Saturday, May 28, 2011

A Failed Attempt At Redemption Through Puppetry

THE BEAVER (Dir. Jodie Foster, 2011)

So, here's this film's story - a toy company CEO is in a deep dark funk. He's uncommunicative with his wife and kids, and his business is faltering. His wife kicks him out of the house. While discarding some of his things, he finds an old ratty beaver puppet in a dumpster and puts it on his left arm, During a drunken night in his hotel room with 2 failed suicide attempts, he crashes onto the floor with a TV falling down on him.

When he awakes his puppet gives him a pep talk, and immediately he starts to get his life back together. "The Beaver," as it wants to be called, is now calling the shots to the puzzlement of his family and the employees.

Got that? Not sure I do. What makes it so hard to swallow is that Mel Gibson plays the despondent puppeteer. Gibson's popularity has waned in recent years because of famously controversial behavior, and part of this film's hype is that it could re-boot his career.

Don't count on it. This film, inexplicably directed by Jodie Foster (also appearing as Gibson's wife), is a dreary experience that has no insights into depression, delusion, or beaver puppets.

You might expect a comedy from a scenario where a man communicates only through a puppet, with a thick Cockey accent, but as The Beaver says at one point: "There's nothing funny about it."

There's a subplot involving Gibson's son (Anton Yelchin) dealing with teen angst through a budding romance with an Jennifer Lawrence (WINTER'S BONE) as a valedictorian cheerleader who hires him to write her graduation speech. It really doesn't fit, but then nothing in this film fits.

The implausibility factor here is overwhelming, and not just from the basic premise. When Gibson develops and markets a bestselling wood-cutting kit, it hits such a false note that it's deafening. Likewise Foster's one-note reaction to her husband's dementia.

An unpleasant sex scene with Foster getting creeped out by the puppet is another scene that doesn't gel.

I'm not a fan of Gibson, but there were times his performance showed real effort and passion. However it's in vain as this is strained, self conscious material that never clicks.

In the last third, THE BEAVER takes some disturbing and drastic turns that don't add up, especially when considering how tidy the ending is.

What first time screenwriter Kyle Killen, and Foster were going for here beats me.

Basically this film is a bunch of bad ideas desperately assembled in a lame attempt to form an inspirational story.

It's a failure as a comeback project for Gibson, and will probably be only remembered as a weird misguided movie that came and went with little fanfare. That is, if it's remembered at all.

More later... 

Thursday, May 26, 2011

THE HANGOVER PART II: The Film Babble Blog Review

THE HANGOVER PART II (Dir. Todd Phillips, 2011)

The sequel to the largest grossing R-Rated comedy of all time is exactly everything I thought it would be. I haven't seen such a blatant retread of a huge hit's premise and jokes since AIRPLANE II: THE SEQUEL.

Again we have Bradley Cooper, Zach Galifianakis, and Ed Helms playing the man-child protagonists who wake up to find themselves in way over their heads after a night of stag party debauchery. I actually recycled that sentence largely from my review of the first one - I figure if they can recycle it, so can I.

This time the guys are in Bangkok. Helms is about to get married to Jamie Chung, and Cooper, Galifianakis, and Justin Bartha are there to attend the wedding.

Chung has a disapproving father (Nirut Sirichanya) who humiliates Helms at their reception dinner, so you know Helms will stand up to him in the end.

Bartha went missing in the first one, so their idea of mixing it up is to have Chung's younger brother (Mason Lee) disappear.

The night starts at a resort in Thailand where Helms is talked into having just one beer with the "Wolfpack," as Galifianakis calls them, on the beach with a bonfire. What could go wrong?

Just like before (okay I'll stop saying that - it could get exhausting) the camera pans up to the sky and the screen fades. We flash forward and we're in a scummy hotel room in the city of Bangkok. Galifianakis's hair head has been shaved, Helms has a Mike Tyson tattoo on his face, there's a capuchin monkey jumping around, and there's a severed finger with Lee's school ring on it among all the bottles, cocaine, and other debris from the previous night.

