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Mendacity Stinks and Truth Hurts
25 March 2013
Warning: Spoilers
"The truth? You can't handle the truth." ~Jack Nicholson as Col. Nathan R. Jessup in A Few Good Men

"There ain't nothing' more powerful than the odor of mendacity!" ~Burl Ives as Big Daddy

Last week I watched Paul Newman, Elizabeth Taylor and Burl Ives in the powerful Tennessee Williams drama Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Whoa, what a scorcher.


Burl Ives is Big Daddy, and he's coming home to celebrate his 65th birthday.. He's just finished having a medical exam to find out what was ailing him, and lo, he got a clean bill of health, so now he's smiling. He's ready to live large once again. The problem, from the start, is a problem of mendacity.

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is one of numerous Hollywood productions of Tennessee Williams plays and Williams introduces its theme early.

Mendacity: the quality of being mendacious; untruthfulness; tendency to lie.

Brick (Paul Newman) is an alcoholic failed football star who has gone away and remained distant from his family; Maggie (Elizabeth Taylor) the wounded wife pushed away by consequences she'd never anticipated. Newman had "big time" written all over him, but it wasn't to be as he now deals with his disillusionments. Gooper, his brother, became a lawyer and did all the right things to earn Big Daddy's blessing, but the story is complicated and Williams is brilliant at skimming off the layers of the onion to reveal the story's heart.

Big Daddy is a self-absorbed, insensitive modern day (1950's) plantation owner who has more wealth than he knows what to do with. The situation that takes place in the space of a day tells the story of all their lives. Brick, who seems despicable at the first, is actually sees clearly how distorted the family dynamics are, and he wants nothing to do with any of it. His brother Gooper and his wife Mae are determined, as the good son and daughter-in-law, to get the blessing and all the goods that come with it. They've been faithfully producing potential heirs to the "Big Daddy" throne and waste no amount energy kowtowing and sucking up.

In contrast, Maggie's womb is barren, though not because of her desire that it be so. Brick has emotionally cast her away because of an incident that occurred in a hotel room involving Maggie and his best friend Skipper, who committed suicide afterward. Brick shuts her out so that Maggie never has a chance to tell her side of what happened. The root incident, in keeping with the theme, turns out to be that Skipper couldn't face the truth either.

The pivotal theme is mendacity. Big Daddy is definitely going to die and he doesn't know it, yet. This fact, which initially only the doc is aware of, begins to seep through the family and we see, one by one, the various ways in which the characters respond. Ultimately Brick lets it slip. Big Daddy is stunned.

The film sets up Brick's character in the opening scene where at three in the morning he tries to run the hurdles, while booze-plastered. We see a brash young man who drinks too much, is careless and breaks his ankle in a foolish manner. The broken ankle serves as an external metaphor for the internally crippled man who deals with his pain through rivers of whiskey.

As the film progresses the scales begin to come off the characters' eyes. What Williams does so effectively is to enable the audience to see who these characters are before they each discover for themselves who they really are. It's a Hitchcock device, except instead of a gun in the drawer that only the audience is aware of, it's our knowledge that at some point Big Daddy's going to discover the truth (that his cancer is incurable) that creates tension. Like Brick's broken ankle, Big Daddy's cancer is likewise symbolic of his inner condition. Unlike Brick, whose ankle will heal, Big Daddy's condition is terminal.

They've all been living lies in one way or another. Ultimately we learn the root beliefs that formed the motivational drive in each character, with the ultimate revelation coming in the final basement scene with Brick and Big Daddy. It's a moment of truth that flows from the story yet of which the audience has know foreknowledge.

This is not a film formulated strictly to entertain. It is a story designed to unveil uncomfortable truths, to enlighten. I have no doubt Williams' aim is for viewers to leave the theater introspectively, asking themselves how much mendacity and self-deceit they themselves live with.

If you hear echoes of the parable of the prodigal son, you're probably not far off from the impetus for the original play.

As for the acting, it's first-rate throughout. Newman, Taylor, Ives and the supporting cast are stellar.
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A Work of Art and Profound Story Superbly Translated to Film
10 March 2012
Every once in a while a film moves you toward something inexplicably powerful. It is as if you are a child listening to adults talking about something serious which is beyond your comprehension, but it is something real and you lack the life experience to grasp it. Yet you are drawn to understand, because there is something profound taking place.

Such, for me, is Jean-Dominique Bauby's story The Diving Bell & the Butterfly. I have since read the book, but these comments refer to the Golden Globe Award-winning film by the same name. And maybe the epiphany is simply this, that life is an awesome experience, even when tragic.

What is astonishing is that the film is equal to the task of conveying the story, a real man's reality. Bauby was a French journalist and editor of the fashion magazine Elle. His life consisted of fame and style, wealth and women… a lifestyle others only dream of. Then one day, at age 43, Bauby suffered a stroke that left him victim to what is called "Locked-In Syndrome." His mental faculties were totally intact but his body paralyzed. Though speechless and immobile, he learned to communicate by blinking a single eyelid.

There are so many beautiful moments in this life affirming film. Despite the seemingly impossible circumstances, he wrote a memoir by blinking with his one good eye. His assistant would repeat the letters of the alphabet until she reached the letter he wanted, at which point he would blink. It took 200,000 blinks, and immense determination, to complete the memoir.

Bauby wrote that he had two things that were not paralyzed: his imagination and his memory. Hence, the title of his book. The paralysis made him feel like a man in a diving bell, cut off from the world, floating helpless, remote. But his mind, with the aid of memories and imagination, was like the butterfly, free to explore, taking him away from this seeming death trap imprisonment.

It is my opinion that director Julian Schnabel has produced nothing less than a perfect film, since I cannot conceive of a single mean or decision where I could improve it.

Mathieu Amailric, who plays Jean-Dominique Bauby, will be recognized in his later roles in Munich and Quantum of Solace. But this role here must have made an impression on him as it does on me. It touches deep places where the "entertainments" cannot possibly touch.

