Monday, September 29, 2008

King of Hearts

Movie: King of Hearts

This is a classic French film I first saw in a film class back in the 1980s. It's wonderful, one of my favorite films of all time. It's set at the end of WWI (I, not II), in a small town where the Germans have left leaving behind a bomb that will destroy the entire town. But their plot has been leaked to the British and so they send in a soldier to disarm the bomb. He's selected because he speaks French, not because he knows anything about explosives. But meanwhile the town has been evacuated, except for the residents of the looney bin, who escape and take over the town. Thus when the soldier arrives he thinks the crazies are the regular townspeople and when he uses obtuse code words the gibberish he gets back drives him batty. No one can understand anyone! That's just the beginning of the chaos, of course, as the film mocks the "rationality" that brings people to shoot each other and in the end, insanity seems the much saner choice. Extremely witty, clever, and wonderful. A must see film.


Monday, September 29, 2008

Eagle Eye

Movie: Eagle Eye

I'll begin by warning you that I am about to reveal spoilers from the plot, so if you don't want to know the specifics, don't read this post. I must reveal things because the most significant aspect of the movie for me involves that, and I can't discuss it without revealing the details. The plot, in short, involves two regular people (a guy and a girl) getting strange phone calls with a woman's voice ordering them to obey and threatening dire conseqences if she is not obeyed. For instance, the girl's son will be killed if she doesn't obey. The guy they have set up with money in his bank account and bomb equipment in his house, so he's suddenly wanted by the FBI as a terrorist. Realizing that the two are being framed and set up by the mysterious voice, I went along with that: it made sense. However, there were two things that bothered me. One, the caller, who seems almost omniscient, is able to remotely control just about any kind of electronic or mechanical device in the area, from digital signage to robotic cranes. The action is so fast-paced and non-stop, I was sceptical that any group of hackers would have the ability to keep up with the spontaneous action. The second thing that bothered me was there was a ruthless impersonability from the caller: she does things like tell the boy he has ten seconds to obey her radical instructions and of course he does not, causing all hell to break loose and he almost getting killed. I was like, "Does she not care if he succeeds? Why not call him a minute earlier and give him more time to absorb the concept?" But later in the film the movie's big "secret" is revealed: that the caller isn't a woman but a machine, a new government supercomputer who plotting her own agenda. Now granted that's an old saw and utterly unrealistic, a myth propogated by people who are afraid of technology, but I did like that now the woman's unrealistic expectations of obedience made sense. As an artificial intelligence, she cannot understand that humans sometimes make the illogical choice. So in the end I actually liked this gimmick, which surprises me, as usually I would think of it as a cop-out. Part of the reason this works is that the plot to control all these various people is quite ingenious, as basically you have different people each doing an innocuous task that somehow contributes to the main scheme. That's very cool and interesting. The action isn't bad, and the film definitely moves non-stop, and overall I liked it. It's nothing too profound and the AI gimmick is ridiculous, but at the same time, it's done well enough that you can suspend your disbelief and go along with it for the ride. Fun.


Saturday, September 27, 2008

From Noon to Three

Movie: From Noon to Three

Funny little western with Charles Bronson as an inept bank robber who takes a woman hostage, makes love to her, and then is caught and shot. Or so everyone thinks -- in reality he switched clothes with another man and ended up in prison for something that guy did, but he must keep his real identity secret. Meanwhile, the woman writes an international best-seller about the three hours she spent with a notorious villain, turning him into a legendary outlaw. The hilarious part is that when the man gets out of prison no one believes he is who he says he is -- everyone who once knew him has the dashing villain in the book in mind and thinks he's an imposter! Even the woman! Fun stuff.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Cinema Paradiso

Movie: Cinema Paradiso

Terrific film. This is one of those films I've wanted to watch forever but never got around to it; I think I had the utterly wrong impression about what it was about. It's about a little boy in Italy in a small town where the only entertainment is the local movie theatre. The boy becomes friends with the projectionist, who teaches him some valuable life lessons, and eventually the boy takes over for him. The film looks at the boy's entire life in flashback, as a small boy, as a teenager falling in love the first time, and as a successful adult, coming back to the town to see how life has changed. Throughout the film we see clips of classic movies which establishes the time period and the mood, and shows the changing of morals over the years. Amazing.


Saturday, September 20, 2008


Movie: Gambit

Amusing little Michael Caine/Shirly Maclaine vechicle from the 1970s, where he plays a thief trying to steal a stature from the richest guy in the world and brings her alone to help him with his scam. Some nice moments and some unexpected twists.


