Thursday, February 12, 2015

MOVIE REVIEWS #103: "BEGIN AGAIN", "FINDING VIVIAN MAIER", "JERSEY BOYS", "A MOST WANTED MAN", "PRIDE", "22 JUMP STREET", "THE SKELETON TWINS", "BELLE", "CHEF", "MOOD INDIGO", "WATERMARK", "MACHETE KILLS", and MORE!

Whew! Sorry for the delay this week, lots of movies, lots of reviews, this week, and lots of stuff going on in the entertainment news. First of all, Award season and Oscar predictions going way off, everywhere, is just making everybody confused. Yes, like always, I'm gonna start working on my Oscar predictions shortly, and we will have full coverage as per usual of the Oscars here. The most in-depth analysis and predictions of every category, not just the major ones.

Meanwhile, the biggest shock in the Late Night merry-go-round occurred this week, as Jon Stewart unexpectedly announced that he's stepping down. I'm sure we will be discussing Jon Stewart and "The Daily Show..." place in the television landscape and culture at some, and frankly, I think we're still in shock about that one, and- some may remember I put "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart" on my Top Ten List of Television shows of all-time on my polls over a couple years ago, and we're gonna be talking about late night talk shows later on our TV Viewing 101 class later, so the timing is coincidental, but that definitely, in middle of these award shocks, that shock, really took out everything.

Alsp RIP Jerry Tarkanian, our family used to know him, 'cause he sued a nightclub owner that my Uncle was the bookkeeper for years ago, because it was called "The Shark Club", and he thought they were using his name. That wasn't where the name came from, but since he sued and we settles to give him some money for the rights to his name, and since they had it, they opened up "Tarkanians", the bar/nightclub where my mother was the bookkeeper. Both of those were decades ago, but still. Plus, he turned UNLV into the basketball program it is today, on probation. (I'm kidding, we're not on probation right now) That's a sad loss, the best coach my alma mater ever had.

Anyway, time for us to get to this week's edition of the RANDOM WEEKLY MOVIE REVIEWS! Starting with the Oscar-nominated films, "Begin Again," and "Finding Vivian Maier"!


BEGIN AGAIN (2014) Director: John Carney

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I had a couple thoughts after watching John Carney's "Begin Again", one is that it's not as good as his last film "Once", although that movie warned us in the title about how rare that film is, so I'll give a pass on that. The other thought that occurred to me while watching "Begin Again" was that Keira Knightley was probably nominated for the wrong film. I know that's a strange thought, but there was something off about her work in "The Imitation Game" that made it seem unnatural. Here, she seems more believable as a character. "Begin Again" takes off first when we see Gretta (Knightley) goes up and performs a song she's just written, to a mostly uninterested crowd. She doesn't even really seem like she wants to be there performing. Then we meet the one guy in the audience, who was clapping, a former record producer, Dan (Mark Ruffalo). He's recently been fired from his own company, divorced and barely recognizes his own daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld) when he picks her up from high school, and looks like he's a few steps away from homeless, which he kinda is. Yet, when he sees Gretta perform, he doesn't see a girl in an emotional crises with a guitar. He sees the girl, the cello, the bass, the drums start to play; he can see the arrangement in his head and visualize a hit song. The song is the Oscar-nominated "Lost Stars", and it's the best of many pretty good songs in "Begin Again". The story isn't too complicated, it follows Dan as he must convince Gretta into making an album, which inevitably gets conceived as a concept album recorded all around New York City. Gretta's not a music unknown; she's written for years, and recently broke up with Dave (Adam Levine, from Maroon 5) a rock star who decided to explore feelings for another woman. He's the first one that hears this song and ends up recording a pop version of it, while Gretta and Dan use a more stripped down alternative version. I'm recommending "Begin Again" because I like the music, which is the crux of the film, the performances as well, especially Knightley actually; she's very believable as a singer here, and the movie itself, is a little bit smarter than other movies would be. For instance, when it finally gets revealed to Dan that Gretta dated this big rock star, his reaction, or lack there of, is not the one I'm sure most people would've expected, like this a huge shock. I can think of ten cliches where this movie could've easily gone wrong, it avoids most of them (In fact, I purposefully insinuated a couple here, just to show you how they don't go in that direction). Dan's reaction is one of somebody, who's not at all shocked or surprised, or worried, and that's correct here. It's not as poetic as we hope from Carney, but he knows this world, and is passionate about music, and knows the ways that it can inspire others.


