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.


Alan Bacchus said...

Got your Aidan Quinn fix this week i see?
Flipped? What? Never heard of it.

Alan Bacchus said...

Ooops Sorry. Happy New Year. Go and see The Fighter. It's so good.

Andrew D. Wells said...

"Flipped" came out at the end of the summer (here in the US) with absolutely no fanfare (another sign of Reiner's demise as a Hollywood player). For some reason some of the major critics liked it, but it's at 57% on Rotten Tomatoes at the moment. It only did $1.8 mil in business, though. It's not really surprising people haven't heard of it. Now, If only that had been the case with "The Bucket List".

And Happy New Year to you, Alan. I want to see The Fighter, but it's unlikely as I'm about to embark on a trip to China. So, I'll probably miss some of the major Oscar contenders this year.