Friday, December 30, 2011

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #18: "MEEK'S CUTOFF", "JUMPING THE BROOM", "VIDAL SASSOON: THE MOVIE" AND MORE!

Happy New Year everybody! This'll be my last post before the end of the year. I've been busy, and often sick this week, so I was only able to watch nine films this week, and only three movies from this past year. But not-to-worry, with Oscar season well underway, I will be watching as many major recent films as I can. Already, many of them are pushed to the top of my netflix queue, where they are all on very long wait status, so they sent DVD of the second season of "Torchwood," instead. Not a bad show, actually, but still.... I plan for that to change soon.

Also, at the end of this blog, I will review a film that I was specifically requested to watch. I mentioned earlier, that while I do watch loads of movies, and am always adding new titlees to my queue and to-watch lists, that I will try to watch any film that I haven't seen that readers may request that I read. On top of all the films I review here, you can also check my earlier blog where I posted the list of every film I've ever seen, and if there's a title not on there that you might be interested in me reviewing, please let me know, and it might take awhile, but I will do my best to eventually get to it, and to show you that I'm honest about that, this week, I actually did.

And now, onto this week's reviews!

MEEK'S CUTOFF (2011) Director: Kelly Reichardt

3 STARS

If you hear the words "Oregon Trail," and think immediately of a computer game, then you are probably my age. For the rest of you, it's actually an interesting little page in U.S. history, and one that probably would make an interesting movie or two. I'm not quite sure "Meek's Cutoff," is it though. Some critics do, while sporatic, it's shown up on a few Critics' Top Ten lists. I'm recommending the film, but I'm not as sold as they are. It's the second feature of director Kelly Reichardt's that I've seen, the previous one being the independent film "Wendy and Lucy," which starred Michelle Williams as an nomadic traveler who cares for herself and her dog until her car breaks down and has to find work. While some critics really liked that film as well, I'm pretty sure that movie only worked if you liked dogs. There'aren't any characters which such devotion to animals in "Meek's Cutoff," but the film felt about as adrift to me as it's characters were. We follow three families, who are traveling the trail in three-covered wagons, who've hired a mysterious man named Meek (Bruce Greenwood) to guide them to Oregon. We meet up with the group as they have gone off the trail, and they're debating what to do about Meek, whether to ditch him or fire him, or whether that's even an option. One family are newlyweds, the Tetherows (Will Patton and the aforementioned Michelle Williams), not his first wife, but his latest, and she's seems surprisingly self-efficient. The Whites (Neal Huff and Shirley Henderson) have a young son, Jimmy (Tommy Nelson). The third family, the Gatelys (Paul Dano and Zoe Kazan), have a child on the way. (Not as unusual as it sounds for that time). For some reason, I actually know a decent amount about this era, and for the most part, the movie seems historically accurate. It's true that most people rarely rode in the wagon, and most walked the whole way, for instance, including the pregnant women. At a certain point, they start to have strange run-ins with an Indian (Rod Rondeaux), and eventually, they capture him. Meek wants to kill him. He's got some kind of hatred for Native Americans, that almost seems Ethan Edwards-y, although that, and much else of the film, is never explained. That was a problem with "Wendy and Lucy," as well, but it works a little better here. Eventually, as they start to interact with the Indian, they begin to think he might be a better guide than Meek. They're lost, we don't really need much explanation. I also don't need as much of Reichardt's meandering on the desert. She's no Terrence Malick, yet she keeps trying to tell her story through these shots of scenery. I think overall, the reason I'm recommending this film is because, while I criticize her directing and storytelling, with "Meek's Cutoff", she's found a setting where these idiocyncracies of her actually don't hurt the film as much (I won't go so far, as to say it benefits the film). What she is really good at is getting great performances from her actors. Williams as always, is amazing here, as is Shirley Henderson as well, and after seeing Paul Dano, in "Cowboys & Aliens," last week, I'm starting to think he might have been better off as an actor back when Hollywood made more Westerns. If anybody's gonna play Billy the Kid, in anything anytime soon, it has to be him. Some might like this film more than me, but overall, I'm intrigued, but ultimately underwhelmed.



