Apr 12, 2006
The Movie Soundtrack and Thomas Newman

The greatest art form of the Twentieth Century was the motion picture.  Today, in the dawn of the 21st Century, the movies still hold rank as our greatest expression. 

 

Until the late 1920s movies were silent.  You could watch one for a nickel in a small theatre called a Nickelodeon.  To make it more interesting, a piano player or an organ player would play music to accompany the film. 

 

The public became fanatic about the first sound movies.  When the first sound movie The Jazz Singer emerged in 1927, the face of the industry changed overnight.  The public demand for sound from that point forward was so great that many “big budget” silent movies were released to empty houses.  It was not long before the studios figured out there was no longer any profit in producing a silent movie.  Even movies that had already been made were remade with sound or they were trashed. 

 

But the quality of early sound was low, and it was another decade before good musical sound tracks began to emerge.  Music for sound tracks were done by early greats like Erich Korngold, who wrote swashbuckling symphonic scores for movies like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) and The Sea Hawk (1940).  A competitive contemporaryof Korngold was Max Steiner; Casablanca (1941) Arsenic and Old Lace (1942).  Both of these composers are now considered greats, and it is not uncommon to hear a tune from one of their films in a light classical performance by a contemporary orchestra. 

 

Arguably the most important musician of that period was Alfred Newman, who scored more than 200 films during his 40 year career.  His nine academy awards may be a record for a composer.

 

Other great musicians from the era known primarily for their “legit” classical work also scored films – The Gershwins, Cole Porter and Aaron Copeland are examples.  Another example was Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. 

 

Henry Mancini’s Pink Panther made him all the rage as a film composer. 

 

In 1977’s Star Wars the world became acutely aware of the man who will be remembered as the greatest film composer of the 20th Century, and would easily be one of the most popular composers of any kind in the 20th Century – the great John Williams.  By the time the Star Wars theme exploded in what may have been the most popular and influential movie ever, Williams had already been composing film scores since 1957. 

 

He is also the most successful composer financially in American history.  He has received no less than 41 Oscar nominations, although in this age when the Academy has fallen out of touch with the public, this translated into only 5 Academy Awards – despite the fact that in many cases the “winners” have faded from sight, while Williams’ music is performed and played again and again. 

 

As much admiration as I have for John Williams and his music, I don’t personally play and replay the soundtracks of Star Wars and its sequels, or Indiana Jones, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter and sequels, War of the Worlds, or his other work.  There is no music I would rather hear at a concert in the Hollywood Bowl, but his music demands full attention.  His music is thrilling and inspiring, but in the age of iPod and “ambient” music playing in the background while you work on your computer or drive a car, it’s not the right fare.  But there is a contemporary composer that I listen to over and over – and I have yet to tire of his tunes:  Thomas Newman.

 

Newman is the son of the great aforementioned Alfred Newman, a cousin of the rock musician and composer of the “I Love L.A.” theme song, Randy Newman, and is connected to a minor dynasty of Newmans that are involved in music.  He isn’t new on the scene.  He has scored dozens of films since the late 1970s.  Like John Williams, he has the talent to enhance a film with his music to such a degree that it can make a good film great.  You’ve heard his music if you’ve seen Finding Nemo, Shawshank Redemption, American Beauty, The Horse Whisperer, Cinderella Man, Erin Brockovich, The Green Mile, The Scent of a Woman, Fried Green Tomatoes, and other popular films.

 

Although he writes well for a full orchestra, Newman prefers to work with a smaller and more esoteric group of instruments.  I think I like smaller [scores] better, because I find more interesting places that the music can go. When you're working with a 90-piece symphony, your interaction with the players is much different. You're standing on a podium and talking to a large number of musicians. So the notion of nuance becomes a group effort and that's a difficult thing to get. I keep thinking of ways to communicate better, to scale down the orchestra's size so it will fit into my ambient palette instead of lying on top of it,” he says. 

 

What about electronic synthesizers?  “I hate the notion that electronics are a cheesy way of doing things and that orchestra is the only 'true' approach to scoring. But you can understand those critics, because electronics allow you to make easy choices. Anyone can do it. But while synthesizers are things you hide behind sounds, they can also be put in places you'd never expect. I've always wanted these boundaries to be amorphous.”

 

He is famous for winding unusual sounds and rhythms into a lush framework.  He isn’t afraid to use multiple percussion instruments or synthesizers, in companion with conventional instrumentation.  He plays the piano part himself most of the time. 

 

Two of his sound tracks in particular are eminently listenable:  Road to Perdition and Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events.  Drop these CDs to your iPod, remove the two or three sound track tunes that you don’t like, and you’ll have music you can always fall back on when you want something nice going on in your head. 

 

 


Posted at 10:56 pm by RedMan
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Apr 4, 2006
Pride and Prejudice

They finally got it right.  Movie makers have been trying to get Jane Austen's classic story Pride and Prejudice on film since the dawn of sound movies, and there have been some good attempts, but the 2005 version starring Keira Knightly finally captured the soul of one of the warmest and most inspiring stories in English literature.  And Keira Knightly was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as Elizabeth Bennett, one of the most likeable heroines in English literature. 

 

Even Jane Austen herself was infatuated with Elizabeth Bennett.  "I must confess that I think her as delightful a creature as ever appeared in print, and how I shall be able to tolerate those who do not like her...I do not know," wrote Austen.

 

Jane Austen was something of an anomaly.  She wrote novels at a time when it was uncommon for women to write novels.  She published them anonymously at first, but not to obscure the fact that she was a woman; her early publications simply said, "by a Lady" to describe who the author was.  She even wrote her novels secretly, behind a locked door.  She was soon discovered, though, and became very popular.  The Prince (later George IV) insisted on having one of her novels dedicated to him, and she complied, although she was unimpressed with the man.  She never married, and she died at the age of 41, leaving an unfinished novel on her desk. 

 

Austen's novels, and most of the films generated from those novels, are fascinating commentary on the ordinary life of people in rural middle-upper-class England in the late 1700s and early 1800s.  These books transport the reader into that time and place with fascinating detail.  What they ate, how they did their laundry, what they wore, how they entertained themselves, and especially the structure of their social manners are all subjects of study.  But the more fascinating feature of Austen's writing was her uncanny ability to paint a personality that is completely real.  By the end of an Austen novel, you have made new friends and acquaintances that are probably more real than some of your buddies from college.  It is this characteristic that makes her stories endure the more than two hundred years since she wrote them without descending into stiff classical studies.  With the possible exception of Charles Dickens, there is no English novelist who has so consistently delighted readers and filmgoers for so long – and Dickens prime was nearly 50 years after that of Jane Austen, who died a few years after Dickens was born. 

 

I first read the book Pride and Prejudice when I was about 16 or 17 years old.  It was one of the books that I remember as a milestone in my life.  I recall pacing the room when I completed the book, inspired by the beautiful story, and devastated that it was over and I could read no more – spend no more time with these fascinating people. 

