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  • The Bucket List (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | January 12, 2008

    Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman ride off into the wild blue yonder in "The Bucket List"

    Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman ride off into the wild blue yonder in "The Bucket List"

    It’s Never Too Late to Have a Mid-Life Crisis

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 


    The Bucket List. Starring Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman, Sean Hayes, Beverly Todd, Rob Morrow, Alfonso Freeman, Rowena King, Anton Berry, Jr., Verda Bridges, Destiny Brownridge, Brian Copeland, Ian Anothony Dale, Jennifer Defrancisco, Angela Gardner  and Noel Gugliemi. Music by Marc Shaiman. Cinematography by John Schwartzman.  Production design by Bill Brzeski. Costume design by Molly Maginnis. Edited by Robert Leighton. Screenplay by Justin Zackham. Directed by Rob Reiner. (Warner Bros. Pictures, 2007, Prints by Technicolor, 97 minutes. MPAA Rating: PG-13.)

    On the Amtrak between Los Angeles and Tucson, I met a German exchange college student recently. He was taking advantage of spring break to see the American southwest by rail and bicycle. As we talked over supper in the diner car, he struck me as energetic and ambitious. He planned to “see the world,” make his mark in his chosen field of endeavor (biochemistry), and marry his med student girlfriend. Yet, as we later discussed politics and its inevitable bedfellow, money, in the club car, the vast differences in the American and European ways of measuring success impressed themselves upon me.

    As an ex-military guy in his forties who’s led a quite ordinary life, I was surprised to find myself the more ambitious of the two, economically. I talked about my ideal of my piece of heaven on earth, which involved mutual fund investments, buying gold and silver, a Roth IRA, the houses I rent out to build equity and generate income. I mentioned how close I was to realizing Parts B and C of that dream, to wit, a Dodge Hemi Challenger and a primo hunting and fishing lodge on the Canadian side of Lake Superior.

    My acquaintance explained to me his economic plan of being able to generate just enough income to live with just enough floorspace, and to get about without the burden of having to own a car. To my American ears, it was shocking to hear this 24 year-old’s plans (and being a German, he was methodically building a solid foundation for his gemütlich future), which you usually don’t hear from the mouths of American men until they’ve reached their fifties and got caught up in the “simplification” craze that’s been sweeping boomers who got a late start investing for retirement.

    Indeed, we Americans are still the same pushful lot that H.L. Mencken pegged us as during the dawn of the twentieth century: always striving for a higher station in life, for fear of backsliding into failure and ruin. While the practical results of this way of thinking are often rewarding (witness the Chrysler Building, David O. Selznick’s production of Gone With the Wind, and Jerry Jones’s rebuilding the Dallas Cowboys), chasing success does not always guarantee its outcome (witness Donald Trump’s bankrupt real estate ventures, Warren Beatty’s production of Ishtar, and Jerry Jones’s re-rebuilding the Dallas Cowboys). The fate of men building an unfinished continent seems, by definition, to be saddled with perpetually unfinished lives.

    Carter Chambers (Morgan Freeman) is just such a man. We first glimpse him as he’s working under the hood of a car, but his palaver with a fellow mechanic betrays a well of unrealized ambitions as he lectures on Nikola Tesla’s feud with Guglielmo Marconi over the radio trade patent. Clearly, Carter was meant for bigger things in life than replacing timing chains. However, we also know that he’s about to wind up in the hospital with terminal cancer. Carter drops his cigarette when he suddenly gets a phone call from his doctor’s office. Smoking could only be grave foreshadowing in a Rob Reiner flick.

    Carter is admitted to a no-frills hospital, run by Edward Cole, an HMO operator played by Jack Nicholson. Despite his vast riches, Edward winds up as Carter’s roommate in the hospital, thanks to a plot device—Cole is negotiating a takeover bid to privatize the publicly-run hospital. To avoid negative publicity, Cole shares a semi-private room, though his assistant Thomas (Sean Hayes) caters to his culinary whims by sneaking in haute cuisine to his boss’s bedside.

    Initially, the two men’s personalities could not be further apart. Edward Cole is a doer, who barks orders to the hospital staff, and doesn’t have much time for an examined life. Carter Chambers is a do-it-yourself kind of guy and a bookworm whose daily obsession is watching “Jeopardy!” and answering each question aloud and correctly. The working-class wrench turner disdains the exotic coffees that Cole imbibes (“I’m an instant coffee man,” he informs the CEO), yet maintains an encyclopedic knowledge on the many varieties of coffee beans, about which his seemingly worldlier roommate is ignorant.

    Despite racial and class differences, though, the cancer both men have been diagnosed with turns out to be a great equalizer. Carter, who left college as a young man to attend to the responsibilities of providing for his family and seeing to his kids’ college education, begins to question whether his life has been fulfilling. Recalling an assignment his philosophy professor gave him decades ago, Carter compiles a list of all the things he truly wants to do before he “kicks the bucket.” Having written it, he crumples it up and tosses it away.

