Friday, May 21, 2010

Disney Takes a Different Route: American Violet Focuses on the Real World Outside of Happily Ever After

Ripe with a nitty-gritty setting illuminated by a chorus of “Hallelujahs,” “Amens,” and “Yo’ Mamas,” American Violet pits the name Disney on the director’s chair on a live action set where the castle is a slew of sun-baked projects in Melody, Texas, the king a crooked district attorney, and the heroine a persevering mother of four on a quest to take down a corrupt federal system fueled by racist sentiment. So, once upon a time . . .

There was Dee Roberts (Nicole Beharie), a twenty-four-year old waitress whose main goal in life is to collect enough tips by pouring coffee and serving compliments to old women on their neglected change in hair style to provide for her four young daughters. The film jumpstarts by juggling between Dee’s apartment in the projects (where the greatest transgression is a bowl of unfinished cereal and a busted bottle of peanut butter) to the parking lot of police headquarters where a hundred cops are assembling an arsenal composed of everything but the army tank to launch a raid on the unsuspecting tenants of an African-American complex.

From the start, the good vs. evil motif takes off with a whir. Choppers descend like beasts on the unarmed peasants of Melody and our heroine is tossed in a dungeon (in this case the county jail) on charges of distributing narcotics in a school zone.

But wait, not only is she innocent, but so are the one hundred or so other prisoners, most of whom are forced to accept plea bargains or face trial where the prison uniforms are pre-maid for the expected outcome. Dee isn’t accepting any plea bargains, however, despite encouragement by her mother, Alma (Alfre Woodard), and her defense attorney (Paul David Story), who’d rather see the case settled so he can get back to sipping Manhattans on the other side of the train tracks.

So, what’s a woman to do when the going gets rough?

Sue the district attorney, Calvin Beckett. Michael O’Keefe, in the role of Beckett, is the supreme bad guy, cool as a cucumber with an arrogance the size of Canada that you want to see squeezed to a slimy, obliterated pulp.

And who’s to man the harvest? It’s the Civil War in miniature as North and South come together in a farrago of Texas twang and University lingo, only this time they're fighting on the same side in the form of Tim Blake Nelson and Will Patton as David Cohen, a clean-shaven, court-house ACLU attorney, and Sam Conroy, the gun-toting, ex-narcotics officer turned lawyer who you know is sporting a bowie knife right next to his .44 Magnum.

They are the dynamic duo, the improbable pair with Byron Hill (Malcom Barrett) as their ace in the hole. The African-American attorney comes through like Vergil Tibbs with a figurative slap against the pale, not-so-untouchable cheek of iniquity.

With comic relief like deer in a desert, the film is washed in wave after wave of unremitting gravity in the style of a courthouse drama minus the courthouse where a bunch of guys, in this case big shot lawyers in suspenders, come together like Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cob, and the rest of the cast of Twelve Angry Men. A sprinkling here and there of dramatic dialogue and camera close-ups intensifies the stark pressure of the film. It's in one of these that Anthony Mackie, as paranoid schizophrenic Eddie Porter (whose been bullied into turning confidential informant on his friends and neighbors), reveals just how much seriousness plays a role in this straight-forward procession of fountain pens and legal pads. "I understand the seriousness of this whole situation . . . I understand the seriousness of not being able to sleep good at night 'cause you worried about somebody coming to your house and harming you or your family members. I understand a lot. And I know my life will never be the same."

Neither will Dee’s when she’s pounding the pavement in Beckettville looking for that lone employer who hasn’t been threatened into turning her down. In the scenes when she’s sparring with ex-lover Darrell (Xzibit) over the custody of her children or scraping by with just enough for a Christmas tree, you expect to hear Ray LaMontagne crooning in the background. Nicole Beharie is cozy in the role of Dee, the dark avenger without the Batman get-up and O-so-mighty superman complex. She’s the hammer forging the way for director Tim Disney (grandnephew of Walt) into the real and pensive world outside of happily ever after.

That’s where Regina Kelly, a 24-year-old waitress and mother of four, sued district attorney John Paschell of Hearne, Texas for issuing a “paramilitary” drug sweep that led to the arrest of 27 individuals on felony distribution charges. From the riveting true story, American Violet is no blossom with its dark presentation of racial profiling and arduous drama, but the plot itself is enough to grow on you, making for a worthwhile and cultivating view.

American Violet

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Wag of a Dog’s Tail: Director Lasse Hallström Takes On the True Story of Man’s Best Friend in Hachi: A Dog’s Tale

Good call by Sony Pictures Entertainment. If Hachi: A Dog's Story had been a theatrical instead of a direct-to-video release in the U.S., chances are there would have been a number of angry viewers feeling cheating out of a hard-earned ten bucks. That's to be expected, however, when one is forced to pay to see a film as priceless as this heart-warming family drama by Dear John director Lasse Hallström.

Based on a true story, Hachi is the whimsical tale of a chance encounter between man and man's best friend that transcends into a companionship of profound affection and unflagging loyalty. Richard Gere (who seems to hail from that race of actors who haven't aged for the past twenty years) is Professor Parker Willis who arrives at the train station on a return trip home to find a busted crate and a stray Akita pup wandering the platform. Parker endears himself to the lovable little creature by giving him shelter "just for the night," under the watchful eye of his wary, but sentimental wife Cate, played by Joan Allen. Keeping with the traditional plot of teary-eyed animal dramas, one night turns into week and one week into many as the orphaned canine with the big brown eyes (reminiscent of Puss-in-the-Boots persuasion) is elevated from the ranks of "temporary guest" to "Hachi," Parker's steadfast and faithful companion.

With a plot that's about as complicated as PB sans J, Hachi manages the extraordinary feat of keeping it simple without being stupid or contemptibly sappy. The headline "Dog Loves Man. The Feeling is Mutual" pretty much summarizes the first half of the film, but the second half, "Dog Waits Nine Years for Dead Owner's Return," is the must-see magnet for drama devotees. Hachi and Parker's relationship deepens when Hachi develops a daily ritual of accompanying Parker to the train station in the morning and returning every afternoon to receive his master the moment the train pulls in. Hachi's fidelity makes him a local celebrity and ward of Parker's acquaintances, Jas (Eric Avari), the hot dog vendor, and Carl (Jason Alexander), the cynical station master whose wise-cracks melt like snow in the glance of Hachi's comically indifferent stare.

Out with the tissues, however, when Parker bids Hachi farewell during his morning commute -- and never returns, having passed away during a lecture from cardiac arrest. When a heartbroken Cate (in a subtle, but gravely emotional performance by Allen) moves away and leaves Hachi in the care of her daughter, Andy (Sarah Roemer), Hachi is consumed by depression and a painful longing that leads to a display of unsurpassing loyalty. Every day, for the next nine years, Hachi plants himself in front of the station and waits for the afternoon train to bring his master home.

A standing ovation for the film's best actors (so sorry Richard Gere and Joan Allen), Chico, Layla, and Forrest, who portray Hachi as a pup, a middle-aged tail-wagger, and a grizzled old hound. There's no denying that there's something about animal expression that makes Old Yeller, Lassie, Rin Tin Tin, Black Beauty, and Babe household names. Beastly intuition is, after all, what made "The Tortoise and the Hare" a more recognized tale to some readers than "Susannah and the Elders."

Hachi is the anchor. The rest of the cast are links that ascend and drift about until they are out of sight, lost in a cloudy surface, but not necessarily burdensome. Sarah Roemer stars as Andy Willis in this, the second direct-to-dvd release in her career (the first was Asylum, a horror film directed by Final Destination 2 director, David R. Ellis). In 2007, she gained international recognition as the love interest to Shia LaBeouf in the suspense thriller, Disturbia. In Hachi, Willis takes after the scene from the Book of Exodus which is less familiar to some than the "The Dog and the Bone." She is what she is, a supporting actress in a supporting role with no ambition to mount otherwise. As "the new face of Jenny Craig," Jason Alexander's talent as an eclectic actor in film, television, and theatre is put to far better use sparring with Richard Gere (with whom he co-starred in the 1990 romantic comedy, Pretty Woman). (Oh, wait, he's not supposed to be acting in Jenny Craig, right?) Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (Mortal Kombat, Memoirs of a Geisha) stars as Professor Ken Fujiyoshi, Parker's friend and colleague who educates him in the ways of the Akita

Hachi is based on the dynamic true story of Hachiko, an Akita belonging to Professor Hidesaburō Ueno of the agricultural department at the University of Tokyo. In May 1925, Ueno died of a cerebral hemorrhage while conducting a lecture. His dog, Hachiko, who had arrived at the Shibuya train station to receive Professor Ueno each day, continued to do so after his death for the next nine years. Today, a bronze statue of Hachiko stands at Shibuya Station in front of the "Hachiko-guci" or "Hachiko Exit," where the dog was known to wait for his master's return. Ultimately, Hachi is a deeply moving portrayal of the universal nature of love and the will of all creatures -- be they man or beast -- to defy all obstacles in the name of friendship, even in the face of death.

