Saturday, July 11, 2009

Touch-Phones.Co.Uk: Product Review

Touch-Phones.Co.Uk is not a pretty site. Its design is bland and the only images to speak of are of phones. And yet, forgoing that, the site is very utilitarian: it has three boxes down the left-side of the page that allow a customer to browse the available touch phones in a variety of ways—by make and model, by network, by color—and also prompt the customer to explore many payment options for their phone (Touch Phones pay as you go, contract phones, whatever).

And so it comes to brains over beauty, or vice-versa? And in this instance, I’m inclined to choose brains. Why, exactly? Beyond the function of the site—and what some could argue as the soothing quality of its blandness—it also offers, at the bottom-half of its home page, a pretty fantastic little tool. It has three sliding bars, one after the other, labeled “Monthly Cost,” “Inclusive Texts,” and “Monthly Minutes,” respectively. The customer—one—you—can slide the bar from “doesn’t matter” to “any” to “zero” on all three options, and given a specific combination (say: zero monthly cost, 200 inclusive texts and 1,000 monthly minutes) the gizmo tells you how many of their phones offer those features (in this case: a whopping 17,970). That’s beyond neat, right?—that’s pretty freakin’ sweet.

So you want to buy one of those Samsung Touch Phones, eh? Or better yet, you’re just out looking for Cheap Touch Screen Phones. Well I’m willing to bet you’re not out looking for the prettiest web retailer; but you are looking for a helpful one. Touch-Phones is helpful and offers a lot of little nuggets of info about any prospective phone (e.g., battery life, weight, dimensions, color options, available features like camera) that help it transcend the ordinary and become-in a word—functionary.

Saturday, May 9, 2009

MobileFun.Co.Uk: Product Review

Try going to AT&T’s website to buy a nice Samsung flip phone or some iPhone accessories. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Finished? Noticed anything specific—like how tedious it can get after a while? Buying a phone wasn’t meant to be like pulling teeth, but when you head straight to the manufacturer, sometimes it can feel that way. Enter, a website designed solely for the express purpose of making it easier for you—and you—and you—to buy a phone.

The first thing you notice is the handy toolbar going down the left-side of the screen. Personally, I find it, as a tool, in the face of AT&T’s many-layered menus, to be a fast-paced delight. You can now scroll through the various wares by manufacturer (Nokia, Sony Ericsson, etc.), by brand (Brodit, PDair), by type (whether it be cases or Bluetooth accessories), or by some larger grouping (like iPhone accessories or electronic gaming systems). On top of that, albeit a tad redundantly, a list of tabs run along the top of the page—“Mobile Accessories,” “Ringtones, Games & Downloads”—that offer another way to access all the site has to offer.

From there, though, the site can get a bit cluttered—yet always only for the sake of offering the visitor more options. Still, there is such thing as “too much,” even when it’s good. To wit, the floating icon in the bottom-right constantly asking for your “Feedback!” only gets annoying when you forget the context; the same goes for icons advertising how you can buy set up a business account as well as all the awards MobileFun has won lately.

All-in-all, though, their website is more than satisfactory. It streamlines shopping for something that has long needed to be streamlined. And if it tries a little too hard in the process—in trying to offer low-priced flip phones and Apple iPhone accessories and Xbox 360s—so what?

Monday, April 6, 2009

Cupid: B-

In 2004 there was this show—this little, tiny show about this girl in this town. And she was damaged and jaded and full of so much emotional baggage you could just about see her staggering as she walked—except she was also smart, and beautiful, and funny. Plus, she solved crime. With the help of a sidekick. And a dog.For three years this show went on, struggling against low ratings and viewer apathy and a late-series outbreak of Narrativeitis (common symptoms: desperate guest spots, flashy storylines like serial rape, and harebrained structuring), until it was canceled. In 2007, the world saw the end of Rob Thomas’ Veronica Mars.

I talk my way through all of that as a way of better providing the context with which to judge Rob Thomas’ new show, which is actually a reboot of his 1998 romantic-comedy, Cupid. After having proven he’s a television writer-producer with a knack for writing dialogue marked by both wit and angst, the bar has been set awfully high—perhaps too high. Because Cupid, which airs weekly on Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC, while pleasing at times, is no Mars. It’s not as original, or as vivid, or as emotionally sincere. It is, instead, broad and rote and a bit sophomoric.

Bobby Cannavale, his caterpillar eyebrows scrunching and un-scrunching in pantomime of comedic timing, plays a man—“Trevor Pierce”—who may or may not be the titular Roman god of love. Sarah Paulson plays the shrink assigned to his case (she’s both monitoring him to make sure he doesn’t “harm” anyone and to do research for her next Dating 101 best-seller). The issue is that Trevor needs to match-up 100 couples before he’s allowed back on Mount Olympus. Problem is, both Sarah and the rest of New York City have a bit of an issue with “true love:” they hate it.

And so they head out, one tsk-tsking after the other. Sparks fly. Laughs are had.

Yet here’s the thing: as much as I wanted to write off Cupid after its first thirty minutes, I was thrown for a loop by its second act. Though the theme is cartoonishly clichéd—Trevor is all for the sizzle and passion, Paulson’s Claire is all for long conversations and deep connection—the stories that act them out give out a pleasant snap. In the pilot, for example, a man (Sean Maguire) flies all the way from Ireland to find a woman he met for twenty minutes. Once in NYC, he hooks up with a journalist (Marguerite Moureau, way better here than in Life as We Know It) to help get the word out to his mystery gal. Things happen, some of which you can guess and some of which you can’t, and the ending comes as a nice twist. The dialogue, for all it lacks in smarts, has more than enough heart.

Now here’s hoping the rest of Cupid could get into shape. Who knows—if that happens, maybe some god, somewhere, really is smiling down on Rob Thomas & Co.

Brick: A-

“I don't know, but whether she scraped or copped or just ran her tab around the world and into her own back, it must have been grand.”

A teenage loner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) receives a frantic call from his ex-girlfriend (Emile de Raven): she’s in some sort of trouble—she’s fallen in with the wrong crowd—things are falling on her head, fast, and hard.He begins to sort out the fall-out. Characters are encountered: vixens, vamps, tramps, dopers, druggies, dealers, and pinheads—and each has their niche, their hook, their own particular brand of delirious one-liner. (“You looking to get back into things? I could use you,” purrs one particular Drama Queen—and the chick ain’t kidding: she holds court behind the theatre in a massive dressing room, and her offers come like daggers wrapped in velvet.) Up, up, up the social ladder the kid climbs, until he ends with a bloodbath.

People die.Weary, our hero stands in the mist, waiting for the final clinching moment—the dénouement—that will seal the fates of everyone involved, all the way back to the poor dead girl in the storm drain. And out of the mist, come to answer for it all, and put it all to bed, who could it be but…?

The trick is in the telling and I won’t reveal the final catch of Brick. Three years ago, when I saw the debut of Rian Johnson’s debut film, I was as mesmerized as I was perplexed. Its intricacies confused me as much as the dialogue and style left me overjoyed. And yet now, when revisiting the movie, the haze of its structure and homage to Dashiell Hammett clears, and all becomes clear: just as one-of-several femme fatales sings, “Ah, but pray make no mistake/We’re very wide awake,” the admonishment could seem almost to reach through the screen, as if to say, “He knew it all along—which is part of the fun, the mystery, as much as it is a tragedy.”

The Reader: B-

I don’t get bored in movies easily. Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many, or because I tend to fit on some pseudo-intellectual armor before each viewing so that the mere idea of sleeping through a piece of art seems preposterous. Regardless, whatever the reason, it must be revealed that it’s been quite some time before I grew truly, sincerely, authentically restless during a film. However, Stephen Daldry’s The Reader gets the rare honor of having made me truly bored—sleepy, even—as its narrative of secrecies and illicit affairs and ghastly Holocaust-era crimes unspooled in handsome, handsomely anguished scenes.

Years ago (dates are unimportant; they flash upon you on title cards and disappear just as quickly) a boy, Michael Berg (David Kross), was sick on the sidewalk as he came home from school. It was raining, and the lady who lived just past the vomit-covered stoop took pity on him. Pity became affection, and that affection became erotic. Soon sex was involved. (It’s graphic and abundant, but tastefully patterned.) The only thing to distinguish this underage affair from all others was the woman’s propensity for being read aloud to, and for harboring some sort of…something behind her weathered brow.Eventually they drifted apart. There was a sort of stately logic in their romantic dissolution, even as the break-up strives valiantly to be not so: as they came together, so they fell apart—the end.

The present arrives. And now Michael is older (and played by Ralph Fiennes). And he is plagued—as equally plagued by frets and worries and soul-crushing moral quandaries as his lover, long ago, seemed to be.

