Thursday, February 6, 2014

MOVIE REVIEWS #80: "DESPICABLE ME 2", "ELYSIUM", "EPIC", "THE INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE", "DEAD MAN DOWN", "BYZANTIUM", "WISH YOU WERE HERE", "UNA NOCHE", "IN THE FOG", "KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN", "GOOD OL' FREDA", "THE RABBI'S CAT", and MORE!

I went back to look at my old review of "Mission: Impossible III" which I wrote in the form of a hypothetical film that J.J. Abrams was hypothesizing what he'd do for a "Mission: Impossible" sequel, and I wrote in that review:

"...The series has been missing- it needs a villain. A good villain.... Somebody who can go head-to-head with Cruise. Be as powerful as him, be as conniving, really get under his skin. Literally and figuratively. A real vicious villain for him to go against, and this is where I'm spending my money. Philip Seymour Hoffman!... Whatever it takes, we're getting Philip Seymour Hoffman, the best actor of this generation, against the biggest movie star of this generation."

It's been a few days, and frankly, I think a lot of us are still reeling from the sudden and shocking death of the great Phil Hoffman. And we've all been going through his filmography, just dumbfounded that he's no longer with us. He won an Oscar for "Capote" got three more nominations, on top of three Tonys and an Emmy nomination, and that doesn't begin to describe the monumental loss of his many talents, particularly acting talents, but he had started directing in theater and film as well. I gave 5 STARS to his directorial debut "Jack Goes Boating", and pre-production had started on his second directing effort, and he had even shot a pilot for Showtime through his own production company. The guy's created so many great and memorable characters, that it's almost literally impossible to narrow down any particular favorite, although I remember first really seeing him, in around 2000, and in a span of about a month or so, I had seen "Almost Famous", "Magnolia", "State and Main" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" at around the same time, and remaining baffled that the same guy could play all those roles. The guy can play anything, comedy, drama, good guy, bad guy, over-the-top eccentric, ultimate minimalism, even the worst of his films he's being singled out for memorable performances from them. His death, is nothing but tragic. Way too soon, so depressing a way to die, through his own personal demons coming back to him. It doesn't seem right, doesn't feel right. I mean, we've got a great body of work from him, and yet it still feels like we're in the first chapter, and now the book's over. To the best actor of this generation, I hope he's at peace wherever he is now; I hope he knows how much we loved him.

On to, less depressing thoughts, I've been getting cranky lately. I-Been bombarded with bad movies, and a lot of overzealous people who seem to be upset that I would rather come off as an authority figure expecting my opinions than simply as one of the guys who happens to like movies. Well, I never was one of the guys, and I spent my whole life making sure that if something fascinated me, that I would then become a much of an expert at it as I could, which is the point where in my mind, I can even begin to talk about things. To some extent, by calling myself an expert in that last sentence, I hope I'm wrong, and that I have a lot of learning, but I'll be honest, it's hard to be the perpetual student, why you spend most of your time trying to teach others the basics, and then be treated as though I don't have a Film Degree of haven't written, directed, produced..., acted, even, or been as scholarly. I know, nothing on any project that almost anyone has ever seen, but that doesn't make it any less, and if I was more able to do more, I know I would. Well, let is be said that I don't start talking unless I absolutely know what I'm talking about, or try to anyway, and that may annoy some, but on the other hand, I don't accept the idea of shaping things down to the audience; I prefer to let the audience rise up to me. It's a personal quandary that I find myself constantly dealing with on multiple levels right now, and that's all I'll say about that for the moment.

My own personal vague struggles aside, let's get to this week's RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with a review of the OSCAR-NOMINATED film, "Despicable Me 2"!


DESPICABLE ME 2 (2013) Directors: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud

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In all of children's literature, I must admit that the Minions from the "Despicable Me" movies, are quickly becoming my favorite slaves, right behind the Wonka's Oompa Loompas and of course, Santa's elves. They're so fascinating. Where did Gru (Steve Carell) find them? And how did he convince them to seemingly all work for him and help pursue his dastardly deeds, or even now, his lines of jams and jellies. How did they become such perfect foils for this old-school form of physical comedy like Laurel & Hardy or the Three Stooges. They don't even speak any discernible language known to man, but we always know what they're saying and joking to each other and their thoughts, whether quoting the most famous lines from "Toy Story" in moments of unexpected glee in the face of danger, or in the most mundane acts of work which they almost always seem to manage to screw up and get done perfectly at the same time. They're like that scene from "Modern Times" where Chaplin has to sing as a waiter and it's the first time he ever spoke onscreen, and while the song was emotional and performed well, he actually didn't say anything in any form of language. They're quite unique and I can understand why my Facebook wall was flooded with them on some days despite the movie not being particularly special. I liked it, but it wasn't even nominated for Best Animated Feature the year it came out, and frankly I preferred it's competing film "Megamind" which also happened to also be about a bad guy who suddenly becomes a good guy. And I was particularly surprised when "Despicable Me" got it's sequel since there wasn't really too many places to go with the story. I mean, what was he gonna go, go back to being evil and ruling the world and screw up with his adopted kids? Well, we do meet Gru, his kids are a little bit older now, Margo's (Miranda Cosgrove) is starting to get back into guys, which grosses out Edith (Dana Gaier) and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) is into fairy princesses for her birthday, and all of them think Gru should start dating and possibly get married. Enter Lucy (Kristen Wiig) a new trainee at the AVL, the Anti-Villains League and they want to hire him to try and catch an evil villain they suspect is hiding out at a town mall somewhere. The villain has apparently made a giant magnet that's sucked up all the metal from a Top Secret Russian lab that was experimenting with transformation drugs that have some unintended menacing side effects, in a really well-done opening sequence that looked like it could've been in a "Mission: Impossible" movie or something. "Despicable Me 2" represents the first time an eligible sequel earned an Oscar nomination in the Best Animated Feature category, while the original version did not, that's definitely noteworthy, and it actually got two nominations as Pharrell Williams's song "Happy" got into Best Song, and although I like that song a lot, I have a feeling that ten years down the road nobody's gonna remember the movie. Although they'll definitely remember the Minions. Actually, I'm not sure they're simply slaves, although I can't imagine they're getting paid much with an ex-evil villain as their boss. Maybe it's a sharecropping kind of arrangement? Maybe the next film should be the minions trying to get unionized?


ELYSIUM (2013) Director: Neill Blomkamp

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After his first feature, the powerful sci-fi thriller, "District 9" received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination, in spite of having to compete against "Avatar" in the Sci-Fi department, Neill Blomkamp's follow-up is sure to get scrutinized if it falters by some of the fans. It has many of the same themes as "District 9", futuristic, enslavement of a race, a lone unlikely hero fitting for it's survival; metaphoric themes that have clear relations to modern times, even the style and look of the worlds he creates, this contrasting view of Earth where the technologically advanced are side-by-side with the third world. Even though, on Earth, the movie is supposedly set in Los Angeles in the 22nd Century, I could help but notice, the flag of South Africa, on one of the helicopter-like gunnery spaceships. He set "District 9" in Johannesburg, his birthplace, and when you really think about it, where technology is eventually gonna make the biggest improvements and cultural clash is probably Africa. "Elysium", is a place miles up into the sky where the rich live in the most pristine gated community in the universe, and are protected-, no segregated from Earth to the point where they're living hundreds of years longer through their excellent medicare and basically have become a bullying force against all unscheduled flights where Earthlanders would try and cross the border. On Earth, Los Angeles looks like the third world and few Elysium residents reside, and are particularly segregated when they do, refusing to let even the air they breath get onto them. Max (Matt Damon) is a convicted felon who's lucky to have the job he has considering how few have one. At work, he gets hit with a lethal dose of radiation poisoning, and only has five days to live, unless he can get to Elysium. He makes a deal a cyber-coyote I guess would be the word, Spider (Wagner Moura) which entails Max and his friend Julio (Diego Luna) stealing the thoughts of a big-time CEO, John Carlyle (William Fitchner) by crashing his spaceship and defeating his robot defense and downloading his mind, before the all-seeing all-knowing Elysium police force, represented here by a headstrong, genocidal leader, Delacourt (Jodie Foster, doing a very peculiar accent) catches and arrests them. She also must then destroy Max personally, because the information in Carlyle's brain involved the beginning of her attempt at a coup to take over Elysium, and now if they're in the wrong hands, the line between Earth and Elysium would be eradicated forever, along with every disease in the world. On the way, there's an old schoolage friend Frey (Alice Braga) who he runs into, who's daughter Matilda (Emma Tremblay) is suffering from Leukemia, which along with radiation poisoning can be cured in seconds, if you're a resident of Elysium. The parables are beyond blatant but the world Blomkamp creates is unforgettable. His vision's clearly gonna be one that survives for awhile. "Elysium" does have quite a few problems with it. The sides are so black and white for instance, that there's no room in the middle and for the most part, the story itself remains completely predictable. There's truly nothing completely new here, other than the person making it, and that's why I'm recommending it. This is what he comes up with, when there's no originality, and you're still involved and intrigued right to the end; it's truly an example of it's not the story itself, it's how it's told that makes it worthwhile.

