Thursday, April 29, 2010

Penny Thoughts: April 23-29

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) ****
Director: Chris Columbus
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniels Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Richard Harris, Robbie Coltrane, Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, Ian Hart, Tom Felton, Matthew Lewis, John Hurt, Richard Griffiths, Fiona Shaw

Yes, that says “Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone”, not “Sorcerer’s”. For some reason my DVD copy of the movie has the book’s original title, rather than the dumbed down for American audiences version. This is fitting since the studio, at great risk during these early films in the series, didn’t dumb the actual movies down for American audiences. It’s quite astounding that the studio allowed the filmmakers to really take their time with these first few films to really establish character and setting, which is so important in the Harry Potter universe.

Clocking in at two and a half hours (not including end credits), I think it was a risk to trust audiences would sit through that length for what many considered a kid’s movie. Watching it for the first time with my own children, however, I find it really isn’t so much a kid’s movie, as it’s a movie with kids as the main characters. I think it’s a little much for my 4-year-old, but it’s right up my 8-year-old’s alley. I believe the character he identifies with the most is Hermione. He does so love to tell us all the facts he reads in his books.

The Slammin’ Salmon (2009) **
Director: Kevin Heffernan
Writers: Broken Lizard
Starring: Michael Clarke Duncan, Steve Lemme, Jay Chandrasekhar, Erik Stolhanske, Paul Soter, Kevin Heffernan, April Bowlby, Cobie Smulders, Carrie Clifford, Will Forte, Lance Henriksen, Jim Gaffigan, Morgan Fairchild, Vivica A. Fox

I’ll admit I’m a fan of the comedy stylings of Broken Lizard. Their “Super Troopers” is one of the best stoner comedies I’ve seen, and “Beerfest” makes for a solid spoof of all underdog sports team flicks. I was disappointed to find that their latest workplace comedy found itself sliding through its theatrical run nearly unnoticed to be released almost directly to DVD. But upon viewing it, I think I can see why. Not only is it their weakest entry under the Broken Lizard banner—their involvement in the atrocious “The Dukes of Hazzard” luckily was not done under their banner—but it seems to have little relevance with just about anything. There is still a good deal of charm to the work they do here, skewering the notion of former athletes going into the restaurant business. But this effort lacks the sharp wit and biting sarcasm of their previous efforts. Much of what is on screen is just goofiness. Still the burn victim waitress desperately trying to get people to order food from her makes for a pretty funny gag.

Blue Velvet (1986) **
Director/Writer: David Lynch
Starring: Kyle MacLachlan, Isabella Rossellini, Dennis Hopper, Laura Dern, Dean Stockwell

I saw David Lynch’s “Blue Veltvet” a very long time ago and didn’t like it. At the time I had not developed my cinematic vocabulary to the degree that I could understand just what he was trying to accomplish with the film. Now, I’m versed enough in cinema that I can tell you exactly why I still don’t like it. It’s boring. I thought for all these years that David Lynch’s weirdness somehow clouded for me what was appealing about this movie to so many film lovers. But the story is not complicated. It’s simple even. The strangeness is just decoration for a very basic coming of age story. While the film is beautifully photographed by Frederick Elmes, not all the oddities Lynch can dream up can save it from the flat script. It’s just dull.

Convoy (1978) **
Director: Sam Peckinpah
Writers: Bill L. Norton, C.W. McCall (song)
Starring: Kris Kristopherson, Ali MacGraw, Ernest Borgnine, Burt Young, Madge Sinclair, Franklyn Ajaye, Seymour Cassel

I read somewhere that this was a hard to find movie, but that it was available at Netflix. So I queued it. Coming in well after Peckinpah’s prime, “Convoy” is a silly late-70s trucker trend cash in for the once great filmmaker. Yet it still retains the dying cowboy breed and anti-authoritarian themes of all his best films. It even includes a couple of his favorite actors, Kris Kristopherson and Ernest Borgnine, as the hero and villain respectively. But if you want to see what Peckinpah was all about, I’d suggest starting about a decade earlier.

