Cowboys & Aliens

The long-awaited Cowboys & Aliens from Imagine and directed by Jon Favreau opened today at local cineplexes all over the country. I think the title might require a small change. I think it could be called Cowboys & Aliens & Clichés. That’s right. Everything about this film has been done before, and done better.

Favreau and his army of screenwriters have copied from dozens of films that we’ve all seen before, and then, they’ve not presented this old material in a new or different way. The film isn’t bad – it’s just hokey, and lackluster – except for Olivia Wilde‘s and Daniel Craig‘s luminescent eyes which can knock you over with their brilliance.

You want every cliché from westerns and space invader films? They’re all here.

The Laconic Hero, The Boy, The Dog,The Beautiful Girl who sidles up to the hero at a bar, The Evil Cattle Baron and his gang of ruffians, The Evil Cattle Baron’s Wastrel Son, The Hispanic bar-maid, The Gentle Bar Owner/Storekeeper who doesn’t know how to fire a gun, The Preacher, The Ineffective Town Marshall, Indians, and the usual assortment of rough and tough cattle thieves, rustlers, and a few motley town drunks.

On the Space Invaders side of the ledger think of a Monstrously Huge Mother Ship, smaller solo pilot combat ships that can fire explosive weapons, They’ve come to earth to harvest something we have and they need, and it takes quite a long time before we’re told what that might be, and of course the drooling, scary, and slimy space monsters. Those may be old-hat parts on the Invaders side, but they do get plusses for their inclusion.

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Friends with Benefits

Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake shed their clothes more often than you might expect in this new rom/com called Friends With Benefits from Director Will Gluck. It’s fast paced, it’s frothy, it’s funny, and yet is underwhelming.

The bennies of this friendship are casual sex repeated as often as necessary. With lots of time between the sheets as the ideal end result of this friendship.

Timberlake is a LA based web designer, and Kunis is a Manhattan based corporate head hunter who recruits him for an Art Director’s job at GQ magazine in New York. Each of them has just gone through a relationship break-up. In fact, the film opens in such a way, during the respective break-ups, which are run pre-credits, that for a moment or three you ask yourself, Is this right? Are they running the wrong reel?

So Timberlake’s Dylan and Mila Kunis as Jamie meet at the airport. He’s a little lukewarm about the job, about leaving LA, about living in New York – yadda yadda. But he aces the interview, and a few hours later, early that same evening, Kunis has an offer from GQ that’s been emailed to her that is waiting for him to accept it. So to convince him, she takes him on a whirlwind Manhattan tour, and bingo! He falls in love with New York, accepts the offer, and in what seems like seconds – he’s moving into a swanky NY high-rise apartment.

Friendship immediately blossoms, they open up to each other, they discover that neither is any good in relationships, each have no desire to get that involved again, and they sort of make fun of a relationship movie they watch on TV. That’s what has been set up – a rom/com that makes fun of rom/coms.

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Chonmage Purin aka A Boy and His Samurai

The last thing I expected to find in a film called A Boy and His Samurai, and with an image of delicious looking custards on the cover, was a story that would embrace the fact that in these modern times, every woman should have the opportunity to be independent along with ability to join the work force. The film asks us to re-assess gender roles that have been in place in some cultures for centuries.

The film is called, in Japanese, Chonmage Purin. The title for Western markets is A Boy and His Samurai. We first meet a single divorced Mom with a five-year old son. She is called Hiroko and she’s played by Rie Tomosaka. Her son, Tomoya is played by Fuku Suzuki – and he’s got to be one of the all-time cutest kids you’ll ever see on television or in the movies. Hiroko works at an ad agency and she’s a mid-level manager. She oversees a team of computer developers and programmers. She’s resented because she’s a woman, because she arrives late and leaves early – dropping Tomoya off and picking him up at day-care as her colleagues think that this is a perk that they don’t have. Even her boss, throws an occasional verbal jab at her about this. Of course, you’ve known forever that life in the corporate world is never easy.

One day after work and shopping, Hiroko and Tomoya, while heading home, the film  is set in modern-day Tokyo, they see a decidedly incongruous samurai standing in front of a supermarket. He carries his swords, his hair is in a top-knot, and he wears a samurai robe over a kimono and sandals. They dismiss it as a shopping promotion. A few days later, he’s still around, though this time his movements are furtive, and he’s taking steps to not be seen. But they meet unexpectedly, and they’re both shocked. Hiroko screams, clutching her son, and the samurai, called Yasube Kijima, brandishes his sword.