I am always impressed when writers mesmerize us by weaving profound truths into the very fabric of the story. Here is one such quote from The Diving Bell… "Today, my life feels like a string of near-misses. Women I was unable to love, opportunities I failed to seize, moments of happiness I let drift away. A race whose result I knew beforehand but failed to pick the winner. Had I been blind and deaf, or did the harsh light of disaster make me find my true nature?" ~ Jean-Dominique Bauby I recommend this film highly.
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A Magical Mexico Tourof Tragic Fatalism
2 October 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"The novel explores the Consul's past and present, relates his private doom to the tragic fatalism of the Mexican scene…" ~ Stephen Spender Under the Volcano was a novel written by critically acclaimed Malcolm Lowry. The book eventually became a film starring Albert Finney and Jacqueline Bisset, directed by critically acclaimed John Huston. Both the film and the book failed to reach a wider public despite the brash, braying praise of critics.

Like Lowry, I lived in Mexico for a time, from fall 1980 till late 1981. During that time we traveled to a number of places including two trips to Cuernavaca. I loved Cuernavaca, the city where this story primarily occurs, the Land of Eternal Springtime where Cortez established his winter palace. Like Lowry and the tragic hero of his novel I, too, was present in Tepotzlan on a holy day when the dark-faced peasants in loose white clothes and wide hats brought out Christ and the Virgin from the shadows of monasteries, parading, holding high large displays and brightly colored pillars, burned incense, celebrating intently the blended religion of the peoples.

This story covers 24 hours in the life of an alcoholic, his last 24 hours, with his singular preoccupation on where he will get his next drink, simultaneously immersing the reader into his internal despondency, hopeless self-wreckage, introspection and hallucination. It is a tragic life culminating in a tragic end, perhaps intended to be the mirror of a forlorn culture shrouded in apparitions of death.

I originally took an interest in the book because I'd read that it was supposedly structured like the Cabala, the chapters being a series of steps toward enlightenment. My first effort to read it in the late 80's left me flat, however, and I placed it back on the shelf for a couple years. I was not convinced that the effort would yield a sufficient reward. The second attempt ended about a fourth of the way through with the same frustration. A couple more years past, and upon beginning the story I was transported inward to the heart of the characters, the culture, and the bleak futility of the hero's quest.

John Huston took this very complicated bundle of soiled images and attempted to iron it out into its essential story. The film, inadequate to the task, did capture the book's essence. There is no way it could capture the spinning surrealistic writing, compelling inner monologues, and painfulness of Lowry's heartfelt bloodletting.

Malcolm Lowry wrote the first draft in Mexico while living in Cuernavaca in 1938. Director Huston does an outstanding job of giving the feel of Mexico during this time frame. And the film brings to life many vivid memories of our time there… Despite its shortcomings, I found myself still moved by the film. This is the second time I've watched it and this time I enjoyed the performances of Finney and Bisset, whom a few here have been especially critical of. Finney is nearly perfect throughout in his portrayal of a wrecked man. Bisset is equal to the task she must perform, confused, frightened, compassionate, pained.

There are two scenes especially perfect. The one of Finney as Geoffrey Firmin searching desperately for a bottle, a search that leads him into the garden where he immerses himself in the object of his quest. This scene is a summing up of the man's lost life. And the last scene revealing that his own self-destruction hurts more than himself... hurts all who are around him.

The weakness of the film for me was perhaps the feeling that it was put together by a nostalgic older director who could have done more with the music, the camera work, the edits. Great films often grab you from the opening images, credits and soundtrack. Despite what a few have written here, I found myself having to overlook what I considered a weak appetizer that insufficiently lured me into the depths of our hero's heart, mind, soul, struggle.

Huston could have done more with the film, but did not. Perhaps it is because of the era. He did not feel it necessary? I can't say. The grandeur of his foreign setting is hollow. I cannot blame the actors for this. Finney was remarkable throughout, almost over the top. Bisset's broken heart shone through with clarity.

It's a good film based on a rich, but difficult, book. If it is too depressing or too convoluted and enigmatic, you're under no obligation to finish either.

If you find yourself stimulated by old Mexico, the companion documentary based on this film is wholly worthwhile. Watch the film first, though.

"Time is a fake healer anyhow. How can anyone presume to tell me about you? You cannot know the sadness of my life…. Alas, what has happened to the love and understanding we once had?" ~ Geoffrey Firmin, Under the Volcano
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Dark Knight Satisfies Basic Instincts of the Short Story
27 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
There are seven basic ingredients to a short story. To illustrate, let's examine The Dark Knight, Ridley Scott's dark vision / interpretation of the Batman story, now showing in theaters everywhere. THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.

First, there is Setting This story takes place in the big city of Gotham, Bruce Wayne's hometown. Itis the center of their world, as in real life Gotham believes itself the center of our world. I have heard it compared to Babylon more than once in my life, and some there are who would say rightfully so. It's police and its history were famously corrupt, though in the past ten years crime and corruption has been significantly reduced in the real Gotham, even without a Batman. Maybe with all that new eye-in-the-sky technology we don't need superheroes any more?

Second, there are the Characters. Can you believe the names in this film? Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, Christian Bale, Aaron Eckhart, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Gary Oldman and an especially disturbing Heath Ledger lead an all star cast. But these are not characters. These are the actors who play our story's characters. Batman is, of course, the hero. His nemesis: The Joker.

Third, we have the Problem or Goal Drawing from mythology, the hero's quest is what gives the story its impetus. What does he want? What are his motivations? Batman exists to fight crime, but he also wants to give it up, to quit. In this film, he longs to hang up his cape and spurs, uhnm, mask... and settle into a quiet life with is one true love played by Maggie G.

