Category Archives: Music & Reviews

Listening to and playing music, from classical to modern indie, a bit of jazz, blues, world and ukulele music thrown in. Reviews of CDs and albums, artists and recording quality.

Little Dorrit: BBC Drama


Little Dorrit BBCWe just finished watching the 14-part BBC series of Little Dorrit. As usual with most BBC series, it was superbly cast, acted, paced and filmed. Each episode was a mere 30 minutes, and almost every one of them ended in a cliffhanger fashion that made you want to watch just one more.

You might not think of Charles Dickens that way, but much of what he wrote was for serial publication: in weekly or monthly magazines. To keep his audience hooked – and buying the magazines – he wrote cliffhangers. Not perhaps as gripping as, say, episodes of TV’s show 24, but his audience kept coming back for more.

Little Dorrit ran in 19 monthly issues, between December, 1855 and June, 1857.

Watching the series also made me want to read the book – I have read other of Dickens’ works, but not this one. Now, after watching, I can’t imagine why not. It’s a great story. I pulled it off my shelf and stared it this week.

Little Dorrit is both a social commentary and a complicated story. It has – as other Dickens’ novels have – a large cast of characters, often eccentric to the point of caricature. Mr. Barnacle of the Circumlocution Office, for example. His readers loved the characters, loved the caricatures, and understood the reality they thinly veiled.

Modern novels – your James Patterson, Dan Brown, Tom Clancy or Patricia Cornwell for example – are structured differently. The basic idea of a lot of popular fiction is to hit the readers over the head with a strong first page and drag them into the novel and the action right from the earliest lines.

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Snow White and the Huntsman reviewed


Snow WhiteTake one part Brothers Grimm and one part Malory’s Morte d’Artur, add a dash of Tolkein, a pinch of Joan of Arc, a sprinkling of Robin Hood and a sprig of English folklore; mix it in a bowl with copious CGI, great natural settings, remarkably good stage sets, and what do you have? The 2012 film, Snow White and the Huntsman.

The epic film (at least in the two-hour-eleven-minute extended version we watched last night) was an action-packed adventure that never made us feel it was dragging excessively.

Seems we and the critics disagree. I was impressed by the sets, by the stunning sites chosen for the outdoor segments, by the costumes and by generally very good CGI effects (aside from the mirror-oracle character which seemed unfinished).

It’s worth watching the bonus material to get some insight into how the sets and costumes were made and locations were chosen. A remarkable amount of work went into this movie.

Is it Snow White or something new, drawn from the legend but retold?

For that, I went back to the original story last night (actually one with copious sidebar notes), after the movie.*

The Brothers Grimm collected many variants of the tale during their years, and tended to both blend them together into one version for their books,and to alter their substance to suit their particular social, religious and cultural views (for example, in many original versions of the Snow White and other tales, the villain is the mother, but the Grimms changed this almost universally to an evil stepmother, thus altering the psychology of the story).

Movie posterThe movie (plot here) has at its core the Grimms’ basic tale (not, thankfully, the Disney cartoon version which has become iconic for so many people), although not quite as grisly as the Grimms’ (in which the wicked queen demands the huntsman return with Snow White’s liver and lungs so she can eat them). But it ventures into other paths, some for poetic licence (to develop, for example, the romantic interest), others to extend the action and create some opportunity for the action and battle scenes.

In the original tale, Snow White is seven years old. There is no real indication of the passage of significant time in the story, although she weds at the end, so one has to assume at least that many years have gone by (men and women often married young in medieval times). In the movie, the the gap is filled in by Snow White’s imprisonment where she grows up (and gets makeup, apparently).

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Shaolin: the film


ShaolinI like Chinese films, particularly the epic wuxia films. They are often a refreshing change from the effects-driven/CGI monstrosities pumped out by Hollywood. They remind me of the westerns of the 1950s, usually with good and bad sides in stark relief. Subtitles don’t bother me (better them than dubbed).

I’ve watched the Chinese film industry mature over the past three decades and the quality has become remarkable. Cinematography is sometimes breathtaking. One of the  most appealing aspects is that they tend to do more with people than with special effects, which gives crowd scenes a more human, less manufactured feel. Gotta love those cast-of-thousands moments.

I also like the mix of reality and the fantastic in wuxia films. Martial arts fight scenes have a dreamlike quality that contrasts with the inexorable, inhuman violence when guns and artillery are introduced. Contrast seems important in Chinese films, although it’s not often subtle.

