THE WOLF OF WALL STREET (2013) Director: Martin Scorsese
I don't remember the exact source or study, but sometime after housing bubble burst in 2008, and The Great Recession started had started, somebody figured it out that people act get addicted to earning excessive amounts of money. Seriously, the Wall Street bankers and stock brokers who were screwing over the country left and right through deregulation as well as outright illegal and shady activity, when they would suddenly get an eight-figure bonus for downsizing or pump and dump a stock to the tune of millions, and buy these mansions and yachts, and whatever other champagne wishes they desired, they found that their was a chemical reaction in the brain, a release of endorphin of some sort, secretes in the addiction center of the mind, and it's like, I don't know how much, but it's a certain number of times more powerful of a secretion than cocaine produces, and it dilutes the mind into not wanting to do anything other than make these incredible amounts of money. I thought about that, rather briefly during Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street", very briefly, it was in those rare moments of the three-hour film where there wasn't any debauchery going on. It seems like you could almost freeze-frame the moment it happens at some points while watching the film, it happened so rarely, you can almost pinpoint it. The movie is a Faustian tale filled with- no, overflowing with sex, nudity, drugs, violence, money, outlandishly expensive items and lifestyles and just full-on unabashed sick-to-your-stomach excess and overindulgence, to the point of make Sodom, Gomorrah and Las Vegas, blush and step away in amazement, shock, and repulsion, and I'm almost certain that it's the best film of the year. Titled from his autobiography, after a notorious article about him, the film tells about Jordan Belfort (Oscar-nominee Leonardo DiCaprio), a poor Long Island kid, who went to work on Wall Street with a Jersey wife Teresa (Cristin Miliotti) and gets taught the art of the con very quickly by his new boss and icon Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey in a memorable cameo, one of many in this film) unfortunately right as Black Friday hit in '87, but he goes back through Long Island penny stocks and scams and he soon starts to simply build his own empire, with a group of ragtags with nicknames that the hoods of Scorsese's "Mean Streets" would've thought we're dopey. Belfort is power-hunger and corrupt and enjoying every minute of it. He quickly becomes addicted to drugs, alcohol, women, sex, and inevitably the lifestyle of the uber-wealthy, which isn't much different but there's a better chance of getting rarer Quaaludes. He upgrades his wife, with a former beer commercial model, Naomi Lapaglia (Margot Robbie) his life, by continually growing and expanding his empire multiple times over. To describe the exact actions in the movie, would be trivial 'cause it's so episodic, like most of Scorsese's best, (And this film's style has many glaring similarities to "Goodfellas" and "Casino", only exponentially taken to the nth degree.) but also because it would deprive us of Belfort's narration of his excesses, adventures, and misdeeds. He inevitably gets 18 months after turning in most everybody who worked for him after a D.A. agent Patrick Denham (Kyle Chandler) a former stockbroker himself gets on the case, and both men know it's only a matter of time. How much now, and when to get out, and even then, just as Belfort starts a new career as an informercial pitchman, does everything hit the fan. We are sickened and despised by these people, and yet, when their riches are so vast, enough that millions of dollars can literally be taped to people, that you have to laugh at this-, yes, comedy, almost so we don't scream with anger. Belfort is actually the consciousness of the group, even when his howling pep speeches builds up his cult-like team of buyers and sellers, filled with greasy hair and last night's blue chip prostitute perfume, all over the phone banks, and then hum a war cry like at a college football game. His most trusted and erratic employee, Donnie Azoff (Oscar-nominee Jonah Hill) is a buck-teeth, overweight, overconfident slob of a man, who quit his job to work for Belfort after seeing his paycheck. He married his cousin, he's never around her or her kids, he masturbates, everywhere, and fights with whoever he can when and causes mayhem wherever he goes. He's a disgusting visual representation of all the worst aspects of Jordan Belfort, which he can hide on his yacht, or escape through the yacht's helicopter pad in case he's too wasted to drive home. The lengths they go in the movie are just so unbelievable that you almost have to believe it couldn't be made up. Scorsese and screenwriter Terrence Winter, the creator of "Boardwalk Empire" pull no punches, at least I hope they didn't; I'm not sure what else would be left if they did, although the film was famously reported to be cut from a four-hour running time to just three by Thelma Schoonmaker for release. The filmmaking is as abundant and excessive and the content and it far exceeds almost any other level of debauchery that could be put onto film, it seems to be here. This is balls-to-the-wall and every other piece of furniture filmmaking, that only a Martin Scorsese could handle much less accomplish. "The Wolf of Wall Street", maybe the most succesful gangster Scorsese's ever made a film about.
