Saturday, May 26, 2012

MOVIE REVIEWS: #33: "THE IRON LADY", "REAL STEEL" "THUNDER SOUL", "BURNING PALMS", "ELEVATE" "LA SOGA" and MORE!

Ugh! First, let me start out by saying, extremely sorry for the delays this week. I mentioned before that my family is currently in the middle of moving into a house, and we're almost finished with that, thank God, but that has taken up much of the time that I'd rather use writing my reviews and thoughtful opinions here on the blog, an for that I have to apologize. As to this week's long-delayed movie reviews, I'm just gonna warn you all now, I'm still watching movies as you'll read, but this week sucked! It was depressing to watch movies this week. I don't think I've written this many negative reviews yet, and it was painful. Believe me, I could've used a good film or two this week, and frankly I didn't get enough of it in the movies that were released in theatres this week. It just depressed me, and I struggled through this set of reviews. So, before you guys read them, I'm gonna tell you what I have been watching that was quite good and worth your time to search for instead. I've been diving into some HBO programs on DVD recently, I'm finally catching up on "Boardwalk Empire," for instance, and that is a great show, and their TV, as it almost always is, is of the highest quality around, but they also do some wonderful films, and recently I watched a couple of them. One, is the Todd Haynes miniseries of "Mildred Pierce", many of you know the classic film, which won Joan Crawford an Oscar many years ago, Kate Winslet is in the role here of the great James M. Cain heroine, here; it's a five-part miniseries but it is so worth so your time. It's rich, and fulfilling and it's just so refreshing to see such incredible actors, Winslet I already named, Guy Pearce, Evan Rachel Wood, Melissa Leo, to name a few, just work and with such incredible material and characters. After watching some of these films this week, you can't imagine how life-affirming something like "Mildred Pierce," can really be. Todd Haynes, wonderful director, the man behind this project, he made "Far From Heaven," years ago, that great reimagining of Douglas Sirk's "All That Heaven Allows", and he's reinventing another great, classic Hollywood film, it is just superb. As good as "Mildred Pierce" is though, I also want to showcase "Thurgood". It's a taping HBO did of the one-man play that Lawrence Fishburne starred in on Broadway, where he plays Thurgood Marshall, the legendary American litigator for the NAACP, he won the Brown vs. Board of Education battle that eliminated Jim Crow Laws, and he eventually became the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. There's nothing complicated here, they didn't add anything, they just shot the play as it was being performed; if you love theatre, you'll love watching "Thurgood", and you know, Laurence Fishburne is one of those actors who we just tend to forget how great an actor he really is. He's been in a lot of movies of course, recently he was on "CSI" for the last couple years, he just left that show, you don't really get to see, just how great he is most of the time, he won a Tony Award for this performance, you really get an appreciation of the craft of acting, watching him, in front of an audience, an hour and, forty-some-odd minutes, engulfed in this performance, it is just spectacular. Go watch one of these things on HBO some day, you're just gonna really feel the different level that their programming, even way more than Hollywood produces, It great craft meeting great projects, and you don't just get enough of it some days, and believe me, I was very happy I sat through these amazing pieces of art this week.



Now, after I've said my peace, unfortunately, it's now time for this week's Random Weekly Movie Reviews! Atleast they're well-written, which is more than I can say for most of the films!

