Gravity: A Review

While watching director Alfonso Cuarón’s film, Gravity, this weekend, I was struck by how powerful the mixed themes of isolation and survival can be. I was reminded not simply of films – Tom Hanks in Castaway came to mind immediately – but in literature, too; from Robinson Crusoe to Blindness. Stories of survival have captivated humankind since the Gilgamesh epic was scratched into clay tablets by an anonymous Sumerian scribe.

I really enjoyed Gravity for several reasons and highly recommend it.

First it’s a science fiction film and scifi is my favourite genre of movies. And it’s a good, well-done, high-quality production, not the usual cheesy B-flicks I consume. This one is visually stunning, especially on Blu-Ray. And the sound is gorgeous too – watch the extras about how the sound was developed. Fascinating.

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The Three Godzillas: Size Matters

Godzilla posterThis year another remake of Godzilla was released, and of course I had to get a copy. I have many of the other Godzilla films made over the past 60 years, sadly not all of them. There were so many monster movies made in Japan through the 1950s and 60s that it’s hard to keep track of them all, let alone collect them. B-films, all of them, and still entertaining if you can find them.

(If I recall it properly, I first watched the original Godzilla in the late 1950s at a drive-in theatre, sitting with my parents in the front seat of the car, with the speaker hanging inside on the driver’s side window; but I also saw it on TV in the late 50s-early 60s and several times on TV and DVD since)

Even the eight-disc Godzilla Collection only has eight of the films: Gojira, Godzilla Raids Again, Mothra vs. Godzilla (aka Godzilla vs. the Thing), Ghidorah, the Three-Headed Monster, Invasion of Astro-Monster (aka Godzilla Vs. Monster Zero), All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge) and Terror of Mechagodzilla.

Why I say it’s hard to know if you own or have seen them all is twofold. First, there were so many it’s hard to keep track of them all (and I don’t even know if they have all been released in North America on DVD). Second, several titles were renamed (and sometimes more than once) for their NAm release, so you can’t be sure what you’ve got until you watch them. Some are sold as single titles, others only in multi-film collections.

After the first film in 1954, there followed a slew of monster movies in which Godzilla took on a whole collection of monsters like Mothra and Ghidorah. Here are some of the film titles: Godzilla Vs Biollante, Godzilla Vs King Ghidorah, Godzilla 2000, Godzilla Vs Mechagodzilla II, Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla, Godzilla Vs. Megalon, Godzilla Vs Destoroyah, Godzilla Vs Megaguirus, Godzilla Against Mechagodzilla, King Kong Vs. Godzilla, Godzilla and Mothra: The Battle for Earth, Destroy All Monsters, Godzilla Vs. Hedorah, Godzilla Vs. Gigan, Godzilla on Monster Island, The Return of Godzilla, Godzilla Vs. the Sea Monster, All Monsters Attack (aka Godzilla’s Revenge), Godzilla, Mothra, King Ghidorah: Giant Monsters All-Out Attack, Godzilla 2000 (aka Godzilla Millennium), Ebirah, Horror Of The Deep (aka Godzilla vs The Seat Monster) and Godzilla vs the Smog Monster.

Plus there were spinoff series for the Gamera, Mothra and Rodan monsters in which Godzilla usually did not appear. I don’t know about you, but I want them all.

Godzilla moved between villain and hero at various times, too, defending the world and attacking it in different films, fighting other monsters and allying with them. The Godzilla franchise is huge (31 films according to this list) and that doesn’t even include the animated series. The list at the bottom of the Godzilla Wiki site includes video game appearances, books and comics.

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The Theology of The Fly

The Fly CollectionWhile watching the 1958 film of The Fly last night, I was struck by its similarities to Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, Frankenstein. And in the similarity of the underpinning morality of both.

