Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Golden Compass

Based on author Philip Pullman's bestselling and award-winning novel, Northern Lights, The Golden Compass tells the first story in Pullman's "His Dark Materials" trilogy. There is a world where witches rule the northern skies, where ice bears are the bravest of warriors, and where every human is joined with an animal spirit who is as close to them as their own heart. This world is dominated by the Magisterium, which seeks to control all of humanity, and whose greatest threat is the last remaining Golden Compass and the one child destined to possess it. Twelve year-old Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) lives an extraordinary life as a ward of distinguished Jordan College. Tearing unsupervised through the streets on mad quests for adventure with her loyal friend Roger (Ben Walker), Lyra is accompanied everywhere by her daemon, Pantalaimon--a small, ever-changing animal that serves as a constant voice of reason. But Lyra’s world is changing. Her uncle, Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), is embarking on a trip to the Arctic Circle to investigate a mysterious element called Dust, but the Magisterium would go to any lengths to stop him. At the same time, rumors of children mysteriously disappearing and being taken north become terrifyingly real when Lyra''s best friend Roger goes missing. She swears to go to the ends of the earth to rescue him, and when a new figure appears at the college--Marisa Coulter (Nicole Kidman), a beguiling scientist and world traveler--she sees her best chance to get away. But Lyra''s been drawn into a trap designed to take from her the one thing she possesses that the Magisterium desperately seeks--the Golden Compass. It is a mystical device that can tell the truth, reveal what others wish to hide and foreshadow--and even change--the future. Lyra realizes that she will have to embark on her own journey to rescue Roger and stop the Magisterium. But fate puts her in the protection of a tribe of seafaring Gyptians led by Lord Faa, Ma Costa and Farder Coram. Banding together an unlikely alliance with the Gyptians, the mysterious witch Serafina Pekkala (Eva Green) and Texas airman Lee Scoresby (Sam Elliott), Lyra is flung into an adventure that will take her over sky and ocean, to the wilds of the icy north, where she gains a powerful ally in a great armored bear named Iorek Byrnison (voiced by Ian McKellen). A great war is coming--with her band of friends and allies, and the power of the Golden Compass, Lyra will need all her skill and all her courage, to stop it.

Alright, let's get the simple stuff out of the way: This is a good to very good movie, in my opinion. If you're a fan of fantasy (literature or films) I can safely say that there's no reason not to enjoy this movie. The movie is only a 113 minutes long and moves at a nice brisk pace, considering the fact many characters must be introduced along with their motivations as well as the overall and rather involved storyline and while I might have enjoyed a longer more in-depth endeavor, the complete experience does not suffer becau
se of the length - if anything, I'm more inclined to watch the movie several more times in order to piece together things I may have missed and that's not even taking into account the fact that an extended edition could be lined up for release on DVD and Hi-Def.

The entire cast, including the voice only acting, is fantastic. My only complaint would be that, because of having to introduce so many characters involved with the storyline, I would have liked to have seen more of certain characters even though they do work wonders with what time they are allowed. Daniel Craig conveys an intense drive for truth and knowledge, Nicole Kidman is chillingly calculative with a smoldering evil and Sam Elliot brings a down to 'earth' every-guy honesty into the mix. Eva Green is appropriately sensually cryptic and, in voice only, Ian McKellan is surprisingly awe-inspiring, gentle and devoted. I must admit that the standout performance, for me, was that of
Dakota Blue Richards as Lyra. Richards is able to display a huge and shocking range of emotion and maturity - there are times when she is the typical twelve year old followed by moments where she seems like a person two or three times her age trapped in her very small body - I haven't seen such a range since Natalie Portman in The Professional - and yet, Richard's actually takes the maturity level even further. Very impressive.

Now, for the not-so-simple stuff. I would be remiss if I failed to address this so-called 'anti-God' propaganda. I would be willing to wager any amount of money that I could bring together in one lump sum on the fact that the vast (and I mean vast) majority of people who have taken issue with this film have never seen it nor have they read the book on which it is based. The 'issue' comes from the fact that Pullman has no qualms about professing his atheism and the fact that the antagonist in his books is a government based on an organized religion that is striving to be all powerful and controlling while, simultaneously stifling free will and the quest for knowledge. Of course, this ruling religion has everyone's best interest in mind but at what cost? At what point does control and removal of choice become evil? That's one of the fundamental thoughts of the story. Granted, the story may be anti-religion or, more precisely, anti-organized religion but that's an easy concept considering religions are all overseen by man - you know, corr
uptible man. I'm sure you've heard of him. Anyway, after almost two hours of watching the film, I found nothing that remotely hinted to being anti-God, but there was plenty concerning manipulating human thoughts and lives. As I left the theater, I couldn't help but wonder: If an atheist wrote a bestselling cook-book, would the book and the meals prepared from it be considered anti-God?

One last thought: For those of you who think the idea of a controlling, choice refusing, knowledge repressing Religion/Government is a ridiculous notion, here's a little tidbit that you should be familiar with. In the 1600' the Catholic Church pretty much controlled everything and the accepted view of the universe, according to the Bible mind you, was that Earth was the center of everything (indirectly saying that man was the center of eve
rything) and that the sun and everything else revolved around us as in Ecclesiastes 1:5 from the King James version: "The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place where he arose." Now several people, most notably Nicolaus Copernicus from Poland, had hypothesized that Earth wasn't the center of the universe and actually revolved around the sun which, of course, was heresy in the eyes of the church. Along comes Galileo Galilei with his telescope and after much observation, begins to write about the things he can see. Here's the outcome of his free thinking scientific endeavors:

In 1611 Galileo came to the attention of the Inquisition for the first time for his Copernican views. Four years later a Dominican friar, Niccolo Lorini, who had earlier criticized Galileo's view in private conversations, files a written complaint with the Inquisition against Galileo's Copernican views. Galileo subsequently writes a long letter defending his views to Monsignor Piero Dini, a well connected official in the Vatican, he then writes his Letter to the Grand Duchess Christina arguing for freedom of inquiry and travels to Rome to defend his ideas

In 1616 a committee of consultants declares to the Inquisition that the propositions that the Sun is the center of the universe and that the Earth has an annual motion are absurd in philosophy, at least erroneous in theology, and formally a heresy. On orders of the Pope Paul V, Cardinal Bellarmine calls Galileo to his residence and administers a warning not to hold or defend the Copernican theory; Galileo is also forbidden to discuss the theory orally or in writing. Yet he is reassured by Pope Paul V and by Cardinal Bellarmine that he has not been on trial nor being condemned by the Inquisition.

In 1624 Galileo meets repeatedly with his (at that time) friend and patron Pope Urban VIII, he is allowed to write about the Copernican theory as long as he treated it as a mathematical hypothesis.

In 1625 a complaint against Galileo's publication The Assayer is lodged at the Inquisition by a person unknown. The complaint charges that the atomistic theory embraced in this book cannot be reconciled with the official church doctrine regarding the Eucharist, in which bread and wine are ``transubstantiated'' into Christ's flesh and blood. After an investigation by the Inquisition, Galileo is cleared.

In 1630 he completed his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems in which the Ptolemaic and Copernican models are discussed and compared and was cleared (conditionally) to publish it by the Vatican. The book was printed in 1632 but Pope Urban VIII, convinced by the arguments of various Church officials, stopped its distribution; the case is referred to the Inquisition and Galileo was summoned to Rome despite his infirmities.

In 1633 Galileo was formally interrogated for 18 days and on April 30 Galileo confesses that he may have made the Copernican case in the Dialogue too strong and offers to refute it in his next book. Unmoved, the Pope decides that Galileo should be imprisoned indefinitely. Soon after, with a formal threat of torture, Galileo is examined by the Inquisition and sentenced to prison and religious penances, the sentence is signed by 6 of the 10 inquisitors. In a formal ceremony at the church of Santa Maria Sofia Minerva, Galileo abjures his errors. He is then put under house arrest in Sienna.

Galileo remained under house arrest, despite many medical problems and a deteriorating state of health, until his death in 1642.

The Inquisition's ban on reprinting Galileo's works was lifted in 1718.

In 1741 Pope Benedict XIV authorized the publication of an edition of Galileo's complete scientific works which included a mildly censored version of the Dialogue.

In 1758 the general prohibition against works advocating heliocentrism was removed from the Index of Prohibited Books, although the specific ban on uncensored versions of the Dialogue and Copernicus's De Revolutionibus remained.

On October 31, 1992, Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Not bad, after trying to control knowledge and condemning a man to serve the rest of his life under house arrest, it only took 350 years for someone from the Church to express regret. What's even more amazing is that the ideas that Galileo proved, were accepted by the Church in 1835, but it took another 157 years for them to actually admit they were wrong.