Oh yeah, there's also the crazy coked up Ken Jeong who Galifianakis invited as his +1 to the wedding sleeping on the floor.

So the 'Wolfpack" hit the streets to figure out what happened to Lee and they wind through a convoluted scenario involving Monks, she-male prostitutes, Russian thugs, and an obligatory car-chase that includes the classically clichéd fruit cart scene.

The problem is this material is geared more for shock value than laughs. The leads have an energy going in their performances, playing amusingly off each other, but while Cooper and Helms almost overdo their effort, Galifianakis doesn't seem to care.

Galifianakis can be funny with just an expression, and his eccentric childishness has its moments, but wears thin way before the halfway mark.

In the middle of it all there's a surprising appearance by Paul Giamatti, who has a nice sharp scene or 2 - I guess to go further about it would be a Spoiler!

Otherwise, despite the absorbing locale, and a few good lines here and there, THE HANGOVER PART II is a tedious, definitively unnecessary, and supremely unsatisfying sequel.

Actually the photos showing what happened during the guys' blackouts during the end credits are kind of funny, but again that's something they did in the first one.

More later...

Monday, May 23, 2011

Product Place Me

Morgan Spurlock made a name for himself with SUPER SIZE ME, a documentary in which he filmed himself eating McDonald’s food for one month. He followed that up with WHERE IN THE WORLD IS OSAMA BIN LADEN?, another ambitiously gimmicky documentary that was equally inconsequential.

Spurlock’s latest film is his gimmickiest for sure – it’s a movie about product placement that was financed by, wait for it, product placement!

So, a lot of this movie is a series of pitch meetings to companies that he wants to feature in his film. Spurlock approaches all the major, and not so major, corporations (well, not McDonald’s for obvious reasons) and gets rejected by most of them (“that doesn’t sound like a movie I’d have any interest in seeing” says one of the folks he cold calls), but a number of companies sign on. The one that ponied up the biggest bucks ($1 million), POM Wonderful, was rewarded with their name above the title, in case you’re wondering about the film’s bloated name.

Spurlock pads the film with interviews with film makers like J.J. Abrams, Peter Berg, Quentin Tarantino, and Brett Ratner who have differing views on product placement. Noam Chomsky, Ralph Nader, and On The Media host Bob Garfield also appear. Spurlock asks Nader if there’s any truth in advertising. Nader responds: “Yeah, if the advertiser tells you they’re lying.”

In one of the film’s most interesting bit is a visit to San Paulo in Brazil, a city that has banned billboards and advertising of every kind from its streets and buildings. Spurlock hammers the point though with resident’s comments, and his own obvious statements: “Look, that taxi has no ad on it!” We get it.

Spurlock is never as funny, insightful, and engaging as he thinks he is, and there’s too many stretches where the film has nothing to say about its subject. I have no idea if Spurlock thinks product placement is good or bad, I’d guess that he thinks it’s good if it benefits him.

There’s a lot of stuff a good documentarian could do with the premise. It would be cool to learn the history of advertising on the big screen, what were the biggest deals made, with more insight into the argument over its merits.

Instead we get Spurlock walking around a grocery store making lame jokes about products. He’s particularly amused about the shampoo for humans and horses Mane ‘n Tail. He giggles as he phones them, but I sure didn’t.

And then there's his cutesy mock commercial he makes for his sponsors. Really icky stuff.

Spurlock’s Michael Moore methods all fall flat once again.
In one of the pitch meetings in the first third, Spurlock says that “the goal of this whole film is transparency. You're going to see the whole thing take place from beginning to end.”

The film, and Spurlock, are indeed transparent - I can see right through them.

More later...

Friday, May 20, 2011

On Shallower Tides...


Never believe the hype.

The word was that this was supposed to be the movie that got the franchise back on track. Even Johnny Depp was on record about how bloated and convoluted the last couple of PIRATES movies were, so the fourth film was set to right those wrongs.