    But, when Cole finds the list and reads it, he takes an opposite tack to Carter’s cautious theorizing about living life to its fullest in the face of looming mortality. Cole’s philosophy is “we live to die another day,” and he proposes the two of them scratch the items off Carter’s list one-by-one. Carter tells his wife (Beverly Todd) “I’m going away for a while,” and we sense that over the decades the couple has fallen out of love. All she can see in Carter’s newfound sense of adventure is a bewildering death wish.

    After she leaves, Cole gestures about the antiseptic hospital room, asking, “Is that what you want? To be smothered with pity and grief? Not me! And, I believe in your heart, not you either, Carter.”

    On Cole’s dime (and he’s got as many dimes as Rockefeller), the two set off around the globe to live, as the old adage goes, each day as though it were their last. Carter at first balks at having his body desecrated, when Cole takes him to a tattoo parlor, but gets caught up in the spirit of their quest when they skydive out of a perfectly good airplane. Being so near to death, Carter relishes in the thrill of living. As he races a vintage Shelby Mustang against Cole in a Charger Superbee R/T, Carter surprises him by turning the drag race into a demolition derby. It’s a rare treat to see Jack Nicholson having the tables turned on him, and only an actor with the power and depth of Morgan Freeman can get away with intimidating perennial the bad boy, howling, “Evil? I’ll show you Evil-Goddamn-Knievel!”

    In Cole’s private jet, the two visit a travelogue of spectacular vistas, from the French Riviera, to the Great Pyramids in Egypt, to a safari on the Serengeti, to climbing Mount Kilimanjaro. But, as they stop to unwind in Hong Kong, and having ticked off the last of their adventures, a gnawing feeling of incompleteness still haunts them.

    Though The Bucket List has largely been targeted at the AARP demographic, it’s a benign and inspiring motion picture that’s accessible to people of all ages, including older children. Through its characterizations of Carter and Cole, it demonstrates through dramatic situations how the thoughtful long for boldness, and the powerful secretly wish for insightfulness. There’s an optimistic, Capra-esque feel to it. This was, I’m certain, intentional, as it was produced by Frank Capra III, the famed director’s grandson.

    Like many of Rob Reiner’s best movies, such as This Is Spinal Tap and When Harry Met Sally, this buddy pic showcasing two of our greatest actors is a feel-good comedy to remember. And, although it urges us not to go gently into that good night, The Bucket List also seriously questions the exact nature of living each day as though it were our last. Perhaps that’s what we’ve been doing all along, without knowing it.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White Magazine, Entrepreneur, Hoy! New York, the New YorkPost, RCA Victor (Japan), Scene in San Antonio, Spirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Adventure Movies, Black Comedies, Buddy Movies, Comedies, Dramas, Movie Reviews |

    Americanizing Shelley (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | January 11, 2008

    Sultry Namrata Singh Gujral in "Americanizing Shelley"

    Sultry Namrata Singh Gujral in "Americanizing Shelley"

    You’ll Grow Accustomed to Her Face

     

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

    Americanizing Shelley. Starring Namrata Singh Gujral, Beau Bridges, Brad Raider, RonReaco Lee, Phillip Rhys, Wil Wheaton, Erin Hershey, Shaheen Khan, Ajay Mehta, Noureen DeWulf, Tony Yalda, Morgan Brittany, and Robert M. Rey. Music by Jay Ferguson. Cinematography by Christo Bakalov, B.A.C.  Production design by Kathryn Evans. Costume design by Barbara Anderson, Pooja Gujral, and Jaymee Mandeville. Edited by Christopher Roth. Written by Namrata Singh Gujral. Directed by Lorraine Senna. (Warner Bros./Polychrome Pictures/American Pride Films Group, 2007, color, 90 minutes, in English, and Punjabi with subtitles). MPAA rating: PG.)

    I’m not supposed to like Americanizing Shelley, at least not according to the unwritten code of my profession. It doesn’t affect a sneering tone. In fact, it’s so sweet that it verges on sappy. It’s also a popcorn flick that may be great to take a date to, but most guys will probably be looking at their watches (read: “chick flick”). It’s also quite formulaic. The formula is so hoary, in fact, that it’s borrowed from a Cypriot myth almost two thousand years old, about a forlorn artist named Pygmalion who sculpts a statue of a woman so lifelike that he falls in love with it.

    Still, I was enchanted. Perhaps it was the timing. That bath I said I needed after wandering the dark barrens of There Will Be Blood? Well, Americanizing Shelley was like an invigorating shower, and I was able to cleanse myself of those ugly emotions after watching this endearing romantic comedy.

    The Pygmalion myth of remaking a woman over according to the idealized image of her male designer has resurfaced constantly in popular culture—often through tragedies, such as Hitchcock’s suspense masterpiece Vertigo and Andrew Nichol’s underrated cautionary film S1m0ne. Most famously, it’s been identified with dramatist George Bernard Shaw’s Edwardian comedy of manners Pygmalion, which was reworked as the Lerner and Loewe musical comedy My Fair Lady. In its lighthearted treatment of the ancient tale, though, this movie comes closer to the 1983 British flick Educating Rita.

