Saturday, December 25, 2010

Saddle Up. The Coen Brothers Take On The Old West

Three and a half stars

Saddle up. The Coen Brothers are back in town. This time they are heading off to the old west for a re-make of ‘True Grit’, the John Wayne classic. The story involves a young girl named Mattie (Hailee Steinfield) as she is grieving for her murdered father. Well, maybe grieving isn’t quite the word. This girl has grit, and she wants revenge for her father’s murder. She wants to see Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin) punished for her father’s murder. She wants him brought to justice. So, she hires Rooser Cogburn (Jeff Bridges, being well, Jeff Bridges) to track down this man Chaney and bring him to justice. Meanwhile she also meets, LaBoeuf (Matt Damon) who is also trying to track down Chaney because he murdered a senator in Texas. All in all, this Chaney fellow sounds like a bad dude. And in the old West, you get hanged if you mess around in the wrong way.

This film has all the quirkiness you expect from a Coen Brothers film. Hailee Steinfield is perfect as Mattie. She doesn’t flinch at all. She keeps looking straight ahead. An eye on the prize, as her mission is to bring Chaney to justice. Steinfield is this character. She is in every scene of this film. This is her first role. People mistake her for weak because she is a fourteen year old, though, throughout the film, she proves herself to be as strong willed as the other characters on the trail of Chaney. She is the quirky hero the Cohan Brothers love to have in their films.

Jeff Bridges plays a new version of the John Wayne role. When he looks at a dying man on the floor, he says “I can’t help you, son!” He rides his horse and he carries around that big gun, and aims it. You get the sense that the Coen Brothers are trying to adapt the novel as straight forward as possible. There are scenes in this movie that are wonderfully done. There are also scenes both crowd pleasing and not crowd pleasing. They try to keep the grittiness of the old west intact.

Bridges talks in a tone where he doesn’t flinch. He is on the mission alongside Mattie, trying to find Chaney. Matt Damon is alongside him. He does some fine acting as the less eccentric one on the trip. Mattie wants Chaney brought to justice badly. Chaney, though, isn’t that easy to come by. Bridges obviously goes full out, relishing his cowboy role.

You can tell the Coen Brothers are trying very hard to show their love for the western genre, like when the music plays when Mattie opens up her father’s processions and takes out an old western looking gun. Bridges is riding a horse, with Maddie, with the backdrop of a beautifully shot star studded background. The final act is beautifully shot. Some might think that the Coen Brothers are a little too quirky for the western genre. And in some ways, they are. They give a sense of humor to Bridges as he is the hired gunman on the trip. They try hard to keep the sense of a western alive. At times, it's hit or miss. Though, the Coen Brothers keep the story alive with their takes on the memorable characters.

I haven’t read the original novel, but one gets the sense that the Coen Brothers are truly adapting the novel. The feel of the film is that of a story that might have been written by an old western writer. I’m not sure it will win any Oscars, but I don’t think the Coen brothers made it for that reason. Old fashioned horses. Old fashioned guns. And an old fashioned law man and one determined teenage girl in the old west. The Coen brothers wanted to play cowboy. Shoot em up!

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Where All The Phonies are Greek Gods

Percy Jackson is an angry kid with ADHD and dyslexia. He goes to a special school for kids with learning disabilities. Little does he know he has a very special reason for why he has learning disabilities, and we know that right off the bat, because this is a fantasy novel. And in a fantasy novel, every angry kid has a reason for the problems they have. Harry Potter’s not just an abused orphan. He’s a wizard. Percy Jackson isn’t just a kid with learning disabilities. He never knew his father. Do you want to take a guess of who his father is? Author Rick Riordan, fortunately, doesn’t do the wizard route, so you can check off the guess that’s Percy’s father is a famous wizard. Nor is he half vampire. His father is a Greek God. So, thus, Percy is whisked away to a camp of kids who are half bloods---the same title kids in the ‘Harry Potter’ books have when they have a muggle parent and a magical parent---so, basically kids who have a God parent and a human parent. So, basically Gods have kids with humans, and leave the humans to raise the kids. Ok, this series is the beginning to a series of young adult novels. The ‘Harry Potter’ crowd is clearly the intended audience. That being said, I enjoyed Rick Riordan’s sense of humor and adventure in his first book ‘Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Theif’.

Soon after, Percy arrives at camp, having to leave his school after one of his teacher’s turns into a monster and tries to attack Percy, he spends time getting used to his new surroundings. The name of the camp is Camp Half-Blood, and it's a camp for kids who are half God. Thus, he also discovered a little later on that his best friend, Glover, is a protector called a Stayr, and there he meets a girl named Annabeth, who is the daughter of Athena. Soon, enough, Percy discovers he can breathe underwater, and thus is the son of Poseidon. Now, I’m not scholar in Greek mythology. Heck, I hardly made it through Greek and Roman literature in college. Riordan does a good job, though, of incorporating mythology in a way that kids will understand. Soon, Percy is accused of being the lightening thief, and he and his friends end up on the run. They have to go across country, because the entrance to the underworld is in a recording studio in Las Angles. That’s pretty quirky right there. Soon, Percy is accused of many things. Being a run away and being reported on in the news. He only has his two friends and his trusty new sword, Riptide, to keep his company.

Rick Riordan’s book is quirky and obviously written for a young audience. Though, the question I had been that isn’t it weird that the Gods had relationships with humans, and left them to raise the kids by themselves. Anyone who took Greek and Roman literature in college knows that Gods do interfere with human lives often. The Gods in Riordan’s universe are no different. Yet, Riordan does make his Gods very quirky. He has Gods as camp counselors. The certain Gods unlucky enough to be stuck at Camp Half-Blood are bitter. Of course, this idea of a camp for kids who are a bit magical sounds a little familiar to those who are regular readers of the magical school genre. Riordan, though, keeps a sense of humor through the book, and keeps the action regularly going, thus keeping the reader turning pages.

