Saturday, December 31, 2011

Clash

Clash is the latest movie by Johnny Tri Nguyen, the star of Force of Five and The Rebel. Or at least it's his latest movie available in the US. Clash has a very different feel than The Rebel, the last Nguyen movie I saw. That movie was a period piece, while this one is a stylish thriller set in the present day.

The plot is pretty straightforward, but the competing interests of the characters and their resulting double crosses of each other lead to enough twists to lift the story in to the better-than-average category for a martial arts movie.

That said, the plot doesn't get in the way much of the action, and the fights are really good. I can't think of any fights that looked like they used wires, which is good given Clash's grittier feel. While there are guns and knives used, the martial arts remain the focus in all the fights. The only downside to the guns is that it's a bit laughable what bad shots the characters must be in order to miss some of their targets!

Nguyen remains a strong performer, with a good deal of screen charisma beyond his skills as a martial artist. Some of his spinning kicks in this movie are especially impressive. Also, both he and costar Thanh Van Ngo (also from The Rebel) engage in more submission moves than I recall from recent martial arts movies. That was cool.

Downsides? There are two big ones. First, the romance between Nguyen and Ngo is extremely forced and, since it takes up a good deal of time in the middle third of the film, that's a problem. I didn't feel any sparks that suggested these two characters could overcome the obvious trust issues enough to fall in love. As a result, the love story is a big minus. It slows the movie down too much, despite some of the additional complications it introduces (no spoilers here).

The other downside is that Le Thanh Son's direction ends up spending a bit too much time on shots of his stars smoking, drinking, and otherwise 'looking tough' and this makes them come off like dorky poseurs. Nguyen is a hot guy; he doesn't need the film to sell him to us. An extended example of this is when Nguyen and Ngo tango in a club. The director's (or scriptwriter) is trying to be stylish, but it just seems out of place. Exactly when does a woman who spent her teens in a brothel, was a mother, and then lived as a mercenary find time to learn tango moves? Plus, the obvious use of a dancing double for Nguyen (who clearly couldn't 'cut a rug' if you gave him scissors) makes the whole thing kind of embarrassing. On the plus side, Le Thanh Son does a good job with the rest of the film.

While these flaws definitely slow the pace of the movie down in places, especially in the middle, Clash is a great ride. I have yet to see Nguyen give a bad performance or dish out a bad film, so here's hoping his star continues to rise.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Pre-Dawn Meditation

One of my favorite things is life is to get up before dawn and meditate. I love watching the dawn unfold and to greet the day with a clear mind.


photo: Eric Van Gilder
 Today I indulged in this for the first time in many months. I sat at my Zen table, lit the candles, and calmed my thoughts. It was completely dark. As time passed, I could see the sky becoming lighter. I'd watch but the change was to slow to see. Instead, I just reverted back to breathing and clearing my mind and then - once in a while - I'd look back at the sky. Each time, there was a notable shift in the skies brightness or the color of the clouds, the trees, the stone on my Zen table, or even my skin.

All sorts of images came to me, but the idea they all held was that day-by-day, moment-by-moment, we seem to make so little progress. So many events and days are inconsequential or "more of the same". It can feel pointless or that we're not getting anywhere.  In fact, we are making progress in some direction - intended or not.

If we are right-minded, over time, we are like a bird gliding effortlessly past a traffic jam.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Atlas Shrugged, Part One

For me, Atlas Shrugged is one of the ten greatest novels ever written, and I can say that even though I do not necessarily agree with Objectivism. So I went into this flick with high demands but not super high expectations. While this is not a stellar film experience, I must say I was engrossed! For me, an Atlas Shrugged movie would have to do three things really well: convey the philosophy, rock the plot, and get the characters right.

Rand's philosophy gets very little air time here, but I'll give Part 1 a pass because this is a trilogy. The director may be relying on the second or third 'acts' to develop the philosophical angles. Since Rand did her philosophy to death in some portions of her book, a less heavy-handed approach could be a plus.

In terms of distilling Rand's mammoth plot, I think they made some good choices. As opposed to the slow economic decline Rand painted, we start out in the middle of a crisis. This was a brilliant choice as it allowed a good deal of explication to be avoided. We now know what the problem is, so the film can focus on who caused it, who can stop it, and what's in their way. I also like how they drew the crisis into parallel with some of the feelings and issues Americans have today. They also quickly deal with the obvious plot problem: why should the audience care about railroads? This issue is credibly handled in the first minutes of the movie, and it was wise not to dwell on it. The use of blackberrys and texting seems shocking in Rand's speechifying world, but they are a perfect way to telegraph some of the conversations and keep things moving.

