The Great Buck Howard (2008) Review

20 08 2012

Copyright 2008 Playtone Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

So, I was turned on to this movie by a post Roger Ebert made on his Facebook wall recommending it, and giving it a very admirable 3 1/2 star (out of four) review.  Being that it was nearing the end of its run on Netflix (it goes off Instant Watch tomorrow!), and considering that mine and Ebert’s taste in cinema actually coincide quite a bit, I planned on watching the movie last night.  However, before we pressed play, Maddie and I noticed that it was not rated very well on Netflix, and considered a second option for the evening.  Exhausting our choices, we came full circle back to this film and decided that, if we didn’t like it, we could always turn it off.  Now, I give you all this back story, as it will all come around eerily full circle by the end of this post.

The movie itself is an independent comedy that stars John Malkovich as washed up mentalist, Buck Howard (a character based on real life Amazing Kreskin).  Troy Grable (Colin Hanks), a recent law school drop out (that hits close to home!), is at a crossroads in life and decides he wants to become a writer.  Being that writing doesn’t produce much in terms of actual cash asset, he takes a job as the road manager for the “Great Buck Howard.”  Howard, once a television personality who was in high demand and appeared on Johnny Carson over 60 times in the 1970s, is now reduced primarily to touring the country with his act, a mixture of song, comedy and mostly mental illusions, in small town theaters across the United States.  As Howard plans his return to glory, Grable scrambles to keep up with the demands of the  still diva-esque celebrity.  Along the way, he strikes a romance with PR rep Valerie Brennan (Emily Blunt) who is trying to help boost media attention for Howard’s new illusion that will bring him back to the limelight.

The direction and writing by Sean McGinly are solid, but what shines the most is the subject matter and the performances by Malkovich and Colin Hanks.  Their chemistry and Malkovich’s perfect display of the Amazing Kreskin’s mannerisms really helps keep this movie interesting and unique.

Having never heard of the Amazing Kreskin before, we of course watched several videos on Youtube of the real man following the movie.  Needless to say, he is an interesting character and his act does have a distinct element of wonder to it.  For the the fun of it, we decided to look up and see Kreskin’s tour schedule.  Oddly enough, the only two dates he is playing in North Carolin are this Friday and Saturday.  With the coincidence so high, that we almost didn’t watch this movie, finally watched it and liked it, happened to look on his tour schedule, and just so happen to see the real Amazing Kreskin is in NC two dates out of the year, and those being this week, we booked tickets.  We’ll be seeing him on Saturday evening in Shelby, N.C.; however, I got to admit, he’s kind of already impressed me if coincidence has any connection.





Woody Allen: A Documentary (2012) Review

4 08 2012

Copyright 2012 Whyaduck Productions

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2 (for Allen fans)

Most of you that know me personally, know that Woody Allen ranks as one of my all-time favorite filmmakers.  The first Allen film I ever saw was Purple Rose of Cairo soon after it came out on cable in the late 1980s, and from then on I was a fan.  I think the neurotic behavior that is evident in my own personality is infinitely relatable to his humor and films.  As I got older, I began watching more of his backlog and loyally viewing his new films each year at the theatre; yes, both the good ones and the bad ones.  I would estimate that I’ve seen 90% of his repertoire, including some of the early films that he just acted in and movies like Scenes from a Mall that he didn’t write or direct, but appeared in.  Over a long vacation to the northwest in 2000, I read the Eric Lax biography, and I have skimmed through several others from time to time since.  So, when this expansive documentary on his life and career came out last year by director Robert Weide, it immediately fell on my radar.

The film covers literally every facet of Allen’s life and has interviews with actors, friends, family, collaborators, parents, almost any willing participant they could find to comment on Allen’s work and life.  Furthermore, there are many segments of interviews that were shot with Allen himself, including his taking the crew on a tour of the neighborhood he grew up in in Brooklyn.  At well over 3 hours, we see Allen’s life from a boy in Brooklyn to comedy writer to acclaimed filmmaker evolve.  Outside of the amazing interviews, there is a plethora of behind-the-scenes footage from his films, rare photos and other interesting audio and video segments that help tell his story.  Nearly all of his films are featured, and though this film doesn’t tarnish Allen in any way, they didn’t omit a section regarding the scandal between he and Mia Farrow in the 1990s.