Hachi: A Dog's Tale

Friday, May 14, 2010

Review for Origin: Spirits of the Past

With 5,000 barrels of oil spewing into the Gulf of Mexico a day, you can bet that in East Jesus, Nowhere, on a long, dry stretch of highway, a weary trucker is listening to Michael Stipe sing about, earthquakes, snakes, aeroplanes, and Lenny Bruce. Environmental activists are storming the capitol with slogans like "Wash Our Waters," the IUCN is calculating some adjustments to their Red List from "endangered" to "extinct," and "Post-Apocalyptic" is coming into its own sub-genre in science fiction. That's where Origin: Spirits of the Past, an anime film by director Keiichi Sugiyama, falls into place.

The time: 300 years in the future. The place: dystopian Japan, riddled by chunks of split rock and mountain villages where people descend in garbage cans attached to a pulley system. All water (so difficult to obtain) is practically holy, and the Moon has been reduced to about ten wedges floating in outer space. The story: Agito, a resident of Neutral City, stumbles across a secret cavern containing a virtual, cryogenic pod where Toola, an 18-year-old young woman, has been suspended for the past 300 years. A concerned Agito becomes her protector and takes her back to Neutral City where she befriends Cain, Agito's best friend and self-proclaimed Casanova, and Minka, who sizes her up as worthy competition for Agito's affections.

Unbeknownst to Agito, however, Toola's awakening incites the wrath of the Druids, a clan of forest spirits who interpret Toola's arrival as a threat to their civlization. Grieved by what she deems as the perdition of a once eminent planet, Toola joins forces with Shunack, a colonel of the Ragna Army who reject the approach of Neutral City to co-exist with the Forest and whose main purpose is to reestablish dominance over the natural world. In an effort to convince Toola that the world, as it is, is not an abomination, Agito embarks on a mission to prove that mankind is but the essence of the Forest and the Earth a haven for them both.

Origin: Spirits of the Past is unique for purging wave after wave of grief and desolation so common amongst films of the post-apocalyptic genre. Instead of weeping over the loss of the iPhone (iPhone? Psshhh. We have Androids now) and the staples of the modern world, Origin adopts the philosophy of rebirth. First doctrine: We screwed up. Now where do we go from here? We decided to use the Moon as a home-base for an experiment on plant growth. Risky? Fuggettaboytit . . . until giant mutant plants leapt through outer space to destroy the Earth. Then, to escape the blame of 6.5 billion people being made into spinach (literally), we rounded up a few to be thrown in animated suspension for the next 300 years. Surprise, surprise. A handful of philosopher's in the branch of spilt-milkism decided to move on. Next stop: Neutral City.

Kudos to philosophy, but the flaw that will irk viewers to the brink of boredom is the saturation of the first hour of the film with the never-ending dogma of ashes to ashes and dust to dust. The film lags, save for the last 30 minutes, which are as action-packed and colorful as can be expected of a mediocre plot. If that's not enough to keep the every-day viewer watching, then anime junkies with an affinity for English-dubs will enjoy the stellar performances by heavy-hitters Chris Patton (Black Cat, Trinity Blood) as Agito, Carrie Savage (Aquarion, Rumbling Hearts) as Toola, and R. Bruce Elliot (Case Closed, Hell Girl) as Agito's father, Agashi.

A year after the release of Origin, the Discovery Channel series "My Shocking Story" aired an episode titled "Half Man, Half Tree." Viewers gawked at the amazing true story of Dede Kosawa, a 34-year-old Indonesian man diagnosed with a genetic disorder causing massive tumors to sprout from his hands and feet like the roots of a tree. Kosawa's story raises some penetrating questions. How deep do the roots of mankind and nature go? Is there a point where they intertwine? Perhaps director Keiichi Sugiyama's vision is not a vision after all. Perhaps fantasy is but a beginning and reality a destination that someone had to dream about in the first place.

