Sunday, February 26, 2012

Act of Valor

Glad I saw this film, and it was a treat to hear the director, Mike McCoy, afterward.

Lots of new tech here with the Canon D5, and special lenses - about 85% digital, and the rest 35mm film - all put together seamlessly.

As for the acting - well, they're all SEALS, and they did much of the script, creating it on a day-by-day basis, and when the script didn't work, they did their thing - as they speak to one another in a language filled with code, and when silence is needed, with hand-signals.

This is no doc - it was all shot in live-fire training - no blanks at all. They filmed in various locations around the world - so the whole thing has a very real feel to it. When the gunboats pull up at the extraction point after a hostage rescue, and those boats let go with their Gatling guns, sounding like a zipper, it's truly goose-bump time.

There's enough blood and gore to make it real, or so it seems to me. But blood and gore were not the purpose. Rather, to show these men as flesh-and-blood human beings who go to work like anyone goes to work - to do the best job possible.

McCoy noted, "these are some of the brightest people I've ever met - the communications specialists on ship, a woman, with a Ph.D in geology."

They are all professionals, and their devotion to one another is clear. They work as a team, or they can't work at all.

One of the most telling lines in the film - on board ship, prepping for a rescue operation, one of the SEALS asks, "Will they have patrols?" The Chief replies: "We don't know, but most likely they lave patrols. They do this for a living, too."

Emotionally, I kept thinking of the Russell Crowe film, Gladiator. And the Roman Empire, and the need to defend an empire's borders. America is The Empire right now - our military presence reaches around the world - we go anywhere, and perhaps rarely ask for anyone's permission. Another dramatic moment in the film - SEALS are in rubber boats, awaiting pick-up - and suddenly, from the deeps, a nuclear submarine quickly breaches; the boats scuttle onto the sub, everyone's picked up, and the sub dives again.

What with all the machinery of war - sophistication beyond anything most of us know, and men and women trained to the nth degree. I sat in the theater amazed and in wonderment.

Every empire has enemies - such is the nature of an empire. And these men (and they are all men; women are on the ships and involved in all aspects of a mission, but not on the teams), so finely trained, defend the borders and rescue those in harm's way.

It's an amazing story, well told.

But it's no puff piece for recruitment, nor a right-wing propaganda spiel.

I thought: "These men are doing their job, and doing it very well."

Though I regret America's policies at many points, I'm glad they're at work. America does have enemies, and they seek to do us harm. Like it or not, I live in the Empire, and I'm glad to live here. And I don't want anyone to wear an explosive vest and blow themselves up in any American city.

I work hard to see that the Empire is as just as it can be, and I'm grateful, at the same time, for those who keep our land safe.

It's a difficult world, and if we were not the Empire, someone else would be, and, perhaps, in time, as we replaced Britain, someone or something else will replace us - maybe China, maybe India, or who knows what or who.

Well, I'm rambling right now.

Worthy seeing in a theater?

For sure.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

"Star Wars - The Phantom Menace"- 3D

Saw it yesterday (Feb. 13) and while thoroughly enjoying the music, came away with the same impression I had in the first go-around (1999) - the acting is marginal, the script thin and the story weak ... and most telling - it wasn't made for 3D, and the 3D effects are marginal - at one point, I took off the 3D glasses and could hardly tell the difference; though the 3D effects seemed to vary from scene to scene as I watched without the glasses.

The only exception to the mostly lifeless acting is a young Skywalker (Darth, soon-to-be), played by Jake Lloyd - he did a fine job, though his career seems to have plateaued with Star Wars. Not sure why; his precocious portrait captures nicely the rare talent possessed by Skywalker.

The Darth Maul character is of limited value, and not threatening enough to convey the evil of the Dark Side of the Force. But at his death, we're left with a question: Is Darth Maul the Sith Lord or the Apprentice? They come in twos - the Lord and the Apprentice. That's the question supposedly holding us in suspense, as the camera shifts hintingly to a profile of a rather benign-looking Senator Palpatine. Hmmm, could he, might he ... be ...?

With regard to young Skywalker, Yoda hints at the fear found in him, and what that fear might do:

Yoda: How feel you?
Anakin: Cold, sir.
Yoda: Afraid are you?
Anakin: No, sir.
Yoda: See through you we can.
Mace Windu: Be mindful of your feelings.
Ki-Adi-Mundi: Your thoughts dwell on your mother.
Anakin: I miss her.
Yoda: Afraid to lose her I think, hmm?
Anakin: What has that got to do with anything?
Yoda: Everything! Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you. 