Though, it has to be asked. It’s kind of weird that a God would meet a human on the beach, and thus leave her pregnant. There’s an adult book somewhere in this. I had to wonder the logic of these Gods having kids with humans and than walking out. Does that make the Gods jerks? Hmmm, I guess even Gods have their faults. Just like wizards and magical folks have their faults in the fantasy genre that was spurred on by the success of books like Harry Potter. ‘Percy Jackson’ is a good page turner, and will keep your young ones reading.

Percy Jackson is an angry kid, with a bit of Holden Caulfield in him. He’s from New York City. He doesn’t like his mom’s live-in boyfriend. And isn’t that the appeal of the fantasy genre, anyway? That the explanation to your problems and bad situation is something out of this world? What’s more out of this world than Greek Gods or wizards? And it’s something all children would like to believe, I suppose. Your parents or mean live in guardians aren’t the cause of your problems. You don’t fit into the world because you happen to the spawn of Greek Gods and wizard folks. Cool.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Sometimes The Spookiest Thing Your Doing Is What Your Doing Right Now

William Gibson’s latest novel, ‘Spook Country’ is about three people who are connected by the paranoia of the modern technological world and that feeling we get, like Hollis Henry, a former rock star, now a budding journalist who can’t seem to escape the Google search anyone can do on her. She sits in an airport and than she starts to get that creepy feeling she is being watched. Maybe the man she met is taking pictures of her behind her back? Maybe the security cameras are focusing on her? Maybe it’s all in her mind? Everywhere she goes, as she tries to start over as a journalist, the people she tries to interview just want to talk about what happened to that band they all loved in college, The Curfew. Not only is she stuck with the past of herself on a poster, she’s also working for a online magazine that may or may not exist called the Node, that is run by a guy named Bigend.

There are two other characters with problems in Gibson’s novel. Tito, meanwhile, from a Cuban-American family in New York City is assigned by his uncles to hand over I-Pods with sensitive information over to a mysterious group. Than there’s Milgrim, an Ativan addict being held prisoner by a operative named Brown. Gibson modestly succeeds holding these three stories together. They aren’t directly related; except that Brown has ties to Tito’s family. As usual, Gibson’s characters are all tied together by the technology they interact with. Even if this isn’t one of Gibson’s classics like ‘Necromancer,’ ‘Idrou’ or ‘Pattern Recognition’, there is something to be said for being the more inventive of those writing techno thrillers. What other writer, for example, would think of using I-Pods as a way to transfer information?

Node Magazine for example, is another hallmark of a Gibson novel. An advertising executive named Bigend, who appeared in Gibson’s last novel, ‘Pattern Recognition’, runs Node Magazine. Mysterious, rich and having power over media and advertising, he is a creepy figure who is investing in Node Magazine and is a creepy figure to Hollis, as she tries to make sense of what she is really doing. Hollis keeps having the feeling that this magazine she is writing for, because it’s located on the internet and not in print, may or may not exist. The media effect becoming a non-hand held device is a constant theme in a Gibson novel as well. Just think back to his 1997 novel, ‘Idoru’, where the rock star character was in love with a virtual woman. The most interesting character in this book is Henry Hollis, and you often wish Gibson would just stick with her for the entire novel instead of going off with the other two characters, but it’s understandable why he doesn't. Sometimes with Gibson, the concept a character represents is more important. The concept Gibson has about I-Pods holding information is too interesting.

Even though Gibson said he has left science fiction to write about the present, what Gibson is really doing is writing a science fiction version of magical realism. Hollis is writing an article for the magazine on digital art, and that includes scenes of her putting on a virtual reality hamlet and her seeing the death of River Phoenix and her going under the projection of an anime like creature on the wall. All are little pieces of science fiction in what is a novel placed in our time. Gibson will never stop writing about that virtual light that stays lit throughout his novels. Hollis, Tito and Milgram are all connected by the technology that surrounds them and the technology that surrounds Gibson is what connects all of Gibson’s novels.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

We All Live Online Now

Four Stars

The last shot of ‘The Social Network’ is Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) sitting at a laptop computer, pressing the refresh button. He’s waiting to befriend his ex-girlfriend on Facebook. That’s funny. This was the same girl at the beginning of the film who called him a jerk and refused to even accept his apology for writing badly of her on his blog. Now, she has a Facebook? What gives? Though, that’s not what ‘The Social Network’ is quite about. ‘The Social Network’ is about a bunch of guys fighting over who came up with the billion dollar idea. The Winkelevoss twins claim that Zuckerberg ripped off their idea, and thus made Facebook from it. Zuckerberg claims that the real reason they are suing him is because for the first time in their lives, things aren’t going their way. He enlists the aid of his friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield). His friend ends up suing him too. Zuckerberg, I’m not quite sure is totally aware of right and wrong. He seems so socially inept that we aren’t quite sure what his deal is. His girlfriend at the beginning of the film tells him he has OCD, needs to see a doctor and get medication. I would say he’s got a case of Aspergers Syndrome. Of course, does that make Zuckerberg more sympathetic? In a way it does. I don’t think he means to quite rip off everyone. His friend Eduardo is frustrated with him because he seems to not really care about making money from this enterprise. He sleeps through all the meetings with advertisers. Or maybe he is being simply rude. What is up with this guy?

