Friday, June 25, 2010

Penny Thoughts: June 18-24

The Messenger (2009) ***½
Director: Oren Moverman
Writers: Alessandro Camon, Oren Moverman
Starring: Ben Foster, Woody Harrelson, Samantha Morton, Jena Malone, Steve Buscemi

It strikes me that an actor like Ben Foster will never get the credit he deserves. When Woody Harrelson was nominated for an Oscar for his supporting performance here as an Army officer responsible for informing survivors about the death of their relatives in combat, there were some who asked where Foster’s lead actor nomination was, but there wasn’t an outcry. You didn’t see his name on many of the snubbed lists. But a movie like “The Messenger” relies so heavily on the performance of its lead that to overlook Foster’s work here is even more of a crime than overlooking his superb supporting work in “3:10 to Yuma” from a couple years back. It’s a story that doesn’t take sides. It isn’t political. It isn’t anti-war. It’s very much like another wonderful overlooked Iraq War related film, Paul Haggis’s “In the Valley of Elah”. Neither film is really about the Iraq War, but they use the war to tell a very interesting story of the people affected by it.

A Night in Casablanca (1946) ***
Director: Archie Mayo
Writers: Joseph Fields, Roland Kibbee, Frank Tashlin (uncredited)
Starring: Groucho Marx, Harpo Marx, Chico Marx, Charles Drake, Lois Collier, Sig Ruman, Lisette Verea

Conceived as a kind of spoof to “Casablanca”, the Marx Brother’s “A Night in Casablanca” follows the comedians to the famed city where Nazis have hidden loot from WWII in the Hotel Casablanca. In their mad cap, slapstick way the brothers’ Marx uncover the Nazis and thwart their plans to get away with the gold. While not the best of their movies, once Groucho finally enters the scene, the comedy begins to take off. Chico doesn’t seem to be given much to do here, but Groucho contributes some of his famous wordplay, and Harpo has some of his usually great silent comedy and a wonderful scene where he plays a harp. For those uninitiated into the comedy stylings of the Marx Brothers, this may not be the one to begin with, but it does make for some good light-hearted fun streaming on Netflix.

Law Abiding Citizen (2009) *½
Director: F. Gary Gray
Writer: Kurt Wimmer
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney, Leslie Bibb, Regina Hall

I went into “Law Abiding Citizen” with low expectations, and they were met. I’ve been driven to see this movie, however, both by a friend of mind who also disliked it, but insisted I needed to watch it, and by it’s inclusion on Stephen King’s top ten movies of 2009 list. While I rarely agree with King’s top ten lists, he certainly has the most interesting lists out there. You won’t see many repeats from the critics’ lists on King’s top ten every year. You will find pulp and b-movies and movies that often only find their way into the Razzie Awards. I can see why King likes his b-movies, but it does astound me that he could so enjoy such bad storytelling when he’s so good at it.

Not only is there no one to route for in this movie—the Gerard Butler character is a vicious killer, and Jamie Foxx’s lawyer is a ladder climber with no concept of what justice really is—but the movie assumes its audience is dumber than its characters, and other than the Butler character, they don’t really set the bar too high. Example: there is a scene near then end of the film where Foxx’s lawyer and a cop go to a warehouse owned by the killer and break in after asking each other if they really want to violate this guy’s “civil rights”. Did it not occur to the filmmakers that any judge in Philadelphia would’ve given these guys a warrant instantly, since they were searching a property of a man that had already been convicted and was still managing to kill from inside the prison located right next to the property? A judge might have questioned how obvious it was that this property should’ve been searched long before this point. This film is sadly laughable.

Dreamscape (1984) **½
Director: Joseph Ruben
Writers: David Loughery, Chuck Russell, Joseph Ruben
Starring: Dennis Quaid, Max Von Sydow, Christopher Plummer, Eddie Albert, Cate Capshaw, David Patrick Kelly, George Wendt

I thought this movie was an underrated gem throughout most of my adolescence, and in many ways it is. It is also horribly dated. It did not age well at all. With the release of Christopher Nolan’s new film “Inception” coming up soon, the subject of manipulating and participating in other people’s dreams seems just as fascinating now as it did 25 years ago. I think, however, unlike Nolan’s upcoming big budget, CGI heavy blockbuster, “Dreamscape” was a fairly low budget production when it was made. Dennis Quaid was still learning how to carry a movie on his own, having had a good deal of his early success in ensemble pieces. Max Von Sydow makes one of his rare non-villainous appearances in a sci-fi film. The movie really only uses the dream angle as a thriller plot device, and unfortunately the special effects leave a great deal to be desired.

The Usual Suspects (1995) ****
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: Christopher McQuarrie
Starring: Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Spacey, Chaz Palminteri, Stephen Baldwin, Kevin Pollack, Benicio Del Toro, Pete Postlethwaite, Giancarlo Esposito, Suzy Amis, Dan Hedaya

I still can’t for the life of me figure out why Roger Ebert was so unimpressed by this movie. I know he doesn’t like to be jerked around by the plot, and in the closing moments of this movie you realize that nothing you’ve seen can be trusted. But the whole thing is put together so well, and there’s good reason that everything turns out to be a lie. Plus, everyone who is good at lying knows that the key to a good lie is to include as much truth as possible. So, there are good chunks of the film that could very well be the truth.

This time around, I watched knowing full well the outcome, and it’s still a very entertaining picture. That is due to a combination of Singer’s stylistic direction and the cast’s wonderful performances. Chaz Palmenteri is so good as the cop who’s got it all figured out, that the audience has little choice but to believe him, falling into the same trap of illusion that is set for him. Gabriel Byrne is always such a solid actor; he lends his strength to the illusion here. And Kevin Spacey… interestingly, I think he won the Oscar for all the work he doesn’t do here, rather than what he does. You see his Verbal Kint, but you don’t see the other side; and I think it’s the audience’s impression of the other side that lends so much power to his performance.

Dark City: Director’s Cut (1998) ****
Director: Alex Proyas
Writers: Alex Proyas, Lem Dobbs, David S. Goyer
Starring: Rufus Sewell, Kiefer Sutherland, Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt, Richard O’Brian, Ian Richardson

I’m an incredible fan of this film. I’m sure I’ve talked before about its mashing of the comic book, sci-fi, and film noir genres. I’m sure I’ve beamed about its incredible production design and dramatic score. I’m sure I’ve expounded on its revelations on that great sci-fi theme of what makes us human. This time around I was surprised to realize just how much this criminally overlooked movie influenced cinema as a whole over the past decade. A year later would see the phenomenon of “The Matrix” with green highlighted cinematography and a comic book sensibility taken right from this movie. Another point in common would be their Australian filming location, an aspect also shared by George Lucas’s “Star Wars” prequels. Soon Australia would become a common studio-shooting locale for fantasy/sci-fi, effects heavy movies, like “Superman Returns”. The moody cinematography would also become a favorite of the new breed of filmmakers that dominated the ‘00s, such as Guillermo Del Toro, Peter Jackson, and David Fincher. The high concept fantasy flick would become more popular during the following decade, when previously it could only find cult status on video. I don’t know whether “Dark City” was the last of the cult fantasies, or the first in the new breed of fantasy filmmaking.

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