Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Current Reels: Murder on the Orient Express has Poirot at his Most Vulnerable

The gang's all here: Branagh keeps this remake solidly on the rails
Every year, I like to take the opportunity to review what I like to call an "alternative holiday film" - something that evokes elements of the season while being far from the traditional tropes. In this case (pun intended), being snowed in while traveling on holiday on The Orient Express.

Poirot has long been a favorite of mine, and while David Suchet's fussy turn as the great Belgian detective remains impressive beyond words, Kenneth Branagh's interpretation is less closed off and more emotionally vulnerable. It's a tack that won't appeal to everyone, but I thought it was a remarkably fresh take on the classic character - particularly since this case proves to be one of Poirot's most ethically challenging. There's a gravitas to the entire piece, from the imaginative cinematography to the pitch-perfect screenplay adaptation by Michael Green, that seems wholly appropriate to breathing life back into one of Agatha Christie's most famous and compelling mystery novels of all time.

The film opens with Poirot in Jerusalem in 1934, solving a case with his usual air of savoir faire; but with less zeal than is due one of the greatest sleuthing minds of all time. It's an important moment as it shows our man of the hour as exacting in his standards but nonetheless rundown. As many of us do in such times in our lives, Poirot decides to give himself a break by heading to Istanbul; but quickly finds to his disappointment that yet another case demands his attention in London. He runs into a good friend who offers to book him on the plush Orient Express, which will take him through the Alps and onto France, where from there he can make his way to his next appointment. 

Unfortunately, it is trouble from the start as at first the train is completely booked, but Poirot agrees to share a compartment in order to make it on and takes comfort that perhaps he and his glorious moustaches (truly, never were there such voluminous multiple whiskers before) can simply catch a break as well as the train. His marked frustration is more apparent than the perpetually unperturbed Poirot that Suchet projects, and it adds a tone of relatable humanism to the famously large ego of the "little Belgian."

Depp brings his acting A-Game as well as distinctive outerwear 
For the first time in a long while, I was impressed with Johnny Depp. His turn as the malevolent Edward Ratchett, with a gravelly Brooklyn accent was the right balance between fearful and pugnacious, as befitting his character (without giving the plot away). Most of the sets and costumes were faithfully in keeping with the time period; but I noticed the distressed leather jacket that he wore when he first stepped out stood out a little too much from the rest. I could only imagine that was a bargaining chip between him and Branagh; I can almost imagine him saying, "Okay, I'll play it straight just this once, but you gotta let me wear a weird jacket, man." Under Branagh's careful eye,  I couldn't help but sense that everyone in the star-studded cast was polished, turned out, and bringing their very best acting chops to the table. I especially liked that each actor tried to sidestep their typecast roles that they tend to be known for (Willem Dafoe as a professor rather than the tough guy; Penélope Cruz as a maid rather than a femme fatale, etc.) and see them all bring something new and interesting to the characters. 

Most impressive was the cinematography; which certainly employed every inch of the big screen. It was an appropriate and effective use of CGI to show the lightning bolt striking the Alps and sending down the avalanche of snow in front of the train, which broke up the slower dialogue up to that point with an effective piece of thrilling action. Cameras pan through watery cut glass, making concerned faces of the suspects appear blurred and distorted; perhaps shielding the audience from their true intents until the appropriate moment of reveal. Indeed, the train itself is an important cast member; with its elegant frosted glass wall sconces and polished wood panels. To be given the task of filming most major scenes in long, narrow compartments is a challenge that Branagh was clearly up for. In one critical moment in which the body is found in one of the compartments, the entire scene is shot in one unbroken, elegant cut looking down from above; as the characters gather and enter into the room and then back out again. This serves to simultaneously include more characters within the shot as well as seamlessly move from one critical scene into another while side-stepping the messiness of multiple cuts back and forth from one end of the narrow compartment to the other. Characters are tracked through the windows of the compartments; interrogations take place indoors and outdoors, and the audience witnesses the crew of the train industriously shoveling away at the snow to get everyone moving again; a detail that is often lost in and amongst the sleuthing action of previous versions.

Poirot, where's your jacket bro?
However, the film is not without its flaws. As a detail person, Poirot running around outside and sometimes on top of the train without so much as an overcoat did not strike me as being consistent with the character. Godiva chocolate boxes casually placed within view of the camera for product placement purposes seemed out of place. Most frustrating was a moment later in the film involving a tense confrontation between the doctor and Poirot that seemed not only unnecessary; but frankly, silly. It is almost as if we couldn't be trusted as moviegoers to not fall asleep in the middle of the intrigue if the plot wasn't sufficiently peppered with action sequences.

Still, through the crisp white snow and crackling firelight of torches burning outside, the great reveal is made and the train - and life - goes on for Monsieur Poirot and the passengers. Overall, it is a satisfying execution of a classic story that was obviously rendered with a great deal of love and attention that is fun to watch regardless of whether you know the twist or not. Few recent mainstream films go to such great lengths to create a meditative environment on which to ponder the complicated and intricate patterns of human emotions.

