Warm Bodies

WB posterBefore we begin our discussion of Warm Bodies, I want to say few words about vampires. Why vampires? Because zombies and vampires have a great deal in common, especially if you look at their history. In ancient times, vampires bore more resemblance to zombies than to anything we would call a vampire today. They looked – and smelled – like the reanimated corpses they were. At dusk, they would claw their way out of their graves and stagger about, seeking to feed upon the living. And they did not wear Vampire perfume.

The reasons for their existence also intersect. Everyone today is used to zombies being created by a virus. But you probably don’t know that vampires, too, have been through this phase. You are probably familiar with the 2007 zombie movie I am Legend, directed by Francis Lawrence and starring Will Smith. You might not know that this is a remake of The Last Man on Earth, directed by Sidney Salkow and starring Vincent Price220px-Lastmanonearth1960s (1964), which was based on the novel I am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954). Of course, neither Last Man, nor the novel had a single zombie. That’s right, in those stories, a disease turns the living into vampires. For some reason, they are still repelled by crosses and mirrors. Go figure.

Bella Lugosi started a change in the vampire’s image in 1931, and people began to think of vampires as dapper gentlemen. Another significant milestone came with Interview with the Vampire (Dir. Neil Jordan, 1994), the first major motion picture to focus on the vampire’s point of view. Interview included, among other things, Louis (Brad Pitt), a vampire whose conscience is haunted by the people he has to drain to survive. Instead of rooting for Louis’ destruction, moviegoers felt bad for him. Of course, it didn’t hurt that he looked like one of Hollywood’s most bankable heartthrobs. This was the fulcrum in the swing from vampires as dangerous to vampires as desirable. More recent vampires are genuine bring-home-to-mom material, and in fact are often kinder and more thoughtful than humans. In fact, in certain series, e.g. Underworld, vampires don’t even drink human blood. The subject of how they survive is kind of glossed over, leaving us to assume that vampires exist only to look sexy, twirl pistols, and spout the angst of a prolonged adolescence.

SeleneA lot of people are really enjoying this desirable vampire craze, of course. Nothing has generated so much drooling female hysteria as the smut series we call Twilight. But as much as Interview gave us, it also caused us to lose something. Vampires as they once were provided no end of engaging stories and wish fulfillment, because they were enemies you could kill without remorse (because they were already, you know, dead). Everyone loves a story of human struggle and triumph, especially with some combat thrown in, but when such stories involve human enemies, that raises all kinds of pesky moral issues, along with the occasional libel suit. If we have to sympathize with vampires now, who can we kill without remorse?

Zombies to the rescue! I’ve already expounded on the flood of zombie flicks we’ve seen in the 19 years since Interview. Zombie movies are the perfect genre. They’re quick and cheap to make, they don’t need to be good, and they are the perfect form of escapism, because not only do they provide an army of unfeeling, unthinking enemies, they also bring about the downfall of the Man. That mortgage you’re stressed about? Forget about it! That cubicle job you have to go to everyday? Not anymore! You now need concern yourself with three things: Food. Shelter. Zombies. So pick up your shotgun or chainsaw, and go have a head-splattering, limb-severing blast, all amid a playground of empty mansions, unguarded stores, and abandoned Ferraris.

This brings us to Warm Bodies. We join our narrator, a zombie (Nicholas Hoult) who remembers only that his name started with R, as he shambles through a crowd of other zombies, who occasionally manage to squeeze single words from their rigor mortized throats. We also meet Bonies. Bonies are what zombies will eventually become. They resemble the more skeletal monsters from The Mummy and are conceptually the same thing as the re-deads from the Resident Evil games. Our hero makes his home in a disused airplane, where he collects trinkets, listens to vinyl and wishes to be alive again.

Meanwhile, a group of teenagers, including lovers Perry (Dave Franco) and Julie (Teresa Palmer), leaves a fortified compound to scavenge supplies. They are busily ransacking a pharmacy, when a pack of zombies, including R, takes them by surprise. R is momentarily knocked down and watches Julie, rhythmically firing her shot gun, and apparently falls for her. In the following moments, R kills Perry, and proceeds to consume him. He narrates that when a zombie eats someone’s brain, that zombie experiences that person’s memories.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

R teaches Julie to act like a zombie.

