Tuesday, August 9, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #4: "BARNEY'S VERSION," "UNSTOPPABLE," "MORNING GLORY," "KINGS OF PASTRY," "MIDDLE MEN," AND MORE!

Week #4 of my blog, and it's my fourth weekly movie review edition. I hope some of you read these, because most of them are older films, and I'm sure some will already have some opinions on them, and if you do, people should post them, however, I've heard from more than one reader that's it's been particularly difficult to post on my blog here, for some reason. If you've wanted to post a comment on my blog, but were unable to, please feel free to post on my Facebook page. Either on a message or do it on my wall for all to read, whether it's good or bad, I don't particularly care. In fact, you have some really mean things to say, it might make people just as interested in my blog if not moreso, so please go ahead. Either way, makes sure any/all your friend begin reading it on a regular basis. I'm up to six people who've joined now, so it's gaining, but I'm hoping for more. I've been through a lot of films this week that came out just last year, so let's get to it!


BARNEY'S VERSION (2010) Director: Richard J. Lewis
3 1/2 STARS
“Barney’s Version,” earned Paul Giamatti a Best Actor-Comedy or Musical Golden Globe , and he gives another stellar performance, one of many since he played comic-book artist Harvey Pekar in “American Splendor,” many years ago. Here, he plays a Canadian TV producer of programs so bad the production company is even called “Useless Television.” He deals with egotistical stars, a cop who constantly berates him about a friend of his who went missing years ago under very suspicious circumstances, his three wives and eventually his children. Based on the Mordecai Richler novel, who also wrote “The Apprentice of Dudley Kravitz,” the movie follows Giamatti, basically the entire film, with us seeing his version of events. These mostly consist of his three marriages, one of which ended with him finding the love of his life, at his wedding. There’s amazing acting performances throughout the film,  including Minnie Driver and Rosamund Pike as two of his wives, and Dustin Hoffman as an over-talkative and possibly corrupt retired Jewish cop that's Barney's father. But the movie is Giamatti’s. He’s in almost every scene of the movie, and the movie takes place over his entire life, and he’s always convincing. The movie earned a well-deserved Oscar-nomination for Best Make-up, specifically because it hides in plain sight, how well the character, particularly Giamatti, ages over forty years. The movie is occasionally is slow-moving however, but it's mostly engrossing. I’m not 100% sure there was a need for the final revelation on the disappearance of Barney’s friend, the one he’s been accused of murdering for half his life, but that might be part of the point as well. It’s not a special life particularly, it might not be particularly accurate, but it is “Barney’s Version,” and it’s a pretty good movie.




UNSTOPPABLE (2010) Director: Tony Scott
2 1/2 STARS
“Unstoppable,” is about a train that’s running on full power without a conductor, and many stupid, failed attempts to stop it, before the stars of the movies finally manage to figure it out. This isn’t a bad formula, it’s worked incredibly well in the past, most famously, “Speed,” and the predecessor of “Speed,” “Die Hard.” Now it’s “Speed,” with a train, and it’s made technically, very well. Too technically, and way too by the book of how to make a successful action thriller. I blame this one on it’s director Tony Scott, one of the few directors I’ve typically found more annoying than his brother. He’s a technical craftsmen, that’s for sure, so every trick in the book is used to pump up the drama. The train full of kids, the populated areas, it’s filled with flammable material (Okay, that one I found believable), a young newcomer who’s on his first day of work (Chris Pine), and the old veteran who’s about to retire (Denzel Washington).  The worst of these was the man in charge who makes continued wrong decision after wrong decision (Kevin Dunn), while the person who makes the correct decisions never gets heard (Rosario Dawson, better than she needs to be), and then, the numerous TV reports, which seemed to be so tuned in to the private conversations between all these people, that they had stock photos of all the drivers of the trains on hand and can give play-by-play action of the events as we see them. At one point, a character screams, “How do they know before we do?”, I was wondering the same thing. That’s because it’s not an actual news report, it’s the director, for some reason thinking we need a news report to add tension to the movie, as though a runaway train which we have to stop, wasn’t enough of a ticking clock. Or, that we have to care about these characters, so we give them backstories, like a divorce, a dead wife, kids that don’t like them (and work for Hooters, because it’s good product placement). If I’m being particularly condescending it’s because I really wanted to like this movie. And up until the end, despite every one of these clichés and complaints, I was still with it, I was excited, the action sequences were very well made, the characters seem to actually know about trains and the train industry, but it became too much, because Tony Scott just couldn’t trust that the basic core story alone would be interesting enough. Many of my friends know I’m very critical of Ridley Scott, his brother, but while he tends to overextend some elaborate so-called metaphor in his films, he eccentric tendencies will occasionally come out with a  good or in some cases, a very good movie. “Thelma & Louise,” “Matchstick Men,”, “Black Hawk Down,” there’s a few others as well. At least Ridley is ambitious enough to make a bad movie occasionally like “Robin Hood,” or the overrated “Gladiator”. Of Tony Scott’s films, on top of this one, I’ve seen “The Hunger,” “Top Gun,” and “True Romance,” and I’ve yet to like any of them. For different reasons, each I’ll admit, but they’re all based on the need to make a good technical film, which he does here with “Unstoppable,” but the need is so great that he overlooks the unique aspects of the movies that makes his films worth making to begin with. There’s a great movie somewhere in “Unstoppable,” but he completely missed it. Also, this is not the kind of movie, where I need to know what happened to all the characters with little “where are they now,” credits sequences at the end.

