Thursday, August 30, 2012

Summer of 2012 Movie Thoughts, Part 1

Well, the summer is almost over and we're in one of the North American film market's dump months.  With that, a few thoughts about some of the better films this season would seem in order, which I'll be doing over multiple posts.

With Rainbow Cinema having a fun Movie Bingo incentive program and growing to treasure talking to the evening staff of  the Hyland Cinema, I think I've been seeing more films this summer than usual and enjoying myself with something of a relatively reasonable price to escape to for about two hours from my worries.

In the interest of disclosure, I am one of those weirdos in some eyes whose first resource for films I want to see is Rotten Tomatoes with all the anticipatory drama seeing where a film's critical approval score is going to land. Mind you, I don't always let it be the final word for all films, but I would typically rather have critics determine most of what I see than advertisers.

The summer movie season got off to a great start with The Avengers. This is the most finely crafted superhero film I have ever seen, easily topping even the first Christopher Reeve Superman film. Director Joss Whedon managed to put together all the fruits of the Marvel Cinematic Universe's previous films into a delicious artistic salad that perfectly balances all the superheroes' presence well. To have that arrangement in a exciting story that feels so true to the best of superhero comics with all its wonder, wildness and sheer scale is a testament to what a great artist who loves the comics can do . While I was drawn most to Chris Evans as Captain America with his heroism of a good man out of his time, Mark Ruffalo deserves all the kudos he's gotten for getting Dr. Bruce Banner/The Hulk down perfectly in live action film for the first time.

While the paucity of female and non-white characters in the cast is a legitimate concern, that is the price of keeping to the source material and an opportunity to redress by perhaps adding new Avengers in later films like Carol Danvers aka "Captain Marvel", Banner's cousin, Jennifer Walters aka She-Hulk and Monica Rambeau aka Pulsar.  In other words, this should be an opportunity to let a sequel serve in the best way: to address the original film's problems and improve the series artistically.

Another film I immensely enjoyed was DreamWorks Animation's Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.  I have been lukewarm about this franchise of DA's, but this film overcomes a relatively standard comic action first act to create a moving story about home and how the search for it can change you like you'd never expect.  Furthermore, this film takes the sequel and uses it in the best way possible, taking the conventions of the series and thwarting them in a meaningful way, such as the circus act the characters develop and what happens when the Zoosters finally make it back to the Central Park Zoo.  Finally, as much I look forward to not having to pay a premium for 3D presentation with Rainbow converting to digital projection, DA's films will be only the regret I will have with them making the gimmick serve a real artistic purpose. The main act of the circus in London proves that point brilliantly with a unspectacular show that will leave you awestruck, not just for the visual, but in how you're rooting for the animals to hope against all hope, and find that their efforts are paying off. For myself, I had never heard of Katy Perry before, but the film's use of Firework alone in the London circus show is enough to get me interested. 

As for comedy, I've always had the least luck with this genre.  The exception include, Ted, an intriguing fantasy comedy about a raunchy living teddy and his relationship with the man who wished him alive as a boy. This film is a wildly audacious comedy that plays with a logical story question that has never been really addressed in an adult oriented film, "What if childhood magic continued into adulthood?"  Even better, the characters here largely act like believable people under the circumstances, unlike in The Campaign, where what political satire there is nearly buried by Will Farrel's usual doofusness. That gives the story a vital believability that gives the weight as an intelligent fantasy exploring all the implications.  The idea of a living magic teddy bear becoming a celebrity alone is a joy to watch, especially when you see the young toy match barbs with Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show.

Truly, this film deserves its success as biggest comedy of the summer even while I hope they don't sequelize it; it told the story with all the logic they can use with it and the studio should stand on their hand and let director Seth MacFarlane work on new ideas.

For all this, I have seen films that were a mixed bag to say the least.  This summer, one of the most obvious is Battleship, based on the classic naval guessing game.  I imagined this kind of source material would allow for much story potential and I unfortunately was proven right.  This film has a terrible opening with an unlikable jerk of a lead character who seems able to get into serious trouble and can still become a US Naval officer.  Compared to that ridiculous idea, the alien invasion plot is feels almost logical, but that turns out only feel terribly mundane, like a soggier version of Independence Day.  Only the idea that the aliens lost their main communications equipment and have to improvise with some Terran radio telescopes feels any close to creative here even as the trapped sailors fight with a homage to the game.  Only in the final third of the story, when the the sailors have to resort to the retired USS Missouri and its veteran crew does the film truly come to life with some moving moments and wild action while the sidestory of the hero's girlfriend and her double leg amputee Marine patient finally justifies its presence. However, this just creates a film best left for rental on DVD where you can get to the chapters worth your time and that's not what a truly watchable film is supposed to be.

