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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Gunshy - A Film Review


               Gunshy is a 1998 noir/crime drama film directed by Jeff Celentano and written by Larry Gross. It stars William Petersen, Diane Lane, and Michael Wincott. I love this film, it’s a great little sleeper film. It is about a failed journalist who gets caught up in the crime underworld of Irish and Italian gangsters. It’s got this cool, gritty vibe to it, set in Atlantic City, New Jersey, about ordinary people caught up in small-time gangster life.

                Petersen plays Jake, a journalist who just got fired from his journalism job and found his woman cheating on him. Petersen is great at playing damaged, rough types who seem on the brink of losing their mind and becoming the villain (Manhunter, To Live and Die in L.A.). Jake is saved by a beatdown by Frankie (Michael Wincott), a hired heavy for an Irish gangster named Pops. Frankie is hired to shake down and intimidate people who owe his boss money, and uses his raspy voice and love of violence to a scary effect. Frankie takes Jake home to be bandaged up by his nurse wife Melissa (Diane Lane). There, Jake immediately falls for Melissa, and is hatching a plan to steal her away from Frankie, which she refuses over and over again.

                Frankie is intrigued by Jake being able to withstand pain and grit through life, as well as his intellectual knowledge of books. So he makes a deal with Jake. Jake will teach him about books (most notably, Moby Dick, as the themes of the book will come to reflect the themes of the film), and Frankie will give him a job in his crew and give him street smarts. Jake reluctantly agrees, and is often witness to Frankie’s night and day personality. When being around Jake and Melissa, he is calm, quiet, likable, and friendly. But when dealing with someone who owes his boss money, he is cold, violent, ruthless, and dangerous. Jake asks Frankie if he enjoys doing what he does. Frankie says, “I like hurting people who deserve to get hurt.”

                Wincott is known for playing a villain in films like The Crow and The Three Musketeers, and his raspy voice, sinewy frame, and long dark hair made him perfect as an antagonist. In this role, he isn’t a villain, but not necessarily a good guy, either. He is a man who has street smarts but not book smarts, and feels he owes his life to the mob because they saved him when he was a youth, so that he can never leave, out of fear of betraying Pops, his father figure. Wincott is great as Frankie, as a thug with a conscience, and infuses him with sympathy even when he is being absolutely ruthless towards people who owe money to his boss.

                Jake and Melissa share a warm connection, like two working-class stiffs in love, and it isn’t long before they are sleeping together. It seems like a really bad choice, given that Frankie is attracted to violence, and would hurt or kill Jake if he found out about this. Frankie doesn’t have any real friends, and the betrayal would break his heart.

                As Melissa, Diane Lane is excellent in this film, it is an underrated role for her. She excels at playing tough, damaged, working-class women who have been through tough times in life and preserved. It is a combination of her stunning looks, her deep voice, and her maturity in roles that creates this fantastic combination. Other actresses like Maria Bello, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Ashley Judd also share this talent as well.

                The film progresses into a finale that will test Frankie’s resolve to keep his conscience clean in his line of work, as well as Jake’s ability to keep a secret (not only the cheating one) that would devastate his relationship with Frankie if found out. The film’s finale with a big job is a bit underwhelming, but the character development and resolution is thrilling and well-executed dramatically.

                I recommend the film if you are interested in noir dramas and B-level thrillers. It is a hidden gem to be appreciated and enjoyed.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Daredevil - A TV Review