It is exactly this type of atrocity that The Golden Compass endeavors to address.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

The Mist

Following a violent thunderstorm, artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane) and his young son Billy (Nathan Gamble) are among a large group of terrified townspeople trapped in a local grocery store by a strange, otherworldly mist. Local rumors point to an experiment called the 'The Arrowhead Project' conducted at a nearby top-secret military base, but questions as to the origins of the deadly vapor are secondary to the group's overall chances for survival. David is the first to realize that there are things lurking in the mist...deadly, horrifying things...creatures not of this world. Survival depends on everybody in the store pulling together...but is that possible, given human nature?

As reason crumbles in the face of fear and panic, David begins to wonder what is more terrifying: the monsters in the mist—or the ones inside the store, the human kind, the people that until now had been his friends and neighbors?

Full Disclosure: Huge fan of this particular story. I'm sure I've read it no less than ten times, which means I really had my hopes up going into this flick and was feeling pretty confident considering Frank Darabont's past track record with Stephen King material.

I was not disappointed.

Well, maybe a little, but I'll get to that.

The movie handles the story in a very straight forward manner opening with the intense storm and the introduction of David Drayton, his family, their next door neighbor, Brent Norton, and the animosity between David and Brent. Things move right along to the grocery store, the cast of unique characters of the quaint town and the abrupt arrival of the dense mist. Once the mist has cut visibility to six feet and the store patrons began to fear what may be lurking just beyond their field of vision, the story really begins to blossom. By the time things begin to seen, the real horror has already started to take shape. Thomas Jane, a veteran of Dreamcatcher, another Stephen King based movie, is very convincing as a man trying to deal with an intense situation while simultaneously looking out for his son as he fears for his wife who stayed home, alone.

However, the real star of this film is the breakdown of sensibilities and how accurately they are portrayed. Certain aspects make it perfectly clear how religion steeped in fear could have controlled society for hundreds of years and no character brings that to light better than Mrs. Carmody, played chillingly by Marcia Gay Harden. The character of Mrs. Carmody along with perfectly portrayed 'average people' truly make this a movie worth seeing if only because of it's microcosm display of how seemingly normal, every-day people can be coerced to put aside rational thought and partake in stupid affairs such as burning books and music or condemning scientific endeavors simply because they don't fit in line with something taught in Sunday School. I really had a difficult time deciding which monsters were the most terrifying.

Now, my only disappointment - without giving anything away: They changed the ending and I still haven't decided if I liked it or not. Just so you know, if you haven't read the story, the original ending was one of unknown - a classic 'Alfred Hitchcock' moment that could just as easily contain disaster as much as it could contain salvation. In fact, the end of the story often reminded me of the end of "The Birds" when Rod Taylor, Tippi Hedren, the rest of the family and those evil love birds pile into the car and drive off into the unknown surrounded by thousands of calm, for the moment, birds. The end and answers were left to your own imagination. That's how Stephen King's story ended. That's not how the movie ends. To be fair, had I not read the story multiple times, I'm sure I would have really been pleased with the end of the movie and I have a sneaking suspicion that, given several viewings, I'll learn to appreciate this movie as it's own entity. I base that notion on another book to movie example: The Bourne Identity. The Bourne movie (and the subsequent films) had next to nothing to do with the book and, at first, I was not a fan of the movie in any way shape or form but, priding myself on my ability to see things from various points of view, I watched the film again and slowly I began to separate the two the appreciate the film for an original story using the book as source material. Since then, I've become huge fans of all three Bourne movies while remaining true to my original fondness for the books. In a way, I've been able to enjoy six Bourne adventures instead of only three. It is with this in mind that I look forward to seeing The Mist again and possibly benefiting from two versions rather than one.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Gangster Wrap

Isaac Asimov stated: "Nothing interferes with my concentration. You could put on an orgy in my office and I wouldn't look up. Well, maybe once."

I know the feeling.

For the past two weekends I've made plans to see American Gangster, starring two of my favorite actors and directed by one of my favorite directors, only to find myself being responsible and concentrating on things that I wanted to accomplish to the point that I was unable to 'look up' and get to the movie. Granted, none of these things were pressing and a few of them were actually enjoyable, however, I still see not making it to the movie as a type of sacrifice regardless of what I accomplished or how much I enjoyed it. I'm a bit odd like that.

My other oddity is the fact that if I don't see a film within a preset amount of time, randomly applied to each movie by some small generator in my brain nestled deep in the temporal lobe - hidden in a synapse sparse crevice and utilizing no known logical algorithm, I tend to pass on that particular movie, opting to wait for the release on disc, and, instead, go see something else. A major contributor to that line of thinking is the fact that every couple of weeks brings something new that I want to see - sometimes more than one - and as we approach the holidays, that's going to occur almost weekly.

So, I'm afraid I may not see American Gangster for some time since next weekend will find me preparing for Thanksgiving and the following weekend will bring the release of Frank Darabont's adaptation of Stephen King's "The Mist," which is probably one of the top three things I've ever read by Stephen King (I've read it at least 6 times) and based on Darabont's previous adaptations of The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile, my expectations are high.

Additionally, now that the weather is staring to cool and the holidays are approaching, I'm going to have more time to devote to my senseless and seemingly endless ramblings - I'm just not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. Well, at least if I spend a little more time here, maybe I'll stop receiving requests for 'submissions for our resident's pleasure' from some place called Guantanamo Bay.

We'll see.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

The Golden Age finds Queen Elizabeth I (Cate Blanchett) facing bloodlust for her throne and familial betrayal. Growing keenly aware of the changing religious and political tides of late 16th century Europe, Elizabeth finds her rule openly challenged by the Spanish King Philip II (Jordi Molla)--with his powerful army and sea-dominating armada--determined to restore England to Catholicism. Preparing to go to war to defend her empire, Elizabeth struggles to balance ancient royal duties with an unexpected vulnerability in her love for the newly met Sir Walter Raleigh (Clive Owen). But he remains forbidden for a queen who has sworn body and soul to her country. Unable and unwilling to pursue her love, Elizabeth encourages her favorite lady-in-waiting, Bess (Abbie Cornish), to befriend Raleigh to keep him near. But this strategy forces Elizabeth to observe their growing intimacy. As she charts her course abroad, her trusted advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham (Geoffrey Rush), continues his masterful puppetry of Elizabeth's court at home--and her campaign to solidify absolute power. Through an intricate spy network, Walsingham uncovers an assassination plot that could topple the throne. But as he unmasks traitors that may include Elizabeth's own cousin Mary Stuart (Samantha Morton), he unknowingly sets England up for destruction.

Great movie. No question about it. Historically the film remains accurate on most of the larger topics involved and the few liberties that are taken involve the speculation of relationships, how intricately they were intertwined and, of course, the conversations that lead to certain decisions. As with any historical drama, there really is no way of ever knowing what exactly was said, so it's these liberties that can really make things interesting.

Cate Blanchett is amazing, again, as Elizabeth and this time she plays the part as a woman who has grown into her role as leader of an empire and has developed the confidence to match her intelligence. Geoffrey Rush's aging Walsingham is as shrewd in watching the Queen's back as he was in the first film although, having come into her own, she doesn't require as much guidance from him as she once did. And Clive Owen is perfectly cast as Raleigh: he easily looks the part of privateer and handles himself accordingly and he is surprisingly capable of embodying the adventurous desire as well as being able to verbally convey a sense of wonder in the simple descriptions of a journey.

