“Eden” Review

March 8, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Jamie Chung plays a young Korean girl who mistakenly accepts a ride from the wrong guy.  She is kidnapped and driven deep into a remote American landscape of depravity and corruption.  She is one of many girls held against their will in a concrete compound.  They are sold off for sexual entertainment by a group of men led by a corrupt police officer.  It is a world that seemingly has no escape.

Based on a true story, this film tells the story of this young girl as she learns the ins and outs of the business and slowly works her way into a position of power amongst the other girls.   She manages to elevate herself above the demeaning sexual slavery — becoming part of the booking process and accounting of money.  It is a cold and calculated, long-term effort to find a window for escape.

The film is well made and well acted, especially by Chung.  It is a depressing  movie — as is any that deals with the subject of  human trafficking.  However, it moves swiftly and deserves to be seen.


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“Lincoln” Review

February 24, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

This movie gets the benefit of a lofty subject.  It also fits the profile of what should be a great film.  Spielberg directs.  Daniel Day Lewis acts.  The supporting cast is a who’s who of Hollywood.  It is like a paint-by-numbers manifesto on how to get double-digit Oscar nominations.  However, under closer inspection, “Lincoln” is a flat and pedantic retelling of what was a momentous time in American history.

We are witness to the last few months of President Lincoln’s life, as he pushes through the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery, and tries to end the war.  That process involves dozens of congressional debates, war room conferences, private conversations and solemn speeches.   In fact, this movie feels far more like a low budget play than a high-dollar Hollywood production.   I felt like I was watching a “behind the scenes” political documentary on the history channel.

There is nothing fundamentally bad about “Lincoln”… But there is nothing fundamentally absorbing about it either.  It is a colossal bore, delivering no insight or information that is not already common knowledge.  Essentially, the viewer is forced to endure two and a half hours of dry dialogue delivered by crusty old white men.

Spielberg brings very little to the table here.  There are no directorial flourishes…  Not a single “wow” moment or shot.  It is, by far, his dullest effort in his forty magnificent years behind the camera.

Daniel Day Lewis does a good job as Lincoln — but I fear his acting reputation has been coupled with the admiration for the historic President to generate overly lavish praise.  It is a very nice performance, but very far from being the best of 2012.

Tommy Lee Jones has also been getting a lot of nominations in the supporting actor category all throughout the awards season.  I fail to see why.  He is a sour-faced mope who hasn’t ever been on my Christmas list.  In fact, I think he always delivers the standard Tommy Lee Jones character whether or not he wears period piece clothing.

The supporting cast is a distraction too.  They made a massive error casting so many famous faces here.  Every time one of them shows up, the viewer is taken right out of the film, asking themselves who it is and where they know them from.

Listen, “Lincoln” is made with care and it has some good qualities which I don’t have the inclination to detail.  However, I was bored after 30 minutes and it never recaptured my interest.  I watched it at arm’s length and ho-hummed my way to the final credits.  The famous President is a fascinating historical figure, but you wouldn’t know it based on this film.

TWO STARS Lincoln Review

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“Amour” Review

February 24, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The end of life is usually so very anticlimactic.  It can be a dull, monotonous trudge toward the inevitable.  It is often consumed by medicine, paperwork, sleep, mumbling gibberish, pain, loneliness, boredom… etc.  We are embarrassingly helpless during the final months, weeks and days — and we can only hope that we have someone, who loves us very much, that will help us fade away with as little discomfort as possible.  That is the story told in “Amour” — an intimate masterpiece that ought to be seen by everyone and won’t be forgotten by anyone.

Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) has a minor stroke, beginning the spiral that will eventually end her long life.  Her husband, Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), promises her that he won’t take her to a home or a hospital.  Instead, he takes care of Anne himself… Washing her, feeding her.  For the first few weeks or months (the film is unclear about the timeline), it seems manageable.  But she soon becomes too much for an elderly man to care for without some assistance.  A nurse comes three times a week.

