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Tuesday, March 6, 2012
It's always a pleasure to find a movie that you thought would be terrible and being proven wrong. After the disaster that was GULLIVER'S TRAVELS I was certain that THE BIG YEAR starring Jack Black would be another travesty of film with him mugging for the camera the same way he always does. Instead I found a delightful film that I know I could watch again and enjoy.
Black stars as Brad Harris, a birder (bird viewing enthusiast) with an uncanny ability to know a bird by the song it sings. The main even for bird viewers is known as a Big Year, a year long event where they try to see as many species of birds as they can. When this 36 year old gets news his ex-wife is remarrying he decides this is the year to take time off from work to fulfill his lifelong wish to do a Big Year.
Stu Preissler (Steve Martin) has decided to retire for the second time from the multinational corporation he is CEO of. While the executives in charge want him to stay on, he too has decided that this is the best opportunity he will have to do his own Big Year. With his wife's blessings, he heads out to start watching.
Which leaves our third main character Kenny Bostick (Owen Wilson). Kenny holds the record for the highest number of birds seen, over 800. His is the record to beat and one that he holds dear. So much so that he puts his record above everything else in his life including his wife (Rosamund Pike) and her desire to have children.
When word gets out the to bird crowd about a major even bringing thousands of species to one location, they all head to begin their counts. Bumping into one another on a boat, Brad and Stu strike up a friendship based on their love of birds neither one admitting to doing a Big Year. As the sightings escalate and they run into one another more often, they get closer and finally Brad admits what he is doing. But Stu holds back.
But Kenny recognizes what's happening and tries to play the two friends off of one another slowing them down in their quest at the same time. This enables him to continue on and attempt to set a new world record. But fences are mended and the friends continue to try and beat the already established record.
Along the way Brad faces two more challenges. One is his father (Brian Dennehy) a blue collar man who can't understand his son's quest. He considers him to be a failure rather than a man who has a chance to take the crown from Kenny. Brad also finds himself falling in love with another birder, a young woman who can make bird calls better than anyone he meets. Unfortunately he discovers she has a boyfriend. Along with the birding itself, these two stumbling blocks offer plot devices that fit nicely into the whole story going on.
Each of these three men comes from various financial backgrounds and families, each has their strengths and weaknesses and each has a goal in mind when it comes to their Big Year. But as the story unfolds we not only have the chance to witness some breath taking scenery but to get a fully flushed out story involving all three characters.
My biggest fear as I began this film was the actors. Black, Martin and Wilson have all had films in the past where a director's complete lack of control resulted in an actor taking over and ruining the production, trying to use their usual shtick thinking it was funny when in truth it had become boring. None of that exists here. Both Black and Martin give exceptional performances and flush out their characters to the fullest without resorting to the old standby laugh getters. Instead we have characters that we care about and who we hope will remain friends. Wilson's character is the saddest of the three without his own being aware of it. One hopes he will one day find the joy the other two achieve by the end of the film.
Don't let the simple concept of this film fool you. It offers so much more than one would think a movie about watching birds could. It also offers Black a chance at redemption in my book, giving him the chance to actually act rather than play the buffoon. Let's just hope he continues to do so.
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Long before movies became the dominant force of nature when it comes to entertainment the theater held audiences captive around the world. The lure of the stage for actors' remains but the popularity comes and goes in waves. Twenty five years ago interest in the stage rose once more when Andrew Lloyd Webber's musical THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA opened. Webber combined horror, musical theater and romance into one massive production and it is the benchmark that many musicals are now compared to.
It's hard to believe that it's actually been 25 years since it was first performed. It remains fresh for the thousands who see it performed to this day. I was fortunate enough to see it performed live in both Chicago and Cleveland and it still gives me chills to think of the opening. When I heard about THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA 25TH ANNIVERSARY PERFORMANCE LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL I was anxious to see how it would come out. It is amazing and a true treat for those who may have never seen it performed live.
If you've never seen the stage performance (and by all means you should) or the movie version (good but doesn't nearly equal a live performance) then you need to watch this. While the Royal Albert Hall wasn't set up for stage performances the crew involved here to a stupendous job mixing the stage performance, live orchestra and video screens to bring it to life.
