Saturday, December 4, 2010

Cayman Brac

I've always had mixed feelings about the Caymans. I've been to Grand Cayman three times. Once for a week and twice as stop overs on cruises. Each time I've had a decent time, but there was nothing there that I couldn't get at half the price somewhere else and no particular desire to come back again. This is not a criticism by the way. Grand Cayman has a lot going for it and a lot of fans. I wouldn't try to talk anyone out of going there. Its just that for my buck I can find better value elsewhere. Cozumel gives me the same thrils and more bang for the buck.
And yet, since it keeps appearing towards the top of the diving lists I decided to give it another shot, but this time go strictly for the diving and go straight to where the diving is. This leaves you with two options. Either Cayman Brac or Little Cayman. Flip of the coin and Cayman Brac it was.
And now I know why the Caymans are always towards the top of the lists. The diving is indeed excellent and even better than Cozumel. I am not going to go into every single dive site they all have something going for them and in my five days of diving I only got to experience a small fraction. I probably enjoyed Wilderness Reef the most due to its many nooks, crannies and swim troughs, but that's purely subjective.
I dove with Reef Divers. Great group. Very professional, courteous and friendly. Just the right mix. They do what's called valet diving. You leave your gear outside of your room (virtually no crime on the island so you can safely do that) they pick it up in the morning and hook up all your gear on the boat. All you have to do is show up and jump in the water. The first dive was always deep water (110 max) and they always gave you and option of either exploring on your own (assuming you had a buddy) or you could just follow the divemaster. The dive briefings on the boat were always thorough and detailed so either would work.
I stayed at the Brac Reef Beach Resort. At first blush it might not seem like much from the outside. Has a sort of Florida motel (a nice motel) look to it, but don't let that fool you. The rooms are great and the staff and service top notch. The biggest surprise was the food. Being cheap I figured I'd get a better deal on my own so opted out of the meal plan, but eventually ended up eating all of my meals at the hotel anyway. If I have to stay here again I would definitely go with the meal plan. Not that there are many other options available anyway (more on that shortly), but that's not the point. Simply put. The food at the BRBR is that good.
The other thing that the BRBR has going for it is that they have bicycles available for the taking included in the price of the room. Its a great way of exploring the island. The island is relatively small and while you probably won't be able to cover all of it on a bike its a good option to have. Just don't do it the way I did. If you see signs that say restaurants with an arrow pointing that a way, don't believe them. I am sure eventually there will be some restaurants that a way, but I gave up after a few miles. And remember to bring along some fluids because once you've gone that a way you still have to pedal back.
The Brac itself is an ideal place for those who love the water and what's under it. There are quite a few caves and nature trails to explore, but other than that there really isn't much. No real shopping meccas to speak of. No large boisterous entertainment strips. If that's more your speed than you are better off sticking to Grand Cayman. However, if you want some peace and solitude then the Brac is the perfect place to be.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Is it me or is it the movies? Part II

Coming to you soon in glorious 3D!!!

If I see one more preview for a film in 3D I am liable to throw something at the screen. Enough already. Not that there is anything wrong with making films in 3D, but the films being made in 3D are for the most part nothing more than a marketing gimmick. Shows what Hollywood thinks of their audience. Story? Direction? Acting? That's hard and no predictor of success. Let's film it in 3D! Boffo box office! Pretty sure Sophie's Choice in 3D can't be far behind.
On the other hand, there's a part of me that is really tempted by Jackass 3D. If ever there was a gimmick that one's it.


Robert Rodriguez is a very talented and skilled filmmaker and it really shows in Machete. I saw more than my share of grindhouse films in the 70s. Machete is so good that despite watching it inside of a state of the art movie theater in Riga, Latvia (that's in Europe for the geographically challenged), from the start of the opening credits I was instantly transported to the seedy Chicago Loop of the late 70's. I could even imagine hearing the popcorn popping in the lobby and other not so fond sounds and smells came back in sense memory. Mark of a great film if it can capture the sense and feel of a time and place.
One problem. Grindhouse films were awful. Really, really bad films. The kind of films that distributors would buy the pound and were judged by how many shots of naked women they had and how many kills they contained. These were the type of films that could and would only appeal to 16 year old boys or those who no matter their age still had the emotional maturity of one. So here's the conundrum. If someone makes a great bad film does that make the film great or bad? I don't know the answer, but a part of me wishes Rodriguez would make a straight film for once. Same goes for Quentin Tarantino.


