Friday, February 3, 2012

RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #21: "WARRIOR", "HELL AND BACK AGAIN", "FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS", "SUBMARINO", "BRIDE FLIGHT", "ORGASM, INC." "THE KIDS GROW UP," "EYES WIDE OPEN," AND MORE!

Sorry for the slight delay this week on the blog updates. I'll try to do better next week. It's been a little exhausting for me personally, but I got through a lot of movies. This being the in-between time in the industry while Award Season is winding down to the Oscars, they're actually hasn't been much going on to blog about either, at least nothing that I could add anything blog-worthy insightfulness too. A few friends of mine noted that the first they heard of Don Cornelius's suicide this week, was threw my twitter post about it, and while that was sad, and he will surely missed, I'm glad to announce that our twitter account is gaining rapidly. We're now over 250 followers! And we're getting about half-a-dozen new followers a day! To all those following us on twitter, thank you very much for giving this little blog of mine such outstanding support!

In the meantime, the major event this weekend in entertainment is not a movie or tv show per se, it's the Super Bowl on Sunday between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants. Being that I'm a pissed off Philadelphia Eagles fan that hates both teams with a homicidal passion and is completely convinced beyond a shadow of a doubt (or light of delusion) that we were better than both these, and all the other teams this year, and that we basically beat ourselves out of an easy Super Bowl, I will be waiting for Madonna's halftime show, and then I'll probably catch up on my "Entourage," DVDs while waiting anxiously for "The Voice," to premiere.

Before that though, let's get to this week's reviews!

WARRIOR (2011) Director: Gavin O'Connor

3 1/2 STARS

One of my Facebook friends, a former classmate of mine, is currently an amateur MMA fighter, with a winning record, and is considered a top future prospect in the sport. After watching "Warrior," I gave the sport one last try by watching the matches on FOX over the weekend, and like pretty much every other time I've watched MMA, I fell asleep. Personally, for me, while I certainly can't argue popularity, as well as the fact that compared to it's chief competition, the sport is amazingly well-run, I personally have always found it boring to watch, but it is still a more-than-suitable world to base a family melodrama around for a movie. That movie is "Warrior". Nothing particularly unusual or unexpected here than in most other sports movies, but it's well-done. Tommy Riordan, (Tom Hardy), shows up one night on his father's, Paddy Conlon's (Nick Nolte) footstep. Years earlier, he was one of the best high school and collegiate wrestlers of all-time, trained with devotion and intensity from his alcoholic and abusive father, but he left that life years ago when he left the family to live with his mother, who has since passed away. Paddy is excited to see his son. He's a recovering alcoholic, and is trying to put his life together, despite his sons' continued resistance to let them into their worlds. Tommy, has come back under mysterious circumstances to start training again. His other son Brendan (Joel Edgerton), is a former MMA fighter, who's married with kids now, and works as a high school psychics teacher. He's also broke however, and he starts training and fighting again in amateur tournaments along the eastern coast on the weekend, usually at some shady strip club or something like that, to make some extra money, against his wife Tess's (Jennifer Morrison) wishes. He soon gets suspended from teaching once word of his extra-curricular activities become known, but he re-ups with his old trainer Frank (Frank Grillo), to continue they weekend fights in the meantime. It's actually possible that this film might have missed my radar completely if not for Nick Nolte getting many Award nominations, including an Oscar nomination for Supporting Actor for his work here. I'm a little surprised actually, that he's being single out. To me, if this is an Oscar-nomination worthy performance by him, than every performance of his should get him an Oscar nomination. Not that I am actually against that, in fact, I'd be quite for it, but it still seems odd that this part of his has been so singled out. He's good; he always is. The movie is actually fairly predictable. There's a major tournament occurring soon, and through force and luck, both men find themselves in it, and of course, the two brothers are gonna end up fighting each other, and wouldn't you know, it's in the final match. Both men need the money,  for very different but legitimate reasons, both still have ill feelings towards their father, and both men have hurt feelings for each other that they have to fight through, excuse the pun there. The movie doesn't take a side interesting enough, so for the final match, we have a conflicted rooting interest than normal. Even if we've chosen to prefer one over the other, the movie forces us to follow both of them. "Warrior," is basically a good, average sports movie done fairly well. Some people see a little more out of it than that, I don't. The directing and performances are strong all-the-way around, but basically all I really came out of with the film is that, in terms of a good sports melodrama, it was just MMA's turn to have one.

