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91vCWqRjULL._SL1500_Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Slings & Arrows is unfortunately not available for rent via any streaming service. However, the discs are available through Netflix, which is how I got them.

Starring: Paul Gross, Martha Burns, Stephen Ouimette, Susan Coyne, Mark McKinney, Don McKellar, Rachel McAdams, Luke Kirby

My uncultured, primitive mind has never fully embraced theater except maybe for the occasional splurge on a $50 ticket to see a gaudy, loud, commercial production of something I have either already seen the film version of (The Lion King – film was way better), it stars and/or was made by film people, or its so widely talked about that to skip it would be like moving yourself into a cave and disconnecting from all humanity. With that said, I am even less inclined to give nothing more than a passing whiff at the inner workings of the theater world. The cherry on the top of my unsophistication is my complete ignorance and lack of interest in Canadian television.

Nothing against Canadians, mind you, but considering how many “must-see” American TV shows I have missed, anything made in Canada lies a distant third behind my must-see list of American and British series. So what compelled me to momentarily ignore all of these supposedly wonderful television shows I have never seen to instead watch a comedy-drama Canadian TV series made in 2003 that gives us an “inside baseball” look at the running of a small Shakepearean theater in Canada? Well, for a couple of reasons, Slings & Arrows has a catchy title, Netflix subscribers seem to really love it, as do critics, and it was highly recommended by my friend Veronica (and it got nominated for 9 Geminis, which are like the Emmys, but unlike the Emmys, the Geminis go to shows that are actually worthy of recognition). If you enjoy the sarcastic, dry humor of “workplace comedies” like The Office, or films like Waiting for Guffman and Best in Show, Slings & Arrows should be high on your watch list.

The premise of Slings & Arrows deals with Geoffrey Tennant (Paul Gross), a fantastically gifted actor who returns to manage the acclaimed (and fictional) New Burbage Festival (modeled after Canada’s Stratford Shakespeare Festival) after suffering a mental breakdown in the middle of his performance of Hamlet at the very same theater. Tennant is asked to take over the theater after its artistic director Oliver Welles (Stephen Ouimette) is tragically killed by a semi-truck when he drunkenly wanders out into the street one night. Seven years ago, Welles directed Tennant in Hamlet, but a strange love triangle between Welles, Tennant, and actress Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns) caused Tennant to have his mental breakdown and leave the New Burbage Festival, vowing to never have anything to do with Welles or Fanshaw. However, now Tennant finds himself running the theater, to the shock of the local theater community, and he is assisted by none other than Welles’ ghost. At the same time, the theater is undergoing a crisis of its own, as an ambitious American executive named Holly Day (Jennifer Irwin) attempts to wrest control of the theater and transform it into a commercial entertainment complex featuring Broadway musicals.

Not to turn you off from watching this series, which I highly recommend you do, Slings & Arrows is clearly inspired by the personal experiences of the show’s creators and writers in the theater business. So yes, those of you with inside knowledge of the theater business will probably appreciate this show a bit more. The storylines involve the typical theater biz issues of backstage rivalries, creative problems among the production team, and the constant problem of having enough money to keep the theater going. However, the writers adeptly spin their experiences to create an intricately connected web of characters and stories that still manages to pull you in and make you invest in the series. This isn’t like watching Robert Altman’s The Player where you really needed to know about the movie business to fully get what was going on. In this respect, Slings & Arrows can be compared to Entourage, which used its Hollywood insider background to give you compelling characters and stories. In fact, by getting so into the characters and various plotlines of Slings & Arrows, I found myself actually giving a shit about the theater business.

Like me, you are probably going to have no idea who any of the actors in this series are, with the exception of a yet-to-be famous, pre-Notebook Rachel McAdams. All of the actors are Canadian and they are all so wonderful that I spent half the show wondering why the hell they aren’t household names in the U.S. Ironically, the only actor in this show to break out and become famous in the U.S. is one of my least favorite characters in the show – Rachel McAdams. Its not that she gives a bad performance, but her character is the clichéd young, bright-eyed actress who wants to be a star and she finally gets that chance. Her character has little internal conflict and the show seems to only be interested in focusing on McAdams’ spunky cuteness (e.g., demonstrated by she and Jack Kirby’s romance) rather than giving her character some weight and conflict.

Fortunately, most of the remaining cast gives a knockout performance. Paul Gross as the mentally unsteady Geoffrey Tennant proves that one can look like a movie star AND be wildly talented. The show does a great job setting us up in anticipation of what will happen when a crazy, loose cannon nutjob takes over a venerable institution like the New Burbage Festival. In the first episode, Tennant is seen running some avante garde theater that no one attends and that gets evicted for nonpayment of rent. Tennant is thrown in jail for defying his landlord in the name of artistic expression. We later learn that 7 years ago, Tennant had a mental breakdown while performing Hamlet at the New Burbage Festival and he has never been “normal” since. By the time Tennant is offered the temporary job of running the New Burbage Festival, you know that nothing good can come of this. Paul Gross strikes a fine balance between being unstable enough to break all the stuffy conventions of a theater like the New Burbage Festival, but also remain sufficiently grounded to run the theater, direct Hamlet, and rekindle his romance with his former leading lady, Ellen Fanshaw (Martha Burns).

Although she gives a very good performance, Martha Burns as Ellen Fanshaw is so unlikeable that I could never buy into why anyone, especially Geoffrey Tennant, would be attracted to someone as nasty, bitchy, and self-absorbed as her. Granted, there is not much for her to be happy about, especially when her old friend, the former director of the New Burbage Festival, gets killed after the opening night performance of their play, and her former lover becomes her new boss. However, the show gives you absolutely nothing to make you sympathize with her in any way. She holds herself above her fellow actors, she refuses to put much effort into her work, she is always angry at everyone and everything, and she uses a very nice, but dim-witted, young man purely for sex. Martha Burns does as well with this character as anyone possibly could, but I felt that the character could have used sharper dialogue and drier wit to make her more interesting (although you will find yourself pronouncing “sorry” in the same Canadian fashion that she does). Now here’s something surprising in light of how little chemistry exists between the two characters – the actors who play them, Paul Gross and Martha Burns, are actually married in real life!

The sharp dialogue and dry wit is almost exclusively reserved for Stephen Ouimette’s flamboyant Oliver Welles character, the now-deceased director of the New Burbage Festival. Oliver is basically like gay Obi Wan-Kenobi. He shows up from time to time to give Geoffrey Tenant sage advice about how to manage his life and direct his plays. Ouimette deftly matches the witty dialogue and chemistry between Martha Burns and Paul Gross. His interactions with Gross are especially noteworthy and they comprise some of the best material in the show.

I have not said anything about Richard (played by the show’s co-writer/co-creator, Mark McKinney), the “suit” who is responsible for keeping the New Burbage Festival financially afloat, and his American counterpart, Holly (played by Jennifer Irwin). They both provide the series with wonderful comic moments and Richard has one of the best character arcs in the entire series.

It is worth pointing out that the three writers/creators (Mark McKinney, Susan Coyne, and Bob Martin) wrote every single episode of this series. They plotted out every episode for all three seasons of the series well in advance so the writing is tight and efficient. So basically it’s the complete opposite of a show like Lost, where halfway through the series, J.J. Abrams had no fucking clue how to end his series. Now I will point out that each season takes a while to really get into gear, but once you get through those first few episodes, the remaining part of the season is fantastic! Although this series is mostly viewed as being a comedy, it has plenty of drama and my favorite moments in the show are those dramatic moments (in season 1, there are two such scenes in which Geoffrey coaches a group of business executives who are taking acting classes and one where Geoffrey gives a pep talk to a young Hollywood action star  (who is meant to represent Keanu Reeves ill-conceived one-time decision to do serious theater) on how to give Hamlet’s famous “to be or not to be” monologue).

If you are still wondering whether or not to give Slings & Arrows a shot (no pun intended), consider this: Wire creator David Simon said the following about this show: “There’s a wonderful Canadian show called Slings & Arrows, about a Shakespearean theatre company, that was so clever it left me with pure, distilled writer-envy.” You will really be missing something if you skip this show – it contains beautifully written scriptwriting, wonderful acting, and most importantly, it respects the audience’s intelligence.


malcolm-in-the-middle-malcolm-in-the-middle-14593011-1024-768Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Malcolm in the Middle is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Frankie Muniz, Jane Kaczmarek, Bryan Cranston, Christopher Masterson, Justin Berfield, Erik Per Sullivan

Sometime in the late 1980’s, television decided that it was far more funnier to show dysfunctional families (Married With Children, The Simpsons) than to portray well-balanced ones (Growing Pains, The Cosby Show). I do not know the impetus behind this move, but it should be worth noting that both Married With Children and The Simpsons (and later, Malcolm in the Middle and Arrested Development) were ALL made by Fox, the company with the conservative news network. There is a never-ending debate between those who view such shows as a negative influence on children and the rest of society and those who regard these shows as a more realistic portrayal of the American family. I fall somewhere in the middle – shows like The Simpsons and Married With Children certainly show the frictions and tensions that every family experiences, but these shows do not exist because they want to accurately portray families. At some point, network executives felt that nastier, negative humor was simply funnier and it would get bigger ratings.

