Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Man With The Satisfied Smile – “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” Is A Disturbing Must See.

[There be slight spoilers – you have been warned]

Without equivocation, David Fincher is a bad ass director. This is said not so much due to his directorial style but rather his ability to take on controversial, even disturbing, subject matter yet still make it palatably acceptable to the general movie going public; even making heroes out of individuals who under normal societal conceits would be considered “deplorable”. Despite the anarchist nature of Fight Club’s “Tyler Durdan” or the anti-socialism of The Social Network’s “Mark Zuckerberg”, Fincher makes them characters that one can, if not root for, at least understand. He performs the same feat here in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, a remake of the foreign film starring Noomi Rapace, both based upon the novel by Steig Larsson (adapted for screen by Steven Zaillian). Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara in an arresting performance) is an insane ward of the state. She is also a more than capable investigative hacker. She is also a cypher, brusque beyond rudeness and vicious when called for, and in this film it is more than called for.

But then, in a film laden with misogynistic overtones such as this, such a heroine is demanded, since the plot itself hinges on the investigation conducted by disgraced reporter Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) to solve the of the murder of one Harriet Vanger (Moa Garpendal) at the behest of Vanger patriarch and industrialist Hanrik (Christopher Plummer at his most ingratiating). Set in the dead of a Swedish winter, the story itself is as bleak in tone as the stark, gray weather represents.  The film is replete with situations and imagery in which various women are brutalized, humiliated, and demeaned and it is most epitomized in Salander who suffers indignities of her own. However, she also exemplifies the reclamation of women taking back their lives form the hands of their oppressors (a few scenes had women in the theater I attended cheering and a couple of men squirming in their seats). This is a delicate balancing act that Fincher is able to manage almost effortlessly, aided by Mara’s star making, layered performance. The actress has a balancing act of her own.  Physically waif-ish and pale, her physicality belies the steel at her character’s core (symbolized by her character’s piercings and tattoos). However, Mara also manages to imbue an innate vulnerability to the character, a girl who wants to know love in a world she cannot accept and refuses to accept her. Fincher uses her judiciously. When she is not on the screen, her absence is decidedly felt. When she is, the events crackle. She and Fincher bring to light the more disturbing aspects of the film, putting them in bas relief so that the viewer has no choice but to confront some of the baser desires of a misogynistic nature, but by the same token showing that such things need not be accepted.

However, the film has a top billed star in the form of Daniel Craig. While he does not quite take a back seat to Mara, this is one film that is not completely on his shoulders. In fact, it is an “reverse-Bond” film (despite a) the rather Goldfinger-esque nature of the opening credits and; b) that the film contains a former “Bond” villain in the form of Steven Berkoff and one of Craig’s rival for the “Bond” role, Goran Visnjic), as it is the woman who has all the gadgets, is highly promiscuous, and saves the day. Craig, as a reporter who is disgraced due to publishing an inaccurate expose of industrialist Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg), brings a different sort of edge to Blomkvist, one that comes from a place of helplessness. The reactive Blomkvist is a far cry from Craig’s more proactive Bond;  the juxtaposition of which, whether intended or not by Fincher in the casting, makes the performance more effective. When the character is in dire straits, it is much more compelling in spite of Craig’s association with the iconic super-spy. Legend has it that part of the reason that George Miller’s The Aviator (1985) failed because Christopher Reeve’s association with “Superman” was so ingrained that audiences could not accept him as a pilot who could not fly out of his predicament. Craig manages to transcend that particular tightrope here, effectively sublimating his usual on-screen tough guy persona to marvelous effect.

They are supported by a wonderful supporting cast, most notably in the performances of Plummer, Stellan Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Steven Berkoff and Yorick van Wageningen. Each character has a moment to shine and all of them deliver.

The film is a taut, suspenseful thriller though not without its slow spots, especially in the first twenty minutes or so; something that should be expected given that the source material is over 500 pages long. However, it is necessary to fully establish what the two main characters are about, what motivates them, what separates them, and what ultimately brings them together. The best part is that it is the characterization and the pace that engenders the suspense. What little there is by way of gunfire and explosions are almost an afterthought and never seemed tacked on for their own sake. The performances and the direction are all that are required to hold the audience’s attention. In fact, is some cases the usual Hollywood violence tropes almost seem as intrusive to the proceedings.

The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo has generated a lot of buzz both within and outside of the industry prior to its release, making it a film with high expectations. The film meets them and more. If you wish to have your sensibilities challenged this holiday season, then this is the film to see.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Get A Clue: Seeing "Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows" is...Academic***

In life, there are rarities. Among them are blue moons, dolphin sightings, Courtney Love in sobriety and, most specifically, a sequel that surpasses the original. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows definitely falls into that latter trend. While a direct sequel from the events of the first Holmes, this is a stand alone outing; the story "assumes" that the audience is familiar with the players, saving introductions only for the new additions such as Holmes' more intelligent (by his own admission) brother Mycroft (played with great deadpan, cheeky delight by Stephen Fry) and the finally revealed Professor James Moriarty (a decidedly Machiavellian Jared Harris). A rule of thumb in great drama is "start small...and build". In comparison to this new outing, the sophomore Sherlock Holmes was the small start. For returning director Guy Ritchie does in a few minutes of prologue what most directors need almost a half hour to accomplish: he changes the stakes of the game by commencing the film in a controversial fashion which will not only undoubtedly enrage Holmsian/Conan Doyle purists, but also establishes the credibility of the villain.

And build it does: Sherlock (Robert Downey, Jr.) is more "on" than ever, his countenance that of a person who has taken mass quantities of cocaine to cram for a final exam (given the shared historical predilection between the literary Holmes and the living Downy, Jr. for this particular drug, an apt metaphor), his mania focused on outwitting and outmaneuvering his arch nemesis. His faithful companion, Dr. John Watson (Jude Law) is more determined than ever to marry his beloved Mary (Kelly Reilly) despite Holmes efforts to thwart same. The explosions are bigger, the action is more frenetically intense and, in another rarity in most actioners of recent memory, the suspense is excruciating. The literary Holmes was fond of string instruments, and Ritchie's tight direction plays the events, and the audience, like a Stradivarius, choosing the right amount of storytelling beats to ratchet up the drama. He is one of the few directors who utilizes the current conceit of slow motion to pulse-pounding, nail-biting effect. He deftly manages all of this while keeping the film going at a brisk clip, accompanied by the ambitious score by Hans Zimmer, who in music mirrors the changing, bi-polar moods of the story, relying on heavy use of percussion to showcase the movie's darker undertones. However, Zimmer never loses sight of the whimsical motif he established for the titular character.

The teleplay (written by Michelle and Kieren Mulroney loosely based on the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle) is, for the most part, solid. While it does take the time to explain a couple of clues through exposition, most of the clues are visually explained and left for the audience to extrapolate to avoid slowing down the action or muting the tension. In short, it's yet another rarity: the intelligent actioner.

The performances which carry the film are sublime and highlight a key subtext: Relationships. Downey Jr.'s Holmes' is a study of contrasts: cerebral yet physically centered (and capable), manic yet pensive, superficial yet deep, irreverent yet soulful.  The beauty of the performance is how easy he makes such a juggling act look. His chemistry with Jude Law is akin to that of Tony Randall and Jack Klugman's in the television version of Neil Simon's The Odd Couple, bringing the complexity of that relationship to beautiful realization. Their performance and banter alone is worth the price of admission. The true problem with Watson's marriage to Mary is that he's already been married to Holmes for years; they play "The Bickersons" with panache and aplomb. 

Of course, the other key relationship is that between the adversaries.  While on the surface their battle is one of wits, it is also a battle between morality and amorality. Harris plays Moriarty as sociopathic chessmaster; one who only shows emotion when he is outmaneuvered. On the flip side, Holmes shows particular resolve when the life of his "bromantic" partner Watson is endangered. Downey Jr. and Harris crackle in their exchanges. One can actually believe that each seeks to destroy the other despite the genteel assertions of respect for the other's intellectual prowess. He tests Holmes on every level (intellectually, physically and even emotionally) so that by the time the have their "final" confrontation, it is climatic, riveting, and uncertain. 

