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Logan Lucky: Movie Review

Logan Lucky is a welcomed return to form from eclectic filmmaker Steven Soderbergh who practically mastered the heist genre with the Ocean’s Trilogy Out of Sight, and The Limey just to name a few. Fresh off his ten-minute retirement and back with a confident vim, Soderbergh’s latest entry is a charming and breezy southern fried caper flick about two red-state brothers who plan to rip off one of the biggest raceways in Trump country.

Like a Country Song: The film follows Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum, in top form), a West Virginia country boy who unfairly lost his construction job due to a football injury that left him with a limp. When times are tough, Jimmy finds solace in a John Denver song and like the best country songs, it’s easy to take lyrics at face value but underneath, there’s a pain there that’s only longing for the simplest comforts in life; something that we all can relate to regardless of class or status. Jimmy is the living epitome of every country song you know: lost a job, lost his wife, and about to lose his daughter. Jimmy’s ex-wife (Katie Holmes) has custody of their pageant-chasing little girl and plans to move out of state with her new husband (David Denman). He spends most nights at the roadside dive where his war vet younger brother Clyde (played with sheer delight by Adam Driver) bartends. Clyde lost his lower left arm in battle and constantly reminds his brother that maybe their lot in life isn’t going to amount to much more than what they’ve got now. Reluctant to accept that, Jimmy concocts a plan to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway just across state line in North Carolina. Soderbergh spends a lot of time with these characters, fleshing out their objectives which help shed any stereotypes we might have of them. They just want their lives to be a bit better than what it is now.

A Well-Oiled Machine: No heist film is complete without the obligatory notion of “Putting a Team Together” and Logan Lucky revels in all the genre trappings like a giddy redneck at a monster truck rally. The Logan brothers count on their hairdress/speed demon sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who knows a thing or two about American made muscle cars and for professional help, they recruit explosive expert Joe Bang (a wonderfully over-the-top Daniel Craig) who delivers what his name suggests. They just have to break him out of jail first, of course, and call on Bang’s own brothers to help them and round out the team. Soderbergh masterfully weaves us in and out of the plot like a pro, pacing the film skillfully, revealing clues and details when he feels he should and even manages to give us strikingly poignant moments amidst the mayhem and trickery. Yet he’s also keenly aware that heist films have the pleasure of living in the gray area where reality and fantasy collide, and with all the joys Logan Lucky throws at us, it can often sacrifice tone and believability for the sake of genre convention (something Soderbergh confidently toys with in all his heist films). But that’s a minor quibble. There’s a lot of great stuff to take in. Tatum, Driver and the cast are at their A game. He gets a juicy, wide-eyed performance out of Craig, complete with a joyful twang. With some rather clever roles for Hilary Swank, Seth McFarlane, Dwight Yoakum and Sebastian Stan, a clever screenplay from the mysterious new screenwriter Rebecca Blunt, and vivid camerawork from Soderbergh himself (as his DP pseudonym Peter Andrews), the whole thing is just too much fun that complaining about minor plotholes and misstep just seem petty.

They’re Callin’ it Ocean’s 7-Eleven: Well into the film, a TV news reporter interviews an eyewitness and, in true Soderbergh self-referential fashion, she literally calls the events as that. It gets a knowing laugh because there’s a familiarity to Logan Lucky’s pacing and confidence that feels like Danny Ocean and his suave set of cronies. Instead of Armani suits and the Bellagio, we get Dungarees and the Charlotte Motor Speedway. The joy of heist films is the very procedural nature of it all; the specificity and the planning. It’s how you go about it that makes it fun and with Logan Lucky, the twists and turns within the confines of the genre are delicious and genuinely funny. You’re in for quite a fun ride.

Logan Lucky is a solid addition to the heist genre due to the deft and proficient directing of Steven Soderbergh who knows this genre better than any of his contemporaries. Despite a few weak plot details, there’s a boldness to the film that’s unabashedly off-the-wall yet amazingly full of heart. Lots of filmmakers make heist films, but only Soderbergh makes them this sublime.

**** 1/2 Stars


Cracking Whip and Wit: Indy IV Delivers

All the Indiana Jones movies open with the famous Paramount Pictures logo dissolving into some mountainous form, be it a South American peak in Raiders of the Lost Ark, an embossed emblem on a Chinese gong in Temple of Doom, or a dry boulder in Utah at the start of The Last Crusade. In Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, the long-awaited fourth installment in what may be one of the best franchises in movie history, the logo dissolves into a tiny prairie dog hill in Nevada located on the outskirts of Area 51. Perhaps director Steven Spielberg and producer George Lucas are reminding us at the start of the movie to keep our expectations low despite the arduous wait and growing anticipation we lovers of the series have endured. Still, the first frame of Crystal Skull is reassuring. To our benefit, those involved in resurrecting Indy after a 19-year hiatus have their tongues planted firmly in their cheeks.

