Films Worth a Look: Wizards

MV5BMjE4OTUyMTQxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTA0MzUyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_Wizards is a dark animated fantasy in the far-flung future involving the epic struggle of two wizards. Made by animator Ralph Bakshi (of Mighty Mouse and Fritz the Cat fame), the movie was released in 1977. It soon became staple of midnight movies showings. In fact, I first saw it at a midnight movie showing.

Millions of years after an atomic war has wiped out most of the human population, the world is repopulated with elves, fairies, mutants and demons. The elves and fairies live in the light, radiation-free places; the mutants and demons live in the dark, radiation infested places. Two wizards are born into this world: polar opposites, one wizard, Avatar, is good and pure, the other, Blackwolf,  is dark and malevolent. Blackwolf sends his armies of demons and mutants to take over what is left of the world, but the elves and fairies always defeat him. Blackwolf then discovers technology and ancient Nazi propaganda films to spur his demon/mutant armies to victory. Avatar realizes what’s at stake and sets out with an elf warrior, a reprogrammed assassin and the queen of the fairies to stop Blackwolf.

The film is interesting for its use of rotoscoping, an animation technique where live action is shot and is used for the basis of the animation to render realistic motion. Since Wizards was made in the mid 1970s,  Bakshi used the traditional animation technique of the time: each frame of film (or “cell”) was hand-drawn, then hand-painted, finally being photographed by a motion picture camera, one frame at a time. Today,  most animation is digitally rendered using computers; cell animation as an art has been mostly lost.

The film is certainly flawed: over use of narration at the beginning to set the stage. The voice acting is only so-so. There is a tendency to reuse footage. Some of the animation looks kind of cheesy. The film also contains some holdover ideas from hippie culture: violence is always bad, love is all you need to fight evil, etc. The music is kind of cheesy. But these are all artifacts of the time period in which it was made.

Despite being animated, this is not a film for children. It has disturbing, violent images:  cute, Disney-esque characters are slaughtered in a hail of bullets. Elves are slaughtered on the battlefield by hideous, malformed mutants and demons. It makes use of Nazi propaganda films, which always send chills up my spine when watching them.

Wizards works well on an emotional level as it is classic good-versus-evil tale. The protagonist, Avatar while good,  is definitely flawed: he’s old and tired, crotchety, and not sure he wants to save the world.  He is even unsure as the whether the world is worth saving. Blackwolf is an interesting character: while evil, he seems to want what is best for his armies of mutants and demons. He wants to escape the dark which they are all forced to live in and take over the areas of  light where  the elves and fairies live.

Wizards works despite its flaws. It is an emotionally satisfying exploration into the nature of good versus evil. The final showdown between Avatar and Blackwolf packs an emotional wallop and a clever twist.

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Worth a look if you like edgy, dark futuristic animated fantasy or if you like the idea of a Saturday morning cartoon gone very wrong.

Skip it if hyper-violent imagery gets to you or you think that all animated films should emulate Disney cartoons.






Bingeable TV: Orange is the New Black

MV5BMTUyMDA5NTY1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDExODY2OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_Orange is the New Black is the story of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), an upper middle-class WASP woman convicted of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to Federal prison for a drug-related crime committed a decade earlier. Chapman’s  girlfriend at the time, Alex, convinced her to pick up a suitcase full of drug money from an airport. This one-time bad decision came back to haunt her ten years later just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Chapman is a fish out of water: her privileged upbringing did little  to prepare her for the realities of prison: loss of freedom, loss of privacy, and loss of basic human dignity. She has nothing in common with her fellow convicts; she’s wealthier, better educated, and well traveled.

She doesn’t understand prison dynamics and on her first day she insults the cook who prepares the food. The cook starves her for a while in retribution until Piper makes amends. This illustrates Piper’s main problem: she’s spoiled, selfish, narcissistic and very good at making bad decisions.

I liked the series overall, but with two caveats: initially it was hard for me to get into. The first couple of episodes set the background, but they can only go so far, story wise, so I felt they were kind of boring. But with a little persistence, it paid off. I couldn’t stop watching and binged until the final episode.

The other caveat is that it did become a bit melodramatic. There was a story arc with Piper, Alex, her former lover, and her frustrated fiance.

One interesting point the show keeps making is that many of the women are there because of circumstance. Many are only tangentially involved in criminal activity or in the wrong place at the wrong time. It raises the question of whether the inmates “deserve” their punishment or not. Piper clearly does, she made as stupid mistake and was caught and punished, but with a relatively light sentence due to a plea bargain. For the other women, it is more ambiguous. Flashbacks show how individual characters came to be incarcerated and the circumstances which cause them to make bad decisions and ultimately incarcerated for them. We see that while the criminal justice system is black and white, the circumstances which caused each woman’s incarceration are not.

