Friday, December 31, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Dec. 24-30

Flipped (2010) **
Director: Rob Reiner
Writers: Andrew Scheinman, Rob Reiner, Wendelin Van Draanen (novel)
Starring: Madeline Carroll, Callan McAulliffe, John Mahoney, Aiden Quinn, Anthony Edwards, Penelope Ann Miller, Rebecca De Mornay, Kevin Weisman

“Flipped” is a nice attempt to return to a simpler time in filmmaking. It has a nice pure message of love and understanding. It is approached simply, as the material requires. It even has a nice twist on the classic teen romance by telling its tale from both the boy’s and the girl’s point of view. Unfortunately, it’s missing that indefinable “magic” of great, or even good, filmmaking. It could be on the level of great nostalgia, like “Stand By Me”; but instead, it operates more on the level of “The Sandlot” or “The War”.

The most shocking thing about its shortcomings is the fact that it was made by the very same director as “Stand By Me”. I cannot fathom what has befallen Rob Reiner as a filmmaker, but his gift is gone. I think the key difference between his period childhood masterpiece and this lame duck lies within the definitions of the childhood he’s recreating in each film. The kids in “Stand By Me” are real and flawed individuals existing in an imperfect world. They still see the world with the purity of children, but the film doesn’t pretend their fantasy is their reality. In “Flipped” everything is romanticized, the kids follow tried and tired behavior patterns, and the world they live in is too perfect. Even the imperfections, like the girl’s mentally challenged uncle or the boy’s overbearing father, are “neat” versions of imperfection that never threaten to totally destroy the fantasy.

Stolen Summer (2002) ***½
Director/Writer: Pete Jones
Starring: Adi Stein, Aidan Quinn, Kevin Pollock, Bonnie Hunt, Mike Weinberg, Eddie Kaye Thomas, Brian Dennehy

On the other side of nostalgic childhood period pieces is Pete Jones’ “Stolen Summer”—the first feature produced from Ben Affleck’s and Matt Damon’s reality series Project Greenlight. It tells the story of an Irish Catholic school third grader who fears he will go to hell if he doesn’t perform a good Christian deed. He decides to find a Jewish person and convert them to Christianity. Much as it does to the adult characters in the film, this sounds like a terrible idea; but when approached through the eyes of children its purity provides the perfect good intention to spark a thoughtful story about how we all want the same good things for our families despite our differences of faith or opinion. Even within the family, it shows us that common ground can be found within our differences.

This one gets everything right that “Flipped” gets wrong. Although the hero has a simple understanding of things, he does not exist in a simple world, nor is he himself simple. His clear and untarnished focus points out flaws in the way we all live our lives, along with tackling the subject of organized religion’s exclusivity against children. As adults we place differences and borders in the way of things that we all strive for. This film uses its child protagonist to inspire a thoughtful approach to our problems, instead of seeing everything in the simple manner we tend to project onto children.

Harold and Maude (1971) ****
Director: Hal Ashby
Writer: Colin Higgins
Starring: Bud Cort, Ruth Gordon, Vivian Pickles, Charles Tyner, Eric Christmas, G. Wood

I originally watched this movie a very long time ago. I believe I was about ten. My brother and I had been helping my father move one of his running buddies into a new condo. She had picked a couple of videos for us all to watch when we were finished. She had chosen “Never Cry Wolf” and this one. I don’t think either were up my father’s action oriented alley, but he had fewer issues with watching a grown man run around naked with a pack of wolves than he did about this February/December romance between a very young man and an 80-year-old woman.

At the time, I loved “Never Cry Wolf”. I don’t think we even finished watching “Harold and Maude”, but I suspected we were missing out. Finally, after all these years, I’ve returned to it; and I was right. Of course now, I know about the wonderful films of Hal Ashby, a director with a penchant for striking images and the dissection of human behavior through eccentric characters. “Harold and Maude” fell pretty close to the beginning of a phenomenal run of films made by Ashby throughout the 70s with titles including, “The Last Detail”, “Shampoo”, “Coming Home”, and “Being There”.

“Harold and Maude” challenges our perceptions of what is acceptable for a romantic relationship of intimacy with its couple that, in truth, is perfectly matched. It includes religious, psychiatric and military figures that are grossly ridiculous; yet because of their accepted notions of what is “right”, nobody questions them. And, Harold’s ineffectual and unaffectionate mother really only has herself to blame that her son should turn to such unaccepted alternatives to both gain her attention and replace her love. The film is an unconventional comedy that questions the very conventions it’s playing against.

The Candidate (1972) ***
Director: Michael Ritchie
Writer: Jeremy Larner
Starring: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, Don Porter, Karen Carlson, Allen Garfield, Melvyn Douglas

Two years ago our first black president was elected into office. There was a monumental feeling that something very important had happened. Today, it’s easy to forget those feelings existed. As Washington still seems to be practicing politics as usual, it’s easy to wonder just what happened to all that promised change that inspired a country to such an historic election.

Robert Redford’s “The Candidate” is a movie for these political times. It involves a California Democrat Senatorial candidate that is recruited to run against a Republican incumbent, who is thought to be unbeatable. He agrees to run for the attention it will bring to his social causes. Throughout the campaign he finds he’s required to shed most of his ideals just to fend off embarrassment that would hurt his causes. When he unexpectedly wins the seat, his first question is, “Well, now what do we do?”

Redford’s politician is much like Warren Beatty’s in his wonderful movie “Bulworth” in the way they both gain popularity through their ability to speak their minds without all the politically correct filters that make American politics seem disingenuous. Redford’s liberal goes in the opposite direction of Beatty’s true conservative, however, in that as the election draws nearer, he finds himself playing the political game ever closer to the vest in order to survive. We may have the greatest political system in the world; that doesn’t mean it isn’t flawed.

Klute (1971) ****
Director: Alan J. Pakula
Writers: Andy Lewis, David P. Lewis
Starring: Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, Charles Cioffi, Roy Scheider, Dorothy Tristan

In “Klute” we get to see why Alan J. Pakula quickly became one of the go to directors for emotional thrillers. He would later prove his mettle as a thriller director by taking a newspaper story that wasn’t necessarily an outright thriller and turning it to one of the best political films this country’s seen in “All the President’s Men”. “Klute”, however, was his first big splash as a director of thrillers.