Indiana Jones is back and he still kicks ass.

Crystal Skull delivers enough fun proving the naysayers wrong. It doesn’t match the unfairly high expectations Raiders of the Lost Ark
sets forth, which we all know is ultimately impossible. After all, we
are experiencing a movie that Spielberg and Lucas know how to do best. Crystal Skull makes all the imitators pale in comparison. Okay, so there are a few flaws but to complain about Indiana Jones is like complaining that your visit with an old friend went terribly awry because he or she wore the wrong shoes. Indiana Jones and the franchise itself is a throwback to those old-fashioned, B-movie matinee serials. (Buck Rogers, anyone?) The goal is simply to entertain and be swept away to another world. That doesn’t necessarily mean that filmmakers sacrifice quality storytelling. (Raiders, anyone?) Movies of this sort should be fantastical and off-the-wall—relentless in its adventurous spirit and bold in its often-implausible moments. We’ll go for the ride if the ride’s well worth it. These movies demand our imagination. Sadly, that’s the biggest obstacle Indy’s going to have to endure this summer. How can an old-fashioned adventure hero be relevant to the iPod generation, who’s perpetually plugged-in, apathetic and incredulous?

Ironically it’s technology that makes this movie less than stellar. For all it’s old-fashioned sensibilities, the use of CGI in Crystal Skull feel
painfully out of place, taking away the pure, visceral joy of what
makes an Indiana Jones movie—there’s no real, tangible sense of danger here, and the film suffers for it. Also, the dialogue could use a
little polishing. Perhaps screenwriters David Koepp and Jeff Nathanson try too hard to emulate the spirit of the earlier entries.


Crystal Skull is one gorgeous set piece after another, with purposefully garish lighting (very reminiscent of Last Crusade)
and out-of-this-world (literally) plot points. It’s now 1957, and the
bad guys are no longer the Nazi’s but the Commies. Dr. Jones is a
tenured professor who partners up with a young student named Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) because their good friend Oxley, played by John Hurt, disappears while tracing the origins of this crystal skull—a quartz relic that evil Soviet agent Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) believes came from an earlier civilization, possibly form another world. On their quest, Indy and Mutt cross paths with one-time flame, Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen) who also happens to be (spoiler alert!) Mutt’s mother. There’s some healing to be had between Marion and Indy, and perhaps some secrets that need revealing. Throughout the film, we’re jampacked into loads of action, thrilling set pieces and lots of trap doors and hidden clues. The action is relentless. For example, when Spalko and Mutt cross swords above moving vehicles and other obstacles, it brings me back to the glorious action of pre-CGI movies—and I’m not just saying this as a fencer myself. It’s nice to see movies do good old-fashioned stunts again.

Thankfully, there are way too many strong points to overlook the weak ones. The best is Harrison Ford. Even if he’s older and wiser, his whip (and wit) still cracks and finally, Ford shines again in a role he was born to play. Composer John Williams and editor Michael Kahn give reliable work, be as they are Indy veterans having worked on all four films now. The supporting cast is great as well, with Cate Blanchett as the evil Ruskie dominatrix Irina Spalko complete with an over-the-top babushka accent. It’s also nice to see Karen Allen as Marion Ravenwood. Shia LaBeouf tries to keep up with his older counterparts and succeeds most of the time, even if his sensibilities seem a bit too 21st century. His strength has always been playing the young sarcastic, uber-cool know-it-all which LeBeouf doesn’t really get to display here since he’s suppose to be a cool kid in the 1950’s. Speilberg tries to immerse him in the era, even giving him a grand entrance a la Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones, complete with the hog, jacket and tilted cap.


Indy IV could also be considered a coming-of-middle-age story. There are plenty of over-the-hill jokes about Indy’s age. Besides, Spielberg, Lucas and Ford made the first three well into their thirties. Now they’re in their sixties and still going strong. Perhaps, that’s the coolest thing about this whole Indiana Jones resurrection. Underneath the excitement and brought out by Indy’s constant fatigue and “I’m-getting-too-old-for-this” comments is a celebration of journeys traveled. Those of us old enough to remember experiencing any one of the first Indy movies on the big screen are probably too old to be going around celebrating an iconic character of our youth by gorging on the merchandise and wearing fedora hats at the mall. (Raiders is the movie that made me want to become a filmmaker.) But having Indiana Jones back now that we’re older reminds us that life is full of adventures, no matter how old or young. It’s one thing to be old and another thing to do it the old-fashioned way.

And sometimes the old-fashioned way is the best way.

Welcome back, Dr. Jones. We’ve missed ya.


The Trouble With Harry

(My Review)

Playtime is definitely over in the wizarding world of Harry Potter. In the first few minutes of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, our boy, er, man Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) performs necessary magic to save himself and his muggle relatives. Right then and there it’s clear; childhood has become a dream of the past. Gone are the days of Quidditch and chocolate-covered frogs. For any kid Harry’s age, the scariest reality is the notion of growing up.

