Tuesday, November 8, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #12: "X-MEN: FIRST CLASS", "HANNA,", "THE HOUSEMAID", "STUDENT SERVICES," "SKIRT DAY," AND MORE!

Well, it's another week of random watched movies. These took me a little longer to write than they normally; can't really give a decent explanation, but I finally finished them, hopefully the next batch will be quicker. Also, I would like to point out that David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews has two new followers, thank you for following. Also, I've noticed that in recent weeks, almost half of my internet hits have been from Russia. I don't quite know why, but I'm very happy about it so, to all my readers in Russia, I would like to say: Спасибо за чтение! And ,in cast the google translator didn't work, that's supposed to say "Thank you for reading!" Now, onto this week's review!

X-MEN: FIRST CLASS: (2011) Director: Matthew Vaughn

4 STARS

I must admit I've never been the biggest fan of "X-Men." I first heard about them when they had the Saturday morning cartoon show in the '90s, which I didn't care for. I then learned about the comic books, and went a little deeper into the stories of the "X-Men," which took forever. There's so many characters and heroes, that it takes three years of comic books before something ever actually happens. This is also, I imagine why there's been so mnay movies of the series in recent years. I saw the first "X-Men," movie years ago, and thought it was okay. I must confess though, that when I was watching it, it was at a party where I was lying in bed with two girls, both of whom were erotically attractive to Wolverine, were a little drunk, and were continually trying to get my clothes off the whole time. Believe it or not, that story doen't end in any sort of "Dear Penthouse," moment, 'cause I told them no, a decision that has caused great wonderment from, well, everybody, as well as a few noted times afterwards, where the words "Stupid, stupid, stupid!" were constantly repeated by me, in perfect harmony to me banging my head against the nearest wall, building or streetlight, or other blunt sturdy pieces of constuction, or my computer desk table. So, anyway, I consider my perspective on that film, somewhat skewed. The second film, I liked, but also, wasn't anything I would particularly brag about. I haven't seen "X-Men 3," of "X-Men Origins: Wolverine" yet. Which is also something that's always bugged me (Well, that and, why isn't Storm, who controls the weather, more important, than the one with claws that can just heal himself), if there's all these genetic mutations, why are they all different? Wouldn't there be a lot of people who can walk through walls or control fire, or teenage girls that kills anybody who tries to have with them? (That last thought is scary though) Well, I don't exactly get any of these questions answered in "X-Men: First Class," but I think the film actually got a little closer to answering them than ever before. The film begins in the past where a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) finds Raven (Jennifer Lawrence, you might remember her from "Winter's Bone," last year) sneaking into his house for food, disguised as his mother. Charles Xavier is a telepath, while Raven is blue, but can change her appearance to look like anybody she wants. Charles Xavier grows up to become the top genetic mutation expert in the country, and eventually gets recruited by the CIA after a strange incident involving a former Nazi, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, at one of the better evil parts.) Shaw has a history with Erik (Michael Fassbender), who knows about his power, which is a telekenetic ability to move metal. Eventually the G-Men, as the CIA begins calling them, starts recruiting and rounding up, for an impending battle with Shaw, as well as possibly for the Cold War. The movie ends with a very different interpretation of the Cuban Missile Crisis, than what most people reported happening, and there's some really strong performances by Bacon, Lawrence, January Jones is really good as Shaw's diamond-like telepath Emma Frost, and by Fassbender and Nicholas Hoult, who playes a Jekyll-like lab technician who becomes Beast. (Jennifer Lawrence, is given an unusual high amount of recognizable screentime compared to Rebecca Romijn in the other films.) The movie actually does quite a good job at kind of establishing the early beginning mythology of "X-Men," which like I said, was always filled with holes for me, and still has holes for me, but at least it's a little bit more clear in this film, and gives a decent explanation of the constant future battles the X-Men have with both humans, and each other. If anything, it's so clear that I actually have to ask: Why didn't they just start with this film to begin with? I think I might appreciated the other "X-Men," films just a little more if they did.

