Sunday, April 27, 2014

Poetry in the Movies Blogathon!: Slam

Earlier this month I decided it was time to host my  first blogathon and decided on Poetry in the Movies to honor National Poetry Month. For my second entry we'll take a look at real life poet/alt. rapper Saul Williams making his big screen debut in Slam.

My first post was on the documentary Louder than a Bomb. Tomorrow I'll put up a post with links to those who participated. For now, let's get back to my homie Saul.

Directed by Marc Levin.
1998. Rated R, 103 minutes
Saul Williams
Sonja Sohn
Bonz Malone
Lawrence Wilson
Beau Sia
Andre Taylor
Momulu Stewart
DJ Renegade
Allen E. Lucas
Ron Jones
Marion Barry

Ray Joshua (Williams) is a small time weed salesman in Washington DC whose real talent and passion lies in his pen. He writes constantly and hopes to parlay his ability into a rap career with the help of his friend Big Mike (Wilson), a more solvent dealer. When Mike is shot down right in front of our hero, it so happens the cops happen to be in the vicinity. Ray flees the scene, not because he has anything to do with it, he doesn't, but because he's holding a big bag of herb. He gets caught and off to jail he goes. Once there, he finds out lots of people want a piece of him because word is he did have something to do with what happened to Mike. Fellow inmate Hopha (Malone) knows the truth and offers Ray protection. Growing weary of the street life, he balks at that also. Then there is Lauren Bell (Sohn), the cute lady who comes into the prison and teaches a creative writing class. She takes a shine to him rather quickly. Ray contemplating whether to be or not to be ensues.

From the beginning, it's pretty clear we're traveling down the road to redemption. While Ray is in jail, the question is will he get there before someone shanks him. When he gets out, he comes to a fork in that road and isn't sure of which path actually does lead to that redemption. This all leads to some interesting exchanges between he and some other characters. Most notably, his conversations with ... and Hoffa carry he portions of the movie that contains them. The acting of these scenes, and the movie as a whole, is surprisingly good. Though there is one lol-worthy oddity. Then real life mayor of DC, Marion Barry appears as a judge lamenting the effects of drugs on the black community. Maybe it's just me, but I found that particularly hilarious. Most of the actors are in their first and only big screen roles, but come across as authentic in their roles, Mayor Barry excluded of course. In the lead, Saul Williams has a certain charm and charisma which not only serves him well here but also helped him become one of the poetry slam world's most famous citizens. Fellow poet Sonja Sohn may also have a name recognizable to some of you. She would go on to play Detective Kima Greggs on HBO's The Wire.

Since we're on the subject of poets and this is part of the Poetry in the Movies Blogathon, let's talk about their work that shows up here. Well, first let me offer a disclaimer. Even though both of my entries in the blogathon involve slam poetry I am really not that big a fan of this particular sub genre. I find lots of it fun to listen to when performed but rather flat and a chore to get through when trying to read it for myself. That's because many of the writers rely on effective stage methods that don't necessarily translate well to the page. There is a heavy reliance on rhythm, repetition, call and response, easy to follow metaphors, vocal sound effects, some didactism, and lots of rhyming. Despite the rather prevalent idea that poetry should rhyme it can easily become tedious reading poems that do unless they are very well executed.  There are exceptions, of course. I honestly don't think Williams is one of them. He's actually exciting to watch when he launches into either the straight raps of the earlier parts of the film or when he takes the stage for a more traditional slam poem. It is hard to deny his presence. His style lends itself to a visual audience and thus works well within the frame of the movie. It's easy to follow which helps it blend seamlessly into the narrative whereas more densely layered verse may distract from things. Sohn eventually performs a poem of her own that was obviously written purposely for this film. It works to give us one of the film's most poignant moments.

In part because of the poetry, but more because of the story playing out before us, Slam works as a film. We become invested in Ray's plight. More than just understanding it, we feel that he has great potential and hope that he won't squander it. We also see him turning a corner in his life. While applauding this, we're also a bit afraid he won't get all the way around that corner. As the movie ends, we're still not sure which path he will take. This is no feel-good story, but rather a character study that asks you to draw your own conclusion and is wrapped in some still relevant social commentary. It is the winner of the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Film at the 1998 Sundance Film Festival. This isn't to say that that validates it as a great movie, but I think it is a very solid one.

MY SCORE: 7.5/10

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Directed by Francis Lawrence.
2013. Rated PG-13, 146 minutes.

Katniss (Lawrence) and Peeta (Hutcherson) are the darlings of the twelve districts after winning the most recent Hunger Games in rather unconventional fashion. President Snow (Sutherland) is quite pissed about it. After all, it was their suddenly blooming love that forced the games to end in such an unorthodox fashion, leaving him and the Capitol looking a bit foolish. This wouldn't be quite so bad if his instincts didn't tell him, correctly, that their relationship is a fraud. He tells Katniss they better play nice for the cameras for the rest of their lives or heads will most definitely, and literally, roll. Those heads belong to her family and friends, of course. Since even that doesn't squash her defiant personality, and the people have made her a symbol of hope, President Snow changes the rules, putting her and Peeta into the next year's games. Their competition this time is made up of prior winners.

One of the things this movie does better than its predecessor is get to the point. That first flick took forever to actually get to the Hunger Games. I understand that in the first movie of a franchise, the setup typically does take longer than it does in sequels. However, in that first flick, it feels unnecessarily long. Like a dog dragging a broken leg, it limped along slowly while we watched Katniss is wardrobe, practicing, and being a talk show guest. Repeatedly. Thankfully, we spend much less time in talk show mode. Generally speaking, I love watching Stanley Tucci perform. In this series, as the host of said talk show, he's just an annoyance. I understand what is trying to be accomplished with this character. It's just not working for me.