There's a little desperation in my film watching of late. Its not that I haven't seen some good films lately (Social Network, The Town, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), but sometimes you just want something mindless and less filling. I knew exactly what I would get with Red and that's exactly what I got. The only thing I can say about the film is that movie stars should never ever surround themselves with actors. Its just asking for trouble. Bruce Willis is good at what he does. Really he is. I loved Die Hard. All of them. He has even shown an occasional, no matter how brief, flash of acting ability. But in a film with John Malcovich, Helen Miren, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman, all excellent actors, oops. Movie stars and actors should never mix. The secret of a movie star is that they attract the audience's eye. As Mel Gibson once said they know where to stand and how to look at and look great on camera. As long as they're the focal point of the scene. In an ensemble cast Willis is lost. He just simply does know what to do when the camera is not on him and he isn't the center of the action. And on the few occasions when he tries to act it just falls flat because the other actors don't have to try.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010


Written and directed by Maris Martinsons.
Starring: Kaori Momoi, Andrius Mamontovas, Monie Tung, Kristine Nevarauska, and Lau Dan.

So when is a Latvian film a Latvian film? Does it have to be in Latvian, with Latvian actors and take place in Latvia and have something to do with being Latvian? Directly or indirectly? No matter how remote?

Amaya takes place in Hong Kong. It stars Andrius Mamontovas (Lithuanian) and Kaori Momoi (Japanese). The dialogue is mostly in English and Cantonese. Its written and directed by Maris Martinsons (a Latvian, but one who has been living in Lithuania since 1991). Then again, Martinsons did recently move back to Latvia and the film has been selected as Latvia’s entry for the 2010 Academy Awards. That’s good enough for me.

Amaya is part Lost in Translation, part travelogue, and parts other. The story follows several characters who at the onset seem to have nothing in common. There’s Paul, the seemingly lonely and lost traveler who finds himself in Hong Kong. There’s Amaya and her husband stuck in the routine rut of everyday life. There’s Amaya’s brother in-law Tao who owns a massage parlor and gives classes on the side. We don’t really know much about the characters. Martinsons keeps the back stories and exposition to a minimum and allows their stories to unfold slowly. The film lives in the present and in the now and that’s its greatest strength. Its basically a journey of self-discovery. We discover the characters as they discover themselves.

Amaya will not be everyone’s cup of tea. The pacing can be slow and the motivations of the characters unclear. Its like traveling alone to a foreign place. Confronted with unfamiliar surroundings, tastes, smells and sounds one tends to first withdraw inward. The tendency is to stick to the grounds of wherever its is you are staying or at least the immediate vicinity. But, if you can overcome that first shock and are willing to start venturing a bit further, no matter how slowly, the rewards of what can be discovered are well worth it. Not only about the location, but about yourself.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Medibas (The Hunt)

Directed by Andis Miziss.
Written by Kaspars Odins and Elvita Ruka.
Starring: Andris Keiss, Santa Didzus, Jana Sekste and Guna Zarina.

Emir Kusturica is a world renowned Serb filmmaker who makes great surreal and absurdist films. Time of the Gypsies and Arizona Dream come to mind. Medibas tries to traverse the same terrain, but unfortunately Andis Miziss, the director of the film, is no Kusturica. The elements are there, but somehow they never really come together into a cohesive story in which we care about either the characters or the outcome of their actions.

