Saturday, October 30, 2010

Review: Harry Brown

"Harry Brown" is a revenge story starring Michael Caine. It's gritty, it's disturbing and it's violent ... but there's a lot to like here.

The movie is set in the London projects -- or an estate, as it's referenced in the film. Drug gangs run the property, dealing in the open and terrorizing the tenants -- the opening scene is particularly terrifying and brutal. I wondered how a guy like Caine's character would be living in a place like this to begin with. The setting provides a perpetual state of loneliness, despair and the grim realities of life ... the sky is always overcast. Perhaps that tells us something about Harry.

Things are not going well for Harry. His wife is dying, his only friend, Leonard (David Bradley) -- with whom he plays chess over pints of ale in a dingy bar, a drafty old place where it seems like you always have to leave your coat on -- is being terrorized by the gangs at the estate, and he's revealed to Harry that he plans to do something about it.

He does, and it's not really spoiling anything to say that he fails, because this is the impetus for Harry's descent into vigilantism. There's a remarkable, and quiet, scene that involves Len's funeral. A procession of black cars with a hearse at the front, the word "Grandpa" painted on the window, approaches the place Len is to be buried ... and passes by, revealing only Harry standing at Len's grave, with a priest who is administering Len's final blessings. Heartbreaking.

From here, I found similarities to "Gran Torino" and "Get Carter," which Caine also starred in. Like Clint Eastwood in the former, Caine plays an elderly castoff who believes in the old-school way of doing things, and he has a fierce pride about him that conveys the fact that he can still do those things. The latter is also a revenge story, where Caine plays a contract killer taking revenge for the slaughter of his brother (Great trailer here!). But in "Harry Brown," Caine plays a character with more redemptive qualities and as a victim of his situation throughout, even though he calls on his experience from his younger days in the marines to take his bloody revenge.

There are some very good scenes here, including an unbelievably tense sequence where Harry goes to buy a gun from some despicable dealers. As he goes deeper into the bowels of this property, you feel as if he's creeping closer and closer to the bowels of hell. But as the scene unfolds, you can see Harry's character changing from being a helpless, tired old man to using his skills and tactical thinking forged in the military to handle this situation with viciousness ("You failed to maintain your weapon, son ..."), and then grace.

Emily Mortimer and Michael Caine (Dean Rogers/Samuel Goldwyn Films)
Along the way, Caine makes the acquaintance of a couple of inspectors, particularly the lead inspector, Alice Frampton (Emily Mortimer -- Very nice to see her again!). She's inquisitive and intelligent, but conveys tenderness and sympathy as she investigates Len's death and, subsequently, the relentless crime at the estate.

Ultimately, Harry's actions merge with the detectives' investigation and the rising violence of the estate, and everything escalates to frightening proportions. I felt the movie meandered a bit near the end, pulling away from Harry's story in favor of more of a commentary on the crime situation overall, but there's an interesting twist, a tense standoff, and a sufficient payoff to close things out.

What really makes this movie is Caine's performance. You can just put him in a scene, alone, with virtually nothing to do but put jam on his toast and get dressed for the day, and it will be enthralling. You never worry that he's going to wander too far on the dark side, because he conveys a strong sense of morality -- even if only on his face -- throughout.

The only thing I find worrisome is the immense satisfaction I get as Harry tears through this animalistic and subhuman culture, wielding his own brand of cold, hard justice.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Late October Drive

Ran a few errands today and afterward ended up on a meandering afternoon drive.

Somehow the iPod knew we were cruising the country roads of rural Ohio, which provided some nice fall scenery under a heavy gray sky, because this random grab-bag of tunes that happened to come up (and when you see the list, you'll understand what I mean by random!) really fit the bill. Here's a playlist, in the order of the shuffle:

You're a Wolf -- Sea Wolf
'74-'75 -- The Connells
503 -- Angels and Demons Soundtrack
Black Dirt -- Sea Wolf
21 Guns -- Green Day
The Weary Kind -- Ryan Bingham
Thank You, Lord -- Roy Buchanan
Mansion on the Hill -- Bruce Springsteen
End of the Road -- Eddie Vedder
Highway 20 Ride -- Zac Brown Band
The Kiss -- Last of the Mohicans Soundtrack
Run -- Snow Patrol
Consolation No. 3  -- Franz Liszt
Prologue -- Lady in the Water Soundtrack 
Poisoned Chalice -- Da Vinci Code Soundtrack
Six Days at the Bottom of the Ocean -- Explosions in the Sky
Help Yourself -- Sad Brad Smith
Miss Sarajevo -- U2 and Luciano Pavarotti
The End -- Pearl Jam
Dangerous -- Joshua James 
My Father's House -- Bruce Springsteen
Geese -- Joshua James
Goin' Home -- Dan Auerbach
Soul and the Sea -- Joshua James
The Funeral -- Band of Horses 

The photos are just a couple scene-setters from around Springfield, John Bryan State Park and Yellow Springs, taken with the Blackberry Torch, which I have to say did a decent job.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Review: The Promise: The Making of 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'

I probably didn't need the opening notes of "The Promise" to let me know I'd like this documentary, but as it kicks off with the bare-bones chords of "The Promised Land" while a studio-fatigued Bruce Springsteen meticulously goes over each note, I undoubtedly knew I would.

