Thursday, April 30, 2009

I Know, I Know

I can't get over how long it's been since my last post - time, one of my favorite subjects, really has the ability to get away from me, so I though a quick update was in order: things are beginning to settle down at work, somewhat, so I anticipate being able to spend more time here within a week or so. Outside of work, my other interests simply do not allow me time to be here and anyway, as I've stated before, I prefer to do this when I'm at work so it feels as if I'm being paid to write. Yeah, I'm funny.

Also looking into moving to a new site - but I'll post a link should that happen - so that both of you know where to go.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

The Duchess

Keira Knightley is Georgiana Cavendish, a forward thinking, trend setting, hard gambling, liquor holding, politically active, weak-knee inducing, headstrong beauty that men not only desire, but admire and respect; unfortunately, the one man whom she most desires to feel love and affection from remains aloof and emotionally flat: her husband. Having married the Duke of Devonshire (Ralph Fiennes) through an arrangement procured by her mother, Lady Spencer (Charlotte Rampling), Georgiana fully realizes that the primary goal of their union is to produce a male heir for the Duke, but she also assumes that the union will produce, for her and her husband, the typical emotions, intimacy and companionship associated with matrimony, however, as time passes, her assumptions become more and more obscured within a cloud of doubt. Focusing her efforts to find an outlet for her passion in other venues, Georgiana becomes a highly respected member of the aristocracy, celebrated by men and women alike for her beauty, fashion forward designs, and for helping to instigate political change as a vociferous supporter of the Whig Party, but as her passions find more room for expansion in outside endeavors, the more difficult it is to reign them in for her oppressive home life, eventually leading Georgiana to risk her entire existence by sharing her passions with a man other than the Duke.

Months ago, when I saw the first preview, I knew it would be impossible for me to be objective in any assessment regarding the film, considering I'm a ridiculously huge fan of Keira Knightley's and I think Ralph Fiennes is an amazing actor; not to mention that a well done period piece is easily one of my favorite types of films. I liked this movie even before the acne-ridden facial hair attempting ticket taker had finished placing my newly and curiously sticky ticket stub in my hand while incorrectly informing me which auditorium to proceed to. Fortunately, my ability to read small print and large L.E.D. displays coupled with my command of the numbers 1 through 20 helped me to deduce that the proper auditorium was actually upstairs to the right and not downstairs to the left, and although getting past the challenge of the architecturally dyslexic door sentry was exciting in it's own right, it was nothing compared to the anticipation that I was already feeling for the film. In other words, because of my predispositions, the movie would have had to have been on the level of one of the incredibly embarrassing church Nativity plays that I was obligated to participate in as a child, for me to have even remotely entertained the thought of disliking it. As it turned out, I did my best to watch the movie while ignoring my prejudice, and I'm fairly certain that the film was excellent on it's own, with no help from me. I thought the story was well told, the costumes and settings were amazingly opulent and the attention to detail was staggering, and even though I would have appreciated a few grand and sweeping shots, in the end, the director, Saul Dibb, made the wisest choice in keeping the shots succinct and precise and allowing the drama to be carried out by the actors in their richly detailed settings. There's a lot to be said for a director who actually relies on the cast to relay the story while avoiding inflated shots which, at first, might add some additional depth to a production but, when included with such an already decadent world, could very easily cross the line into flamboyance and lose any intimacy previously created with the audience.

Keira Knightley puts forth an Oscar worthy performance (in my biased opinion) as she solidly displays the gamut of emotions that her character experiences throughout the course of the film. The innocence, insecurities and curiosity that slowly becomes experience, confidence and determination mixed with a healthy dose of indomitable spirit are all made manifest by Knightley's subtly intense honesty as she uses her ethereal qualities to seemingly channel a personality from a bygone era. Perfectly complimenting Knightley's earnest performance is Ralph Fiennes' equally nuanced but substantially more delicate execution. Initially, Fiennes' character of the Duke seems completely disinterested in absolutely everything, but, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that the Duke's rigidity is generations in the making and only a very limited number of precisely defined and refined distractions could ever see their way past his stoic and impenetrable demeanor. A lesser actor than Fiennes might have easily been overwhelmed by the Duke's apathetic distraction, ending up with only a "phoned in" performance, but Fiennes is incredibly diligent in presenting a measured indifference which makes the scenes where the Duke genuinely exhibits emotions that much more powerful and threatening. As for the supporting cast, rather than appearing as if they were there only to "support" the main characters, a pleasant, almost symbiotic, relationship existed, allowing each member of the cast to come across as a unique individual with possibly a story of their own worth telling while weaving in and out of the audience's perception.

Obviously I enjoyed this film, the story that was told and the people who told it. I'm not sure I'd say it was a powerful film, although there were some very moving aspects and certain scenes did invoke patterns of thought that stayed with me for several days. I definitely think this is a film worth seeing (theater, if only for the details), but I also understand that a historical drama is simply too much for some people. That's too bad but, then again, I can't imagine anyone who appreciates a well told story, regardless of historical time period, not enjoying this film, at least to some degree. So, if the opportunity presents itself, do take advantage of the situation and see this movie whether it's in the theater or elsewhere. I have several friends who will doubtlessly wait for the release on disc or pay-per-view or, most probably, borrow mine since they know I'll be adding it to my collection, which seems to be a regular occurrence after they read one of my one-sided conversations. Weird, huh?

