Archive for the ‘Movies’ Category

I used to enjoy movie pre-views ( or coming attractions or trailers , as they are also known). There was the feeling of getting something for nothing. After all we were to see for the main feature and these were “freebies”. The shorter the main feature, the  more previews there were to compensate for it. And it was exciting to see what was coming down the pike. When I was young it always felt that the coming attractions were better than the movie we were about to see.

All that has changed now.

Nowadays, the previews feature lots of explosions and car crashes, earthquakes and other natural disasters, superheroes and aliens. Or an apocalyptic future, in which mankind is struggling to survive amidst the rubble. Everything is very loud ( good in a way, because it tells me my hearing isn’t failing).When there are five or six pre-views, it is difficult to tell one from another. Not one of them is a movie that I would want to see.

I was at a Bollywood movie recently and it was preceded by two previews. One of them was about two rival terrorist bombers striving to out-do each other. Once again, lots of explosions. I think the movie title was something like “Bangistan” and it was supposed to be a comedy. A comedy!  I can’t remember what the other preview was; I must have tuned out.

One thing is certain… I will not be watching either of those movies.

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Last Night at the Oscars

Last night I watched the Oscars after a lapse of several years. As with the Super Bowl, where I didn’t watch the pre- game show at all, here I only started watching when host Ellen de Generes took the stage. Perhaps because of that, I was able to watch the show to the very end. Here are my impressions of the show, my picks and pans.

Ellen de Generes: I thought was very good. Her opening monologue was fresh and funny, got everyone laughing and kick started the show. Afterwards, she was content to let the events on stage unfold without imposing herself on them. I liked the bit about ordering pizza for the audience and , later, getting them to chip in for the tip to the deliveryman. Also, offering those who had lost out on the awards lottery tickets as a consolation.The one thing I didn’t like was her continuing reference to Jonah Hill ” showing her something she hadn’t seen in a long time.” It was funny the first time but not when it was repeated.
Jared Leto’s acceptance speech : was heartwarming. His mother went through a lot as a single woman raising two children and it was wonderful that he acknowledged her sacrifices and the role she played in his life.
The awards: contained few surprises. After “Gravity” won so many awards, I was pretty sure Sandra Bullock would not get the Best Actress Oscar. And she didn’t. Must say I didn’t expect it to go to Cate Blanchett because Blue Jasmine was perhaps the least known of the movies.
Acceptance Speeches:were mostly alright, not too long except for those by Cate Blanchett and Steve McQueen. I know that this the crowning moment for those winning awards and that they want to acknowledge the contributions of those who helped them get there but … is there any point in reeling off a long list of names of people whom we don’t know and will never hear of again? Wouldn’t it be better to acknowledge such contributions privately, face to face? This is particularly true of foreign winners whose mumbled speech is difficult to understand. Another speech I didn’t care for was that of Matthew McConaughey whose reference to the role God plays in his life was tiresome to say the least; the rest of the speech about striving but never being able to be his own hero could have been better expressed. The best speech, the one I enjoyed the most, was that of Lupita Nyong’o who was dignified and thoughtful even as she was bubbling over with joy.
The songs:presented on stage were all great but I particularly enjoyed those by Bette Midler and
Pink and of course the impromptu one by Darlene Love.
Annoyances:Jamie Foxx who muffed his half of the announcement and then did his best ( worst?) to distract Jessica Biel when she was speaking. Also, Jim Carrey’s impersonation of Bruce Dern.
Overall, the Oscars were enjoyable giving us a chance to experience some of the old time Hollywood glamor now sadly fast vanishing.( They also brought home to me the importance of the industry ( $500 billion + worth of tickets sold worldwide last year). I can’t help remarking though that most of the movies honored with nominations are not what I would go to see. For one who sees movies only for entertainment, yesterday’s honorees like ” 12 Years a Slave”, ” The Dallas Buyers Club”, ” The Wolf of Wall Street” and ” American Hustle” hold few attractions. The only ones I would consider seeing are ” Gravity” and ” Her”.

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The day after Thanksgiving, we went to the movies. There were eight of us: uncles, aunts , nephews, nieces and one friend. For my wife and me, going to the movies is a rare event , something that happens only two or three times a year. And just like this time, it usually happens after a family get together when we all go to the theater together. Normally , we don’t think of going to the movies. There is no particular impetus to do so. We don’t have to see the latest movie immediately it comes out; we’re retired now and there will be no more discussions around the water cooler. We have a large screen HD TV and, sooner or later, everything will wind up on the small screen. We have subscriptions to both Netflix and Hulu and we can always pay for a movie and watch it at home. No, there is no need to bestir ourselves and go out to the theater, especially when it is as cold outside as it is now. Still, I will admit there is a special pleasure in watching a movie with family and friends , just as there is a special pleasure in dining together. I enjoy the popcorn and the Diet Coke, sitting in the darkened cave of the theater, hearing the murmurs of the others in the audience, watching the seemingly interminable previews of coming attractions until , finally, the main feature begins.Each time we do something like this , we tell ourselves we must do it more often.

We had seen the first Hunger Games movie at home, on TV. Our daughter , who was visiting, insisted that we do so and she sat down and watched it with us. Initially , I had been resistant because I thought the premise of the movie was too grim, that I would not enjoy it. I was wrong. It was good and , as usual, the special effects were amazing. This time , when the idea of watching the sequel was floated, I didn’t object.