    Shalini Singh has waited her whole life to leave her Himalayan village in India and travel to America—or, as she calls it, “the Land of the White People.” To the consternation of her mother (Shaheen Khan), she’s closing in on thirty and still unmarried. Not to worry, however: Shalini just graduated from “the University of Cooking and Cleaning” and is set to present herself to Neil (Phillip Rhys), to whom she was betrothed since childhood. Neil has become a successful Hollywood talent agent, and Shalini is worked up into a lather because soon “I’ll be married to the man of my family’s dreams!”

    However, Neil has become a success not only in the boardroom but on the casting couch as well. One day, after trekking halfway across the world to meet him, Shalini shows up in his office wearing a sari and holding parcels, her face hidden behind untamed hair and oversized glasses. But when she proudly presents herself to her fiancé, he blows her off. “You cook and speak English? Great, I’ll hire you as a maid.”

    Stunned, Shalini leaves his office and starts trudging down the sidewalk. There she runs across Rob (Brad Raider), Neil’s hapless assistant, who’s trying to make a name for himself at the agency. Rob has his own problems: His girlfriend was just stolen by Neil on her climb up the ladder of fame and fortune.

    Shalini sees her own inadequacy in competing with the hotties that are more to Neil’s liking. So she strikes a deal with Rob: “Americanize” her into becoming a Hollywood celebrity so that Neil will fall in love with and marry her.

    In a sequence of events familiar to fans of “fish out of water” movies like Pretty Woman and Legally Blonde, Shalini stumbles slowly forward as she strives to become both “cool” and “hot.” Rob suggests changing her name to the more Latina-sounding “Shelley Picante,” and with the help of Army friend Blaine (RonReaco Lee), she works out in a “boot camp” montage to get the killer body she thinks she needs.

    Moreover, as she leaves the cultural ties that bind her to India, “Shelley” becomes an American in the larger sense. At a kicker bar, she ditches taboos about women drinking alcohol. “That’s what I like about your culture,” she tells her new friends as she orders another round of beers. “I can do something because I want to, not because I have to.” Of course, when she arrives home, drives the porcelain bus, and then wakes up with a hangover, she learns that exercising free will does not necessarily entail wisdom.

    Although some of the movie’s humor missed its mark, a scene at a cocktail soiree, where Rob advises her to just wing it, makes for some dead-on satire. Afraid to insult “somebody who might be somebody,” the Beautiful People at the party all feign acquaintance with Shelley and her work, and before you know it, she’s in like Flynn.

    But after her makeover is complete, and having become “Americanized” only in the most superficial sense, Shelley comes to see Neil for the two-timing cad he really is. Worse, he wants her to lower herself in order to generate more publicity in the scandal sheets, thus boosting her celebrity status. Forced to choose between her family’s wishes and her own better judgment, Shelley discovers that being an American is not about celebrity but about making independent decisions and keeping one’s integrity intact.

    This picture has a distinctly Eighties feel to it, accentuated by composer Jay Ferguson’s soundtrack, which somewhat echoes The Wedding Singer. More importantly, the movie captures the optimism of that decade through colorful, Bollywood-style dance sequences. Namrata Singh Gujral portrays the benign immigrant heroine with compassion, conviction, and a charming effervescence. Phillip Rhys is deliciously ruthless and shallow as Neil. The only weak link, I thought, was Brad Raider as Rob. I experienced a fair amount of cognitive dissonance in his portraying a nice guy who is simultaneously a shrewd publicist. His acting was too lukewarm to make plausible either his ambition or his benevolent ability to transform Shalini into Shelley. Though he comes across more credibly as he grows accustomed to her face, Rex Harrison he ain’t.

    Still, this was a fun and entertaining watch. Americanizing Shelley is a formulaic movie that’s nonetheless wise beyond its plot. Shelley realizes the American Dream in its truest sense: measured not in terms of fame and riches, but in the independence gained by standing on one’s own two feet and succeeding or failing by the choices one makes.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Bollywood, Comedies, Independent Films, Movie Reviews |

    There Will Be Blood (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | January 4, 2008


    Daniel Day-Lewis, with son Dillon Freasier in tow, fires up the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson's "There Will Be Blood"

    Daniel Day-Lewis, with son Dillon Freasier in tow, fires up the screen in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood”

    Full of Fire and Music and Whatnot

    Rating: 4.5/5 ★★★★½ 

    There Will Be Blood. Starring Daniel Day-Lewis, Paul Dano, Martin Stringer, Kevin J. O’Connor, Jacob Stringer, Matthew Braden Stringer, Ciarán Hinds, Dillon Freasier, Joseph Mussey, Barry Del Sherman, Russell Harvard, Harrison Taylor, Stockton Taylor, Colleen Foy , Paul F. Tompkins, and Kevin Breznahan. Original music by Jonny Greenwood. Cinematography by Robert Elswit, A.S.C. Production design by Jack Fisk. Costume design by Mark Bridges. Edited by Dylan Tichenor, A.C.E. Based on the novel Oil! by Upton Sinclair. Written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson. (Paramount Vantage/Miramax Films, 2007, color, 158 minutes. MPAA rating: R.)

    You could tell when Richard Nixon was lying. Sweat would bead on his quivering upper lip, as Hunter S. Thompson used to note.