The film opens with a scene of two men making and bottling juice in a rundown former train station. A train pulls up. Its the owner of the bottling operation stopping by to check on the progress. The train also serves as a home for unwed mothers and the bottling operation owner seems to be their matron. The men hadn't been paid in a while and ask as to their wages. The owner gives them the runaround and instead presses them to finish the latest shipment. The train pulls away, one of the bottlers goes back in and out of spite adds some poison to a few of the bottles. The entire shipment is then delivered to a small country bar.
Elsewhere a trio of Orienteering competitors get lost in the woods, a hunting party, also on rails, sets out for their annual hunting party, a famous architect and his highly strung lover are working out some issues, and a local policeman is trying to keep his young partner awake at a railroad crossing.
Keeping track? All of these characters and stories of course will be intertwined and then stuff will happen or as a friend of my commented "and then it gets weird."
Medibas is not all bad. There are some good performances (Guna Zarina's Renate the best among them) and the stories have potential but its just that it never really comes together. Its just a lot of exposition about really strange situations and the sometimes strange people who get trapped in them.
The title itself seems to be an allusion to the personal and emotional hunts we all engage in our daily lives. But there's just too much of the strange here that is never really explained. Its a strangeness overload and we are far too busy making up our own back stories for the characters to have any time to actually relate to them. Just starting with the train, is it really that easy and simple to operate your own train, maintain your own track? Doesn't it cost money to operate a train and why put a home for unwed mothers on it and who would ever send or willingly find themselves on this one?

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Is it me or is it the movies?

I love the movies. I've seen quite a few of them. At a rough count lets say 5000 or so. Started having disposable income around the age of 14 and like most at that age had plenty of motivation to escape reality. Hey, at least it kept me away from drugs.

I used to cut school often and take the L into the Loop and get off at Washington. The Loop of those days was quite different. Not quite the shiny tourist mecca that it is today, but it didn't lack for movie theaters. Within minutes walking distance you had the Chicago, State and Lake, Woods, Oriental, United Artists and McVickers.

These were the days of double, and sometimes triple, bills. The first showtime often started at 8am. The fare certainly wasn't highbrow. We're talking The Master of the Flying Guillotine, Bruce Li and the Tool Box Murders. But there were also plenty of middlebrow choices. Whatever Hollywood decided to release for better or worse could be found in one densely packed movie mecca.

For the highbrow you could walk a few blocks and you had the Water Tower and Fine Arts. For the truly obscure you had the Parkway on Clark which had a different slate of films each day. Then the VCR came along, HBO, Blockbuster. Long story short, my film tastes were omnivorous and I certainly didn't lack for choices. I'd watch almost anything. When the AFI releases those lists of Top 100 this or that I've often seen between 60 to 90 of the films on any given list. This is not meant to be me bragging about how much I've seen. Just that I used to go to a lot of movies and the movies I would sit through cut across a pretty broad scape of genres and styles.

Until recently. Now weeks could go by without me seeing a single film. Might not seem like a big deal to most, but remember that I am someone who has probably averaged about 3 films per week for the past 35 years or so. Something changed. Is it me?

I am not a fan of nostalgia. Always been distrustful of the longing for the past. As they say the only thing certain in life is change. Sorry, but things were not always better when you were a kid. Popular and creative tastes go through cycles just like everything else.

Nor am I one to bash Hollywood for releasing commercial films for the lowest common denominator. Might come as a shock to some, but film making was always about finding the broadest possible audience. Films are far too expensive. They require far too many people to make. The average Hollywood film costs around $100,000,000 to make. Quite a bit of that is creative accounting, but that's still an awful lot of zeros. If you were putting up that much money you'd want some guarantee on your investment as well.

But something has changed. I first noticed it a few years ago when I started watching films on my PC. I'd start watching a film and then at some point, usually around the same time into the film, I'd start playing Freecell or Minesweeper. One eye on the film and one on the game. Okay. So some of that might be middle age ADD and some part of it is just simply that most films follow a fairly common structure. They even teach it in Film School. By page such and such, such and such thing must happen to advance the plot, etc. You watch enough films and that pattern gets kind of burned into your psyche and at some subconscious level you know when you can get up and go to the bathroom without missing some important plot point. Its not necessarily a bad thing. Its like meatloaf. No matter what you do to meatloaf it usually comes out the same usually. Its predictable and comfortable and I still like it.

