their work across to as many people as possible. Flash is one method of doing that and if it will no longer work on the iPhone then some will definitely rule that out as a user base. After all, if your development’s been Flash-based for years then why would you want to start from scratch with a new SDK just for one platform?

On the whole, I doubt this will ever affect me. I’ve no intention of ever getting an iPhone and if I get an Android or similar then I’m sure if there’ll be an app that’ll do just what I want even if it’s not by the same people who’ve gone down the purely Apple route.

It does just seem to me very much a case of two little kids having a spat in a playground.

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