The Boondock Saints (1999) ***
Director/Writer: Troy Duffy
Starring: Willem Dafoe, Sean Patrick Flanery, Norman Reedus, David Della Rocco, Billy Connolly, Bob Marley

I’m a decade late coming to this cult favorite. It’s easy to see where the appeal of this movie lies. It has a very original way of presenting its material by showing the audience in flashback sequences what a loony, but very good FBI agent pieces together about a series of gangland murders that occur in the Boston area. There are many entertaining moments and certainly some unique sequences, but the whole show is really stolen by Willem Dafoe’s performance as the FBI agent. Without it, I’m not sure the movie would work. While his is one of the most original characters to grace the screen, the remaining cast of characters is made up of unbelievably incompetent detectives and gangsters, and the three anti-heroes, who are made up of two Irish brothers indistinguishable from each other and hordes of other anti-heroes and a loud-mouthed annoying Italian that you’d rather see get wacked as early on as he was supposed to be than survive through the entire plot while holding the other two back. It’s Dafoe who makes the whole thing worthwhile.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ebert Thoughts 2010

Pink Floyd: The Wall (1982) ****
Director: Alan Parker
Writers: Roger Waters, David Gilmour, Bob Ezrin
Starring: Bob Geldof, Christine Hargreaves, James Laurenson, Eleanor David, Kevin McKeon, Bob Hoskins, Jenny Wright

Roger Ebert’s description of this film for Ebertfest makes it sound terrible, but he defends that by saying the film is exactly what the material demands. I wouldn’t really dispute what he has to say about the movie. I suppose it is a difficult one, but to this fan “Pink Floyd: The Wall” is like the ultimate music video. It’s filled with original images and tells a definitive story to go along with a landmark rock album. It use of animation during fantasy sequences is one of the early influences for me of animation as an adult art form. The film is brutal and depressing, its story unforgiving. It’s a perfect expression of all the bottled up angst that music can so readily release. I can’t believe I missed probably the only opportunity I will ever have to see it on the big screen with an eager audience, in 70mm nonetheless. I envy those lucky folks in Champaign, Ill.

You, the Living (2007) ****
Director/Writer: Roy Andersson
Starring: Jessika Lundberg, Elisabet Helander, Björn Englund, Leif Larsson, Ollie Olson, Gunnar Iversson

Who knew depression could be so charming? Although I think it may be inaccurate to describe what happens in the Swedish film “You, the Living” as depressing. The film is a strange celebration of life that studies the lives of several people in short, stationary-shot vignettes. There’s a tuba player who’s wife and neighbors are enraged by his practicing in their apartment building, a girl who is infatuated with a rock singer, a woman who can’t stand herself although her lover clearly can, a shrink who can no longer stand to hear his patient’s problems, and a barber who is fed up with being ignored by a customer. All these characters’ lives are brought down by their predicaments, but there is so much joy in watching their sad lives that I can’t help but think that writer/director Roy Andersson is one of those individuals who can find beauty anywhere in life. In this film he makes the ugly and mundane in life beautiful and funny.

Munyurangabo (2007) ***½
Director: Lee Isaac Chung
Writers: Samuel Gray Anderson, Lee Isaac Chung
Starring: Jeff Rutagengwa, Eric Ndorunkundiye, Jean Marie Vianney Nkurinkiyinka, Jean Pierre Harerimana, Narcicia Nyirabucyeye

“Munyurangabo” is a penetrating look at genocide. But it doesn’t look at genocide as a whole. It takes the individuals who are somehow caught up into it through no choices of their own as its subject. I wouldn’t go so far as to say these men (boys) are victims of genocide. Maybe symptoms? It follows two friends, one a Tutsi, the other a Hutu. These are the Rwandan tribes that have brought their country to civil war and killed so many. But these two boys start their journey as friends, however we don’t know just what they are journeying toward. They stop at the childhood home of the Hutu boy along the way, and their views on the strife within their country become changed for each of them. The Hutu’s father is secure in his views of their country’s conflict. This has a profound effect on what happens between the two friends and shows just how hatred is a self-propagating disease that affects those who have lived with it and infects those they touch.

Apocalypse Now Redux (1979 original/2001 redux) ****
Director: Francis Ford Coppola
Writers: John Milius, Francis Ford Coppola, Michael Herr (narration), Joseph Conrad (novel “Heart of Darkness”)
Starring: Martin Sheen, Frederic Forrest, Sam Bottoms, Albert Hall, Laurence Fishburne, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Harrison Ford, G.D. Spradlin

Were I to write a list of my ten favorite films (and I may), it is very likely “Apocalypse Now” would find its way onto that list. This is one of the few films that I have seen so many times I couldn’t count them on my fingers alone. I know this movie from end to end. That is I knew it from end to end until the “Redux” version came out in 2001. Now there are scenes that I know to my inner core and some that I’m just starting to get familiar with. It’s like getting a second chance to experience first love. Often times, when an extended version of a classic film comes out, the added scenes don’t add anything to the experience. Sometime some of the scenes do, and some take away. While Coppola used the “Redux” banner to indicate this version is not his “director’s cut”, which has been a subject of debate ever since the original version was released theatrically, this version does play like a director’s cut, because it all still feels essential. There are new scenes here that aren’t essential, but they lay so firmly within this descent into madness that they only add to its power. My only disappointment with this film is that it’s so very unlikely that I should get to know this old lover a third time as if it were the first.