Well, it turns out that Zuckerberg is something of a genius. He’s a computer savant. He seems to miss all social cues, because he is so focused on his idea. He’s only focused on improving upon the idea that the Winkelevoss twins told him about. When he brings out another student from a party to tell him his idea, the student remarks he is cold. Zuckerberg says back that he’s totally psyched too. Later on, he meets Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) who kind of corrupts him. He convinces Zuckerberg to come out to California. That’s when thing start to go wrong and Facebook explodes. Justin Timberlake makes Parker the corrupting force in the film. Forget a million dollars, he tells Zuckerberg, how about a billion? I thought Zuckerberg didn’t care about money? Things get complicated from that point on.
Man, Harvard is competitive. Zuckerberg is trying really hard to get into clubs that will bring him a better life. Or so he thinks. Jesse Eisneberg plays Zuckerberg so well in this. It’s hard to tell if we should feel sorry for him or not. On one hand, he’s screwing over his only friend and getting sued by two brothers whom claim he ripped off their idea. Also, he did program a website that compares girls at Harvard to farm animals to get back at his ex. On the other hand, he also seems to not be completely in control. He’s easily taken advantage of by Sean Parker, the founder of Napster. Maybe he did steal the idea of Facebook? Though, on one hand, when he says they are suing him because for the first time things aren’t going their way. Well, that’s a valid point. Though, he is being sued, he seems to stick to the point that he created Facebook.

For an Aaron Sorkin script, the movie has a ton of lightening speed dialogue but is short on walk and talks through the hallways. David Flincher is a great director, who made the wonderful “Zodiac”. It’s hard to feel sorry for Zuckerberg as portrayed in this film, but in a way, you can kind of understand him. The guy doesn’t go to parties, works constantly, and doesn’t have much of a social life. In fact, it doesn’t seem like he is too aware of what is going on around him. He’s too focused on his computer screen to even as so much notice. Then again, wouldn’t you think the guy who created Facebook would be?

Though, the film ends with a Beatles song, “Baby, You’re a Rich Man”, informing us that Mark Zuckerberg is the world’s youngest billionaire. Maybe another song would be “Can’t Buy Me Love.” For all the money Zuckerberg has at the end of the story, he doesn’t seem totally happy. He’ll probably avoid a trial. Write a few checks for some people to just go away. Date a Japanese pop star. At least I know the real Zuckerberg does date a Japanese pop star. He has billions of dollars. On the other hand, at the end of the film, he’s still hung up on his ex-girlfriend. He’s quietly clicking away at her Facebook page, and hoping for a little sign that they are still friends. Mark Zuckerberg is socially awkward. His best friend is his computer. And he’s waiting for someone to befriend him on Facebook, and in a way, aren’t we all?

Friday, November 12, 2010

High As A Hawk!

Man, so I was reading an article in the local newspaper and I came across this report that Student Senator Marc Pottak was trying to change the drug laws and the first thing I thought to myself, “New Paltz has drug laws?” I was taken aback. I just assumed that New Paltz was a magical town just south of Hogwarts! Yes, it’s true, New Paltz has drug laws! Even more shocking, New Paltz, according to the article, has the strictest drug laws of all the SUNY schools. According to the New Paltz website, the drug law is called the “No Second Chance Policy.” What the heck are they talking about? New Paltz doesn’t give second chances? Not the New Paltz I know! The New Paltz I know gives a second chance to lots of people. Between the ultra liberal professors and the image this school has built over the years as the school you want to go to if your thing is sitting on the front stoops of coffee shops, getting drunk people to think your band is amazing (it’s not), and trying to pass off slam poetry as a valid form of expression. Sorry, I just happen to think that Slam Poetry is loud. Maybe I should stand up on a bench and yell every single word of this column at you. Then this column would be deep! As I was saying, if New Paltz wasn’t the school of second chances, the school be well, empty.

According to this so-called policy, a penalty for the first offense or strike will be no less then disciplinary probation, and educational or clinical intervention. The second offense will be no less then expulsion. As I said, not cool, New Paltz. Seriously, a strict drug policy at New Paltz! The interim president refuses to change the policy. This reminds me of the mayor trying to jam the Noise Ordinance down the throats of students and residents. I remember thinking to myself, New Paltz not noisy? Remember, what I said earlier? I remember stumbling down the sidewalks of New Paltz drunk, while bands played loudly through the windows. Of course, New Paltz is loud. It’s a college town. A college town that isn’t noisy would be well not a college town, and of course, it has drugs. Once again, it’s a college town. So, this is really ironic. The liberal haven of New Paltz has the strictest drug policy of all the SUNY schools. Now, the school is holding a forum on the drug laws that’s going to take place soon. “We are hoping to show that there is a consistent opinion about the policy on campus and what kinds of changes people want to see” Pottak says in the article.

The school does need to rethink its drug policy. Two strikes and you’re out on marijuana smoking is a bit over the top. Other schools have a three strike policy.Look, I understand the school’s desire to crack down on marijuana but this isn’t the way to do it. Two strikes and you’re out while other schools have three strikes is a bit absurd. I guess I shouldn’t be the lecturer about drug policies. I am hardly a druggy and I tend to roll my eyes at pot heads.

So, what’s the point of this column, all joking aside? Look, I’m not advocating
drugs. I don’t smoke weed. I can’t. My brain is my only asset, and my only skill is writing these stupid little columns that they run in newspapers, and people read and spill coffee on. I can’t afford to lose any brain cells. That’s why I don’t drink that much either. My only drug is caffeine. After all, caffeine is the only drug that’s actually served to you in college lobbies across the country. Didn’t ever think of that one, huh? How do they know it? I don’t know. And I look forward to your letters about how slam poetry is great art, and so is your band. I love New Paltz. Though, I have to say that having such a strict policy when it comes to marijuana makes no sense. We can do better, New Paltz. Come on, New Paltz, Newsweek called you the “hottest little school in the country.” You don’t want to ruin it. You already are grating on the nerves by changing the logo of the school from a hawk to a corporate thingy. Seriously, have you seen that new logo? What happened to the Hawk? That was a great logo, because New Paltz is like a hawk, because hawks fly high. Just like New Paltz.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

