Wednesday, June 6, 2012

MOVIE REVIEWS: EDITION #34: "THE MUPPETS", "YOUNG ADULT", "CERTIFIED COPY", "AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY", "THE LAST LIONS", "HEMINGWAY'S GARDEN OF EDEN" and MORE!

Well, in some ways, I'm getting back into the swing of writing my Random Weekly Movie Review blog on a more regular basis, on the other hand, I'm still not writing on exactly the schedule that I used to. It helps somewhat that most of the movies were better this week than lasts. Most, not all. I've noticed that these movie reviews get a considerably higher amount of hits on my blog than anything else I produce, and I guess I'm proud that many of you are strongly interested in what I think about movies. I don't know why exactly some of my commentaries and analyses haven't been as popular, although I think it's possible that the majority of them have been dealing with television lately, more than movies, and that might not be as valuable to others as it can be to me (I do consider them both equally). I just want to note that while I try to comment on as many of the major entertainment news stories as possible, and generally most of those involve television at this point in the year, I'm often writing mostly on the subject that I want to write on at that particular time, and unless otherwise told, I don''t have any other way of determining what I should discuss. I have often mentioned that I am more than willing to take requests as to films I watch and/or write about, which I do, although I rarely if ever get any requests from anybody to do that, but I also don't get any comments or thoughts what-so-ever. So, I want to mention now that if there is anything going on in the entertainment world that people would like to hear my thoughts/opinions on, please let me know. Nobody ever leaves any comments to this blog, so I really don't have much sense of how my blog is perceived by you. If for some reason you can't comment on my blog, I invite you to contact me through either twitter, @DavidBaruffi_EV, or better yet, through my Facebook account, just look up, David Baruffi, in the search engine on Facebook, and ask me directly. I can't guarantee that I will write a blogpost on the subject matter you request of me, I still want to keep a level of quality to this blog, and try to only write on subjects where I think I've got something interesting and/or different to say on the issue, and it's possible I might not have that strong of an opinion or an adequate background on the subject to give a well-thoughtout answer, but I'll certainly read all requests and answer them to the reader personally, or maybe I might just look into a subject and post a blog on if enough people ask me. (Which in some cases, might be just 1 person asking).

Okat, that's all for this week. Now, onto the reviews!

THE MUPPETS (2011) Director: James Bobin

3 1/2 STARS

I wrote last week on "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," and while my long-standing disgust over the "LOTR" movies and books is well-known, I did mention that I thought that it was possible for a good movie, or even a series of films to be made from the material. I didn't continue on that point, but afterwards, I thought for a bit about who would be a good filmmaker to adapt the book, and I did come up with one wishlist name. It was Jim Henson. Well, unfortunately, that'll never happen, but I bet some of you "Labyrinth" fans all already pondering the "what if" of that thought. I, like everyone else with a pulse, am a huge fan of the muppets. In fact, if anybody ever checks my twitter account @DavidBaruffi_EV, or for that matter, my Facebook page, you'll notice that my profile photo, is appropriately, a picture of Statler and Waldorf, those two old crumudgens who yell about how bad the show is from up in the balcony. As a critic, I feel a bit of a kindred spirit with them. Disney has owned the rights to "The Muppets," for awhile, and apparently, they told Jason Segal, who's fascination with puppets even found it's way into the film "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," which he wrote, that if he'd write it, they'd make it. Segal doesn't have quite the same sensability as Jim Henson did, but maybe that's a lot to ask for. "The Muppets," is more of a fond revisit of such wonderful characters. In Smalltown, we meet Walter (Walter, in his first role) and Gary (Segal), two brothers who are really close, but as adults, Walter is considerably smaller and more felt-like, but he adores the Muppets. Gary is dating the local kindergarten schoolteacher Mary (Amy Adams) and they're going to L.A. for vacation, and Walter comes along to see the original Muppet theatre, which has since become a decrepid shell of itself, and now, an oilman named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), has bought out the land, and unless the Muppets come up with 10 million dollars. Time to inform Kermit (Kermit the Frog), who's traded in that swamp for a large but sad and quiet mansion that he's wasting away at. They begin wrangling up the gang. Fozzie (Fozzie Bear) working for a Muppet tribute group in Reno, Animal (Animal) in celebrity rehab with Jack Black, Gonzo (The Great Gonzo) running a successful toilet company. Surprisingly, they pick up Rowlf, which is bittersweet, he was Jim Henson's favorite character he did, and he was supposed to be retired after his death, but I guess it's okay that even he's back for the reunion. Miss Piggy (Miss Piggy) takes some convincing as she and Kermit have had a bit of a fallen out, although, she even reluctantly flies in from Paris for a reunion. She doesn't do a Pigs in Space sketch, but she and Kermit eventually get talked into a duet of Rainbow Connection together. "The Muppets," actually marks the first time any of the Muppets' film has won an Oscar for Bret McKenzie (From "Flight of the Conchords") for "Man or Muppet". Paul Williams should've won for "Rainbow Connection" from "The Muppet Movie," but that is a good song too, and it's appearance in the movie also has the best celebrity cameo in the film, one that I'm not giving away, but let's just say, it's great and very appropriate casting. Although, I must say, I've been humming "Life's a Happy Song," for about a week now, wish that one had more accolades. I hope this means a resurgence for "The Muppets," cause I really think the world needs them to be around, and even if the world doesn't need them, I think it's be a lot more disappointing without them. The movie's ending is where it really gets magical. It hard to compare it with some of the more classic Muppet films and material, you really start to miss Jim Henson doing that, but still, "The Muppets," is a good start towards a proper Muppet resurgence and renaissance, or dare I say,- phenomenon....