I recently picked up the DVD collection with all three movies (The Fly, Return of The Fly and Curse of the Fly, plus a collection of special features).*

I saw the original film back in the late 1950s at the drive-in with my parents, and I’ve seen it on TV since, but not for many years. It’s not quite the “terror topping supershock thrill sensation” promised on the box (a term lifted from ads for The Return of The Fly and similar films).**

Still, it’s a good, classic example of the genre. As I watched it last night, I was struck by several things in the movie I had not considered before.

First is the role of Vincent Price. Known for his serio-comic roles in horror films – mostly B-films – he was usually cast as the villain, often some sort of mad scientist character. In The Fly, he plays a dramatic, sympathetic role, not the sort of person one expects of Price. Not villainous at all; a very understated character. helped no doubt by a literate script written by James Clavell (later novelist of Shogun and Noble House fame).

Second is that the film was shot in colour, which was not common for low-budget films (the sequel was shot in B&W) but the sets and props were minimal (the basement lab is more a metaphor for mad scientist than an actually believable laboratory). It looks more like the set from Father Knows Best than a monster film.

Third is the aforementioned similarities with Shelley’s Frankenstein (the original novel, not the subsequent films, which, with rare exception, veer significantly from the book’s plot – but again to be fair, the film script of The Fly changed the plot of the original short story).

In both, the moral of the story is that messing around with Nature (aka God) is wrong and ends in tragedy. In both, the creatures have a strong sense of morality. In the novel the creature (Shelley never names him) develops his views and behaviour from observing humans; in The Fly is it the essential humanity still maintained within Andre, the human-turned-fly. In both, they make a decision “for the best” or the greater good that involves their own death (suicide, although in Shelley’s story the creature only vows his own death; the act is not described, thus allowing us to wonder if he carried it out).

That ending is quite different from the usual monster film in which the creature is overcome by villagers, loyal friends, the police, a priest, a doctor or some other figure (or group) that represents authority, orthodoxy and the community (you can see in monster films the metaphor of the stranger or outsider a la Camus or Kafka, versus the status quo – The Wild One with a bug’s head).

The Fly also features an assisted suicide, which makes it relevant to the debate going on today about that issue. Plus it has a mercy murder – or is it? Is the fly with the human head a human? – which raises the question or euthanasia in another light. The short story also has a suicide. All big, moral and ethical issues.

Both stories make us question our values. Are the creatures worth our sympathy, or at least empathy? Or simply horror and disgust? Do they have a soul? Are they to be hated (the Frankenstein Complex that despises the artificial results of scientific experiment) or pitied? Helped or destroyed? Do they reason or are they simply animals? And is it right to experiment on animals?

And how does our perspective on the fictional characters relate to our perspective in the real world – towards animals, insects, other humans (especially those with physical or developmental challenges)? Shelley’s creature is a walking, talking human – but is treated like an animal to be hunted and destroyed. The Fly creature is a human-insect meld, unable to speak but capable of writing, that in the end must also be destroyed. Although why either needs to die is never made clear – they certainly don’t pose a threat to humanity, although they may to individuals. There’s no justice for monsters, no due process.

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Lawrence in Arabia

Lawrence of Arabia

I recall with some vividness seeing David Lean’s masterpiece film, Lawrence of Arabia, when it was first shown in Canadian theatres. I was 12 and utterly astounded by the movie. Not simply the great, sprawling, adventurous tale that meandered through 220 minutes (plus the intermission), but by the incredible scenery. It was a world totally alien from my cultivated, manicured suburbia: wild, dangerous, exotic. And stunningly beautiful.

So much of an impression did it make on my young mind that today I can still remember sitting in the Golden Mile theatre with my parents as the curtain rose and the lights dimmed.

I went back to see the film again, I think at the Saturday matinée showing. My memory suggests I did this a few more times that summer (Saturday matinées were a ritual for many of my early teen years). Despite its length, I have watched it numerous times since that first viewing (I can still hear the theme song in my memory, when I think of the movie).