How To Write A Column

So, I find myself in a weird predicament. I’m not what I consider to be a great writer. Though, I am good at writing columns. I type really fast as I write this right now. Expect I’m not on deadline, at the moment. I just had a spark of an idea to write this column. I’m going to give away my secrets on how to write a quality column. If this is boring you already, then I guess one can say this isn’t a quality column within itself. I’ve been writing columns and movie reviews for a long time now. What’s my secret? Well, my secret is that this is only a side job until I can come up with the next big idea. I’m already working on a book about a witch named Julie who goes to a school for witches and finds that she is a special someone and remarkable things await her. I call it “Julie Hatter and the Multi Media Ticket Out Of Starving Writers Villa.” Though, I digress. Back to the main subject: how does one write a column? Well, first of all you should study the best in the business. If you’re writing serious political commentary, look back on the columns of Jimmy Breslin. If you’re writing a humorous lifestyle column, read Dave Barry’s classic humor columns. If you want to write movie reviews, you can’t get any better than Roger Ebert. That’s why the Internet is there. Even if their columns are out of print, they are probably online. Hey. Those columnists did something right. All three I have just mentioned won Pulitzer Prizes. Wouldn’t that be nice to win a Pulitzer Prize? I think it would be. Then I can stick on the cover of all my books the term “Pulitzer Prize Winning Author,” just like Stephen Hunter, the Pulitzer Prize winning film critic for the Washington Post does. No disrespect to Hunter, but I doubt he won the Pulitzer for his latest novel titled “I, Sniper.”

Do you notice what I had just done? I just had a conversation with you. Expect you didn’t talk back. Though, didn’t it seem like we were sitting on a bench together talking back and forth. That’s the first rule of column writing, in my opinion. If it doesn’t seem like a conversation, than it’s not a good column. The big columns are conversational. It doesn’t work if the topic doesn’t seem like a conversation. I personally don’t know you. I personally don’t know if a college student or someone on staff who is bored with their day, and who is on break is reading this column. They pick up the newspaper. Maybe, but I doubt that this column is being read by another columnist. So, here’s what you do if you’re interested in writing a column. Don’t talk down to your audience, but write simply. Use short sentences. Heck, I always do. Don’t curse. Most newspaper won’t allow that anyway. Write like it’s a personal essay. Don’t try too hard though to make yourself the main character of the piece. Use “I” when appropriate, and lay out your thoughts and observations. Though, don’t overdo the details. You’re not writing a novel. You’re writing a column. Heck, it should to a personal essay. To be a columnist is to make the columnist the main character of your piece. Maybe the main character of the column isn’t the columnist as much as it’s the columnist’s constant voice.

Before you become a columnist, you have to find your voice. Your voice is how you’re going to make your living. You also better find a voice that works for you and the reader. Why should the reader waste their time with your voice? There are a lot of voices out there. There are endless voices on the web too. Why should they pick up the newspaper and read your voice? Maybe you’re funny or an expert in something. Though, maybe you’re not. They may agree with your voice or disagree with your voice. A old time columnist like George Will might write well, but I don’t agree with him most of the time, yet I can admire his writing more than I can, admire say, Ann Coulter as a columnist. That’s another thing a columnist should try to do. Separate a passionate voice from a mean one. Ann Coulter’s voice is mean and full of personal insult, while George Will’s is calm and passionate about what he believes in. A passionate voice, for example, would be Pulitzer Prize winner Connie Schultz’s, of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Her voice is more than passionate; it’s kind and warm. Sometimes she is talking about the poor of the city and other times she is talking about her love of Harry Potter and her kids. That brings me to another topic: pick a topic.

Not every topic is a good subject for a column. Some topics are too board or too limited. It’s fairly easy to write a column about nothing. Sometimes you can write a column about everyday life in a journal like way. For example, a bee just landed on my neck and I had to brush it off. Now, I’m watching it struggle on the floor, and I can’t help feeling a bit of guilt. I know it was probably going to sting me but I have this pet peeve about watching living things struggle to stay alive as it is on the floor with a broken leg. I feel even guiltier as I’m ignoring it to write this column. It’s probably going to die. See how I wrote about the bee in general terms? This really happened, and if I was to decitate an entire column to it, it is a lifestyle column. Now, go write that column, win a Pulitzer Prize and stick the word “Pulitzer Prize Winner” on your first book. Once again, I doubt Dave Barry won the Pulitzer Prize for writing a YA novel called “Peter and the Starcatchers.”That's another quality of being a columnist. It gives you credit as a writer while you stall away trying to dream up a novel. Oh yeah. One more thing. Always end your column with something catchy. So, I'm going to leave it up to the readers here to do that. Make me proud.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Did You Lose Your Virginity? No, But I Said I Did

Three and a half stars

Virginity is a big deal for a lot of high school students. I’m not too sure if losing it these days in the teen years is that big of a deal. Though, in “Easy A”, it shows itself to be still a big deal. The smart main character Olive (Emma Stone) is a virgin, but that doesn’t stop her from trying to get her friend off her back. A small lie about her losing her virginity to a college guy spreads across school at lightening speed through their cell phones and social networks. “I don’t understand your generation’s fascination with documenting every thought”, says her teacher (Thomas Haden Church), when talking about Facebook. The premise of the movie may have been just another teen cliche filled comedy, but actually this is a smart teen comedy in the tradition of John Hughes. Olive even says that she wishes her life were like a 1980s’ film, at which point they cut to clips of various 80s teen flicks. Even that she could have a dance number for no reason where she lipsinks to a catchy tune like Ferris did, like in the films of the 1980s.

Of course, the problem is that soon the rumor of Olive’s virginity loss gets a bit out of control. After her teacher tells the class about The Scarlett Letter, and how the main character of that book becomes a public disgrace, Olive decides to follow her lead and do the same. Next thing she knows, a friend of her who’s gay but tormented at school hears the rumors that she is loose and decides to ask to her to pretend to have sex with him so the kids stop bullying him. Next thing she knows all the kids who are outcasts, losers and nerds are asking her to do the same for them. First it’s a business, as they hand her hundred dollar gift cards, but soon becomes a problem, as she starts to find herself in uncomfortable situations.

