Thursday, September 29, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #10: "IN A BETTER WORLD," "FAIR GAME" "EXPORTING RAYMOND" AND MORE!

Well, a new week and a new set of movie reviews. I hope you'll excuse me for having only 9 films instead of my customary 10. I've spent much of this week focused on TV as Premiere week comes to an end. I try not to review TV shows, first of all, there's too many of them, secondly, I usually think it takes more than one or two episodes for a show to fully gel and recognize what it is and how good or bad it is. I mean, it took "Night Court," 3 years before it got good, and most shows don't get that opportunity. (Although I must say, "2 Broke Girls", has a lot of potential and is very funny so far.) Also, I'd like to give a note to Reed Hastings and everybody out there over at Netflix/Qwickster: Please stop doing stupid shit, so I can stop writing blogs about you; it's really getting to be annoying to have write about you guys every week because of something stupid you did. I really don't enjoy it! Thank you. Okay, enough with this week's announcements, on to the reviews!

IN A BETTER WORLD (2010) Director: Susanne Bier
5 STARS
I was bullied when I was in school. Not all the time, but enough. I won't name any names, but to this day, I am convinced that with some of those bullies, the only thing that would've gotten them to stop would be me finally killing them. I'm sure that statement will shock some people. I hope I am wrong, and I am in no way condoning any such action, but in my mind, that was the only course of action that I could see that would've been successful. I think history has shown that with some people, the only response to their violent actions is a greater violent action, usually their destruction. I think Susanne Bier thinks the same way, and I also believe she thinks that if we did live "In a Better World," that wouldn't be case. Bier's film won last year's Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, and even before then, Hollywood had taken notice of her. They recently remade her film "Brothers," she was previously nominated for an Oscar for her film "After the Wedding," and she directed the underrated, "Things We Lost in the Fire," with Halle Berry. I think this is her best film yet. The film takes place in both her home country of Denmark, and in an unnamed warlord-led country in Africa, where Anton (Mikael Persbrandt) works as a doctor at a local village, where a local leader is slicing up pregnant women for sport. At home in Denmark, his son Elias (Markus Redgaard) is being bullied at school. A new kid from London, Christian (William Johnk Nielsen) helps him out one day. Christian is a good kid, but is filled with anger since his mother's death after a long illness and he doesn't understand it when his father (Ulrich Thomsen) isn't as angry or as sad as he is. Elias's mother, Marianne (Trine Dyrholm) is separated from Anton and at home with Elias, she can't understand what has gotten into Elias with some of his recent behavior. Anton tries to teach kids that being aggresive and demanding isn't the answer, but Christian doesn't seem to agree, and after an incident with a local mechanic and his kid, Christian finds it necessary to seek justice by making a bomb. Elias is reluctant but impressionable. He knows what Christian is doing is wrong, but he doesn't see a right way either, and his parents are literally and figuratively too distant to fully understand or listen to his problems. "In a Better World," isn't an easy watch, but it's a powerful film that analyzes the nature, causes and effects that bullying and violence can have on people, and often that sometimes reveals people's true nature, good and bad, and just how difficult it is to try to make the world a better place at home and in general. Bier is often criticized for how she seems to combine the third world with the more middle and upper class domesticity, and that in her worlds, they are often too conveniently parallel, but I think what she's actually doing is showing how the nature of man struggles to adjust and adapts to the world around him. "In a Better World," violence wouldn't be an answer, but unfortunately, sometimes it is.

FAIR GAME (2010) Director: Doug Liman
4 1/2 STARS
The Bush Administration lied about their justifications for going to war with Iraq. This is an indisputable truth. I can say that with complete certainty now. I did say it then too, but I didn't have proof. Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) did. He had been to the nuclear plants in Niger, where Bush claimed the Iraqi government was attempting to attain yellowcake uranium, and he knew that there's no way they could've or would've produced it and sold it to Iraq. He wrote an op-ed article saying and explaining as much, and for that he became Public Enemy #1 in the Scooter Libby's office (David Andrews) then, the V.P.'s Chief of Staff, and sent out a public relations propaganda machine, making any and all attempts to discredit Joe Wilson, and in doing so, they publically outed his wife Valerie Plame's (Naomi Watts) cover as a covert CIA agent, breaking about a dozen national security laws in doing so, as well as ending her career. And worse than that, put many people's lives in danger by having to call off many of her operations, including one that investigated Iraqi physicists which clearly determined that they hadn't been making any nuclear weapons or even tried to since the First Gulf War. It's hard to remember exactly all of these details as our 24-hour news cycle not only gives us a short memory, but also a skewered perspective on the events. Wilson was called a Communist and anti-American, and was asked whether he went on a vacation on his wife's dime, since his wife's boss wrote a recommendation to use Wilson to investigate the uranium. Like anybody's ever gone to a nuclear plant in West Africa for vacation, ever. This is a surprisingly fascinating and intellectual thriller. I'm a little surprised that Doug Liman pulled this off. He's best known for directing the first Jason Bourne movie, "The Bourne Identity," as well as the action-comedy-romance "Mr. and Mrs. Smith," a movie more infamous for the off-screen chemistry of it;s cast than anything else. Their isn't as much action in this film, even the scenes where Valerie goes off to missions to places like Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to convince a son of a business owner, who donated to a charity... who has ties with Al Qaeda, are surprisingly low-key, and give the impression that espionage is a surprisingly straight-forward profession. There's strong acting here by Penn and Watts, not surprisingly as their lives and their marriage begin to strain. This is the second film I've seen based on he Valerie Plame story, the original being "Nothing But the Truth," which was a fictionalized account, about a reporter protecting a source. That film was very good as well, and more dramatic, but it was also filled with a Hollywood storyline and plot, including a twist at the end. This movie, based on Wilson and Plame's books, feels like what actually happened.

