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Contact (1997) – on HD. As much as I enjoy space operatic sci-fiction films and TV series, it’s the sci-fi films that tries to be more rooted in science than fiction that fascinate the both of us at home. It’s not just that the entire proceedings of the film tend towards realism – e.g. modern advances taken to the next level – but you also beef up your awareness of knowledge in a general sense by watching them. Over the most recent years, there’s been Sunshine (Ling loved this film – might blog about it sometime), and before that the pair of Mars exploration films at the turn of the century: Red Planet, and Mission to Mars.
The more science than fiction film that has left me with the biggest impression though dates further back than that to 1997: and it’s Robert Zemeckis’ Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey. I first watched Contact on a DVD I picked up nearly 12 years ago, and recently did again on Blu-ray. It was a great pleasure returning to the film on high definition.
The story: Jodie Foster plays Dr. Eleanor Arroway, a slightly socially awkward but brilliant scientist who has devoted her entire life to a pursuit many of her peers consider career suicide: the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence by listening to radio transmissions broadcasted on huge antenna arrays. Early on in the film, her project – already receiving limited support – gets its funding pipeline completely pulled by governmental agencies. Temporary rescue comes in the form of a reclusive and eccentric billionaire-philanthropist, S. R. Hadden (John Hurt).
Listening for little green men.
But just as she is again forced out of the project by governmental forces, she receives a data transmission from beyond Earth. The data transmission involves the construction of a massive transportation device that apparently creates wormholes from Earth to another galaxy. All of a sudden, everyone – including her superior, David Drumlin (Tom Skerritt), who once scoffed at her research – all want in, and they even take credit for her hard work and discovery. That starts a tussle over who gets to go make first contact, even if the mission is likely to be one-way and suicidal. McConaughey plays the romantic interest and religious scholar who has to make hard decisions balancing his concern for Arroway and her fearless determination to make first contact: especially when she believes that the expense of a single human life (hers) is worth the endeavor.
There are a couple of really standout themes present in the film: one is the discovery of life out there, and very nicely the story doesn’t fall into the kind of American-dominant trapping that’s common in other alien-encounter sci-fi films. The construction of the transportation device is an international effort, and the film’s story clearly establishes it to be so.
The other theme though is the one that has left the deepest impression on me: and it’s the connection between religion and science. The story establishes early on that Arroway is an atheist who questions the existence of God, and who has always believed in the strength of science and fact as opposed to a belief in the divine. Sort of like a Dana Scully. But when she returns from the alien encounter back to Earth without any proof of the encounter, she finds herself doubted and her experience disregarded by her peers. In tears before the investigation committee who believes that mankind has just been put through the most expensive and elaborate hoax of all time, she argues for faith in what she has seen and heard. It’s a terrifically powerful and moving scene.
Very nicely too: there are no real ‘bad’ guys in the film. Drumlin is motivated and gets on the project for his own interests, but the film also gives him a sympathetic portrayal. Credit especially goes to Skerritt for not hamming it up but presenting Drumlin as an experienced scientist but also equally astute political navigator.
It’s an awful waste of space if we’re the only sentient beings in the universe.
The 153 minute film is an adaptation of a book of the same name by famed astrophysicist and astronomer, Carl Sagan. When you’ve got someone as eminently respected as Sagan as the source who himself adopted his own book for the film involved, you can bet your bottom dollar that the end result is going to be a story that’s grounded in reality.
As it turned out, the film is great in its pacing and realistic story development for the first two hours, but is also hurt by the eventual encounter with extraterrestrial beings at the film’s climax. I’ve not read the source novel, but the film itself seemed to struggle with how it should present the encounter onscreen. I suppose that the scene feels awkward and out of sync with the rest of the film is unavoidable – how else would you present an alien encounter in a film rooted in realism. Also, while the story’s events state that years pass from the film’s start to its end, time feels compressed and the transitions between significant developments from one to the next isn’t as smooth as it might had been.
Still, the film extends a powerful emotional draw from viewers through its compelling and balanced characters (you’d be cheering for Arroway), great performances from the lead cast and a lovely soundtrack from Alan Silvestri who had just a few years prior, wrote music of the same style for Forrest Gump. The film’s main theme is played on the piano, and it’s a beautifully lyrical song.
Very highly recommended for persons with even the slightest interest in science or even religion, or who like their sci-fiction films intelligent and without big transforming robots, Star Destroyers, and lightsabers.