 

Nearly all of Austen's significant works have been transported to film at one time or another and many of them have been made more than once.  Just in the last decade or so there have been widely-distributed versions of Emma, Mansfield Park, Sense and Sensibility, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and other versions of Pride and Prejudice.  But setting aside any literary discussion of what her greatest work might have been, it is a fact that the charming and inspirational story of Elizabeth Bennett and Fitzwilliam Darcy has made Pride and Prejudice by far her most popular story.  At least 10 versions of the tale have been produced since 1938, including a successful 1940 version with Greer Garson as Elizabeth Bennett.  It's also been made in other languages, and the story itself has been the basis for many alterations, including the charming Bollywood (India) film Bride and Prejudice.  It's almost like the muses of English literature have been insisting that filmmakers try and try again, because (in my opinion) none of the other movies, many of them nevertheless good, really captured the astonishing richness and appeal of the original book.

 

What made the difference this time?  Keira Knightly for one thing.  She deserved her Oscar nomination.  The other actors were uniformly up to their characters.  Donald Sutherland as Mr. Bennett was the best one I've seen.  Rosamond Pike as Elizabeth's sister and best friend Jane was perfect in the part. 

 

Another factor was the very cogent depiction of the time.  Too often when Hollywood (or the British film industry in this case) tries to make a period piece the authenticity is destroyed by applying 20th and 21st Century technology for sets, hair, makeup and costumes.  Hair gel did not yet exist, and Supercuts didn't yet have an installation in small-town England circa 1800.  Clothing was simpler.  Bathing was not a popular pastime.  People were more plain.  Nevertheless, they found elegance in manners, language and the arts.

 

In the public ball (dance) where Elizabeth first meets Darcy the closeness of the people, the slightly disheveled hair and flushed faces, the slightly limp costumes and the genuine enthusiasm of people dancing in a somewhat worn public building carried me past the story itself and into the time and place where it occurred.  You could almost smell the environment.  Anyone who has a feel for the past in Northern Europe would probably agree that this scene was real for the time – the way it really was.

 

The setting for Pride and Prejudice is rural England in about 1800.  Women of the middle and upper classes did not work for a living and it was socially unacceptable for them to do so (a theme that was explored even more vigorously in Austen's novel Sense and Sensibility).  As a result, it was incumbent on a young woman to marry well.  There was no alternative but penny-pinching poverty, unless the woman was independently wealthy (or wrote successful novels, apparently).  Mr. Bennett is able to see to the comfort of his family, but with five daughters, there will never be enough of an inheritance to go around.  Mrs. Bennett's shameless matchmaking is shrill and incessant.  All of her daughters are old enough to marry, and the oldest ones, including Elizabeth, have been on the shelf long enough they are approaching their expiration date. 

 

Nevertheless, Elizabeth's absolute integrity is greater than her sense of need, and she frustrates her mother by turning down suitors who would have made her comfortable and secure, but don't measure up to her lofty character requirements.  This includes, at first, handsome Mr. Darcy, who is the richest man anyone knows, living in an enormous Georgian mansion at the end of a glistening lake, alone with his sister.  And of course scads of maids and butlers, etc.

 

Within minutes, I was simply thrilled to be watching this movie, and the charm never abated.  I haven't known Elizabeth and Darcy like this since I was 16 or 17 years old.  It is nice to have them back. 

 

  

 


Posted at 09:17 pm by RedMan
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Mar 16, 2006
The Constant Gardener

I was going to ignore the Oscars this year.  They have rarely interested me in the past.  I don't often agree with their choices.  This year I didn't even agree with their nominations, for the most part.  But Paul Haggis's Crash did win the award for Best Motion Picture, and that was a good choice.  So I read the rest of the news about what happened at the Oscars.  And I was pleasantly surprised to find four nominations for The Constant Gardener. 

 

One of the nominations paid off in gold.  Rachel Weisz won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in The Constant Gardener.  In the beginning of the movie she is murdered, and the rest of the movie revolves around her husband's crusade to find out why, liberally mixed with long flashbacks in which Rachel plays a major role.  There were no other leading ladies in the movie at all.  I don't know why her role was considered that of a supporting actress.  I guess you can't call her a leading actress if she's dead for the whole movie.  But maybe it's for the best.  I don't know if she would have walked off with the leading actress Oscar, and she certainly deserved one for her role in this film. 

 

But her award has importance beyond what it will do for her.  It helps to promote a movie more people should see, because it addresses a pressing social issue.  I'm not a proponent of "social issue" films particularly, and Hollywood embarrassed itself this year by nominating mildly popular message movies rather than films the public actually goes to see.  In fact, the sum of the ticket sales for all of the movies nominated for Best Picture (about 250 million) was only a fraction of the sales for Narnia alone (about 700 million) or the latest Harry Potter episode alone (about 900 million).  I can't help thinking that 50 or 100 years from now, Narnia and Potter will be revered as all time greats, the way we now revere Gone With The Wind and Wizard of Oz, both of which were made about 70 years ago, while the Oscar-nominated movies of 2006 will be little more than a historical footnote.  But in the case of this movie The Constant Gardener, the importance of the message justifies a different view. 

 

Gardener is from a book by the enigmatic British spy-story master John LeCarre.  I rarely miss stories inspired by LeCarre books.  I recently saw the British mini-series called Smiley's People starring Alec Guinness.  It was excellent. 

 

LeCarre's spy world is very real and very dark.  And it is little varnished with any pretense of true good guys versus bad guys and his stories are rarely graced with a climactic win on the part of the protagonist.  In his world, the protagonists amble along, trying to do what they think is right, winning sometimes, losing sometimes, and in the end it is often more or less a wash.  One doesn't get into LeCarre for an emotional lift.  But the intricacy of his stories and the realism are addictive. 

 

Gardener is no exception.  It is true to type.  It is a dark story and it gets darker, then darker yet.  It reminds me of the quote from Lily Tomlin, "It's going to get a lot worse before it gets worse."  But Gardener exposes a social issue that is being widely ignored in our time – the unethical and amoral activities of the major drug companies, who have become so rich and powerful they can buy public and government support for even the most dastardly schemes.  Their broad purpose seems to be to make more money than God, and they seem to be willing to ignore human life and human decency to get it.  One is reminded of the words of Orson Welles playing the evil Harry Lime in The Third Man (1949).  His former friend accuses him of murdering people by pushing bogus prescription drugs in post-war Europe.  The scene takes place as the two of them are sitting in a Ferris wheel that is stopped at the top.  "Have you seen any of your victims?" asks his friend.  "You know, I never feel comfortable on these sort of things," intones Orson Welles as he points at the children and families running around on the ground far below, "Victims? Don't be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare?" 

 

Welles seemed to presage the viewpoint of the pharmaceutical industry of our time.  But I digress. 

 

Rachel Weisz's loyal husband, a British diplomat in an African country, decides to figure out why his wife was murdered.  What he walks into is a world of death and danger where the authorities have been bribed to allow the testing of drugs on people en masse, without their express knowledge or understanding.  These bad drugs kill or disable people in large numbers.  Big Pharmaceutical then weighs the results and decides whether the collateral damage is manageable.  There is no thought for the families left without a mother or a father who are victims of these gruesome experiments.  Rachel's husband soon finds that the people who are running this fraud are more than willing to kill anyone antagonistic to their purpose who "knows too much".  He winds up on the run in much the same way he realizes his wife must have been. 

