Friday, October 28, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #11: PART 1: NEWER-ISH FILMS: "THE LINCOLN LAWYER," "WIN WIN," "CONAN O'BRIEN CAN'T STOP," "I SAW THE DEVIL," "PEARL JAM TWENTY," AND MORE!

Well, after a week delay, my computer is back and better than ever. So still shitty, but running somewhat better now than before, and except for having to redownload Microsoft Office, it's running pretty well. What that also means is that, I've seen dozens of films in that time without the computer, and this is just about half of them. I'll post the rest of the reviews later, these are all the films I watched that were released either this year or last year, so these films are all recently released, and fairly easy to get ahold of, so this is a special Newer Films Only Edition of the blog. Hope you enjoy it.

Oh, and don't think that I didn't notice Netflix, has chosen to back out of their plans to separate the DVD-by-mail and the streaming movies options into two different websites. If you recall I wrote a blog when that happened documenting how bad an idea that was, and strongly recommended that they reverse that decision, and they have. While they have still not listened to every one of my criticisms it is a positive step forward for them. I take full responsibility for Netflix's change-of-heart, and I thank you and all of my readers for support in this endeavor. 

(Lawyer's note: David Baruffi was one of over 30,000 who complained about Netflix's planned splitting of the company's movie viewing options into two websites, his average viewership per blog is less than 10 readers per blog. He doesn't actually claim that him and/or his so-called "readers," had anything to do with Netflix's reversal of their previous decision, and there is no evidence to indicate that he had any impact on this or any business decision made by any members of Netflix.)

And now, on to the reviews!

THE LINCOLN LAWYER (2011) Director: Brad Furman

4 STARS

I can't remember the last time when Matthew McConaughey was in something decent either, but "The Lincoln Lawyer," is fairly decent.  Here, he's taking a break from his nice shirtless, southern guy schitck to play Mick Haller, an L.A. attorney, who spends his days being driven from place to place, client to client, court case to court case, in a Lincoln towncar. I know what you're thinking, product placement, but no, this was actually based off the Michael Connolly novel, and it's apparently faithfully adapted. His typical day involves getting pulled over by a motorcycle gang full of clients that owe him money, occasionally running into his ex-wife (Marisa Tomei) on the opposite side of a hearing, consulting with his investigator (William H. Macy) about what to look for in his cases. His current one involves defending Louis Roulet (Ryan Phillippe) in a case. He's been accused of brutally raping and beating a woman to death. There seems to be enough circumstantial evidence to get him off, but then Mick realizes that their might be a connection to a case involving an old client of his (Michael Pena), who he ended up convincing to plea to life imprisonment. The movie has a Raymond Chandler/Perry Mason type style, where there's clearly a lot of disconnected parts, and you're waiting to see how and how well, they're going to fall together. There's some good supporting work here also by Frances Fisher, John Leguizamo, Katherine Moennig and Josh Lucas, as well as nice barely catchable cameo by Bryan Cranston. This is good little thriller, knows it is, and correctly doesn't strive to be more than that; it's also McConaughey's best performance in years. "The Lincoln Lawyer," is nothing essential, but it's a good solid edge-of-your-seat thriller, that succeeds at keeping you on the edge, up until maybe the ending, but the keyward for this film is, solid.

