Killer Elite

Killer Elite opened across the country yesterday. On the surface, as well as below the surface, the film looks and feels like one of those testosterone filled actioners with chases, explosions, a variety of killings and weaponry, a sexy woman or two, some older men pulling the strings and issuing orders from the high ground, locations that hopscotch around the globe, plus some complicated double or triple crosses.

Then there’s the familiar desire to get out of the assassination business but there’s one last job to be done.

The film is all of the above and yet, the package delivered to us is less than the sum of its parts.

From that list, I’m sure that you can all imagine that you’ve seen this film before – and you have. Likely with a different title, and different or similar actors. The lead actors – Jason Statham, Clive Owens, and Robert De Niro have all appeared in films like this one.

Statham was in The Italian Job and The Transporter films, Owens starred in The International as an interpol cop who operated like an independent contractor as well as being an assassin in the first Bourne film, and even De Niro played a mercenary for hire in Ronin. If you are reading this review, then there’s a good likelihood that you’ve seen all of those films.

Clive Owens/Spike - great with guns and fists - but can't trim his mustache very well

Killer Elite is not so much to think about. The leads are more than sufficient. They do exactly what you expect of them.

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Let’s get the positioning of the film Moneyball out of the way at once. Though it is a film about baseball – it’s not quite mentionable in the same breath, or same way as Hoosiers with it’s last second winning shot, or Rudy with its miraculous touchdown catch by a kid deemed too small to play, or even The Natural with Robert Redford hitting a homerun into the light towers causing the light bulbs to explode, the crowd to roar, hats to be tossed into the air in the delirium of victory, and of course, the music swelled. It’s nothing like those films. There is a magical game-winning hit, but it doesn’t conclude the season, or even the film.

This was real life, and as the Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane mused, “If you don’t win the last game of the season, no one will remember what came before.”

Therefore we can say that Moneyball isn’t a classic sports film with an uplifting ending at all. Given the title, you then might think it is about the art of the deal, or about the business of baseball, and to a degree it is. Beane set out to change the game of baseball. He said the game was unfair – How could a team with a $39 million dollar payroll successfully compete against a team with a $114 million dollar payroll. In fact the film opens with the Oakland A’s losing to the New York Yankees in the playoffs to end the A’s 2001 season.

So going into the 2002 seasons, Beane’s A’s lost three key players to free agency, and he was told by the team’s ownership that there would not be more money coming in to replace those players. So making millions, or being a major player in the acquisition of expensive players on the free agent market isn’t the topic of the film either. They were a small market team with a small budget and Beane had to make it work.

Moneyball, the film, came out of Michael Lewis‘ best selling book, Moneyball -The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Beane said that the A’s would have to become the baseball equivalent of a card-counter playing at a blackjack table. They would turn the odds on the casino.

Your goal shouldn't be to buy players. Your goal should be to buy Wins. In order to buy Wins, you need to buy runs

That put him in direct opposition to the way things were done in baseball for the past 100 years. Beane, along with his sabermetrician Peter Brand – played by the marvelous Jonah Hill, were going to turn the way players were scouted and developed on its head.

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Let’s see … how shall I describe this film Abduction, a misleading and misdirecting title, which opened across the country today. It ‘s not quite worthy of being called Bourne lite, although it does have elements of Bourne. The bad guys may qualify as international villains, Eastern European division, but the film takes place within the narrow corridor of almost as far west as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and Northern Virginia and as far south as Langley, Va.

The star of the film, okay he’s not quite a star yet (at least for those of us who have ignored the Twilight saga) – but might be one someday – is Taylor Lautner. He’s kind of short for a leading man. I’m not positive of his height, but in a scene with Sigourney Weaver, he appeared to be significantly shorter than her.

The director, John Singleton, didn’t do Lautner any favors in the composition of that shot. Of course we do see an onscreen image of his ID and there his height is listed as 5’9″. Okay, it’s no crime to be short.