The Hunger Games, for those few who have never heard of the books , is based on the best selling trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The Games are set in a post apocalyptic world where 12 districts are being forced to pay for rebelling against the central government of Panem. Each year they have to send a tribute of two youngsters , one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18, to the Hunger Games where they are forced to fight to the death against representatives from the other districts. In the first movie, Katniss Everdean ( Jennifer Lawrence) prevailed and was honored as a Victor along with her male counterpart Peeta( Josh Hutcherson). However, her charisma and popularity set her on a collision course with President Snow ( Donald Sutherland) who correctly foresees that she could be the catalyst for a rebellion against his inhumane, oppressive government. In Catching Fire, the sequel to the first movie, Katniss and Peeta are once again forced to fight for their lives in the Quaternary Quell , a version of the Hunger Games that pits past Victors against each other. How they do that unfolds in the second part of Catching Fire and it IS gripping; the first part showing the machinations of President Snow and the counter moves by Katniss and Peeta does drag a little. Once the Games start , it is a non-stop rollercoaster ride as Katniss and Peeta struggle against a variety of dangers thought up by the new GamesMaster( Philip Seymour Hoffman).

Usually , the first question that is asked about a sequel is ” How does it compare with the original?” In my opinion, Catching Fire is better than its predecessor. The computer generated special effects are as good as ever, but the character development is superior. In the first movie,Jennifer Lawrence was okay in the role of Katniss but this time around she is simply excellent. It must be difficult to act in movie like this. Not only do actors have to guard against being overwhelmed by the special effects , they also have to play off them. In Catching Fire, Jennifer Lawrence is completely in the role and the movie’s success is entirely due to her tour-de-force as Katniss. She fully deserves her $ 10 million for this movie( she got only $ 500,000 for the first one).The other characters all play second fiddle to Katniss. Stanley Tucci as the campy TV host Ceasar Flickerman and Donald Sutherland as the villainous President Snow reprise their roles from the first movie and Woody Harrelson ( Haymitch Abernethy) and Elizabeth Banks ( Effie Trinket) are given more to do this time around.

Essentially, this entire movie is a buildup for the events of the third book which will be the subject of not one but two more movies on the Hunger Games saga. I have not read the Suzanne Collins books but I think I may do so now. Some parts in the movies were not clear to me and , besides, I don’t want to wait two years to find out what happens. I’ve been told the third book is darker than the first two and reading it will prepare me to see it on screen.

I was surprised to hear that the movie ( and presumably the books) touch upon themes of social inequality and the domination of the poorer sections of humanity by the elite. This also happened with Avatar which I enjoyed very much and not because it allegedly had political messages about colonialism, despoilation of the environment etc. When I see such movies, I’m only looking at them for their entertainment value and I thought Catching Fire was great. In Hunger Games, I did see the parallels with the Cretan myth of the Minotaur and with the gladiatorial contests of ancient Rome where slaves and conquered peoples were forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the citizens but that is all.

One thing of interest is the character of Katniss Everdean and the radical departure from female roles in the past. At one time , the heroine was a helpless thing who was forced to rely on the hero to rescue her from a perilous situation. I think we all took it for granted that that was the natural order of things. As women have edged closer to true equality with men, this portrait is changing. The first radical departure was the character of Lisbeth Salander in Steig Larsson’s Swedish trilogy ( The Girl Who Played With Fire etc). Lisbeth fought back physically against her oppressors and exacted her revenge convincingly. Katniss takes this trend to the next level as she saves not only herself but all the others. In a sense, she is the hero and the heroine . You go , girl !

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Television vs. Movies

In a recent  article in the Wall Street Journal ,  movie  critic Joe Morgenstern compares television and movies . The best TV series ,like ” Homeland”, he writes are characterized by “intricate plot development , …. craftsmanship that builds up to moments of barely  bearable intensity and … layer upon layer of ambiguity laid down , like rich sedimentary soil as startling secrets are revealed and red herrings are dangled.” They build up their fictional worlds over months or years,  unlike movies which  concern themselves with ” relatively narrow segments of time in which the crucial qualities are compression , concision and intensity.” 

Morgenstern doesn’t express a clear preference for one over the other but, of late, I find myself more interested in television series rather than in movies . Part of the reason is that I have recently watched several top notch series , courtesy of Hulu and Netflix . The best of them was Downton Abbey , the entire second season of which I watched with my wife and daughter in two days flat. Another was The Eagle , A Criminal Odyssey a Danish series all three seasons ( 24 episodes in all ) of which  I devoured over four days . One of the drawbacks of TV series used to be  that one had to wait a week between episodes and that each episode was interrupted by those pesky commercials , always at the most critical moments . Watching them on Netflix or on other on-demand services  enables one to sidestep these drawbacks . And watching them on big screen HDTV in the comfort of one’s home is an attractive alternative to going to the theater.

I must admit that most  regular TV programming leaves me cold. The only recent  home-grown TV series I liked was The Good Wife.  I have never felt compelled to watch other hit series whose charms escape me .  Many of the series that I liked were on cable TV and not a few of them from foreign TV . Cable is free of the restrictions of regular TV and foreign TV is refreshingly different . One of the big drawbacks of TV was that TV budgets were smaller and so  the production values were inferior. That is no longer quite as true as many cable companies are spending more on their product. In addition , CGI has helped them achieve undreamed of effects that bring them closer to par with big screen productions . To be sure , movies like  Avatar and The Lord of the Rings trilogy have to be watched in a theater to get the proper effect, but most everything else is just as good  at home.