Departures (2008) ****
Director: Yôjirô Takita
Writer: Kundo Koyama
Starring: Masahiro Motoki, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Ryoko Hirosue, Kazuko Yoshiyuki, Kimiko Yo

“Departures” is one of those gems that can be found at each Ebertfest. It’s a film so full of life and joy that you can’t help but smile at it. Most of the Japanese films I watch are period pieces, and it’s always nice to enjoy a film from a different culture that plays as if you’re watching everyday people going through lives that can easily be recognized in familiar surroundings. One aspect of this movie that really struck me was the actors’ abilities to speak to the camera and audience without dialogue (not that it’s a film without dialogue). Much of the time, I was able to look at the performers faces and know exactly what their character is thinking. This is an art not embraced by American cameras. It really speaks to the power of both the material and the performances.

Man with the Movie Camera (1929) ***½
Director: Dziga Vertov

As luck would have it, the version of “Man with the Movie Camera” available for streaming on Netflix is the version with Ebertfest’s own Alloy Orchestra’s score. This adds great life to this silent classic. Sometimes the scores chosen to accompany video versions of silents are less than thrilling. It was very important that this film should have a thrilling score, since the movie itself has no story line. In the only titles that accompany the movie, director Dziga Vertov claims the movie is an experiment in pure cinema, cinema as an art form unto itself with no writing or other art forms included. Of course, the score is the use of another art form, but the movie wouldn’t work without it. At first, it appears to be just random images of people moving, a woman sweeping the street, cityscapes, a man with a movie camera superimposed on top of a giant movie camera. But after a while, a pattern begins to emerge from the images, a sort of day in the life with the man with the movie camera as the only constant showing up in each setting to capture these images. The whole film is really quite fascinating. Most remarkable to me was to see how modern life in 1920s Russia seemed to be.

Synecdoche, New York (2008) ***
Director/Writer: Charlie Kaufman
Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Samantha Morton, Catherine Keener, Michelle Williams, Tom Noonan, Hope Davis, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Emily Watson, Dianne Wiest

A couple of years ago, I was able to reassess my opinion of Ang Lee’s 2003 version of “Hulk” at Ebertfest. The second screening turned my opinion of the film around from negative to positive. This year, “Synechdoche, New York” was the film to get a second chance. My original opinion was not a negative one, but I couldn’t see it in quite the light that allowed Ebert to claim it as the best movie of the decade. This time around the second viewing did nothing to change my opinion of the movie. I certainly see the value of the film. Its exploration of how we shelter and conceal our own selves from the world around us to the point where we don’t even know who we really are is poignant and perceptive. I can’t, however, get behind the fact that writer/director Charlie Kaufman does this in such a strange and languorous way that there is little entertainment value in the final product. It’s more like a study than an entertainment, and I’m a critic that believes in the entertainment value of a movie as much as in its depth.

I Capture the Castle (2003) ***½
Director: Tim Fywell
Writers: Heidi Thomas, Dodie Smith (novel)
Starring: Romola Garai, Rose Byrne, Henry Thomas, Marc Blucas, Bill Nighy, Tara Fitzgerald, Henry Cavill, Sinéad Cusack

While “I Capture the Castle” is a well-made period romance that does a good job observing the complications of love when close-knit family members are involved, its triumphs over the typical trappings of plots where two siblings fall in love with the same person are not what I wish to discuss about this film. Bill Nighy is a brilliant British character actor who stars in this film as the family patriarch, a one novel writer whose brilliant first book has put too much pressure on him to produce a second. Nighy is one of those actors you probably don’t know by name, but would recognize from his diverse and prolific body of work in just about everything from “Love Actually” to “Pirates of the Caribbean”, from “Underworld” to “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”, from “Shaun of the Dead” to the upcoming “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”, and a great amount of BBC television work. Nighy was also at Ebertfest for the panel discussion of “I Capture the Castle” this year, another big miss for me. It would’ve been such an honor to meet one of the great actors of our day. It’s those more obscure character actors I find myself admiring the most for various reasons: a strong body of work, a continuing non-stop resume, not embracing that notion of stardom, the ability to just disappear in a role. These all describe the work of Nighy.