I watched the whole Daredevil series this weekend. It is fantastic. I was really into its world, and I didn't know how dark this story would get. The acting is amazing, the fight scenes are excellent, and the pacing and camera work is fluid and impeccable. The show creators, led by Drew Goddard, definitely took a lot of care and respect for the original work. I loved how epic it was for a TV series on Netflix, there was this gravity to it that made everything feel heavy. The music was reminiscent of The Dark Knight, so I liked that allusion.
Karen was one of my favorites on the show. I loved how much she grew throughout the series, from a scared victim who became a survivor investigating corruption and facing a lot of fears. She was a whistleblower who wouldn't take bribes or be intimidated by businessmen or gangster types. She stuck to her convictions, even when there was a huge risk to herself or the people she cared about. She wasn't a damsel or the love interest, as I had feared at the beginning. I was really happy to see that she was one of the biggest heroes of this show, and was just a great character, with a superb portrayal by Deborah Ann Woll.
Matt Murdock was just a great character, and brilliantly portrayed by Charlie Cox. I loved that he was portrayed as being like a real, regular person, albeit having heightened senses. Despite that he's a great fighter and has his hearing advantages, he gets hurt a lot throughout the show, and the show doesn't shy away from showing how mortal he is. He fights while injured a few times, and it isn't a fantasy where the hero goes through mortal danger and jumps back up. Nope, he visibly winces in pain a lot and clutching his broken and bruised parts while fighting, and gets tired and worn out. I loved that touch of realism to him, breaking out of cliches where the hero can survive a fall or going through glass and never gets hurt. Besides that, he was a great friend to Foggy and Karen, they all had really sweet chemistry together. And I loved the scenes with his dad. They had this warmth to their moments together that nearly made me tear up.
Foggy was a sweet and funny guy, and Elden Henson's portrayal of him was way above Jon Favreau's from the movie version. I knew of Henson as a teen actor from the 90's, usually cast as a bully, a lunkhead, or a gentle giant (The Mighty Ducks, The Mighty, Idle Hands), but didn't think anything of him. He was excellent in this. He infused Foggy with humor, lightness, care, and as the show progressed deeper, more heartfelt seriousness. There is a vital episode between Matt and Foggy that was an fantastic showcase for Henson's talent as an actor, I was really amazed by him.
For the villains, Wesley, who was Fisk's main henchman, was my favorite. He had this quiet and calm demeanor that made him more intimidating than the brutish Russian brothers or Fisk throwing fits and attacking people. Wesley reminded me of Cillian Murphy's performance in Batman Begins, a quiet, studious-looking man who can hold absolute terror in his hands. Toby Leonard Moore was one of the standout talents on the show.
And Vincent D'Onofrio was fantastic as Fisk, and I really enjoyed how the show rounded his character out to show how he really believed he was saving the city through his methods. It is obvious that he is the villain (he works with organized crime and drug lords, and uses violence to get what he wants), but seeing depth and dimension given to the villains, as much as the heroes got, was refreshing to watch.
The cinematography on this show was glorious. I loved the slow pans and one-take shots, especially when the audience could anticipate that Daredevil was about to strike as the camera work did a continuous panning shot around the environment, with either minimal music or no music accompaniment. The camera was often pulled back for the fight scenes, with no shaky editing or jump cuts, just showcasing amazing fight choreography. The stunt double as Daredevil deserves some kind of award or recognition, he and Charlie Cox pretty much share the role, much like how Lucy Lawless and Zoe Bell shared the role of Xena back in the day.
I loved this show, and got really invested in the characters within just a few episodes. It is a genre show on Netflix, so it may not become as popular as Orange is the New Black or House of Cards, but I loved it. I didn't know anything about the character (and I'm not counting the bad movie), so seeing a faithful adaptation by people who love comic books was beautiful to watch.
This show is AWESOME.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sci-Fi/Fantasy Fandoms that I Am a Fan Of

