Monday, September 12, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #8: "MIDNIGHT IN PARIS" (SPECIAL EXTENDED REVIEW), "TRUST," "BROOKLYN'S FINEST," AND MORE!

Since it happens so rarely, I've decided to write extended reviews of all movies I happen to see at the theatre, so for this week "Midnight in Paris," is slightly longer that normal, but it also means I have more to say. Hopefully I'll go to the theatre more often and see more films so as that I won't write longer reviews in this blog, 'cause they're long and take time, but for now, the movie-going experience is a rare pleasure, so I treat it with respect. Also, the tenth anniversay of 9/11 was yesterday, so I'll include a brief commentary at the bottom of this review on some of my thoughts, since it seems like everybody else has some. Enough going over this week's memo, on to the reviews:

MIDNIGHT IN PARIS (2011) Director: Woody Allen

5 STARS

Normally, I prefer to keep spoilers out of reviews, but in this case I can't help it. So, fair warning, for anybody who hasn't already seen Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," go see it as soon as you can, (particularly if you happen to be a fan, aficienado, or any kind of Literature buff, especially American literature, absolutely see this film!), and until you have, stop reading this review right now, and don't read it until you've seen it. In the meantime, scroll down to the next film review.


Every few years or so, somebody proclaims the latest Woody Allen film as his comeback picture, or "his best film in decades," or something along those lines, and there's been a lot of that going around with this latest one. While, in actuality he's made great movies in every decade, starting with his first film, 1967's "Take the Money and Run". (If you don't count "What's New, Tiger Lily?".) "Midnight in Paris," is certainly one of most distinctive among his recent work, and a lot of fun, and the whole thing takes place in the city of Paris, which is just fine with Gil (Owen Wilson). Gil is a hack Hollywood screenwriter who's trying to write a novel about a man who works in a nostalgia shop that specializes in the 1920s, in the days of Hemmingway and Fitzgerald, and other guilded age legends that paroused Paris back then. He's thrilled and amazed at how beautiful Paris is, although his fiance Inez (Rachel McAdams), and her parents (Kurt Fuller and Mimi Kennedy), are conservative Americans who are strangely unimpressed with the city. (Allen himself is so fascinated by the city, he even interrupts his typical opening credit sequence to show off the city.)  He spends the day touring, what seems like every high-brow cultural spot in Paris, along with Inez's friend Paul (Michael Sheen), who's a know-it-all intellectual realist and seems to think of great masters like Picasso and Rodanne only in the most textbook and trivial of manners. Then one night, Gil walks alone, half drunk in Paris, and the clock strikes midnight, and an old car pulls up an offers him a ride. It is at this moment, the movie enters the surreal. Or the fantastical as some might same. It is certainly ideal romanticism. He is then taken to a party by Scott and Zelda (Tom Hiddleston and Alison Pill) that seems strangely odd. Like a roaring twenties theme party, complete with Cole Porter songs being played on the piano. Except, no that's actually, Cole Porter (Yves Heck) and Scott and Zelda are the Fitzgerald's. It's never explained how but every night at midnight, Gil gets transported to Paris in the 1920s. I think everybody has one or two different eras that many of us would like to think we'd be better off living in. My 11th grade U.S. History teacher once remarked that she thought I'd a perfect beatnik circa 1950s. I can think of a few different times and places myself, but this idealized vision of Paris in the '20s is perfect for Gil. He has wonderful nights out with Eliot, Bunuel, Dali, Picasso,... he even gets Ernest Hemingway (Corey Stoll, in a wonderful supporting performance that I hope gets remembered at Oscar time.) to give Gil's novel to Gertrude Stein (Kathy Bates) to read over, and she has some very perceptive and thoughtful advice, and suddenly, Gil starts progressing on his novel, while Inez just wonders where he goes every night, and why he suddenly needs to dress up and wear perfume to write. The parents, who are already skeptical of this liberal Hollywood romantic have tried putting a private eye on him. In the meantime, he befriends Adriana (Marion Cotillard), who's a fashion designer that work with Coco Chanel, and is now a muse that starts fights between Picasso and Matisse, and later Hemingway, but they have an obvious spark between them.  The conceit of traveling to the past is frankly a conceit to examine that classic culture conflict or the pragmatist vs. the romantic, or if you prefer, the realist vs. the dreamer. Gil is certainly a romantic, and this '20s is certainly fantastical and probably very unrealistic and cliched portrayals of the era and that's part of the point and part of the fun. There's something quite amazing to suggest an idea for a film to Luis Bunuel, knowing he'd make the movie some time later. This is arguably Owen Wilson's best performance ever, he's perfect as the stand-in Woody Allen's character, and Cotillard's especially good, she becoming the actress to play kinds of fantasy, idealized or muse characters lately, and this is probably her best performance in English as well. Believe it or not, I've still only begun to tell you all the little details and intricacies of this film, and for Woody Allen, it's hard to rank his best films, there's too many of them, but, and I want to elaborate this, this is just the most fun film he's made in a long time. I really just sat back and had a wonderful, joyous time walking through history like this without, running into Hitler or something. If there ever is a deciding argument in the romantic-pragmatic debate, it's probably be, Romantics are just a lot more fun to be around, and this would be exhibit A.

