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

OCCUPY WALL STREET - WHY STOP THERE? (Humor)

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 blas√© 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

OCCUPY [FILL IN THE BLANK] - THE AMERICAN WAY

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

ET TU, CLOONEY...THE IDES OF MARCH IS A DATE TO BE KEPT.

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

ROCKIN' AND SOCKIN' 'EM IN THE AISLES..."REAL STEEL" IS THE REAL DEAL

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 clich√©; 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

BEWARE THE SNAKE OIL INFOMERCIAL

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

MISSION STATEMENT OF THE NEW SOUTH MIAMI-DADE CULTURAL ARTS CENTER: ETHNICITY IS KEY

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.