Trucker (2008) ****
Director/Writer: James Mottern
Starring: Michelle Monaghan, Jimmy Bennett, Nathan Fillion, Benjamin Bratt, Joey Lauren Adams

“Trucker” made my Top Ten of 2009 list this year. One reader, who had seen just about every title on my list, said that this was the only one he didn’t agree with. Upon a second viewing, I cannot see why. The only thing I can come up with is that the opening scenes of the film may have jarred this person. It’s not in the traditional moviegoer’s film vocabulary to see a female character behaving in the ways male characters are usually portrayed. That is how Michelle Monaghan’s character starts her journey. She does a wonderful job of transforming her female trucker from someone who has run away from responsibility all her life into one who very reluctantly embraces it, out of duty rather than desire. I was once again moved by this story about a mother who must take care of the child she once abandoned when his father becomes ill. It was the only film of the festival that I had seen recently, and it retained the same power as my first viewing. It’s still on my Top Ten of ’09.

There were four films I was not able to obtain copies of to view on my own from this year’s Ebertfest. They are “The New Age” (1994), “Vincent: A Life In Color” (2008), “Barfly” (1987), and “Song Sung Blue” (2008). Please keep an eye on The Well and my Penny Thoughts to find out my impressions when I finally do get around to seeing them. To read any of Ebert’s own Ebertfest reviews and introductions, please visit the official Ebertfest website here.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Penny Thoughts: April 16-22

The Princess and the Frog (2009) ***
Directors: Ron Clements, John Musker
Writers: Ron Clements, John Musker, Greg Erb, Jason Oremland, E.D. Baker (story “The Frog Prince”)
Starring: Anika Noni Rose, Bruce Campos, Keith David, Michael Leon-Wooley, Jennifer Cody, Jim Cummings, Peter Bartlett, Jenifer Lewis, Oprah Winfrey, Terrance Howard, John Goodman

With “The Princess and the Frog” Disney proves the madness in their decision a few years ago to abandon their traditional animation productions. But even at that time, I never really thought we’d seen that last 2D, ink and line animated musical feature from the studio that perfected them. Like their hiatus in the 80s, a few years off seems to have revitalized the format. After their last break from this traditional format they produced “The Little Mermaid”, “Beauty and the Beast”, and “The Lion King”. “The Princess and the Frog” never quite lives up to that legacy, but it is exuberant, vibrant, and fun. If anything the filmmakers are trying a little too hard to evoke all the color and music their hearts can muster, but it all makes for an enjoyable experience and a pleasurable romp.

Couples Retreat (2009) **
Director: Peter Billingsley
Writers: Jon Favreau, Vince Vaughn, Dana Fox,
Starring: Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Jason Bateman, Faizon Love, Malin Akerman, Kristen Bell, Kristin Davis, Kali Hawk, Peter Serafinowicz, Carlos Ponce, Jean Reno

“Couples Retreat” isn’t really all that bad. Not exactly a ringing endorsement. In fact, not ringing enough to recommend, but it’s not terrible. Its main problem seems to be an identity crisis. It wants to be some sort of brainless raunchy comedy, but never seems to muster itself up to commit to it. Instead it feels obligated (as often we are in marriage) to treat its characters with respect and truly contemplate what it means to be a couple. It never really does contemplate that meaning, because it is distracted with the notion of being funny. The two forces act against each other and neither forms into anything beyond a mere notion, but as a good husband, I’m willing to commend the effort it makes in trying to take it’s relationship with the audience seriously at times. I really liked the way the Vince Vaughn/Malin Akerman couple assessed their marriage. “We don’t have a problem; we’ve got a million problems.” Too true to totally dismiss.

Ninja Assassin (2009) *
Director: James McTeigue
Writers: Matthew Sand, J. Michael Straczynski
Starring: Rain, Naomi Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune, Shô Kosugi

“Ninja Assassin” has been described by some as a tribute to ‘80s B-grade kung fu flicks, which is an insult to ‘80s B-grade kung fu flicks. Unless, of course, the ‘B’ stands for ‘bad,’ because it is very much like a bad ‘80s kung fu flick. It has the same ridiculous storyline, the same bad acting, including Europol agents who couldn’t even pass for off-duty desk jockeys they have so little authoritative presence. I thought it might at least be worth while for the action, but there’s so much blood, you can’t see the action through it. And it seems the best fight sequence would’ve taken place in a brightly lit Laundromat; had the director actually filmed it, but that was the one where he chose discretion over evisceration. Actually, he still showed the evisceration of that scene, it was just the fighting that he decided we shouldn’t see.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Ebertfest 2010 Preview

Back in the late eighties, I had three really tight friends. We did everything from just hang out together to running for (and winning) our senior class officership. We listened to the same music and developed our mutual love of film together. I ran with that last one a little further than the other guys did. Probably our favorite band at that time in our lives was Pink Floyd. They were trippy and angst ridden, depressed and rebellious. Everything a teenager needs in an emotional outlet.