THE BROKEN CIRCLE BREAKDOWN (2013) Director: Felix van Groeningan
I've seen quite a few European films recently for some reason, about the sudden strains on relationships after they have a kid. The relationships and themselves. The Oscar-nominated film from Belgium, "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is the latest and possibly the saddest, because of it's most personal nature. The title and look of the movie, is uniquely American. The title comes from the famous hymn "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", which is sang in the beginning of the film by Didier (Johan Heldenbergh, who co-wrote the original play with Mieke Dobbels and originated the role on the stage) a former punk rocker who turned into a bluegrass musician. The movie starts as a romance between him, and a young tattoo artist Elise (Verle Baetens). When he refuses to get a tattoo, she steals his pick-up truck to get the top painted and to arrive in a USA flag bikini, showcasing all her tattoos. Soon, she's pregnant, and at first, he's frustrated at the news, but soon enough, he's moving in, and redesigning the house in order to make it more accommodating, even adding a veranda, sorta. Elise even joins the bluegrass band and they sing as a duet; he even proposes to her on stage like Johnny Cash did with June Carter, having gotten over such early arguments as whether or not Elvis Presley or Bill Monroe was the greatest artist. If songs are like tattoos, Elise's tattoos are like all represent a different part of her life, often getting more to cover up old boyfriends, or to put in a new one. This sweet romance, is constantly undercut by the startling images of their daughter Maybelle (Nell Cattrysse) suffering through cancer treatment. The film constantly jumps back and forth through time, so we're always constantly catching up a bit. There's also plenty of music and performances as they get quite a bit of work touring as a bluegrass act, often singing almost all the songs in English while speaking Flemish otherwise, they seem to know both really well, often their daughter comes with them. There's emotional scenes as well, and I'm- (Pause, deep breath) I'm struggling to determine whether to discuss or reveal some of the events in the film. I'm struggling frankly to keep my eyes from getting teary just talking about them, frankly, as I rewatch what I can of the film while writing this review. The movie takes places over years, and we're often bookend with images of Bush's Presidency, including 9/11. Elise and Johan are somewhat different religiously and when the topic of death comes up, they struggle to figure out how to discuss it to they're young daughter who has a good chance of not making it, even with the possibility and availability of stem cell research. It's after Bush's veto of Stem cells in '06, that Johan, finally starts to lose it, both at home, and onstage, as the couple struggle to survive their grief. "But that's America", Elise tries to point out, but they've so enraptured and engulfed themselves in the romanticism of Americana,- at one point, Elise even changes her name to Alabama, insisting that at this point in her life that's what she wants to be called, having felt like a different person and part of life of hers, entitles her to a new name to represent herself. "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is not an easy watch, but it's a powerful one. It's disjointed and jumping narrative does get confusing but emotionally, it runs such a gauntlet that you really need to not only break up the sad with the happy, but also the sad with the memories and moments of joy and love. And have other moments broken up with some of their music and performances. "The Broken Circle Breakdown" is a truly emotionally powerful film, about love, lost, grief, pain, and the disturbing ups and downs that sometimes truly encapsulate a relationship. When they get married, there's a bad Elvis impersonator, who chooses to cough and choke slightly when reading the vows, getting to the sickness and health part. It's a joke, and they all laugh, even as their love and passion remains stronger than ever. We don't always truly think or understand the kind of ways that life may test that declaration out. And even if you did, I doubt any couple thinks about that, when they're kissing so lovingly on the top of you pickup truck. Nor should they really. Or anybody for that matter.
LONE SURVIVOR (2013) Director: Peter Berg
Jokes about the title giving away the ending aside, war, I once mentioned how ironically war, or at least most every war movie ever made is about survival, 'cause if everyone dies, there's nobody there to tell the story, so somebody needs to survive. (The only exception I've ever noted with that rule was "Grave of the Fireflies".) "Lone Survivor," is based off of the autobiography of Marcus Luttrell (Mark Wahlberg), the only survivor from Seal Team 10, after Operation Red Wings, a disastrous Naval operation in Afghanistan, which was an attempt to capture a major Taliban leader. Instead, they get dropped outside a major Taliban base, caught in the middle of their war with the other Afghans, and half their equipment, including the radio communication don't work, and that makes them unable to contact their commander, Erik Kristensen (Eric Bana). They try to work on a plan and strategy, but they get caught between the villages, and when they're discovered, there's an intense scene between the four soldiers, Marcus, Murphy (Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch) and Ax (Ben Foster) about what to do about the grandfather and grandson that discovers them. They can't kill them, 'cause it's not the plan, and the ethics and publicity would be bad, but if they leave, they'll inform the Taliban of their position, and they're not sure they can get away fast enough. They can't tie them up and leave them their to die either, and that's one of many catch-22's that they continually run into. The movie is sorta perplexing. In one way it examines the real perplexity and absurdities of the war and shows just how unprepared for Afghanistan the soldiers were, but on the other hand, it admires the soldiers. The opening of the film shows an extended sequence of the training of the Navy Seals and the com padre and closeness aspects of the group, it looks and feels like an, albeit brutal and intense one, but like a U.S. Military commercial. However, when Marcus is saved, barely by local Afghans, and hid in his village where he pulls and cuts out of his skin, the shrapnel out of his leg. There's some powerful scenes and then there's some relatively contrived-feeling scenes. The tone just never feels as correct as it should, and that's something Peter Berg's struggled with occasionally as a director. Maybe it's the shaky cam approach but the military is something Berg seems to care about and admire greatly, and this conflict is really somewhat struggling with the film. If anybody's seen the "What the Flick" clip about the film, they go over into a very thoughtful discussion over this strange two-sided nature of the film's perspective. That said, it's definitely craft well enough to worth a viewing, so I'm recommending, but I did find myself struggling to find out what exactly the movie's saying about the war, about war itself, about survival, about the military....
NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. I (2014) Director: Lars von Trier
NYMPHOMANIAC VOL. II (2014) Director: Lars von Trier
For the purposes of brevity, I'm gonna review both "Nymphomaniac Vol. I" and "Nymphomaniac Vol. 2" at the same time, not simply because I happened to watch them both together at around the same time, but also because I thought the two films, despite my one star difference seem so similar in tone and essentially tell a complete story, that honestly I have a very time being convinced that they're so separate from each other that watching them separately improves the film. That's not to say that Lars von Trier's latest in what's been dubbed his "Depression Trilogy" along with "Antichrist" and "Melancholia" isn't impressive, it is. It fascinated me almost every step of the way, and both volumes of "Nymphomaniac" also seemed to really deal with the psychosis of sex addiction, or nymphomania, or whatever the difference is. Twisted me, probably found parts of the film erotic and any found much of it arousing, probably not his intent, but you don't have that much sex unless you were having some fun doing it. Even Von Tiers seems to be having fun with the film at times. The whole two parts of the film are basically told in flashback, as Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is found beaten and bruised in the middle of the street by Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard, who's casting is an inside joke here, as Skarsgard's first feature was "Anita: Swedish Nymphet" a more softcore look at nymphomania, and he played a doctor who had an idea for a cure that would maybe only work in one of those movies on Showtime after dark) an asexual intellectual who's engulfed himself in knowledge of the benign, such as the life science and history, which conveniently allows him to consider Joe's story of her sexual escapades,with more of a Newtonian curiosity. Yet, she also uses what few objects there are in the room to tell her story, which is strange when you think about it. The movie is fairly episodic, starting from her youth as Young Joe (Stacy Martin, from teenager onto the arbitrary time she suddenly turns into Charlotte Gainsbourg) is fascinated by her vagina from a very early age, and after the fairly uneventfully event of losing her virginity to Jerome (Shia Labouef) she, also with her instigator friend, who she calls B (Sophie Kennedy Clark) begin some rather dangerous, games and experiments into sex and fucking, and often. She runs into Jerome periodically through these escapades. They even have a child together at one point, although calling anybody the love of their life for a nymphomaniac is a bit tough, and I wouldn't apply it to Jerome but it's the closest thing she's got. The first movie ends with Joe thinking she may be in love, but having lost the ability to feel, there. This causes her and Jerome to suggest other methods, and she starts going to see K (Jamie Bell) who gives her satisfaction through pain and humiliation, changing her name to Fido, which he puts on all her new toys, which he whips and beats her with to an orgasmic satisfaction, eventually choosing this slave's life over her life and child's. She even, after many failed attempts, finds a decent job she's good at, being a cronie for a loan shark (Willem Defoe) as she uses her sexual experience to torture and torment her victims until they pay, she even has empathy for the most vile of perversions these men may have. She even begins training a new girl P (Mia Goth). This is where the movie, seems to lose itself a bit for me and it diverts into a strangely traditional narrative, and the ending is wrong! I know some people have praised it, but a character does something that, frankly, is against his nature, and the movie didn't need it. It was arbitrary, I think it probably is offensive to a certain group of people, but I thought that was incredibly dumb, and not the way, even if Von Trier's was hellbent on going with, it could come from a different perspective and angle. That said, I never picked up on it until now, but there's always something novel-like in Von Trier's stories, always separated by chapter, and always episodic and his leads are always descending into their own Faustian pits, and it helps with a film like this, to really separate these emotional points through these periods and sequences. It enriches the film that would otherwise not be as deep. It's not, something like "Shame" that really dives into the disease, or whatever it is Joe's got, it's more of an sexually journey into the inferno, and for what it is, I admire it, I even enjoyed the ride. I think it's more limiting in it's appeal than it seems; on repeating viewings I have a hard time imagining it holding up as well, but Von Trier's gone for everything with these two films, and mostly he succeeds. Good performances all around, although I think Stacy Martin's work in "...Vol. I" is stand out. Both parts of "Nymphomaniac" are worth recommending, "...Part I" is much more interesting, but you do need to watch both, and I'd say together or as close to together as you can, this is really one story.
FILTH (2014) Director: Jon S. Baird
All across the film spectrum, there's been a very common kind of reveal that annoys the shit out of me, and it's a bad trend, for numerous reasons, and "Filth" has one of those reveals. I'm not gonna give it away, but I've seen this reveal about a character, in some many different film, different kinds of films now- I might end writing an article about it actually. Occasionally it might work, "Dog Day Afternoon" did it well, "The Paperboy" recently had an interesting way of doing it, but when it's done poorly, and for no reason, and essentially, which an assumption that it's a very negative twist, ah-. Let's just move on, "Filth", is somewhat accurately title; for awhile, it felt a bit like Danny Boyle's "Bad Lieutenant: Glasgow", (and I really shouldn't insult Boyle like that by comparing him to this film, but it is based on a novel from Irvine Welsh, who did "Trainspotting".) but eventually "Filth" just continued to devolve into a senseless...-, actually it didn't exactly start off evolved or volved to begin with, of any kind really. The main characteWho really isn't worth helping, and nor is this film really worth watching. I'll concede that in a better movie, I might be praising Jamese more, r is Bruce (James McAvoy) (Eyeroll at the name Bruce), a cop who's looking for a promotion to detective inspector and a group of ruffians have beaten to death a Japanese student. Bruce figures that this promotion will mostly be easy, as he most likely has to help sabotage the other candidate's chances, mainly Lennox (Jamie Bell) and Gus (Gary Lewis). In the meantime, he's sleeping around with some of their wives, forces a teenage prostitute to give him a blowjob, does numerous amounts of drugs, and about anything else sickening you can think of. All this this btw, under a truly deluded effort to get his wife back. We see his wife, Carole (Shauna McDonald) occasionally, speaking to us, in her own, Monroe-esque femme fatale sort of world, which she seems to be in as much control over as it appears for awhile that Bruce acts like he's in control of his. He believes to be the only competent cop of the bunch and this plays into his disillusionment when he finally realizes the inevitable. He does try, and fail to save one guy from dying after he collapse in the street. The guy's wife, Mary (Joanne Froggatt) tries to befriend and help him out for his efforts, seemingly the only truly angelic character in the film, and the only one truly interested in helping out Bruce. In a better film, I'd probably be praising James McAvoy's performance here; I must admit, I used to have trouble understanding why he kept getting cast in so many things rather quickly, (Or as Richard Roeper once said about him, "He's apparently more interesting to casting directors than he is to me.) but I've come around on him and can really see the kind of range he actually has in this film, but this movie just was so much with no purpose to it, that it really soured anything that was remotely good. It's a heavily stylized bad cop film, and not much more.