FINDING VIVIAN MAIER (2014) Director: John Maloof & Charlie Siskel

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You don't really have found art in the medium of film, but it is something that comes up occasionally in more personal and individualistic artistic mediums. Recently John Maloof, bought a bunch of negatives at an auction that belonged to somebody named Vivian Maier. Nothing on google could be found on her. He was working on another project in the spare time so he put the negatives aside but then he started posting them on a website, just to see if there was any interest; he thought they were good and suspected someone else might think so as well. Turns out, Vivian Maier has over 150,000 known photographs, even some movies, and suddenly, this mysterious person who even the genealogists have an impossible time finding, has rewritten the history of street photography. As more and more of her work gets discovered and developed daily and printed daily, showcase and displays of her have become more and more popular. Trying to piece together who she was however, is a project. A second Google search months later, came up with an obituary, and nothing more. Turns out, she was some kind of hoarder and packrat, and a nanny. "Finding Vivian Maier" is a bit of oxymoronic title, I'm still not particularly sure after seeing the movie they've found much about her, and even now, much of what they did find is mysterious. She took care of numerous kids, many considered her a mother presence when she was in their lives. She even worked for a young Phil Donahue very briefly but she have always have a camera around her neck, and would often go out and seek images and photos. At one time, she seemed to be doing investigative journalism by making a movie of scenes around a recent murder. She had an accent that indicated she was French, but actually she was from New York City, and the accent was apparently fake. Few called her Viv, some insisted she's only be known as "Miss Maier", there's multiple spelling of her name out there, and once she seemed to joke about being "Sort of a spy". She has relatives and apparently made trips out to a village in France, where she even developed some of her materials, and to many people surprise, she did seem to want to pursue showcasing her photos. She also seemed to have very erratic behavior. At least one of the kids she watched, she was clearly physically abusive towards, and her behavior n general indicates some major familial trauma. We know her father wasn't around long, and in her will, she specifically left nothing for any surviving members of her family. She was also a spinster and there's no indication of any romantic relationships she may have had. "Finding Vivian Maier" is frustratingly incomplete, and the best way to describe the movie. It's a very good film, and a good story, but it's also a mystery that's still being written. Hopefully there will be more investigatory work done and we'll find out more about this intriguing new and mysterious artist, hopefully this is the kind of documentary that might have a sequel in five or six years, but if not, we have something very frustrating a bunch of work from an amazing artist and very little known about her. You know, it's one of those things, the first of an Emily Dickenson poem are "I would not stop for death, so he kindly stopped for me", the first words are "By Emily Dickenson", that kind of frustration from an art perspective. We know about most artists, "By Vivian Maier" is followed up with, "To Be Continued.... hopefully."


JERSEY BOYS (2014) Director: Clint Eastwood

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The curious thing that missing from the filmed version of the musical "Jersey Boys" is ironically, the musical aspect. I actually do have a Frankie Valli story by the way, my great grandmother on my mother's father's side, according to legend, actually babysat Frankie Valli when he was really young. Most of my family is from New Jersey; I was born and grew up all my life in Vegas, so I'm also a Jersey Boy as well. (What? No one's actually from Vegas, trust me.) And an Italian Jersey Boy too, so Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are definitely in my cultural sweet spot, and I'm quite a huge fan of there's. Also I'm quite familiar with the production of "Jersey Boys", in fact, Vegas has it's own stage production of "Jersey Boys", one of many-, I believe there's, five or six different places including Broadway where "Jersey Boys" performs nightly and has just been an amazing runaway hit all over the world. It's a bit of an unusual show actually; it doesn't have quite the perfect arc of a traditional musical, 'cause it's really about the beginnings of their career and the relationship between Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, recreating his Tony winning Broadway role, as our many of the actors in the film.), Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza) and inevitably Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). First on the streets of Newark, often the prisons of the New Jersey state penal system, and the mob spots, usually run by Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who Tommy worked for when he wasn't in prison. Everybody was in and out of prison except for Frankie, who was encouraged by everyone to keep working on their voice. A constant theme is the notion of there only being three ways out of Newark, go to jail, get in good with the Mafia, or become a star, so they worked on becoming stars, and through amateur talent scout/bowling pin picker-upper Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) they start to get them connections in the music industry, and soon, they go from hustling to inevitably Tommy basically robbing them a million dollars and Frankie having to call in his marker to Gyp to find a way to keep Tommy around. Tommy Devito by the way, is a name in Vegas, a notorious one, who isn't typically allowed in casinos. Oddly, I don't have a story about him, but anyway, the movie is missing the musical part, and that's really a shame, while this is an incredible story with a lot of dark elements and personalities to it, the show itself, is much more upbeat than this is. I enjoyed the film, but it's almost like Clint Eastwood decided to make "Jersey Boys" through the guise of "Mystic River"'s motifs. Eastwood's a bit of an odd choice for this material, although he has a lot of experience with music (He scores most of his films), and he's been in musicals before, and he directed "Bird" years ago too about Charlie Parker, which some consider as one of his very best films directing-wise. I'm a little more critical of that film myself too, but really, you rarely even notice that they're as successful as they are in this film, until the very end of the film when it comes, and I kinda get that if you're taking this approach, the sense that, essentially no matter how big they got they never really left the streets of Newark, and actually that's fine. It's not a great adaptation of the musical though, Eastwood's directing and the screenplay is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Erich who also did the book for the musical, and Valli and Gaudio were on as executive producers, and it's interesting, 'cause it feels authentic as a movie, just not as a musical. I wish there was enough of the fun of the show, there's one great musical dance number at the end, but there's a few perplexing choices with the movie, and it's that conundrum that holds it back.


A MOST WANTED MAN (2014) Director: Anton Corbijn

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I know some people and critics really find inspiration in the work and film adaptation of John Le Carre's novels. I haven't been that inspired by them; I know he works in the spy genre, but sometimes I feel like everything is so subliminal in his work that unless you actually were a spy at one point, it's almost impossible to understand. I went through "A Most Wanted Man", twice and felt that again. I appreciated the film but I had a difficult time embracing it, and I'm still not completely sure I've gotten everything figured out. It begins with a great sequence where a young half-Chechean, half-Muslim youth, Issa Karpov (Grigory Dobrygin) emerges from the port in Hamburg, Germany, after escaping from Russian prison. Hamburg is where Mohammad Atta famously planned the 9/11 attacks and since then, Hamburg has become a hotbed of spy activity particularly on the Muslim population. Gunther (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his last starring role) is the leader of one of the spy agencies perpetuating Hamburg, and the leader of the most secretive one. He's seeking to keep an eye on Karpov as he seeks out asylum, not that Gunther thinks he may be a major threat, but that he may be the metaphorical and possibly literal key to get some of the more major names, including Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi) a high-profile local Muslim community leader, which may or may not be a cover for more covert activities. His father is corrupt and he uses a banker, Tommy, (Willem Dafoe) to try to get some of his father's money, and also get the help from a human rights activist, Annabel (Rachel McAdams). Gunther's got his own objective of following Issa, while also circumventing a CIA operative, Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) as well as a German spy leader, Dieter (Rainer Bock). I think if I were to describe this movie, I would say that, everything was interesting, but it wasn't necessarily compelling, and that's the film's most fatal flaw. It isn't a film that naturally engages the audience, and that's troubling. Anton Corbijn is a director with a tendency to do that, sometimes effectively like in "The American", but I think part of it is the subgenre. Spying isn't like other professions, where you can really, kinda just see the main characters at work and get a sense of them, and therefore, and this is why I kinda this is a Le Carre issue, what you really mostly is a confusing mess of people going in all directions, and by the time you figure one thing out, the part about having not figured one thing, figuring out the rest feels like work instead of entertainment. "A Most Wanted Man", is still interesting enough to recommend and when you really study it, there's some special filmmaking there, but overall, I had a very difficult time wanting to dig into that much. Maybe that's me, it actually very likely could be, but some things get lost in the profession and when you almost need to be an expert to understand it, you're either become an expert or just become disinterested; I became more disinterested than I did become an expert.