    Oil magnate Daniel Plainview doesn’t have that problem. As he methodically cons backwater rubes out of their land by promising a foursquare deal and a share-the-wealth scheme in exchange for drilling rights, his bushy brown mustache conceals that part of his anatomy. It wouldn’t matter anyways: Plainview’s poker face, topped by his furrowed brow and piercing green eyes, reveals nothing to tip off prospects to his ulterior motives. That’s because he’s a man utterly devoid of conscience.

    In an intensely focused performance, actor Daniel Day-Lewis is a shoe-in for his second best-actor Oscar trophy for one of the grimmest protagonists ever to burst onto the big screen. His portrayal of robber baron Plainview is a character study of an “unbridled individualist” whose greed for extracting oil from the ground is surpassed only by his shocking misanthropy. He regards with suspicion all of humanity. “I have a competition in me,” he confesses to a drifter who has become his confidant. “I want no one else to succeed. I hate most people.”

    Plainview well knows the meaning of an honest day’s pay for a hard day’s work during the turn of the twentieth century. The movie opens to find him in a literal hole, swinging a pickax to bust out silver ore from a rocky ledge. After breaking his leg in a mishap, he splints it and drags himself away from the mine. Cut to the assayer’s office: Plainview apparently has dragged himself across miles of craggy badlands to cash in his meager claim. This is one tough bastard, all grit, nothing soft or weak about him.

    Cut again. A decade later, Plainview is now a wealthy man. He carries himself with an absolute air of authority akin to an immutable force of nature, which intimidates people into acquiescing to his will. He speaks in forthright but measured tones, in a gentle brogue that sounds like Sean Connery imitating John Huston. Knowing that he can count on the greed of penniless ranchers and small-time merchants who’ve suddenly found oil seeping up from their otherwise worthless land, he makes his case for paying pennies on the dollar sound like the height of sound and prudent economics. And all the while, Plainview’s young adopted son, H.W. (Dillon Freasier), stands silently by his side as evidence that he’s also a family man and therefore of solid moral character.

    Although he’s meant to be a symbol of avarice, Plainview is hardly ostentatious. He’s well-dressed, but the dried salt on his hatband gives silent witness to his assertion of being “just an oilman” who still works with his hands alongside his crew. He sleeps on a hardwood floor without a pillow, even once he’s settled into a plush mansion. His whole raison d’être is wrapped up in his tireless ambition. Daniel Plainview isn’t so much a prince of capitalist plunder as he is capitalism’s ascetic monk.

    One evening, a young man named Paul Sunday (Paul Dano) appears in Plainview’s office, offering to sell his family’s tract of land outside the California town of Little Boston. In their dealings, we begin to see the veneer peel away to reveal Plainview’s underhanded methods. He induces Paul to divulge the location of his father’s goat ranch for $500, then he high-tails it out to the ranch.

    Once there, Plainview introduces himself to Paul’s father as a sportsman bringing his boy along for a father-son quail hunt. Plainview then tries to con the Sundays into selling their land, under the guise of setting up a hunting camp. But Paul’s twin brother Eli, a young preacher (also played by Dano), senses something off, remarking that the presence of oil makes their land eminently valuable. However, father Abel (David Willis), a simple, pious man, agrees to sell the land for $5,000 cash and the promise of another five grand to build a church for Eli.

    Although Eli objects at first, wanting his share up-front, he gives in when Plainview promises that he will be given the honor of blessing the oil well that’s soon to change everybody’s lives. But Plainview reneges on the pledge. The animosity between the two men escalates to a violent feud that haunts both to its bitter, sanguinary end.

    Daniel Day-Lewis’s performance is larger-than-life in the broadest sense of the term, reminding us, through the sheer forcefulness of his ability to project obsessive mania, that the one thing immutably larger-than-life is death. Paul Dano gives an equally impressive performance as Eli, a fundamentalist preacher as venal as Plainview is vicious. A master manipulator, Eli is a physical weakling who channels his aggression through his passive station in life, flaunting his piety before his flock. But his talents never reach beyond the dolts in his tiny ranching hamlet. He is irrevocably small-time, which is the source of his resentment of Plainview. For his part, the oilman sees in Eli a weaker version of himself.

    In this morality play, Eli was meant to represent cynical religious zealotry as the other side of the capitalist coin. The knee-jerk reaction would be to blame Upton Sinclair—the agitator and muckraking author of the 1927 novel Oil!—for the film’s thinly veiled socialism. That would be a partial mistake. While Sinclair was an uncompromising socialist, by the late 1920s Moscow regarded him as an apologist for capitalism. Though the novel’s J. Arnold Ross (based on real-life Teapot Dome–scandal figure Edward Doheny) is hardly a paragon of integrity, neither is he the devil incarnate that director Paul Thomas Anderson puts onscreen. Sinclair actually portrayed his protagonist rather sympathetically, as a compromiser who (however deluded) justified his actions to himself and his son as serving the greater good.

    By contrast, Anderson doesn’t just hit you over the head with the film’s political message; he bashes you in the teeth with it. With nary a political word uttered, his script is nonetheless crafted to lead the viewer to the inexorable conclusion that this is America. That individualism is a dangerous force society needs to keep in check. That an industrialist’s success is society’s demise. There Will Be Blood isn’t so much based on Sinclair’s novel as it is distilled from it.

