Friday, February 28, 2014

Mt. Rushmore of Morgan Freeman Characters


Morgan Freeman Week Continues With a Blogathon!


M. Brown at Two Dollar Cinema came up with a cool idea for a blogathon, come up with your own Mt. Rushmore. Sounds simple enough, but I'll let him explain in his own words.

To participate, simply choose the top 4 of anything cinematic and explain why it should be carved into the side of a mountain forever. Remember these are real people carved into imaginary rock - so choose wisely! - m. brown

Choose wisely, hmmm...

I wracked my brain trying to figure out what to do. Finally, I remembered I'm in the middle of Morgan Freeman Week. Who deserves to be on Mt. Rushmore more than Morgan Freeman? The man has played dozens of characters. Below are the four that I carve into the side of a mountain in heartbeat. And you know what? I'd even go so far as to carve an inscription beneath each one.


Ellis Boyd "Red" Redding
(The Shawshank Redemption)
Simply put, this is the most iconic role Freeman has ever played. Twenty years since its release, it's still the one most associated with him. And we're definitely carving the hat.

Red's Inscribed Quote: I have to remind myself that some birds aren't meant to be caged. Their feathers are just too bright. And when they fly away, the part of you that knows it was a sin to lock them up DOES rejoice.


Det. William Somerset
(Se7en)
Has there ever been a more brilliant detective in cinematic history? Maybe...MAYBE two. Sherlock Holmes being one, the other is one will actually be on the mountain with Somerset. How smart is he? Be honest with yourself. If you had never seen Se7en and were assigned to investigate the same murders he did, how long would it be before you went and read Dante's Inferno in search of clues?

Somerset's Inscribed Quote: Ernest Hemingway once wrote, "The world is a fine place and worth fighting for." I agree with the second part.


Alex Cross
(Kiss the Girls/Along Came a Spider)
This is that other brilliant detective. My biggest reason for including him is that he is something Freeman rarely gets to be, the protagonist. Why there weren't a whole slew of Alex Cross movies with him in the lead, I'll never know. Another reason for his inclusion? He played the role far better than Tyler Perry. Zing!

Cross' Inscribed Quote: You're born with a gift. If not that, then you get good at something along the way. And what you're good at, you don't take for granted. You don't betray it.


Sgt. Maj. John Rawlins
(Glory)
For the last spot, I actually wanted one of his more recent roles and was leaning heavily toward Lucius Fox. As much as I love Batman flicks, I had to go with the more "important" role. For me, there's really no more important character on Freeman's resume than John Rawlins, a black man who joined the Union Army to fight for his own emancipation during the Civil War. Yup, this hat goes on the mountain, too.

Rawlins' Inscribed Quote: So that if tomorrow is the great getting-up morning, if that tomorrow we have to meet the Judgement Day, O Heavenly Father, we want you to let our folks know that we died facing the enemy! We want 'em to know that we went down standing up! Amongst those that are fighting against our oppression, we want 'em to know, Heavenly Father, that we died for freedom!


There you have it. Feel free to do your own Mt. Rushmore, or criticize mine. If you decide to participate, head over to Two Dollar Cinema and leave link to your post. Then again, even if you don't head over there anyway, it's a very funny blog.


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: Now You See Me


Morgan Freeman Week continues...


Directed by Louis Letterier.
2013. Rated PG-13, 115 minutes.
Cast:
Melanie Laurent
Michael Kelly
Elias Koteas

A quartet of magicians manages to really do the impossible. Daniel (Eisenberg), Henley (Fisher), Merritt (Harrelson), and Jack (Franco) are putting on a huge Las Vegas magic show. They pluck an unsuspecting man from the audience and make him disappear. That's not the trick. The trick is that the man reappears in a bank vault in Paris. When they zap him back to Vegas, all the money in the vault comes with him. Both the FBI and Interpol are quite interested in figuring out how they really robbed a bank on another continent. Working the case are Agent Rhodes (Ruffalo) for the former and Agent Dray (Laurent) for the latter. Also after our heroes is Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman), a former magician who now makes a living exposing trade secrets.

Now You See Me is an insanely watchable movie. It captures our interest early and clinches it tight. Truth is, whether we admit it or not, all of us like to see a good magic trick. When we see one, we immediately try to figure out how it was done. This is the key to the film's intrigue. It repeatedly puts us in the position of bewildered yet fascinated spectator. This spills over from the stage show of our would be heroes into their cat-and-mouse with the law. As a result, the plot moves at a brisk pace while we try to keep up. It's not that the plot is terribly intricate or complex in any way. Our minds are just pre-occupied with the 'how' of what we just saw.


Eventually, the movie has to give us some answers. This is where the problems start. The process of elimination will likely give you the answer to the most pressing question. That question is not how, but who. You can follow that up with why. The answer is unsatisfactory in either case. Scrutinizing things only makes it fall apart even more. Still other things can only be explained by the term "movie magic." We get the same feeling of disappointment Dorothy had after her first peek at the man behind the curtain in the land of Oz.

Of course, if all the big reveals work for you then just ignore the entire previous paragraph. You'll sing its praises and possibly fling around words like 'brilliant' and 'genius.' Though I disagree, I wouldn't even dream of trying to dissuade you. It does take some serious ingenuity to keep up the various ruses as long as it does. And like I said, it is fun to watch as it rolls along. If you haven't seen it, be prepared. The movie may make or break itself during those last few scenes.


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: Addendum to the Chain of Command


A few years ago, the picture above started making its rounds on the internet. It's a fun little pic with an interesting ranking of some of Morgan Freeman's roles. Obviously it works from the top down in order of power and/or importance, hence his role as God at the top. Other than flip-flopping the Inmate and the Freed Slave, I'd say it's accurate. In the time since, he's played a few more roles, and a couple of the earlier ones were neglected. I won't go through them all, but there are some that deserve to be included in this mix. Some of these were a bit tricky. Feel free to let me know how bad I screwed up, or others you might include.

Speaker of the House
(Olympus Has Fallen)
Ranks Between South African President and CIA Director


Leader of the Human Resistance
(Oblivion)
Ranks Between Brigadier General and Colonel 


CEO of Wayne Enterprises
(The Dark Knight/The Dark Knight Rises)
Ranks Between Colonel and Sergeant Major


Forensic Psychologist/Detective/Author
(Kiss the Girls/Along Came a Spider)
Ranks Between Judge and Police Detective


Crime Boss
(Lucky Number Slevin)
Ranks Between High School Principal and Pimp



Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: Olympus Has Fallen


Morgan Freeman Week continues...