What I like about TV series is that their greater length allows for a more leisurely exposition and a better development of  characters . TV  treatments are ,on the whole, more realistic, and not as focused on ever more spectacular car chases and explosions  or on superheroes .   I know that there are good indie movies which I would probably enjoy but it is difficult to find them . We watch only three or four movies in theaters each year , often in the company of our extended family , and it seems like they are always big budget , CGI dominated extravaganzas produced by the major studios . It is true that movies manage to pack in an amazing amount of happenings in a very short time span and that is something to be admired . The trouble is that they are over all too soon.

It’s like eating chocolate . There are those who bite into a chocolate and send it down the hatch in mere moments . And then there are others who prefer to savor it, rolling it about , enjoying it slowly, lingering over every morsel  before regretfully downing the last remnants . I am one of the latter.

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Yesterday , I watched a wonderful documentary ,  “Jiro Dreams of Sushi“, available on Netflix streaming . Released in 2011 , the movie chronicles the life of Jiro Ono , an 86-year old sushi master in Tokyo. He is the proprietor and head chef at Sukiyabashi Jiro, a small ten- seat sushi restaurant which received three Michelin stars and drew the admiring comment ” That is the only rating that we could give him” . The restaurant is located in the basement of a Ginza office building , has no bathroom and its decor is best described as minimalist . It does not serve appetizers or drinks , only sushi. However , that doesn’t keep away sushi mavens who are willing to pay upwards of $ 300 for the experience of dining there.

Jiro Ono’s father was an alcoholic who abandoned the family when Ono-san  was only seven ; Ono-san   had to fend for himself since he was 9. For seventy-six years , almost his entire life , he has made sushi. Even today , at 86, he comes to the restaurant every day and oversees every aspect of the operation from checking the preparation of the rice and fish , finalizing the seating arrangements , deciding the seating arrangements and ,of course, preparing and serving the sushi. Working alongside him is his older son , Yoshikazu , and in the back are three apprentices .

The movie follows him at work in the restaurant and uses interviews with the food critic Yamamoto , with Ono -san’s two sons Yoshikazu and Takashi , various food suppliers , apprentices and others to paint a picture of the man . Yoshikazu works alongside his father and , as the eldest son , will one day take over for him . Takashi was encouraged by his father to leave and now manages the Roppongi Hills branch of the restaurant.

There are  segments  in which Ono-san talks about his life and work. In one sequence , we follow Yoshikazu as he makes the rounds of the giant Tsukiji fish market to buy the day’s fish . This was a chore that his father  used to do himself but he gave it up when he had a heart attack at the age of seventy ; it was also when he gave up smoking. We find out more about Ono-san’s beginnings and early life  when he takes a train to attend a school reunion  and we meet up with his old schoolmates.

The movie is a visual delight , as the camera lingers lovingly on the jewel-like pieces of sushi as they are expertly formed .Ono-san’s hands are a symphony of motion ; there is not a wasted movement as his fingers pat and caress the rice and the fish into sushi. It is beautiful to watch and one  believes  him implicitly when he says ” We don’t care about money… All I want to do is to make better sushi.” A former apprentice says “He never takes a day off except for funerals .” Another person says ” They aren’t trying to be special … they just want to work.” His son , Yoskikazu , talks of him as being like ” the maestro of an orchestra.”

At various points , Ono -san talks about his philosophy of life and work ” Once you decide your profession , you must immerse yourself in your work. You must fall in love with your work…. Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success and the key to being regarded honorably .” This is a man who dreams of sushi and who says that he often wakes up at night with new ideas to try out. He is completely immersed in his work and it is no wonder that he says ” I feel ecstatic all day .”

It shows.

There is a calmness about Ono-san which is a sign of his inner peace . He may be a hard taskmaster but he treats his apprentices with consideration , passing on his knowledge , demanding perfection, without ever talking down to them . There is not a hint of ego , no condescension when he tells them how they could do better. ( Gordon Ramsay , you should watch this movie !) Books on spirituality exhort us to live completely in the present moment ( “Be Here Now” ), with no thought for the past or the future. In his single-minded quest for perfection , Ono-san seems to have found fulfillment . As someone in the movie says ” Ultimate simplicity leads to ultimate purity.” Those words are used to describe Ono-san’s sushi but they could also be applied to his life.

When Michelin paid a visit to Sukiyabashi Jiro and gave it a coveted three star rating , it was Ono-san’s son , Yoshikazu, who prepared the sushi . It feels good to know that when the inevitable happens , Jiro Ono ‘s skills and traditions will not be lost to posterity.

Since the dawn of time , Man has pondered “What is  the meaning of life ?”. It is a conundrum  that we can never solve . There are as several ways to answer the question , and many of us conclude that there is no meaning to life . Perhaps we think too much . Perhaps it is best to do as Jiri Ono does and just concentrate on doing our work well , seeking to perfect what we do and to pass along what we have learnt. Particularly in Japan , there seem to be many like Ono-san who follow this path and who lead long ,happy,  fulfilled lives. People like Shigeoki Hinohara ( 97) who still works as a fulltime physician and has written 150 books since the age of 75. People like Shigekazu Yamazaki  who lives in Ibaraki , and at the age of 82 is still active in civic affairs , serving on four different committees . He walks to town meetings and bicycles to the market every day on his 30-year-old bicycle .