Unfortunately, the film is not without its drawbacks. Rachel Adams' Irene Adler, who plays a very important part in terms of story development, has too little screen time; as does Reilly as Mary Watson. Unfortunately, Noomie Rapace as Romany fortune teller Simza Heron does little to fill the void.  Her character is a blank slate who propels the action forward by story design only and barely elicits audience engagement. There are some instances where deux ex machinas are incorporated, the lead-up to the "The Final Solution's" climax is a tad obvious (admittedly, only for those familiar with the original Holmes stories), and its run time may be a bit long. However, when it seems the film's tone of suspenseful foreboding threaten to overwhelm the proceedings, Ritchie performs a tonal sleight of hand and brings his humorous sensibilities to bear; as in his established Holmes/Watson banter and a little tongue in cheek homage to the Clint Eastwood/Shirley MacLaine classic Two Mules for Sister Sara, for example. It's a bait and switch that works.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows is really is a rare feat. It is an intelligent actioner that does not talk down nor bog down its audience. Furthermore, it's also one of those rare films that justifies multiple viewings.  Ultimately, it's one of the most fun movie going experiences this year, a thrill ride that should be partaken of posthaste. What are you waiting for? The game's afoot!

 *** (What, did you think I was going to say "Elementary?" :-P)

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

300 LIGHT OR SUPERMAN SCREEN TEST? IMMORTALS Visually Stunning Though Dramatically Generic (Minor Spoilers)

To say Sin City and 300 were visual game changers in film would be a major understatement. Their CGI was specifically tailored to reflect the films' comic book (yes, "comic book", not "graphic novel") origins, giving them an otherworldly feel that is somewhat divorced from reality. Film is an escapist medium and that pioneering CGI did much to reinforce that state of unreality.  Immortals, directed by Tarsem Singh (The Cell), follows that trend.  It is visually stunning and perhaps one of the better representations of motion art in recent memory. Many scenes are shot as though they were paintings come to life.  Rich tones of luminescent gold and vibrant crimson red dominate the film, with darkest marble and dark blue hues supplied in contrast, especially to show the difference between the divine (the Greek Gods) and the secular (humanity). However, this approach works both for and against the film. Instead of a war of gods, we are presented with a superhero comic book film dressed in mythological attire. 

Evil Hyperion (a somewhat out of place Mickey Rourke), a ruler with a grudge against the Green Pantheon, seeks the Epirus Bow, a mythical weapon powerful enough to free their nemesi the Titans from the bowels of Mount Tartarus in order to bring about the Gods' destruction. The Gods are forbidden to interfere (though it is never explained why) unless and until the Titans are freed, so Zeus (Luke Evans), in mortal guise (John Hurt, doing his best Obi-Wan impression), prepares Theseus (Henry Cavill) to lead the world of men for the upcoming battle. With the aid of virgin Oracle Phaedra (Freida Pinto) and thief Starvos (Stephen Dorff), Theseus races to obtain the bow before Hyperion.

The film moves along at a furious pace with little by way of dead spots or unnecessary exposition. While this makes for flowing narrative it unfortunately sacrifices character development. Any emotional attachment seems cursory, the closest semblance to same comes in Theseus relationship with his mother (Anne-Day Jones), but it is in short supply. Even the requisite love scene between Theseus and Phaedra comes off as perfunctory. The score by Trevor Morris helps move the story along but the only thing it seems to inspire is foreboding, even in the quiet scenes. However, it is virtually indistinguishable from any other generic score, almost sounding like a Tyler Bates riff.

But then, this isn't an Ivory Merchant film production. What it sacrifices in emotional heft it makes up for in stunning visuals, combining CGI and actual set pieces. I've often said that slow motion bullet time is overused and overrated as a device, but at least here Singh uses it creatively by juxtaposing the fighting styles of the Gods/Titans with those of the human forces. The mortal fight scenes are gritty brutality whereas the Gods/Titans battles are stylized, CGI ballets. Kudos go to the fight choreographer as well as the sound master. The viewer is made to feel every blow viscerally with or without 3D (the version I saw was without) and there are very few films in recent memory that invoke that response.

Unfortunately, the Gods give us no reason to root for their survival. The Greek Pantheon were never presented as saints in literature so arguably they run true to form here. And according to Hyperion's  backstory he is justified in his actions against them to a degree. Perhaps if Singh had chosen to make the Gods more sympathetic by explaining why their proverbial hands were tied in human matters or at least show remorse for their inability to prevent tragedies the story would be more satisfying. However, it is a missed opportunity. If it weren't for the fact that Hyperion is a thoroughly unlikable character, they sympathies could have gone either way.  Also, it doesn't help that the entire Panthenon (and the majority of humanity in the film for that matter) look as though they've just come out of a session at LA Fitness or Bally's. Yes, they are Gods and the humans live in a brutal landscape that would engender various degrees of fitness. Yes, if one was Immortal and had the power to do so their desire for physical perfection would be a foregone conclusion.  Oddly, the actors do not project that feeling. They don't have the comfortable ease or ambivilance at their physical perfection. Instead, they strut and pose; especially the Gods, who don't quite carry of the fantastical garments that adorn them (Poseidon's "Princess Leia" helmet being the most humorously egregious).

Currently, Cavill is "Clark Kent/Superman" in the currently shooting Superman: The Man of Steel which is set for release in 2013. While it may be a tad inappropriate, it cannot be helped to consider Immortals as a hint of what Cavill will bring to the role. With his square jaw and being clad in a cloak worn in similar fashion as the Man of Steel, Cavill brings an old fashioned heroic earnestness to his portrayal. However, given the subject matter there is very little in the way of humor to his performance. He shows promise, but at times his performance here is one note rage; something which may be attributed to the direction. A speech that should have been rousing falls somewhat short, for example. Cavill tries with the material at hand but is inconsistent in terms of his success.

As Hyperion, Mickey Rourke seems lost half the time while on the other half he is appropriately menacing. But on the whole he seems bored with the whole thing. There is no real character here; just Rourke doing his patented tough guy shtick transplanted in a mythological setting. The only time he truly comes alive is when he is engaged with Theseus. He may be there for just for the paycheck, but when it really matters he delivers the goods and earns every penny.

In the end, Immortals is pretty to look at but it takes itself way too seriously. Even the recent remake of Clash of the Titans had moments of humor to offset what passed for the drama. If you're into a celebration of carnage with copious amounts of throat slitting and blood letting in better than technicolor, then this movie should satisfy. In terms of gripping drama and character development, you might be better off waiting for The Muppets.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

SCHIZOPHRENE - "J. Edgar" Cannot Decide What It Wants To Be

"Schizophrenia", as defined by the Merrian-Webster dictionary:
(1) a psychotic disorder characterized by loss of contact with the environment, by noticeable deterioration in the level of functioning in everyday life, and by disintegration of personality expressed as disorder of feeling, thought (as delusions), perception (as hallucinations), and behavior; (2) contradictory or antagonistic qualities or attitudes.
"Paranoid Schizophrenia" as described from the same source:
(1) schizophrenia characterized especially by persecutory or grandiose delusions or hallucinations or by delusional jealousy.

These definitions, figuratively, literally and meta-textually,  describe "J. Edgar", written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood. The story centers on the life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in non-linear fashion, jumping between time periods showcasing the most important moments of his life as well as his relationships with his mother Annie Hoover (Dame Judi Dench), lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts) and second in command/lifelong companion Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer).

Now, it would be kinder, perhaps more "PC" to state that the the overriding theme of the piece is duality, inherently epitomized by the eponymous character. After all, here was a man who, according to reports,  believed in the Machiavellian ethos of "the ends justifying the means", often circumventing the laws he was sworn to protect in order to safeguard the country. He was a fastidious man who wanted the adulation of the people even when he was quick to suspect them of treachery. He tried to project heroic masculinity even as he hung back and had other agents do the grunt work, all the while waging an internal war within himself regarding his sexuality. As Hoover, DiCaprio walks a difficult tightrope between empathy and loathing in the viewer. Nevertheless, he portrays the FBI powerhouse with single minded, dogged devotion to his profession. DiCaprio's Hoover is genuine, despite his boundless vindictiveness.  A crusader in youth, a Gollumesque power monger in old age, DiCaprio's Hoover is a study of contrasts.

But then, so is this movie.  For a film about one of the most powerful voyeurs this country has ever had, this celluloid treatise seems oddly cursory. The film examines Hoover's life but offers no judgments nor conclusions.  It offers hints at the origins of aspects of Hoover's life that have become legend. However, it does not delve too deeply into it's more controversial aspects. For example, it does postulate a reason for Hoover's penchant for cross dressing, but leaves it there. While implication is a powerful storytelling tool, here it seems almost cloying; as if shying away from controversy.