Anne is losing her memory.  Her mobility is a thing of the past.  Her mind is soon unrecognizable.  It is a heartbreaking and sad process that ages Georges quickly.  He is fiercely determined to care for his beloved life partner.  It is clear that they have shared a lifetime of experiences that no one else will ever be privy to.  They are “together” in every sense of the word.  His love for her is unquestioned and immense.

Riva and Trintignant are quite simply astonishing in this film.   Riva seems to be getting all the acting plaudits and awards this year, but that is imbalanced.  I chose the above still image of “Amour” because it is the reverse angle of the iconic poster photo that everyone will be familiar with by now.  Trintignant is equally as mesmerizing here.  This is a couple.  This is a dual performance unlike any you will have seen this year.  Both of them are award worthy and their efforts will not soon be forgotten.  A huge reason why this film is a masterpiece is the work they deliver on screen.  The always superb Isabelle Huppert is also noteworthy as the elderly couple’s daughter.

Michael Haneke is an unsympathetic director.  He and his work are hard to love because the emotions are cold.  He is very careful to avoid any manipulation of sentiment.  His films are very matter-of-fact… Sometimes to a fault.  However, in “Amour”, that technique works with astonishing power.   We observe the intimate moments of this tender couple in their most private of times.   We are spared nothing — the camera lingering for what seems like eternity on the most gentle of scenes.    Haneke’s lack of camera movement is reminiscent of the great Japanese director, Yasujirō Ozu.  We are just a fly on the wall… and nothing is hidden from us.

“Amour” is not a film that many will ever revisit.  It is emotionally draining.  It may be a scenario that we will have to endure toward the end of our own lives.  However, it reminds us that love is the only true key to happiness.  Some will endure that end with no one to love them — and that is truly tragic.  At least Anne has Georges to hold her hand when she hurts.  At least Anne has Georges to feed her gently.  At least Anne has Georges to cut her flowers.

FOUR STARS Amour Review

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“Beasts of the Southern Wild” Review

February 23, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

Hushpuppy is a five year old girl surrounded by uneducated, unwashed, alcoholic human trash.  Her father is an abusive, lowlife piece of scum, who has neither the inclination nor the wherewithal to help her rise above.  She is the only character in this godforsaken part of the world with any redeeming qualities.  However, we fear that she will become one of them, unless a miracle intervenes and carries her away from the squalor.

Quvenzhané Wallis plays the lead, narrating her own story poetically, as if she were in a Terrence Malick film.  It is a remarkable performance that has been coaxed out of the six year old actress.  Most of the credit for that performances has to go to the director, Benh Zeitlin.  Clearly, a kid that young isn’t “acting” in the normal sense.  The director almost has to trick the emotions out of her.  It is a manipulation of sorts.  But it works and it is one of the best performances of any pre-teen in recent cinema history.

We follow the narrative as Hushpuppy’s father is dying from years of self abuse.  She ventures on a journey to find her long-gone mother.  She busies herself exploring the poverty stricken world around her.  Through trial and major error, she fends for herself when it comes to finding food and attempting to cook it.  It is a horrific existence that clings onto any thread of hope she can imagine.

The problem with “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is that the director seems to want viewers to recognize this community as a pure one, uncorrupted by the evil outside civilization.  It wistfully portrays this “bathtub” of  poverty as something to hold on to and treasure in some way.   Hushpuppy’s journey home near the end of the movie is greeted as some sort of noble decision — when in fact, it is the only one she understands and it happens to be the worst possible one she could make.

I recognize that this film is metaphorically complex.  There are many interpretations to be had here.  It can be seen as a story of fierce determination and hope for the future.  It can be seen as a celebration of loyalty and love of home and family.  But I read it as a tragedy of irreparable damage done to a young soul… a soul that had potential until a community, which time and civilization forgot, crushed her and rendered her doomed to follow the same path.  It is a cycle of despair that is impossible to break.

I hope for Hushpuppy, but I fear it won’t help.