What appealed to me so much about “Klute” is how much time it spent on the central victim of the story and how effortlessly it portrayed its hero. Jane Fonda won an Oscar for her role as a call girl who gets mixed up in a missing persons case being investigated privately by the rather square cop portrayed by Donald Southerland. Nothing about the case is apparent to either of these two characters and the movie puts the pieces together so slowly it’s easy to think nothing is being solved so much as these two awkwardly cast characters are working out their own personal issues on each other. Of course, the call girl’s major issue is her inability to trust anyone, one of the very reasons she’s a call girl to begin with.

We get so deeply entwined in Fonda’s character and motivations that the fear she feels in this dangerous situation creeps up on us in the same way it does her character. Soon we’re jumping at the same shadows and noises she is. Just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

Inception (2010) ****
Director/Writer: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Marion Cotillard, Tom Hardy, Cillian Murphy, Dileep Rao, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine

When a movie is both good and popular, the backlash against it is inevitable. “Inception”, the dream heist movie that was a summer blockbuster sensation, is still a major contender going into awards season, but the backlash against it has taken its toll on the opinions of some. I watched it again with a severely discerning eye. Although I was able to come up with some minor logistical hiccups this time around, I still didn’t care because the film is so smartly written and expertly crafted.

The first time I watched the movie it was mostly about the heist to me, and the storyline concerning Cobb and Mal was a very detailed distraction from the job, the aspect that could trip up the whole plan. That it is, but this time I felt the story was just as much focused on Cobb’s relationship with Mal and how they had sculpted a life from the dream world as it was on the heist itself. Their estrangement from reality affected me much more profoundly upon the second viewing. One reason for this is because I had already witnessed the stunning visuals choreographed by Nolan and his cinematographer Wally Pfister and film editor Lee Smith. But also, that part of the story is just as strongly presented as the heist itself.

Read my original review here.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Dec. 17-23

TRON (1982) ***½
Director: Steven Lisberger
Writers: Steven Lisberger, Bonnie MacBird
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Bruce Boxleitner, David Warner, Cindy Morgan, Barnard Hughes, Dan Shor

I hope legions of new “TRON” fans from the new 3D release “TRON: Legacy” don’t go racing back to their computers to add the original to their Netflix queue. If they do, they probably won’t like what they find. Should they keep their minds open, however, they will find a video game-themed movie with a brain that has the same historical footprint as the original “King Kong”. “TRON” gave us everything that birthed the digital age of filmmaking. Although, it’s not as impressive by today’s standards as it was at the time, the CGI visual effects are really quite impressive considering nothing like them had ever been done before.

The team behind the CGI of “TRON” would eventually inspire John Lasseter to establish what is now the leading studio in CGI entertainment, Pixar Animation Studio. Lasseter may have even stolen his studio’s tendency to reference other influences in their films from the “TRON” filmmakers. Look for a giant Mickey Mouse head in one background plate and the original Pac Man makes an appearance in another scene.

Let’s also not overlook the Messiah theme found in “TRON”. That thing keeps popping up in the movies I’m watching this month. Could it be coincidence? You tell me.

The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010) ***
Director: Jon Turteltuab
Writers: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal, Matt Lopez, Doug Miro, Carlo Bernard
Starring: Jay Baruchel, Nicolas Cage, Alfred Molina, Teresa Palmer, Toby Kebbell, Monica Bellucci, Alice Krige

I liked this movie a whole lot more than I expected to, mostly due to the two leads. Nic Cage has a reputation for making some dicey choices of projects. I didn’t expect this to be one of his winners, or him to be any good in it. His penchant for going over the top often will have a negative impact on a genre picture such as this one. He’s surprisingly contained in his role as the Sorcerer here, though.

 Jay Baruchel grows on me with every picture I see him in. Many critics over the past year have cited the emergence of a great young talent in Jesse Eisenberg of “The Social Network”. While Baruchel is yet to be tackling material of that level, I’m not sure it will be long before he blossoms into another great American actor.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010) ****
Director: Banksy
Narrator: Rhys Ifans
Featuring: Thierry Guetta, Banksy, Shepard Fairey, Space Invader

I’ve never been so quickly sucked into a documentary as I was with this would-be exposé on the world of street artists. The intended subject matter is intriguing enough, but what the documentary becomes is something far more fascinating. The man who shot the footage is Thiery Guetta. His obsession with shooting everything he sees is what gets him into the street art world, whose artists feel his presence might be good publicity for them, since their art’s lifespan is fairly short.

After finally befriending the elusive and most infamous street artist, Bansky, it becomes clear that Thierry is hardly a filmmaker of any kind. Yet somehow, he insinuates himself enough into the world of street art that he somehow crafts himself a career as a street artist, without any notion of original thought behind his work. It’s an unlikely story that is cobbled together from Thierry’s endless footage by the one time subject Banksy into an incredible document of a man without identity crafting one out of thin air.

Cronos (1993) **½
Director/Writer: Guillermo Del Toro
Starring: Federico Luppi, Ron Perlman, Claudio Brook, Tamara Shanath, Margarita Isabel

This original take on vampire mythology was visionary director Guillermo Del Toro’s feature length debut. While its originality is refreshing and it’s obvious here that Del Toro is a unique and visionary director, his inexperience as a cinematic storyteller is also on display. Much of the film is awkwardly handled and Ron Perlman’s villain is too far over the top for the rather grounded approach of the rest of the movie. There are a great deal of ideas introduced that Del Toro never really follows up. In the end, it seems there’s too much missing here to really get behind it, but for horror connoisseurs it’s worth a look for Del Toro’s unique take on the vampire.

Manhattan (1979) ***½
Director: Woody Allen
Writers: Woody Allen, Marshall Brickman
Starring: Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Michael Murphy, Muriel Hemingway, Meryl Streep, Anne Byrne

“Manhattan” has been called Woody Allen’s love letter to New York City.  What might seem to some as his typical dysfunctional couples storylines hides some of his more cinematically subtle artistic gestures, highlighted by Gordon Willis’s beautiful black and white photography. It’s easy to think that as an actor, Allen’s characters take everything they say seriously. I think “Manhattan” does a good job pointing out that this is not true. The characters he plays in most of his films can’t help themselves from making sardonic commentary about themselves, but here it’s apparent that Allen’s character does so merely because he just can’t let a good witticism pass by without taking the opportunity to try it out on an audience. Perhaps it’s more obvious here that his self-deprecation is made mostly in jest because he plays a television comedy writer. Or, perhaps after years of watching Allen, I’ve finally come to that realization myself. Therein lies the joy of Allen. He’s a filmmaker who doesn’t feel the need to explain himself; so as an audience, enlightenment is found through personal discovery.