YOUNG ADULT (2011) Director: Jason Reitman

5 STARS



Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), sleeps in two positions, either on her face, with her body laid out over whatever she happened to fall on the night before, or on her back, under the arm of some one-night-stand. She awakes to the sound of bad reality TV, before she chugs diet coke from a two-liter like it's a baby bottle, this before a constant assault of alcohol in her body for the rest of the waking day. She's a self-centered, delusional, narcissitic, former prom queen, and the fact that she looks like Charlize Theron, makes her that much more depressing. She is a complete and utter trainwreck of a person. Do not think that by me saying that, that by the end of "Young Adult," she'll be a changed person well on her way to bettering herself. In some ways, you could say she might end up worse by the end. It has to take a special mind like Diablo Cody to not only come up with this character, but to actually find a way to admire her, and it takes a special actress like Charlize Theron to take this part and engulf herself into it. This is the second collaboration between Cody and director Jason Reitman, their first being the masterpiece "Juno". Mavis is a ghostwriter for a series of young adult novels based around the popular girl at a high school. I always wondered who wrote those. I've had two thoughts on those in the past, one is that they're over my head subject matter-wise, but the other being that the second they're not, I've long outgrown them. While mavis deals with a writer's block for the last novel in the series, she get's an e-mail from her high school boyfriend Buddy (Patrick Wilson), announcing the birth of him and his wife Beth's (Elizabeth Reaser) new baby. This leads to a truly hairbrained scheme of going back to her old hometown for the first time in years, and win him back. In the meantime, she meets up with Matt Freehauf (Patton Oswalt) a former classmate she doesn't remember except for the fact that he was a famous victim of a gaybashing (even though he's not gay) from the jocks in high school leaving him partially paralyzed and predominantly impotent. He's got the same drunken mad-at-the-world point of view as Mavis, only it's understandable with him, and despite his homemade distillery and superhero collection, he's not delusional to the world around him. They get hammered at night, usually on Mavis's insistence, as his continual warnings of the disasters Mavis walks into get completely ignored by her. "Young Adult" seems to take the sensabilities and wit that Cody has used in her dialogue, and instead of creating worlds where it makes sense like "Juno," or the underrated "Jennifer's Body," and the episodes of "The United States of Tara," she wrote, but now, she's placed it in a character while the world around her isn't in sync with her. In fact, the most Codyesque quirks in "Young Adult," are more character details, like Mavis spitting into a ink cartridge to get one last printing out of it, or the way Mavis pulls at her hair when she's out of place. There's some interesting scenes of Mavis getting herself ready and dressed in front of a mirror that reminded me of Theron's Oscar-winning performance in "Monster". She's playing a different kind of monster here, and for some reason, it felt more disturbing. I've struggled writing this review, in fact I spent a long time debating how many stars to give it. It's not the easiest film to digest, but the more you do, the more you find in it. Oswalt and especially Theron have created two of the most complex characters in years, and the more you go into it, and peel away, the richer and darker they get. That this film is a comedy is more of a necessity for us in the audience. They say a good comic looks at the world and thinks it's funny; a great comic looks at the world and thinks it's not. These characters think it's not, and make us laugh because they insist on asking "What the fuck is wrong with all of you!" There's too much in "Young Adult" to ignore, and it's just gonna stick with you for days on end. It might not be the most pleasant filmviewing experience, but it's an absolutely great film.

