Wednesday, January 8, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #78: "AMERICAN HUSTLE", "THE GREAT GATSBY", "MONSTERS UNIVERSITY", "ADMISSION", "THE WE AND THE I", "THE TO DO LIST", "BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO", "DRINKING BUDDIES", "THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS", "TAI CHI ZERO", "THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER", "SIDE BY SIDE: CAN FILM SURVIVE OUR DIGITAL FUTURE", "HEADHUNTERS", "BROOKLYN CASTLE" and MORE!

Hope you're all having a Happy New Year Everyone!

It's been a rough one. I started out, by spending New Years Eve out on the Las Vegas Strip; if you ever get a chance to do that, don't. It was stupid. It was frustrating, it's a bunch of drunks and druggies, getting fucked up for no reason. I mean, really, there's nothing really good about it. Well, for a while, outside of the Bellagio, there's was a good one-man band called Dan Fester Plays With Himself; I know, funny name, but he was good for awhile, but other than that, it's not worth the experience to say I've done it. I couldn't wait for a bus ride home. If you're in the Tallahassee area, Fester I believe plays there a lot. Anyway, here's his website so you can look him up. He did help remind me of what it's like to be around good music again.

http://www.danfester.com/

Anyway, my Eagles got cheated out of another win, this one in the playoffs, their seventh this year as apart of the NFL's grand conspiracy to make sure that despite being better than every other team, that we are continuously held back. So, that sucked, and I don't know why we don't sue. (Don't write letters, I'm a Philadelphia Eagles fan, we all think that.)  And, I've been busy with numerous other projects, both for the blog, and on my own time, not the least of which, is keeping track of Award season this year. Yes, I have been following it, and I will soon be posting by Oscar nomination predictions and analysis, like every year, so I've been extra busy. Lots of Guilds and critic prizes to sort through, and if possible, a lot of films to see. I'm gonna try to see as many as I can, but, unlikely I'll be able to see them all, but I'm starting this week to make an effort.

So, let's kick things off, with this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS, beginning with a SPECIAL REVIEW of "AMERICAN HUSTLE"!

AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013) Director: David O. Russell

5 STARS



Finally! I've been waiting for this film from David O. Russell and here it is. Russell's been a good filmmaker, but lately, while many might have an opposing view, I've been underwhelmed with his recent films. I thought "Silver Linings Playbook" was good but overrated, and I barely recommended "The Fighter" at all; and I'm still a little surprised by that one's acclaim, but consider those projects for a moment. "Silver Linings..." was a personal project of his, and adaptation of a book, which he got into because Russell's kid suffers from bipolar disorder, so he's adapting another's work, admirably so, but it was a project that he felt more to do outside of himself. While, "The Fighter", was almost the exact opposite, that film's script was bounced around Hollywood for over five years, before Mark Wahlberg talked David O. Russell into the project, and he was basically a director for hire, working from a script that frankly had flaws that helped get Christian Bale and Melissa Leo Oscars, but ironically gave us an uninteresting lead character. They weren't his visions, and it had been so long since his masterpiece "Three Kings" and his breakout feature "Flirting with Disaster," that I had forgotten what I had loved about him to begin with. He's a comedy director, who loves kinetic action, but enjoys giving us constant an unsuspecting twists in his films changing the plotline halfway through, changing the story at times, switching genres...- With "Flirting..." a young man searching for his foster parents goes through dozens of interesting red herrings, just for our enjoyment of having to visit these wonderfully eccentric characters. In many ways the same thing happened in "Three Kings", but set against the absurd backdrop, of what was already an absurd war, turned a war/heist movie into one that's far more complex. I even liked "I Heart Huckabees", although there, he focused more on the absurdity, making that the plot, as opposed to the style. For "American Hustle", the inspiration was the ABSCAM sting operations in the '70s that took down several New Jersey politicians, including a Senator for accepting bribes. It begins with two con artists, Irving and Sydney. (Christian Bale and Amy Adams) I don't say, that he's a con artist, who brings her in, because if you pay attention, she's in the con game too before they eventually start working together. (Hint: con artist is the second profession her character has that requires a stage name) He owned a chain of dry cleaners legitimately, and dealt with stolen and forged art, outside of conning desperate men from having them give thousands of dollars in the oldest scam in the book. The one where you give me five thousand now, if we accept you as an investor.... Once Sidney finds out about this, she immediately develops a British accent and persona, to make the part about royal investors seem more believable, and they even upgrade their business. That is, until they get caught by an FBI agent, Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) who convinces his boss Stoddard Thorsen (Louis C.K. in one of many strange and unexpected pieces of casting) to start setting stings up to catch politicians accepting bribes. It's the late '70s, and Atlantic City has just legalized gambling and New Jersey need more to start building casinos and start rebuilding it's once prominent tourist trade. This effort is lead by formed Camden Mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner) whose name sounds like he may have had a few people whacked in his day, but he's actually just doing whatever it takes to help out his state. Beloved by his constituents and voters, and truly a family guy that's adopted kids, it's somewhat ironic that most of the politicians in the film, seem to legitimately fall into these scams, in order to help out others. They must've been ecstatic when they heard an arab sheikh was interested in investing in building up the Jersey shore. This unsettles Irving, who took pride in scamming only those who truly deserved it. He's a good guy himself who married a sexy but wasted wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence) and even adopted her young kid as his own, and despite his affair with Sidney, he doesn't want to leave her. I'm only giving you, some of the essential plot, the richness in the film is in the deconstructionist detail of what happens, and how things change and are improvised. This is a good movie for writers to study on how to create strong superobjectives for their characters, and actors to study how to use them to influence their character. Arguably, all five of the main performances are Award-worthy, and I think a few will get Oscar nomination; I personally like Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence's turns the best in Lead and Supporting categories respectively. I don't think it's quite perfect, but it's the return-to-form we've been waiting for from David O. Russell, or at least I have. I've heard some say this is his Scorsese-style movie, and there are influences, but this is truly his original vision, using all of his unique strengths and skills. In some ways "American Hustle" is just a classic con film, fun, flashy, and full of misdirection, constantly making us ask who's conning who. Those are harder to make than films that just passively tell a story, much less one that happens to be so entertaining.