TWO AND A HALF STARS Beasts of the Southern Wild Review

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“Pitch Perfect” Review

February 19, 2013 |  by  |  movies, music, reviews  |  3 Comments

As we are all aware, there are only three types of people worse than a cappella groups — nazis, al qaeda and the westboro baptist freaks.  Nothing gets people as angry as a bunch of dorks harmonizing American Idol or X-Factor karaoke songs with huge grins plastered across their smug fucking faces!  It is quite literally worse torture than being waterboarded with corked wine.  So, I have to give “Pitch Perfect” some credit for not making me want to carve my soul into bite-sized chunks with a rusty spoon.

The relentlessly adorable Anna Kendrick plays the lead who tries out, against her will, for a collegiate a cappella group fronted by an unimaginative and very strict girl who takes an immediate dislike to her.  Their routines are boring and they always lose to the Treble Makers, their all-male rivals on campus.  The film follows the formulaic path through qualifications, regionals and the National Championship.

There are a few things worth mentioning about “Pitch Perfect”.  Many of the gags work well.  The tone and pace of the film make it an easy watch.  Many of the girls are insanely hot.  Some of the characters are memorable.  And Anna Kendrick’s performance is really nice.  She carries the movie.

Unfortunately, there are easily as many bad things to note.  Many of the gags are killed with repetitiveness.  It stumbles from time to time with cheap, crass vomit humor — a low-brow level of comedy that feels out of place here.  Cliches arrive thick and fast.  The “Glee” error of overtly including a token black girl, a token lesbian (2 for 1 in this case), a  token Asian girl, a predictable stick in the mud “bad girl” etc.  It all feels very forced and by-the-numbers.  The sidebar romance is also utterly unnecessary and not remotely believable.   There is no chemistry and the guy might as well be played by dryer lint, as he has no personality whatsoever.

“Pitch Perfect” makes the typical and egregious error of trying to combine wacky comedy with heartfelt emotions.  They do not go well together… and yet, many modern comedies try to mix them.   I do not want to see goofy humor followed by serious speeches about why parents get divorced or why certain characters are so guarded that they won’t allow love in their lives.   It is tantamount to having a water balloon fight at the end of “Schindler’s List”.

This movie works best when it is lampooning the cheesy world of group karaoke, delivering silly characters and dumb jokes.  It works worst when it tries to make us care.  All in all, it is a very mixed bag that just falls short of a passing grade, but manages to remain ever so slightly watchable despite the horrid music.

TWO STARS Pitch Perfect Review

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“The Avengers” Review

February 15, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  8 Comments

About 150 million people worldwide saw this movie.  That leaves about 6.85 billion (over 97%) who managed to avoid it.  They will be glad they did because “The  Avengers” is just another one in a ridiculously long line of ho-hum superhero movies that Hollywood has churned out over the past decade.  Clearly, these things hit home with the fanboys — the most undiscerning mob on the planet.   They are the type of people who decide to love a movie before having seen it.  If it is a comic-book flick or a fantasy adventure, fanboys start posting how “kick-ass” it’s going to be within hours of a studio announcing the project.

“The Avengers” has all the requisite paint-by-numbers action sequences and witless one-liners.  It has more than enough explosions and CGI magic to get the target audience semi-erect.  The bulging muscles and prominent cod-pieces also aid in breaking down the closet doors.  Most of the 7 to 23 year-old boys watching won’t even notice the token eye-candy provided by Scarlett Johansson and Gwyneth Paltrow.

The plot centers around something called a tesseract.  Bad guys want it.  The team of superheros need to save the world.  Yada, yada, yada.  Who cares?  It is all just an excuse for one animated set piece after another, with decent actors picking up paychecks and spouting poorly written exposition.  Nothing about this movie even remotely approaches wit or intelligence.

Defenders of films like this often throw out lines like,  “It’s only light popcorn entertainment” or  “You need to turn your brain off and enjoy it”.  Well, quite frankly, I like my brain.  I hate turning it off.  I would rather find a film that can entertain me with my brain fully switched on.

