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“A Most Wanted Man” Dilutes le Carré’s Powerful Voice

by Alejandro A. Riera

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John le Carré’s 2008 novel “A Most Wanted Man” is full of righteous anger. As morally ambiguous as his classic Cold War novels (“The Spy Who Came In From the Cold,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), “A Most Wanted Man” is about that thin grey line that separates idealists from pragmatists, from those who look at the big picture and those who want immediate results regardless of the consequences.

It is about Western intelligence agencies stepping on each other’s toes in the post 9/11 era and of the innocent people caught in this tug of war. It is a gripping tale, one that traps you in its intricate web and leaves you desolate by the time its inevitable end arrives.

Andrew Bovell’s and director Anton Corbijn’s big screen adaptation of this powerful novel, however, is a cold and at times lackluster affair, too methodical in its depiction of intelligence procedures and the bureaucrats in charge of them for its own good. It lacks bite, anger, passion. It is well photographed and has a strong supporting cast. But by making German intelligence agent Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman) the center of the story at the expense of three key characters who shared the limelight in the novel, Bovell and Corbijn have stripped away the film’s emotional core and even diluted its political edge.

Those other three characters are: suspected Chechen terrorist Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who is smuggled into Hamburg, city where the 9/11 attack was concocted by Mohammed Atta; Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), an idealist human rights lawyer who agrees to help Issa seek political asylum; and banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe), custodian of the illegal riches of many Russian mobsters and dishonest businessmen, including a considerable amount of money that once belonged to Issa’s father (a Russian general who raped his mother) and that Issa wants to get rid of.

Issa’s arrival hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gunther and his agents but he is not their only target; Gunther suspects that well-respected Muslim academic and philanthropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah may be channeling a small percentage of the donations he receives to Al-Qaida through a shipping company. Issa gives Gunther the perfect opportunity to trap and recruit Faisal. He believes in the importance of developing assets in Hamburg’s Muslim community that could eventually lead them to bigger fish. The Americans think otherwise; in need of some good p.r., they’d much rather send both to Guantanamo and throw away the key. Soon, Issa, Annabel and Brue become pawns in a chess game, used and manipulated by Gunther while deliberately ignoring the forces conspiring against him.

If the above description sounds like an exciting, thrilling story, it is…in the novel.

By stripping down Annabel’s Brue’s and even Issa’s role in the narrative, Corbijn and Bovell have stripped the plot of its key emotional and moral core. We can never engage with them, understand their motivations, even question them. Annabel suffers the most in this adaptation: whereas in the book she is a good-hearted yet conflicted idealist, in the film she is flat and poorly defined. McAdams bravely hints at that complexity but is let down by the direction and the script. Dafoe plays a far meatier role with far more nuance but even his Brue is treated as a soiled handkerchief by the film.

Hoffman, in his last completed role before his untimely death early this year, subtly underplays his role: we can feel his weariness, from the way he slurps his coffee to how he wears his rumpled clothes and trenchcoat Columbo-style, his voice dropping several octaves. And yet, as much as I appreciated and understood his approach, his performance seemed to lack his magnificent edge. It almost feels like both character and actor are fading away, aware that the end is coming.

Le Carré’s novels are not that easy to adapt to the big screen: they are nuanced, character- and plot-driven affairs. The best film adaptations of his books (“The Russia House,” “The Constant Gardener,” “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”) capture not only their essence and spirit but also the snap, crackle and pop of his prose. Others (like “The Little Drummer Girl”) fail spectacularly. “A Most Wanted Man” is not a complete failure but it never quite manages to convey what made this particular novel tick: and a point of view.

Alejandro A. Riera is a film critic, blogger and media relations specialist. He has worked for such publications as ¡Exito! and HOY, where he was a Senior Editor in Charge of the arts and entertainment section. He was also editor of Café Magazine. He writes about culture (Latino and non-Latino alike) and film in his blog: culturebodega.wordpress.com. He has also worked as a Publicity Manager for the Chicago International Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

LG3 and LG G watch … You know you want it.

by Alberto

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Hello my fellow techies. I have missed you all. I hope you are experiencing a great summer. Let me share with you some new gadgets that are currently available and you might want to get your hands on or just try out and get them at a later time.