Fourth, there are the Complications The complications are what create the tension. The hero has a goal, and the screenwriter puts in his way every conceivable barrier that be can be dreamed up while still being believable. Believable is the operative word here. Even within a fictional construct, the rules of the game are established. The audience will be happily suspend disbelief if the story remains faithful to its own rules.

In The Dark Knight, the primary complication is The Joker, who's goal is to destroy all notions of order and decency, first by creating fear and chaos, and second, by corrupting the uncorrupted hero of Gotham Harvey Dent, who is striving to clean up crime and wipe out evil... The Joker's own motivation or quest is the corrupt this paragon of virtue, thus dispelling hope or confidence in the moral order of right and wrong.

Fifth, there is the Turning Point Alas, there must be a dark moment when it appears all is lost. In this film, sadly, Harvey Dent himself becomes a comic book villain: Two Face. Clever story line here, flows logically out of the fluid and flames that make for good comic book drama. There is philosophy here, too. Are moral actions merely the result of a chance act like the flip of a coin. Or is there truly a virtuous act? The Joker simultaneously puts his theory to the test with two boatloads of people out on the river. Is self-preservation the final value, or is there another set of values that excels beyond looking out for number one?

Sixth, the Climax. The last and most dramatic scene of the story. There are two here, because there are two bad guys now. The irony is abundant as Bruce Wayne/Batman persuades his right hand man Lucius Fox to violate his own code of ethics in order to reach an ethical conclusion. In short, for the powers of right to ultimately win, ethical considerations must be temporarily set aside. Is this the rationale for torture and other ethical violations in today's real world drama regarding terrorism?

The Joker must be brought to justice, and to save more innocent lives from being taken, Batman must rid the world of Two Face as well. It is all so dramatic... if at this point you are identifying with there characters as real people. Alas, it's a Hollywood blockbuster budget extravaganza, and gosh, at this point I am just watching and waiting. The good guy has to win, right?

Seventh, and finally, Resolution The denouement comes quick. It is a tidy little knot tying all the loose ends. And so it is, with dramatic music pulsing through the veins of the dark theater, we have just experienced The Dark Knight.

As for the overall effect: Well done... The sets, the mood, the whole feel here was a phenomenal achievement. No indie filmmaker can ever compete with Hollywood in that department.

There was some originality and entertaining interpretation in the bat cave as well as the ultramodernized gizmos etc. Mr. Wayne had access to.

A few very minor criticisms not worth mentioning. I have rated this film an 8 because I'm not sure if this is my kind of movie any more. I get more engaged in films like The Kite Runner. I haven't figured out, in other words, whether there was a problem with the film (I saw it last night) or just the viewer's tastes have changed.

Nevertheless, this film has all the elements. The unexpected death of Heath Ledger, post-production, will sell a few additional seats as well. It's a role that just might give a few people the creeps.
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"The best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry."
8 July 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Just finished watching Woody Allen's most recent release, Cassandra's Dream, starring Colin Farrell and Ewan McGregor, and others. As others have noted, there are many great facets of the film, including the superfine way Allen creates fully developed characters with minimal numbers of brush strokes. He's a master in this regard.

A follow up to Match Point, the film has the same seriousness, setting (England), ironies, and mix of characters with their different motivations and generational viewpoints. The characters are transparent to the viewer, but not to one another. In this regard, the screen writing is brilliant.

It is a story of two brothers who have character flaws. Each has dreams that require money, and each seems intent on escaping the responsibilities of the family business to pursue what are patently foolish paths. At one point the brothers reminded me of some of Elmore Leonard's criminals who are both clever and foolish. The outcome of the film was from the beginning self-evident, why could they not see it coming? Yet people do these kinds of things all the time. The music track alone tells you this is a tragedy and going to have a bad ending.

I did have a problem with the Phillip Glass soundtrack on one level. Yes, it worked well in this film, but for me it evoked The Illusionist. If someone pointed this out (and someone must have) I can picture Allen saying, "That'll work. Not that many people will have seen both films." Or something to that effect.

That may be the one weakness of the film, not the music, but the decision to not push something to another level. Mr. Allen's philosophy of film making is not to produce great art. It is to get the stories out. He is undoubtedly filled with stories, and simply doesn't waste time on time consuming details. Or so it seems.

For this reason, despite the fabulous acting and great dialogue, crisp character development and tight story, the movie might not receive its share of critical acclaim. But then, in reading his book Woody Allen on Woody Allen, he owns up to the fact that he is not striving to be Bergman or Fellini. He does not wish the comparison to be even made. He is simply a man who loved the movies, and who has lived out his dream of being able to make movies. Ultimately, he probably doesn't really care what the critics think, which is a nice place to be if you can get there.

In the end, I would have re-shot at least two or three moments in the film that should have been re-shot "get it right." Though maybe in the grand scheme of things it didn't matter. There is much to like here with its echoes of Greek tragedy and other classic moments in literature. (The scene in the bedroom felt eerily close to the problem Raskalnikov encountered in Crime & Punishment, undoubtedly intentional.) The film has sensuousness as a theme with almost none of the usual Hollywood demonstrativeness. It hints, rather than reveals.

The title for the film comes from the name of a boat which the brothers buy. The name for the boat is taken from mythical Greek tragedy. Cassandra was loved by Apollo, but ended up being cursed by him when she did not return his love. Her gift of being able to foresee the future was forever a source of pain and frustration for her. The viewer of this film, like Cassandra, knows from the first that things will turn out bad, but can do nothing to stop it.

As is often the case, "The best laid plans of mice and men do often go awry." Or to quote a maxim of my own, "We tend to get what we want, but we usually get more than we bargained for."
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A True Achievement by both Anderson and Day-Lewis
11 April 2008
Warning: Spoilers
2007 was, in my opinion, a weak year for Hollywood. At some point in late spring it seemed that the summer movie season had been set up to be especially uninteresting. Despite featuring everybody's hero Johnny D., Pirates III failed to entice me to part with anything green. Bourne III also came and went with the same effect.