THE GREAT GATSBY (2013) Director: Baz Luhrmann

2 1/2 STARS



Sorry Old Sport,

Well, that has to be how any review of "The Great Gatsby" begins, especially a negative one. Somehow, I missed "... Gatsby" going through school, and I never realized that Jay Z was played in speakeasies. Seriously though, would anybody think of a modern director to remake "...Gatsby", and come up with Baz Luhrmann as their first choice? Not that he's a bad director, quite the contrary, but there's certain things he's better at, and his style, with, just a straight adaptation, especially one of a classic novel that everybody knows-, I was surprised at how much I actually knew about "The Great Gatsby," and I never even read it. I mean, it helps, when, say, the film is his own original story, and he's creating his own world, say with "Moulin Rouge!" which, borrowed from a few places, including an original 1952 film of the same title, but it was still a completely original story, so you didn't particularly mind the anachronisms. That's not the only thing that goes wrong with this Gatsby, but it does seem to have taken up much of his time and effort. Gatsby's house looks huge even for huge mansions of reclusive playboys millionaires of the time, and the party was definitely roaring, but I hardly think of synchronicity going along with that, unless it's the jazz music, not in the partying. It's all big and lavish and comically over-the-top. I mean, this was the age of violin cases, not Studio 54. And it's deceiving too, but ironically, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) isn't a party-er or even much of a playboy. He's a mobster we suspect, who brokered his way into some money through legal and illegal means, and just kept the party going to keep up appearances. The movie, like the book, is narrated by his neighbor Nick Carraway (Tobey McGuire) who's intrigued by the mysterious neighbor who holds these wild parties, one of which, he actually got a rare invitation too. When he finally meets Gatsby, he's all the more mysterious, but seems to just want to be Nick's friend, but he's also the cousin of his long-lost love Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who, once upon a time, he lost, when he went to war, and was too poor, and then later.... The whole movie seems to be flashbacks sometimes, many of them, aren't even actual flashbacks, they're simply lies and half-truths that Gatsby tells to build up his reputation. When the movie does get good, is when Gatsby's overall plan begins to get executed, as he shyly tries to get Daisy back, who's now married to the rich Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton) who's suspicious of Gatsby's backstory and money, and is the only one with enough equal money and clout to go after him. Anyway, "The Great Gatsby" looks more impressive than it actually is, although DiCaprio, is really good as Gatsby; I wouldn't be shocked if he had an outside shot at a Supporting Actor Oscar Nomination for this performance actually; it deserves to be in a better movie, but he's also the only actor, who seems to actually be sure of his character, at least, enough onscreen, that with Luhrmann's quick-cutting erratic directing, that it's hard for anybody else to really portray any authentic emotions. (It might've helped that DiCaprio also worked with Luhrmann before with "Romeo + Juliet" so....) Other than that though, there is no real emotion in the film, and that's really the problem. Even with Luhrmann's past work, that wasn't that good, like "Australia" for instance, there was a passion involved in his work, especially in something like "Moulin Rouge!", which this film will inevitably get compared to, you can feel the joy in that movie of Luhrmann creating and mixing the music and the style, and this movie, feels like it you could've taken all the imagery, all the production design and cinematography out of the movie, and we'd just see the actors working with a green screen and nothing else, and nothing would've changed emotionally. The movie is just flat and that's really the big problem, and why this adaptation is ultimately unsuccessful.

MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013) Director: Dan Scanlon

3 STARS



Can I first start by saying that prequels, are always kind of an iffy idea to begin with. Sequels, I understand and can relate to, sometimes you want to see, what characters are doing a few years down the road and how they've change and what situations they might be in (Although if they're just getting into another "Die Hard" situation, than I don't particularly see the point, although "Die Hard 2" is the best of that series, but you know what I mean.) I'd like to see a new adventure with Mike and Sully perhaps, ten years down the road, too. "Monsters, Inc." I just ranked as one of the ten best films from 2001, and I still do hold it in such high regard, but I was confused at the prospect of a prequel to the film. The entire movie left with a lot of monsters out of a job after scarers were replaced by comics like Mike Wachowski (Billy Crystal), which was okay for his good buddy Sully (John Goodman) who frankly was tired of scaring little kids, especially after that had to take care of young Boo, but snuck into the monster world through her closet one day. Now, we're back to when those scarers had scare cards and we're idolized, and apparently, most of them went to the prestigious Monsters University to be scarers. Naturally, Mike and Sully aren't fast friends; in fact, a one of the many references to the original film, is the surprise that Randall (Steve Buscemi) was not only a shy coke-bottled-glasses wearing monster who was afraid he ability to become invisible wasn't gonna make him good enough to be a scarer, but that he and Mike were college roommates. Mike was all knowledge, but unfortunately wasn't particularly scary, while Sully, the son of a legendary scarer is BMOC until it's clear that he has no interest in studying. When both of them get kicked out of school by Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), they join a fraternity for those monsters who couldn't get into any of the other fraternities, in order to compete in the scare games, and earn themselves back into the University by proving to be the best scarers, if they can work together and also get this team of schleps from the fraternity to join in and also go above and beyond their potential. I liked "Monsters university" despite my reluctance, and there are moments in the movie that are indeed quite special, especially a scene near the end, where Mike determination to prove that he's a good scarers leads to him sneaking into the human world, where he then threatens the hidden existence of the monster world. Still, I couldn't help but think about 65-year-old Billy Crystal, creating a teenage version of a character he already created, and Goodman as well. It's a good film, certainly not a black eye for Pixar, but it is a little unimaginative in terms of concept. I think they were looking for an excuse to make a college film, and somehow in the process, they decided to use the Monster world and characters, moreso, than somebody say, let's see how Mike and Sully met. I did feel a little sad at times, when I saw so many callbacks to the first feature, how much better and more special it was, however. There's even a photo at the end of Waternoose, which wasn't just the villain in the first one, but also one of the last performances from the late great James Coburn. I don't know, it's a little bit "Animal House" meets "Monsters, Inc." but in a mostly good way.