(I owned it on VHS when that technology was current, then DVD and this week got the Blu-Ray version to watch again. With almost four hours of viewing, it’s a two-nighter show for me, plus a third to watch all the extras on the making of the film.)

During my first viewing, the minute the desert scenes came onscreen, I was hooked, wide-eyed. The silver screen filled with an immensity of utterly stunning, utterly alien landscape in dazzling colour. My young brain raced. Where was this? What was it really like? Is the sky really that blue and does the horizon really seem to go on forever? What happened there? Why wasn’t this in my history class? Who was this man?

Of course, I really wasn’t aware at that age about how films were made; that locations and sets weren’t necessarily the real place (except, of course, for those B-flick scifi and horror films I delighted in at that age; even then I knew that there were no Martians or werewolves or vampires but I loved them anyway and still do).

Nor was I aware of the actual history being portrayed (and the later criticisms about its authenticity and accuracy). It captivated me, easily, and opened the doors of my mind to a world and a history I had no inkling about. I developed an interest in the Middle East at an early age – it’s geology, history, ecologies, cultures, religions… although it would take another decade before I really started to look deeper into the political-religious-military conflicts of the region. Not that I ever truly understood all of them (does anyone?).

Everything from the earliest days of that region fascinated me. I can’t say now exactly when I first learned about the early civilizations of the Tigris-Euphrates area, but from that movie on, I was hooked on reading about Sumeria, Babylon, the Assyrians, Egyptians and Hittites. I read every book in the local library about the archaeological expeditions to that region.

(It still fascinates me: my blog and my Twitter page both have an Assyrian image in the background – a photo I took at the British Museum where I stared agog at the pieces in their galleries. And I recently re-read Gilgamesh in a new translation.)
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Fifty Years Ago

In mid-August, 1964, a modest-budget, British black-and-white comedy movie hit the theatres. And instantly exploded to being the most popular film of the year. It was the Richard Lester flick, A Hard Day’s Night, starring the young Beatles in their debut on the silver screen. It was a paradigm changer in so many ways.
Hard Day's Night

It was a madcap, faux-autobiographical/mockumentary story – a style of filmmaking not previously seen on the big screen – punctuated by the Beatles’ music, including several new songs not yet released on vinyl. They would soon be, though and the soundtrack album would rise to number four on the charts.

The whole thing cost about $500,000 to make, but netted $12 million. Professor Witney Seibold writes:

The film is most certainly a classic, not only capturing the energy and obsession and youthful humor of the band members themselves, but also displaying a new kind of New Wave filmmaking that was part musical, part comedy, and part documentary. A Hard Day’s Night is a great film… perhaps the best rock film ever made.

But of course the biggest result was to introduce the world to Beatlemania, then still a nascent movement about to become a cultural tsunami. If anyone before the film was unsure what it meant, what all the excitement was about, who these guys were, they didn’t have any uncertainty after watching it. The film not only showed the world what Beatlemania was,, it swept up everyone in its wake and drew us unprotesting into the madcap movement.

People in the audience laughed and wept and screamed along with the audience in the film. Teens in the USA, in Canada and elsewhere were united in a virtual onscreen world with the British teens shown in the movie. It internationalized us.

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The Hollow Crown: Henry V

Battle of AgincourtAs I started to watch the last film in the Hollow Crown series, I wasn’t sure whether Tom Hiddleston was up to playing the iconic role in Shakespeare’s most patriotic (and jingoistic) play.

I thought Hiddleston’s Prince Hal in Henry IV had just a little too much of Loki – and maybe the bully – in it for me to see him as a majestic king. But I was quickly won over. Whether the movie itself was good Shakespeare is another question.

First a note on the lighting and sets: in Richard II, it was all light, bright and colour (until the end, where Richard’s fall is marked by darker sets and shadows). Henry IV P1 and P2 were both shot in muted tones: greys, blacks, dark browns, with shadowy sets and little colour outstanding. Henry V is a mix of the two, more conventionally lit.

