Friday, February 27, 2015

“The Smell Of Us”– Movie Review

 

smell

This week, I attended a screening of “The Smell Of Us”, a French drama by Larry Clark at The Film Society of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series.

Synopsis

When a pair of teenage skateboarders take a job as escorts, what impact will this have on their personal life?

Story

Math and JP (Lukas Ionesco and Hugo Behar-Thinières) are teenagers who live in Paris and spend much of their day skateboarding with friends; nights, however, are spent working as escorts – their customers are generally either gay men or old women. While they may find the work objectionable, it is also quite lucrative.  Escorting keeps the boys in nice clothes, an abundant supply of drugs and, of course, the latest model skateboard. The lure of money, however, is wearing a little thin; after a while of being used and abused by clients, the boys find escorting considerably less glamorous than anticipated.

Complicating matters is the fact that JP is gay while Math is not – or at least, that’s what he claims. JP is falling in love with Math; while Math considers JP to be a good friend, he doesn’t go that way and thus rebuffs his friend’s advances. This, of course, frustrates JP to no end; JP refusing to stop coming on to him is equally frustrating to Math. Due to their circumstances however, they remain close because they can relate to each other’s predicament. One thing that makes the job less repugnant to Math is that a number of clients offer him drugs or alcohol, which he uses to self-medicate to get through a “date”.

Eventually, JP’s life starts unraveling even further when his father and stepmother learn of his work. JP’s father is enraged when he discovers what his son is up to; JP, in turn, is furious at his stepmother because upon finding out about the boy’s work, she informed her husband without first consulting JP. Between his unrequited love for Math and a home situation that has become unmanageable, JP falls into a deep depression and winds up seeking revenge on his stepmother. But when JP finally confronts her, will he actually be able to carry out his plan or will a cooler mind prevail in the end?

Review

When there is a film with such a curious title (any bets on which critic is going to call “The Smell Of Us” something like “We Stink”?), it’s basically setting itself up for some nasty jokes. However, director Larry Clark, who brought us “Kids” 20 years ago, has delivered such an unpleasant and unsavory work that’s uncomfortable to watch on multiple levels, jokes about its title may wind up being the least of its problems. Clark continues his voyeuristic, borderline pedophilic obsession with the sex lives of adolescents and has precious little of value to show for everyone’s efforts. In some ways, the story feels somewhat schizophrenic because it appears to start off in one direction, then goes another way.

Its story is about as good a place as any to start. As a movie, “The Smell Of Us” seems very episodic and feels like a film in search of a plot. Initially, we are introduced to this gang of idiots and are set up to believe we are about to follow the individual exploits of each one. Instead, two of them – the young escorts – suddenly become the focal point of the motion picture; the justification for this appears to be merely so that Clark could shoot some rather provocative (and realistic) sex scenes. “The Smell Of Us” has more the look and feel of kiddie porn that hopelessly tries to fob itself off as art.

Following the screening was an interview with Diane Rouxel, who played Marie in the movie; since her English was a little shaky, an interpreter translated on her behalf. Initially an art school student, she didn’t have acting experience prior to shooting “The Smell Of Us”. She loved the script Clark originally gave her; however, when seeing the finished product, Rouxel said she was quite upset because the film turned out to be drastically different from the screenplay. One of the things she found very disconcerting during the shoot was the fact that Clark would frequently veer off the script and improvise scenes and dialog; this was particularly awkward in some of the graphic sex scenes.  

The Smell of Us (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, February 21, 2015

“Electric Boogaloo”– Movie Review

 

electric_boogaloo

This week, I attended opening night of The Film Society Of Lincoln Center’s “Film Comment Selects” series, where we viewed the documentary “Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films”. 

Synopsis

When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus formed Cannon Films, would they be taken seriously in Hollywood or forever be known as schlockmeisters? 

Story

Back in the 1980’s, Israeli filmmakers Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus became partners based on their mutual passion for movies; together, they created Cannon Films, which bestowed upon international audiences countless horrifyingly tasteless films – and occasionally, some decent ones.  But as quick as their rise was, their rapid decline was equally as speedy.  Depending upon whom is asked, there may be differing reasons for their ultimate failure.  But one thing is for certain:  Cannon’s output of movies during that period is difficult to beat by either a major studio or independent production company. 

Eventually known as The Go-Go Boys, the team produced low-budget movies that included many sequels to Charles Bronson’s “Death Wish”, but also introduced much of the country to break dancing and eventually aspired to more artistic goals by providing noted Italian director Franco Zefferelli an opportunity to direct his own version of Shakespeare’s “Othello”.  While many of these films weren’t worth the time it took most critics to sit through a screening, Cannon sometimes – and usually, accidentally – wound up with actual box office hits which kept the company afloat. 

By the mid-1980’s, the team saw great success and Cannon Films had conquered Hollywood – or so they thought.  After setting up headquarters in Los Angeles, they quickly tried to expand their business based on the successes of their recent past.  However, this resulted in Cannon making more movies than they could support, which required extensive financing from banks.  After a few box office flops, Golan-Globus found that they would have immense difficulty in paying off their loans.  But would they be able to revive the company and continue their filmmaking?

