Monthly Archives: September 2013

‘Prisoners’ Pounds Its Message(s) Home

How far is too far when the law doesn’t go far enough?

PRISONERS

Prisoners

Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal & Paul Dano

Directed by Denis Villeneuve

R, 153 min.

Released Sept. 20, 2013

Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when his young daughter and her friend disappear and the local police department can’t get answers out of the man he’s convinced abducted them.

With no evidence to hold the developmentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving the rattrap minivan seen near the girls just before they vanished, the cops have to let him go. That’s when Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, abducts him, secretly holds him prisoner in an abandoned building, and begins a prolonged attempt to beat the truth out of him.

PRISONERSHow far is too far to go, Prisoners asks, when the law doesn’t go far enough?

That’s not the only question the movie raises, in its brutally direct way, as it plows through a minefield of raw nerves, shattered emotions, shifting moral boundaries and unnerving religious overtones. Most of those questions don’t have easy answers.

What are we to think, for instance, when Dover fortifies himself with the Lord’s Prayer before another grueling session subjecting his captive, who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, to almost unthinkable abuse? Or when Dover’s neighbors Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), whose young daughter was also taken, justify their complicity to his plan? “We won’t help him,” Nancy reasons, “but we won’t stop him, either.”PRISONERS

And feel free to overlay any number of social issues, current events, theological debates or other entry points for discussion onto Dover’s declaration that his prisoner is “not a person anymore,” and that “we have to hurt him until he talks.”

Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), seemingly the only cop on the case in the entire (unnamed) Pennsylvania town, tirelessly tracks down clues that always seem to leave him frustratingly short of a breakthrough. Unable to cope, Dover’s wife (Maria Bello) retreats into a prescription-induced haze.

Melissa Leo plays Alex’s aunt, who raised him after his parents died, and David Dastmalchian is chilling as another suspect with a peculiar interest in children’s clothes…and other creepy things.

“Prisoners” has a strong cast with seven Oscar nominations and two Academy Award trophies among them. The movie’s palette of bleak winter landscapes also packs a visceral punch, thanks to ten-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s worked on five Coen Brothers movies and the sumptuous-looking James Bond adventure Skyfall.

But strip away its impressive Hollywood pedigree and it basically boils down to basic B-movie stock, shock and schlock. If you’ve seen anything like it, you’ve probably seen a lot of things like it.

PRISONERSNote the “s” in the title. By the time Prisoners ends after a marathon 153 minutes, it’s obvious it wants to leave you thinking about how you’ve encountered more than one prisoner, in more ways than one. But you’ll also be thinking about how it’s at least half an hour too long, how much of a grim ordeal the whole affair turned out to be, and how director Denis Villeneuve threw in way too much of just about everything, including snakes, some mumbo-jumbo about a “war against God,” and all those mazes, mazes and more mazes that all lead nowhere.

Fans of forensic-investigation and crime-procedural TV shows like CSI might enjoy the twisty-turn-y trip down the zig-zaggy rabbit hole to the end. But as the credits rolled after the final scene set in the darkness of night, in the winter cold, with a frosting of snow on hard, frozen ground, I was glad to “escape” to somewhere brighter, somewhere warmer, and somewhere I hadn’t just seen Paul Dano’s face repeatedly bludgeoned into the consistency of raw deer meat.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Understanding the ‘Superstooge’

New bio gets inside the zany bald head of Curly

CurlyCurly: An Illustrated Biography of the Superstooge

By Joan Howard Maurer

Softcover, 400 pages ($19.95, Chicago Review Press)

Three Stooges fans will flip over this official biography of Jerome “Curly” Howard, the zaniest member of the slapstick trio whose high-pitched voice, shaven head and “nyuk-nyuk-nyuks” made him a comedy icon. Written by his niece (the daughter of head Stooge Moe Howard) and packed with more than 300 photos, it’s a treasure trove of rare information and insight into the career, family life and psychology of one of the most enduringly popular “knuckleheads” to ever stand in the Stooge spotlight.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

‘Kings’ Rule a Glowing, Golden Summer

A modern-day indie-flick Huck Finn tale

TheKingsofSummerThe Kings of Summer

Blu-ray $35.99, DVD $30.99 (Sony Pictures Home Entertainment)

