Saturday, February 28, 2009

The Case for Kiddie Nostalgia - Part 2

There are plenty of shows from childhood that I do dimly recall, but have obviously not made that huge an impression on me. Thanks to those who, in Part 1, reminded me of some other "classic" shows from the past, ones that I had almost forgotten, though with your prodding, I now have glimmerings of recognition:

4. Secret Valley

Okay, so I will admit that I always kind of remember Secret Valley, the kiddie drama where bad boy Spider and his gang picked on the namby pamby do-gooders in the Secret Valley. It was tribal warfare in 80s Australia, with ignorant parents running around unaware of the sly deceptions and intrigues going on around them.

Well, at least, that is how I remember it. Unfortunately, I think I more accurately recall the theme song, which was sung to the tune of "Waltzing Matilda" by a bunch of screaming children - nowhere near as cult classicy as the Lost Islands theme song.

Influences: Well, I think at the time I thought it was a super cool show full of super cool kids doing supe
r cool things. I don't think I ever started an underground resistance cell to battle other kids though.

DVD: No sign. And I don't think I will go out looking

5. Voyagers!

Until Morgan pointed this one out, I had forgotten I ever knew i
t. Voyagers was basically Quantum Leap for kids. A man with a time travel device shows up one day and whisks a young boy away back in time in space. Today, this kind of show would come with parental warnings that one should never let small children be whisked away by strangers of any persuasion, time travelling do gooders or no.

I seem to recall this was a fairly entertaining series, though tended to get stuck in the pioneering USA, though that perhaps is really not that surprising

Influences: Again, none that I can recall (I loved Dr Who way before I remember liking this one), though I do recall the lead actor died after the creation of the first season by accidentally shooting himself with blanks (which are still lethal when playing Russian roulette), so a second series was never made.

DVD: Voyagers is available from Amazon at a fairly reasonable price, though considering my nostalgia priorities, I may save up for one of the more unreasonably priced series.

6. The Kids from O.W.L.

Right, let me be honest here and say I recall almost nothing about the Kids from O.W.L. and not even the power of the Internet was really able to jog memories other than people with walking stick guns, and that the series was Kiwi made. And that's all I really have to say.

Influences: I always love a good secret society with nifty gadgets and a sense of humour. No idea if any of these joys were in any shape formed by this show, but I just thought I would mention it.

DVD: Are you kidding? TVNZ has only just released a version of Under the Mountain (I am still waiting for Children of the Dog Star), so a really obscure show that did not have a global kidult following has very little chance of ever ending up on DVD (Dare! Dare!). And yes, those two other shows will be mentioned in a later edition of this post...

Verdict: Some more obscure shows that I really have little chance or perhaps even desire to really relive. It would be interesting to see them again, but I am in the camp that these ones will really not withstand a cynical, jaded view from a person no longer under the age of 10. 4
5 reminiscences out of 80.

Friday, February 27, 2009

The Case for Stick Figures

I had to go to Bienvenue Chez Les Ch’tis (Welcome to the Sticks). I could not make it when it screened at the International Film Festival last year, so I have been hanging out for this film for around 9 months. And in the end, the wait was well worth it.

The concept of the film isn’t really one I usually go for (a mild mannered slap stick kind of comedy), but go to the film I had to nonetheless. Not only is it a French film, and the highest grossing film in France ever, but also (and more importantly) my Aunt has a small yet memorable part as a northern local.

The premise of the film is that the people in the sunny south of France (or perhaps all over the country) see the north as a cultural wasteland of ice-covered fields and crazy people (well, it is close to England). Therefore, when the lead character, Philippe, is posted to the far-flung north of the country, away from the warm Mediterranean climate of his home, he wraps up in polar survival gear and heads, with a heavy heart and a light foot on the accelerator, to the Nord Pas de Calais.

This has a special resonance for me, as my French side of the family is all from that region (so my Aunt was playing a character not too far removed from her own experience). Of course, when Philippe arrives, he finds that everyone talks with a funny accent (perhaps ironic, considering “Parisian French” is the standard, not an accent from the south), they have peculiar customs and appalling weather, most of which are either caused or solved (or both) through the liberal imbibing of local and foreign alcohol.Philippe’s wife pictures life in the north as a living hell, so remains in the south worried for her north-dwelling husband. So Philippe, whose relationship with his wife has never been stronger now that they are apart, is in no rush to dissuade her of that impression, even as he finds himself acclimatising to the northern lifestyle.