Monday, September 22, 2008

There and Back Again

Finally, once again, it's autumn. This is absolutely my favorite time of year (followed very closely by winter) and even though I don't really get to experience it, living in this flat humid place of Florida, I'm still thrilled when it rolls around because, if anything, I know that things will be cooling off, somewhat, in the next couple of months. The anticipation of cooler (and hopefully chilly) temperatures definitely improves my outlook on life, in general; although, I still find it, at times, disheartening to be missing out on the changing foliage, the overcast days, the brisk breezes that subtly suggest the coming of winter and, most simply, the overall feel of the season. However, out of all the things that come to mind and have meaning for me during this time of year, the one thing that I can pretty much always guarantee for myself is the reading of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. I know, I know, I'm a geek but what can I do? I just accept it and move on.

Here's a little history (and, yes, I've previously mentioned some of this): I first read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings when I was in 6th grade after having them recommended to me by Mr. B. who, as you may remember, would eventually become one of my favorite and definitely most influential teachers. Early in the year during a laid back afternoon session, Mr. B. had challenged the class with the solving of several riddles which, we later learned, were taken from the 5th chapter of The Hobbit, Riddles in the Dark, which detailed the finding of the Ring and Bilbo's one and only meeting with Gollum. Mr. B. briefly described the book and after hearing him make several more references (trolls, spiders and Smaug), I asked him about reading it. By this time Mr. B. was pretty well acquainted with my preferences in genres, my imagination and, most importantly, my reading comprehension, so the following day he brought me a copy and told me that he was fairly certain I would speed through it with no problems, but he wasn't sure if I was ready for The Lord of the Rings. What's this you say? There's more to the story than I was lead to believe and I'm being challenged to read it? That was my initial reaction but, of course, Mr. B. explained to me that the real story was The Lord of the Rings and it was much more intricately woven using a writing style considerably evolved from the "children's story" aspect of The Hobbit. He told me to read The Hobbit and if I found it enjoyable, I should then attempt The Lord of the Rings because, even if I didn't grasp the full scope of story but made it all the way through, there was practically a universal preordination that I would read them again.

Intrigued and anxious I set out on an adventure that ended up taking most of the remaining school year. Mr. B. had been right and I had made it through The Hobbit in no time and then, after a short conversation concerning our views of the book, I started on the trilogy and found myself in a world for which I was completely unprepared. The previous story (or extended prologue, if you prefer) was a light, almost fairytale romp with dark elements that could only be seen from the proper perspective while looking through or around the obvious Brothers Grimm elements. Granted, the prospect of being eaten by giant spiders could be considered frightening, but I was much more interested and disturbed by the darkness (the Necromancer) that Gandalf went off to deal with but would hardly speak of. So, by the time I had finished the 2nd chapter of the trilogy, The Shadow of the Past, I was aware that I was in store for a tale that was significantly more intense and carried the possibility of grim consequences for a world that I was beginning to truly appreciate and feel comfortable in. As the books progressed, the story that unfolded was one reminiscent of an overcast day whose cover is rarely penetrated by small and fleeting rays of sunlight. Basically, I was in heaven. When I reached the end, I was sad that it was over but I was extremely pleased that the conclusion remained somewhat subdued and free from rainbows and unicorns. In talking with Mr. B. afterwards, he was happy to acknowledge my accomplishment and the fact that I had a solid grasp on the essence of the story, and he was also quick to point out that I should continue to read extracurricular books and never let myself become cut off from the wonders of words. Mr. B.'s final words of wisdom to me that day came back to the the story of the Ring: he suggested that the next time I read them (which he knew I would), I should do it when school was out and before life started to catch up with me. Maybe I'm being presumptuous, but I look forward to a time when I might be able to give someone a piece of advice whose true meaning will take years to manifest.

Roughly a year and half later (8th grade), my mother gave me the red leatherette collector's edition of The Lord of the Rings for Christmas and, being the geek that I am, it immediately became one of my prized possessions. Heeding Mr. B.'s advice, I placed the tome prominently on display and waited until the school year was complete, the summer was before me and life was still comfortably in the distance before I began the adventure of the Ring for a second time. I remember hot, South Carolina afternoons and making my way outside for a couple of hours of reading, the sound of the brutally dry grass as it crunched underfoot and the green metal lawn chair that rested in the shade of a small tree in our front yard. The chair's identical twin often sat unshaded on the opposite side of the tree and was usually approached tentatively, if at all, by anyone wearing shorts, because it only took an instant to discover the damage that could be done to the backs of one's legs by the dark metal, with it's faux weave pattern, after an hour or two in direct sunlight. To the left of the shaded chair was a small ring of stones that had once been a flower bed, but the flowers were long since gone and all that remained was an area of dry matted weeds that were all flaxen in color, and had it not been for the small birdbath with peeling paint located at it's center, only a stone inscribed "unless" would have been needed to invoke the Lorax. A few feet in front of the flowerbed, my father had set a large aluminum flag pole into the ground which, after having lost his initial interest and considering the fact that he felt it, like most of his other notions, should be maintained by someone else, often stood barren, rising starkly into the air like a shining finger pointed accusingly at the heavens. I also remember being thankful that our house was located as it was: elevated and several miles outside of town, with the nearest road being a little less than a quarter of a mile in the distance and no neighbors to speak of, which meant that my afternoons reading in the shade were rather isolated and quiet, with the only
sounds being that of the rustling leaves, the "ting-ting" of the metal clips tapping against the empty flag pole and my mother's wind chimes ringing in the distance as the periodic summer breezes blew across our hilltop home.

