Friday, April 18, 2014

Movie Review - Bears

The opening scenes are breath-taking of the Alaska peninsula. All of the landscapes that follow are equally so. From snow-covered mountains to high-grass meadows to sandy beaches to a literal golden pond, any nature photographer worth his salt can craft beautiful visuals out of this.

The more and more I watch these Earth-Day, Disney films though, the more and more I realize the formula. The filmmakers take a year in the life of a particular animal and observe all that the animal does to survive, like finding food and fending off predators.

John C. Reilly's narration is funny and entertaining, as he provides us with what intuitively the bears are thinking or comedic riffs on their actions, as well as with educational material on the environment and habits. The most interesting bit to come from his narration is the way in which several animals, including bears, wolves and even ravens, are really good at being thieves.

Unfortunately, filmmakers Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey are at the whim of whatever they capture and whatever the animals do. If what the animals do isn't enough to write an interesting or compelling narrative, beyond the typical narrative for these nature documentaries, then it makes for a boring film, which this movie ultimately becomes.

For the most part, this movie is a bunch of brown bears splashing around ponds and streams fishing for salmon, eating it and then laying around scratching themselves. There isn't the fight for survival or dissection of bear behavior or animal society as in Disney's African Cats or Derek Joubert's The Last Lions (2011).

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated G for general audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 17 mins.

Movie Review - The Raid 2: Berandal

Iko Uwais (left) and Cecep Arif Rahman in a
really long, kitchen fight in "The Raid 2: Berandal"
I wrote a review to this sequel's previous film, and I feel like almost everything I said a year and a half ago about that previous film, I could say again. The exception is that I didn't enjoy this second-go-round. This film was too long and it revels in violence and brutality to a degree that became extremely unappealing. The Raid 2 is more martial arts porn that showcases and is a vehicle to see a ton of guys get killed. This would have been fine, if the film didn't try to be more than just porn. The fact that it tries to tell a dramatic, and seemingly epic story causes it to collapse under its own weight.

Indonesian martial artist Iko Uwais reprises his role as Rama, the Jakarta police officer who took down a drug lord in control of a high-rise building. Rama did so, pretty much by himself with nothing more than his feet and fists. This movie follows almost immediately after the first ends with Rama being put undercover to expose police corruption connected to another drug lord named Bangun, played by Tio Pakusodewo (Java Heat). Bangun is maintaining the peace opposite other mobster families.

How Rama infiltrates Bangun's organization is through impressing and even saving Bangun's son, Uco, played by Indonesian-German actor Arifin Putra, in several prison fight scenes. Rama is given the false identity of Yuda, the name of Uwais' character in his very first film Merantau (2009). Rama pretends to be Yuda, a hardened criminal who is sentenced to the same prison as Uco. His job is to befriend Uco and gain his trust. Aside from a cafeteria talk where Rama is stoic, the two prison fight scenes, the bathroom and the mud yard fight, are all we're given. The film cuts to two years later and it jumps to Uco embracing Rama and it's not enough. There needed to be more to build that relationship between Rama and Uco.

After a while, the movie loses sight of what Rama is doing as an undercover cop, what his goal is or even that Rama is a presence here. There are literally many, many, many scenes where Rama is absent and there is no regard to where he is or what he's doing. It got to a point where I ceased to care about Rama.

There's even a redundancy where Rama learns that there is another undercover cop. It's at that other cop's reveal that it's confirmed that Rama is redundant and his character was not needed at all in this plot. Writer-director Gareth Evans could have made this movie exclusively about Uco and Bangun, a father and son, mobster tale of jealousy and betrayal, but Evans ruins it with a ton of unnecessary stuff.

For example, Evans introduces a character, Prakoso or Koso, played by Yayan Ruhian, who played a completely different character in Evans' previous film. Clearly, Evans likes this guy who is a very good, martial artist. Ruhian is actually the fight choreographer for all three of Evans' Indonesian movies. Sadly, everything about the character of Koso is completely unnecessary and a waste of narrative drive. Never at any point do we care about Koso but so much time and reverence is given to this character that it didn't make sense.