PRIDE (2014) Director: Matthew Warchus

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"Pride"'s only caught limited attention over here in America, but the movie ran through the BiFa Awards (Britian's equivalent to the Independent Spirit Awards) and it earned three BAFTA nominations. The film is actually more American in structure as it tells the unlikely forgotten tale about the '84 Mineworkers Strike in Britain. This is the one where Margaret Thatcher went all- well, all Margaret Thatcher on the Miners, and wasn't particularly fond of the homosexual community either. Radical political activist Mark Ashton (Ben Schnetzer) instead of choosing to remain on the narrow homosexual agenda, decides to start LGSM, Lesbians and Gay Support the Miners, after seeing how the police have abandoned their usual mistreatment of the homosexuals and begun terrorizing and using illegal processes against the striking miners across much of the country. At first, it seems like an unlikely alliance, even after collecting the money to donate the funds, they have a difficult time findings a miners group to accept the funds, but eventually, in Southern Wales, they meet up with Dai (Paddy Considine), one of the heads of the Dalais Valley Miners Club. At first, he thought the L stood for London, but seeing their inspiration, and willingness to help, this new-formed alliance is tenuously agreed upon. This leads to intriguing clashing of cultures. There's one rather predictable and laborious, no pun intended, arc about how some of the miners and their families think of the embarrassments that are involved in being associated with a bunch of homosexuals, and they're the ones on the union's board, naturally. There's a lot of other arcs however, maybe too many. The best ones involved the miners, like Hefina (Imelda Staunton) and Cliff (Bill Nighy) who's relationships and worlds become more open once they embrace the gays. Interesting, our first entrant into the gay community is Joe (George Mackay) a young man, who almost seems to get swallowed up by them after walking through a gay pride parade, but who eventually becomes the LGSM photographer, and while we occasionally go back to his storyline, his role is merely a contrived entrance for us to get into the movie. Still, despite some of the more predictable aspects, many of which I'm told did in fact happen, "Pride" is a fairly enjoyable movie. I think it takes a while to get going, that'd be my major complaint, 'cause it does a while for us to really get to know and why we have to care about everyone here, but they are people and events worth talking about, and while they probably could've skewed more towards realism than they did, I didn't mind the directions the film went. There's a lot going on, and the title, "Pride" has a lot of multiple meanings in the end as well. The film works on enough levels to recommend, especially some of the performances btw, some of those were really special and really push the movie to make it better than it probably would've been on paper.


22 JUMP STREET (2014) Directors: Phil Lord & Christopher Miller

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After "Muppets Most Wanted" this is the 2nd film in a short period of time that begins with an opening about how a sequel is never as good as the first, and both times, they've delivered on that promise, although there's still a lot to like in "22 Jump Street". I was a fan of the original TV show, long ago, and really enjoyed the movie, which definitely took some liberties and reworked the original idea of the series into a very funny comedy that looked at the shift in high school social behaviors over the years. Now, Schmidt & Jenko (Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill) are going to do the same thing, only they're gonna go undercover this time and pass as college students, as they're now a little too old to be believable as high school students. They also moved to the abandoned church across the street, and got a budget for nicer sets and more destruction of property, at least until they overuse it. It seems like the same plot, a new drug has infiltrated the campus, this one's called Wi-Fi and after one user is found dead, they seek to investigate. Schmidt investigates and befriends the college's star quarterback Zook (Wyatt Russell) and both of them get along well, as Schmidt and Jenko try to join the football team and Zook's fraternity. Meanwhile, Schmidt starts getting somewhere with Maya (Amber Stevens) who was the dead girl's roommate, who according to the law of sequel romances involving newly-introduced female characters (Movie Rule #578) se female character will inevitably be somehow involved in some aspect of the characters life, work, or other periphery plotpoint, leading either to se character falling in love causing complications to the plot, sometimes also involving her death (That last part mostly applies to "Lethal Weapon 2" and all films named "Death Wish"), which means, that she's the daughter of their commanding officer, Captain Dickson (Ice Cube), something that Jenko didn't put together until it was too late. There's also some strong supporting work from Peter Stormare and Jillian Bell, as well as the ever-reliable Nick Offerman (Man, I'm gonna miss "Parks and Recreation" when that's done) and basically you end up with a funny meta-sequel that, much like the original film, makes a good deal of fun of movies and sequels. It's a bit of a, one plot point, after another being brought up, winking at the camera about the fact that their in a movie; the only thing that I recall being missing was a knocked over fruit stand but they probably didn't have the budget for it. It's funny, "22 Jump Street", there's great chemistry from Hill and Tatum, the story wasn't that bad actually; I'll recommend it. The team of Lord & Miller are definitely two of the funniest around right now, and they know the directions in which to take their films and make them funny, it's just not nearly as funny as the original, and that's okay for me. They do seem to intend to make more films later, I can't wait 'til "Jump Street Generations" much later, myself, and-eh, I'd watch another one if they made it.