He concludes “I don’t want to hurt you. I just want to feel what you felt … to feel a little less dead.” The zombies come out the clear winners of this skirmish, and Julie is left standing alone, her magazines drained and her throwing knives spent. R approaches her before most of the others have left their kills and speaks her name, having learned it from Perry’s brain. To her astonishment, he rubs blood and grime over her face, and tells her “Come … s-safe.” With few options, she follows him and realizes the other zombies assume she is a new “addition to the family.” He takes her home and promises, in what sentence fragments he can manage, to keep her safe. However, she initially refuses to interact with him other than by curling into a ball and crying. He comments “I can tell when a girl needs her space. There’s other ways to get to know someone. Like eating her dead boyfriend’s brains.” He has saved several pieces from the attack, and over the next few days, he learns more of Perry and Julie’s story, and becomes increasingly remorseful for killing Perry. During this same time frame, R(omeo) and Julie(t) begin to talk more and grow closer.

R begins to change. His heart begins to beat, he begins to experience warmth and cold, and he begins to dream (“The dead do not sleep”). What’s more, as R changes, it also seems to affect the other zombies. Significantly, the zombies in this movie lack the wounds other zombie movies like to put on their zombies.  No lips missing, or ribs showing or anything. From the beginning, I wondered if being a zombie was any different from having arthritis and Alzheimer’s. We actually don’t get any clues as to how any of these people died (supposedly, none of them remember). The implication seems to be, at least at the symbolic level, that these zombies only ever “died” in that they forgot what it was to be human. As they start to remember, they start to move less stiffly and form sentences. Meanwhile, Julie begins trying to convince her father (John Malkovich), who runs the compound that the zombies are not the enemy and want to help.

All this is thrown together pretty loosely. For example, there’s never really a good explanation of how the humans and zombies end up allied against the Bonies. But I’m not complaining. I have to admit, the end of Warm Bodies really did bring a smile to my face, even if there were some holes in the plot. After so many zombie flicks tried to out do each other with bleakness and cynicism, it was cool to see one where there actually was a cure found — and it wasn’t some magical batch of chemicals, but simply, well … a little TLC.

But geez, now we’ve also lost zombies as unfeeling enemies that we can kill without remorse! If bothzombies love 2 vampires and zombies are now eligible mates with hopes, dreams and humanity, what supernatural creatures can we still use as fodder for the part of us that just wants to wield a shotgun? Hmm … maybe witches? More on that next time.

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Fast and Furious 6

fF6Like exhaust through a catalytic converter, so are the days of the Torretto family.

Six installments.  Six.  Car drive and car drive fast.  This concept has spanned SIX! feature films.  As of late the crash-mania squealing-tire saga has only gained further momentum.  Vin Diesel, the legitimate star of the series, announced that next summer’s greenlit Fast 7 (set up at the closing credits of this current installment) will begin a new trilogy.  Heaven help us all.

The crew of the massive blockbuster Fast Five returns for round 6 or Furious 6 as its titled in the opening credits and the results are exactly what you expect.  Just don’t try following the titles of these movies.  And be sure to remember that The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (or Fast 3) from seven years ago takes place after all previous Fast & Furious features including this sixth entry.  Still up to speed?

Picking up immediately where we left in Fast 5, Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) gains a new partner in Agent Riley (MMA beauty Gina Carano, Haywire) and sets out to court Dominic Torretto (Vin Diesel) living peacefully on a tropical island with his newfound lady friend (and Hobbs’ former partner) Elena (Elsa Pataky).  Hobbs needs Dom to recruit his team once more to take on the international threat of Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), a really bad terrorist with a really bad device that is capable of something very bad and might be used by said bad terrorist or sold to another really bad terrorist.

Why would Torretto be interested?  Why even bother confiding in his F&F-chum-for-life Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker) who just had a new baby boy with Torretto’s sister (Jordana Brewster)?  Because Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dom’s murdered lover (as it happened in Fast 4) is still very much alive and may in fact be working with Shaw.  Dom needs to know for sure and “you don’t turn your back on family, even when they do.”

fast-furious-6Walker, Diesel, Johnson, and Carano welcome Ludacris, Sung Kang, Tyrese, and Gal Gadot in yet another family reunion full of physics-defying metal on metal stunts and set pieces linked to moments of eye-rolling blabbering buffoons yawning us to death about family values.  Justin Lin, the confident man behind the action of the last four F&F films, smolders a not-so-subtle subtext of family and loyalty over car mangling.  Dominic, our antihero, may be an outlaw, but he has a code and he protects his own which adds a great deal of honor to his outlandish escapades.  The villain Shaw, on the other hand, plays by-the-numbers and finds his team members to be no more than disposable pawns in his strategic chess game that he always holds the upper hand in.