WIN WIN (2011) Director: Thomas McCarthy

4 1/2 STARS

There's probably no better actor for the intriguing and imaginative films of Tom McCarthy that Paul Giamatti. McCarthy, works regularly as a character actor, and with the money from that, he makes his own movies. This is the third film he's directed after "The Station Agent," which starred Peter Dinklage as a hermitish dwarf who's fascinated by trains, that's a great film, and he also directed "The Visitor," which made my ten best list the year it came out, and earned longtime character actor Richard Jenkins (You might know as the dead father on "Six Feet Under) a well-deserved Oscar nomination as a college professor who starts to learn the African drum after finding a Senagalese family living in his New York apartment (McCarthy also got an Oscar nomination as one of the writers for Disney's "Up") . Here, the great Paul Giamatti play Mike Flaherty, a struggling New Jersey lawyer who, along with an accountant that shares offices with him (Jeffrey Tambor) volunteers as the wrestling coach at the local high school. He's running out of money, and decides to become the guardian of one of his clients (Burt Young, yeah, the one that played Adrian's brother in "Rocky") in order to collect the check from the state. The situation seems like the ideal way out. Mike puts the old man in a local rest home, and makes sure his home is okay. Then his grandson (Alex Shaffer) unexpectedly shows up at his doorstep. He's run away from his mother (Melanie Lynskey) in Ohio, after she was put into rehab, and went to live with the grandfather he never knew. Mike and his wife (Amy Ryan) take him in temporarily until the situation can get sorted out. In the meantime, the kid turns out to be a natural wrestler, and Mike enrolls him into high school to build up the team. I'm actually just barely laying the groundwork of this film, which has lots of sudden and realistic developments, all of them believable when played by these amazing actors. I wouldn't be shocked if one or two of these actors names show up on a few Awards lists in the next few months. These are the best actors in Hollywood in this film, and they all giving amazing performances. I didn't even mention Bobby Cannavale as Mike's friend, who's suffering through a divorce. The movie is also well-written, there's never a wrong-sounding note, and without giving anything away, every step of how the story develops makes logical sense. If there's a criticism, it's that compared to his earlier work, "Win Win," doesn't to me, give the same kind of emotional hold of it characters as "The Station Agent," and "The Visitor," did. That might also be the natural complexities of the script as well though. Still, for the strong writing and the amazing performances, this is definitely one of the better films so far this year, and I'll be remembering more than a few of these performances for awhile.

CONAN O'BRIEN CAN'T STOP (2011) Director: Rodman Flender

4 1/2 STARS


After first getting and then giving up "The Tonight Show," Conan O'Brien began touring on the "Legally Prohibited From Being Funny on Television Tour". The behind-the-scenes of that tour are documented in the documentary "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop". The "Can't Stop," part, somewhat surprisingly refers to Conan's continuous need to perform. Maybe for those who might know him, it isn't surprising, but it was to me. Somewhat lost in the whole original late night shift, was when Conan got the job from David Letterman, he might have been the most unlikely of choices. He had no performance experience to speak of, and was basically plucked out of the writers room of "The Simpsons," when he got the job on Late Night. I guess I should've thought that somebody from a writer's room that manages to snag the second biggest hosting gig on TV must have some strong inert desire to perform. He goes and set-ups secret performances on his days off, he adds extra shows, and then goes out to greet his fans and takes pictures and sign autographs. He's almost bemused at his own celebrity. He's constantly reminding himself not to take it further. Behind-the-scenes, he's often somewhat short and his humor is dark with some of his writing staff. There's a particularly cruel scene with Jack McBrayer, of "30 Rock," where I wasn't exactly sure that he was joking or not for a while. His performances includes most of the members of his shows, and jokes that changes on a close to a nightly basis, and he even plays guitar and sings with his band. I've always like Conan. I used to constantly watch his late night show, and I even loved "The Tonight Show," which I did watch on a fairly regular basis. (I also was the one person who really liked Jay Leno's 10 o'clock show). There's an interesting way where his humor almost seems to be outside of his own comedy that's strikingly funny. I remember once, he had a bit where his staff called months earlier about having a bit with a monkey in it, but the monkey they wanted to use was out of town. Then the monkey turns out to be available for the day, so Conan just told the story of the phone call, said they didn't even remember what the bit was that they needed the monkey for, but then introduced the monkey anyway. It's odd how intense his desire to perform is, considering how his humor does come at such a 3rd person angle. After one show, he has a fascinating conversation with Jim Carrey, who did a surprise appearance on the show that night. They talked about how, no matter what he's doing, or where he goes, could be U2 concert, he just has a compulsive need to jump on the stage and start performing. Conan is erratic, and it's clear that he still feels the pain of what happened to him at NBC. He got a $40 million dollar buyout, and could've paid off most of his staff if he simply wanted to with the money, and he probably did, and yet, he still went on tour, where he proudly announced that it was the first time somebody actually paid money to see him perform. What I learned about Conan from "Conan O'Brien Can't Stop," is that he proudly would've toured for free. This will be one of the best documentaries you see all year.