Because of all this waste, this film feels like it just wants to revel in depravity and violence. One scene has a random moment where we see pornography or gender-bending sex occur with no explanation and another scene has a character slowly and methodically slice open and kill five men one by one. The fight scenes go on forever when they didn't need to do.

It's one thing to do the display of endurance, which the first attempted that makes the movie like watching ballet or some form of dance. For martial arts enthusiasts, this is a night out at the ballet. For those who aren't martial arts enthusiasts, this comes across as Evans merely wanting to paint the screen with blood, even to the point of contriving action scenes that feel extremely, extremely contrived.

Rama is captured and the bad guys are ordered to get rid of him. Instead of shooting him while he's down and unconscious, which they should have done, they drag him out and put him in the back seat of a car. Instead of tying Rama up or throwing him in the trunk, which they should have done, the bad guys give him a nice comfy seat in the back seat. Why do they do this? It's not because it makes sense. It was because Evans wanted a fight scene in the car, resulting in a very long and crazy car chase scene. This is an example of Evans contriving action against all logic.

Evans has so much gore, so much blood, and so much of it in the face of the audience. It's clear that he's reveling in violence. One scene has Rama press a man's face against a hot stove, melting the side of the person's head. Evans' camera lingers on the man's face as it's being burned. He lingers on it for a long time, almost as if this is his porn and in-your-face violence arouses him. With the face-burning scene, he's giving you the cum shot.

It's bad enough when the villains engage in this kind of pornographic violence, but to have the filmmaking do this to the protagonist is the worse. Rama is already a non-presence here. To have him depicted in this pornographic way is further unappealing and distancing.

At least, Evans is honest in his intentions. An early scene has Rama strip completely naked, so Bangun can look at his penis. The point is that Bangun is making sure Rama can be trusted. Any evidence of Rama's disloyalty would result in his death or violence against Rama. This is the perfect scene illustrating what this movie is.

Here, you have Iko Uwais naked and in a pornographic position but the scene is all about the threat or the infliction of violence. It's not like a naked Daniel Craig as James Bond in Casino Royale (2006). That movie took the time to develop that character and not revel or dwell in the violence.

One Star out of Five.
Rated R for sequences of strong bloody violence throughout, sexuality and language.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 30 mins.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Movie Review - Interior. Leather Bar.

Val Lauren (left) and Christian Patrick
in "Interior. Leather Bar."
This is not a feature-length film. It's only 60 minutes, but it's an effort from James Franco, starring James Franco and about James Franco's exploration of gay sexuality in cinema. His supposition is that there isn't enough of it and that what little gay sex there is doesn't go far enough, at least not in mainstream, multiplex movies. While films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Milk (2008), also starring James Franco, are few and far between.

This past year saw the release of Blue is the Warmest Color and Stranger By the Lake, which both won top prizes at the Cannes Film Festival and both feature graphic, gay sexuality. This past year also saw Lars Von Trier's Nymphomaniac, which also contains graphic sexuality. These films might negate Franco's argument, but Kirby Dick's documentary This Film Is Not Yet Rated (2006) convincingly made the case that within the industry-at-large there is a reticence about exploring not only gay sexuality but simply gay characters. Steven Soderbergh's problems with getting financing and American theatrical distribution for Behind the Candelabra also aide in Franco's case.

Franco's intentions here are noble and progressive. It's great that he's tackling these issues and pushing these issues. Unfortunately, the final product here is inadequate. There isn't enough information or context to have care in the characters or this fake situation.

Yes, despite James Franco and everyone else appearing as themselves, these are "characters" and this is a fake situation. It's filmed like a documentary, but the way certain moments play out, it's obvious that this whole thing isn't real. It might as well be an episode of The Office.

It stars Val Lauren as a version of himself who in reality has worked for Franco a couple of times before. Previously, Val Lauren was the titular character in the James Franco-directed Sal (2013), about two-time Oscar nominee, gay actor and murder victim, Sal Mineo.