We come to discover that this Samurai is actually from the Edo Period in Japan – roughly 1820, and he’s traveled through time, more than 180 years to the present. No explanations are given – one moment he was praying to a stone Buddha in his own time and place, then the next minute he was here in Modern day Tokyo, likely the same place, but definitely not the same time.

He’s desperately hungry, he stinks, and he has no idea at all as to what happened. Hiroko takes him in and offers a few days lodging and food. Hopefully, things would get sorted out. Well, easily enough, they are able to conclude that Yasube is from another time – each of them have severe culture shock regarding the other.

Yasube is shocked that Hiroko is a single mother, that she’s divorced, and that she was the one who forced the divorce. Even more shocking to Yasube, is that Hiroko does not stay at home, that she goes out and works. In his time, this didn’t happen. Men went out to ‘earn the rice’ as he put it, and the women stayed home to raise the children and see to the household. Yasube lived in the time and place of a patriarchal society, which at that time went unquestioned and unchallenged.

Hiroko, doesn’t quite ‘get’ Yasube’s perception of her situation being a puzzle to him. In her mind, in the contemporary world she inhabits, going to work, raising a child, and taking pride in both efforts and achievements seems perfectly natural to her. It is the way things are and should be.

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They Say Time is Money, and They also Say – It’s Always About Money …

Yeah, time and money – these are the subjects of three films coming out this fall that are on my must-see list. There’s another one called The Debt that I will also see, but it’s not about money, so it’s discussion will be a topic for another time.

The first film for this topic opens on September 23rd, less than a month away, and just ahead of the Major League Baseball Playoffs and World Series. It’s title is Moneyball. This is the film version of Michael Lewis‘s very popular and best-selling book of the same name. In the simplest of terms the film/book is described: The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to draft his players.

Beane turned baseball upside down by knocking the game off its feet and on to its head. Because of budgetary constraints, he decided to analyze young and upcoming prospects by crunching the numbers rather than solely utilizing the scouting reports written by seasoned professionals who in many cases, were former professional baseball players themselves.

As someone said to Beane (played by Brad Pitt),  in the film, “You’re discounting what scouts have done for 150 years?

Did he make it work? Did he re-invent a system that’s been working for years? The jury is still out on that question. But one thing is certain, he did it because he had to. Why did he have to? The answer is simple – money.

On October 21st, a film about the biggest financial game in the world opens. The film is entitled Margin Call. It is likely that you won’t the least bit surprised if I say that the biggest crap-shoot in the world is the stock market. It is the essence of capitalism but it is really about survival.

The film can be described this way: A thriller that revolves around the key people at a investment bank over a 24-hour period during the early stages of the financial crisis.

You start with a great cast in Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Simon Baker, Mary McDonnell, Stanley Tucci, and Demi Mooore. Then you get a look behind the curtain. You go right into the board room of an unnamed financial firm, and see what really happens to yours, mine, and our money.

Simon Baker says, “Sell it all…”

Kevin Spacey says, “You’re selling something you know is worthless?”

Jeremy Irons interrupts and says, “To survive! There are three ways to make money in this business, be first, be smarter, and cheat.

Like I said, it always comes down to money.

The last film on my horizon for this topic opens on October 28th. It’s title? In Time. As you can see, the poster is subtitled Time is Money. In the not too distant future – the late 21st century, we are told (in the trailer) that time has replaced money as the unit of currency. At 25 years old, aging stops, and each person is given one more year to live. Unless you replenish your clock — you die.

Sounds like a fun world, eh? For example if you go out for a coffee , the price is 4 minutes, black tea is 6 minutes, and so on. Justin Timberlake plays a man who suddenly finds he has an unlimited amount of time in his account. What does this mean?

Since aging stops, it would mean that he would remain at the age of 25 – he’d be an immortal (and stay at 25). This is also known as the dream of all dreams for actors the world over. The problem is simple and two-fold: greed, and  if too many people acquired sufficient time – the world would eventually become overcrowded. So there are folks out to get him. He has to go on the run.

