Friday, November 26, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Nov. 19-25

Shadows (1959) ***½
Director/Writer: John Casavetes
Starring: Ben Carruthers, Lelia Goldino, Hugh Hurd, Anthony Ray, Dennis Sallas, Tom Allen, David Pikitolow, Rupert Crosse, Davey Jones

John Casavetes’s directorial debut “Shadows” is obviously a movie that was way ahead of its time. Embracing the ideals of the French New Wave, Casavetes made an improvised movie about young adults in New York that doesn’t really tell any particular story so much as just looks at the lifestyles of these beatniks. It also tackles some pretty strong racial issues ahead of the civil rights movement. Casavete’s work and this movie in particular seems to have had a great influence on the work of directing giant Martin Scorsese, whose own directorial debut “Who’s That Knocking at My Door” is made with the same spirit and even a very similar opening scene.

Young Sherlock Holmes (1985) **
Director: Barry Levinson
Writers: Chris Columbus, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (characters)
Starring: Nicholas Rowe, Alan Cox, Sophie Ward, Anthony Higgins, Susan Fleetwood, Freddie Jones

“Young Sherlock Holmes” was one of those many mid 80s movies that jumped on the bandwagon of depicting child adventurers, ala “The Goonies”. In this case, the child adventurers are the boarding school aged Sherlock Holmes and James Watson. This original story does a good job of capturing the same logical approach to slightly supernatural material that marked most of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s own writings about his famous detective. Unfortunately, the film is poorly paced. It never seems to find its stride as it runs on idle for far too long.

Barry Levinson, under the production guidance of Steven Spielberg, does not have the knack for compelling adventure like Spielberg. The young actors are obviously gifted, but they never really let themselves go in their characters. This drains much of the energy of the film. There are some good features, including some impressive special effects provided by the then unknown animation division of Industrial Light & Magic, Pixar. But beyond its technical achievements, there’s little of significance to be culled from this pack runner.

GlodenEye (1995) ***
Director: Martin Campbell
Writers: Jeffery Caine, Bruce Feirstein, Michael France, Ian Fleming (characters)
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Sean Bean, Izabella Scorupco, Famke Janssen, Joe Don Baker, Judi Dench, Robbie Coltrane, Gottfried John, Alan Cumming, Tchéky Karyo, Desmond Llewelyn, Samantha Bond

The first mission for Pierce Brosnan as 007 (and for director Martin Campbell) is more impressive than I remembered, yet still not nearly as impressive as Campbell’s “Casino Royale”. I was shocked to realize how far into the movie you get before they give you any sort of exposition at all. The don’t even really tell you just who this James Bond guy is and they certainly don’t queue you in as to what’s going on. The film reaches the 36 minute mark before the audience is even told just what this guy is who shoots guns, explodes weapons compounds, races hot women in fast cars, plays baccarat, and runs onto naval vessels without so much as an identification. Certainly anyone familiar with the Bond character doesn’t question what is going on, but really, beyond Bond’s previous exploits there are no solid clues given as to just what is going on in this movie for a good 40 minutes. I liked that.

From Paris With Love (2010) *
Director: Pierre Morel
Writers: Adi Hasak, Luc Besson
Starring: Jonathan Rhys Meyers, John Travolta, Kasi Smutniak, Richard Durden

John Travolta sure is one crazy bald badasssss. Wow! What an absurdly stupid movie!

Crazed Fruit (1956) ****
Director: Kô Nakahira
Writer: Shintarô Ishihara
Starring: Masahiko Tsugawa, Yûjirô Ishihara, Mie Kitahara, Masumi Okada

“Crazed Fruit” is an overlooked gem that examines the disenfranchised youth of post-WWII Japan. There is some wonderful social commentary contained within this surprising thriller that tests the bounds of loyalty and betrayal in a love triangle involving two brothers. The disillusioned youth culture portrayed in the film can apply to many generations of youth that feel they know everything and nobody understands them. I suspect many of the characters here grew up a little in the years following this story to become the captains of industry that would lead Japan to the top of the technological industry that would mark the country’s electronic dominance in the 80s. Of course, a couple of them don’t.

The Karate Kid (2010) ***
Director: Harald Zwart
Writers: Christopher Murphey, Robert Mark Kamen (1984 screenplay)
Starring: Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Henson, Wenwen Han, Zhenwei Wang

I watched the new version of “The Karate Kid” with my boys. I was just a boy when I saw the original. It’s a long movie with a lot more drama than action. I didn’t know how it would go over, especially with the youngest whose first question about any movie is, “Is there fighting in it?” If not, he’s generally not interested. The oldest will watch pretty much anything, but with all of Netflix streaming at the flick of his Wii remote, it can sometimes be difficult to convince him to watch something that isn’t animated.

To my joy, they were enthralled. I was too, for the most part. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a remake that seemed more natural than this one. It’s fairly true to the original, it just spans it’s scope a little further by displacing the single mother and her child from Detroit to China instead of New Jersey to California. This switch is fitting, as the world has grown more global in the past twenty years. Jackie Chan is a good choice for the mentor to the boy; and the truth is, it doesn’t really matter that it should be titled “The Kung Fu Kid”. The message is the same.

Merry Madagascar (2009) ***
Director: David Soren
Writers: Tom McGrath, Eric Darnell, David Soren
Starring: Ben Stiller, Crhis Rock, David Schwimmer, Jada Pinkett Smith, Cedric the Entertainer, Andy Richter, Carl Reiner, Danny Jacobs, Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Willow Smith, Nina Dobrev, Jim Cummings

So, we’ve eaten the turkey, and now, it’s time to start with the Holiday movies. Thanks to NBC, we got things rolling with a couple of animated specials. Like the new Halloween trend of turning popular feature film franchises into holiday specials, this has worked well for the Christmas season. This Madagascar special first aired last year, and despite the fact that my children have this on DVD, we couldn’t let it air on TV without watching it. It was cute last year. It’s cute this year. That’s really about all there is to say about it. Those penguins are still funny.

Kung Fu Panda Holiday (2010) ***
Director: Tim Johnson
Starring: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie

The first new entry to this year’s batch of holiday specials comes from the “Kung Fu Panda” franchise, which makes its second theatrical entry next summer. This ‘holiday special,’ which is not just a term of political correctness since the ancient Chinese setting really negates any sort of Christmas connection, does a good job of reminding audiences how charming the characters of the panda Po and his inexplicably duck father are. It’s a little surprising to see that big guns Dustin Huffman and Angelina Jolie returned their voices to the fairly small roles of their characters here. I was unable to obtain a full credits list, so I’m not sure how many original cast members returned; but they all sounded the same.

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