THE SKELETON TWINS (2014) Director: Craig Johnson

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I really didn't come into "The Skeleton Twins" expecting much, but I actually got one of the better films I've seen this week. It's a subtle dark comedy, but it's very maturely written from the young Craig Johnson; this is only his second feature as a writer/director. It's not the most unusual story; there's plenty of good adult brother and sister stories, "You Can Count on Me" comes to mind (Boy, I gotta tell ya, I'm amazed how often that movie gets referenced; I gotta remember to rewatch that). Still this one, it's got funny moments, some dark moments, I know Christy Lemire made fun of it, but I actually am a fan of Starship, and I do mean the '80s Starship, but really the movie is about to suicide siblings who are both, major fuck-ups in their lives, which has gone on their separate ways for years and now that they're back together, they're fuck-ups together, but they're more able to handle it with the help of each other. When we first meet Maggie Dean (Kristen Wiig, in probably her best acting performance to date, I've never seen this side of her before.) she's about to swallow a handful of sleeping pills, only to be interrupted by a call from an L.A. hospital informing her that her brother Milo (Bill Hader, also best performance from him; don't think this is a long SNL sketch we're getting here; these aren't comic taking a dramatic role, these are actors who happen to be able to do some comedy in this film) has tried to kill himself. She make the red eye flight to L.A. and takes Milo home where he's introduced to her husband Lance (Luke Wilson), who until now, he hasn't even heard about. Lance is a good guy, works doing some kind of landscaping job that Milo takes to tithe him over, and he's a bit of an outdoorsman. Maggie is a dental hygienist who's taking SCUBA lessons from Billy (Boyd Holbrook). Why is she taking the lessons? It's hard to explain without going into too much detail, in fact, I'm gonna purposefully leave a few pieces of information out here, but she does sleep with Billy. Milo, while back in town, decides to seek out an old lover of his, Rich (Ty Burrell) who's struggling with both a marriage to a woman and a teenage son, but there's still a spark between them, or at least Milo hopes there is. There's some parallels in these relationships that I'm not gonna get into but the paths these character arcs take are surprisingly sharp. Despite a few early sequences like an unexpected brief visit from their mother, Judy (Joanna Gleason) who's got pictures of her new family that are a little more half-sketched than the rest of the movie, it's really a great balance between the tones. There's scenes in the movie that could've really gone over-the-top, and with these two actors they really could have, but the comedic moments are correctly subdued. Much of them are what they are, these little sibling in-jokes that people have with each other, and often Lance is completely out of the loop, no matter how much he tries to get in on them, it's outside of his realm. This could easily have gone wrong in many different ways, and it doesn't, and that's a real credit, to the script, but even more than that, the directing and the acting, especially Wiig and Hader. This movie needed these performances from these actors and while I don't think anybody is particularly surprised that they were capable of these performances, but to see that they're smart enough to give these specific performances here, and trust from their director with these performances, it's really a pleasure to see.  


BELLE (2014) Director: Amma Asande

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Thinking back on "Belle", there's a lot to admire about the movie, but in the end, while it is a bit of the same British aristocracy power behind the throne kinda film, priviledge vs. love, and whatnot, but with an interesting new twist. A little too much on-the-nose dialogue, but it's delivered well. Based on the real life of Dido Elizabeth Belle (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) who was the mulatto daughter of a British Naval Officer, Capt. John Lindsay (Matthew Goode) and an African West Indies slave. Lindsay gave her her name, and insisted she be accepted into the family, the Mansfields. Despite some early objections from his Aunt and Uncle, Lord and Lady Mansfield (Tom Wilkinson and Emily Watson) they accepted her, and she grew up treated mostly as a sister to their other niece, Mary Murray (Sarah Gadon). When they're of age, the natural path in this world, is of course for them to go out and seek a husband. There's a few candidates for each of them from the Ashford family, brothers Oliver and James (James Norton and Tom Felton) and their matriarch, Lady Ashford (Miranda Richardson) is very interested in combining the families. The thing is that Dido is actually the heiress, but is of course not particularly appropriate for advancement in the class; she's not even eating at the dinner table when guests arrive. However, Lord Mansfield is Lord Chief Justice, which is essentially an equivalent to the head judge of England, and he's trying to take up a protege, John Davinier (Sam Reid) who's interested in Dido, but is a reformist, who's working on a case about a slave trade that could hypothetically make the slave trade illegal in England. This was the Somersett's Case, that was a major ruling, and-, you know I had to look that up, not because it's not something I know, but I had to look a lot of this up. The people involved, the characters, and it's actually a good movie, and it's a good lesser-known story actually, but that said, uh, I'm- I've been sitting at this computer trying to write this review for two days; I'm not kidding. I'm way behind on everything else now, but there's something about this movie, and I think it was a screenplay and, maybe a directing issue, where we fall back into, you know, Jane Austen, Henry VIII, world, so much, that even though we're following an interesting character, it comes like every other movie that this film looks like. There's so many aspects of this story, and, almost none of them are driven home. There's a lot of dangling our feet into the ponds of what's going on, but really, this film falters the more you think about it. I'm still gonna recommend it, but there's something disturbing that this movie, and it was a African British, female director too, with a really rich subject matter, and- you know what it is? She tried to get a sense of what it would be like for Dido, and how she would be and feel in her life, and in going for that, she really kinda forgot about her story a bit and....- That's it, really; too far in one direction that isn't the strongest one the film should've done and that's-eh, just a real shame pretty much.