The plot is a familiar one, and I don’t want to give too much of it away, but I do want to say this is a smart and quirky film. Don't let the ads fool you. This is one of the smartest films of the year. It’s also a star turn for Emma Stone, who is in every scene of this film. She shows us that she is smart and funny, and she nails every scene. The script by Bert Royal packs in a lot of quirky references to other teen movies, but doesn’t overwhelm the movie with them. It’s also worth noting that Amanda Bynes turns in a funny performance as a holly roller who seems to weirdly go back and fourth from being Olive’s friend and rival, at times protesting outside the school and calling her a slut.

It’s a rule that those who are un-lucky enough in movies to still hold onto their virginity are generally embarrassed by it. Television for that matter too. Olive, well, is refreshing because though she lied that she lost her virginity, she somehow retains it, all the while projecting an image that she lost it and is now having sex with a lot of different boys. Doesn’t anyone in the film wonder why she’s only having sex with nerds, losers and outcasts? It doesn’t really matter, though. In order for a film like this to work, you have to like the main character. I liked Olive. Even though she ends up milking the rumor mill, when the end of the movie comes, the jokes on those who fell for the rumors in the first place.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Jackie Chan gives a Oscar worthy proformance in 'The Karate Kid". No, I'm not kidding.

Three and a half stars

When I left the theater, I had two thoughts. The cinematography by Roger Pratt, who photographed the first two “Harry Potter” films, is breathtaking and vibrant. Another is that Jackie Chan’s performance is pained and simple. His performance is Oscar worthy. Yes, I’m reviewing “The Karate Kid.” No, I'm not kidding. For those of you who saw the 1984 classic, yes, there isn’t many surprises in the new one as far as plot goes. Though, there are some differences. For one, it takes place in China.
Jaden Smith (son of Will Smith) plays Dre, the son of a single mother (Taraji P. Henson) who leaves Detroit, after a transfer to an auto plant in China. They arrive in China, and right away Dre doesn’t fit into the Chinese school. He tries to impress a Chinese girl who speaks English, but gets knocked over by a bully. He doesn’t defend himself well, and next thing he knows, he is a target. The hot water at the new apartment he lives in isn’t working, and he goes to the maintenance man (Jackie Chan). He continues to be bullied, until the quiet maintenance man, Mr. Han, steps in and defends Dre. Dre’s mother is naturally worried about him. Dre doesn’t want to live in China anymore. All that changes when Mr. Han agrees to teach him kung fu. Training for kung fu isn’t what Dre thought it would be. For the first few lessons, Mr. Han simply teaches him how to pick up his coat.

Jackie Chan’s performance in this film is excellent. This is a Jackie Chan we haven’t seen before. We’ve seen him as a buddy cop in the “Rush Hour” movies, and we’ve seen him as well, a buddy cop in the “Knight” movies. Here, he is different. He is silent and pained. He is quiet. He is unshaven. He isn’t stumbling through broken English for humorous effect.

Jaden Smith is a cool kid. Dre and Jackie make a good duo. In this film, the idea is that they teach each other lessons about getting up when life knocks them down. Though, he tries to make the best of it. Then there’s the matter of the girl he met on his first day at the Chinese school. They make a pinky swear that they would both be at each other events. A kung fu tournament and a violin audition, but of course, as they must, things become complicated when her family see’s she is with a skateboarding kid from Detroit. Of course, she can speak English. She says most kids in China can speak English. Of course, they do. Of course, this is all leading up to the big match that Mr. Han by mistake signed him up for. Mr. Han realizes that the kid who was bullying Dre has a bad teacher, who teaches him to show no mercy to his victims. Already, we have a good versus bad instructor thing happening.

Jaden Smith has a lot of charisma in this movie. He begs Mr. Han to teach him to stand up to the bullies, and Mr. Han ends up teaching him a lot more. I’m not kidding when I say Jackie Chan has turned in an Oscar worthy performance in the Karate Kid. He plays this character with little words, and doesn’t play him to a humorous effect. Chan plays this character well. A few more things I should note. The film runs a little long, at two in half hours. They stretch out the suspense leading up to the big match at the end. Though, I have to say it’s worth seeing. Jackie Chan's performance is worth seeing. For an international movie star who’s made a career playing a buddy cop, this is the turning point he needs. It’s about time he taught a kid how to do kung fu. That’s another thing. The movie probably should have been titled “The Kung Fu Kid” instead of the “The Karate Kid”. They mention in the film that’s its kung fu many times. Though, they wanted to keep the original title so people would recognize it as a remake of the original.

There were a lot of kids in the theater. Probably with there parents who saw the 1984 original. So, take your kids to see 'The Karate Kid.' It's new and a uplifting tale with lots of ethnicity on the screen, which is always a good thing. You might know the story. Though, the story is new to them.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

A Series of Lies Leads to Laughs

Three Stars

Vince has told a lie. His daughter has told a lie. His son has lied. His wife has lied. The most honest one in the whole film is a former inmate. Yet, the former inmate is also one of the reasons everyone is lying to each other. The film opens with Vince reading a biography of Marlon Brando outside the window of his bathroom. He had been taking an acting class, and is ashamed to tell his wife. Taking an acting class in the city doesn’t fit his family man working as a prison guard image. Yet, that’s what he is doing. He’s well into his 40’s, and is living in City Island, an area a little outside of the Bronx. They are all telling lies to each other. One of the funniest sight gags in the movie is when the family is in different parts of the room smoking. Yet, they all told each other they have quit smoking. A part of the fun of “City Island”, written and directed by indie filmmaker Raymond de Felitta, is seeing how the family tries very hard to make their lies all tie together in the end. The lies aren’t bad lies, because no one in the family is actually doing anything that bad. It all leads to a series of misunderstandings. The problem is that they are all afraid of how they would react to each other. The trouble starts when Vince brings home an inmate, who he has told he knows his mother. What he doesn’t tell the inmate is that he is also his father. He had a fling with his mother a long time ago, yet the inmate lives among the family, trying to keep track of all the lies they are telling each other.

