Wednesday, May 31, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Training Day (2001)

When Denzel Washington won the Best Actor Academy Award for his performance in Training Day, I remember it was considered something of an upset as Russel Crowe had been the critical darling that year for his work in A Beautiful Mind.  Crowe had the more conventional Oscar-bait role, playing real-life mathematician John Nash, and he had racked up a slew of awards for his performance going into the Oscars ceremony that year.  But, it was Washington who took home the Oscar, becoming (at the time) only the second black actor to do so and currently the only one to have won two (Washington's first Oscar was for his supporting role in 1989's Glory).

I was in complete agreement with the Academy that year as Washington's performance in Training Day is a prime example of an actor, at the height of his creative powers, making the most out of a role.  

Washington plays Detective Alonzo Harris, a Los Angeles police officer.  Harris is a bad cop who patrols his turf like a power-drunk warlord.  In the hands of a lesser actor, Harris would be as over-the-top as a comic book villain.  But, Washington manages to imbue Harris with a world weariness and even a hint of a core morality that he willfully ignores.  In Washington's hands, Harris becomes a complex character that engages the audience and makes us wonder whether or not there is a hope of redemption for him.

But, Harris is the villain of the piece, make no mistake about it.  And, it is really something to see Washington tear into those moments where Harris is at his most evil.  The way he coldly wields a sawed-off shotgun or the glint in his eyes as he reveals his master plan to the rookie, Jake (played by Ethan Hawke), who he has been trying to corrupt throughout the whole film.  Washington makes Harris a sinister presence while giving him all the allure and charisma you might find in a vampire movie.

And, that might be the most apropos comparison to make about this character.  Harris is a vampire in the metaphorical sense; he feeds off the fear and pain of others while slyly manipulating the events around him.  Washington seems to understand this and makes his performance grandiose and theatrical in just the right modulation so that a line like "King Kong ain't got shit on me" comes across as a genuine threat rather than the ridiculous thing it is to say.

I don't mean to imply that there isn't also subtlety in Washington's portrayal.  When you watch the film, listen for the very deliberate verbal switching that Washington uses when talking with different characters. With Jake, he is the learned, articulate veteran cop imparting his knowledge and experience to a newbie.  With a drug dealer, his language becomes street vernacular, speaking in a quick shorthand vocabulary to make his meaning clear.  And, with his crew of corrupt cops, he sounds like a military leader, issuing orders like a general on the battlefield.

I know I have spent this whole review talking about Washington's performance, but it is truly the centerpiece of a very effective and gritty crime drama.  And, it is also a great achievement in screen acting.

Note: I missed doing a review last week as my time got away with all the end-of-the-school-year craziness.  Such is the life of a high school teacher!

Sunday, May 28, 2017

WONDER WOMAN's Villains are Perfect (2017)

Jeff provides some observations about the upcoming Wonder Woman film.  A great video!  And, I can't wait for June 2 to get here!

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Folding Into the Past

I'm going to be accused of vagueness in this blog post, but I am not prepared to fully divulge all the details of the circumstances I'm examining here.  This is due in part because it would require me revealing names of individuals without permission or prior notice, which is something I try very hard not to do, particularly when I am sharing sensitive information.  Mostly though it is because I have still felt the emotional pangs that have made up the aftermath of the situation.  They have lessened with time but can be very much present, sapping my confidence on occasion and causing me to doubt myself in ways that have made it difficult to move on.  It has felt, from time to time, as though the idea that the past isn't always done with us is all too true a sentiment.

With that said, it is funny how mundane tasks can sometimes inspire moments of clarity and revelation.  The other night I was folding tee-shirts that I had just taken out of the dryer.  Now there are two things you must understand: 1) I have a massive tee-shirt collection which I go through with some regularity especially with the workout routine I've been following, and 2) I am extremely anal retentive when it comes to folding in a those-Gap-employees-ain't-got-nothing-on-me sort of way.  My point is that I was taking my time in getting the tee-shirts folded, and such tasks often cause me to reflect on my day and, sometimes, my life in general.

This night, I was thinking about my back and the emerging soreness in the lower part of it.  It is nothing serious, just a little strain from a recent workout routine.  I began to think of ways to ease the stress on my back without compromising the intensity of my workout.  I then reflected on the reasons I have started working out regularly, one of which deals directly with my desire to look better and healthier for any romantic opportunities that present themselves to me.  There are other reasons, even some that are more pressing than the romantic ones, but I would be dishonest if I said that wasn't a significant factor in my decision to be more fit.

At that moment, I was putting away the folded tee-shirts and came across one that I haven't worn in more than four years tucked way at the bottom of the drawer.  This will sound strange, but I bought it all those years ago as a direct result of my being romantically happy at the time and having more optimism about that part of my life.  More than that I cannot say without revealing more detail than I think appropriate, but suffice it to say that that period of my life ended in heartbreak.  Part of it from my own doing and part of it not.

Of course, I had seen the tee-shirt over the ensuing years.  It wasn't a long-forgotten item.  Far from it.  But on this occasion, I picked up the shirt, unfolded it, and took a good long look at it.  As I regarded it, a feeling came over me that I never had in the years since the relationship ended.  For the first time, I saw the tee-shirt's pointlessness, its unnecessary occupation of valuable space.  It wasn't even a very well made tee-shirt to begin with, and I'm pretty sure it no longer fit.

So, without thinking too long on it, I simply wadded the tee-shirt up and tossed it in the nearby trash can.  I wish I could say the moment brought about some sort of powerful catharthis, but it felt more like a dried scab finally falling away from a healed wound.

And perhaps that is ultimately more important than a big moment of emotional realization.  Does the loss still hurt occasionally?  You bet.  But, it didn't hurt when I threw away the tee-shirt.  On the contrary, I felt like I was exercising a muscle for the first time in a long while (forgive the workout simile, but that's where my mind is currently) and realizing it is stronger than I originally thought.  So, maybe it means that even if the past isn't done with me, I can still be done with my past.

We'll see.

Original HARRY POTTER Live Action on Netflix

Jeff makes an argument for a limited TV series detailing some of the background of the Harry Potter universe.  I'm not sure I'm on board with the concept as a whole, but his ideas and the breakdown he gives on how to approach them are solid.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Justice League: the New Frontier (2008)

Well, you never know which way the winds of inspiration will blow you.  I was all set to write a review of another film, a non-fantasy film, and spent most of the weekend thinking of things I wanted to say about that particular movie.  But then I saw in my Memories Feed on Facebook that this past Mother's Day was the one-year anniversary of the death of Darwyn Cooke, famed comic book writer and artist.  Cooke died tragically of lung cancer at the age of 53 at the height of his creative talents and with no indication that he was running out of ideas and good stories to tell.

Arguably, Cooke's masterwork was DC: the New Frontier, a re-imagining of the origin of the Justice League of America and some of its key members.  New Frontier was a love letter of sorts to the Silver Age of comics that not only showed the in-text transition from the Golden Age of super heroes but also accomplished the nifty trick of capturing all the wonder and allure of a classic Silver Age story while interweaving rich characterization and  a clever plot, two qualities that are distinctly NOT associated with stories of the era.

The online reminder I received about Cooke's death got me thinking about the film adaptation of his magnum opus, retitled Justice League: the New Frontier.  The movie version manages to capture the best qualities of the graphic novel, including Cooke's distinctive artistic style,   And, the result is that very familiar characters, some of whom were getting a bit a dusty in their depictions, had new life breathed into them.

Part of the reason for this is that New Frontier is set in the late 1950s, where the Silver Age of comics began.  As a result, the film is able to convey the innocence and optimism of the time period but with a hindsight perspective that includes some of the more seedier aspects of the decade, like the Red Scare and the harsh realities of war.  Although heroes like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman are still intent on doing the right thing, all three of them are now navigating murky territory regarding morality and ethics.  It will take the emergence of a new generation of heroes to shake the Big Three out of their disenchantment with their chosen missions.

At the forefront of this new generation are Barry Allen aka the Flash (the first hero of the Silver Age), Hal Jordan (the war veteran and test pilot who becomes the new Green Lantern), and J'Onn J'Onzz (a Martian accidentally brought to Earth and stranded here).  Their respective hero journeys are interlocked with the main story about a pending threat from an entity called the Center, an alien intelligence that has grown wary of mankind and decides the human race must be eliminated due to its penchant for violence and the escalation in methods of mass destruction, namely atomic weapons.

There is a lot to admire in New Frontier.  But, the last thing I want to say is that a story like this is only possible because DC has routinely allowed writers and artists to have the freedom to reinvent its stable of characters, divorced from the constraints of continuity.  It is one of the biggest advantages that DC has had over Marvel and is what has allowed the company to produce seminal works such as Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Sandman.  There have also been some abysmal failures, like the New 52, but gems like New Frontier make up for the missteps.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

STAR WARS Plans Without Carrie Fisher

Jeff very soundly summarizes the options that the Star Wars filmmakers have in dealing with the death of Carrie Fisher.  I don't know what the solution is, but I know I don't want an off-screen death/resolution to the character.  She deserves better than that.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Batman & Bill (2017)

I hadn't planned on spotlighting another film focused on the fantasy genre so soon after last week's review of Atlantis: the Lost Empire, but that was before I watched the Hulu documentary, Batman & Bill, and my original intentions were thrown out the window.  Batman & Bill is a film about Bill Finger, the long unsung co-creator of Batman and most of the elements (including many of the classic villains) now considered essential parts of the Batman mythology.  

Long time comic book fans will no doubt have heard of Finger and his contributions to the Batman character, but proper acknowledgment of Finger's work was never given until very recently.  Like within the last few years, somewhere around the seventy-fifth anniversary of the character.  This film documents the efforts to establish Finger's credit as well as tell his life story, the details of which are heartbreaking and have been largely unknown to comic book fans until now.

At the center of all this is writer and comic book historian, Marc Nobleman.  We follow his research into the life of Bill Finger and how he slowly uncovers the sometimes mundane but often sad trifles of Finger's life.  We learn how Finger became involved in the creation of Batman, how contracts and legalities kept him from obtaining the credit so many saw as rightfully his, and how the remainder of his career played out while he watched Bob Kane, the man historically given sole credit for creating Batman, reap all the rewards and benefits.

I won't go into the specifics, but the revelations about Finger's life and the subsequent effects on his family had me in tears before the movie's end.  Here is a man that co-created one of the most famous and recognizable (not to mention successful) fictional characters in the history of any genre of literature and hardly anyone knows who he is.  The ensuing languor and obscurity of Finger's life while his most famous creation flourished was almost unbearable to watch.

It shouldn't be a spoiler to say there is a happy ending of sorts in that DC Comics is finally crediting Bill Finger with creating Batman alongside Bob Kane.  But, the real power of this film is watching how the events play out in an attempt to make amends for a decades-long injustice.  As a friend recently said to me, it's a story that shouldn't have had to be told, but at least it is getting told.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Paying For Star Trek Discovery?

Jeff is at it again.  This time he is offering up the debate on a pay-to-watch Star Trek TV series.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

What-To-Watch Wednesday - Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

As Disney continues cranking out one formulaic film after another based on Marvel Comics characters or yet another entry into the Star Wars franchise, it is easy to forget one of the company's more original attempts at making fantasy/adventure films.  Back in 2001, Disney released Atlantis: the Lost Empire in an effort to appeal to young adolescent boys, a demographic the company has always struggled to snag.  Although the film was only a modest success compared to other Disney blockbusters, the result is a story of great narrative and visual imagination.

Before I go any further I should offer the following disclaimer so my nerd brothers don't get up in arms.  I am not disparaging the Disney films made under either of the Marvel Comics or Star Wars banners - far from it.  The results of Disney's stewardship of these movie universes have actually been pretty good.  But, the cracks have long been showing on the Marvel films to the point where the plots are achingly predictable and the dialogue can be recited before it is said on screen.  And, Star Wars is in danger at long last of skating into the realm of over-saturation under Disney's relentless promotion machine.

Bearing all this in mind, I can't help but look back at Atlantis: the Lost Empire and wonder why such a well-made and great looking film wasn't a bigger success or hasn't started to develop more of a cult following.  The nerd cred is certainly there: legendary comic book artist, Mike Mignola (creator of Hellboy), provided the character designs and overall look for the film.  The general tone of the story is darker and somber than what one usually finds in a Disney release, although it still retains some of the telltale elements of Disney humor.  And, the voice cast is one of the best assembled for a feature-length animated movie, including such diverse talents as Michael J. Fox, James Garner, and Leonard Nimoy.

The film's story follows the paces of classic adventure in the vein of Wells or Burroughs in which the main character goes on a journey to find something most people don't even believe exists.  In this instance, the hero is Milo Thatch, a nerdy cartographer and linguist who grew up being regaled with tales of the ancient continent of Atlantis by his grandfather.  His examinations of an old manuscript found on an expedition in Iceland lead him to discover clues to the location of Atlantis, and soon he is recruited to join a team setting out to find the lost civilization.

Milo is accompanied on this journey by a trope of characters familiar to the genre but still so colorful that calling them eccentric couldn't even begin to describe them.  I don't want to take up space describing them as a viewing of the film would be infinitely more effective than any description I could give.  But, I will say that the really cool thing about animation (or even comics) is that the characters can be visualized to suggest personality traits.  Mignola is a master at character design, and his work here, informed a great deal by the steampunk genre, is able to convey volumes about each character without a single line of dialogue.

As we have come to expect from a Disney film, the animation is topnotch, and I am glad Atlantis was done in the classic hand-drawn style as the look best fits the style.  I, by no means, sniff at CGI animated films, but I do believe different techniques benefit different stories.  A computer would have made the visuals too sleek, too neat, and Atlantis is a film that is enhanced by the graininess and grit of hand-drawn animation.

When last I looked, Atlantis: the Lost Empire is streaming on Netflix.  Think about giving it a try, especially if you have young boys who are too old for lighter fare, but too young for movies like Avatar or most of the Marvel films.

A Note For the Cast & Crew of Driving Miss Daisy

So, the run of Driving Miss Daisy at Possum Point Players has been finished for almost two weeks now.  My sense is that it was a success ...