Thursday, August 15, 2013

MOVIE REVIEWS #71: "NO", "MY AMITYVILLE HORROR", "HYDE PARK ON HUDSON", "DETACHMENT", "BARRYMORE", "BUTTER", "THE BAY", "KLOWN", "FIRST POSITION", "LARRY CROWNE", and MORE!

Whew! I've never streamed more movies in my life, than I've had to stream these last couple weeks. Too many films actually, now I'm way behind on my library films, so it's time to catch up on those now. A lot of new releases, and I've been behind on my Netflix, hence the streaming, and frankly I've just been a little too busy with the home as well, so believe it or not, the most disappointing thing about this set of reviews is that, I didn't get to as many films as I wanted to, or at least most of the films I really wanted to review.

I wish there was a whole lot more happening to discuss in the entertainment world. One of "The Bachelor" committed suicide today, that's the lead. Movie premiere dates moved, Oscar considerations, a few shows being bought or sold. So, I thought I'd focus on Sheila Nevins, who today won an Emmy as an Executive Producer of Alex Gibney's documentary "Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God". For those of you who don't know who she is, she's the head of HBO Documentary Films, and is probably one of the most powerful and prolific women in Hollywood. This Emmy win is her 24th! You read that right, 24th, career Emmy, which is the record btw. This among so many others awards she's won that I've heard stories that she just has a bunch of them lying on the floor in her office, 'cause she doesn't have room in her home for them. The reasons she wins those Emmys and Peabodys and everything is because of her constant and continuous actions to put out some of the best, most compelling and most important work on HBO, that includes films like the "Paradise Lost" documentaries, Spike Lee's "4 Little Girls", and "Taxicab Confessions" a few of the more famous credits among the hundreds of projects she's worked on. Hundreds, with and S, btw. She's involved in a lot of quality work, and should probably be looked at more as a role model for other aspiring filmmakers, especially women filmmakers, particularly if they want to produce. I've known people who've worked with her and talked about how passionate she is, and it's a shame that her name probably isn't a household name, even in the film circles, so if nothing else, I hope people noticed that little blurb about her winning another Emmy today, btw, she's still nominated for like, 3 or 4 others this year, so it could be more when all this is through, and take a moment and look her up.

Well that's all on my thoughts for the week. Time to get to this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS!


NO (2012) Director: Pablo Lorrain

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I once mentioned in a movie review awhile back about how I seem to lack a lot of South American history, including history, but I do know a few things about Pinochet. For one thing, we put him in charge, a decision we should've regretted a lot sooner than we actually did. The first feature film representing the nation of Chile to receive a Foreign Language Film Oscar Nomination, "No", shows how the Dictator was eventually overthrown, through a referendum election he was forced to accept under international pressure. Naturally, most half-expected the election to be fixed. The year is 1988, and the No campaign, has hired a youngish Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal) to run the campaign. He works in advertising, and in fact his boss, Lucha Guzman (Alfredo Castro) is the head of the Si Campaign. At first, the obvious approach is to take, the precious 15 minutes a night they're finally allowed on Chilean TV to promote their perspective, to showcase all of Pinochet's atrocities, but they soon realize that going negative makes the voters numb and disheartened, and they don't got to the polls, and since this is a possibly fixed election, they need every vote they can get. Rene decides to go with a positive campaign. Very positive. Using techniques from the Cola Wars and other aspects of American pop commercialism from the MTV generation, which catches the Si team offguard, as all they do are typical displays about the greatness of the Chilean government, and pomposity at first. Soon, they get with the message and start to attack the No campaign's tactics, but No, decides to continue their happiness assault. They adopt a rainbow as a symbols, they get famous artists together to record a theme song a la, "We Are the World" style, combining pointed but observatent political discourse with sharply-written comedic bit, and random images of dancing mimes, they start pulling into the hearts and minds of the people. The film often shows the actual ads, from their original tapes, and they are definitely a reminder of how strange the time was, and how film has advanced so much since those days. This is a story that I haven't seen before and didn't know about. Another reminder that, positiveness and thinking outside-the-box can start a revolution, and as strange as the dancing mime is, it started a revolution. Bernal is one of the world's best actors, and he plays his role very quietly. Out of curiosity I check his age, he's only 35, but can and play ten or fifteen years younger if he wanted. He's young, with a scrappy beard and skateboards to work. He's rich in the world, and actually, he's probably campaigning against his own interests, but he has an ex-wife and a eight-year-old, who seem much more happy than he ever does. "No," is the first film I've seen from Director Pablo Lorrain, although he's recently produced Abel Ferrera's "4:44 Last Day on Earth", and he's quickly becoming one of South America's best director. I happen to watch "No" at around the same time I watch the HBO TV Movie, "Game Change", and in some ways, they're two sides of the same coin. Both are about making risky moves to win a campaign and how one works perfectly, while the completely implodes upon themselves. "No," it works perfectly, and shows how well the right theme song and the right packaging can be used to overthrow a dictator. It's definitely a story that I'm glad to have finally heard. A very entertaining film, and it grows on you the more you think about it.


