Thursday, January 26, 2012

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #21: "MONEYBALL", "FILM SOCIALISME", "WINNIE-THE-POOH", "PUTTY HILL", "SUBMARINE," "L'AMOUR FOU," and MORE!

Sorry for the delay in this week's movie reviews. It's been a long week, and we're still all (aka me), are still coming down a bit from the Academy Awards Nominations being announced. However, without movies, we'd have no Oscars, so it's back to movies this week. Also, I wanted to thank all of you who've read and supported our blog. We've just passed our 2,000 hit, and we got this second thousand a lot quicker than we did our first. We're constantly growing, and we hope to continue doing so in the future. So, follow us on twitter for blog updates, subscribe to me on my facebook page, and/or follow the blog through googlefriend, and tell all your friends to do the same. Thank you.

Now, onto this week's reviews!

MONEYBALL (2011) Director: Bennett Miller

3 STARS

When I read "Moneyball," by Michael Lewis a few years ago, I found it fascinating. I read it as a longtime baseball fan, (Go Phillies!) who found the achievements of the Oakland A's franchise in recent years unusual and curious, and it became more interesting when the system they were using to finance the team and players came to light. Essentially, they were completely rewriting every rule about how to measure a players value and worth. Even though the book was heavily statistical, it also focused on the A's GM, Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), and how exactly this former can't-miss prospect turned into the most inventive and hated GM in sports. Saying that, I also thought that I would never see "Moneyball," turned into a movie. The book, which details  Billy Beane's story, however it focuses on his more internal emotions than his actions, and is, well, it literally is inside baseball, is filled with statistical anomalies and concepts, that even a baseball fan like me is still trying to fully comprehend. This led me into a strange quandry while watching the movie. One, I am firm believer that you should almost never read the book until after you see the movie. Yes, this one goes against movie people's typical ideas, but personally and as a film critic, I should be giving you a film review, and I've already begun this one, with a book report instead. They're two different art forms; certain things that can be well-explained in books, inner thoughts for instance, are difficult to pull off on film, which is a visual medium, and second, and now a bigger problem, since I have read the book, now I can insert pieces of the book from my memory into the movie, when in reality they aren't there, and aren't there for a reason. I think the best way to watch "Moneyball," is to watch it with somebody, who comes at this movie completely blind. Someone who's not a baseball fan, has no knowledge of what happened during the 2002 season, and hasn't read the book. Normally I don't want to gauge others' reactions, but in this case, I fear that I might in fact be too biased coming into a film. So, what I did before writing this review, was watch the movie twice, first alone, and then with somebody who didn't know the entire story going in. (It was a little hard on short notice to find somebody who didn't know at least part of the story) On the first viewing, I admired how they were able to adapt what is really not an easily adaptable text into a feature, which also meant that I found myself in constant comparison to the book. On the second viewing, with others, I was able to more carefully study the filmmaking itself. What I found on this viewing intrigue me. I actually liked the film a little less, and found some far more questionable choices that I originally overlooked. For one thing, the pacing is strangely awkward. At times Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), the quiet Yale whiz kid who Billy picks from Cleveland after realizing he's analyzing players differently from everybody else, seems to switch almost at the plot's will from this computer geek know-it-all to a sudden devil's advocate when Billy is in crises mood. It seemed out-of-character more inner conflict to suddenly arise from a man of figures like him. I think they struggled to find a pace. The movie feels a lot like certain scenes that might have been at different parts of the movie structurally at one point, were suddenly moved to completely different parts of the film, for emotional effect. I'm not even talking the flashback here, just scenes of characters arriving to work and walking down the hallway seem to be placed in the movie, to adjust for a lull in the actual scene that's going on, and that we soon arrive back to. Also, while Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin are two of the best writers in Hollywood, I'm pretty sure they should never work together again. They're styles of writing and strengths are so different, they seem to be in conflict with each other. It seems like they each wrote their own scripts, and then they started picking and choosing the parts from they liked best. The movie is the second feature film directed by Bennett Miller; his first was the great movie "Capote," which earned Philip Seymour Hoffman an Oscar. Hoffman has a supporting role here playing A's manager Art Howe, and I think it's arguably the best performances in the film. Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill have both earned Oscar nominations for their performances, they're both really good here at what they're given. I think there's a lot of talent onscreen, they're all just in a project that's just a little over all their heads, and they're doing anything they can think of to scrape through a movie. That in of itself is interesting to watch at times, as they sharply switch focus from one subplot to another, trying to eek out a full story. I'm a little surprised "Moneyball," sneaked into the Best Picture Oscar category. It might look like an Oscar film, with stars, director, screenplay, but I don't think they're looking at the parts they should be looking at.