Not so much. This installment is just as messy and murky as the last 2.

In fact, looking back - I felt exactly the same way I did after seeing the 3rd one (AT WORLD'S END). In my review of that I wrote:

"All the lame jokes, un-affecting fight scenes, and pointless attempts at romaticizing map-mythology with supposed sacred artifacts holding eternal power just left me bombastically bored.

I did however like the Keith Richards cameo (as Jack Sparrow's father no less). I heard there was a bonus scene like the other PIRATES had after the credits but at the 2 hour 45 mark I was dying to get the hell out of the theater - bet you will be too."

Except for the remark about the running time (at just over 2 hours this is shorter) I have the same reaction. This time I did stay to see the bonus scene though.

A lot of the cast from the series doesn't return - there's no Keira Knightly, Orlando Bloom, or Bill Nighy so the film offers a lot of Depp sparring off with Geoffrey Rush and Ian McShane as Blackbeard, a real missed oportunity as a character.

ON STRANGER TIDES is a noisy film full of groaners (Keith Richards has the funniest line, but I won't spoil it here), poorly plotted set-pieces, and Johnny Depp just swishing through the motions. It also doesn't take any pleasurable advantage of having zombies in it!

The last half takes the plot mechanics of INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE substituting the Holy Grail with the Fountain of Youth and re-writes them over and over again to no great effect.

Penélope Cruz and Depp have some mad chemistry but when she's reduced to a screaming b**** and Depp is just an ambitious cad they join the entire cast of people it's impossible to care about.

The 3D did nothing for me either.

I have to say though the audience around me seemed to love it all (there was even applause at the end), and my wife enjoyed it saying that she loved "the costumes, the detail on the sets and the ships," "how dark it was" and that "Johnny Depp appeals to all ages."

Judging from that this movie looks pretty critic-proof. It's an event movie that people will feel obligated to see so I'm sure it'll be a big hit. To me though it was another failed fourth and a big waste of time.


Saturday, May 14, 2011

EVERYTHING MUST GO: The Film Babble Blog Review

EVERYTHING MUST GO (Dir. Dan Rush, 2011)

Usually the summer movie season is time for a big dumb Will Ferrell comedy, but not this time around.

Here Ferrell takes on a spare indie film in which he plays a somewhat pathetic yet sympathetic character – a man who gets fired from his corporate job (by Glenn Howerton of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, no less) because of his drinking, then comes home to find his wife has left him. She changed the locks, and all of Ferrell’s possessions are on the front lawn. His company car is repossessed soon after as well.

Drinking PBR after PBR, Ferrell tries to make the best of the situation. He hires a young boy (Christopher Jordan Wallace) to help him hold a yard sale after his former AA sponsor (Michael Peña) tells him that’s the only way he can legally live outside on the property for 5 more days.

Ferrell eyes a new neighbor across the street – a pregnant Rebecca Hall – with who he strikes up a friendship, he blackmails another neighbor (Stephen Root) for electricity after witnessing some S&M practices through Root’s and wife’s window, and he schools Wallace in business tips as well as baseball training.

Through this all, Ferrell’s restrained though obviously pained demeanor adds up to his best performance. In previous films like STRANGER THAN FICTION, MELINDA AND MELINDA, and even his over-the-top comic work, he’s hinted at layers of this kind of depth, but here it’s present in every scene.

Although it’s based on a 4-page Raymond Carver short story (“Why Don’t You Dance?”), it bears little resemblance to it except for the basic premise of an alcoholic selling all his belongings in his front yard. Of course, it would have to be fleshed out for a 96 minute movie and writer/director Dan Rush does an admirable job of doing just that.

EVERYTHING MUST GO is a quiet touching movie that never tries to hard or panders too heavily to dramatic conventions. In its best scenes, themes aren’t spelled out; they’re inside the minds of the characters.

As an old high school friend who Ferrell happens to be reminded of because of an old yearbook, Laura Dern has a greatly affecting scene. Dern and Ferrell catch up after decades of non-communication on her front porch, and there’s a nice notion in the air that people in the movies can just share a moment together without a forced romance getting in the way.