ALAN PARTRIDGE (2014) Director: Declan Lowney
I'll still in the process of familiarizing myself with the Alan Partridge (Steve Coogan) bible. I haven't seen "Knowing Me, Knowing You", although I have seen "I'm Alan Partridge", so I wasn't 100% on the character, but I have an idea of him. Steve Coogan's been living with the character for years, a popular and critical hit on British television. He was once a "popular" TV host in his day, but has now resorted to mainly being the afternoon DJ and some out-of-the-radio station in Norfolk, where his brand of cheesy humor is moderately appreciated during the rush hour, despite the radio ratings falling quickly. This is when a corporation takes over and suddenly, after being fired, Alan's co-worker Pat Farrell (Colm Meaney) an aging widowed disc jockey gets fired, and holds the radio station and all it's employees hostage, while he remains on the air, listing all his grievances. It's the perfect moment and time for Alan Partridge to finally get himself back in the spotlight as the standoff last for days, and he becomes the go-between with the police and Pat. There's a decent amount of comedy here, and the things they talk about with the decline and fall of FM radio is interesting, like pre-approved songs, or corporations buying up all the stations, that stuff had some impact to me, but most of the time, I felt partly that I was missing something, but also that they were really struggling a bit too much to bring back Alan Partridge when he probably should be put asleep by Coogan at this point. I like the idea of revisiting old characters years later to see what they're doing, but this didn't feel like, either the right forum, or the right medium. It's a cute enough idea, true, but overall, I think I liked Alan Partridge enough knowing that somewhere in Norfolk, England, he was still telling his silly lame jokes, that aren't really that lame, over the airwaves; I don't think I needed another adventure for him.
G.B.F. (2014) Director: Darren Stein
Did this film have to be a parody of every bad high school and high school movie cliche in order to tell it's story? Forget that it's not even sharp satire, like "Saved!" for instance, and it's plain shallow and a little offensive at worst, but couldn't this subject have been taken even remotely seriously, or realistically? Even "21 Jump Street" lived in a modern high school world, where both Sheldon and Anderson Cooper were equally respected and admired. When one character complains that the way gays are treated makes it feel like 2008, I was half-thinking "Wait, is this modern-day then?" Although, when the multiple groups were fighting over competing proms depending on who gets/is allowed in, I did think the quip about it being High School "Game of Thrones" was actually rather astute. "G.B.F." stands for "Gay Best Friend", which is the new high end fashion accessory to the important high school cliques top mean girls to have, apparently. What is laughingly considered the "only problem" with that in this movie is that, at- whatever the hell this high school was called, there were not "out" teenage gays. Now, that is, technically a problem, but Brent (Paul Iacono) plans on changing that. He's a young Christian Soriano without the talent or substance, who in any normal world would just be assumed gay by everyone around him (Which he is) and sooner or later, he'd just be treated as a best friend who happens to be gay, the way Rickie Vasquez was on "My So-Called Life". (Back in '94! Ninety-fucking-four, I name a modern and realistically comparable reference to with this material, '94!) His idea is to come out, so that he can, essentially be an accessory to one of the three main cliq bitches, Fawcett (Sasha Pieterse) your more typical, rich spoiled, Alicia Silverstone-who-wishes-she-was-Molly Ringwald type, who's big secret is that secretly, she's really smart and good at science, the Jennifer Hudson lookalike Caprice (Xosha Roquemore) who's the head of the minorities and is the lead drama and art student, and the ditzy Mormon 'Shley (Amanda Bowen) who's unawaredly more progressive than she even realizes, feeling okay about gays as long as their willing to be saved by Joseph Smith, and for awhile, even has a gay boyfriend, 'Topher (Taylor Frey) until she dumps him for being too intolerant of homosexuals. However, a gay activists club, led by Soledad (Joanna 'Jojo" Levesque) uses a dating ap, to search for the nearest homosexual and stumbles upon our hero, Brent's nerdy and shy homosexual friend Tanner (Michael J. Willet). He doesn't want to be a G.B.F. but since now, he's been outed, he can actually use the protection that the three divas provide, so while he friendship is fractured with Brent, who's now still in the closet, and no longer has the fame he wants be being the school's first openly homosexual student, Tanner begins at least trying with the new makeover. The film does take a few interesting directions, but ultimately, it just seems so shallow and conceited and unrealistic, especially when, people could actually be involved in trivialities and problems like this, this sarcastic parody tone just feels wrong. This could've been a far more interesting film about the real pressures of high school, and the real struggles of sexuality that that entails. I had close friends in high school, still do, who are gay although since they were my friends, they were usually lesbians, or BBF, Bisexual best friends, (Way too many bisexual friends it seemed) and nearly everything in between, and I just have a trying time trying to figure out what exactly about "G.B.F." really cares or knows about the struggle. Maybe Xavier Dolan will make a better film about it someday, or someone like that, but for now, for now, "GBF" is DOA, or MIA, or SOS, MIC, KEY, or MOUSE or some other acronym, except for LOL.