Lauren meets with Franco and co-director Travis Mathews (I Want Your Love) about their next movie project. It's similar to how Franco opens Sal, which is of Mineo meeting with his agent or manager about his next movie project, which is also addressing a controversial story involving gay sex. Here, Lauren discusses with Franco and Mathews their intentions to re-create the lost 40 minutes from the film Cruising (1980).

According to a title card, director William Friedkin had to cut 40 minutes out of Cruising in order to appease the MPAA ratings board. Franco and Mathews want to re-shoot or re-make those 40 minutes. From what we gather later, that footage is mostly scenes inside the leather bar where gay men who like wearing leather and enjoy sadomasochism go to have sex.

Presumably, Franco and Mathews don't actually re-create all 40 minutes because they don't show all of it, only a few scenes. If they had shown all 40 minutes, this movie in its entirety would have been longer. What they do is only show two scenes. The rest of the movie is just Franco and Lauren and a lot of the other actors, many of whom from Playhouse West, sitting and talking about the movie. Some don't understand why Franco is doing this. Some who are gay hope to see Franco naked. Some actors who are straight discuss what they're comfortable doing on screen in terms of nudity and sex acts.

These conversations are interesting, but the focus is more on Lauren, which is understandable, but some more back story or interviews with these actors would have been helpful. One could argue that the movie wants to be more cinéma vérité or fly-on-the-wall that's secretly capturing these actors in between filming scenes, but that's invalidated when a casual conversation between Lauren and another actor getting makeup to be a drag queen is revealed to be staged and the director is prompting questions.

It's compelling to watch Lauren watch the filming of the sex scenes. It's compelling to figure out what's going through Lauren's mind. He's a straight guy watching graphic, if not pornographic, gay sex occur right in front of him. He might feel obligated to stay but he does stay and continues to look. He objects to it to a degree but also sees the beauty in it afterward.

The question is what is watching Lauren meant to do. Is Lauren meant to go on a journey? If so, to what end? He's not homophobic. He's not even making objections that some of the gay actors aren't. It might be that Franco and Mathews are trying to imply that Lauren is going down the scene path as Al Pacino's character in Cruising, so that by the end the audience wonders about Lauren's sexuality. Maybe he's now a little gay.

Making that implication seems to force the issue, especially in an environment where you don't trust the filmmaker or don't understand him. Basic questions needed to be answered. For one, how does Franco and Mathews know what these 40 minutes are? Were they able to find that footage from 30 years ago, which was supposedly destroyed? Did they have a conversation with Friedkin or Pacino about what happened in that cut footage?

Franco and Mathews depict full-frontal nudity and actual fellatio with erect penises. I think that Friedkin is a bold and progressive filmmaker, but I question if he actually filmed real fellatio or anything like what Franco and Mathews film. Friedkin did edit unsimulated sex scenes from a porn film into the movie but nothing he filmed himself. It's a wonder how much of a fight Friedkin put up for those 40 minutes. If it wasn't that big of a fight, then why does Franco care about these 40 minutes so much?

Three Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic, gay sex.
Running Time: 60 mins.
Available on Netflix.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

TV Review - Growing Up Fisher

It's funny to hear Jason Bateman doing voice-over narration for this sitcom when it was just last year he appeared in the fourth season of Arrested Development, which had his character operating under the voice-over narration of Ron Howard. Bateman's narration here isn't as rich or propulsive as Howard's. It's more tame. It supplements the comedy, instead of driving the comedy. It's more in line with the narration in The Wonder Years.

This series, created by DJ Nash, works at a slightly sillier level than The Wonder Years. Unlike that show with Fred Savage, the characters aren't really compelling on their own. They need the framework and the gimmicks concocted by Nash. It's probably working in a similar vein as Malcolm in the Middle, but, again Nash's series is more contingent on the central gimmick, which without it would make this show rather lifeless.

The gimmick is that this divorced family whose prepubescent son is essentially the lead character has the patriarch Mel Fisher, played by J.K. Simmons (HBO's Oz), as a blind man. Many of the jokes come from the fact that despite having the same vision ability as Steve Wonder, Mel Fisher behaves as if he can still do things for which most people would require having vision. The premiere episode has him using power tools to cut down a tree and even parallel parking an automobile.

