The Artist Named Best Film By the NYFCC

The New York Film Critics Circle has spoken. They’ve named The Artist by Director Michel Hazanavicus as Best Film of the year. Now I’ve not seen the film, and I’m sure that most people haven’t seen it as at this time,  it is playing only in about six theaters in the whole country. So I can’t really have anything to say about the merits or lack of merits for The Artist.

But I am saying that the ‘award’ seems a bit early, or VERY early. In fact they were in such a rush to be the first to announce that their schedule called for the announcement  to be made even before the David Fincher version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo had been made available to the critics.

Once the available date was made known, the NY Film Critics Circle decided to wait, and hold their pub date of the announcements up one day. I can imagine the rush of hurried phone calls. “Manohla? Hi, Its Lou. get your tail over to the Z, they’re showing Fincher’s Dragon Tattoo there this morning. Then get online and submit your vote. The NYFCC has to make the first announcement so we must have your vote today. Thanks. Oh yeah, it’s each one call one, so give Scotty a call will you? Thanks.

Yeah. One and done. So what if the rest of us haven’t seen The Artist? So what if we haven’t seen Streep as Thatcher in the bio-film, The Iron Lady. So what if Jennifer Chastain won for Best Supporting Actress for her trio – Tree of Life, The Help, and Take Shelter– does this mean that her work in The Debt doesn’t count?

Oh maybe it was because The Debt was made in 2010? Are we to ignore the fact that The Debt’s release date was August 31st, 2011. What are the rules anyway?

Seems like a rush to judgment to me. Just sayin’.

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Overheard 2 or When Is a Sequel not a Sequel

Let’s start with the title Overheard 2. Now wouldn’t this title alone lead you to believe that this film would, should, or could be a sequel to Overheard which I reviewed here. Then add in the following:

Same Three Lead Actors – Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu

Same Directors – Alan Mak and Felix Chong

Same Screenplay Authors – Alan Mak and Felix Chong

Same Producer – Derek Yee

Same Underlying Themes – Covert Electronic surveillance and Insider Trading

I’m not crazy, am I? Every indication would lead us to believe that Overheard 2 was a sequel to Overheard. Only it isn’t. Which brings us to the question: Is this shameless marketing?

In China, there is a state agency which we shall label SARFT. Yes, that is an acronym, and sorry, but no – I didn’t make up the acronym. This agency aka State Agency for Radio, Film, and Television are the folks that decide what is or isn’t acceptable content for the few billion Chinese people. They also oversee the Internet as it pertains to content and access within China.

Now I have already told you that I wasn’t able to access my blog while in Yangshuo in China earlier this month. Now you and I, and possibly a good number of the few billion Chinese people, will find a small barrier/speed bump created by SARFT for Overheard 2.

Lau Ching Wan as stock trader Manson Law

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The Descendants

I always wanted to go to Hawaii but somehow never managed to do so. Until today. While the truth is that I didn’t actually board a plane, cross the skies above the USA, and then fly about halfway across the Pacific Ocean; instead I went to see the new George Clooney film called The Descendants which is set in Hawaii.

Just to set the record straight, this wasn’t the Hawaii that you see in the travel videos, or the brochures, or the travel magazines. Well it was – but not the way you expect. You see The Descendants isn’t about vacationing in Paradise. It is about living in Paradise, or as Clooney’s character Matt King says at the end of his introductory voice-over in the film:

Paradise? Paradise can go fuck itself.

Clooney’s Matt King is a practicing attorney in Ohau – where there are traffic jams on the highway, crime, cloudy days with torrential rains, and life with all of its issues, problems, and confounding situations with all the warts showing – just like we have everywhere here in mainland USA.

Matt King has been dealt some rather difficult issues – his wife has just been horrifically injured in a boating accident and lies comatose in the hospital, he has to care for his two daughters, aged 10 and 17, and he hasn’t a clue on how to go about that, and finally he is the sole trustee for a trust that owns 25,000 prime acres in Kauai, and his family wants to sell it. He’s still on the fence about that.