Tucci aside, another plus for Catching Fire is the acting of its supporting cast. This more mature group gives us more interesting characters and better portrayals of them. The two standouts being Jeffrey Wright and Jena Malone. Malone gives us someone we're not sure how to take. Wright does what he normally does and disappears into his character. Another newcomer, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, is his usual excellent self as the Game Master. Among the returnees, Woody Harrelson and Donald Suther land are again very fun to watch. Surprisingy, so is Elizabeth Banks, once more in full drag-queen regalia.

Unfortunately, once we get to the games, it's the stretches between action where this movie, and the series as a whole, continues to fail. These are the times when Katniss and her allies plot the next move and get to know each other a little better. It should also be the time during which the tension is building until that next burst of excitement releases it. Instead, that tension dissipates as the scenes drag on, trying and failing, to establish emotional bonds between the characters. Part of this is due to Katniss herself. We know she cares about her friends and family. However, she comes across so coldly to everyone else that no one else's plight seems to resonate with her until it becomes an imminent part of her own survival. In other words, if she doesn't really care about them until the very moment her life depends on their ability, why should we?

Finally, where the first movie positions itself as social commentary, Catching Fire seems to lack any such aspirations. This is partly due to it being the second movie of what we know will be a quadrilogy. What it is trying to say may become more transparent after subsequent installments are released. No, I didn't read the books and please, do not explain it to me. Another reason is this movie's focus on being a "bigger" movie than its predecessor. It does more, but says less. Still, it is the doing more that makes this a more enjoyable movie than its predecessor. By breezing through the setup quicker, we get a more concise effort, even though it's actually a few minutes longer than the first film. We still hit some snags, but fans of the first should be pleased.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014


Directed by Paul Weitz.
2013. Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.
Tina Fey
Paul Rudd
Michael Sheen
Lily Tomlin
Wallace Shawn
Nat Wolff
Gloria Reuben
Travaris Spears
Christopher Evan Welch
Sonya Walger
Leigha Hancock

Portia Nathan (Fey) is an admissions officer at Princeton University. She has had this job for sixteen year. She's also been with her boyfriend Mark (Sheen) for ten years. Her life is wholly predictable, the way she likes it. Things change when she's contacted by John Pressman (Rudd). He is the director of the Quest School, a newly formed school about to have its first graduating class. He asks her to come and speak to them about Princeton. She only agrees because her boss is extremely interested in drumming up enough applications to put them back into the nation's top spot in the category of most applied to school. They have fallen out of first place for the first time in a number of years. Let's pause right here. If this is what they're really worried about at Princeton they're even more out of touch than I thought. Anyhoo, John introduces Portia to the extremely intelligent, but academically challenged Jeremiah (Wolff). Her life is sent spiraling out of control by these events which happen in fairly rapid succession. She also finds herself attracted to John who tells her that Jeremiah might be her son. Finally, Mark leaves Portia for Helen (Walger), the world's foremost authority on Virginia Woolf. Wackiness ensues.

Actually, I should say attempted wackiness ensues. Most of the humor falls completely flat. Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, in my estimation, both function best when they have a lively, possibly insane person to react to. This is how they induce laughter. It's what made Fey so good working with Tracy Morgan, Alec Baldwin, and even Amy Poehler. Rudd is downright brilliant when sharing the screen with Seth Rogen. With just Fey and Rudd together, we have two people playing it straight and waiting for the other to give them something to bring out their own comedic talents. To use a football analogy, it's like two gifted wide-receivers on a team with no quarterback to throw them the ball. Whatever skills they might have are wasted. Occasionally, Rudd tries to step into that role but he is woefully inadequate. It's not that his acting is bad, because it's not. The problem is both he and Fey are too earnest in their portrayals. Remember, that's what they do. Therefore, things meant to be hilarious, such as Rudd delivering a calf or Fey vomiting in front of a frat house come across as misguided, possibly pathetic, and at least a little bit askew, but rarely funny. That's sort of a problem for a comedy. On the other hand, the movie absolutely sizzles during the few short instances Portia's mom Susannah (Tomlin) is on the screen. She has the right kind of energy and plays it just enough over the top for our stars' natural ability to shine through. The movie works similarly whenever Michael Sheen appears, also. Unfortunately, this serves to highlight the shortcomings of our heroes.

With the possibility for laughter greatly diminished, we're forced to adjust mid-stream to watching a drama with a few funny moments. As such, the story is vaguely interesting, but not one with which we're totally enraptured. What's coming is too easily seen to really intrigue us. We know how it's going to work out between our two leads. We also know we're headed for Portia's impassioned plea to Jeremiah into Princeton. To the movie's credit, this is still a very effective scene, played marvelously by Fey. The one curveball in the whole picture is where our heroine ends up. Though it is presented as if she's in a better place than when we started, it doesn't completely feel that way. She seems strangely content with her new-found incompleteness and dependence upon others.

Admission is a film with its heart in the right place. Sadly, it fails on nearly every level in its execution. It tries to strike a comedic tone, but isn't close to being funny enough. The drama isn't dramatic enough to take up the slack. This renders it forgettable. I'm including the people on the screen in that assessment. The only memorable character, Portia's mom and John's adopted son Nelson (Spears), are minor to the production and go long stretches without appearing. The leads are simply giving us more of the same characters they've been playing for much of their careers. The end result of all this is that the movie just drones on and on and on for its entire run time. In other words, its 107 minutes feel like they are multiplying as they slowly pass.