CHEF (2014) Director: Jon Favreau

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I think if you look at Jon Favreau's latest project, there's a real clear symbolic metaphor for him, of basically his career in recent years. He used to host "Dinner for Five", and if you ever want to find that show, I think all the episodes are on Youtube, and it's a great series btw, so food, has always played somewhat of a part in his work, but recently, he's gone from writing "Swingers" to big budget blockbusters like "Iron Man" and one of the very worst films in recent years, "Cowboys and Aliens". It's clear that he felt a need to get back to something soulful, and heartfelt, and what's more soulful than good food. Good food from a good food truck probably. The food truck revolution, if some of you guys aren't aware, started really taking off here on the west coast a few years ago; one of the movies culinary advisors Roy Choi is one of the major players in it. Favreau plays Carl Casper, a once-great chef, who's still great but is going through a major lull in his professional life. He's working for Riva (Dustin Hoffman) a restaurateur who's limiting his creative potential and has been forced to cook the same food, without specials and changes for years. He's divorced from his wife Inez (Sofia Vergara) and he's constantly too busy for quality time with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony). Alright, it's cliche, and even the internet war with a notorious critic Ramsey (Oliver Platt) after a few bad reviews, he has to start over, and that's when "Chef" becomes a touching road trip story as Percy joins Carl on the road along with his sous chef Martin (John Leguizamo) as they discover America and Carl rediscovers his passion for food through the oddysey from Miami, through New Orleans, then Texas and back home in L.A. and the food of the areas. "Chef" isn't anything particularly new, but it's well done, and I enjoyed it. I'm a bit of a foodie myself, part of it I enjoyed the behind-the-scenes of the restaurant and food truck business, as well as the food itself. You know, would I prefer a film that might've been a more innovative story or plot- actually, you know what, in this case I don't. "Chef" doesn't want to be anything more than it is, and that's enough, and frankly that's all you want. There's some really great performances, a lot of good actors, a simple good story, it's frankly the most purely enjoyable film I've seen this week. Simple is good, whether it's food or movies, and "Chef" is simple and good.


MOOD INDIGO (2014) Director: Michel Gondrey




Ugh. "Mood Indigo" is stylistically surreal, pointlessly so. Really pointlessly so, and that's one of my biggest pet peeves; something that I've always been troubled with by much of Michel Gondry's work over the years, his obsessive need to be quirky and unusual. Ever since his best film, "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind", but that movie had a point and a reason for all of it's strangeness. Kaufman's surreal for a reason, Gondry's surreal because he can't stop himself and by the end, his films typically lose all power because of it. You can't just be cute for the sake of being cute. His best recent film, "The We and the I", bare, very bare, it's amazing what he can do with little, kids on a bus, improvised dialogue. And now, from the bus to a train wreck. It starts with a room full of typewriters in perfect alignment, and then everything had a quirk to it. The cake, the doorbell, the wedding, what did any of it have to do with anything? It's Gondrey's first French film in his native France in a while, and it's a wonderment. Not much else though. Based on Boran Vias's novel "L'Ecume des Jours", (Although it takes a lot of liberties from that novel, I've heard) basically the story, if it was at all relevant to the film at all, involve Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tautou). Colin is a lifelone bachelor chef, I think, who falls in love with Chloe but she suffers from a strange illness where she's got a flower growing in her lungs. Colin then, has to give her flowers forever to help her live. If you understand that without looking it up, good for you. And I've been told this was a shorter version, only 94 minutes, than the original which was two hours long; I can't imagine how other shit was in this movie, but it does feel like a chopped story a bit, but even if it didn't, like, how much overload of pointless imagery can you have? I gave Gondrey's last film, the animated documentary, "Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?" a horrible review, it made my worst ten list in fact, and "Mood Indigo" might be worst. I mean, "Is the Man..." was a failed experiment, this was just nothing. Rage and beauty signifying,... not even nothing, just style over substance, style over everything. This gets so much worst the more I think about it. It is so abrasively, this is like the visual equivalent of the sound of nails on a chalkboard. I mean, some idiots gonna watch this movie and see all the production design, the special effect, the Terry Gilliam-esque whimsy, the inventiveness,... and they're gonna look at this movie and think this is some kind of special achievement or a masterpiece of this kind, but it's so without purpose. It takes you out of, whatever movie there is here, and there isn't much, It's just jarring that you go through all the trouble to make a movie, even a whimsical movie, it's just one thing after another, not progressing the story, not done for any reason whatsoever, again, and again, and again, and again,... and again. This is killing with kindness and I felt like I was being smothered by a perfume-scented pillow. This was just awful. Really, awful.


WATERMARK (2014) Directors: Jennifer Baichwal and Edward Burtynsky

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 First there's a beautiful long take of water, or the lack thereof, maybe a few shots of people interacting with the water, or are unable to, and then an occasional talking head, talking about the necessity of water and it's current or historic place in the human evolutionary ecosystem, and then repeat, with another impressive shot of water. During most of the talking heads, I went to the bathroom. Alright, no I didn't, but I wish that was true. This is- god, some of these movies are just awful this week,- you know, when your doing a documentary, even an environmental documentary, you need to try, to entertain the audience. I mean, yeah, water effects the people and land around it, whether it's there or not,- I know, no fucking shit, really?! Water effects everything!? (Eye roll) I mean, that's what this film was. Yeah, there's these great long takes of helicopters shots through the canyons that have been formed for thousands of years and all that, and, yeah, those are great, and the other things were, you know somewhat educational, but the minute you get interested you jump to another part of the world and another, eh, set of talking heads and another story about water. I mean, they have one story about how the L.A. Aqueduct was created by one guy campaigning and then getting the Owens Lake to be redirected into Los Angeles, through the aqueduct system, and then, right as that happens, within years the aqueduct, is dried up, that story is so interesting that it could've been a whole movie. I wished I was watching that movie frankly. There was a documentary last year that was Switzerland's entry into the Foreign Language Oscar category called, "More than Honey" and it was about bees and it also went around the world looking at the ways bees have effected the planet, and it was a great film 'cause it really wasn't just these random and generic stories put together, everything drifted well, everything had a point, it didn't just linger and move on to something else, it was visually interesting and it taught and it was entertaining as well, "Watermark" is a lot of teaching, but the class is asleep, and no amount of beautiful long takes through desolate canyons, and waterfalls, no matter how amazing will save it. I get that in a copy of National Geographic if I wanted to just look at great images like that, you know?


