01/19/14

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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01/14/14

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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11/14/13

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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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.

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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.

12/30/12

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.

12/9/12

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:

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* 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.