Even if period piece dramas are not your cup of tea, as it were, in my opinion there is still enough intrigue and action to hold your attention. The settings are spectacular, the dialog is natural and explanatory and the overall direction is superb. There are actually times that, because of the camera placement, I actually felt like I was eavesdropping on a conversation and at other times I found myself wondering how the hell they achieved a particular shot. Shekhar Kapur directed this film as well as the previous Elizabeth so if you've seen Elizabeth, you're already somewhat familiar with the camera angles and look of the shots and while having seen the prior Elizabeth is not a prerequisite for seeing The Golden Age, doing so will greatly increase the overall feel of the movie and add an extra level to the scope of the story. I actually re-watched Elizabeth the night before I saw The Golden Age and it felt like an excellent long movie with an intermission. But that's just me.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Eastern Promises

The mysterious and charismatic Russian-born Nikolai Luzhin (Viggo Mortensen) is a driver for one of London’s most notorious organized crime families of Eastern European origin. The family itself is part of the Vory V Zakone criminal brotherhood. Headed by Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), whose courtly charm as the welcoming proprietor of the plush Trans-Siberian restaurant impeccably masks a cold and brutal core, the family’s fortunes are tested by Semyon’s volatile son and enforcer, Kirill (Vincent Cassel), who is more tightly bound to Nikolai than to his own father. But Nikolai’s carefully maintained existence is jarred once he crosses paths at Christmastime with Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts), a midwife at a North London hospital. Anna is deeply affected by the desperate situation of a young teenager who dies while giving birth to a baby. Anna resolves to try to trace the baby’s lineage and relatives. The girl’s personal diary also survives her; it is written in Russian, and Anna seeks answers in it. Anna’s mother Helen (Sinéad Cusack) does not discourage her, but Anna’s irascible Russian-born uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) urges caution. He is right to do so; by delving into the diary, Anna has accidentally unleashed the full fury of the Vory. With Semyon and Kirill closing ranks and Anna pressing her inquiries, Nikolai unexpectedly finds his loyalties divided. The family tightens its grip on him; who can, or should, he trust? Several lives, including his own, hang in the balance as a harrowing chain of murder, deceit, and retribution reverberates through the darkest corners of both the family and London itself.

Excellent film. I've always enjoy David Cronenberg's movies because, as a film maker, he always sticks to his particular style while never giving way to the more accepted 'Hollywood' approach. In Cornenberg's movies, he tells you what you need to know and if you miss it, tough, they'll be no refresher before the exam. This movie is no exception. The story is actually rather straight forward once all of the associated Russian vernacular is in place, so it doesn't take a tremendous amount of concentration to follow along. It's the way Cronenberg tells the story and how well it's acted that turn a simple mafia-style story into a tense and focused film with a few 'whoa, I didn't see that coming' moments. Cronenberg is at the top of his game for this movie and I'm hoping he receives some acknowledgment for it. And speaking of the top of his game..........

Viggo Mortensen is absolutely amazing. His performance is worth seeing, alone, which is all the more astonishing when, after the movie, you realize how few lines he actually had with half of them being in Russian. His performance is one of nuanced emotion conveyed through body language and expression - you know what he's saying even when it's in Russian, you can tell when he's thinking something different from what he's saying or what he's thinking when he's completely silent. From what I have read, Mortensen spent several weeks alone in Russia so he could listen to people talk and study their body language in an effort to enhance his portrayal of his character, much like how he wore his sword during the off times when filming The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the final result of the immersion is a totally believable character.

The rest of the cast does not disappoint. On the contrary, Naomi Watts, Vincent Cassel and Armin Mueller-Stahl are standouts in their own right. Watts, as usual, easily conveys the emotions behind her character's drive while Mueller-Stahl convincingly comes across as the warm fatherly type who would feed you a nice meal, have you murdered in your sleep and buried in the flower bed and then show woeful remorse over the fact that no one has seen you in weeks. Cassel is simply scary on a completely psychotic level.

Combined, all of the actors and their characters, along with Cronenberg, have forged an engaging film that, in my opinion, is deeply satisfying after one viewing and will probably become even more nuanced on the third or fourth. I look forward to seeing it again upon it's release on DVD.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Milla Jovovich returns as Alice in the third installment of the Resident Evil movie series based on the super popular video game franchise. Extinction picks up a few years after the end of the second film with the entire planet having practically succumbed to the effects of the virus responsible for infecting, killing and reanimating living tissue, leaving the non-infected to survive as best they can in a dried up world where essential items such as food are becoming scarce whiles there's an ample supply of living dead walking around in search of healthy flesh to consume for no apparent reason other than it being a most rudimentary instinct. The people responsible for the virus, the nefarious Umbrella Corporation, have taken up refuge in massive underground facilities where they are safe from the hoards of undead, for the moment, and can continue their research with the virus, however, with their food supplies dwindling, the focus is now on using virus antibodies on the living dead as a means of domesticating them and quelling their destructive nature in the hopes of returning life above ground to some semblance of normalcy. That's where Alice comes in. During the time that she was held captive (in the second film), the Umbrella Corporation performed biogenetic experiments on Alice using various strains of the virus which caused her to develop super-human strength, senses and mental abilities, as well as specific antibodies to the virus. For the past few years, since her escape from the Umbrella Corporation facilities, Alice has been living off the grid in an effort to avoid capture and further testing, helping people where she can but always moving on quickly and staying alone in order to remain undetected. After a few encounters with the walking dead and several unsettling dreams, Alice comes to the aid of a rag-tag convoy of survivors lead by Claire (Ali Larter of Heroes). At this point, Alice enjoys a bit of a reunion since two of the members of the convoy are Carlos (Oded Fehr) and L. J. (Mike Epps), characters she fought beside in the previous movie and, in the case of Carlos to some extent, felt romantic inclinations for. As for romantic inclinations, L. J., in the mean time, has developed a thing for the convoy's Nurse Betty (Ashanti). After deciding on a course and destination for the convoy, it becomes apparent that the Umbrella Corporation has learned of Alice's location and are pulling out all the stops to bring her in. Tired of being on the run, fed up watching people around her die and with her abilities increasing exponentially, Alice decides it's time for all debts to be paid.

Guilty pleasure. That's all I really need to say. Some people covet reruns of television's "Beauty and the Beast," other people look fondly at their collection of Adam Sandler movies, me, I'm partial to watching someone like Milla Jovovich kick some serious ass. I go into the theater expecting nothing but decent action and if the story happens to be fairly good, then I feel like I've received a bonus for my money. In this case, the story is pretty simple, the motivations are cut and dry and the acting is more than adequate. I got exactly what I was expecting and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Granted, it's not Shakespeare but, then again, Alice has to contend with more than a few damn spots and isn't worried about whether she gets them out, or not.

Aside from the fact that I would have seen this movie simply because Milla Jovovich is in it, I would have also seen this film based solely on it's director, Russell Mulcahy. I've been a fan of Mulcahy's since the original Highlander and have always appreciated his visual style. I even liked The Shadow because of his direction and after watching this film, I've decided that if the powers that be were to ever commission another Mad Max film, Mulcahy should be one of the director's considered for the job since George Miller seems to be spending most of his time with talking pigs and dancing penguins.

Anyway, I really enjoyed Resident Evil and I will add it to the collection when it becomes available. If you liked the previous Resident Evil movies, enjoy decent action or are simply a fan of zombie flicks, then this movie is right up your alley. It might not be worth a trip to the theater, but I would definitely catch it on disc.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

3:10 to Yuma

Russell Crowe and Christian Bale face off in this story based on Elmore Leonard's short story, as was the 1957 version starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin, set in Arizona in the late 1800's. Ben Wade (Crowe), is a cruel and infamous outlaw and, along with his gang of heartless thieves and murders, has besieged the Southern Railroad and robbed their trains and carriers almost two dozen times. After Wade is captured, Civil War veteran Dan Evans (Bale), volunteers to deliver him alive to the '3:10 to Yuma', a train that will take the killer to his trial and hanging, for two hundred dollars in an effort to save his drought ridden ranch and prove to his wife and sons, as well as himself, that he's not a failure. As they travel the distance, facing multiple dangers and with Wade's gang closing in, each man begins to learn more about himself through their interactions with each other as they race toward a seemingly impossible destination and a finale that only fate could have created.

Amazing movie and instant classic Western. I thoroughly enjoyed this film even though it is a remake of a classic. What keeps it on par with the original is the fact that the story remains central over unnecessary action or violence, it stays true to being a Western and the acting is as equally good if not better than the original. Christian Bale is easily one of the finest actors currently working in films and stories concerning his ability to immerse himself in a role and totally become the character are rampant and this role is no different. Bale's character's pain and fear can be seen smoldering in every scene and his motivation is so adequately summed up when he says to his wife, "I'm tired of the way the boys look at me and the way that you don't." On the flip side, Crowe uses his considerable acting talents and presence to add a bit of charm to a character that would, otherwise, simply be reprehensible. I firmly believe that only a handful of actors could have pulled off the performance that Crowe does and, yet, I'm still not convinced anyone else could have reached the same level of 'coolness.' But that's just my opinion.

Another positive note is the fact that the movie is populated with familiar actors from the past and present, the most notable being, of course, Peter Fonda who plays a bounty hunter on the lookout for Wade. Fonda's character is well played and surprisingly gritty. Another actor that I've become a fan of because of the television show Firefly (yes, I'm a Browncoat) is Alan Tudyk (Serenity, A Knight's Tale, Death at a Funeral and I, Robot) who portrays the local doctor, of sorts, and ends up becoming a very memorable character. And, lastly, I feel that I should mention the appearance of Luke Wilson,in a smaller and un-billed but right on the money role, simply because I feel that he's one of those types of actors who can call upon the perfect demeanor expected for a role in a Western. That, and the fact that he was in one of my all-time favorite episodes of the X-Files.