Jackaroo sez: It's a beauty of a film to watch and while some action sequences seem out of place in the moment, overall the innovative acting and care taken to render this thoughtful take on a memorable "whodunnit" makes it worthwhile.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Autumn Audiobook Spotlight: The Throwback Special focuses on Rituals and the Healing Power of Moving On

As football season kicks into high gear, Chris Bachelder, author of the National Book Award nominee The Throwback Special, took time out to share some of his inspiration for his novel about rituals, male bonding, and mid-life crisis.

In this tongue-in-cheek novel, 22 guys gather in a low-budget hotel on an annual basis to reenact a gruesome moment in sports history - the November 1985 play when Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins had his leg violently broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants. As characters are introduced, the story becomes less about the central event - often referred to as "The Throwback Special" - and more about the hilarious - and sometimes heartbreaking - realities of reaching middle age. Bachelder, who has taught writing classes at the Sewanee School of Letters at the University of the South in Tennessee for several summers, says novel writing is a journey of discovery and that he hadn't initially understood "this was a book about nostalgia, belonging, and rituals."

"You can kill a book if you know too much about it," says Bachelder. "I tried to find drama from the movement of the mind since there's not much movement of the plot, honestly...those moments of thought that bend back against themselves and again, arrive in paradox and bewilderment and, hopefully, comedy." 

Watch the interview below as Chris and I talk about the novel, why hotels are weird, how Kurt Vonnegut inspires him, and how an excess of characters can be just enough, rather than too much, of a good thing. 

Getting that "Special" Voice 

R.C. Bray, doing what he does best - talking!

I also caught up with R.C. Bray, the award-winning voice actor who narrated the audiobook and a guy I am lucky enough to call friend. There was a lot Bray found he could relate to, being both a sports fan and "around" the age of the men in the novel. 

You had to voice a lot of characters in this book. How did you keep them all straight? 

As with any book I keep mp3 files of each character. I don’t pre-record them. I wait until I’ve done a few of their lines or a nice big paragraph, then use that for future reference. About halfway through the book I rarely need to reference them anymore. But minor characters will pop back up from time to time, so I record everyone.

What was your prep process for narrating this book and was it easier or harder than you anticipated? 

One of the things I do to prep from time to time - which I did with Throwback - is skim through the pages looking for capitalized words; minus those at the start of sentences of course.  Doing so not only helps locate place names, ancient battles, etc. that may have difficult pronunciations; but more importantly doing so gives me a good idea as to character count AND an idea as to who’s got the bulk of the story by how many times they’re mentioned. In Throwback, many of the character's names were each mentioned quite often.That can sometimes mean “thin” or even underdeveloped, characters. Not the case with this book AT all. From a narrator’s point of view, Chris provided so much with minimal effort on each of the guys that I got such a clear visual.There’s nothing like it when an author does that; it helps aid so much in what kind of voice I’ll give a particular character. 

This book talks a lot about rituals - and the weirdness of them. Do you have any weird rituals with your friends or family? If so, why are they important to you? 

There’s this bridge somewhere around Queens when we head to New York City. My wife and her brother used to waggle their fingers in the air and make goofy sounds for the duration underneath. As soon as you’re out from under it, all silliness stops and you're back to normal. My wife introduced me to it when we were dating. We’ve since gotten our kids to do it. We really don’t have to plan for it either; we all know where the bridge is and we all just jump into action once we’re under. I do it even if I’m in the car by myself! Why? I’m not really sure. But it never fails to crack me up. Part of why I love it is it’s so completely random. Think about it. How many other people do you think do something that unique?

You seemed to have a lot of fun narrating this book. What - if anything - personally resonated with you? 

Throwback is set around a bunch of guys my own age who are going through what I am or will go through at some point: the fact that life doesn’t always turn out as planned, I’m not invincible, and at some point I’ll have to shed my eternal boyhood cloak to face “adult” problems head on.There are people I knew in elementary school, high school, college, work, etc. who have died, gotten divorced, gone to war and not come back, become insanely successful, and lost a child to illness. They also discovered they are transgender, “came out”, won a Super Bowl ring, played pro baseball/basketball, worked with famous actors, were important catalysts to bring back to some form of normalcy and hope in young peoples lives; on and on and on. I’ve had my shares of ups and downs, too. But, like most people I’m sure, I prefer the ups. Even when, like in Throwback, once upon a time good things do eventually come to an end and it’s time to move on/forward. There is a lot of power in letting go and moving on. As Bobby Plant once said:

 "Leaves are falling all around, It's time I was on my way. Thanks to you, I'm much obliged for such a pleasant stay. But now it's time for me to go. The autumn moon lights my way.”

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Power of Storytelling - Q&A with Audie-Winning Narrator Nicol Zanzarella

The lovely, "chatty Italian" herself!
 Every year, the Audiobook Publisher's Association (APA) of America hosts The Audies, which recognizes audiobooks of distinction and the voices that bring the words to life.

