Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Recount

(Movie Review)

This was a new release in my local video store. (As always, the fact that I'm stuck out in the Japanese countryside means these reviews aren't necessarily timely.)

I knew that this film had gotten good reviews, but like a lot of people I was hesitant to rent it. I imagine most of you probably had these same thoughts when you saw this movie at your video store:

1) I already know the story. Like everyone else, I was glued to the TV during the 2000 Florida election debacle, and I remember it well.

2). It's a story about counting ballots. How exciting can that be?

and 3). It was a made for TV movie, and we all know made for TV movies have a bad track record.

But I decided to give this film a try anyway, and I was very pleasantly surprised.

You wouldn't think a story about recounting ballots would make for good TV, but this script is brilliantly written and brilliantly acted.
Kevin Spacey (in - my - opinion - one - of the greatest under-rated actors of our time) and Dennis Leary both do an excellent job of chewing up this script. All of the necessary exposition is delivered in an entertaining fashion, and there's a lot of humor mixed in with this story as well.

Sure, you already know the basic story, and you know what the ending is going to be. But you have a great time getting there.

There have been a lot of comparisons between this movie and "All the President's Men", and I think much of those comparisons are accurate. Both of these are political thrillers based on well known news events, but they still managed to maintain a lot of dramatic tension.
"All the President's Men" (W) was originally released as a highly topical film in 1976, but has since been watched by many people too young to remember the Watergate scandal firsthand. Including myself.
(After getting thoroughly confused by the professor's lecture on the big tangled mess that was the "Watergate Hearings", Bork, Buma, and I rented "All the President's Men" as a way to review for our 20th Century American history exam at Calvin.)

And, although it's scary to think about how quickly we get old, we are not far from the time when incoming college Freshman will be too young to remember the 2000 election.
If this movie becomes a classic and is still readily available in a few years time (and I suspect it will be) it will be a great educational tool for the next generation just like "All the President's Men" was for us.
In fact, dare I say it, this movie is even better. I know "All the President's Men" is a classic, but I had trouble sitting through the whole thing. This movie, on the other hand, is brilliantly paced, grabs your attention from the start and keeps you engaged all the way through.

Plus even for us old folks who remember the 2000 election, there's lots of interesting new information in here. The writers make use of various books and interviews that contain things that weren't on the news at the time, but have come out since. So even if you were glued to the TV back in November 2000, you'll still probably learn a couple new things from this movie. I know I did.

And if you are watching the DVD version, I highly recommend you take the time to watch the directors commentary as well. There's a ton of additional information contained in the commentary.

Fascinating movie. Definitely worth watching if you haven't seen it already.

Link of the Day
A New American Era? An Interview with Noam Chomsky on American Society, Politics and Foreign Policy
and Pro-Life really means Anti-Contraception

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Blob (1988)

(Movie Review)

In one of my previous posts on horror movies, I said that I was always kind of fascinated with them as a boy despite the fact that I couldn't logically explain to you their appeal. And a couple of you commented to say that you felt the same way.

Every now and then I still do wonder, "Really, why do I like this trash? What is the appeal of watching something designed to scare me?" Like all guilty pleasures, it can't be logically explained. But there's no denying it taps into something in the human nature. Hollywood has been making money off of horror movies for decades now, and before that there were Victorian Gothic novels and campfire stories.

Anyway, when I was in 5th grade, this movie was everywhere. I remember seeing commercials for the VHS when I was watching "Star Trek" that showed a man trying to unplug a sink, sticking his hand down, and getting sucked down the drain by the blob. (It wasn't the same scene from the movie, but a somewhat more comical safe-for-TV remake--I don't know if anyone else remembers it).

[Short digression: I saw a lot of commercials for horror movies in the late 80s while watching "Star Trek". It doesn't seem like you see as much of these nowadays. Was there some new law passed since then about advertising for horror movies on daytime TV, or is it just my imagination?]

In fact, my 5th grade science textbook even made a reference to "The Blob". They cited the movie, and the scientists quest to find out if the blob was living or not, as the introduction to the definition of life.