Of the myriad superhero movies made since the 1970′s, only a handful have been any good.  None of them have been great.  I am not among the fawning legion.  There are far too many great films out there to seek out for me to waste my time on trash like this.  I can’t even use the “never going to get those two hours of my life back” line, BECAUSE IT IS TWO AND A HALF HOURS LONG!!!  Nothing in this slight and insignificant genre should ever break the 90-minute mark.  However, Hollywood will keep making them because they have a captive loyal audience who don’t know any better and are incapable of venturing outside of the familiar.  “The Avengers” sucks.  Fanboys urgently need pussy.  And I am proud to stand with the 97% “minority” who couldn’t give a flying fuck if we ever saw another superhero movie again.

Now, if you don’t mind, I am going to wade in my snobbery by watching one of those movies where they speak foreign and you gotta read and stuff.

HALF A STAR The Avengers Review

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“Lore” Review

February 14, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

The film begins just as WWII is ending, a few days after Hitler’s death.  Lore’s parents are nazis and will soon be arrested, possibly executed by the allied forces.  Her father burns any evidence at their home and flees without a goodbye.  Her mother leaves to join her husband the next day, abandoning the teenager to fend for herself and her four younger siblings.  She has a pre-teen sister, two young brothers and an infant boy to care for.  She is left a small amount of money and the mother’s jewelry as a means of surviving a long journey to her Grandmother’s house on the other side of Germany.

“Lore” is a beautifully shot movie.  It is ethereal in the way it manages to capture such a dreadful circumstance with graceful and elegant cinematography.  It is a lovely work of art.  The story is inherently engaging and dramatic as we follow this family of five across the Springtime landscape in search of safety.  However, the main focus in on Lore herself.  Her burgeoning sexuality and the conflicting emotions about her parent’s beliefs and actions are at the forefront of this oftentimes mesmerizing film.  She is faced with moral and sexual confusion when a young jewish man helps them on their journey.

I have to say that the film tends to wallow in bleakness a little too much.  Director, Cate Shortland, regularly neglects to advance the story or the characters in favor of another Terrence Malick-like shot of nature and beauty set against the familiar refrain of strings heard throughout.  I am not sure the film earns that liberty.

However, the star here is Saskia Rosendahl.  It is quite amazing how often a first time actor/actress can deliver a stunning performance. She creates an intense, nuanced and conflicted character that won’t soon be forgotten.  Should she choose to do so, I have no doubt that she will be a fine actress for years to come.

“Lore” is a very good film, but it is so bleak and unforgiving that many will find it hard to watch.  I can’t envision ever wanting to see it again.  Nevertheless, I admire and appreciate the effort, and I am sure that it is one of those films that will stay lodged in my memory for a long time.


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“TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard” Review

February 12, 2013 |  by  |  internet, movies, reviews  |  1 Comment

The only thing really bad about “TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard” is the absurdly and unnecessarily long title.  Aside from that, it is a fascinating and well paced documentary about the legendary peer-to-peer file-sharing website and the lawsuit brought against the three men who founded it in 2003.

Gottfrid Svartholm, Fredrik Neij and Peter Sunde are the Swedish trio who have been targeted by large entertainment corporations for copyright infringement.  The documentary, directed by Simon Klose, gives us exclusive behind the scenes access to the three men and the astonishingly disorganized chaos behind one of the most visited websites ever created.  You would expect offices and accountants and management meetings… Instead, The Pirate Bay consisted of three dudes in scruffy t-shirts and a bank of servers that would fit on the average coffee table.  Were they making money?  Yes.  Did it show?  No.

Their defense is a simple one.  Blame the users who infringe copyrights… not the creators of a perfectly legal website.  It is the same defense that Kim Dotcom used for MegaUpload.  It is the same defense that seems to mean nothing to rabid corporate attorneys and the American government.  They were after blood and they weren’t going to stop until they got it.

Listen, I understand and accept that Hollywood and the music industry would and should do everything in their power to prevent piracy.  However, going after the file-sharing sites and their creators was and is the wrong strategy.

“TPB AFK” is a gripping drama about three average guys who just happened to be at the center of an inevitable storm.  It is intense and enlightening.  It is one of the most interesting documentaries in recent years.  It is freely available on YouTube and The Pirate Bay itself — a site that continues to exist and grow in spite of enormous efforts to bring it down.  Make sure to seek this film out!