If you are a Woody Allen fan, this is a must see.  If not, it may not be your cup of tea.  Whether you love him or hate him though, it’s undeniable that his posterity and longevity as a filmmaker are quite an achievement, and along the way, he has given us more than a fair share of brilliant films in the canon of American Cinema.  Furthermore, few auteurs from any era can claim an ability to make us laugh, as well as engage in deep dramatic content.  Just think, Allen gave us Banannas as well as Match Point and Crimes and Misdemeanors.





Casanova (2005) Review

21 06 2012

Copyright 2005 BBC

★ ★ ★

OK, so I’ll be honest from the get go.  The only reason I watched this was because it had two of my favorite actors in it: Peter O’ Toole and David Tennant (10th Doctor!).  Furthermore, it was written and produced by Russell T. Davies, who was the head writer and show starter for the 2005 reboot of Doctor Who.  Davies and Tennant’s working relationship actually began on this picture.

I’m sure most people are at least generally aware of who Giacomo Casanova was, if for nothing more than the fact that his name is a common term for lotharios the world over.  Well, this movie is a loose adaptation of his life, pulling many overall generalized points from the history books, but embellishing them extensively for entertainment purposes.  The narrative switches back and forth between old Casanova (Peter O’ Toole), who now serves as a librarian for an Italian nobleman, and young Casanova (David Tennant) as he makes his way in the world.  A lonely chambermaid makes fast friends with the older Casanova, who has just finished writing his life’s tale.  During her innocent stays in his chambers, he recounts the many adventures and loves found and lost during his lifetime, with a primary focus on one elusive woman: Henriette (Rose Byrne).  Through the back and forth of the narrative, the life of Casanova is presented in only a way Russell T. Davies could come up with (i.e. extravagantly and at many times flamboyantly).

The “series” encompasses two one and a half hour segments, so it’s not really a movie, but not quite a mini-series.  I really enjoyed the first segment and thought there were some very entertaining scenes, but the second installation was a bit of a let down and I found myself growing bored by the end.  The fun of this film only seems to last so long, though the performances by O’ Toole and Tennant are a treat to watch.  However, I may err on the side of caution here because I am biased, so I would even hesitate to give too much credit in that regard.

In short, a fun and exciting television “mini-series” that starts strong, but fizzles out some towards the end.  If you are a Tennant or O’ Toole fan, I think you would have a greater chance of enjoying this sometimes disjointed flick, but even those who are not may find some interest here.





Slaughterhouse-Five (1972) Review

4 06 2012

Copyright 1972 Universal Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★

Kurt Vonnegut is one of my favorite authors.  I absolutely adore his style, wittiness and straightforwardness in his prose, and like many others, the novel “Slaughterhouse-Five” was my introduction to him.  With the novel being held to such high regard for me personally, I was a bit nervous going into this film.  However, though slow to begin, the movie was actually quite well done.

Directed by George Roy Hill, this film sat nicely between Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and his phenomenally huge success with The Sting the following year.  Michael Sacks stars as the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, who becomes, famously, unstuck in time.  Like the novel, the narrative of Billy’s life jumps back and forth through his timeline with heavy emphasis on his time in Germany during World War II.  Vonnegut, himself a POW during World War II in Dresden when it was bombed, tells his autobiographical tale of the feelings he encountered and the time there vicariously through the fictitious Pilgrim.  Through Pilgrim’s turmoil during the war, his average subsequent life and, ultimately bizarre encounters in the world of Tralfamadore, we see the portrait of a man who was forever changed by the moments he experienced during the brief part of his life he lived as a soldier.

Sacks, who went on to be a top executive in the financial sector with such companies as Morgan Stanley after leaving his acting career in the mid 1980s, does a reputable job in the lead role.  His nuances playing the older Pilgrim were quite well timed in contrast to the young Pilgrim, this being especially impressive considering that Sacks was only 24-years-old at the time of filming.  George Roy Hill as a director has never wooed me to any speakable degree, but he is a solid director, and for that I laud his talents more than someone who tries to thrill you with each and every shot like Terrence Malick.  A director’s job is to select the shots and direct the actors to performances that best suit the story; Roy Hill seems to pass this test with flying colors in each and every one of the films of his I have seen.  Some of the best magic is that which tricks, but doesn’t overwhelm the eye.  The cinematography by Miroslav Ondricek was very pleasant.  Tinged with the grittiness of early 1970s experiments in faster film stock, the naturalness and softness of the light were provocative of this era, one of my favorites in the evolution of the motion picture.

