Film Review: Jesus Christ Superstar (1973)

This Easter Sunday, I went to the Rio to see Norman Jewison’s film adaptation of Jesus Christ Superstar and it was one of the most memorable movie-going experiences of my life. It’s a movie that, much like Star Wars, has been part of my life for as long as I can remember and viewed countless times, but seeing it for the first time on a big screen with an audience of enthusiastic fans was electrifying.

First and foremost, the music is awesome. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s melodies and Tim Rice’s lyrics are epic, intimate, haunting, joyful, fascinating and forever singable, all of which are in service to a slightly strange movie with very impressive visuals. It seems predicated upon the idea that a bunch of theatrical performers decide to stage the rock opera in the middle of the Israeli desert using a funny mix of props and costumes that range from period-accurate rough cloth robes and sandals to chrome-helmeted, tank-top wearing, Uzi-carrying Roman soldiers, and all of the sets are either ruins, landscapes or caves.

Amazingly ahead of its time in casting

The imagery in the film is really terrific, as shot by Douglas Slocombe who went on to do the first three Indiana Jones films, among others. The composition, the framing and the camera movement are all wonderfully conceived and executed, which is to say nothing of the amazing choreography on display. The performers in this film are incredible athletes when you look at the kinds of moves they are doing in the hot desert conditions. Most impressive of all is the diversity of players on display, with a white Jesus (Ted Neely), black Judas (Carl Anderson) and Hawaiian Mary (Yvonne Elliman) surrounded by a rainbow of supporting cast. For a movie made over 40 years ago, it is amazingly ahead of its time in casting and it’s stunning that it has taken the rest of Hollywood this long to catch up.

My favourite sequence of all is, of course, the title number, which they save for the end. Carl Anderson coming down from heaven dressed in tassled whites on a crane to be joined by a host of dancing angels is something indescribably fun, especially with the accompanying track. I love the joyful playfulness of the lyrics “Buddha, was he where it’s at, is he where you are?/Could Mohammed move a mountain or was that just P.R.?” presented with a huge production number. It may appear to be superficially irreverent, but I think Jesus Christ Superstar is closer to the humanity and the truth of the story than any stuffy Sunday school sermon.

Sympathetic portrayal of Judas

I am not a christian, but I am a humanist, and this particular rendition of the Jesus story is the most humanistic and the only one I can really enjoy. I’m not sure why, but I think it’s the humility of each character, how everyone seems to have flaws in some way or another, even Jesus whose doubts about his fate ironically coming out of a kind of determined fatalism. It’s really the story’s sympathetic portrayal of Judas that has always stood out to me, and I think that’s why I’ve always had a hard time with the traditional image of him as the worst of humanity. I think maybe even at a very young age I could smell how judgemental organized religion tends to be.

In any case, Jesus Christ Superstar is one of my favourite films of all-time and seeing it on a big screen with an audience made seeing it at the Rio one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at the movies. I loved every minute of it.

The Matrix: 20th Anniversary

Still Great Entertainment 20 Years On

I managed to catch a screening at the Rio of this sci-fi masterpiece which has aged very well, in my opinion. It’s a little clunky in places and the dialogue is largely bad, but the story is so well plotted that there is a constant state of anticipation throughout, punctuated by beautifully executed action sequences. It is still a great movie.

What I remember most from seeing it 20 years ago is the sense of how much story is packed into it. I distinctly recall the scene when Neo wakes up from the Matrix into the real world and thinking “Holy crap! That’s just the first act!” What would typically have been saved as the big reveal at the climax of an ordinary movie was merely the first major plot point. And the rest of the movie is structured magnificently, with every scene carrying the story forward at such a speed you don’t really have time to stop and look around and question things. You just want to know what happens next, always against a backdrop of rising tension until you get to the action-packed third act that hardly rests for a second.

The movie does have a very 90s feel to it, but in a good way and without feeling actually dated. Much like ALIEN (1979), there is very little on screen that actually betrays its time of origin, yet The Matrix manages to distill the esthetic and tone of 90s cinema perfectly. The gunfight in the lobby that opens Act 3 is a perfect example. It still manages to be exciting as hell, and the entire movie is put together exceptionally well in every department, from production design to fight choreography to editing and many in between. The Wachowski siblings who conceived, wrote and directed it achieved something unique with this movie.

