Friday, January 21, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 14-20

Going the Distance (2010) *½
Director: Nanette Burstein
Writers:  Geoff LaTulippe
Starring: Drew Barrymore, Justin Long, Christina Applegate, Jason Sudeikis, Charlie Day, Jim Gaffigan, Ron Livingston

Why, oh, why, oh, why, must filmmakers continue to make the same failed storyline over and over and over again? Yes, love is difficult, but never for the stupid insipid reasons that Hollywood believes it is. Why must lovers in movies insist on not telling each other the simplest of truths that would allow them to understand their love? Why would audiences want to watch them do it to themselves over and over, even when there are real obstacles right in front of them? Why, why, why.

What’s worse is that “Going the Distance” is a really bad version of all that same old romantic drivel. It’s dull. The jokes are bad. And, we’d all probably would rather these lovers don’t get back together in the end. I honestly think the only original thought that went into this movie was, “Hey, what if the scene where he runs to stop her at the airport comes at the beginning of the story?” And, I have the distinct impression that Drew Barrymore is desperately trying to hold on to her youth with this folly.

Charlie St. Cloud (2010) **½
Director: Burr Steers
Writers: Craig Pearce, Lewis Colick
Starring: Zach Efron, Amanda Crew, Augustus Prew, Charlie Tahan, Donal Logue, Ray Liota, Kim Basinger

I was surprised to find that many of the initial theatrical release reports on “Charlie St. Cloud” were actually correct; it isn’t all that bad. That’s not exactly a glowing endorsement. Its premise is preposterous, but damn it all if those involved don’t give it their best shot. Zach Efron isn’t bad as the titular character; a potential sailing superstar who all but gives up on life after his little brother is killed in a car accident. Efron blames himself as the driver of the vehicle, although it was a drunk driver that smashed into them.

The script doesn’t make a convincing argument that since Charlie died for a moment at the accident that he can see dead people afterward. Even after the accident, he continues to meet with his brother each day to play catch.  Soon he discovers his brother isn’t the only dead person he can have conversations with. Somehow the movie culls together some compelling dramatic scenes for Efron to work with even though it never convincingly defines his gifts or the rules of the afterlife. Its greatest strength is that it never gets too heavy on the melodrama, as so many films of this type are wont to do. I can’t get fully behind it, but it works as a tearjerker that isn’t overdone.

Nights in Rodanthe (2008) *
Director: George C. Woolfe
Writers: Ann Peacock, John Romano, Nicholas Sparks (novel)
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Scott Glenn, James Franco, Mae Whitman

I’ll admit I didn’t view “Nights in Rodanthe” under the most optimum conditions. I was in a hotel room with a crying baby. I couldn’t really hear much of the dialogue and I spent some time attending to the child—though, not as much as my wife. I got the distinct impression from the fairly good amount of the film I did catch, however, that none of that really mattered. “Nights in Rodanthe” is not a good movie.

It encompasses the worst of all the romantic drama clichés. Starting from a Nicholas Sparks novel certainly doesn’t help matters. We find two damaged adults in a beach house bed and breakfast over a stormy weekend. If the melodrama ended there it might be bearable, but unfortunately we learn about the characters’ pasts and the film doles the information out like some sort of bad Mexican soap opera.

She is considering taking her husband back after he left her, and her teenage daughter blames her for everything. And low and behold, she gave up everything that defined herself to raise his family. The man is a surgeon who lost a patient in an unlikely surgical complication. The patient’s husband wants closure. Believe it or not the surgeon was a terrible husband and father, sacrificing family so “he could be the best surgeon he could be.” Oh Gawd!

Somehow they find each other and are trapped together in their beach house hideaway. I won’t even bother to go into how much worse it all gets. I wouldn’t want to spoil it for those who’ve read this and still think they want to see it.

Something the Lord Made (2004) ***
Director: Joseph Sargent
Writers: Peter Silverman, Robert Caswell
Starring: Mos Def, Alan Rickman, Gabrielle Union, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kyra Sedgwick

“Something the Lord Made” is one of those wonderful movies made by HBO because the American film exhibition market wouldn’t be able to sell it on the big screen. That’s generally because the movie involves some sort of important historical event that can teach us about our world and about ourselves. I don’t know why the Hollywood machine isn’t willing to invest in good filmmaking like this, but I’m glad HBO does.

This movie depicts the men responsible for breaking the medical barrier of heart surgery at John Hopkins University Hospital. The fact that one of these men was black and it occurred before the full impact of the civil rights movement had begun to free this country from its first shackles of discrimination against blacks is nothing short of remarkable. Alan Rickman plays the estimable Dr. Alfred Blalock, the surgeon who hired a black carpenter as a research assistant. Mos Def plays Vivien Thomas, that carpenter who was unable to attend medical school after losing all his school money in the Great Depression. Thomas was instrumental in developing the surgical techniques used in the first open heart surgery even though he was only paid as a maintenance employee and had to enter the hospital through its back door. This movie is an important and powerful picture.

Frankie and Johnny (1991) **
Director: Gary Marshall
Writer: Terrence McNally (also play “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune”)
Starring: Al Pacino, Michelle Pfeiffer, Nathan Lane, Hector Elizondo, Kate Nelligan

Play-to-film adaptations are difficult, especially if the play is a two-person play and the producers of the movie decide to turn it into a multi-character production. The joy of Terrence McNally’s love story “Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune” is the way it places the two characters so nakedly on the stage before its audience. The movie isn’t like that. Instead, director Gary Marshall tries to turn it into one of those quirky work place comedies where you find a collection of eccentric characters that are all loveable in their own way. It distracts from the two leads, and misses part of the point of McNally’s play, which is to present two real people falling in love the way people really do, by simply talking to one another.

Although McNally provides the screenplay to the film, it feels like one of those legal things where they brought somebody else in to shape it in the direction the producers wanted, but the contract said McNally got sole credit. The biggest compromise was to cast Michelle Pfeiffer in the role of Frankie, which was originated on Broadway and was expressly written for Kathy Bates. This was before her “Misery” breakthough role, but that hardly would’ve mattered. They wanted Pfeiffer because she was pretty. Forget the fact that there are lines of dialogue that survived into the movie that speak of how plain Frankie is. Of course, at that time it was pretty hard to tell the director of “Pretty Woman” that he didn’t know how to make a romantic comedy.

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