How the Grinch Stole Christmas (2000) *
Director: Ron Howard
Writers: Jeffrey Price, Peter S. Seaman, Dr. Seuss (book)
Starring: Jim Carrey, Taylor Momsen, Bill Irwin, Jeffrey Tambor, Christine Baranski, Molly Shannon, Clint Howard

The live action version of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” makes me long to watch the original half-hour television cartoon. The cartoon is a treat as it is, but the loud, obnoxious live action conniption fit that Ron Howard felt he could actually call entertainment is anything but enjoyable. Jim Carrey tries and tries and tries so hard that you want to strangle him. The anti-consumerism message that was so succinct in the original is at odds here with the overblown production design and the filmmakers’ insistence that they try to make the audience laugh at any cost. Were it not for my own children, I would never watch this movie again; but alas, they don’t see the irony in it that I do.

Scrooged (1988) ***
Director: Richard Donner
Writers: Mitch Glazer, Michael O’Donoghue, Charles Dickens (novel “A Christmas Carol”)
Starring: Bill Murray, Karen Allen, Alfre Woodard, John Forsythe, John Glover, Bobcat Goldthwait, Robert Mitchum, David Johansen, Carol Kane

“Scrooged” is certainly the most fun version of the Charles Dickens holiday classic “A Christmas Carol”.  It’s a movie that went fairly well ignored by me until I was married. My wife is a long time fan of the film.  She converted me with her own passion for it and the script’s wonderfully wry sense of humor. Its ability to look at the Dickens’ ghosts of Christmas as playful and mean things rather than their typically noble presentation makes this telling of the tale unique and laugh out loud funny. It’s really no surprise that the script was the product of National Lampoon and Saturday Night Live satirist Michael O’Donoghue, a gifted comedy writer who would’ve gone on to contribute many more golden nuggets to our comedy culture had he not died too young.

The Kids Are All Right (2010) ****
Director: Lisa Cholodenko
Writers: Lisa Cholodenko, Stuart Blumberg
Starring: Julianne Moore, Annette Bening, Mark Ruffalo, Mia Wasikowska, Josh Hutcherson

This is one of the best movies about being a family I’ve ever seen. I find myself a bit lost in how to approach this review because it hit home on so many levels. I thought, since this was Penny Thoughts—my simpler approach to movie reviews—I would simply reprint Julianne Moore’s speech about how hard marriage is, but that is only one aspect of this family, and the movie touches on so many more.

As with any family, the marriage that started it all is the primary focus of the film, but it also pinpoints the individual members of the family so well. It sees the forest and the trees. Each element of the family has an impact on the whole, and the whole as its own entity has some much influence on each of its individual pieces.

I wonder if making the parents a lesbian couple helps to focus the individual pieces in the context of the whole better. We’re so used to seeing the family unit as a traditional family, with male and female patriarchs, that our assumptions of their individual roles influence the way we perceive their actions. I enjoyed Moore’s and Annette Bening’s interactions, especially in the first half hour of the film, so much. I saw so much of my own marriage in them. I saw how funny their normal actions were toward and in reaction to each other. It all seemed so much sharper than I’d ever seen it with a heterosexual couple before.

I wished that certain indiscretions did not befall this wonderful couple. I wanted them to be perfect, yet that impulse is wrong. Even though the filmmakers could’ve presented a more positive image of a homosexual couple without them, the only way to truly view an alternative…. No, wrong… a non-traditional… Yuk, don’t like that either… a homosexual relationship in the same way as a hetero one, you have to show the dysfunction as well.

Christmas Vacation (1989) ****
Director: Jeremiah S. Chechik
Writer: John Hughes
Starring: Chevy Chase, Beverly D’Angelo, Randy Quiad, Juliette Lewis, Johnny Galecki, John Randolph, Diane Ladd, E.G. Marshall, Doris Roberts, Miriam Flynn, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Nicholas Guest

Part of the Christmas Trifecta, which also includes “A Christmas Story” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”, “Christmas Vacation” is a movie I watch every year. It’s one of those movies where the star rating hardly matters anymore. It used to be a three and a half, but that makes no sense since I can’t go through a holiday season without watching it, and every time it’s just as hilarious as the last. I can’t think of many movies that have produced so many quotable moments.

It may have been Chevy Chase’s last great big screen role, although he seems to have found success back on television where he started with the NBC comedy “Community”. It’s Chase that makes the Griswold family’s misadventures as great as they are, and the screenplay by John Hughes captures just about every silly family Christmas moment that mean so much to so many people.

Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) ****
Directors: Chuck Jones, Ben Washam
Writers: Dr. Seuss (book), Irv Spector (additional story), Bob Ogle (additional story)
Starring: Boris Karloff, June Foray, Thurl Ravenscroft

Thank God, I was able to have the opportunity to erase the thoughts of the Jim Carrey “Grinch” with the screening of the original television special of Dr. Seuss’ “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”. The cartoon exemplifies everything a big budget Hollywood production doesn’t understand about what makes the works of Theodor Giesel so good. Simplicity. That’s what makes his nursery rhymes work, simplicity. The original television special understood that. They didn’t hire a whole bunch of actors to perform voices. Boris Karloff narrates and does the voice of the Grinch. Only one other character speaks, and they hired the great voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft to sing for Karloff. They didn’t hire legions of artists to decorate the background panels. Most of the backgrounds are blank with pastel colors. Chuck Jones’ character drawings are clever improvements on the ones provided in Seuss’ book. And I think they even used much of the same stock music that Warner Bros. used for Jones’ Coyote and Road Runner cartoons. What a Christmas joy this short movie is.

The Family Man (2000) **½
Director: Brett Ratner
Writers: David Diamond, David Weissman
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Téa Leoni, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Piven, Saul Rubinek, Josef Sommer, Mackenzie Vega

“The Family Man” is a bit of an oddity in my annual Christmas viewing schedule. It’s a favorite of my wife’s, but I’ve never really been crazy about it. Although it doesn’t belong to the Christmas Trifecta, we do watch it just about every year. I think it’s a really good effort by the filmmakers. I like the story and the performances, but it doesn’t entirely work for what it’s trying to accomplish. I can’t get entirely behind it, yet I still relate to most of it.

What I like about the movie is it really explores the difficulties of marriage. How do you continue to love this person that you’ve lived with non-stop for years? Is it possible to love them as passionately, as deeply as when the relationship was young? How do all the other elements—kids, work, extended family, external temptations—affect what was once a love shared just between two people?