That's the films that got me the early months, I'll be touching on the films in the later summer months next time...

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

CBC Summer Shows Review.

The summer is nearly over, and so one of my favourite parts of it is coming to a close, CBC Radio One's summer programming.

For years now for me, CBC's summer radio shows have been a fascinating listening experience give its radio network an enhanced variety that is lamentably missing through its regular season, and its looming budget realities mean the situation is hardly going to improve. As it is, the shows have had to be fewer original series and more repackaged reruns like Vinyl Cafe Stories and The Current's reruns of the concluded season's theme of  stories like Gamechanger.

But as it is, there still have been enjoyable shows to listen to of varying quality this summer and a few thoughts about them is in order:

The real treat has been The Wildside, an enthralling fun show about adventures in the Canadian wilderness.  The story in the first episode about Wes Werbowy,  the wilderness consultant who survived a polar bear intrusion into his tent with an impulsive punch on the nose got me and kept me listening with growing pleasure. That was followed up with great anecdotes and interviews from people like a woman who had to stop a walrus from trying to mate with her canoe and crushing it, a man's whose wilderness jog was joined by a non-aggressive pack of wolves for a stretch and two girls who were attacked by a belligerent grouse that had to be peppersprayed.  All told with good music tracks played, is the epitome of fun summer radio.

Babel was an intriguing summer show about the use of English, especially from an immigrant point of view.  English has been described as one of the most difficult languages to learn with its myriad of words and language rules that are rife with exceptions and this show is an enlightening reminder about that kind of perspective about its challenges from the newcomer.  In other words, it's like the old show, And Sometimes Y, from a non-native anglophone perspective that a whitebread guy like me could bear to understand.

Metamorphosis struck me as a somewhat sunnier version of The Late Show considering the stories are predominately not obituaries. Unlike Gordan Pinsent's wizened drawl, Richard Syratt has a wry tone with a touch of gravel that allows for a welcome neutrality. The stories thankfully have variety like, Jose Prado, the Colombian double arm amputee charity case who fouls up horribly is a standout with others who have cleaned up their lives like Mary Johnson and Oshea Israel, a mother and her son's murderer who managed to make peace. The whole series give a fun mix of about how people cope with mistakes and misfortunes that is an inspiration and eyeopener.

Trailbreakers: This series has some interesting profiles of Native American community leaders who are advancing their people like encouraging business, political activism and broadcasting. However, the show feels disappointingly conventional compared to the early Native American show, Revision Quest, starring Darrell Dennis with his comedy sketches and his overall sense of humour to give the real story about his people.

Fear Itself has a quirky series about human fears, but I couldn't get into that. I prefer stories to enlighten and inspire me and there's enough fear in my life without going out of my way to explore more. Don't get me wrong, the show is interesting in and of itself, but it was not something to get me to archive the podcasts like other shows like Know Your Rights.

The Invisible Hand on the other hand was a show you can't approach ignorantly. As David Bush noted in, the host, Matthew Lazin-Ryder, has a neo-conservative bias that colours the show to say the least. For myself, I was suspicious from the start about with the first episode being about, price gouging such as using the example of selling ice during a major community disaster. Listening to his case about priorities and his claim of how banning price gouging leads to dangerous shortages sounded maddeningly simplistic; for instance, there is no mention of intelligent rationing such as what Canada and the US imposed during World War II with their ration cards.  The show was still interesting, but it shouldn't in part be because it is a ideological minefield to beware Lazin-Ryder's agenda, even if he is at least rational enough to address real issues like global warming in the context of economics.

Global Perspectives manages to largely avoid the occasional dryness with the international documentaries with the "Old School, New School" theme such as an old shop with changing hands both in generations and in perspective to getting modern kids in China interested in Peking Opera.  It's a pity that the show is not podcast, but its episodes are available on its website.

If you like good radio, warts and all, then check out these shows and experience Canadian aural experiences that only CBC Radio One can provide. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

An Animation Realignment

Well, DreamWorks Animation has finally done it and is moving to Paramount from to 20th Century Fox, apparently for the attraction of a better cut in digital distribution

For myself, I am conflicted about this move; I thought the arrangement of American animated feature films currently has been rather ideal with each of the major studios being comfortably staked out in their own niche in the animated feature film.  For most part, all of the major players have been able to co-exist and tap into a ready market with films that have been general profitable for all.

