And that continues, right now. Here’s the latest edition of our RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS!
FROZEN (2013) Directors: Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee
Not thinking or paying too much attention to the critical acclaim, reviews and awards beforehand, I didn't expect much going into "Frozen," but then it started with one of the strangest openings of a Disney movie I can remember. A montage of workers, singing a downtrodden working song, even downtrodden for the same company the once did "Hi Ho, Hi Ho, We're Off to Work We Go", and it certainly doesn't feel like a start for their film, but it did feel familiar. All the songs had this air of familiarity, and not because a few of them were on the radio. To give a film like "Frozen" 5 STARS, and then to do what I'm about to do and say that the film isn't perfect, is to fully understand the difficulty in what their trying to do with this film. Most of the musicals that Disney has made, were influenced from classic movie musicals. From Busby Berkeley to Gene Kelly, that was always the core, but lately, first with "Beauty and the Beast" and most famously "The Lion King", they were adapting those movies to Broadway, for theatrical productions, and they must've learned the story structure and conventions of the Broadway musical by now, but more importantly, instead of taking the films and transferring them to the stage, they've taken the stage and transferred it to the film. That's why the beginning and many of the numbers look and feel like "Les Miserables". Suddenly, I wasn't keeping an animated film on in the corner of my eye, I was fascinated by this new piece of inspiration, one of many new sources of inspiration in Disney's "Frozen". The story too, is a bit of a departure from Disney, as it's about two sisters, Princess Elsa (Idina Menzel) an older sister who's curse with some kind of magical power that overtakes her and causes everyone and everything around her to freeze up, and her younger, non-magic sister Anna (Kristen Bell), who looks up to her sister, but suddenly her sister shuns herself from the world, and her sister for years. Neither of them come out to the outside world until Elsa's coronation, and Anna meets Prince Hans (Santino Fontana) who's the first person she's really been around much at all in years, and when she decides to marry him, Elsa forbids it, and the squabble leads to an eternal winter in the land of Ardenelle, and Elsa to self-exile herself in an mountain ice palace, where Anna, and eventually, and iceman, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff) and a snowman, Olaf (Josh Gad) must head out to find her. The musical numbers, have never been used this way before, like stage numbers, almost a combination of Broadway, opera and there's even some ballet in the story elements. Sometimes, it's weaker, and they draw back on the old fairy tale influences and constructs we're used to from Disney Princess films, (And sometimes, they take the darker approach to fairy tales, not completely, like the kind that, perhaps they didn't put in their last Hans Christian Anderson adaptation, "The Little Mermaid", but closer to the dark than before) and even then, there's theatrical influences. Having seen their "Shrek" musical on DVD recently, I couldn't help but notice similarities between how Donkey and Olaf's role in the story are strikingly similar, and how Olaf's song is more of an aberration that would normally be cut from a filmed version of a musical, but left in for the stage. None of this works without the right music btw, and the husband Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez, (the former, became the youngest EGOT winner of all-time with the Best Song Oscar they won for "Let It Go") outdo themselves here. This soundtrack of "Frozen" ranks among the greatest Disney's produced. There's places to nitpick, obviously, but you gotta understand that Disney never tried this before, and the level of difficult was sky high for them. And that's probably what really impressed me about "Frozen", is that, if they're gonna start being inspired from theater for their musicals from now on, then that means, they're only gonna get better from here on out. That's makes how good this first effort is, even more impressive. (Note: Some will notice that I didn't post the trailer, but the scene of Menzel's Princess Elsa, singing the Oscar-winning "Let It Go"; I'm sure some of you are sick of it, but frankly, I looked at the trailer and frankly, this sequence is a better representation of the film.)
AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY (2013) Director: John Wells
I think, there's still, a way to adapt Tracy Letts's Pulitizer Prize winning play to the screen, better than this version from John Wells, his second feature film, but that said, I'm also fairly convinced that the best place for Letts's work is on the stage. That's a little strange, 'cause I thought the opening up of his play "Killer Joe" benefited from opening up a bit on film, the best moments in "August..." take place when the movie is at it's most intimate. Usually, that's the dining room table, and it's also when most of the fireworks and plates and food start flying. Taking place in the titled northern Oklahoma county, it's 108 degrees as the Weston family begins gathering from their scattered areas across the country, after their father Beverly (Sam Shepherd) is suddenly missing, and later found dead, having killed himself. Like an actress, Violet (Oscar-nominee Meryl Streep) wears her big brown wig at the table, and is in full overbearing truth mode at that point. When she doesn't wear that wig, she suddenly easier to handle, more sober, (She's a relapsed drug addict with dozens of pill bottles, hidden around the house) but also more also reflective and ill, literally. The acid-tongued beast has mouth cancer, which caused her addiction to start up again. Her daughter Barbara (Oscar-nominee Julia Roberts) is in the middle of a divorce from her husband Bill (Ewan McGregor), and their fourteen-year-old daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) is caught in a frustrated middle and out on her own maybe more than she should be. Her sister Karen (Juliette Lewis) is back from, god-knows-where with another wrong man, Steve (Durmot Mulroney) this time, engaged to him, and still talking herself into and out of numerous bad decisions. Ivy, (Julianne Nicholson, and boy am I glad to see her in a good role for once) stayed at home, is the most homely of the sisters, and is constantly berated by both her mother and her aunt Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale) for her lack of attention to her appearance, and her inability to leave the house, or find a man. Mattie Fae's often berates his son, Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch) often to the point of frustrating her husband Charlie (Chris Cooper) although he doesn't mind making fun of his grand niece for being a vegetarian. Also, before he died, Beverly hired Johnna (Misty Upham), to cook and clean the house, which Violet was annoyed at for being for being an Indian (Osage County was once given to the Cherokee Nation years earlier, shortly after they were transported there following the Trail of Tears). Overall, there's some really strong acting in the film. Roberts and Streep got Oscar nominations for their roles, although curiously, from the Tonys, the Lead and Supporting Roles were switched a bit, Roberts got nominated for Supporting for her role, but it was a lead on Broadway and Streep role was a feature role on stage, became the lead here, and it really, sorta struggle a bit, 'cause the discombobulation was there actually. Roberts, really was strong, a lot of the acting was really great, actually all around, but it did kinda feel like they didn't really have enough to sort switch the perspective on the roles, completely. That said, I think a lot of that, was the original script itself, 'cause at a certain point, the film kinda became a screenplay by numbers, and you know, this character's gonna do this, and this blowup's gonna happen here, for this reason, and especially what happens between Breslin and Mulroney's characters, almost felt tacked on from other similar films and plays. This troubled family getting together formula, it's sometimes a little too common in stage plays, and it often works there better than it does here, and it is a good point of view on it, but yeah, the pacing could've been stronger so that we wouldn't completely notice the formula. Still though, Wells, not the most innovative director but he's trying and I think the nitpicking is that, the material is so rich that you want the film to be a little bit better than it actually was, but that said, there's more than enough good to recommend the film, and in some cases there's great.