MY AMITYVILLE HORROR (2013) Director: Eric Walter

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Whenever I think about "The Amityville Horror", I always think about the Women's Studies building on the UNLV campus, across from the architecture lab. I spent a fun night at Spectrum Club Halloween party there once, dressed as, well, technically it was Fonzi, but really it wasn't much different than my normal everyday outfit once upon a time, but anyway, the building had a dark and creepy feel to it, and many people said it looked like "The Amityville Horror" house. It didn't really, but that's become the most famous haunted house story around. I actually haven't the seen the film in its entirety yet; I think I've tried once in a while, but something always stopped me. "My Amityville Horror" is the latest documentary on the infamous Long Island house, that time, the son, Daniel Lutz, the son of Kathleen and stepson of George Lutz, the infamous residents for which the books and numerous movies were based on, is finally telling his side of the story, which includes of course, the infamous past of the haunted house, and the nightmare that the family had being there. He's all grown up now, works at UPS, and never got to tell about the events he witnessed. His stepfather's intrigued in the occult, the beating he gave, the slight personality changes everyone had, and he has certainly suffered from these nightmarish experiences, but did he actually have them? This becomes the subject, as we hear his plights and stories about killing hundreds of flies in the attic. The film continually interviews Daniel, and then, a lot of the stories keep getting, not necessarily debunked, but later explained through some kind of psychological issues that he's clearly got. That said, this was surprisingly boring after a while. It starting out interesting, as though we were finally gonna get some facts about what happened or at least a theory, but it kinda fell apart as the movie went along, and starting diving into the famous house. The house is still there, and no other family who's lived there since has seen any paranormal activity. The house was the famous scene of a family murder before the Lutz's went in, but the key to movies like these is really whether or not the subject is interesting for us to care about. Frankly Daniel Lutz, when the movie really had to be about him, it stopped being interesting, and frankly I couldn't care less after awhile about Daniel Lutz. I mean, I feel sorry for whatever supposedly happened to him, if it actually happened to him or he's mis-remembering or possibly making the entire thing up for publicity. I don't think he is, but his refusal to take a polygraph is disturbing for it's lack of making any logical sense.


HYDE PARK ON HUDSON (2012) Director: Roger Michell

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Anybody else think it's interesting that "Hyde Park on Hudson," is the third major film in three years to feature King George V as a major character? Of course, Tom Hooper's "The King's Speech" two years ago, won the Oscar, but last year with Madonna's "W.E.", about Wallis Sampson, and now, King George and Queen Elizabeth (Samuel West and Olivia Colman) are coming to America, and God help them, they may have to eat a hot dog at a picnic. "Hyde Park on Hudson", is a delightful little film about this famous first visit by the British Royal family in America since the Revolution, which is officially just a social visit to FDR's (Bill Murray) mother's summer retreat in Springwood, near Hyde Park, NY, but it's before World War II, and while America, is surely but surely climbing out of the Great Depression, the Britain needs to get their support for the upcoming war with Germany, something most Americans aren't in favor of at the time. (People forget that, but half the country were German sympathizers at the time). At the house, FDR asks his sixth Cousin Daisy (Laura Linney) to join him one day. She lives a couple towns away and takes care of her aunt. The film is seen from her point of view, and was based on the relationship she had with FDR, which was only found out in papers after she died, at age 100. She wasn't alone of course, FDR had many mistresses, and Eleanor (Olivia Williams) was long aware of it at this point, as she had begun working with those women carpenters making furniture. She's merely our entry into this world, and we get some glimpses of her life, helping take care of FDR, who's full of spirits, but paralyzed by polio. He takes Daisy on car rides to very out-of-the-way fields, in his car that's special-made to be driven with only his hands. The best part of the film is really the tension between the visiting Brits and the nervous Americans, Roosevelt's mother, (Elizabeth Wilson) looking for spare plates wherever she can, and everyone getting ready, nervous about how each other will accept the other. Curtsying and bowing. Some interesting breaking of royal protocol, like when the King pushes FDR's wheelchair, and he asks for a cocktail instead of tea. The best scenes are of course, the picnic at the end, where Eleanor's choice of hot dogs as a lunch has both of them nervous, especially the Queen, and the late night meeting between the King and the President, The King battling with his stutter, the President frustrated with his polio. "Hyde Park on Hudson," is a quiet and charming film about a slight but memorable moment in American history. Bill Murray's very good here as FDR, maybe not the immediate first choice of casting, but he's very convincing as this sly and cheerful FDR, who's a petulant child surrounded by boss women, but you can also that he's realizing the gravity of the situation more than anybody, and despite his urges, he's five steps ahead of everybody, and sees things that we aren't seeing. Unfortunately, the Laura Linney Daisy character, is such a bore that it's a bit of a shame that the film, is partly through her point of view, and she is our entrance into this world, but she's just a fly on the wall it seems like. The best way to have improved this material would've been to focus on FDR and King George primarily, as they get ready and the nervous tensions of the visit play out, but it's still delightful. There's nothing truly deep about the moment, other than the fact that it did help win WWII in the long run, but in the second, it's nice how it's simply a story of very important guests are coming to the house. That would've been the very best way in. The director was Roger Michell, and he directs the film nicely; he's always a bit erratic and very purposefully, likes to be without style, and just let the story be told, he does a decent job of that here. I think I would've liked to have seen a bit more style from him, but the showcase is Murray's performance, it's quite good and special, and nearly all performances are, so it could've been something more, but still, very enjoyable.