TRUST (2011) Director: David Schwimmer

3 STARS


"Trust," has split critics widely since it's release. Roger Ebert gave it four stars (out of 4) and notes the surprisingly realism the film has, while mubi.com's Ignaty Vishnevetsky, (One of the critics on "Ebert Presents") thought it was one of the worst films this year because it plays into tired cliches, and turns the film into a message film where the message is outdated. I think it's somewhere in between.  It's not that good, but it's not that bad either. It's certainly brave of the filmmakers to tackle the subject of pedophiles that target their victims online. The victim is 14-year old Annie (Liana Liberato, in a very good performance). She's befriends a boy online named Charlie, who's very kind, and seems to be helpful with her homework and volleyball tips. They text constantly, which are often shown on the screen. Then he starts changing his age on her. First he was in high school, now he's in college, then, he says he's 25. She meets him at a mall one day. Charlie is clearly in his thirties or forties, but still, they go to a nearby motel, where she is raped. I've sat in front of the computer for the last few minutes trying to figure out what to write next, because the movie goes to a few different places from here. Liana Liberato strikes a surprisingly realistic note as she is reluctant to even tell what happened, but when it's out, and eventually public what happened. She's in denial about Charlie, and only eventually opens up to a grief counselor (Viola Davis). Her parents are surprised, angered, trying to understand, confused.... and themselves, at Charlie, at her. Her mother (Catherine Keener) is more nurturing and supportive. Her father (Clive Owen) is struggling as much if not more than his daughter. He works as an ad exec that designs some of those ad campaigns that usually are the subject of "Dateline," specials about whether were oversexualizing children. That part is a little too convenient for me, as well as a later incident at a volleyball game where Will (Owen) gets a little too lost in his own thoughts, and in an attempts to play heroic father, does more harm than good. Owen and especially Libretto, a relative unknown before this film are especially good though at getting right some complicated emotions that these characters are feeling, and how each characters shut out the rest of the world right as their innermost privacy is impeached by the Police, FBI, schoolkids, and even a rapekit exam. This is not an easy film to watch, and it shouldn't be. The movie does trend towards the contrivant side near the end, especially with the parent character, but this is a brave and important film. It's the second feature directed by David Schwimmer; I'm sure you know him as Ross from "Friends," but he's also one of the founders of the famed Lookingglass Theatre Company in Chicago, and has been acting and directing plays for years. His first directing feature was the film "Run, Fat Boy, Run," a comedy starring Simon Pegg, and if anybody doubts his acting ability, you should check out the Independent film "Duane Hopwood." He's on the boards of a few rape Rape Foundations for Rape Treatment Center in Santa Monica, and the movie, while it might not might not play particularly well at times as a film, sees disturbing realistic most of the time. It's worth watching, but it's not an easy one.

BROOKLYN’S FINEST (2010) Director: Antoine Fuqua

2 1/2 STARS


I've seen two films from Director Antoine Fuqua, and both deal with cops, corrupt and otherwise. The first film is "Training Day," which famously won Denzel Washington an Oscar for his portrayal as a corrupt cop. While that film had many flaws, it had two strong performances, and gave us a creative new look at a police drama. With "Brooklyn's Finest," he seems to be trying to make the epic of all police dramas, and instead, he kinda ends up making, pretty much every police drama you can think of, and when he ran out of those, he threw in some "Taxi Driver," at the end. The film has a multinarrative structure, centered around three different cops, that as far as I could tell, only had at best, a slight possible knowledge of the other two. Sal (Ethan Hawke) is a good cop on S.W.A.T. units primarily, but he murders and robs one cop and nearly kills another during a raid where he's suddenly begun trying to get ahold of as much money as possibly, legally or illegally, to pay for a house for his wife and 7 kids, soon to be nine. (His wife is having twins). Another cop is Tango (Don Cheadle) who's an undercover, and is asked to turn in his recently released old friend Casanova (Wesley Snipes) under the promise of a long-awaited promotion to a desk job. Eddie (Richard Gere), the soon-to-be-retiring cop (God is that cliche old), is suddenly forced to train a couple different rookies on his patrol route for his last week of service, meanwhile, he's infatuated with a prostitute and a possible missing child that her pimp has working for him. This movie is paceful, and takes time to tell each story, we're expecting them to somehow converge at the end, or at some point, but the bigger problem is that the stories just weren't that interested. There's some very good actors here, doing as much as they can with the material, including this being the first decent part Wesley Snipes's has had in forever, but they can only do so much. There might have been a good movie or two or three at some point, but it just gets too bogged down and slowly at that in it's genres own cliches, that even something interesting or unexpected does happen, the predictable is just around the corner, so all intrigue and excitement just goes away then.

HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST AND REBEL (2010): Director: Brigitte Berman

4 STARS

There's been more than a few documentaries made about Hugh Hefner, most of them authorized, some not, and I've seen a bunch of them already. Honestly, coming into this new one, I wondered what if anything there was left to learn about Hef. I was surprised to learn a lot, and the stuff I knew already, was told in a well-done and mostly entertaining way. Hefner and Playboy Magazine are iconic figures in modern Americana, most notably for progressing the sexual revolution, and idealizing a particular female figure, but also create the persona of the Playboy man. Strange, that apparently if you actually read the articles, you'd find things like the first place Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451," was published, and works by others as wide-ranged as Alex Haley and Shel Silverstein. Hefner's is still very lively, at his age, and while semi-retired, he's still has ultimate say in the magazine. He proudly looks over old boarded editions of his magazine, proud of many moments, like changing laws in the South so that Black members could enter Playboy Clubs that originally by law had to bar them. His accomplishments are surprisingly wide-range, and while there's a few critics that seem fairly shallow-minded on Hefner, this is mostly a puff piece that celebrates his career. It skims over briefly the two noted deaths of the Playboy empire, the suicide of his longtime secretary Bobbie Arnstein, which was predicated by an arrest of her and her drug dealer boyfriend, and attempts by an overzealous prosecuter to try and convince to testify wrongfully on Hefner's cocaine use (He admits to a pill addiction, but most everybody around him seems to note that he never so much as drinks or is seen using anything illegal), and the notorious murder of Playmate Dorothy Stratton. Probably for the best, those subjects, like much of this film, has long been analyzed before, but I think most interesting is that Hefner would allow another movie on him at this age. He seems to have more and more to say and more opinions and wisdom as time goes on, and he probably hopes that people will continue to listen to him. Frankly, I think, people probably should. 


LAST TRAIN HOME (2010) Director: Lixin Fan

4 STARS

In the openings of "Last Train Home," we get informed about migrant working in China, and how when they go home from their factory jobs for Chinese New Year, that those tens of millions traveling is the largest single migration of people in the world. It's the only time many of them ever get home. For a while, this footage of these mass migrations at train stations and bus stops, everybody fighting to find a seat, doesn't even look like a documentary. This log jam in the city is in stark contrast to the country, where two of these workers, married, go home to see there kids, who are living with their grandparents. Not only do we get a sense of China now, we get a sense of China then, and a very clear sense of where it's going. We follow this family for three years, as the workers live, basically in a bunk that looks more like a dorm room, only smaller, and with no privacy. During this time, was when China was starting to open up to the West. The family goes shopping at  a mall one day, and they wonder if they clothes they sowed were sold there. They send all the money to their kids. Then, the daughter does some math and realizes that she can move to the city, work in the sweatshops, and keep all the money herself. A stark contrast to the ways of old in China. This movie will remind some of the great documentary "Hoop Dreams," in how it follows a family for years, and eventually, it seems like the camera is almost forgotten by everyone around. It's is a strikingly real view of an amazing place and a real family that's struggling to survive and adapt in a world that's quickly and painfully changing.
THE PARKING LOT MOVIE (2010) Director: Meghan Eckman

