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Léon The Professional

By Jav Rivera

Talent comes in all sizes, ages and forms.  Some of the best performances of the 90s came from Luc Besson's film The Professional (aka Léon: The Professional).  Starring Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman and Danny Aiello, the story follows the life of Hitman Léon after saving a young girl.

As a rather unknown actor in America, Jean Reno took on the titular role with an expertise no other actor could.  And like Reno, only Natalie Portman could fill the role of bull-headed Mathilda, Léon's adopted protégée. In her first feature film, Portman started her amazing career with a bang.  And who else but Gary Oldman could rival these two as the frightening Stansfield.

Jean Reno as "Léon"

Gary Oldman as "Stansfield"
Natalie Portman as "Mathilda"

Danny Aiello as "Tony"
Reno and Portman are a perfect match as master and student, father and the daughter, and even lovers divided by time.  The latter was an element the studio was very uncomfortable with - hence the studio version of the film.  Director Besson has explained that there was really no harm in the situation; there was only ever awkward sexual tension and it was always provoked by Mathilda.

He also explains that mentally both were right for each other since Léon's mind had been stunted at an early age.  The director's cut includes scenes with Mathilde becoming more and more aggressive with her protector.  As a film lover, I highly recommend the superior director's cut.  It truly gives a better picture of the two characters and the overall story benefits with the addition of those scenes.  Keep in mind, the scenes were never that risqué to begin with and especially not compared to films today.  Fortunately the scenes, and film in general, were handled by a master craftsman and portrayed by very smart actors.

Jean Reno and Natalie Portman
The film explores the revenge genre with unique characters, expert storytelling, solid performances and incredible action.  Each character is given room for development making each important enough to care, hate, fear and love.

And because of this, it is unlike most action films filled with one dimensional characters.  Here we get round personalities with both good and bad traits.  None are perfect and none are too cool.  In fact, it's the oddity of these characters that help bring charm to even the antagonist.

And anyone who's seen the film should be aware of Gary Oldman's performance.  He takes the simplest task, such as taking pills, and turns it into the strangest thing you've ever seen.

Gary Oldman takes his pills
He also creates one of the most terrifying moments in the film by making it one of the most gentlest.  The fearful mood is set simply by touching Badalucco's character (pictured below) with tender hands and soft whispers, something you just wouldn't expect which makes it that much more eerie.

Oldman and Michael Badalucco as "Mathilda's Father"
The film has aged extremely well over time and remains one of Besson's best work.  The film paved way for odd characters, young performers, and overlooked actors.  And though it spawned hundreds of imitators, there really is only one professional and his name is Léon.

For more information about Léon The Professional, visit the film's IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0110413

TRIVIA: Mathilda (Natalie Portman) checks herself and Léon into the hotel under the name "MacGuffin". "MacGuffin" is a movie term coined by Alfred Hitchcock for a trivial element in a movie which serves no other purpose than to drive the plot forwards. 


Scrooge (1970)

By Jav Rivera

Without hesitation, I admit that I do not enjoy most musicals.  In fact, when someone starts to talk about a musical (or worse tries to invite me to one), I roll my eyes and wonder why anyone in their right mind would want to see a musical.  But of course, everyone has their own preferences and I try to respect that.

That said, as much as I would like to say that I don't like any musicals, I cannot deny the fact that Director Ronald Neame's Scrooge is an incredible piece of art.  So much so that for nearly my entire life, I've watched this film every holiday season.  It started when I was very young when they broadcasted it on television and then on DVD when it was finally released in the 90s. Now, I'm happy to say that it's available on Bluray.

The great Albert Finney who has starred in such films as Big Fish, Annie, and Miller's Crossing, stars as the grouchy Ebenezer Scrooge.  At one point or another just about everyone has seen an adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic novella "A Christmas Carol".  Finney leads this version of the tale and absolutely dominates the role.  Transforming from young and old versions of Scrooge, Finney fooled me until I was a young man - I actually thought it was two separate actors.  I feel silly, of course, now that I watch it but it goes to show how well Finney transformed himself from a handsome, young man enamored with a young beautiful woman to an old, money-obsessed miser.

Albert Finney as "Ebenezer Scrooge"
And Finney wasn't alone; his supporting cast amazes even after seeing the film dozens of times.  From  David Collings's portrayal of Bob Cratchit to Kenneth More's Ghost of Christmas Present, the players in this production fill the screen with fear, sorrow and joy.

And of course there's Sir Alec Guinness' delightful portrayal of Jacob Marley's Ghost.  He's clearly having fun with such a frightful character.  Anyone who's seen the film remembers the comical yet terrifying manner in which Mr. Guinness floats around the room.  Sadly, he's mostly remembered as his Obi-Wan Kenobi character in the original Star Wars trilogy. But take a look at the body of his work (www.imdb.com/name/nm0000027) and you'll be amazed by all of his accomplishments including his role as George Smiley in the mini series Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (the film that sees Gary Oldman as Smiley in the 2011 remake: www.imdb.com/title/tt1340800).

Sir Alec Guinness as "Jacob Marley's Ghost"
Besides the astounding acting, Scrooge is in fact a musical and I couldn't skip over the fact that the compositions in this film are just as joyous and heartbreaking as the performances.  Leslie Bricusse (along with Ian Fraser and Herbert W. Spencer) is the genius behind the Oscar-nominated music.  He also takes on screenwriting duties.  Nominated for "Best Original Song" and "Best Score", Bricusse weaves between elation and gloom.  Comparing "I Like Life" a blissful version of its counterpart "I Hate People", shows off the composer's use of light and dark themes.  "You...You," sung by Finney, is full of heartache and regret and again shows how sadness can also be interpreted into love.  Bricusse also ventures into extreme darkness with the song "Thank You Very Much", the film's most famous tune.  It's a seemingly happy tune but in the context of the film, the song is more than a bit macabre.

Scrooge was also nominated for "Best Art Direction" and "Costume Design".  The film is full of both warmth and bitter coldness, from Scrooge's dreary black surroundings and outfits to the Ghost of Christmas Present's vibrant colors.  But no scene showcases the costumes better than during the musical performance with Laurence Naismith as the cheery Mr. Fezziwig.

Laurence Naismith as "Mr. Fezziwig" 
Fezziwig's scene is also a great example of the Bricusse's music with the song "December the Twenty-Fifth".  It's both catchy and fun which help compliment Scrooge's feeling of remorse.  It's also a turning point for the character, which is fitting as it's a "birth" of a new life to be.

As a person who shudders at the thought of watching a musical, Scrooge is the exception.  For those of you who stay clear of musicals, you have hope.  And for those of you who already enjoy them, then prepare yourself for the best holiday treat of the year.  It's a classic tale told in a very classic manner.

For more information about Scrooge, visit the official IMDb page: www.imdb.com/title/tt0066344

TRIVIA: Alec Guinness' big musical number was cut from the film, although the lead-in remains intact. It was called "Make the Most of This Life."


Mindy Smith: A Voice I Could Marry

By Jav Rivera

I could list a hundred voices that just completely soothe and move me, including Karen Peris (of The Innocence Mission), Norah Jones, and Joni Mitchell.  It's hard to stop listing the names, but if I had to choose one voice that I could marry (if it were actually possible to marry someone's voice), it would be that of Mindy Smith.

Mindy Smith
I encountered my first Mindy Smith tune from a compilation album; the song was "Out Loud".  I was taken back by the extraordinary voice flowing from my speakers.  Her voice was gentle yet powerful, calming yet heartbreaking.  It brought thoughts of some of my favorite singers including the magical Allison Krauss but yet had a style all her own.  There was something in her voice that I couldn't quite pinpoint, that is, until I bought the album.

"Out Loud" leads her second album "Long Island Shores", a collection of complicated-themed tunes.  The sound runs on the verge of country but closer to folk rock.  You certainly couldn't categorize it as country-pop.  And it was after hearing the entire album that I realized what was so unique about the singer/songwriter: she was sincere.  The songs come from dark places and brought into the light with the maturity of a seasoned artist.

The album is solid from beginning to end.  To list my favorite tracks is to basically list the entire album.  To be fair to you the reader, however, I will mention my top 5 tracks from this album: "Edge of Love," "I'm Not The Only One Asking," "Out Of Control," "Tennessee" and "Little Devil".

Album cover for "Long Island Shores" released in 2006
iTunes Link
It was several weeks before I could listen to other music.  And because I came to know this artist a bit late, I had the luck of finding more of her music immediately by purchasing her first album, "One Moment More".  Her debut, though more folk/country orientated, had a clean, modern sound.  And to my amazement, her voice was just as developed as it was in her follow up.  Most debut albums from young artists are typically more raw than what I heard from Smith.  In fact, it sounded more like an album in the middle of someone's career.

It was little surprise to discover that her cover of the song "Jolene" featured the "Queen of Country Music" Dolly Parton. The collaboration was born when Smith was asked to contribute to Parton's tribute album "Just Because I'm a Woman". Smith was hired to record backing vocals for Parton's classic "Jolene". Parton retaliated graciously by adding backing vocals to a different mix of the song with Smith on lead vocals; this version is found on "One Moment More".

It may have been Smith's first album but it's clear by the expertise of the songwriting and the strength of her voice that she was born to make music, something Parton no doubt witnessed first hand.

Album cover for "One Moment More" released in 2004
iTunes Link
In 2007, Smith released one of the best holiday albums I've ever heard, equal to Chris Isaak's holiday album, "Christmas" (iTunes Link).  Smith's album "My Holiday" is mixed with traditional and mostly original songs.  The songs are universal for holiday music but is surprisingly enjoyable for anytime of the year.  In fact, I find myself listening to this album year round.

Though Smith's covers are lovely and unique, her original songs (some co-written with Chely Wright and Thad Cockrell) are the true treasures of the album.  "Santa Will Find You,""Come Around," "I Know The Reason," "It Really Is (A Wonderful Life)" and "Follow The Shepherd Home" are classic Mindy Smith and bring a breath of fresh air to a genre that can sometimes feel stale with boring covers.

