Saturday, June 05, 2010

Penny Thoughts: May 21-June 3

Pink Cadillac (1989) **
Director: Buddy Van Horn
Writer: John Eskow
Starring: Clint Eastwood, Bernadette Peters, Timothy Carhart, John Dennis Johnston, Michael Des Barres

I just can’t stop trying to figure the sequence of events that lead to Bernadette Peters being cast in this role opposite Eastwood. Was he a fan? She was a Broadway star, but never seemed to crack the Hollywood game. Did he see her in a show and say, “That’s my next leading lady”? He had a reputation for a while of dating his co-stars. Did they date? Or did this script land on her agent’s desk and he said, “Bernadette, here’s your trip to Hollywood.” If so, was he subsequently fired? I mean, the story behind her involvement is much more interesting than the movie itself. I would hope so anyway.

Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) ***½
Director: Mike Newell
Writers: Steve Kloves, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Robert Pattinson, Michael Gambon, Brendan Gleeson, Stanislav Ianevski, Clémence Poésy, Miranda Richardson, David Tennant, Alan Rickman, Maggie Smith, Timothy Spall, Robbie Coltrane, Frances de la Tour, Roger Lloyd Pack, Matthew Lewis, Katie Leung, Tom Felton, James Phelps, Oliver Phelps, Bonnie Wright, Jason Isaacs, Ralph Fiennes

Wow, it seems that mentionable cast list just grows and grows with each movie. In my ongoing revisitation of the Harry Potter film franchise, I am still astonished with how long the series retained such a high quality output. “Goblet of Fire” effectively closes the early years of Potter’s magic training and forces the entire series to grow up by containing the first death of a major character, although the word ‘major’ is debatable. It also sees the first flesh form of the series’ villain Lord Voldemort. The movie does a good job of getting across that this is all real now for Harry and company. Or as real as fantasy can get I suppose. As I recall the next couple of episodes are a let down compared to these first four, but we’ll get another look at them soon enough.

The Fountain (2006) ***½
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Writers: Darren Aronofsky, Ari Handel
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Rachel Weisz, Ellen Burstyn

Thanks to WarnerBlu’s DVD/Bluray exchange program I’m revisiting some of my favorite Warner Bros. movies in glorious high definition for the first time. I was shocked that this movie didn’t get more praise when it was released in the fall of 2006. Certainly it isn’t a mass appeal movie, but it is a great example of what a visionary filmmaker Darren Aronofsky is. With a much smaller budget than he originally intended, he made this beautiful movie about man’s obsession with eternal life, the struggle to cheat death. On top of that, it’s an emotionally powerful romance about a cancer research doctor who is desperately seeking a cure before his beloved wife succumbs to the disease.

Amelia (2009) **
Director: Mira Nair
Writers: Ron Bass, Anna Hamilton Phelan, Susan Butler (book “East to the Dawn: The Life of Amelia Earhart”), Mary S. Lovell (book “The Sound of Wings: The Life of Amelia Earhart”)
Starring: Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Ewan McGregor, Christopher Eccleston

If this film had been made in the 80s, it would have been praised as one of the most touching bio pics of its time. It has the same look and feel to it as those epic bio pics of the 80s, but it lacks the urgency that we’ve come to expect from such a picture today. It’s beautifully photographed and wonderfully acted, but it’s a little dull. Much of the plot involves the romance between Earhart and her manager/husband (in that order) George Putnam, and a slight diversion from that with the more dashing Gene Vidal. It feels like the movie is searching for aspects to explore in Earhart’s life, rather than actually exploring aspects of her life.

Spaceballs (1987) ***
Director: Mel Brooks
Writers: Mel Brooks, Thomas Meehan, Ronny Graham
Starring: Bill Pullman, Daphne Zuniga, Rick Moranis, John Candy, Joan Rivers, George Wyner, Dick Van Patten, Mel Brooks

“Spaceballs” is certainly nowhere near as good as some of the spoofs to come out of the Mel Brooks canon, but it still contains some of the sharp wit of his earlier work. Unlike the best spoofs, the materials here is dated and a little too period specific to the sci-fi genre which it’s skewering to play well to modern audiences. However, for the viewer who was there as the genre reached its popularity, it still provides good laughs, mostly due to Rick Moranis’s performance as the pathetic villain Dark Helmet.

Stormchasers: IMAX (1995) ***
Director: Stephen Judson, Greg MacGillivray
Writer: Mark Olshaker
Narrator: Hal Holbrook
Featuring: Surindra Bhandari, Howard Bluestein, Robert Sheets

I used to love watching documentaries on overcast Saturday afternoons as a kid. This is a trait I seem to have passed on to my own children. Up until this week they have been able to take advantage of Netflix’s vast library of docs to stream instantly, but this week I got to join them. We watched two early IMAX docs. This one featured the beautiful IMAX cinematography, and turned out to be much more informative about storms than I had anticipated for a 38 minute IMAX documentary.

The Magic of Flight: IMAX (1996) ***
Director: Greg MacGillivray
Writer: Jack Stephens
Narrator: Tom Selleck

I grew up across the river from the Brunswick Naval Air Station. Our house was just a short distance from the end of one of the runways. The Blue Angels did a show there every year. When we were young our Dad, a former Marine fighter pilot, took us to the air shows in person, but even when we were older, we got a front row seat in our own front yard. Although this documentary does touch upon the flight of birds and a little history on the flight of man, its primary focus is on The Blue Angels’ pilots and their air show. It brought me back to those days of wonder as a child watching those aviators do their amazing stunts in those loud jets. Truly awe inspiring. I wish I could’ve seen this on an IMAX screen.

A History of Violence (2005) ***½
Director: David Cronenberg
Writers: Josh Olson, John Wagner (graphic novel), Vincent Locke (graphic novel)
Starring: Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello, Ashton Holmes, Ed Harris, William Hurt

David Cronenberg’s “A History of Violence” is an exercise in cinematic restraint. Adapted from a graphic novel by John Wagner and artist Vincent Locke, much of the film’s minimalism reminds me of those brave comic book writers who are willing to write pages of comic book panels without dialogue, turning the medium into a seemingly visual only one. What Croenberg realizes is that even without dialogue, cinema is never a strictly visual medium. He relies heavily on the performances by Mortensen, Bello, Harris, and Hurt to communicate vast histories of these characters without exposition. Mortensen’s performance is the most remarkable upon a second viewing. It’s easy to see why Cronenberg felt he needed Mortensen to make the even better film “Eastern Promises”.

Sunset Boulevard (1950) ****
Director: Billy Wilder
Writers: Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder, D.M. Marshman Jr.
Starring: William Holden, Gloria Swanson, Erich von Stroheim, Nancy Olson, Jack Webb, Cecil B. DeMille, Hedda Hopper

It’s easy to think that older films were all classics. This is not so. There are many old films that will never be remembered because they are bad, or worse mediocre. But it is the true classics like “Sunset Boulevard” that make it seem as if all those older films were great. This one makes it look so easy. William Holden with his calm demeanor even in the strangest of situations. Gloria Swanson playing an aging star of the silent era, who some say was modeled after her, and making it seem as if she was the greatest star of the talkies as well. Then there are all these other Hollywood greats playing themselves. And one thing Hollywood has always been good at is ridiculing itself. Despite the dark notes this film begins and ends on, there is a good deal of humor throughout. It all comes together to give the impression that they could do it all back then.

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