CERTIFIED COPY (2011) Director: Abbas Kiarostami

4 1/2 STARS

Two people, a man and a woman are talking. Are they husband and wife? Boyfriend and girlfriend? Father/daughter? mother/son? Brother/Sister? Two strangers on a first date? Two strangers just having a conversation? Now the real question, does it matter who they are? With the possible exception of "The Tree of Life," I don't think any film has been more debated and discussed in the past year than "Certified Copy". It was originally booed at it's screening in Cannes, although Juliette Binoche did win the Best Actress Award for it. It's the first Western film from Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, he might be most known in America for his film "Taste of Cherry," this is the first film of his I've actually seen though, and "Certified Copy," is certainly a tricky little puzzle where there's been multiple theories abound about the relationship between the two characters. The movie begins in Tuscany, where James Miller (Opera singer William Shimell, in a rare movie role) is giving a lecture on how copies of famous pieces of art can be just as valuable as the originals. After the lecture, she meets Elle (Binoche), who runs an antiques store. They meet there the next day, and then they go for a ride to a small village called Lucignano. On the way, they're talking. When they get there, they're talking. The whole movie consists of them talking, mostly to each other, occasionally to other local. As they begin talking, it at first seems like they're strangers, but as the movie continues, the tone of the discussion changes. At a cafe, a waitress confuses them for husband and wife. Soon, they seem to be talking like husband and wife. They make up a story- or do they make up a story, about coming back to see the town where they spent their honeymoon, and seeing all the same places and sights. They even seem to talk like couples during difference parts of a relationship, but the longer the conversation goes, the closer and more intimate it seems they are with each other. Is it a game they're playing, or is it one the director's playing, or is their an actual explanation for their behavior. I believe multiple viewings will help me create a theory or two, but I think it's possible that the trick is that it doesn't matter, and that it's the whim of the filmmaker's whether or not they're a couple or strangers or what-have-you, although I think those familiar with Harold Pinter's play "Betrayal," might have their own theories. The fact is, we can make our own theories on people as we watch them talking from miles away or from up close and even listen to what they're saying, and we still wouldn't know what the relationship between the two of them is, or if it's even a real relationship, or if they're just a copy. "Certified Copy," is incredibly well-made and well-acted, no matter how we interpret the film, the movie is continually engrossing up until the end. I don't think any explanation will fulfill my thoughts on it, but I think it's an interesting puzzle worth trying to piece together anyway.

