Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Hey, I Finally Saw…ROUNDERS

Now, when I’ve added to this feature in the past it was usually because I caught up with a classic, like the original TRUE GRIT or ERASERHEAD. But this time out, I’m just catching up with a movie that I’d been meaning to see since it came out fifteen years ago, I just never got around to it.

So now, mainly because I noticed that it’s just about to expire on Netflix Instant, I finally watched John Dahl’s 1998 poker-driven crime drama ROUNDERS.

But hold on, maybe it’s more than just a movie I missed - the A.V. Club’s Scott Tobias wrote an entry for it in their New Cult Canon series back in 2008.

Tobias argues convincingly that ROUNDERS is an extremely influential film that “lit the fuse on a multi-billion-dollar industry.” He points to the plethora of online poker sites that have endless usernames and/or avatars referencing the film as proof of its huge popularity among players.

For my first time watching it though, it felt less like an iconic celebration of the underworld of high-stakes gambling, and more like a slightly better than average late ‘90s crime drama that effectively maximizes on the then budding stardom of Matt Damon and Edward Norton. Both were fresh faced 20-somethings at the time, who had both gotten acclaim and in the case of Damon an Academy Award (shared with Ben Affleck for the GOOD WILL HUNTING screenplay).

In ROUNDERS, which is defined by the Urban Dictionary as “a player who knows all the angles and earns his living at the poker table,” there’s a familiar dynamic at work as Damon is, in a role similar to his working class but brilliant minded character in GOOD WILL HUNTING, the good guy trying to go straight, and Norton is the bad influence who wants Damon to get back in the game.

Damon, whose voice-over narration is overly prominent, has good reasons for turning his back on the lifestyle – he lost his entire life savings of $30,000 to a ridiculously accented Russian gangster played by a very hammy John Malkovich, and he promised he wouldn’t go near a card game again to his girlfriend (Gretchen Mol), who he is now in law school with.

Still, you know that he won’t be able to resist the lure of the game. Otherwise they’d be no movie, right? The basic premise boils down to the slimy Norton, who is actually nicknamed “Worm,” being heavily in debt, and his old partner Damon dusting off his mad poker skills to help his friend. This makes for some great gaming scenes, particularly one with the duo trying to hoodwink a room full of hard ass New Jersey State Troopers.

The second hour of ROUNDERS which begins with the nagging Mol leaving Damon to his gambling devices, is consumed by these tense gaming scenarios yet despite its predictable plotting, it still pulled me in.

I wasn’t interested as much in Damon’s predicament of choosing the proper father figure - Martin Landau as a muddled but wise professor and John Turturro as a somewhat beat down old-time rounder have hazy scenes in which they somewhat compete for the part, I think - than I was into the bad friend who manipulates his good friend basics this film nails.

Fanke Janssen is on the sidelines as a possible new love interest for Damon, but the movie doesn't seem too interested in that. The poker-powered bromance is what gets the spotlight.

In retrospect, the film foreshadows the relationship between Norton and Brad Pitt in FIGHT CLUB, which would be on Norton’s roster after his turn in AMERICAN HISTORY X (the era was busy for the actor). But if you’ve seen FIGHT CLUB you know what that relationship turned out to be.

ROUNDERS’ had a palpable impact on waves of impressionable poker players, many of who are no longer lulling about casinos or sleazy backrooms, but now playing high or low stake games comfortably at home in thousands of rooms online. For all you cyber-gamers out there, here are some of the better rooms available if you want to try your hand at some virtual Texas Hold’em, so you can sample the game yourself that provides the bookend scenes in which Damon goes up against Malkovich.

It may overly glorify the rush that makes a talented player like Damon’s character unable to quit the game, but it captures that pure excitement (Damon even regrettably tells Mol that he felt alive for the first time in 9 months when he sat back down at the table) so well that ROUNDERS may be the ultimate double edged sword of gambling movies.

ROUNDERS, which I’m glad I finally saw, is available for one more day on Netflix Instant (it expires at the end of February 1st).

More later…

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Film Babble Blog Top 10 Movies Of 2012

Yeah, I know it’s the end of January, but I had a bunch of movies to catch up with so back off! 2012 wasn’t really a bad year for film, but it was far from fantastic. Looking at the top ten highest grossing films of the year, I see that all of them were franchise entries.