Malcolm in the Middle is a cross between Married With Children and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The Wilkersons are Lois (Jane Kaczmarek), the take-no-shit mom who rules the family with fear; Hal (pre-Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston), the severely lax father who acts more like a kid than an adult; Francis (Christopher Kennedy Masterson), the eldest son who attends a military school; Reese (Justin Berfield), a bully who likes to hit people; Dewey (Erik Per Sullivan), the youngest son; and the star of the show, Malcolm (Frankie Muniz), who is the show’s Ferris Bueller.

Muniz doesn’t quite have the same appeal as Matthew Broderick, but he does well enough in an ensemble cast of six characters. Like Ferris Bueller, Malcolm frequently breaks the fourth wall to speak directly with the audience and he uses his intelligence to either get into trouble or get out of trouble. The character is also egotistical – he blames his family for everything that is wrong in his life. He is in a constant state of frustration by not being able to do whatever he wants, having parents who are unable and/or unwilling to understand him, by not being as cool as his brother Francis, and, ultimately, not having anyone share his global point of view. The character is in this constant state of anxiety and conflict that he ceaselessly whines about. In a way, Malcolm marks pop culture’s first portrayal of the Me Generation.

Malcolm in the Middle is sort of like a live-action version of a cartoon – every character and situation operates on a heightened level of zaniness and exaggeration. The scenarios are not as far-fetched as what you would find on The Simpsons, but that’s the beauty of animation – you can come up with situations that are not possible in a live-action setting. In a way, Malcolm in the Middle could be something imagined by the director Terry Gilliam if he set out to portray the American nuclear family. Whatever characteristic defines a character is pushed to its extreme limit. For example, Lois, the mom, is the disciplinarian of the household, but she wields that power in a tyrannical and maniacal way in which she is frequently seen screaming at and chasing her children for something they have done. Hal, the immature man-child father, is always trying to get away from his parental and spousal (unless it involves sex) duties. For a half-hour show, the show’s zany bombardment to the senses is an entertaining and often very funny escape. However, I can’t imagine my attention and patience being able to handle anything longer than that.

One of the show’s more fascinating aspects is despite the Wilkerson’s suburban lifestyle, they are not financially well off and their penny-pinching lifestyle looms over every situation. In one episode, Lois gets fired from her grocery store job and the family is forced to accept food donations from people. Its ironic that the family depends on Lois’ low-skilled and low hourly wages instead of Hal’s white-collar, presumably higher paying and presumably salaried position. The show never deals with the family’s near poverty in a serious way and it doesn’t portray it realistically either (when you can’t put food on the table for your family, you’re probably not going to keep one of your son’s in an expensive military academy) like you would find in a show like Roseanne. Instead, the family’s financial status is used as a comedic device to create hilarious setups.

I have never seen the show Breaking Bad (I know, sue me) so it is difficult for me to appreciate the drastic turn of character that Bryan Cranston pulled off from switching from the affable, lazy, immature Hal to the some sort of badass person that he is on Breaking Bad. Here, Cranston is just like one of his boys. Imagine having Peter Pan as your father and that is Hal Wilkerson. I don’t believe the show ever established what in hell he does for a living, but its obvious that whatever he does, he hates it and it pays him nothing. In this show, Cranston pretty much plays second fiddle to the children and to Jane Kaczmarek, who is excellent as the mom and who is the most interesting character in the show.

Malcolm in the Middle didn’t really break any new ground in television. Sure, it had no laugh track and it was shot on film, giving the show a higher quality look. However, what made this show memorable was its excellent writing. Whether it’s the situations or the lines of dialogue, I rarely found myself not laughing during any given episode. I think this is especially rare for a first season of a show when the writers are still getting warmed up to the show and its characters. Malcolm in the Middle came swinging right out of the gate and it is no surprise it managed to earn so many accolades and awards during its run.

570x320_magnum_pi-1Is this show available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Every season of Magnum P.I. is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant only.

Starring: Tom Selleck, John Hillerman, Roger E. Mosley, Larry Manetti

I’m sure the first question any of you are asking is why the hell am I reviewing a TV show when my blog is about movies. Especially a show that is so old. Well, longtime readers will know that I have reviewed shows in the past, but aside from that, Magnum P.I. has left me with many questions that I hope you the reader will have more inside knowledge and insight to fill me in on (or to at least tell me to check my brain at the door before watching a show like this).

Growing up in the 1980’s, Magnum P.I. was not a show I watched as a kid nor was it something I had any interest in watching. My general rule of thumb was that if a show did not have kids in it or was not about science fiction or fantasy, then it was not a show worth watching (although strangely, I somehow got hooked on the first season of Wiseguy). I was especially disinterested in anything that had law enforcement, lawyers, and doctors in it because, after all, why watch heightened reality on screen when you have V and Star Trek: The Next Generation, right? I did have one unusual caveat that my warped childhood brain somehow found logical – The A-Team and Knight Rider, shows both similar to Magnum P.I., both passed the Bechtel test. The A-Team had a man named Hannibal (my name) and a black man with chains, a mohawk, and who had one of the most memorable lines in the Rocky series (where he says, “Pain”). As for Knight Rider, can anyone argue with David Hasselhoff and a fucking bad ass of a car that pre-dated Siri by a few decades?

Magnum P.I. starred Tom Selleck in the title role of Thomas Magnum, a Vietnam vet who left the Navy and became a private investigator in Hawaii. Its not really explained in the first season, but somehow, Magnum knows the famous novelist Robin Masters (voiced by Orson Welles), who has allowed Magnum to stay in the guesthouse of his beautiful beachside estate (Magnum mentions something about doing a job for Masters, but no further details are provided). Magnum also has two friends, Rick and T.C., who are Marine vet buddies from Vietnam. Although Magnum seems to have the dream life (he comes and goes from the guesthouse on the estate; drives Robin Masters’ Ferrari 308 GTS; and seduces beautiful women), he also has to deal with a constant thorn on his side: the rigid, upper crust, British head of security of Robin Masters’ estate, Higgins. He does not like Magnum being allowed to stay on the estate, but he is forced to abide by Masters’ wishes.

So why Magnum P.I.? Why should you spend your precious evening hours after a long day of work watching a show about a private investigator who beds lonely housewives and who deals with such seat-grabbing cases like kidnapped dogs, missing long-lost lovers, and protecting valuable pieces of art? And Tom Selleck? I bet most young people either have no clue as to who he is, think he’s their dad’s golfing buddy from the club, think he’s someone they’ve seen on a sex offender list, or remember him as that old guy who stars in that Stone show their grandma likes to watch.

Allow me to dispel all these silly notions. In the 80’s, Tom Selleck was the dude guys wanted to be and the man ladies wanted to cheat on their husbands with. For one, had it not been for his scheduling obligations on Magnum, Tom Selleck would have been forever immortalized as Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Selleck was Steven Spielberg’s first choice, but due to the scheduling conflicts between the first season of Magnum and Raiders, Selleck had to turn the role down. Although his career may not have skyrocketed to the extent that Harrison Ford’s did, Magnum P.I. turned Selleck into a household name and one of television’s biggest stars.

So what was the appeal? For the ladies, Thomas Magnum was a laid-back, charming, and sensitive guy who wore pornographically short shorts, frequently showed off his body during his daily ocean swims, and had a mustache that made him the object of every cop’s envy. For the men, Magnum was their good humored drinking buddy who watched your back, who drove around in a cherry red Ferrari, and whose name sounded like a porn star nickname. Although it may be impossible to imagine anyone else playing Indiana Jones other than Harrison Ford, I can totally see why Tom Selleck was Spielberg’s top choice to play the character. Selleck obviously had the athleticism to play that role, but even more importantly, the character of Thomas Magnum practically shares the same exact qualities as Indiana Jones. Both approach danger with a mixed sense of humor and confidence, but without taking anything too seriously. They both have a gift for seducing women. Both characters also make mistakes and this is a trait that was rarely seen in adventure heroes. Originally, Thomas Magnum was conceived to be a macho kind of guy who kicked ass and got the job done without fail every time. However, Selleck insisted in having his character be more complex by giving him his own personal demons (e.g. dealing with his Vietnam past), not having an answer to everything, and making mistakes. I have always believed this to be the key element to making a character connect with an audience because it makes them more like us.