ADMISSION (2013) Director: Paul Weitz

2 STARS



"Admission" is a title with multiple meanings, and this material, somewhere somehow, could've worked, but something went wrong here. I think the first place was the advertising of the movie, which stars Tina Fey and Paul Rudd, and the film was sorta pitched as this, straight romantic-comedy with absurd scenes involving colleges and cows giving birth, and quirky scenes that would be normal, if it weren't for the two actors being naked and in the shower at the time. That and the- what the hell's the band name? That-eh, "Don't listen to a word I say," song, Of Monsters And Men, song, whatever-it's-called, playing over all this light-hearted trailers. That's not to say the film, isn't completely lighthearted, or even comical at times. (And I actually mostly liked how the handled the cow-birth scene better than most movies involving a cow giving birth.) Fey plays Portia Nathan, one of the respected and feared admissions officers at Princeton University, which had just fallen from one to two in terms of requests and being in the Ivy league, and has one of the highest standards required for acceptance into their college. She's close to her forties, single, married to her work, resents her ultra-feminist hippie mother Susannah (Lily Tomlin) who had one of those Glenn Close in "The World According to Garp" births, where she basically just took a guy and had sex with him just for the child, and spends her days either listening/studying dozens of applications or traveling to schools around her section of the country, in this case, the Northeast, promoting both Princeton as and option for colleges, as well as the incredible difficulty it takes to get in there. (As oppose to my alma-mater UNLV, where the only real requirement to get in is a decent jump shot. [I'm kidding, I'm kidding, no letters please, okay! That's a joke.]) Paul Rudd, plays John, a teacher/dean at a reformist school in New Hampshire, who pressed Portia until she made a visit to the out-of-the-way school where everything from third world irrigation techniques to computer engineering is studied. They go on a date while she's there, and they have a little connection. Not as much as I think the movie should have, but.... Anyway, John, is trying to get a prodigy student Jeremiah into Princeton. A kid who was put up for adoption from birth and has below average grades, but is a genius and has an auto-idetic memory and has poured himself into books, mostly biographies and encyclopedias for years. Then, there is a revelation that is better left unsaid, and I won't go into it any more than that, other than to say that, from there on in, the movie has a very difficult time, transitioning or deciding, just what kind of movie it wants to be. It, for the most part stops being funny at that point, not that I was on-the-floor laughing to begin with. In fact, the most interesting part of this movie, was the behind-the-scenes of how admission selections are chosen. There's good work from Wallace Shawn as the Dean of Admissions, and Gloria Reuben as Corinne, Portia's co-worker/rival.  Michael Sheen has a thankless and almost unnoticed role as Portia's live-in boyfriend who dumps her for a pushy Virginia Wolfe scholar, and he shows up at the wrong times, for a recurring joke about how he thinks Portia hasn't gotten over him. I mentioned that I think there was material here for a good film. If Robert Altman was alive today, his approach to this material might have been interesting. In the hands of Paul Weitz, who I'd say on average is the lesser talented of the Weitz Brothers, frankly the movie just remains stagnant, when it could've been stagnant for a reason, and approached the material at unusual angles. Really not a lot works here. Fey and Rudd don't have natural chemistry, and when the resolution comes, there's a deus ex machima, that frankly, we shouldn't have had. Somehow, I think this material was approached completely wrong, and that's really why the whole movie suffers. The movie's based originally on a novel, that doesn't surprise me, but I'd be very curious to see how true they stayed to it, 'cause somewhere along the line, the story got told wrong, maybe it started that way, but,- "Admission" is just an overall disappointment.