EPIC (2013) Director: Chris Wedge

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At 102 minutes, "Epic" is hardly epic in length, although that's probably one of the better things I can say about it. "Epic" is part "Ferngully: The Last Rainforest" and part "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids", and probably part something else that was probably so bad I blocked it from my mind after all these years. There's been a lot of this kind of blandness in animation lately, and it's starting to get annoying. Actually it's been annoying. Where to begin on this one. The movie takes place in a rainforest where some kind of microscopic fairy-like creatures have somehow evaded being noticed or captured all these years, particularly by an obsessed scientist Bomba (Jason Sudeikis) who they refer to as a stomper that's tries to investigate them, and while they occasionally leave clues, he still hasn't found them yet. This is probably what he will do before spending all night inventing flubber. He all but ignores his daughter Mary Katherine (Amanda Seyfried) as he obsesses over these supposed creatures. The creatures are real however, and are in the middle of a traditional royal ceremony where the Queen (Beyonce Knowles) picks a new pod that a snail and a slug, Dagda and Mub (Blake Anderson and Aziz Ansari) transport somewhere where a prophecy will be fulfilled, and just in time as the Leafmans, as they're called, are under attack from the Boggans, led by a run-of-the-mill bad guy in Mandrake (Christoph Waltz). Then, through magic, or whatever, Mary Katherine becomes one of the leafman and has been somehow selected as the one who's supposed to fulfill the destiny and deliver the pod. Shrunk, now she's following the great warrior Ronin (Colin Farrell) as well as the rebellious young soldier, Nod (Chad Hutchinson) who, because they're two teenage aged people of differing sexes in an animated film, suddenly kinda start falling in love, in the middle of this whole mess. You know, this is the latest animated project from Blue Sky Studios, which was founded by a bunch of renegade animators Disney dumped after they worked on "Tron" in the early eighties, and started making feature films in '02 with "Ice Age" and frankly, they're collection of features is some of the most unremarkable and unimpressive animated features in recent. The animation is find, but even decent projects like "Robots" and "Rio" are clearly more focused on the brights colors and the striking use of CGI than creating memorable characters or telling great stories. With a generic title like "Epic", you'd think there'd at least be an epic film, and this movie barely flutters to a moderately entertaining anecdote. The so-called golden age of animation is already nearing it's end it seems and "Epic" is just one more comatose death nail into that age.


THE  INCREDIBLE BURT WONDERSTONE (2013) Director: Don Scardino

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(CONFLICT OF INTEREST WARNING: As with any movie that shot in Las Vegas, there's a possibly that I may first or secondhand know one or two people who worked on the film.)

(Showing an ace of spades, putting it in the middle of the deck of cards that I always have on me [Oh yes, that's true, I always have a deck of cards on me, and no, you shouldn't trust me.]) You don't live in Las Vegas as long as I have without knowing, a little about magic. (As I shuffle cards, then do a two single-hand cut with my cards, switching hands in between, and then revealing the ace of spades on the top.) I've met or known a few magicians and know more than a few people who've worked with them, and I know a good deal about the world of magic that they're satirizing in "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone," especially magic on the Strip. From the Mac King and Amazing Jonathan to the David Copperfield and Siegfried & Roy's, and some of the more obscure ones. I know there's a decent chance that if you're at the Rio on a random afternoon, you might see Penn Jillette at the Starbucks reading a paper or something like that, although it'd be a little rare to see Teller with him as the two don't typically hang out together, not because their entire friendship is an act or broken down or something like that, but that are separate people with separate lives outside of their act, although together, they take magic very, very seriously, which is why their show is still fresh and constantly adding new tricks after all these years. Strangely they were the two biggest names not parodied to some extent in the film, where the Incredible Burt & Anton (Steve Carell and Steve Buscemi) play lifelong magicians who met in school, and became fast friends through their love of magic after Burt got a Rance Holloway (Alan Arkin) Magic Kit as a kid. After years of selling out the Bally's owned by Casino entrepreneur Doug Munny (James Gandolfini, in one of his last performances) their very cliched act has long grown stale, especially as competing street magician Steve Gray (Jim Carrey, parodying Criss Angel) and his hit TV show, "Mind Rapist", has become more and more popular, while Burt has continued to become lazier and lazier with his show. After they fail at a stunt trick involving a hotbox levitating over the Las Vegas Strip, Anton leaves the group and after he heals, goes off to the third world to bring magic to the poor and starving. Burt, becomes a hack who eventually has only their last female assistant, Jane (Olivia Wilde) who's an impressive magician herself, and was basically belittled by Burt when they briefly worked together. He finally ends up at an old Vegas performer's retirement home (Which, actually, those places do kind of exist) where he finds an aging Rance Holloway, who he begins trying to convince to come back and help him develop a new act, which he must perfect before Munny's new hotel, the Doug (It's actually the Planet Hollywood, but whatever) opens and he can enter a contest to become the headline act, and yes, he competes against Grey, who's been levitating everywhere and holding his pee in for weeks as his latest stunt. So, I guess it's not too surprising where the story ends up, some of it is funny, and I certainly got a kick out of some of the satires on the material, although I wasn't big on the Michael Herbig character who always has a new injury from the animals he works with in his act. (I know it's ten years, since Roy Horn's injury, but-eh, listen folks, that's a bit off-limits for Las Vegans. I mean, no matter what you think about the use of animals in acts, of any kind, and I don't blame you most of the time, but-eh, there love of animals isn't an act of any kind, and we know, if somebody was caught mistreated their animals, they'd be fired ASAP, and they were, and the town knew about it if it happened.) Also, the trick that they perform at the end, there's a couple ways to do it, but the way they did it, was not one of them, and it wouldn't be legal for them to do it that way. So, it's a mix bag for me "The Incredible Burt Wonderstone"; I think there was more material that they didn't explore, like really making it clear how the Steve Gray character thinks he's transcending magic and can actually do some of the things he does. (Which is actually somewhat accurate to how Criss Angel thinks, he does believe that if he believes enough that he can actually fly, that sorta thing, and made that a little more clear.) There was untapped material left hanging here, and besides that, there's it's always a little hard to do magic on film, because everything can be special effected in, so it does make a lot of the so-called "magic" a little less impressive, but still, I'll recommend it barely. It's not a great comedy but there's enough here to keep you entertained, despite the missed opportunities.


