Saturday, June 30, 2012

MIXED BAG #2: TOM & KATIE'S DIVORCE, NEW OSCAR RULES, AND WHATEVER I THINK OF, BUT NOTHING TOO SERIOUS!

I've been getting into some heavy political discussions on Facebook, and elsewise the last couple days, and not just over the Affordable Care Act, which, thank God Obama won, maybe I can actually get health insurance now, and a few other things, stretching from discussion over the Middle East in light of Egyptian elections, to, believe it or not, a "discussion", (Or at least I thought it was a discussion) over whether or not it makes sense to have the Pledge of Allegiance still be recited in schools. I don't want to get into that one, but I made a sound and logical well-thoughtout argument against having kids do that, and instead, I got yelled at with typical GOP talk radio-style, cliched-ridden banter, instead of somebody just saying, "No you're wrong, and here's why..." like an adult. (BTW, yeah, I think it's stupid, but hell, if we cared about it enough, we would've done something about it. I, like many liberals, think about things, occasionally, so it sounds like we give a damn, when we make a sound argument over something so trivial, but we really don't care that much. You'll know the things we care about, we'll go to the Supreme Court over them....) Anyway, like I said, a lot of heavy shit going on and frankly, I don't like it. I don't want to feel that way. I write about film and television, I want to have fun, about things, not arguments. Well, not arguments that devolve into a bunch of insults, and I don't want to argue on things so damn important either. I think it's time for another Mixed Bag blog, we're not gonna get into anything, that's really, really important in the great scheme of the world/universe or anything like that. (Except possibly a quick plug about how great Aaron Sorkin's "The Newsroom," is, which it is, and please, HBO, make a deal with Netflix or something, and post all the episodes online, ple-eeeeeease?!) They're all so minor, I didn't feel like posting a whole thing on them, and we're just gonna have a little fun with these minor news items. Hopefully we can do these more often, just to get rid of some of the serious stuff, that's been happening lately. Alright? Good, I hope you're all with me.




Tom and Katie's Divorce: A Few Thoughts

We were all, shocked-? No. (Thinking) Caught offguard, by the sudden news that Katie Holmes is filing for divorce from Tom Cruise, and according to TMZ, she's asking for full custody of Suri, so this is gonna be a fight for a while, but apparently the tipping point is also, that she's afraid of Tom, pushing scientology onto Suri. Okay, well, I'm gonna refer everybody to the classic "Tom Cruise won't Come Out of the Closet" episode of "South Park," for a quick and accurate in-depth analysis on scientology. (It's also one of there best episodes, and honestly, the fact that Tom Cruise plays a major part in the episode, is honestly, just a coincidence.) Okay, here's how I once heard, that the relationship began, and I can't confirm any of this, I heard some variation of this on some radio program once, or something, but I heard that Tom Cruise, and you have to remember this would've been after his divorce from Nicole Kidman, which seems like decades ago now, but the were the Hollywood power couple for like, ever, and she had started moving on, and even won her Oscar for "The Hours," and Tom, had just started getting some heat, for some of the comment he made on mothers, and perscription drugs, and a lot of other scientology b.s., (remember the brief Brooke Shields-Tom Cruise debate over depression, for, like a minute) so he's getting bad press, at the time. Now, he went to his agent, or his publicist, and they made up a list of like three names of young Hollywood up-and-comers, which included, I want to say Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears were the other two, and it was decided that, he should start dating Katie Holmes, as she was the best name on this list, to boost his publicity, and she was willing to go along with it, for some reason. 'Cause remember, it really came out of nowhere, until he went on Oprah, that he was even with her. There was a few rumors, post-Nicole, Penelope Cruz was the big one, and they did have a brief affair on the set of "Vanilla Sky," actually, but after the Oprah appearance, who remembers that? Now, Tom still said crazy stuff, even after this, like the famous Scientology tape he did, which even the Church took off of youtube at the time, and his stock as the biggest movie star in the world, which he was, has really fallen since. He's in "Rock of Ages," now, a supporting role, which he can be great in supporting roles actually, "Tropic Thunder," is the best recent example, but except for the "Mission: Impossible," films, he hasn't had a lead in a big-budget moneymaker in a while, and he really isn't the top star anymore. The top star is Will Smith by the way, and if you don't believe me, look at the Box Office numbers his movie's make, and you'll see it's clearly him. Katie Holmes was, like an up-and-coming good actress. She was on "Dawson's Creek," apparently, in the beginning, she had some good supporting roles, in like "Batman Begins," and "Thank You for Smoking," and a few good lead performances, my favorite was "Pieces of April," she's really good in that film, but you really haven't seen her in a lot either. As her connection with Cruise, continued, her stock went down. What does this have to do with their marriage, or divorce? Nothing. Not really. I mean, are we not surprised it lasted this long? It's a Hollywood marriage, he's in his 40s, she was 25, when they met. I'm surprised they had a kid, 'cause actually. If it what TMZ says, then it sounds like she just evolved enough to outgrow Tom, and he's pissed about it. He still has a lot of pull in the industry, so he's gonna fight this, and it's gonna long-and-drawn out to the point of exhaustion. I feel sorry for Suri, but I don't think anybody in particular thought these two should be together in the first place, so I think it's good they move on. Who should they hook up with next, now that's a fun game. For Tom, I'm gonna say, him and Jenny McCarthy, I bet would make a really cool and compatible couple. For Katie, I have no idea. She's a good actress, but is relatively reserved and frankly I just want to her act more. She's not my first choice for most things, I'll admit, but she can very good in a lot of different kinds of roles, just haven't seen her in much lately. Time for her to start working more. Tom, eh, I love him too, as an actor, but maybe he should break a bit. I think we've seen enough of him for awhile.

New Oscar Rules and Members.

The A.M.P.A.S. has put out it's new list of new members the other day, once again, I was not invited to join, and they'll be getting a harshly-worded e-mail about it later about that, again, but some of the names that are only now joining, are fairly interesting (Really, Terence Malick, not in the Academy until now, really?!), but they also announced some very minor rule changes this year. Most of these are technical and trivial changes involving film eligibilities, and the nominating process. The final visual effects category, will not be 10 films before they bring it down to 5, for instance, it used to be 7. The most interesting of these recent changes is the name of the Make-up category, will now be the "Make-Up and Hairstyling" Oscar. I understand combining them, but I think they should be separate, but I'm actually fairly happy that they're recognizing hair for once. Hair styling has been ignored by the Academy for a while, usually just thrown in with make-up, while often there's some quite good and elaborate work to be done in hairstyling on films. Vidal Sassoon, famously cut Mia Farrow's hair for "Rosemary's Baby," to name an example. However, now comes the debate over what categories should be in the Oscars. Oh yeah, there's a few things that the Oscars haven't been covering that are just as critical to filmmaking as some of these other categories. The big one for me, Casting. It's a little bit hard to quantify it, which is why it's hard to figure out how to put a category in for it, but I think the Best Casting for a Feature Film, should go to the Casting Director. It's hard to quantify, and it'd be easy to give it to a film with a lot of major starts, like the "Ocean's Eleven" film for instance, or for last year, I would've given it to Steven Soderbergh's film "Contagion," but there's still gonna be quite a few different kinds of films in this mix, including a lot of the Best Picture nominees would certainly be eligible. Ask any good director, and they'll tell you, get good actors, and you're job is already half-done. Another one that's interesting would be Best Stunt Acting.It's a little bit insider, but especially as big budget action films continue to remain popular, the jobs of stuntmen, who are apart of SAG by the way, are amazing. It's a little bit weird that they don't get honored by the Academy. The problem is that their isn't a real way to distinguish stunt actors, but usually a film set could have a few dozen stunt actors, and it'd be hard to distinguish their performances. At least in the beginning, it would have to be a really in-the-know category. For the main change, I'd like to make, go search for my blog where I complained relentlessly about the Best Original Song category, which to my shock they have done nothing to change, so somehow they have to fix that.

Dwight Schrute's Spin-off "The Farm"; Why No Angela?

Officially in development, "The Office," spin-off for Dwight called "The Farm," is starting to take shape. It's still in development but Rainn Wilson's Dwight Schrute character is given a divorcee sister, who's left-leaning, and her impressionable kid, a pot-growing brother who's constantly looking for Bigfoot, and a Nazi-murderous Uncle. This actually seems a bit like "Father Ted," the old British sitcom to me, but this seems pretty outlandish. I hope it works, although I'm on the doubt side, but can I recommend one thing? Why isn't Angela with him. Wouldn't the Schrute Farm sitcom that you'd see have Dwight and Angela, newly together, with their kid (Which we technically aren't sur about, but let's say that it'll end up being Dwight's kid), and now she's living and working on the Beat Farm, which they're trying to make into a bed-and-breakfast, and put all those other characters into a "Fawlty Towers," on a beet farm sitcom? I think that would be the perfect marriage of how to do a Dwight spin-off. All the elements all already there, it ends his run on "The Office," in a way that makes sense, and it transitions rather seemlessly into everything they've established of Dwight from the show, into a new show, and it gives us, two characters from the show, whose character arcs have really already run their course, moving them onto different, new arcs. Really, when you think about it, what's Angela got left to do on "The Office"? Once Angela Kinsey's character finds out that her husband's gay, she should move back on to Dwight, who's kid she already has, anyway. I think they're missing a fairly obvious and natural storyline for the spin-off, and I just wanted to point that out, for NBC's consideration.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

MOVIE REVIEWS #36: "TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY", "PUSS IN BOOTS", "THE INTERRUPTERS", "THE WAY" and MORE!

Okay, here's the deal. I'm losing readers. I don't know why, I'm not sure how, but after two months of over 1800 hits, I'm going to be lucky to crack 1000 hits this month. And I don't know why? Honest to God. I don't know why I was getting so many hits to begin with, and now that they've slowed down, I don't know why I'm getting less. I constantly invite you, the readers, to leave comment for me either on Twitter, on Facebook, or on this blog, and NOBODY EVER DOES!. And I mean, nobody! I've deleted four comments that were SPAM which had links from somebody trying to sell computer supplies or something like that. The rest of the comments, not including my own, there are 10 OF THEM! Total, and I know for a fact that and half of them are from one of my close friends. I strive for a certain quality of content, and I am as tough a critic on myself as I am to any filmmaker, believe me. But, I am the only person who has criticized my blog, positively or negatively. I've asked this numerous times before, but now I'm begging, PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS! Seriously, I won't delete any comment, whether it's constructive or not, as long as it's not SPAM! I'm willing to read them, and consider what you guys think. So far, I can only view my statistics, and even then, I don't know how to interpret them, without anybody leaving comments. My most popular blogs have had apx. 200 hits, but not one comments on them. I'm happy you're reading, but...- I can't stress this enough, I need to know why you read my blog, what you like about, what you hate about, and any thoughts at all that you might have on it! I implore all of you to leave me as much feedback, any way that you can. Whether you like something, whether you hate it... Frankly I'll take negative criticisms and thoughts over this silence, any day of the week, so please give me your thoughts, on how I'm doing and whether or not you like what I read. Thank you.

Now, before we begin with the reviews, I want to also point out very briefly, we lost Nora Ephron yesterday. She's written in many genres, starting out as a journalist, she's an accomplished novelist, but mostly she's known for being one of the most successful, and one of the first female writer/directors in Hollywood. She script doctored a lot of films early in her career, and she wrote the Oscar-nominated "Silkwood," with Meryl Streep. She's also written or directed "Sleepless in Seattle," "When Harry Met Sally...", "Mixed Nuts," "You've Got Mail," "Michael, and most recently "Julie & Julia". She's even appeared in cameos as herself in two Woody Allen movies, as she was a much a fixture on the New York intellectual scene as she was a member of the Hollywood elite. My favorite story involves her, apparently I can't confirm, but I've read that she was in the room with Steve Wynn, when he accidentally poked a hole in a Picasso, right after he had sold it. I don't particularly know why she was there, but it's strange and funny that she was. She passed away from leukemia, age 71. She didn't look 71 by the way. This was kind of a surprising death in the Entertainment world, at large. I've actually, as many have, have been critical of some of her work, as much, if not moreso than praising it, but she really one of the first women to really breakthrough and create her own path, in the Hollywood system, her work is very stylized and recognizable. She was a good writer, very popular, very well-liked. A big figure in the movie industry Nora Ephron, us here at David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews, are thoughts are with her, her family and everybody who know her.