The other thing I noticed is film previews. If you go see an animated film the film previews will almost all be for animated films. Romantic comedy, action, drama, the same. And even within that they'll be almost all the same.

Films are no longer just films. They're product. To some degree they've always been product, but now it seems like they're product first. Like a can of Coke. They're slotted for a specific audience with specific tastes and tug on specific emotional wavelengths. Nothing wrong with that in a way. I like Coke, but the films themselves seem to have become secondary. You don't start out with a film and then find an audience. You start with an audience and then create a film for that audience. Its like if you were making Coke now, you'd start with the can. Not with what's in it. Its about the packaging. Not about the content.

Then again, maybe I've just seen too many packages.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Banana Shpeel

Growing up, while other kids wanted to be cosmonauts, firemen and policemen, my ambition in life was to be a clown. Hold off on the snickering for a moment (yes, I know some would say I succeeded beyond my wildest dreams). I am not talking clown as in Bozo. If I grew up watching Bozo I too might be scared of clowns. I am talking clown as in Oleg Popov. There was just something about him that spoke to me as a child. The world he lived in was wondrous and a little bit scary and his routines were full of whimsy and wonder. There was very little of the mean spirited in him. My mom even made me a Purim costume once with his trade mark floppy hat and bow tie. Its a fond memory.

The love of the clown led to a love of the Circus. Riga had a permanent Circus building and all of the greats of the time would sooner or later pass through it. Here too there is a world of difference between the circus of Ringling Brothers, for example, and the Circuses of Europe. American circuses seem to be more about spectacle and grandeur. Europe's circuses were more about artistry and performance. I never could get into the three ring circus. Too much information. Too many distractions. Not that the US lacks for alternatives. Big Apple Circus and even Chicago's very own Midnight Circus come to mind. But there is a distinct difference. Until Cirque Du Soleil come along. Still vividly remember the first show I saw by them (Allegria). I just couldn't stop enthusing. Haven't missed seeing too many opportunities to see a new show every time they come through town.

Not that everything they touch is perfect. Hated Zumanity. Burlesque is burlesque, but this wasn't even the burlesque of Cabaret. This to me was the burlesque of Cafe Flesh. Rather than sensual it was raunchy. And not in a good way. Cafe Flesh works in its own fashion (just don't ever watch it in a crowded theater with people expecting something completely different, but that's a blog for a different day). So when a friend pointed out that Cirque had a new show that they were previewing in Chicago in which they take on Vaudeville I was a little apprehensive. Will this be another Zumanity? Will they treat Vaudeville with some affection and reverence or will this be a broad farce? A dark satire of something which at its very core is already a parody of itself?

Banana Shpeel works. It works very, very well. I had the same thrill that I did the first time I saw a Cirque show. It treats the subject matter as it should be treated. It doesn't try to out do vaudeville, but retains its feel while updating it for the modern age. Whether its the shtick of the clowns, the dance numbers, the jugglers, the comedy bits, or the acrobatics, they all work. Well, okay. Not everything works. The bigger comedy bits fall flat. They probably sounded really good on paper and they might work on the screen where you have the luxury of editing and close ups, but live on stage they just become a bunch of people running around in chaos. Hopefully as the show moves to New York they'll work out the kinks. Either way, there's still a lot of Shpeel to like.

Dima Shine's balance act is just incredible to watch. Remember the China Olympics openning ceremony and the bit where that older man ran around the stadium walls while suspended by wires? Dima does the same thing while holding on to a spinning pole perfectly perpendecular to the floor without a single muscle quivering. No wires. Vanessa Alvarez puts a new spin (literally) on a traditional foot juggling act and Tuan Le does some very interesting things with hats.

The circus and the cirque are not for everyone, but for those of you who enjoy either one or the other I highly recommend the show. The Chicago run has unfortunately ended, but sooner or later its bound to come back around. Either that or show up as part of the ever expanding Cirque Vegas empire.