THE SECRET LIFE OF WALTER MITTY (2013) Director: Ben Stiller
James Thurber's short story, "The Secret Life of Walter Mitty", created one of the most iconic of western characters, and one of the most impossible to adapt to film (This film, actually had been in development for over 20 years, and passed through several actors, directors, producers, and rewrites). A completely literal adaptation, you can throw out the window before you even begin, just not possible, but the sense of Walter Mitty can be achieved, if done well. The best of these is "From A to Z-Z-Z-Z", the great Oscar-nominated Chuck Jones-directed Looney Tunes short, starring one of the more lesser known Looney Tunes characters, Ralph Phillips, the pudgy little boy in class who's always daydreaming. (He only showed up as a kid in a couple cartoons, but they're worth looking up.) This Walter Mitty (Ben Stiller) works in the photo archive department at Life Magazine, which is about to close down and send out it's final issue, as a new management group led by the bearded prick, Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott and his beard.) who's turning the magazine into a mainly online presence only. (The real Life Magazine went out of business at the beginning of the century, being relegated to a Parade Magazine-like presence in Sunday papers, before finally folding from that around '07, the choice of magazine is mostly chosen symbolically. (And again, 20+ years in pre-production hell) Walter Mitty's life, isn't much. He can't even fill out interesting stuff on his eHarmony account, despite the persistent help from an unusually helpful Customer Service worker, Todd (Patton Oswalt). He gets a crush on a new fellow co-worker Cheryl (Kristen Wiig), a single mom who's also got an eHarmony account, but he's a little too shy to go up to her. In his mind, he's a lot smoother and more adventurous and suave, and like Mitty, he zones out, and daydreams the ways he really wished he'd behaved in these scenarios. You'd think this would make the stuff of good film, but since the action is all in his head, transferring that inner action visually into a more traditional movie plot is tricky, unless he's being forced to take action, and that's where the threats of firing, and the missing photograph that's supposedly the penultimate perfect photo for the end of the magazine comes in. It's taken from the magazine's most famous and hard-to-find photographer Sean O'Connell (Sean Penn, in a good cameo), but unfortunately, it wasn't on his latest roll of film, and Walter can't find it, so he must now track him down. This leads to a real life journey to Greenland, then Iceland, and then ultimately to the Himalayan section of Afghanistan, (Which to my surprise, the Himalayas actually do go into Afghanistan barely. Greenland however, is not a country, it is a territory of Denmark, although Nuuk is the capital [I watched way too "...Carmen San Diego" growing up, I know]) in order to find out where the photograph actually is, although on the way, what he really discovers is himself and life and real adventure, and all the most cliched ways you can tell this story in a way that is distinctly not Walter Mitty. I'm a bit torn on this one. The movie looks special, but the more you dissect the film, the less it seems to really work. Stiller's always a competent director, but an erratic one, sometimes giving us something special like "Tropic Thunder" but he's also responsible for "The Cable Guy" and "Reality Bites", and this one is somewhere in the middle. He's much better at straight comedy than giving us something more depthful and his attempts at trying to say something more profound have often faltered, and this one, does seem to be heading in the fall trajectory. I'm giving some points for difficulty admittedly, I wouldn't even know where to begin to pull off Walter Mitty, and I have a great affection for this character; I'm a daydreamer myself, I'm certainly influenced by Walter Mitty...-, it's a bit of hit-and-miss and there's some definite issues with the film. I guess I won't stop anybody from wanting to make up their own minds on it, but after much deliberation and going back and forth, I can't quite recommend it. I recognize just how bad this could've been, but I also realize, this film could've done a lot more to make it better, and it just didn't do that.