This film festival coming-of-age charmer, popular enough to break out into the mainstream sunlight in some movie markets, tells the tale of three teenage buddies who, in a bold act of summer independence, run away from their suburban homes to build their own house in the woods and live off the land. With young stars Nick Robinson (from TV’s Melissa and Joey), Gabriel Basso (the movie Super 8) and Moises Arias (from TV’s Hannah Montana) joined by familiar TV players Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation), Alison Brie (Community) and Megan Mullally (Will and Grace), it’s a modern-day Huck Finn fable about families, friendships and young hearts on the glowing, golden cusp between childhood and maturity.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Down The Aisle, Day By Day

How a year’s worth of famous couples tied the knot

*00COVERwedding0313.inddWeddings/365

By Harvey Solomon

Softcover, 265 pages

($19.95, 365 Edge Publishing)

Find out how a whole year’s worth of famous couples tied the knot in this run-through of some of the most all-time memorable celebrity weddings of all time. Which Beatle met his future bride on the set of one of the band’s movies? What famous acting couple exchanged vows in an abandoned, candle-lit Manhattan apartment building? Who was the singing duo that said their “I dos” in their bathroom? Pop culture junkies will enjoy the hundreds of photos, and everyone will enjoy finding out the day-by-day, down-the-aisle details for stars of all seasons.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Don’t cross ‘The Family’

De Niro, Pfeiffer play mobster mom and pop on the lam

RDN_and_TLJ_cropThe Family

Starring Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer & Tommy Lee Jones

Directed by Luc Besson

R, 111 min.

Released Sept. 13, 2013

“Want a hand with the bags?” Maggie Blake (Michelle Pfeiffer) asks hubby Fred (Robert De Niro) as he heads out to unload the car after arriving at their new home with their two teenage kids.

No, says Fred, he’s got it covered.

The bag Fred’s about to cover—with dirt, in his new backyard—is no suitcase. It’s a plastic tarp with a dead body wrapped inside. And the family in The Family is no ordinary family.

The “Blakes,” the alias they’re using on this move to a villa in Normandy in the north of France, are a mob family on the run. “Fred,” a former Brooklyn Mafioso whose real name is Giovanni Manzoni, ratted out all his old associates. Now under federal witness protection supervised by a grumpy senior agent (Tommy Lee Jones) trying to keep him alive as the slow wheels of justice turn, he’s a wanted man in hiding with a $20 million underworld bounty on his head.

PortraitA big problem, however, is that Manzoni and his family find it impossible to leave the old days, and the old ways, behind. Maggie sets off a homemade bomb in a local market when the French salesclerk and a couple of snooty customers gossip about her. The two teens, Belle (Dianna Agron, from TV’s Glee) and Warren (John D’Leo), don’t waste any time at their new high school seducing a teacher, beating fellow students to a pulp and setting up a flow of goods and services to make things run smoothly.

And Giovanni…well, even though he insists he’s a “nice guy,” he still has a problem controlling his “sadistic urges.” Pity the poor plumber who wants to overcharge him for repair work, or the head of the local factory that Giovanni’s been told is responsible for funk-i-fying his drinking water.

Bat

Don’t cross the family, or you might end up in the hospital—or worse.

All of this makes The Family a strange mash-up of a vicious mob yarn squeezed into a foul-mouthed, movie-length sitcom. Every chuckle it gets is followed up (and swallowed up) by moments of gasp-worthy violence.

For De Niro, this kind of role has to pose a special kind of challenge: How do you play criminal goombahs without falling back into the very stereotypes that you so masterfully created, across the decades, in movies almost too numerous to mention, like The Godfather II, Goodfellas and Casino? Here he just seems to roll with the big inside joke, culminating in Giovanni getting invited to be a guest commentator for an American movie night in the villa, an event that turns out to have a loaded meta-connection to both the actor and his character.

Pfeiffer, too, appears to be having fun, strolling down a movie-memory lane that often recalls her 1988 role in Married to the Mob, especially in a flashback to the family’s happier New York days.

French director Luc Besson based the movie on a French book, Malavita, which translates literally to mean Badfellows. Martin Scorsese, one of the movie’s producers, directed De Niro in Raging Bull, Casino, and Taxi Driver and…yes, Goodfellas.