All in all this is definitely a movie worth seeing and when I say that, I mean in the theater as opposed to waiting for it on DVD. I realize not everyone is a fan of the Western genre but I think the acting, characters and story help this movie rise from the level of an excellent Western to that of a great movie and I'll be surprised if it doesn't receive several nominations come awards season.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

The Flight of the Phoenix

Flight of the Phoenix is a remake of the 1965 film starring James Stewart which was based on Elleston Trevor's novel of the same name. Dennis Quaid stars as Captain Frank Towns who, with his navigator A.J. (Tyrese Gibson), has flown a C-119 cargo plane to the middle of Mongolia's Gobi Desert to pick up a crew of oil workers and their equipment from a test drilling site that is being shut down because of lack of success in finding any deposits. Hugh Laurie (Blackadder, House) is Ian, the corporate stiff-neck who's assessments have caused the pullout of company funding for the project, much to the chagrin of Kelly, the foreman and lead visionary of the project who is portrayed by Miranda Otto (Eowyn of the second and third installments of the Lord of the Rings trilogy). After some unsurprising tension between Towns and the roughnecks, as well as tension between the roughnecks and management, the plane is packed and ready for takeoff along with the addition of an unexpected passenger in the form of an odd and stranded traveler named Elliott (Giovanni Ribisi). Soon after takeoff the plane is caught in a sandstorm to end all sandstorms and, because of a tactical error or two, ends up crash landing in the desert with no communications, very little water, no hope of rescue and the very large threat of being killed by nomadic smugglers if the heat and lack of water doesn't kill them first. As the desperation grows and they inch closer to social anarchy, it is Elliott who comes through with an idea of survival rivaled in size only by the secret that he's keeping.

Now don't get me wrong, this isn't a great movie by any means but, for me, it was very entertaining and fun. The characters are believable, the scenery is amazing, the effects are top-notch and the soundtrack really keeps things moving. There are only a few "slow" moments in the movie and those moments are used primarily to advance the story or the understanding of a character. The movie's lighter segments are spaced perfectly between the more intense moments and help make this film one that can be seen several times with little or no wear on the viewer.

Aside from the primary cast, some of the crew characters are made up of a few familiar faces. Kirk Jones, better known as the rapper "Sticky Fingaz" puts forth a very adequate performance as Jeremy who has a good friendship with Rodney, played by actor Tony Curran of such films as Gladiator, Underworld: Evolution, Blade II and The Good German. Another familiar face is that of the crew's spiritual voice, Raddy, portrayed by Kevork Malikyan who you may recognize as Kizim, the leader of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword; the organization that protected the Holy Grail in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.

Again, this movie may never end up on any "greatest" list, but, if you're in the mood for simple fun, good action, an against the odds plot line and enjoy a robust soundtrack, then you may find yourself watching this film more than once.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Searchers (That'll be the day)

Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) returns to his brother's home after several years of absence, the first few spent fighting on the losing side of the Civil War while the latter are never mentioned, exactly, but Mexico and money are inferred. The local Comanche Indian's attack the Edwards family farm, killing most of the women but kidnapping the two youngest daughters. Ethan sets off to find his young nieces accompanied by Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter), a half-breed youth who, as an infant had been discovered under a bush by Ethan following the slaughter of Martin's family, had been raised by Ethan's brother as one of their own. Martin wants to rescue his sister but Ethan wants to kill her because in his view, she would already have suffered a fate worse than death by being deflowered by a savage. They spend five years on a lonely quest to hunt down the tribe and their leader Scar (Henry Brandon) with hate and revenge driving Ethan's every step. There is no question concerning Ethan's determination or if he'll every give up the search, the question is who , if anyone, will survive when he finds them.

The Searchers is not only one of the greatest Westerns (often referred to as the greatest) of all time, but this year The American Film Institute 100 Greatest American Films listed The Searchers in twelfth place and it normally ranks in the top twenty (Sight and Sound poll) of the greatest films ever made.

I can't really say that I disagree. The more I watch this movie and see past the typical clichés, the more I'm amazed at the depth and beauty of this movie. John Wayne's character is a true anti-hero and his portrayal of Ethan is spot on. Granted, Ethan's hatred of the Comanches borders on racism but, in my opinion, never actually crosses the line - it's simply pure hatred caused by past events. Ethan hates the Comanches because of what they've taken from him and the depth of his losses become more apparent the more closely the film is watched. For example, it's never mentioned how Ethan's mother died but, early in the movie, as the character of young Debbie is hiding from the Comanches in the cemetery, a headstone bearing the name of Ethan's mother (Mary Jane Edwards) can be seen and the engraving states that she was killed by Comanches roughly sixteen years before.

Another terrible loss for Ethan is also one of my favorite parts of the movie because of it's subtlety. Paying close attention to the reactions and mannerisms of Ethan and Ethan's brother's wife, Martha, when they are within close proximity to one another is very telling. There is never a word said regarding it but it's obvious, at least to me, that they are in love with each other and probably have been for some time considering that, as the film begins, they haven't seen each other in years. An excellent bit of directing by John Ford adds an additional layer of loss to a character that is no stranger to pain. When ever I watch this movie, for days afterwards, I find myself trying to imagine a back story between Ethan and Martha. Any movie that can evoke mental meanderings several days after being seen is a classic example of great film making.

Another reason not to miss this movie is it's sheer beauty. A majority of the film was shot in Utah's Monument Valley and it is truly breathtaking. I most recently watched the film in a high-definition transfer on Blu-Ray disc and I could not believe how amazing this movie looked having been filmed over fifty years ago in 1956. The colors were vibrant and life-like and the depth perception was practically three dimensional. From what I understand, Warner Bros. spared no expense for the 50th anniversary re-release of The Searchers on a two-disc standard dvd and the high-definition HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs. The only problem was that the original print was unusable for the restoration process and a new one had to be created using the black and white negative, which meant that the original colors were left to interpretation since John Ford and his crew have all passed away. There has been some debate regarding the final color choices but, again, in my opinion, the movie looks wonderful and improves with each subsequent viewing.

The Searchers is, in many, many ways, a prime example of a master director and his incredible team at work and, not surprisingly, can be enjoyed and appreciated by movie fans who don't necessarily watch Westerns. Do yourself a favor and pick an open afternoon, rent or buy the dvd or hi-def disc (if you're hi-def capable), make some popcorn, turn off the phones and enjoy a nostalgic ride through one of the greatest Westerns ever made. And remember, pay attention.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Rogue agent Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is being hunted by the people in the CIA who trained him to be an assassin. Still suffering from amnesia and determined to finally learn of his true identity, he is lured out of hiding to contact a journalist named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who has been following his story. Throughout his research, Ross has gathered valuable information about Bourne and Treadstone, which trained him. This is rather inconvenient for U.S. government official Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), who is hoping to start a new organization under the codename Blackbriar (which is briefly mentioned at the end of the first film) which would follow in Treadstone's footsteps.

With intent to kill Bourne and the journalist before they expose the program's disturbing secrets, Vosen sends agent Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) to lead the search effort. Simultaneously, Paz (Edgar Ramirez), one of the remaining living Treadstone assassins, is dispatched to find and neutralize Bourne and Ross. In order to finally learn of his true origins and find inner peace, Bourne will have to evade, out-maneuver, and outsmart the deadliest group of highly-trained agents and assassins yet.

This one's simple: Fast paced, well acted, believable plot scattered among exotic locations and peppered with various nefarious characters all trying to keep their secrets hidden. What's not to like? The Bourne character, again well played by Damon, is a force to be reckoned with and yet, he never comes across as being completely infallible. The chance that something could go wrong or a mistake could be made by the main character is a very hard notion to have survive to a third movie and it's that aspect, that amount of realism, that makes the movie so much more enjoyable.

Another aspect of adequate realism is the action of the film. If there is any CGI used in the film, it is used sparingly and invisibly in the action sequences because it all appears to involve actual stunt people, real locations and solid (very solid) objects. This is, obviously, an action movie but, as in the previous films, there isn't action simply for action's sake. There is a reason for every action event in the movie and none of if comes across as wanton or excessive.