The story itself (for those who've missed it so far) involves a young woman named Christine Daae (Sierra Boggess), a member of the chorus in the French Opera House, who has caught the eye of the mysterious Phantom (Ramin Karimloo). He's coached her and sets about to replace the Opera's reining diva with his protégé. Mishaps continue to occur until Christine is finally recognized by the new owners as well as their financial backer, Raoul (Hadley Fraser). It seems that he and Christine grew up together and were once in love.
The Phantom continues his training of Christine in his underground labyrinth beneath the Opera house in a dwelling he's formed in the sewer system of the Paris. Here he composes songs meant just for her as well as teaching her how to perform. It's obvious he love her deeply but hides not just his emotions but his face behind a half mask due to scarring that took place some time ago.
Raoul and Christine are joined together in love much to the displeasure of the Phantom who seeks to possess Christine body and soul. As he manipulates everything about the Opera house to bring her to stardom, a final confrontation between the two men for the love of Christine is imminent. She will have to make a decision between her long lost love and the man who inspires her music with his own.
Instead of the scary and horrific monster we've been witness to for so many years when it came to the Phantom we are now presented with a deformed innocent who was tortured and ridiculed most of his life wanting nothing more than to be loved. This Phantom is the most sympathetic character in the film even though he murders, kidnaps and threatens to get his way. His longing for love, not lust, when it comes to Christine is sad and at moments you find yourself rooting for him instead of Raoul.
The story would be enough to make this interesting but the music that goes with it only enhances the whole. Songs like "The Phantom of the Opera", "Wishing You Were Somehow Here Again" and "Music of the Night" are tunes that will remain in your memory long after witnessing this piece.
As if it wasn't enough to see a near perfect performance of the musical once the entire cast takes its bow Webber himself takes the stage. He thanks so many for their help through the year and then introduces the original crew and then the cast from that first London performance including Michael Crawford and Sarah Brightman. Brightman then performs "The Phantom of the Opera" with five of the actors that have done so in the past 25 years. These same men then perform "Music of the Night". It is an amazing thing to watch and enjoy.
If you've never seen this musical then this is the way to do so short of finding it playing live. Not only is it a wonderful 25th anniversary present, it's a brilliant musical as well and the package put together to celebrate is one worth adding to your collection.
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It's amazing the stories that come up and even more so to think that they are all completely original. Some say there are truly only several different stories available to tell but that these 3-4 are embellished enough to make them different. Then there are the classics, the tales told for what seems like forever. Take for instance Shakespeare. His plays and sonnets are considered the best ever written in the English language. But what if he wasn't the actual author?
There are historical discussions on just this topic and that's where the inspiration for the movie ANONYMOUS comes from. It takes the idea that Shakespeare was actually illiterate and that someone else wrote everything he is credited with.
Edward De Vere, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifans) is an aristocrat dedicated to his queen, Elizabeth I (Vanessa Redgrave). But he sees those around her manipulating things to the way they wish them to be as opposed to what is best for England. It seems that the Queen takes the word and influence of William Cecil (David Thewliss) more than that of anyone and past history has yielded De Vere and Cecil as mortal enemies even though De Vere is married to Cecil's daughter.
De Vere is a man of words as well as action. It is through these words that he has always reached the Queen. The movie moves forward and back in time showing them as subject and royalty and also as lovers. But there are dark secrets looming which aren't revealed until much later. The movie is filled with secrets and plotting turning what would at first seem the tale of Shakespeare into a political thriller instead.
Watching the lowly crowds during performances of plays De Vere realizes the power one could have by controlling this crowd. They react to the words being performed but none is enough to spark them or inspire them. He has those words and the ability to write them but his position prevents him from doing so. Instead he hires playwright Ben Johnson (Sebastian Armento) to produce the plays he writes using his name instead. Johnson backs out on the deal though, releasing the play as written by Anonymous. When the crowd calls for the author actor William Shakespeare (Rafe Spall), who knows of the deal, steps forward to take credit where it isn't due.