Same goes for Ferrell’s scenes with Rebecca Hall – the organic connection between these 2 people’s desperate pleasantries is palpable and endearing.

In Carver’s short story, a young woman (who doesn’t exist in the movie), can’t quite figure out the man with his stuff in the yard who kept playing records on an old crappy turntable as she and her boyfriend danced.

Carver writes about her telling her friends about it: “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”

This film knows that sometimes you can’t get things talked out. Hmm, maybe it resembles the short story more than I thought.

More later...

Thursday, May 12, 2011

BRIDESMAIDS: The Film Babble Blog Review

BRIDESMAIDS (Dir. Paul Feig, 2011)

On his highly addictive popcast “WTF,” comedian Marc Maron often talks about comic actors that have a grasp on exactly what’s funny about them. In scene after scene of BRIDESMAIDS, Kristen Wiig nails exactly what’s funny about her.

Lately Wiig has been so overused on Saturday Night Live reprising obnoxious characters that weren’t that amusing in the first place, and then at the same time she’s underused in a string of sideline parts in movies such as PAUL, EXTRACT, MACGRUBER, GHOST TOWN, DATE NIGHT, etc. that it’s so satisfying to report that her first starring role is a real winner.

Wiig’s mastery of nervously nuanced body language, and naturalisticly awkward line readings carries her hapless heroine Annie here hilariously through this uber affable film.

As a former bakery owner turned jaded jewelry store clerk whose life is going steadily downhill, we first meet Wiig in bed with Mad Men’s Jon Hamm in the funniest sex scene since TEAM AMERICA.

Hamm is, in his own words on Conan, an unrepentant douche-bag, who only wants no-strings-attached sex, but it’s obvious that Wiig wants more. Hamm just has a small, and oddly un-credited role, so we know that’s not where this is going.

Wiig’s best friend since childhood Maya Rudolph is getting married, and our sardonic sad sack heroine finds out she has competition in the Maid of Honor department in Rose Byrne as Rudolph’s new upscale best friend.

There are shades of Wiig’s Penelope character from SNL, in a good way, in a bit at an engagement lunch as Wiig and Bryne keep trying to upstage each other, stealing the microphone from each other back and forth in vain to get the last word in.

The other bridesmaids that make up the wacky wedding group are Reno 911’s Wendy McLendon-Covey, The Office’s Ellie Kemper, and Mike and Molly’s Melissa McCarthy whose abrasive fearless performance comes close to stealing the movie, as funny as Wiig is.

On a plane to Vegas, Wiig gets drunk and tries to crash first class repeatedly while the rest of the cast gets in their own crazy predicaments which I won’t spoil. It’s a uproarious scene, but it’s far from the funniest ones on display, as a great sequence featuring Wiig breaking every law in the book driving up and down the road in front of a cop she had a fling with (Chris O’Dowd) tops it. I really can’t explain how this comes about – you’ve just got to see it for yourself.

As that bemused cop, O’Dowd has charming repartee with Wiig and joins the well chosen cast which notably includes the last film role of Jill Clayburgh as Wiig’s ditzy celebrity portrait painting mother.

Despite its predictable rom com trappings and some unnecessary gross-out humor (I could’ve done without a food poisoning/vomit scene in an expensive dress shop), BRIDESMAIDS is one of the funniest films of the year so far (that might not be saying much, I know).

There are more laugh out loud moments than I can count, and Freaks and Geekscreator Feig (who also helmed episodes of Mad Men, 30 Rock, The Office, and Arrested Development BTW) does a great job shaping the material written by Wiig and Annie Mumolo with a touching tone and, for the most part, great timing.

And coming from the Judd Apatow production line it’s a welcome change from the usual boy’s club fare.

Ignore the accusations of BRIDESMAIDS being a female version of THE HANGOVER (although they did cut a Vegas party scene because of the similarity) and the superficial resemblance to such chick flick crap as BRIDE WARS, because this is an extremely funny movie that really should make Wiig a star.