MY SCORE: 4/10

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Lone Ranger

Directed by Gore Verbinski.
2013. Rated PG-13, 149 minutes.
Johnny Depp
Armie Hammer
William Fichtner
Tom Wilkinson
Ruth Wilson
James Badge Dale
Helena Bonham Carter
Barry Pepper
JD Cullum
Harry Treadaway
Saginaw Grant

Way back when my age was denoted by a single digit, I made sure to watch three television shows that were made before my birth, but still in syndication. One was "The Adventures of Superman," starring George Reeves. The second was "Batman" with the one and only Adam West in the lead. Finally, to complete the daily triple shot of pre-pubescent testosterone, I watched "The Lone Ranger." I knew that Superman was really the mild-mannered reporter Clark Kent and Batman was millionaire playboy Bruce Wayne. The Lone Ranger was different. That masked man was so mysterious I didn't even know his real name. His secret identity really was just that - a secret! How cool! I guess Tonto knew, but he didn't say much. Besides that, our hero had some other cool things going for himself. He rode that beautiful white horse name Silver and wore a hat that matched her coat. He had a long nosed six-shooter and was so accurate with it he could shoot the gun out of a man's hand from any distance without hitting the hand. Then there was that theme song. Dutta dent, dutta dent, dutta dent dent dent dent - dent dent dent dutta dent....I know, I'm not doing it any justice at all. Maybe this will help...

Fast-forward more years than I care to count and The Lone Ranger graces the screen once more. He made it there once in the 80s, but let's pretend that never happened. This time around, we get Armie Hammer taking over the titular role. Okay, not the first person I think of for the part, but not someone who makes me scratch my head, either. The problems start with his role, though not necessarily with him. What I mean is The Lone Ranger is only the third most important element to this whole production. In reality, this is a film all about the director, Gore Verbinski, and the muse he occasionally borrows from Tim Burton, Johnny Depp.

Depp plays our hero's sidekick Tonto. Sort of. It's really some weird amalgamation of Tonto and all of Depp's other face-painted characters. From the Tonto side of the equation, we get all the broken English we can stand, even if it is fairly irregular. From the other side, he brings his now trademark mugging for the camera and often prancing about the set while playing everything for laughs. It gets close to minstrelsy of a Native American hue. It is pretty much the direct opposite of the way the character was portrayed all those moons ago, in a supposedly less enlightened era. Let's keep it real. He was always a walking stereotype. However, no matter how racism or just plain ignorance was explicit in how he was drawn, Tonto was always honorable and prideful. Depp's version may or may not be a pathological liar, is closer to being a court jester than a hero and is at least a little bit insane. I guess if it makes the kids laugh then mission accomplished, right?

This is where Verbinski comes in. He does here what he does with the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. He introduces a lot of colorful characters we should get to know better, but don't, and places our heroes in one life-or-death situation after another. As per his usual, he does it all in a manner that's so silly it's bound to get a few laughs, but not nearly enough to make up for all the gags that fall flat. Finally, he delivers what should be a simplistic plot in a convoluted manner. This starts with where we first met Tonto. He is and exhibit in a museum in 1933. As if this were Night at the Museum, he comes to life and relays the whole adventure to a young boy. It adds nothing to the movie except run-time and a different style of makeup for Depp to perform in. This defines the word extraneous.

Verbinski does give us some exciting set pieces. Early on, we get an amazing scene featuring a runaway locomotive. Sure, it ends in ridiculous fashion, but it's a sight to behold. The climactic battle at the end is also fun. There are also some standouts among the supporting cast. In fact, there are two. One is a cross-dressing henchmen with the IQ of a buffalo head nickel played by Harry Treadaway. He's good for easy laughs. The other is played by Helena Bonham Carter, also on loan from Tim Burton. Here, she appears to be something out of Robert Rodriguez's fantasies. She comes complete with an artificial leg that doubles as a rifle.

Unfortunately, the positives aren't nearly as weighty as the negatives. The good things amount to a few empty thrills. Those looking for lighthearted action may be pleased. Even they won't have much to grab onto, however. The rest of the movie is basically a bunch of stupid stuff happening. As far as our hero, The Lone Ranger himself, well, he's not all that heroic. He whines and complains a lot. He also winds up following Tonto a lot. Only at the end does he change gears. That seems as much about giving him the obligatory shining moment than about him actually developing into that. In other words, this could probably have been titled Tonto: the Movie or Pirates of the Wild West. A whole bunch is going on, there are a few laughs mixed in with some big action sequences that will entertain some viewers while the rest of us will think it's a mess.

Friday, April 18, 2014


Directed by Alfonso Cuaron.
2013. Rated PG-13, 91 minutes.
Phaldut Sharma
Amy Warren

In space, no one can hear you scream. Oh wait, that's another movie. Regardless, it's true. Ryan Stone (Bullock) finds this out the hard way. She and Matt Kowalski (Clooney) are among the crew on a Space Shuttle mission to perform some routine maintenance on the Hubble Telescope. It's her first time in the great beyond so she's not feeling particularly well while floating alongside the machine she is working on. Other than that, things are going according to plan until our good friends, the Russians, intervene. Sort of. They actually just shoot down one of their own satellites which is no longer functioning. The problem is that the debris is sent hurtling through space, directly at the two most photogenic astronauts of all time. Oh, and their co-workers. Crash, crash, boom, boom, and Stone is separated from the rest of the crew, uncontrollably spinning into the blackness. Kowalski soon recovers her. Even if you haven't seen the movie, you've seen the trailer, or watched the Oscars, or one of the entertainment news shows, or just heard someone bumping their gums about it, so you can guess what happens next. Stone gets separated again and spends the rest of the movie trying to rectify her situation.

Early on, we hear a few different voices communicating with the astronauts, and see Clooney scooting around on his motorized chair. However, it really is a one woman show. It's a spectacular one, at that. Sandra Bullock turns in what I think is easily her best performance. Her Oscar-winning turn in The Blindside is great, if a bit over the top. I've liked her in a number of other movies and been indifferent to her in a bunch more. Here, she's captivating in a way not many movie performers have ever been, completely alone for long stretches of film. Tom Hanks' work in Cast Away immediately leaps to mind. For most of that movie his only companion is Wilson, a soccer ball on which he drew a face. Here, Clooney's smiling mug gives Bullock slightly more companionship. The rest of the way is all her. Even more impressively, she's not even acting in an organic setting most of the time. She's often in model space vessels and an anti-gravity environment. Mostly, she is suspended on a wire against a green screen. The only people around her are the crew, all off-camera, so she has no one to play off. If you don't think that's tough to do, I've got an exercise for you. Try standing up in a public place and acting out a personally and visibly emotional scene all by yourself for a full minute without breaking character or acknowledging anyone who is around. Don't forget you have to be totally convincing. Go 'head, I'll wait. No? Okay, let's move on.