Review

If you are of a certain age, you have most likely seen at least one Cannon Film in your lifetime – in fact, you’ve probably seen many.  What might be more difficult to admit, however, is the fact that they hit a nerve with you – specifically, a movie such as “Breakin’”, “Delta Force” or even “Missing In Action” may be on your secret list of guilty pleasures.  With lovers of insipid films such as “Hercules” (where Lou Ferrigno, starring as the title character, flung a bear into outer space), who among us would dare to deny the thrill of sexploitation as seen in “classics” like “The Last American Virgin” or “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”?  

Precisely.  Whether they know it or not – and whether some movie fans may be willing to acknowledge it or not – Cannon Films has provided us with endless entertainment over the decades.  Oh, sure, a good deal of it was nonsense.  But seriously, what are movies if not escapist entertainment?  Yes, we may have used their product for comic fodder; that, however, doesn’t matter.  Even if much of what The Go-Go Boys produced was stupid (and yes, it was), it was nevertheless something that we were able to use for distraction and entertainment.  And for this, we should be thankful. 

If there is anything about this documentary that is worthy of criticism, it is the fact that it runs a little long.  Although it is only about two hours, it does seem to drag a bit at times; after a while, you feel, “OK, we get it – let’s get on with the rest of the story”.  Following the screening was a question and answer session with the filmmaker and some participants in the Cannon Films experience.  One thing that all of them seemed to be able to agree on was the fact that just about everyone could do an imitation of the unintentionally funny Menahem Golan. 

Electric Boogaloo: The Wild, Untold Story of Cannon Films (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, February 19, 2015

“Wild Tales”– Movie Review

 

wild_tales

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the Argentinian comedy-drama “Wild Tales”, which has an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film.

Synopsis

“Wild Tales” is a movie comprised of six unrelated segments, the theme of which is the more negative aspects of the human condition.

Story

Segment 1: With an airplane full of people, two strangers – a runway model and a music critic – begin chatting and soon discover that they know the same person, a young man who failed at his aspirations to start a music career. Eventually, they find out that everyone on the plane knows this man and the flight attended announces that he’s a steward who’s now locked himself into the cockpit and is piloting the airliner. Will he crash the aircraft or can one of his acquaintances talk him out of it in time?

Segment 2: A young woman who works as a waitress at a roadside restaurant is shocked when one of her customers turns out to be a gangster who ruined her family’s life years earlier. Amazingly, he does not remember her, but nevertheless treats her shabbily. When the restaurant’s cook suggests they poison him, will they put rat poison in his food or will she talk the cook out of murdering him?

Segment 3: When a wealthy man in a fancy new car insults a careless driver weaving along the road, he is suddenly forced to confront the man when his car breaks down. But when their confrontation turns increasingly violent, which one of them will emerge as the victor?

Segment 4: Once an explosives engineer has his car unnecessarily towed by the city, he decides to fight the bureaucracy which he thinks is out to get him. With his wife having left him for missing their daughter’s birthday due to the latest towing incident, he becomes completely unraveled. But will he go so far as to use his experience with bombs to exact revenge on the government that he feels ruined his life?

Segment 5: After a young man returns home to inform his wealthy father that he’s killed a couple of people as the result of a drunk driving accident, the father desperately tries to buy his son’s way out of a potential prison term. But when the lawyers collude to extort millions of dollars from him, will the father still fight for his son or allow him to do time so he can keep his money?

Segment 6: At a wedding reception, the bride learns that not only did her new husband cheat on her while they were engaged, but that the woman with whom he had the affair is also a guest at the party. Exploding with rage, she chooses to exact revenge on both the woman and her husband by turning the function into a scene of senseless violence. But will the couple divorce or figure out a way to remain married?

Review

Given that the name of this blog has the word “nihilist” in its title, how is it possible to dislike a movie such as “Wild Tales”?  It is dark, it is bleak and its basic message is that “people are no damned good”.  What’s not to like?  This misanthropic string of fairy tales is delightful for those who truly believe deep down that no one can be trusted; if this sounds like something that would drastically shake up your entire belief system and delicate sensibilities, then avoid it at all costs.  Right-thinking members of the public, however, will gleefully rejoice at the reassurance of that which you already knew all too well. 

As horrifying and disturbing as it is funny, “Wild Tales” is the blackest of all comedies and quite deserving of its nomination.  In one way or another, each story in this movie seems to focus on the thought of revenge taken by individuals who are genuinely frustrated and find themselves at the end of their respective rope.  With people so far out of control and with such violent tendencies, this is a recipe for some truly extraordinarily bad behavior – which makes for an insanely entertaining (not to mention therapeutic)film.    

