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You Don’t Know Bo

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****

He was a phenomenon, but that phenomenon was so brief that he wasn’t really able to put anything lasting together. So if you’re not old enough to have seen it, then there’s no real reason to come across it anymore. He doesn’t hold any records; he didn’t win any titles. He didn’t even win that many individual awards because he shared time between the two sports. So what you really are left with are a few fleeting images.

Michael Bonfiglio took it upon himself to tell a new generation about someone better remembered for his Nike campaign than anything else. I remember liking Bo as a kid and thinking that he was great, but he now seems like someone from a totally different era—an era when the Kansas City Royals chose to compete in the MLB and the Raiders were a good football team. What I did not know was how much about Bo I did not know. Hence the apt title of this documentary.

Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai

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****

Please tell me! You must tell me!

Ebizô Ichikawa stars in this remake of the 1964 classic, which I have never seen. This version has some of the most agonizing seppuku, suicide, I have ever seen. Indeed, All of the actors are very good in it. Although, to be honest, it was sad to see Kôji Yakusho—Shinzaemon from 13 Assassins—as a samurai whose strong sense of honor differs from our modern sensibility of “honor”. Of course bushido, the samurai code, seems noble in so many movies, so it was interesting to see it challenged here.

Poor, poor Motome

Eita in Hara-Kiri, Recorded Picture Co.

Motome–Eita–is an orphan of a mighty samurai warrior from a disbanded feudal clan, betrayed by the Shogun, left impoverished and unable to raise money to save his dying wife and child. He attempts a scam, whereby ronin, masterless samurai, appear at a feudal lord’s home and request permission to commit hara kiri—ritual suicide. Then the aghast lord or his retainers will offer a position, or some money, to avoid the suicide. But when this clan wants to teach all future ronin to not try that in their home, things go horribly awry.

Shit got real

Property of Sedic International.

This is the final fight scene. The only fight scene. In some ways it is similar to Takashi Miike’s prior film, 13 Assassins, in that there is an epic final fight scene, but this is a much, much less action oriented film. While seppuku plays an important role to that film, this film focuses on it. This was not a fun film watching experience, but in some ways an important one for fans of Japanese cinema and honor in general.

Jack Reacher

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***

Nobody, I mean, nobody pays for parking.

Tom Cruise is good in this. But he is always good, so I will not waste any more words on his performance. Werner Herzog is legitimately creepy in this. As the villain, Zek, he survived Siberian prison by losing his fingers, or something. There is a limit to how frightening a man with 2 fingers can be. Also, Herzog is German—hence his extremely German name. Generally I do not like when directors appear in other people’s films, like Eli Roth in Inglourious Basterds, but I did not recognize recognize Herzog, just thought the old man had an odd Russian accent. On the other hand, David Oyelomo–a Brit–is excellent as Detective Emerson. He looked familiar, but I could not place him: he played the articulate Corporal who quotes Lincoln to Lincoln’s face in the opening scene of Lincoln and a doomed doctor in The Last King of Scotland.

Another Brit in the movie is Rosamund Pike. She seemed surprisingly unknown for second lead status as the defense attorney—she is also the daughter of the DA, Richard Jenkins—for an accused sniper, spree killer. It turns out that she had major roles in movies I have watched, like Doom and Die Another Day. She is okay in this, but I do not know if she just has a mediocre role, or if she is just not that good. She has some chemistry with Reacher and I rooted for her character, but, again, this is the second lead in the movie and the movie needed more.

Rosamund Pike dressed "classily" as Helen in Jack Reacher. Tom Cruise Pictures.

Rosamund Pike dressed “classily” as Helen in Jack Reacher. Tom Cruise Pictures.

The best I can say about this movie is that it produced some real tension. It had better drama than The Bourne Legacy, but they are about the same quality of movie. One major misstep was having a major actor show up to behave in a fashion that probably read better than it played on screen. In closing it has a thought provoking climax and moral stance. In some ways Reacher is a less deplorable, less absurd Liam Neeson in Taken, except Reacher should be getting some loving unlike Neeson.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

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I can’t just go running off into the blue! I am a Baggins, of Bag End!