THE WE AND THE I (2013) Director Michel Gondry

3 STARS



I wanted to warn people about this, before diving too far into Michel Gondry's "The We and the I", 'cause at a certain point in the movie, we learn that at a party weeks earlier one of the characters got drunk to the point of passing out and pissing in her pants, for all we know, probably roofy-ed by someone or herself, but eventually, when she's unable to move and knocked out completely, another character, places her on a bed, begins making out with her, while others take photos and videos and egg on, laughing. That's as far as we see of the degrading act, and I wonder just how far it was taken too. Anyway, the drunk girl doesn't remember anything, and I'm not gonna reveal the other character, partly because it's not who you'd immediately think if I were to give you brief profiles of them and I wonder about how in-character it was for the perpetrator. Although that would be somewhat useless because most of these characters, we haven't seen before. We haven't seen most of these actors either. They're all teens in the Bronx who workshopped this script with Gondry for three years, and there isn't much of a story about it, it simply follows kids, on the last day of school for the year, taking the public bus home. There's a group of kids in the back of the bus, who constantly pulls heinous pranks on other kids, there friends, and adults who step on. There's other more shy kids. Some of them are artistic. A couple are trying to get gigs as the band for one girl's Sweet Sixteen party, which she and another friend are trying to plan. There's a lot of friendships at angles here in the film, and that's something that always bothered me about high school, (And adulthood at times) how some people can act like complete assholes around a certain group of "friends" and then, when alone with another person, suddenly act like someone different. Words of wise to couples out there, if you have to specify to a stranger that, "He/she doesn't act this way when....", get out now. A couple other kids draw. We learn that they work together in an art class, and that one of them has a crush on the other. The concept's not terribly new, to shoot an entire film in and around a bus, probably the most famous recent film like that was Spike Lee's underrated "Get On the Bus". There is some insight into teenage behavior and language here. The way everyone has digital technology around them is always a little startling, even in this day and age. I've heard more than one teenager with double-d's and a top that barely covers their stomach, suddenly mention that their boobs are ringing, and pull a cell out of their bra. (Which as a man, is a benefit that I strongly object too regarding women. Or as I call it, my "When did a bra become a purse" stand-up routine.) I mention the act at the earlier party, which is told in a story. A lot of the film is told in story, most of them true, some made up completely, as one poor guy horribly lied to a couple girls, trying to brag about how big a playa he is. Most of the kids I thought were just mean, especially at the back of the bus. There's one scene where nearly every kid starts chewing gun in the direction of an overweight passenger who just sat down to take the bus. I take the bus most days, let me tell you, I've never seen such cohesion and conspiracy to perform a completely useless act. Sometimes it's better to hide in back with the drug dealers, at least they're quiet, usually. Anyway, I liked Gondry's latest film, so I'm recommending it. He does have a curiosity into these lives, and I think much of it is effective if open-ended, and some of it,- I don't know. There's a character who dies at the end for instance, which, I don't know if he needed to. There's some over-thinking all around I guess, but overall while the talents of these young people, most of whom have rarely if ever acted before, and are mainly playing slight versions of themselves, I think I just wasn't as fascinated with them as Gondry was. Still, for what it does "The We and the I", has a lot of potential and some rather smart and observant moments too, so a mixed review, but it's a recommendation.


THE TO DO LIST (2013) Director: Maggie Carey

2 STARS



I really wanted to like "The To Do List". Not just because it's a sex comedy, and one that focuses on the teenage girl obsession with sex instead of the male perspective that's frankly been relatively uninteresting since, I don't know, "Porky's" probably. (And I have to confess this, I actually thought "Porky's II..." was better than the original. Not that I recommend either, but...) I was inundated with the movie's trailer dozens of times over in order to get more credits for my World Golf Tour game, so much so that I started finding it funny. It even stars one of my favorite actresses right now, Aubrey Plaza, who's funny as hell on "Parks and Recreation" and gave one of the most underrated performances last year in "Safety Not Guaranteed". Plus, it's got a premise that I find surprisingly relatable to me. Well, maybe not surprisingly, but much like Brandy Klark (Plaza), while I wasn't a high school valedictorian (Although my friend Renee was in fact a lifeguard at Wet'n'Wild), I was certainly a study-first kinda person who was very inexperienced in many fields, including sex, so, like her, I wrote out a To-Do List, and sure enough, ten-eleven years later, I'm sure I'll eventually learn to drive; the number one thing on that list, and then I'll move onto the other things, like (Staring at list) learning to ride a bike, learn to swim, (sigh) learn to tie shoes correctly, oh, I finally did learn that one! (Never could find that rabbit hold before, but now...), get (NAME DELETED) to give me a blowjob. Convince her friend to (SEXUAL ACT DELETED)- Okay, you know what (Squashing list into little ball), um, let's just forget about my issues. Anyway, I had some high hopes for "The To Do List", and at times it was funny, and Plaza gives a very good performance that is strikingly different than her more famous deadpan demeanor in most of her work, but the movie has a fatal flaw. The premise is solid, that Brandy would spend the summer go through numerous sexual acts, that her friends Fiona and Wendy (Alia Shawkat and Sarah Steele) and her engaged sister Amber (Rachel Bilson) have been having all along, as sort of a homework assignment in preparation for college. The movie takes place in '93, which is sorta correct, 'cause that was about, the summer before the internet finally started coming out, so, ergo, instead of looking them up, poor ambitious Brandy has to experience them. The problem is that, the movie still uses a post-internet vocabulary about sex, so the movie doesn't really work. It's cute for a second that she looks up teabagging in an encyclopedia and doesn't find anything, but how often was that term even used until, most of us heard it on "Sex and the City". I remember the pre-internet time, and back then a pearl necklace, was really just a pearl necklace. And why did the film have to take place before the internet? You don't think there's people around who are such bookworms that they don't even bother learning about sex until later in school, and then suddenly discover the internet and take a crash course, and are still inexperienced in everything and then dive right in? Oh dear god, that's the plot of "Fifty Shades of Grey"! Alright, that was weird, but anyway, despite some good supporting work by the likes of Bill Hader and Clark Gregg among others, "The To Do List", is out of it's time, it's a little too gross in some ways, and then strangely, it doesn't go far enough in others. "The To Do List" was a big disappointment for me; I think there's a lot of untapped potential in a female side of this traditionally male material, I hopes someone takes advantage of it some other time, and makes a better movie.


BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013) Director: Peter Strickland

4 STARS



"Berberian Sound Studios" is about the mood and tension it creates, moreso than whether the movie actually makes any real sense at all. Oh, I'm sure there's people who will find some symbolism in it, I have my own theories, although most of them basically are explorations of cinema in much the same manor as Godard's later films, or more specifically, in the way Bergman's "Persona" works. It's also reminiscent of Brian De Palma's "Blow Out" the underrated thriller, also about a sound guy. The centerpiece of the film is a performance by Toby Jones as Gilderoy, a British sound editor who's working for a strange Italian studio, and a mysterious artist named Santini (Antonio Mancino). Italy is right country for this film. Not only because of the Italian horror genre that the film also uses as a reference point, but also because, even to today practically, most Italian movies, are almost entirely made with sound aftereffects. So, sound people, especially during the peak of Dario Argento Italian horror staples, we're considered major artists, creating the breaks and slashes or blades and knifes, with little more that the cracking of radish stems and the slicing of dozens of poor watermelon. There's also gonna be obvious recalls to the great Brian De Palma film "Blow Out" which starred John Travolta as a sound, also struggling with getting the right scream. There's a lot of screaming and noise in the studios, and while, we never do see shots of the movie, other than the word "Silenzio" occasionally (And other Italian words, like in the credits, despite the fact that the film and filmmaker are British.) but we hear the sounds that are going into and some vague references to a priest and witches, and murder, and we're constantly inundated with the sounds. Then the strangeness and tension of the Lynchian studio start getting into the head of Gilderoy, and the two worlds begin blending together. Actresses are referred to both as there real name, and character name, and even at one point, the film seems to start to scramble, and land on a cow documentary. There's theories as to what it all means, but I think the movie is mostly a filmmaking exercise in experimentation, and using filmmaking, and particular sound as a backdrop to that, is a great place to experiemnt, and that's the real reason it was chosen. It's toying with us, throwing us off in multiple directions, keeping us offguard, without any real reason to do so other then the fact that good movies will do that to us. Toby Jones's performance is definitely standout, and overall, a good filmmaking exercise, that really takes some chances, and forces us to experience, ever aspect of the cinema. Very impressive film.


DRINKING BUDDIES (2013) Director: Joe Swanberg

4 STARS



I've never been fond of people who are or have, "Drinking Buddies"; I've always been under the belief that if you or him/her/they have to be drunk to be around you, then they probably aren't people you'd want to be drinking with to begin with, or anything else for that matter. That said though, I don't work a traditional nine to five job with a close group of people who form a camaraderie after long eight-hour-or-more shifts,- well, maybe a drink wouldn't be the worst thing, even if you don't like them. Doesn't hurt that the idea is already implanted in your heads when you work in a brewery as the characters in this mumblecore production from Joe Swanberg. The only woman at the brewery, and seeming to be some kind of shift boss or some kind of leader, Kate, usually has fun at her job, and afterwards at a bar with her friends and co-workers, the closest of which is Luke (Jake Johnson), who occasionally has his girlfriend Jill (Anna Kendrick) come along as well. Once Kate heads home, she's with her boyfriend Chris (Ron Livingston), who seems more laid back and not as extroverted as the others. It's rare when he's around for a get-together, but at one point he is, and the four of them decide to go out to on a weekend-long double date by the Lake Michigan. (They're in Chicago btw). It's here that, while off on a hike Jill and Chris kiss. What happens afterwards, is what makes up the movie, and a lot of it, is hard to fully explain, because much of this movie, is said between-the-lines of improvised dialogue and a lot of it, we have to kinda, fill-in on our own. For instance, Jill for most of the second half of the movie, goes off to Costa Rica, and then, we don't see her 'til she gets back, and has that final conversation with Luke. Now, on one hand, this is a strange move, when you consider A. that the movie's biggest star is unseen for half the movie, and B. the sudden timing of the trip. After the weekend, Kate dances into work one day, and announces she single, and that everyone's going out tonight to celebrate whether they want to or not. She sleeps with one of the employees Luke learns the next day. There's a criss-cross of emotions going on here, and it's clear the Luke and Kate have chemistry from the beginning, but more importantly, you'll notice that I said, that she dances into work, not, that Chris breaks up with Kate, first. That scene's not there, and we don't know how much or exactly what was said between them. When Luke hangs around more with Kate, including helping her move while Jill's in Costa Rica, there's extra layers and layers of what's happening. The acting in the movie, is really what carries it. It's not perfect, although most of it feels natural, which is what you want from this improvised style. Jake Johnson's an actor who's quickly impressing me more and more with each film, and Anna Kendrick, if this performance was in another movie, we might be talking Oscar consideration. I think the movie made a decision to leave us wanting closure, and that's what really holding this film back for me of thinking of it in higher regards, like other mumblecore masterpieces, the Duplass Brothers' "The Puffy Chair" or Lynn Shelton's "The Freebie", but it's right below those, in that second tier of good films that aim to capture realistic people who make sudden decisions that have heighten consequences. The problems of three little people and that hill of beans thing, I guess. There's another scene that's missing; we never do see Jill leave for Costa Rica, do we? And she comes back suddenly too. Is it possible she didn't go there, and if she didn't, then where was she that whole time?


THE FITZGERALD FAMILY CHRISTMAS (2012) Director: Edward Burns

3 STARS



I swore I had written this review for last week, but, apparently I must've dreamed it or something. (Don't you hate when that happens, you dream about work, and you think you've done something when you haven't, and then you have to do it again. Ugh! Hate that.) Anyway, the latest from Edward Burns, "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas", is filled with cast members from previous films of his as a big family prepares to head down to their Mom, Rosie's (Anita Gillette) for Christmas. At least, that' the plan, to get the erratic family together, of Gerry (Burns), the good son, who's actually trying to get everybody to come over for Mom's birthday a couple days earlier, but everybody can't make it, for one reason or another. I can run up-and-down the cast list if you want me too, but frankly there's too many, and they're all basically cliches of other Irish-Catholic siblings that we've heard again and again beforehand. Well, maybe not just Irish-Catholic, but each of them is going through there own personal nightmare/catastrophe/quiet little hell that, eventually, we know will get somewhat resolved by the end. Well, the one's that can be relatively resolved at least. The youngest brother's Cyril (Tom Guiry) is just out-of-rehab and that is his resolution for the moment, but in the meantime, he's on Gerry's side as slowly they find out that their long-thrown-out father, Big Jim (Ed Lauter) has contacted Gerry, and he's looking after twenty years silence to come back home for Christmas, something which Rosie absolutely refuses. Most of the siblings, if they can ever be brought together to discuss it will agree, some won't. There's a few other revelations that occur, none of them particularly surprising, although all of them are fairly well-acted and believable. Actually, the only thing I really had a hard time with was the father character himself, and frankly I was always confused by, exactly how bad it was for them. It seemed like he was an abusive father to begin with, but most of them seemed more annoyed that he finally left the house for another girl then they were for anything else. Not much is ever really explicited said, which is just as well, considering most everybody in the film would probably already know everything that happened, but it still left me questioning some of the motives of everybody. You can probably also guess the reason why after twenty years he's asked to come back home for Christmas too. I don't know, I'm on the fence on this one. I like some of the side characters and there issues, like the Kerry Bishe character who's dating someone much older, and then goes on a double-date resort weekend with her brother Michael (Mike McGlome, and it's nice to see him again in something other than Geico commercial these days) who's about to propose to his much younger girlfriend Abbie (Danielle Pineda) for instance. Actually all of them were believable and kinda worked, so I'm guess I'm recommending it. The film is a bit of an all-star cast of Edward Burns's acting troupe, past and present. McGlome was in "The Brother McMullan", as was Connie Britton who shows up as a love interest for Gerry, who's been reluctant to date after his wife died in 9/11. Bishe's one of my favorite actresses, who I've loved since the last season of "Scrubs", and she gave a great performance in Burns's last film the underrated "Newlyweds". "The Fitzgerald Family Christmas" is all that it's trying to be, but nothing much more, and I guess that's okay. I was underwhelmed at the end, but I'll still recommend it for what it's got that's good.


TAI CHI ZERO (2012) Director: Stephen Fung

3 1/2 STARS



"Tai Chi Zero" is one of the strangest and most absurd and fun martial arts movies I've ever seen. It's easy to see how a sequel to it, "Tai Chi Hero" has already been made. It's the kind of movie, where a new character comes on screen, and then it tells us who the actor is, and what he was in before, as to make sure we recognize the cameo, and then later, possibly make more connections for us. It's insouciant, it's completely uninhibited from logic and thinking; the kind of movie that seems to have been edited by those Mystery Science Theater robots in tune to their immediate thoughts when watching the film. I don't know what this movie looked like on the script; it mustn't have been much, I can't imagine they wrote in, "SUPERIMPOSE: Hey, that's Andy Lau, he directed the 'Infernal Affairs' Trilogy!" The movie is about a "Freak" (Jayden Yuan) who was destined to save Chen Village, because he was born with a horn on his head that allows him to be a master at tai chi when somebody bangs on it, and he's able to take out armies on tai chi alone. The only drawback is that, when it gets banged on enough, it'll kill him, so he has to learn a less aggressive and more cerebral form of tai chi, and do so before a steamtrunk foreign military begins making it's attack on Chen Village. That's the most I got out of it anyway, but the movie's not about the story anyway. It's about it's style. High-energy, full of special effects, and breaking of the fourth wall action and excitement. If anything, the movie slows down too much when there's not much going on, and some other character, like a love interest is introduced. There isn't much depth to "Tai Chi Zero", which, is perfectly fine; how many martial arts films are that depthful, but this made me smile, and kept me interested by trying everything and anything it could, and that's why I'm looking forward to getting around to the sequel later.


THE WELL-DIGGER'S DAUGHTER (2012) Director: Daniel Auteuil

2 STARS



As I watched Daniel Auteuil's directorial debut "The Well-Digger's Daughter", I couldn't help but think back on the two films that made him a superstar actor in France, the great Claude Berri movies "Jean de Florette" and "Manon of the Spring"; I wrote about them once in multiple Canon of Film entries before, the links are below:

http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2012/02/canon-of-film-jean-de-florette_22.html
http://davidbaruffi.blogspot.com/2012/02/manon-of-spring-1987.html