If there is anything to criticize about “Wild Tales”, it would be how each vignette is separated – or perhaps more to the point, not separated.  One can never be exactly sure when each sketch has actually ended, so it’ll take you a minute or so in order to figure out that a new and completely different story is being told when the new segment begins.  This is particularly true of the first story, which is told before the opening credits roll; once the credits have finished, the second tale begins – but at first, you’re not quite sure if it’s a new segment or a continuation of what was going on prior to the credits.  What might have been useful here is the use of title cards in between each scene so the audience would unambiguously know when a new scene is beginning and the previous one concluded. 

 

Wild Tales (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, February 14, 2015

“Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus”– Movie Review

 

da

This week, I attended a screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” directed by Spike Lee. 

Synopsis

When a man discovers he’s just been turned into a vampire, his newfound bloodlust becomes an obsession – but will his conscience allow him to continue living this way?

Story

As a scholar of African history and art, Dr. Hess Greene is nothing short of thrilled when he comes into possession of a dagger from an ancient African civilization.  The dagger, legend has it, has quite a notorious background:   possessed with magical powers, it was used in various religious ceremonies and medical procedures.  Mystified by its reputation, Dr. Greene brings the item back to his home in Martha’s Vineyard where he proudly displays it as his newest objet d'art – unfortunately for him, he has to deal with his unruly houseguest,  Lafayette Hightower, an emotionally disturbed man whom Greene finds difficult to control.

Overnight, Hightower sneaks into Greene’s room with the magical dagger and stabs him through the heart, leaving Dr. Greene for dead.  The next morning, however, Greene awakens following a convulsive episode and pulls the dagger from his chest.  Proceeding to Hightower’s room, he’s shocked to find the man dead, apparently from a successful suicide attempt.  With Hightower bleeding out on the floor, Greene begins to slurp up the man’s blood.  Shocked by his new behavior, Greene nevertheless adapts to it quickly, doing whatever he must in order to satisfy his appetite for the sanguine bodily fluid. 

Soon, Ganja, Hightower’s estranged wife, becomes suspicious about her husband’s sudden and unexpected disappearance.  Suspecting an attempt to deceive her, she unexpectedly shows up at Greene’s house where she demands to see Lafayette – but her efforts are derailed when Dr. Greene unabashedly flirts with his former-friend’s wife.  Horrified when she eventually learns of her husband’s demise, Greene attacks her, turning Ganja into an undead creature with a thirst for blood very similar to his own.  Now that they are bonded in their common quest for the ruddy liquid, will it destroy their relationship or only serve to bring the two closer?  

Review

In what appears to be director Spike Lee’s foray into Grand Guignol, “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” defies logic or, for that matter, any logical explanation.  No sense can be made from this convoluted confusion of poor choices, which may be why studio funding became impossible, inevitably causing the filmmaker to go the Kickstarter route for crowdsourcing.  Whatever Lee was going for here, it didn’t work and it didn’t work in a really big way.  With a screenplay overwhelmed with unnecessary lines of dialog used as filler – some of which delivered by actors who seemed as though they had just been given the script moments before “Action” was shouted – and the result is a finished product that can only leave viewers scratching their head. 

Admittedly, Lee is not one of my favorite filmmakers; he tries too hard to evoke a style that just isn’t believable, much less artful.  The story behind this film is perhaps more interesting than the movie itself.  “Da Sweet Blood Of Jesus” is something of a reimagining of an older motion picture on which it is based, “Ganja And Hess”; in fact, the original film’s screenwriter, Bill Gunn, co-wrote the screenplay for the updated version with Lee.  “Ganja And Hess” had a favorable reaction from some critics when it first appeared, so watching that one might be a better option. 

Particularly painful to watch are Lee’s attempts at commenting on drug addiction and the pretentious, unctuous behavior of the intellectual community; Lee only succeeds in hitting all of the wrong notes and being none too subtle about the points he’s struggling to make. While the film lacks any redeemable features worthy of recommendation, it should be noted that the one thing Lee got right was casting some beautiful women; with as many nude scenes that they have – not to mention one particularly hot lesbian scene – Mr. Skin should have plenty of content to fill his Web Site for some time to come.   

Da Sweet Blood of Jesus (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, January 31, 2015

“Girlhood”–Movie Review

 

Girlhood

This week, I attended the opening night screening at The Film Society Of Lincoln Center of “Girlhood”, a French film written and directed by Céline Sciamma. 

Synopsis

When an adolescent girl learns her future will be limited once she flunks out of school, she joins a gang that alters her perspective about herself – but will this re-invented young woman wind up wandering down the wrong path or can she figure out a way to lead a more productive life? 

Story

As a 16 year-old trying to grow up in a Paris suburb, Marieme (Karidja Touré) doesn’t have things easy; the second of four children, she has to take care of her two younger sisters when their mother goes off to work as an office cleaning woman at night.  Add to that her contentious relationship with her older brother, and life at home can tend to be difficult to say the least.  To make matters worse, she’s just learned that she’ll be forced to leave school due to bad grades; uninterested in attending a vocational school, she sees her future as a cleaning woman alongside her mother as her only option. 

