Sunday, 19 May 2024

Arts & Life

WANTED (Rated R)


Some movies, like last summer’s “Crank,” are an action junkie’s adrenaline rush. The fast and furious pace of the murder, mayhem and destruction that fuels “Wanted” offers much the same jolts of kinetic energy that result in an orgy of non-stop thrills.


Based upon a series of comic books, “Wanted” is devoid of artistic or intellectual pretensions, merrily pursuing an absurdist fantasy of unrestrained violence. Most action pictures delineate the good guys from the bad, but in “Wanted” there’s a sense of ambiguity that leaves certain things in doubt.


The central figure in “Wanted” is a far cry from the traditional comic book hero. Working as an office drone in a drab cubicle, Wesley (James McAvoy) is an unfortunate loser in a dead-end job as an account manager constantly besieged by a harridan boss.


His life is made even more miserable by the fact that his shrewish girlfriend Cathy (Kristen Hager) is sleeping with his best friend and co-worker Barry (Chris Pratt). Addicted to prescription pills for panic attacks, Wesley’s pathetic excuse for an existence might just as well come to an end and save him from a lifetime of prolonged misery.


In fact, this nearly comes to pass when Wesley is at the pharmacy to pick up a new batch of pills, and suddenly finds himself in the middle of a gun battle between the appropriately-named Fox (Angelina Jolie) and a rogue agent named Cross (Thomas Kretschmann).


Fox informs the incredulous Wesley that the father he didn’t know was a member of the ancient order of trained assassins pledged to carry out the unbreakable orders of fate, which are interestingly enough delivered in coded messages from weaving machines in a textile factory.


The drugstore shootout leads to an incredibly wild car chase in the streets of Chicago, eventually ending at a castle that serves as the headquarters for the mysterious group known as the Fraternity.


Wesley soon becomes acquainted with the fact that his heritage is to follow in his father’s footsteps as an assassin.


The Fraternity’s enigmatic leader Sloan (Morgan Freeman) intends to see that Wesley is fully trained to develop lightning-quick reflexes and superhuman agility. Once a nebbish, Wesley undergoes the type of rigorously bloody and violent training that would make military boot camp seem like a day at Disneyland.


The neophyte assassin is pummeled daily by brutes with menacing names like the Butcher, the Exterminator and the Repairman. After a day of being wounded by knives, steel bars and guns, Wesley is healed in a tub of mysterious healing lotions, in order to live for another day of sadistic beatings.


As our hero toughens up, he starts to relish his new life, even exacting revenge on tormentors from his past office job. The training program gets more intense as Wesley learns to ride atop of speeding trains, leaping from car to car as if he were impervious to death.


In one of his first assignments of meting out justice, Wesley is involved in a wild chase to take out a crime boss. One of the most spectacular vehicle stunts involves Wesley maneuvering a speeding vehicle to carry out the assassination on the target’s most vulnerable spot. This crazy scene should not be divulged so as to not spoil its jaw-dropping surprise.


Seemingly ready for the big time, Wesley heads off to Europe to meet with the reclusive Pekwarsky (Terence Stamp), who offers a lead on the villainous Cross.


The European journey sets in motion a series of stunts and violent gun battles that are even more spectacular when occurring on a speeding train through a mountainous region. Slowly, it dawns on Wesley that the intentions of his deadly associates in the Fraternity aren’t quite as noble as first presented.


Sorting out the betrayals allows for a climactic showdown at the Fraternity’s castle that is also spectacular for its explosive action. “Wanted” delights in its aggressive pursuit of bloodlust and violence, offering a mindless enjoyment for fans of unbridled action and fantastic stunts.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


According to CBS Television, the sci-fi drama series “Jericho” won’t be on the network schedule for a third season. That hasn’t stopped fans from using a Web site to press for renewed life of a defunct franchise.


Meanwhile, “Jericho: The Second Season” was recently released on DVD, including the series finale with an alternative ending that has never been broadcast.