MORNING GLORY (2010) Director: Roger Mitchell
2 1/2 STARS
There are some amazing films made about the television industry. “Network,” “Broadcast News,” “Good Night, and Good Luck.”..., this one had all the elements to potentially join that list, but somehow it never quite came together. I think it’s mostly a screenplay structure problem more than anything. What all those other movies benefitted from was being insularly about the TV and/or TV news industry. This movie is only half-about that. It starts off as a story of a young TV producer/showrunner, Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) who gets fired ‘cause of budget cuts, and has to go from Jersey to the big city of New York, to work for Basic TV’s fourth rated Morning News program. (Obviously on a fictional fourth major network.) One day, she hopes to get a job on “The Today Show,” but now, she’s stuck with two anchors who hate each other, (Diane Keaton and Harrison Ford), a boring weatherman who wants to do a story on weathervanes, and an upstairs news producer who she kinda likes, but her job tends to get in the way of relationships, and I don’t know, there’s got to be about ten other rom-com clichés I’m missing. No, actually, the movie is missing many of them, ‘cause while I’ve always like Rachel McAdams, even as far back as her work on the Canadian TV show “Slings & Arrows”, these subplots about her personal life only get so far in the storytelling before the film correctly goes back to her work on the struggling TV show, which she has to keep afloat before the show gets cancelled. She has constant conflicts with Mike Pomeroy (Ford) who plays a veteran no-nonsense serious news reporter, forced by contract to take the morning show position, and is the “Third Worst Person on Earth”. Yet, the movie focuses too much on the personal side of the Becky Fuller character, and not enough on the day-to-day running of a morning news show. It seems to have some knowledge of how a show like that is run. Some, not as much as it should, and that should be where all the focus is, and instead, we get too much, Gidget going to the big city with big job, and “Devil Wears Prada,” type storytelling, that isn't really complete, and it brings down the rest of the movie. It feels like this material was added later, and part of it was taken out, but some it got left, and it just hangs there as an undeveloped plot point. I do have to mention a wonderful performance by Jeff Goldblum as the TV Exec., that hires Becky, with no real expectations, but this movie could’ve sang, and instead it kinda whimpered.


