Friday, March 04, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: Feb. 25-Mar.3

Popeye (1980) *
Director: Robert Altman
Writers: Jules Feifer, E.C. Segar (characters)
Starring: Robin Williams, Shelley Duvall, Ray Walston, Paul Dooley, Paul L. Smith, Richard Libertini, Donald Moffat, MacIntyre Dixon, Roberta Maxwell, Donovan Scott, Linda Hunt, Allan Nicholls, Bill Irwin, Wesley Ivan Hurt

When I saw “Popeye” as a kid, I did not know of directors or styles or themes or political and social commentary. I was a kid and wanted to see Popeye fight Bluto, and to see Olive Oyl and Swee’pea stumble into problems that Popeye has to get them out of and to see Wimpy try to get someone to give him a hamburger today if he pays them for it on Tuesday. In fact, I didn’t really even want that, since I didn’t really like the Popeye cartoons all that much; but, hey, it was a real movie, so it should be better, right?

Oh, how wrong I was. And, after twenty years and after having developed a grand appreciation for the movies of Robert Altman and movie styles and themes and socio-political commentary, “Popeye” is still a terrible movie. I’m sorry, Roger Ebert, but your admiration for Altman has blinded you on this one. This movie is as bad as everyone says it is.

The problem is that nothing meshes. Sure, Robert Altman is practicing that unique style of filmmaking he created where all the dialogue and actions overlap and the audience is treated to an overabundance of detail that all feed into the themes and richness of the story, but this is a cartoon character that operates on such a simplistic level, it cannot hold up Altman’s lofty ideals. Sure, Robert Evans was one of the slickest and hottest movie producers from the 70s, who had as much to do with the 70s renaissance of Hollywood filmmaking as any one director. But, his particular Hollywood slick doesn’t match Altman’s independent will. Sure, Robin Williams was at the height of his stand up prowess and the biggest star in comedy at the time, but he was fighting a major drug problem  and his take on Popeye’s mumbling makes it impossible to hear, let alone understand a word he says as the hero of this film. Sure, Shelley Duvall seems born to play Olive Oyl and was one of Altman’s finest company players from the seventies, but she alone could not carry this film. Sure, Harry Nilsson was one of the 70s originals in terms of innovative lyricists and musical genius, but originality and experimentation are not the best foundations when it comes to composing songs in a pop format like the movie musical.

This movie is just a mess. It looks like a mess. It sounds like a mess. And with everything in it running at full volume and full speed from start to finish, it’s a one note song that losses any sort of coherence and interest after the first ten minutes.

All About Eve (1950) ****
Director/Writer: Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Starring: Bettie Davis, Anne Baxter, George Sanders, Celeste Holm, Gary Merrill, Hugh Marlowe, Gregory Ratoff

I’ve known about one of the greatest movies about theater for quite a while. What I didn’t realize about “All About Eve” is that Bettie Davis isn’t the evil one. Oh, she’s a diva all right. She plays one mean witch, but it’s Eve who is the evil one. I always thought it was about an aging diva who is vicious and diabolical to the young up and comer of the New York Theater scene. I did not suspect that it was the young one who manipulated everything and everyone in her favor, slowly chipping away at the psyche of the veteran actress. The movie is delicious in its maliciousness, and Davis is spectacular as the seemingly paranoid diva, who ends up proving the notion that just because you’re paranoid, it doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.

The Fighter (2010) ***½
Director: David O. Russell
Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy, Eric Johnson, Keith Dorrington
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee, Paul Campbell

“The Fighter” is one of those stories that you’d think Hollywood made up if you didn’t already know it was true. The story follows two brothers. The elder brother, Dicky, is a former boxer who’s greatest moment was when he took down Sugar Ray Leonard in one high profile match. He has since succumbed to drug abuse and has a documentary film crew following him around. He claim’s they are documenting his comeback. They are actually making an HBO movie about drug abuse.

Dicky also trains his little brother, Mickey. Micky’s boxing career has not been very illustrious. He has become a “stepping stone” fighter, a fighter that other fighters take on in order to build up wins to get to a title shot. His brother’s drug usage means his training schedule is compromised by Dicky’s inconsistencies. His mother is his manager and provides a good example that good intentions don’t always yield the best interests. When Micky finally starts to peel away from his family with help of his girlfriend, he begins to find the success that his potential indicated was possible. But can he make a title run without the informed insight of his troubled brother?

David O. Russell compiles a compelling film about family trust and the hard task of denying those people who feel they are acting in your best interests. It is a frustrating and ultimately satisfying story that makes for a solid entertainment. My only problem with the movie was its execution of its fight sequences. The fights don’t live up to the quality of other award winning boxing flicks that came before this one. Even some lesser pictures like “Ali” and “The Hurricane” were able to put together more varied and driving fight sequences than Russell does here. I also felt we need to see more of Dicky actually coaching his brother during the fights to show how well he served his brother when he tried.

127 Hours (2010) ****
Director: Danny Boyle
Writers: Danny Boyle, Simon Beaufoy, Aron Ralston (book “Between a Rock and a Hard Place”)
Starring: James Franco

One man and a camera. That’s a risky move for a major motion picture, but Aron Ralston’s real life story of having to cut off his own arm after he was pinned by a boulder for more than five days is just too rich to pass up. Of course, while Ralston only had one camera, director Danny Boyle used many and a lot of editing to make this harrowing tale one of the best movies of the year.