Wandering through her neighborhood, Marieme meets a gang of three tough girls who offer to let her join her group.  Once a member, she soon learns they have an attitude and view of the world much different from her own.  As they befriend her, Marieme begins to transform; once quiet and shy, she is now more self-confident and outgoing – almost to the point of being overtly aggressive in her dealings with people, especially strangers.  Marieme develops a hardness about her that she sees as a way of dealing with an unfriendly and uncaring world. 

But there are other things that have Marieme’s interest.   Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), a close friend of her brother, has caught her eye; a mutual attraction develops when they spend time together after “accidentally” running into each other from time to time.  Eventually, they embark on something of a romantic relationship – but when Marieme’s brother learns of their tryst, he becomes angry and violent towards his younger sister.  This results in Marieme running away from home.  Unable to support herself, she accepts a job offer from a man who has her assist him in his drug peddling business.  But will Marieme be able to continue along this career path destined for certain tragedy or will she have to accept Ismaël’s proposal of marriage and relinquish her independence and freedom? 

Review

Although some may think that this movie’s release is a knee-jerk response to capitalize on the success of “Boyhood”, nothing could be further from the truth.  The only way that it is similar is that it is ambitious filmmaking – but in a vastly different way.  What is particularly poignant about “Girlhood” – although again, this may have been yet another accident in timing – is its inevitable comparison with the brutal Charlie Hebdo murders in Paris only a few weeks ago.  Based on what we understand about the perpetrators, they were French Moroccans who took an unfortunate path in their life because they were unable to overcome certain socio-economic challenges in their society.  Likewise, a similar fate may befall the character of Marieme for the same reason. 

While “Girlhood” is certainly worthy of recommendation, there are some technical issues with the directing style which were somewhat disconcerting.  The foremost has to do with the manner in which the director chose to end certain scenes.  Specifically, she decided to fade – or more likely cut – to black and spend several seconds playing music used to end the previous scene; psychologically, this fools the viewer to incorrectly think that we have reached the conclusion of the film and that the credits are about to roll.  In fact, this technique is used as a transition from one scene to another, causing a bit of confusion and momentarily taking you out of the movie. 

Following the screening, there was a question and answer session with the writer-director of “Girlhood”, Céline Sciamma.  This was her third feature film and from the sounds of it, the director seems to consider this the final installment in her trilogy about growing up in the modern world.  There is a scene in the movie where the girls lip synch to Rihanna’s hit song “Diamonds”; Sciamma said she was concerned that she would not be able to secure the rights to use that song in the motion picture, however, after the recording company saw the scene in which the song was featured, they came up with a reasonable financial offer that the filmmakers found would fit well within their budget.  Sciamma talked about the inevitable comparison with “Boyhood” and insisted she did not pick “Girlhood” as the title to merely piggyback on the success of the multiple-award-nominated film; the original French title translated into something like “Bunch Of Girls”, which she didn’t believe would work well in English-speaking markets.  Sciamma said that she changed it to “Girlhood” partly as a play on words – the “hood” portion of the word referencing the neighborhood which the protagonist inhabited. 

Girlhood (2014) on IMDb

Thursday, January 29, 2015

“Black Or White”– Movie Review

 

black-white

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of “Black Or White”, the new drama starring Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer.

Synopsis

When a recently widowed lawyer is forced to care for his parentless mulatto granddaughter, he winds up in a custody battle with the girl’s paternal grandmother – but when certain dark aspects of his background surface, will he be able to convince the court he deserves to retain custody or lose his granddaughter forever?

Story

Elliot (Costner) is devastated when he learns of his wife’s death as the result of a traffic accident; for years, they took care of their mixed-race granddaughter Eloise (Jillian Estell) after the little girl’s mother died in childbirth and her drug addict father disappeared.  Now that he’s alone, however, Elliot is feeling the pressure of having to care for Eloise by himself – so much so, in fact, that he’s taken to self-medicate with mega-drams of Scotch.  This is where Rowena (Spencer) steps in; as the mother of Reggie (André Holland) – Eloise’s biological father – she wants to share custody of the little girl so Eloise can learn of her heritage and familiarize herself with the rest of her family.

Facing considerable resistance from Elliot, Rowena engages her brother Jeremiah (Anthony Mackie), a lawyer determined to prove Elliot is unfit to care for Eloise all by himself.  Seeing an ugly court battle is about to ensue, Elliot, a high-powered attorney himself, has his most trusted associates represent him.  It is at this point the prodigal Reggie suddenly chooses to make his return; maintaining that he’s in recovery for his years of drug abuse, Reggie insists that he’s clean now and perfectly capable of taking care of Eloise.

As time drags on, both sides start building up a case against each other; Elliot begins to doubt whether he’ll be able to devote as much time to Eloise as his wife did and Jeremiah warns Rowena that having Reggie involved may damage her legal case.  Reggie then proposes an offer to Elliot – pay him off and he’ll go away forever.  Although Elliot is appalled at Reggie’s attempt at a bribe, he sees it as an easy way out and writes Reggie a sizable check.  Later on, however, Reggie has second thoughts – after meeting Eloise, he now decides that he wants custody.  But when Reggie physically confronts Elliot, can he prevent Reggie from taking Eloise or will he ultimately lose her to Reggie in court anyway?

