Friday, November 13, 2009

Benny & The Mets

As a die-hard Met Fan, Benny Agbayani's Game 3 game-winning home-run versus the SF Giants in the 2000 NLDS is one of my favorite in-person baseball memories.  News comes now that he's retiring.  Be well, Benny and best of luck.

Return Of Ninja Cat

Personal Emasculating Fact of the Day: I love cute animal videos. A personal favorite, Ninja Cat, returns below. Like any great sequel, the budget and storyline have been taken up a few notches.

Friday, January 12, 2007

Are You Talkin' To Me? A Review of ALPHA DOG

There’s an interesting irony in Nick Cassavetes’s by turns engrossing and frustrating film, ALPHA DOG, about spoiled L.A. white-bread twenty-somethings turned wannabe-gangsters. Based on a true story (not pointed out in the film due to ongoing legal proceedings) about the 1999 kidnapping of an innocent 15-year-old teenager and sad aftermath over a $1200 debt his older half-brother owed, the film points out the influence of the glorification of the thug life in pop-culture iterations like De Palma’s SCARFACE, gangsta-rap music and video games. However, ALPHA DOG itself never achieves anything but a widescreen display of the glorification of the spoiled L.A. white-bread twenty-something turned wannabe gangster life. In short, its no better than what it decries.

In the movie, the cinematically-named Johnny Truelove (Emile Hirsch, looking like someone shrunk Jack Black), who deals drugs his mob-connected father Sonny (Bruce Willis, often making the “you gotta be f%#$ing crazy” Bruce Willis face) gets him, heads a posse of hangers-on and watch-dogs who smoke a ton of weed and hang out in their parents’ beautiful homes and pools with eager-to-please hotties. Who wouldn’t love that? They may all act “hard,” but it’s in a fashion an outsider might consider “cute,” especially considering the constant exposure to the California sun. When local degenerate Jake Mazursky (Ben Foster, entertainingly channeling Robert DeNiro’s Johnny Boy from MEAN STREETS) welches on money owed from some product he was supposed to move, it spawns a “how-far-will-they-go” game of one-upmanship that spirals downward until Truelove’s crew happens upon and picks up Mazursky’s angelic little brother Zach (Anton Yelchin). Remaining cool and level-headed, Zach ingratiates himself as a little brother to right-hand man Frankie (Justin Timberlake, who shines in his role) and to the Truelove’s gang at large. He even, um, experiences things that any 15-year-old boy would KILL for.

The sad fact, of course, is that in real life there are real living people still deeply affected by what transgressed. Cassavetes, son of indie filmmaking legend Jon and actress Gena Rowlands, strives for emotion by opening the film with innocent home movies (further channeling MEAN STREETS) of what’s intended to be the victimized family and intermittently cutting in reality-show type talking head testimonials from those involved. When these scenes are viewed in the context of the whole movie, however, one can’t help but feel it isn’t a gritty cautionary callout or moral narrative, but instead one that has tripped across the fine line into exploitive territory by marveling at the lives of the wrong-doers it sought to judge.

** out of *****

Friday, December 29, 2006

A 'Tween The Holidays & The New Year Gift: A Review of CHILDREN OF MEN

With your overflowing belly still digesting holiday yum-yums, your credit card still bruised and sore from its seasonal pounding and just before you bury your self-improvement lies in a boozy New Year’s resolution, let this writer sneak one final cinematic gift into your now achingly empty stocking: skip the seasonal trappings of lavish yet stale, redundant Oscar-baiting musicals, free yourself from laborious, re-heated boxing sequels and other “inspirational” sports ephemera, destroy any and all loud 3-D animated 90-minute money-suckling kid-opiates and lap-up the intense cinematic thrill-ride that is Alfonso Cuaron’s CHILDREN OF MEN.

Enjoy the film because of its timely ethos. Set in 2027 Britain, the epicenter of a ravaged and diseased world where women have been infertile for twenty years. Is this due to an epic moral fall-out? Possibly; though the film subtly hints at a lack of social responsibility within the general populace more being a cause. Britain has become the world’s focus because many developed nations and cities have already fallen; thus treating other country’s refugees with a xenophobic blood-lust akin to Germany’s during World War II. Delving out this justice by fire is a pseudo-“Homeland Security” department run amok; debilitating personal freedom for security and thereby creating an totalitarian state.