The film’s only weak point is its dialogue and one or two performances, although Hugo Weaving and Laurence Fishburne deserve special mention for their awesome charisma. There were many lines that got a groan from the audience I saw it with and I can’t blame them, some of the lines the actors have are dreadful. It’s a lot like Star Wars (1977) in that the dialogue is very poor but the plotting is excellent, with characters who are basically just there to advance the story. I like the way the filmmakers sprinkled little tidbits of philosophy throughout the film, but they are mostly the ones that are visualized (the metaphor of the Matrix is brilliant) and not so much the ones that are spoken aloud. It still manages to be a thinking person’s sci-fi/action movie, at any rate, with elements so perfectly balanced that there never feels like an excess of anything.

It’s a hell of a fun ride. Twenty years later and it hasn’t lost any of its appeal. I think The Matrix is a genuine classic of sci-fi cinema with big ideas and big set-pieces to keep you interested and entertained and is still a great film.



The Sleep Scale Theory of Film Review

If movies are like dreams, then going to see one is a bit like going to sleep. A good sleep is a refreshing thing that resets your perspectives and makes you feel like you can take on the day. A bad sleep leaves you frustrated and, in my case, very cranky. I think there is a corollary between sleep satisfaction and movie satisfaction that can be expressed on a scale of 1 to 9, given that 9 hours is the ideal amount of sleep and therefore a very good movie is like getting a whopping nine hours of sleep.

Years ago I read a book, The Sleep Thieves, by Stanley Coren where he described an experiment to find out the ideal amount of sleep for a human being in a 24 hour cycle. As I recall, they took a group of subjects to the north pole where the sun never sets and removed all clocks in an attempt to allow for the most natural rhythm to emerge. What they found was that nine hours, not eight, was the actual norm, although it wasn’t always in one big sleep session. Nevertheless, nine hours of sleep sounds magnificently restful, if rare. Not unlike a great movie.

From here on my reviews of movies will be on a scale of 1 to 9, with 1 being the worst and 9 being the best.

Return of D&D: Dragon Isles of the Xanthium Sea

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I never thought I was going to run a D&D game again, but a few things changed my mind and I’m glad they did. I had a lot of fun and I think the players did too, and that’s the point.

All that last night’s session amounted to was character creation and an encounter to get everyone’s feet wet with the mechanics of the game. I had thought three hours would suffice but it stretched on a lot longer. Nevertheless, the bar-room fight against lowly Manes demons that were coming through an open portal to hell was a fun way to start things off.

The Player Characters

  • Alexia: Leiana (half-elf rogue)
  • Ted: Darius (human wizard)
  • Tyler: Rayden (dragonborn druid)
  • Paul: Leeroy Jenkins (half-orc fighter)

You read that right: we literally have a Leeroy Jenkins in the party. Not only that, he took the Noble background option with the Knight variant, giving him three retainers (Bane, Maul and Ani). And he’s a Lawful Good half-orc. Probably the most challenging set of details I’ve ever had to work into a campaign. I wonder how this will play out in the long-term….

The Setting

The Dragon Isles of the Xanthium Sea are so-named because every island in the sea and on the coastline has at least one resident dragon. The Independent City-State of Verupta is the sole exception, whose ruling dragon, Karvazilla, was slayed by the adventurer Radomillo and his companions 300 years ago. Verupta is among the oldest cities in the world with a history stretching back several thousand years. It is the crossroads of all the oldest kingdoms and empires in Hyracanum, so anything goes in terms of character race and class. In terms of esthetics, imagine a blend of Istanbul, Cairo and Renaissance Venice by way of ancient Persia.

The Motivation

Creative expression is something I think I need and the D&D game is a perfect outlet for the imagination. Also, because other players are relying on me to generate a world and adventures on a schedule, it has deadlines, which I find help me focus. I like being forced to invent stuff, it’s like exercise for the imagination. That, I think, is the primary reason for starting up a game again after such a long stretch of inactivity.

The other big reason is that I was inspired by Joe Manganiello’s appearance on the Tonight Show with Stephen Colbert in August where they just talked non-stop about D&D. It was hilarious and amazing, but what piqued my interest was how Joe talked about setting up his game as the “LA hub” where showbusiness people play together. I can’t think of a more fun way to network, and so I started this game as a way of potentially having the same thing here in Vancouver.

For now the plan is to play once a month, but that may be flexible. The great thing about this group right now is that everyone is a first-time player except for me, and I’m pretty rusty. It’s really ideal and so far I love it.

Film Review – BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee’s latest film is based on the true story of a black police detective who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s. I thought it was exceptional, one of Lee’s best films, playing comedy against the ugly tragedy of racism to great effect. It suffers a bit from Lee’s characteristic overreach but on the whole it is very entertaining.