Originally canceled after its premiere season, “Jericho” was brought back to television by a historic groundswell of fan support. Inspired by a line in the first season’s finale, diehard fans sent over 20 tons of nuts to CBS executives in an effort to keep the series on the air.


“Jericho” chronicles what happens when a nuclear mushroom cloud suddenly appears on the horizon and plunges a small Kansas town into chaos, leaving its residents completely isolated and wondering if they’re the only Americans left alive.


If you are wondering what all the fuss is about, then by all means pick up “Jericho: The Second Season” and send a bag of peanuts to CBS.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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GET SMART (Rated PG-13)


Updating a spy spoof TV series from the Cold War-era poses a certain amount of risk. Don Adams’ brainless agent Maxwell Smart in the delightfully amusing “Get Smart” is a hard act to follow.


As originally conceived, the character of Max was an Inspector Clouseau-like agent who would bungle his way to success during the course of a half-hour show. His charm was clueless behavior, punctuated with catch phrases and dim observations. The challenge for the updated screen version of “Get Smart” is to find the right man to fill the shoe containing a phone.


For the contemporary setting, Steve Carell, the actor who made his mark in the titular role of “The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” is absolutely the right choice for this task. Smartly, Carell does not try to impersonate Don Adams, instead taking the lack of self-awareness in a whole new direction.


For the uninitiated, the original “Get Smart” focused on the battles between mysterious agencies, the U.S. spy agency CONTROL and the evil crime syndicate known as KAOS. The key players at CONTROL that Max worked with included the Chief and Agent 99 (then the endearing Barbara Feldon).


In today’s world of “Get Smart,” some things are a little different. At the beginning, Max is an eager policy wonk who writes vital 600-page reports ignored by everybody. Yet he is frustrated with his desk job and anxious to become a field agent.


The Chief (Alan Arkin) wants to keep Max at the headquarters, while charismatic superstar Agent 23 (Dwayne Johnson) gets all the fun of globe-trotting field work. When KAOS manages to compromise most of the field agents, Max gets his big chance to step outside his office job.


For his maiden assignment, Max is paired up with Agent 99, a lovely but lethal veteran who is not keen to be saddled with an office dweeb. In the TV series, Agent 99 was almost fawning over Max, but that’s hardly the case here, though eventually you know that a certain amount of warmth and affection will inevitably develop between these characters. The contemporary Agent 99 uses more than feminine wiles to get her way; she’s a proficient martial arts expert who’s also handy with all types of weapons.


The plot resembles that of so many James Bond films, where the evil crime syndicate SPECTRE had the same goal of world domination as KAOS. Here, the bad guys get their hands on nuclear weapons and threaten to blow up places if their ransom demands are unmet.


The key KAOS operative is Siegfried (Terence Stamp), assisted by his bumbling sidekick, Shtarker (Ken Davitian). Siegfried’s network of terror extends to a munitions factory in Russia that is disguised as a bakery. Agent 99 and Max chase after bad guys around the Russian countryside, even infiltrating an elegant party at a mansion, where Agent 99 and Max have an amusing dance competition.


When the CONTROL agents end up in Moscow at the bakery, the action takes a radical shift into the type of explosive violence that one would expect from a James Bond movie. And this is just the beginning of the film’s increasing penchant for the kind of high-octane action that only comes with a blockbuster.


Keeping up with KAOS’ evil plan to detonate a nuclear bomb in Los Angeles while the president (James Caan) is attending a concert at Disney Hall requires a full-blown chase sequence that ordinarily has little to do with a comedy.


I would surmise that “Get Smart” employs both comedy and explosive action as a marketing hook to reel in the young audience that likely has no familiarity with the original TV series. This strategy is understandable, and the box office receipts will tell if this was the smart move.


Even though Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the original creators of the TV characters, are the “consultants” on this picture, “Get Smart” won’t succeed on its past glories.