Enjoy the film for its boozing, reluctant anti-hero, Theodore Faron (Clive Owen). In the tradition of the hard-boiled detectives of classic ‘40s-50s film-noir traced through BLADE RUNNER’s Rick Deckard and TOTAL RECALL’s Douglas Quaid, Faron trusts nobody but himself in his task of providing safe flight for the world’s only bona-fide pregnant women, Kee (Claire-Hope Ashitey); not the government, the underground rebels meant to “protect” them, nor any potential commoditizing poacher. Owen handles the role with a skillful level of cool, confidence and unpretentiousness that makes good on the promise of the same traits displayed in his earlier roles, notably in CROUPIER.

Enjoy the film for its wicked and unpredictable little sense of humor, off-setting it’s often heart-pounding pace; thus gently and enjoyably toying with its audience. Laugh along with Michael Caine’s Jasper Palmer, a dog-eared new-age hippie-guru and protector. Chuckle (internally) at the sight of Julianne Moore’s face next to “World’s Most Wanted Terrorist” on a breaking-news placard. The benefit of such deft touch is the sheer force of the tragic moments that often appear in their more humorous brethren’s wake. These are the meat of the film and are as pulsating, piercing and powerful as a war documentary or embedded newscast. Stylistically, they are treated as much, with handheld cameras and without any edits; therefore never allowing you a break to catch your breath. This strength can also be a tiny hindrance; sometimes certain moments are better left to the individual evil devices of one’s own imagination than displayed.
Be the first on your block to enjoy this film and spread the gospel if you are like-minded. Due to its odd release date (considering its more seasonally traditional competition), its seeming lack of a major marketing push and likely resulting lackluster box office performance, CHILDREN OF MEN may go quickly; banished to “cult” status and left gain to gain likely behind-closed-doors popularity in succeeding years away from the big-screen medium it deserves to be seen on now.

**** out of *****

Friday, December 22, 2006

Behind Closed Doors: A review of THE GOOD SHEPHERD

Is it a coincidence that the main character of Robert DeNiro’s THE GOOD SHEPHERD, Edward Wilson (played by Matt Damon), and the current president of the United States both come from privileged White-Anglo Protestant backgrounds; both attended Yale where they were members of the secretive Skull & Bones fraternity; and had successful careers in service of this country due in part to the cronyism of his fellow crumbs in the upper-crust? With those similarities hard to discount, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is about the powerful men who birthed the CIA and operated as the clandestine puppet-masters behind the so-called “little wars” of the greater Cold one against Communism.

The film opens with the CIA’s botched 1961 attempt by the United States to invade Castro’s Communist Cuba at the Bay of Pigs with Wilson one of the key wizards behind the curtain. It is Wilson’s first big mistake in a lifetime of successes - running spy missions in Germany during World War II, joining the nascent CIA after it - documented via flashback throughout the film. It soon becomes clear that men of Wilson’s caliber and upbringing are judged by the level of loyalty they have for the Stars & Stripes, a self-assigned right to determine the military and financial course of this country. Indeed, the rest of us are, as Wilson states later, “just renting.” The flip-side to this deity-complex is the isolation it causes; isolation from your own family and from outside opinion, inevitably sending you down dangerous paths like the Bay of Pigs or perhaps the current situation in Iraq. In THE GOOD SHEPHERD, the irony is that the security Wilson strives to keep for his family (and his country) keeps him away from them, ultimately with tragic results.

As an actor, Robert DeNiro has most notably and memorable collaborated with Director Martin Scorsese. However, here as a director he seems to take his filmmaking cues from a less-frequent collaborator, Francis Ford Coppola. While Scorsese is known to capture thuggish protagonists and stories at the bloodier street levels (a la DeNiro’s last credited directorial effort, A BRONX TALE), Coppola’s best films are large operatic tragedies that feature authoritarian men who keep their cards close if not inside their vest. Indeed, one can make an obvious comparison for THE GOOD SHEPHERD to the first two GODFATHER films. From a style standpoint, take the amazing camera work of Robert Richardson, truly one of the best cinematographers working today; his dark frames provide similar emotional content to Gordon Willis’s work. For his part, Damon handles his Michael Corleone-ish cold-hearted poker-face killer-exterior with aplomb; you can very much see fiery, yet subtle emotion bubbling beneath his eyes. Above all, plot-point and cinematic device comparisons can be made so much so, that by the time Joe Pesci makes his perfunctory retired-don cameo, you half expect Hyman Roth to pop out of the closet and ask for a “smaller piece” of cake. Perhaps this speaks to the cultural permeation of THE GODFATHER, which in turn owes its own debt to Greek and Shakespearean tragedies; but you also feel a clone’s cold teeth ever nipping at your heals.

At over two and half hours, THE GOOD SHEPHERD is quite long but if you get sucked in – and you should – it’s an overall captivating ride similar to the films it stylistically strives to be. The film’s true power, however, is its open window view into the successes, failures and fallacies of the men who, behind closed doors, really run this country.

