Monday, 17 June 2024

Arts & Life

THE KINGDOM (Rated R)


A provocative, gripping action thriller, “The Kingdom” is a smart film that knows how to draw intrigue from the international political backdrop without dwelling so heavily on the politics as to polarize an audience into conflicting views. However, Saudi Arabians may have some objections, but that’s another matter.


First and foremost, we should easily agree that “The Kingdom” is a pulse-pounding, adrenaline-fueled adventure intent on delivering thrills to keep action junkies on the edge of their seats. That this film succeeds on this score is a testimonial to director Peter Berg’s knack for working with some challenging material.


While the opening credits roll, there’s an outline of Saudi Arabia’s history over the past 70 years for its geopolitical significance as the world’s leading oil producer. And this historical thumbnail sketch touches on the Middle Eastern kingdom’s tenuous relationship with the United States. The story is geared to the uneasy feeling that is spawned by the fact that Saudi Arabia is the country of origin for most of the 9/11 hijackers. You can well imagine the prickly political situation when Americans are killed on Saudi soil.


The film opens with a leisurely afternoon of picnics and softball on the grounds of a Riyadh housing compound for American oil company employees and their families. What is supposed to be a heavily-guarded safe haven is turned into a horrific shooting gallery when suicide bombers disguised as policemen slaughter the innocents with machine gun fire and a massive bomb explosion. More than one hundred people are slaughtered, including two FBI agents with close friends back at headquarters in Washington, D.C.


Bureaucrats quibble over international protocols and diplomatic overtures, and it is entertaining to see tough FBI director James Grace (Richard Jenkins) butting heads with the weak-kneed, condescending Attorney General (Danny Huston) who seems more concerned about placating State Department than helping his agents.


Given the green light from his boss, Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) assembles his crack FBI team anxious to get its feet on the ground in the Saudi kingdom. Fleury exerts some pressure on the Saudi ambassador, and soon enough a secret five-day trip into Saudi Arabia is negotiated and arranged. Eager to locate the madmen behind the attacks, the FBI team includes explosives expert Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper), forensics examiner Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner) and intelligence analyst Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman).


The clash of cultures is evident immediately upon arrival in the desert kingdom, when Fleury and his crew discover Saudi authorities suspicious and unwelcoming of American interlopers into what is considered a local matter. Hamstrung by protocol, and confined at first to the compound’s gymnasium, the FBI agents find their expertise worthless without the trust of their Saudi counterparts, who would prefer to find the terrorists on their own terms, even though they seem rather incompetent in handling the crime scene to locate important clues. To make matters even more complicated, they find smarmy State Department official Damon Schmidt (Jeremy Piven) anxious to see them back on a plane to the States.


With the clocking ticking on the FBI’s allotted days on foreign soil, Fleury finds a like-minded partner in his team’s handler, Saudi police colonel Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom), who is assigned to protect the visiting Americans, but soon helps the FBI crew to navigate royal politics.


Since Fleury is less than concerned about ruffling diplomatic feathers, he presses a Saudi prince for better access to the crime scene and to get more cooperation for his investigation. Then comes the big payoff, as the action ratchets up to a full-blown showdown with an extremist cell that is actively working to detonate another explosion and takes a hostage for what is almost certain a replay of the Danny Pearl abduction and beheading.


“The Kingdom” achieves its explosive adrenaline rush with stunning car chases and gunfire that are the result of impressive stunt work brilliantly captured on the film reels. The assault on a terrorist safe house in a hostile neighborhood is flat-out furious action that makes even a “Rambo” movie seem tame in comparison. What “The Kingdom” does so well is to keep tension heightened at all times, even when it’s during the talkative phases of bureaucratic or diplomatic wrangling.


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


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LUCERNE – Multitalented Bay Area performance artist Katie Ketchum will perform in her original, one-woman musical comedy “Magdalene: The Mary Magdalene Story,” as a fundraiser for Lucerne Alpine Senior Center at the corner of 10th and Country Club Drive in Lucerne.


Magdalene plays for a limited engagement: 7 p.m. Friday, Oct. 5, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 6.


Magdalene is a musical comedy modern translation of the Gospel of Mary Magdala as seen through the eyes of 50's rockabilly singer Marlene. Magdalene: The Mary Magdalene Story, hailed as “thoroughly enchanting” by Upbeat Times, features a bevy of traditional biblical characters, and some not-so-traditional characters, including the Jewish follower, an Egyptian Goddess initiate, a prostitute, and present-day female rapper, all passionately, and hilariously played by the multitalented Ketchum.