“Get Smart” had promise to be a very satisfying spy spoof, and it does offer a decent measure of enjoyable fun, though I was hoping for more than it delivered. And yet, fortunately enough, Steve Carell’s comedic talent and his innate ability to tap into a clueless persona serve him well in playing an inept spy.


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


Adam Carolla may not be a household name, but some may remember him for teaming up with Jimmy Kimmel on “The Man Show.” That alone should give you an indication of Adam’s comic sensibilities.


He stars in “The Hammer” as a middle-aged carpenter and boxing instructor who yearns for his shot at Olympic glory. Losing his job and his girlfriend on his 40th birthday, Adam shakes his complacency when he is invited to try out for the U.S. Olympic Boxing team.


“The Hammer” didn’t play wide in the theaters, but it is worth a look on DVD as an off-beat comedy with plenty of laughs.


For the adult crowd, Showtime’s debauched series “Californication” has its first season available on DVD.


David Duchovny, far removed from his “X-Files” fame, plays a downbeat, self-loathing writer whose life spins out of control as he juggles his sex and drug addictions while raising a daughter and trying to win back his ex-girlfriend.


Duchovny brings new meaning to the swinging bachelor lifestyle. “Californication” is full of edgy dialogue and controversial sex situations.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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THE INCREDIBLE HULK (Rated PG-13)


Five years ago, director Ang Lee realized his vision of Marvel Comics superhero The Hulk, capturing Bruce Banner and his alter ego in an original story, one that examined a portrait of a man at war with himself and the world in “Hulk.”


The green giant superhero is now imagined in French director Louis Leterrier’s version in “The Incredible Hulk.” Having directed the high-octane action of “The Transporter” films, Leterrier is understandably committed to the kind of action where his vision is tuned into a meaner and greener Hulk, the reluctant hero often forced to embrace the darker side of his personality.


Stepping into the shoes of scientist Bruce Banner and his green alter ego is Edward Norton, an interesting choice for a well-established actor who brings the right note of brooding to a conflicted character.


“The Incredible Hulk” does not dwell inordinately on unresolved issues, but neither does it skirt Banner’s moody outbursts in a desperate hunt for a cure to the gamma radiation that poisoned his cells and unleashes the unbridled force of rage within him. While Banner dwells in a Brazilian slum in an effort to control his anger, his fugitive status ensures that violence is sure to follow.


Working by day at a bottling factory, Banner takes anger management lessons to avoid the triggering of another Hulk episode. Meanwhile, the scientist communicates by computer with Professor Sterns (Tim Blake Nelson), a cellular biologist who quite possibly holds the key to Banner’s quest for a cure. Banner’s nemesis, General Ross (William Hurt), remains on high alert to capture The Hulk, and a factory mishap makes it possible for the rogue General to narrow the search to Brazil.


Soon enough, General Ross launches a military commando raid on Banner’s slum neighborhood, having enlisted the mercenary Emil Blonsky (Tim Roth) as a ruthless fighting machine. Banner morphs into The Hulk, taking on not only the military but a bunch of malcontents at the factory. Needless to say, the bottling factory is pulverized by The Hulk’s destructive rage, before he runs off into the jungle to escape his tormentors.


Waking up nearly naked and alone in the backwoods of Guatemala, Banner makes his way back to the United States, with the eventual goal of hooking up with Professor Sterns. But first he seeks out his former girlfriend, Dr. Betty Ross (Liv Tyler), a brilliant biologist teaching at a university. Dropping in on the college town, Banner has a touching reunion with Betty, which leads to the conclusion that emotions other than rage can also trigger a Hulk episode.


Inevitably, it doesn’t take long for General Ross to descend on the campus as if a D-Day invasion is under way. This time, Blonsky has subjected himself to medical experimentation which gives him added strength, and after a confrontation with The Hulk, he imagines the next step to be a full-blown transformation into an indestructible creature capable of matching brute force with the green giant.