DEAD MAN DOWN (2013) Director: Niels Arden Oplev

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Niels Arden Oplev's follow-up to the great original Swedish version of "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo", is the rather curiously-named thriller "Dead Man Down". I hope the dead men is down, or else it'd be called "Zombie". (Audience Boos) I know, that's a stupid hack joke, but it makes me laugh. The supposed dead man is Victor (Colin Farrell) who works as a hitman for an underworld crime boss named Alphonse (Terrence Howard). One night, he was spotted by a former beautician, Beatrice (Noomi Rapace) who's out-of-work after a car accident deformed her face partially. They go on a shy date, and just when we expect the scenes where he hides his true identity from her, and in a way we do, but not quite the way we expect. I goodnight ride home turns frantic, as Beatrice demands that Victor, who she's caught in the act of killing, bring him to the house of her deformer, and insists that he kills him or she'll tell the police. This alone, would've been an interesting quandary for a film, but the movie gets a little more complicated than that. On top of the fact that they both start falling for each other, but Victor is actually on a "Death Wish"-like undercover mission to infiltrate the gang that killed his family, and they think him, and take them out one-by-one along the way, torturing them, by leaving torn pieces of photos along the way, as Alphonse starts getting more and more paranoid, justifiably so, but they can't quite piece the puzzle together. There's also a fascinating performance by Isabelle Huppert as Beatrice's mother, who looks like she may have had fun in her life, but is now a worried mother who cares about her cooking and that her tupperware be returned. It's a bit of a dark mess, and I'm clearly in the minority, but I found "Dead Man Down" to be continuously intense, and I was definitely interested in how it was going to turn, so I'm recommending it, barely. I was entertained; it's not a particularly important or special film in the genre, although the beginning is quite a good shock. The characters are surprisingly intriguing for this kind of film, and I liked the sweet shy romantic aspects of two people who are both physically and mentally damaged because of acts others committed against them, trying to work out a relationship, while also trying to deal with their desires for revenge, while also fighting their inner turmoil to regain a sense of themselves. Not a perfect film, but definitely an intriguing one.



BYZANTIUM (2013) Director: Neil Jordan

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Neil Jordan's always made some special films, but when he does seem to falter, and he has been lately, it's when he gets caught up in letting the emotional tone take over the work, often drowning out whatever potential story was there. I remember watching his film "The End of the Affair" not too long ago, which has a great performance from Julianne Moore in the middle of an turn-of-the-century romance, yet I couldn't force myself to recommend the film 'cause it just got so bogged down that once it did try to start climbing out of that rabbit hole, I couldn't even care by the end. "Byzantum" suffers from a similar problem. Clara (Gemma Arteron) works as a stripper/prostitute at night, until she ends up sucking the blood out of one of her clients, and then she and Eleanor (Sairose Ronan), her daughter, have to then relocate, hoping the next place doesn't repeat the pattern and their secrets of being vampires can remain hidden. Eleanor is school-age while Clara, who I believe is her sister supposedly only occasionally talks about their mother, who also worked as a prostitute about 200 years ago. The movie continually flashes back and forth from the modern time, where Eleanor is writing this story for school, and young Frank (Caleb Landry Jones) begins falling for her, and the past where a brood of male vampires in some kind of group that have protected their secrets for years, although there existence and history is never fully explained, other than that Clara somehow escaped their wrath and are forever after her and Eleanor. A few reviews mention a film Jordan directed that I forgot he did direct, the classic Anne Rice adaptation "Interview with the Vampire", which some would argue started the whole vampire trend back in the early nineties. I forgot he directed it, because I couldn't stand that film, and had tried to put it out of my mind, and firmly believe that Anne Rice's popularity mostly resorts from the fact that vampire fetishists will read and like anything with vampires in them, and because she writes in some kind of bizarre romantic tone. "Byzantium" has some of that, but it mostly fails by being too slow, and really being discombobulated by the end. The movie seemed to be going in too many directions for me to care about, is it the past that's important, or the current mother/daugther struggles in their relationship, or the mysterious vampires league that's following them, or the keeping of their secret that's important; if felt like they couldn't stick to a consistent tone or train of thought. "Byzantium" was based off of Moira Buffini's play "A Vampire Story", and she adapted the screenplay, and the film starts out with an interesting enough premise, but by the end of the movie, I could barely remember what it was as it flew off in other directions.