MACHETE KILLS (2013) Director: Robert Rodriguez

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You gotta love a movie that continually find new ways to kill people using a helicopter. Seriously you gotta love that. I was a big fan of the first "Machete" film and this one is almost as good, and just as entertaining. The movies are a combination of pure fantasy id-driven fantasy and pure unadulterated storytelling. Robert Rodriguez when he's on his game, isn't afraid of "What's the sickest, strangest, most shocking, weirdest fucking thing that can happen next?" and then, go with it, and have it happen. Plausibility, logic, realism, fuck it. Throw all that out the window when it comes to Machete (Danny Trejo) or in this "Machete Kills". Which is as strange a sequel title you can find. (It's not like he didn't kill in the first movie, right?) Anyway, Machete kills a lot, but he's also unable to killed as many people will try throughout the film. After one of these failed assassination attempts by a corrupt Texas Sheriff Doakes (William Sadler), he's called in by Mr. President (Carlos Estevez) as he has to take out a Mexican revolutionary/drug cartel leader Mendez (Demian Bichir) who's pointing a missile to the United States that's attached to his heart. After getting some help from CIA agent Miss San Antonio (Amber Heard) After first going through Mendez's prostitute mistress, Cereza (Vanessa Hudgeons), and having to escape her madame Desdemona (Sofia Vergara) who, certainly must go to a very interesting sex shop to get some of her wardrobe (I'm pretty sure it's the one Love Boutique next to the Deja Vu Showgirls on Industrial, just off of Desert Inn, although it could also be special ordered) Meanwhile, in trying to transfer Mendez to America to find the person who can turn off the heart-grenade-bomb, meanwhile on top of being chased by Desdemona, La Cameleon (Walt Coggins/Cuba Gooding Jr./Lady Gaga/Antonio Banderas) a notorious hitman/women/whatever is hot on their trail. Not to mention, stumbling into Voz (Mel Gibson) a notorious uber-billionaire who's build military weapons and is seeking out to end the world and restart the human race in space with a specially select few. To make sense out of any of this film, is pointless. It's over-the-top, and off a cliff, around Saturn, off the board and nothing but net. Pure imagery, pure craziness, pure fun. "Machete" is really a throwback to the blaxploitation era of films, just taken up to extremes, and it's just amazing fun. I want to see "Machete Kills in Space", I want to see this character continually go on more mythic and unbelievable and full of ridiculous-timed sex scenes with cartoony over-the-top absurd violence, these amazing bloodsplattering deaths and the movie getting more and more outrageous each time, I really enjoy these films. The image of a scarred proud Mexican like "Machete" in an astronaut's outfit, getting ready to go into space, as an Italian, makes me excited and proud to watch, I get Rodriguez vision and perspective. I enjoyed and I really don't know why this film got so panned; it's just more "Machete" fun to me, anytime.


A MAN ESCAPED (1957) Director: Robert Bresson

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I'm always a bit, standoffish with Robert Bresson films. Instinctively, I know I have to watch them, but personally, I'm not as taken with the techniques as some are. Not that the films aren't this amazing pieces of cinema and aren't true seminal masterpieces of the craft, but they often fell to me like chores more then they are pieces of entertainment.  His films use amateur actors, usually in black and white, they're not flashy, and they're so interpretative, that you can make about ten different parables regarding them, and frankly I mostly think they're more straight narratives than he let's on. This one, "A Man Escaped", might be the barest of all his films. It's based on the Andre Devigny memoir, and it's full title translated to English is: "A Man Escaped: or The Wind Bloweth Where It Listeth". Devigny, or in this film, he's named Fontaine (Francois Leterrier) and he's a French Resistance fighter, who's a Nazi Prisoner of War, and is on their death row, and all that entails for him, and nobody else. We get his voiceover and what little he sees and does predominantly, mostly a cell, and not much else. A small window, high above, reachable be a small corner shelf. A wooden door, a few other things that slowly but surely help him escape. It's a bit like watching "The Shawshank Redemption" from Andy's point of view, and there's no Red, there's no walking around, just a lone determined man, in a solitary cell trying to get out, without being caught. He talks through the walls and windows sometimes to people, often there's best compatriots that he's never met or seen, and sometimes they get sent to death before he ever does. Bresson focuses on these small aspects of life. Well, they're not small, really they're everything, especially to a man for whom, that's all he's got. A peephole and a shiv, that's all. We get the bare details and bare details only. Yet, the movie is enthralling in their minimalism, like all Bresson films are. It's hard to give a rating to any of his films, in many ways they all feel the same, and it's really kind of a preference more than anything else that let's me prefer, say "Mouchette" over "Au Hasard Balthazar" or "Pickpocket". "A Man Escaped" is definitely a great film as well. I just don't know if I can ever be so engaged to be fully engrossed in his work. Actually, part of it is that I don't want to be so engrossed in his films, as I'd rather be engrossed in others, but that shouldn't be a reason to avoid them. And "A Man Escape" is one of his most intense and thrilling, and is probably more influential than most of his other films.