The play contains the story of Henry’s challenge to France – claiming he is the true king of France and demanding King Charles hand the crown over. When the French say no, Henry invades with an army of roughly 12,000. He has some initial successes, including the siege of Harfleur. Then the campaign becomes a weary march to safety where soldiers suffered more from illness and dysentery than from the enemy. Henry’s men set out for Calais – at that time an English-held city – with only 9,000 of his original besieging force (some sources say he had fewer men – 7,000). More would be lost on the march.

The campaign culminates in the remarkable victory at Agincourt, where a bedraggled and dispirited English force defeated a much larger French one. It is the highlight of the play. Or should be.

Who can forget Kenneth Branagh making the famous and inspirational  “band of brothers” speech to the army on the eve of the battle? Yet in the Hollow Crown, Henry makes it privately to his captains, not the massed army:

Hiddleston’s quiet speech is, to me, the more emotional and personal compared to Branagh’s loud and histrionic rendering. But how does this rouse the army’s spirits? Well, maybe Henry isn’t concerned about the soldiers: it’s the nobles he’s courting here, the leaders he needs to rally the men when they are hard pressed.

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The Hollow Crown

Wikipedia image
Richard II, the first English king of whom we have a real portrait, not just a stylized one.

I’ve watched three of the four productions in the 2012 TV series, The Hollow Crown, this past week, and am greatly impressed by the productions and the acting. Wonderful, rich stuff.

The series consists of the second Shakespeare tetralogy, the Henriad: Richard II; Henry IV parts 1 and 2, and Henry V, each roughly two hours long.  I expect to see the last remaining one this week. (N.B. A new production of the first tetralogy, The Hollow Crown II, is in the works this year).

There’s a bit of an irony in the tetralogy’s name: Henriad, because Henry doesn’t appear at all in Richard II: he is only mentioned in a offside mention by Henry Bolingbroke, his father and newly-crowned king, at the end of the play. He’s  a major but not the main character in Henry IV P1 and P2 – rather Prince Hal shares the stage with Falstaff, Hotspur,his father, and in Part 2, his brother John of Lancaster. Plus the various rebels have their time on stage. It isn’t until the final play that he comes into his own.

One can never get too much Shakespeare in one’s life, and this series feeds my need for film versions that of late has been sadly lacking.* Of course I read the plays frequently – at least one a year, as well as books about the plays and the Bard – but a good film production can be so much more powerful, more engaging. And who, really, doesn’t love Shakespeare?

Shakespeare one gets acquainted with without knowing how. It is a part of an Englishman’s constitution. No doubt one is familiar with Shakespeare in a degree, from one’s earliest years. His celebrated passages are quoted by every body; they are in half the books we open and we all talk Shakespeare, use his similes, and describe with his descriptions.
Jane Austen, Mansfield Park, 1814

Every production of the Bard is, by necessity, both an interpretation and a compromise. Few of the plays fit comfortably within the time constraints imposed by TV (and dwindling viewer attention spans), so they are often abbreviated to fit the usual two-hour comfort zone for movies. That means some dialogue, some scenes, some subplots must be cut. Visual effects often replace dialogue or at least embellish a scene so less verbiage is needed, especially in action scenes.

And then there are the many ways a director chooses to portray the characters, the scenery, the secondary characters. Is the lead a villain or misunderstood hero? Was the line said in anger or in jest? Is it irony or ignorance? Is the audience expected to be sympathetic or angry at the character? Is the king strong or infirm? Is he bold or indecisive? Often the characters lend themselves to a range of portrayals.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Each production is in itself a work of art that has a unique relationship to Shakespeare. So it is with The Hollow Crown; the story of the beginning of the War of the Roses when the Plantagenets split into the competing houses of York and Lancaster, which vied for power and the throne.

At least that’s Shakespeare’s view and if modern historians disagree, his version at least makes for great drama. The result, however, is incontestably one of the greatest collections of Shakespeare on film.