HANNA (2011) Director: Joe Wright

3 STARS

Joe Wright has been a good director, mostly of literary period pieces in the past. His best film "Pride & Prejudice," earned Keira Knightley an Oscar nomination, and I consider it easily the best Jane Austen film adaptation I've ever seen, and his "Atonement," was even more acclaimed, and while it was inconsistent, has such touches of brilliance, and those touches show up also in this very different film for Wright, "Hanna." The touches includes such amazing dolly and long takes for some of the elaborate fight scenes, and the film has a way of catching you offguard, especially when it can startlingly and suddenly shift locations as drastically as the Arctic to the Sahara Desert. Hanna (Saorise Ronan, who earned her own Oscar nomination in Wright's "Atonement.") is a teenage girl, who's lived in the forest with her father (Eric Bana) her whole life. Her father teachers her, how to survive by killing animals, how to protect herself, basically making her into a teenage killing machine. (Kinda similar to last year's "Kick-Ass," which coincidently was directed by "X-Men First Class", director Matthew Vaughn) He reads her from a cheap encyclopedia, which she has memorize, and she's learned at least four or five languages, but she's never seen another human being. Finally, she presses a button, which gives out their location to Marissa (Cate Blanchett) who she's been informed, correctly, that she will do anything and everything to catch her and destroy her. For that part, her father is right. I don't want to give away exactly why Marissa is after her, although you'll think of a few possible parts of the story, some will be wrong, some will be right, others will probably be unbelievable. This movie actually felt like a TV pilot to me, for like a new version of "The Pretender," or "The Fugitive," where a character is always on the run and hiding from somebody trying to catch him/her, and she ends up making unusual connections with an eclectic group of people along the way. (She does befriend a family, which unknowingly helped her stowaway to Spain.) For Saorise Ronan, she's exceptional as Hanna. For the film, I found myself, near the end, wondering exactly where this is all heading towards. I think there's a lot of directions is starts to head, and then it turns back around, and eventually it does really end up anywhere. We sorta find out about Hanna, and the events in her life, but it doesn't really do or say anything about it. The ending by the way, I thought was tacked on for almost no reason other than, maybe they couldn't think of another way to end this film. When I checked the DVD special features, it included an alternate ending, which also didn't work that well either. It's so well-made, and kept me interested all the way through, so I'm recommending it, but with some grave reservations. I think it started trying a few things, many of them would've worked, but they kept strangely backing out of most of them, and not that I think that's a bad thing, but with this film, it comes off as curious.

THE HOUSEMAID (2011) Director: Sang-Soo Im

4 1/2 STARS

"The Housemaid," is actually a remake of a 1960 Korean film of the same name. I haven't seen that one, and haven't seen any other film by director Sang-Soo Im (Or is it Im Sang-Soo? I hate having to guess on things like that) but I'm very impressed with this film. It begins with a suicide. It's shot on handheld, and on the streeets of Seoul. Everybody so busy, almost nobody notices. There's a great shot of the girl jumping, and then falling behind a park car where some girls are laughing. We here the splat on the sidewalk, but the girls don't notice at all. She is apparently a previous housemaid of a rich upper-crust family. The wife (Woo Seo)  is pregnant with twins, and loves to accentuate her stomach with tiny tops while doing yoga. Her mother (Ji-Young Park) also hangs around, as does an older maid who's seen one too many former housemaids come and go. The new maid Eun-Yi, (Do-Yeon Jun) takes the job, 'cause she's mostly just looking for work. The kid likes her, and soon, so does the husband, Goh (Juan-Jae Lee), who's bored with her wife, who can't stop talking about having kids while in the middlle of sex. Goh, eventually starts to hit on Eun-Yi, and soon, they're having their own erotic trysts. The sex scenes are actually erotic, but the movie is actually more of a deception-spy-ladent, accident-prone game of chess between the wife and the housemaid. There's an older housemaid (Yeo-Jong Yun) who sees and knows everything that goes on, and plays both the wife and the housemaid against each other and differing times. There's some kind of class-warfare metaphor going on here, that apparently is very similar to the original film. I was actually thinking a lot of the great Chinese director Zhang Yimou's film "Raise the Red Lantern," where multiple wives of a rarely seen household master continually work to connive one another in order to win the master's approval. This movie, is a little more slick and modern, and the husband is more than just rather innocuous figure, but the same decieving and manipulating between women occurs essentially, until one of them goes, a little farther than the other would to make her point. This is a very intriguing film, that achieves all that it wants to achieve and more. It's shot beautifully, the art design is exquisite, it's erotic when it wants to be, and it's terrifying when it wants to be, and it does effectively show how people used the tools at their own disposal to try and destroy another human being, who might be a threat. Very good film.