Furthermore, although the newer players like Blue Sky (Ice Age, Horton Hears a Who) and Illumination Entertainment (Despicable Me and The Lorax) have been wildly inconsistent in their film quality while Pixar has regrettably declined themselves in recent years with Cars 2 and Brave, it has been beautiful seeing DreamWorks Animation firm itself up as a pillar in this artistic golden age while new players like ILM (Rango) and Sony getting the hang of it.

Now, Fox is going to have DreamWorks and Blue Sky, the 2nd and 3rd biggest North American players in the field while Paramount has been encourage with Rango's commercial and critical enters the field with its own animation department.  As it Fox is going to have to juggle two proven animation studios to distribute and promote them both fairly and adequately. I just hope each will be able to strive for their own vision, I do not want DA to compromise on its hard won artistic excellence, nor do I want Blue Sky to be subsumed themselves, even if the Ice Age series is running out of artistic steam.  

Furthermore, I hope Paramount will be willing to look at its own history and learn from it so they don’t repeat its abysmal treatment of the Fleischer Brothers when it forced them to imitate Disney when they were making their own mark with sexy urbane fair like Betty Boop.  This when they were pushed into making features like Gulliver's Travels when they were far from ready, only to have them ultimately fail and close the door for everyone outside of Disney for decades. 
All that eventually accomplished was to frustrate and drive a wedge between them, destroying a superb studio and force Paramount to take it over as Famous Studios.  

Furthermore, all that came out of that effort was an animation studio that drove into its grandfathered properties like Popeye into the ground and created nothing but repetitious childish piffle like Casper the Friendly Ghost and Baby Huey. Heck, their Tom and Jerry knock-off series, Herman and Katnip has been derided as the most sadistic cartoon series of the Golden Age of American Animation and the main inspiration of the comically gory parody, "Itchy and Scratchy" in The Simpsons franchise. Just see an example of the former and one of the latter and decide if in content they are really any different in spirit.

Now, the rest of this year feels so promising with Hotel Transylvanias trailer feeling so charming while DA’s The Rise of the Guardians and Disney’s Wreck-It Ralph trailers seem to be  carving out their own niches for so much fun. Meanwhile, Tim Burton will get a chance to recover his artistic reputation with his animated remake of his Frankenweenie, even though I agree with some critics that the stellar Paranorman could have taken it on.

All I can say is that there is a welcome feeling equalibrium so that has even allowed Studio Ghibli through Disney to improve their market presence with the Secret World of Arietity.  I just hope as DreamWorks, the company that helped make this flowering possible, prepares to change its partners that this realignment will be allowed to continue for the foreseeable future.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Changing Perspectives of Films and their Times.

It's interesting how a view of a film can shift over the years.

For instance, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane has finally been toppled after decades on top of the British Film Institute's Top 10 films of all time list in favour of Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo.  It certainly shouldn't be a surprise apparently since it had been rising in critical favour for decades. For myself, Citizen Kane is an interesting film with its wit and a bleakly satiric look at the American Dream at its materialistic worst with bold cinematic techniques to tell that story.  By contrast, Vertigo does have the virtues of nightmarish surrealism and it's own bleak tragedy of obsession, even when it's for the truth, to make for a interesting film experience.

Now, Mike Nichols seems to inspire similar reassessments such as with the great film critic, Roger Ebert, changing his tune about The Graduate. In 1967, he praised the film to the skies with his affection for Dustin Hoffman's Benjamin Braddock and then thirty years later, sympathizing for the ostensibly villainous Mrs. Robinson dealing with Ben who Ebert now calls an "insufferable creep." Yet, he still likes the film, but more has a museum piece of  whose time has passed, except for Simon and Garfunkel's music, which contrary to his first review, turned out to be not "forgettable" at all.

For myself, I can never have Ebert's perspective reviewing Nichol's greatest films considering he first saw them in the 1960s when they shook up the Hollywood film with their bold content for their time.  I can only rely on a historical perspective and appreciate them in that context, but my own perspective and my tastes in film will reflect my time on a visceral level I just can't shake.

In that regard, I finally got myself to see Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Mike Nichols' 1966 mega-successful adaptation of  Edward Albee's classic play. This was a film with such raw content that dealt a heavy blow to Hollywood's stifling Production Code and paved the way to more freedom for American film, if imperfectly.

However, for all this appreciation, I can't escape the fact that the film was almost unwatchable to me. The whole story about this bitter couple continually sniping at each other and sucking a young couple in repellently divorced from any real humanity or character logic. At no time do Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor's characters seem to convey one gram of warm or humanity, but carry on as nightmare caricatures of domestic emotional hell.