This is an un-narrated documentary about the making of the album that followed up the smash hit "Born To Run," using both present and past interviews, studio footage and even some home movies thrown in. At its heart, it conveys the massive challenge it is to follow a hit album, along with Springsteen's obsessiveness and perfectionism that at times seems like a curse as well as a gift.

Like the album itself, the documentary is kind of an enigma. It's not disclosed whether the album was a success or not -- there were really no hit singles, although Rolling Stone ranked it #151 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time -- and it tends to deliver a sense of what this record MIGHT have sounded like, since it discusses the songs that didn't make it onto the record as much as, if not more than, the ones that did.

At its core, "Darkness" is about the heartland of America and the tough lives that are forged within it. It's clearly grittier, more stripped down and angrier compared to "Born To Run," but like that album, there's still that sense of hope lurking underneath.

"One of the elements that was so striking between 'Born to Run' and 'Darkness,' on 'Born to Run' you had the character saying, 'Baby we were born to run, we're gonna get out,'" says E Street Band drummer Max Weinberg. "In the ensuing three years between 'Born To Run' and 'Darkness' it was made painfully clear you can't just run away."

And so the documentary conveys the change in writing that this album brought about in Springsteen. He moved away from writing a pure rock and roll record and evolved into writing themes that are very cinematic in scope, dealing with loneliness, the hardened lives of blue-collar America and, as he puts it, "deep despair and resiliency." I always think of "Taxi Driver" or similar '70s movies when listening to the songs from this album, and guitarist/songwriter Steve Van Zandt makes a comparison to John Wayne in "The Searchers."

"It's a reckoning with the adult world, with a life of limitations and compromises," Springsteen says. "But also a life of resilience and commitment TO life, to the breath in your lungs -- how do I keep faith with those things, how do I honor those things?"

He goes on to say that "after 'Born to Run,' I wanted to write about life in the close confines of the small towns I grew up in. The success brought me an audience, but it also separated me from all the things I've been trying to make my connections to my whole life. And it frightened me because I understood what I had of value was at my core, and that core was rooted into the place I'd grown up, the people I'd known, the experiences I'd had."

This success was one "dark cloud" that was hanging over "Darkness." The other was a lawsuit between Springsteen and his former manager Mike Appel. Having signed himself over to Appel early in his career, he was essentially Appel's property and thus had to abide by certain requirements that prevented him from making his own decisions. It was a painful period, it cost him his friendship with Appel and significantly delayed the production of this album, leaving the fate of his band members in limbo.

"It was a lawsuit about control, who was going to be in control of my work and my work life," Springsteen explains. "Early on I decided that that was going to be me."

This very well could have been the impetus of this obsessive-compulsive nature we see from Springsteen. Throughout we are witness to his relentless writing and rewriting of songs with alternate verses/endings, and in one painful instance, spending weeks trying to capture the correct drum sound. What he heard in his head was unable to be accommodated by the studios of the day, which provided unnatural sound -- frustrating for a band that was trying to capture the sound of performing live.

But these painstaking processes also lead to some fascinating revelations. One involves the efforts to try to integrate the urban-sounding saxophone into an album with a rural focus. "Badlands," for example, initially didn't have that sax solo until they worked it out. Yikes ...

There's also a great segment regarding the song "Because the Night," the melody of which was written by Springsteen, who in turn gave it to Patty Smith because, being a love song, he says he was too "reticent" and "cowardly" at the time to finish it. Ultimately, it didn't mesh with the lone-wolf, unattached quality of the album, so Smith took it, made it her own, and it became her only hit song. (Cool to see Bruce "cover" his own song).

But we begin to see Springsteen's affinity for scrapping songs because they didn't fit the album start to take its toll. At one point we're told that with "Born to Run," roughly nine songs were written and eight made it to the album. On "Darkness," Springsteen had written, in various forms, an astounding 70 songs that were pared down to the 10 on the album. One of these was "The Promise," which to me sounds like it could be the flagship song of this album, but it was never finished because Springsteen "felt too close to it."

For a guy who says early in this documentary that he felt the need to "get everything you want to say out right now because you don't know if this will be the last record," this all feels very peculiar.

"It's really hard to write a good song," says Van Zandt. "For him to write good songs, possibly could've been hit songs, and to not put them out, put 'em aside, took an enormous amount of discipline and willpower. It's a bit tragic, in a way, cuz he would've been one of the greatest pop song writers of all time."

These words feel poignant when we see an absolutely outstanding rendition of Stevie and Bruce improvising the early stages of "Sherry Darling," which eventually made it to "The River." And I'm happy to say it resides on YouTube, so I encourage you to check this out here.

But what we clearly begin to see is that Springsteen had a vision for this record, and he didn't give in to the temptation to sacrifice that for something that may have brought immediate success but very well could have ultimately rung hollow in hindsight. And we take this to heart when the documentary finally gets to the point where Springsteen ruminates about the lyrics of a few of these tunes.