THE IRON LADY (2011) Director: Phyllida Lloyd

1 1/2 STARS

I'm not gonna pretend that I like Margaret Thatcher. Actually I can't stand her, for most of the reasons people who can't stand her, can't stand her, which are also ironically many of reasons that other people love her. But of all the ways to make a movie about her, why in the hell would you focus on her today. She's rarely seen in public anymore, old age has gotten ahold of her, and is in 24-hour care, but occasionally Ms. Thatcher (Meryl Streep in an Oscar-winning role) sneaks out to go buy a pint of milk, and complain about it to her loyal husband Denis (Jim Broadbent), who is long dead. Not that I particularly care about what Margaret Thatcher would think of a portrayal of herself, but this can't possibly be where she would imagine, or where anybody would imagine focusing on in a portrayal of her. She's one of the most strong-willed leaders of the 20th Century. Her nickname of "The Iron Lady," is accurate. She was not afraid of unpopular decisions, in fact, I think she often thrived on it. She won an unprecedented three terms as Prime Minister, yet she was soon overthrown by her own party before the third term was up, many of whom despised her non-negotiating positions. We see a few of these scenes, which really are mainly glorified career highlights without any real common thread tying them together. What exactly brought about her decision to cost several thousand lives to keep the Falkland Islands? She's determined in her thoughts, and those who oppose seem extremely weak. (Although I don't find it that hard to believe that people would buckle under her presence)She writes letters to the parents of the fallen soldiers, reminded them that she is also a mother. She doesn't seem like much of one. Her son is in South Africa, about as far from her as he could be, and is never seen outside of a single home movie. Her daughter Carol (Olivia Colman) occasionally comes to visit, but that's it. I can't remember a biopic of a parent with such little emphasis on the kids. There's one moment where Thatcher, during a doctor's physical, complains about how the world is run by feelings, instead of ideas. That, is maybe the one great line that does conceivably describe Margaret Thatcher, and her view of the world. That's it though. There's way more bad dialogue, especially for Alexandra Roach, who portrays a young Thatcher, fresh out of Oxford, determined to win a seat in Parliament. Streep won an Oscar for her performance, her third, making her and Jack Nicholson the only living 3-time Oscar-winning actors, and only Katharine Hepburn, with 4, has her beat. It's not a bad performance at all, but it's in a movie that fails it miserably. It's director Phyllida Lloyd's 2nd feature after the musical "Mamma Mia!" which is one of the worst musicals I've ever seen. I watched that movie and felt sorry for ABBA. (I mean, how would you like someone to take your life's work as inspiration, and come up with something as thin and weightless a film or a piece of art like that?) I don't know how when or where or who was involved when the conversation took place that made someone think, "Maybe the "Mamma Mia" director, should make the Margaret Thatcher film," and I don't wanna know. Meryl Streep was one of the few highpoints of "Mamma Mia!", maybe it was getting her that brought Streep to the project, or vice-versa. Either way, the end, result, and I can't believe these words are coming out of my mouth, made me feel sorry for Margaret Thatcher, that they couldn't make a movie that'd do her justice. Little pieces and snippets of "The Iron Lady," are somewhat entertaining, but almost of none of it is good.

REAL STEEL (2011) Director: Shawn Levy

2 STARS

I had the worse time trying to take "Real Steel" even remotely seriously. Apparently, this film was based on a short story by Richard Matheson, who sci-fi ideas also included "I Am Legend". For some reason, I think they took some liberties with the original story. As I watched it, I had about a dozen one-liners describing the absurdity of "Real Steel," but now, the only one I can remember is, "'Real Steel,' is 'Rocky,' as portrayed by Rock'Em Sock'Em Robots. I know, I had better ones than that, but it's accurate enough. In the near future, boxing will become virtually non-existant, not because of the growing popularity of the UFC, but because the rise of robot boxing, which technology now offers more extreme and explosive violence without the disadvantage of actual humans getting hurt, I guess. I've watched some of those robot fighting competition before on TV, Battle Bots, and stuff like that, they're never as entertaining to me as they sound like, but than again, they haven't evolved to ones like this. Despite that however, former boxer Charlie Kenton (Hugh Jackman) is broke, on a helluva losing streak, and keeps pouring money into any robot he can, and putting him up at any fight he can find, including one time, having to fight a bull at a rodeo. It's around this time, when he finds out his ex-wife has died. Reluctantly, he takes in his long-estranged son Max (Dakota Goya), who's got a childlike fascination with the robot fighters. One of them saves his life at one point, an early prototype model that was used originally only as a sparring bot, but the kid thinks he might have the makings of a champion. With a few adjustments and montages, he starts to win a few underground fights, getting the attention of the world champion Zeus, well, his people anyway. (Do robot boxers call their people, "Posse"?) The special effects earned "Real Steel," a surprising Oscar nomination last year, and I can why. They used a lot of different combinations of CGI, animatronic puppets, and motion capture to create them. Yet, "Real Steel," ultimately is a couple recycle plots brought together by special effects and bright flashy colors, and not much else. And I have a particular bone to pick with two casting choices that were practically pointless. The aunt and uncle of Max, are a well-off couple played by Hope Davis and James Rebhorn, and I have to ask, why in the hell, are these two amazing actors casted in these roles. They're not bad in them, but them in these roles, in this movie, is one of the biggest waste of acting chops I can remember. They're- they're barely characters. They basically have two functions, one of them is to show up and cheer in the crowd scenes at the final big match, which is of course, a shockingly close match with Zeus, the World Champion, and to be some kind of obstacle for Charlie to get to be with his son, and they don't even get that part. There's a scene in this movie, where Charlie knocks on the couple's door to try and convince them, and Max, to help him out for one last fight. I swear to God, they must've cut Hope Davis out of the scene. Max opens the door, there's some awkwardness, Ms. Davis's character shows up, sees what's going on,... and says nothing. Now this father hasn't seen his son, for literally his whole life, except for the last couple months, where he took their nephew to numerous underground boxing matches that looked like the stadium scene from "A.I. Artificial Intelligence", and even after her sister's died, he doesn't put up a fight to even try to have custody of his son, and this woman has nothing to say to him when he knocks on her door? Are you kidding me?! There's about 30 types of conflict that could occur in this scene, and we get none of it. These characters have the personality of doormats, and as bad as that is, why then, would you cast two of the best character actor alive for these roles. These parts were the ones that should've been played by robots, if they were gonna do that. Hope Davis, James Rebhorn, I hope you guys got a really big check for this film, 'cause these people have no idea how to use you two, and you should be compensated for putting yourselves through that. This film was directed by Shawn Levy, who, while he occasionally can be competent enough to let great actors do their thing like he did with Steve Carell and Tina Fey in "Date Night", he's basically been a hack go-to director whose biggest career triumph are the inexplicably popular "Night at the Museum" movies, his early work came from Children's television shows like "The Famous Jett Jackson," and "The Secret World of Alex Mac," (Although I was a fan of the latter.) the way he used those actors just screams of incompetence of him, or by somebody, the writer, the editor, or the script supervisor at least, and the fact he didn't see it, scares me. If he did, something, with those characters, potentially I might have given "Real Steel," an average review, something corny and cheesy but just bright and fun enough to keep you 5-year old's attention span without wanting to throw the DVD player out of the window, but now, instead of this strange, outlandish, ridiculous film, we don't even get a strange, outlandish, ridiculous film, that's made well. Oh, I forgot, Evangeline Lilly's in the film too.