STUDENT SERVICES (2010) Director: Emmanuelle Bercot

4 STARS

The French film "Student Services," didn't get a theatrical release in America, but was picked up by IFC Films, to air on their channel. The film, by writer/director Emmanuelle Bercot, and based on an infamous annonymously-written novel, explores a growing trend in France, and probably everywhere else where young college student work as occasional prostitutes to earn extra money. They advertise on some websites, and have many different encounters, ranging from the occasional escort and nude modeling, to even bondage and submission. We follow Laura, (Deborah Francois) a coed who's on a scholarship, but still has to work two jobs for rent and book costs. She begins by answering a post on a website, and negotiating a fee. She arrives, she gets paid, and then says she'll never do that again. Of course, she does it again, and this time for more and more money. She has one particular customer who's very loyal to her, and continually bumps up his fee. She even once comes to him, and he pays her in a computer, 'cause she asked for one. She also gets stiffed one time, and gets pissed off. Lesson learned, money up front. The movie isn't glamourous about the profession. It's never glamourized, it's never erotic, and that's the way it is. Her boyfriend gets conflicted, but she always keeps her grades up. There's the scene near the end of the movie, where she's celebrating at a local club, and she's excited about it, but it's strangely muted from everyone around her. Do they know she's been prostituting herself? Her clothes are somewhat more expensive than before. She tries to confer in others online who also occasionally hook. One remarks about how everybody loves her Versace bag. Yeah, it's hard, it's degrading, but I can afford this bag. It's always interesting how sex is as much about power and control as it is about love, never moreso than in prostitution. The end of the movie, shows Laura, in disguise, giving an interview on a TV show about the book the movie's based on. She's asked whether or not she's had to continue prostituting since the book came out. She doesn't answer. Strange, she doesn't look like a prostitute.

SKIRT DAY (2010) Director: Jean-Paul Lilienfield

4 1/2 STARS

Isabelle Adjani earned her record fifth Cesar Award, (The French equivalent of the Oscars) for her performance in "Skirt Day". Normally, she performs very self-obsessed characters that slowly let their dreams and desires go insane, like the two Oscar-nominations she got for Truffaut's great "The Story of Adele H.," and for "Camille Claudel." "Skirt Day," was the first time she had acted in years, and she made it count. She plays a teacher at a public school which is typically filled with lower-class Muslims, many of them immigrants. She is constantly insulted, and rarely listened to, particularly when unlike much of the school's female population, students and teachers, she wears a fairly innocuous skirt to class. During one school day, she breaks up a fight in the hallway, and a gun comes flying out of one of the kids backpack. She's had enough, barricades herself and the kids into the classroom, and begins holding them hostage. After gunshots are heard, hostage squads and school and government officials are called in, reporters speculate wildly about what's going on and who's holding who hostage. They can't open the door, and they're trapped in a soundproof room, and still, even with a gun to their head, some of the students remain despondent and insulting. She tries to teach Moliere. The students wonder why they need to know Moliere? She doesn't have a great answer. There are dozens of typical developments you would think of for this kind of movie, and a few that you probably wouldn't. Outside, the police try to contact the hostageholders on their cell phones, which the teacher has confiscated, not realizing that she's the one holding them hostage. There's a funny scene where one student mentions watching "The Negotiator," and they outsmart the police in a subtle way. There's incredible tension, and more than a few surprises in "Skirt Day," this is a powerful film. There's conflict in about ten different places, including kinda under the radar, is this determination on what it is to be a woman in a position of power. In Muslim society, they're not allowed to show any skin, while one in regular society is subject to verbal sexual taughts for wearing a skirt, even from her subordinates, or in the case students. I've still only starting examining the line of the questions the film makes us consider. Credit the screenplay by writer/direct Jean-Paul Lilienfield, and especially credit Adjani. This might not be the toughest part in the world for an actress of her caliber, but she is exceptional, and shows a few different sides of her than we've typical seen.