Who cares?  I don’t and neither do viewers.  They want “vehicular warfare” and they do get it, bigger and better than usual which is a major compliment coming off the high of Fast Five.  But I have to admit I’m fatigued of this series which now throws a few too many big wrenches at my head in terms of plot.  Believe me.  I’m not referring to the stunts, which feature only slightly more lunacy than the story.

The plot is a gigantic mess of pointless setup met with needless execution. Follow the events of Fast 6 and you will scratch your head over the decisions the characters make in an effort to string together some large action sequences.  Potential SPOILERS ahead.  Stop here. I know I’m criticizing a live-action cartoon that delivers exactly what is intended, but bear with me.

Point 1:  Hobbs recruits Dom and a team of international criminals he set to take down in the last movie.  Why?  Because there needs to be a movie, not because he wouldn’t work with an actual military unit or strike force or… something like that.

Point 2: O’Connor decides to infiltrate a stateside prison as an inmate in order to get close to a former villain from the series who may have some information on what happened to Letty.  Why?  I don’t know actually.  This is the most idiotic development in the movie.  The mission would likely get O’Connor killed and it nearly does.  But the funny thing is that the information is of zero importance.  The characters already know where Letty is, have seen her and know that she is alive and likely has memory issues.  Torretto goes and finds her on his own before O’Connor even returns from his adventure.  Dom instructs his buddy to spare him the ‘vital information’ that was worth dying over.

Point 3:  For being the smartest villain in the room, Shaw is a moron.  He says he doesn’t care for his team members and finds them to be replaceable.  Except for Letty, the smart-mouth, authority-defying brain batter mess that generally serves little purpose for Shaw throughout the film.  Torretto offers to walk away from Shaw and leave him alone if he can have Letty back.  Shaw refuses.  Idiot.

Point 4: Torretto and Shaw, in multiple instances throughout the film, have a chance to take each other out either directly or through their cohorts.  They don’t take the shot.  Then there’s the back and forth of the heroes having Shaw and letting him go.  And having him and letting him go.  Dumb.

Fast and the Furious 6Point 5: The action has zero consequences and the cartoonish nature of the series removes any and all suspense or tension.  Multiple fistfights occur in this installment.  Heroes and villains bludgeon each other with nary a bruise or scratch.  At one point, Diesel’s character dives headfirst into the skull of any angry giant thug man and walks away unscathed.  As insane as the car stunts become, whether the heroes are facing off against tanks or airliners, the action reaches such high levels but rarely evokes actual danger.  Characters consistently fight through hell but never show injury until the final blow—if they do in fact die.

That’s where the series has really worn me out.  Bang bang boom, but no one gets hurt until they die.  This roadrunner-coyote cartoon chase only entertains for so long when there’s no suspense or actual imminent danger to the characters.  I know other PG-13 action films have dealt with the same problems, but none are as numb to reality as the Fast series, at least to my present knowledge.

Justin Lin has a balancing act with these films and he succeeds with a far more prominent and successful use of humor this time around, but there are simply too many characters and subplots to juggle at this point.  The action even suffers in terms of the different bobbing heads we are forced to jump back and forth with.  Do I commend the action?  Yes.  But somewhere down the line I became numb to it.  The F&F fans should rejoice, however, as this is probably a franchise high for them, even though I found it a step down from Part 5.  If you want bloodless carnage, mindless action, and by-the-numbers soap opera, then Fast 6 will serve you plenty.

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Now You See Me

now_you_see_me_ver3_xlgIt seems like it has been a long time since audiences were given a good movie about magic. Not since Nolan’s The Prestige or Berger’s The Illusionist  in 2006 has there been any that come close to being a success. But like those two movie gems, there is something special about magic movies when they hit their mark. They create the awe and wonderment that Hollywood cinema was built on, and this movie does nothing to interfere with that belief.