It’s serendipitous that I should watch this movie the same week I saw the new and wonderful “The Kids Are All Right”. The newer movie explores the same questions about marriage, but much more successfully. Perhaps more importantly, it’s much funnier than “The Family Man”. It does a better job of seeing the humor of all these pressures on a relationship than the Christmas-themed “The Family Man”.

A Christmas Tale (2008) **½
Director: Arnaud Desplechin
Writers: Arnaud Desplechin, Emmanuel Bourdieu
Starring: Catherine Deneuve, Jean-Paul Roussillon, Anne Consigny, Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Laurent Capelluto, Emile Berling, Emmanuelle Devos

The French film “Un Conte de Noël (A Christmas Tale)” was well received by critics upon its release. Not as much by the public at large. I find myself falling under the general audience consensus on this one. It unveils the story of a dysfunctional family who agree to spend Christmas together when the matriarch of the family is diagnosed with a rare and fatal cancer. Their story is interestingly enough told, although many of the developments are just too far flung for me to take it as credibly as it wants to be seen. One or two of these family “tragedies” might befall the same group of people, but the amount that piles up here are a little much to take.

I’m also not sure just what their story has to do with Christmas. Perhaps I’m just missing the metaphorical parallels to some obscure Biblical Christmas story here, but it seems to me their tale could’ve centered on any holiday or family milestone.  The French cast puts forth admirable performances, however; and it’s always a pleasure to witness the beautiful and tender Catherine Deneuve on screen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

TRON: Legacy / *** (PG)

Kevin Flynn/Clu: Jeff Bridges
Sam Flynn: Garrett Hedlund
Quorra: Olivia Wilde
Alan Bradley/Tron: Bruce Boxleitner
Jarvis: James Frain
Gen: Beau Garrett
Castor/Zuse: Michael Sheen

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Joseph Kosinski. Written by Edward Kitsis & Adam Horowitz and Brian Klugman & Lee Sternthal, based on characters created by Steven Lisberger and Bonnie MacBird. Running time: 127 min. Rated PG (for sequences of sci-fi action violence and brief mild language).

Almost 30 years ago the motion picture business was revolutionized by a little movie called “TRON”. It was a confusing movie to the public at large with its techno-babble dialogue involving “programs” and “users,” but it gave us images unlike any we’d seen before. Many weren’t sure what to make of it. Some praised it as revolutionary. If you look back at it today, it may still seem strange, and it certainly won’t look like an amazing technical achievement. But, that’s what it was.

The original “TRON” marked the birth of CGI as a filmmaking tool. In so, it gave us just about everything the modern special effects driven blockbuster depends on today. That’s a lot for a sequel to live up to 27 years after the fact. To most of today’s audience, some of whom may not even realize that “TRON: Legacy” is a sequel to anything, the new movie will far surpass the original. To those who understand the term ‘legacy’ a little better, it’ll be a hell of a lot of fun to look at, but somewhat lacking in the substance department.

“TRON: Legacy” looks magnificent. It’s one of the rare 3D movies that actually uses 3D as a storytelling element. It involves the cyber world of technology mogul Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges reprising his role from the original “TRON”). As a child, Sam (Garrett Hedlund, “Friday Night Lights”) listened to the stories his father, Kevin, told him of entering the “grid”, in literal terms, of a technological world of programs and games. Kevin was actually able to visit the personified programs in the computer world he had created. Sam was in awe of his father, but one day the elder Flynn disappeared.

Twenty years later, Sam is more interested in perpetrating cyber crimes against his father’s company than he is in running it. When Kevin’s former business partner, Alan (Bruce Boxleitner also reprising his role from the original film), receives a page from Kevin, he gives Sam the keys to Kevin’s secret office. There, Sam is transported to the very cyber world his father created and finds that his father’s stories were true. . This is when the 3D kicks in, improving upon a virtual cyber world that is already far more impressive than that of the original “TRON”.

Sam soon learns that his father’s world was taken over by his own program, Clu (also played by a digitally altered Bridges to look younger). Clu sees Sam as the same threat that he did Kevin and places the real human in the games played by the programs. All the games are based on the same models as those seen in the original “TRON”, but they’ve been amped up by thirty years of special effects developed from the same technology that the original film introduced. The light bikes are spectacular improvements upon the original, involving a multi-leveled arena that brings a new complexity to the game of riding your opponents into an inescapable corner.

Sam is saved from the games by the tough and beautiful Quorra (Olivia Wilde, “The Next Three Days”). She brings him to his father, now an exile in the very world he created. Sam is surprisingly accepting of all the events that take place in these early passages. Kevin seems just as unimpressed that his son has shown up in his cyber world after twenty years. But then, when you’re trapped in a virtual reality where programs combat each other in the form of video games, why should anything come as a surprise?

As has become apparent in this review, “TRON: Legacy” is a bit heavy on plot. As action plots go, it does a good job getting the movie from one effects sequence to the next. The storyline works and the visuals will thrill audiences going to see an action extravaganza. What this sequel lacks are the solid story themes of the original. It doesn’t have any problems presenting ideas, like the Savior theme for Sam, or a twist on the Prodigal Son theme by turning the father into the prodigal figure. But, we’re presented with too many different thematic possibilities and no overall defining theme. By the end the filmmakers can’t decide whether father or son is the Christ figure and they miss a large opportunity to fulfill the Creator/Creation storyline provided by the dual Bridges roles.

“TRON: Legacy” has been called a let down by many critics. While it does present a passable action storyline and employs some incredible special effects, it’s a let down in terms of science fiction themes. The fact that Jeff Bridges is able to play the misguided program Clu here, looking the same way he did more than twenty years ago is an amazing cinematic feat with implications this film doesn’t even begin to explore. The fact that the same actor can play a role in his twilight years looking as he would’ve at an earlier time in the same film career is… well, quite mind boggling. Here, it’s handled as if Bridges is just playing another villain; with a demise not unlike any villain, despite the fact that it is at the hands of an older good version of the same actor. Perhaps, I make too much of this particular aspect; but, something beyond great action and special effects could’ve elevated this film from merely good to great.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Dec. 10-16

Archer, season 1 (2010) ***½
Creators: Adam Reed, Matt Thompson
Starring: H. Jon Benjamin, Judy Greer, Chris Parnell, Aisha Tyler, Jessica Walter, Amber Nash

“Archer” is exactly the espionage spoof series you’d expect to see from the creators of such Adult Swim animated series’ as “Sealab 2021” and “Frisky Dingo”.  I’m a huge fan of the absurd humor of those shows. Reed and Thompson haven’t missed a beat with this series produced for FX. If anything “Archer” is the most straightforward spoof of the bunch, with most of the humor revolving around the lead character’s arrogance and inter-office sexual relations. The creators’ still throw a great deal of their absurd brand of humor into the mix, but if there were a good jumping in point for this adult brand of animation comedy, this would very a great place for the uninitiated to start.