EXPORTING RAYMOND (2011) Director: Phillip Rosenthal
4 STARS
It's one of the lesser-known subsects of the television world, the adapting of TV shows from one country, and making new versions in another. It works both ways, many shows in America are adapted from British TV shows, including "All in the Family," "Three's Company," and probably most famously, "The Office". Overseas, you might be surprised to find that the show that's been the biggest hit is "The Nanny." All over Europe, South America, Asia, "The Nanny," has been adapted in dozens of countries. "Everybody Loves Raymond," producer Phil Rosenthal, after finishing up the series got a call from Russia, who's interested in developing a Russian version of the series. You'd probably think that of all American shows, that "...Raymond," would be one of the most universal, but as Rosenthal finds out, it actually gets a little lost in translation. "Exporting Raymond," follows Rosenthal, as he travels to Russia to help make "Everybody Loves Kostya", and it's one of the more entertaining and fun documentaries you're going to find. It's hard to forget that the wall came down only a quarter-century ago, and Russian TV is still learning how to do certain things. They think Raymond is a little too affeminate compared to the more macho vodka-drinking Russian males. The costume designer who's always dressed like she stepped off a runway at fashion week, can't understand why the clothes can't be more stylish and hip, even when Debra character has been cleaning the house all day, and apparently the shows that work best in Russia are ones with more outlandish characters and behaviors ("Married...with Children," for example is a huge hit in Russia) and they seem confused by the more banal comedy of Raymond, where an entire episode can center around who's going to move a suitcase. From debates with the heads of TV over such details as having a studio audience that's actually in the studio, to trying to get an actor they like out of his theatre contract with the Moscow Theatre, (The one where Stanislavsky, basically invented method acting) "Exporting Raymond," gives us a very rare perspective on not just how a TV show gets put together, also the behind-the-scenes tension, difficult, and ironically, comedy involved in taking something distinctly and making it universal.
BEHIND THE BURLY Q (2010) Director: Leslie Zemeckis
2 STARS
"Behind the Burly Q," is oddly boring. Well, it's not exactly boring. It's hard to be boring when the whole movie is mostly a bunch of naked women, but something about this movie just doesn't seem to transcend its subject. The movie is about the era of burlesque, that post-vaudeville, pre-television form of entertainment that while it was actually structured as a satirical variety show with comedians, novelty acts, musical numbers, singers, and anything else they could find, the era is remember for the seductive burlesque strippers. The movie interviews many of the surviving former dancers, and they have a lot of stories to tell. They mostly seemed to interview anybody and everybody that had anything to do or even remembers the burlesque era. Some of you might be alarmed to see Alan Alda being among the interviewees, but those who've followed much of his career will know that his father Robert Alda was a comedian in burlesque showss for decades. (He guest-starred with his son occasionally on "M*A*S*H".) The problem with the movie is that the movie seems to just be a bunch of interviews, with some old photos and in some cases, some very rare footage of these girls performing, and not much else, as they go through a rather long and elaborate list of famous names in burlesque, many are alive, some are dead. A few of the names like Gypsy Rose Lee or Tempest Storm you'll recognize. Well, maybe not, actually. It's possible that recognizing some of these names is a side-effect of living in Vegas too long, where we have museums dedicated to this kind of entertainment. Nothing wrong with that, and normally I highly recommend it, but Leslie Zemeckis's film (Yes, she's Robert's wife), is a nice little love poem to a bygone era, but the movie is a bunch of talking heads, that yes, often have some interesting stories to tell, but a good documentary should have a little more than just a bunch of people telling stories, even if they do occasionally involve Jack Kennedy and the phrase, "I'm only 14"! 
MENACE II SOCIETY (1993) Directors: The Hughes Brothers