I enjoy seeing that my friends on Facebook are sci-fi/fantasy fans, and are big fans of Doctor WhoGame of ThronesHarry PotterThe Lord of the RingsBuffy, and Star Trek. But I feel outside of it that I cannot get into most franchises, despite being a sci-fi fan. I can't get into the fandom of a specific world that has multiple movies, several books, or a whole fandom universe. I feel as if I'm not a "real" fan in that way, but I don't have enough interest to be a super-fan. So I tried to think of some exceptions that I do like:
  • The Terminator series. I am a fan of the first two movies, and the Sarah Connor Chronicles TV show. I am so-so on the third movie (not great, but moved the story along well and had a pretty epic finale), couldn't stand the fourth movie (just a waste of time to watch), and I don't care about the fifth movie. The story is fascinating to me because of the Judgement Day climax, and Sarah Connor is a complex and interesting character. I never found John very interesting, no matter what age. He was alright as a scrappy kid in the second movie, but I found him dull in adult portrayals.
The portrayals of the cyborgs has been hit or miss. The best ones in my opinion have been the original Terminator, the T-1000, the "good" Terminator in the second movie, and Cameron in the TV show. They all had something memorable about their characters, whether they were a stone-cold killer or a cyborg learning about human emotion. I found them captivating, and the later movies just has dull pretty faces as killers with nothing behind the eyes. Even Robert Patrick as the T-1000 was terrifying to me as a kid because his narrow face and lean frame made him look more robotic and colder. Plus, I like that some of the story's origin comes from a Harlan Ellison story, adapted for a 1960s Outer Limits episode, and James Cameron re-worked it for the original movie.
  • The Indiana Jones series. I am a fan of the first three movies, and the Young Indiana Jones TV show. I've seen parts of the fourth movie, and I pretend it doesn't exist. Harrison Ford is really charming and fascinating as Indiana Jones, and really makes him feel like a real person in the films. You can see him as a character who has seen and done a lot, with this lived-in look in his face and gait, and can completely believe that he's had a lot of history with the other characters.
I am fascinated by cultural history, and enjoy how the films combined real history with mythology, and made it all very believable. The TV show was a great way of teaching children about geography and history, weaving in real historical figures of the early 20th century to interact with a child/teenage Henry "Indiana" Jones. The worst part of that series was the horrible casting for the elderly Jones, who sounded like Grampa Simpson holding people hostage to listen to his long-winded stories from nearly a century ago. The movies and TV show were exciting and fun to watch, and were great tributes to old adventure serials from the 1930s while not feeling outdated or stale at all.
  • Firefly & Serenity. My other friends are into it, too, so I am not alone. I liked Buffy, but never was a huge fan of it. I liked Angel too, but also didn't get into watching it much. I like the rag-tag group on Firefly, of a group of outsiders, rebels, and stragglers who left the Alliance and are just managing to get by. The characters are complex and three-dimensional characters, and each of them contributes something special as a crew member. The show was pretty much magic in a bottle, and I don't want to see a reboot of it, it should stay as it is. Serenity is one of my favorite movies of all time. I loved how it expanded the story beyond the TV show, the excellent performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor as The Operative, the stunning fight sequences, and the cool cinematography. The show has a very special place to me as a fan, and I loved how vital and interesting the characters were. Even if Jayne was a lunk-headed jerk, he still was needed as the muscle and the secret softie on the ship. I can't pick between a favorite character, everyone had something special to them. So it was a great show and movie, and I'm sorry I only heard of it when the film came out.
Besides those things, I can't think of much else I am a fan of for franchise sci-fi. I liked Alien and Aliens, but didn't see the third movie, was mixed on Alien: Resurrection (bad story, great visuals and good cast), and didn't like Prometheus (great visuals, boring story). I am a fan of movie series like RobocopGhostbusters, and Blade. I do consider myself a sci-fi fan, but know that I am not a super-fan or really deep into fandom like many others.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Thoughts on The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

I finished watching The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt last weekend. I was mixed on it. I liked Ellie Kemper a lot in it. She was very charming and likable, and I appreciated how positive, strong, and smart Kimmy was. She overcame a trauma and limited knowledge of the world beyond a middle-school education to be resourceful and mature. The theme song is upbeat, and I love the intro of voices rising as the women rise from the bunker into the "new" world.
The actor who played Titus is very good, he made the character sympathetic and funny and likable. I appreciated how he wasn't just a stereotypical sassy gay sidekick, but had storylines of his own and his own journey to follow. I just found out today that he played Sebastian in the Broadway production of The Little Mermaid, and his rival in an episode in real life played the Genie in the Broadway version of Aladdin.
The show isn't always laugh-out-loud funny, but there are several moments I really liked involving an old Hollywood musical, a Babysitter's Club book, the Spider-Man musical, scenes where the women play make-believe in the bunker, and other moments. The parts I don't like in the show are the racial jokes. I know that the jokes are meant to make the racist look bad, but it bugged me. The depiction of Dong (even if he is better developed later on, it doesn't excuse the initial depiction of him as an immigrant who speaks broken English who is good at math and has a name that sounds like "penis"), the stereotype of Native Americans, and scenes where a Black or Hispanic person speaks mostly to comment on how dumb white people are, tokenizing them in the process. The show is charming and likable, and doesn't need that crap in it. Hopefully the second season won't have as many of those jokes.
I don't want to give much away, but the finale with the cult leader on trial was really good, and it mirrored real-life trials where accused rapists can charm the jury, twist victims' words around , and manipulate the court's opinion in order to get off free. This is a comedy, but I still found it disturbing as how that can really happen.
So, I give the show 7 out of 10 stars. Good acting and storylines, needs work on ridding it off racist humor, and I am interested in the second season.