DETACHMENT (2012) Director: Tony Kaye

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Originally airings on VOD before getting a theatrical release, Tony Kaye's "Detachment" is a troubling look at the lives of teachers and their struggle to get through the day, and get through to kids who've made it their single-minded obsession not to learn, as well as the parents who simply don't care. Oh, and let's not forget a government that's either ignored them, or done everything to make it impossible for them to meet whatever artificial test standards that have been set for them. Henry (Adrien Brody) is a substitute who's working at this particular high school for the next month, where the Principal (Marcia Gay Harden) is quickly being pushed out of her office, which she lies in a fetal position on the floor of giving announcements. Henry's a good teacher, partly because nothing gets to him. He was troubled once, angry as he points out to one student who walks up like he's about to kill, all because he told the class to write and he didn't have a piece of paper. Another teacher, who got spit on by another student, Sarah (Christina Hendricks) and seeming surprisingly strong-willed after that assault, tries to befriend Henry. He talks occasionally to a never-shown psychiatrist-like character supposedly. Might be a cop, might be a priest the way he's confessing. He's really just talking to us as we hear his thoughts and regrets. Outside of school, he visits his grandfather, who's dying in a convalescent home, one that is constantly ignoring his grandfather. When after one late-night emergency visit, where they ignored him and he locked himself in the bathroom, he nearly obliterates the nightwatch nurse, much the same way that student did earlier. Oh yeah, he wasn't lying about his anger, but he knows where to place it to where it's most useful. The film is fragmented and skips from one scene to the next, and constantly introduces us to new teachers, and other staff and their other behaviors. James Caan is a dean that sees the absurdity and comedy in his student threats and slang. Lucy Liu is a guidance counselor, who explodes on a student one day. He soon befriends a teenage prostitute that's near his building, Erica. (Sami Gayle) She's very young, and lord knows what hell's she's had in her life, but when he invites her up to his apartment, she's still bleeding from a rape. He doesn't sleep with her, in fact he's rather tender with her. He does however get an overweight classmate, Meredith (Betty Kaye) who's constantly berated by other students, and by her father who can't understand why she doesn't draw or take pictures of something sweet and nice, to fall in love with him. All he does is treat her nice, and for someone who's never seen it from a guy, she's takes things all out of proportion. I once read a theory that since teachers aren't allowed to sleep with their students, or otherwise get close to them on a personal level, that they don't get have the connection to students like they used to. Of course, they referred to the old cliche of college girls sleeping with professors, not high schools, but even a teacher hugging a crying student who falls into his arm is immediately misinterpreted by the most observant and smartest of teachers. "Detachment" is hard to get ahold of personally. The director Tony Kaye, had a similar disjointed feel to his "American History X", that's the only other film of his I've seen, and despite the lack of a real driving plot, "Detachment" is effective at creating a mood and a mindset, and we can feel the world that they teachers live in, different and distinct and at times, just as troubled and stressful as the teenagers they're trying to warn about life, and how it's gonna kick them in the teeth. There's nothing better than a good teacher, and I had plenty; I was very lucky, but that said, few jobs are disheartening on the soul. The ones that survive are amazing, whether that's good for them that they do....?


BARRYMORE (2012) Director: Erik Canuel

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There's two family businesses for the Barrymores, acting and drinking, and has been for generations. John Barrymore, was the middle child of Lionel and Ethel, but he is widely regarded as the greatest actor of the three, and his stage performances of Hamlet and Richard III are remain legendary. Near the end of his life though, he was a drunkard and couldn't remember any of his lines, which he didn't bother memorizing to begin with. In "Barrymore", which is for all intensive purposes, a filmed one-man show with 84-year old Christopher Plummer, performs as John near the end of his life. (A good 20+ years older than John Barrymore was when he died) He's set up a one-night only performance and the movie begins with him, performing to an audience, and talking and telling stories, being smart and funny. Soon though, the audience disappears, and he's constantly going in and out of his lines from "Hamlet" and "Richard...", mostof which he forgets, and keeps asking Frank (John Plumpis) the gay stagehand who's never seen outside of shadow but is almost always right offstage. John needs the show to go well, to restart his stalled career. He's broke and has numerous ex-wives to pay for. There isn't much else to the movie. It's based on the play by William Luce, and occasionally has shots of silence like of John in the bathroom, or seeing his father in the mirror. Plummer still seems adept for this kind of rigorous performance, even at his age, although at times, the film has way too many cuts, but other times, it's quite impressive seeing Plummer, just showing us how great an actor this screen legend is, taking on one of the greatest of all acting legends. There really isn't anything else to the film, and that's what so special and appealing to it. If anything, I would've preferred the film just record a one-man show as opposed to this, more theatrical portrayal, although that alone is special. The last film I saw of this nature was the great TV movie, "Thurgood," which was a simply that, a recording of Lawrence Fishburne's amazing one-man show on Broadway in "Thurgood", which earned him a Tony nomination and won him an Emmy. Plummer probably would've gotten an Emmy nomination had this film been shown on TV; he certainly should've gotten an Oscar nomination for this incredible work here. It's one of the best and most memorable performances of the year, and that's really all the film and the show is, so I highly recommend it. If you don't know John Barrymore life and career well, first you should look him u, but then catch this amazing one-man piece of acting, and it's a shame that it didn't get more noticed last year.


