Tuesday, October 29, 2013


***NOTE:  The following was never meant for publishing. However, given the increasing awareness of bullying and its unfortunate effects within our society, I thought it appropriate to show that it can and does happen to anyone.
Do you remember what you said to me at our twenty year high school reunion, “buddy”?
I’m really sorry for bullying you…but you have to admit, you really had it coming.”
I understand that time passes, we grow, we change. You’ve turned your life around; even become an educator at the very junior high we attended.  As you’ve intimated in our one and only conversation since those days that standing on the outside, surveying bully and bullied, that you’ve gained an understanding for what you did and claim that you can see how far reaching the damage can be to those bullied.
And yet you still have the temerity to state “[I] really had it coming”?
I had it coming? 
How so, Mr. “So-Called-Reformed-Bully?” You, with your back-handed apology, think you know what bullying does to a person.  You think I asked for it? You think I was weak? What you didn't know was that in my first two years of school I was a very violent child.  You never knew that when teased or cornered I would attack my peers with such savage, emotional fury the type of which only an enraged child can muster that my opponents would get seriously hurt; one of whom eventually ended up in the hospital. You never knew of the shame I would feel from my parents and the only teacher I adored and respected back then…of how they so thoroughly shamed me into never raising my hand in violence again. How I was practically forbidden to defend myself as my parents didn’t clarify the difference between violence and self-defense; how I could not retaliate for my opponent's (read: your) protection, not mine, for the rest of my scholastic life.
All I wanted to do was mind my own business, show up to my classes, do what was required, and leave.  You and your cronies went out of your way to seek me out to heap your daily dose of verbal and physical abuse. I carried all my heavy school books…yes, ALL…in my backpack to minimize any possibility of your cornering me at my locker. I learned your (and your buddies’) class and lunch schedules so as to navigate the hallways with the minimal possibility of running into you.  I minded my own business on those rare classes we shared, but that didn’t stop you from surreptitiously tying my belt loop to my chair so that when the bell rang, I almost cracked my skull open after my chair slipped from under me due to the force of my getting up. 
You never knew that during school days I would wake up with a feeling of anxious dread. You never knew the toll it took on my self-esteem…how the rest of you could go about your lives willy-nilly and how I had to stay in control.  Every hit, every punch, every verbal epitaph I received…all undeserved, yet stoically (at least outwardly) endured nonetheless because, in the back of my mind, the shame would return; shame in and shame out without expression or release, impotently drowning in my own salty sea of sorrow.
And that pain stays with you…no matter what the age or how much time has passed. It stings with the freshness of yesterday. It becomes a part of your make-up. It infuses so much of your decisions in life whether consciously or otherwise. You take up self-defense classes. You bulk up your body by adding muscle to your frame. You gain an empathy for those that the “too cool for school” set has written off and discarded. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and trudge forward. You harden.  You compromise your ability to trust to keep from being betrayed.  You distance yourself from others to keep from feeling pain again.  You become a person who becomes virtually unrecognizable to the person who you used to be.  Yes, to some degree my own transformation is due in part because of you and your ilk. However, you should consider it a source of shame, not pride. Yes, one can move on from those experiences, learn from them, and let them go.  But despite that, the pain still remains as prevalent as a scar. It heals, bur remains.
When you said your “apology”, I gave you such a look that your own eyes registered momentary apprehension, and even perhaps a bit of fear; one which heightened when I approached you, stepped into your personal space, and told you where to shove that apology.  In that tiny, uncertain moment, you had but a miniscule taste of what I had felt for years of painful adolescence.  I hope you carry that with you for the rest of your days.  Maybe then, when you see it happen to others under your academic watch that you really make things right. Maybe then, I can believe you finally truly understand.  And maybe you might come to realize that of the two of us, you were the one who was really asking for it.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

REVIEW PROOF: "Machete Kills" With More Over The Top, Gratiutious, Sublime Ridiculousness.

Machete (2010) was never intended to be a film.  The character and concept first saw the light of day as a fake trailer for the Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino's Grindhouse, the two directors' love letter to the film's eponymous film genre. However, the popularity of the trailer eclipsed that of the actual features (Tarantino's Death Proof and Rodriguez' Planet Terror, respectively). In response to fan demand, Machete was greenlit, with a cast that boasted the likes of Robert DeNiro, Jessica Alba, and Lindsay Lohan in a nun's habit (!). It made respectable box office and quickly achieved cult status through cable and home media strong enough to move forward with a sequel.