Now You See Me is the latest project of director Louis Leterrier, known more for his action movies (Transporter 1 and 2, Clash of the Titans) than anything else. A great cast has been assembled including starring roles for Mark Ruffalo, playing FBI agent Dylan Rhodes, Morgan Freeman as magician whistleblower Thaddeus Bradley, and the four horseman magician team of Michael Atlas (Jesse Eisenberg), Merritt Osbourne (Woody Harrelson), Henley (Isla Fisher) and Jack (Dave Franco). Throw in supporting roles from Michael Caine as a millionaire businessman and Melanie Laurent as Interpol agent turned Ruffalo’s muse, and you have maybe the most star-studded cast of any summer flick. The plot centers around four street magicians who come together to create an act under the name of The Four Horseman. Instead of just wowing audiences with their illusions, they decide that each performance will end with them robbing someone out of copious amounts of cash. Both Ruffalo and Freeman’s characters are hot on their trails for completely different reasons– one to put them in prison, the other to expose their tricks to the public. As straight forward as it sounds, the twists and turns of this movie are abundant and constantly keep the audience on the edge of their seat.

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman can wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

You know a movie is awesome when Morgan Freeman gets to wear a sweet hat and purple blazer

This movie is incredibly entertaining and a delight to watch. You will be hard-pressed to find another movie this summer that integrates comedy and suspense so well. Even though the method of each trick is explained by Freeman’s character shortly after it happens, the audience will still have many questions to mull over throughout the entirety. In fact, there is almost an Ocean series-type feel after each reveal. The back and forth between the affable Harrelson and smug, arrogant Eisenberg is extremely enjoyable, while the role of Ruffalo as a surly detective really shines. One of the really interesting aspects of this movie is the moral ambiguity of basically every character. Who is the hero and who is the villain? It is a very intriguing technique that only enhances the thrill of the movie. The negatives of this movie are two-fold. First, the supposed romantic relationship between Ruffalo and Laurent seems a little forced and bogs down the pace at times. It may be a necessary plot device, but their onscreen chemistry leaves a little to be desired. Second would be the overall filmmaking seems a little second class at times. Don’t get me wrong, the script holds up very well, but Leterrier’s use of lens flares and shaky camera during chases can be a little much to handle. However, neither of these aspects are enough to really detract very much from the project as a whole.

I think the vast majority of moviegoers will leave this movie with a great sense of satisfaction. The premise of this film is fantastic, and one of the few genre movies that gives an ending that does not fail the exquisite build-up. Even though this movie is a pure summer popcorn-flick indeed, the refreshing and original ideas are sure to delight and amaze. This is one film that should not have to beg you to “look closely”.

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Fast & Furious 6

Well, it has been only a couple years since the last Fast & Furious installment, but Vin Diesel and company are back with a vengeance for the sixth (and not the last) time.  The only logical question for moviegoers is “has this Universal Pictures cash cow run its course?” After sitting through 130 minutes of pure unadulterated action, the only logical answer has to be, “not yet.”

fast and furiousJustin Lin is once again at the helm directing the massive amounts of fast cars and fantastical stunts the series has become known for. Both Vin Diesel and Paul Walker reprise their roles as the street-racing buddy duo of Dominic Torretto and Brian O’Connor. The Fast & Furious rat pack of Tyrese Gibson, former rapper Ludacris, Sung Kang, and Gal Gadot are also back to lend their expertise. And let us not forget the exploits of Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson, whose presence seemed to breathe some steroid-infused life back into series. This band of “heroes” is at it again attempting to stop the evil villain, Shaw (Luke Evans), whose evil plan is to steal the aptly named “components” to build something to sell to some bad guys for lots of money. Yeah, I don’t think the writers really cared about the whole plot thing either. The only thing you really need to know is that he has a master plan that will inevitably involve copious amounts of cars and carnage. Oh, and Letty Ortiz (Michelle Rodriguez) is somehow back from the dead despite assurances of her death and a funeral involving a body that was presumably identified by a licensed medical examiner.

