Tuesday, September 28, 2010

ANIMAL KINGDOM: The Film Babble Blog Review

ANIMAL KINGDOM (Dir. David Michôd, 2010)


At the center of this Australian crime drama is what seems at first to be a very unlikely protagonist.

James Frecheville portrays a Melbourne based teenager with dead eyes and bad posture who we meet as he awaits medics to tend to the body of his dead mother – a victim of a heroin overdose.

Frecheville is less interested in his mother’s death than he is a game show on television. He calls his grandmother (Jacki Weaver) in hopes of having a place to stay.

Weaver welcomes Frecheville into her home which also houses her 3 sons – Ben Mendelsohn, Sullivan Stapleton, and Luke Ford.

The brothers, along with their friend Joel Edgerton, are armed robbers and drug dealers. The police stake out their one floor shabby home around the clock.

Mendelsohn is the most menacing of the family – the second he appears on screen entering from the darkness, one knows that he will be the source of deadly discomfort later in the film.

As retaliation for the killing of one of their family – the brothers ambush and murder 2 police officers which bring on the investigation by Melbourne's Armed Robbery Squad led by Guy Pearce as a mustached detective without a corrupt bone in his body.

Frecheville has only one bright spot – his girlfriend Laura Wheelwright. When Mendelsohn eyes her though, we get another strong sense of dark foreshadowing.

Director Michôd brings out piercing performances from his cast. Frecheville proves himself worthy as a disaffected kid on the verge of manhood having to get a hold of his life’s direction in the face of the brutality of men like Mendelsohn.

Pearce, as the only “name” in the movie, has a few particularly affecting moments – especially in a monologue that explains the film’s title.
As the family matriarch, Weaver pulls off a creepy yet somehow endearing presence. She lives on the hugs from her sinner sons, and she hints at a not so innocent past of her own.

ANIMAL KINGDOM is a gritty bleak exercise in uneasiness that at times may feel impenetrable – especially with the thick drawl of the accents – but it’s never dull and every scene has an eerie edge that remains long after the film’s cutting conclusion.

More later...

Sunday, September 26, 2010

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS: The Film Babble Blog Review

WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS

(Dir. Oliver Stone, 2010)

Spoiler Alert!: This review gives away a number of key plot points because, well, I just don’t care.

Last year I wrote that a sequel to Oliver Stone’s seminal 1987 WALL STREET was one of 10 sequels to classic movies that should not happen. Despite that I had a tiny sliver of hope inside that the controversial director might pull off another timely indictment of America’s financial system.

Sadly, the return of Gordon Gekko to the silver screen is no such film. It’s as unnecessary a retread as BLUES BROTHERS 2000, which incidentally also began with the prison release of a major character.

In 2002, Michael Douglas as Gekko, 67 years old with his lion's mane of hair now gray, walks out of Sing Sing Maximum Security Prison after serving 8 years to find nobody waiting for him. The camera circles his head to let this sink in.

The film flashes forward to 2008 and for a while it’s Shia LaBeouf’s movie. LaBeouf is an ambitious trader – think Charlie Sheen in the first film but with more ethics – engaged to Douglas’ activist blogger daughter (Carey Mulligan).

LaBeouf’s mentor (Frank Langella) at his firm commits suicide after rampant rumors cause the company’s stock to crash.

Josh Brolin, as an old school Gekko-ish hedge fund manager, is suspected by LaBeouf as being the source of the rumors. Going behind Mulligan’s back, LaBeouf consults with Douglas who wants to be close to his daughter again.

Mulligan wants nothing to do with her father. She blames him for the overdose death of her brother and she’s vehemently against the Wall Street world which makes it hard to believe that she’s surprised to find out that her fiancé is a “Wall Street guy”.

LaBeouf wants to avenge Langella, make a name for himself, and sincerely help a renewable fusion-energy company run by the always nice to see Austin Pendleton – in the same manner that Sheen wanted to help out his father’s ailing airline.

Upon learning that Douglas set his daughter up with a Swiss trust fund worth $100 million, LaBeouf finds himself caught in a web of convoluted double crossings.

