Friday, February 18, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 11-17

Doctor Zhivago (1965) ***
Director: David Lean
Writers: Robert Bolt, Boris Pasternak (novel)
Starring: Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, Geraldine Chaplin, Rod Steiger, Alec Guiness, Tom Courtenay, Ralph Richardson

“Doctor Zhivago” is long. It feels long. That’s not all bad, but I felt its length much more so than during director David Lean’s other epics. It seems more relaxed than the others as well. Perhaps that’s because it’s more of a romance than his other work. Perhaps it’s just Russia. It’s as beautiful a film as Lean has ever made. I dunno. I enjoyed it, but I think the unrequited love thing is just a hard sell for me. I liked it, but it was no “Bridge on the River Kwai” or “Lawrence of Arabia”.

Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace (1999) ***
Director/Writer: George Lucas
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd, Pernilla August, Ian McDiarmid, Oliver Ford Davis, Hugh Quarshie, Ahmed Best, Kenny Baker, Anthony Daniels, Frank Oz, Samuel L. Jackson, Brian Blessed, Terrence Stamp

The first movie I ever reviewed was “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace”. Unfortunately, that review has long since disappeared. It was sent out to about 24 friends, and half of them probably didn’t read it. That could be a good thing, because I think I really reviewed how psyched I was that “Star Wars” was back more so than I reviewed the actual movie.

At the time, I was unwilling to admit what a disappointment the movie was. In the intervening years, despite my initial disappointment, the movie has grown on me a little. Just a little. It is not the simple good vs. evil storyline that originally grabbed the attention of the world in 1977in the original “Star Wars”. It’s filled with political ambiguity, back stabbing and deception. Those aspects are the ones that have grown on me.

It still clunks along with Lucas’s insistence that it’s a family franchise. Jar Jar Binks takes the brunt of the criticism for being a schlocky, obviously goofy character that exists to amuse without much other purpose. But he is the least of the film’s clunky elements.

What Lucas lost touch with since the original trilogy was purpose. The space slug sequence in “The Empire Strikes Back” comes to mind when I watch the journey through the planet core in this one. The space slug didn’t exist simply as a scary element in “Empire” but rather gave the filmmakers an excuse to pause from the action to perform some important exposition on the relationship between Captain Solo and Princess Leia. The space slug itself was just a bonus surprise the filmmakers got out of the need to slow down the plot and work on the characters. The planet core on the other hand obviously exists only to provide a special effects and action sequence at a point in the plot when they couldn’t come up with any other way to keep the audiences head above the complexity of the politics they had introduced. “Lets just throw some monsters at them so they’ve got something cool to look at while we continue to establish the plot.”

The pod race on the other hand, while still being an excuse for special effects and action, at least serves other purposes. It does move the plot forward and provides important character development for both Qui Gon and Anakin.

Despite the unnecessary distractions in the film committed by filmmakers trying to show off their technique above artistry, there is enough worthwhile material here for me to just barely get behind. I think the disparity in quality makes it difficult for fans to accept “The Phantom Menace” as a worthwhile entry into the “Star Wars” canon, but it isn’t all bad.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) ***½
Directors: Michael Curtiz, William Keighly
Writers: Norman Reilly Raine, Seton I. Miller
Starring: Errol Flynn, Olivia de Havilland, Basil Rathbone, Claude Rains, Patric Knowles, Eugene Pallette, Alan Hale, Melville Cooper, Una O’Conner, Herbert Mundin, Montagu Love, Ian Hunter

I don’t know if it’s because when growing up the tale of Robin Hood was always presented to me as a fairly light-hearted one, or perhaps that is the way the myth was originally conceived of in England, but it seems to me Errol Flynn’s “The Adventures of Robin Hood” is really the way Robin Hood is meant to be. Versions like Ridley Scott’s recent “Robin Hood” might have great battle scenes and emotional turmoil, but they lack joy. This very early color film is vibrant in both its costumes and spirit. While the Kevin Costner version retained the light spirit of this one’s, its more realistic depiction of the time period fights against the schlock of the script. “The Adventures or Robin Hood” might not have the gritty environment and temperament modern audiences have come to expect from a period piece set during the Crusades, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun. And, it never professes to be anything but fun, with Flynn’s swashbuckling charm and its trio of smarmy villains.

A Town Called Panic (2009) ***½
Directors/Writers: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar
Starring: Stéphane Aubier, Vincent Patar, Jeanne Balibar, Nicolas Buysse, Véronique Dumont, Bruce Ellison, Frédéric Jannin, Bouli Lanners, Benoît Poelvoorde

“A Town Called Panic” is one of the most unique stop-motion animations you will ever see. Made with a fairly arbitrary collection of children’s toys, it tells the story of how Cowboy’s and Indian’s birthday present for their roommate Horse goes terribly wrong. The character names are quite literal translations of the toys they are. No notation is made of the fact that Horse talks and lives with two typically mortal enemies, however. It’s put together in much the same way a child’s imagination might actually have him playing with these toys, except that child’s mind is occupied with some more adult themes than a child usually plays at. It all works out into a wildly zany and entertaining bit of wackiness that proves once and for all that the French are a little strange. Well, the French filmmakers who made this movie are anyway.

Devil (2010) **
Directors: John Erick Dowdle
Writers: Brian Nelson, M. Night Shyamalan
Starring: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O’Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven

“Devil” could’ve been a good movie. It has real scares that it earns. What it doesn’t earn is its ending, and there’s a whole lot of movie making sloppiness on its way there. Like so many of M. Night Shyamalan’s projects, the rules of the story are specifically and clearly laid out for the audience as they watch. This one involves five passengers trapped on an elevator. They are all sinners, and the Devil has come to claim their souls. A good example of the sloppiness of the filmmaking can be found in the voice over of one character as he points out that the devil will claim innocent victims that get in his way. Then, instead of claiming one of those innocent victims as soon as he makes the claim, the filmmakers wait another half hour before they bother to follow up on that claim. Now, if the rule is a loophole, like the one that ends to film, its important to point it out early instead of waiting till the last minute and making the audience feel cheated.

Some very minor changes to the screenplay could’ve made this movie an effective shocker. The mistakes are sloppy details, the kind that Shyamalan doesn’t tend to make when he writes his own screenplay. If only he’d bothered with this one, his name might not be continuing to diminish his own reputation as a great filmmaker.

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