I recently caught up with actress and audiobook narrator Nicol Zanzarella, who in June won her first Audie for her work on the supernatural romance/thriller Ghost Gifts by Laura Spinella and produced by Brilliance Audio. This self-professed "chatty Italian girl from New York" currently residing in Los Angeles shared her thoughts on her craft, what it means to be a storyteller, and how audiobooks just may save the world. Listen to more of my interview with Nicol at the bottom of this blog post!

Ghost Gifts seemed like such a perfect fit for you. It's New York, it's Italian...did you choose to work on this project? 

I have to give it up to fate and David Andrews at Brilliance Audio who put this book in my lap. I have found that there are a couple of really special people in this business that seem to take great care in matching projects and voices...and I give all appreciation to David on that. The author Laura and I like to say that the ghosts are kinda watching over us because this has been an extraordinary experience from the get-go. I recorded that book at night and I am a scaredy-cat! I would leave the studio looking over my shoulder with my flashlight on.

What first inspired you to become an audiobook narrator? 

It's a funny story actually - I had a friend living in New York about 12 years ago who became a pioneer in audiobook narration. She would send us snippets of some of her more outlandish books she got to record to a select few people over the holidays as sort of a joke Christmas gift, like, "Hey, listen to this thing I got to say!" That is how I found out audiobooks were even a thing. I will allow her to remain nameless, but all these years later I love getting to share that story and how she made me realize I would love to do just that. (Listen to more of Nicol's thoughts on breaking into the audiobook industry in the audio interview below!)

What are you listening to these days? Do you have any fellow narrators that inspire you?

Nicol and David Andrews at The Audies in June
I gotta admit - I still have a love for the actual book in my hands - and, I'm a dogear. I like to wear in my books and take notes, so in truth I have a lot more listening I have to do. Someone who inspires me is Tavia Gilbert. One of my favorite audiobooks is one I just recently listened to called I'll Be Seeing You (narrated by Gilbert and Kate Rudd). I highly recommend it. At one point I stood by my kitchen counter bawling listening to that book. When a narrator does what they do so well, it's not some grand, costume performance - it's so quietly simple and exquisite and that's what they (Gilbert and Rudd) did with this book, and what I strive for. I love Tavia's work and what she brings to it - it leaves me speechless. (Critic's note: Ms. Gilbert won an Audie for Best Female Narrator of the year, also in June).

You identify yourself as a storyteller. Why do you think stories are so important? 

First and foremost my family has instilled in me a love of tradition - everything from the Italian side of my family with Sunday dinners and traditional holidays to my mother who studies Native American tradition and storytelling. It's our history, it's our roots; it's the way we ever first started to share information. You can tell stories so many ways - but I chose this way because it encompassed the things that have become important to me in my life. And maybe also because I like to talk a lot, which Martin, my better half, will attest to (laughs). There's the tradition and there's the roots aspect of humanity in storytelling, and I also think it is where we can go to find out that we are not alone...in that we can read or listen to the story of someone we could never in a million years identify with and find something that strikes home. I truly think that through sharing stories and really trying to listen to each other we could possibly save the world. Artists often face the question, "Is what we do important?" In the grand scheme of all the things going on in the world at any given time, particularly now, whatever you can do and whatever way you might touch something in someone even if it is in the back row of a poorly attended performance, it is still something. It awakened something in you for having done it or one other person somewhere along the way that might have that lightning bolt go off in them. That is what we're all doing here, I hope.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Minimalism - My Journey of Letting Go

2016 was undoubtedly the hardest year of my life. I have been struggling to find a context in which to write about my year and how it has shaped me into the person I am today. When I watched the documentary Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things, I found the frame in which I could fit my own personal snapshot of coming to grips with simplification. I'd like to preface this by saying what follows is not meant to chastise anyone who wants a house of their own with their own furniture - more that it is my journey to realize that material possessions are not a marker of adulthood, and the freeing power of doing more with less.

The Minimalism documentary, directed by Matt D'Avella, focuses on several people who have decided to take the leap and drastically cut their material possessions for the betterment of their lives. Two fellas that I particularly admire are Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus, childhood friends who call themselves "The Minimalists" who after significant personal losses turned their backs on the lucrative salaries and fancy possessions of the high-powered corporate sales world to a stripped-down existence of living intentionally. Another woman, Courtney Carver, was inspired to start Project 333 - a way of paring down your wardrobe to the essentials - after she was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. Many of these people are using the idea of minimalism to take back control after devastating blows to their mental and physical health. As part of JIAM (June is Audiobook Month), check out my AudioFile Magazine review of The Minimalists' memoir, Everything That Remains. I should also mention audiobooks are a great step towards minimalism, since they literally take up no space at all.

