Saturday, 8 September 2007

Movie Review: Live Free or Die Hard (2007)

Let's get this out of the way: there is a scene towards the end of Live Free or Die Hard that involves a large truck, a military fighter jet, and a freeway. It's giving away nothing to announce that the scene ends with all three being totally destroyed. To say that this scene is over-the-top does not start to do it justice. Over-the-highest-peaks-of-groan-inducing-special-effects-that-destroy-all-credibility is more like it. This is not to pretend that the rest of the action scenes in this film are actually realistic. But there is an invisible thin line between escapism and cartoons; once crossed, the viewer is just left embarrased.

Which is a shame. Because until that point, Live Free or Die Hard is a pretty entertaining romp, with very well-directed action sequences, interesting characters (both good and evil), and a modern update on the Die Hard theme.

This time around, a team of techno-nerds, with a suitably evil leader, launches a melt-down of the computer systems of the United States. Everything from traffic lights, to the power and utility grid, to the civil and military centres of intelligence, are electronically infiltrated, manipulated and corrupted. Director Len Wiseman manages very well to make computers, monitors and manical typing on keyboards actually exciting.

A team of heavily armed mercenaries, complete with fully-equipped vans and helicopters, is out there assisting the bad guys, mainly by eliminating anyone who can unravel their plot, and this includes a group of young computer hackers.

Of course, John McClane (Bruce Willis) is unwittingly assigned to protect one of these hackers, played by Justin Long (Mac in all the Mac v/s PC commercials). That is it as far as the plot goes. The action never lags, and Willis and Long form a decent combo as they evade the bad guys while trying to rescue the world.

The characters are nicely rounded out by McClane's daughter, an FBI agent in over his head, and a hacker guru who is recruited to help the good guys.

The action sequences are sharply edited with an emphasis on maintaining comprehension and highlighting McClane's attitude and wit. Willis is excellent and comfortable playing the older, wiser, and more weathered McClane. Also prominent and impressive is Maggie Q as one of the conspiracy's co-leaders; she presents a suitably challenging and athletic foe.

It all moves well and hits all the right notes until that freeway scene, at which point the best response is to roll your eyes and longingly remember the days when special effects could enhance a movie, but not destroy it.

Book Review: Once in a Lifetime, by Gavin Newsham (2006)

Beyond easily-dismissable player biographies, there are precious few serious books about football out there. Once in a Lifetime is quite a refreshing and engrossing read. British writer Gavin Newsham chronicles the rise and fall of the New York Cosmos, from obscurity to world-wide fame to disappearance, all in a matter of less than two decades.

The strength of the book is weaving events on the field with the actions and motivations of the men (and they are all men) behind the scenes. Personalities like Warner Bros. executives Steve Ross and Jay Emmett; League Executive Clive Toye; and Coach Gordon Bradley play as large a part in the book as players like Pele and Beckenbauer. Towering above them all is Giorgio Chinaglia, the legendary Italian scoring machine who, the book reveals, had at least as much influence off-the-field as his astonishing strike rate had on-the-field.

Newsham keeps the story moving briskly, from the football fields of the North American Soccer League (NASL) to the boardrooms at Warner Bros. (the owner of the Cosmos) to the home countries of the many foreigners recruited to star for the Cosmos.

Where the book does stumble, somewhat, is in the very weak attempt to introduce overall societal and political events as a backdrop against which the Cosmos story unfolds. This is such a half-baked effort that it comes across as almost childish. However, these sections of the book are short and barely interfere with the narrative flow.

This is a useful and entertaining addition to the accessible library of knowledge on world football, and specifically the colourful but brief chapter written by the NASL, when glamour, money, entertainment and football collided to create the bright shooting star called the New York Cosmos.

Paperback published by Grove Press, 260 pages.

Saturday, 11 August 2007

Movie Review: The Rocket (2006)

Maurice "The Rocket" Richard joins the Montreal Canadiens hockey team as a kid, and grows to be one of the most influential players in the history of the game, both on and off the ice.

One of the more ambitious Canadian made films, The Rocket works on many levels: as a story of a man gradually growing into his talent to assume the leadership role that destiny entrusted him with; as the story of the re-awakening of pride in the french identity of Quebec; and as a terrific look back at the early days of the "original six" in the National Hockey League (NHL).

Roy Dupuis, the actor portraying The Rocket, does not display too many emotions in the film. He is mostly portraying stoic manhood in the face of on-ice opponents and an anti-Quebec off-ice NHL culture. Dupuis does the job admirably, but it would have been interesting to delve a bit deeper and more frequently into more varied emotions.

The portrayal of the NHL in the 1940s and 1950s appears genuine. The atmosphere in the hockey rinks, dressing rooms, back-rooms and on the trains is smoke drenched, masculine, chaotic, and sweaty. The film is great in re-creating an era when entire large cities could get caught-up in the euphoria of a single game. The film also presents the reality of the days when sports heroes received very little glory outside the sports arena, and carried on with modest family lives without any of the trappings and lavishness that we associate with modern sports stars.

The film's examination of french / english rivalry and conflict, both within the NHL and within the larger surrounding society, is subtle, touching, and sensitive. One of the most potent scenes in the film occurs when the anglophone Montreal coach reaches out to his Quebec players in the post-game Canadiens dressing room, after the Rocket begins to assume a visible role as critic of the status quo.

Technically, the movie is a pleasure to watch, with classy sets, costumes, music, and very capable supporting performances.

For fans of hockey and the National Hockey League, and all those who enjoy social commentary through the lens of sports, The Rocket is a worthwhile movie.

Thursday, 9 August 2007

Book Review: The Mess They Made, by Gwynne Dyer (2007)

So what will happen in the Middle East when the US withdraws from Iraq?

Canadian-born author Gwynne Dyer presents a galloping view of the likely regional consequences once the US army leaves Iraq behind. This event, which Dyer predicts will happpen soon after the next US President is sworn-in, will mark the dramatic reduction of US military influence in the world's toughest neighbourhood, thereby unleashing dramatic and turbulent events within many countries.

The book includes a laser-sharp and highly plausible assessment of the likely real reasons behind the US invasion of Iraq, from the perspective of a modern day Empire protecting its long term interests. This part of the book alone is worth the price of admission.

Dyer writes in an uncompromising, humourous and refreshingly impartial style, and has clear insight into the various countries, incuding the political factions, national interests and religious tides that push and pull events in Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan and Israel.

He presents several possible post-withdrawal outcomes for the region, from doomsday scenarios to more cool-headed results. Although Dyer does not clearly state what are the more likely outcomes, he implies that leaving local populations to determine their futures with less foreign interference will likely be a very good thing for long-term stability, although short-term results may initially appear to be grim.

Paperback published in Canada by McClelland & Stewart, 267 pages.

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