If there is any flaw, it lies in the audio, which is sometimes less than clear, especially in crowd scenes (and the often thick accents – likely authentic to Shakespeare’s audience, but ahistorical for the era – may obfuscate some dialogue for the non-native viewer). Still, the stories are rich, the characters deep and well-fleshed, and the sets make the audience feel as if they were there, not in some stylized set pieces.

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The Three Stooges

CurlyI bought a DVD set called The Ultimate Three Stooges this weekend.* I was rather surprised that even 20 DVDs could not contain all of the film work the trio (more on that, below) put together in their long career. But it does contain the core – and the very best – of their work, including several rare and forgotten early pieces.

I’m delighted to have it – before this set I only had a scattered collection of pieces, but nothing this comprehensive.

I grew up in the 1950s watching the Three Stooges in B&W on a TV that showed a test pattern early in the morning and late at night. TV channels didn’t run 24/7: they started and ended at specific hours. I developed an affection for them from back then.

Mostly TV showed re-runs of shorts from the 30s and 40s. My parents fretted over my brother and I watching them; they were considered too violent for children. It was the era of growing awareness of how media affected children. I didn’t see the Stooges as much more violent than the other series we watched – Tarzan, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, The Naked City, The Untouchables, the Twilight Zone, Combat, Rawhide, The Outer Limits, Ernie Kovacs, Dragnet…

Of course unlike today, there was no graphic violence. And sex? None at all (TV couples were usually shown having separate beds if not separate bedrooms!)

At the summer drive-in we watched films like The Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Them, Village of the Damned, One Million BC, Dracula and others. The Three Stooges seemed so innocent, so mild to us kids, in comparison to some of these films. Yet they have stuck with me all these years. Continue reading “The Three Stooges”

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The 2013 Great Gatsby

Great Gatsby party scene
Watched the 2013 film of The Great Gatsby last night. The first half was spectacular, grandiose and captivating, if somewhat over the top. Like Busby Berkeley meets The Fifth Element. Extravaganza, spectacle and excess.

The film doesn’t feel like it’s set in New York of the Jazz Age. It’s too shiny, too polished, too mechanical, and not gritty enough.

That’s actually okay, and had director Baz Luhrmann chosen to make Gatsby into a scifi film set not the roaring twenties, but rather some futuristic world where the fashion craze is for 20s’ costume, it could have worked better. It would have accounted for the music, for the sets, for the Dark City- or Fifth Element-like vistas we get of New York.

One of the disconnections in the movie is the music. While updating era music with modern technology and sound works well – the Gershwin is great, and the positive influence of Brian Ferry and his orchestra is felt in much of the soundtrack – the hip hop is jarring. It pulls you out of the setting, releases you from your necessary suspension of belief to fall into the gravity of the reality: this is just a movie and we’re here today, not yesteryear.

The second half of the film seems to drift away from the great spectacle into an overblown period piece drama. Downton Abby without the accents, but also without the gangsters or the street life. Big sets surround little people and little problems. The morality tale F. Scott Fitzgerald wove into the novel seems diminished, while his illusionary, glittering world towers above us.

What started out with such promise just slides into predictability. Maybe that’s because I read the book (albeit many decades ago) and I knew the ending. Maybe it’s because Leonardo DiCaprio plays Jay Gatsby and one can never watch him without thinking of the film Titanic. Not to mention he doesn’t have a great range of expression.

Like that movie, this one has an inevitable (though metaphorical) iceberg Gatsby has to crash into, bringing about his ruin. And that ruin symbolizes the fall of the American dream that had built such fantasies. It’s an almost biblical theme that deserves big treatment, but doesn’t live up to its potential.
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The Wild Women of Wongo

50 Sci Fi Movies Who can resist a film with a title like that? Or Zontar, the Thing From Venus? Robot Monster? Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet? The Atomic Brain?