The Minimalists: Nicodemus (left) & Millburn (right)
I am no stranger to downsizing.  As a child growing up, my mom encouraged me to routinely weed out my toys and clothes to make room for new, more relevant possessions. From the time I graduated college to the time I hit 30, I moved SEVEN times. I had an oasis of about four years in a 425 square-foot apartment, but other than that, it seemed my gypsy existence was inescapable. I was ready to put roots down, and by the American standard, that meant getting more space and stuff.

My husband Casey (then boyfriend) and I finally got our opportunity when we moved from the Northeast, where I had grown up all my life, to rural Tennessee in 2014. I had no idea what to expect, but I was fed up with cramped apartments. We found a house to rent that was way too much space for just the two of us, but  our options at the time were limited and it was affordable with a big back yard. Casey, my cat Toby, and I filled the place with light and love. I found a fulfilling full-time job with a short commute. Life was great.

The concept of minimalism was thrust upon me when Casey had to pursue other professional opportunities elsewhere, and the glass in this picture-perfect frame of existence started to crack. I had taken for granted this little world we had created for ourselves, filled with furniture, belongings, and wall art was a finite existence - that we had arrived at the perfect notion of "adulting." Nothing could be farther from the truth. When our beloved cat Toby, who many of you came to know and love through this blog, passed away suddenly and peacefully, the house felt insanely huge with just the two of us. Then the hammer truly came down - Casey did find another lucrative position - in Hong Kong.

As I processed these gaping hole punches in my current reality over the next weeks and months, I gazed around the house and thought, "Oh gods. What are we going to do with all this stuff?" The task of deconstructing a 3-bedroom house, although we had only lived there for two years, seemed insanely daunting. We had a dining room set, a living room set, rugs, lamps, etc. - you name it. And most of it had been given to us by family members. Then there was the emotional component - how could I possibly sell that leather couch? That was the leather couch Toby and I watched movies on all the time... - hitting my psyche HARD. It seemed such a Herculean task that for a moment all I could do was lie on said couch, paralyzed.

Through many months of effort, negotiation, local email classifieds, one massive yard sale, and no small amount of effort on the part of our family and friends, we got rid of the majority of our stuff. We rented a storage space for the rest, and moved out of said house last August. Did I mention we also got married somewhere in the midst of all this? We wanted to be rid of the storage rental space before moving to Hong Kong since it would be too much to handle from afar, so we made arrangements with wonderfully kind family members to hold the items from the unit with them for the time being. A friend of ours had agreed to take the bigger items down in his pickup truck - free of charge, as a wedding present - to a family member's home out of state. 

The final kicker - quite suddenly, this person could no longer make the trip for us. It is December, my time in Tennessee and the US is growing short, and I've still got a whole storage unit full of - I can call it this now - crap. The leather couch I couldn't bare to part with a few months prior was a massive eyesore. In fact, in the cold December light, it all looked sad and worn. In a moment fueled by months of disappointments, losses, and setbacks, I said, "I'm getting rid of this shit." And somehow, I did. I made one trip to the out-of-state relatives' home with only what I could fit in my Honda Accord, and then the rest of my possessions had to be made to fit - and just barely did, into one more car trip to my parents' home. A decade of independent living, reduced to two carloads. And to be totally honest? Those two carloads STILL felt like a ton of stuff. All of that had to be further reduced to two checked suitcases, one backpack, and one purse to take to Hong Kong. Talk about minimalist baptism by fire.

Now, almost six months later in my pre-furnished apartment a world away, I sit in front of a desk that isn't mine and is a far cry from my fancy and heavy-as-sin glass top monstrosity I used to have, and I don't even mind. I have acquired very little in the time I have been here and even some of that I am putting together in bags to pass on to better homes. My goal when I go back to my parents' house this summer is to get rid 50 percent of what I have stored there.

I realize that a mark of adulthood is not the house you buy, how much furniture you have, or how big your TV is. It's about how you handle life when it hits you hard. It is about accepting that everything is temporal, and rather than using that truth to fuel my insecurity,  that knowledge is helping me to live life more intentionally. To make time for the small things that end up being big things. To support that friend or family member going through a rough time. No one is going to remember us for the kind of couch we own, or how many electronic gadgets we have. No one says at someone's funeral, "Wow, remember grandpa's iPhone? That was slick." We are remembered for the actions that we take and for the love we share. That's what minimalism is about. Less is truly more.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Current Reels: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Fights an Ego-Centric Future

Quill gets introduced to his father's "perfect" world
Marvel's fast-talking, sarcastic group of space weirdos are back to take on the greatest threat to the galaxy yet - narcissism.

James Gunn returns to the director's chair to bring together the intergalactic hellraisers once more in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol.2. In this roundup, viewers begin to get a sense of what makes all these characters tick.