We have to get back to that green screen I mentioned. You've probably seen one and know how it functions, but just in case not, it's just that - a green screen on which the techno wizards will later add visual effects. The magicians that worked on Gravity were rewarded with Oscar gold in just about every technical category there is, and deservedly so. It truly is a special fx marvel. From the smallest details to the eye-popping action sequences, the fx do their job. They work in service of the telling of a great story without becoming story. There is never a moment we don't believe our heroine is floating helplessly in space. This is a huge part of the movie's creation of tension. That tension drives the film. Even before we get to all the angst filled stuff, the visuals work magic on us. In the earlier, more serene moments, we're allowed to gaze upon Stone's infinite workplace. The views are as spectacular as we imagine. Rarely has a setting been more well established.

Like I said, though, the job of all those fx is to help tell a story. Making sure that what dazzles the eye does the same to the mind is director Alfonso Cuaron. Given the massive amounts of technology on display this may sound odd, but he really does take a minimalist approach. Sure, the entire set was constructed on a PC, but that's merely a fact of where our tale takes place. Aside from this, the camera is trained on Bullock and her exploits nearly for the entirety of the runtime. There are only a few exceptions made for Clooney, mostly right at the beginning. Most similarly themed movies would have tacked on another twenty-plus minutes by cutting away often to people working feverishly to save the protagonist. That doesn't happen here and the movie is better for it. It's tight and concise, keeping the viewer on the edge of his/her seat without ever letting us off the hook. There is nothing to focus on besides this woman and her plight. Directing that singular person may have been as difficult as the portrayal of said person by Bullock. Here's another exercise to demonstrate my point. Try having a willing person act out a scenario in a room all alone with you. Have them follow your directions but not actually interact with you. Instead, they must react to things that aren't actually there, and make sure they're looking directly at wherever it is decided these things will be located and/or coming from. Bottom line is Gravity is a masterful job done by Cuaron worthy of his Best Director win at the Oscars. It's even more worthy of our massive exhalation when the closing credits roll.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Internship

Directed by Shawn Levy.
2013. Rated PG-13, 119 minutes.
Max Minghella
Josh Brener
Dylan O'Brien
Tiya Sircar
Tobit Raphael
Jessica Szohr

Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are luxury watch salesmen that work as a team, because salesmen aren't a bunch of heartless cutthroats. It's okay for me to say that, I was in sales for five years. While I'm at it, let's address me going with the actors' real names instead of their characters' monikers. It's something I almost never do. However, let's keep it real. This is the same Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson we always get. 'Nuff said on that front. Turns out, the company they peddle time pieces for has abruptly shut down. A few nights later, Vaughn is job surfing online when he decides to google "google." Bada-boom, bada-bing, he and Wilson are now part of a highly competitive internship program on the campus of the search engine giant. The winning team of interns will earn full-time gigs. Of course, our heroes have no tech experience at all. Wilson doesn't seem able to turn on a computer. Vaughn can surf the web, but is pretty computer illiterate, himself. Of course, they wind up on a team of misfits. A really long commercial ensues.

If you've seen the trailer for The Internship then you know I'm not kidding about this being a commercial. Hell, the trailer is essentially a commercial for the commercial. So how do they flesh things out? We start with a live-action version of Monsters University. No, I'm serious. Same basic plot, same stock characters. Swap out John Goodman and Billy Crystal for Vaughn and Wilson, respectively. Add a few cuss words, a love interest for Wilson, a scene in a strip club, slap the Google logo all over everything, have everyone speak of the company with great reverence, and voila!

You just want to know if it's funny, right? In spots. Vaughn does his usual fast-talker schtick while Wilson does his normal routine. If you find either or both of these guys funny then you'll find things to make you laugh, potentially lots of things. It helps if you're in their general age group. Lots of the jokes center on the generation gap between them and their fellow interns. When the team is given a task, our heroes start trying to talk their way through it, regardless of whether that's a useful thing to do, and make lots of reference to 80s pop culture. One reference, far older than any of those is one I found most interesting. At one point, Wilson breaks into a paraphrased and truncated rendition of the legendary Langston Hughes poem "A Dream Deferred." The kids don't get this or most references and go about actually trying to solve the problem. Rinse. Repeat. The flip side of this is that neither Vaughn or Wilson has any clue about computers nor current pop culture. Sort of. For instance, a big gag involves the guys being sent on a wild goose chase to find Professor Charles Xavier. I get that they didn't immediately recognize the name as being leader of the X-Men. I even get that the joke can go on for a moment while they catch up. However, this isn't something you have to be young and hip to know. Even if we ignore the fact that X-Men was one of the country's most popular comic books right when these guys were right in the target audience for such things, and had a Saturday morning cartoon, we still know something impossible to overlook. They have been making X-Men movies for more than a decade and unless I'm mistaken, all of them have taken in hundreds of millions of dollars at the box office. These movies have also shown up all over TV numerous times. Finally, our "old" guys know something far younger in terms of being a pop culture phenomenon, The Hunger Games. To be fair, as full of holes as the logic for this scene is, it is one of their funnier bits.

The rest of the cast is filled out with characters we've all seen before in a number of movies. Remember how much I said this resembles Monsters University? Yeah, same characters here, pretty much. We have the cocky and arrogant bully as our bad guy in the competition. We also have the unforgiving authority figure presiding over the whole thing. Just about everyone else is one form of geek or another. Therefore, the story feels like a by-the-numbers job that fails to add its own twist to the proceedings. It just tries to float by on the charm of the two lead characters. They do an amiable job, but can't really make it anything special. It is occasionally funny, breezes by without causing us to think, and just isn't anywhere near as good as Monsters University at doing essentially the same thing.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Poetry in the Movies Blogathon!: Louder Than a Bomb

As you may know, I've decided to host my very first blogathon. In honor of National Poetry Month, it's all about acknowledging the elegant art getting some overdue credit for being a major contributor to cinematic history. If you would like to participate, please check out my original post on the matter. I'm going to jump in with my first of what will be at least two posts (maybe 3?). No messing around with ancient verse just yet. We're going with a contemporary documentary, Louder Than a Bomb.