If you have seen and enjoyed the previous Bourne movies, you will not be disappointed by this one. The fact that I can't decide which film I liked best is a good indication, to me, that they all follow a well thought and executed premise. Additionally, if you're a fan of the films and also happen to like to read, the real treat will be reading the books since the movies have practically nothing in common with them. The general idea of Bourne not knowing who he is is, initially, the same but that's pretty much where the similarities end. The books are much more involved and intricately conceived and there's also Bourne's arch nemesis, Carlos the Jackal. So, rather than having only three stories, you can, literally (pun intended), have six very different adventures.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rescue Dawn

During the Vietnam War, German-born Dieter Dengler (Christian Bale), a U.S. fighter pilot, is shot down over Laos and taken captive by enemy soldiers. Interned in a POW camp, he and his fellow prisoners (Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies) endure torture, hunger and illness while they await their chance to escape. Dengler has no intention of sticking around the nightmarish camp, so he begins to dream up an escape plan that takes his fellow prisoners by surprise with its savvy and audacity. Dengler doesn't even know where he is--but he knows with unwavering certainty that he must not stop fighting for his life. As he makes his way into the jungle, accompanied by Lt. Duane Martin (Zahn), his journey will never let up, as it takes him from the bonds of fraternity to the brink of despair, to one of the most remarkable rescues in modern history.

This is a remarkably well made and superbly acted film that concentrates more on the human and emotional aspects of Dengler's true story rather than trying to twist the events into an "action movie" and depict Dengler's character as an invincible savior. The real focus of the film is Dengler's desire to be free outweighing the always looming threat of torture and death at the hands of Vietnamese hostiles. The torture scenes are realistic but not graphic or "over the top" as many films tend to be in an effort to over emphasize what the characters have been through. The thought of being tied to the ground, spread-eagle and fully clothed, for several days while exposed to the Vietnam sun with no "personal time" breaks is brutal enough without exaggeration.

Christian Bale is absolutely perfect as Dengler with a flawless German/English accent and no trace of his true Welsh/British upbringing. Bale effortlessly embodies the fresh excitement of a pilot going on his first mission and, more impressively, he displays the struggle to survive an unimaginable and potentially lethal situation with a grim determination that is easily recognized as a trait everyone likes to hope they possess, but few are ever able to tap into. I definitely believe that Bale's penchant for roles such as this, as opposed to more flashy "mainstream" roles, is what makes him such an accomplished actor.

I must mention the fact that, even though I went to this movie expecting to see an excellent bit of acting by Bale, I was completely unprepared for the amazing performance of Steve Zahn and Jeremy Davies. This was the first time I've seen Zahn play such a broken and fatigued character and he was not only convincing, but he was able to capture the haunted and empty stare that is so often seen on the faces of P.O.W.s in old black and white photographs. Davies, on the other hand, portrays how such captivity can affect a person's mental stability inflicting delusions and paranoia. It's my understanding that Zahn lost over 60 pounds for his role and Davies looks completely emaciated and near death.

I understand that "war movies" don't appeal to everyone, but don't make the mistake of thinking of this film as being about war, because it's not. This is the story of survival in an almost pure form. The war is simply a situation, no sides are taken, no politics are invoked and there's no blazing glory. If you do see this movie and enjoy it, I recommend seeing the 1997 documentary, "Little Dieter Needs to Fly," the complete story of Dieter Dengler written and directed by Warner Herzog, the same writer and director of this film.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

The Red Violin

A universal yearning for beauty and perfection underpins The Red Violin, Francois Girard's ambitious, lyrical drama following the passage of a meticulously crafted violin from owner to owner. We see the instrument's painstaking creation in 1681 by master artisan Nicolo Bussotti (Carlo Cecchi), who intends it for his unborn son. Over a period of 300 years the violin acquires innumerable owners, traveling from rich to poor, from country to country, but always producing the same achingly beautiful music for those who most appreciate it. Bussotti's violin becomes legendary, and eventually comes under the covetous eye of connoisseur Charles Morritz (Samuel L. Jackson) in a surprisingly suspenseful climax. Girard uses the violin as a narrative device to link his vignettes, which offer trenchant observations on love, music, culture, politics, poverty, crime, and even death.

I originally saw this film in one of those "artsy" single-screen theaters with an adjoining cafe that tend to be sparsely populated by book carrying patrons familiar with the origins of the country known as Freedonia. I was very impressed with the film and, after the movie reached a certain prominence and was given a larger general release, ended up seeing it twice more. I have owned a copy since it was released on DVD and it has become one of those films that I often play in order to have something nice to listen to as I perform domestic tasks around the house, only to invariably end up perched on the sofa, completely focused on the story and accomplishing nothing that I set out to.

Being a fan of the violin and/or classical composition can broaden the appreciation of the movie, but is by no means a prerequisite for enjoyment. The story is very well told and superbly acted as it covers over 300 years and 5 countries in the travels of the violin. Each segment contains wonderful characters from different time periods which are all bound together by the violin and balanced perfectly by flashes to the present where Samuel L. Jackson deciphers the identity of the violin and eventually takes us to a worthy climax. In case you are a fan of the violin and the music used in the film, Joshua Bell was the solo artist and, if you're familiar with him, you can spot him as one of the musicians during the Oxford segment in which the character Frederick Pope is performing.

This DVD may be off the beaten path for most people but anyone professing to enjoy a well told tale, including a few unexpected twists, with flashes of a bigger, spiritual picture while surrounded by precise and beautiful cinematography should not pass on the opportunity to see and enjoy this movie. At least, that's what I think.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As his fifth year at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry approaches, 15-year-old Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) is in full-blown adolescence, complete with regular outbursts of rage, a nearly debilitating crush, and the blooming of a powerful sense of rebellion. It''s been yet another infuriating and boring summer with the despicable Dursleys, this time with minimal contact from Ron (Rupert Grint), Hermione (Emma Watson) or his Godfather, Sirius Black (Gary Oldman). Harry is feeling especially edgy at the lack of news from the magic world, wondering when the freshly revived evil Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) will strike. In this chapter we are introduced to the Order of the Phoenix and some of the members including Sirius, Mr and Mrs Weasley, Alistair "Mad Eye" Moody (Brendan Gleeson), Remus Lupin (one of my most favorite characters in the series) (David Thewlis), Tonks (Natalia Tena), Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) and Severus Snape (Alan Rickman). Of course, in an effort to protect him, no one wants to give Harry too much information (except Sirius) since they are relatively certain that the Dark Lord is after a prophecy regarding the two enemies which is kept in a special room at the Ministry of Magic. To make matter worse, Hogwarts has a new Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher in the form Dolores Umbridge (Imelda Staunton) who works for the Ministry of Magic and is determined to bring her own type of "McCarthyism" to the school. Umbridge has a penchant for the most offensive shades of pink, which she incorporates on her walls (which are then covered by decorative plates displaying cats) as well as her fuzzy outfits that encase her from head to toe. Since the Ministry has decided that the return of He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named is some ploy cooked up by Dumbledore because he wants control of the Ministry, one of Umbridge's tasks is to discredit the return and impress upon the students that Harry is a liar. Harry quickly learns that the Ministry, by feeding information to the Daily Prophet, has been skewering him all summer long so that even without the assistance of Umbridge, well over half the school already thinks he's a lunatic who makes up scary stories. Faced with being an outcast, persecuted by the media and certain staff, ignored by Dumbledore (for whatever reason), dealing with horrible and unsettling dreams and knowing the Voldemort is gathering his forces and in search of a prophecy to use as a weapon, Harry is easily facing his most difficult year, yet.

This is, by far, my favorite movie of the series. Things are beginning to get serious (no pun) and the darkness is closing in. I've heard references to the fact that this is the darkest movie, yet. Well, it kind of makes sense if you think about it. In the past, Voldemort and his Deatheaters were responsible for numerous murders, which included wizards, muggles and even children and in some cases tortured victims into insanity in order to achieve their goals. Now, the evil Dark Lord has returned to power and is gathering his minions in an effort to seize power in the wizarding, and eventually muggle, world, regardless of who dies. Anyone remotely following the storyline must have realized, by now, that things could not remain all 'sunflowers and cotton-candy.' I mean, Voldemort isn't called evil simply because he likes to put super-glue in everyone's key holes.

Which brings me back to this movie. I really enjoy the fact that things are picking up, lines are beginning to be drawn and characters are becoming more defined. It was nice to see the return of Moody, Sirius and Lupin (again, one of my favorite characters) as well as the introduction of Tonks. Snape was, of course, devilishly unreadable and the rest of the supporting characters were actually able to have bigger impacts with less screen time. The stand out character was, without doubt, Delores Umbridge; such a nasty, vile woman that I absolutely wanted to see suffer in return for the suffering she caused as well as for her annoying "hem hem" throat clearing that, thankfully, wasn't overused in the film. Another character that I cannot neglect to mention is that of Ginny Weasley. There have been minor references to her abilities, in the past, but her character truly begins to show what she is capable of in this film and the director, David Yates, who is also signed to direct the next film, is very good at displaying her talents, as well as some curious looks, without making them the focus of what is being shown on the screen at any given moment.

