Cuban Scarcity vs. American Plenty

An amazing experience that makes you appreciate free markets.

No Fixed Plans

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Monk with a Camera

The documentary Monk with a Camera chronicles the spiritual journey of Nicholas Vreeland, whose grandmother was famed Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Early in his life Nicky was a stylish, well-heeled, privileged boy. He became fascinated by photography in high school and after graduating college became a professional. While traveling the world he photographed the Dalai Lama and became fascinated with Tibetan Buddhism. At the age of 31 Nicky went to India, knowing no Tibetan, where he joined a Tibetan monastery. 

The 2014 film recounts his life with interviews of Nicky and of his family, old photos and film of his monastery and trips around the world. Richard Here pops up a lot with commentary. He went from jet setting youth to an abbot of a Tibetan monastery. Much of the film concentrates on his effort to raise money to build a new monastery since the community had grown and was bursting at its seams. Reluctantly, Nicky decides to fund the building by selling his photos in world capitals.

I enjoyed the colorful landscapes and the beautiful photos. Nicky, his mentor and his family were insightful and kept my interest. I do wish the film delved more into the details of Tibetan Buddhism. I was left with questions about the daily life of Tibetan monks. I wondered if Nicky had any “dark nights” of the soul and if so, how’d he overcome them. Unconsciously, I guess I wanted a Buddhist Seven Story Mountain. Still I enjoyed and recommend this documentary. 

Zatoichi #1

My 2nd Zatoichi film.

No Fixed Plans

Salt of the earth, wily, dutiful, sharp, Zatoichi is a beloved character in classic Japanese film. After watching Zatoichi at Large, I learned that there are 27 films with this blind swordsman, who’s blind as the hero. I decided to start at the beginning with Zatoichi: The Blind Swordsman (1962).

Zatoichi arrives in a village looking for Sukegoro, a yakuza boss whose path he crossed. Before he meet with the boss, Zatoichi cleverly exploits the yakuza who are certain they can outwit this blind man, who asks if he can join their dice game. The wanderer wins a tidy sum, angering his opponents. Sukegoro is miffed when Zatoichi refuses to display his swords play to entertain the men, but the boss shrugs off the disappointment because he’s sure he can use his guest to beat his rival Shigezo’s gang and expand his own territory.

Shigezo’s top swordsman Hirate is…

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Ned Kelly (2003)

19th Century Australian outlaw Ned Kelly is a folk hero down under and like Jesse James or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid has been the subject of many films. Starring Heath Ledger, Ned Kelly (2003) recounts the life of this hero turned anti-hero. As a boy, Ned saved the life of a drowning boy and was honored with a green and gold sash.

Yet as his family was poor and his father was imprisoned for stealing meat and after he got out took to hard drinking before he died an early death. On top of this as a poor, immigrant family the Kelly’s were downtrodden and this shaped Ned’s worldview. He was arrested for bushranging. The film begins when Ned’s released from jail for another robbery. His views on the Law are established and harden police target his family. After a problem with the law, Kelly’s mother is arrested to smoke out Ned, the one they’re really after. This leads to the bank robberies and events which culminate in a historic shoot out. 

I’d learned of Ned Kelly on a walking tour of Melbourne. The film includes all the events which made him a folk hero — how he robbed banks and then burned all the mortgages and loans so that no one had to pay the bank back and how Ned fashioned protective armor for head and body to protect his gang and himself from police bullets. Ned certainly was clever.

Yet the film seemed to drag and lacked the wit and charisma in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Perhaps my expectations were too high, but the film seemed mediocre. It could do with some editing and a tighter story. The writers seemed to have been working off a check list, drowning scene, check, bank robbery with burning the mortgages with a flat-footed line from the banker, check, romantic interlude, check, etc. Ned Kelly’s certainly got a dramatic life. Perhaps one of the other biopics does a better job of portraying it. I can’t recommend this one. It’s not horrible, but there are better things to watch. 

Playtime (1967)

Jacques Tati’s 1967 film Playtime could be a silent film, but it isn’t. There’s minimal dialogue and no meaningful conversations. The film is a critique on modern life – the sterile office space, the noisy, empty social life, and tourism that distances people from what they traveled thousands of miles to see. There’s no story. Time passes. While Tati plays his famous Mr. Hulot, Hulot’s just a bystander, another person lost in modernity. The film does have several clever gags and uses the set well. The glass office building just adds confusion to the business inside. The new nightclub opens while the adhesive for the floor tile is still drying. The hour or so in the night club is a series of catastrophes when everything from the glass entry door to the tiles, and decor break causing all kinds of trouble.

All in all, I missed a plot and developed characters. The film dragged for me, which is odd for a comedy. I suppose if you wanted to study gags, it would be worth your while to take a look, but you don’t need to watch the whole film. 

Happy Hour (2015)

A big thumbs down for me. I know I didn’t watch the whole thing, but that’s my 2¢. Life is too short for this.

No Fixed Plans

I signed up for the Japanese Embassy’s emails and got one inviting me to watch the film Happy Hour online any time between Thursday 7pm and Sunday 7pm. I figured why not. I had enjoyed their virtual showing of Little Forest, though I only watched half of it.

Happy Hour was billed as a slow-burning chronicle of four female friends who’re in their late 30s. I expected some sharing and portrayals of stale marriages, the loneliness of a career woman, and a few of the typical experiences of this stage of life. I expected a modern Ozu and hoped for more, i.e. some unexpected twists.