Whereas the original Machete was a send up of the Mexploitation/grindhouse films of the 70s, Machete Kills goes beyond and sends up various film, television, and even comic book genres of the 70s, including but not limited to Star Wars, Star Trek, "The Fantastic Four", and particularly the Roger Moore Bond films, with a little bit of 24 thrown into the mix. Machete (Danny Trejo) is practically a Mexican analogue of that era's James Bond, though substituting Moore's sardonic, raised-eyebrow smirk with a perpetual scowl and a predilection to refer to himself in the third person.  However, this film makes Moore's more outrageous turns as James Bond (Moonraker, anyone...upon which this film heavily draws on?) seem like an episode of Downtown Abbey.  Oh, there's a plot involving the Trejo's being recruited by the President of the United States (Carlos Estevez* in a ..."winning"...performance) to take down a rogue but insane rogue agent (Demian Bichir, who practically channels Al Pacino's '80s overacting phase...which isn't necessarily a good thing...) before he can use a nuclear warhead aimed straight for Washington, but the story just exists to string set piece after outrageous set piece.

For a film that serves as homage to an era of bad filmmaking, it is surprisingly good.  Rodriguez, who also served as screenwriter along with Kyle Ward and Marcel Rodriguez, manages to put in a plethora of "I didn't see that coming" moments that actually make sense within the context of the movie...as much as one can in a nonsensical film, that is. The violence is so ridiculously over the top, the Hershey's chocolate company must have made a mint for all the fake blood that was used in the production. While the violence is disturbing, it's so outrageously, bizarrely absurd that its almost akin to watching an R-rated "Looney Tunes" cartoon, albeit one with an inordinate amount of "T&A" (but who's complaining?).

Equally absurd are the performances.  As with the first film, Rodriguez has amassed an eclectic mix of "A" and "B" listers who are not only clearly in on the joke, but gleefully revel in it: Most especially Michelle Rodriguez returning as "Luz", Machete's one-eyed, off and on, kick-ass friend with benefits; Vanessa Hudgens as the tongue-firmly-in-cheek named "Cereza", Amber Heard as Machete's government agent handler who is also a finalist in the "Miss Texas" pageant; Sofia Vergara as a psychotic Madame with a very...special set of accoutrements; a very grown up Alexa Vega, who serves as Vegara's right hand woman; and Lady Gaga(!), Cuba Gooding, Jr., Antonio Banderas, and Walton Goggins, each playing...well, that would be telling. But the prize for the most standout performance goes to Mel Gibson, whose nutty presence is a perfect fit, both meta-textually and within the story, with the film's nutty shenanigans.  Playing a villain for the first time in his long career, Gibson shines as "Luther Voz", a billionaire "Blofeld/Hugo Drax" analogue (as if the "Luther" name didn't clue one in as to the character's alignment). Given the dark, self-inflicted turns his life has taken in the last few years, it is easy to forget that Mel Gibson was a very talented thespian under that once-handsome face.  This film reminds us of that fact. His acting exchanges with the stoic Trejo actually help bolster Trejo's performance; Gibson gives his all but reins in appropriately when necessary so as not to dominate their shared scenes.  Say what you will about the man's mental/emotional state, Gibson still knows how to capture attention. The film is a giant >wink< to the audience as Rodriguez takes advantage of the pop culture baggage attached to some of the players, using our acknowledgement of them to enhance the proceedings without overlying upon them.  It's very deftly handled.
There's really not much to say about Machete Kills other than the fact that it's a gonzo joy ride of insanity.  It's a guy film in the best sense of the word.  Who needs to juice up with 'roids when you can sit and watch this filmLeave all thought of coherence and physics at the door.  Machete Kills won't be everyone's cup of tea, but oh, what a sublime brew it is.

*Otherwise known as "Charlie Sheen".

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

RETRO REVIEW: CHEAPER THAN THERAPY - "Married Life" Offers a More Adult View of Marital Affairs