Thoughts on Parks & Recreation

I am watching the last season of Parks & Recreation, and forgot how much I enjoyed this show. I watched it from season 1-4, then lost interest in it for a reason I cannot remember. I know it just ended, so I am watching the final season on TWC On Demand, and have adored it over again.
I love how the characters are just regular people who are positive and supportive of each other, and of their community, and that they learn to work together and respect one another despite their differences. I like how the characters that don't seem reliable on the outside because of their personas (April the moody slacker, Andy the goofball dummy, Tom the shallow party boy) all have a solid work ethic, take their jobs seriously, and care for others.
I enjoy seeing how the characters evolved over time. April speaks in a deadpan voice, but is caring and loving inside. She gained ambition for her career, and a respectful understanding of others, becoming less cynical from her original "I hate everything" attitude. Ron is very conservative and straight-laced, but has a good heart and respects his colleagues for their character and strengths. Ben gained confidence in himself and got past his old political blunder to be a successful politician. Jerry always had a happy home life that countered the dismissive way he got treated at the office. Andy is goofy, but smarter than he appears. Tom became less self-centered and found a way to balance his lavish interests with care and empathy for others. Donna was always awesome, beautiful, and confident, and she didn't need to be rewarded with finding love and getting married, but it was a bonus for her. I didn't find Ann interesting, so I don't have much to say on her.
And Leslie. Leslie will go down as a classic character in television, truly groundbreaking as a feminist woman who grows from being a small-town boss to possibly a major leader in the country. She is kind, compassionate, tough, bull-headed, and always wants the best for her friends and her town of Pawnee, Indiana. She emphasizes working hard for your dreams, and always finding a way to succeed while working fairly with others, even if they do not share your politics or exact POV. She wasn't a perfect person (she wasn't always a good listener, she was nervous about her relationship with Ben as it jeopardized her job, her stubbornness could turn people off), but she knew when to admit to her own mistakes and do the right thing for others.
A lot of that characterization is from the writers, but I will credit Amy Poehler for giving Leslie her heart and spirit. Poehler is pretty much like Leslie in real life (her Smart Girls at the Party website is an amazing resource to inspire young girls to be smart, ambitious, and creative), and Poehler produced P&R and directed various episodes. I've adored her since the Upright Citizen's Brigade show on Comedy Central, and love seeing how much of an awesome person she is, and how she influenced the character of Leslie so much.
It was a very special show, and I am happy it ran for as long as it did, and that pretty much everyone involved will have successful careers because of it, and that these wonderful characters and stories will live on in reruns for years to come.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Seymour: An Introduction – A Film Review


            Last night, I attended an advance screening of Seymour: An Introduction, a documentary about pianist Seymour Bernstein, directed by actor Ethan Hawke. The film is a loving tribute to the emotional power of music, and to a charming and talented man who has dedicated his life to performing and teaching classical piano.

            Bernstein is 88 years old, and has lived in the same New York City apartment for 57 years. His home is modest, yet full of small trinkets and character, like a ceramic Chihuahua by a lamp or cooking pans hanging on the kitchen wall. Bernstein is confidant and funny, a short plump man with a kind face. He teaches advanced students out of his home, and helps them through pushing them in a positive way. He may tease them by saying they played a piece better than he did, or coach them by telling them to not rush ahead of the music and play with emotion and breath.