As for the directing, I have to give Yates credit for being able to include as much as he did from the largest book of the series. While there are certain things that I would have liked to have seen, I understand that only so much could actually make it into the movie. Fortunately, it seems Yates was able to, at least, touch on all of the major points for however briefly. I suppose if I were forced to think of a complaint regarding the movie, it would have to be the length. I had read, several months ago, that the studio was wanting to shave time from the film because longer movies had, recently, been showing a decline in box office receipts. I think they confused "less engrossing stories" with "time," but maybe that's just me. I do know, originally, this movie clocked in at three hours and is now only two hours and eighteen minutes. It's quite possible that Professor Trelawney might see a "director's cut" DVD in our future.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

The Thirteenth Floor

The increasingly blurry lines between what is real and what is an artificial construct - both physically and philosophically - are the point of focus in the science fiction drama The Thirteenth Floor. In 1937, a man named Fuller (Armin Mueller-Stahl) gives a note to Ashton (Vincent D'Onofrio), the bartender at a swank hotel, that's addressed to Douglas Hall (Craig Bierko). Fuller tells Ashton it's crucial that no one else sees the note, and that the information enclosed is of great importance. Moments later, Fuller transports himself to 1998. He's soon found murdered, and a shirt stained with Fuller's blood is found in Hall's apartment. Fuller and Hall both work for Intergraph Computer Systems, a cutting edge artificial intelligence firm, and the "past" Fuller was visiting was actually a stunningly realistic recreation of Los Angeles 50 years ago, complete with people you can meet and places you can visit, that exists only in a microchip. The message he left with Ashton, however, is real. Some people, including LAPD detective Larry McBain (Dennis Haysbert) believe Hall murdered Fuller to assume his position of leadership at Intergraph. Jane (Gretchen Mol), Fuller's daughter, soon arrives on the scene, and Hall finds himself infatuated; Hall is determined to clear his name, so with the help of Whitney (also played by Vincent D'Onofrio), he slips into the virtual 1937 in hopes of discovering just what happened. The Thirteenth Floor makes copious use of digital effects technology to allow its characters to travel between 1937 and 1998 - ironically using computer technology to create a world that exists inside a computer.

You may have noticed a pattern in the fact that certain themes tend to follow me like dark angels, namely those involving time and perception. This movie continues that pattern and easily fits with the likes of The Matrix or eXistenZ. Coincidentally, all three movies were released in 1999 and The Thirteenth Floor, like the other two, relies heavily on the notion of perception and what, exactly, "real" is. Unlike the The Matrix and eXistenZ, however, this film concentrates primarily on the story, with less action and more character development, but does not delve as deeply into the philosophical or existential implications. In other words, the movie drops hints and leaves it up to the viewer to form the actual questions and explore the possibilities in his or her own mind.

The cast are all believable and, for being primarily unknowns, their performances range from good (Mol) to exceptional (D'Onofrio). Now, having grown accustomed to seeing Bierko (Boston Legal, The Long Kiss Goodnight), Haysbert (24, Breach, The Unit) and D'Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent, Full Metal Jacket, The Cell), the movie actually seems like a bigger production than when it was originally released.

The thing that I like most about the film is the fact that the intricate issues are between the characters only, and the bigger story is kept relatively simple, which could have easily become twisted and convoluted by trying to over complicate the main plot. As it is, "the hook" remains intact and an excellent part of the story rather than the entire story.

Saturday, July 07, 2007


Before time began, there was the Cube, also known as the Allspark. It's origin unknown, it simply was. The Cube could be considered the ultimate power since it was capable of creating life, which it did on a world that would become known as Cybertron. The life created was a race of sentient robots that became highly productive and technologically advanced and lived harmoniously for hundreds of years. Then dissent. A group of robots, lead by the evil Magatron, conspired to take control of the Allspark and use the ultimate power for their own purposes with no regard as to who died or what havoc was unleashed in the process. These evil robots became known as the Decepticons, and in response to their plans, a heroic opposition calling themselves the Autobots formed and, lead by the noble Otimus Prime, launched into battle against the Decepticons. The war lasted for thousands of years and practically annihilated all life on Cybertron. During the conflict, the Cube was lost to the deep regions of space along with Megatron who was willing to stop at nothing in order to achieve his goal of wielder of ultimate power. Fast forward a hundred and fifty years or so, and that's where this movie picks up. There's an ultimate power somewhere on planet Earth and a group of very large and very nasty robots who have the capacity to blend in by "transforming" into cars, trucks, tanks, aircraft and other objects are here to find it and the only hope in stopping them is another group of robots, with the same abilities, who not only want to find the Allspark and defeat the Decepticons, but protect the innocent human life, as well. The cast includes Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, Rachael Taylor, Jon Voight and John Turturro and a nice surprise turn for Hugo Weaving.

Put simply: This movie rocks! I walked into the theater with my expectations set to a moderate level, and I walked out thoroughly impressed and ready to see it again. Granted, it's a typical summer action flick with noise, fights and explosions, but everything was brought together in a very cohesive manner that didn't overly insult my intelligence which is something that the director, Michael Bay, is very good at. Critics tend to pan Bay's movies but, oddly enough, every film he's directed has been a huge blockbuster grossing well over a hundred million dollars, each. I think his track record should speak for itself.

All of the characters are well conceived and developed with Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and the object of his desire, Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox), being the most crucial. The side plots pertaining to a group of attacked soldiers and that of a secret government organization are not, however, restricted to guesswork, and are eventually brought to an exciting culmination with the central plot of the film. Along with the plots, the other welcome aspect of the movie is it's humor. Some of the best comedic moments are provided by Ron and Judy Witwicky (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), Sam's parents as well as a couple of very funny scenes involving, surprisingly, the Autobots. For me, it was the humor displayed by the Autobots that helped me see them as characters instead of CGI effects. Which brings me to my next point:

The Transformers. From what I understand, the effects company Industrial Light and Magic, or ILM, developed new technologies for rendering the massive robots that make up the Transformers, and, I have to admit, the results are absolutely amazing. The robots blend in seamlessly with the surroundings and are improved by a factor of 25 over the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, which is saying quite a bit. The realism coupled with the humanity (good and bad) truly make the Transformers characters rather than props and, in my opinion, the standout Transformer is easily (and always has been) Optimus Prime, leader of the Autobots. Even in the animated television show, Optimus Prime was the character that was heroic and noble and seemed to possess all of the positive qualities that humans should aspire to. Michael Bay and the producers have, I'm glad to say, kept that aspect of the character intact while, at the same time, lightening his stoicism with a new found sense of humor; A very welcome and brilliant move that increases the "human" element of the character. Oh, and the final brilliant and, to a vast population of Transformers fans worldwide, the only choice was bringing back Peter Cullen, the only person to ever voice Optimus Prime. There had been rumors of bringing in a "big name star" to take over the character but a huge internet campaign by the fans quickly put a stop to such nonsense, and I must admit, having only watched the original show enough times to be somewhat familiar with the premise and characters, sitting in the theater today, even I got chills when I heard Optimus Prime say, "Autobots, transform and roll out!"

Saturday, June 30, 2007

Live Free or Die Hard

What begins as a simple go-pick-this-kid-up-for-questioning, quickly turns into multiple life and death situations involving shoot-outs, explosions, kidnapping, and a seriously mean girl who likes to kick, all while the entire United States infrastructure hangs in the balance. Just another example of being in the wrong place at the wrong time (or the right place at the right time, depending on your perspective) for old fashioned, every-man police officer John McClane (Bruce Willis), the self proclaimed fly in the ointment, monkey in the wrench and pain in the ass.

In this outing, directed by Len Wiseman (Underworld 1 & 2), McClane has been sent on a routine and boring call to bring in Matt Farrell (Justin Long also known as "Mac" from the PC/Mac television commercials), a computer code writer and known hacker, for questioning concerning recent events involving governmental computer breaches as well as the deaths of several other known hackers. The routine call turns complicated when shots are fired and McClane is able to prevent the murder of Farrell by several heavily armed and well trained men. As electronic systems across the country began to collapse, McClane, using his common sense and observation and Farrell, using his hacker insight coupled with information from the F.B.I., a plot emerges to destroy the country's vulnerable infrastructure perpetrated by uber-cyber-terrorist-with-a-grudge, Thomas Gabriel (Timothy Olyphant), using systems he created along with the unwitting assistance of several computer hackers including Farrell.