So there is really nothing new to the story. It follows the conceit that people perceive that other people and places are less civilised than themselves (e.g., Wellington v the Hutt Valley or KapitiCoast; Auckland v the rest of the country), though this film capitalises on the differences that centuries of regional differences have produced, even in a country as centralised as France. The film’s popularity can probably be attributed to that celebration of “true France”, in much the same way films about rural or “old” New Zealand are seen as more Kiwi than more modern, urban-based entertainment (with the notable exception of Outrageous Fortune, of course). My favourite scenes in the film are when the wife finally visits the north, and the elaborate charade the locals go through to convince her that the north really is horrible are accepted by her without a single sceptical thought.

So, in the end, the film actually thrives on prejudice. The whole point is that other people are odd and different – and that is between peoples of the same nation. But, of course, the film eventually becomes a celebration of those differences, the mocking becoming gentle, the alien mannerisms becoming eccentricities from the norm. Overall, it’s a fun film with a message of acceptance at its heart, and if Welcome to the Sticks is the most popular film in France ever, then that is definitely a good thing.

Verdict: It has all been done a thousand times before, but this French take is done well, its distinctly Gallic flavour enhancing its underlying universal message. Two colours out of three.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Case for Adult Films

I have been a fan of Kevin Smith films for a long while now. Since Clerks, way back when, I have been along to almost every film he has put together (I was never quite brave enough to try and see Jersy Girl). So it was only natural that I had to go and see Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Having Seth Rogan as the titular Zack just added to the film's appeal (to me at least; his deadpan, baritone delivery almost always has me in hysterics), and in the end, I was not disappointed.

Sure, there were slow bits, and there were some bits that were so blatantly gross as to be unfunny. But, on the whole, Elizabeth Banks and the aforementioned Seth were incredibly amusing and engaging, and they carried me through the lows to the more frequent highs.

But they were not the star of the show. No, for me, the cameo by quintessential "geek" Justin Long, as porn star Brandon St. Randy, was definitely the best performance of the show. His insane descriptions of his and his boyfriend's sex life (especially in the "hidden extra" during the end credits) were completely over the top and delivered in a deep, gravelly voice I would not have thought him capable of producing. His boyfriend Bobby (played with hilarious silent suffering by new Supes Brandon Routh) was the perfect foil for St. Randy's over-elaborate descriptions of exactly what they saw in each other.

There were many other familiar faces in this flick, including some old Clerks stars, as well as a few from the 40 Year Old Virgin stable. The "best friends get together" story was fairly straight forward, but the dialogue lifted it from the usual while still keeping the characters sympathetic and likeable. Smith may not be the greatest director in the world, but he gets some great performances out of actors and his scripts always sparkle.

So, as you may be able to tell, I really enjoyed this movie. It hit all the right notes at just the right time. It also allowed me to experience Sky City's Cinema DeLuxe for the first time, and really, it was all worth it.

Verdict: Zack and Miri Make a Porno is a huge amount of fun with lots of great performances. not for everyone, but then, it's not really supposed to be. If you enjoy the absurd amongst some great dialogue and performances, then you will enjoy this. 9 Xs out of 10.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Case for Scottish Comedy

I went to your first live Billy Connolly stand up comedy show earlier this week.

First off, let me preface this by saying I have a kind of fear of live comedy. I have seen the odd stand up comic whose sense of humour and timing have left me cold, and those few instances of intense discomfort, as the comic stands expectantly, awaiting a torrent of laughter that I cannot honestly deliver.

Luckily, this was not the case at the Billy Connolly performance. Even when using material I have heard several times before, Connolly's enthusiasm and energy and his ease up on stage made the performance both amusing and, even during the slower or more predictable points, he was never boring.

I noted a Scot or two in the crowd, wearing their kilts in a display of Scottish pride that the man on stage did not feel the need to show himself. There were other people who were offered better seats and so, for the first hour of the performance, there was an irritating trickle of people down the stairs in front of me towards their better view - a really poor system on the part of the organisers, I thought. However, the saddest night of the evening was a lost elderly gentleman, who had obviously gone to find a drink or head off to the toilet, and wandered back to his section... and could not find his seat. He hung around the stairwell and (mildly infuriatingly) directly in line between some spectators and the stage, and finally sat down on the floor in resignation, his companions either unable or unwilling to assist him back to his seat. Bless.

Luckily, Connolly kept the night humming, the crowd buzzing and laughing. There were die hard Billy fans in the audience, who must have heard before even more of his anecdotes than I had, but they were not disappointed. And neither was I.

Would I go again? Perhaps not every year. But if I need a good live laugh, I now know where I can find them.

Verdict: Billy Connolly's show was a whole heap of fun. There were highlights and lowlights, but overal, definitely worth the ticket price. 7 Scottish Clansmen out of 10.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Case for Kiddie Nostalgia - Part 1

It has been a long while since I put together a weekend edition of Judge & Jury. Commitments, general business and a lack of inspiration have all played their part in keeping me away.