If you get Netflix streaming , don’t miss watching ” Jiro Dreams of Sushi “. You will be glad you did.

P.S: It is very instructive to listen to these octogenarians and others talk about what they believe in  as they go about their daily routine . Try and go to www.eightbillionlives which features a series of short films about ordinary people . One of the films is a six-minute short about Shigekazu Yamazaki. Enjoy.

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There will always be an argument  about what one should do first: read the book or see the movie. I don’t see why it should be so .  A book is much more detailed , so much more complex than a movie, that it should be experienced first. A picture may be worth a thousand words but a movie is still a condensation ; many things have to be left out if a three hundred page book is to be translated into a two-hour movie.

In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, I read three-quarters of the book before I saw the movie. While both of them are excellent ,  the movie  cannot possibly hope to convey the humor in the book to the big screen and, of course, it leaves out some of the details. In all other respects, the movie is as  good as the book.

Gregory Peck has been accused, in the past , of being somewhat wooden in his acting. Not in this movie . Here his portrayal of Atticus Finch hits all the right notes…the principled , courageous small town lawyer struggling to bring up his motherless children even as he fights the good fight . No wonder that he won the Oscar for Best Actor.He is Atticus Finch and I can quite believe the anecdote  that Harper Lee gave him her father’s watch as a gift.  Peck was actually the third choice to play Atticus but I’m glad that Rock Hudson and Spencer Tracy were unable to accept the role . In my opinion , Hudson was a light weight as an actor and Spencer Tracy too old to make a credible Atticus.

At first sight , Mary Popham didn’t fit my image of Scout Finch but by movie’s end I had to admit that she andPhilip Alford ( who played Jem ) and John Megna ( as Dill) were wonderful in their roles. At the Oscars she narrowly lost out to Patty Duke ( Best Supporting Actress,”The Miracle Worker”). Of the others , Brock Peters was superb as the accused  Tom Robinson, innately dignified and decent , fearful and hopelessly resigned to his fate. Much is made of the fact that this was Robert Duvall’s acting début but he was not called on to do much. In his role as Boo Radley, he appeared only towards the end of the film and did not utter a single word.

The film  garnered two other Oscars : Best Screen Play ( Horton Foote) and Best Art Direction &  Set Design . They were richly deserved. Foote’s screenplay preserves all the highlights of the novel and I found myself recognizing the dialogues from the book as I watched the movie. One effective device in the movie treatment is the scene where Atticus brings out the fact that Tom Robinson is left-handed . He tosses a pen to Robinson who automatically catches it with his right hand ,giving Atticus the opportunity to establish that Robinson’s left hand was mangled when he was 12 and that he could not possibly have used it to batter Mayella. As for the sets , they were faithfully recreated from sketches of the original buildings and I could have sworn that the entire movie was shot on site.

Accustomed as I am  to color and ,lately , HD TV  I don’t usually like to watch black and white movies. To Kill a Mockingbird was an exception ; such is its excellence that  I didn’t care that it was in B& W. It is no wonder that it is one of the top 25 movies of all time . 

For those who  liked the movie , I strongly suggest that you watch the 2010 documentary, Hey , Boo : Harper Lee & To Kill a Mockingbird ( available on Netflix Streaming ). It gives much insight into the life of the author as well as the making of the movie. Harper Lee stopped giving interviews in 1964 and I, for one , didn’t know anything about her except that she is still alive and well at age 85. In interviews with relatives , friends and one-time neighbors, Hey Boo gives us some background on the author , her beginnings and the sources for her inspiration . There is a wonderful anecdote about the generosity of friends who enabled her to write full-time and complete the novel. Lee had moved to NYC  and was working as an airline  reservations clerk with BOAC while trying to write in her spare time . In 1957 , an editor at J.B. Lipincott advised her to re-cast her essays and reminiscences as a novel and to work on it full-time . Michael Brown , who with his wife Joy was a close friend , had made some money at songwriting and generously gave it to her so that she could give up her job and concentrate on the novel. It was another 2 1/2 years before the novel was completed but , if not for Michael Bown’s generosity, it might never have seen the light of day.

Hey Boo  has interviews with several writers such as James Patterson, Scott Turow , Wally  Lamb , Anna Quindlen and Richard Russo and personalities like Oprah Winfrey and former UN Ambassador Andrew Young who tell us about the passages in the book that affected them. They help us understand nuances that we may have missed. There are also some very interesting reactions from a range of people , from actors like the grown up Mary Popham ( ” Scout”)  to school children in the South, black and white, who are asked what the book did for them.

One of the most interesting clips was that of a woman who grew up in  Alabama talking about the time her entire fifth grade class saw the movie when it first hit the theaters in 1962. She tells us that , as she watched the movie, she fully expected Tom Robinson to be exonerated . When he was found guilty , she was horrified to the point of tears but, even as she was crying ,she could not help feeling guilty :a white girl going against the principles she had been brought up to believe in, by  shedding tears for the fate of a black man. Remarkable  in its honesty.

Another notable sidelight is the interaction between Harper Lee and Truman Capote. Capote was instrumental in introducing Lee to her editor and , conversely,Lee was very supportive of Capote when he was working on his controversial best seller, In Cold Blood. However, after Harper Lee won the Pulitzer Prize in 1966, Truman’s jealousy drove them apart. In later years, as Lee never published another book, there were rumors that Truman Capote must have helped in the writing of To Kill A Mockingbird. Truman , cad that he was , never denied the rumors and , by playing coy , gave the impression that they were true. That was low , even for him .