Directed by Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel.
2010. Not Rated, 99 minutes.
Kevin Coval
Adam Gottlieb
Nate Marshall
Nova Venerable
Lamar Jorden
James Sloan
Charles Smith
Jesus Lark
She'Kira McKnight
Elizabeth Graf

"Louder Than a Bomb," which takes place in Chicago, is the nation's largest high school poetry slam. For the uninitiated, poetry slams are spoken word poetry competitions. Poets are scored on a scale of one to ten on each poem they perform. Here, we focus on students from four of the nearly fifty competing schools in 2008. Most prominently featured are the kids from Steinmetz Academic Academy. They won the previous year despite it being their first year competing. We spend lots of time with Mr. Sloan, one of their coaches, as well as with students Lamar Jorden, Jesus Lark, She'Kira McKnight, and Charles "Big C" Smith. We get a little time with some others on the team, too. These are the kids that go against the grain. Judging books by their covers, you'd be hard pressed to peg these as poetry buffs. They're the most "urban" group, to use a code word. Yet, these are the defending champs. They are also struggling to get it together for this year's slam.

For the other three schools, our focus is limited to one student each. Adam Gottlieb attends Northside College Prep. He's the kid who loves everyone and everyone loves him. He is the ultimate diplomat, giving shout outs to his competition in his own poetry. Nova Venerable goes to Oak Park and resides at the opposite end of the spectrum. I don't mean that people don't like her. That's not the case. I mean that she's tougher to get close to with her guarded personality that stems from her hard childhood. She writes more as a cathartic exercise and with an underlying anger. She might be in the competition, but she's really purging her soul. Nate Marshall is the happy medium between Adam and Nova. He goes to Whitney Young Magnet School and is known as "the grandfather" of their poetry program. He loves teaching others and has fun with his art. However, he does carry with him the memories of growing up in a rough environment.

With the Steinmetz kids, we go through the trials and tribulations of a team trying to prepare without always having everyone on the same page. Their ups and downs make for an intriguing roller coaster ride. With the others, we delve into their backgrounds, getting to know them more intimately. Adam and his family makes us laugh. Nova's might make us cry. True to form, Nate's does a bit of both. The movie works itself into a fun carousel that stops rotating come competition time. That doesn't mean the ride is over at that point. Directors Greg Jacobs and Jon Siskel do a wonderful job playing up the natural tension of the competition without it feeling forced. By the way, movie buffs will find this interesting. Jon Siskel is the nephew of none other than the late and now legendary movie critic Gene Siskel.

As for the poetry itself, it's a solid mix of funny, personal, and socially relevant pieces. Like lots of spoken word, the majority of what we hear relies heavily on rhythm, rhyme, and passionate delivery. We get that in spades and enjoy listening to it. For me, there are three pieces that stand head and shoulders above the rest. There is the crowd-pleasing ensemble poem "Counting Graves" from Steinmetz. It's a superior piece of performance art, timely and powerful. The other two are both by Nova. Her first, "Apartment on Austin," details her relationship with an often drunk and needy father. The other, "Cody," is named after her younger brother who has special needs. Both are exceptionally well written poems with strength completely independent of the theatrics of her recitations, which there really are none. They just punch you right in the chest and rip your heart out through the hole.

You may or may not be into poetry like I am. Still, the human stories on display reach out and grab the viewer. We become invested in their fates and root for the tens to go up after they've read. We're disappointed when they don't. However, we learn that what the slam organizers repeat numerous times is true. The point is not the points, the point is the poetry.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

French Toast Sunday's Darren Aprilofsky

Lindsay over at French Toast Sunday is honoring director Darren Aronofsky all this month by highlighting content based on his work from around the web. Any of you that are fans of his work should definitely pop by there to get links to all the Aronofsky you can stand. You can also join in on the festivities by leaving a link to your own stuff on the man, or his movies. Just click here and off you'll go into a happy place.

If you're still here, I've got some Aronofsky content of my own for you to check out. Click on the titles below for my reviews of the following movies:

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Purge

Directed by James DeMonaco.
2013. Rated R, 85 minutes.
Rhys Wakefield
Adelaide Kane
Max Burkholder
Edwin Hodge
Tony Oller
Arija Bareikis
Dana Bunch
Chris Mulkey
Tisha French

James Sandin (Hawke) and his family are getting ready to completely lock down their home as they do every year during the annual Purge. The Purge is the one night of the year where everything is legal. Whatever crime you want to commit, up to and including murder, is fair game. The idea behind it is that being allowed to do what you want for this night will purge the evil from our systems. It seems to have been effective. Excluding Purge Night, crime and unemployment are almost non-existent and the economy is in phenomenal shape. The Sandins don't participate, though. They barricade themselves in their home using the same expensive security system that James has made a very nice living selling.

Of course, if the Sandins just shut their doors to the world raging outside and the night passed without a hitch, we wouldn't have a movie. Still, Mary (Headey) stands by with  passive look on her face while her husband brings the barricades down. Their daughter Zoey (Kane) stomps off to her room because that's what teenage girls do. Meanwhile, their son Charlie (Burkholder), equipped with some techno gadgetry of his own and a bleeding heart, pays close attention to the security cameras. When Zoey gets back to her room she finds her boyfriend there. Yup, dad doesn't like him. He snuck in before the lock down, or never left, since he was there earlier in the day. Minor detail. Point is he is not supposed to be there. However, that's a small issue compared with what Charlie does. While watching those cameras he notices a random black man staggering and screaming for help in the middle of the street. Why yes, he opens up the house and lets the guy in. Obviously, this man being a stranger in the Sandins home on the most dangerous night possible is a problem, but there is even bigger trouble following him. A group of well-to-do white twenty-somethings were trying to purge by killing our random black man when he got away. Having figured out that he's hiding in the Sandin house, they go knocking on the once again barricaded door. Their demand? Send him out so that we may finish killing him or we will find a way in and kill all of you! The problem? It's a pretty big house and the Sandins can't find the guy.