Stone uses every visual trick up his sleeve to shape this material – at a point in one of several flashy montages full of split screens, tangled neon cable news ticker tape, and computer animation I felt like I was trapped in a MSNBC hall of mirrors.

The problem is that what made the first movie great is that Gordon Gekko was not a redeemable character. He was a symbol of corporate evil and a necessary one, for there are horrible fiscal creatures out there that destroy thousands of people’s lives with no remorse.

If Gekko truly isn’t a sociopath (as his daughter calls him early on), but a visionary that predicts the economic collapse in 2008 and can be won over by a disc containing his future grandson’s ultrasound – what does he symbolize now?

Douglas’s Oscar winning performance of Gekko in the first film was named by AFI as number 24 of the top 50 movie villains of all time in 2003. After his defanged depiction here that number will surely drop next time they update the list.

It’s understandable that Stone and Douglas wanted to revisit this terrain, but with its predictable plot and pat happy ending this is more than a missed opportunity – it’s a failed follow-up of epic proportions.

One of the only enjoyable elements is the soundtrack provided by David Byrne and Brian Eno. As the first film ended with the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody)”, this one obviously tries to match the mood with a fine selection of the duo’s collaborations. When these melodies appear it’s the only time that this film feels anywhere near the league of the original.

Beyond that, WALL STREET: MONEY NEVER SLEEPS (awful title) has little point to it, except maybe to unleash a bunch of new Gekko-isms on the public.

Of the many so called pearls of wisdom the slick slimy Gekko spouts - “Idealism kills every deal” – sticks out. By sparing us the true cutthroat nature of the beast in favor of trite sentimentality, the deal is definitely dead as a doornail here.

More later...

Saturday, September 25, 2010

DVD Review: LOUIE BLUIE

LOUIE BLUIE (Dir. Terry Zwigoff, 1985)

"She sauntered over to me and she says 'You're Armstrong. I know you're Armstrong. But you're not Louie Armstrong, that Louie. You're just plain ol' Louie Bluie, that's what you are.' And so I used the name to record under later." - Howard Armstrong

Last month the Criterion added to their esteemed collection CRUMB - Terry Zwigoff's classic 1995 documentary about legendary cartoonist Robert Crumb.

The same day, August 10th, a lesser known Zwigoff film, his 1985 debut doc LOUIE BLUIE, also got the deluxe treatment and that's very good news for fans of the blues, comic art, and hilarious tall tales that just might be true.

"Louie Bluie" is the nickname Howard Armstrong (1909-2003) - a fiddle and mandolin player who recorded in the late '20s and '30s who is also known for his amazing artwork of various mediums.

Armstrong sits down with friends (mainly guitarist Ted Bogan) and tells wonderful stories about his youth filled with colorful phrasing and sharp wit.

Zwigoff's subject picks on Bogan for being a dog towards women and he picks with Bogan on several jams which give this delightful doc a toe tapping rhythm between anecdotes.

There's not much of a narrative here, but it hardly matters as the material and music are so good.

When Zwigoff zooms in on Armstrong's art, we can see why this old time musician appealed to the '78 collecting, comic book loving director.

Armstrong started drawing when he was a child capturing himself, family members, various other folks and scenes from his Tennessean birthplace.

Armstrong's art is astounding - whether it's created by crayon, paint, or ink squeezed from crepe paper. At one point he shows a friend his "Pornography Bible" - a thick bound book of art and text about sex that Armstrong keeps under lock and key.

Armstrong: "I have to keep it locked up to keep the man from locking me up."

LOUIE BLUIE is only an hour long but it's an hour very well spent with a fascinating funny and terrifically talented man who should be better known.

If you want more there's a little over 30 minutes of "unused footage" featuring more music and amusing stories.

Other bonus features include an illuminating Zwigoff commentary and a stills gallery that is really worth paging through if only to see more of the "Pornography Bible".

More later...

Blu Ray/DVD Review: CALVIN MARSHALL

CALVIN MARSHALL (Dir. Gary Lundgren, 2009)

Alex Frost as the 21 year old title character has big dreams of playing Major League Baseball.

Frost is a student at a fictitious college in Oregon who has tried out for the school’s Junior College team (the Bayford Bisons) for 3 straight years only to be told by the scruffy coach (Steve Zahn) that he again didn’t make the cut.

Frost has a hard time taking no for an answer so he tells people (including his aunt and her boyfriend played by Jane Adams and Andrew Wilson) that he has a hand injury and has to sit on the sidelines until he heals.

Meanwhile while covering girls volleyball for a local cable access sports show, Frost meets Michelle Lombardo as the uber-skilled star of their school’s team.

Lombardo believes Frost to be the baseball star he claims to be and a romance develops.

Frost is able to weasel his way back onto the baseball diamond by way of adding his name to a faked computer printout of team members. Although angered by this, Zahn begrudgingly admires the kid’s ambition and love of the game.

Zahn’s performance as a once promising baseball player who never made the big-time owns this cute, but inconsequential little indie. His Coach Little is a extremely amusing boozing womanizer who tries to impress whatever woman he’s just picked up with the same lines usually under baseball field lights late at night.

Otherwise CALVIN MARSHALL follows a tried and true formula – one in which a delusional underdog gets the girl, loses the girl, yet still learns big truths about himself and life by the time the credits roll.

Frost, at times resembling a young John Cusack (SAY ANYTHING era) has an earnest tone which makes him appropriately sympathetic.

There is sweetness to the courting scenes between Frost and Lombardo, but the film takes no chances with their arc and that deflates the sentimentality of its conclusion.

The forced predicament of Zahn putting the moves on Lombardo behind Frost’s back doesn’t help things either. The film presents these generic story-lines as just obstacles that can be overcome by big speeches.

Those who have lamented unfulfilled dreams of sports glory may be touched by CALVIN MARSHALL more than I was, but for a non-sports guy who still often likes baseball movies – because of a superb turn by Steve Zahn and its likeable spirit - it just barely makes the cut.

More later...

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

CAIRO TIME: The Film Babble Blog Review

CAIRO TIME (Dir. Ruba Nadda, 2010)

Patricia Clarkson is a very busy actress these days.

Last Friday 3 films opened in the Raleigh area featuring the 50 year old petite blonde – LEGENDARY, EASY A, and this starring vehicle CAIRO TIME.

It’s the quiet and subtle story of a woman on vacation alone in the city of Cairo, Egypt since her husband’s work as a UN official keeps him away.

She promises him from the phone in her hotel room that she will “save the Pyramids” – that is wait to visit the landmark until he arrives.

A colleague of Clarkson’s husband – a suave English speaking Egyptian (Alexander Siddig) offers to show her around the city and there is a definite attraction between the couple.

Their repartee is both witty and unsettling as Clarkson seems very fragile and an unspoken allusion to the true state of her marriage haunts the air around them.

There’s not a lot of polished photography here, but with such locations that is forgiven. Clarkson, though unable to swim and afraid of the water, takes a boat ride on the Nile with Siddig and the beauty of the setting mixed with the thoughtful tone is a good example of the overall feel of this film.

Clarkson delivers a wonderfully natural performance that resonates throughout the film. Siddig (best known for playing Julian Bashir on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine) seems to be enjoying himself as this charismatic character.

The spare cast also includes Amina Annabi as a former lover of Siddig's many years estranged.

Spoiler Alert!

There is flirtation between Clarkson and Siddig, but this is not a film about infidelity. It’s about the intensity of shared time. When Clarkson visits the Pyramids with Siddig which she later doesn’t tell her husband, the moment is intended to be as arousing as if they had fallen into bed together.

It’s reminiscent of the ending of last year’s AN EDUCATION in which the young protagonist (Cary Mulligan) didn’t tell a new date that she had been to Paris before. Her previous time in the city of love was omitted for personal, possibly empowering, reasons.

Some might consider that still a form of cheating, but since we only see a silently suffering Clarkson and we learn nothing about Clarkson and her husband’s (who only briefly appears at the end played by Tom McCamus) background except their professions - I believe that it’s understandable that she needed some private empowerment of her own.

More later...

Friday, September 17, 2010

THE TOWN: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE TOWN (Dir. Ben Affleck, 2010)



“From the acclaimed director of GONE BABY GONE” goes the trailers and TV spot for this new crime thriller that don’t happen to mention that Ben Affleck is that said acclaimed director. For despite the fact that he’s slowly been gaining respect and career clout over the last several years, Affleck is a name still associated with box office poison like GIGLI and PEARL HARBOR.

GONE BABY GONE was indeed a strong directorial debut, but this much larger production is even stronger. "The Town" is about a crew of expert thieves from a one-square-mile neighborhood in Boston that the opening titles tell us is “the bank robbery capitol of America.”

Affleck, Jeremy Renner (THE HURT LOCKER), Owen Burke, and Irish rapper Slaine make up the crew who we meet in creepy green Skeletor masks and dark hoods in action at a downtown Boston bank. They take an employee hostage (Rebecca Hall) as they make their getaway.

They release the blindfolded Hall not too long after with Renner taking her driver’s license and threatening her life if she talks to the FBI.

Which is exactly what she does - in a traumatized state to an agent played by Jon Hamm (Mad Men). Hamm is determined to bring down Affleck’s crew: “This is a not-screwing-around crew, so find me something that looks like a print ‘cause this not-screwing-around thing is about to go both ways!” he exclaims.

The trigger-happy Renner wants to eliminate Hall since she is a potential witness that could bring them down, but there’s a little problem: Affleck may be falling in love with her.

That started with Affleck following Hall and talking to her at a laundromat. He couldn’t resist turning the charm and she almost immediately took to him.
Affleck, of course, wants out of the life of crime but don’t you know it – the crew + an elderly neighborhood florist who has Godfatherly powers (Peter Postlewaite) wants him to pull another major heist.

Everything comes to a head when…oh, I should stop with the spoilers because the best part is seeing how this all plays out. There is heavy artillery, many deaths, and a bunch of vehicles are wrecked if you want to know if it has plenty of action, but its concern for the characters is what drives it.

Even with a number of tough guy clichés and a certain percentage of implausibility in the last third, Affleck’s adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel “Prince Of Thieves” is a superb heist film with a compelling emotional core.
This is largely due to its cast who makes this material work. Affleck’s Boston accent is impressively un-annoying and he plays pathos much more convincingly than in the past.


Hamm hasn’t completely shed the skin of the ultra smooth Don Draper, but his confidence in what could have been a standard by-the-book Fed role nicely contrasts with that of the attitude of the crew’s thug-like lo tech methods.
Hall does a lot with a very little of a character – the woman caught in the middle of a boys club’s row. She has cute chemistry with Affleck and the fearfulness is felt in her restrained shakiness. Renner is one note but he plays it well and it’s all that’s needed from him in this tightly plot.

Chris Cooper as Affleck’s prison lifer father is in one especially effective and necessary scene, and there’s also Blake Lively as a boozy bar floozy.

THE TOWN may not be another crime epic on the scale of HEAT or THE DEPARTED, but it’s a major work by a guy who next time - with hope - will have his name up front in the advertising.

More later...

Thursday, September 16, 2010

I'M STILL HERE: The Film Babble Blog Review

I'M STILL HERE (Dir. Casey Affleck, 2010)



The question – is this a hoax or a real depiction of an artist’s very public breakdown has been circling this film since a certain appearance on The Late Show With David Letterman in 2009.

A bearded shaggy haired Joaquin Phoenix donned a black suit and baffled everybody especially the host (“I don’t come to your house and chew gum”) with what seemed like a drugged mumble distracted from the spotlight and oblivious to the audience’s laughter.

“Joaquin, I’m sorry you couldn’t be here tonight” Letterman quipped as the segment ended and within minutes the clip was a viral sensation with folks all over the internets asking “WTF?”

The answer some clung to was that it was all a prank – Phoenix was pretending to abandon acting and become a rapper and his brother in law Casey Affleck was going to film this transition for a “mockumentary”, right? Well, sort of. 

“I’m Still Here” follows Phoenix around as he goes through misguided motions and we get so little insight into him that whether it’s a prank or not doesn’t matter. He’s a mess and so is this film.

See Oscar nominated actor Joaquin Phoenix snort cocaine! See him surf the internet! See him chew out an assistant for selling information to a tabloid! See him awkwardly try to talk Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs into producing his awful rap songs! See him fall off the stage! See him diss Danny DeVito! See him vomit! See him…you get the idea.

One thing that’s odd, in a movie of numbing oddness, is that there are often subtitles for scenes with possibly inaudible dialogue, but there’s not for any of Phoenix’s rapping performances which are often intelligible.

At first I thought we may benefit by reading what’s he’s rapping, but now I think the film makers may be doing us a favor. It’s a pointless rambling documentary but what’s worse is that it’s not funny.

If Affleck and Phoenix are pulling a prank, they don’t seem to be having any fun with it. So much of it seems to be about Phoenix’s suffering and not knowing what to do next.

Apparently now Phoenix is up for some new roles and is not retiring from acting, but I believe that at one point he was sincere about quitting. He seems to have taken the idea of an alternate career – rapper – seriously too. Years from now this poorly made boring documentary (not a “mockumentary” mind you – it’s not clever enough for that) will be thought of as an odd unwatchable side note and Phoenix will be back in the spotlight as an actor.

I’m glad Joaquin Phoenix is here, but next time I hope he plays to his strengths – that is his impeccable acting skills and we’ll forget this dismal diversion.

More later...

Monday, September 13, 2010

MACHETE: The Film Babble Blog Review

MACHETE (Dir. Robert Rodriquez, 2010)

One of the most successful elements in Robert Rodriquez and Quentin Tarantino’s little seen double feature GRINDHOUSE was a smattering of fake trailers. They were funny and totally authentic recreations of ‘70s drive-in fare with the titles “Don’t!”, “Werewolf Women Of The SS”, “Thanksgiving”, “Hobo With A Shotgun” * and “Machete”.

Now MACHETE is a real full length “Mexploitation” film with many of the same actors with re-stagings of shots from the phony trailer. Danny Trejo plays the title role – a crusty ex-Federale badass who is hired by a shady Jeff Fahey to assassinate a corrupt senator (Robert De Niro) running for office on a platform of severe anti-illegal-immigration laws.

Trejo soon finds out that he has been set up and goes on the lam. With the help of Michelle Rodriguez as a taco-truck lady/revolutionary warrior and Jessica Alba as a saucy immigrations officer, Trejo set outs to track down those who did him wrong.

A nice collection of B and C-movie actors like Don Johnson, Cheech Marin, and Steven Seagal put in nice supporting turns but Lindsay Lohan as Fahey’s air-headed daughter is a really odd choice for this kind of material.

MACHETE boasts enough in-your-face action, explosions, and blood to make THE EXPENDABLES look like ALVIN AND THE CHIPMUNKS, but it’s still not that great of a movie.

It seems that Rodriquez (and co-director/co-writer Ethan Maniquis) just can’t give up the GRINDHOUSE. It’s a genre that would be mostly forgotten if wasn’t for film geek film makers like Rodriquez and Tarantino (and in my area – the Triangle in N.C. – if not for the awesome “Cinema Overdrive” series at the Colony Theater in Raleigh), but their new fangled takes on such seedy exploitation don’t really seem to be catching on.

And again this begs the question – what is Lindsey Lohan doing here? She spends half her role nude then she’s dressed as a nun with a gun. None of it does much for the movie so I’m really stumped by her presence.

Some of the material in this movie and its tacky tone is fun at first, especially the opening, but it grew really tiresome as the body count grew bigger. Machete, the character, is just not that interesting. Trejo performs the actions with a stoical grace, but if you take away the slashing mayhem, but there’s nothing really there.

Maybe that’s a strange complaint because the men in the movies that this is a loving tribute to didn’t really have deep personas either. They were dolls thrown around or sliced and diced. They were movies that were all about pure cheap thrills.

At a budget of $20 million MACHETE is not so cheap though it tries to disguise that with fake scratches and bad splices. It should’ve just stayed being a 2 minute fake trailer for a nonexistent bad movie. Now that bad movie exists. * Next year "Hobo With A Shot Gun" will also get the full length film treatment. Let's see how that will work out for them. More later...