[Another short digression: I understand they're just trying to get kids interested in science by citing popular culture, but it's just cruel to tantalize kids with a movie they're not allowed to see. But so much of childhood is like this, isn't it? When I was in 6th grade, we went on a youth group retreat where they showed us clips of movies like "Alien" and "Top Gun" (movies I desperately wanted to see, but wasn't allowed to) and then would stop the movie just before the most exciting parts to explain why we shouldn't be watching these kind of movies. How much of a tease is that?]

I was fascinated with the concept as a child. I don't know why, but there's something horrifying about the idea of a blob that just absorbs you.
Perhaps from an Darwinian perspective it taps into a primeval fear still lurking in our evolutionary subconscious of being swallowed and absorbed by a larger animal.

Since I wasn't allowed to see the movie, I lived off of reports from classmates who had seen it.
Also somewhere around that time I got my hands on a copy of "Slime" by Joseph Payne Brennan (W) in an anthology of scary stories, which I found delightfully horrifying.
(In fact in retrospect, although it's been years since I read it, I think the short story "Slime" was probably much better and scarier than any of the cinematic outings "The Blob" has had, but at the time I regarded it as just something to hold me over until I could see the movie).

Around middle school I had worn my parents down to the point that I could see almost any horror movie as long as it pre-dated 1960. And with cable TV and classic film channels available, I made full use of this. Which is why to this day I know much more about classic horror movies than anyone my age should.

And so of course I saw the classic Steve McQueen 1958 "The Blob" movie.
This movie is in no way the least bit scary, even for a middle school student. But I loved it anyway. It's just a classic piece of 1950s Americana.
If you haven't seen it yet, you should definitely check it out. But don't watch it as a horror movie. Think of it as a 1950s teen-movie. This is supposed to be one of the first horror movies in which the adults are all clueless, and the teenagers have to save the world. And when you're 14, that kind of story seems about right to you.

After this, I largely forgot about "The Blob". Until the other day when I was wasting time on the internet.
I should have been studying, but I was procrastinating again, and watching amateur movie reviews off of the cite cinemassacre. Where I found this review comparing the 1950s version of "The Blob" to the 1980s version.

Unfortunately wasting time on-line often leads to more wasting time. I remembered that I had wanted to see that movie once, and never gotten around to it. I checked my local video store, but when they didn't have a copy, I thought I would check and see if there was anything on youtube.

Of course there was. Both versions are up on youtube actually. As of this writing, the complete 1958 movie can be found here. The 1988 version can be found here in its entirety here.

Alright, so after all that build-up, what did I think?
The movie seems to suffer from a lot of lazy writing. But it's difficult to know how hard you can be on the movie, because the movie doesn't even seem to take itself that seriously.

For example, there's a scene with a couple of teenagers parked at an overlook of the city making out in the car all alone. The guy is moving kind of fast, the girl is resisting his advances, and then the monster attacks.
It's the most obvious cliche imaginable for this kind of movie. But is it really recycling a cliche, or is it more of a tongue in cheek tribute to the genre?

The blob itself does a remarkable job of showing up and disappearing again only at times convenient to the plot. It also absorbs characters or lets them go by the same logic.
For instance in most scenes it is shown as an insatiable eating machine, absorbing anyone in its path. But when our main heroine faints right in front of it, it crawls off without molesting her at all.
But could this also be partly explained as a parody of the genre?

And then there's a lot of the comic relief in this movie, which also seems a bit cliched. For example, you remember that old urban legend about the guy who buys a condom at a drug store, and then it turns out that the drugstore clerk is his date's father? Well guess what, that scene is in this movie as well.
Maybe you could make excuses for this also, but enough! When even the jokes are cliched, I think we can safely say the writers of this movie were just out to lunch, and were just phoning in the all laziest cliches they could think of.

On the plus side...
Increased special effects means that in the remake you can actually see the Blob devour people. (In the 1950s version, people would just scream when the blob got close to them, and then they got eaten up off-screen). This makes the film a lot more horrifying. Especially when you can see the horrified look of the actors trying to scream underneath the blob as their body slowly melts away.
And (spoiler alert) the film does throw a few curve balls. In the first half of the film, a few of the characters who you think are going to be the main characters are among the first devoured.