More later...

Monday, May 9, 2011


BEHIND THE BURLY Q (Dir. Leslie Zemeckis, 2010)

For her directorial debut, Leslie Zemeckis, actress and wife of film maker Robert Zemeckis, takes an informative and amusing look into the world of Burlesque.

"Burlesque was a fabulous, gaudy era in America that's been left out of the history books." Says Marie Lee Evans (stage name: Dixie Evans"), one of many former chorus girls and strippers interviewed in this film.

From it's inception in the mid-1800s to its golden age in the '20s and the '30s, we get vintage footage, photos, and showbills, but best of all are the anecdotes.

Alan Alda, only identified as "son of Robert Alda," tells about having to stay with his aunts in Delaware because his show biz parents were on the road transporting around a pig they used in their act. Alda: "I hated this pig. This pig was stealing my parents from me."

Infamous stripper/actress Tempest Storm has some of the best moments, with her claims of having an affairs with JFK. Storm, recounting about being asked what Kennedy talked about in the bedroom, replied: "It certainly wasn't politics."

There's a lot of funny stuff about the comedians and who performed in and between (and sometimes during) striptease numbers. Many of them, like Abbott and Costello, developed material that they used in their movies at Burlesque shows.

We also get the story of Blaze Star, subject of the 1989 movie BLAZE starring Lolita Davidovich and Paul Newman, who had an affair with Louisiana governor Earl Long ("He was a dirty old man" remembers Joy Pelletier aka "T.T. Red").

"Behind The Burly Q" boasts a wealth of juicy material that brings alive a vibrant era with a lot of entertaining insights. It also has a lot of nudity in it too.

I can't think of a better recommendation for a historical documentary than that.

Bonus Features: Three Featurettes: "The Reunion", "Memorabillia & Costumes", and "Behind The Scenes." Bonus Interviews, Burlesque Timeline, Photo Gallery, and the Original Theatrical Trailer.

More later...

Friday, May 6, 2011

THOR: The Film Babble Blog Review

THOR (Dir. Kenneth Branaugh, 2011)

(Warning: This review may contain Spoilers!)

Summer doesn't officially begin until late June, but the summer movie season began last week with the opening of the huge blockbuster FAST FIVE. However the season doesn't really feel like it's underway until a big-ass superhero flick swoops in, so today we get us the latest addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe: THOR.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is a cocky (and somewhat douchey) Norse God who lives in the splendiforic golden CGI city of Asgard which is in another realm from our world, you see?

Thor's father, the King of this realm, played with his patented gravely gravitas by Anthony Hopkins, is ready to let his son take the throne, but an attack by a gang of scaly skinned creepy creatures called Frost Giants throws that plan out of whack.

The Frost Giants steal the source of Asgard's power "the Casket of Ancient Winters." Defying their father, Thor and his brother (Tom Hiddleston) go after their frigid foes into their icy realm, along with their gung-ho troop of hearty warriors (Tadanobu Asano, Joshua Davis, Ray Stevenson, and Jaimie Alexander).

A busy and bombarding battle goes down, which doesn't please Hopkins so he banishes his son to Earth, and throws his hammer of power down there with him.

It then becomes a bit of a fish out of water story with Thor meeting up with a trio of scientific researchers in a desert in New Mexico where he crash lands - Natalie Portman (much more animated than in YOUR HIGHNESS), a befuddled Stellan Skarsgård, and the wise-cracking Kat Dennings - who take him in as they just happen to be up on Nordic mythology.

Thor's predicament is that he has to fight through a military instillation that has surrounded his mighty hammer in the desert since, like the Arthurian legend, it can not be removed by just anyone.

The film gets bogged down in noisy fight scenes and impenetrable exposition that I couldn't follow recognize the weight of, but since I don't know the comic from which this is based, that stuff may mean a lot more to the hardcore.