I SAW THE DEVIL (2011) Director: Jee-woon Kim

5 STARS

"I Saw the Devil," is the first film I've seen by Korean director Jee-woon Kim, and it's a sick, disturbing, violent, masterpiece. Asia, particularly Korea has been the home of some of the best and most interesting horror and psychological thrillers in recent years. This movie, has lots of blood, dismembered body parts and sickening characters, but it's strength lies in it's directing, and the intensity Kim tells his story. The story is basically your typical revenge story. A guy's wife is heinously raped and murdered by a sick fuck. The sick fuck isn't caught, and he's also a serial killing sick fuck, and the sickest thing is that he isn't even the sickest fuck there is. The girl's husband, decides that he's going to get even with this guy. He's going to do everything short of killing him, and then, he's going to let him go, and then, do everything short of killing him again. The movie's gruesome, but it really plays more like a revenge detective-type, almost "Death Wish"-like, but I think a better recent example might be the cat-and-mouse game played by the main characters in "No Country for Old Men." Here though, even the hero, the fiance of the victim, becomes almost as disturbing and nauseatingly violent as the the bad guys. Almost. There's been some great movies in this Asia Extreme subgenre,  even some that weren't even horror movies. There's been some crap too, but the really good ones more than make up for it, and "I Saw the Devil," is a really good film. It just teeters on that line between psychological horror/thriller and violence for the sake of violence. It succeeds because it's incredibly well made. I've only seen one other film by Jee-woon Kim before, and that was one of the shorts in the movie "Three...Extremes." His film "The Good, the Bad and the Weird," is on my netflix though, and after seeing, "I Saw the Devil," I think I might move it up a bit. It's sick and twisted violence for the sake of sick and twisted violence, but boy is it done well. 

PEARL JAM TWENTY (2011) Director: Cameron Crowe

5 STARS

The band "Pearl Jam," turns 20 this year. Wow, that sentence makes me feel old, doesn't it? "Pearl Jam Twenty," which was in limited theatrical release before airing on PBS's "American Masters" (Really, "Pearl Jam," are "American Masters," alr- I still listen to "Ten"! Jesus, this review's making me feel old), is Cameron Crowe's documentary on the band that's he's basically been following since it's beginnings. Crowe, who's life story as a teenage reporter for Rolling Stone is chronicle in his masterpiece "Almost Famous," married Heart guitarist Nancy Wilson, and has lived in and around the Seattle area since the mid-'80s. He has uncanny sense of knowing the next big thing, and has been following the band since "Mother Love Bone." (He even casted some of the band members in his movie "Singles.")  That original band that included some of the members which ended after the drug overdose death of lead singer Andy Wood. The movie shows some of the earliest footage Mother Love Bone performances, and some of the behind the scenes of the surprisingly friendly Seattle music scene that would produce the bands we now think of as Grunge Rock, like Nirvana, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, etc. Crowe describes Seattle as a place "Where everybody stays indoors, and have nothing to do but listen to music, and they listen to everything." After the band heard some recordings from Southern Californian Eddie Vedder, who eventually became the leader of the group, the band hit it big, and then famously rejected fame. Their only non-performance music video, for the song "Jeremy," remains one of the most haunting and memorable music videos ever made. There's loads of performance footage spanning their entire careers, and makes notes of many of the band's more memorable moments, including their war of words with Nirvana lead singer Kurt Cobain, their battle with Ticketmaster that led to them testifying in front of Congress, and even the disastrous concert in Germany where an audience crush led to nine deaths. Now, they seem comfortable in their place and touring classic rockers known for having their set lists being completely different from one gig to the next (Leading to a lot of loyal fans that follow them on tours around the country). It isn't a perfect documentary, but it's as entertaining of one you're going to find. It's somewhat difficult to make a documentary of a band that made the conscious choice to not be the biggest band in the world, but then again, the fact that they even were allowed that choice to make, makes them one of the most interesting.