While Ross’ commandos fail to destroy The Hulk, the ravaged campus is nearly destroyed, but at least some students capture the action on cell phone cameras that provide footage for the nightly news.


Next stop for The Hulk is Professor Sterns’ laboratory in Manhattan, where Banner may well find the cure for his agitated condition. Meanwhile, Blonsky has other ideas about the professor’s research and wastes little time in getting some dosage of The Hulk’s blood plasma.


Appropriately enough, this infusion turns Blonsky into a giant creature called the Abomination, setting up the climactic confrontation on the streets of upper Manhattan. The resulting clash of the titans is a brutal smackdown in which taxis and police cars are hurled back and forth, while screaming citizens run through the streets to flee the battle scene.


The big showdown between The Hulk and the Abomination has the feel of a “Godzilla” movie where giant monsters are on the loose. More than anything, this lends a cartoon-like quality to “The Incredible Hulk,” which seems entirely fitting since this whole business is a product of Marvel Comics.


A cameo appearance at the end of the film (which won’t be revealed here) is certain to delight comic book fans with the promise of a future superhero reunion. One doesn’t need to be a hardcore comic book fan to enjoy the incredible action scenes that drive “The Incredible Hulk.”


DVD RELEASE UPDATE


USA Network is highly rated for many of its innovative series. “Monk” easily comes to mind as a favorite.


Last summer, the network started a series called “Burn Notice,” a new twist on the procedural crime drama, one loaded with sly humor and a fresh spin on the spy genre. As happens with many of these series, it’s hard to keep up over time.


Now the DVD release of Season One of “Burn Notice” will make it possible to enjoy the entire run.


While I haven’t had time to watch all 11 episodes yet, I know I won’t be disappointed. Plenty of action is delivered by Jeffrey Donovan’s professional spy Michael Westen who returns to his hometown of Miami broke and determined to discover who burned him and why.


Key players include the stunning Gabrielle Anwar as Fiona, the beautiful ex-IRA operative who used to be Westen’s girlfriend. Bruce Campbell plays Westen’s best friend Sam, a washed-up military intelligence contact.


I am also looking forward to checking out the gag reels and other special features.


Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.


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SONOMA COUNTY – Lake County artist Gail Salituri's work will be featured in an upcoming art exhibit.


The show, “California Wine Country,” will run Tuesday, June 24 through Aug. 18. It will be held at Doubletree Hotel Sonoma Wine Country in Rohnert Park.


Along with Salituri's work, other featured artists include Brooks Anderson, Kay Carlson, Janet Herbert,

Phil Johannes, JoAnn Naylor and Vaso Peritos.


Receptions will be held from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday, June 27 and from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 25. Enjoy wine, hors d’oeuvres and music.


The hotel is located at One Doubletree Drive, Rohnert Park. For information call 584-5466.


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NORTH COAST – Reny Parker of Cloverdale will receive a Silver medal for her “Wildflowers of Northern California's Wine Country and North Coast Ranges” from the Independent Publisher Book Awards.

 

The IPBA annually honors the year’s best independently published titles. At its upcoming banquet at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, Ms. Parker will receive her medal for design and organization, and artfully composed photography in the category of non-fiction.

 

The book features 542 full color images of 358 plants native to Marin, Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma counties. The guide groups plants by color with close up photos for identification. Nontechnical descriptions accompany each entry with additional information about bloom time, natural and human history, and garden-worthiness.


Parker's book was for sale at the annual Heron Festival, where part of the proceeds went to benefit the Redbud Audubon chapter.


For more information visit Parker's Web site, www.renyswildflowers.com/guide.html.


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Kung Fu PANDA (Rated PG)

 

Who doesn’t love a cuddly, soft panda, the world’s cutest animal and the best thing to come out of China since stir-fried noodles?