5 STARS

"Menace II Society," is forever linked two other films that masterpieces that came out before it, Spike Lee's "Do the Right Thing," and John Singleton's "Boyz N the Hood". Three films that came out in a 5-year span, each of them great, each about a young inner-city African-American youth, and each directed by a young African-American director, or in "Menace..."'s case, two. Twin brothers Albert and Allen Hughes grew up in an L.A., and begin their film with images of the Watts Riot in the '60s. That's when I paused the movie and went on wikipedia for a second, and reflected that Paul Mooney is right when he says I have to know my history. Caine (Tyrin Turner) narrates his story, beginning with a trip to a convenient store to get a soda that ends with him being an accessory to a double-murder. Caine is a smart young kid, who doesn't have a chance in life. His father (Samuel L. Jackson) is a local drug kingpin, who often killed people. His mother (Khandi Alexander) was a heroin addict that he knocked up. By the time Caine is in high school, both his parents are long dead of their own lifestyle, and he's a smalltime drug dealer that lives with his grandparents, whose only apparent parenting method is to preach religion. Caine tunes it out. By the movies end, he has killed a few people, been shot on two separate occasions, detained by police for the original robbery cause of his fingerprints, but because his friend O-Dog (Larenz Tate) stole the video camera footage, they can't hold him, (O-Dog shows that footage to everybody except the police), and gotten a girl pregnant from a one-night stand. He cares deeply for Ronnie (Jada Pinkett), the ex-wife of Purnell (Glenn Plummer), a pseudo-mentor/father figure to Caine, who's currently in prison. Of the three films, "Menace II Society," is the most tragic. In the other films, the protagonists are more observers of the world, and are looking and at times, finding ways to get out. Caine, can't see any way out of Watts. Had he had any other opportunity or option, possibly anything that could've shown him a way out.... The Hughes Brothers were given a video camera when they were 12, and began making movies soon after. This was their first, their best, and most important feature film. They got out, and they observe that others in their neighborhood, weren't so lucky.
PRETTY IN PINK (1986) Director: Howard Deutch

3 STARS

Somehow I missed "Pretty in Pink," in the John Hughes catalog originally growing up, and I can see why I missed it. I am recommending it, but it isn't one of his most his best screenplays. (It also hurts that he didn't direct it.) It relies a little too heavily on the conflict of rich kids vs. poor kids for plot development, but on the same token, this movie has a surprising amount of good acting that makes up for a lot of it. The eternal teenage girl, Molly Ringwald plays Andie. She works at a local record store, which is currently her household's only income, and she spends her time trying to keep her father (Harry Dean Stanton) from drinking, and making her clothes, which she gets made fun of at school. (Frankly, the clothes do look a little old maid-ish.) Her friend Ducky (Jon Cryer) has been in love with her for years. It's unrequited, and he doesn't do himself any favors by hanging onto her like a leach, and being generally strange. Andie eventually starts to fall for Blane (Andrew McCarthy), one of those rich kids who make fun of her. Their only other activities seem to involve, parties, drugs, sex, and overall doucheness, with Blane's friend Steff (James Spader) being a combination of all of the above. It kinda strange that this movie has such strong actors, 'cause it's actually more of a typical story of rich kids vs. poor kids. I just saw "The Outsiders," a few weeks ago, and movie also had a similar theme, (and also good acting) and here, I kinda thing that compared to Hughes better teenage films like "Ferris Bueller's Day Off," or "The Breakfast Club," there really isn't anything being said or told here, other than just a regular generic story about teenagers with a made-up conflict in the middle. His other films had a point of view, and and times, some real insight. Comparatively, this film is better than most of it's copies, but for John Hughes, it's a film or lesser importance. 
WYATT EARP (1994) Director: Lawrence Kasdan