Underneath the darker tones, nifty visual effects and the high production values, Order of the Phoenix works best once you realize that it’s simply a strong coming-of-age story making the fifth installment of this well-crafted franchise a worthy entry; if not necessarily its best or most eloquent. It’s not as rich as Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban and perhaps much more disjointed than Goblet of Fire. Here, director David Yates and screenwriter Michael Goldenberg make it clear that this latest saga is a transitional piece—a placeholder during a phase of growth teasing us with uneven jolts of something far more thrilling, more sinister and perhaps even more enjoyable in things to come. A clever parallel to or our trio of heroes, Harry Potter, Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint), and Hermoine Granger (Emma Watson), who also seem to be stuck in a similar phase of growth: puberty.

This time around, Harry faces a prickly new teacher, Miss Umbridge, played with delight by Imelda Staunton. She’s the epitome of that cheery, suburban socialite—like one of those church ladies you know who’s got an evil side underneath that plastered smile. But her veneer is convincing. No one believes Harry except for a trusty handful. Bureaucracy, in the form of the Ministry of Magic, has become such a negative commodity in the wizarding world that you wonder if it’s a social commentary on the part of the filmmakers or the author. Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes) haunts Harry in his nightmares, and the increasing denial of evil reignites an order to stand against it, not just in the wizarding world, because sadly this evil sorcery has trickled into ours. All this lies on the fate of Harry, and his weariness is all the more apparent. Finally, Harry comes to his own and Radcliffe nails the character down in perhaps his best performance as the kid wizard.

There is magic and mayhem all around, and loads of exposition but make no mistake, this is Harry’s darkest tale yet. When Harry recalls his encounter with the Dementors, those ghost-like creatures in black tattered threads, you can’t help but agree with him. “It was as though all the happiness had gone from the world,” An accurate description of the film’s tone. Perhaps younger viewers will find it scarier and dragging at parts, but fans of the series will eat this up. It’s nice to see the characters progress no matter their direction, and of course there’s That Kiss, which in my opinion, falls a bit flat and forced.

The key to the Harry Potter films is that all-star British cast. With such names as Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Helena Bonham Carter, Emma Thompson, Jason Isaacs, Robbie Coltrane, Fiona Shaw, Richard Griffiths, Brendan Gleeson, David Thewlis, George Harris and Julie Walters, you’d think a cast like this would be doing rep for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Mother Courage.’ Instead, they’ve all come together to be part of a Hollywood blockbuster targeted for a much younger demographic then they are all probably used to.

Perhaps the most advantageous aspect of the entire Harry Potter universe is synergy.

Credit can go to J.K. Rowling, the author/creator of the franchise, or perhaps to Warner Bros, for cleverly marketing their now profitable acquisition, turning what started out as a small English children’s novel into a blockbuster tentpole. Yet, the real credit goes to the fans.

Take for example my little sister, a die-hard fan that has grown up reading the books, watching the movies, and gorging herself in the merchandise. She’s roughly Harry’s age, so she’s practically grown up along side Harry, reading his memoirs of Hogwarts and finding relatable experiences with Hermoine Granger. Now when the last book is finally published in a few days, all those summer evenings of reading the books together with friends, going on trips to see the latest Potter movie in the local Cineplex, and most importantly, helping them pass through that awkward ‘tween’ phase of crushes and growing pains—all that will become part of their childhood memories because they grew up with Harry Potter, and Harry Potter on the other hand helped them grow up.


No Silver Lining

CGI, also known as computer generated visual effects, has become a celluloid plague.

Even though Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer clocks in under 90 minutes, the movie lags and meanders in and out of clichés, vacuous characterization, and pseudoscientific gibberish. What can be more unsatisfying than watching visual effects for the sake of visual effects? I was hoping that the addition of the Silver Surfer this time around could bring the Fantastic Four out of B-list superhero mediocrity. Instead, he really doesn’t do or add much.

Looking like a shiny hood ornament, the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones, voiced by Laurence “Morpheus” Fishburne) glides in and out of the screen but he’s as weightless and dull as Jessica Alba’s acting chops. You can’t help but realize that the bulk of this movie is CGI, and the glossy surfer dude loses much of his shine when you come to that realization and it’s hard to shake off. There’s also not much to latch unto in terms of characterization and plot. At least the first film dealt with weighty issues of identity and family, and it was slightly fun to see Johnny Storm a.k.a. the Human Torch (the hammy Chris Evans) in action. In the sequel, Johnny’s fireball CGI is supposedly upstaged by the Silver Surfer, only because we are told so. As Johnny watches the Silver Surfer exit a skyscraper unharmed through an energy field in slo-mo, Johnny reacts “that is so cool.” Hey, if he said so, so shall we believe.

This constant spoon-feeding from recent visual effects-driven blockbusters is what stalls them. We’re not a dumb audience. We know what we like and we know what works.