Directed by Antoine Fuqua.
2013. Rated R, 120 minutes.
Cast:
Gerard Butler
Aaron Eckhart
Morgan Freeman
Rick Yune
Angela Bassett
Dylan McDermott
Finley Jacobsen
Robert Forster
Melissa Leo
Radha Mitchell
Cole Hauser
Ashley Judd

When the limousine carrying President Benjamin Asher (Eckhart) and his wife (Judd) is involved in an accident Secret Service Agent Mike Banning (Butler) reacts immediately and saves the Commander-in-Chief's life. Unfortunately, he cannot rescue the First Lady. Even though the two men are friends, the president has Banning transferred to a desk job so that he doesn't have to be reminded of what happened whenever he sees his face. Fast forward eighteen months and President Asher and his son Connor (Jacobsen) appear to have adjusted as well as possible. Still, as presidents must, he's dealing with another crisis. This one involves meeting with the South Korean president to discuss how to keep their neighbors to the north at bay. If you guessed that the North Koreans crash this little party with guns blazing, give yourself a cookie. No extra points for guessing they put a pretty good hurtin' on our nation's capital, White House included. The Prez is taken to his bunker, but yeah, there are bad guys there, too. Okay, you only get one shot at this one. Guess who is the only person who can save the day? So yeah, Agent Banning spots all the mayhem from his office window and springs into action.

Typical of just about every movie where a foreign entity invades the U.S., we get an exercise in flag waving. We also get an oversimplification of our place in the world, at least from our point of view. It's all America good, everyone else evil, or weak. With this comes hokey dialogue, faceless villains from whatever country we think is most dangerous to us when the film is made, and lots of hand-wringing over what our heroes' next move should be. Anyone expecting anything more is setting themselves up for disappointment.


Even with expectations properly set, there are some less than exemplary aspects to Olympus Has Fallen. For starters, Pres. Asher comes across as less brave than his subordinates and explicitly goes against the only policy the movie bothers to mention: The United States will not negotiate with terrorists. Part of the plot is the North Koreans trying to gain access to a system that will effectively shut down all of America's nukes. To do this they need three codes which three separate people, all in the bunker, including the president, have one each. When the others are pressed a bit, he immediately caves and implores them to give up the goods. What the movie wants us to think is that he's saving the lives of those with him and is even willing to sacrifice himself. This is why he says to both, when he tells them to spill the beans, "They'll never get mine!" In reality, he's giving up our nation's security without much of a fight even though it's painfully obvious the bad guys can't just kill these people and accomplish their objectives.

Another issue is that our villains willfully put themselves in position to be defeated. We're told, without qualification, that no one can get into the president's bunker. As I mentioned, every person the North Koreans need is already in there with them. Everything they want is at their fingertips. Why keep talking to those who have assumed power in the president's absence? By the way, that person is Morgan Freeman and Speaker-of-the-House Trumbull. More tactically important, why send anyone out, or open the door for any reason until the mission is complete? If I'm the bad guys, whatever Banning is doing outside is largely irrelevant. I've got whatever need in the bunker with me and he can't get to me. Of course, that would make this a far different movie, so I understand why it was done. It just makes them look stupid, and in turn, the movie looks this way, too.

Without some idiocy by the villains, the movie wouldn't have as much of what it does best: action. There is plenty of it. During it, star Gerard Butler kicks all sorts of ass. In other words, people looking for a shoot 'em up get what they came for. It's all well done with lots of casualties on both sides. This keeps the movie entertaining even if it is eye-roll worthy. Things speed by pretty quickly as they go boom left and right. Yup, Washington DC is torn up good. All in all, it's similar to the recent remake of Red Dawn. That doesn't even take into account the apparent similarities it has to a movie I haven't even seen yet, but will soon, White House Down. OHF has loads of chest thumping patriotism, explosions, gunfights, and problems with its plot.


MY SCORE: 5/10

Monday, February 24, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: Se7en


Morgan Freeman Week Continues...

Directed by David Fincher.
1995. Rated R, 126 minutes.
Cast:
Morgan Freeman
Daniel Zacapa
Mark Boone Junior
Hawthorne James
Richard Schiff
Reg E. Cathey

Like The Shawshank Redemption, which kicked off Morgan Freeman Week, Se7en is not only considered a classic, it's a revisit for me, as well. My first encounter with this film was during its initial theater run. I remember being fascinated all the way through, thoroughly enjoying myself. Then the finale came. My jaw hit the floor. I took a few moments to assess what I had just seen and immediately crowned it on of the best movies I've ever seen. I have watched well over a thousand movies since. Still, it remains one of my all-time favorites. I'm just glad that first viewing took place during my adult years. Had the teenage me been watching this, my head may have literally exploded as I tried to reconcile it with my Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jason Vorhees world. Piecing it all together might have proven difficult. For those of you who haven't seen it, it's not nearly as complex as I am making it seem. However, it's still light years away from the movies I usually watched, even as I entered the theater to see Se7en, mostly action and slasher flicks with some comedies mixed in.

Unlike a lot of my other faves, I didn't return to this film very often. In fact, I hardly watched it again at all. I've caught bits and pieces of it on TV a few times over the years, but I don't remember sitting down to watch it in its entirety again. Until now. It was finally time to put this movie to the test. The climactic scene was truly an indelible moment in my movie watching life. With full knowledge of the surprise awaiting me, how would it hold up? Quite well, thank you very much.

As far as plots go, Se7en has a fairly simple one. Detective William Somerset (Freeman) is a genius, but weary cop a week away from retirement. In a bucking of Hollywood law, he doesn't die once we receive this information. He does, however, have to give Det. David Mills the lay of the wasteland where they work. Mills is a young hotshot whose just moved to town with his wife Tracy (Paltrow). He worked homicide in a nicer part of the world. Strangely, he begged to be transferred here, to one of the most hellish parts of Chicago. The first case they come upon is one in which the victim appears to have eaten himself to death, upon initial inspection. A little more looking around reveals the man was forced to do this. As more facts are learned, Somerset believes this murder is only the first of what someone plans to be many more. When a second body is found, it becomes apparent the two are related and that our killer is using The Seven Deadly Sins as inspiration.

Even without the mystery it holds for first time viewers, Se7en is still a movie that draws you in. It does this by keeping not just the police a step or two behind the bad guy, but the audience, too. In a lot of films, even those that conceal its villain like this one, we get to see the crimes in progress. We have more knowledge than the hero and we know where they are going wrong. Here, all we get is the grisly aftermath. We arrive upon it with the cops and don't have any more tools than they to put this puzzle together. For someone who has seen it, this automatically makes us scout the crime scene closer than we did that first time around. We desperately look for clues we and/or the detectives may have missed that would lead to the villain more quickly. We are not just watching this film. We are studying it.