 

Ironically, the lovable panda that stars in the animated “Kung Fu Panda” is a clumsy lug working in the family’s noodle shop. Incongruous as it may seem, animation doesn’t capture the essentially adorable and outwardly sweet-natured appearance of the giant pandas on display at the National Zoo ever since President Nixon made his historic 1972 trip to China. On the other hand, only a cartoon could give a giant panda the dexterity to become a master of martial arts.

 

Alternating between comedic elements and Jackie Chan-style action heroics, “Kung Fu Panda” is the story of a plump, drowsy, huggable black-and-white bear with a huge pot belly who has only one aspiration in life, namely to become an expert in a martial art that relies on agility, mental prowess and lightning-fast reflexes.

 

The clumsy bear is named Po (voiced by Jack Black), a waiter at his father’s noodle diner who displays none of the inherent abilities to become a Kung Fu master. And yet nothing will dissuade him from the foolish quest, not even his father, a goose named Mr. Ping (voiced by James Hong).

 

Eager to quit slinging noodle bowls, Po heads off to a public ceremony at an ancient temple where grand master Oogway the Turtle (Randall Duk Kim), acting upon prophecy, will anoint the new Dragon Warrior. This selection will have great consequence for the inhabitants in the mountainous Chinese village that is otherwise vulnerable to attack from hostile forces.

 

It is widely expected that the appointment of the Dragon Warrior will go to one of the members of the legendary Furious Five: Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Crane (David Cross), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Monkey (Jackie Chan). All of these Kung Fu artists have been trained by the wily wolf Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman). Literally stumbling upon the scene, Po drops in on the ceremony so unexpectedly that Oogway proclaims that the lovable panda is the new Dragon Warrior.

 

This turn of events does not sit well with the Furious Five, or with Master Shifu, who thinks Po is irredeemably incapable of being properly trained, if only because the panda is obscenely overweight and lacking any athletic skills. What Po lacks in ability, he more than makes up for in optimism and enthusiasm. And so the giant panda participates in a rigorous training program that is often very comical, because as expected Po is uncoordinated and maladroit.

 

Master Shifu’s lessons, which will lead eventually to obtaining the powerful knowledge from the secret Dragon Scroll, take on a greater sense of urgency when the vicious snow leopard Tai Lung (Ian MacShane) escapes from the heavily-fortified and well-guarded prison where he has been chained up for years. With revenge on his mind for having been denied what he presumed was his rightful place as the Dragon Warrior, Tai Lung is set to wreak havoc on Po’s isolated village.

 

For the final third of its run, “Kung Fu Panda” lurches quickly from the comedic tone to the full-bore action that requires much hand-to-hand combat. A furious battle erupts when the Furious Five confront Tai Lung on a precarious rope bridge over a deep ravine. This is the run-up to the showdown between the suddenly energized Po and the determined Tai Lung.

 

Chinese art and architecture lend themselves to a very colorful rendition in computer-generated animation. “Kung Fu Panda” realizes the essential beauty of the Chinese culture with masterful precision. This is a good-looking film where the visuals come off much better than the script. A younger audience is more likely to be impressed with the decent story and its actors that are easily outdone by the film’s splashy art.

 

DVD RELEASE UPDATE

 

It seems only fitting to note the recent release of a DVD double feature about one of nature’s most amazing creatures. “A Panda is Born” and “Baby Panda’s First Year” capture the essence of how the Giant Panda’s survival depends on the successful reproduction of each member of the species, given that an estimated 1,600 pandas live in the wild.

 

“A Panda is Born” follows the panda mating at the National Zoo as the female, Mei Xiang, and her mate, Tian Tian, finally succeed, resulting in the ultimate delight of a Panda birth. The companion piece, “Baby Panda’s First Year” follows baby Tai Shan’s life at the Giant Panda Habitat at the National Zoo, and viewers get to marvel at the instincts of first time mother Mei Xiang.

 

This DVD double feature proves an earlier point that a real live panda is much cuter than the animated version in “Kung Fu Panda.”

 

Tim Riley writes film and television reviews for Lake County News.

 

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