BUTTER (2012) Director: Jim Field Smith

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I guess there's nothing technically wrong with "Butter". It's a solid premise, a decent script, good actors in the main roles, it's funny at times..., it's got surprises..., I guess, since I really can't find someone terribly or so terribly wrong, that I guess I'll recommend it, but, it is underwhelming somehow. Somewhere it doesn't quite go right, and it makes a potentially memorable comedy, fairly innocuous and comme ci, comme ca, I guess. For those of you who are foreigners to the U.S. who may not know, yes, butter carving, is a real thing, in certain parts of the country here, Iowa especially. Iowa is also the opening battleground state for Presidential primaries, so yes, it's fairly believable that a longtime butter sculpturist like Bob (Ty Burrell) would have a politically ambitious wife like Laura (Jennifer Garner) who'd get way more frustrated at her husband's forced retirement, and possibly take over butter sculpturing herself, as a way to stay on top of the minds and hearts of Iowans. Determine to butter carve her way to the top, her only real competition becomes a stripper/prostitute named Brooke (Olivia Wilde) who her husband slept with one night, a night which Laura sideswiped Bob's car with them in the act, and is pissed off for him not having paid her $600, and is determined to take down Laura until he does, and an 11-year-old orphan, conveniently named Destiny (Yara Shahidi) who's equally ambitious privately as Laura, but has a more natural artistic gift for butter carving, and is heavily encouraged by her foster parents (Rob Cordrey and Alicia Silverstone) to fulfill her artistic endeavors. She originally wins a local contest to participate in state, but Laura uses an old high school boyfriend-turned-car dealership owner Boyd Bolton (Hugh Jackman, in a surprising and very funny cameo, arguably the best part of the movie honestly) to get a rematch at the state fair. The movie, is heavily inspired by some of the Christopher Guest films structurally, not-so-much the mockumentary parts, but the meeting of characters, and then the meeting of all the characters at the end at some major event. I'm not quite the movie really gets as satirical or as sharp as it could've. Maybe part of the reason is because butter sculpturing is really impressive, and frankly really artistic. These aren't just community theater people with delusions of grandeur, sculpturing, of any kind to the degree it is here is quite impressive. You know, there was this, terrible movie I had to sit through once about, a mockumentary about a chef who lost his sense of taste called "Jordan Saffron: Taste This!", where the chef had to regain his old status as the big celebrity chef, by winning a Spam-cooking contest. The joke of course being that Spam is such a unrefined ingredient that it would be funny that a big chef has to cook Spam, of course, if you actually know anything about food, Spam is actually quite an important delicacy in Hawaiian cooking. Now, "Butter" isn't anywhere near that inept or bad as that, but in the end, I actually didn't want to laugh at such artistic masterpieces as a butter Last Supper; I kinda wanted to admire them, and the skill it takes to make them, no matter how unconventional they are. I mean, what it is an artist, other than unconventional after all? In one way, I think the technical skill is there of "Butter" and for that I recommend it, but it doesn't really have the soul that it needs to really be special.


THE BAY (2012) Director: Barry Levinson

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There was a revolution in some country; I want to say in South America but I don't recall where exactly, but there was a coupe that overthrew the government, and they took over the TV stations, claiming that the former leader vacated the throne to this group, as allowed by this new constitution and whatnot, I think there was a documentary about it but I haven't seen it yet, but anyway, the plan backfired completely and most of the country wasn't fooled and began organizing, eventually overthrowing them. You see, they took the national TV and radio stations, but the rest of the country was watching CNN. I bring up this point to explain the problems with Barry Levinson's horror film, "The Bay". (And BTW, the "Barry Levinson" and "horror film" in the same sentence, kinda odd.) The whole bit of the found footage film, is of course, the footage was lost, and is now found, revealing what we previously hadn't known, but in this case, the film depicts an incident that happened on the 4th of July in a small Maryland town on the Chesapeake, that wasn't reported when it happened three years ago, because the government covered it up by taking all the camera footage that was shot and shut down cell phones, the internet and blogs. You see, if you can't buy the premise, you really can't buy the movie all the way, despite much of the film being quite good. Well, expertly crafted is a better way of saying it. This is one of those movie Tarantino was talking about when he says that movies should have the freedom that books have with structure, and an ability to just jump around from plot and point and timeline from chapter-to-chapter, 'cause while there are a few character and story arcs, the movie's strength is that it does jump from one scene to the next and one camera's footage to the next and a different perspectives, without feeling a need to connect them or bring them together. The movie is narrated by Donna Thompson (Kether Donahue) who was on her first gig reporting a news story for a local news station. She's apparently, survived whatever this is that starts destroying the town, and has tracked down and brought together what footage the government took, in order to publish them. (BTW, thinking back, was there actually a decent reason for the government to withhold this footage/story? In hindsight, I'm not even sure it hit that marker) She's reporting on a local 4th of July gathering, which is where the outbreak is first noticed as people began throwing us blood and boils and legions start all over their body, and many peoples tongues start rotting away. Whatever it is, it's flesh-eating, and while it's spreading to epidemic proportions, it doesn't appear to be airborne or in any other disease related, at least regarding known diseases. Two oceanographers who were studying fish from the bay which were contaminated with some kind of unusual larvae and creatures were the first victims weeks earlier, but their injuries appeared to be the result of a shark attack at first. Doctors are skyping disease control centers, people out on boats swimming in the water, and of course, the chickenshit which is pushed into the bay from a thriving chickenfarm that's the town's Mayor (Frank Deal) was very proud to have put up, all of which are combining factors, of course, and you can make whatever political inferences you can make out of them. "The Bay", is strong in terms how it's playing with this genre, and it's creative use of the first person genre of filmmaking. It's not really a typical horror film, there's no real good scares for instance, it's more of an investigative piece. Even thinks that were scary at the time, are laughed at here by Donna Thompson, as she looks over and comments one the footage as it comes up. It's really unfortunate that "The Bay" is more interesting to talk about then to see, 'cause there isn't a lot of built-in drama, partly because of the structure, but you could tell, that they were stretching to try to get this movie to 84 minutes. Maybe it was just an experimental piece for Levinson, ("Rain Man", "Good Morning, Vietnam", "Bugsy", "You Don't Know Jack", "Wag the Dog",  "The Natural", and those are just the ones I've seen and liked) to see if he can do horror and try and tackle this found footage concept, a filmmaking exercise for him. If it is, I guess he did okay, but overall I can't recommend it, but you know, this is one of those movies that's so interesting in what it's doing and how it's doing, it might be worth watching, just to talk about it afterwards, 'cause there will be differing views on how successful it was. I'm in the middle, but this is one of the more interesting failures I've seen in a while, maybe since "Act of Valor".