The relationship between our two heroes is also a major factor in our continuing enjoyment. At first, the men try to size each other up. It's plain to see they don't really click. Freeman's Somerset takes the far more cerebral approach to everything. It is no surprise he is divorced and still alone. He seems to have trouble dealing with us mental midgets. If there is one scene that perfectly sums up who he is, it's our first trip with him to the library. Before getting there, he hops into the back of a cab. When the driver asks where he is going, he laments "Far away from here." He is a man who despises his surroundings, but understands that this is the place where he is needed. Once arriving, he spots a group of security guards playing poker. Never mind it seems to be an excessive amount of guards for a library. It is more important that other than those guys, he is alone (it is at night), which appears to be how he likes things. It's also important to show just how different he is from other law-enforcement folk. Who goes to a library to research the possible motives of a serial killer? Regardless of his differentness, though, he is well respected. This is evidenced by the guards seemingly trying to impress him by cranking up the classical music to show off their own "culture." Their display is a reaction to the one line that most explicitly shows us Somerset's outlook on things. To them, he says "I'll never understand. All these books, a world of knowledge at your fingertips. What do you do? You play poker all night."

Pitt's David is much more the cop we're used to seeing, nearer the every man for us to identify with. He shares our frustration with both the case and with the things his partner does that appear almost completely dissimilar to police work as he knows it. He is also not afraid to cut corners. Occasionally, it's to keep up with the old man. We see this in his acquiring of the Cliff Notes version of the texts that Somerset painstakingly researched. Other times, it is a way to cover his tracks after making a rash decision. However, what really endears him to us is that he's hilarious. I'd forgotten how funny he is. He isn't doing slapstick and pratfalls. He just makes us laugh by his delivery of some sharp dialogue and his reactions to the situations in which he finds himself. And given the fact he's married, his wife also plays an important role. In one of Gwyneth Paltrow's best performances, she gives us a woman distraught and conflicted by her choice to support her man's career choices and where it has taken them. The matter seems to be destroying her even as she seeks, in her own way, to protect her husband.

As good as its actors are, the real star of Se7en is director David Fincher. He packs every frame with symbolism and/or mystery. The library scene I described earlier is just one of many examples. Another involving Freeman is when he destroys the metronome by his bed. The case he is working is about rules, yet it's creating chaos all around him. This is a man who thrives on order. What's more orderly than a metronome? As far as mystery goes, Fincher reveals our killer at precisely the right time, but we still feel lost. We don't see his endgame. Us repeat watchers don't see a way we could have seen his endgame. Then, there are those amazingly unsettling visuals. Each corpse is a true depiction of someone dying by the sin of which they've been deemed guilty. It's a remarkable feat by a remarkable film maker.

I could go on praising this movie forever. From the time it starts, I am intrigued by it. I am trying to crack its code. More accurately, I'm trying to see where I should have been able to crack it before, and failing. I am also enjoying the fantastic acting taking place across the board. And I haven't even mentioned the person who is causing all the fuss. Because of that person, Freeman's scholarly approach, Pitt's levity, and top notch story telling, to name a few things, we always have a marvelous movie watching experience. Yes, even if we already know what's in the box.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: Oblivion


Morgan Freeman Week continues...


Directed by Joseph Kosinski.
2013. Rated PG-13, 125 minutes.
Cast:
Andrea Riseborough
Nikolaj Coster-Waldau

That alien invasion you've been waiting on has finally happened. It's 2077, well after the big showdown and I'm happy to inform you that we won. Sort of. In the process of beating the invaders, we pretty much ruined Earth by nuking everything. The entire planet is a desolate wasteland. The few human survivors have all relocated to Titan, the largest of Saturn's moons. Well, everyone but Tech 49 Jack Harper (Cruise) and Victoria Olsen (Riseborough). As needed, he flies around and repairs the drones that are protecting power stations from Scavengers. The power stations basically harvest the water for energy to be used on Titan. Scavengers are the few remaining survivors of the invading army. Victoria works the control tower from their apartment in the sky. At night, they turn the place into a love shack. Anyhoo, Jack has the sneaking suspicion that something isn't quite right. This is mostly due to the fact that even though his memory has been completely wiped, as has been done to all humans, he has recurring dreams of meeting a woman at the Empire State Building back before the war. That's not even mentioning the fact that the Scavengers, or Scavs as our hero calls them, are getting bolder by the day.

What works most is the look of the film. It presents us with stark visuals of what the world could be like after nuclear annihilation. You really get the sense that the planet has been decimated. This helps us get the same sense of isolation as our hero. The only contact they have with anyone else is with Sally (Leo), the lady who works mission control from the space station Tet, that functions as headquarters for their little operation. That feeling is compounded by the fact that Jack is the only one who goes out. This means he is alone most of the day except for Victoria's voice in his headphones. It is a fairly lonely existence.


The concepts put forth by Oblivion are also intriguing. It uses these concepts to build mystery and suspense. This is especially true of the Scavs. For awhile, we are strung along trying to figure out exactly what they are trying to accomplish. Jack struggles with this also. We watch him attempting to piece things together in his head, but see that it's not quite coming together. Meanwhile, the mysterious creatures that roam the Earth seem to be closing in on him. It many ways, the movie functions like an updated version of Richard Matheson's iconic novel I Am Legend with Tom Cruise giving us his version of Robert Neville.

Okay, let's be honest. Tom Cruise is really giving us his version of Tom Cruise, pretty much like he always does. This is not necessarily a bad thing. It's just that you know what you're going to get before the movie even starts. Likewise Morgan Freeman gives us Morgan Freeman. The major difference is that he's a bit more suave than normal as he's seen often sitting cross-legged while puffing on a cigar. This is a bit strange given the setting and circumstances, but it works. In case you're confused, no Cruise and Riseborough are not the only people in the movie. However, I won't tell you who Freeman plays since I don't want to spoil things for any of you that haven't seen it.

Most of this film's problems lie within the execution of things. This is particularly true for the second half of the movie where things are to be resolved. We start to notice the threadbare script as it cuts corners. Things aren't fleshed out quite enough to work. And in one case, the film goes all out on a bait-and-switch that feels like a cheat, at best. At worst, it creates a hole in the plot bigger than the one Jack gets trapped in at one point. This leaves us with a movie that was going along nicely and then falls apart at the end.


Saturday, February 22, 2014

Morgan Freeman Week: The Shawshank Redemption


There are a few different things going on in the universe right now. Though we're nearing the end, it is still Black History Month. I haven't mentioned it before now. Instead, I sheepishly put up a review of Lee Daniels' The Butler yesterday. Next weekend is Oscar Weekend. Still having not seen most of the nominated films, I won't be doing any big Oscar preview like a lot of my fellow bloggers. So, in a trivial nod to both Black History Month and Oscar Weekend, I will dub these last few days of February, and the first couple of March, Morgan Freeman Week. In case you've never seen a movie and somehow missed the pic above, yes he is Black. He has also been nominated for five Academy Awards. He won Best Supporting Actor for his role in Million Dollar Baby which we will not be reviewing this week. We'll start with perhaps his most famous role. It did earn him one of those Oscar noms, but unfortunately, he didn't bring home the gold. That movie is none other than The Shawshank Redemption...