Review

In the months after the racially-charged events in Ferguson, Missouri and Staten Island, New York that caused protest marches from coast to coast, there is a distinct need for a positive message of healing throughout the entire nation.  “Black Or White”, however, comes nowhere close to being that message of healing.  This obscenely preposterous movie does very little to move the conversation forward; it is merely another assertion of “if you’re white, you must be right”.  Despite a very cute little girl playing the part of Eloise, there’s precious little that makes “Black Or White” worth recommending. 

The cartoon stereotypes like the rich white guy and the sassy black woman grow tiresome even before the film gets underway.  Also the fact that the filmmaker tries to show the hypocrisy of  the alcoholic Elliot denouncing the irresponsible behavior of Reggie The Crackhead is so heavy-handed that it is simply groan-inducing.  Top it off with cringe-worthy illogical behavior exhibited by the characters and you have “Black Or White” being the feel-bad (or feel-irritated) movie of the year – and to think, it’s only January. 

What prevents “Black Or White” from being merely a television movie shown on the Lifetime network or something similar is the casting; the fact that they were able to score both Kevin Costner and Octavia Spencer lent the film a considerable amount of gravitas – yet not nearly enough to truly take it seriously.  The jokes with the hit-you-over-the-head obvious punchlines don’t help much, either.  If Costner chose to do this motion picture solely because he felt desperately in need of a hit after a bit of a drought, he’ll likely come up empty yet again. 

Black or White (2014) on IMDb

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

“Cake”– Movie Review

 

cake

This week, I attended a screening by The New York Times Film Club of the new drama “Cake”, starring Jennifer Aniston.

Synopsis

When a woman tries to physically recover from an accident, she becomes addicted to painkillers – but will she be able to emotionally recover as well or succumb to suicide?

Story

Claire (Aniston) is appropriately enrolled in a Chronic Pain therapy group – she has both physical and psychological pain that she’s encountering difficulty healing.  Using Percoset to handle her physical pain, her addiction to it causes her to use the dangerous prescription drug to treat her psychological pain as well.  The automobile accident that left Claire extensively scarred on her body and in her mind also took the life of her young son; the after-effects of this also left her marriage in a shambles and she now finds herself living alone with just her housekeeper Silvana (Adriana Barraza) to occasionally look in on her. 

Embittered, Claire succeeds in mistreating nearly everyone around – her husband, Silvana and her fellow patients in the Chronic Pain group.  In the therapy, the group discusses the recent loss of one of their members, Nina (Anna Kendrick), who committed suicide in a rather grisly fashion.  While other members of the group speak of their hurt over Nina’s death, a hardened Claire merely wishes to recount the gruesome details of Nina’s demise, which only causes everyone else to be upset.  As a result of her inappropriate outburst, the therapist informs Claire that she has been expelled from the group.  

Although she was not particularly close to Nina, Claire seems strongly effected by her death – so much so that Nina’s ghost appears to be haunting her.  Initially, Nina comes to Claire in nightmares, but the apparitions become so intense and so realistic that Claire begins to have visions during her waking hours.  The more Nina’s spirit visits her, the more Claire grows convinced that Nina is trying to talk her into committing suicide as well.  But without any form of a support system around her, will Claire decide to kill herself or can she summon the will to overcome her pain and survive? 

Review

While there may be some reviews that will give in to the temptation to say things like, “Cake is stale” or “Cake is a half-baked idea”, a less facile response to the movie might well point to its real culprit, the screenplay.  Although Aniston, who is also credited as being Executive Producer on the film, puts in about as good a performance as possible with the material at hand, she’s not able to elevate the quality.  “Cake” has a script which seems either one draft away or missing some key scenes (it’s unclear which – quite possibly both). 

There are ideas that go undeveloped or under-developed and leave you wondering exactly what the purpose was here.  So many things are touched on that the story can only treat any of them in the most superficial manner possible.  The main one being what causes Claire to eventually make the decision she does in the film’s resolution.  We are told that Claire is (was?) a lawyer, but we don’t know what her situation is at work; presumably, her injuries have resulted in her taking long-term disability, but no mention is made of where she stands with that or if it’s even an issue.  Apparently, Claire was a reasonably successful lawyer because she has a lovely home with an in-ground swimming pool, a housekeeper and gardener (with whom she has the occasional awkward tryst).   

As much as Claire seems to be beaten up and tormented, however, it remains difficult for the audience to truly root for her to succeed because the journey on which she’s been for the past hour and a half of screen time isn’t particularly cathartic or transforming.  The gruff but loveable victim, we are to believe, somehow has an epiphany that thrusts her in a certain direction.  Although “Cake” certainly has a clear and unambiguous ending, it is nevertheless unsatisfying on some level because we don’t feel a truly organic metamorphosis has occurred in the lead character. 