Origin: Spirits of the Past

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review for Clash of the Titans

For one of the most anticipated films of the year, Louis Leterrier's remake gears up for a stark drone rather than the residual clash of the 1981 fantasy epic. Thirty years later, Sam Worthington (fresh from the role of Jake Sully in the acclaimed 3-D splash hit, Avatar) is Perseus, the grimy, greasy, saber-wielding demi-god intent on defeating Hades, god of the Underworld, in his plot to destroy man-kind.

Left to drown at birth and rescued by the kindly fisherman, Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus grows to manhood unaware that he is a son of Zeus (Liam Neeson), king of the gods. When the death of his adopted parents at the hand of Hades (Ralph Fiennes) draws him into the clash between gods and mortals, Perseus arrives as a lowly fisherman in the kingdom of Argos. There, the boast of the foolish queen, Cassiopeia (Polly Walker), invokes the wrath of Zeus, who permits a vengeful Hades to destroy Argos by unleashing the Kraken, a malevolent beast spawned from the flesh of the Underworld. Lest the princess Andromeda (Alexa Davalos) be sacrificed to appease the gods, Perseus joins the quest to destroy the Kraken and stop Hades from usurping the throne of Olympus.

While original films age like fine wines, it is no phenomenon that gaudy remakes of classic blockbuster hits go stale within a week of their release. The notion that every century must revamp the art of another is often unfounded if not disastrous. Of course, there have been exceptions, like Zack Snyder's 300, adapted from the 1962 epic, The 300 Spartans, and Guess Who, starring Ashton Kutcher and the late Bernie Mac in a unique spin on the 1967 drama, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Clothe the Venus de Milo in Versace and the David in Gambana, however, and chances are there will be a slew of fans protesting the obstruction of bare originality.

Take for example the 1998 remake of Psycho, starring Anne Heche in place of Janet Leigh in the notorious "shower scene," and Vince Vaughn as Norman Bates. The film earned a Golden Raspberry for director Gus van Stans, a giant leap of the wrong kind from the Academy Award-nomination for the 1997 drama, Good Will Hunting. (Van Stans learned his lesson. In 2000, he directed Sean Connery and Rob Brown in the coming-of-age drama, Finding Forrester, which Richard Roeper praised as one of the ten best films of the year).

While director Louis Letterier may not expect any Razzies for this fifth installment to his repertoire, the nephews of Sam Worthington will be left wanting (Worthington dedicated the film to them as a Clash "for their generation.") Contrary to popular consensus, the film's dialogue is far from a primary flaw. At a run-time of 118 minutes, the same as the original film, the remake fails to utilize the plot to the same extent. A lengthy introduction to the hero and a skirmish with artificial scorpions oozing green goop steal from pivotal scenes, like the showdown with the Kraken (who pops up near the end of the film like a giant hemorrhoid in CGI).

Additional boos for bad acting are hardly credible when a majority of the cast appear as holograms decked out in glitter and do little or no acting at all. Here is the greatest contrast from the original film, whose success lay in part with the supporting roles of Maggie Smith (Thetis), Susan Fleetwood (Athena), Claire Bloom (Hera), and Jack Gwillim (Poseidon). Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes make a worthy duo as Zeus and Hades (with Neeson reviving the role originally played by Laurence Olivier). Kudos to Sam Worthington for the expressive portrayal of Perseus (surpassing Harry Hamlin by a milestone) and a deep nod to Gemma Arterton for the novel performance as Io. One star that ought to be complaining, however, is Alexa Davalos, whose talent is severely down-played in the role of Andromeda. In 2009, she starred beside Daniel Craig in the war drama, Defiance, showcasing a knack for theatrical presence and poise. While dangling from a cliff in her undergarments (sadly, the highlight of her small role in Clash), Davalos shows a great deal of poise, but is ill-used to the point of expense.

For Desmond Davis, director of the 1981 version, Clash was a one-hit wonder. Prior to being in the director's chair, he was a camera man whose work behind the lens included the Academy Award-nominated film, Freud (1962), and the Academy-Award winning film, Tom Jones (1963). While Letterier will go on to greater things in the comfort zone of Unleashed and The Incredible Hulk, Clash will remain in the shadows of a much bigger titan, an original that will not be surpassed by the enhancements of 21st century whims.

Clash of the Titans