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK (2011) Director: Richard Press

3 STARS

Bill Cunningham is the famous New York fashion photographer, infamous for riding around town on his bicycle going from fashion show to famous party, and then to whatever other big event is going on. He's 80-years old, and still takes photos constantly. There's hundreds of famous photographs by him of men and women not only from the fashion runway, but also on the streets of New York. He loves showing how an outfit looks on the runway, and then seeing the same outfit worn on the street by an average woman, revealing how real women wear many designer clothes on a cold rainy New York city morning. "Bill Cunningham New York," documents much of his life, follows Cunningham, still working nonstop today, and talks with many of the fashion elite, as well some of the more interesting subject of his photographs. While I'm giving this film a positive review, I wasn't as interested in the subject as I bet many others will be. There's a lot of interesting photos, tucked into the movie, spanning many different eras. If this was a coffeetable book, it'd probably be right under my Annie Liebowitz books, and that's perfectly fine. Bill Cunningham is certainly an interesting character. There's a memorable moment where the director ends around the question of his romantic life, until Bill finally slyly answers back "You want to know if I'm gay, right?" His answer is interesting, but no matter what sexuality you might think he is, he's really in love with fashion, and taking pictures.

THE PERFECT HOST (2011) Director: Nick Tomnay

3 STARS

Part of me knows better than to give "The Perfect Host," a positive review. It tries a lot of things, and I think it does just enough of them for me to recommend it. The movie begins with a slew of misadventures, including a robbery, the results of which finds Rupert (Cooper Barnes), injured, wanted by the cops in an apparently massive manhunt, and desperate to find a friendly house to have at least a temporary sanctuary. He finds one in the home of Warwick (David Hyde Pearce, [Niles, from "Frasier," for those who can't place it.]) who's in the beginning stages of getting ready for a dinner party. He's curious about the stranger, but allows him to enter his house, and get some treatment on his hurt leg, and for a drink. From here, I'm not going to describe any more of what happens, only to say that situation between the two characters will continually switch back-and-forth, in a very strange chess-like game. Occasionally, we see some of Cooper's flashbacks in with a girlfriend of his named Simone (Megahn Perry). Not a whole helluva of a lot of this makes much sense, and the contrivance of the set-up is somewhat outrageous. If this film caught me on a worse day, I'd probably be less inclined to be generous towards it, but there's some really good acting here from David Hyde Pearce, and while the movie switches tones a little too much, it does play those tones well. I think this is a nice little first feature-length film for co-writer/director Nick Tomnay. He has a lot of interesting ideas, and I hope for his next film, he doesn't try to just cram a lot into one film.

MY DOG TULIP (2010) Directors: Paul Fierlinger and Sandra Fierlinger

2 1/2 STARS

If you find constant wonder and enjoyment out of a dog's urinary preferences and bowel activities, then this is the animated movie for you. Based on the acclaim novel by J.R. Ackerley, "My Dog Tulip," represents a milestone in animation. It's the first completely hand-drawn animated film, to not use paper. The animation has a really nice painterly stroke to it; it reminded me of some of the illustrations in some old children's books of mine. However, the story of one man's fascination with his canine companion, frankly bored me to tears with some long passages about the manors in which J.R.'s dog expresses in great detail his dog Tulip's manor of urination, and her preferential objects to urinate on. I often talk about, somewhat flipping about my reluctant and at-times misanthrope opinions towards people, and a lot of times this is misconstrued by others to mean that I must prefer pets and animals. This must be a common occurrance that people who aren't satisfied with humanity must find joy in animals, but this baffles me? Really, something that doesn't understand most of what I say, and that doesn't answer me back, why would I prefer that? Anyway, back to the movie. J.R. Ackerley's narration is voiced by Christopher Plummer, and if the Acadamy ever decides to give out an Award for voiceover work, Plummer's name would probably be on the ballot. His narration is good, and along with a few other occasional voices, including the last performances by Lynn Redgrave, makes the movie seem like I'm listening to a book-on-tape. I think that's the intention, and on that level it succeeded, but frankly, this is just not a book that interested me. I'm not a dog hater, I gave a five stars to "Marley & Me," when that came out, but that film was about a family's struggles with a dog. This movie is about a man's love and devotion, and his almost Spock-like curiousity over his beloved animal, and animals alone just don't make interesting lives to me. 