But not today - no, I have been inspired by a conversation I had a few weeks ago to revisit the past and some old childhood friends with whom, through the magic of DVD, it may be possible to be reunited. If any readers in blogland can think of people I may have forgotten, please let me know.

Now, by way of introduction, we were discussing some TV shows from years past. My age showed through in a lot of the discussion, mainly in the extra detail I was able to bring to the recollections that my more aged brain had stored uselessly within its cells. The oddest thing about these shows, that I recall both with fondness and a mild amount of horror, is how they appear to have influenced me and my current tastes. They are shows I think I will one day have to obtain on DVD to relive, yet at the same time, I do fear that they may not be quite the shining beacons of child entertainment excellence that I once thought they were...

And so, enough introduction; now lets get on to it, with hyperlinks where I can find them:

1. Star Fleet / Bomber X

Memories: I think this was the show that started our particular geek discussion, and for both of us, it was a fairly vague memory of supermarionation and Japanese robots.

I am a bit of a Sci Fi space battle nut, so what I mainly remembered was lots explosions and encounters, though mostly the fights all ended up fairly inconclusively, and there was a space ship and a robot... and that was about it. I seem to recall at the time I had the realisation that this was a Japanese series, or at least dubbed, but who cared? As long as there were space ship and things going bang I was happy.

Influences: Perhaps I can trace my enjoyment of Japanese manga back to this show. Hideous dubbing and exaggerated expressions, large eyes and confusing storylines - I was weaned on them. I doubt Star Fleet will in any way be comparable to the incredible Gundam: Seed (well, besides the fact they are about space ships and giant robots... actually, they are fairly comparable), but if it took me to that place, then it was a great start.

DVD: Actually, it can be bought, now I come to look for it! Amazon UK! And if the NZ dollar was actually worth anything, I might have to buy it! Wonder what the chances of Real Groovy getting a copy are...

2. Mysterious Cities of Gold

Memories: I think this came a bit later that Star Fleet / Bomber X, but this one for some reason stuck a lot longer in the memory (see Influences).

I seem to recall I missed the earlier episodes, but when I got into it, I really got into it and had to make it back from school to make it, come hell or high water. Esteban and his gang of youthful adventurers found amazingly eco-friendly craft and went wandering around South America in search of El Dorado. I loved the cheesy opening song, the Japanese-y animation (though apparently this is a French coproduction) and I learned something at the end of every episode, as I recalled there was a "fabulous real South American facts" section at the end. Entertaining and informative - a parent's dream!

Influences: Well, this year I am off to explore one of those mysterious cities deep in South America. I am not touring the whole continent or anything, but I am very certain my desire to visit the sites of ancient Incan civilisations were in no small part instilled through watching this show.

DVD: Again, Amazon UK has a version or two on its books. For some reasons, I think the Mysterious Cities of Gold would hold up better than Star Fleet, but still the unfavourable exchange rate holds me back. Perhaps once I am back from exploring those cities myself...

And finally, as I have other things to do today:

3. The Lost Islands

Okay, this one I feel a certain kind of shame writing about (considering what I have just written, I know this might sound a bit ironic), but then, this was an Australian series. But it keeps coming up, and once you hear the theme song (yes, please click this link), everyone who was a child in the 80s will remember the man whose face was in a mask (with a very english accent on the "ask").

Yes, Tony, Mark and David, Anna and... the other one were lost on a deserted island that was also lost in time. It was all about young people struggling against oppresive adults, though these youths were armed with knowledge denied the local inhabitants. There was a hint of mystery, a touch of danger, and quite a bit of subterfuge and awful effects, and I seem to recall the Australian lad ended up as the good natured leader, and again, it was quite addictive. But did they ever get off? I don't recall...

Influnces: For me, the TV current series Lost is always linked to this early, cheaper version. They aren't a huge amount alike, to be honest, but the whole "mysterious isle" thing for me is the strongest link. However, the Lost Islands never really made me want to get stranded on an island somewhere - though I ended up in New Caledonia for 9 months, so perhaps it had more of an influence than I thought.

DVD: No sign of it, and actually, I am quite glad of that.

Verdict: Oh, the 80s! Youth! So many memories! And, as I remember more of them, I will share them all with you and see if you too recall these blasts from the past! 75 reminiscences out of 80.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The Case for Slumming It

For the first time in quite a while, I went to a fairly popular (as in well-attended) movie. Of course, it helped that it was at the glorious Embassy cinema, that the film is a recent release, and also that the hype for the film has been extraordinary. But, in the end, the reason for Slumdog Millionaire’s popularity proved to be that it is a really good film.

