Friday, July 23, 2010

Penny Thoughts: July 16-22

The Jensen Project (2010) *
Director: Douglas Barr
Writers: Monica Macer, Jeff Davenport, Steven Manuel
Starring: Kellie Martin, Justin Kelly, Brady Smith, Alyssa Diaz, David Andrews, Patricia Richardson, LeVar Burton

Ever since NBC started their Family Movie Night on Fridays throughout the summer my wife has been trying to convince me that their original movies looked fun and that we should watch them with the kids. Well, I figured it couldn’t be any worse than watching the kids’ favorite show “America’s Funniest Home Videos”. Well, assumptions can be wrong. I guess it wasn’t really that bad, but it wasn’t good. Boy, I can’t wait till the summer television season is over and we can get back to some real shows.

The Eiger Sanction (1978) ***
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writers: Hal Dresner, Warren B. Murphy, Rod Whitaker (also novel as Trevanian)
Starring: Clint Eastwood, George Kennedy, Vonetta McGee, Jack Cassidy, Heidi Brühl, Thayer David, Reiner Schoene, Michael Grimm, Jean-Pierre Bernard, Brenda Venus, Gregory Walcott

A couple of months ago I watched the new film “North Face” about one of the early failed ascents of the infamous north face of the Eiger mountain in Switzerland. I had been inspired at that time to revisit the late 70s Clint Eastwood thriller “The Eiger Sanction”, about an assassin who is hired to kill a climber on an expedition to scale the north face of the Eiger, but he doesn’t know who in his climbing party is his target. Due to lack of sleep at the time, I never got around to screening the fictional climbing/spy flick.

On Thursday, July 15, actress Vonetta McGee passed away, and I saw another opportunity to watch Eastwood’s strange thriller amalgam. McGee became famous appearing in the blacksploitation pictures of the 70s, including such titles as “Blackula” and “Shaft in Africa”. “The Eiger Sanction” was one of her more mainstream roles, although her character was still stamped with a blacksploitation name, Jemima Brown.

The Proposal (2009) ***
Director: Anne Flethcer
Writer: Pete Chiarelli
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Sandra Bullock, Craig T. Nelson, Mary Steenbergen, Betty White, Malin Akerman, Dennis O’Hare

I believe this was my wife’s favorite movie of 2009. I wouldn’t put it up quite that far, but it’s an enjoyable romantic comedy, clichés and all. Sandra Bullock and Ryan Reynolds make for a charming screen pair, however, I can’t say as I’m sure just why Reynolds fell in love with Bullock’s character. I laughed. I didn’t cry. Not even from laughing. But it made for an enjoyable Saturday evening with my wife.

The Big Picture (2000) **½
Directors/Writers: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Robyn Moore, Michael Priest

The Spierig Brothers have risen pretty quickly in the Hollywood establishment, creating fairly unique visions of once typical fare with their feature films “Undead” and “Daybreakers”. Next they’ll be handling the reboot of “The Dark Crystal”. Their short film “The Big Picture” is presented on the Bluray version of “Daybreakers” and shows how they gained the attention of film investors with their original idea of a television that allows a woman to see her future. Although, the end of the film is a surprise that you don’t really see coming, it also seems an unnecessary trick to punctuate what is already an original film.

SPOILER WARNING! In fact, I’m quite disappointed in the use of CGI to show people getting hit by cars in movies in general. It never looks realistic, and often it seems the filmmakers are satisfied merely by the shock value involved, rather than being interested in having it realistically rendered. This makes a cheap joke out of something that should be very serious.

Daybreakers (2010) ***
Directors/Writers: The Spierig Brothers
Starring: Ethan Hawke, Claudia Karvan, Willem Dafoe, Michael Dorman, Sam Niell

It’s surprising to see a vampire movie with some brains behind it in this day and age of vampires being reduced to an expression of teen angst. But “Daybreakers” isn’t so much a vampire movie as it is a critique on the corporate and political climate in America today. As the lines blur daily between American big business and political practices, “Daybreakers” acts as a mirror to our current times with the classic sci-fi approach of showing us the “not too distant future” where a vampire virus has not only taken over most of the human race, but has created a vampire crisis where the world’s blood supply has become dangerously depleted. The vampires must race to find a blood substitute. Finding a cure is out of the question, since there’s no money in that. The production design reminded me of another Ethan Hawke sci-fi flick, “Gattaca”.

The Maltese Falcon (1941) ***½
Director: John Huston
Writers: John Huston, Dashiell Hammett (novel)
Starring: Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, Gladys George, Peter Lorre, Sydney Greenstreet

There’s something pure about classic cinema. This most famous of film noirs is neat and clean in ways that film noir would never look today and often didn’t in the years immediately following “The Maltese Falcon”. But the clarity of storytelling found here helps to bring out some of the great aspects of this movie, most notably the harsh self-preservation displayed by Bogart’s Sam Spade. Even in today’s noir anti-heroes there’s often some attempt by the filmmakers to get the audience to empathize with him, but in this film you root for Spade with no such hooking by the filmmakers. Spade has no sympathy. It’s just that none of the other characters are up to any good, so by process of elimination, Spade is the audience’s man. That’s simplifying his character, but he is nothing like what we see as a worthy protagonist in most films today.

The Player (1992) ****
Director: Robert Altman
Writer: Michael Tolkin (also novel)
Starring: Tim Robbins, Greta Scacchi, Fred Ward, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Gallagher, Brion James, Cynthia Stevenson, Vincent D’Onofrio, Dean Stockwell, Richard E. Grant, Sydney Pollack, Lyle Lovett

I’ve seen Robert Altman’s attack on Hollywood filmmaking many times, and I continue to find new things in it. There are all the cameo appearances by stars playing themselves, the biting racial and topical politics, all the fine background details of a movie studio lot, the ongoing references to Hollywood’s rich cinematic history, the incredible cast, the surprising comedy and even more shocking and subversive darkening themes. “The Player” is one of those movies you can watch over and over again, and it never gets old.

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