The San Francisco press writes, “Mary Magdalene Story is intense in both its onstage activity and its intellectual content. And it's thoroughly enjoyable on a visceral level.”


Albert Goodwyn of the San Francisco Bay Times writes of Ketchum, “her keyboard artistry is exuberant and flashy. Her first song 'Party' is reminiscent of the piano pyrotechnics of Jerry Lee Lewis.”


Ketchum's 'singing and effortless piano playing remained strong throughout,” said Erin Podlipnik of WCities, San Francisco. “All of these heavy hitting issues are turned upside down in this fantastical, always outrageous, minimalist production.”


After studying piano and composition at the Royal Conservatory of Music, where Ketchum won several competitions sponsored by Her Majesty The Queen, she moved with her family to Lake County in the late 70s where she performed at Konocti Harbor Inn six evenings a week for over a year and starred as Maria in the Yuba College Lower Lake production of The Sound of Music.


A National Endowment for the Arts recipient, Ketchum has performed her music and theatrical presentations across the United States and Canada. “Magdalene” have been included in the Sacramento Theatre Company’s 2008 season where Ketchum will be performing this show in April and May www.sactheatre.org.


Tickets are $12 for seniors and $15 for the general public. For information and tickets please call 707-274-8779 or 707-274-5689.


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EASTERN PROMISES (Rated R)


Canadian film director David Cronenberg has a long, interesting history of grappling with psychological themes in horror and science fiction work. Recently, he’s become the master of the crime thriller, a reputation earned by A History of Violence and now enhanced with Eastern Promises, a breathtaking story of the disturbing world of Russian mobsters in contemporary London.


In typical Cronenberg fashion, the brutal underworld is revealed by layers of subtlety, deception and intrigue. Yet, there’s more to it than just mind games, as scenes of bloody violence telegraph the central conceit. After all, with the star presence of Viggo Mortensen, a history of violence is almost certain to reoccur in this milieu of the Russian mob.


The story of Eastern Promises takes place around Christmas and New Year’s, but holiday cheer is noticeably lacking, and even the London weather is dreary and gloomy to boot.


The action starts with a mob hit in a barbershop where the victim has his throat slashed by a razor. Soon after that, a pregnant Russian teen collapses in a pharmacy and is rushed to a hospital, where midwife Anna (Naomi Watts) saves the baby as the mother dies in childbirth.


Anna retrieves a diary from the dead girl’s belongings, and takes it home for research, hoping to locate the girl’s family. She’s the daughter of a Russian father and British mother (Sinead Cusack). Her irascible Russian uncle Stepan (Jerzy Skolimowski) finds disturbing revelations in the diary, namely that the Russian girl was forced into a prostitution ring and that names of mobsters are revealed.


Though Uncle Stepan, who claims to have worked for the KGB, warns Anna to steer clear of the Russian underworld, she can’t resist following up on the business card of an old-fashioned Russian restaurant that was found tucked into the diary. The restaurant’s owner is Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), courtly and well-mannered, and he shows great interest in the diary, but for reasons entirely unrelated to solving the girl’s sad fate.


Unknowingly, Anna has breached the inner sanctum of the local Russian mob, and Semyon is capable of extreme measures to cover up the dirty secrets contained in the diary.


A key player in the mob scene is Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen), the chauffeur for Semyon and the mob boss’s psychotic son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). It becomes apparent that Semyon’s gang was involved in the barbershop murder. Given to excessive drinking, Kirill is a volatile character who may lack the restraint and discretion to properly carry out Semyon’s dirty work.


Nikolai is obviously much more than just a driver, and his tightly-controlled demeanor makes him appealing to Anna as an unlikely confidante. Driven by ambition, Nikolai seems to play all sides of the street, and yet he aspires to a higher job in the organization, one that might be fitting to the number of tattoos he acquired in Russia for his criminal career. There’s always a nice bit of tension between cool-headed Nikolai and the impulsive Kirill.


The twists and turns that run through the plot are rife with unpredictable results. Nikolai takes a keen interest in Anna, and it’s not just for her connection to the dead girl’s diary. Then Semyon asks Nikolai to get rid of Anna’s Uncle Stepan, who becomes a target for having read the diary.