The Matrix (1999) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Joe Pantoliano, Marcus Chong, Gloria Foster

As everyone knows, the Christmas season is the perfect time to watch “The Matrix”. There’s a great book called “The Gospel Reloaded: Exploring Spirituality and Faith in The Matrix” that spells it all out for those of you who may be unaware of all the Christian themes (among others) explored in the popular sci-fi trilogy from almost a decade ago. Now, it’s not my intent to spew a bunch of dogma here, but while some people might not be able to get into the epics “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or “Jesus of Nazareth”, they might be more willing to explore the Christian reason for the season through the bullets and latex of the Matrix universe. The Wachowskis lay it on pretty think if you’re paying attention. If not, it’s still a cool action movie. Although I will admit, for the first time, I began to see a little dating in the filmmaking techniques.

The Animatrix (2003) ***½
Directors: Andy Jones, Mahiro Maeda, Shinichirô Watanabe, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Takeshi Koike, Koji Morimoto, Peter Chung
Writers: The Wachowski Brothers, Yoshiaki Kawajiri, Koji Morimoto, Shinichirô Watanabe, Peter Chung
Starring: Kevin Michael Richards, Pamela Adlon, Michael Watson, Hedy Burress, Julia Fletcher, Melinda Clarke, Phil LaMarr, Victor Williams, James Arnold Taylor, Carrie-Anne Moss

The parallels between the “Matrix” trilogy and the “Star Wars” franchise are fairly obvious, but I couldn’t help but notice how much the “awakened” in the “Matrix” films are like Jedi Knights. This is most obvious I think in “The Animatrix” cartoon anthology that was released direct to DVD in conjunction with the release of “The Matrix Reloaded”. The first short in the anthology, “Last Flight of the Osiris”, acts as a kind of prequel to the second feature film. Although, not essential to the storyline of the trilogy, the events depicted in the short are mentioned during the exposition of “Reloaded”. 

Three of the other nine shorts pertain to events in the main trilogy. “Kid’s Story” tells how one of the crewmembers in “Reloaded” came to his knowledge of the Matrix. While the two part “The Second Renaissance”, I don’t know why they separated it into two parts, fills in the mythology of just how the A.I. gained control of the human race.

The five remaining stories are really the highlight of the set though, as their disconnect from the events in the feature films really allows the filmmakers to explore the ideals behind this dystopian future world of the Matrix. Some are explorations of the Jedi/Samurai code embraced by the Matrix universe (“Program”, “World Record”). “Matriculated” explores the narrow gaps separating the creation (artificial intelligence) from its creator (human beings). “A Detective Story” transports the world of the Matrix to that of one of its inspirations, film noir. And, my personal favorite of the bunch, “Beyond”, displays the least amount of plot in the way it shows how aspects of this Matrix concept of all humans existing in a virtual reality might manifest itself for the everyman, in this case a young woman searching for her lost cat.

The Good Guys, season one (2010) ***½
Creator: Matt Nix
Starring: Bradley Whitford, Colin Hanks, Jenny Wade, Diana Maria Riva, Joel Spence, RonReaco Lee, Angela Sarafyan

I seem to be becoming a TV critic, but I’m having some passion about some smaller TV productions this fall. The canceling of “The Good Guys” by FOX yesterday marks one of the greatest losses of the current television season. Like the highly successful series “Monk”, the Dallas-based hour-long comedy starring Bradley Whitford (“The West Wing”) and Colin Hanks (Tom’s son) was forged from a simpler age in television. It understood that it wasn’t as complex as the modern cop show and it had fun with that. It remembered that television could be fun and didn’t have to consist merely of seriousness and the depressing devastating hardships that a life based around the crime that most cop shows are based on today. This lighthearted approach to television in a non-sitcom is a refreshing blast from the past and very welcome in today’s television environment. And, it was damn funny to boot.

Tropic Thunder: Rain of Madness (2008) ***½
Creators: Justin Theroux, Steve Coogan
Starring: Steve Coogan, Justin Theroux, Ben Stiller, Robert Downey Jr., Jack Black, Jay Baruchel, Brandon T. Jackson, Danny McBride, Nick Nolte, Bill Hader

If you haven’t had the opportunity to peruse the special features of the director’s cut of “Tropic Thunder”, then you must get yourself a copy and check out the feature “Rain of Madness”. It’s a fake documentary about the making of the fake movie “Tropic Thunder” within the real movie “Tropic Thunder”. Hosted by documentary filmmaker Jan Jürgens, played by “Tropic Thunder” co-screenwriter Justin Theroux, “Rain of Madness” is a behind the scenes look at the demise of fake “Tropic Thunder” director Damien Cockburn (Steve Coogan reprising his role from the real movie).

It’s filmed like an expose on the production gone wrong, ala George Hickenlooper’s “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse” about the off the rails production of “Apocalypse Now”. Perhaps the most ingenious bit of spoofing done in this mockumentary is Theroux’s choice to base his performance as Jürgens on real German filmmaker Werner Herzog, whose unique speech pattern and accent make him one of the greatest doc narrators in the business. Herzog is a bit strange, however, and Theroux uses this odd nature to create some memorable fake filmmaking moments. The entire cast of “Tropic Thunder” contributes choice bits of comedy to the proceedings. The biggest problem with this little nugget is its short running time.

The Matrix Reloaded (2003) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Harold Perrineau, Jada Pinkett Smith, Harry Lennix, Anthony Zerbe, Gloria Foster, Lambert Wilson, Randall Duk Kim, Nona Gaye, Clayton Watson, Monica Bellucci

Back to the Messiah. Everything gets loaded back up in the sequel to the sci-fi hit. The actors seem much more relaxed in their roles and the allusions to the Lord Jesus are as well. While the parallels with Christian dogma are still there, the Wachowskis take more liberties and are much more obscure with their references. In fact, the focus on the second outing seems much more grounded in sci-fi philoso-badble. Of course, any Christian whose really paying attention knows how important choice is in regards to faith, the conversations about choice that take place between Neo and the Oracle and later between Neo and The Architect might seem more reflective of the pseudo-philosophy of the sci-fi genre than they are of theology, however. But then, the devil’s ability to assimilate almost anyone to his worldview is kind of hard to miss in Agent Smith.

