Monday, November 4, 2013

MOVIE REVIEWS #75 PART 2: "THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES", "BLANCANIEVES", "DIRTY WARS", "NO PLACE ON EARTH", "ON THE ROAD", "DARK SHADOWS", "HOPE SPRINGS", "MEN IN BLACK 3", "TWIXT", and "LAWLESS"!

Well, I'm still catching up on old films, and I wish I could tell all of you, that I know exactly how many parts this Movie Review blogpost will eventually be, but sadly I don't. Well, maybe not sadly, depending on the films. I'm still watching anything and everything I can, so while I'm still backtracking, I'm also going forwards and watching more movies. I'll be writing for awhile, so I hope you guys are prepared for that. It doesn't help that I've been sick lately, still sick, still battling. So, lotta movies to watch and write about in the coming weeks, not to mention my long-delayed "Ten Greatest of 2012" list, that's coming up soon too. That's a subject that I know a lot of people are interested in from me, and they might be surprised and some of my selections, and some of the things I wanna say about 2012's films in general. So, as soon as I do finish with this blog, I'm sure to get to that.

In the meantime, Part 2, of the epic edition of my RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS, so epic, that I still haven't gotten to any movie older than 2 years ago, and I saw plenty of them, so... again, this could be a while, so let's get on with it!


THE PLACE BEYOND THE PINES  (2013) Director: Derek Cianfrance

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I can see how on rogerebert.com, two different critics, not only gave reviews of "The Place Beyond the Pines", but that one, Richard Roeper, gave the film 4 STARS (On Ebert's 4-star scale) while another, Simon Abrams of the Chicago Sun-Times, where he give the film 1 1/2 STARS. Obviously, by the number of Stars, I'm giving the film, I'm falling more in line to Roeper's thoughts, but I can see people getting a little frustrated with the movie. It is the work of a bold and confident filmmaker; telling a story so epic, I'm surprised to learn that, while it's based on a story, it's not based on a novel. (And the "story" is by Cianfrance and co-writer Ben Coccio) Then again, Cianfrance's masterful debut film "Blue Valentine," made my Ten best List, and starred Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling in two of the best performances of the decades. (Honestly, I guess it's okay to admit this now, the reason I gave an OYL Award nomination last year to Gosling for "Drive", wasn't so much because I thought his performance in that film was great, but because, I stupidly decided to leave his name off the year before for "Blue Valentine", because of some misguided thought that Williams had the more complete character, and that somehow took away from his work. I was dead wrong on that. [In another sidenote, I gave Williams the OYL that year])  This is only Cianfrance's third feature film, and it's a sprawling elegiac piece about how the crossing of two lives, can lead to characters fulfilling their destinies, in the best Greek sense of the word. The opening shot, is of Luke (Gosling) from behind, first wielding a knife, than slowly making his way through the carnival to his bike, where he rides upside-down in one of those wheels. Soon, he finds out about a kid he never knew he had. His mother Romina (Eva Mendes) doesn't really want him in his life, and has moved on, and lives with boyfriend Kofi (Mahershala Ali), but Luke tries, and begins hanging around and trying to contribute. He quits his job, and starts working as a mechanic for Robin (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best Sam Rockwell) and even occasionally begins robbing banks with him, when he doesn't have enough to pay him for his services. Luke's desperate to earn money, but after one failed bank robbery, he runs into Avery (Bradley Cooper) a cop in a high-speed pursuit, and the two have an exchange. Avery's a former law student, and son of the Attorney General, who became a cop thinking it was the best way to fight crime and do his civic duty. After the incident, however, he finds out just how corrupt the force is, and has to make some difficult decisions, regarding both Luke's family, as well as his place among the blue. The third part of the movie, advances fifteen years later, and that's all I'm going write about the third act. "The Place Beyond the Pines" shows us a little more of Cianfrance's talents, as well as the world he likes to live in. He's fascinated by time, and how people and situations can change over it, and how much they don't, and how one decision can forever alter people's lives and worlds. There's a lot to "The Place beyond the Pines", it's the kind of epic like "Once Upon a Time in America" that they just don't make much anymore, partly 'cause they're too hard, also because few filmmakers and writers can make something this thoughtful and deep. You can throw your own interpretations, or you can just let the story tell itself, either way, few movies in recent years give us so much good to watch and to think about. A big recommendation, whether you like it or not, the skill and talent involved in making this film, is worth discussion; it's a definite must-watch film, and Cianfrance is officially one of the great filmmakers working today, with a vision and style that's sure to be copied and borrowed for years to come.

