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2012/01/29

Burn Notice

By Jav Rivera

What's worse than getting fired?  Getting burned.  That's what happens to spies.  As the intro sequence to every episode explains, getting burned means you have nothing: no cash, no credit, no job history.  And unfortunately, that's what happened to Michael Weston in USA Network's "Burn Notice," one of the most clever spy shows around.


It began in 2007, when Creator Matt Nix's television series exposed the inside secrets of the US Government according to Special Ops-trained spy Michael Weston.  Each episode has dual story lines - one of Michael searching for the reason of his burn notice and another of him helping out a local Miami resident with a problem that only his skills can help resolve.

The main cast is in top form.  Michael Weston is the "cool" played by Jeffrey Donovan, trigger-happy Fiona is the "sexy" played by Gabrielle Anwar, Sam Axe is the "funny" played by Bruce Campbell and of course there's Michael's mom Madeline played by Sharon Gless (who might be best remembered for her role as Cagney in 1980s long-running television series "Cagney & Lacey").

Sharon Gless, Bruce Campbell, Jeffrey Donovan, and Gabrielle Anwar 
The characters all have their purpose, both for the show and for each mission.  Even Michael's finely-tuned skills require help from Fiona's bold, armed and aggressive personality, as well as Sam's intelligence gathering and overall muscle.  But what makes the series unique is the focus on the help from Michael's estranged mother and occasionally his younger trouble-maker brother.  It's an odd gang but their oddities is what makes them perfect for each other.  Throw in a killer vintage Dodge Charger and you've got a show fun enough for anyone yet clever enough for the demanding viewer.

Michael and Fiona
The episodes are narrated by Michael Weston explaining techniques on how to make high-end spy gadgets using every day products.  This too adds a bit of uniqueness to the series.  The narration also explains how the characters base their problem-solving on past missions and human behavior.  And when things don't go according to plan, they rely on their spontaneity-driven skills.

Jeffrey Donovan as "Michael Weston"
As clever as the episodes are with interesting missions, the series thrives on its characters and their relationships.  Each character brings something to the table both skillfully and emotionally.  It's rare these days for characters to have believable histories and emotions but fortunately, "Burn Notice" gets it right.  And even better are the characters' flaws from Michael's emotionally closed heart, Sam's Naval background, Fiona's taste for violence and Madeline's lack of motherly guidance.

Gabrielle Anwar as "Fiona"
Bruce Campbell as "Sam Axe"
Sharon Gless as "Madeline Weston"
"Burn Notice" also has an incredible sense of humor.  It's not a full on comedy nor a straight dramatical piece.  It has a great balance rarely achieved in most hour-long shows.  The drama and suspense is well played but never takes itself too seriously.  Even the love-hate relationship between Michael and Fiona is used sparingly.  Instead the show focuses on the closeness of the entire team and the importance of family.  It's a clever show with outstanding players.  The show returns this summer (2012) on USA Network so if you haven't already started watching the series, catch up on Netflix streaming. 

Fiona
For more information on "Burn Notice", visit their official site: http://www.usanetwork.com/series/burnnotice

And for no justifiable reason, here's yet another shot of the lovely Gabrielle Anwar.  What can I say?  I'm a sucker for brunettes.

Gabrielle Anwar

TRIVIA: Michael Weston's car is a 1973 Dodge Charger.

2012/01/22

Adventureland

By Jenny Bootle

If you’ve seen the trailer for Adventureland and thought it looked like the sort of film you’d enjoy, then I’m here to tell you – this is not the film you’re going to see.


Adventureland is written and directed by Greg Mottola, probably best known as the director of Superbad. But, unlike Superbad, Adventureland is a quiet coming of age story, comprised of gentle character-based humour rather than the crude gags that the film’s promotion suggests, and one that is told with a surprising sweetness and grace.