I Am Love (2010) ****
Director: Luca Guadagnino
Writers: Luca Guadagnino, Barbara Alberti, Ivan Cotroneo, Walter Fasano
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Flavio Parenti, Edoardo Gabbriellini, Alba Rohrwacher, Pippo Delbono, Diane Flari, Maria Paiato, Marisa Berenson

“I Am Love” is a film that sneaks up on its viewer. It starts fairly matter-of-factly and slowly builds with subtle direction and writing and not-so-subtle music scoring. In fact, the film’s marvelous Hitchcockian score is the only thing that tips its hand at first to the fact that you are watching a highly stylized movie. Tilda Swinton stars as a Russian in an Italian family who will forever be an outsider, a fact even she doesn’t quite seem to realize until she meets a man with whom she will eventually have an affair.

In the early moments of watching the film, I wondered why we seem compelled to watch stories about the elite. Of course, most Americans don’t, and most have missed this movie. What a film they are missing. It’s not so much about the woman’s discovery of self, as so many affair movies are, as it is about her sudden realization that she had buried herself to conform to the woman she was supposed to become and yet could never be as a family outsider.

The Matrix Revolutions (2003) ****
Directors/Writers: The Wachowski Brothers
Starring: Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Laurence Fishburne, Hugo Weaving, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mary Alice, Harry Lennix, Harrold Perrineau, Nona Gaye, Lambert Wilson, Collin Chou, Clayton Watson, David Roberts, Bruce Spence

I find myself thinking about Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” as I contemplate the final chapter in the “Matrix” trilogy. In Scorsese’s film Christ in a way asks “Why?” when he finds himself on the cross. (It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, he might literally ask the question). In “The Matrix Revolutions” and throughout most of previous two films Neo asks the same question. But, by the time he finds himself in the sacrificial position for both mankind and their machine creations, this question has long since been answered for him. It was answered only by him, as so many of the characters must do throughout the series.

The “all-seeing” Oracle that preoccupies much of Neo’s and the villain Smith’s concerns throughout the series doesn’t provide concrete answers and seems to take pleasure in pointing out to each person she guides that the choice is always theirs. I wonder if more Christians, or followers of any religious sect for that matter, should consider the philosophy behind this reasoning more often than they do. It might make religion seem less like magic to the unbelievers and more like a viable outlet to bring their hopes and concerns about life.

Eyes Wide Shut (1999) ****
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Frederick Raphael, Arthur Schnitzler (novel “Traumnovelle”)
Starring: Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Sydney Lumet, Todd Field, Sky Dumont, Julienne Davis, Marie Richardson, Thomas Gibson, Vinessa Shaw, Rade Serbedzija, Leelee Sobieski, Alan Cumming

Stanley Kubrick’s final film “Eyes Wide Shut” is an easy one to misunderstand. That might be because he spends so much time lingering on a fairly common theme in adult drama. It’s a dissection of what defines adultery. Does it begin at the thought rather than the act? More specifically, it is about deception on a rather intimate scale. While political thrillers deal with deception on a broad scale, the deception in Kubrick’s film is on such an intimate and personal scale that most of its deception is committed by the deceived based on only partially understood information and unverifiable “facts.” Not to mention pot induced interrogation. But, there is one simple reason why I like this film so much, that is its final word. Few filmmakers could put such definitive punctuation on such a vague-natured and meandering contemplation of what defines fidelity.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Hereafter / ***½ (PG-13)

George Lonegan: Matt Damon
Marie Lelay: Cécile de France
Marcus/Jason: Frankie McLaren and George McLaren
Didier: Theirry Neuvic
Billy: Jay Mohr
Melanie: Bryce Dallas Howard
Jackie: Lyndsey Marshal

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Peter Morgan. Running time: 129 min. Rated PG-13 (for mature thematic elements including disturbing disaster and accident images, and for brief strong language).

Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter” is a movie like those that aren’t made anymore. It’s a supernatural drama, not a thriller. Although it deals with the afterlife, it’s about the people left behind, the living affected by the afterlife. It isn’t about ghosts. It isn’t about scaring the audience with the abstract fantasy of what happens when we die. It’s a melodrama about how we deal with death and therefore life.

The movie follows three different characters, each trying to come to terms with three different aspects of death in their lives. Marie (Cécile de France, “High Tension”) is a political news talk show host who survives a tsunami while vacationing and comes home to France changed by her near death experience.  George (Matt Damon, “Green Zone”) is a psychic in San Francisco, who can genuinely talk with the dead. Although people are desperate for his particular gifts, he sees them as a curse and only wants to lead a normal life. The British boy Marcus is a twin (both brothers are played by both Frankie and George McLaren) who loses his brother in a traffic accident. His dependence on his brother makes it difficult to move on, a problem complicated by the fact that his mother is fighting with drug abuse and the state chooses to remove him from her care.

All three of these characters are damaged by their relationships with death. George cannot hope to have a romantic relationship, because there is such a thing as knowing too much about someone. More accurately, knowing too much about someone who knows you know too much is unbearable for that person. Billy (Jay Mohr, “Jerry Maguire”), George’s brother, pushes him to return to being an active psychic. Billy doesn’t understand how negatively it affects George’s life. George can’t turn his abilities off, so he has no choice about knowing secrets about the people he touches. When anyone close to him learns of his abilities, they insist on seeing how accurate they are. George doesn’t blame them. He knows that curiosity is human nature. But, he can’t control their reactions, and neither can they.

Marie actually dies for a couple minutes during the tsunami. She had attempted to save a little girl, whom she continues to see in visions after she returns to France. Her visions of the afterlife distract her from her job, and her producer/boyfriend  (Thierry Neuvic, “Tell No One”) suggests she take some time off to write a book she’s been contemplating for some time. Her visions drive her to change the book to a study of the afterlife and near death experiences like her own. Soon she finds that, while once a highly respected news figure in Europe, she’s become a pariah.