JOURNEY TO THE WEST: CONQUERING THE DEMONS (2014) Directors: Stephen Chow and Derek Kwok
With eight writers, two directors, some bizarre and over-the-top set pieces that almost seem like elaborate Rube Goldberg contraptions in terms of how they're built and used, I guess at some level, I could've found a way to appreciate "Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons" apparently based on the Wu Cheng-En novel that's considered one of the four best in Chinese literature, but honestly, it was a kaleidoscopic mess to me. The opening sequence, which is about where the movie first started to lose me, takes place on, some kind elaborate riverside boardwalk that looks like an abandoned set from a Peter Pan movie that Chinese people moved into and called home, and then, a giant man-eating squid-like tiger fish, I guess, and it's up to Xuan Zang (Zhang Wen) a demon hunter to ultimately to rid the demon out of the giant fish, which involves breaking into song and consulting his "300 Nursery Rhymes" handbook, which, I guess is kinda like Hong Kong Phooey's "Hong Kong Book of Kung Fu", in this movie. (And, wow did I never think I've have to dig out that reference from my mind, but there it is.) Soon after, a rival demon hunter Miss Duan (Qi Shu) see through his rival's more questionable and liberal-hippy-like skills, and manages to capture demons with her Catwoman-like movement as well as her infinite flying ring. She's more naturally flamboyant but still is only a demon hunter for the bounty. But there's a quirky chemistry between them as both of them continue to run into each other on their quests.The movie seems to mostly get stranger and stranger from there as it toys with all the conventions of cinema, satirizing foley, sound, special effects, while simultaneously incorporating them. It's part video game, part "Three Stooges", through the same prism as "Tai Chi Zero", and- I don't know what. Guy Ritchie's "Sherlock Holmes"-style re-inventiveness as well I guess. I haven't even begun to fully explain or even try to the rest of the movie. Maybe if I had read the original novel I'd have had some help, but honestly, I'll bet that even that's a bit of stretch. Part of what I enjoy about the film, is that it's essentially a smorgasbord of storytelling styles, an it's unpredictability is a strength, but ultimately the film just continually remains non-stop strange, and frankly, it becomes disturbing and disorienting after a while. There's never a break, there's never an explanation, the movie just feels like one long giant martial arts cartoon, and there's nothing wrong with that, but perhaps only 30 or 60 minutes of that would've been enough. That said, I guess I kinda have to sorta recommend it, 'cause there isn't too much that's quite like it, nowadays. It's nice to see an unabashed determination to go headstrong towards zaniness.
THE COUNSELOR (2013) Director: Ridley Scott
At some point during "The Counselor," Cameron Diaz takes off her panties and then jumps on top of a Ferrari, spreads her legs Moceanu-wide on the windshield, in full view of Javier Bardem, and begins grinding and fucking the car. At this point, you can insert your own Tawny Kitaen joke here or admit that that was probably the best idea the movie had. (Although I would've preferred "bent over" and "ping-pong table", but-. Uh, did I type that out loud?) That's actually quite unfortunate though, considering another idea the movie had was going down on Penelope Cruz, so they obviously could've been more creative. (Ping-pong table) But- that's- well, you tell me? What else was there to "The Counselor"? It's Cormac McCarthy version of a Bret Easton Ellis story. Instead of the excesses of the rich alone, we're dealing with the excesses of the people who the rich people pay for their drugs and women, and don't just live in excess, they ooze in it, like people who've been in a bathtub full of champagne a little too long. I've sat through it two or three times now, trying to really get a grasp of it, but as I strongly suspected the first time through, despite some good intense scenes that are filled with potential "The Counselor" really doesn't have much to grasp onto. The Counselor (Michael Fassbender) is a, well counselor, and apparently a successful one. He has an extravagant house and his best friend is a well-known international drug dealer Renier (Javier Bardem), who dresses a bit like Hunter Thompson's lawyer friend, and has motorcycles in the house and pet cheetahs- I don't know where he keeps the pet cheetahs but he has them, as well as a crazed girlfriend Malkina (Diaz) who can manipulate anybody including and especially herself to do, seemingly whatever she wills. Counselor's fiance, Laura (Penelope Cruz) I guess, by comparison is relatively reserved, by she is still devoted to Counselor, who's suddenly decided, for whatever reason to go into the drug trade himself. A go-between for the big druglords (Who are they, where do they live and what are their lives like?) Westray (Brad Pitt) seems to act almost like a private investigator than a drug dealer for much of the film, and that's a bit of an interesting twist, but otherwise the film is slow-moving, too complicated, and worst for a movie like this, it's generally boring. Richard Roeper's right, there's a lot of movie in this movie, but it doesn't really seem to go anywhere. The excess and exuberance is up, but the film is all style, no substance, and frankly the style- Ridley Scott may have been the worst possible director for this material. I know it's Cormac McCarthy, and once upon a time, he was supposed to direct "Blood Meridian", but he cannot help to slow a movie down, and simply delay the story and plot, and focus in on a aberration or a sequence for metaphoric value, or simply to stare at it, for way too long. Could you imagine if Oliver Stone directed this, just how much sharper it would be? It looks like he should be directing it anyway, the cinematography is actually quite remarkable and special. This is McCarthy's pretending to be somebody else; this is Ridley Scott, trying to be somebody else, and all you really have after is an incredibly good-looking mess of a movie. At least Cameron Diaz knew that with scenery this crazy that the right thing to do was to chew it. Chew, lick, bite, probably a few things illegal in Mississippi, to it.... That's what the movie gives me to talk about folks, so that's what I'm gonna focus on. If there was really much else I'd talk about it.