KINGS OF PASTRY (2010) Directors: Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
2 STARS
Directors D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus are two of the most legendary of documentary filmmakers, two of the leaders of the Cinema Verite movement. Hardly a documentary goes by do I not see D.A. Penebaker’s name somewhere in the credits, either on TV or in the movies. “Don’t Look Back,” the Bob Dylan documentary from the sixties is probably their most famous work. Here, they go behind the scenes of the most MOF competition in France, to determine the Best pastry chefs in the world. Herein lies both what makes a good documentary, especially a cinema verite documentary (which this movie actually isn’t, too many interviews) and a bad one. The subject matter, it either has to be very interesting, or it has to be something that we haven’t or rarely seen beforehand. The subject matter is certainly interesting, and unusually delectable, however it’s also something we’ve seen many many times before. I’ve fallen asleep watching people manipulate chocolate and sugar to create beautiful sculptures on the Food Network, more times than I can count, and I don’t even have cable! It’s not that this is a particularly bad movie, and all that these chefs do is really quite amazing and exact, but I’ve seen this, and I saw nothing new in this film that makes me tell people to go and see this one, and honestly compared to some of the TV shows about this, this was actually kind of boring, comparatively. Damn. 

MIDDLE MEN (2010) Director: George Gallo
2 1/2 STARS
I watched “Middle Men,” a few days ago, and I’ve since all-but-forgotten about it. When the movie is about the internet porn industry, and it’s instantly forgettable, you’ve really screwed up, royally. The movie also involves Russian gangsters, a corrupt lawyer, and a successful U.S. government plan to capture terrorists, and yet, the only legitimate reason I can give for watching this movie is that James Caan, seems to be doing an accent that almost sounds like Alan Alda. I don’t know why, but he is. I’m assuming it’s to keep himself interested. The movie follows Jack Harris (Luke Wilson), actually, no, it starts with a rocket scientist and a veterinarian, (Gabriel Macht and Giovanni Ribisi) both of whom are drugged-up fuck-ups, as they start posting pictures of naked women from magazines. In doing so, they created the program that allows internet sites to charge money to a credit card account by simply giving the 16-digit card number. Almost instantly, they’re millionaires, and they decide to go to a strip club and ask the owner, a mobster, to videotape the women and split the profits. At a certain point, these two stoners get a lawyer (Caan) who brings in Harris to organize their business, which is kind of screwed up and unorganized at this point. Oh, I forgot, they also show how good a negotiator Wilson's character is by convincing a mobster not to break a guys legs and instead convince him to get the man a building permit. There’s a lot of back-and-forth and doubling back between all the people involved in this movie, and that was part of the problem. It never seemed focused on one character or one aspect of the movie. Maybe that was in part, the nature of the story, but it just came off as schizophrenic. Apparently, this story is based on fact, which I guess is interesting enough, and there’s nothing particularly bad about the film, but there’s nothing memorable either, and that's worst that just a bad movie. A least a really bad movie is memorable. This movie never really gets off the ground, has too much to say, and never focuses on anything for a long enough time to get interested in it. Maybe it’s on cable on a lazy Saturday afternoon, and there’s nothing else to watch, it’d be entertaining.  It’s not enough to recommend though.  


WHICH WAY HOME (2009) Director: Rebecca Cammisa
3 1/2 STARS
“Which Way Home,” which earned an Oscar-nomination for Best Documentary Feature a couple years ago, details the long and dangerous trek foreigners, mostly teenagers and children take from Central America to cross the border into America. Among the most shocking and horrifying legs of this adventure, after sneaking into Mexico from Guatemala, many board a cross-country train by sitting on top of the freights as they head towards the larger Mexican cities, where they then disperse in attempts to get to places they’ve heard about, or might have family, like California, Texas, New York, or Virginia. One of last years better films was “Sin Nombre,” which showed kids taking this very train, among many dangerous parts of their trip north. I gave that film 5 stars, and it’s well worth looking for, and I suspect this movie was part of the inspiration for “Sin Nombre,” and seeing the actual footage of kids riding on top of the train is just as harrowing, if not more. The filmmakers try following many of the kids throughout their journey, some getting caught by either Mexican of U.S. INS officials, some making it to America, but ending up in orphanages or half-way homes, and many going missing. Some staying missing. I found a little difficult to keep track of all the kids and all of their scary tales, even when they interviewed members of their families back home. That was one of the benefits of “Sin Nombre,” while it wasn’t a documentary, I was able to follow one family’s journey to America, and not about a half dozen, at least. Still, this is a powerful film that show just how amazing it is and what it takes for some immigrants to cross that border to the America they dream about. The more people that see this film, I’m sure the less we’d belittle them.