The film implies that Hoover saw the world in black and white, and Eastwood films it as such. Even scenes set in broad daylight are presented with muted, even graying, colors; a panorama of monotone that makes up the film's general feeling. Some scenes are filmed with a documentary graininess while others with a muted clarity, as if to emphasize the docudramatic nature of the piece. Unfortunately, there is little drama to be had. The time jumping structure actually undermines moments that could have heightened actual drama, such as a physical altercation between Hoover and Tolson. As prior scenes have established the bond between the two characters is life long, the confrontation looses any dramatic heft it could have had. While their relationship is a matter of historical fact, much of the movie going public may not be aware of it. Thus, a key dramatic moment is lost; one among many in this movie. Eastwood's direction is serviceable.  The film as a narrative whole is, in a word, flat.

This is not to say that the film does not have power. The power lies in the performances. As Annie Hoover, Dench makes MI-6's "M" look like a kindly den mother. Her portrayal makes it understood how Hoover could be construed to be a "mama's boy". Hers is also a performance of duality: Her diminutive stature belies the cold steel she is. Her delivery as to why a childhood acquaintance of J. Edgar's was called "Daffy" is among the most chilling expressions of racist homophobia ever filmed due to its cold, matter-of-fact banality.

Naomi Harris' Helen Gandy is a cypher. Early on in the film as they engage in a first date, Gandy tells Hoover that she is loyal to her profession, and the film affirms that statement. However, there always seems to be something going on in Gandy's eyes, a hint that her devotion to Hoover is beyond the professional despite it being presented as totally platonic. 

Arnie Hammer is an actor to watch. Currently best known for his performances as the Winklevoss twins in "The Social Network" and soon to mask up in Disney's adaptation of "The Lone Ranger" alongside Johnny Depp's "Tonto", Hammer gives the film an emotional anchor. His Tolson is cocky, closeted charm with leading man good looks and a ready charismatic smile, yet he infuses it with the sense that he really does care for Hoover, in both the professional and personal sense. Despite the arguably horrendous aging make up (though arguably my reaction to the make up may be due to the dramatic difference between the character as represented in two stages of life), it is when he plays the older Tolson that Hammer truly shines.  He takes risks with the character, expressing a dignified vulnerability with minimal effort. So good is his performance that the audience feels his pain even as he attempts to mask it, to the point that one moviegoer at the screening I attended yelled an obscenity to Hoover on Tolson's behalf. DiCaprio and Hammer's chemistry, despite dangerously teetering into octogenarian caricature at times, is so spot on believable it draws one in.

This series of acting vignettes fine in an anthology film. However, these parts do not make "J. Edgar" a cohesively satisfying whole.  It's a weird instance where the multiplication leads to a quotient.  "J. Edgar" does not know what it wants to be. Like the film itself, I am torn. It is likable but not engaging. It somehow sterilizes a subject matter that should be rife with intrigue and titillation.  Its a film that seems to go far longer than it should but gives the audience very little to ruminate on. As engaging as it is at times, "J. Edgar" as a film is as clinical a dissertation as a cold case file and just as unsatisfying.

Friday, November 11, 2011


During my undergrad days I often tortured myself with early morning Saturday classes. I would prepare for the day with a morning coffee constitutional at the local coffee shop. On one of these Saturdays two men walked in; one was a young man in his mid-twenties to early thirties, the other was very frail and considerably older. They had come to meet with a couple of other people but the older gentleman soon broke away, moving to sit by himself. He wore a plaid shirt and tan slacks which fit loosely and accentuated his thinness, wisps of dark hair done in a comb-over on his shiny bald pate, his heavily lined face hinting at the type of life he must have lived. He seemed uncomfortably lonely despite his companion and the hustle and bustle of the shop; oddly disconnected from the reality he inhabited.

He moved to stand and dropped the coffee that his companion had purchased for him earlier, the contents splattering all over the floor. His embarrassment was palpable in his posture. His companion called to ask if he was all right, and the man said he was. Satisfied, the younger man returned to his conversation. From the nature of their talk and respective body postures I surmised that it was some sort of business meeting.

It seemed to me that the older man was not "all right." He stood there with a befuddled, forlorn expression as the shop's employees cleaned up the mess. I offered to buy him another beverage. He politely declined at first but then ultimately accepted my gesture. I was also moved to ask that he sit at my table. He introduced himself as "John" as he sat down. He had been a veteran of the Second World War. He began to tell me all sorts of stories. How he fought overseas, had seen combat. He told me about the sacrifices he made in service to his country, the friends that he saw killed. When he realized that I was actually listening to him, he became very animated in his verbosity as if my gesture had been a small crack in a dam and my attention had caused that crack to grow until the dam burst, the waters of his past being allowed to freely flow.

I missed a good part of my class that morning, something that was usually anathema to me. I felt compelled to stay and hear him out. This gentleman needed to release all these stories truncated though they were. He spoke as though this were his last opportunity to relate these experiences to anyone ever again. He recounted in stream of consciousness fashion stories of the friends he has outlived during and since the war, spoke of his family (his grandson was his companion), and how he keeps busy with ballroom dancing and even produced a free lesson card from the dance studio which was incidentally a block away from where I lived.

His grandson called out soon after, telling him it was time to go. John's face changed for a moment, betraying disappointment that this impromptu interview was coming to a close. With some reluctance, he got up and thanked me for my generosity with the coffee.

"John?" I said as he began to turn away. When he turned back around I took his hand in a firm handshake.

"Thank you" was all I said.

His eyes watered. He understood that I wasn't just thanking him for his company and the conversation. He was too choked up to respond but nodded his head in acknowledgement and smiled before he walked away. His grandson gave me a curious look as they both exited the shop.

To this day, I have not seen him again but that meeting left a great impression on me. Wars are fought and their merits are debated until the proverbial cows come home. However, our soldiers aren't faceless cogs in a machine but real people who make the ultimate sacrifices; many of whom never receiving the credit that they are due. To some, like John, two simple words may seem sufficient; to me, it's a humble but woefully inadequate gesture in the face of all that our veterans give in their service.

Today, whatever your thoughts on the current political climate, please be sure to remember our veterans, both living and dead, and say "thank you". Those two simple words speak volumes.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

RIDING HIGH ON A MAGIC SLEIGH RIDE - A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

Has it really been six years since Harold and Kumar escaped Guantanamo Bay? Well, you couldn't tell from "A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas". Sure, the film establishes that Harold Lee (John Cho) and Kumar Patel (Kal Penn) have gone their separate ways: Harold has married Maria (Paula Garces), become a successful Wall Street stuffed shirt and moved to the suburbs of New Jersey, whereas Kumar has failed his medical exam and has split from his girlfriend Vanessa (Danneel Harris) who just happens to be pregnant with his child. The duo are reunited when a mysterious package addressed to Harold is left on Kumar's doorstep. In delivering the package, Kumar inadvertently destroys the prized Christmas tree of Maria's father, Carlos Perez (Danny Trejo in an inspired bit of casting), who doesn't like Harold one bit. In the search for a matching Christmas tree, the hijinks and hilarity ensue.

The film is not your average stoner comedy.  It pushes the envelope in terms of presentation and in its inherent randomness. This is as close as one can get to experiencing the randomness of being stoned without actually being stoned (not to say that this reviewer is either confirming or denying that he has ever been so, much less condoning such behavior...) however, given the sequencing of events that play out, one would assume this is the desired effect; an effect made more so by the 3D.  Ironically enough, this film makes the best use of 3D since James Cameron's "Avatar".  This very self-aware and self-referential film also pokes affectionate fun of the tropes of the season, such as holiday "claymation" specials and Santa Claus himself. 

Penn and Cho are so comfortable in their roles it seems like the six years in between film were only yesterday (though the film does provide sly in-joke references to what the actors themselves have been up to between the first and second sequels). Trejo provides comedic menace as the hard to please father-in-law and Elias Koteas appears as an Ukrainian mob boss out to get our heroes for a perceived slight against his daughter. Any danger they represent is treated almost casually. It exists to propel the story, as does the requisite message that friendships are forever and that change and growing up are inevitable but, in a stoner film, they seem disposably tacked on. As usual, Neil Patrick Harris (or "NPH") steals the show yet again, his small sequence bringing on the biggest amount of laughs.

