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.


Anonymous said...

Just popping in to say nice site.

Andrew D. Wells said...

thanks, Anonymous.