Monday, December 12, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION 16: "THE TREE OF LIFE", "THE WARD", "PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES," "TROLLHUNTER", "QUEEN TO PLAY," "MEET MONICA VELOUR" AND MORE!

There's a good collection of new films this week. Many of you will notice that I've started attaching youtube clips to my blogposts, one per post, preferably something relevant to what I'm talking writing about, although if I'm ever in a jam, there's plenty of Garfunkel and Oates clips that are always great. In fact, the blog has made numerous changes recently. I've added a search bar, there's a poll on the side, as well as more ads, plus a spot for my most popular blogs. The one I wrote on Whitney Cummings a few weeks back has proven to be very popular indeed. I'm trying a few things out, hope you like them, let me know if you do or don't. As for the youtube clips, well, until recently I didn't realize I could post youtube clips on here, so once I figured out how to do it.... Well you can plainly see. Okay, that's all for this week's announcement.

Onto the Reviews!

THE TREE OF LIFE (2011) Director: Terrence Malick

5 STARS

I got a phone call a couple weeks ago from a friend of mine who just had to tell me about what she called, let me see if I can get this right: "The worst fucking movie she had ever fucking seen." That movie was "The Tree of Life," from the great Terrence Malick. Malick, a notoriously reclusive filmmaker who has a reputation of only working when he feels inspired, and this had led to one of the most intriguing filmographies of anybody. He once went nineteen years between finished films. He only averages about one a decade, and his shoots are legendary for long shooting schedules and his insistence on the best cinematography. His previous films are "Badlands," "Days of Heaven," "The Thin Red Line," and "The New World," all of them worth watching, and all of them can be argued as absolutely essential films, and yet "The Tree of Life," might be the biggest clue yet as to who Terrence Malick is. It also is his most ambitious work. Hell, I'm putting that mildly, this might be the ambitious movie ever mde, right up there with "Fitzcarraldo," "Apocalypse Now," and "2001: A Space Odyssey." I needed two viewings of the film. The first time, I know I watched something well-made, but I wasn't sure what exactly I was watching. After the second viewing, I'm a little clearer, but I'm also aware that I might never have a full grasp on this movie no matter how many viewing I give it. The movie is told through the mind of a grown-up Jack (Sean Penn). It begins with.... I just realized there's no way I can finish that sentence. The movie seems to be told in flashbacks, but it's actually told in the mind. Jack is in conflict about the nature of life. The greatest of all philosophical conflicts, and he, like all of us, isn't exactly sure what to think about it. He works in a cold New York City skyscraper, where every room seem to have a tree or a plant somewhere in it. Man at conflict with nature has always been Malick's core theme, as well as Man arguing against his core self, but never like this exactly. He apologizes to his Dad on the phone, about something he said about his brother, who died when he was 19 in the Vietnam War. The rest of the movie, is Jack in conflict about the meaning of life. That is a simple definition and explanation for the rest of the movie. Jack's mind is in conflict, as he searches for an understanding of how he is a man who is a mere grain of sand compared to the universe, yet with distinct memories and experiences that lead to us being uniquely oneself. If you think I'm being metaphorical with that last sentence, strangely I'm not. Jack experiences are of a 1950s childhood in an unnamed town (Probably Waco, Texas, where Malick grew up). His father (Brad Pitt) is a strict disciplinarian at home. He's a failed inventor who once dreamed of being a musician before family got in the way. His wife (Jessica Chastain) is more forgiving and nurturing, although she's mischievous at times. Any other description of what happens in the movie, would only contain a list of scenes, but they're all scenes that are apart of Jack's life. Some of clear memories, others might be more subjective. Some seems to exist only as told through others. Almost everybody I'm sure, will have some kind of flashback to memories of their own childhood in the film. The right angles of a child's viewpoint of the world alone perhaps. How does Jack go from this childhood to the place where he is today? How does anybody get anywhere? "The Tree of Life," is about everything. The moments of life, life itself, our unique and personal experiences, and everything that incompasses existance to begin with, and the struggle to simultaneously understand it while also experiencing it. I'm sure my friend won't like the next words I'm about to say, but here they are... this is one of the best films of the year, and if it doesn't make Top Ten, than this has been a very good year.