Cake (2014) on IMDb

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

“Red Army”– Movie Review

 

redarmy

This week, I attended a New York Times Film Club screening of the new documentary “Red Army”. 

Synopsis

Once the Russian hockey team lost the gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, did its players go on to have successful careers or were they banished to Siberia?

Story

In 1980, the Russians had just advanced into the Arab nation of Afghanistan in Southwestern Asia; the purpose of this land-grab appeared to be so that The Soviet Union could make a move to monopolize as much of the continent’s oil as possible.  Other nations opposed this, but it was The United States that was the U.S.S.R.’s greatest opponent in this by aiding the Afghanis in fighting Russian forces.  It was in this same year that the Winter Olympics took place in the small town of Lake Placid, New York where the American hockey team would face The Red Army (as the Russian team was known) to play for the Gold Medal. 

The Red Army’s reputation preceded it; during pre-Olympic games, the Russians had soundly beaten various North American teams, making their Gold Medal playoffs during the Olympics seem merely a formality.  As things turned out, it wound up being Team U.S.A. that would face The Russians to play for the medal; while many Americans would have settled for the moral victory of merely making the championship round, the so-called “Miracle On Ice” occurred when the American hockey team, coached by Herb Brooks, defeated the Russian team and came home as heroes with not only a Gold Medal but a grateful and patriotic nation hailing them as heroes. 

But what of The Red Army?  Under a harsh coach and a government that threatened them to win a one-way ticket to Siberia in the event of a loss, their tough regimen became even worse; some team veterans were let go and the strict Russian coach recruited and trained players new to the system.  Returning to the Gold Medal round in the 1984 Winter Olympics, they beat the Czechoslovakian team and finally won the medal for which their government longed in order to validate the Communist system.  But would the new national heroes profit from this or would the regime manage to squash all hopes of ambition? 

Review

“Red Army” is neither a dull geo-political history lesson nor a jock-happy celebration of sports (hockey, in particular); instead, it is an entertaining and beguiling documentary that humanizes all of the Russian stars involved.  The secrets of the unusual Russian training methods are revealed through extraordinary old newsreel footage from nearly a half-century ago, showing how The Red Army learned to turn their skill into an art of a tapestry of puck-passing that confused other teams confronted by this unorthodox style of play. 

As in any good drama, there are heroes and villains; in this case, however, they are both The Russians.  If you are expecting to find a jingoistic film that celebrates Capitalism and decries Socialism, then please do yourself a favor and look elsewhere.  While the Russian players are shown to have their own sense of patriotism, they are not so blind as to see that they are being used as pawns by their government.  Once they have had a sense of Western life – as was the case when the Russian team visited Canada to play the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers – the players finally got a sense of just how badly they were being used by their government. 

At the risk of carping, there is a technical fault to be found with this documentary – specifically, the way the subtitles were implemented.  Many of the interviewees either spoke Russian only or spoke English with a very heavy Russian accent, which reasonably justifies the use of the subtitles.  Unfortunately, they can be something of a challenge to read at times.  Specifically, this can occur during the use of the newsreel footage (which is in black and white) and the more recent video (against the white background of the ice in the skating rink). 

Red Army (2014) on IMDb

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Book Review: “Across The River And Into The Trees”

 

Across The River

During this year’s vacation, I read Ernest Hemingway’s novel “Across The River And Into The Trees”.

Summary

Colonel Richard Cantwell, age 50, is spending these days after World War II doing the things he enjoys:  duck hunting, visiting the city of Venice and making love to his girlfriend Renata, a young countess some 30 years his junior.  Constantly taking mannitol hexanitrate in order to treat his angina, he has finally admitted to himself that his time on this earth is rather limited indeed.  As curt as he is with with his driver Sgt. Jackson, that’s just how tender he is with Renata.  While the inevitable draws near, he turns reflective. 

Upon finally reuniting with Renata, their time is spent alternating between making love in his hotel room and enjoying drinks or a meal at the famed Harry’s.  Although Cantwell can’t help but occasionally being on the rough side, Renata overlooks it and implores him to show his tenderness.  During their time together, Cantwell can’t help but to reminisce about his years in the war, sharing with Renata stories about the battles he’s fought and the men he’s lost. 

After an early morning of somewhat satisfying duck hunting with some acquaintances, Cantwell has his driver take him back into town.  But by now, all is not well with the colonel; he is starting to feel ill and fears his end may be near.  It is with this in mind, that he scribbles a note on a pad, then hands it over to Sergeant Jackson before crawling into the backseat of his Army-issued vehicle; mysteriously, he instructs Jackson to carry out the orders he set forth in the note in the event of his demise.  After a while, Jackson pulls the car over and reads the note, then dutifully proceeds back to town.    

Review

The problem with reading some of Hemingway’s works – if indeed it can truly be characterized as a problem – is that very often, you won’t quite get it on a first reading.  Instead, it will require at least two readings before certain things start to sink in a bit.  During the initial reading, you are simply trying to absorb the events and allow the story to wash over you.  Because of the fact that very little is revealed to the reader – at least upon the first pass – this has come to be known as Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory of writing. 