Clearly, I can’t. I love this stuff. B-films, especially scifi B-films. But I am a tad disappointed with this Mill Creek package.*

I recently received the set of SciFi Classics Collection: 50 Movie Pack, a 12-DVD collection, cover shown on the left. It turned out to be the same set I already had, just with a different cover, and a substitution of four films from the original lineup. Damn, that was $10 wasted.

Okay, I can live with the loss. The original packaged set (the “red box” package from Treeline) came with these 50 movies (as per a review on Amazon, with some alternate titles listed):

  • The Incredible Petrified World
  • Queen of the Amazons
  • Robot Monster
  • She Gods of Shark Reef
  • The Amazing Transparent Man
  • The Atomic Brain
  • Horrors of Spider Island
  • The Wasp Woman
  • Voyage to the Prehistoric Planet
  • Voyage to the Planet of Prehistoric Women
  • King of Kong Island
  • Bride of the Gorilla
  • Attack of the Monsters (aka Gamera vs. Guiron)
  • Gammera, the Invincible
  • Santa Claus Conquers The Martians
  • Teenagers From Outer Space
  • Crash of the Moons (Rocky Jones)
  • Menace From Outer Space (Rocky Jones)
  • Hercules Against The Moonmen
  • Hercules and the Captive Women
  • Hercules and the Tyrants of Babylon
  • Hercules Unchained
  • Lost Jugnle
  • Mesa of Lost Women
  • Assignment: Outer Space
  • Laser Mission
  • Killers From Space
  • Phantom From Space
  • White Pongo
  • The Snow Creature
  • Son of Hercules
  • Devil of the Desert vs. the Son of Hercules
  • First Spaceship On Venus
  • Zontar, the Thing From Venus (remake of “It Conquered the World”)
  • The Astral Factor (aka “The Invisible Strangler”)
  • The Galaxy Invader
  • Battle of the Worlds
  • Unknown World
  • Blood Tide
  • The Brain Machine
  • The Wild Women of Wongo (yeah, it’s really in the collection!)
  • Prehistoric Women
  • They Came From Beyond Space
  • Warning From Space
  • The Phantom Planet
  • Planet Outlaws (Buck Rogers)
  • Colossus and the Amazon Queen
  • Eegah
  • Cosmos: War of the Planets
  • Destroy All Planets (aka Gamera vs. Viras)

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Coriolanus on Film

CoriolanusCoriolanus is a tough play, full of politics and angry people and shouting mobs. It has no comic relief, no jesters, no romance and no real heroes. No great soliloquies, unsympathetic characters, uncomfortable double dealing, treachery and plotting. No powerful subplot as a counterpoint. Pride, arrogance, and power dominate.

Coriolanus himself is empty, driven, bereft of the great passions that animate Shakespeare’s other main protagonists.

Except the passion for revenge, which comes upon him halfway through the play. Before that, he seems an automaton, as fixed in his role as an aristocrat and soldier as Tsar Nicholas was, with little softening humanity to give the audience something to like. And like as wedded to his fate as the Tsar.

Harold Bloom wrote:

Shakespeare subtly does not offer us any acceptable alternatives to Coriolanus’s sense of honor, even as we are shown how limited and crippling that sense becomes when it is challenged. The hero’s mother, his friends, and his enemies, both Roman and Volscian, move us to no sympathy whatsoever.

And yet… even if there’s not much noble in Caius Martius, he has honour and enough incipient tragedy about him that we feel keen interest in his story. He is, if nothing else, true to himself, with no apparent ulterior motives or hidden agendas to guide his deeds or words. He’s a soldier; he does his job without questioning.

Scholars aren’t even sure if the play was performed during Shakespeare’s lifetime. But after the Restoration, various directors dug it up and molded the play to fit some contemporary political event or cause. Even today, it’s considered popular as a symbolic political work, easily adapted to modern views.

Which is what Ralph Fiennes does well in his 2011 film of the play. Fiennes both directs and acts the central role, brilliantly in both cases.