THE WARD (2011) Director: John Carpenter

2 STARS

Can I ask, is there any story left to do that involves a mental hospital or an insane asylum? I'm starting to think that the cover is a little bare in that regards, and especially so in the thriller/horror genre. Yes, I get it, because they're patients in an asylum, nobody believes them when they say something's happen, like maybe a ghost-like killer is on the loose. John Carpenter is as great a horror director as anybody. "Halloween," basically invented the dead teenager slasher genre. I am in the minority of my friends and think the movie is a comedy, while they all think it's scary, but that's neither here nor there. It's the first film he's directed in ten years, but this story has been told before, and better. And even recently. (No gonna name the movie so as not to give the ending away, but let's just say a famous director with the initials M. Scorsese directed it.) Kristen (Amber Heard) is sent to the asylum after setting fire to a cabin in the woods. Occasionally, she talks to a suspicious doctor ('Mad Men''s Jared Harris), who's therapy sessions are strangely lacking much psychological insight, or answering any of Kristen's questions about past patients that seem to keep ending up missing after going downstairs for more alternate therapy, which in this case, 'cause its the 1950-60ish era, include electroshock and labotomy. Meanwhile, clues involving a former patient's leftover belongings, and weird ghostly images that keep appearing in her pictures, and at night, stir up wonder in Kristen, and the rest of the young female patients. Why can't there be a movie where somebody says something's is strange and they believe her? I'm just asking why not? And why do all scary asylum nurses have to be graduates of the Nurse Ratched Academy of Patient Care? I'm just asking; that's all I thought about watching this film. I've seen it before, and done better, and I'm not gonna give it away, the explanation is even arbitrary, and kind of... twenty years ago, it might have worked as shocking, now it's manipulative. I hope Carpenter keeps directing, but this is a minor entry into his canon of work, and not a good one.

PAGE ONE: INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES (2011) Director: Andrew Rossi

4 STARS

The backdrop of the documentary "Page One: Inside the New York Times," is the declining newspaper markey, and the legitimate threat of the New York Times, actually heading the way of some of the nations other famous recent papers and going into bankruptcy, or even folding. In the meantime, there's new that has to be told elsewhere, and the New York Times has to tell all the news that's fit to print. There isn't a lot learned in this documentary, but what's there is still fairly interesting. Director Andrew Rossi got unusual access inside the newspaper for a year, which includes a combination of old-time newspapermen, some new age, internet bloggers and tweeters that have multiple laptops out at once, following every story that comes out, and even a few interesting character in their own right. The most interesting is David Carr, a former drug addict who came out of a Minneapolis Newspaper to become a lead investigative journalists for the Times. He's a skilled debater, analyzer, amateur philospher (aren't we all). His main investigation involves the demies of SunTime Media which was one of the largest newspaper-based media outlets in the world, until it was run by a man who came out of '70 Rock radio and didn't respect journalism other than to promote his own agenda, and treating his job and employees with at times, outlandish behavior and numerous claims of sexual harassment. The movie is weakest when it starts going through some of the history of the Times, and journalism itself. The detours to go over the Pentagon Papers and Watergate seem particularly out-of-place here. The real question is in how/if newspapers will survive the online news media that's taking over the market. There's a memorable scene during a debate with online media source representatives and David Carr, shows an online page of one of there websites, and then shows the same page with stories that weren't originally from newspaper reports, and the page is filled with holes. There's also scenes where dozens of people lose their jobs as cutbacks are put in place. Advertising, once the bread and butter of the newspaper are all but gone, and now the New York Times charges money to view content on their website, as many newspaper are trying out. Will it work? Time will tell. As a documentary, it's entertaining, and at times informative. The behind-the-scenes meeting where they shape the news, and figure out how to get the story on the front page are fascinating. There's also an intriguing moment where the Times starts working with wikileaks. to publish reports they leak, while they still debate over whether Julian Assange is a renegade or a crusader. "Page One: Inside the New York Times," a mostly documentary that gives a rare time capsule at this critical juncture of the news industry.