With the hot summer days continuing to lazily drift by, I remained resolute in my steady and methodical absorption of the trilogy, hoping that my dedication would make up for lack of experience when it came to identifying any important literary morsels that might normally be overlooked in a desultory exploration. Rather than try to read as much as I could on any given day, I would limit myself to two or three chapters, often going back and re-reading sections until I was satisfied I hadn't missed anything pertinent and had a perfect understanding of what had transpired. As the end approached, I had to fight the inclination to read slower in an effort to draw out the finale and postpone my departure from a place to which I had developed a heartfelt connection - a pattern that I have continued to repeat with each subsequent reading. Eventually I sadly acknowledged to myself that there was no getting around it any longer, so I settled in to finish the last chapter and with each page growing substantially heavier, in conjunction with my heart, I slowly worked my way to the end of the journey and the parting from my friends, and as I read the final line where Sam says, "Well, I'm back," I knew that I was no longer the same person I had been at the outset; the story had changed me as fundamentally as it had the characters.

Even though I was an avid reader long before having heard of The Lord of the Rings, I'll be the first to admit that my scope of reading was extremely limited. I had initially embarked on the path of a reader in an effort to emulate my older brother whom I idolized (except, of course, when he made me suffer the typical indignities of little brotherhood). Considering that he was eight years older than me, my choices for doing as I saw him do were limited because, for the most part, his hobbies, his friends, the places he went and, without a doubt, his school classes were all very much beyond me, not to mention the physical differences eight years made. Fortunately, the one thing that I did see on an extremely regular basis was his time spent reading, and that was something I could easily do, and although 2nd and 3rd grade reading choices can be somewhat limited, in my opinion, my exposure to my brother's comic books, MAD magazines, Warren publications (Eerie, Creepy and Vampirella) and science fiction paperbacks (the one's that I could understand) set me on a course to truly becoming a reader, increased my reading comprehension far beyond that of my classmates and, most importantly, made me feel as if I was being like my big brother. As time passed I continued to read the sci-fi/horror genres, literally judging books by their covers and never attempting to expand my experiences beyond the already familiar, which is why I felt so enlightened at the end of my second trip through Middle-earth. The reoccurring themes of things not always being what they seem, and there being more to something than meets the eye, had far deeper meaning to me than merely how they applied to the story. I was struck by how the same ideas applied to other things and how, without a proper open mind, patience to thoroughly examine and allow for all to be revealed or a willingness to see from other perspectives, so many things that might prove memorable could be missed, forever.

As the summer leading to my first days of high school drew to a close, I had continued to read while trying to remain mindful of expanding my literary horizons. My bright red copy of The Lord of the Rings, always plainly visible in my room, served as a constant reminder that reading was like mining, in that worthless rubble surrounds all of the most precious stones (fiction or non-fiction), meaning that much sifting must be done in order to find the items worth keeping. A large portion of what I read that summer, and over the next few years, was worthless rubble, but I did uncover a few gems which remain with me to this day. My time spent trying to read with expanding concepts has continued steadily, aside from a few brief lapses, because of the trilogy, and I have amassed a large list of favorites that register on some mysterious internal emotional scale. Not surprisingly, some of the most important books in my life have been those that, once I reached a point of listening to and respecting the learned opinions of others, have been deemed classics (old and new) or, at least, exemplary, and other standouts which I refuse to part with were discovered completely by accident during a random buying spree which I occasionally do just to shake things up a bit. Other books have a life of their own along with personal emotional attachment, such as The Pillars of the Earth, which was given to me by my exceptional friend, Lisa, 15 years ago. But that's another story.

After returning to The Lord of the Rings in my senior year of high school for my term paper, life, unfortunately, caught up with me, for more years than I like to think about, and while my reading continued, it was some time before I was able to make the comfortable journey back to the safe haven of Middle-earth. As fate would have it and after casting a semblance of Gollum into my own internal Mt. Doom, I was, at long last, able to return to one of my favorite literary strongholds, but, unfortunately, I found myself facing a bit of a quandary. It was February of 2000, I had been doing quite a lot of reading over the past year or so about some Peter Jackson guy (I had seen The Frighteners), and I knew the first film of the trilogy would be released in December of 2001, with the second film planned for release the following December and the third the year after, in 2003. Did I want to read the entire story so soon before the films or wait until closer to the release date, with the hope that life wouldn't rear it's ugly head in the meantime? After much going back and forth, I decided on a compromise. I read The Hobbit and the entire trilogy and then, for the next three Novembers, before the release of each film, I read the corresponding book, again. It was the reading of the individual books during the month of November that stuck in my head as an identifier with a specific time of year, because, for me, the overall internal tone of the books had always been, as I've previously mentioned, like that of an overcast day or, more specifically, one of autumn. That point was driven home over the next two years during the Thanksgiving holidays when I felt as if I had missed something but couldn't quite put my finger on it. Shortly thereafter, I walked outside one morning and was greeted by a rare Florida winter-like day (curiously, in my head and in my apartment, it's aways autumn or winter), and it was then that I realized how my mind had set up an internal calendar around The Lord of the Rings. So, the following year (2005), a week or so into September, I started The Hobbit with the intention of beginning The Fellowship of the Ring on September 22 to correspond with the birthday of Bilbo and Frodo in the first chapter, A Long-Expected Party. My plan was to have the trilogy read before the Thanksgiving holidays, so that I could then enjoy the three movies, once again, during my break from work (geek boy, I know). Needless to say, the plan worked perfectly, as it did the following year, as well. Last year, the reading proceeded as usual but, because of an unfortunate interference, the films were postponed until Christmas, which was just as well.