Yet I’ll admit that the movie garnered a few light chuckles now and then, and it isn’t as convoluted as some recent blockbusters of late. Also, truth be told, the Fanastic Four are generally likeable characters. Non-offensive even if a bit bland. Ioan Gruffudd does what he can as Reed Richard’s a.k.a. Mr. Fantastic and Michael Chiklis is reliably gruff as Ben Grimm a.k.a. The Thing. Although Julian McMahon deserves props as he plays up the villainy and smarminess of the evil Dr. Doom. He’s got a believable handle on the character and its loads of B-movie fun to see our favorite TV plastic surgeon play a well-loved comic book villain.

Slapped with a guaranteed box-office PG rating, the Fantastic Four franchise needs to find its footing. In my opinion, it could use more bite come Fantastic Four 3 (yes, expect it). I brought my little sister along and even she found it a bit juvenile. About halfway through the film, she leaned over to me and whispered “You look bored.”

Maybe I was. A gluttony of CGI does not a movie make. If that’s the case, then I can just go home and stare at my screensaver for 90 minutes.


Shake Sinatra’s Hand

After a dismal start to a summer that seems to be marketed towards geeky fanboys drooling over confused pirates and superheroes, Ocean’s Thirteen whizzes along as a smart and cheeky film–one that delights filmgoers who aren’t all that interested in CGI and marketable toy products but snappy dialogue, witty repartee and heady filmmaking techniques. Oddly enough, O13 feels a bit misplaced in a summer filled with fraternity-minded comedies and nerdy threequels. Director Steven Soderbergh, George Clooney and company have fashioned a tart, pure but hardly simple movie among bloated blockbusters. You can’t help but notice. O13 is like that one fashionable yet appropriately dressed gal in a picnic filled with girls in jogging outfits and sweats–she’s classy and simply stands out among the rest.

At the film’s core, this “class act” act is the point of it all, and a rather fine one at that. Soderbergh and the gang remind us how being a class act goes a long way. It’s a throwback to the lost art of being a gentlemen, and who would have thought that a bunch of fictional merry thieves would bring that into light?

This time around, Danny Ocean (George Clooney) and Rusty Ryan (Brad Pitt) enlist the gang to take revenge on casino owner Willy Bank (an understated Al Pacino) who ousted the ailing Reuben Tishkoff (an excellent Elliott Gould) from a partnership deal in owning their latest venture; an Asian-inspired casino on the strip shaped like ribbons. This sends Reuben to grave illness, almost to the point of death. Of course, no one does that to one of Ocean’s Eleven. Reuben reminds Willy that he can’t do that. “We shook Sinatra’s hand,” Reuben pleads. “Screw Sinatra’s hand!” Willy rebuttles. At that point, the driving force of the movie becomes clear. Even rich guys have no class.

The boys have no choice but to take revenge and bring down Willy’s casino on its grand opening, meaning they’ve got to rig the house to lose. As expected, there are lots of witty back-and-forth banter from the boys–dialogue that would make Howard Hawks proud, and of course obstacles along the way that seem impossible to the downright farfetched (a man-made earthquake). But still, you can’t help but root for the gang. Their motives are clearly backed up by a sincere sense of friendship and honor. Also, who else would you trust to take down the house in Vegas? Danny Ocean of course, and what fun–if for at least two hours–is it to see a house in Vegas lose? Those of you who’ve placed bets there would certainly agree with me.

Of course with Reuben, who often funds for all of Ocean’s expensive capers, being bed-ridden, who else are the boys to turn to for financial support? It’s the old adage of “the enemy of your enemy is your friend.” There’s no surprise that the 13th member of the group is no other than their former nemesis Terry Benedict (Andy Garcia).  Benedict wants to see Willy go down in flames because Willy’s new hotel casts a shadow over his Bellagio fountain pool. But then again, perhaps there’s more to Benedict than we think.

The film’s charm is undeniable and it has the cool slickness of the first, and the sheer audacity of the second. If the first film was an exercise in style and coolness, and the second being a frivolous (if not always successful) commentary on success, the third one is all about honor and friendship. It’s a fitting ending to our boys. But it’s not all sappy. The film is loaded with fun gags. The opening shot is amazing and the pay-off is hilarious. There’s duping the NightFox (Vincent Cassel) all over again (yep, he’s back) and well-placed Oprah jokes. There’s jokes about “soft openings” and Vegas traditions that pay off so cleverly and so well. The third time around, there is evident homages to the heydays of the Rat Pack and that lost Vegas myth of glamour and style. There’s much more throwback here than there was in the previous two installments, and for fans of that lounge-era, this is a welcoming touch.