JUMPING THE BROOM (2011) Director: Salim Akil

3 STARS

The wedding movie, is one that I always find to be a tricky one to pull off. Sure, there's a few classics of the genre, but it's tough to handle all these characters at once. Even Altman's "A Wedding," has a few flaws, and isn't one of his very best. "Jumping the Broom," suffers from too many storylines, not because they aren't effective, or that they're characters we don't care about, but mainly because they seem to be added-on conflicts to a situation, that strangely might not have needed them. After another day of waking up, getting dressed and going home, Sabrina (Paula Patton) makes a promise to God that she won't have sex again until she finds the one she's gonna marry. She then gets hit by a Jason's (Laz Alonso) car. Six months later, they're getting married. Okay, it's a little unbelievable that they haven't had sex, even with a promise to God, but bigger issue at hand, the families are going to meet each other for the first time. Sabrina's family are the Watsons. They're like the Cosbys, only rich. Actually, considering how rich they are, they're closer to the Kennedys. A ferry and a car ride from New York City, is their Hyannisport, where Sabrina's mother, Mrs. Watson (Angela Bassett) is ordering around the staff and the wedding planner (An underused but funny Julie Bowen) who's also having enough trouble trying to rangle in her husband (Briak Stokes Mitchell) who everyone, including her, thinks is having an affair and make sure the rest of her family, especially the surprise appearance of Aunt Geneva (Valarie Pettiford) doesn't ruin anything. Jason's mother, Mrs. Taylor (Loretta Devine, in the kind of role that she was born to play) is a postal worker who raised Jason own her own for years, and is very protective of anybody that comes near him, especially the kind of people who send a car to pick them up from the ferry, no matter how nice a car it is. "Why isn't Jason here to pick us up?" She's even brought a sweet potato pie, for Jason and her family to eat, and not the Watsons, as well as her best friend Shonda (Tasha Smith) and Jason's uncle Willie Earl (Mike Epps), and Malcolm (DeRay Davis) who thinks he's going to be Jason's best man. I've only given you a handful of the characters so far, and already I'm a little confused, but there's a lot of tension and comedy between these two families, and as always with wedding movies, some embarrassing and irksome moments. A scene where a character signs Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing," at the rehearsal becomes even more strange after some of the film's later revelations are exposed. It's the second half of the movie, where a lot of these sudden revelations come up, that I found myself wondering, why? We have such a nice little movie about two African-American families, both of them positive and not-cliched portrayals of these people, all of whom, I genuinely liked, and it seemed like there was enough conflict between them on their own, without adding any extra plot devices. Mother of the groom, hates the mother of the bride, that's good enough. It's traditional vs. modern. It's even the descendants of slaves against the descendants of slave-owners! Yes, that fact get revealed at an inopportune time, although I can't for the life of me imagine a time when that would be opportune to bring up. The title "Jumping the Broom," comes from the old slave tradition, where slaves would marry each other by jumping a broom. I never realized that some families actually had brooms for this occasion, one of many conflicts the Watsons and the Taylors will fight over until the wedding finally occurs. I like this movie, and I especially like the first hour of the film. It was funny, light, and wonderful kind of tense where you just no that somebody is going to say the exact wrong thing, 'cause they can't help themselves. It's still a nice little film, but I think it tried to do too much in the second hour. It's a tricky thing to try and figure out when a movie has, just enough conflict. It's tempting to add more than you need to, but it should've been resisted here, but for the great performances across the board, and I didn't even mention a cute little subplot involving Meghan Good and Gary Dourdan, who's the chef they've hired for the wedding, "Jumping the Broom," is a good culture-clash film about two cultures who I haven't seen clash often enough in film. Since that's partly 'cause, it's only recently that at least even one of these cultures even existed, "Jumping the Broom," isn't just a movie about a wedding, it's also a movie about progress, and those who are resistent to it.