The Harold and Kumar films are frivolously fun, and the latest entry is no exception. It is the most ambitious in its scope and presentation, but in the end its still a stoner Lucy and Ethel road trip film, one that unfolds with a "nudge nudge, wink wink" invitation to the audience to get in on the joke. The characters get high off weed, and the audience gets high off the laughter. All in all, a fair and equitable trade.

A POOR MAN'S OCEAN'S ELEVEN: "Tower Heist" Is Entertaining So Long As Logic Is Left At The Door

In Hollywood parlance, "A poor man's [fill in the blank]" is a term used to refer to a lesser version of an established brand noun.  For example, without meaning disrespect, for years Joan Collins had the distinction of being "the poor man's" Elizabeth Taylor; or (initially) the television series "Airwolf" being the "poor man's" "Blue Thunder" in the 1980s. Upon the death of actor/comedian Bernie Mac, George Clooney was reported to have said that the Ocean's series of films were done as he nor the rest of the cast could see them being made without the late actor. As that series of films were the most successful of the heist genre, it stands to reason a major void is left...one that Tower Heist attempts to fill though as a low rent (ironic given the story setting) version. 

Instead of Clooney's charismatic and charming Danny Ocean, we have nebbish everyman Ben Stiller as Josh Kovacs, the general manager of "The Tower", a high rise condominium for the super wealthy of New York, who makes the mistake of investing the pensions of his employees with Wall Street stock broker and the owner of The Tower's penthouse Arthur Shaw (played with smarmy charm by Alan Alda), who loses it all in a Ponzi scheme. However, through the auspices of FBI agent Claire Denham (Tea Leoni), Kovacs comes to find out that Shaw is in possession of $20 million in the penthouse and, with the help of disgraced Wall Street Broker Mr. Fitzhugh (Matthew Broderick), Charlie Gibbs, bumbling concierge and Kovac's brother-in-law (Casey Affleck), newly hired bellhop Enrique Dev'reaux (Michael Pena) and sassy Odessa (Gabourey Sibide), they enlist the aid of petty thief Slide (Eddie Murphy, who also served as on of the film's producers) for a little larcenous payback.

Unfortunately, if the plot contained any more holes than it already has, the film would fall under its own weight. But such things are par for the course for director Brett Ratner, he of the Rush Hour film series, where the laws of physics and geometry (not to mention common sense and credulity) are continually violated; increasing in both transgression and enormity as the film goes along.  However, one of Ratner's paltry strengths lie in story progression, visuals, and performances. Its these elements that  moves the film forward with aplomb. Even the quiet, somber moments (one in particular involving Lester the doorman (Stephen Henderson), who epitomizes the fears of those about to enter into retirement) hold your interest and propel the events forward.  The Tower (which is "Trump Tower" in New York) is filled with gaudy ostentation, a world wherein the "hired help", despite working within its confines, are outsiders. The film makes good use of juxtaposition between the "haves" and "have nots", tapping into the collective rage epitomized by the current "Occupy" movement to justify the larceny the protagonists engage in.  All the best entries of the heist genre have the audience rooting for the protagonists; in this case "Tower Heist" succeeds.

To be honest, Ben Stiller has not been among my favorite performers; his ersatz "lovable/nerd loser/impotent rage" shtick having long since worn out its welcome. However, Stiller has matured and branched out of that acting safety net in recent years. While Kovacs still maintains a bit of the trademark Stiller "schlub" quality (it is more implied than anything else), Stiller infuses Kovacs with a restrained manic capability. The would be thieves liken themselves to Robin Hood, but in truth Kovacs is a knight who willingly does whatever it takes to right an enormous wrong; and how far he'll go by film's end is surprising. He may not have Danny Ocean's scoundrel savoir faire, but both characters share a sense of righteous indignation and, more here than in any other film he's done previously, Stiller earnestly delivers the goods.

Casey Affleck brings Ocean's Eleven street cred but few laughs in his role as the substandard but earnest employee trying to hold on to tenuous employment, but he does crystallize the fears many working Americans have in this current economic client.  Michael Pena channels his inner John Leguizamo in his role as the bellhop. Tea Leoni does a fine job in her role as FBI agent Denham who develops a grudging respect and attraction for Kovacs. Unfortunately, that role is criminally underused. Her arc comes to a certain point, then abruptly stops as though the screenwriters didn't know what to do with her once the main story had run its course. There was a lot that could have been done here and the proverbial ball was dropped; which is a shame as Leoni and Stiller share a nice chemistry that could have been developed further. Anyone born in the 80s and beyond might have trouble believing this, but Alan Alda was once considered to be one of the top sex symbols of the 1970s, and this film gives a faint reminder as to why.  His Arthur Shaw is a charismatic robber baron, oozing an easy avuncular, ingratiating charm that snares even in the face of irrefutable guilt. The film opens with an online chess game between Kovacs and Shaw (implying a greater relationship between the two outside the realm of The Tower) and the film becomes a game of strategic oneupmanship.  Stiller and Alda have an easygoing chemistry with each other that implies years of thin camaraderie. When the extent of Shaw's malfeasance becomes clear, the betrayal Kovacs feels is palpably felt...an effect that couldn't be made without said chemistry. Shaw is the worst type of villain: the banal everyman. It's apt that Mr. Fitzhugh is never given a first name, as Matthew Broderick simply transplants his version of The Producers" Leo Bloom onto this character, however Broderick does not phone in the performance herein, minimizing the comparison between the two characters.

However, two performances carry this film, elevating it beyond the mediocre. As Odessa, the safe cracking Jamaican maid desperately in need of a work visa, Sibide brings a welcome female empowering sauciness, in some respects being even more self-possessed and capable than the men. However, this film is Eddie Murphy's forum; the declaration of his manifesto heralding the return to the angry edginess that catapulted him to superstardom.  "Slide" is more an angrier Reggie Hammond than he is Axel Foley, and at particular moments in the film disturbingly so. But moments of the nicer, affable Murphy show, most specifically in the totally improvised safe cracking scene he shares with Sibide and a meeting with the building manager (played by the ever-reliable Judd Hirsch in what amounts to an extended cameo), is the character's saving grace. Whether Murphy will sustain his mission statement beyond this film is neither here nor there.  He brings the biggest laughs in the film, and when he is absent the energy is decidedly muted.  However, this hodgepodge of dramatic and comedic talent work in the film's favor. They are so engaging that they distract from the aforementioned plot holes and contrivances.

Tower Heist is not the best representation of its genre, and logic is not its strong suit, but it's timely, highly enjoyable and imaginatively stretches a premise without going overboard. At the end of the day, I didn't feel as though the money had been stolen from my wallet.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

FIRST THE FOX, THEN THE BAT, NOW THE CAT'S WHERE IT'S AT: "Puss N' Boots" an enjoyable flick.

It's not "Shrek". That's a good thing.

The original "Shrek" was an original crowd pleaser, but it was based on a gimmick; one that had worn out its welcome by its first sequel.  What saved that film, and arguably the same for its subsequent sequels, was the character of Puss N' Boots, voiced with charm by Antonio Banderas. In fact, Puss was the only entertaining element in the (hopefully) final film "Shrek Ever After". The character has been spun off into his own eponymous film (directed by Chris Miller and produced by Guillermo Del Toro [who also voices a couple of characters], among others, and acting as a prequel of sorts to Puss' involvement in the "Shrek" series) and it wisely eschews all references to the franchise that spawned it while at the same time paying subtle homage to other films. 

From the film's onset, the movie  sets out to remind you that Antonio Banderas starred in two "Zorro" films. From the opening Spanish guitar strumming reminiscent of James Horner's composition in those films, to Bandera's opening, smoldering line delivery, and the sword slashed "P", the film hammers in that point almost as if to give an air of authenticity to the following proceedings, working as both parody and validation; not that such is needed. The Puss character was the much needed shot in the arm the "Shrek" series needed. "Shrek" was built upon pop culture references, seemingly bludgeoning the audience with them. Here, all types of references are presented subtly, so they enhance the story as opposed to having a story inserted between them (aside from the obvious "Zorro" references, Ricardo Montalban, the "Vazquez Rocks/Kirk Rocks", the stylings of Sergio Leon, and Batman, and an in-joke to a previous Puss situation, among others).