A son of the King family, many generations back, married a woman that you might call the descendant of Hawaiian royalty, namely King Kamehameha. She was something like a grand niece. Long story – short version, The King family through a trust, now owns the rights to this huge parcel of undeveloped and pristine land that is worth millions.

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Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Hugo, the brand new Martin Scorsese film, which is indeed a Thanksgiving Holiday treat, had me at the very first image from the trailer. I knew I would absolutely attend the very first show at my AMC multiplex in Sarasota just from that image.

Unlike the trailer, it isn’t the first image of the film, but starting with it, Marty gave us a tremendous tracking shot from high above the city before the camera swooped down into the station and onto a platform and wove its way through the throngs of passengers. That’s just for starters.

Actually, the pre-credits sequence ran for about 10 minutes. Hugo is the film adaption of the prize-winning children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

This was no ordinary book. Written by Brian Selznick, the book walked off with the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2008. This award has been given out for excellence in Children’s Books continuously since 1938 and as such, is the equal to an Oscar in its own field.

Martin Scorsese bought the screen rights to the book in 2007. Now The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a fine title for a book, but Scorsese has called the film Hugo. Amazon.com described the book with the following:

Orphan, clock keeper, and thief, Hugo lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station, where his survival depends on secrets and anonymity. But when his world suddenly interlocked with an eccentric, bookish girl and a bitter old man who runs a toy booth in the station, Hugo’s undercover life, and his most precious secret, are put in jeopardy. A cryptic drawing, a treasured notebook, a stolen key, a mechanical man, and a hidden message from Hugo’s dead father form the backbone of this intricate, tender, and spellbinding mystery.

As for the film, everything that you just read about the book is in the film. But knowing what the story is about isn’t nearly enough info to tell you how watching this film was simply a magical experience. Now on top of the good story, and the fabulous Scorsese touch – you must also add in the state of the art 3D.

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Happy Thanksgiving 2011

As I’ve done over the past few Thanksgivings, I am happy to present a look at some excellent art. Now in the image to the right, Norman Rockwell gives us a look at his famous Thanksgiving meal. This painting was created way back in 1943. That’s nearly 70 years ago. Yet it seems as though this painting is even more beloved now than it was back then – but I’m guessing about that. I only know that I loved it when I first saw it – and still do. Actually – this is encore showing on my site of the painting.

Rockwell died a little more than 33 years ago in 1978 but this image has long been associated with the American holiday, a day when we can remember back to our younger days, and a day when we can give thanks to all of those who came before us and pushed their way across this country when the way west was uncharted, as well as unknown, or those who came even before the settlers of what would become our western states. Those folks would be the Pilgrims.

A newer work of art, albeit from a period that even predates the Rockwell, but one that is similar in nature and theme is a Thanksgiving Dinner memorialized by artist Alfredo Rodriguez. Rodriguez’s style is classic realism and his art is rich in details, so much so, that any of his works are immediately identifiable as his, and unforgettable.

Rodriguez’s Thanksgiving Dinner (above) lacks the background depth that we usually associate with his works. But as it can bring up thoughts of Thanksgiving holidays with a large family gathered at a table, we can just imagine our own holiday dinners, or we can feel the nostalgia of knowing that all across the country today, and all across the country going back a few hundred or more years – similar scenes were to be found in millions of homes.

This year, I was fortunate enough to find an advertisement in the November/December issue of Art of the West magazine. The painting below was the focus of the ad for the artist . The painting is called Fishin’ at the Bridge, and it was created by Robert Duncan, whose gorgeous paintings are at once all about families, nature, and of gentler times. This advertisement led me to look up the artist on Google.

Robert Duncan, on his website has said,

 “I decided years ago to paint the things that I cared most about. That decision has brought me a lot of joy and satisfaction and I’m especially grateful that my family has been such an important part of all of this.

I grew up in the suburbs, but every chance I got, I would sneak out to nearby fields to watch the birds or play in the creek, and the summers I spent on my granddad’s ranch really taught me how much we all need Nature in our lives. But change is all around us. The family farm is disappearing at an alarming rate. Development and sprawl cover fertile fields by the minute. I want my grandchildren to be able to walk through a field and hear a meadowlark call. We don’t all have to live on a farm, but to pass by and see the cows grazing or just to know that there are wild places being kept wild makes our lives better. In a way, my paintings are a call to think about the things that have touched our lives and hope that we might all be willing to do our part to save these things for future generations.”