And now, onto the reviews!

TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY (2011) Director: Tomas Alfredson

4 1/2 STARS

I must say that, there was a point where I was questioning the critical acclaim and popularity of "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," for about the film's first hour. iwas confused about all the players, and it was a little slow storywise, and I couldn't completely keep up, and I wasn't even particularly sure what I was supposed to be looking for. I think part of it may have been that somebody gave away a clue to the movie's ending to me earlier, so I was waiting around for the finish. However, after a while, I found myself completely fascinated by the filmm, and I forgot and didn't care about whodunit, as any good mystery author knows, the "who," doesn't matter as much as the journey the detective takes to get there. (Something Rex Reed, still needs to learn, and that my friend's is my Rex Reed Criticism of the Week!) There's an attempted hit in Budapest, that MI-5 blows, and badly. It's clear that somebody, at the very top of this secret organization called, a group called "The Circus," led by a man known only as "Control" (John Hurt, and boy I had trouble not thinking of "Get Smart" references when I heard his name) is a Russian spy. One of them has recently reitred, a quiet man named George Smiley (Oscar-nominee Gary Oldman), and since all this happened after he left, he's the perfect, and possibly only candidate to figure out who the spy is, and how he's been contacting Moscow. The title, refers to some of the men's nicknames, (which happen to have a chess correlation) and the movie is based on a very popular John Le Carre novel, which was actually made into a BBC miniseries, back in the '70s. I have a small feeling I might enjoy that slightly better as I would probably have more time and a fuller grasp of all the details.... Well, why should I have a grasp of all the details though. This is a secret organization with top secret files on people who perform top secret tasks, all throughout Europe... maybe the fact that I come into it a little blind is helpful. I think where Gary Oldman's part really comes in handy. Normally, we think of a detective character as an outsider, to represent the audience who's looking in and learning the world that he happens to Chandleresquely stumble his way into, but in "Tinker...", he's not an outsider, really. He's actually kind of an insider, and is able to process more than I think the audience even realizes. It from this information as to how he devises the plan to catch the spy, in the act. There's a lot of very good actors and performances here; I've only mentioned a couple and I should also point out Toby Jones, Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Benedict Cumberbatch, among others. Oldman got a somewhat surprising Oscar-nomination for his part, although some might say that the surprising part was that he had never been nominated before (I think both facts were surprising.), and this is an interesting role for him. His character is very deliberate with his words, and is also, listening a lot. His roles, often chew the scenery up a bit, especially when he's playing bad guys, and this is a good role for him, 'cause it's as much a performance of presence that he's ever done, and the more I think about it, the more I like his performance. "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy," has been called by some one of the best spy films of all-time; that might be stretching it a bit, but it's a really good one, and it has, absolutely no unnecessary violence or action. It has a little that's critical to the story, but just enough and not more, and considering what spy movies have tended to be in recent years, that was quite refreshing.

PUSS IN BOOTS (2011) Director: Chris Miller

3 STARS

Well, I can't really claim that I wanted to see a Puss In Boots (Antonio Banderas) movie, or some kind of origin story of him. I actually only kinda, half-way grew to like his character in the last three Shrek films. I always thought the animation of his character was certainly the most realistic however. The close-ups, especially when he's giving that sad, helpless look, and when he's flying through the air, it really seems like a cat much of the time. This "Shrek," franchise is really getting old and tiresome, but they were able to scrounge out one more film out of the bunch with "Puss In Boots," which believe it or not, is actually the second Disney movie ever made with this title. We learn that Puss, was an orphan is the Spanish town of San Ricardo (Not sure how far away Spain is from Far Far Away in this universe, but I don't really want to look to closely at a map to find out). He was raised in an orphanage where he befriended Humpty Dumpty (Zach Galifanakis), who were the local troublemaking kids, that seemed doomed to go to jail, but one of them got away, cleaned his life up and became a priest, while the other became a notorious outlaw- wait, that's "Angels with Dirty Faces," sorry, I got confused there. Humpty was obsessed with finding the mythical magic beans and one day getting the Golden Goose that laid the golden eggs, and now, years later, he thinks he's finally found them. He must get them away from the master criminals, Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thornton and Amy Sedaris). Puss, is reluctant, but with the help of an enchanted and beautiful pickpocket catburglar named, Pussy Galore! No, she isn't, but wouldn't that have been cool? ...Named Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), he eventually get talked into it, so he can repay his old hometown of all the damage he and Humpty helped cause, longago. "Puss In Boots," earned an Oscar nomination in the Animated Feature category last year, in what's really seeming like a busy but, mostly weak year in this category, and the Pixar film was there almost as a default placeholder. I'm recommending it, with some reservations. I think the movie, is a little short on story, and despite only being about, eighty some-odd minutes, it felt a little long and boring at time, especially during the second half of the film, and I think some of the jokes, the more adult, wink at the audience jokes, really felt out of place in this film. Was there a need for a catnip joke about how it helps Puss's glaucoma? I'll admit it was funny, but that, and a few of the other jokes, really seemed added on as though adult's couldn't get into this movie without them (They might be right about that but still...). It's harmless though. Kids will like it, it's better than "Shrek the Third," although few films aren't, not better than any of the others, however. It wouldn't have been my first choice, but I think there's room for a series of personal Puss In Boots adventures, better ones than this film even. It's a mixed bag, but I think it does achieve what it was trying to achieve, so I'll give it credit for that.

THE INTERRUPTERS (2011) Director: Steve James

4 1/2 STARS



Acclaimed by a majority of critics as the best documentary of 2011, "The Interrupters," to their dismay didn't make last year's Academy Awards shortlist in the Best Documentary category, along with several other films from prominent filmmakers such as Werner Herzog and Morgan Spurlock. This must've seemed like deja vu for Director Steve James, who's "Hoop Dreams," which was similarly snubbed by the committee in '94, despite being considered one of the greatest of all documentaries, forced a complete revamp of the category's judging procedure, and it's rules, and now, there's been more calls for a look into it. In "The Interrupters," James spends a year in a violence-ladened Chicago neighborhood, where it's becoming all too common for people to suddenly end up shot and killed, especially teenagers. He follows a group of ex-cons known as the Violence Interrupters, who's job it is to break up the violence, before it happens. When, I say ex-cons, there are people here who were once at the height of the Chicago gang world. One of them, is the daughter of Jeff Fort, who's referred to as Chicago's most famous gangster, other than Al Capone. She fought her way into the family business at one point. Others seemed to have grown up around this culture. "There's a couple hundred years of prison-time in this room, that's a lot of wisdom," as it was once told during a meeting of CeaseFire, the group the Violence Interrupters are associated with. Their job is to be about the neighborhood, and when they here of some possible confrontation about to happen, or something that might bring about one, their job is to go and stop the people from escalating it. It's a dangerous job, really. This can involve getting into between two rival gangs as they're about to fight. Keeping people at bay, babysitting them for days and weeks or months on end if possible, until they calm down enough to not use violence as an answer. Their motivation, other than their experience in the neighborhood crime scene, and in prison? Just turn on the news, or go to the local cemetary, where if their isn't a funeral going on, relatives, usually parents of the dead, are still looking over their kids, even in death, consumed  with grief, and their other kids who want revenge. One kid, an honor student was walking home from his high school when he was beaten in the head with a 2x4, killing him. That one was caught on youtube, and broadcasted throughout the country. The girls are off screaming to hit him. What "The Interrupters," shows, and shows well is a culture of violence. A neighborhood where the immediated response to something is with deadly force. I was struck by how I didn't to my eyes, see one person in the movie, who I would've thought by looking at them, that they are likely to kill somebody any second. CeaseFire stresses education, especially when mentoring it's most angry teenagers. Education, work, being apart of something useful. Frustration runs throughout the ghettos of America, CeaseFire tries to stop it. Some, they're successful. I was amazed when I saw one guy, who, if he angry, he was high, suddenly at the end of the movie, working as a tolltaker. He looked like a new man, happy, hard-working, enjoying himself. Some they can't save. Words, now matter who says them, words can't always be heard when the person they're pointed towards just wants to hit somebody.

THE WAY (2011) Director: Emilio Estevez

3 1/2 STARS

"The Way," is one of those movies that you're either gonna buy into, or you're not, and there really isn't any other way around it. It's a movie that spiritual and emotional, and heavy-handed, and basically you're either gonna accept it, let it wash over you, and enjoy it, or you're gonna tune out right away, and make fun of it as much as you can. I chose the former; I always try to, although sometimes, they really just don't allow me to. I thought the same way with Emilio Estevez's last directorial effort, "Bobby," which I gave 4 1/2 STARS to, even though many critics lambasted it. He's definitely aiming for an emotional hold on the audience, much more than he is plot-invested ones. I think it's a conscious choice, and it's done not to manipulate the audience's reaction, but because he actually feels this way, as a person and about the projects he selects. He's all but given up acting othe than an occasional cameo appearance, as he does in this film, but he's become quite a sure writer/director in recent years, and it's clearly his film passion. "The Way," begins with Tom (Martin Sheen, Emilio's real-life father, as we all know), an eye doctor, finding out suddenly that his son Daniel (Estevez) has died suddenly in France. Naturally they haven't been close, but mostly out of different paths, and not out of any secret of demons of the past. Missed opportunities to get to know each other better more than anything else. Daniel died after beginning a pilgrimage through the Pyranees known as the "El Camino de Santiago" a famous journey than many people come worldwide to travel, for many reasons. Daniel's bags are still there, and on a whim, Tom begins the trek. The movie becomes one of those films where he ends up from town-to-town, running into and befriending some colorful characters, while he battles on his own with his own grief. He determination comes off as misanthropic, but you can't always choose your traveling companions. Joost (Yorick van Wageningen) is a Dutchman, who talks a lot and always has a joint nearby. There's Sarah, (Deborah Kara Unger) a Canadian who's also self-hating, and hides deep pains from her youth. Eventually they meet an eccentric British writer, Jack (James Nesbitt) who's got writer's block for his novel, but produces for his travel magazine. "The Way," is exactly how I described it earlier, emotional, heavy-handed, spiritual... but it's good anyway. Great acting all around, a little long, but it's a pretty long journey.

MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) Director: John Ford

2 1/2 STARS

I can already here the disapproval from one of my film professors with this one. (German accent) "How could you give 'My Darling Clementine,' or for that matter, any John Ford movie, a negative review?" Sorry Prof. Wegner, but I think John ford missed with this one. I don't blame him for it though. I'm not sure their really is a great film version of Wyatt Earp's story. This is the third one I've actually seen, it should've probably been first, but.... "Tombstone," is the best, and I like that film, but I think I appreciate the over-the-top acting the movie has more than anything else. Lawrence Kasdan's biopic "Wyatt Earp," with Kevin Costner, was just completely godawful. That one was long and boring and pointless. "My Darling Clementine," was better than that, and it starts out well, but it meanders, and not that interestingly. I've had that problem with John Ford before, some of his films can be really erratic. I think that's one of the reasons "The Searchers," is overrated. Great film, classic I admit, but why is there 20 minutes devoted to this couple arguing about marriage, or some throwaway jokes that seem out of a Jack Benny TV skit or something like that? Here, after Wyatt (Henry Fonda) takes over as Sheriff of Tombstone, involves a great deal with, of all things, a Shakespearean actor, Granville Thorndyke (Alan Mowbry) who's in town performance at the theatre. I'm thinking, there was a theatre in Tombstone, Arizona? I guess if I really wanted to I could drive down from Vegas and go check it out, but seems like an odd thing. The Clementine is Clementine Carter (Cathy Downs) who's come searching for Doc Holliday (Victor Mature), his old girlfriend from before his Wild West days, of course, he's with someone else now, and this love triangle gets more complicated once Wyatt begins pining over Clementine from afar. Ford was always good at getting subtext into characters with just a glance or a pondering thought out-loud, that meant more than is probably on the page. We know, eventually this will lead to the famous shoot-out at the Ok Corral, with the Clanton gang, led by their Pa (Walter Brennan) who of course, stole the Earps' cattle and killed Wyatt's brother. There's actually quite a lot to Wyatt Earp's tales. He lived to be in his '90s and into the 20th Century, the last relic of this era essentially, but it all seems to be based around this story, and I think the problem is that, you have the beginning of the fued, you got Doc Holliday, create that friendship, and then, you got the gunfight at the end, and the key is to come up with an interesting anecdotal story, in the middle, to get from the beginning to the end, and without it, all three of these things could almost seem like separate unrelated incidents. It's harder than it sounds, because the West was a lot more slow-moving and paceful back then. We tend to think of story in terms of action, and frankly there wasn't as much in the West, just a lot of waiting for more of it to occur, and being ready in case the famous outlaws come into town. In that sense, I did not get attached enough to the story in "My Darling Clementine." It might be closer to what really happened than the other Wyatt Earp films, but is that really as compelling the story can be? I say in this case, no.

THE GRIFTERS (1990) Director: Stephen Frears

5 STARS

I've had some opportunities to dive into "The Grifters," before. I had heard about the film, and read some critical praise beforehand. It earned four Oscar nominations, including one for Stephen Frears, that amazing and most versatle of directors, who can really put a wonderful spin on any genre, but those previous attempts of mine, never really fanned out for me. I thought most likely I was missing something, or the movie was just very overrated, and finally I got a chance to watch it properly and pay attention, and it's the former, I was missing something. Most likely, stuff that was probably censored on the TV viewings, as well as scenes that might have been cut completely out. It's a strange story that at first, seems like a heist movie, but actually is more of a modern film noir, almost a comedic one in fact, in the wrong hands it really would've been comedic, but in Frears hands and of these actors, this really becomes a sly little movie. Notice the "The," in "The Grifters," instead of 'Grifters', like it's a family and not so much their professions. It is their professions. Roy (John Cusack) is a short con artist. Everything from palming money to magnetized dice rackets, and he saves the money up. His girlfriend, Myra (Oscar-nominee Annette Bening, wonderful performance) is also a con artist, but Roy at first doesn't know that. When not being the loving couple with Roy, she cons her way through life, using her body as pretty much legal tender. She also, apparently once worked on a long-con crew back in the southwest, able to pawn off down-on-their-luck oilmen to invest in the stock market, using a variation of the wire. (The famous con from "The Sting") Roy's mother, Lilly (Oscar-nominee Anjelica Huston) works for the mob, in a strange job, where she goes to all the racetracks and bets big money on the longshots in order to drive down the odds. (The more money bet on a horse, the more the odds for that horse fall, sometimes as much as 30-40 points depending on it's original odds, as a way to pawn off their money in case it actually wins. [Hey, I'm from Vegas, they taught these things to us in 2nd grade.]) Her sudden arrival, after Roy's is hospitalized briefly after one short con didn't work, shakes up the dynamic. There's noticeable similarities in both Myra and Lilly. In fact, they're probably closer in age than either would want to admit. (Lilly had Roy at 14, or at least that what she says) The maternal bond in this movie, certainly is strange, and the film unique, but what makes it special is that, it really is one of those movies that you think you know what's gonna happen next, but then, the movie doesn't do that. These are conmen, but they aren't idiots. Chance and coincidence and luck come into play, but we learn pretty quickly to be on our toes, and to learn to stop guessing because we've seen other films in these genres. Frears has consistently made good and sometimes great movies, in pretty much every genre. "Tamara Drewe," "Cheri," "The Queen," "Mrs. Henderson Presents," "Dirty Pretty Things," "High Fidelity," "Dangerous Liasons," "My Beautiful Laundrette" to name a few, and 'The Grifters," is in that upper, upper tier of his films, actually it might be arguably his best, definitely one of his most entertaining films. Really glad I finally took the time, to watch it properly.

CELEBRITY (1998) Director: Woody Allen

4 STARS

I know it seems like I'm going through all of Woody Allen one film at a time. I'm not, but it does seem that way some times. "Celebrity," was one that kinda slipped under the cracks when it originally came out. It's one of his more experimental films. Shot in black and white, the movie's got two main stories essentially, involving how celebrity effects a husband and wife after they're soon divorced. The husband, Lee (Kenneth Branagh) plays a failed novelist, who's begun writing movie scripts, but really just does some interview articles of celebrities for some magazine. The casting of Kenneth Branagh, of all people in what, logically seems like the Woody Allen role in this film, at first seems weird (and that includes the strange American accent coming from Branagh's mouth), but as he goes on journeys with one celebrity to another, starting with movie star Nicole Oliver's (Melanie Griffith) childhood home, the casting clearly is meant to invoke Marcello Mastroianni in Fellini's "La Dolce Vita". I never noticed, but they actually do look alike, and his sudden journeys to Atlantic City with young superstar kids like Brandon Darrow (Leonardo DiCaprio, satirizing himself a bit here) or on Kafkaesque tours through NYC nightclubs with Supermodel (Charlize Theron), he wonders about the worthiness of being apart of the culture, as opposed to looking at it from afar. His ex-wife Robin (Judy Davis) a English schoolteacher, who's distraught by her divorce. At a plastic surgeon's office, where a news story's being done on the surgeon to the stars, Dr. Lupus (Michael Lerner), she meets a TV producer, Tony Gardella (Joe Mantegna) who's the nicest guy, and makes entertainment talk show, where the Skinheads and the rabbis share the same green room, and complain that the overweight acrobats ate all the bagels. The scene with Davis and Bebe Neuwirth, a hooker who she goes to for advice on sex, is one of Allen's funniest sequences, and worth watching the film, for that alone. Robin is so unwilling to believe in herself, that she keeps waiting for some big secret Tony has that shows him as not the nice Italian guy, with the big loving family that he is. At one time, she goes to a Psychic (Aida Turtorro), and even the Psychic tells her what others already have, is that she needs a psychiatrist. I loved all the segments of "Celebrity," separately, but I'm not quite they all really come together to say something in a bigger picture sort of sense. Warhol's proclamation of everybody getting their fifteen minutes seems truer now than ever, and it's certainly true here. There's about as many cameos in this film as their is in "The Player," although many are cameos because the actors became more famous later, but it's a good film nonetheless. I still found myself with questions as to what exactly does Allen think of about celebrity though. Maybe I shouldn't expect an answer from somebody who keeps his life so private, but it would've been nice to know.

DEAR FRANKIE (2005) Director: Shona Auerbach

3 STARS

I have some mixed feeling about "Dear Frankie". I think it hits it's notes well, but on the other hand, I'm not quite sure those notes were the ones they should've hit, especially at the end. Lizzie (Emily Mortimer) is a single-mother whose 9-year-old son Frankie (Jack McElhorne) is deaf. He's a master lipreader, but he can't talk himself. He pretty smart though, but him and his Mom are constantly on the move. Frankie writes letters to his Dad, who's apparently away on a ship, traveling the world, or at least, that's what he thinks. In reality, the P.O. Box he sends the letters to, go to his Mom, and she writes back. The secret behind Frankie's real Dad, I'm gonna purposefully leave out of this. In the meantime, Frankie gets informed that the ship is coming into port right where they are, and now Lizzie's in a bind. Through a friend, she finds a man, who's character is referred to in the credits as "The Stranger" (Gerard Butler), but will be called Davey, Frankie's father's name, as he now has to act, for a day or two, as Frankie's Dad, and have a small little adventure or two, make an appearance at Frankie's futbol game, and possibly an extra day, to hang out with his mother. Lizzie isn't sure about that last part at first, but he has a day before he has to go back, and also, he should be at least able to discuss old wounds, or new flirtations. In one sense, this arrangement, ends rather predictably. In another sense, there's a deeper connection to some of what happens, and why Lizzie has continued with charade as long as she has, might have a different motive at play then we may first think, one that's, more touching and heartbreaking. On the other hand, though, it's got some moments that in hindsight, I wondered if they were red herrings, that didn't make a whole lot of sense. I'm torn on this one, but I'm recommending it, for the mother-son relationship, and for the intriguing dynamics in that alone, that even without the sidestory, might have been particularly interesting in of itself, and I think that is the strongest part of the film.

A FRENCH GIGALO (2008) Director: Josiane Balasko

2 1/2 STARS

"A French Gigalo," or "Cliente," as it's also known as, has some of the elements that could've made a pretty good comedy, even a farce. It's starts off interestingly enough. Judith (Nathalie Baye), a high-powered TV personality, meets a guy in a bar. The guy, Patrick (Eric Caravaca) is a male prostitute that she pays to be with, and they've both kinda fallen in love with each other. Or at least, they each think the other has fallen in love. Patrick however, who's real name is Marco, has a wife, Fanny (Isabelle Carre) and a family of his own. So far so good, and then, the movie just starts to care as much about the character's inner thoughts and their voiceover which just add to us, getting to know these characters. Believe me, I'm for character development, and normally that's one of the things I love European, and especially French films for, but these aren't interesting characters, and the voiceover just elaborates on that. The one really interesting character is Fanny, who once she finds out, begins infiltrating Judith's world, and they each begin playing their own little mind games with Marco/Patrick, and with each other. If there was ever a film where all the elements are there for an amazingly funny farce, this was it. Instead, we get the exact opposite, a film with a bunch of uninteresting characters, with uninteresting voiceovers playing childish games with each other. It was ultimately frustrating. Right parts, in the wrong genre.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

CANON OF FILM: "HOOP DREAMS"

HOOP DREAMS (1994)

Director: Steve James
Filmmakers: Steve James, Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx





In 1994, the movie that made most critics top ten lists wasn’t “Pulp Fiction,” “Forrest Gump,” or “The Shawshank Redemption”. Instead, many of them chose as their top film, the landmark documentary “Hoop Dreams.” Director Steve James started with what he thought was an idea for a small half-hour PBS documentary about the recruiting of Middle School inner-city kids to play basketball at the prestigious St. Joseph High School in Chicago. The school was known for sending scouts and finding talented Chicago kids for their basketball program, most notably, the now-NBA Hall-of-Famer Isiah Thomas. Instead, James, Gilbert and Marx shot for five years as they followed the two kids from an invitational camp to the end of their High School careers. The two kids are Arthur Agee and William Gates, and nobody had any idea of the richness of the lives they would soon be following. Gates is seen early on as talented, already playing on Varsity as a Freshman, and getting comparisons to Isiah before the year is even out. The younger brother of Curtis Gates, a former Chicago High School legend who was deemed uncoachable and couldn’t finish college, Gates is constantly in his younger brother’s shadow. He’s sponsored by the President of the Encyclopedia Britannica, eventually getting him and his brother temporary work there, while he struggles to get over that barrier and into the all-state tournament. Arthur Agee plays on the Freshman team at St. Joseph, but his tuition gets raised the next year, and since he isn’t benefitted by having a sponsor, he is forced to go back to Marshall, the inner-city school in his neighborhood, right around the time his father leaves the family and goes to jail and rehab for his cocaine overdose. What I have just described is barely setup. It’s barely a beginning. It’s frankly just a fairly tangible understandable place to begin. The story of these kids and their families is surprising and unpredictable, ironic and oftentimes startling. There’s a point in the movie where Arthur’s mother is talking to the camera. Her husband has left and come back, one of many changing dynamics of her house, the lights are out at their house, and after he’s turned 18, despite still being in High School, her welfare has been cut because Arthur, now being an adult, means he isn’t eligible to be listed. She asks the filmmakers if they ever wonder how she lives on $268/month? We’ve been wondering that for some time, especially after they owe tuition to St. Joseph that if they don’t pay, Arthur won’t graduate because they won’t release his grades towards graduation. William gets a severe knee injury during his sophomore year, and while he struggles to recover, and still remains heavily recruited, the injury changes him. Not simply ability-wise, but personally. And to everyone’s surprise, he now suddenly has a kid. There are a lot of surprises in the film. Many times information isn’t revealed ‘til way later in the movie. Why? According to the Director Steve James on the DVD commentary track, it’s ‘cause the filmmakers didn’t have the information until then. There’s a surprisingly natural way information and events become revealed. The movie was named by both Siskel & Ebert as the Best Movie of the Year, (Ebert eventually named it Best Film of the 1990s) but to a lot of people’s surprise, the film wasn’t nominated for Best Documentary Oscar, which had long since been noted for giving the Award to some odd and surprisingly boring selections, and had particularly avoided popular films. “Hoop Dreams” did receive a Best Editing Nomination, a extreme rarity for a documentary, which didn’t seem to coincide with some reports from the committee members that the movie at almost three hours was too long. With Siskel & Ebert leading the protests, an Entertainment Weekly investigative article of the Documentary Selection committee finally revealed that members had purposefully given “Hoop Dreams,” the lowest possible ratings after hearing that it might win. It led to the complete overhaul of the Documentary selection category. (After James’s latest film “The Interrupters,” as well as several other critically-acclaimed films didn’t even make the short list last year, there’s been more call for revisiting the Documentary rules now.) I can assure you, the list of movies that cause a reworking of the way the Oscars are handed out are small, and few are as good as “Hoop Dreams.” Forget that it’s a long documentary, it’s one of the most brilliant portrayals of American life every recorded on film, and have made young Arthur Agee and William Gates, two of the cinema’s greatest characters.

Friday, June 22, 2012

CONFESSIONS OF A PRO WRESTLING FAN: MY THOUGHTS AND REACTIONS TO PRO WRESTLING, OVER THE YEARS!



I've started watching pro wrestling again lately. I know what some of you are thinking already. You're thinking, "Wait a minute, you're the blogger who strives for a more intellectual perspective on entertainment, and now you're saying, you watch, of all things, pro wrestling?!" Well, yeah, I do. Not nearly as much as I used to, and it's not exactly something I often bring up in my Ingmar Bergman fan club meetings, but yes, from time to time, I've sporadically watched professional wrestling (or as the WWE insists on calling it, "Sports Entertainment") Recently, the Sinclair Broadcasting Group, which is a group of independently run TV stations, that aren't affiliated with any of the Big 4, has started showing on weekends, a one-hour broadcast of Ring of Honor Wrestling, or ROH, a major wrestling promotion run mainly on the East Coast, which they recently bought and had mainly only aired on HDNet until now. I haven't had cable for awhile now, and frankly, even when WWE Smackdown was on UPN or CW, especially if it was on Thursday nights, I never watched it. (I'm not watching it over an NBC Thursday Night.) In recent years, and it's been years, I had been way out-of-touch with wrestling, only watching once in a while if I happen to run into on TV, the rare times that that occurred, and I certainly don't care as much as when I was watching it religiously like a soap opera.

I started watching when I was a kid, as most fans do nowadays. I'll start with the obvious, yes I know it's fake. Fake's a lousy word for it, I usually prefer staged, but that's really not accurate either. (You want to fall off a ladder about ten feet and see if the pain feels fake?) How about this, I'm not an idiot, I know that 99.9% of the outcomes in pro wrestling are predetermined. I didn't always realize that. When I was real young, I didn't quite get it immediately, but even after I did, I didn't particularly care. It's original appeal to me was never based in reality to begin with. It's a world where giants can crush large men with one hand and where tiny lucha libra fighters can fly through the air like gymnasts. A world where a little guy can win and some incredible athleticism can be found in the most charismatic and unusual of characters, and I'm not just talking gimmicks, the personalities in wrestling, especially when they weren't unrealistic, and seemed very much like an exaggerated but believable person who could feasibly in another life, just be some guy you know or see walking around the neighborhood, or better yet, be able to idolize as somebody who you wished that you were. That last one is probably where I would come in. I wasn't the most athletic kid growing up, I was somewhat eccentric, but not in a way that would be recognized as cool. My favorite wrestler, who remains so to this day, Shawn Michaels, wasn't the biggest guy, but he was very athletic, very funny, charming, a ladies' man, although not a reliable one (His nickname was "The Heartbreak Kid") but he had a lot of heart in the ring, and he won a lot of matches, that he, in the real world, probably wouldn't have won, but I didn't care that much. (And apparently in reality, when Michaels did actually get in a fight outside the ring, he always got his ass kicked.)

These are some of my experiences watching pro wrestling, at least the beginning ones and how it originally appealed to me. I can go into numerous storylines and inside baseball, and I might a little bit later to put certain things into context, but that was the originals reactions I got when I first started watching regularly, this would have been around Wrestlemania XII, so early '96, which people familiar with wrestling will note as pretty good time to get into wrestling as the Monday Night Wars were soon to be at their highest peak, and I think many would argue this era would be one of the best creatively and in terms of quality of matches and storylines. I wasn't old enough to realize that at the time, but that's what I was reacting too. That's the part of pro wrestling that really does make me wonder about it's ultimate place in the entertainment world. Especially when I was younger, as I watched pro wrestling, I had vicious shifts in my emotions, similar to that I would compare to, playing a video game, and getting really into it, particularly a violent one. I don't think the violence is at all comparable, for one thing, video games are far more graphic, but the emotional shifts I felt from hatred or despise for one guy or that I could have during a match, to absolute euphoria in the next match or guy, sometimes if it's done really well, I can have all those emotions for each men, and done in the same match. (It has to be a really good match though to have such a drastic double face/heel turn, but I've seen and felt it happen) Throw in the women, or as the WWE insists on calling them "Divas," for some stupid reason, and throw in some sophmoric comedy bits as well, essentially, wrestling is a variety show, just a far more visceral one than normal. I think there's some good and bad to this, but I can't recall too many instances where I found my natural instincts being as ultra-aggresive as they were, than when I was really into pro wrestling. I must clarify this again, to say that, I was young. A pre-teen going on teenager, when I already had drastic and constant emotional shifts going on within me, and while I looked at pro wrestling as a release at the time, I now wonder if it actually was fueling some rage I had. I was young, made fun of by others a lot, didn't have a whole lot friends... even when I go back and watch some old matches now on youtube, in my mind, I can look at a match analytically, but I can get caught up into it. I don't always know how good a thing that is, this endorphin charge I feel/felt, but whatever it is, that's actually the effect that quality wrestling's is trying to create in you. To be able to get so drastically invested in something that they even tell you is entertainment, is truly an art.

In fact, that is art. It's what movies and TV shows and plays of all kinds do, give us something that isn't real, that's made up, but manage to make us care about it. This all brings me to the writing of a pro wrestling show. It fascinates me, 'cause it's a unique form of writing, or booking, as it's sometimes called. I mentioned the soap opera aspects to it, and the WWE likes it when it's compared to that, 'cause they do like to utilize the long-form narrative, and the cliffhanger endings that makes us want to tune in next week and see what happened or what's going to happen, but there's a lot more that goes into it. Not the least of which is the actual backstage drama, that really can be like a soap opera, that the bookers have to circumnavigate, so that any real-life shit doesn't get in the way of the program, but I'll get to some of that in a second, let me give you a simple example. Let's say, there's a guy who they're trying to put over, either as a heel (bad guy) or a face (good guy), and they're gonna give him the belt, the main title for that company, and your plans are to keep it on him for many months, let's say, 8 or 9, which is a pretty significant reign nowadays. So they write out this long storyline where, they're gonna build him up, as the Champion, to setup him, eventually losing it, making that a giant event that he actually, finally lost, and like, a week after he gets the title, he takes a bad bump in training or something, and completely blows out his knee, needs surgery, can't wrestle for a year, at least. You're the booker, what do you do? This is an interesting conundrum, first of all, 'cause it's very likely to happen, and second of all, it shows that while you have to not only care about a longterm storyline going over, you also have to continually be on your toes, and write show-by-show, every week, often having to completely improvise things, that could completely blow all those plans out of the water, and come up with something else, and quick. There's a term in writing, of any kind, where you have to learn to "kill your babies," which is a morbid term, but basically it means, learn how to destroy something you love, 'cause the more time you spend writing and developing a rich and deep character, the harder it comes to make them change, as a writer you get attached to that character, or even as a fan, of a longterm story arc like a drama series or a comedy series, and even in pro wrestling, you tend to wish characters don't change to much, 'cause you like who they are, but characters need to change, in some way, and sometimes that means, anything from, making them do something they at one point, never thought they'd do, or just ending them altogether sometimes. It often helps to start anew with something even better, other times, you're just throwing crap on the wall and seeing what sticks. Pro wrestling is the same way. Now, caring about this sausage-making process, that somewhat of a new phenomenon, that started, well, it started originally when Vince McMahon, the WWE Owner, started calling themselves "Sports Entertainment," basically admitting what everyone already knew, was that pro wrestling was fake, but really, when the internet came about, that's when a lot of these wrestling news websites and news magazines, really started getting those behind-the-scenes details, or trying to anyway, to not only figure out, what was gonna happen, ahead of time, but it also tried to figure out, why certain things happened, the way they did, previous. It's a little Monday morning quarterbacking, but it's also to piece together, what the writers have to work with. I mentioned the injury angle before, and that can be part of it, if somebody's healing from an injury still, they might not ask se person to do much for a little while, but maybe make an appearance but don't get involved in the action, or maybe do an interview or a promo or a  shoot segment, (or a fake shoot segment, or whatever they are.) This also came ahead after a notorious incident in '97 now known as the Montreal Screwjob. I'm not gonna go into all the details, but there's documentaries made about this incident, and like real documentaries that have won awards on it, that go into all the backstage drama that led to it, so I'm not gonna go into that, but the match was Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, for the title, and match ended in a way that, Bret wasn't told, and didn't agree to it ending that way, and it's basically the 0.1% I was discussing earlier, but it didn't take long, especially with the days of the internet, when word got out, that something weird happened there, and for a lot of the things it did, what it also inadvertantly did, (as well as a couple other, unusual and famous, let's say unplanned moments) was it brought about a lot more interest in the writing details of how the show was made. It interested me, among others. "If this is all planned out, then how the hell does something like that happen?"; that was the big obvious question. So, to figure out the answer, you had to figure out, how it's supposed to work. Learning the inside baseball essentially. It actually was one of the first forms of television writing I ever did eventually study and analyze, and that's essentially how I started to look at pro wrestling, through this sort of prism. Here's the talent on the roster, here's what they can and can't do, and in some cases, what they are and aren't willing to do, and start trying to put them in places for great wrestling matches, give them good believable gimmicks, if they need them, or a manager if they aren't great at talking, or if there's some real beefs or dislike between a couple people backstage, or how to build up a match, so that when the showdown climaxes, it's really something special and everybody's interested in seeing what's gonna happen.