Directed by Frank Darabont.
1994. Rated R, 142 minutes.
Cast:
Morgan Freeman
Bob Gunton
Mark Rolston
Gil Bellows

When Andy Dufresne (Robbins) is convicted of murdering his wife and her lover, for which he will serve consecutive life sentences, he is sent to Shawshank to spend the rest of his days. Shawshank is the type of place where a vicious beating from the guards is to be expected for just about any indiscretion. Of course, there are also some rough and tumble characters who try to take whatever it is they want from whomever may have it. As you might suspect of a guy whose been a clean cut banker his whole life, he has a tough time of it early on. Eventually, he joins a small circle of friends. Among them, he is closest to Red (Freeman). Over the next couple decades we watch as their friendship grows and both men go through lots of trials and tribulations. This is based on a Stephen King novella entitled Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.

Perhaps, the most remarkable thing about this movie is how well it holds together. Every piece of it seems to fit perfectly into the whole. Therefore, even when it does things that seem counter-intuitive, such as having a group of convicted felons as our heroes, it works. Of course, if the cons are the good guys, the warden and the guards are the villains. That's not at all a new thing in cinematic history, but it's never been done better than it is right here. Bob Gunton as Warden Norton and Clancy Brown as Capt. Hadley are so thoroughly detestable it gets to the point where we feel some of the same fear as the inmates whenever we know they're coming. There may be no worse or more helpless feeling than when the persecuted knows that their persecutors are acting with impunity. This is what makes Norton's and Hadley's a tremendously effective combination of antagonist and henchman.


On the other side of things are the guys we love. As Andy, Robbins gives arguably the best performance of his career. He's a guy who seems aloof at times, but really has the best interest of others at heart. Yes, there is a bit of selfishness present. He wants his fellow prisoners to experience as many things as possible that people in the free world enjoy. Freedom, and the pursuit of it, is an enormous theme in this film. This pursuit helps him feel normal. He likes feeling normal. He also likes thinking. There is always something going on beneath the surface. Robbins clearly shows this. As his main cohort, Freeman is just wonderful. His easy-going way, and ability to get stuff, make him a perfect companion for Andy. We see the two men become much more than business associates without really saying so to each other for a very long time. The look on Red's face often shows us this. Most interestingly, Freeman uses a variety of smiles to subtly create emotion. These aren't clownish grins and obvious acting tactics, but sly positioning of his facial features that suggests something different than the smile he wears a scene before or later. It's an amazing piece of work by Freeman.

Across the board, the acting is outstanding. This includes a never-better William Sadler and James Whitmore, part of the small circle of friends that includes Andy and Red. But acting isn't all there is here. The story just moves along so effortlessly it's impossible not to get pulled along. Then, somehow, it suddenly injects mystery in the third act. Usually, movies can't do this effectively. It's either suspenseful from the start or not at all. Here, things just seem to be moseying along, albeit not in our guys' favor, then we're suddenly not sure what will happen next. It works good enough that what Andy does tends to be the only part of the film most people remember.

Following Andy's escapades, the movie goes on a little while longer. I can see why some think it goes too long and that it's entirely too sappy. It is sappy. In this case, however, it works because we've come to know these guys so well that we yearn for it to work out this way. Truthfully, it could have ended earlier. I am a guy who is quite okay with a less than happy ending. Some films just have to have a feel good ending, though. This is one of them. Do I believe it's the best movie ever made, as readers of imdb.com have ranked it? No. However, it is certainly a modern classic and I wouldn't fault anyone who did have it as their number one.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Lee Daniels' The Butler

Directed by Lee Daniels.
2013. Rated PG-13, 132 minutes.
Cast:
Oprah Winfrey
Jane Fonda
Vanessa Redgrave
Clarence Williams III
Elijah Kelley
David Banner

We proceed through the life and times of Cecil Gaines (Whitaker). Mr. Gaines works in the White House as a butler beginning during the Eisenhower (Williams) administration and finishing during the Reagan (Rickman) years. As a very young child he witnesses atrocities in the Jim Crow South while working as a cotton picker on a plantation. Due to one specific tragedy, he is made a house servant. When he gets older, he leaves the plantation and heads north a bit where he works as a server in a private club. He is so good that he lands that White House gig. At home, things between he and his wife Gloria (Winfrey) are strained by all of his long hours at work. He also has a contentious relationship with his eldest son Louis (Oyelowo). The two see the world very differently. Part of our story follows Louis as he is literally becomes a major part of just about every front of the Civil Rights struggles of the 20th century. The rest, of course, deals with Cecil's duties in the White House, the stress on his marriage and plenty of acrimony between he and Louis.

Right away, we're told The Butler is inspired by a true story. Let's tackle this first. The key word is "inspired." The real butler is a man named Eugene Allen. He most certainly did serve in that capacity in the White House for 34 years. However, not much else is rooted in fact. If you're wondering what is and what isn't, I'll not go into too many details to maintain some form of brevity. Suffice it to say most things that happen outside the White House are fiction wrapped in a cloak of history while what happens inside it is plausibly, possibly, kinda, sorta true. From what I've read, our hero's relationship with the Reagans is the most factual, followed by his rapport with the Kennedys. However, none of this should cloud your judgement. In my opinion, you shouldn't deem the movie to be better or worse than it actually is because more or less of it is true than you think. Let's move on.

What the movie does best is position Cecil against the people he loves. He is a man that works long and hard to provide for his family in a material sense. On the other hand, he's absent from them emotionally. We watch his marriage falter and wonder if he is even aware of what's happening. He does know of her battle with the bottle, but there is more going on than that. With his oldest son, it is a never-ending war of wills. They bark disagreements at one another until it eventually becomes too much for them to occupy the same room. Even though both situations are overly melodramatic, this is where The Butler is most consistently good. Star Forest Whitaker and David Oyelowo are sufficiently angry and deliver fine performances. However, it's a truly remarkable Oprah Winfrey that glues this kitchen sink drama together and makes it go. Hers is the film's most complex and satisfying portrayal.


The movie stumbles over the one thing that was hyped before it was even released: its highlight reel of Black History. It simply fails to pack the punch necessary to give the film its intended power. Much of it is sped through and oversimplified, but doesn't linger long enough to impact the viewer who hasn't already been impacted. In other words, our prior knowledge, or lack thereof, plays heavily into how we feel without much prompting from the film. Early on, we're shown an earth-shattering event. However, that's really it. It's just a moment. Following this, the movie goes into 'tell us stuff we already know' mode by using Cecil to narrate. He basically says "This sucks. I'm outta here," just in a lot more empty words. The only historic part where the movie slows down and breathes is during Louis' time as a Freedom Rider. We see him go through the intense training for and then the harsh reality of staging a sit-in. After that, it's back to warp speed as there's a brief mention of Malcolm X, a stint in the Black Panther Party (incorrectly lumped together as being of identical philosophies, I might add), and failed political endeavors. What this does is sticks closely to mainstream America's very broad ideas of the many facets of the movement which helped shape society. In doing so, it commits a common error. That mistake is pushing the belief that only the aspects of the Civil Rights Movement that were associated with, and/or under the direction of, Martin Luther King Jr. are worth discussing. At least on the surface.