WISH YOU WERE HERE (2013) Director: Kieran Darcy-Smith

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"Wish You Were Here" is kinda like the realism version of Michelangelo Antonioni's "L'Avventura", and real side effects of what would happen if you went on vacation and suddenly, one of your party, mysteriously disappeared in a foreign land. The land is Cambodia, in southeast, and the missing member of the crew is Jeremy King (Antony Starr) the boyfriend of Steph McKinney (Teresa Palmer), and the other couple are husband and wife, Dave and Steph McKinnie (Felicity Price, who co-wrote the screenplay with her writer/director husband Kieran Darcy-Smith). Teresa is a schoolteacher and Dave and Steph are in the middle of a strugglign marriage with young kids. The movie begins, after the incident and the three remaining parties are back home in the states, while Interpol and other agencies are working on Jeremy's disappearance, but after weeks have gone by their not finding any clues. The night he went missing, everybody was partying hard, taken some ecstacy, and somehow the parties involved separated and collided with each other through the night, lost track of Jeremy. Needless to say, everybody knows more than they're saying out loud to the police, or to each other, although eventually things will get said, and things will get explained, and detailing any of those revelations, would be beyond pointless. The movie's about that tension between the characters, as they all must deal with this event, that all of them in some way are responsible for, including Jeremy. I'll give in and say that, if you think Cambodia is an awfully strange place to go on vacation, well, you're correct in that, and some of the possibles reasoning behind that choice, may also be apart of the events. It's the erratic behaviors of the characters; it's the cross-cutting and the flashback, the quick-cutting handheld camera, and this is the real just of "Wish You Were Here", a title that seems to have a much darker meaning upon reflection of the film. This isn't an easy to sit through, but it's an effective one, even if it plays like one of those mysteries or plays where, the climax comes as characters finally reveal truths during the crucial third act (Or earlier) that completely change and alter the events before. I don't know if it has any real impact other than that, but it's incredibly well-made and intense, and that's all this kind of movie needs to be. The movie is non-linear in structure although it was so discombobulated in terms of emotional turmoil that it didn't feel like it was to me, emotionally the movie was there. Part of me wishes they used the Pink Floyd song in the movie, but that would've been the complete wrong tone; be forewarned this isn't a film where "Wish You Were Here" means, "Missing you," as much as it means, "...then we wouldn't be in this mess."


UNA NOCHE 
(2013) Director: Lucy Malloy

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Lucy Malloy's debut feature, the Cuban film, "Una Noche" debuted in America on IFC, without getting a theatrical release, but it received multiple Spirit Award nominations, won big and numerous festivals including Berlin, and many tumultuous wins in Tribeca, during with a firestorm frenzy erupted after the film's two male leads reportedly went missing and asked the U.S. Government for asylum. "Una Noche" is set in two parts, essentially, one in Havana, and the other on the ocean seas. I've always had a fascination with films from Cuba. In many ways, Havana is a city lost in time, captured and segregated from much of the world has left the city more arousing and enchanting than ever, even amid the gross poverty.  While Raul (Daniel Arrechaga) and Elio (Javier Nunez Florian) are the main focus, the film is actually narrated by Lila (Anailin de la Rua de la Torre), Elio's younger sister, who's voice over is somewhere between the all-knowing narrator in "Y Tu Mama Tambien" and the only half-knowing distracted narrator of the young girl in "Days of Heaven". The first half of the movie seems almost random and plotless as Elio's accused of a sexual assault, and is scheming and working his way through Havana, not just, spending his last day in town, but collecting materials and building a makeshift raft to make that notorious 90 mile journey to the Miami shore. Raul reluctantly agrees to work on the raft and go with them, and Lila also eventually joins in, as the second half of the movie, documents the teenagers' treacherous voyage. The first half is full of life and the character of Havana, spinning from place to place, and person-to-person, from the transvestite prostitutes in the alleys to the market owners in the stores. Each of these characters could probably have their own interesting film made about them, but the hectic pacing is really to show  us a quick snapshot of the world they're leaving behind moreso than making any logical sense. In some halves of the film seem like two different movies, but I think that's a strength of "Una Noche" or "One Night". The cinematography and editing is really well-done, the moving handheld cameras felt a little like Daniel Meirelles's great work in the great Brazilian film "City of God", but with a much more observant pace. There's a lot going on here that Malloy is using and developing. She's borrowing from a lot of places, but it all molds together in a very unique style. The simplicity of the plot of the film, is smart as it leaves room for us to enjoy the excitement of the tale and really showcase her skills. "Una Noche" is a very well-done first feature, and I'm looking forward to see what else Malloy can do. I know she started as documentary filmmaker and is a Spike Lee disciple, working with him on a few of his projects, and she's got a viewpoint that's still in development, but already you can see the seeds of a really talented filmmaker at work here.