It's been about twelve years since the last Die Hard movie and I'm of the particular camp that thinks twelve years is about nine years too long. Willis' McClane character is one of my favorite characters of all time and even had the movie only been moderately entertaining, I would have still been glad to be sitting in the theater for another action ride. Fortunately, in my opinion, the movie was extremely entertaining and I was glad to see the progression of the character mirroring the amount of time that has passed with only a few subtle references to the past experiences and adventures. The other aspect that I found enjoyable was that fact that an aging outdated and seemingly out of touch with technology character like McClane can still be pertinent in today's world. Sometimes old school is the best school.

Overall, I thought the movie had an excellent story that was far from being ridiculous while being tech savy enough to make certain aspects seem frighteningly plausible. The action was frequent but not a central character and did not seem out of place with what the story required and was produced with the use of old school stunt work and very little CGI effects, adding an additional depth of realism. The most important part, the human element, was never ignored and carried with the same "a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" attitude that only a small handful of actors have ever been able to properly portray.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Big Wheel of Time (part 3)


Thinking back, I'm positive that was the quietest shout I've ever heard.

I wanted to run. Every cell in my body was telling me to run, but I all I could do was stare, transfixed in anticipation of the cry of anguish that would, at any moment, be issuing from the depths of that little boy. As if on cue, a cavern opened up on his beet-red face and what came out was many times worse than anything I could have imagined: absolute silence. Emerging from his tiny lungs was the howl of a pain without voice, a hurt of such intensity that no sound could adequately convey the emotion behind it.
Lanny pushed me as he ran by, breaking the spell. "Run!"
I realized immediately that we had very little time remaining because once that kid refilled his lungs with air, a sound similar to that of an air raid siren would cut through the night alerting the rest of the family, the surrounding neighbors, and probably every dog within several miles, that something was terribly terribly wrong. So I ran.

Coming out of the garage, I almost collided with Phil and Lanny who had stopped dead in their tracks and were staring across the front lawn, dumbfounded, as Stuart , holding the Big Wheel high above his head, sprinted away as swift and sure as any Olympic runner ever had.
"Holy --"
"Don't stop!" I said as I pushed them back into motion, "We've got to get out of here!"
Expecting to hear the sounds of pursuit at any second, we disregarded any notion of trying to be nonchalant for the sake of passing cars and ran like crazy.

We had parked a few houses down, around a curve, out of sight from the house, and I kept telling myself that if we could make it to the truck before anyone came out to investigate, we could possibly get away without being seen. I know Phil was thinking the same thing because, as we neared the truck, I could hear him saying, "Please, please, please." I looked behind me and everything was still clear. I looked back at the truck and could see Stuart in the back, motioning with his arms and saying, "Hurry up you guys," which was probably the most surreal part of the entire evening. Lanny, being a few strides ahead of us, was already in the driver's seat and firing the ignition which gave Phil and I just enough time to dive into the back with Stuart as Lanny put the truck in gear and took off.

Once the adrenaline had worn off and the nervous laughter had subsided, the drive back to Bates House was relatively quiet and low-key. No one bothered to mention the remaining item on our list because there wasn't enough time left and I'm sure, judging from the looks on everyone's faces, no one cared. As it turned out, it wouldn't have mattered anyway because, a few blocks from the dorm, we were stopped at a train crossing and by the time the train had passed and we had pulled into the parking lot, we were about five minutes late. Taking the plunder up would have taken, at least, another ten minutes, so we didn't even bother. We simply made our way to the sixth floor (Lanny had to take the back entrance to avoid the RA) to see who had won.

Surprisingly, had we made it back it time, we would have won. The first two teams to return had tied with seven items each and the third team had only been able to get five, and while each of the other teams had been able to find beach umbrellas, none of them had returned with foosball men. The other common items between the teams were traffic cones, barrier signs, pink flamingos and, of course, Big Wheels even though one would have been disqualified because it was a Green Machine. Technically not a Big Wheel.

Everyone sat around telling stories of their adventures and , after a while, I noticed that none of the stories were being told by my team. Not even the "Stuart sprinting" story. One of the time keepers had heard about Lanny and the janitor and repeatedly asked about it but everyone kind of shrugged it off and said it was no big deal - except for Stuart who seemed interested since he had obviously missed something and couldn't understand how. Finally, the other guys lapsed into stories concerning the less exciting events of the evening and I couldn't help but notice my friends all seemed a bit preoccupied and I guessed they were all thinking of that little boy's face, just like I was. I realized that we were keeping our silence because we felt guilty and knew the other guys wouldn't quite understand; they had all enjoyed themselves and had avoided the part of watching some kid cry by obtaining their Big Wheel's at empty playgrounds and, in the case of the Green Machine, at a Salvation Army donation box. I listened to the stories for a little while longer and, finally, got up and wandered back down to my room. I wanted to lie down for a while, maybe even go to bed early, to see if I could get that crying kid out of my head.

It's funny how it's so much easier to do something when you don't have to see the consequences of your actions. It's so easy to see objects and not consider their connections to actual living people and how we would feel if we were on the receiving end of such a so called "innocent" prank, or how one person's prank can be another person's violation. Growing up is a bitch and no one, for the most part, likes the thought of acknowledging the fact they've hurt people in the past, even if that was not their intent and it was "all in good fun." I couldn't help but wonder if my friends were as bothered by the situation as I was.

I was still in bed thinking about those things when someone banged on my door. I looked at the clock and realized I'd been brooding for a couple of hours because it was after midnight. I opened the door and standing in the hallway were Phil, Lanny and Stuart. They were all smiling at me.
"It's a good thing I wasn't asleep."
"We knew you'd be up," Phil said as they continued to stand in the hallway and smile at me.
Several seconds passed and no one said anything. All three of my friends just stood there, looking at me, smiling.
"Okay, you guys are starting to scare me. What's going on?"

Phil quickly explained that while it was okay to keep some of the smaller items like a couple of hard hats or a pink flamingo or two, there was no place to keep the larger things that were piled by the study area at the end of the hall. The big stuff needed to go before the RA saw any of it because he'd know who to blame. He went on to say they could really get into trouble because of the barrier signs and anything else that was "obviously" stolen.
"So me, Lanny and Stuart volunteered to dispose of it, being that we were the losers and all," Phil said, "And we knew you'd want to help."
"Cause you're part of the team," Stuart said.
"And a loser," chimed Lanny.
"At midnight?" I asked, "Why can't we do this in the morning after lunch? All we're going to do is toss the junk in the dumpster. Right?"
A funny look spread across Phil's face. "Not exactly."
"We came up with an idea without your help," Stuart said.
Lanny pointed back into my room, "Now grab your car keys and let's go."
"My keys?"

Roughly two hours later, after four or five trips to the dumpster from the sixth floor, two trips to Lanny's truck and one side journey in a Volkswagen Beetle, with Lanny on Stuart's lap in the front and Phil stuffed in the back with three Big Wheels and a Green Machine, I was back in my dorm room feeling physically exhausted but mentally upbeat. It had been a long night with several ups and downs but, in the end, it had proven a good night. I had learned several things that night but the most important was that I was only as good as the friends I kept and, thankfully, I had discovered that my friends were excellent people.

The scavenger hunt was only one of the adventures shared by the four of us that year, but it's memory is the one that flooded over me staring at Mrs. Brown's garage. Time is funny stuff. It can help us remember and forget as it rolls along it's uncertain path and while I may have forgotten small details here and there, I can still remember my three friends from that time period as if it were only last week. I can still see their expressions and hear their voices, and even though I could still see the image of that little boy breaking down in tears if I wanted to, I prefer to imagine the look on his face the following morning when he came outside to find three Big Wheels and a Green Machine sitting in his driveway.

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Big Wheel of Time (part 2)

Besides myself, my team consisted of Lanny, Stuart and Phil. Lanny was a local (Columbia) boy; small and wiry with wild blond hair and unlimited energy, he was best described as a preppy Tasmanian devil and was the perfect representation of our spontaneity. Stuart was from a small town outside of Charleston and he was the polar opposite of Lanny: Tall, lanky, short dark hair, horned-rimmed glasses and extremely casual (slow). Nothing could make Stuart rush, so he represented our appreciation. Phil was the only "Yankee" in our group, having joined us from an average size town in New Jersey, and he was my best friend on the planet. He was short and stocky (built like a fire hydrant), wore his hair in a kind of flattop, had a mustache (like me) which his Italian heritage dictated and since Phil lived each day with a desire to laugh but a tendency to worry, he represented our conscience (or our mother). As for me, I was an average kid from a small South Carolina town who spent a lot time asking, "what if." I guess you could say I represented our possibilities.