Darkness on the Edge of Town: Tonight I'll be on that hill 'cause I can't stop/I'll be on that hill with everything I got/Lives on the line where dreams are found and lost/I'll be there on time and I'll pay the cost.

These are the exulting words near the end of this song, obviously proclaiming the resiliency of the character in the face of despair, and Springsteen expands on it.

"It's not forsaking your inner life force, how do you hold onto those things, how do we keep those things, how do we do justice and honor those things?"

Factory: The paradox of earning a living that takes the life out of you. I always found this to be very compelling and haunting in a way, but never knew that it was inspired by his father, who lost his hearing at his factory job.

Racing in the Street: Another poignant ballad that asks how we carry our sins through life, but with a very cool anecdote here -- there was an early version that had no girl. If you listen to the lyrics, you'll wonder how that could ever have been the case. Springsteen shopped both around, including to Stevie, who advised, "Go with the one with the girl. That's what happens in life, two guys are pals, and the girl comes along, and that's it!" Classic.

As the film closes as it began, with the chords of "The Promised Land" being hammered out, Springsteen begins to discuss the lyrics behind this anthem as well. And as he does, he seamlessly evolves into discussing the theme of the album as a whole, a testament to his vision of including only the songs that perfectly fit within his desired framework.

"[It's a song about] your illusions of adult life and a life without limitation, which I think everyone dreams of and imagines at a certain point. The song that needs to be sung is the song about how do you deal with those things and how do you move on to a creative life, a spiritual life, a satisfying life and a life where you can just make your way through the day and sleep at night.

"That's what most of those songs were about."


Rather than run the risk of feeling incomplete, it's important to note that this film should be regarded as part of the massive re-issuing of the "Darkness on the Edge of Town" album, coming out Nov. 16. It's a box set that includes the remastered album, never-before-seen studio footage and 21 unreleased songs, and much more. You can get all the details here.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Meeting Katz ... and dog! (Sort of ...)

I really hate missed opportunities, especially when they're out of your control. And no matter the measures you take to try to make something happen, and the signs you read that make you believe you can make it happen, the odds are so stacked against you that you still fall frustratingly short.

An incident such as this occurred a few days ago, and it's been nagging at me, so rather than stew about it, maybe I'll do a write-up on it and see if that proves to be more beneficial.

Our tale begins in October 2008, when I was still living in Chicago. Mom gave me a heads up about a book she was reading along with the author's blog that she was very inspired by. The book was "Dog Days," the author was Jon Katz and the blog was

Now, I have to say I was going through a rough patch at the time. I was massively in debt and unhappy with the way nine glorious years in that city somehow dwindled to a sense of aimlessness and monotony. A lot of factors were at play there, really, but I was basically in a miserable rut.

So when I took a look at, I immediately connected with it. This was the first group of entries I read --

I've always been a dog person, so when I saw these photos of the border collies (Izzy and Rose) and the young black lab (Lenore) lounging in the fields of upstate New York, there was an undeniable sense of peace that emanated from these pages. Combined with some of the words and a very appropriate poem for my mindset at the time, I became intrigued about the blog and Mr. Katz in general.

I went back to the very first entry and, over time, began to read each one, and it started to feel like a good novel as you learn how he ended up on the farm and the adventures that preceded and followed that decision. What particularly hooked me are the entries that document the hospice work Katz was involved in, because they are some of the most profound and contemplative pieces you'll ever read.

It is here that I developed an affection for the charming and mysterious Izzy, who accompanied Katz on these hospice visits. Katz, who along with writing memoirs has delved into the nature of dogs to write some introspective books, has many times referred to dogs as being our sentinels or helpers, introducing us to people we may never have met otherwise, leading us through doors we may have never walked through.

And Izzy certainly backs this sentiment up, serving as nothing less than an angel for these people who are living their final moments on earth. The combination of Izzy's interaction with them and the amount of joy he brings, the relationships Katz forms and his thoughts on the subject of dying and dying with dignity is truly powerful stuff.

At its most basic level, this blog communicates that everyone faces indecision or pain or unfulfillment but it's how we respond that gives us life. I respect Katz's honest writing, his courage to write it, and his unwavering search for fulfillment in a world that at times seems to do everything it can to keep this unattainable. I don't really want to say the blog is a challenge, but maybe it's an example, to go out and claim the life you want and are entitled to amid all the nonsense.

A couple of months later, I moved back to Ohio to take care of the student-loan issues, reconnect with family and kind of reboot in a sense, and two years later I'm still happy with the decision, as hard as it was to leave Chicago.


So when Mom and I heard that Katz was promoting his new book, "Rose in a Storm," on a tour that wound through Ohio and that he was bringing Izzy, of course we had to go. But as it drew closer, the realities of life interfered, rendering Mom too sick to travel, and my excuse, naturally, was a work schedule that conflicted with literally every stop he was going to make.

Oh well, we thought ... maybe next time. But like I said, I really hate missed opportunities.