Friday, September 19, 2008

Heaven's Gate

Movie: Heaven's Gate

Interesting Western from 1982 that I had never seen. This was the four hour extended version in high definition and I'm glad I saw it. It apparently bankrupted the studio it was so overbudget as the director was such a perfectionist. It's easy to see why: it's epic in scale and lush photography with huge scenes with hundreds of extras. The story is set in the 1870s in Wyoming as several college buddies end up on different sides of a dispute. Some work for the cattle barons who are upset at the stolen cattle being eaten by local immigrants who are starving. A death list is producing with 125 people on it: they are to be shot on sight. The sherrif is against this and fights the barons, and we basically end up with a war: hundreds of immigrants against hundreds of hired guns. It's chaos, bloody, and horrible. Another plot line deals with the sherrif and another man both involved with the same woman, a prostitute who can't decide which man she loves more. The two are at odds initially, but end up on the same side when her name shows up on the death list (she has accepted stolen cattle meat as payment for her services). Overall, I found the plot not that profound, though it was fascinating and educational. What really impressed me was the direction and photography, which is amazing. My favorite scene is near the beginning when an immigrant is gutting a cow behind a sheet curtain. We see the silhouette of a cowboy loom up on the white sheet, then the barrel of a rifle. Then there's an explosion and the immigrant is lying bloody next to his cow, and we see the cowboy ride off on his horse as we watch through the large hole in the sheet. Stunning.


Thursday, September 18, 2008

Mr. Monk in Outer Space

Book: Mr. Monk in Outer Space
Writer(s): Lee Goldberg

Another excellent Monk book. In this one Monk has to find the killer of the creator of a 1970s sci-fi TV show with a cult following... basically a clone of Star Trek. Monk has a real hard time relating to these "freaks" who dress as aliens and have their ears surgically altered, but it gets worse when he discovers that his brother Ambrose -- a shut-in who hasn't left his house in 30 years -- is a huge fan of the show and has written half-a-dozen books about it (including a language guide). To solve the mystery Adrian must use his brother's expertise of the show. As usual, there is plenty of Monkism, and the TV show stuff is funny, but though extremely well-done, everything's a bit milder than usual -- I didn't find myself laughing out loud the way I have with other Monk books. Perhaps I'm just getting used to the character or expecting too much? The murder mystery part of things is also well-done with clues and good Monk solutions, but it too felt a bit too basic. I also wasn't crazy about the action-involved ending, which had Monk in jeopardy for his life as he insanely confronts a hit man. That doesn't sound too Monkish to me -- he's terrified of pillows, so wouldn't he call for backup? But still: this is classic Monk and it's never bad and if you're a fan of the series, you'll want to read this.


Friday, September 12, 2008

Burn After Reading

Movie: Burn After Reading
Director(s): Coen Brothers

Hilarious Coen brothers' romp about spies and amateurs colliding. The plot's a bit too complicated to explain entirely, but basically we've got a drunken spy who retires/is fired and decides to write his memories. A CD of his book gets into the hands of two gym works who think the information is classified stuff and decide to blackmail him. In the middle of this we have married spies having affairs and other chaos, and basically the CIA can't figure out what's going on aren't sure what info is where and must assume the amateurs actually know what they are doing and are real threats. The end result is a lot of nasty people fighting and dying, and it is quite hilarious. Unfortunately, the story peters out at the end and the finish is disappointing. The whole thing is a little uneven and tends to promise more than it delivers. I went away wanting more, but it's still classic Coen brothers and is worth seeing.


Thursday, September 11, 2008

Crater Lake

Today my cousin and I stopped by Crater Lake for a few hours on our way home from Ashland. It was a gorgeous day and we hike around the lake for a mile or two. I hadn't been there since I was a small child -- it is a breathtaking place. I recommend it for a visit! Here are some pictures I took.

[Click thumbnail for larger view]


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Comedy of Errors

This is absolutely the worst production of any kind I've ever seen in over twenty years of attending the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland. My frustration stems from the fact that I wasn't warned this was a radical departure from the original script. If I'd come prepared for something different my reaction might have been different. As it was, I was devastated.

The most major flaw in this production is that it makes too many changes. Sometimes changes are good: they can refresh a tired play, modernize it, bring forth a new perspective, make you see it in a new light. But this version attempts far too many radical changes and utterly destroys anything worthwhile in the original play.

The first change is that this uses a Western setting, moving the characters from Europe to the American Wild West. If that had been the only change, this could have succeeded brilliantly. Unfortunately, the director (or directors, as this felt like several conflicting collaborators were involved) chose to all make this a musical. Yes, that's correct: a musical. The production is filled with music that is not even in Western style, with modern lyrics that don't use Shakespeare's poetry, and songs that don't make sense or add to the production at all.

Now I'm not anti-musical. I love musicals, if they are done well. This was not. While some of the songs were well sung, only one was even slightly memorable, and the rest were indistinguishable from each other. Worst of all, there was no point to these songs. Do cowboys spontaneously break into song? Yeah, that's what I think about when I think of the Wild West... cowboys singing.