HELL AND BACK AGAIN (2011) Director: Danfung Dennis

4 STARS

Soldiers go off to fight in war. They come back, some of the permanently scared, literally and/or figuratively. There's no greater message in "Hell and Back Again," other than that. No political agenda of any kind. This is true of any war, winner, loser, right side, wrong side, et. cetera, et. cetera. One of this year's Oscar-nominees for Best Documentary Feature, the movie shows us the confusing and erratic truth of the war in Afghanistan and Iraq, following soldiers and troops. I can hardly make any sense out of what's happening during these scenes, and I wonder if any of the soldiers could either. It alternates these scenes, with scenes at home of one soldiers painful recovery process. He's paralyzed, and nothing is easy for him either, and not happy about it. I couldn't help but think of both other recent documentaries on the wars, last year's "Restrepo," for instance, and many other great dramatic war movies. "Born of the Fourth of July," certainly a primary one, also about a man who came home paralyzed from war. I don't think this films ranks in the company of those great films, but it is powerful. It's simplicity is its strength. There's no narrator to help us explain or put anything in perspective. It's cinema verite, at one of it's most raw forms. While this year, the documentary category has come under heavy scrutiny, and deservedly so, I can see why "Hell and Back Again," could appeal to the branch. This is powerful document on battles fought overseas, the battles fought at home, and how the two are so intimately connected.

FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS (2011) Director: Will Gluck

3 STARS

I think I've reached my limit for romantic-comedy movies where the characters talk excessively about the cliches in romantic-comedy movies, while simultaneously, the characters are in a relationship that's got all the earmarks and cliches of a romantic-comedy. Even when the dialogue is witty, and in the case of "Friends with Benefits", even when it's funny. This was the second movie to come out in a period of few months last year, along with "No Strings Attached," that essentially had the same plot device, of two people, who decide to be sex buddies, only to find out that they're in love with each other. Both Dylan (Justin Timberlake) and Jamie (Mila Kunis) have just gone through bad breakups of their own, when the two meet each other. Jamie's a headhunter, who's been after Dylan, who runs an internet magazine that gets six-million hits a month, and GQ Magazine is very interested in him for as an art director or editor, or something along those lines, (What they're really interested in, is having the product placement contract in a major Hollywood film) anyway, Dylan flies out to New York and Jamie takes him on one of those beautiful montages of New York City until he agrees to take the job. Being the only person they he knows in New York, Dylan starts spending time with Jamie, and eventually, they come to the sex-with-benefits arrangement, that they for all-intensive purposes, pretty much had to come to. You know what movie started this dialogue-heavy fascination with romantic-comedy cliches? It was "When Harry Met Sally...", and no, they didn't actually talk about the romantic-comedy cliches that every movie, including this one, has since stolen from, but it was the same basic philosophical battle of the sexes, that all the other movies now use. I thought of that film while watching "Friends with Benefits," a lot actually. I think I could argue that "Friends with Benefits," has basically become the new evolved version of that film. I really shouldn't be critical actually. Especially in the beginning, I laughed a lot, particularly during the first awkward sex scene. (I thought fondly of Sam Kinison for a second there, when Timberlake at one point starts saying the alphabet.) Kunis and Timberlake are really funny. Actually, I wondered for a while if the movie was too funny. I know, that sounds like a stupid thing to complain about, but this movie did feel like joke, joke, joke, joke, for awhile, and I wondered if there was going to be anything more to it. Of course there was. There's some good performances here by Patricia Clarkson, Jena Elfman and Richard Jenkins as various relatives of the two. I also have to mention Woody Harrelson playing a flamboyant gay sportswriter for GQ, who becomes Dylan's closest confidant at work. (And it's good to see Harrelson playing basketball on a blacktop court again.) I'm more of a mixed opinion on this film. Kunis and Timberlake, are clearly great actors, they have great chemistry, and great comedic as well; comedic chemistry is very hard to find, especially for such a provocative subject matter. I have reservations, but it's worth it see Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake together here, and see just how great an actors they've become. I can't come up with two other actors right now who could pulled this material off as well as they did. Oh, and-eh, Shaun White has a surprisingly funny cameo here as well. I don't know why he does, but he's pretty good too.