Meanwhile, while commuting to the office, I thoroughly enjoyed two really engrossing audio books: Mr. Wilson's War and No Country For Old Men.

The fall movie fare was equally dismal, though as a family we did go and take in that most unusual Sixties reprise, Across the Universe. As we tiptoed toward the year's Christmas culmination, it was with great exhilaration that I learned that both audio books which I so thoroughly enjoyed had been made into films, and I knew that I'd find a way to see each of them.

For some reason this film, There Will Be Blood, never crossed my radar. I have been a strong admirer of some of the work Daniel Day-Lewis has produced, beginning with My Left Foot, the film I believe put him on the map for me.

As Oscar season approached Day-Lewis buzz was all the rage. This film, written, directed and produced by Paul Thomas Anderson, had created a phenomenal opportunity for Day-Lewis to shine, if you call being a very dark-hearted character shining. Anderson came to our attention as director of Magnolia, a film populated by mostly tragic characters.

There Will Be Blood is a character study of one character, the singular Daniel Plainview, as portrayed by Daniel Day-Lewis. It could be argued that Eli Sunday is also a major character in the story, but his role seems more as a foil for Plainview. It's a very sad story about a man whose ambition and social isolation make him worse than cruel.

Anderson's achievement here has him being compared to Kubrick, which is saying plenty. Some say he has stylistically mimicked Kubrick intentionally. The manner in which the story is told, the impassive eye of the camera as all, exemplifies the preeminent rule of storytelling: show, don't tell.

For this reason we are never "told" the motivations of characters. We extrapolate motivations by the behaviors revealed by the camera lens. At one point Daniel Plainview states outright, "I don't like to explain myself." This style of film making is much like life. People seldom explain the why of their behaviors. Often they do not even understand themselves the why of what they do. Yet we can see who they are by what they do. Sort of. Every picture tells a story, but it takes a lifetime of pictures to fill out the full orb. This film strings together the key pictures of a man's life, the hardening of a very hardscrabble man.

Another site pointed out several comparisons to Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, beginning with the desolate opening scene with is off-setting music score to the final clubbing in the bowling alley, which seems so much a shadow of the ape with the bone clubbing a beast. Many more echoes can be heard.

The soundtrack of this film exacerbates the tensions whirling about inside its central character. The strings, rhythms, syncopated percussion, create a disconcerting, grating feeling. The irresolution and intensity of the strings is most effective in leaving viewers unsettled and uncomfortable.

The film does have its critics. It is not a pleasant experience. But it's a powerful film, and Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible to the very end. When he says, "I'm finished," the meanings are many. The film is through, his mission is complete, his life is ruined. His desolation is absolute.
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Phenomenon (1996)
Reflections on a Phenomenon
5 March 2008
Warning: Spoilers
I recently watched the movie Phenomenon again. For those who haven't seen it, John Travolta plays George Malley, the central character, a somewhat slow-witted nice guy who has a strange experience that awakens his consciousness and begins to hyperactivate his mind. In short, he becomes a phenomenon.

The movie does a wonderful job of presenting George's struggle as he seeks to understand what is happening to him. His friends, however, are equally befuddled and the unanswered questions that arise from their own insecurities cause misunderstanding, pain and rejection. It's almost as scary to know a phenomenon as to be one.

In my opinion it was a good story well told. Like all good stories, it unearthed regions of my own soul, areas I have mined before and will mine again because I believe their are still some precious stones to uncover there.

It is a life theme to which I often return. Are we not each a phenomenon in our own way? What is the meaning of my life? What are my unique gifts? Where has my power come from from? And how much of it is unused, undeveloped, unactivated.

We use so little of our strength, our psychic powers, our capabilities. We choose, instead, to live in a dark, dull, ill-lit corridor called 'life', a cramped hallway with narrow walls, yellowed, peeling wallpaper, moldy and stifling. Windowless and without wind. No unpredictable weather. And we wonder why it bores us, why we've lost our passion.

John Updike made the observation that there are Four Life Forces: Love, Habit, Time and Boredom. Love and Habit are powerful, giving short term energy and stability to our lives. Time has a more long term grinding influence. But Boredom, the great leveler, is a prison that captures us subtly. When boredom becomes a habit, life passes us by.

In this film, George Malley sees the wonder of this passing phenomenon we call life. His becomes obsessed with embracing it... before it does indeed escape him.

Nice supporting cast, especially Ms. Sedgewick and Forrest Whittaker.
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Vanilla Sky (2001)
Surreal, Beautiful, Tragic, Wondrous...
19 February 2008
Warning: Spoilers
"The little things…. There's nothing bigger, is there?" ~ Tom Cruise, Vanilla Sky In 2001 Cameron Crowe created an incredible film. Now why it is that some movies resonate with us and others fail to connect, I am not sure. In part, the masterpieces simply have no hollow notes. The director somehow brings out stellar performances from his cast and makes no compromises along the way. It helps, of course, to have a magical script, and the film Vanilla Sky explodes with layers of meaning that go deep to make it a very special film.

I can think of two reasons this film has been panned by a segment of the public. One is that Tom Cruise is the star, and for this reason alone it might be dismissed by some. This is an incredible performance, however, and can't be so easily dismissed. A second reason is that the film is a remake in English of a Spanish version of the same story, starring the same Penelope Cruz. Who cares? I did not see the Spanish version. I saw this one.

The film is complicated, and requires a measure of work on the part of the viewer. If you have to see it twice to see that the continuity is there, maybe that is OK. The film hangs together and is not a manipulation with a twist ending. Yes, the ending twists, but is a logical extension of the story.

For me, the scene in the middle where Tom Cruise is dancing with the mask on the back of his head is so fabulously conceived for its symbolic value, for Cruise become Janus, the Roman mythological figure with two faces. Janus was the god of gates or doors, doorways, beginnings and endings. In this film, though we know it no, the scene telegraphs the pivotal transition for David Aames, who has been tragically disfigured as a result of his own choices. Sometimes, you can learn from the past but can't change it.