John David Washington stars as Ron Stallworth, a real cop who worked in Colorado Springs to expose the KKK, infiltrating the group with the help of fellow detective Flip Zimmerman, played by Adam Driver (one of my favourite actors). The supporting cast is very good, particularly Ryan Eggold and Jasper Paakkonen who are uncomfortably good at portraying the sociopathic Klansmen who were fooled by Stallworth into bringing him into the fold.

There is a subplot involving black student union protesters which seems to serve as a counter-point to the toxic racism on display in everything the Klan characters do or say which I felt worked, even if they sometimes were a bit broad in their depictions of each side. I thought the film did an excellent job of sending up the racists as essentially stupid silly man-children with their clubhouse meetings and ridiculous names and titles, but nevertheless dangerous, as any angry child with a gun would be. I thought the balance of making fun of their shit and yet acknowledging how deadly serious they are at the same time gave the film a terrific tension throughout which amplified the laughs as well as the danger. Adam Driver is just so damn likable, I was mortally afraid of him being exposed while undercover because I just hated the idea of seeing anything bad happen to him.

The movie does suffer from Spike Lee’s habit of overstating a point a number of times. I really liked how many points to the current state if the US were made, things like saying how Duke’s ultimate goal is to install a president sympathetic to the Klan, or his cry of “make America great!”, all of which land on the right side of being on-the-nose. How disappointing and unnecessary, then, to throw in footage from Charlottestown, including the shot of the car mowing down the counter-protesters, as an epilogue. I felt it ruined an otherwise excellent film that had thus far handled the allusions to modern America more or less subtly and it left a sour taste.

I definitely would recommend seeing this movie, in spite of my misgivings about the final coda. I loved the cast and felt the tension of lampooning the Klan gave rise to big laughs. I felt Lee’s usual preachiness was more moderate than usual, which let me enjoy the story and characters more. Funny, exciting, thought-provoking; I’d say it’s a good movie, in my opinion.

Film Review: First Reformed

Writer/director Paul Schrader has crafted one of the most intriguing movies I’ve seen in a long time. I found it complex, subtle, with many unexpected turns and a compelling cast. One of the year’s best, in my opinion.

Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Toller, a depressed priest who lost his only son in Iraq. Unable to pray, he pours his thoughts and feelings into a diary while drinking whisky. His church is a historical landmark with few followers, with most of the faithful preferring the local mega-church. Amanda Seyfried plays Mary, who comes to Toller concerned about her husband’s increasingly extremist beliefs and from there the film examines the modern relationship of people and their faith on one hand, and the relationships between institutions of faith and big business on the other.

I really liked the way the film depicted how at odds with the modern world religion seems to be, except for its usefulness by people with money seeking influence in a community. There is a definite sense of impending chaos and loss of shared values in the mood and character of the film, but always a lingering feeling that the worsening of the world could be largely a matter of perception. There is a particularly interesting scene between Toller and Mary about halfway thorough which sublimely transcends the gloom and alienation of the rest of the movie. There is hope, the film seems to be saying, if you just knew where to look for it. That was how I felt about it, anyway, but there is enough complexity that I’m sure many things can be taken away from it.

The film is shot in a very austere way, with cold, formalistic camera work and a very subdued palette. The score by Lustmord is perfectly supportive of the material, enhancing the mood without ever being obtrusive. Everything in the film contributes to the sense of alienation and loneliness and Ethan Hawke holds the center admirably, drawing you in and making you genuinely concerned about what’s going to happen to him. The movie deftly avoids cliché and has a really interesting ending.

I really liked First Reformed for its quiet tone, its austerity and the challenging material which really gives you a lot to think about long after the movie is over. There is a depth to the film which may need multiple viewings to fully appreciate. I found it captivating, surprising and it is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year.

What is anarchist rationale?

It is an understanding that the values of integrity and respect are vital for trust to exist while acknowledging that people often need more objective guarantees. A handshake ought to be enough to solidify an agreement, but sometimes impersonal institutions and codes of law are necessary evils.

There are no laws that cannot be disobeyed, except the laws of nature. Rules are really just inventions of human imagination and institutions are shared myths. Some are useful, some are not, but they are required for managing large numbers of people.

As someone with rational anarchist sympathies, I go along in order to get along. When laws are beneficial, I have no problem obeying them, but rules only work as long as everyone agrees to follow them. When the system is unjust, such as when the law is applied inconsistently, I have a hard time respecting it.

I always endeavour to live up to my word and honour my agreements, as long as I am being respected in the arrangement. I don’t normally trust people who lie or act in bad faith and I wouldn’t expect the same in return.

This anarchist rationale is the basis of all of my relationships.