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MOVIE REVIEW: STAR TREK

Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Her ongoing mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life-forms and new civilizations; to boldly go where no one has gone before.

If you’ve already read my History of Star Trek article, this is the future of the franchise, by returning to its past.

Let me get to the bottom line first: this is the best Star Trek movie ever. Indeed, it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. Why?

This is the movie I’ve been waiting for 40 years, the first original episode of Star Trek: The Original Series since the show went off the air in 1969. As I mentioned in my earlier article, usually even-numbered movies are better than odd-numbered ones: but not with this eleventh movie — unless you want to call it what it really is, Star Trek 0.

Without giving away any plot details, this movie has action, drama, romance, humor, adventure, fisticuffs, and terrific space battles. $30 million were spent on special effects alone, of course by Industrial Light and Magic. The movie starts with a bang, with a truly emotional event, and keeps up the excitement right up to the end. The writing is both smart and lovingly detailed at times, and there are genuinely touching scenes of realization and revelation. And the ending, well, it brought a tear to my eye.

Yes, this is the prequel, as it were, of the original show — how the original crew met up at Starfleet Academy. This is essentially an origins story. It is also a reboot of the franchise, in the same way as Batman and James Bond have gotten a fresh start, decades after the original movie series began. But this movie is accessible to non-fans as well.

Many Trekkies, Trekkers and Trek junkies may bemoan the fact that this movie does not stick strictly to “Star Trek canon” — for example, this Spock raises his left eyebrow, not the canonical right one — but there is a reasonable explanation given for this. You’ll just have to go see the movie to find out.

Director J.J. Abrams had a difficult task of appealing to the long time fans, while attracting a new younger audience. He walked this tightrope well, mixing loving respect for the original while adding fresh and fun improvisations on the iconic characters for a post-modern age. Nostalgia and newness.

The music of Alexander Courage is peppered throughout the movie. He did the original score of the TV show and I had the privilege of seeing him in the Bay Area at a space music concert. The familiar 4-note introduction appears four times and makes chills run up one’s spine. But that’s not all, even the familiar bridge sounds are there for the old fans to relish.

Pay attention to catch a couple of prominent product placements in the movie.

Among many tributes paid to the original series — even a “red shirt” if you know what I mean — there were also lots of inside jokes and references made to other movie lines and famous TV sayings. Also, we see the use of Vasquez Rocks near Los Angeles. It was used as a popular exterior in several of the original TV show, Star Trek: The Next Generation, Voyager, Enterprise, and the movie Star Trek IV. It was featured in this film for the planet Vulcan. It’s been a filming location in many other TV shows like Bonanza, F-Troop, Have Gun Will Travel, The Big Valley, Maverick, Gunsmoke, Kung Fu, and The Wild, Wild, West.

Chris Pine, who you’ve seen in Smokin’ Aces and the delightful Bottle Shock plays James T. Kirk, cocky, brash, arrogant, confident, even fool hardy, but usually right in his hunches. He gives a remarkable performance, having some critics saying “a star is born.” He does make it happen and is believable in the role. Like me, and George Takei (the original Sulu), and John Cho (the new Sulu), Pine went to school at the University of California, Berkeley — where we were all bitten by the acting bug.

Zachary Quinto, best known as the villain Syler in the popular TV series Heroes plays the part of the human-Vulcan Spock. His resemblance to the young Leonard Nimoy is uncanny. Quinto is a half-breed himself, half-Italian, half-Irish. And like Leonard Nimoy, his father used to cut hair. Having the opportunity to meet with and work with Leonard Nimoy, who approved his casting, he learned his mannerisms, like holding his hands behind his back, his erect and still posture, and his measured and stoic composure. Of all the cast, he most resembles the original character in appearance and carriage.

The New Zealand actor Karl Urban puts on a bit of a southern gentleman accent, like the original “just a country doctor” role DeForest Kelley did. I heard De Kelley at a Star Trek convention once challenge the audience with “You all think you know Star Trek so well, give me the name of any episode and I’ll quote a line from it.” As people shouted out episode names, he confidently replied, “He’s dead, Jim.” Urban gets to play this role with humor, something we don’t usually see from the man of action who played Eomer in The Lord of the Rings trilogy or Vaako in Chronicles of Riddick. While Urban does not quote that line in this movie, he does quote another of his iconic lines. And here, you learn (one possible) origin of the name “Bones.”

Simon Pegg, the irrepressible English actor plays engineering genius Montgomery Scott. He effected a Glasgow accent for the role, believing that Scotty was originally from Linlithgow — a short train ride from Edinburgh — and the old castle there is the birthplace of Mary Queen of Scots. This is curious, as we all know from the episode “Wolf in the Fold” that Scotty was “an old Aberdeen pub crawler.” In any event, since Pegg is an English actor — unlike the original James Doohan who is Canadian (and admitted to me that he loves to do accents) — at least he’s closer geographically. You’ve seen Pegg before in Shaun of the Dead, and many other movies he’s produced, directed, and starred in. He brings his unique sense of humor to the role, and what he says about the Enterprise’s nacelles, well, you just have to see it.

Anton Yelchin who plays Pavel Andreievich Checkov was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, though he’s since lived in the United States since the year he was born. He brings remarkable energy an enthusiasm to the role. As the 17-year old Ensign, he lays on the Russian accent a bit thicker than Walter Koenig did in ST:TOS. Several years ago I had the opportunity to meet the actor Walter Koenig and in the course of conversation asked him how he developed his Russian accent.

“I have a good ear for accents.”

When I looked at him quizzically, he added.

“Both of my parents are Russian.”