If you loved the book, you will like the movie.  As far as adaptations go, it’s probably one of the better ones.  If you’ve never read the book and plan on never doing so, then well, shame on you, but you’ll probably like the movie too.





The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover (1989) Review

23 05 2012

Copyright 1989 Allarts Cook

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Probably the most universally known of director Peter Greenaway’s films, I happily sat through my second viewing of this picture last night.  Furthermore, I had the pleasure of introducing my girlfriend to a second helping of Greenaway’s bizarre film aesthetic following her original dose with A Zed and Two Noughts several months ago.

An ensemble cast of Richard Bohringer, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren and Alan Howard complete the title characters in order, respectively.  Richard Borst (Bohringer) is the head cook of a restaurant that is co-owned with villainous thief, Albert (Gambon).  About 95% of the story takes place in and around this restaurant over the course (no pun intended) of one week.  Albert, along with his clan of baddies and misfits (including a young Tim Roth), dines and disturbs the restaurant on an almost nightly basis.  His wife, Georgina (Mirren), is brought along reluctantly and bears the brunt of his cruel jokes and boisterous rants.  Michael (Howard) is a regular patron and a book aficionado who has a refined palette and sits at a table just several away from Albert’s raucous party.  He and Georgiana eventually spark a sexual relationship that is fostered and kept secret by Richard and the wait staff.  As their relationship blossoms outside the sexual realm, the dangers of Albert finding out grow until climatic results occur.

Greenaway’s usual motifs are in full force here: nakedness, metaphoric use of color, rotting animals, stylistic camera movements, heavy reliance on and pictorial representation of famous painters; in short, you can’t mistake for a minute that you are watching a Greenaway film.  I say this, however, not as a sign of distaste for his work but as a applause to his artistic style.  Whether you love him or hate him, you have to admit that the man understands and brings the most out of each and every shot.  The final scene of this film, which I won’t spoil for those of you who have not yet seen it, is what I consider pure cinema.  It is perfect, the acting, the direction, the cinematography by Vierny, the sublime score by the wonderful Michael Nyman, production design, everything.  Give me an auteur who can bring the elements of that scene to an entire motion picture and you have a brilliant masterpiece.

Though I have not seen every Greenaway film, this still stands as my favorite thus far.  It is, in my opinion, probably the most accessible to the general public in regards to content and script, but it still has that special element that make it a Greenaway picture.





Dear Zachary: A Letter to His Son About His Father (2008)

11 04 2012

Copyright 2008 MSNBC Films

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Maddie wanted to watch this one on Netflix Instant Watch.  I read the description, and was not at all interested; however, once she started playing it, I found myself straying from the iPad to the television screen within a couple minutes.

Without giving too much of the story away, this film chronicles the journey of documentary filmmaker Kurt Kuenne in compiling video footage of his childhood friend, Dr. Andrew Bagby, who was the victim of a suspicious murder.  Bagby’s assailant was thought to be his estranged girlfriend at the time, Dr. Shirley Turner, 12 years his senior.  After the murder, it was found that she was pregnant with Bagby’s child, Zachary, whose name is where the title derives.  Through interviews with family, friends, colleagues, extended family and others, this film tries to piece together the pieces of Bagby’s life for his young son, as well as analyze the crimes of Shirley Turner.

Kuenne borrows heavily from the style of Errol Morris in his presentation of the facts in this film, and it works wonderfully.  I have always felt the Morris style exudes a sort of narrative progression to real life events that keeps the viewer not only informed, but also entertained and engaged in the subject matter.  There are surprises along the way, and the case becomes more and more involved as the film progresses.  Furthermore, being that the filmmaker was a childhood friend of the victim, this movie carries a very personal and heartfelt vision throughout.  Rather than being just a wallflower to the events, as many documentaries are, Kuenne uncovers elements about a man that was like a brother to him, which makes the filmmaker himself an engaged participant in the story.