AMERICAN: THE BILL HICKS STORY (2011) Directors: Matt Harlock and Paul Thomas

4 1/2 STARS

The first time I can remember hearing the name Bill Hicks, it was during Comedy Central poll a few years back naming the 100 Greatest Stand-Up Comics of All-Time. He was #19, the highest rated name on the list, that I didn't immediately recognize, and actually, even until now, I still didn't know a whole lot about him. I love stand-up comedy, and I try to study as much of it as I can, but it's odd for one so well-known and influental to have eluded me. Hicks died very suddenly of pancreatic cancer at age 32; he didn't tell most of his friends he was dying until it was near the end. I only saw one of his old stand-up performances on Netflix Watch Instantly one day, it was one of his really old ones that he gave when he was young and still drinking and doing drugs, intercut with slow-motion images of Hicks, signifying that it was clearly put together after his death. It was funny, but it wasn't among his strongest material, which came later in his life. A lot of that does show up in "American: The Bill Hicks Story," a very entertaining documentary that includes rare clips of his stand-up, as far back as his teen years when he started in Houston clubs making light of his parents and family. He was also a talented musician, and even tried his luck at screenwriting along with his friend and one-time comedy partner Kevin Booth, but found his form in stand-up comedy. His material continually became more and more controversial and anti-American, and the older he got, especially as he eliminated drinking and smoking from his act, the funnier and sharper his mind became. That's the observation I made at least watching the film, which is really what I would consider my introduction to him, and it's a very good one, in fact, combining just enough stories from friends and family, with the right amount, and what seemed like the right routines he would go through. Recently I went through most of Sam Kinison's routines, as he passed away when I was only 6, and didn't really get to know him until later, although on more than one occasion, I've driven right past where he died in a car accident heading to Vegas. Bill Hicks's is the next one I'm going to be trying to discover now, as I've now gotten a good beginner's class on who exactly he was. Interesting they call the movie "American", since his biggest fame actually came overseas in England where he would play sold out theatres as oppose to the U.S. where he died still working the road every night doing half-filled comedy rooms. I have a feeling, I'm not going to be the only one, who's suddenly discovered the genius of Bill Hicks soon.

THE LAST LIONS (2011) Director: Dereck Joubert

2 1/2 STARS

It's a rare occurance for me to actually be in the mood for a nature documentary. I'll watch them when the come up in my film queue, but it can be hard to come up with a perfect combination of footage from nature and entertainment value. Sometimes I think it's purely by accident that they come up with one, other times, I think it just helps to have Morgan Freeman doing a voiceover. "The Last Lions," didn't get Morgan Freeman, but they got Jeremy Irons though, and he's good enough. The title, "The Last Lions," refers to the continuous decreasing population of lions in Africe, now down to 20,000, after having million just 50 years ago. I don't know what other than that fact does he movie have to do with that. It hardly makes much of an effort to give us a call to action or anything like that, it's basically a lot of footage of a few lions, focusing on a couple in particular, and their day-to-day struggle for survival. Searching for food, keeping the cubs safe, tracking bulls as they head across the Serengeti, (I think it was the Serengeti, but now I'm not sure.) strategizing a way to tackle and capture one for supper, without getting clobbered by the rest of them. There's also a battle between two competing tribes of lions that lay across the river from each other, always aware of each other. I don't know, I guess I have to basically compare "The Last Lions," to any random nature documentary that I'd happen to find late at night on PBS, or something like that. It has some excellant footage of some of the lion, but other than that, I can't think of anything new from this movie I haven't seen before, or any other particular reason the film has to be seen.No problem with the saving of the lions, just think there's a better way to promote that message.

HEMINGWAY'S GARDEN OF EDEN (2010) Director: John Irvin

1 STAR

Hemingway's final novel, "The Garden of Eden," was unfinished, and things like that usually should stay that way. However, I can understand the temptation of such a project but still, most of the time, you end up with something like this film. David Bourne (Jack Huston) soon after WWII meets and quickly marries Catherine (Mena Suvari) and they start to go on their honeymoon. I remember their being a lot of nudity, but a lot less on screen nudity then their way insinuated nudity, but still a lot. Soon, Catherine starts to test David as they travel acroos Europe. She even invites her friend Marita (Caterina Murino) over for... You ever notice how it's always the older male artists who suddenly tell a story about that free-loving three-person relationship they had in their '20s? Woody Allen's "Vicky Cristina Barcelona," is the best most recent example, but their are others. This isn't one of the more interesting ones. It feels longer than it really is, and after the initial intrigue, and since we know the story isn't going to go anywhere, we can't really get involved with it. I've never seen so much love, sex and nudity in a movie without an eroticism in it. If this movie is a sexual encounter, than I fell asleep in the middle. It's nice to see Mena Suvari again, but now I remember why she's hard to cast for in this. I wonder if Christina Ricci would've been a better choice in the role. I shouldn't be knocking her that much though, all the actors are really second-tier choices here and they seem to be given as little to work with as possible. It's the second film I've seen from Director John Irvin, the first was probably his most famous one, "Hamburger Hill," which also suffered from this insistent overdramatic sweep over every single scene. At least that film was a war movie, this one starts in the Jazz Age, and then gets slower and slower from there. (Some jazz might have helped this film.) One more intriguing attempt to finish a final unfinished work, and one more failure. We should stop being so damn tempted.