That's how pro wrestling, when done well should seem like to me. Honestly, I mentioned before that I only started watching again recently, 'cause honestly, a lot of it's sucked for awhile lately. The ratings signify that too, they've been consistently going down, still higher than a lot of things, but going down nonetheless. There's a few reasons for that. The popularity of MMA is one, the lack of a legitimate WWE competition is another, lack of territorial wrestling leagues anymore where wrestlers can train and learn their crafts/skill better, bad writing, bad gimmicks, a lot of non-wrestlers who look the part, trying to wrestle, that's especially so with the women wrestling, although there's some exceptions to that. There's a few exceptions to all of these actually, but there's been a more-than-noticeable decline in quality for some time. I stopped watching, although I'd occasionally try to keep up with the storylines online, to see if/when they come up with something new or interesting, occasionally something would happen. I remember earlier last year, I remember looking up who won at Wrestlemania that year, 'cause honestly, I didn't know. I looked it up, and I realized that I didn't know half the names on the thing. I thought for a moment at how that was weird, but then I went on along my day, but once again, I found myself getting a little more into it, and it's the internet. Pretty much every match, it seems like I can think of , is on youtube now, and since I never did order any of the pay-per-views, if I have some time to kill, I'll look up a historic match or two, and watch what I missed the first time around. Or sometimes I'll listen to a shoot interview where a wrestling personality will start spilling the beans about what happened behind-the-scenes during some of these tumultuous moments, or depending on who and what they know, give their opinions about people and explain why certain things happened the way they did back then. Some are better than others, I'd always start with Jim Cornette's he's usually got something good to say. (A lot of people seem to have something bad to say about a writer/booker named Vince Russo and blame him for a lot of wrestling's problems nowadays) Some aren't that interesting however. Actually come to think of it, I find that the most interesting part about pro wrestling now, is the searching and scouring the internet to find out what happened behind-the-scenes and look through all the backstage politics that are involved, and I will only occasionally watch it on TV, if I come across it, and there's nothing else on. I haven't become immune, I can be caught up by a good wrestling match, or two, but it's not a must-watch event anymore. It sounds weird that it ever was now that I think about it, but at one point, it really was, and not just 'cause I was a fan, it really was. I remember seeing nothing but Stone Cold Steve Austin T-shirts worn all around town for awhile there. (And a lot of ECW t-shirts when I went back East to New Jersey during the summers.) It could be again, but it's not right now, my old hobby of finding out how it's made is far more interesting to me than the product they actually produce.

I still find a good wrestling match to be a work of art in of itself, and it takes real talent to produce something like that. Maybe it's ultimate appeal to me is something that I eventually outgrew, and look back on fondly, like many people my age I imagine, and now it just feels like one more reality show that isn't real. I think that could change again and become as good as it once was. I don't know if I'd be that interested in it if that were the case anymore. I don't flat-out reject it as entertainment and, I think there's certain value is studying it, and learning the dynamics of it, but it'd have to be really good to get me super-excited about watching it again. It's the same with any soap opera or long-running show that loses it's viewers does really. It is just like any other TV show really, and that's the bottom line.... (I thought about saying the line, but I'm just gonna leave it at that.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

ARSENIO'S BACK ON LATE NIGHT, BUT IS THERE ANY ROOM FOR HIM?



Maybe I missed a clue or two beforehand, but when I read on all the entertainment wires that Arsenio Hall was coming back to do a late night talk show, I nearly fell out of my chair. Maybe the only hypothetically bigger shock I could've heard was if Carson came from the dead, and he was going back. I want to sorta explain the equivalency of this, so lets compare this to Rock'n'roll for a second. If this is Rock'n'roll, than Carson is The Beatles, long after he's gone, still the best, nobody's ever gonna top them. Letterman is The Rolling Stones, almost as great, hanging around longer than anybody expected sure, but more dangerous, not as classy, but can still do it. Now Arsenio, came on, late '80s-early '90s, and their had been a lot of pretenders to Carson's throne at that point, they'd all come and gone, Dick Cavett, Merv Griffin, eh, Joey Bishop, are probably the most notable of these names, who were all good, and they have each eeked out there own importance in TV history, a little niche, per se, but none of them ever seriously competed with Carson, until Arsenio came along. Now, here's where Arsenio differed though, 'cause this is kinda what makes Arsenio key, he competed with Carson, but he never took any of Carson's ratings or viewers. This was the weird place where Arsenio came in. First off, you have to remember, Letterman is still doing Late Night after Carson on NBC at this point, and there's some tension building as to the "Who will replace him?", but more importantly, they were it. There was no other legitimate competitors of any note whatsoever, if anything talk shows, were starting to oversaturate daytime TV more than anything. Carson had everybody, middle America primarily, Letterman still had the kids. Now, "The Arsenio Hall Show," was not on a network, it was actually syndicated, which hadn't really been done before up 'til then. I watched him, I believe on FOX stations, and he was on many CBS affiliates, as well as some UHF stations, so he wasn't always one-on-one competing against Carson, but he ended up getting, a little bit of the kids from Letterman, who watched both Arsenio and Letterman, 'cause Arsenio was usually on either earlier or later, but he got a completely separate market altogether, this urban youth market. That was the big light bulb thing, that Arsenio did. He found a market that every other show had basically been ignoring up until then, and that made him an unbelievably critical person at that point, he basically represented an entire demographic. Because of this, he actually was well-respected at "The Tonight Show," with Carson, and even with Leno, who's used him on and off on his show periodically.

Arsenio is also in many ways, the biggest casualty of Carson's retirement. His show was syndicated to a lot of CBS stations, who pushed him off after they signed Letterman and he immediately became a smash, and FOX eventually did the same with "The Chevy Chase Show," which lasted about a week or two, but it cost Arsenio high-profile affiliates that he couldn't get back, and eventually, as the new crop on the main stage of Late Night took over, Arsenio started losing ratings and getting relegated to very late night slots, sometimes at two in the morning or later, and that was also when Cable started getting into the mix, when "The Jon Stewart Show," (Not, "The Daily Show..." "The Jon Stewart Show") became a surprise brief hit for MTV, it wasn't a hit for a long period of time, but it was, at just the wrong time for Arsenio, and the show got cancelled shortly after it's 1000th episode.  He was still great, he came in just at the right time to find a create a new market, and then got swallowed up when the market shifted and started going after his audience too. So here's this amazing multi-talented, innovator, who hit his peaked, but kinda left a little too soon, but still talented, well-liked and remembered enough that, if ever he came back, he could be one of the few people who could still be the best at his profession, and big as big a hit as he once was. Basically, if we're continuing the rock'n'roll analogy, Arsenio is The Police, before they got back together, and the hypothetical is that, he could've been the king of Late Night had he hung around, and not Jay Leno. (Who, I guess would have to be U2 in this comparison.) Now that, was my original reaction to hearing this news. I'd digging the idea of him coming back, I'm doing the fist pump and all that. On the same token however, this isn't the late night landscape that it was when he came aboard. Yes, for all-intensive purposes, Leno is the ratings leader/winner, and he basically controls most of the landscape, but he's not the runaway king that Carson is, and culturally, he's nowhere near in the lead, which "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," is way more influential a TV show right now. On top of him, George Lopez got cancelled, 'cause of Conan, moving to cable, there's Jimmy Fallon and Craig Ferguson, really carving out some amazing late night work, they're both doing amazing work critically, Fallon's winning the ratings, but not by a lot, Jimmy Kimmel's got a cult group of fans and devotees on ABC, Bill Maher on HBO, still around, still consistent, still controversial, there's Chelsea Handler with her niche audience, I might be wrong, but I believe BET still has Mo'Nique... Basically here's what I'm getting at... is there a place for Arsenio Hall right now? I'm not sure there is. That's what really brought him on with "The Arsenio Hall Show," was that he had a marketplace out there that hadn't really been tapped until then. Nowadays, you can go, up and down the demographics, and there's a talk show for you. Carson Daly of all people, has carved out a little space for his late late night market, it took awhile for him to find a format that he comfortable, and now, he's become quite a good interviewer too. Frankly, he's not of his old's show demographic either. In fact, if you go on youtube and happen to watch some old "Arsenio..." clips, it's like a trip in a time machine now. The look of the set, the clothes, hell Arsenio himself. He's so associated with that era, him, MC Hammer, Eddie Murphy during his "Raw" pretty, he's very much the epitome of that time. One of the first recommendations I see when I pop in Arsenio on youtube, is his interview with Vanilla Ice, for Christ's sake. (Don't get me wrong, the Bill Clinton one is way more recommended, but still.) That old audience has long grown up with kids who are now adults with kids themselves, who have no real idea who Arsenio Hall is, unless they happened to catch "Celebrity Apprentice" last season. Mr. Hall is wait too smart to try and recreate 1989 all over again, but what is he gonna try to do? He must still have things to say and talk about since he's pushed forward this talk show enough to get a deal. Interesting, as I look through some of these old clips of "The Arsenio Hall Show," the most unique single element that he brings now is his interview style. It's not more relaxed and layed-back like most of the others. He's very deliberate in his interviews, even with the more stereotypical celebrity guests, you can always tell he's being very careful of what words to use. Occasionally he jokes, but he's more interested usually in making a serious point or asking a tough question, and drawing some thoughtful and sometimes brutally honest thoughts out of his guests. Jon Stewart is somewhat similar, although I think Arsenio probably borrowed more from Dick Cavett or even Larry King in that regards, and that is a little bit lacking right now in Late Night.

I wish him luck and success in this endeavor, but with some reservations. We won't find out how successful he'll be, until 2013 when his show debuts, but it's gonna be interesting nonetheless. Are people still gonna care about him and hear what he has to say, or are they just gonna turn in to see what he looks like now. He is the most unique and interesting test case to see what succeeds in this overpopulated Late Night market,  ever. I can't even think of anybody else offhand who went from having a late-night show, to going back to having a late night show, much less, from having a successful and important one. He's got experience on his side, something that very few of the contenders really had much of beforehand. He was the first African-American to ever host a Late-Night talk show, and even with Mo'Nique, he's still gonna walk back in, easily the biggest and most successful name in that regard. (I don't now Mo'Nique's ratings, but I had to look up BET.com to find out if she was still on the air, so I'm presuming they're fairly low, but even if they aren't Hall's gonna be on network television, granted, in syndication-form, but still, it's a more widely-available and more-profitable market.) There's too many uncertainties and firsts that are occurring here. I can't even claim that I'm gonna watch him when he airs. Well, I can't. I can't tell who I'm gonna watch tonight, if I watch anybody. At the most, I might watch a clip of "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," on youtube tomorrow 'cause I subscribe to FB updates from them, and maybe tonight listen to either Leno or Letterman as it's left on in the living room, then maybe Fallon or Ferguson if I'm still up. It's weird, we used to think that nobody could ever touch Johnny Carson because he spoke to so many of us, but after Arsenio, it showed that he didn't speak to everybody, and now, all the talk shows speak to different demographics, and frankly we're lucky that so many of them are very good. They're all different, but with few exceptions, they're pretty good. Arsenio Hall's coming back into a completely different Late Night world, that might not have room for him, but in many ways, it's actually a Late Night universe that he, arguable more than anybody else, created.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

MOVIE REVIEWS: #35: "EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE", "ANONYMOUS", "DECLARATION OF WAR," "J. EDGAR", "WATER FOR ELEPHANTS", "ANOTHER HAPPY DAY", "ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN", "HENRY'S CRIME", "BURIED", "ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL" and MORE!