IN THE FOG (2013) Director: Sergei Lozitzna

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While now thought of in terms of Errol Morris's great documentary about Robert McNamara, the origin of the phrase "the fog of war," dates back to the Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz, and "In the Fog", in hindsight, seems to epitomize that feeling. It's a quiet film that seems to dive into it's heart of darkness, but actually, this is more of a disorienting and unpredictable haze. Based on a novel by the famed Russian novelist Visili Bykov, the war, is World War II, in the Western area of the Soviet Union, which is under German occupation. (I don't remember exactly where, but probably around modern-day Belarus or Ukraine. Sushenya (Vladimir Svirskiy) only just recently returned from being captured by the Nazis who accused him and three other co-conspirators. He claimed he was innocent, but as they come and take him for his eventual execution, everyone believes he was, and he seems to have resigned himself to his death. He even asks if he needs to bring his shovel as he says goodbye to his wife, Grishna (Nikita Peremotovs) who even believes he's guilty. He two transporters Burov and Voitik (Vladislav Abashin and Sergei Kolesov) begin the long journey to his inevitable death, somewhere between the chess game journey with death in "The Seventh Seal" to the absurdism of Samuel Beckett. I've sat through the film twice now, and both times, I found myself just drifting along as they ran through gunfights, injuries, wrong directions and conflicting orders. I can't particularly say I like the film, it doesn't play well on film. The story is inherently an inner journey moreso than the actual trek over the river and through the woods, and that makes it hard to appreciate. I think that's purposeful, and that's why I'm recommending it, but this is a film that challenges your patience, and a little too much of the movie. I gave a negative review last week to James Franco's "As I Lay Dying" for basically same reason, for trying to get the inner feeling of a novel about the journey as oppose to actually getting us excited about the journey, 'cause while it's a noble thing, to create an accurate emotional experience to the audience, sometime, we're just on a long journey to, literally our death in this one, and frankly on top of being depressing, it can be boring and make our minds drift. That's why I watched the film a second time, and I drifted all over the place again. If you can stick with, it's got it's moments, and while I think this is probably the best way the story can be told on film, I'm more skeptical than others.


KEVIN HART: LET ME EXPLAIN 
(2013): Directors: Leslie Small and Tim Story

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Once upon a time the stand-up documentary was thought to be a rising art form in the film world. Pauline Kael once said that Richard Pryor should've gotten an Oscar nomination for his work in "Richard Pryor: Live in Concert". Nowadays however, the world of filmed stand-up performances have been relegated to cable and now occasionally on the internet, and that's probably the best forum for it, although once in a while, you do run into a "Kevin Hart: Let Me Explain" that showed in theaters originally. I'm trying to remember the last one that went to theaters, probably either "Sarah Silverman: Jesus is Magic" or one of Margaret Cho's stand-up, at least, from my memory those are the one's I've seen. What little I've really seen of Kevin Hart, I've liked until now, although I must admit I'm not particularly familiar with his work, although I do remember his performance in "Think Like a Man," and he's apparently becoming a bigger and bigger star as his latest film "Ride Along", which is also directed by this film's co-director Tim Story, has broken quite a few January box office records. "...Let Me Explain" is two-fold, it's a film that documents Hart's sold out appearance at Madison Square Garden, and also comes as he's in the middle of a divorce after he got caught having an affair. For a stand-up documentary, it's a little short, it's only about 75 minutes in length total, and the first fifteen or so minutes of that, is not the stand-up it's staged behind-the-scenes set-up scenes, that really, most of which weren't that particularly funny or memorable. Those are always, a little bit apart of these kind of movies to some extent, sometimes they're just as good or memorable as the stand-up, although much of the time, they usually detract from the film. That was mostly the case with this one, especially since, it is such a short stand-up performance. I know, not everyone can be like Bill Cosby and do two-three hours of new material practically every night on a whim, but since Hart is so talented, and funny, I would've like more, especially from a Garden show. This film feels like an amuse-bouche, when I really wanted a meal. It's a nice amuse-bouche so I'm recommending it. The only other thing about the show is that it's the only stand-up performance I've seen with fire coming up from the stage every so often, which Hart calls for by saying, "Let's get some fire up on these bitches, one time." That's not particularly important, but I got an excuse to write "Let's get some fire up on these bitches, one time," in a movie review, and I think that's something worth taking advantage of whenever possible.


GOOD OL' FREDA (2013) Director: Ryan White

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The name Freda Kelly came up once in a while during my old Rock'n'Roll History classes. (Thank you Community College of Southern Nevada) She herself doesn't seem like a particularly intriguing character from a biodocumentary, except for the job she used to have, as The Beatles' secretary.Often lovingly referred to as "Good Ol' Freda" in interviews, Freda actually was only seventeen years old when she got the job. She  actually was working for The Beatles before any of their hits, even before Richard Starkey joined the band. She eventually ran the fan club, and wrote their newsletters, and often answered their fan mail, which originally was sent to her house house, often frustrating their family when the mail started coming in by the thousands. She still works as a secretary, and stopped working for the Fab Four when they disbanded in '69, and she has some fun stories to tell. Ironically, she's the one person who hasn't been telling her stories over the years. Taken in by the families of The Beatles as one of their own, she still works as a secretary, and got married with three kids, and now grandkids, but this is the first time she's really chosen to tell her stories, and that make a piece like "Good Ol' Freda" more inherently interesting and valuable. She doesn't discuss whether she dated any of the Four, although you get the sense that their might've been a few nights or close to them once in a while. There's plenty of stories and memories, some she kept, most of which she didn't however. She remained a private and discreet person, just like she was when working for the band, almost to her detriment as she's lost some family along the way and she wished she told more of the stories to them instead of being so bottled about it, but you can tell that it isn't completely natural for her. At the end of the movie, there's a video piece from Ringo they must've got him to shoot quickly telling us about how much she was admired and apart of the group at the time. She stayed in Liverpool when the four would move onto London, and was several times convinced by Brian Epstein and the band to remain in the job when she wanted to faze herself out. Because of her position, this documentary is priceless, and it's fairly entertaining as well. My favorite story she told her drinking with the Moody Blues and forcing John to beg to have her stay on as secretary. They were as devoted to her as she was to them, maybe moreso even. It's to nice "Good Ol' Freda" Kelly's story finally get told, and not just be the answer to a Beatles trivia question 'til now.