 
KLOWN (2012) Director: Mikkel Norgaard

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I guess in a lot of American comedies, one of the main characters is often a male, selfish, single-mindedly sex-obsessed prick who's entire existence seems to consist of nothing but getting laid, even in the most inappropriate of times, but usually in foreign comedies, these men are middle aged, and in American films they're usually teenagers or college kids. "Klown", aka "Klown: The Movie" is a Danish where one of the main characters, Casper (Casper Christensen) is such a prick. He's planning a canoeing trip with Frank (Frank Hvam) as an attempt to score. Frank, seems to just be willing to go along with Casper, not so much as a need for pussy, but 'cause of his latency, I guess. Earlier, in the film, we see Casper influence on Frank, as he convinces him to give his girlfriend a pearl necklace when she wakes up in the morning. The other kind of pearl necklace, and all I'll say about that scene is, he misses. Based on a Danish television comedy show, "Klown" is a disgusting and crude comedy about these two idiots trying to get laid. Well, one idiot. Frank, has to take care of his nephew, Bo (Marcus Jess Peterson) and because the unexpected babysitting comes at the same time as this canoeing trip to find hiking camps full of teenage girls, he's coming along. Frank tries to make sure the kid is okay, while Casper, makes it clear that every borderline decision, goes towards pussy. P before B he says, or it might have been F for fatherhood, I don't remember. The kid himself is weird. Much is made of how he doesn't pee standing up and the size of his penis. Keep in mind, this is a 12-year old, who I thought was younger, and a lot of this is disturbing. Frankly, I didn't laugh much during the beginnings of this film, because at some level, you really do have to care about the characters in order to feel their pain and enjoy the comedy that's inflicted upon. Or at least like them, these two characters are scumbag and scumbag-gi-er. Maybe in the context of their TV show, which btw, I've very curious what else gets played on Danish TV after watching this, content-wise they got away with a lot here; I might finally check out that Danish version of "Kingdom Hospital" they got at my local library now, but anyway, without a context ahead of time, this comes off two idiots doing something for very selfish reasons, and putting a child's welfare at risk to do it. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. That said, eventually, the movie did start working on me. It was after the trio escape from the camp from which they've been thrown out of, and find their way to a house and Casper is having sex with the girl who gave them the clean clothes and food and such, and Casper keeps trying to convince Frank, who is trying to sleep in the bed as the other two, to join int. That set of jokes, actually kinda worked on me, and the movie does have a Wallyworld-type ending involving a collection of bottlecaps the kid collected and a truck that he wants. I'm actually a little torn. Part of me wonders if I would actually enjoy this film, on a second viewing, but another part of me, wonders why did they go to such an extreme for these crude jokes, when they could've easily been just as vulgar and be fun about it, as well as funny. (Scoffs) I'm torn, maybe I'd prefer a second adventure, knowing the score now of what to expect but as an introduction to "Klown", I won't stop anybody from watching it, but I can't quite make myself recommend it.


FIRST POSITION (2012) Director: Bess Kargman

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"First Position" is a ninety minute movie that took me two days to finally, physically sit down and finish streaming, and that was with a headache. Now, that's not exactly the movie's fault by any means, I've been distracted and I've had to stream movies, way more than I normally do this week, and but it was a struggle to keep me interested in the film, and that's disappointing. Especially since, well- I'm not gonna completely pretend I'm a ballet enthusiast, but there's been plenty of great films about the ballet in recent years, and the struggles involved in trying to succeed in this, most rigorous, painful and unnatural of dance forms. "Black Swan" most recently and of course, classics like "The Red Shoes", although I have a great affection for one of Robert Altman's last films, "The Company". "First Position" travels the world to follow young ballet dancers as they try to make it to the Youth America Grand Prix, which is a competition for ballet, but more importantly, it's actually a major showcase for all of the major ballet troupes in the world, and many jobs and scholarships are given out to those who do well in this, briefest of performances. A few of the kids are interesting, I particularly enjoyed the young girl who was adopted in America after escaping the Sierra Leone civil war. Her mother has to hand-dye her outfits in order to have them match her skin color, as the normal flesh-toned colors we normally see, are too see through for her. Most of the families make their outfits actually, as regular proper tutus can range up to a couple thousand dollars. Another kid's family went to Italy, not solely to train, also because his father was going to Kuwait, for six months to make sure his son stayed in ballet, and it was less travel for the military family to stay there. We see one brother and sister ballet team, where the older sister is clearly destined to be a ballerina, but her younger brother only does it for fun, and it pains the mother, who so desperately loves seeing her children dance, both of them. "First Position" is a nice look-in to the ultra-competitive world of ballet, where an injury can not only cost a job, but a career. Still, I have to put this in context with other documentaries with similar structures of following a group of people as they head towards an event. "Spellbound" comes to mind as one of the best ones involving kids; the stakes are actually a little higher here, but overall it just wasn't as intriguing a film as it could've been, and that's why I couldn't stay as focused on it as I prefer. A good movie should captivate you, this one, just didn't captivate me, continuously, and for that, I might be being harsh here, but at a certain point, you have to be relatively entertained.