    The result is the exact opposite of dramatic catharsis. Instead of purging me of discomforting emotions, it filled me with wrath, fear, and disgust. I felt as though I needed a bath when the screening was over.

    But although I left the theater shuddering, I had been riveted to my seat during the entire movie. As repugnant as his product is, Anderson’s mastery of his craft is intoxicatingly compelling. Watching There Will Be Blood, I could identify with Robert DeNiro’s character Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, as he sits in an adult movie house, both repulsed and fascinated by the lurid images he watches between open fingers of the hand covering his eyes.

    What makes There Will Be Blood so devastatingly effective is that it’s a revolt against all the slick clichés of today’s cinema. It reestablishes the lost art of epic moviemaking without being self-consciously “artsy.” For a motion picture almost three hours long, Anderson makes the most of the slight material that comprises the movie’s plot. The script is simplicity defined; there are no overlapping and interwoven subplots. Although Anderson’s gloomy palette paints his nasty, petty characters in black, they are projected clearly and with range.

    Though it’s been compared to Citizen Kane and George Stevens’s GiantThere Will Be Blood is more reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s operatic Once Upon a Time in the West, another sprawling tale that takes its time. Cinematographer Robert Elswit’s camera cuts a swath across the plains and rocky terrain with uncomplicated shots that showcase the movie’s wide-open locales. Neither are there are gratuitous special effects. As the final credits rolled, I was stunned to learn the visual climax of the flaming oil derrick against the deep blue twilight sky was a CGI digital composite; it looked like a Technicolor version of the oil rig fire from the film-noir classic The Wages of Fear.

    The rich imagery onscreen is undergirded by a soundtrack from alternative musician Jonny Greenwood, guitarist of Radiohead. Written mostly for strings, Greenwood’s symphonic composition is full of portamento and pizzicati. It’s the perfect aural complement, employing a brisk, matter-of-fact tempo and discordant themes that underscore Plainview’s efficient energy and unsettling pathology. Greenwood’s score easily belongs in the same company as the best from Jerry Goldsmith or Bernard Herrmann.

    Like its Social Darwinist anti-hero, There Will Be Blood packs one hell of a wallop. And yet, it fell somewhat short of being a true masterwork. Still, aside from its absurd, anti-climactic ending, it’s a stunningly made work of art used to drive home the stale, nihilistic theme that the American Dream is at base really a nightmare.

    There Will Be Blood gets away with its epic Romanticism by wallowing in the Gothic muck of depravity and corruption. But although it’s a giant step forward in reclaiming the silver screen from the hacks and charlatans who’ve turned moviemaking into a spin-off of the video-game genre, the sum of its parts is greater than its whole.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White Magazine, Entrepreneur, Hoy! New York, the New York Post, RCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San Antonio, Spirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Dramas, Epic Movies, Independent Films, Movie Reviews |

    I Am Legend (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | December 24, 2007

    Dawn of the Dead: Will Smith hides from standard-issue zombies in "I Am Legend"

    Dawn of the Dead: Will Smith hides from standard-issue zombies in "I Am Legend"

    One-Man Show

     

    Rating: 3.5/5 ★★★½☆ 

    I Am Legend. Starring Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Salli Richardson, Willow Smith, Darrell Foster, April Grace, Dash Mihok, and Joanna Numata. Music by James Newton Howard. Cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, A.S.C.  Production design by Naomi Shohan. Costume design by Michael Kaplan. Edited by Wayne Wahrman, A.C.E. Screenplay by Mark Protosevich and Akiva Goldsman. Based on the novel by Richard Matheson, and a screenplay by John William Corrington and Joyce Hooper Corrington. Directed by Francis Lawrence. (Warner Bros./Village Roadshow Pictures, 2007, Technicolor, 101 minutes. MPAA rating: PG-13.)

    Down here in south Texas, I’m occasionally drawn unawares into conversations with congregants of the evangelical Cornerstone Church, whose flock is herded by Pastor John Hagee. Before I can brush off their proselytizing with a terse “you’re barking up the wrong tree, I worship St. Thomas Aquinas and statues of Mary,” I am inevitably informed about the impending End of the World and its attendant Second Coming of one Christ, Jesus H. Invariably, the Left Behind post-apocalyptic book series is recommended for my edification and salvation. Sorry, but the closest thing to the rapture I’m eagerly awaiting is the pending second coming of Led Zeppelin.

    What’s up with all this hysteria about the four horsemen drawing nigh, anyways? And, are adherents to this viewpoint really the kind of people you’d want to be hanging around if and when it all goes up in smoke? Can you imagine being subjected the rest of your days to the bipolar histrionics of talk-radio blowhard Michael Savage, or to Mister Rogers-on-Thorazine environmental doomsayer Al Gore? I’d sooner play a few rounds of “Hi Bob,” while popping Demerols with shots of tequila (Disclaimer: Do Not Attempt).