Album cover for "My Holiday" released in 2007
2009 saw Mindy Smith adding a bit more rock to her album "Stupid Love".  The first two tracks ("What Went Wrong" and "Highs and Lows") help the album start off with a more upbeat feel, differentiating from her previous more calmer albums.

"Highs and Lows"

But the album also contains slower tunes such as "If I Didn't Know Any Better" and "Telescope" a duet with famous country artist Vince Gill.  The other duet, this time with Daniel Tashian, "True Love Of Mine" is a tune so lovely it almost hurts.

But for the most part, the album is more upbeat and pop-oriented than her previous.  Despite the pop element, Smith stays close to her folk and country sound, successfully keeping the album in safe territory. It's hard to imagine a songwriter like this ever falling into pop hell.  It may keep her from gaining more attention than she deserves but with an Americana Music Association award (for Best New/Emerging Artist of the Year - 2004), working with legendary artists, and gaining critical success, what else could she ask for?

Album cover for "Stupid Love" released in 2009
Four albums into her career, she's quickly proved that music can take elements from folk, country, rock and even alternative and make it into something anyone can appreciate.  With a strong head on her shoulders, talented songwriting skills and a voice worthy of marriage, Mindy Smith is definitely one to watch.  

For more information on Mindy Smith, visit her official site: www.MindySmithMusic.com

TRIVIA: For her 2012 self-titled album, Mindy Smith choose to release it independently through her newly created record label (Giant Leap Records).



by Lisa Adamowicz Kless

As a writer, I have a fascination with the near magical ability to shift and shape words into pieces of art. I marvel at other writers who seem to do this effortlessly, as if they were simply born with an inherent ability to charm words into gorgeous imagery and strong storylines on the page. I've found that author Louise Erdrich falls into this category, using beautifully descriptive language in all of her work: “We started dying before the snow, and like the snow, we continued to fall…and then a wind from the east, bringing exile in a storm of government papers…”

Thus begins the novel Tracks, set in North Dakota beginning in 1912. The story spans a decade, following the intertwining lives of Native American people clinging to their tribal land. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe herself, Erdrich often focuses on some aspects of Native American experience and tradition in her books. Tracks delves into both headlong, treading the line between modernism and “the old ways“. Two main characters, Nanapush and Pauline, narrate this novel, in turn telling the story of another vital character, Fleur Pillager. Nanapush saved a teenage Fleur from dying as “consumption” (tuberculosis) swept through the tribe, essentially taking on the role of a father to her after she recovered from illness. Nanapush’s narrations are told in a matter of fact way that I really enjoyed, with dashes of mischievousness and humor thrown in. Though he never says it outright, the tone of Nanapush’s narrative is “It may be right, or it may be wrong, but I’m just telling you the way I remember it”. Pauline, on the other hand, is an unreliable storyteller from the start, whose narration gets shakier as the novel goes on. In fact, Nanapush tells the reader that there’s a question amongst the people whether Pauline is “afflicted, touched in the mind.” With that revelation, readers can take her account of what happened with a grain of salt, and at first, her telling of the story doesn’t seem that far-fetched or out of the ordinary. It’s later, as the reader gets deeper into the book and Pauline gets deeper into instability, that we fully see what Nanapush alluded to.

This whirling together of myth, legend and reality is one of the things that made Tracks so engrossing for me. The concept that someone has the ability to leave their human form behind in the woods at night and roam as something different, leaving behind prints with claw marks, is no more unusual a thought than how to prepare for an upcoming winter. The dynamics between the characters, especially Fleur as she ages and Nanapush, acting as a father figure, are compelling too. All through the book, we're left to wonder about Fleur; there's an air of mystery and bewilderment about her, but her story is always told by others.  We get hints about her thoughts and feelings, but are left to draw our own conclusions; not even the person who probably knows her best (Nanapush) can be certain what she'll do. There’s one especially powerful scene towards the end of the novel where government officials come to the land. In a rare but tense moment of actually understanding Fleur's thinking and actions, Nanapush realizes that she's taken resistance to a level that even he didn‘t anticipate.

Louise Erdrich
In interviews, Erdrich has said that her family was full of storytellers, and she credits this with giving her some of the writing ability that she has today.  It's not hard to see how hearing those threads of stories, spun out one after another, could help shape her talent for putting her own down on the page.  Erdrich is a prolific writer too, claiming not to succumb to writers' block.  Though I can't say the same for myself, I believe her, having over a dozen novels to her name, in addition to children's literature, poetry and volumes of non-fiction. 
The appeal of Erdrich's work may be that "stories pulled straight from life" quality that it has.  Like reality, they have moments of ugliness, despair, and human shortcomings. Yet equally, they contain moments of beauty, joy, and hope.  I see bits and pieces of myself in her characters each time I read one of her books, and that's a true testament to good writing.  That as cleverly crafted or beautiful as the writing is, the shared experience of human emotion and everyday life shines through, and draws readers in, again and again.  

Broadside; College of St. Benedict/St. John's University