Friday, July 09, 2010

Penny Thoughts: July 2-8

The Long Goodbye (1973) ****
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Leigh Brackett, Raymond Chandler (novel)
Starring: Elliott Gould, Nina Van Pallandt, Sterling Hayden, Mark Rydell, Henry Gibson, David Arkin, Jim Bouton

In watching “The Long Goodbye” I am reminded of some of the praise the Coen Brothers received for their surprising adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “No Country for Old Men”. Critics who had read McCarthy’s novel said that they were concerned before seeing the movie because the style of the Coens seemed at odds with McCarthy’s style of storytelling. They praised the end result because the Coens didn’t change their style and yet somehow made it work with McCarthy’s story. The film was at once a McCarthy movie and a Coens movie. I think the same can be said for Robert Altman’s adaptation of Raymond Chandler’s crime novel “The Long Goodbye”.

Altman is about the furthest thing from a film noir director you could get, making hard to imagine Altman’s vision of a noir novel adaptation. Altman’s brightly lit, dialogue overlapping, non-plot oriented world is most certainly at odds with the dark, dialogue light, plot heavy world of noir crime, and yet somehow he makes the two work together. Altman finds the one element of noir that plays into his strengths as a filmmaker and exploits it to incredible effect, the element of misdirection. Everything throughout the entire film steers away from the shocking conclusion of the film and yet it all adds up when it’s over. Amazingly, Altman finds a way to make noir humorous. I continue to be impressed by this cinematic master.

Youth in Revolt (2010) **½
Director: Miguel Arteta
Writers: Gustin Nash, C.D. Payne (novel)
Starring: Michael Cera, Portia Doubleday, Jean Smart, Steve Buscemi, Ari Gaynor, Justin Long, Adhir Kalyan, Fred Willard, Zach Galifianakis, Ray Liotta

There are some comedies that just don’t rely on typical comedy practices. “Youth in Revolt” may be one of them. It may be better than it seems at first, but it may be that it just doesn’t quite work. I’m not sure. One thing that does work in this movie is Michael Cera. I wouldn’t say that Juno’s boyfriend has grown up, but he makes a case here that he may be capable of more than just that innocent, wimpy, charmer he’s been locked into his entire career. Of course, he is all that in this movie, but he also creates a bad boy, alternative personality here that is subtly, but most definitely, a different Michael Cera than I ever imagined. The movie itself is also subtle and subversive; and although it felt like I was supposed to be laughing out loud at certain sequences, I wasn’t. But then, maybe it isn’t intended to be a laugh riot. I may need to see it again.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007) ***
Director: David Yates
Writers: Michael Goldenberg, J.K. Rowling (novel)
Starring: Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, Rupert Grint, Imelda Staunton, Matthew Lewis, Evanna Lynch, Bonnie Wright, Michael Gambon, Gary Oldman, Alan Rickman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Robbie Coltrane, David Thewlis, Jason Isaacs, Brendan Gleeson, Katie Leung, Tom Felton, Mark Williams, Julie Walters, Robert Hardy

The only Harry Potter book not to be adapted to the screen by Steve Kloves, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” suffers in both its dampened humanity and in a jagged application of plot. This is the choppiest of the bunch and is almost utterly lacking in any cheer. Yes, as the series goes along the children grow older and the themes darken, but there should always be humor. The movie stays alive due to its strong source material, the enduring personalities of its now well-established characters, and as always its magic. As part of the entire series, its flaws are easier to forgive. On its own, it’s a strange cinematic anomaly with a good foundation and glowing exteriors that doesn’t show well because of its cosmetic flaws. As long as you keep moving, everything will be fine.

Read my original review here.

Lord of the Flies (1963) ****
Director: Peter Brook
Writers: Peter Brook, William Golding (novel)
Starring: James Aubrey, Tom Chaplin, Hugh Edwards, Roger Elwin, Tom Gaman

This 1963 version of William Golding’s shocking dissection of what we generally refer to as civilization gets it right through its simplicity. It doesn’t bother with why or how a group of English boarding school children end up crash landed on a deserted island, but gets right to their instinct as human beings to establish an organized society and its eventual disintegration into their more basic animal instincts to terrorize and persecute the weak and dependant. The focus on a mysterious creature or ghost that may inhabit the island illustrates society’s use of fear to manipulate and attack the public’s general interests of equality and structure to favor those with resources and power over the masses. I had been saving this one for a future Horrorfest entry, and I still feel it would be an appropriate entry for my annual celebration of the horror that insists on fascinating us as humans.