There's a lot more gore in this film as well, a subject I'm somewhat neutral on. I'm old and jaded enough, and well past the age where this kind of thing would freak me out. But at the same time, it did seem kind of pointless. Wasn't the point of the blob that he devoured people whole and didn't leave a trace? What was the point of it just devouring half a person, other than gratuitous gore scenes?
Still, all in all, a pretty entertaining movie, even if it does require you to turn your brain off for some of it.

Link of the Day
Chomsky at West Point on "Just War Theory"
and Healthcare and the free market: Doctor Hand takes a closer look -- at your wallet!
and Darwin Meets Health Care

Friday, July 17, 2009

Saganoseki / 佐賀関

(Better Know a City)

Monday, June 22, 2009
It's rainy season in Japan now, and rain was what the weather forecast was.

A Japanese friend and I were talking about whether or not to go to Saganoseki in the rain. "I've gone out sightseeing in the rain before," I said. "It's not a big deal."

My friend was a bit more reluctant. We talked about going to Fukuoka city instead to visit the shopping malls, but in the end we decided to risk it.

The weather was cloudy when we set out for Saganoseki, but it cleared up a bit on the drive down.
Driving through Oita city, we crossed the boarder into Saganoseki.

We followed the main road (197). On our left was the ocean, on our right a cycling road was visible.

When we got to the rest station, we stopped the car and ate breakfast over looking the sea.
The sun was out now and all the colors of the mountains and the ocean were in full view. It was beautiful. We gazed out at the crystal blue ocean, and watched an old man swim from rock to rock. We weren't sure exactly what he was doing, but my friend guessed that he was collecting shellfish from the rocks.
At the beach, a trio of teenage boys were trying to work up the motivation to go for a swim, but apparently the ocean water was still a little bit too cold for them. They were a long time before they finally got in the water, and then they only swam for a short while before retreating back to the land.

I decided to wait to take my pictures until after we had finished breakfast. And just as we were drinking our last cup of coffee, the sky clouded over again, and all the colors disappeared with it. The vibrantly green mountains and blue oceans just assumed a color of gray. "I should have taken my pictures earlier," I said. My friend agreed, but saying this didn't make the sun return, and I had to settle for an overcast look on film.







The whole day would be like this: beautiful one minute, blah the next.
We walked over to the road station ("michi no eki" in Japanese) to try and get some maps or tourist info on Saganoseki.



Surprisingly, they had nothing there.
I say "surprisingly" because these road stations are built for the purpose of increasing tourism in their area. But we poked our head in, and there was nothing there but a small supermarket. When we asked about tourist information, the people there just gave us confused looks and said they didn't have anything. Although later, as we were leaving, one of them did go through the trouble of running out of the building to catch up with us, and give us a guide to Saganoseki restaurants that someone had found in the back of the store.

We also asked about the cycling road, and they confirmed that there was one and that it did go along the main road for a while.

Neither of us had bikes, but I wanted to walk a stretch of the cycling road, and my friend agreed to come along.

There were two sections to the cycling trail: one which went below the main road right next to the ocean, and one which went above the main road. We walked on the latter. It was a pleasant enough walk which took us past several small private gardens and one school. There were lots of flowers along the cycling road, and little bridges at various points where it crossed the main road. To the left was a view of the mountains, and to our right we could look down and see the ocean.







We didn't walk all the way to the end of the cycling road, but we walked for a while until we felt sick of it and then we turned around and headed back.

We got back in the car and drove a little further down the coast. We parked the car again by the ferry port, and got out to walk on another cycling trail (or a different part of the same cycling trail?)
The trail followed the coast line, so we got a good look at the ocean, even though the weather was still gray and cloudy.










After we had stretched our legs here, and I had gotten swarmed by some biting flies (for some reason, they were only attracted to me, and left my friend completely alone) we got back in the car and drove to the Saganoseki Citizens Center. The people at the road station had told us that we could pick up some brochures here, and indeed inside there was a display rack where we stocked up on maps and pamphlets for the city.



It was about lunch time now, and my friend wanted to get something to eat. In fact, the whole reason she had wanted to come to Saganoseki in the first place was to eat some of the delicious fish that this port town was famous for.
"Where do you want to eat?" she asked me.