Let’s first start off with the LG 3 smartphone. The LG 3 Smartphone features at 13 mega-pixel camera with optical image stabilization and laser auto focus. You might be saying what does all this mean to me? Well it allows you to shoot pictures in precision with losing focus on the image that you want to get in your picture. LG offers for the first time on it’s smartphone line the 5.5 Quad-HD IPS screen, it gives you to look at images, movies on your phone where you would be in complete amazement of the image that you see. It is 4 times more better than your regular HD screen on your smartphone. It features a smart keyboard, you can make it whatever height you wish to make the keyboard, if you want it short, thin, long, you can make it whatever size you wish to make it. It also auto corrects a word that you might have entered incorrectly. It also adapts to your behaviors when you are typing. That is a great benefit. There is also Smart Notice. Whatever your interests are, it will let you know as to what is going to happening today, this week, or if there is an event that you might want to attend. Smart Notice offers you recommendations before you even need them. It knows things before you even want them.

The LG G watch is smart watch that lets you know stuff before you even ask for it. You can wake up and you can see the temperature outside before you even look at the TV. If you are looking to travel, it will have your travel info on the watch as well. It also has it’s own version of Siri but it is called Google, yes you heard that right Google. If you want to know simple information, such as how do I remove ink from the carpet? You just say OK Google and then you ask the question that you want to ask. You can also say OK Google and you can do a variety of other things like send a text, setting up a reminder. You can do these functions with any Android phone that is running OS 4.3 and above. It is very elegant in look and tailors to you too.

Both of these devices are available at your local AT&T store. The price of the devices are the LG G Watch is $229.00 and if you want to go with the LG 3 smartphone it goes for $199 with a 2 year contract if you want to go with your regular 2 year contract. If you are not interested in the 2 year contract. You can simply go with the AT&T Next and you can pay off your phone within 2 years for the low low price of $24.17. Not a bad price for a good looking phone. So you can go online and check out the new phone and device first or you can go visit your local AT&T store and try them out for yourself.

Life Passes in the Blink of an Eye in Masterful “Boyhood”

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” is that rare American movie that restores your faith in the power of film as a narrative art form.

Unlike most relationship-driven, hipsterish, self-indulgent tales of the privileged classes that seem to be the bread and butter of many American independent films today, “Boyhood” is about people you and I know, about experiences we can easily identify with. It’s about the little details that make life worth living and about how time, unlike the Bob Dylan song, never passes slowly.

Shot between 2001 and 2013 with the same cast and crew, the concept behind the film is narratively simple and technically complex: to follow the life of a Texas boy from childhood to adulthood in real time. Linklater and his actors would meet every year to discuss the shape the story would take and then the director would put the script together and shoot it.

The film focuses on Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane), whom we first meet as a six-year-old, laying on the grass staring at the sky. His recently divorced mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is trying to raise him and his older sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater, the director’s daughter) the best she can. She dreams of securing a college degree as bills keep piling up. Her ex-husband, Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke) has just returned home from Alaska; his visitation rights allow him to spend time with his two kids every two weeks. Samantha pesters and torments her brother the way only siblings can. And Mason Jr. observes and absorbs all, as the world opens its doors to him.

This 12-year journey sees Mason Jr. and his family move from town to town in Texas as Olivia pursues her dreams, and marries two men with serious drinking problems (one a college professor, the other an Iraq war veteran who deep down is a really good man). Mason Sr. spends as much time with his kids as possible, no matter where they live, taking them to baseball games or bowling. Mason Sr. eventually does his own growing up, marrying into a good Christian family and exchanging his Mustang GTO for a four-wheel family van.

Mason Jr. and Samantha age before our very eyes, their bodies changing in 165 minutes without the aid of any digital trickery. They make friends and lose them, they fall in love with classmates and suffer their fair share of heartbreaks. She reads Mason Jr. excerpts of the first Harry Potter novel and years later both stand in line for the midnight release of “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince.” They hang out with Dad’s musician friends and Mason Jr. takes his first girlfriend to Austin to check out the music scene. And then there’s the uncertainty of what will happen after high school.

The manipulation of our perception of time is one of “Boyhood”’s many pleasures. The film’s rhythm is so languid, so lifelike, that time almost becomes imperceptible until an object or an action reminds us of its passing. “Boyhood” is the logical conclusion to Linklater’s exploration of how we perceive real time on the big screen, a concern that, until this movie, I felt Linklater had explored to the fullest in his “Before” trilogy. If anything, “Boyhood” feels epic in scale next to those three films, even though it’s as intimate as they are.

“Boyhood” lacks a conventional three-act structure and is so much better for it. It is full of recognizable details: Mason Jr. and his friends ogling the lingerie section of a department store catalog or, as a teen, indulging in some fake sexual braggadocio with friends; the little notes that students pass each other in the classroom; even practicing sharpshooting in an open field. The scenes of that college professor’s violent alcohol-fueled rages are the closest the film comes to developing an uneasy tension; but even then, they avoid any cheap melodramatics.

Linklater’s characteristic generosity towards his characters is once again evident. He doesn’t pass judgment, he just lets them be and act. Most of the people Mason Jr. encounters throughout these 12 years are good, decent folk, acting with the best of intentions. Some may lose their way and some may be beyond redemption. These are characters we wouldn’t mind spending more time with.

“Boyhood” is as much a story about Mason Jr.’s growing up as it is about his parents. Hawke is effortless and honest as Mason Sr.; his character could, in fact, be a relative of the “Before” trilogy’s Jesse. And while critics are rightfully praising Coltrane’s equally naturalistic performance, to me Patricia Arquette was a revelation. In her best role to date, Arquette portrays Olivia as a loving, resilient, strong yet susceptible woman. Her final scene with Mason Jr., as he prepares to go to college, is heartbreaking.

“Boyhood” is a wise film, noble even, one that deserves and needs to be seen over and over to fully appreciate each and every one of its accomplishments. It is the best American film of the year.

Alejandro A. Riera is a film critic, blogger and media relations specialist. He has worked for such publications as ¡Exito! and HOY, where he was a Senior Editor in Charge of the arts and entertainment section. He was also editor of Café Magazine. He writes about culture (Latino and non-Latino alike) and film in his blog: culturebodega.wordpress.com. He has also worked as a Publicity Manager for the Chicago International Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” Deftly Balances Action and Ideas

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Although “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is technically a sequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the term doesn’t do it justice. We associate sequels with films that sound and look like louder, garish photocopies of their predecessors…say, the Transformers films.

And yet, “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” does everything a sequel is supposed to do, and better: it builds on already created characters, taking them and their original story to the next, logical level. And in that regards, it can definitely be argued that it stands next to “The Godfather Part II,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” and even “Spider-Man 2” as one of the best sequels ever made.

However, I believe “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” transcends that term: it is, really, chapter two of a saga that reinvents and reinterprets the original five films produced between 1968 and 1973 based on Pierre Boule’s original novel.

While the original “Planet of the Apes” introduced a fully developed simian society where humans were treated as third class citizens, this current iteration intends to show us how that world came to be. The movie starts ten years after a group of genetically altered apes led by Caesar (Andy Serkis) escaped from an animal shelter where they were mistreated, and from the lab where they were being experimented upon. The man-made virus that gave them their superior intelligence has decimated most of the Earth’s human population. The apes, now numbering in the thousands, have created a society of their own in the forests outside of San Francisco. Some, like Caesar, can fully speak and even write; most communicate through sign language. Almost every ape species is represented; “ape don’t kill ape” is their maximum law.

Caesar rules over this diverse community with salomonic wisdom. He puts itto good use when a human, in fear, shoots one of his ape citizens after running into them in the forest. This trigger-happy human is part of an expedition led by former architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke), girlfriend Ellie (Keri Russell) and son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) to locate a dam that may provide a new source of energy to San Francisco’s remaining human population. After Caesar and his army deliver a warning to the humans to stay away, Malcolm convinces his leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), to let him talk to Caesar. Dreyfus gives him three days to negotiate and turn the dam on; otherwise, they’ll take the dam by force.

Caesar and Malcolm reach an understanding, but there is mistrust in both camps, more dangerously from Caesar’s rival Koba (Toby Kebbell), the scarred, tortured lab ape whose hatred and resentment of humans knows no bounds. Koba soon discovers that the humans are arming themselves but decides to keep that information private for one reason: to get rid of Caesar and provoke the inevitable violent confrontation between apes and humans.

This is not the good apes versus bad humans battle of the original “Planet of the Apes” saga. The script by Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is far more nuanced, opting to explore the far grayer shades of any tribal or territorial conflict rather than the black and white terms of today’s political discourse. Yes, the sight of apes on horseback storming the compound is viscerally exciting…but also sad and tragic as you realize that, as in real life, such an attack was unnecessary and unavoidable. The film smartly shows how it takes just one resentful fanatic to strike the match that will blow the entire powder keg up (can you say, the Middle East?). And even though it could be argued that Dreyfus is Koba’s human counterpart, you almost feel sorry for the former for being dragged into a conflict not of his making.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is, like Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer,” that rare cinematic species, one that I fear is in danger of extinction: a genre movie that deftly balances action with ideas, where characters are given room to breathe and grow. The script deserves credit for this accomplishment but so does director Matt Reeves (“Cloverfield,” “Let Me In”) who, from the get-go, immerses us in this dreary world. How he begins and ends the film is, alone, a stroke of genius: after the opening credits, a tight close-up of Caesar’s eyes; at the end, a slow zoom into those very same eyes. These two shots mark Caesar’s journey from beloved leader of his tribe to reluctant general of an unwanted war.

Serkis is the film’s heart and soul. Capture motion technology has advanced in leaps and bound that it finally has caught up to Serkis’ emotional and dramatic range. Yes, he was good in “The Lord of the Rings Trilogy” and in “King Kong” and in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” But here, he surpasses those accomplishments. He subtly imbues each facial and physical gesture with so much power and heft that you forget you are watching a digital creation. You can feel the burden on his shoulders. You believe in this Caesar as you believe in all the other simian characters. Equal praise goes to Kebbell who, as Koba, creates a unique, ruthless, yet tragic character.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is a movie about loss: what we lose personally and as a society when faced with an extreme situation. There are no good guys or bad guys here, just flawed characters…Caesar included. It’s a movie with a conscience, and as such it stands proud, a beacon for other filmmakers to follow, way above the rest of all the commercial fare the studios have released so far this year.

Alejandro A. Riera is a film critic, blogger and media relations specialist. He has worked for such publications as ¡Exito! and HOY, where he was a Senior Editor in Charge of the arts and entertainment section. He was also editor of Café Magazine. He writes about culture (Latino and non-Latino alike) and film in his blog: culturebodega.wordpress.com. He has also worked as a Publicity Manager for the Chicago International Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

“Snowpiercer:” a Bold and Exciting Futuristic Parable

by Alejandro A. Riera

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Long time ago in a newsroom not far away from where I am writing this, a colleague had the gall to claim that Miramax’s Harvey Weinstein was the patron saint and savior of independent and foreign films in this country.

This colleague, a self-proclaimed movie cognoscenti and self-published novelist, had obviously never heard of the extraordinary work New Yorker Films, Janus Films and even The Beatles’ George Harrison, among others, had done on behalf of indie and foreign films before Miramax. And while there is no disputing the role Harvey and his brother Bob played in launching the careers of the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Quentin Tarantino, there is also no disputing (like I told this colleague) that Harvey was equally notorious for re-editing those foreign films he acquired for the U.S. market while shelving others.

I was reminded of that “conversation” as I was getting ready to watch Korean director Bong Joon-Ho’s brilliant science-fiction film, “Snowpiercer”. After acquiring its distribution rights for six English-speaking markets, The Weinstein Company (TWC) withheld the film from the fall film festival circuit because “their cut” wasn’t ready. A long fight began between both filmmaker and Harvey. Bong’s original 126-minute cut had performed incredibly well at both South Korea’s and France’s box-office. Word of the conflict soon lit the blogosphere; critics and some of the film’s international stars came to Bong’s defense and film critic Tony Rayns wrote an exhaustive report on the controversy in the January edition of the British film magazine “Sight and Sound.” Early this year, TWC and Bong agreed to a limited release of Bong’s cut instead of the wide release originally planned for it.

“Snowpiercer,” based on Jacques Lob’s and Jean-Marc Rochette’s graphic novel “Le Transperceneige,” is a tightly edited, compact, solid piece of genre entertainment with something to say. Any cuts to it would have completely derailed the film. Bong and co-scriptwriter Kelly Masterson have methodically built a plausible vision of our future, one that asks that quintessential question that drives the engine of any science-fiction narrative: what if? In this case, what if the world’s governments found a solution to global warming and that solution backfired on all of humanity?

The year is 2031 and what’s left of the human race inhabits a 60+-car train that circles a now-frozen and snow-covered globe. Years ago, a chemical designed to bring down the earth’s temperature was deployed with catastrophic results. Designed by billionaire engineer Wilford, the train is a microcosm of a world that once was: where the have-nots inhabit the tail end of the train under deplorable conditions and the one-per centers the front. While the latter feast on sushi and steaks from fish and cattle perfectly preserved and in some cases raised, the lower classes are fed these gelatinous protein bars, their children kidnapped for unknown reasons. They are told over and over to “keep their place” by the school-marmish, Margaret Thatcher-channeling Mason (Tilda Swinton). This is definitely NOT Noah’s ark.

The ground is fertile for a revolt and that’s what happens when reluctant leader Curtis (Chris Evans a.k.a. Captain America) and his mentor Gilliam (John Hurt), prodded by a series of cryptic messages from the front of the train, lead their downtrodden army on a march towards the engine. They first free Minsu (Song Kangho), the designer of the train’s security system, and his daughter; Minsu agrees to open each car as long as he is paid with the narcotic substance kronole. Curtis and his followers are met with bloody resistance by the train’s fascist armed forces. And they encounter self-enclosed worlds on each car, some full of wonder and others, like the classroom where children are indoctrinated into the train’s cultish devotion to its creator by a happy-happy joy-joy elementary school teacher (a creepily hilarious Alison Pill). They get a glimpse of the outside world. They lose friends and allies. If you are expecting an explosive climax, Bong delivers that…and more, in both a literal and figurative sense.

For while the action sequences are bloody, and brutal, and beautifully shot and edited, the violence here is portrayed as part and parcel of an oppressive system. All revolts are bloody and all are met with equally brutal force by the powers that be. The movies shifts in tone, from dark and suffocating to cartoonishly satirical, are handled with ease. And Bong takes his time developing his characters through their dialogue and their actions, no matter how over-the-top they may be.

“Snowpiercer” is more than a parable for our times: it asks tough questions about the human condition and the social and political systems that rule over it. As I was watching the film’s final act, the words of Chilean filmmaker Miguel Littin came to mind when he told me many years ago that all who supported Salvador Allende’s government and worked for it, like him, had engaged in a fight against the country’s ruling gerontocracy and against the status quo. You’ll understand why once Wilford’s true identity and motivation are revealed. The ending may not be what you are waiting for. But it, like the rest of the movie, demands and deserves your attention. Unlike any other superhero or franchise-driven pseudo science-fiction movie currently clogging our movie screens, “Snowpiercer” is the real deal.

“Snowpiercer” opens July 4 at the Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport Ave.

Alejandro A. Riera is a film critic, blogger and media relations specialist. He has worked for such publications as ¡Exito! and HOY, where he was a Senior Editor in Charge of the arts and entertainment section. He was also editor of Café Magazine. He writes about culture (Latino and non-Latino alike) and film in his blog: culturebodega.wordpress.com. He has also worked as a Publicity Manager for the Chicago International Film Festival and the Chicago Latino Film Festival.

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