BOUDU SAVED FROM DROWNING (1932) Director: Jean Renoir

3 1/2 STARS

For some reason, I seem to be going through a few Jean Renoir films lately. I've haven't disliked any of his films yet, but I seem to be one of the few that's underimpressed with him. He normally ranks on Top Ten Best Director of all-time lists, and his film "The Rules of the Game," (which is his best film by the way) has been ranked on every single Sight & Sound poll of the Top Ten films of all-time. I think with his best film, like "The Rules..." and "French Cancan," and "La Bete Humaine," and I guess "Grand Illusion," although I think that one's overrated too, but most recently "The River," which was good, like I said, but feels in hindsight like one of those traditional Overdone Hollywood epics, and now, I've come to one of his earliest films "Boudu Saved from Drowning, a comedy of manners. If there's one thing I can admire of Renoir, it's that he's very adaptable; he seems to work in just about every genre possible, and in a few cases, I think he created them. "Boude Saved from Drowning," is a pretty accurate title. The movie begins with the focus on Mr. Edouard Lestingois (Charles Granval), a local respectable bookseller. He lives very comfortable with his daughter Emma (Marchelle Hainia). Then one day, he sees a homeless man jump into the Seine, and he goes out and saves him. The man is of course Boudu (Michel Simon), and at first, he's annoyed. He was trying to kill himself, but Mr.Lestingois decides out of the kindness of his heart to invite him to stay at his place. This would be mistake number 2. Most films I've seen with this similar set-up usually make the saved a greatful man, who's owing a great debt of some kind to his beneficiary. Not Boudu. He's lazy, he's dirty, he's filthy, and will hit on anything with soft skin and breasts. The locals want to give Mr. Lestingois a medal, by the end, he wishes he never saved Boudu to begin with. I actually have always found myself a little taken aback by this comedic formula. A modern film I thought of comparing this to actually is "What About Bob?" with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss, although I actually only half-heartedly cared for that film. They're both funny but for some reason, I just never bought into this formula. I guess it works a little better in "Boudu..." comes I'm not expecting it here. I was caught offguard by it's unpredictability, and I bet it caught a lot of 1932 audiences offguard as well. I guess this is the kind of film, where I say that I admire it, more than I like it, and that's true. It's still a positive recommendation, it's a matter of taste sometimes, and this time, the taste is lukewarm to me. Worth the watch, glad I saw it, don't know if it's a great Renoir, but it's a good early film of his that shows his potential for better films lay ahead.