Monday, September 06, 2010

MAO'S LAST DANCER: The Film Babble Blog Review

MAO'S LAST DANCER (Dir. Bruce Beresford, 2009)

The true story of ballet dancer Li Cunxin is told in this flashback laden melodrama. In the opening we're introduced to Chi Cao who plays Cunxin as a young man in 1981 arriving at the Houston airport, wearing a suit sporting a Chairman Mao head-pin.

Cao is greeted by a slightly flamboyant Bruce Greenwood as Ben Stevenson - an American ballet director who discovered the dancer on a trip to China.

As Greenwood welcomes Cao to his home for a 3 month stay while he attends the Houston Ballet School, Cao has many heavy handed memories of his poverty plagued upbringing in China where his education seemed to be only an enforcing of the principles of Communism.

Cao meets Amanda Schull as a fellow student and love interest who he keeps secret from Greenwood for reasons never stated out loud.

After a plea to extend his stay in America is rejected, Cao marries Schull to obtain the legal right to remain (and also for love he says), but the Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Houston (Ferdinand Hoang) has other ideas.

Hoang has his men detain Cao and tells his lawyer – nicely played by Kyle MacLachlan * with a thick Southern drawl – that Cao is going back to China.

This heated sequence is one of the few involving ones in this overlong biopic that’s drably filmed and too simplistic and predictable in its plotting.

It has its heart in the right place and it’s unmistakably earnest, but it’s too corny and condescending to be the inspirational feel good movie it so wants to be. It's something that would perhaps be better as a "Hallmark Hall Of Fame" movie of the week than a theatrical release.

For those who enjoy ballet, the movie most comes alive in its uninhibited dance scenes though those are filmed in unimaginative long, or too close, shots that diminish any potential power.

It’s a history lesson about Chinese Communism, it’s a drama about a dancer’s ambition, it’s a love story, and it’s a bit of a political passion play. Ultimately though, its standardized simplification of all these strands makes for an unsatisfying experience.

* Joan Chen who was a fellow cast-member with McLachlan on Twin Peaks also appears as Li Cunxin's mother Niang.

More later...

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

THE AMERICAN: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE AMERICAN (Dir. Anton Corbijn, 2010)

Though it is being released into many multiplexes, THE AMERICAN is very much an independent film. It’s also a bit of an artsy foreign film as it takes place largely in Italy with a lot of its dialogue being in Italian.

One obvious element that makes it appear from a distance to be a big studio film – George Clooney.

That nobody else in the film is a name doesn’t matter because Clooney is one of the biggest movie stars in the world, perhaps as Time Magazine called him “the last movie star”, and his presence gives this small indie a lot of power.

When Clooney kills 3 people before the opening credits one may think we’re in for a pulsating bloody thriller, but this film is more contemplative than that with a slow yet thoroughly engrossing pace.

We don’t get a background on Clooney – we can tell he is a trained killer who is working for sinister sources, and he wants out after finishing one last job. A mysterious Johan Leysen provides Clooney with a car and a cell-phone and tells him to await further instruction. Clooney throws the phone out the window as he travels across the Italian countryside beautifully photographed by cinematographer Martin Ruhe.

Clooney finds himself staying in an Abruzzo region village where he befriends a local priest (Paolo Bonacelli) and regularly employs a prostitute (Violante Placido).

Our stoic protagonist meets with Thekla Reuten as a just as serious contact who wants him to construct a weapon for her – a machine gun/rifle hybrid.

There are only a few sequences of the action variety as most of the film affects a tense moodiness with minimal methods. A love story emerges between Clooney and Placido that is nicely handled even with what could be considered gratuitous nudity (not of Clooney, mind you).

The film was adapted from the 1990 Martin Booth novel "A Very Private Gentleman" which might have been a better title.

Oddly THE AMERICAN reminds me of THE LIMITS OF CONTROL – Jim Jarmusch’s much maligned, but much better than its reputation art-house film of last year. Both concern tight lipped assassins navigating through cryptic plot-lines in foreign locales and both may be impenetrable to a lot of moviegoers expecting fast paced action thrillers.

The posters with Clooney running with a gun, looking not unlike Daniel Craig in the last couple of James Bond movies, may be a bit misleading for that same reason, but with hope film loving folks will embrace this smart slow burner.

More later...