Part of my problem with the book is how excruciatingly slowly it starts; it is not at all hard to wind up losing patience with the book or its author or both.  The ambiguity can also drive you into something of an apoplectic fit; you begin to wonder exactly what it is that you’re missing about the story you’re reading.  Why did Cantwell get demoted from General to Colonel?  Was it because he lost men in battle?  Why is Renata so patient when it comes to listening to her lover’s old war stories?  Is she really interested or is she merely a figment of Cantwell’s imagination? 

The character of Renata is another problem in the book; Renata is not one of Hemingway’s best female characters.  It is difficult to see a fully-formed human being there; while some may attribute this to the fact that she is a teenager, it would seem that the author was so consumed with his protagonist that he lacked the interest, ability or passion to make Cantwell’s love interest a well-drawn character.  Renata is more two-dimensional than three-dimensional; she’s like a cardboard cut-out, which is somewhat fitting, since Cantwell is given a portrait of her that he winds up trying to have a conversation with late one night in his hotel room.   

 

 

 

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Hedonism II: New Year’s Eve 2014

 

Ice1

Veterans of Hedonism II have spent the past couple of years sitting back waiting and watching as the resort’s new owners have tried to revive a once-successful franchise whose previous management appeared to have forsaken.  While many and varied changes have occurred during this time period, guests have not always unflaggingly embraced them, or at least have done so with reservations.  But what of these alterations?  Have they improved the customer experience or are they merely serving as “putting lipstick on a pig”? 

As a long-time guest of the resort, I recently returned from yet another visit precisely for the New Year’s Eve celebration both for a vacation and to see if it’s now truly  …

Hedonism Version # 2.0:  The Next Generation

 Sked1

 Sked2

What was better than last year?

  • The telephone in the room worked (on my last visit, they were upgrading the phone system, which meant that all of the phones in the guest rooms were out of commission)
  • The food in the main dining room's buffet had improved selection/quality
  • New and better treadmills in the gym
  • Security (more below)
  • The bathrooms behind the pools (nude side) were renovated (they just reopened after my arrival; details below)
  • The ostentatious jewelry store is replaced by a very classy wine bar (details later)
  • The piano bar has been opened up (additional outside seating and walls have been taken down inside – photo below)
  • The espresso bar is now open (although I didn’t actually see anyone working there until the end of my stay – photos below)

 Pig CU

Piano Bar Landscape Espresso Bar Landscape

Espresso Prices Portrait 

What still needs improvement?

  • Water temperature in the shower (too hot)
  • Entertainment Coordinators (too intrusive; perhaps they should consider abandoning this concept altogether)
  • Martinis (the bartenders still don’t know how to make them; explanation below)

The Good News

The food at the buffet in the main dining room during dinner had a wide variety and was generally very flavorful, although some meat was a little dry and chewy and their attempt at risotto was anything but the soupy quality those familiar with the dish might expect. 

The treadmills in the gym have been replaced with newer models that are easier to use (feel free to attach your iPod/iPhone to listen to music).  While I don’t know how new they are, the one other positive thing about them was that all appeared to be working; although I was the only one in the gym using the treadmills at the time, none of them had an “Out Of Order” sign posted on them – something which at least one machine used to have in my past visits. 

If you read my trip report from last year about Hedo at New Year’s, you’ll recall The Big Break-In Of 2014, which had all the earmarks of an inside job.  Thankfully, no such incident occurred this year, which can likely be attributed to the new security company the resort has hired (a Canadian-based organization that hires Jamaican guards).  It was clear from casual observation that these guards were a huge improvement over what was previously there:  they were very professional in their approach, took their job seriously and didn’t miss a trick.  Late one afternoon, there was an incident at the hot tub and security took care of it efficiently and with aplomb. 

It appears I arrived at a good time – the day I checked-in at Hedo, the freshly-renovated restrooms by the nude pool had just re-opened.  As far as the men’s room is concerned, it looks beautiful and for the most part is smartly redesigned; there are two toilets (each with a door that closes) and two urinals – the sinks were moved outside, but at the time, it appeared that only one was working.  Unfortunately, the entrance appears to be something of a design issue in that it is very wide and there is no door; as a result, anyone passing by can easily see someone standing there using the urinal. 

While I did not really avail myself of the wine bar during this stay, it certainly does seem very nice.  On New Year’s Eves past, the resort typically sells bottles of high-end champagne; this year, it seems that the wine bar was selling bottles of both sparkling wine and champagne.  After checking the wine list, I saw that prices ranged from $35 for Prosecco ($30 for a Rosé version) to $300 for Dom Perignon. 

The Not-So-Good News

As stated above, the shower in the rooms continue to have issues with respect to water temperature; it was only on my final day (when I took a shower in the late morning) that I had a reasonable temperature for the water – the rest of the time, it was way too hot and on my last night, it was absolutely scalding. 

