Thursday, November 11, 2010

Penny Thoughts: November 1-11

Babies (2010) ***½
Director: Thomas Blamés
Writers: Thomas Blamés (adaptation), Alain Chabat (idea)
Starring: Ponijao, Bayar, Mari, Hattie
Babies are adorable. This is an arguable point, but for many they just are. The new documentary “Babies” proves that they are at least as, if not more, adorable than a bunch of penguins. Seeming to follow in the documentary trend that started its most recent boom in popularity with “March of the Penguins”, “Babies” sets out to prove that it isn’t just your own children that are adorable, but others as well. It doesn’t matter where or how they are raised, their inscrutable insistence on exploring and growing makes them irresistible. And from someone who is pretty much only impressed by his own children, it makes a pretty good case. Looking at four different children during their first year in four different cultures, “Babies” shows that infants just can’t be held back.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008) ***
Director: Ji-woon Kim
Writers: Ji-woon Kim, Min-suk Kim
Starring: Kang-ho Song, Byung-hun Lee, Woo-sung Jung, Je-mun Yun, Seung-su Ryu
“The Good, the Bad, the Weird” is a slam bang shoot ‘em up western. Who cares if it’s Korean? In fact, since the most visually exciting cinema at the moment is all coming from South Korea, I’d say that’s an asset. Set in late 1800s Manchuria, like it really even matters, this western homage takes a large queue from the classic spaghetti western “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, with a smidgeon of “The Road Warrior” thrown in for one big climactic chase sequence. But it’s all done with a much more lighthearted spirit than those heavy lifters.

The great comic actor Kang-ho Song takes the primary focus of the plot as The Weird of the titular triumvirate. Like the Sergio Leone western, the trio of the title is seeking a treasure. The Good and the Weird are at odds with each other, but often work together in their efforts to prevent the Bad from getting to the booty first. There’s a great deal of comedy milked from the strange situations the Weird finds himself in. And there’s even more action. Looking at a movie like this, you begin to wonder what happened to the spirit of American cinema. Korea is now where it’s at.

28 Up (1985) ****
Director: Michael Apted
Starring: Bruce Balden, Jacqueline Bassett, Symon Basterfield, Andrew Brackfield, Peter Davies, Suzanne Dewey, Nicholas Hitchon, Neil Hughes, Lynn Johnson, Paul Kligerman, Susan Sullivan, Tony Walker
In the fourth installment of Michael Apted’s ambitious “Up” documentary series, which follows a group of British citizens throughout their lives with an episode every seven years, we find the children we met at age seven now at age 28. It seems that universally throughout the subjects that 28 is the age where all their life illusions have been tempered into realism. Gone are all these people’s mere dreaming of what they will be. Some have achieved exactly what they said they would at age seven. Most have fallen somewhat shorter than their childhood imaginations carried them, and one seems to be teetering on the abyss. For the most part, they seem happy with their lives despite the fact that most are not where they once imagined. As with each episode of this fascinating documentary exercise, I find myself longing to know where these people find themselves at our next visit with them.

Louie, season 1 (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Louis CK
Starring: Louis CK
I don’t usually review television shows here, but I’d like to make an exception for the wonderful, funny, poignant, surprising, and genuinely original FX series “Louie”. It’s based on the life of its creator, stand up comic Louis CK. It’s been called Seinfeldian in its stylistic approach, but Louis CK really sculpts the format to fit the messages he’s trying to convey. Unlike Seinfeld, it isn’t a comedy about nothing. It’s more about being a divorced single father than anything else.

Most episodes are broken into three distinct segments interwoven with each other. There are stand up segments of Louie at work in small New York comedy clubs. Some episodes have cold opens with very strange conversations. The meat of each episode is usually slice of life stories that involve subjects like dating, fatherhood, sex, play dates, school volunteering, growing old, and God. The subjects of each episode generally start out as awkward situational comedy, but Louie frequently faces these comic situations with a good grain of seriousness that suggests these aren’t mere jokes to him. These issues are things that really matter to Louie. They often strike fairly universal cords and rarely go down expected roads.

Winter’s Bone (2010) ****
Director: Debra Granik
Writers: Debra Granik, Anne Rosellini, Daniel Woodrell (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, John Hawkes, Dale Dickey, Garret Dillahunt, Shelley Waggener, Lauren Sweetser
“Winter’s Bone” is so good, it makes me proud to be a Missourian. That’s saying something, coming from a Mainer through and through. It tells the tale of Ree Dolly, a 17-year-old girl taking care of her younger siblings in the Ozark Mountains. Her mother is mentally ill and her father has disappeared after a run in with the law. If he misses a court date, the house he used for bonding will be taken away from Ree. The threat of homelessness is hardly the only obstacle Ree has to face in her life, but it could make keeping her siblings together impossible. She must find her father, a difficult thing to do in an extended family that would rather leave Ree to fend for herself than reveal the truth about her father’s whereabouts.