THE BROWN BUNNY (2004) Director: Vincent Gallo
4 STARS
Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny,” was notorious booed and got many walkouts from the audience at the 2004 Cannes and Toronto Film Festivals. The most famous of these walkouts, Roger Ebert, noted that “The Brown Bunny,” was the worst movie to ever be shown at the Cannes Film Festival. This statement started an infamous war of words between Gallo and Ebert, at least it did through the press. There’s some debate over exactly who said what, and what was just rumored to have been said. This version however, is not the version of the film shown at the festival. That version, was edited down from its almost two hours running time to it’s current time of a little over ninety minutes. While I can only imagine how the movie actually was at Cannes, I have to conclude that this version is a great improvement. The film is certainly a Vincent Gallo vanity project. He wrote, acted, directed, cinematography, production design, art direction, costumes, etc. etc. He even does the makeup for the film. He plays a competitive motorcycle rider who's traveling across country to a motorcycle race in California, but what he’s really doing is trying to forget his girlfriend, Daisy (Chloe Sevigny). He does a predictably poor job of this, as he has many seemingly random encounters with women on his travels. They don’t seem to have much purpose other than to show random encounter with women on his travels, and how Bud (Gallo) reacts to them. I wonder if that’s the point. Frankly, I wonder about a lot of the movie. I wonder what if anything these encounters actually mean, and whether or not they’re supposed to mean anything, or are they a waste of our time. I think it’s a little of both. I also think that if I just saw the final half-hour of this movie as a short film, it'd win an Oscar for a Live Action Short. While I’m giving this movie an unusually good review star-wise compared to most reviews you’ll find, I must admit that part of the reason might be because this movie is far more interesting to have watched, than it is to actually be watching it. In the final half-hour, the most notorious part of the movie, we get to meet Daisy. She’s a meth and crack addict, and isn’t clean, and there’s a long discussion where everything gets revealed about there relationship, nothing of that revelation I will describe here, but it gives a light to all the scenes of Kerouacian-light traveling. Not necessarily a good light or a bad light, just any kind of light. The scene also includes one of the most infamous sex scenes in film. It’s graphic, and despite contradicting reports, it appears to really be two people involved in a sexual act. It might actually be the epitome of Gallo’s narcissism in fact, if one chooses to read it that way. I think it’s apart of the longer struggle for Bud to rid Daisy from her mind. (Revealing any more of my view on the act would reveal too much of the ending, so I’m going to stop here.) Part of me thinks this film will be considered a masterpiece twenty, fifty years from now, and part of me thinks it’s going be the forgotten excess project of an erratic man. I do think the movie has to be seen though. Interesting note on imdb.com though, Gallo’s has refused to release his latest two films to the general public. An artist who doesn’t show his art to the rest of the world. There’s a different sexual act that’s another word for that.

THE DESCENT (2005) Director: Neil Marshall
3 STARS
In the beginning moments of “The Descent,” a woman’s family is killed in a car accident. She apparently has a lot of friends that didn’t die in the accident, and they decide that a good way to get her mind off of this tragedy is to go cave diving in some mostly unexplored caves. If this was my life, I would’ve decided to go find new friends, that were, you know, sane. I have about thirty-five issues with the logic of this thought process, but whatever. There are people out there who like these kinds of adventures against and people make movies about them (“Deliverance”) and I generally I hope they get what they deserve (again, “Deliverance”). Okay, there’s my rant about that aspect of the movie, now for the good reason to make movies about people like this, is that’s its excited to see people trapped in places with few places to go. For about an hour, “The Descent,” is a very good example of skilled technical filmmaking. The girls, all of which are basically indecipherable from the others, but there’s lots of darkness and little light, and a lot of mysterious places where the characters can get lost or trapped, and they do. It's not an easy feat to make this thrilling, and it’s a sign that Director Neil Marshall knows what he’s doing. He creates a lot of tension of just these women traveling through these caves, that I was actually disappointed he decided to turn the movie into a horror film and add a bunch of disgusting humanoid, special effects created monsters. Mainly ‘cause he didn’t have to, he had enough of a story with these women trapped in the tight spaces, and just trying to get out would’ve been interesting. (I can point to last year’s amazing “127 Hours,” for a comparable tale).  Still, I’m recommending the movie, ‘cause it was better than I expected, and I’m hoping the Neil Marshall will learn from this experience. He’s clearly talented, he just needs to know when he’s got a great thrilling tale to begin with, and when to add a giant slimy monster. It’s uneven, but both parts of the story, were actually very well done.