Those moments are obviously ridiculous, but I don't know how funny they are being that I realize that Simmons actually can see. I think Simmons is a great actor who is very convincing. He's also very funny, but I'm just not impressed with those gags.

As part of the gimmick, Mel has been lying about being blind at work. Mel is a lawyer and has been in the closet about his inability to see. With the help of his co-worker, he's been able to fool his clients. What bonds Mel to his 11-year-old son Henry, played by Eli Baker, has been Mel's reliance on Henry to be his guide and help him with certain things.

Once Mel divorces his wife Joyce, played by Jenna Elfman, Mel gets his own apartment and has to get a guide dog. Mel then starts to rely on the dog to the exclusion of Henry, which upsets Henry, and the show follows how the family adjusts to this change. Eli Baker is no Fred Savage nor Frankie Muniz, but he's amiable. He's probably younger than Savage and Muniz when they started on their shows. The relationship between Mel and Henry is a sweet one though.

Elfman's character at times is interesting, but the writers are playing the card of her wanting to be her daughter's best friend, instead of an authoritative figure, a little too much. In Episode 3, a more interesting perspective from this wife of a blind man is brought up. Joyce never had to worry about how she looks because her husband got nothing out of her looks.

Now that she's dating again, she now has to worry about her looks, which she doesn't know how to do. The problem is Elfman is gorgeous with great hair and a bright personality. It makes no sense that she would have trouble meeting and attracting men, which she does, so the writers make her a bit of a neurotic mess to derail any dating prospects.

It makes me wonder if the series is merely flirting with the parents' new dating lives. I wonder if the show will find a way for the parents to fall back in love with each other. It's not clear why the two divorced and it seems as if Mel is able to move on and wants to move on, but the show might do a push-and-pull thing with Mel and Joyce.

Their daughter Katie, played by Ava Deluca-Verley, is the stereotypical teenage girl who is appalled by both of her parents. Henry is only appalled by his mother. He's more impressed with his father and his social and mobility skills despite his handicap. Yet, despite Episode 7 being named after her, Katie is more of an afterthought.

Three Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-PG.
Running Time: 30 mins.
Tuesdays at 9:30PM on NBC.

TV Review - About a Boy

Some people might recall the British film of the same name starring Hugh Grant and Nicholas Hoult. It was the adaptation of the book by Nick Hornby. Jason Katims (Friday Night Lights and Parenthood) has decided that Hornby's book could also be the basis for this TV series. Hugh Grant is replaced with David Walton who is perhaps not as funny but Walton is extremely more sexy. Walton has been in several TV series that have been either short-lived or quickly cancelled, and in almost every series, he's proven that he would never have trouble landing ladies. His brief appearance in the film Burlesque (2010) proves that he wouldn't have trouble landing men either.

David Walton plays Will and basically his problem is that he's getting older. He's in his 30s, probably mid to upper 30s. His best friend Andy, played by Al Madrigal (The Daily Show), as well as his other friends are getting married and having children, so that means Andy is not as available to hang out and party all night long with Will. This angers and upsets Will.

Will can hang out and party all night long every night being that he doesn't have to worry about money. Will is taken care of due to his music royalties. He gets a new neighbor, Fiona, played by Minnie Driver (Good Will Hunting), a single mom. Her son is Marcus, played by Benjamin Stockham. Marcus takes an interest in Will. Unlike Andy, Marcus is available to hang out with Will and he wants to hang out with Will.

The conflict comes up when it's made apparent that Will doesn't like children. In fact, it could be argued that Will actively hates children. When Will is forced to be with Marcus, it also could be argued that he's a bad influence or a corrupting presence. The best episode that deals with these conflicts is Episode 3, which determines if Will is going to be a godfather to Andy's kids. It was well-written, well-acted and ends on a great joke.