DEVIL'S KNOT (2013) Director: Atom Egoyan
This is the fifth film that I know of based around the infamous West Memphis Three murders, and going in, I wondered if we needed another one, and now I'm convinced that we can use three or four more. I'm not surprised the first filmmaker to tackle it, not in a documentary is Atom Egoyan, the great Canadian director who's films are often about communities and their communal struggles through tragedy. For those who don't know, in West Memphis, Arkansas in 1993, three eight-year-old boys were killed, stripped naked and hogtied with their shoelaces, which is how they were found underwater in a ditch in Robin Hood Hills, where the kids were supposedly last seen. To those who know all three "Paradise Lost" films, or "West of Memphis" know that this is just the beginning of the story, and that the details of the cases against the three defendants, Damien Echols (James Hamrick), Jessie Misskelley, Jr., (Kristopher Higgins) and Jason Baldwin (Seth Meriwether) three teenage boys accused of the crimes because of their supposed fascination with the heavy metal music and satanism. There's so many details of the crime, case and trial, the charlatan expert testimony, the public obsessions with the case, including the original documentaries of the case, a coerced confession that had numerous inaccuracies, a railroading power-hungry judge, later on DNA evidence that was ignored, numerous other suspects who weren't investigated as well as witness testimonies that-, seriously, there's a reason why this has spread across multiple movies. At one point the Dixie Chicks of all people became an important part of the story, but that's the technical stuff that Egoyan's never really been interested in. His best films like "Exotica", and "The Sweet Hereafter", aren't just about the incident that connects the characters and neighborhood to his films, but about the ways they react to it and to each other. His films are structured emotionally and not linearly most of the of time, often through flashbacks, although some times he'll bounce around without them. He focuses mostly on two characters, one is Pam Hobbs (Reese Witherspoon) who's son was one of the victims, and her husband Terry (Alessandro Nivolo) has started acting somewhat strangely since the deaths, and Ron Lax (Colin Firth) a pro-bono investigator who working for the boys' defense, and also, the more he dives into the investigation and the anomalies of the trial, the more the case becomes a case he took because he doesn't like the death penalty, to the realization that a disturbingly crime was going to be overshadowed by an even more disturbing and tragic injustice.