A subplot involves Giovanni’s alias as a historian, telling his new neighbors he’s working on a book about the D-Day invasion of 1944. Then, the Americans were cheered in Normandy as liberators and heroes. This time around, after all the beatings, bashings, bullets and bloodshed dealt by the so-called Blakes, I suspect the folks in France would be more than happy to say au revoir to the The Family and set them sailing on a boat back home.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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How Norman Got ‘Psycho’

TV’s ‘Bates Motel’ serves up a creepy-cool contemporary prequel

BatesMotelS1Bates Motel: Season One

$49.98 Blu-ray / $44.98 DVD (Universal Studios Home Entertainment)

Even if you’ve never seen Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 classic Psycho, you can still get appreciate the deep, darkly chilling vibes of this modern-day prequel set in a creepy old manor above a motor inn where very bad things just keep happening to teenage Norman Bates (Freddie Highmore), his clingy mom (Vera Farmiga) and the people around them. Last season’s critically acclaimed hit TV series, a moody mix of scares, suspense and twisty surprises, comes with deleted scenes and a panel discussion with the cast and creative team.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

‘Fugitive’ Runs With New Baggage

20th anniversary Blu-ray loaded with bonus features

TheFugitiveThe Fugitive

Blu-ray $19.98 / Warner Home Video

The 20th anniversary high-def re-release of the 1993 action-thriller, about a doctor (Harrison Ford) wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife, escaped from federal custody, looking for the mysterious one-armed man who did the dirty deed, and relentlessly pursued by a persistent U.S. Marshal (Tommy Lee Jones), comes with an all-new reunion interview with its two stars and director, plus a behind-the-scenes featurette, a look at the making of the movie’s spectacular train-crash scene, and other extras.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Soda Pop With A Past

A deep, delicious dip in the fountain of Coca-Cola history

ForGodCountryandCocaColaFor God, Country & Coca-Cola

By Mark Pendergrast

Softcover, 524 pages ($21.99 / Basic Books)

You may never swallow one particular brand of soda pop quite so casually again after reading the juicy details in this revised and expanded third edition, which brings the controversial 127-year history of the Coca-Cola company to life with zesty detail—and paints a picture of the present that finds once-rival soft drink brands united on the defensive as culprits in America’s obesity epidemic.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Don’t Cross Him Off The List!

Vin Diesel’s back for another brawny Riddick adventure

R-1Riddick

Starring Vin Diesel, Karl Urban & Katee Sackhoff

Directed by David Twohy

R, 119 min.

Released Sept. 9, 2013

The latest pulpy sci-fi yarn spun around the super-bad space-survivalist-antihero of the title opens on a bleak desert planet, an inhospitable place no reputable intergalactic travel agent could possibly recommend.

“I don’t know how many times I’ve been crossed off the list and left for dead,” says Riddick (Vin Diesel) in a growly opening narration.

Then he grabs a giant vulture by the neck and chokes it, sets his broken leg just in time to fend off a pack of marauding jackals, and gets the upper hand in an encounter with a carnivorous “mud demon,” a colossus that looks like a nasty mutation of a dinosaur, tadpole and scorpion.

R-3Riddick is marooned in this desolate, dangerous place, all alone, Robinson Crusoe-style.

But as to whoever he thinks has been crossing him off the list—well, it certainly hasn’t been anyone making movies and videogames. Riddick follows two previous live-action films, Pitch Black (2000) and The Chronicles of Riddick (2004), plus an animated feature and two games. And Diesel has played the character in all of them.

So there is a rather detailed mythology to Riddick, his tale, and how he ended up on this desert orb called Furya. You can go back and connect all the dots, if you’d like, but it’s unnecessary. (Why do his eyes glow? Not important—don’t worry about it.) This movie can stand pretty much on its own story-wise, and the franchise as a whole isn’t trying to be Star Trek, for goodness sake.

The Riddick series isn’t a string of polished sci-fi pearls, by any stretch, but it does deliver pretty much what fans expect: slam-bang action, space creatures, decent effects, a good deal of dry, wry humor, and just enough R-rated skin, blood and language to appease grownup tastes.

The plot of Riddick is simple enough, with overtones of a vintage Western transplanted a few centuries into the future and several light years out into distant space. When Riddick, a wanted man for murder, among other galactic misdeeds, triggers the signal beacon from an abandoned security outpost, it’s answered by two competing teams of bounty hunters anxious to haul him in.

R-2The mercenaries, expecting to make quick work of their task, are unprepared for their quarry’s lethal predatory skills—and for Riddick’s plan to shanghai one of their two ships to hightail it off his rock. There’s also the matter of that big, nasty-looking thunderstorm on the horizon, and the monstrous surprise Riddick knows it will unleash once the rain begins to hit the ground.

Riddick may be a criminal in this Wild West, way-out “frontier,” but he’s the good guy by comparison—heck, he even raised one of the jackal pups to become his loyal “dog Friday.” There’s no question about who the audience is rooting for.