Whew! It's been a long week, but I've seen a lot of movies, and we're starting to get into the swing of things in terms of writing this blog on a regular schedule and rhythm that I like to work at. This week marks the first time I've seen a film from 2012, with my review of "Declaration of War," which would normally be the top review on my blog, but my reviews of two films that earned Oscar nominations last year, "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and "Anonymous," trumped it this week. I'll be watching as many films as I can this week. I also want to note that the Primetime Emmy nominations will be announced early in the morning on July 19th. Why am I bringing that up? Well, for one thing, I thought it was July until I checked the date, so I thought that was two days from now, when it's actually a month away. (Living in Vegas too long, really kills your perception of time, especially in the summer heat) but also because, it was around the Emmy Nominations last year when I started this blog, so we're approaching the end of my first year blogging, and so far, I've gotten a lot of hits, over 8,000, I'm hoping to hit 10,000 by the time of the nominations, and I think we can do it. So, to those loyal readers of mine who thoroughly enjoy this blog, tell all your friends to subscribe and/or follow this blog, or follow me on twitter, or subscribe to me on Facebook, an more importantly, just keep visiting the blog as often as humanly possible to give me more hits, because, well I'm vain, and I want 10,000 hits!
Alright, now that that's done, it's time for my latest Random Weekly Movie Reviews!

EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011) Director: Stephen Daldry

2 1/2 STARS

Inconsistent. That's the word that keeps coming into my mind when I think about "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close". Part of me gets what they're trying to do, and sometimes I think it works, but then it does some things that are just odd choices, and it's strange. There's things to admire about it, but I just can't get past some of these peculiarities. I don't know the book, which is apparently very popular, but it takes place in New York, about a year or so after 9/11. The story itself, is based out of fantasy and adventure, almost fairy tale-like. This doesn't seem like a particularly believable combination, especially when it begins with an eleven-year old walking to Brooklyn from Manhattan, alone. The 11-year old is Oskar (Thomas Horn) who's dad, a jeweler named Thomas (Tom Hanks) was killed on 9/11. He had a meeting in the second tower that day. He left a few phone calls on the answering machine, which Oskar didn't pick up. His memories of him, are very exact and involve a series of mysteries and adventures that he'd set up for them. It's mentioned that Oskar was tested for Asperger's Syndrome once, and they came back inconclusive. He has it. I know this 'cause I also have an inconclusive test for Asperger's Syndrome. Okay, actually I don't, but I always feared that I have it, having a brother who's autistic, I'm actually much more likely than most to have it, but I've chosen not to be tested. The one thing that leads me to think I don't have it, is that I'm a pretty good liar. Oskar lies so rarely, he actually keeps a running total; that's a sign of A.S. I don't have a problem with an A.S. character, but it's used as a gimmick here. Why couldn't he have just been a normal kid? Probably cause he has to give a lot of exposition and details about his journey, and everything else for that matter, that it's easier to just hint that he may have a mental disability to explain it. The adventure begins about a year after 9/11, when Oskar goes into his Dad's room, and finds hidden in a blue lamp, a key in an envelope, with the word "BLACK" on it. Oskar, believes this to be a clue, and he's determine to keep this last gasp of his father's memory alive, and becomes determine to find out what the key unlocks. He begins with everybody in New York named Black. He walks all the way for most of the journey, which he takes on weekends, and occasional skipped days off from school. He begins with an Abby Black (Viola Davis), which is first alphabetically. He goes from burrough to burrough for months. His mother, Linda (Sandra Bullock) is a bit of a sleeping mess during this time, although, it still seems strange that she'd let her boy go running around New York all by herself. Eventually, The Renter (Max von Sydow) joins him. A mute old man, who's been rented out Oskar's grandmother's (Zoe Caldwell) room for a while. He has "Yes" and "No" tattooed on his hands to answer question, and he writes everything else out. Who is he? It's not hard to figure out, in fact it only took me about 30 seconds after being told of his existence, to figure out who he is, thankfully, the movie's not about that. Von Sydow got a surprise Oscar nomination for his part here, one of two shocking nominations the film got, the other for Best Picture despite the movie getting snubbed at most every award show beforehand, and knocked by the critic's badly. It got only a 48 on rottentomatoes.com's tomatometer, over half the major film critics in America, hated it, by far the lowest ever to get a Best Picture nomination. It also marks the third consecutive Stephen Daldry film to get a Best Picture nomination. He's a talented filmmaker, he's better on stage however, but his films seem to get progressively worse, making some of his recent nominations rather odd to me. There's a lot to like about "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," Thomas Horn for instance, while I have some questions about the A.S. the character is given, is incredibly good in the lead role, in fact it's really amazing just how well he manages to run this movie. He's in every scene, and he's quite good in some scenes. Max Von Sydow is very good, as is some key supporting work from Davis and later by Jeffrey Wright, but it doesn't seem to have the real emotions underneath that this story seems to need. It's actually somewhat similar to two other Best Picture nominees this year, "Hugo," and "War Horse". "Hugo" was also about going through a long adventure, (which also involved a key) in order to figure out what some mystery is, and "War Horse", was also about a character going through a long journey meeting numerous different characters along the way, and not really being too affected by the encounters. In Roger Ebert's review of the film, he summised that "You will not discover why it was thought that this story needed to be told." I must confess I've having trouble figuring that out myself. I think there's room to look at any moment in history, even the most depressing and unnerving through any kind of prism you want, and that includes 9/11 and fairy tale. However, this isn't the way to tell it well.

ANONYMOUS (2011) Director: Roland Emmerich

3 STARS

Dear Mr. Emmerich:

You've put a lot or work and thought into this film, so for that reason, I've chosen to criticize it as unbiased and objectively as possibly. While I appreciate your interest in conspiracy theories, you're belief that William Shakespeare's (Rafe Spall) work was written by anybody other than the Bard yourself, is one of the most ridiculous and delusional of all conspiracy theories. I say this having gone through all known theories myself, (I had to recently for a project in a theatre class) and personally, I've been through practically every other major conspiracy theory around. JFK's assassination, the moon landing being faked, the one where Paul McCartney's supposedly been dead since 1966. (That one I actually think has some validity to it, if it weren't for the fact that he's still alive, I'd think it'd be legitimate) Every lamebrained theory about Shakespeare not authoring his own works is based on the narrow-minded and delusional point of view that a man from such unimpressive an upbringing would've been incapable of creating such masterpieces and "Romeo and Juliet" and "Hamlet," in your case, the Earl of Oxford (Rhys Ifan) Only the most frustrated and untalented of writers  is capable of thinking this, and they use sporadic and oftentimes untrue, and worse, unproveable "facts," as evidence that he couldn't have done it. First of all, the offensive part of your theory, is that only somebody of priviledge could've written these things, and only have written things that they themselves experienced? I've written scripts and stories in about five or six different genres, and through the eyes of many people who are not like me, as have many other great and talented writers. You wrote and directed "2012," right? And "Independence Day" and "The Day After Tomorrow?" Have you experienced a world-ending apocalypse, or a sudden ice age encompassing the world, or an alien invasion? No, you didn't, but you wrote about them anyway. A writer can't have imagination is basically your claim, but you certainly do? Not a great one like the Bard's, but an imagination nonetheless, right? That you believe it to be a legitimate conspiracy theory at all is an insult to all writers and creative artists all who dare to imagine worlds as varied as a prison, a haunted house, a war they've never been to, or a world as inventive as Pandora or Narnia or even Middle Earth, and you should get with the program. And by the way, here's one fact for you, the first time any of these conspiracy theories ever came about occurred 150 years, after Shakespeare's death, long after anybody who ever knew him was alive to repudiate or confirm any theories about Shakespeare. I dare you to find another even marginally believable conspiracy theory that can trace it's origins to that late a date, after all the particulars are no longer around. However, you've clearly put some work into this hairbrained theory of yours, you put up your own money to make this film even, and a lot of care into "Anonymous," so you deserve to have the film judged based on it's own merits as a film, and not the wild speculation it insists upon. Saying that, the film is very well-done. I think the idea of using Ben Johnson (Sebastien Armesto) as a go-between was inventive and interesting. I even admire how you compared Laertes to William Cecil (Robert Thewlis), a family of magistrates known for playing mind games chess with members of the Royal Family for years. For much of the movie, if I didn't know any better, I'd think your theory was at least plausible, up until the end when you through that idea way off the rails, especially the notion of Queen Elizabeth (Joely Richardson when young, Vanessa Redgrave old) having numerous bastard children-, I mean, come on, even you must've known that one is ridiculous? I like the idea of using this theory to create a plausible story, and while the movie is out there, especially at the end, the movie kept me interested, just enough to recommend it, even with all the stretching of facts and logic, "Anonymous" was ultimately entertaining. I commend your ability, and I hope in time, you'll realize the error of your thoughts, and accept "Anonymous," as I do, as a moderately-enjoyable flight-of-fancy, that has no basis in reality what-so-ever, but is at least inventive and entertaining.

Sincerely,
David Baruffi

DECLARATION OF WAR (2012) Director: Valerie Donzelli

4 1/2 STARS



France's entry in the Foreign Language Oscar contest, and officially, the first film with a 2012 American release I've seen, "Declaration of War," begins with two character named Romeo and Juliette (Jeremy Elkaim and Director Valerie Donzelli, the film's co-writers, and real-life husband and wife). They meet at a party, they fall in love, and then, they have a child. So far, the story seems normal, but soon they realize that their child isn't. He's not walking as fast as the other kids, he's not eating, he's throwing up when he does. There's an asymmetry to his face that the pediatrician sees. There's a few other signs that something might be wrong, and they begin going through some tests. It takes awhile before doctors can finally figure out what it is, a brain tumor. He's gonna have to have brain surgery, and even then, chemo, radiation, and that's if he survives, and there's still a lot of other factors involved. This kind of thing isn't in parenting books you know? What happens if something's wrong with your child? Elkaim and Donzelli based the film on their own experiences, and there's some interesting observances they make. How they're told about one operation's success, but how things could still be much worse, and that they don't tell their friends that part. How life still goes on living. Romeo's working on a wallpapering a room for what seems like forever. Or how they go out still, even when their kid is in the hospital for weeks on end. If you don't let go for at least a second or two, you'll be doing nothing but fighting forever. Yet, fight they must, to get their kid to survive. The title is accurate, it is a war to go through such a thing. An exhausting, emotional gut-wrenching war, where losing isn't an option. There aren't too many movies I can compare this film too, that aren't overly-emotional Lifetime Movie of the Week type films. "Lorenzo's Oil," comes to mind, (Also based on real life) but that was about two parents who were more determined to solve their kid's illness on their own than they were, the doctor's who were dragging their feet. Despite their literary influenced names, Romeo and Juliette aren't particularly extraordinary people like that, and the doctor's can only do so much. Sure, they aren't happy that the surgeon barely looks up and notices them, right before they perform surgery, but hell, he's the best at this thing, and frankly their isn't much they can do, just like everybody else in situations like this. "Declaration of War," is both matter-of-fact, and emotionally powerful. There's no background music stirring our emotions one way or another, or any other Hollywood cliches involved in films like these. In many ways, the story is simple. Our kid was sick, but we took him to a doctor, and eventually, he got better. What does that take to happen? Determination and luck mostly, and an insistence on fighting to survive.