Katz, his wife, Maria, and Izzy were scheduled to be at the Books & Co. at The Greene in Dayton at 7 p.m. on Monday for a reading, a discussion and a book signing. But I had to work at 7. Working in the baseball field (no pun intended), it's not an option to call off when the League Championship Series are being played! However, after we gave it up for Monday, my shift happened to be changed to 8 p.m.

Yes, I took that as a sign.

Living about 45 minutes away, I thought, I won't be able to stay for the discussion or the book signing afterward, but maybe they'll show up early and we can get a chat going, can hang with Izzy, maybe surprise Mom with a signed book, etc ... So, despite the 8 p.m. work shift, I jumped in the car around 5:30 and drove out there.

Unfortunately, the rigors of the book tour did not allow for an early arrival. They arrived precisely at 7, along with an autumn cold front that turned the sky a deep gray and brought with it an appropriately brisk and blustery wind.

I noticed Izzy first on the street below as they walked in from the parking lot, his bright white and shimmering black coat standing out against the rainy grayness outside, and as they came in downstairs, Izzy was immediately greeted by surprised customers. He truly is treated like a rock star, as Katz says on his blog, and people are really funny when they see him ... gushing and cooing and smiling as they try to pet him. And he accommodates them all.

As they made their way upstairs, I did at least have the chance to exchange pleasantries with Katz, who said he was happy to be here and genuinely looked it. He was energized, eager to chat and ready to roll, which immediately killed me because I knew it was going to be a great discussion to be a part of, and here I had to leave in 10 minutes to get back for work! Ugh ...

But Izzy then brushed past me, affording me the chance to kneel down and give him the ol' head pat/ear scratch combo, while Katz referred to him as "Mr. Popular." Izzy really is a special kind of animal, he looks you and everyone he meets right in the eye, despite appearing to be travel-weary -- it's kind of chilling in a way when you think of where he's been and the work he's done and the lives he's affected. There really is something mystical about him.

But sadly, the interaction ended there as the crew was whisked away into the back office to prepare. I lingered as long as possible, chatting with some nice people but already running the risk of being dreadfully late, and as they re-emerged and Katz and Izzy made their way to the podium and their fans, seated and happily waiting, I simultaneously had to back away and make my way down the stairs.

And as I proceeded to dejectedly walk toward the exits, I hear above me: "Well, we'd like to thank you for coming out on what's turned out to be a rather cold and rainy night ... but we have a very special guest tonight, actually two special guests! I think you all know who this guy is ..."

The sounds of delight from upstairs as Izzy was introduced were callously cut off as the door shut behind me ... and I made my way to my car in the cold and the dark.


For a couple days after that, I was mildly annoyed about the whole thing. I also lamented the fact that I didn't think to take proper photos, although I always feel like I'm invading someone's privacy when I do, but I really was bummed I missed out on what was apparently a lively and entertaining discussion. I wanted to talk about Katz's hospice work, I wanted to know how Warren is, I wanted to discuss the tour, the photography bug he's picked up and his writing processes ... I wanted to cap the night with drinks at The Pub.

And I started asking myself if I would have been better off if I hadn't made the effort at all, since the whole thing felt so unfulfilling as I drove home. But as the days go by, knowing that I at least created the opportunity to come away with a cool experience makes it feel worthwhile to an extent.

I really get frustrated when work interferes with life -- happens way too much -- or when things don't work out the way I want them to. But as is conveyed so often up there at Bedlam Farm, it really is up to us to be happy -- and if things don't exactly work out, then perhaps our joie de vivre can also reside in the noble efforts we make to obtain it.

-- Written at the Underdog Cafe in Yellow Springs, OH

Friday, October 15, 2010

Review: Dr. No

I think we're more than past due for a James Bond write-up, don't you think?

And what better way to start than with the one that kicked them all off: "Dr. No." Believe it or not, I watched this for the first time tonight, and I really got a kick out of seeing how the franchise all began.

For one thing, as many times as we've heard the line in the myriad Bond films that have been made over the years, I challenge you not to crack a smile when you hear Sean Connery say it for the first time in his first-ever scene of the series -- at a card table, across from the mesmerizing Sylvia Trench (Eunice Gayson). It's perfectly delivered, with the signature look, cigarette included, and accompanied by the click of the cigarette lighter ... you relish it almost as much as he seems to, and it will never be uttered so well again.

Bond: I admire your courage, Miss ...
Sylvia: Trench. Sylvia Trench. I admire your luck, Mr ...

I leave you to finish this exchange at your pleasure ...

Now, any bit of time we're able to spend with the lovely Ms. Gayson is something to be treasured. During their whole interaction at the card table and their provocative conversation afterward, she simply radiates appeal. You hate to leave her there as Bond makes his exit, and find yourself wondering when you're going to see this girl again.

Well ... again comes just a few scenes later, in one of the most glorious movie entrances you'll ever see. There's Bond, going back to his hotel room to prepare for his departure on assignment. He hears somebody in his room, takes his shoes off to sneak up to the door, draws his gun, flings the door open and ducks to one knee to prepare to fire ...