Now, another year has flown by with a speed whose exponential increase is somehow mystically linked to my age, but instead of being melancholy and dwelling on the paradoxical passage of time, I am pleased to be, once again, stepping into the tale of the Ring and I look forward to visiting all of the splendid characters that are a part of the odyssey. The past year has been a typical one, with no surprises and no tragedies and I've done my utmost to remain true to who I am by constantly challenging myself, in familiar and unfamiliar ways, and endeavoring to be a decent person focused on finding comfort in simple, but personally meaningful, ways. I don't always succeed, but, then again, things that are easy to accomplish never seem to be as
satisfying as the things that require more effort, however, it is satisfying to know that I have a few steadfast friends scattered about who, along with my countless literary comrades, help keep me motivated, entertained and, on very good days, humble. It is also quite satisfying to have something like the world of Middle-earth to act as a catalyst for fond memories, each year remembering things from the past as the story progresses, while simultaneously creating new memories that will be recalled and looked upon in future readings, and although I've been there, and back again, many times, I hope this is a ritual I can enjoy up to, at least, my eleventy-first birthday.

And speaking of birthdays, it is September 22 and high time I stop my rambling and bring an end to this mental meandering. Bilbo and Frodo await, and as I sit here contemplating my return trip into an extremely pleasant territory, a familiar affection washes over me and I know that when I open the book, in a few short moments, I'll be smiling as I think, "Well, I'm back."

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Babylon A.D.

Vin Diesel stars as Toorop, a mercenary living / surviving in what remains of, as best I can tell, a war torn town in Russia. I don't want to say that this is a "post apocalyptic" story, but there was definitely a huge conflict and , from the looks of it, most of Eastern Europe got their asses handed to them. Anyway, as these types of story go, the tough, loner, outsider with a violent and mysterious past ends up being given a shot at redemption (meaning money and a better quality of life) in the form of a simple delivery: All Toorop has to do is smuggle a young woman named Aurora (Melanie Thierry) and her guardian, Sister Rebeka (Michelle Yeoh), from their convent in Kazakhstan to New York City. Easy enough, right? Maybe not. As it turns out, factions are involved (who would've guessed), and while one faction really wants to see Aurora make it to The Big Apple, not surprisingly, the other faction does not. Along the troubled and deadly way, Toorop begins to suspect that Aurora may be a bio-engineered viral bomb designed to kill millions, only to later be told that, even though she is a virgin, she is pregnant with twins. As their journey intensifies and their bonds grow stronger, the lines of separation start to fade and Toorop realizes that his simple job has expanded past his personal desires and may now affect all of humanity.

This one's not as simple as you'd think. Going in, I thought I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and, for the most part, I was right: Futuristic action sci-fi with some fairly good actors doing their best to put some new twists on a familiar plot. Based on what I was anticipating, my expectations were not off the chart and I was only looking to be entertained on a primal level much like I have been with films like Doomsday, 300 or Wanted and, as I've already said, I was pretty much right. Taking that into consideration along with the fact that the film masterfully and unexpectedly blended the look and feel of Children of Men with Bladerunner, I was well on my way to enjoying a movie that I was beginning to see as "above average". Then, right when I was becoming comfortable with my good looking sci-fi action flick, a side door opened and the story turned into something with much more depth and far reaching philosophical implications. I was stunned and excited since, having never read the book Babylon Babies on which it is based, I wasn't expecting a story hypothesizing a future where religions, using science to manipulate their holiness, battle for the distinction of being the "one true" religion. As things began to unfold, my anticipation grew and, unfortunately, I ended up being disappointed, however, not entirely. Overall, I liked the movie more than I thought I would even before the additional plot depth was introduced, and my disappointment only comes from the fact that I felt the manipulative religions aspect wasn't explored as deeply and as satisfyingly as it could have been. As the credits rolled, I thought the movie had a prevailing truncated feel and, even though I had enjoyed it, I was surprised that certain scenes weren't explored in more depth while other scenes had the distinct impression of being badly edited on the short side. Basically, I wanted more. Imagine my surprise, later that day, reading an interview on Movieweb with Mathieu Kassovitz, the director, where he stated how frakking angry he was with Twentieth Century Fox producers over the fact he wasn't allowed to shoot certain scenes the way he wanted, how they didn't respect the script and how, ultimately, they cut about 15 minutes from the film before it was released. Obviously Kassovitz wanted an intricately thoughtful film and Fox wanted an action flick. For me, I made the best with what I was given, and I can only hope that the missing fifteen minutes will be reinstated when the movie is released on disc. We'll see.