SUCKER PUNCH
(2011) Director: Zach Snyder

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For about a half-hour of "Sucker Punch", I had, little-to-no idea what was going on. It seems like one of those dreams within a dreams that Billy Wilder famously chastised Louis Malle about, but then I came across a scene in the movie that I instantly recognized. It involves the character Baby Doll (Emily Browning) has entered some kind of temple, probably Buddhist in nature if I was guessing, and she's then informed by Wise Man (Scott Glenn) the five objects she would need to complete her mission, and he then hands her a samurai sword, a weapon of a choice. You know how I recognize this scene? Cause I wrote this scene. No, no, no, no, before anybody thinks, "David, what-the-hell are you talking about? Is this infringment, am I accusing Zach Snyder...! No, no, none of that happened, okay "Sucker Punch" is clearly an idea of his, this isn't my vision on screen, but I do know this scene. I wrote it in seventh grade, and instead of Baby Doll, and a Wise Man, it was Bugs Bunny and the other character was a mysterious figure that I don't believe I actually ever named, but it was a short story in a 7th or 8th glass Creative Writing class I had with Mister Allison. Bugs Bunny was tasked to go through the Himalayas to find The Abominable Smowman, and the opening involved him getting this task, and choosing a weapon, and informed of the dangers on the way. I know you're looking at me weird, but let me explain, it was an assignment called "Hero in a Hat" and I drew at random Bugs Bunny as my Hero, The Abominable Snowman as my villain, and Sword as my weapon, and he was doing this for money, $10,000 I believe. You see, I was so annoyed at the project that I came up with the only scenario in which combining all these ideas made sense. In the end of my Hero in a Hat story, Bugs has almost gotten enough money and is about to kill the Snowman, when suddenly everything turns to black. When the lights go back on again, and these are literal lights that go back on, we are back at the beginning with the scene of Bugs getting his mission and choosing his weapon and Tommy is sitting in front of television pissed off. That's right folks, that was my way out of this assignment, I made it a video game. I was inspired by the Bobby Ewing in the shower "Dallas" season that was all a dream but after I thought making it a dream would also not make much sense and just be an easy way so, I made it a video game, and basically after that Mr. Allison had to go back and re-edit all the logic problems he thought I was made with that story until I revealed the ending, I basically had carte blanche for the rest of the class as I had basically outsmarted his project. "Sucker Punch" is also a video game. Only, when I wrote my short story, I knew enough to skip over basically, the entire playing of the video game, as that would only be frustrating, boring, and possibly give away my surprise ending. "Sucker Punch", doesn't do that; it instead, although it does it really well, I will say, it then shows Baby Doll going on her mission, which begins, in this case, with destroy a bunch of machines that move curiously like characters I've seen in some kind of modern-day Mortal Kombat game. It's even looks like a video game sequences between levels sometimes, and Baby Doll's golden tint lighting from cinematographer Larry Fong is quite amazing. The story, if you can call it that, basically follows or is inside Baby Doll's head, and then inside her head a couple times but I'll simplify it. She's in a mental institution which she then imagines is some kind of brothel/nightclub world where she and a few other orphaned girls, Sweet Pea (Abbie Cornish) and her sister Rocket (Jena Malone) Blondie (Vanessa Hudgeons, ironically a brunette, for some reason. I guess irony, but still...-) and Amber (Jamie Chung) and basically enslaved and force to perform and dance for the corrupt underground characters like "High Roller" (Jon Hamm) or "The Mayor" or whoever else comes to this underground club. Baby Doll organizes the prison break and is apparently a very powerful dancer that hypnotizes the audiences long enough for the other girls to grab the objects needed and during these dances, there's music that's on repeat and is in some kind of trance where she and the other girls have to go on these metaphorical mission through special effects-land. A runaway, WWI or WWII, whatever it was, etc, other classic video game scenarios/worlds. (And btw, the way the music is used is also video game. Most video games always had background music, a different one for each level often, it could just as easily be Bjork as it is Jefferson Airplane, or another cover of The Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" as it can be, Mario down in the Pipes. Frankly, I don't know why we couldn't just see Emily Browning dancing in lingerie three or four times, but that would technically be a musical and this is a video game. And that should really tell you how fucked up this idea is of taking a video game plot structure and insisting on trying to make it fit into films; it hasn't worked yet and it won't work. Zach Snyder is a really talented director, and the visuals are stunning, but it is watching someone else play a video game and after awhile, it's just frustrating and boring. It's something nice to fall asleep to, with the good music and visuals, but so is MTV, or whatever-the-hell channel actually plays music videos. CoolTV, I guess. It's a bit great trash conceptually and the look is fantastic, but this concept, it really doesn't translate, and whether it's "Scott Pilgrim vs. the World" or "The Raid" movies, or "Sucker Punch" or anything else, is doesn't work, and I don't know why we keep doing it. I was 13 and knew to skip over the uninteresting level-playing of video games, and go straight to the end where it got interesting, others apparently don't. Maybe they should've had a Game Genie growing up, I don't know. I will say that of all those movies, at least this one was the most fun to look at. I'd rather see Emily Browning dancing in her underwear like everybody else in the film, instead of seeing her slay a baby dragon to get magical lighter, and maybe that makes me weird. But I really don't think so.


THE BUTCHER BOY (1998) Director: Neil Jordan

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Neil Jordan's "The Butcher Boy" is often compared to such films as Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange"; it was around the same time as there was other films that also took a critical look at childhood anger and angst, that bursted into violence in some ways, in one way or another that was somewhat common undercurrent theme in the nineties in particular. This one, based on the Pat McCade is about a young sociopath named Francie Brady (Eamonn Owens, in his debut performance). I say he's a sociopath, 'cause he is, but that doesn't mean that he hasn't had it rough. Quite the contrary. His mother (Aisling O'Sullivan) was suicidal, sent at one point to an institution, while his father, (Stephen Rea) is a talented trombonist, but most of the time is a violent dying drunk who in front of the TV in the living room too long. He and his friend Joe (Alan Boyle) get into a lot of trouble in their youths, at one point, Francie is sent away to boarding school, where he becomes a choir boy and even starts speaking and seeing images of the Virgin Mary (Sinead O'Connor, yes that, Sinead O'Connor in a rather intriguing casting choice.) He's mostly angry at Mrs. Nugent (Fiona Shaw) who suspects that Francie isn't particularly a good person, and is affront towards him and his bullying actions. Joe becomes friends with her son while Francie is away while Father Bubbles (Brendan Gleeson) dresses Francie privately in drag as he's amazed at his devotion and changing ways. When he comes back, he tries to befriend Joe again, but he's moved on, something he simply isn't capable of accepting. He gets work at the boys dissecting pig carcasses, but he's too far gone, and is only a few extra catastrophes away from snapping. "The Butcher Boy" is a tough watch. It's told in first person and Eamonn Owens gives a truly great performance for a kid. It's actually one of Neil Jordan's better films as a director, despite it being hard to swallow the pacing and editing, choices he makes, slightly quicker, more unusual for him than say "The Crying Game" or some of his more tonal mood pieces that he's done lately. There's a lot here, but in the moment it works enough.


PEACE, LOVE & MISUNDERSTANDING (2012) Director: Bruce Beresford

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(Snoring sounds), Huh, I'm up. I'm up. "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding". This film must've gotten on my radar somehow because of it's director. Bruce Beresford is the Austalian-born British director most known for films like "Tender Mercies" and "Driving Miss Daisy"; he's made quite a few good movies actually. From Hollywood thrillers like "Double Jeopardy" to more personal smaller films like "Evelyn". A lot of his films have a fish-out-of-water theme, somebody in a different place than their normal lives and how they react. "Peace, Love & Misunderstanding", has a more contrived version of that, and frnakly this movie was on autopilot from moment one. Diane (Catherine Keener) is a conservative intellectual lawyer who's husband (Kyle Maclachlan) has just announced that he wants a divorce. She then packs up the kids, Jake (Nat Wolff) and Zoe (Elizabeth Olson) to go up to Woodstock, where her hippie drug-dealing mother Grace (Jane Fonda) lives her wild bohemian life amongst the group that look like they came for The Greatful Dead and never really left, although naturally, there's more to everybody than meets the eye. Wanna guess what to happens to each of these characters? I'll give you a hint, Grace, is a little bit older than a teenage girl and is a bit picky when it comes to her personal beliefs, especially when it comes to sharing those beliefs and her body with the opposite sex, and there's a character named Cole (Chace Crawford) that's involved. Diane also has a guy around, Jude (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) who doesn't match her ideal and her mother has set them up. The son, Jake, seems to always have a video camera around and on top of that cliche, there's a waitress named Tara (Marissa O'Donnell) who's around for him. If you can't figure out the arc of each of these character to one degree or less than you need to watch more movies. Oh, and can you guess which song by The Band gets played more than once? It's so, one of those movies where, basically it's by the numbers plot. Characters come into new environment or an old environment and they have memories and experiences, meet people that change them. It's tired and old, and frankly there isn't anything else even here. The movie's after 60 minutes of experiences, and twenty-to-thirty minutes, most of artificial conflicts between the artificial-but-well-acted characters. I don't even really understand what else this movie was supposed to even be. It's so generic and kinda aimless when you think about it, there really a struggle or a plot or even a situation that these characters need to overcome other than what's in their minds really. There was a great movie, years ago, made my Top Ten list called "A Home at the End of the World" which also about three characters who went up to Woodstock for a prolongued period, that film was based on a Michael Cunningham novel, he's famous for writing "The Hours", this is actually a better movie than that one, and it's the kind of movie where there doesn't seem like much conflict either, but under the surface there many conflicts between the characters and there are real events that transform their lives. There's nothing here like that. This is just the minimal shallowest work needed for a movie. I mean, alright Jane Fonda's playing a bit of a play on her image with this character, but other than that and that's not even interesting really. It's cute for a minute and then it's another great Jane Fonda performance, and, not much else.


MY AFTERNOONS WITH MARGUERITE (2011) Director: Jean Becker

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There's a lot of movies about how a relationship between two people and how the power of literature, becomes a transforming bond between them, and how each character grows because of the experience. "My Afternoon with Margueritte", it's a pretty good one, despite a little too much bad exposition dialogue in the beginning. Germain (Gerard Depardieu) is a giant of a man. Depardieu is a big lug and nobody knows how to use his mass for dramatic effect more than him. He's not overly educated and his mother (Claire Maurier, as an old woman, Anne Le Guernac in flashbacks) was a trainwreck, and an emotionally abusive one. He still takes care of her as she lives across the way. He works, hangs out talking at a bar with some of his friends. He has a girlfriend, a bus driver Annette (Sophie Guillemin), who he's lucky to have, almost embarassed to have really. At lunch, he sits in the park and counting 14 pigeons with his friend Margueritte (Gisele Casadesus) an old woman who reads books and looks over the pigeons as well. Germain is not a good reader, never really taught well, but she starts to listen to her read books by Albert Camus and others, and it enchants him. It's not a new story, there's plenty of great movies about seemingly unknowing characters who discover literature and become more enlightened. You're just gonna get that story with film people, it's essentially their story, and art is the medium that we consider so powerful, so this story comes up all the time. It can tiresome, and this movie had it's moment of eye-rolling and for the first twenty minutes or so, there's some really bad exposition dialogue, very on-the-nose. That said, overall this isn't "Il Postino" or anything, but it's a good version of that story, and I'm recommending it. I was entertained, well-acted, and I found myself actually caring at the end about the characters. Nothing special but, you don't need that special all the time anyway.


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