Furthermore, the younger couple seem to act with any feeling of basic common sense or self-preservation. After all, when someone visits a couple who are sniping at each other so hatefully that the husband brandishes a rifle at her, you'd expect any visitor would practically be running for the door.Yet, these twits stay after all and get sucked into their vicious mutual emotional torture. So, I'm expecting to be interested in seeing two emotional sadists wreak havoc with their drunken idiocies while two young nitwits go along with all this, even to the point of taking a ride with them to a bar to make it a public spectacle?  Yes, by the end, there is a shocking revelation that can give the main couple's turmoil a bit of perspective, but it is far too late in the story for me to care.

I've read that part of the appeal for its time was not only the lure of the forbidden with the rough material, but also two of the biggest stars of that time indulging in such wild antics that were once thoroughly hidden behind closed film doors.  As it is, I've grown up in a time when such material is now commonplace for TV movies and the simple shock value has long since faded. As much as I bet Albee's original play has a more nuance tone that can be properly toned for today in the confines of the stage, this film just feels like a gleeful sledgehammer that had already flattened the play's possible subtleties for a generation that was perhaps not ready for them in that medium.

Christopher Reeve, an actor's actor.
Then there is also the fact that this film was a star vehicle for Burton and Taylor.  For myself, I try to avoid seeing films because of the actors, but I first grew to like film like Star Wars and Superman where the larger story is paramount and the actors playing it who best suited to it was all important.  To me, Christopher Reeve is my ideal; a relatively unknown actor hired to play the Man of Steel, but had to do so in the shadow of Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman in third billing. Yet, Reeve is the one who proved himself brilliantly in a fantasy role that could have been hopelessly silly, but made it feel so warmly believable and appealing on its own terms.

Since then, and helped along by being bored to tears with Star Trek: the Motion Picture's glossy, but crashingly boring tale I look to story and the skill telling it above all else. Then again, I am also someone who consults the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes more than any publicity or advertising for films to see.  I'm not immune to good marketing such my interest in the upcoming animation film, Wreck-It Ralph, with its enthralling trailer, but that is balanced against the suspense to waiting for its RT score to say whether it lives up to it.

With that in mind, I plan to be writing reviews of older films on top of other subjects for this blog to see what a modern perspective can bring and see what I can discover.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Prohibition, A TV documentary review

When it comes to American history, few American documentary filmmaker on TV can match Ken Burns.

His film have a powerfully engaging effect that seems to work best with his own voice when he has the least amount of material work with.  For example, for events that occurred before the advent of film, such as The Civil War, he is able to create evocative scenes with paintings and landscape shots that seem make motion almost superfluous.  That is further enhanced with great actors reading the writings of great historical figures like Sam Waterston as Abraham Lincoln, Morgan Freeman as Frederick Douglass and Julie Harris as Mary Chestnut.

Last night, I had a binge of sorts watching Burns' documentary of last year, Prohibition.  As usual, it was an insightful look at one of the United States' most disastrous constitutional mistakes when it tried to ban the sale of alcohol.  Starting from a well meaning activist urge to control the social problems arising from America's obsession alcohol,  it blew up into a national imposition arising from a toxic mix of nativist prejudice and ethnic anxiety, dosed with a jigger of self-righteousness fueled with political savvy as the 18th amendment of the US Constitution..

From that supreme act, you will find a intriguing story of how good intentions created some of most serious blowback as organized crime instantly took advantage a ready market created by the draconian in definition Volstead Act that was enforced by underfunded and undermanned Prohibition Bureau under an underenthusiastic political leadership.

Against this, you have colorful tales of bootleggers, rumrunners and gangsters of which Al Capone was simply the most self-grandizing of the bunch.  Opposing them, you will understand how that side was hardly much better, especially when the head of the bureau, who was willing to encourage the trampling civil liberties in her methods as part of regular business, was willing to directly interfere with the 1928 Presidential election by spewing religious hate, a sentiment in principle shared by that other supporting group, The Ku Klux Klan.

Furthermore, you will see how this conflict infected much of American society as alcohol became the ultimate forbidden fruit, leading to a widespread attitude of secret defiance that became fashionable to a self-destructive degree. In fact, the social activism dedicated to ending prohibition is a real eye-opener like the well to do society lady, Pauline Sabin and the mayor of New York City, Fiorella La Guarida.