Set to the tunes of Peter Quill's "Awesome Mix Volume 2" given to him by his mother, viewers are tossed into the action from the get-go. This time around, the Guardians are on the run from a haughty and vengeful race of aliens known as "The Sovereigns" that are hellbent on creating a perfect human being. When all seems lost, our favorite antiheroes are unexpectedly delivered from their fate by a deity named Ego, who reveals to Quill that he is his long-lost father. Thus begins a battle of the flawed versus the supposedly flawless, and the disastrous effects of focusing too heavily on the "selfie".  

What makes the Guardians so compelling is they are all works in progress; each one of them on the mend from some past trauma. These are no mere caricatures, but full-fledged beings that have their own cultures, planets, and stories to tell, which make them interesting and relatable - even if they are assholes sometimes.The double-edged sword of a sequel from a writer's standpoint is on one hand, there's no "gear up" needed since the viewers are already familiar with the characters and the universe. On the other, it is trickier to grab the audience's attention from the start without a built-in plot springboard. James Gunn and Dan Abnett (who is also the writer for the Marvel comic) elaborate on the diverse cast's hopes and fears and their relationships with one another, while leaving plenty of time for snappy comebacks and good old fashioned space shoot 'em ups. 

The continued theme running through both Vol. 1 & 2 (which you can read more in my review of the first movie here) is family is what you make of it. I was gratified to see the stories of Nebula, Gamora, and most notably, Yondu (my personal favorite) expanded upon. We learn more about Yondu's past with the Ravagers, his relationship with Quill, and his own personal demons. He goes through hell, but on the plus side, gets a serious upgrade to the most deadly of mohawks! We even get treated to a cameo of the greatest underdog of all - Sylvester Stallone, playing Stakar Ogord (basically space Rocky) who banishes Yondu for misunderstood misdeeds. A weaker script would've taken the easy route with Nebula (played by the impeccable Karen Gillan, best known as companion Amy Pond in Dr. Who)  and reduced her complexities hinted at in Vol. 1 into a cold-blooded villainess. Instead, the story explores further her relationship with her sister, the inscrutable Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and we learn of the atrocities she suffered at the hands of her father, Thanos.

Yondu, Rocket and Groot get in some dude bonding time
What makes this second serving all the more enjoyable is it never takes itself too seriously. Ego waxes philosophical on the 70s classic "Brandy (You're A Fine Girl)" by the one-hit wonder band Looking Glass (fun fact: this tune fueled the writing of this review). Poop and dick jokes abound. The only true weakness with this feature is certain gags that worked in Vol. 1 are stretched to the breaking point in Vol. 2, reducing what could have been big laughs to mere chuckles - for instance, the sequence of Baby Groot continuing to bring back the wrong item to Rocket and Yondu would've been just as funny with three fewer items. Drax calling the newcomer Mantis "ugly" when he really means "beautiful" got old pretty fast. And as adorable as he was, I could've done with less gratuitous use of Baby Groot.

The sets, effects, action, and makeup are all of the top-notch quality we have come to expect from Marvel blockbusters. What sets Guardians ahead of the pack is the solid storytelling around themes that we can all relate to -family, belonging, and the quest for self-love, which make for a satisfying - if on occasion, emotional -  big-screen experience.

Jackaroo sez: Despite the need for thoughtful pruning of tiresome gags, Vol. 2 succeeds in reminding us, in the words of another 70s classic, "We all need somebody to lean on."

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Hong Kong International Film Festival Spotlight: "Beast Cops" Reflects on the Human Condition

Gordon Chan, right, director of Beast Cops at HKIFF
 During the 41st annual Hong Kong International Film Festival (HKIFF) held his past April, several films were shown as part of a series called "Paradigm Shift: Post-97 Hong Kong Cinema." The late 90s were an important crossroads for filmmakers post-handover, when Britain officially transferred power of Hong Kong over to the People's Republic of China and ushered in a new era of cinema focusing on local culture and history. I was lucky enough to see Beast Cops on the big screen and speak briefly to one of its directors, Gordon Chan, who also wrote and directed Fist of Legend with Jet Li, another of my personal favorites. A thoughtful dramedy about the human condition cleverly packaged as a cop thriller took home Best Picture and Best Director (Gordon Chan and Dante Lam) in the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1999.

The disheveled trio of ordinary heroes

For someone living in Hong Kong, it was an unexpected delight to recognize many of the scenes that were filmed in my neighborhood of Tsim Sha Tsui (pronounced Jim-Sa-Joy) on Kowloon island. What elevates this film from a boilerplate cop drama into a thoughtful commentary about human existence is a script that combines light-hearted humor with philosophical musings about life and love, and how even the most flawed of characters can be a true hero.

"I wanted this film to be, ultimately, hopeful," said Chan after the screening, who was kind enough to answer a few burning questions of mine. "The studios wanted a comedy, but I wanted it to be more than that - a reflection on the human experience."

The story centers around Tung (Anthony Wong), a disheveled, out of shape street cop with dubious morals. He mostly cares about reeling in a paycheck and staying on the good side of gang leader Fai, known as "Big Brother." However, circumstances change when Big Brother goes on the run after a hit on a business rival goes wrong, and puts his trust in Tung to keep his territory on the up and up. To make matters worse, Tung finds himself having to show his new boss, fresh-faced Michael Cheung (Michael Wong) the ropes of the neighborhood without implicating himself. Worlds begin to collide as Cheung falls hard for Big Brother's abandoned girlfriend Yoyo (Kathy Chow), a hard-as-nails madame, and their relationship quickly becomes exclusive. Meanwhile, Pushy Pin (Patrick Tam), one of Big Brother's underlings, attempts to move up in the ranks, taking advantage of his old boss's absence.

Mr. Chan's autograph!
While the high-octane action sequences are visceral and well-timed, much of the film centers around Tung and Cheung facing the challenges of daily urban life - finding an affordable place to live (no easy task in this city), and dealing with the comings and goings of unscrupulous roommates, particularly Skinny Sam (Sam Lee), Tung's sex-addicted colleague; the travails of relationships. The cuts from one scene to the next are sudden at times, lending itself to uneven pacing, but not to such a high degree as to take away from the overall enjoyment of the storyline.

It is in the quiet moments where the story holds its true power. The desperation on the face of Tung when the married woman he has been having an affair with tells him she is going back to her old life without him, stating she doesn't love him. "But I love you," he mutters softly as she slinks back into the night, and the shadows of the evening fall around him like a curtain addressing the end of a final act.The profound sadness on Skinny Sam's face when his presumed date shows up with her husband, and he motors away with the bouquet of flowers still attached to the backseat.

The climactic, bloody brawl finale between Tung and Pushy Pin is satisfying on a raw, primal level as well as from a cinematography standpoint. Instead of the buff, young Cheung taking down the crime boss, Chan chooses to have the every-man do it because it has been his responsibility from the beginning. Tung is not superhuman - far from it - and the audience feels empathy as he psyches himself up for the confrontation in his car with the aid of alcohol and some dubious-looking pills. The fight is shot from a variety of standpoints; through broken fluorescent lights, down dingy alleyways, through the blurred vision of our unlikely hero. Knives are brandished, blood flows, and inwardly I found myself cheering for Tung as this washed up cop finds the true grit inside to put an end to this cycle of crime once and for all.

SPOILER ALERT: Chan shared with me that Tung was originally supposed to die, but he felt that would've changed the tenor of the movie completely, which I agree with. "I wanted to send a message of hope," he said. Perhaps hope not only for the characters in his story, but for the city of Hong Kong.


Jackaroo sez: At its essence, Beast Cops is a story of highly flawed characters that ultimately see the best potential in themselves and in one another. While the pacing is uneven at times, the film's payoff in the final scene more than makes up for any of its minor inadequacies.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Back From the Past: Samurai Jack Season Five Premiere Skirts the Edge of Reason

Even a beboppin' robot doesn't dull the dark edge of the new season
It has been 13 years in our time since Samurai Jack was on the air, but 50 years have passed in Jack's world.

It seems appropriate then, that our valiant time traveler should pop back to finish in detail what he began - the destruction of the (all together now) "Shapeshifting Master of Darkness" Aku. The long-touted 10-episode return of this sci-fi animated series occurred last Saturday, March 11, on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. In episode 1 of Season 5, Jack roars back onto the screen, but isn't one bit triumphant. Gone is the simple white gi and magical sword. Gone is the smoothed back bun. Here, we have a wild man on a motorbike looking like he freshly drove off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. With a full beard and long black hair left to blow untethered in the wind, we get the sense our classically unruffled hero has finally HAD it with Aku and hacking around in the future. Phil LaMarr returns as Jack's stoical voice, and the episode opens with him saying in a strangled, breathless tone, "Gotta get back...back to the past." What was once a witty phrase for a fun theme song now sounds like a desperate mantra to maintain sanity. Even Aku as a bodily presence has vanished, and his loyal cult followers are in a veritable fervor for his great return. For now, he is merely a voice on the phone ( by Greg Baldwin, a successful recast from the original Japanese actor, Mako, who passed away in 2006). Even the wise-cracking, beboppin' robot Scaramouche, (show veteran Tom Kenny) wielding a sword that doubles as a tuning fork (!) can't dull the dark edge of this new season.

Even the comforting familiarity of "the bad old days" are gone. All is NOT as it should be.

Jack...you okay man?
Let's "back to the past" for a moment. I have loved this show ever since its debut during my college days in the early 2000s. Director Genndy Tartakovsky's influence is immediately recognizable - bright colors, sharp lines, and minimalist style. Who better to create an animated tale of a lone samurai?  While I enjoyed Tartakovsky's other ventures, such as The Powerpuff Girls and Dexter's Laboratory, those shows I could take or leave. Nothing about them ever stuck with me. But Samurai Jack is different. An animated tapestry; it didn't look like anything else on TV and still doesn't. But aside from its visual appeal, what always set this series apart was it's reserved and effective ability to SHOW rather than tell a story. With elegant animation and well-conceived plots that balanced heavy themes such as gender issues and self-worth with humor and whimsy, it succeeds in both style and substance. I began to realize this was no ordinary show when I watched episode 6 of Season 1, "Jack and the Warrior Woman," where (MINOR SPOILERS AHEAD) Aku transforms himself as a woman named Ikra who offers to "help" Jack steal a jewel for a higher, positive purpose. Jack is still new at this "saving the future" thing at this point, and he knows there's something off about Ikra, but he's wooed by her shapely body and her incredible battle skills. Plus, let's face it - Jack's a pretty lonely guy. As such, when Ikra reveals herself to be Aku at the end of the episode, you can tell he is rattled pretty bad - I mean, how easy can it be to handle having romantic/sexual feelings for your greatest enemy? (Side note: this episode also is a great example of the show's incredible creative ability to come up with an endless array of background characters - that dude with scorpions on his face in the opening montage is particularly badass.)

 Although the show ran for four seasons, it vanished as suddenly as it arrived. The show's wrap-up felt peremptory. Tartakovsky mentioned in a recent interview for NPR that he was "burned out" by the studio's creative differences at the time and other projects competing for his attention, so instead of struggling onward, decided to end the show in the most graceful way he could. But it was pretty clear there was still more to tell - and the show's fan base has agreed. 

While the show has classically tested Jack's psyche, it is clear from this first episode that this encore final season is going to show us exactly what Jack has been put through mentally as a result of Aku and - hopefully - how he will intend to rise above it. Being on Adult Swim - which was just a fledgling concept in the series' heyday -  has allowed the show to go into darker territory, which by doing so realizes its full potential rather than veering onto a radically different path. Despite our time-worn hero, Samurai Jack hasn't skipped a beat - it's just finally been allowed to become the grown-up show we always knew it could be.

For a limited time, you can stream the season as it airs here. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Current Reels: Everything is Awesome about The LEGO Batman Movie

The classic superteam buckle up for one wild ride!
Dictionary.com defines the word "earnest" as "serious in intention, purpose, or effort; sincerely zealous." No doubt The LEGO Batman Movie endeavors to be earnest in almost every aspect of geek culture.

Emmy-winner Chris McKay, who directed 2014's The LEGO Movie, is back in the driver's seat for this feature, bringing his wonderful knack for features that are both delightful for kids and kids at heart. In a little less than two hours, this film simultaneously succeeds in being a great Batman AND Lego movie as well as a parody of both. It is essentially a toast rather than a roast to the franchise. Much like the My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic series reboot, it is the magical result of a bunch of creative adults who grew up in the 80s and 90s given plenty of resources and time to play with.

The amount of detail thrown into this film is astounding. Limelighting a huge swath of genres from Harry Potter to Dr. Who to Lord of the Rings, no geeky stone is left unturned. Easter Egg surprises for diehard comic fans abound for those with an eagle eye. Lighthearted digs at the Marvel Universe abound- for example, the password for the Bat Cave is "Iron Man sucks" - a character often paralleled with Batman since they are both billionaire self-made superheroes. McKay and his creative team find any number of ways to pay homage to the Batman franchise through the ages, with throwbacks aplenty to the campiness of the 60s Adam West series, which I grew up watching as a kid on Nick at Nite. Even fans of rom-coms don't escape unscathed.

Obscure Batman villains such as "The Eraser" get time to shine
One would think so much detail would lend itself to a muddled mess, but the thoughtful pacing makes all the difference. While plenty of color and light gets thrown at the viewer,  it succeeds in not being a complete barrage on the senses. Taking a queue from this film's predecessor, McKay allows the action to wind down at critical points for thoughtful reflection on important themes such as the dangerous effects of self-inflicted solitude. While the quest for and importance of family (there's even a moment in the credits where the phrase 'Friends are the Family You Choose' pops up briefly) are well-worn tropes, this film's sincerity freshens it up. The animation by Animal Logic, an Australian company based in Sydney and Los Angeles, is a glorious marriage of computer animation and live LEGO sets. Even the flames shooting out from the city and the Bat Jet have the look and feel of plastic accessory molds.

Will Arnett returns to lend his gritty, sarcasm-laden vocal talents to the famed DC superhero, making him possibly the best character voice yet since Kevin Conroy, well-known for his work on the 90s Batman: The Animated Series. Zach Galifianakis's take on The Joker makes him a sensitive psychopath, and under McKay's watchful eye we finally have a plot that meaningfully acknowledges the long-term twisted "bromance" between The Joker and Batman. Without giving away too much, The Joker ends up being the lynchpin that ultimately forces Batman/Bruce Wayne to address his deeper emotional issues rather than continuing to shut them down. In essence, all The Joker really wants is Batman to FEEL. The welcome presence of Harley Quinn as a badass supportive buddy (let's face it, this particular Joker is about as gay as one can get with a PG rating) encouraging "Mr. J" on his quest is a welcome change from the darker, often abusive relationship between the two. In truth, ALL the characters are genuinely likeable. Robin, as voiced by Michael Cera, succeeds in being the bouyant rather than boorish boy wonder; the subtle adult jokes about his given name "Dick" blissfully zooming over his head. A delightfully eclectic group featuring everyone from iPhone's "Siri" to Conan O'Brien, Eddie Izzard, and even Mariah Carey rounds out the talent admirably.

