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Pearl Harbor

Awful movie -- Rent Tora! Tora! Tora! instead
This is another movie that I borrowed from the local library. I didn't want to be responsible for a single cent on the bottom line of this travesty.

Unless you're a fan of cliché cinema, you can watch the first half of the film on 10x fast forward and not miss a thing. It's essentially the same as Titanic before the ship starts sinking.

In theory, the climactic attack sequences should be the crowning glory of the movie. The movie has the benefit of 30 years improvement in special effects technology over 1970s Tora! Tora! Tora!. And yet, I didn't find it as impressive -- At least partially because the digital effects artists got too clever. What was seen in Tora! Tora! Tora! was restricted to what could actually be done with the real airplanes used to shoot the scenes, or in model work. Pearl Harbor doesn't operate under this restriction, and thus the attacking planes do all kinds of absurd things that would never have happened in reality -- I guess because it looked cool. As a result of this, what should be the dramatic highlight of the film ends up coming off like a cartoon, or a cheesy video game. The earlier film, while not having the benefit of recent CGI technology, at least attempts to reproduce the events as they actually happened.

If you're looking for a brainless action movie with pretty-boy actors, this will do -- just skip over the first half. If you're interested in history, and want to know what really happened at Pearl Harbor (and equally importantly, why), watch Tora! Tora! Tora! instead.

Yes Minister

One of the all time best
Yes, Minister and its successor Yes, Prime Minister managed the difficult trick of being extremely humorous, intelligent, and relevant, all at once. With the exception of a very few dated references, most episodes are as relevant today as they were when they were made -- quite a trick! If you want to know how parliamentary democracy *really* works (as opposed to the theoretical details they teach in school), this program will teach it to you, and provide plenty of laughs at the same time. Another nice touch is the fact that in the series, the deck isn't entirely stacked against Jim Hacker, and he does occasionally put one over on Sir Humphrey. Some of the shows greatest moments are listening to some of the incredibly long strings of government-ese gobbledegook that Nigel Hawthorne delivers with such aplomb. Perhaps the greatest thing that could be said about the program is that apparently both politicians and bureaucrats considered its portrayal of "the other side" as dead-on accurate.

North of Superior

One of the first Imax films, still one of the best
Ultimately, this is a travelogue of Ontario north of Lake Superior, a thinly populated area of enormous forests, ancient rocks and long, cold winters. An Ontario-themed Imax movie was needed for the opening of the new Ontario Place park in Toronto in 1971 (which featured the Cinesphere, the worlds first permanent Imax theatre), and North of Superior was the result. Despite being shot in the early seventies, most of the images within it are timeless, and could just as easily have been filmed in the same places today. Like most Imax films, it is shot to thrill the audience with images that convey the impression of motion as well as any medium I've ever seen. Some Imax films seem like just a collection of spectacular images meant to show off this effect and nothing more, but North of Superior (like the best of the Imax films) does much more than this. The motion effect is well used to get across the immensity and power of nature in the area (most particularly in the opening and closing scenes, as well as the forest fire sequence), but I think the film would still have an impact without the Imax motion effect. I would dearly love to have a DVD copy, in the unlikely event that such a thing were ever made available.

This wasn't the first Imax film I ever saw, but it had a profound impact on me from the first time I saw in in 1975. The only other Imax film that has ever come close in its impact is "The Dream is Alive" -- which had much more spectacular material to work with. In days past, when admission to the Cinesphere was free with your days admission to Ontario Place, my friends and I would watch this four or five times in a row if they would let us. I've never tired of the images it offers, perfectly complemented on the soundtrack by Bill Houston's "Ojibway Country", the words of which are a perfect fit for what's on the screen. If I wanted to give someone a quick introduction to what Northern Ontario is really like, or to convey how effective Imax can be as cinema, I don't think I could do it better than to have them see "North of Superior".

The Prisoner

Excellent until the last episode. Still one of televisions greatest moments.
"The Prisoner" was an excellent series until the last episode, "Fall Out". It wasn't perfect -- some episodes were better than others, and those that were intended to be part of the abortive "second season" were generally not as good as the first 13 episodes produced (note that these aren't necessarily the first 13 episodes aired...). However, the program was consistently entertaining, interesting, thought provoking, and unquestionably unique. I had watched various episodes of "The Prisoner" over the years (It ran a fair amount on educational television in the 1970s) and was very impressed with what I saw, but I didn't get a chance to see the concluding episode until many years later. To say that I was disappointed is a significant understatement.