LARRY CROWNE (2011) Director: Tom Hanks

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"Larry Crowne" might be a good movie to show to a film criticism class, and give them the homework assignment of "Where did this film go wrong?" I mean, when you really think about it, it's Tom Hanks, he's going back to college, and Julia Roberts is the professor. Good premise, good casting, fun, little tale,... let's just face it though, for all intensive purposes, this film should've been better than it was. This is the 2nd feature that Hanks has written and directed, the first being the delightful "That Thing You Do", about a fictional one-hit wonder band in the '60s, and he made that back in the '90s. This time around, he teams with "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" screenwriter Nia Vardalos, a film which he and his wife Rita Wilson produced to co-write the film, and she's been practically the definition of a one-hit wonder. All of her projects since have been considerable flops. So, is she the reason it goes wrong? Hard to say, but it goes wrong in a few places. Take a look for instance, while the film is inherently light and charming, it doesn't make you laugh. There's plenty of jokes, but they all mostly fall flat. Larry (Hanks) is already going through a divorce when the recession hits badly, and he loses his job at a local K-Mart-type store, because of a downsizing spree. He was a casualty because he didn't go to college. He was a cook in the Navy after high school, and with his house underwater after his divorce, he decides to go back to take classes at a local college. It's here that things start turning around for him. He takes an economics class that teaches him what to do with the bank's abrasive tactics (A well-cast George Takei as his teacher helps too), he joins a local scooter gang, after one of his classmates find him cool, and like all rough and tumble scooter gangs, they give him a haircut and feng shui his house. Okay, I don't know any scooter gangs, much less ones that do that, although it would be cool. He also has a speech class, where his professor is a drunk, Ms. Mercedes Tainot (Julia Roberts). She's frustrated with their constantly being the bare minimum of students attending her classes, and her husband Dean (Bryan Cranston), being a failed novelist/blogger who searches the internet for porn most of the day. It's almost like, with her. Her role here, is one that is almost mystifying. First of all, I'm not mentioning characters traits regarding her homelife, that is her homelife, and eventually what leads to her inevitable divorce and falling into Larry's arms, so Roberts, on one hand, is doing nothing, unless mixing drinks and coming to class hungover with sunglasses is a thing, and being bored and depressed, for what could honestly be the most trivial reasons of all-time. I've have convinced her husband is a so-called porn addict, simply for a joke about how Julia Roberts breasts are too small. I'm defending her; I know Roberts doesn't make too many peoples list of the best actresses in Hollywood (Popularity, a different story of course) but she is talented, and you know, when she has something to do. Her finally caring at the end of the movie, and leading a class in arms circles and a round of "Red leather, yellow leather" is arguably the only glimpse of her having a second layer to her character, at all. This movie is just so light as a feather. It's either underwritten or too simplistic, and frankly even the best supporting characters are never used completely well, and there's some good supporting work here like from Cedric the Entertainer and Taraji P. Henson as married neighbors that run a regular yard sale where Larry trades his TV for that scooter. There's no real tension, there's barely any conflict, and still I damn-near recommend it because it's Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts. It should've been better.


FACES (1968) Director: John Cassavetes

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"Faces" must have seemed so unusual to certain audiences in the sixties who hadn't been following the French New Wave. American independent basically begins with John Cassavetes, although it isn't just the outside-of-Hollywood renegade techniques he used, it's also, maybe more importantly the kind of movies he made, and the naturalistic style he made them with, telling stories- well, not-so-much stories, just perceptive and realistic portrayals of average middle-America life. Perfect timing for such material too, since the era of striving for that '50s perfect suburban fantasy has started giving away to the hippie love generation.  "Faces" for instance,is about a loveless marriage in a consumer world, and what the couple in that marriage, Richard and Maria Frost (John Marley and Oscar-nominee Lynn Carlin, in her first acting role of any kind) do when, they finally confront each other about this reality. Richard has just come home from work-, actually, let me backtrack a second 'cause that's not where he came from. After work, him and his friend, Fred Draper (Freddie Draper) spent a night at a bar getting drunk, and hitting on women. They're at the house of a hooker, Jeannie Rapp (Oscar-nominee Gena Rowlands) where all they entertain each other with wine and dancing, until it becomes clear that Fred is a third wheel, and tries to insult Jeannie but, she's not as emotional as most way like to think most women are. Eventually, Richard comes home to his empty life with Maria, and after a long discussion on sex and love, he tells her he wants a divorce, calls Jeannie and heads over to her place. Maria soon stars having an affair of her own with Chet (Oscar-nominee Seymour Cassel) after going out with the rest her girlfriends, and they have franks talk about the troubles in their marriages too. They also seem to have fun like adults, which is basically like grown-up teenagers, or how adults wish they could act when kids aren't around. It's not particularly difficult to figure out what's other events are going to, or are likely to happen in the film, but the way they're done is what makes them so intrinsically interesting. The looking into a world that's not on soundstage or a set, or feels soft, romantic, or otherwise unreal. These are American adults. They've got a good job that they hate, a marriage that's long over, and frustrations they can't complain about because they're consumerism life makes them seem crazy for having them, and the outlets are affairs and drinking, and it feels like it can take place in any random living room across the country, and probably has, or at least the people have probably wanted to. 40 years before "American Beauty" "Faces" and Cassavetes was peeling back and unmasking the real emotions behind the illusions of beloved domesticity, and taking a closer look at how we really are. How eccentric, how erratic, how fragile we are.