BLANCANIEVES (2013) Director: Pablo Berger

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Well, I guess officially, we can say that silent film, is making a comeback. At least among European filmmakers anyway. French director Michel Hazanavicius, of course did "The Artist", and now, Pablo Berger, who only makes a film once a decade or so, and that's counting shorts and features, has chosen to retell "Snow White," with the techniques of the classic silent film, with "Blancanieves". (The title is just Spanish for "Snow White" btw.) Not the worst idea. "Snow White" has been en vogue lately with numerous re-imaginings in recent years, the best of which was Tarsem Singh's "Mirror, Mirror", as well as the famous story Countess Erzebeth Bathory of Hungary, who's life is sometimes noted as being the loose inspiration for the Queen in Snow White; she's the one who mass murdered hundreds of local virgins in order to bathe in their blood, thinking it would give her eternal youth. Julie Delpy's "The Countess" is a good recent film on her. This one, is a nice twist, retelling "Snow White" in the world of bullfighting. Its a common theme in Spanish films, not just matadors and bullfighters in general, but female bullfighters are exceptionally rare in general (During much of the last century, it was illegal for women to be matadors) but are more common in films, usually as the perfect standard of female individualism. Carmen (Macarena Garcia as an adult) isn't aware of her legendary father's past, but Antonio Villalta (Daniel Jimenez Cacho) was regarded as the greatest bullfighter in Spain, until her birth when he suffered a career-ending injury. Carmen's mother also died at childbirth, and you probably know where this is going, Antonio married Encarna (Maribel Verdu) his nurse, and soon she locked him away and sent off Carmen to live with her grandmother, before, locking her up for awhile before banishing her and having her , 'cause of her beauty. Apparently it took eight years for Berger to develop this film, and I guess it's admirable that he pulled it off. It certainly must've been easier after the success of "The Artist". The movie has a few things that wouldn't have gotten by the censors way back when, like Encarma truly sadomasochistic tendencies. Come to think of it, I'm not sure there ever was a silent version of "Snow White" until now; if there was I'm either not aware of one, and if one did exist, it's probably a lost film by now. Carmen, eventually forgets her past identity, and gets found by a bunch of bullfighting dwarfs, and eventually becomes a famous matador herself. I think I admired "Blancanieves" more than I liked it, but it's certainly worth watching. Now, I understand the reasonings behind making a silent film with story, but I think you have to ask if it absolutely had to be a silent film. Is there any other way this film could've been told, or is this the absolute best way to tell this story. That's one of the reasons "The Artist" was so great, was that it had to be told the way it was told; and I'm just not as sold that this story needed to be. The black and white, is very critical, but I'm not 100% on it's need to be a silent film, so I'm a little ambivalent towards it than others might be. I certainly advise others to determine that for themselves, 'cause it's certainly worth watching, and making that decision, and for all the skill that is good about it, it's definitely a recommendation.

DIRTY WARS (2013) Director: Rick Rowley

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Top Secret America may have began under Bush, but they've been heavily expanded under Obama, and this secret war that he's been fighting, is no real secret, as it's caused hundreds of casualties worldwide, and many of the programs and military missions are quiet and swept under the rug, and most of which have been unreported. These aren't to the educated viewers like myself, but people like me are getting harder and harder to come by, and investigative journalists like Jeremy Scahill are having a harder and harder time getting the attention they deserve for the work they do in uncovering some of these programs, by the media, which is becomingly increasingly more salacious and infotainment oriented. In that sense, "Dirty Wars", which follows Scahill's quixotic efforts to expose some of these more ungainly practices done by the U.S. Military and Top Secret America, as well as expose the practices themselves, as more unnerving than anything else. Scahill was originally made famous for uncovering the Blackwater Mercenary Army, but now, he's uncovered the drone attacks, and a little-known military subsect known as Joint Special Operations Command, or JSOC, which became famous for the raid on Bin Laden, but some of they're other activities, like drone attacks striking down sons of supposed terrorists, listed as threats to America, ask a lot more questions than get resolved. The problem with "Dirty Wars" as a film, is that it's a little too much editing and style, and yes, maybe we do have a short-attention span that cares more about Kim Kardashian's wedding nuptials than we do, the activities of our military overseas, but frankly, the investigate report should've been enough, the movie uses too many editing tricks to try and make that more compelling, and it's overload. "Just the facts, Ma'am", should've been the motto of this movie. After all, that's what nvestigative reporters are after anyway. "Dirty Wars" is still intriguing for not only what it reveals, but our reactions to it, and for Scahill's messages himself. He narrates and stars in the film, and it's a first-person account from him, and in a world where investigative journalists are harder and harder to find; it's good to see people like him still out there, finding the real story. I wish we were more interesting in hearing what he has to say.  