SUBMARINO (2011) Director: Thomas Vintenberg

4 1/2 STARS



"Submarino," is the story of two troubled brothers, who never really had a chance. The two brothers are Martin (Gustav Fisher Kjaerfulff) and Nick (Jakob Cedergren). They're lives are mostly separate, but are equally self-destructive. As a kid, their mother was an absent, abusive drunk. I'm debating whether or not to describe what happens to them as kids. It was traumatic, devastating, and it was the kind of position that no kids should ever have been put into. Be forewarned what you're going into when seeing "Submarino", there's no happy beginning, middle or ending, and at times, it's emotionally heartwrenching, right from the beginning even. (I've chosen against describing it, so as not to dissuade potential viewers, but you can easily look it up elsewhere if you want to) Martin has a six-year old son that he's suddenly forced to watch permanently, not something a hardcore heroin addict should have. He tries to quit, and tries to raise his son. He starts selling drugs more than using them, which he does while his son's in kindergarten. He's not adept to raise the kid, but he tries. Nick is an alcoholic. He big, powerful, and always about one second away from possibly snapping somebody's neck. He has a strange relationship with a neighbor, Sofie (Patricia Schumann). It's hard to describe their relationship exactly. They have sex, and they seem to care about each other, but it's a quiet relationship between two lonely souls. The brother meet each other, at two moments during "Submarino", (The title comes from a name of a method of torture) the first time is at their mother's funeral; the second time I will not describe, except to say that the place where they meet again, should've been preventable had they not had the unfortunate luck of being born by their mother. The film was directed by Danish director Thomas Vintenberg, who along with Lars von Trier ("Melancholia," "Antichrist," "Breaking the Waves," "Dogville"...) are basically the Truffaut and Godard of the Dogme '95 movement of Danish cinema. While I'm more than familiar with von Trier, this is actually the first feature I've seen of Vinterberg's. Can't wait to see another, although I hope they aren't as tough to watch as "Submarino," although I hope they're at least as good.

BRIDE FLIGHT (2011) Director: Ben Sombogaart

4 STARS

"Bride Flight," is one of those sprawling epics that few people ever make anymore. They use to make them a lot, especially in Hollywood, but not everybody has the attention span for them anymore. They're more apt for novels, or even a series of novels than the big screen, but occasionally one or two gets made that's worth the effort. The movie begins in Holland during the '50s. It's Post-WWII, post-Colonialism, and three women, are boarding a historic flight (Back when there was such a thing), crossing Asia, eventually ending up in New Zealand, where they all plan to start their lives over, or for the first time. Some of are just leaving to escape Holland. One of the them, Ada (Karina Smulders) falls in love with Frank (Waldemar Torenstra) a fellow passenger, which is unfortunate timing since she's meeting her new husband (Micha Hulshof) in New Zealand. Marjorie (Elisa Schaap) is going to search for her future husband. She befriends Esther (Anna Drijver) is hoping to put New Zealand on the fashion map. What happens between these, is mostly soap opera. Good soap opera, but either way, it's best to sit and let the movie unfold. "Bride Flight," is reported to be the most-expensive Dutch movie ever made, and I can believe it. It was directed by Ben Sombergaart, a veteran film and TV director in "The Netherlands"; although it's the first film of his that I've seen as well. It's certainly a big undertaking. Rutger Hauer, who is originally from Holland, makes a rare film appearance in his native land/language here as well. It's hard to describe any of the storylines with giving away anything. It's really about the lives of these brave and adventurous women, who took the plunge to a foreign land, and found mostly the same old soap opera storylines you'd find anywhere. I enjoy that it is reminiscent of an earlier long-ago dead filmmaking era, and how I got sucked in with the beautiful cinematography, but ultimately got caught up in the lives of its characters. It's long, melodramatic and cliched, but don't let that stop you.

ORGASM, INC. (2011) Director: Elizabeth Canner

3 STARS

BURNS: He's sick. What are his symptoms?
ALLEN: Symptoms! He didn't have any symptoms!
BURNS: No symptoms?
ALLEN: No, he went to the straight to the disease.

That's an old routine, but it basically sums up the point of "Orgasm Inc", a documentary film that takes a harsh critical eye on the pharmaceutical industry in their recent attempts to create a pill for female sexual disfunction. Basically, the Viagra for women. Every major pharmaceutical company is looking and trying out things. One recent got to the FDA board. The problem is that the disease, might not actually exist. At least, not as a medical disease. Banner first came upon the subject when she was hired to make porn for women who were participating in studies with one of these agencies. Turns out, that drug was unsuccessful. They all have been. Although, certain vibrators seem to work. The point being that the reasons while a female might not be able to reach orgasm, might not be fixable with a pill. There's nothing in this documentary that I didn't to some extent some beforehand. I even remembered the FDA not approving of the patch that got to the board, here we see the entire footage of the meeting, where it got shot down uninimously, although it is legal in several European countries. There's a whole industry of people that claims that they can help cure women of sexual disfunction, even popular experts that get paid to say things like Viagra has practically the same effect on women as men, even though there's no evidence of such a thing. "Orgasm Inc." isn't a great documentary, but it's a good investigate report. Does female sexual disfunction exist, or have they just not found the right battery-powered appliance? Tough to tell, although I find it curious that men we know can be impotent while with women, it might be more psychological or something like that. Doesn't rightly seem fair, does it?

THE KIDS GROW UP (2010) Director: Doug Block

4 STARS

I'm not the biggest fan of "personal documentaries". They're to some extent, just one step above home movies, and personally, I always think about the Paul Reiser character from "Mad About You," who was a documentarian, and often made those kind of films, usually about people or family members he admired. (Although if you ever pay attention to the scenes in the show where he's filming, you realize that he's a pretty lousy filmmaker.) However, Doug Block made one of the best personal documentaries in recent years with "51 Birch Street," a couple years ago, about his mother and father after his father suddenly got remarried to his former secretary shortly after his wife's passing. "The Kids Grow Up," is not that interesting, film or for that matter, subject matter, but it is a good piece of film about Doug's daughter Lisa, the year before she leaves to go to college. He's been taping her basically her entire life, and there's loads of home footage of her documenting her life, and continues to film her. She's going to college in Pomona, to study environmental science. She says she'd cared deeply about the environment for years, since she was like nine. It's strange how little videotaped proof there is of way we think we're like. Doug seems to have taped his daughter's life, and just as she's about to leave, he realizes that he hardly knows her. She went to France for a semester, and came home with a boyfriend who doesn't speak English, and makes periodic cross-ocean visits to her. He discusses with his wife about whether or not it's something they should worry about. The film is an emotional look back at his daughter's life, and a look at himself trying to comes to terms with it. I feel sorry for Lisa having the kind of father that makes movies like this. Basically, an elaborate slide show of "This Is Your Life," or something like that. On the same token, at least he's talented enough to make good ones.

EYES WIDE OPEN (2010) Director: Haim Tabakman

2 STARS

To some extent, as the world continues to progress, every country is going to eventually make some version of "Eyes Wide Open", a story about a same-sex relationship that drastically alters their own worlds and the world surrounding them. I don't know if this is Israel's first one or not, (America has about twenty of them I could name off the top of my head) but it's the first from that country that I've seen, unfortunately, I've also seen too many of the others. Aaron (Zohar Shtrauss) is a family man, with a wife and four children. He's a highly-respected member of an Ultra-Orthodox Jeruselum neighborhood. He works as a butcher, and one day, a young student with no butchering training or experience named Ezri (Ben Danker) comes in looking for an apprenticeship. There's an attractiveness right away, and soon, they're having an affair. I don't think he's in love, so much as he's in lust. Meanwhile, he has to hide all this from the neighborhood. Cheating is bad enough, in this religion, in this part of the world.... Surprisingly however, I just found myself bored with this film. It begins interestingly enough, but it became slow-moving and eventually, predictable. It might have more power in Israel. There's probably a few cultural things that I'm missing, but this one just lost interest for me, and it never really recovered it.

THE CHASER (2009) Director: Hong-jin Na

4 1/2 STARS

"The Chaser," is pure edge-of-your-seat, action-thriller. It's also a top-notch serial killer mystery film noir. It's also got two strangers, an adult and a kid, thrust together for reasons out of each others hand. I think there's even a political-societal comedy story in the middle, but that seemed, oddly, the least interesting thing going on. There's a lot going on in Hong-jin Na's impressive debut feature, but somehow we're able to get a through line through the twists and turns and make us unable to peer away from the screen. Joong-Ho (Yun-seok Kim) is a former police detective who has suddenly become a somewhat ruthless pimp, but a few of his girls have suddenly become missing. He's convinced that somebody is kidnapping them and selling them overseas. Unsafe to work the streets, he has to coax one of his girls who's sick, and watching her young son to take an insistent john for the night. Too late, he realizes that the guy's number is the same as the ones the girls went to see the night they were seeing the nights they disappeared. He tries to protect his girl as much as he can, but the killer is one step ahead of him. He gets the attention of some of his old police buddies, but they're either too busy dealing with a protester who threw excrement on the Mayor of Seoul, or they're too incompetent to do anything, even when after Joong-Ho, has chased down and caught the guy, Young-min (Jung-Woo Ha), and he's confessing to dozens of murders right in the police station. Meanwhile, his girl Mi-Jin (Yuong-hie Soo) is tied up somewhere out of cell phone reception, and is unable to escape, and her young son is left home alone until he starts going with Joong-Ho until/if they find her and/or if she can escape. Whew! There's is a lot going on in this film. I think Na actually likes toying with us a bit in this film, continually twisting what we think is going to be the climactic moment or plot, or the last clue to the mystery, even the sudden hopefulness of someone possibly escaping, it all gets played, and then gets suddenly undermined, and we have to start all over trying to catch this guy. I liked "The Chaser," a lot. It continually defies expectations while surging us forward through a complicated multi-layered tale, with an insistent kinetic energy. It's also more Hollywood Bruce Willis action than it is, the more typical South Korean horror that we normally get across the shore. Right now, that country, and that part of the world, is coming out with some of the richest of films in recent years of all genres, and "The Chaser," is right in that group.

THE LEOPARD (1963) Director: Luchiano Visconti

5 STARS

"The Leopard," is the second Luchiano Visconti film I've seen about the aristocracy of Italy I've seen in the last few months, the first being the melodramatic "Senso" with Farley Granger and Alida Valli. Both are good, but "The Leopard," is better, not just as a movie; it's grander in scope and more realistic. It's a long sprawling epic, but it looks amazing, and it's characters are firmly gripped in the world, that even when the story becomes a cliched forbidden love story, we believe it. Visconti is good at making these elaborate family dramas. He did it on the poor side of the socioeconomic spectrum with "Rocco and His Brothers", and with "The Leopard," he does it here. It's the 1860s, the last days of the dying aristocracy. There's war and revolution in the streets, Prince Don Fabrizio Salina (Burt Lancaster, in one of his greatest roles) is all to aware he's of a dying breed. He fights for his survival, while his competitor, Don Calgero Sedara (Paolo Stoppa), a former peasant who has become apart of the upper class, decides to begin rebuilding Sicily for the uprising lower class. It's strange this movie, despite the three hour uncut running time (A running time that had been cut originally for U.S. release) not a lot actually happens for a while. There's lavish party scenes and dinner, and even a gruesome battle on the streets where police arrest people by lining them up randomly, and then shooting them, firing squad style in front of the town fountain. Fabrizio's nephew, Tancredi Falconeri (Alain Delon) begins joining with Calgero however, and soon, he begins a romance with his daughter Algelica (Claudia Cardinale). There isn't much plot after that, but it's unbelievable to look at. The cinematography by Guiseppe Rotunno is extraordinary. This movie has to be seen on the widest screens possible. It's a great beautiful sprawling epic that belongs in comparison to "Gone with the Wind". It might not be the greatest of stories, but it's the greatest of filmmaking at work here. Nino Rota's score, Visconti's directing, especially in the ballroom scenes, hell, the Oscar-nominated costumes by Piero Tosi.... This is a great film about the end of one era, and the beginning of another, and those who stood by and watched it envelope them, and those who rided the wave and help to rebuild Sicily. Absolute essential!

THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1921) Director: Robert Weine

4 STARS

Arguably the seminal work that introduced the world of German Expressionism, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," mostly like a monster movie. A carnival is in town, and one of the exhibits, run by Dr. Caligari (Werner Krauss), and one of his experiments called Cesare (Conrad Veidt) predicts the deaths of some of the townsfolk, who suddenly end up dead the next day. Francis (Friedrich Feher) correctly suspects Cesare, and follows him one night, as he was about to make Francis's girlfriend Jane (Lil Dagover) his next victim, when struck by her beauty..., well, if you've seen "King Kong," or any other movie monster, than you probably know what happens next. The story isn't particularly important anyway. What's important is how it's told. Director Robert Weine used artistic lighting and angularly-shaped sets, among other ideas that would forever change the way storytelling in cinema was told. Before that, camera were mostly static, and the artistic tool of the trade was the editing and combining of images to tell the story. There's editing here, but the story is told through the sets, the locations, the positions of the actors in the stage, the lighting.... The shadows, so purposefully placed to display distinct emotions and feelings. No longer can actors, just act, and camera can document their performance as reality, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," made the image on the screen manipulative, at times nightmarish. Some of the sets seems like Dali and Picasso designed them. They didn't, but they might have been influences for the sets. It's probably also the first true horror film. "...Caligari," is an essential piece of cinema, but it's clear importance and influence can't be understated. This is the movie that showed us that film isn't just a narrative storytelling format, but one that can be told in the details of that narrative.

PARENTHOOD (1989) Director: Ron Howard

4 1/2 STARS

"Parenthood," has actually been adapted into two separate TV shows, both called "Parenthood". The first one, had an amazing cast, filled with current and future stars and superstars in some cases. The current one, is on NBC. I don't particularly care for the show, but it easy to see why there's an insistence of making some kind of TV show from the material. To some extent, the movie is already a greatest hits of TV family drama, and comedy. The movie begins with young Gil Buckman at a baseball game for his birthday where his father has left him to be watched over by an usher. It so often that the memories all fade in and out, and now as an adult (Steve Martin) reminiscing on the past, he pisses off the usher for explaining to him that he's an amalgram. I'd be pissed to if I find out I'm an amalgram too. Gil and Karen (Mary Steenburgen) have three kids. One of whom is apparently depressed, and under a lot of stress, so much so that his teachers want to put him in a special class. Gil and Karen go up to the meeting, hoping to realize that once they see us, they'll realize we're okay, and he's okay. What happens of course, is one of many unexpected detours of their preferred plans. Gil's sister Helen (Oscar-nominee Dianne Wiest) has two kids, and is still badmouthing her cheating ex-husband, who's ran off and started another family years ago. Her oldest daughter Julie (Martha Plimpton) is smart, but is in love with Tod (Keanu Reeves), who is usually hiding in her bedroom, or trying to either get into of out of drag racing. Helen and Gil's other brother Larry (Tom Hulce) is the black sheep who's in deep on gambling debts. He arrives one day with a son that he's just learned about named Cool (Alex Burrell), who he basically leaves with his father (Jason Robards Jr.), while he trying to gamble his way out of his gambling debts. Yet another family in this family involves the other sister Susan (Harley Kozak), who's frustrated that her husband Nathan (Rick Moranis), while meaning well, basically trains their kid to be a genius, practically to the point where at six-years old, she's an adult doing complicated square root problems with flashcards with just dots on them, which Gil's son tries to eat, and has almost no relatability to any other kids her age. There's a lot of characters, but it's pretty easy to metriculate your way through the family. It doesn't hurt that most of the actors are well-established stars, (Or at least they are now), but the one of the keys to the film is certainly the impressive acting all-around. This is probably one of Ron Howard's most personal projects. He appropriately mixes comedy and drama into the complex perils of what is in fact "Parenthood," which isn't just raising kids, it's an evergrowing and changing  dilemma that they must deal with. From the moment we're born, we're somebody's kid, and when we have our own kid, we're somebody's parent, and that cycle doesn't end. Yeah, at times it borders on the most sentimental of sitcomish situations, but..., well, look how many family sitcoms and dramas on TV their are? It's universal, and always will be. I can see why they keep trying to adapt this material into a TV show, it's probably better suited for it. I'm surprised they don't take credit for "Modern Family," as well.
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