It’s 1987 and James (Jesse Eisenberg) has plans for a summer backpacking around Europe before grad school. However, his plans are waylaid when his father gets demoted and he is forced to take a summer job at Pittsburgh’s local amusement park, “Adventureland”. Thrown together with his “carnie” co-workers, he meets the enigmatic Em (Kristen Stewart) and his summer begins.


It’s hard not to fall slightly in love with this worst-of-times-best-of-times story, where script, soundtrack and cast manage to hit all the right notes. Jesse Eisenberg is endearing as James, a romantic soul trying to find his place in the world, and Kristen Stewart is as impressive as ever in her role (which somehow always manages to surprise me). Martin Starr, Ryan Reynolds, Bill Hader, and the lovely Kristen Wiig are their excellent supporting cast.

Mottola based the film on his own experiences, working at a Long Island amusement park, and probably because of this, it always feels believable. As part of James’s journey, his realisation of responsibility and disappointment, where everyone is fighting their own battles, even the potential villains of this piece, are treated with a humanity that stops them from becoming caricatures.

Adventureland perfectly sums up that intensity of a summer job and how it becomes your world for a few months. But the film’s accomplishment is in how it imparts the beauty and significance of those small moments – where an act of nobility is standing up for a friend, or revelation comes from a misremembered song lyric, or simply how watching fireworks with the person you really like can feel like the most thrilling thing that’s ever happened to you.


The film sets itself against a fantastic soundtrack, establishing the nostalgic tone – an assembly of Lou Reed, David Bowie, Big Star, The Cure and The Replacements. Mottola has said that despite pressure to rewrite the movie as contemporary, he refused, as he felt keeping it in the past gave it “a slightly more melancholy strain”. 

Even though my summers of crappy minimum-wage jobs took place a decade later, for me this film absolutely captures that edgeland before adulthood, the time when you are still waiting for your life to begin, when music and literature and the search for someone who understands you feel like the only things that will save you. Mottola manages to bundle all that up and seal it into a perfect time capsule, which is Adventureland

For more information about Adventureland, visit the official IMDb page http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1091722/

2012/01/15

Dragonslayer

by Tony Ramos

The film Dragonslayer is an all time favorite of mine (and not just because I was born on April 23rd). The thing is, I have always been a lover of anything related to fantasy worlds that include swords, sorcery, and, of course, dragons. This film includes all of these elements and is like most, if not all fantasy stories, a hero's journey or coming of age tale, if you will. It is a fantasy/adventure film which will take you on a journey with a young man far from home. It is a journey where a young, naive hero named Galen (Peter MacNicol) will face many dangers and humbling experiences only to discover in the end that he really is stronger than he thought.


Dragonslayer is a 1981 film directed by Matthew Robbins, who also co-wrote the screenplay with Hal Barwood. With the film being made in 1981, one might assume the special effects, especially Vermithrax the dragon, would look dated, but I feel they do not. Of course, the dragon itself does not even appear until late in the film, but when it does, you can see Industrial Light & Magic did an awesome job bringing it to ferocious life.

The score by Alex North is another exciting element of the film. Let's just say it can suddenly be intense and in your face before coming to a calm. Take, for example, the music at the beginning of the film. It practically roars at you before the credits or title even appear on screen. It makes you sit up and pay attention, like a dragon announcing its presence.

The film stars Peter MacNicol as Galen, a young sorcerer's apprentice, while the late Caitlin Clarke plays Valerian, the character who originally has the idea that a sorcerer is needed to slay the dragon. The script/story itself is very much a tale similar to the legend of St. George, the patron saint of England (thus my reference to April 23rd earlier), and the film comes in at about 108 minutes.

Galen (Peter MacNicol) and Valerian (Caitlin Clarke)
The film begins with an entourage of villagers traveling far from their homeland, Urland, in search of a sorcerer named Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson). This group of villagers is led by Valerian (Caitlin Clarke), and they seek an audience with the powerful wizard to ask him to battle and put down their homeland's menacing dragon. At first, Ulrich's servant, Hodge (Sydney Bromley), denies them this audience. Ulrich, however, after witnessing a vision of the future pertaining to said dragon, Galen, his apprentice, and even his own death, decides he will see them.