Maybe 2012 was the most formulaic year for film ever, I dunno, but I do know that there were some worthwhile films that stood out from the usual glut of super hero sequels and here they are - Film Babble Blog’s Top 10:

1. THE MASTER (Dir. Paul Thomas Anderson)

The immaculate imagery provided by cinematographer Mihai Malaimare Jr., the layered construction of Anderson’s screenplay, and the powerful performances by Philip Seymour Hoffman, Joaquin Phoenix, and Amy Adams (who ought to win the Oscar just for having to sit nude except for a pregnant-belly prosthetic in a central surreal scene), all make up the most memorably stirring movie of the year. Shame on the Academy for not nominating it for Best Picture. Read my review

2. HOLY MOTORS (Dir. Leos Carax)

The freakiest film of the year is also one of the most invigorating. French film maker Carax gives us Denis Lavant as the eccentric Mr. Oscar, whom we watch being driven around Paris by his associate Céline (Édith Scob) in a white limousine that functions as his dressing room to various odd jobs. And I do mean odd. Read my full review here.

3. ARGO (Dir. Ben Affleck) 

Another shameful omission by the Academy was Affleck for Best Director for this superb thriller, but some are predicting that it will win Best Picture to make up for it. I would be cool with that because his terrific take on the joint CIA-Canadian secret operation that used the ruse of a sci-fi film production to rescue a group of American diplomats from Iran’s clutches in 1980 is well deserving. Read my full review

4. BERNIE (Dir. Richard Linklater) 

Linklater’s 15th film takes the true story of a Texas mortician (played to perfection by Jack Black) who kills a wealthy widow (a sharp harpie depiction by Shirley MacClaine), and makes a matter-of-fact comic docudrama out of it that really works. Read my full review here.

5. SKYFALL (Dir. Sam Mendes)

Who expected that the return of the iconic superspy after a four year hiatus would yield an Oscar caliber James Bond movie? I sure didn’t. I’m happy to have it as Daniel Craig’s third outing as 007 isn’t just one of the best of the series, it’s one of the best full throttle action films in years. Read my full review.

For my full reviews of the rest – please click on the highlighted titles:

6. LINCOLN (Dir. Steven Spielberg)

7. SAMSARA (Dir. Ron Fricke)

8. MOONRISE KINGDOM (Dir. Wes Anderson)

9. LOOPER (Dir. Rian Johnson)

10. ZERO DARK THIRTY (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow)

Now bring on 2013! Again, I know it’s a month into it, but go with me on this. 

More later…

Friday, January 25, 2013

The Way Too Dark, Dingy, And Disorienting HANSEL & GRETEL: WITCH HUNTERS

Opening today at a multiplex near you:

(Dir. Tommy Wirkola, 2013)

Warning: This review may contain Spoilers!

From the same lack of inspiration that brought you ABRAHAM LINCOLN: VAMPIRE HUNTER comes this muddled mixture of the action genre with fairy tale mythology that, of course, is available as an IMAX 3D experience. I so wish I had the option of seeing a 2D advance screening, but I had to don the glasses and endure imagery that was way too dark, dingy, with tons of disorienting pans.

The story and the characters are just as dismal. Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton (best known for QUANTUM OF SOLACE and TAMARA DREW so she’s not very well known) are the title characters who we first meet as children (Cedric Eich and Alea Sophia Boudodimos respectively) going through the motions of the original Brothers Grimm tale.

After that cold opening, a cardboard-looking animated title sequence filled with fiery in-your-face CGI brings us up to speed that Hansel and his sister Gretel grow up to take on witch hunting full-time, with newspaper headlines praising their work along the way.

With anachronistic American accents, Renner and Arterton show up in a small German village to save a young woman (Pihla Viitala) suspected of being a witch from being burnt to death. Anyone who’s seen MONTY PYTHON AND THE HOLY GRAIL will know how villagers in Medieval times react to possible witches, and these folks are especially riled up as they are goaded on by the evil Sherriff Berringer (Peter Stormare – no stranger to this setting as he was in Terry Gilliam’s THE BROTHERS GRIMM).

Arterton head butts Stormare, Viitala is freed, and the brother-sister duo start to investigate the abduction of several children from the town by witches. This plot serves just as a clothesline to hang together a bunch of annoyingly quick cut fight scenes that look terrible and fail to deliver any excitement.

