Saturday, November 20, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Nov. 12-18

Alice in Wonderland (2010) ***
Director: Tim Burton
Writers: Linda Wooverton, Lewis Carroll (books)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

A second viewing only confirms my original thoughts on Tim Burton’s vibrant adaptation/sequel of the classic Disney cartoon chronicling the Lewis Carol stories from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. The opening sequence in which Alice, at age 19, is asked for her hand in marriage seem much richer than the first time through because of my knowledge of the adventure on which she was about to embark. Wonderland, or Underland as it is called in this movie, is just as magical in two dimensions as it is in three. And the climactic battle, which inexplicably turns this metaphor of our transition from childhood into adulthood into an action flick for a few minutes, is still the weak point in the film.

The Swarm (1978) *
Director: Irwin Allen
Writers: Sterling Silliphant, Arthur Herzog Jr. (novel)
Starring: Michael Caine, Katherine Ross, Richard Widmark, Bradford Dillman, Richard Chamberlin, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Lee Grant, Jose Ferrer, Patty Duke Astin, Slim Pickens, Fred MacMurray, Henry Fonda

There’s this great video going around the web right now with British comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon doing impersonations of Michael Caine. This inspired me to put as many of Caine’s movies in my instant queue at Netflix as they had available. There were surprisingly little available considering just how many movies Caine has done during his long and fruitful career.

Caine’s done his share of duds, and this Irwin Allen disaster flick is one of them.  The disaster flick was all the rage throughout the 70s, but as the decade came to an end, they seemed to be running out of disaster ideas, resulting in this bloated bomb about a swarm of killer bees that attack a Texas town. I don’t know how they got all the great actors they have here to agree to be in a movie this bad. There are complete storylines abandoned halfway through the movie and for all the great actors involved, the performances, Caine included, are terrible.

Leaves of Grass (2010) **½
Director/Writer: Tim Blake Nelson
Starring: Edward Norton, Tim Blake Nelson, Susand Sarandon, Keri Russell, Melanie Lynskey, Josh Pais, Richard Dreyfuss

During my year-end wrap up last year, I said of “Adventureland”, that the filmmakers realized that a stoner movie needed to be laid back, intelligent, and funny. Well, Tim Blake Nelson’s “Leaves of Grass” is too intelligent for it’s own good, and too serious to allow the funny parts to breathe. It’s smart enough to understand that the criminal side of marijuana production can be dangerous, but not smart enough to realize that exploring that is more disturbing than entertaining.

I love how philosophical, and even theological, this movie is about our human nature, but the violence that pops up in the second half of the movie is too much for the comedy and intellectualism to survive. It isn’t brainless violence. It’s motivated and makes sense in the context of the story, but it’s just too much of a bummer, man.

Inglorious Bastards (1978) **½
Director: Enzo G. Castellari
Writers: Sandro Continenza, Sergio Grieco, Romano Migliorini, Laura Toscano, Franco Marotta
Starring: Bo Svenson, Peter Hooten, Fred Williamson, Michael Pergolani, Jackie Basehart, Michel Constantin, Debra Berger, Raimond Harmstorf, Ian Bannen

So before Quentin Tarantino made his masterpiece “Ingourious Basterds”, there was an Italian-made WWII flick about rouge American soldiers on a special mission called “Inglorious Bastards”. The two flicks aren’t really related beyond the fact that Tarantino was enough of a fan of the first film to steal its title with some slight spelling alterations. He also placed a couple of its stars in cameo roles in his film.

The 70s film is an odd take on the WWII special mission flick that follows a small group of court marshaled American soldiers who escape and plan on crossing the Swiss border before they get wrapped up in a French Resistance plot to steal a Nazi weapon being transported on a train. It’s made with stranger Italian filmmaking notions than most American WWII films, an idea that is best examplified during a scene where a group of skinny dipping female Germans attack the Americans with machine guns.

Much of the filmmaking is awkward and the acting is pretty poor, but I liked the way nothing went as planned for this rouges gallery of soldiers. Its unique take on the war flick is a refreshing change from the norm, but an acquired taste at best.

Out of Sight (2010) ****
Director: Ya-Ting Yu
Writers: Ya-Ting Yu, Ya-Hsuan Yeh, Ling Chung

There’s something just so fresh and free about Anime. Through Roger Ebert’s blog I discovered this wonderful five-minute animated short by three National Taiwan University of Arts students. It’s about a blind girl who loses her Seeing Eye dog and how she finds her way from there. The word ‘magical’ is so often associated with movies that it’s lost some of it’s power, but this movie takes that magical notion of movies quite literally. It will make you feel good.

True Romance (1993) ***½
Director: Tony Scott
Writer: Quentin Tarantino
Starring: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Dennis Hopper, Val Kilmer, Gary Oldman, Christopher Walken, Brad Pitt, Bronson Pinochet, Saul Rubinek, Michael Rapaport, James Gandolfini, Chris Penn, Tom Sizemore, Samuel L. Jackson

I’ve never been much of a fan of the films of Tony Scott, which is kind of interesting considering that his brother, Ridley, is one of my favorite directors. But Tony has made a few great films. “Unstoppable” is his most recent, and possibly his best. I contribute the success of his other two great movies mostly to the screenplays.

