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Blaze You Out (2013)
Handsome first feature beautifully portrayed
BLAZE YOU OUT is a handsome first feature by directors Mateo Frazier and Diego Joaquin Lopez and their talented cast and crew. Set in northern New Mexico, the film is a masterful tapestry of stunning landscapes and human drama. Life would be normal in this Latino and Native American town except for the evil - a cunning drug-dealing matriarch (Elizabeth Pena) and her seductively twisted son, Whitey (brilliantly portrayed by Mark Adair-Rios). But they go too far when Whitey doggedly pursues Alicia (Melissa Cordero), a witness to one of his murders. With ferocious determination, Alicia's sister, Lupe (portrayed by the talented Veronica Diaz-Carranza) recruits her friends who invoke their own courage and mystical forces to save themselves and their cultures from extinction. Superb cinematography and editing, visually rich lighting -- huge production value. Well done.
I saw the film at Sundance as part of a packed house for a third or fourth screening. I've seen the story of Nanking depicted before but never with the confidence I had that this was how it really was. It was like watching three Shindlers save the Chinese, and Spielberg's Shoa, all rolled into one perfect film. A panel of actors speak the lines from letters and diaries of European/American witnesses and Chinese and Japanese survivors tell their stories themselves on film. It's not just a narrator interpreting the events - it's the voices of the people who were there. The story line is well honed accompanied by stills, 16 mm smuggled out by one of the foreigners, and the actors provide voice for the foreigners. It is an incredibly moving and informative film. I sat next to two couples, two Japanese American men married to Chinese American women. One wife had seen the film the night before, and our night she brought everyone else back with her. I spoke with one of the husbands and he said that out of scale of 5 he gave it a 7. For the rest of the week I ran into others who saw the film and everyone said that they thought it was the best documentary they had ever seen in their lives. I totally agree.
Miami Vice (2006)
Impressive and engaging
I loved it. Lean mean scripting and even better sound editing. Technically impressive all the way around. To me one Mann's most creative. It gets a 10 on the "have to pee" test -- when you can't find a moment in the film that doesn't matter, you gotta hold it. And I did.
I'm not a fan of Colin Farrell but he's beginning to grow on me. And while it seems most people judge the size and quality of the role by how many words come out of the actors' mouths, Foxx and Li were masters in the unspoken. Also not a big fan of hand held riffs but Mann kept it to a minimum so it did what it's good at, creating emphasis and urgency. And I think the story fit the bill. The jargon and accents sometimes made it hard to follow, but I never lost track of the plot or wondered what the movie was about.
The overall look and feel of the film was riveting -- its immediacy, granularity of night scenes, Mann used just about every trick in the book to enhance his film without flaunting his virtuosity. But the sound editing and score blew me away. You've got to love a guy like that. He's a master who got out of the Hollywood mold and did his own thing. And yeah, this ain't your daddy's VICE.
Terrific Action Flick
STEALTH was under-marketed to the most reliable demographic and is nevertheless a terrific action film. Buff bodies, including EDI's, never looked so good and acted so well with so little to say. Plus, it has superb visuals (with a prowling eye every bit as interesting as the explosions), fresh twists on clichéd expectations, and excellent character development and story (for an action flick). Any film that has the audience pulling out hankies because a wingman who's a PLANE sacrifices itself to save two fellow pilots, has got something going for it -- a lot more than "The Island" which was just a hair less stupid than "War of the Worlds."
War of the Worlds (2005)
Tom Cruise doesn't save the world, but in this flick, he saves the producers' butts
There were 9 people at the 4:10 pm screening on Thursday (opening day 2), on a overcast blustery day in Minneapolis. Two of the people got on their cell phones in the middle of the second act, and they weren't telling their friends how great the show was. I yelled at one and he left. If it weren't for Tom Cruise doing the best acting he's done in years, I would have left, too.