Famke Janssen plays the real villain of a sorceress who can morph her face from a normal human look to a bad witch make-up job (go from zero to witch in 10 seconds?) since Stormare gets his head stomped on by what turns out to be a friendly troll in one of the film’s many gratuitous gore shots.

Of all the failed factors that make up this movie – the awful screenplay, the tedious tone, the overwrought score by Atli Örvarsson (IRON MAN), the unconvincing acting, the poorly plotted procedural, the clunky humor, and the addition of heavy artillery for the machine gun fire ‘em up finale – the only commendable factor present is that it’s only 88 minutes long.

More later...

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Trailer For The Coen Brothers' New Film INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS Now Online

I don't normally post trailers for upcoming movies, but when it's Film Babble Blog favorites the Coen brothers, I had to make an exception. The trailer, for INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS, came to my attention when it was shared on Facebook, from the A.V. Club's Coming Distractions department, by William Fonvielle of the new blog Filmvielle who wrote “The Coen Bros have a new movie. That is what you need to know.” So here it is:

It reminds me of HARRY AND TONTO - another movie where a man carries an orange cat across country. Hey, it won Art Carney an Oscar, so maybe that's a good sign for Oscar Isaac. Here's that trailer too:

INSIDE LLEWYN DAVIS is scheduled for release in February.

More later...

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Oscar Nominations, Upcoming movies, & Other Whatnot

When the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month one of the biggest surprises was that Ben Affleck wasn’t nominated for Best Director for ARGO. Critics are theorizing that this may help it win Best Picture to make up for the snub, but to me it’s just another factor in what looks like one of the most unpredictable Academy Awards programs ever.

For instance, try to predict who will win for Best Supporting Actor - Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Tommy Lee Jones, or Christoph Waltz. They’ve all won Oscars before! I guess this will take the edge off for all five nominees because no matter who wins, the other four can’t really be that disappointed. They’ll each think something like “it’s not like I don’t already have one.”

There’s also the interesting inclusion of Michael Haneke’s AMOUR as both a Best Picture and Best Foreign Language Picture of the Year nominee. I’ve just seen the movie and am happy it got nominated, but it looks like a real long shot for it to win Best Picture. Not sure if that means it’s a shoo-in for Best Foreign film though. I’ll still make predictions when the day is closer (the Oscar ceremony will take place on February 24th), but I bet I’ll get more wrong than ever before. 

In other movie news, this is a pretty slow season for quality movies but there are some that I’m looking forward to: Fisher Stevens’ STAND UP GUYS starring Al Pacino, Alan Arkin, and Christopher Walken and Dave Grohl’s documentary SOUND CITY (a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast with Grohl really whet my appetite for this one).

Speaking of documentaries, I recently saw an interesting one by Douglas Tirola called ALL IN: THE POKER MOVIE (2009). Come to think of it, this poker movie reminds me that I never saw ROUNDERS. As it is expiring from Netflix Instant at the beginning of next month, I better get on that.

More later…

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Releasing today on DVD:

(Dir. Marius A. Markevičius, 2012) *

In Marius A. Markevičius’ debut documentary, THE OTHER DREAM TEAM, mostly set during the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall leading up to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, the Baltic state of Lithuania breaks free from Soviet rule with the help of basketball and the Grateful Dead. 

You read that right - following several decades of devastating oppression in which Lithuanian athletes were forced to compete for the USSR, the countries’ top basketball players were able to compete under their own flag in the ‘92 summer games, aided by some financial assistance from that aforementioned famous psychedelic San Francisco band.

As the film’s title suggests, the Lithuanian basketball team was the underdog antithesis of the all star 1992 American Olympic team that included Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley, and Magic Johnson. The Lithuanians didn’t win against the Americans, but they did defeat the Russian Unified team for the Bronze Medal.

Valdas Adankus, President of Lithuania from ’98-’09 puts it like this: “This was not only a pride, it was an open war. We are not going to accept, no way, no time, ever, the occupation of Lithuania. We are fighting the enemy, not in the field with bombs, machine guns, or planes, but fighting them on a basketball court.”

Through vivid testimony (most subtitled) from star Lithuanian players Valdemaras Chomičius, Arvydas Sabonis, Šarūnas Marčiulionis and Rimas Kurtinaitis, alongside sports commentators such as Jim Lampley, David Remnick Chris Mullin, and Bill Walton, we learn how the stage was set for the team and the, now independent, countries’ victory.