Despite Ulrich already knowing they will ask him to battle a dragon, Valerian (in disguise as a boy since birth) explains to Ulrich that her village's king, Casiodorus Rex (Peter Eyre), has a lottery in place that keeps peace with the dragon. Within this lottery, the name of a young virgin maiden from the village is chosen. This young virgin is offered as sacrifice to the Dragon and, in return, the monster does not burn their villages or crops. Ulrich decides to take on this challenge but before the group can even take the road, he is killed by Tyrian (John Hallam), the king's captain of the royal guard. Having lost his master and knowing that those disheartened villagers are still in need of a someone to defeat the dragon, Galen overconfidently takes it upon himself that he can slay the beast. Thus he joins the group back to their homeland of Urland, where he will face not only the the dangers of the dragon, but also those of the king's men and the king himself.

Vermithrax the Dragon and Galen (Peter MacNicol)
I enjoy many things about this film, but one thing that really stands out for me is that in the case of young Galen, the Buddhist proverb of "When the student is ready, the master appears", seems to be opposite. Of course, the young apprentice was already training under Ulrich, but it seems that just as Galen is about to learn the most important lessons from his master, he dies/disappears. That Galen grows and learns the most about arrogance, fear, and humility while his teacher is not even there physically during difficult times makes this a great film about self-discovery and learning by experience. Perhaps his master knew there was no more Galen could learn from him and that the rest of his learning would be on his own.

Still another theme that runs throughout Dragonslayer is that of the passing of the torch; the ending of an era and the beginning of a new one. In this story, Ulrich and the dragon are the last of their kind, and it is referenced quite a few times by different characters that the old ways are dying; that things are changing. A good example of this type of change can be witnessed by how Christianity is about to be introduced to the villagers of this fictitious world when a holy man, Brother Jacopus (Ian McDiarmid of Star Wars fame), appears in the village around the same time Galen and his magic show up.

Having said that, as I originally stated in my opening paragraph, I love fantasy filled worlds containing dragons, swords and sorcery, and this film showcases them well. There are not many battles of the sword on sword kind, but the battle between Galen and Tyrian just outside the dragon's liar in the climax of the film is well done. The dragon itself is a nasty one, and one of the best to ever be filmed, despite its limited time on screen. Let's just say it looks really cool when it soars through the sky or breathes fire on its prey/enemies.

Galen (MacNicol) and Ulrich (Sir Ralph Richardson)
These were the film debuts of both Peter MacNicol and Caitlin Clarke, and I feel they each did a wonderful job respectfully. MacNicol plays Galen very well, being able to appear and act arrogantly and over confident in certain scenes while easily expressing a look of defeat and humility in others. The best look MacNicol gives in the film, I feel,  is when he sees the dragon for the first time lumbering above him. His surprised look is one for the ages as he instantly knows he's in over his head.

Caitlin Clarke (who passed on September 9th, 2004) plays essentially two characters with Valerian. At the beginning of the film she portrays a boy, but later on she is revealed to be a young lady, her father having hidden her gender to protect her from the lottery. Let's just say she does both very well. Her character is strong and stubborn, yet the relationship she builds on screen with Galen has a lot of warmth and quiet determination. I'm sure the acting world misses her, as they do Sir Ralph Richardson, as well. Sir Ralph Richardson plays Ulrich's smaller, but pivotal role, with a wisdom and intelligence that perhaps only a real life great wizard might possess.

 
Despite Dragonslayer being co-produced by Walt Disney Pictures, it is not your typical Walt Disney film. It is a darker film, but it also has its humorous moments, believe it or not. Of course there is a little romance, but who am I kidding; the real stars are Galen and Vermithrax. I'm sure, however, that it will please any movie lover, especially fantasy/adventure loving film buffs. So thus, for anyone seeking to be swept into a fantastic story adventure for about two hours because they feel they are ready, Dragonslayer will surely satisfy.

