Saturday, January 31, 2015

Brosnan & Washington's Spy Games

Two actors well known for their roles as action heroes return in a pair of recent video releases. Former James Bond Pierce Brosnan stars in The November Man (2014), an espionage thriller from director Roger Donaldson, who worked with the actor on the 1997 disaster film Dante's Peak. Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, a former CIA operative who comes out of retirement to help extract a deep cover operative from Russia. It turns out the operative has a personal connection to him. The mission goes awry and the operative is killed. Devereaux finds himself hunted by both our side & the Russians, as a deadly game of lies, deceit & and double crosses ensues. Leading the American team pursuing him is his former protégé, whose partnership with Devereaux ended badly a few years earlier.

There’s more to the mission (and the story) than meets the eye, and our hero has to get to the bottom of things before either side kills him. Why was the agent in Russia marked for death, and what does it have to do with our own government? The movie is fast-paced, and has a few good plot twists, though parts of the story are a bit predictable. The film is based on the novel There Are No Spies, by Bill Granger, part of a series featuring the Devereaux character. It's got somewhat of an old school vibe, and the Cold War-esque plot is spiced up with a modern edge. Brosnan (who co-produced the film) is good in his role as an aging spy, and the supporting cast includes Will Patton, Bill Smitrovich and Olga Kurylenko, who also has a Bond connection. She co-starred with Daniel Craig as 007 in Quantum of Solace (2008).

Also returning to the world of intrigue is Denzel Washington, who stars in a re-make/re-imagining of the 1980s TV series The Equalizer. He plays Robert McCall, a man living a quiet existence in Boston, where he works at a Home Depot-like store. He's well liked by his co-workers. McCall is even helping one of them prepare for an upcoming test for a job as a security guard. He spends his evenings reading & drinking tea at a local diner, where he befriends a young prostitute named Teri. When she’s brutally beaten by her pimp, McCall steps in to help her. It turns out he’s a former government operative, and he makes short work of her pimp, Slavi, and his men. But Slavi is employed by the Russian mob, and they send an enforcer to take out McCall.

McCall, who had promised his late wife he’d walk away from the brutal life he led as an agent, is nevertheless drawn back into that world, as he tries to stay one step ahead of Teddy, the enforcer, and his men. What follows is a game of cat & mouse between McCall and the Russian Mafia, as they try to bring him down, and he keeps beating them at their own game. He also comes to realize he can’t sit by while innocent people are hurt or threatened by evil & powerful men. The film reunites Washington with his Training Day director, Antoine Fuqua. The screenplay is by Richard Wenk; it's almost like the origin of The EqualizerThe movie is a dark, violent thriller that has some well-staged action sequences. Washington can play this type of role in his sleep, and he’s very effective here, giving the character more depth than is usual for this genre. The cast also features Chloe-Grace Moretz, Bill Pullman and Melissa Leo.

The films are now available on Blu-ray, DVD and for online viewing. They're worth a look for spy thriller fans, as both movies are a bit more enjoyable than today's standard action film fare. Here’s a link to the trailers for The November Man:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jREIRTyj9Mk and The Equalizerhttps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jAI7rF0eQyQ.


Sunday, January 25, 2015

Stevie Nicks Opens The "Vault"

Stevie Nicks & her music have seen something of a renaissance in recent years. Her solo songs (as well as her work with Fleetwood Mac) have been featured on shows like Glee and American Horror Story, which also boasted an appearance & performance by the artist during last season’s “Coven” storyline. Currently, Nicks is on a very successful tour with the reunited Fleetwood Mac, who has welcomed Christine McVie back into the fold. Last September, Nicks issued 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault, a collection of previously unreleased songs that she originally recorded as demos between 1969 & 1987. It’s a diverse collection of tunes that’s one of her strongest solo releases.

The tracks were recorded in Nashville & Los Angeles, with Nicks, legendary guitarist Waddy Wachtel & Dave Stewart of Eurythmics fame sharing the producing duties. The talented session players include Wachtel, Stewart & longtime Elton John guitarist Davey Johnstone. The songs include the excellent “Hard Advice” which is about Nicks’ friendship with Tom Petty, and “Blue Water,” which features Lady Antebellum on backing vocals. There’s also the beautiful ballad ”Lady” and “Mabel Normand,” an anti-drug abuse tale that name checks the titular silent film star to tell its story. Other highlights include the Stones-esque  “Starshine,” and “She Still Loves Him,” an excellent collaboration with Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits, one of the best tunes on the album.

The album features a cover of Vanessa Carlton’s “Carousel,” which was a favorite song of Nicks’ late mother. Nicks still has the strength to convey beautiful, sensual & ethereal imagery thru her lyrics, and that distinctive voice has lost none of its power. Of course, long-time Nicks/Fleetwood Mac fans will have fun figuring out which songs might be about her long-time, often turbulent relationship & friendship with Lindsey Buckingham. The rock goddess sounds confident & assured here, and you’d be hard pressed to guess she’s 66 years old. The queen of shawls & onstage twirls also leaves herself room to rock out a little on a couple of songs, like the harder-edged “I Don’t Care,” and “Belle Fleur.”

I’ve really been enjoying this disc, and it’s especially recommended if you’re a Nicks or Fleetwood Mac fan. This is a fantastic group of songs, and despite being written at different stages of her career, they hang together very well. It is one of the best albums of her long career. 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault is available in two configurations: a 14 track standard edition and a 16 track deluxe version, which also includes a 48-page book. Here are links to “Hard Advice,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wJKeD5zoSB4, and “Belle Fleur,” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-qaWpjF3X_Q.