COUNTRY STRONG (2010) Director: Shana Feste

1 1/2 STARS

"Country Strong," earned an Oscar nomination for Best Song last year for the song "Coming Home", and has greatly contributed to one of our greatest actresses, Gwyneth Paltrow, to strong consider abandoning acting for a mostly singing career, with an occasionaly role on "Glee." That's not to say that's a bad thing, she's good singer, but "Country Strong," is not a good movie. It's slow-moving and very old-fashioned. This movie feels like a Douglas Sirk melodrama from the '50s. Paltrow stars as Kelly Cantor, who's come out early from rehab at the behest of her husband/manager James (Tim McGraw) to go on tour, and in particular, to do a performance in Dallas, where she had a strange incident that according to who you believe, involved alcohol, drugs, erratic behavior, a suicide attempt, and/or a miscarriage. Beau Hutton (Garrett Hedland) is a country performer who's not particularly interested in fame, that's having an affair with Kelly, and she insists he be on tour with them. Her husband wants a young, beautiful, but shy up-and-comer in Chiles Stanton (Leighton Meester, and where the hell are people getting these fucking names, "Beau," "Chiles," "Leighton," Garrett,"....- I'm half-expecting Billy Joe, Bobby Joe, and Betty Joe to show up) who's not the greatest musician, but has a good promotable look, and if treated correctly and with care, she can probably develop into a star. There's a couple obvious love triangles that develop, and more than few "how-can-they-have-not-seen-that-coming" developments in the film. This movie feels like the entertainment industry has basically been the same since, I don't know, somewhere after "The Red Shoes," and somewhere before MTV. I think it's intentional to go with this style, but there's needs a more interesting twist to this. I could've watched this movie about fifty years, and it probably would've had better music too. This is boring, slow-moving train wreck, that's just wrong on almost every level. Poor Gwyneth Paltrow, she is very good in this film, in fact most of the actors are, but this is also just, too easy a part for her.

CASINO JACK (2010) Director: George Hickenlooper

3 STARS

"Casino Jack," marked the last film for the late director George Hickenlooper, who passed away right as the film was about to hit theatres. His careers spanned features, shorts and documentaries, and won an Emmy for the amazing documentary "Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse," who along with Fax Bahr and Eleanor Coppola, put together an epic behind-the-scenes look at the tumultuous filming of "Apocalypse Now." I like both his films "Factory Girl," about former Andy Warhol discovery Edie Sedgwick, and intriguing "The Man From Elysian Fields," which stars Andy Garcia and Mick Jagger of all people as high class male escorts. "Casino Jack," about the convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff, is certainly about a character that could've fallen into the lap of Kevin Spacey. To those who didn't quite follow the news of his entire scandal and misdeeds that brought down numerous members of the Republican House Leadership, including Speaker Tom Delay, I would recommend looking up the Alex Gibney documentary "Casino Jack and the United States of Money," which shows Abramoff and his close associates dating back to his start as a leader of the College Republicans, a brief movie producing career, and then eventually as a dangerous lobbyist who would screw over almost everybody from garment workers in the Marianas to even Indian tribes. Spacey, plays him with his typical eccentricities. He was a weightlifter, is deeply religious, who in his spare time, would open restaurants and eateries, and loved the movies. (Spacey's amazingly skillful mimicry is use to great effect here.) The movie is only about, half as interesting and detailed as the Gibney documentary, which is why I'm only barely recommending it. We get a jist of who Abramoff is, but only get certain parts of the details that led to his downfall, some of which I think, out of complete context, might be difficult for people to follow. I know the story, and still found myself trying to fill in some blanks. Abramoff currently teaches a screenwriting course in the federal jail he's serving in. Spacey's good here in a part that I can't imagine anybody else playing. Spacey's a perfect actor for eccentric parts like this. Some of the other actors are good, including Barry Pepper and Graham Greene, but a lot of the acting kinda get lost in the makeup of their roles. Maybe in the future, I can appreciate the more comic tone of the movie, but, the more recent and disturbing the history, the harder it is to laugh, no matter how outlandish some of it is.

THE NEXT THREE DAYS (2010) Director: Paul Haggis

3 STARS

I guess Paul Haggis wanted to take a break from films that had more important things to say. This is his third feature-length film he's directed, after the Oscar-winning Best picture, "Crash," and the underrated "In the Valley of Elah," both films which took interesting ideas and stories and was able to touch on deeper ideas, than "The Next Three Days," which is basically a jailbreak thriller. A well-made and entertaining one, but ultimately I'm a little disappointed. Even when he works as a writer on other projects, which range as wildly from "Million Dollar Baby," to "Casino Royale," even his entertaining junk is better and more interesting than most everybody's elses. In "The Next Three Days," John Brennan's (Russell Crowe) wife (Elizabeth Banks) is suddenly arrested early in the morning, in front of their kid in an obvious overstep by the police department, for murdering her boss. They were out the night before an Lara seemed particularly disgruntled. The evidence seems to convict her. One day, she tries to kill herself, and this leads John to begin plotting her escape. He even consults a man who wrote books on breaking out of prison (Liam Neesan), and soon begins on a long quest to get his wife out of prison, his take his family out of the country before the police catch up him. I had a couple observations watching this film, one, is that, I think at this moment, if I could watch an Elizabeth Banks marathon, I would. She is one of the best actresses around, and is amazing to watch on screen in anything from tackling Checkov in "The Sisters," to a First Lady in "W.", to "Zack and Miri Make a Porno," and all amazing work guest starring on "Scrubs," "30 Rock," and "Modern Family," she can literally do anything, she is the best thing about "The Next Three Days." Russell Crowe is in his usual role, but is very good as well. I don't know if the movie itself is really worth watching, but, for it is, it does it's job, and at the ending, there are times when the action sequencing actually start to get thrilling. So, a disappointing but mild recommendation.

BHUTTO (2010) Directors: Duane Baughman and Johnny O'Hara

4 1/2 STARS

Benazir Bhutto's assassination was clearly ordered by her politcal rival Pervez Musharaf. She was the first woman to be the elected leader of a Muslim nation, the golden child of a political dynasty that would be equivalent to the Kennedys in America, the documentary "Bhutto," gives us a very clear understanding of how she rose to the top in the most unlikeliest of places. The movie is pro-Bhutto, although her rivals often claimed corruption charges. She did put her husband in charage of the nation's treasury, but the only clear corruption I could find involved the videos of her assassination, which was supposedly blamed on a car bomb, even though, somebody with a gun clearly shot her multiple times before the bomb exploded. It's amazing that it's always the one's that are the most beloved that are taken away too soon. She loved Pakistan, even though she spent much of her adult life in exile from the country, being overthrown by several regimes, usually led by the Pakistani military. I wonder what Pakistan would look like now if she were in charge. Would Bin Laden have been hiding in the country if she was in charge? The kind questions that pop questions that pop into my head. Clearly her influence, especially in the Middle East is insurmountable. She's one of the most important people in the last fifty years, and this documentary allows for westerners like me, to have a greater understanding and appreciation of that fact. Oh, while Musharaf in currently in exile, her assassins have yet to be caught.

A FILM UNFINISHED (2010) Director: Yael Hersonski

5 STARS

The only word better than, denialist, to describe those who don't believe in the Holocaust is, anti-semite. I say this because, the greatest evidence that exists for the existance is provided by the Nazis themselves. They filmed almost all of their atrocities, thinking that once the Earth has been rid of Jews, the archive will provide a historical documentation of their achievement. One of these films, a never-finished propaganda film called "The Ghetto," was found in this underground vault. The footage, including many bloopers and earlier take that show what they were hiding, is shown to us and two many of the survivors of the Warsaw ghetto it depicted in "A Film Unfinished." This is a haunting documentary that will stick with you. Not just some of the more disturbing footage of skeletal-like bodies being slid into the ground, (on a slide) but those strange propaganda scenes of lavish dinners and a first-class dining room where the locals are clearly being coached to eat. One of the survivors, watching the footage says "Flowers, where did they get the flowers! We never had any flowers anywhere." They stole them from a nearby cemetary. They know this through diaries and reports that survives from both the Germans and the Jews, both of which are used to try and date and document the footage. (The German head wrote all his reports in third person, even when he ordered most of the atrocities he documents.) There are many must-see films that show the history of the Holocaust. There's so many aspects of the event, that there's no possible way an entire history of it can be documented in one movie. ("The Sorrow and the Pity," for instance is a six-hour documentary and "Shoah," is nine-hours long, both film are noted as being considered the closest). "A Film Unfinished," is one of these films. Even this small little aspect of the war, reveals a great deal more than we previously knew, and God knows, there's still tons of footage the Nazis shot that's still being sorted and documented.  
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