All this leads to a scene between Marie and her boyfriend that exemplifies Eastwood’s and screenwriter Peter Morgan’s (“The Queen”) expert handling of this melodramatic material. When Marie learns she’s been permanently replaced in her anchor position, she accuses her boyfriend of being responsible for her condition because she was out shopping for gifts he neglected to get his children when the tsunami hit. He responds with shock and asks her to clarify. “Never mind, it doesn’t matter, “ she says. It doesn’t matter, and these filmmakers understand that. They understand that people will lash out at each other like that, but in the end such a detail doesn’t matter, whether or not it’s valid. The filmmakers never bring it up again. What matters is Marie’s journey. Eastwood is smart enough not to over dramatize what is already melodramatic material. A lesser filmmaker might divert focus to who’s to blame rather than keep the melodrama focused on Marie’s journey to cope with her life altering experience.

This intelligent economy can also be seen in Marcus’s storyline. Marcus continues to search for a way to contact his dead brother through psychics after he’s placed in a foster home. He causes great distress with his foster parents because he will disappear and steal money, and they can’t find any way to connect with him. A lesser film might concentrate more on the foster parents’ struggle with him, or worse, turn the civil servants who remove him from his mother into monsters. Here it’s obvious everyone wants to keep him with his mother, but her drug problem makes that impossible. Eastwood and Morgan respectfully mention all these details, but they keep their focus firmly on Marcus’s search to find closure with his brother. Even once that comes, it’s not some trite resolution that makes Marcus’s life all roses again. It wasn’t roses to begin with. But, there is satisfaction.

I’m sure many people will complain that this whole movie is too slow and nothing much happens in it. There’s an expectation watching the movie that these character’s lives will intersect, but again, that’s not the point. It’s Eastwood’s ability to eschew expectations and simply meditate on these characters that gives it its power. This is a movie that drains you. It makes you feel worn, and once that washes over you, you’re brain falls into the same space as its characters. It’s not so concerned about plot as it is with the actual lives of these characters.

The supernatural may seem like a strange subject matter for a director like Eastwood, but it’s not about the dead. It’s about the living and how they live their lives. It’s about how important it is for us to find the right place to live the life we want. That isn’t such a foreign subject for Eastwood.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

Penny Thoughts: Dec. 3-9

Looking For Eric (2010) **½
Director: Ken Loach
Writer: Paul Laverty
Starring: Steve Evets, Eric Cantona, Stephanie Bishop, Gerard Kearns, Stefan Gumbs, John Henshaw, Justin Moorhouse

I’m a little hesitant to give “Looking For Eric” a negative rating because when we make movies in America that involve a famous sports icon in a fantasy plot it usually ends up something like “Space Jam”. “Looking for Eric” is an infinitely better movie and kinder to it’s sports figure, but it still doesn’t quite work. Director Ken Loach is perhaps the best filmmaker out there depicting the workingman’s struggles in Britain today, but this mix of comedy and seriousness doesn’t quite meld.

Like “Leaves of Grass”, another film I watched recently, the movie starts with a fairly lighthearted premise, in this case a Postman faced with having to confront his first wife on a daily basis begins to see visions and have conversations with his sports idol, former Manchester United star Eric Cantona. Like “Grass”, it fills in its family subplots with a criminal element and soon the subplot takes over and the whole thing becomes too serious for the audience to laugh anymore. This slice of life take on a comedy/fantasy set up is interesting, but it seems filmmakers need to smooth out some of the wrinkles before the concept can really fly.

 The Keep (1983) **½
Director: Michael Mann
Writers: Michael Mann, F. Paul Wilson (novel)
Starring: Scott Glenn, Alberta Watson, Jürgen Prochnow, Robert Prosky, Gabriel Byrne, Ian McKellen

The WWII-based horror flick “The Keep” was, until this week, the only film I hadn’t seen by master of mood director Michael Mann. As a horror aficionado, I don’t know how I went this long without seeing the sophomore effort by one of my favorite directors, but… well, now I have. Close that chapter.

That makes the movie sound worse than it is. Probably its biggest problem is that it has dated over the years. It’s a movie that depends pretty heavily on special effects and could probably use a George Lucas touch up by this point. It’s story about a Nazi unit assigned to a strange Hungarian keep that unleashes a Golem from it depths is certainly an original one. It also boasts a wonderful cast that at that point was probably fairly unknown to American audiences. Mann’s visuals confirm why he continued to thrive in Hollywood as an important filmmaker, but he’s not a horror director. Of course, Mann’s best films have centered on crime of some sort, and it’s hard to imagine him choosing to dabble in fantasy. With sole screenplay credit, I’m guessing this was a bit of a passion project for him. I think he benefitted from going in a different direction with his career.

Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977, special edition 1997) ****
Director/Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford, Alec Guinness, Peter Cushing, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, David Prowse, James Earl Jones

It wasn’t exactly a family tradition, but there were a few years in there where my brother, Dan, would insist on watching the entire “Star Wars” trilogy (the original) sometime when he was home for the holidays after he had left home for college. Like I said, it was no official family tradition or anything, but we did it a couple of times. I decided to try it with my boys this year, mostly because my youngest has been begging me for about six months to watch them.

You know, I’ve see this movie so many times at this point, I’m not really sure what I could hope to achieve by seeing it again. That won’t stop me from watching it. It’s just an observation. At one point, I spoke one of Obi-wan Kenobi’s lines in exact unison and inflection along with Alec Guinness. The boys laughed at how accurate I was, but I had to promise them I wouldn’t do that for the entire movie, even though I could’ve.

Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back (1980, special edition 1997) ****
Director: Irvin Kershner
Writers: Leigh Brackett, Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness, Kenneth Colley

Arguably the best movie out of the entire “Star Wars” franchise, “The Empire Strikes Back” helps to prove the rule that the second film in a successful franchise of more than two movies is often the best. The reason for this is simply that since you’ve already established the mythological story lines and a third film allows the heroes to have one more crack at it, the good guys can actually lose in the second episode. Exploring loss is a much more thematically satisfying task than the typical happy ending scenario. The rebels really get their butts kicked in this one.

Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983, special edition 1997) ****
Director: Richard Marquand
Writers: Lawrence Kasdan, George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Sebastian Shaw, David Prowse, Kenny Baker, Ian McDiarmid, Frank Oz, James Earl Jones, Alec Guinness, Kenneth Colley, Warwick Davis

“You rebel scum!”

Killer’s Kiss (1955) ***
Director/Writer: Stanley Kubrick
Starring: Jamie Smith, Irene Kane, Frank Silvera

Another early career Kubrick, “Killer’s Kiss” exemplifies the skill of this director working outside the Hollywood system on a micro budget with a self-produced film. It’s easy to see why his work caught the eye of the likes of Kirk Douglas just when he was beginning to become a major Hollywood player. Kubrick does some amazing things with his camera here, exploring complex themes within a fairly standard Hollywood set up about a boxer who falls in with the wrong crowd over a woman. In this short running story, Kubrick takes the time to focus his camera on setting and mood as much as he does on story and dialogue, filling a simple story with depth of emotion and themes. It’s quite an impressive little film for its meager scope.

September (1987) ***
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Denholm Elliott, Mia Farrow, Elaine Stritch, Jack Warden, Sam Waterston, Dianne Wiest

Watching this Woody Allen drama, much of my drama school studies came back to me with its classic five-act structure and Chekhovian themes of romantic narcissism. As is usual with Allen’s dramas, the performances by the small ensemble cast are superb. Although, I had a hard time not thinking about Elaine Stritch as Jack Donaghy’s mother on the current television series “30 Rock”, merely because she’s so good at being a nasty mom. I liked that she had more dimensions to her here, though.

I never liked Chekhov in college, although I was in a student production of “The Cherry Orchard”. As a pure romantic at that time, I didn’t understand why his characters spent so much effort getting in their own way, or the way they seemed to enjoy pining for another more so than actually being with each other. As an adult, while I still prefer my more classic romance with my wife, I understand better how adults can be so obsessed with what they don’t have, as opposed to enjoying what they do have. I think I might try and read a little Chekhov now.

Centurion (2010) **½
Director/Writer: Neil Marshall
Starring: Michael Fassbender, David Morrissey, Olga Kurylenko, Dominic West, J.J. Field, Noel Clarke, Liam Cunningham, Dimitri Leonidas, Riz Ahmed, Imogen Poots, Ulrich Thomsen

Watching Neil Marshall’s fourth feature-length film “Centurion”, I can still see the brilliance he displayed with his magnificently scary horror flick “The Descent”, yet I can’t help but think this story about Roman soldiers being hunted down behind enemy lines in what is now northern Britain by the tribal Picts is really just another version of “Predator”. While it’s competently made, it doesn’t seem to have the same insight into the primal nature of man as the “Predator” films because it wants us to view it as a document of fictionalized history or some such thing. It would rather be seen in the same company as “Gladiator” and “Braveheart”, when really it’s just a bunch of guys running through the woods trying to escape the savages that are trying to kill them. Again the direction is stylish and exciting, but the substance just isn’t there. Interesting tidbit, there was a rumor floating around for a while that Neil Marshall was supposed to direct “Predators”.

Paths of Glory (1957) ****
Director: Stanley Kubrick
Writers: Stanley Kubrick, Calder Willingham, Jim Thompson, Humphrey Cobb (novel)
Starring: Kirk Douglas, Ralph Meeker, George Macready, Adolphe Menjou Wayne Morris, Richard Anderson, Timothy Carey, Joe Turkel

“Paths of Glory” is the movie that made Kubrick’s career. The directing relationship he established with Kirk Douglas during the filming of this movie inspired Douglas to suggest Kubrick as director for the big budget Hollywood epic “Spartacus”. Like all of Kubrick’s films, other than “Spartacus”, it’s a very personal movie. And, it’s shocking to me upon seeing this film, that the Hollywood establishment was willing to embrace him, even at the behest of Douglas.

“Paths of Glory” is a stunning indictment against the mentality of war and human nature as a whole. It doesn’t have anything good to say about war or man, which was unusual for a war film in the 50s. I think the key scene comes at the very end of the film. It depicts a group of soldiers in a bar whooting and hollering at a woman who has been put on display for their entertainment. The proprietor claims she has a wonderful singing voice and forces her to sing through her tears. Eventually the men stop their harassing cat calls, but Kubrick makes his point about the nasty nature of man by how long the men continue to yell at her knowing she’s trying to sing for them. As soldiers, she eventually reminds them that they miss the good life; but as men, they are all too willing to be cruel to her.

Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) ***
Director: Phillip Noyce
Writers: Christine Olsen, Doric Pilkington (book)
Starring: Everlyn Sampi, Tianna Sansbury, Laura Monaghan, Kenneth Branagh, David Gulpili, Jason Clarke

After watching the pettiness that man will stoop to in “Paths of Glory”, I watched another example of the atrocities man is willing to inflict upon his fellow man in the true-life story of “Rabbit-Proof Fence”. Phillip Noyce’s beautifully photographed telling of the story of three girls taken from their mothers by the government of Australia because they were half-castes (Aboriginal with white fathers) marks another shameful chapter in human history. The government of Australian took the Aboriginal natives of the country into their own custody, like cattle property. Officials decided that the half-castes were a threat to the state, possibly corrupting the white population with their genetic inferiority. Kenneth Branagh plays his typical officious slimeball who theorizes that the black could actually be bred out of the natives over time.

Meanwhile, the three girls just want to go home. They escape the servant school to which they’ve been shipped and trek across most of the breadth of the country, using the country long rabbit-proof fence as a guide. The film doesn’t break much new narrative ground. However, Noyce films it in a manner unlike any of his sleeker Hollywood action outings. It’s visual style looks more like a movie made in the 70s. Peter Gabriel’s Aboriginal-music stylized score also adds greatly to the mood and effect of the film.

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse (2010) **
Director: David Slade
Writers: Melissa Rosenberg, Stephenie Meyer (novel)
Starring: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Xavier Samuel, Jackson Rathbone, Nikki Reed, Ashley Greene, Bryce Dallas Howard, Dakota Fanning

It’s not that I “don’t get it.” Oh, believe me, I understand the whole teen angst thing. I understand the fascination with vampires and werewolves and all things goth at that age. I understand the romantic obsession and drama of teenage life. And compared to the rest of the “Twilight Saga” so far, “Eclipse” does a better job of capturing all that than the previous two.

Here’s something else I get that legions of “Twilight” fans don’t, the classic monsters of vampires and werewolves are not about such things. Vampires are creatures of sex and lust that try to hide among the normal morally conscious people of the world, infecting them with their poisonous outlook and cunning charm. Werewolves are about a loss of self-definition and a giving into our primal nature as beasts at the top of the animal food chain. These notions are never even mentioned in the “Twilight” films. And, they are so much more compelling than the flip-flopping of a teenage heart. Here everything is fueled by petty passions, nothing deep, nothing real. It’s all part of this fantasy romance mindset that is better handled in fairy tales than amongst the scariest monsters buried inside man’s own subconscious. Leave the classic monsters to the adults. Adults are more interesting. Just look at Bella’s parents.