This installment covers approximately the first 40% of the classic fantasy novel. Below I have used Alan Lee’s illustrations to provide a synopsis of what happens in the film. I chose his because they were my first introduction to the Hobbit. Later, I will criticize the use of deformity and ugliness in Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth. Also, if not specified all pictures are his and copyrighted by Houghton Mifflin.

First, the film avoids “In a hole in the ground lived a Hobbit,” instead opting to wade into some pleasant nostalgia. Seeing Bilbo and Frodo together again was amazing. It might have hindered the film to get off to such a slow start, but I loved it in the moment.

Thorin Oakenshield is in the blue hood, but you cannot see him.

Gandalf, Bifur, Bofur, Bombur, and their host Bilbo.

Second, the film goes back 60 years to a young, 50-something Bilbo. He meets Gandalf who then invites 13 Dwarves into Bag End. They have a meeting and Gandalf offers Bilbo as a thief for their mission to retake The Lonely Mountain, or at least to get back its gold. Years ago the Dwarves lost it to a dragon, Smaug. The only two songs in the entire film are sung in Bag End, including the excellent “Far over the misty mountain cold.”

Bilbo in trouble

Third, Bilbo joins the company. From outside the book, wizard Radgast the Brown makes an appearance—hereafter I will try not to include anything not from the book. Soon Gandalf leaves to look ahead. Which leads to the classic scene with the trolls, the evidence of which appeared in Fellowship of the Ring.

The only non-Alan Lee picture?

Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) in New Line Cinema’s Lord of the Rings.

And then the company pillages the troll’s horde. Which indirectly leads to this scene also in Fellowship. The sword, Sting, is not glowing because no orcs are near.

Okay, this one isn't Alan Lee either.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) & Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm) in Last Homely House East of the Sea. New Line Cinema, Fellowship.

Fourth, contrary to Thorin Oakenshield’s wishes the company goes to Rivendell for a short rest. There Elrond translates the old Dwarvish on their map, because even Gandalf cannot read it. When they leave they know they must hurry since their secret entrance into the mountain will only be visible one day of the year. Also, two more non-book characters show up, at least according to my memory of the book.

Orcrist blazing!

Fifth, the company gets stuck in a battle between stone giants. Yes! They did not remove something of such scale and power that it could have stepped on the might Balrog without a second thought. Taking refuge in a cave, the Dwarves get captured and Gandalf shows up, with Glamdring shining bright! Well, sometimes light reflects off it, but as the film says, blades made by the high elves glow when orcs are near. So Gandalf’s sword should glow. It should have glowed in Lord of the Rings, so should Thorin’s new sword, Orcrist. However for some reason only Sting glows.

Gollum in his long time home.

Gollum in his long time home.

Sixth, while the Dwarves fight for their lives, Frodo has fallen deep into the mountain and is totally lost. Fortunately he comes across a ring. The One Ring.

My preciousssss

Bilbo finds the ring in the prologue of Fellowship. New Line Cinema.

This has the true story of how Bilbo came by it, including his riddle battle with Gollum, not his later half-truths about it. And then how he follows Gollum to “safety”…

Look for those beady eyes

Dwarves surrounded by wolves.

Seventh, to Thorin’s shock, Bilbo did not leave when he got the chance and survived the orcs of the misty mountains. Unfortunately the company goes from the frying pan into the fire, as an army of wolves has them trapped. Fortunately some giant eagles arrived and saved their lives. Thus about two and half hours have passed since Smaug last appeared on the screen. Finally as the film closes we get our first good look at the beast.

alanlee-hobbit_smaug

Onto something that first bothered me in Return of the King. For some reason, ugly equates to evil in Peter Jackson’s mind. Imagine every positive character in Lord of the Rings. With the exception of the dwarves, they are all very good looking. Even Aragorn starts out looking grimy when Jackson wanted us to think he was evil. Compare Grima Wormtongue with his scratched scalp to the long haired, muscled Eomer. There is nothing that could have been done about Gollum’s looks, but consider the orc leaders. Grishnákh—the Mordor orc who says, “Let’s put a maggot hole in your belly,” has male pattern baldness. As if being an orc were not sufficiently unattractive, this way we knew that this is an extra evil orc. Or see the extremely improbably promoted Gothmog—there is no ADA in Mordor. He appears to be suffering from massive amounts of cancer and is unable to use his left arm. He is also an albino. Basically he is as unattractive as it can get, so he is the most evil of the orcs.

From The Return of the King, New Line Cinema.

From The Return of the King, New Line Cinema.

A non-orc who is ugly is the Mouth of Sauron. While it is a cool trick to have made his mouth humongous, the effect is to make someone with giant bad teeth; someone whose decapitation is applauded. I think that his looks play a major role in this, because in Jackson’s world the uglier the more evil.

Moving to The Hobbit, look to the Great Goblin—pictured beneath ¶ Fourth. He is large, in charge, and not described as a handsome creature. Now look below:

From The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, New Line Cinema.

From The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, New Line Cinema.

Horrible, right? He does not have a double chin, he has giant gizzard. I do not think that this is merely an attempt to make creatures as frightening as possible. While I feared baldness, I doubt an orc’s baldness is more frightening to children. And cancer is evil, not a sign of evil. I do not think this is just directorial laziness. If he had five minutes to tell a story and wanted you to root for someone he could look like Luke Skywalker and fight someone dressed as Darth Vader, no these are years of work and carefully chosen looks.

If I had to wildly speculate, I would look at Peter Jackson—who has been described as Hobbit-looking—and say that he hated himself for not being more attractive. That he places a great deal into physical looks because of his own insecurities and self-loathing. But I do not think his actual reasons are actually important. What is important is the impact on the millions of impressionable viewers who watch these films. I wish this were more rare, but just look to Django Unchained and see Leonardo DiCaprio’s teeth. Sure, that movie is set in the Antebellum South, but Jamie Foxx’s teeth look fine. Or watch Horrible Bosses and see Colin Farrell’s comb-over. It is as if all it takes to become a villain it to take an attractive person and deprive them of their good looks. I am sick of having otherwise good films reinforce psychological analysis that was outdated by the turn of the 20th century. An attractive person is just as like to be a jerk as an unattractive person. Hopefully film will reflect that some day, without beating us over the head with a message of accepting someone afflicted with a deformity.

***½

Other than having too few songs, lasting too long, and having Radagast seem too trippy, this was a very good film. The battles, costumes, landscapes were phenomenal. If only it could have decided between nostalgia and novelty, this could have been a great film.

The Russia House

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Did you know that Sean Connery spoke Russian in back to back movies? Neither did I! And I used to defend his accent in The Hunt For Red October back when I was an undergrad to the other members of the Russian Department. If only I had seen this movie earlier. Not because of that tidbit, but because Michelle Pfeiffer was smokingly hot then—and a pretty good Русская (Russian).

Katya

THE RUSSIA HOUSE, Michelle Pfeiffer, 1990, (c) MGM

This perestroika/glasnost (перестройка–rebuilding & гласность–openness) tale features Sean Connery as a bookseller who gets embroiled in a tale of espionage where he is definitely not 007. Connery’s character, Barley, prefers the USSR to the West, “Yes, because I prefer Russia. It’s as corrupt as America, but there’s less bullshit.” The best American in the film is Roy Scheider. But I do miss Roy Scheider, so I am biased. All this adds up to a pleasant *** film. Приятельный фильм.

Anna Karenina

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****½

What have I done to deserve this?

Anna-Karenina-Keira-Knightley-Johnson

Whoa, what a movie experience. It made me think of a famous quotation attributed to Genghis Khan: “I am the punishment of G-d. If you had not committed great sins, G-d would not have sent a punishment like me upon you.” While Anna Karenina wreaks havoc amongst the lives of those around her, she is no punishment. Her husband Minister Karenin suffers throughout the film, but his punishment is incommensurate with his failings, which would not even qualify as sins. Count Vronsky starts out a lustful man who only cares about himself, but his relationship with Anna is not truly a pox on him. As for Anna’s brother Oblonsky, he is a serial adulterer, but leads a charming life. This lead me to realize that G-d’s punishment is love. Love brings the highest highs, but it also crushes those who feel its embrace. As Vronsky says to Anna, “There can be no peace for us, only misery, and the greatest happiness.”