But there is a story here. Puss (Antonio Banderas) is an outlaw seeking to clear his name for a crime he did not commit and is in search of the magic beans from the tale of Jack and the Beanstalk in order to find redemption.  He must enter into an uneasy partnership with the brother that betrayed him, Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis) and sneak thief extraordinare, a real "Catwoman" Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek, who re-teams with Banderas for the fifth time on film) to steal the beans from Jack (Billy Bob Thornton) and Jill (Amy Sadaris) to steal the goose that lays the golden eggs.  The animation is top notch and the characterizations are more fluid here than ever, which is to be expected given the advances in Dreamworks' animation department since the first Shrek film (however, the film suffered slightly from the presentation of the trailer for the forthcoming "The Adventures of Tintin" from Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson, wherein the animation in that trailer showed how close computer CGI is advancing to actually be life-like). The most visually disturbing character is Dumpty himself. A giant egg with a big face, the milky fluidity of the character seemed like an albino, smoothed out Jabba the Hut, only creepier; a feeling enhanced by Galifianakis' line delivery.

But however good the animation is, a film is made or broken by its main character, and rare is the instance when a second banana character (in animation or live action) transitions to the lead. With his Alejandro Murrieta/De La Vega delivery, Banderas' Puss owns this film.  Hayek provides G rated, Selina Kyle tension to her role as Kitty, being seductively feisty and provides a worthy counterpoint to the ginger cat in the hat. Thorton and Sardis' characters, while visually menacing, are rather amusing in their delivery. 

The story is lightweight in tone and presentation, as it should be. It is a story for children but by the same token is engaging and entertaining enough for adults as well. It does not present as much tongue in cheek, self-aware laughs as the first "Shrek" did, but by the same token it is enjoyable enough that it really isn't an issue. The film is as entertaining as watching a cat chasing a laser pointer in futility. Puss wears his boots well.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


With the caveat that the "Occupy" movement is a wholly serious and necessary venture, there is humor in every situation.  So what if the Occupy movement were expanded even further?  All photos below are copyrighted by their respective owners/originators.

Monday, October 24, 2011

A CUT AND PASTE PISTACHE – “The Three Musketeers” is a fun, though highly derivative, film.

I did not go into this film with the highest of expectations, especially after watching the trailers with its heavy reliance on steam punk imagery and Jerry Bruckheimer/Michael Bay bombast. So imagine my surprise at finding myself enjoying “The Three Musketeers”, the latest cinematic reinterpretation of Alexander Dumas’ literary classic; and believe me, “reinterpretation” is the correct term because I’m sure Dumas would never have imagined the incorporation of such fantastical elements such as flying air ships. The story follows the skeleton of Dumas’ novel: Young D’Artagnan (Logan Lerman, “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief”) seeks to become a Musketeer alongside Athos (Matthew MacFedyen, “Robin Hood”, “Frost/Nixon”), Porthos (Ray Stevenson, “Punisher War Zone”, “Thor”) and Aramis (Luke Evans, “Robin Hood”, “Clash Of The Titans”) against the machinations of Cardinal Richelieu (Christopher Waltz, “Inglorious Basterds”, “The Green Hornet”,) his Captain of the Guard, Rochefort (a despicably oily Mads Mikkelsen, “Casino Royale”) and the Duke of Buckingham (an almost painful to watch Orlando Bloom, he of “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame). 

Under the serviceable direction of Paul W.S. Anderson (the “Resident Evil” series) and screenplay by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies, this film differs from previous cinematic forays by presenting more fantastical, H.G. Wellsian elements into the mix. Given that this film is the umpteenth version of Dumas’ classic, any thought of originality is thrown out the window. The film is a hodgepodge of elements of different films: A little bit of Indy/Belloq rivalry from “Raiders of the Lost Ark” here, a bit of the clad in ninja black theatrics of “Batman” there (though admittedly, done much better here and makes for an argument against the bat armor argument in the Christopher Nolan films). In fact, a significant part of the third act lifts almost verbatim from the climactic battle scenes of “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn” (which took me completely out of the film, right down to the use of an actual line from "Kahn". The only thing that seemed to be missing was a reference to the Genesis Device). The heavy use of ships and Bloom’s presence are evocative of Disney’s mega “Pirates” franchise, made even more so by the Hans Zimmer- lite scorings of Paul Haslinger.  In many cases the pilfering of previous sources are glaringly jarring. But then, it’s been argued that storytelling originality is now non-existent and it’s all about taking old elements and rearranging them in a fresh manner. Also, there are moments wherein there are head scratching, unexplained leaps of logic that are used to propel the story forward.

Such swiping would be almost insulting if it weren’t for the fact that they are offset by the films breezy pacing and the mostly earnest performances of actors involved.  In Lerman’s D’Artagnan, we finally get a character whose youthful exuberance is endearing rather than annoying. MacFadyen’s Athos wears his pain and honor well, though he plays his character a tad joyless especially when up against his Catwoman-like lover/nemesis, Milady De Winter (played by Milla Jovovich, “Resident Evil” films and wife of the director), whose performance attempts to combine the slyness of Faye Dunaway’s interpretation with the physicality of her Alice character with mixed results.  Those who saw the banal evil of Waltz’ Landa in “Inglorious Basterds” will find his performance of Cardinal Richelieu lacking, though hardly a supreme disappointment. He enjoys himself with his part. Though very wooden as always, the same can be said of Bloom who seems to relish in the fact that for once he gets to play the bad guy. Though limited in scope, he does seem to be enjoying himself thoroughly. Mads Mikkelsen plays Rochefort as the quintessential villain one loves to hate.  

Unlike other “Musketeer” films, which many of the conflicts came more from the verbal repartee and subtle, chessman machinations than actual swordplay, this one wears its physicality like a badge of honor, employing some impressive fight choreography (even if it is parsed out with the already worn-out-its-welcome slow motion in the midst of battle. At least here it’s put to good use to showcase some of the intricacies of the fight choreography), and one of the few films in which proper forms and stances are represented in the choreography, though that is something stunt combatants would appreciate.

If there is one problem with the performances, it’s that there seems to be too much fun. Most of the Musketeer films (save perhaps for the atrocious, self-aware Chris O’Donnell vehicle from Disney a few years back), had an air of the blasé but still hints of menace and danger. In this film, the stakes, while high, seem devoid of urgency or menace. Again, despite their playing memorable heavies in past roles, Waltz and Mikkelsen seem muted in their villainy; whether due to the direction or the tone of the film is unclear. Nevertheless, their roles never quite live up to the potential they could have had.

The film makes good use of 3D, making it even more fantastic in presentation, but it would be just as entertaining without it.  

“The Three Musketeers” should not be considered a bad film when taken in as its own entity. Unoriginal, yes. Insulting to the intelligence? At times if one dwells on it. But this is not a film one goes into to analyze (unless you’re critiquing it…case in point). The film is tailor made to be an entertaining crowd pleaser and it makes no bones about its intentions as a franchise in the making, as the ending all but screams “sequel”.  At moments, it does hint at the swashbuckling epics of the past so there may be hope for future installments if the box office justifies such. In any event, “The Three Musketeers” is a fun way to pass a couple of hours’ time. If you find yourself imagining yourself lunging about with a rapier in hand, then the film will have done its job.

Thursday, October 20, 2011


Words are neither good nor evil. They simply are. It's how they are used contextually that deems how they are perceived. Take, for example, "Hitler" (Yes, I know Hitler is a name and not a word, but go with it for a moment) How does the mere mention of the name make you feel? Hard to believe that prior to the 1930s, the name no more evocative than "Smith". Now, that word/name is synonymous with depraved evil; so anathema is the very concept behind that name that anyone who uses it for the purposes of comparison risks vilification, as Hank Williams, Jr. found to his chagrin. Now, neither am I condoning nor condemning his comparative usage as the comparison between Hitler and President Obama was an arguably tenuous and far-fetched connection in my opinion. However, "Hitler", if history is any indication, will be forever associated with worst that humanity can offer. That is the power of context.
Now let's take another word, one that is often associated with Hitler, or any other world dictator: "Occupation". Among its many definitions includes: possession, settlement, or use of land or property or the act or state of occupying. To many previously conquered nations, "occupation" is a dirty word (of course, not so to the victors). Yet "occupation" is just a word, neutral in and of itself. It is only the context that determines or ascribes an intent to it. Or, as Hamlet so eloquently put it in Act 2, Scene ii of the eponymous Shakespeare play: "...[T]here is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."

