06/23/13

Review: The Life of Pi


Life of PiWe watched Life of Pi last night, a film that has garnered much critical acclaim and won four coveted Oscar awards (although it has not been without controversies). I had struggled somewhat with the book (for reasons given below), but the lavish praise for the film made me decide to try again.

I had read about the movie’s stunning camera work and CGI graphics, and these do not disappoint. It’s a beautiful film, and the CGI is amazingly lifelike. I puzzled over what was real and not in many scenes. But the story itself…

While sometimes described as a “fantasy adventure”, the novel is really an allegory about the search for meaning in religion. It’s also about the relativity of truth.

One of the delights of fiction is than an author can conjure up a situation, a landscape, an event and give his or her characters the chance to explore that imagined world and determine what it means to be human under those circumstances. That’s one reason I like science fiction: it has no boundaries to the imagination. But sometimes an author is trying not just to use this world to explore the human condition, but rather make a point, to teach, to pontificate what he or she believes is the message we readers need to absorb.

I felt Martel’s message, lumbering through the pages, was heavier-handed than his actual words. And that too often he meandered down his path rather than walked us towards it (compare the 300-plus pages of Life of Pi to  Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s brief little allegory, The Little Prince). Even Paul Coelho, that author of so many allegories, is briefer in his tales of self-discovery.

Martel’s writing is fairly smooth and light throughout most of the book, but I personally found it dragged, especially in the beginning. The core of the tale – Pi’s survival at sea with a tiger – doesn’t being until Chapter 37, a third of the way into the story. By then I was muttering “get on with it” to myself as I read through the pages.

The tale – when it finally began – struck me like a modernized Book of Job: a human suffering the vicissitudes of life and his hostile environment while struggling to keep faith, illogically at times, with an arbitrary, unresponsive or sometimes downright cruel deity. Again, I found it stretched on longer than necessary. Like Job, our Pi has to go through numerous challenges to test his faith. Continue reading

05/18/13

Appreciating B-Movies


Bubba Ho-TepIt drives Susan to distraction that I love B-flicks. She squirms and fidgets if I put one into the DVD player and can seldom sit through an entire movie. They get cut off mid-film, and saved for me some time in the vague future when I might have an evening alone to finish watching it and the others in the category.

Overacted, melodramatic, clumsily scripted, wooden dialogue, transparent effects, low budgets… what’s not to like? Okay, not all of them, but some fit that description. The range in B-flicks is great: from the truly abysmal to brilliancy (albeit usually unrecognized, otherwise it would be on the A list…).

Being in the B-list doesn’t mean it won’t have an appreciative audience, or achieve cult or popular status.

To me, the B-movie industry is often the most creative, most innovative and most entertaining, in part because it tries harder on a smaller budget. Having a big budget didn’t save Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Or Kevin Costner’s Waterworld.

True, a lot of B-films are knock-offs of A-list entries, and sometimes crude ones at best*, but I think of them like sports fans think of farm teams and junior leagues. These movies are where the greats learn their skills, develop their talents, and practice their art. A lot of talent emerged into greatness from training in the B-film league.

It’s also interesting – for me, anyway – to see how someone takes an idea that succeeded in another film, and turns it into their own adaptation. Nothing wrong with that – writers, playwrights, singers and artists have been cross-pollinating with other artists for millennia. Shakespeare and Chaucer did it. If it wasn’t for plagiarism, we wouldn’t have a lot of the great works of literature and art today.

Continue reading

05/18/13

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.

Continue reading

05/5/13

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).

Continue reading

03/17/13

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.

02/17/13

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.