THREE AND A HALF STARS TPB AFK: The Pirate Bay Away From Keyboard Review

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“Upside Down” Review

February 12, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  No Comments

“Upside Down” is the absolute definition of a movie with a superb premise, but terrible execution.

I really thought this was going to be a gem.  The trailer really had me excited about all the possibilities that lay ahead.  Unfortunately, a first time director and a lazy screenplay derails this movie from the outset.  What’s left is a messy, childish attempt at a romantic fairytale that will leave viewers rolling their eyes and asking more questions than logic can ever answer.

The premise gives us two worlds — one on top of the other, with opposite gravities and opposing financial success.  It is a clear metaphor for class warfare where the poor are oppressed and kept as worker drones while the wealthy prosper in an altogether different universe.

However, there are mountains tall enough on both worlds, which allow a young couple, Adam and Eden, to meet and fall in love despite their opposing gravity.  Their relationship is forbidden and a tragic event soon keeps them apart for over a decade.  Eden loses her memory and never returns to the mountain.  Adam devotes his life to seeking her out and devises a plan to venture into the other world to see her again.

Now, everything about this fairytale suggests that it could have potential  Sure, the viewer has to stop asking questions about where the sun rises and how gravity really works… But it  would all be forgiven if the script was intelligent and the love story believable.  Unfortunately, neither is the case and we find ourselves watching a vapid couple who do a lot of staring and breathing heavily as they try to formulate protestations of love using a five-year-old’s vocabulary.

About half way through the running time, I realized that it wasn’t worth trying anymore.  At that point, I started questioning the logic of every scene and I began picking apart every character, every motivation and the lackluster visuals of a director who never came to terms with the brilliance of the premise.

“Upside Down” is a movie that should be a fantastic hidden gem.  Instead, it is a Romeo and Juliet imitation aimed at tween girls who only care about surface and not about substance.

ONE AND A HALF STARS Upside Down Review

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“The Master” Review

February 12, 2013 |  by  |  movies, reviews  |  2 Comments

Paul Thomas Anderson has never failed in my book.  I have given every single one of his films a full four-star rating… until now.  “The Master” still earns a easy recommendation, but it left me too cold to merit the perfect score.

There is no denying that this is a film about L. Ron Hubbard and the beginnings of Scientology.  Any pretense otherwise is simply an attempt to avoid a lawsuit.  The names are changed and the central story is fictional, but the backdrop is a fascinating peek at the cult’s origins.  Note that I call it a cult.  It is most certainly that… as is christianity, islam, buddhism, hindu, catholicism, judaism and any other so-called religion you can name.

Joaquin Phoenix has the lead as the lowlife thug taken in by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Hubbard character.  He is a raging alcoholic, a pathological liar, and a thuddingly stupid ex-navy drifter who fucks any woman in sight.  After stowing away on a ship, he is taken under the wing of Hubbard — who sees him as an obligatory project on whom he can test his fabricated theories.

The masterful director takes us on a journey with these two seemingly mismatched oddballs.  We see the improvements, the failures and the emotional ups and downs as their relationship / friendship defines this section of their lives.

The film is gorgeous to behold.  PTA never fails to deliver visually.  The score may not be beautifully melodic, but it will not be easily forgotten as the twangs of its bass pluck their way around the drama.  The performances are special.  What else would you expect from Phoenix and Hoffman, two of the cinema greats at this time?  Only Amy Adams disappointed me here.  Her role felt flat and emotionally false to me.  I am not sure she has the gravitas to pull something like this off.

However, the missing half-a-star in my rating is primarily due to the screenplay.  The dialogue was always intriguing to me… but the story felt empty.  I never found profundity in “The Master”.  It was always at arm’s length.  I concede that Paul Thomas Anderson’s established brilliance may lend itself to future viewings.  Perhaps it will grow on me over time.  However, for now, this film is technically wondrous, but emotionally thin.


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