TROLLHUNTER (2011) Director: Andre Ovredal

3 1/2 STARS

I think I'm officially tired of this "found footage," gimmick of horror film storytelling. It's was creative when "The Blair Witch Project," started it, and I've liked many movies that use the technique. "Cloverfield," "Paranormal Activity," "The Last Exorcism," and I even liked this Scandinavian import, "Trollhunter," but this might be the last time. I mean, why do the filmmakers have to keep getting killed at the end of their little project to investigate some kind of supernatural phenomenon. (And why do handheld filmmakers keep insisting on investigating strange shit like this? Are they just filming all this so that they can die and have their footage be found for movies like this?) This movie begins as a investigate portrait of recent unusual illegal bear killings that local hunter are finding suspicious. They're not killed by licensed hunters, and they're tracks seem suspicious. Eventually, the investigation leads to a guy who's trailer smells like animal skins, and when they finally get enough trust from him to follow, they soon discover that he kills giant trolls. Trolls, as in bang their giant heads under the bridge that breaks, not the weird colored-hair creature people collected in the nineties and put them on erasers and keychains. There are so cool special effects of the trolls, including an amazing scene where a troll turns to stone from extreme sunlight. It's a little strange to tell us at the beginning that every scene was declared unaltered; I'm guessing that might fool some of the more gullable members of the audience. Overall the film is scary, and I'm recommending it for the good acting, especially by Otto Jespersen as the trollhunter, who's tired of being the only one in the country, (That must be a hard job), and 'cause it is a legitimate horror thriller, that is actually frightening at times. I just wonder why we needed the videocamera crew whose footage had to be found. The movie would've worked just as well without it.

QUEEN TO PLAY (2011) Director: Caroline Bottaro

4 STARS

Chess always seems to make a fascinating subject matter for films. One of the best movie about one's obsession over child sports is about chess, the underrated "Searching for Bobby Fischer". Chess has been used metaphorically for everybody from Lewis Carroll in literature, to film with Boaz Yakim's "Fresh". It's even been used erotically before in the original "The Thomas Crown Affair," with Steve McQueen. "Queen to Play," also uses chess somewhat erotically, at least in the beginning, which includes an unusual appearance by Jennifer Beals. Her and husband are playing a game of chess when the maid Helene, (Sandraine Bonnaire) becomes curious about the game. She buys her husband an electronic chess-set which mostly she ends up playing alone late at night. Eventually, she begins taking lessons from an American Doctor (Kevin Kline) staying at the hotel she works at. I've played chess for years, and like Helene was fascinated by the game. I was not as good, but I also never had lessons from a master. Other than her job, chess is the thing that gives her the most enjoyment out of life. Her husband doesn't understand at first, and thinks she might be sneaking off to have an affair. There's some light comedy in "Queen to Play", but mostly it's an intriguing look at a character who finds inspiration and solace in chess. It could've been poker or an affair, or whatever one lonely bored housewife decides to spend her free time, but chess is what fascinates her, and besides it's far more interesting. Sandrine Bonnaire is very good here, as is Kevin Kline. As far as I can tell, except for a short film he did, this is the first time he's ever acted primarily in French, and he's quite good. Only a few American actors actually work even semi-occasionally in other languages. (Off the top of my head, only Jodie Foster and Molly Ringwald that I can think of who have worked regularly in France). It's a light, nice little uplifting movie. And it doesn't hurt that I know and love chess, except when playing a computer, but, even if you don't you'll probably enjoy "Queen to Play".