We were so obsessed with the band, we were racking up frequent renter cards renting the movie “Pink Floyd: The Wall” alone. When our town obtained its first WalMart, “Pink Floyd: The Wall” was one of the titles featured in their ridiculously small by today’s standards video department. This was not yet a time when it was common for people to own home videos, but at $19.99 for a VHS copy of our favorite film, we were on the hook.

The thing is none of us really had twenty bucks to drop on a movie we’d already seen plenty of times, so we decided to go in together. And hey! Why should we pay for it? No, we didn’t steal it. We devised a plan to allow our schoolmates to “donate” to our Pink Floyd fund by “borrowing” quarters. It was fairly common practice to ask some one for a quarter for the vending machines, and we figured we’d pay it forward eventually by reciprocating on future begs from them. It became a sort of contest to see who could beg the most quarters, and within a week the movie was ours.

Imagine my delight when I learned the opening film of the 12th Annual Roger Ebert Film Festival was going to be “Pink Floyd: The Wall”. Well, you might be able to imagine it, but I can’t since I won’t be attending it for the fourth time since I said I’d never miss another. The economy got me this year and I just couldn’t eke out the funds for the guaranteed best film festival around.

Not only will the folks gathering in Champaign-Urbana, Illinois April 21-25 have the opportunity to witness my precious Pink Floyd film on the big screen when Ebertfest 2010 edition kicks off in the classic Virginia Theater, but they’ll be seeing it in glorious 70mm. *sob* whimper *sob*. Why? Why this year Roger? And get this, on Friday they’ll be watching one of my all time favorite films “Apocalypse Now” in its restored and expanded “Redux” version. Oh, cruel fate!

Other wonderful films featured at this year’s festival include, the Swedish series of fixed camera vignettes “You, the Living”, the Rwandan exploration of prejudice between the Tutsi and Hutu tribes “Munyurangabo”, the 2009 Oscar winner for Best Foreign Language Film about an unemployed cellist who takes a job as a preparer of the dead “Departures”, the silent classic “Man with a Movie Camera” with musical accompaniment by the always delightful Alloy Orchestra, Ebert’s favorite film of last decade “Synecdoche, New York”, the English period drama “I Capture the Castle”, and my own top ten entry from last year “Trucker”.

Of course, those are the movies that I will actually be watching at home along with the film festival this year. As always, when I am not able to attend the festival, there are several titles that I cannot acquire for home viewing as they are either not yet released on a home video format, or are long out of print. There are four this year. Two documentaries (which I will probably find a way to see by year’s end): “Vincent: A Life in Color” and “Song Sung Blue”. “Vincent” looks as if it may contain the same charm as “The Real Dirt on Farmer John”, the wonderful doc featured a couple of years ago at Ebertfest .

I’ll also be missing out on “The New Age”, the 1994 film about a Hollywood couple who open an elite boutique shop to raise money for their divorce. And, almost as painful to learn of as the Pink Floyd screening, is the Saturday evening screening of the barroom drama “Barfly”, with a screenplay by and based on the life of one of America’s greatest writing talents, Charles Bukowski. I suppose it will remain unseen by me unless someone can lend me a quarter or two.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Week of April 9-15

Broken Embraces (2009) ***
Director/Writer: Pedro Almodóvar
Starring: Lluís Homar, Penélope Cruz, Blanca Portillo, José Luis Gómez, Tamar Novas, Rubén Ochandiano

Pedro Almodóvar makes beautiful movies. Penélope Cruz makes a beautiful muse for him. While their latest collaboration is an expertly made movie and looks just as good as all their other films, it seems to be a lesser work from them. It involves a love affair outside of a loveless marriage of circumstance for Cruz’s character. There are mysteries and there is passion, but it all seems to lack something. The story of the affair is interesting enough, but the framing story of the writer who lost her doesn’t seem to go anywhere emotionally. There are details of the writer’s life that seem to exist simply for the mystery of them, when as usual for Almodóvar, it’s Cruz who has the truly interesting character. I would’ve liked to explore more of her life. Despite these complaints, “Broken Embraces” is still another moving and beautiful drama from one of Spain’s best.

Star Trek (2009) ***½
Director: J.J. Abrams
Writers: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Zoë Saldana, Karl Urban, Eric Bana, John Cho, Anton Yelchin, Simon Pegg, Bruce Greenwood, Leonard Nimoy

And so I end my trip through the Star Trek movie universe at the beginning again. I’m torn by my rating system on these Trek films, because this one is by far the best-made film of the bunch. I’m still a little disappointed they sort of abandoned the primary sci-fi premise of the series of examining our human existence through the exploration of an alien adventure in favor of summer blockbuster action. I cannot, however, argue against how effective that action is or how well written the film is, utilizing a pantheon of Star Trek mythology to essentially erase all that has come before. It really is quite a brilliant feat of mythology manipulation.