VIDAL SASSOON: THE MOVIE (2011) Director: Gregg Teper

2 STARS

Vidal Sassoon, is a great man. A revolutionary figure in his field. A man who forever changed the way women look. A brilliant self-made man who is generous and kind, and I don't know, a bunch of other hyperbole. There was a lot of it in the movie. None of it is particularly incorrect, but none of it is as interesting as it should be. I get somewhat of a sense of the kind of influence Vidal Sassoon has. I can clearly tell that he is probably the mn responsible to women hair styles from about the 1960s on. I learn a few things about him. He's very flexible, even in his eighties he still practices yoga and stretching, and he's very good at it I might add. He and his wife had their own TV show for a while, and very charismatic. He probably could've been an actor if he wanted to. He originally wanted to be a architect, but he didn't have the education. He's British, although he got training to get rid of the accent, and he lived in an orphange for much of his childhood, because his mother was too poor to take care of him, but she visited every week. I can see the architecture influence in his haircuts, which are often geometrical, and molded to best accentuate the face of the client. He famously did Mia Farrow's hair for "Rosemary's Baby". He also became the first and biggest brand in hair care products around the world. Most of this, I probably could've found out reading a book on him though, or even a well-researched wikipedia page. In fact, this film, was produced by the same guy who actually was writing a retrospective book on his life. The movie is bookended with him working on the book, and hanging the pages on a wall to show Vidal, the way most magazines used to work. This is a film of admiration, and I guess I admire Vidal Sassoon, but that's about it. If I were to guess beforehand whether Sassoon was he was admirable or not, even without knowing much about hair, I probably would've guessed that he was. I didn't learn much else from the movie. If that was entertaining enough, than it wouldn't matter. After a while though, I just get tired of pictures of hairstyles. At least it looks like the book is a picture book.

THE MAGNIFICIENT SEVEN (1960) Director: John Sturges

4 STARS

There's not really a whole helluva lot of difference between Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai", and the American remake, "The Magnificient Seven", other than one's a Samurai movie, and the other is a Western, but "Seven Samurai," is better, has the depth of an epic tale, while "The Magnificient Seven," feels mostly like a glorified B-movie, but it's still quite a good film. A small Mexican village is terrorized constantly by the local gang of outlaws led by Calvera (Eli Wallach), who take their valuables and most of their crops. The town is mostly unarmed and peaceful farmers. They can't afford or are big enough to hire much of an army, or for that matter, even a Sheriff or an outlaw, but they might be able to get a gunslinger or two that are interesting more in a challenge than a paycheck. They start with Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), who becomes notorious in town for risking life and limb just to bury a Native American that the town really didn't want buried in their cemetary. He shows some other suicidal behavior, not exactly the greatest quality you're looking for in a law officer, but good enough for a man for hire, and he's charismatic enough to start recruiting a few others. The rest of the story is mainly the battle to elimate Calvera and his men, which includes some training of the locals, and some good strategy. I'm actually somewhat surprised to find out the film got an Oscar nomination for it's score. I actually thought it often undermined the action by being too light and cheery. At times, I thought the action played more like the Keystone Cops than the dramatic chess match that "Seven Samurai," often plays like. It's not terribly uncommon for Samurai films to be remade as Westerns. Hell, Sergio Leone made a career out of it. It's tough to live up to comparisons to a much better original film, and "The Magnificient Seven," has it's moments. Like James Coburn's character, proving that he's faster with a knife than most people are with a gun. "The Magnificient Seven," succeeds because the original story is good, and it doesn't do anything to undermine that. It also doesn't do anything to extend upon it either though.

VINCENT & THEO (1990) Director: Robert Altman

4 STARS

The opening shots of Altman's "Vincent & Theo," make the most striking of differences between how Van Gogh's work was viewed when he was young, compared to how his work is viewed now. His work easily goes for millions now, while in life, he never sold anything. He slowly became mentally ill. I think you could somewhat argue that his mental illness might have been that he was an artist. (Trust me, I write screenplays for a living that don't sell, I'm pretty sure I'm not completely sane either) He had to paint. It wasn't a choice or a skill, he had to become a painter. It didn't matter that his painting didn't sell, I think he would've gone crazy if they did. Those of some of the thoughts I was thinking about when watching "Vincent & Theo." Another thought of mine was what luck that had a brother like Theo (Paul Rhys). Vincent (Tim Roth), constantly bites on his pipe, and sketches whatever prostitute he convinces to model for him. One, he eventually get to marry and lives with for awhile. She leaves though, and he is constantly moving from place to place, usually on the recommendation of Theo, who's the biggest gallery runner in Paris at the time. He sends him paints, and hangs up his paintings. He privately sees they're talent and potential, but publicly, he sends him money and paints and puts out work that can sell and is popular. There's been a few films about Van Gogh in the past, but "Vincent & Theo," is the first one I've seen, and it benefits from profiling both Theo and Vincent. We get a sense of not just who Van Gogh was, we learn just how he was able to work and create all these masterpieces, and what that cost himself and the people around him. Tim Roth is very good here as Van Gogh, maybe my favorite performance of his I've seen. It is Altman's film ultimately. There's not as many normal Altmanesque stylings in this film as his others. There's only a few scenes of multiple people, metriculating through an art gallery, and mumbling non-sequitors and informing their wives not to talk to anyone quietly. It's actually a movie as much as seclusionness that most of his work. The loneliness of the unsuccessful artist. Even Theo's demons are inner struggles for him. He has a homelife that's on the brink of shambles, while he's not respected enough at his job, all the while, his brother is the topic of conversation and dread for him. He loves his brother, and therefore he must tolerate him.