Another point the show makes is that the correctional officers and other prison officials are committing crimes just as bad, if not worse, and really deserve to be in prison. But due to the warden wanting to avoid scandal, their crimes are overlooked an/or swept under the rug.

This TV series is based on the best-selling book of the same title written by Piper Kerman.

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Orange is the New Black Season One

Worth a look for those interested in compelling look into modern day incarceration.

Skip it if melodrama is not your thing.




TV: True Detective

MV5BMjA2NjI1Mzg2MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMTI2MzE1MDE@._V1_SX214_AL_True Detective is an HBO original TV series starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as two Louisiana State Police Detectives trying to track down a serial killer.

Back in 1995, Cohle (played by Matthew McConaughey)  is assigned to work with Hart (played by Woody Harrelson) on a particularly brutal serial killing with overtones of Satanism. As the two dig deeper in to the killing, they make connections to other seemingly unrelated deaths and missing person reports. As they investigate, they find ties to very powerful people protecting the guilty.

As the series opens, a new investigation into the serial killings has been opened and 17 years after the fact, Cohle and Hart are brought in for questioning. Initially, this is kind of confusing; we don’t know why Cohle and Hart have been brought in for questioning. But as the show progresses, we find out what transpired back in 1995 and what the connection is to the present.

Both men are tragically flawed: McConaughey plays Rustin Cohle, a brilliant police investigator, but driven to nihilism/pessimism through a personal tragedy. Harrelson plays Marty Hart, a competent policeman whose character flaws and bad decisions keep tripping him up his personal life.

The series is unrelenting bleak; Cohle’s personal tragedy has left his life in shambles. He is shown to be good at police work and especially good at getting suspects to confess. But he has insomnia and works non-stop on chasing down leads even to the point of putting himself in harm’s way to do so.

Hart is shown as competent, but makes bad choices in his personal life. These decisions adversely affect him and his family. He doesn’t know what to make of Cohle, who is obviously smarter, better educated and a better policeman.

The show hooked me from the start due to the strong first episode. While initially confusing, persistence in watching the story unfold makes for very satisfying TV viewing. The story is compelling and only gets stronger as the episodes reveal the plot.

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True Detective

Worth a look if you like well-done, gritty cop shows.

Skip it if you don’t like unrelenting bleak meditations on the nature of evil and its relation to humanity.



Hateship Loveship

MV5BMTQzMTc3MjY5NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNzM0MzI1MTE@._V1_SX214_AL_Hateship Loveship is the story of Johanna Parry (played by Kristen Wiig), a lonely woman who has spent her life caring for others. After the elderly woman she is caring for dies, Johanna finds employment working for Mr. McCauley (played by Nick Nolte) and his teenage granddaughter Sabitha (played by Hailee Steinfeld.)

Sabitha’s friend, Edith, convinces her to write a letter to Johanna from Ken (played by Guy Pearce), Sabitha’s ex-convict, drug-addicted father. Ken is a mess: he has a drug-addict girlfriend (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), lives in a dilapidated motel which he is ostensibly fixing up, and was responsible for the death of Sabitha’s mother. Johanna decides to take a chance on love and abandons her job with Mr. McCauley and Sabitha to visit Ken.

Kristen Wiig is spectacular in this movie, delivering an understated, nuanced performance; she portrays a wide variety of emotions with a simple mouth twitch or a slight nod. This is surprising as she was mostly a comedic actress in the slapstick vein. Wiig plays Johanna as a person who has been beaten down by life, but refuses to give up and even is even able to make the best of a horrible situation caused by a cruel, mean-spirited trick. She is damaged, but not broken. She transforms from someone who has never loved but wants to into someone who does love, unconditionally.

Based on a short story by Alice Munro, “Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage,” the movie is a moving portrayal of realistic adult love. Broken people find each other and are able to fall in love despite neither being glamorous, wealthy,  or conventionally attractive. The film never feels like it is beating the viewer over the head with this message. Rather, it lets the actors play out the theme in slow, quiet and moving way.

The film can be kind of slow-moving, but the understated performances offset this; the film never feels as if it is lagging. Another minor criticism is that Ken and his junkie girlfriend, Chloe (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh) look too fit. Ken is trim and muscular, he doesn’t look dissipated from years of smoking, drug abuse, malnutrition and soul-crushing guilt. Jennifer Jason Leigh is still very attractive; she looks nothing like an aging drug addict and is healthy with bright eyes. She’s not scrawny and emaciated as many drug addicts are. But this is only a minor gripe and does not take away from the movie or the performances of the actors.

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Hateship Loveship

Worth a look if you like realistic portrayals of adult love.

Skip it if your are more of a rom-com person.