    The only way to tough it out through the ultimate hard times is with an ironclad American action hero at your side, someone who can stay focused and optimistic while everyone and everything is going to pieces all around him. In the 1980s heyday of the action genre, it was Schwarzenegger, Stallone, and Willis. Today, Will Smith is the movie-going public’s hero of choice, having saved the day time and again in flicks like Independence Day, Men In Black, and I, Robot.

    Their prototype was square-jawed Charlton Heston, who enjoyed a cinematic second wind starring in sci-fi and disaster-action pictures. Whether it was rescuing us from a San Andreas Fault getting fidgety, or from mystery-meat TV dinners, or from plummeting Boeings, or from damned dirty apes, you could always rely on Chuck Heston.

    Given Hollywood’s penchant for remakes, perhaps it was inevitable that Smith would soon step into Heston’s shoes. He does so in the latest screen adaptation of the short novel I Am Legend, written by sci-fi/fantasy icon Richard Matheson (The Incredible Shrinking Man, Duel, and many “Twilight Zone” and “Star Trek” episodes). I say “latest” because while director Francis Lawrence’s version is a remake of Heston’s 1971 sci-fi cult classic The Omega Man, this is actually the third time that Matheson’s story about the last survivor of a deadly plague has been translated to the big screen. The first, 1964’s The Last Man on Earth, starred B-movie idol Vincent Price in what was probably the version closest to Matheson’s dark novel. (Ironically, Matheson was dissatisfied with how his work was altered by the producers, had his name pulled from that project, and was listed in the credits under the pseudonym “Logan Swanson.”)

    I Am Legend opens blithely enough, with a morning-show TV host interviewing scientist Dr. Alice Krippen (Emma Thompson, in an uncredited cameo). Krippen self-assuredly discusses her cure for cancer: genetically engineering the measles virus to attack only undifferentiated cancer cells, thus leaving healthy cells and body organs alone.

    Cut to a title: “Three Years Later.” Cut again to downtown and midtown Manhattan: The capital of the world has become a ghost town, and the hollow rush of the wind echoes between the walls of the vacated skyscrapers. As the camera pans across an abandoned, decaying Times Square, the soft chirping of crickets and the twitching of grasshoppers accentuate the desolation.

    Dr. Krippen’s cure-all virus has mutated, wiping out virtually all of humanity.

    The handful of survivors went through bizarre mutations, devolving into a zombie race of living dead called “Dark Seekers.” They’re basically your standard-issue zombie horde, howling, spitting, and lurching like animated gargoyles possessed with super-human speed and agility. They reminded me of another human mutant—slugger Barry Bonds, albeit transformed into a psychopathic cannibal with a bad case of vitiligo and rabies.

    U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Robert Neville (Smith) is the sole immune survivor in the city that never sleeps. As fortune would have it, however, he’s a military virologist, who stayed behind in his fortified Washington Square flat to search for a cure at the “ground zero” (a September 11 reference) of the infection. Neville cruises the empty Manhattan streets by day in a Ford Mustang, with a sniper rifle at the ready in case of attack from zombies and escaped zoo carnivores (poorly inserted into the film’s frames via CGI). At Neville’s side is his sole companion, Samantha, a German shepherd who accompanies him as he methodically goes door-to-door searching for uninfected survivors and scavenging for canned food. Neville carries on constant one-sided conversations with Sam, providing this grim movie’s few moments of comic relief.

    Mankind’s sole hope broadcasts radio messages to survivors to meet him each noon at the South Street Seaport, at the foot of the Brooklyn Bridge’s remains. Alas, no one ever shows up. Bereft of human companionship, he kibitzes with the mannequins that populate a video rental store. Although he wisecracks in these imaginary conversations with the same cynical sense of humor as when talking to his dog, Neville betrays his inescapable loneliness as he approaches a chic female mannequin. “Please say hello to me,” he whimpers. As with his radio transmissions, his plea goes unanswered.

    His ghoulish daily routine—springing traps for zombies, hauling them back to his laboratory, experimenting on them in search of a cure—is a lot like combat veterans’ description of warfare: long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Yet Neville shows great resolve despite the utter horror and hopelessness of his situation. As he attempts and fails to hit upon a cure, again and again, he still holds onto a shred of hope, repeating, like a mantra, “I can still fix this. I’m not going to let this happen.” Smith simultaneously projects undying determination and a troubling sense of desperation as convincingly as he did in The Pursuit of Happyness.

     Throughout most of the narrative, the zombies remain out of sight, but never out of mind. Although I had a lot of problems with the unevenness of the CGI effects (especially with the herds of deer running effortlessly over asphalt), director Lawrence and production designer Naomi Shohan give viewers a New York City whose familiar landmarks make it all the more eerie. When Neville is hoisted on his own pitard in front of an empty Grand Central Station, it seems completely real—and therefore, real frightening.

    The unconscious man comes to as the last rays of sunlight recede from the pavement. It’s unsafe to be out at night, for that’s when the zombies and their stalking dogs come out to play. Though Neville dispatches the rabid beasts, Sam is bitten in the harrowing attack and becomes infected. What happens next, I won’t reveal.