Beneath the surface, what's really going on is that the movie is simply using all of this as a plot device to develop the romance between Louis and Carol (Alafia, formerly Da Costa), a young woman he meets in college and goes through most of his phases with him. Even this is botched, often feeling awkward and eventually unnecessary as it ends unceremoniously without the 'oomph' the movie seems to be reaching for at all times. The one good thing we get out of it is an explosive dinner scene when the two visit Louis' parents. Again, thank Oprah for making this moment.

The Cliff Notes treatment is given to Cecil's younger son Charlie (Kelley) and another major event in our nation's history, The Vietnam War. The poor kid is barely in the picture. He and the war can be summed up in three short sentences. People didn't know why we were there. People protested. Soldiers died. Something else we already know. By sticking to this, the movie telegraphs its blow and fails to make me care as much as I should. The punches that floor you are the ones you don't see coming. This one starts with a huge wind-up that's impossible to miss. The truth of the matter is some of the issues could have been alleviated by telling the story through Louis' eyes. That would likely force some things to be fleshed out instead of skimmed over. Besides, Louis is a far more interesting character than his one-note father. Of course, this might give us a completely different film than the director intended.



Fortunately, all parts of The Butler are well acted. Terrence Howard gives us a great slimeball while Cuba Gooding Jr. shines as the comic relief. Also funny is Liev Schreiber as an abrasive Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson. James Marsden does a spot-on JFK, but it's Minka Kelly as Jacqueline Kennedy that gives us one of the movie's most heartfelt moments. It's another instance nearly ruined by too much narration, but it still manages to work.

By the end, this is a movie that feels oddly bloated and deflated all at once. The stronger parts of the movie are a bit overdone while the weaker parts are half-baked. The narration usually states the obvious, robbing prior or upcoming scenes of power. Finally, it wraps itself up in a nice, neat bow of sentimentality. Honestly, given the importance of the occasion, I can hardly blame it. However, the impact of these scenes depends largely on how you already feel about that occasion. They don't supply any of their own juice. Thankfully, the whole thing is well performed and very well paced. The run time flies by and we enjoy the people with whom we're spending time. This makes it a solid movie that takes looks at important parts of our collective past. Just understand that, for the most part, these are fleeting looks.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Man of Tai Chi

Directed by Keanu Reeves.
2013. Rated R, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Tiger Hu Chen
Karen Mok
Yu Hai
Simon Yam
Sam Lee
Ye Qing
Michael Tong

If you're familiar with Tai Chi then you know it's the one style of martial arts you never hear about anyone actually using in a fight. It's much more of a spiritual, meditative endeavor. You may have seen elderly people practicing it in the park using slow, sweeping, and graceful motions that scream peace. Tiger Chen (Chen) wants to show the world that Tai Chi can indeed be used in combat. To accomplish this he enters a televised martial arts competition. After winning his first bout, he catches the eye of Donaka Mark (Reeves). By this time, we know what Tiger has yet to learn. Donaka runs a very lucrative and ruthless underground fight club. How ruthless? He kills fighters who show mercy and the poor sap they've shown it to. Lots of kung fu fightin' ensues while the cops try to shut down the operation. This is said to be inspired by Chen's actual life. Um...okay.

The draw here is obviously the martial arts acton. First time director Keanu Reeves wisely reunites with legendary fight choreographer Woo-ping Yuen. The two worked together on The Matrix trilogy. Here, the characters are more tightly bound to the laws of physics so Yuen doesn't have quite as much freedom as when he was choreographing showdowns between Neo and Agent Smith. Still, he delivers the goods. The added layer of realism makes this set of fights a bit more visceral. We feel a little closer to the action. That's not say these guys don't perform a few impossible acts because they do with the aid of a few instances of wire work. It's just not enough to really subtract from our enjoyment.


As the guy we're most often watching, Tiger Chen proves himself to be a capable on-screen martial artist. Many of the guys he fights are faceless opponents, but represent various styles and help keep things interesting. As an actor, he isn't too bad. He does a decent job conveying the changes his character is going through. However, it's Yu Hai as Chen's teacher, Master Yang, who is the real standout. He gives us a classic wise old kung fu sage through a nice mix of nuanced performing and fortune cookie dialogue. Truthfully, lots of the dialogue in this movie qualifies as fortune cookie worthy. Hai makes it work better than anyone else.

The rest of the cast is pretty bad. Sadly, but not surprisingly, this includes Keanu Reeves as our villain. As a bad guy, he's more laughable than menacing. This is largely due to his unchanging facial expression and the fact that every word he utters feels forced and completely lacking the charisma need for an effective antagonist. Yes, I count The Matrix among my very favorite movies of all time. However, it still baffles me that he is the star. Even more perplexing is the fact that he was once a highly sought after and highly bankable actor. Seriously, we're talking about a guy whose best work was in the Bill & Ted movies.

In the director's chair, Reeves fares much better. Don't get me wrong, he's no Ben Affleck, another guy who became a star despite questionable acting ability and has stepped behind the camera. Man of Tai Chi is no Gone Baby Gone, The Town, or Argo, and thus, won't be competing for any Oscars. That said, it's a solidly crafted martial arts movie with a leading man we like. He also has a personal conflict that's easy to get behind. Therefore, even though it isn't great, those two things combine with the action to not only make it highly watchable, but re-watchable and likely a favorite of boys of all ages who are into kung fu flicks.


MY SCORE: 6.5/10

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Smurfs 2

Directed by Raja Gosnell.
2013. Rated PG, 105 minutes.
Cast:
Jayma Mays
Paul Ruebens

Since the events of the surprisingly decent first movie, Gargamel (Azaria) has remained in our dimension and become a world famous magician thanks to the smurf essence he extracted from Papa Smurf (Winters). Of course, wealth and glory is not enough for him. He wants to rule the world. To do this, he needs an unlimited supply of smurf essence. To that end, he's created Vexy (Ricci) and Hackus (Smoove), the Naughties. They look like smurfs, but lack the magical element to make them blue and thus, true smurfs. If he figures out how to do this he can create that endless supply of essence and world domination will be his. He opens a portal between worlds and sends Vexy to Smurf Village where she kidnaps Smurfette (Perry). Gargamel then tries to force her to tell him the secret formula to turn the Naughties blue.