And there’s also little question, by the end of the movie, about whether or not you can expect to see Riddick again. If you haven’t learned already, you should know by now: This is one guy you should never cross off the list.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Wizards, Warlocks & Wannabes

My first trip to a comic con

IMG_0595I bought a few comic books as a kid. I was never, however, a “collector.” But let me tell you, I met a few when I went to my first comic book convention.

Comic City came to Nashville, Tenn., and set up for a three-day affair in the convention area of a local hotel. Now, by comic-book-convention standards, it was probably a rather modest affair. The Saturday afternoon I was there, there were probably less than 100 other attendees over the course of two hours, and maybe only a dozen exhibitors.

Other, bigger conventions—like San Diego’s Comic Con or Chicago’s Comic & Entertainment Expo—are massive events attracting over 100,000 fans, hundreds of vendors, and TV and movie actors promoting their current or upcoming projects.

Comic Con featured Dawn Wells, who played Mary Ann on Gilligan’s Island; she doesn’t have anything to do with comics, but she happens to be a Nashville resident. The other highlights were appearances by Sgt. Slaughter (Robert Remus), a semi-retired professional wrestler with an enormous jutting jaw who was later incorporated in the G.I Joe toy line, videogame and comic books; Doug Jones, a former contortionist who’s built up a formidable fan base by playing the Angel of Death in several movies based on the Hellboy comic franchise; various comic book and voiceover artists; and several other actors and actresses from TV (The Vampire Diaries, The Walking Dead) and movies (Child’s Play).

IMG_0593Obviously, it wasn’t simply about comic books. Like other comic conventions, Comic City also included exhibits appealing to fans of horror, fantasy, animation, toys, collectible trading cards, games, videos and fantasy art.

I met a very talented young artist, Ansley McDaniel, from Bowling Green, Ky., displaying her wide range of original fantasy-related work, which included a comic book (The Adventures of Sphinx-Cat, Vol. I), posters, cards, jewelry, and a line of sculpted resin dolls inspired by her childhood fascination with prehistoric creatures.

I spoke with another group of four young people who were sitting behind a table with a banner on the front that said simply “Monument.” They explained it was the name of their group; they were comic-book artists from Lexington, Ky., each with different individual skills, and they hoped the work of each of them would build the others up “like a monument.”

And, of course, I saw a lot of comic books, thousands of them, row upon row. Wow, who knew that the first issue of a 25-cent Donald Duck comic from the 1970s would sell for $75 today? And I didn’t remember—but I wasn’t terribly surprised to discover—that someone made a comic book to accompany one of my favorite TV spy shows from the 1960s, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.IMG_0594

But as this comic convention revealed, these events aren’t just nostalgia trips, by any means. The median age of people I saw, both attending and exhibiting, was well below 40. As one vendor explained, comics are timeless—and comic cons are hip.

Just ask the four young costumed fans I encountered from nearby Clarksville, Tenn., dressed as characters from their favorite videogames. (That’s called “cosplay,” a mix of costume and play, in comic-con terminology.) They were all in their late teens or early 20s, and they said they were already veterans of several major conventions.

IMG_0596Brian and Cody were both U.S. Army soldiers stationed at Fort Campbell; Bobbi and Michele were college students. Their costumes were homemade, and they said they never dressed up the same way twice. They loved coming to conventions, they said, to see other fans in their outfits, and to “meet the stars.” Their ultimate goal was one day to meet Marvel Comics creator Stan Lee.

I won’t be at all surprised to run in Brian, Cody, Bobbi and Michelle (and hundreds of other excited folks) when a much bigger affair, the Wizard World Nashville Comic Con, comes to town Oct. 18-20, at Nashville’s brand-new sprawling Music City Center convention hall. Stan Lee is scheduled to be there, along with many other celebrities, including Henry “The Fonz” Winkler, Bruce Campell from The Evil Dead, Norman Reedus of TV’s The Walking Dead and Eliza Dushku from Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

CConLogo_WWComicConThe Wizard World event will also host superstar comic artist and creators, including Neal Adams (Batman), Guy Gilchrist (Nancy), Mico Suayan (Wolverine) and Mike Grell (Green Lantern).

For more info on the 2013 Wizard World Nashville event, visit http://www.wizardworld.com/home-nashville.html

In the meantime, back at Comic City out by the airport, Sgt. Slaughter was downstairs giving a talk about his wrestling days , Dawn Wells was smiling and signing autographed photos upstairs, and a new horror movie was just about to start showing in conference room B.

Time to go!

–Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine