Friday, February 10, 2012


An update on one of my recent blogs, after I posting a scathing blog accusing the Music Branch of the A.M.P.A.S. of laziness in their selection of Best Song nominees in recent years, including this year only nominating two songs for the Awards, they have announced that will be looking into rebooting their nominating system within the next year, hopefully so that more songs can be nominated next year. I'm all for that, although I still want to stress that no matter the nominating system, and it does need some changing, so I'm glad they're taking this step, they still need to stop being lazy with their nominations. I still contend that lackluster human decision-making is the real problem with the Award in recent years, but that's harder to control with just a rule change, so hopefully, this will be a good first step.

I also want to report that here at David Baruffi's Entertainment Views and Reviews, we have reached a milestone, this is our 100th blog update! I'm told that there is no syndication rights for making it to 100 for blogs yet, but hopefully there will be someday. In the meantime, we'll be celebrating!

Alright, and now, onto the reviews!

MARGIN CALL (2011) Director: JC Chandor


"Margin Call," takes place at a major Wall Street investment bank, that is not named. It doesn't need to be; we can fill in the names of the ones it could've been, and frankly it might as well be all of them. It takes place over two days, and one very long night. There's cutbacks, and one of those lost is the head of the Risk Management Division, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci). He's been working on something, but by the time he's fired, they've erased his codes, and cutoff his phone, and everything else. He manages to give a small USB drive to one of his now-former hotshot employees, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto) right before he leaves. Dale's boss, Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) has seen it all, but he's grown tired and worrysome, and his dog is dying. His loyal right-hand man Will Emerson (Paul Bettany) is still young and ambitious. There's seems to only be a couple different kinds of people who seem to be in this profession, the highly-intelligent, educated and skilled, and those who are overly-ambitious, cocky and hungry for the wealth that the job provides, or at least it did. By the next day, the entire company is on fire sale alert. Sullivan, a former rocket scientist-turned-Wall Street analyst, has finished Dale's project, and according to the math..., well, it's too difficult to explain, but basically, they're f***ed. They've been buying worthless investments, continually increasing the risk, and the investments weren't paid back, and now they owe more than the company is even worth. They call in the big guns in the middle of the night, to figure out who to blame, who to save, what to do, and hopefully find Eric Dale to come in, and if nothing else, make sure he doesn't tell anybody what only he and the people in the building currently know. This is the kind of movie where it helps that most of the actors are instantly recognizable. For one thing, it helps us to separate them, for the other, the movie is almost all dialog-driven, and requires the best actors to come in, with there characters already firmly developed, so as the tensions between certain characters remain throughout, but put on hold while they have to handle this crisis. Simon Baker and Jeremy Irons, eventually join the party, as the news travels up the company's food chain. If I have a criticism, Demi Moore's part might be slightly underwritten and underplayed to me, although she has a habit of looking for parts like this, of women who have more masculine characteristics, often to blend in to the crowd. Well, you can't really please everybody, maybe especially in this film. Writer/Director JC Chandor earned a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the screenplay, for this, his feature-length directioral film. It actually reminding me of "The China Syndrome," another movie that's mostly dialogue-driven, about what just might be the end-of-the-world is approaching, right as no one listens to the one guy who knows for sure. That film was also a fiction film based obviously on real events. "Margin Call," is quiet, but incredibly intense; this is one of the best thrillers of the year! It's also one of those films that shows just how it's possible to believe that not only are there smart people working on Wall Street, but show exactly how they could've just screwed up, and how they are able to reason that, while simultaneously destroying the lives of others. Nobody in this movie is a bad guy, none of them wishes harm on anyone, and none of them want to do what they absolute have to do. With the reports about some companies that actually did blew up stock they knew to be worthless to jack up the stock price out there, that makes that, possibly the only unrealistic part of the film. That's the correct choice by Chandor though; a bad guy would've made us want to defeat somebody. This is movie about men who learn a little too late, that they've already been beaten.

BEAUTIFUL BOY (2011) Director: Shawn Ku


Seldom are our greatest dreams or our worst fears realizd. I believed Jim McKay said something to that effect after the massacre at the Munich Olympics in '72. "Beautiful Boy," is a movie about what happens when your worst fears, turn out to be realized, only to be told, "there's something else you need to know". Kate and Bill (Maria Bello and Michael Sheen) are parents of Sammy (Kyle Gallner) a college kid who calls them one night. It's a strange phone call, but Kate and Bill are in the middle of their own personal crises to dwell too deeply on it. The next day, Sammy goes to class with numerous guns and weapons, and starts shooting, killing 18 before taking his own life. Bill and kate are as confused as they are grief-stricken. They don't believe it at first, but then again, who would? After the media gets off their lawn one night, they escape to a relative's house for awhile, trying to regroup. As it becomes clearer and clearer what Sammy did... well, that's kinda what the movie is about really. We essentially know the road(s) that the two characters will take, literally and figuratively, so the actors are the most crucial part. Bello and Sheen are absolutely amazing! These are the kind of performances Academy members are gonna kick themselves when they realize that they overlooked them. Co-writer/Director Shawn Ku, shoots them with a handheld camera, during their most intimate of moments, especially in the closed in space of a faraway motel room, where all emotions will eventually come out. They have to grieve for the loss of their son, but not so much as to humanize him for the families of those we killed. They have to ask what they could've done to see this coming, or stop it. They have to wonder if they did something wrong. They have to also ask why, and even when they almost get an answer to that one, they don't, they never will, and somehow, they're gonna have to live with that fact. "Beautiful Boy," is not an easy film some to watch. I think it had to be even tougher to act. I was mesmorized by it; I think most everybody else will be too, if they can stomach it. If they do, they'll be treated to two of the best performances of the year.



I had only a limited knowledge of A Tribe Called Quest going into this documentary, but what little that was I liked. With "Beats, Rhymes & Life..." I have a little more appreciation, as well as knowledge of them. I also got a rare look inside a group or band, that is practically in continuous conflict. They began in that same New York area that produced DJ Red Alert and Run-DMC, and exploded at the period were gangster rap exploded, but A Tribe Called Quest, lead by Q-Tip, Phife Dog, Ali and Jarobi became basically the Miles Davis of hip hop. They were blunt and political, but they also mixed and samples some from the widest ranges of music to create their songs and albums. I guess the words you'd use to describe them are revolutionary, eclectic and possibly alternative, although influential is a better word. There's lot of rap artists, from hip hop's past and present that praise the group. The film is directed by actor Michael Rapaport; I know him from multiple movies like "Big Fan," "Special," and "Small Time Crooks," as well as memorable roles on TV shows as wide-ranging as "Friends," "Boston Public," "My Name is Earl," and "Prison Break". This is his first directorial job, and it's a good one. He's stays behind-the-camera and allows for each of the members to tell their own story and interpretation of events, from the beginning to their careers, to the band's shocking breakup in '98, and the problems afterwards. They're still one of the biggest acts in hip hop, and occasionally come together to perform, but you get the sense that their best days are behind them, and the occasional booked gig and tour are annoyances and chores more than a desire to create again, although they still have one album release left on their original record contract, which was one of the biggest ever given out for an unsigned artist at the time. "Beats, Rhymes & Life... is an entertaining documentary filled with candid insight, and great music, that still hold up.

THE CONSPIRATOR (2011) Director: Robert Redford

3 1/2 STARS

As an director, Robert Redford has been one of the more interesting, and also one of the more erratic. He's capable of great films like his Oscar-winning "Ordinary People," and "Quiz Show," but he seems to lean towards more meandering period pieces that seem to hover in the adequate range. (And then there's "A River Runs Through It," which everyone wishes they could forget) "The Conspirator," is better than adequate period piece, and it doesn't really meander, but it suffers from being basically a good history lesson, more than a good film. In fact the history seems strangely knowledgable and accurate, and has obvious parallels to other recent events. It takes place right after Lincoln's assassination, when after Booth is tracked down and killed, in order to let the country heal, there's an insistance by the Secretary of War Edwin Stanton (Kevin Kline) that people be punished for the assassination. There was a conspiracy to assassinate not only Lincoln, but also V.P. Johnson, and Secretary William Seward. One of those conspirators, the only woman, was Mary Surratt (Robin Wright). The trial is an illegal military trial of civilians, and as Senator Reverdy Johnson (Always reliable Tom Wilkinson), when insisting that former Union Soldier Frederick Aiken (James McAvoy) take her defense, experience doesn't matter when the rules keep changing. It's a kangaroo court, conceived for the sole purpose of convicting all of the conspirators, in particular Mary Surratt. She owned a boarding house with her daughter (Evan Rachel Wood, who's currently in house arrest herself), which they shared with John Surratt, who everyone thinks is the main conspirator to Booth, but since they can't find him, they try her instead. There will be little drama to those who know the story, however the story is interesting. It never answers the question of whether or not Mary Surratt was a conspirator. She admits to knowing about a plan to kidnap Lincoln in exchange for POWs, but the evidence on her is flimsy at best. A couple years later, when Surratt was caught at brought to trial in a civilian court, the result was a hung jury. The trial of Mary Surratt was illegal, there is no other way around that. Thank God Redford is a decent director, or else this movie wouldn't have been as interesting as it actually was to watch. The acting is strong, and the story smartly focuses on Aiken as he investigates and discovers as he goes on. That creates just enough mystery and tension to keep us interested.

THE ROBBER (2011) Director: Benjamin Heisenberg

2 1/2 STARS

Johann Rettenberger (Andreas Lust) has two, and only two single-minded objectives. He wants to rob banks, and he wants to run. Based on a true story, "The Robber," a film from Austria is about the real-life man Johann Rettenberger. We get no insight into him other than that he runs, and he robs banks, or short of robbing banks, he commits some other crime(s). In prison for bank robbery, he runs around the prison yard. He does it so often, that at some point, he gets his own treadmill to help him run. I can't tell if he likes the training or the running more. I can't tell if he likes running. I can't tell if he likes robbing banks. He doesn't explain his obsessions, nor does he ever reveal any other desires. A couple people try to help him out, and doesn't want the help. In fact, he fights it every step of the way. The movie, by German director Benjamin Heisenberg is certainly well-done. He keeps the camera close to Johann, oftentimes so intensely like it almost seems like the camera is another unwanted helper of Johann. The movie has some amazing chase scenes, including a great one after he escapes from jail, and manages to outsmart and outrun the Police. It's is being remade currently in Hollywood; Andrew Garfield is lined up for the title role. I understand why. It's a simple premise, with a simple character, and lots of room for Hollywood creativity. In reality, it's too simple. He might be based on a real guy, and the real guy might actually act like this, but that doesn't make him a compelling character. Frankly, I wasn't sure whether I was cheering for him or the police half the time. Not that I was supposed to be cheering, but I would've at least liked some kind of an opinion, a thought, a personality out of this guy. He put the same amount of intensity and focus into both his activities. That's pretty much all I learned from watching "The Robber". There's good filmmaking here, but...  maybe the remake will be better.

THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN (2010) Director: Andre Techine


Andre Techine's "The Girl on the Train," is an ironic title. The girl is hardly ever on the train, and she certainly isn't when she claims that she is. The girl is Jeanne (Emilie Dequenne), a college dropout who mostly skates around town, occasionally with her boyfriend, sometimes alone. Mostly looking for something to do, or more precisely, she's trying to make sure she isn't doing anything. Her boyfriend Franck (Nicholas Duvauchelle) is selling drugs and weapons, and one day, he gets severely injured. Before that, her mother (Catherine Deneuve) is trying to make here find work and sends him to an old friend who's now become a famous civil rights lawyer, battling in cases where anti-semitism is a motive. The lawyer Samuel Bleistein (Michel Blanc) has a meeting with the girl, but he can she's not interested in work, and she can tell he has an interest in her mother still. She then orchestrates a lie about being attack on a train for being Jewish. She's not Jewish, but she can make herself look like one, and even if that doesn't work, Bleistein's name can be dropped, and that only would be just cause for some. Techine's been making movies for decades, but I've so far only seen two of his films, this one and "Changing Times," which was about a couple being reunited years after there affair had ended, but they may or may not have feelings for each other still. I find "The Girl on the Train," to be just as mysterious. I'm still having some difficulty understanding why she asks as she does in this film, and what exactly is she trying to accomplish. She may think there's some more profound reason for her lie, but I and a few others, easily pick up her need for attention. Either way, the mysteriousness of her makes her that much more unpredictable as her actions slowly chip away at everyone else's long-established emotional shields. "The Girl on the Train," may require multiple viewings to fully grasp it all, but it's worth it.

THE TAQWACORES (2010) Director: Eyad Zahra

2 1/2 STARS

I get what "The Taqwacores," is trying to do. I think it's commendable, but I don't think it really works. Yusef (Bobby Naderi) a young college student in Buffalo asks for a dorm room with fellow Muslims; his family is Pakistani, and he's fairly devout. When he arrives however, he seems to have walked into CBGB's circa 1977. His roommates, and the frequent guests are all Taqwacores, a Western movement of Muslims who are Punk influenced. They still pray five or six times a day, there's even a roommate who's a woman that's always covered head-to-toe in the strangest-looking handmade burka I've ever seen. They seem to talk about nothing else other than the Qur'an and what it means to be Muslim in this modern world. There's some interesting arguments and discussion and Yusef is the one that takes convincing that his more literal interpretation are outdated. At 83 minutes, "The Taqwacores," is fairly quick and quick-witted, and I think that's the problem. For a movie like this, where an outsider comes into a new environment, you have to have him really living and experience this new environment, and not having philosophical debates within it. This is the first feature-length film from writer/director Eyad Zahra, and I think he had a lot he wanted to say, and much of is really interesting, and should be said, but he also need to trust his camera and presume we can learn how to speak through images, and not simply dialogue, and if you do want to do it by dialogue, it really has to go somewhere. "The Taqwacores," instead of really diving into this subculture, kinda remains from an outsider perspective. It this had been a documentary, I might have enjoyed it more as a zeitgeist work, but with this structure, you can't really get into the world of the film, and that's disappointing. It looks like an interesting cool world. I'm curious to learn more. Maybe if he had extended this about a half-hour, we could've gotten more of a sense of it. As it stands, it's a missed opportunity.

JOLENE (2010) Director: Dan Ireland


With her Oscar-nominated performance in "The Help," and her work in "The Tree of Life," "Take Shelter", "The Debt," and "Coriolanus," this has been the year where Jessica Chastain has broken out into a major Hollywood star, surprisingly considering there weren't that many peole who had actually heard of her until this year, having worked mostly on TV roles beforehand. If I was her, and wanted to get well-known and work in a hurry, as a demo reel, I might have just sent everybody in town a copy of "Jolene". "Jolene," is the kind of film that seems written specifically to show off an actress's entire range. It does that, although it's based on a novel by E.L. Doctorow. It takes place in a period of ten years as Jolene (Chastain) is 15-year old orphan, who's getting married to Mickey (Zeb Newman) in one of those towns in the South that looks like it's still in the 1950s. (There seems be a lot of places like that in the South) Jolene is an orphan who's been sexually assaulted from one foster home to another. In a way, nothing much changes in her life. Beginning with Mickey's father, Uncle Phil (Durmot Mulroney) she ends up traveling the country from one place to another, from one guy (and in one case, girl) to another, all of them love her more than she loves them, and all of them seem to want her for themselves, and to be kept up in there homes. Some are better than others though. Sal for instance (Chazz Palminteri) is a local gangster who falls for her while she was stripping in Las Vegas. He puts her up in his hotel suite, where she spends her days paintings. She's quite good at drawing actually. She was a tattoo artist for awhile beforehand after marrying Coco (Rupert Friend) who spotted her working at one of those old drive-in '50s diners, and writes a pretty bad but romantic song about her. Chastain goes through a lot of different Jolene's in this film, and puts herself through a lot. She is a daring actress who can and will do anything. The movie itself, basically is same story over and over again. Guy sees girl, guy wants girl, guy gets girl, guy isn't as good as girl thinks he really is, girl has to or is forced to leave, repeat five or six times, try to make it worse than the time before. It gets tiring after awhile, how all these men see Jolene as a sex object that they can control. It's repetive and ultimately frustrating. But to give film a negative review would be saying that Chastain's performance isn't worth watching, and I just can't do that. This is a star being born, and we're getting to see in one movie, what she showed us in five or six this past year, and performances that even allow for that, and actresses that can do all of that, are just too rare.

BAARIA (2009) Director: Giuseppe Tornatore


Giuseppe Tornatore's "Baaria," wasn't released theatrically in the United States until last year, after it was released on DVD. Kinda odd considering Tornatore's previous masterpiece, the beloved "Cinema Paradiso", is one of the most beloved of all foreign films. There's certainly autobiographical aspects to "Baaria," but it only occasionally keeps us entertained. Starting int the 1920s, an area of Sicily called Bagheria, which is sometimes called Baaria, young Peppino (as an adult, played by Francesco Scianna) is the local milkboy, meaning that when he's not working as a shepherd, he walks around town with a cow which freshly squeezed milk. The story follows his life and family fifty years, during which time, he devotes his life to politics. Being that he becomes a Communist, he's constantly broke and unemployed, but he continually rises in the party, and often travels the world to many of the conferances, much to the dismay of his wife (Margareth Made) Kids grow up hearing words about him as the Socialists and Christian Democrats begin to take over. There's a sense of the greater community, but it's spread out all over, and sometimes he dwells too often on the slice-of-life and day-to-day. Tornatore's achillies heel is that he's kind like filmmaking's version of the brother in "The Color Purple," who's always falling off a ladder or a roof or whatever else he's working on. Once it's funny, twice is a quirk, but when he does it multiple times, it doesn't seem as much a character trait and just a human gag.  Watching "Baaria," I remember why people of Italian descent like me refer to Italy as the "Old Country". It's old! It all looks old, and parts of Sicily especially look the same they did two hundred years ago, and look the same as they did ten years ago. "Baaria," ultimately has just enough good albeit sprawling and erratic filmmaking for me to recommend it, but he should realize how great he can be with he combines these slice-of-life, and then focuses them for a complete story.

ALPHAVILLE (1965) Director: Jean-Luc Godard


Godard's "Alphaville," is a sci-fi film noir, but like all of Godard's films, it essentially only exists in the world of Godard. Lemmy Caution (Eddie Constantine) is a private eye a la, Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, who's sent to the Space City of Alphaville, where a ruler must be found and destroyed. The ruler seems to be Von Braun, and he's outlawed love and self-expression. It seems ironic that Godard's fellow New Waver Francois Truffaut made the similar "Fahrenheir 451," at around the same time. Well, 'similar' is a bad work here, the movies have similar sci-fi elements, but they're about as different as two films can be. In fact, until I read the description of "Alphaville," on, I would've hard-pressed to come up with a description of what happened. That's okay with me, the movie is essentially a film noir, and like all great Hammett-esque detectives, the only real necessity is that he continually matriculate from one place to another, trying to solve a mystery, not whether or not there's actually a mystery or whether or not there's any particular logic to what, where and/or why he does anything. Natascha Van Braun (Anna Karina) seem like more of a femma fatale character than the evil scientist. There's an outsider who seems to be listening in on Caution's conversations and watching his actions, very Orwell like. Where and how he's able to do it, I couldn't begin to explain after only one viewing. Rarely does Godard become explainable after one viewing. His films only come in need multiple viewings to analyze, too annoying and unwatchable to watch multiple times, or the very rare, surprisingly too simple, and we actually got everything. Those only happen with his really early films, and even then, they're still usually fun to watch on multiple times like "Breathless". Caution is searching and unable to find what he's looking for, and there seems to be people who are trying to stop him from finding it. That's really all you need for a detective story, and that's all there is here, and I can't wait to see it again to analyze further.

THE HOUSE OF YES (1997) Director: Mark Waters

1/2 STAR

I'm happy to say that "The House of Yes," happened to be the shortest-lengthed film in my Netflix queue this week, as I had to knock one off the list and then leave the library quickly, and to some extent, it's more fun and easier to knock off the really bad ones quickly instead of wait forever until they're next in line. Now, it's done, now I've seen, now I don't ever have to watch it again, and nobody else should either. The movie takes place during a hurricane at family house where the nightly party game is "Who's Afraid of Jackie-O?" The Jackie-O, is the sister (Parker Posey) of Marty Pascal (Josh Hamilton) who's coming home to announce his engagement to Lesley (Tori Spelling) who has no idea what she's about to walk into. Jackie-O is called that because of her obsession with her that began at an Ides of March party where she and Marty dressed up as John and Jackie, and she has never taken off the damn pillbox hat. She's jealous at all hell at Lesley, still madly in love with her brother, and will try to sabotage it. Lesley begins confiding in their other brother Anthony (Freddie Prinze Jr.) who wants to not only talk her out of the house and family, but he is also falling in love with the virginal Lesley. Oh, I forgot to mention that part, Lesley is a virgin, or at least she claims and acts like it. There's also a crazy mother (Genevieve Bujold) who seems to let her kids do a lot more than they really should. There's nothing realistic or sane in this movie. The household is filled with unbelievable characters, the tone isn't sure whether it wants to be dramatic or comedic, and unfortunately it's neither, and it's basically a waste of Parker Posey's talents. The film was the first directed by Mark Waters, who's made some better films since like "Mean Girls", although he's also made "Ghosts of Girlfriends Past," and a few other clunkers. This film actually feels a little like one of his brother's Daniel Waters's screenplays, who's well-known for this bizarre tone that makes it impossible to determine whether he wants his material taken seriously or not. (the overrated "Heathers", as well as such "gems" as "Hudson Hawk," and "Demolition Man".) He's capable of directing better, and he hasn't written anything since, that's probably a good thing as well. It's almost kinda "interesting bad," for awhile, but really, "The House of Yes," isn't even good enough to watch as that.

No comments: