Friday, February 04, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Jan. 28-Feb.3

Rio Rita (1942) ***
Director: S. Sylvan Simon
Writers: Richard Connell, Gladys Lehman, John Grant
Starring: Bud Abbott, Lou Costello, Kathryn Grayson, John Carroll, Patricia Dane, Tom Conway

As a self-proclaimed cineaste, I often feel I haven’t seen enough older films. One set of movies I hadn’t seen any of until now are the movies of Abbott & Costello. “Who’s on First?” is pretty much all I had seen from this extremely popular comedy film duo. “Rio Rita” is not one of their best-known titles, but it’s a great example of what made these two and many other classic comedy stars great. Not only is the film filled with the signature word play of Abbott & Costello, but it also showcases their wonderful physical humor, a stellar supporting cast, songs, romance, cultural dance sequences, a Nazi plot, espionage, intrigue, sexy dames, and a debonair Latin crooner. These movies had it all. They look like they were incredibly fun to make and they’re a blast to watch.

Never Let Me Go (2010) ****
Director: Mark Romanek
Writers: Alex Garland, Kazuo Ishugiro (novel)
Starring: Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield, Keira Knightley, Charlotte Rampling, Sally Hawkins

To say the this movie combines the plots of Schwazenegger’s sci-fi dud “The 6th Day” and the recent weepie “My Sister’s Keeper” would give a totally inaccurate impression of this picture. But, essentially it does combine the ideas behind those ridiculous films. It does so in an incredibly moving story about three friends who are…. No, I don’t really want to reveal what it’s about, because it approaches its subject matter with the mystery I had written about in last week’s review of “The Terminator”.

It takes place in an alternate reality where in the 1950s a “cure” was developed for most human disease. Then, it shows us a British parochial school that has rules that are a little skewed from what they should be. It doesn’t reveal what this cure is right away and the audience must slowly figure it out right along with the three main characters. The movie then proceeds to do what all great sci-fi does by looking at the human condition as we know it by altering our perception of ourselves with the movie’s premise. Its conclusions are both sad and somehow comforting.

Get Low (2010) ****
Director: Aaron Schneider
Writers: Chris Provenzano, C. Gaby Mitchell, Scott Seeke
Starring: Robert Duvall, Lucas Black, Bill Murray, Sissy Spacek, Bill Cobb, Gerald McRaney

“Get Low” is one of those movies that inspires me to write the line, “What a wonderful movie this is.” But, I feel like I write that about too many movies, and I should distinguish this one further. “Get Low” isn’t a flashy movie. It isn’t some amazing achievement in direction. It doesn’t have a lot of bang. It’s funny, but isn’t wall-to-wall comedy. It has its drama, but isn’t emotionally heavy. It may make you cry, however. It’s just good-hearted filmmaking, the kind that seems to be getting harder to find.

It also happens to be filled with some wonderful performances. Robert Duvall’s turn as an old codger who decides to have a funeral for himself before he dies is an obvious choice to point out. In terms of who may have been robbed out of an Oscar nomination, however, Bill Murray’s performance as the funeral home director who is just desperate enough for business to entertain such an idea is as good work as he’s ever done. Yes, I’m including “Lost in Translation” in that assessment. His work here is even subtler than it was in his nominated role and possibly less easy to appreciate because he is so natural in it. I’m sorry I missed this movie until now.

Lebanon (2010) ***½
Director/Writer: Samuel Maoz
Starring: Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran, Oshri Cohen, Michael Moshonov, Zohar Strauss

Tanks in war films are like monsters. They show up in scenes and the movie characters and audience alike think, “Oh crap. It’s really hit the fan now.” We don’t think about them in the same terms of any other aspect of war. In most war films, the heart of war lies within the individual soldiers. But with tanks, they’re just these big machines that come in and mess stuff up. Well, not in the Israeli movie “Lebanon”.

“Lebanon” does for tanks, what “Das Boot” did for submarines. It takes you inside and makes you part of the crew. It individualizes the men inside the tank and places the tank into its proper perspective in terms of being a breakable machine being run by fallible men. Taking place during the first days of the First Lebanon War in 1982, we learn how a tank really operates from the inside, and it is far from the mythological monster that so many war movies have made the tank out to be. If anything, “Lebanon” doesn’t give us enough of what tank life is like. It shows too short a period in time inside one and too little about what makes them work, but it’s still an invaluable addition to the war film canon in its demystifying of what makes the tank tick.