The Purge is a highly political movie masked as a home invasion thriller. It's pretty clear, to me at least, which characters represent Republicans and which are Democrats. The actions taken by them, particularly the ones seeming to be Republicans, are exaggerated versions of what their present ideologies imply. After all, we're told several times the Purge has become an annual massacre of the homeless, the poor, and anyone else the haves deem to be an unproductive member of society. This amplifies the importance of the homeless guy being black. With both of those things perceived to be working against him, he seems a prime candidate to be purged. If you happen to be a conservative don't take offense. I'm just noting how those views sound to people who don't share them.

Like most movies that position themselves as social allegories, The Purge not only tries to give us its point of view, but to provoke questions as well. One of the questions that immediately springs to mind is could an annual purge work? No matter which side of the political ledger you fall, I think you'd agree the correct answer is 'not a chance in hell.' It might be tantalizing to think that it could. Your initial feeling may be 'if we just had that one night to get all the anger and hatred out of our system we would be happy and content, or at least able to restrain ourselves for a year.' However, if you've ever met a human being you quickly realize this is some cockamamie bullshit. Still, it makes for an interesting film premise. Just don't take it literally.

Speaking of the film, let's actually get back go it. Sorry for my rambling. Then again, that rambling is a symptom of the problem with the movie. The thoughts and conversations stemming from its ideas are better than our experience watching it, by a longshot. I don't think it's a bad movie, just an okay one. Ethan Hawke does a very nice job as our dad-turned-action-hero, desperately trying to protect his family. Our first group of bad guys are a purposely faceless and freakish bunch. The second group of baddies aren't quite faceless. For one, they don't wear masks. Unfortunately, their part of the story is telegraphed way too early. The tension created by this whole situation is not as unbearable as it should be, either. Finally, by the end, it just becomes too blatant in its message and reveals itself to be too small for its premise. Watching this family defend themselves is nice and all, but a film more worthy of its ideas might have been made by broadening its scope beyond the walls of our wealthy hosts.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Steven Seagal's Top 5 Movies

Sometimes you come across some interesting things when you're just bopping around the net. What I found is that today is Steven Seagal's birthday. The pony-tailed one is turning 61. Though he's spent the last decade or so putting out one crappy straight-to-DVD movie after another, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for him. Throughout the 90s, he supplied me with many of the most awesome martial arts flicks featuring an American actor ever made, no matter how much alike they all were. I know, I know, Chuck Norris, blah blah. There was nothing like watching Seagal play the same character in every movie, badly at that, almost never kick anyone and break limbs like No. 2 pencils while avenging the death of a loved one(s). Regardless of his weight. Oh, and I can't forget the hilariously bad Arnie Schwarzenegger-esque one liners. So, as a birthday gift, I'm counting down...

Steven Seagal's Top 5 Movies

5. Hard to Kill
As cop Mason Storm, Seagal is actually gunned down by intruders in his very own home! No worries, he doesn't die from his wounds, 'cuz he's hard to kill and stuff. Unfortunately, the same can't be said for his wife and young son who did not survive the attack. After a stint in super secret hospital and hooking up with 80s "it" girl Kelly LeBrock, he hunts down the bad guys responsible.

The Arnie-ism: I'm gonna take you to the bank, Senator the blood bank!

4. Above the Law
In Seagal's debut he plays Nico, a Chicago narcotics cop who once quit the CIA over some things he saw and disagreed strongly with in 'Nam. While he and his partner are investigating a drug trafficking operation they find out some more stuff and are forbidden to continue on the case. Think that'll stop him?  C'mon man, he's above the law! And he's got one of my lifelong crushes on his side, none other than Pam Grier.

The Arnie-ism: You guys think you're above the law? Well, you ain't above mine!

3. Under Siege
This time, our hero is playing Casey Ryback. He is a former Navy SEAL who is still a sailor, but now a cook aboard the battleship Missouri. It's about to be decommissioned and the Navy is having a big celebration to send it out in style. Of course, things couldn't be so simple. A gang of terrorists come on board and take over. And you know who is the only one who can stop them. This one benefits from a really good supporting cast that includes a nutty turn by Tommy Lee Jones as the bad guy who puts the ship under siege and draws our hero's full wrath. Gary Busey and Colm Meaney are also fun in their roles. This is the only one of Seagal's movies in which he plays the protagonist, to get a sequel. A rather insane one with Morris Chestnut as his sidekick. And I promise, the well endowed Erika Eleniak jumping out of a cake topless has nothing to do with this lofty ranking.

The Arnie-ism: (Before a knife fight breaks out between Seagal and Tommy Lee Jones, Jones tells him the difference between them is that Jones doesn't have faith. This line comes after killing Jones by stabbing him in the head) Keep the faith, Strannix.

2. Machete
This is the only movie on the list where Seagal doesn't play the hero, and the only one from this century. As drug kingpin Rogelio Torrez, he's quite the opposite. Instead of having his own loved ones killed, he gets to do it to good guy Machete, played by Danny Trejo. Wracked my brain trying to come up with a dumb pun to jam in here using the word machete, but couldn't. Consider yourself lucky. For my money, this is far and away the best acting job Seagal has ever done. The movie as a whole is amazing, in my opinion. In fact, it really is much better than the movie I have at number one. However, I have my reasons for not giving it the top spot. We'll get to that in a sec. First, we have to get to...