As for the cast, Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh were very good. **Full Disclosure: I'm a big fan of Vin Diesel and Michelle Yeoh.** I realize that Diesel isn't a Shakespearean trained thespian noted for his subtle yet hauntingly emotive capabilities, which is good because of that whole "less is more" thing. What I like about Diesel is that he knows his limits, concentrates on his strengths and branches out just slowly enough to make you notice, and then accept it, rather than try to go all out and have the audience buy it simply because it's him doing it (Think Ben Affleck in the gem Daredevil and you'll understand what I mean). For this film, Diesel plays it tough but not supremely confident - he's a flawed character who intends to survive but, because of his performance, I never felt that his survival was guaranteed, which, to me, says a lot for the film. Also saying a lot for the film is the use of Michell Yeoh - she definitely makes the movie seem more legitimate with her strong-willed, no nonsense attitude, which is utilized as perfectly in this film as it was in Memoirs of a Geisha (yeah, I saw it and I liked it - I'm a huge Ziyi Zhang fan, just so you know) - Yeoh was able to match Diesel's physical intensity with her own silent, emotional intensity, bringing an unexpected harmony to every scene they shared together. Caught between the intensities of Diesel and Yeoh was Melanie Thierry, as Aurora, who was , in my opinion, very surprising and effective in relaying her character's insecurities while holding her own against veterans like Diesel and Yeoh. All in all, the three main characters played off of and supported each other in ways not typically seen in you average sic-fi outing, and when you add the smaller performances of Lambert Wilson (The Merovinian from the Matrix sequels), Charlotte Rampling and Gerard Depardieu, you actually find yourself with a pretty solid cast.

As with all movies in this genre, it has it's positives and negatives but, as I've already stated, because of my expectations, I liked this film more than if I had been anticipating a blockbuster. The direction is good, the scenery and overall "look" of the movie is great, the acting is above average and the story grows deeper and deeper as the film progresses, just not deep enough. I can't say that I'd recommend any friend to see it in the theater, but I definitely think it'll be worth renting since I fully intend to see it again with, hopefully, the missing fifteen minutes. If you do see it, try and keep an open mind and, while you're at it, let your open mind expound on some of the notions might enjoy it and, in the process, discover a whole new way to watch movies. Or not.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tropic Thunder

In case you missed the lowdown, this film is Ben Stiller's take on parodying Hollywood, it's actors, producers, studio heads, agents, special effects wizards, and pretty much everything in between. The general idea is to ridiculously magnify and satirize all of the ludicrous, and not so ludicrous, traits of the movie making machinery. Stiller stars as Tugg Speedman, a super action star on the decline who, after flopping in a film he hoped would bring him acting recognition and accolades, is in Asia to film the most expensive was movie ever made and hopefully garner the respect for his "craft" that he has so long desired. His fellow cast members include Kirk Lazarus (Robert Downey Jr.), the mega Oscar winning method actor who has undergone a skin pigment dying process in order to make him as authentically "black" as his character, Jeff Portnoy (Jack Black), the grossly over-the-top comedic actor who is the lead, as well as most of the supporting cast, in the comedy franchise The Fatties, hip hop mogul, entrepreneurial huckster and actual black guy Alpa Chino (Brandon T. Jackson) and, of course, the obligatory innocent new kid on the block, Kevin Sandusky (Jay Baruchel). Along with the rigors of filming in the jungle, the cast are constantly bombarded on-set by psycho special effects guys, the inept director (Steve Coogan), the moody and unbalanced "soldier" who's "memoir" is the basis of the film (Nick Nolte) and off-set by ass kissing agents (Matthew McConaughey) and power mad studio executives (Tom Cruise). As production becomes stymied, a decision for raw realism places the cast in a real-life desperate situation who's survival may only be achieved by actually becoming the well honed fighting unit that they portray or, at least, acting the parts more convincingly.

Yeah, it's funny. It's not pee your pants while you hyperventilate funny, but, as it remains consistently true to it's over the top form, it does provide a fairly steady stream of humor while intermixing some truly laugh-out-loud segments with an equal number of choke on your soda moments. The film pretty much leaves no stone unturned in it's quest for Hollywood bits to satirize and repeatedly reminds that nothing is sacred when it comes to their pointed observations, which I found to be remarkably refreshing for a Hollywood comedy when you stop to consider that movies very rarely make fun of themselves. I have a tendency to pass on most outright comedies because, in my opinion, the majority from the past few years have suffered from lack of inspiration, bad writing and an assumption that a well known actor (Norbit, The Pink Panther) or a physically attractive female (The Dukes of Hazzard, Over Her Dead Body) will make up for what the film lacks in substance*. Thankfully, Tropic Thunder uses everything I just mentioned as inspiration, and the core of it's substance is how seriously it takes the Hollywood lack of substance. I know, it's confusing, but trust me, it works.

The other thing that works well in this film is the cast. Stiller, once again, makes good use of his abilities to pull off a spot-on parody while displaying the utmost sincerity, however, this time he compounds the performance with the addition of his character's horrendously bad portrayal of the award designed character of Simple Jack. Jack Black is, well, Jack Black - his character, Jeff Portnoy, isn't much of a departure (if any) from most of the other Jack Black characters which, for this this film, is exactly what they needed. Black's Portnoy helps keep the energy level maximized as well as providing a few of those "I really shouldn't be laughing as this" moments. I think I should state, for the record, that I'm not a big fan of a Black's more colorful character work - I tend to have a greater appreciation for his "low key" efforts, but, for this movie, his exuberance is perfect. Brandon T. Jackson as hip hopper Alpa Chino starts out very stereotypical but undergoes a comedic, but intelligent, evolution as the film progresses, as does Jay Baruchel's character of Sandusky. McConaughey is the perfect shallow talent agent who sees his bottom line as being in direct proportion to his obsequiousness and Nick Nolte would have to the first, best choice for a psychotic burnout memoir hawking jungle rat.