Throwback has been the film’s engine from the get-go. Roman Nagel, the euro-tech guy from Ocean’s Twelve played with such delight by Eddie Izzard reminds Danny and Rusty that they have become “analog players in a digital world.” Rusty and Danny are perplexed, and rightfully so. Perhaps it’s a response to how fluffy popcorn flicks of this nature have become callous CGI videogame-like drones. Yet I think it’s a strong response to how gentlemen like Danny and Rusty aren’t the ones who are no longer in touch with the world we live in, but the other way around. It goes back to the whole notion of being a class act. Even though they’re genial thieves, they’re still thieves nevertheless, but at least they understand the meaning, the properties and social norms of being gentlemen.


Perhaps it’s too much to ask. After all, this is the summer of pirates, ogres and toy robots. Clooney’s Ocean remind’s Pacino’s Willy that “he shook Sinatra’s hand once. You should know better.” Definitely a jab at Willy for not having any class.

Too bad. Half the summer moviegoers don’t even know who Sinatra is.


Defending the ‘Dream’

Last night I promised I would take my cousin Maria to see the film adaptation of the 1982 Broadway hit Dreamgirls. Maria is a huge fan of the musical. Growing up, she’d sing the songs while I accompanied her on the piano. I had already seen the film a few weeks back and I didn’t mind seeing it again, this time with a less enthusiastic crowd and one that didn’t sing along with the movie. Maybe with the exception of my songbird cousin.

The movie was better the second time around. Not that the smaller, quieter crowd had anything to do with it. I’ve come to the conclusion that the film is simply that good. Some movies work better on DVD. Others need to be seen in theaters. Many have expressed that it’s overrated, loud, and over-the-top. Others simply don’t even want to see it. I think they’re missing the point or they’re just closed-minded enough to be missing out.

Here’s why.

When I first saw it, I was satisfied. I thought it was, as expected, a solid entry into the movie musical foray with strong performances and amazing production values. The second time around I caught a lot of detail that I didn’t notice the first time as I was so in awe by the razzle-dazzle of the piece. Director Bill Condon has fashioned a film in where all the departments involved—from the design, the editing, the acting to obviously the music—are all telling the story cohesively. It reminded me of why I enjoy movies and why I enjoy making movies in the first place: it’s all in how you tell the story.

It’s no secret that Dreamgirls is your basic rags-to-riches music group story which we’ve all seen and heard before, in fiction and in real life. After all, Dreamgirls is a pastiche on producer Berry Gordy Jr., The Supremes, and Motown Records. But fame and the price of fame has been the subject of countless shows and movies, from A Star Is Born, That Thing You Do! to even TV’s Making The Band and American Idol. Much like recent movie musicals, the movie’s true flaw is that it lacks a really strong story and riddled with rather broad, simple characters. Where Dreamgirls really shines is in the execution. The true marvel is in how it was all put together and how it all effortlessly falls into place. Cinematically, all the tools available to the filmmakers and their talents have been used to the best of their storytelling ability.

Bill Condon wrote the adaptation for Chicago. Here Condon writes and directs. His direction is sharp, yet seamless and fluid. Unlike Chicago with its jarring pace that seems inspired by Bob Fosse’s beautiful yet disjointed choreography, Dreamgirls is unafraid to let things flow organically. Chicago was almost embarrassed to be a musical in the first place by placing musical numbers inside the mind of its characters. In Dreamgirls, the characters aren’t afraid to sing their heart out. Here the singing actually moves the story forward.

Early on in the movie, James Brown-like soul singer Jimmy “Thunder” Early (the incomparable Eddie Murphy in a knockout performance) meets his three new backup singers, the Dreamettes. Backstage, he teaches them the song. As Eddie Murphy begins singing “Fake Your Way to the Top”, a pianist takes his seat, and Murphy crosses in front of the instrument and cues each of the girls to sing the decorative backup line, ’round and round’—Lorell (Anika Noni Rose) in her giddy high mezzo, Deena (Beyoncé Knowles, who is a gifted performer, even though her acting is rudimentary) in a softer, sweeter style, and Effie (Jennifer Hudson, a starmaking performance) in a throaty, deep broadway belt that leaps into a joyous riff. Murphy twirls around, and suddenly, devoid of any transition, he’s onstage before a thunderous audience, doing the song with the three girls singing nearby. This is the type of fluidity that just keeps the film moving.

Yet Condon never lets you forget that life—at least through these characters’ eyes—is a stage. This is a musical, after all, no matter how cinematically glossed over it all is. At a pivotal moment near the film’s end when car salesman-turned-music mogul Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) reaches an all-time low, he stands beside a street lamp on a moonlit night outside his gorgeous art-deco house. As the taxi rolls aways suddenly, as if onstage, the orchestra swells, the set fades to black with only the street lamp and Foxx visible. The street lamp now appears like a ghostlamp inside an empty theatre. The moonlight has now become a spotlight and Foxx stands alone underneath it. It’s as if the stage has been shut down. A gorgeous fusion of film and theatre. Pure cinematic (and theatrical) genius.