3 STARS

The Corner Parking Lot in Charlottesville, Virginia is apparently a place full interesting philosophical people that want to do as little work as possible, like, parking lot attendant. They love the job, they hate the customers, and that's find with them. (Here, the customer is never right) They spend their days reading philosophy books, listening to music, writing new sayings or slogans on the board that goes up and down to let the cars in and out, which gets broken constantly. Sometimes they play flip cone, where you take an orange cone, flip it in the air, and trying to get it to land perfectly on top of another orange cone. Apparently, people that go through this parking lot, which is across from a local college, and is in between and in back of a bunch of bars and fraternities, people these guys usually hate, although they basically hate everybody. This is a fun, and at 70 minutes, a quick little documentary that is just interesting enough and funny enough to recommend. It's barely a film, but it's interesting where all they backlot poets end up in their lives, and they all still reminiscent about the Corner Parking Lot. Wish valets in this town were like that.
SERAPHINE (2009) Director: Martin Provost

3 1/2 STARS

"Seraphine," I'm told is a famous painter, with an improbably story of being a maid, when she started painting in her forties, and whose worked became well-liked by the famous art collector she worked for, and he'd worked hard for to try to get her work in museums ever since. I personally don't know the artist, but the paintings in the film, if they are hers, are definitely startling and at times amazingly beautiful. Seraphine's played by Yolande Moreau, you remember her from the film "Amelie,"  and she's quite good here as the artist. The movie, has a little similar feel to the "Camille Claudel" to me, which is disappointing because I saw that film recently and it's still fresh in my mind. Like Claudel, Seraphine's obsessiveness over her painting eventually end up with her living the rest of her life in an asylum, which has paid for by the collector, Wilhelm Uhde (Ulrick Tukur from "The Lives of Others") having many of her paintings sold. Apparently, since the film was released, a display of her paintings has been a major hit even today, and the movie won 7 Cesar Awards (French equivalent of Oscars). It's a good film, it didn't have a particular effect on me, but it's still pretty good, and at times very dramatic, I think it is a little off key at times for me, but still.
JCVD (2008) Director: Mabrouk El Mechri

3 1/2 STARS

The opening of "JCVD," is an action scene that is strangely shot in one take. Usually action sequences are edited with many cuts, but here, there's an impressive shot that goes from one scene to another without a cut. It's a reminder that Jean-Claude Van Damme is an amazingly talented man, who's capable of doing such complicated and long stunts. Then, the scenes ends, and still, without cutting, the camera backs up revealing that were actually on a movie set. Van Damme is breathing hard, he goes to the director who can't speak English. "I'm 47 years old, it's really hard for me to do long shots. We missed the two explosions, they didn't go off, I had to improvise...." The director argues with the translator before finally, the translator goes to him, "The fact that he doesn't use a gun shows his purity." "JCVD," which, yes, stands for Jean-Claude Van Damme, is one of the strangest films I've seen in a while. (It's also one of the few Van Damme films I've ever seen.) Van Damme plays himself, and he does it very well. He's an action star, he's a hero in his home country of Belgium, where most of the film takes place, and he's got financial and legal troubles. His wife is doing everything to keep his kids away from his, and now, he needs to transfer funds from a bank account to another to pay for alimony. Instead, he's in the middle of an actual bank robbery, and worst yet, everyone thinks he went crazy and is the one robbing the bank and holding hostages. This movie plays with time during a few sequences, showing many of the same scenes from multiple P.O.V.s. Van Damme has one Hamlet-esque monologue where he seems to be floating as he talks almost too honestly about his life.  I can't believe a Van Damme film would actually remind me of an Ingmar Bergman film, but there's some "Persona," in this film, and a lot of others odd influence. I don't actually know if all of them work, but it was certainly entertaining to see, and see just how many and what kind of strange events and scenario of events in this film. It's already such an inside joke, that it correctly does anything and everything it thinks it can, and it works.
MOSCOW, BELGIUM (2008) Director: Christophe Van Rompaey
4 STARS
"Moscow, Belgium," is a cute little May-December meet cute romance, and not much more, but that's enough. Matty (Barbara Sarafian) is a mother of three whose husband has left to go live with his mid-life crisis girlfriend. She's not in the best move when she gets in a fender-bender with Johnny (Jurgen Delnaet), a truck driver who travels back and forth from Italy every week in a big rig. They don't like each other, but there's a mutual chemistry, and you know they'll end up together. Movies like this are a dime a dozen, so it really gets determined first by the script, which is strong, and then by the actors, and both leads are very good and compatible. Her, we learn a lot about, like she works as a hotel clerk where an undertaker is a constant visitor buying hotel room for the latest crop of funeral guest. (Huh, I just realized that I watched two films that took place in Belgium this week, weird). Him, we learn slowly. He has a past that involves an ex-girlfriend that gets him fired up and drinking, and once landed him in jail after finally hitting her, probably justly but still. The husband's still in the picture, to create the illusion them possibly getting back together, which is what he wants, but is not gonna happen in this film. It's a little formulaic, but there's great chemistry, good writing, and it's cute, and there's nothing beyong the realms of believability.
LAST DAYS (2005) Director: Gus Van Zant