A great show is usually less about the plotlines (although a bad story can easily kill your series) and more about its characters. After all, if you intend to have your audience come back every week to watch the same characters on their television, those characters better be damn interesting to watch. Magnum P.I. has three characters – two of them are underwritten and forgettable while the other is as identifiable with the show as Tom Selleck (and you can probably immediately guess who that is). Thomas Magnum has two Vietnam vet buddies, Rick (Larry Manetti) and T.C. (Roger E. Mosley). Rick runs the King Kamehameha Club, an exclusive club that Magnum frequents despite not being a member. T.C. runs a helicopter charter service, but he usually finds himself at Magnum’s service any time Magnum has a case. Rick is the least interesting character of the series. He doesn’t serve much purpose for Magnum and he’s mostly there to be a sidekick from time to time and to provide the show’s comic relief, which is not very good. As for T.C., his character has an obvious purpose, but its limited (he flies Magnum from one destination to another in his helicopter) and aside from that, I suspect he was cast mostly to inject some diversity into the show. Beneath T.C.’s constant complaining, you’re just ready to see him turn into the ‘angry black man’ raging against the system and the white man.

And then we have Higgins, played by Texas-born John Hillerman. I say Texas-born because Higgins is a British character and Hillerman does such a convincing job in portraying the character, that I was seriously shocked when I later discovered the actor is from Texas. As head of security for Robin Masters’ Hawaii estate, Higgins is a constant annoyance to Magnum. The character is wonderfully conceived and his noble, rigid, and English proper demeanor perfectly counterbalances Magnum’s laid back, come-what-may attitude. The scenes these two characters share are absolutely classic and its what I look forward to in every episode. Not surprisingly, both actors won an Emmy and Golden Globe for their performances.

Magnum, P.I. is a guilty pleasure and when something is a ‘guilty pleasure,’ it also means that the show is not a high quality, intellectual or thought-provoking show. Most TV snobs do not consider the show as among the best shows ever and it is frequently dismissed as shallow entertainment that provides nice scenery, action, a nice car, and a chance for women to see Tom Selleck shirtless. With the exception of John Hillerman, the acting is far from stellar and the writing tends to be cliché, cheesy, and over-the-top. But I don’t think anyone who is familiar with 1980’s TV shows or the company of similar shows Magnum, P.I. fell with (Knight Rider, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, & Hardcastle & McCormick) could realistically expect anything more from this show. Television viewers today are fortunate to see shows that are written just as well, if not frequently better, than most films out there. This was not the case in the 1980’s. TV writing was usually at a lower standard than screenwriting, but this was to be expected.

On a final note, with the Vietnam War being such an unpopular war, very few TV producers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s wanted to feature Vietnam veterans in their programming. Premiering more than 5 years after the end of the war, Magnum, P.I. was the first American prime-time drama to feature Vietnam veteran characters. It was quite a departure from network entertainment to have a show in which the title character is a Vietnam vet. More notably is the fact that the characters of Thomas Magnum, T.C., and Rick did not portray vets as psychologically scarred, homeless, and drug-addicted (although there is one episode in which one of T.C.’s Vietnam buddies is a heroin addict) people who were unable to reintegrate into civilian society. These characters are portrayed as positive role models, but at the same time, they also deal with the PTSD effects of the war.

The Abyss (1989): Grade: A-

936full-the-abyss-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? When The Abyss is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime, then you have to wonder why this problem is not getting the sort of attention that world hunger receives. The rumor is that the film is set for release on Blu-ray in 2014 so if you have never seen The Abyss it would be best to wait until then.

Starring: Ed Harris, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, & Michael Biehn

Directed by: James Cameron

Written By: James Cameron

[NOTE: This review is of the director’s cut, not the theatrical cut, of The Abyss] In my not so humble opinion, the finest science fiction stories are those that have something to say about the state of our current society. They show us what society can be if we head down a particular, usually destructive, path. War of the Worlds; Brave New World; Fahrenheit 451; I, Robot; A Clockwork Orange and more recent stories such as Children of Men; Wall-E; and the upcoming Elysium, all have political and social themes interweaved into their stories. After the success of The Terminator and Aliens, James Cameron finally earned the clout to tell an original story in the way he wanted. The concept for The Abyss had been brewing in his head for a long time and, in the epic and grand fashion that characterize all of Cameron’s movies, The Abyss was no exception in both the ground-breaking and extreme fashion it was made and in the scope of its story. With The Abyss, Cameron also began introducing us to his political and social views, in particular to humanity’s wanton and destructive nature, which have further been explored in Terminator 2 and Avatar. The Abyss also introduced us to James Cameron’s growing obsession with exploration of the ocean – something he seems more interested in than in making movies.

The Abyss is basically an underwater adventure involving a nuke, a psycho Navy SEAL, and a sort-of benevolent alien species. The film stars a then relatively unknown Ed Harris, who plays Bud, a gruff but charming oil worker who leads a motley group of roughnecks on an underwater oil rig called Deep Core. The film starts out with an American nuclear submarine that encounters an underwater alien. Its mere presence causes all electrical devices to shut down, which basically means the submarine gets royally fucked. It ends up crashing into a rock wall, killing its entire crew and sinking into the abyss. Compounding the problem is the fact that the nuclear sub contains nuclear warheads (duh), which the American government doesn’t want the Russkies to get its hands on. So they send a team of Navy SEALS, led by Cameron regular Michael Biehn, to retrieve the nukes. Since Bud and his crew are located near the sunken sub and they have expertise and the equipment to operate at huge depths, the oil crew is recruited to assist the SEALS in getting the nukes. However, Biehn ends up going batshit crazy, thinking the aliens the crew has just seen is a new threat (possibly Russian) that must be eliminated.

Directors frequently come out with “director’s cuts” of their movies and they do so for various reasons, length being the main reason. Peter Jackson and Ridley Scott are two filmmakers who are probably best known for coming out with their own cuts of their movies. The Lord of the Rings trilogy came out with longer editions after the films’ theatrical release. The films were not a major improvement over the theatrical version and you would not be missing out on anything by not seeing them. On the other hand, Ridley Scott has released a seemingly endless number of versions of Blade Runner and it is arguable whether they improve upon the original theatrical cut. However, both the LOTR trilogy and Blade Runner were already considered to be great films in their original cuts and the director’s cut merely improved upon them. The Abyss is the only film I can think of where the director’s version turns a decent movie with a very problematic ending (the theatrical cut) into a far better movie that substantively changes the motivations and story. Does The Abyss still have problems? Yes it does, but Cameron’s version makes those problems a little less noticeable.

I remember seeing Prometheus last summer and thinking how little chemistry and character development the ensemble cast had. With the exception of Michael Fassbender’s robot character, none of the other characters were interesting or believable and the actors playing them were not very good either and felt miscast. In watching that film, you can’t help but be reminded of The Abyss and how perfectly cast its actors are and how well Cameron developed their characters. Cameron had already proven with Aliens that he could tell a story with many characters and he uses that skill even more effectively with The Abyss. In those first 20 minutes of the movie, you are immediately introduced to Bud and his crew and see some of their key characteristics at display. But most importantly (and this is something that Prometheus spectacularly failed at), you totally buy into the fact that these characters are oil rig workers. Part of this is the pitch-perfect casting of actors who look like they could be found working on an oil rig. The actors in this film are all experienced, but they are not well known and they don’t look like beautiful Hollywood actors. You can tell that Cameron carefully researched not only the technology involved in having an underwater oil rig, but also the day-to-day lives and the lingo of oil rig workers. This shit is important – otherwise, you get what we saw in Prometheus.

Many of you will probably not appreciate this because you may be unaware of what skill it takes to be an efficient screenwriter. However, for the majority of The Abyss, especially during its first 30 minutes or so, Cameron does not waste a single frame of film. The film starts right off with the nuclear submarine encountering an alien and sinking. Boom. We then go to the oil rig and get introduced to Bud and crew. Boom. From the conversations between the characters, we learn Bud is going through a divorce. Boom. The oil rig crew is then told they have to help the SEALS investigate the sunken sub and accompanying them is Bud’s soon-to-be-ex-wife (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). BOOM. We also notice that Michael Biehn’s character is already displaying the shakes, indicating that he’s suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome. Right away Cameron establishes two points of major conflict in the story: Bud having to deal with his estranged wife and Michael Biehn being set up to be the crazy antagonist.