THUNDER SOUL (2011) Director: Mark Landsmen

3 STARS

"Thunder Soul," is a mildly interesting documentary to those like me who come into it, without knowledge of what or who the legendary Kashmir High School Stage Band is. It might be of more interest and fascination to those who may have heard of them however, and it seems like a lot of people did. Back in the day, Kashmir High School produced a stage band, that rearranged some of those old big band standards, and wrote some of there own music, to create a funk band that could discussed as being as good as band as many professional bands. They won every award against schools, and against professional competition, would travel with their music as far away as Europe, and even before this movie came out, years after they had stopped performing and playing together, one of their live albums reached #3 on Amazon.com. Perhaps, this one is my bad; I think I should've heard of them before this film. Produced by Jamie Foxx, "Thunder Soul," not only documents the success of the Kashmir band, but it also shows the band today, as they try to wipe the dust off their old horns, and come together for a special concert for their leader and teacher, Conrad "Prof." Johnson. Prof, because he was their professor. Now, sickly at age 92, and clearly on his last legs, he's hanging around just to see this performance. The band reuniting, has a few interesting moments, especially when it becomes clear that they have a lot of practice to get back to their old performing ability. Some of the old footage of the band and of Prof. is more interesting. What really works for the movie is the music. Their's a lot of it, and their damn well should be, but more importantly, it really is top quality jazz funk soul music. It's amazing that teenagers can produce such amazing music. They singlehandedly revolutionize what a high school stage band could be. Many of the members have now started touring as the Kashmir Alumni Stage Band, a little older, but, man they sound great. As a documentary, I don't know, it's somewhat lackluster to me, despite getting a Independent Spirit Award nomination last year, but the music sells it for me, so it'a recommendation, although I think I'd prefer to either have a live album, or see them perform live than see the movie again, for since I don't have much opportunity for that, I'll take the film.