I’ve heard the editing of this film criticized for being too hyperkinetic. The naysayers claim the filmmakers should’ve trusted the material more and just shown James Franco’s portrayal of Ralston in the mere desperation of the situation. Well, the situation itself provides the desperation. What Boyle does instead is create a collage of images depicting Ralston’s state of mind during the ordeal. Have you ever been stuck in a place for longer than you plan? Crazy things go through your head. The crazy things are very much a part of what Ralston went through over that five-day period. In fact, beyond what lead him to his predicament and his horrifying resolution to it, those thoughts are the only thing that occurred for five days. I can’t fault the filmmakers for trying to depict that.

Nowhere Boy (2010) ***
Director: Sam Taylor-Wood
Writers: Matt Greenhalgh, Julia Baird (memoir)
Starring: Aaron Johnson, Anne-Marie Duff, Kristin Scott Thomas, Josh Bolt, Thomas Brodie Sangster, David Morrissey

“Nowhere Boy” is easily the most emotionally powerful film made about a member of The Beatles I’ve seen. Taking a look at the teen years of John Lennon, Sam Taylor-Wood’s movie explores John’s reconnection with his mother just before her accidental death. Raised by his aunt Mimi, played here rather coldly by Kristin Scott Thomas, John’s relationship with his mother was far from traditional. As a rebellious teen, John seeks out his mother only to find she lives not very far from where he’s grown up without much contact with her. She’s a bit of a party girl, something quite the opposite of her sister. She has much to do with John’s obsession with Blues and R&B. The film shows us many major points in the forming of The Beatles, including John’s introduction to Paul and George, but The Beatles are really a background note in this movie, which seeks to understand the strange relationship between John, his aunt, and his mother. There are some details of which I was unaware that make for an emotionally shocking movie that is worth the watch even if you never cared about The Beatles or Lennon.

Pineapple Express (2008) ***½
Director: David Gordon Green
Writers: Seth Rogen, Evan Goldberg, Judd Apatow
Starring: Seth Rogen, James Franco, Danny McBride, Kevin Corrigan, Craig Robinson, Amber Heard, Gary Cole, Rosie Perez

I’m hard on comedy. It seems most of the great comedies over the past couple of years can only manage three and a half stars in my mind. Many have lauded titles like “Tropic Thunder”, “Superbad”, and the “Pineapple Express”, but I can’t help finding slight flaws that keep them from greatness in my mind.  The major setback of “Pineapple Express”, however, is also one of the things I appreciate about it. Its action flick foundation is at once at odds with the stoner nature of the film and yet such a stroke of comic genius. Make stoners into action stars, the better with which to explore just what makes them such interesting comic fare. The stoner’s inability to make knowledgeable choices in situations of stress fuels most of the comedy and situations in which our “heroes” find themselves.

For my second viewing of “Pineapple Express”, I also tried to identify it as a product of the great direction of David Gordon Green, a champion of independent cinema dealing in character driven dramas. Green’s camera usually embodies a very distinct visual style that I can see glimpses of here, but not with the visual lavishness of most of his work. Most of the Green signatures can be found in the montage sequences, when our stoner heroes are traveling from one place to another or playing leap frog in the woods.

Green reunites with James Franco and Danny McBride in his upcoming stoner period flick “Your Highness”. It’ll be interesting to see if a greater comfort with this more mainstream fare allows Green to place more of his typical directorial style into the picture.

Kirikou and the Wild Beasts (2005) ***
Directors: Michel Ocelot, Bénédicte Galup
Writers: Philippe Andrieux, Bénédicte Galup, Marie Locatelli, Michel Ocelot
Starring: Pierre-Ndoffé Sarr, Awa Sene Sarr, Robert Liensol, Marie-Philoméne Nga, Emile Abossolo M’Bo, Pascal N’Zonzi

Thanks to outguessing Roger Ebert in our Oscar predictions, I got a free subscription to the movie-streaming site Mubi, which specializes in independent, foreign, avant garde, and short films. As such, over the next couple of months I may see more movies like “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts”, which may sound like the latest Japanese anime, but actually comes from the true inventors of the anime style, the French.

Set in an African village, “Kirikou” plays more like “Rikki Tikki Tavi” than “Spirited Away”.  Perhaps it’s just it’s English subtitle translation, but it plays a little less mature than most U.S. or Japanese animation. It tells four fables centered around an unusually small, smart and fast African baby named Kirikou. Kirikou is the subject of persecution from the evil goddess Karaba. She must contain Kirikou in order to corrupt and destroy his village, but the quick Kirikou will have none of that.

Despite its juvenile dialogue and dimwitted adult characters, there is an immense charm to this odd movie. Perhaps it’s greatest aspect, however, it its lush, beautiful African images. Think of the most striking images in Disney’s “The Lion King” and imagine a movie based almost solely on them, and you have the visual beauty behind “Kirikou and the Wild Beasts”. Note: Not for people who can’t handle the sight of naked female breasts presented as no big deal.

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