The plays continue to be written and performed and the crowd can't get enough. And in various stories they can see that they relate to things happening in England, slightly camouflaged but not quite enough to hide their true meaning. At the same time the members of the Queen's court are made aware as well and manipulations are implemented to sway her majesty. The center of their disagreement lies in an heir to the throne. Elizabeth has no legitimate children to inherit the crown and Cecil wants to insert James, the son of Mary and a Scot. Those who believe that only a true Englishman should rule are seeking someone else.
The behind the scenes wheeling and dealing, the deceptions that come into play and the final twist in this story make for an interesting film. With so many characters with so many titles, it becomes slightly confusing at times but not enough to take away from the story going on. Instead it's like watching one of the classic BBC series that used the same subject matter just turning it into a 2 hour film rather than a month long series.
The acting is amazing. As always to me the sign of a fantastic actor is one who so immerses himself in the role that you never even consider that someone is acting but accept them as that person. Ifans does an amazing job setting so into the role that you would barely recognize him from previous films. The supporting cast does an extremely great job as well and casting Joely Richardson to play the young Queen while her mother portrays the aging Queen was a smart move.
The film may not be for everyone. It offers little to no action or true comedy. Instead it tells a possibility that may have existed in history, the true author of the plays of Shakespeare and their real reason for being written. It offers intrigue to the fullest extent making current spy movies seem rather cumbersome and this one more filled with finesse. It's an interesting movie that will entertain you if you give it a chance and perhaps influence you to look deeper. The question of who actually wrote the plays is still in doubt and argued by scholars around the world. Watching a movie like this could inspire you to look deeper into finding an answer.
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I was looking forward to seeing the movie J. EDGAR. I was never a fan of the man it was about, but with all the information brought out over the years about the secretive man who managed to create perhaps the most effective law enforcement organization ever I thought there should be a great story to be told here. There still is but this isn't the movie that does so.
For those who don't know the name, J. Edgar Hoover was the creator of and the driving force behind the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) for decades. Not only was he the man responsible for putting the bureau together, he ran it when America was under attack by subversives, during the depression when criminals seemed more famous than those tracking them and later on when the FBI took on the Mafia at the behest of Attorney General Robert Kennedy.
The film takes us through the various stages of Hoover's life from his early start at working for the Attorney General when the first outcry of radical attacks came. Still living at home Hoover was heavily influenced by his mother (played here by Judi Dench). It was her desire to see her son reinvigorate the Hoover name once again in Washington and he eventually did so.
We watch as Hoover moves back and forth through time as he narrates passages of his memoirs to a subordinate taking us to those times when events actually happened. Along with these memories we get a chance to see Hoover for who he was as well, especially the man who witnessed so many politicians attempt to use the bureau for political reasons that he established a series if private files he kept on any and all people in power to use against them should they stand in his way. Had that been the main force behind the story here it would have been much more interesting.
Instead writer Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood seem more interested in the seedier side of Hoover's life. In doing so the story of the man behind the FBI becomes a love story more than anything else. And that love story revolves around the tabloid fed stories about Hoover being gay and involved with his trusted friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). There is little doubt according to some that they were involved but why make that the focus especially when stating that it wasn't?
The story that develops here does come through in the idea that Hoover became obsessed with his ideas that Communists were attempting to subvert the country that he loved; that more than anything portrays him as the patriot that he was, a man who loved his country above all else. But rather than show that yes, there were subversives who attempted to overthrow this country that were caught, it appears there were more civil rights violations going on that deserved more coverage. Granted Hoover was wrong on many of these occasions, but to display one side without the other seems disingenuous.
We never see scenes of Hoover and Tolson in locked embrace or in bed together but much is made of their affection for one another. There is one brief heated kiss but that's all. Perhaps that was a gesture towards the fact that other than what went on behind closed doors was only known for certain to Hoover and Tolson themselves. But the longing for one another takes up more than half of the screen time seen here and for me made the picture more boring than anything.
Leonardo DiCaprio does a fantastic job portraying Hoover throughout the various ages seen here. While some would credit the make up artists for much of that portrayal, more goes into it than that. How a man walks, how he talks, how he carries himself in various stages of life bring out the character being portrayed and DiCaprio displays that here.
