23 January 2006

Review: Spiderman 2 (2004)

Poor Peter Parker (Tobey Maguire)! As if being an unappreciated superhero in New York isn't enough, he's too skint to pay his rent, his life long sweetheart MJ (Kirsten Dunst) is betrothed to a national hero, Aunt May's (Rosemary Harris) house is about to be repossessed by the bank and his best friend Norman (James Franco) is consumed with hatred of Spiderman who killed his dad. What's more, there's a new super villain Dr Ock (Alfred Molina) on the loose. Maybe this superhero lark isn't all it's cracked up to be and it's time to grow up. Or maybe being a hero means more than just rounding up baddies, leaping between buildings and wearing a cool costume?

This second installment of Spiderman's adventures is unusually sophisticated for the costume superhero genre. Writer Alvin Sargent assails our hero with numerous mundane and profound problems, and reflects his situation in the subplots. He's also been allowed to move the story along a couple of years and to avoid revisiting ground covered in the first film. A little extra care with the science would have helped avoid some annoying statements (for example, Dr Ock's fusion device generates one thousand megawatts of power without immediately incinerating everyone in the room).

Director Sam Raimi keeps a tight grip on the story and the tone light. He pokes gentle fun at the essential silliness of the genre (the lift scene is hilarious) and doesn't let the special effects overwhelm the most down to earth superhero in the world.

The cast look as if the characters in the comics have come to life, especially the editor of the Daily Bugle, J. Jonah Jameson (J. K. Simmons) with his flat top haircut and overbearing behaviour. The leads, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst, are starting to look a bit too old as college kids in their first jobs. There's a cameo appearance of Sam Raimi's buddy Bruce Campbell as the snooty theatre door attendant.

A satisfying continuation of Spiderman's story.

Stars: 3 out of 5

Review: Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow (2004)

In the 1930s, intrepid reporter Polly Perkins (Gwyneth Paltrow) and her former boyfriend Joe "Sky Captain" Sullivan (Jude Law) race around the world to foil the evil plans of Dr Totenkopf. They have to battle Totenkopf's robots and henchmen, and rescue Sky's gadgeteer mate Dex (Giovanni Ribisi) and a bunch of kidnapped scientists. On their mission, they get meet of some of Sullivan's old friends Kaji (Omid Djalili) and Franky (Angelina Jolie).

After a spectacular start with its impressive backlit cinematography and computer generated visuals inspired by "Metropolis", this film runs of out steam after Polly meets Sky Captain (which is pretty darn early) and crawls from action scene to action scene. The rudimentary adventure plot quickly disintegrates from too many holes, omissions and convenient escapes. For example, the journey to Nepal serves absolutely no purpose other than to provide some background on Totenkopf.

Jude Law is an appropriately square-jawed hero, Angelina Jolie provides a surprisingly plummy British accent, but Gwyneth Paltrow lacks the spark to be an enterprising journalist and looks too modern. Michael Gambon as Polly's editor vanishes after stating some obligatory concerns for his reporter's safety. Sir Laurence Olivier makes a short digitized appearance as Dr Totenkopf.

Special effects needing a plot.

Stars: 1 out of 5

20 January 2006

Review: Philosophy Of Science: A Very Short Introduction (2002)

TitlePhilosophy Of Science: A Very Short Introduction
AuthorSamir Okasha

Reasonable Overview For The Interested

What do philosophers think about science? This book provides a brief history of the philosophy of science, describes some logical assumptions in the practice of science and problems in science, and discusses Thomas Kuhn's scientific revolutions. The book concludes with a discussion on science and society.

Philosophy of science, as described in this book, seems to have become a rather esoteric subject removed the daily practice of scientists and the everyday use of science. Some questions that spring to mind but which are not covered in this book: Does the publication and independent verification of results lead to the self-correcting nature of science? Why is the simplest explanation the best? How can scientists who cannot easily perform experiments, such as astronomers and sociologists, make verifiable theories?

Chapter 6 presents three problems in science: Newton's view of absolute space, the classification (by feature or by genetics) of living creatures and the whether the mind is modular or not. It's not clear to me how the philosophy of science can help in resolving these problems. Newton's view was probably driven by his desire to prove the literal truth of the Bible. In this day and age of automated indexing systems, does it really matter which method is used to classify creatures? Finally, shouldn't scientists collect more data before deciding if the mind is modular or not?

This book covers a number of topics in the field but fortunately doesn't get bogged down in a deep technical discussion on any single topic. It is a reasonable overview of the topic for the interested reader and one of the better books in the "Very Short Introduction" series.

06 January 2006

Review: Birthday Girl (2001)

John Buckingham (Ben Chaplin), a lonely and frustrated bachelor, marries a Russian mail-order bride, Nadia (Nicole Kidman). After an initial period of awkwardness (they don't speak each other's language), they settle down to a life of kinky sex. Their marital bliss is upset by the arrival of Nadia's friends, the genial Yuri (Mathieu Kassovitz) and the menacing Alexei (Vincent Cassell).

The premise makes no sense: Why doesn't Nadia speak English? How do Nadia's friends know John's responsibilities in his job? After the interesting start exploring the theme of trust, the second half of the film becomes conveniently plot driven and predictable. As expected, the stars do a fine job in their constrained roles with French actor Vincent Cassell having the strongest presence as the violent yet tender ex-lover.

Stars: 1 out of 5

Review: The Ipcress File (1965)

When a top government physicist goes missing and his minder is found murdered, the British secret service decides to investigate. Harry Palmer (Michael Caine) is transferred to the team looking for the physicist. During the investigation, he discovers something more sinister called Ipcress.

This low-key thriller has all the elements of the "realistic" spy genre: mysterious shadowy men, treachery, seduction, and a bit of action. Sometimes, it feels like it tries to be too realistic when the agents also have to do boring surveillance tasks, fill in forms and survive departmental politics.

Michael Caine is perfect as the bespectacled gourmet Harry Palmer, playing him with the right amount of cheek, charm and ruthlessness expected of a public service secret agent. A youngish Gordon Jackson co-stars as Palmer's partner, Jock, with that very recognisable Scottish accent.

Very dated but watchable.

Stars: 3 out of 5