The story of recent NBA draftee Jonas Valanciunas, who was born in ’92, is interwoven through the film, to show us how far they’ve come from the days where Lithuanian players could only travel to the U.S. with KGB escort, and players would fear that they if they accepted a draft from an American team, they would be put away into a Soviet prison camp, something the extremely talented player Sabonis worried about in ’86 when selected by the Portland Trail Blazers.

In 1991, haven finally been granted freedom from Communism after nearly half a century, Lithuania is bankrupt, unable to afford to send their beloved basketball team to the Olympics.

That’s where the Grateful Dead comes in. Members of the longtime hippy rock band (Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Mickey Hart, Bill Kreutzmann, and Phil Lesh), who were all big basketball fans, read an article about the Lithuanians’ plight written by San Francisco Chronicle beat writer George Shirk, and decided to kick in funding, through their charitable non-profit organization, the Rex Foundation, and provided the team with a supply of tie-dye uniforms with their distinctive skeleton logo.

You don’t have to be a basketball fan or a Deadhead to appreciate seeing the Lithuanian team walking out onto the court at Barcelona ’92 dressed in tie-dye t-shirts and shorts, some with dreads, to pay tribute to the band that helped get them there. They became known as “Team Tie-Dye,” and the slogan “Better Dead Than Red,” accompanied them everywhere.

Drummer Mickey Hart, the only member of the Dead interviewed for the documentary, notes “They could’ve been laughed at, you know, if they weren’t as good as they were, they would’ve looked like fools wearing tie-dye, but we had a championship gold team flying their colors.”

Despite some unnecessary pop culture cutaways in the buildup to make its Cold War case, writer/director Markevičius’ first feature-length film briskly assembles an extensive blend of arresting anecdotes, archival footage, and photos, sprinkled with new location shots of Kaunas, Lithuania to entertainingly tell its uplifting story.

Special Features: Commentary by filmmaker Marius Markevicius and producer/co-writer Jon Weinbach, and a featurette of a Q&A with Markevicius and Weinbach.

* This review originally appeared in the Nov. 9th, 2012 edition of the Raleigh News & Observer.

More later...

Friday, January 11, 2013

The Hunt For Osama Bin Laden Is Intensely Told In ZERO DARK THIRTY

Opening today in the Triangle area:

ZERO DARK THIRTY (Dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)

The buzz surrounding Kathryn Bigelow’s follow-up to her Oscar-winning THE HURT LOCKER is mixed with criticism of its supposed pro torture stance, but these protests (mainly from folks who haven’t seen it) are really small minded when considering the big complex picture of ZERO DARK THIRTY.

I never felt like Bigelow’s film, written by THE HURT LOCKER’s Oscar-winning screenwriter Mark Boal, was celebrating torture; I felt like the film was a challenging depiction of the decade-long hunt for Osama bin Laden that had to go to some very dark places to tell its story.

But let’s start at the beginning.

After a dark screen accompanies a collage of sound bites related to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the film proper opens two years after 2001 at a C.I.A. “black site” with a few torture scenes that will make you as uncomfortable as Jessica Chastain is as an intelligence operative watching as a fellow officer (Jason Clarke) roughly interrogates an al Qaeda detainee (Reda Kateb).

This can be hard to watch, excruciating even, especially when Clarke, who repeatedly says “If you lie to me, I hurt you,” brings on the water boarding.

This intense torture results in one of the first clues in tracking down Bin Laden: the alias of the terrorist mastermind’s personal courier. Despite this lead, years pass (the film is inconsistent in telling us what year it is - after 2008, it seems, they assume we can figure it out), and Chastain comes up against resistance from her superiors (mainly Kyle Chandler as CIA Islamabad Station Chief), who want her to concentrate more on Homeland Security.

Speaking of Homeland, there are stretches of this movie that recall the Showtime series. Like Claire Danes’ character on that show, Chastain has no life except her job (or obsession) of hunting down terrorists. The characters are different, as here we get no background of mental instability, and Chastain would never sleep with the enemy.

As in THE HURT LOCKER, every explosion has a strong emotional impact. Particularly the 2008 Islamabad Marriott Hotel bombing which violently interrupts a meal Chastain is having with the closest she has to an actual friend in the movie - N.C. native Jennifer Ehle as a fellow analyst.