NO PLACE ON EARTH (2013) Director: James Tobias

✰✰1/2



It's hard to give a negative review to a film like this, especially considering the subject matter, but it's hard to say that "No Place on Earth" is really watchable either. It's a long-standing misnomer that we've run out of stories about WWII to tell, and that's simply nowhere near true, and this is another new one, but it's also one that probably should've only been a short subject, instead of a feature-length documentary. The story actually began as a simple cave excavation and a mapping out of caves in the Ukraine, until they found some unusual evidence of people having lived in the caves, and fairly recently at that, and local stories about Jews surviving the Holocaust by living inside the caves began getting told. The movie reveals itself as a first person mystery, but eventually they find the Stermer family, who did indeed survive a year and a half underground, inside the caves, the longest-recorded uninterrupted underground survival in human history. It's an impressive feat, but not really an impressive movie. It's an interesting story certainly, if it was a little shorter, and perhaps made it's way to PBS one night as a Frontline special or something, I think it would been more intriguing and entertaining, but the way it was done here, it's fairly unimpressive and mediocre. When there's are indeed so many great Holocaust stories, across all genres of films, and many more still coming out and being revealed today, goal one is to keep us entertained. The film doesn't do that and that's really unfortunate. This is a by-the-book documentary that doesn't entertain. How much can you really say about that? Not much.

ON THE ROAD (2012) Director: Walter Salles

✰✰1/2



If Jack Kerouac's "On the Road", was ever gonna make it as a feature film, than they probably picked the right director. Brazilian director Walter Salles is an accomplished race car driver, so it's not surprisingly to find his best and most interesting films like "Behind the Sun", and especially "Central Station" and "The Motorcycle Diaries", to be road movies.That said, the romantic nature of the novel, I don't think it can frankly be replicated visually. The era of the beat poets, as great as the art is, have never lended itself well to visuals. Of course, it's well-known some of the real-life characters Kerouac based his characters on, so well-known that they're given two names in the credits. It's just as well, we get a double-identification, 'cause half-the-time, it's hard to even really follow one character to another under ordinary circumstances. (Another reason why this works best in the written word, there's no real driving force, it's just a mosaic of the road, a collection of people and places, mere fragments essentially, that come in, come out and occasionally come back in, as the road trip continues.) Sal Paradise/Kerouac (Sam Riley) spends most of the road trip traveling with Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund) and his girlfriend Marylou/Luanne (Kristen Stewart), this despite at one point, Dean, getting married and even having a kid with Camille/Carolyn (Kirsten Dunst). Dean's more of the freewheelin' rogue than Sal, and much more than he really should be anyway, while Marylou is far more conflicted, equal parts domestic-wannabe, but just as wild and free. The movie gave Stewart a lot of press for a few topless and nude scenes, because... I'm not sure why actually come to think of it. Seriously, I don't get the big deal about that. She's good in the role, like she is whenever she's given something decent to play, but I don't know what the big deal was. Other than that though, the movie just kinda became one of those, "Hey, look who it is now?" films, you know where, the biggest thrill of the movie is to see who's going to be in it next? There's Viggo Mortenson as William S. Burroughs, that's Elisabeth Moss, there's Steve Buscemi, there's Terrence Howard, etc. I guess it's cool to know that "On the Road", finally got tackled, but it should've stayed that way. You can't really show the romanticism of the road, unless you're describing it, and showing it, just makes it feel like being on a long trip. If we're gonna be on a trip, there better be a purpose, and I don't think there really is one in "On the Road."