Hoover was an interesting man. His change from law defender to law breaker is interesting. His efforts to create the best crime fighting organization is interesting. His love life is not. I have yet to fathom the desire of Hollywood and their goal to dismantle each and every hero we have in our past. They seem determined to talk less about the accomplishments made by everyone from Thomas Jefferson to Hoover and more inclined to talk about the salacious details of their lives. Perhaps they've become influenced by the commercials that once ran for THE ENQUIRER that said "Enquiring minds want to know". I for one do not. I'm much more appreciative of movies that cover all bases and spend less time on dirt.
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It's been 25 years since Robin Williams starred in GOOD MORNING VIETNAM just being released on blu-ray. The movie was based on the life of Adrian Cronauer, an Air Force officer who changed the way the military ran radio during the Vietnam War. At least that's what I think most of us thought the movie was about. But it turns out to be more about a comedian run wild in a starring role than about what happened in Vietnam.
Williams stars as Cronauer, in this case an officer hand picked by Gen. Taylor (Noble Willingham) to bring his humor to the approved radio station the military runs for the troops. To date that station has had flat sounding DJs who play nothing more exciting than a polka. Cronauer changes that by playing rock and roll, the music that most of the soldier in the field listened to before they were brought to this country.
This runs counter to the man in charge, Sgt. Major Dickinson (J.T.Walsh) and his right hand man Lt. Hauk (Bruno Kirby). They see no problems with the way things have been and so take offense to the new guy. But with the General backing him, Cronauer's personality runs wild on the air and he breathes fresh air into the style and content of the show he does. It also infects the other on air talent and makes them step up their game as well.
As he gets used to his new situation Cronauer is aided by Edward Garlick (Forest Whitaker). Garlick advises him of the way things are run, how to get around things on occasion and introduces him to the locals, the females of which are of particular interest to Cronauer. One in particular strikes his fancy and in an attempt to woo her, he takes over a class being taught to the locals on how to speak English. This leads to his meeting the young woman's brother and her family.
The back and forth between enlisted talent and military officials continues. Cronauer has little or no idea of what is actually happening or how popular he's become. But he gets a wake up call when the local bar is bombed by members of the Vietcong. He sees the devastation and realizes that there is a war going on. This change in observation affects Cronauer in such a way that he reads a news brief uncensored for once on the air causing another major rift with the powers that be.
The movie presented to us shows a man who took matters into his own hands and stood for what he believed. It also shows a spastic comedic presence on the air that eventually saw the good he was doing. But the fact is that when you take the time to watch the extras included on this disc you realize the whole character of Adrian Cronauer is less Adrian and more Robin Williams and that's always been one of my biggest problems when watching Williams act.
Catch phrases and bits and pieces of his stand up routines always find a way into the roles he plays unless he has a director that takes hold of him and actually directs his talent which he has in abundance. But left unchecked and unharnessed Williams spastic interpretations of characters seem less like a person being portrayed and more like, well Williams performing as a comedian. Suddenly the story of Adrian Cronauer (though one would assume he was well paid for his story) is less what this is about and more about Williams being himself.
In those extras director Barry Levinson says that the amount of time showing Williams on air antics amounts to less than 14 minutes. But those 14 minutes are the most alive in the film and were used in the advertising campaigns when the film came out to the point where that's the parts you remember. But there are many other times in the film that it feels more Robin and less Adrian.
This was the first time I'd watched this film since seeing it 25 years ago. While it is still an enjoyable film it continues to grate on me that it seems more stand up than biopic. Williams has the ability to be a dynamic actor. To this day I felt that he deserved an Oscar for his performance in THE WORLD ACCORDING TO GARP. But when he's turned lose and allowed to use his stand up in a role that doesn't need it, it distracts rather than enhances. The movie is worth watching to see a developing talent and an interesting story but I for one would have liked to see something more about the real Adrian Cronauer and less about Robin Williams.
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It's always nice to see something new tossed into the mix when it comes to horror films. Well it's nice to see it when it works. When it doesn't it just becomes tedious and makes you wish something better had happened. Such is the case with STORMHOUSE.
Taking place 11 months before the invasion of Iraq it tells the story of a secret military base in England that has captured an entity, a ghost if you will. Professional ghost whisperer Hayley Sands has been brought in to assist with how to handle this entity and control it. Taken through the various stages of security she finally meets the man in charge, Maj. Lester.