For more information visit there IMBD page: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0082288/

2012/01/04

Grant-Lee Phillips

by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

Recently, one of my guilty pleasures has been re-watching episodes of a favorite television series, "Gilmore Girls". Actually, I take back the "guilty" part of that comment. I was and still am a fan of the show’s rapid-fire pop culture quips and snarky back and forths, in spite of any naysayers (and I know that there are some out there). It’s also through that show that I happened upon musician Grant-Lee Phillips.  Appearing in nineteen episodes as a street corner musician, serenading the Girls and their neighbors in Stars Hollow as they went about their day, Phillips played the role of The Town Troubadour.  Philips' screen time and lines on the show were limited, but the small parts that he did act were every bit as funny and quirky as I'd come to expect from any of the other characters. When I first watched the series during its network run over ten years ago, the character piqued my interest, but it wasn’t until I dusted off my season DVDs and saw him again that I began to really wonder. Was this actor an accomplished musician, or someone unknown at that time, waiting for a big break? As it turns out, it was the former. Phillips was no novice; he already had over two decades of experience working in the entertainment industry under his guitar strap.


Phillips began playing guitar at a young age, with some performances at a vaudeville revival house as a teenager.  During his college-age years, Phillips attended film school for a short time in the early 1980s, but decided that music was the path he’d rather take.  During that decade he formed the band Shiva Burlesque with friends and fellow classmates, releasing two LPs before they disbanded in the early 1990s.  Phillips later went on to form the band Grant Lee Buffalo with two other former Shiva members. Releasing their first album in 1993, they enjoyed much success touring in Europe, went on to tour with bands such as R.E.M., The Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam, and released three more albums until 1998, with Phillips embarking on a solo career shortly after.

Grant-Lee Phillips (photo: Denise Siegel)
Described as a visionary and one of the most important songwriters of his generation, Phillips was voted Best Male Vocalist of '95 by Rolling Stone magazine, and has built an impressive catalog since. Six solo albums is just the beginning of what he’s accomplished; he’s also been a featured vocalist and instrumentalist on albums by Rickie Lee Jones, Aimee Mann and more, written scores for several indie films, and composed songs for television shows including "Witchblade", "What About Brian" and the aforementioned "Gilmore Girls". I was interested to find out that nearly all of the snippets of songs that Phillips performed on that show as The Town Troubadour were in fact his own. Visual art is another of his talents that has been showcased, and some of Phillips’ paintings, drawings and other work have been featured in his album designs.  In addition, Phillips collaborated on "Haiku Year", a collection of contemporary haiku poems by himself, Michael Stipe, Tom Gilroy, Jim McKay, Douglas A. Martin and others, published in 1996.  He also collaborated with comedian Margaret Cho on her recent "Cho Dependent" album, producing a track and appearing in a video for one of the songs.


These days, Phillips regularly plays sold-out shows at Largo, a nightclub/cabaret venue in Los Angeles. He and the other members of Grant Lee Buffalo have also reunited to do a few shows within the United States.

Phillips performing at Largo (photo: Lincoln Andrew DeFer)
Though I'll always treasure him as The Town Troubadour of a beloved series, I'm enjoying my discovery of the real-life Phillips and many of his facets.  There's a certain tenuous quality to his voice that draws me in on so many tracks, as if he's teetering on the verge of heartbreak or joy, and to keep listening is the only chance I'll have to know which direction he'll fall.  There's also a decidely folktale and definite storyteller aspect in each of his songs that prove that Phillips doesn't just play one on TV--he is a true troubadour.

If Grant-Lee Phillips wasn't already on your radar, I highly suggest a visit to his fun-to-navigate website: http://www.grantleephillips.com/ to learn more about him and his work.