 

The story is very real.  Anyone who thinks we live in an enlightened age where such things don't happen need only read this recent news story about a similar experiment.  In addition, there is plenty of material on the net regarding similar programs in India and Russiawhere a few American dollars will buy a lot of blind-eye cooperation. 

 

So I recommend the film.  It's emotionally rough, but if you can get past that, it's well made.  And then you can say you went to one of those obscure message movies that get nominated for Academy Awards instead of the big ones making hundreds of millions of dollars wowing people with crude tricks like entertainment, inspiration and happy endings.  That should get you in with the in crowd. 


Posted at 11:22 pm by RedMan
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Mar 14, 2006
Kingdom Of Heaven

 

This film was a surprise.  Starring Orlando Bloom, Liam Neeson, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson and the new Bond girl Eva Green, it was a solid five-star story about the Crusades – especially the end of the period following the Second Crusade, in the late 1100s.  It is based on true historical events, with some embellishment and a little invention.  But it tells a tale one can’t quickly forget.

 

The Crusades as a historical fact make one wince.  Learning this bit of history is like reading about large dangerous snakes.  It is simultaneously revolting and fascinating material.  They began with a great kickoff when Pope Urban II decided it was terrible that the holy city of Jerusalem had become part of an area owned and controlled by “infidels” (Muslims).  He put out the call for a “Crusade” to win the city for Christianity, in 1095.  The word “crusade” is from the Latin meaning to “take up the cross”.  He was responding, at the time, from a call for help from the Byzantine Emperor Alexis for help fighting off the Turks and a concern for the safety of Christian pilgrims who regularly traveled to the holy land, which mainly meant Jerusalem and Palestine.  His well-presented and publicized call to arms fell on fertile ground in Europe.  Before long there was a stream of knights, foot soldiers and others on their way to “liberate” Palestine and Jerusalem. 

 

In the preceding centuries in Europe, the Middle Ages were in full swing – or perhaps more accurately, full slobber, or wallow.  Education not only didn’t exist, but reading and writing was forbidden by the Roman church except for Monks.  All things Roman had been rejected, including their baths and their ability to plan and organize.  The Roman Empire had degenerated into dust and the only relic was Rome itself, now the center of the largest branch of Christianity.  The other branch extant at the time was centered in Byzantium, now called Constantinople, in what is now Turkey.  That branch survives as what we now call “Eastern Orthodox” Catholicism. 

 

In the long feudal Dark Ages that followed the fall of Rome, one bright spot was the reign of Charlemagne, a king centered in what is now France, who brought much of Europe under one banner.  Charlemagne was a handsome man who wore robes of ermine and a large spiked crown.  Paintings of him look like any good king in a Disney cartoon.  He ruled by force of personality rather than good administrative skill, however.  In this he was like South American Leader Simon Bolivar, who formed that continent into one country, only to have it fall apart when his own charm and powers of persuasion were no longer sufficient to hold it together.  Within a couple of generations after the death of Charlemagne, Europe’s factions were back at each others’ throats, hammer and tong.  The game was King of the Hill, and the man who could command the largest and most effective army of knights and soldiers, and build the largest and most imposing castle, would control his area until someone stronger came along to take it away.  Nevertheless, Europe was emerging from the long Dark Ages, and there was an increasing population, the beginning of education, and a promise of relative prosperity where there had been nothing but slavery, ignorance and poverty for centuries.  The lack of education and hygiene was offset by a raw vitality that spilled over into the Crusades when the Pope issued his call to arms. 

 

The Middle East, on the other hand, had emerged as a center of learning and culture.  Modern mathematics were developed in the Middle East, including Algebra and Trigonometry.  We still use “Arabic numerals” in most languages.  Mohammed exploded on the scene in the seventh century, and united a large area with a common goal and purpose.  Commerce and learning flourished.  However, the “common cause” of the early Muslim era had begun to deteriorate into political infighting and factionalism by the time of the Pope’s pronouncement, and this disorganization in the Arab world, combined with the surprise factor when tens of thousands of armed Europeans appeared on the horizon, led to the success of the First Crusade.  Within a short time, Jerusalem had been taken and a large area around Jerusalem was held by the Crusaders.  This began a 300-year period of give-and-take during which there were a total of eight Crusades (of which the first three are the most significant) and an ebb and flow settlement of the area by European invaders. 

 

The Crusaders were not, as a group, very compassionate and understanding victors.  They were there to exterminate the infidels.  When they first took Jerusalem, the slaughter was total.  They killed men, women and children and left few to tell the story.  Then, flushed with victory and the satisfaction of a job well done, many of them got back on their horses and went home to Europe.  The ones who remained began to develop a relationship with the Muslim environment and build a new home and culture.  By the time of the Second Crusade, about fifty years later, there were second and third-generation Christian families making their homes in Palestine and surrounding lands.  By 1144 the Arabic groups had become united enough to challenge the invaders, and were beginning to make gains.  Another Crusade was mounted.  Although this one was considerably less explosive and successful than the first, it refocused attention on the area and stabilized European colonization to some degree.

 

But in the late 1100s, about 80 years after the First Crusade, a military leader named Saladin emerged in the Arab world.  Saladin was not a mad-dog general.  He was very intelligent, and on several occasions he established peace treaties with the Europeans, which were uniformly broken not by the Muslims but by the Europeans.  This is not an attempt to whitewash the Muslims of the era, or to imply that all Christian invaders were brutes.  But the comparison doesn’t flatter the Christians during that period of time.

 

A schism developed in the European sector between the second generation inhabitants, who were making their homes in the area, wanted peace, and had a relatively high degree of communication and understanding with the Muslims, and the constant stream of newly-arrived Crusaders, most of whom were there with fire in their eyes, to slay the infidels and rid the holy land of the scourge of Mohammedanism.  Peaceful civilian caravans were attacked and slaughtered by roving groups of Christian marauders.  Small settlements and cities were overrun. 

 

Saladin was a wise leader and good politician, and as the years went by his power and influence increased.  By about 1170 he had united a sufficient percentage of the Arab world under his banner to mount a real attack on the invaders.  It is at about this time that our movie begins. 

 

The film is very realistic and is mounted on a large scale.  Character arcs, mostly based on the lives of the real players of the period, are very well drawn.  Brace yourself for the blood and carnage, but the portrait of the period is unparalleled in any other movie I’ve seen about the age of knights in armor.  (The Crusades really ushered in the era of knights in armor.  The Crusaders mostly wore chain mail, a lesser protection than real armor, but the richest lords could afford a suit of armor.  By not long after the Crusades, European warfare featured entire armies of knights in armor.)