***1/2 out of *****

Friday, September 30, 2005

THE WAR WITHIN - A Movie Review

Upon reflection of seeing the internal struggles and conflicts of a would-be Islamic fundamentalist intent on blowing up Grand Central Station in Joseph Costelo's THE WAR WITHIN, two thoughts pop into mind: one, that we have arrived at a comfortable enough distance in time from the incalculable tragedy of the terrorist attacks of September 11th for them to be directly sourced within popular culture; and two, that as a New Yorker, you can almost watch as locations you frequent daily become targets on-screen without too much wincing. Are these good things?

Recent films like HOTEL RWANDA, THE CONSTANT GARDENER and IN MY COUNTRY have taken recent real-life or close-to-real-life tragedies and repurposed them for our cinematic consumption; often shedding interrogation-intense light on international horrors that skip by our news radars. THE WAR WITHIN, on the other hand, deals with still-controversial and fresh events and issues that happened in our and, personally, my backyard. Specifically, the film centers on Hassan (Ayad Akhtar, who co-wrote the screenplay), a Pakistani-born, American-educated and westernized Parisian who is abducted in a terrorist sweep (by who, it's never clear) soon after September 11th, 2001. After horrid treatment, Hassan reappears in the present day as an Islamic fundamentalist sent to New York City, tasked as an engineer for an unnamed terrorist group hell-bent on revisiting new horrors upon the city. While in New York, Hassan stays with Sayeed (Firdous Bamji), a childhood friend, who has assimilated himself and his family quite well into the American dream. As Hassan acquaints his present-self with his past, internal conflict arises. Will he actually go through with his assignment?

Based only on the fact that it portrays the mindset of a terrorist - the "other side" if you will - THE WAR WITHIN is, without a doubt, an important film. Like the films previously mentioned, the producers and filmmakers deserve an enormous amount of credit bringing something like THE WAR WITHIN to the screen. Truthfully, it speaks to overall power of cinema that a rare point-of-view can be given voice and outlet. This is not to say, however, that THE WAR WITHIN is a particularly good film. Hassan's "will-he" or "won't he" conflict is by no means enough to carry an entire film and the middle of its 90 minute span sags from its tiresome prolonging. Other plot devices, like an almost re-kindled romance between Hassan and Sayeed's way too-cute sister, Farida (Sarita Choudhury) and Hassan's fundamentalist 101 education of Sayeed's young son feel awkward, forced and artificial; they suffer from a lack of any real exposition. The best external conflicts, that between Hassan and his old friend, Sayeed, and Hassan and his shaky partner, Abdul, are left under-fed as a result. Until the very end, Costelo's portrayal of the America Sayeed and his family have assimilated into is way too squeaky clean to be believed; any subtle fear of and prejudice towards the main characters is non-existent. Indeed it is the end that finally delivers some unforgettable moments; the scene where Hassan passes the innocent men, women and children he may soon after kill being the most compelling.

They say time heals all wounds; but I wonder what the reaction would have been to a movie like 2001's PEARL HARBOR, had it been released a few years after the original tragedy? Will there be some silly, effects-laden romantic adventure movie made about the events of September 11th fifty years from now? Probably. Until that day, however, we can be at least be treated to a serious yet flawed treatment of events we are still trying to understand.

**1/2 of *****

Saturday, May 14, 2005


If Will Ferrell quit the business tomorrow, his place within the hipster pop culture pantheon would be secure. With roles like OLD SCHOOL’S Frank The Tank and his better Saturday Night Live bits, Ferrell has made his mark playing the “man-child:” a character whose faux cool exterior hides a fragile (and funny) tyke inside who gives in to fits of spontaneous, vocally high-pitched and emotionally intense outbursts. In Jesse Dylan’s KICKING & SCREAMING, his shtick collides with actual children for a go on the soccer pitch.

Ferrell plays Phil Weston, a vitamin salesman whose son warms the bench on his soccer team. Phil is a wishy-washy modern guy who can easily cry, sew, and be politically correct around lesbians (did I mention he also sells vitamins?) Despite a lifetime’s worth of trying, Phil has never been able to please his hard-line father Buck (Robert Duvall) who coaches said soccer team with the ferocity of Vince Lombardi. Buck is a man’s man, who eats steak for breakfast and cares enough about winning to bench his own grandson. When Phil pleads with Buck to get his son off the pine, Buck “trades” him to the last place team in the league, which is, of course, filled with a cast of non-athletic booger-flickers and dirt-eaters channeled from the likes of the original BAD NEWS BEARS. Cue not one but two hit-in-the-groin jokes. Left without a coach and faced with forfeiting their season, Phil fills in, helped out by his father’s neighbor and rival, real life ex-football coach Mike Ditka. Before long, Phil obsesses with beating his father and loses sight of why he took the job in the first place – to be a better dad to his son.