... and with Bond crouched to one knee in the background, Ms. Gayson's flawless legs frame the shot in the foreground as she misses a golf putt wearing just a nightshirt.

Sylvia: There ... you've gone and made me miss it ...
Bond: You don't miss a thing ...

There's nothing more to say here. Except this:

I'm pretty sure we're all clear on the fact that plot is not a concern with these films. I mean, let's face it, Bond has to save the world from a supervillain hell-bent on ... yep, world domination. "The same old dream," as Bond says. So my favorite parts are the subtleties and nuances of Connery's performance or Bond's style in general.

I like when Bond is on his own. There's a scene here where he's in his hotel room in Jamaica about to leave for the day, and his meticulous preparations are enthralling to watch. He checks the outside door, closes it and locks it; he dusts the latches on his briefcase for easy detection of fingerprints; he walks to the closet, yanks a strand of hair from his head and places it across the crack in the door, so he'll know if someone opened it; he puts his shoulder holster on, slips his jacket on and walks out the door.

And when he comes back, he slips his jacket off, goes to the closet to find the hair is gone, goes to his briefcase and, with a knowing look, finds fingerprints on it; he pours himself a glass of vodka from the open bottle, thinks better of it, sniffs it, and opts for an unopened bottle instead. He goes back to his chair, puts his feet up and relaxes with his drink.

Little does he know that someone left a horrifying surprise for him, which wakes him up in the middle of the night in a paralyzingly intense scene!

Or take the sequence when he sets a trap for an anticipated intruder. He pours two drinks, sets them on the coffee table on opposite sides, strategically arranges the pillows on the couch, takes his jacket off and tosses it there. All the while he's smiling to himself as he crosses the room to the bedroom, flips on the record player and closes the bedroom door. He messes the sheets, slides a pillow under it to resemble someone sleeping, walks to the chair behind the door, loads his gun w/ a silencer and plays solitaire while he waits.

Of course, the trap works perfectly. Guy comes in and fires six shots at the bed, and ultimately meets his demise when he makes a move for his empty gun after Bond made him drop it: "That's a Smith & Wesson, and you've had your six," Bond says, cigarette dangling, before coldly dispatching him.

I also, naturally, admire Mr. Bond's ability to budget his time between saving the world and enjoying the lovely ladies. Shockingly, as he tracks Dr. No to an island called Crab Key, he makes the acquaintance of yet another. Enter the young, the tanned, the blonde, the beautiful Honey Ryder (Ursula Andress).

This girl killed me, because you have no idea what's going to come out of her mouth next. One minute she's young and innocent -- when Bond asks her if she'd ever been to school, she replies: "Didn't need to, we had an encyclopedia. I started at 'A' when I was 8 and now I reached 'T'. I bet I know a lot more things than you do."

And in the next breath, she matter-of-factly, and chillingly, discloses how she once disposed of a man who took advantage of her in the past, and Connery's reaction to this is priceless:

Honey: "I put a black widow spider underneath his mosquito net ... a female, they're the worst. It took him a whole week to die. (Looking pouty) Did I do wrong?
Bond: (Stunned and looks away) Well, it wouldn't do to make a habit of it.

Now what other movie are you going to find these gems in?!

The film then becomes almost science fiction, as they do battle with a flame-spewing tank and find Dr. No's absolutely fantastic lair under the sea, along with his well-financed lab from which he will wreak havoc with the United States' space program. Bond and Honey are taken prisoner -- mind you, it's first-class lodgings -- which, of course, invites some witty repartee between Dr. No and Mr. Bond, especially when they notice Dr. No's spectacular fish tank that magnifies everything on the other side.

Dr. No: You were admiring my aquarium.
Bond: Yes, it's quite impressive.
Dr. No: A unique feat of engineering if I may say so, I designed it myself. The glass is convex, 10 inches thick, which accounts for the magnifying effect.
Bond: Minnows pretending they're whales ... Just like you on this island, Dr. No.
Dr. No: It depends, Mr. Bond, on which side of the glass you are.

From here, we're treated to a fairly standard Bond ending, where he's presented with a very convenient method of escape, takes care of business and gets into a death struggle with the criminal mastermind, who inevitably becomes a victim of his own creation.

And so Bond is triumphantly born ... as is the persistent question we will all ask ourselves in virtually every movie to follow in the franchise:

Why can't these elaborately scheming supervillains ever put their brilliant minds to something useful?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Review: Red Riding Trilogy

"The devil triumphs when good men do naught."

This is uttered during Part I of the "Red Riding Trilogy" -- a British TV series that centers on Yorkshire, England during the time of the Yorkshire Ripper serial murders that occurred during the 1970s. The line is brief, I don't believe it was ever said again throughout this 300-minute behemoth of a series, yet it seems to be the singular sentiment at the center of this story.

When I first started this blog, I subconsciously wanted it to be mainly positive, because there's enough negativity out there, and I made an unwritten rule not to publish complaints, grievances or rants of any kind -- if I don't like something, it won't make it to print.