 As in the original, watching Hank Azaria play Gargamel is a joy. He is so good in the role, it really is like the cartoon character took human form. Unfortunately, his is pretty much a stand-alone performance. The smurfs themselves are rather hit or miss. A few of their jokes are funny, but many are not. A number of the flat ones involve Grouchy Smurf (Lopez) trying on a more optimistic outlook. I get what they're trying to do, but it just doesn't work for me. this is a shame since this character was a high point of the first film. The humans in the cast, aside from Gargamel, are generic. The one possible exception is Victor (Gleeson), step-dad to our hero Patrick (Harris). He's not necessarily a great or original character, but he does bring some life to the screen.


The thing missing most is the magic of our little blue heroes. This is ironic considering the movie repeatedly tells us that their essence is indeed magical. For two movies now, they've been drawn into our world in limited numbers and share the spotlight with humans in the form of Patrick and his family. The greatness of the Saturday morning cartoon that spawned this franchise is that they were in their own world and solely responsible for their own well-being. There were also lots of them for us to get to know. Dropping them into Paris, or New York as in the prior movie, strips them of their autonomy, reducing them to dependents in their own movies. Worse, everything feels bland and rehashed. It's like they've just been slipped into a ready-made plot. The same story, at least their part of it, set entirely in and around Smurf Village and Gargamel's castle could probably have added some oomph to things.

My feelings on the matter aside, all is not lost. I'm willing to admit to being an angry fanboy on this one. I did watch the cartoon every Saturday morning during the mid-80s. This does seem to violated the spirit of the way I remember the show. As a self-contained movie, plenty of it just isn't good for  the reasons I pointed out. Still, kids who only know the first film are likely to enjoy it. It has a good deal of action and the Smurfette storyline works well enough. They may even laugh at more of the jokes than I did. The Smurfs 2 is a solid baby-sitter, not a solid movie.


MY SCORE: 4/10

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Movies I Grew Up With: Purple Rain


I had heard of Prince as early as 1979. I was only eight years old. My mother bought a lot of records back then. One of them was Prince's self-titled second album. I don't remember her playing it much except for the opening track, "I Wanna Be Your Lover." It's a song I still love. In '81, I really liked his hit "Controversy." Since much of his material was on the racy side, that was about all I heard of the album of the same name until I got older and bought it for myself. Like much of the world, I really began to get much more acquainted with this musical genius in late '82, through '83 thanks to his two massive hits "1999" and "Little Red Corvette." Even at twelve years old, I had pretty good grasp on what the former was about. I had no clue on the latter, but damn if it didn't sound good. With these songs, and the help of Vanity 6 and The Time, two acts he practically birthed and nursed, he began to take over the world. Then the big news broke. Prince was going to be starring in a movie. Needless to say, I had to be there when it opened. The only question was how.

Actually, the how was simply a matter of convincing Mom to take us. It opened in July of '84 and we were there opening weekend because I was fairly decent at persistently begging. There is one odd thing about this part of the story, though. By this time, Mom decided she wasn't much of a Prince fan. This little fact is the source of a constant rift in our relationship. Okay, I'm just kidding. There is no rift, but definitely a difference of opinion. Anyhoo, she made the blasphemous decision to not see Purple Rain. She took all of us, her, myself, and my three siblings, to one of what was then a new-fangled thing - the gigantic multiplex. Purple Rain was playing in one of the theaters. Back then, at this theater, you didn't just buy a ticket at one centralized booth and walk in. They actually had a huge interior lobby with a separate ticket booth set up for every movie showing in the theater - all 14 of them. The line for PR took up most of the lobby. She stood with me and the brother nearest me in age until we got to the front, paid for two tickets for us and then went and saw something else. To this day, I have no idea what she saw. For reference though, Ghostbusters, Gremlins, The Karate Kid, Revenge of the Nerds, and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom were all still playing on the big screen at the time. No matter, I was walking into the Prince movie. I was happy.

The theater was so packed, my brother and I wound up sitting practically on top of the screen. I remember watching much of the movie either with my head cocked to the side or with my head leaned back so far my nose was practically vertical trying to take in the whole screen. That said, what I saw blew my mind. And by the end, I almost shed a tear. Almost.


The quick story synopsis goes as such: a semi-autobiographical movie about Prince. Need more? Okay. Prince actually plays The Kid, the lead everything of The Revolution. They headline at the nightclub First Avenue, but seem to be waning in popularity. Another group that performs there, The Time (yes, the same group as in real life), led by Morris Day (playing himself, sort of), wants the top spot and begins a campaign to get The Kid out. The two rivals are also smitten with Appollonia (also sort of playing herself), the new girl in town who wants to be a star, giving us a love triangle. Honestly, by the time I left the theater that evening I was in love with her, too. Finally, The Kid also has some serious problems at home as his father is abusive toward his mother.

It is a very well done rock-n-roll movie that is lots of fun. Prince dominates on stage. His performance of "Darling Nikki" is one of the meanest moments in movie musical history. Off the stage, he's actually not a bad actor. And he rides a cool motorcycle. It helps that he is basically playing himself, but plenty of people have played themselves poorly. Appollonia is not very good, but she is gorgeous. That definitely earned her a pass from me when I was one of those piles of hormones known as a thirteen year old. Hell, the fact she had a couple of topless scenes and another where she performed on stage in some trashy lingerie elevated her to a goddess in my eyes. Still, the true star of the show is Morris Day closely followed by Jerome Benton. Day is the de facto villain, but with Benton forms a terrific comic duo. I still consistently laugh at their exchanges, many of which can only be described as Abbot and Costello like routines. If you've seen this movie, you'll likely remember their "password" scene. Better yet, even their on-stage antics are funny...and funky.


The movie went on become a huge success. It opened #1 at the box office the last week of July, 1984 and stayed in the top 4 every week through September. It was top 10 every week until mid October. For the entire year, it was the 11th highest grossing movie grossing a cool $68 million domestically back when buying tickets didn't require a loan and a co-signer (or about $156 million today). Besides all this stuff about the story, the actors and whatever other movie stuff you want to talk about, the soundtrack is one of the greatest albums of all time. Period. The two combined helped Prince complete his quest for world domination. Everything that year was Prince. I very shortly had a copy of the album...yes, the actual vinyl record...and I can't tell you how fast I had every word of every song committed to memory. I bought any magazine I came across that had him on the cover, including several that devoted entire issues to him. Oddly, I didn't have a poster of him. My walls were reserved for the multitude of women lucky enough to be named Jet Beauty of the Week.