There’s a corrupt police force chasing him, and there’s a powerful tycoon of time out to stop him who is calling the shots. For sure a confrontation looms. While there’s some similarities to the 1976 Logan’s Run, where life ended at 30, this one is more a thriller and less of a fantasy.

So, what goes around, comes around. Time is money, show me the money, and as always – it’s always about  the money.

Shinzanmono – Red Finger

Imagine this: After a long, tiring day at the office, you’re ready to go out for a couple of tall, cold, Asahi beers with a few of your mates at work. However – they decline. Just then your wife calls. Can you come home right away? We have a problem. It’s serious. When you ask her is everyone okay, she says, Just come home right away. It’s very serious….

When you finally get home, all the lights are out. Tadaima! (I ‘m home!), you say but there’s no answer. When you turn on a lamp – your wife jumps out and says turn it off. You’re dumbstruck – you have no idea. What’s wrong?

She directs you to get a flashlight, and to take a look out in the courtyard. And it is out there, in your own courtyard, which is your enclosed back yard – a young girl lies dead in the moonless night. Hel–lo…!

Not quite the Okari (Welcome home) response you expected. This is how the latest entry from the producers of Shinzanmono which I reviewed last year here, begins. This time, the series has returned to the broadcast medium in the form of a 2 hour Special Movie. The title is Red Finger.

Hiroshi Abe returns as Detective Kyouchiro Kaga

Detective Kyoichiro Kaga, portrayed once again by the wonderful Hiroshi Abe, returns to TV. This SP is a prequel to the series and takes place two years earlier. Kaga is still a great detective. And the beautiful Meisa Kuroki is once again on hand as a local reporter named Aoyama.

Meisa Kuroki as Ami Aoyama

As the DVD cover tells us – when Maehara returned home to find a corpse on his property, this average salary-man and his family, were looking at just the beginning of a tragic chain of events.

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Norwegian Wood

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me… She showed me her room, isn’t it good, norwegian wood?

Those are the opening lyrics from the Lennon/McCartney tune Norwegian Wood which was penned circa 1965. That’s a long time ago.

In 1987, Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote a novel entitled Norwegian Wood. The novel begins with a man (Toru) hearing a cover of that song which causes him to think back to a time 20 years before and to think of his relationship with a woman named Naoko.

Moving forward to the present and the very near past – in 2010, the novel Norwegian Wood was adapted for the screen. The Paris based Vietnamese film director Ahn Hung Tran took Murakami’s book and brought it to the screen with a Japanese cast. Netflix has this film listed but doesn’t have an available date yet – but you can save it for a future viewing. Or you can track it down  and order it from a few vendors on the web.

The story is a tale of the past and the present battling within one man. Toru, played by Kenichi Matsuyama had a couple of childhood friends, a girl – Naoko (Rinko Kikuchi who appeared in Babel) and her guy – Kizuki. Very early on one of these people will take their own life. Of the two that remain, one will go on to a sanatorium as life in the real world has become impossible .

(left to right) Toru, Kizuki, and Naoko

The film is set during a time when upheaval and revolt (Make love, not war – or in this case USA leave Okinawa) seemed to be going on everywhere. It was a time of the Beatles, hippies, and it was the time of sexual awakening. The topics are loss, love, loss of innocence with side roads into despair, longing, and desperation. The director and his crew have lovingly recreated this period for us in the clothes, the haircuts, the attitudes, the protest marches, and even the automobiles.

That’s the overview. From a review perspective this is a difficult film. Tran has captured the essence of the book at a cost of much of the detail. It seems that the film is disjointed.

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Varenna, Italy – Photos, Video Screencaps, and the Art of George Guzzi

Recently I picked up the July issue of International Artist magazine because I was immediately able to identify the cover image (which is on the right –>). It was an artistic rendition of the harbor view of Varenna, which is a small lakeside town on Lake Como, Italy, by the American painter, George Guzzi.

I recognized it because a) I’d seen it in a Rick Steves travel video, b) because of that video, I traveled there myself just last fall, and c) because I like the work of the artist George Guzzi who paints with acrylics and who uses a palette knife.

It’s not often that I can illustrate one of my columns with images captured from a video, artwork, and my own photographs all of which are about the same topic, or in this case, same place. It makes for an interesting three way look at beautiful travel destination. As I hear on TV all the time – it’s all good.