I got that Thor must fight his brother Hiddleston, who turns out to be half Frost Giant I guess, and a giant destructive robot in order to restore the kingdom of Asgard and awaken their father from some deep sparkling golden slumber, I think.

It was hard to follow or care about this because Hemsworth has little charisma or believability in the role, and his being paired with Portman is forced and fairly chemistry-less.

Those elements don't completely cripple THOR, because on the surface it's a serviceable super hero movie with plenty of fast paced action that folks just wanting mindless thrills will likely go for.

It's also fun to see how the Marvel movies are building what my fellow local entertainment writer friend Zack Smith calls an "uber continuity" with Clark Gregg reprising his role as Agent Coulson from IRON MAN 1 & 2, a cameo by Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye, and an after the end-credits scene, which I won't spoil, but will just say that it foreshadows events to come in THE AVENGERS, so stay until the very end.

I was very surprised to see that this was directed by Kenneth Branaugh because in retrospect except for some nuanced acting from a few members of the cast, there is precious little in this assembly line formula that could be reasonably attributed to him.

While I normally avoid 3-D, I didn't have a choice with the advance screening I saw of this. I didn't get a headache, but apart from a few scattered arresting visuals, the 3-D added very little.

THOR is bombastic and in your face enough without such enhancement, but I bet kids of all ages will eat it up in whatever format.

More later...

Tuesday, May 3, 2011



I missed this when it was screened last month at Full Frame so I was happy to get a copy in the mail the day after the Festival.

“Square Grouper” is the "slang term for bales of marijuana thrown overboard or out of airplanes in South Florida in the 1970s and 1980s,” this documentary tells us up front. Then we are gently taken into this exploration of Florida marijuana smuggling during that era, by way of a folksy ballad theme song that serenades the opening credits.

The film is broken into 3 chapters – the first of which, "Part 1: Zion Coptic Church," deals with a Fundamentalist Christian sect in Florida that believed Ganja to be a sacred herb that brings them closer to God. They smuggled huge amounts of marijuana from Jamaica to their mansion (called a "luxury compound") in Star Island, Florida.

Through newly shot interviews with former church members, neighbors, reporters, and Federal agents we learn how the sect was the target of a ginormous bust.

The second segment, "Part 2: Black Tuna Gang," concerns another Miami marijuana operation consisting of Robert Platshorn, who served the longest prison term for a non-violent marijuana offense in US history, his partner in crime Bobby Meinster, and gang accountant Howard Blumn. One of the funniest moments here is former FBI agent Harold Copus talking about getting a subsciption to "High Times" magazine so the agents could better follow the drug trade.

A joint DEA-FBI outfit brought down the Black Tuna Gang, and the principle member's marriages were put to the test, with Platshorn's wife Lynne also doing jail-time. This segment has the most emotional power of the three.

The final chapter, "Part 3: Everglades City,” leaves Miami and heads to a small fishing town on Florida’s southwest coast in which “smuggling was a way of life” because the secret bayous and mangrove islands that can conceal transport activity. Just about everyone in town was involved in the operation and became very rich off the “sea weed” until, yep, the FBI and DEA swept in.

This documentary benefits from its soundtrack largely scored by Spam Allstars' Andrew Yeomanson and the “Square Grouper” band with a few original compositions by director Corben. The music compliments the material perfectly, and fits in nicely with a concluding cover of Jimmy Buffet’s “A Pirate Looks at Forty” that Everglades City resident Lee “Leebo” Noble performs on guitar (Noble: “Even though Jimmy Buffett is a manatee-huggin’ son-of-a-bitch, we still like this song”).

Meticulously crafted from ‘70s and ‘80s TV news footage, period photographs, newspaper headlines, and many recently shot interviews, the film may be slightly overstuffed, but the juiciness of the stories is so rich, and the plain-spoken charm of most of the participants that it makes for supreme info-tainment.

In the words of a stoner: SQUARE GROUPER is killer shit.

SQUARE GROUPER is now available on DVD. According to the Netflix website it will be available streaming soon.

More later...