Friday, February 25, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 18-24

The Gold Rush (1925) ***½
Director/Writer: Charles Chaplin
Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Tom Murray, Henry Bergman, Malcolm Waite, Georgia Hale

So, we sat down on a full moon Friday evening with three sick kids and watched one of the classics of American cinema, Charlie Chaplin’s “The Gold Rush”. I don’t think they would’ve sat for if they hadn’t been so miserable. But, since they did, they loved it. They were entranced by the Little Tramp’s antics. They loved the wind blowing the men trough one cabin door and out the other. They chuckled at the dance with the forks and rolls. They whooped and hollered as the cabin teetered on the cliff’s edge. They noticed immediately that it was a “really old” movie because it was “in black & white.” But, only in the final moments did one of them say, “Is this one of those no talking movies?” “Silent!” Jack corrected. “Yeah, that’s how you know it’s one of the first movies ever made,” Jude said with the utmost confidence of his expertise. It was a great experience for both my kids and me. We talked a little movie history after our screening, and I couldn’t have been happier.

Twelve O’Clock High (1949) ***
Director: Henry King
Writers: Sy Bartlett (also novel), Bernie Lay Jr. (also novel)
Starring: Gregory Peck, Hugh Marlowe, Gary Merrill, Millard Mitchell, Dean Jagger, Robert Arthur, Paul Stewart, John Kellogg, Bob Patten

This Gregory Peck vehicle is not what you would get out of a war movie today. It is a talky film without much in terms of war sequences. Although several bombing runs are flown in the film, only one is actually depicted on screen. That one is remarkable, however, as it uses actual World War II footage taken by both Allied Forces and the German Luftwaffe. The rest of the movie gives you a side of war that isn’t really seen much and is surprisingly fascinating. It centers on the morale of one air squadron and the tactics taken by two different commanders to get the men to perform their duties.

One commander is close with his men and sympathizes with their reasons for not wanting to perform their missions. The missions are extremely dangerous and many men don’t come back. Since the squadron is underperforming, he is replaced by the hardnosed Gregory Peck, who treats the men more as strategic pieces in the greater war, rather than as men. His methods prove effective because they bring success to the mission, but the longer he’s with the squadron the more he sympathizes with the individual men.

The first half hour or so of the movie, I had the distinct impression that the filmmakers were almost too in love with the film’s dialogue. The director would linger too long on conversations. It’s not surprising that the same two men who wrote the book upon which it is based penned the screenplay. But, once Peck takes over command, the screenplay does a better job of involving the audience in the process of what makes both the individual men and the squadron as a whole tick.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002) ***½
Director: George Lucas
Writers: George Lucas, Jonathan Hale
Starring: Hayden Christiansen, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, Frank Oz, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Christopher Lee, Ian McDiarmid, Temuera Morrison

Upon this viewing of the poorly titled “Attack of the Clones”, I guess I can see, beyond the lack of acting on Hayden Christiansen’s part, what puts people off about this one. For all its action and CGI and explosions, this is really a rather slow movie until the Geonosian arena scene when said clones finally attack. I still like it quite a bit, however, for what is has that other “Star Wars” films don’t really dabble much in—mystery. Just who is behind these clones? Who is behind the attack against Amidala? Even the people who are behind those things don’t seem to know. Count Dooku is just as blind to Darth Sidious’s real plans as everyone else. Or maybe not. I really don’t know whether he knows everything or not. I prefer to think not. Either way, the mystery is dense, perhaps too dense to please most viewers or even fans. But, it’s what I like about Episode II. So there!

Secretariat (2010) ***½
Director: Randal Wallace
Writers: Mike Rich, William Nack (book “Secretariat: The Making of a Champion”)
Starring: Diane Lane, John Malkovich, Dylan Walsh, Margo Martindale, Nelsan Ellis, Otto Thorwarth, Dylan Baker, Drew Roy, Kevin Connolly, Eric Lang, James Cromwell, Scott Glenn

I often hear people say about sports pictures like “Secretariat” that they don’t want to see them because they know how it turns out. Yes, we all know that Secretariat not only won the race, but won three races in a row. Yet, the filmmakers have still made an incredibly compelling sports movie. That’s because it’s not really about the races. It’s more about growing a family outside of your family. Now, Secretariat’s owner, Penny Chenery, already had a family of her own. I think the film probably plays a little loose with the depth of the problems her family might’ve actually gone through when they essentially lost their mother to horseracing. But, often the details of real life stories are changed to strengthen a message the filmmakers wish to convey. Chenery’s determination and will to do something nobody thought was possible also drives the story and is paralleled by the horse’s own unlikely chance of achieving what he did. The characters Chenery surrounds herself with make for an immensely enjoyable landscape of personality to support both Chenery and her horse and help to make this movie even more enjoyable than it seems it should be.

Carlos (2010) ***
Director: Olivier Assayas
Writers: Olivier Assayas, Dan Franck, Daniel Laconte
Starring: Édgar Ramírez, Alexander Sheer, Alejandro Arroyo, Fadi Abi Samra, Ahmad Kaabour, Talal El-Jordi, Nora von Waldstätten, Christoph Bach, Rodney El Haddad, Julia Hummer

“Carlos” originally aired as a mini-series in Europe that chronicled two decades in the life of Venezuelan terrorist Carlos the Jackal. Although it was briefly released theatrically in the U.S. with a truncated running time, the 5 plus hour original version supplies an in depth portrait of one of Europe’s most terrifying figures in the 70s. Many of the events are developed in an oblique manner, and it may benefit audience members to have some knowledge of Carlos prior to screening the film. Surely, his actions are more common knowledge in Europe than they are here in the states.

The film is fascinating in depicting how Carlos insinuates himself into the world of international terrorism, his objectifying and use of women, and the sometimes improvisational manner with which he executes his missions. Following the infamous 1975 attack on an OPEC meeting in Austria, Carlos’s organization enters a downward spiral from which it never recovers. Driven by his runaway ego and libido, his decline is not as compelling as his earlier activities, but it all creates an intimate portrait of a terrorist like none other seen on film.

Un Chien Andalou (1929) ***½
Director: Luis Buñuel
Writers: Salvador Dali, Luis Buñuel
Starring: Pierre Batcheff, Simone Mareuil

According to a friend of mine “Un Chien Andalou” is David Lynch’s favorite film. I haven’t been able to confirm this anywhere, but this would be no surprise as just about every strange image Lynch has placed in his films could probably be traced back to this impenetrably odd short film by then first time director Luis Buñuel and whacked out artist Salvador Dali. I won’t attempt to try to dissect this movie. Such a task might lead to insanity. But, for a 1929 movie, it’s innovation and prowess cannot be denied. It contains shocking images, like the slicing open of an eyeball, which might make it hard for some to stomach. Yet, holding in your lunch would be much easier for the average viewer than trying to figure out just what these filmmakers are trying to say with this movie. It is not for beginning cineastes.

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