The Arnie-ism: You're Machete's girl. I know , 'cuz you're his type. (Asked "What type is that?) Dead.

1. Marked for Death
As DEA agent John Hatcher, Seagal has an especially rough start to this one. Down in Colombia, his partner gets killed during a drug bust. If you've seen it, then you know 'bust' is the operative word in his death. Once back at home, he has a run-in with the Jamaican street gangs who are dealing drugs under the leadership of the charismatic Screwface, played in scene stealing and scenery chewing fashion by Basil Wallace. From then on, Seagal and his family are marked for death. True, this is not as good a film as Machete and it's not even close. It gets the top spot because it is Seagal at the absolute height of his powers. The movie is completely bananas, possibly a bit racist, and winds up with a wacky twist that adds another fight scene for us. The mall scene stands as the best moment in Seagal's career. Period.

The Arnie-ism: I hope they weren't triplets.


Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Drinking Buddies

Directed by Joe Swanberg.
2013. Rated R, 90 minutes.

Kate (Wilde) and Luke (Johnson) work at the local brewery. After a long, but usually fun day at work, they tend to head down to the nearest bar with a number of their other co-workers and drink lots of their own product. It is painfully obvious the two have a thing for each other. The issue here is two-fold: 1) Each is involved in a serious relationship with someone else, and 2) Neither of them will own up to how they feel about the other. Instead, they flirt endlessly. They do it that way people do when they have a really strong connection. Of course, they think it is mere friendship. So Kate thinks it's no big deal to invite Luke and his girlfriend Jill (Kendrick) up to her boyfriend Chris' (Livingston) beach house for the weekend. They accept. Life rolls on from there.

When I say 'life rolls on,' that's probably the best compliment I can give this movie. It's a true slice-of-life flick in every sense of the term. There really is no plot. Everything about our leads are just the facts of who they are, not set ups for some grand character arc. Finally, Drinking Buddies doesn't end so much as it just stops. When it does, I wouldn't blame anyone who throws their arms up and says "WTF!" when the final credits roll. I suspect that's what's behind the disparity between how critics view this movie and how normal folks see it. Critics have praised it while audiences are rather lukewarm toward it. The things it doesn't have are the things we've been trained to expect from our films. Without those things we're left with a feeling of uncertainty about what we just watched. A movie lacking a definitive beginning, middle, and end might not immediately make sense to us.

Enjoying DB requires a willingness to take it on its own terms and, perhaps, actually thinking about it afterwards. That's because we may have to sort some things out. It does what I often knock other movies for not doing. It shows, not tells. Counter intuitive to that sentiment, this movie is much more noun than verb. It is something that is, not something that does. We're used to our visual media "doing" for us. It sticks around until the bad guy is caught and the hero gets the girl. Little to no effort is required of us. Therefore, most of us don't have the energy for a movie with a figurative test at the end. I like this movie. That's not to say I'm smarter than people who don't. I'm just more willing to put in the work necessary to appreciate it.

I feel like I've rambled quite a bit without saying much about the actual film. There really are reasons to enjoy it as it goes along. Right away, it positions itself as a dramedy. It makes us laugh, but that's not necessarily it's aim. It's more about exploring the relationship between Kate and Luke. Whatever drama or humor that comes out of this is organic to the human experience, not gags or overly contrived melodrama. To their credit, our stars are an immense help in this area. Both Olivia Wilde and Jake Johnson deliver completely natural performances. Wilde is particularly good. Her best acting is done by her eyes during pauses in dialogue. When she speaks, she feels like a woman we might know. The same is true for Johnson. Well, he sounds like a man we might know, not a woman. You understand. Through the two of them, we sense these are people who are aware of their feelings, but struggling mightily not to act upon them. Immediately, we start wondering "will they," or "won't they." This uncertainty drives the movie. Our curiosity happily rides along on this train. I like where it drops us off. I'm not sure you will.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Other Dream Team

Directed by Marius Markevicius.
2012. Not Rated, 89 minutes.
Arvydas Sabonis
Sarunas Marciulionis
Rimas Kurtinaitis
Jonas Valanciunas
Bill Walton
Chris Mullin
Jim Lampley
Dan Majerle
David Stern
Zydrunas Ilgauskas

At the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, basketball was dominated by the U.S. Men's Team. Collectively known as the Dream Team, they were led by such household names as Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird. In addition to that trio was a roster full of players headed for the Hall of Fame. What I didn't realize at the time, and I'm not sure how many people did, was that there was another team that much more literally represented the hopes and dreams of their country. That team was from Lithuania. It was a nation that had just wiggled free from beneath the thumb of the Soviet Union. Their independence was so new that just four years earlier, at the prior Olympics, all of the country's athletes played for the Russians. This is the story of how the country gained its freedom and the role basketball played.

Our tale is told through the eyes of the gentlemen who were the stars of both Lithuania's team in '92 and the Soviet team in '88. Two of them, Arvydas Sabonis and Sarunas Marciulionis would go on to play in the NBA, themselves. The others would have lengthy pro careers playing internationally. All of them still make their living within the sport in some capacity. Along with some other talking heads, they relay stories of what it was like living under Soviet rule. They speak of harsh and oppressive conditions. We hear of many Lithuanians being exiled to Siberia, a lot of whom never made it home. Through it all, they found joy in the sport they love. However, even that was tainted by being forced to play for another country.

As rough as it sounds, it's not depressing stuff. Our heroes are able to find humor in their despair. There is much laughter as they recount their trips to America while playing for the Soviets. They tell us how they managed to sneak out of their rooms at night despite being forbidden and closely watched by the Russians. We hear them marvel at the sheer availability of everything and the measures they took to smuggle home such illicit goods as blue jeans and walkmans. For you young'uns, the walkman was the iPod of the 80s. Go ahead, google it and have a laugh.