Ira Sachs’ film Married Life (2007), based on the novel by John Bingham, is aptly named.  Much like the institution that informs its subject, the film carries certain expectations going in but reveals something wholly unexpected beneath its facade. 
Set some time in the 1940s in an unnamed city, the film centers on “Harry Allen” (Chris Cooper), a man living through a very routine marriage to his wife, “Pat” (Patricia Clarkson) while being enamored with his beautiful mistress, “Kay” (the ethereal Rachel McAdams).  He wants out of his banal marriage but cannot bring himself to ask for a divorce for fear of the social and psychological consequences to Pat.  So, in order to spare her the pain and embarrassment of divorce, he “logically” decides to kill her. To complicate matters, he confesses his intent to his best friend, the rakishly debonair “Richard Langley” (Pierce Brosnan), an unrepentant womanizer who eventually falls for Kay as well.
The plot smacks of David Lynch-ian sensibilities and could have easily fallen into melodramatic “whodunit” territory.  Surprisingly, Sachs and co-screenwriter Oren Moverman avoid the temptation to do so.  Rather, Sach’s film is an exploration of the mores and hypocrisies found within relationships both in and out of wedlock, and presents same with refreshing honesty and maturity that, for the most part, succeeds.
This film could not be done in the present day, for many of the plot twists (of which there are a few), could easily be unraveled with a cell phone or a laptop computer.  The decision to use post-war America is also practical as it presents marital infidelity during a time when it was considered scandalous taboo.  The music by Dickon Hinchliffe is nondescriptly melodious and acts as a perfect reflection to the subject matter.  Peter Derning’s cinematography, which presents a combination of Art Deco and film noir sensibilities, creates a stylistic confluence evocative of both yet adhering to neither.
The strength of this film lies in the characters.  Chris Cooper is quietly engaging as the middle-aged Allen, a complex man to whom killing does not come easy.  Cooper, who is perhaps best remembered as the head of Treadstone in The Bourne Identity, manages with a look to convey the conflicting, rumbling emotions that his milquetoast exterior belies.  Patricia Clarkson is a revelation in her portrayal of Pat, a woman who may not be as fragile as everyone assumes her to be.  As the mistress/divorcee, Rachel McAdams radiates a physical beauty evocative of Veronica Lake.  Unfortunately, of all the characters, hers is the most two-dimensional.  She is more ethereal muse than flesh-and-blood person to the two male leads, inspiring them to consider avenues of thought they hadn’t before.  As to the other male lead, why is it that Pierce Brosnan seems to be closer to the literary James Bond post-Bond than he was ever allowed to be in his tenure as the cinematic super-spy?  As in his turns in The Fourth Protocol, The Tailor of Panama and most recently the critically-acclaimed The Matador, Brosnan infuses his character with a rapscallion flair and rapier wit.  Yet despite his betrayal of Allen’s friendship, he infuses Langley with charmingly disarming sensitivity and depth.  It is perhaps Brosnan’s most nuanced performance to date, and it is a superb turn.
This film will probably not be at the box office long because it is a film that does not follow standard formulaic clichés, nor is it filled with moments of exaggerated action or pathos.  Like the lives it depicts, the film is a quiet affair (pun intended) which presents its conflicts and resolutions (or lack thereof) in a human and adult manner.  Sachs’ purpose in this film is to show that a married life is not a fairy tale that ends “happily ever after” or that passion overrules all, but that true love and affection take time to build.  Every frame shot, every character interaction, shows that this film is a product of that which makes a good marriage:  A labor of love. 

RETRO REVIEW: ABANDON ALL HOPE…Despite CITY OF GOD’s Biblically Allegorical Bent, It’s Nothing We Haven’t Seen Before