I don’t recall ex-president George W. Bush’s name being spoken in the film, and the shift of administrations is only reflected on a background T.V. broadcasting an interview by 60 Minutes’ journalist Steve Croft with Barack Obama, in which the president states “The United States does not torture.” So there’s no White House situation room point of view here.

Chastain and company’s initial lead finally pays off, when they follow Bin Laden’s suspected courier (Tushaar Mehra) to a large compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. Bin Laden can’t be proven to be hiding at the compound, so nothing can be done immediately. 

After more surveillance, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta (James Gandofini) asks Chastain and co. how certain they are of Bin Laden’s presence at the location, the others say around 70%, but Chastain replies: “100 percent, he's there. OK, 95 because I know certainty freaks you guys out. But it's 100.”

Unless you really aren’t informed of world events the last few years, it’s obvious that the movie’s climax will be the raid by Navy SEALs on the compound. One of the SEALs, Parks and Recreation’s Chris Pratt is skeptical of the mission, but the Squadron leader (Joel Edgerton) has more faith in Chastain’s confidence.

The raid, largely seen through the glowing green of the Seals’ night-vision goggles, ups the thriller quotient of the film, even when you know the intricate details of how it all ends.

The long, but not too long, ZERO DARK THIRTY was just nominated for 5 Oscars including Best Picture, but since Bigelow wasn’t nominated for Best Director it’s very doubtful that it will take home the big prize (I could see Chastain possibly winning though). That doesn’t take anything away from this film’s immersive plotting, excellent performances, and intense power. So don’t let the politics of the torture argument talk you out of seeing one of the year’s best films.

More later...

Tuesday, January 08, 2013

Julianne Moore Takes On Sarah Palin in GAME CHANGE Out Today On Blu Ray/DVD

(Dir. Jay Roach, 2012)

Former Governor of Alaska turned Fox News pundit Sarah Palin has said that she wouldn’t watch this HBO telefilm, releasing today on Blu ray and DVD, but if she ever changes her mind I’m sure she’ll have an extremely surreal experience. 
Especially when watching scenes that show Julianne Moore’s pitch perfect Palin reacting negatively to seeing Tina Fey parody her on SNL

GAME CHANGE, based on the 2010 book by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, focuses on the 2008 presidential campaign from the point of view of John McCain’s (Ed Harris) staff, particularly the involvement of Woody Harrelson as Republican Party campaign strategist Steve Schmidt. The film begins with Schmidt being asked by Anderson Cooper after the fact, appearing via flawlessly inserted original interview footage, “If you had to do it over again, would you have her on the ticket?”

As the respectfully depicted McCain, Harris makes no attempt to mimic the candidate’s cadences (somewhat reminiscent of James Cromwell’s George Bush Sr. in Oliver Stone’s W), and that’s wise – two heavily accented impressions would be a bit much for this movie.

Intended as a behind the scenes look at the plotting, worrying, and tense talks that the McCain crew went through as a result of picking Palin for the pivotal Vice Presidential running mate position that, as history tells us, was not a successful decision. Palin’s greatest hits in the public arena are well depicted too: her disastrous Katie Couric interview (more expertly inserted video), her surprising performance in the debate with Joe Biden (some good humor here about her trying not to say O’Biden in the rehearsals), her accusing Obama with “palling around with a terrorist,” and the well documented incident of her being blocked from giving a concession speech on election night.

Its director Jay Roach and writer Danny Strong’s sharp almost satirical take on the material, which was also present in their previous 2005 HBO telefilm RECOUNT (about the 2000 Bush/Gore race), that made Roach’s 2012 Will Ferrell/Zach Galifianakis political spoof THE CAMPAIGN disappointing. Goes to show that the truth is often much more comical and absurd than what comedy writers can come up with.*

That said, GAME CHANGE largely plays Palin’s story straight. Harrelson and Harris don’t act like they’re in a farce; they both give believable grounded performances. Moore can’t help but pile on the ridiculousness in her portrayal, because, you know, the real Palin could be pretty damn ridiculous. Also accurately silly, are the sound-bites that come from her proto Tea Party supporters like one lady who says: “There’s something about her, she’s talking to me, and nobody talks to me!”

A real stand-out in the cast is Sarah Paulson as McCain/Palin campaign senior adviser Nicolle Wallace, who is on to Palin’s airheaded inexperience early on, and has a great comeback to Palin’s whining about understanding what Hillary (Clinton) meant by finding her own voice: Wallace: “Yeah, because you’re just like Hillary!”