I am not certain what it is that so resonates with me about this film. In part, it may be the philosophical questions it raises about who we are, and the life we would live if we could truly live our dreams. Or maybe, it is simply the identification with the profoundly tragic thing that happened to this man, the pain he inflicted on his friends, the grief he – and they -- must have experienced.

It is interesting, too, that the Cruz character is named Sofia, the Greek word for wisdom. The symbols, the erudite references throughout, the layers of complexity may be simply too much for a typical audience given to pop entertainment values. Or maybe I am too sentimental to be properly critical, since at least one poll rated this one of the worst films of all time.

The film is atypical in structure, and a bit labyrinthine as one circles through the maze of story lines. But it is not utterly inaccessible. One can "get it" because there is something to get. It is not simply a manipulation.

Much more could be said than this, but others have said it already, so I simply close with this. For me, the wonder of the film is summed up in three words: Open Your Eyes.
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Be Cool (2005)
Our of Respect for Elmore Leonard I Must Comment
3 January 2008
I rarely give ratings less than 5, but in this instance I must weigh in. Elmore Leonard is a great writer with many wonderful, complex books, original characters, crisp dialogue, invigorating plot twists. Films based on his books go way back to Hombre (Paul Newman), Mr. Majestyk (Bronson), and Out of Sight (Clooney / Lopez) among others. Even when done so-so the films at least have some measure of story essence coming through. This one, .... it is simply not a worthy addition to the catalog.

The acting is bad (I do not know why, because these are very capable people here) and the story is handled with stupidity. The characters are re-arranged, the chemistry is missing, the actors and actresses are mis-cast.

Since Elmore Leonard is a really great story teller, I would hope that anyone who does not know his work would be dissuaded from reading his books because they saw this disappointing rendition of one of his stories.

The story is a sequel to Get Shorty. If you have not seen that film, do not watch this. If you have seen Get Shorty, do not proceed to this.

I saw Be Cool a few years back, and tonight have been re-visiting the vid. The first time must not have made such a negative impression because I had forgotten how dismal this sequel was.

Fortunately, I think no less of those who appeared in this film for having done so. They probably expected something more. Get Shorty was original and great fun. Travolta I nearly always like, but he is so much better in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction and in the preceding Get Shorty. He was clearly unable to enjoy whatever was going on here.

And I hear Freaky Deaky,another Elmore Leonard book, is in pre-production for 2008 release. Hopefully they can pull it off.

Read the books. They are almost all great.
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Powerful Book Adaptation with Fumbled Ending
1 January 2008
Warning: Spoilers
Cormac McCarthy's book No Country for Old Men is an incredible story so very well told. I listen to audio books and this one made me want to keep driving. I could hardly wait for the morrow's commute.

It's one of the classic thriller story lines. An ordinary person accidentally gets caught up in extraordinary circumstances. Dustin Hoffman in Marathon Man is a nail-biter example of this genre. A Simple Plan, with Bill Paxton and Billy Bob Thornton, is another.

And like any exceptional story, No Country has memorable characters. Llewelyn Moss is the unfortunate man who while hunting comes across a dope deal gone bad in the expansive back country of South Texas, and ends up with a satchel containing two million dollars in cash. There's a lesson here, though it is never stated as such: if you ever find a couple million dollars that are not yours, it's best to just stay out of it. Even though everyone involved in the transaction appears shot up and pretty much finished off, Moss knows that there will likely be others coming for the money. Little does he know how bad one of these others is.

The guy who keeps you sitting straight up in your seat, and may keep you awake at night after, is Javier Bardem as Anton Chiguhr. Think sugar and chigger, and you have this pathological, human version of The Terminator, relentless in pursuit and seemingly indestructible. Nothing sweet about this man whose conscience is dead and determination unstoppable. Your heart rate increases every time he's on the screen.

No Country for Old Men has been receiving fabulous reviews. The Coen brothers (Fargo, O Brother, Where Art Thou?) wrote the screenplay and directed this first rate film. Like another current book adaptation, Charlie Wilson's War, there is much that has to be sifted out and only hinted at, lest we have something tiresome to watch after a while. The Coens were successful at creating the emotional tension that is generated by the book.

How did they do it? One noteworthy item is the total absence of a music soundtrack. They deserve high praise for avoiding the commercial temptation to make a music bed that would generate additional revenues afterward. Instead, they went the direct opposite way with this film. No music, no sound at all in the opening or closing credits. No fake strings section to tip viewers off that something bad is coming. The tension is created totally by the intersection of characters and circumstances. And it does get intense.

In terms of execution the film was flawless. Congrats to the Coens for their ability to bring everyone together and pull off this kind of feat.

But there were a number of problems for me with this film adaptation. First, Tommy Lee Jones as Sheriff Ed Tom Bell. I mean, I just couldn't get past that this was Tommy Lee Jones playing a caricature of himself. He has been in too many movies where he's this hard boiled veteran whose seen too much of life. It is through his eyes that we see the story unfold. As a central character he plays this role well, but I know him as an actor from The Fugitive to Men In Black and, gosh, couldn't we find anyone else to do this? Sorry, guys. That's how it was for me.

Second, some have criticized the short amount of time Woody Harrelson is on screen. Yep. He is a more important character in the book. Like William Hurt's brief appearance in Syriana, it was not necessary to have such star power here. O.K., it maybe sells more tickets at the box office? I really liked this character in the book, and Harrelson does play Carson Wells the bounty hunter very well, but I just don't know.

I consider both of these criticisms relatively minor compared to my one major criticism. It simply ended too fast in too confusing of a manner. I think a tight, fast ending is usually great in films so that they do not drag on after the final rush. The problem here is a tight, fast and confusing ending. If I had not read the book, I would not have known what happened. And I am not talking about the scene where Chiguhr is hit by the car. I'm referring to the preceding homicides that end the cat-and-mouse drama.