FILM SOCIALISME (2011) Director: Jean-Luc Godard

2 STARS

I've re-read the summary of "Film Socialisme," of imdb.com about a dozen times thinking, "Was that what the hell that was about?". It might be as good an explanation as any, but I'll be damned if I could've come up with that, or any particular explanation of "Film Socialisme". This is supposedly Jean-Luc Godard's final film. He was one of the leaders of the French New Wave with movies like "Breathless," "A Woman is a Woman," "Pierrot Le Fou," and numerous others. Sometimes I think he might be the greatest filmmaker alive. Other days, I think his experiments just go awry. He is not for the casual filmgoer. You practically have to be an expert in film just to follow and understand most of the films he makes. While many of his contemporaries like Truffaut, Rohmer, Melville, would go to a more classical route, Godard has remained film's insistent experimentalist, searching for what is true cinema. The core essence of it. "Film Socialisme," begins on a boat. The fact that it happens to be the Costa Concordia, the cruise ship that they're currently trying to fish out of the Mediterranean right now, makes the timing of my review coincidental, but other than that, I have no particular understanding of the film other than that. There's a family with a llama that occasionally has to go to the gast station to refill just like their car. At one point, the DVD menu pops up. These constant ticks winks and nods to film can be fun and insucient at times. Godard's character are always aware they're in a movie, or at least they should be. The movie's subtitle aren't even giving us clues. Unless you speak about five languages or so, you'll never get every part of the film. The subtitles are never more than three words at once. Sometimes I appreciate the technique and the style, other times I didn't and I just tuned out and didn't miss much. If Godard has finished making movies, than this might as well be the one that he goes out on, trying to encompass nearly every basic little aspect of film in a movie, to show what a movie is. His last words on the screen, is "No Comment," instead of "the end." His last remarks is made on the film. As for my thoughts on "Film Socialisme"? Nope, I don't have any comment either.

WINNIE-THE-POOH (2011) Directors: Steven J. Anderson and Don Hall

0 STARS

What the hell happened here?! How did they not get "Winnie-the-Pooh," right? This is one of those cases where they apparently knew the words, but had no music. Correction, this movie had way too much music. Pretty much everything that could've gone wrong with "Winnie-the-Pooh," and a few things that I didn't think were even possible to get wrong about "Winnie-the-Pooh," they got wrong here. It's disturbing. I've seen probably every version of "Winnie-the-Pooh," you can imagine. TV series, most of the movies, many of A.A. Milne books... I've even seen wonderfully told tales of the Hundred Acres woods where actors were dressed in large costumes of the characters. I think it can work it any form, if it's done well. I have nothing against Disney going back to the more classical hand-drawn animation for this, and show the real Christopher Robin's bedroom filled with the pluff animals of the characters, but I don't need to know that imagination's involved to understand the emotional peril of Eeyore missing his tail. Did they think kids might get the wrong idea and start trying to hide their own pet's tales if they didn't know that they're imagined stuffed animals? If I thought about the logistics of it, I guess I would've figured out subconsciously that conceit, but all I ever thought about was that if I was a donkey and lost my tail, I'd probably feel lousy about myself. A lot like Eeyore. The whole appeal of "Winnie-the-Pooh" is not simply the characters, but the entire whimsical, but quiet and slow-paced neighborhood feel we get by visiting the Hundred Acre Woods. Sure, Pooh likes hunny, (purposefully misspelled there) but in no world would Pooh have a psychodelic song-and-dance about it that could almost be described as orgasmic. That number looked like it belonged in "Dumbo". (Those numbers barely worked in that movie really) We meet the characters, and they help each out with their problems, and worries. It's possible that they can mistake a note and think Christopher Robin was kidnapped by the Backson, but there's no way that Winnie-the-Pooh would accidentally run into a paragraph while searching for that elusive hunnypot. This whole movie felt wrong. Whether it was a slight accent on a character, the need to explain such things as what the 100-acre woods is, the fact that after the ten-minutes of credits (Which make the movie only 53 minutes, instead of 63), that we finally do meet the Backson, none of it felt right. Maybe this is material that should finally move to motion-capture. If they can do that and be true to the wonderful Van Allsburg illustrations in "The Polar Express," then they can do it, and keep true to A.A. Milne's visions. (Or for a more recent example, keeping true to Herge's Tintin in "The Adventures of Tintin") It's amazing how by just being a little bit off on everything can make something so magical become so awful. Zooey Deschanel sings a pretty song at the end. That's about the only nice comment I have on the film. I knew at one point, I'd see a movie so bad that I'd have to give it zero stars, but I never would've guessed it'd be this one. Maybe I'm putting too many of my own expectations of "Winnie-the-Pooh," into the film, but I don't see Pooh Bear at all in this film.

PUTTY HILL (2010) Director: Matthew Porterfield

4 1/2 STARS



"Putty Hill," is certainly a unique film. It seems to be a documentary. At times, an unseen filmmaker asks questions to the characters, and they answer. We learn some things about Cory, a young man who lived in this lower-class Baltimore neighborhood whose death by a heroin overdose has effected the neighborhood. In that last sentence, I was looking for the correct adverb to end it, but I'm not sure what that word would be. It's just effected the neighborhood in those ways that a neighborhood would be effected by it, if someone like Cory, and that is the point the movie makes. Most everybody seems to have known him, many people show up for his funeral. Some have things to say, nothing particularly poetic or overly articulate, but much of it is powerful. There's no known actors in the movies, and most of them have never had any film experience until now. That's the correct choice. It might have been a budget, but it's correct anyway. Sometimes we drop the documentary world, and just simply follows the lives of these characters for a bit. The whole film takes place over a few days. It's got a naturalistic feel about it. Nothing that particularly feels like anything I've seen in a scripted film before. Well, this film wasn't scripted either. Basically it was improvised, but it was acted. It's hard to explain "Putty Hill". It's powerful, emotional. It invites us into the world of Cory, the places he went, the people he knew and hung out with, his family, and at the beginning and the end, we see his mostly empty apartment where he ODed, and what do we find out? Not that much really. He's a junkie who overdosed. A lot of people knew him, but nobody really did. Director Matthew Porterfield has created a mosiac of a neighborhood stays in that complicated area between mourning and live going on as usual, neither one of those statuses are particularly desireable. A young man from the neighborhood overdoses, and nobody knows how to react.

SUBMARINE (2011) Director: Richard Ayoade

2 STARS

The critical acclaim and popularity of Richard Ayoade's film "Submarine," which most recently includes a BAFTA nomination for Best Debut, is baffling to me. The movie takes place in the annoying mind of the annoying Oliver Tate (Craig Roberts), whose delusional voiceover scratches over this movie like nails on Holden Caulfield's chalkboard. His parents Lloyd and Jill (Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins) are in a rough patch in their marriage, and mostly leave Oliver to his own devices. Lloyd is a college professor on, studying, something about fish that's complicated to explain, apparently (Summarize Oliver's words, which I really shouldn't be doing) while his mother is slowly becoming attracted to an ex-boyfriend of hers who's come back into their lives, a hack motiviational speaker, Graham Purvis (Paddy Considine, hopefully having fun with his part). In the meantime, he's a jerk of a high school kid who pushes people he used to make out with into large puddles of water in the woods until the student transfers to another school. He seems to map out his strategy to survive high school as though they're essential requirements that he performs as chores as much as hormonal rages. I can't describe the voiceover in this film, except to say that I'd be so much happier without it. It's like if Holden Caulfield was delusional meets Sheldon Cooper's analytical mind. (I know, I already used a Holden Caulfield reference, but the movie is begging to be compared to Sallinger.) He sets his sights on a classmate, Jordana (Yasmin Paige, a rare bright spot) who's a wannabe badass that gets passed around from bully-to-bully, that would probably have knocked Oliver on his ass if she wasn't going through a roughpatch at the time. Oliver's determined to lose his virginity to her. Why exactly, I'm not sure. Maybe to be popular, but it doesn't seem like that's gonna happen. Maybe this material works better in the Joe Dunthorne novel it's based on. It comes off as pressing and forceful. It made me want to bang against the wall until the movie was over. Despite some good performances, this movie relies on whether or not you're gonna like to hang around Oliver Tate for an hour and a half. I didn't like the kid, so I didn't like the movie.

L'AMOUR FOU (2011) Director: Pierre Thoretton

2 1/2 STARS

One of the things that happens when someone dies is that somebody has to go through all their stuff. It's essentially all that left of somebody, all that one has acquired before their death. Their were moments during "L'Amour Fou," where a documentary about the iconic fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent, mostly told through the eyes of his lifelong lover Pierre Berge, where I thought about the end of the "Citizen Kane," and his massive collection of statues and other items, all in the mansion he built to segregate himself from the rest of the world. Yves Saint Laurent was a very private man himself. So private that even his lover seems to have trouble really describing him outside of generalities for much of the movie. He actually seem more at home describing some of the great paintings and sculptures that he and several others are carefully removing from their home. They're going to be sold at an auction. Most of the items garner values hundreds of thousands of dollar each. Saint Laurent revolutionized the fashion industry. He was trained under Christian Dior, took over the House of Dior when he passed, and soon started his own company. Pretty much any woman wearing so much as a trenchcoat owes a great deal to Yves Saint Laurent, and that's one of many revolutionary accomplishments in the world of fashion he's responsible for. In old videos and some interviews, we see the dozens of fashions lines and shows he created, all the while, he privately struggled with everything from drinking to addiction. I think we learn a few things about Yves Saint Laurent by the end of the movie. Not enough for me to recommend it; the movie didn't really get interesting to me near the end. I guess this was as much as a long song as it is a biodoc, maybe I would've preferred a biodoc. I don't know, maybe its good that such a private public figure had a more personal movie made about him, by those who knew him best.

TOPAZ (1969) Director: Alfred Hitchcock

4 1/2 STARS

"Topaz," was one of Alfred Hitchcock late-career experimental films. It's not so much suspenseful, as it is, tension-filled. It takes place during the Cold War, right before the Cuban Missile Crisis. A high-ranking Russian official defects to the United States, where he is then questioned about all he knows. It's a question of how much he knows, and there's the possibility that he might be a double-agent, so he and his family are kept hidden. "Topaz," is a complicated spy thriller that travels all across the globe, including to Cuba to uncover a secret French spy ring called Topaz, that works for the Russians. It's complicated, and it's hard to sometimes follow all the action, but the action continually moves forward anyway. In many ways, it feels more like a movie that would've been made now. The movie Hitchcockian suspense sequence involves two spies who are trying to escape after being spotted, and some of the Cuban guards are after them. Some of the more intriguing ones involve the beginning conversations with the defector, as he's reluctant to give up information, and they have to continually pry out what he knows. I think it's unclear whether he even knows the impact of what he knows. Strange how modern it feels. Even the scenes in Cuba don't seem like movie sets. I wonder if Hitchcock might have been influenced by someone like Melville who made great crime/spy thrillers around this time. It was the first film made after the famous Truffaut interview was published. It would become one of his last films. It strange how intrisically hard-to-follow the story is. Most of Hitchcock's great suspense comes from feelings of empathy of his characters, who we've been following from the beginning. "Topaz," doesn't have that benefit, and yet, we can't take our eyes off it. There's a lot of actors, some stars even, but they blend into this film mostly. There's no Jimmy Stewart or Cary Grant protagonist that we can easily follow. Frederick Stafford plays Andre Devereux, the French agent who's basically been pawned off by America to follow up on the claims, he's probably the closest to a protagonist we have. Makes sense though, Cary Grant showing up in a spy movie would be noticeable. Based on actual events, "Topaz," is one of the best movies that gives us a full sense of the Cold War, and how it was fought. It's probably more of an interesting anomoly in the Hitchcock canon than one of his very best films, but I think it shows that Hitchcock could really have done any kind of film he wanted. It makes me wonder if he was around today, I wonder if he'd have made more movies like "Topaz".