I will quickly apologize if the brief synopsis implies a less than enjoyable movie, because the outcome is the pure opposite. There may not exist a more fun and action-packed movie this summer. No, this movie will never win any awards or be praised for its acting performances, but that isn’t and shouldn’t be the point. It seems that the script writers have fully embraced the sort of self-parody that is needed to make these films enjoyable. There are plenty of extremely humorous one-liners, many intended with a few not, and the action never stops. The pacing is very good and the action sequences are well done. Will there be times when you sit there and stare, mouth agape, at the completely unrealistic action sequence? Of course, but that only enhances the absurdity, and therefore, fun of this movie.

A movie like this is all about the specific expectations that one has going into it. This movie has a lot to offer both the cinephile and casual moviegoer if expectations of character and plot development are tempered while enjoying the exhilarating ride (pun intended). Fast & Furious 6 is a great way to spend some money if you enjoy popcorn-filled escapism amidst the increasing temperatures of the North American summer months. The best film in the hexology only fills me with hope that next movies will continue the trend.

 

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Star Trek Into Darkness

star-trekinto-darkness-posterSo much hoopla has been made over king-of-nerds J.J. Abrams directing the next chapter of the Star Wars saga that his latest sequel Star Trek Into Darkness has played second fiddle to the wave of news circling that other sci-fi universe.  For casual Trek fans, such as myself, Abrams will likely do for Star Wars what he has done for Captain Kirk and crew.

Abrams brought Trek out of the depths of cult obscurity and hammered down the door of nerdom to allow mainstream audiences access to an otherwise closed-off franchise.  With the use of punk wit, a young cast of immense talent, rousing action sequences, and the gravitational pull of dead-on comedy, the Star Trek reboot was one of very few films to not bring further slander to the term ‘reboot.’  The more times I’ve viewed the 2009 entry, the more I enjoy it as all-around grade-A entertainment.

Thus Mr. Abrams’ sequel Into Darkness gets a little more serious and has slightly less fun toying around with the strict mechanics of series expectations.  Slightly less.  The Abrams magic is still intact and he manages to deliver a satisfying action-sequel that simply hasn’t the fresh air of the previous film especially when the story relies on previously-mined material.

For round two Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), having just been suspended from active duty, is  driven to revenge after a terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) stages multiple attacks on the Federation that results in the untimely death of one of Kirk’s most endearing mentors.  The appointed captain reenlists Spock (Zachary Quinto) as his first officer and sets out with his crew aboard the Enterprise on a Starfleet mission to target the fugitive Harrison in hiding on a Klingon planet.  Relations are tense between the Federation and the Klingons, and Kirk has been ordered to target Harrison with highly powerful torpedoes whilst trying avoid the start of a planetary war.

star-trek-into-darkness-stillKirk must also grapple with his own thirst for blood and his rocky rapport with his crew members.  The story further digs into Trek lore, Spock’s and Uhura’s (Zoe Saldana) unlikely romantic relationship, and springs about as many laughs as the previous entry.  I honestly wasn’t quite as engulfed in this Trek, but only by a slim margin.  The film is still visually brilliant and action-packed, but the more sinister tones have set in as is to be expected for a second installment.

Most noteworthy in this chapter is the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the villain Harrison.  He’s a brilliant, deep-voiced menace full of mystery and intrigue.  The performance is the stuff of terrific acting and he’s certainly a much more memorable foe than Eric Bana as the bald Romulan from ’09 Trek.  The rest of the cast is exceptionally good just as they were last time, but Cumberbatch is a standout and helps elevate this sequel above its few shortcomings in originality and suspense.

The themes at play revolve around the true meaning of leadership, friendship and heroism.  It is here that the writers and Director Abrams pave the way for a strong emotional journey for the leading characters.  Set against the backdrop of grand set pieces—Spock caught on a small bed of rock in the middle of an erupting volcano; Kirk suited up and soaring through space between two Federation spaceships; Harrison’s attack on the Federation tower—the emotional undercurrent allows the action to actually have some stake.  But then occasionally, and all too abruptly, Abrams hooks back into familiar territory that the franchise has previously explored rather than leap over new hurdles.

As much as I think J.J. Abrams has delivered Star Trek out of darkness, I assume he will be moving on from the franchise to become engulfed in Star Wars.  Even though I would still welcome him back to Trek, perhaps that will be for the best?  Abrams has relied upon alternate takes of previous adventures for Trek thus far and I think it’s time for a new director to expropriate Abrams’ discovered fountain of youth for this franchise and hasten the current Enterprise crew to a new infinite frontier from a storytelling perspective.   Please don’t misunderstand, however.  Into Darkness is a rock-solid film and likely light years ahead of what’s to come this season.  But with such a previously accomplished entry, Abrams has not managed to top himself, and I can’t exactly fault him for that since he already brought Star Trek into greatness.