But this was not my first exposure to Lago di Como. I first took notice of it with the works of artist Howard Behrens. So much so, that I wrote an article about his artistic works which you can glance at here.

In the world of cinema – A Month by the Lake, Ocean’s Twelve, and Casino Royale were amongst the most prominent films shot in the Lake Como region. It has also been said that American actor George Clooney has a home in the area. They say that he has a villa in Menaggio, which is directly across the lake from Varenna.

But I have to say that the clincher for me to decide to visit Lake Como, came from the Rick Steves’ DVD: Italy’s Cities which included a separate 1/2 hour segment called Milan and Lake Como. For Como, the specialty, or focus was Varenna and Bellagio. I stayed in both of them, as well as Milan.

You reach Varenna-Esino by train in a few minutes more than 1 hour from the Central Station in Milano. When you arrive you are above the town of Varenna which numbers between 800 and 900 permanent residents. Walk down the hill towards the lake. Go around a few turns and in about 10 minutes you’ll come to this small harbor.

Below – from the Rick Steves’ video:

Below – my own photo:

Below – and another by George Guzzi entitled August in Varenna:

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Something Old, Something New – Maybe!

When is something both old and new at the same time? Before you jump out of your shoes to reply – we are not considering used cars, antiques, second-hand clothing or collectibles, or even buying a home that someone else has lived in and then placed it on the market. While we are at it, let’s say that theatrical revivals or new productions of operas written long ago are not part of this discussion either.

For the record, the first dramatic play that I ever saw was Antigone which was written by Sophocles nearly 2500 years ago. Fortunately I did not see the original production. I saw an adaption in the late 1970’s written by the French dramatist Jean Anouilh in the 1940’s. If I had seen the Sophocles original performance, you would not be reading this blog. The second play that I ever saw was the far newer musical – The Pirates of Penzance which Gilbert & Sullivan created and which premiered in New York a mere 132 years ago. Each of these have been performed many many times, on stages in every corner of the world.  The point of mentioning them is that you may see a performance of one of these in the future. For you, it will be new, yet each are quite old.

Okay – you should know by now that I’m talking about the movies. Some have said that all films are spin-offs of the first boy meets girl story. I can’t say when the first film version of that came out. But you all know the man and woman I’m talking about – the cute couple known evermore as Adam and Eve.

For our discussion today, we’ll have a look a three ideas from years back which are soon to arrive at a movie house near you. One is a remake, the second is a new film based on an original novel written in 1963 and brought to the silver screen in 1968, and the last is a sequel, and it will be the last one in the series. So, as you can see – the old and new occur at the same time, once more.

For our first example, I can tell you that the original probably played at a theater near you in 1971. That’s 40 years ago. Directed by Sam Peckinpah, and starring Dustin Hoffman and Susan George, this film was called Straw Dogs. It is most easily described this way: A young American math professor and his English wife come to live in rural England and face increasingly vicious local harassment. Hoffman runs afoul of some local bullies.

They bust his balls, and tease him, then to make sure he got the message – they rape his wife. He has to fight them on his own property, and the violence is extreme to put as mild a spin on it that I can. It was disturbing, provocative, and asked you to think about doing things that if you had a choice, you would never think about or do  them.

Fast forward to the present. Opening on September 16, 2011 will be a new and updated version of Straw Dogs. This one is directed by Rod Lurie. The couple in question are a LA screenwriter and his wife. The locale has been changed to the Deep South of the USA. Apparently they’re calling this a re-make. Others have said it is an unnecessary remake. No, I’ve not seen it, but I am already disturbed by the fact that the posters are thematically the same.

Example Two: This one appeared in 1968 and since that time has been called one of the most iconic and revered films in the science fiction genre. I’m not talking about Kubrick’s 2001 which also opened in 1968 – instead let’s focus on the other of these two famed films. Yes, I’m talking about Planet of the Apes. Since that one is more than 40 years old, I’ll describe it for you: Deep in the future, three American astronauts awaken from a deep hibernation to find that their space craft has crash landed on a planet where humans are unable to speak, and the dominate species are the apes. The humans are pre-lingual and uncivilized to say the least.

The simians have speech and technology – they wear clothes, live in houses, watch TV, and do everything that we humans do now. That film had a twist at its conclusion that no one who saw this movie (either then or now) could have seen coming, and the film proved to be so popular that it launched plenty of sequels, TV series, comics and the like which followed in its wake.