THE LOST BOYS (1987) Director: Joel Schumacher




Okay, while I am a film scholar/buff/historian/whatever-you-want-to-call-me, I have often made it a personal habit of mine, to not only study films, but numerous other subjects as well, one of them being pop culture in general. Seriously, ask anybody, I have an usually high amount of obscure references in my speech and mind at any given time, and more often than not, I'll make a reference and soon have to explain to people what I'm referencing, which unfortunately ruins whatever joke I had just told, but, I am quite skilled at obtaining and recalling obscure useless information. (I wonder if Dennis Miller has that problem) Anyway, I happen to know a great deal about pop culture, especially from the '80s, thanks VH-1, although you're not the only source, but saying that, somehow, I completely missed The Two Coreys phenomenon. I don't know how, apparently it was a big deal and relatively major but, one day I thought I knew it all, and there's footage of screaming girls yelling for two actors I never heard of until then. I'm sure somewhere along the line, somebody in passing had mentioned a movie called "The Lost Boys", but it wasn't on any essential, much-watch priority list of mine for years, and, well, I'll just be honest, not knowing the plot of the film, I probably just assumed whoever was talking about it, was talking about Peter Pan. What? That's my "The Lost Boys" reference, what's yours? Apparently this film I guess, although why, especially after seeing it, I have no idea why it's so popular, unless it goes with my theory about vampire fetishists, who will simply adore and buy anything regarding vampires whether it's any good or not. "The Lost Boys" is shot in entirely the wrong tone. Actually it might just be a bad movie anyway, but...- The movie first establishes itself, quite nicely as a gothic, creepy little film about an unassuming family who's moving to the Murder Capital of the World. The family, led by the single mother Lucy (Dianne Wiest) is moving back in with her eccentric father (Bernard Hughes, although I was sure it was Jason Robards before I looked it up.) who lives in one of the weird places with no TV and lots of antlers. Lucy's two kids, the teenage Michael (Jason Patric) and the pre-teen Sam (Corey Haim) aren't looking forward to the prospects of the move, but soon, Michael starts having an interesting adventure when the Lost Boys come finding him. The Lost Boys are the group of teenage vampires who haunt and stalk the Boardwalk at night, before choosing their prey to kill. Michael falls for the one girl in the group, Star (Jami Gertz) while the leader, David (Keifer Sutherland) tries to turn him into a vampire, which he eventually becomes. This is when the movie starts to completely shift tones; up until now, we've learned about these disturbed groups of kids, vampires and the lives they lead. It's mysterious, dark, gory, beautiful, and when you really think about it, tragic. To have grown up so fast and now forced to live forever with an incomplete childhood, but instead the movie begins to have such lines as "My own brother, a goddamn shit-sucking vampire. You wait 'til Mom finds out Buddy." Then the movie, really kinda devolves from there, into an us against them battle and they try and find out how to eradicate Michael's turning. Sam brings along the Frog brothers, Edgar and Alan (Corey Feldman and Jamison Newlander) who, because they live in a comic book store, have the special Van Helsing-like knowledge about these vampires. (Although you'd think more locals would've come to the conclusion about vampires being in their town, but....) Meanwhile, all this is happening while Lucy is trying to start going out with an electronics store owner, Max (Edward Herrmann), while they're dates keep getting interrupted by vampire stuff. I was really unimpressed with "The Lost Boys", and it's another of Joel Shumacher's style over substance misfires. He's a good filmmaker, and occasionally can make a good movie like "St. Elmo's Fire", "Tigerland" and "Phone Booth", but he's very inconsistent, like his high-profile "Batman Returns" and "Batman & Robin", or recent smaller films like "The Number 23", "Twelve" or "The Phantom of the Opera", (Although the latter I don't completely blame him) that just don't work at all. He seems to be at home, focusing on stories of teenagers or young 20somethings, who are in over their heads, but his biggest flaws involve focusing more on the look and style of a film rather than the story, or actually it's more, him picking the style, without considering whether it's right for the story. This film should either been a much lighter, more comedic film, or the exact opposite a much darker, broodier film, that actually took a look at what it means to be a lost boy, teenage vampire. Obviously, I would've preferred he made the latter, I can't fully hide my enthusiasm for such a concept, but he should've picked one, instead of doing both and hoping the two styles would make sense. They don't and the film doesn't work, and-eh, I don't know. If anybody can explain "The 2 Coreys" phenomenon, or actually lived, I guess I'd still like to learn what that was all about, and if you were apart of it, what the hell were you thinking?