Andy Garcia plays Vince. He is married to Joyce. She is played by Julianna Margulies. They have a young son and a college age daughter played by Garcia’s actual daughter. The daughter won’t tell their father what happened to her scholarship. The guy just released to the family from prison after Vince volunteers to take him in observes the family all lying to each other. He acts as the most honest one in the film. He doesn’t really know what why Vince has volunteered to take him in. Though, he quickly finds out the secret of Vince’s children. Younger sons in film are always weird. He finds on their teenage son’s computer that he has subscribed to fat fetish websites. The scenes where the son hangs out the overweight women across the street are both cringe worthy and funny. He also has a crush on an overweight girl at school. The interesting thing about ‘City Island’ is that writer/director Raymond de Felitta has plenty of places to make fat jokes, or make jokes about destroyed marriages, but instead makes them into lighter jokes.

Than there’s Vince. Vince takes acting classes. A very funny scene is when he goes on an audition for a movie and does a bad imitation of Marlon Brando. Alan Arkin, who claims his dislike for Marlon Brando, plays his acting instructor. His partner in the class is a woman with a fake British accent who encourages him to follow his dreams. I thought this was going to lead to an affair between the two, but that isn’t this kind of film. The film always seems to try to be funny without being mean spirited. There are many places in the film that should, like in other films, lead to fights or lead to some kind of divorce or misery. Yet, the audience knows that all the lies they are telling each other aren’t that bad. The script is a series of misunderstanding, making each member of the family think that something worst is going on than there actually is.

The wife thinks Vince is playing poker. Than she thinks he is having an affair. In truth, he is just taking acting classes. The same goes for the rest of the family as they all lie to each other. Yet, none of their secrets are so horrible that they can’t work them out fairly easily. The audience I saw it with where laughing a lot at the misery of the family on the scene. It’s played for laughs, but not in a mean spirited way. Andy Garcia does a very good job of playing this role. The cast is believable as a family. Yet, they aren’t a dysfunctional family, really. We see in an early scene where the family sits down, they all break out in a fight and the mystery man that Vince has brought home from jail looks on, just observing the family. He would be the one to find out all their lies. The last scene of the movie could have been played for tragedy, but is instead played for laughs. The film works as a comedy because the script could have been played up as a mean spirited comedy about a family that falls apart, instead of just a family that goes through a series of misunderstandings. It’s a soap opera played up for laughs, but not played up to be mean.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Iron Man 2 is a fun ride

Three stars

Tony Stark is a narcissist. He’s much like the movie he’s in. If some millionaire said that he had successfully privatized world peace than getting up and dancing out of his senate hearing, a few hours after he, in a metal suit, flew onto the stage, with scald clad dancers shaking their behinds, than you wouldn’t take it seriously as you watched the YouTube clip on the web the next day. Of course, it’s silly. This is a comic book movie. Of course, though, that doesn’t mean all comic book movies are silly. Look at ‘The Dark Knight’ or the wonderful ‘Spider Man’ movies. What I am saying is that comic book movie is a genre that can afford to be silly. This movie is silly. The squeal to last year’s mega hit, “Iron Man”, “Iron Man 2” doesn’t really have much of a plot. Tony Stark has a hot girlfriend. Tony Stark pulls many stunts. Tony Stark creates a new element. Tony Stark has a hot secretary. Tony Stark is also a superhero because he created an iron suit, and the core of it is injected into his heart. Yes, Tony Stark is dying, but this isn’t a deep emotional movie. He’s going to kick butt before he dies. Tony Stark is Bruch Wayne without the dark side.

Robert Downy Jr. knows what he’s playing, and he does it with a dry wit. It appears that another man, one from Russia, has made an iron suit too, and he is going to take on Tony Stark. He wants to kill him. He’s going to be the one who is going to be the new Iron Man. I assume he’s going to use his Iron Man suit for evil. Mickey Rourke isn’t really given much to do here. Than there’s his girlfriend. Gwyneth Paltrow, as she is always getting in fights with her billionaire boyfriend, than she makes up with him, but she’s always concerned, with him running around in that iron suit, who knows what will happen to him? Scarlett Johansson plays his new assistant or secretary but actually she’s an agent for The Avengers, which is Marvel’s rip off of the Justice League of America. So, the rival contractor, played by Bill Pullman, hires the Russian guy to work for him, because hey he wants a iron suit too which leads to a big battle. Pullman is goofy here.

The point is that this movie really doesn’t have much of a plot, and is far from the best of the comic book movies. Yet, I’m going to recommend it anyway because we all need brain dead entertainment sometimes. Sometimes you really need a movie that is good to munch on popcorn with. 'Iron Man 2' is a fun ride, much like it's first one. The film goes fast, and there’s action and mobojumble, but this is also one of those films that feels like the entire film is a set up to other films. The film is setting up to Iron Man 3, obviously, and an Avengers film.

Iron Man reminds me of Batman. Two millionaires are trying to save the world with a superhero like creation they have made in their basement. Yet, Bruce Wayne is a darker guy. Bruce Wayne holds dinner parties, where the big bang is the joker entering the party with a gun. The big bang at Tony Stark's parites is Tony Stark. He certainly is closer to Donald Trump, in his showmanship expect cooler. At the end of the day, though, Tony Stark has nothing on Bruce Wayne.

Friday, April 23, 2010

A Story of A Boy and His Dog, Opps, Dragon

Three and a half stars

Now, here’s a story you would like to read your little boy before he goes to bed. ‘How to Train Your Dragon’ is an old fashioned fantasy, in the tradition of an old fashion Disney cartoon. There are no gimmicks, side jokes for the adults or pop culture references which is what makes this film such a delight. The story opens on the narration of a young boy, named Hiccup, who explains that in his village, dragons are considered beasts that are to be killed. The main character, Hiccup is voiced by Jay Barouche, and he sounds like the way kids used to sound in cartoons before they started using child actors to voice kids. He sounds a little too squeaky to be a real kid, but his tone is perfect as a normal kid who is the disappointment of his Viking father. His father sends him off to training, where he meets another group of kids, including a girl who looks like a tween dressed up in emo clothing named Astrid Hoffeson, voiced by America Ferrera. He is trained by Gonner the Belch, voiced by the wonderful Craig Ferguson (those of you who watch late night know why he is wonderful), as he teaches the young Vikings how to battle and kill dragons.