This is a beautifully done work that advocates a powerful message.  I will warn that it is almost impossible to watch this film without eliciting a strong emotional reaction.  Even the least emotional of people will likely have a hard time keeping dry eyes through this movie.





A Dangerous Method (2011) Review

2 04 2012

Copyright 2011 Recorded Pictures Company

★ ★ ★

David Cronenberg’s films are, for most people at least, a love it or hate it situation.  Surprisingly, my girlfriend really enjoyed this film despite the fact that she generally abhors anything by Cronenberg; I, on the other hand, am either genuinely engaged or somewhat intrigued by his work.  This film, for me, I found somewhat interesting, and in a first, Maddie enjoyed a Cronenberg film more than I.

Based on a true story, this film analyzes the relationship that develops between famed psychiatrist Carl Jung (Michael Fassbender) and his patient-turned-mistress Sabina Spielrein (Keira Knightley).  Furthermore, the film depicts the initial respect and collaboration between Jung and other famed early 20th century psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (an almost unrecognizable Viggo Mortensen), as well as their eventual falling out.  Throughout the film, many elements of psycho analysis and sexual psychology are interpreted and pondered through the dialog between the primary characters.

This is a smart film, and has a smart script.  The psychological analysis throughout the narrative is interesting, but on the whole, leaves something to be desired in regards to entertainment value.  Fassbender and Mortensen give good performances playing their respective iconic figures, and Knightley, who I am rarely impressed with, let history take precedent and didn’t impress me.  She did well throughout the film holding her Russian accent, but overall, I found her performance wooden and lifeless.  As for being a Cronenberg film, this felt possibly one of the more “normal” of the lot.  The narrative was relatively straight forward and the direction was fairly standard, a sharp contrast to the usual bizarreness of a large body of his work.

If you like psychology and like a “based on a true story” movie, then I could see one finding this film quite enjoyable.  For me, though I am interested in psychology to a degree, the entertainment value was only slightly better than average, which outweighed the intriguing subject matter.





Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011) Review

29 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Studio Canal

★ ★ ★

With the script based on a famous John le Carre novel, the director of Let the Right One In and a cast of some of the most phenomenal British actors working today, I was really looking forward to this film.  Unfortunately, though the overall feel of the film and the performances are spot on, the movie suffers from an intensely complicated and ultimately boring script.

Even after seeing this film, I’m not sure I could give a proper full synopsis.  There are flashbacks that don’t do anything to denote they are flashbacks, characters that are mentioned early on that you don’t find out who they are until way later, other characters that only appear briefly and for no real reason and long soliloquies that help show a strong performance but have no real bearing on the story.  So, for this paragraph, which I usually reserve for a synopsis of the film, I will give a very brief overview of the part of the story that I can soundly report.  George Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired agent for the MI5.  The head of the division during his time, Control (John Hurt), before his departure (or death, not quite sure, maybe both) let it be known that there was a mole in the division.  In hopes of preserving the legacy of his era, Smiley is reinstated to investigate this lead with the help of agent Peter Guilliam (Benedict Cumberbatch) and others.  In his investigation, he unravels secrets and further information to finding the culprit within the division.  Other noted actors in the film include Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, Mark Strong and Toby Jones.

First off, Oldman does give a tremendous performance as Smiley, but when hasn’t Oldman given a tremendous performance?  A chameleon-like actor who has played roles ranging from Sid Vicious to Lee Harvey Oswald to Sirius Black, Oldman is truly one of the best working actors in the industry today, and for me, it is always a pleasure to see him on screen.  Criminally, this was only the first Oscar nomination he has received in all his years as a film actor.  Though he didn’t win, it was long overdue for him to receive a nomination.  The supporting cast mentioned above also do great jobs in their roles, and I really think Tomas Alfredson did a good job with the shot selection and overall direction.  The mood, tone and look of the film in 1960s England was spot on.  Honestly, you ask yourself, how can a movie get this much right and still not be better than just a decent film?  Well, the script and story is the most important part of any film.  In the words of the late great Akira Kurosawa, “With a good script, a good director can produce a masterpiece. With the same script, a mediocre director can produce a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film. For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water. The script must be something that has the power to do this”.