Which brings in the topic of the current cultural trend towards "occupation": Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Miami, Occupy [Fill In The Blank]. Is "occupation" a good or bad word? Again, it depends on who you ask. There are those political pundits that would assert that these occupations are nonsense and somehow un-American. I ask - - "how"? This country was predicated upon the ideal of free speech; an ideal which makes for the First Amendment in our United States Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."

So far, the demonstrations have been, for the most part, peaceful; for the most part simply due to the fact that Google and Bing searches will yield results wherein incidents of violent altercation will be found and, unfortunately, in many of those cases those sources will carry a slant as to who was victim and victimizer. Again, it is perception at work. For example, look at this link from buzzfeed.com: http://www.buzzfeed.com/mjs538/violent-pictures-from-occupy-wall-street-protests.

It provides a play-by-play of a protest demonstration gone wrong almost a month ago. The site does say to "judge for yourself" but the photos are both disturbing and incendiary. Did the protesters deserve the treatment received? Did the police overreact without provocation? Is there any way to truly know? What is your perception on the matter? Remember, media obfuscation occurs on both sides. Look at it this way: How many times have you heard that the protests are disorganized because there supposedly are no clear cut demands, or the claims that no one, even the protesters themselves, (remove "know", add "really knows") what they want? And how many times have you heard that what they want is myriad; that it cannot be put in succinct terms? Maybe that's an issue in the media: Not just that corporations that own media outlets dictate the agenda, but also that the protesters’ demands cannot be encapsulated by a simple, catchy sound bite.

I bring this up because perception is key to this issue. The protests have been described as being "capitalists" versus "socialists", "haves" versus "have nots" and in some respects "good” versus “evil”. Yet these terms (with the exception of "capitalist" and "socialist" ) are subjective. What's good for the capitalist is evil for the socialist, and vice versa. Two ideologies at war with each side believing theirs is right.

It is too complex an issue to try to resolve on a simple blog post. But this particular post is all about perception and how it can galvanize people into action. A perceived threat brings about action. Throughout all this, the focus of the protests seem to be to get big business, the banking system and ultimately our government to notice that people are fed up. Yet it could be that these demands are nothing but a dismissive nuisance to the purported 1% that controls the country's wealth (a wealth determined by a Reserve banking system that is not answerable to the United States government, but I digress). In the face of that, some may lose hope.

However, perhaps what is required going forward is a change in perception in the mission. Instead of trying to wake up Wall Street, focus on the fact that the numbers have grown and thousands of others are taking up the call to (remove "protesting") arms. In this case, occupation is not a dirty word. Nay, it is a right granted to all Americans by the very document that serves as its ideological foundation; one that allows us as citizens to assert our rights and freedoms which were paid for with the lives of our country's forefathers and military. We may not agree with the views of others, but we should protect the right to express them with our very lives, if necessary.
The current system is obviously broken and requires a fix that threatens the power base of the few that control the nation’s wealth. Government must listen to the voices of those they govern, and if it does not do so voluntarily it must be made to. Yet Government cannot hear its citizenry if their voices are halted in indifferent silence.

In this case, "Occupation" is not a dirty word...it is the American Way.

Monday, October 10, 2011


As a rule, men worry more about what they can't see than about what they can.

If you must break the law, do it to seize power: in all other cases observe it.

No one is so brave that he is not disturbed by something unexpected.

Men in general are quick to believe that which they wish to be true.

Fortune, which has a great deal of power in other matters but especially in war, can bring about great changes in a situation through very slight forces.

   - All above quotes courtesy of William Shakespeare's Julius Caesar

The best of Shakespeare's plays dealt in some form or another with political machinations and intrigue. MacBeth, Titus Andronicus, Richard III, and of course, the above referenced Julius Caesar. However, the power of those works stem not from the politics themselves, but the effects of political intrigue have on the participants. Like the play from which the film's title is cribbed, "The Ides of March" shows the how the quest for power in the political arena can shatter perceptions and compromise integrity.

This film is not the first cinematic foray that proves Lord Acton's axiom of absolute power's ability to corrupt. However, it is one of those rare films where the plot is actually the MacGuffin. Instead, this is a character piece; one that plays with and subverts the audience's perceptions and expectations.

The film stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, a cocky young assistant campaign manager for democratic presidential hopeful, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, who pulls double duty as both co-star and film director) under senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).  Myers seems to know all the angles and is smooth with the interns; in particular one Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). All seems to go well for him until he receives a fateful phone call from the campaign manager of Morris' rival for the democratic nod (Tom Duffy, played with smarmy bluster by Paul Giamatti). What follows from that phone call leads to a domino effect that leaves none of the characters unscathed.

Gosling is the star, but Clooney's directoral vision dominates this movie which is infused with themes and motifs: How even the simplest of choices, whether made or abdicated, can alter the course of an entire enterprise. Of how hubris causes both rise and fall and how reality of perception is mutuably transient. Like Hitchcock before him, of which the tone and pacing of this films owes a great deal, Clooney's direction paints a moving picture of mood and symbolism, deliberate yet portentous in its pacing, yet somehow lackadaisical in its methodology. The major beats in the story do not hit like a brick to the head, but sneaks like an adder until the revelation strikes; but even when its strikes, it's akin to a sail boat ride with a light wind.  The film does not spoon feed its revelations, working mostly by implication to get its point across.  Thus it is more of a thinking person's film than the general public would expect. Even the score by Alexander Desplat mirrors its tonality, enhancing the action but in muted fashion, not musically telegraphing the revelations ahead of time. This film's strongest asset is its ambiguity; not just in and of itself, but in its characters' actions and ultimately their motivations.  There are no easy answers and no one is what they seem. Visual symbolism is used to great effect here, such as the use of windows to show reflections of people, but as opposed to mirrors, the reflections are insubstantial, almost ghostly, as if to remind the viewer that what they are seeing may not be there. This is in direct contrast with the art deco-styled posters of Governor Morris, which despite showing solidity of imagery is in fact a tailored manipulation to elicit a response to garner votes. And the characters evince this same mutability so that by film's end the audience's perception of them is markedly different than shown at its beginning. The film is evocative of film noir with its heavy and calculated use of lighting and shadow to engender mood and portent, and in some cases to enhance the leitmotif of insubstantiability of character both figuratively and literally. 

The film would not work without the talents of the ensemble cast. Clooney deserves kudos for not only directing and acting in this film, but by also manipulating his on-screen charisma to his character's advantage, playing Morris as an ersatz Clinton-esqe, man of the people candidate and (SPOILER: YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED) when it comes time for the facade to drop, Clooney reveals the powerful actor that lies beneath the Clooney mystique. Some may balk at the political rhetoric espoused by Morris throughout the film (a valid consideration given Clooney's liberal leanings), but Clooney wisely interjects it with the main action so that the speeches, like the political battle of the story, take a back seat to the human conflicts unfolding in this tableau. Ryan Gosling, to his credit, gives his own chameleon-like performance, going toe to toe with some of Hollywood's heavyweights, including Clooney and character actors Hoffman, Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright as a senator whose support both democratic nominees need, and Marisa Tomei as a jaded, headline hungry political reporter. Perhaps the only true human connection one can find is with Woods' character Molly, a late teen/early twenties' intern who has the brains to play with the political big boys but soon finds herself in way over her head.

This film does not come with any easy answers, leaving the viewer to fill in the blanks and draw their own conclusions. This may hurt the film in a culture which requires every plot to have a neat ending with the sides of good and evil clearly drawn. But this is not a film about good and evil, nor is it a political intrigue actioner with dead bodies abounding (SPOILER: There is one consequential death, and it still leaves the lingering question of whether the fatality figuratively jumped or was pushed). It is a film about truths and perceptions, ideals and their subversion, humanity and its nature. It is a film where anyone may be Caesar or any of the conspirators. It leaves you wanting more, but in a good way.

Thus, to paraphrase Gov. Morris' debate speech at the beginning of this film, "If you're expecting action with this drama, don't see this film." "If you're expecting to have every shred of information handed to you, don't see this film." However, if you are looking for a taut, suspenseful, norish, character-study thriller with remarkable performances, then definitelhy see this film. "The Ides of March" is definitely a date to be kept...just keep all sharp implements at the door.