Friday night when I clicked on the link to the event, I was surprised to see three screens, that look like YouTube screens. I didn’t think much of it. After almost an hour of watching these four characters who were good friends, but nothing special…

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Zatoichi at Large (1972)

A surprisingly terrific film.

No Fixed Plans

Trailer for Zatoichi Criterion Set

I picked up Zatoichi at Large at random at the library. I ws in the mood for a Japanese film and was willing to branch off to something new. Thus I discovered Zatoichi, a fictional hero whose life is chronicled in a series of 26 films. This was film 25.

Zatoichi is a character that draws you in with his contrasts. Paradoxically, he’s blind, but he’s a master swordsman. He’s gruff but follows social dictums fervently. Well, often, if not all the time. He likes to gamble and consorts with prostitutes but he’s highly moral. Sometimes he’s naive, while often he’s worldly and wily. Yet I was drawn to him because he lives in a society where the deck is stacked against him and the poor and champions the underdogs.

In this chapter, the wandering masseuse Zatoichi happens upon a pregnant woman who’d been attacked…

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Masculin Féminin

In general I don’t like Jean-Luc Godard’s films, yet there’s always something in them that intrigues.

Jean-Pierre Léaud (best known for 400 Blows) plays Paul, the kind of lost guy Léaud plays. Paul is an activist, who likes to spray paint his views on Vietnam on cars and walls. He’s in search of love, but awkward and unsure as he pursues Madeleine, a cute singer he meets in a café. Madeleine is also naive and unsure about Paul or love in general. Her main interest is the release of her new record. 

The best part of Masculin Féminin is the dialog between Paul and his hooligan pal, Madeline and her friends as they answer questions about sexuality, love and the issues of the late 1960s. Godard presents these kids as the generation that embraces Coca-Cola and Marxism. 

The Criterion Collection DVD has some good supplements including two interviews — one from 1966 and the other from 2005 — with Chantal Goya, who played Madeleine. 

The film has stuck with me for its look at the innocence of young people who were experiencing a changing society and the film’s abrupt ending. I like how different it felt but also found it very unsettling. Major events aren’t shown or predictable in the least, which seemed like a bit of a con.

Solaris (2002)

Solaris (2002): A weak adaptation/remake

From the first scenes, Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris was a weak film compared with Andrei Tarkovsky’s. The 2002 film begins with the hero Chris (George Clooney) preparing for his space mission. Chris’ environment on earth mimics living in a spaceship. His apartment is cramped and heavy on metallics — metallic counters, cabinets, we see no soft furnishings. Flashbacks show Chris meeting his wife Rheya. It’s a glib, slick encounter showing two attractive people getting together because they’re both good looking and a little clever. I’m not a fan of these superficial matches. This relationship is central to the story so I want their marriage to be built on more than looks. 

Chris is charged with going to the spaceship orbiting Solaris, a liquid planet with bizarre qualities including the ability to influence the astronaut’s perceptions and thoughts. Crew members have died and someone needs to find out what’s going wrong. Both of the remaining crew members are cryptic and nervous about their experience. Chris isn’t going to get a clear answer from either the hyper Snow or the fearful Gordon, who hint at the weirdness that Chris soon experiences when Rheya, whom we learn through flashbacks killed herself, begins to visit him. The first visit freaks Chris out and he tricks Rheya into getting locked inside a vehicle that he releases out into space to get rid of her. Yet that fails because Rheya returns revealing how bizarre Solaris is. Moreover, Rheya and the other crew members’ visitors aren’t human. They aren’t really who they seem to be, but rather they’re non-human creatures conjured up through each person’s consciousness. 

The complexities of Solaris worked with Tarkovsky, but not with Soderbergh who offers less weirdness (e.g. no library scene where everything floats around), no frame set in the countryside of earth, which offers great contrast and thus substance and insight. None of the performances had much warmth or humanity. None pulled me in. This Solaris was a filmmaking exercise rather than a journey to a new psychological world, 

Even if I hadn’t seen Tarkovsky’s earlier film, I don’t think the this version would leave much of a mark on me. It’s certainly not one of Soderbergh’s better films. 

The Snake Pit (1948)

In The Snake Pit, Olivia de Havilland plays Virginia Stuart Cummingham, a young woman who finds herself committed to a mental hospital but doesn’t know why.  The title comes from the practice from long ago when mentally ill patients were placed in literal snake pits. Of course, they’d be shocked and traumatized, but once they got out of the snake pit, they’d be able to cope with the world, which had less to scare one. (Who thought of that?)

Virginia never goes into a literal snake pit, but the mild mannered, though schizophrenic woman is surrounded by utter madness.  Through flashbacks when Dr Kik analyzes Virginia, who has a history of reacting with fear, wild fear, in her romantic relationships. Virginia’s also plagued with irrational guilt which has compounded her instability.

De Havilland drew me, while her fellow patients repelled me despite my sympathy for their suffering. Most of the staff at the hospital were professional and kind, but one was a Nurse Ratched-type dictator and when that nurse finds fault with Virginia who was ultra-careful to stay on her good side, has the heroine reassigned to the ward with the most disturbed patients. It’s a real hell on earth.

The Snake Pit reminded me of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with less corruption, drugs and sex. Virginia is able to help those around her through kindness. She comes to understand the source of her troubles. The Snake Pit shows us what life’s like inside a mid-century psychiatric hospital. Lots of drama and some hope.