But what is nearly criminal is the lack of originality in the story, the major plot holes, as well as the rather lightweight and most unimpressive dialogues within this script. There are no memorable lines at all. In fact the film’s tag lines –

What if your entire life was a lie

The fight for the truth will be the fight of his life

– might be the two best written lines attached to the whole movie. Let’s have a look – Lautner’s character is called Nathan. He seems like a well adjusted high schooler, but he’s not that all right as he is seeing a psychiatrist for anger management and insomnia among other things. He’s got a crew of a couple of male buds, he’s shy around girls, and he overdoes the beer at a party at the beginning of the film only to wake up from a drunken stupor (a shirt-free opportunity for the Twilight-ers) on the lawn the next morning.

It is a fairly affluent neighborhood that he lives in – a Pittsburgh, PA. suburb. His parents Kevin (Jason Isaacs – the evil redcoat in The Patriot) and Mara (Maria Bello) aren’t given much of a story at least up front. When we meet Kevin, he’s sparring with his son Nathan (if you’re gonna drink like a man, you have to fight like a man). It looks kind of brutal, and while Nathan takes some lumps initially, he’s fairly adept at the martial arts; maybe far more adept than he should be.

Unless he’s been trained all of his life. Shades of Hanna begin to intrude. Thankfully  they’re just shades.

He and his favorite gal pal, Karen (Lily Collins – Phil’s daughter) who lives right across the street have been assigned to work together on a school sociology project. Within minutes, they have arrived at a website about missing children in the name of research for the project. And Nathan and we are surprised when he sees a picture that might be him as a 4 year old. Only he’s not a missing child. Or so he thinks.

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Barney’s Version

What starts out as the biography of a scumbag turns out to be something else entirely. Oh this is not to say that Barney wasn’t a scumbag at times [I’m pounding the nail with everything I have], or that he wasn’t obnoxious at times [I’m lightening up a bit], or, [now I’m just being kind] that he wasn’t usually and most often intentionally politically incorrect. Of course he was all of those things.

Barney’s Version stars Paul Giamatti. Barney’s full moniker is Barney Panofsky – and in the role, he’s from Montreal, and is a Canadian Jew. He’s the son of an ex-cop, one Izzy Panofsky who is played with flair, panache, and plenty of acting chutzpah [I’m Intentionally avoiding alliteration here] by Dustin Hoffman. You might think that Hoffman stole every scene he was in. He’s that good.

The film was adapted by screenwriter Michael Konyves from Mordecai Richler’s novel and directed by Richard J. Lewis. You may recall that another of Richler’s novels set in the rich milieu of Montreal’s Jews, was The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz, a 1974 film, pre-Jaws, that helped put Richard Dreyfuss on the actors’ map where he would be noticed by a certain Mr.  Spielberg.

To give you an idea of what Barney was like – I’ll quote the tag line of the film: First he got married. Then he got married again. Then he met the love of his life.

Does that help you get an image of Barney in your mind? How about this – the film opens with a guy drinking a scotch, smoking a cigar, and making a phone call:

Blair (just awakened from sleep): [he awakes  with a wobbly and barely audible] Hello?

Barney: Blair – I’d like to speak to my wife …

Blair: Oh Barney – it’s 3:00 o’clock in the morning –

Barney: Put my wife on the phone

Blair: She’s not your wife and I’m not waking her –

Barney: Well then, just ask her what she wants me to do with all these nude photos I have of her? Come to think of it, you might want them yourself, if only just to see what Miriam looked like in her prime – [click – Blair has hung up].

Barney looks quite pleased with himself. The next morning Barney gets a phone call from his grown daughter from his marriage to Miriam, and we hear that Blair had suffered a heart attack last night shortly after 3:30 AM.

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The Guard

Years back I flew into Galway, Ireland on an Aer Lingus jet from JFK. The airport is nothing special – I mean it is definitely and decidedly functional – however, the overnight flight was on time, the luggage came out in a timely manner, I met my tour group, and off we went. But what stayed with me, is that as you are leaving the Galway airport, you’re going to remember those trees. The Palm trees.

Yes, palm trees. Unexpected? Of course. Palm trees are not what you’d expect to see on this island country which is far closer to the North Pole than the equator. But that is Ireland for you. It is the land of The Unexpected.

You don’t go to a film about cops and the FBI and drugs expecting jokes about race. But that’s what you get in the new and unexpectedly good film called The Guard. Of course when Brendan Gleeson’s character, the Irish cop or garda in question, Sergeant Gerry Boyle, replies to Don Cheadle’s FBI man, Special Agent Wendell Everett – about the inappropriate and decidedly racial slurs that were just made, this is what Boyle says, “I’m Irish sir. Racism is part of my culture.”

Yes – unexpected. As offensive as much of what Boyle says throughout the film – you simply cannot take it simply at face value. Is it a send-up of Irish racial perspectives, or is it the end result of Ireland’s isolation, or might it be a statement or commentary on the Americanization of Ireland? Though there’s an ocean between physical Ireland and physical North America – sometimes it seems that the distance is no wider than Boston’s Charles River, or Dublin’s River Liffey.

We, just like Agent Everett, struggle to get a handle on Sgt. Boyle. He seems to be both ends of a yardstick – he lives his life as fully as he can. At one end, he imbibes, gobbles down tabs of LSD, whores around, and it seems like his corrupt cop persona also includes a head as empty as that now empty glass, or jar of whiskey that he just polished off. On the other end of the stick he’s a melancholy Irishman. His Mum is dying of cancer, and he must bear not only the weight of that but he must also consider how heavy that cloak of vice he wears is, as well as his willingness to wear it. How does he not brood – the answer is that he parties, and he’s also a damned fine copper. Make that a ‘fookin’ good cop.’

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The Bull Doctor

 You might think, after hearing about a TV Series entitled The Bull Doctor, that the series would be about a veterinarian whose medical practice included bulls, cattle, and the like. You might think that the setting would be out in the American west, and you’d probably consider that the show would include some cowboys. If you thought any or all of the above, you’d be dead wrong – emphasis on the ‘dead’.

The Bull Doctor is a Japanese TV Series about forensic pathology – or the study of why a person or people have died. We have  Makiko Esumi in the lead role as Dr Tamami Oodate (Oodate Sensei). She’s just been asked back to the Joto University Hospital to work as a forensic doctor – in short conduct autopsies. The last time I watched Makiko in a role, she played a brilliant surgeon who had the worst luck in finding a guy to be with. That show was called The Love Revolution (produced in 2001 but I saw it just a few years ago). This one is her first appearance in a TV series since 2007. Welcome back. ( Okari

Also on hand is  Satomi Ishihara (below). I’ve seen her in a high school baseball TV series called H2 <(2005), as a nurse in the TV Series  Ns’ Aoi (2006), as an athletic airline stewardess – sorry – cabin attendant/basketball player in  The0 Flying Rabbits film (2008), as a high school teacher in the TV series  Puzzle (2008), and one more – as a forensic medical student in the series  Voice (2009). This time she’s a homicide detective working with forensic doctors. Go figure.

So what is this one about, besides the overview of forensics?

It seems that Japan needed a distinct overhaul to the laws and regulations surrounding autopsies and forensic studies. This drama goes a long way in that direction because as you will see – autopsies that should be done are often refused, autopsies that have been done are not always accurate, and more often than you’d think or like – Death certificates are either false or forged to hide crimes. So in this series, the guidelines for medical procedures and methodologies involving autopsies, the hospital administrative side to forensics, and the police investigative techniques are all put under the microscope

So the series is at once important and topical. Yes, that does mean serious. But this is not say that the series is all work and no fun. The series has romances, issues about raising kids, work related stress intruding on home life, some comedy, conflicts between the police and the forensic doctors, and some office politics. So it works as not only a medical series, a police procedural, but also as a family series. There are some fine actors and actresses who round out the ensemble cast making the series quite entertaining.