There is also a surprising amount of excellent music throughout the course of the film, from Batman beat-boxing to 80s hits such as the late great Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" as well as the surprisingly complex, soaring orchestral music Scottish composer Lorne Balfe (read more about his involvement here.)

Jackaroo sez: The warmth and heart of the clever story runs concurrent with the humor and action, rather than underneath or above it. In poking fun at itself, it may succeed in being the best Batman movie yet. Only major flaw - needs more Catwoman! 



Tuesday, January 31, 2017

New Year, New Adventures, and Hunting for the Wilderpeople

Sam Neill roughs it in New Zealand with Julian Dennison
 "The art of survival is a story that never ends."  - Christian Bale, American Hustle

 It's been awhile, friends. Many things have happened since my last update - getting married, my father having unexpected major surgery and recovery over the Christmas holidays, and the most dramatic - moving to Hong Kong. My now-husband accepted a teaching position at HK Polytechnic University in the Kowloon section of the city, and now I'm writing and editing from the other side of the world. It's amazing how the sea of life tugs you into the undertow, and things that are important  - like my writing, like this blog - get lost in the quest for survival.

But now we are officially into the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster here in Asia, which calls upon us to take "intuitive action" - precisely what writing is. My New Year resolutions are to spend more time loving and doing activities that I love, such as writing for you, my dear readers. As the lit-up Samsung sign in Hong Kong Harbor told me my second day here, "Be Fearless." Fresh starts my loves! Without further ado, enjoy my review of Hunt for the Wilderpeople - an indie feature by Majestical Pictures Limited I was lucky enough to watch on the plane ride over to Hong Kong (make the most of the journey!) that speaks to the personal themes in my life lately - survival, family, and learning what's truly important. 

What could a wise-cracking city teenager and a cantankerous old man have in common? A penchant for trouble, of course! Hip-hop loving orphan Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) doesn’t expect much when he gets sent to his latest foster home in the wilds of New Zealand (filmed entirely on location) that includes warm-hearted Bella, (Rima Te Wiata) and her husband Hec (Sam Neill), a disgruntled backwoodsman who'd much rather spend time with his beloved dog Zag than this chubby city slicker kid. However just as Ricky becomes accustomed to his quirky new family, tragedy prompts the authorities to send him packing. Ultimately, Hec and Ricky decide to make a run for it along with their dogs, prompting a nationwide manhunt, misunderstandings, and general hilarity.
Ricky gets down to business.

Making a movie that succeeds in being thoughtful and funny is no easy task, and yet "Wilderpeople" does it effortlessly under the thoughtful direction of Taika Waititi. The overarching theme is that family is what you make of it.The lush cinematography of the New Zealand countryside are worth the watch alone, but the brilliant chemistry between Hec and Ricky is what makes "Wilderpeople" a standout. Neill has long been a favorite of mine, ever since his turn as Merlin in the 1998 miniseries, with a penetrating gaze that always looks untamed. His deadly serious demeanor coupled with Ricky's happy-go-lucky attitude makes for humor that is both biting and self-deprecating.  At one point when Ricky and Hec are hiding under some brush to escape officials scouting the woods, Ricky likens the moment to when Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits are hiding from the Ring Wraiths in the Lord of the Rings - The Fellowship of the Ring movie - also filmed in New Zealand - a reference which of course goes straight over Hec's head.

The supporting characters hold their own - Rachel House is wonderful as Paula, the stone-cold director of the child welfare service determined to get Ricky back by any means necessary - whether with trail mix or a SWAT team. As the weeks turn into months, the strange duo find themselves increasingly relying on the kindness of strangers, many of whom are a more than a little strange themselves - such as Psycho Sam, played with brilliant abandon by Rys Darby.

(HERE THERE BE MINOR SPOILERS MATEY): Bella's death is paradoxically both perfunctory and profound. How and why she died is left to the imagination of the viewer, because what is truly important to the story is the different ways Ricky and Hec react and grieve her passing, and it is the results of those reactions that give her too brief role in the story great meaning. (HERE ENDS THE SPOILER).

Underneath the ridiculousness runs strong themes of family ties and how those bonds of love can be tested and ultimately, triumph in the face of life's challenges. Ricky learns how to rough it in nature, gaining Hec's respect, and Hec learns how to love again. Currently available on DVD and streaming.

Jackaroo sez: While lesser films would try to tack on a tidy wrap-up moral lesson for the viewers to take home, "Wilderpeople" is an organic adventure about the messiness of life, how we survive, and the people along the way that help us do so.