SCHOOL DAZE  (1988) Director: Spike Lee

4 1/2 STARS

Man, if there's director who I can just sit back and watch a marathon of his films, it's Spike Lee. Not that all his films are great or even good, there's certainly some flaws in "School Daze," for instance, but even his failures yield far more interesting films that many directors' successes. For all the outspokenness and controversy that surrounds many of his films, his style of filmmaking is surprisingly classical. He takes time to tell his stories, every part of them, to make sure his vision is not only clear, but that he says exactly what he wants to say, and how he wants to say it. If that means, the best way to do that is with an all-girl musical number about the differences between girls darker-skinned black girls with short nappy hair and the lighter-skinned black girls with long, straighter and controllable hair with white women, then a musical number it'll be. Tell me that's not a classical storytelling style. There are a lot of loose ends in "School Daze," and for that, I can't quite give it 5 stars, but what is here, is a lot of rich characters, thoughts and observances. At Mission College in Mississippi, one of those long-standing traditional All-Black College undergoing an identity crisis as the country moves closer to and closer to that biracial/postracial world that we're still striving towards, it's Homecoming weekend. The fraternity and sororieties are pledging new members, while other students are holding protests, the main protest being on the school not donating money to fight Apartheid in South Africa, is lead by Dap (Laurence Fishburne). He's at odds with the leader of the Gamma Phi Gamma fraternity Julien (Giancarlo Esposito), who believes that the school should be keeping the money in America, but these two wouldn't get along much even if they agreed on everything. Dap's not a fraternity guy, although he does lead a group called Da Fellas, but his cousin Half-Pint (Spike Lee) is nearing the end of his pledging to Julien's frat, although he's undersized, and is a virgin, something that he's being pressured to fix, and soon. Both Dap and Julien have women problems. Julien's girlfriend, Jane Toussaint (Tisha Campbell-Martin) is the head of the Gamma Rays sorority, the sister group of the gammas, things happens and points are made about college life, life at a black college, the racial lines between dark and light-skinned blacks, and other such things, but it's the way they come about that's interesting, 'cause really, the movie has a feel of real people, just going through their daily lives feel to it. A few of the Fellas go to KFC, and get into a small argument with some less-educated Blacks. They talk tough, but then in the car, look at each other, and wonder if maybe they were right, and we are more pompous are arrogant because of the education we're getting? He brings issues up, and puts them in your face, but Lee hardly ever focuses in on them, he just sort of show us them happening, and allow us to have our own reactions to them. His characters are smart, and he allows them to think differently and have their own opinions, and I think he expects the audience to have theirs too. This was only his second feature-length film after "She's Gotta Have It," and right before his breakout masterpiece "Do the Right Thing". He's made musicals, biopics, comedies, documentaries, he's even occasionally made a big-budget Hollywood film. There's nothing he can't do. I read today that he's going to direct Mike Tyson's one-man show on Broadway. I think he likes to work best though, when he just does what he wants to do. "School Daze," has some technically flaws, but emotionally, it hits every little note right, and I think that was Lee's intention.

THEFT (2007) Director: Paul Bright

0 STARS

You know, it really is such a rare and special treat to find an LBGT film that isn't filled with stereotypical characters and isn't the same cliched story we've seen a million times before, and does it with a smart, insightfulness and realistic situations and characters that makes such a film really worth seeing that not only gives people a thoughtful insight into the LBGT community, but more than that, it's just simply a good movie on it's own merits. As soon as I find a movie like that, I'll let you know.

What? Oh, I gotta talk about "The-," oh for crying out, why? Do I have too!? I don't want to! (Annoyed sigh) Fine, but I write this review under protest! (My editor can be an A****** sometimes.) I don't remember how or why "Theft," ended up on my Netflix queue, but I finally got around to it, and to think of all the films that I could've put in it's place over-the-years that I didn't, and left it on so long that I actually got around to it, well, it makes me cry. First off, the title's wrong; it should be called "Arson", not that it would make the movie any better, but it's wrong. The movie takes place in a conservative smalltown-ish area called Liberty Hills, where there's apparently a highly-religious evangelical area, led by a high strung goody-two shoes names Sister Susannah (Cynthia Schiebel), and a very popular leather gay nightclub called The Golden Room, or something like that. As far as I could basically tell, these were the only things that the town consisted of, those who went to church on the one side of town, and the leather cabaret club which was the other side of town. It seems like while all the women went to her their crazed preacher, the men were out watching some second rate transvestite performer every night. Anyway, the original owner of the club unexpectedly dies, and leaves it to it's shy janitor, Guy (Matthew Charles Burnett). Every description I've seen of the movie explains how the Janitor is accuse of burning down the evangelical's church. That's technically true, and also why the film should be called "Arson", but that's like the last 15-20 minutes of the film, and really, he isn't accused for long as it doesn't take much to figure out who really burned down the church. There's some backstory of a painter who's attracted to Guy, and of a long lost prodigal gay son Sister Susannah has, but none of this is well-made, well-directed, well-written, well-acted,- well, it's not well-anything. It's a bunch of bad dialogue that's there to present facts and arguments, and a few other tallking points we've read a million times before, and with a loose story about a nightclub and a church that's there to get to the points. "Theft" is bad at every level, and worse yet, it's boring! It couldn't even be entertainingly bad. It's not even satirizing anything new. I've seen porno movies with more thoughtful and elaborate stories. What a waste of a Netflix rental this was.    
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