Hiccup, though, is laughed at and is known as a kid without a future as a warrior. While in the woods, he meets a dragon. First he shoots it down, than when he meets the dragon the second time, he names him Night Fury, and sees how scared the dragon is of him as he is of it. The movie becomes a story of a boy and his dog, almost, then. He gives it food, and earns its trust. Then when he starts to battle dragons, he developed a trick where he just trains them, making it look like he is slaying the dragon. Soon enough, he becomes popular and the envy of the whole Viking community. Our young hero is off, as he does his trick with one dragon after another, constantly making everyone think he is the ultimate dragon slayer, when in fact he is actually just teaching him or her to do a trick. He quickly becomes a nerd, as he sits back at a desk, putting together plans and studying everything there is to be known about dragons. There’s nothing wrong with that.

This is yet another film based on a popular series of children books, but this one harkens back to an old fashion family picture, as opposed to Harry Potter or Twilight movie. This really isn’t about a boy who discovers that he has some kind of dynasty or huge secret. It’s simply about a town with dragons and a boy who learns to train them. Can dragons and humans be friends? Why not? The animation is lovely, done by the same people who did Shrek. The characters are charming. Though, most of all, the best thing about this picture is that it’s simply an old fashion fantasy film. Ok, so it doesn’t add anything new to the fantasy genre, but it really doesn’t need to. It’s a well-made and effective family picture that will have you cheering for Hiccup throughout.

I would think this is quite a story to read to a boy before he goes off to sleep, as they go off to dream land and dream of taking off on a dragon of their own. This film has a good lesson for boys. It shows boys that they don’t need to be violent to win. Maybe they just need to learn to understand those they are supposed to be violent against.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

A Rallying Cry to Nerds Across America

It’s been the lament for years. We nerds. True nerds. Not the “I play a video game once in a while and have read a “Harry Potter book” nerds. I mean, real nerds. I’m a nerd. I’m a proud nerd. There’s nothing else I can be. Our people. These nerd people have a proud history. The nerds who lived down the hallway from me at Stony Brook, and tried to hack into my computer, and the guy who lived in the school newspaper office who yelled at his ex girlfriend over the phone that his self published fantasy novels he hawks at local comic book conventions were going to make him rich one day and she was going to be sorry. The people who watch “Star Trek” over “Star Wars” and who knew Wil Wheaton just by name dropping alone. The show “Big Bang Theory” is a hit! Seriously, how many people got that reference on the Big Bang Theory? These nerds. These future millionaires and presidents like Barack Obama, who had a comic book collection as a kid. They are nerds who rant about the stupidest yet also most intelligent subjects, and go to comic book conventions and live a lifestyle that’s unhealthy but probably for the greater good. Space: the final frontier.
You go out and argue in favor of Star Trek and Harry Potter and science fiction and fantasy and science over religion and religions like “Star Trek” that promote science. The only thing missing is a time travel project. We nerds, if we just put together our heads, can come up with a project to travel back in time and right the wrongs that the world has done in the past. Wrongs committed by those who weren’t nerds. We can call the project, “Quantum Leap”, and not only have a better world today but a better world of the past. Just call me Doctor Samuel Becket.
Nerds unite. We are popular now. Nerd J.K. Rowling is a billionaire off writing fantasy books. The nerd icon, ‘Star Trek’ has become a reboot that is a hit. ‘Avatar’ has made nerd James Cameron the king of the world. Nerd Stephanie Meyer writes crappy vampire novels that have made the tween girls who dress up as vampires the Trekkies of tomorrow! Independent films are a multi million-dollar business. YA books are now best sellers. Roger Ebert deserves a second Pulitzer Prize for his blog alone. He hasn’t let cancer stop him. He now talks through a computer like Stephen Hawking.
Everyone considers himself or herself a nerd now. Many who consider themselves nerds aren’t real nerds, but you know deep down in your heart if you’re a real nerd or not. I’m a nerd. I have a blog that’s all movie reviews that are detailed and tell you more about film and other crap that you don’t need to know, really. This is a call to arms. Girls and guys who are considered ‘out of our league’ are rightfully ours. Fathers, who dread what their daughters bring home, relax. They might finally bring home some wimp who’s a nerd instead of a bad boy. The attractive spouses are rightfully ours. Victory will be with us. May the force be with us. It’s perfectly logical, Captain!

Previously published in The New Paltz Oracle.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Don't Mess With Her Son

Three stars

Sure, ‘The Blind Side’ is a bit corny, but the story is ultimately touching for the simple fact it’s a true story. Movies can show us how the world should be, and it’s even better when the story of how the world should be is actually the way the world sometimes is. Based on the book by Michael Lewis, a journalist known for his touching stories dealing with sports, writer/director John Lee Hancock doesn’t do too bad a job of handling the material. Sure, it’s Hollywood and we’ve heard the story a thousand times, but this story is tailor made for a Hollywood movie. It has the right mix of liberal helping out the poor mixed with the conservative image of how good of a heart America can really have. A poor African American kid from the wrong side of the tracks, Michael, gets into a religious school full of upper class white kids.
Michael is played by Quinton Aaron, who does a good job of giving a silent performance. He doesn’t say much. The pain is all in his facial expression. When walking home from school one day in the rain, he is seen by a woman named Leigh Anne Tuohy, who right away asks him where he is going. The gym, he says. The gym is closed, she says. It’s warm, he says back. She right away takes him into their home, and gives him a nice place to sleep. An unrecognizable Tim McGraw, who also turns in a nice performance, plays her husband. The two kids are cute, and the little boy is overly cute like the kid from Jerry Maguire. Though, it’s nice how quickly he cares about his new brother. The movie belongs mostly to Sandra Bullock, in a career changing performance. It’s different than the usual romantic comedies she is known for. She becomes the heroic women who can melt even the most diehard liberal’s heart when she tells a man who threatens her son that she’s a member of the NRA.
They officially adopt Michael and it’s touching to watch them make him a part of their family. The best part is that the Hollywood sappiness this movie provides is excused because it is a true story. Michael thrives, and they get him a tutor (the wonderful Kathy Bates, good in everything) and his grades start to improve. The film wisely keeps to the story between Michael and Leigh Anne Tuohy, and watching her unwavering fight to make a kid who came from nowhere succeed. The football really is a second note in this film. Some might want more sports scenes, but the story is really about making a kid succeed by any means necessary. They want him to succeed, and the whole family gets involved. They truly welcome him into their lives. A wonderful scene is when they are having Thanksgiving dinner and they all gather around the TV set, while Michael goes into the dining room and sits alone. Leigh notices this and quickly moves her entire family into the dining room, so Michael doesn’t have to eat alone.
Some will probably accuse this film of racism. Though, they shouldn’t. The scenes contrasting his life among the inner cities, and his life among a white suburban family are contrasting. Yet, it’s also the reality. In the film, the NCAA decides to investigate if in fact, they somehow drove Michael to attend Old Miss. They question if a lot of white families would start to pick up young black kids and drive them in the direction of a certain school and sport.Would there be something wrong with that? The question I thought to myself, is so what if they did?

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Great Movies: Turn Up The Volume

There’s a wonderful scene between Kate Hudson and Patrick Fugit. They are the young journalist and the groupie. “Do you want to go to Morocco with me? Do you want to come?” she asks. “Ask me again,” says the young journalist. “Do you want to come?” she says. “Yes. Yes!” he says. “You got to call me,” she says, “It’s all happening! It’s all happening!” and than the boy reporter runs down the parking lot during the night as the faint sound of a songbird is heard, and the camera pans from an areal view. Cameron Crowe’s 2000 film, “Almost Famous” is a film about music, journalism and maybe the luckiest teenager you ever met. Everyone hates him. Everyone calls him the nark behind his back, according to his sister. His sister and mother disagree, and his mother wants to protect him, telling him constantly not to use drugs as he walks towards the concert hall where a band called Stillwater is playing. One day, you’ll be cool, says his sister to him when he’s a little boy. Music critic Lester Bangs asks him if he’s the star of his school. “They hate me,” he says. Of course, he isn’t.
And thus, journalism comes to his rescue. Unlike other movies about teens and music, it isn’t rock and roll that saves him. He doesn’t pick up a guitar. What save him are the spirit of the music and the sound of his typewriter. Why do we have movie critics and why do we have music journalists? If they love it so much, why aren’t we the ones making the films or the music? “I’m always at home,” says Lester Bangs to his young journalist friend over the phone, “I’m un cool.” To which he gives his young journalist friend some advice, as to why he’s trying to figure out why he disobeyed the advice of his mentor, Lester Bangs, “because they make you feel cool, and kid, I’ve met you. You are not cool.” Lester Bangs was the Roger Ebert of rock criticism, back in the 70s. He was the editor of a magazine called Creem and in the film; Philip Seymour Hoffman plays him, with baggy clothes. “Oh man!” he says, “you made friends with them!” He sits in a diner, telling his young friend about how he used to stay up all night writing gibbish about the faces of Cold Train. In a way, this is how all journalists start. They sit there, writing rants and raves, and it’s when they figure out how to put it in order they become journalists.
That’s one of the reasons I think ‘Almost Famous’ is so wonderful. It’s a love letter to music and journalism. Soon, he is whisked away by a band named Stillwater on their bus. A kid with a mother and sister who don’t get along finds himself a second family. This band. There’s a wonderful scene where he’s sitting on the bus with the band and ‘Tiny Dancer’ starts to play. Before he knows it, the entire band is signing around with the song of ‘Tiny Dancer.’ He turns around to Penny Lane, the groupie he loves, and goes “I need to go home,” to which she says, “You are home.” All these misfits on a bus together, signing a song together. Russell, the lead signer, sitting in the front of the bus, is smiling in the front seat.
Russell’s a wonderful character. He can appear to be a big time rock star, standing on top of the house, yelling “I am a golden god!” and the next moment, he’s on the phone with the kid journalist’s mother, promising her “We are taking good care of your son.” The evolution of the kid’s mother, at first when she goes to a concert hall, she looks out of the car and calls them a lost generation, “a generation of Cinderella’s”, but there’s that wonderful scene where Russell and her come face to face. “I thought we connected,” she says, smiling. There’s a wonderful little line there when they meet, where she turns to him and goes “My son is important to me, too”, as she understands that Russell cares about her son as well. Russell turns to the kid, and they talk about Penny Lane. “I know, I think we both wanted to be with her, but maybe she wanted us to be together.”
The band ‘Stillwater’ was based on the band, ‘The Allman Brothers’, which the writer/director Cameron Crowe traveled around with when he was a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone. Every time I watch this film, I think to myself, boy, Cameron Crowe was the luckiest teenager who ever lived. When I was a teenager, I would go to library and dream of writing for Rolling Stone, as I sat in the magazine section of the library flipping through the magazine’s colorful pages and dreaming of the day my name would be in print of the magazine.
I got a brief glance of what it’s like to be a music journalist when a friend asked me to go and write an article about his band. I sat there in a warehouse, with a notebook, smoking a cigarette, thinking I was really cool, and of course, when I actually sited down to write the article about their music and progress, I must admit it was hard to put into words the spirit of what they have just done in that warehouse that day. Music is such a hard thing to make solid. The young journalist picks up his tape recorder and goes “So, Russell, what do you love about music” and he goes, “to begin with, everything.”