    Comparisons with The Omega Man are inevitable, and in many ways the 1971 a movie had something more for everybody. Including sex: It had a pretty racy (for its time) cocktail-induced coupling of Chuck Heston and black actress Rosalind Cash, featuring what has been billed erroneously as the first interracial screen kiss (in reality, that happened six years prior, between Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman in A Patch of Blue). I enjoyed the zombies in the Heston version a lot more, as well.

    Most disappointing, the screenwriters of I Am Legend stripped the story of its theme: the conflict between the man of mind and the tribal collective. Heston’s Robert Neville was a scientist whose reason was depicted as a threat to the Goth zombies. The latter were led by the charismatic Matthias (Anthony Zerbe), a preacher of death and doom, whose blindly obedient minions called themselves “The Family” (a contemporary allusion to Charles Manson’s gang). In a show trial, they persecute Neville for bringing light into their new dark ages; Matthias condemns him as a symbol of scientific progress, reproaching him for the invention of the wheel and weaponry. That movie had a lot of food for thought to chew on. In I Am Legend, however, we are fed only generic CGI zombies with the reflexes of leopards, spitting like rabid dogs. The abstract theme vanishes, leaving merely a tale of physical confrontation between Will Smith and killer zombies.

    What rescues it is Smith’s portrayal of a scientist who uses the power of his mind to reverse the ravages unleashed on mankind by misguided technology. Man is portrayed as savior from his own sins, and thus the film becomes a powerful tale of hope and redemption. Whereas The Omega Man made for better entertainment, I Am Legend is better crafted. Although it’s darker, it also has tighter focus and narration. It forces the burden of carrying the movie squarely onto Will Smith, and he shoulders it well. He takes Heston’s role as the Last Man on Earth and makes it his own.

    Literally and figuratively, I Am Legend is a one-man show. The show has been done better, but through a wide emotional range not usually seen in action flicks, Will Smith elevates this rendition to be one still worth watching.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Action Movies, Dramas, Movie Reviews, Remakes, Sci-Fi Movies |

    Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends (2007) – Movie Review

    By Robert L. Jones | December 9, 2007

    Legends in our own time: Tony Bennett and Clint Eastwood share a laugh in "Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends"

    Legends in our own time: Tony Bennett and Clint Eastwood share a laugh in "Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends"

    The More Things Change, the More He Stays the Same

    Rating: 4/5 ★★★★☆ 

    Tony Bennett: The Music Never Ends. Featuring Clint Eastwood, Tony Bennett, Harry Belafonte, Everett Raymond Kinstler, Martin Scorsese, Arthur Penn, Bill Charlap, Stephen Holden, Jonathan Schwartz, Mitch Miller, Danny Bennett, Ralph Sharon, Mel Brooks, Alec Baldwin, Alan Bergman, Marilyn Bergman, and Don Rickles. Original music by Michael White. Cinematography by Scott Sinkler. Additional director of photography, Chris Bierlein. Edited by Joel Cox. Narrated by Anthony Hopkins. Directed by Bruce Ricker. (Red Envelope Entertainment/ Malpaso Productions/ Warner Home Video, 2007, Color, 87 minutes. MPAA Rating: Not Rated.)

    If there is such a thing as a “benevolent universe,” then singing legend Tony Bennett is probably the strongest earthly evidence of such a metaphysical phenomenon. For over six decades, he has sung songs that break audiences’ hearts to pieces. But he’s also filled them with hope and joy, and the courage to reach their potential. A large part of it has to do with the warmth Bennett exudes and his positive outlook, which is evident in his ever-present smile.

    In this documentary, originally produced as a PBS special, director Bruce Ricker takes us on a journey in word and song through the improbable life of this consummate entertainer, who’s attained—and kept—the highest esteem in his profession by staying true to himself and his passions. Fellow Renaissance man and jazz enthusiast Clint Eastwood, whose Malpaso Company produced this film, vacates the director’s chair to sit alongside Bennett on the piano bench. Eastwood’s interviewing style is easygoing and laconic, letting the give-and-take of the conversation draw out Bennett’s story and reminisces. Over the course of the film, we come to know this unpretentious yet self-possessed man.

    Like Eastwood, Bennett is strictly an American phenomenon. Born in 1926 to Italian immigrant parents, he grew up in Astoria, Queens, N.Y. He didn’t really get to know his father, who died when the boy Tony was ten. His mother was a seamstress who worked in New York’s garment district doing piecework, earning a penny per dress to support her family.

    Looking back on his modest beginnings, Bennett remarks to Eastwood, “To think of where I started out, we grew up during the Depression. I really count my blessings every day. I’m very satisfied with my life. And it can only happen in this country. It’s amazing.”

    The film follows him from his days as an art student at New York’s High School of Industrial Arts to his stint as a soldier in the Army during World War II. Shortly after war’s end, Bennett gets his big show-business break while performing in Pearl Bailey’s show in Greenwich Village. Bob Hope was impressed and invited Bennett to sing in his own show at Manhattan’s Paramount Theater. At the time, the crooner was going by the stage name “Joe Barry,” but the comedian thought the name too plain sounding. Hope suggested shortening his birth name to fit on the marquee. Thus was Antonio Dominick Benedetto reborn as Tony Bennett.