What are we to do with these Entertainment Coordinators?  While I’m given to understand that a good many guests truly enjoy their presence at the resort, I personally have always found them to be superfluous.  Seriously, do we all need coaxing to play bocce ball, trivia games or scavenger hunts?  My personal opinion is that their time for usefulness has long since passed and while I don’t wish for anyone to lose their job, it would seem that the money used for their salaries could be best spent elsewhere (perhaps on the other planned renovations ongoing at the resort). 

The set-up of the Martini bar is something that I always welcomed but they keep changing the location so it can be hard to find; sometimes it’s near the bar, other times on the main pool deck.  This year, on New Year’s Eve, it was moved to just outside the piano bar (around the corner from the wine bar), which I very nearly missed.  The other problem here is with the martinis themselves; they are inconsistently made and generally incorrectly made.  When ordering an extra dry martini, I have seen bartenders range from drizzling vermouth into the glass then dumping it into the sink (which is correct) to pouring an overly-generous amount into the shaker containing the gin (wrong); either way, the martini should never be shaken – it should be stirred.  Stirring a martini chills the base spirit (gin, in my case) without diluting it with melted ice; it also results in the cocktail itself being clear (you can see through the glass).  When a martini is shaken, however, straining it into the glass results in a cloudy mixture; in addition, shaking causes the spirit to be diluted by the melting ice, negatively impacting the flavor (also, it causes shards of ice to float atop the glass, which should never be the case). 

The Repeater Party

Invite

Normally, The Repeater Party is held on Wednesday evenings; this week, it was moved to Tuesday because New Year’s Eve fell on a Wednesday this year.  Harry, who was at the resort just about the entire time I was there, was in attendance at the party; he mentioned that further renovations would be ongoing during the off-season.  Included among them would be the lobby, the stage (including the lighting), the electrical system, the dining room and the buffet area.  He mentioned that whenever he sees the current layout, it looks a bit too much like the 1970’s; that he’s interested in updating and modernizing things a bit was somewhat encouraging. 

New Year’s Eve

The food quality and selection on New Year’s Eve has consistently been the best during every vacation and that continued to be the case this year.  As far as the entertainment was concerned, they had a total of five acts appearing onstage.  After midnight, there was a band playing in the newly-renovated courtyard; their stage was set up right by the building that houses the restrooms by the tennis court.  Unfortunately, their set kept getting interrupted due to the fact that the electricity kept going out.  The following night, on New Year’s Day, that same area was used as a screen on which to project the live broadcast of the annual Sugar Bowl college football game.  

New Year’s Eve 2014 at Hedonism II (Negril, Jamaica)

Summary

So, is Hedonism II still worth the time, expense and effort?  Ultimately, I suppose it depends on what you’re after.  During this trip, I met a couple from Alberta, Canada who were celebrating their wedding anniversary; they told me that they used to vacation at Hedonism III, then switched to Hedonism II after their original resort closed.  They spent a few vacations at Hedonism II, then stopped coming a couple of years ago because they felt that the resort was going downhill.  Then they heard that the ownership had changed hands, so they figured they would give it another shot.  She told me they were emboldened by the changes that were made here and might return next year.   

As for me, there are too many memories here to stop coming altogether; vacationing here since 1988 and spending every New Year’s Eve since 1997, it would be hard to give up.  I’ve resolved myself to the fact that it is not now and never will be a five-star hotel and that it will only go into the 21st century if it’s dragged kicking and screaming.  The one turn-off that I did have came at the end of my trip as I was checking out; the person at the front desk asked me to be sure to post a review on Trip Advisor if I enjoyed my stay.  This seemed odd and it was the first time it had ever happened to me.  Upon returning home, I checked the current ratings of Hedonism II on Trip Advisor; at the time of this writing, they have nearly 1600 reviews, over 1200 of which are rated either Excellent or Very Good.  Why would a resort that has a 78% favorable rating be begging outgoing guests for even more reviews?

Another observation:  it’s now been close to two years since the new owners of Hedonism II took over.  These new owners are successful businessmen who also truly believe in the place and have their own history with the resort.  However, as businessmen, they are also obligated to look at the bottom line.  Although they presently seem committed and sincere about aggressively improving the resort, one must realistically ask how long this will continue?  If the resort appears to be making money, then it’s quite possible that these upgrades will continue indefinitely.  However, if it merely turns into a money pit after about five years or so, will they simply decide to cut their losses and sell the resort to an organization that will bulldoze it and replace it with a more family-friendly hotel?  Perhaps that’s why their staff is imploring the guests to post positive reviews on Trip Advisor. 

Regarding the entertainment staff:  despite what I said above, I do realize that Winston is an extraordinarily talented singer – I just wish he would stick to regular singing than to perform his transvestite schtick.   During my stay, there was an employee who was leaving; on his last night, he worked in the piano bar and Winston bid him farewell by singing “Con Te Partirò” in the style of Andrea Bocelli; Winston was, quite simply, excellent.  It was an appropriate way to say goodbye to him and seems a fitting way to conclude this year’s trip report.

 

Time To Say Goodbye