Opening on August 5th, 2011 – a mere three weeks away is Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This one is not set in the future, instead this one is set in present day San Francisco. In this one, humans are still the dominant species but the question that comes up in this film is – Yes, but for how long?

You see, a miracle of science has been created, a way of genetic engineering, and this process was tested on laboratory animals, specifically chimpanzees, and gorillas. In a small amount of time, the development of intelligence in apes has been accelerated to such a degree, that humans are soon fighting for their lives as a war begins for supremacy of life on earth. Okay make that in San Francisco.

James Franco, Freida Pinto, and Andy Serkis are the headliners. They’re supported by such luminaries as Brian Cox, and John Lithgow, as well as the marvelously superior technology that we have available to us today.

These apes may be the creations of the CGI wizards,  but I’m sure they’ll look better than James Whitmore and Roddy McDowell in makeup and costumes.  That’s what’s new.

On the other hand, men are still men, or maybe I should say humans are still humans, and the thought of being something other than the dominant species, is still scary. And that my friends, is what we can call ‘old’.

Our last film is the latest in the Harry Potter series. This one is called Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows: Part II. In fact, this one is the last of the series. So we won’t forget that fact, check out the film poster which grandly proclaims: It All Ends 7-15!

Harry and his friends, along with the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, and various and sundry villains were first brought to the movies with the 2001 film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. The source was the novel of the same name by J.K. Rowling, who went on to pen a number of additional Harry Potter books – and all of them have been made into movies.

In fact, the three leads: Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter, Emma Watson as Hermione Granger, and Rupert Grint as Ron Weasley, have remained a constant. When the first film came out, Radcliffe was 12, Watson was 11, and Grint was 13. Now each of them are adults. As they’ve grown on-screen, we members of the audience have aged along with them,.

Time flies when you’re having fun either acting in a film, or watching these actors perform in the wonderful Potter series as members of the audience. We don’t regret that Radcliffe, Watson, and Grint are now world-famous, or that author J.K. Rowling has become wealthier than she ever dreamed possible. For we too have been enriched, if not fiscally, than certainly on a scale that measures pleasure.

So what goes around, comes around. Sometimes it takes 40 to 50 years. But hey, who is counting? And of course as someone once said – and it was many, many years ago – there are no new ideas in Hollywood. Seems to be so, wouldn’t you say? In the case of this brand new Harry Potter film, it opens today, July 15th. See you on the ticket line!

[edit Friday Morning 071511] – Well plans don’t always work out the way you hope. Arriving at the theater at 08:55 AM for a 9:15 show, I was told that they only had a few seats left, and those were in the first row.  For me this gives new meaning to the definition of the word ‘popular’. Plan B – Snow Flower and the Secret Fan didn’t work either. This film won’t be showing in Florida until July 29th (two weeks from today) and then only in one city – Orlando, which is a wee bit too far (131 miles) for me to drive to see a film.

Conviction

According to most dictionaries: If you have been convicted, then you’ve been tried in a court of law, and deemed guilty of a crime; hence you have been convicted and are a person with a criminal conviction on their record.

From another perspective people might say; If you believe in something, then show us the courage of your convictions. In other words act upon what you believe.

And so it came to pass. In the 2010 film, Conviction, which stars Hilary Swank and Sam Rockwell, both of these perspectives come into play. Swank portrays the real life Bette Anne Waters. Rockwell portrays her brother Kenny Waters. Each are the product of a single broken family. Their mother produced a number of children – what was it – nine children with seven fathers? So the children grew up without much in the way of supervision. Bette Ann and Kenny were extremely close and together they broke into houses and committed small acts of vandalism as children. Ultimately they were separated and placed into different foster homes. But they remained close.

Bette Anne grew up and was a high school dropout and a single mother of two children herself. Kenny’s path was a bit rougher, and he acquired a record of small crimes and was known to be violent person.

Kenneth Waters? You're under arrest for the murder of ...

A woman is murdered and Kenny is brought in as a possible suspect by Police Officer Nancy Taylor (Melissa Leo had the role). But he is soon released. Two years later he is again arrested on this same charge. This time the case goes to trial, and Kenny Waters is convicted of the murder. His sentence? Life in prison without parole.

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