So to honor Thanksgiving 2011, have a look at the video below which displays the glorious art of Mr. Duncan.. Thanks to Mr. Duncan for his brilliant, wonderful, and nostalgic art, which is presented via a video accompanied by the classic and nostalgic music of Sunshine on My Shoulder  co-written and recorded by John Denver. The song was released as a single in 1973. The second video, also featuring Mr. Duncan’s art is the song, Grandpa, Tell Me About the Good Old Days, recorded and sung by The Judds, and written by Jamie O’Hara in 1986.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

Not Quite the Nook of Time

I’m not one to keep up with trends or gadgets. I’ve still got a ‘dumb’ phone meaning a mobile or cell phone that provides roaming and minutes and 60 days for $15 a month. Thank you Net10. But for whatever reason, the tablets intrigued me. Now I’d love to have a iPad, but so far I have resisted and will continue to resist because of the cost. But when I started seeing the write ups in the paper about the tablets like Kindles, and the Nooks – I got even more interested.

Twelve days ago, I was coming back to Hong Kong Island from Kowloon via the Star Ferry, and after disembarking from the ferry, the elevated walkway towards the MTR station allowed me to see into the Apple Store in the IFC Tower. Seemed like a few hundred people were standing in line to buy the newest iPhone. But after I spent an hour or so in the Apple Store the next day the idea of a tablet was now firmly embedded upstairs with the Boss aka – my brain.

But, as I said, I’m not gadget crazy, I don’t need new toys all the time, I’m home most of the time, and I already have a Desktop PC and a Notebook PC. So a tablet is actually not something I needed nor did it fit the ‘must have’ category. Despite that, yesterday I intentionally drove over to the Barnes & Noble store on US-41 in Sarasota. I handled the gizmo known as the Nook Tablet, tried it out, asked a dozen or more questions. This brand new Nook Tablet is Barnes & Noble’s answer to the Amazon Kindle Fire, and is also a smaller and less expensive competitor for the Apple iPad.

The Nook is the next step up from B&N’s previous flagship tablet, the Nook Color which was an upgrade to their first tablet, the Nook E-Reader. The new tablet is retailing for $249 in the states or $224 if you are a Barnes & Noble member. It’s light in your hands, has a beautiful crystal clear image. You can read books, newspapers, watch movies, and even browse the web on the tablet. With the store’s floor sample, I connected to this, my own blog, and the web browser on the machine loaded it quite quickly. Great.

So after making the B&N rep work for a while, I said I’ll take it and what else do I need with it? Well it comes with a USB cable, and a plug adapter so you can charge the battery initially, and then when you need to do so. But the rep suggested a cover/case to keep it dry or free from the elements, and he also suggested the warranty/protection plan which allows you a FREE replacement Nook in case you drop yours or somehow break it.

Okay, the Nook was at $249 ($225 as a member), the case/cover was $30, the protection plan was $50, and the B&N Membership which gives you reduced prices on both goods and shipping was another $25, plus taxes on all of the above. Ka-ching: $350.22 – a nice credit to Barnes & Noble and a much bigger debit to my Mastercard account than I expected when I left the apartment.

I got it home, fired it up (there’s a simple On-Off button on the left side), and plugged in the charger. There’s not much at all in the way of printed instructions but it does come with an effective how-to video. Soon after I synched the Tablet to my router, registered the product, created my on-line B&N account,  and was all set.

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Life Without Principle – A New Hong Kong Movie

What do a stock broker, actually a bank rep who handles investments for clients, a homicide detective, and a low-level triad enforcer have in common? This is the question that famed Hong Kong film director Johnny To puts before us in his brand new film, Life Without Principle.