The documentary also floats several theories about why Harper Lee never wrote another novel . Was it the pressure of trying to live up to the standards of to KIll a Mockingbird? Was it that she had that one masterpiece in her and  that ,having written it , she had nothing more to say ? We will never know . We can however be grateful to her for giving us this gem , for having the courage to write a book that was as effective in helping expose an  evil as Harriet Beecher Stowe’ s Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a century ago.

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In one of my earlier posts , two years ago, I had sung the praises of Indo- Canadian funnyman , Russell Peters. I’d written how his 2004 video Russell Peters … Comedy Now , had me in stitches. I’d written   Peters is cerebral , he is zany and he does “insult” the audience , though he is not nasty as Rickles was. He has also mastered different accents ; Indian , Chinese, West Indian, Latino ,etc. All of them are good but the Chinese and Indian accents are superb. His early subject matter was about growing up brown in a mostly white Canadian society and he riffs on Indian culture, racial stereotypes, and racism. He has a good-natured way about him , has a rubber face and is a master of timing. He does occasionally toss in a four letter word and his videos are definitely not for the very young. …his 2008 video Russell Peters .. Red , White and Brown  which was filmed in the sold out 5,000 seat WAMU theater( formerly the Felt Forum )  in Madison Square Garden is excellent though perhaps a tad below his earlier efforts.”

At the time Peters was enjoying the fruits of twenty years of hard work . In 2008-2009, he had pulled in over $10 ,000, 000 a year. He was hosting comedy shows on Comedy Central and performing to packed audiences in London and New York.  But , already, there were signs of decline. My nephew who had seen him perform live reported that the show was terrible , that almost his entire routine consisted of picking out people in the audience and insulting them .I myself had written “ He is less successful when he strays from these topics. I’ve seen a clip of him performing for the troops aboard the U.S.S. Eisenhower and it was not one of his better performances. “

Recently ,I watched ” Green Card ” , a video of a stand-up performance in London where he played to a packed house. The credits got my hopes up as they had a montage of him in different costumes and headgear pulling all kinds of funny faces.Unfortunately , that was the highlight of the tape. After the opening ” How are you? ” How you doing ?” he began to pick out people in the audience , ask them their ethnicity and make jokes about it. This went on for about 15 minutes at which point I gave up on him  and popped out the DVD.

Ethnic humor is okay in small doses , if it is good-natured. Peters goes on too long in this vein and , worse, he comes across as nasty rather than funny. I’m not sure why he has changed from  four years ago when he was genuinely funny without being hurtful. Is it hubris , an overweening pride that he is very funny and can do no wrong ? Or is it laziness that makes him descend to this level, making fun of racial stereotypes instead of trying to come up with new material ? Perhaps it is a little of both . Whatever the reason , I will not be watching his newer shows.

Stand-up comedy is one of the most difficult things to do and Peters is not the first to fall into a rut. Most stand-up comedians come up with one or two great routines and then live off them for the rest of their careers. However, continued success as a stand-up demands that you constantly update your routine . No one wants to hear the same joke twice but it is very difficult to come up with new stuff all by oneself . The British comedian Benny Hill is a prime example of this ; he was a big hit in the seventies but insisted on writing all his jokes and skits  himself . His shows quickly went downhill as he kept repeating the same jokes over and over again. Perhaps the answer is to use the services of a team of writers as Bob Hope and others did.

My final word on Russell Peters… he used to be very funny.

P.S If you’ve never heard of Russell Peters but would like to see what he is about, check  out some of his earlier clips on Youtube. The best of them, in my opinion , are the ones titled Russell Peters.. Comedy Now, Beating your kids, the Accents clip and African Names.

P.P.S You may also find my November 2013 post Russell Peters: Final grade of interest to you.

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When it comes to big budget extravaganzas and shoot ’em up flicks Hollywood has no equal. But , after a while , one gets tired of all the car chases and the explosions and the serial killers and the computer graphics  . Perhaps it’s just that I’m growing older but, more and more , I yearn for feelings , for characters who are true to life and who stir the emotions . That is why I find myself drawn to British TV shows particularly the dramas set in the past.

What I like most about them is that they are about characters I can identify with in locales that I’m familiar with through my reading . They are not about the rich and the beautiful or the weird . The storylines engage my interest because I am interested in finding out what happens next , not just to the lead characters but to all the others who people the story. In the period dramas, little bits of history are woven into the story ; not only do they make the story more authentic to my eyes but they create a little frisson of excitement when I recognize them . What sets these shows apart is the excellence of the acting and the wealth of detail lavished on even the lesser characters , something very unusual in American TV.

At one time I used to be turned off by all the British imports on PBS, especially Masterpiece Theater ; now I seek them out . Luckily , all of them are available on Netflix , many of them online streaming , and I’m avidly enjoying them one by one . Some of those I’ve enjoyed, with their ratings , are as under. Ratings are on a scale from 1 to 5 stars, with 5 stars being excellent  and 3 stars worth watching  I don’t think I’ve watched anything in this genre that merited less than three stars .