There is probably no more jarring turn of events than the London bathhouse scene where a naked Nikolai has a deadly fight with two knife-wielding assassins. The brutality of this particular showdown, where Nikolai is most vulnerable, is likely to be the most memorable and talked-about moment of violence in the entire film.


A brutal efficiency is at work in Eastern Promises to make this film a lean, effective crime thriller with enough twists and surprises to prove truly mesmerizing. Following up on his success in A History of Violence, director Cronenberg proves that he knows how to triumph in this crime genre. And yet, the achievement of this film belongs as much to the terrific actors, where not one of the key players delivers anything less than a stellar performance.


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


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The band Adobe Creek performs. Courtesy photo.



 

 

LOWER LAKE – The second annual Bluegrass Festival at Anderson Marsh State Historic Park suffered in attendance because of the cold and rainy weather on Saturday, Sept. 22, but the event was enjoyed by those who were there.

 

 

Some of the best Bluegrass music in Northern California was performed, with all acts being presented. The weather was bad, but didn't prevent the festival from happening.


About 800 people braved the drizzle to enjoy great music, beautiful crafts, and delicious food provided by the event. The gospel music Sunday was very successful with the sun breaking through the clouds quite often.

 

 

Organizers, members of the Anderson Marsh Interpretive Association (AMIA) plan to continue with presenting the Bluegrass Festival which is becoming a signature event for the south county.


Local service clubs, community groups, and the Konocti Unified School District all joined with AMIA to put on this fun music festival.


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A member of the Elem Indian Colony Native American Dance Group, which performed at the Bluegrass Festival. Courtesy photo.
 

 

 

 

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The rain couldn't keep music lovers away. Courtesy photo.
 

LOWER LAKE – Robert Stark rocked the Tuscan Village concert venue Sept. 21 venue with a voice that was somewhere between Neil Diamond and Bob Dylan.


Those of you old enough to remember the Bay Area coffee houses of the 1960s can imagine Bob Stark playing at many of them as he did 40 years ago. Now residing on Cobb Mountain, Bob returned to his musical roots recently by playing at a local Cobb coffee house's open mike and then at the Tuscan Village. Since he lives in District Five, Bob has decided to get involved in politics as well and is running for Lake County supervisor.


Stark started the show with a song made famous by the Kingston Trio, "Green Back Dollar" and then went into a Tom Paxton tune, "The Last Thing On My Mind," followed by more 1960s folk hits.


It was a great trip back to the good old days for the capacity crowd who were enjoying the music, the food from the 2 Goombas Deli and the wine from Terrill Cellars in the lovely vineyard location.


Bob accompanied himself with a 12-string guitar which added to the mellow sound. Some patrons could be found in the Terrill Cellars tasting room, where the music could still be heard, checking out the great 2002 wines, including the excellent Cab.


Visitors could also admire the work of local artists in the courtyard, such as the handmade earrings and decorated gourds that were on display Friday, while still listening to Bob's soulful refrains.


If you missed this show, head up to Cobb on the first Friday from 2 to 4 p.m. to hear him play again at the Mountain High Coffee Shop in the Meadows shopping plaza. He may also make an appearance at Café Victoria's First Saturday open mike from 4 to 6 p.m. in Lakeport.


For more information on the next concert call 2 Goombas, 994-DELI.


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Still an experiment in putting together a viable television network, the CW continues to build on the same young adult audience that followed series like “Smallville” and “Everybody Hates Chris,” holdovers from the old UPN and the WB networks.


I hate to break the news to you, but the “Gilmore Girls” are gone, though “Gossip Girl” is far from the fitting replacement. Nevertheless, the network says the median age of its audience is 32, and Dawn Ostroff, the CW President of Entertainment, told an assembly of TV critics that her network is “the only broadcaster targeting 18 to 34 year-olds.” This might be news to CBS, which reportedly is targeting the same demographic if only to reduce the median age of its audience to something below that of the qualifying age to receive Social Security.


Moving into its second season, the CW, according to Ostroff, is “looking ahead, focusing on the future, and creating new hits that will further define our network,” especially with youth.


This state of affairs explains, of course, a show like “Gossip Girl,” based on the popular series of young-adult novels by Cecily von Ziegesar. The one-hour drama focuses on the privileged prep school teens of Manhattan’s swank Upper East Side, where socialite Serena van der Woodsen (Blake Lively) suddenly ends her self-imposed exile to boarding school to return to Manhattan. Once the Upper East Side’s most notorious party girl, Serena’s reasons for returning are mysterious. Blair Waldorf (Leighton Meester) and Serena have always been best friends, but the relationship has been competitive.


When Serena was out of the picture, Blair enjoyed her time in the spotlight. Now their uneasy relationship is further complicated by Blair’s boyfriend Nate (Chace Crawford), a young man uneasy with all the privileges handed to him. With Serena on the scene, Blair will have to fight to hold onto Nate’s attention. The tension between Blair and Serena isn’t lost on all the others in the preppy crowd, since they all live for gossip and scandal, along with sex and drugs.


This isn’t a series that fits in the family hour. To the contrary, it sounds very much like a television version of “Cruel Intentions,” which involved seduction and manipulation of rich teens in New York’s upper crust society.


A one-hour drama more suitable to family viewing is “Life is Wild,” which chronicles the lives of a blended family that moves from the urban jungle of New York City to a game preserve deep inside South Africa. The series seems vaguely reminiscent of “Daktari,” a series that aired roughly 40 years ago about a veterinarian and his family relocated to Africa.


Similarly, “Life is Wild” stars D.W. Moffett as Danny, the vet who takes his second wife Jo (Stephanie Niznik) and their kids from previous marriages to a broken-down lodge called the Blue Antelope. Katie (Leah Pipes) is unable to forgive her father Danny for uprooting the family, and frankly he’s lost his mind.


The adjustment to life in the wild affects everyone, as Jo was a sought-after divorce attorney and Danny’s skills as a vet made him a favorite with wealthy New Yorkers and their pampered pets. Danny is eager to return the Blue Antelope to the thriving safari business it once was, namely because it is owned by the father of his deceased first wife. The children naturally spend their first days in Africa resenting the upheaval of their lives, but then they meet some locals and start to love the breathtaking vistas of the bush country, the wild animals and the vibrant culture.


When you have a series in which the Devil turns out to be a charming guy who is very solicitous in getting people to do bad things, you have to wonder if it isn’t about TV network executives. “Reaper,” one-hour show blending suspense and humor, allows the Devil (Ray Wise) to be more persuasive than scary, more tempting than frightening, except when things aren’t going his way.


Satan has his hands full when he acquires a 21-year-old slacker named Sam (Bret Harrison) as his personal bounty hunter. An evident underachiever, Sam had the misfortune of being raised by parents who sold his soul to the Devil before he was born. This explains why Sam never had to excel in school or hold down a decent job, unlike his younger brother (Kyle Switzer) who doesn’t enjoy the easy ride.


In his new capacity as Satan’s bounty hunter, Sam has to track down evil souls and return them to Hell. At first, Sam refuses to accept his bizarre fate, but he quickly discovers that the Devil’s temper could result in extremely bad circumstances. Besides, Sam becomes fascinated by Satan’s charm and his flattering insistence that Sam is full of untapped potential.


His new line of work is dangerous and frightening, even with the goofball help of his friends and co-workers at the Work Bench, a home improvement store. Sam has to go to great lengths to hide his new identity from a pretty co-worker (Missy Peregrym) that he is unable to ask out due to his lack of self-confidence.


A fish-out-water comedy emerges in the American heartland when a Pakistani Muslim exchange student comes to live with a family in rural Wisconsin. In the Tolchuck family, lanky 16-year-old Justin (Dan Byrd) is just trying to make it through the social nightmare of high school in Medora, with the help of his well-meaning mom Franny (Amy Pietz) and aspiring entrepreneur dad Gary (Scott Patterson).


Though bright and funny, Justin is also shy, awkward and resigned to the fact that he’ll never be one of the cool kids. Franny comes up with a plan to help Justin, by signing up for an international exchange student program, which she expects will deliver a handsome, athletic Nordic teen, who in turn will bestow instant coolness on her son.


The student who arrives at the Tolchuck home turns out to be Raja Musharaff (Adhir Kalyan), a 16-year-old Muslim from a small village in Pakistan. Raja is thoughtful, responsible and wise, and yet the family is freaked out by the Muslim in their midst. After the initial shock wears off, Justin is won over by Raja’s humor, gestures of friendship and by their common status as outsiders. Despite the cultural chasm between them, Justin and Raja develop an unlikely bond that just might help them survive the minefield that is contemporary high school.


If things don’t work out, the CW has a reality show in the wings called “Farmer Wants a Wife,” and the contestants are urban girls chasing a bucolic dream.


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


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