In 1999, and now again, Yoda's comment about fear remains central to the entire Star Wars drama, and relevant to our times, as well. Fear is the path to the dark side, for any of us, and for any nation as well.

This time around, I liked Jar Jar Binks voiced skillfully by Ahmed Best. It was "very rude of me," to dislike him in 1999, and so I apologize.

The story remains disjointed - the bits and pieces are all there - the origins of C3PO and R2D2 are fun to see -  but it's like, "Who really cares?" ... and that's an issue of scripting, for one thing, but mostly of the acting. Most of the time, it felt like everyone would have rather been in a dump kicking bricks barefoot than in this gig. And maybe that's an issue for the director, George Lucas; maybe by the time this work was underway, he was tired of the whole thing.

Worth seeing in 3D?

If you're a Star Wars' Junkie like I am, sure, go ahead. Get some popcorn and a softdrink and settle back for a so-so film that cannot be rescued by 3D.

Otherwise, don't spend your money.

It was a thin film in 1999, and a thin film it remains, 3D or not.

Friday, February 3, 2012

"The Descendants"

This is one heck of a film; glad I finally got around to seeing it.

A fine ensemble of actors, led, of course, by George Clooney who portrays a father/husband struggling to find himself in the midst of a chaotic family life, some of which is his own doing, and some of which belongs to his wife and her family. No truly bad guys or gals here, as is the case with most of life; just real folks trying to find their way through the fog of life, sometimes rising to the occasions of life with dignity and purpose ... other times, sinking into the mire of moral failure.

Clooney's daughters are remarkably portrayed by Shailene Woodley  (Alex) and Amara Miller (Scotty) - portraying, respectively, the confused and unsettling worlds of a privileged 17-year old and an uncertain 10-year old living in the shadow of her older sister, now in a private school.

All of them live in the shadow of the wife/mother, whom we never meet, other than in a few moments of an opening scene of her riding joyously at high speed on a powerboat in the blue waters of Hawaii. There's an accident, which we don't see, the result of which is a profound coma that can only end as it does: with the tubes pulled, organs donated, and her ashes committed to the sea. Throughout the story, the family spends their own time at the hospital, watching her machine-aided chest rise and fall, and then, the fateful day when the tubes are removed, and the wait for her demise. All of this is handled with great care, no melodrama, no over-wrought scenes; just the grinding down of body and soul by the shadow of death and all the unresolved sorrows that will go to her grave.

Throughout the film, it's a story of betrayal and secrets revealed.

A story of a father and his two daughters, in a profoundly difficult time, finding their way back together again as a family, and ultimately, some degrees of forgiveness and reconciliation ... in one of the most powerful and touching cinematic scenes EVER, Clooney says goodbye to Elizabeth.

Clooney is master actor, at the top of his game - his face a thousand different nuanced expressions ... his emotions powerfully restrained, even as he deals with unrelenting tragedy, while trying to hold his family and his business together. I hope he gets the Oscar nod for this one - well-deserved, for sure.

The "odd"music of Hawaii sets the tone for "paradise" - are you kidding? All of that beauty cannot mask or prevent the human drama, in all of its squalor and all of its hope. Life, even in paradise, is still life.

What is a family?
What is love?
What in the world is forgiveness?
And what is anger, and what to do with it?
And what does it mean to be a descendant of a great family?

A host of other actors give this movie a depth of characterization, without overwhelming the story.

A special word is deserved by Nick Krause, who portrays Alex's "boyfriend" - he captures all the snottiness of a privileged youth who deserves the smack that he gets from Clooney's father-in-law. Yet, in time, we discover Sid's own loss (his father died but recently), and by the end of the story, I found myself appreciating this bright young boy who simply had no social graces. A fine performance, for sure.

In the end, the pending death of Elizabeth sends all of them into a journey of painful questions and self-discovery, though I want to be clear - this is not a Dr. Phil psycho-babble trip, but a painful excursion into a malstrom of suffering.

Worth seeing?

For sure.

It's a fine film, powerful themes, masterfully presented.

In a theater - yup ... ya' wanna see George's face up close, and some of that gorgeous Hawaiian scenery, and if you love Hawaiian shirts, you'll love "The Descendants."