Another flaw was the bizarre introduction of multiple ethnicities into the play. For example, the play was narrated by a Mexican mariachi singer. He often spoke rapid Spanish and his English was so accented he was difficult to understand, ruining the whole point of adding a narrater character. Also included was a Chinese man with similar flaws of speech who strangely read modern-sounding fortune cookie fortunes. Another character was made into an Italian tonic-seller, an awkward combination of immigrant and classic Western quack who seemed utterly out of place and useless.

Through-out the piece modern language was mixed with Western terminology, so that along with with ethnic languages, the audience is expected to follow and understand a confusing variety of styles: Shakespearean poetry, Western drawl, modern singing, Mexican Spanish, Chinese English, Italian English, etc. The result is that it was a real challenge to understand anything: I had to concentrate hard to follow the play, which reduced the humor considerably as I couldn't relax.

It didn't help that about half the actors were obviously cast because of their singing abilities rather than their ability to perform Shakespeare. That doesn't mean they're bad actors, but performing Shakespeare does require a different kind of talent (making poetry sound like natural speech). This cast butchered what little Shakespeare was left after the changes and additions; I could hardly hear or understand them much of the time, and in an identity farce like "Comedy of Errors" that is not a good thing.

In short, this was a disaster. I laughed exactly four times during the first half, and once in the second. I had not thought it could get worse in the second act, but it did, dwindling into a horrible vaudeville act of slapstick and exaggerated "comic" reactions. It just was not funny. I kept wanting to laugh, but the play gave me nothing. The few times I did laugh were all due to Shakespeare's witty dialog, not anything new to this production. The fact that the biggest laugh of the night came from someone in the audience sneezing in the silence before the second act shows how everyone was filled with pent-up laughter wanting to be released. (Some people liked the slapstick or the songs, but I was so depressed by the desecration of Shakespeare that I couldn't enjoy anything. It was merely excruciating, like watching vandals destroy your most prized possession and being helpless to stop them.)

If I'd been warned that this play was so radically different from Shakespeare's original I might have come prepared and been less critical. I'm sure I would not have liked it, but at least I would not have felt cheated. As it is, I feel betrayed by OSF -- they sold me tickets to William Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" and gave me no Shakespeare, no comedy, only errors.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

A View from the Bridge

Fascinating play by Miller that's one of his best but least known. It's set in working class New York City in the immigrant community in the 1950's (I think that's the timing) and deals with subtle interpersonal relationships between families and visitors. The main story is about an uncle who dislikes the immigrant boy his neice his seeing and reports him to the authorities so he'll be deported, a shocking betrayal of the community. This was an excellent OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) production.


Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Our Town

It's has been a while since I've seen this and it's one of my favorite plays, but for some reason this particular OSF (Oregon Shakespeare Festival) production left me a little flat. I'm not sure if they made some subtle changes that didn't work me as well, or if the impact the play had on me the first time was so extraordinary that subsequent viewings would always pale in comparison. Overall, this was excellently done: the acting was superb (with several known stars such as the VP from Boston Public and even the "Log Lady" from Twin Peaks). Some of the pantomime was weak: one tall man leading a cow kept patting the cow's head well above his own, making the cow something like nine feet tall! A few other places didn't have too much emotional impact for me -- I think the Emily character was weakly done -- but overall the play itself is a fascinating look at small town life and the way life meanders. Recommended despite a few flaws.


Monday, September 1, 2008

The Ballad of Cable Hogue

Movie: The Ballad of Cable Hogue
Director(s): Sam Peckinpaw

This is a much better Peckinpaw film: it's lighter with a comedic element that's refreshing, and I really liked it until the very end, when it spoiled the fun by ending on a sour note that is out of line with the rest of the movie. The basic premise is about an old man who is left to die in the desert by two "partners" but he finds water and realizes that's his chance to make it. He stakes a claim and sets up an oasis, charging travelers for water. Jason Robards is the title character and he's fabulous, just absolutely wonderful. He's cranky and stubborn, ornery, mean, and quick to smile when you least expect it. There are a few other interestig characters, like the prostitute girlfriend, but Cable stands alone and carries the movie. Very cool and fun and except for the downer of an ending that's so unexpected and odd, it's a great film.


Monday, September 1, 2008

Canadian Bacon

Movie: Canadian Bacon
Director(s): Michael Moore

Another cult classic I had never seen; I didn't realize until the opening credits this was written and directed by Michael Moore. I can't stand him lately, but this is in his earlier period when he was at least somewhat balanced and much funnier. This is pretty good, too, though too uneven to be a great film. The premise is that the U.S. president is down in the polls and the economy is tanking, so he conjures up Canada as the new red threat (a little bit like Wag the Dog, though that's a much better film). If this film had concentrated on that premise it would have been better; unfortunately it tries for broader comedy with slapstick and farce with a moron American sheriff trying to attack Canada himself and a bunch of other silly nonsense. The film is definitely biased, but not as much as you'd expect: there are humorous jabs in both directions (something Moore doesn't do any more and his work suffers because of it). The bottom line: fun