Saturday, January 17, 2015

Jodorowsky’s Dune: The Most Amazing Science-Fiction Movie You’ve Never Seen?

There have been a great deal of “making of” documentaries produced about classic (and not so classic) movies. But have you ever seen a story about a film that was never actually made? Jodorowsky’s Dune (2013) is the story of an ambitious attempt to make a cinematic version of author Frank Herbert’s classic science-fiction epic in the mid 1970s. Alejandro Jodorowsky, who had directed the cult films El Topo (1970) and The Holy Mountain (1973), wanted to make a fantastic, mind-expanding version of the novel that would push the boundaries of film, and take the viewer’s cinematic experience to the next level. This absorbing documentary tells the story of Jodorowsky’s quest to put together the perfect team to make his dream project. That journey led him to enlist such talented artists as H.R. Giger, Moebius and Chris Foss, who worked on the design and look of the film. Dan O’Bannon (who later wrote the screenplay for Alien) was slated do the special effects.

Jodorowsky envisioned an eclectic all star cast that would include David Carradine, Orson Welles Mick Jagger and Salvador Dali. He also wanted to feature music by Pink Floyd and other rock bands in the film, with different artists writing music for the different characters and planets featured in the story. The documentary features interviews with Jodorowsky, as well as some of the other crew members who worked on the project. We also get to see concept drawings, production art and costume designs for the movie. It’s clear that Jodorowsky was (and still is) very passionate about the project, and what he hoped to achieve with it. He also inspired that same dedication in the people who worked on the pre-production with him. This movie would very likely have been an out of this world, visionary piece of work, like no other science-fiction film produced up to that time.

The writer-director also came up with a massive book that featured the storyboards and designs for the film, along with its screenplay. Jodorowsky and his partners went to all the major studios to pitch the film. Sadly, no one wanted to co-produce or co-finance the film at the time. Most people who listened to his proposal lauded his unique vision, but thought the film would be impossible to make the way Jodorowsky envisioned it. But maybe the world just wasn’t ready for such a unique movie back then. As you may know, a film version of Dune was eventually produced in 1984, which was directed by David Lynch. That movie waslmbasted by critics and ended up a box office failure. Jodorowsky briefly touches upon his reaction to seeing that version during his interview for this engrossing documentary.

While Jodorowsky’s version of Herbert's novel was never produced, you can tell that the experience of working on it left a lasting impression on his colleagues. The final portion of the movie details some of the amazing work that artists like Giger, Foss, O’Bannon and others worked so hard to create. There are also clips from some of the classic films that were later made by some of these talented people, or influenced by them and their unique visions of the future. Those memorable movies include Alien, Blade Runner and the original Star Wars. This is an engrossing story about the creative process, and the enthusiasm that true artists have for their work.  Jodorowsky’s Dune is now available on Blu-ray, DVD and various download/streaming sites. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jg4OCeSTL08.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Snowpiercer: Train To Nowhere

Apparently, Al Gore was right; Global warming will be the end of us all. In Snowpiercer (2013), the governments of the world try to stop the escalating climate issues caused by global warming by releasing a chemical into the atmosphere. The problem? This causes the planet to completely freeze over, and much of the world’s population dies. Years later, the survivors are all riding a hi-tech train called the Snowpiercer, which continually circles the globe. The train is divided into sections mirroring our current society: the wealthy have the best living conditions toward the front, while the poor live in the rear section, and have crowded conditions & little food. The Wilford Corporation (led by Ed Harris) controls the Snowpiercer's world. A group of rebels from the rear section want to take over the train and disperse the goods more evenly, so everyone can be treated fairly. But they’ll have to battle their way thru the length of the train (and Wilford’s forces) to get to the head car & seize control. There’s also a possibility this “new ice age” is ending and the Earth may be habitable again. Is Wilford hiding the truth? And why do children keep disappearing from the poorer sections of the train?

This movie garnered a lot of buzz upon its release in the US in 2014. It was touted as being a different type of sci-fi movie, with a new & original look. It is stylishly filmed, and the design of the train & some of the visual effects are interesting. But the plot is a hodgepodge of other dystopian sci-fi films & novels such as Soylent Green, The Hunger Games, 1984 & Brave New World. While the concepts are interesting, the story feels a bit tacked together, and some of the plot points are left unexplained or glossed over. The film does try to raise some interesting philosophical issues, but they are never fully explored. I’m all for suspending disbelief in a movie, and going along for the ride (pun intended) but this film just leaves too many questions open: How is this train serviced? How did the class system on the train come to be? Why is the inhumane method of operation that’s chosen by Wilford the only way to run the engine?

The movie features a talented cast including Harris, Chris Evans, John Hurt & a scenery chewing Tilda Swinton, who makes the most of her role as a Wilford spokesperson/henchwoman. But some of the characters are oddly portrayed for no apparent reason, reminding me a bit of the supporting cast in 1997's The Fifth Element. The action sequences are poorly staged, and at just over two hours, the film feels a bit overlong. The story’s resolution and the final sequences are just plain illogical. The film was helmed by South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, and is based on a French graphic novel entitled Le Transperceneige. I had high hopes for this one; sadly, it left me feeling disappointed. There are some intriguing ideas in the film, but the pieces just don’t gel together well enough to make this the great sci-fi tale it could have been. Might be worth a look for genre fans, but not recommended. Snowpiercer is available on Blu-ray, DVD & available for streaming on Netflix. Here’s a link to the film’s trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nX5PwfEMBM0.