J. EDGAR (2011) Director: Clint Eastwood

4 STARS

J .Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is certainly one of the most intriguing characters in modern American history. He was awarded a disturbingly high amount of power in our nation's government as head of the FBI for life, an honor that will most surely never be given out again, and yet, fought intensely for more power. He desire to bend or break any Constitutional amendment he so chose in order to get any information he can on whatever radical or other person in power, real or perceptual he could, is the same insistent desire that made him forever reinvent how we investigate and solve crimes in this country. He wasn't exactly on the front lines of any war, in fact, he was once ridiculed for having never made an actual arrest himself, (although he occasionally would show up for the photo op) but he enjoyed making sure that all those could only be controlled by him. I bet he was a good chess player. But what do we know of him now? That he was gay, and wore women's clothing. The latter has never been proven. "J. Edgar", Clint Eastwood's latest achievement tries as much as it can to dig into this complicated character. The secrets he tried to find out about others he must've considered as nothing to the ones he kept to himself. He was never a natural around girls, except for his mother, (Judi Dench) and his longtime secretary, Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts), the only other person it seems he trusted was his colleague and longtime lover partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). I had lover written there, but...- is it possible he died a virgin? I think it's possible that if anybody could've pushed down all undesireable thoughts so as to be unable to act on them, it would've been him. He and Clyde cared for each other deeply. They traveled everywhere together. Out in the open, they even had a longtime table reserved at a restaurant for them right in D.C. That's how powerful he was, and still nobody could've touched him. Eastwood uses a couple of unusual storytelling devices here. He constantly switches back and forth in time, starting from his last years, as he's dictating his memoirs to a couple of different ghostwriters. Capturing John Dillinger (Which he actually didn't, Agent Purvis did), to the investigation of the Lindbergh baby, to JFK's assassination and his constant butting heads with Bobby Kennedy, and most everybody else in the Oval Office, or Oval Office-adjacent. There's also the story of Clyde and Edgar. How Hoover had to have him as a co-worker, and hired him despite a lack of credentials, how they grow old, and how they love each other but neither one can say it to the other. Being a homosexual had to be hell for most everybody who lived back then, but to be gay, and in such a public position... especially one as critical and hypocritical as Hoover's...- He couldn't exist in today's world. I think he would've preferred to, but the time, the era, the job, the people around him, they created him. Someone so secretive that he lies to himself about some of the most simplistic details of his life, and simply omits others, just to make sure his perception is upheld. DiCaprio and Hammer both give wonderful performances in "J. Edgar". I don't think there's any great "rosebud" to help us explain the life of J. Edgar Hoover, but what Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Who previously wrote "Milk") have done, is take all these little things we know about him, and try to ultimately understand him. He job, his personal life, his successes, his failures..., his secrets, which to everyone's annoyance, died with him.... I don't know if he'll ever fully get redemption, but from that perspective, I think I can understand understand him a little better than before. A little better, and unfortunately, that's as best as we'll probably ever get.

WATER FOR ELEPHANTS  (2011) Director: Francis Lawrence

2 1/2 STARS

"Water for Elephants," makes such a weird mistake right off the bat, that a week after watching it, it's still mind-boggling to me, and I really want to go into some details on this, 'cause it's a such, "why would you do that?" moment that... ugh- The movie begins, in this present, and we're introduced to this old man, who's hanging around after hours at a circus. This is the grown up man, who's life we're going to see in flashback, he's played as an old man by the great Hal Holbrook, and eventually, he starts to tell his story about how he broke into the circus business with the Penzini Brothers, in the early '30s. He's an old man, he's telling his story in flashback, and we start to hear his voiceover, and then for some reason that I can't possibly explain, the voiceover switches to Robert Pattinson's voice, who's playing the young man. What the hell did he do, get younger as he was telling this story? First of all, you got Hal Holbrook, for Christ's sake, when he's not making movies, he still tours the country doing his one-man show as Mark Twain, and even if he didn't still do things like that at age 80+, he's got such a great voice, it's perfect for voiceover work, and it has been many times before, and what do you gain, storywise, plotwise, eh-anything, by switching the voiceover at all, other than making the audience confused? Is it bad enough that we're selling Robert Pattinson, 'cause he's famous for "Twilight," right now, that we have to hear his voice too, even when it doesn't require it, and in fact, it shouldn't be there? I think it'd make more sense if he was just shirtless throughout the film for no reason. Anyway, that bizarre decision aside, "Water for Elephants," is a beautiful, but mostly unremarkable melodrama, which kinda works at times, but loses it at the ending, which involves a character, dying by an animal, in a way that seems that like a strange way to kill somebody, even for an animal, even for this animal. Pattinson plays Jacob Jankowski, who despite studying veterinary sciences at Cornell, he finds himself broke and homeless after his parents' sudden deaths. He hasn't graduated, but he's close, and he's smart and quick enough to impress August (Christoph Waltz) the ringleader and owner of a traveling circus that specializes in animal tricks, especially ones performed with August's wife Marlena (Reese Witherspoon). She's an acrobat who's known for riding and performing tricks with the animals, mostly horses, but with a main horse injured, and Jacob's help, they're going to train her to work on an elephant. The movie is a pretty basic, love triangle story from there, and it's really overdone and melodramatic. The voiceover, again, the voiceover, sometimes, comes up in weird moments where it just reiterates what Jacob's thinking, which, most of the time, we could already tell what he's thinking, so much of the voiceover is useless in fact. This is the first since "Inglourious Basterds", that I've seen Christoph Waltz, and he is really the best thing in the movie. I mean, this is a quintessential, great performance, bad film example, here. He really plays this erratic and heartless ringmaster really well. That's not to say everybody else was bad, they weren't. I'm a little torn on what I think of Witherspoon's role, but she good, even Pattinson was pretty good. The real problem, the film is just slow and boring for most of the movie. It looks pretty, the cinematography and the art design especially was great, but it's one of those movies where you know something big's gonna happen at the end, and staring at your watch, waiting for the ending to see if it's good enough to salvage the melodrama. It really doesn't. (Note: In maybe the 2nd most bizarre choice involving this film, it won the People's Choice Award for Favorite Drama Movie last year. Not that the People's Choice Awards had much credibility to begin with, but yeah, that's one more bad choice the people have made, granted a far better choice than fellow nominees "Limitless," and "The Help", but still, what were they thinking?)

ANOTHER HAPPY DAY (2011) Director: Sam Levinson

4 STARS

"Another Happy Day," is one of those movies where a family comes together for an event, and because of events that happened in the past, the whole family is now f***ed up and filled with layers of tension and anger that seems ready to explode. Explode or cry, or freak out.... The past really does have a drastic effect on the present doesn't it. I need to be of a scorecard to keep track, but the movie begin with Lynn (Ellen Barkin). Her oldest son Dylan (Michael Nardelli) is getting married, but they haven't seen each other in years. Lynn had a very violent and devastating divorce with Paul (Thomas Haden Church), it even separated the kids from each other. Dylan stayed with Paul, who eventually sobered up and married Patty (Demi Moore), but now, he wants to start having a relationship with his daughter Alice (Kate Bosworth), but Lynn is headstrong against it. Not only because of the past but of the present. Alice has been troubled, as all her kids have (She has a couple other kids that aren't with her ex, I'll get to them in a bit), but Alice has been in and out of psychiatric care, she's got a habit of cutting herself. Her son Elliot (Ezra Miller) has been in and out of drug rehab more times than they can count, and Lynn so embarassed of him, she told her family that he was in Sweden getting clean for the last few months. Her young, Ben (Daniel Yelsky) who has Asperger's Syndrome (Not used as a gimmick here) points out at the beginning, correctly how all the kids she raised have turned out as fuck-ups while Dylan, the one she didn't turned out okay. Lynn is a bit of a mess, an understandable one, but she's barely able to keep herself composed, but with the kids and husband she has..., and her family, I didn't even mention the family compound they're heading to. Her mother Doris (Ellen Burstyn) is a chatty Cathy with Lynn's sisters, gossiping about everybody that's there, especially Lynn, and her father Joe (George Kennedy) is long sleep away from dropping dead, and nobody's quite sure why he's hanging on either. There's also a bunch of cousins, that... well, the last time you thoroughly enjoy a family get-together? It's been awhile for me. One characters observes how much more civil families tend to be with each other at a funeral or another tragic moment. "Another Happy Day, isn't a masterpiece in the genre, but it's well-acted and well-written by writer/director Sam Levinson, his first-time directing. There's a lot of history and conflict being thrown around, and it's really good, it's just a lot of it. It's a little too much, but it's too much of a good thing so it's a recommend.

ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN (2011) Director: Jose Padhilha

3 STARS

It's a little bit rare that I watch a sequel before I catch the original, but "Elite Squad: The Eneny Within," a sequel to the 1997 Brazilian film "Elite Squad", was Brazil's entry for the Foreign Language Oscar last year, a rather curious pick in hindsight, but there's talent working on this film. The director, Jose Padhilha directing the first "Elite Squad" and he's currently on pre-production for the "RoboCop" remake (Why they're that one of all things, I don't know.) and the script is by Braulio Montavani, who wrote the masterpiece "City of God," about a decade ago, one of the best films of the last decade. The movie begins with a prison riot. The prisons are separated as best they can, based on gang affiliations, as most of the druglords still run things on the outside from prison, and are constantly plotting to kill each other inside, which Capt. Nascimento (Wagner Moura) would be just fine with personally, if his job wasn't as a guard who theorhetically, has to stop things like that. He's disgusted with the dealers, and thinks getting rid of them would be beneficial, and after the riot, begins weaponizing the police forces to do rid the streets of them. What he doesn't foresee, is the crooked police force, which is now heavily armed, yeah they keep drugs and dealers out of the slums, but they take over the slums, controlling everything else, including utilities and businesses. They've basically invented their own Mafia, and for themselves, and when something happens, they fix the evidence, blame someone or something else, or just get rid of the body, and that includes everybody from kids to journalists, all in the name of stopping crime. Nascimento realizes his mistakes, a little too late, and by the time he starts trying to rid the bad cops off the streets, good cops end up killed, and the level of corruption just keeps on getting higher and higher up the chain. The movie takes place, just like "City of God," in Rio de Janiero, and I can't help but think about how they're getting the Olympics in four years, and the cycle is everlasting and the corruption is just too high to really do anything about it. Maybe a drug-ridden neighborhood might be a lesser of two evils. "Elite Squad: The Enemy Within," is not an Oscar-worthy picture, it's actually inconsistent most of the time, and I have a feeling that with the context of the first film, we might be missing a lot of the personal involvement we get in the characters, particular Nascimento. A sub-plot involving his son, often slows the movie down a bit. Most of the time, the movie picks up steam as it goes along however, and we get used to the more chaotic world we're in. I guess this film has to be considered a bit of incomplete review until I see the first film, but I'm impressed with this one enough to recommend it, even without the previous film for context. It holds up enough on it's own.

HENRY'S CRIME (2011) Director: Malcolm Venville

2 1/2 STARS

(Slight chuckle) You know, film critics do kinda run into this problem occasionally, where, we kinda like a film, personally, but when we take a step back from it, and look at it objectively, we kinda have to pan it anyway, 'cause we know better. One of my old High School English teachers, Mr. Steve Akers explained it to me once this way, and I do tend to judge and separate in a similar way in my work, and it's learning the difference between "what you like," and "what is good". It's a weird line, but it's one that I consider very important to learn in order to look at any piece of art objectively. Recently I had a conversation with a fellow critic kind of along these line in regards to my 5 STARS review of "Young Adult," where I gave the movie five stars, even though personally, it's not a film that, at least on a single viewing, is particularly easy or enjoyable to watch. If I just reviewed my enjoyment in watching "Young Adult," it'd probably be a 3 1/2-4 STARS, but there's more to that film than that. In regards to "Henry's Crime," if it's just a personal enjoyment, 3 STARS, not a great film but there's a lot I, kinda liked and kinda shyly smiled with a slight chuckle at. However, I also know that, it doesn't really work that well, but it's kinda enjoyable, and I won't stop anybody from watching it, but I can't quite recommend it. (And for some reason, I can't stop using the word "kinda" in this movie review, but that's kinda the point, and kinda the film "Henry's Crime" is) Henry (Keanu Reeves) seems to be the normal everyman, eating breakfast with his wife, Debbie (Judy Greer) having a little fight about kids that they've probably had a few times before about something else. Then, Keanu ends up taking the fall for his old friend Eddie Vibes (Fisher Stevens) and his sickly friend Joe (Danny Hoch). Their crime, robbing a bank. Jail, isn't that bad. He pals around with a lifer named Max (James Caan) a conman who probably could convince a board to let him out, but he actually likes jail a little too much. It's been his home way too long. After doing three years, his wife is now with Joe, one of the guys he covered for, although he's not as pissed at that as you'd think, but he is pissed that if he did three years for robbing a bank, he might as well actually rob the damn bank. First, he convinces Max to get out of jail to help him out. Then, he gets hit by a car. Well, I doubt he planned that part, but the girl that hit him, Julie (Vera Farmiga), the local lotto girl, or as it's called in Buffalo, the Buffalotto. (Wonderfully cheesy pun) She's also an actress working on a production of "The Cherry Orchard," (The first Chekhov reference this week, but not the last) in a theatre that's next door to the bank, which just so happens, to have an old prohibition tunnel that goes right into the bank, which is next door, and pretty soon, Henry convinces first Julie, and then everyone else, to let him play Lopahin in the play. There's a few other strange characters that come in and out of this film as they prepare for both, the robbert, and for opening night. Like I said, there are a lot of fun little pieces to play with here, and that might be enough for some. The pacing's odd, but I kinda like this eased-back heist/farce of a comedy, but I've seen quirky little films like this before, and done really well. "Henry's Crime"? Yeah, it'll kill an hour and a half, but if pick, practically any Coen Brothers film at random, it really isn't even 2nd tier; it's somewhere between 3rd and 4th really. I kinda (Dammit I said it again) think they could've done more with all of these characters in the end, and instead, they went with something more Hollywood rom-com cliche. Something more creative might've satisfied me enough for a recommendation, but as it stands, there's just better quirky little indy heist comedies out there. Still, I've had a lot worse times killing that hour and a half before.