THE WAITING CITY (2010) Director: Claire McCarthy

3 STARS

Strange that I know actress Radha Mitchell's work more than most people, yet I didn't realized she was Australian. She's worked on a regular basis for years, in films as wide-ranging as the remake of "The Crazies,"  to the Oscar-nominated "Finding Neverland," with Johnny Depp. I remember her from Lisa Cholodenko's great film "High Art," where she played opposite Ally Sheedy, and from the very underrated Woody Allen movie "Melinda and Melinda", where she played the title character in two different versions of the same story, one told comically, and one told tragically. Here, in "The Waiting City," a movie where she's listed as a producer, she plays Fiona. She's a high-powered Sydney businesswoman, who's still constantly trying to keep up with the office on her cell phone and computer while in Calcutta. Her and her husband Ben (Joel Edgerton), are in the process of adopting a baby girl from India, and they're trying to pick her up, and eventually take her home, but red tape starts to get in the way, so they're forced to wait in Calcutta for a while. He is a musician, and he decides to dive into the local culture, especially the street musicians. He starts to get interesting ideas about recording the artists, but it seems harder to convince the withdrawn and distracted Fiona from taking much interest, even after he runs into an old flame (Isabel Lucas). There's a pesky doorman at their hotel (Samrat Chakrabarti) who keeps calling her Mrs. Ben, and eventually, 'cause he's the best tour guide they can find, he's starts taking them to a few places, especially their future child's hometown. They want to see where she comes from. This is interesting premise for a film to begin with, and it's not wasted here. There's a lot of hidden reasons and developments that occur, that continuous change the situation, both between Ben and Fiona attempts at adopting the child, and then between Ben and Fiona themselves. It's always a little hard to believe that there's saintly couple out there who will just adopt kids without much motive, and these two are certainly not perfect. Although some of these developments, do seem a little writerly, as though writer/director Claire McCarthy wants to have secrets and revelations come up and the worse possible times, similar to a play. They don't always work, but even still, I've never seen this before in a film, this idea of what to do when you're waiting for your child. If a different twist on the fish-out-of-water, and this is a good, and performances by Edgerton and Mitchell, uplifts the material just enough for me. This has the feeling of a personal side-project for these actors, especially Mitchell. We don't think about it too much, but I've seen about six or seven films with her in it, and I think this is the first time I've seen her play a character that's from her own country.

JEAN-MICHEL BASQUIAT: THE RADIANT CHILD (2010) Director: Tamra Davis

3 1/2 STARS

I must confess to having never heard of Jean-Michel Basquiat before watching this wonderous documentary on his life. He was an incredibly talented and original artist, who earned the respect and admiration of contemporaries like Andy Warhol and Julian Schnabel. He started as a creative graffiti artist, who's paintings now go for millions of dollars at auction. Director Tamra Davis knew Jean-Michel, and compiles a compelling and fascinating portrait of any artist, using many found and known footage, including some from Davis's own personal footage she shot of Basquiat before his passing from a heroin overdose at age 27. A Haitian-born New York runaway, he first began selling t-shirts and postcards of all things with his art, and he even performed as part of the rock band "Gray". His art is a strange but powerful combination of graffiti, African images, acrylic, Nubian images, political symbolism, even some innovative he would step on and injure his own canvas, and layering his art. Kinda the way you can see the energy in the work of Jackson Pollack, although with a very different aesthetic, I can see Basquiat furious painting his masterpieces with extreme devotion and energy by looking at his art. There's lot of his art shown in the movie, ranging from his early days as an underground graffiti artist to the end of his life. The movie is very personal portrait of a very creative artist, and an informative and entertaining one. His shows are legendary, his work was profiled and criticized by the world's top artists and art critics, and also shown on MTV. He was one of the first modern art celebrities, and that's helpful 'cause there's lot of footage of him to show. The movie wears a bit thin for me, but it's still quite powerful, and if I could ever afford a piece of his art, God willing, I would certainly love to own one.

THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) Director: D.W. Griffith

4 STARS

"The Birth of a Nation," basically invented everything we know about how to edit a movie, and we just have to live with that fact. We can try to change history occasionally, even D.W. Griffith tried with his next film "Intolerance," but it was too late. Based on the infamous Thomas Dixon novel "The Clansmen," the movie on one hand, shows some amazing battle footage that's still unquestionably thrilling, and then, it shows the most, probably the most racist images ever portrayed on film. The movie is divided into two parts, the first part is the mostly great part. The pre-Civil War South, the battles scenes, and great scenes of Lincoln's death, for many, this was the first time people got a visual depicting of key moments in American history, and they are spectacular. To see how he cut and juxtaposed images culminating in this amazing battle sequence shows Griffith as Cinema's first great artist. The second half of the movie, the reconstruction, shows disturbingly racist images of American-Americans, and shows the Ku Klux Klan in a positive light as the force that eliminated the influence of African-Americans through force. Premiered African-American in the film, are shown in blackface, poorly done blackface, while often many real African-Americans were in the background. The scary part is that I think Griffith genuinely didn't realize that he made something so offensive. Granted, racism wasn't exactly a common term back in 1915, but even then, he had to be explained why what he made was so offensive, and spent much of the rest of his life trying hard to apologize for it. As you can see, I've had a difficult time writing an actual opinion on this film. I thought for a minute about posting this essay as a separate Canon of Film blog, but I don't think I'm yet qualified to discuss it in those terms, (part of me hopes I never will be) yet, in order to understand the art of cinema, one has to see "The Birth of A Nation." Nobody of any sane mind will actually like it, but it's still a piece that has to be watched and studied at least once. You don't have to like the art, but you have to respect the artist.

THE LIFE AND TIMES OF HARVEY MILK (1984) Director: Rob Epstein

5 STARS

The Oscar-winning documentary "The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," is reknown for being the first quote, unquote "gay" movie to win an Oscar. Frankly, it won an Oscar because it's good, not to make any statements. The movie has relayed as a direct influence on everything from other feature-length films, including Gus Van Zant's recent biopic "Milk," which won two Oscars, to even being recreated as an opera. This is as much as the filmmaking as it is the subject. Harvey Milk is one of my political heroes. He was the first openly gay man to be elected into office, representing the Castro District on the San Francisco City Counsil. He had been a longtime protestor and run for elected office for numerous previous times beforehand, and got elected when Councilman elections were redivided into districts. In his short time in Office, he did as much as he could, everything from new laws regulating dogshit, one friend noted how he made sure to have prepared dogshit for him to step in for the cameras, to being the figurehead to successful vote no on a proposition requiring schools to not be allowed to hire homosexual teachers. It's so bizarre that such a thing was an actual concern at one point. Also, bizarre is the chain of event that ended in his death at the hand of fellow Councilman Dan White, and the eventual trial where White, claiming that he was temporarily insane from eating too much junk food, was sentenced to only four years in jail for manslaughter for Milk's and San Francisco Mayor Moscone's murder. The movie interviews people who knew him, people who fought with him, people on the Councilboard with Milk, and many others, spanning his entire amazing life. Recently, Harvey Milk was awards posthumously the Congressional Medal of Freedom by President Obama."The Life and Times of Harvey Milk," is one of the pivotal documentaries of the 1980s, and one of the best. Not only is it a profile of one of the most important men of the Twentieth Century, the movie also shows in a few that few films do the strange dynamics at play in local politics. How the strangest, and in some cases the most minor of events can alter the landscape of a town so drastically. It's also a window into a little-known critical part of recent American History that is as groundbreaking and important as it is odd and unique.