Things turn serious again when our attention is turned to the country's last days as a Russian annex. They speak of yearning to send a team of their very own to the upcoming Olympics once they were free. However, it was a bankrupt nation. We see the players, Marciulionis in particular since he was already in the NBA by that time, making huge efforts to make this happen. Eventually, we learn how rock legends The Grateful Dead took up their cause. It's all a heartwarming and uplifting documentary. You know what I'm saying: underdogs making good, triumph of the human spirit, and all that cheesiness. Thankfully, it's cheese that works and has plenty of basketball footage mixed in.

MY SCORE: 8/10

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Poetry in the Movies Blogathon!

For a while, I've been trying to come up with a good idea so I can host my very first blogathon. I'm still not sure I have, but hey I'm rolling with it. Unlike most normal folks, I'm an avid reader of poetry. Guess what? April is National Poetry Month. This being a movie blog and all, it gives me a chance to combine two of my favorite things and I'm asking you to join in on the fun.

The rules are simple:

1. Post a review of a movie that either has a poet as a major character, is inspired by/based on a poem, or uses poetry as an important part of the film.

- If the protagonist is a poet, at least make mention of that fact and some of his/her notable work.

- If the movie uses poetry in its narrative, include in your review whether or not it is effective within the film's structure.

2. Use one of the banners here and a link back to this post.

3. Post a comment below with a link to your review.

The deadline is April 27, 2014, not quite at the end of National Poetry Month, but close enough. I will then create a post with a link to each submission.

There are tons of movies that fit the criteria so I'm interested in seeing what you guys come up with. Thanks in advance!

More Banners!

Friday, April 4, 2014


Directed by Joshua Michael Stern.
2013. Rated PG-13, 122 minutes.
Josh Gad
Lukas Haas
Lesley Ann Warren
John Getz

It's fairly well known that way back in the 1970s, Steve Jobs (Kutcher) and a few of his buddies started Apple Computers in his parents' garage. They basically invented the home computer and became filthy rich. He was ousted in the mid 80s as the projects he was working on kept burning through money. Years later, he's brought back when the company is on the verge of going under. He then conquers all of Earth beginning with the introduction of the iPod in 2001 and rules until his death in 2011. This movie starts during Jobs' college years. Well, he is on campus and sits in on some classes, but it's never clear if he's actually an enrolled student. This is a couple years before starting the company. We wrap things up as he is brought back to rescue the floundering in Apple in the mid 90s.

The easiest thing to do is start with the elephant in the room, lead actor Ashton Kutcher. Plenty of people, myself included, rolled their eyes when it was announced he would play the iconic Jobs. After all, it can be argued that his best "work" was either on ABC's That 70's Show, MTV's Punk'd, or whatever he did to get Demi Moore to marry him. His movies range from "don't ever show me that again" up to a solid "meh." His performances in those movies are on the same scale. But hey, he's famous and bears a decent resemblance to our subject once you slap a beard on him, so here we are. The truth of the matter is that he's not that bad. He might actually be the best part of this film. He's never been an actor of any credible depth. Fortunately for him, but unfortunately for the rest of the movie, none is actually required. He is only asked to come off as mean, self-centered, and vindictive. Mission accomplished.

The relative shallowness of the iPod/Pad/Phone man is the movie's biggest detriment. At every stop along the way, he simply shouts down anyone who disagrees with him and either bullies them into doing things his way or sends them packing regardless of how integral they were to his success. Judging from this picture, Steve Jobs never actually made a friend. He just had people around who could realize his visions and treated them like interchangeable parts. Even when co-founder Steve Wozniak aka Woz (Gad) calls him on his boorish behavior, there isn't really an attempt at rectifying it. The scene is emotional in the moment because of who is saying it to him. However, that all dissipates rapidly because we see it has no real effect on him other than trying a slightly diplomatic approach to saving his own ass. This renders Jobs not a film about the man, but about giving life to his reputation around the office.

That Steve spends so much time in the office makes the omission, or more accurately the butchering of, his personal life a glaring error. Anything that happens outside of Apple just builds our hatred of him. Early on, he beds a co-ed then hops out of bed while telling her he's got to get back to his girlfriend. While Jobs is working at Atari Woz, who doesn't even work for the company, practically does an entire project for him, saving Steve's job (see that?) in the process. For said project, Steve is paid a $5,000 bonus. He tells Woz he only got $700 and gives him $350. Later, when the aforementioned girlfriend informs him she's pregnant, he just more or less says "Ain't mine," and tells her to kick rocks. We see him then refuse to see his daughter even though she sends cute little letters begging to be allowed to come visit him. We also see him arguing with his lawyer in an effort to find any way possible for him not to pay child support. The movie has a chance to make him look like a hero, here. I mean, the whole time we're thinking their tearful reunion scene with him accepting the full responsibility of fatherhood has gotta be coming, right? Wrong. Maybe it happens off screen. All we get is a shot of the girl lying on his couch like ten years after the lawyer scene. That's not to mention that he's suddenly married with another child by then. How any of this came to be is a complete mystery unless you're well-versed in the life and times of Steve Jobs. I am not. Admittedly, a trip to his Wikipedia page might clear some things up, but I shouldn't need to do that. Oh, and just in case you need more proof he was a dick, he ends the film by exacting some petty revenge.

What all of this adds up to is us being more apt to laugh at our hero when things don't go his way rather than showing even the least bit of sympathy. To us, he's just a bad person getting his comeuppance. The overwhelming feeling I got watching Jobs was the same one I got when I first hard they were making the movie. It's too soon. The whole thing feels rushed and half-baked. We're given a caricature of the man instead of a portrait. It's a shame because he's one of the most influential people of his generation, if not the entire twentieth century, and the still young twenty-first century, as well. It doesn't have to be a glowing fluff piece that bestows sainthood on the man, but he deserves more than a one-note portrayal of a rampaging monster who happens to have great ideas. We need the perspective of time. The people who know the stories that can round him out as a character need that perspective, too. In the interim, we were given "How an Asshole Made a Whole Lot of Money."

MY SCORE: 4/10