50/50 (2011) Review

28 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Summit Entertainment

★ ★ ★

So, I’ve got this film and two others on the backlog for reviews.  Apologies, for the delays, had a lot going on over the past few days.  Possibly very good things though!  Anyway, 50/50, seems like the jury is split on this film; some reviewers call it one of the best movies of the year, others are more or less underwhelmed.  What was I, you ask?  Definitely on the side of underwhelmed.  This is by no means a bad film, but also by the same token, nowhere near one of the best films of last year.

Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays Adam, a very normal 27 year old working professional, who gets some terrible news at what should be the height of his life.  He has cancer, and only a 50/50 chance of making it through the next year alive.  Seth Rogen plays himself; wait, no his character’s name is Kyle, but in reality it’s just Seth Rogen being himself like he is in every film he appears in.  I think he’s funny, but he has about as much depth as an actor as a jar of peanut butter.  Pretty much the entirety of the film plays out largely how you could imagine being a comedy/drama about a young man getting cancer.  He has his ups, his downs and a lot of emotional tension dealing with the news and the personal troubles it creates, and for the comedy element there are funny and amusing lines exchanged between him and best friend Kyle.

This is just a decent film.  It doesn’t break any huge barriers down; it only works decently as a comedy, and it only works decently as a drama.  I wasn’t impressed with the direction, the story was only average, the acting was OK and as with most of these types of films, there was nothing of note with the production value or cinematography.  I’m glad I saw this film, it was an enjoyable way to spend the evening, but don’t expect a life changing viewing experience with this one.





The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) Review

21 03 2012

Copyright 2011 Columbia Pictures

★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

After seeing the Swedish versions of all three of the movies based on the Millennium Trilogy by late author Stieg Larsson, I was compelled to see how the same subject matter was handled in director David Fincher’s hands.  This film, based on the first book of the trilogy which carries the same title, was by far my favorite of the original Swedish films.  Honestly, I really didn’t care for The Girl who Played with Fire and The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest; to me, they were boring and lackluster in terms of story and development.  This original film, however, I quite and enjoyed, and honestly, I think I enjoyed Fincher’s adaptation here even better.

Mikael Blomkvist (Daniel Craig) is a Swedish journalist who has just lost an absorbent sum of money in a libel suit over an article that appeared in his magazine Millennium that accuses big business owner Hans-Erik Wennerstrom (Ulf Friberg) of criminal activity.  Around the same time, Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the patriarch of Vanger Industries, another major Swedish corporation, has hired hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to provide a detailed profile on Blomkvist.  Social outcast Salander delivers her report and returns to her personal life, which is plagued with the stroke of her guardian, which in turn, requires her to obtain a new guardian in Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen).  Bjurman, however, is a rapist and a pig, and demands sexual favors in turn for supplying Salander her own money.  Salander is luckily able to overcome this with a deservedly brutal vengeance.  As for Blomkvist, he is subsequently hired by Henrik Vanger to officially write his memoir, but in reality, investigate a nearly 40-year-old case that revolves around his niece, Harriet, who disappeared strangely from the family house all those years prior.  Eventually, Blomkvist hires Salander as his assistant and the two delve deeper and deeper into the lives of the strange Vanger family and a case that reveals new evidence at every turn.

As for why I enjoyed this film more than the original Swedish version, I’m sure production value had something to do with it, but even more so, I think it is Fincher’s style as a director.  For me, this film felt more connected and entertaining, as well as propelled at a much better pace.  That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy the original adaptation, as I did very much so, but something about this film kept me more intrigued and left me with an even more fulfilled viewing experience.  The story seems to flow better, the editing has a wonderful pace, the direction and acting is solid, cinematography very cold and grey appropriately, and the soundtrack by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is hauntingly beautiful.

It is not clear as to whether the sequels will be made in an Americanized version or not.  In interviews, director David Fincher seems content with where this film concluded and doesn’t seem to feel that the sequels are necessary, though he did mention being interested in directing them if they were indeed green lit.  In my opinion, the sequels were much weaker than the original story and, like Fincher believes, they are not necessary in regards to having a solid conclusion of this first, and best, entry into the Millennium Trilogy.  If they do make the two sequels, however, I hope they can be as good as this one.  Possibly some liberties could be taken in the script to make them more entertaining than what I found the original source material.








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