WADJDA (2013) Director: Haifaa Al Mansour
Perhaps the greatest accomplishment of "Wadjda" is that it exists at all. I'm sure there's others who will, and have read or found more into it, some have even been offended by it's characterizations of Saudi Arabia and the Saudi people. It's the first feature film from a female Saudi Arabian filmmaker, and it's story is incredibly simple. It tells about a young girl, Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) a smart and headstrong twelve-year-old in Saudi Arabia. She goes to a girl's school, where she's constantly told to dress in her entire burka outfit (They're immediately removed when inside by everyone, including the teachers, all female [In fact, every adult female had a job], and the women in general in the film, seemed to viewed as independent, strong-willed, and often decisive decision-makers for the men in their lives), or for wearing the wrong shoes, and other very Madeline-like activities by her teacher Ms. Hussa (Ahd). Wadjda's mother, (Reem Abdullah) is trying to get her husband and Wadjda's father (Sultan Al Assaf) to stay with the family. They are married, but there's continued intense pressure from his mother to marry the girl she's picked out for him, because Mother can't/hasn't bore a son. We see a rather strange scene- Well, perhaps strange to someone in the Western world like me, where Wadjda and her mother go dress shopping at a very typical mall, dressed in their traditional oppressive garments, but she's debating about buying a rather exuberant dress, that thins out her natural curves in the chest and waist area, so the father might come back to her. The interesting contrast of a modern world, existing, essentially behind the doors. Outside, the world is more complex. Wadjda's friend Abdullah (Abdullahrahman Al Gohani) takes her scarf and rides off on his new bike, Wadjda becomes determined to get her own, something that's basically discouraged in the country (It's not completely illegal, as of 2013, women are allowed now under certain conditions, but that is still a new law). Women can't drive cars, although drivers are often hired and they drive the women around time. Wadjda starts trying to earn money for the bank, through some enterprising ways. She starts making and selling bracelets for instance, and she even puts a bike on hold at a store for her, a nice expensive one too. She finds out about a Qu'ran contest in school, which she has to recite correctly. Women, like men, are often taught just to recite the Qu'ran, and to memorize and read it and there's numerous contests where reciting it is competitive. (There's even a version of "American Idol" where competitors just read passages from the Qu'ran in one country.) She gets a video game to help her study, an intensely studies and practices, determined to win the prize money for the bike. There's no surprises here where the story goes, but that's okay. "Wadjda" only needs a simple tale at it's center to showcase and tell us others at the edges, commenting on the society, and in some cases comments of the critics of the society. We don't get too many open doors into the world of Saudi Arabia in general, I've heard that there aren't movie theaters there yet, although television's showing more of the realism of Saudi life in recent years. The diretor Haifaa Al Mansour is from there, but studied mostly overseas as an adult, now lives in Bahrain with a diplomat husband, but for the first time out, this is really well-done and skillfully made tale. At it's core, it's about the people, trying to live their lives, however complex they might be; it just happens to be in a world that has for centuries made that more difficult for some, even as a modern world strives to make it easier and simpler for all. Behind those doors, life happens; the good news is, based on this film, it's contents and it's existence, it seems to that it's starting to happen on the outside of them as well. A girl riding a bike is a pretty giant leap there.
NARCO CULTURA (2013) Director: Shaul Schwartz
I can't recall too many documentaries that I've seen with so many dead bodies in them, unless they were about the Holocaust or the Killing Fields or something like. And I mean, like dead an hour ago-type dead. "Narco Cultura", is a look at two sides of the war on drugs in and around the Mexican border. One side is the incredible violence that overloads morgues and police as they can't even get around to investigating some of the murders 'cause they happen so often in places like Juarez, Mexico, the most violent city in Mexico, right across from El Paso, Texas, the safest city in America, by the same research. It's a bit amazing in some ways how the violence hasn't bleed more into America, but then again, while drugs cross the border to us, guns and cash cross the border into Mexico supplying the means to the war, everything but the army essentially. Strangely, the movie doesn't focus more on the actual drug war, but on one of the more peculiar yet predictable side effects, the narcocorrido culture that's come out of it. I call it predictable, 'cause like it's musical uncle hip hop, back when it turned a corner from infancy to young adult, it also started to focus, display and in some cases celebrate the thrills of the drug culture. In those days, the drug was crack, as oppose to regular cocaine, but they still celebrate the idols of the trade. "Scarface" t-shirts and posters would constantly sellout for instance, and moguls used to talk about how the movie was inspiration for them to build their hip hop empire. (I always wondered if they ever got to the ending) Narco Cultura is illegal on many of the Mexican radio stations, but it's still spread around and incredibly popular. One musician Edgar Quintero who produces, records and writes much of Narco Cultura music, often gets requests for song by supposed figures in the real drug and crime world, and he rights songs about them by learning about them. The music, the dominant but not the only art form partaken in exploiting the fantasy of the culture, is a strange combination of melodic mariachi, country blues, even polka elements like accordions but with lyrics straight out of rap and hip hop, It's incredibly good music, and we hear it and see it performed, often with prop machine guns and other images of narco cultura, and in front of sold out crowds, dancing and grinding and singing along to the lyrics. We see young girls in middle school talking about how they'd want to married to a Narco and live that extravagant life. "Narco Cultura", is a strong documentary that shows us that even if the drug war and trade were to stop now, that the legacy and inspiration of the movement will continue on, not only in the next generation but in this one. The Narco Cultura have so much influence over such a vast amount of people. It's a complicated construct, the two sides of the world, the murderous war and battle, and the freewheelin' rich and exuberant life that the drug leaders live, and how it truly effects the culture, whether it's real life for some, fantasy ideal for others. From the morgues of today to the pop charts of tomorrow.