BURIED (2010) Director: Rodrigo Cortes

3 1/2 STARS

"Buried" is a good movie, but it is probably most successful as a technical filmmaking exercise. The concept is more interesting than the film itself, but sometimes that's alright. It takes place in what literally might be the smallest amount of actual space that an entire film has ever taken place in, inside a coffin. It's buried somewhere in the middle of the Iraqi desert. Inside the casket, Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) awakes. He's got a cell phone, with precious little battery time left, and precious little actual time left as well. He's not a soldier, but a truck driver, hired by a company with a government contract to help rebuild the country, that assured him that something of this nature was probably not gonna happen when they sent him to Iraq. He envoy was attacked however, and he's being buried alive, and held for ransom by his kidnappers, who insist on being paid. Meanwhile, he lights up a lighter to see... well, anything. He doesn't know how deep he's buried, but he can get some cell phone signal, and tries calling everybody. His family, his company, the military, the FBI, his wife, his mother. The terrorists insist that he use the phone to make a video, under the threat of killing other members of his convoy. At around 90 minutes, we get about all we can handle of "Buried". The movie is dark, probably lit only with the lighter and cell phone camera. All other actors are either only heard over the phone, or on a video being played on the phone. Reynolds has a very difficult job for an actor here. He's all alone, stuck, literally in a box, he can't get out of, and he's in every second of this movie, and all he has to interact with is the cell phone. The performance will obviously get comparisons with James Franco's Oscar nominated performance in the film "127 Hours," which also presented an actor with a similarly difficult challenge of being stuck, unable to get out, and having to play off, himself, and no one else, for the entire film. "127 Hours," is a better movie, and a better performance, although I'll be remembering this Ryan Reynolds performance. I like him, but compare to some of my movie-watching comrades who really like him, I've always been underwhelmed by him, even in good movie where he's the lead, like "Definitely, Maybe" for instance. "Buried"'s not quite real time, but it feels close enough. The directing by Rodrigo Cortes, only his second feature-length film is invented in how it films every inch of the enclosed space, although ironically, he doesn't always succeed in getting the appropriate chlosterphobic feeling that the film really need. A quick reviewing of "12 Angry Men," and one extra read of Sidney Lumet's book on directing, but even still, "Buried," is quite an impressive film. I think I appreciate it more than I admire it, but still worth looking for to, to consider the filmmaking challenges a film like this presents.

ANTON CHEKHOV'S THE DUEL (2010) Director: Dover Koshavilli

1 1/2 STARS

I'm not exactly an expert on Chekhov, but there's probably a good reason why I don't think "The Duel," when I think of his work, and I do think of pieces like "Uncle Vanya," and "Three Sisters," which based on what little I"ve seen and read, which includes this latest literary adaptation. Either that, or the movie, which ads seem to indicate a film that's far more sexual than it turns out to be, is just not told that well. It does a rather sweeping motion to it. I just checked Roger Ebert's review of the film, and even his last words on it are "If you're not well-rested before entering the theatre, it could put you under." Well, I was put under, and that's strange, cause when I think of very well-done Chekhov, even in film form, I think characters that are constantly in motion, even in Vanya, or are constantly speaking and keeping us interested in what they're saying and forcing on us. When I watch "The Sisters," a few years ago, I realized what people meant when they say he's amazing at exposition dialogue, 'cause it works so well in that film. In this film, I can't remember a single interesting line of dialogue, and only a generic description of what actually happened in the film. I mean, there was a duel at the end, I remember that part, and it was over a woman, nothing shocking there. It takes place at one of those Black Sea resorts where the wealthy and the ideological seem to be. Laevsky (Andrew Scott) was in love with Nadia (Fiona Glascott) but now that she's left her husband for him, he's not that interested anymore. Nadia, then catches the eye of  a Darwinian zoologist, Von Koren (Tobias Menzies) who becomes determined to have Nadia for himself. This is the eventual long set-up for a fairly unimpressive and uninteresting duel. I think another problem with this film is that, I don't recognize any of the actors. I'm serious; it's a requirement of any film that I need that, but I couldn't care about any of these characters. An actor I recognized might have helped, but as far as I can remember, these were all lesser-known British actors and actresses in "...The Duel" and I really was just following along, waiting for the inevitable. Maybe if the movie was done at a pace faster than slug, it might have not been that big an issue, but have the time, I have to look at my notes, just to remember who which guy was, and that's just not a good thing to be doing during a film. Don't let "Anton Chekhov's The Duel," be your introduction to Anton Chekhov, you'll just be disappointed.

FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956) Director: Fred M. Wilcox

4 1/2 STARS

"Forbidden Planet" is considered one of the premiere science-fiction films of it's time, and I can certainly understand why. It's a little tricky to judge such films that were made during this era. Clearly the special effects of the day, while amazing at the time, are quite limiting compared to now. Robby the Robot getting his own credit in "Forbidden Planet" is the kind of thing Otto from "Airplane!," was making fun of, but it's impressive for it's time. The real power in "Forbidden Planet," like all great sci-fi is the power of the story itself. A crew of a starship, led by Commander J.J. Adams (Leslie Neilsen, speaking of pre-"Airplane!") heads to a planet, where 20 years earlier, a science ship had landed, but has been silent ever since. Unsure of what to expect to find, they begin their landing approach with a warning to stay away by the lone surviving member of the crew, Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon). Warning ignore, they crew arrives with a greeting party of Robby taking them to the house of Dr. Morbius, where he once again warns them to leave, weaving a vicious tale of how all his crew died suddenly by some mysterious and monstrous force on the planet. Yet, Morbius has survived, along with his daughter Alta (Kim Novaks, oh the other sci-fi tradition, all women wear are free-spirited and apparently unaware of how her tiny little (dress/skirt/go-go-boots, insert any article of clothing, really) can have a great/grave effect on a crew of men who haven't seen a woman in years. (Of course, she hasn't seen a man other than her father her whole life, but still...) Anyway, as predicted, men start getting killed by some invisible force on the planet, that they begin strategizing to fight, but seem overwhelmed at best. The monster gets stronger and stronger, as Dr. Morbius's secrets one-by-one, get more and more revealed, and the truth about a once-thriving society of the planet is found underneath the barren crust. "Forbidden Planet," is loosely, very loosely based on "The Tempest" of all things, although I think it's influence is closer to someone like Ray Bradbury at the time, and probably greatly influence someone like Gene Roddenberry. You can almost see how "Star Trek," could've been influence by this sci-fi story where the battle of the mind if more fascinating that any battle with giant ants or some other popular/famous aliens in similar films of it's time. Either way, it's surprisingly effective. It holds up as one of the great early sci-fi classics, better than most of them, certainly so considering the era. It probably could be remade with better special effects, but they haven't done it yet. (Although one future project on imdb.com is listed as "in development") I can see why they're reluctant. While the effects are old, there's a certain charm to them and in leaving the classic film alone for generations. Besides, I think honestly, that Hollywood doesn't think they can make a better version of this film today, and frankly, I agree with them.

SWEET AND LOWDOWN (1999) Director: Woody Allen

4 STARS

Well, I've had Chekhov plays show up in two film reviews this week (Oh, and Spoiler alert! I'll be reviewing "Vanya of 42nd Street" at a sooner-than-later date!) and now, here's another weird coincidence: this week, I'm also reviewing two films, involving Oscar-nominated performances, where the actor/actress was nominated for playing a character that was mute. Max von Sydow, who was nominated last year for "Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close," and now, I'm reviewing Woody Allen's "Sweet and Lowdown," which earned Samantha Morton an Oscar nomination. Titled after the George Gershwin song, "Sweet and Lowdown," is one of Allen's experimental films. He's done mockumentary-style films in the past like "Take the Money and Run," and "Zelig," for instance. Allen plays himself actually, as one of many experts giving their take on the little-known-about, but often rumored-about Emmett Ray (Oscar-nominee Sean Penn), who's considered the 2nd Greatest Jazz Guitarist in the world. The first one is Django Reinhardt, "this gypsy" as Emmett often refers to him. He admires him more than he is capable of loving anybody. He's seen him twice in his life, and both times, he fainted in his presence. The movie takes place around the late '20s-early '30s. Emmett's skill are unbelievable (Penn apparently learned to play guitar for the role), and he's quite popular, although he blows most of his money on booze and women, booze and gambling, and he often shows up late for work. One time, he took opium in Jersey, and didn't wake up 'til 4 days later in Pennsylvania Dutch country. At least that's one of many stories/rumors about him. Some stories have multiple variations of what happened, depending on how one person may have heard the story previously. One day on the Boardwalk with his drummer, they strike up a conversation with a couple girls. Ray, unfortunately gets the mute one, Hattie. (Morton) She's a cute little thing, who has bad handwriting, but instantly falls for Ray, even if Ray never exactly admits to falling for her. He ends up taking her across the country, recording, touring, even to Hollywood, where much to Ray's displeasure, she gets discovered there and put in a movie role. Morton reminds me of Harpo Marx in this role, in a good way, the way he could, without words express any emotion he needed, with or without props. (Particularly so if you watch some of the later Marx Brothers films, where he isn't so scheming and devilish) She's quite good here, as is Penn, their performances really are the core of the film. Although Emmett married a well-to-do writer, Blanche (Uma Thurman) at one later point, for reasons that still seem strange in hindsight. A lot of the film feels strange really. There's no real narrative, just a lot of half-truths, and stories that are told, mixed in with some of the more believable romantic scenes. There's two of the best performance in Allen films in recent years in "Sweet and Lowdown," but it's more of an interesting curiousity in Allen's canon. A good curiousity, a funny one certainly, it's definitely in his comedies but it often feels more like fragments that a whole film. I think it's clearly on purpose, trying to get to know a man through only the myths and legends about him that remain and exist. In a way, this is a good predecessor to "Midnight in Paris," which uses the same time frame, and also takes the more legendary characteristics of famous people to tell their showcase. A quick check of wikipedia confirms what I expected, that Ray isn't a real legendary jazz guitarist, just another creation from the mind of Woody Allen. (Django Reinhardt is real though. I wish I knew that without looking it up, but...) It takes him some time before he realized the great characters of the era already existed, but he still created one good enough to be worth watching.