The problem of setting up any "mythology" in a show, as Chris Carter found out with the "X Files", is that sooner or later you have to answer the questions that you've raised. That's where the last episode loses it -- it answers nothing about the previous 16 episodes, but rather asks a number of new questions, and then doesn't answer them either!

It would appear that the reason for the odd number of episodes of the Prisoner was that it was cancelled with 16 episodes either in the can, or still in production, and "Fall Out" was written in a great rush at the last minute to close out the series. Although in earlier interviews, MacGoohan said that all the answers were in the final episode, in a more recent interview, he has stated (regarding "Fall Out") -- "If anybody admits to understanding it, then please pass the understanding on to me."

I don't know if there would have been a more coherent ending if the premature cancellation had not occurred, or if original producer George Markstein (who left after the first 13 episodes due to differences with Patrick MacGoohan) had stayed. Overall, it is a pathetic end to an otherwise superb series. Mind you, the fact that there wasn't a coherent ending (plus the presence of lots of symbolism to encourage endless debate on what it all *really* means) is probably the main reason for the cult attraction of the series. Even with the inadequate ending, this series is a highlight of how thought provoking television can be if it's done properly.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Well executed, bears up well to repeat viewing
Unlike the recent Movie, this mini-series is mostly good, and does an excellent job of capturing the quirky spirit of the radio original.

Probably the biggest reason why this adaptation works well is that the marvelous dialogue of the radio version has not been messed up. There are changes (as there have been in every medium the guide has been adapted into), but unlike the film version, the best and most memorable parts haven't been tampered with – See the memorable quotes section for examples of this. The biggest difference between this version and the film may be that Douglas Adams was directly involved with the production of the Television version, but sadly was not around to oversee the film version, for which the loss is evident.

The special effects aren't great (think Doctor Who, circa 1980), but the performances are enough fun that it doesn't matter all that much. Many of the cast members are the originals from the radio series, and even those that aren't originals mostly do a good job with their characters. The one exception is Sandra Dickinson, who just isn't convincing as Trillian – She's supposed to a very bright astrophysicist, but comes across as a bimbo/airhead. Still, the rest of the casting is excellent, so this one lapse can be forgiven.

The best part of the whole series is the visuals for the actual Guide. These are extraordinarily detailed animations, buttressing Peter Jones' voice-over from the radio original with lots of extra visual jokes and humor. One of the best parts about being able to watch this on DVD is the ability to freeze-frame some of the more interesting bits to be able to better appreciate all of the funny stuff contained within. These visuals were actually accomplished using a painstaking manual animation technique to simulate the computer displays, as 1980-era computers just weren't up to the job of doing things like this. Ironically, the simulated computer animations are a lot funnier than the actual computer animations (with 25 years worth of improved technology) in the film version.

In sum, given the choice between this and the film version, I would take this any time. The DVD version also includes lots of extra material – production notes, making-of documentaries, and a tribute to the late Douglas Adams.

The Gate

Everything worth seeing was in the trailer
This isn't one of my finest movie memories. The trailer looked good, with very interesting looking effects (for its time -- the effects look pretty pathetic today). However, when my friends and I actually saw it, we found that almost everything worth seeing in the whole movie (85 minutes), including all the interesting looking effects, was stuff we had already seen in the TV trailer (about 30 seconds). The rest is pretty tedious.

Some other comments here have suggested that the film was intended to be a tongue-in-cheek comedy about horror films, but I didn't see it that way at the time (and I was smack in the middle of the intended demographic for this kind of movie at the time). If that really was the intent of this films creators (which I doubt), it was done with far too much subtlety for its intended audience.

Most Extreme Elimination Challenge

Bizarre beyond belief
The wonder of this show (in my reckoning) is trying to figure out what the heck was happening in the Japanese original. I'm not a huge fan of the 'added' hosts and overdubbed commentary, but I get a certain weird fascination (probably related to the peculiar attraction that highway accidents have) in trying to figure out just what the contestants in the original "Takeshi's Castle" were trying to accomplish. People are doing bizarre and pretty dangerous things here -- I don't think you could do this in North America, and if you did, you'd attract personal injury lawyers like a magnet attracts iron filings.