The action sequences in The Abyss are similarly well placed throughout the film. Each action sequence progresses the story forward – not a single sequence is put in for the sole sake of providing the audience with eye candy and thrills. And although the film has plenty of action, you never feel overwhelmed and exhausted by the end of the film (like say in Man of Steel). Like all of James Cameron’s films, The Abyss was made to be enjoyed on a very large screen and the action sequences particularly looked spectacular when seen blown up. However, it is a testament to how well the action is set up when you can still experience the edge-of-your-seat suspense that audiences did in theaters. Two sequences in particular are pure genius: One is where the oil rig is being dragged to the edge of the abyss by a fallen crane and the other is when Bud and his wife, Lindsey, are trapped in a mini-submarine that is filling with water and they only have 1 wetsuit between them (I have posted the clip from this scene below).

There is no doubt that Ed Harris gives a wonderful performance in The Abyss and if it wasn’t for that film, I don’t know where his career would have ended up. But as great as he is, I was most impressed by what Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio brought to the screen. She is an absolute revelation and perhaps with the exception of The Color of Money, I think her performance as the hard-nosed and passionate Lindsey is the best performance of her career. This is not a surprise when you consider James Cameron’s habit of creating strong women characters (Linda Hamilton in Terminator, Kate Winslet in Titanic, Jamie Lee Curtis and Tia Carrere in True Lies, and Zoe Saldana and Michelle Rodriguez in Avatar). Lindsey is not your typical damsel in distress who is waiting for Bud to come to her rescue. In fact, she is the one who sacrifices her life in the mini-submarine by allowing herself to drown so that Bud can swim them both back to the oil rig. In that scene and in the later one where she has a heart-to-heart conversation with Bud as he descends into the depths of the abyss are compelling and raw performances that Mastrantonio gives.

Lets not give Ed Harris short shrift either. As the grizzled, tough, but compassionate leader of the oil rig team, no one but Harris could have played this role. With a friendly-looking face, a good sense of humor, and an everyman blue collar demeanor, it is impossible to not want to be working for Bud. Harris had a rich and challenging role to take on because his character not only comes to reconnect with his estranged wife, but he finds himself in the position of having to basically save the world (oh, and take on an insane Navy SEAL). Speaking of which, Michael Biehn does a commendable job playing the antagonist who decides to set off a nuke. At times his performance is a little hammy and over-the-top, but I suppose a trained killing machine suffering from high-pressure nervous syndrome would begin to act a bit extreme.

Another interesting aspect of The Abyss is the film’s recognition of the end of the Cold War. During the movie, the U.S. and the Soviet Union are on the brink of a nuclear war and events are played out in the same fashion as the Cuban Missile Crisis. Michael Biehn’s character represents the whole “us vs. them” mentality of the Cold War and by making him go crazy, the film comments on how outdated and insane this way of thinking had become by 1989, the same year the Berlin Wall fell and one year before the fall of the Soviet Union.

During its theatrical release, The Abyss was criticized for not explaining why there were aliens at the bottom of the ocean. In the director’s cut, however, previously deleted scenes were put back in that finally give us a reason for the aliens’ presence. I appreciate the fact that the aliens are accounted for and I thought the giant tidal wave scenes looked pretty cool back in the day. However, I remain unconvinced by why the aliens want to destroy humanity for its destructive ways – why would they give a shit? Furthermore, I found it totally unconvincing that the aliens decided against destroying humans based on a little text Bud sent Lindsey basically telling her that he’s going to sacrifice himself by plunging into the abyss. Let us not even go into the very end of the movie where the aliens raise the oil rig to the surface – I guess alien technology magically made decompression unnecessary. I’ve wondered if Cameron simply ran out of time and money to make a better ending because it stands in such stark contrast with the rest of the movie. That whole climax feels like it was rushed and hastily put together.

Nevertheless, The Abyss remains a highly watchable science fiction adventure film that gives us that rare combination of suspenseful and non-stop action, strongly developed characters, and wonderful performances. The film remains one of James Cameron’s best efforts. If you cannot wait for the blu-ray to come out and you want to see this now, watch the special edition version of the DVD and check out the 1 hour documentary on the making of the film. You will gain a much deeper appreciation for this movie when you see the grueling conditions this movie was made under.

936full-ferris-bueller's-day-off-posterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Matthew Broderick, Alan Ruck, Mia Sara, Jeffrey Jones, Jennifer Grey, Lyman Ward, Cindy Pickett, Edie McClurg, Ben Stein, Del Close, Charlie Sheen, Richard Edson, Kristy Swanson, & Jonathan Schmock

Directed by: John Hughes

Written By: John Hughes

With Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the late writer/director John Hughes managed to catch lightening in a bottle. Sometimes, luck and timing will perfectly combine all the elements of a movie (plot, casting, setting, etc) to produce a result that becomes seminal and helps define a generation. Such films include Back to the Future, Field of Dreams, American Graffiti, Forrest Gump, Dazed and Confused, and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. There is an unexplainable quality to these films that cannot be quantified, but one recurring element that they all share is a “coming of age” theme. These films may not rank among the best films ever made, but what makes them unique is how they so intimately connect with our romanticized memories of our own key life moments.

Facing a looming writer’s strike, it took less than a week for Hughes to write Ferris Bueller and he essentially shot the film based on the first draft of his screenplay. The film was Hughes’ love letter to his hometown of Chicago (“I really wanted to capture as much of Chicago as I could, not just the architecture and the landscape, but the spirit.”) and he wrote the story with Matthew Broderick specifically in mind for the lead role of Ferris Bueller. The story takes place in 1 day in the life of Ferris Bueller, a high schooler whose philosophy on life is, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” As the film’s title says, Bueller decides to take the day off from school and have some fun with his best friend, Cameron (Alan Ruck), and girlfriend (Mia Sara). However, there are those who want to spoil Ferris’ fun, namely the Dean of Students at Ferris’ high school, Edward R. Rooney (Jeffrey Jones) and Ferris’ sister, Jeanie Bueller (Jennifer Grey).

That saying, “They don’t make them like they used to” is no more apt than it is for Ferris Buller. Not to sound like some grumpy old guy, but if Ferris Bueller were made today, it would undoubtedly be full of sexual innuendos, drug use, wall-to-wall product placements, and the comedy would probably be mean-spirited and sarcastic. Furthermore, in this day and age when major studio productions cost a minimum of $100 million to make, no risk-averse studio would have allowed John Hughes to take the creative liberties he did with Ferris Bueller by allowing him to insert such introspective scenes like the one that takes place at the Art Institute of Chicago. Unfortunately, Ferris Bueller would probably have to be funded as an indie movie through Kickstarter to have any chance of seeing light.

Like every single one of John Hughes’ film, Ferris Bueller’s appeal is not the story, but the characters. In fact, Hughes’ plotlines are really nothing but simplistic setups for his characters to grow into. The Breakfast Club was just about a group of high schoolers spending a detention Saturday in the library. Home Alone is simply about a boy who finds himself fending off a pair of burglars after being accidentally left behind at home by his parents. Weird Science is about two nerds who create the perfect woman with their computer. And Ferris Bueller is nothing more than a privileged suburban Chicago kid who ditches school to have a bit of fun. However, with all of these, what we most remember are the richly developed and very memorable characters that John Hughes created. Have a conversation with anyone about any John Hughes film and I can guarantee the focus of discussion will be on one of the characters.

The character of Ferris Bueller sort of reminds me of Michael J. Fox’s Alex Keaton character in Family Ties. Keaton was a dyed-in-the-wool Reagan Republican who always advocated the values of the Republican Party. Ferris Bueller doesn’t make any mention of the Republic Party nor Ronald Reagan, but his view on life clearly reflects the qualities of the Grand Ol’ Party. At the beginning of the film, when Ferris Bueller introduces us to his methods of faking out parents into thinking you are sick, he effectively tells us that life is all about experiencing the goods things in life (eating at nice restaurants, driving a Ferrari, going to ball games, etc.). This obviously requires money and it is safe to say that Ferris Bueller’s only reason for wanting to go to college and getting a job is to earn enough of it to maintain the rich lifestyle that he got to experience for 1 day in this movie. That was the essence of the Reagan 80’s where, as Michael Douglas’ Gordon Gecko famously said, greed was good.

Ferris Bueller is a privileged white kid who lives in a nice, suburban Chicago neighborhood. He lies to his oblivious parents, he skips school, his classmates think he is dying so they raise money that he doesn’t need, and he convinces his best friend to take his father’s prized Ferrari out for a spin even though he knows this will probably land his friend in deep shit. How can you possibly make such a character likable? And somehow, he is. Matthew Broderick imbues the character with an earnest innocence that prevents Bueller as coming off as being an arrogant, smarmy asshole. Ferris Bueller invites you to join in on the fun with him and it is difficult to not be taken in by his confidence and enthusiasm. Hughes succeeds in this partly by having Bueller break the 4th wall and talk to the audience directly. Due to it being a comedy, it is very easy to overlook how difficult it is to write such a character without making him totally unlikeable. The serendipitous casting of the boyish and mischievous looking Matthew Broderick certainly helped in that regard, but the credit mainly goes to John Hughes for walking that precarious balance between easily fucking up the character and accomplishing the far more difficult task of pulling it off.