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Runaway Slave

RS posterBy now, everybody and their dog is familiar with the series The Walking Dead on AMC, so you’ve probably seen the part where Rick Grimes rides into Atlanta, only to find it full of dilapidated corpses, shambling to and fro with a glassy-eyed stare, rotted flesh hanging from their faces, seeking only their next kicking, screaming meal. There’s a part of Runaway Slave eerily similar to that scene. Rev. C.L. Bryant, seeking answers to his questions, arrives in Atlanta, former commercial center of slavery and political center of the Confederacy, also the birthplace of MLK and, arguably, the Civil Rights movement. As he begins conducting interviews, he meets many people with the same glassy-eyed, hopeless stares, their bodies bearing tattoos and other scars of a pointless, nihilistic existence of government colonization. But of course, this isn’t some theoretical apocalyptic scenario. This is real life, and these are real Atlantans.

Runaway Slave is a documentary by Bryant, the great, great grandson of slaves in Louisiana who purchased 64 acres from their former masters upon emancipation. He lives on the same 64 acres today, when he’s not speaking at rallies around the country. Earlier in life, Bryant was a loyal member of the NAACP, and was climbing the hierarchy with some success, until he refused to speak at a pro-abortion rally. For his refusal, he was forced to resign from the organization. He was later fired from the church that he pastored for speaking out against big government. He made this film in 2010 and 2011, during the initial outrage that boiled up over Obamacare being rammed

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

Bryant interviews Alfonzo Rachel on the streets of L.A.

through Congress. At that time he was speaking, among other places, at Tea Party rallies all over the country, and receiving hate mail calling him an Uncle Tom and a house n**ger.

The film opens with footage of the Restoring Honor rally on the Washington Mall the 47th anniversary of MLK’s famous march on Washington, featuring the likes of Glenn Beck and Dr. Alveda King (MLK’s niece). It zips back and forth between this event and Al Sharpton’s Reclaim the Dream rally at the White House, both happening at the same time. (Something that was odd, but cool, to note: At one point at the Beck/King rally, the camera zooms in on an American flag someone is carrying. Just below it on the same poll is a Nebraska Cornhuskers flag. Don’t know how it got there, but I paused the movie and it is definitely a Husker flag. Rex Burkhead would be proud.) Bryant is at the Sharpton rally, and interviews several people there, including Black Panthers. Afterward, he asks why, when the two groups profess to want most of the same things, Sharpton’s flock spews so much bile and seems to have so much hatred for those at the Honor rally.

As Bryant explains early on in the film, he is plagued with questions such as why, in an age when someone’s race doesn’t hold them back from walking into any business, voting, or holding any job, black Americans still believe they are not “free at last,” or why, after the Democrats fought to keep slavery legal, fought to keep schools segregated, sicked dogs on black protesters, and shot history’s greatest black leader, black Americans now vote 95% Democrat. He says “I have to find out if there are other people out there who think the way I do.” (If he’s been speaking at rallies for years, I think he probably knows, but every documentary needs a kickoff.) He then travels the country, interviewing people of different races and different political stripes. He interviews Jesse Jackson, and the aptly named Ben Jealous (he tries to interview Sharpton, who blows him off). However, the largest group that he talks to is black conservatives, such us Star Parker, Alfonzo Rachel and David Webb.

Sowell

Runaway Slave is not just an excuse to plug the books and web sites of people Bryant agrees with. It’s a well-made documentary that takes on some tough questions, generates some good discussion, and leaves room for the audience to do its own thinking. The editing can be a little bit rough. Sometimes, Bryant will be talking to someone, and their lips won’t go with the words, as if we’re looking at an establishing shot, while we’re hearing dialogue from a more central shot. Bryant can come off as just a tad narcissistic as well, as there are some shots were he appears to be interviewing himself. But in fairness, this is because he feels the need to explain why he is making this film. This is a documentary with a view point, but that doesn’t make it any less worth watching. I’d say the most interesting part is about 1 hour in, when Bryant covers the decision by a school board in North Carolina, under the strain of budget limitations, to stop cross-city busing. The reaction of certain people is quite telling. And disturbing.