It seems almost a sacrilege to pan a Steven Spielberg movie, produced by Kathleen Kennedy, and co-written by David Koepp, but here it is:
Cruise plays an immature, smart-ass, working-class father who, against impossible alien odds, saves his kids (and himself) and delivers them back to his estranged and pregnant wife married to another man, who by the way also survives with elderly in-laws in a devastated Boston brownstone.
In the process, Cruise' love for his incredibly stupid and unpleasant children grows him uncommonly good sense and makes him a man even his kids and ex-wife can admire.
One has to hand it to Cruise. He hits every emotional beat and gets it out there for the camera and makes it believable. He's the best thing about the movie. He's as good as he's ever been. Possibly better because it is his talent alone that gives the film any emotional validity. Dakota screams and looks scared a lot but surely her acting range is better than that. And the dialogue they give her is unworthy.
As for the rest of the film, it is one ludicrous scene after another, of overly familiar alien machines, and unbelievably stupid and, thank goodness, quite unrealistic crowds of humans.
Take for example the neighborhood of people gawking at SOMETHING IN THE SKY -- something ominous and like nothing they've ever seen before. Most people I know would have been running to their TVs, or at least their radios, to find out if anyone else knew what this was. Only when electrical zaps start hitting the ground all around them, do they start to run.
But not the folks around the corner, gathered around a big cold hole in the center of a street, that rumbles and cracks all the way up the sides of buildings. They back up a little, but continue to stare at the hole, even as the crater enlarges toward them. They don't get the heck out of there until this gigantic, obviously alien, machine is already halfway out of the ground. Now where in the world would you find a non-extinct population so devoid of a sense of self preservation?
Later, Army gunners and tanks head up a hill toward a sky bright with distant fires and destruction. And who are the idiot throngs following our brave young men in uniform up that hill? Well, Cruise' son. But by this time in the film we already think he's a jerk. However, when a big alien machine chews up our troops and tanks and rises in all its glory over the top of the hill, only then do the throngs of dummies turn tale and head the other direction.
Here Cruise does the best he can trying to save his idiot son by leaving his little girl standing alone by a totally denuded stick of a tree. Even as he sees his young daughter being dragged way by well meaning strangers, he hesitates, reluctant to leave his dopey son who says something inane like, "I have to see this for myself. You have to let me go." In your dreams so stupid.
It goes on and on, right down to the unexplained reason for bloody roots, up to the very end when these wimpy, apparently vulnerable aliens inside the tripod machines succumb to our microbes and RPGs. Why the heck didn't they use bombs and RPGs to get these guys in the first place? Clearly they were just little soft aliens inside metallic shells. Surely our American military -- nay, the World's military -- could have beaten these puny creatures. I'm sure the reasons were more obvious on radio.
After seeing this film, it's clear why Cruise is jumping on Oprah's couch and driving his fans nuts with Katie-mania. It's not because he's lost his mind. His scheme is actually brilliant. What better way to divert attention from, and lower expectations for a movie in which he alone is the only thing that truly shines?
Batman Begins (2005)
A Better Batman
I attended the 6:35 pm showing Wednesday (opening) night at a suburban multiplex in Minneapolis. It was a very sparse audience of mostly 50 to 60-year old men, some of whom had dates of equal vintage, which seemed like a very odd audience for this type of film. Perhaps it was the day and hour, but it certainly wasn't the audience I expected.
Though better than the most recent "Batmans," this visually impressive actioner fell a little short.
In this prequel we learn how Batman came to be, starting with a nightmare. Stuck in an Asian prison at the base of a glacier encrusted peak, Batman-to-be Bruce Wayne awakes from a flashback of his childhood, where he fell down a well and was terrified by swarms of bats. Orphaned when a common thief kills both his parents, Bruce embarks on a personal journey for seven years. Inter-cut with his former cosseted life as the only child of a doctor mogul, is the quest of this current young man, living among criminals in order to understand how their minds work so that he may someday vanquish evil. Now imprisoned for some criminal act, he rather quickly frees himself, lured to the aerie of Ra's al Ghul.