The reason this is a problem is that, in my opinion, the last emotion one should have after this kind of a thrill ride is that same relief you get when the roller coaster slams back into the station and they unlatch the mechanisms that keep you in the car. Relief. Catch your breath. Instead of a big "wow," I left the theater perplexed and disappointed, with jumbled thoughts. Instead of being in awe at the way they created such a fabulous film, I walked out baffled, dampened by the lack of clarity in the films last scenes. This should not have happened.

I still think it a powerful film and worth seeing if you like this kind of story. It will put you on the edge of your seat.
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Insightful Film and Superb Adaptation in an Otherwise Weak Year in Film
31 December 2007
Warning: Spoilers
As far as I'm concerned, it was a pretty weak year for films. What I mean is that beginning with spring there were almost no compelling movies playing at the theaters till the very end of 2007. Pirates III with Johnny Depp got a nod from critics and fans as better than Pirates II, but it wasn't enough to make me want to give up an evening or afternoon. I have plenty else on my plate, thank you. I took a chance this fall on Across the Universe, which was entertaining. This year I did most of my movie watching at home.

On the other hand, I have read or listened to a lot of very good books this year. One way to get more reading time squeezed in to your life is to listen to books while you commute. Any good library will offer plenty of books on CD or tape for those so inclined. This has been a habit of mine for perhaps eight years now, listening to audio books and lectures.

To my surprise, two books that I found especially engaging in 2007 were made into movies that have been released here in mid-to-late December. The first, No Country for Old Men, by Carson McCormac; the second, Charlie Wilson's War, by George Crile. The full title of this latter book is, Charlie Wilson's War: The Extraordinary Story of How the Wildest Man in Congress and a Rogue CIA Agent Changed the History of Our Times.

Crile's book is a remarkable read. Purportedly the true story of how Congressman Charlie Wilson led the charge to fund the Afghan resistance, the book is both entertaining and disturbing. Well researched and detailed, it does not drag. The scary part for me, however, is that it proves what I have always said about our federal government: It is too big and out of control.

For this reason alone it is an important book, and so is the film that was derived from it. It shows how Washington works.... or doesn't. Or does in spite of itself in some ways.

Like many stories interpreting history, it may be a little overboard in crediting Wilson with ending the cold war (almost single-handedly). But the proposition is intriguing and has at least some partial merit. What he accomplished was no less than astounding.

So when to my surprise I saw a trailer for Charlie Wilson's War coming to theaters, I was really looking forward to it, and hoping they did not botch the story. Just so you know, the film was a superb adaptation. Tom Hanks was good, of course, and Julia Roberts played her role well, but the screen play is what made it all work. It would have been so easy to have gotten lost in the details and to have made a lengthy, wearisome but "important" film. Instead it was a tight story with solid performances throughout. Kudos to director Mike Nichols (The Graduate, Catch-22) and a big round of applause for the incomparable Philip Seymour Hoffman whose range of characterizations is astonishing. The contrast between Capote and Gust Avrokotos is remarkable.

The film had any number of places where it could have become derailed. Instead, Nichols maintained the discipline necessary to make this a highly entertaining and thought provoking experience.
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Fracture (2007)
Well done but fails to engage
30 September 2007
Warning: Spoilers
I hesitated to even rent this film because I had the impression it would be "just another Hollywood chess match" type of movie. Anthony Hopkins is the star, and he does indeed have a Presence in any film he's in, but come on, team, this is just a rehash with nothing new in it.

"But there's a novel twist in his murder defense," someone exclaims.

Big whoop. This film exemplifies why the public is weary of Hollywood movies today. We've seen so much of it and so often that you just can't expect us to be attracted to Star Power alone. There has to be an engaging story.

The story begins swiftly enough. Hopkins shoots his wife in the opening minutes for her philandering, and there is no question in the viewers mind that he did it. Everything hereafter is a game of chess. The problem is that although it looks like he is going to get away with murder, everyone knows early on that he can't because, well, it would not be right. So there is no surprise. (How can any reviewer here spoil a Hollywood formula flick?) So the performances are sufficiently good, and the music appropriate for the moods, the end result is flat. Therefore, I give the film a Five, though it deserves worse for the sheer fact that Hollywood ought to know by now that audiences expect more.
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Better than expected
17 July 2007
Warning: Spoilers
Just finished watching this remake starring Denzel Washington, who is always superb. Before watching this film, I watched the original Manchurian Candidate which received such high marks that it seemed difficult for this movie to compete at any level. Well, happily I found out different. This is a high quality film, well conceived, well produced. All of the actors/actresses are giving it their best and the modernized storyline "works" -- which is the true measure of any creative endeavor in film.

I do not relate to the complainers who say this is an awful and unnecessary remake. The original is well done, but probably overrated. And the cold war context has no equivalent modern relevance. So, a re-make is complete acceptable.

One criticism leveled at this film is the casting of a Big Corporation as the bad guy, as opposed to communist North Korean mind-benders. As an entertainment, this is an acceptable "bad guy", even if such portrayals of Big Business have almost become a Hollywood cliché. I did not have a huge problem with this storyline since to some extent future history remains unwritten and the overt influence of Business on Politics is no secret.

A more problematic aspect of the film is that its first half hour may be too complicated and confusing for someone who has not seen the original Manchurian Candidate. The story line is original in the Original version, and though re-packaged this time around and not utterly "new" it has enough variance that you do not know what will happen next, and you care enough about Denzel's character that you do want to know what will happen next. This is the essence of story: you care and do not know what will happen. This is what keeps people turning the pages in a good book. And here in this movie, if you could predict the ending it would not keep you watching. Too faithful to the original and it would have been a letdown.