But, tricky situation here, because I cannot say that I enjoyed this series overall. As it wore on, I started wanting it all to wrap up already so that I could leave this dark, insidious world and all of its despicable characters behind. But at the same time, I'm fascinated by how it was put together and the ambitious nature it took to tell this story.

The trilogy is divided into years 1974, 1980 and 1983. As each begins, it introduces the time period as "In the Year of our Lord:" which I found to be a nice touch, seeing as God is absolutely nowhere to be found in this story.

What I found interesting about this, though, is that while the entire trilogy is one written work, each part is driven by a different director with his own take on the subject matter. Further, you can tell that each part uses different cameras or type of film quality -- where 1974 is gritty and grainy, 1980 feels more cinematic in scope and 1983 almost appears to be in high-definition. It provides a realistic sense of time passing, as well as different interpretations of the characters, while perfectly capturing the essence of each segment.

Regarding the story, as the Yorkshire Ripper commits grisly murders after abducting, torturing and raping young girls and women -- subject matter that is unspeakably grotesque enough if it were the only heinous plot of a story -- the rotten to the core Yorkshire police department supposedly tries to solve the murders and capture the Ripper.

Problem is, they're so disgustingly wrapped up in their own egos, greed, lust for power and inhumanity to not only keep these murders from happening, but their horrifying acts are actually intertwined with the Ripper's murders. This effectively makes this whole world utterly deplorable and agonizing to be a part of.

I was hard-pressed to find any redeeming qualities from the vast majority of characters in this -- and those "good men" who do, in fact, try to do something are all flawed or carrying some sort of negative baggage, and they are systematically snuffed out for their efforts.

Even one cop, Maurice Jobson (David Morrissey), who has a so-called guilty conscience is a do-nothing, weak, spineless sap who watches, and participates, as all of these atrocities by the police department are set in motion. By the time he gets around to making a move, everything has devolved into a convoluted mess of sin, despair, knowingly wrongful convictions, preying on the innocent, torture of prisoners, malicious manipulation, and covering up the ghastly deeds of some of their own all in the name of ... what exactly? "To the North, where we do what we want," they toast themselves regularly.

Thing is, I really like Part 1. It surrounds a young journalist, Eddie Dunford (Andrew Garfield) eager to make a name for himself, and he gets a job as the crime reporter for the Yorkshire Post and takes it upon himself to find the Ripper and put a stop to the brutal slayings. He gets in too deep, becoming involved with the mother of one of the missing girls, and he becomes hopelessly entangled in the corruption. But his journey from being somewhat egotistical to genuinely wanting to prevent any more girls from dying is interesting to watch. I was hooked from the start, where thunder ominously rolls through a deep, heavy, gray sky accompanied by a haunting theme that plays throughout.

The second part is the slowest of the three, taking on a film noir style as a new detective -- Peter Hunter (Paddy Considine) -- six years later, is still trying to solve the murders, this time of prostitutes. Yes, he gets in too deep and becomes hopelessly entangled in the corruption. A memorable scene from this one involves the Ripper (Joseph Mawle) describing one of his kills that is utterly chilling, and unfortunately probably something I'll never get out of my head.

As the third part begins, you realize that nothing good can come of this story at all. Everyone is so completely appalling that it wears on you to the point where, while the film admirably tries to wrap up and connect all the parts together -- which does have its interesting moments that demonstrate the skill of the filmmakers -- you don't even care anymore. It all becomes a tangled web of twists and revelations that drowns out an obvious attempt at ending with an uplifting and redemptive moment.

Well, now that I have you running to Neflix to move this to the top of your queue ...

I understand I didn't sell this movie. I wasn't planning to. I think the majority of this diatribe is to clear my head from watching it. But as grim as movies like these are to sit through, sometimes I feel a kind of obligation to suffer through them.

Why? I'm not really sure.

What I'm mainly bothered by is that I'm not sure what the point of this movie is. I like to think it's saying that it's important to not completely disregard or turn a blind eye to the darkness of human nature, because it's then when we are at our most vulnerable.

But for two-thirds of this series, good fails miserably before earning some modicum of success -- and even then it cannot be celebrated because it carries with it the ugly scars of the past.

So we're really only left with one unappealing and downright frightening conclusion here ... that In the Year of Our Lord 1974, 1980 and 1983, in Yorkshire, the devil triumphs whether good men do something or naught.

Note: If you do check this out, I'd recommend putting on the subtitles. The accents are quite thick and the characters are very hard to understand, even though you'd rather not hear what's coming out of their mouths the majority of the time.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Review: City Island

Very pleasantly surprised by "City Island," and equally baffled at how crazy quirky it is.

City Island is apparently a little-known location in the Bronx, about a mile long and a mile wide, which used to be a fishing village. It's quite quaint, with homes along the beach providing glorious views of Manhattan and housing families that have been there for generations. I gotta check this place out.