Sunday, October 9, 2011


As I first watched the trailers for this film, I could just imagine a Hollywood pitch meeting taking place in a table at Spagos or The Brown Derby or somesuch local. During a power lunch wherein a small appetizer could cost as much as an average person's daily salary, someone says in eureka fashion: "How about 'Rock 'em, Sock 'em Robots' meets 'Rocky'"? "That's a brilliant idea," chimes a producer, "let's go for it! (in a cheeky bit of faux cleverness in reference to 'Rocky V')". And yes, "Real Steel", directed by Shawn Levy (the "Night at the Museum" films) and produced by the likes of Levy, Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemekis (among others) as a Dreamworks/Disney collaboration, does heavily crib from both concepts but, instead of feeling like a rehash of what has been seen before, seems fresher than it should. This is due to a combination of the screenwriting talents of John Gatin with story by Dan Gilroy and Jeremy Leven (based on a story by Richard Matheson [I Am Legend]) and the cast, headed by Hugh Jackman ("X-Men Origins: Wolverine", "The Prestige") and Dakota Goyo ("Thor").

It's an underdog story. Boxing with robots has supplanted human boxing as the dominant sport sometime in the relatively near future. The story heavily homages (or is that "steals from"?) the first Rocky film in many ways, and in one key sequence virtually (literally and figuratively) recreates classic choreography (according to IMDB, "Rocky IV").  Charlie Kenton (Jackman) is a once promising boxer now down on his luck robot boxing participant who is constantly on the run, whether to find a new robot to bring him back on top, evade the many creditors who hound him, relationships with women, or himself. In the midst of this, circumstances bring him into an unwanted contact with his born out of wedlock son, eleven year old Max (Goyo), who harbors deep resentment towards his absentee father. Things change when Max discovers a discarded sparring bot (named "Atom", a symbolic name due to his stature compared to other fighting bots in the film as well as its underdog status).  Both father and son engage in a journey to find common ground as they work the boxing circuit to find legitimacy and validation both within and outside the ring.

The actors deliver powerful performances. In the hands of other actors, absentee father Charlie could have come across as despicably deplorable. However, it's Jackman's innate nature that keeps the audience's sympathy (which may actually be counter productive to the character development, as the further "into the moral depths" a character falls, the greater the redemption if achieved). He brings an everyman's sensibility and carries the weight of failed hopes and dreams well, though mixed with a hopeful, never give up tenacity even when he knows his plans won't work. He's all bluster and hype in front of others, but he evinces a vulnerability that lets the audience know its all an act.

However good Jackman is, his considerable star power does not soley carry the film. In fact, the majority of the burden falls upon young Goyo as his illegitimate son, Max. Last seen in Kenneth Branagh's "Thor", Goyo has much more screen time and makes the most of it. By now, the know it all, more mature than the adult child is an exasperating cliché; most of the time portayed by youngsters who are equally as exasperating. However, Goyo straddles the line between precociousness and annoyance naturally because he plays the role as a boy, not an adult in a child's body. Thus he keeps the audience sympathy all throughout the film; no mean feat. Arguably, if this role was miscast the film would fall apart. This is not to say that the supporting players, such as Evangeline Lilly ("Lost") as Bailey Tallet, the daughter of Charlie's boxing trainer, current owner of the family gym and implied previous love interest, Hope Davis ("About Schmidt") as Max's aunt Debra who seeks sole custody of him, the ever-reliable James Rebhorn ("Scotland, PA", "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), as Marvin, Debra's milquetoast but affluent husband,  Karl Yune ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), who plays creator of ultimate battle bot "Zeus" (read "Apollo" Creed from "Rocky"), and Kevin Durand ("Lost", "X-Men Origins: Wolverine") who plays an ex-boxer who had defeated Charlie in the past and to whom Charlie owes money, are in any way deficient. Their performances help build up and support the main conflicts, truly making this film an ensemble piece. However, the linchpin is the relationship and chemistry between Jackman and Goyo. One believes that their characters are father and son (and cut from the same mold) and Goyo allows for subtle nuances in Jackman's character in terms of the latter's development (a prime example of this involves a slight running gag involving hamburgers). They are the heart and soul of the film, thus keeping it from becoming a faux Transformers.

And speaking of Transformers, Michael Bay should go back to school and take a course in "Robot Filmmaking 101", with "Real Steel" being the required curriculum. After all, one of the main problems with the big screen "Transformers" is that both the Autobots and Deceptacons looked virtually interchangeable with some minor exceptions (Optimus Prime being one); just a mass of whirling gears and cogs held together by virtually indistinguishable exoskeletons. In this film, each robot has its own unique form with a personality somewhat reflective of that form. The crowning jewel here is Atom itself. All the robots are a combination of CGI and actual robots, so it is a credit to the special effects team and puppeteers that we have a rare instance of the CGIGumby" Hulk), have lacked; including Transformers. To say more about Atom itself would give away a major spoiler that was left somewhat underdeveloped, but suffice it to say the audience comes to care about the robot's fate as much as the human actors whose care it is in.

The direction by Levy is tight, as is the editing by Dean Zimmerman. There are very few spots that lag on longer than they're supposed to. Levy keeps the performances rooted in reality without going over the top in some cases. Further, he builds up the storytelling and the stakes and hits the appropriate beats to build to a satisfying crescendos and conclusions. In the theater I went to, through two climatic fight sequences, despite the fact that on an intellectual level everyone knew they were watching a CGI display, the actions, emotions and stakes were so high that when the fights came to their respective conclusions the audience reacted, clapped and cheered as though this were a real time event; something that was absent from all the Rocky forays since its first sequel (perhaps having much to do with the fact that, in many instances, the fights were choreographed by boxing great Sugar Ray Leonard) or any other underdog fighting film, for that matter.  The film's score was by Danny Elfman, who yet again reaches out from his quirky comfort zone and produces a score reminiscent of the more traditional, feel good scoring efforts of the 1980s by frequent Spielberg and Zemekis collaborators John Williams and Alan Silvestri. Elfman's score, while not particularly cohesive in terms of its themes, does give the film its own distinct identity while recalling the types of scores from a bygone era.

This feels more like a film that should have been a summer release; perhaps the producers felt that it would have been lost admist that season's other sci-fi release. They needn't have worried. PG-13 for its violence and language, this film comes closer to being a family film without being excessively cloying. It's a fun film full of pathos, action, and humor with themes of rapprochement and redemption. Its more than robots beating each other. Its about emotional distances being closed and finding the courage to continue fighting even when the fight is all but lost. The best sci-fi is rooted in relatable human drama, and this film should be counted among the best. In terms of its entertainment value as well as the messages it conveys and bang for the box office buck, "Real Steel" is the real deal.

Monday, October 3, 2011


Donald Lapre is dead.

Many of you may not know the name, but if you've stayed up to watch late night syndicated television, you must have seen his seemingly ubiquitous face in those hours. He knew how to make you rich, he would state enthusiastically with exhuberance etched in his cherubic, youthful features. In the late 80s and through the 90s he was the face of the infomercial, second only to the pseudo real estate guru Tom Vu, whose infamous slogan was "If you don' come to mah fwee seminas', you deserve to be bwoke!" Lapre initially sold books and tapes on real estate secrets but his most recent business foray was into the world of nutritional suppliments, specifically "The Greatest Vitamin In The World"...a product that eventually led to his Federal arrest on charges of conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, promotional money laundering and transactional money laundering. He was found dead this past Sunday morning at 8:30 a.m. in his cell at the correctional facility where he was held, an apparent suicide, two days before his arraignment.

So why mention any of this? Because, to steal from a corpulent cartoon character from Fox's Sunday night line-up, it "grinds my gears" when someone touts a "get rich quick" scheme and tries to sell it with fuzzy logic and numbers, living by the mission statement as espoused by Joseph  Bessimer (not P.T. Barnum) that "there's a sucker born every minute". Yes, it is a fact of life that snake oil salesmen will prey on the hopes, dreams and yes, fears, of individuals who yearn for a better way of life. In fact, these types of salesmen are a perversion of the American dream; it's dark flip side where, for a time, crime does seem to pay. But it's not only a financial crime that's being perpetrated; its also emotional with often devastating results. True, Lapre and others like him did not hold a gun to their victim's heads to hand over their hard earned cash. However, despite the caveats regarding something being too good to be true (and especially in these uncertain economic times), the chance at a better life for oneself or loved ones is sometimes too great to ignore. In the end however, another cliche applies "easy come, easy go". 