 

One of the most rewarding features on this DVD is a mode where a running text appears below the film, giving the historical data behind the scenes you’re watching.  This mode is fascinating.  Watch the movie first, with subtitles so you don’t miss what the actors are saying.  Then restart the movie in this mode with the historical text.  You’ll be hooked.  I found it necessary to liberally use the Pause button, reading the box then continuing the movie.  The data in these text boxes would be good reading even without the film behind it.  For example, as a specific war lord addresses his troops, advocating an attack, the text below gives the background of this war lord historically, and tells what eventually happened to him.  In another text it might explain the history and function of a catapult-like machine being used to throw projectiles at castle walls, or it might explicate attitudes of the time, like the idea that the Crusaders considered archers to be dishonorable warriors, fighting from a distance instead of facing you with a sword, man-to-man.  (Of course it wasn’t long before archery began to dominate warfare.  By the 1300s, English advances in archery resulted in an irresistible military force during the Hundred Year’s War.)  There is also considerable cultural information of a non-military nature – how they got water in the desert, what they ate, the state of hygiene and what they did with their dead, etc. 

 

It may be a little overwrought to say that the Crusades were the beginning of the current Middle East conflict, but there is a case to be made for that viewpoint.  More importantly, the collision of these two cultures in the period between 1100 and 1300 cross-pollinated both cultures, enriching Europe and the Far East.  In Europe, it ushered in the age of exploration, with Christopher Columbus and Vasco de Gama, in a search for trade that would bring to Europe the spices and silks they had discovered in their Middle Eastern adventure. 

 

Following the Crusades, the Middle East coalesced into an empire known as the Ottoman Turks, that flourished until the middle 1800s.  It was one of the longest and most stable empires in recorded history, rivaling Rome and the British Empire for strength and durability.  During its peak, this empire stretched across North Africa into the Middle East, across Persia and all the way to India.  Incursions were made into Europe as well, and it once reached as far as Hungary in the southeast and included the south of Spain as well.  As late as the early 1800s, Europe was heavily concerned about the possibility of invasion by the Turks, and this concern didn’t end until after the Crimean War in the 1850s, in which the Turkish army was vanquished by British, Russian and other European forces.  The Ottoman Empire eventually fell because of corruption in the ruling classes, resulting in an erosion of the once solid economic and cultural base, and refusal to embrace the rapidly improving technologies of the 1800s in Europe, especially military technologies, which led to losses on the battlefields of the Crimea (an area of the Ukraine). 

 

But the collision of Saladin and the Crusaders is probably the most interesting feature of the Middle Ages.  People who went to the “holy land” for a high religious purpose, only to have it degenerate into a slaughter and a land grab, and finally decompose into a protracted and unwinnable conflict and a lost cause – a regrettable misadventure. 

 

It is a film worth watching. 


Posted at 04:38 am by RedMan
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Feb 16, 2006
There’s Animation and There’s Animation

Today’s animation buzzword is CGI (Computer Generated Imagery).  This system of making animated films is a far cry from the original Disney method, painted by hand, cel by cel, twenty-four cels per second of film.  Movies like Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were the product of years of animation work by an army of animators.  Today, individual cels from these early animated films sell for a small fortune.  Each is an individual work of art. 

 

Disney had to prove again and again that animated film was more than a fad.  He produced his first full-length animated movie in 1938 with Snow White.  Despite his doubters and detractors, the movie was a howling success.  So too were its successors, until one of them slipped in the early 1940s.  This was hailed by the critics as a sign that the age of animated films was over.  Disney had a hard time financing his next film, and the studio nearly failed.  Of course he went on to make Peter Pan and many other highly successful animated films.  Nobody but the critics and the financiers ever really thought animated films were only a fad. 

 

By not long after that, there were alternatives to cel-by-cel animation.  Stop-motion animation was a system that got an early start.  It amounts to making models, and moving them in tiny increments, then photographing each small change on another frame of film.  In the 1950s a series of “monster movies” captivated audiences with the jerky motions of dinosaurs, centaurs and other mythical Greek creatures, sci-fi spooks and just plain Godzilla-style behemoths.  Most of these were done by the legendary Ray Harryhausen, the muse who worked alone with his models, moving little parts ever so slightly, then shooting another frame, then making tiny adjustments and shooting the next frame, moving at the glacial rate of about 13 frames per day – about a half-second of film.  His animation was then coupled with live photography and yielded stories like Beast From 20,000 Fathoms, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, and Jason And The Argonauts.  It wasn’t unusual for Harryhausen’s work to take as much as two years for a single film.  Most of the Harryhausen products were less than great thespian vehicles, but even today they’re entertaining, like playing songs from a jukebox in a 50s café. 

 

CGI came with the computer age.  Hollywood began experimenting early.  By 1973 (still the Dark Ages in the world of computers) Hollywood was producing Michael Crichton’s story Westworld with seminal CGI.  As the computer age blossomed, CGI quickly came of age.  Coming up through computer games, to early big-screen experiments like George Lucas’s Star Wars series, beginning in 1977, Tron (1982) and Phillip K. Dick’s classic Blade Runner with Harrison Ford (1982).  All of these early efforts paralleled the beginning of the personal computer age.  People were buying their first IBM PCs and watching movies about computers, made with the help of rudimentary CGI. 

 

But the real explosion was at Pixar Studios.  Led by Apple Computer guru Steve Jobs, Pixar broke through from the earlier CGI world of glowing outlines, light sabers and created backgrounds for live action, to 100% computer-generated images – people, animals, everything.  Jobs made a series of shorts that charmed the industry, and Disney put Pixar under contract.  Toy Story, made in 1995, was the world’s first fully computer-generated full-length feature film.  And people loved it.  It was one of the most successful animated movies in history.  With its sequel, Toy Story II, it made about $850 million dollars, for a cost of only about $120 million.

 

Pixar went on to make a series of blockbuster CGI movies in partnership with Disney, but that venerable company, set in motion by the revered father of American animation, had descended by the new millenium into a profit-motive hardball corporate philosophy.  When it was time to re-up the contract, Jobs and Pixar said, “No thanks.”  Disney CEO Michael Eisner and his minions appeared to think Jobs was simply negotiating, and they continued to assure their stockholders that all was well.  Jobs et al were on a different wave length though, and had made the decision that life was too short for Eisner-style histrionics.  Eventually it was clear that the break was real, not a negotiating posture.  Falling stock values, plummeting ticket sales and the fact that carnivorous management had estranged the most profitable growth part of the company led to a stockholder revolt, and Eisner, once the most highly-paid CEO in America, was forced out.  The new Disney management is making strides toward repairing the relationship with Pixar.

 

So now that we’re satisfied with the march of technology, from hand-painted cells to stop-motion animation to CGI (with a couple of hybridizations and other oddities in between) we stare slack-jawed at the current crop of successful animated films.  The three that are nominated for academy awards this year are none of them CGI! 

 

The front runner is the touching and very imaginative Corpse Bride by Tim Burton.  Featuring well-developed and expressive characters and a great story, this touching film is a rich drama – and it’s played by tiny mechanical puppets about a foot high that have intricate machinery.  The film was made with stop-motion animation, and the characters were incrementally moved between frames with tiny adjustments with watch-size screwdrivers poked into ears and mouths to curl a lip or drop an eyelid.  In 1938 audiences fell in love with an animated personality in Snow White, proving that an animated figure could have a life of its own.  Today it’s hard not to give your heart to the empathetic bride in Corpse.  She has more personality than some of the old Bond girls.