The mood was similar in tone, the locations seemed the same, many of the characters seemed to have the same traits, and especially when compared to "Manon...", the objectives and behaviors of some of the characters seemed similar. I should've trusted my initial instinct. The movie was based on a novel by Marcel Pagnol, who also wrote the novels that "Jean..." and "Manon" were based on, and Auteuil's been hired to direct three more Pagnol adaptations. He's often regarded as the Dickens of Southern France, and his novels do seem to deal with the struggles of class in the wake of both love and money, similar to Dickens. This borrows slightly, the premise from "Great Expectations", in which a young child is given an opportunity by a mysterious rich benefactor to go to a more accomplished school, in the city, in this case Paris, and in this case, a young woman, Patricia (Astrid Burges-Frisbey), the second-oldest of six daughters of a well-digger Pascal Amoretti (Auteuil), and now 18, she's back, with a Parisian accent and style, and ready for the formal world, but still mostly in town to help watch over her siblings for her father. Her father would like her to marry his longtime-employee Felipe (Kad Merad), but instead, she falls in love with the son of a general store owner, Jacques (Nicolas Duvauchelle). This is when, I started losing interest, and found the story a little too ornery. A romance between them, is of course, a break in the class barriers, but Patricia gets pregnant, right as Jacques goes flying off to WWI, literally like, the day she finds out, and a letter was sent but never delivered, 'cause a misunderstanding, and a fairly predictable one, that last until long after he finally returns. (There was a similar undelivered letter in "Manon..." which had more dire consequences, here, it plays more like comical farce, perhaps something out of "The Importance of Being Earnest" perhaps, minus the airheads. Maybe if I knew abut the story ahead of time, I would've been more intrigued. As it is however, I was mostly bored, waiting for the inevitable. The families to fight, the reunion, the secrets being revealed, yada, yada, yada. Well, I look forward to seeing more film of Pagnol's work from Auteuil, I hope the next one is better, but for now, I can't imagine myself sitting through "The Well-Digger's Daughter" again. An interesting project, but still, I can't quite recommend it.


SIDE BY SIDE: CAN FILM SURVIVE OUR DIGITAL FUTURE (2012) Director: Christopher Kenneally

4 STARS



Produced by Keanu Reeves, who also acts as the film's interviewer and narrator for much of it, "Side By Side: Can Film Survive Our Digital Age", doesn't exactly give us new information per se about the film-to-digital transformation, but for those who might not be aware of what's going on, and the sides, equipment, history and technology involved, then this is a good overview of it. Digital video cameras have come a long way since Anthony Dod Mantle started putting them on a poll, in Tomas Vinterberg's "Celebration", and the Dogme '95 movement, reinvented the way young filmmakers can make movies, cheaper than ever before, with more freedom, and for the first time, with a quality that's good enough for the big screen. Basically, this argument's been going on forever. Not too long ago, words were exchange between Wally Pfister, who's interviewed for this film and still shoots his movies, mostly as the Oscar-winning DP for Christopher Nolan and Seamus McGarvey the D.P. most famous for working with Joe Wright on his films, but also was the cinematographer for "The Avengers", and shoots primarily on digital, as Pfister criticized his use of moving around the camera on "The Avengers" as being without purpose or adding anything to the storytelling. This is a common disagreement between film and digital people. Digital is smaller, cheaper, especially as film camera aren't being made and 35mm film itself is becoming scarcer, and frankly, with the RED Cams and now, the Alexa, as well as other new digital cameras that really can legitimately replicate the look and feel of film, or at least they're getting closer and closer than ever before. Still, the debate rages on. Some argue which is better for the film to be preserved. Film is flammable, but more careful than digital, and when it is preserved, film can survive, while digital hypothetically can survive forever, but as some make the point, people can easily forget about those little discs of footage that are more fragile than most would prefer, and hardly anybody makes the copies they need. I can from my chair here, the little poach I have of the raw footage I shot for my short film in film school, that never got finished and died in the editing room. On the one hand, I wish I'd taken better care of it, but then again, how? Digital changes the industry in other ways, no more waiting around for loaders to reload the camera every few takes, and now longer shots are possible now. (An entire movie was actually made without a cut a few years back, "Russian Ark", something that would've been impossible, not twenty years ago. That's great for directors, but oddly enough, actors complain about needing and missing the breaks between shots, which now don't exist. Ultimately, digital is gonna win out, at least that's the message that I got from watching "Side By Side...", even the most hardcore film supporters in the film admitted to seeing value in some of the latest model digital cameras. The aforementioned Anthony Dod Mantle, set a precedent when he won an Oscar for the cinematography for "Slumdog Millionaire", marking the first time the award was given to a film shot on digital. It'll be more common in the future, and by future I mean, probably tomorrow. As for the documentary, it's filled with well-know talking heads across the spectrum of behind the scenes and in front of the camera people. It's informative, and entertaining, maybe I knew about this too much going in, but other than that, it's definitely worth watching, and I did learn a few things. Being a writer I am weak on camera and lenses in my film knowledge personally, and short of taking classes and spending hours at JR's Lighting to learn everything, "Side by Side" is a good cliff notes version of Day 1, of your Cinematography class. So I recommend you watch the film, and then, probably find a good DP for your film. Trust me, it's worth it.


HEADHUNTERS  (2012) Director: Morten Tydlem

3 STARS



Following the story of "Headhunters" is quite a task. It's one of those movies with so many crosses and double-crosses and cons within cons with cons, that at some point I just frankly gave up, and just let the film do whatever it was going to do. Even now, as I'm writing this, and I rarely do this, even with the most forgettable of movies, I'm started replaying the movie in a Netflix stream as I type up this review. I should note, that 99 out of 100 time I would ever do that, would be for a movie I like, and this is one of those times. The first thing I notice now about the film, is the excessive nudity, both male and female, and that's good. Another I recall, is the quirky style in the begin, which turns far more deadly and dark as the film goes on and things go wrong, things go right, and other things go wrong, but in the right way. The Norwegian film is narrated by Roger Brown (Askel Hennie) and he's a headhunter, in the business sense, he searches for people and convinces companies to hire them for high-paying jobs. He's fairly rich, but overcompensates because of his height. He's got a hot gallery-owner wife Diana (Synnove Macody Lund) and occasionally, uses the perks of the headhunters job to work as an art thief, stealing and then selling art from the people he works for. He's in a bit of a jam currently, and is working on getting together a crew, for a big art heist, and that's where I started getting lost and cheated, and like most con or robbery movies nowadays, they never show you every detail of how something happens until the end, and then you're still a little confused. That's not the worst thing though, it certainly worked effectively with "American Hustle" recently, and if I could think of a different way to most effective tell a con movie, I would, but I do think it's becoming unimaginative. What isn't unimaginative however, is the this movie continue to swerve and mix us up. At points, some of the bungles in the movie would've fit right in in a Coen Brothers film, other times, it seems more Scorsese-ish, and other times, it just keeps us fascinated but confused. The film is by Morten Tydlem, who made most of his fame as a director for the long-running show "U", before switching to films, this is his third feature, and he's been following the Scandinavian trend lately of these more intense mystery-thrillers filled with sex and violence, and seem inspired from '70s Film School-grad American films, like Oplev's "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" for instance. This movie, isn't quite in that league, but it has it's moments. It seems to be taking from everywhere, and while the result is a bit of a mess; it's an interesting mess, an entertaining mess that keeps you interested. Definitely worth recommending.


BROOKLYN CASTLE (2012) Director: Katie Dellamaggiore

2 1/2 STARS



I've been playing chess since I was in elementary school. I used to be better at it, but I moved onto poker at some point, although I still do collect chess sets whenever I can. I'm pretty sure we did have a chess team at my high school, or a chess club at least. I must admit, the more you know and study chess, at least in these modern day and time, the less impressed you get with it. Back before computers basically figured out the mathematical nature of the game, despite the literal seemingly endless possible chess games that can hypothetically occur, it was consider a standard of excellence and genius, although as it's noted in the film, Albert Einstein's chess rating would only make him the fifth best if he was on the team of I.S. 318, the regular high school in Brooklyn that's renowned for there chess team having won decades of national championships. "Brooklyn Castle" takes a look at the modern version of this team. The classes devoted to chess that are designed just for them. The continuous budget cuts that puts their program in constant jeopardy, and force the participants to put up more of their own money for travelling to contests and having in school preparation. We learn about a few of the students, the one that intrigued me most was Rachelle Ballantyne, who's working on becoming the first African American female grandmaster.  She'll probably be able to do it too, she's close already. There's contests as well, and we're following them game-by-game until the end, which is a little too typical of films such as these, the formulas been around for awhile now, probably starting with "Wordplay" about crossword puzzlers, or "Spellbound" about the Scripps National Spelling Bee. While I appreciated "Brooklyn Castle," I can't say that I  was particularly entertained by this film, and while the accomplishment of I.S. 318 are impressive and worth noting, the movie really isn't interesting or entertaining enough. This would've been a better short subject and they were kinda stretching it a bit. Chess is a great skill, and requires talent to be good at it, especially this good at it, but, it's not particularly entertaining. The movie doesn't really have the cerebral feel of a good chess game. It's not even aggressive like a dominant game, it's too passive and analytical, which is the perfect way to lose a game, and the worse way to make a film, especially a documentary.


STEALING BEAUTY (1996) Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

3 STARS



I know personally I should be more acquainted with Bernardo Bertolucci's work, and I am definitely familiar with it, but I must say that I usually have a hard time going out-of-my-way for his work sometimes. His best films are about creating moods and worlds however grandiose like in his Oscar-winning masterpiece "The Last Emperor" or in his best film, "Last Tango in Paris" a film of extreme intimacy. This movie, isn't particularly imaginative in the plot department, a young American girl, 19-year-old Lucy Harmon (Liv Tyler) is traveling to Tuscany for the summer, with nothing more than a notebook, clothes, and Liz Phair's "Whip-Smart" album, to stay with her mother's old friends. Her mother passed away young, back in New York, but she was a world-renowned poet, which is the profession she's currently exploring. She's looking for a couple people in particular, one is her birth father, another is a young boy she met when she had visited years ago, and sent her a poem that years later, she's still kept and remember. It's strange how women remember things like that, I'd had multiple people who I can barely remember, tell me how much they admired what I wrote about them in their high school yearbooks. I hate to tell them that most of the time, I was just trying to think of something to write about them, that didn't sound either completely stupid or asinine but anyway...- Being that she's in Tuscany, where topless sunbathing and open dinner table discussions about affairs and sex that everyone's having is the norm, and that she looks like Liv Tyler and is a virgin, a secondary objective on the trip-, well, you're all ahead of me there I suppose. Lucy befriends more than a few people, probably most memorably is Jeremy Irons as a gay playwright, who's dying from AIDS, and he seems to be hitting on her the least. Of course, the movie is really about the mood and tone of trips to summer villas in Tuscany, the playfulness, the get-togethers with artists, the sensual characters at the fringes, all of whom, seem to remember her from her previous visit rather easily, which I found surprising. There's a supporting performance by a very young Rachel Weisz, playing one of the neighbors that's somewhat surprising if you didn't know ahead of time she was in the film. Much was made of the plot involving Lucy's search for her real father because of how it mirrors Liv Tyler's own past, (If you've been living under a rock for most of my lifetime and don't know that story, just look it up.) and it is one of her better and more engaging performance. As a film, "Stealing Beauty" is good, although probably not great; it's not among the essential Bertolucci, but it's a nice little break between his more interesting work. It's a world of artists and bohemians, and eroticism and it's for people who like those sort of mood pieces despite a weak plot.



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