Runaway Slave is a gusty and in-your-face move, but also carefully done and thoughtfully presented. It’s a movie that everyone should see.

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House of Cards

House of CaA few weeks ago one of my Twitter followers asked me if House of Cards was a good show.  I took a little while to figure out how to respond, because to answer that question requires a bit more than a simple “Yes” or “No.”  The brainchild of David Fincher, Kevin Spacey, and a heap of computer-powered data mining, Netflix’s reimagining of the classic British television drama is an interesting concoction.   It’s good in the sense that the production is slick, the acting is top-notch, and the plotlines are appropriately deep and intricate for this type of political thriller.  But House of Cards is much more than that, and even though I finished watching the series I’m still not sure exactly what to make of it.  It’s interesting, compelling, and often entertaining but unfortunately a host of other adjectives would be appropriate as well: creepy, sleazy, disgusting, and at times downright repugnant.

The show stars Kevin Spacey as a puppet master of sorts, the House Majority Whip pulling the strings of various beltway heavy-hitters while secretly pursuing an agenda of his own.  His Frank Underwood character, a Democrat from South Carolina’s 5th district, is as slimy and smarmy as they come: one episode delivering a moving eulogy for a young girl in front of a faithful congregation, using just the right mix of smiles and scriptures to work himself into the hearts and minds of the assembled masses, all the while becoming increasingly entangled in any number of conspiracies to ruin the lives and careers of anyone who stands in his way back in Washington.  Few things are beneath him, from drugs to extortion to murder, though he remains well-nigh untouchable as the wizard behind the political curtain while finding ways to manipulate his fellow Washington cockroaches into doing his bidding.  It’s an entirely cynical take on DC politics, gutting the optimistic heart The West Wing and replacing it with a dark mechanical lump of coal, and after every single episode my wife and I quickly fired up Parks and Recreation as a lighthearted palette-cleanser.

That’s not to say House of Cards is not a well-made show.  In many ways it genuinely is a good, if not great, made-for-internet-television production.  Easily holding its own against its weighty counterparts on networks like HBO and Showtime, House of Cards plumbs the sordid depths of Washington politics like few other productions (celluloid, digital, or otherwise) have done so.  At the start of the series, Underwood is at the apex of his political game, wielding his political power and acumen like a scalpel in the hands of a master surgeon.  He of course has his sights set much higher up the political ladder, but to reach them requires winning a dangerous game of chess that even he might not be ready for.  One of his key pawns in this high-stakes match is Zoe Barnes (Kate Mara), a hotshot reporter-turned-blogger whom Underwood uses to plant stories and sway public opinion through media manipulation.  But as one would expect in a show of this pedigree, Underwood and Barnes’ political relationship quickly becomes personal, though capriciously self-serving, and we quickly get the sense that Netflix is aiming to one-up HBO in their quest to shovel as much gratuitous sex as possible into the living rooms of their subscriber base.

House of CardsAlso at play in this grand political scheme is Underwood’s wife Clair (Robin Wright), with whom he shares an unsettlingly open relationship.  She runs the Clean Water Initiative, a nonprofit whose goals aren’t entirely in line with her husband’s, and serves as the closest thing House of Cards has to a moral center.  Poor Peter Russo (Corey Stoll) is the empty-headed fool who bandied about by Underwood like a nerf gun with the sole purpose of helping the Democrat from Dixie reach his lofty ambitions.  We get a front row seat to Russo’s doomed career both as a congressman and then gubernatorial candidate–a political self-immolation aided by Underwood who provides not only the match but the gasoline.  But alas, Russo’s political corpse is another rung to be stepped on if the ladder is to be climbed, and so up Underwood goes.  This is tragedy on a grand scale, and in that sense House of Cards succeeds admirably.  Of course there is a host of other players in Underwood’s clever game, from union bosses to vice presidents to the owner of a local barbecue joint, and it is often compelling to watch all the various threads come together–or unravel, as is often the case.

So why the bum rap?  Evaluating House of Cards is tricky because it’s hard for me to separate the content from the delivery. Despite the Oscar-worthy performances, intricate and well-developed plotlines, and compelling characters, I find it hard to recommend the show because it is so overpoweringly bleak.  It’s an interesting show, but not an enjoyable show.  Engaging but not satisfying.  Worth watching, though not what I would consider good.