Wuxia is only one part of Chinese film – like Hollywood westerns – and they have many good dramas about life and ordinary people, but wuxia films are by far more entertaining and captivating to me (with a few exceptions like Ang Lee’s 2007 Lust Caution).

Most westerners got introduced to modern Chinese films through Ang Lee’s great Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, launched in 2000. Other films like House of Flying Knives, Hidden Kingdom and Red Cliff followed. They are combinations of sprawling epics in the Gone With the Wind style, and retelling of Chinese history and mythology, with a bit of Shakespearean drama to enrich the characters. I’ve collected numerous of these post-2000 films. They’re a long way from the Bruce Lee style martial arts movies, and if you haven’t watched any, you owe it to yourself to do so.

Yesterday I found a DVD display at Wal-Mart with several recent titles, all priced at $10. For our Saturday night viewing, I chose Shaolin: Protect the Temple, a 2011 flick with Andy Lau, Nicholas Tse and Jackie Chan, directed by Benny Chan. It also stars the lovely Fan Bingbing, who, unfortunately, doesn’t get as much screen time as she deserves.

Like many wuxia films, Shaolin is essentially a martial arts movie, but following the current trend has complex plot lines, deep historical roots, and grand characters in the Shakespearean-King Lear, Henry V or Richard III mold.

The underlying theme is the clash between the modern and the traditional. The late colonial and post-colonial period from around 1880 to 1930s is ripe for stories of nascent nationalism and the often violent shift from the pre-industrial past to the modern era*. It’s a bit of nostalgia, too, for a time when people lived simpler lives.

Shaolin film cover 2Shaolin is set in the violent period of the Chinese Warlord era, before the even-more-violent Civil War that eventually put the Communists into power. Ruthless warlords fighting for territory, power and gold. Unscrupulous foreigners (Westerners who seem but are never quite identified as British) want to drive a railroad through their warring fiefdoms. These foreigners not only expect to profit from the rail, but are also snapping up every Chinese treasure and antiquity they can find. Okay, it’s a fairly blatant bit of nationalist propaganda.

The warlords fall out, and a double-cross becomes a triple-cross and the lead warlord, Hou Jie (Andy Lau) goes from ruler to fugitive after an ambush. He ends up a refugee in the very Buddhist monastery he had despoiled a few weeks earlier. That’s karma for you.

Like so many of these films, it’s also a tale of personal redemption in the Joseph Campbell-Hero’s Journey style. Hou Jie has to overcome his past, and discover inner peace among the Buddhists, and they have to learn to accept the former general. But the victor in the triple cross, Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) is hunting for Hou Jie and inevitably they have to confront one another. Along the way we have a massive army-versus-unarmed-but-martial-arts-trained monks battle, with guns and cannon blazing. The monks also have to save China’s heritage from the evil foreigners while they battle the warlord’s army, and protect the refugees displaced by the conflict.

Jackie Chan’s role is a bit ambiguous; he’s the fool (in the trickster model), and his character is sometimes a bit out of place with the melodrama of the others, but it’s not overplayed.

Without giving away more, I’ll finish by saying it’s a very satisfying film, well worth watching, with great fight scenes, even if the climax is rather predictable, albeit spectacular.** I think today I’ll go back to the store and see what others are for sale.

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* If you’ve read Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, you know a version of that that tale from an African perspective – more personal, without the fireworks though.

** Like most wuxia films, the end is both a moral and closure. Evil must be subdued and the world set right. Again, much like a Hollywood western or one of the Star Wars films.

Perfect Sense


Perfect SenseI have always liked sandbox stories; tales in which the author could stretch his of her imagination, place ordinary characters into a seemingly normal situation, then see what happened when the conditions were changed.*

Sandbox environments are virtual places were you can test ideas, explore paths, examine consequences to actions without spilling over into the real world. They have all the appearance of the real world, but the parameters can be changed to suit the tinkerer.

Programmers often create sandbox environments to test programs; anyone who does web development does so in a sandbox before putting the pages into use. Games like SimCity and Tropico are sandbox games where players construct virtual societies in a semi-realistic setting.

William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is a great sandbox novel. So was Jose Saramago’s Blindness. Both were made in to movies, as well.I, however, seems to have been written solely for film.