DARK SHADOWS  (2012) Director: Tim Burton

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I pride myself in my vast television knowledge, but every once in a while, I get stumped, by something, so I was surprised when my mom pointed out that "Dark Shadows" was based on a famous soap opera from the '70s, and also that Johnny Depp, really does look like Barnabas Collins. Barnabas, was buried alive by a witch named Angelique Bouchard (Eva Green) a couple hundred years ago, because he refused her love, and he fell in love with a girl named Josette (Bella Heathcote). However, he's now back alive, but the Collins brand, is quickly dying. They still live in the mansion, but the castle is dusty and creepy and barely kept afloat by what few housestaff they can still hire. The current matriarch is Elizabeth (Michelle Pfeiffer), who's lives there with her kids David and Carolyn (Gully McGrath and Chloe Grace Moretz) but Barnabas plans on bringing back the prominence of the Collins' name, something Angelique been fighting to bring down for 200 years, and has a near-monopoly on the water and boating right at the marina which is the centerpiece of the town. There's also a Dr. Julia Hoffman (Helena Bonham Carter) that also lives at the mansion, along with a few workers like Willie (Jackie Earle Haley) as well as an out-of-town visitor in Victoria Winters (Heathcote again) who's Barnabas begins having feelings for, as history looks doomed to repeat itself if he isn't careful. This film is your typical eye candy for Tim Burton and Tim Burton fans, of which I'm not one of them, because he does get so caught up in the visuals concepts of his work, that it loses all sense of story and plot, or worse yet, he chooses project, because of the visuals, inspite of a lack of plot, which I think is the case here. It's easy to see why "Dark Shadows" would work as a long-form soap opera. It's got a lot of tension and mood, and dangerous ill-gotten romances at the center of the story; it's the perfect blend of Anne Rice meets a Harlequin novel, but in order to shove, even lets say, one season of story of a soap, into a film, it's too much, and it's also too little. Too much forcing through a story, too little actually elaborating on why we should care about it. Of course, the production design and visuals are quite spectactular as always, but that's about it. A reboot of "Dark Shadows" might be more interesting for television than this movie is, but there's no real reason to see the movie, except maybe if you were a fan of the series, there's a nostalgia factor, and even then, you really better have liked the series. I have to imagine that even the Tim Burton fans are gonna have a hard time swallowing this one.

HOPE SPRINGS  (2012) Director: David Frankel

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The phrase "From the Director of 'The Devil Wears Prada'" is not something I find to be encouraging, when confronted by on a movie DVD box, as I do the phrase "Starring Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones". I'll let the ad-people discuss that one in the future, be David Frankel has been making some decent film in recent years like "Marley & Me," and "The Big Year". "Hope Springs", earned Meryl Streep a Golden Globe nomination, and the film didn't get much else acclaim-wise, so it's quality was a bit of a delightful surprise for me. Kay and Arnold (Streep and Jones) have been married for thirty years, and it's a quiet and dull life. He fixed the air conditioner for their 30th Anniversary present, and they haven't had sex in years. He spends most of his days watching the golf channel after work; and doesn't say much at all to Kay, who's now a frustrated desperate housewife. She decides to surprise her husband and go on a retreat to see one of those marriage counselors who advertise their books on talk shows and schedules whole month-long retreats for his clients to go on, and help them renew their marriages. The doctor, Doctor Feld (Steve Carell) is not something that Arnold's looking forward too, but he's so oblivious to his wife's reasoning, that when it finally does start to hit him, we wonder if it's even possible for him to improve. This is a film that relies a bit much on the casting, but that's a good thing. We know Streep's abilities can play this role, but we tend to see Streep and Jones more than we see the characters they're playing, but they're well-suited and paired together in this film, even if it does seem like they're only stretching a bit of playing themselves. The movie's best when the film gets into these couples' sessions, and the "In Treatment" part of the movie begins. I'm always fascinated by good movies that can make psychiatry sessions fascinating, and this one is certainly no different. I also like how the movie is about the couple trying to save their marriage, and nothing else. Carell's casting is a bit of a red herring here actually, and you naturally think that he's gonna have marriage issues of his own, or he's gonna do something funny to get too involved in their lives, steers much more clearer of these natural ideas than one would've thought, and that's greatly appreciated in fact. An added level to this film, wouldn't have benefited anybody, and the movie is smart to realize that. "Hope Springs" is definitely one of the more delightful surprises I've seen this year. A smart movie about sex and marriage.

MEN IN BLACK 3 (2012) Director: Barry Sonnenfeld

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I wasn't exactly asking for another "Men in Black" film,...- I know that sounded like a sentence where you expect another clause, but really there isn't one. Sure, this is a decent one, it's entertaining when you're watching it, like the last two; it's actually better than the last film, which definitely is only watchable once, but it's been fifteen years, and they're not gonna beat the original fun movie.... I have to ask, why did they bother with this one? Well, Agent J and Agent K (Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones) are back, and they've been fairly immune to all the things that made us so intrigued by the first "Men in Black", the slick look, the non-reaction to aliens, the tools and techniques they use, etc. However now, an alien named Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) has escaped from his cell on the Moon, and the next day, Agent K, is suddenly erased from time. Only J, and their new boss, Agent O (Emma Thompson, replacing Rip Torn) suspect something going on, so now, they have to jump back into time, to where J, didn't kill Boris when he had the chance, and change history. You know, I used to be advised to not even bother writing a time travel as a spec, because of this belief that everything that's possible to be done with time travel, has been done. Lately, I've seen a bunch of time travel pieces in big budget Hollywood films, and I've yet to find anything that makes me disagree with that piece of advice. This is no difference, but it's done fairly well, as a younger K (Josh Brolin) has to catch up to Boris again, for the first time, and this time kill him, as well as make sure a few other pieces of the future occur, including the Mets winning the Series in '69, which according to Griffin (Michael Stuhlbarg) who sees all universes and all possibilities, 'cause we can't do anything anymore without quantum physics being involved. Anyway, that's being mean to a movie, that, frankly is enjoyable. It's a disappointment compared to the original "Men in Black", but for what it is, it's good; I just wonder why it was made.