Johnny To has received world-wide acclaim  for his stylish and hard-hitting films in the cops and crooks genre but he doesn’t limit himself to just those. In fact, I’ve reviewed a couple of his more recent films – Vengeance which had a relatively low police presence, and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart which was basically a romance. Besides those, I have personally seen close to a dozen of his older films.  That was one of the plusses of living in Manhattan – my proximity to the NY Chinatown where I could easily buy Hong Kong films on DVD. This time I caught his new film, which opened about a month ago on the 20th of October, at a real movie house – the UA Cinema in Taikoo, Hong Kong.

Okay, okay – enough off topic chatter. Let’s get back to the film. The first of the three main characters that we meet is the cop. Richie Jen (below) plays Inspector Cheung. As we first lay eyes on him, he is working a case that he caught. He’s on-site of a fresh murder. One old timer, a pensioner, has murdered another. This event doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but the murderer and the Inspector will cross paths again.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Inspector Cheung’s wife, played by Myolie Wu, is hot to buy an apartment. He thinks they need to discuss it further. But she is vulnerable to the real estate broker’s sale pitch (and not so subtle pressure tactics) about how time is of the essence, and that other buyers are preparing offers. So Cheung and Mrs are looking at getting a hefty mortgage.

Inspector Cheung and Mrs Cheung

Lau Ching Wan (below) plays the triad guy known as Panther. He’s a guy in his 40’s and he’s well known, and respected in the triad world. He serves as a bagman, he sets up dinners, he’s a go-fer, and above everything else he believes in loyalty. Panther will run around trying to raise bail money when that’s needed for one of his associates.He’s a presence in the Hong Kong triad circles, and everyone in his triad is his ‘sworn brother’.

Today, he’s going to need a ton of money and he’ll need to get it fast because one of his triad buddies has been running an internet investment house, and the market is turning, and his buddy’s client has threatened him with mayhem or worse.

Denise Ho plays Teresa, the bank rep here. When we first meet her, she’s attending a sales meeting. She’s not doing well (actually she has the least amount of sales than anyone else on the team), and her boss wants her to amp up her sales figures, or else … she’ll be given the dreaded see-me-after-work notification; a sure sign that one is being fired. So she’s got to get her ass in gear and bring in mucho investment dollars.

Denise Ho as Teresa

So she starts cold calling new people, then when that doesn’t bring in any results beyond her getting some telephonic abuse, she starts contacting her existing clients. This is when the movie both slows down and accelerates at the same time. The first meaningful client is an old lady who isn’t investment savvy at all. Teresa runs her client’s profile and a report  details that she’s definitely a client that should be put only into low risk securities. But this lady is complaining about bank fees, low interest rates, and how she’s struggling on her fixed retirement income. She says she’s willing to take a risk.

Took the bait, hooked, and ready to invest

Teresa recommends an investment fund which is high return/high risk. It is called BRIC – because it invests in Real Estate Mortgages in such countries as Brazil, India, etc. Director To spends a lot of time with this segment – it is almost agonizingly slow. Teresa has to play a video for her client about this investment vehicle, then she has to coach her about what to say because they will need to make a recorded conversation where the client will state flatly that she understands the risk and is very willing to take such a risk. But the old lady is bewildered to a degree and gets her responses confused, so they have to stop and then re-start the recording many, many times.

The second client is Inspector Cheung’s wife. She comes in for a mortgage.

The third client is a loan-shark. Teresa tries to peddle the BRIC to him, but he’s far too savvy. He only uses the bank to keep his money in, and he can calculate the bank fees in his head. When Teresa says he should buy $20 million of the BRIC and pay the bank 2% as a transaction fee – he immediately says, What, and give the bank a 40K fee?  So he’s not about to make a big investment through Denise. He shows her and us how he does far better by means of his loan shark business. He says something along the lines of my money is working for me not for the bank. He actually turns Teresa’s sales pitch inside out and asks her to call if she wants to make money or needs money. That day, he’s come in to withdraw 10 Million HK dollars which he is going to lend out, so while the money is being prepared he chats with Teresa.

The money is brought to her office. While they’re putting it into a big bag, he gets a call. He’s got to run off to see his client. He’s going to take only 5 million with him. He wants the other five million to be put back into the account. Teresa says, you’ll need to fill out a deposit slip. He says, No time, I’ll do it next time. Just hold the money for me. So Teresa has the five million on her desk – she puts it into a cabinet and locks it.