THE HEARTBREAK KID (1972) Director: Elaine May

3 STARS

There's something dark and disturbing about the protagonist in "The Heartbreak Kid." It's hard to pinpoint exactly what it is. He's got unlikeable characteristics to begin with, but it's this single-mindedness that's downright obsessive. Once he puts his mind to something, he goes to extremes to get what he wants. He actually reminds me of Benjamin Braddock a bit. (Dustin Hoffman in "The Graduate", which is ironically a film directed by Elaine May's husband/comedy partner Mike Nichols) Here, the Benjamin character is Lenny Cantrow (Charles Grodin), and he's just fallen in love with Kelly Corcoran (Cybill Shepherd) a college girl from Minnesota he's just run into on a beach in Miami. Why's he in Miami? He's on his honeymoon. He just rushed into a marriage with Lily (Jeannie Berlin). It's a little confusing exactly why they got married. They don't seem that compatible. I think he might have married her because that was the only way he ever going to sleep with her. (We have so many easy solutions to that problem in Vegas, I forget that it's problematic for people that live most everywhere else sometimes) On the drive down to Florida, they fight and argue about everything. He finally sleeps with her, and she soon becomes an annoying little bug he has to squish, all covered in, whatever it is you need to put on to recover from a really bad tan. (For some reason, I don't think it's sunscreen.) Lenny spends the rest of the movie trying to spend as much time with Kelly as possible, even if her rich parents (Audra Lindley and Eddie Albert) are understandably less than welcoming towards him. Lenny has a lot to do, he has to first, divorce Lily, than he has to go up to Minnesota, act like a creepy stalker until he finally wins over Lily and her parents, and hopefully not get killed by one or everybody in the meantime. The Farrelly Brothers remade the movie recently with Ben Stiller in the lead role. One of my professors correctly noted that most people who watched that film, probably no idea that it was a remake. I haven't seen the remake yet, but I can see why the Farrellys would've been attracted to the original. One of the best comic directors Elaine May, the script was written by Neil Simon, (Although it's not from an original play/idea from him), and the performances are still strong, and I can see a few different ways to reinterpret this film in modern time. Saying that though, this is actually quite a dark comedy. I didn't exactly laugh much, although I'm not sure I was supposed to either. The film earned Oscar nominations for Albert and Berlin. Berlin's I'm a little more surprised by than Albert's. I guess the ending was supposed to be happy. I was wondering though, who's he gonna run into on his next honeymoon and fall in love with? For all that effort, I hope he got what he wanted.

LIGTHS IN THE DUSK (2006) Director: Aki Kaurismaki

3 1/2 STARS

"Lights in the Dusk," is the first film I've seen from the legendary Finnish filmaker Aki Kaurismaki, his most recent being "Le Havre," which has made a few Critics Top Ten lists this past year. I can't really garner much of an opinion of him from watching "Lights in the Dusk." I like the movie fine, and I think he's clearly got influences in people like Godard and Truffaut. Minimalist, new wave-ish. But I have some doubts that this is the film that I should be introduced to him with. "The Man without a Past," which earned an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language film, seems to be the preferred choice amongst most of the experts, or whomever it is that writes the profiles on imdb.com. The story is simple. Almost as simple as it's protagonist, a night watchmen Koistinen (Janne Hyytiainen). He seems barely competent. He walks around on the beat. He stops and has an occasional chat with the girl at the hot dog stand. Occasionally he hears an insult or two from his co-workers, but he doesn't to care much about that. Suddenly, a striking blonde comes into his life. He believes she's his girlfriend. She's actual part of a crew running a con to rob the place he works at. He doesn't catch on, and that's part of why they use him. He's loyal to a fault, even after the police bring him in, they can tell he couldn't have been a ringleader of some kind, be he doesn't turn her or anybody else in. Why? I'm not quite sure. Maybe he is just loyal. I think I something at the end where he gets out, 'cause it ended suddenly and almost too subtlely. What I saw I liked. I liked the character, and I could feel for him as the con went on. In a Hollywood movie, he probably would've went all Die Hard on everybody who set him up. But Koistinen is only a night watchmen in Helsinki, who likes hot dogs. Maybe that's all he wants anyway.