It did give me my own entertainment concept -- the idea of taking American Reality shows (I'm thinking here of "The Apprentice", but it would work for almost any of them), and overdubbing the audio (just like Most Extreme Elimination Challenge) for overseas broadcast in non-English speaking countries. Foreign broadcast rights for TV shows are cheap, as is vocal talent. In the right hands, it could probably be a moneymaker. I'd relish writing lines for Donald Trump...

The Dream Is Alive

The next closest thing to flying in space
To date, NASA has made five IMAX films that have been shot from the Space Shuttle or the Space Station. "The Dream is Alive" was the first, and is probably still the best. It must be seen on the IMAX screen to fully appreciate it, but still looks and sounds good on DVD if seen on a big television with a good sound system. The launch sequences would be excellent opportunities for audiophiles to display their subwoofers to admiring guests.

Considering that all of the film shot in space was shot by the shuttle crews rather than by professional cameramen, the results are outstanding. This is probably the closest you can get to the sensation of being in space, short of actually going there yourself. There are also excellent ground sequences of the shuttles being assembled, launched, and recovered, along with the training required for astronaut candidates – all well chosen to look dramatic in the IMAX format.

The three shuttle missions featured in this film all took place during 1984, and the film was released in the summer of 1985. At the time it was released, NASA was launching shuttle missions at a rate never seen before or since. The film displayed the optimism of the time, where the safety of the flights was not in question, and the goal of everyone flying in space someday seemed to be within reach. NASA had a teacher-in-space program and a journalist-in-space program (as well as an unofficial politician-in-space program, where a congressman and a senator conned their way into space flights), and an ambitious program of fifteen launches was scheduled for 1986. Everything looked rosy, and the film reflects this.

Then, on the first (and only) shuttle launch of 1986, Challenger exploded, killing the crew of seven (including two of this film's cast). The previous optimism vanished, never to fully return, in the light of revelations about unresolved safety issues, unrealistic expectations, etc. The film is thus an artifact of this vanished era, and it's rather sad to see this atmosphere of optimism in the light of what was to follow. Nonetheless, the sequences in the movie are still very effective, and the subsequent IMAX space films have only managed to equal (but not exceed) what is seen here. If you're a space enthusiast, you owe it to yourself to see this at least once in an IMAX theater.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Vastly inferior to the 1981 Television version
I just saw this last night. I'm glad I borrowed from my local library -- it was worth exactly what I paid for it (nothing). I'm also glad that I >didn't< try to watch this on a Trans-Atlantic flight last year -- it would have made the eight hour flight seem longer still. Normally, I wouldn't have wasted two hours of waking time on something this worthless, but after the first 20 minutes (enough to see just how badly it was turning out), I had to keep watching, just to see how awful it could be. I watched right to the end, and the answer is: Very awful indeed.

The movie's pedigree should be impeccable, given the successful history of adapting the original Douglas Adams radio series into other media (books, audio recordings, a stage play, television, a computer game). The film has multiple well-known actors, and the advent of CGI should make some of the more challenging flights of fancy from the radio program relatively easy to get across. So what happened?

Douglas Adams is co-credited with the screenplay, and a lot of his words do survive in the finished product. But it has been edited in a ham-fisted fashion to rob the impact from many of the jokes (why?), marvelously funny stuff has been removed, and painfully unfunny stuff inserted in its place, leaving an incoherent mess. (M. J. Simpson goes into this in far more detail in his review on To be fair, some of the stuff that was inserted was written by Adams before he died – I can only hope that these were unfinished drafts, and that Adams himself would have been able come up with a better finished product. (Adams was infamous for finding it almost impossible to finish work without a gun to his head, so this isn't at all improbable). It probably isn't a coincidence that this movie was in and out of 'Development Hell' for over 20 years while Douglas was alive, and only got into production after he was no longer around. I would like to think that he would have thought better of his creation, and would have objected to what ended up in the screen version.

The 1981 Television version, with perhaps 2 % of the movie's budget, did a superior job - not perfect, but a far better reflection of the spirit of the radio original. It didn't have much in the way of expensive special effects, but the acting in that version was (mostly) appropriate for the characters as written. For the most part, I found the main characters in the movie either unconvincing and/or annoying. It isn't just that they're acted by different performers – some of the roles were changed between the radio and television versions without destroying the quality. The one instance of casting that seems to work is Bill Nighy's Slartibartfast – very different from Richard Vernon in the radio/TV version, but still appropriate and enjoyable to watch. His sequences were about the only part of the movie that I felt had any virtue at all.