Lester doesn't feel that Hayley will be able to accomplish much. Taking her to see the entity, she finds an electrified chain link fence that contains it. Watching videos of the enclosure she gets a glimpse of what it looks like when it allows itself to be seen. But seeing isn't what she needs to do. She needs to come in contact with it to understand it better.
Yeah, that's gonna have good results. Of course things go wrong, the entity escapes and begins possessing various members of the guard as well as an Iraqi citizen they tossed into its cage to see how it would react. This film features military stereotypes that are definitely not the good guys.
The biggest problem with this movie is the pacing. It's low and slow, taking far too much time to unfold and when it comes time for a payoff we get to glimpse pretty much nothing. Had the entity slowly possessed one member of the team and maneuvered them around it might have been more interesting. Or had the film gone the opposite route and shown the entity more often it would have been better. Instead it leaps from one person to the next and never quite gives us time to react.
This is not to say the movie is totally without merit. There are far too many horror films released these days that offer less story and more gore. Both are represented here but not to the point of being excessive. But with the story they have so much more could have been done with it. Still, for a $1 rental this movie could offer a few chills and some thought provoking ideas that would lead to a discussion of what would the military do if it actually did employ a creature like this.
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A few years back directors Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez wanted to pay tribute to those movies that played the drive in or grindhouse circuit with their double feature extravaganza GRINDHOUSE. The pair of films was amazing to watch and made viewers realize how much they enjoyed the old grindhouse low budget films seen in their youth. Unfortunately that movie also had some fallout. Suddenly there was a rush of films being made by other less talented directors that tried to pay tribute as well, failing miserably. NUDE NUNS WITH BIG GUNS is a perfect example.
In the world of NNWBG, the Catholic Church is involved with the cartels in the transportation, packaging and sale of illegal narcotics. When part of a shipment turns up missing, biker leader/distributor Chavo kills all involved with the delivery...almost. One of the nuns survives and takes it as a sign. She is now to take down the cartel single handed. Suddenly we have a change from Lamb of God to executioner for God, able to shoot better than most marksmen with little or no practice.
Instead of saving souls this nun tracks down the various members of the gang and cartel in an attempt to slaughter them all. During one trip when she enters a packaging house where all the nuns stand around naked (with the exception of the white coif or headpiece that nuns wear) packing cocaine for the priests who run the drugs. Everyone is killed in the ensuing melee with the exception of one nun, a friend of our hero. They are such close friends that they end up in bed together. Yes we've entered the exploitation world where religious vows are tossed aside and killing and sex between nuns is accepted.
The killings and attacks go on and on with the nun taking down various members of the priesthood and then the gang that tried to kill her. Each of them is a step towards finding the main group in charge. Unfortunately she never accomplishes her goal and by the end of the film you find out that this is just the first part of the story, a sequel to follow. For once I continue to hope that a sequel never appears.
The most basic problem with this film is the attack on anything anyone would hold sacred. If you believe in God or the church then avoid this movie at all costs. You will most definitely be offended in all possible ways. For some reason the independent film industry thinks its hip and cool to defile all things religious (with the exception of the Muslim religion which would put out a death decree on you if you did so). Choose whatever you want to believe freely, but why this need to desecrate Christianity or any religion? It's a cheap shot used for shock effect and stupid.
The second problem is the blatant attempt to ride on the coat tails of the Tarantino/Rodriguez film, so much so that I would swear the theme song is the same one used in that original film. If not, Rodriguez should sue because of the striking similarity. The film pulls out all the tricks from grainy stock film to the style of shots, cuts, pullbacks and more. But it completely misses the mark and rather than seem like a true grindhouse film it feels more like a tribute to the tribute instead.
Director Joseph Guzman seems to have a problem with religion. I say that because the only other feature he's directed is named RUN BITCH RUN and is described on imdb as "Things go horribly wrong when Catherine and Rebecca, two Catholic School girls, knock on the wrong door while selling Religious paraphernalia." My suggestion would be that Guzman either attempt therapy to handle his problems or just ignore the church in general rather than make anyone who watches one of his films deal with his problem.
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