However, I am probably not alone in saying that my favorite character in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Ferris Bueller’s best friend, the neurotic and awkward Cameron. It is amazing to think that when Alan Ruck was cast to play this high schooler, Ruck was almost 30 years old! And yet, never are you in doubt that Cameron is in high school. Many of the film’s greatest moments are those with Cameron (like the funny faces he makes at the fancy restaurant, his classic turn convincing Principal Rooney that he was Simone’s father to get her out of school for the day, and lest we forget, the film’s best scene in which Cameron decides to finally face up to his father). Cameron is the voice of caution and reason, but there is very little room for caution and reason in Ferris Bueller’s world, especially if caution and reason mean that Ferris has to go to school and be like everyone else.

The weakest character in the film, but the one every adolescent male in the 80’s probably masturbated to (along with Who’s the Boss’s Alyssa Milano…admit it) is Simone, played by Mia Sara. Molly Ringwald was reportedly interested in playing the role, but Hughes refused to cast her because he felt the role was too small for someone like Ringwald. He was right. The Simone character has very little to do except to dote on Ferris and follow the two guys around. She has very few lines and she is by far one of the most underdeveloped characters Hughes has ever written (even the small supporting role of the fucking school secretary, played by Mrs. Poole, has more dialogue and personality!).

As for the film’s antagonists, I never really dug the Edward Rooney character although I am a big fan of the actor, Jeffrey Jones (Amadeus, Beetlejuice). Principal Rooney is far too one-dimensional and the humor of having an idiotic authority figure no longer holds up. I would have preferred a less slapstick, less over-the-top approach to the character such as what Hughes did with the principal character in The Breakfast Club. On the other hand, as similarly one-dimensional as Ferris’ sister is, it is absolutely IMPOSSIBLE to not fall in love with Jennifer Grey (a pre-Dirty Dancing Jennifer Grey I might add). Unlike the caricature Hughes created with Ed Rooney, Jeanie Bueller realistically portrays every older bully sibling that every kid sibling has had the misfortune to live with. Her likeability is enhanced by the wonderfully hilarious and sweet scene where she finds herself at the police station and meets Charlie Sheen’s stoner character. Not only is it a funny scene (Sheen kills it), but we finally witness a thawing of Jeanie’s ice cold bitchiness and see a sweet side to her that adds a nice added layer to her character. Sidenote: Grey and Matthew Broderick ended up dating for awhile after this film.

One of the great things about Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is that there is no romantic subplot involving a boy and a girl (unless you count the very brief Jeanie/Charlie Sheen encounter as a romantic plot, which it really is not). I think the real reason for this is that such a subplot would distract from the film’s true love story – John Hughes’ romance with his hometown of Chicago. Like I stated before, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is Hughes’ love letter to his city. Frame by frame, you can sense Hughes’ excitement to play tour guide with his audience and show them not only the geographical aspects of Chicago, but to also give us a sense of the city’s spirit. All of this culminates in the now iconic scene where Ferris Bueller sings Danke Schoen in downtown Chicago. This may be a little too cheesy for today’s jaded audiences, but for me, it remains a memorably cheerful and wonderful scene that continues to bring a smile to my face despite how many times I have seen this movie.

It is impossible to quantify the brilliance of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. On the surface, this appears to be a fun, whimsical, and disposable teen comedy. But to shrug this film off is a huge mistake. This film offers it all – it is funny, smart, charming, insanely quotable, and it represents John Hughes at the peak of his career. By the way, I have not even mentioned the film’s great soundtrack, which is highlighted by the song that will forever be associated with Ferris Bueller’s Day Off – Yellow’s Oh Yeah. To appreciate the impact of this movie on our popular culture, think of this – Matthew Broderick has made MANY MANY other films throughout his career (WarGames, Election, Godzilla, The Producers) and yet, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off remains what he is best known for and I think it will forever be that way.

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Monte Carlo (2011): Grade: D-

MonteCarloPosterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Aurora is fortunately not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Starring: Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, Katie Cassidy, Pierre Boulanger, Catherine Tate, Luke Bracey, Cory Monteith, Andie MacDowell, Brett Cullen

Directed by: Thomas Bezucha

Written By: Thomas Bezucha, April Blair, Maria Maggenti

How the sheer fuck did a novel called “Headhunters,” which was about four middle-aged women from New Jersey who prowl for rich husbands, turn into a script about three lonely Midwesterners in their 30’s (one of whom included Nicole Kidman) to then become a throw away pile of shit about three young women getting involved in a case of mistaken identity and starring ex-Bieber Selena Gomez? Where did that severe lapse in imagination and judgment occur?

Now you may be wondering why this fool ass would even consider watching a movie intended for the tween crowd, ESPECIALLY after having just reviewed a serious and critically acclaimed foreign film by a director who launched his country’s first cinema movement?!? Let us just say that I had a bet with a friend and I lost that bet with a friend and the losing of that bet with a friend meant I would watch Monte Carlo from beginning to end without fast-forwarding and then review it for this blog. Look at it this way: you get to now see me vent my rage at having to watch this movie so that should provide you with a bit of entertainment.

As goes with the rest of this film’s unsubtle approach (subtext is clearly not in this movie’s vocabulary), Selena Gomez’s character is named Grace as in Grace Kelly, who starred in that other film set in Monte Carlo, Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch A Thief (and I am sure Grace Kelly is rolling in her fucking grave at the thought of Selena Gomez attempting to pay her tribute). Anyway, Grace is about to graduate from high school in her small Texas hick town. She and her best friend, Emma (Katie Cassidy), have been saving up their tips from their waitress job for a graduation trip to Paris. However, her mom (Andie MacDowell) and sort-of stepdad (Brett Cullen) throw cow shit all over Grace’s fairy tale trip by forcing her and Emma to have her stepdad’s difficult and negative daughter, Meg (Leighton Meester), accompany them on the trip. The three of them get to Paris and accidentally run into Cordelia Winthrop Scott (also Selena Gomez), an ungrateful and undeserving British heiress bitch. After the paparazzi mistake Grace for Cordelia, Grace’s friends realize that there is nothing wrong with their friend impersonating another person for a few days and living the rich life. Hot sex, violence, and profanity ensue. Actually, none of that happens, but you will wish it did after (or if) you get through this film.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head as soon as the film’s opening credits rolled. For one, how the mighty have fallen when someone as formerly great as Andie MacDowell decides to take a thankless 5-minute role of playing a boring mom. Well done managing that career, Andie. Second, who did Michael Giacchino (Star Trek, The Incredibles) owe a favor to in order to be saddled with composing this film’s music score? More importantly, why the hell was he even hired when most of the film’s music is (a) comprised of songs (and admittedly very good ones at that) and (b) the orchestral music is barely noticeable and when it is, it sucks?

I am not a complete prick and I understand shitty, brainless films like Monte Carlo are not intended for my demographic or for people with high IQs. I am also perfectly comfortable with myself to give credit to the elements that work in the film. Monte Carlo really boils down to being a travelogue and like any good travelogue (i.e. see Rick Steves), it has pretty cinematography (by DP Jonathan Brown, who is the son of the inventor of the Steadicam) that shows off the wonders of Paris and Monte Carlo during their best moments (in the spring season). If you, like me, have lost a bet and you are forced to watch Monte Carlo, I suggest you purchase the soundtrack and watch the movie on mute with the soundtrack playing in the background. You will have a far better cinematic experience than I did.

I was obviously already aware of the train wreck viewing experience I was about to embark on with Monte Carlo, but my fears and expectations were confirmed during a high school graduation scene in which a character quotes from Gandhi. The quote is: “You must be the change you want to see in the world.” This becomes the theme of the movie and it defines Grace’s journey. I have no problem with Gandhi serving as an inspiration for a character, but when it is being used in a tween comedy that is made by people with TV backgrounds, you should excuse my lack of faith in their ability to come up with a meaningful and original way to incorporate this quote into the story and characters. Nevertheless, I was intrigued by how the filmmakers would use this quote and just as I suspected, they fuck it up – at the very end of the film, almost as something the filmmakers tacked on in order to justify Grace’s materialistic and shallow goals and interests, we find Grace in Romania as a volunteer at an elementary school. She is asked by her supervisor to go out and run some errand when she runs into the French prince who she had a romantic fling with earlier in the movie. Presumably, she will now quit her volunteership that probably didn’t do dick for that school and its poor Romanian children and live the life of a golddigging trophy wife to a prince.