Full Metal Jacket (1987) ***½
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Michael Herr, Gustav Hasford (screenplay & novel “The Short Timers”)
Starring: Matthew Modine, Arliss Howard, Vincent D’Onofrio, R. Lee Ermey, Adam Baldwin, Kevyn Major Howard, Dorian Harewood, Ed O’Ross, John Terry

Ranking on IMdb’s Top 250 at #82, it seems video life and time have been kind to Stanley Kubrick’s take on Vietnam, which he did not restrict to Vietnam itself. The first half of the film famously looks at the 8-week boot camp endured by the Marine recruits before sending them off to Vietnam. Real-life retired Gunnery Sergeant R. Lee Ermey portrayed Gny. Sgt. Hartman, who unhinges one of the recruits played by Vincent D’Onofrio. It’s generally felt that this portion of the film is superior to the Vietnam portion of the film. I’m not so inclined to think the first half is so much superior as it is merely a less explored aspect of the war. If anything the first half is weakened by the D’Onofio character because this was not likely a typical portrayal of what boot camp was like for most recruits. But then, since the main character is a Stars & Stripes journalist in Vietnam, neither should the war scenes represent the typical Vietnam experience. Either way, Kubrick’s vision of the Vietnam War is an exceptional cinematic example of the subject and well worth the investment to see. As it’s currently available for free streaming on Netflix, that investment is minimal.

March of the Penguins (2005) ***½
Director: Luc Jacquet
Writers: Luc Jacquet, Michel Fessler, Jordan Roberts (U.S. narration)
Narrator: Morgan Freeman

Luc Jacquet’s beautifully photographed “March of the Penguins” was a surprise documentary hit when it was released in the U.S. It re-introduced audiences to a cinematic fascination with the hardships and majesty of nature, and spawned the awful CGI musical “Happy Feet”. Having not gotten caught up in the penguin fever at the time, I’m now surprised the doc was such a hit, because it doesn’t really make much effort to appeal to the fast-paced tastes of modern American audiences. This is not a weakness in the film, however. It tells the fairly simple, if surprising, story of the emperor penguins’ life cycle, giving it the proper amount of time and attention to capture its power in nature’s grand scheme.

Tropic Thunder (2008) ***½
Director: Ben Stiller
Writers: Ben Stiller, Justin Theroux, Etan Cohen
Starring: Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Steve Coogan, Nick Nolte, Danny McBride, Bill Hader, Brandon Soo Hoo, Reggie Lee, Matthew McConaughey, Tom Cruise

I was stirred to re-watch “Tropic Thunder” due to my recent screening of “Full Metal Jacket”. But the movie I kept thinking of while watching it was “MacGruber”. “MacGruber” is by far the funniest movie I’ve seen since “Tropic Thunder”. Although I seem to be in a minority opinion on that film, “Tropic Thunder” was universally praised at the time of its release. Perhaps this is because “Tropic Thunder” skewers something very specific in it’s spoof of the action genre, the Hollywood machine. “MacGruber”s target is much broader, while its humor is much narrower. I won’t back off my opinion of “MacGruber”, being the first 2010 release I’ve seen fit to award four stars. In fact, I laughed even more during “MacGruber” than “Tropic Thunder”. But then “Tropic Thunder” operates on slightly more brainpower. See ‘em both.

My original review of “Tropic Thunder”.
My review of “MacGruber”.