Well made, well written, and very well acted, GAME CHANGE entertainingly captures one of the craziest and most memorable campaigns ever, reminding us of how weird it all was. I’m happy with the outcome of that strange race, which, it must be admitted, was an extremely surreal experience for everybody.

Special Features: A couple of watchable though hardly essential featurettes, “Creating a Candidate,” and “Game Change: The Phenomenon.” These extras are mainly good for footage of the real Palin that should show you how dead-on Moore’s portrayal is. 

* THE CAMPAIGN was written by a couple of guys associated with the HBO show Eastbound & Down - Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell.
More later…

Friday, January 04, 2013

NOT FADE AWAY: The Film Babble Blog Review

Now opening exclusively in the Triangle area at Crossroads 20 in Cary:

NOT FADE AWAY (Dir. David Chase, 2012)

David Chase’s debut as director, and first project since his seminal HBO show The Sopranos, is a tribute to the era in which the British Invasion led by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones hit America hard.

It was a time when tons of teenagers dreamed of forming a rock band that would have huge hit singles, tour the world, and be chased by crowds of adoring girls. This is the story of a New Jersey teenager (John Magaro), getting together with his friends to reach for that dream, but they never make it big. As a young female narrator (Meg Guzulescu, who plays Magaro’s sister), who pops up very sparingly, says: “Like most bands, you've never heard of them.”

Although Chase opens the film with the famous meeting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards (Dominic Sheerwood and Alfie Stewart) on a London train chatting about Chicago blues records, his is a personal film about the people listening who could only fantasize about having that iconic power; the impressionable teens watching life changing TV appearances of their heroes (there are several interspersed bits of black and white footage shown full screen including the legendary appearance of the Stones on the ABC variety show The Hollywood Palace in which they were mocked by host Dean Martin).

Our young protagonist, Magaro is obsessed with the revolutionary rock of the times. His change of wardrobe and hairstyle in the span of the 4-5 years this film covers makes him look more and more like Bob Dylan, something his sullen demeanor also calls attention to.

Magaro becomes the drummer for the never really named band (the soundtrack lists them as The Twylight Zones but that’s never made clear in the film), which also includes Will Brill and Jack Huston. At one early gig at a party, Magaro takes over on lead vocal for the Stones’ “Time is on My Side,” and catches the eye of Bella Hethcote as a girl he’d been crushing on since high school. Some conflict arises when Magaro suggests that he would sing one of their songs better than Huston, and before long he’s the lead vocalist and Huston is out.

Back on the homefront, the generation gap widens as Magaro’s father (Chase’s Sopranos star James Gandolfini) disapproves greatly of his son’s rock ‘n roll lifestyle in kitchen-set scenes that remind me of the incredibly touching, rambling monologues Bruce Springsteen would deliver between songs onstage in the ‘80s about his troubled relationship with his father back during the same period this film takes place.

Springsteen is an apt analogy as E Street Band member (and another Sopranos connection) Steve Van Zandt is executive produced, supervised the soundtrack, and wrote one of the band’s few originals “The St. Valentine's Day Massacre,” as well as played on it, and their other songs too.

The Stones dominate the soundtrack, but Chase and Van Sandt touch on a lot of crucial music including old blues artists like Lead Belly, Bo Diddley, and Robert Johnson, mixed with ‘60s pop like the Small Faces, the Moody Blues, and the Left Banke. Of course, the Beatles and Dylan can’t help but pop up.

Director/screenwriter Chase sets a tone for many scenes that can make it easy to pinpoint what’s happening next, and there are one too point plot-points that never add up (Gandolfini reveals he has cancer at one point but nothing really comes from it), but the naturalistic dialogue along with the moody engulfing atmosphere, enhanced grandly by the music, made me feel like I was in these peoples’ uncertain world.

Seeing Magaro’s band find their footing practicing in the basement, gigging at parties, and recording demos at a studio is affecting even when you know they’re never going to make it. A rude awakening for the band comes in the form of Brad Garrett as a New York music business bigwig who tells them that they’re not ready; that they need to pay their dues by playing clubs full-time for 6 months.

If you’ve even been in a band, or known people in a band, or if you are into bands at all, then you’re likely to “get” this movie.

Otherwise your reaction might be like Magaro’s when going with his girlfriend Hethcoteto to see Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1966 pop art classic BLOW UP: “What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens.”