THE CENTRAL PARK FIVE (2012) Directors: Ken Burns, Sarah Burns & David McMahon
Looking over Roger Ebert's review of "The Central Park Five", he seems to have had a very vivid recall of the case where five young teenage black men supposedly confesses and were inevitably convicted of attacking and raping a central park jogger, who survived the attack, but couldn't remember what had happened to her, and spent years recovering from her injuries. The word, "Wilding" I never heard about until this movie; it was the term used to supposedly explain random destructive behavior from teens, as they were out,- well, I don't know what the word is now, but I would call it cruisin' during the nights, and mostly just looking around for something to do without getting into too much trouble, well, for most people anyway, but during the beginnings of the racial tensions occurring both in New York, and all throughout the country back in the late eighties and early nineties, the event was front page news and the case divided the races. Problem was, similar to the West Memphis 3, the police had railroaded and coerced the youths into confessions, all on camera, guiding them to their guilty verdicts, and a ruthless D.A. pushed their cases through the news and media. Problem was, they weren't even there when the girl was attacked. It turned out, the East Side Rapist, Matias Reyes, confessed, while in prison for another crime, to the assault, and sure enough, DNA evidence proved his confession valid. Many of the kids were as young as 15, and most of them had spent as many as ten years behind bars. Taking a look at the case, through file footage, interviews with people all through the chain from Mayor Koch, to most of the victims themselves, "The Central Park Five" details this great atrocity of the American justice system. Director Ken Burns, of course, more well-known nowadays for his great PBS multi-part documentaries, but he brings his talents to this film, but it seems that his daughter Sarah and her husband David McMahon seem like the prominent hand behind this powerful and informative documentary, one that, frankly, feels like such a strange timepiece, into an era that, I'm almost amazed that I actually lived through 'cause of how foreign it seems now. Back in this Al Sharpton on Morton Downey time period, and just how tense and how manipulative the public and the press seemed to be, and how they we're (and in many ways) still are, so forcefully looking for a narrative to publicize.
FELICIA'S JOURNEY (1999) Director: Atom Egoyen
The second Atom Egoyen film I've reviewing this week, I'm not sure how that coincidence happened exactly, but I ain't complaining, "Felicia's Journey", on one level, seems to be about, or seems to start as one anyway, a serial killer, Joe Hilditch (Bob Hoskins) and his unsuspecting next victim, Felicia (Elaine Cassidy). It then, evolves, slowly, into a story about the way the two characters empathize with each other, and from there, it inevitably because a tale how that empathy for and with each other, conflicts with their inner nature, and how each of these sudden awareness of themselves and each other injects into their life and becomes apart of their life and their actions and behaviors. Joe's am executive chef at some sort of cafeteria, and while the kitchen and the worker seem unimpressive, he's quite a powerful presence there. At home, he watches obsessively tapes episodes of a cooking show that he seems capable of replicating, literally everything that's being cooked, including with a stockpile of kitchen equipment, still in package. He cooks and serves these meals, for himself, and apparently the woman on the television, Gala (Arsinee Khanjian), who has an eerie presence Joe. Felicia is a young naive Irish girl, who's come on her own to this English town, to find Johnny (Peter MacDonald) who she was seeing and got pregnant by him as he left to go work at a lawnmower factory that she can't find. Joe sees her on the side of the road and offers a friendly hand, but we see through the videos he filmed of the other women, how he gained their trust and ultimately he takes their lives after they bare their soul to him. This time however, when Joe learns of Felicia's pregnancy, something comes over him, and instead of murder, he legitimately tries to help her. First to find Johnny, then, to try and convince her into an abortion. He seems conflicted in both ways, one because he can't kill her because she's pregnant, but he's has to convince himself and her that an abortion is the right thing. As always with Egoyen, his films are never told completely chronologically and much of this film is flashbacks and we see how Felicia was sworn off from both her family and Johnny's but for very different reasons involving her pregnancy, and then, we glimpse at how Joe turned into a rather conflicted monster through his mother's overbearing, smothering love that might not have exactly been honest, but it didn't seem to matter since the artificiality is just as prevalent an influence to Joe. Like almost all of Egoyen's best films, the more you dive into them, there's more and more layers to each of them. I think it struggles a bit near the end, but also in terms of a more overriding connection between the characters; unlike his very best films however, the connections between the characters, aren't completely there and they don't have that, feeling of a more overall sense where, everyone and everything is effected in the ways that his other films of this nature, tend to do. That said, there's more character development than in some of his previous films, and that's something new and he does that very well here. It was based on a William Trevor novel, and it feels like, it's unusually more rich and textured than most movie characters like these. In the wrong hands, this would played, cliche and trivial, and instead it's haunting and beautiful. The serial killer and the adolescent teen, just never told this way.