"Oh I don't know. You choose," I said.

"No, you can choose," she insisted.

"You're the one who wants to sample the local delicacies," I replied. "If it were up to me, I would simply go to Joyfull."

"No, we're not going to Joyfull," she said firmly. "That would be a waste."
She looked through the brochure, and found a place called Yunosuke.
It was not far from the Citizens Center, although it did mean driving through a few narrow alley type streets in downtown Saganoseki before we got there.

Inside was a nice little cozy sushi shop, in which the proprietor skinned and cut the fish right in front of us.
We got a set meal which included rice, fried fish,and sushi.




Despite all my years in Japan, I'm not a big fish fan. I've learned to tolerate sushi over the years because it's boneless and the taste is largely absorbed by the soy sauce and the wasabi. The fried fish I'm not such a big fan of, but I had promised my friend I would try it so I did my best to dig out all the meat from in between those tiny fishbones with my chopsticks.

After we finished lunch, we left the car parked for a while and walked down the street for a while.






At the end of the street was Hayasuhihime Jinja shrine.
According to my Japanese friend, who was able to interpret it for me, this shrine was made because the emperor Jinmu received a sword from an octopus near this spot. (Or something like that. I don't remember all the details exactly).





Once we had looked around the shrine we got back in the car and continued on.
We followed the road 635 as it went out on a peninsula. At one point we there was a scenic overlook, and we stopped at a place called "Kongendori" for a view of the Kansaki area.





At the tip of the peninsula there was a planetarium and a light house.
Neither of us had any interest in visiting the planetarium other than just to see the outside of it. We didn't check the inside for show times.




If you walk around the back of the planetarium, there is a beautiful view of a green hill filled with flowers that slopes down to the light house. The island Takashima is visible in the distance.



I was delighted at the scene and the beautiful walk we had ahead of us. My Japanese friend was a little more far seeing than I was. "If we walk all the way down this hill to the light house, then we'll have to walk all the way back up it on the way back," she worried.



But this was a thought I put out of my mind as I walked down the hill down towards the ocean.
On the way down there was a bell. If you rang it once, it was good luck for those you loved. If you rang it twice, it was good luck for you.

Pretty clever, huh? They make you ring it twice that way. You can't get good luck for yourself without first wishing it on those you loved.
It might be an interesting experiment to reverse the order and see how many people even bother to ring it a second time.

I also wondered where do they get off deciding how good luck is distributed? I could understand if this bell was part of an old shrine whose origins were buried in the mists of time, but it was obviously a newly created tourist attraction. How do they get away with just arbitrarily deciding it is going to give good luck?



Once we had walked all the way down the hill, the actual light house was a little anti-climatic from the walk itself. The light house of course was locked, so we couldn't go inside, but we could walk around it, and there was an overlook of the ocean.







I had never been to Takashima, but my Japanese friend had gone scuba diving off of it's coast once. She told me it was a great place to scuba dive, but nothing much to see on the island itself.

Slightly down from the lighthouse was another series of steps leading all the way down to the beach. My Japanese friend expressed more reservations ("we're going to have to climb all the way up to get back"), but we decided to climb down and check out the beach anyway.

After spending some time at the beach throwing stones in the water, we decided to head up.







At just about that time, it started to rain again.

I took a minute to wrap and double wrap my video and camera in plastic bags, and then wrap them again in a towel and put them in my backpack. With my electronic equipment secured, I was prepared for a leisurely stroll through the rain.

My Japanese friend had other ideas though. We never communicated our thoughts exactly, but she seemed to have a much bigger aversion to getting wet than I did. She sprinted up the hill, taking stops only under the shelter of trees when she needed to catch her breath.

I made an effort to keep up with her at first. She was in much better shape than I was, but my legs were so much longer than hers that my long steps were able to make up for many of her shorter ones.
For a while I was able to keep ahead of her, and then my bad eating habits and lack of exercise caught up with me, and I was just wheezing on the hill. I gave up and returned to leisurely walking in the rain. "You go up ahead of me," I said. "I'll just meet you there."

Eventually we both reached the top. We took shelter under the doorway to the planeterium for a while as we watched the rain.

