05/26/13

When did I become my parents?


Growing Old
I was driving down to Toronto, Saturday, listening to a CD with Tony Bennett, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and several other singers of my parents’ generation, singing along, and I wondered aloud, “When did I become my parents?”

When did I start buying and playing their music? When did I start choosing an Ella Fitzgerald or Louis Armstrong CD for a road trip instead of Bruce Springsteen or Blue Cheer?

When did I get so old? Who’s the old guy staring back at me from the mirror?

In the 1950s and 60s, when I was growing up, I would not have been caught dead choosing to listen to any music my parents liked (with perhaps the exception of Spike Jones). But it was their hifi set, and their record collection, so I listened to what they wanted to hear. Until bedtime, that is. 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

04/20/13

Plato, Music and Misquotes


WikipediaI spent a pleasant morning, Saturday, browsing through the works of Plato, hunting for the source of a quotation I saw on Facebook, today.* I did several textual searches for words, phrases and quotes on sites that offer his collected works, along with other works by classical authors.

Now I must admit that in my reading, I have not read everything Plato wrote. I’ve read several dialogues, and then mostly pieces from his works. Reading the entire Republic has, sadly, defeated me, but I have it available for another try when I retire.

Despite my unfamiliarity with his full canon, when I saw this quotation today, I knew it could not be from Plato:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

And while the sentiment is good, the flowery quote wasn’t by the Greek philosopher.

I took some time to look at what the various “quotation” sites offer as words from Plato, related especially to music.** Here is another quote commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Plato online (and available on T-shirt, mugs, etc.):

Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.

This one is actually listed in  the Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991, p. 45; proof that the printed word is not free of such mistakes), but is is incorrect as others before me have also found. Not even the Quote Investigator has tackled this quote and found the source, but it isn’t from Plato.

Here are more lines attributed to Plato on various sites***:

Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.

“Philosophy is the highest music.

“What a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.

“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

“Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.

“If you want to measure the spiritual depth of society, make sure to mark it’s music.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”

Now while most are misattributions, others may be paraphrases or even differences in translation. I decided to check through the collected works of Plato (online at MIT and the Perseus Digital Library)

Continue reading

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.

~~~~~

* 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.

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.

11/13/12

The Useless Web


Useless web sitesWe all know Wikipedia is not always accurate, and sometimes biased. We all know that most internet quotations are wrong attributed or misquoted. We all know that the Web is full of useless, trivial pap like “psychic” hot lines, astrology, creationism and Ann Coulter. Plus it’s replete with the shallow: salacious gossip, celebrity skin, innuendo, pornography, political extremism, angels, UFOs, crop circles, anti-vaccine advocates, religious fundamentalists - the intellectual-nourishment equivalent of a  box of greasy fries and a sugar-laden soft drink.

But they are content-rich, compared to the truly useless material collected on The Useless Web. Well, maybe not Ann Coulter. She’s still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured. Even the colour of Kim Kardashian’s latest shoes are more relevant to the real world than anything Coulter has to say.

If you really want to waste a whole lot of time exploring the pointless edge of the internet, beyond Ann Coulter that is, go to the link in the previous paragraph and click away. Be prepared: you will be sucked in. It’s hard not to see just one more…

But it’s not alone. true to the meme-like nature of the internet, others join in pointing out the pointless. For example, Pointless Sites and Pointless Web Pages (don’t bypass the older site list either). Some, like I-Am-Bored.com seem to pile on user-submitted links of varying levels of worthlessness into their pages.Others, like House of Geekery and Makeuseof.com, compile lists of uselessness, with some pointless commentary to muddy the waters. Useless added to useless equals…? Right.

Ann Coulter is still pretty much the standard by which trivial and shallow are measured.

Other aggregators of non-utilitarianism include 15.com, Squidoo.com, Ambitweb.com, About.com, the Daily What, Splitsider, PCWorld, Digital Trends (and check the video for the Japanese World Cup, linked below the list!) and many more.

Useless doesn’t mean they are not artistic, however. Some are outright brilliant (check out www.xkcd.com/1110/ for an example of weirdly wonderful useless).

Okay, so it’s a waste of time. But it’s an entertaining waste of time, so not entirely without merit. Some people apparently have taken to studying these sites with all seriousness. Know Your Meme has a short history of them, deferring intellectually to them as “single serving” sites (a long list of such sites is here). Codehesive tracks the story of a single, single-serving site.

Jason Kottke wrote about this phenomena back in 2008, and coined the term. Since then it has entered the language age even made its way to Wikipedia.There’s even a single-serving site webpage generator.

But don’t get stuck in the intellectualizing. When you have ten minutes to waste, just go back to the top of the post and find the first link. Click and enjoy. Don’t think too hard about any of it. Just celebrate the useless.