CELL 211 (2009) Director: Daniel Monzon

4 STARS

Not released theatrically in the U.S., "Cell 211," won 8 Goya Awards (Spain's equivalent to the Oscar), and I can see why. It's a powerful twist on a couple different genres. It's a prison film; it's a hostage movie; it a spy movie even, and it's even a commentary on the media, and a few other things as well. The day before his first day of work as a prison guard, Juan Oliver (Alberto Ammann) comes in to work to get a lay of the land, and make a good impression with his fellow co-workers. When a piece of the wall suddenly falls on him, and knocks him unconscious, they place him in cell 211, which was recently vacated in order to get help, and deal with a situation in the prison. When he awakens, he prison is in a riot. Most of the guards have either been killed or are capture under threat of death. A leader named Malamadre (Luis Tosar), is smart and respected in the prison, and this is not his first prison riot. Juan's only chance at survival, is to go in disguise as a fellow convict, who's just arrived and place in the vacant cell. So much happens from this simple premise. There's the typical cutting between numerous locations and groups of characters, police, press, the riot going on outside, Juan Oliver's pregnant wife (Marta Etura), who's greatly concerned by the news reports and footage plus continual dissent and indecision by some of the inmates, some curious as to Juan Oliver's presence. A lot happens in this film, and all in the moment, seems plausible. There's many different point of dramatic intrigue, too many to count. It's hard to fully keep up with some of the characters, but that's okay. There's some great tension as this chess game between the police and the inmates devolves into a world where the line between good guy and bad guy, gets all-but-erased. It's strange the decisions we make. All Juan did was show up to work, a day early.

JANE EYRE (1944) Director: Robert Stevenson

3 1/2 STARS

After watching the latest film adaptation of "Jane Eyre," a few months back, directed by Cary Fukanaga and starring Mia Wasikowska and Michael Fassbender, (My review of that film I posted earlier) I thought I should go back and watch the most revered film version of the Brontes classic. This one start Joan Fontaine as the title character, and Orson Welles as a perfectly casted Edward Rochester of Thornhill Hall. Since both films seem to basically tell the same story, I have to presume that both are pretty accurate adaptions of the novel, which I somehow I never had to read in high school, so I kinda missed it. For the most part, I also had the same basic criticisms of the new version as I do for this version of "Jane Eyre". It's somewhat easier for me to believe in this version that Jane Eyre will fall for Mr. Rochester so easily. There's a submissive nature about Jane Eyre that only seems to appear when Mr. Rochester is around. Outside of this friendship/relationship, it almost comes close to being completely against her character in other scenes. I never fully did buy into their romance; it seems like just as Jane Eyre's becoming a cold and frigid woman whose instincts are survival, she suddenly bows to this man, whose presence is large but who somehow always seems to have the world on his shoulders. I think subconsciously, Jane must recognize this, but when the big "secret of the house" gets revealed, she's shocked and doesn't know how to react, but her survival instincts kick in and she leaves. It never made a lot of sense, and for that reason, like the first film, the middle seems to completely lag for me. It's a still a good story, and this is a good film. This one was directed by Robert Stevenson. His early career and his later career couldn't be more different, starting in more classic films, "Jane Eyre," easily being the best, he switched to directing television at the beginning of the medium, and then became Disney's 1st call director. "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," "The Love Bug," and the other Herbie movies, "Old Yeller," "The Absent-Minder Professor,"... he even earned an Oscar nomination one year for probably his most famous film "Mary Poppins". His body of work look more like three different directors than one. Other than that, the movie didn't do much for me, although it did keep me interested the whole way through. It's starts-out good, slows in the middle, and then has a really good ending, just like the book, and other movie. If you like the book, you'll probably like the film, and if you don't, well, you can at least admire it as an adaptation.