PANDORA'S PROMISE (2013) Director Robert Stone
I noticed two things during this propaganda film on the greatness of nuclear energy that the former hardcore Greenpeace environmentalist experts they kept interviewing, were constantly shocked and surprised by the new information that they'd find out about Chernobyl or Three-Mile Island or any other notable facts apparently about nuclear energy, which you'd think they'd know about since they were supposedly on the front lines in the war against nuclear energy, and also B, they rarely if ever go into detail about how nuclear energy is a safer and better alternative to both fossil fuels and the other forms of alternative energy. They give statistics occasionally, and go over things with a geiger counter, and the fact is, they're not particularly wrong. I'm not anti-nuclear energy (I'm not pro-nuclear energy either, don't be confused it's problematic, but it certainly has proven it's usefulness over time) but I know that 99.9% percent of the time, it's actually relatively safe and in many ways very clean compared to other sources like coal for instance. Now it is difficult for them to explain, why it's safer in real detail, occasionally that talk about it, but they don't exactly bother explaining or educating the public on the reasons or the lingo that they claim, no one will understand. They might not be wrong, it takes intelligent people to understand it, but not trying to make the country smarter cannot possibly be the correct approach to this. "Pandora's Promise", is a documentary that started off promising, but just made me madder and madder as I continued to watch. It's not just that it's one-sided, it's that the one side is to say that the environmentalists are simply wrong all the time, at least on nuclear energy, and it halfways defends nuclear energy, and frankly, even then, it's a lot of half-truths, mixed in with the real ones. It admits that under the worst of circumstances, nuclear energy isn't great. One of the experts heads to Fukishima Daichi, the power plant in Japan that melted down after the tsunami a few years back, and as he gets out of his protective radiation suit, he's asked by the director, Robert Stone repeatedly whether he's still pro-nuclear, he says to not ask him right now, until he assesses the damage himself. There is damage, less than some claim, more than they say there actually is. As I got more and more frustrated with how half-ass and tainted the film is, and frankly at times, while it accused many on the left, for not looking at the scientific data and trusting it, the way that the left usually shoves it down the throats when climate change, they're simplest data isn't right either. It claims nuclear energy has to exist because all the other alternative sources don't produce enough energy, that's a lie. They especially called out solar and wind power- I'm in Nevada, we have a long history of nuclear activity here, and now we're the leader in solar energy across the country, all the hotels are switching to solar energy, every new major building is solar energy- they actually said that if the sun's not out, you don't get energy, that is such bullshit, I don't even know where to begin. The amount of energy from the most minor of sunlight encaptured by solars panels is astounding. They're right that, the solar panels they're not the safest things to make, that part is true, but they're just BSing some of it. Almost all the energy sources have many positives, a few negatives, including and especially nuclear. One of the worst negatives is nuclear waste, and they tried to send that here once upon a time. Nuclear waste, is what's produced when nuclear energy's discharge, and it's not the safest thing. France is now trying to recycle it, but the big problem is that a good part of it isn't and it also hazardous, toxic and it doesn't complete degrade over time, so we're stuck with it for now, and at the time, people were trying to figure out where to put it. They talk for a minute, late in the movie about Yucca Mountain, which I live about 100 miles from, it's a dormant volcano outside Vegas (Yes, not a ridge, it's a volcano, granted dormant, but it's a volcano) where this toxic nuclear material that doesn't disintegrate would have to be kept for literally thousands of years, inside Yucca Mountain, that was the plan, it was 20+ years in the making this plan, to send this stuff, over 70% of it, would come from the other side of the Mississippi, in huge trucks, supposedly in specially-designed barrels that were guaranteed not to break (That they couldn't design) and that's in case one of these trucks ever crashed, but- anyway, there's about 50 things wrong with the plan, but it wasn't politics that stopped the project as the movie claimed. In fact, after multiple vetoes from President Clinton, it was signed into law by President George W. Bush, which was when Nevada's then-governor, a Republican Governor named Kenny Guinn, did something that hadn't been done since the Civil War. He vetoed the president's bill, swearing to stop all trucks containing the nuclear waste from entering the state. That didn't stop the bill btw, but it started court proceedings which Gov. Guinn knew he wasn't gonna win, and he shouldn't have; even the most progressive defender of state's rights would've laughed the case out of court, but it bought time, and what happened was that the law was eventually voided after the scientists who determined Yucca Mountain's safety for the storage, we found out, had deliberately doctored and lied about their findings and results, and were arrested for perjury, that's what stopped Yucca Mountain, the scientists who were lying about how safe nuclear waste was. (The court case was inevitably thrown out as well, without a ruling) I point this out to show how the film, skims over important details and facts, and why I have to give it such a low rating, especially when there are so many powerful reasons for nuclear energy, it makes the movie feel more disheartening and ingenuous. And It is, sometimes a little too blatantly. (I also can't stand more anything being smarter than the movie I'm watching) I also have no idea why the movie chose "Pandora's Promise" as the title. I know the story of Pandora, but I don't know what the hell that has to do with anything.
SAWDUST AND TINSEL (1953) Director: Ingmar Bergman
Not given a U.S. theatrical release until three years later in '56, after the international success of "Smiles of a Summer Night", "Sawdust and Tinsel" is often regarded as Ingmar Bergman's best film right before his worldwide fame exploded with "Smiles...", "The Seventh Seal" and "Wild Strawberries" and in truth, I have some trouble with this one myself. I tend to find myself preferring later Bergman as I get older, and in "Sawdust and Tinsel", there's a bit of a sense, that it feels less complete to me compared to others of his. I watched it a few times before writing this to be sure in fact, and don't get me wrong, it's more than worth a few viewings, it's still an amazing piece of work, from an amazing filmmaker, but I also get the sense that he deals with many of the underlying themes better in other films. It's the turn on the 19th Century Sweden and a circus is coming into town, greeted with both cheers and derision from the local town. (That's a really Swedish theme, but actor, for many years was never considered a glamorous or acceptable position in the country, and circus performers are slightly below actors.) They're led by Albert (Ake Groenberg), who's not a very successful ringmaster. His crew is loyal, although they're so broke, they had to leave many of their costumes behind as they set up the Big Top for the next city, which happens to be near where Albert's ex-wife Agda (Annika Tredow) lives. Before visiting her, we see a rather Felliniesque opening sequence, told in flashback about a clown who's humiliated in front of soldiers, that's filled with strange uses of battlefield sounds, and grosteque laughter. Albert's now married to the circus's horseback rider Alma (Gudrun Brost), while he's also in love with his mistress Anne (Harriet Andersson), but is enraged with jealousy when Frans (Hasse Eckman) makes a move on her. She swears loyalty, but despite that, his jealousy reigns through as his life's work of the circus continued to decay around him. I think the problem with "Sawdust..." is that it's a lot of good scenes, but they don't necessarily come to together and make a movie. There's a few really good comebacks, particularly to the end, and how the showdown between Frans and Albert, repeats back to the flashback story about the clown and the soldiers. That said, I had a hard time thinking of "Sawdust and Tinsel" as one of Bergman's better films. It felt a bit like he was still experimenting and hadn't really found his true voice yet, but that said, there's a lot to see in the film, and we can get a good glimpse and the ideas that would pepper his films in the future more in this one, from the violently experimental like "Persona" to the more classical Bergman like "The Seventh Seal". "Sawdust..." hints at us the genius, but it's not fully formed here yet.