“Winter’s Bone” is at once a tense backwoods noir and a heart wrenching drama about survival at the poverty level. Ree has a neighbor that does what she can for her, but they aren’t much better off. She has a good friend that talks to her about the realities of sacrifice necessary in marriage. One such sacrifice is possibly not being there for a friend in need. Her uncle, John Hawkes in a career defining performance, shares the tough love adopted by most of the extended family, but since he’s in almost as much hot water with them as his brother seems to be, he shows mercy on Ree. For that matter, the young Jennifer Lawrence shows as much gumption and determination in her performance as Ree as the character shows in her resolve to save the shabby but love driven life of her and her siblings.

Splice (2010) ***
Director: Vincenzo Natali
Writers: Vincenzo Natali, Antoinette Terry Bryant, Doug Taylor
Starring: Adrien Brody, Sarah Polley, Delphine Chaneac
I’ve got mixed feelings about this sci-fi horror thriller. On the one hand, it’s a very well made genre picture that ponders many moral quandaries about science and motherhood. On the other hand, I think they could’ve made a better movie out of this same subject matter without many changes.

Adrien Brody and Sarah Polley put in two solid performances as scientists who create a new lifeform in order to extract genes for curing human ailments. However, they get caught up in the whole paternal implications of what was intended to remain a scientific experiment. Complicating things further is the experiment itself, which prefers to be seen as a lifeform more so than a science project.

The middle act is a tough sell, as the characters are forced into some betrayals that I don’t feel the screenplay fully earns. But the brains behind the script are too hard to deny as producing a movie worth seeing. As you might expect, there are some scares that the filmmakers earn very well. It’s far better than the similar in atmosphere “Species”.

The Girl Who Played with Fire (2010) **
Director: Daniel Alfredson
Writers: Jonas Frykberg, Stieg Larsson (novel)
Starring: Noomi Rapace, Michael Nyqvist, Lena Endre, Peter Andersson, Michalis Koutsogiannakis, Yasmine Garbi, Georgi Staykov
“The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo” is one of my favorite films of the year. Going into this sequel, I knew many critics were disappointed with it. This did not surprise me, since the first one was so good, the second couldn’t possibly match it. I was shocked to find that the difference was more than just a let down. The second is just poor filmmaking. It drags. It drops entire subplots. Its twists are simplistic, yet reached in far too much complexity. To even call this one a pale shadow of the first is giving too much credit to it. It is no surprise that this one was made by an entirely different creative team. I’m shaking my head in frustration. Hopefully, they fix this one in the Hollywood version.

Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon (2010) ***
Director: John Puglisi
Writers: Peter Steinfeld, Jeff Snow (story), David Moses Pimentel (story), Ken Morrissey (story), Johane Matte (story), Aimée Marsh, Cressida Cowell (book series)
Starring: Craig Ferguson, Jay Baruchel, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, TJ Miller, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig, Gerard Butler
It’s DVD time for a major animated box office success, and so we get the obligatory animated short to entice shoppers with promises of something they didn’t see in theaters. On the DVD release of “How to Train Your Dragon” we get “Legend of the Boneknapper Dragon”, a quite humorous short that answers many questions we never thought to ask of the feature film, including, “How did Gobber lose his tooth?” and “What was that awesome looking skeleton dragon shown in the book of dragons?” Much the same as the short that accompanied DreamWorks’s “Kung Fu Panda”, the producers save some money by making half the movie in a traditional hand drawn animation style (although likey still produced by a computer) to avoid the time consuming 3D rendering necessary for the current popular CGI style of the feature film. It’s still a pretty good little flick, though.

How to Train Your Dragon (2010) ***
Director: Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders
Writers: William Davies, Dean DeBlois, Chris Sanders, Cressida Cowell (novel)
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Jonah Hill, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, TJ Miller, Kristen Wiig
As the year has progressed, the good reputation of “How to Train Your Dragon” has only grown. Generally though of as the best 3D experience since “Avatar”, home video brings “Dragon” without the 3D format, but with the same good story of finding your own place in the world and visuals that are just as stunning in only two dimensions.

Second viewings often bring new perceptions to good movies and this time around this disabilities angle of the story really struck me. There’re the fairly obvious mirrored disabilities in Hiccup and Toothless in the final scene of the film, but even before Hiccup is physically handicapped, his social handicaps present a very large hurdle he must overcome. There’s this illusion that such situations require a personality shift, something all but unheard of in real life but fairly easy when a script is involved. It’s nice the way the screenplay here embraces Hiccup’s personality flaws, instead of disregarding them to present us with a more typical hero. I really like how he has to struggle to articulate his feelings for Toothless when pressed by Astrid. This is the best animated film I’ve seen this year.

Read my original review here.


Anonymous said...

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Anonymous said...

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