The new USS Enterprise is a thing of beauty to behold. It looks like the BMW engineering team got a hold of the original and “pimped the ride.” While not straying as far as the redesign in the first movie Star Trek: The Motion Picture this retains most of the original elements with a slightly more curved engineering section and more elegant warp nacelles. The use of weapon systems, including photon torpedoes and phasers is more developed in this design, as are greater uses of blue over the original red, but it works for me. I saw the original 11-foot filming model back in the mid-’70s before it was put on display at the Smithsonian Institution’s Air and Space Museum. Even before it was restored, it was a stunning piece of engineering.

The bridge looks like a white iPhone: shiny, new, clean, and not black. Rather than the old TV-sized monitors, we’ve got widescreen. Rather than the gooseneck lights on the helm and navigation consoles, we’ve got swing arm extensions. But, what’s with all the lens flare on the bridge?

The transporter room looks very much like the original show, with a two-person console and a display on the wall. And next to “Scotty” appears Christopher Doohan, the son of the original Engineer Scott, as an extra, as he had on Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Bruce Greenwood assumes the role of Captain Christopher Pike created in the very first pilot “The Cage” — rejected originally by NBC — filmed in 1965. He handles the role with maturity and grace.

Eric Bana plays a very different Romulan, unlike any we’ve seen before, an Aussie Captain Nero with an American accent and poor hygiene habits. It is ironic that he received an acting award for his lead in the 2007 Australian movie Romulus, My Father. You’ve seen him before in Munich, Troy, Black Hawk Down and the earlier version of Hulk.

John Cho had a unique challenge as he reprises the role created by George Takei, who is still an active actor, appearing in the recent TV series Heroes. In the same way Sulu fenced in the original episode “The Naked Time” so here John Cho fences — but with a samurai sword rather than the original foil. In the same way that the Chinese-American actor Garrett Wang plays the Korean Harry Kim, here Korean-American actor John Cho plays the Japanese Lt. Sulu. You’ve seen Cho before in the Harold and Kumar movies.

Zoe Saldana plays the role of the lovely Uhura, whose name means “Freedom” in Swahili. Given a larger role in this movie than in previous Star Trek movies, there is a bit of irony here. In the movie “The Terminal” she plays a Trekkie. But you’ve also seen her as Anamaria in “Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl.”

Ben Cross, who played the character Harold Abrams in the 5-Academy Award winning movie “Chariots of Fire” appears here as Spock’s father Sarek of Vulcan. He’s excellent in the role, and gets a chance to deliver amazing lines, some unexpected.

Winona Ryder is Amanda Grayson, the human Earthling mother of Spock, and wife of Sarek of Vulcan. Ironically, her name means “worthy of being loved.”

Jennifer Morrison, from the TV show “House” has a brief role as James Kirk’s mother, and explains (another possible) reason for Kirk’s middle name.

Grade: A. Swing, hit, a home run.

You’ll like it if: action, humor, vitality and space are your final frontier

You won’t like it if: you’ve been on another planet for the last 40 years.

Trivia Question: There is one performer who has been in the original show, ST: The Next Generation, Deep Space Nine, Enterprise, the animated series, and many of the movies — including this film as well. And is in this film’s dedication at the end. Who is it?

Yes, this is a deeply gratifying movie. I’ve already got tickets to see it again tomorrow!

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood Trek junkie
www.billpetro.com

Movie Review: X-Men Origins: Wolverine

When I read comic books in my youth, I always loved the “origin of” issues, which told me about he beginnings of my favorite super heroes. I was a big reader and collector of X-Men comics, of course, and have enjoyed the previous three movies to greater and lesser degrees. This movie is a prequel, the story of how the most popular of the X-Men, the character Wolverine came to be, as well as the X-Men themselves.

Recently we’ve been seeing super hero origin stories: Batman Begins, Superman Returns, Iron Man, and Hulk. So too is this movie. In it we learn some of the motivations of our hero, and why he has always been a bit foggy about his earlier life. It this movie you return to his childhood and see just how far his history goes back. There are tributes here to The Dirty Dozen and even to Jonathan and Martha Kent from Superman origins.

Hugh Jackman, hot off hosting the Academy Awards shows that he’s not just a pretty face who can sing and dance. In this movie he’s as buff as he’s ever been, on a high-protein diet, with hour and a half daily workouts.

Liev Schreiber, seen recently in Defiance, stars as Sabretooth gets to sink is teeth into his largest role since The Manchurian Candidate. He’s great at being intimidating and menacing.

The character Gambit (Taylor Kitsch) shows up, as well as the Blob, Zero, and a host of future X-Men and villains. Lynn Collins plays the attractive love interest. Though she’s been acting since 2001, I’d not seen her before.

Ryan Reynolds, who we usually see in comedy roles plays the character Wade/Deadpool, with his usual wisecracking. Dominic Monaghan, who you remember as the hobbit Merry in the Lord of the Rings movies appears as Chris/Bolt.

Filmed in New South Wales, Australia, the scenery is gorgeous. The special effects are rather different than many action films you’ve seen and the fight sequences are quite acrobatic.

Sure this is a summer popcorn movie. There is little plot to get in the way of the action.

Grade: B

You’ll like it if: you like non-stop action, fight sequences, vehicle chases, exploding things, with little time to breathe.

You won’t like it if: you prefer character development or have an aversion to violence.

JAMES BOND – QUANTUM OF SOLACE

The latest James Bond movie opened this weekend in the US, beginning on Friday. It is already #1 in Europe, having opened there a week earlier, and a huge hit in the UK, where it opened two weeks ago. The first weekend in the UK was a record at a box office take of $25M, larger than the last Harry Potter opening. All told, as of last Tuesday worldwide it had done $180M. The James Bond movies, based on 12 novels and 2 sets of short stories by Ian Flemming, is the most successful movie franchise in history, with revenues of around $12B, adjusted for inflation. In the US, it did about $27M the first day, and over $70M for the 3-day weekend, more than any other Bond opening.

Location, location, location

Of all the Bond films, the crew admitted that they had spent more time on location than ever before. Not as much of the movie was shot on the legendary 007 sound stage at Pinewood Studios. Rather, most of the film was shot in either Europe or Latin America.

  • Italy

The movie opens with a riveting car chase along Lake Garda which then moves to the ancient and renowned marble quarries of Carrera (where the single block of stone from which Michelangelo’s “David” came.) Are the two locations close? No, but this is Bond! The location them moves to the medieval Tuscan town of Siena. The action parallels the traditional horse race, the Palio, which takes place only twice a year, during the summer. Bond then races across the beautiful terra cotta tile roofs of the city.

  • Panama

We’re told that we’re next taken to “Port Au Prince, Haiti” though it was filmed on both coasts of Panama. But upgrades his shabby hotel to the Old Union House.

  • Chile

The action moves to “Bolivia” though is filmed in the desert of Chile. Due to the lack of moisture as well as the high elevation and thin air, the Atacama desert of Chile is an ideal location for an observatory, and the visitors residence of the Paranal Space Observatory serves as the eco-hotel for the movie.

  • Austria

We jet to Europe to take in the Puccini opera Tosca at the modernistic lake-side Bregenz Festival House on the western border of Austria. Opera is not something we often see 007 doing — at least not since Vienna in “The Living Daylights”, and he doesn’t stay until the end.

  • London

Though there is some shooting at the Pinewood Studios, one external in London is at the Barbican Center.

The Movie

The “reboot” of the James Bond franchise which began with “Casino Royale” continues with Daniel Craig in “Quantum of Solace.” But this movie has much more action and far less character interaction and development than the previous one. Was it exciting? Yes, there was more action, chase scenes, and explosions that we’ve seen in a long time. You are shaken and stirred. The whiplash action and breakneck speed of editing makes it difficult to follow the action, let alone the plot. Here we see incredibly fast “cut shots” where we’re struck by the movement, but don’t get to see all the action. This is reminiscent of the disappointing editing in the second Bourne outing, The Bourne Supremacy where even the fight scenes were hard to follow as the camera was in too close and moved too quickly.

Only once before has there been a direct chronological sequel with a Bond film. Following “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” when Bond’s wife Tracy — played deliciously by Diana Rigg — is killed by Ernst Stavro Blofeld, the next movie “Diamonds Are Forever” has Bond looking to find Blofeld for revenge. “Quantum of Solace” picks up where “Casino Royale” left off, with Bond seeking the killer of his lover Vesper from the previous movie.

This outing is relatively humorless and romanceless, other than the requisite sacrificial lamb. It has a heightened sense of realism, with more palpable and disturbing violence. You’ll be reminded of the grittier parts of “Goldfinger”.

The female lead, Ukranian model/actress Olga Kurylenko is muscular and opaque, paralleling Bond’s pain of losing loved ones. As we’ve seen so often during the Bond movie history, this is a “new kind” of Bond girl, one equal to Bond. But there have been earlier and better “new kinds” of Bond girls and Olga does not have the acting chops of someone like Royal Shakespearing Company actress Dame Diana Rigg, whom I met once in London after her incredible performance in (her Tony Award winning) Medea.

Other great performances were by returning (from Casino Royale) alums Judi Dench as M and the great Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini as Mathis. Tim Pigott-Smith as the Foreign Secretary was confident and threatening. While he was in “V for Vendetta” and “Alexander”, he’s perhaps best known from the mini-series “The Jewel in the Crown”.

The villain played by Mathieu Amalric has no distinguishing facial marks — like villains going back to Blofeld in “You Only Live Twice” and repeated by Mr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies — but is the sophisticated French Mr. Greene. We’ve seen a Mr. White, a Mr. Slate and now a Mr. Greene in the last two movies. This Mr. Greene is in the eco-business… get it “Green”.

Did I like the movie? It’s Bond!

Despite its certain popularity, it is neither the best… nor the worst Bond movie.

Trivia

This is the first Bond theme song sung by a duet. This is the first to have the signature “gun barrel” scene at the end of the movie, not before the title sequence.

Grade: B-

You’ll like it if: you’re a Bond fan, appreciate a high level of mindless senseless violence, globetrotting, and things that go “boom”.

You won’t like it if: you don’t appreciate explosions, contusions, or sexual situations — and prefer more romance, story, gadgets, fine food, Moneypenny and Q.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

JamesTaylor.jpgConcert Review: James Taylor at Red Rocks in Denver

In December I was in Tokyo. I’d been in Asia for 2 weeks already and I was worn out, cold, lonely, and homesick. As I walked by a Starbucks in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo, I heard the strains of James Taylor. It took me home. He has the power — his baritone voice and warm melodies convey a profound sense of locality. His words and music describe home with the clarity of Tolkien writing about a place in Middle-Earth.

RedRocks.jpgJT’s latest visit to the Red Rock Amphitheatre above Denver is described as James Taylor and his Band of Legends Tour. Last winter he collected musicians in his studio-converted-from-a-barn at his home in western Massachusetts. There they recorded “covers” or as he described it “songs originally done by other artists.” In support of the September release of this upcoming Covers album the celebrated singer-songwriter concludes at Red Rocks an almost three dozen city North American tour accompanied by his full big band. These songs were inspired by such notable recording artists as Chuck Berry, Big Mama Thornton, Junior Walker, among others, along with performances of Taylor’s greatest hits, including most of my favorites.

Red Rocks has a special affinity for JT. He started by saying “I haven’t played here since… 1903!” In truth, it’s been since 2003 that he was last here, and I was in the audience then. He ended his final encore then with Sweet Baby James, but not this time, as I’ll describe below. But this time he said of Red Rocks, “It’s one of my favorite venues… I’ve not seen a more beautiful place so far.” He certainly didn’t say this the last time he was in Denver, when I caught his concert at the Coor’s Amphitheatre.

He’s said in an interview:

RedRocks-CCC.jpg“We play a number of those WPA/National Recovery Act theaters and venues,” Taylor said, recounting some of his favorite spots around the country including the Greek Theatre in Berkeley — where I first saw him perform almost 30 years ago. “I like playing those and thinking about how they were ‘get the nation back to work’ kinds of things. We’re about two hours outside of Boston, three from New York. We live in a state forest that was . . . a planted forest, a Civilian Conservation Corps effort. They brought people out of New York and Boston to large camps there, and they would plant tracts of various kinds of trees with the idea that they’d be timber down the line.”

Though he took to the stage 15 minutes late, the crowd was enthusiastic. There were a dozen musicians on stage. He had 4 vocalists, who occasionally played instruments, and 7 instrumentalists including a saxophonist, trumpeter, 2 drummers, 2 guitarists and a pianist. These included:

Michael Landau – electric guitar
Luis Conte – percussion
David Lasley – vocals
Walt Fowler – horns, keys
Lou Marini – horns (the “Blue Lou” of Saturday Night Live and Blues Brothers)
Steve Gadd – drums
Kate Markowitz – vocals
Larry Goldings – piano, synthesizer
Arnold McCuller – vocals
Jimmy Johnson – bass
Andrea Zonn – vocals, fiddle

… each of which he introduced, saying, “I’ve got to introduce them all or the bus ride is terrible, they get so touchy.”

JT_stage.jpgHe started the set with

  • It’s Growing

by the Temptations. This was immediately followed by

  • Get A Job

or as it’s better known by the words “Shanana-na, shanana-nana” originally done by the Silhouettes.

Then he did one of the crowd pleasers

  • Country Road

and as he walked down a country road, with the timbre of his voice still perfect after all these years, he flung music into the air. This was finished by an Appalachian version of an Irish jig, with fiddle, whistle and drum called

  • Whiskey Before Breakfast

As the wind came up into the open air mountain venue he said “it’s gone all blustery.” He then introduced a song made famous by Glenn Campbell

  • Wichita Lineman

As the wind increased, foreboding a storm, he said “It’s a night for hairspray… or in my case bowling ball wax. Now here’s a song by George Jones from 1955.”

  • Why Baby Why

He recounted how they’d toured across Canada and in Calgary played at the Rodeo. “You’ve heard the saying ‘you’ve got to go to a rodeo?’ Well, this was my first. We had to do a couple of country songs because we were told this was the ‘Nashville of the North’. We did another country song to balance it out, this one from Rogers & Hammerstein. It’s a Broadway song about ‘country’ as if Broadway knew anything about it. This is the first song from the musical Oklahoma.”

  • Oh What A Beautiful Morning

and what he did with it was magical. I don’t know why, but I felt like I’d been transported to OZ.

  • Every Day

was a cover of an old Buddy Holly tune. And “Blue” Lou did and incredible sax solo. He then told us the story of doing some work back in the ’70s, “that’s a whole decade that I don’t remember. But evidently and repeatedly I played at a nightclub in LA called the ‘Troubadour’. And I worked with someone named Carol King. I was so excited to learn the chords to a song she’d written. I didn’t realize at the time I’d be playing that song every night for the rest of my life on Earth. But it could be worse. My hit could have been something like ‘Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor On The Bedpost Overnight.”

  • JT_crowd.jpgYou’ve Got A Friend

As he sang:

If the sky above you
Should turn dark and full of clouds
And that old north wind should begin to blow

…the crowd shouted their approval, for it had indeed begun to rain by this time. This is not the first concert I’ve seen at Red Rocks where it rained — last summer’s Diana Krall concert did the same — but JT had a particularly good attitude toward it and wove a number of jokes around it.

To add a little sunshine, and a more than usual Latin beat intro from drummer Luis Conte he played

  • Mexico

Before the break, they did a song that starts as an acapella chorus, almost like a hymn, that I used in the introduction to my podcast to the “History of Martin Luther King”

  • Shed a Little Light

Let us turn our thoughts today
To Martin Luther King
And recognize that there are ties between us
All men and women
Living on the earth
Ties of hope and love
Sister and brotherhood

He returned from the break with a song by Big Mamma Thornton, a song made popular by Elvis Presley, but done in a style unfamiliar to those who know the Elvis version

  • Hound Dog

JT followed this with one of his perennial favorites

  • Walking Man

Then came a song make famous by Junior Walker and the All Stars

  • Road Runner

but during the song, the thunderstorm came up strong and they lost all audio power toward the end of the song. This was quickly remedied and he picked up without a best using one of his most popular hits, a song that was most apropos

  • Fire and Rain

I’ve been walking my mind to an easy time
My back turned towards the sun
Lord knows when the cold wind blows it’ll turn your head around

This was followed by a song by the Dixie Chicks, “We really like the Dixie Chicks” JT said.

  • Some Days You Gotta Dance

One of my favorites came next. I can still remember watching Sesame Street with my children when they were young, and he was on the show, up on the roof to sing

  • Up On The Roof

As the rain continued, and JT changed guitars between almost every song, he quipped “This is my all-weather guitar. The electric guitar is a vast improvement over the gas and steam powered guitars that proceeded it, and there was the word burning guitar which was unsuccessful for obvious reasons. The less said about the horse-drawn guitar, the better. The old jokes are the best, don’t you think?”

  • JT_lights.jpgSteamroller

This song is essentially an excuse for some judicious jazz jamming. JT will ham it up with the audience and even jam with his voice. The end of the song featured him and his lead guitarist in a duel over a cacophony of chaotic chords.

  • Carolina on My Mind

came next, one of his favorites. But he didn’t do the other song about that part of the country, namely “Copperline.”

  • Shower the People

was a huge crowd favorite, with an extended solo by Arnold McCuller, “a fine vocalist in his own right. I’ve listened to his album ‘Sabor’ over and over again.” JT mentioned.

  • Your Smiling Face

had everyone on their feet, singing along, and ending the show. But the crowd wouldn’t settle for that. They called “JT, JT, JT…” and unsurprisingly he came out for a number of encores, including the cover of Wilson Pickett’s

  • Midnight Hour

which slid effortlessly into the cover of Eddie Floyd’s

  • Knock On Wood
  • How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)

This Marvin Gaye song had everyone clapping and singing. But this fabulous show ended with just JT, his four backup vocalists and a guitar singing the heartfelt and beautifully harmonious song he’d first recorded over 40 years ago. As I recall, the last time he sang this song at Red Rocks, he was joined onstage by his musician daughter Sally Taylor who was at the University of Colorado at the time.

  • Close Your Eyes

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

Movie Review: Mamma Mia!

Mamma Mia! (2008) PosterMOVIE REVIEW: MAMMA MIA!

Official disclaimer: I have seen the stage musical version of Mamma Mia! six times. My wife and I first saw it in London, and as we walked out at the end of the exciting encore, we both turned to each other and said “I could see that again.” Two days later we did. This show has been seen in 140 cities by 30 million people worldwide and has grossed over $2 billion.

This could be the feel-good musical of the summer. The fact that it opens in the US on the same day as the Batman sequel The Dark Knight however, does cast a shadow over it’s debut.

Calling it a “chick flick” is not entirely inaccurate — the theater was full of older couples and women — but the movie is really for any fans of ABBA music or of the stage musical. This film was done in partnership with Playtone, Tom Hank’s production company. His wife Rita Wilson (producer of My Big Fat Greek Wedding) was executive producer on this.

Synopsis:

Sophie, a young 20-year-old girl on a Greek island wants to invite her father to her wedding and upon reading her single-parent mother Donna’s old diary learns she has three possible fathers. She invites them all to her wedding without her mother’s knowledge. The girl invites her two friends to her wedding, her mother invites her two former girl-group backup singer friends, and the three “fathers” make for interesting Greek intrigue.

Actors:

Possible father #1 is Swedish travel writer Bill played by Stellan Skarsgård who is best known recently as “Bootstrap Bill” Turner in the second and third Pirates of the Caribbean movies.

Colin Firth (our favorite Mister Darcy in Pride and Prejudice) is always great to see, especially in comedies (think Bridget Jones). He plays Harry, the proper British banker and possible father #2.

Pierce Brosnan plays American architect Sam, frequently successfully hiding his Irish accent. He’s part of the draw for this movie as possible father #3, and my wife couldn’t wait to see “James Bond singing in spandex.” The natural question, of course, is: can he sing? Let me put it this way — he wasn’t hired for his musical talents. Nevertheless, he does an acceptable job on a couple of difficult pieces, especially a duet with Meryl on S.O.S., indeed better than the male lead in London. And he brings such emotion to his singing — like an Irishman? — as well as his performance. He’s very credible in the role, and makes the interplay with Meryl winning.

Julie Walters as Donna’s friend Rosie is perhaps unfamiliar to American audiences, except as Mrs. Weasley from the Harry Potter movies. However, in the UK, she’s major league, especially as the elderly cleaning lady Mrs. Overall in the mid-’80s cult TV soap opera parody Acorn Antiques. I saw her do a stage musical version of this in London — the night after I saw Mamma Mia the first time — and she brought down the house. She’s perfectly cast in this role and has some fabulous lines and humorous scenes. And she steels the scene with Take a Chance.

Christine Baranski the Tony winning actress — who you probably best remember from the TV sitcom Cybill — is featured here as Donna’s sophisticated and serially monogamous friend Tanya. She’s gorgeous and hilarious especially in her vampy scenes.

Amanda Seyfried as the daughter and bride-to-be is luminously cute, a young Aphrodite. She previously played the part of a dim but beautiful teen in the popular movie Mean Girls. While she has a pleasant voice, it wasn’t as strong as I’d have liked. Nevertheless, she handled all her songs well even if she didn’t hit them out of the park.

Meryl Streep plays the starring role as Donna, the former girl group lead singer and free spirit. I was initially concerned about this casting, as she’s 59, and Donna is no older than her early 40s. Indeed, almost all of the adult cast is in their mid to late 50s. But this is not really a story about young love but love in the autumn years. And while Meryl’s early songs seemed a little rough, her later songs were solid hits. She’s sung in Postcards From the Edge and A Prairie Home Companion and her work here is some of the most demanding. At the end of the film you appreciate her acting and emotional impact, wondering how anyone else could have done the role.

The Film:

There were over 20 ABBA songs in the movie. Three songs from the stage musical didn’t make it to the film, another was cut from the film, but one ABBA song was included that didn’t appear in the stage show: When All is Said and Done done by Pierce Brosnan near the end of the movie.

The film was obviously filmed in the Greek islands, particularly Skopelos and Skiathos and they’re lovely. The sound stage filming was done on the 007 stage at Pinewood Studios. Pierce Brosnan must have felt at home.

ABBA male leads Bjorn Ulvaeus and Benny Anderson appear in uncredited cameos in the film. If you look quickly you’ll see the later in the vivacious first performance of Dancing Queen. This film was first released in Europe and Down Under, and the debut party in Sweden also featured the two female leads Anni-Frid Lyngstad and Agnetha Faltskog. The last time they were photographed was over 20 years ago.

Slipping Through My Fingers is the song that causes the U-turn in sentiment as the film gets downright misty.

The Winner Takes It All shows Meryl Streep’s chops as a singer and an artist. Her expressiveness and emotion is all on her face and movement. This song belies some of the earlier songs in the movie where she isn’t always exactly spot on. This is the pinnacle of the movie and you know it when you see it. She did it in one take.

Differences:

The movie is superior to the stage performance in telling the story. There is an opportunity with a larger canvas to do a larger exposition. The players are better as both actors and comedians with some fabulous casting of an all-star cast. And of course, the Greek island setting is magical.

The movie is inferior to the stage performance in its staging. The choreography is surprisingly poor, the dance scenes seem agoraphobic and much less impactful. And in general, the singing voices are not as good, but then the performers here weren’t selected for their singing prowess. The same producers of the stage musical made this movie — their first — and it shows.

For example, the musical-to-movie Hairspray was successful on so many levels that this movie was not, even though Mamma Mia was a more delightful and satisfying stage musical than Hairspray.

You go to the movie for the cast and the music. The infectious ABBA songs are woven through the story, which makes a surprisingly good vehicle for the music. You’re not supposed to notice that songs like Our Last Summer are situated in Paris or talk about “Flower Power” which would have been 20 years too early.

The movie is charming and sweet. You’ll sing along, if you’re old enough to remember the songs, in the same way you stood up to dance at the end if you saw the stage musical.

You WILL sit through the end credits at the end. Not only will you catch the encore featuring the spandex, but the last scene features some surprising mythological Olympian gods.

You’ll like it if: you’re a Boomer, keen on ABBA, love musicals, great performances, a bit of randy humor.

You won’t like it if: you don’t favor spandex or Swedish pop music that sticks in your mind like gum.

Grade: B-

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008MOVIE REVIEW: BATMAN – THE DARK KNIGHT

The second installment of the new Batman franchise, begun with Batman Begins, picks up our story not long after where we left off. But I’m not going to talk about the plot of The Dark Knight, other than to say it starts with a bang involving a powerful scene augmented by pervasive music.

All our favorites are back

Michael Caine as Alfred Pennyworth in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008Alfred, played deliciously by Michael Caine is a delight to see in this role again. Dry, acerbic, witty and caring, Michael Caine is one of our generation’s most dependable actors and again in this movie is a grounding influence on the young Master Bruce Wayne.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox plays his sagacious and insightful role as both guardian of Wayne Enterprises and modern day “Q” as co-inventor of many Bat-machines. Morgan Freeman has been doing a lot of work recently including the comedy Bucket List with Jack Nicholson and the current Wanted with Angelina Jolie.

Gary Oldman returns as Jim Gordon, now head of the Major Crimes Unit in a rather expanded role compared to the first Batman movie. He gets more room to work, and show off his “Gotham City” accent. How different from the proper British accent of Serious Black in the Harry Potter movies.

Aaron Eckhart as Harvey Dent in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008Aaron Eckhart is given a significant role as Harvey Dent, white knight District Attorney and new love interest of Rachel. He’s probably best known recently for his starring role in Thank You For Smoking.

Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008Christian Bale is back as the Dark Knight Detective, and though he plays the self-centered billionaire playboy well, he best shines as the Batman. Because there is not the exposition of the origin story as in the previous movie, he seems eclipsed in this film by the villain.

Three new players

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Rachel Dawes in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008Maggie Gyllenhaal takes over from Katie Holmes in the role of Rachel Hawes. Not only is she beautiful, but she can act and is credible in the role. Katie Holmes had only personal pulchritude going for her, but not the acting chops, and she is not missed here. Katie came off as the “girl next door” who never matured. Here, with this film, Rachel is a mature woman, and the object of desire and conflict. You wished he had more to do in this movie.

The criminal Salvatori Maroni is played by Eric Roberts, who we haven’t seen much since his role in the TV series Heroes. He’s mature, smooth, attractive, and the perfect gangland gentleman.

Heath Ledger as the Joker in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008But the real standout is Heath Ledger as the villain The Joker. He is virtually unrecognizable in this role, if you didn’t already know who was playing the role. As the original villain in the first Batman comic in 1940, here he is the quintessential maniacal anarchist. Played more as an amoral terrorist than a loony, he brings a very different feel to this role than Jack Nicholson did in the debut run of the previous Batman series. No one does crazy like Jack, but Heath goes a very different direction. Jack could be funny, saying of Batman “Where does he get those marvelous toys?” Heath brings a menace to the screen that is palpable. From his first scene he’s chilling, creepy.

He achieves his art with three things, beyond the makeup:

  • His gait: he walks all spindly, like a marionette
  • His tongue: he licks his lips nervously, like Jabba the Hut
  • His voice: like many screen villains (think Darth Vader) he drops his voice into an almost gravelly monotone that seems like pure evil itself.

There is already talk of an Oscar for this performance, and indeed, it is the magnum opus of his career. Some may see this movie just to see the last performance of this amazing talent. It is incredible what he’s done with the part, making it all his own.

The movie

Batman in Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008The filming venues are interesting. While Gotham City is supposed to represent Manhattan Island, it is obvious that several locales in Chicago were used in this film, and indeed, Illinois saw $40 million pumped into its economy by this movie. But numerous shots of Hong Kong were also used, including the top of its tallest building, Two International Finance Centre.

This film is an incremental level above the first: it’s taut, immersive, moody, exciting and scary, all at once. At times it is mind blowing in its intensity, and stunning in its inventiveness. It opens to midnight debuts tonight across 1,700 theaters in the US. Some believe this could be this summer’s first $100M opening weekend blockbuster.*

While the previous film had a confusing third act, this one has a series of smaller crescendos that build into a satisfying conclusion.

Get there early enough to see the previews, including the coming Terminator Salvation. You’ll be excited to learn who plays the adult John Connor.

Warner Bros. Pictures' The Dark Knight - 2008This is a relentlessly intense movie. The fight scenes are more realistic, with less close in filming that would otherwise hide the martial arts. This is likely too intense for young viewers under 12.

Grade: A-/B+

You’ll like it if: you like comics, sci-fi, action, detective stories

You won’t like it if: excessive violence and rampant insanity aren’t your cup of tea

*UPDATE: At the close of the first weekend, the movie did $158.355 million, making it the biggest movie opening of all time at the North American box office.

*UPDATE 2: After 18 days, the movie has done over $400 million at the boxoffice, the biggest blockbuster movie of the summer, 4 weeks at #1 and ranks as all-time No. 2 behind Titanic. By the way, it really is better in IMAX.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

Concert Review: Stevie Wonder at Coors Amphitheater in Denver

Stevie Wonder has toured only once since 1988. It’s been 13 years since he has graced Denver with a concert, and Denver welcomed him back with open arms to Fiddler’s Green at the Coors Amhitheater. Despite starting 30 minutes late, he played for over two hours without a break. Stevie was led onstage by his daughter Aisha Morris, lovely indeed, and after introducing her to the audience accompanied by applause, he said with a smile,

OK, I know, I know…

Fiddlers-Green-WonderA Wonder Summer’s Night is the name of this concert tour across over a dozen US cities as well as Europe and down under. It comes two years after the death of his mother, and Stevie said he was inspired to do it by the gratitude he felt to his fans for their support of his career which enable him to do things for his mother than he wouldn’t have been able to do otherwise.

After Aishi took her place with the other two backup singers he began. He didn’t start with his biggest hits, and some of the early songs in the concert were unfamiliar but not unappreciated. It was a full stage. He had:

  • 2 keyboardists
  • 3 percussionists with full drum sets
  • 3 guitars, including bass
  • Trumpet and Sax

Despite the wall of sound his voice rose above it all beautifully. He moved from  electric Yamaha and Hohner keyboards to a Yamaha Grand piano. He encouraged the audience to sing along — indeed to start the songs, requiring them to give him a count down. But it was his lyrics that were pure poetry as he sang,

There’s something bout your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet
Knocks me off my feet

Beyond his lyrics, which are sometimes difficult to follow, his music itself is complex and sophisticated, the rhythm is often syncopated and other musicians who have tried to do covers of his songs have said it’s difficult to duplicate. But it has a good beat, you can’t help but dance to it.

Nevertheless, he did not only do his own songs, he did a tribute to a couple of other Motown hits:

  • Betcha, By Golly, Wow

made famous by The Stylistics in 1971, but Stevie did it in his own way. Using a mouth tube through a synthesizer he showed that he’s always on the cutting edge of musical innovation, and one of the pioneers of synthesized music. This was followed by

  • Have You Seen Her

popularized by the Chi-Lights in 1971 as well. But the crowd went wild when Stevie sang his #1 hit from the 1973 album Innervisions

  • Stevie-WonderHigher Ground

with the the trademark kinetic clavinet-based arrangement, and its optimistic view of the role of faith as he sings into the fadeout

God is gonna show you higher ground
He’s the only friend you have around

Following this the band went through solos starting with the keyboard through each of the instruments while Stevie played harmonica. You could see why he had selected such talented instrumentalists.

As he did another hit from Innervisions

  • Don’t You Worry ’bout a Thing

you could see the great camera work that was done for this concert on the Jumbotron monitor, as if it was going to be turned into a concert video. The camera angles were superb, the fades were excellent and the close-ups were great. As the audience was not allowed to bring in cameras, everyone had the cell phone cameras out to capture the evening, and my iPhone pictures don’t to justice.

This was followed in quick succession by

  • Visions
  • Living for the City
  • Golden Lady

Then he did a new song, scheduled for a new album called “Through The Eyes of Wonder”

  • Keep Fooling Yourself Baby Girl

He mentioned that he’s working on a number of projects, including a new album called “The Gospel Inspired by Lula,” named for his mother who helped him write “I Was Made to Love Her,” “Don’t Know Why I Love You” and “Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I’m Yours.”

Aisha-Morris Aisha Morris, his daughter joined him at the piano to sing a solo with her father accompanying her on the keyboard. She has a lovely voice, if not a powerful one. The audience listened attentively.

After she finished, Stevie said,

Let’s sing a song to Aisha.

By which he meant, let’s sing a song about Aisha, and then launched into…

  • Isn’t She Lovely

You know the lyrics:

Isn’t she lovely
Isn’t she wonderful
Isn’t she precious
Less than one minute old

This is the song he wrote for her on the occasion of her birth. As the song continued, however, he stopped singing, and the audience was uncertain as to whether they were supposed to sing. Then it became clear why he had stopped singing: he was all choked up. His daughter leaned over and kissed him. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

After a minute he composed himself enough to grab his harmonica and resume, and then finished the song, after which he lifted his sunglasses and wiped a tear from his eye.

He spoke to the audience following this, saying

Time is long but life is short

No problem is larger than life — so work it out

Stevie Wonder’s legendary civil rights consciousness and unapologetic discussion about faith are a testament to his many outstanding accomplishments in life. He’s earned many commercial and professional honors in his 58 years, including an Academy Award, induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And he has won more Grammy Awards (26) than any other solo artists.

But he also likes to have fun, and I don’t think I’ve seen any other performer who smiles so much. He got lots of laughs when he asked:

How many of you guys have made love to Stevie Wonder music?

I want some payback, I want some royalties.

How about with this next song. I did… but that’s OK because I wrote it.

And then he sang:

  • Overjoyed

Over time, I’ve been building my castle of love
Just for two, though you never knew you were my reason
I’ve gone much too far for you now to say
That I’ve got to throw my castle away

Following this song, he then addressed the audience with,

I want to form a group. It will be called “The Wonder Singers of Denver.”

OK, fellas, I want you to sing the following…

That sounds just like charch. Not “church”, but charch.

Ladies, I now want you to sing the following…

Now everyone, I want you to sing “La, la, la, la, la, la…”

…and without us knowing it, he snuck us into

  • My Cherie Amour

But everyone came out of their seats for the next song, a perennial favorite, and featured in one of my favorite films “You’ve Got Mail”

  • Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)

The entire audience was on their feet, except the couple next to me who appeared to be clinically dead. Stevie continued with the following, and “you can feel it all over”

  • Sir Duke

a tribute to music’s pioneers like Count Basie, Glenn Miller, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Ella Fitzgerald.

Then, from Songs in the Key of Life came

  • I Wish (those days, could , come back once more)

Lookin back on when I, was a little nappy headed boy,
Then my only worry, was for Christmas what would be my toy,
Even though we sometimes, would not get a thing,
We were happy with the, joy that they would bring.

The concert was then interrupted with the local radio station who had conducted a contest to see who could sing a duet with Stevie Wonder. The winner came up, a nervous woman with a good voice. She joined Stevie for a song that actually has a female part

  • You Are The Sunshine of My Life

The concert concluded with two more hits, as he had earlier excused himself for leaving early and not doing the typical “meet and greet”, in order to attend the funeral of a family member of one of the band members,

  • Superstition

And then, his Academy Award winning song from the film “The Woman In Red”

  • I Just Called To Say I Love You

Throughout the concert, my wife was on her feet, and singing along with every song. She told me that singing live with Stevie Wonder had always been her dream.

When I asked her why, she said,

I’m practicing so I can be a backup singer in Stevie Wonder’s praise band in heaven.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

MOVIE REVIEW: WALL-E

What a sweet movie, what a cute film. Who else but Pixar could make a movie that’s animation, science-fiction, comedy, spaceships, green — and romance…and make it all work?

And the tributes to other movies of this genre! In the same way that Pixar’s The Incredibles paid tribute to early James Bond movies with its music, cinematography and sets, so too this movie pays tribute to other movies and TV shows about space (Alien), science-fiction (2001: a space odyssey, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica) and even sea voyages (Titanic). Keep an eye out for HAL’s eye from 2001 as well as some music you’ll instantly recognize, the sound effects of Star Trek‘s “red alert” and phaser blast, the voice of a Battlestar Cylon centurion — and Sigourney Weaver‘s voice as the ship computer! Look carefully, and you’ll see tributes to The Wizard of Oz and The Dream Team. And if you have a penchant for the history of space, if you look quickly you’ll see Sputnik.

In the same way as The Incredibles has its own cinematic feel, so does this film, more than a cartoon it has a lived-in feel as WALL-E seems to have been here for a long time. And when he discovers something new, it seems so clean.

And what movie could start with Michael Crawford singing… not from “Phantom of the Opera” but his younger work from 1969 in “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “It Only Takes a Moment” from “Hello Dolly”?” And the delightful singing of “La Vie En Rose” by Louis Armstrong. The end titles “single” was done by Peter Gabriel. The music score was by Thomas Newman.

Story

Our story starts some 800 years in the future, where Earth has been abandoned by mankind and left for robots to clean up all the trash, which had made Earth uninhabitable. WALL-E is a Waste Allocation Load Lifter-Earth Class garbage compacting droid. We feel like we’re seeing a day-in-the-life of R2-D2. We even hear a few R2 beeps, unsurprisingly as Ben Burtt who conceived the voice of R2 does WALL-E.

For over half an hour we hear almost no dialog, it’s almost all pantomime and visual impressions. Other than a cockroach buddy, WALL-E is the only one we see who is still operational. The dystopia theme of mankind’s possible future on Earth is not yet obvious, except in contrast to the very human nature of WALL-E who collects interesting human artifacts of the past, including Christmas lights, an iPod, Zippo lighters, Rubik’s Cube, Twinkies, and of course old videos like “Hello Dolly.” The ecology morality tale kicks off in earnest when WALL-E discovers a living green plant, the first in the 700 years since mankind left on space liners.

EVE

For our droid Adam WALL-E, there appears an EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator). A space probe lands on Earth and deposits a sleek, white reconnaissance probe-droid, looking for sustainable life on the planet. The influence of Apple on Pixar become immediately apparent. As WALL-E “reboots” with a Mac startup chime, EVE looks like a sleek iMac. This is not surprising considering the designer of the iMac and iPod, Apple Sr. VP Jonathan Ive consulted with Pixar on the film. When EVE separates out of her elongated egg shape to differentiate into head, arms and hands, she glistens like a second generation white iPhone. And below her monitor-like head, we see a spinning gear, just like on an Apple machine.

The film chronicles their romance through dance as well as care giving incubation. The emblem where EVE’s heart should be is a bio sign of plant life, a subtle shade of green.

There is such visual wonder, the majesty of space flight, the quality of loyal friends, and the touching heart-felt self-sacrifice of mutual love. Surely, fun for the whole family, for children of all ages, including you. And the only movie, that I’ve noticed, that gives credit in the final titles to “processors by Intel”.

Grade: A-

  • You’ll like it if: You enjoy animation, heroes, robots, science-fiction, and comedy
  • You won’t like it if: You don’t care for cockroaches and prefer live actors

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culturevulture
www.billpetro.com

Movie Review: Iron Man

I have written a movie review of Iron Man at my other blog. Come by and visit the article here.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood culture vulture
www.billpetro.com

History of The War: TV miniseries

TheWar.jpgTHE WAR: TV MINISERIES

In January I wrote about my conversation with Ken Burns, award winning producer of The Civil War documentary, about his upcoming miniseries about World War II called simply The War. This presentation took place at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. He was at that time previewing his 7-part, 14.5 hour series — that he has been working on for some 6 years — at military academies around the country. I wrote three articles at that time about:

Now the series is finally going to be shown. It debuts this Sunday, September 23, 2007 on your local PBS station. Already the companion book is on the market, as is the sound track which I have been listening to for the last week, featuring not only a modern piece by Nora Jones called American Anthem, but also music from the 1940 period before, during, and after The War.This is television worth watching, and I recommend it to you. Check your local television listing.

Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian
www.billpetro.com




Author

Bill Petro Bill Petro is a high-tech sales enablement and marketing professional. Currently Data Center Sales Enablement Lead at Cisco. Extensive experience in Cloud Computing, Data Center, Information Storage, Virtualization, Mobile and Social technologies.

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