DISGRACE (2009) Director: Steve Jacobs

5 STARS
“Disgrace,” is one of the few movies I’ve seen in a while where I couldn’t predict exactly what was going to happen, or how the characters would behave. It’s slow-paced but keeps you interested as slowly but surely, numerous little subtexts of the world creep in, and we get a film where a monstrous and egotistical character can also be the one who sees the insanity of the world, and be powerless to understand or do anything about it. That character is Prof. David Lurie (John Malkovich), he's a Literature professor in Cape Town, South Africa, a post-apartheid South Africa. He has few real emotions other than instinct. Out of this instinct, he begins a relationship with one of his students. He gets caught, and fired. He knew that would happen, and doesn’t put up a fight. He wasn’t in love, he just wanted to be with her and he knew the world didn’t look too kindly on that kind of behavior. He's evil, and he knows it. He ends up moving to the country where his lesbian daughter lives. (Jessica Haines) She’s runs a farm, which also has one of her former workers (Eriq Ebouaney) help her on the land, and she’s in the process of giving much of the land to him. Her lover has left her by the time David, which is what she calls her father, arrives to hideout for a while. He takes a job at a local volunteer animal hospital, helping disburse of the extra dogs. (A strange, disturbing, and probably a surprisingly realistic job that would’ve been available for him) Then, there’s an attack on his daughter’s home. He’s knocked unconscious, and trapped in a bathroom. The one time they open the door, the pour some kind of low-grade accelerant on him, and set him on fire. That pales compared to what happened to his daughter Lucy, which for much of the film, she refuses to discuss, for reasons that aren’t clear at first, but it’s not hard to figure out what happened. The movie remains unpredictable from here in terms of plot, but the movie is really about the hard struggles of a country as it’s shifts from one form of government and power to another, and how that effects everyone. I knew a kid years ago who had come from Johannesburg after it was named the deadliest place on Earth ‘cause of the rampage of violence that happened there on a regular basis. While it’s leader recommended a peace transition, it had very difficult growing pains to go through. This is only the second feature film director by Actor Steve Jacobs. I’m not familiar with either his acting or his previous directing work, but if this is only his second time out, I can’t wait to see what he does for a third.


THE ROCKER (2008) Director: Peter Cattaneo

4 1/2 STARS

In "The Rocker", Rainn Wilson from TV’s “The Office,” stars as a former drummer for a band named Vesuvius, which kicks him out of the band, right as they hit it big, and became the biggest band in the world. He’s angry, and pissed, and spends the next twenty years, unable to completely get over it. Finally, after loses another job because one of his co-workers keeps insisting he listen to the latest Vesuvius record, he ends up in the basement of his sister’s (Jane Lynch) place. There, he basically hangs around in his underwear all day, and does nothing. His nephew Matt (Josh Gad), who’s about to be go to MIT, has a band with a gig at the Prom, and is in a desperate, sudden need for a drummer, and Fish (Wilson) is the only one left to fill-in. He knows music, and the band's emo-alternative sound, and the lyrics by lead singer/guitarist Curtis (Teddy Geiger) are good, and convinces the band to remain together and try to get a few extra gigs and sneak in a few practices, even if that means practicing using synchronized webcams. After a video of there’s hits it big on Youtube, they get a record contract and hit the road. Fish, has been waiting twenty years to hit the road, and isn’t gonna let the fact that he’s the adult in a group of teenagers spoil his chance to live out the way he was always meant to. This movie was funny as hell! From the beginning when Fish chases down the band that just fired him on, this movie has a lot of surprisingly observant and thoughtful laughs throughout, and it’s a fairly believable and good story. (Although the story of how Vesuvius became British when they’re all from Cleveland, is a little underexplained, but it’s still funny.) There’s strong work all around here, including Emma Stone as the Band’s bassist, Jason Sudeikis as the band’s manager, and especially Christina Applegate, proving once again that she’s one of the best comic actresses around, as one of the band member’s mother, who may or may not be somewhat attracted to Fish. The movie has a final confrontation of sorts, when Fish’s band has to open for Vesuvius, and it surprisingly pays off. Good music, good comedy, great acting, this surprised me. One of the most entertaining comedies I’ve seen in a while. (Note: Stick around to read the credits, especially if you’re a Beatles’ trivia buff, you’ll appreciate one hidden-in-plain-sight cameo credit that alone is good for a “get-oughta-here laugh”)