 

The British Wallace & Gromit and the Curse of the Were-Rabbit is an incredibly imaginative and entertaining story made with a type of stop-motion animation called claymation.  The characters are made of clay, and the frame-to-frame adjustments are made by reforming the clay ever so slightly.  (Think Gumby – the greatest claymation character in television history.) 

 

The third, Howl’s Moving Castle, is made by Japanese genius Hayao Miyazaki, the creator of the enormously successful Spirited Away.  Miyazaki uses primarily old-fashioned cel-by-cel animation, enhanced by CGI.  His “anime” figures with saucer-sized eyes and lovably cute faces are a trademark animation genre with such a huge cult following it is bordering on mainstream. 

 

So the more the world changes, the more it stays the same.  The future of CGI is bright, but the stop-motion people and the cel-by-cel artists are definitely not out of work.  As with so many other areas that have been affected by computerization, the enhancement brought by computers hasn’t entirely replaced existing technologies.  It’s a foray into a new area, hitherto unexplored.  The likelihood is that CGI will dominate more and more as time goes on.  But as long as there is a different look available, a different art form, there will always be someone who will use that medium to express a different idea. 

Posted at 05:35 pm by RedMan
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Dec 31, 2005
Adaptation

 

The worst airport dilemma is trying to find a book to read.  You can pick up something digestible by one of the reliable authors that writes in your favorite genre, but the general plot structure and flavor is going to be predictable.  It is nice to find something new and different – to roll the dice and try somebody new.  More often than not, though, this results in disappointment. 

 

Looking for a video can be the same kind of dilemma.  This is lessened somewhat when you order DVDs online with services like Netflix.com, because you can play online previews and read the recommendations of others.  But the search for something new and different is a never-ending obsession.

 

Every once in a while, a movie with a thrilling new twist comes along:  The Graduate, The Sting, Pulp Fiction and Sliding Doors are examples of films that broke new ground.  One of the most original films in recent years was Being John Malkovich.  That remarkable script was written by Charlie Kaufman and directed by Spike Jonze.  In the 2002 film Adaptation, the pair team up again to produce one of the most remarkably original stories on celluloid. 

 

Jonze is the ex-husband of Lost in Translation Director Sofia Coppola, which makes him a shirt-tail relation of the whole Coppola film mafia, including Francis Coppola (Godfather) Talia Shire (Rocky) and a host of other lights in the string of Coppola luminaries, including the star of Adaptation, his cousin-in-law Nicholas Cage (whose real name is Nicholas Coppola). 

 

The movie is loosely based on the book The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean.  A valid work in its own right, the book is a successful non-fiction account of a man in Florida who skirts the edges of legality to get a leg up in the lucrative orchid trade, using controversial loopholes to avoid prosecution for removal of the coveted plants from protected ecosystems in the Florida swamps.

 

But the movie is anything but a docudrama about a questionable, if fascinating, orchid thief.  In writing the script, Kaufman uses the act of writing the screenplay for the book as a jumping off point for a tortuous and evolving story about himself writing the screenplay.  The story gathers steam as the film moves along, and runs right past The Orchid Thief as it turns into a breathless adventure and a remarkable philosophical statement.  In the movie, screenwriter Donald Kaufman (Kaufman the character, played by Nick Cage) is an introspective self-doubter with writer's block.  Desperate to find a way to get the script going, he begins to write about his experience in trying to write the script, including his own self-doubts and worries.  "I know how to finish the script now. It ends with Kaufman driving home after his lunch with Amelia, thinking he knows how to finish the script," he thinks to himself.  And later, "Wonder who's gonna play me. Someone not too fat. I liked that Gerard Depardieu, but can he not do the accent?"

 

Donald Kaufman's twin brother Charlie (also played by Cage) is as crass and unsophisticated as Donald is wise and savvy.  But he has one good quality that may offset all of his faults; he is a fearless extrovert.  So in spite of his intellectual inferiority, he gets all the girls, and hits on the idea of being a screenwriter like his brother.  At first this is an enormous annoyance for Donald, who rolls his eyes at most of the things his brother says.  "Listen, I need a cool way to kill people," chirps Charlie, "Don't worry!  For my script!" 

 

As the story evolves, Donald begins to realize he could use some of his brother's enthusiasm and completely fearless ability to act and speak regardless of any potential criticism or disapproval from others.  Borrowing his brother's courage, Donald breaks through the wall of inertia and begins to do the legwork needed to build his story, turning up chilling new discoveries about the activities of the orchid thief. 

 

That's only the beginning of the maze of crazy twists as the plot progresses.  There is no way to pigeonhole this film.  It belongs to no genre.  It is off the wall.  Meryl Streep plays the part of writer Orlean.  Chris Cooper plays the part of orchid thief John LaRoche.  The alligators in the Florida swamp are played by themselves.  It's simultaneously thoughtful and thrilling.  If you were looking for something completely different, this is it. 


Posted at 02:16 pm by RedMan
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Dec 8, 2005
Gangs of New York

Leonard Bernstein’s musical West Side Story revolves around a gang fight in the streets of New York.  It takes place in the 1950s, pitting two “tribes” of poor against one another with chains and knives. 

 

It’s easy to suppose that gang warfare in New York City is a recent development.  But history teaches us otherwise.  In fact, the phenomenon had sharply dropped off by the mid-twentieth century.  New York was a cauldron; a landing place for millions of immigrants, most of whom came from homogenous countries where they had not been exposed to other races or religious groups, and the collision between these ethnic cultures was often epic. 

 

Martin Scorcese directed the 2002 movie Gangs of New York.  It is largely fictitious, but it revolves around real-life incidents and people from the middle 1800s.  It condenses a part of New York’s violent gang history into a grisly but compelling tapestry of a time and place.  More exactly, it deals with an aspect of that time and place.  The poor parts of New York were filled with death from sources other than gang warfare.  Sanitation didn’t exist.  People defecated in alleys and between houses, and disease was rampant.  Typhoid and cholera claimed those who didn’t die from syphilis, childbirth, food poisoning, or garden variety infection of wounds.  The film captures the filth, but  the reality of ever-present disease and plague is largely overlooked in a film that focuses mostly on a compelling plot of men with knives and clubs who fought for a foothold in one of the most virulent ghettos of that time

 

Caveat:  This movie is violent.  If that doesn’t bother you, you might enjoy it very much.  But it is unabashedly violent and bloody.  It’s also long.  It requires two DVDs.  It is not a light film.  It did win 10 academy awards.  Although multiple academy awards do imply technical quality in a film, they generally guarantee that a movie is not light, happy or cheerful.  The exciting and inspiring film Star Wars won some academy awards for sets, costumes, music, etc., but didn’t win any of the core awards such as best picture, best director, best actor.  Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, Han Solo and their indomitable friends changed our culture.  But the academy handed out the plum awards to Woody Allen and Annie Hall.  This was a good film, but history will remember the effect of Star Wars for centuries beyond the time when Annie Hall becomes a footnote period-piece.  So winning a lot of academy awards is not necessarily the highest recommendation for a film as an inspiring and spiritually uplifting story.  It is a technical award, and usually goes to bittersweet films at best.  This film would be in that category.

 

Historical fact is bent to create an effect.  Many of the characters are based on people that really existed, including Bill “The Butcher” Cutting, played by Daniel Day-Lewis, the evil warlord of the streets, and Boss Tweed, the infamous leader of the corrupt New York political system that existed in those days, called “Tammany Hall”.  The film treats many true historical events and phenomena in a relatively accurate manner, while illustrating them with side stories based on fictional characters – much in the way French author Alexandre Dumas did in most of his tales.

 

During the early part of the 1800s, part of New York was a swamp.  As the land on Manhattan became precious, this swamp area was reclaimed for housing, albeit rather badly; the area stank and the buildings settled into the muddy ground as the years went by.  This slum was identified by an intersection of five streets called “Five Points”.  This is where our story takes place. 

 

It is about the collision between Irish immigrants and the “natives” – New Yorkers who considered themselves to be above the Irish and whose Protestant English past put them at odds with the Irish Catholics who were landing at the rate of thousands per week. 

 

It is ironic that by a half century later, the Irish were in charge of the place and ran the same intolerance on incoming Italians.  There are multiple instances of this turnaround where he who is on the bottom gets to the top of the heap and begins to suppress the new “bottom” dwellers.  Later president Theodore Roosevelt took over the New York Police force in the 1890s, and introduced some reform into a force that was almost entirely Irish and their cultural view was to ignore crimes in Italian neighborhoods and suppress Italians generally.  It was Italians banding together for their own defense and the control of their own areas that contributed to the formation of the mafia. 

 

But if there was no mafia as such in the early 1800s, the Irish and “Native” gangs would definitely serve. 

 

Many of these gangs grew up around firehouses and companies of firemen.  The early fire companies in New York were all volunteers, but there was fire insurance for property.  Most of these fire companies were unofficial – just a bunch of guys that decided to get together and have a fire company.  The insurance companies customarily paid their fee to the first fire company on the scene.  This was a welcome source of income in a destitute area.  Fire companies would race to the scene, and if two of them arrived at the same time, it was not uncommon for them to fight it out in the streets with knives and clubs for the right to put out the fire, while buildings burned.  So these fire companies were de facto gangs.  The gangs had colorful names, like the Shirt Tails, the Forty Thieves, the Dead Rabbits and the Bowery Boys.  One of the most colorful gang names has become a part of our language.  It was based on tough guys, or “uglies” who would commandeer a fireplug and hold it for their own fire company to arrive, defending it at knifepoint.  This firehouse-based gang was called the Plug Uglies. 

 

Boss Tweed and the Tammany Hall boys would hire these gangs to get in votes for Tammany candidates.  Gangs would break into peoples’ houses and escort all who dwelt within, as roughly as necessary, to the polling place, and make them vote for Tammany.  Then they would escort the same men to another voting place and have them vote there.  Tweed once said, “As long as I count the votes, what are you going to do about it?” in response to a charge of ballot-box stuffing.

 

The police were just as corrupt as City Hall.  In the early part of the century there were no police in New York.  When they finally outfitted their first police force, the uniforms were such an object of derision for the slum dwellers that the police went back to wearing civilian clothes.  But they still wore their copper badge – which introduced another word into our language, “copper” meaning policeman, later shortened to “cop”. 

 

Yet another language product of the time was from the political cartoonist Thomas Nast who mercilessly attacked Boss Tweed and Tammany in Harper’s Weekly.  Many give his relentless cartoon attack credit for bringing Boss Tweed down.  He eventually went to prison and died there.  Tweed once said, “I didn’t used to mind what they said about me in the papers.  Most of my constituents couldn’t read anyway.  But they sure could understand those pictures.” 

 

Nast also created the symbols for the Republican and Democratic parties – the elephant and the donkey.  His acidic cartoons coined a word we still use, based on his name – “nasty”. 

 

The draft riots of 1863 were epic, not only in the film but in life.  Irish immigrants coming off the boat were being drafted immediately to serve in the Union Army, and they couldn’t see the point.  The riots began on July 13th 1863.  Blacks were murdered (seen by the Irish as the reason for the war) and buildings were burned.  “Upper class” homes were looted and families killed.  An orphanage for black children was sacked and burned.  The police were helpless against the riots, and they didn’t end until days later when a combination of Naval gunnery from offshore ships shelling the parts of town where the rioting was going on and the arrival of a large force of regular army soldiers, returning from the Battle of Gettysburg, quelled the disturbance. 

 

Such is the unsavory past of what is now one of the world’s great and graceful cities.  And the stories of the lives of some of the fictitious and semi-fictitious people who lived during those times, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Liam Neeson, Brendan Gleeson, John C. Reilly, and a tour-de-force by Daniel Day-Lewis, are as unsavory as any film experience I’ve ever had.  But despite the bloody filth and the twisted facts, the story smacks of “the truth”, and is a wonderful window, if somewhat distorted, on a remarkable time and place. 


Posted at 07:31 am by RedMan
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Nov 6, 2005
Band of Brothers

Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced a mini-series called Band of Brothers.  It is now available on DVD.  It is a series of ten one-hour segments, and it is the true story of a company of soldiers in the 101st Airborne paratroopers during World War II, from the formation of the unit and the training in the U.S. to the date some years later when it was disbanded after the end of the war. 

 

Going through these DVDs is perhaps the most rewarding film experience I’ve ever had.  There is a lot of violence; it is a war film.  Some people may have poor tolerance for that characteristic of the story.  But if the violence isn’t a turn-off, I don’t see any other reason why anyone wouldn’t put this series among the best films they’ve seen. 

 

Band of Brothers isn’t about what led up to the war, or the politics.  It’s about soldiers who jumped from planes into Europe behind enemy lines on D-Day, and were at the point of the allied advance through Europe from then (June 6, 1944) to the end of the war in Europe (May 8, 1945).  This particular company of soldiers was highly decorated.  They participated in several famous events during the allied advance.  But it wasn’t fun and games.  This particular unit suffered 150% casualties – meaning that during the war it required approximately 225 replacements to maintain their fighting strength of about 150 men.  Despite this remarkable casualty rate, many of the original soldiers survived the war.  In fact, one of the more interesting studies in the series is the phenomenon that the “new replacements” tended to die at a very high rate; but if they could survive their first few combat experiences, they tended to survive.  The acumen of the more experienced men tended to keep them alive. 

 

The ten segments of the film are very richly produced.  The budget was $120,000,000.00.  Most of the actors weren’t well-known stars, but all were masters of the craft of acting and well cast.  They were cast in part for their resemblance to the true-life person they represented.  At the beginning of each segment, there are interviews with some of the real life people, octogenarian veterans represented by the actors in the segment.  It isn’t necessary to embellish how touching this is.  Old men, grandfathers, who once put their life on the line, looking back, often with tears, at the intensity of the experience – the thrill of liberating cities where people staged impromptu parades in their honor, the agony of watching their best friends die in battle, the horror of discovering the Nazi death camps and the emaciated inmates who at first stared in disbelief at their liberators, and the life-and-death bond that formed between a group of men who depended on each other utterly for survival.

 

The group is Easy Company.  A company is a group of men in the military, usually consisting of about 150 soldiers.  The word “Easy” is for the letter “E”.  The companies were lettered, and were described by the words that go with these letters in the military phonetic alphabet; Alpha, Bravo, Charlie etc. 

 

World War II was unlike most wars we’ve experienced as Americans.  There was a widespread perception that this war was about a great deal more than the lives and freedom of people in some foreign country.  The sharp expansion of the Nazi war machine threatened to swallow up all of Europe, Northern Africa and Western Asia.  The Japanese army had already taken over much of the Far East and had already attacked Hawaii.  America, England and their very few allies were seen as the last defense against a world engulfed completely by fascism, in which our cherished liberties would be lost forever.  Regardless of the political shenanigans that created the environment where Hitler came to power, and regardless of any evil forces behind the creation and escalation of the war in its early years, it is hard to disagree with the urgency of the situation, even viewing it now from our safe historical perspective decades later.  If America and the West hadn’t come to the rescue, the odds in Las Vegas for the survival of democracy and freedom in the world wouldn’t have been good.  Despite the draft, most young men volunteered for military service.  It was seen as a duty.  The men who went were mostly aware at some level that they were doing this to save the world.  This viewpoint was so strong in America that men who couldn’t go for some reason often moved away from their home towns in embarrassment.  A few even committed suicide.  This included men who were rejected by the military for physical reasons.  It also included men who received legitimate exemptions as workers in “essential” industries.  In the story of Easy Company there is mention of a man who concealed his exemption as an essential worker to enlist.  There were many who lied about their age.  More than in most wars, these soldiers were there with a purpose. 

 

The film does not back down from any essential part of the WW II American military experience.  We live with these soldiers for 10 hours of film and we get to know them well.  We meet their cowards and their heroes.  We share with them their misery sleeping in open foxholes in subzero temperatures; or trying to save a downed buddy on the field of action, daunted by the certain knowledge that anyone who runs out there to pull him to safety will be shot; swearing a blue streak at insane orders from upper command to execute what is little more than a suicide mission – then performing it anyway and pulling it off; holding the line against superior forces, out of food, inadequately dressed for the freezing cold, using their wits and the little ammunition they have left, waiting for supplies, replacements and reinforcements with no real idea of when these replenishments might occur, or even whether they would occur at all. 

 

These were the soldiers that held the line in the famous battle at Bastogne – paratroopers with little more than their rifles and a few machine guns against German troops with tanks and cannons at the Battle of the Bulge (so-called because the Germans threw everything they had into this one last attempt to break through the allied line, creating a sizeable “bulge” in the line).  They were also the soldiers that captured Hitler’s personal “Eagle’s Nest” bunker in Austria.  Both of these events were front page news at home during the war. 


This is a series of DVDs that can have an effect like a very good book – keep you up at night watching the next segment, then the one after that, when you should be going to bed.  Use your self control when you begin.  By the second or third DVD you’re going to be seriously hooked.  The handsomely packaged box set would make an excellent Christmas present for anyone who doesn’t faint at the sight of blood. 

 

Perhaps it is best summed up in the words of Richard Winter, the decorated Captain who led this group through the war.  Interviewed as an old man, he talks about being asked by his grandchildren whether he was a hero in the war.  “No, I wasn’t a hero,” he replies, as tears well up in his eyes, “But I certainly served with a company of heroes.” 


Posted at 11:18 am by RedMan
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Nov 2, 2005
Bollywood

Bollywood

 

It’s not misspelled.  It’s a contraction of Bombay and Hollywood, and it’s a term for the Indian film industry, which might well be the fastest growing and most vital film industry outside of Hollywood. 

 

I went through the “foreign films” phase in college, listening to Europeans drone on endlessly and unintelligibly in well-composed but slightly grainy images while the story was told in jittery subtitles at the bottom of the picture.  Some of these films were great art.  A lot of them were boring.  But the European industry never developed the vitality and power of Anglo-American film.  Among other things, the European industry has been hampered by the Tower of Babel problem of a limited audience for any particular language. 

 

The Hong Kong film world has come closer to overcoming this barrier.  Throngs of devotees to Chinese film genres like martial arts movies pushed the industry from cult status to a mainline force.  Crossover stars like Bruce Lee, Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan were the first representatives of what is now a stampede.  Major Chinese female stars have crossed over too – including Michelle Yeoh, the martial arts superstar that emerged as a James Bond girl in Tomorrow Never Dies and Chinese femme fatale Maggie Q, who appears with Tom Cruise in his upcoming film Mission: Impossible III.  Michelle Yeoh was also a star in the incredible crossover film Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, which although it was subtitled, sailed into the box office top ten and stayed there for weeks while other hits came and went – the most successful “foreign film” in history.  Subsequently, another vibrant work of art from China called Hero did the same thing.  The transcendence of Chinese film is a subject of its own.

 

But only recently did I become aware of Bollywood.  I read an article somewhere, then with a yawn of idle curiosity, picked out a Bollywood film at my Netflix.com Internet DVD rental service and calmly waited for it to arrive.  When it came it sat on the shelf for a long time, and I began to wonder if I was really going to watch it or whether I should simply send it back.  One day I flipped it into the tray and started to watch.  Within minutes I was completely hooked.  The film was thoroughly entertaining and I couldn’t stop watching.  For two days afterwards I recalled it with pleasure and I played excerpts for friends when they came over. 

 

I couldn’t help wondering if I had hit the first and only great Bollywood film.  Could there be other good ones? 

 

After a few tries I have found the genre to be uniformly charming, colorful and uplifting.  It is not only good art, but it is art in its best tradition.  It is clean, optimistic and fun. 

 

The characteristics are a remarkable throwback to an earlier time in American film.  One of my favorite genres is the 1930s musical.  Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers made them.  Eleanor Powell made them.  Esther Williams made them.  Or the “screwball comedies” from the same era, with actors like Hepburn and Tracy and Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart.  The plot lines were gentle and warm.  Nobody died.  Nothing was blown up.  There were no handcuffs, there was no crime.  The story was always something like boy meets girl, misunderstanding develops, is resolved, boy gets girl.  Or girl goes to big city to make good, works hard, overcomes obstacles, makes good. 

 

It is an important fact that these films were enormously popular during a time when America was on the skids.  It was the middle of the Great Depression.  The stock market crashed in 1929.  For the better part of the next decade, the country went through the greatest economic depression in its history.  People lost their home and their farms.  Wandering migrants, not from Mexico, but from Oklahoma and Texas, made their way to California to find a new life.  Hoboes were “riding the rails” hitching on trains in empty boxcars, and jumping off before the train rolled into a station so they wouldn’t be clubbed by police.  Armies of homeless built tent cities where they could.  Life was tough. 

 

These films were the right antidote for the situation.  Glossy Hollywood musicals and comedies painted a world where people were wealthy and secure – where money wasn’t a problem.  They told stories about people who not only found a way to survive, but to do well and prosper.  They gave real hope to people who needed nothing more than the assurance that there was a better life to be had.  The love stories were real friendships – spiritual relationships, made to last.  There were no nipples, no naked butts.  Kisses were rare.  Instead there was real admiration and affection and lots of witty and clever dialogue. 

 

I can’t help drawing a parallel to India and Indian film.  India is an emerging country.  Their financial problems are ancient, not new.  But there is an emerging wealthy class there.  The Bollywood films I have seen are musicals.  And they are happy.  And they are clean.  And nobody is killed, nothing is blown up.  There are no handcuffs, and no crime.  The stories don’t dramatize poverty -- they antiseptically ignore it and focus instead on the growing wealthy class – the people who have leveraged India’s low cost of living and its well-educated English-speaking labor pool into America’s outsource service for telephone support, software development and manufacturing. 

 

Unlike other “foreign” film factories, India has the remarkable advantage of having the largest English-speaking population of any country in the world.  Yes, that’s right.  After centuries of British rule, India’s people still speak their many local ethnic languages, but the common tongue is English.  Bollywood movies are subtitled, but the spoken language flips back and forth from English to other languages in what appears to be a real approximation of the mixed-language speech pattern actually used there. 

 

These films are intensely colorful.  And their musical character is not bashful or self-conscious.  The characters are acting along, and they suddenly burst into song.  And the songs are great little pop numbers that harken back to early rock ‘n roll or soul music – very sweet and tuneful.  And the dancing is wonderful.  It’s somewhere between MTV and Busby Berkeley (the old Hollywood director who used to put together enormous production numbers with hundreds of girls dancing and forming into shapes that could be photographed from overhead like the halftime performance at a football game). 

 

The movies are long.  They often clock in at three hours, more or less.  But they don’t seem long.  I’ve always been disappointed when they ended.  I am swept up in the music and the color and the light and fluffy love stories between characters that you can’t help but like and admire. 

 

A few weeks ago I had one of these films in the house, and my brother-in-law came by with his family.  I said, “You have to see this dance number from this film.”  He sat down to watch it and wound up watching the entire movie. 

 

In one such film that I saw recently, there was a wedding, and when the bride came to her home town for the marriage, the whole town turned out and started singing and marching through the streets, singing something like, “Thank you for bringing the wonderful marriage to town.  Thank you for bringing this wonderful union of man and woman to our beautiful town.  It makes us all love each other (etc.)…”  All of them had on colorful costumes, and the bride and her bridesmaids danced before the procession like MTV rock stars, before finally riding off on an elephant.  It was truly beautiful. 

 

In the words of L. Ron Hubbard, “A society is only as great as its dreams, and its dreams are dreamed by artists.”  Bollywood has been doing some dreaming, and they are creating a real vision of a happier and better future for India.  The stars and directors are a mix of Muslims and Hindus in a country where the two groups coexist.  But there is never any mention of any conflict between these groups, either on or off the set, if you read about the industry.  It is a real Indian melting pot. 

 

I had a Russian friend that told me when she was young in Russia she went to Indian films all the time, because American films were forbidden – so she was brought up on the Indian film industry. 

 

Two that I would recommend if you are interested in sampling the genre are:

 

Dil Chahta Hai   A story of three young men coming of age, finding their mates.  One is in a family that strongly believes in arranged marriages.  Another is firmly dedicated to catching a certain young woman who spurns him at first.  The third develops an unusual relationship with a woman twice his age.  The whole story is charming and uplifting. 

 

Bride and Prejudice  An Indian treatment of the beautiful Jane Austen novel Pride and Prejudice. 

 

Both of these films are played on an international scale, based in India but ranging with the wealthy and successful people involved into locations in Australia, England and the United States.  They are completely charming. 

 

 


Posted at 10:52 pm by RedMan
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Jul 22, 2005
Christian Bale – The New Batman

In 1987 the master Steven Spielberg directed a remarkable film called Empire of the Sun – a story about a 12-year-old English boy in China, separated from his parents by the invasion of the Japanese during World War II, and his battle for survival.  The part of the 12-year-old boy was played by a 13-year-old Brit named Christian Bale.  The film was nominated for six Oscars.  Young Christian wasn’t nominated for one of the golden statues, but he did win several young actor awards for his remarkable performance in the film.

 

Bale subsequently grew up, and became a very good-looking 6’2” man.  And he is a very good actor.  He has worked steadily, if not remarkably, since that time.  He won awards for a moderately visible role in American Psycho and a lead part in a little-known film called The Machinist, for which he lost about 60 pounds to play the part of an insomniac who hadn’t slept in a year. 

 

For the most part, he has done an excellent job with parts in movies that never really went anywhere.  But it has apparently been a living. 

 

One of Bale’s most interesting “bombs” was a film that should have been a hit, called Equilibrium.  This thrilling and inspirational sci-fi story was one of the most important films in the last ten years.  Its quick demise was enough to raise questions of possible outside influence.  The film portrays a society in which the people were all being subdued with their daily dose of a mood-leveling drug called “Prozium”.  The theory of the Fascist government is that people who take this drug are unwilling or unable to commit violent acts, so the dose is the ultimate security measure.  Bale plays a Prozium policeman whose job is to make sure everyone was taking their dose – and to summarily execute rebels who refuse to do so.  Those who stop taking their Prozium become fascinated with things like music and art, which is the first clue they are rebelling against the system.  When Bale’s character decides to see what life is like without the drug, he becomes aware of the suppressive effect of the chemical straitjacket and eventually leads the rebels to victory over the evil Prozium peddlers.  Given the remarkable similarity to the word and purpose of the currently controversial drug Prozac, it seemed likely to this author that the movie was pulled from the market for some reason other than lack of popularity.  I never saw an ad for it.  I saw a poster in a theatre and simply walked into the movie.  The people in the theatre were cheering and whooping like a Star Wars audience.  But the movie folded its tent and disappeared immediately, without so much as a whimper in the press. 

 

Prozac’s maker, Eli Lilly, has a history of using money and influence to suppress opposition to the drug.  In one trial in the early 1990s, Lilly was sued pursuant to the murderous rampage of a man under the influence of the drug.  Near the end of the case, the plaintiffs suddenly ceased their attack and allowed the case to end prematurely without producing in court damaging evidence they had in their possession.  The case went to the jury, who found in favor of Lilly.  Later, the judge in the case changed the verdict when he found that Lilly had secretly settled with the plaintiff out of court. With their settlement in hand, the plaintiffs then cooperated with Lilly by allowing the case to proceed and go to jury as if there were no settlement, to establish the precedent of Lilly’s win. 

 

Nevertheless, Bale’s career continued, and now he’s the new Batman, in the best Batman movie yet, Batman Begins.  Helped out with excellent talent like Michael Caine, Liam Neeson, Katie Holmes, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Rutger Hauer and others, this Batman captures the dark flavor of the series in a gripping story about betrayal, honor and redemption.  It’s definitely worth the price of admission. 


Posted at 09:38 am by RedMan
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