There he undergoes ninja training by Ducard (Liam Neeson) who spews aphorisms more akin to Steven Segal than the Dalai Lama. Much mumbo jumbo later, Bruce Wayne evolves into a skilled killing machine, only to reject the role of executioner of bad guys, and membership in the elite League of Shadows, the position for which he was groomed. He burns down al Ghuls house and returns to Gotham to fight evil on his own.
Constructing his Batman persona and superstructure with the aid of his wise and loyal butler, Alfred (charmingly played by Michael Caine), Bruce Wayne becomes Bat-man because it symbolizes a fear he has conquered. As he reacquaints himself with Gotham he eventually finds that his father's company, its legacy chairman, most of the Gotham police, and Ra's al Ghul are all tied into the dirty workings of Gotham's king of corruption, Carmine Falcone. When Falcone has the man who murdered Wayne's parents killed to prevent him from testifying against Falcone, Bruce confronts him for fostering corruption. It is then Bruce quickly learns that insulting Falcone only puts those he loves, Alfred and his childhood girlfriend, Rachel, at risk. The conflicts between all parties are satisfactorily entangled in a heinous plot to destroy Gotham, and is then skillfully unraveled by Batman with truly impressive action sequences.
But it only gets fun after a long 55 minutes into the film when Bruce finally gets a handle on himself. Until then the film is a bit tedious. But when the super toys roll out the basement of the Wayne corporate office building, the thrills are non-stop. Morgan Freeman plays a wonderful cameo as purveyor of cool technical gadgets, including one helluva Batmobile.
Unfortunately, many of the bons mots of the film are lost to poor enunciation on Bale's part. While Caine, Neeson, Oldman, Freeman, Holmes and just about everyone else in the film speaks clearly, Bale lets the words sort of fall out of his mostly open mouth. Only after he dons the slick iconic body armor of Batman does Bale close his mouth and enunciate. Hard to believe the oral transformation was part of the movie's dramatization, but one can only hope.
While most of the dialogue is workman-like, spare, and to the point, it becomes almost ludicrous when the characters presume to say something "deep." Most notable are when Neeson, early on, delivers his melodramatic utterances, and, toward the end when Holmes proffers the truly incomprehensible gibberish about the Batman person who she loved and might someday see again. On a more positive note, Holmes put in a genuinely adult dramatic performance, which suggests a successful transition from TV darling to serious big screen actress.
Cinderella Man (2005)
The screening I went to in mid-May 2005 was attended with great anticipation by a mixed demographic in downtown Minneapolis. Graced with an award winning cast (Russell Crowe, René Zellweger, Paul Giamatti), CINDERALLA MAN is clearly a film made with great care by master producers (Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Penny Marshall), director (Ron Howard), and screenwriters (Cliff Hollingsworth and Akiva Goldsman). And yet, when the film ended, I had the sinking feeling that this pedigreed and worthy film was going to be a box office disappointment. Often billed as SEABISCUIT with two legs, this film indeed is a similar inspirational tale about how individual conviction and perseverance can prevail against overwhelming odds to emerge victorious, just as we and our Nation survived the depths of the Great Depression. In this case, the character of the man that was Jim Braddock, his unwavering support by a manager and wife who believed in him, were finely drawn and superbly executed by exceptional actors. The journey of the man, his tenacious hold to personal and professional principles, could not have been depicted better. The boxing action shots, the set design, the deft outline of Braddock's adversaries poverty and physical danger were clear and convincing. Despite all this, my concern at the end of the movie was that it was depressing, rather than uplifting. It went so deep that I was emotionally washed out at the end and even a good ending didn't make me right. Perhaps it has a little to do with my personal concern with the present American economy that made me wonder if the Great Depression could ever happen again, and what if it did. I knew it wasn't a film I'd be recommending to my friends for a fun evening out. The other concern I had while watching the film, was that I didn't know enough about this man Braddock and his family during the good days. The film opens with Braddock a winner, and very shortly thereafter the black clouds roll in and the majority of the movie is the dark story about a man from whom we have no expectation who turns out to be a great man. Perhaps it would have been good to spend a little more time showing us how Braddock first made it to the top, and how he became a little cocky, and then how he weathered the great storm with principles intact despite being severely tested. If any fault can be given at all to the design of the story telling, this would be it -- That short shrift was given to background on Braddock, his little human failings and his relationship with his wife, before their mettle was tested.