Meanwhile things are in motion both locally, globally, as well as specifically in the bank’s parking garage. Locally Panther’s friend needs a quick influx of cash – so Panther sets off to meet the loan shark.

But there is a snatch and grab in the bank’s garage about to happen – with the loan shark as the target.

Also on this very day we have news of the possibility of a default in Greece, which could trigger a collapse of the Euro, and on stock exchanges all over the world, things will become chaotic.

The beauty of all of this is that Johnny To is able to tie all of this together – The Cheung’s, the loan shark, Panther, Teresa, the old lady in the high risk investment vehicle, a tumbling market, and that 10 million withdrawal, half in Teresa’s  cabinet and half in the loan-shark’s bag.

Johnny To really delivers with this film. You do have sit through some lengthy scenes that will serve two purposes – one to set up the specific characters’ motivations, and 2) to  create and establish that Hong Kongers – from the very wealthy to the old lady living on a fixed income – are all greedy. Everyone wants money, and whether it be for gambling on horse racing, betting on sports, or running an illegal boiler-room financial operation, loan sharking, armed robbery, kick-backs up the line to the triad bosses, or even something as mundane cosmetics, phones, and clothing accessories, or as normal as being a financial rep for a bank – the film shows us that everyone is money-mad.

But for every winning bet there is a losing bet. Sometimes the people who set up long positions in their security holdings make money, and sometimes they lose money. Ditto for the short sellers. Honest cops stay where they are in a struggle, and crooks steal out of greed.

I really liked this drama. In one sense the film starts then you must endure a slowing of the pace all of which is quite deliberate. But then you are going to receive a terrific payoff in terms of viewing pleasure when To’s magic become evident. His pacing, editing, even the music score are just wonderful in this film. Just looking at his shot composition is often breathtaking. This is a brand new film so you will likely have to wait for the DVD or Netflix to get it. But, trust me, it will be worth your time. Of course, maybe you are already in Hong Kong – in which case, go see it right now.

Breathing Water – A “Poke” Rafferty Thriller

As best selling novelist Timothy Hallinan recently wrote in his blog, never begin a blog topic with “I”. More about Tim to follow – read on. Okay – I had a visitor last night. About 9:00 PM I decided to do a bit of food shopping. Off I went to the nearby Publix – they stay open until 9:30 PM most weekday nights, with bonus open time expanded to 10:00 PM on the weekend. When I came back, I noticed a small snake coiled up in my entrance way. Yeah – a snake!

It wasn’t much of a snake. Maybe 3 to 3 1/4 inches in length and not too well filled out. He could safely hide in an un-mowed lawn. He was sitting on the tiles, possibly not too pleased about the chilled air circulating through the apartment. The thermostat called for a chilly sixty-eight degrees. I found my trusted air canister thing-y; the one you use to blow the dust, small crumbs, hairs, and what-not out of the crevices of a computer keyboard. A few blasts of this arctic-like air and he was out the door and back in no man’s land otherwise known as the breezeway. Good night and good riddance to you sir I called out as I closed the door. After all, he was the epitome of the worst kind of unexpected events – the dreaded pop-in.

Speaking of snakes, over the last 8 or 9 weeks I have been absorbing every word written by Timothy Hallinan in his Poke Rafferty series of books. I think I discovered these books by searching on Amazon.com for mystery or thrillers set in exotic locations in their book section. The Poke Rafferty series (there have been four books published so far) are all set mainly in Bangkok, Thailand. Now I’ve been to Thailand four times and have a feel for the city of Bangkok as well as the resort island of Phuket. Not once while I was in country did I have any kind of a run-in, or pop-in, with a snake.

But in Hallinan’s 3rd book in the series, Breathing Water, a de-fanged cobra is found in Poke Rafferty’s 8-year old daughter’s bed. Now the Rafferty apartment is on the 4th or 5th floor of a Bangkok apartment building, so it was a safe bet that while said snake may have indeed arrived by means of the building’s elevator, we can be sure it wasn’t under its own power. The snake had been placed there, by unknown parties, as an indisputable warning to Poke to cease and desist.

So who is Philip “Poke” Rafferty anyway? In the series, his background is a tad muddled or mysterious, but as the series opens we find him in Bangkok. He’s already authored two rough-travel books, the short name of both is Looking for Trouble. These are the kind of books that are considered off-beat, and the kind that would appeal to those who travel with back-backs instead of luggage, those who stay in hostels rather than internationally known hotel chains, and those who dine daily on food made and sold on the street.

Poke’s Dad was an American and his Mom a Filipino woman. So Poke has a look about him that more than hints at Asian-ness, and simultaneously tells the Bangkok locals that Poke is a farang or foreigner. But Bangkok had gotten a hold of him, and a few years have gone by. His third book is still being worked on. Poke has acquired a significant other, and there’s a former street urchin (the previously mentioned 8 year old girl) that Poke wants to adopt. In short, they are a family.

Breathing Water opens with a high stakes poker game. We don’t know it initially, but the game is a kind of sting operation. Poke’s friend  Arhit, is one of the few Bangkok cops who are honest, is also playing in the game. Also at the table is Khun Pan who was once a green kid in Bangkok who came from an upcountry village where electricity and plumbing were on everyone’s wish list. But now Pan is a self-made and ostentatiously showy billionaire. In short – once a mob goon now a mob boss. He worked his way up by making a lot of smart deals, and a lot of forceful deals, that people could not just say no to. He made friends, or established connections with some very big and powerful men in Bangkok.

Now if you’ve read the papers over the last three or four years, you know that the real-life world of Thailand politics has been quite unstable. Pan has been noticed by the Bangkok establishment, and the Bangkok underworld, and the hoi-polloi, as more than just an up-and-coming possible player in the political arena.

There’s a group that wants to use him as puppet Prime Minister. And this group could be considered criminal either on the surface or just below the surface. But Pan is adored and idolized by the poor because he gives to charities, puts up hospitals and schools, and the collective working man consider him a peer, one of their own. The various power groups, movers and shakers, and the political cognoscenti behind the scenes, correctly reason that this very substantial group of the country’s population could deliver such a large block of votes, that any election would be a walk-over, a mere formality.

But there’s another group with a contrary view, and that would be Bangkok’s wealthy and conservative establishment. They’ve been in power for so long. They are the rich and the connected. They don’t want a sea-change at the top of political establishment – they want things to stay just the way they are. The poor stay poor and the rich get richer. To them, Pan would be an anathema and they would not want Pan in office at any level under any circumstances.

Simultaneously two ideas are floated – One that Poke Rafferty could write a biography of Khun Pan that would help sweep him into power. The other idea was that Rafferty was a very smart guy, and that he could write a biography of Pan that would ruin his political chances. Meaning that Pan had some deep dark secrets that could never be brought out in the light of day and that Rafferty would be able to uncover them and they’d get published. which would be the end of Pan’s career as a politician.

So at the outset Rafferty is given a handsome advance, and told that he must write the book, and at the same time he is absolutely threatened that not only would he lose his life if he wrote the book, but before that they’d take care of his wife Rose, and the little girl Miaow as well in a way that no man would want for his family.

Wow, what a dilemma – one group insisting that he write the book, along with the severe threats of death if he didn’t, and the other side demanding, and threatening everything he loved and cherished, if he did write the book.

There’s your set up. You’ve got exotic Bangkok as your setting with a cast of gangsters, confidential informants, information peddlers or middle men that work both sides, news reporters, an army of street kids, cops both crooked and honest, and a bevy of bar girls who serve drinks, dance, and prostitute themselves nightly in the seedy Patpong bars and clubs that are magnets for men from all over the world.

Poke himself is a one of a kind. He’s tough, he’s fearless, and his bravado often works against him as he’s the type of guy who speaks first, usually a wisecrack, then thinks second. Despite his singularity in the Bangkok setting, you could easily compare him to two of author Nelson DeMille‘s best loved protagonists – former NYC Police Detective John Corey who has appeared in five DeMille novels – the most recent of which was The Lion published in hardcover in June of 2010. The other DeMille character that Poke will remind you of, is from the DeMille novels Gold Coast and The Gate House. That would be lawyer John Sutter.