Once the rain had let up, we went back to the car.
The weather during rainy season is funny. Pouring rain one moment, blistering heat and sunny skies the next. Soon the sun came back out.

We continued driving down the road, and we soon saw signs for Sekizaki Inari Shrine. "Do you want to stop and have a look?" I asked.

"It's up to you," my friend answered, in a voice which clearly meant, "Well, not really."

I was driving though, so I decided to stop. We parked the car in the parking lot, and walked down the path to the shrine.




Soon things began to look familiar, and we realized we were on the same path we had just come from. Sekizaki Inari shrine was a little shrine right next to the light house that we had previously passed by without giving it much thought. (It was so small and plain it seemed odd that it was marked out as a tourist destination by the road signs). So I took a picture, and then we just returned to the parking lot.



Next stop was the Kurogahama beach.
This beach was made up entirely of small black stones. I'm not sure why. How did all of these black stones all end up in the same area? And why were they all so smoothly polished?
I'm sure there's a good geological reason for this, but lacking someone to explain it to us it just seemed like one of the mysteries of nature.

Out in the ocean were two stones jutting up from the water, joined together by a straw rope. The name of the rocks is bishagoe, which, according to my friend, was named after the type of seagulls which were flying around the area.






After spending some time by the beach, we decided we had time to see one more sight. We continued driving along the peninsula along the main road 635.

However what was previously a main road narrowed down to a small one lane dirt trail.
That part happens often enough in the Kyushu countryside. What caught us a little bit more offgaurd was the road went right alongside the ocean.
And I mean right alongside it. There was literally nothing between where the road ended and the ocean began. There was no shoulder or anything. If we would have moved the car even slightly to the left, we would have been right in the ocean.

Now, the road was raised slightly higher than the ocean, but some of the bigger waves were splashing over. Mostly they were just kind of sprinkling the road, but right as we were driving through a huge waved splashed up and doused the whole car.

Fortunately we had the windows shut at the moment, but I had to stop the car for a moment and get the windshield wipers going back and forth a few times until we could see again.

"Well, that's it," said my friend. "I've got to get the car washed now, or the salt water will be bad for the engine."

Being a Mid-Westerner, I never think about things like the effect of ocean water on a car, so it was a good thing my Japanese friend was there. (And it was also her car we were driving).
We decided we must have somehow turned off the main road, and so at the next opportunity we turned the car around and went back.

As it turned out, we had been on the main road after all. Sometimes in the countryside even main roads have really sketchy parts.

Anyway, once we had turned the car around and started heading back, that ended up being the end of the day. We drove back towards Oita city while we looked for a car wash.

I was getting pretty hungry, so we stopped at the Saganoseki Joyfull on the way out.
I know, I'm not very adventerous. No matter what city I go to, I always end up eating at the Joyfull.
Although in the case of Saganoseki, the Joyfull was right next to the ocean, which made it a little bit different than all the other Joyfulls I've been to. The waves lapped right up against the buildings foundations, and from our table we could look out and see nothing but blue water.





Saganoseki Links
Scenic Picture contest,
Panoramio Photos,
Saganoseki Bike Ride

Link of the Day
Interview with Noam Chomsky about the War on Drugs and religion

Friday, July 10, 2009

The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848 by Eric Hobsbawm

(Book Review)

This is another classic history. It was originally published in 1962, but has gone through numerous reprintings and is still available today.
Eric Hobsbawm is a famous British Marxist historian, and this book is part of his series analyzing recent history from a Marxist perspective.

I bought this book, along with another Hobsbawm book: "Revolutionaries", a few years ago in a Nagoya bookstore. Both books have sat on my shelf ever since and although I would leaf through them from time to time (I quoted Hobsbawm in this 2004 post) this is the first time I've read this book cover to cover.

It was not an easy read for me, which is why I waited a long time before sitting down and seriously reading it.

As the title indicates, the book covers the Revolutionary period of European history, specifically the Revolutions of 1789, 1830, and 1848, and the years in between. But Hobsbawm never tells you what happened during those Revolutions. Instead he analyzes the conditions leading up to the revolutions, and the conditions resulting from them.
If you, like me, enjoy narrative history rather than analytical history, than this is strike one against the book already.