Warning: spoilers below.

Perfect Sense is a story about what happens to the world when one thing, one little thing, goes wrong. How would we deal with the loss of our sense of smell? How would we change, how would we cope; what would it mean to ordinary men and women trying to maintain relationships, jobs and families?

In Lord of the Flies, it was the loss of the social anchor of the urban environment that starts the downhill slide; we watch the children descend inexorably into primitive, tribal behaviour.

In Blindness, the majority of people lose their sight, and the author asks us to imagine what life would be like for not only them, but for the remaining few who prove immune to the blindness. In Saramago’s sandbox world, the “one-eyed man” is not king, but either tyrant or slave.

The former is set on an uninhabited island, the latter in an unnamed city. Despite the differences, both are “jungles.” Perfect Sense has a worldwide backdrop,but is predominantly set in the streets of urban Glasgow.

In both Golding’s and Saramago’s novels, humans show themselves unable to cope effectively with significant change: becoming violent, brutal, authoritarian and cruel. Once the veneer of civilization is rubbed away, the authors tell us, we become little more than animals. By extension, the authors imply that authoritarian states are therefore uncivilized and barbarian.

While the image of the children becoming savages was chilling, Saramago is far more graphic in his description of the madness and brutality.

Also in both these novels, the change from civilized to uncivilized setting is abrupt and overwhelming, crashing down upon people unprepared for the event. In Perfect Sense, it’s a gradual descent, a slow but inevitable slide.

Perfect Sense doesn’t tumble you into some apocalyptic nightmare: it eases you in, lets you see how people cope, come back to their jobs a little less whole, but still carry on. But the stiff upper lip trembles a little more with each step.

The film stars Ewan McGregor as a chef, and Eva Green as an epidemiologist, both competent and believable actors. McGregor is probably best known as playing the young Obi-Wan Kenobi in the last Star Wars films. Green starred as the deliciously evil Morgan in the otherwise forgettable Camelot TV series, as well as in other films. They work well together, playing two somewhat disaffected, disenchanted and slightly flawed, self-centred characters who have so far been unable to connect closely with others. As the world crumbles, they unite with one another, two against the odds.

It’s actually quite poignant at times, and pleasantly steamy. The DVD cover calls it an “apocalyptic romance.” But the romance isn’t quite given the time and space it needs to blossom – it’s a bloom doomed to wilt before it opens fully. They’re not going to be the new Adam and Eve in the reborn world of the future.

What is intriguing in this film is how the author, Kim Fupz Aakeson, stages the collapse, like a slowing falling line of dominoes. First we lose our sense of smell. But we adapt, we work around it, and learn to live in a world with one less sense. But then we lose our sense of taste. That’s more difficult – what would a chef do in a world where no one can taste the food? Again we struggle, but eventually come to grips with the loss.

Each time we come back, each time it hurts more, and takes longer to surface. Each loss is accompanied by something else, an emotional or physical trauma – a brief bout of overwhelming depression, an unstoppable urge to eat, a profound sense of loss, violent anger… But humans are resilient. We manage. The seeming “ordinariness” of it all is what creates the counterpoint to the tension of the descent.

Then comes the loss of hearing. That almost shatters us, but we crawl back one more time, shaken and scarred, but we adapt as best we can. Until the end, of course.

You can see it coming. The disease is pitiless, relentless. It strips us of our senses, and our humanity. When one loss fails to devour us, another follows. How much chaos, tragedy and disruption can humankind stand before crashing into madness and anarchy? Where is our tipping point? After hearing goes sight. And after that…

Unlike Blindness, there is no indication that anyone is immune. The disease strikes everyone. There are no unaffected few to guide the rest – or at least no indication of any – no one to shepherd the afflicted. Unlike typical “survivor” tales – the Walking Dead, the BBC series Survivors, Day of the Triffids, etc. – everyone falls prey to the disease. No enclaves of saved and safe souls to rebuild the world later. As a parable for humanity, it sure has an unhappy, albeit predictable, ending.

The film has had mixed reviews. While not exactly an uplifting flick, it’s got great production value, stylish sets, good acting, and the premise makes you wonder how you yourself would manage the loss while you’re watching others struggle with it. “What if…” will go through your mind many times after the film has ended.

For the $5 price tag** , it’s a good buy.