    In 1950, Columbia Records signed Bennett to a recording contract. The rest, as the saying goes, is history. And what a history! The narrative structure of this documentary is built on Tony’s many hit tunes—not just the recorded performances, but also what they mean to him and to so many of his friends and admirers personally.

    For Martin Scorsese, Bennett’s songs like “Rags to Riches” and “The Boulevard of Broken Dreams” fit perfectly into the soundtrack of his acclaimed Mafia picture Goodfellas. To the director, the songs “were little dramas” that came from the soundtrack of his own life, growing up poor and Italian in 1950s New York City.

    For lifelong friend and fellow singer Harry Belafonte, Bennett imbued the showstopper song “Just In Time” with a whole new meaning when he gave an impromptu performance during the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, organized by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. Bennett often gave of himself freely for King’s protests. “I gravitate to someone who’s so courageous and realize that he’s going to go against the majority,” Bennett remembered. “But, he’s speaking the truth.”

    Radio host Jonathan Schwartz, a standards expert on WNYC, discovered a key to the crooner’s character when he asked Bennett if he ever got sick of singing his signature song, “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He recounted how Bennett explained that he never tired of performing the song that propelled him to superstardom in 1962:

    That song has given Tony entry into castles, White Houses, opera houses, theatres everywhere, peoples’ homes, grand banquets. That song—there it is—those words and that sound, it’s written in his eyes. Entry to the world for Tony Bennett.

     Gratefulness and optimism are underrated virtues, but they are the sources of what so many of his fans identify with in Tony Bennett—the fact that a hallmark of being true to one’s self is being comfortable in one’s own skin. Bennett wears his as effortlessly as his trademark silk neckties and tailored suits.

    Joel Cox—who’s been Eastwood’s go-to editor ever since his 1976 action movie The Gauntlet—deftly cuts between many of Bennett’s song renditions at the 2005 Monterey Jazz Festival and his earlier television appearances, ranging from the 1950s through the ’70s. While he has lost a little of the roundness in his bel canto tenor, these juxtapositions demonstrate how Bennett has matured in his phrasing and verbal storytelling, an art he learned studying such legends as Louis Armstrong, Fred Astaire, and Frank Sinatra. Cox also intercuts the footage with classic performances from Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante, and Dean Martin, which not only place Bennett in historical context but also in august company.

    To grasp just how long Bennett has been maintaining the highest standards of musical interpretation, you need only watch the footage of his duets. They begin with Judy Garland in the early 1960s, move through Ray Charles in 1986, and conclude with an appearance on a 2006 “Saturday Night Live” broadcast with Christina Aguilera, in which the two singers—born more than fifty years apart—perform a convincing, energetic rendition of the Irving Berlin standard Steppin’ Out With My Baby.

    It’s hard to believe that Bennett’s career had been on the ropes in the 1980s. Most other performers would have faded into oblivion, or sold out. But over a decade after losing his recording contract with Columbia, and stuck in the rut of being a Vegas headliner, Bennett turned to his son Danny, a successful business professional, to revive his career from the ashes. It’s an astounding story, how Danny Bennett “reinvented” his dad. “I said to him, what you do is very pure from an artistic point-of-view,” Danny recalls,

    and, yes, it is a time when people are into rock-n-roll. But this whole notion that his music was of a certain generation, to me, you don’t tell a twelve-year-old kid, “you don’t listen to Beethoven.” You just got to expose them to great music and great art will speak for itself.

    Danny’s stroke of genius was getting his father on MTV and performing with contemporary pop and rock artists such as Bono, Sting, k.d. lang, and Stevie Wonder. Bennett’s artistic second wind has, in retrospect, turned that trying time of his life into a mere speed bump. It’s one of the rare times that a great man has been reinvented simply by staying true to himself and his own artistic vision.

    One memory my wife and I will always cherish was in late August this year, when we saw Tony perform live at San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre as we celebrated our fifteenth wedding anniversary a week early. Watching and hearing this master sing his heart out, backed up by his superbly talented jazz combo, bringing down the house song after song, was simply breathtaking. As we were leaving, my wife remarked that even though Bennett was about sixty feet away from us, for two hours she felt as though he had the whole audience over in his living room for an evening, “like family.”

    That’s something that can’t be faked, and it’s not lost on anyone who’s ever seen Bennett perform. Actor Alec Baldwin observes this personal quality in Bennett, remarking in the film, “The audience has to believe that there’s nowhere else you’d rather be. And there’s no one in this business who conveys that more effectively than Tony Bennett.”

    Turn down the lights, make some martinis, curl up on the loveseat with your sweetheart, and watch this delightful motion picture. For an hour and a half, there’s nowhere else you’d rather be.

    Robert L. Jones is a photojournalist living and working in Minnesota. His work has appeared in Black & White MagazineEntrepreneurHoy! New York, the New York PostRCA Victor (Japan)Scene in San AntonioSpirit Magazine (Canada), Top Producer,  and the Trenton Times. Mr. Jones is a past entertainment editor of The New Individualist.

    Topics: Biographies, Documentaries, Made for Television, Movie Reviews, Music, Vocalists |

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