Resident Evil: Afterlife (2010) *
Director/Writer: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller, Boris Kodjoe, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Sergio Peris-Mencheta, Kacey Barnfield, Norman Yeung, Fulvio Cecere

I don’t know why I continue to punish myself with watching further episodes of “Resident Evil”. The original added nothing to the countless canon of zombie flicks out there, and the series has only gone downhill since. That’s not really true, the third movie was inestimably better than the second one, and yet it still wasn’t any good.

The latest movie in the series, “Resident Evil: Afterlife” brings the bar back down to the bottom by explaining in a ridiculous opening battle how its heroine ALICE looses her engineered superpowers and then proceeds to show her doing all the same things she’s done in every previous “Resident Evil” movie and then some. This time Ali Larter’s character is back from the third movie to perform some ALICE-like tricks as well, and she was never super engineered like ALICE. It also introduces her character’s brother through the most absurd plot device of making it seem as if he isn’t who he says he is, and then it just drops that whole premise without any looking back. I think Paul W.S. Anderson, like so many great directors before him, is losing his touch, except his touch only started at slightly above totally inept.

You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger (2010) **
Director/Writer: Woody Allen
Starring: Gemma Jones, Anthony Hopkins, Josh Brolin, Naomi Watts, Freida Pinto, Antonio Banderas, Lucy Punch

In this Woody Allen dud you have his usual neurotics and self-centered cast of characters, but their faults eclipse anything entertaining about them. The movie follows several different stories all heading the same place—nowhere. Although there’s nothing wrong with that per say and the performances are the usual top notch you’d expect from the big name stars Allen attracts, we are given no reason to care for any of these losers. That’s what they all are. They’re losers. More so than Allen’s characters usually are. Even the one character who gets what she’s seeking is a loser because of what she’s seeking. While often Alllen deals with successful losers, none are to be found here. I can’t think of any reason to care how everything works out in this movie, despite its spot on observation of it characters.

Animal Kingdom (2010) ****
Director/Writer: David Michôd
Starring: James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Jackie Weaver, Sullivan Stapleton, Luke Ford, Guy Pearse, Laura Wheelwright, Joel Edgerton

Australia released two great crime thrillers in the U.S. this year. While “The Square” tells one of the best noir stories in recent years, “Animal Kingdom” is exactly what its tagline says it is, “A family crime story.” And boy, you don’t want to be a member of this family. Jacki Weaver received a surprise Oscar nomination as the connivingly loving matriarch of this seriously dysfunctional Australian crime family.

The story follows Josh, the nephew to three brothers who’ve played out their lucky cards on bank robbing and are now so closely scrutinized by the law, they can’t hope to continue their criminal activities without going down. The film observes right up front that a criminal’s greatest fear is one they never speak of, the day when they lose their control and start burying themselves. The eldest brother, Pope, has certainly gone over the bend; and the movie is about the family’s desperate attempts to hold itself together as everything starts to unravel.

The entire film is like the sequence in “GoodFellas” when Henry Hill has his day of paranoia that ultimately leads to his capture by police. The police in Australia are presented in this film as just another predator in the outback, dealing just as dirty and mercilessly as the criminals. It’s a nasty animal kingdom to live in that brings new definition to the phrase ‘survival of the fittest.’ 


Anonymous said...

I think people like you just look for things to find about Resident Evil: Or movies like it, that you don't like.

Andrew D. Wells said...

People like me. I'm not sure you can back up that statement by actually knowing anything about me, but there are very specific reasons why I don't like the movies to which I give negative reviews. In this one in particular, I don't understand why they bothered to take away her superpowers if she was still going to be able to fight the zombies in the exact same way she always has. I didn't go looking for that to complain about. The filmmakers designed their entire opening sequence to take Alice's powers away from her. They had to do that, because they'd written themselves into a corner by allowing her to have all those multiple selves, which gave her an upper hand over the Umbrella Corporation that they could not over come.

There were many other problems I had with this movie that I didn't go into in the short space I allow myself for my Penny Thoughts. I don't have a problem with zombie movies or action movies, if that's what you meant by the "people like you" comment. But I still desire them to be well-written and well-made.

Now, just because I continue to struggle to have issues with the Resident Evil series, doesn't make your opinion of them any less valid. But, all good criticism, whether it be positive or negative, requires well-thought analysis to back your opinions up. I'll admit that with my mini-reviews for Penny Thoughts, I don't always take the space necessary to give fully thought out criticism as I do with my full-length reviews. But, if I don't like a movie, it isn't for random reasons or a prejudice against a certain genre or franchise. If I was determined not to like a movie before I saw it, I wouldn't bother watching it.