A very good film, and well worth the time and rental fees.
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Blood Diamond (2006)
Typical Over-The-Top Hollywood Fare Demands Too Much Suspension of Disbelief
28 March 2007
Warning: Spoilers
OK, first the positives. The acting is great. Dicaprio is very, very good as are the other main characters. The cinematography is rich and wondrous. There is action. The characters are interesting. And, as everyone knows before entering the theater or renting the movie, there is going to be plenty of violence. And yes, the violence is handled with skill. It is movie violence. They do not show the head getting crushed with a shovel, you only see it coming and hear the sound.

Even the title is great. So many levels of meaning. Diamonds and bloodshed, wedded. Oh yes, and that rock you get your sweetheart when you get wedded, might have been bought with blood. And what is a "blood diamond"? It is large, it is hard, it is precious. It is hidden and valuable. It is a metaphor for many things and one thing. Rosebud. A rose is a rose is a rose.

So what's wrong with this movie? Why isn't it working for me? Why do I keep wanting to fast forward? The answers to these questions reveal the movie's fundamental weakness. Is it because I just don't care about the characters? That's part of it. The greater problem is that the quantity of close escapes, improbable escapes, improbable re-unions, impossible situations that you really have to stop caring whether this story could really happen or not.

Dicaprio is superhero and anti-hero. Spiderman with an attitude. No matter how many times he encounters armies of rebels with AK-47s, missiles and the like, he and his sidekick always dodge the bullets and glide away.

And so, you fast forward. You really don't care HOW they get away, and you already know that they will, so what is the big whoop? Fast forward.

Then there is the improbable with regard to African jungles. Are there really no bugs, no snakes, no crocs in the river, no predatory beasts? And where do they sleep? I get tired traveling on a business trip for four days, eating well, sleeping in comfortable beds. These people run through the jungle, sleep on the ground, get up and climb mountains, fight battles. And they never need caffeine. They are superheroes. Bigger than life.

The plot is predictable. You know he will find his family. You know he will find his son again. You already know Africa is a bad, bad place, and that it is the fault of the Colonializers.

Alas, the director created some beautiful cinematography, but like Peter Jackson's King Kong, there were too many scenes that went way too long. My speculation is that these directors spend so much time and money creating a set, setting up the shoot, that they don't have the good sense to put a lot of what is shot onto the cutting room floor. They fall in love with what they created, whether it is relevant or not. I think here of Chinatown by way of contrast. A scene does not have to include everything that happens. The bedroom scene with Faye Dunaway and Jack Nicholson has parts of the beginning of an encounter, parts of the aftermath, and leaves the rest to the imagine. The goal of the scene is to move the story forward. Instead, in movies like King Kong and Blood Diamond, the aim of the scene is The Scene. To make it and milk it.

Great films are about story, and Hollywood all too often forgets this. Blood Diamond could have been a better film. Most of the elements are actually there. The actors certainly gave it their best and performed admirably. In the end, though, the film felt too much like a Hollywood cliché.
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Gripping? Defies description? If you don't think too much...
31 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
Having just recently seen Spider, and having loved Crash, I was expecting another remarkable Cronenberg film, especially with such a gripping trailer.

The film is technically well done and the set up well conceived. Initially it appears to be a movie not unlike one of Hollywood's favorite motifs: innocent good guy minding his own business gets tangled up with bad guys that threaten his life or his family, etc. Cape Fear, Witness, Rear Window, Marathon Man and some other films come to mind. But then the story unfolds and we quickly recognize that Viggo is not so innocent, that he does have a past, and the film switches to Hollywood's second favorite theme: "Man with a Dark Past that comes back to haunt him."

In point of fact there are a finite number of motifs in story telling and there is no harm in this, per se. The treatment is what makes it work or fail. History of Violence disappoints.

The sex scenes were unnecessary, as several people have cited. But that is not what makes the film a problem. The school bully story line was interesting to a point but got old.

THE REAL PROBLEM with the film is that it did not make sense that his wife would not know anything about his past. I can't imagine living with someone for fifteen or twenty years and not having some kind of clue that there is a 25 year gap in their life story. This kind of story is supposed to be believable but for me it was inconceivable.

The first sex scene begins with Maria Bello in a cheerleader outfit saying, "This is to make up for not having been teenagers together." OK, so I figure they came from different places, but at least there was a PLACE he came from. How could there not be any discussion about this in his whole married life? In our house we constantly discuss the impact of family dynamics on our development, and places we have been or impact of events. The absence of details would one day be a clue to something, wouldn't it?

The acting was good... Maria Bello and Viggo were well cast for their roles, but the raving praise of critics on this film is inexplicable to me. I think Ed Harris is always interesting, and I like seeing William Hurt again(even if the role was cliché/caricature.) The first heroic violence by Viggo is laudable, but when he nails the Ed Harris team and then the entire clan, well, it is too much. (and where were the maids?) Too many holes in this story.

I associate Cronenberg with Art, but it looks to me like this was made for the masses to make money. OK for that, I suppose, but not a true great.
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King Kong (2005)
Amazing and Appalling
23 December 2006
I saw this film on the big screen, where it is meant to be seen, and came away feeling amazed that the critics were so generous with this movie. I guess Peter Jackson's cred was such that they forgave him a lot... in particular, trite acting, cardboard caricatures for characters and appallingly long animation sequences that just went on and on and on and on and on and.... My wife went to the bathroom during one of Kong's fight scenes and when she came back she was surprised that she had not missed a thing. Yes, Jackson has remarkable talent in the special effects department. This film was over the top, and gets a five (as opposed to a 3) because of the SFX. The banter between Hayes and Jimmy is so cliché it is comical. Maybe that's the problem with most of this film.... it is like a bead string of clichés.

But yes, Kong (the character) is great. I mean, truly awesome, and the way the love story evolves is actually pretty well conceived.