THE RABBI'S CAT (2012) Directors: Antoine Delesvaux and Joann Sfar

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"The Rabbi's Cat" starts off as an intriguing film that, sorta goes off, way off the beating track. The French-language animated film, was one I was looking forward to, and for it's part, it's got some good, if not great, hand-drawn animation, and is based on co-director Sfar's comic book. I know he can make a decent movie; he made the surrealistically whimsical biopic "Gainsbourg: A heroic Life" recently, but "The Rabbi's Cat" has the same kind of ambition, but it also gets bogged down by it's own inventiveness. The film takes place in Algeria in the 1930s, right at that time before WWII where the country was going through an identity crisis between the western and eastern worlds and traditions. The Rabbi's cat, (Francois Morel) is actually the Rabbi's Daughter's, Zlabya (Hafsia Herzi) and one day, the cat eats a parrot, and gains the ability to speak. This is intriguing enough, but the cat, would also like it for the Rabbi, Sfar (Maurice Benichou) to teach him about Judaism. I always did wonder what animals thought about religion, (Just go with it and say that that's true) so it is intriguing to see the knowledgeable feline struggle to learn and understand the contradictory teachings of the modern world with strict dogmatic study of the Talmud. (Oh, the cat's always known how to read; he learned when the daughter was taught) Soon, the cat helps the rabbi by dictating text for which he writes. Then, the cat and the rabbi, and numerous others go on a road trip through Africa to find a Zionist Community in Ethiopia, which makes sense in the sense that the Ethiopia Bible and religious practices seems to have originated from some of the more obscure Gnostic texts like the Book of Jubilees for instance, and along the way there's numerous Arabs, Jews, and others that cross their paths, and I guess it's a learning experience for the Cat, and others. The Cat by the way, periodically losing his ability to talk throughout the film, although he does get into an argument with a donkey that looks curiously like Benjamin in the famous 1954 animated version of "Animal Farm", the one that was in part funded by the CIA, according to some myths/rumors. Anyway, "The Rabbi's Cat" begins testing your patience, as it rambles on through the last fifty or so minutes on the journey, and seems to have too many ideas shoved together for a feature film, but I frankly, couldn't, and that's why I regretfully can't quite recommend it. I can understand the temptation, I think a lot of these side adventures and characters, would've probably worked well in a five-part comic series, but for an 85-minute animated film, it seems to just come off as random, and that's unfortunate 'cause there was potential here. It's true, sometimes you can say a lot more with the individual story as opposed to to the entirety itself. "The Rabbi's Cat" could've used, just a little bit of structural synecdoche to have made it really purr, but instead, it just sorta whimpers. (I'm going to Gene Shalit Hell for that pun aren't I?)


DESERT FLOWER (2011) Director: Sherry Hormann

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I don't always write these reviews in the order that I post them here, and I just finished writing my 3 STARS on "Elysium", and as I approach writing this 3 STARS review of "Desert Flower", as much as I try to be helpful in my reviews of films, here's the thing, no two movie reviews are alike, and these are two good examples of why you really, shouldn't just trust this arbitrary star system. "Elysium" is a rather ordinary film told in an extraordinary enough way, for me to recommend, and here with "Desert Flower", we have an extraordinary story, told in the most unimpressive of ways and blandness of ways. There's literally nothing that makes these two films comparable, but that's especially so regarding the ways they approach the material. The story is of Waris Dirie (Liya Kebede) and I'm describe her story in a much more satisfying way than the film did. She was born in one of the nomad tribes of Somalia, and at age three, was a victim, as all young girls are there, of female genital mutilation. I'm sure most of you have heard of this barbaric practice that's main objective is to relinquish women with the ability to have or feel sexual desire, so that they'll be virgins when they're married. If you've never seen what a women looks like after having her clitoris and/or labia removed, do yourselves a favor and try and find a photo online. I'd post one myself frankly, but while I have no objection to posting nudity, this is something that probably shouldn't be posted on an entertainment blogger's site. Not only that, the procedure was done poorly, and until she had proper surgery when she finally ended up in London, she would suffer from pains 'til she was an adult, which is also when she finally realized that the procedure wasn't the norm. At age 13, instead of being married off to a tribal bigamist, she walked through the desert and somehow found her grandmother in Mogadishu, and got to work as a maid for her aunt at the Somali consulate in London, their Civil War started in the early nineties. She befriended a shopgirl/ballet dancer named Marilyn (Sally Hawkins) who helped give her shelter and save her from living on the streets, and in the ultimate rags-to-riches story, was spotted by famous fashion photographer Terry Donaldson (Timothy Spall) cleaning the floors at a fast food restaurant, and she's since become a supermodel and a spokesman against FGM worldwide, even speaking out against it at the UN. Now it is an amazing story, and I'm not sure if it would've made a great movie, but they could've made a better movie than this one about it. Still, I'm recommending it, because it's just good enough to recommend at least it is in my mind. Just keep in mind what you're going into when you watch it, and don't just look at the star ratings when selective your film choices.