CLOCKERS (1995) Director: Spike Lee

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In the opening of "Clockers", after the credits sequence includes numerous images of murder young black men, in an urban New York Housing Project where nothing of interest was happening, police come raging in, and begins stopping, frisking, and publicly strip-searching people, under the rouse of some claim that there's a gun around. This was made years before such an obtrusive practice was actually made legal in New York post 9/11, and was recently declared unconstitutional by a New York court. If I were to pick one filmmaker with whom I would want to watch a random marathon of his work, Spike Lee would probably be at the top of my list. Even in his bad movies are more interesting than most people's good movies. Surprisingly, as much as he makes us confront certain images, taboos and problems with society, his filmmaking style is more classical in nature. Patiently telling his stories, allowing room for commentary and asides, by having his protagonist, basically see all points of views and opinions as they often have to make a tough choice. In a way, he outside world of the visual to give us a peak inside the minds of his characters. In "Clockers", the Strike (Mekhi Phifer) works in the project, selling crack in the local neighborhood. He works for a longtime drug dealer Rodney Little (Delroy Lindo, interesting character name choice, combining Rodney King and Malcolm X's names) who runs legitimate businesses in the neighborhood. Think of him as a local version of Gustavo Fring. Strike is a decent kid, who suffers from an ongoing ulcer and drinks milk much of the day to deal with it, and play with train sets at home. He's ordered to take out a manager at a fast food restaurant, Darryl (Steve White) who's banned clockers from being in his restaurant. Clockers are round-the-clock drug dealers who are position somewhere like a park or a restaurant to sell, like Strike is. He tells his married and somewhat successful brother, and soon Darryl's dead. His brother turns himself in, but Det. Klein (Harvey Keitel) doesn't but it, and keeps pressure on Strike, which means Strike grabs more of the attention from Rodney. There's other characters involved, as it become increasing less believable that Strike's brother killed Darryl, the movie structurally turns into a police procedural, but the film's main focus is how Black on Black crime, seems to come about in a neighborhood that's pushed with drugs, guns, and a constant intrusive police presence. There's another major death in the movie, where involving a character I've left out describing, and we see how the crime was both inevitable and yet could've been easily prevented had just a few things had happened differently. "Clockers" believe it or not, is really structurally a police procedural, but it really hidden in these complex questions of right and wrong, for all the main characters, and takes a look, not just at the real situation of drugs in the inner cities, but really looks at  moral dilemmas and complications of it's protagonists, as they try to navigate this treacherous terrain. Definitely a powerful, and memorable one from Spike Lee.


THE CLOSET (2001) Director: Francis Veber

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Francis Veber's comedies have led to great inspiration in Hollywood and beyond. His most famous work, the screenplay for "La Cage aux Folles", was a hit in America, multiple times if you include it's remake, "The Birdcage", and it's multiple runs as a musical on Broadway, and his very popular "The Dinner Game" was also remade recently as "Dinner for Schmucks". There's a quality to his work that is quite deep, but to get to that, you often have to sit through a long list of, only half-funny situations, because they're usually all based around the shallowness of certain characters, and either confronting or appeasing them. "The Dinner Game", I found annoying because of the premise of people bringing over idiots for dinner, honoring them as they don't realize they're idiots. There's of course the late change-of-heart for the main protagonists involved, but it really is layered on pretty thick before we get to that. The premise of "The Closet" also gets a little heavy-handed for it's comedy. At a rubber company, an accountant, Francois Pignon (Daniel Auteuil) is about to get fired. There's layoffs on the way to cut costs, but the real reason is that he's boring and no one likes him. His co-workers make fun of him when he's not around and both his ex-wife and kid won't even answer the phone when he calls. He gives milk to a small cat on his porch, and the cat's owner, a new neighbor Belone (Michel Aumont) notices that he's more lonely and depressed than the cat, and decides to help him keep his job. The plan to make him more interesting, begins with a photoshopped picture being mailed to the office, of Francois is assless chaps at a gay nightclub with Belone. This soon gets passed around as Francois begins pretending he's gay, in order to keep his job. It starts to work, originally because the company president Kopel (Jean Rochefort) doesn't want the bad publicity, but in other ways, everybody starts liking and becoming more interested in Jean. His superior Mlle. Bertrand (Michele Laroque) who thought he was a dull before, not finds him sexy, and begins scheming to prove that he's actually straight, by trying to be with him. Also, a rugby-playing, gaybashing employee Felix (Gerard Depardieu), a real man's-man type, is encourage to hang out and befriend Francois. Originally just to please others, but eventually, he starts sending him birthday gifts and chocolates, even though Felix isn't gay, but the "relationship" he's developing with Felix is better than the divorce he's currently going through with his wife. Eventually, by pretending to be gay, he actually becomes more interesting as a person, but it takes a while to get to that, and I'm not completely sure enough of the middle truly worked. The most interesting gag involves him, being the exhibit for the company's gay pride today float, wearing a hat that's makes him look like a condom. Veber's work is always clever and well thought out. This film was popular for having so many of France's leading and most famous actors in non-traditional roles for them. (Although in Auteuil's case, I think it's perfect casting.) It's got some cute moments, but they were a little too few and far between for me, so I can't quite recommend it, but some may appreciate more than others for some of the subtlety in the writing and the good acting, but the movie really stretches the premise just for jokes, instead of pushing a story forward with more bang and zeal. I guess if the jokes were more consistently funny, I guess I wouldn't have minded so much, but they were only brief smirks and occasional chuckles more than out-and-out laughter. Can't quite recommend it.



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