1 1/2 STARS

I confess to not knowing a whole helluva lot about Wyatt Earp, based on some of the myths, legends and facts that have come across my way about him, his life seemd to be far more interesting than this. Lawrence Kasdan's epic biopic, "Wyatt Earp," spans his entire life, and I guess includes myths, legeneds and facts about him, but this movie is so overwrought, overlong, badly paced, and badly casted, that I just couldn't particularly care. It doesn't help that the movie came out shortly after "Tombstone," which is a better movie, that covers much of the same material. It begins with Wyatt and his brothers, living in Missouri, where he learns about the importance of family over everything else from his father (Gene Hackman). The movie then seems to forget that Wyatt had all those brothers for most of the film. Kevin Costner's portrayal as Wyatt Earp, might be his worst performance ever. For the first hour of the movie especially, he just seems to be wandering around, amazed that he's playing Wyatt Earp. Costner and Kasden had worked together previously on the western "Silverado." (Costner also played the dead body in Kasdan's "The Big Chill".) Their's an interesting performance by Dennis Quaid as Doc Holliday, who becomes Earp partner-in-crime, and law enforcement, but it stills lacks the memorableness of Kilmer's earlier portrayal. Earp, lived until the 20th Century, and was probably the last of the Wild West heroes to die, and for that, and everything else that he saw, he was probably one of the last credible witnesses to the taming of the West. That seems to be mostly what he does in this film though, witness. He might often be involved in the actions, be even as he's killing, he never seems to be apart of the action, Costner almost seems to be outside of his own role here. Kasdan, is quite a filmmaker, beginning with the screenplay for "The Bodyguard," which for a decade and a half was considered the best script unfilmed script in Hollywood, he got hired to write "Raiders of the Lost Arc," and the two Star Wars sequels before directing his own films, which include some great work as, "Body Heat," "The Big Chill," and "The Accidental Tourist". He hasn't made a movie in a while however, and "Wyatt Earp," was just one of a long line of less-than-stellar films that came after, but the downfall was probably that this one was the most ambitious of those films.
SOUL MEN (2008) Director: Malcolm D. Lee

1 1/2 STARS

"Soul Men," became known for marking the final filmed performance of the great comedian Bernie Mac, as well as the last acting performance of Rock'n'Roll Hall of Famer, Isaac Hayes. Mac's career was just beginning to shine, one of "The Kings of Comedy," his movie career includes strong performances in films as varied as the "Oceans Eleven" films, to "Bad Santa," and even  a few leading performances, including "Mr. 3000," and "Guess Who," as well as his own TV series, "The Bernie Mac Show," which earned him 2 Emmy nominations for Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, the only African-American to be nominated in the category in nearly a quarter-century. (To all those who would've guess since Bill Cosby, [Me included], nope, '88, Tim Reid for "Frank's Place," is the last one before Mac). Mac plays Floyd Henderson, who along with Lloyd Hines (Samuel L. Jackson) were "The Real Deal," the back-up singer for Markus Hooks (John Legend) until Hooks went solo. Shortly after a brief career as a duo, they broke up. Now, nearing middle age, Hooks unexpectedly dies. They didn't particularly like them but at the funeral concert, they're invited to perform. Floyd, who's been forced into retirement from his successful car businesses from his kids, and his hip, has to convince Lloyd, who's become a convict, to reunite and drive cross country for the show, playing a few set-up gigs along the way. Hijinks ensue, they always do. Some are funny, some are tragic, and much of it involves 30-year arguments and grudges that are just now getting hashed out. There's nothing particularly new in the film, it's actually basically a remake of "The Blues Brothers," and that's not inherently a bad thing. The performances are strong, but the movie is hardly ever as funny as it thinks it is, and that's a problem. The music is good, but it's not really good enough to salvage the project, even when they get a new lead singer (Sharon Leal), who is also a link to their past. Instead of a blooper real at the end, there's a montage of some stand-up and interview footage Mac did during the movie for the extras between takes. I never think of Bernie Mac as having come up unhappy, the way I would think of comics like Richard Pryor or Bill Hicks for instance. Mac seems to be happy, and having a good time, very grateful of where his career and life had taken him. The shame is that he really could've done so much more.
OUR VERY OWN (2005) Director: Cameron Watson

2 1/2 STARS

"Our Very Own," earned Allison Janney an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Supporting actress, and she is good as the wife of an alcoholic jobless husband (Keith Carradine), who's quickly spending the family out of their house, but the movie doesn't focus too much on them. Instead, it's lead is their teenage son Clancy (Jason Ritter). It's 1978, Shelbyville, Tennessee, and you might have guessed Shelbyville, but it still looks like 1955 there. He's one of a bunch of friends, who have little to do in Shelbyville other than get into minor trouble, (At one point, they toiletpaper, one of the friend's own house), and occasionally explore sex. Their's one kid who's a constant dick and calls the groups a bunch of names for affeminate, includeing that 6-letter F-word, I'd rather not say, but frankly, even his character is too underwritten for me to care about what happens to him. The group begins working on a musical tribute to Sandra Locke, the famous hometown girl, who rumor has it... is going to return home for the annual horse show. Whether or not she arrives, I won't reveal, but on whole, there's a few interesting potential stories here in this slice-of-life, but the movie just keeps drifting between them, and it never really focuses on anything long enough. I can see why Allison Janney got a nomination, other than being one of the best actress alive, her and Carradine's scenes, are the most interesting and dramatic, that's probably because their the best actors around, and they know how to steal a movie, especially from a bunch of kids. Also, for some strange reason, Mary Badham, who played Scout in "To Kill a Mockingbird," is in this film, it's the only one she's done in 40 years. Good to see her again I guess, but why now, and why this film? 
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