1. Downton Abbey. ( *****)Set in the years just before the outbreak of World War I , this series debuted in 2010 to huge critical acclaim . As the show begins , the Crawley family is thrown into turmoil because the putative heir to Downton Abbey goes down with the Titanic. Since the estate can only pass on to a male heir , the futures of the family’s three daughters ( one of whom was about to be engaged to him ) are suddenly up in the air.Petty jealousies and ambitions grow among the family and the staff, and  scheming and secrets — both delicious and dangerous — threaten to derail the scramble to preserve Downton Abbey. I’m eagerly awaiting the second season .

2. The Duchess of Duke Street ( *****) tells the story of Louisa Trotter , who rose from poverty to become the owner of the Bentick Hotel and hobnobbed with the rich and famous of London Society.She begins her career  as  an assistant cook , catches the eye of the Prince of Wales and is practically forced into becoming his paramour. She parlays this connection into fame and riches as she proceeds with steely determination to achieve her ambition of becoming the best cook in England . Along the way , she finds  love and heartbreak  in equal measure. Her character is loosely based on the real life Rosa Lewis ( née Ovenden )  who overcame her modest beginnings to become the proprietress  of the Cavendish Hotel. Set in the period spanning 1900 to 1935 , this series first aired in the mid-1970’s and the production values are understandably not as good . No matter , because Gemma Jones is riveting as Louisa Trotter and there is a host of other characters that command our interest and affection .

3. The House of Elliot ( *****)  Its three seasons aired from 1991 to 19993 before the series came to an  abrupt end , Currently I’ve watched all but the last of 12 Netflix disks and I’m completely in thrall. Until I started watching this series, The Duchess of Duke Street was my favorite , but no longer.  Beatrice and Evangeline Elliot are the daughters of a parsimonious London doctor . He dies suddenly leaving them destitute as it transpires that his money has been spent secretly supporting a secret second family. Totally unprepared to earn their own living , Bea and Evie nevertheless struggle to build their own high fashion couture business , The House of Elliot. It is no easy task in the male dominated society of the era ( circa 1915). With pluck and skill they battle their way to the top , overcoming a series unfortunate love affairs , male prejudices , cheats , arson etc. Excellent acting by Stella Gonet as Bea and Louise Lombard as Evie , a wealth of historical detail , beautiful costumes and a compelling storyline make this series a delight to watch . Too bad it ends abruptly.

4. Lark Rise to Candleford  ( ****) . These are the names of two villages eight miles apart geographically but worlds apart in every other way . Lark Rise is a farming village and most of its  proud but poor inhabitants live a hardscrabble existence . Candleford , a neighboring market town , is more prosperous and its dwellers consider themselves a cut above the ir Lark Rise cousins. The series begins with young Laura moving from Lark Rise to Candleford to take up a job in the post office , the postmistress Dorcas Lane being her relative . The series is set in the late 19th century and is loosely based on a trilogy of novels by Flora Thompson. It lasted for four seasons between 2008 and 2011 but  I’ve only watched the first two seasons which are all that are available on Netflix . What I saw was superior : a host of engaging characters , absorbing  storylines which focussed in turn on different characters and  a marvelous attention to detail though the picture of village life is somewhat idealized . The English countryside is lovingly photographed and has never looked more beautiful.

5. Cranford ( ****) based on the novels of Mrs . ( Elizabeth) Gaskell and is set in the early 1840’s. The story focuses primarily on the town’s  female inhabitants who are comfortable with their traditional way of life and place great store in propriety and maintaining an appearance of gentility. Among them are the spinster Jenkyns sisters, Matty and Deborah; their houseguest , Mary Smith; Octavia Pole, the town’s leading gossip; the Tomkinson sisters, Augusta and Caroline;  Mrs Rose, the housekeeper for Dr Harrison; Jessie Brown, who rejects Major Gordon’s marriage proposal twice despite her feelings for him; Sophy Hutton, the vicar’s’s eldest daughter and surrogate mother to her three younger siblings, who is courted by Dr Harrison; and the aristocratic Lady Ludlow, who lives in splendour and perceives change as a peril to the natural order of things.

The principal male characters are new arrival Dr Frank Harrison, who is smitten with Sophy but unwittingly becomes the romantic target of both Mrs Rose and Caroline Tomkinson, who often feigns illness to hold his attention; Dr Morgan, an old-fashioned practitioner who finds himself challenged by the modern ideas of his young partner; Captain Brown, a military man whose common sense earns him a place of authority among the women; Edmund Carter, Lady Ludlow’s land agent, a reformer who strongly advocates free education for the working class; Reverend Hutton, a widower with four children whose religious conviction is sometimes at odds with his instincts as a father and Sir Charles Maulver, the local magistrate and director of the railway company. I found Cranford not quite as interesting as the others and its sequel , Return to Cranford is , apparently , a disappointment.

There are other series that I’ve watched and enjoyed but this post has already gone on too long so I’ll write about them another day.

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With my interest  in things Japanese , it will come as no surprise that I am constantly on the lookout for Japanese movies to watch . Unfortunately  , those available on Netflix seem to be old classics ( by Kurosawa , Ozu et al) , samurai films or yakuza gore-fests. They are all well enough but I  really prefer to see something set in contemporary times which gives me an idea about contemporary Japanese life. Recently , I watched on two movies that fit the bill.