Director/screenwriter Chase’s NOT FADE AWAY, which is a lifted title from a '50s Buddy Holly classic that has been countlessly covered, doesn’t overly romanticize the era, it just simply conveys the excitement mixed with confusion with being so swept up in the changing times that one can, like Magaro hitchhiking down L.A.'s Sunset Strip at midnight at the film’s end, find their lives blowing in the wind.

More later...

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Holiday Season Cinema Roundup 2012 Part 2

Continuing Film Babble Blog's end of the year roundup (check out Part 1 here), we now take a look at several more movies currently playing this holiday season:

LES MISÉRABLES (Dir. Tom Hooper) 

I was surprised at how many of the songs that I was familiar with in this adaptation of the wildly popular musical based on the 1862 Victor Hugo novel. I had forgotten that a long time ago an ex-girlfriend had the CD set of the Original Broadway Cast Recording from the late '80s, so much of it came flooding back as the film unfolded on the screen.

As my memories and the movie coalesced, I took in this French revolution era tale about Hugh Jackman as an escaped convict, who after becoming mayor of a small town, agrees to take care of deceased factory worker Anne Hathaway’s daughter (played by Isabelle Allen as a child; Amanda Seyfried as an adult). As sleazy innkeepers, Helena Bonham Carter and Sacha Baron-Cohen bring on the bawdy and steal the movie whenever they appear.

Jackman, Hathaway, and Seyfried, who all sing their parts live, are in fine voice, but Russell Crowe, as a ruthless policeman who’s hunting Jackman, has a rough warble that can be painful to endure - especially when the songs go on and on, which they often do. Hooper’s epic production, which clocks in at 157 minutes, wonderfully wallows in the muck of its dark, grotesque imagery, but its messiness can be overwhelming at times. Folks who aren’t fans of the musical, or musicals in general, will find it hard to take, but for the most part, I took it just fine.

JACK REACHER (Dir. Christopher McQuarrie) 

Looks like Tom Cruise wants another franchise as this is an adaptation of one of seventeen in a series of novels by Lee Child. This action thriller formula is competently constructed, but its story - Cruise as an ex-army military police investigator tries to get to the bottom of a case involving a trained military sniper who shot five random people - isn't very compelling. 

Some excitement is there in a few set-pieces, but its climax containing a shoot-out at a construction site, only hammers home how routine a genre exercise it is. Still, Cruise fans should love it as he makes a convincing unshakable badass, and Werner Herzog makes a great villain. Read my full review here.

THIS IS 40 (Dir. Judd Apatow)

Judd Apatow’s glorified home movie is his third film to feature his wife (Leslie Mann) and kids (daughters Maude and Iris), so you know he thinks they’re funny. To his credit, for a lot of its running time (another long one at 134 min) they are funny, but this is a big sloppy comic drama with too many storylines that never really get resolved. Paul Rudd and Mann, reprising their married couple roles from KNOCKED UP, have good chemistry together, and Albert Brooks, as Rudd’s father dealing with new triplets, is highly amusing, so there’s enough here to satisfy most comedy fans. Folks who aren’t fans of heavy amounts of profanity, or Apatow’s brand of man-boy humor in general may want to skip it however. Read my full review.

(Dir. Joe Wright) 

Leo Tolstoy's 1868 novel has been adapted many many times, but Wright, in the third of his “literary trilogy” with Keira Knightly, has a meta take on the material involving setting the late 19th-century Russian story in a lavish old theater that evolves within the production into whatever backdrop is needed. Knightly, as the title character, works around the ropes, pulleys, curtains, footlights, and appropriate props, to portray a virtuous woman in a loveless marriage to an imperial minister (a balding, bearded, and quite boring Jude Law) who has an affair with Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a dashing cavalry officer. It can get a bit strained at times in its second half, but Wright's inventive reworking of the well worn material makes it recommendable. Read my full review here.

Well, that's it for this not bad Holiday season. By the way, I appeared on a Special Christmas Edition of fellow Raleigh, N.C. based critic Craig D. Lindsey's podcast Muhf***as I Know last week. We recorded a commentary (of sorts) for what Craig calls “one of the shittiest sex comedies ever made: THE HAPPY HOOKER GOES TO HOLLYWOOD (1980). The movie is available on Netflix Instant, so queue it up, go here, and listen to us babble all over it.

More later...