STRICTLY SEXUAL (2009) Director: Joel Viertal

1 1/2 STARS

“Strictly Sexual,” is apparently the most streamed movie on hulu.com, which is how I ended up watching it, after the Netflix streaming at the library didn’t work. Either it was library’s problem with the computers, or that Netflix knew it was me when I signed onto my Netflix account. (I’m hoping for the latter, ‘cause even though, that means they’re mad at me for the blog I wrote about how “Streaming Movies Sucks”, it means that somebody at Netflix, is reading my blog. Well, I can hope anyway.) Why is this movie, which didn’t even get a theatrical U.S. release the most popular on Hulu.com? I imagine it has something to do with the name. It’s a good title. That’s about the only good thing I can say about this movie. (Note: Other good titles, bad movies include, “Dirty Dancing,” “Showgirls,” and “Striptease,” to name a few.) Here, two very attractive women (Amber Benson and Kristen Kerr) decide, for whatever reason to pick up some male prostitutes at a bar. They instead pick up a couple of unemployed construction workers, who spent the night, thinking they've gotten really lucky. (Johann Urb and Stevie Long, playing the construction workers). After the initial misunderstanding is resolved, there’s a mutual decision by the women, one of whom is apparently rich, and the other were told is a fashion designer, although we never see her working, decide to let the men live with them, essentially as live in sex-slaves, for whenever they feel like...- well, you get the picture, and the title. While this little indy comedy is bad,  and not particularly funny, the main issue with this movie I have is what I like to call “The Curse of Kevin Smith!” (I wish I had good sound effects for that.) Kevin Smith, as many of you know, is the great writer/director of such films as “Clerks”, “Chasing Amy,” “Dogma,” “Zack and Miri Make a Porno,” and a few other films. He’s a talented, albeit at times, lazy director, but he is an immensely great writer with great dialogue, especially frank dialogue about sex, spoken by both men and women. This has been true since his first movie, the ultra-low budget “Clerks,” where there’s a famous conversation between two characters that are dating, and talk about their past sexual experiences while one is painting the nails of the other. That conversation, eventually involves the number 37, in a context that’s often discussed in “Strictly Sexual,” but what the conversation is really about is love and faithfulness to each other, which just happens to include words like, eh, “37.” I thought about that conversation a great deal while watching “Strictly Sexual,” because its characters exhaustively and graphically talk about sex. The women talk about it with each other, they men talk about it with each other some more, the more talk about it with each other, and once the women fall in love with the men, they talk to each other in this blatant sexual talk, and it really becomes annoying. There’s no depth other than, it’s funny and shocking to hear women talk like that. It’s not. Kevin Smith was the first to use this kind of dialogue as everyday speech, bu it’s not simply about the words in his films, it’s about the subtext. Here’s there isn’t much subtext, if there is, it wasn’t worth caring about, because none of the characters are particularly likable. (One of the female characters, I found particularly obnoxious.)   It basically felt like an exercise in attempts at being funny with words, without creating real, funny, or interesting characters. While he writer Stevie Long, who plays the construction worker, that eventually becomes a writer in the movie, has clearly seen Kevin Smith films, he doesn’t realize what makes them so special is the characters and the inherit conflicts they have about the battles between love and sex. (What might be worse is that, I don’t think he’s ever even seen a Woody Allen film.)
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