Yet More of the Usual Weekend Pictures
I’m running out of titles for our weekend posts on Hannah; so it’s gonna be boring variations of “Weekend Pictures” from this point. Our dear girl is just a week away from turning one year old. And one new behavior we’ve observed is that she now grumbles loudly when we take toys away from her, even if just for a moment e.g. to expedite a change of clothes!
Three pictures taken at home just before heading out. She’s wearing a new dress.:)
Her first tooth has grown quite a bit too and it can be quite easily seen from pictures taken of her when she grins or is laughing.
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) – AMK Hub. There’s just a couple of video games that Ling has interest in, and also film adaptations if they ever get turned into them. One’s Uncharted, and the other is Prince of Persia.
The latter is a long franchise of video games that has been around for 20 years now. The stories told in each video game title tend to be only loosely based from one to the next. What does carry from title to title is the character itself: the games were all ‘action’ genre types, with the titular character capable of great acrobatic prowess, sword fighting skills as he defeated enemy opponents and solved puzzles.
I’ve been eagerly waiting for the movie adaption of the video game character, though to be truthful I was a little disconcerted when the actor playing the Prince was announced: Jake Gyllenhaal. The actor has been known for more dramatic rules and isn’t quite the physical type of beef cake the role demanded. But I’m eating my own words now. Even if Gyllenhaal doesn’t quite speak like an Arabian prince, he at least looks the part with his lanky yet well-buffed build. According to casting rumors, girly man Orlando Bloom was in the reckoning too – and worse still, teen throb Zac Efron too. Am I glad that neither actually got the role.
The story is just serviceable and acts as a vehicle to get from one scene to the next. Prince Dastan and his two older brothers, the successor to the throne Prince Tus, lead an invasion against the city of Almouth in a campaign to extend the Persian empire. Dastan encounters the Princess Tamina (Gemma Arterton) who is guardian to a mythical dagger with a glass chamber that when filled with the right sand is capable to letting its wielder turn back time. Power usurpers to the throne want the dagger, and it falls onto Dastan and Tamina to stop them and return the dagger to its rightful place of protection.
Last opportunity for a bath before escaping into the desert.
Though the film hints that it’s set against the backdrop of a historic Persia from our real world, there is really nothing in the film that seems to be an accurate representation of the ancient empire. You get a variety of accents from a cast of actors from both sides of the Atlantic and none of them even sound remotely Middle-Eastern. It’s musical chairs all round. Gyllenhaal’s American but speaks with a British accent. Ben Kingsley – the great English actor who plays Dastan’s uncle does his native accent, as does Arteton. But English actor Alfred Molina – who plays an entrepreneurial manager of ostrich races – is pulling an American accent. You’d need a scoresheet just keep track of the accent swaps. And let’s not even get started on time reversal existing in the real world.
The story itself is a little convoluted at spots, especially when it gets to mumbo jumbo explaining how the dagger works and how it came about. Arterton though is on hand to explain all that, and her role as Tamina and the guardian of the dagger, is about identical to her last role: that of Io in Clash of the Titans. At least her dialog is less gyrating here, though the supposedly thrust and parry dialog she has with Dastan at too many spots still feel forced. Molina is fun, and watching him as the money-minded Sheik reminds me of the late Oliver Reed’s similar role of Proximo in Gladiator.
The entire film is drenched in dust, sand and earthen colors. There are several (obviously) CG-enhanced shots that are stunning, especially the camera pans showing off the huge vistas of Persian cities. Scenes move along quickly too, and while the The Sands of Time runs for a modest 116 minutes, the film actually feels a lot longer.
It’s PG-13, and this is about as violent as it gets.
All’s not well though and there are two things that just didn’t work for me. Firstly, camera work is problematic in the action scenes. So, while the Prince goes about pulling off many of the acrobatic stunts from the video games, it’s maddeningly difficult to see just beyond a fraction of it with the many tight camera crops and scene switching. It’s not quite to the vertigo-inducing degree of Michael Bay’s steroid-induced camera operators, but it’s really isn’t easy following the action scenes in this film.
More seriously though – and spoiler alert here – is the film’s ending. Admittedly it’s not easy doing films which are based around time travel. What films like Back to the Future did successfully was to have time return to its original point, but in a different and alternative time line. In The Sands of Time, and as a result of the dagger working its time travel magic, things return to a point where none of the dramatic events that occur in most of the film will now occur. As a plot device, it’s valid. However, it’s still a cop-out and you might feel terrifically cheated that all those scenes that tried to elicit emotional investment from you throughout is all reversed and now never happened.
Well, Ling liked the show a lot more than last week’s Robin Hood, as I did. Not perfect, but still a watchable…
The Hurt Locker
The Hurt Locker (2009) – on rental. There were three films on the list of nominees for this year’s 82nd Academy Awards’ Best Picture that were serious contenders for that prize: two of them were deserved, the third was controversial. The first two were Inglorious Basterds and The Hurt Locker – both films set on war themes coincidentally – and the third was James Cameron’s Avatar, a film I felt was in the reckoning for Best Picture only on account of its technical prowess and not because its story was original or interesting in anyway.
Between the two ‘war’ films, it was The Hurt Locker that took home the award. That for me was a surprise win. Maybe the good Academy felt that Quentin Tarantino (who directed Inglorious Basterds) had over the years already had enough accolades heaped on him, and someone else deserved equal recognition. I hadn’t seen The Hurt Locker up till that point, though was aware of that film’s premise and cast – so queued it up on DVD rental, and it finally arrived in time for the long weekend.
The film is set in the post-Saddam Hussein fall of 2004 where US Coalition Forces were still trying to clean up Iraq. The insurgency was in full blown steam, and many of us might remember the near daily news reports of Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) blowing up, killing thousands of both persons still involved in the fighting and civilians alike. The film follows the exploits of one such bomb disposal team of three members: Sergeant First Class James (Jeremy Renner), team leader and expert bomb technician, and two supporting members whose job is to keep him alive: Sergeant Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty).
SFC James (Jeremy Renner) in an unusually serious and non-crazed moment.
Here’s the twist: SFC James is a replacement to their original team leader (played by Guy Pearce in a memorable cameo), and is nothing like the original leader. James disposes bombs expertly but at the same time seemingly as though he’s got a death wish. That puts him at odds with his two squadies who like breathing as the team traverse across the length and breadth of the country on various missions to dispose of IEDs and complete the remaining 80+ days left in their rotation before they are relieved and can go back home.
Much of the film is built around those missions, and the nervous tension that result from the missions. That tension comes from the fact that these homemade bombs can go off any time: e.g. accidentally, or because they are set to be remote detonated by an insurgent member hiding in the background just waiting for you to get close enough. The other source of tension comes from James and his teammates who find it hard to adjust to his apparent recklessness.
While much of the film is centered squarely on the three team members – and that in turn lets you grow a degree of comprehension of their personalities if not empathy with each – The Hurt Locker also sees support from several other well-known faces. Besides Guy Pearce, there’s also David Morse, a senior military officer who’s fascinated with James’ job, and Ralph Fiennes as the team leader of a small band of mercenaries our intrepid band of bomb disposal experts encounter. Fiennes has an extended scene where they encounter a bunch of well-entrenched enemy snipers, and is a hoot to watch – and without giving anything away, its outcome is a little surprising.
The film however belongs to the three lead cast members, and they don’t disappoint. Of the three, I recognized Jeremy Renner immediately as the similarly reckless devil-may-care Brian Gamble in 2003’s S.W.A.T. film. He plays James with a very fine balance of bravery, confidence in what he has to do, but yet with a crazed tint in his eyes that you’re never quite certain if he’s truly mad or just enjoying the adrenaline rush that comes with getting rid of devices that can turn you into fine, red mist when they explode. Mackie’s Sanborn is the person I think most viewers will empathize with. He’s trying very hard to get the job done, but only by following well-established safety procedures. And Geraghty’s Eldridge is a bit of a mess: he’s comparatively the most inexperienced of the team, suffering from guilt through inaction early on and by the film’s end, has turned bitterly angry against his team leader, James.
Lots of things go Boom in this film.
The Hurt Locker wasn’t shot in location given how dangerous Iraq is still today, but near its border in Jordan. From accounts, the film crew itself was shot at while making the film too. There’s a great air of authenticity in the visuals and the set locations, and you feel that director Kathryn Bigelow was sincere in trying to tell the story of the kind of conditions explosive ordnance disposal teams work under.
The film hasn’t been without criticism though, with several real world experts veterans of these devices rightly pointing out that James’ personality is exactly the kind they would never want in this kind of job. There’s also a subplot involving Eldridge’s psychiatric treatment that felt tacky.
Still on the overall; not quite as good as Inglorious Basterds (which I five star-ed), but still a film well worth the price of admission or rental. Certainly loads better than Avatar.
A Typical Hannah Morning
0830 – Cried when Mommy tried getting me prepped to go out.
0840 – Cheered up when Daddy put me on the sofa to play with Sheep Sheep.
0910 – Cried when my toys were taken from me at Bedok Grandma’s place.
1026 – Was comatose when Mommy and Daddy had brunch at KFC. No interest in Mommy’s coffee this time.
1120 – Posed for Daddy at the wheel while hugging Dory.
Hannah has transited from her baby bath tub to getting her baths in the long tub in the master bedroom toilet. Given the humidity and warm weather we’ve been getting again here, it’s become necessary to bathe her up to twice every day after she’s back from infant care: once in the late afternoon, and another in the evening.
Series of pictures from our baby girl getting her evening bath yesterday.:)
All smiles before the bath!
Getting a quick rinse first.
Head shampooed next.
The rest of her body next.
The length of the bath tub’s lined with anti-slip mats so that she can lie down and get the soap suds rinsed off.
A final rinse.
Then wrapped in a clean towel.
Strangely though, we’ve never got Hannah to smile immediately after a bath. She’d look… confused.:)
MIT, Boston, June – Preparations
Follow-up on my post a month ago.:)
Decisions got finalized late last week, and it was quite a rush yesterday to work out all the travel and accommodation arrangements. A good part of it has been in planning for weeks now, but as these things go, you don’t click on ‘APPLY’ until you’re sure the appropriate agencies and persons have all signed in the right places.
I’ll be flying off on a very early morning flight on the 10 June, with a first stop at Narita after 7 hrs in the air, then another 12 hrs to Detroit, and finally a shorter 2 hr hop to Boston and arriving in the early evening on the same day (hooray for crossing international datelines). Just over 21 hours in the air, and – nicely – very little time wasted between flights. Not quite like if I’d flown westwards and transiting via Heathrow – the latter involved a 13 hour wait between flights…ugh.
Return journey wise: leaving Boston on 2 July early afternoon, traveling the same way back but slightly longer journey in terms of flight time, and arriving in Singapore on the 4 July Sunday morning.
The accommodation arrangements were real tricky though. The research center I’ll be at is very close to the central business district itself which makes nearby suitable hotel accommodation terrifically expensive, even with the hefty discounts MIT has secured for staff visitations. I was lucky enough to find though a lovely Bed n’ Breakfast homestay situated well-away from the city itself and right next to Harvard University (oh yes – museums!!!), which is about 15 minutes travel from the MIT. The house was built in 1910, and owned by a member of the Harvard alumnus and who now works at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.
And our family Ang Mo friend Matt will be visiting during one of the weekends, and we’re thinking of driving around and exploring the state a bit.
On the one hand, I’m looking forward to the trip. It’s a historically-rich city, pleasant weather (summer but cooler than Singapore by any measure), and I don’t have to deliver lectures at all unlike last December’s Kumamoto trip. That said, it’s still a 23 day trip in all. Shorter than originally planned, but I’m still gonna miss Hannah and Ling when I’m away.
Still, that’s what video conferencing is for. More details to come.:)
On All Fours
From what I know, babies start learning to walk at about their first birthday. Hannah’s just two weeks away from turning one, and it’s been delightful watching her learn how to stand steadily without support. Not entirely successfully yet as she’ll usually either lose her balance after a couple of seconds, but she’s learning! Ling was trying to catch her attempts to stand on her own on video over the weekend, but wasn’t successful.
One thing Hannah’s very adept now though is crawling on all fours. In fact, it’s quite a cute sight to see her scurrying about the house! She’s very quick, and displays her trademark look of determination – pursued lips, look of concentration – when she follows Ling around the house on the marble floor:
It’s a lot of sweaty work on Hannah’s part though. It’s hard to see from the reduced in size pictures here, but if you look at the larger Flickr images, you’ll be able to see her beads of sweat.:)
Robin Hood (2010) – at AMK Hub. I’ve always enjoyed Ridley Scott’s films, especially his string of Middle-East set of epics that started with Gladiator in 2000, and followed by Black Hawk Down, Kingdom of Heaven and finally Body of Lies. His luck might have just run out finally though, because his interpretation of the legendary English hero Robin Hood has received decidedly mixed reviews, with more ‘nays’ than ‘ayes’ among critics.
In Scott’s retelling, Robin Longstride (Russell Crowe) is a common archer in King Richard Lionheart’s army. Upon the good king’s untimely demise and the subsequent wiping of his royal guard and loyal retainer Sir Robert Loxley by the French agent Godfrey (Mark Strong), Longstride agrees to impersonate Loxley to return the dying knight’s sword to his father (Max von Sydow) who resides with the Lady Marion (Cate Blanchett). King Richard’s arrogant and sniveling brother, Prince John, is elevated to king and begins enforcing murderous taxes to replenish the kingdom’s treasury – while King Philip of France acting through Godfrey plans for an invasion of England.
The title of the film is a misnomer. Because the film is about Robin Longstride becoming Robin Hood and not about the legendary character himself. But while it’s an origin story, it’s not quite like the other films recounting superhero origins like in Batman Begins or the first of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man films. Robin only becomes the guy with the hood in the last few minutes of the film. And the film even goes on to teasingly tell you ‘so the legend begins’ just before the credits roll.
That’s where the problem really is. The film purports to ground itself with some degree of historical accuracy – like the signing of the Magna Carta or Richard Lionheart’s demise – but it doesn’t feel anything like the kind of Robin Hood film we’ve come to know and love over the years. The Robin here does everything typical of a medieval action hero and nothing of the legend. He doesn’t have very many merry men – just three of them in fact, he meets Little John over a game of chance instead of over fists and staffs over a stream, no robbing of the rich for the poor, and Maid Marion has turned into Widow Marion, and even clads herself in dominatrix-styled plate armor.
The two leads had no real chemistry.
In fact, the film feels more like a Gladiator advanced by about a thousand years and set in England instead of Rome. Crowe even shows up with his same gravely voice, Maximus hair-cut and beard. You could swap the Robin Hood character in his film for some other entirely fictional persona and little else would had needed to be changed.
For want of a better descriptor, the new Robin Hood film just isn’t fun. It’s downright serious replete with a lofty theme – the Frenchies are invading England, and the only person who can do anything about it is Robin – and more subplots than you could shake a stick at. And some of those subplots are unnecessary (that scene with Prince John’s first wife before he gets in with the French hottie princess), others never resolved satisfactorily (the stupid sword), and yet others that just don’t make sense (how Prince John suddenly finds out about Robin’s impersonation of Robert Loxley). As campy as Kevin Costner’s Prince of Thieves was 19 years ago, at least the latter was entertaining, irreverent and chuckle-worthy at many places.
There’s also the ridiculous scene of French troops landing on England’s south coast at the obligatory big battle scene towards Robin Hood’s end. You’ve seen it all before – Saving Private Ryan – but you’d be forgiven into thinking that the 12th century French invented amphibious invasions using Higgins-styled landing craft.
Carnage that looked too eerily similar to Gladiator.
It’s not a total loss though. Scott’s 12th century England is a feast for the senses. Lots of detail in the backdrop of everyday life during the Dark Ages, you get a terrifically thick story, and lots of characters which fortunately are distinct enough to be individually recognized. Ling at least liked the film.
I’m assuming that Scott had intended this film to be a prequel to a series of films. Truth is, with this USD237 million film not being quite the critical success, whether there’s going to be a sequel at all about the actual legend might now be in doubt. Crowe isn’t getting any younger either at 46, and how many of us really want to watch a 50 year old Robin if there’s going to be a second film.
All that said, Scott routinely puts out extended editions of his films. The theatrical edition of Kingdom of Heaven suffered from some of the same flaws as Robin Hood has, but the director’s cut of the former was a much more cohesive viewing experience. Here’s to hoping we’ll see the same for this Robin Hood film, and about the actual legend this time too.
More of the Usual Weekend Pictures
More pictures of our growing daughter, taken over the weekend just a fortnight away from her first birthday.:)
Hannah pondering whether to cry or not to cry.
Hannah striking a 小姐 look.
She’s still obsessed with her sheep.
Getting changed into Sunday green.
Caught her waving in the nick of time!