While the stories and cases are interesting yet somehow, they all manage to not get solved, or explained, until we are almost at the end of each episode,  in sort of a brief summary. While the settings/locations are mostly in the forensic department itself as well as in the lab where the actual autopsies are done, often we go out to a crime scene. I liked the look of the series which involved lots of location settings, and employed a good many long lens zoomed close-ups which gave us the kind of very attractive facial images with indistinct, or blurred backgrounds due to the reduced depth of field settings.

I thought Makiko Esumi (above and below) showed a strong screen presence as the tough minded truth seeker who wore either the Doctor’s white lab coat, or the surgeon’s blue gowns most of the time. When she wasn’t wearing those, it was mostly jeans or slacks with that cute hat that see most often while she’s pedaling a bike to work.

On the other hand, Ishihara’s (below) role was more difficult. She’s good in the role, but she’s playing a young female homicide detective, who has some issues to solve away from being a cop. Meaning we buy into her as a character involved, a woman seeking to find her way, but not so much as a homicide detective. Of course she has a tough boss who never wants to see things correctly, or fairly, or even go along with her theories which could impact the department’s budget takes a hit each time the police command an autopsy. Oh those bureaucrats who complicate matters for her.  Besides that,  she’s involved with a doctor in the forensics department – Nakura Sensei, played by Goro Inagaki who played his role, through all 11 episodes in a manner that was so low-key that it was off-putting . While his character arc improved greatly by the end of the series, his acting did not. He was the weakest part of the series.

It had 11 Episodes and the broadcast period was from July 6th to September 14th in the Wednesday Night 10:00 PM slot.

I’ll close by telling you why the series was called The Bull Doctor. As I said up top, it was not about veterinary medicine. Instead think of the fact that Dr. Oodate was so concerned with finding the truth, and overcoming any barriers to the truth, that she operated like a human bulldozer steamrolling through the office, the lab, or over or through her colleagues. The terms stepping-on-toes or following orders were somewhat foreign to her; hence the title: The Bull Doctor.

I Don’t Know How She Does It

Back in the day (1998-2004) The HBO Cable Network broadcast a hugely popular TV series. In 2007, Time Magazine called HBO’s Sex and the City one of the 100 Best TV Shows of All Time. My reaction to this phenomenon? I had no reaction as I had seen none of it. The Carrie Bradshaw era, with Sarah Jessica Parker as Bradshaw passed by me just like another eighteen wheel trailer truck on the highway – a huge vehicle with unknown content.

I’m told that this long running TV series spun off two sequels in the form of films. I missed those as well. So when I made the decision to see I Don’t Know How She Does It with Sarah Jessica Parker as the lead, it wasn’t because of Parker’s history as Bradshaw. I chose this film based on seeing and liking two other films by the screenwriter Aline Brosh McKennaThe Devil Wears Prada (2006) and Morning Glory (2010).

If I had to rate these films 1 to 3, then I must say that I Don’t Know How She Does It would be the 3rd of three. That’s not bad (that ranking) in and of itself, but it’s nothing special either. The simple truth is that this ‘dramedy’ – has much to like about it, much that works fine, but it’s never going to reach the heights.

People are not going to exit the theater, punching their cell phones back on to spread good tidings about this one. No one’s going to spend hours chatting about it over coffee. Parker plays Kate Reddy, a Boston-based financial executive whose career is about to take a huge step up on that slippery slope known as the corporate ladder. Her regional Boston boss, played by Kelsey Grammer (he’s definitely not in Frasier territory here), had solicited ideas for a new financial product. Well, Kate’s idea of a Fund for Retired Folks with a specialization in Dividend Producing Equities to supplement those fixed incomes, was deemed best of the lot. Kate is invited to pitch it to the big boys down in New York.

Kate pitches

Of course this means tons more work and research, tons more travel, tons more pressure and stress, and most of all it means more and more time on the road away from her husband and two small kids. The thing of it is, Kate is already under severe pressure just maintaining the status quo as it is now – before her business plan would acquire major legs.