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Iron Man 3

IronMan3PosterIron Man 3 is the kind of crowd-pleasing adventure picture that has no business being so good.  After a sensational first installment from Director Jon Favreau that surprised audiences with its quick-wit and towering performance from leading actor Robert Downey Jr., the minor pitfall of Favreau’s uneventful Iron Man 2 was only salvaged by the contagious antics of Downey who embodies Tony Stark so well.  Then last summer’s The Avengers swept up audiences around the globe and expanded Stark’s world across an entire Marvel universe of other movies.  The result was an overpraised but undeniably fun success. Be sure to see/brush up on all three previous outings.

Iron Man 3 strikes only a year later with a new director and co-writer Shane Black whose previous writing credits include Lethal Weapon and Last Action Hero, and he commandeers a final product that rivals the sheer entertainment value of the first Iron Man film.  As long you don’t see it in its flat 3D format of course.

This is Tony Stark’s journey, not Iron Man’s.  Downey narrates the film’s opening moments and a few other segments of the picture.  His life has certainly changed since the world was exposed to Loki and his invading alien army—and the giant green guy—-and the flying hammer dude—and the other ‘human’ characters that can run around and shoot.  Not to mention wormholes and other dimensions.  Needless to say, Stark has a lot on his mind and he develops crippling anxiety episodes that prevent him from sleep and his ordinary business.  His relationship with Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow) suffers and he spends his hours of insomnia devoted to developing advanced Iron Man suits.

A new villain enters the scene by the name of the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a middle-eastern terrorist threatening the American way of life.  He plants suicide bombers in various U.S. locations, but investigators quickly learn that his destructive pigeons have no formal explosive parts or materials.  Stark’s trusted bodyguard, Happy (Jon Favreau) follows one of the suspected threats only to be found victim to another terrorist attack.  In a rage, Stark invites the terrorist to his front door for a mano-a-mano confrontation.

kingsleyJust when our hero’s former botanist colleague, Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) arrives at the Malibu fortress to warn Tony of suspected terrorist involvement from the odd-duck geneticist, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), the Mandarin unleashes a massive attack to wipe out Iron Man for good.  The structure of Stark Industries falls to rubble.  Tony awakens abandoned, homeless, and all but defeated in a snowy Tennessee town.  His only armored suit has run out of juice, he’s been considered dead, and so he seeks refuge in a shed with the aid of starry-eyed boy, Harley (Ty Simpkins).

To stop the Mandarin from his further promised attacks (namely on the U.S. president), Stark investigates a trail of coverups involving an American soldier terrorist who may have been brainwashed by the Mandarin.  The truth about his death may procure the information Stark needs to defeat his most devastating human foe thus far.  Young Harley and Col. Rhodes (Don Cheadle) provide Stark the assistance he most certainly needs to stop the ultimate threat.

What to say about Iron Man 3?  How about: It’s awesome.  Flat-out awesome.  It’s witty.  It’s funny.  It’s action-packed.  It has more memorable moments than I can count.  I enjoyed it even more than The Avengers.  Some won’t.  And that’s fine.  But as a character-driven film with a concrete villain and driving plot, Iron Man 3 is a breath of fresh air.  I’d love to talk about some great sequences and some great moments of dialogue, but why spoil the fun?  Just know, this movie is funny, witty, quotable, and features breathtaking action sequences and the sharpest of digital effects.  It has to because the list of digital effect credits was seemingly endless.

But underneath all of its witty lines and gargantuan fireworks is a resonating story about a great protagonist up against a powerful villain.  Writer-director Shane Black (this guy from the 1987 masterpiece Predator) wisely pushes Stark to the brink and brings his story full-circle.  The film doesn’t have the gravity of a Christopher Nolan superhero picture, but Iron Man 3 is stupendous in its own regard, and a film I would return to much faster than any of those Batman films.  If the audience reaction from the crowd I saw it with was any indication, this trilogy-capper will be a massive hit and entirely well-received by viewers.  I can’t wait to take my wife and see it again.  As for a star rating?  Should I do it?  Should I really do it?  Ah, I’m all in (even if I regret it later).

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