As we descended the stairs, I shouted ahead to Lanny, who was already a floor ahead of us, that when we reached the third floor, Phil and I were going to go by my room to get a screwdriver and then we'd meet him and Stuart, who was nowhere to be seen, in the game room. Lanny shouted back a quick, "Whoo-hoo!" as Phil and I yanked on the fire door to the third floor and headed to my room. I wanted a screwdriver not only because I knew it could come in handy (no pun), but because there was one item on the list that had provoked immediate but silent eye contact between the four four of us: a foosball man. We all knew there was a storage room at the back of the game room and in in that storage room was four or five folding tables, fifteen or twenty folding chairs, various deflated sports balls and ripped volley ball nets, three pairs of crutches, two wheel chairs and several large canvas drop cloths laying on top of an old and broken foosball table. There was no way to know if any of the other teams knew about the table or not since we had discovered it, quite accidentally, when we were removing the wheel chairs for a race soon after realizing the storage room door could be opened by grasping the handle, lifting up and then pulling sharply to the right while simultaneously pulling it open or, in other words, forcing it. In our haste to get the wheel chairs out, a handle had caught on one of the drop cloths and pulled them all off, exposing the table. The foosball table was in poor shape with a cracked top, bent rods and missing handles but I knew we could easily remove one of the men without doing further damage because a team that can't play, can't be a man short. The only real problem would be getting into the store room without attracting the attention of the Resident Assistant on duty at the front desk, which was only about twenty feet away but, thankfully, facing away from the game room. The RA's had been keeping kind of a close eye on the game room, as well as us, since our wheel chair races had caused a bit of a ruckus and they had informed us that there would be disciplinary consequences if we were discovered entering areas that were off limits, again. With screwdriver in hand and heading towards the stairway that terminated beside the game room I was pretty sure I heard Phil say something like, "Are you sure this is a good idea?"

I'll admit, as we descended the stairs, I was growing a bit nervous because, if the RA was up and roaming or not otherwise occupied, we were going to have a difficult time getting to the store room without wasting too much time since we couldn't very well keep wandering back and forth without seeming to be up to something. As I eased the fire door open, I heard the unmistakable sound of a disturbance consisting of a couple of raised voices, several people laughing, a loud and continuous squeaking and, louder than the rest combined, a sharp and pronounced , "Whoo-hoo!" every couple of seconds. Looking out across the main floor, it took Phil and I a minute or so before we grasped what we were seeing. Lanny, obviously knowing our intent and desiring to be the tactical diversion, had, upon exiting the stairwell by the front desk, commandeered the janitor's big yellow mop bucket (with mop wringer) by placing his left foot inside the bucket, holding the wringer handle for support, and pushing with his right foot in an effort to utilize the bucket as an unruly skateboard. Upon each push, Lanny would bellow a resounding, "Whoo-hoo!." From our perspective, Phil and I could see several students in the lobby watching the entertainment in confusion as the RA stood at her desk, yelling at Lanny to stop playing and getting water everywhere while the janitor, a amiable older black man who chewed tobacco and surreptitiously drank lime daiquiris from a thermos (long story), was yelling about his clean floors and, with mop in hand, trying his best to catch Lanny without busting his ass. We could tell when Lanny was approaching the desk because the squeaking would get louder, Lanny would pass in front of the desk and, before disappearing from sight, bellow a "Whoo-hoo" followed by the janitor, slipping and sliding and brandishing his mop overhead. After the third pass, Phil and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders and ducked into the game room.

Once in the game room, getting into the store room, getting the foosball man and getting out again took us less than ten minutes. When we made our way into the main lobby, Lanny had already made his exit (or escape), the janitor was mopping up the excess water and mumbling something about "crazy white boys" and the RA was glaring at Phil and I as if we were miscreants beyond redemption. I glanced at Phil, who had the foosball man in his pocket, and his ears were a bright crimson and I swear I could feel heat radiating from them.  Calmly and slowly we made our way out the front entrance and, once the doors had shut behind us, Phil looked at me and said, "Now all we have to do is get to the parking lot and find Lanny." I started to answer but, instead, I simply pointed down at what I can only describe as the trail of a one-legged sponge making a break for it, and even though I knew who the single-footed print belonged to, it was still a rather odd sensation following the trail of a lone wet foot. Luckily, by the time we made it up the entrance ramp and was crossing the sidewalk to the parking lot, we could already see Lanny coming around the fire lane in his white pickup truck, wicked grin, windows down and Aerosmith blaring. Lanny had recently discovered the song "Dream On" and was so overwhelmed by it that he had taken a two-hour blank cassette and recorded the song eighteen times on each side and would let it play in a continuous loop. The first thing Lanny said as he stopped the truck was, "Whoo-hoo!," followed by, "Where's Stuart?" Phil and I, again, looked at each other but before we could shrug and say anything I heard Lanny say, "There he comes." I turned around and watched as Stuart, hands in his pockets, came strolling up the entrance ramp, across the sidewalk and over to the truck.
"Are we ready to start?"
Lanny gave Stuart a brief and empty stare and said, "Just get in the truck, Speedy."
So, with Lanny driving, Stuart in the front, Phil and I in the back and the four of us doing our best to devise a strategy through the sliding rear window while Steven Tyler wailed about getting old, we pulled out into the early evening with one item obtained and an hour and forty-five minutes left for the remaining nine.

The next hour passed rather quickly and uneventfully. During that time, we had acquired a railroad spike, a barrier sign with flashing orange light, a plastic pink flamingo, a cue ball, a hard hat, a traffic cone (we got the hard hat and traffic cone from the same telephone truck) and a neighborhood Community Watch sign (ironic, I know). With a little less than forty-five minutes left, we were faced with trying to find a beach, or other large, umbrella and a kid's Big Wheel. Since we were already in a housing community, Lanny was trying to drive slow enough so we could all scan the yards for either item, but fast enough so as not to attract any unwanted attention. Finally, after several minutes, there was a communal gasp as we all saw the same thing while being reminded that maybe tomorrow the good Lord would take us away.
"There it is," said Lanny.
Stuart followed with, "I don't care what anybody says, I'm getting out this time."
"We're going to get in trouble," piped Phil.
I just stared at the open garage; car pulled in on the right and a Big Wheel on the left near the inside door and said, "Park a couple of houses down and we'll walk back."

Now, to this day I have no idea why we all got out to go after the Big Wheel. I could understand Stuart wanting to be involved because we hadn't allowed him out of the truck based on his penchant for leisure; forcing him to sit and watch while the rest of us got out and ran around like a bunch of morons with no sense of direction. As it was, after previously only having only one or two people collect any given item(s), there went the four of us, slowly walking up a quiet sidewalk toward a house with an open garage and, as best we could tell from the lights, no activity near the object of our desire.

Standing at the end of the driveway, we scanned the road for signs of headlights and the surrounding houses for signs of movement. Hopefully, everyone was in front of the television watching The Cosby Show. Satisfied that all was clear, we looked at each other and with Phil whispering, "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," we casually walked up the driveway and into the garage.
"Okay, somebody grab it and let's go," I said as quietly as I could and still be heard.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God"
"Maybe they have a beach umbrella in here," Lanny said.
"I get to carry the Big Wheel," Stuart said as I heard him lift it off the floor of the garage.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God"
"Let's go," I said as I looked up the street for any signs of cars.
"I'm still looking for an umbrella."
"Forget the umbrella. Let's go," I hissed.
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God"
"I've got the Big Wheel and I'm ready......uh oh."
"Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God"

It's amazing the chilling effect a small phrase like, "uh oh" can have on a person. There are probably millions of situations in which that phrase is the last thing you would ever want to hear and standing in some stranger's garage trying to steal their Big Wheel (and beach umbrella if they happen to have one) is definitely one of them.

I briefly locked eyes with Lanny as we both turned around to see why Stuart had uttered such a ridiculously terrifying phrase. Phil was standing next to Stuart still whispering "Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God," and I swear his eyes were squeezed shut as tightly as another, less sunny, part of his body probably was at that particular moment. Stuart was standing where he had stopped and picked up the Big Wheel and, as he stood there holding it by it's right handlebar, I didn't say a word, I merely continued turning to see what he was looking at.

Standing just on the other side of the storm door was a little boy, maybe five or six-years-old, eyes beginning to well up, bottom lip starting to quiver and face turning a mottled purplish-red color. He was going to blow any second.

** to be concluded.........