In the television version, the sections featuring the guide (done using clever conventional animation, as computer animation wasn't up to the task back then) were the highlight of the whole program -- very well executed, chock full of humour, and they stand up well to repeat viewing 25 years later. In the movie, the actual guide is far less present, and what is there is flat and uninteresting for the most part. Unfortunately, the two different versions of Hitchhiker's illustrate two extremes of the role of special effects in movies/television. Just as low budget special effects didn't stop the television version from being entertaining, high budget special effects (which are ubiquitous in the movie) can't make it entertaining by themselves. Special effects are secondary, a means rather than an end.

I also wonder about the cutting of one of the better known parts of the radio original -- the "nonexistance of god" speech. My immediate assumption is that this was left out to prevent controversy in the United States. This may have been a mistake -- Possibly, if the speech had been included, it might have sparked a big controversy, and got a lot of people out to the cinema to see what all the fuss was about. Properly managed, it could have been a free publicity bonanza!

Incidentally, the movie leaves an obvious hook for a sequel. I sincerely hope that this never occurs (at least not by the crew that produced this...).

To the viewers who watched this movie, and can't understand what all the fuss about the Hitchhikers's Guide is all about – go find the guide in one of its other incarnations. Listen to the radio series (available on CD), watch the TV series (available on DVD), or read the books (the first three, at least). I think you will find that what you encounter will be far more entertaining and worthy of your time.


At one time, the worst (major) film I'd ever seen
I'm only entering 1 out of 10 because zero isn't an option. I used to think that this was the worst (major) movie that I'd ever seen. However, as a result of Highlander 2 (which I'm ashamed to admit that I actually paid to see... uck!), this is now only the *second* worst.

The only explanation for my having seen this was that it was part of a period of time in my younger days when myself and a friend went out and saw a movie every Sunday evening without fail, for two or three years straight. Sometimes, the movie we actually wanted to see was sold out, and we ended up taking a chance. Some of these chances turned out to be good. Some (like Cyborg) didn't. Not too long after this came out, I decided that movies were getting too expensive (and my time too valuable) to waste on crap like this, and I became a little more discriminating about what I paid to see. Perhaps this was an early warning sign that I was starting to move out of the 'key demographic' of the movie industry.

The Arrow

Entertaining, but *not* accurate history
For those that don't know the history, the Avro Arrow project was a Canadian interceptor project from the late 1950s. It was cancelled due to excessive cost, and to a perception that interceptor aircraft were obsolete in the wake of Sputnik and the development of ICBMs. Subsequently, the Arrow program has become the basis of a Canadian cottage industry of book publishing and conspiracy theory about why the cancellation occurred, the involvement of the *dastardly Americans*, the downfall of the Canadian aircraft industry, etc.

This program is interesting in many respects -- most particularly the use of CGI to show what a flying Arrow would have looked like, and the use of a near-full scale mock up of an Arrow as set dressing in many scenes. (The Arrow was a *very* large aircraft, and building a mock up was a major proposition). Genuine archive footage of the original Arrow is also used. The set design does a good job of setting the scene for the story.

Where the program falls down is in the story itself. Some posters here have suggested that history needs to be mythologized a bit to make it palatable/interesting. I don't agree with this as a general rule, and certainly not in this case, as the story is every bit as interesting just as it occurred. I understand the need to compress characters and keep a story simple enough to fit in a reasonable duration, but there's no need to generate a whole pile of total fiction to fill out the story. The important issue is that many people who watch this program will think that it's 100% historically accurate -- An impression that the program doesn't try very hard to correct. The story is very heavily fictionalized, and diverges significantly from the established history.

The one good part of all this is that one of the extras on the DVD release of "The Arrow" is the one hour CBC documentary "Dateline -- There Never was an Arrow" from 1980. This is probably the most informative and balanced examination of the Arrow program, and was unavailable for many years. If you want some light entertainment, watch "The Arrow" -- It's not bad, just don't take the story seriously. If you want to know the true history, see the "Dateline" documentary, or the Avro Arrow book by Ron Page et. al. from Boston Mills Press.

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