Another vivid example is the use of costume. Not only do the costumes remind us of the era we are in throughout the film (going from early 60’s to the late 70’s), but the costume design also subtly brought out the character’s personality. Effie was the firecracker of the group and many times she had animal prints and fur to point out a primitive beauty and how she constantly relied on her instincts to survive show biz. Curtis Taylor Jr. (Jamie Foxx) went through quite a transformation from his rise to the top ultimately his downfall. We see him early on through his tailored suits, from cheap car salesman drab to shiny sharkskin as a music mogul, from chic (the 60’s) to completely out of touch with the times (the 70’s).

The use of color plays an integral part in the film. If you really look at it, the film is all about color exploring rather vividly the plight of black R&B artists trying to ‘crossover’ the white, vanilla pop charts of the 60’s. The film eloquently reminds us that the music being sung might just be a reaction to the world around them, from the Detriot riots to the civil rights movement, to even Vietnam. It makes perfect sense for the filmmakers to hint at the use of abstract color through design to help portray the social background of the film’s era.

And of course there’s the glorious Broadway score with its unforgettable showstoppers. Critics complain that it doesn’t sound Motown enough. It’s not supposed to. It’s a Broadway score that tells a story not a collection of pop songs.

Yet the most intriguing subject of Dreamgirls is the homogenization of music and music as a driving force. What’s uncomfortable about it all is how true that all is, especially nowadays with music being watered down to appeal to a broader audience (see American Idol) and sacrificing originality to music that samples classic oldies or even the occasional showtune (see Gwen Stefani). You cringe when Curtis reminds us in the movie that music is suppose to make money. You cringe because the idea of it sucks. But really you cringe because you listen to music today and you can’t help but agree.

I’m glad to hear that the film is recieving critical and commercial acclaim because I think it’s well-deserved just based on the craft that’s up onscreen. Sure it’s not perfect, but as far as this genre is concerned, it’s a long-awaited blessing. Movie musicals often give us the old razzle-dazzle but what this movie musical does is remind us of that quiet exhilaration of experiencing emotion through song.

That life is a stage.

And even though we all dance to a different beat, it’s all the more electrifying if we’ve got soul.


The Name’s Bond . . . I guess.

On the surface, Casino Royale is a good movie. It’s just not a James Bond movie.

Not yet, anyway. I’m not saying this as a loyalist to a franchise that’s almost half a century old.

But then again the franchise is almost half a century old so to throw away some of the conventions of a Bond movie seems a little backwards. Why does an iconic film character have to earn his stars and stripes all over again? It’s okay with comic book characters because they’re always being reinvented all the time by artists and numerous interpretations through wonderful graphic novels. James Bond found his way through the world of film and, believe it or not, set the standards for action conventions. If I wanted to see a human James Bond I’ll wait till next year when The Bourne Ultimatum comes out. Why should the new James Bond be like Jason Bourne? Bourne has become the better franchise, even after this overrated and bloated movie. (It’s way too long with a neverending third-act.)

True, Die Another Day wasn’t much of an entry but it had the right spirit. Yes, the franchise has had its lows but it also had its share of highs. To disregard the high points of such an established franchise leaves a bad after taste to Bond afficianados. There is a reason why the franchise has lasted this long, no matter what you may think of it.

With Daniel Craig as the new Bond, it just feels forced. The guy can act no doubt, as we saw in last year’s Layer Cake, but let’s face it. He’s just downright ugly. “I’m all ears,” Craig’s Bond says in one scene, obviously poking fun at his own appearance. When did Bond have to mock his own looks?

Daniel Craig’s not a bad James Bond, really. He actually reminds me of Timothy Dalton who was an equally gritty and realistic Bond. But Dalton’s Bond knew how to have a good time. Craig mostly mugs and grunts his way through Bond. Not an inkling of what would (and should) become a collection of Sean Connery’s charms, George Lazenby’s looks, Roger Moore’s wit, Timothy Dalton’s finesse and Pierce Brosnan’s playfulness.

Casino Royale misses the magic primarily because it is so blatant in reaching its target demographic, perhaps the same demographic that lined-up overnight for the studio’s PlayStation 3 outside stores. For example, the plot revolves around Bond having to beat ubervillain Le Chiffre (Mads Mikkelsen), a banker for the terrorist elite in a high-stakes game of Texas hold’em poker! (Dorm room crowds rejoice! A game you can understand!) Wouldn’t baccarat be a bit more realistic game to play for the likes of Bond and Le Chiffre? When a bartender asks if Bond wants his martini shakened or stirred, Bond quips, “Do I look like I care?” Dashingly smug is one thing, but being downright sarcastic loses the Bond-ian charm. If the writer’s were gonna do that, then they should have just changed the man’s drink. The movie, perhaps unintentionally, lacks a real sense of humor and a real sense of fun.

They call it a reinvention much like Batman Begins. Perhaps what they should have done to the franchise is rejuvenate it more than reinvent. I can look at all the past Bond films and catch all the highlights, (even with Die Another Day) proving to naysayers and revisionists that Bond films aren’t as trite as one might take them to be. A rejuvenation would mean not to go dark and macho (which is the obvious choice), but to actually give the conventions to a more apt filmmaker, like Tarantino or Soderbergh.

Perhaps future installments of the new Bond will harken back to golden ladies, babes with scandalous names, cool gadgets, Miss Moneypenny and Q. I look forward to it. I’ll give Daniel Craig another go come Bond 22. But right now this baby Bond leaves much to be desired and perhaps us Bond fans just aren’t used to it. Or maybe this is the end of the Goldfinger era. No more outlandish movies. Too bad. Looking back at it, that’s what made Bond such a cinematic experience different from anything else out there. Now he’s just another spy movie in the post-9/11 world.

James Bond is a ‘relic of the Cold War’ as M (Judi Dench) tells Bond in GoldenEye. In Casino Royale, she says she simply misses the Cold War entirely.

So do I, ma’am. So do I.


Strange Vices

First of all, I apologize for my late reviews. There’s no excuse for being a month late on my quasi-review of Pirates.

I’m a huge fan of Michael Mann. One of my top five fave directors, Mann has influenced me early on as a budding filmmaker. My first “full-length” film eXit was pretty much a blatant rip-off of Mann-ish techniques: dimly-lit urban scenarios, key light coming from the amber glow of street lamps, seedy characters of the night. I’ve come to the realization that Michael Mann’s hit TV classic Miami Vice was a true inspiration growing up. Not just because it was aesthetically pleasing (and now, painfully dated) but because Mann knows how to infuse substance with style. Heat opened a few months before I started thinking of going to film school. I think that explains why I went straight to making eXit because I remembered how I adore Michael Mann.

Now with Miami Vice the movie version of the hit TV show, Michael Mann plays it super safe. It’s a gorgeous movie, and it’s uber-cool, no doubt about it. But there’s nothing new on top of the material. This is just another cop movie and the cool factor fizzles when you realize it.

It would be near impossible to not compare it to the TV show. If it’s going to be Miami Vice and if you’re going to call it Miami Vice, then the structure can’t only be the one aspect that survives in the reincarnation. Charisma and chemistry should have made it to the film version too.

The TV show pushed boundaries, not only with style but it broke new ground in editing, directing, design, music and staging. The TV show is notorious for making violence on TV into an art form and quite possibly paved the way for numerous headaches for the FCC. Without Miami Vice, there wouldn’t be CSI, 24, Homicide, or the Law & Order series.

That’s what I don’t get. Mann says it’s nothing like the TV show. Well, sure, not stylistically but structurally it is essentially a remake of the episode “Smuggler’s Blues” from Season 1, and a little of “Calderone’s Return.” Plus Mann uses songs more than he does a score which is just like the TV show.

Considering the route Mann has taken in his reinvention, are we to expect to know the new Crockett and Tubbs? You watch Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx mutter their way through the words and you wonder who the hell are these two guys and what keeps them from wanting to do this sort of thing? Is Mann expecting us to simply accept Baby Crockett and Tubbs 2.0 because we kinda remember those candy-colored, sleeve rolling, original suavecitos from the TV show? This is a movie. Give us something to latch on to with these guys. It doesn’t have to be what’s from the show. Give us some kind of characterization. Something.

I don’t care about Crockett and Tubbs in the movie. They’re just cops doing their ‘thang. There’s no reason behind any actions. There’s no witty repartee between the two. We’re reduced to quick assurances of trust (“I will never doubt you”) between the two men. They have no chemistry between each other and their women (Gong Li as a drug lord’s accountant, Naomie Harris as Trudy, who is now linked with Foxx’s Tubbs, yawn, and Elizabeth Rodriguez as Gina). Crockett and Tubbs’ relationships with them are the most uninteresting thing about the movie and that’s too bad because the women are far more interesting characters. There are lines that just drop like dead weight (Crockett to Tubbs: “Like what Trudy would say, I ain’t playin.’”) To make matters worse, Crockett and Tubbs lack the charisma and energy of their TV counterparts.

How can Crockett and Tubbs be this boring when they should be far more fascinating creatures? Bringing us interesting, layered creatures of the night is what Michael Mann is good at. In the TV show, it only took 15 minutes to bring to light what Crockett and Tubbs were all about. One was a failed husband and a veteran with a shady past, the other a tormented New York City cop who can’t shake off the death of his cop brother. At 146 minutes, Mann couldn’t spare us an update on who the hell these guys are?

I’ll say it and damned if I do to say it. Mann should have gone back to the TV show. There. I said it.