On the downside I'm not keen on the early revelation of a man behind the 'disappearances', perhaps because I felt the mystery aspect of the novel was one of the key plot hooks. Even though the way they have the men 'disappear' makes good dramatic use of the visual medium, I still feel they could do more with it. The 'destroyer' could be portrayed in a horror movie, stalker way (he kind of is already with the shadows and waiting for people to be alone). Have some fun with it! I also found the pacing a bit rushed, but I also find Gone With the Wind rushed compared to the book. Perhaps any movie based on a book this big can't help but seem rushed by comparison. No matter, a longer run time (an extra 30 minutes would only take us to 2 hours) is clearly needed. Given the trilogy approach, a longer run time would help with pacing but wouldn't burden the audience too much.

As for the actors inhabiting these larger than life roles, I like the choices they made though there is some wooden acting. The actress who plays Dagny is sometimes a bit stiff (and I'm not sure she knows how to walk in heels), but she definitely 'gets' the character and conveys her aura. Hank Rearden is also well-played, and the actor is physically perfect for the role. The jury is still out on John Galt and Francisco D'Anconia who each get minimal screen time, although the updating of playboy Francisco into a 'playa' is pitch perfect. Likewise, the updating of James Taggart into the typical do-nothing, pampered executive all too common in the business world today is spot on. We'll see how the actor does as his character starts to show his true colors. A big plus is the guy who plays Ellis Wyatt! He totally sinks his teeth into the role and steals the scenes he's in. On the other hand, the woman who plays Lillian Rearden needs more juice. She's playing the vixen-bitch in this philosophical soap opera, and she should camp it up a bit. The actor playing Hugh Akston was able - in one minute of screen time - to repel me. He played Akston with the aura of a surly Walmart check-out clerk rather than a brilliant scholar. Terrible choice and actor.

One surprising note is how the saggier acting moments were more than offset by the benefits of the cast of virtual unknowns (or at least a cast with low recognition quotient). These actors were definitely committed to their roles. Besides, I find it terribly distracting in dramatic movies to have recognizable stars onscreen. It's like when I saw a biopic on Jane Austin starring Anne Hathaway. I never got past the fact that I was watching Anne-Hathaway-playing-Jane-Austin. Of course some of that was her poor performance, but some of it is just the star power. You really have to be as talented as Meryl Streep or Colin Firth to overcome that so that the viewer can forget they're watching a film with a star. I don't think I would have enjoyed this movie as much if Dagny had been played by Julia Roberts or Kate Hudson or whoever, even if they did the job perfectly. Brad Pitt as Hank Reardon? Ick.

Bottom-line, Atlas Shrugged is technically a low-budget movie, but it looks and functions very well all things considered. I thoroughly enjoyed it and, like I said, my demands were pretty high as I can easily hate adaptations of my favorite novels. Part of the fun here was anticipation: how will they handle the lighting of Wyatt's Torch? What will Wesley Mouch look like? From what I understand, Part 2 is coming in Fall of 2012 and I'm looking forward to it very much!

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Truman Capote: "A Christmas Memory"

If you're looking for a great holiday read...this is the place I recommend you go. I love this book! Plain and simple. I always save it for the holiday season though, and I never read it at any other time. It's become a holiday tradition. The three short stories all take place in holiday seasons during the depression and feature the same setting and characters, so they form a nice group for a single volume.

"A Christmas Memory" is really the core of the book for me, and it's my favorite short story ever. I've read it every Christmas for something like ten years now and I have the same powerful, emotional reaction every time...and I'm not given to outbursts of emotional vulnerability. I smile, laugh, cry, and daydream about my own Christmas memories every time I read it. No other story affects me like this one, and I think everyone will see a little of themselves or their childhood somewhere in these pages. The other two stories are very well done. I'd probably rave about them much more if I could value each on its own merits, but they do get lost in the glare of "A Christmas Memory".

While this is excellent as a literary work, what I really value in these stories is their beauty, simplicity, and truth. Highly recommended for a holiday evening with hot chocolate, a lit tree, and Xmas carols playing. For an even better impact, there is a CD out there of Truman Capote reading "A Christmas Memory". Well worth picking up if you want to share this story as a holiday traditional with your family.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Happy Holidays ("Love Makes a Family")

Very sweet video. Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Holiday Party (Tenth Anniversary)

This was the tenth year running for our Holiday Party! We had family and friends in attendance...some who have been coming the entire ten years! Here's some of the pics from the festivities!  Thanks to everyone who shared this special night with us...love you all!
Jim preparing the spread...
...as the guests start arriving

Old friends and new join in as the Annual Grab Bag Extravaganza begins!
 

Opening presents...



...displaying swag...
...and, of course, the stealing!
A fun night for all...
...and to all a good night!