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* Novels that brush up against the borders of science fiction and fantasy may also be sandbox novels, although by far not always – usually only when the scifi or fantasy setting is a metaphor or allegory for the modern world rather than the focus of the tale.
** I found it at the discount store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart in Collingwood.

And on the video scene… bargains!


December is always a good month for movie buffs, and for anyone who wants to buy TV series on DVD (no commercials!). Lots of places have before- and after-Xmas sales that make DVD shopping more interesting this month. In particular, the bargain bins are filled with all sorts of films that either never got the media attention they needed to be successful, or simply are too old to demand the prices new movies can. Most are $5, some even less.

And I happen to like B-flicks, especially movies from the 30s to 70s. I have a nice collection of the old horror, scifi and mystery flicks made between 1930 and 60, with some real treasures. It’s amazing how a low-budget, B&W Roger Corman flick can still be more entertaining today than that overstuffed, CGI-dense monstrosity Peter Jackson did with his King Kong remake. But not all the bargains are B-flicks.

Imagine a film without car chase scenes, gun battles, choreographed stunts, egregious and explicit sex, profanity, or CGI. I know, it’s hard to – given the number of  Hollywood flicks that substitute visual display for content like acting, dialogue, and plot. But The Very Best Exotic Marigold Hotel hasn’t got a single car crash in it, no buffed, naked bodies and no one swears once. Yet it’s one of the most entertaining and delightful films I’ve seen all year. The sets are gorgeous and I was ready to move to India after watching it.

Of course the fact that it’s about seniors trying to figure out how to live the rest of their retired lives on a shoestring, so perhaps it appealed to me that way. They find themselves outside their comfort zone in a very alien land, trying to come to grips with it all.

It has a great, British cast, a good if not really deep story, plausible and fun dialogue, real sets (it was shot in India in an actual former palace) and it is genuinely touching. It’s also British and in general, I find British film significantly superior to American because the Brits concentrate on character, not on effects. This one gets five out of five stars. An A-Flick for sure. This was an inexpensive Blu-Ray at Wal-Mart ($10?).

Next up: Camelot, The Complete Series. I never watch series on TV channels because I hate ads. My attention span for commercials is about two commercials tops. After that, I’m fiddling with the Blackberry or iPad, rooting through the cupboard for my wasabi peas, or getting up to take the dog to the corner. When the show does come back – four to six minutes later – I have lost pretty much any interest in continuing with it. Instead, I buy series in DVD so I can watch at my own pace. Who cares if they’re not current?

Camelot was a Canadian-British joint venture that attempted to remake the Arthurian legend in an almost-new way (a bit of the Jack Whyte stories in it). It gathered together a collection of wooden characters (and Joseph Fiennes, who is one of the few who can actually act in this series), mostly young and fit so you could see them without their clothes on (which keeps your interest when the plots prove thin or the dialogue makes you shudder). This was a disappointment, because I have a passion for the Arthurian legends and generally always like new approaches.

It has some great, lush landscapes, some good and well-staged battle scenes, and the world of Camelot in Post-Roman/Dark Ages Britain is reasonably gritty and realistic if a bit under-developed. And there are enough twists to Mallory’s portrayal to keep you intrigued as to how they will frame his story in a new way.

But Arthur is a whiny, spoiled brat (as unsuited for the role as Jonathan Rhys Meyers in The Tudors), Guinevere is bland and belongs on a California beach. The knights are generally cutouts with no real role aside from propping up Arthur. Too many characters almost rise to the surface, then sink.

The two bright lights are Fiennes as Merlin – a complex, dark role but under-developed and never allowed to become the sort of wizard we hoped to see – and Eva Green as Morgana, who plays a deliciously evil role that is a little too often allowed to descend into caricature (the scenes with her and not Arthur are a nice respite from the brat, and she does take her clothes off). Claire Forlani as Igraine has some good moments, too, but also some overly-dramatic bits that make her seem weak; she never has much chance to develop her potential. Overall, too many young actors in lead roles, not enough mature ones, no real focus or direction for the overall series.

It’s a western set in Dark Ages Britain. But for the discounted set price, you get ten episodes without commercials, and it has enough entertainment value to keep you watching and wondering how they will develop the story line. The biggest disappointment is that the end of the sole season doesn’t really resolve anything, and leaves you hanging. When the price falls below $20 it will be a real bargain.