Together, the previously mentioned cast and their respective characters could easily combine to make, at the very minimum, a mildly amusing film, but I firmly believe that Robert Downy Jr. as Kirk Lazarus and Tom Cruise as producer/studio exec Les Grossman make this movie entirely worth seeing and add a degree of humor, originality and out and out entertainment that is becoming harder and harder to find in big production comedies. Downy Jr.'s Lazarus is the glue that holds the entire chaotic story together - when the story gets too crazy, he's the level plain that the camera always returns to and when the kinetic energy subsides, Lazarus becomes the humor focal point. I seriously doubt, because of the character specific nuances, if anyone could have pulled off the Lazarus character as well as Downy Jr. As for Tom Cruise, all I can say is: Wow. In my wildest imaginings, I would have never anticipated seeing such a performance from Cruise - he was loud, abusive, abrasive, disgusting, foul mouthed, egocentric, insulting, and repugnant........oh, and brilliant. The Grossman character is an unexpected delight (especially when he dances) and could not have been used more appropriately - considering the character's coarse and extravagant personality, he could have very easily been overused to the point of losing his shock value but, instead, his scenes were spaced well and properly short, leaving the audience (me, at least) wanting more.

I definitely enjoyed this movie and was pleasantly surprised at the final product, although I can easily say that this film isn't for everyone since some of the humor will be too much for certain audience members, while other audience members will be completely oblivious to the less than obvious jokes. I guess that's the way it is with most well written/rounded comedies, except in this case, with the emphasis on the extravagantly extreme, the disharmony will seem more apparent. Just do me a favor, try actually watching it (theater or when available for rent) before you decide.

*That statement refers only to U.S. comedies.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The X-Files: I Want To Believe

Finally, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are back together on the big screen. Like with many of the films I've seen, I find the notion of explaining what the movie is about absurd because certain plot points should not be given away and the knowledge that it's an X-Files story should suffice. I've discovered that in a situation like this, there tends to be three types of people: The ones who are already familiar with the characters and the overall themes of the previous stories, the ones with no prior exposure but have had their interest piqued because of things they've read, seen in trailers or they simply *gasp* have an open mind, and, lastly, the ones who merely have no interest at all because of one reason or the other. In this case, if you're an X-Phile, you don't really want to know because you want to experience the story fresh in the theater, and if you're an interested noobie, only a vague, at most, synopsis should be used so, again, the experience of the reveal happens in the theater, and if you're in the "not interested" group, you don't count and should go rent Heaven's Gate. So, the closest that I can come to a synopsis is: Special Agent Dakota Whitney (Amanda Peet) is in the middle of an investigation that involves a missing F.B.I. agent, an arm (not the agent's) and a purported psychic priest (Billy Connolly). Unable to make any progress, feeling completely overwhelmed by the grisly and otherworldly elements and convinced there's only a short amount of time to save the missing agent, Whitney, after procuring an "all is forgiven" agreement from the F.B.I., endeavors to find the one person she hopes can utilize the "spooky" aspects of the investigation to possibly save an innocent life, and that person is Fox Mulder. It's been six years since we last saw Mulder and Scully. Scully is now following her medical career and Mulder has been in hiding from the F.B.I. to avoid prosecution for his breech of protocol. (Mulder's infractions are in regards to certain events that transpired during the final seasons of the television series, but those events, other than to establish the fact no one has any information pertaining to his whereabouts and that he's an F.B.I. outcast, have no bearing in this movie.) As the events of the case continue to form a grim and forbidding mosaic and questions of life and death echo with the resonance of a ticking clock, it's time, once again, for Mulder and Scully to gaze long into the abyss.

This one was easy - knowing that the show's creator, Chris Carter, was writing (along with fellow scribe Frank Spotnitz) and directing this feature, I was already anticipating enjoying this film months before it's release, and enjoy it, I did. I know, I know, it's not going to cause money to rain down from the heavens to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars like The Dark Knight, and it's not going to appeal to the ABBA loving crowds of Mama Mia and I'm quite positive that it will hold no interest to those who prefer the intense story telling of Step Brothers, but, regardless of all that, this is a very well done film and very much worth seeing in the theater. However, I fully expect the film's overall success to be much subdued compared to the other offerings of the summer based on the fact that this is probably the most "low key" release of the blockbuster season, but, ironically, the fact that it is so "low key" is one of the most (at least, to me) appealing aspects of the movie. This film has no explosions, only one car chase (and it's in snow - so it's quiet) and no over-the-top "shoot 'em up" moments - there are a couple of gruesome scenes and surprising moments but, for the most part, this is an extremely cerebral story of suspense that gives nothing away, leaving it up to the viewer to follow the clues along with Mulder and Scully and when it's all said and done, there's no insulting summation for those who couldn't keep up. Another great thing about this film, along with the large and obvious central storyline, is the subtle underlying story threads that deal with faith, spirituality, life, death and the emotional light and dark within everyone. So it's fairly safe to say that this movie is not your usual summer popcorn fare but, not surprising to me, I did walk out of the theater feeling pretty warm and satisfied (even with no explosions).

Anderson and Duchovny remarkably pick up where they left off, but six years later - they have the same chemistry, humor and intensity as they did at the peak of The X-Files series, and yet they believably mature the characters to conform with events that are mentioned having transpired during the six year interim. Anderson, as always, honestly portrays Scully as fervently dedicated to her profession and beliefs, leaving Duchovny to display the same convictions while, characteristically, infusing a light lunacy coupled with a sharp wit. Amanda Peet is skillfully adept but emotionally uncertain as Agent Whitney and Billy Connolly is easily the linchpin performance as Father Crissman but, regardless of how good anyone else is, this is still the Mulder and Scully show and without them, this would only be a curiously intriguing movie.