Not the neon lights, or the bright Versace suits and the Ferrari Testarossas. Heck we can even do without the theme song (but an update on it would have been fascinating knowing that Mann’s got quite a musical ear.) We tend to forget that the TV show did have substance. (It did last for half a decade). It’s too bad that we only remember it for its style thanks to cheesy mag covers with an all too giddy Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas chumming it up behind neon spray-painted palm trees. Mann should have realized the strengths of the TV show and updated it for this film. Instead he gives us a visual treat no doubt, but nothing more; a technical achievement proving that Mann has the skills. But for an artist to go back to one of his masterpieces you’ve got to at least allude to it in more ways than one.

Perhaps style eclipsing substance has always been Mann’s fatal flaw. I hate to say it about one of my favorite filmmakers, but it’s apparent here, and that sucks because the material is good. There’s so much that could have been done. Instead, ironically, it all feels a little too safe for me, at least for Michael Mann’s standards.

Mann’s way of bringing Miami Vice into the now doesn’t have any substance. Now, it’s all just style. Perhaps if Miami Vice were a TV show today, executive produced by Mann, it would look and feel like this.

It might work. TV is different than the movies.


Heroes and Devils

Finally. The summer movie season has redeemed itself.


Ever since the release of Cars (and if you can overlook the superhyped Nacho Libre) the summer blockbusters of recent weeks have been worthy entries. Last weekend’s two big movies, Superman Returns and The Devil Wears Prada, are very good, strong summer popcorn flicks that give hope for movies yet to come this summer. I enjoyed them both.




Superman Returns is proof that fanboys can be good filmmakers if they follow the footsteps of Bryan Singer. Not only does he have a solid knowledge of comic book folklore, he knows his craft well. Superman is a visual dazzler, with inspired cinematography and effects. This Brandon Routh guy hits all the right notes as the Man of Steel/Clark Kent. He can probably use an ounce of charisma but that’s only if you compare him to Christopher Reeve (and it’s impossible not to because the boy looks so much like him). Kevin Spacey is an inspired choice for Lex Luthor and it’s always fun to watch a great actor rip up the scenery and chew away! John Williams’ themes are kept intact, even the “Can You Read My Mind” Love Theme, which I must admit, gave me goosebumps when I heard it in DTS/THX Dolby Digital.


“I’ve eaten much of the scenery. Can I chew on this crystal too?”


The great thing about Superman on celluloid is that you can pile the humor generously because the idea of a superhero as great as Superman is so farfetched. You can’t help but plant your tongue firmly in your cheek. Perhaps that’s my biggest issue: it never really captures the joyous spirit of the first two Superman movies of the 70’s. The film falls flat at parts, stretching out certain scenes, particularly scenes in the third act. It’s a film that, unlike our hero, doesn’t really soar but flies at a reasonable height. Perhaps the questions left unanswered will be brought to light in the obligatory sequel that lies ahead. Nevertheless, it still flies and it’s a great way too cool off the summer heat.



Now The Devil Wears Prada was a delightful surprise.


“It’s not your suit that bothers me, it’s the print of this damn couch!”


Thanks to a great trailer, favorable reviews and a different target audience than fanboys, the movie is a surprise hit. And why not? Meryl Streep has never been funnier (and bitchier) and Anne Hathaway holds her own amongst Streep and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci. Streep plays top fashion magazine editor Miranda Priestly (think Anna Wintour) who hires fresh-faced, Northwestern kid Andrea Sachs (Anne Hathaway) as the assistant to her assistant (Emily Blunt). Soon enough, Andrea gets wrapped up in the glamourous world of fashion, learning style and poise, even if it means sacrificing her earnest inner qualities.


The Devil Wears Prada is after all an expose into the multimillion dollar fashion industry, and based on my experience and conversations overheard in swank parties I’ve attended with my sister’s friends who work in the industry, the film seems totally on point. With such names being thrown here and there (Dolce & Gabbana, Manolo Blahnik, Tom Ford) you get the sense that it’s an industry far more demanding (and more painful) than the entertainment industry. It’s fun, no doubt, and exciting but the movie spares no expense at pointing out the industry shallowness. For example there’s a great monologue that Miranda delivers about the style evolution of Andrea’s blue polyblend sweater. By the time she gets to the end of it, you’re at a loss. It’s a sobering fact at how shallow fashion really is, but somehow it manages to be a striving industry.


“Hi! I’m Simon Baker. Somehow I’ve managed to be in every single romantic comedy movie lately.”


There are very good performances that in my opinion save the movie from being an overblown episode of Sex and the City and believe me, once or twice during the movie, I felt like it was. Maybe it’s because I saw it with my big sister who owns the show on DVD. 


The movie is clever, littered with zippy one-liners (my favorite: Tucci’s “Gird Your Loins!”) and “stylish” editing. It’s a breezy romantic comedy/fish-out-of-water movie that’s a great alternative for the testosterone-driven summer movie fare.


That’s if you’re willing to hang up your superhero cape for a nice Givenchy leather jacket for a night.