1 STAR

Gus Van Zant is an interesting director. He's capable of making major Hollywood blockbusters and masterpieces, and Hollywood wants him to, but he usually decides to go out on his own and makes some more personal Independent projects, that hardly anyone sees. His last two major projects included the Oscar-winning "Good Will Hunting," and "Milk",  but he also goes out and makes more inventive and possibly important work like "My Own Private Idaho," "Drugstore Cowboy," and "Elephant." He also however,  is capable of making the disappointing "Paranoid Park," "Gerry," and this film, "Last Days." It's obviously influenced from the last days of Kurt Cobain, it even says so in the end credits. French actor Michael Pitt plays Blake, the Cobain stand-in character, who's hiding from a few different people at his reclusive Pacific Northwest home. He's apparently escaped from rehab, and has a tendency to occasion wear women's lingerie. He has a strange conversation with a man involving a phone book ad he published last year from a store that sold train part. He's mumbles and stumbles though his speech, and the pressures of fame are getting to him, ducking even close friends because they might have a tape of someone that he wants them to listen to.  The camera involves a lot of long takes and is shown often from a perspective that part point of view, but feels like an eye of god. He used a similar technique in "Elephant," which dramatized a school shooting similar to Columbine. That film was masterful, here it's subject isn't that interesting, and it's a long Samuel Beckett-like fascination on nothingness. Even when his houseguests leave, they talk about and ask each other why they're leaving. Cause the story doesn't include houseguests now, that's why. I mean, it's a tough subject matter but it's a long, slow and ultimately boring film, where we're just waiting for him to die, and then we find out, what? Not much. really.

SPECIAL 9/11 COMMENTARY
It's the tenth anniversary of 9/11 as the TV wouldn't, and half of Facebook wouldn't let me forget that today, and today has been an unofficial day of remembrance. My question is why are we trying to focus and remember this? I remember it like was yesterday too, and we get constant reminders to "Never Forget." I don't think anybody's forgetting. It was the single biggest fuck-up in American history. The first time since Pearl Harbor there's been a foreign Declaration of war on American soil, and the biggest single lost of American life in battle since the Alamo, and these were all civilians. We were in shock that it could and did happen, and instead of learning from the incident, and fighting to end this kind of terrorism, it took us ten years to catch the guy who did, we are still in two wars because of 9/11, one we shouldn't have ever been in, and we fucked up so badly that we basically have to stay there because if we don't the situation will become worse, and those are just two two of the things we've used 9/11 as justification for doing, that doesn't include the Patriot Act, the overspending of the military and of Top Secret America which doesn't make us any safer, it just means we have more people watching us, and now all that money that could go into social plans is being used elsewhere. I didn't think we did a single thing right after 9/11, and I was more pissed off at our country at that point than at any point in my lifetime up 'til then, and what we did instead was mourn, and live under an American flag. I remember I made an argument in class about eight days after 9/11 that patriotism was worse than terrorism. It's a naturally facetious argument, the two things aren't comparable, but I made it precisely to piss a few people off those who weren't looking at this logically.  We got caught up in sorrow over what happened, that we didn't care about how/why it happened,  how our country didn't see the signs or the clues and couldn't prevent this, and worse, when it did happen, we fumbled how to do it. If you're thinking what I'm saying is borderline blasphemous on this day, when we're supposed to be remembering those that died, well, I think it's offensive we're fascinated with the dead. It's been ten years, and not only have we not forgotten, but now I'm getting constant reminders that we're still living with it. A lot of people died that day and were infatuated with it, like a fetish. instead of moving on. Everything should've been done and over with now. Everything should've been done and over with years ago. So, 9/11 happened. It was the first time we experienced something like that, and hopefully it'll be the last, but we have to stop keeping it in the forefront of our mind. Let me make my point clear, you don't have to worry about us ever forgetting, so there's no need to remind us. So there are those alive who didn't experience it, well, lucky them. My thoughts on this day have as I've had to sit through every channel doing some kind of remembrance have mostly been of one of my favorite Sarah Silverman jokes: I don't think I remember it exactly, but it goes something like this, "Yeah I remember 9/11 it was very emotional for me, because that was the day I found out that the Soy Chai Lattes at Starbucks had like a 1000 calories in them, and I had been drinking them, like every day."
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