Read my original review here.

An Education (2009) ***½
Director: Lone Scherfig
Writers: Nick Hornby, Lynn Barber (memoir)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Peter Sarsgaard, Alfred Molina, Cara Seymour, Rosamund Pike, Dominic Cooper, Olivia Williams, Emma Thompson

When you watch as many films as I do, you get to a point when it’s rare for a plot to surprise you. “An Education” isn’t exactly the type of plot you expect to surprise you, and it doesn’t. It’s the basic coming of age story that follows a British girl in finishing school, preparing to apply to Oxford when she meets an older man who changes the way she sees the world. It isn’t surprising that this man (who might be guilty of statutory rape today) isn’t everything he appears at first. But what is surprising is the wonderful presence of the story’s lead, Carey Mulligan. Her original beauty and clever demeanor brings to mind two other recent female discoveries, Amy Adams as the perpetually happy pregnant sister-in-law in “Junebug” and Ellen Page as the ultimately plucky “Juno”. I guess the only thing Mulligan is missing is a bun in the oven. But she doesn’t need it. A star is born.

Brothers (2009) ***½
Director: Jim Sheridan
Writers: David Benioff, Susanne Beir (motion picture “Brødre”), Anders Thomas Jensen (motion picture “Brødre”)
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Tobey Maguire, Bailee Madison, Taylor Geare, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham

A few points about this picture. Its advertizing campaign presents it as a family love triangle between Maguire, who appears to be killed in Afghanistan, his wife (Portman), and his ex-con brother (Gyllenhaal); but this is not what the movie is about. It’s about the scars of war. The potential infidelity is a symptom, but not to the degree the studio wants audiences to believe. Secondly, the scene between Gyllenhaal and Shepard, when the brothers’ father has his one emotional slip in the kitchen, is devastating. Finally, this is the first film I’ve seen in a long time involving adults with children that understands how ever-present children are in their parents’ lives. Usually the children are merely props, but here everything that the adults are going through affects the children and every emotional experience the adults are feeling is affected by the presence of the children. The two actresses who play the girls are every bit as good in their performances as the adults.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Week of Apr. 2-8

The Box (2009) ***½
Director: Richard Kelly
Writers: Richard Kelly, Richard Matheson (short story “Button, Button”)
Starring: James Marsden, Cameron Diaz, Frank Langella, Sam Oz Stone, James Rebhorn, Holmes Osborne

I am surprised this film hasn’t garnered the cult following of Richard Kelly’s first film “Donnie Darko”. Everyone seems to feel it’s kind of mediocre, but I saw a sci-fi film that asked some very hard questions and did not provide any easy answers. To some questions it offered no answers at all. But, it did not compromise on its vision or premise, and the fate of the protagonists is laid out from the beginning without ever tipping its hand ahead of time. It may seem as if there are some sequences missing from the final cut, but I don’t think there really are. In that sense it is a difficult movie, but it’s satisfying in its strength of purpose.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002) ***
Director: Stuart Baird
Writers: John Logan, Rick Berman, Brent Spiner
Starring: Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner, Johnathan Frakes, Tom Hardy, LeVar Burton, Michael Dorn, Gates McFadden, Marina Sirtis, Ron Perlman, Dina Meyer, Jude Ciccolella

As I finish The Next Generation movies of the Star Trek franchise, I find myself somewhat forlorn. It seems that this cast was just finding their stride as a film franchise when the producers gave up on them. “Nemesis” is another solid entry into the series, and just as the Next Generation crew began to create a film mythology beyond their exploits on the TV screen, their run was over. The fact that the federation finally makes strides with the Romulan Empire in this movie and the Enterprise develops a new enemy in the Remans, suggests much potential for this crew’s future. Perhaps when the reboot of the original crew starts to fizzle, it’ll be time to resurrect Captain Picard and his crew.

The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call – New Orleans (2009) ****
Director: Werner Herzog
Writers: William Finkelstein, Victor Argo (original), Paul Calderon (original), Abel Ferrera (original), Zoë Lund (original)
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Eva Mendes, Val Kilmer, Fairuza Balk, Alvin ‘Xzibit’ Joiner, Shawn Hatosy, Jennifer Coolidge, Tom Bower, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Brad Dourif