Despite its crime drama trappings, one must address the irony of the title of director Fernando Meirelles’ 2000 epic, City of God.  After all, upon seeing the film one would have to acknowledge its irony; a not unrealistic expectation given our predominately Judeo-Christian society.  But given the various pantheons of gods that exist in various mythologies, this city could easily be ruled by, say, Hades or Shiva.  Perhaps the film would be best served by if it were titled City of Ozymandias, as what Percy Shelley wrote with tongue firmly in cheek would apply here wholly in fact:  Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair.”  “God” (take your pick) is certainly absent from the proceedings; that is, if He/She/They was/were ever there to begin with.  City of God takes an epic approach to the matter of godless survival and the often futile attempts of hope to germinate in the face of abject hopelessness. 
As with any crime drama, setting is key. Meirelles through use of cinematography goes to great lengths to ensure that the viewer viscerally internalizes the bleak starkness that permeates City of God.  Instead of rain soaked, night blanketed city streets, glamorous gambling parlors and seedy watering holes, the landscape is stiflingly sun scorched. The buildings are weathered and dilapidated, each abutting each other in an oppressively claustrophobic manner. The streets are dirty, sickly, and wholly uninviting. The housing development outside the city is replete with rickety ramshackle homes that look as if they were about to blow over in the stiff, dust saturated winds that seem to incessantly blow with nary a hint of life-affirming vegetation in sight.  Nothing grows here; not life, not hope.  But Meirelles is not content to let the scenery voluminously speak for itself.  With its rapid camera cutting technique, the chicken chase sequence that opens the film foreshadows what is to come:  Unrepentant evil reigns in this fast paced land where lives are trampled and taken at a capricious whim.  The innocent cannot survive here unless they “duck and cover” and stay out of the way.  Even long steady shots are used to convey this mood as the viewer shares a woman’s pain as she watches her lover die in a futile escape attempt from the police, the scene receding in the distance as her hijacked car pulls away.  While escape is possible in this god-forsaken land, it does not come without a price.
Yet camera technique alone does not a movie make, and every Paradise Lost allusion needs its biblical analogues.  For Adam, we have the film’s narrator "Besquat/Rocket" (first played as a child by Buscapé Criança, then played with a disarming insouciance as an adult by Alexandre Rodrigues), a young man with photojournalistic aspirations.  Of course, no garden would be complete without its requisite serpent.  "Li’l Dice" (Douglas Silva) grows from a “nobody” child to "Li’l Zé", the ruler of this drug infested land.  Leandro Firmino plays the adult Zé with a charismatic vileness that rivals the mesmerizing effect of Orson Wells’ “Harry Lime” or Anthony Hopkins’ “Hannibal Lecter”, for how powerful can evil be without its seductive aspect?  Rocket’s and Zé’s stories are told in an epically cyclical fashion. Mierelles heavily borrows flashback techniques from Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander by using key moments or objects in the present to trigger flashbacks to tie-in the past and is used to striking effect: For example, in context to "Knockout Ned’s" (Mané Galihna) death.  When the scene is set in the past, the film’s visual aspects change in order to be evocative of the time period being represented, such as sepia tones for Rocket’s/Li’l Dice’s respective childhoods, a technique currently used in the series Cold Case.  That's not the only stylistic homage that is present.  In Li’l Zé, one can see the similar desire for power and respect and the social ineptitude of a Tony Montana in Scarface, or Bene’s best Mercutio impression from any rendition of Romeo and Juliet. But for all its similarities to other films in the crime drama vein, it bucks other trends in that genre.  In any other standard Hollywood film, Rocket would have sought vengeance for his brother Goose’s death at the hands of Li’l Dice/Zé.  Though he acknowledges the murder in his voice over narration, Rocket does not seek retribution, preferring to get high and stay as clear away from trouble (and filial responsibility) and seek out his escape through his dreams and aspirations.   
In essence, this is a not a story about good versus evil but, rather, its uneasy, compromising co-existence, though the good is certainly muted by comparison.  From Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather to Ridley Scott’s recent Russell Crowe/Denzel Washington vehicle, American Gangster, the current trend in the standard crime/mafia genre is to show how there is good exists in evil and vice versa.  City of God especially follows this trend.  For all his evil, Li’l Zé is the protectorate of his turf while the police kill and frame innocents for crimes uncommitted.  Arguably, for all his “good” qualities, Rocket is evil through inaction if one adheres to author Edmund Burke’s axiom that “for evil to flourish good men must do nothing.”
The cyclical nature of the story also works sub-textually in presenting the self-perpetual nature of this societal anomie.  As Li’l Zé grew from child murder to boss, so is the torch fatally passed when Zé himself is murdered by the pre-adolescent Runts.  Evil feeds on itself and it is the children, not the meek, who will inherit this piece of earth.  Yet that evil is subversively seductive, with power and pleasures to be quickly had while those who stray towards the light and attempt their own brand of legitimate greatness receive a mere pittance for their efforts.  Rocket’s internship at a newspaper for his Pulitzer quality photos attest to that.  But any expectation of fairness would be the understandable in a land of a just and loving god.  There is no justice here.
City of God is a film that works on various different levels but unfortunately, in its attempt to be different from the mold, only shows how closely it is tied to it.  Nevertheless, it is a powerful piece of work that makes its case known.  No sane, god-fearing individual would want to come near this City.  Nietzsche, however, would feel right at home.


"As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods; They kill us for their sport."

                 - King Lear, Act 4, scene 1, lines 36–37.

Rather appropriate for today, don'cha think?

"DON JON"...STILL A BETTER LOVE STORY THAN "TWILIGHT". Joseph Gordon-Levitt's Film Seduces with Poignancy.

Who would have thought a film ostensibly about porn addiction would be enjoyable in a non-titillating fashion? 