Tokyo Sonata (2008), directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa , tells the tale of a middle-aged salariman , Ryuhei Sasaki , whose job is outsourced to a Chinese firm . Unable to  come to terms with the loss of his job , he hides his true situation from his family. He pretends that  all is normal , leaving home each morning at the usual time and returning in the evening after having spent the day in the library , on a park bench or just wandering around. His wife suspects something is fishy but can’t bring herself to question her husband.After fruitless attempts to get another job commensurate with his status , Ryuhei accepts a job as a cleaner / maintenance man at a mall.

 Tensions in the home escalate as, first the older son, and then the younger one, rebel against their father’s authority. The older son leaves the home and joins the American forces in Iraq and the younger one uses his school  lunch money to pay for the piano lessons  he craves. Matters come to a head when Ryuhei attempts to assert himself and the younger son falls down the stairs and sustains  a concussion. Then , in one momentous evening , the family’s lives are turned upside down . Ryuhei finds an envelope full of cash as he is cleaning toilets at the mall . Undecided what to do , he emerges from the toilet clad in his maintenance man’s uniform and runs into his wife . Her worst fears confirmed , she rushes home only to be overpowered and kidnapped by a knife-weilding burglar . Meanwhile the son is picked up on suspicion of shoplifting  and thrown into a jail cell by the police. The rest of the film is about how these events cause the family to come to terms with their situation .

The story , as I’ve outlined it above , seems grim and depressing  but it is not entirely so. Sasaki’s efforts to find another job are painful to watch but they are leavened by  moments of humor. For instance , while he is out on the street one day , Sasaki meets a similarly unemployed friend . To hide his jobless status , the friend has programmed his cell phone to ring automatically , five times an hour . When the phone rings , he cuts short his conversation and pretends that he has received an important, job-related, phone call !  Later , he invites Sasaki to his house for dinner and introduces him as a wife as a colleague. Interrupted at dinner by another of his pre-set phone calls , he takes the call in another room , then comes back and tells off Sasaki for screwing up at work !

What I felt was even grimmer than Sasaki ‘s joblessness was the atmosphere in the Sasaki household , with family members wrapped up in their own thoughts, barely speaking to each other. In one telling scene , the family sits to dinner and proceeds to wolf down their food in silence , reaching across each other with their chopsticks to pick up food. Are Japanese families really so alienated from each other ?, I wonder.

The director , Kiyoshi Kurasawa, is no relation to his famous namesake , (Akira  Kurosawa ), but he is a good director in his own right. Tokyo Sonata is two hours long but , at no point , does it seem slow. The pacing is fine and the film offers a searching look at modern Japanese society , the dynamics of family relationships and the effect of sudden joblessness. All throughout, there are deft directorial touches that viewers will delight in . The actors are uniformly good and the ones who play Sasaki and his wife are outstanding .  My one criticism is that the resolution of these problems is a little difficult to swallow. Still Tokyo Sonata is a worthwhile film .I rate it at a solid 3-1/2 stars (out of 5). 

The Taste of Tea ( Cha no Aji , 2004) is a very different film . It depicts one summer in the lives of the quirky Haruno family . Boy , are they strange  ! Dad is a hypnotherapist who practices on his family ; Mom is forever drawing at the kitchen table though we are not sure what it is that she does.  The adolescent son, Hajime,  is suffering from the pangs of unrequited love  and the six-year-old daughter, Sachiko,  is followed around by a giant version of herself that only she can see. Strangest of all is the grandfather who appears to be senile and who strikes the oddest poses ; he is not only not reprimanded but even encouraged in his eccentricities by his daughter-in-law   There is also Uncle Ayano who relates how, as a boy ,  he found a giant egg in the haunted forest and deposited a giant turd on it ! For a while , I felt like the middle school kid who wanders into a high school calculus class and is mystified by what is being discussed.

Then , slowly , things began to clear up and turned out to have perfectly logical , even mundane , explanations . Towards the end of the movie , I realised that I’d been looking at it  in a wrong way. The Taste of Tea is not meant as a story ( with a beginning , middle and end ) in which everything has to have a resolution . Indeed , even at movie’s end , there are some unresolved plot lines. Rather the movie is about  one summer in the life of the Haruno family and it depicts the  workings of their minds , their inner lives. Once I understood that, everything made more sense. It is a wonderful concept and it has been picturised sensitively.
I liked all the characters though , at first and for a while , I found the Grandpa merely annoying . After I found out what he was actually doing with his poses,  I changed my mind. In retrospect , his character is admirable . Here is an elderly man, struggling with senility, who yet wants to be of use and continues to pursue his artistic imaginings . By the way , though the video that he participates in is ridiculous and the song lyrics laughable , I found the tune kinda catchy , as the DOL remarks in the film. After Grandpa , I like Hajime and Sachiko best . All the actors have done a great job but I found these two the most appealing . Director Ishii has perfectly captured the pangs of adolescent love and I loved the sequence  where Hajime escorts Aoi to the bus ,  tosses her the umbrella as the doors close and then runs after the bus joyously in the rain. Beautiful.
The pace of the movie was slow but I didn’t mind  since I was completely absorbed in what was happening on-screen . Some nice touches of humor  were seamlessly integrated with the story.  I was, however,  a little dissatisfied with was the closing sequence after Sachiko finally performs her backflip and rids herself of her giant self. What was the meaning of the giant sunflower which expands to fill the universe ? Also , why the title ? Is it because many of the Haruno’s “thinking” moments are spent on the porch drinking tea ?
Still , The taste of Tea is an enjoyable film . 4 stars ( out of five ).