The only major disappointments is that I wish Burns could have focused a bit more on some of the well meaning and famous heroes of the era like Izzy and Moe and Eliot Ness and his Untouchables.  However, the tragic story of that rural enforcer in the mountains who did his duty and pay for it with his life goes a long way about the era's costs.

Furthermore, I wish Burns could have drawn the obvious parallels with the current narcotics prohibition which is proving not much less self-defeating and ineffectual itself. As much as I am a teetotaler, this series becomes a intelligent fable on the perils of social reform overreaching itself and making things worse in the long run.

Monday, August 13, 2012

A few concerns about the film, The Greater Good

Tonight, there is a screening of a film at the Hyland Cinema called The Greater Good, which is apparently a biased screed against vaccination with token pro-vaccination views to hide it.

This kind of hysteria hardly new, in fact it stretches further far back than Dr. Edward Jenner, who developed the first effective and relatively safe inoculation against smallpox in 1796. Priests called vaccination "sinful" as it thwarted the will of God and there are the usual claims that it doesn't work and there are harmful side effects.

 However, after a period of calm, we have this current situation at least sparked by Andrew Wakefield, in 1998 who published a medical study in medical journal, The Lancet, that claimed that MMR vaccine, which protects people against measles, mumps and rubella (German measles), causes autism.  Since that article, Wakefield's falsehoods on this subject have been publicly exposed which led to his medical license being revoked by the General Medical Council in May 2010 and the article completely retracted as a fraud that same year.

Still, we are seeing with this film that the hysteria is self-sustaining with this film's trailer painting vaccination in its animations as a kind of plague, regardless of their claims of "balance.

Furthermore, the blatantly manipulative footage of forlorn kids and weeping parents of rare adverse effects apparently has no counterbalance of parents who have children struck down by easily infectious diseases like whooping cough. All we have for that side is apparently health authorities to have to resort to saying the facts in the abstract.

Vaccination programs require a critical mass in the population in which there are enough people immunized to prevent such diseases from spreading generally.  In short, if there too many people who surrender to this ignorance about a well tested public health measure, whole populations will be needlessly at risk from potentially diseases, such has happened in various times in history as such as with whooping cough is currently an epidemic in the US state of Washington.

I don't necessarily disagree with all the film's intended positions; I don't like the corporate influence on health regulations, and the idea of vaccination research being so heavily in private hands with the expected conflict of interest. In fact, I shudder if there is no equivalent of Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey, who refused to knuckle under corporate pressure to allow Thalidomide on the market, to prevent a similar disaster as what happened in Canada.  At the same time, I of course want every effort made to minimize and/or eliminate adverse effects from vaccinations, but we have to recognize the bigger public health picture.  After all, traffic laws are technically an impingement on personal freedom, but it's better than risk life and limb on the roads without regard to public safety.

As for myself, I'm not in the mood to dignify this argument by seeing this film tonight, but if you want to see it for yourself, may I suggest you can also watch a hopefully more impartial documentary on the subject from the acclaimed PBS news series, Frontline, "The Vaccine War."

Pardon me if I sound strident, but one of the worst experiences I had as a kid was when I was laid up with the flu and I had to get dressed and get to school for a math test. The experience of seating in a separate desk, spraying mucus all over it while trying to think coherently is something I never want repeated.

Since then, I've made it a point to be literally first in line for the annual free flu shot at the Middlesex-London Health Unit headquarters and I can't understand why there are people who willing to take that once of prevention. When you combine that with hearing stories of parents who are putting not only their own children, but others as well as risk and my anger at such fearful selfishness flares.

Just want to get this out of my system before this film gets into others'

Monday, August 06, 2012

A Reexamination of my Opinion and an Apology to Don D'Haene

A few months ago, I posted an article responding to Don D'Haene, which in retrospect was over the top and overly nasty.

I wrote that rant seething with anger, feeling personally insulted in my perception at Don singling me out and belittling my concerns in my review of his performance. I tried to give my response articulately and with evidence to support my arguments in an intelligent and nuanced manner after a few days of cooling off as opposed to quickly posting a hasty flame email.
With a cooler head with a few month's distance, I realize that I still got excessive in my writing and I regret the vitriolic tone and the ad hominem nature of the piece, such as the Lincoln Perry reference. I realize that I messed up both as a commissioned writer of theatrical review for The Beat with my earlier mistakes, and as a person with my emotions getting the better of me.

In other words: Don D'Haene, I am sorry I lost my temper in writing and attacked you.

Regardless, to both you and Mr. Richard Young, thank you for your time in what had been a very rewarding experience writing for your magazine and website. I just wish I could make amends to undo the hurt feelings on both sides.