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.


Eric Cantona said...
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Eric Cantona said...
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