On this island resides The Rizzos, a family that definitely has some major issues. Headed by Vince (Andy Garcia), he's a 40-something prison guard who wants to be an actor. He sneaks cigarettes while reading Marlon Brando's biography by sticking his head out the window in the ceiling of the bathroom. He's too afraid -- embarrassed, thinks he's no good -- to tell his wife, Joyce (Juliana Margulies), so he tells her he has a poker game every time he sneaks off into the city to take acting classes. "Rather than tell your wife you're taking an acting class, you tell her you're out gambling instead? And that's better?" one character asks him.

Not to mention, while Vince is working a prison shift, he recognizes his long-lost son, Tony (Steven Strait), who is incarcerated. He hasn't told his family (or Tony) about this either. The prison releases a mystified Tony into Vince's custody, and he brings him home with him ... to City Island ... and his unsuspecting family.

These are just a few lies, or witholdings of truth, in a movie that is precariously full of them. Every member of this family has something off, a quirk, a fetish, a secret ... and everyone is too afraid to tell anyone else in their family about them, which, of course, creates larger problems ... and subsequent outrageous screaming matches in thick New Yawk accents.

Throughout the movie, and nicely offsetting the boorishness, is Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's lilting soundtrack. I've noticed his work in a few movies now ("Finding Neverland," "Hachi," "Get Low") and he's rapidly becoming one of my favorite film score composers ... The soundtracks are hard to describe, they're all very melodic but have this unique ability to sound lighthearted and somewhat haunting at the same time. And that's certainly an interesting combination for this movie.

The movie meanders at points -- I have absolutely no idea what the storyline regarding Vince's obnoxious youngest son Vinnie Jr. (Ezra Miller) and his feeding fetish for the fat woman who lives next door (Yes, I just said that) has to do with anything, I guess it's his kink -- but where it works is the story involving Vince and some special supporting cast members.

I love Vince's story. There's something very cool about sneaking off and taking the skycar into Manhattan to study acting in a darkened studio theater. Alan Arkin is perfect and hilarious as his acting teacher, who's no better off than his students and the millions of other hopeful actors in New York, and you can't help but laugh at his angst ... especially when he goes off on his irritation with all the extra, and unnecessary, "pauses" actors take ... paraphrasing:

Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia and Alan Arkin (Phil Caruso/Anchor Bay)
"All of a sudden, Brando comes along and everyone says, 'Oh my God he's a genius, did you see him thinking?!' Anyone here see 'The Fugitive Kind?' Somebody asked Brando what his name is. He's gotta think about it. Why?! Why does he have to think about that, it takes him a half hour to get back to the guy! It's not acting ... it's not thinking ... it's just ... well, it's just bullshit!"

Oh my God that floored me, and I'm still cracking up now writing it. I had to watch that rant about three times.

In this class, Vince also meets Molly (Emily Mortimer), who I absolutely love in this. As acting partners, the two form a friendship and meet in the city over pie in late-night cafes, or drinks, as confidants, and she gently prompts him to reveal his secret about Tony. It should come as no surprise that she holds an emotional secret of her own.

It's at one of these meetings that she spots a casting call for a movie that fits Vince perfectly and encourages him to go on his first audition. And, for me, this is the greatest sequence in the movie.

The anxious and apprehensive Vince shows up to the audition -- which is calling for a tough, blue-collar character -- wearing a black suit and tie, and the look on his face revealing his rising panic as he discovers a line of actors (including his acting teacher!) all dressed in blue-collar attire stretching around the city block, is outstanding. "What are you coming from a funeral?" one guy asks him.

Vince also discovers the part is for a DeNiro/Scorsese movie. He just so happens to be among a handful picked out of the mile-long line to read in front of the camera for Scorsese's casting director, and this whole scene simply has everything ... hilarity (when he starts off doing an overblown -- and what looks to be painful -- Brando impression), awkwardness and eventually some serious drama and emotion. Garcia is incredibly strong in this movie, evidenced with no uncertainty by his performance here.

Emily Mortimer and Andy Garcia (Phil Caruso/Anchor Bay)
This sequence carries over into a scene at a sweet, swanky bar with a sheepish Vince -- who gets a phone call for a callback and is unable to grasp the magnitude of what that means -- and Molly, whose genuine happiness over Vince's incredibly good fortune really makes you (or at least me) genuinely love her. You can see almost everything about what kind of person this mysterious woman is written on her face throughout this scene.

But as expected, with an exasperated Tony front and center and utterly stupefied by the level of dysfunction he is witnessing, all the lying and hiding catches up to the Rizzo clan, sparked by his immersion into their family.

And fittingly, just as what we've witnessed up to this point, everything comes to a riotous and bizarre and funny and emotional climax that's quite entertaining and thoroughly satisfying to watch.

Friday, October 1, 2010

The Promised Land: Bruce lights Reds' way

First of all, I don't know how people find the time and energy to keep a blog going. I fear that this experiment is hanging by the thinnest of threads, going by the time it takes me to start on one after an event and the steady dwindling of posts since it all started back in June.

But I can't let the events at Great American Ball Park from a few days ago pass by without mention.

Every now and then, you have the opportunity to attend a game and come away exhausted, saying, "Good Lord ... that one had it all!"

And then you have a game like Tuesday's.