Quentin Tarantino wrote “True Romance” before his breakthrough success “Pulp Fiction”. Despite its glossy direction by Scott, it’s filled with signatures of Tarantino. It has Tarantino’s incredible knack for dialogue, exemplified best by the scene between Dennis Hopper and Christopher Walken, which happens to be one of my favorite scenes of all time. It has his obsession with pop culture and is filled with characters who constantly reference different areas of pop culture, including countless references to movies and comic books. Anytime there’s a TV in the background, it’s playing one of Tarantino’s favorite exploitation movies of the 70s and 80s. And, it includes Tarantino’s moral code of having even his heroes pay for their crimes to some degree. The original ending of the film had Christian Slater’s character dying in the big shootout. While this would’ve adhered to Tarantino’s moral code, Scott chose the right ending.

The submarine thriller “Crimson Tide” is Scott’s other noteworthy film. It should also be noted that Scott had a veritable who’s who of top Hollywood screenwriters contribute rewrites and punch ups for the mutiny flick, including pop culture dialogue added by Tarantino.

Silver Streak (1976) ***
Director: Arthur Hiller
Writer: Colin Higgins
Starring: Gene Wilder, Jill Clayburgh, Richard Pryor, Patrick McGoohan, Ned Beatty, Clifton James, Ray Walston, Richard Kiel, Scatman Cruthers, Lucille Benson

I’ve always been a big fan of “Silver Streak”. Of course, the pairing of Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor is a thing of genius. It was always a big debate which of their collaborations was the best. “Silver Streak” was always my favorite. I understand why many people might choose “Stir Crazy”, since it funnier and Pryor doesn’t show up until about the halfway point of “Streak”. While “Streak” wasn’t the funniest of their films, it isn’t intended as a flat out comedy. I think that’s what I always liked about it. It encompasses more than one genre—comedy, mystery, romance, thriller. Heck, it even fits into the subgenre of the runaway train picture.

Sadly, this screening comes about a week after the passing of actress Jill Clayburgh. “Silver Streak” is the film I knew her best from, but her body of work spanned four decades. Her most impressive and memorable role, however, came just two years after “Streak” in Paul Mazursky’s celebrated film “An Unmarried Woman”, about a Manhattan divorcee who struggles with her new identity after her husband of 16 years leaves her for a younger woman.

The Secret in Their Eyes (2010) ****
Director: Juan José Campanella
Writers: Eduardo Sacheri (also novel), Juan José Capanella
Starring: Ricardo Darín, Soledad Villamil, Guillermo Fancella, Pablo Rago, Javier Godino, Carla Quevedo

What is the trick to a good twist ending? I think it might be a combination of two elements. First, the twist needs to be something the audience can’t see coming. All too often filmmakers believe this is all that is necessary. Second, it must be something fully supported, and even highlighted in retrospect, by major story elements that came before it. “The Secret in Their Eyes” is a movie that does the twist ending correctly. It even adds a third element, a false twist that doesn’t satisfy the first two elements coming immediately before the real twist is revealed.

But to categorize “The Secret in Their Eyes” as simply a movie with a twist is to do the movie an injustice. It exists as a great film even without it’s twist ending. It’s a wonderfully realized character drama about a close group of colleagues and how they depend on each other as saviors and unrequited lovers that each needs and is to one another. This is packaged in an engrossing legal drama with some thriller elements mixed in. I suppose being a great movie besides having a twist ending is another element necessary for a great twist ending.

Temple Grandin (2010) ****
Director: Mick Jackson
Writers: Christopher Monger, Merritt Johnson, Temple Grandin (books “Emergence” & “Thinking in Pictures”), Margaret Scarciano (book “Emergence”)
Starring: Claire Danes, Julia Ormond, David Strathairn, Catherine O’Hara

I want a squeeze machine of my own. If this movie weren’t so good, I might just leave the review at that one line, but the filmmakers deserve more praise than that.

I was absolutely fascinated by this movie. I’ve seen “Rainman”. Until now, that was the extent of my knowledge on autism. The notions in that film are probably just as misguided as the doctor’s who originally diagnosed Temple as autistic. Mick Jackson’s direction does an amazing job of visualizing how Temple’s autism works. The performances by Claire Danes and Julia Ormond, as Temple and her mother respectively, are powerful and perfect. The writing draws you in to everything this bold film has to cover. I even cared about how ranchers handle cows, something that’s never even crossed my mind in more than ten years living and working around cattle farms and feed houses. Just in terms of understanding people that seem different to the norm, this film is a must see. I hope it’s taught in schools. Understanding is the great gift we have as humans. It’s too bad we’re so bad at it as a herd. This is a movie that can teach us understanding of how we work, as well as how cattle work.

Agora (2010) ***
Director: Alejandro Amenábar
Writers: Alejandro Amenábar, Mateo Gill
Starring: Rachel Weisz, Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, Ashraf Barhom, Rupert Evans, Sami Samir, Michael Lonsdale

“Agora” is a thinking man’s historical costume epic. It has more brains than your average sand and sandal picture. Throughout most of it those brains point out just how brainless man has been (and still is for the most part) when it comes to religious fanaticism. The violence all these people justify inflicting on others in the name of their Gods is sickening. Rachel Weisz’s librarian and scientist is a breath of fresh air amongst the growing religious animosity around her. Of course, they’re just going to have to victimize her for that. She’s so uninterested in the religion-based politics unfolding around her, it might be easy to say that she brings her fate upon herself. Easy for those who really are responsible for her fate to say, anyway. 

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