There are many reasons why I normally cannot get into romantic comedies, especially those that are made for younger audiences. I can understand why Hollywood would want to have its main characters to be conventionally beautiful looking because audiences who watch these films want to see a fairy tale romance they can escape to and in their shallow, brainwashed, undeveloped minds, this means the lovebirds must look pretty. However, what I do not get is why all the other characters have to look pretty as well and why every piece of scenery and setting has to look perfectly clean and polished? Grace, Emma, and Meg come from a small town in Texas that is populated by people who clearly all came from Los Angeles. Places such as the diner and high school look like the quaint places that we city folk imagine small country towns to look like. It was impossible for me to imagine Grace coming from a poor, working class family when her mom is former Vogue model Andie MacDowell.

The plot to Monte Carlo smacks of something that was cobbled together by Selena Gomez’s publicists, studio executives, and a focus group comprised of ditzy teenage girls. Shit happens that either does not make any sense or its simply a stupid creative decision. For example, why did Grace have to save up for her high school graduation Paris trip by waiting tables when her older sister (who already graduated from high school) had dad not only pay for her trip, but she also got an upgrade on her flight? That would be enough to set my own sister on fire. Another general thought: If these girls are so hard-up for visiting Paris, then why the hell do they spend like half a day in the city and then spend the rest of their vacation in Monte Carlo (a city that dumbshit Emma has never heard of and yet she seems to have heard of Reykjavík)? What ultimately disturbed me about Monte Carlo was how the film clearly celebrates the excesses of wealth, social status, and the attainment of a rich husband above everything else. For these girls, becoming rich is the end goal. Sure, the film throws out a bone about saving poor Romanian children, but it spends no more than a few minutes mentioning it without going too deep into the issue for fear of boggling the minds of the film’s target audience. Ladies, if you want to see this same story, but with a bit more intelligence and better humor and dialogue, check out Only You (1994) instead.

If Selena Gomez, Leighton Meester, and Katie Cassidy are going to represent Hollywood’s next generation of thespians, then it is safe to say that film is already dead as an art form. To be fair, the three screenwriters who wrote Monte Carlo did not help in the least bit to make these “actresses” look good. The dialogue is so cringingly fucking horrible that I can now see why the director figured it would be best to distract his audience away from the characters by focusing the film more on beautiful scenery. The three girls are obnoxious, one-dimensional, and Selena Gomez should never be allowed to use a British accent again (despite the fact that she reportedly spent weeks training herself to speak British).

Monte Carlo is, predictably, a nuclear disaster. I would not wish this film on my worst enemy and if you have even an ounce of self-respect, you will avert your eyes from the title and move on down the aisle to something that will be more nourishing for the body, mind, and soul. This film is like a sexless version of Sex and the City that sputters before it even has a chance to take off. Skip this colossal waste of time.

Aurora (2011): Grade: F

auroraIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Aurora is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime. It is currently available for rent only through DVD/Blu-ray.

Starring: Cristi Puiu, Clara Voda, Valeria Seciu, Gelu Colceag, Luminta Gheorghiu, Gigi Ifrim, Lucian Ifrim, Carmela Culda, Ileana Puiu

Directed by: Cristi Puiu

Written By: Cristi Puiu

Why does every Eastern European film have to be dark, emotionless, and depressing? Was life under Communist totalitarian and repressive regimes so bad? Obviously, Eastern European filmmakers are not in the business of entertaining their audiences unless ruining your day and boring the complete shit out of you is your idea of entertainment. Today’s Eastern European cinema is what avant-garde German cinema must have been like in the 1970’s. I can imagine a smoke-filled movie theater somewhere in an industrial part of Romania where everyone is dressed in black turtlenecks, sporting shades, and sharing the same dour outlook on life as the filmmakers obviously do. If you cannot tell from this little diatribe, I am a firm believer in the not-widely-adopted notion that movies serve to primarily entertain, even when they intend to educate their audience.

Acclaimed Romanian filmmaker Cristi Puiu’s 2010 film, Aurora, falls squarely into my above description. Puiu is considered one of the pioneers of Romanian New Wave cinema, which began in the mid-2000’s with Puiu’s The Death of Mr. Lazarescu (2005) (winner of the Un Certain Regard at the 2005 Cannes Film Festival). Films of the Romanian New Wave are usually either set in the late 1980’s at the end of Nicolae Ceausescu’s totalitarian regime (stop me if this is too much history for you) or in modern-day Romania where they deal with how capitalism and democracy have changed the country since 1989. These films are characterized by an aesthetic look that is stark, minimalist, and realist. One thing to keep in mind about the Romanian New Wave is that this movement came much later than it did in countries like Britain, France, and Italy and that is due to the Romanian government’s tight control over its filmmakers. Up until Ceausescu’s fall, the only filmmaking that really went on in Romania was propaganda pieces. However, a decade and a half after Romania became democratic, the Romanian New Wave emerged and it has gained worldwide recognition among film art house audiences and critics.

Aurora is about an engineer named Viorel (Cristi Puiu), who has just gone through a messy divorce and (I think) is having problems at work. He now lives by himself in a small apartment that appears to be in an abandoned state of renovation. Viorel is distraught over his divorce and so he methodically plans out the murder of his now ex-wife.

The premise sounds interesting enough and one would imagine that such a simple story would not take more than an hour and a half or two hours (at most) to tell. Let me be the bearer of bad news by dispelling both of these assumptions. Puiu, who produced, directed, and starred in Aurora takes THREE HOURS to tell a story in which very little happens. If I could time how long it takes for all the significant scenes to occur, it would probably not be more than half an hour. For the remainder of that time, we literally see the main character of Viorel walking or driving from one place to another with no or very little reason or he is staring at some object or a person without saying a word. Cristi Puiu’s aesthetic style is to shoot very long shots through mainly static camera angles that gives the scenes a fly-on-the-wall perspective. A scene in this film can seemingly take forever in which absolutely nothing happens. I know it is cliché when one compares something to watching paint dry. However, Aurora is as appropriate a film as any to fit that description – for the vast majority of this film, it would have made no difference whether I watched Viorel lumber about doing God knows what or if the camera had simply focused on a wall covered with fresh paint.

The long stretches of boredom are punctuated by very brief moments of intensity, which when they occur, it is akin to being given food and water after enduring days of torture. I really got into these scenes, but I could not tell whether my interest in them was because these scenes were genuinely interesting or whether my boredom made me desperately yearn for anything remotely interesting that would break the boredom. Viorel is clearly a disturbed and angry individual, but so little of the character’s feelings and thoughts are revealed. During the entirety of the film, he does not utter more than a few lines of dialogue. Not that being silent is a bad thing because after all, some timeless classics have been made from the silent era of cinema. However, here, so much of what we see Viorel do goes unexplained and there is not enough information to understand what he is doing. We are left with watching a depressed man go through the mundane rituals of life, albeit a life where he makes preparations to blow his wife away.

Normally when I see a movie that lacks in both story and character development, I put out some hope that the film can at least be salvaged in its visuals and music. I’m sorry to disappoint you on this front as well. Like I stated before, like other films of the Romanian New Wave, Aurora uses a muted, cold, and monochromatic color pallet in which the imagery is grainy and highly textured. Puiu employs a static camera approach to give his film a quasi-documentary feel so you don’t see any crane, dolly, or steadycam shots or any quirky angles. As for sound, since the film’s style is documentary, there is no sound design and any music you hear is incidental background music that is played on the radio or television. In short, don’t be expecting to see any beautiful cinematography or hear a beautiful film score by a Romanian composer.

I perfectly understand that Cristi Puiu intended to give us an antiseptic and mundane look at random violence. What I do not understand is why he would do such a thing? Why would audience members want to see anything mundane on the screen when they just simply observe their own lives if they want that effect? The director goes way too far in making his film’s violent undertones feel like one more bit of the modern malaise. At times I felt that Puiu holds a snobby disregard for the principles of entertainment or patience. He offers zero insight into his character and the things his character does (taking a shower, waiting in line to buy his meal, drive to some drab location, or hide behind trucks to spy on people) is hardly compelling. Even when the film’s plot thickens during the halfway point (where Voirel kills his wife), the film fails to generate an ounce of interest and by then you will have already given up on the film. If the Romanian New Wave cinema is anything like Aurora, it will be a short-lived movement.

A-Better-Life-Movie-PosterIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? A Better Life is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime. It is currently available for rent only through DVD/Blu-ray.