Big Nothing. Simon Pegg, Alice Eve and David Schwimmer play in this 2006 odd comedy-thriller-drama about three losers who try to pull off a blackmail that goes wrong. I picked it up for $5 and was surprised at how much better it was than I expected. It’s got a lot of Coen Brothers style in it. It’s also got some unexpected twists and snappy dialogue that take it from a  lightweight romp to film noir.

Pegg and Eve are great (they’re Brits); Schwimmer so-so. I don’t care much for him and his typical hang-dog acting. But for $5, a tangled plot and a surprising end, I can put up with him. There are also come interesting previews of films that I had never heard of, on this disk.

No sex, some violence, good dialogue. It’s a $10 movie at half price. Picked it up downtown at the store in the old Shopper’s Drug Mart site.

Tower Heist. Released on DVD in early 2012, this one found its way into Wal-Mart’s $7 bin for Xmas. It’s an overlooked gem, with a great cast and one of the smartest heist ideas I’ve seen in years. It’s a comedy-drama, where a group of losers and misfits decide to rob the richest man in the USA after it turns out he is a scam artist. Very contemporary theme. Only problem is that he lives in the most advanced, most secure building in New York.

Ben Stiller plays himself, which, like Schwimmer’s persona, is a bit worn these days. Eddie Murphy isn’t aging well and doesn’t really fit the role of wisecracking, comic thief he tries to reprise from 48 Hours. But he does it passably well. In fact, the cast works quite well together, the plot is well crafted and smart, the dialogue good and generally snappy, the comedy subdued but fun, and it never lags. No sex, no gun battles, little profanity. For $7 at Wal-Mart, it’s worth watching.

Elvira’s Movie Macabre. There’s a store in downtown Collingwood opened only for the season, selling a lot of discount books, games, toys, movies and posters. Among the movies are numerous B-Flicks for $5 (including The Haunting, a brilliant B&W ghost story from 1963). There are several of the “Elvira” series – some of the worst, most easily forgotten of the horror genre. Not today’s morbid slasher films with their all-too-realistic gore. These are almost comic in their effects. And I love them. Most anyway.

They are generally poor quality, poor acting and cheap sets. Budget films. But they are – for me at least – fun. They are a window into a whole sub-genre of film making and studios where a lot of great actors learned their trade (Steve McQueen starred in the B-flick, The Blob, for example) and a lot of others never progressed beyond the genre. Some – like Bruce Hamilton, Steve Reeves and Bela Lugosi – have become icons in their B class. Most, however, are forgotten.

A few of these films have developed cult status, most not. But there are so many of them to consider. Every Hallowe’en you can usually buy a box set of them and get a dozen or so films for $10. If you’re a B-flick fan, check out the store in the former Shopper’s Drug Mart building. There’s something for every taste.

Among the others I picked up this season: The Mask of Zorro and the Legend of Zorro at Loblaws. If you’ve never seen these two action-adventure flicks, you’re missing a lot of fun that the whole family can enjoy (no sex, no graphic violence, n profanity). Banderas and Zeta-Jones are a great pair in the first (Mask), and pair well with Hopkins. Good dialogue, good swordfighting, fun and fulfilling plot. DVD extras are worth watching too. The second (Legend) is a bit thinner (and has no supporting actor like Hopkins), but still a lot of fun.

Animal Crackers is one of two Marx Brothers’ films in the $5 bin at Zellers, along with a Three Stooges’ collection called Hapless Half-Wits. Both worth buying. In the same bin is a Sherlock Holmes movie that’s just silly – dinosaurs, robots and Mycroft-turned-villain, but remarkably well made with good effects (I think it’s the same film company that produced Camelot). Teenagers From Outer Space is marked down to $2.99, which is about what it’s worth. I also found It Came From Outer Space and Moby Dick (Gregory Peck) in the same bin, for $5 each. The latter is a truly great film everyone should see, the former an attempt at a thoughtful alien invasion flick that doesn’t quite make it. I also got Universal Solider: Regeneration, the third in the series, for $5. The best thing you can say about it is that it’s better than I expected. The sets are great – shot in Bulgaria at an abandoned steel factory. The DVD extras behind-the-scenes stuff was actually quite interesting, too. And we got a set of three James Bond films, all starring Pearce Brosnan, for under $10. A good deal and easy to watch again. For Scoop: The Simpsons’ Movie was also in the Wal-Mart $5 bin.