Added to that is a prose so dry and academic that you really have to concentrate hard to follow what Hobsbawm is saying.
A typical example:
When we come to analyse the social and political structure of the world in the 1840s, however, we leave the world of superlatives for that of modest qualified statements. The bulk of the world's inhabitants continued to be peasants as before, though there were a few areas-notably Britain-where agriculture was already the occupation of a small minority, and the urban population already on the verge of exceeding the rural, as it did for the first time in the census of 1851. There were proportionally fewer slaves, for the international slave-trade had been officially abolished in 1815 and actually slavery in the British colonies in 1834, and in the liberated Spanish and French ones in and after the French Revolution. However, while the West Indies were now, with some non-British exceptions, an area of legally free agriculture, numerically slavery continued to expand in its two great remaining strongholds, Brazil and the Southern USA, stimulated by the very progress of industry and commerce which opposed all restraints of goods and person, and official prohibition made the slave trade more lucrative. (p. 369). And on it goes like that. And the sad thing is, that's only half the paragraph.

I know I ripped that out of context, but just imagine a whole book written in that dry tone.
I constantly found my mind wandering as I tried to work my way through this book, and in the end I could only get through it in small doses at a time.

It's a pity this book isn't written in a more accessible style, because once you get past the dry prose the ideas contained within are really fascinating. If you take the trouble to engage this book, you will learn a lot of interesting things from it.

Hobsbawm has taken an 60 year period of history when all of Europe was consumed with the struggle between absolutism and liberty.
"Liberty, that nightingale with the voice of a giant, rouses the most profound sleepers...How is it possible to think of anything today except to fight for or against freedom? Those who cannot love humanity can still be great as tyrants. But how can one be indifferent?" (Ludwig Boerne (W) quoted in Hosbawm p. 138)

Every history student knows about the great revolutions of 1789 (which started in Paris and then spread to the rest of Europe) 1830 (which started in Paris and then spread to the rest of Europe) and 1848 (same deal).
But to this broad picture, Hobsbawm adds several more waves of revolution which don't always make the history books, such as the wave of uprisings that took place between 1820-1824.
Hobsbawm describes how the European revolutionaries during this period saw each local revolution as being connected, and dreamed of a single unified Republic. He compares the unified front against absolutism in every country as being similar to the struggle against fascism in the 1930s. And he compares events like the Greek Revolution in the 1820s which drew left wing support from all over, to the Spanish Civil War in the 20th century.
(And for that matter, comparisons are made to the Spanish civil war in the 19th century, in which liberal intellectuals threw their support behind the international brigade which went to support the Spanish liberals against the reactionary Clericals in the Spanish civil war of 1820-1823).

But it is not just the political revolutions that Hobsbawm is interested in. He examines the dual industrial and political revolutions and their impact on each other. For example, the political revolutions abolished feudalism and serfdom. Although this was partly done because of idealistic reasons, it also had the affect of flooding the cities with cheap labour needed for the factory owners. Thus ideology was largely shaped by the industrial necessity.
Hobsbawm also highlights some of the paradoxes of the age. For example liberal opinion eventually eliminated the slave trade in Europe, but that same liberal opinion placed a preeminent value on free trade, which helped to ensure that slavery would remain lucrative in it's two remaining strongholds: Brazil and the Southern United States.
Also the liberal attitude idealized a laizefaire state, but, partly as a result of liberal reforms a bureaucracy was created and by 1840 government expenditure in liberal Britain was four times as great as autocratic Russia.

Hobsbawm also charts the birth of capitalism, it's earlier disasters and recessions, and how its proponents quickly established it in the popular mind as the only possible system of human existence.

The book has chapters on almost every imaginable facet of society: war, peace, land, religion, secular ideology, the arts and the sciences. These are all interesting in their own ways. For example, Hobsbawm in his chapter on science Hobsbawm explores the early conflicts between religion and science.

In his section on the arts, Hobsbawm claims that almost all of the art of lasting value from this period was politically motivated (contrary to the post modern view that true art must be separated from politics). He cites examples from Mozart's "The Magic Flute" to Beethoven's "Eroica" to the French painters such as Delacroix and David to all the romantic and revolutionary novelists of the period.