Going into this particular game against the Astros, the Reds needed only a win or a Cardinals loss to clinch the National League Central. But before we get into what happened that night, with Aaron and I in attendance from Section 134, we need to at least acknowledge the intricacies that allowed us to be in the right place at the right time.

From a more direct standpoint, the Cardinals were playing the Pirates the night before, with the Reds idle. If the Pirates beat the Cardinals, the Reds would have clinched that night without even having to play. Since we were planning to go to the game on Tuesday, we obviously wanted to see a clincher, so we had to subtly root for the Cardinals to stay alive one more day.

They did. But that's a very dangerous game to be playing if you're a Reds fan. The only clincher I saw in person was the Marlins clinching a World Series berth in Game 7 of the 2003 NLCS at Wrigley Field ... not something I care to remember, but something I still think about quite a bit to this day. We had the opportunity to see the Red Sox clinch against the Twins when we went to Fenway Park for the first time a few years ago, but they lost. So, I justified our actions by merely being a "fan of the game." Aaron, on the other hand, tested the jinx gods to a somewhat alarming degree being the die-hard Reds fan that he is.

But when you go back throughout the season, you think of the countless tight wins or losses by all the teams involved that, had they gone a different way, would have caused the stars to align differently.

Keeping it Reds-centric, Travis Wood's near perfect game that Cincinnati went on to lose comes to mind, as does Joey Votto's game-tying homer against the Phillies in the bottom of the ninth that nearly brought them all the way back. You remember that Brooks Conrad grand slam that Laynce Nix nearly caught at the wall that erased an eight-run Reds lead. If Cincinnati won any of those, this would not have happened for us.

And those are just off the top of my head ... I also don't think I've had a Tuesday night off work all summer. The infinite amount of scenarios that allowed for us to be at that game and have a chance to see the Reds clinch is mind-boggling.

In other words, everything had to come together perfectly.

Jay Bruce, having no idea what he's going to do a few hours later,
chats with Scott Rolen before the game.
But there we were. And as the Reds were in a tight one early, our attention started to wander to the Pirates/Cardinals scoreboard. With the Reds struggling to get any sort of traction, we were hoping for a little assistance from the Pirates so that we could at least celebrate a clincher in some form that night ... with Aaron even starting a "Let's Go Pirates!" chant when they promptly took an early lead.

Then, there was a singular moment that seemed to set in motion the extraordinary events that followed. With the Astros up, 2-1, in the third, Carlos Lee tattooed a pitch from Edinson Volquez to straightaway center field, a certain two-run shot that would've given Houston a daunting three-run lead.

But just before everyone gave it up for gone, Drew Stubbs began to measure the ball at the wall ... he leaped ... and erased those two runs from the scoreboard with an unbelievable catch over the wall. "That was like a Reds two-run homer," Aaron said.

From then on, there was a buzz the rest of the night ... as if everyone was waiting for the Reds to uncoil and strike -- as they have all season. And when Brandon Phillips tied it up on a grounder in the sixth, it intensified. When the Reds got to the Astros bullpen after being mystified by Wandy Rodriguez all night, you could feel a weight being lifted ... and a sense that it was only a matter of time.

The time was three innings later, marked by the ninth-inning entrance of Aroldis Chapman -- he of the 105-mph fastball. This was our first time seeing him pitch live, and it was pure electricity. He topped out at 101 mph that night -- nearly giving us a shot at a screaming foul ball that bloodied the mouth of a kid a few rows in front of us while we braced ourselves to play the ricochet and attempt to grab the souvenir -- and he seemed to inject the crowd with a B-12 shot, personally shifting the growing momentum completely over to the good side. He retired the Astros 1-2-3, to set the stage for the bottom of the ninth.

Now, if you go back to the Votto post above, Aaron and I tend to have some prophetic powers when we're at these games. All night, when Stubbs made that catch, or when Jay Bruce grounded into a double play with the bases loaded in the sixth inning, for example, we said that it's cool, it keeps the walk-off intact. And before Bruce stepped into the batter's box to lead off the ninth, Aaron took it a step further, saying that Bruce should just hit the first pitch for a walk-off shot to end it.

Well, what happens next is a true story, and since there are no words that exist to describe what happened, please refer to the following video to experience for yourself ... with the help of Marty Brennaman and another Bruce.

A truly remarkable moment.

To put it in perspective, Bruce is only the fifth player in Major League history to hit a playoff-clinching home run, joining Bobby Thomson, Hank Aaron, Alfonso Soriano and Steve Finley. To accomplish this, he had to overcome a tough night in which he had been 0-for-3 with two strikeouts and the crucial double play. He had to face Tim Byrdak, who does not give up homers to left-handed hitters.

But he was waiting for a fastball.

He got one.

And, buoyed by Stubbs' catch, Volquez's gritty start, Chapman's heat and clutch contributions from the players -- like Phillips, like Scott Rolen, like Arthur Rhodes -- who have gotten them to this point, the Reds quenched their 15-year playoff thirst with their 22nd final at-bat win on Bruce's 22nd homer of the season.

In other words, everything came together perfectly.