I’ve got two more character references – both of which were performed by actor Bruce Willis. His Die-Hard character noted for his wisecracking – New York cop John McClane is the first. The other was from Willis’s stint on a TV Series called Moonlighting. In this popular series which ran in the early 80’s, Willis played David Addison, who ran a private detective agency opposite Cybill Shepherd who owned the agency. The Addison character could be described as a very charming loudmouth.

Now Poke Rafferty is a bit of all of those characters only without the muscle. But he’s quite clever and he’s aces up when it comes to figuring things out. He’s not much on the physical side and more often than not he has to take a beating of sorts. But he proves over and over that brains are better than brawn.

As for Timothy Hallinan’s writing: His Rafferty thrillers are not only best sellers but he is getting the best reviews of his life. Me? I’m a big, BIG fan of the Poke Rafferty novels and am currently engrossed in the most recent Rafferty novel, and the 4th one that I’ve read, The Queen of Patpong. And I’m loving it.

For an excellent read – head over to your public library, or to your local book store,  and see if you can pick up the Poke Rafferty novels. You’ll be glad you did. The novels titles (listed in the order of publication) are:

A Nail Through the Heart

The Fourth Watcher

Breathing Water

and The Queen of Patpong

If you can’t locate any of these books, don’t get angry. Instead, please use the Thai expression Mai Pen Rai – which means, No worries or No problem. You can always order the books on line or download the e-book versions.

One Night We Are Dining in Kowloon – Then Soon After We Are Watching Cops and Drug Lords in a Fight to the Death in Rio

It’s Wednesday. the 16th, and here I am about to review a film called Elite Squad which is set in the favelas and mean streets of Rio de Janeiro in faraway Brazil. A week ago, last Tuesday night I was far away from my home in Sarasota, Florida. That Tuesday was my last night, half away around the world, in Hong Kong.

I had planned a dinner with my friends Yu Ling, a technical designer of children’s clothing, now working in Mongkok, a section of Hong Kong, and Jeannette, an architectural project manager now working in Causeway Bay, another Hong Kong neighborhood.

Nathan Road and Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon

After a few phone calls, the restaurant as well as the place and time to meet were set. It seems like Hong Kong is wired everywhere. Your cell phones work even three levels down in MTR stations and trains. When you ride these trains it is hard to make eye contact with anyone because either they’re on the phone talking and are oblivious to you, or playing a game on the phone, or web-surfing on their smart phones. I met Jeannette first on the corner of Nathan Road and Peking Road in Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon which is across the harbor from Hong Kong Island. That happened rather easily because I called her, on my decidedly plain vanilla, borrowed Motorola and said, “Jeannette where are you?”  I’m standing right under the Sun Flower sign.” Bingo, she spotted me. She said she had to run off to pick up some tickets and would meet us at the restaurant. Two minutes later, I met Yu Ling on the opposite corner.

Ashley Road

Off we went – traveling west on Peking Road. Ashley Road is the 3rd street west of Nathan Road – and if I hadn’t met Yu Ling right then, she would have had to find the restaurant on her own. I had given her instructions, It’s either the 2nd or 3rd street down from Nathan Road. Turn right when you see the Omega Watch sign right at the corner”. We headed up the block and soon enough were seated in Gaylord, an Indian Restaurant at 1/F 23/25 Ashley Road. In Hong Kong, when giving an address, you can, and should give the floor number as well, as most HK restaurants are not at street level. 

 We were set up in a large booth, a semi-circle big enough to seat 3 very comfortably, or five less  comfortably. That’s it – the 2nd booth on the right of the picture to the right. Jeannette showed up shortly and after a great dinner consisting of Vegetable Samosas, Chicken Korma, Lamb Madras, and Chicken Biryani, plus one order of naan bread and one order of paratha bread, plus six Kingfisher Beers, we said our goodbyes. ‘Joi gin‘ means see you in Cantonese. I had a 4:50 AM wakeup call for the next morning. I was bound for my return flights home from HK to New York with Cathay Pacific, then from JFK airport onto Atlanta with Delta, and then change for a different plane for my flight into Sarasota.