Could Nick Cage be Herzog’s new Klaus Kinski? I don’t know if they plan any further projects together, but I could see it. Cage is tailor made to be a muse for Herzog. He’s never looked so quite on the edge as he does in this picture. Cage is naked in a very different way than Harvey Keitel was in the original “Bad Lieutenant”, thankfully. And who better to film a man driven to the edge of self-destruction than Werner Herzog, whose subjects are so often the causes of their own demises? This film is a mesmerizing journey down this man’s dark path; and unlike Keitel’s bad cop, we’re almost rooting for Cage to get away with it all by the end. One problem I had with the original is that I felt like I was supposed to pity this man in some way, and I didn’t care to. I felt no urge to pity Cage’s corrupt officer; but I was thrilled by that line he was skirting, and fascinated to see whether he could survive it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Clash of the Titans / **½ (PG-13)

Perseus: Sam Worthington
Io: Gemma Arterton
Draco: Mads Mikkelsen
Andromeda: Alexa Davalos
Calibos/Acrisius: Jason Flemyng
Hades: Ralph Fiennes
Zeus: Liam Neeson

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Louis Leterrier. Written by Travis Beacham and Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi. Based on the 1981 screenplay by Beverley Cross. Running time: 118 min. Rated PG-13 (for fantasy action violence, some frightening images and brief sensuality).

As we try to navigate this difficult movie age of the remake/reboot, a lot of criticism has been thrown at the progress of the CGI special effects that have replaced more ‘traditional’ forms of special effects. I believe this is an area where it is time to start employing the term ‘classic’ ahead of ‘traditional’. I think CGI is an easy scapegoat here when the blame lies more in the filmmakers not having to be more creative in other areas to distract from deficiencies in the special effects department.

“Clash of the Titans” promises to be a popular battlefield on this subject because of the particular classic nature of the 1981 film’s special effects. Instead of employing the state of the art FX technology, the filmmakers of the original “Clash” opted to go with a more classic approach for that time by utilizing the stop motion animation techniques popularized in much older B movies by the man who created the form, Ray Harryhausen. I mean no disrespect to the man whom without his work we could never have reached the pinnacle of SFX technology that we have today, but even in 1981, his style was a bit chintzy. Yet critics around the country have cited those effects as one of the original’s charms that this remake lacks.

The fact is the new “Clash of the Titans” looks great. What it lacks lies internally rather than with the pictures on the screen. As CGI dominates more and more of the Hollywood blockbuster images, their innards seem to be becoming more soulless. As we get further away from classic forms of visual effects, the charms of the SFX films of the 80s become more apparent. It isn’t the herky-jerky movements and techniques of those times that we are missing in today’s extravaganzas, but the script and plot elements used to cover them up. Any SFX film from the 80s had a liberal dose of humor to go along with it. This “Clash of the Titans”, like so many other blockbusters today, is humorless.

Every development in this film is approached with reverential seriousness by the characters and screenplay. This is too bad considering how utterly absurd the plot is. The illegitimate son of Zeus, Perseus (Sam Worthington, “Avatar”), loses the family who raised him when humans knock a giant statue of Zeus into the ocean on top of their fishing boat. The humans, of the city Argos, are revolting against the gods after years of servitude.

Meanwhile, the gods stand around on Mount Olympus playing games with the humans in what is essentially a family feud between the brothers Zeus (Liam Neeson, “Taken”) and Hades (Ralph Fiennes, “The Reader”). There is a third brother, Poseidon, who seems to be AWOL; although the producers went to the trouble of hiring the excellent Danny Huston (“The Constant Gardner”) to utter his two lines. Zeus gives the inhabitants of Argos ten days to straighten out their acts and start worshiping him again before he unleashes Hades’s pet, the Kraken, on them. Hades also volunteers to stir up the humans against each other during the ten-day period. Can’t Zeus smell a trap being set by his brother as revenge for denying him a spot in Olympus with the other gods? What kind of an idiot god king is Zeus anyway?

So it becomes the duty of Perseus to stop the Kraken from destroying Argos and by default save his father’s skin. Why Perseus? Because being Zeus’s son makes him a demigod, not a mere mortal; although the differences are never really made clear here. He doesn’t have to train to be a good swordfighter. That seems to be the main difference, that and he can ride a horse with wings.

I make fun because the film does such a poor job of it. There are a couple attempts at humor that never quite rise to the surface. The first is a reference to the 1981 film. When the soldiers are suiting up to travel to the underworld, where the only weapon that can defeat the Kraken can be found, Perseus picks up a mechanical owl and asks what it is. Draco (Mads Mikkelsen, “Casino Royale”), the leader of the Argos army, simply tells him to leave it there. If you don’t know why this should be funny, then you do know why it isn’t.

The screenwriters also employ a comic relief team, ala R2D2 and C3PO, in the form of two hunters who join the soldiers in their journey to the underworld. These two are so underutilized I couldn’t even tell you what their names are. They are obviously an attempt to add levity to the proceedings, but the only person with less to do in this screenplay than them is Danny Huston.