Slumdog Millionaire is a love story set against the backdrop of contemporary India, where extreme poverty and crime lords clash with incredible cultural beauty and multinational corporations. This is not the sanitised Bollywood of Bride and Prejudice, nor the wrist-slitting grit and melancholy of most of the recent prize-winning Indian novels, but a combination of the two. India is shown as a land of extremes, and the lead characters’ lives cover all (or at least, a lot) of them.

While the location may be quite exotic to Western eyes, the underlying story is nothing new. Boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy meets girl again, boy kind of loses her again, boy goes on Who Wants to be a Millionaire India. Some of the twists and turns are telegraphed a mile away, but how those twists and turns are incorporated into the story, and always linked back to the WWTBAM questions, is brilliantly told.

All the actors are superb (though the WWTBAM host gave me the wiggins), even if some of the more clich├ęd scenes let them down. For me, the most annoying was the oft-repeated “spotting across a crowded train station” device, even though this is India and there are about 50 platforms between the players, not to mention the several hundred thousand people who constantly mill about the place as well – whereas I have a hard enough time spotting people at the relatively tiny Wellington terminus.

Once the at times amusing, at times harrowing, and always entertaining film is over (and for no particular reason that I can see), the final credits roll over a Bollywood dance scene performed by the cast. Perhaps this was a treat for the actors, to have them participate in something so light and frothy after their more serious scenes of violence and heartache. For me, it felt a bit odd ending on such a frivolous note, but it also seemed to cleanse the cinematic palate of any bitter aftertaste from the film, so all that was left at the forefront of the tongue was a lovely sensation of the amazing images and colours of India.

Verdict: Plot-wise, not really a revelation, but Slumdog Millionaire told a fairly simple story very well. An Extremely Hot on a scale of Indian spiciness.

Friday, February 6, 2009

The Case for Hopeless Emptiness Reinterpreted

Following on from my last Judgement, I was interested to hear, a few days later, the interpretation of Revolutionary Road from a different perspective.

Whereas I saw the film as a struggle against oppressive expectation, the film could also be viewed as a descent into madness, about being unable to deal or live within the confines of a normal life.

I am not sure if I will change my opinion about the films messages, but I did find it fascinating and challenging to hear another person's opinions on this kind of thing. It's a sign of a good movie that it can be interpreted different ways and generate discussion.

Verdict: Even better than before, and perhaps no less depressing.

Oh, and have a great Waitangi Day!

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Case for Hopeless Emptiness

I really liked Revolutionary Road up until the part where, on the Cunard ship over to France, Leonardo DiCaprio's character yells out "I'm the King of the World!".

Of course, that scene never actually happens in this film. Despite the fact Leonardo, Kate Winslet and Kathy Bates are all aboard this ship, it doesn't really sink, no matter how many icebergs people run into.

The film is harrowing - well, for those of us who aren't 17 year old girls at the front of the cinema enjoying Leo as eye candy (yes, there were some giggling girls there...). The film portrays life at is most numbing, with the 1950s American dream of a big house, a car and kids destroying all other dreams around it. The ideal middle American couple, Frank and April, live the ideal life, the only problem being that it is not the life they wanted. April finally gets the gumption to try and break out of the white picket prison they have built around themselves, remembering Frank's dreams of long ago, and they both decide to try and turn those dreams into their new reality.

Of course, everyone thinks they are crazy, apart from the local crazy man, who is the only one who really sympathises with their predicament. And I realise I am turning into Mr Plot Summary here, so I will end that right now.

This is really not a happy film. In fact, I can't recall any character in the film that comes across as happy. Every character seems to be playing a role that is not who they really are, and most seem to be able to live with it. But not everyone, as one scene in particular showed - the last time I saw eggs prepared in such a soul-crushing way, Beth Heke ended up with a couple of black eyes. Here, the wounds are not so obvious, but the soul ends up even more battered.

The acting is all superb, with the gorgeous Kate Winslet giving April a hopeless hopefulness, and Leonardo DiCaprio's Frank portrayed as a torn man looking up at the stars but living down in the gutter of "reality" and what is expected. Other characters come and go, but these two leave all others in the shade - they can really act when they want to. To me, the fact they played the unfeasibly romantic Rose and Jack in Titanic adds an extra dimension of that sense of "and this is what would have really happened if Jack and Rose had both survived".

And so, guess what? I liked this film. It struck a chord with me with its perceptive perspective on life. Truly, some of the most valuable things in life are people who understand you, encourage you and support you no matter what you say or what hairbrained scheme you may want to undertake. Everyone has different motivations and aspirations. But no one is an island. And Revolutionary Road shows how difficult it can be to start that revolution when one is rebelling against "the perfect life".

Verdict: It may not have been perfect, but I was too depressed to care. Revolutionay Road may not be a film for all occasions, but it definitely is an occasion. 4 Prozac pills out of 5, and a shot of vodka to wash them down.