BURNING PALMS (2011) Director: Christopher Landon

1 STAR

How come people think that if they can't write anything more that caricaturish characters, that you can get away with it by saying, "They're L.A. people"? I've seen a few movies try this, but "Burning Palms" by far, is the worst offender so far. It's a so-called "comedy", anthology, where we get five separate short tales, each taking place in a specific area of Los Angeles, and yes, they are as cliched as humanly possible. The stereotypes of the people you think of when you ponder who lives in South Central or West Hollywood or Beverly Hills, are exactly the kind of people who are in this story. Writer/director Christopher Landon, thinks he's writing a sharp satire, and that it's okay to resort to absurd cliche stereotypes, if he's making fun of them. It's not. At certain points in "Burning Palms," is downright offensive, and worse yet, it's not funny. The third scene was the one that really pushed it over the line. It involves the most stereotypical flamboyant gay couple I've ever seen in a movie, Tom and Gerry (Anson Mount and Peter Macdissi) who are adopting a child, mostly because they seem to think of her as the latest gay chic accessory. The young African girl, who doesn't speak but they named Mahogany (Tiara McKinney), keeps escaping from them to hide in a tree. It turns out, that she's from a place so deep in Africa, that she's basically lived a Tarzan-like existance until now. This scene alone demonstrates that Mr. Landon knows nothing about homosexuals, adoption, and Africa apparently. I seriously considered shutting the damn Netflix stream right after this scene, and I probably should've 'cause the last two scenes are a complete blur to me. They could've been the missing footage of "The Magnificient Ambersons," and I wouldn't have noticed. Up until that short, I had some hope that like most anthology films, that "Burning Palms," would at least be just a typical inconsistent hodgepodge of stories. The first one was somewhat interesting, although not great. The second one was actually quite good. It involved a young couple couple Ginny (Jamie Chung) and Chad (Robert Hoffman). They're good together, and in love. Chad wants Ginny to finger his asshole during sex.  (I thought about using a euphemism there, but this film isn't worth it.) She eventually does, reluctantly. However, she continues to come to believe that the fingers keeps smelling like shit. She makes numerous attempts at washing the finger, and many other extremes, but it's no use, she keeps smelling the shit on her finger. There's a few references of her being asian, but the core of the comedy in it is that it's universality. We all know what it's like to do something you might not have wanted to do, and to feel the shame and/or discomfort with the act, sexual and otherwise. It's taken to an excessive extreme, where she ends up in a psychiatric hospital, and goes to Hitchcockian measures to rid herself of the shit-smell of her finger, but it works because we're already on board with the situation. It's not even a L.A. situation, that scene could've happened anywhere. It's a great little comedy short. It's a tragedy that it's tucked in the middle of this some other shorts that aren't as insightful or thoughtful on the human condition.

ELEVATE (2011) Director: Anne Buford

2 STARS

"Elevate" has incredible potential to be a great documentary, but it feels a little too much like, the first part of a story, that really could last a lot longer. It doesn't help that "Elevate" not only tackles the sports documentary, but it's also about youths trying to make a career in basketball, so no matter how innovate a take on the subject, it's gonna get compared to "Hoop Dreams". That's unfortunate, but the reason "Elevate," is getting a negative review is because it doesn't do enough. "Elevate" follows the story of some very talented Senagalese youths, many of them, very tall, maybe over seven feet, as they train at this prestigious basketball academy and how some of them are able to go to America in high school for some prestigious prep schools, and hopefully get a college scholarship. They all would like to make the NBA, but they're refreshingly ideal for their realization of how difficult that could be. They have an idol in a former Senagalese ballplayer who's a major scout in the Dallas Mavericks organizations. Many of them are quite smart, but still have some troubles when they go to a U.S. High School, where they're supposed to both perform on the court and in school. One of the kids is pressured to keep his grades up to go to Princeton by his coach. Yes, they have a prestigious basketball program, but I can't think of a McDonald's All-American who's even listed an Ivy League school on his wish list. They have some trouble, but it's actually interesting how little obstacles they have. Not entertaining per se, but interesting. I would've like to have seen a little more actually. What do these predominantly Muslim kids think about America, other than the difficulty of avoiding pork in the cafeteria line. One of them ends up playing for the National Senegal team, and gets to run into some of his old bunkmates, who are playing in America. They all go off to colleges. One of them ended up in Idaho, where he sees an America he never knew existed. "I always think of New York City, and this...." The movie's only 82 minutes, and it was stretching. There's a good subject matter hear, but not enough of it to make an interesting movie.

LA SOGA (2010) Director: Josh Cook

1 1/2 STARS

I've spent the last twenty minutes trying to remember what the hell happened in "La Soga". I watched it over two days on Netflix, and I can't remember much about it. I couldn't explain to you what the hell was happening in it. I watched it, I payed attention, or tried to, but all I can remember is gunfights and violences separated by occasional scenes of dialogue involving, all of the reasons why all this violence and gunfights should and can be stopped by more gunfights and violence, or something like that, their might have been a woman involved, maybe a kid even. I wish I knew which; I wish I cared, but ever 5-10 minutes or so, there was more violence and gunfights and murdering of people and occasionally animals, that was all I could tell happened in "La Soga", a Dominican Republican film written by Manny Perez, who also plays the main character. He's a cop who works against his country's corrupt government to find justice on a case. At least that's the description on the imdb.com website for "La Soga," That might have been my guess, but I couldn't explain which one was even the good guy after watching this. It might have been but everytime I calmed myself to try and catch up with what I was watching, there was more killing and violence. This movie was, mush. It really was. This movie was in one ear and out the other, I forgot it as soon as I watched it, it was boring on top of that. (Frustrated scoff) You know what, next movie, next movie.

THE LORD OF THE RINGS: THE RETURN OF THE KING (2004) Director: Peter Jackson

2 1/2 STARS

Well, as I promised in an earlier blog, I have finally completed "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and I've come to a few conclusions. One, "The Return of the King," is the best of the three, because it has the best continouos driving action, on, most of the fronts, not all of them though, and I am convinced that a good movie, and maybe a series of movies can be made based on "The Lord of the Rings". Saying that, the movie is just like the book, everytime I think I'm getting a hold on the world of Middle Earth, suddenly, the movie completely undermines what I thought I knew. Why is Gandolf (Ian MacKellan) asking about Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin)? Can't he just go and look, he's a friggin' wizard? You know, I think I've figured out why this attempt of Tolkien's myth creation doesn't work. The first thing, is obvious, Tolkien never created a science in the world of Middle Earth and isn't interesting in keeping any consistencies, but to tell a larger metaphorical story. (A story which I don't think works) He was creating mythology, I get it. I know it's fantasy, I get that. But look at the mythology that does work. Think of the Greek Gods, looking over Odysseus on a similar epic story. They clearly know the eventual outcome, and there's something devilish about forcing these humans to go through some grand predestined tortures and journeys. There isn't a character like that in "LOTR", and so, we have to look to the characters, the elfs, hobbits et. al. to help us understand this world, and they're all confused and experience this as it goes on, and I find frustrating. It seems like some know certain rules, and not others, and maybe they do even. nObody ever seems to know, and it's frustrating. Still, I don't blame Tolkien anymore for this series. I blame Jackson. He had been muddling over this for years, why was he so stingent on re-telling Tolkien's vision as much as possible. If there was ever a tale that might have been better told by starting in the middle, this might have been it. Sam and Frodo, traveling epic terrain long distances, and I'd tihnk, "What the hell is this?", and now I'm intrigued, and then learn the backstory that was "The Fellowship of the Ring", which is easily the worse and least interesting of the three films. I just think Jackson could've and should've done better. The movie is beautiful, but it's also for simply diehard fantasy fans, who are going to like the genre no matter how poorly constructed or overblown it is. That's okay, I guess for them, but ultimately, it's just confusing and frustrating to me. I'm nine hours in, and I don't know why there is so much power in a king returning to this throne, do you? If you do, that's great, but you had to be paying attention for that. Yet, I payed close attention, and found nothing but more bafflement and confusion, so maybe I shouldn't pay such close attention. I find the cinamatic aspects of "The Return of the King," better and more interesting than the first two, but not enough for me to be convinced that this was the best and/or correct way to tell this story.

CHRONICLE OF AN ESCAPE  (2007) Director: Adrian Caetano

4 1/2 STARS

I mentioned in a review of another powerful Argentian film awhile ago about how I need to learn more about recent Argentina history, especially during the reign of this dictatorship, and unfortunately I have to pathetically say that again, here. "Chronicle of an Escape," details the story of Claudino Tamburini (Rodtigo de la Surna) who suddenly went from being a local pick-up soccer goalie, to being detained for months on end under suspicion of consorting with revolutionaries, and attemtpting to overthrow the government, and other such made-up crimes. They're left handcuffed and naked, while they're tortured, and they remain locked in a house called the mansion, even long after it's become clear he doesn't know anything or anyone. It's an intense film. Without proper context, I'm probably missing a lot, but I got the message. At it's core, we get a great escape film. Not a heroic one, but an escape of essentialness and desperation. It takes time, to figure out how inept their captures are, and some of the people who put Claudio's name up as an aggresor to the government, are right there with him. They'd thought by naming names, they'd get released. The mansion was burned down after their escape, and the remaining survivors, the ones they could fine, testifies years later to the tortures they recieved to the International court. This was a terrible week for me watching movies, but "Chronicle of an Escape," or "Cronica de una Fuga," was the one highlight. It was hard to watch at times, but as they amazing films about this vicious regime keep coming out, I have a feeling we're only gonna get a lot more great ones in time to come, as these stories are just now getting told. "Chronicle of an Escape," made me imagine more viscerally what it would be like to be trapped and tortured for a prolongued period of time, better than any movie I've seen up until now. The fact that this movie ends happily is a creation of skill and luck, but also a reminder that this is just a tale of the survivors. The ones who didn't, they may never get told.
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