THE PHANTOM OF LIBERTY (1974) Director: Luis Bunuel

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If "The Phantom of Liberty" teaches us anything it teaches us to never give a surrealist complete artistic freedom, which is what Bunuel had after his international success with "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie", and here, he did what he wanted. "The Phantom of Liberty" seems to go from one random scene of absurdity to another, without any real point or plot, just absurd observations and scenes. Some funnier than others, all of them uniquely Bunuel. His next-to-last film, it's a direct inspiration for Richard Linklater's breakthrough film "Slacker" as the movie seems to drift from one character to one situation and then follows the characters to another even more ridiculous situation, except this is the kind of movie where it's not so much the character went to another absurd place altogether, sometimes in differ decades or centuries or universes. It's kind a luck in Looney Tunes cartoons like "Duck Amuck," where suddenly Daffy's walking and dress as a musketeer and suddenly the background changes; that's the kind of absurdity that the film entails, it only looks and seems like a normal film. My favorite sequences involve the monks playing poker with religious relics as chips, which eventually leads to them walking in on a sadomasochistic sex scene involve a nun and, about ten other things heard in priest walking into bars jokes. The other one that I find brilliant is the little girl who's reported missing by everyone, despite being there and even going with her kid even accompanying her parents to the police station where they report her missing, and constantly participating in the conversation the whole time. The other famous one involves a dinner party, where the participants do all sort of flatulent activities at the table and then go quietly to another room to eat. That scene could've probably been a deleted scene for "Discreet Charm...", and it definitely true to Bunuel's insistence on satirizing the upper classes as well as modernity. I don't think it's really one of his very best ones, although some people note it for being one of the first sketch movies, or at least an influence on them, those movies that seem to just be a bunch of random sketches like "The Kentucky Fried Movie", "History of the World Part I", or the most recent one, "Movie 43", the latter of which, might've completely destroyed that genre, but... anyway as a Bunuel fan I enjoyed "The Phantom of Liberty", but it's still more comme ci comme ca, compared to his more essential and best works.  


EVERYBODY'S FAMOUS! (2000) Director: Dominique Derudder




In 2000, somehow, "Everybody's Famous!", Belgium's Foreign Language Oscar representative got nominated in the category. It's not the first time a country's poorly-chosen selection has been nominated; I'm pretty sure we've just randomly given France a few nominations for no reason other than from reputation, although considering Belgium's recent reputation of good films and filmmakers, it does make this peculiar nomination stand out as particularly un-explainable. "Everybody's Famous!" is almost an unintentional satire on those movies from the seventies and eighties, that we're about how people criminals would often become famous like "Bonnie & Clyde" or "The King of Comedy". Jean (Josse de Pauw) is a line worker who truly believes that his daughter Marva (Eva Van der Gucht) can sing, no matter how many bad karaoke talent contests she continually comes in last in. She can't sing, she no talent, no emotion, at her best, she dresses in some of her idols outfits, which don't look good on her rotund figure and can sorta be a bad imitation  that might not immediately get buzzed on the Gong Show, but she'd probably lose in a close contest with the Popsicle Twins. (That's funny, but it's too much thinking for not being funny enough in that joke.) Anyway, despite this devotion to his daughter, she doesn't think much of him (Or it seems, singing for that matter) and neither does the rest of his family. However, he concocts a plan to kidnap a blue-wigged pop star named Debbie (Thekla Reuten) and force her manager Michael Jensen (Victor Lo) to then have her record a song and make it hit by debuting it on a special TV program that's coming up. Jensen, actually sees potential in this idea, for his own publishing-type fame, and starts working on his own scheme. Meanwhile, everything else starts going awry. It's hard to tell when exactly the movie went from earnest to ridiculous, but I think when Debbie started falling in love with the dim-witted kid who was looking out over her, and it turned that it wasn't a scheme by her to try to escape, did the movie start falling for me. "Everybody's Famous!" is a fairly lousy and there really isn't too much saving grace for it. It takes nearly every wrong note it could've on it's path, and while there's definitely plenty of films and stories about untalented people becoming overnight celebrities over the years, but even then, there's never anything this hair-brained.

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