It's possible that since I've recently been re-watching the series, I was more primed than most for a return to the darker world of The X-Files, but I really don't think that's the case and I'm convinced that anyone who appreciates a well told sinister tale that requires more than a modicum of actual thought from the viewer would enjoy this film whether they're a prior X-Files fan or not. After having seen my share of the big summer films (and liking a few of them very much), this was an extremely nice change of pace and, I must admit, the story, the directing and the snowy locations transported and entertained me as much as any CGI creation from any other summer movie this year. I'm definitely looking forward to seeing this again upon it's release on disc, which is where, I'm sure, the film will do it's biggest business, and even if there is no third movie that deals with the supposed colonization date of December 2012 (I want to believe there will be), this film has a satisfying closing shot of Mulder and Scully that opens a world of possibilities to the just have to watch the credits or you'll miss it.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Dark Knight

In my opinion, this movie doesn't really require any type of synopsis because, unless you've been in living in a cave for the past six to eight months or suffering from a chronic case of Cranial Rectal Insertion, you should already have a decent idea concerning what this movie is about. In fact, the end of Batman Begins pretty much spelled it out for you, and if, for any reason whatsoever, you didn't see the previous Batman film, then leave now. Just go. Now, in order to be nice, here's a quick troglodyte catchup: Batman is still fighting to rid Gotham City of it's heinous criminal element. Things are getting down and dirty as the organized crime leaders get desperate. Harvey Dent is the new District Attorney and he's not afraid to team up with the police (or Batman) and take on the city's underworld. Oh, and there's a new guy on the block with knives in his pockets and a smile on his face.......and he's not joking.

Who would've thought that I was so looking forward to this movie? Did my ever present sentinel at the top of the page give it away? Well, no matter, I confess I've been anxious since I heard the first sound bites last summer and my anticipation only expanded with every new viral clue I'd uncover. Finally, after months of waiting (and having talked myself out of going to the midnight show on Thursday), I found myself comfortably seated, along with twenty or so others, in front of the expansive IMAX screen at 8:00 a.m., a full hour before the movie was scheduled to begin. With the minutes ticking by, each time I looked up from my book, the influx of people continued to grow until, with twenty minutes still to go, the theater was practically full, which is saying quite a bit for an IMAX size theater at 8:40 a.m. As the three minute mark approached, I put away my book, turned off my iPod, removed the earbuds and noticed that, even with the theater almost full, there was a prevailing silence and sense of excitement and it was at that moment I understood that even though I had not yet seen the film, I was already part of an event. As I looked around, I saw perfect (and imperfect) strangers looking at each other with smiles and expressions that implied acknowledgment of a unification of spirit, that spoke of a freshly forged camaraderie among people who would normally ignore each other - and all these exchanges of looks and smiles taking place silently, as if they feared the slightest vocal utterance would unravel the fabric of communion that seemed to nestle us all. As the lights dimmed and the screen flickered to life, I felt the ripple of motion as every person in the theater straightened up in their seats and collectively tensed for the beginning of the movie. A swirling mist appeared on the screen and, as the music transformed into the recognizable theme, solidified into the title card for Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, indicating the release date and 3-D scenes for IMAX before fading to black. The fifteen second Harry Potter trailer was followed by a spectacular trailer for Watchmen, set to the song, The Beginning is the End is the Beginning by Smashing Pumpkins and ending with Rorschach saying, "The world will look up and shout, 'Save us!' And I'll whisper....'No'". Awesome. Then, after the trailer, black screen, rumbles, blue flamed explosion, logos and, as the theater erupted in spontaneous applause, The Dark Knight began.

Is it all that? Yes, and then some. Worth the hype? No doubt about it. Live up to the expectations? Absolutely. I would say that this is the greatest comic book film ever made, except for the fact that this film actually transcends the comic book world. This is the Godfather, Citizen Kane and The Empire Strikes Back of comic book films while simultaneously being an action inclusive dramatic exploration of Jungian Archetypes and moral rectitude. The varying layers are what create such an ultimate story and will, in the long run, make the film more appealing to a broader spectrum of moviegoers. There's the well spaced (and placed) action for the surface entertainment of a Batman vs. Joker story that will appease the average action/comic book crowd - oh! There's even a magic trick! - There's the relationship issues, examination of responsibility and hard city crime story for the dramatic crowd and there's the exploration of the cold dark place that hides inside each of us for the crowd who's not afraid to look and see things for what they are, could be or should be. The combined aspects form a film that can easily be enjoyed over multiple viewings with different qualities becoming predominant depending upon the viewer's frame of mind, while the story's emphasis on reality serves as the metaphorical glue holding each layer together and creating a cohesive world for the viewer regardless of mental framing. In other words, Christopher Nolan, the writer/director, has crafted a "superhero" movie with a greater resonance of "truth" than some documentaries I've seen, while remaining faithful to his source material. Now don't me wrong, there are some truly spectacular comic book moments, but they are based in fact and not preoccupied with making you "believe a man can fly", as it were. The other joining factor that shares space with the reality aspect is the fact that there are no "sun shiny" happy moments, no "rainbows and cotton candy" break times, no "All You Need is Love and Kumbaya sing-a-longs" - Gotham City is a hard place and there's gritty work to be done by all sides involved, and it's this perspective that helps illustrate exactly what it is that Batman is striving for - he wants Gotham City to be a shiny safe outpost in a world of horror, even if he can never live there because, as it's explored in this movie, Batman/Bruce is beginning to understand that the dark remains with him whether he's wearing the cape or not. Some people may be put off by the overall sinister feel of the film, but I found it incredibly refreshing, immersing and honest.