I’m always leery of Shakespeare in modern clothes. It sometimes seems artificial and contrived to have modern-day characters strutting around speaking 16th century lines. But not in this Coriolanus. The stagecraft is remarkable, and the date language seems made fit for the setting. I was glued to the screen as it unfolded, and stuck to it for the entire two hours. The pacing is brisk, with plenty of action and emotion. It feels modern, relevant.

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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.

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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.


* 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.

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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.

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Tax the Rich – a video

You really should watch this video. It explains in clear, simple terms the argument of the billionaires and the rest of us. I like it because – while it’s simplistic – it is succinct and presents its argument in a powerful story. It also clearly underscores the very polarized US arguments about both taxation and wealth.

This was commented on the Daily Kos as well. Amusingly, it was immediately pounced upon by the rightists as “socialist” propaganda. Sean Hannity, talking head for the uber-right Fox News, was apparently “outraged.” It was titled “Villifying $uccess.”

That they would associate success with money (the $ sign) identifies the basic flaw in their argument. Money, in their simple minds, is merely a measure of itself. Unless that money has contributed beyond mere accumulation – created jobs, built economies, served a greater good such as education – it’s merely a measure of greed. So the video vilifies greed, not success. A person can be successful without accumulating millions or even billions of dollars.

That’s a typical conservative canard – the idea that any challenge to unrestrained (laissez faire) capitalism or suggestion of taxing the wealthy is a socialist plot to enslave America. The real villain here is not money per se, but how a series of US governments has failed in its responsibilities to oversee and manage capitalism. They have allowed the money to shift from productivity, manufacturing, creativity and jobs to the gambling system called Wall Street. They have allowed shareholder profits and executive salaries and benefits to become more important than jobs, local economies, businesses and overall wellbeing. It’s a sad condition when the CEO of Wal-Mart, Mike Duke, makes more in one hour ($16,827) than his typical employee makes in a whole year (average annual wage in the US for a Wal-Mart employee: $13,650).

For the ultra-conservatives, any attempt to rein in the excesses of capitalism is to raise the spectre of that political Cthulhu – socialism, a truly misunderstood word for most Americans. There is an irony here, since the US oligarchs are mostly living in states of entitlement not unlike that of Stalin’s and Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s politburos under Communism. Communism may have fallen as an economic system, but its class system still thrives in modern America.*

These conservatives believe the market – that is, the economy – will best regulate itself, much the same way your cat will choose the best vet for its care, or your children will choose the healthy, steamed and unsalted broccoli over the sugar-saturated, heavily advertised junk food for dinner. But if you associate success with mere wealth (as, it seems, many conservatives do), then the greedier the person, the greater his or her success. And thus you get the mess the US economy is in, with jobs going overseas in order for CEOs to be able to afford another yacht, with home foreclosures for the the recently-unemployed middle class while billionaires thrive after having gutted the factories and sold off the assets (Mitt Romney for president, anyone?).

Okay, that’s another simplification, but one only needs to look at the economic figures to see how crazy this has become. Capitalism is a wondrous system for growth, but it needs the government’s hands on its rudder to keep it off the shoals of madness. And it’s been without a captain for many decades now, at least in the USA. In most other Western nations, at least a modicum of control has been provided (Canada, for example, avoided the worst of the recession not by being smarter than Americans, but because we have more stringent controls on our banking and financial sectors).

So government intervention helps capitalism, helps strengthen it, helps build economies, by preventing the excesses it is capable of, from happening.

The Young Turks throw in this comment about the difference between cutting services and social support versus taxing the rich, with some counterpoint:

And James Galbraith, of the LBJ School of Public Affairs, makes some cogent points about the US economy in this video:


* The other irony is that many of these conservatives claim – rather loudly – to be Christian, yet they act in a very un-Christian, even anti-Christian manner, towards their fellow Americans – again like the politburo.

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