Now that I’m back home, I’ve repopulated my Netflix queue, and Elite Squad arrived today. Released in 2007, Elite Squad, or as it was called in Brazil, Tropa de Elite, is about the Rio slums or favelas, and an elite squad of tactical police called BOPE, whose mission is not so much law enforcement as it is the eradication of the drug lords that rule the favelas.

This is not a film for the sensitive or the faint-hearted. From the extreme fire-fights in the streets of the favelas, to the brutal interrogation methods employed by the BOPE officers, to the downright excessive boot camp training of the BOPE candidates in which it is a good year if three out the 25 make the cut – the intensity level of this film starts at strong, and soon goes through the roof with hardly any down time at all.

The main character is Captain Nascimento played by Wagner Moura (above). He’s married, with a kid on the way, and he is one mean-ass cop. He’s doing his best and his wife wants him out of BOPE and into a less demanding and less dangerous line of work. Unfortunately, his daily work is more dangerous than almost any other because by the time BOPE is called in – things have already spun out of control.

Matias and Neto (l to r)

He’s got two guys who are already cops but they’re trying to get into BOPE. Neto played by Caio Junqueiro (Above right) has been assigned to supervise the motor pool after a disastrous night on the streets when his quick trigger finger got another cop or two killed by the drug crew. Only the motor pool is out of funds. One car is cannibalized so another might run, and headquarters hasn’t any money for him. So he has to steal a payoff to get some cash to fix the cars. You won’t believe who the money that he intercepts is intended for.

Matias and Maria

Matias played by Andre Ramiro  is a cop and is also trying to become a lawyer. He joins a group of students in a favela, and his girl friend Maria (Fernanda Machado) is living in the same neighborhood as one of the most brutal of the drug lords, Baiano. Matias hasn’t told her that he is also a cop. Once the secret is out – people will start dying – and in ways almost too brutal to describe.

Fabio Lago as Baiano

Baiano's handiwork - she got a bullet to the head, he got doused in gasoline while encased in automobile tires, then he was torched

Rocinha favela up close

Both Neto and Matias make the cut for entrance into BOPE. So there’s your set up. Three cops and a drug lord and his minions of street based retailers of drugs, look-outs, and the gunmen that back them up. Directed by Jose Padilha, the film is dense, claustrophobic, as well as noisy. There’s a lot of action at night, and the dialogues overlap, plus there is a grainy effect at night. Those things along with the jittery hand-held cameras that are utilized during the raids and ensuing fire-fights make the film a bit of work for the viewer.

That's Rocinha on the far left and center as seen from Ipanema Beach -The Dos Hermanos (Two Brothers) Mountain overlooks the setting.

But the payoff comes in the tension, the pressure, and the excitement. While some of the police were corrupt and in the pockets of Baiano and his ilk, and the residents of the favelas were living in an area where desperation and danger lurked around every corner created there by poverty, the murderous drug business, and the firefights with the BOPE . Director Padilha has left the beauty of the Copacabana and Ipanema beaches out of the film. We see Sugar Loaf Mountain only for a brief instant and we don’t see Christ the Redeemer standing tall above Rio from his perch atop Corcovado at all. The film isn’t about Rio’s highlights – instead it is about the places where visitors are unlikely, or rather shouldn’t, go to. This place is so dangerous, that mean streets isn’t even close to being an accurate description.

There was a bit of controversy about this film. Many people felt that the BOPE tactics were as criminal as the activities of those who were their targets. Others said that the film sort of made those BOPE officers heroic while Nascimento was just as good at killing as Baiano and that was hardly heroic. You’ll have to see the film yourself in order to decide what is the right answer to that question.

That is, if you have time between struggling with the decision to buy either the Kindle Fire from Amazon.com or the Nook Tablet from Barnes & Noble as a Christmas gift for yourself or your significant other. Black Friday is approaching rapidly.