VITUS (2007) Director: Fredi M. Murer

5 STARS

Apparently child prodigies exist in three distinct areas, chess, the arts, usually music, and math. All of them are exacting, all of them involve an insular devotion, and all can be done when alone. Vitus plays all three, but he particularly excels at piano. His parents Helen and Leo (Julia Jenkins and Urs Jucker) want him to be a classical pianist. His parents are insularly devoted to this, idea. (Maybe some would use the word 'dream', there, but I think 'idea' is more accurate.) It's strange how devoted they are too this. There seems to be two kinds of parents of gifted kids, ones who are as baffled but supportive of them, and the others who encourage and insist to the nth degree. Helen and Leo are the latter. In fact, one of my thoughts while watching "Vitus," was when I was trying to picture these two as a young couple in love, and I couldn't do it. Sure, they're Vitus's mother and father, but I thought at some point their life wouldn't simply revolve around conversations with counselors about whether Vitus should go to a gifted school program or just enroll in college. He has only one outlet from this constant studying and practice, his grandfather (Bruno Ganz), who builds, usually flying machines, or machines that he hopes to one day fly. His parents try to keep Vitus away from him, fearing that he might accidentally saw off a finger. True, not an unreasonable wish for a parent, but a tough one for a kid, who already has little to swallow. After finding him and his babysitter Isabel (Kristina Lokywa at age 12, and Tamara Scarpellini at age 19), passed out on the couch with empty bottles of booze, Helen decides to quit her job and stay home with Vitus, he throws a fit. He locks his parents out of their house, refuses to budge and let them back in. Most of these incident occur when Vitus is 6-years old (Fabrizio Borsani). The second part of the movie occurs when he's 12 (Teo Gheorghiu) and the events that take place then, are better left for the audience to discover, but needless-to-say, Vitus does rebel, but not exactly in the ways that you might think, and not for the reasons you might think either. He is smart, and supremely gifted, and suprisingly adaptable and aware of his surroundings, something his parents don't catch onto until way later. There's been films about phenoms and gifted kids and their parents. My favorite is "Searching for Bobby Fischer," about a chess prodigy. Vitus is right up there, maybe even better than that one. It's almost impossible to show the thoughts of somebody who is smarter than most of the audience, myself included, but we can observe him. How he reacts to the situations and why. The second half of the film has a lot of twists in it, because Vitus wants their to be. When he's 6, he's the smartest one in the room, but he doesn't have any say. When he's 12, he's still the smartest in the room, but he now knows how to manipulate it to his advantage. It's only minor flaw is that sometimes its tough to watch. Tough, but its worth it.

THE LITTLE PRINCESS (1939) Director: Walter Lang

3 STARS

"The Little Princess," is the first film that I am viewing as per reader request. After my earlier review of Alfonso Cuaron's film "A Little Princess," I got numerous recommendations, led by a reader named Laura Carmella Bernardo, (aka My Cousin) that I should check out the original version of the film, the 1939 Shirley Temple film. That she wasn't the only one lets me know that this was a personal story for many young girls, both films in fact were, as was the original story by Francis Hodgeson Burnett. While that book is unread by me, the two movies' stories are so strikingly similar, that I have to presume that they're quite loyal adaptations, although they're clearly films of their era. In "The Little Princess," we don't see any image for instance, which is where Sara Crewe (Temple) spent most of her young life when war in England starts and her father (Iain Hunter) who's a Captain in the Army, has arranged to have her stay at a prestigious English Boarding School for Girls, led by a stern headmistress, Amanda Michin (Mary Nash). When the war ends and Sara's father is labeled MIA, she is forced to go from prize pupil, to having to work for her stay, as a servant to the rest of the children. It's a Shirley Temple film, so a couple dancing and singing aberration scenes, which are nice, but the movie, as it the story, is basically a Cinderella story. Although, it's a much more feasible Cinderella story. The girl in younger, and it's a lot easier for a kid to understand love for a parent more than love for a Prince Charming type character. I can see why little girls like this story. I prefer the remake. Nothing against this one though; I was quite a Shirley Temple fan at one point myself. (I particularly love "Heidi", which has much of the same cast as this film, and even shared some of Mary Nash's costumes) This, along with the remake are good first tellings of the Cinderella tale for kids. They can learn the Disney one later, and when they're older, we can show them my favorite version, the Mexican film "Like Water for Chocolate".  
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