The Polar Express (2004)
3-D IMAX impressive
Having seen POLAR EXPRESS only in 3-D IMAX I can't comment on the complaints about "dead eyes" and other technical disappointments of the 2-D version. What I can say is that as an adult, I thoroughly enjoyed the tyke tale and oooh'd and ahhhh'd along with all the other kids in the audience. In 3-D, the eyes were strikingly real and expressive, right down to the nuanced squints, the mottled colors of the iris, reflections off the cornea, and apparent depth of the anterior chamber of the eye. The most notable technical achievement was the translation of subtle body movements that elevated the animation from cartoon to simulation. The application of motion-capture technology succeeded and the many producers who spent tons of money on this film should be praised rather than nitpicked to death by those expecting to see real people marching around on screen. To me, the subtleties captured in this technical tour de force are a huge advance and someday will be recognized unequivocally as such, without all the carping. On the other hand, the story could have been written better, edited more aggressively, tighter, less of the floating ticket, more about the sad poor kid in the caboose -- that is, there could have been better character and story development. They got a little too caught up in the techie tricks. But no matter what your age, there's plenty of entertainment if you just relax and let your imagination ride on the POLAR EXPRESS.
Oliver Stone's Alexander
Given 5 hours I'm sure the Master would have vanquished complaints of time warp, blessed us with fewer monologues and more comprehensive character development. However, Alexander is what it is -- and somewhat less than it could have been. To convey the enormous reach of young Alexander's conquests, their impact on the conquered as well as the conquering, Stone uses monologue narration via Anthony Hopkins (Ptolemy) as he used him in NIXON, and Costner in JFK -- to array the facts, and ask the key questions. No one can create these larger than life portraits and still serve the facts and the gaps better than Oliver Stone. However, if one can't accept how Stone does his work, then they may as well pick another flick. But, if one enjoys feasting on spectacle, Stone's rendition of the battle at Gaugamela is astonishing, with his aerial shots, swish pans, stuttering cuts of an army of individuals, with the eerie guttural sounds of who-knows-what that make the gut turn and the skin crawl. All this said, even though Stone says that Colin Farrell "became Alexander," he perhaps was too fine a rendition of the bi-sexual conqueror. He voice wasn't low enough. He wasn't muscled enough. His face wasn't fierce enough. And of course that's the point. But I needed to see a young Russell Crowe conquering the world on Bucephalus. Finally, Irish accents and Jolie's ludicrous lilt designed to clarify the distinction between Greeks and Macedonians wasn't worth the distraction.
National Treasure (2004)
With critics hanging crepe weeks before, I didn't expect much from the opening weekend for NATIONAL TREASURE. But when one walks into a theater on a sunny Sunday afternoon in Minneapolis in winter and sees the place packed with kids and gray hairs, you know something good is up. Nestled in my comfy stadium lounger, I leaned back next to three dads and four sons behind a couple older than whatever. And for the next 130 minutes, I didn't sleep a wink. In fact, while I'd heard the script had been re-sculpted many times, my only conclusion is "who cares." The action, the innuendo, the fantastical story line were all in keeping with the action-adventure genre and a jolly good time was had by all. One critic on CNBC had said that the action was good, the story was good though fantastic, and the acting was good, but it just wasn't a good film. Just goes to show you how becoming a professional critic addles the brain, numbs the senses, and results in bad reviews.