Precious: Based on the Novel ‘Push’ by Sapphire (2009) ****
Director: Lee Daniels
Writers: Geoffrey Fletcher, Sapphire (novel)
Starring: Gabourey Sibide, Mo’Nique, Paula Patton, Sherri Shepard, Mariah Carey, Lenny Kravitz

Life is hard. It’s a hell of a lot harder than most of us will ever realize. It’s a hell of a lot harder for many more people than we can imagine. “Precious” is an original telling of this story, a life that is hard and somehow improbably becomes better. I’m not saying this story is not believable, but rather the fact that anyone can pull themselves up from such a horrific existence as Precious does in this movie is improbable. I’m impressed by how much I enjoyed this film, and by how much I got behind the leading character, with whom I shared so little. After seeing this, I wonder if Gabourey Sibide was not robbed by not bringing home all the best actress awards for last year. A powerful performance for a powerful life portrayed on screen.

Waiting for Guffman (1996) ****
Director: Christopher Guest
Writers: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Michael McKean (songs), Harry Shearer (songs)
Starring: Christopher Guest, Eugene Levy, Fred Willard, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Bob Balaban, Lewis Arquette, Matt Keeslar, Larry Miller, Don Lake, Deborah Theaker, Michael Hitchcock

I thought “Waiting for Guffman” was hilarious before I moved to Missouri. After I moved here I realized it was scary, because I knew now it was true. I was part of the local theater group. I was the guy from New York City. I was Corky. At least, my wife was real. I had that comfort. But it’s hard not to look at Marshall, MO’s big claim to fame, Jim the Wonder Dog, and not think of those clueless idiots from the thankfully made up Blaine, MO.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2010) ****
Director: Niels Arden Oplev
Writers: Nikolaj Arcel, Rasmus Heisterberg, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Michael Nyqvyst, Noomi Rapace, Sven-Bertil Taube, Peter Haber, Marika Lagercrantz, Ingvar Hirdwall, Björn Granath, Ewa Fröling, Lena Endre

“The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” is the best movie I’ve seen released this year. It is a classic thriller in the same vein as “Seven” or “The Silence of the Lambs”. It’s a Swedish film made with a Hollywood flair. I’m sure the Hollywood version that’s scheduled to hit theaters in 2012 will tone down the sexual violence a notch or two, but none of the violence is gratuitous. It’s a lean thriller in that everything in it serves a purpose. The characters, which undoubtedly will also be altered in the Hollywood version—even though they are, for the moment, well cast with Daniel Craig and Carey Mulligan rumored in the leads—are some of the most original I’ve seen in this type of thriller. This is better than anything Hollywood has put out so far this year. If you can stand to read the subtitles, rent this movie. It will not disappoint.


Anonymous said...

What is it exactly do you find so unbelievable about Vincent D'Onofrio's character in FMJ? You don't believe that such a character would exist. A simple man enrolled in the army, grilled to the point of breaking. I think it existed more than we know.

Andrew D. Wells said...

I didn't say his character was unbelievable. I most certainly believe such a character could and probably has existed in the American armed forces. Nor do I have any trouble believing any such cases may have ended similarly. I would have trouble believing this is the typical experience, however. Otherwise, the Marines wouldn't have any Gunnery Sergeants left to train their recruits. But the movie doesn't claim it is typical. It is telling a very specific story. In the second half of the film, Kubrick seems a little more interested in telling about the typical Vietnam experience, however. As typical as it can be from a military journalist's point of view anyway.

Andrew D. Wells said...

Also, I feel I should clarify, Beverly, since you seem to have quite the healthy obsession with D'Onofrio, that I do think his performance is wonderful in the movie. I think the movie is wonderful. I believe FMJ is where most of the world was introduced to the incredible talents of this gifted actor. I was only sighting a slight flaw in the filmmaking, in that Kubrick switches his focus from an unusual development in a basic training program to a typical experience in Vietnam. Since his goal was to give us a Vietnam story, I only suggest it may have been a little stronger had he not introduced a storyline in boot camp that took the audience away from the Vietnam experience. That's my defense for not awarding the movie four stars.

Anonymous said...

Ohhh, okay now I understand. I kinda feel The Hurt Locker had that same approach. I was suprised by the Oscar(s) it recieved, Personally effective in getting his point across.It in my mind is still a fabulous movie. I feel the H L lacked personality.

Yes me and VDO::blushes::y i think Stanley Kubrink was much

Anonymous said...

Opps I see I missed some words. It's suppose to say Personaly Stanley Kubrink...