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I must admit that I have been  mystified by the continuing popularity of Jane Austen. I wouldn’t have thought that her novels would be read by anyone other than high school students and English majors . However , the fact that they are picturised so frequently is an indication that are still of interest to a large number of people. Pride and Prejudice , Sense and Sensibility , Persuasion , Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey and Emma have all been brought to the Big Screen or to TV , some of them more than once. In addition, the movie  Clueless is based on Emma and there have been many TV productions about Jane Austen, her life  and her work.

What accounts for her popularity ? She herself led a secluded life in the country in Regency Britain and her gentle romances would seem out-of-place in today’s fast-paced world. In an effort to answer this question for myself  I decided to watch the two versions of Sense and Sensibility : the 1995 film with Emma Thompson, Kate Winslet, Alan Rickman & Hugh Grant and  the 2007 Masterpiece Theater production with Janet McAteer, Hattie Morahan, Jean Marsh and David Morrissey.

The plot of Sense and Sensibility , like that of all Jane Austen’s novels , is simple and uncomplicated. The movie begins with Henry Dashwood on his deathbed. By law , he is required to leave his entire estate to his son by his first wife , John Dashwood. With his dying breath , he urges John to provide for his stepmother and his three step sisters . John promises but soon reneges and  John’s termagent wife , Fanny , makes life at Norland uncomfortable for the widow and her children. Unable to bear her slights,  Mrs. Dashwood and her daughters (Elinor, Marianne, and Margaret) accept an invitation to stay with their distant relations, the Middletons, at Barton Park in Devonshire. Elinor is sad to leave  , having become attached to Edward Ferrars,  Fanny’s brother. However, once at Barton Park, Elinor and Marianne discover many new acquaintances, including the retired officer and bachelor Colonel Brandon, and the dashing John Willoughby, who comes to  Marianne’s aid  when she twists her ankle. Willoughby  courts Marianne assiduously but then  suddenly announces that he must leave for London on business, leaving Marianne lovesick and miserable. Meanwhile, Lucy Steele , a guest of the Middletons at Barton Park, drops a bombshell  on Elinor , informing her that she (Lucy) has been secretly engaged to Edward  Ferrars for the past four years. Elinor and Marianne suffer through some difficult times before everything is sorted out and they find their true loves and  are wed.

I hadn’t thought that I’d actually like the movie (s) but I found myself getting drawn into the narrative . The uncomplicated plot makes for a leisurely exposition of events  but the movie is not  slow paced. The scenes of country life and later the scenery of the wild Devon Coast are engrossing as one gets to know the various characters. Elinor Dashwood , sensible , prudent , emotionally strong , is typical of Jane Austen’s heroines  and a sharp contrast to the  flighty , headstrong , impractical younger sister Marianne. Emma Thompson, who also wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for the 1995 production , is wonderful as Elinor , Kate Winslet is fetching as the artless Marianne and Alan Rickman admirable as Colonel Brandon . The sole disappointment is Hugh Grant , whom I’ve always liked , but who here appears a little too bewildered , too weak to be someone who the strong-willed Elinor could fall in love with . Taiwanese director Ang Lee has done  a wonderful job bringing this movie to the screen despite the fact that the setting and the story are foreign to him . He has said however that the universality of Jane Austen ‘s themes and their parallels with his own culture made it easy for him to direct the movie.

The 2007 Masterpiece Theater Edition has its pluses and minuses . At three hours in length , it is significant longer the earlier version. As a result it is able to present some additional details that flesh out the story and make it richer and easier to follow. There are however two caveats to this observation . First, there is a very steamy scene at the beginning that is completely unnecessary and explains nothing . Secondly , Colonel Brandon is said to be only 35 which is far too young for him to have the history that he is supposed to have. The actors are less known to American audiences but I found that they grew on me as the movie unfolded.In particular , I liked Dan Stevens ,the actor who played Edward Ferrars ; he was a vast improvement on Hugh Grant. Overall , I liked the 1995 version mostly because of the sumptuous cinematography , the economy of Emma Thompson’s screenplay and her tour-de-force performance as Elinor. Hattie Morahan is good in the later version but Emma Thompson is sublime. Her reaction  when she hears that her true love is free and wants to marry her is unforgettable . As for those who find fault with the screenplay , I am not one of those who feels that a movie has to be slavishly true to the novel. After all , when the action has to be condensed into  two or two and a half hour movie , some details are bound to be left out .

 There are many theories as to why Jane Austen  continues to be read , why her novels keep being made into movies or TV shows , 200 years after they were written. One is that the themes she writes about are universal , as current today as they were two centuries ago.Social pressure, the generation gap and the unequal status of women are subjects that we can relate to even in modern times. Secondly , her characters are sensible, down to earth and recognizable. Some may call them ordinary or commonplace but their very ordinariness attracts us to them even as we identify with them and want them to succeed. A third reason is that there is a strong streak of optimism that runs through her novels . Here there are no wild doings , no death-defying chases, no high drama. No wonder that during World War I , soldiers read Jane Austen’s novels for the mental escape they provided from the horrors of war. One other reason , I think , was that her heroines were strong-willed and sensible , a rarity in the society of that day.

Having seen the two film versions of Sense and Sensibility has aroused in me a desire to read the novel , to determine what the differences are and to see if the movies faithfully capture the spirit of the original. I think they do but I want to find out for myself.

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