Despite it’s lack of a soul, “Clash of the Titans” might be forgiven by some because it actually delivers exactly what it promises with scene upon scene of overblown, awesome, giant, CGI action. To it’s credit, Hades is actually very effectively executed as a godlike presence, and Ralph Fiennes gives more of a performance than the role even deserves with his wheezing, crouched frame. However, without any humor thrown into the mix, the whole thing only seems that much more silly. Who raised these gods anyway? I hope their parents are as disappointed in them as I am.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Mar. 26-Apr.1

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King – Extended Edition (2003) ****
Director: Peter Jackson
Writers: Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, J.R.R. Tolkien (novel)
Starring: Elijah Wood, Ian McKellen, Viggo Mortensen, Sean Astin, Andy Serkis, Billy Boyd, Dominic Monaghan, Miranda Otto, David Wenham, Bernard Hill, John Noble, Orlando Bloom, John Rhys-Davies, Karl Urban, Liv Tyler, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett

Well, now we get to the rub. The real reason I went on this return journey through Middle Earth. It wasn’t to revisit a modern classic that dominated the Academy Awards for three years running at the top of the decade. It wasn’t because I’m a fan of the fantasy genre and needed to see one of the greatest fantasy franchises ever put to film. It wasn’t because I needed another dose of the film with a thousand and one endings. No, it was all to get this film and the performance of actor John Noble.

I’ve been so impressed with Noble’s work on the first two seasons of the television series “Fringe” I just had to revisit one of his other performances. On television he plays the somewhat off-balanced Dr. Walter Bishop; in LOTR he plays the totally off-his-rocker Denethor. The story of Denethor and his sons Boromir and Faramir, struck me as one of the most touching in this epic of epics, and Noble’s performance as the mad guardian of the throne of Gondor is one of the most frustrating because he’s so good in it. John Noble—just one of the many treasures of LOTR.

In the Loop (2009) ***½
Director: Armando Ianucci
Writers: Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, Armando Ianucci, Tony Roche, Ian Martin, Harold Manning (French adaptation)
Starring: Peter Capaldi, Tom Hollander, Gina McKee, James Gandolfini, Chris Addison, Anna Chlumsky, Paul Higgins, Mimi Kennedy, Alex Macqueen, Olivia Poulet, David Rasche, Steve Coogan

The most entertaining element of Armando Ianucci’s lacerating comedy about British and American politics is the characters’ ability to verbally assault each other. I don’t believe our real politicians are this clever in the verbal insults they throw around at each other. Nor do I believe that half of the characters here are intelligent enough to throw around such effortless wit, but it all makes for a wildly entertaining romp about the London and Washington political landscapes.

$9.99 (2008) **½
Director: Tatia Rosenthal
Writers: Etgar Keret, Tatia Rosenthal
Starring: Joel Edgerton, David Field, Leon Ford, Samuel Johnson, Claudia Karvan, Tom Budge, Jamie Katsamatsas, Anthony LaPaglia, Ben Mendelsohn, Geoffrey Rush

One of the many ‘9’ titles to be released in 2009, “$9.99” is an odd little stop motion animation film done in the hyperlink tradition of having a large cast of characters acting out their own lives oblivious to the connections and relationships they hold with the other characters in the story. For much of the film, the stop motion seems a curious format to tell these people’s stories, and it may suffer from the filmmakers thinking they’re material is slightly deeper than it actually is. But it is a fascinating movie of sorts, especially considering how oblivious a father and son seem to be of the other son’s separate story, which is the most shocking of the bunch.

Fitzcarraldo (1982) ****
Director/Writer: Werner Herzog
Starring: Klaus Kinski, Claudia Cardinale, José Lewgoy, Miguel Ángel Fuentes, Paul Hittscher, Huerequeque Enrique Bohórquez

“We are starving for new images.” – Werner Herzog

Herzog’s 1982 movie “Fitzcarraldo” presented one of the boldest images in the career of a director who as actively pursued some of the most original images of any director. It is probably one of the boldest entry in another of Herzog’s ongoing themes as well, that of the obsessed loner, bent so single-mindedly on an idea that can only bring about his own demise. The image of the steam boat being hauled over the mountain is probably the most well-known of this German film, but it seems to me the image of Klaus Kinski riding on the roof of the boat through the Amazon with a phonograph at his side blasting opera to the natives is more encompassing of the film as a whole. Kinski’s madman is really a kid at heart playing in an area of town that is far from the safe confines of the neighborhood playground. There is oblivion to Herzog’s heroes that he uses as a mirror reflection on humanity as a whole.