Over the years, I've returned to the movie often. I'm pretty sure I've seen it more than twenty times. However, I hadn't watched it in a couple years until just recently. Again, it was one of my children who was the catalyst for my re-introduction to a movie. Unlike other such occasions, I watched it alone. I'm not quite ready for my girls to see this movie in its full glory. They've seen parts of it on commercial TV airings, but not the actual R-rated version. I'm pretty 'lax in what I let them watch but I'm a bit more strict than my own mother was with me. At 16, my son pretty much has the keys to the movie car. One day, I heard him singing, badly, "When Doves Cry." I didn't think anything of it, figuring he probably heard it on one of the oldies' radio stations I sometime play when we're all in the car together. The next day he was singing "I Would Die 4 U" and The Time's "Jungle Love." Even though I already knew the answer, I still asked if he had watched "Purple Rain." He got a pretty sizable grin and responded that he had. Several times. Glad he liked it. Later that night, I popped it in the DVD player and traveled back to the year in which we were all trying to figure out what George Orwell had right and what he had wrong. Even Prince opened the show on a philosophical and reflective note...

Dearly Beloved,
We r gathered here 2day 2 get through this thing called life.
Electric word life,
It means '4ever' and that's a mighty long time
But I'm here 2 tell u there's something else
The afterworld
A world of never ending happiness
Where u can always see the sun
Day or night...

Preach brother, preach.


Friday, February 14, 2014

World War Z

Directed by Marc Forster.
2013. Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.
Cast:
Brad Pitt
Mireille Enos
Fana Mokoena
Daniella Kertesz
James Badge Dale
David Morse
Matthew Fox
Ludi Boeken
Peter Capaldi
Abigail Hargrove
Sterling Jerins

We're told Gerry (Pitt) used to do "dangerous work" for the United Nations. These days he is a stay-at-home dad in Philadelphia. Nothing makes him happier than cooking pancakes for his wife Karin (Enos) and their two daughters. Television news reports tell us that a strange virus has broken out in a number of cities around the globe. Well, you know how it is sometimes. The TV is just background noise to whatever is going on in our lives. However, Gerry should have been paying closer attention. While moving the family about on their daily travels, we all find out this virus has come to the City of Brotherly Love in a major way. The biggest problem with this virus is that it can almost instantly transform a person into a ravenous, mindless creature out to feed on the rest of us. It seems you contract the disease after being bitten by one of the infected. So yeah, Z is for zombies in case you somehow didn't get that.

What ensues is a string of chase scenes punctuated by moments of game-planning. In this case, simplicity is sublime. It generates excitement and tension that lasts throughout. The next wave of sprinting, body-locking zombies is never far off. The tension comes from our heroes running from and/or sneaking around them. Hoping that the good guys aren't heard, seen, smelled, touched, or worse, tasted, is a nerve racking experience. This is especially true when Gerry and company find themselves in a spot where the best solutions have significant risks involved. True, the narrow escape is the oldest trick in the action flick book, but this movie performs it with expert level sleight of hand. For its main distraction, it uses the maximum amount of carnage and mayhem that can be shoe-horned into each PG-13 frame.


Simplicity not only works for the action, it works for the story, too. Sure, it's predictable right from the jump. even the dimmest bulbs can feel illuminated when they figure things out pretty easily. Keeping the viewer intellectually alert is not this movie's aim. The job of the plot is to provide a link between chases without complicating things. In other words, it merely has to stay out of the way. Normally, I would slam a movie for such a lack of ambition. In this case, it works marvelously. Our focus on whether or not our heroes will survive the next scene carries the day.

World War Z is a popcorn flick through and through. And a damn good one. It quickly draws us to the edge of our seats and keeps us there. Visually, it's often stunning in its depiction of the zombies climbing over and interlocking with one another to climb things and/or launch themselves just to get at the nearest human. Brad Pitt gives us a "good enough" performance. This isn't Moneyball or Benjamin Button where he has to emotionally carry the film. He merely has to be cool, like we imagine he always is, zombies be damned. He is. That said, I'll admit that I've not read the novel the movie is based on. I don't know where it cuts corners or added things that weren't there. I have no idea if it remains true to the spirit of the book in any, way, shape, or form. I only know that this is thoroughly fun movie.


MY SCORE: 7.5/10




Thursday, February 13, 2014

Raw Force


AKA Kung Fu Cannibals
Directed by Edward D. Murphy
1982. Rated R, 86 minutes.
Cast:
Cameron Mitchell
John Locke
Geoffrey Binney
Hope Holiday
Jillian Kesner
John Dresden
Carla Reynolds
Chanda Romero

Revisiting this flick for the first time in many years, I'm reminded that the 80s really were a different time. Before the VCR (and Betamax, to a lesser extent) revolutionized the movie watching world, films stayed in first-run theaters for months. It was not uncommon for the better movies to still pack houses over a year after their release date. No, no, no, no, no, no, no, no, no - Raw Force, released in the summer of 1982, is most definitely not one of those. The movie that brought about the tangent I opened on is none other than the Spielberg classic Raiders of the Lost Ark. Now, you're probably scratching your head and saying "what the hell does one of the all-time great adventure movies have to do with something known in some circles as Kung Fu Cannibals?" Honestly though, I'm not sure why you don't understand where I'm going with this. In my mind, I cannot think of either one of these movies without immediately thinking of the other. It's not that way for you? You don't understand why it's that way for me?

Sigh. Okay, I'll explain.

Back when both of these movies came out, it was still fairly common for theaters to actually run double features. If you were not born before these movies came out, you may not comprehend what I just said. If this is you, don't drop your tablet or smartphone when you read the next sentence. A double feature meant the theater was showing two movies back-to-back, and only charging you for one ticket. So no, Tarantino and Rodriguez did not invent the idea. Sorry to burst the bubble of any QT devotees.



By now, you've guessed what I've been rambling about but let me set the scene. Where I lived in Queens, my best friend's grandfather ran the Block Association. Every summer he would organize trips for local kids to amusement parks, Yankees and Mets games, and the occasional museum. He also set up the block party and ran a youth softball league. Once, only once that I can remember, he rounded us up with as many parents as could go and took us to a movie. He took us to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. This was in the summer of '82. It actually came out the year before and was already a huge hit. It was a known quantity even to people like us who hadn't actually seen it yet. The only theater anywhere near us still showing it had it as part of a double feature with a new movie. Yes, the new movie was Raw Force. My buddies granddad didn't know anything about this other movie. In truth, none of us did. We had seen the commercial on TV and it appeared to be a harmless kung fu flick with both Asians and white guys. It couldn't be but so bad. After all, it was being paired with the family friendly Raiders. Right?

Wrong.

Really wrong.

Really really wrong.

I'm not sure who at the theater decided these two movies made a good pair, but I have to believe heavy narcotics were involved in the process. I might be willing to say that I'm blowing things out of proportion, but not when I remember beyond a shadow of a doubt that Raw Force played first.