Anna Karenina

Keira Knightly has received about 10,000 backhanded compliments for this performance, but in reality her Anna Karenina was categorically great. Great, but no Karenin, no Oblonsky, and no Vronsky. Jude Law played Minister Aleksei Karenin. He brought a nobility, a passion and an honesty to a classically misunderstood man. I loved his character in the first half of the book, but felt that Tolstoy lost control of him after showing his internal strength. The film takes a different path, and uses him to show how easily love can transition into hate, and the strength of his character. I did not recognize the actor who played Oblonksy—Matthew Macfadyen. He previously appeared in The Reckoning and Frost/Nixon, but I did not even come close to placing him. Maybe it was his amazing mustache.

anna-karenina-Oblonsky

Lastly, I hate Count Aleksei Vronsky. I hated his character in the novel. When I met him—see the first picture with Anna—he was a dandy cavalry officer who could have Anna’s niece, Kitty as his bride. His treatment of Kitty is almost as despicable as Anna’s, but he grows. Aaron Taylor-Johnson shows Vronsky’s frailty and his suffering extremely well. They all could be the best supporting actor of the year and to have them together was a pleasure.

This is in the actual movie.

Oh, did I forget to mention that all of the action is tied to a theater set? Yeah it has the amazing effect of making a film that sucks you in over and over again, also reminds you of the artifice in cinema. To draw that contrast in the adaptation not of a play, but of a novel, is quite interesting. Moreover, I find film to be much more realistic than theater, even though there are live people doing things directly in front of me, in the present. People I can actually hear, see, smell, and, if I feel sufficiently daring, touch. I do not know why the filmmakers opted to go this route. Whether it was for the degree of difficulty, or some intended chemistry to draw the audience in more completely, I can only guess. Nor do I know if it was director Joe Wright’s–Hannadecision or screenwriter Tom Stoppard’s—Shakespeare in Love & The Russia House*. I feel reasonably confident that the cinematic choices cannot be attributed to Lev Tolstoy.

* Which I apparently have forgotten to review.

My Favorite Theme Songs of All-Time (Part 2)

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Continued from Part 1

10. Live and Let Die — Inarguably the best Bond song of all-time, but arguably my personal favorite, Wings, with a little help from Paul McCartney, wrote this. Just kidding! It was hard to not choose Goldfinger, Thunderball, The Man With The Golden Gun, The Living Daylights, Goldeneye, and The World Is Not Enough.

9. Blazing Saddles — Frankie Lane’s song was delivered with an earnestness that can only be explained by Mel Brooks’s decision to not inform Mr. Lane that Blazing Saddles was in fact a satire and not a genuine Western. Perhaps this was not a nice thing to do, but I wonder if Mr. Lane would accept the laughter of generations as recompense for Mr. Brooks’s omission.

8. Mission: Impossible — Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen? It must be a U2 song! Nope, it is a techno update of the classic tv theme. For some reason, this qualifies for my list, but the Sound of Silence does not—originally released three years before The Graduate.

7. Saturday Night Fever — Staying Alive is an awesome song by a less than awesome disco group–The Bee Gees. And the walk. THAT walk. Classic.

6. Star Wars — John Williams has so many classic themes, but this is his best one ever.

5. 8 Mile — Curtis Hanson made a great movie with Eminem as his star playing a fictionalized version of Eminem. Lose Yourself was the theme song because it was the best of the three Eminem made for this soundtrack.

4. Shaft — Issac Hayes composed and sang the theme to this movie that I doubt I will ever watch. Watch Black Dynamite!

3. Ghostbusters — Who you gonna call? He-Man! Get it?

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark — John Williams has so many classic themes, but this is his best one ever.

1. The Wizard of Oz — Somewhere Over the Rainbow set the standard for theme songs in 1939 and no-one has matched it since. At least not in my book. Judy Garland’s voice works perfectly with E.Y. Harburg’s lyrics and Harold Arlen’s music.

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