SWING TIME (1936) Director: George Stevens
I do love musicals and dancing performances, but admittedly, that's more of a late-in-life realization, so I've still doing some catch-up, and embarassingly, I must admit that, A. not only am I finally getting around to "Swing Time", but B., this is my first Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movie. It happens to be a good one. I've always been more of a Gene Kelly guy dance-wise, and frankly, it's hard for me to actually watch the whole screen when watching them dance, I'm always looking at their feet, especially Ginger Rogers, backwards and in high heels as the saying has always gone. The film has great dancing and great music, standards now, we'd hardly recognize was music until now, like "Start All Over Again", and the Oscar Winning Best Song, "The Way You Look Tonight", which Astaire sings while playing the piano. That's something that we don't really think about much, but back then, performers did everything, whatever was needed at the time, singer, dancer, actor, musician, whatever. It's almost surprising to find out an actor can do anything else nowadays, but it was expected back then. Rogers wasn't the only girl who dance with Fred Astaire, but she was also a great serious actress as well (And both of them show their comedic talents are surprisingly strong here, despite otherwise minor comedic material for them to work with, they work with it well. Astaire is Lucky Garnett, a dancer who returns to his hometown and tries to get married, but arrives late, and promises to head to New York to make money gambling. He is a gambler, but through a series of contrivances to ridiculous to say out loud, he ends up running into Rogers, a dance instructor who now has to teach Lucky to dance. They are in love, but both are engaged to another essentially, and that's the main story thread that shoots through the movie, as an excuse for the dance sequences. Number like Astaire's homage to Bill Robinson his idol, "Bojangles in Harlem", (The only time Astaire wore blackface) exist outside the story, but what's surprising is how seriously to the story some of the other numbers are like the "Never Gonna Dance" sequence, where they're lives and choices indicate not only the sadness for each other that they'll be separated, but also that they'll never dance together again, or possibly forever. It's both a sad and yet beautiful sequence. "Swing Time" probably needs a couple more viewings for me to fully appreciate it, but it is special, and I find myself seeing an elegance to the film's simplicity, as it lets us appreciate the dancing even more.
SID AND NANCY (1986) Director: Alex Cox
I've never really known what to make of Sid Vicious (Gary Oldman). There's constant debate about whether or not he was actually talented as the bass player for The Sex Pistols for instance. After seeing Alex Cox's masterpiece "Sid and Nancy", I think I get a clearer picture of the doomed kid, and he was a kid. Only 21 when he died of a heroin overdose while out on bail for his girlfriend, Nancy Spungen's (Chloe Webb) murder. He was a punk who seemed to stumble into being a punk rocker. Told by Malcolm McLaren, (David Hayman) the creator and agent of the band constantly about how big a star he was, the image of the band, and the movement, and how he almost seemed to struggle with that kind of pressure and image. That's not to say he wasn't a fuck-up naturally. He was a heroin addict, he drank, he spat beer on stage to the audience, he was barely capable of playing the bass, even by punk rock standards.... He was in love with Nancy, an American girl from the Jewish suburbs of Philadelphia who had become a groupie and a junkie. She found her way to England, on top of the punk rock scene, and nothing matters much to both of them more than each other. Yet, she's a firecracker, and after The Sex Pistols break up shortly after they barely began, she tries to make Sid rise in his potential. She dutifully schedules concerts for him with his bands, and they make several failed half-attempts to clean up. When Nancy finds Sid, strung out at home, when he's supposed to be practicing, she freaks out and beats him up, "You said we were gonna stay clean 'til the show!... And you didn't save any for me!" It's self-afflicting abuse, the anger they have towards themselves and life for making them this way. Sid was a victim of circumstance, and one who wasn't truly capable of handling, even the allusion of fame and success that they had. That doesn't mean his fate would've been that different. Although Nancy's might've. Inevitably, the Romeo & Juliet of punk, would end up like they did, one stabbed to death, the other dying of an overdose. We see the image of Nancy and Sid, Nancy so stoned out of her mind, she insists Sid insert the knife into her, and both of them too strung out to do anything other than let her bleed to death. The movie was directed by Alex Cox, then known only for "Repo Man", before becoming one of the more mysterious renegade directors of film. It's probably a romance by his standards, and it is, but it's really about the journey two lovers take, through their worst addictions and demons that both brought them together, and simultaneously took their lives. It's both hard-to-watch and beautiful in its own way, a tragic romance of two people who would've ended up doomed separately, probably, but least for awhile, they ended up doomed together.
BTW, it's not something I always care or pay attention about, but it took me a long time to find a photo for this review, that I was sure was from the movie, and not an actual picture of Sid and Nancy.