But then, Don Jon, an artistic dramedy trifecta by Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who serves as writer, star, and director), is not really about porn addiction.  That’s just the hook to get the viewers in the seats. What unfolds on the screen is a somewhat realistic and non-judgmental presentation of the life of Jersey boy “’Don’ Jon Martello” (Levitt) a young man who earned his moniker from his ability to bed “10s”.  Jon is very happy with his “situation”: He loves his car, his job, his pad, his family, his friends...and his porn.  He absolutely LOVES his porn as it gives him something that he can’t get from actual sex no matter how many 10s he scores; and he scores a lot of them. However, things change when he encounters two women who impact his eye: “Barbara Sugarman” (a very fetching, glammed up Scarlett Johansson, doing her best Drea de Matteo/”Adriana La Cerva” impersonation), who is the film’s epitome of “10-dom” and “Esther”, an older woman whose ditzy demeanor is not all that it seems.  

The film’s title, a play on Don Juan, is emblematic of the film’s indie-quirky stylistic approach. It is lofty and down to earth, quixotic yet straightforward; a combination made more explicit by Nathan Johnson's use of music, whose score is peppered with lofty arias and strings juxtaposed with street bass-worthy fare ("Good Vibrations", anyone?).  Instead of jarring, these stylistic contrasts not only flow with but compliment the narrative.  

Acting professionally since the age of four, Joseph Gordon-Levitt has has obviously learned from his experiences both in front of and behind the camera. It’s very difficult for a film both written and directed by its star to not come across as a "vanity project", but somehow Levitt pulls it off. What is also rare is the lack of extraneous scenes.  Virtually every frame in the film exists for the sole purpose of advancing the story and its themes, which range from hypocrisy to emotional isolation (and if a scene does seem to go long, it is to deftly make a definitive point). He shows how superficial veneer can mask the longing and/or unhappiness that lies beneath.  Levitt also makes the very defensible argument that mainstream (read, “acceptable”) romance media (movies, novels, etc.) are just as addictive and unrealistic as its “smutty” counterpart; extremes on either side that bring about unrealistic presentations of their subject matter and thus, arguably, can cause disappointment in the “real world” (In a particularly inspired sequence, Levitt utilizes celebrity cameos to highlight the unreality of the romcom genre). Another powerful theme in this film is communication or, rather, the lack thereof. Characters may talk a lot, but say little.  People may hear, but rarely listen (and careful of the ones who don’t speak). As such, Don Jon also satirizes perfunctory way life is lived. Even something as deeply personal as attending confession is treated as a perfunctory matter, where even the priest dolls out penance with the bored efficiency of handing out change in a financial transaction. Scenes of Jon’s life are virtually repeated to good effect, with Levitt's direction altering each reiteration of each scene with a slight nuance to evidence the changes that his character undergoes, whether the character realizes it or not.  

The performances seem real, at times brutally so.  Jon is a matter of fact, self-aware individual. He knows porn fills a void but he doesn’t know what that is.  As his primary love interest, Johansson is his opposite number, a Mata Hari who gets annoyed when a strand of hair is out of place. But it is a testament to both Levitt’s direction and Johansson’s ability that her character is never really portrayed in a negative light. Their relationship plays as very real.  If Johansson is the “vamp”, Julianne Moore’s Esther is the film’s “earth mother”; albeit a subtly sexy one. Her character is at turns manic and grounded, light yet filled with pathos.  If Barbara is Jon’s mirror reflect, then Esther is his contrasting comparison. Moore is beguiling even when she’s at her most innocuous.  One of the standout performances comes from Tony Danza as Jon’s father, “Jon Sr.” Just hearing Danza curse in fuggedaboutit fashion alone is worth the price of admission, and his interactions with Levitt pop. There is an affection between that two actors that does translates believably onto the scene (A probable a holdover from when the two worked together in 1994’s Angels in The Outfield). As “Angela”, Jon Jr.’s mother, Glenne Headly seems like the doting stereotypical Italian mother; it’s a façade for a longing the character herself experiences. The marriage, and the family, is a microcosm for all the themes the film explores. However, as in real life, this situation is not wrapped in neat little bow by the film’s end.  

This is not the first film Gordon-Levitt has directed, but I would go so far as to say it is his best. Don Jon is a quiet little film; one that is filled with honesty; humor both broad and subtle; pathos; and quirk.  It will probably get lost in the shuffle in the season of Oscar consideration, and that is to the film’s detriment. It is a sharp, well written, acted and directed film; one that’s almost literary in execution. When films are selected for Oscar consideration, it is my hope this one makes the cut.