However as fascinating as all these sections are, once again one finds oneself having to wade through very dry and thick prose.
I recommend this book with caution. It's not an easy read, but for the reader willing to struggle through it there's a lot of interesting material in here.

Addendum: Also any one not fluent in French will find all the untranslated quotes an additional annoyance.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky: Manufacturing Consent post production interview After reviewing a couple Chomsky documentaries, it's interesting to hear how he feels about them. Turns out he's not a huge fan of "Manufacturing Consent"

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Guns of Navarone

(Movie Review)

I couldn't really tell you why, but I was in the mood the other day to see an old classic film the other day.

I have a soft spot in my heart for old films (maybe because when I was growing up, it was all I was allowed to watch) and I even consider myself a bit of a classic film buff.

...Although I guess you'd never know it from reading this blog.
What can I say? The old films have a lot of charm, but they demand a certain amount of attention. It can be difficult to sit through them after you've had your attention span ruined by MTV and Family Guy.

This film is a perfect example of the good and bad points of classic film.

It's a great World War II film, filled with classic actors doing their true-grit tough-as-nails hardened soldier routine.

Gregory Peck plays the lead character, doing his usually tough guy role.

Anthony Quinn also plays a real tough guy. And he's even promised to kill Gregory Peck's character after the war.

David Niven plays a....well, if you've seen any David Niven movies, you know he's not much of a tough guy actor. He plays the intellectual explosives experts and corny joker of the group, and in doing so provides a nice contrast to Quinn and Peck.

It's great to see all these classic actors at the height of their fame. And they all do a bang up job.
The script is pretty well written, and there's a great, "One of the people in this room must be a traitor" scene that gave it some extra punch near the middle.

And what's more, I had been watching so many new movies lately, I had almost forgotten what real films used to look like before CGI. When they are in the storm, or when the boat gets shipwrecked, or when they're climbing up the cliff face, that's really them doing it.

(Well, actually I know they're using a studio tank and they're not really getting ship wrecked in the ocean, but those are real actors with real water.)

But the pacing of the film just killed me. I had a hard time sitting through it to be honest.

This film takes place in Greece during World War II.
You don't hear a lot about Greece in World War II these days do you? You hear a lot about the battles at Normandy and D-day, but I'm not used to associating Greece with the intrigues of World War II, which lends a bit of exoticism to the setting, and the film makers try and use this to maximum advantage.

[Although come to think of it, there was that "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" (W) movie that came out a few years ago. And that was pretty interesting (I saw it on video). But aside from that, I'd venture that most people don't know anything about Greece in World War II.]

Wikipedia cites "The Guns of Navarone" as being "part of a cycle of big-budget World War II adventures that included The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), The Longest Day (1962) and The Great Escape (1963)."

"The Longest Day" is still on my list of films to see someday, I've - seen the other two. All 3 of these other films are loosely based on real events, which would lead you to expect "The Guns of Navarone" is historical accurate as well.

In fact (citing wikipedia again) it's based on a novel, not a real historical event, and there wasn't even a real island called Navarone. But the events of the film/ novel are framed by the real life "Dodecanese Campaign" (W).
(If you're a history geek like me, finding out these things becomes important to you. Apologies to everyone one else.)

The version I rented was the collectors DVD, which contained an interesting admission by the director that if the film was being made now-a-days he would have had to change the whole pacing of the film. It's something we all know, but it was interesting to hear the director say it himself.

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky - Venezuela, a Model for the World?

Monday, July 06, 2009

Futurama: Bender's Big Score

(Movie Review)

Despite my best efforts to buckle down and study, I end up wasting more and more time watching stupid movies.

But you can say this for Futurama, it's a very pleasant waste of time.

Although I was a big Simpsons fan, I didn't watch much Futurama when it was on in the late 90s. I saw the first episode, wasn't terribly impressed, and never really followed up on it. (Half of the series run was after I had gone to Japan anyway).

I became a Futurama fan when I was living back in the states a few years ago. I was working 3rd shift so I was on a weird sleep schedule, and watching a lot of late night cable TV. And Futurama was being re-run late at night on both the Cartoon Network and Comedy Central.