TWIXT (2012) Director: Francis Ford Coppola

1/2



(Deep sighing breath, followed by long thinking pause) Yeah. Yeah, there really isn't much to say about "Twixt". We know these are the kind of movies that Francis Ford Coppola has been making for awhile now, in some ways I don't particularly blame him. If anyone's got carte blanche to do whatever the hell they wanted, it's Coppola, but on the same token, he's gone so far outside-the-norm at this point, that, frankly I don't even know if he can come back, or even if he wants to. I get it, weren't not gonna get another "The Godfather", and hell, I think he never recovered from "Apocalypse Now", but- I mean, what the hell was this? It's a horror/thriller, trapped in a ghost story trapped in a mystery, trapped in an enigma, trapped in- it's just trapped. It's trapped in his mind, a bunch of dis-coordinate thoughts and images; it's sound and fury signifying nothing. Truly nothing. There's nothing you can take out of this movie. This is the ultimate passionless project. You can't even emotionally really rise to the level of hating it; it just isn't worth it. "Twixt" begins with a second-rate horror mystery writer who specializes in stories about witchcraft, Hal Baltimore (Val Kilmer). He's currently heading to one of those little towns renown for being haunted, and having a serial killer. It also has a Sheriff, Bobby LaGrange (Bruce Dern) who fancies himself a mystery writer himself, and there's a serial killer out on the loose, who's known for staking his victims, either to death, or after death, depending on the autopsy results. His latest victim, V, (Elle Fanning) appears to Hal as a ghost at one point. So does Edgar Allen Poe (Ben Chaplin) who apparently spent time in the town once upon a time, and possibly wrote "The Raven" based on the town. Of course, this is all half in the author's mind, or are they all ghosts? Or does it matter? Or why should I care? Those are better questions. Even with his worst pet projects, Coppola at least seemed to care about what he was making, there was that love of filmmaking that Truffaut always talked about wanting to see, either that or the agony of filmmaking. Well, this movie has neither. It's as little as it can possibly, it's somebody turning on a camera and pointing it at something, and actors playing a role. That's really all "Twixt" is. Oh, and it's a stupid title by the way, too. (Deep breath.) Yeah, nothing else; next movie.

LAWLESS (2012) Director: John Hillcoat

✰✰1/2



The Bondurant Brothers were very successful bootleggers in the Franklin County, VA area during prohibition, and they fought the corrupt police force who tried to take over their business, and if you got anything more than that out of "Lawless", good for you. I couldn't. Frankly if it weren't for the look, the actors and the directing of the film, the movie doesn't seem that different from a random episode of "The Dukes of Hazzard" now that I think about it. Not that that couldn't possibly be entertaining enough for a movie, but "Lawless" is so dark and dreary, and everybody seems to be separate by gunfire sooner rather than later. The film was directed by John Hillcoat and written by musician Nick Cave, the same group behind another violent film, the bloody western, "The Proposition", and I guess the idea was to create a western in a different setting, and, yeah, that's about all they had. The three brothers are Jack (Shia Labeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke), and they make moonshine. There rival is a Special Agent named Charley Rakes (Guy Pearce). They also attract a former dancer named Maggie (Jessica Chastain), and the youngest brother, Jack falls in love with Bertha (Mia Wasikowska). There was a few things made of "Lawless" being the film where Jessica Chastain had a topless scene, which I guess is good news for anybody who didn't catch her film "Jolene", where we get to see every single talent and skill in Chastain's repertoire, but sure, she's topless here too. (She more naked in "Jolene", spread the word) I know, having to review a lot of these films weeks after I've seen them, means I'm probably missing more than I'd prefer, and forgetting much, but seriously, some films aren't that memorable to begin with. "Lawless," pretty forgettable, the moment after you see it. We've seen this story, many times before, done better-.... Okay, it's based on a true story, and by a book from the family's grandkid, but what isn't nowadays? It's an obscure Prohibition era history lesson, maybe if it was done with the same kind of care that something like HISTORY's recent miniseries "Hatfields & McCoys", that might have been something, this isn't a piece of Americana that's that important to learn about.

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