The cast is easily the best you'll find in any movie this Summer or, so far, this year. Christian Bale in his second outing as Batman/ Bruce Wayne has really come into his own while raising the bar for any actor stepping into the role of a serious crime fighter. In the previous film, Bale adequately displayed a young Bruce dealing with his scars and fears while slowly transforming into a darker hero. This time, Bale is effectively playing two characters: Bruce Wayne: philanthropist, humanitarian and head of Wayne Enterprises and Batman: night dweller and scourge of the criminal underworld and, make no mistake, these are two very different creatures and Bale combines and separates them expertly.

Next we have Heath Ledger and because of who the Joker is and what he represents, he must be the standout character of the film and with that notion obviously in mind, Ledger uses the very nature of the character to craft a standout performance that I'm sure goes beyond what any fanboy could have imagined. Ledger is amazing and scary as the Joker and (being the huge fan of the comics that I am, I can say this matter-of-factly) his performance makes Jack Nicholson's look like a bad impression of Cesar Romero. I mean that, I really do. In the world of Batman that I know and have wanted to see, Ledger could not have achieved a better outcome - his Joker is unpredictable, uncaring, nuanced and, at times, terrifyingly sane - he definitely did his homework on not only the Joker character, but other psychotics as well because I'm sure I spotted a touch of Alex from A Clockwork Orange. Ledger's performance will propel the batfans to new heights, greatly impress serious connoisseurs of acting and become a benchmark for all who attempt to follow. I firmly believe that people who are not remotely fans of Batman, action films or movies based on comic books would enjoy this film because of Ledger's performance, alone.

My other choice for a standout performance is that of Gary Oldman as Lt. James Gordon. I've been a big fan of Oldman and his eclectic repertoire for quite some some, and even though most people would recognize him for his work as psychotic or flamboyant antagonists, recently he's been making bold statements as quietly heroic and compassionate characters like that of Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films and, now, Lt. Gordon. In the first Batman film, Gordon was known as one of the few honest cops but, before that is ever stated, you knew what kind a man Gordon represented based on what Oldman was able to convey in a short flashback early in the film - by his demeanor, facial expressions and delivery there was no doubt he was a good man and a good cop. That theme is greatly expanded for Gordon in The Dark Knight to the point where you see to what length the character is willing to go in order to do the right thing while remaining humane and conscious of his loved ones, and Oldman succeeds brilliantly with displaying the dedication, uncertainty and concerns of an "average Joe" unconsciously being virtuous in a world gone mad. Put it this way, the character of Gordon is such a good guy and played so well by Oldman, that, even though I know that in the Batman universe Gordon eventually becomes Commissioner, there were points in the film where I was actually worried that something was going to happen to him. (This is Hollywood, after all - there's no telling what could come to pass.) So, as a character who is scared but can only do the right thing, Oldman pulls it off amazingly and makes it believable with as little as a set jaw and a thoughtful look. What's surprising is that in a film populated with so many larger, louder and flashier characters, Oldman's Gordon doesn't lose any ground.

The rest of the cast are as good as you would expect them to be. Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine both expand on their mentor, moral compass, and confidence support roles that they easily stepped into in the first film while Maggie Gyllenhaal, taking over as Rachel Dawes from Katie Holmes, brings a more believable sincerity and maturity to the character that is Bruce Wayne's love interest. Eric Roberts shows up as crime boss Salvatore Maroni and perfectly utilizes his patented "slimy guy who's full of himself" character to it's fullest extent and, lastly, additional newcomer Aaron Eckhart as D.A. Harvey Dent, who was a real surprise for me, flawlessly plays the role of a suave and captivating individual who is so focused on pushing himself toward reaching his devoted idealistic goals, that he's oblivious to what the price of failure could be - an individual who sees every issue as a right or wrong or positive and negative, like two sides of a coin.

As you can tell, in my opinion, everything about the film fell perfectly into place. I have absolutely no complaints and, trust me, being the die hard Batman fan that I am, I'm pretty picky when it comes to representations of the Dark Knight, his world and surrounding characters. I'm really glad to see that Bob Kane's creation (thanks to a little help from The Mark of Zorro) has finally reached a point of being taken seriously and treated with such reverence. After years of camp (even though I love the Adam West creation), non focus, misdirection and day-glow horrors with putrid story lines, it's truly refreshing to be able to sit in a theater (or at home for the first film) and enjoy an honest recreation of a practically hallowed world that, up until now, has been the domain of comic book geeks like myself. Now everyone's going to realize what they've been missing.

As for what comes next. Who can say? I'm convinced that as long as Christopher Nolan is allowed to follow his internal drive, the next Batman will be just as good as the first two, even though I realize how hard it will be to top this one. The great thing about being a true fan is that the next film doesn't have to set out to best the first two - as long as it's treated with the same dedication, everything will turn out fine and I'm sure that everyone working on the films feel the same way. In fact, Christian Bale recently said that he'd be happy to keep returning as Batman as long as Nolan was in the driver's seat and as long as there was no Robin character. Happy Day! At this point, and judging from what the returns have been in just two days, we're pretty much guaranteed a third film and I'm as pleased as can be about that and I plan on seeing The Dark Knight again, as soon as possible.