And it was a lot of fun. It may not have been quite as funny as the Simpsons was during their hey day, but the fact that the series took place in a wonderful animated crazy future world meant that absolutely any zany idea could happen. Every few minutes some ridiculous new alien or futuristic gadget would come on screen. It was perfect brain candy for my short attention span.

Since that time, Futurama came out with 4 direct to DVD movies (W). The other night, I was feeling in the mood for some light entertainment. Renting these movies was not an option as they never got released in Japan, so I thought I'd try and track down an internet copy of the first of these movies. (Which, I don't need to tell you web savy people, is no problem at all. Within a couple minutes I found what I was looking for.)

For now, I feel like I got my fix in, so I have no plans to continue on and watch the rest of the movies in the near future. But you never know. My self-resolve may break down again, and I might find myself wasting more time watching movies of the internet. Stay tuned to this blog to find out.

This movie isn't anything special. It's essentially just an hour and a half episode of Futurama. But that's okay. Unlike "The Simpsons" much hyped theatrical release, this was a direct to DVD movie, so it's about what you would expect. And unlike "The Simpsons Movie", it held my interest all the way to the end.

The movie starts out with some great comic self-referencing: a series of gags in which the characters almost seem self-aware of having been cancelled two years previously, and a not very subtle attack of the Fox executives who ordered it.

From there it quickly descends into the usually Futurama zaniness and morbid humor, complete with one of the main characters getting his head chopped off and his body crushed within the first 10 minutes.

For fans of the series (which is probably everyone who goes through the trouble to rent the DVD), there are lots of references to previous characters. One of the neat things about Futurama (unlike most cartoon comedy shows) is that it actually keeps track of its continuity and characters and stories evolve over time. That's true in this movie as well.
But, lest I intimidate any newcomers, it's also pretty easy to catch onto what is going on.

Richard Nixon's head once again returns as the President of Earth, complete with his trusty Spiro Agnew by his side. (That whole running Nixon gag is another thing I love about Futurama. Any other show would have given up on mocking Nixon by the 21st century, but Futurama is still kicking him around.)

The songs were the weak point--a pity because Groenig and his team have put together some wonderful musical parodies over the years on both Simpsons and Futurama, but this time around they obviously didn't have the time (or maybe the energy) to bother. The songs end up essentially just being time fillers.

All in all, a great way to waste time for anyone trying to get through another week night.

Link of the Day
"Black Faces in Limousines:" A Conversation with Noam Chomsky

Saturday, July 04, 2009

Hellboy 2

(Movie Review)

Last summer I wrote on this blog that I went out and rented the first "Hellboy" movie, a movie I had previously had no interest in, because of all the rave reviews Hellboy 2 had been getting.
(In particular I was influenced by Time Magazine's review which you can read here.)

Now a year later this movie has finally hit my video store, so I get to check it out.

And it lives up to the hype.

Judged by the standards of normal summer super-hero blockbusters, it's a very strange offering. It mixes in elements of the fantasy genre such as fairies, elves, trolls, and goblins. It is a superhero movie, a "Lord of the Rings" movie, and Harry Potter all mixed together.

The characters in this movie are wonderfully strange, such as the evil tooth fairies, the baby / tumor, and Johann Krauss, a character completely made up of ectoplasmic gas.
I was slightly disappointed that the FBI agent John Myers, who was one of the main characters in the first film, didn't return (there was a throw-away reference to his being in Antarctica) but perhaps his absence freed up the film to bring bring in more strange new creatures to fill up the screen.

In fact, some scenes in the film are so crammed full of magical creatures that I regret not having seen this film on the big screen. It was hard to make out everything on my small little screen. (If you watch the director's commentary, Guillermo (W) is constantly telling you to go back on the DVD and pay attention to this or that creature in the background or upper right hand corner, but I couldn't be bothered).

The fight scenes in this movie are also pretty cool. What more could you ask for?
Someday when I'm back in the US I'll have to get around to seeing "Pan's Labyrinth" (all the copies in Japan don't have English subtitles). And I'm also looking forward to seeing Guillermo's upcoming take on "The Hobbit".

Link of the Day
Noam Chomsky vs Bush Family Policy