The other episodes seem rather boring. At times and most times, it feels forced in the ways that the writers concoct scenarios to have Will and Marcus together. Typically, it's Marcus imprinting and latching onto Will. Having Marcus be such a socially awkward kid and be so unaware like in Episode 4 doesn't seem to work as it does in a show like The Middle with the awkward Brick Heck.

Two Stars out of Five.
Rated TV-PG.
Running Time: 30 mins.
Tuesdays at 9PM on NBC.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Being Scott Harris

The new documentary Being Ginger was just released on DVD. Its director, Scott P. Harris has been attending screenings and Q & A sessions in various cities. He was in New York City for screenings there when I interviewed him by phone. The documentary was an expansion of his 20-minute, graduate project at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. The project is an autobiographical look at Harris' own dating life vis-à-vis his lack of confidence or self-esteem regarding his natural red hair, or, depending on the light, orange hair.

The movie is a romantic journey. The 31-year-old sets out to find a girlfriend. His initial tactic is to approach random girls on the street under the guise of making a movie about ginger bigotry. His supposition is that people don't like gingers. This supposition is purely anecdotal. There are no studies or research that supports this claim. Harris bases his premise on personal experiences, which he admits are only representative of him and no one else. Nor does his experiences speak to anything specific about ginger men as a whole.

Yet, there was a story in the British newspapers about a phenomenon called "Kick a Ginger Day" that was reportedly inspired by an episode of the TV series South Park, which originally aired back in 2005. The phenomenon resulted in bullying and actual physical attacks against school children with red hair. A similar phenomenon was also reported in California back in 2009.

It's rather appropriate then that the method, which Harris uses to depict his bullying back in school, is that of animation, done in a style not unlike that of South Park. If you go to his web site, he's created an eCard with a very funny joke about that. Yet, as you listen to him and watch him, you'll learn that the bullying Harris experienced in his youth is neither cartoonish nor a laughing matter. His romantic journey is meant to be light and fun, but the detour into talking about the heart-breaking bullying he faced has too strong a gravitational pull.

It becomes less of a wonder why Harris harbors almost the same bigoted feelings about gingers that he wishes others didn't. It's apparent that he reached a point where he began to believe his tormenters. His bullies indoctrinated him to believe the worst about himself and others like him, those with red hair.

Unknowingly or not, this movie is Harris' attempt to deprogram himself of this self-hatred and bigotry. Blatant contradictions are constantly thrown at him, starting with the very first girl, a pretty blonde named Emily whom he stops on the street. The look on Harris' face when he gauges her thoughts on gingers is one of genuine shock and surprise. During my phone interview with him, he claims that he was simply nervous about asking her out on a date, while on camera. Yet, to me, the look on his face smacked with the irony that this idea baked into his head about the stuff baked on top of his head could actually be wrong. It's the first step toward his own deconstruction.

The rest of the movie is Harris then dispelling his own myths about gingers. One of which is that prior to making this movie Harris has never been attracted to a ginger. When I asked him about Julia Roberts, one of the most successful gingers in Hollywood, aside from Katharine Hepburn, he said he didn't realize that Julia Roberts was a ginger. Yet, her most successful film Pretty Woman (1990) gloriously shows off her red locks. How he could not have been attracted to that movie-star ginger escapes me!

I don't think Harris is lying, but it is perhaps indicative of a narrow vision. Yet, Harris comes across as nothing if not honest and forthright. In fact, Harris reminded me of another documentary filmmaker of Scottish and/or Irish descent with ginger qualities who doesn't mind putting himself on camera and who's also quite honest and forthright. Harris reminded me of Morgan Spurlock, minus the handlebar mustache. Instead of stuffing his face full of McDonalds hamburgers and fries, Harris takes to the streets of Edinburgh trying to find a woman who will love him and his ginger-ness.

Yet, Harris doesn't see himself as the next Spurlock. He draws more inspiration from filmmakers like Ross McElwee and Alan Berliner. He looks to them, not because they're not gingers but because of the more personal stories they tell. Harris cites McElwee's Sherman's March as one of his major influences. That film like Harris' story focuses on McElwee's dating life or at least his interest in certain women.