MAN WITH THE MOVIE CAMERA (1929) Director: Dziga Vertov

5 STARS

I couldn't tell you exactly what happened in "Man with the Movie Camera," other than the fact that there's a Man with a movie camera, and he shoots a lot of Russia, and he shows what he shoots. Sometimes titled "Living Russia," the movie is one of the groundbreaking examples of experimental cinema. It shows a rare look at the beginning of daily life in Communist Russia, although it is a heavily scattered view. Kinda like Luis Bunuel "Un Chien Andalou," the movie doesn't exactly have a plot so much as a bunch of images that are placed together, and we discuss we can have some sort of discussion on where there's some kind of order or logic to them, I think there probably is, but why bother? Experimental movies are best when they give us the pure joy of editing to something completely different and practically random. For some reason in this film, there's an amazing train sequence. The train seems to be bowling down the track really fast, you can even feel the speed. I think I know how they got the shot, but the shot is still hard to get, especially back then. There's occasionally some great special effects of the man carrying his movie camera onto some kind of implausible object that he can place the camera on. These are amazing scenes too, where they're cutting the film in half, pasting it with the other image, creating this inventive effect. The movie is mostly documentary footage of Russia, mostly Moscow and St. Petersburg, mostly random. There's some interesting factory footage, and there's also some footage of people lying on the street. Yet, I'm only giving you a shot-by-shot, which doesn't really explain the movie. The joy in watching the movie is the real experience. It must have been a fascinating experience at the time too, as the film continually switch from one scene to the next scene, it must've been a freeing experience for the audience. It's a wonderful one for me too. This is what experimental filmmakers should strive for.

POISON FRIENDS (2007) Director: Emmanuelle Bordieu

3 STARS

"Poison Friends," won a multiple Awards at the Cannes Film Festival when it came out, and I'm a little surprised, personally. It's not a horrible movie, but it's not a particularly good one either. The movie takes in a college where Andre (Thibault Vincon) seems to be quick-witted and very intelligent. He quickly gains the trust of many fellow students, and even a couple professors. He's quite a good liar, and after about a year, he's got a steady following of friends and colleagues that will practically do anything he says. He helps them with there work, to be in relationships, and so-and-so-forth, and then one day, he is nowhere to be found. They search for rumors about him, most of them seem to involve him getting a major job in America. The farther away from this movie I get, the less and less it interests. I think there's an essential story here about how easily one can be manipulated and become a member of this pseudo-cultlike-clique because of one man's presence, but on the same token, I don't think the movie really explores that enough, or much at all. I think we see mostly his actions, and how they effect them, and eventually, everybody moves on when he leaves, with him simply a distant memory, albeit a key one in everybody's own personal successes. Andre himself, seems to be almost afraid of success. He got all the tools, but he has a natural inclination to influence others to achieve rather than strive for his own personal greatness. I understand this to a certain extent. I can honestly say that I've been, on both sides of this coin in similar relationships with certain people who are now, not particularly part of my life. Some I wish still were, others I hope to never see again. It's gets enough of that dynamic correct, so despite some of the other problems with the film, it's worth recommending, albeit, I'm not sure exactly how watchable the film really is.

INNOCENT VOICES (2005) Director: Luis Mandoki

3 1/2 STARS

It's weird how it's not that long ago that basically all of Central and Latin America was a warzone that the U.S. continually insisted on getting involved in. The underrated Oliver Stone film "Salvador," showed an American perspective on the war in El Salvador, one of many countries where the Americans backed some pretty vicious dictators all because they would do favorable business with us. In "Innocent Voices," there's nothing of the political aspects that we general think of when we consider that wars and battles, and instead, we get the point of view of a child, who's trying to have a simple life as a world of violence and confusing insists on being around him. The boy is Chava (Carlos Padilla), and his family dinners are constantly interrupted by machine gun fire. His family usually comes out unscaved, although they try to find a way to not be around the war, the war seems to always find them. It finds Carlos in school, where children are lined up to be taken by the army to train, and teachers or parents who insist on complaining get taken in to the back, where a gunshot is soon heard. What are they fighting over, and who's fighting who and why? You're not going to learn that from this movie. Besides, when it's at your front door, you're only real care is surviving. There's early scenes of Carlos playing with other kids, but those scenes occur with less and less frequently as it doesn't become advisable for kids to be outside. "Innocent Voices," does what few movies do, it gives us a very good idea on what its actually like to live in the middle of a war. The movie is based on a true story, as Carlos and his family eventually try to metriculate the war in order to get Carlos to America. You rarely think about that reason why immigrants come to America, safety. Carlos doesn't have any desire to be in America, but for the time, it's not safe to live in El Salvador. At the end of the movie, there's hope in his voice as he vows to return someday. This is a simple story told very well.
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