MEET MONICA VELOUR (2011) Director: Keith Bearden

3 STARS

How many teenagers nowadays actually know who Russ Meyer is? How many teenage girls do you know have "Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! posters covering their bedroom walls which you can see clearly from the frat house across the street 'cause she keeps all the lights on when she's masterbating with an $80 vibrator? (I'm guessing on the dollar amount) Why would you, not want to hang out with that chick, especially if you're that strange kind of teenager who finds enjoyment out of porno movies from the '70s and '80s, back before home videotape ruined the industry and when they still tried to make porno movies with plot and occasionally even ideas and substance? I have a fascination with that era personally, but not as much as Tobe (Dustin Ingram), who lives with his Pop Pop (Brian Dennehy) who works selling hot dogs from a truck with a giant hot dog on top of it, which he gives to Tobe as his graduation present. Tobe is constantly fascinated and annoyed by his classmate Amanda (Jee Young Han), the one who must be overcharging for her babysitting to afford such an expensive vibrator (Again, guessing). Tobe reluctantly sells the hot dog truck to a collector of Americana (Keith David) who lives in Indiana, after finding out that his favorite porn star, Monica Velour (Kim Cattrall) is making a rare appearance at a nearby stripclub. At the club, he gets his ass kicked by a couple of people not familiar with Velour's previous work, and Velour, who's actually a single mom in an ugly custody battle with her husband, takes him home to recover. The two strike a strange bond, even a romance almost. Tobe is stuck in the past, kind of like Owen Wilson character in Woody Allen's "Midnight in Paris," while Velour finds his fascination with her more curiousity than anything else. He's in love with an image, and even though that image is old enough to be his mother, she stills see Monica Velour as the girl in the video and posters he's collected over the years. I'm not gonna pretend that the movie doesn't have certain problems, but I generally didn't mind too much. This is probably the most typical fantasy idea of what it might be like to get to know your favorite masturbatory figure, as long as you can be blinded by your idealized vision and not at the hard reality of what its like for former sex stars. Kim Cattral is perfectly cast for this part, and she's quite believable here as a former actress who's long tried to rid herself of that memory, while also inevitably bound to her past. Maybe I'm more generous than most recommending it but there's something to it. The kid likes music from the '30s, 'cause it's the best, dancing from the '50s, 'cause it's the best, and adult cinema of the '70s, 'cause it's the best. He's not completely wrong on any of those counts, so maybe I'm glad he knows history, and hopefully getting to know his idol will help him get the courage to realize that that weird Amanda chick who pesters him too much, is probably a good match for him, as long as he doesn't think too much about her... well, you know. (And again, just guessing on the price.)

IN THE CITY OF SYLVIA (2008) Director: Jose Luis Guerin

3 STARS

Had I probably been in a better place at the time when I was watching "In the City of Sylvia," it's possible I might have warmed up to it somewhat more. The film is mostly silent, and follows a man as he has returned to a European city, that I think is Strasbourg, and walks around for awhile. Sometimes he sits in a cafe. He often passes a piece of graffiti of the words "Je T'aime", which is "I love you," in French. There's more than a few movies the film has been compared to, everything from Hitchcock to Murneau and Rohmer and Bresson, according to, the guy who wrote a user review on imdb.com that six people found helpful. (Not me) I actually thought about the Vincent Gallo's "The Brown Bunny," more than anything. Slow-moving, paceful, as it follows a lone man who searching through a mysterious city, (Well, country in "The Brown Bunny") looking for something, in this case, a woman. He thinks he finds her and follows the woman, at one point having a conversation with her on the bus. He tells the story of having fell in love with Sylvia six years ago, in the city, and he's returned to get her. The woman says she isn't Sylvia. Maybe she is, maybe she isn't? It's hard to tell. He passes the graffiti again and again. I'm recommending it,  but barely. I don't think there's as much to this film as others think there is. Maybe it's reminiscent to some of better movies like "Brief Encounter," or "Before Sunrise," but, after a while, I started to get a little tired. Maybe if this was a short film, maybe 50 minutes, it would've worked better for me, but it's an idea and premise, and it is worth looking at, at least once.

THE MAKIOKA SISTERS (1983) Director: Kon Ichikawa

2 1/2 STARS

This is only the second film I've seen from the great Japanese director Kon Ichikawa; the first was the Oscar-nominated "The Burmese Harp", (aka "The Harp of Burma") where a war criminal run froms the law by becoming a well-respected Buddhist priest. I liked that film a lot, but I had a far more difficult time warming up to "The Makioka Sisters," which was recently released as part of the Criterion Collection. The movie follows four sisters, apparently each representing a season, who make kimonos, it's their family business. The oldest two are married and the youngest wants to get married, but traditionally, she should wait for her older sister to marry before she can, and she is in no particular rush to the alter at all. Not that I'm the biggest Jane Austen fan, but already I'm making comparisons to "Pride & Prejudice" in my mind. The youngest and her fiance soon get arrested trying to elope, and the family tries to get the matter absolved, while also convincing the older sister to pick a suitor, and they bring in a bunch of..., let's generously call them "hopefuls," for her to choose from. Meanwhile, the other two sisters start to have some trouble in their own marriages, the oldest couple arguing over whether to sell the kimono business, or is it the house? I don't remember now, something valuable to the family. He wants to make a powergrab as the head. The way I describe the movie, it sounds like a lot going on, but I spent much of the movie waiting for something to happen. The movie is beautifully shot, and I have a feeling that knowledge of the book by Junichiro Tanizaki, might actually help me into following all this more succinctly. It's possible that I'm missing some symbolism that's a little outside my knowledge. (I'm still learning a lot about Japanese culture and symbolism) But I really came away empty from this film. Ichikawa dies in 2008, and he left a long career of filmmaking that spands about half a century. I have a feeling he's made better ones, and I can't wait to see them, and I more importantly "The Makioka Sisters," is not one of his absolute best films.

PROTAGONIST (2007) Director: Jessica Yu

4 STARS

I guess I never thought much about how beautiful wooden marionettes are, but they are beautiful, expressive in the right hands, and surprisingly useful as a tool for breaking up some of the scenes in Jessica Yu's intriguing documentary "Protagonist". It makes comparisons to the Euripidean dramatic structure as well, while interviewing four distinctly different people, a career thief, a German Terrorist, a ex-gay evangelical, and a martial arts student, as they detail they're struggles in self-control. Personally, I don't know why she Yu insists on the Greek dramatic portions, (despite one of the narrators was Marina Sirtis aka Counselor Troi from "Star Trek: The Next Generation," which is awesome!) mainly because her four subjects are interesting enough on their own. My favorite would either be the ex-gay evangelical who discusses and how he held on to the beliefs that the Bible would eradicate his homosexuality, and the martial arts student, who is incredibly expressive about this really insane Kung Fu teacher that created an outlet for his repressed violent and excessive tendencies, while ironically teaching a philosophy of Kung Fu, that's based on peace. The obvious comparison film structurally would be Errol Morris's great documentary "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," which involved four distinctly different subjects ranging from a liontamer to a guy who's an expert on a rare mole rat, each of whom, set out to control nature and teh world around them. In "Protagonist," the four subjects throw themselves into eccentric behaviors as a way to control their own inner demons. This a very entertaining movie which should be careful to realize its strengths are in its subjects, and so much any dramatic narrative we can draw from them, they draw out their own pretty well.

EVEN MONEY (2007) Director: Mark Rydell

3 1/2 STARS

Growing up in Vegas, I've seen my fair share of gambling addiction. Not me personally, but I know some who have been, and it's practically acceptable here to some extent. Being a gambling addict in Atlantic City, probably not as acceptable. "Even Money," is a multi-narrative film based around people with gambling addiction, those who love them, and the characters of the seedy underground that exploits them. One narrative begins with Clyde (Forest Whitaker) who owes money to Victor (Tim Roth), the local slimy bookkeeper who works for some mysterious all-knowing kingpin named Ivan. Clyde's younger brother Godfrey (Nick Cannon) is a star college basketball player, who Clyde asks to shave points so he can earn his money back. Victor is the main and only suspect in a string of killings involving other bookies, and a police informant Augie (Jay Mohr), who is also a bookie along with his reluctant partner Murph (Grant Sullivan) who keeps trying to get out, works undercover to try and trap Victor, while a detective (Kelsey Grammer) remains working along the fringes, waiting for Victor to slip up. The most interesting storyline involves a surprising friendship between a novelist with writer's block (Kim Basinger) who's lost all her family's money in the casino, and a failed magician (Danny DeVito) who helps her learn blackjack and three-card monty, promising that a supposedly fixed basketball game is the answer to all their problems, while her husband (Ray Liotta) wonders where she goes off to at night to write. One of the biggest secrets in Hollywood is that Danny DeVito might be the best actor in town. This is a brilliant part for him, and he gives an amazing performance as a desperate but ultimately nice slight-of-hand artist who's just trying to make his way back from his past fame. There's good performances all around though, while the movie itself runs more along the lines of the predictable. While gambling addiction is the root of most everybody's problems, the movie isn't so much about it as it is, a stylish film noir which uses it as a connecting thread. (For a great film on gambling addiction, look up a film called "Owning Mahoney," with Philip Seymour Hoffman). However, for what it is, it's really well-acted and most of the time very entertaining.
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