The difference though is that McElwee points the camera at his family in Sherman's March and they offer tips for him. Harris avoids any inclusion of his family. His film is instead extremely self-reflective. There are moments where he talks to friends who give words on how to text girls or how to regard certain dating web sites, but, for the most part, it's all Harris' point of view. It's so much so that there are even scenes of Harris watching tapes of himself of scenes we've just seen.

Harris admits that it was odd, given his feelings about himself and his hair. Those scenes are obviously not narcissism or vanity. He told me that they were more practical. He just wanted to shoot as much as possible within certain boundaries. If nothing else, those moments really just help the audience to get to know Harris and his thought processes. We don't get more of Harris' history. I don't even think he states in the documentary that he's from Texas, but otherwise I do think you warm to him. He is funny and charming, and by the end you do root for him to find that special girl.

Go to his web site to find out where upcoming screenings are happening. If you live in the UK, you can also purchase the DVD from his site. In the US, Garden Thieves Pictures is making it available on Tax Day today on DVD via Amazon. You can also purchase the movie on Demand to stream through iTunes, Vimeo and etc.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Movie Review - Joe (2014)

It's interesting to see this film in the wake of Diego Luna's Cesar Chavez, a story about a man who works to improve the labor conditions of a poor, ethnic class of people. Nicolas Cage's titular character isn't a political activist, but, in his own small way, his efforts go for the poor, working class. For Cesar Chavez, it's the Mexican farmers in California. For Joe, it's African-American woodsmen in Texas.

Joe owns a business that he runs somewhat under the table. He employs black men who have perhaps been in trouble with the law or who perhaps can't get legitimate work elsewhere for one reason or another. He picks up all his employees in the back of his old, blue GMC Sierra and pays them, sometimes with cash, out the back of that old truck.

When a white teenage boy named Gary approaches him for work, Joe doesn't require references or for him to fill out a W-2 form or anything. Joe does this because he was possibly himself in a position where he couldn't get work any other way but under the table. Joe is a man who's possibly giving back. I'm just curious as to what his back story was that got him here.

Based on the novel by Larry Brown, the screenplay by Gary Hawkins hints at that back story, but, for the most part, Joe's history remains a mystery. Cage's quiet performance, which occasionally hits with outbursts of defiance, particularly against police, is compelling to watch, but it screams a history that should have been told. Otherwise, I'm not sure what's motivating Joe when we meet him.

The way in which director David Gordon Green inter-cuts between Joe and Gary, played by Tye Sheridan (The Tree of Life and Mud) and parallels their actions in an early slow-motion sequence bonds the older man to the younger boy. It is perhaps Green's way of signaling that Gary's story is Joe's story, that Gary's future path might have been the road Joe's traveled.

It becomes clear that the film is building to a point where Joe is going to have to rescue Gary. It's possible and more than likely that whatever hard times Joe faced in his life, he was able to overcome all by himself. Yet, Gary's hard times can't be overcome by him alone. He needs someone like Joe to pull him up.

Gary has a drunk and abusive father. His mom is too battered and beaten down to do anything. Gary also has a mute sister who he's tantamount to raising. His parents don't seem to make enough money to feed the family, so Gary puts it upon himself to be the breadwinner. It's really up to Gary, despite being 15, to be the adult in his family and take care of his family.

What's heartbreaking is the realization that this child can't be a child. He has to work hard labor in order to survive. The insanity is that Gary realizes this and accepts it. He doesn't complain. He doesn't curse God. He simply works to provide for his family.

Other recent films have done this. Other films have made adults out of children. The Dynamiter and The Inevitable Defeat of Mister and Pete are great because those films focused on the children. This film really is about the relationship between Gary and Joe, and the scenes between Cage and Sheridan are the best. Yet, I would have loved the film to be more about Gary, but the film divides its time with pointless scenes of Joe in a whore house. More scenes in Gary's home with his mom and sister would have filled out Gary's world.

Four Stars out of Five.
Rated R for violence, disturbing material, language and some strong sexual content.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 58 mins.