To spoil the actual plot points would be to ruin The Reader entirely—to dull even its vaguely-sharp nubs down to nothing. No, I’ll merely present the symmetry as an opening salvo of curiosity, allowing your own mind to lead you into a viewing… But I will reveal one thing, and leave you warned with another: first, writer David Hare, adapting from the novel Bernhard Schlink, struggles mightily to communicate valiant notions of survivor’s guilt and moral relativism and other such weighty things but he fails in doing so as he fails in challenging his own aesthetic—as much as his The Hours was a pretty mood piece that went six feet down instead of ten, so is his latest work ostensibly laced-up instead of lacerating; and second, Kate Winslet plays the woman who once figured so prominently in Michael’s life, and her performance finds its own sort of expression even in a movie that gracefully locks her down—but be wary regardless, because The Reader is at worst a yawn-inducing, sentimental bore, and if you stare into her big sad eyes long enough, you’ll be forgiven for thinking “Lifetime Presents…” precedes the title.
A seamless treat—as swirling, vibrant, and ecstatic an entertainment as the movies are likely to produce this year, Slumdog Millionaire may well be contrived, a confection, but its construction defies artificiality; and what’s more, the film has the further audacity to explore and exploit such an idea. Director Danny Boyle, in great whirling control of a talent long confined to psychological thrillers (Sunshine, 28 Days Later) taps right back into the vein of propulsive zest that ran through his debut, Trainspotting, and his latest work—alternately a fusion of cultures, genres, and cinematic devices—practically jumps to life for it.

There is a coldness somewhere in the manipulation proposed and propagated as the film progresses—a certain need to balk at being asked to produce so many stock emotions at just such stock junctures in the narrative (a mother’s murder, a lover’s dislocation). Regardless, a surface happiness, a glow, subsists throughout. In part due to the pitch-perfect behind-the-camera work (from the aforementioned Boyle, paired nicely with writer Simon Beaufoy, who adapts the novel Q&A into a effortless interweaving of flash-backs and ruminations on things past, to composer A.R. Rahman, who provides the film’s kinetic soundtrack), and also with thanks to the actors (all of whom, through three different ages, and cast in a tricky triangle pattern, give grit to the fairytale), Slumdog Millionaire is triumphant on several levels. And if I love it just a little less than all those who surround me, it’s not without a little trepidation: by credits end, the film gets so good at whipping you into a frenzy of feelings, the lack of true sublimity warrants a slight pause.

Regardless, Dev Patel, as the titular Indian orphan competing on the much-tarter version of what we all watched back here with Regis Philban, is magnetically charming—he acts without appearing to do so; seconds in and the seams of his performance (the accent, the rather-large spectrum of Big Emotions) disappear—Poof! All that remains is a star. One more swirl of color, light, and storytelling delight, and the film itself vanishes—Poof!

All that’s left is joy.

Milk: A-

I enjoy Milk the less I think about it, and the more time that passes.

I enjoyed Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay immediately, but not wholeheartedly. It finds character definition in voice-over or in the refracted angle of a silver whistle, or in a final weighty glance at a poster for the San Francisco Opera. There are also the conventional methods used to construct a biopic, but they’re tempered by a light touch of flamboyance—of joy. Black peppers his archival footage and ripped-from-the-headlines dialogue with humor, but his plotting, though fleet and framed by the most curiously intriguing of devices, is inelegant.

I enjoyed more what director Gus Van Sant does, as he finally bursts free from years of depressing stylistic tics. The Van Sant in control of Milk is the same Van Sant who wrote and directed the “Le Marais” segment of Paris, je t’aime—a man who finds the vibrancy in a casually poignant sexual life: a sort of anti-Woody Allen in that he sets up casual connections without also chaining them together with psycho-sexual significance. He glides through his story, bouncing from one true story to another in the life of some pretty incredible people. His film stock roughens at times, dating itself even as its ploy for sincerity is effective and the past is allowed to seep into the present. At others he side-steps a moment to brighten up the entire film with grand swoops of fervor—as with the rainbow-colored telephone tree or Danny Elfman’s operatic score. He takes what is a better-than-average script and makes a better-than-average film that sags only occasionally, and charms almost consistently. No longer the downer who freeze-dried Elephant in its own “relevance,” this is a man who finds inspiration in inspiration—and his art resurges, joyfully, for it.

At once I completely applaud the supporting performers of Milk—like Emile Hersch, as political aid Cleve Jones, bustling with nervy charm, or James Franco as Scott Smith—and am a little put-off by them. Of all the elements in Milk, they are the least defined: sure they’re witty little gay men, huddled together and building a rebellious political machine of their own out in the Castro, but that’s all they ever are: a collective. As much as Black and Van Sant find a sort of zeitgeisty way to create and color-in-the-lines of their main character, through group demonstration, or as he stands on a soap box protesting to the masses, the same methods can’t be said to be effective with the surrounding cast. Friends, lovers, allies, all—save Dan White (who Josh Brolin gives a twinkling sort of psychosis all by his repressed-self)—just sort of remain on the sidelines, even as they catapult occasionally to the forefront.

Yet all of that is for naught. Sean Penn, as Harvey Milk, the man who would upset the status quo in the 1970s with his tireless fight for gay rights, is so comfortable in someone else’s skin (and he’s such a competent physical mimic) that even the film’s flaws are built into his performance—he makes even cinematic inconsistencies delightful. Fearlessly fey, but with a cool pragmatic sensibility, Penn’s Milk is at once a stereotype upended, and that same stereotype writ large. Paradoxically, it makes his life, refracted through both sensibilities, all the more rich.

And, too, it makes his death all the sadder. I’m not one to choke up at movies, and I didn’t here, but the heft of Milk is in its persistence, it dogged pursuit of betterment. And in the current climate, couldn’t we all learn a little from Mr. Milk when he said “You’ve got to give ‘em hope”?

Doubt: B

With much symbolic wringing of his hands, writer-director John Patrick Shanley fussily brings his previously Pulitzer Prize-winning stage play Doubt to the screen—and yet the ironic thing is, the transition itself brings about much of the titular emotion. Sure, the central quartet of Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, and Viola Davis seem qualified enough—but in the opening thirty minutes Streep, that grand dame of accents and method sublimation of self into character, gives a performance of such sheer overheated nonsense (with speech inflections and physical tics that border on rococo) that she threatens to leave the audience laughing, instead of pondering, at the pile of melodramatic entanglements at St. Nicholas’ Catholic School.

Luckily her performance slows and blossoms, minute by minute, into something far more recognizable as derived from quality instead of Quaaludes, and as it softens and comes into focus, so inversely does the narrative—hardening, sharpening, itself. It goes like this: Streep, as Sister Aloysius, suspects her only black student (Joseph Foster II) of having been advanced on inappropriately by Father Flynn (played by Hoffman with a disarming vulnerability); her suspicions are strengthened by the opinions of Sister James (Adams, who is the only of the main four to truly hit the film’s rhythm of comedy and naturalism smothered by an overarching Gothic tragedy). So she launches a campaign to reveal and remove the priest. At one point her quest takes her into contact with the young boy’s mother (who is inhabited by Davis with a force of conviction that lends her every subversive line an extra twist of spiteful, saddening, regret) and their scene together brings the film crackling to life.

Yet here’s the thing: Doubt is an artful enough experiment in unsettling and disturbing an audience’s sympathies and points-of-view—it plants seeds of uncertainty and unease with a literate grace (as with Father Flynn’s beautiful opening sermon). However Shanley is by no means a confident director (his camera stubbornly pulls the viewer’s eye to the most obvious of symbols and visual allegories with a ham-fisted redundancy), and on the whole he elicits merely adequate performances from his A-list cast. Thematically, the film (as the play before it) is concerned chiefly with an atmosphere of hushed paranoia that creeps, with subtlety and much justification, into the mind of the viewer until Doubt itself prevails everywhere. But there is much too much drama—loud, obvious, persistent, emotional—in this drama for that to take place. The movie unsettles, but that emotional integrity comes at the cost of elegant presentation.

“In Ancient Sparta, important matters were decided by who could shout the loudest. Luckily, we are not in Ancient Sparta,” Sister Aloysius says, half-way through. Coming away from the closing-credits, though, Meryl, I wouldn’t be so sure.

Frost/Nixon: B+

Peter Morgan, who wrote Frost/Nixon, may very well be a great writer—a great playwright (he wrote the original play), a great screenwriter (and now the cinematic adaptation), a great dramatist, period. And it’s a curious thing, his greatness, as it comes at no expense to his storytelling. In the combined field of stage and screen that contains such voluble, densely eloquent (or else tersely clever) writers as David Mamet, Tom Stoppard, Tony Kushner, and Charlie Kaufman, it is most strange indeed to find that talent who finds greatness without talking himself into circles. Morgan does just that; and as an extension of his cleanly witty dialogue, his narratives are similarly created: propulsive, but elegant—minimal, but never spare. Above all, his works are always most entertaining—most thrilling—for the way they link the audience into the character’s struggles for validation, for security, and (most often) for power.

Frost/Nixon, which Ron Howard directs with a casual mastery of internal-external staging, both enlivening and expanding the original’s theatrical dynamics, is no exception. It is, ostensibly, about more than just an interview: it’s also about the lives of the two men who made history some thirty years ago when one, David Frost (Michael Sheen), decided to question the other, Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), for nearly thirty hours. Yet their lives are of no real importance, and in cinematic context it fleshes them out none as characters (the fleshing out is all left to their actors, who have an ease and mastery of projection that, one supposes, is only granted after years of performance). So when the interviewing actually begins a little more than an hour in, well, that’s truly when the movie begins too, more—it practically jumps to life, with Howard’s camera volleying back and forth as if watching a tennis match with missiles instead of balls.

Morgan has great fun sizing up and exploring the capabilities of his central, centrally opposed, forces; and his director has great fun in interweaving clips from the “present” to not only date the movie, but give it a sort of reverberated-in-hindsight relevance. So well is the visual and verbal layered together, with such verve and momentum, that what may occasionally seem urbane in Morgan’s script begins to sizzle with life…and the wounded vanities that hide beneath it.

Kudos to Langella and Sheen—who relish their battle by giving perfectly edited-down performances that are adorned neither with flamboyance or melodrama; and who, because of that, give a center to the dramatization spinning about them. It doesn’t have quite the bite, either psychological or social, of Morgan’s The Queen. But Frost/Nixon is a perfect lesson in the essence of nuts-and-bolts storytelling: it speaks (smartly, persuasively) for itself.

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button: B-

Cate Blanchett, one of the screen’s most radiant talents, gives one of the year’s most painfully careful performances—and she is seconded only barely by Brad Pitt who, as a man who is born old and dies young, struggles not with his beautifully-done ageing/de-ageing make-up, but rather with the void of personality that it covers up. Technically, it is a feat of perfectly adequate internalizing. But internalizing is not what is called for—no, not in this David Fincher-directed, Eric Roth-scripted, “epic.” A lazy Southern drawl is all well and good, but if Forrest Gump and its star taught anyone anything, it is that characters so defined and compressed within their disabilities so as to become observers in their own star vehicle are barely characters at all, and are so thereby barely worth watching.

But I digress: Mr. Pitt is pretty enough to look at; Ms. Blanchett, too. They have barely any chemistry, but due to Fincher’s overt technical styling, emotion is nonetheless wrung from their every “wrenching” scene together. We wonder, in the beginning, at the strangest of an old man falling in love with a little girl…only for the situation to be reversed much later on—but we soon forget. Movies like this are not for the mind, but for the heart. And yet the heart is done so little service! Roth’s screenplay frames itself as the tale of a young boy’s journal, now in the possession of an old woman, being read by a middle-aged child, and has yet the further audacity to set the present action during Hurricane Katrina. Yet he also has the audacity to create two quite-lovely sequences, both involving the rhythm and power of time, that are the small-scale delights of love and loss that the overall film could never be. (One wonders, regardless, how F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story ever became so rounded and tragic a film as this—when it started out as so hardened and whirling a satire as it was.)

The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a curious case indeed: characters there within go through major emotional upheavals and find themselves, either secretly or with great show, tossing about on a sea of passions—and yet the most minor of characters, so trapped and flat in conception and in physicality, are the ones presented with the most sincerity (to wit: Tilda Swinton, showing up for just a few minutes as an aristocrat suffering from lovelorn dislocation, outpaces her female counterparts easily with grace and elegance in communicating inelegant emotions); and though the theme that hangs over the narrative like a silken funeral shroud is one of haunting existentialism (it assumes both that a life lived backward is one lived in vain and that those loved while living backward are loved only to be lost), no melancholia is rightly present scene-to-scene—worse, more often a finely-preened since of blah, of softly-chewed and finely-spun nonsense, persists. In short the film lives, on screen anyway, for almost three hours—and yet it so rarely feels alive.