For Lapre, his business indiscretions finally caught up with him. I am no legal expert, but I would surmise that the case against him was iron clad for him to have despaired to the point to take his own life. It is sad that he believed that the way to get ahead was to bilk others out of their dreams and savings (in one case, according to one complaint listed rip-offreport.com, one person was taken by Lapre to the tune of $100,000.00), but there is one less huckster in the world. On a larger scale, you have Bernie Madoff, who has paid for his own larceny not just in his arrest, but in the smearing of his own name which led his son to suicide a year into the former's incarceration.  They may have "gotten rich quick", but sometimes the cost of such ventures carry a price higher than they can cover.

So the next time so see an infomercial late at night due to insomnia or because your significant other decided sleep was a better option than other activities, ignore the get rich quick schemes. If you have to succumb to the temptation of ordering something, order the "Magic Pellet" or somesuch item; at least with that you have a chance of getting your money back.

Sunday, October 2, 2011


In late August, 1992, Hurricane Andrew, a category 5 storm, buffeted South Florida with fierce winds and heavy rains, the hardest hit area being that of South Miami-Dade, Homestead in particular. The property loss was devastating to the point that it was questionable whether the area would be habitable again. In its aftermath however, a group of concerned citizens and couty commissioners made a promise to rebuild and revitalize the area.

Almost twenty years and approximately fifty million dollars in the making, the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center is both the culmination and the beginning of that promise.  It is a two building, three story cultural arts complex whose facades jointly are built to resemble two hands clapping, and its design is a welcome change from the ubiquitous, unitarian sameness of the general South Florida architectural landscape. However, while it is touted as a "cultural" arts complex, its opening festivities  evidenced a mult-cultural theme, which included a local troupe of grade schooloers performing a choral medley of Michael Jackson hits, opening with "Can You Feel It" and including "Man in the Mirror" and others, which was followed by an African dance presentation and Middle-Eastern belly dancing.

Newly minted Mayor Carlos Gimenez along with Commissioner Dennis Moss, among others, took to the platform for the requisite speeches and declarations of mutual admirability as spinning, multi-colored ribbons unfurled in the wind to denote the opening of the center.

Despite having three floors including balcony sections, the main stage auditorium is smaller in comparison to other theaters in the South Florida area, but what it may lack in size actually engenders a surprising degree of intimacy, allowing the patron to feel closer to the performance presented on the stage.

The opening performance itself was a wholly original piece in five movements, incorporating elements of music, interpretive dance, video and art; one that made great use of all of its elements. The beauty of the performance was its confluence of themes: ethnicity (in the form of the performers on stage as well as the music utilized, which included Jazz, Latin and Afro-Caribbean), Hurricane Andrew and its aftermath (the lynchpin that engendered the creation of the center in the first place), and integration, showing not only the cycle of destruction and creation, but that all these seemingly diverse and divergent cultural styles can come together for a beautious, organic whole; a perhaps unintended indictment against the idea of segregation.  In other words, not even a cataclysm can destroy hopes and dreams when they are unified into one.

With all the interminable back patting and kudos that delayed the beginning of the first movement, there were some glaring omissions. The show's director, Heidi Miami Marshall, put together a marvelous show which only had a few, though hardly discernable, missteps. Musical Director Jorge Gomez, who put together an ecclectic variety of musical stylings and integrated them into a lyrical whole.  The dancers, headed by choreographer Rosie Herrera, were entertaining, acrobatic, and "in step" with the pulse of the music.

However, a show cannot be put on unless the venue that houses it is running efficiently and to capacity. Special thanks should have been shown to the staff and volunteers of the center, and most especially to General Manager Eric Fliss and Operations Manager Daphne Webb. The opening of a cultural center as ambitious as this, in both fiscal and production terms, especially one of this size and cost, is no small feat. Not only was the building spotless and in fine working order, but the volunteers and staff were pleasant and accommodating and what little glitches there were, were addressed and attended to posthaste. Usually it is the builidng managers and staff whose efforts go unrecognized in a venture such as this. In this column, consider those praises sung.

The center is an ambitous project. It is located in an area that is far from the usual art locals of Coral Gables, Downtown Miami or the Fashion District. Further, it is in an area that is arguably still under development. However, from looking at a listing of the upcoming shows, such as performances of Nestor Torres and James Cotton, a reimagining of Shakespeare's Hamlet set in Cuba, and A Night in Treme showcasing New Orleans Jazz (an area that has much in common with Homestead), the center aims to show that a cultural center can express art that is, to paraphrase one of last evening's speakers, "more than just ballet".

The opening was, for all intents and purposes, a success. Its presentation was its mission statement, which was received loud and clear. It now has the unenviable task of revitalizing an area many considered to have been a lost cause. Whether that goal will become a failure or a success remains to be seen.  However, if last night's presentation is anything to go by, it proved that the County is taking a step in the right direction.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011


Top Story: Facebook plays mind games with its users.

Status Update: The only constant is change. It’s not only an axiom that holds true, it’s one that seems to be wholeheartedly embraced by Facebook. You know that bank commercial where some guy wakes up one morning and goes into the kitchen and finds a strange woman and two girls he’s never met and he asks “where’s my family”, and the woman responds that they’ve replaced them and he replies “but I liked my old family” and she retorts “we’re your family now”? It’s kinda like that. 

I liked my old settings…not that I had enough time to “like” them per se as it seems that in less time than it takes to switch a light bulb some new setting on Facebook is added or altered. In some cases, its unnoticeable; in others, such as the most recent update launched this date, it's more frustrating to navigate than the LA Freeway without benefit of a map or GPS and as incomprehensible as Jersey Shore’s popularity. Not to mention the outrage I feel (and believe I’m not alone in) when I check in to find myself in another cyber landscape. It’s like I’ve gone to bed in Miami and then woke up in Honolulu (well, can’t say that would necessarily be a bad thing…).

But how much of my page really is my page? After all, the need-an-attorney-to-decipher terms and conditions in a nutshell states that it’s the property of Facebook and that anything you put up on it becomes part of Facebook in perpetuity (the recent scandal regarding the inability to completely wipe one’s page and its contents from the Facebook servers is proof of that). In fact, Facebook has the ability to delete a page without notice or explanation. It’s only “yours” in the sense that you can post on it.

Which means that Facebook can play with its settings to its heart’s content. And, as its own entity, it has that right. The problem comes when those changes affect the way its users enjoy their Facebook experience and, to go by many of the posts that are made once a new change is effected, that enjoyment diminishes. Ease of use is a major factor with any medium or item. The easier it is to use, the more likely and consistent that usage becomes. Each subsequent change seemingly begets frustration and, in a couple of reported cases, security issues (such as the recent “Instant Personalization”, the automatically enabled feature that shared data with non-Facebook sites).

Now, the nature of life is change and in it’s own weird way Facebook, millions strong, has almost become a living entity onto itself in the same way that a corporation is a “person” as asserted by a certain Republican presidential hopeful (which has its own can of worms, but I digress). It will change and evolve…or not…as it is the nature of things. Think of Zuckerburg as George Lucas and Facebook is his “Star Wars”. The page is tweaked and re-tweaked as is each subsequent video release of the “Star Wars” films. However, each subsequent alteration brings out a collective “Nnnnnnnoooooooooooo” from their respective fandom, begetting more ire than welcome.

Facebook supplanted MySpace as the premier social networking site (just Google “does anyone use MySpace anymore" if you require proof). It is referenced in television, films (one of which was a film about its origins) and print. Businesses advertise on it, going so far as to create their own pages for marketing to the extent that you can log into other non-Facebook accounts with your Facebook log-in. It’s fast on its way to becoming as necessary a tool for communication as a telephone. It’s infused itself not only in the American consciousness but the world’s as well. For a long time it has been a social networking monopoly and when monopolies exist, well, let’s just say that choice is not an option. But there are options now. Google + has made its way on the scene and by all accounts is attempting to make its own site as user friendly as possible. Other web companies such as Yahoo are attempting their own forays into the social networking scene. In other words, there is no need for one to stay with Facebook if it’s no longer suiting one’s purpose. There are options and there will be more. Competition is a good thing.

So bear this in mind the next time you decide to incorporate a massive change to the way one views Facebook, Mr. Zuckerberg: How about a feature that asks a user whether or not they want changes enabled without review and having the option of whether or not to implement it? And don’t present the illusion of choice; instead let people retain their ability to choose. To change a person’s settings without their permission is insulting, implying that Facebook does not value them and obviates their power of choice as immaterial. It’s all about choice. Choice is one of the ideological foundations of this country. Remember, an American Revolution took place because the power of choice was taken away. Keep this up and a social network revolution will be underway.

Paul Anthony Llossas “likes” this.