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The Whistleblower

Didion (Feminéma) and I sat down to debrief and discuss this film as we have about earlier films, most recently Larry Crowne (2011) and Miral (2011).  Didion has the honors for the introduction:

Didion: Hollywood has some oddities, and the biopic/advocacy picture is one of them: those films based on true-life accounts of ordinary individuals who encounter, and decide to address, some kind of horror. Think of Steven Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich (2000), in which the titular character comes to realize that a Pacific Gas & Electric station had knowingly poisoned the water near one of its stations in a lonely community out in the southeast California desert. Or Terry George’s Hotel Rwanda (2004), in which a generally nonpolitical hotelier seeks to save his fellow citizens from the exploding Hutu/Tutsi civil war, a genocide ignored by most of the world.

The biopic/advocacy picture is often the kind of film that doesn’t forge a lot of new ground cinematically or narratively, yet still seems nicely positioned for awards and prizes because of its role in educating the public about serious matters and offering us a real-life hero.

Larysa Kondracki’s The Whistleblower (2010) faces these same challenges and opportunities. Set in the aftermath of the mid-90s Bosnian War, where the American ex-police Kathryn Bolkovac (Rachel Weisz) has gone to work temporarily with the UN peacekeeping mission, the film traces her gradual transformation from a disinterested contract employee to a serious adversary on the subject of violence against women and sex trafficking. Like so many heroes of biopic/advocacy films, Bolkovac is no freedom fighter — she’s taken the (highly lucrative) job because it allows her to earn the money that will allow her to move to Texas, where her ex-husband has moved with their daughter. Yet when she comes across a savagely beaten wife being dismissed by a group of Serbian police working alongside the UN peacekeepers, she becomes infuriated and fights to get the husband convicted. Even still, she sees this as simple good police work, not a crusading mission…until she begins to realize the extent of rampant sex trafficking and sex slavery in the region, likewise being ignored by local authorities, the UN, and a Halliburton-like company (called Democra in the film). Warning: Spoilers ahoy in this conversation!

First-time director Kondracki has written, “When you put together the words Bosnia, peacekeepers and sex-trafficking, people assume it’s going to be either ‘educational’ or ‘important’, in other words: medicinal.” (link: Has she succeeded in moving beyond a “medicinal” film?

Me: Without further commentary – our discussion begins:

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At the end of the film Michael Clayton, just after George Clooney‘s Michael Clayton character has gotten Tilda Swinton‘s character to make a statement, with the police eavesdropping, that would get her and her boss played by Ken Howard, sent to prison, Clayton leaves the building. Upon hitting the street, he hails a taxi cab. He climbs in, shuts the door and says nothing. We then get this exchange:

Taxi Driver: So what are we doing?

Michael Clayton (peeling off some bills and handing them to the unseen driver): Give me $50 worth. Just Drive….

Just Drive. Haven’t we heard that so many times before? We’ve had films about taxi drivers, and race car drivers. We’ve had actors whom we may not have been familiar with at the time of the film, who went on to become well known actors. Case in point – Robert Duvall as the cabbie who drove Steve McQueen‘s Detective Frank Bullitt around back in 1968. We’ve had car thieves like Nicholas Cage in Gone in 60 Seconds, and we’ve had untold, unnamed, and uncountable faceless wheel men who drove the getaway cars in a zillion criminal ventures that happened on screen. We’ve had a film about a chauffeur (Morgan Freeman in Driving Miss Daisy). To make a long story short – we’ve had men, and women, driving something on screen, since there were films and since motorized vehicles like cars, boats, or even planes and trains started to show up in the movies.

Now we have a film called Drive. Ryan Gosling has the role of  the Driver. We never do get his actual name. He does stunt driving for the movies, works as a mechanic, and on the side he drives getaway cars in heists. He has no back-story. We know nothing about him other than that he’s cool, calm, and studies maps of LA every day, the same way we read a newspaper on a regular basis.

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