So here we are, thirty or so kids ranging in age, and I'm guessing here, from about 8 to 14, and a handful of adults arriving for the double feature because you had to get there early to take advantage of the price. No showing up for just the second picture. Not even a full minute after the opening credits things get very uncomfortable. An Asian guy with a Hitler 'stache in a white suit and a white guy dressed like a reject from The Warriors lead a bunch of women off of a boat onto the coast of an island where they are greeted by some rather creepy looking, sweaty and cackling monks. After the guy in the suit and the head monk exchange a word or two, he tells the white dude to strip 'em. Of course, this means the white guy literally starts tearing the clothes off of the women. After they're all naked, or darn close, the women are herded into a cage and left with the monks.

WTF?

I can just imagine my friend's poor granddad wondering what the hell he had just gotten into. Unfortunately for him, this was only the beginning of one of the most bizarre cinematic rides of all time. It got progressively worse from this point forward. Much worse. Or better, depending on your point of view.


There is some sort of plot cobbled together. The two guys who dropped off all the chicks for the monks do this sort of thing on a regular and get paid a handsome fee. They are also part of some big jade smuggling operation that they hope will make them filthy rich. Meanwhile, a cruise ship that so happens to be stocked with various martial arts instructors, including a Bruce Lee wannabe, and students along with the usual gaggle of drunks looking to get laid is carrying said jade. One of the main attractions on this cruise is visiting that island where the monks are. This whole jade thing causes lots of kung fu fightin'. When I say fightin', I mean of the poorly choreographed and executed sort where we get the usual punch/kick sound effects even though often we can clearly see either the punch or kick miss by several inches. Between the fights is lots and lots of female nudity. And I'm talking full frontal (and rear) buck nekkidness. Outrageous things conspire to bring the two together on a regular basis. Of course, there's the obligatory strip joint brawl during which the strippers pay almost no attention to what's going on. There is also the scene where a woman gets down to her birthday suit while informing her about to be one night stand that she's on the run for murdering her husband. At this point, one of the jade thieve's henchmen comes bursting into the room. Even though he looks to be of Pacific Island or Hispanic descent, he inexplicably has a swastika on his helmet (and is wearing a Superman T-shirt), which comes off during his beating down of the poor dude who was only there to get some easy nookie. During this, the woman, still naked, grabs a gas can (?) and starts hitting the bad guy over the head with it. I'm not making this up. As time passes, the plot just gets stranger and stranger as we go.

How could it get any stranger than what I've already told you? Let's think about that alternate title again, Kung Fu Cannibals. Now let's talk about those monks. Eventually we find out that they aren't getting the girls to make sexy time. In the words of the Asian guy with the white suit "They get them for food." Eventually, we even see them preparing one unlucky lady to be roasted over an open fire. Oddly, she's not nude. However, they don't fight. So that title is a bit misleading. But they do indeed have someone to fight for them. They have a cemetery full of martial artists whom they raise from the dead to do their bidding. Yes! We have now added zombies to all the insanity! And I haven't even mentioned how piranhas figure into all this!

It's getting tough to contain myself. I get giddy just thinking about this movie. To reign myself in just a bit, I'll spend a moment on normal movie stuff like the acting, dialogue, directing, special fx, etc. It all sucks. Okay, that's enough of that. You know what, that's enough period. Let me wrap this up so I can go watch it again.

Oh, what about my best friend's grandfather? Whether or not he actually wanted to see a movie like this, I have no idea. I do know it's not something he wanted us to see. To his credit, or discredit, take your pick, he let us stay and we got through what must have been a terribly difficult hour and a half for him. Honestly, I'm not sure that rounding us up and leaving was ever an option. The thing is, he was a man who legitimately tried to keep whatever promises he made to us kids. In this case he promised he was taking us to see Raiders of the Lost Ark. That's what he did. It was great. A true classic. Still, it has nothing on Raw Force which is so bad it's awesome!


MY SCORE: -10/10


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Searching for Sugar Man

Directed by Malik Bendjelloul.
2012. Rated PG-13, 86 minutes.
Cast:
Sixto Rodriguez
Stephen "Sugar" Segerman
Steve Rowland
Dennis Coffey
Mike Theodore
Clarence Avant
Jerome Ferretti
Eva Rodriguez
Regan Rodriguez

In the early 1970s, a folk singer by the name of Rodriguez was discovered in a bar in Detroit, Michigan. Everyone who heard him agreed he was putting brilliant poetry to music that was on par, if not greater than Bob Dylan. Despite releasing two highly praised albums, almost no one heard of him. At least in the United States. Fast forward to the mid 1990s and travel to South Africa. There, we find out that over the last few decades Rodriguez has become one of the most iconic and influential music artists in that country's history. Strangely, no one in South Africa knew anything at all about him. They didn't even know if he was still alive. In fact, he was presumed dead since several fantastic tales of his public suicide had become accepted parts of the Rodriguez mythology. Finding it odd there was no concrete information anywhere about such a legendary figure, a few people separately embark on fact finding missions to learn a little about the man they have all come to greatly admire.

During the portions of the documentary filmed in America, we meet the people who discovered Rodriguez and worked with him on his albums. In South Africa, we hear from the people looking for him. Through the stories they tell and the music often playing, Rodriguez quickly becomes an ethereal presence hanging over the film. Full disclosure: since watching this many of the songs keep popping into my head at all times of the day. The combination of hard to believe anecdotes and haunting songs casts a spell that locks us into the mystery. We become completely absorbed in the efforts of these people to separate fact from fiction. We wonder how long they'll keep following paths to nowhere.


Most compelling are the stories of how Rodriguez came to be a legend in South Africa. It's a tale with humble beginnings, to say the least. Learning how the modest seeds blossomed into making him a full-blown music God in their country is fascinating stuff. It also begs the question why didn't he become popular in America? Many try to answer it, but can't come up with a reason that satisfies even themselves. Watching them try to talk their way through it is interesting. The funny part is Rodriguez is so loved in South Africa, they assumed he was gigantic in the States, too. There, he is estimated to have sold millions of records over the years. When asked how many he's sold in the U.S., Clarence Avant, a former record exec who worked closely with Rodriguez, only half-jokingly says "Six." This dichotomy between the two markets at the resulting viewpoints of those markets is startling. Or, I should say the difference between how South Africa viewed him and America not viewing him at all.

In the end, Searching for Sugar Man becomes one of the most unbelievable and inspirational stories you will ever come across. After the mystery dissipates it becomes just plain fun to watch. We can't help but to be swept up by the thing. For people like me who listen intently to lyrics of the songs we hear, it's a great help that there is some harshly beautiful and imaginative poetry here. These are not cliche filled couplets built for mass consumption. This probably explains his lack of success in his native country to some extent. Though hearing it makes it surprising that he didn't develop at least a cult following, here at home. Is he really better than Bob Dylan? I'd say it's arguable on the basis of what little we have from him. Obviously, he pales in comparison when it comes to volume and worldwide impact. Still, he became legendary in another land. Thanks to that, this film was eventually made. Thanks to this movie, I have discovered another great artist for myself.