I could have easily cut this film to half its length and nothing would be missing. Jackson obviously did not have the heart to cut footage he created. A sign of weakness, not strength, in a director.
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The Truman Show: Original, Remarkable, Profound
6 November 2006
Warning: Spoilers
The Truman Show is a remarkable movie. Truman (Jim Carrey) is a character on a TV show whose entire life has been watched by millions worldwide, from birth through adolescence up to the present. Truman is not aware that his world is an artificial one created specifically for the purposes of its director producer Christof (Ed Harris). It is a story of Truman's awakening. And a story about Life.

The movie can be taken on several levels. As entertainment, it works as a story which itself has levels.

Christof as creator of Truman's world ... is godlike, attempting to create a Paradise for his "son".

Truman is a "type" of ourselves, the existential human condition. He is in a situation, inside the box, in his "world", unaware initially of the outside world, of anything beyond...

Because Truman is a being with consciousness, he gets "clues" that things are not what they seem. Events occur that indicate the way he originally perceived his life is different from the way it really is. Examples include: · The studio light falling from the sky · The character he falls in love with · The strange way his wife does "commercials" · The re-appearance of his father · The technical error when the car radio switches to set directions

Truman at one point remarks, "It feels like the whole world revolves around me somehow."

The girl he meets (so briefly) and falls in love with... is a type of those who are enlightened, who know that life is more than what we see, think, understand. She seeks to reach him, but he does not understand her words because of his frame of mind. He is trapped inside his mindset....

Ultimately, we are each like Truman. We are unaware, and as a consequence passive about seeking freedom from our situation. Through chance events we become "awakened" and begin to notice the periodic clues that tell us that life is more than it appears to be.

The result of this awakened consciousness is a decision to act.

From my 1985 Journal notes: "To understand the world we live in, we must first see it as it is, not as we are trained or manipulated to see it. Where do our ideas come from? Ideas about God, about right and wrong, about how we should live... Are they chosen? or...?"

It is interesting that while the world Truman inhabits is counterfeit, the emotions he feels are real. So with ourselves, we do not really perceive things as they really are, but the emotions we feel ~ our fears, hopes, anxieties ~ these are very real.

In another sense we are also like the other players in Truman's world: Like the "extras" and bit part actors, we tend to get caught up in playing our roles, but not really concerned about the real situations of the persons around us. Our lives can become all script, all "show".... In real life, we can be so busy with our "roles" that we do not consider others' needs.

Truman's "awakening" leads to a single overwhelming desire to obtain his freedom from this "world" that is his life.

Perhaps on another level we are like Christof, manipulating all the sets, all the characters, for a "higher purpose".... personal glory. Christof sought ratings. He was a Mastermind.... But in achieving this end he degraded Truman's humanity. All people in the show were his to manipulate. It was his right, he believed, and he was possibly even sincere in his love for Truman, who was a "son" to him.

At times we ourselves think we have a right to control everything. We each want to be Christof in our own sphere of influence. It is unsettling when one of the characters is unpredictable, doesn't follow the script, does not cooperate with the "show". Ultimately, this can lead to a crisis, and the relationships can change.

Christof offered Truman a safe, crime-free world... but Truman wanted something more valuable: his freedom.

When Truman began his quest he was not even aware of what it was he was escaping from, but he knew he must escape. Ultimately, he was seeking to escape from the Bubble, the Dome, his artificial world.

Like Truman we, too, must strive to escape in order to find our true selves and to see what life is all about. Like Truman we have become immersed in a world of illusions.

But the Quest cannot be successful without taking risks. Truman's quest became an obsession. In order to escape he had to face his greatest fears, real fears. And it nearly cost him his life. But he found the door, a door he didn't even know existed... and upon walking through to the other side he would find a new understanding as he left behind everything that was known and familiar to embrace the unknown. Little did he know that "she" was going to be there.... waiting for him.

So, too, with us there are clues, if we would but observe them, that life is more than just the material, physical molecular world. The Scriptures are a book of clues. The "Grand Design" of nature presents us with manifold clues. Conscience is a clue. And deep within our hearts, the "still, small voice."

"In case I don't see you.... Good afternoon, good evening, and good night."
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Early Kubrick film displays his profound skills of storytelling in film in remarkable and poignant World War One film.
6 November 2006
I have placed this early Kubrick anti-war statement on my top ten list both for its originality, great acting, compelling story line, plot twists, and surprisingly beautiful and inspired ending. This one is a heart-breaker account of a moment in history that repeated itself endlessly in that horrific bloodfest called the trenches of World War I. To some extent Kubrick returned to the theme in various ways with Full Metal Jacket, but Kirk Douglas as Colonel Dax is perfect here, demonstrating the challenge of maintaining honor within a system that has turned values on its head. It is a crisis in the life and career of Colonel Dax, who has lived by the watchword of Duty with a capital D throughout his career, but has remained idealistic and faithful to his men. The army's absurd effort to capture "the Anthill" results in a tear in the fabric of his idealism. The ugliness he sees is an eye opener for both Dax and the audience, who sees the truth with tragic clarity.

Colonel Dax, identifying with his men, is an inspiration in contrast to an empty culture of power and prestige with no ethical base.
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Old Gringo (1989)
Interesting Movie, Great Book
2 October 2006
Warning: Spoilers
I had already read the book when I discovered this film. I think Peck is great in nearly everything he does, and this film is no exception. Both the novel and the film have detractors. For me personally, having lived in Mexico a year, I may have had more background understanding that helped me see what Fuentes was doing with this story.

Bierce was a curmudgeon and an aging one at that when he slipped south of the border to flirt with his final destiny. The themes of the book are dimly reflected in the film, but having the book inside you makes you understand the significance of the story, what "the revolution" was really all about, and the tragedy that is Mexico. It was a collision course: Bierce and the Revolution. But Bierce is more akin to the Mexican tragic spirit than our American happy-go-lucky silliness and superficial fake depth.

For a $1.50 you can find the Fuentes book used at It might be worthwhile to read the book, then watch the movie again to see why those who appreciate the film actually get something out of it.
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