BUG (2007) Director: William Friedkin

2 STARS

"Bug," was advertised as a horror movie from the man who directed "The Exorcist," many years ago. While Friedkin did get an Oscar nomination directing that film, he's actually rarely gone back to the horror genre, and "Bug," is not so much a horror film, as it is a filmed play. The play, by Tracy Letts, who also adapted the screenplay, almost starts out like something Sam Shepherd would've written as a comanion piece to "Fool For Love," but devolves into something else completely. It begins with Agnes (Ashley Judd), getting strange phone calls to her motel. Nobody's ever on the other line, but she suspects her recently-released-from-prison ex-husband Jerry (Harry Connick Jr.) is behind them. He killed a man, and now he expects her to come willingly back into their arms, although their past is deeper than it first seems. She has an occasional fuck buddy in R.C. (Lynn Collins), who work together tending a lesbian bar, and during the beginners of one of her lost weekends, she brings along a patron named Peter (Michael Shannon, always up for being creepy) to hang out with them, and eventually he sleeps on Agnes's floor for the night. He, has the Army looking for them, claiming that they've inserting mind-controls bugs, yes, actual bugs into his skin, as research. People seem to legitimately be after them. Helicopters fly overhead at unusual times, and at one point, a Dr. Sweet (Brian F. O'Byrne), comes in, warning Agnes that he needs to go. At this point though, Alice has bought into his claims. They're motel room is soon completely pesticided  and covered in aluminum foil from head-to-toe. Most of the movie takes place in the motel room so it has that feel of a play that I normally like in most movies. Friedkin's directed play adaptations before, most famously "The Boys in the Band," and he likes this rather intimate way of filming. Normally I do too, but I have a feeling this works belongs better on the stage. In a theatre, we can get involved with the characters more personally; they're right in our face, and have more of an invested interest in them. We can wonder more whether or not Peter is delusional or mentally-disturbed, or if he's dead-serious about the bugs, who's become an unwilling expert. Watching it as a movie, it starts out interesting, but by the end, we've watch one crazy person turn another relatively sane person, even crazier. I might go see the play next time it's performed somewhere around here, but I'm not sure the material works in this medium.

EL CANTANTE (2007) Director: Leon Ichaso

3 STARS

I really knew nothing about Hector Lavoe (Marc Anthonny) going into this movie. I don't particularly listen to salsa music, or most music for that matter that's in another language, although I probably should. After watching "El Cantante," which translates to "The Singer," the title of one of his more famous songs, I know a little more, was certainly impressed with his talent, or at least the talent of Marc Anthony, himself a major Latin music artist, who's had far more acting experience than most people realize. He was on Broadway years before he was famous. The movie, based on a documentary interview given by Hector's wife Puchi (Jennifer Lopez), begin with Hector leaving his family in Puerto Rico, and moving to New York, joing Willie Colon (John Ortiz) and becoming famous as the singer for the Fania All-Stars. After that, the material basically becomes the stuff of most music biopics, or "Behind the Music," episodes, but it's still pretty intriguing. Jennifer Lopez reminds me again, off just how great an actress she really is. The movie cuts between her as the older Puchi giving the interview, and her perception of Hector, which at times might stretch the truth, but then again, maybe the movie is also taking some license. Lavoe had some rough times though. He was a junkie, who was never around for his kid. He had to be dragged out of bed after a bender by girfriend, and taken to their wedding. At one point, he falls off a six-story building, and that's not what killed him. He died a few years later from AIDS, which he contracted through his heroin addiction. There's one thing the film did that was interesting. When he sang, there was floating English translations of many of his songs. They gave me context, and a better appreciation of the music (Many of the songs, when translated I found to be quite good), but I don't know if I need it to appreciate the music and life of Hector Lavoe.
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