           Hawke had met Bernstein at a dinner party, and Bernstein had put him at ease while they discussed their anxiety as performers. Bernstein spoke about how he had stopped playing publically in his fifties, because the act of pretending not to have anxiety perpetuated a feeling of going insane. He was tired of stage fright, he was having musical blocks, and it was causing him to have memory slips while performing. He hadn’t performed in 35 years, but through his friendship and mentoring of Hawke, he performs at a private gathering that is a joy to watch.

            The film discusses the ideas of artistic geniuses, and why many noted artistic geniuses are awful people in their personal life, or are “monsters.” Hawke brought up Marlon Brando as a theater example, while Bernstein spoke of Glenn Gould as a neurotic, eccentric mess who was a piano genius.  They spoke of how the interpreter of an artist’s work gets the major credit for a performance, not the artistic work. So that audiences would come away thinking,” Wasn’t Glenn Gould great?” instead of “Wasn’t Chopin great?” Bernstein spoke of the interpreter as self-indulgent, as “in service of something higher than themselves.” It was a fascinating way to look at an interpreter of an artist’s work, and how a incredible performer can get the credit, with the artist’s contributions undermined.

His kindness and patience puts students at ease, and there is a sense of calm while watching the film, a slow, relaxed feeling of listening to beautiful piano music. There are many beautiful and touching quotes throughout the film from Bernstein. On the emotional power of music: “Music and life will interact in a never-ending cycle of fulfillment.” On music and its relation to religious worship: “Music is intangible, yet it has penetrating effects . . . most people don’t tap that resource of the God within.” And on the unique interpretations of music: “Every piano is like a person. They are built the same way, but they never come out the same.” Bernstein carries a sense of peace and tranquility with him that is enviable, but admirable at the same time.

The screening, held at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, followed with a Q&A with Bernstein and Hawke. Hawke opened up a lot about his own anxieties as an actor, and having self-doubt and disillusionment despite his success over nearly thirty years as an actor (and coming off of a recent Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Boyhood). He spoke of not having felt anxious as an actor until he was reaching middle-age, and not knowing how to handle his nerves. Bernstein gave helpful advice. “Accept nerves as a natural component of what you’re about to do.” Anxiety is normal for a person, and it fuels them to do better. When they aren’t feeling nervous is when a performer should worry, because they have become complacent.  “Our talents are autonomous,” said Bernstein.  “To persevere in spite of doubts gives us a sense of self worth.” That is good advice for anybody striving for success, not just for performers dealing with anxiety.

Hawke made a good point about making a film about an elderly man in a culture that is obsessed with youth. That has become much more prevalent, with people over age 35 being seen as “so old,” and social media that mocks older people for not knowing current technology or not being as popular as the current youth. By contrast, Bernstein’s simplicity and acceptance of himself is refreshing, and much more thoughtful and interesting to listen to than a much younger person who puts all of their self-absorbed thoughts on social media every few hours. Hawke may have made this film in part of dealing with his own middle-age (he makes reference to having anxiety and changes upon turning 40, and not always understanding his teenage children’s lingo and text-speak), but it is a selfless gesture that he made in directing this documentary about a fascinating and wonderful man. Seymour Bernstein concluded the Q&A with this insightful statement: “when we are searching for our identity, our identity is in whatever talent you possess . . .the person and the artist become one and the same.” His talent and class was a true joy to behold for that evening.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Highlights of European Version of Leon/The Professional

The European version has more scenes of Leon and Matilda going out on their hit jobs, and it's more darkly funny, as well as developing their relationship more closely beyond the scenes in his apartment or the hotel room. The scene where they go on their first job together and he's coaching her as the target looks confused as hell was funny. I could see why Portman's parents had requested some scenes to be cut, as there are moments where Matilda is flirting with Leon and trying to kiss him and he backs off. There is a good scene in a restaurant where they go out to celebrate a successful hit and she's getting drunk on champagne and alternating between acting like a giggly little kid and trying to act like what she thinks a grown, mature lover would be like, which comes off as uncomfortable as you'd think.

It is weird to write about it without it sounding gross, but in context, it made sense. I also really liked a scene that goes into Leon's backstory with an old girlfriend of his from his youth, explaining part of his reason why he is resistant to love and keeps to himself a lot with few friends. It's a great movie, but these extra scenes made it even better for me.