The best part of the film – for adults anyway – is the contrast between Buck’s “Father Knows Best” old school and Phil’s “Queer Eye For The Straight Guy” new school. Ferrell, for one, plays straight man to the wacky group of tykes for a sizable portion of the film. It’s only in the second half, as an overly caffeinated coaching monster, does he tackle his comedic talents and some genuine chuckles ensue. Ditka also proves himself game, although, to be fair, I’m not sure how much of a stretch it is to play oneself or a parody thereof.

The worst part of the film – for adults again – is Jesse Dylan’s (yes, Bob’s son) filmmaking skills. At least half the movie is shot hand-held, resulting in a constant shaky frame. Does an innocent scene where Phil hands out little birds in cages to each team member need to look like a LAW & ORDER episode? Do the birds murder the parents? No! Too many scenes also felt stitched together. It’s almost as if Dylan didn’t know what he wanted, shot everything possible and patched together a sloppy quilt in the editing room. You may scoff at my critical snobbery over such a “family” movie, but the simple truth is that filmmaking basics are like umpiring in baseball: it’s at its best when you don’t notice it. Any moment where your viewing momentum is broken is poison for a director.

If you are an eleven year-old boy with a face full of chocolate and you and your buddies need to ride out a Reese’s Pieces high, I’d recommend KICKING & SCREAMING. For you twenty or thirty-something fans of Will Ferrell, I’d wait four months, save five bucks, rent the DVD and suckle a few chuckles and munchies in the comfort of your own home.

**1/2 out of *****

Thursday, March 10, 2005

IN MY COUNTRY: A Film Review

Should a film get a critical pass because it is about a highly important social topic? In a recent review I wrote on HOTEL RWANDA, I emphatically said “yes.” Well, that little personal rule is about to meet its enemy, stinging exception. Director John Boorman’s (DELIVERANCE, EXCALIBUR, TAILOR OF PANAMA) heart is in the right place, setting his latest film, IN MY COUNTRY, amidst South Africa’s real-life Truth & Reconciliation hearings; an attempt by that country’s government to right the wrongs of apartheid by trying those who doled out the persecution. Unfortunately, however, it’s his filmmaking mind that leaves the film’s events feeling thin and undercooked.

Based on the novel COUNTRY OF MY SKULL by Antjie Krog, IN MY COUNTRY stars French ingĂ©nue Juliette Binoche as Anna, a native white South African poet, who is covering the hearings for national radio. Outraged and shocked by the testimony she hears, Anna is nonetheless treated as one of “them” by Washington Post reporter Langston Whitfield (Samuel L. Jackson). The debate about whether blame for such atrocities lies with the most powerful few, the soldiers they charge with orders or the populace who may or may not know of the goings-on is the most glowing and interesting theme in the film. Similar deliberation constructs the crux of Stanley Kramer’s classic, JUDGEMENT AT NUREMBURG, with Nazism in place of apartheid. But while it is the focus of the latter film, it is only a few of the pixels that comprise the blurry total image of IN MY COUNTRY.

As Anna and Langston get past the associations their skin pigments bring to the fray and find the individuals underneath, they have an affair. But a quick glimpse of a kiss and a shorter moment of edited passion betrays a kid-glove treatment to what may have been a compelling storyline. What you’ve already read might have been enough to effectively fill 104 minutes, but IN MY COUNTRY grows grossly overweight on a myriad of sub-plots. For example, the effect of Anna’s affair on her husband and family; Anna’s mother admitting to a past affair with an African-American; oddly placed intermittent pace-killing inserts of Whitfield interviewing De Jager (Brendan Gleeson), a former ringleader of barbarity; a needless sub-plot regarding the involvement of Anna and Langston’s guide, another involving a caretaker from Anna’s youth; Whitfield’s anger over the American press’s disregard for the proceedings; and, most lukewarm and needless, the glossed over suicide and funeral of Anna’s brother. While full treatment of these pieces – and others, not named - would have resulted in a three-hour epic long puzzle, inclusion of some would have sufficed here. Admittedly, I did not read the book, but it is quite plain to see that the filmmakers wanted to stuff every last bit of it and then some into its cinematic adaptation.

It is indeed a fallacy to believe that any film that tackles weighty social issues should be perceived as “important” (JAKOB THE LIAR, anyone?) Sometimes, as in the case of IN MY COUNTRY, the movie gets in the way and serves itself instead of the substantial cause that originally inspired it.