Starring: Demian Bichir, Jose Julian, Carlos Linares, Eddie “Piolin” Sotelo, Joaquin Cosio, Nancy Lenehan, Gabriel Chavarria, Bobby Soto, Chelsea Rendon, Kimberly Morales, Lizbeth Leon

Directed by: Chris Weitz

Written By: Eric Eason (story by Roger L. Simon)

Its not that the city of Los Angeles is somehow unique in its ethnic or socioeconomic makeup that so many movies have been made about its citizens. It is simply because those who make movies tend to live in L.A. and have lived there long enough to make observations and opinions about the various groups who live in the City of Angels. Steve Martin’s 1991 whimsical tale about Los Angeles, L.A. Story, presented a decidedly white, upper class (basically Steve Martin’s) interpretation of L.A. In the same year, we got to see a starkly contrasting view of life on the “other side of the tracks” in John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood, an eye-opening film about the dangerous lives of black youth living in Compton. Other films have also shined a spotlight on L.A. – Crash, Grand Canyon, and The Player to name a few.

However, since 1983’s El Norte, few films have dealt with L.A.’s substantially large undocumented community of Hispanics. Shot in the city’s largely Hispanic East Side and featuring a cast that is virtually all Hispanic, A Better Life shines a spotlight on the struggles of being an undocumented Hispanic in post-9/11 America. It is the story of Carlos (Demian Bechir, who played Fidel Castro in Steven Soderbergh’s Che), an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who performs gardening services for Los Angeles’ well-to-do, and his teenage son Luis (Jose Julian). Carlos’ friend offers to sell his gardening truck along with its tools to Carlos so that Carlos may continue to make a living. Although he does not have a driver’s license, Carlos takes a loan from his sister and buys the truck. However, Carlos’ enjoyment of his new purchase is short-lived as it becomes stolen soon after he buys it. Desperate to reclaim it, Carlos and his son explore the multicultural environments of Los Angeles in search of their truck.

If you are a film history buff, you may immediately recognize the plotline in A Better Life as being similar to Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 masterpiece, The Bicycle Thief. Both films deal with a financially struggling father who desperately needs the bicycle/truck in order to work and support his family. The Bicycle Thief uses its plot as a device to show us post-World War II life in Italy. A Better Life uses Carlos’ story to showcase the precarious existence undocumented Hispanics lead when they come to this country. It is always an uphill battle for a filmmaker to present a social or political lesson to general audiences who only want to be entertained. Although documentaries serve as the most obvious way of providing these lessons, far fewer people watch documentaries and those who do tend to already agree with whatever message the documentary intends to convey. A better approach is what director Chris Weitz (American Pie, Antz, Twilight: New Moon, About a Boy) does here and what Oliver Stone has very effectively done with his movies: give the audience a story to impart the filmmaker’s message.

Americans, especially those in the Western states, have strong opinions about undocumented immigrants from Mexico and whether they hurt or help the U.S. economy. There are strong arguments that these immigrants are indeed helping our economy. It does not take a rocket scientist to see this when $25 billion in taxes are paid by these immigrants, but very few of them use this country’s tax-funded social services. However, regardless of whether or not you think undocumented immigrants belong in this country, no one can deny that these people come to this country because they believe whole-heartedly that they can obtain a better life in America. They come here and perform the jobs that no one else will do (or at least not for the pittance that immigrants get paid to do them). They work hard and they scrape and scrounge every penny they can to support their families and hope that some day they will rise out of their current situations. At the same time, especially in a place like Los Angeles where its so easy to avoid seeing the types of people you don’t want to see, the plight of undocumented immigrants goes largely unnoticed. We don’t want to know how our food gets to our table, whether the nanny we employ to take care of our kids is undocumented, or whether the gardener who comes to mow our lawns has health insurance in case he gets injured on the job.

The story of Carlos is the story of countless undocumented immigrants who live in L.A. Up until I saw A Better Life, I had never seen Damian Beshir. A huge movie star in Mexico, Beshir’s American work has only been seen by a few (Steven Soderbergh’s Che and a recurring role on the TV show Weeds). Here, Beshir’s Carlos does not say much at all during the opening sequence of the film, but he makes an immediate connection with the audience. His daily life consists of a dawn-to-dusk ordeal of non-stop work. By the time he gets home, he is too exhausted to spend any time with his son Luis. However, everything he does, every ounce of effort he puts forth, is for his son. He may not be able to articulate his love for Luis, but it clearly exists and it is evident in the simple fact that he chooses to sleep on the couch while giving the bed to his son and the joy he has in picking out a present for his son. With his weary eyes and personable charisma, Beshir inhabits his role so completely that you spend most of the movie seeing him as a real undocumented immigrant who just happened to be hired to act in a movie.

Chris Weitz’s portrayal of Los Angeles is a true portrait of the city. It wisely avoids the touristy version of the city where you see the Hollywood sign, beautiful Beverly Hills mansions, and the beach. The L.A. you see is an uncompromising, harsh environment in which people struggle to keep their heads just above water, but where they help each other out when they can and with the very limited resources that they have. There is a beautiful and memorable scene in the film where Carlos is riding to work and he watches a diverse Los Angeles population go by him. Later in the film, he takes Luis to a Mexican rodeo that will amaze you that such a place exists right in Los Angeles.

A Better Life is an emotional film, but its one that takes a few stumbles in an effort to be sentimental. The film relies too much on clichés and stereotypes to produce this effect and it beats you over the head with it. For example, we have already seen various portrayals of Latino gang culture and I would have preferred to have seen Luis deal with a different problem than the pressure of joining a gang. Even the idea of making Luis into a rebellious teenager (despite it creating narrative conflict) and the father-son lectures are clichéd and overused. Lending to this problem is the film’s processed look. Although the director took pains to hire an unknown cast, A Better Life continues to feel like Hollywood’s notion of Carlos’ world. In contrast, De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief felt so authentic that it was almost as if you were watching a documentary. This film needed to look less polished and to not have resolved its story in so tidy a manner. Like its Italian predecessor, A Better Life should have adopted a more neorealist style. All in all, however, the film remains one that is worth seeing for its beautifully simple story and great performance from Damian Beshir.

Ushpizin (2004): Grade: B+

Original Cinema Quad Poster - Movie Film PostersIs this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Ushpizin is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, but it is available through the iTunes Store and Amazon Prime.

Starring: Shuli Rand, Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shaul Mizrahi, Ilan Ganani, Yonathan Danino

Directed by: Giddi Dar

Written By: Shuli Rand

A foreign-made film does more than just tell a story. It often shines its lens on the culture it portrays and on a part of the world that we are likely unfamiliar with. One of the most unfortunate aspects of our American movie business is the lack of support for the distribution of foreign films in American theaters. Aside from the fact that American audiences are deprived of a vast store of wonderful stories told from around the world, the likelihood of eradicating our ignorance of other cultures and the attendant stereotypes we create of those cultures is reduced by not giving foreign films the support they deserve. Ushpizin exemplifies this notion. An Israeli film made in 2004, Ushpizin (which means “guest” in Aramaic) became one of Israel’s most financially successful films and won for Best Actor at the Ophir Awards (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars).

Ushpizin is a unique film because it was made by a former actor (Shuli Rand) and his wife (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand) who are both Breslov Chassidim, a sect of Hassidic Judaism (Orthodox Judaism) that forbids its followers from going to the cinema. Furthermore, this film marks a very rare collaboration between secular and ultra-Orthodox Israelis. Due to his beliefs, Shuli Rand refused to play his character opposite a woman other than his real wife. Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, Shuli’s real wife, had never acted before, but she took on the role so that the film could be made.

The story takes place during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, which requires observant Jews to create temporary dwellings (sort of like pitching a tent, but in this case they look like wooden shacks). Frequently, those observing the holiday will bring in guests to stay with them as well, which is seen as a blessing. However, for Moshe Bellanga (Shuli Rand) and his wife, Mali (Michal Bat-Sheva Rand), they are an impoverished and childless couple who cannot afford to pay their rent, let alone afford to celebrate the holiday. After an impassioned and anguished plea to God for a miracle, the couple receives an anonymous monetary gift on the eve of the holiday. Excited by this gift from God, Moshe and Mali set out to create their sukkah (the temporary dwelling) and prepare for the festivities. The couple is also visited by two escaped convicts (Shaul Mizrahi and Ilan Ganani), who we soon discover knew Moshe in an earlier and much wilder life. The convicts become guests at the sukkah, but this apparent blessing turns out to be a disaster for the couple.

Most of us can probably not relate to the Hassidic culture and lifestyle of Moshe and Mali, but we can relate to life’s various challenges such as not having enough money to pay the bills or trying to produce a child. During the first 15 minutes of Ushpizin, you immediately identify with Moshe and Mali’s problems and feel the helplessness they feel in not being able to get even a slight reprieve from their problems. This is particularly frustrating given that they have taken a vow to live in a Breslov community and lead strictly religious lives. Wouldn’t it be safe to assume that life’s hardships would go away if one were to devote their entire life to God? Moshe and Mali finally receive God’s blessing in the form of money after Moshe makes a desperate plea to receive God’s help. The scene where Moshe earnestly prays to God to grant him a miracle is a truly emotional scene (yes, even if you’re an atheist) and if you come away from that feeling nothing, then you must be heartless.

Being a character-driven film, much of Ushpizin’s success hinges on the performances of the husband and wife. I don’t know whether its because the two actors are a real-life married couple, but the chemistry between them is clearly apparent. The characters defy the typical characterization of Hasidic Jews where the wife is totally subservient to her husband. Although Mali is obedient to her husband and plays the traditional role of a housewife, the two also have a mutual respect for each other. Both actors give astonishing performances that are complex, truthful, and engaging. Both characters are also intensely emotional and Mali has a temperament as raging as her husband’s. I was especially taken by Michal Bat-Sheva Rand, who is not an actor and who only played in the film at her husband’s request.

Adding to the frustration of the couple’s problems are the two nitwit escaped convicts who show up unexpected at Moshe and Mali’s sukkah. These guys totally take advantage of Moshe and Mali’s hospitality by eating all their food and overstaying their welcome. However, despite their behavior, the couple continues to treat them like family. To us, the couple’s blind trust in the ex-cons may come off as foolish and naïve, especially given how obviously unscrupulous these crooks are. But seen in a different light, the couple’s overzealous hospitality reflects an affirmation of the strength of their unshakeable faith. At times I felt the convict characters were a little too one-dimensional and almost borderline slapstick. At other times, they came off as being on the verge of committing an act of violence against the couple and I was confused by whether I was supposed to find this funny.

Although Ushpizin focuses on a particular sect of Judaism, the film does not preach about the virtues of the religion or try to gain any converts. In fact, the film’s message transcends any religion or belief and it avoids being dogmatic. What’s more, Ushpizin accomplishes the delicate balance between its spirituality and its comedic plot. This is one of the most difficult things to pull off in any film because if not done right, the film can be perceived as being critical of the beliefs in the story. The humor is not over-the-top hysterical and I mostly found it unfunny (mostly because I prefer my humor dirty), but given how the filmmakers had to operate within the restrictions of the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, just the fact that there is any humor in the film is astonishing.

I could have also done without the sentimental epilogue of the story. The filmmakers probably felt that they needed to tie everything up neatly before ending their story. The ending is surely in keeping with the plot’s fable-like structure, but it would have been just as consistent with the film’s recurrent theme of a person’s worth being measured by how he/she handles God’s challenges if the couple did not have a baby.

Ushpizin has an exotic quality to it in how it portrays the lifestyle of the ultra-Orthodox Israeli community. The film successfully brings us inside this closed world by inviting us to experience the community’s culture and rituals. At the same time, the filmmakers do not rest on their laurels and solely rely on giving us a window into this community. They also manage to give us a light-hearted comedic fable that may be a bit too sentimental in the end, but its nonetheless an engaging piece of entertainment that I recommend you see. this film available for rent on Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, and Amazon Prime? Karas The Prophecy is not available for rent through Netflix Watch Instant, the iTunes Store, or Amazon Prime.

Starring: Sohkoh Wada, Steve Staley, Takahiro Sakurai, Matthew Lillard, Kiyoyuki Yanada, Keith Burgess, Tohru Ohkawa, Paul St. Peter, Misa Watanabe, Mary Elizabeth McGlynn, Tomohiro Nishimura, Dave Mallow, Rokuro Naya, Michael McConnohie, Keiji Fujiwara, Jay Hernandez, Etsuko Kozakura, Piper Perabo

Directed by: Keiichi Sato

Japanese anime is always tricky to recommend to American audiences. Similar to Bollywood, anime takes a little getting used to in terms of its visual style and narrative themes. For many, especially those accustomed to American-style animation, Japanese anime may come off as being too weird, too dark, or confusing as to the complexity of its narratives. It took me awhile to give anime a chance, but even when I did, I was not completely sold. You have to understand that the very first time I saw an anime film was when my college roommates brought home a movie that was basically about a woman getting raped by a demon. After that experience, I figured anime just wasn’t for me. It was not until I had the fortunate experience of seeing one of Hayao Miyazaki’s masterpieces that I became sold on the ability of this art form to give me a compelling story.

Karas The Prophecy is a feature length film that collects the first half of a series of episodes of a series called Karas. The film was made by Tatsunoko Productions (Speed Racer, Gatchaman, Neon Genesis Evangelion), which like Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli, is one of Japan’s most well known animation studios. Tatsunoko Productions is considered to be the Hanna-Barbera of Japan in terms of its influence in TV-production.

Karas was produced in commemoration of the studio’s 40th anniversary. The idea behind the series was to create a dark superhero. As director Keiichi Sato describes it, “Just as New York City has Spider-Man, and Gotham City has Batman, it’s about time for Japan to have its own local hero.” The series is set in a futuristic version of Shinjuku, Tokyo where humans coexist with yokai (Japanese spirits). Our hero/protagonist is Otoha, who is a former yakuza. He becomes reborn and is appointed to be a karas, which is basically a superhero responsible for protecting the city. Karas’ mission is to put a stop to Eko, his corrupt predecessor. There is also another hero (more of an anti-hero) named Nue, who used to be a bad demon, but now fights on the good side. The story also has a side narrative that involves an X-Files-type duo of two detectives who investigate supernatural occurrences. Predictably, one of the detectives doesn’t believe in the supernatural, but he’s been assigned to the unit against his wishes.

You may or may not dig the story or the concept behind Karas, but that does not really matter because what truly matters is the film’s gorgeous animation. Normally, whenever we see animation that combines 2D and 3D elements, you can immediately pick out the 3D elements and they usually jar the senses due to the lack of integration with the 2D animation. In contrast, Karas flawlessly and seamlessly merges the 2D and 3D elements and combines it with stunning Matrix-like camera angles and scene transitions that left me rewinding many scenes just to take in everything going onscreen. The first few minutes of Karas will totally suck you in. The opening credits are in Japanese characters that catch on fire while a fight between Karas and Eko (I think) takes place in the sky. The film contains many cinematic and beautiful looking sequences and, in some sense, its almost worth turning off the sound and just taking in the visuals. I do have one critique in that in a few places during the action sequences, it becomes very difficult to make out what is going on.

Characterization is not a very strong point of Karas The Prophecy. The story is full of characters, which results in none of them being fully fleshed out. The first 20 minutes of the film are especially frustrating as we are introduced to one character after another without really knowing who anyone is. I was eventually forced to refer to the film’s synopsis on Wikipedia to learn what was going on and who the characters were. With that said, although Karas does not give us memorable characters, there are a few that caught my interest. I especially got into the detective team that works on “supernatural crimes.” The film builds up some suspense as the team works its way to finding out what is going on. I was also intrigued by the shadowy evil organization led by Eko. Not much is revealed about this organization and I presume all will be explained in the 2nd half of the series.

The film’s biggest weakness is the story. To be fair, I should have watched the 2nd half of the series (called Karas the Revelation) before writing this review to complete the story. However, I do not believe this excuses the disorganized and vague storytelling at display here. Like I stated before, I had to go online to figure out what was going onscreen and who the characters were. Obviously I should not have had to resort to this. Very little is explained at the beginning of the film. Instead, we get beautifully shot sequences that jump from one sequence to another and from one character to another without any explanation. Nothing in the film explains that Karas is fighting demons, who Karas is, what he is, why he can change into different vehicles, or why demons need doctors. Without looking it up on the internet, I challenge anyone to decipher what the sequence in the bathroom with drowning women in ‘duck’ costumes was all about.

Karas The Prophecy is a beautifully rendered anime that unfortunately suffers from poor characterization and an incomprehensible plotline. The film reminded me of Zack Snyder’s Suckerpunch, which also contained a nonsensical plot but I would argue that Karas The Prophecy is far better than that Snyder’s film. Karas The Prophecy sets out to create Japan’s answer to American-style superheroes such as Batman. I do not understand the point of copying American superheroes when Japanese anime already has its own rich history of superheroes to draw from. I would have much rather seen a modern take on one of Tatsunoko Productions’ existing properties such as Speed Racer or Gatchaman. This would have also been in keeping with the studio’s celebration of its 40th anniversary.